The Pleasures of Computer Gaming: Essays on Cultural History, Theory and Aesthetics
Editor: Melanie Swalwell, Jason Wilson
Publisher: Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008
Review Published: August 2009
The Pleasures of Computer Gaming contains eight essays of varying lengths that approach games from widely varied theoretical and disciplinary stances. From the outset, co-editors Melanie Swalwell and Jason Wilson posit their anthology as a collection of essays exploring games' situation in "longer arcs of cultural history and theory" stemming from "complex social practices" (2). They flatly reject some ludologists' claims that humanistic discourses represent projects of intellectual colonization (see Aarseth, "Narrativism and the Art of Simulation"), even claiming a potential provincialism on the part of some "to make proprietorial claims on an entire field of cultural production" (3). In their words, "game studies needs to think beyond gameplay" (7). Though their strongest criticisms take aim at ludology, they are aware of the difficulties that inhere when understanding video games in light of established critical and theoretical positions. They want the volume to recover some of the "nuanced work" of humanistic disciplines that aim their gaze toward games -- not just to take games as their object, but to turn their findings back into their own disciplinary fields to till new theoretical understandings of "other media, visual, and literary texts" (5). Their criticisms, of both ludology and humanistic approaches, is a welcome sign in the discussion surrounding games studies, but positing their purpose in such terms seems to date the book a little prematurely. At this point, the bitterly battled border war between ludology and narratology, most notably documented in Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan's seminal First Person, has subsided as scholarship of games has exploded throughout the academy. An ever-widening range of disciplines, and their theoretical and epistemological claims, now address gaming phenomena, a fact made obvious by the anthology itself.
The volume, then, leaves the reader with some mixed impressions of its timeliness. Some entries, like Seth Giddings and Helen W. Kennedy's "Little Jesuses and *@#?-off Robots," offer interesting insights into the need to understand "the aesthetics and agencies (both human and nonhuman)" (17) of playing games, but their stated aims are not always evidenced in their conclusions. The need "to suggest a method for analyzing" games (17) reaches only the conclusion that "a new conceptual language" (30) is necessary to understand the authors' belief that "the player is mastered by the machine" (19). Their "micro ethnography" (18) provides some fantastic evidence of such claims in the form of a case study analyzing the authors' play sessions with Lego Star Wars. Yet, the pivotal point that "the game trains the player" (18) has already reached consensus among many games scholars. For example, Jon Saklofske's 2007 analysis of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas interrogated claims of the game's sense of freedom from the perspective that a player's agency is actually rather restricted.
Another example is co-editor Jason Wilson's "'Participation TV': Videogame Archaeology and New Media Art." His project seeks to illuminate links games share with "broader contexts and longer histories" of "cultural, economic, and technological changes" (95). Wilson's chosen context is that of the Fluxus art movement in the 1960s, seeking to illuminate the notion procedurality (that now dominates critical discussions of games), and recover at least some space for games within the critical discourses surrounding new media (98). His interrogation of the evolution of Pong as an extension of Nam June Paik's Participation TV provides some sense of the cultural milieu in which media has become participatory by comparing Paik's project to those of Ralph Baer and Nolan Bushnell in bringing gaming technology to wider audiences. But, two opportunities are missed here. First, Wilson brushes over the aesthetic and critical differences between Paik's radical artwork and the commodification in Baer's and Bushnell's purposes: "all three can be seen as manifestations of a common desire to turn television to new uses, to encourage new kinds of information behavior in relation to screen images" (114). Wilson's conclusions lead the reader to believe that the emphasis on "process" in each project is important. Thus, the second opportunity lost is the potential to illuminate the emphasis on process in light of games studies' growing emphasis on the procedural in recent years.
However, despite these limitations, reading the volume does provide some exciting insight into research and analytical methods that can be applied to games studies. Co-editor Melanie Swalwell, as well as Giddings and Kennedy, frame their work around qualitative studies that seek to account for the player's experiences from ethnographic field research, a welcome departure from more theoretical assertions about players' relationships to games spaces. Examining player action (both diegetic and nondiegetic) through empirical methods is an important step for any approach to games, whether ludological or otherwise. And the broader need to situate gaming experiences within other contexts is, without question, a worthwhile project signaling games as legitimate sites of social and cultural interaction. Of particular note here is Bernadette Flynn's examination of spatiality ("The Navigator's Experience: An Examination of the Spatial in Computer Games") in games as compared to other forms of representation.
Largely, The Pleasures of Computer Gaming suffers from its desire to move "beyond" ludology, particularly because some influential ludologists have softened their initially entrenched positions regarding the roles of fictional representations in video games. Jesper Juul is a particular target in the Introduction, embedded in the discussion concerning ludology's initial concerns with the encroachment of established scholarly disciplines upon games. Yet, of the four essays that cite Juul's work, all of them refer only to his more stringent criticism's of narrativity and semiotic approaches to games. None refer to Half-Real and Juul's more recent approach to the relationships between a game's "rules" and its "fiction." And many of these essays would have benefited significantly from a more timely read of recent ludologically-oriented criticism, especially with respect to player agency and subjectivity. Whether discussing cheats (Julian Küchlich, "Forbidden Pleasures: Cheating in Computer Games"), or embodied experience (Melanie Swalwell, "Movement and Kinaesthetic Responsiveness: A Neglected Pleasure"), or the many other concerns that populate the text, The Pleasures of Computer Gaming generally does not do enough to situate its discussions in the existing literature, whether that of ludology or the humanities it privileges.
Aarseth, Espen. "Genre Trouble: Narrativism and the Art of Simulation." First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Eds. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2004. 45-55.
Juul, Jesper. Half-Real: Video Games Between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2005.
Saklofske, Jon. "Thoughtless Play: Using William Blake to Illuminate Authority and Agency within Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas." Games and Culture 2.2 (2007): 134-48.
Dave Jones teaches at several colleges and universities in Kentucky and Indiana, all while working towards his PhD through Old Dominion University. His research interests include games studies, social media, media convergence, and narrativity. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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