Philosophy of Computer Games 2012, Madrid: A Player’s Diary
Madrid and the Matadoria
Madrid, I found, is a smiling city. We had smiling people, bright sunshine, artistic adventures, sumptuous food and of course some great game philosophy. This was my third Philosophy of Games conference. Potsdam, Athens and Madrid – I now am a veteran. On looking back through my memory-glass, I see yet another wonderful piece of gameplay although there are some places where I would have reloaded. That was my complicated gamer way of describing my likes and dislikes.
The organisers were absolutely fabulous and the venues were excellent. I particularly liked the Matadoria or the former slaughterhouse turned art gallery – its motto is ‘not slaughter but art’. I couldn’t help being moved. This conference has always been about people interacting with each other, about making friends and about exploring the new. In an earlier post, I had written about the in-between spaces in a conference and I frequented all of the possible in-between spaces, all short of those in people’s mind, I think. Over lunch, during stolen smoke breaks and in Twitter, the papers were being commented on constantly. Ren Reynolds and someone with a lonely guitar (Twitter handle) were constantly tweeting; Armin Papenfuss and some other remembered faces were rethinking game design and we even had a long discussion on game ethics following the perfect lunchtime question of whether eating animals was ethical. So is it ethical to make and play a game which is about a socially controversial issue? The discussion was unfinished and we returned to the conference.
Keynotes usually disappoint me but Don Ihde kept us all spellbound. Ihde started by drawing a geometrical figure and asking us to rethink its spatiality. The diagram was, for him, a proscenium stage, a Mayan temple a many-headed robot and many things besides. Ihde pointed to this and to the duck-rabbit diagram (used by Wittgenstein) to indicate the multiplicity of the player experience. He showed how the sense of directionality varies from the Western compass-oriented notions to the South-Pacific islander’s notion of directionality as proximity. With respect to avatars, Ihde finds their position in the game interesting and increasingly complex. Arguing against a perfect semblance where an avatar could be considered in a Laplacean universe, he instead advocated a model based on what he calls ‘multistability’. Multistability is all about re-orientation and redefining of game space / experience. Like the Bushmen who use the stretched bowstring to make music (instead of shooting arrows), videogames too are multistable systems where the player experience is reoriented according to the context. I brought back with me a poignant Ihde quote: ‘there is no space for fundamentalism in a multistable universe’. View the keynote address here.
The other keynote that I liked was Gordon Calleja’s talk on incorporation. Calleja brought a fresh dimension into the debate about the immersion / involvement / flow concepts. I’ve read his book In-Game and I recommend it to any student of Game Studies. Here’s the bit that I used in my paper:
The player incorporates (in the sense of internalising or assimilating) the game environment into consciousness while simultaneously being incorporated through the avatar into that environment. […] Put another way, incorporation occurs when the game world is present to the player while the player is simultaneously present, via her avatar, to the virtual environment.
Calleja sticks to FPS titles where this definition works well. In the question session, Patrick Coppock (oh yes, the man with the fantastic questions) wondered whether incorporation was possible in games like Solitaire and I would extend the question to real-time strategy games like Age of Empires. Over dinner, we had a quick ponder over the problem and my answer to this would be a Deleuzian one that would combine my notion of a ‘multiple consciousness’ concept and Mark Butler’s excellent piece on ‘becoming-zerg’ which will be familiar from my report on last year’s conference. I also had a slight gripe about the comment that books and films do not evince incorporation but this is perhaps a literature student’s instinctive resistance – I’ll think about this more. View the keynote here.
The other two keynotes disappointed. In the first, Greg Currie from a Literary Studies background unfortunately was quite unaware about the discourse of videogame research and also perhaps not quite in agreement with established poststructuralist positions on the multiplicity of the text (see Barthes on the readerly and writerly text or Fish on reader-response). Graeme Kirkpatrick presented a well thought out paper on whether videogames can become art basing his notion of art on that of Pierre Bourdieu and then on that of philosopher Jean Ranciere. Kirkpatrick’s argument was complex and he even harkens back to the Ludology/Narratology debate from earlier on in Game Studies. Indeed, he goes on to point out that the really important characteristic of videogames is their emptiness. While I am not much familiar with Ranciere (next on my reading list) and the little experience I have with the aesthetics of videogames, I think such a stark contrast with the visual arts is problematic. Here’s the video, however, and I’ll leave you to find out for yourself.
Philosophers and Gamers
In his closing speech, Olli Leino remarked that this iteration of the conference did not have people saying either ‘I am a philosopher and not a gamer’ or ‘I am a gamer and not a philosopher’ – the meld certainly worked out. People are getting more receptive to the idea and the talks I attended clearly showed this. I enjoyed the presentations of Geert Bruinsma, Paul Martin, Tom Hehir, Carolyn Jong, Jeffrey Dunn and Alex Baker-Graham among others. These were all new faces although I had met Paul and Carolyn earlier. The papers are all available online so I’d best leave you to form your own opinions. However, I cannot resist the urge to comment on a few of these.
Carolyn spoke on the ethics of the non-player characters in Dragon Age and this made me wonder if the ethics of the player-avatar constantly changes /reconfigures with the different non-player characters she encounters. I didn’t get a chance to ask her.
On the same subject of ethics (which had made its way into the main conference from our lunchtime conversation), Dunn’s presentation highlighted the asymmetry thesis which seems to say that actions committed in the virtual world are not real and hence do not count as far as morality is concerned. Dunn went on to compare in-game actions to those in dreams (on which, however, the subject arguably has less control). His conclusion, after testing the asymmetry thesis , its opposite and one where elements of both apply, is as follows: it does point to a trade-off: ‘we can have a very realistic virtual world, or we can have a world that satisfies the Asymmetry Thesis, but we cannot have both. In the virtual as well as the real, it seems, everything comes with a cost’. Fair enough. My one main problem is that he does not refer to any previous work on game ethics, i.e. Miguel Sicart’s book, Christoph Klimmt excellent essay on moral desensitization, Will Slocombe on in-game morality and my own essay. Personally, I think the way forward is to replace any analysis of morality with ethics, especially as outlined by Spinoza in his letter to the rice merchant Blyenbergh. I discuss this at length in my essay on Deleuzian and Spinozist ethics as a way of addressing the ethics of in-game action.
Again, at the risk of sounding too fond of self-advertisement, I would perhaps also mention my papers on temporality and memory (from the Athens conference last year), in connection to Hehir’s presentation. As a hardcore and longtime proponent of narrativity in videogames, I really liked Hehir’s introduction of Paul Ricoeur into the analysis of videogames. The narrative machine for me sounds great and I really liked the introduction of Virilio’s vision machine as a parallel. However, I have a small observation on Hehir’s discussion of the reiteration of game narratives. For Hehir, played experience and lived experience collapse into an imbricated relation such that the constructs begin to mirror each other, creating the possibility for experience unbeholden to reality. Reality enters into a cyclical or teleological relation with fiction, such that fiction becomes lived as reality. This last bit from Baudrillard if it separates reality from the virtual is problematic for me. In my earlier work on the difference and repetition (following Deleuze) of in-game iterations, I have argued how memory, play experience, imagination and the game’s immediate space of possibility are involved in the action that occurs. The Halo player’s experience that Hehir describes is undistillable and perhaps beyond the pale of Baudrillard’s hyperreality.
The other paper that I liked a lot was Geert Bruinsma’s on the Deleuzian affection-image in videogame action. Not only was this an in-depth look at something I focused on in my earlier conference paper at Potsdam (which Geert kindly cited) but also this marked yet another new friendship. Geert introduces Merleau-Ponty, Alva Noe as well as Deleuze into the analysis of the videogame image. He applied his and earlier analyses of Deleuze’s movement-image as an analytical model that would also test itself by analysing Doom 3, Fallout 3, and Shadow of the Colossus. Again, the full scope of his argument is best revealed in his paper.
The rest of the conference time, with Geert and others, was spent in the Prado, pubs and the lovely Madrid gardens. I also attended a fun workshop ongender and gaming where I learned how pathetic I was at playing Mirror’s Edge and where Patrick Coppock and Euridice Cabanes proved that gender wasn’t a watertight entity in influencing player action.
Last but not least, a few words about my own presentation. I heard the phrase ‘shameless plug’ used quite a bit at the conference so here’s my shameless plug. I presented on the concept of avatar in games and its hitherto unheeded roots in Hindu philosophy. My talk was meant more as an intervention – a necessary introduction of non-western philosophical discourses into Game Studies. I know Luke Cuddy has done something similar with his chapter on Halo and Buddhism and I myself spoke on Buddhist reincarnation and gaming at DiGRA ’09. This time it was different. Gamers the world over use the word avatar without bothering to check its etymology - yet, unknown to them the word itself, in its original meaning, incorporates the player experience in an excellent manner. My abstract below will provide an idea of what this paper is about:
Vishnu and the Videogame: The Videogame Avatar and Hindu Philosophy
In Hindu scripture and philosophy, the word avatar has existed for thousands of years. Its original usage differs from the sense that videogames, online media and recently James Cameron’s blockbuster have used the term - drawn from Neal Stephenson’s usage of it in Snow Crash (2000) and from the videogame Habitat (Lucasfilm 1986) to mean ‘ the graphical representation of the user or the user's alter ego or character’. For Hindus, the avatar is an object of worship and is the manifestation of divinity that descends on Earth to destroy evil. The commonest English translation of the term is ‘incarnation’ (literally ‘the being made flesh’) and with this is associated the idea of cyclical appearance manifested through birth and rebirth (reincarnation). The latter concept gets more tangled in Hindu and Buddhist rebirth eschatologies where rigid codifications of reincarnation are outlined. Whether the concept of the avatar in online media retains any of its roots in Hindu philosophy is a moot question. However, after over a decade of usage of the term and the lack of philosophical enquiry into its roots, the question is still one that merits the asking. Almost every game studies discussion mentions the avatar at least once and this paper will address the issue directly, through a comparison of the videogame avatar and its etymological counterpart in Hindu philosophy.
Unfortunately, I had to rush the paper towards the end and there was hardly time for questions. The general feeling was that people welcomed the intervention and I had many people coming up to ask more about the Hindu concept of the avatar. For those interested here’s my paper and my slideshow.
'Literature is a combinatorial game that pursues the possibilities implicit in its own material [...] but it is a game that at a certain point is invested with an unexpected meaning' - Italo Calvino