Coming Soon: Videogame/Player/Text

This is a plug for a new collection on videogame theory, Videogame/Player/Text, that’s just about to be published by Manchester University Press (here’s the official announcement). The editors, Barry Atkins and Tanya Krzywinska, came up with a great idea: invite game scholars to contribute chapters in which they turn a videogame of their choice inside out, upside down, and shake it wildly to see what insights tumble out.


For me, Videogame/Player/Text was an opportunity to return to the subject of first-person shooters, which have interested me both as a player and an academic since my early days in grad school. (My master’s thesis, a Lacanian reading of FPS history written at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, later became a chapter called “Playing at Being: Psychoanalysis and the Avatar” in The Video Game Theory Reader [Routledge, 2003], edited by Mark J. P. Wolf and Bernard Perron — Amazon link here.)

For Tanya and Barry’s collection, I wanted to get away from the puzzle of retrofitting film theory to videogames (which is still, for many game scholars, anathema) and write in a more medium-specific manner. My focus in “Of Eye Candy and Id: The Terrors and Pleasures of Doom 3” is the evolution of graphic engines, the software component that renders 3D spaces from a subjective viewpoint and is an integral part — the kernel, really — of FPS experience. What I take on in my article for V/P/T is the question of when, exactly, graphic engines came into existence, both as a technical and discursive category; how graphics have generally been talked about in dialectical relation to gameplay; and how the evolution of 3D graphics relates to player embodiment, isolation, and solipsism. As a teaser, the opening paragraphs of my V/P/T essay are quoted here:

Let’s start with a claim often heard about Doom 3 (Activision/id Software, 2004): that it is “just” a remake of the 1993 original, the same stuff packaged in prettier graphics. That, although separated by eleven years and profound changes in the cultural, technological, and aesthetic dimensions of videogaming, Doom 3 – like all of Doom’s versions – boils down to a single conceit, recycled in the contemporary digital argot:

First, people are taken over, turned into cannibal Things. Then the real horror starts, the deformed monstrosities from Outside. … Soon, brave men drop like flies. You lose track of your friends, though sometimes you can hear them scream when they die, and the sounds of combat echo from deep within the starbase. Something hisses with rage from the steel tunnels ahead. They know you’re here. They have no pity, no mercy, take no quarter, and crave none. They’re the perfect enemy, in a way. No one’s left but you. You … and them.

Here the second-person voice does to readers what Doom so famously did to players, isolating them in a substitute self, an embattled, artificial you. The original Doom had its shareware release on December 10, 1993, marking the popular emergence of the first-person shooter or FPS. Less a game than a programming subgenre all its own, Doom’s brand of profane virtual reality was built around a set of graphical hacks – an “engine” of specialized rendering code – that portrayed navigable, volumetric environments from eye-level perspective. Players peered over shotgun barrels at fluidly animated courtyards and corridors, portals and powerups, and “deformed monstrosities” like the fireball-hurling Imp, the elephantine Mancubus, and the Cyberdemon (“a missile-launching skyscraper with goat legs”).

Technologically, Doom depended on advances in computer sound and imaging, themselves a result of newly affordable memory and speedy processors. Psychologically, the FPS stitched the human body into its gameworld double with unprecedented intimacy. Gone were the ant-farm displacements of third-person videogames, the god’s-eye steering of Pac-Man (Namco, 1980) and the sidescrolling tourism of Super Mario Brothers (Nintendo, 1985). Doom fully subjectivized the avatar – the player-controlled object around which action centers – turning it into a prison of presence whose embodied vulnerability (they’re coming for me!) deliciously complemented its violent agency (take that, you bastard!).

Shooters that followed – Unreal (GT Interactive/Epic, 1998), Half-Life (Sierra/Valve, 1998), Deus Ex (Eidos Interactive/Ion Storm, 2000), Halo (MS Game Studios/Bungie, 2001), and countless others – deepened the FPS formula with narrative and strategic refinements, not to mention improvements in multiplayer, artificial intelligence, and level design. But to judge by its latest iteration, the Doom series didn’t bother to evolve at all – except in terms of technical execution. …

As for the rest of V/P/T‘s contents, they look fascinating, and I’m very much looking forward to reading them. A lot of friends among the contributors, and a lot of writers whose work I respect. Here’s the chapter lineup:

  • Introduction: Videogame, player, text – Barry Atkins and Tanya Krzywinska
  • Beyond Ludus: narrative, videogames and the split condition of digital textuality – Marie-Laure Ryan
  • All too urban: to live and die in SimCity – Matteo Bittanti
  • Play, modality and claims of realism in Full Spectrum Warrior – Geoff King
  • Why am I in Vietnam? – The history of a video game – Jon Dovey
  • ‘It’s Not Easy Being Green’: real-time game performance in Warcraft – Henry Lowood
  • Being a determined agent in (the) World of Warcraft: text/play/identity – Tanya Krzywinska
  • Female Quake players and the politics of identity – Helen W. Kennedy
  • Of eye candy and id: the terrors and pleasures of Doom 3 – Bob Rehak
  • Second Life: the game of virtual life – Alison McMahan
  • Playing to solve Savoir-Faire – Nick Montfort
  • Without a goal – on open and expressive games – Jesper Juul
  • Pleasure, spectacle and reward in Capcom’s Street Fighter series – David Surman
  • The trouble with Civilization – Diane Carr
  • Killing time: time past, time present and time future in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time – Barry Atkins

Videogame/Player/Text should be published by the end of September from Manchester University Press. I invite you to check it out.

5 thoughts on “Coming Soon: Videogame/Player/Text

  1. Can’t wait for the new reader – the slew of next-gen FPS games now coming out, (i.e., Bioshock, Crysis, Halo3, etc.) means much more fodder for game theorists interested in this line of questioning.

    I’m wondering about your comment on the ‘stitching-in’ of the player’s body in DOOM, and how we might compare this kind of bodily suture with the kinds of embodiment/identifications which occur in third-person shooter games (TPS)? It would seem on first glance that the TPS emphasizes this ‘substitute body’ visually, while the FPS emphasizes a substitute body as vision itself – as a disembodied vision.

    Hence the TPS’s emphasis on physical access, remoteness, distance, acrobatics, etc.,(see, for example, Mario64, Prince of Persia, Tomb Raider, etc.) while the newest incarnations of the FPS (game engines) still ruminate on predominantly visual modes of being, acting and knowing. (If you can see it, you can shoot/interact it) In this case it is easy to see why Doom3 (the engine) is built so much around light/dark, shadows, reflection, texture and presence.

    The horrors of Doom have always dealt with presence and proximity – the proximal noises of the imps from Doom2 functioning practically almost as ‘canned horror’ – while the bodily identification/mortification in the game reaches its most intense moments as the player is ‘hit in the eye’ by the demonic claws of his enemies. The visual aspect of the player’s embodiment in Doom cannot be exchanged for something more virtually physical or material, it is relegated to the visual by the very nature of being-qua-looking – which is the fundamental form of the genre.

    This mode of gamic being seems to be more in line with the voyeuristic modes of cinema than its sucessive genre, the TPS (where the player’s substitute body, the avatar, is visible on screen, yet her vision is, similar to the FPS, distended and disembodied in an invisible floating camera).

    Is it then not the TPS whose ‘stitching-in’ of the player’s body is truly unprecedented? The ‘stitching in’ is not of simply of the player’s body to a certain perspective on-screen, but also into (an alleged) identification with the visual ‘substitute body’ that appears as a kind of cursor in the field of vision?

    PS – I think there is a whole other region of psychoanalytic inquiry in looking at the Cyberdemon as a kind of oedipal fantasy – I mean, it shoots cock-rockets from its groin! What up with that?


  2. Bob–

    Just stumbled across your blog via a post on Liberal Education Today (a blog published by the folks at NITLE, if you’re familiar with them). Bryan Alexander there is a great resource and I think you would have much in common with him (if you don’t know him already).

    I taught a course on New Media at my school in the Spring and we used the Video Game Theory Reader in there with a great deal of success–I had several students use your piece in their final projects (some more effectively than others, of course).

    It looks like this new reader will also be a useful one for folks doing work in the area (not to mention potentially insightful for those of us hooked on WoW, as I have become!). I look forward to reading your piece and perhaps catching up when you have some time (whenever that imaginary time might be).

  3. Brett, good to hear from you, and thanks for writing! I don’t know Bryan Alexander personally, but have read and enjoyed his blog. Glad to learn the Video Game Theory Reader was of use to your students. Is this the wiki associated with your class? If so, it looks fantastic. I’ve struggled to integrate blogging with my new media classes, and wikis are looking like a good alternative — providing a space not just for individuals to share their voice, but for collaboration as well.

    Hope you like the Videogame/Player/Text collection enough to pull you away from World of Warcraft for a few minutes … until, of course, books begin to be simu-published in RL and gamespace.

    Let’s do connect soon. I’m not going to NCA this year, but will be at SCMS (which is just down the road in Philadelphia). How about you?

  4. Eben, great comments on first-person/third person modes of being and gaming (or, as I like to say, being-as-gaming). I agree that there is a profound difference between inhabiting an avatar that is essentially a POV — its camera-body only inferable through the synecdoche of the hand-and-gun-barrel at the bottom of the screen — and watching that avatar from “outside,” as in the TPS.

    At the same time, though, I wonder to what degree this truly alters the situation inherited from cinema — from all representational art, really — in which viewers flip their alignments quite fluidly and fluently from identification with an onscreen character to identification with the camera: the thing that is like us because it is “there,” “watching,” yet unlike us because we can’t see the thing that’s doing the watching. This distinction is fundamental to Christian Metz’s work, which as you may know was integral to my way of thinking the avatarial relationship.

    By saying this, I don’t suggest that videogame bodies, either of the third- or first-person variety, are identical to videogame bodies — that absurd claim would earn me a harsh beating from a roving pack of ludologists. I think you hit the nail on the head by stressing vulnerability as the place where gaming’s “gazing body” diverges: in Doom and its ilk, to see and be seen is to be targeted & under attack, while in Hollywood it’s part of a game of omnipotence-through-omniscience: because I can see everything, but am never directly pictured onscreen, I escape the material consequences of this fictional world.

    In recent years I’ve been mulling over the differences between FPSs and TP games of the World-of-Warcraft variety. The graphic engines that drive these two types of game seem very different (though I’ve not looked into the nuts and bolts). Certainly the FPS, as you observe, is claustrophopic where the MMORPG engine is — what should we call it? — agoraphilic, delighting in the panoramic sublime. In an MMORPG, that is, we love to see as much as we can, the terrain, its characters (including us in our lovingly-clad avatars), to say nothing of all the windows and text and menus of the HUD. A vastly different visual regime, one linked to sociality rather than solipsism, pronoia rather than paranoia. But each, ironically, making equivalently steep demands on graphics cards with each new generation.

    Regarding the Cyberdemon and its cock-rockets, now … I’ll have to mull that one over and get back to you.

  5. Okay, Bob. I think I’m getting closer to seeing where you’re coming from (via Metz, etc.) but I still think that contemporary film theory misunderstands the nature of the ‘gamic gaze’ particularly due to this emphasis on the visual and visual modes of identification/spectatorship.

    When you suggest that the ‘panoramic sublime’ of TPs is basically the same camera (as in FPSs) except with a slightly different perspective, (more terrain, including the ‘lovingly-clad’ avatar) I think you overlook the most fundamental property of what we might term the ‘gamic gaze’.

    This new perspective is not merely a wider angle, inclusive of a wider view of the terrain and of the visually-constructed avatar, but a view onto the space of relationality existing between these subject-object orientations. In FPS, your perspective roughly equals ‘self’ and everything else (everything visible) becomes ‘other’ and thus, (as in DOOM) a worthy target for annihilation. It continues the legacy of the filmic gaze by making the vision of the subject equal to the proprioception (the shooting-range) of the avatar’s body, and the avatar’s body equal to the vision of the subject.

    In TP games, the proprioception of the avatar’s body is disarticulated from its vision by what Brian Massumi calls an “exorbital axis of vision” – a distended vision; vision swollen beyond the space of the avatar’s (vulnerable) body.

    “Seeing oneself as others see one in fact means occupying an axis of vision on a tangent to self and other, both as actual entities and as conditions of identity. It is to enter a space that opens an outside perspective on the self-other, subject-object axis.” Massumi, ‘Parables for the Virtual’ (51)

    It is therefore not merely (a) view to terrain and (a) view to the avatar’s body, (or even more spuriously, its identity) but this simultaneous vision that is a perspective onto the proprioceptive space of the avatar. It is a vision of an intersubjective field of avatar-agency. (As a crude example, consider that in TPs, the player is able to judge distance and proximity more effectively and conduct physical/acrobatic moves more precisely by being able to judge the subject-position of her avatar and the object/destination she is attempting to reach)

    How rarely is it that the player looks into her avatar’s face during in-game play! The over-the-shoulder perspective is indicative that the avatar’s ‘identity’ is functionally absent, a null value. (Or rather, the identity of the avatar is actually the player’s identity ‘piggybacking’ prosthetically into the simulated body of the avatar.)

    Consider also: if one takes the game-camera to be equal to the avatar’s vision — the paradox of looking into the avatar’s eyes (with the avatar’s distended eye; the game camera). This paradoxical perspective would seem to create a suture-breaking short-circuit effect, a reveral of the gaze from inside the game into the living-room of the player. If the close-up is critical to the forms of identification that occur in cinema, what is to account for this stange look? What follows this line of reasoning is that the (TP) avatar is not to be understood as an other-Self, as having any identity worth seeing or knowing or identifying with. The avatar is simply an empty Other-vessel, a prosthetic vehicle, an other-object whose proprioceptive subjectivity is built to be inhabited by the player in movement; like a car or bicycle. (A useful illustration of this: in the Gran Turismo series of racing simulator-games, the driver of the vehicle is visually absent. Who could be driving the car if not the player herself?)

    Finally, I would never be caught dead calling myself a “ludologist” and if they ever got down on you on your site I promise I would be there with my theoretical warhammer to do some damage to those punks – but I do think there is much to be said about reassessing how film theory understands spectatorship and subjectivity with regards to videogames. I would much prefer a psychoanalytic/phenomenological model for interrogating the ‘videogame apparatus’ or the ‘gamic body’ or what have you, but to do this it may be neccesary to consider that contemporary film theory may have misunderstood Lacan, and that contemporarily, the ‘lived experience’ of the game player may transcend mere spectatorship.

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