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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.

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