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One approach to the study and criticism of video games emphasizes the experiential aspect of action / interaction. Occasionally this approach is applied with a rigor that reveals the functionally identical nature of concepts that we tend to understand as separate, sometimes apposite and others opposite: concepts such as space, and time, and action. Colliding and distilling such concepts can be hugely beneficial. Still, there is a problem with an experiential emphasis in video games: the unavoidable engagement of one of the field’s most heavily-loaded and broadly-used terms, immersion.

I tend to avoid discussion of immersion wholesale. It is simply too complicated a topic to treat lightly, one with various stakeholders who reasonably occupy positions that inevitably complicate each other. It is also generally understood to be, conceptually, of core importance to video games. So although my preference is to discourage discussion by withholding recognition, I must admit that this position is wholly indefensible. So something must be done.

I came across the following today while re-reading The Cultural Turn for a project unrelated to video games. In reference to the design of the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, Jameson writes:

I am tempted to say that such space makes it impossible for us to use the language of volume or volumes any longer, since these last are impossible to seize. Hanging streamers indeed suffuse this empty space in such a way as to distract systematically and deliberately from whatever form it might be supposed to have; while a constant busyness gives the feeling that emptiness is here absolutely packed, that it is an element within which you yourself are immersed, without any of that distance that formerly enabled the perception of perspective or volume. You are in this hyperspace up to your eyes and your body; and if it seemed to you before that the suppression of depth observable in postmodern painting or literature would necessarily be difficult to achieve in architecture itself, perhaps you may now be willing to see this bewildering immersion as its formal equivalent in the new medium. (14, in the 2009 edition)

We can understand Jameson’s astute observations as not so much about a building, but about the idea of place as an elementary composite resulting from the collision of space, time, and action. This collision originates in the object but occurs in the subject. Because the subject is not the site of manufacture but is the site of assembly, the three elements are functionally inseparable.

The result of this functional inseparability, of the assembly of place within the subject, is immersion.

If you’ll permit the crime of wanton recontextualization, I’ll add that I think that the above quote says much more about video games than it does brick-and-mortar buildings. What do you think?

Here’s the deal: games played on PC and/or Mac, including emulated games from previous generations, present enormous challenges for educational institutions (and the libraries that love them). These challenges are instructive regarding the disconnect between the rapid growth, evolution, and demise of various forms of cultural production, and the laws that ostensibly govern production, reproduction, and retention.

The First Sale Doctrine is the cornerstone of library collections (and record collections, and all sorts of other collections). When you buy an object that is subject to copyright law, you acquire certain rights while the rights-holder retains others: you can sell it, lend it, destroy it, etc. You can’t copy it (some severely limited exceptions); those rights remain with the person or entity that owns the copyright. For physical collections, this isn’t a problem: we buy a book, then lend it. If we want to lend ten copies, we buy ten copies. You buy a record, decide you don’t like it, and give it to a friend (or an enemy, if you accidentally bought some Styx, such as the following:).

None of this invokes copyright.

Digital collections muddy the waters. What, exactly, is a copy for purposes of copyright? Is it a single e-book purchase being open simultaneously on multiple computers? Is it a single copy being opened on a wireless device from its home on a network drive? Is it a data file moving from HDD to RAM upon opening? It’s mind-bending that these are real questions with real financial implications.

Further, we have moved to an uncertain position regarding our valuation of the concept of a purchase. What purpose does a purchase serve? When we make a purchase, what do we expect to receive? Increasingly we are moving away from purchasing products, and toward purchasing licenses to use those products. Functionally, our needs are (mostly) being met: we give some money, and we get to use a thing. The steps in between are elided. Culturally, we don’t really care. We don’t see the functional difference between owning a thing and getting to use it vs. just getting to use it.

This is insidious: it is the difference between buying an object (with some extra rights for free!), and buying some rights. If all you’ve bought is some rights, the First Sale Doctrine no longer applies because you never actually owned the object-under-copyright in question. Those rights might come with all sorts of awesome limitations and requirements. And finally, if you’ve purchased some rights to use a digital object, you’ve got to worry about the DMCA, which famously erodes the rights of the purchaser by (among many, many other things) making otherwise-legal unlicensed copying a federal crime if the creation of that otherwise-legal copy required circumvention of (standardless) copy-prevention technology.

To see all these issues in one myopic mash-up, check out the WoW Glider case (here’s some more terrible music for while you read; remember, this is the sound of progress!).

Still, even with the DMCA a library can buy and lend digital media. DVDs and console games are great examples. Buy, lend, learn, and the law is (generally) on your side. (Note that I’m leaving aside discussion of digital journals, e-books, etc. that are highly relevant to libraries and academics in general, but beyond the scope of my focus here.) But traditional legal, library and academic models fall far short of providing workable solutions for scholars and students who wish to study games produced for personal computing platforms. Even more, legal, library and academic models are woefully ill-equipped to facilitate the study of games that were originally produced for an outdated closed system (such as an old console, an obsolete OS, or an arcade cabinet), but are now most reasonably archived in ROM format coupled with appropriate emulators. Further, establishing the provenance of a commercial reproduction of a classic game is functionally impossible: if I ask my students to study the behavior of the ghosts in Pac-Man, can I expect that any reproduction (Flash, HTML 5, XBLA, etc.) of Pac-Man they might play will retain the programmatic behavior of the original? Which version of a game am I even studying? How can I tell?

This is where non-traditional distributed community archives far outreach the potential of library collections and academic bureaucracies. It is (ridiculous as it may sound) hugely significant to be able to choose between a ROM of a BurgerTime PCB and a NES BurgerTime ROM. But ROMs are an unsettled legal minefield, and not one that libraries are equipped to deal with: negotiating an agreement to use/lend/whatever a ROM is analogous to a license agreement. Libraries and academic institutions are much more comfortable just buying objects, and getting the lending rights for free. But what about BurgerTime? If I want my students to legally study the aesthetic differences between the NES port and the original arcade cabinet, I (or my institution) need to provide both. The cost of the NES port is negligible (leaving aside the political cost of convincing colleagues that purchasing games is not a waste of funds), but the arcade cabinet might run $1,000 – $2,000 at purchase (leaving aside the cost of storing and servicing it over time). That’s not a proposal I can write; the cost-benefit doesn’t work out. Yet there IS value in studying the arcade (or DOS, or Intellivision, or whatever) experience.

Part of the problem is that video games firmly resist Fair Use guidelines. The notoriously vague four-factor test (which we recently saw painfully and expensively misunderstood in the Kind of Bloop album cover case) is a wonderful safe haven for academics and instructors who want to copy a chunk of something for use in non-commercial research or instruction. If such copying meets fair use guidelines, no permission need be sought (nor fees paid!). Here are the guidelines:

  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

We win the first factor, because our use of the work is for nonprofit educational purposes. But we quickly lose the second factor (the work is creative, as opposed to factual and/or scholarly, in nature); and we spectacularly fail the third factor because it is functionally impossible to copy a small portion of a video game.

If I could reasonably copy (create a ROM of) only the Forbidden Woods section of The Wind Waker and assign my students to play it, that would be great! But that isn’t feasible; I (or they) would have to copy (or purchase) the entire game in order to play that one section. The phrase “portion used” sometimes pushes people to understand that the amount they copy is immaterial with regard to the third factor; that the amount copied and the “portion used” are two separate things. This is not the accepted interpretation. For legal purposes, “portion used” is synonymous with “amount copied”. This is relevant because in the above example I might copy the entirety of The Wind Waker but only require my students to use a small portion of it. In this case, this limited concept of “use” is irrelevant. The third factor is impacted by how much of a work is copied, and not by how much of that copy is useful. The implied assumption is that you will only copy what is useful, no more.

With the first factor in our favor but the following two clearly lost, the fourth factor becomes hugely important to any hope of a successful fair use argument. Unfortunately, in the case of video games this is murky at best (and an outright loss at worst). As a result, fair use is generally not useful for the study of video games as media objects. The original (outdated) objects cannot be reasonably purchased (and collected and loaned). The negotiation of a license agreement suddenly seems horrifically reasonable, never mind the unlikelihood that such an agreement would be available for purchase. Scholars and students in the field of game studies must make frankly unreasonable and unfortunate choices regarding what they study and the questionably narrow legalities of how they might go about studying it.

Note that we haven’t even touched on licensing modern content (such as that available through Steam and similar services) for library circulation; nor the challenges presented by simple old PC (Mac, Amiga…) games; nor the difficulties of modern DRM present in off-the-shelf titles (refer to the DMCA link above). This is the tip of a very large iceberg.

(Many thanks to Ben Garney at PushButton Labs for starting the conversation that got me thinking about this. A MAME bundle for academic use would be amazing!)

In class yesterday, one of our grad students sparked a discussion of affect as it relates to video games.  One point that we didn’t get to explore is that from a marketing perspective, the video game industry is deeply interested in affect (as is any business that involves selling something in just unimaginable quantities).

For instance, this piece by Clive Thompson at Wired describes the employment of a psychologist at Bungie during the production of Halo 3, for the purpose of altering design based on observation of test users.

Even more interesting, and perhaps of increasing relevance as our class continues, is this NY Times article my wife passed along to me.  It describes a confluence of the current state of high-res web-connected cameras and software that recognizes and differentiates between emotional states with remarkable accuracy.

The company that created the emotion measurement software is called Affectiva, which I find both hilarious and ominous.  (Sounds more like a prescription drug.  “For emotions lasting longer than four hours, contact your doctor immediately.”) Their web site is here.

(PS: Also cross-posting this to our class blog.)

I’m happy to write that the Game Studies class that I’m co-teaching (with my excellent and inestimable colleagues Carol Stabile and Annie Zeidman-Karpinski) is meeting for the first time today.

This class is a bit of an experiment. It is (to my knowledge) the first Game Studies class to be taught at the University of Oregon. We will meet Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday, with Tuesdays designated as “lab” days. Annie and I are specifically running the lab.

Our goal in the lab is pretty simple: we want to put the games that we’re studying in the hands of our students. They’ll have to play a lot outside of class, but the lab will give us the chance to help form and direct habits and methods of critical play.

Check out the reading list, or the full syllabus.

On Mondloch’s Screens

I just finished reading UO colleague Kate Mondloch’s excellent new book, Screens: Viewing Media Installation Art (University of Minnesota Press, 2010, from the thoroughly excellent Electronic Mediations series); and while I’m not ready to thoroughly review it, I do want to take a moment to log a few brief thoughts.

It is clear within the first few pages that, though the focus is on artworks produced for, and installed in, gallery spaces, Screens is extremely important for any scholar who wishes to examine video games as media objects. Lacking a background in art history, I cannot evaluate the book with regard to that particular field. Happily, this work’s relevance clearly extends well beyond the art historical world. From the introduction:

The underlying proposition of Screens is that present day viewers are, quite literally, “screen subjects.” With this in mind, the book analyzes how certain artworks (re)materialize the neglected circuit between bodies and screens and, in so doing, posit alternate engagements with contemporary media technologies. In what is arguably our “society of the screen,” there can be no definitive external position from which to assess the conditions of media spectatorship. (xxi)

Heady stuff indeed. Key figures in Mondloch’s theoretical framework include Friedberg, Lacan, Deleuze, and Baudrillard, to name a few. The theories at work are complex, and the goal (if you’ll pardon my reductive paraphrasing) is to figure out no less than who, where, and when you are vis-à-vis the media screen. I’m trying to say that it’s ambitious; and my initial reaction is that it delivers the goods.

I want to give it another read before I write more about it, so for now I’ll leave off with this amazing passage, in which Mondloch quotes from Jonathan Crary’s Eclipse of the Spectacle:

“We must recognize the fundamental incapacity of capitalism ever to rationalize the circuit between body and computer,” Crary argues, “and realize that this circuit is the site of a latent but potentially volatile disequilibrium.” (96)

Love it. More on this later.

I was thumbing through Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life1 the other day, thinking about games as dialogic actors in a scheme of mediated interpersonal communication; thinking about about Super Meat Boy and the critical response to it (the grounded, the hyperbolic, the in-between); thinking about Abbot’s upcoming class; thinking about my own upcoming class; & etc.

So my mind was wandering, and I was flipping through Goffman’s introduction2, and I came across this:

[T]he arts of piercing an individual’s effort at calculated unintentionality seem better developed than our capacity to manipulate our own behavior, so that regardless of how many steps have occurred in the information game, the witness is likely to have the advantage over the actor, and the initial asymmetry of the communication process is likely to be retained. (8-9, emphasis added)

This is a great construction that is very applicable to video games in general, if we formulate the game as the actor trying to project calculated unintentionality, and the player as the witness of this projection.3 I don’t want to try a deeper analysis at present; just preserving the present’s food for future thought.

Notes:

1.The 1973 edition, if that sort of thing matters to you.

2. In which he describes communication as a kind of game: we present a constructed self to others who are also constructed, and who in turn may or may not try to detect the falsity or veracity of our construction, just as we may do the same to them, depending on motives and circumstances, with rules that possibly shift dynamically as the conversation progresses, and it turns out communication is very complicated; it’s a wonder that anyone ever talks to anyone else.

3. I have to admit, though, that my first reaction to the above quote was to be excited for Jonathan Blow’s next game; hence my selective italics.

Super Meat Boy doesn’t hate you, but it doesn’t mind hurting you.

The Xbox Live Arcade release delivers on the promise of the pre-release version that was shown at PAX Prime 2010, where it was my own personal Game of the Show. Here are my initial thoughts after spending a few days (and a few thousand deaths) with SMB:

There is an immediacy to the play experience that goes beyond the fact that many of your deaths will come within the opening two seconds of a given level. This immediacy is a product of the extremely tight and responsive controls. It’s rare to feel like you’re not firmly in the driver’s seat. You’ll die a lot, but most of those deaths will help you gain an incrementally deeper understanding of how to use the control that the game gives you.

Meat Boy is light, strong, agile, and remarkably tacky. He isn’t sticky; that is, he doesn’t stick to surfaces, but he is frictional, and much of the game is spent learning how this friction interacts with Meat Boy’s weight and the game’s implementation of gravity.

You will also spend a good deal of time learning how to hop. Pressing the jump button will only get you so far: SMB insists that you learn to tap it. Then it shows you that there is something between a ‘press’ and a ‘tap’. Then it explains that there are actually several degrees of jump (what the French theorists call degrés de saut1) that can be executed somewhere between a ‘press’ and a ‘tap’. It demands that you execute all of these degrés de saut while fully understanding how they interact with Meat Boy’s weight and friction.

You learn by doing, and the price for failure is death. But in SMB, death is reimagined as an immediate do-over. Upon dying, Meat Boy will reappear at the start of the level in time to see the pieces of his just-dead (Other?) body still airborne. You run, jump, die, and repeat, incredibly quickly. In many levels the first few jumps are key, and must be executed immediately and with precision. Let’s suppose those jumps are difficult, and the player dies ten times before getting them right for the first time. In the language of modern video games, ten deaths is a significant commitment of player time. In Super Meat Boy, it might take 30 seconds.

Keith Oatley, summarizing Karl Popper’s Conjectures and Refutations, wrote:

We only really learn by our mistakes (refutations). As we apply our schemata to the world by living, they fail in various ways and we can learn, change and develop by modifying our schemata or theories accordingly. Popper quotes J. A. Wheeler at the beginning of his book as saying “The whole problem is to make the mistakes as fast as possible.”2

Super Meat Boy wholeheartedly embraces this model of learning. You will make lots of mistakes, you will make them quickly, and you will immediately have the opportunity to make them again. The only way to break this cycle is to learn. The cycle moves fast, so the player tends to learn a lot in a relatively small amount of time.

If “Easy to learn, difficult to master” is a cliché, Super Meat Boy is, to borrow Bonnie Nardi’s term, its visual-performative3 embodiment. The learning curve isn’t particularly steep, but it is relentlessly high. The successful player will continue to learn, level after level after level.

The best thing about SMB as a learning environment is that the dialog between game and player remains congenial. The game makes demands, to be sure, but eventually the player learns that she has a lot of freedom to determine how those demands are met. Once the player has a certain understanding of the game’s conception of gravity, friction, and degrés de saut, there are numerous ways in which a level might be successfully completed. You don’t have the freedom necessary to call this a sandbox game, but I’m going to call it a playground game4. At a certain point each level becomes a playground, and the player’s only task is to get in there and make something awesome happen.

Super Meat Boy takes its button mapping straight out of Super Mario Brothers: hold one button to run, press another button to jump, move with the thumbstick / d-pad. However, the complexity of the actions that the player can input with these controls has more in common with modern fighting games than the platformers of the 80s. High-level fighting game techniques such as frame counting, canceling, buffering, hit checking, and more are all highly relevant to playing Super Meat Boy. Once I started to understand the game on that level I switched from the standard 360 controller to my Hori Fighting Stick EX2, and I haven’t looked back.5

This is really the tip of the iceberg: there is a lot to analyze. I am particularly interested in applying theories of postmodern subjectivity to the replay that occurs when the player finishes a level, which shows every attempt to complete the level simultaneously. This simultaneity both expands and compresses the fractured subjectivity and ontological crisis that is inherent to modern video games (a topic I have previously touched on). But that is a whole other can of worms, and deserves a post of its own.

Notes:

1. No they don’t. I made that up.

2. Ok, this reference is a mess but let’s go with it. Keith Oatley, Perceptions and Representations: The Theoretical Basis of Brain Research and Psychology (London: Metheun, 1978), 241-42. But that quote is taken from: Ellen Spolsky, “The Uses of Adversity: The Literary Text and the Audience That Doesn’t Understand”, in The Uses of Adversity: Failure and Accommodation in Reader Response, ed. Ellen Spolsky (Cranbury, New Jersey: Associated University Presses, 1990), 31. So it’s a quote of a quote of a summary of something that Karl Popper wrote in 1963. And that summary ends with a quote from someone else entirely! The fact that Spolsky’s essay is in a book that she also edited is just icing on the (layered) cake.

3. Bonnie Nardi, My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010).

4. Please allow me to show my disdain for genre boundaries by articulating another (meaningless) genre.

5. The only complaint I have regarding the game’s controls is the inability to remap the buttons. I write this not just because I think that a different button layout would be a little more comfortable on the EX2, but also because it’s an important step toward making games accessible to players of all abilities. Understand that this criticism isn’t directed only at SMB: alterable button mapping needs to be understood as a basic feature that should be offered in all games. Accessibility is always worth it. Alterable button mapping is a drop in the bucket, but each drop counts.

Madigan on Moving

Jamie Madigan wrote about motion controls and the concept of presence on his blog, The Psychology of Video Games. It’s a great post and very much worth a read. In it, he references a paper by a group of researchers at Cleveland State University. He writes:

They were interested in how “naturally” a controller was used to play a game and what effect that had on presence and enjoyment. To kick things off, they proposed an interesting typology of natural control mapping.

The status of this paper is unclear: Madigan writes that it was “published. . . earlier this year in the journal New Media & Society,” and he provides an incomplete citation. I couldn’t find the article on the journal’s website (non-university folks will have trouble even looking, as it’s behind a paywall), and he implies in a footnote that he got the article from one of the researchers; so my guess is that it has been accepted for publication, but has not yet been published. If I’m right, that’s too bad; it would have been nice to be able to read the article that the post is about.

The concept of presence is very interesting: it goes directly to what games do to us when we play them. Looking to make a connection between motion controls for video games and the feeling of presence, Madigan writes that the researchers

were interested in whether more natural mapping of controls would lead to greater self-reports of presence while playing games, so they ran two experiments. In the first, they had one group play Tiger Woods PGA Tour 07 on the Nintendo Wii using the wiimote like, appropriately enough, a golf club. Another group played the Playstation 2 version of that same game using the dual shock controller. The results were that the wiimote did indeed feel more natural, as measured by questions like “The actions used to interact with the game environment were similar to the actions that would be used to do the same thing in the real world.” No surprise there, but they also found that use of such controls did correlate with spatial presence (“To what extent did you experience a sense of ‘being there’ inside the environment?”) and people who played the game on the Wii were more likely to report experiencing presence than those who played with the PS2 controller.

Interesting stuff! Here’s why I really want to read the source article: the conclusion that motion controls increase the feeling of presence seems solid. But it is also limited by video games’ immature theory of space as well as the conventions of genre. If motion controls increase our feeling of “being there”, what about games that don’t have a reasonable “there”? This lack of “thereness” might be due to genre conventions (Lumines) or it might be a result of poor spatial theory (Viva Piñata).

I also wonder what, if anything, the research says about the interaction of motion controls with other design elements in the creation of presence. Short version: I think that motion controls might create presence in specific types of games (Tiger Woods) while destroying it in others (imagine playing Cave Story or Super Meat Boy with motion controls).

Madigan also writes that he feels this article’s typology of controls is flawed “because it lacks a place for motion-tracked controllers that are used in ways that are not asking you to mimic holding something specific” (like when you wiggle the Wiimote to make Mario spin). I think that these types of controls actually fit very well in the first referenced category:

Directional natural mappings are the least natural, represen[t]ing simple up/down/left/right mappings and maybe some buttons. Think Street Fighter 4: up to jump, left/right to move, down to crouch, and buttons to punch or kick.

You move your thumb to push the jump button just like you move your wrist to execute Mario’s spin. Outside of the game’s logic, neither of the movements have anything to do with the action executed on the screen. The only difference between them that I can see is our perspective: we’ve had a few decades to get used to pushing buttons, but just a few years to wiggle our Wiimotes. Is wiggling just more exotic than pressing?

The important thing is what the movement represents: wiggling to make Mario spin makes as much sense as pushing a button to make him jump. Both require motion and neither seems likely to create presence.

L. B. Jeffries wrote an interesting article on Moving Pixels, examining the complex interaction of the concepts of space, design, and content in video games. Jeffries uses Tschumi and Derrida to try to make sense of the layers of objective and subjective inherent in art, from architecture to video games:

Many of [Tschumi’s] points are more rigidly structured and meant to be applied towards physical spaces rather than the awkward semi-omniscient design of a video game. What’s applicable is his attempt to apply post-modernism to a medium like architecture, which constantly juggles the subjective and objective while hiding one behind the other, and his outlining of three core discussions that need to be present—the action, the experience, and the overall structure itself while all of these aspects change in response to each other.

This is rich stuff that gets to some of the basic elements of how games work: what they do to us, what we do to them, etc. There are elements of the piece that I do not agree with, and I look forward to elucidating and exploring those ideas here in the future.

But make no mistake: the issues that Jeffries addresses are extremely difficult to discuss in relation to video games, particularly because games do not yet have a mature theory of space. This is the main reason that I think this article is on the right track: bringing architecture into the discussion is a great move that means good things for the collective discourse.

Thanks to Ben Abraham at Critical Distance for the link.

Baudrillard wrote that “The impossibility of rediscovering an absolute level of the real is of the same order as the impossibility of staging illusion. Illusion is no longer possible, because the real is no longer possible.” (19)

Media operates in the mode of layered simulation. The interaction of simulations has been readily identifiable in film for some time, but their operation within video games has gone largely unexamined. This is unfortunate, because video games exploit the layering of simulation and the resulting confusion of real and imaginary in ways that are not available to other media objects. This is achieved by actually inducing the ontological crisis that was previously only described by postmodern media. I will outline this crisis and describe how video games use it to further complicate the relationship of the real and the imaginary.

Fellini’s opens with a traffic jam that quickly reveals itself as a dream. The horror of people, the need to escape them, the realization that the need to escape is an intrinsic part of the self, and so escape is impossible if the self is to remain intact. The protagonist keeps his self concept intact, injured by the social and defined by its injury: he allows himself to be pulled out of the sky, crashing into the ocean, trading the gentle horror of the dream for the gentle horror of life.

———-

———-

As the film continues, several similar sequences are presented: dreams, memories and fantasies are interwoven with what presents as real. Sorting out the worlds of the real of the film and the imaginary of the protagonist is left to the viewer. This is indeed no small task, as the viewer must also know that the real of the film is itself an illusion to be sorted against the real of the viewer. This layering of illusion is extended (distended?) by the film within the film, and, in the impossible task of defining true and false, the real and the illusion, the inevitable question: On which side of the camera does our director sit? Which is nothing but an ontologically safe reimagination the actual question: On which side of the screen does the viewer sit?

The opening sequence of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind visually and thematically mirrors that of : the protagonist, surrounded by the horror of the social, the crowded in-between places of mass transit, escapes to the beach. His escape does not provide the desired relief, instead revealing a fractured self-loathing that simultaneously seeks and hates the social.

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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind‘s opening sequence: Sorry for the link, but YouTube has disallowed embedding for this video. Still, it’s well worth opening a new browser tab.

———-

Like , Eternal Sunshine weaves together real and imaginary, challenging the viewer to define and distinguish two opposing elements from its hyperreal singularity. Unlike , it does so without limiting its implosion of internal and external to an episodic conversation between protagonist and viewer. Eternal Sunshine‘s conflation of reality and illusion instead extends without boundary. The mechanic of a film within the film, the elaborate layering of reality and illusion, it’s all made unnecessary by the uncomfortable believability of constructed (reconstructed? deconstructed?) thought and memory: the self-creating self. This crisis is mechanically similar to that of , but it is of a different order: the film presents a logic in which distinguishing the illusion of the film from the real of the viewer is not possible. Both are plausible, but neither can be verified. The hyperreal digests the whole of both reality and illusion.

In terms of simulation, Super Mario Bros. presents neither a visual nor a cognitive logic that approaches this level of hyperrealism.1 And yet, its hyperreality surpasses that of both and Eternal Sunshine.

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The surreal representation of a world gone, quite literally, unbelievably wrong. It is easy for the spectator to disbelieve this world; but for the player, belief is another matter entirely. This is achieved through the creation of ontological insecurity the player, resulting in a division of the self that complicates the dichotomies of belief and disbelief, of real and imaginary.

In The Divided Self, Laing describes ontological insecurity as the feeling that the individual is

precariously differentiated from the rest of the world, so that his identity and autonomy are always in question. He may lack the experience of his own temporal continuity. He may not possess an over-riding sense of personal consistency or cohesiveness. . . And he may feel his self as partially divorced from his body. (Laing 42)

Ontological insecurity calls into question the nature of the self, and a response to this question is the perception of the self as, in Laing’s word, “unembodied.” The unembodied self’s “functions come to be observation, control, and criticism vis-a-vis what the body is experiencing and doing, and those operations which are usually spoken of as purely ‘mental’.” (Laing 69)

By using elements of the recognizable language of earlier forms of media and combining those elements with active participation, games induce a gentle form of ontological insecurity in their players. This insecurity is grounded in the same basic confusions presented by the hyperreality of and Eternal Sunshine. We return to the question: on which side of the screen does the player exist?

The truly fascinating twist is that while games (like other forms of media) can achieve this confusion through pure representation, they need not bother. Instead, games create instability simply by requiring the player to perform; that is, instability is created and maintained through the action of play. Games necessitate an unembodied self while simultaneously allowing that self access to virtually embodied action.

Thus, in games the destabilizing question has a preliminary answer: I exist simultaneously on both sides of the screen. I am part of the simulation.

Simulational participation is not limited to the active: games exploit the passivity of memory to further layer simulation. This tool is used by the films referenced above; but the digital nature of games allow memory to operate in a mode not available to film: perfect reproduction.

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Super Mario Crossover illustrates the nature of convention and genre in digital media objects: perfect simulation is possible because perfect reproduction is possible. The referentialism of earlier media, as we saw in the opening sequences of and Eternal Sunshine, is replaced with the exact reproduction of prior simulation. This adds a temporal dimension of simulation, in which the player’s memory (whether real or illusory) of experience (whether real or illusory) becomes a passive part of active play. Thus the real and the imaginary are further confused as the player participates in the replication and remixing of their own memories, a level of hyperreal confusion that is not available to film.

The ontological crisis imagined by and Eternal Sunshine becomes, in games, a densely layered crisis of the imaginary; a real crisis of simulation; a crisis that is induced every time we play a video game.

Notes:

1My use of gameplay videos that follows is, in this context, a placeholder at best and disingenuous at worst. It is my desire that they be viewed as placeholders: they show you the screen of someone who is playing, but it is important to recognize that they are themselves not objects of play. However believably these videos imply a player, one cannot escape being implicated as a viewer; a spectator; an anti-player.

This topic could span several posts on its own. For my purposes here, I will say this: these games must be played. The embedded gameplay videos are a good low-barrier way to access my argument, but they should not be construed as viable alternatives to actually playing the games they portray.

Works cited:

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994. Print. The Body, In Theory.

. Dir. Federico Fellini. Columbia, 1963. The Criterion Collection, 2004. DVD.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Dir. Michel Gondry. Focus Features, 2004. Film.

Super Mario Bros. Nintendo, 1985. Game.

Laing, R. D. The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness. New York: Penguin, 1965. Print.

Super Mario Crossover. Dev. Jay Pavlina. Newgrounds.com, 2010. Game.