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Archive for the ‘Brief thoughts’ Category

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?

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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I’m currently drafting a post based on the material framework below. I think there is value in presenting the frame without the analysis, so I’m posting this stripped-down version ahead of the final version.
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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)

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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.

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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 Mind. Dir. Michel Gondry. Focus Features, 2004. Film.

Super Mario Bros. Nintendo, 1985. Game.

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

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