Playing inFamous in New Orleans

This piece originally appeared on First Person Scholar, February 26, 2014.

Advocating for videogames can be paradoxical. Often the very features praised for making videogames a unique and powerful medium are assailed as threatening the public good.

Take for example the oral arguments in the Supreme Court case Brown vs. Electronic Merchant’s Association from November 2010. The state of California argued for the right to impose tighter restrictions on the sale of violent videogames to minors. Since no such restrictions are placed on violence depicted in other protected media forms like cartoons, rap music, film and even Grimm’s Fairy Tales, much of the debate revolved around why videogames require extra provisions. California Deputy Attorney General Zackery Morazzini explained that it is the “interactive nature of violent [games],” in which the player is “acting out this—this obscene level of violence” that makes gaming “especially harmful to minors.” Then, to support his claim that all content being equal, interactivity makes videogames significantly more influential, Morazzini presented “video clips of game play.”

This line of argument seems nonsensical. How was the court to assess these supposedly obscene interactions by watching video clips? Morazzini here takes interactivity for granted: whatever players actually do when they play games—he suggests—we can agree that we don’t want them participating in what we see on-screen.

This is the kind of argument that draws scoffs from the gaming community. Furthermore, it evinces the need for people who know about videogames—developers, critics, players—to speak for them. Thus, as the tragic events at Newtown brought violent videogames back into the public spotlight, exactly how the gaming community should address misconceptions and reductive assumptions about interactive media became an urgent topic of debate.

Yet, the issue here can’t be neatly explained by the ignorance of non-gamers. Even successfully demonstrating the variety of the wonderful things one can do with videogames might not help, for underlying a great many public discussions about videogames—both positive and negative—are similar assumptions about what happens when players engage with virtual environments.


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Xbox is ordinary

This piece originally appeared on MediaCommons, November 18, 2013.

Xbox-One-Reveal

Our discussion of digital media and narrative coincides with the launch of the eighth generation of video game consoles. Microsoft's third console, the Xbox One, will appear on store shelves around the world later this week. It seems appropriate that, as the release of new platforms heralds the next evolution of video game development, we take this opportunity to (re)assess the intersections of digital media and narrative study.

Videogames have long been at the forefront of discussion about digital storytelling. Particularly in the nineteen-nineties, when affordable personal computing, the popularization of the Internet, and the rise of the dedicated gaming console coincided with advances in virtual reality simulation research led to speculation about a version of Hamlet playing on the Holodeck, video games looked like the future of narrative. Whether or in what capacity games have fulfilled those projections is a topic for debate. If Microsoft's own introduction of the Xbox One last May is any indication, there is still a great deal of optimism that video games can capitalize on their narrative potential. And yet, their press event revealed that this optimism still hinges on videogaming's assumed immersivity.

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Inaugeral conference on Games and Literary Theory

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Tomorrow I leave for the first ever International Games and Literary Theory Conference at the University of Malta. My talk expands on the presentation I gave at the Close Playing Roundtable at MLA12, making an explicit connection to mixed realism. I am honored to be presenting on a panel with Espen Aarseth, who more or less founded videogame studies and set the standard for the analysis of electronic literature, and Stuart Moulthrop, who wrote one of the three hypertext fictions widely recognized outside e-lit circles. The conference format looks intense with no consecutive panels, and I’m looking forward to a weekend of talking about games and theory.

Here’s the panel lineup:

Thursday 31st October 2013
Session 4 (16.15 – 18.15): Games. Theory, Borderlines
Chair: Ivan Callus

Ludo-Hermeneutics and the Semiotics and Ontology of Game Objects
Espen Aarseth, IT University of Copenhagen (Denmark)

Sea and Spar and Portals Between
Stuart Moulthrop and Justin Schumaker, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (United States of America)

Incomplete Worlds: Videogames and Metafiction
Timothy J Welsh, Loyola University (United States of America)

Mediated Survivialism in *Fallout 3*

This piece originally appeared on In Media Res, October 9, 2013.

The featured clip from Bethesda Game’s Fallout 3 stages a convergence of the survivalist ethics frequently explored in apocalypse media and the objectivizing logic of digital games. It shows a previously unknown NPC (non-player character) approach the player and ask for help defusing a bomb strapped to his neck. What I find remarkable about this moment—which is only enhanced by the voiceover—is the way this randomly generated encounter attempts to evoke sympathy and the urgency of a moral dilemma, despite the fact that there are no apparent stakes for the player.

Apocalypse media often depicts the breakdown of civil society as a test case for humanist moral codes. Characters facing dwindling resources and mounting dangers must measure their own chance at survival against the value of another’s life. Think the cannibals in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Such harrowing dilemmas speak to the desperation of the end times; yet, similar objective-driven justifications undergird the spectacular violence enacted in numerous video games. Just moments before encountering the human bomb, our featured Fallout player attempted to assault a group of NPCs guarding the abundant resources of a grocery store.

With that as the backdrop, how do humanizing sympathies get mapped on this particular meaningless arrangement of pixels requesting our help? Are video games ideal for playing at the apocalypse because they embody utilitarian, survivalist logics? Or, does the insignificance of virtual characters subvert the game’s attempt to present players with the moral dilemmas of the end times? In the featured clip, does the player’s willingness to jeopardize the non-playable character’s life demonstrate an affinity between the ethical propositions of fictional apocalyptic scenarios and our real mediated condition? Or does his (mild) disappointment at the death of the stranger by his own hand signal the persistence of human sympathies against such dehumanizing logics?