Extra Credit Post: Reading Isn’t Sexy, But…

Ever seen one of those bright yellow mugs, t-shirts, or buttons that has “reading is sexy” typed across its front? One of the ones that features a woman seductively peering over the rim of her glasses? Now, I’m not entirely certain that this message contains much truth. I’ve certainly never held a book in my hands and thought, “wow, I feel sexy!” However, this class has led me to a somewhat similar conclusion; literature is sexy. To be honest, in the beginning of the semester, I was a bit taken aback by how often Professor Hensley made connections between our readings and sex (sorry, Professor Hensley). Now, I cannot for the life of me stop making them myself.

It started with Alice. I chose, in my first paper, to make the argument that Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland tells of a sexual awakening. Indeed, Alice is often described as “burning with curiosity” (10), while other characters are “pale (with passion)”, and speak in a “trembling voice” (23). There can be no doubt that Alice’s exploration of a queer world below ground carries strong sexual undertones. Dracula is even more overtly sexual than Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In his novel, Bram Stoker weaves together a tale of homoeroticism, polyamory, and perversion. Indeed, descriptions of stake-wielding men, arms rising and falling, driving their weapon “deeper and deeper” into the hearts of their victims (192) leave little to the reader’s imagination. Similarly, the image of Dracula “forcing [Mina’s] face on his bosom” (251) exudes forbidden sexuality.

Ok, so the novels we read were sexy. But there is no way that the numerous highly technical readings that were assigned to us over the course of the semester were sexy too, right? Wrong. Take Susan Sontag, for example – in her essay “Against Interpretation”, she argues for “an erotics of art” (10). Or Freud, who writes of dreams in which he peers down women’s throats. The title of Foucault’s volume “The History of Sexuality” speaks for itself. Other times sexual references are scattered throughout a work. Most recently, I was struck by a particularly sensual passage in Alexander Galloway’s “Essays on Algorithmic Culture”; he writes of a “masochistic fascination” with the video game Myst, adding that “one doesn’t play Myst so much as one submits to it” (18). Don’t try to tell me you hear the words “masochistic” and “submit” and don’t immediately think “kinky sex!”

Oscar Wilde famously said that “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.”  I don’t know about the second part of that claim, nor can I attest to the validity of the word “everything” in the first, but I can say this: Much of literature, whether subtly or not, is about sex.

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La Region Centrale

From online description:

“La Région Centrale” was made during five days of shooting on a deserted mountain top in North Quebec. During the shooting, the vertical and horizontal alignment as well as the tracking speed were all determined by the camera’s settings. Anchored to a tripod, the camera turned a complete 360 degrees, craned itself skyward, and circled in all directions. Because of the unconventional camera movement, the result was more than merely a film that documented the film location’s landscape. Surpassing that, this became a film expressing as its themes the cosmic relationships of space and time. Cataloged here were the raw images of a mountain existence, plunged (at that time) in its distance from civilization, embedded in cosmic cycles of light and darkness, warmth and cold.

La Région Centrale (Quebec, 1971, 180 min., 16mm, color) is arguably the most spectacular experimental film made anywhere in the world, and for John W. Locke, writing in Artforum in 1973, it was “as fine and important a film as I have ever seen.” If ever the term “metaphor on vision” needed to be applied to a film it should be to this one. Following Wavelength, Michael Snow continued to explore camera/frame movement and its relationships with space and time in Standard Time (1967) an eight minute series of pans and tilts in an apartment living room and (Back and Forth) (1968­69), a more extended analysis. But with La Région Centrale, Snow managed to create moving images that heretofore could no possibly be observed by the human eye. For this project he enlisted the help of Pierre Abaloos to design and build a machine which would allow the camera to move smoothly about a number of different axes at various speeds, while supported by a short column, where the lens of the camera could pass within inches of the ground and zoom into the infinity of the sky. Snow placed his device on a peak near Sept Îsles in Quebec’s Région centrale and programmed it to provide a series of continuously changing views of the landscape. Initially, the camera pans through 360° passes which map out the terrain, and then it begins to provide progressively stranger views (on its side, upside down) through circular and back-and-forth motions.

The weird soundtrack was constructed from the electronic sounds of the programmed controls which are sometimes in synch with the changing framing on screen and sometimes not. Here, allusions to other films occur, especially science fiction works like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) which similarly reveals a barren, human-less primal landscape (with odd sounds) and spatially disorients the spectator. In La Région Centrale’s second hour, the world is inverted for so long, that when the camera swings vertically through a full circle to restore the horizon line to its rightful position, above the earth, it looks wrong. In the complete absence of human or animal forms, one can imagine the outlines of animals in the silhouetted shapes of rocks at twilight. It is impossible not to notice “camera movement” in this film, and, as Locke notes, one is inclined to observe the frame edge leading the movement (rather than the center) much of the time.

I can only imagine what it would have been like to see La Région Centrale, captivated in the extreme dark and quiet of New York’s Anthology Film Archive theater built specifically for the screening of experimental films in the 1970s. But, in any event, seen under any condition, the last hour offers up an incredible experience, with unbelievably high speed twisting and swirling motions rendering dynamic color and line abstractions. Finally, by rephotography ‹of the film jumping out of the gate‹ and flaring out of the image to red and yellow colors, and, closing with the camera apparently motionless on the sun, Snow presents a reflexive impression of the camera as the ultimate transformative, creative apparatus, capable of any magic. La Région Centrale presents a definitive “metaphor on vision.”

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Atari / Nintendo for Class Play

The Game of the Overland Mail (1852), Courtesy of Mitch Fraas, U Penn Libraries: 1852Boardgame

Pong (Atari, 1972):  http://www.ponggame.org/

Space Invaders (Atari, 1978): http://www.retrobill.com/invaders.htm

“During the Cold War, games like Missile Command (1980) presented a protorealistic anxiety narrative about living under the threat of nuclear annihilation, yet the game’s interface remained highly unrealistic and abstract” (Galloway “Social Realism” np): http://my.ign.com/atari/missile-command

Super Mario Brothers (NES, 1985): http://www.playretrogames.com/3171-super-mario-bros

Flower (Playstation, 2009), trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nJam5Auwj1E

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 4 (Playstation, 2009), gameplay: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FHFqZDq4Izk

Tom Clancy Rainbow Six Siege (XBox 3?, 2014), gameplay: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xB4_9aw5XtU

 

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On Context and Realism

In Alexander Galloway’s “Social Realism in Gaming,” Galloway claims that “it is because games are an active medium that realism in gaming rewires a special congruence between the social reality depicted in the game and the social reality known and lived by the gamer… if one is a realist game designer, the challenge is not only to capture the social realities of the downtrodden classes but also to inject the game back into the social milieu of available gamers where it rings true.”

Galloway’s article highlights the most unique feature of the game medium: namely, action, or the “problematic of correspondences.” Action serves as the primary axle around which the game spins, and players develop a special relationship with the medium that inherently involves their own active decisions. As such, Galloway argues, realism in the game faces different demands from other mediums such as film. Whereas the film merely has to portray reality realistically, the game must consider the social context of the gamer and provide a relevant reflection of his or her corresponding world.

While I understood the need for such an emphasis on context in the game medium, I also found it to be somewhat limiting. Galloway makes realism relative to the individual when he says that “a typical American youth playing Special Force is most likely not experiencing realism, where as realism is indeed possible for a young Palestinian gamer.” In film, it seems that the only reality of importance is that of the filmmaker; however, it appears that a game can only be defined as realist if it reflects on the direct social atmosphere of the gamer. My first problem with this is that context is not always social. Some realities are universal, and Galloway seems to dismiss the nuanced commentaries on widely shared experiences felt by groups that transcend social barriers. Moreover, Galloway seems to imply that realism is relative to the confines of the gamer’s social context, and that if it fails to fit the mold of this context, then it ceases to be realist. However, a reality removed from the world of the gamer can still maintain its realism; in fact, experiencing what may not feel real to one person may disorient him initially, but also expands his conception of reality to a broader scope not before considered. Maybe, then, an American youth playing Special Force is not experiencing realism in his direct cultural context, but may be experiencing another kind of realism that is universally relatable; and, if not, he can at least vicariously experience what is real to a young Palestinian across the world. If that does not suit Galloway’s definition of realism, it is nevertheless a valuable experience from which he can expand his view of the world.

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Social Realism in Gaming

In his essay, “Social Realism in Gaming,” Galloway reflects on the possibility video games containing elements of social realism.  Galloway indicates that there is a difference between realism and realistic-ness.  Galloway states that realistic-ness is “a yardstick held up to representation,” while realism is a “surgical examination of matters society.”  Galloway goes onto argue that “game studies should follow these same arguments and turn not to a theory of realism in gaming as mere realistic representation, but define realist games as those games that reflect critically on the minutia of everyday life, replete as it is with struggle, personal drama and injustice.”  While I agree with this framework I do wonder what Galloway would say today.  Galloway wrote this article in 2003 when video game graphics were poor compared to today.  Today there is virtual reality and games that almost look life-like because the graphics are so good.  Today there are games that tackle realism in new and confusing ways.  Do games such as Mafia 3, which tackles the issue of race in 1960’s New Orleans.  The main character is a black and he is part of a street gang that comes into conflict with the established Italian mafia.  This game combines both realistic and realist elements in ways that I do not believe Galloway would have come across in 2003.  The main character has a love storyline, a family storyline, and other aspects of his life are brought in to really round out the character, but also forces the player to experience the “minutia of everyday life,” through the eyes of the character.  While they may be made up of pixels, as Galloway states, the game’s creators make it feel pretty real, in both ways.

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Immediacy and Hypermediacy in Game Time

While reading Jesper Juul’s “Introduction to Game Time/Time to play: An examination of game temporality,”  I was reminded of our discussion Immediacy, Hypermediacy, and Remediation, and how the layers of time in the gaming world might effect the goals of a social realist game, like those described in Alexander R. Galloway’s article “Social Realism in Gaming.”

Based on Juul’s description of game time (“state of the game at a given time”), play time, (“the time used by the player to play the game”) and event time (“the time of the events in the game”), in conjunction with his discussion of mapping, cut-scenes, loading scenes or level changing scenes, and save games, it seems that video games are much more prone to hypermediacy. For example, in the case of “cut-scenes,”the player is literally confronted with framed scenes that “are not a parallel time or an extra level, but a different way of creating the event time” (“Modern Games with Cut-Scenes” section). During these moments, players are unable to interact with the game and therefore are simply able to stare at the screen, indicating “the absence of interactivity.” These images, moreover, are visibly more representative of a cinematic image than a gaming image, further indicating these moments of confrontation with “cut-scenes” are moments of hypermediacy.

In some cases, especially in virtual reality games or in perhaps Alexander Galloway’s defined Social Realist games, it seems Immediacy would be the ideal target of game creation–the player would be so immersed, experiencing the “flow” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes, but on an extreme level so they are in effect unaware of anything that occurs outside of game world. However, based on Juul’s discussion of event time and play time, it seems rather that the gaming world is confronted by a whole army of hypermediacy events.For game designers concerned with producing not just realistic games, but social realist games I believe the instances of hypermediacy, particularly the ability to “save games” could prove to be a large issue: you can’t really “save” or put a pause on oppressive regimes and come back after a night of rest or a family dinner in the real world like you might be able to in the game world. Therefore, I am unsure whether or not video games could really achieve a social realist goal while having to confront these moments of hypermediacy.

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Time and Suspended Disbelief

Juul in his “Introduction to Game Time” discusses what can be “highly problematic” for games in which event time is not chronological. He offers the conclusions that flash forwards mean a player’s actions do not affect the next step of the game, demotivating players, and that flash backs could allow the player to change the course of the game and not reach the point from which he or she went back in time, unravelling the game. These points do make sense, it would greatly complicate a game to mess with time in these ways, but I also wonder why Juul makes it sound so impossible. Video games as we know them rely to some degree on suspended disbelief, especially the more complex they get. Games invent characters and worlds, and in the case of Portal even bend rules of physics that we all know to be true. If games rely so often on suspended disbelief, and if players are so will to go along with them, why has no game tackled this convention of chronological time? Though it would be complicated and less “real,” simplicity and reality are hardly tenets of the gaming industry, as seen in its move from Pong to many of the games on the market today. I can only assume new games make an effort to distinguish themselves from the others that have already been released, and I am interested in seeing if a game goes on to tackle this unexplored frontier, nonchronological time.

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Freedom and Compulsion in Video Games

We tend to think we have some sort of freedom when playing a game — I can choose to walk one way opposed to the other side; however, do we truly have any freedom, when in fact, everything has been preprogrammed. There was a coder who decided, long before we even entered the game, which way we could walk, see, and turn.

 
Alexander R. Galloway ‘Social Realism in Gaming touches upon this dilemma of action when interpreting the social relationship between the text (video game) and the reader (player). Even though, video games claim they replicate reality through simulations of engagement with real scenarios they will always just be a reproduction. Galloway argues that video games give us another realism because of the action. However, I believe that video games are simply intentions to get the player to feel they are controlling their actions by making them as realistic as possible. “Games signal a third phase for realism. The first two phases were realism in narrative (literature) and realism in images (painting, photography, film). Now there is a realism in action”.” (Galloway) As players we can never experience a virtual reality that is completely identical to the one we are living in. We are replicating other actions, so is it realism? The reading reminded me of our discussion from the class before Easter. The idea that any innovation is simply an old idea repeated again and again. Our society keeps reforming new games that are based on older versions. Maybe that is why video games are so satisfying to us, as they repeat well-known scenarios and choices we have experienced before?

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Interpretation: From Film to Gaming

Jesper Juul’s Introduction to Game Time/Time to play–An Examination of Game Temporality and Alexander R. Galloway’s Social Realism in Gaming discuss the interactions between the gamer and the interface and the corresponding theoretical and societal implications. Juul contends that, while elements of video games are remediated from other cultural mediums, they also represent a significant break from the traditional because the player interacts with the game state in a more dynamic way. I found his consideration of cut-scenes to be especially relevant to our class themes. He notes that play sequences use the full screen while cut-scenes are widescreen, signifying a conventionally cinematic aesthetic. Juul writes “wide-screen presentation cues the player to interpret the graphics using cinematic conventions rather than game conventions.” In this way, the game cannot exist without film, but simultaneously distinguishes itself from film with a set of new conventions. This idea is reminiscent of “Carlos Burned Most of My Stuff”: the appearance of a text or piece of art includes inherent social cues as to the correct way to approach it. A gamer must take action during play time, and must watch without acting during cut-scenes, as one does when viewing a film. Like a film, the time structure of a game can be linear and take place over a series hours or decades. Unlike film, however, games run into problems with flashbacks and flash-forwards because of the interactive nature.

Galloway’s article also cannot separate its discussion from film. His definition of realism in gaming is an extension of the film definition—to “capture the social realities of the middle and lower classes”—with an additional component attached. For gaming, Galloway argues, there is a “congruence requirement” of a type of synchrony between the gamer’s reality, the gamer’s actions, and the game environment. Since the goal of a film is depiction, a realist film must simply be realist in this depiction. Gaming requires action, and so the realism must not lie simply in cut-scenes but must be directly embedded in the action.

Galloway describes realism in gaming as a street that runs two ways. A designer must depict realism a filmmaker but must also make the realism have relevance in the gamer’s immediate external reality. The gamer’s actions are translated to specific actions on-screen, and this is the link between the two realms. The gamer responds to cues in the game, and the game naturally responds to actions by the gamer. Actions in play time must influence those in event time and vice versa. In this way, the game is a naturally interpretive medium. Opponents of depth interpretation in film argue that searching for hidden meaning diminishes the integrity of the form and content that is presented on the surface. Perhaps gaming is a medium better suited to depth interpretation, because the barrier between the surface and depth can be shifted or completely shattered by the actions of the gamer.

 

 

 

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Playing video games is an imperfect allegory for life

In “Introduction to Game Time/Time to play–an examination of game temporality, Jesper Juul claims that “[m]ost computer games project a game world, and to play them is therefore to engage in kind of pretense-play: you are both ‘yourself,’ and you have another role in the game world.” This statement at the beginning of Juus’ paper made me eager to read more about the dual identities that people experience as they venture through their video game experiences. However, as the title makes clear, the remainder of this essay focused on the notion of timing within video games and with respect to real-time. Throughout Juus’ essay, I tracked the connections between playing video games and behaving in real life.

Event time (time elapsed within the game) and play time (real time) do not always overlap with one another. For instance, in Sims City, life goes by extremely fast; one year in Sim life constitutes 2 minutes of our own lives. In real life people (especially parents) have phrases like “it feels like time goes by in the blink of an eye” or “it feels like just yesterday…” and these phrases do not perfectly allude to the sped up time in games such as Sims. However, I think that there is a balance between the practical purposes of the game–to create and live a life that doesn’t actually take a lifetime–and the real life concerns, dreams and desires, and feelings. I do not think the fast paced game is solely practical for a video game however. This could be a stretch, but in a reality type of game, it captures to a certain extent the unexplainable feeling of time flying that nearly everyone experiences. Meanwhile, cut scenes which Juus describes as “events in the event time…they can usually be skipped, and…the user can’t do anything during [one].” The inability to do anything could expand on the lack of control that we really have over our own lives. Even with the inability to literally skip over parts of our lives, we do have the ability to block out bad parts in our life. For example, I could hypothetically ignore texts from my brother about his troubles finding employment. However, this would not be skipping over time in my own life, it would only be ignoring his life such that it minimized its influence on my life. Thus, the ability to skip scenes, replay scenes, or even pause and return to video games is unique to the gaming world and both fortunately and unfortunately not a special feature in the game of life.

On another note, unlike cinema or literature, video games, Juus argues, almost always follows a chronological time line. A sneak peak of the end scene is impractical for a video game. For, “flash-forwards are highly problematic, since describing events-to-come means that the player’s actions do not really matter.” When I first read this part of Juus’ paper, I thought, well obviously. But then I thought more about it, and I realized that–fantastical or not–this element of video game design has inherently made it that much more real. Moreover, players’ actions truly are at stake, much as people’s decisions in life are always at stake. This pressure to make keen decisions exists both in video games and life, because of the linear chronology that they both take.

Returning to Juus’ quotation at the very beginning of my post, I certainly believe that his observation about this dual existence is appropriate for this setting. I want to push this claim further though. In real life, we are all multiple characters at once: we are daughters/sons, sisters/brothers, students, participants in organizations or teams, we are friends. This simultaneous existence as many different characters in life proves to be a daunting task at points. It becomes a balancing act, and prioritization becomes a skill. The various (and perhaps competing) demands that stem from our relationships makes our lives complex, but also somewhat thrilling at other times. Even though video games are often for pleasure and the purpose of life is to survive (on a biological level), this duality of existences that we experience when we play video games is really just a more apparent way of demonstrating our real-life multiplicity of existences.

Although it is not a perfect allegory for life, Juus points out many parallels between the act of playing video games and the motions in life.

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