Limbo 4: Working for A Living

I have decided to engage these games as much as possible without resorting to cheat guides, walkthroughs, Let’s Plays, and so on; if I’m actually committed to progressing through a game in a series of short sessions, I ought to confront head-on those factors of duration and difficulty too often skipped in favor of easy, outsourced solutions.

Come to think of it, I have always been something of a cheater, guiltlessly ready to subvert the sanctity of the magic circle, or at least distend its ethical circumference. I remember at fifteen hunching over my Apple II+, studying the lines of BASIC that made up Sierra On-Line’s Softporn Adventure (1981), sifting the deep code of DATA statements for vocabulary items—“nipple,” “unhook,” “menage”—that would lubricate my path through the seamy hypertext. In 1996 a friend introduced me to another virtual labyrinth, iD’s 3D shooter Quake. He pulled a console down from the top of the screen, typed “NOCLIP” and “GOD MODE,” and showed me how to walk through walls, a floating unkillable angel of death holding all the guns and unlimited ammo.

I’ve never worried much about whether this kind of loosey-goosey fun compensates adequately for the pleasure it replaces—the more sober, committed, purist approach of playing the game as it was intended to be played. Yes, texts are machines that work independently of their authors, ergodic texts like videogames more than any. But there will always be value in engaging the text machine as an expression of its maker—particularly when the notion of “maker” is expanded beyond human agents to include objects and forces, actants institutional, technological, and historical.

Plus it is just fun to blunt-force my way through a problem, solving it in baby steps, experiencing first frustration, then a kind of humbling at the sorry limits of my skills and abilities, then a burst of so-there euphoria when I finally crack the damned thing. This kind of emotional slalom, which I associate with focused, patient, persistent work toward a larger goal, is not something I’ve had much practice with.


This image documents my victory over the two-weight puzzle. What you do is, you pull the first rope down between the gears, then jump down and run and climb on the cart that’s been positioned there, jump to the end of the retracting rope and pull it back down. Swing and leap onto the second rope, pull it down, and run beneath the weights before they get too low.

Full of confidence in my agency and effectiveness, I strode onward. Right into a situation where some kind of glowworm dropped onto my head and took over my movement so that I could only jump, run, or walk in the direction the worm was taking me. When it settled into my scalp with a waxy sizzle, there was a highly cinematic pullback with a bit of Vertigo zoom, a retreating axial gesture videogames have long used to transition into and out of cutscenes. Here the device is neatly deployed to signal a different compromise of agency, turning me into an avatar under the command of two competing sets of inputs.


Solving a puzzle first-thing lends an optimistic boost to a play session, and I practically danced through this one, ridding myself of the glowworm by enticing some hanging vampire slugs to nibble it off my noggin, then getting enmeshed in an elaborate mechanical conundrum that involved getting a huge machine to run in the background to generate electricity that makes a storm that makes it rain, then pulling an aqueduct down to fill up a basin in which a log floats, making it possible for me to leap to the other side. To run the machine I had to lure a little spiky hamster critter out by knocking loose some glowberries it hungered for … then get it in its way and chase it back to the machine where it takes up position in a hamster wheel, which I pull a lever to strike with a brake that starts the electrical display in the background. Got all that?

Limbo 3: Fatigue and Alienation

One hour and twenty minutes of playtime in, I’m souring of Limbo’s world; or maybe it is the experience I find tiring and tedious. Watching my character work its way along the screen’s X axis is like watching an ant in an ant farm, trapped in sandy tunnels between two sheets of glass. Over and over I thud into some new nasty trap and die until I figure it out. This was the first session where I racked mental focus from Limbo’s gorgeous, auroral grays and blacks, becoming conscious instead of its bluntly punishing rhythms. In the words of a former student, the game’s mechanic started to stick out.

My alienation might also stem from my first encounter with destructive forces embodied not in sharp-edged objects, unjumpable gaps, or giant hairy spiders, but human beings like myself—a gang of imps shot blew darts at me, chasing me back along my path until I was able to crush them between two stomping hammers. (It took about six deaths to learn the correct sequence and timing of jumps to bring about this result.) Discovering that this already unpleasant place had characters in it working to make things even worse was mildly angering, and I was pleased to smash the motherfuckers. I suspect I have wandered into a Lord of the Flies situation, and I have never had any illusions that in such a pecking order I would be anywhere besides the base. I wish we could all get along, but failing that, I will survive by any means necessary.

A central problem of game design is the calibration of challenge and skill, the parceling out puzzles and obstacles poised just slightly ahead of the player’s growing repertoire of game-specific talents and tools. It is essentially a pedagogical process in which each test is also a lesson that feeds into the next incremental advance. Videogame as tutor code, by turns irritating and inspiring. Get the mix wrong and the game is boringly easy, or paralyzingly difficult.

But even as I pin my reaction on the game, I realize that local, player-side effects are conditioning my response. I ended today’s session in the middle of a puzzle I can’t yet crack, a baroque interrelation of pull cords, turning gears, two large blocks whose lifting and falling is key to safe passage. There’s a push cart I haven’t figured out how to use, although it is reassuring to trust in the parsimony evident throughout Limbo so far: if it isn’t important to the solution, it wouldn’t be there.

Limbo 2: Let’s Talk About Spiders


So far they are about the only living thing that has responded to my presence, and they do so in a deterministic way that mirrors the relentlessness of a natural predator in the implacability of the code driving its digital twin. After getting impaled by the spiders’ stabbing legs oh, a dozen or so times, I have grown affectionately accustomed to these bristly black blobs and their quickly crawling ways. During one hair-raising phase I was lifted into a web and spun into a cocoon, only to break free and hop away like a sperm bouncing madly on its tail—a terrifying intimacy after which the spiders seem as inevitable as family. By the end of my third session we were on such familiar terms with each other I was yanking off a wounded spider’s legs and rolling its body like a boulder to solve a climbing problem.


I’m less sure what to make of the other “kids” sharing this tenebrous gameworld with me. There’s more than one of them, and they frequent the frame’s edges, slipping out of view as soon as I see them. Their bodies litter the background, suggesting that their role in this little cosmos is not simply to tantalize and torment; they, in turn, are tormented.


It’s increasingly clear that I am in a world of physics puzzles—something like Angry Birds—whose mechanics, along with its mise-en-scene, invoke a larger bleakness at the heart of videogaming’s appetite for corporeal destruction. To play this platformer, it seems to say, is to be neither dead nor alive but suspended between the two, pushing along by sheer instinct through a landscape that (A) kills and resurrects you repeatedly and (B) doesn’t give a goddamn.

Limbo 1: Murnau’s Forest


I’ve only been playing Limbo for a little while—this post covers two twenty-minute blocks of gametime—but already I am getting used to moments like this one, when I encounter a scene that brings me to a startled halt, gazing at some vision that is simultaneously horrible and beautiful. I stare (or rather, I regard my avatar as it stares with its bright, empty eyes) and take the measure of the mise-en-scene, which so niftily merges the cinematic with the algorithmic. Seen as a frame of film, the chiaroscuro layers of this misty, monochrome forest recall F. W. Murnau and Jean Cocteau, or the multiplanar woods in classical Disney features: Bambi, Snow White. Engaged as a juncture in a videogame, by contrast, the little diorama explicitly presents itself as a puzzle to be solved, an experiential bottleneck to the story’s unfolding. I know I can stand here forever if I choose.

I guess what I’m saying is I like Limbo’s pauses, the aporia that precede its epiphanies. The equilibrium they provide acts as an antidote to the relentless, headlong run-and-gun that typifies other games I play—the 2016 Doom most recently—as does the game’s nearly silent soundscape of drifting winds, rustling leaves, creaking chains, and buzzing flies.

I also like the frequency with which the game kills me. Every obstacle that impedes my rightward progress through this platformer’s sidescrolling world comes with a lesson in the form of a tiny death that will repeat until the problem’s solution has been learned: Falling on spikes will kill you, so jump over them. You will drown if your head goes underwater, so find a boat or a floating log. Some lessons are functional, the rudimentary physics of manipulation: Ropes can be climbed and swung on. Objects can be pushed and pulled. Some lessons are accidental and purely felicitous: Hold down the right- and up-arrow keys and you will skip childlike through the blowing grass. I care very little about my in-game puppet, whose dopey, compliant body reminds me of the kids savaged in Billy’s Balloon (Don Hertzfeldt, 1998). I drop it off trees and throw it into bear traps just to hear the meaty squish of its annihilation.

But I keep moving forward. After a period of isolation, alone except for the occasional rotting corpse, I’m starting to encounter other life: a giant, spear-legged spider. Another child like myself, running off as I approach. And every so often I crunch over a glowing egg and a score pops up. These bread crumbs, I surmise, will mark my progress through Limbo. When I shell out to the menu, I note that I have completed 11 “chapters” out of 40 or so.

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.