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

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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.

Upgrades

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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.

Videogame/Player/Text

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.

The “Clumsy Sublime” of Videogames

To anyone interested in how old image technologies date, I highly recommend Laura Mulvey’s short essay in the Spring 2007 Film Quarterly (Vol. 60, No. 3, Pages 3-3) entitled “A Clumsy Sublime.” (The link is here, but you may need special privileges to access it; I’m writing this post in my office, from whose campus-tied network a vast infospace of journals and databases is transparently visitable.) Mulvey writes about rear-projection cinematography, that trick of placing actors in front of false backgrounds — think of scenes in films from the 1940s and 1950s in which characters drive a car, their cranking of the steering wheel bearing no relationship to the projected movie-in-a-movie of the road unspooling behind them. Nowadays these shots are for the most part instantly spottable for the in-studio machinations they are: nothing makes an undergraduate audience snicker more quickly than the sudden jump to a stilted closeup of an actor standing before an all-too-grainy slideshow. Mulvey deftly dissects the economic reasons that made rear-projection shots a necessity, but the real jackpot comes in the essay’s concluding paragraph, where she writes:

This paradoxical, impossible space, detached from either an approximation to reality or the verisimilitude of fiction, allows the audience to see the dream space of cinema. But rear projection renders the dream uncertain: the image of a cinematic sublime depends on a mechanism that is fascinating because of, not in spite of, its clumsy visibility.

With newly fine-grained methods of compositing images filmed at different spaces and times — the traveling matte was only the first step on a path to digital cut-and-paste cinema — rear projection is rarely seen anymore. But as Mulvey observes, “As so often happens with passing time, [rear projection’s] disappearance has given this once-despised technology new interest and poignancy.”

Her point is equally applicable to a range of filmmaking techniques, especially those of special effects and visual effects, which invariably pay for their cutting-edge-ness by going quickly stale. (Ray Harryhausen‘s stop-motion animation, for example, “fools” no one now, but is prized, indeed cherished, by aficionados.) But I’d like to extend the category of the clumsy sublime to another medium, the videogame, which has evolved much more rapidly and visibly than cinema: under the speeding metronome of Moore’s Law, gaming’s technological substrate is essentially reinvented every couple of years. Games from 2000 can’t help but announce their relative primitiveness, which in turn looks cutting-edge next to games of 1995, and so on and so on back to the circular screen of the PDP-1 and the rastery vessels of 1962’s Spacewar. Yet we don’t disdain old games as hopelessly unsophisticated; instead, a lively retrogame movement preserves and celebrates the pleasures of 8-bit displays and games that fit into 4K of RAM.

Two examples of videogames’ clumsy sublimity can be found on these marvelous websites. Rosemarie Fiore is an artist whose work includes beautiful time-lapse photographs of classic videogames of the early 1980s like Tempest, Gyruss, and Qix. Diving beneath the surface of the screen, Ben Fry’s distellamap traces the calls and returns of code, the dancing of data, in Atari 2600 games. What I like about these projects is that they don’t just fetishize the old arcade cabinets, home computers and consoles, cartridges and software: rather, they build on and interpret the pleasures of gaming’s past while staying true to its graphic appeal and crudely elegant architecture — the fast-emerging clumsy sublime of new interactive media.