February 08, 2004

Collusion Detection – [musings]

There are many reasons to go to a symposium: to hear new ideas, to share your ideas with others, to learn about a topic of interest, to see the faces of people you have only corresponded with. I go to symposiums to argue.

It usually takes half a day or more for me to work up a good head of steam, however, and so I didn't reach that point this past Friday while attending the Story Engines symposium at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. In retrospect, if I had boiled over, it would have been to accuse the gathering of a certain amount of complicity. This wasn't a symposium to draw out the conflicts which surround games as cultural objects, it was pulse check conference to make sure everyone was talking about the same thing, and using the correct terms.

Parallel to the symposium are two exhibitions, one at the Yerba Buena Arts Center in San Francisco (discussed here) and Fictional Worlds, Virtual Experiences: Storytelling and Computer Games at the Cantor Arts Center on the Stanford campus.

The Fictional Worlds exhibit was concise and unobtrusive to a fault (the woman at the front desk didn't even know where the exhibit was). Display cases were packed with the kitchy objects of 80's computer games: game cartidges, maps, plastic Zorkmids.

In a room to one side, computers were set up so you could play Zork I, or the Secret of Monkey Island, or Baldur's Gate II. This kind of thing poses an anthropological dilemma: to study the object you have to play it, and in order to present a game artifact inside a museum you have to validate this kind of play. But allowing play of the game and saying something about the game get confused in this context. This is a trap Katherine Isbister has fallen into, as she allows herself to be so enchanted by the world of Pikmin, as well as the new age "science" of Csikszentmihalyi, such that her suggestions directed towards game designers lack the full weight of a critique.

The third element of the exhibit is a wall of three screens. A trackball controller is attached to the wall near one of the screens: it must be interactive! This is a presentation of GameGen, an online geneology of computer games. Unfortunately the information provided by the GameGen interface is still rather meagre, and interaction in the gallery is made unpleasant by both the vertically mounted trackball and the fact that you have to stand only a few inches away from the bright plasma screen in order to operate the trackball. (A collision between body and game that I also found at Bang the Machine.)

The other two screens run silent documentaries about the evolution of virtual worlds and the evolution of storytelling in games. Both pieces seem to conflate advances in fidelity with advances of form. While virtual environments have certainly benefitted from 3D photorealism, this is a change that has really only occurred on a gross perceptual level. These environments show an improved fidelity of representation, but lack a corresponding advance in visualization of the kind proposed by William Gibson or Rudy Rucker.

The documentary on storytelling travels a shorter path, from Zork to Half-Life. The excessively long segment on Half-Life, where the character's mouths look like gaping wounds and the symbol of power is a crowbar, is praised for bringing a compelling narrative to the first person shooter genre. But taken in context, Half-Life is the exception, not the rule. This is an industry that bats less than .100 in providing compelling narrative, and has little motive to improve.

This returns me to the collusion between players at the story engines symposium. The discouse of game studies primarily acts to acknowledge the importance of games as cultural artifacts. There's not much in the way of critical perspective going on here, only a sharing of information and the reinforcement of concepts and terms.

This should come as no surprise: given the chance to associate yourself with an $8 billion industry, what perspective would you take? A perspective that glorifies the trappings of gamer culture, the game cartidges, maps, and plastic Zorkmids, or a perspective that questions the rise of the bourgeois geek?

At first glance, Jane McGonigal's thesis on immersive and pervasive games seems to evade the grasp of the bourgeois geek. Her pervasive games lie on the fringes of game-ness, in fact taking on the mantra that "this is not a game." This is an interesting territory (and one that was poorly addressed by Salen & Zimmerman), but unfortunately McGonigal attempts to exempt these pervasive games from any political significance.

I find there to be a disturbingly fascist undercurrent in the trend of flashmobbing What better way to relinquish your political voice than by joining in a mass action? And what better channel for political manipulation than the innocent play of an environment game? The A.I. "Beast" game was, after all, an elaborate marketing campaign; a game which offfered the fun consequences of self-alienation and potential unemployment.

Pervasive games are attractive because they retain a characteristic innocence. They are a kind of sanctioned scavenger hunt, where the transgressive acts don't require larceny but instead take the form of invisible degeneracy. I suppose in a culture that has successfully reinforced the notion of private property (aided by the bipartisan anti-Socialism of American politics), we now look to deviant behavior as a legitimate avenue for play. The street is our park.

But McGonigal, as well as others at the story engines discussion, shies away from games as a political medium. This is an inconsistency which will soon cause the field of games to come into conflict with other forms of expression, such as art, music, and literature, all of which have rich traditions of political expression. Little can be said about meaningless play.

Posted by B Rickman at February 8, 2004 02:55 PM | TrackBack

Hi Brandon,
wow-- really great and powerful reactions to the exhibition and the conference. I agree with quite a lot of what you have to say. I just wanted to disagree, however, with your comments that I shy away from the political potential of pervasive and immersive gaming. Quite to the contrary, my most widely read article "This Is Not a Game: Immersive Aesthetics and Collective Play" (available on my web site or easily found on Google) has exactly the opposite thesis: that immersive and pervasive play are, in fact, exceptional vehicles for political engagement and social action. I may not have had time to go into this at StoryEngines, but I'd encourage you to check out the essay so as to avoid characterizing my work as apolitical. I think I'm quite known for pushing a political angle. Furthermore, as a former flahs mob organizer for the Bay area, I have quite a lot ot say about the supposedly "apolitcal" nature of flash mobs. I believe that spontaneous erruptions of public play is inherently political... not just because it is disruptive (that's too easy)... to avoid ranting, I'll just invite you to email me and continue the discussion. Thank you again for your really interesting comments on StoryEngines and my work.

Posted by: Jane McGonigal at February 9, 2004 06:28 PM

Jane - The impression I got from your talk (coupled with not being familiar with your work) was that you were trying to present pervasive games as "merely playful". I know you commented that people often accuse you of "crazy making", but I didn't feel you had much of a refutation for that, or if you intended to refute it.

As far as politics go, I meant (and I wasn't clear on this) the politics of the implementor, and their ability to get people to innocently participate in political acts. But I will read the article you suggest [pdf, html for the viewers out there].

Posted by: Brandon at February 9, 2004 07:15 PM