- Explore the dark web
- Mod a videogame
- Witness the Network Effect
- Make counter-animated GIFs
- Research alternative timelines of gamergate
- Decide whom to kill with self-driving cars
- Write one billion poems
- Read videogame code
- Build speculative designs with Arduinos
- Visualize something that will outlast the heat death of the sun
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””
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”
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”
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
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
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)
- 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)
- 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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]
I 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:
How is it possible that I am the only person talking about videogames at #MLA11?
— Mark Sample (@samplereality) November 10, 2010
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!
CLOSE PLAYING: LITERARY METHODS AND VIDEOGAME STUDIES
(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)
- Edmond Chang, Univ. of Washington, Seattle
- Steven E. Jones, Loyola Univ., Chicago
- Jason C. Rhody, National Endowment for the Humanities
- Anastasia Salter, Univ. of Baltimore
- Timothy Welsh, Loyola Univ., New Orleans
- Zach Whalen, Univ. of Mary Washington
[Pac Man photo courtesy of Flick user joyrex / Creative Commons Licensed]
In 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]
A roundtable discussion of specific approaches and close playings that explore the methodological contribution of literary studies toward videogame studies. 300-word abstract and 1-page bio to Mark Sample (firstname.lastname@example.org) by March 15.
All participants must be MLA members by April 7. Also note that this is a proposed special session; the MLA Program Committee will have the final say on the roundtable’s acceptance.
[Controllers photo courtesy of Flickr user Kimli / Creative Commons License]
[This is the text of my second talk at the 2011 MLA convention in Los Angeles, for a panel on “Close Reading the Digital.” My talk was accompanied by a Prezi “Zooming” presentation, which I have replicated here with still images (the original slideshow is at the end of this post). In 15 minutes I could only gesture toward some of the broader historical and cultural meanings that resonate outward from code—but I am pursuing this project further and I welcome your thoughts and questions.]
New media critics such as Nick Montfort and Matthew Kirschenbaum have observed that a certain “screen essentialism” pervades new media studies, in which the “digital event on the screen,” as Kirschenbaum puts it (Kirschenbaum 4), becomes the sole object of study at the expense of the underlying computer code, the hardware, the storage devices, and even the non-digital inputs and outputs that make the digital object possible in the first place. There are a number of ways to remedy this essentialism, and the approach that I want to focus on today is the close reading of code.
Frederich Kittler has said that code is the only language that does what it says. But the close reading of code insists that code not only does what it says, it says things it does not do. Like any language, code operates on a literal plane—literal to the machine, that is—but it also operates on an evocative plane, rife with gaps, idiosyncrasies, and suggestive traces of its context. And the more the language emphasizes human legibility (for example, a high-level language like BASIC or Inform 7), the greater the chance that there’s some slippage in the code that is readable by the machine one way and readable by scholars and critics in another.
Today I want to close read some snippets of code from Micropolis, the open-source version of SimCity that was included on the Linux-based XO computers in the One Laptop per Child program.
Designed by the legendary Will Wright, SimCity was released by Maxis in 1989 on the Commodore 64, and it was the first of many popular Sim games, such as SimAnt and SimFarm, not to mention the enduring SimCity series of games—that were ported to dozens of platforms, from DOS to the iPad. Electronic Arts owns the rights to the SimCity brand, and in 2008, EA released the source code of the original game into the wild under a GPL License—a General Public License. EA prohibited any resulting branch of the game from using the SimCity name, so the developers, led by Don Hopkins, called it Micropolis, which was in fact Wright’s original name for his city simulation.
From the beginning, SimCity was criticized for presenting a naive vision of urban planning, if not an altogether egregious one. I don’t need to rehearse all those critiques here, but they boil down to what Ian Bogost calls the procedural rhetoric of the game. By procedural rhetoric, Bogost simply means the implicit or explicit argument a computer model makes. Rather than using words like a book, or images like a film, a game “makes a claim about how something works by modeling its processes” (Bogost, “The Proceduralist Style“).
In the case of SimCity, I want to explore a particularly rich site of embedded procedural rhetoric—the procedural rhetoric of crime. I’m hardly the first to think about the way SimCity or Micropolis models crime. Again, these criticisms date back to the nineties. And as recently as 2007, the legendary computer scientist Alan Kay called SimCity a “pernicious…black box,” full of assumptions and “somewhat arbitrary knowledge” that can’t be questioned or changed (Kay).
Kay goes on to illustrate his point using the example of crime in SimCity. SimCity, Kay notes, “gets the players to discover that the way to counter rising crime is to put in more police stations.” Of all the possible options in the real world—increasing funding for education, creating jobs, and so on—it’s the presence of the police that lowers crime in SimCity. That is the procedural rhetoric of the game.
And it doesn’t take long for players to figure it out. In fact, the original manual itself tells the player that “Police Departments lower the crime rate in the surrounding area. This in turn raises property values.”
It’s one thing for the manual to propose a relationship between crime, property values, and law enforcement, but quite another for the player to see that relationship enacted within the simulation. Players have to get a feel for it on their own as they play the game. The goal of the simulation, then, is not so much to win the game as it is to uncover what Lev Manovich calls the “hidden logic” of the game (Manovich 222). A player’s success in a simulation hinges upon discovering the algorithm underlying the game.
But, if the manual describes the model to us and players can discover it for themselves through gameplay, then what’s the value of looking at the code of the game. Why bother? What can it tell us that playing the game cannot?
Before I go any further, I want to be clear: I am not a programmer. I couldn’t code my way out of a paper bag. And this leads me to a crucial point I’d like to make today: you don’t have to be a coder to talk about code. Anybody can talk about code. Anybody can close read code. But you do need to develop some degree of what Michael Mateas has called “procedural literacy” (Mateas 1).
Let’s look at a piece of code from Micropolis and practice procedural literacy. This is a snippet from span.cpp, one of the many sub-programs called by the core Micropolis engine.
It’s written in C++, one of the most common middle-level programming languages—Firefox is written in C++, for example, as well as Photoshop, and nearly every Microsoft product. By paying attention to variable names, even a non-programmer might be able to discern that this code scans the player’s city map and calculates a number of critical statistics: population density, the likelihood of fire, pollution, land value, and the function that originally interested me in Micropolis,a neighborhood’s crime rate.
This specific calculation appears in lines 413-424. We start off with the crime rate variable Z at a baseline of 128, which is not as random at it seems, being exactly half of 256, the highest 8-bit binary value available on the original SimCity platform, the 8-bit Commodore 64.
128 is the baseline and the crime rate either goes up or down from there. The land value variable is subtracted from Z, and then the population density is added to Z:
It’s just as the manual said: crime is a function of population density, land value, and police stations, and a strict function at that. But the code makes visible nuances that are absent from the manual’s pithy description of crime rates. For example, land that has no value—land that hasn’t been built upon or utilized in your city—has no crime rate. This shows up in lines 433-434:
Also, because of this strict algorithm, there is no chance of a neighborhood existing outside of this model. The algorithm is, in Jeremy Douglass’s words when he saw this code, “absolutely deterministic.” A populous neighborhood with little police presence can never be crime free. Land value is likewise reduced to set formula, seen in this equation in lines 264-271:
Essentially these lines tell us that land value is a function of the property’s distance from the city center, the type of terrain, the nearby pollution, and the crime rate. Again, though, players will likely discover this for themselves, even if they don’t read the manual, which spells out the formula, explicitly telling us that “the land value of an area is based on terrain, accessibility, pollution, and distance to downtown.”
So there’s an interesting puzzle I’m trying to get at here. How does looking at the code teach us something new? If the manual describes the process, and the game enacts it, what does exploring the code do?
I think back to Sherry Turkle’s now classic work, Life on the Screen, about the relationship between identity formation and what we would now call social media. Turkle spends a great deal of time talking about what she calls, in a Baudrillardian fashion, the “seduction of the simulation.” And by simulations Turkle has in mind exactly what I’m talking about here, the Maxis games like SimCity, SimLife, and SimAnt that were so popular 15 years ago.
Turkle suggests that players can, on the one hand, surrender themselves totally to the simulation, openly accepting whatever processes are modeled within. On the other hand, players can reject the simulation entirely—what Turkle calls “simulation denial.” These are stark opposites, and our reaction to simulations obviously need not be entirely one or the other.
There’s a third alternative Turkle proposes: understanding the simulation, exploring its assumptions, both procedural and cultural (Turkle 71-72).
I’d argue that the close reading of code adds a fourth possibility, a fourth response to a simulation. Instead of surrendering to it, or rejecting it, or understanding it, we can deconstruct it. Take it apart. Open up the black box. See all the pieces and how they fit together. Even tweak the code ourselves and recompile it with our own algorithms inside.
When we crack open the code like this, we may well find surprises that playing the game or reading the manual will not tell us. Remember, code does what it says, but it also says things it does not do. Let’s consider the code for a file called disasters.cpp. Anyone with a passing familiarity with SimCity might be able to guess what a file called disasters.cpp does. It’s the routine that determines which random disasters will strike your city. The entire 408 line routine is worth looking at, but what I’ll draw your attention to is the section that begins at line 109, where the probability of the different possible disasters appears:
In the midst of rather generic biblical disasters (you see here there’s a 22% chance of a fire, and a 22% chance of a flood), there is a startling excision of code, the trace of which is only visible in the programmer’s comments. In the original SimCity there was a 1 out of 9 chance that an airplane would crash into the city. After 9/11 this disaster was removed from the code at the request Electronic Arts.
Playing Micropolis, say perhaps as one of the children in the OLPC program, this erasure is something we’d never notice. And we’d never notice because the machine doesn’t notice—it stands outside the procedural rhetoric of the game. It’s only visible when we read the code. And then, it pops, even to non-programmers. We could raise any number of questions about this decision to elide 9/11. There are questions, for example, about the way the code is commented. None of the other disasters have any kind of contextual, historically-rooted comments, the effect of which is that the other disasters are naturalized—even the human-made disasters like Godzilla-like monster that terrorizes an over-polluted city.
There are questions about the relationship between simulation, disaster, and history that call to mind Don DeLillo’s White Noise, where one character tells another, “The more we rehearse disaster, the safer we’ll be from the real thing…..There is no substitute for a planned simulation” (196).
And finally there are questions about corporate influence and censorship—was EA’s request to remove the airplane crash really a request, or more of a condition? How does this relate to EA’s more recent decision in October of 2010 to remove the Taliban from its most recent version of Medal of Honor? If you don’t know, a controversy erupted last fall when word leaked out that Medal of Honor players would be able to assume the role of the Taliban in the multiplayer game. After weeks of holding out, EA ended up changing all references to the Taliban to the unimaginative “Opposing Force.” So at least twice, EA, and by proxy, the videogame industry in general, has erased history, making it more palatable, or as a cynic might see it, more marketable.
I want to close by circling back to Michael Mateas’s idea of procedural literacy. My commitment to critical code studies is ultimately pedagogical as much as it is methodological. I’m interested in how we can teach everyday people, and in particular, nonprogramming undergraduate students, procedural literacy. I think these pieces of code from Micropolis make excellent material for novices, and in fact, I do have my videogame studies students dig around in this source code. Most of them have never programmed, let alone in C++, so I give them some prompts to get them started.
And for you today, here in the audience, I have similar questions, about the snippets of code that I showed, but also questions more generally about close reading digital objects. What other approaches are worth taking? What other games, simulations, or applications have the source available for study, and what might you want to look at with those programs? And finally, what are the limits of reading code from a humanist perspective?
Bogost, Ian. “Persuasive Games: The Proceduralist Style.” Gamasutra 21 Jan 2009. Web. 1 Feb 2009. <http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/3909/persuasive_games_the_.php?print=1>.
DeLillo, Don. White Noise. Penguin, 1985. Print.
Kay, Alan. “Discussion with Alan Kay about Visual Programming.” Don Hopkins 16 Nov 2007. Web. 30 Dec 2010. <http://www.donhopkins.com/drupal/node/140>.
Kirschenbaum, Matthew. Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination. Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press, 2008. Print.
Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001. Print.
Mateas, Michael. “Procedural Literacy: Educating the New Media Practitioner.” Beyond Fun. 2008. 67–83. Print.
Montfort, Nick. “Continuous Paper: The Early Materiality and Workings of Electronic Literature.” Philadelphia, PA, 2004. <http: //nickm.com/writing/essays/continuous_paper_mla.html>.
Turkle, Sherry. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. Print.
(1) Greco, Roberto. SimCity. 2008. Web. 4 Jan 2011. <http://www.flickr.com/photos/robertogreco/2380137251/>.
(2) Wright, Will. SimCity. Maxis, 1989. Manual.
(3) Goldberg, Ken, and Bob Farzin. Dislocation of Intimacy. 1998. San Jose Museum of Art. Web. 14 Jan 2011. <http://goldberg.berkeley.edu/art/doi.html>.
All other images created by the author.
Below are all of the upcoming 2009 MLA sessions related to new media and the digital humanities. Am I missing something? Let me know in the comments and I’ll add it to the list. You may also be interested in following the Digital Humanities/MLA list on Twitter. (And if you are on Twitter and going to the MLA, let Bethany Nowviskie know, and she’ll add you to the list.)
MONDAY, DECEMBER 28
116. Play the Movie: Computer Games and the Cinematic Turn
8:30–9:45 a.m., 411–412, Philadelphia Marriott
Presiding: Anna Everett, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara; Homay King, Bryn Mawr Coll.
- “The Flaneur and the Space Marine: Temporal Distention in First-Person Shooters,” Jeff Rush, Temple Univ., Philadelphia
- “Viral Play: Internet Humor, Viral Marketing, and the Ubiquitous Gaming of The Dark Knight,” Ethan Tussey, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara
- “Playing the Cut Scene: Agency and Vision in Shadow of the Colossus,” Mark L. Sample, George Mason Univ.
- “Suture and Play: Machinima as Critical Intimacy for Game Studies,” Aubrey Anable, Hamilton Coll.
120. Virtual Worlds and Pedagogy
8:30–9:45 a.m., Liberty Ballroom Salon C, Philadelphia Marriott
Presiding: Gloria B. Clark, Penn State Univ., Harrisburg
- “Rhetorical Peaks,” Matt King, Univ. of Texas, Austin
- “Virtual Theater History: Teaching with Theatron,” Mark Childs, Warwick Univ.; Katherine A. Rowe, Bryn Mawr Coll.
- “Realms of Possibility: Understanding the Role of Multiuser Virtual Environments in Foreign Language Curricula,” Julie M. Sykes, Univ. of New Mexico
- “Information versus Content: Second Life in the Literature Classroom,” Bola C. King, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara
- “Literature Alive,” Beth Ritter-Guth, Hotchkiss School
- “Virtual World Building as Collaborative Knowledge Production: The Online Crystal Palace,” Victoria E. Szabo, Duke Univ.
- “Teaching in Virtual Worlds: Re-Creating The House of Seven Gables in Second Life,” Mary McAleer Balkun, Seton Hall Univ.
- “3-D Interactive Multimodal Literacy and Avatar Chat in a College Writing Class,” Jerome Bump, Univ. of Texas, Austin
For abstracts and possibly video clips, visit www.fabtimes.net/virtpedagog/.
141. Locating the Literary in Digital Media
8:30–9:45 a.m., Liberty Ballroom Salon A, Philadelphia Marriott
- “‘A Breach, [and] an Expansion’: The Humanities and Digital Media,” Dene M. Grigar, Washington State Univ., Vancouver
- “Locating the Literary in New Media: From Key Words and Metatags to Network Recognition and Institutional Accreditation,” Joseph Paul Tabbi, Univ. of Illinois, Chicago
- “Digital, Banal, Residual, Experimental,” Paul Benzon, Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick
- “Genre Discovery: Literature and Shared Data Exploration,” Jeremy Douglass, Univ. of California, San Diego
170. Value Added: The Shape of the E-Journal
10:15–11:30 a.m., Liberty Ballroom Salon C, Philadelphia Marriott
Speakers: Cheryl E. Ball, Kairos, Keith Dorwick, Technoculture, Andrew Fitch and Jon Cotner, Interval(le)s, Kevin Moberly, Technoculture, Julianne Newmark, Xchanges, Eric Dean Rasmussen and Joseph Paul Tabbi, Electronic Book Review
The journals represent a wide range of audiences and technologies. The speakers will display the work that can be done with electronic publications.
For summaries, visit www.ucs.louisiana.edu/~kxd4350/ejournal.
212. Language Theory and New Communications Technologies
12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., Jefferson, Loews
Presiding: David Herman, Ohio State Univ., Columbus
- “Learning around Place: Language Acquisition and Location-Based Technologies,” Armanda Lewis, New York Univ.
- “Constructing the Digital I: Subjectivity in New Media Composing,” Jill Belli, Graduate Center, City Univ. of New York
- “French and Spanish Second-Person Pronoun Use in Computer-Mediated Communication,” Lee B. Abraham, Villanova Univ.; Lawrence Williams, Univ. of North Texas
245. Old Media and Digital Culture
1:45–3:00 p.m., Washington C, Loews
Presiding: Reinaldo Carlos Laddaga, Univ. of Pennsylvania
- “Paper: The Twenty-First-Century Novel,” Jessica Pressman, Yale Univ.
- “First Publish, Then Write,” Craig Epplin, Reed Coll.
- “Digital Literature and the Brazilian Historic Avant-Garde: What Is Old in the New?” Eduardo Ledesma, Harvard Univ.
For abstracts, write to email@example.com.
254. Web 2.0: What Every Student Knows That You Might Not
1:45–3:00 p.m., Liberty Ballroom Salon C, Philadelphia Marriott
Presiding: Laura C. Mandell, Miami Univ., Oxford
Speakers: Carolyn Guertin, Univ. of Texas, Arlington; Laura C. Mandell; William Aufderheide Thompson, Western Illinois Univ.
For workshop materials, visit www.mla.org/web20.
264. Media Studies and the Digital Scholarly Present
1:45–3:00 p.m., 411–412, Philadelphia Marriott
Presiding: Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Pomona Coll.
- “Blogging, Scholarship, and the Networked Public Sphere,” Chuck Tryon, Fayetteville State Univ.
- “The Decline of the Author, the Rise of the Janitor,” David Parry, Univ. of Texas, Dallas
- “Remixing Dada Poetry in MySpace: An Electronic Edition of Poetry by the Baronness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven in N-Dimensional Space,” Tanya Clement, Univ. of Maryland, College Park
- “Right Now: Media Studies Scholarship and the Quantitative Turn,” Jeremy Douglass, Univ. of California, San Diego
For abstracts, links, and related material, visit http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/mla2009 after 1 Dec.
265. Getting Funded in the Humanities: An NEH Workshop
1:45–3:45 p.m., Liberty Ballroom Salon A, Philadelphia Marriott
Presiding: John David Cox, National Endowment for the Humanities; Jason C. Rhody, National Endowment for the Humanities
This workshop will highlight recent awards and outline current funding opportunities. In addition to emphasizing grant programs that support individual and collaborative research and education, this workshop will include information on new developments such as the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities. A question-and-answer period will follow.
268. Lives in New Media
3:30–4:45 p.m., 305–306, Philadelphia Marriott
Presiding: William Craig Howes, Univ. of Hawai‘i, Mānoa
- “Blogging the Pain: Disease and Grief on the Internet,” Bärbel Höttges, Univ. of Mainz
- “New Media and the Creation of Autistic Identities,” Ann Jurecic, Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick
- “‘25 Random Things about Me’: Facebook and the Art of the Autobiographical List,” Theresa A. Kulbaga, Miami Univ., Hamilton
322. Looking for Whitman: A Cross-Campus Experiment in Digital Pedagogy
7:15–8:30 p.m., 410, Philadelphia Marriott
Presiding: Matthew K. Gold, New York City Coll. of Tech., City Univ. of New York
Speakers: D. Brady Earnhart, Univ. of Mary Washington; Matthew K. Gold; James Groom, Univ. of Mary Washington; Tyler Brent Hoffman, Rutgers Univ., Camden; Karen Karbiener, New York Univ.; Mara Noelle Scanlon, Univ. of Mary Washington; Carol J. Singley, Rutgers Univ., Camden
Visit the project Web site, http://lookingforwhitman.org.
338. Beyond the Author Principle
7:15–8:30 p.m., Liberty Ballroom Salon C, Philadelphia Marriott
Presiding: Bruce R. Smith, Univ. of Southern California
- “English Broadside Ballad Archive: A Digital Home for the Homeless Broadside Ballad,” Patricia Fumerton, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara; Carl Stahmer, Univ. of Maryland, College Park
- “The Total (Digital) Archive: Collecting Knowledge in Online Environments,” Katherine D. Harris, San José State Univ.
- “Displacing ‘Shakespeare’ in the World Shakespeare Encyclopedia,” Katherine A. Rowe, Bryn Mawr Coll.
TUESDAY, DECEMBER 29
361. Making Research: Limits and Barriers in the Age of Digital Reproduction
8:30–9:45 a.m., 411–412, Philadelphia Marriott
Presiding: Robin G. Schulze, Penn State Univ., University Park
- “The History and Limitations of Digitalization,” William Baker, Northern Illinois Univ.
- “Moving Past the Hype of Hypertext: Limits of Scholarly Digital Ventures,” Elizabeth Vincelette, Old Dominion Univ.
- “Transforming the Study of Australian Literature through a Collaborative eResearch Environment,” Kerry Kilner, Univ. of Queensland
- 4. “A Proposed Model for Peer Review of Online Publications,” Jan Pridmore, Boston Univ.
413. Has Comp Moved Away from the Humanities? What’s Lost? What’s Gained?
10:15–11:30 a.m., 411–412, Philadelphia Marriott
Presiding: Krista L. Ratcliffe, Marquette Univ.
- “Turning Composition toward Sovereignty,” John L. Schilb, Indiana Univ., Bloomington
- “Composition and the Preservation of Rhetorical Traditions in a Global Context,” Arabella Lyon, Univ. at Buffalo, State Univ. of New York
- “What Composition Can Learn from the Digital Humanities,” Olin Bjork, Georgia Inst. of Tech.; John Pedro Schwartz, American Univ. of Beirut
For abstracts, visit www.marquette.edu/english/ratcliffe.shtml.
420. Digital Scholarship and African American Traditions
10:15–11:30 a.m., 307, Philadelphia Marriott
Speaker: Anna Everett, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara
For abstracts, visit www.ach.org/mla/mla09/ after 1 Dec.
490. Links and Kinks in the Chain: Collaboration in the Digital Humanities
1:45–3:00 p.m., 410, Philadelphia Marriott
Presiding: Tanya Clement, Univ. of Maryland, College Park
Speakers: Jason B. Jones, Central Connecticut State Univ.; Laura C. Mandell, Miami Univ., Oxford; Bethany Nowviskie, Univ. of Virginia; Timothy B. Powell, Univ. of Pennsylvania; Jason C. Rhody, National Endowment for the Humanities
For abstracts, visit http://lenz.unl.edu/mla09 after 1 Dec.
512. Journal Ranking, Reviewing, and Promotion in the Age of New Media
3:30–4:45 p.m., Liberty Ballroom Salon C, Philadelphia Marriott
Presiding: Meta DuEwa Jones, Univ. of Texas, Austin
Speakers: Daniel Brewer, L’Esprit Créateur; Mária Minich Brewer, L’Esprit Créateur; Martha J. Cutter, MELUS; Mike King, New York Review of Books; Joycelyn K. Moody, African American Review; Bonnie Wheeler, Council of Editors of Learned Journals
560. (Re)Framing Transmedial Narratives
7:15–8:30 p.m., Congress A, Loews
Presiding: Marc Ruppel, Univ. of Maryland, College Park
- “From Narrative, Game, and Media Studies to Transmodiology,” Christy Dena, Univ. of Sydney
- “To See a Universe in the Spaces In Between: Migratory Cues and New Narrative Ontologies,” Marc Ruppel
- “Works as Sites of Struggle: Negotiating Narrative in Cross-Media Artifacts,” Burcu S. Bakioglu, Indiana Univ., Bloomington
For abstracts, visit www.glue.umd.edu/~mruppel/Ruppel_MLA2009_SpecialPanelAbstracts.docx.
575. Gaining a Public Voice: Alternative Genres of Publication for Graduate Students
7:15-8:30 p.m., Room 405, Philadelphia Marriott
Presiding: Jens Kugele, Georgetown Univ.
- “Animating Audiences: Digital Publication Projects and Their Publics,” Jentery Sayers, Univ. of Washington, Seattle
- “Blogging Beowulf,” Mary Kate Hurley, Columbia Univ.
- “Hope Is Not a Husk but Persists in and as Us: A Proposal for Graduate Collaborative Publication,” Emily Carr, Univ. of Calgary
- “The Alternative as Mainstream: Building Bridges,” Katherine Marie Arens, Univ. of Texas, Austin
WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 30
625. Making Research: Collaboration and Change in the Age of Digital Reproduction
8:30–9:45 a.m., Grand Ballroom Salon L, Philadelphia Marriott
Presiding: Maura Carey Ives, Texas A&M Univ., College Station
- “What Is Digital Scholarship? The Example of NINES,” Andrew M. Stauffer, Univ. of Virginia
- “Critical Text Mining; or, Reading Differently,” Matthew Wilkens, Rice Univ.
- “‘The Apex of Hipster XML GeekDOM’: Using a TEI-Encoded Dylan to Help Understand the Scope of an Evolving Community in Digital Literary Studies,” Lynne Siemens, Univ. of Victoria; Raymond G. Siemens, Univ. of Victoria
632. Quotation, Sampling, and Appropriation in Audiovisual Production
8:30–9:45 a.m., 406, Philadelphia Marriott
Presiding: Nora M. Alter, Univ. of Florida; Paul D. Young, Vanderbilt Univ.
- “‘We the People’: Imagining Communities in Dave Chappelle’s Block Party,” Badi Sahar Ahad, Loyola Univ., Chicago
- “Pinning Down the Pinup: The Revival of Vintage Sexuality in Film, Television, and New Media,” Mabel Rosenheck, Univ. of Texas, Austin
- “Playful Quotations,” Lin Zou, Indiana Univ., Bloomington
- “For the Record: The DJ Is a Critic, ‘Constructing a Sort of Argument,’” Mark McCutcheon, Athabasca Univ.
643. New Models of Authorship
8:30–9:45 a.m., Grand Ballroom Salon K, Philadelphia Marriott
Presiding: Carolyn Guertin, Univ. of Texas, Arlington
- “Authors for Hire: Branded Entertainment’s Challenges to Legal Doctrine and Literary Theory,” Zahr Said Stauffer, Univ. of Virginia
- “The Digital Archive in Motion: Data Mining as Authorship,” Paul Benzon, Temple Univ., Philadelphia
- “Scandalous Searches: Rhizomatic Authorship in America’s Online Unintentional Narratives,” Andrew Ferguson, Univ. of Tulsa
For abstracts, visit https://mavspace.uta.edu/guertin/mla-models-of-authorship.html.
655. Today’s Students, Today’s Teachers: Technology
10:15–11:30 a.m., 410, Philadelphia Marriott
Presiding: Christine Henseler, Union Coll., NY
- “Ning: Teaching Writing to the Net Generation,” Nathalie Ettzevoglou, Univ. of Connecticut, Storrs; Jessica McBride, Univ. of Connecticut, Storrs
- “Online Tutoring from the Ground Up,” William L. Magrino, Jr., Indiana Univ. of Pennsylvania; Peter B. Sorrell, Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick
- “Using Facebook for Online Discussion in the Literature Classroom,” Emily Meyers, Univ. of Oregon
676. The Impact of Obama’s Rhetorical Strategies
12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., Grand Ballroom Salon K, Philadelphia Marriott
Presiding: Linda Adler-Kassner, Eastern Michigan Univ.
- “Keeping Pace with Obama’s Rhetoric: Digital Ecologies in the Writing Program and the White House,” Shawn Casey, Ohio State Univ., Columbus
- “Classroom 2.0 Connecting with the Digital Generation: Pedagogical Applications of Barack Obama’s Rhetorical Use of Twitter,” Jeff Swift, Brigham Young Univ., UT
- “Obama Online: Using the White House as an Exemplar for Writing Instruction,” Elizabeth Mathews Losh, Univ. of California, Irvine
- “Made Not Only in Words: The Politics and Rhetoric of Barack Obama’s New Media Presidency as a Moment for Uniting Civic Rhetoric and Civic Engagement,” Michael X. Delli Carpini, Univ. of Pennsylvania; Dominic DelliCarpini, York Coll. of Pennsylvania
Respondent: Linda Adler-Kassner
703. Teaching Literature by Integrating Technology
12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., Commonwealth Hall A1, Loews
Presiding: Peter Höyng, Emory Univ.
- “Tatort Technology: Teaching German Crime Novels,” Christina Frei, Univ. of Pennsylvania
- “Old Meets New: Teaching Fairy Tales by Using Technology,” Angelika N. Kraemer, Michigan State Univ.
- “The Role of E-Learning in Excellence Initiatives: Ideal Scenarios and Practical Limitations,” David James Prickett, Humboldt-Universität
Respondent: Caroline Schaumann, Emory Univ.
706. Digital Africana Studies: Creating Community and Bridging the Gap between Africana Studies and Other Disciplines
12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., Adams, Loews
Presiding: Zita Nunes, Univ. of Maryland, College Park
Speakers: Kalia Brooks, Inst. for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts; Bryan Carter, Univ. of Central Missouri; Kara Keeling, Univ. of Southern California
For abstracts, visit www.ach.org/mla/mla09/ after 1 Dec.
710. Frontiers in Business Writing Pedagogy: New Media and Literature Strategies
12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., 308, Philadelphia Marriott
Presiding: James K. Archibald, McGill Univ.
- “New Media and Business Writing,” Harold Henry Hellwig, Idaho State Univ.
- “Bringing Second Life to Business Writing Pedagogy,” R. Dirk Remley, Kent State Univ., Kent
- “The Literature of Business: An Approach to Teaching Literature-Based Writing-Intensive Courses,” Scott J. Warnock, Drexel Univ.
Respondent: Mahli Xuan Mechenbier, Kent State Univ., Kent
For abstracts, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
HNRS 353: Videogames in Critical Contexts
In this Honors Seminar we will study the history and cultural impact of videogames from a number of critical perspectives. As products of a complicated network of social, economic, and technological forces, videogames are dense cultural texts, deeply layered with multiple meanings. Whether we consider early arcade games like Pac-Man or the latest blockbusters for next-gen consoles, we find that videogames reveal much about our cultural values, hopes and anxieties, and assumptions about the world. We will examine a range of genres (interaction fiction, first person shooters, simulations, role playing games, and so on) as we strive to understand both the narrative and formal aspects of videogames. At the same time we will map connections between videogames and their broader social contexts — how games are designed, who plays them and where, and in what ways videogames can be more than entertainment.
Required Texts for HNRS 353:
- Alexander Galloway, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. University of Minnesota Press, 2007.
- Raph Koster, A Theory of Fun for Game Design. Paraglyph, 2004
ENGL 610: Teaching the Reading of Literature
How do we as teachers read literature? How do our students read literature? What is the difference between the two? And how can we teach our students the process of interpretation — of transforming a naive reading of a literary work into a critical reading? This course addresses these questions by considering theoretical approaches to the teaching of literature as well as practical techniques and tools that teachers and students alike can use. Among these strategies we will emphasize the role of writing as a means to deepen students’ understanding of what they read. ENGL 610 is designed for current teachers, those considering careers in teaching, and anyone drawn to the experience of reading and analyzing literature. Most of our course readings are relevant to high school and college English classrooms, but many ideas we consider may be adapted for the teaching of younger readers.
Required Texts for ENGL 610:
- Kyle Baker. Nat Turner. New York: Abrams, 2008.
- Sheridan Blau, The Literature Workshop: Teaching Texts and Their Readers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2003.
- James Paul Gee. What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. 2nd Ed. New York: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2007.
- Mariolina Rizzi Salvatori and Patricia Donahue. The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty. New York: Pearson Longman, 2005.
- Robert Scholes, Nancy Comley, and Gregory Ulmer. Text Book: Writing Through Literature. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001.
The agility afforded by blogging means nothing if you sit on your ideas for months or let half-written posts rot in your draft folder. That’s a lesson I learned today when I discovered a host of recent references to Masahiro Mori’s famous graph of the uncanny valley, mostly in reference to zombies (see posts by Nathan Gale, Ian Bogost, and Fabio Cunctator). I’d been toying with some ideas about the uncanny valley since April and I even had a bit written in July, but I set it aside while I went on to other things. And then boom! — the uncanny valley is everywhere.
I had planned on delving into Freud’s lovely essay on the unheimlich, or the uncanny. I’ll save that for a later date, only mentioning that for Freud, the uncanny was that which “ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light” — in other words, the return of the repressed. Right now, though, I”ll get straight to my own small contribution to the discussion on the uncanny.
Game designers and players talk about the uncanny valley a lot, and thanks to a wooden CG’ed Tom Hanks in Polar Express and TV shows like Thirty Rock, the concept is becoming familiar to even non-gamers. The distilled version of the theory goes like this: the more images or objects resemble humans, the more familiar and comfortable we are with those images or objects. That is, up to a certain point. There is a moment, just before full human semblance is achieved, when the image or object actually becomes unsettling — this is the valley of the uncanny:
Mori derived this theory from his observations about the way some robots (the ones that seemed almost human but not quite) would freak people out while others (the cute ones) would not. What I like about Mori’s graph is that he distinguishes between moving and still objects. Moving objects can seem more lifelike, but by the same token, they plunge deeper into the uncanny valley than a still object, a difference shown on the graph by the space between corpse and zombie. This difference between moving and still objects is something that’s left out of the popular conception of the uncanny valley, where it is usually applied to visual representation, i.e. a kind of cinematic or photorealism. But what about realism in movement? Realism in actions?
So back in April I came up with a separate graph (larger image), intended to help us think through the way actions enacted in a videogame can be uncanny.
On the near side of the graph I used SimCity and The Sims as illustrative games in which the actions of a player bear some resemblance to real world actions, though they are flattened, or to use a more evaluative term, impoverished (in comparison to planning a city in real life or going on a date). But as the simulations move from representation to enactment, the activities become more lifelike. Bounding across the valley, we come to “playing house” as children might do, a simulated activity to be sure, but one that is more faithful to the real world domestic household than a videogame. (And why is it more faithful? That’s a discussion for a later day, but I’d argue it has to do with the objects involved, the real world material things the children play with.)
The question raised by the graph, then, is what kind of simulated actions plunge us into the uncanny valley? Though it’s not a videogame (yet) and it breaks the house metaphor (The German word for uncanny, unheimlich, literally means un-homelike), waterboarding fits the bill as a kind of uncanny simulated activity — so close to real world drowning but, ah, not quite. Back to games, using your WiiMote to saw off the head of a deranged murderer in Manhunt 2 would likely qualify as an uncanny action to many people, gamers and non-gamers alike. But that’s an obvious example. What else might go down in this valley? I’m looking for games in which the bodily motion of the gamer engaged in a simulated activity approaches asymptotically the real world motions of the source activity.
Zombies are great matches for the current level of technology…
And an even more critical question to ask: should designers make games that take us into that valley? Now that we have Wii Remotes and Wii Boards and the Wii MotionPlus, games no longer have to rely on the haptic density of button-mashing. We can and do play games that involve our whole bodies, games that traverse the left side of the graph. My answer is absolutely yes, games should take us into the uncanny valley of action. Whereas the uncanny valley in visual representation is something designers strive to avoid (unless they’re programming zombies, in which case, you want uncanniness, which in my mind accounts for the popularity of zombies in videogames and CG-based movies — zombies are great matches for the current level of technology!) — the uncanny valley is something to strive towards when it comes to motion and action. Discomfiting bodily actions required by future games might have a Brechtian effect on the gamer, exposing what Ian Bogost calls in Unit Operations the “simulation gap” — the “gap between the rule-based representation of a source system and a user’s subjectivity” (107). And the revelation of this gap would not simply be an intellectual realization, but a felt bodily experience, flooding through the entire presence of a person. This is something books can’t do, nor movies. Until we have holodecks, uncanny games may be the best way to understand the physical lives of other people.
This is absolutely stunning: Ian Bogost had his computer science students at George Tech modify Stella, the opensource Atari 2600 emulator, to reproduce the same kind of visual artifacts you would’ve seen when you played the VCS on a CRT television (those big boxy TVs with tubes, for those of you who don’t remember). Their CRT Emulator will soon be a configurable option in Stella.
Now we’ll finally be able to recapture the original experience of playing Yar’s Revenge on your parents’ 19″ Magnovox, minus the wood console.
The crisp image in the bottom half is what we see when we play an Atari 2600 game on Stella now. The top image is what we would have seen playing in the late seventies on a television — and what we’ll soon be able to experience with Stella (Click the image for a larger version).
And here’s a question I’ll be asking my videogame students today: why would degrading the graphics on a game actually be a good thing?
The Passively Multiplayer Online Game has been generating a lot of hype lately. Yesterday I installed the necessary Firefox Extension, “played” for a few minutes, and then decided to uninstall the extension and maybe come back to the game once it gets interesting.
My main objection to the PMOG is this: It tries to make web surfing, which I do for work, fun again. And it attempts to do this by making it like work. Badges? Leveling up? Laying “mines”? Who has the time?
The game will either be interesting months and months from now, when there’s rich, non-time-sensitive activity going on. Or else the game would have been interesting years and years ago (like when you used to use Excite as your search engine) before the web was colonized for profit.
Either way, now is not the right time. At least not for me.