First Person: New Media as Story, Performance and Game

August 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

Janet Murray, “From Game Story to Cyberdrama” (2004)

What’s with all these stories in video games? Are they more stories or more games? And what comes first, the story or the game? I say story comes first. Life is but a game. Game story? Increasingly so, because of postmodernism! The digital medium is both source of and palliative to our postmodern condition. Games especially, they’re zeitgeisty in the ways that novels were back when people read books. These days we’re moving away from linear narratives; our lizard brains crave hypertext. Cyberdrama! Which is a story predicated on and influenced by the medium itself. Ergodic literature, choose your own adventure. Tamagotchi. The Sims. Neither game nor story. But not not either, either. Collaborative improvisation, kind of a luderary Rube Goldberg machine. Replay story, many options. Redefining the boundaries of narrative through gameplay. Nothing new here! But still! Goodbye legacy media, hello user agency!

Espen Aarseth, “Genre Trouble: Narrativism and the Art of Simulation” (2001, 2004)

What’s with all these stories in video games, you ask? And are they more stories or more games? Hold on let me guess. You’re….a…lit professor? And you study what now? Narrative, right. Which wouldn’t have anything to do with your eagerness to frame the discussion in terms of storytelling, now would it? After all, video games are emerging as a –if not the— dominant mode of contemporary cultural expression. It sure would be a boon for the literary humanities if it turns out you’re the best wo/men for the job. It’s a jungle out there, and what would all your freshly-minted PhDs do if they didn’t have some brave new world of cultural production to go colonize? I get it, I mean, I would get it, if the question “are games texts?” weren’t the stupidest fucking thing I’ve ever heard. Not because there aren’t some narrative elements in some video games, but because video games aren’t a genre ffs. They’re a (relatively) new material technology nestled within a much older behavioral category. You know, “games.” But literature departments don’t know what to do with games, so they’re run through the story-grinder, a handy machine for flattening unruly landscapes into a manageable stretch of asphalt, just like Shakespeare intended. Don’t get me wrong, I like literature just fine! And you guys do a nice job with it, golf claps all around. My point is that your particular paradigm is limited and limiting and as long as you’re asking questions generated by an outdated model, you’ll get answers that only give me more crap to wade through before I can actually start talking about the real issues, like simulation and embodiment and play. So cut it out, seriously.

Stuart Moulthrop, “From Work to Play: Molecular Culture in the Time of Deadly Games” (2001, 2004)

Look, the fact that we’re fighting about this at all is significant. Take the above debate between the ludologists, headed by Aarseth, and their personal lulzcow Janet Murray, which pits an interpretive model of reception (there is a text; the text means something; readers figure out what that something is) against a set of configurative practices (there is a gaming environment; players poach, discard, rearrange and interact with its contents). Within the academy, the former approach –which privileges story, text, linearity– is taken as a given, and configurative approaches are either ignored, cooly tolerated or outright condemned (ed. note: no comment). Yes there are clearly political and economic factors at play. But this is also about the incompatibility of ideological (read: generational) systems. The old school values narrative, the new school configuration. In the end, this isn’t just about video games, especially if and when you allow configurative practices to extend beyond the borders of whatever game world. Under this burgeoning configurative system, text becomes behavior and behavior becomes play — an infinite can of infinite worms that can only be described as rich with potential. What direction this potential goes, well that’s another story. But these are dark times. And something about what comes with great power.

What I learned from these fine scholars

Well ask and ye shall receive — interesting to read these selections after yesterday’s. I was mostly taken by Aarseth’s characterization of games as alternatives to storytelling, which was one of those serendipitous moments where I was already thinking about a thing that had something to do with the thing he was saying. Re: yesterday, this isn’t to say that gamespaces represent, or have the potential to support, entirely “new” worlds. As with all digital technologies, what we end up playing with isn’t stuff we find, but stuff we’ve made. And we make certain things in certain ways –as opposed to certain others– for all sorts of overdetermined, historically-dependent reasons.

Race, for example, though assumed not to exist online generally and certainly not in alternative gaming realities, is as present in whatever gamespace as it is irl. Born of real-world universalizations of whiteness, race –that is to say, racelessness (which doesn’t mean no-race, it means race made invisible)– is both literally and metaphorically coded into whatever virtual world. I’m thinking of Beth Kolko’s analysis of MUDs and MOOs, here, which positioned (and championed) themselves as inherently race/class/genderless but of course weren’t, because as long as humans are involved that’s just not possible. As Kolko explains, if a player wanted to embody a particular race or ethnicity, he or she would have to input an @race property, a decision which quite literally would flag the player as “Other.” But #duhwinning there can’t be an Other without a standard against which to measure itself; a Very Dyer Christmas version of raceless whiteness was therefore the default. A similar situation presents itself on the blogosplat, which, like the MUDs and MOOs of yore, automatically presumes “racelessness” — you’re considered invisible i.e. standard i.e. white until you claim a particular skin for yourself, thus undermining the claim that the internet is some sort of blank slate reprieve from real world issues. The internet is the real world, just squeezed through a smaller screen.

Obviously (actually not obviously at all), MUDs and MOOs aren’t “games” in the “traditional” sense, and neither is blogshit (maybe, although this blog sometimes feels like one big game slash joke slash playground). But the principle stands — virtual media is embedded in the real world and vice versa, whether we care to admit it or not. Consequently vidya games, no matter how imaginative or far removed from the real world, aren’t and can’t be exempt from the basic logical assumptions and realities of the world which produced them. That said, if games really are an alternative to traditional narrative, and if traditional narrative is the defining feature of Western cultural production, then games might provide an interesting window into larger problems, in my case the relationship between online utopian discourses and actual online practices. And now I watch TV.

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