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.

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ENG 730: Atari, Design Constraints, and Ecology

Thinking through Bogost and Montfort’s Racing the Beam, I was reminded a bit of some of the conversations we had last class regarding design and the material constraints that technology imposes.

I think the role of hardware struck me particularly with questions of porting. As they write regarding Pac-Man‘s port to the Atari, “Porting a graphical video game from one computer platform (the arcade board) to another (the Atari VCS) does not demand a change in fundamental or representational of functional mode.  Both versions are games, rule-based representations of an abstract challenge of hunter and hunted. Where the two versions diverge is in their technical foundations–in their platforms” (67).

This is a key observation, as it hits at the material implications of replicating player experience or game cohesion across platforms. The invention process of remaking a game for a different system requires ample creativity when the systems are different enough–particularly in graphic affordances and machine communication.  In this way, the designer is not making new content or rules, but they are making a new means to express the content or rules, a new way to interface with the machine to attain a similar end. With this situation in mind, I think about parallels with translation or transcription, but I wonder how far those alphabetic, or at least textual, metaphors can apply in this case. In both cases, one is working in different systems, but the technology of a semiotic system differs from the technology of a video game hardware.

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Identifying the Alien in our Humanity

Look around you. At any given moment, “beings” encircle us from all sides. I’m using a computer on a table, while sitting on chair. Nearby, some window blinds murmur a restless patter and s kettle hisses and whines. Outside, the stirring, purring, scratching, sniffing scuttle of nature persists indefinitely. Indeed, we are not alone.

On the one hand, this is pretty obvious. Humans have always had “tools” or “technology,” and we’ve always been in the environment. But at a deeper level, this intimacy with other beings implies a kinship. Particularly in contemporary culture, people constantly interact with and through technology, like cell phones, buses, radios, computers, or televisions. Doing so, we express our humanity in and through technology, and this technology has an important role in how that occurs.

In other words, humans do not express what we often call “humanity” in a vacuum. To compose the great texts of history, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Sappho, and Sun Tzu needed technology. They needed ink or stylus, paper or tablet. And these texts always grew out of a place. The tablets of Mesopotamia needed the clay of the Fertile Crescent. The cave sketches of Lascaux needed the water and pigment–along with the cave wall.

This is what the scholar Thomas Rickert is getting at, to some extent, with the notion of “ambiance”: we grow out of stuff, express with stuff, “are” through stuff and space. As Carl Sagan said, “We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” Humans may like to center the world around our own being, but we are intimately part of the nonhuman, “spoken” in a sense by our environment and the objects and nonhuman beings that compose it.

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Empathy and Videogames

Most of us, at least in Europe and the UK, remember debates around violence in videogames. School shootings, muggings, general deviance. Like the satirical meme Angry German Kid tries to make fun of, some circles see gamers as crazed keyboard-pounding, gun-hoarding loners.

While studies have complicated this question, videogames have grown regardless of an answer. They surpassed DVD, music, and cinema sales in the UK in 2008 and boast massive opening sales, as with Grand Theft Auto V.

In an academic context, media and literacy scholars like Ian Bogost and James Paul Gee discuss videogames as learning tools and media interfaces. And the folks at PBS have an informative and engaging YouTube channel for game studies.

With videogames growing as a medium, questions like violence, literacy, or ideology become more important.

Lately, I’ve had empathy on the brain as I research for final papers that center on the topic. I’ve also been playing videogames. In particular, I recently got a game called This War of Mine, where you play a noncombatant in a war zone, trying to survive amid the strife.

Concept art from This War of Mine [Image courtesy of craveonline]
Concept art from This War of Mine [Image courtesy of craveonline]

With a catchphrase, “In war, not everyone is a soldier,” the game offers a potent dose of empathy. In fact, for me, it turns the violence debate on its head: how can videogames build empathy?

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