Tag Archives: games

ENG 730: Play, Agency, and Activism

My main takeaway from this week’s readings concerns questions of agency. More specifically, I saw the possible tension between the human players and the nonhuman elements of the game through its rules or “procedural rhetoric.” This is the more localized interaction of agency. But, in a broader sense, one also has the agency of the designer, perhaps distributed into the game, and the agency of the larger ideologies and structures that further inform the designer.

Rather than a “magic circle” outside or “ordinary life,” as Huizinga would see it, playing a game is more of a crossroads or gathering where human and nonhuman open up a particular form of interacting, an “assemblage,” to use Deleuze and Guattari’s term, where larger experiences and practices may emerge and where the constitutive components, themselves, may also change. I want to argue more what I mean below, but first a quick note on agency.

I’m using agency here in the way that people like Bruno Latour, John Law, and Michel Callon have taken it up in work in Actor-Network Theory.  In this outlook, agency is more about the possibility of acting and interacting in the world a  certain way. Different actors have different possible actions, sometimes passive or active, sometimes sentient or insentient. A mug can hold liquids. A dog can bark or run. A human can generally perform a whole range of actions. And as different actors interact, link up, or break apart, argues Latour, both new actions, situations, materials, relations, etc., arise.

His famous gun example makes this clear. A gun alone cannot do much, though it can shine or exert weight on a table. Similarly, a human without a gun can’t shoot anyone, though they have a considerable array of possible actions. In order to shoot, the human must grab the gun, creating a gun-human hybrid, then decide to shoot.

Through this framework, I think one can see that the agency of the game rules presents a certain experience when the human players interact. But this agency is fraught and contested, and as Bogost and Flanagan discuss, it can be used for different things.

Continue reading ENG 730: Play, Agency, and Activism

ENG 730: Auteurs and Capital

In composition studies, a recent move to designer over author has started to take place in some areas of the field, and I think the readings present and interesting addition to this, as in composition studies this shift is often made in terms of “marketable skills,” reflecting the role of labor and capital in education.

But more to the readings. I find the notion of author or designer often has a tension with the Romantic creator view and the skillful rhetor responding to an situation. In this context, I feel like Miyamoto presents a nice case study. On the one end, as diWinter seems to argue, he has particular views or focuses that flow through his work, presenting a more Romantic, or expressivist, author function:

  • “The strong connection to childhood and joy;
  • The influences of nature and the natural world; and
  • A desire to share a common feeling— kyokan— so that designers can feel closeness with players and players can be immersed in the experience of the game.” (1)

One can see, for example, how the “violence” in Super Smash Brothers, is rendered in the more contest-oriented approach like Sumo and not in terms of the violence of other games, or how Mario’s “violence” is more cartoonish and comical. This reflects the connection to joy and fun. And the abundance of caves and wonder that stud Miyamoto’s work reflect his own childhood experiences, as his own quotes argue, with childhood and the natural world. Regarding the last point, diWinter argues how Miyamoto, especially later on, uses experiences from his everyday life, like fitness or gardening, to inspire his work.

All of these design traits do seem to have a rhetorical deliberateness, even with the team-oriented approach, as John points out, that games have.

But on the other end, the market also informs design. Constructing Mario based on the Game and Watch controller not only presented a design constraint and philosophy; it also made good market sense. When Miyamoto was recruited to save the Wii, that was market-based pressure. And while his own experience of exercise informed Wii Fit, reflecting his design philosophy, it also opened up an important market and was framed in this way.

These market and labor forces are even more strongly articulated in the other works. For example, as Dyer-Witherford and de Peuter argue, “The ‘militainment’ of America’s Army and the ‘ludocapitalism’ of Second Life display the interaction of videogames and actual power in the context of Empire, an apparatus whose two pillars are the military and the market” (xiv).  Videogames grew up in a strongly capitalist network, with strongly entrenched notions of modern empire. Past economies, like the clay tablets of Mesopotamia or the scribes of medieval Europe, operated through different trends and affordances of labor and circulation–and different views of autuer–though it’d be reductive to say that threads don’t carry through multiple periods.

This takes me back to my initial focus–author as Romantic creator or situationally astute rhetor–and the role this has in our current market. I increasingly think that designer and author works in a more networked process, and these networking skills are key literacies for work in the modern age; but the “innovators” are the ones who tend to get the most credit. In my current project, for example, Will Wright is considered to be genius behind The Sims, SimCity, etc., but his notebooks are threaded with phone numbers, questions and answers from meetings, user-testing notes, more signs of orchestration and teamwork. And, for another example, some books, like Doom or Console Wars, treat teams of people with an almost hagiographic aura, while technology and markets also play a major role.

As Kline, Dyer-Witheford, and de Peutur, articulate, games exist within a complex intersection of circuits. I reckon a designer is part of this, seizing on the kairos and tools of production when producing a game, but authorship is quite diffuse among the humans and nonhumans of the rhetorical situation. The magic circle isn’t really that separated from “ordinary life.”

Civilization, Ideology, and Informatic Control

One of the elements I find most interesting is the distinction between ideological critique and the algorithm, which Galloway, in particular, describes, but also seems to inform Friedman.

When describing playing Civilization, Galloway notes the “soft racism” and questionable God view that informs the game, like the problematic “attributes” given to civilizations–like how the Aztecs aren’t “industrial–or the absence and simplification of many civilizations. To Civilization‘s defense, subsequent additions have addressed some of these issues, like the inclusion of more civilizations, like Polynesia, and dropping essentialist attributes for more civilization-specific qualities.  But, things like the progress narrative, the valuing of military dominance, the potential simplification of ethnicities, and the role of commerce and territory still pose potential problems, ripe for ideological critiques.

Galloway moves from this into what he calls the “third level” of critique, “informatic critique,” which he describes as a “formal critique rooted in the core principles of informatics that serve as the foundation of the gaming format” (99). He asks, “whether it [Civilization] embodies the logic of informatic control itself” (101). Though I still had some trouble ultimately figuring out what Galloway meant by this, I think it reflects the way a phenomenon gets enacted by a computational system.

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ENG 730: Fictions, Representation, and Narrative.

While playing these games, I was thinking a bit about three things from Jasper Juul: his notion of “incoherent worlds,” the role of abstraction and representation, and the ways that rules and fictions can interact.

Juul defines incoherent world in a game as “a game with a fictional world but where the game contradicts itself or some game events cannot be explained as part of the fictional world.” He gives the example of Donkey Kong, as we don’t know why Mario has three hearts and can never find out why. Initially when I was playing A Dark Room, I was considering it a bit incoherent, as the idea of clicking to stab or clicking to build–this projection of a real world action into the game through this mechanic–felt arbitrary.

But really I was confusing the ideas of representation with this coherence. In the world itself, though textual, things made sense. Huts provided housing, and though some of the materials felt odd–like stone spears coexisting with laser guns or teeth and scales making weapons–game elements had an internal coherence. Instead, I found myself a bit jarred from the narrative by the mechanics of playing.

As time went on, also, I found myself less engaged by the fiction and more engaged by the mechanics, which is something Juul also describes: “It is a common characteristic that with sustained playing of the same game, the player may become less interested in the representational/fictional level of the game and more focused on the rules of the game” (139). I think was especially easy in this sort of game because things were pretty abstracted: no sound, only symbolic images (instead of more “realistic” ones), largely alphabetic representations, simple controls and rules, etc.

I found the opposite taking place with Myst: the world drew me in, but I (in time) got a bit bored by the mechanics. As Elizabeth points out, it was nice to sort of hangout in Myst for one, as the setting was  full of ambience, including music and sound effects. The visuals were also attractive and realistic. And the point-and-click movement had a calming quality.

Adding to the raw sensory experience, Myst also wove its game mechanics and instructions into the game, like the note one initially finds from Catherine. This helped the apparatus of the rules feel more integrated into the world itself, withdrawing into the fiction. Similarly, the point-and-click hand that let you project your actions into the space was one of the only representational elements in the game. The rest was “in the world,” as it were, augmented by in-game texts about the world itself.

But, as John points out, it was a bit tedious to go back and forth hunting for clues or trying to figure things out. After some initial gains, I found myself a bit stuck trying to figure out some of the puzzles–or figuring them out but having to re-walk across the island to find a particular number that I missed along the way.

Splitting the difference, Home had some interesting mechanics and fiction, though it undertook the fiction differently. Similar to Myst‘s multiple endings, Home has multiple endings, but it does so through this odd combination of trees and literal chose-your-own ending. I only played through once, but reading about other endings, I was intrigued by some of the possibilities. For me, Norman had killed my wife, but I didn’t know how Norman got killed or who the man in the house was. And, I was able to walk out the door at the end. For others, they decided that they killed Rachel and Norman, then slit their wrists in the bathroom. While some choices affect the ending–like the gathering of clues or the taking of the knife or gun–the player is ultimately decides key plot points, like if Rachel is really dead. This was odd.

For example, one player noted how this puzzling end broke his immersion. As a response, though, another player said, “Most games with various paths and endings just drag you along for the ride, telling the story of these charcters [sic] and expecting you to feel for them. This, though… when I was first presented with the question “Did I find my Rachel?”, I literally sat at that screen for… I dunno, 20 minutes, just piecing together the things I had learned and trying to come up with my own answer. I /loved/ it. It really was my story, even though I was playing as another person.”

I’m still thinking through what Home did and how I feel about it, whether considering it clunky or clever. But overall, I think these games do a great job highlighting the different ways that “fiction” operates in games–and how it differs from narrative.

ENG 730: The Game and Immersive Narrative

Watching The Game, I kept thinking of Kafka. In many of his stories, Kafka presents this looming network that always recedes as the protagonist gets closer to solving it. I think A Messenger from the Emperor puts it best:

“he is still forcing his way through the chambers of the innermost palace; never will he overcome them; and were he to succeed at this, nothing would be gained: he would have to fight his way down the steps; and were he to succeed at this, nothing would be gained: he would have to cross the courtyard and, after the courtyard, the second enclosing outer palace, and again stairways and courtyards, and again a palace, and so on through thousands of years. . .

In The Game, Nicholas, much like many of Kafka’s characters, must navigate the ever-withdrawing, seemingly omnipotent CRS. Things escalate as he goes forward, almost to an absurd degree. And at the end, instead of closure of catharsis, we get this bizarre party. As John notes, no one seems to recognize the emotional turmoil that Nicholas endured, revisiting the suicide of his father, shooting and thinking he killed his brother, and attempting suicide himself, only to stumble into a room of friends and strangers who only moments ago–he thought–were trying to kill him.

I guess my frustration stemmed from the notion of immersion and boarders that Murray discusses. As Murray writes, “Part of the early work in any medium is the exploration of border between the representational world and the actual world” (103). When immersed, much like the Holodeck example from the beginning of the book, one is caught up in a procedural, participatory medium, as Murray describes. But as she also notes, this participation is “a visit,” and we must often “actively create belief” (110). There is a border, in other words, between the illusion and the larger world in which that illusion sits.  This larger world may have its own hyperreal characteristics, but it is nonetheless distinct–or seems to be.

But the blurring of that border is what seems to make The Game and The Grasshopper examples so haunting. As John notes, Nicholas ends up no longer really playing in a way, as he thinks that he is actively fighting a real entity. For example, toward the end, the ontology of the gun is ambiguous: in the actual world, it’s a prop; in the representational world, it’s a gun. But for Nicholas, the representational world has become the actual world. The game, and all of its trappings, has become his new reality, including the gun. And, as many others have noted, the “voluntary” element of Nicholas’ participation feels murky, making this “game” all the more problematic.

Connecting it back to Kafka, I think the reason why The Trial is so haunting is that the legal system has left its boundaries. To draw from Huizinga, the court has flooded outside its magic circle and has become an existential way of life. K is guilty without his consent, and forced to solve the maze of “state sanctioned violence” as Murray calls it (131), as himself, not a player version of himself.

In a similar note, The Game shows this haunting Grasshopper-like dystopia where the representational aspect of play has permeated and supplanted actual life. But, the game ends, and this is the strangest part. As Murray points out, digital mediums have a more ambiguous ending, often created by their interactive aspect. They often end through exhaustion and not a linear progression. The same could be said for the movie.

The doctor/actor jokes at the end, for example, that if Nicholas didn’t jump, he’d have to throw him.  This raises the question on how prescriptive the game was. Jordan points out that the game maybe was not that interactive, and indeed, it’s hard to see how the game wasn’t pulling all the strings, giving CRS an almost deterministic quality that feels godlike, all driving toward this “ending.” Were there alternative endings? What if, for example, Nicholas didn’t drink the tea? What if he didn’t get the gun from his house? What other rhizomes could he follow, and would those rhizomes still lead to that party in that way?

Much like K’s demise in The Trial, the ending in The Game feels inevitable, and I wonder–since they lied to him before, including about him not being picked to enter the game in the first place–whether the game is really over. Once you turn life into a game, it doesn’t feel easy to get out, and maybe Nick’s blithe acceptance at the end is a sort of absurdist, nihilistic acceptance of the Grasshopper’s wisdom. Worst birthday gift ever.

CCR: Fixity, Preservation, and Circulation

Although a lot of the elements in the Eisenstein reading were interesting, for whatever reason, the opening sections on textual drift and preservation through multiplication–quantity of copies over quality–struck me, especially in regards to circulation.

As Eisenstein writes, “No manuscript, however useful as a reference guide, could be preserved for long without undergoing corruption by copyists, and even this sort of ‘preservation’ rested on the shifting demands of local élites and a fluctuating incidence of trained scribal labor” (113-14). Later on, she terms this corruption through copying “textual drift” and notes how “preservation could be achieved by using abundant supplies of paper rather than scarce and costly skin” (114). Here, then, the fixity of this preservation is not just its material longevity, which is achieved through multiple copies, but the precision of its copies. Each copy is more fixed and less idiosyncratic once the type gets set, reducing the “textual drift” of multiple hand copies.

I want to look at these ideas of drift and fixity.

Continue reading CCR: Fixity, Preservation, and Circulation

ENG 730: Illuminati and the Play-Sphere

Huizinga’s notion of play often connected to four main elements as he traced it through its various spheres: the notion of the agonistic contest,  the role of rules, and way it took place outside of everyday life. As he defines it:

a free activity standing quite consciously outside “ordinary” life
as being “not serious”, but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly.  It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means (13).

As the definition shows, “play” extends beyond games, including the grounds for the ritual of religion, the structure of law, the agonsitic structure of “warfare,” and the playful riddling at the root of philosophy. Of these parts, the break from “ordinary life” and the role of internal rules–a structure outside of the rules of everyday life–seem to be particularly significant.

To transition to Illuminati, I think one can see some of the tensions and manifestations of this definition. In particular, I want to focus on the role of cheating and deceit in the game.

Continue reading ENG 730: Illuminati and the Play-Sphere

Game Studies: Rules, Emergence, and Information

Of all the games we played last week, I was most interested by Mastermind, as it felt the most systematic and logic-based. From the six base colors and the four possible slots for these codes, you had 6x6x6x6, or 1,296, outcomes initially. I found myself thinking through my succession of moves each round logically whittling down these potential outcomes, in a somewhat mathematical way.

In other words, with the code already made, I was free to work within my own head and not respond to the moves of the other player in an ongoing, emergent way, unlike Blockus and Connect Four. I could stick to my own system or strategy and not have to worry about the way other players shifted their strategy. Over a succession of rounds in Mastermind, this may change, but in the context of the night, it did not. It was almost like the game was completely inside my own head as a series of logical possibilities scaffolded over a series of decisions.

This in-my-head quality made the game feel more like what Salen and Zimmerman say about “decision trees,” where one could trace out a consistent set of approaches, including a winning strategy, through a flow chart. With the numbered layout of six colors and four slots, the game has a series of discrete decisions mapped along two possible axis of variability, unlike Chess with its range of varied moves. But this only describes the possible moves, which is where the role of information came in.

Again, in Blockus and Connect Four, my move changed based on the information of the ongoing moves done by the other player(s). As Chris encroached on my territory, for example, I started making a stronger effort to block him. But in Mastermind, my moves changed based on the information provided by my own past decision. In this way, strategy was still emergent in Mastermind as I got new information, but the components of the game–like the input of other players–affected that emergence less. I could create an arc of moves that, theoretically, could be almost algorithmic and unchanged as each guess progressed.

In the information theory approach, as Salen and Zimmerman define, “information is a measure of how certain you can be about the nature of a signal” (193). As they breakdown Mastermind, as the guesser gets more feedback about the nature of the code through the black and white begs, “the guesser narrows down the possible answers (decreasing uncertainty), carving out a single guess fro ma range of all possible guesses” (194-95). Initially, the uncertainty is total–1,296 possible outcomes–but each round reduces the possible answers, so that by my final guess, I was no longer guessing. I logically knew exactly what my answer was.

In the other games, I never experienced this level of certainty. There was no set “strategy,” just an emergent web of possible strategies based on the changing game board, particularly in Blockus. I could get a sense for where people may go, but I never “knew.” I got a sense, as Even points out in his post, that a more expansion-oriented strategy seemed effective, or that certain pieces could fit into key choke-points for other players. But chance, or uncertainty, remained high. Noah, for example, could deliberately not play the “right” move, as we often did in connect four to delay the victory. Or one of us would miss the right move. Or a new move would come up based on the third or fourth person. All of these variables would, in turn, affect my move, feeding back into the system and affecting theirs.

In this way, Blockus, and to a lesser extent Connect Four, felt more “complex” and more uncertain than Mastermind. Or perhaps, it felt more emergent. But importantly, as Salen and Zimmerman point out, these feelings may simply be feelings, and the formal backdrop, the “constituative rules,” of all the games had a similar logic that operationalized in different experiences.