The Philosophy of Computer Games - Memory and Athens

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Then it was a dream come true. To talk about videogames and philosophy in Athens, the seat of Western Philosophy, was an overwhelming experience in itself. This was probably my last conference presentation outside the UK so I was quite tense about it. Moreover, I was speaking about Bergson, memory and videogames and I felt I was on shaky and unfamiliar ground. With all this in mind and with concerns about my visa and the whole Indian-travelling-in-Europe malarkey, I set forth for Athens.

As my friend Sebastian Moering (whom you will have encountered in earlier posts) says, I attract all sorts of weird adventures. Of these I shall tell you later. For the moment let us pass the graffiti covered walls of Panteion University screaming their protest against the powers that be and enter the conference hall.  Gordon Calleja opened the conference by announcing its aim of bringing philosophy and game design, otherwise loosely connected, together in the arena of theoretical Humanities. Yannis Scarpelos added the poignant reminder of the world around us saying that Greece is a gameboard and that its people are pawns in a game - an analogy that amply illustrated why games were so important to social sciences and the humanities.

I forgot to say, I met the entire Ludotopia crowd (Alison, Sebastian and Niklas) as well as Mark Butler whose wisdom I have always respected. Among new found friends I count Isaac Lenhart, Armin Papenfuss, Christophe Bruchansky, Adam Russell, Graham Matthews,  Daniel Vella and Stefano Gualeni. Anyway, let us go back to the conference hall.

the 'Philosophy of Computer Games' mascots

As I started writing, I was thinking of making this a commentary on each of the papers. The further I got, however, the more difficult and time-consuming it seemed. So I'll switch from commentary to reportage. To start with the papers that I liked in particular.

Although we have very different theoretical orientations, Rune Klevjer's research has never ceased to impress me. Rune spoke about telepresence, embodiment and diegesis as relevant to the player's identity. His analogies ranged from Merleau-Ponty's 'blind man with a cane' to those who fly unmanned drones. He identifies a difference between being telepresent and being embodied. He also sees difficulties in having an embodied presence in a diegetic world. The player and diegetic character (story protagonist) are, for him, fellow travellers who share history and even memories but are not the same person. Readers of Ludus ex will know wherein I disagree with this - especially looking from the perspective of the player's involvement in the story as a 'becoming' (in the Deleuzian sense).

This brings me to Mark Butler's paper on 'Becoming-Zerg'. Mark-becoming-Protoss (as he confessed was normally the case) was now becoming-zerg. I have never seen anyone tackle the involvement  / identity-formation in RTS games. I touched on this briefly in an earlier paper (and at more length in my thesis) but then left it there. So how can I become all the Zerg in Starcraft  - do I become a Zerg, some zergs, the whole zerg-collective (these zerg things remind me of the Borg in Star Trek)? Mark brings in the Deleuzoguattarian concept of the assemblage. Identity is configured and de-configured (he replaces 'deterritorialise and reterritorialise' with these terms) and as such the borders between the player-experience are blurred due to a state of flow that is in place. The player's experience as a Zerg is a 'becoming'. Might I add here that the collective experience of identity in a multiplayer RTS game is also well explainable using this model.

Among the new researchers whose work I came across, Peter Day's Wittgensteinian reading of the relation between avatar and player  impressed me. Like Mark (who made the comment), I am intrigued to see Peter's work moving beyond the Tractatus to other Wittgensteinian texts. I'm sure we will see more exploration of the connection between the metaphysical subject and the 'I' within the language of games. Felan Parker's application of Foucauldian aesthetic self-fashioning to expansive gameplay ( non-canonical things that players do with a game, e.g. playing Halo without killing any of the antagonists)was another interesting topic. Graham Matthews Lac(k)anian reading of Pacman and gameplay in general the restoration of lost unity in the progressive circuit of desire was another notable contribution. Graham is going to link his research on videogame to medical humanities and outside the conference walls (over a kebab, actually) he told me about his interest in analysing how health is perceived in videogames. Wonderful, I think!

The philosopher-theorists impressed and so did the philosopher-designers. Adam Russell (another East Midlands connection), known for his design of the identity mechanism in Fable, spoke on the underlying philosophical assumptions and problems of narrative-driven games. Like Rune, but approaching the question differently, Adam asked how we can be present in a game-world as an avatar who has personality and also memory. He invokes Heidegger's idea of 'thrownness' and brings in a comparison with our real selves where, he points out,  we are always identifying with a character that we cannot fully control (ourselves). I was hoping Adam would say a bit more but tiredness and time-constraints clearly came in the way. I'm eagerly awaiting his paper online.  From Adam to Stefano 'Digital Bat' Gualeni. Stefano is a famous game designer and on sharing a beer with him, I learnt loads about innovative game design - didn't know some cool people in some cool places were designing games based on biometric input. Stefano spoke about how we could use games to illustrate philosophical concepts. So next time, we won't present papers but build games instead.

Okay, looks like this is becoming a humongous post and I can see myself struggling to encapsulate everything here. Therefore, I'll steer towards more brevity. Some of the other papers that I see my work connecting with would be Daniel Vella's work on ruins and videogames, Mia Consalvo's keynote focusing on identification in social games (well this isn't my area but it was very interesting ) and Alison Gazzard's paper on perceptions of space in game worlds where she brings in Massumi in a way which seems to connect to my work on affect.

I haven't discussed the keynotes in detail but David Myers' biological naturalism based formulation of videogame identity was very interesting. Myers' paper engaged in a dialogue with Eric Olson, the other keynote speaker. Olson's paper was provocative but I felt that some of his points needed more justification and certainly, a more solid base in terms of gameplay experience.
This was also the first conference where other Indians besides myself presented. Samir Passi and Ranjit Singh had to leave early and it was a pity that we didn't get better acquainted. The next day, after an enlightening early-morning trek to Acropolis with Isaac, I too had to leave quite early. Halfway through Consalvo's paper in fact - unfortunately. So I have homework to do. Not for anything in the world will I miss the chance to ask Sebastian and Niklas questions about their respective papers, both of which turned out very well as I've been told. Among the papers that the severe brain fatigue after presenting my own paper forced me to miss, I'll be looking forward to reading Elina Roinotti's paper on identity and governance in WoW. Although not a WoW fan, Esther MacCallum-Stewart's sterling work has got me more than casually interested. Elina was also our tireless host at the conference and I'd like to thank her and her team for making this a memorable experience.

'Re-membering and Dismembering': the title of my paper

Speaking of memorable experiences, my own presentation at this conference was certainly a major one for me.  This is almost my swansong - the trailing last few things that I'm probably going to say to Game Studies before I go back to India (and to possible game-research oblivion) in July. It's fitting that what I had to say was about remembering. I have made so many friends in my journeys in videogame research and I hope our shared memories remain. My paper too was about shared memories and about constructing identities through memory (re - memberings as opposed to dismemberings). I pondered the question of how multiple memories of the same game event can exist (created at each reload of a saved instance) and how these influence who and what we are in the game. I find the models suggested by Henri Bergson and Gilles Deleuze particularly useful. For a quick overview check out the abstract below and for the full paper, click here. Click here for the slideshow.

There were interesting responses to my presentation from various people. This is work-in-progress and suggestions are always welcome. Mark wanted to see a bit more of the dismembering unpicked in the paper. There were interesting questions raised regarding collective memories in games in comparison to the writing of history (from Christophe) and about how someone else's memory could be appropriated by the player (in that say I share my savegame with you, as Alison asked). Gordon asked if I had not considered psychological studies of memory and my response is that Deleuze covers some ground here in his Bergsonism which I use heavily but that I'm intent on doing more work on this. There is also the neurobiological angle that I've started looking at. The concept of collective videogame memory appealed to many and left me wondering if I should have concentrated more on this aspect. Serendipitously, on my way back I met Mara, a Psychology student from Italy and we fell talking about the multiplicity of memory. Now I have some more articles to read :)

Before that, however, I need to synchronise my memories with those of Altair and Ezio of Assassin's Creed. I'm playing after ages and I've clocked eight hours already today. Now to quickly post this and get back to my game.

For papers by other presenters, use this link. 

Re-membering and Dismembering: Memory and the (Re)Creation of Identities in Videogames
[Heading: Identity, Artifacts and Memory]
Perhaps one of the most natural things in gameplay is to avoid the same tactics that killed the player in the last saved game when he or she reloads and play again. In fact, it seems so natural an element of gameplay, that the act of remembering is almost unnoticed. As scholars such as Michael Nitsche (2007) and Barry Atkins (2007) have observed, however, memory plays an important part in shaping videogame actions. Remembered actions educate the player against making some decisions and as Nitsche observes, narrow down the number of possibilities in each future iteration of gameplay. Simply put, based on memory, the player does not get killed in the same way twice. Atkins and also the present author have analysed how the remembered experiences in videogames complicate the temporal schema of the game plots, thus making them problematise linear chronologies. From these initial forays into looking at the relationship between the videogame and the player memory, one salient issue emerges. Remembered actions inform the future in-game deeds of the player and these, in turn, contribute to the construction of the in-game identity. Given its influence on in-game action and by extension of the player’s in-game identity, the role of memory can almost be seen as a ‘re -membering’ (from the original sense of the word ‘member’ meaning ‘body’) - memory therefore serves to re-embody and recreate the player-character.
The question, however, is further complicated because of the nature of the memory itself. Often, the memory is a collective construct. Digital artefacts such as walkthroughs and  game wikisites host a massive database of remembered experiences uploaded by players. Future players ‘plug-in’ , as it were, to such a collective memory when they seek help or context while experiencing the game. Their experiences, arguably, are modified with the involvement with the collective memories in such paratextual material.
Remembered experiences can be instinctive and ‘gut responses’: for example, before entering a narrow lane in a First-Person Shooter where the avatar might have died in a previous instance, the remembered response might be to automatically spray the area with bullets before entering. At the same time, in-game memory is also a clearly defined entity that calls for reflective analysis. Some games consciously make memory a key trope in their plots and there they address issues like temporality and identity. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2003) and Assassin’s Creed (2008) are prominent examples where the avatar’s lived experience is governed in various remembered experiences . STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl (2007) is about a protagonist who plays out the game’s narrative in order to find out who he is -  his identity and memory constantly inform each other.
The question of how the act of remembering (or re-membering) contributes to the in-game identity formation of the avatar might be problematic but whether it is an entirely new one is a moot point. A comparison with parallel concepts in philosophy would be useful, therefore, in exploring the role memory has in building in-game identities. Such a comparison would also provide concrete illustrations to support or refute  philosophical models.  Taking this approach, this paper explores parallels between Henri Bergson’s philosophy of memory and videogames. In doing so, particular emphasis is placed on the Bergsonian view of time and memory as a multiplicity. Like the mass of discrete yet inseparable remembered experiences that game walkthroughs, wikis and other records consist of, for Bergson multiplicity is qualitative and is characterised by both heterogeneity and continuity.  Memory is categorised by Bergson into the automatic ‘habit-memory’ that is aligned with bodily perception and a ‘pure’ memory which involves thought and action.
The similarities with memory in videogames come out even in the comparison with  the brief sketch of the Bergsonian model above. Despite the similarities, the process of identity-formation and its relation with the player memory still needs further clarification. Gilles Deleuze (1988) proposes a reading of Bergson that takes into account the Bergsonian multiplicity and also provides a more substantial model of perception, affection and action where in between the perception and the action, memory plays the important role where the character of the avatar can be seen to be constructed in the ‘movement of memory’. After a certain event in the game, how the player responds to it depends susbtantially on  the  past experience, whether it is his or her own or whether it is drawn from the collective wisdom of databanks or fellow players. The identity of the avatar is the result of actualisations that occur from within a complex space of parallel and interlocking possibilities. This space of possibilities is, however, constantly modified by the player’s previous actions as well as by what the player remembers of previous actions or in other words, his or her memory. Having analysed the function of memory in videogames and having compared it with Bergson’s concept of memory as well as Deleuze’s commentary on Bergson, this analysis will illustrate how player memory - both singular and collective - forms a key part of the mechanism of identity-formation.

Indicative Bibliography
Assassin’s Creed, 2008, Ubisoft Montreal, Ubisoft.
Atkins, B.  2007, ‘Killing time: time past, time present and time future in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time’ in B. Atkins and T.  Krzywinska (eds.), Videogame, Player, Text, Manchester: Manchester University Press. pp. 237-253.
Bergson, H., 2004. Matter and Memory, Mineola, N.Y: Dover Publications.  
Deleuze, G., 1988. Bergsonism, New York: Zone Books.  
Deleuze, G., 1986. Cinema 1 : The Movement-image, London: Athlone.  
Nitsche, M., 2007, ‘Mapping time in video games’. In DIGRA. Tokyo. Available  Accessed: 12 January 2011.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, 2003, Ubisoft Montreal, Ubisoft.
STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, 2007, THQ, GSC Gameworld.


1 comment :

  1. I'm glad to read that my remarks were useful! Great post by the way, thanks for keeping a trace of what was said at the event, and the personal twist you give to it is also very interesting. I don't usually take much time to 'consolidate' my memories with the perspective from others, it's a shame!