Starting the Last of Us


The remarkable opening sequence of The Last of Us was ruined for me — at my request, I hasten to add — and as much as it might be in keeping with the game’s ethos of cowing and disempowering its players, I don’t want to visit the same epistemological violence upon readers without warning. So proceed no further if you wish to remain unspoiled!

After a long sojourn in retro tidepools of emulation (via MAME and Nestopia) and the immediate, delimited pleasures of casual gaming (where usual suspects like Bejeweled and Temple Run share playtime with private-feeling discoveries like Alien Zone and Nimble Quest) I’m returning to modern videogaming with a PlayStation 3 — itself on the verge of obsolescence, I suppose, thanks to the imminent PS4. My motivations for acquiring both The Last of Us and hardware to run it on can be traced to an hour or so of gaming at a friend’s place, where, as my two companions watched and kibbitzed, I walked, crouched, and ran TLOU’s protagonist-avatar Joel through a couple of early “encounters” whose purpose seemed to be to teach me the futility of fighting, shooting, or doing anything really besides sneaking around or flat-out running away from danger.

I find TLOU’s strategy of undermining any sense of potency or agency to be one of its most intriguing traits, but I will wait to talk more about that in a future post. For now I simply want to note the clever, evil way in which the game gets its hooks in you. You begin the game playing as Sarah, Joel’s twelve-year-old daughter, and the initial sequence involves piloting her around a darkened house in search of her father. It’s suitably creepy, with Sarah calling out “Dad?” in increasingly panicked tones as, outside the game, you adapt yourself to the basics of movement, camera placement, and manipulating objects in the environment.

The latter is a now-standard method of starting a game in crypto-tutorial mode — apparently sometime within the last ten years instruction manuals ceased to exist. Controllers have become standardized according to their brands, but each videogame deploys its button-and-joystick layout slightly differently, and acclimatizing the player to this scheme in a way that feels natural is every game’s first design challenge, a kind of ludic bootstrapping.

When Joel arrives home in the middle of the night and spirits Sarah off in a pickup truck, TLOU enters another mode, the expository tour, in this case a bone-rattling run through a world in the process of collapsing: police cars screeching by with sirens blaring (and lenses flaring), houses burning, townspeople rioting. Rushed from one apocalyptic setpiece to another, it’s a bit like Disney’s “Small World” ride filtered through Dante’s Inferno. By this point, avatarial focus has been handed off to Joel, but you barely notice it; he’s carrying Sarah in his arms as he runs, so it feels like he, she, and you have merged into a single unit of desperate, hounded motion.

And when it appears that the three of you have finally reached safety, a soldier appears, opens fire, and kills Sarah. Cut to black and the title card: THE LAST OF US.

It’s a great opening, harrowing and emasculating, and by breaking a couple of the basic expectations of storytelling (killing a child) and of gaming (killing an avatar we have grown used to inhabiting), it decenters and disorients the player, readying him or her for what is to come by demonstrating precisely how unready we really are.

It put me in mind of Psycho, which similarly kills off its ostensible protagonist at the end of its first act — though in the 1960 film Marion Crane has had a moral defect established that makes her, in retrospect at least, deserving of punishment in Hitchcock’s sadistic scopic regime. Sarah, by contrast, is an innocent, and as much a cipher as emblems of purity always are. Starting the game with her death is a manipulative but effective gut-punch that can be read both positively and negatively. It was enough to make me take the leap and reengage with contemporary gaming — well, it and a few other things. But more on that later.


FMST 86: Theory and History of Video Games

Course Description and Goals

By any measure – industrial scale and profitability, cultural pervasiveness, size of audience, range of genres and aesthetics, and influence on and intersection with other media – video games have become one of the dominant entertainment forms of our time. This course investigates the video game medium in both its theoretical and historical dimensions, drawing on a variety of texts and perspectives as well as on play and analysis of video games themselves to build a portrait, not just of games, gamers, and gaming, but of a unique moment in the evolution of contemporary media.

The first half of the term will establish a basic conceptual vocabulary for thinking, speaking, and writing about video games, emphasizing the formal and aesthetic principles that distinguish them as a medium, and articulating these principles to a historical account of video game development. In the second half of the term, we will shift our attention to the broader contexts and cultural functions of video gaming – examining them as commercial and transmedia entities; as spaces for the forging of identity and sociality; as objects of fandom and instruments of ideology – culminating in interpretive and creative practices that push the definition of video games and gaming to, and past, their limits.

Throughout the semester, we will take pains to situate video games in specific contexts, distributing our attention among their technological, formal, and cultural aspects. Students are encouraged to bring their own interests and backgrounds to bear, illuminating video games with the insights of literary theory, film studies, philosophy, psychology, performance, economics, feminism, and any other rubric that enriches the object of study.


  • Egenfeldt-Nielsen, Simon, Jonas Heide Smith, and Susana Pajares Tosca. Understanding Video Games: The Essential Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2008.
  • Galloway, Alexander. Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.
  • Levy, Steven. Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. New York: Penguin Books, 2001.
  • Recommended: Donovan, Tristan. Replay: The History of Video Games. East Sussex: Yellow Ant, 2010.
  • All other readings available as PDFs on Blackboard under “Course Documents.”


Detailed instructions will be given throughout term. I am always available to discuss
particulars, suggest approaches, and negotiate alternatives.

  • 15% Participation
  • 35% Short Papers
  • 5% Ludology/Narratology Debate Week 6; pass/fail
  • 15% Team Presentation Weeks 7-11; schedule with me
  • 30% Final Project

Readings and assignments are subject to change

Week 1 (8/30 & 9/1): Overture
T Introductions and course overview
Th Framing videogames as objects of study
UVG Ch. 1, “Studying Video Games” & Ch. 6, “Video Game Culture”

Week 2 (9/6 & 9/8): Basic Categories
T Theorizing games and play
UVG Ch. 3, “What Is A Game?”; Galloway, “Gamic Action, Four
** Due: 1-page self-introduction
Th Thinking in (and about) genres
Foucault, “The Order of Things”
Excerpts from Wolf, The Video Game Explosion

Week 3 (9/13 & 9/15): History I
T Roots of video gaming
UVG Ch. 4, “History” (pp. 45-67)
Levy, Hackers

Th The arcade era

Hilbert, “Flying Off the Screen: Observations from the Golden Age of the
American Video Game Arcade”
Rouse, “Game Analysis: Centipede”
Fiske, “Video Pleasures”
** View on own time: The King of Kong (Seth Gordon, 2007)

Week 4 (9/20 & 9/22): History II
T Console and PC gaming
UVG Ch. 4, “History” (pp. 67-96)
** Due: Spacewar/Adventure Comparison
Th Mobile and casual games
Juul, excerpt from A Casual Revolution
Chien, “This Is Not a Dance”
Scott and Ruggill, “Simulation or Simulacrum? The Promise of Sports

Week 5 (9/27 & 9/29): Principles of Form
T Rules and representation
UVG Ch. 5, “Video Game Aesthetics”
Sudnow, “Eyeball and Cathexis”
Th Closeup: First-Person Shooters
Galloway, “Origins of the First-Person Shooter”
** Due: Midterm (between now and week 10)

Week 6 (10/4 & 10/6): Ludology & Narratology
T Ludology & narratology
UVG Ch. 8, “Narrative”
Aarseth, “Genre Trouble: Narrativism and the Art of Simulation”
Jenkins, “Game Design as Narrative Architecture”
Frasca, “Simulation versus Narrative: Introduction to Ludology”
Th In-class debate

Fall Break

Week 7 (10/18 & 10/20): Business and Industry
** Start of team presentations
T Gamemakers
UVG Chapter 2, “The Game Industry”
Birdwell, “The Cabal: Valve’s Design Process for Creating Half-Life”
Th Adaptations and transmedia
Excerpt from Brookey, Hollywood GamersTheory and History of Videogames / 4

Week 8 (10/25 & 10/27): Social Effects
T Reclaiming gaming
Johnson, excerpt from Everything Bad Is Good for You
McGonigal, excerpt from Reality Is Broken
Th Video game fandom
Rehak, “Mapping the Bit Girl”; additional reading(s) TBA

Week 9 (11/1 & 11/3): Multiplayer
T Game communities
UVG Ch. 7, “Player Culture”
Dibbell, “A Rape in Cyberspace”
Th Multiplayer
Bartle, “Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDS”
Pearce and Artemesia, excerpt from Communities of Play
** View on own time: Second Skin (Juan Carlos Pineiro-Escoriaza, 2008)

Week 10 (11/8 & 11/10): Identity
T Gender
Kafai, Heeter et al, excerpt from Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat
Burrill, excerpt from Die Tryin’: Videogames, Masculinity, Culture
Th Race
always_black, “Bow, N****r”
Nakamura, “Race In/For Cyberspace: Identity Tourism and Racial Passing on
the Internet”

Week 11 (11/15 & 11/17): Gaming the Game
T Mods, cheating, and machinima
Galloway, “Countergaming”
Consalvo, excerpt from Cheating
Th Serious games
UVG Ch. 9, “Serious Games”
Galloway, “Social Realism”
Bogost, excerpt from Persuasive Games

Week 12 – Thanksgiving (class does not meet)

Week 13 (11/29 & 12/1): Colloquium
T Student presentations
Th Student presentations

Week 14 (12/6)
T Wrap up; course evaluations
** Final papers due 12/13

Notes on Spacewar

What is it about Spacewar that so completely captures my imagination? Teaching my Theory and History of Video Games class, I once again crack open Steven Levy’s great book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, which I have read at least a dozen times since it was published in 1984. A time now further away than the period of which Levy was then writing — the late 1950s and early 60s, when a motley assortment of brilliantly talented social misfits at MIT repurposed a PDP-1 to create, if not the world’s first computer game, then the first digital artifact to capture the spirit and culture of gaming that would explode over subsequent decades. Below, a bulletin board of sorts, collecting resources on this seminal software object and the matrix from which it was spawned.

Steve “Slug” Russell, posing with a PDP-1.

A bibliography on hacker/computer culture.

An article on Spacewar from WebBox’s CGI Timeline.

From the MIT Museum.

Origin story from Creative Computing magazine, August 1981. I remember reading this when it first came out, at the age of sixteen!

News snippet from Decuscope, April 1962. I was not alive to read this one at the time of its publication. Decuscope, one finds, is a newsletter for DEC (Digital Equipment Computer) Users; PDFs from 1961-1972 here.

About that PDP-1 and its capabilities. It’s always vertigo-inducing to consider how computing power and resources have changed. The TX-0 on which MIT’s hackers cut their teeth had something like 4K of storage, while its successor, the PDP-1, had the equivalent of 9K. By contrast, the Google Doodle below, at 48K, is more than five times as large:

Some tools for finding one’s bearings amid the rushing rapids of Moore’s Law: Wikipedia pages for the TX-0 and PDP-1; a byte metrics table; a more general-purpose data unit converter.

GTA Not “4″ Me?

I’m a little shocked to be saying this, but I don’t think Grand Theft Auto 4 is the game for me.

It was a birthday present from my wife, who overcame considerable resistance to give her husband a gift he had been eagerly waiting to play. Katie’s work in social services and domestic-violence prevention exposes her to some of the worst aspects of sexism and abuse, and she sees the impact of certain kinds of media on young boys as well as grown men in forming social identities and inculcating values. It’s important to note that we disagree profoundly about some of these issues — I’m no fan of effects-based arguments against the media, particularly in regard to videogames, which continue to be among the least-understood social technologies. (At the same time, videogames undeniably function as subjectivity engines, avatarial prosthetics of identity. Adopting psychoanalytic accounts of the filmic apparatus to the new medium, I’ve described first-person shooters as “suture on crack,” and certainly GTA4 [while not a classical FPS] had me thinking and even talking like Niko Bellic after only a week of play.)

But that’s not the primary reason I’m tired of playing — and violent content doesn’t seem to bother me in other games I’m currently enjoying on the Xbox 360, like Half-Life 2: Episode 2. GTA4 just isn’t holding me. I’m finding even the early, easy missions to be depressingly difficult, requiring multiple tries and even some reading of online FAQs and walkthroughs to complete. Worse, the difficulty stems less from my own incompetence than from the way the game and its interface are designed. Everything seems clumsy; my driving sucks, and in a game like GTA4, that’s a deal-breaker. But my larger objection is that the lauded sandbox-style play seems much more rail-driven than in previous incarnations of the series. I miss driving taxis for fares whenever I feel like it. I don’t like the new sense of “laddering” in the need to complete missions before moving on. It was there before as a play structure, but somehow there seemed to be other things going on — a sense of genuinely living city, full of possibility — to distract me from the underlying flowchart that marked my progress.

Plus, and maybe this does stem from the conversations I’ve had with my wife, the gameworld of Liberty City just gets me down. I feel depressed after playing; resuming the game the next day feels like going to work. And that’s not a good sign.

Many things about GTA4 blow me away. I’m struck again by the way the series transmutes urban boredom into loony spectacle, and how the combined audio and visual registers of this version’s graphic regime envelop the player in a rich, convincing cultural texture. And it’s ridiculous, I know, to quit a game of this scope after exploring perhaps .0002% of what it has to offer. Given the awesome sophistication and even elegance of its overall conception, GTA4 is in one sense hard to turn away from. Yet in another sense, I’ll have little trouble swapping it out at Gamestop or the equivalent for some friendly, colorful Wii game that makes me feel happy. Maybe it all comes down to being a year older: as I age, I may not be getting better at gaming, but I’m quicker to realize what does and doesn’t work for me.

The Id Machine

In one of those media events so global — perhaps solar-systemic? — in scope that you hardly need me to remind you about it, Grand Theft Auto IV launches today. Early word on Rockstar’s latest is everything it ought to be: game reviewers are enraptured, moral guardians enraged. Me, I’m just waiting to get my hands on the thing, which manifests in this world as a silver disk in a bright-green plastic case, but becomes in the space of the screen another totemic circle: a steering wheel. Maybe more than any other virtual-world franchise, GTA toggles its players smoothly between human and automotive avatars, encasing us in cars for such long stretches of gametime that, as Tycho at Penny Arcade writes, you might end up just “sitting in a parking lot listening to the radio.”

The webcomic associated with Tycho’s post makes another good point about Grand Theft Auto, namely that its possible pathways are so seemingly infinite in number that they risk numbing the player with the paralysis of “total freedom.” The opposite of the rail shooter to which I compared the Harry Potter novels a few posts back, GTA and its ilk are better described as sandbox games, which emphasize the open-endedness of play. Now, I admit to being skeptical of such neat distinctions, believing in my curmudgeonly way that the sense of unbounded possibility offered up by most “interactive” experiences is just that: a phantasmic structure of feeling, conveniently packaged and sold to us in the same way that advance hype about the summer movie season is more the actual commodity than the movies themselves. (That said, I’m looking forward, same as always, to things like Iron Man, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Dark Knight, and — mmmm yes — Speed Racer.) It’s a matter of perception, not pathways. The most scripted of videogames (if done well) can get my heart thumping with the sense that anything might happen next, while GTA, no matter how many gigabytes of gamedata and corresponding square mileage of explorable diegesis it may offer, can still wear out its welcome. Though I played both avidly, I never finished either Grand Theft Auto III or its sequel, Vice City.

That said, I never played anything as gripping, anarchic, and sensual, either. My friend Chris Dumas calls GTA the “id machine,” and he’s right. Like the Krell technology buried beneath the surface of Altair IV in Forbidden Planet, GTA is a visualization engine for the subconscious, pipelining our nastiest, bloodiest impulses into daylight, setting loose neon monsters we didn’t know we had in us. It’s insane fun to play and, like the best videogames, cinematically engrossing to observe. It’s also perversely Bazinian in form. As a grad student in 2002, I wrote a paper called “Grand Theft Auto 3 and the Interface of the Everyday,” arguing that GTA is at heart a simulation — not of mechanical or physical processes, but urban experience. Here’s the intro:

With its heightened violence, black humor, and mise-en-scene reminiscent of blaxploitation and vigilante films from the 1970s and Quentin Tarantino’s postmodern recyclings in movies such as Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994), GTA3 seems to stand apart from the tradition of simulation games, so much so that its simulationist tendencies are perceptible only upon reflection; on first glance it is more likely to be put into the category of “shoot-em-up” games such as Doom, Quake, and other first-person shooters, or hand-to-hand fighting games such as Tekken and Mortal Kombat. I argue, however, that GTA3 actually represents the culmination, in a form so pure as to be almost unrecognizable, of a particular simulationist logic that has heretofore stayed comfortably submerged in videogames: the notion of urban realism. Or rather, a refracted and stylized realism whose excesses should not be allowed to obscure its essential goal: the representation of modern urban existence, complete with dead time, bad weather, traffic lights, blaring radio stations, law enforcement by turns oblivious and aggressive, and a totalizing motif of passage – endless motion through the city’s spaces on foot or (more often) behind the wheel of a car, from the vantage point of which Liberty City’s bridges and skyscrapers, storefronts and pedestrians, become spectacles simultaneously mundane and beautiful.

In this sense, GTA3 follows a logic of modernity articulated by Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer, and before them Baudelaire, whose epigrammatic summation of modernity as “the transient, the fleeting, the contingent” set the terms for a discourse of ephemera – the idea that the truth of contemporary existence, and perhaps the key to its revolutionary reform, resides not in the monumental and “historic” but in the unnoticed and ordinary. In this paper I shall explore the idea that GTA3 makes the everyday its object of simulation, interaction, and pleasure, enabling users to play within the environs of a stylized urban reality as a way of experiencing, and reflecting upon, their own place in the world and position in society. In the second half of the paper I move toward a consideration of videogames in general, setting them against a backdrop of twentieth-century technologies, in order to argue that videogames share a function that Benjamin identified as “subject[ing] the human sensorium to a complex kind of training” in which “perception in the form of shocks [is] established as a formal principle.” Under this view, the content of Grand Theft Auto (which concerns itself textually with an alternating rhythm of shocks and boredom) merges with the formal operations of videogames, which, consumed in unmarked leisure time, reflect changes wrought in consciousness by technology and industrialization, similar to Benjamin’s description of the Fun Fair whose Dodgem cars achieve “a taste of the drill to which the unskilled laborer is subjected in the factory.” I begin with a consideration of three main components of GTA3’s play: the city, the flâneur, and the car.

Looking at this argument today, it doesn’t seem too earthshaking; Gonzalo Frasca explores some similar ideas in his 2003 essay “Sim Sin City.” It may be that with the advancing tide of computer graphics, we’re less scandalized by the notion that videogames can stand in, even substitute for, the visual and auditory sensorium through which we filter and know reality. Games, that is, increasingly engage in a double simulation, first of our lived sensory existence and only secondarily of more ephemeral (but nonetheless meaningful) matters: ethics, aesthetics, class consciousness. In the case of GTA, the subjectivity tourism is that of a violent, animalistic, unforgiving struggle to survive on the streets, something that its player demographic will likely never confront. GTA provides in musical flashes a world we recognize as our own even as we comfortably disavow it through the technological trick of switching off the console: inverting the hypodermic needle’s injection, we anesthetize ourselves precisely by unplugging, retreating from the raw truth of the made-up game into the ongoing dream of our privileged, protected lives.

Retrographics and Multiplayer avant la lettre


Let me start with a disclosure: although I own both a Nintendo Wii and an XBox 360, I almost exclusively play the latter — and rarely play the former. I’ve agonized over this. Why does my peak Wii moment remain the mercenary achievement of tracking one down last summer? Why haven’t the Wii-mote and its associated embodied play style inspired me to spend a fraction as many hours in front of the television as I’ve spent working through Katamari Beautiful, Valve’s Orange Box, Halo 3, and Need for Speed Carbon on the Xbox? The answer, it seems to me, comes down to graphics: Microsoft’s console simply pushes more pixels and throws more colors on my new HD TV, and I vanish into those neon geometries without looking back. I feel guilty about this, vaguely philistine, the same way I felt when I switched from Macintosh to PC. But there it is. Like Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I go where the pretty lights lead me.

But that doesn’t make the phenomenon of the Wii any less fascinating, and the recent New York Times article on the top-selling console games of 2007 is compelling in its assertion that gamers are turning away from the kind of high-end techno-sublime represented by the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3 and toward the simpler graphics and more accessible play style of the Wii. It makes sense that a dialectic would emerge in videogames between the superadvanced aesthetic and its primitive-by-comparison cousin; the binary of shiny-new and gnarly-old has structured everything from Quake‘s blend of futuristic cyborgs and medieval demons to Robert Zemeckis’s digital adaptation of the ancient Beowulf.  Anyone who’s discovered the joy of bringing old 8-bit games to life with emulators like MAME knows that the pleasure of play involves an oscillation between where we’ve been and where we’re going; between what passes for new now and what used to do so; between the sensory thrill of the state-of-the-art and the nostalgia of our first innocent encounters with the videogame medium in all its subjectivity-transforming power.

A less elaborate way of saying which is: the Wii represents through its pared-down graphics the return of a historical repressed, the enshrining of a certain simplicity that remains active at the medium’s heart, but until now has not been packaged and sold back to us with quite such panache.

The other interesting claim in the article is that the top games (World of Warcraft, Guitar Hero) are not solitary, solipsistic shooters like Bioshock and Halo, but rich social experiences — you play them with other people around, whether online or ranged around you in the dorm room. Seth Schiesel writes,

Ever since video games decamped from arcades and set up shop in the nation’s living rooms in the 1980s, they have been thought of as a pastime enjoyed mostly alone. The image of the antisocial, sunlight-deprived game geek is enshrined in the popular consciousness as deeply as any stereotype of recent decades.

The thing is, I can’t think of a time when the games I played as a child and teenager in the 1970s and 1980s weren’t social. I always consumed them with a sense of community, whether because my best friend Dan was with me, watching me play (or I watching him) and offering commentary, or because I talked about games endlessly with kids at school. Call it multiplayer avant la lettre; long before LANs and the internet made it possible to blast each other in mazes or admire each other’s avatarial stand-ins, we played our games together, making sense of them as a community — granted, a maligned subculture by the mainstream measure of high school, but a community nonetheless. As graphics get better and technologies more advanced, I hope that gamers don’t rewrite their pasts, forgetting the friendships forged in an around algorithmic culture.

Smut in 1080p

This article on the porn industry’s response to the HD DVD / Blu-Ray format wars caught my eye, reminding me that changing technological standards are an equal-opportunity disrupter. It’s not only the big  movie studios (like Warner Brothers, which made headlines last week by throwing its weight behind Blu-Ray) that must adapt to the sensory promise and commercial peril of HD, but porn providers,  television networks, and videogame makers: up and down and all around the messy scape of contemporary media, its brightly-lit and family-friendly spaces as well as its more shadowy and stigmatized precincts.

The prospect of HD pornography is interesting, of course, because it’s such a natural evolution of this omnipresent yet disavowed form. The employment of media to stimulate, arouse, and drive to climax the apparatus of pleasure hard-wired into our brains and bodies is as old as, well, any medium you care to name. From painted scrolls to printed fiction, stag reels to feature films, comic books to KiSS dolls, porn has always been with us: the dirty little secret (dirty big secret, really, since very few are unaware of it) of a species whose unique co-evolution of optical acuity, symbolic play, and recording and playback instrumentalities has granted us the ability — the curse, some would say — to script and immerse ourselves in virtual realities on page and screen. That porn is now making the leap to a technology promising higher-fidelity imaging and increased storage capacity is hardly surprising.

The news also reminds us of the central, integral role of porn in the economic fortunes of a given medium. I remember discovering, as a teenager in the 1980s, that the mom-and-pop video stores springing up in my home town invariably contained a back room (often, for some reason, accessed through swinging wooden doors like those in an old-time saloon) of “adult” videocassettes. In the 1990s a friend of mine, manager of one of the chain video places that replaced the standalone stores, let me in on the fact that something like 60% of their revenues came from rentals of porn. The same “XXX factor” also structures the internet, providing a vastly profitable armature of explicit websites and chat rooms — to say nothing of the free and anonymous fora of newsgroups, imageboards, torrents, and file-sharing networks — atop which the allegedly dominant presence of Yahoo, Amazon, Google, etc. seem like a thin veneer of respectable masquerade, as flimsy a gateway as those swinging saloon doors.

The inevitable and ironic question facing HD porn is whether it will show too much, a worry deliciously summarized in the article’s mention of “concern about how much the camera would capture in high-definition.” The piece goes on to quote Albert Lazarito, vice president of Silver Sinema, as saying that “Imperfections are modified” by the format. (I suspect that Lazarito actually said, or meant, that imperfections are magnified.) The fact is that porn is frequently a grim, almost grisly, affair in its clinical precision. Unlike the soft-core content of what’s often labeled “erotica,” the blunt capture of sexual congress in porn tends to unfold in ghoulishly long takes, more akin to footage from a surveillance camera or weather satellite than the suturing, storytelling grammar of classical Hollywood. Traditional continuity editing is reserved for the talky interludes between sexual “numbers,” resulting in a binary structure something like the alternation of cut-scenes and interactive play in many videogames. (And here let’s not forget the words attributed to id Software’s John Carmack, Edison of the 3D graphics engine, that “Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.”)

As an industry that sometimes thrives on the paired physical and economic exploitation of its onscreen workers, porn imagery contains its share of bruises, needle marks, botched plastic surgeries, and poorly-concealed grimaces of boredom (at best) or pain (at worst). How will viewers respond to the pathos and suffering at the industry’s core — of capitalism’s antihumanism writ large across the bodies offered up for consumers’ pleasure-at-a-distance — when those excesses are rendered in resolutions of 1920×1080?

The Video Game Explosion


A quick plug for a new book edited by my friend and colleague Mark J. P. Wolf, The Video Game Explosion: A History from Pong to PlayStation and Beyond (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2008). I’ve worked with Mark before, on a collection he edited with Bernard Perron, The Video Game Theory Reader (New York: Routledge, 2003). Mark is a remarkable historian and scholar, with an exhaustive mind for detail, who’s been in on game studies from the start (here’s an interview with him at The Brainy Gamer). His goal with this volume is nothing less than a comprehensive reference work on the history of videogames. From his introduction:

This book differs from its predecessors in several ways. It is intended both for the general reader interested in video game history as well as for students with chapters thematically organized around various topics, which are generally arranged in chronological order and tell the story of video games from their earliest inception to the present day. Other features of the book include sidebars and profiles that highlight various aspects of video game history and a glossary of terminology relating to video games and their technology. Some of the best people writing on video games today have contributed their scholarship to form this comprehensive history. While other books on video games have been written from a journalistic, sociological, psychological, or nostalgic point of view, here the video games themselves occupy a central position. Other aspects of history, such as the companies, game designers, technology, merchandising, and so forth, provide a necessary background, but games always remain in the forefront.

The Video Game Explosion is divided into five sections, “Looking at Video Games,” “The Early Days (Before 1985),” “The Industry Rebounds (1985-1994),” “Advancing to the Next Level (1995-present),” and “A Closer Look at Video Games.” There are entries on almost every imaginable subtopic within videogame history, including system profiles of the Atari Video Computer System (VCS), the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), and the PlayStation line; company profiles of Electronic Arts and Sega; genre profiles of adventure games, RPGs, and interactive movies; and a series of short essays examining videogame production in Europe, Asia, and Australia.

I particularly recommend the entries on “Rise of the Home Computer,” “Genre Profile: First-Person Shooting Games,” and the sidebar on “Retrogaming,” all written by yours truly.

Amazon link here; publisher’s page here.



I like the tired, almost fatalistic tone of Charles Herold’s New York Times review of Halo 3; it’s an unusually self-reflexive piece of videogame criticism. “It doesn’t really matter what reviewers say,” Herold writes with more than a hint of a cynical sigh. “Halo 3 is not just a game: it is a phenomenon fueled by obsessed fans, slick advertising and excessive press coverage (of which I find myself a part).”

Wisely, Herold approaches this newest version of Bungie’s blockbuster series less as a chapter or sequel than as an upgrade. The gist of his review — a line repeated twice, like a mantra — is that “Halo 3 is Halo 2 with somewhat better graphics.” The game’s strengths, he asserts, are in its enhancements to the multiplayer experience, an experience that I consider indistinguishable from the “obsessed fans” and “excessive press coverage” that Herold cites. That is to say, Halo 3 is as much a social game, in its way, as World of Warcraft or Second Life.

Before fans of those elaborate MMORPGs object, let me stipulate that Halo and other shooters involve very different aesthetics of play and intellectual engagement. Movement and communication in deathmatch are channeled and intensified by tactical exigence; interactions are of necessity fast and brutal, and the only economies one deals in are those of weapons and ammo. Foundational dynamics of avatarial immersion and what I have elsewhere called “spectatorial play” are, of course, present in Halo, as they are in any other videogame. But the MMORPG and the FPS deathmatch remain two distinct branches of ludic evolution.

What’s interesting to me about Halo 3‘s huge, immediate, predictable success is that it casts into sharp relief a vast preexisting social base of gamers who sit ready with their XBox 360s to spend hours, days, weeks, and months hunting and blasting each other in the virtual arenas provided by this latest upgrade: a package of new spatialities to explore and master. This base is as loyal as the most devout religious faith, the most engaged political party. (Indeed, I suspect that today’s online gaming audiences, which merge the pragmatics of commercial technology with the mysticism of avatarial transubstantiation, will be looked back upon by future historians as the first true hybridizations of the secular and religious communities.)

It’s too easy to say that Halo differs from something like World of Warcraft in its bloodiness and speed, its apparent simplicity (or primitiveness). I think the more profound distinction lies in the fact that Halo has colonized social spaces beyond those of the MMORPG, something that became clear to me a couple of years ago when I taught a course in videogame ethnography at Indiana University. Many of my students played only Halo and sports games like Madden; these players would never go near EverQuest, for example, because only “hardcore” gamers — the real geeks — played that. Halo, in other words, succeeds as a game because it has gone mainstream, become something one can mention without embarrassment. It nestles much more closely and comfortably into the crenellations and capillaries of real-world social dynamics; it is, in this sense, the norm.

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.