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?

Instagram’s recursive aura

It’s about the sharing:
Vernacular photography in the Age of Google Image Search

This piece originally appeared on The New Everyday, September 30, 2013.

Two summers ago my dad and I drove from Seattle to New Orleans. The longest car trip either of us had ever taken, our route took us through some of the most scenic parts of the country. The drive was majestic, American, and overwhelming in ways you never expect until you're actually doing it. During the five-day trip, we barely ever played the radio. We chatted, gazed out the window at the passing countryside, and I posted pictures to Instagram.

Instagram is photo-sharing social network that had just started to generate some buzz for pushing the retro trend in mobile photography. Using the Instagram application, users crop their images to a Polaroid square and apply digital filters that make any image look as if it were taken with a vintage camera. Launched the previous fall, the free service announced it had amassed five million users just before our trip.

With a mix of curiosity and purpose, I set up my Instagram account over lunch in the parking lot of an Arby's near Bozeman, Montana. I've never been much of a picture-taker; but for a once-in-a-life-time, cross-country, father-son road trip, visual documentation seemed compulsory. The only camera I owned was in my iPhone 3GS, which, needless to say, offered more convenience than image quality. Instagram's retro-filters seemed like they might improve the look of mobile phone pictures taken out the window of a moving car.

The filters did help, in a way. The auto-zoom blurriness, inconsistent depth-of-field, and poor lighting in my images, when altered with a Walden, Lo-fi, or Sutro algorithm, looked almost intentional. The images took on an ambiguous poignancy; yet, for all my fiddling, the pictures remained disappointing records of what we'd seen. In an instant, the application of a filter would bestow on an image the weight of memory it hadn't earned. The resulting photos had a sameness to them, and if I didn't mark them with captions immediately, I soon forgot where I took them and why. As my father followed the slow curves through the gorgeous mountain ranges of Colorado, I cropped and recropped, compared one filter to the next, and tried to come up with a witty slogan for the fifth nearly identical, washed out image of a mountain.

I was aiming out the car window to take a shot of the western edge of Yellowstone National Park when I was overcome by the shear innanity of what I was doing. The beauty of Yellowstone has inspired incalculable photographs over the past century. My partner's father, a semi-professional photographer, has numerous undeveloped contact sheets from his visits to the park alone. A simple Google image search would return millions of better photos than I was capable of taking at that moment. Even so, I felt the need to upload yet another throw-away image with the very device I could use to look up thousands of much better pictures taken more intentionally, by more well-equipped photographers. What, I began to wonder, is the point of taking more photos in the age of Google Image Search?

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