Populating San Andreas with #CCSWG12

For the next three weeks I am participating in the Critical Code Studies Working Group. An online forum conference, CCSWG brings together 70 panelists in a variety of fields to develop methodologies for reading — as Mark Marino put it in the opening charge — “the extrafunctional significance of computer source code.” Each participant was asked to contribute a “code critique,” or selection of code to deconstruct as a group. Below is the context and provocation I posted for my submitted source code, which seeks a model of “ideological code critique” through reading Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

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Context

In “Making Sense of Software“, Ted Friedman explains that “computer games, like all other texts, will always be ideological constructions.” Using SimCity as an example, he goes on to point out that “simulations which seek to explain ‘how the world works,’ in fact, would seem to have the honesty of announcing their ideological status.” From this perspective, playing a video game is a process of “demystification,” where by trial and error players discover “how the software is put together.” It seems to me that Critical Code Studies takes can engage in this demystification more directly, accessing and analyzing the software itself. So, for my Code Critique, I would like to set up an opportunity for us to develop modes of ideological critique based on ‘reading’ code.

Those who have followed videogame studies likely know the vexed position of ideological critique within the discipline. To put it very succinctly, traditional ideological critique has been figured as dependent on representational structures and, thus, is unable to address videogaming’s core rule-based, algorithm-based, code-based nature. Alexander Galloway spells out this argument in Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, when he argues that representational critique of a game like Civilization III ignores the game’s informatic treatment of identity. As we pursue this informatic core, I’m wondering if and how critical code studies might reformulate approaches to social and political critique.

Critique

The example code I’d like to work with is Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (GTA:SA). A playable version of Boyz n the Hood, GTA:SA has been roundly criticized for its portrayal of inner city minority communities, codifying, for example, the stereotype of the violent black male (see several essays by David Leonard). I have often found such critiques lacking because they typically stay on the level of narrative and visual representation, rarely addressing gameplay and never considering code or platform. So, I thought it would be productive to look underneath the cut-scene portrayal of San Andreas to see what Friedman would call the “ideological construction” of the game at the code level.

GTA:SA is a sandbox-style game, which means it sets up a pretty extensive open virtual world in which to play. The game takes place in three full cities, caricatures of Los Angeles (San Andreas), San Francisco (San Fiero), and Las Vegas (Las Venturas), which are connected by a series of freeways through countryside and desert. It is well populated, with demographics changing depending on area and time of day. In its way, the game constitutes a representation of social life in the US, a simulation, though farcical, of “how the world works.”

Questions for the forum:

  • To what degree can we read world-generating code as constituting ideological assumptions? What is gained or lost in doing so?
  • To what degree does code and coding itself rely on logics of representation? Can we see that expressed in the code of GTA:SA?
  • What assumptions does the code generating San Andreas make about social life in America? In a game as satirical as GTA, how are we to take those assumptions?
  • What can a critical code study of GTA tell us about constructions of race, class, gender, and sexuality in what Galloway calls our algorithmic culture? Is it solely informatic identity or does a code critique reveal other formations?

Just a story: Video gaming and Metafiction

Last week I participated in the Close Playing Roundtable at MLA 2012. It was a great experience, successfully flipping the orientation of most panels to generate a sustained and productive discussion on the state of video game studies. Below is the short provocation I presented.


Though we might intuitively assume we gain access to the virtual world of Ubisoft’s Prince of Persia: Sands of Time through the playable character of the Prince, close playing reveals that the game’s narrative structure denies players that role.

When Farah dies, the Prince uses his magic dagger to reverse time to before their adventure begins — erasing all the events that transpire during gameplay. He then rushes to Farah’s room to tell her the story of the erased events so that he might stop the evil Vizier’s plot before it begins. The opening lines of his story, delivered as the camera pans back to a view of Farah’s window, recall the game’s starting sequence, indicating that our play-through — punctuated and contextualized by voiceovers and cutscenes – is an iteration of the Prince’s tale. But if our playable character was telling a story the whole time, what were we doing? When we press buttons to interact, do we affect a fight with sand monsters or a detailed description of such a fight?

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Our presumed role as the Prince becomes irrecoverable when his voiceovers respond to non-diegetic events. If we initiate the quit-game sequence, for example, the narrator Prince implores: “Do you wish me to leave before finishing my story?” Within the context of the narrative, however, the prince’s story is urgent; he certainly would not propose to leave. We were the ones who moved to cut the story short, literally initiating an interrupt by pressing the pause button. The Prince’s response – As you wish — thus places us as his audience – Farah.

But we cannot take Farah’s role either. The game’s plot revolves around the interpersonal drama of two enemies who must trust one another, which manifests in gameplay as platform puzzles that arise from the need to accommodate the limitations of both characters so that they may progress together. It is thus essential that the AI-controlled Farah be other and outside the playable role.

 

So, if we are not the Prince and we are not Farah, how are we positioned to interact with this virtual world?

For the majority of videogame study’s short history, the response to the internal contradictions like these has been to subsume narrative — and with it literary approaches— to material elements such as rules, code, and hardware. As Jesper Juul explains in Half-Real, gaming’s “incoherent worlds” eventual return us to more “real” levels.

But what if the issue is not — to quote Juul — the “flickering, provisional, and optional way” games present narrative? What if the problem is the model of narrative typically applied to gaming? After all why should we expect a work of contemporary fiction to offer its audience stable access to the story? Multiple, nested, layers, internal incoherence, self-reference, and second person address are frequent features of the last one hundred years of literary fiction at least. I would in fact go so far as to suggest that the audience position offered to players of narrative-based games would be incomprehensible if not for decades of such metafictional techniques. What, then, would it mean to think about videogames as contemporary literary practice?

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In response to objections that post-WW2 metafiction did not abandons representational coherence, Linda Hutcheon argued for reworking mimetic traditions. Rather than a self-contained product, she claims metafiction stages a process, offering readers a new role as participants in unfolding, contingent narratives. Sound a bit like gaming? For Hutcheon, however, this role implies a contradiction. Metafiction is forthright about its status as artifice, yet requires non-trivial effort that prompts significant “intellectual and affective responses.” The idea that something known to be “artificial” could be the source of actual life experience seems paradoxical.

But that was before we all had Internet on our mobile phones.

In today’s wired culture, Hutcheon‘s paradox is a way life. Telepresent interactions in cyberspaces, material effects of virtual objects, media-dependent applications and environments — all support significant and, just as importantly, banal “processes of life.” To paraphrase Edward Castronova, our culture has moved beyond the point where distinguishing between synthetic and real experiences is helpful.

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I submit that a videogame studies informed by metafiction would look to reveal the ways in which the artifice of gaming prompts and participates in the “life processes” of wired culture. Players engage the virtualities of game fictions — not primarily as vicarious visitors to alternate realities — but as media users, for whom many everyday practices involve “artificial” environments. The concept of metafiction can help cut across arbitrary ontological boundaries separating on-screen and off-screen contexts.

And this will become a core challenge for the future of videogame studies. As we leave behind what Ian Bogost calls “short-sighted essentialism” to address the mangle of play, we’ll need ways to talk about how interactions with fictional virtualities elicit — as Hutcheon puts it — “intellectual and affective responses comparable in scope and intensity to those of life experience” and in fact become “part of life experience.”

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Prince of Persia ends with Farah asking the Prince “Why did you invent such a fantastic story?” After a failed and rewound attempt at romance, the Prince accepts that their adventure is now merely a fiction. But both Prince and player know something took place, even if all that remains is the telling. The next generation of videogame studies, I believe, will be devoted to unraveling such paradoxes and I look forward to joining in those discussions.