A scribbling of notes… (In Progress)

Limited time? Limited blog post.

Some notes:

Bricolant/bricolage — Bogost uses Derrida here (sort of?) to riff on the idea of the bricolage, or the piece of art created by synthesizing multiple bits of knowledge, information, or art. Obviously, such a term has a lot of potential in video game studies. The creation and dissection of video games both utilize “bricolage” as a central concept. No game is an island. Bogost uses the phrase for both. He most often, however, uses the phrase as a point of criticism against the strict compartmentalization of video game studies.

Aarseth — Espen Aarseth’s Cybertext once again gets a few hits. Bogost isn’t a fan of how Aarseth has essentially “separated” cybertext from literature, as he (Aarseth) sees video games as a “new art” that can’t be described in “literary” terms. Aarseth even takes a shot at “interactive fiction.” Bogost’s criticism of Aarseth (and Mayra, and DiGRA) is short and quick: all of the previously mentioned games criticism characters are basically in a race to compartmentalize game theory into its own little self-sufficient box in which the “ludic is privileged over the literary.”

“Instead of focusing on how games work, I suggest that we turn to what they do — how they inform, change, or otherwise participate in human activity, to borrow the ACLA’s words. Such a comparative videogame criticsm would focus principally on the expressive capacity of games and, true to its grounding in the humanities, would seek to understand how videogames reveal what it means to be human.”

Site note: I’m totally on-board. While I’m only *just now* reading Bogost, his approach seems similar to mine. Back when I wrote about Portal 2, linearity, and feminism, I discussed linearity as a mechanic of storytelling — that was my prime interest in it. I wasn’t interested in saying “hey, the game used linearity! This is how it did it,” I was interested in showing how that linearity advanced a narrative of a lack of female agency.

In my current project, admittedly, I’m swinging away from this a little — I’m talking mostly about mechanical things. But still! Those mechanical things are nothing without the stories inherent within them.

(To be continued tomorrow — running out of time…)

Bogost’s Unit Operations (Part 1)

Yes — part 1. This isn’t a blog post so much as it is a “freewriting” post. Why? Because Bogost, that’s why.

To start:

When I was constructing my reading list for this independent study, I knew there were two authors that I absolutely had to have somewhere in my proto-syllabus: Espen Aarseth and Ian Bogost. Aarseth’s Cybertext is cited just about everywhere, as is Bogost’s Unit Operations.

While time dictates that Cybertext should probably be where I begin, I couldn’t help but pick up Unit Operations after reading a few of Bogost’s pop-philosophy/theory articles. And so here we are.

The first thing you need to know about Unit Operations is that one Amazon reviewer referred to it as “terrifyingly erudite.” You get why as you start to turn the pages. This is a book that mixes Grand Theft Auto with Ulysses; Lacan with ENIAC; Derrida with everyone/thing else — it’s an assault of theorists, philosophers, and tech milestones rolled into sordid romance between the humanities and STEM. To conceptualize it further, this is undoubtedly the result of the fear encapsulated within my blog post a few weeks ago. This is the relentlessly interdisciplinary. It doesn’t run from this — it embraces this. It screams it at you. Early on Bogost analyzes the film The Terminal through the lens of his theory, poking at the individual “unit operations” (we’ll get into those in a second), first showing you where they are, and then ripping the rug out from under you. He laughs. You can hear him from beyond the text. “This is for all media,” he declares.

While Derrida launched a revolution of everything being read as text, Bogost seeks to see everything (or at least all media — but I don’t really buy he wants to stop there) within a series of unit operations.

So, yeah, those things.

The “point” of Unit Operations seems to be (thus far) to unpack media as a whole: to pick out individual “units” in texts that serve as guiding points, little bits and bytes (sometimes literally) that build on other cultural overtones. This isn’t to say that there is a universal at play — no, quite the contrary. Instead, Bogost posits an idea that sites somewhere outside that distinction. Any media can be analyzed in such a way to see similar units at play that are part of the human experience. Consider it a deconstruction of the idea of “games as escapism.” Bogost would say bullshit, because games aren’t escapism — they are a product of the systemic operations that formed them (not to mention the player herself).

In his own words: “Unit operations are modes of meaning-making that privilege discrete, disconnected actions over deterministic, progressive systems.”

Unit Operations are not universal (but the concept is) — they decentralize the role of the critic as flag-bearer. Instead, they privilege the critic-as-reader (or gamer), allowing her to see, build, and locate the units within the text at hand.

And… that’s where I am right now. More to come shortly…

World of Warcraft, Metanarrative, and The Scarlet March

In my last two posts, I’ve tried to explain what I’m trying to do with my independent study project — this week I’m going to try and flesh it out with an example of what I’m talking about.

So, where are we?

World of Warcraft as “postmodern” — or, the idea that World of Warcraft is decentralizing the idea of the metanarrative. To be a little more specific, the idea is that the game allows the player to circumvent the metanarrative.

As a practical example, we’re going to look at a guild that existed on the US roleplaying server Maelstrom a few years back.

In World of Warcraft lore, there’s an alliance of humans known as “The Scarlet Crusade.” The Scarlet Crusade is, essentially, a group of human zealots that despise the “undead scourge.” Prior to the events of World of Warcraft, there was a plague that wiped out a large chunk of humanity, turning them into mindless ghouls and zombies. All of these newly-undead creatures were then placed under the control of The Lich King — one of the series’ main villains. However, some of these undead manage to get their “control” back, turning them into a separate race.

So at the end of the day you have the “free” undead (known as The Forsaken) and the “zombie” undead (known as the Scourge).

In World of Warcraft, The Scarlet Crusade fights against both, believing every creature that comes into contact with the scourge to be tainted. This means that any individual, family, creature, whatever — it’s all destroyed in the name of purity. As you can imagine, this is where the whole “Crusade” business comes in. They are so zealous in their fight that they develop an intense xenophobia, and they become hostile to any of the non-human races, believing everyone but them to be tainted (not just the Scourge or the Forsaken).

On the Maelstrom server, a group of players started a guild known as The Scarlet March. The March was seen as an offshoot of the Crusade — an even more zealous and radical sect of Crusaders. In their story, they were “officially” split from the March — certain events happened within the game, and they saw themselves as the “true” Crusade.

This is where we see the first off-shoot from the metanarrative.

The Scarlet March actually isn’t “officially” split from anyone — they are completely independent, and they exist only on the Maelstrom server. Their entire story is fabricated from a mix of “official” lore and “imagined” lore. Likewise, their story — as a unified whole — is made up of many individual stories (or petits récits). The guild, as a construction of the game, is essentially a collection of stories follow its own metanarrative (separate from the games). The thing is, this central narrative isn’t the most important — as without the petits récits of the individual members, it does not exist.

But wait — how does that count as a “game mechanic”?

That leap comes from the fact that The Scarlet March doesn’t just impact itself. The existence of this group of players working within their own story allows them to have an impact on the gameworld.

This is visible in how The Scarlet March emphasizes its “control” within the game — players from the March patrol around the main city streets, harassing any player they deem to be “unworthy.” In addition, they also co-opt a large in-game cathedral, holding “Mass” there. They also conduct military “expeditions” into “hostile territory,” killing players that refuse to bow to them.

All of these events directly impact other players, even if they don’t have anything to do with the March.

This is the second off-shoot of the metanarrative — the players aren’t just a separate story (distanced from the metanarrative), they are also a mechanic that encourages other players to disconnect from the metanarrative. Likewise, when other players interact with them, they are giving them validity — they are saying, yes, this group of players is more “valid” than the metanarrative imposed on their characters “officially” by the gameworld.

The final off-shoot of the metanarrative can be found within the characters themselves.

In order to “level up” in World of Warcraft, you must kill monsters and complete quests. Now, every quest in the game has some sort of narrative. If you’re a roleplayer, some of these quests will certainly “mesh” with your character, and some won’t. For budding “Scarlet March” characters leveling to whatever the “level cap” happens to be at the time, this is crucial.

If you’re a zealous, xenophobic crusader, you’re probably not going to go on adventures to help out races that aren’t human. Yet, in World of Warcraft, you are frequently forced to help out virtually every race in the game — this means that a character moving through the levels is going to have to take part in gameplay events that break his or her “immersion” — they aren’t things that their character would actually do.

Now, it’s possible to look at a player “ignoring” things like this as “cheating.” After all, how can you escape the metanarrative here? How can you realistically pick-and-choose what events your characters get to “experience?”

The thing is, you’re supposed to — it’s something actually reinforced by the gameplay metanarrative. You see, the player (as in the individual behind the character, not the avatar) is supposed that there is a duality in the narrative being presented to him: yes, these are things *he* is doing, but they are not things that his or her character is necessarily doing. After all, if a quest has you saving the kingdom, then how does everyone have that same shared memory? How is it possible for everyone to save the kingdom — especially when your character is being thanked for the task!

This is the game winking at you — telling you that yes, there is a “central” story line (the metanarrative), but that it is important for you (the player behind the avatar) to selectively ignore it.

So when the xenophobic Scarlet March crusader saves the village of gnomes, he isn’t actually doing it… even though he is.

These three metanarrative off-shoots allow the narrative of World of Warcraft to exist both in a centralized space and a decentralized one. The game is fully open to the idea of the petits récits – in fact, it *requires it* in order to stay cohesive.

A more thorough proposal…

Last week I briefly touched on what my “final project” is shaping up to look like. This week I’ll go over what I’m trying to say/do in a little more detail.

So, the general idea at play here is that World of Warcraft is transgressive in the sense that it achieves a “postmodern goal” of “beating” the metanarrative.

Last week I mentioned that one of the big problems in defining “interactive fiction” is that interactivity itself is a problem — how is a game truly interactive? How is a piece of fiction truly interactive? The immediate problem that arises is that a game can only present a player with so many options: there is no true “sandbox” game. No computer game can exist outside of the realm of numbers and narrative — every game (and every story within each game) must be mapped out ages before a player actually interacts with it.

That, of course, is the problem. That fact seems to invalidate video games as possibly postmodern, as they seemingly reinforce their own metanarrative — that is, there is a predetermined story that the player cannot escape from. No matter how the player experiences the game, their narrative will always bow to the game’s.

Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern give us away around this with agency — they show us that interactivity in drama (and games) is not marked by the ability to do anything, but instead the ability to do something meaningful (from the player’s perspective).

Yet, there is still a problem — the metanarrative is still enforced by the game. While interactivity — the player’s ability to impact the narrative — might be part of the game, the narrative is still defined in relation to the metanarrative. That is, if we take a game like Mass Effect, and we look at how it presents its choices to the player — those choices still align the player within the gameworld’s narrative.

So, how does World of Warcraft deal with this? That’s where I come in!

In World of Warcraft, the community is a gameplay mechanic. Using roleplaying servers in World of Warcraft as an example, I hope to show that there’s this weird paradoxical thing going on in the community, where players both consciously acknowledge the “metanarrative” and rebel against it in a unified way. That is, the “metanarrative” might say something (the “most important” story is defined, individual characters all theoretically go on the same journey from 1 – 90, etc), but the players can (and are expected to!) ignore it.

Basically, there’s a level of cognitive dissonance within the game that every player is expected to accept. On one hand, you’re supposed to acknowledge that yes, you can’t play the game without encountering the metanarrative. At the same time, however, a roleplayer can’t actually do all of the things his avatar is doing within the game.

For example, a quest in the game might have you take down an important character. Of course, a million other players are going to do the exact same thing. So how does the individual roleplayer deal with this event? If you “take credit” for the action, you are invalidating the experience of everyone else. What most players do, in this case, is situate the event within their character’s perspective: so perhaps they didn’t kill the important character — maybe they just witnessed his death, or maybe they might have aided someone else involved in the slaying. Or — another possible alternative — the player might choose to separate their character from the storyline entirely.

By bifurcating the story, the player creates their own narrative, independent from the metanarrative. Not only is it independent from the story, but it displaces it — to the player, her story is the most important element — not the “metanarrative.” Likewise, players that interact with the player will be interested in her story — not the overarching “metanarrative.”

Now, magnify this by a thousand choices, on a hundred different realms. Suddenly, World of Warcraft is way more than just a single storyline — it’s a thousand independent storylines, each existing independent of each other (yet each taking up the same “important” space in relation to the player).

The beginning of a postmodern project

The theoretical “project” my independent study is working toward is a paper on metanarrative and MMORPGs. Specifically, it’s the concept that World of Warcraft‘s community is the ultimate destroyer of the metanarrative. In short, the idea goes something like this:

“Metanarrative” was first defined by Jean-François Lyotard as a fancy word for “grand narrative.” Lyotard described the postmodernist movement as one that was in reaction to the idea that “grand narratives” were the basis for social movement. That is, “metanarratives” were stories that propped up stories — they were the history behind the history, or the meaning behind every other story situated underneath them.

If you’re an American, perhaps the “bootstraps” metanarrative is a great example. In America, there is a general (capitalist) idea that motivation, determination, and hard work are all that one needs to succeed. Therefore, every narrative (literally stories of individuals) must conform to this metanarrative. So when someone succeeds in America, it’s because they pulled themselves up by the bootstraps. Likewise, when someone fails, it’s because they didn’t work hard enough. This metanarrative is so loud and so dominant that it eats the petits récits, or the tiny stories of the “little people.” A man might fail to succeed because of racism, ableism, or other variables, but because these events are not recognized by the metanarrative, they are ridiculed, ignored, or otherwise completely overshadowed.

Postmodernism is seen by Lyotard as a rejection of the metanarrative. Instead of privileging metanarratives, postmodernist prefer petits récits — they prefer narratives that exist outside of the influence of metanarratives (or, at the very least, they aren’t overshadowed by it).

A typical metanarrative will privilege certain voices — a petits récits on the other hand, looks to give voice to anyone.

So, where do video games come in?

It’s fair to say that up until the contemporary era, video games were very much metanarratologically oriented. Video games are defined by central narratives: one of the largest theoretical problems in critical play studies (and game development) is the creation of a space that gives the player a balance between gameplay and narrative:

“If the system decides the ending, we have guaranteed closure without interactive freedom; if the user decides the ending we have guaranteed freedom but possibly no closure. Further, if a player is playing a prescribed role, such as Ghandi, we either have to limit interactive freedom to maintain the player’s role (and story arc) or provide interactive freedom at the expense of the role (and story arc).”

In this typical ludological criticism, a true postmodern game is seemingly impossible: true “interactivity” destroys any hope of a narrative, and a distinct narrative destroys the possibility of interactivity (and thus, the possibility of a “game”).

Within this line of thought, contemporary games are destined to be metanarratives: there is no way to provide “true interactivity,” and so all narratives must conform to developer intentions — they must conform to the metanarrative of the text. Using World of Warcraft as an example, players might be offered different paths through the gameworld, and players may (or may not) choose different quests — but the overarching story of the gameworld itself is predetermined: it follows a metanarrative that the player cannot escape from.

There is, however, a theoretical way out: redefining “interactivity.”

Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern manage to do this by replacing “interactivity” with “agency.” They argue that “interactivity” is needlessly vague, choosing to use agency instead: “A player will experience agency when material and formal constraints are balanced. This is not the same as ‘a player will experience agency when they can take arbitrary action whenever they want.’ So in the case of choosing the ending of an interactive story, the player does not need the ability to make arbitrary endings happen in order to feel agency. A small number of authorially-determined ending configurations can still produce a strong feeling of player agency if reached through sequences of player actions within a materially and formally balanced system.”

While this does not mean that agency = breaking into the postmodern, it does mean that the potential exists: for the first step to reaching the theoretical “postmodern game” is giving the player the ability to even have a separate story to tell (outside of the metanarrative).

This is where World of Warcraft comes in again — while players might not be able to arbitrarily exit the predetermined in-game narrative, they do have the ability to pick and choose their character’s destiny, giving them agency within their own story.

So, at the very least, we know the possibility is there — the only questions that remains is this: does the game acknowledge stories outside of the metanarrative? If the answer is yes, then World of Warcraft has to be considered a postmodern game.

References:

Mateas, Michael, and Andrew Stern. “Interaction and Narrative.” Ed. Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman. The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2006. 642-69. Print.

So, how are we doing?

Today’s reading was Maps of Digital Desire: Exploring the Topographies of Gender and Play in Online Games by Nick Yee. This was a formal book chapter based on Yee’s research in The Daedalus Project, which I’ve referenced before in previous bits of research. The Daedalus Project, in short, was (it formerly went into “hibernation” in 2009) a data collection project that looked at gender, playtime, age, and a handful of other variables relating to MMOs. The data was collected via player-given surveys every few years, and then collected into a database.

The article itself uses the data within the project to fuel a conclusion: that game communities are more impactful on gendered play than gameplay mechanics.

Outside of demographics, Yee notes that the motivations for play in MMOs are similar between male and female players. Yee categorizes “play motivations” into three spheres:

Achievement: progress, power, status, numbers, analysis, challenging others, provocation

Social: casual chat, making friends, support, group achievement

Immersion: exploration, lore, fantasy, appearances, escapism

Yee’s categorizations show the many ways in which players “enjoy” MMOs. Likewise, they also show that there’s a great variety of “enjoyment” to be had within most modern MMOs.

The assumed, “popular” differences between the genders (in the gaming sphere) would seemingly mark these categories as gendered. I’m sure anyone who has ever belonged to a virtual community of some sort would immediately know the implications of each category without me even mentioning them: the casual, feminine space would be clearly defined. Likewise, the competitive, aggressive male space would also be clearly defined. The borders would be understood. Yee’s research, however, clearly shows that this popular assessment is bunk: in the category with the largest gender swing (mechanics), the overlap between men and women was 66 percent. Overall, the overlap was 87 percent. While there was difference, there was far more shared ground than feminine/masculine ground.

Yee notes, however, that even these tiny “gendered” spaces can be explained away with other statistics: age differences, for example, slightly inflate the numbers, as women gamers tend to be older than men.

This is about where we get to the elephant in the room: if women and men play for similar reasons, then why is their such a gender gap?

Yee’s interviewees offer some perspective:

“The only really off-putting detail is that it’s ludicrous that every time my elf fights, her breasts stick out to the side repeatedly. It is a constant reminder to me that this game is made for 13 year old boys, or men who still think like them. (World of Warcraft, female, 42)”

“But every ounce in a while, I seem to meet someone who wants to violently deny that I am who I am. And how am I supposed to respond to a charge of ‘You are not a girl!’ — I can’t flash ID or body parts to prove it. (World of Warcraft, female, 36)”

“There are things that happen in-game that make me embarrassed, as a woman and as a person who tries to be socially responsible, to be playing. For example, male players will talk about getting ‘raped’ without really thinking about it, things that happen will be referred to as ‘gay,’ which is offensive, people do crude things to player corpses in PvP [Player vs. Player settings], etc. (World of Warcraft, female, 29)”

With the exception of the first comment, all of these women have problems with the game’s community (and not the gameplay). Even then, the first comment could be considered a community issue as well, as the “community perspective” defines what parameters the game is developed to.

And so it is obvious then, what perhaps the largest “block” is on gender and MMOs (if not the whole of gaming).

But here’s my question — this article was written in 2008. The data is references was collected sometime during early vanilla World of Warcraft (as far as I know), with very few updates since then.

So… have things gotten better? Has the perspective changed?

Or, perhaps more to the point: has the recent (I’d argue 2010 and forward) surge of feminist (and queer) criticism directed at World of Warcraft impacted the diversity of the playerbase? Has it impacted developer dialog? Gameplay changes? Have advertising campaigns changed?

These aren’t questions that I can really answer yet — but they are certainly avenues for research later on in the semester. In the short-term, I’d like to interview a few WoW-based feminists to see what they think.

The difference between what you say and what you do

Currently, the gaming space is obsessed with a new title: Grand Theft Auto V. As is the case with most “AAA” titles, the game has become the sole topic of conversation among both gamers and game critics. As can be expected, as soon as the reviews started to flood out, the conversations started about quality, gameplay, story, misogyny, review scores, and… well, every other bit of detritus that is often stirred up by these sorts of things.

My critical eye, however, was focused on something else: dissonance.

Often within “critical” gaming circles (either academic or otherwise) we often talk about this thing called ludonarrative dissonance. Ludonarrative dissonance is a term that generally symbolizes the common conflict within video games wherein the gameplay does not align with the story. This is a concept that any gamer who has played a major title in the last, well, forever, is familiar with.

Ludonarrative dissonance is important because for “contemporary” games, it’s seen as both a problem and a tool — and really, to understand why it still exists in contemporary gaming, you have to understand both dynamic sides of the issue.

For some, the dissonance presented within is unseen. I’d wager this is the popular position. Gamers are assumed to either a). not care, or b). not notice the dissonance present in, say, any of the Modern Warfare titles. It just is. It’s just video games. A limitation of the genre.

On the other side of the argument, it’s a problem — one that can either be used, tackled, or otherwise shifted. Both Bioshock: Infinite and Spec Ops: The Line arguably use the “dissonance” to say something — using the “limitation” of a medium to speak certain messages to the player.

Then, of course, there are the titles that attempt to tackle and eradicate the problem all together: take Gone Home, for example, or just about any adventure game — games that believe dissonance is just that: noise and chatter, something that needs to be eradicated or used in a precise way.

The latter two ways of looking at ludonarrative dissonance appear to be optimistic to me — they look at the medium as something that can grow, as something that can be art at the present moment. The former, however, is cynical: it sees gaming as nothing more than Tetris. The blocks fall, the soundtrack plays, and that’s all there is.

Interestingly enough, the above debate is mirrored in the critical space.

While thumbing through reviews of GTA V, I couldn’t help but notice that many of the reviews were saying the same things (I certainly wasn’t the only person to notice this). Let’s be clear: this isn’t something that’s new. It’s basically the same deal with every “AAA” title that comes out.

But what specifically struck me about all of these GTA V reviews was that they kept mentioning the game’s story in a negative light — its fractured characters, its misogyny, its inability to weave its narrative — and yet the score at the bottom wasn’t reflecting this. In the case of Chris Plante’s review, almost a sixth of his piece focused on storytelling flaws, yet he still managed to give the title an almost perfect score. The same was repeated over at Gamespot, where Carolyn Petite spent some time criticizing the game’s storytelling flaws — right before giving the game a 9/10 (and — even more problematic — she was horrifically harassed for giving the game anything but a perfect score).

So what gives? What is being reviewed here?

The obvious, knee-jerk answer is that gameplay trumps everything — that nothing else matters if the game is “fun.” (A note: what the hell is considered fun? What is being said by a reviewer that thinks a game is “fun” despite questionable content?)

But really, that answer is a cop-out. It’s a shitty response to a complicated question. Video games — especially video games like GTA V, that want to be taken “seriously” (yes, as art) — are not just “gameplay.” They are more than systems designed for the production of fun.

I’m not speaking from just an academic, ivory-tower position here — this method of looking at games like a fractured system of parts is tired and worthless. It ignores a great many of us who play games as more than just fun simulators. It ignores a great many of us who, hey, enjoy video games as a cohesive, unique form of entertainment, and not just something we plug into when we’re bored.

But more than that (and I’m climbing back in the ivory tower), such a method is critically destructive, and not in the Derridean way, either.

By honestly (truly) picking up GTA V and scoring it based on only the things we like, or that only we pay attention to (while pretending to be critics, and not New Critics — and making the “I” clear), we are preventing the genre from evolving. We are accepting its limitations. We are also just being disingenuous as critics — we aren’t being true to the medium we are working in.

BUT — that isn’t what’s happening, right? Clearly, at least in the case of Plante and Petite, they are fully reviewing these games, right? They are mentioning these things!

The problem is that there’s dissonance. The score and the words don’t line up.

In the intellectual bits of the game reviewing field, the score isn’t supposed to matter, right? It’s supposed to just… just…

What? What are we supposed to do with it?

Just as is the case with ludonarrative dissonance, we can’t ignore the gameplay or the narrative when looking at the full picture. In a video game, both parts must be present. Likewise, in a game review (or a review of anything, for that matter), the score and the words matter. Yes — in a perfect wonderland there would be no scores and no MetaCritic, or whatever — but that isn’t the world we live in. We have scores. They are here. The people reading those reviews are going to look at the score. A great many of them will look at just the score.

So we can’t ignore it. It’s there. It’s saying something.

That is, of course, if you aren’t cynical.