Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Normal gamers in Plato's republic

Plato's Academy (Raphael)

With this post, I'm going to start writing about my experience with, and notions about, adult gamer communities like SeasonedGamers.com (hereinafter SG) and GamerswithJobs.com (hereinafter GWJ). For all intents and purposes, this will probably be a series, too, but I'm getting a little tired of having to put boilerplate at the top of nearly every post I write, so I won't call it a "series."

One thing worth noting about the basic idea, though, is that it continues on from one of my pieces in The Escapist, “Creating the Normal Gamer.” I didn't get to say as much as I wanted to in that piece about what makes these communities special, and a blog seems like an ideal format to sketch out the rest of what I was on about.

Most importantly, this bunch of posts will give me the opportunity to talk about the ancient connection that I couldn't quite work into the original piece. Doing that will in turn give me another point of reference when I bend the Living Epic series back around to talk about community as it really works in gaming culture.

So my basic point in “Creating the Normal Gamer” was that the internet communities where adult gamers hang out are creating a new kind of gamer, a gamer I called, somewhat ironically—though not without a specific purpose—the normal gamer. These gamers hang out in such forums so that they don't have to wade through pages and pages of flames and flame-bait in such places as the official forums of the games they love. The specific purpose of using the phrase “normal gamer” was to express my belief that the reason the adult gaming communities have come together is to create a new version of normality, within their borders. That new version of “the normal” pushes out the legions of gamers who do the things we all don't like. Normality is of course always relative; the very centrality of gaming to our version of normality within places like SG makes us abnormal within most of adult mainstream culture. We don't call the gamers outside our walls “abnormal,” but that's more-or-less the way we treat them.

The classical connection is that Plato, a guy I've been coming to admire more and more since graduate school, a period when I loathed him with a passion that burned hotter than a thousand Helioses, was in my opinion trying to create his own adult gamer community. He was doing that, I think, because he couldn't figure out how else he should deal with the fact that mainstream Athens had decided to execute that original indy gamer--and the designer of Plato's own favorite game, elenchus—Socrates.

Am I actually saying that philosophy was originally a kind of video game (I'd never suggest that modern philosophy is, by the way)? Did you really need to ask?

This is going to take a while, I see, now that I'm this far in. I'm strong, though. I'm not going to call it a series.

If you happen actually to be reading this post, I'd love to hear what the name Plato means to you. The reason I loathed him in graduate school was that I thought he was a philosopher like Kant was a philosopher—you know, incomprehensible. He's not, though. Someday I hope I get a chance to give the “Gaming Plato” course that will serve as a companion to “Gaming Homer,” and tell you (if you're interested) that when Plato seems incomprehensible, that's actually because he's making fun of people like Kant.

So the thing I want to say about SG and GWJ and places like them is that when we hang out there and talk about, well, just about anything, from eschatology to scatology, we're actually doing a kind of philosophy—Plato's kind, the kind where you figure out how to be a good person. I've got a ton of examples to bring to the table, but there's one kind of conversation we have there that makes me think it's really philosophy: the fights we have about cheating. When we discuss whether a certain behavior is or is not something an SGer or a GWJer would do, we're having a dialogue about ethical philosophy, which is where Plato got started.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The bard's role, divided

This is a post in a series expressing the essence of my argument about how video games are actually ancient, how they reawaken the anicent oral epic tradition represented above all by the epics of the Homeric tradition, the Iliad and the Odyssey. The earlier posts can be found in the “Living Epic: The Main Quest” post, linked on the right. Note that this blog is aimed at an audience that includes non-gamers; I apologize for boring the gamers in my audience by going over such things as the basics of game genres, but I hope they might want to see that as an opportunity to print my posts out and give them to their non-gaming parents, teachers, and spouses.

Odysseus and Demodocus

(I’m picking up here directly from the previous post in this series, so if you didn’t catch that one, you might want to skim it before continuing.)

Odysseus, who decides how the story is going to unfold. and Demodocus, who implements that decision, together are analogous to the gamer. Together they represent, in fact, a kind of impossible, ideal perfection of the relationship between bard and audience, wherein the audience knows exactly what they want, and the bard is capable of giving them precisely that. Impossibly until now, that is, for in narrative video games players get to do the fun parts of the bard’s job and get to be the bard’s audience, recipients of the product of the immense techincal skill required to make a game, analogous to the technical skill it took to sing the Odyssey.

There are, however, two crucial remainders from this quotient. First, game-developers are stuck with the difficult, if more rewarding (both spiritually and financially), part of the bard’s job—the use of masterly technical skill to create a mythic backdrop with which to interact to create the story. Second, other people, not playing the game (at that moment, at least), like the listening Phaeacian audience either watch the gamer play the game or hear about his amazing feats later.

They may seem trivial at first, but those two remainders actually are for me the salvation of gaming from the appearance it presents of a basic anti-sociality. Indeed, I think that the communal relationship between developers, gamers, and other gamers (as well as non-gamers like parents and spouses) will in the end bring the mainstream around much more than games like Rock Band and Wii Sports ever could. As much as those great social games of today, and others like them, get played at parties, giving gamers and game companies the opportunity to point to an obviously social practice, I think that only a fuller understanding of what individual gamers are doing in community when they play Shadow of the Colossus or Fallout (or Bioshock or Halo) will demonstrate how social gaming actually is.

The relationship with the game-makers, and the relationship with the other people who aren’t playing on a given occasion but with whom the gamer shares the experience are founded, I’ll show as this mini-series continues, in the experience of immersion. Those relationships, I believe, make gaming a true successor to the ancient epic tradition that played an indispensable part in making our civilization great.

The game-makers, like the bards, have immense technical skill. They know the nuts and bolts of storytelling in their medium backwards and forwards. It doesn’t make the slightest difference that while the ancient bards knew dactylic hexameter, modern developers know anti-aliasing, or C#. That means of course that I’ve been fudging my comparison to this point, leaving the programmers out of it. But I don’t have to fudge anymore: the developer gets his or her glory as another kind of successor to the bard.

The people who watch a gamer game, or read his or her posts on the internet, are exactly like the admiring audience of the bard—the community that bard and other bards form as they tell wonderful, immersive tales. I think if we want to make the comparison come out as well as it can, we should imagine one bard singing to an audience of fellow-bards, because most of the time the gamer is performing for an audience of fellow-gamers. There is much to talk about on this topic, but for now let me point to the communities like Bungie.net where devotees of living epic gather to show their devotion. It’s worth saying, I think, that an individual gamer actually becomes part of his own audience, and the audience of other gamers, on a regular basis—that is, as soon as he stops playing himself and starts thinking about playing.

Next time: communal immersion, ancient and modern.

Friday, July 18, 2008

CVGHV Classroom 2.0 group

I've created a group in Classroom 2.0, a Ning network, for the Center for Video Games and Human Values, here. With any luck, we'll be able to get our virtual community up and running there, before moving it to what will probably be its ultimate home on a UConn server. I'd love to welcome any interested readers of this blog to that group. E-mail me at amphiaraus@msn.com if you'd like an invite.

For more about the center, see here!

Play and the "real world"

Here’s the fourth in the PPP series.

The provisional definition of “performative play practice,” again:
A PPP is an intersubjective performance that takes place in a cultural zone demarcated for play (that is, as not having a direct effect on material circumstances, although that demarcation does not mean in actual reality that material circumstances are unaffected). Within that zone conventions may be and usually are determined by rules analogous to the rules for the setting up of conventions in the misunderstood-as-unzoned "real world."
Now we’re getting to the hard, and interesting, part. It’s also the part that has a great deal to do with the discussion of games and performativity that Ian Bogost opened up recently (see here and here). And it’s the part that I believe really makes games and stories two kinds of the same thing.

The name for it doesn’t really matter very much, since it’s an idea I’m actually talking about rather than a word, but the English word that I think comes closest is “play.” It’s pretty much incidental, but the Latin word that Johan Huizinga chose for his seminal (though I think fundamentally flawed) study Homo Ludens, and which has been adopted by a substantial number of those who study games, ludo, means “play.”

The problem with using “play,” a problem I have to face up to here at the start, is that it’s such a common word that its shades of meaning are nearly infinite. I’m going to have to define it narrowly for my purposes, and use it narrowly, if I’m to make any headway. When I define it, though, I’m going to have to avoid assuming the thing we’re trying to prove—that is, I have to avoid taking for granted that “play” means “games and stories”—although that will be difficult, because I think the best, most useful definition of “play” pretty much is “games and stories.”

Here’s my definition of “play”: any practice understood not to have a direct effect on material circumstances. That is, if people are said to be “at play,” what is meant is that what they are doing, whatever they are doing, isn't going to change what’s going on in the “real world.” (I’m being annoying and putting “real world” in quotation marks because it’s going to be really important when I move further and talk about what we can do with the idea of the PPP that we remember that the “real world” is actually a construct in our heads and the heads of everybody else on earth—the biggest, the infinite Second Life. Or you can call it the Matrix, like the Wachowskis. More on that later, obviously.)

Now if you don’t like that definition of “play,” but you still think this idea that stories and games are two forms of the same thing has merit, there’s an easy work-around: every time I use the word “play,” substitute “understood-not-to-affect-material-circumstances.” It’s not absolutely necessary that we call it “play,” even though using that word links up all sorts of things very nicely—games and theater, for example (remember, “All the world’s a play,” after all).

At any rate, what is essential to what I’m trying propose in the PPP is that for any example of something that we might call a “story” or a “game,” we can either say that it’s understood not to have an effect on material circumstances or that it’s not actually a story or a game.

Before we move to the thorny problems of things that almost certainly are stories or games and yet that do affect material circumstances (such as gambling and world-changing literature like the Iliad), let’s look at the usual suspects:

  • Stopping at a red light: not a game or story; affects your societal status with respect to the law.

  • Reading a newspaper article (let’s say it’s an article about a lander touching down on Mars): not a game or story of the kind we’re interested in; affects your understanding of the material circumstances of the “real world”—that is, what actually happened on Mars.

  • Playing Boom Blox (a puzzle game): game; lacks a direct relationship with the “real world”; note, however, that the player’s hand-eye coordination will, almost certainly, increase in the process of playing the game.

  • Playing Halo: game whose story portrays a completely fictional science-fiction universe; note that in addition to greater hand-eye coordination that results from playing shooters like Halo, one could make (indeed, I have made) an argument that figures in that story are symbolic representations of figures in the real world, like real soldiers and real terrorists.

  • Reading a science fiction novel: story whose fictional world bears no direct relationship to the “real world”; again, though, as in Halo, the story may portray material circumstances of the “real world” in fictional representation.
You can tell that even before we get to the gambling and the world-changing literature, there are problems for saying that PPP’s don’t have “real world” effects. The key, then, is in the words “understood” and “direct” in the definition of the PPP (and of “play”).

Here’s the thing: while you’re stopping at a red light, you understand yourself, and you understand that the people near you are understanding you, as directly affecting the “real world.” If you run that red light, you may well directly collide with another car. When you’re reading a newspaper story, you understand yourself to be reading about actual events, portrayed directly in the words of the article.

While you’re playing Boom Blox, though, you aren’t, at that moment when you are playing that game, doing it because you’re trying to increase your hand-eye coordination. Think of it this way: what’s the difference between an exercise to increase your hand-eye coordination, and a game that does it? Or, why do we have games to teach typing?

I think the answer is that when you’re playing the game, you’re precisely not purposely changing material circumstances in the “real world.” That’s the whole appeal (such as it is) of “edutainment,” right? And it’s the appeal, I believe, at bottom, both of science-fiction and of serious, world-changing literature: because the effect on material circumstances is not direct, is not immediate, we can have that which is only (I think) very inadequately decribed as “fun.”

Above all, I think “fun” is inadequate because what we have is also appropriately called catharsis--but that’s yet another discussion I have to push down the road. Next up in the PPP series: rules and conventions.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The bard's audience: participation and community

This is a post in a series expressing the essence of my argument about how video games are actually ancient, how they reawaken the anicent oral epic tradition represented above all by the epics of the Homeric tradition, the Iliad and the Odyssey. The earlier posts can be found in the “Living Epic: The Main Quest” post, linked on the right. Note that this blog is aimed at an audience that includes non-gamers; I apologize for boring the gamers in my audience by going over such things as the basics of game genres, but I hope they might want to see that as an opportunity to print my posts out and give them to their non-gaming parents, teachers, and spouses.


If the ancient epic bard had the same ability as a gamer to shape the story as he saw fit, to add for example an ambassador to the “Embassy to Achilles,” (see here) what about the bard’s audience? We’ve already seen that Phemius, the bard of Ithaca was, according to the Homeric bard of Odyssey Book 1, looking to sing the song that would please his audience most; that is, an ancient bard had an audience, and that audience had a degree of control over his song. The bard could tell the story as he liked, but he had to worry about whether it would help him make a living, and he was thus part of a larger community of people, all of whom were participating in the creation of the epic.

Isn’t there something here that breaks the comparison between ancient epic and video games? If the bard had to work with his audience, the way, say, a professional storyteller or an improvisational comic does today, doesn’t that mean that the gaming comparison has a fatal flaw, because it doesn’t account for that community element? Isn’t gaming, after all, an isolating activity? If the gamer is like a bard, isn’t he like a bard who never gets to perform, never brings his tales alive? Isn’t gaming, then, the death of the bardic tradition instead of its new life?

You won’t be surprised that I’m going to argue against that point of view. In this post and in the next few posts, I’m going to take my argument about interactivity into new territory. That territory is defined by two key terms that I think are fundamentally, though surprisingly, related: community and immersion. I’m going to show that the living epic model actually uncovers an aspect of gaming that usually gets covered up by what gaming looks like—individual people sitting on couches and desk chairs, wrapped up in moving images on their screens. I’m going to show that instead of dooming my comparison, the matter of the bard’s audience actually makes that comparison absolutely crucial.

I’m going to demonstrate, that is, that video games, through the very immersiveness that makes them look isolating have an amazing power to create communities as strong and constructive as the ones created by ancient epic. To put it simply, the community function of immersion, the way that immersive storytelling like epic and video games creates relationships between artists and audiences, and among audience-members, doesn’t—can’t—go away. That’s why game-companies have had to start hiring community-managers.

More on that part of the equation—the gamers-forming-unstoppable-communities part—later. For now, I want to look at the relationship between the bard and his audience through the myth of the epic tradition, and to begin to compare it with the relationship between game-makers and their audiences, the gamers, through the myths of the games they make.

I think the best way to do that is to go back to the moment in Book 8 of the Odyssey that we looked at in light of the sandbox-to-rails continuum a few weeks ago. In this passage, we find Odysseus, who’s in the audience of the bard Demodocus in the quasi-fantasy land of Phaeacia, investing to an extraordinary extent in Demodocus’ heroic songs. He sends over to Demodocus a really nice cut of meat, and then says to him:
Demodocus I praise you above all mortals.
Either the Muse, daughter of Zeus taught you, or Apollo.
For all too well, in order, you sing the trouble of the Achaeans,
All the things they did and sufered and all the things the Achaeans toiled at,
as if you yourself were there, or heard from another.
But come, change it up, and sing the making of the horse—
the wooden one—the one Epeius made with Athena,
which once heroic Odysseus brought as a trick to the city-center,
having filled it with the men who sacked Troy.
If you tell me this, giving due attention,
immediately I’ll proclaim to all people
that the god willingly awarded you a divine song.
To understand where I’m going to take this passage now, you need to know that when Demodocus sings this song, Odysseus weeps. When Odysseus weeps, the king of the Phaeacians asks him who he is. When Alkinoos asks Odysseus who he is, Odysseus responds (we’ll look at this in detail in a future post) that he was enjoying Demodocus’ song, but, well, OK, he’ll tell his own story if Alkinoos insists. Very, very long story short, Odysseus’ tale is so cool and compelling that the Phaeacians don’t just take him home but also give him, literally, a king’s ransom in gifts to take with him to rebuild his shattered house.

In the passage I quoted, we see Odysseus telling Demodocus exactly what story Odysseus wants to hear, with confidence that Demodocus will do it, and help Odysseus accomplish his more or less propagandistic goal. It couldn’t ever have been like that in real Archaic Greece, but it could sure have been close, if you were a lord with a cut of meat to give. Odysseus uses Demodocus’ technical, bardic skill the way a gamer uses the technical skill of a game-developer, embodied in a game. Odysseus shares the story of his prowess with the Phaeacian audience the way a gamer shares his version of the game-story with other gamers.

It all comes about through immersion. More on that two posts down the line. Next time I’ll say more about how game-makers actually inherit the hard part of the bard’s job while gamers get the fun part.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Center for Video Games and Human Values

The Center for Video Games and Human Values, based at the University of Connecticut, serves as an interdisciplinary nexus for online courses and online scholarly activities like symposia and research fellowships. All these activities are designed to advance our understanding of how video games and their culture can shape our values constructively for the enrichment of society.

I will offer the center's pilot courses, "Living Epic" (a short course for high school teachers and parents) and "Gaming Homer" (an undergraduate credit course) in the winter and spring of 2009. For more information on the courses, click through the links below or contact me at amphiaraus@msn.com

Click through these links to get involved in the center!: Since my friend Michael Abbott is at the Games, Learning, and Society conference this weekend, and has just put up a remarkable post announcing the revolution that’s emerging from the work of James Paul Gee, and since there’s also a story in the New York Times today about how the price of fuel is creating a tipping point for online college education, it seems a felicitous moment to make a relatively formal announcement about what I’ve been putting nearly all my energy into for the last few months.

As a medium that embraces the humanities and social sciences, technology, and the worlds of business and education, video games demand analysis from multiple angles and on multiple levels. We believe that video games have grown to extraordinary cultural prominence without benefit of such a truly interdisciplinary analysis; in particular, video games are a dominant cultural force among students now in the midst of their secondary and post-secondary education, only a few of whose teachers have any understanding of how gaming is shaping their students.

To meet the need for such analysis, the center will offer a slate of online courses aimed at several inter-related groups: high school teachers and parents, and their advanced students, undergraduates in various disciplines, and interested people in the gaming culture, all of whom share a fundamental interest in ensuring that video gaming both increasingly earns the societal respect it deserves and increasingly deserves that respect. In order to address video games in their broad effect on culture and to engage gamers in its discussions, the center will advocate an approach that addresses popular and ambitious games like Halo, Grand Theft Auto, and World of Warcraft, demonstrating for example on the one hand their cultural relationship to Homeric epic and on the other their educational relationship to the way students who play them learn.

The center’s first course will be a two-week online short course for high school teachers and parents in January of 2009, called “Living Epic: Video Games and the Epic Tradition.” An undergraduate credit course, CAMS 3208, will follow in the spring semester, and the center’s first full year of operation will begin in the fall semester of 2009 with several courses offered by the first fellows of the center. My colleagues in this endeavor include Michael Abbott and Jeff Howard, the author of Quests, and if we can make our schedules come out right, Michael and Jeff will offer two of our first courses.

These courses will involve in-game class work, in the form of in-game laboratories and in-game discussions; they will also involve contacts with the people who are creating the games we explore and analyze. To that end, the center is already forming partnerships with developers and publishers; these partnerships will be announced as the kick-off date of the pilot course approaches.

At the same time, the center will provide a (virtual) place for scholarly research and discussion about the relation of video games to values. Fellowships from the center will support individual research projects at the intersection of video gaming and scholars’ own disciplines, while the interdisciplinary nature of the center will provide extraordinary opportunities to strengthen those projects through the cross-fertilization of ideas from other fields. An ongoing virtual symposium, with a guest symposiast from a field such as game development or game journalism, on a topic like “Immersion” or “Character in Games,” will involve contributions from the fellows, their students, and the center’s alumni; the proceedings of this symposium will be compiled and published once a year.

We believe that video games’ greatest innovations in education, business, the social sciences, the humanities, and most of all in games themselves will arise from a deeper understanding of games’ connections among all these disciplines. When scholars and students alike understand these connections better, they will be better prepared to advance the state of gaming as it relates to their own fields.

The center will exist almost entirely online, and we hope to make that online existence at once a place to gather a community of learning and a laboratory for the study of what games are and can be. Using open-source tools like those from Sun Microsystem’s Projects Wonderland and Darkstar, we will create and then build-up a virtual center that will serve as the focus for a growing community of fellows, students, and alumni, to carry on the center’s work of learning both through online teaching and through online discussion.

If you’re interested in enrolling in the center’s course offerings, or want to inquire about applying for one of the center’s first fellowships, please make contact with me at amphiaraus@msn.com. The details of the fellowships in particular are still coming together, and there’s a great deal of room for innovative ideas in how they might work. A formal fellowship application, on the other hand, will probably be available in January.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The zone of play

Here’s the third in the PPP series.

The provisional definition of “performative play practice,” again:

A PPP is an intersubjective performance that takes place in a cultural zone demarcated for play (that is, as not having a direct effect on material circumstances, although that demarcation does not mean in actual reality that material circumstances are unaffected). Within that zone conventions may be and usually are determined by rules analogous to the rules for the setting up of conventions in the misunderstood-as-unzoned Symbolic Order (you can call that reality; I’ll unpack it much further in subsequent posts).

So what do I mean by “cultural zone demarcated for play”? The parenthesis that follows that phrase in the definition begins to describe what I’m talking about, but it also opens up other cans of worms that I’ll have to deal with in future posts. (In fact, the parenthesis has a great deal to with the discussion on performative language that Ian Bogost opened up a couple weeks ago [see here] , and that I’m trying to continue [see here].) I think it will be helpful to step back from the parenthesis and talk about “cultural zone” and “demarcation” before we get to “play” and the parenthesis about play.

By “cultural zone” I mean a metaphoric space that exists in the imagination of all competent members of a society. It’s metaphoric because although it frequently is represented in the real world by things like football fields and Monopoly boards, those tangible real-world objects are in fact secondary to the idea that exists in our heads. That idea is part of our unstated understanding of how our lives work: we know that things like football fields and Monopoly boards are to be found in the world, and we know basically how things like football fields and Monopoly boards work. (By the way, if you’ve ever wondered what the best way to define “ideology” is, here’s my suggestion: the sum-total of our unstated understandings [assumptions, if you want] about the world.)

So I’m saying that it’s not really a space, but that the metaphor of a space is helpful. This metaphoric space doesn’t necessarily have to be a cultural zone of play. One could talk about a great many other kinds of cultural zones as metaphoric spaces in this same way—for instance cultural zones for economic activity, which get represented in the real world as shops; or cultural zones for education, which get represented in the real world as classrooms.

The reason I think it’s useful to bring the term “cultural zone” to bear on games and stories is that I think the two share a cultural zone. That’s where the demarcation for play comes in, because I think it’s the practice of demarcating zones of play that makes both games and stories happen, and I think the practice is the same for both of them, even though the two are usually thought of as being separate practices: 1) the practice of playing or watching a game; 2) the practice of telling or receiving a story.

Here are the examples I gave in the last post in the series:
  • Stopping at a red light

  • Reading a newspaper story (let’s say it’s a story about a lander touching down on Mars)

  • Playing Boom Blox (a puzzle game)

  • Playing Halo

I was remiss in that post in not supplying an example of storytelling, so let me add one more:

  • Reading a science fiction novel

Each of the five examples takes place in a cultural zone demarcated as appropriate to the specific practice (you, your car, and the road-system; your head and the newspaper; your head, your hands, a game-console, and a monitor; your head and the text of the novel). The games and the novel, though, take place in zones that share one very important characteristic: the actions that take place within them are understood not to have any direct impact upon the world outside the zone.

I have a feeling that you’re thinking of counter-examples by the ton. If I’m right, you’re probably thinking first and foremost of “serious” fiction and the like, whose authors intend to make you think and to persuade you to change your outlook on the world. When I return to the PPP, though, I’m going to suggest that such examples actually demonstrate the truth of the basic concept of the zone of play; that, indeed, those real-world effects depend on arising in a zone understood to lack direct impact on the world outside it.

Teaser: by “understood,” I don’t mean “understood correctly.”

The series continues in "Play and the 'Real World'."

Monday, July 7, 2008

The mysterious dual: the smoking gun of epic interactivity

This is a post in a series expressing the essence of my argument about how video games are actually ancient, how they reawaken the anicent oral epic tradition represented above all by the epics of the Homeric tradition, the Iliad and the Odyssey. The earlier posts can be found in the “Living Epic: The Main Quest” post, linked on the right. Note that this blog is aimed at an audience that includes non-gamers; I apologize for boring the gamers in my audience by going over such things as the basics of game genres, but I hope they might want to see that as an opportunity to print my posts out and give them to their non-gaming parents, teachers, and spouses.


When we last left Achilles, he was sitting in his tent refusing to fight, because Agamemnon took his girlfriend away. Meanwhile, Achaean warriors (that’s Achilles’ team; the word “Greek” isn’t really an accurate way to describe them) have been dying in large numbers. That’s the situation when Book 9 starts.

In Book 9 as we have it, bad old Agamemnon sends to the tent of Achilles three “ambassadors” in what’s been called forever after the “Embassy to Achilles”: Ajax (strongest of the Achaeans), Odysseus (smartest of the Acheans), and Phoenix (old friend of Achilles). When they get to Achilles’ tent, each of those ambassadors gives a speech about why Achilles should accept Agamemnon’s offer and come back to the fighting. It makes sense, and it builds to a very nice crescendo in the speech of Phoenix, after which, from an ethical point of view, the audience is in a lot of suspense about what Achilles should do, despite being in no suspense at all over what he will do.

But there’s this one facet of the episode (which, just to remind you of what I said a couple weeks ago, probably would have made a perfect tale to sing in an evening’s epic entertainment 2800 years ago) that doesn’t really make much sense at all: there are these famous dual forms, which seem, in Iliad 9, to refer to two ambassadors rather than the three we actually have.

What the heck is a dual form? Well, some languages have a special ability that English has almost entirely lost, to talk about two, and only two, things at a time. (English does have a vestige of it in our usage of “both,” which can refer only to two things at a time.) The dual is mostly useful for talking about eyes and hands and such, but occasionally it gets a workout in other circumstances, and Book 9 is one of those. Several times, despite our having three ambassadors, the version of Book 9 that we have, in the original Greek at least, speaks, for example, of how “the ambassadors both went along the shore.”

Those forms suggest very strongly that going so far as to add an ambassador and his speech was within the scope of possible improvisatory change by the bards of the Iliad. To spell out what seems very likely to have happened these thousands of years ago: one bard came up with a story about how Agamemnon sent Ajax and Phoenix, and used the dual number, because he was singing a tale about two ambassadors. Then, another bard, having heard the story as sung by the first bard, or perhaps having been a student of the first bard, decided to sing a different version of the same story. Whether as a tribute to the first bard, or because certain phrases had become basically unchangeable, or perhaps simply because it was allowable, and didn’t matter very much, this second bard retained the dual forms despite his innovation of the third ambassador, Odysseus. (The reasons for thinking that Odysseus is the addition rather than Phoenix or Ajax are complicated and not relevant here in the blog right now, though I think they will be soon; feel free to ask in comments, though!)

The bard of Book 9 of the Iliad, as we have it, that is, improvised very significantly in the story. I want to suggest now that that kind of improvisation has a very strong correlation to a kind of improvisation that may at first seem completely different: the improvisation engaged in by the player of an adventure video game.

If you’re a gamer, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. If you’re not a gamer, though, it’s not easy to make clear precisely what I mean on the page, because I’m talking about something books, and movies, just don’t do, but I’ll give it my best shot. Imagine you’re playing Halo (the one about the space marines fighting the religious fanatic aliens). Another of those cutscenes (little movies) has just ended, and the Captain has given you his pistol and told you to find your way to an escape pod and get off the ship. As the movie-type stuff ends, you head out the door, and immediately face a group of aliens who want to kill you. It would be fair to say that the game really begins here, for several reasons, the most important perhaps being that this game is a “shooter,” and this is the first time you actually get to fire a weapon.

Now from the very first moment, you have a great degree of control over what you do (that is, what your character does) in the game. You can choose whether to shoot, and which enemies to shoot. You could play the next minute of the game over an infinite number of times, and no two enactments would be exactly the same.

This facet of adventure video games, the decisive role of player improvisation, arises in their famous, controversial “interactivity.”

My own definition of “interactivity” is “permitting a person to participate in, through a measure of control over, the relevant experience.” (A more basic definition is “accepting user input”; that basic one is completely compatible with mine, I think, but not robust enough for the purposes of the kind of analysis I want to do here.)

If we’re to understand the importance of interactivity, I think we really have to see that the reason for interactivity’s seizing the cultural imagination is not that cultural activities weren’t interactive before—take sports, for one very graphic example, where user input is most certainly accepted—but that certain cultural practices that were previously not noticeably interactive (books, movies, TV) suddenly developed a much greater interactive capacity. Video gaming, to repeat, is the most obvious result, because entertainment, simply put, catches the eye and the imagination more readily than more purely informational practices like browsing a library.

But the trouble with declaring that interactivity is a new thing when it comes to entertainment and information is that it’s not true. The bards of the Iliad were exercising the same control over their mythic material when they came up with the remarkable statement of self-sufficiency that Achilles makes in Book 9 of the Iliad. The story of the “Embassy to Achilles” was itself an interactive improvisation and an interactive recomposition upon the existing theme of the “Wrath of Achilles.” The story of the “Wrath of Achilles” was a recomposition of the story of “The War at Troy.” In the other direction, the moving words of Achilles were almost certainly an improvisation upon the existing theme of “The Embassy to Achilles.”

It’s probably worth noting, given recent discussions on this blog (see here and here), that I don’t think it makes sense even to say that traditional books and films aren’t interactive. The decisive effect brought about by the audience of any work upon that work’s ultimate meaning should make us speak rather of different kinds and degrees of interaction than of interactive and non-interactive media. (Marie Laure-Ryan’s book Narrative as Virtual Reality [here] is at its best on this topic.)

Next time: if the bard is the gamer, what’s the bard’s audience?

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Who’s the author of a video game? (In response to comments on my post “On the profundity of Halo and Bioshock” (4))

You can find the comments appended here. It seems like a good idea to attempt to summarize individually and then respond individually to what I see as the central points made by those who have my gratitude for taking the time to read my own arguments with attention, however harshly they chose to respond. I think I have good reason to hope that my interlocutors will correct with some rigor any misrepresentation on my part. The nature of the blog form (which I happen to think is in no way inferior to the scholarly-article form or even the scholarly-monograph form, forms that tend towards the insufferably self-indulgent) leads me to divide my response across a few different posts, of which this is the fourth (the first may be found here, the second here, and the third here). I invite my interlocutors to engage me on each heading separately, in the interest of clarity of discussion.


Finally, I think we have to outline, at least, a discussion on authorship and video games.

5. The problem of the identity of the artist: player or developer?

Film studies is well known for the famous debate usually referred to as the “auteur debate.” Put very briefly, the central question was “Does (or should) a film have an author?”

The reason to ask the question with respect to film is that most of the time, there are a lot of people involved in the making of a single film. The two sides of the auteur debate were the people who thought it was a good thing to spread authorship around (they were the Hollywood types) and the people who thought it was better to have films controlled by a single vision (they were above all the French filmmakers of the 50’s and 60’s) as much as possible.

The old auteur debate has nothing on the problem of authorship (or, if you will, “artistship”) in video games, because instead of just debating whether Ken Levine did (or should) have complete control over, and should get all the credit for, Bioshock, there arises in the case of video games the question of whether the player has a role in the creation of the art.

The foundation of the debate remains the same, though—the notion, espoused by Grey in the comments to my original post, that true beauty (or artistry, or profundity, or whatever else you like to find in your aesthetic experiences) can arise only when a single composer (let’s use that word instead of “author” and “artist”) has the opportunity to communicate his ideas to his audience through the medium of a work of creative production (call it “art,” if you want). If the audience is somehow able to change the composition of the work, according to this model, the composer’s ideas may not be communicated as they should be, and true beauty may not arise.

I find that notion to be an interesting fiction—a fiction that can be very helpful both for a composer and for an audience from time to time. I don’t think there can be any doubt that great works of art have emerged from it.

But I would maintain very strongly that it is a fiction for all that. Composers have decisive effects on the interpretation of their works, but audience members have even more decisive effects, because they’re the ones who get to say what it meant to them and to their communities. (There are theoretical ways to talk about this topic, above all the century-old idea of the “intentional fallacy,” but there’s no need to bring them in to understand the matter.)

And when we contemplate much more complex, and much livelier, models of composition like ancient epic and video game, I think we see that trying to make the composer a controller of ultimate meaning, and to base one’s standard of beauty and profundity around that control, is unlikely to produce art that takes advantages of those models’ unique affordances. It seems to me, that is, that trying to argue that the best aesthetic experiences to be had in games come about through a conventional idea of authorship makes games into (weak?) imitations of written forms like novel.

Here’s another place where I strongly believe a comparison with ancient forms like epic and tragedy can be really helpful. Particpatory art can probably be forced to produce the same kind of deep meaning to be found in non-particpatory art, but I’m of the opinion that it realizes its potential more greatly, and does more for us and our civilization, when composers embrace the opportunity to allow players to participate in the creation of the art.

I think, actually, that that’s what Ken Levine did in Bioshock, because the moment of having to kill Andrew Ryan makes sense only in contrast to the interactivity the player has been allowed to enjoy elsewhere in the game, which in turn creates (in my opinion) a deep meaning that exists between the individual player’s individual choices and the composer’s control.

To make an analogy back to ancient epic one more time, Ken Levine's contribution is mostly like the pre-existing, immutable (though in actual fact slowly-changing-over-time) mythic story, while the player is mostly like the bard (and also like the audience, but we’ll talk about that some time down the road). The analogy is not exact, and that's one of the reasons I find it so exciting, because it means there's a lot of work still to be done. Game developers clearly get to do a lot of the work of the bard as well, in creating the game world and in defining certain crucial apsects of the interaction. But it’s in the interaction itself that I think some of the most profund (and the less profound) meanings of ancient epic arose, like the (non) Choice of Achilles, and will arise also in video games.

Is this the only way for epic, or games, to achieve true beauty? Of course not. It’s a pretty cool way, in my opinion, though.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Noted: Ian Bogost on performativity in games

It’s taken me a while to get to this one, because I was away and because the subject is so important to me and so germane to what I’m doing with the concept of the PPP (performative play practice [see here]) that I had to spend some time on this note.

My own use of the word “performative” comes, like Ian’s, from the work of JL Austin on what Austin was the first to call “speech acts.” A speech act is an utterance that does something, rather than saying something. The classic example is saying “I do” at your wedding (as long as that’s what you’re supposed to say to get married in the ceremony you’re using, and you’re doing it at the right moment in the ceremony). Speech acts aren’t true or false; instead, they’re felicitous or infelicitous—they work or they don’t work; you get married or you don’t get married.

Seems pretty simple, but Austin himself recognized, and later critics began to demosntrate in ever more complex ways, that the line between speech acts and utterances that aren’t speech acts (to use Austin’s terms, “performative utterances” and “constative utterances”) is pretty much non-existent. Even with the classic “I do,” there’s a component of true/false constativity—is it true, for example, that you are going to support your spouse in sickness and in health?

Ian’s piece in Gamasutra (here) is as I understand it an argument that one thing games can do is affect the real world. He gives several examples of different ways that happens, including the Pain Station and Cruel 2 B Kind. Ian would seem to call it peformative play whenever a game has an effect on something outside the game, whether a player’s nervous system or random passersby who are serenaded on the misimpression that they are playing the same game as the serenader.

Here’s where I part company from Ian pretty dramatically. Although I think it’s absolutely fascinating to think about how symbolic actions taken inside the zone of play can affect material circumstances in the “real” world outside the zone of play (which is how I would characterize what Ian is doing), I have to say that I don’t think that it’s in the spirit of Austin and those who followed him in the study of performative utterances to call those phenomena “performative.” If I’m reading Ian’s piece correctly, he’s saying that any time something inside the game causes an effect outside the game, it’s performative. My own reading of Austin and the other speech-act theorists suggests that performativity in any sign-system (for instance, spoken language or the visual, auditory, and interactive language of video games) depends entirely on the cultural context to supply the necessary distinction between felicity and infelicity. That is, for an act of signification to be performative, it must be recognized as a performative practice within the relevant culture. If you say “I do” outside a wedding ceremony, you’re not going to get married.

My own view is that the performative involved in gaming is for instance “I engage in this practice which is called Pong.” If a group of people were standing around me, they would recognize my playing of Pong as felicitous if I were in fact playing Pong, and infelicitous if for instance my TV weren’t working. If the game were configured so that a lightning bolt shot out of the TV and killed a bystander when I scored a point, it wouldn’t be performative, it would be manslaughter. The only performativity involved would be that I was playing a game of Pong that produced the death of a bystander—a kind of game that would be recognized within culture as entirely infelicitous as a play practice.

The reason I call my theoretical construct “performative play practice” is precisely that the play involved, which I would argue produces both games and stories, is recognized within culture as having the necessary cultural authority to create a zone of play (what Huizinga, as Ian points out, called an “act apart”). The felicity of that practice—that is, whether it is recognized as performative or not so recognized—depends only on whether society recognizes the occasion I have chosen as one that’s appropriate for performative play. In my view, that has nothing to do with any “real world” effect my play might have.

So my objection to Ian’s piece is I suppose that I want to keep the concept of performativity for the relationship of games to the other practices of culture, rather than to what I would seek to characterize as tangential effects of games upon phenomena outside the game. In the case of the Pain Station, my own view is that players’ bodies are conscripted as abstract signifiers inside the zone of play; in the cases of Cruel 2 B Kind and World Without Oil my own view is that the “real world” effects of the games are actually part of the reception of the games, and have nothing to do with their performativity as games.

On the other hand, I would see Gwap, incidentally, as the most interesting case, because I agree with Ian that it’s actually infelicitous as a game—that is, given a full understanding of its mechanics, culture I believe would not recognize it as being a game at all.

I finally want to thank Ian deeply for bringing the matter up, and I hope the community will take up the matter of performativity in games as a topic of discussion.

Are choice and interactivity enemies? (In response to comments on my post “On the profundity of Halo and Bioshock” (3))

You can find the comments appended here. It seems like a good idea to attempt to summarize individually and then respond individually to what I see as the central points made by those who have my gratitude for taking the time to read my own arguments with attention, however harshly they chose to respond. I think I have good reason to hope that my interlocutors will correct with some rigor any misrepresentation on my part. The nature of the blog form (which I happen to think is in no way inferior to the scholarly-article form or even the scholarly-monograph form, forms that tend towards the insufferably self-indulgent) leads me to divide my response across a few different posts, of which this is the third (the first may be found here, the second here). I invite my interlocutors to engage me on each heading separately, in the interest of clarity of discussion.


Now we come to a set of comments that I think have more to do with the claims I was trying to make in the original post:

4. The matter of choice vs. interactivity.

The reason I think these comments start to get to the heart of the matter of the kind of profundity I was talking about is that I think that profundity arises specifically in relation to interactivity and player choice. I argued that the removal (or the simple absence) of player choice, when it stands in a meaningful relationship to the action and themes of the story being told, is capable of producing an artistically gratifying depth of meaning. The two examples I gave were the handling of the necessity of killing Andrew Ryan in Bioshock and the necessity of getting your warthog (jeep) to end of the level “The Maw” in Halo.

I may at some point decide to get into the literary, philosopical, anthropological, sociological, and psychological problem of “artistically gratifying depth of meaning” in this blog, but this isn’t the moment to do that. For now, it’s a way to unpack (slightly) the word “profundity,” which I said a couple posts ago probably needs to be put down to taste. To repeat a bit, two things I’m definitely not saying are 1) that Halo and Bioshock are more profund than any other work, whether a game or an epic or something else; or 2) that the specific effect of profundity I’m identifying is the only, or even the best, way for games (or anything else) to bring about an artistically gratifying depth of meaning.

Two commenters to the original post, Grey and J1M, had a very interesting debate about what the most important affordance of games for narrative actually is. (Sorry about the word “affordance,” but once you start using it you’ll find that you’ve needed it in your vocabulary your whole life.) J1M maintained that it’s player choice, giving the examples of Fallout and Deus Ex, where player choices can affect the course of the story to a very great degree. Grey maintained that it’s interactivity, giving the example of Shadow of the Colossus, where the player’s relationship with the horse Agro is created by the player’s actual physical interaction with the game in controlling Agro. J1M countered that interactivity has in the end really no more potential than the infamous “fart button” in Fable. Grey countered that real player choice denies the game-developer the authorial control that alone can create profundity.

(That last bit from Grey will lead me on in the next post to talk about the identity of the artist, so I’m going to bracket that aspect of the question for the moment.)

Here’s my take, partly from ancient epic and partly from game-play. If interactivity can in fact be defined the way I defined it in the last post, as “permitting a person to participate in, through a measure of control over, the relevant experience,” choice is simply that kind of interactivity that has a decisive effect on the course of the story. That is, at one end of the spectrum you have the fart button; at the other end you have the multiple endings of Fallout (and, to a lesser degree [perhaps much lesser]) Mass Effect and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.

The question of meaning arises over the functioning of such interactivity in relation to the rest of the story. The fart button’s only meaning (as far as I can tell) is that the hero of Fable is real enough to be flatulent. I wouldn’t call that profound, but YMMV. The player’s relationship to Agro in Shadow of the Colossus is IMHO much more meaningful. The meaning of the choices in Fallout is perhaps no greater, but certainly very different. All those meanings arise out of interactivity.

All those effects of profundity seem to me to have strong and interesting analogues in the practice of ancient epic. The fart button is like the kind of running joke one finds in Homer (for instance the extreme old-age of Nestor), which the bard could either bring in or leave out; the relationship to Agro is like the bard’s relationship to Patroclus, Achilles’ best friend (who like only two other characters, and for reasons that we still can’t agree upon, is addressed in the second person from time to time); the real, story-making choices are like such game-changing Homeric elements as the Shield of Achilles, which must originally have been the work of one bard with a yen to shake things up.

My only point in relation to the preceding, with respect to Halo and Bioshock, is that the meaning I identified in them can be added to the list. All these profundity effects have a place, I think, in games; their use in individual games will only get more refined (even the fart button) as the medium develops.

Back next time with “Who’s the real artist? Is there a real artist? Does it really matter?” Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Noted: Martin Herink on cutscenes

Martin Herink has an interesting piece (here) at Gamasutra about the "problem of the cutscene," a problem which he's seeking to redefine: instead of debating whether cut-scenes should stay or go, Herink argues, we should be talking about how they work from a formal point of view. Designers should think about certain cinematic aspects of cutscenes when they produce them, and critics should think about those same aspects of film-language when interpreting the games they're part of.

The piece is couched in language that's too self-consciously scholarly for my taste, but if you're interested in the sandbox-to-rails continuum (like me, here), it's definitely worth a read. Certainly Herink is right that cutscenes aren't the enemy; rather their use and production needs to develop in the same way that film-language developed (cf. Michael Abbott's great post on Griffith and Kojima, here), just like the rest of the art of the video game. I suspect that as that art moves forward, cutscenes will dwindle in number, but grow in significance.

One of Herink's most interesting points is that cutscenes are by nature contemplative, while "regular," interactive gaming is kinetic. I don't entirely agree that the distinction makes sense when framed that way, since I believe in a continuum between the two. On the other hand, I think there's a really interesting comparison to be made with the way certain sections of ancient epic (a feast scene, for instance) would have been almost entirely the same from bardic occasion to bardic occasion (like cutscenes), while others would have involved a great deal of improvisation upon and interaction with the existing story on the part of the bard, and with him his audience.

May we compare video games to non-interactive media? In response to comments on my post “On the profundity of Halo and Bioshock” (2)

You can find the comments appended here. It seems like a good idea to attempt to summarize individually and then respond individually to what I see as the central points made by those who have my gratitude for taking the time to read my own arguments with attention, however harshly they chose to respond. I think I have good reason to hope that my interlocutors will correct with some rigor any misrepresentation on my part. The nature of the blog form (which I happen to think is in no way inferior to the scholarly-article form or even the scholarly-monograph form, forms that tend towards the insufferably self-indulgent) leads me to divide my response across a few different posts, of which this is the second (the first may be found here). I invite my interlocutors to engage me on each heading separately, in the interest of clarity of discussion.


The next heading represents a charge to which I have to plead “No contest”:

3. The charge of comparing video games to non-interactive media

I’m not pleading “Guilty,” because ancient epic, I am arguing in this blog, was in fact interactive. But it would be disingenuous, and would beg the question (in the true sense of assuming that which must be proven), to leave it at that, because the interactivity I’m talking about in the case of ancient epic isn’t necessarily immediately apparent to the modern gamer (or non-gamer).

I’ve got a bunch more to say on this topic as “Living Epic—the Main Quest” (to be found here) continues, but I think a focussed answer in this context will be quite helpful. Moreover, I think it will lead nicely into the next heading, Choice vs. Interactivity (to anticipate, I’m going to be arguing that choice in narrative games is actually a type of interactivity, and that the apparent conflict isn’t actually there).

So the meat of my response is going to be that although I’m not in fact guilty of the charge, the way in which I’m not guilty is complicated enough that it makes sense not to fight it, but rather to stand partly on the very firm cultural ground that cross-media comparisons cannot be called bad or wrong simply because they cross the lines between media. In classics we make comparisons of epic and tragedy to vase-painting all the time. It’s fun. You ought to try it. If you do try it, and don’t like it; or even if you leave it there on your intellectual plate like so many brussels sprouts, that’s fine with me, though I’d suggest that simple courtesy would urge that you not spit on the brussels sprouts.

Much more important, though, is the specific comparison I’m making, and I suspect that it’s actually the content of the comparison that caused several commenters to reject it with a blanket repudiation of cross-media comparison. What I think commenters on this topic are implying is that they don’t believe me when I say that any other medium besides games is or was in fact interactive.

Adequate definitions of “interactivity” are almost as hard to come at as those of “profundity,” but let me propose one: “permitting a person to participate in, through a measure of control over, the relevant experience.” I have a feeling this is going to be the thing we argue over the most. (If you’re going to argue with me about this topic, I’d love to hear your definition of interactivity—it would be great to have a few to put up against each other.)

If that’s an adequate definition of “interactivity,” the question becomes “Was ancient epic interactive?” Oral formulaic theory (see above all the work of Albert Lord) tells us that the bards made up the tales they were singing as they went along. If that’s not interactive, I don’t know what is—not only for the bard, but also for his audience, who have the chance to influence the way the bard tells the story. I know, though, that you may very well want to argue precisely that—that I don’t know what interactive is.

If you grant me that interactivity, though, the next question is whether that interactivity is susceptible of a comparative analysis that helps us understand epic or games or ourselves or all those things better? I submit that it is, for several reasons:

  • 1) the content of narrative games and ancient epic is also similar, suggesting things we can say about the basic functioning of interactive stories across cultures;

  • 2) very few people think epic was bad, but a lot of people think video games are bad;

  • 3) very few people think ancient epic was bad because it was interactive, but a lot of people think video games are bad because they’re interactive;

  • 4) on the other hand, certain Athenians (notably Plato) did think epic was bad, in large part because it was interactive, and a look at their criticisms, and other ancients’ (like Aristotle’s) criticism of their criticism is a way into a fun new conversation about gaming;

  • 5) epic creates artistic effects that some of us would like video games to attempt;

  • 6) it’s just damn cool to think about how new stuff isn’t really new, and it causes us to appreciate and understand our own culture much more.

See you next time, for the one about choice and interactivity (here)! Thanks for reading.