The Video Game Theory Reader
Editor: Mark J. P. Wolf, Bernard Perron
Publisher: New York: Routledge, 2003
Review Published: March 2006
To paraphrase Stanley Fish (1989): being interdisciplinary is hard -- a maxim no less evident in the growing field of video game studies, also known as computer game studies, ludology, just plain "game studies," or, to stretch the point, perhaps even simulation studies. The article contributed by editor Bernard Perron appropriately concludes with a quotation from Seymour Chatman, who wrote in Coming to Terms, "every discipline needs periodically to examine its terms. For terms are not mere tags: they represent -- in some sense, even constitute -- a theory" (253). This clearly is the project of The Video Game Theory Reader, questing towards a theory that is in the process of constituting itself. Just as video games draw from myriad antecedents -- literary, cinematic, hypertextual, artistic and architectural, programmatic, and, lest we forget, ludic -- so too does the study of this relatively new medium draw from myriad disciplinary approaches.
The introduction to this volume, written by editors Mark J.P. Wolf and Bernard Perron, highlights the diversity that the contributors bring to the subject, with individual authors hailing from at least eight different countries and representing several disciplines, both academic and professional: game design, media and cinema studies, telecommunication, visual culture, and cultural studies, just to name a few. With this interdisciplinary talk soup comes the danger of a Babel-like experience, where the common vocabulary (one might say, each discipline's respective jargon) towers above and occasionally rumbles threateningly under the weight of its own burden. Those studying video games, in short, still struggle to pursue the nigh impossible quest of a working, common vocabulary, just as they debate who should study games, and with what methodologies. The Video Game Theory Reader offers several thoughtful essays, but that these fundamental questions are still very much in debate is quite evident throughout the collection. The better essays are those that recognize that making claims about all games, just like making claims about all film or all literature, creates a specious argument at best; "close playings" (in the vein of close readings) of individual games or discussions specific to genre prove more useful than the application of broad theoretical brushes intended to account for all video games.
The volume begins with a foreword by Warren Robinett and an "Introduction" by editors Wolf and Perron. Robinett, who wrote the game Adventure for the Atari 2600, reviews some of his design decisions and emphasizes the scholarly value of interviewing game designers. The essay, while occasionally entertaining, reads more like a PowerPoint presentation and overall would have been better served had it followed the format of an interview, in line with the author's own recommendation. Wolf and Perron then provide a succinct review of video games, their history, and the history of their study. The editors are clearly aware that the study of video games is a game in itself, the medium (or, depending on your preference, the genre) a moving target that slips along the margins of definition and discipline. The video game is, after all, the quintessential "border case," inviting scrutiny from each discipline it draws from and never quite belonging to any of them. The introduction reviews the development of game studies, highlighting the turn of the century as when "video game theory comes of age," echoing Espen Aarseth's (2001) declaration of "2001 . . . as the Year One of Computer Game Studies as an emerging, viable, international, academic field." The editors usefully review what they see as the four basic elements of video game theory: "the algorithm, player activity, interface, and graphics" (13-17), noting that each of these often appears in discussions of video games, even if under different names. Wolf and Perron cite similarities with, for example, Janet Murray's four essential properties of digital environments (procedural, participatory, spatial, and encyclopedic) and Lev Manovich's "idea of navigable space and the database" (17). These four elements, as described by the editors, share a number of overlapping features however, somewhat complicating their value. While "player activity" includes the avatar's response on screen as well as player's behavior, so too does the "algorithm" include "responses . . . to the changing situations and data within the game," to include the "on-screen action of the player's avatar . . . determined by the player's input" (16). Organizing the thirteen essays within their rubric would have been useful for those new to the field or seeking thematic essays to use in the classroom, but the above overlapping terminology represents, in the editor's own words, "the diversity of approaches and lack of a common terminology that can be found in the writings converging in the area we could call video game theory" (17). This proves to be both the strength and the bane of the collection, a theoretical cacophony that is part of the necessary steps as we quest for harmony.
A bourgeoning field, the meta-discourse of how to study video games and who should study them remains a popular discussion. The "Introduction" certainly falls within this category, as does the first chapter, "Theory by Design," by Walter Holland, Henry Jenkins, and Kurt Squire. Game theory, they argue, "seems to be teetering on a threshold," between a segregated academic discipline on the one hand and a collaborative venture between "game designers, consumers, journalists, and scholars" on the other (26). The authors offer the Games-to-Teach project as an example of the latter, citing the development of four games (or game design documents) as examples of melding theory and praxis (this grant project, which ran from 2001 to 2003 with support from Microsoft, now appears to be subsumed under The Education Arcade at MIT). Tackling complex engineering problems and visualization methods, as well as teaching AP biology and using handheld computers in the classroom, the four "conceptual designs . . . offer a methodology for 'doing theory'" (42) in an effort "to bring not only Hamlet but Habermas and high school to the Holodeck" (44). The Games-To-Teach project example serves as a useful prototype not just of interdisciplinary collaboration, but of using the process of game design to serve as theoretical experimentation.
Wolf's own submission to the volume, "Abstraction in the Video Game," tackles the rapidly changing realm of graphics by reviewing the value of graphical abstraction in the age of an ever-present push towards realism. Wolf's article shines in its technical discussions of early video game systems, relating, for example, the need to either mirror or duplicate the background for Atari 2600, thus "accounting for much of the horizontal symmetry found in the early Atari games" (54). His comparison of actual screenshots to the complementary box art is an intriguing lesson in early game marketing, the abstract graphics packed in a realist guise. At the same time, what is less clear is the degree to which Wolf believes the abstraction resulted from technical limitation as much as a desire -- or value -- in the abstraction itself. Drawing on Worringer's 1908 Abstraction and Empathy, Wolf does suggest that abstraction in video games stood contrary to the need for empathy, with a nod towards the Lacanian concept of the "mirror-stage." He offers examples of newer abstract games, such as Rez (PlayStation 2, 2002), which offers hope towards use -- and study -- of abstraction born not of necessity, but experimentation.
Alison McMahan turns to 3-D video games, focusing on what she sees as an historical turn from 2-D or isometric points of view towards "3-D design and a first-person point of view" (68), a design decision, she argues, based on a desire towards immersive virtual realities. Taking issue with loose concepts surrounding the notion of immersion, she seeks more specific terminology by reviewing the etymology of terms like immersion, engagement, and presence. McMahan draws from the work of Matthew Lombard and Theresa Ditton on presence as the sense of experiencing an unmediated virtual environment, emphasizing methods they outline for creating a sense of presence, such as social interaction, realism, telepresence, and building on their work through a discussion of, for example, perceptual and psychological immersion (physical and emotion responses, effectively) and the use of social actors (e.g., artificially intelligent agents). She rightly emphasizes that each game can create an individual sense of presence, and produces a case study using the game Myst III: Exile, the third in the famous series started by the Miller brothers in 1993. Perhaps the greatest contribution of McMahan's article is to offer steps towards, as she puts it, "a badly needed elaboration of game genres" (83).
That need for genre- or game-specific argumentation is evident in many of the essays that follow, several of which attempt to address the user's relationship to the game and the avatar. Miroslaw Filiciak explores "Hyperidentities" in Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games, in which the "user situation is an idealized image of the situation of the postmodern human creature, in which a user can freely shape his own 'self'" (90). The essay offers several theories of identity formation and association, but unfortunately suffers under the weight of its own theories without effectively steering the conversation. His conclusion, that "avatars are not an escape from our 'self,' they are, rather, a longed-for chance of expressing ourselves beyond physical limitations, they are a postmodern dream being materialized" (101), recalls to this reviewer's mind earlier hypertext theory celebrating the actualization of postmodernism in its form.
Bob Rehak's contribution, "Playing at Being: Psychoanalysis and the Avatar," draws from film theory and the psychoanalytic theories of Lacan, specifically the theory of the mirror-stage (the infant's first encounter and response to their reflected image) to discuss a player's relationship to the on-screen avatar. Rehak's thorough explorations of the mirror stage, which seems more valuable as a metaphor rather than a direct theoretical application, is outshined by his own systematic articulation of various avatars and interfaces, the goal of which, Rehak argues, is "to confront players with detailed and lifelike 'doubles'" (118). Well-argued, even for those like the reviewer who hold no particular preference towards psychoanalysis, Rehak's essay is worth reading, though it occasionally suffers by conflating the avatar and the interface, or through a lack of attention in situating those games that either for historical or design purposes lacked avatars or allowed several of them at one time (such as controlling groups of player characters in role-playing games) within his theoretical framework.
Turning away from immersion and towards a reflection of corporeal embodiment in our relationship to games, the next two essays re-assert the physical body and activity required in video games. Torben Grodal tackles the difficult question of narrative in video games as compared to other media forms, but by focusing on a more broadly construed notion of narrative as a process of mental cognition divorced from language and media dependence. He critiques theorists such as Marie-Laure Ryan for considering "the story phenomenon" as "centrally a verbal phenomenon" (135), but his core argument appears to center around the very difficult question as to whether or not simulated real-time experience should, or could, be considered as narrative at all (which is generally understood as a retelling or relation of past events). The strong sense of the present tense in many video games counters and confounds this conception of narrative, leading Grodal to reconsider how we define narrative generally. The narrative format, he argues, "is a way of arranging perceptions, emotions, cognitions, and motor actions (pecma), based on innate brain modules and with or without a linguistic representation" (153). Though many may quibble with Grodal's conclusions that reconceived the definition, his essay is a thought-provoking insertion in this continuing debate in video game studies (a debate articulated in full by Gonzalo Frasca's contribution, discussed below).
Martti Lahti, in turn, examines the cyborgian relationship actualized in video games in his contribution, "As We Become Machines: Corporealized Pleasures in Video Games." Pushing back against theories of immersion, he questions "one of the most often repeated and taken-for-granted assumptions [that] . . . treat new media . . . as machines to realize desires for bodily transcendence, that is, an 'out-of-body' experience" (158). Rather, Lahti reminds us of the various ways in which games reinforce the distance between our body and our avatars, and the methods game interfaces provide that enable a "cybernetic loop" with the computer. Like McMahan, Lahti sees an historical progression from a third-person to first-person perspective. This claim, however, really should be considered genre-dependent; plenty of games still rely on points of view that are either variable or third-person,
complicating this perception. That said, Lahti's broader point, that bodies are not dematerialized in the process of play, is an important reminder for any theory of ergodic play.
Mia Consalvo's essay also focuses on bodies, but not necessarily those of the players. In "Hot Dates and Fairy-Tale Romances: Studying Sexuality in Video Games," Consalvo explores normative sexual practices infused in the rule systems in games like The Sims, in which -- as the instruction manual reminds us -- "only opposite-sex relationships qualify for a proposal of marriage" (qtd. in Consalvo 171). She begins with a review of the sexual triangle established in the story and game play of Final Fantasy 9, which may be complicated if the player -- whose role is to reify, according to Consalvo, normative heterosexuality -- is homosexual or female. An intriguing study of the implications behind both rules and fictions established by games, Consalvo's essay concludes by presenting a few ways to read -- and play -- against the grain.
Whereas the previous essays focus predominantly on theorizing the cybernetic control systems that connect the player to the game, the remaining essays revisit, in some fashion, the continued -- and by all means necessary -- discussion of the relationship of video games to other media forms that preceded them. Often awkwardly lumped under the "narratology-ludology debate," this conversation is much broader than two methodological choices, and involves notable questions: how can games, as a medium, be used to develop story-like experiences? To what degree do video games draw from narrative forms such as film, drama, and literary arts? And to what degree do they relate to what one might sensibly assume would be their native home with other ludic arts like board and card games, sports, or other kinds of ergodic art? Markku Eskelinen and Ragnhild Tronstad, in "Video Games and Configurative Performances," stress the ludic and dismiss the narratological. Their thoughtful contributions are only marred by the ferventness with which they dismiss the possibilities that some relationship might exist between the ergodic and non-ergodic arts, a supposition that does not seem quite so implausible given the range and depth of emulation and simulation afforded by computing. For Eskelinen and Tronstad, however, the game is the primary factor, and they support this with three claims: "games are audienceless;" game play involves "variable sequences of action;" and "playing a game is a special kind of performance or activity" (200). To support these points, the authors turn to Allan Kaprow and his conception of "Happenings," a particular kind of participatory (performance) art in order to build toward a typology of player action. In total, this is an ambitious, occasionally antagonistic essay, marking it as an intriguing read no matter one's opinion of game and narrative. Those who agree will nod their heads and those who do not will find plenty to quibble with -- most readers will likely do both.
Gonzalo Frasca offers his historical view of the development of ludology as a counter to approaching games from traditional disciplines in his "Simulation versus Narratology," aptly subtitled "Introduction to Ludology." Though simulation and narratives may share common elements, Frasca argues, "their mechanics are essentially different . . . [and] they also offer distinct rhetorical possibilities" (222). By focusing on "simulation rhetoric," Frasca seeks to show how games can convey "the ideas and feelings of an author" in ways traditional representative media cannot (224-5), such as by structuring the behavioral rules of a simulation according to one's cultural or philosophical beliefs and allowing the act of play to unveil the ludological rhetoric. In many ways, Frasca emphasizes here the difference between emergent simulation and reflective representation. He offers the example of Boal's "Theater of the Oppressed," citing the ability to disrupt the traditional three-act structure as the reason it is successful and "interactive narrative," which insists on maintaining "narrative coherence," is not (229). Though Frasca has largely been credited with the popularization of the term ludology, those already familiar with his work will likely find that the previous essay by Eskenlinen and Tronstad offers a more substantial engagement with detailed ludological principles. Frasca's essay, on the other hand, serves well as an introduction to ludology, as was its intention.
For a film scholar interested in games, the "interactive movie" seemed the most appropriate place to start, as editor Bernard Perron recalls in "From Gamers to Players and Gameplayers." Perron politely suggests that interactive movies are, at best, B-grade films when considered against cinematic standards alone. This discovery leads him to turn towards the ludological, examining the kind of play involved in interactive movies, and the kind of player they draw, with considerable focus on Tender Loving Care (1999). Chris Crawford, too, is concerned with quality interactive dramatic events. A game designer and a long-time advocate and theorist of "Interactive Storytelling," he proffers his professional review of the progress of interactive storytelling and its theory, before presenting his design -- The Erasmatron storytelling engine -- and the ways it articulates the laws of drama. Crawford has been in the game of game design for a long time; his personal quest to develop Erasmatron, which he openly states as falling well short of what is needed for true interactive storytelling, remains intriguing to follow. Readers of Crawford's own books might not find much to discover here, but those new to his work can get a sense of his aims.
The collection concludes with one of its most compelling articles, Patrick Crogan's "Gametime: History, Narrative, and Temporality in Combat Flight Simulator 2." This thoughtful investigation of simulation, history, and the effect of ergodic discourse in a World War II flight simulator and the Hollywood blockbuster Pearl Harbor, is a fruitful example of the value in comparative studies between games and narrative forms. Crogan's review of the secondary nature of narrative to Hollywood visual effects through the lens of play in a flight sim implicitly articulates an important justification for comparative work: studying games through established methodologies also allows us to reconsider and reconfigure our assumptions of previous media forms and how we study them.
The title of The Video Game Theory Reader gives the impression, at least to this reader, of being a bit of a primer -- an introduction to the ins and outs of video game theory, perhaps following the four basic components outlined by the editors in their introduction. In fact, it reads more like Theorizing Video Games, a product of the very much in-progress (and necessary) work towards building a common understanding -- one might daresay a discourse and a canon -- from which to work. As a primer, the Reader is less successful, but as an example of the work that has been done, and more importantly the work that remains to be done, the volume has several articles that make it a worthwhile addition to any game researcher's bookshelf. Those essays within that recognize video games as part of a larger cultural media matrix, and articulate a specific vision rooted in individual games, tend to be the better for it. While an argument for large strokes of the theoretical brush certainly are at times justified, game- and genre-specific criticism better suit the emerging project of game studies.
Aarseth, Espen. "Computer Game Studies, Year One," Game Studies 1:1. July 2001.
Fish, Stanley. "Being Interdisciplinary Is So Hard To Do." Professions 89. NY: MLA, 1989. 15-22.
Jason Rhody is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is currently writing his dissertation, "Game Fiction," an examination of genre, narrativity, and fiction in computer games. He blogs at Miscellany is the Largest Category and is the founder of the Wordherder blogging cooperative. <jcrhody AT umd DOT edu>
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