“Warning: Infected inside, do not enter”
Zombies and the Liberal Arts

On Saturday, April 18, I gave the following talk at Bard College, as part of Bard’s Experimental Humanities Mellon lecture series. Sorry if it doesn’t read as an “academic” talk. It’s written to be told.

I’m going to tell you a story today about zombies and the liberal arts. There are a lot of places I could begin—say, the huge number of classes in the humanities that focus on zombies, or the burgeoning field of zombie scholarship. But I’m going to take a more circuitous route, a kind of lurching, shambling path to connect the dots. The story begins in 2013. That’s the year the film adaptation of Max Brook’s World War Z came out. It’s the year The Last of Us became a bestselling game for the Sony Playstation. It’s also the year Pat McCrory, the North Carolina Governor—my home state governor—was a guest on Bill Bennett’s radio talk show to talk about his vision for the North Carolina public university system. Chapel Hill. NC State. UNC-Charlotte. McCrory told Bennett—who, if your memory goes back that far, was Reagan’s Secretary of Education, he told Bennett that “If you want to take gender studies that’s fine, go to a private school and take it. But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”[footnote]Kevin Kiley. “North Carolina Governor Joins Chorus of Republicans Critical of Liberal Arts.” Inside Higher Ed, January 30, 2013. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/01/30/north-carolina-governor-joins-chorus-republicans-critical-liberal-arts.[/footnote] Continue reading ““Warning: Infected inside, do not enter”
Zombies and the Liberal Arts

Closed Bots and Green Bots
Two Archetypes of Computational Media

The Electronic Literature Organization’s annual conference was last week in Milwaukee. I hated to miss it, but I hated even more the idea of missing my kids’ last days of school here in Madrid, where we’ve been since January.

If I had been at the ELO conference, I’d have no doubt talked about bots. I thought I already said everything I had to say about these small autonomous programs that generate text and images on social media, but like a bot, I just can’t stop.

Here, then, is one more modest attempt to theorize bots—and by extension other forms of computational media. The tl;dr version is that there are two archetypes of bots: closed bots and green bots. And each of these archetypes comes with an array of associated characteristics that deepen our understanding of digital media. Continue reading “Closed Bots and Green Bots
Two Archetypes of Computational Media

Sites of Pain and Telling

The Expressive Work of Spaces of Torture in Videogames

At the 2014 MLA conference in Chicago I appeared on a panel called “Torture and Popular Culture.” I used the occasion to revisit a topic I had written about several years earlier—representations of torture-interrogation in videogames. My comments are suggestive more than conclusive, and I am looking forward to developing these ideas further.

Today I want to talk about spaces of torture—dungeons, labs, prisons—in contemporary videogames and explore the way these spaces are not simply gruesome narrative backdrops but are key expressive features in popular culture’s ongoing reckoning with modern torture. Continue reading “Sites of Pain and Telling”

Be Weird and Other Game Design Tips


Instead of writing papers at the end of the semester in my videogame studies class, my students are building videogames. After all, what better way to understand games than to make one, a notion Ian Bogost calls carpentry.

My students aren’t designing merely any kind of game. They are designing metagames, by which I mean a game that itself comments upon or thinks through some aspect of other videogames. The assignment is available for all to share or remix.

Only a few of my students are computer science or game design majors. They are are almost all nonprogrammers, non-designers. But in line with the central message of Anna Anthropy’s Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, I believe anyone can make a videogame. Maybe not Skyrim but certainly a modest game that uses the affordances of the medium to think about the medium. Because my students’ initial pitches were much more ambitious than what they could ever hope to achieve in the space of two weeks, I cribbed a list of design principles that are either explicitly mentioned or implied in Anthropy’s chapter “Making the Games.” Again, I share it here:

  • “Dumb little games” have value and can enrich our understanding of the form
  • Perfection isn’t a useful goal
  • Accidents and mistakes can be creative forces
  • Use what’s on hand
  • Be derivative
  • Be weird
[Image from Patrick LeMieux’s 99 Exercises in Play (Level 22).]

Videogame Studies Panels at SCMS 2012

Later this week I’ll be heading to Boston for the annual conference of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. I’m delighted to be presenting on a panel organized by my frequent conspirator Zach Whalen on code studies and videogames. I’m also delighted that there will be an abundance of other panels devoted to videogames.

For my ease—and hopefully others’—I’ve compiled a list of all of these panels. If I’m missing a videogame-oriented panel, let me know in the comments, and I’ll add it right away.

[heading style=”1″]Videogame Studies Panels at SCMS 2012[/heading]

Wednesday, March 21, 2012 10:00AM-11:45PM (Session A)

A7: Harder Than You Think: The Difficulty and Digital Games Panel

Room: Cambridge
Chair: Felan Parker (York University)

  • Felan Parker (York University), “No One Shall Live: The Idea of Difficulty in Digital Games”
  • Bobby Schweizer (Georgia Institute of Technology), “Easy, Normal, Hard: Superficial Difficulty Settings in Videogames”
  • Nicholas Taylor (York University), “‘Technical Difficulties’: Expert MMOG Play as Assemblage”
  • Mariam Asad (Georgia Institute of Technology), “Proceduralizing Difficulty: Reflexive Play Practices in Masocore Games”

Wednesday, March 21, 2012 12:ooPM-1:45PM (Session B)

B5: “Reality,” Simulacras, and New Media
Chair: Courtney Baker (Connecticut College)

  • Jacob Hustedt (University of Texas, Austin), “‘A Dance of Signs’: Reflections on Public Executions, New Media, and the Death of Osama bin Laden”
  • Colleen Montgomery (University of Texas, Austin), “Cartoon Wasteland: The Aesthetics and Economics of Digitextuality in Disney’s Epic Mickey
  • Brent Fujioka (Brown University), “Snake Is Hiding: Cultural Hybridity, Pacifism, and Subversion In Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid Series”
  • Courtney Baker (Connecticut College), “Imprisoned Viewers: Prison Valley and the Simulacrum of Interaction”

Wednesday, March 21, 2012 2:00PM-3:45PM (Session C)

C8: A Million Screens a Medium Make? Thinking through Machinima and Filmmaking in Virtual Worlds

Chair: Jenna Ng (University of Cambridge)

  • Henry Lowood (Stanford University), “Machinima: A Documentary Medium?”
  • Sarah Higley (University of Rochester), “Inside and Outside: Machinima, Looking, and the Non-Diegetic Camera”
  • Peter Krapp (University of California, Irvine), “Economedia: Machinima and the Claims of Convergence”
  • Jenna Ng (University of Cambridge), “Three Spars of the Virtual Camera Trestle: Image, Mobility, Avatar”

Wednesday, March 21, 2012 04:00PM-05:45PM (Session D)

D16: Save to Continue: The State of Video Game Archiving and Preservation
Room: St. James
Chair: Matthew Payne (University of Alabama)
Workshop Participants:

  • Henry Lowood (Stanford University)
  • Ken McAllister (University of Arizona)
  • David O’Grady (University of California, Los Angeles)
  • Judd Ruggill (Arizona State University)
  • Megan Winget (University of Texas, Austin)

Thursday, March 22, 2012 11:00AM-12:45PM (Session F)

F16: Workshop on Cooperative Play, Multiplayer R&D: Encouraging Effective Collaboration in Games Research and Development

Chair: Nina Huntemann (Suffolk University)
Workshop Participants:

  • Mia Consalvo (Concordia University)
  • Darius Kazemi (bocoup)
  • Eric Gordon (Emerson College)
  • Bill Shribman (WGBH)
  • Sara Verrilli (MIT GAMBIT Game Lab)

Sponsor: Video Game Studies Scholarly Interest Group

Thursday, March 22, 2012 01:00PM-02:45PM (Session G)

G6: Gendering Fandoms: Exploring the Centrality of Gender and Sexuality to Fannish Practice
Room: Cabot
Chair: Darlene Hampton (University of Oregon)

  • Jing Zhao (University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee), “Popular Cultural Capital Matters: A Comparative Study of ‘Queered’
  • Chinese Online Fandom”
  • Anne Gilbert (Rutgers University), “When Twilight Comes to Comic-Con: Gender Divisions in Popular Fandom”
  • John Vanderhoef (University of California, Santa Barbara), “Canon Fodder: Taste, Gender, and Video Game Culture”
  • Darlene Hampton (University of Oregon), “Pure Communities: The Radicalizing Potential of Intimacy in Fan Communities”

Thursday, March 22, 2012 03:00PM-04:45PM (Session H)

H7: Playing With Feelings 1: Video Games and Affect
Room: Cambridge
Chair: Aubrey Anable (University of Toronto)

  • Seth Mulliken (North Carolina State University, Raleigh), “The Order of Hardness: Rhythm-Based Games and Sonic Affect”
  • Laura Cook Kenna (George Washington University), “Feeling Empathetic? . . . Ironic? . . . Postracial?: Grand Theft Auto’s Offers of Affective Engagement with Ethnic and Racial Difference”
  • Allyson Shaffer (University of Minnesota, Twin Cities), “Playing Life, Managing Play”
  • Aubrey Anable (University of Toronto), “Casual Games, Serious Play, and the Affective Economy”

Thursday, March 22, 2012 05:00PM-06:45PM (Session I)

I11: Playing With Feelings 2: Medium, Immersion, and Affect
Room: Franklin
Chair: Daniel Reynolds (University of California, Santa Barbara)
Respondent: Mark J. P. Wolf (Concordia University, Wisconsin)

  • Daniel Reynolds (University of California, Santa Barbara), “Radical Embodiment and Affective Interactivity”
  • Virginia Kuhn (University of Southern California), “One More Time with Feeling: Can Agency and Immersion Co-exist?”
  • Chaz Evans (University of Illinois, Chicago), “The Brechtian Video Game (and Other Theatrical Conceptions of Software-based Experience)”

Friday, March 23, 2012 12:15PM-2:00PM (Session K)

Video Game Studies Special Interest Group

Friday, March 23, 2012 02:15PM-04:00PM (Session L)

L11: Code Studies and Videogames
Room: Franklin
Chair: Zach Whalen (University of Mary Washington)

  • Sheila Murphy (University of Michigan), “Parsing Code, Playing Games: A Mediation on Reading Video Games”
  • Mark Sample (George Mason University), “A Revisionist History of JFK Reloaded (Decoded)”
  • Zach Whalen (University of Mary Washington), “’//create magnetic children’: Game Code as Critical Paratext”
  • Christopher Hanson (Syracuse University), “Mapping Levels of Abstraction and Materiality: Structuralist Games?”

Saturday, March 24, 2012 9:00AM (Session M)

M11: Computer Games and Virtual Forms
Room: Franklin
Chair: Lori Landay, Berklee College of Music

  • Brent Strang (Stony Brook University), “Red Dead Remediation: Sandbox Games, Anti-environments and Digital Adolescence”
  • Juan F. Belmonte Avila (University of Murcia), “Tactility in Computer Games: Non-Visual Mediations in Digital Discourses”
  • Mark J. P. Wolf (Concordia University, Wisconsin), “BattleZone and the Origins of First-Person Shooting Games”
  • Lori Landay (Berklee College of Music), “Virtually There: Presence, Agency, Spectatorship, and Performance in Interactive Media”

Sponsor: Video Game Studies Scholarly Interest Group

Saturday, March 24, 2012 05:00PM-06:45PM (Session Q)

Q11: Video Game Industry Studies
Room: Franklin
Chair: Sheila Murphy (University of Michigan)
Co-Chair: Julia Lange (University of Michigan)
Respondent: Nina Huntemann (Suffolk University)

  • Benjamin Aslinger (Bentley University), “Redefining the Console for the Digital, Global, and Networked Era”
  • Kathryn Frank (University of Michigan), “Imagining the Cult Media Audience: Comics and Video Game Industrial ‘Synergy’”
  • Julia Lange (University of Michigan), “E3 or Not E3?: The Video Game Industry Online and In-person”

Q21: Beyond Strawmen, Misrepresentations, and Caricatures: Elucidating a Critical Political Economy of Media
Room: Whittier
Chair: Philip Drake (University of Stirling)
Respondent: Philippe Meers (University of Antwerp)

  • Eileen Meehan (Southern Illinois University, Carbondale), “The Misrepresentation of Critical Political Economy of Media”
  • Randall Nichols (Bentley University), “Manufacturing the Xbox: The Other Video Game Labor Problem”
  • Andre Sirois (University of Oregon), “Advertising and Avatars: Investing in Subcultural Capital and Selling Authenticity in the Case of DJ Hero”

Sunday, March 25, 2012 11:00AM-12:45PM (Session S)

S7: Video Games
Room: Cambridge
Chair: Robert Buerkle (University of Pittsburgh)

  • Reem Hilu (Northwestern University), “A Pioneering Game: “The Oregon Trail” and History Simulation”
  • Frank Episale (City University of New York), “Roger Ebert vs. Jacques Rancière: Video Games, Art, and the Emancipated Spectator”
  • Robert Buerkle (University of Pittsburgh), “At a Loss for Words: Portal 2 and the Silent Avatar”

[Downhill photograph courtesy of Flickr user krelle / Creative Commons Licensed]

Close Playing: Literary Methods and Videogame Studies (MLA 2012 Roundtable)

Pac ManI recently received word that my proposal for a roundtable on videogame studies was accepted for the annual Modern Language Association Convention, to be held next January in Seattle, Washington. I’m very excited for myself and my fellow participants: Ed Chang, Steve Jones, Jason Rhody, Anastasia Salter, Tim Welsh, and Zach Whalen. (Updated with links to talks below)

This roundtable is particularly noteworthy in two ways. First, it’s a departure from the typical conference model in the humanities, namely three speakers each reading twenty-minute essays at an audience, followed by ten minutes of posturing and self-aggrandizement thinly disguised as Q&A. Instead, each speaker on the “Close Playing” roundtable will briefly (no more than six minutes each) lay out opening remarks or provocations, and then we’ll invite the audience to a long open discussion. Last year’s Open Professoriate roundtable followed a similar model, and the level of collegial dialogue between the panelists and the audience was inspiring (and even newsworthy)—and I hope the “Close Playing” roundtable can emulate that success.

The second noteworthy feature of the roundtable is the topic itself. Videogames—an incredibly rich form of cultural expression—have been historically unrepresented, if not entirely absent from the MLA. I noted this silence in the midst of the 2011 convention in Los Angeles: [blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/samplereality/statuses/2177777654571008″]

This is not to say there isn’t an interest in videogames at the MLA; indeed, I am convinced from the conversations I’ve had at the conference that there’s a real hunger to discuss games and other media forms that draw from the same cultural well as storytelling. Partly in the interest of promoting the critical study of videogames, and partly to serve as a successful model for future roundtable proposals (which I can assure you, the MLA Program Committee wants to see more of), I’m posting the “Close Playing” session proposal here (see also the original CFP).

We hope to see you in Seattle in January!


(As submitted to the MLA Program Committee
for the 2012 conference in Seattle, Washington)

Nearly fifteen years ago a contentious debate erupted in the emerging field of videogame studies between self-proclaimed ludologists and the more loosely-defined narratologists. At stake—or so it seemed at the time—was the very soul of videogame studies. Would the field treat games as a distinct cultural form, which demanded its own theory and methodology? Or were videogames to be considered “texts,” which could be analyzed using the same approaches literary scholars took to poetry, drama, and fiction? Were games mainly about rules, structure, and play? Or did games tell stories and channel allegories? Ludologists argued for the former, while many others defended the latter. The debate played out in conferences, blogs, and the early issues of scholarly e-journals such as Game Studies and Electronic Book Review.

In the ensuing years the debate has dissipated, as both sides have come to recognize that no single approach can adequately explore the rich and diverse world of videogames. The best scholarship in the field is equally attune to both the formal and thematic elements of games, as well as to the complex interplay between them. Furthermore, it’s become clear that ludologists mischaracterized literary studies as a strictly New Critical endeavor, a view that woefully overlooks the many insights contemporary literary scholarship can offer to this interdisciplinary field.

In the past few years scholars have begun exploring the whole range of possible literary approaches to games. Methodologies adopted from reception studies, reader-response theory, narrative theory, critical race and gender theory, queer studies, disability studies, rhetoric and composition, and textual studies have all contributed in substantive ways to videogames studies. This roundtable will focus on these contributions, demonstrating how various methods of literary studies can help us understand narrative-based games as well as abstract, non-narrative games (for example, Tetris). And as Jameson’s famous mantra “always historicize” reminds us, the roundtable will also address the wider social and historical context that surrounds games.

This topic is ideally suited for a roundtable format (rather than a panel of three papers) precisely because of the diversity of approaches, which are well-represented by the roundtable participants. Moreover, each presenter will limit his or her opening remarks to a nonnegotiable six minutes, focusing on the possibilities of one or two specific methodologies for close-reading videogames, rather than a comprehensive close reading of a single game. With six presenters, this means the bulk of the session time (roughly thirty-five minutes) will be devoted to an open discussion, involving both the panel and the audience.

“Close Playing: Literary Methods and Videogame Studies” will appeal to a broad swath of the MLA community. While many will find subject of videogames studies compelling enough by itself, the discussion will be relevant to those working in textual studies, media studies, and more broadly, the digital humanities. The need for this roundtable is clear: as we move toward the second decade of videogames studies, the field can no longer claim to be an emerging discipline; the distinguished participants on this panel—with the help of the audience—will survey the current lay of the land in videogame studies, but more importantly, point the way forward.

Mark Sample, George Mason University

Participants (updated with links to talks)


[Pac Man photo courtesy of Flick user joyrex / Creative Commons Licensed]

Gamifying Gamification by Making It Less Gamely

Guard TowerIn a recent post on the group blog Play the Past, I wrote about the way torture-interrogation is often described by its proponents as a kind of game. I wrestled for a long time with the title of that post: “The Gamification of Interrogation.” Why? Because I oppose the general trend toward “gamifying” real world activities—mapping game-like trappings such as badges, points, and achievements onto otherwise routine or necessary activities.

A better term for such “gamification” is, as Margaret Robertson argues, pointsification. And I oppose it. I oppose pointsification and the gamification of life. Instead of “gamifying” activities in our daily life, we need to meanify them—imbue them with meaning. The things that we do to live, breathe, eat, laugh, love, and die, we need to see as worth doing in order to live, breathe, eat, laugh, love, and die. A leaderboard is not the path toward discovering this worthwhileness.

So, back to my title and what troubled me about it: “The Gamification of Interrogation.” I didn’t want this title to appear to be an endorsement of gamification. Perhaps the most cogent argument against both the practice of gamification and the rhetoric of the word itself comes from Ian Bogost, who observes that the contorted noun “gamification” acts as a kind of magic word, making “something seem easy to accomplish, even if it is in fact difficult.”

Ian proposes that we begin calling gamification what it really is. Because gamification seeks to “replace real incentives with fictional ones,” he argues that we call it “exploitationware”—a malevolent practice that exploits a user’s loyalty with fake rewards.

I’m skeptical that “exploitationware” will catch on, even among the detractor’s of gamification. It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Its five syllables are so confrontational that even those who despise gamification might not be sympathetic to the word. Yet Ian himself suggests the way forward:

[quote]the best move is to distance games from the concept [of gamification] entirely, by showing its connection to the more insidious activities that really comprise it.[/quote]

And this is where my title comes in. I’ve connected gamification to an insidious activity, interrogation. I’m not trying to substitute a more accurate word for gamification. Rather, I’m using “gamification,” but in conjunction with human activities that absolutely should not be turned into a game. Activities that most people would recoil to conceive as a game.

The gamification of torture.

The gamification of radiation poisoning.

The gamification of child pornography.

This is how we disabuse the public of the ideology of gamification. Not by inventing another ungainly word, but by making the word itself ungainly. Making it ungamely.

Prison Tower Barb photo courtesy of Flickr user Dana Gonzales / Creative Commons License]