tl;dr – scroll down for pix
The photos used in this post & more are available under a Creative Commons (attribution) license here in hi-res. Enjoy!
When I got to San Francisco on the Saturday night before the 2013 Game Developers Conference, I had already been on the road for two weeks, hopping from Copenhagen to Chicago to Ann Arbor to LA to Philadelphia on PhD visits and law school tours. I’ve never done travelling like that, but maybe the worst part is that I kind of liked it. After the first few days, I had a routine even if I wasn’t in a set place— I read a lot on planes, made single serving coffee, sampled the greasy street fare and free art museums of places I’d never been before, walked constantly, etc.
I was eating at a hot dog joint with my folks on the way to the New Orleans airport when I found out about receiving the GDC IGDA Scholarship and I promptly cheered and told my parents. They weren’t that impressed, initially, but once I explained what the slew of letters I had just blurted out stood for, and also that I don’t technically have class this semester, I’d say they were at any rate supportively bemused. I sent the application for IGDA’s GDC scholarship from the deepest pit of LSAT purgatory, and it came sailing back through sattelite transmission to the screen in my pocket at half-time of a chilidog double-header. This is the modern world.
If you’re a student involved in the games industry in any way, I encourage you to check out the IGDA Scholarship program! It can get you to a lot more places than GDC!
In December, nobody in Glitchnap thought we’d be at GDC, but through an incredible spree of luck, we were all going by the time March rolled around. We sent in a ton of applications, hoping that something would pan out, and I ended up with an IGDA Scholarship, then Mads, Joon & Mikkel (as Wolfmans) found out they were selected for a slot at Chartboost University: Boot Camp, a two week session on the tech needed to successfully get a commercial software product off the ground, while we were in the middle of a submission to Mozilla’s Game On competition. A week later, Glitchnap won the Mozilla Game On Grand Prize and Best Multi-Device awards with an HTML5 port of Zumbie: Blind Rage. Through some careful finagling between the various prizes, we were able to get our whole team out to San Francisco. We can’t thank IGDA, Mozilla and Chartboost enough for getting us to GDC!
One of the great things for us was witnessing the global indie community in action first hand (and also getting drunk with them). Before GDC even started, we had a chance to meet some of the people who make games that have started some serious internal rivalries: we played the hell out of Samurai Gunn in my apartment, and I’d been a huge fan of 0space & Shoot First! so it was really amazing to meet Beau Blyth (a.k.a. @teknopants)—here he is on the right next to Paul Veer (a.k.a. @pietepiet), who does a lot of amazing pixel-art for Vlambeer.
As part of the IGDA Scholars on-site tours, we got a chance to tour Double Fine and ask some questions of legendary game designer Handsome Tim Schafer.
Joon & Mads made it to the Rumpus Royale MMXIII finals in Hokra. The team that beat them was Doug Wilson, who was behind the whole Kickstarter that’s publishing the game, and fellow Sportsfriend Noah Sasso, so I’d say Glitchnap made a pretty good showing. I was hoping to dominate at Samurai Gunn, but we had to play on PS3 controllers and I got knocked out of the first round.
Here we are at the Mozilla San Francisco offices!
At the same exhibition, here’s avant-garde weirdo tabletop game Everything is Dolphins! (bit of a misnomer, really, as the game I overheard a lot of things seemed to be swords/maces/halberds held by dolphins) with David Kanaga’s Panoramical in the background.
Of course, getting an All-Access pass to GDC also meant going to some really outstanding talks. I wrote up one of those talks, by QWOP Maestro Bennett Foddy, over at Killscreen. I got a chance to see talks by Blizzard and Riot Games, plus I got a chance to get on stage and play some folk games with Doug Wilson. One of my favorite talks of the conference was the indie rant, and the highlight of the indie rant was an impassioned reading & reinterpretation of Cara Ellison‘s “John Romero’s Wives” by Anna Anthropy.
A lot of other awesome stuff happened at GDC– the Wild Rumpus party, exhibiting LAZA KNITEZ!! at the infamous IGDA/YetiZen shindig, going to Five Rings with the IGDA Scholars, meeting Jenovah Chen and all the awesome Mozilla folks, and lots of other stuff but with all the running around I did, I often found myself without my camera when I really wanted it.
Going to GDC made me feel like I had some kind of grasp on the videogame industry and the various factions it’s composed of, from academics to indies to AAA developers. Seeing the whole ecology at once gave me a better idea where I fit in, and even that there might be a place for an academic with a newly discovered passion for game design. Getting to mill around the IGF booth and “see the future” of indie gaming was pretty unforgettable!
Special thanks to Luke Dicken, Kate Edwards, Heather Decker-Davis, Sheri Rubin, & Molly Malone for all their great work putting the IGDA Scholars program together this year!
I’ll be starting a joint JD/PhD with Northwestern Law & the School of Communication’s Media, Technology & Society program in the fall. I did my bachelor’s degree in American Studies at Northwestern and I worked in an MTS-affiliated lab for a year before studying in Copenhagen. I’m proud to be going back to Evanston and Chicago. The JD/PhD process was fairly torturous, but I’m very happy to be on the other side. I was fortunate to have had no bad choices for graduate school, and I had a chance to meet some amazing scholars and see beautiful campuses on the first part of my little U.S. tour.
I’m editing photos now for a recap of my trip to the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco last month. That post will be coming soon.
I have a couple of thousand-word journal posts which I’m contractually obligated to file in the next ten days or so. Gotta get them ECTS, you know. In case you missed it, I also recently published a recap of our experiences last year as winners of the 2012 Nordic Indie Sensation Award for Copenhagen Game Collective.
Before returning to heady academic analyses, though, I’ll briefly regale you with a tale of my impending journey, whereby I set off across the amber waves of grain, etc. of my insecure homeland in pursuit of fame, glory and swag. In that noble pursuit I’ll be criss-crossing the country in search of a new home. My time in Denmark is growing short; if everything goes according to plan, I’ll be done with my Master’s thesis in early June and I’ll decamp from Europe some time during the summer.
For roughly the last four years, I have been trying to become a JD/PhD candidate. While I dimly recognized then that gaining admission to two programs at the same school, each with a perilously slim acceptance rate, would be a harrowing task, I was then but a naive waif wholly unprepared for the mountains of paperwork, the legions of bureaucrats, the Sisphyean tasks and the Augean stables piled high with horseshit. But I’m standing now on the cusp of that elusive goal, having been accepted into three PhD programs and two accompanying JDs (still waiting on that third one!). So I’ll be headed off into the United States for some college tours. This is the first time I go on a college tour, because I went to Northwestern as an undergrad sight unseen.
That’s the first leg of the tour, plus some time to recoup with dear friends and allies in Chicago and Los Angeles along the way. For the second part of the tour, I have to explain Glitchnap to you. Glitchnap is Team Buttfighters redux— look we came up with that name after six hours of brainstorming, and never expected our game design group to last for two years and counting! So we needed a new name. Mads, Joon, and Jonas, the other three handsome fellows in Glitchnap, are sitting in San Francisco now at Chartboost University Boot Camp learning about how to become a successful startup, along with our good friend Mikkel. Because of some EXTREMELY AWESOME NEWS that I can’t share with you yet, our whole team ended up getting free trips out to GDC.
I’m heading out to GDC thanks to the IGDA Scholars program. I just recently found out that I’ve been assigned Tom Buscaglia, the Game Attorney, as my IGDA mentor, and I’m thrilled to be meeting him soon. After GDC I’ll be heading back to Copenhagen for about a month before shipping back out to the U.S. for the Extending Play conference at Rutgers, where I’m on a panel with fellow ITU-Copenhageners Miguel Sicart and Douglas Wilson. I think I’m going to be heading out to a bunch of other crazy conferences before my thesis gets handed in June 3rd (yikes!), but mum’s the word on that until I hear a little more. I’ve got to row my ducks and get to packing, but that’s a quick update on what I’m up to over the next three weeks. See you in San Francisco!
For the Game Cultures seminar at ITU, I presented a companion lecture for our session on Co-Creative Labour and Culture. For that class, we read Hector Postigo’s “From Pong to Planet Quake,” Henry Jenkins’ “Interactive Audiences?”, a chapter of Jon Dovey & Helen Kennedy’s Game Cultures: Computer Games as New Media titled “Interventions and Recuperations?” and “A Playful Multitude? Mobilising and Counter-Mobilising Immaterial Game Labor” by Greig de Peuter and Nick Dyer-Witheford (I’ve previously discussed their book, Games of Empire, in this journal).
Almost all of the discussions of immaterial labor we read for class discussed exploitation, but they also generally took the term for granted without going into too much detail about its specifics. I was reminded of the first paper I had written about game studies several years ago, an essay on Caillois’ four elements of play. In that paper, I had argued that each of the four elements was focused on the displacement or temporary abandonment of the ego. Since then, I have been intrigued by the relationship between games and alienation. I think they have a number of striking formal similarities, and I wanted to share my preliminary thoughts on these matters with the class and get their feedback. Fair warning: these ideas are even more germinal than most of the stuff I share on this journal, and if I wasn’t getting graded on this little sojourn I’d probably keep it to myself until I had done some more work on it. But if you have any suggestions or criticism, please let me know.
To establish a common theoretical ground I briefly outlined Marx’s concept of alienation as expressed in the essay “Estranged Labour” from The Economic and Political Manuscripts of 1844. In this “early Marx” essay, Marx describes four sources of alienation caused by wage labor:
1. Alienation from the product— Workers produce for the benefit of someone else, and seldom use the commodities they make. These products are sold and generate a profit, the whole of which is not given to the worker.
2. Alienation from the working process— In the structured environment of capitalist production, workers must pursue their work in specified ways which do not allow them the opportunity for self-expression and exploration that they might seek in non-alienated labour. The focus of their labour is also defined by the needs of the market, rather than their own needs or their creative urges (e.g. a worker might want to devote his labour-power to writing poetry, but the market forces him to flip burgers instead).
3. Alienation from the fellow worker— In the competitive marketplace, each worker who enters the labor pool reduces the value of his fellow laborers. The “reserve army” of the unemployed makes individual workers easy to replace and drives wages down. Thus, workers come to compete with each other, and do things that are in their individual self-interest but not in the interest of the working class as a whole.
4. Alienation from the species-being— This element of alienation is perhaps a little too much to explain in a capsule like this. In short, Marx believed that humans are creative by their nature, and the wage labour system constrains the essential activities that define man as a species.
Can we imagine four similar types of alienation caused by games? Perhaps we can think of games as an alienated form of play— I owe a great debt here to Bernie DeKoven’s Well-Played Game, which does an excellent job highlighting gaming’s many failures to produce joyful flow experiences. As a thought experiment, I proposed:
1. Alienation from the product— As Caillois puts it, games are an “occasion of pure waste.” They are essentially unproductive, and no goods are produced during their execution. Naturally, recent phenomena such as real money trade considerably muddy this criterion, but for the vast majority of games it is still accurate.
2. Alienation from the playing process— Consider Bernard Suits’ claim that games are a less efficient means of achieving a goal. More generally, the rules of a game inherently restrict the more freeform conception of play— DeKoven suggests that the competitive basis for most games diminishes the opportunity to participate in a truly playful and joyful experience.
3. Alienation from the fellow player— Most games create an artificial conflict between two groups of players, often reinforced by geographic boundaries or affiliation with an extraludic group. While these players could enjoy a common bond (after all, they need each other to engage in a common game), they are more likely to come to dislike their opponents because of the obstacles they represent, especially if teams are fixed or the consequences of the games are stretched over time (as in a football season). The competitive nature of most games intensifies this phenomena. (Of course, in professional sports, the alienation from the fellow worker still exists, as this excellent New York Times profile of a would-be NFL player demonstrates.)
4. Alienation from the species-being— If you subscribe to Johann Huizinga’s homo ludens theory, then essentially all of Western civilization is actually the alienation from the species-being. On the other hand, (if you even subscribe to the essentialist notion of a species-being at all) we frequently conceive of the gamer as being somethings set apart from the normal, practical self. That basic conceit lies at the heart of the magic circle.
In short, both games and labour can be seen as competitive systems with artificial constraints that are both commonly construed as being “outside” of our normal selves. When we are “on the clock” or “on the field,” we recognize that we are different in some way from our typical life.
Of course, while wage labor is essentially forced in Marxist terms, participation in games is usually marked by freedom. Naturally, this makes professional players a particularly thorny issue for theorists who define the “voluntary” nature of games as a core theoretical definition. Caillois excludes them from play altogether, a position that I have always found unconvincing and counter-intuitive.
My last post provoked some interesting discussions. The next lengthy post will focus on Taric and sexuality in League of Legends. In order to deliver on the promise I got myself into by labeling the last post Pt.1, I wanted to get into the responses and some of the things I learned as a result.
First up, my discussion of the two user-submitted photos on the “DAT ASHE” shirt product page. One of my friends from high school, Liz, has much better personal perspective on participating in game culture as a woman than I do. Notably, she is a woman, and also has the highest Xbox Live gamerscore out of any of my friends. She responded with some excellent insight on Facebook.
I don’t see the same dichotomy or meaning behind the two photos. I mean the second photo is probably cropped so weird, because it was instagrammed and thus had to be square. So her options were either cut off her face or cut off her shirt. Which, yeah, most women would have a problem posting a picture of their boobs without their head in the frame, and we all now instagram is ~so~ hip. Also, I feel like you might have overlooked the idea that the girl could be a lesbian, which isn’t a big deal, but she could be flirting in a different manner by wearing that shirt. And I feel like dick doesn’t have to be a gendered term. If you’re playing a game online as a girl, and keep a gender neutral username (which many women do), than you’re used to be calling a dick, it’s not that big of a stretch. Would you expect them to say (but don’t be a dick or a bitch)? Would you expect the internet to be able to exist without penis references?
—Liz Dunn, personal communication
Like Nathan Jurgenson, I love talking about Instagram, so this was a pretty exciting idea for me. Plus it’s got some juicy political implications from material frameworks stuff going on. Unfortunately I popped open the image properties and figured out that the image as posted didn’t have the 1×1 ratio that Instagram requires. Liz clarified that it was about more than the specificity of Instagram:
even if it’s not exactly 1×1 or made with instagram, it could still be reflecting photo trends? it’s weird the way square dimension photos are in fashion these days.
i also tend to assume women crop photos out of self-consciousness, (since I do that a lot), so only showing your breasts and not your stomach makes sense, too. i get what you’re getting at in your post, i just don’t have the same initial reaction is all. i don’t even see it as a particularly important question. like, a woman is wearing a shirt with sexual connotations. Why is this exciting, and why does it matter if she does it to make herself feel better, or attract the attention of men or women? Why do we over-analyze her photos in particular? In a sense you’re analyzing a woman expressing her sexuality, which is a bit of a slippery slope. I like the part about you analyzing how LoL expresses their character’s sexuality, though, because that’s the game creators, making some obvious, bold choices about their female character’s sexuality.
I’m admittedly moving from an extremely anecdotal basis in my previous analysis, but Liz’s comment made me realize I hadn’t elaborated much on what I found peculiar about it. Hell, after thinking about it, I guess it isn’t that peculiar.
My uncritical analysis went something along the lines of: “J!nx exists to sell products, here’s a picture of the product, here’s a picture of a user that obscures the product.” Amazon.com has a fairly hegemonic grip on my conception of online retail, and the few user-submitted pictures featured on that site are usually pretty boring and useless photos of books on people’s floors, so it seemed different and somewhat remarkable to me, regardless of the subject of the t-shirt. As far as I can tell, J!nx doesn’t feature any kind of vote-based reward scheme, so the only gamified incentive provided by the platform is for posting pictures of “XP” and “gold.” The problem is that I don’t really know anything about these sort of retailer-focused online communities, and I drew on my own insufficient personal experience.
I ended up creating an account so I could look around on J!nx, and I noticed two things 1.) this photo is almost identical to the other dozen or so photos this user has posted and 2.) lots of photos feature the user more heavily than the product. This makes a fair bit of sense. Plenty of fashion shoots and advertising campaigns don’t feature the product they’re nominally about. It also speaks to why Amazon user-submitted photos are so few and so boring— one picture of a book on somebody’s table is just as good as the next, and multiple copies don’t particular increase the genre’s charm.
Over at the ludology subreddit, I bummed out vdanmal by not discussing Riot’s response to the sexualization of female characters and Ashe’s lore development in the Journal of Justice. (The kitchenified Morgana above is from the Journal of Justice.) Thanks for pointing me in the right direction!
So as the game has progressed, Ashe has married the champion Tryndamere— not for romantic reasons, but as a realpolitik move to cement an alliance between her people and Tryndamere’s barbarians. A fascinating move on Riot’s part, and a nice counter to my points about speculating on Ashe’s romantic life.
Turns out Riot also has a lot to say about the sexual representation of their characters. You can check out an excerpted version of a lengthy discussion with IronStylus here, and an excellent detailed critique of that response here.
I’ve been getting back into League of Legends for my Game Cultures research project and the paper submission I’m working on for the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research. We’ve been discussing the sexualization of the female body in the videogames in class, and I thought it’d be worth looking into for my current project.
League of Legends is filled with female champions who are scantily clad and well-endowed with the ubiquitous eroticism of high fantasy. Quickly introduced: Ashe is a very popular champion (player-controlled avatar) who fits this mold fairly well. She was one of the champions available at launch, and she’s one of the cheapest to purchase. As a ranged carry (i.e. a ranged champion with a skill-set suitable to “carry” the rest of her team to victory at top level), she’s also useful in most games.
She’s illustrated like this on the official League of Legends site:
The Frost Archer’s attire seems a little more suited to the beach than snow-capped mountaintops. The clothing/climate mismatch is as de rigeur as busty babes in the high fantasy milieu— Brendan Keogh has discussed this weird trope’s appearance in Skyrim, for example. It’s more than just the visual illustrations that emphasize Ashe’s role as a sexy mascot for League of Legends, however. Here’s the first sentence in Ashe’s Chamipion profile page on Riot’s site, followed by the last segment:
One of the perennial favorites of summoners in the League of Legends is the Freljordian beauty known as Ashe. [...]
Rumors abound that Ashe has begun to associate herself with fellow champion Tryndamere outside of the Fields of Justice. While she denies such talk as frivolous, all eyes will remain on Ashe now that her success in the League may finally allow her to restore lasting peace to her people.
The first noun used to describe Ashe is “beauty”– we also get to hear some gossip about her attachment to a male champion in the diegetic League, and to bring it home we’re assured that “all eyes will remain” on Ashe’s physical assets.
Meanwhile, I also stumbled across some official League of Legends gear on J!NX:
For those of you not previously exposed to the meme this references, “DAT ASS” has become an image response-meme to “rump threads” on image boards like 4chan, according to KnowYourMeme. From a 2007 image of rapper Rich Boy, the “DAT ASS” caption (in meme-standard Impact Bold) has mutated into a rich diversity of men’s faces biting their lower lip. 1 “DAT [noun]” has also branched into a phylum of internet-speak. It makes sense that the game with the largest online population would have a good deal of overlap with internet meme culture, and Ashe’s name is just a little frictation away from “ASS”. The t-shirt conveys Ashe’s visual sexualization and her desirable position in the game as a powerful carry. Notably, the comment thread for the item demonstrates a display of restraint from crude or sexually demeaning language. Nonetheless, it’s still an invocation of image-threads which at best objectify the female body and at worst dip into the far slummier domain of “creepshots“.
Going a little further, there are also two user-submitted photos; both of them are of white girls in DAT ASHE shirts. One‘s a pretty straightforward mirror-shot selfie displaying the product, the other is this:
This user-submitted shot definitely puts the user at the forefront; most of the shirt’s image is out of frame. I haven’t created a J!NX account, nor am I familiar with the community, but this gendered choice of wording suggests that the demographic using J!NX is largely male 2:
So what do we make of this MySpace-esque (close crop, direct look into camera) user-submitted photo? Is this vanity? An invitation to flirting? A ploy to motivate male users to vote for the image for some kind of marketing-based reward? If anyone reading this has experience with J!NX, don’t be shy about weighing in.
Gender and sexuality in League of Legends are complex subjects with a wide variety of connotations and contradicting meanings. I don’t have any neat conclusions; it seems obvious that any activity with millions of participants is going to be infused with sex, especially if someone’s trying to make money off of it. (Marketing is an exercise in the transitive property of desire.) Where’s the line between opposing the objectification of women and embracing a neo-Victorian sexual repression in popular culture? Beats me.
Stay tuned for the second part of this inquiry, where I reflect on playing League of Legends as a dude who has a high-pitched voice, loves crystals, and goes into battle with bright pink armor and furry boots.
Rich Dansky (who worked on the development of Changeling: The Dreaming) said that after the game’s release the darkfae-l listserv had “a rampaging debate on the list over how the folks at White Wolf had gotten so much of their existence right”, adding, “Finally, one of the list members came to the obvious conclusion that we’d gotten it right because we ourselves were in fact changelings.” Dansky denied this.
—Wikipedia entry on otherkin.
In today’s class, we discussed disability in gaming. Below, I unpack how wrestling forced me to forego my two dominant senses, sight and sound.
I wrestled for a couple of years in high school. Within a month of joining the team, I was on the varsity squad. If this were because I was a naturally gifted wrestler, so well-suited to the sport that I quickly overtook my teammates despite their years of experience, this would be a very different account. No doubt I would have brought it up earlier. In point of fact, however, wrestling was a fairly marginal sport at my high school— it mostly existed as an off-season conditioning program for our football team. There aren’t many people who weigh 125 pounds who also play Louisiana high school football, so I was the only person in that weight class, and the varsity designation defaulted to me. I spent a lot of time getting absolutely destroyed at varsity wrestling matches. Because of my understandably awful seeding, I also had the opportunity to wrestle the very best members of my weight class while they were still fresh at the beginning of every tournament. It was a humbling experience and a quick lesson in physicality and the materiality of the body.
For example, although I’m not particularly tall, I was usually two to four inches taller than my opponents. You learn fairly quickly that each extra inch of height adds five to ten pounds of bodyweight, regardless of musculature. That meant that I was usually outclassed in muscle bulk by about fifteen to thirty pounds. While skillful wrestling is important, one of the most important elements of the competition is packing as much power as possible into the human body at the weight limit. I was extremely thin and lightly muscled; my opponents were usually stocky, wide-shouldered fellows with four years more experience.
The results were predictable and consistent— I lost every single varsity match. Exact records aren’t kept at the high school level, but if they were I imagine I’d still hold the Louisiana state record for fastest loss ever. During one match against the future state champion, my opponent was apparently looking over to his coach every time he was about to pin me for a signal. The coach laughed and gestured for him to let me up four times in a row.
Not that I knew this at the time, actually. I wrestled essentially deaf and blind.
I’m not legally blind or anything— without glasses,1 a layman’s description of my condition might be something like “not being able to see worth a shit.” Shapes, blurs of color, light levels— pretty much all I get without glasses, unless I’m about two inches away from whatever it is I’m looking at.
Naturally, you can’t wrestle with glasses on. Observe the fellow being pummeled in the face in the above photograph. It turns out that I wasn’t able to wear contacts either, as getting one’s face ground into a wrestling mat makes them pop out fairly regularly. That meant I was wrestling essentially blind. I could see a little of my opponent’s features, but no spectators or coaches.
Since I didn’t want to end up with cauliflower ear (warning: gross images ahead), I wore headgear for all of my matches. When wearing headgear, words just become meaningless syllables. Coaches would try to signal and shout strategies, team-mates would stand around the mat and yell their support, but I couldn’t make sense of any of it.
This was a strategic disadvantage; other players with better sight could get advice during an active match by glancing over to their corner. But within the contest itself, you don’t need to see much. For blind wrestlers, the rules of a normal wrestling match are altered, requiring contact at all times between the contestants to prevent the sighted player from exploiting their opponent’s disadvantage. Blind wrestlers have done quite well for themselves.2
For me, a wrestling match, even in front of a home-crowd gymnasium, was an immersive isolation. Once on the ground, I usually closed my eyes as insurance against “accidental” gouges and let my body’s sense of space take over. After hundreds of repetitions of falling to the mat, arms and legs locked with another person, you develop a fairly precise idea of what they’re doing based on very limited tactile clues; sight and sound matter comparatively little. Many novice wrestlers expose themselves to easy pins by craning their neck to get a better look at their opponent. They soon learn there’s little need to look.
You learn to feel the exhaustion in your opponent by the rise and fall of his chest; from quick and sure to hard and ragged. The “incidental” battery of the other’s arms are easy to track; with time, you can judge movement and stamina by the muscle tension in a clenched hamstring or knotted shoulder. As you experience a wider variety of moves, you gain a sense of things like when a shifting grip on the shoulder is going to be followed by a push at the base of the knee.
My surroundings only started to re-emerge after the match was over. Mostly I would be on my back, freshly pinned, looking up into the fluorescent gym lights for a moment as I caught my breath, peeled off the headgear and rocked back on to my feet. I staggered around disoriented for a few moments, shaking hands and squinting my eyes at the people around me, trying to figure out who was holding my glasses.
I was always secretly thankful that I could delay seeing the looks on people’s faces in reaction to the loss. Sympathy, triumphant glee, pity— it was all the same blur to me.
From a discussion of the importance of controllers in understanding gameplay by Graeme Kirkpatrick:
The controller and its resistances are those of the game and its objects, compared with the screen image they are commonly a miniaturized and condensed instantiation of the game program. “Play involves exploring and altering the field of tension. When Steven Poole (2000) writes that the physical skills learned in the playing of ancient, spear-throwing games are ‘‘exactly those skills exercised by modern target videogames’’ (p. 174), he is obviously wrong, in the sense that throwing a spear is not the same action as holding down the ‘‘B’’ button on a controller, but he also conveys an important truth about controllers. Something of the experience of throwing a javelin—its tensions in the body, its discipline, its conscious manipulation of weight and energies—gets condensed into the hand. This is, perhaps, best understood as the form of the action.
The same forms are present when we play using a Wii-mote. The first feeling triggered by the Wii-mote is one of vertigo, because the tensions of play are not contained within the hand any longer. Some (not all) of the actions we have to do to play the game no longer have the controller to refer to, so to speak, and instead must occupy the empty space of the room we are in. We use more (a greater part) of our bodies to trace out the formal patterns that have to be enacted if we are to play the game but whereas traditional controllers involve a kind of condensation of the formal properties of the game in miniature, the Wii-mote generally makes the forms bigger, but more abstract.
This change in the phenomenology of controller use corresponds to the shift Don Ihde detects in the move from analogue to digital clocks. The conventional clock with hands communicates with us by establishing a kind of tension between the clock face, which represents blank, empty time, and the hands whose current positions signify only with the face as a background. The position of the hands is our position relative to time as a whole. When we move to digital clocks, which present us with a numeric representation of time, time loses some of its concreteness and becomes more abstract: digital clocks only tell us the time it is now, removing the current instant from any context. Ihde (1990, p. 68) links this to the historical trajectory of technology itself, which moves us towards increased detachment and decontextualization of information (see Feenberg, 2002). Driving a car with a digital speed display produces a similarly frictionless sense of speed, because the tension between the needle and the background, which here represents stillness, is no longer present and speed becomes more abstract.
However, this doesn’t change their fundamental character as forms because spinning one’s arm when holding a Wii-mote (to ‘‘serve’’ in tennis perhaps) makes the same kind of pattern we would make with our thumbs using a lever on a traditional controller, only now it is drawn out in empty space rather than against the resistance of a physical object.
Kirkpatrick has many interesting things to say about videogames, but the passage above is problematic. In fact, it seems to be inconsistent internally, and with the rest of the essay as a whole, particularly the preceding section on hands and touch. While he makes a valuable contribution by discussing the importance of controllers to gameplay, he loses focus when it comes to motion controls.
Prima facie, motion controls in the Wii Sports paradigm are not more abstract than traditional button-based controls. 2 As experienced by most players, and especially those new to the experience, motion control is largely mimetic of the activity being simulated. Kirkpatrick’s analysis is caught up in some fundamental errors in regard to materiality and play as an enacted experience. Above, he contrasts the “empty space” of moving the Wii controller to the “resistance” of button-based play. Furthermore, he claims that “spinning one’s arm when holding a Wii-mote (to ‘‘serve’’ in tennis perhaps) makes the same kind of pattern we would make with our thumbs using a lever on a traditional controller.”
Unlike our virtual avatars, however, player movement always translates into resistance: the controller and our arms have weight, and we must expend energy to overcome gravity and move. While visibly empty, the space we move the Wii controller with is actually full of invisible resistance. Extended sessions of Wii Sports quickly demonstrate this resistance; Wii Tennis elbow is not unheard of.
Kirkpatrick assumes that if this motion were translated into a traditional controller, the same pattern of movement would be preserved in the thumb. I’ve played quite a few tennis games over the years, but I’ve never actually encountered one where that is the case. Simply put, the thumb is not a very good replacement for the movement of an entire arm. In the traditional “cross plus two” layout immortalized by the Nintendo Entertainment System, that would leave no way of controlling the movements of the player. Instead of repeating that pattern of motion, the process is invariably abstracted to a much simpler combination of buttons. Watch a bit of this recent adaptation of tennis to get a sense of what I mean:
In Jan Willem Nijman’s Tennnes 3, striking the ball is controlled by pressing a button and pointing the D-pad in the direction of its intended flight. The D-pad is also used to control movement. No circular thumb-sweep for the “stroke” or other mimetic input is necessary; however, the stroke is memetically represented by a small box and a thwock noise that invokes the sound of a ball hitting strings.
As I see it, the move from button to motion-based controls is the inverse of Ihde’s shift from analog to digital displays. Kirkpatrick doesn’t seem to heed the Focillon he quotes a few pages before:
We must never think of forms, in their different states, as simply suspended in some remote, abstract zone, above the earth and above man. They mingle with life, whence they come; they translate into space certain movements of the mind. (p.60)
—quoted in ibid.