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Bogost How to Do Things with Video Games Part 1




Ian Bogost

Electronic Mediations 38

University of Minnesota Press Minneapolis

. London



Media Microecology

These days, you can't open a website or enter a bookstore with­out finding yet another impassioned take on emerging technolo­gies' promise to change our lives for the better-or for the worse. For every paean to Wikipedia or blogging or mobile computing, there's an equally vehement condemnation.

On one side of one such contest, the journalist Nicholas Carr argues that the Internet has contributed to a decline in the careful, reasoned, imaginative mind of the period between the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution.' Though we may feel that we're "getting smarter" by grazing across multiple bits of knowledge, Carr suggests that this feeling is a fleeting one, the burst of energy from a sugary snack instead of lasting nourish­ment from a wholesome meal.

Carr's book about the problem, titled The Shallows, hit store shelves at the same time as Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus, which argues just the opposite: the social power of those tiny snippets Carr reviles. In a characteristic example, Shirky describes South Korean protests against the reintroduction of U.S.-raised beef after the mad cow disease scare of the early 2000s. Surprisingly, the up­rising was fueled not by radical agitators or by media pundits but by fans of the Korean boy band Dong Ban Shin Ki, whose website forums became, in Shirky's words, "a locus of coordination."

Carr's and Shirky's accounts provide two opposing takes on the value of reading and writing excerpts online. Who's right? It's a question that drives blog commenters, talk show banter, and book sales, to be sure. But things aren't quite so simple, and reflection on both positions should make either one feel incomplete on its own.

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As Matthew Battles has argued, Carr seems to assume that reading is monolithic. "Dipping and skimming;' Battles reminds us, "have been modes available to readers for ages. Carr makes one kind of reading-literary reading, specifically-into the only kind that matters. But these and other modes of reading have long coexisted, feeding one another, needing one another'? Skimming isn't just something we do with literary texts, either: we also skim menus, signs, magazines, and countless other textual objects. It shouldn't be any surprise that reading is a varied activity. And besides, the isolated, single-sense, top-down, purportedly truth­bearing process of reading after Johannes Gutenberg is also pre­cisely the aspect of print culture Marshall McLuhan lamented three decades before the Web."

On the flipside, when he celebrates the Korean boy band forum uprising, Shirky makes his own assumptions. In particu­lar, he takes for granted that the will of the people matters above all else. Whether the end of a five-year ban on U.S. beef in Korea really ever posed a health threat to the population isn't of much concern to Shirky; rather, the emergence of unexpected, collab­orative discourse is his primary interest. Shirky assumes that the potential collective impact of online communications justifies the more mundane and, as Carr would have it, pointless uses of media-like swooning over boy bands.

Carr's worry about the Web's tendency to encourage skin-deep thinking about unimportant subjects does ring true. But Shirky's account of the surprisingly political amalgam of all those seem­ingly useless, skin-deep comments also demands acknowledg­ment. As with most best-seller list disagreements about culture, both Carr's and Shirky's takes make broad, far-reaching claims of impact: either the Internet is ruining society or it is rescuing it.

Here's a different, less flashy answer: technology neither saves nor condemns us. It influences us, of course, changing how we perceive, conceive of, and interact with our world. McLuhan calls a medium an extension of ourselves for just this reason: it structures and informs our understanding and behavior," But the


Internet extends us in both remarkable and unremarkable ways. From keeping a journal to paying a bill to reminiscing about an old television advertisement, the Web offers just as many mun­dane uses as it does remarkable ones. Probably more.

That's not a popular sentiment in our time of technological spectacularism. It wouldn't play well in a TED talk or on a Wired cover. But I'm going to insist on it as a media philosophy: we can understand the relevance of a medium by looking at the variety of things it does.

It's a fact true of all media, not just computers. Think of all the things you can do with a photograph. You can document the atrocities and celebrations of war, as did photojournalists like Eddie Adams and Alfred Eisenstaedt. You can record fleeting mo­ments in time, as did photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank. You can capture the ordinary moments of fam­ily life, as all of us do at birthday parties or holidays for an album or shoebox archive. You can take a snapshot reminder of a home improvement project to help you buy the right part at the hard­ware store. An automated camera at a street intersection can cap­ture a license plate for ticketing, and a pornographer can capture a naked body for titillation. Photography has common properties­it bends light through an aperture to expose an emulsion or digital sensor. But the uses of photography vary widely. It is this breadth and depth of uses that makes photography a mature medium.

We can think of a medium's explored uses as a spectrum, a possibility space that extends from purely artistic uses at one end (the decisive moment photograph) to purely instrumental uses at the other (the hardware store snapshot). In a given medium, many of these uses are known and well explored, while others are new and emerging. One way to grasp a medium's cultural in­fluence is to examine how much of that field of uses has been explored. This approach represents a shift in how we encounter media artifacts as creators, users, and critics.

Carr's and Shirky's books show us just how far the media ecological approach has come since McLuhan popularized it in



too-familiar questions arise about whether games promote vio­lent action or whether they make us fat through inactivity. Such accusations stem partly from overly general assumptions about a medium's content and reception (which, in the case of video­games, is assumed to be violent scenarios that induce aggression), But they also emerge from overly general assumptions about a medium's properties and the contexts in which those proper tie get deployed.

The content and context of a media artifact is not as inessen­tial as McLuhan would have it. The medium is the message, but the message is the message, too. Instead of ignoring it, we ought to explore the relationships between the general properties of medium and the particular situations in which it is used.

A recent trend in videogames helps drive the point home.

Hoping to overturn the idea that games are only for entertain­ment, serious games claim to offer an alternative: games that can be used "outside entertainment" in education, health care, 01' corporate training, for example." For serious games proponents, videogames' ability to create worlds in which players take on roJ constrained by rules offers excellent opportunities for new kind of learning. While indeed worthwhile, this media ecological per­spective risks collapsing into a mirror image of accusations that videogames can only encourage violence and sloth. Serious games play the role of Clay Shirky to video game detractors' Nichola

arr. Once more, technology either saves or seduces us.

Games-like photography, like writing, like any medium­shouldn't be shoehorned into one of two kinds of uses, serious 01' superficial, highbrow or lowbrow, useful or useless. Neither

ntertainment nor seriousness nor the two together should be satisfactory account for what videogames are capable of. After all, we don't distinguish between only two kinds of books, or music, 01' photography, or film. Rather, we know intuitively that writing, sou nd, images, and moving pictures can all be put to many differ­.nt uses. A voice can whisper an amorous sentiment or mount political stump speech. A book can carry us off to a fantasy world

tudy the properties of a medium Illttl¥l.tu,,1 m~liIlwges produced by media, thus the I .. " ", h. m~tlJU1n Is the message." His point was that I" .. ,. ", .. lltUtH (lOCH to a culture are more important than the

•• n.1t &'lllIY"Y8, 1101' example, McLuhan argued that the printing "1'11" lUdl&tI'tld I n on era of visual culture and that the mass-produced hllok homogenized experience and knowledge. Photographs allow lIHht to be recorded on photosensitive film. Telegraphs allow words to be transmitted over long distances. Paintings allow pigmented substances to cover surfaces. Where once our understanding of media was limited to their representational aspects (the meaning of a photograph, film, or novel), McLuhan's influence helped steer scholarly, journalistic, and public attention toward the effects a medium exerts on society (the way the Web changes how we think, socialize, work, and play). Both The Shallows and Cognitive Surplus take a media ecological approach, offering strong positions on the positive or negative effects of the Internet on human culture.

Understanding the properties of a medium does help us bet­ter comprehend their nature and their implications. Videogames, the subject of this book, also have properties that precede their content: games are models of experiences rather than textual de­scriptions or visual depictions of them. When we play games, we operate those models, our actions constrained by their rules: the urban dynamics of SimCity; the feudal stealth strategy of Ninja Gaiden; the racing tactics of Gran Turismo. On top of that, we take on a role in a videogame, putting ourselves in the shoes of someone else: the urban planner, the ninja, the auto racer. Videogames are a medium that lets us playa role within the constraints of a model world. And unlike playground games or board games, videogames are computational, so the model worlds and sets of rules they pro­duce can be far more complex. These properties-computational models and roles-help us understand how videogames work and how they are different from other media.

But the media ecological approach alone gets us only so far.

For example, many misconceptions surround videogames. All-

I dlnner, A television program can noclde or help us practice aerobics. us to expand our understanding of

y, In MCl.uhan's terms, the media ecosystem entails __ hiM Ydrlous media to help each other so they won't cancel ,Ih otlUll' out, to buttress one medium with another." In other

OI'd8, 11lcdla ecology is a general, media-agnostic approach to undCI'standing how a host of different technologies works indi­vidually and together to create an environment for communi­cation and perception. Traditionally, media ecologists have ex­plored their subject at a level equivalent to the global ecosystem, concerned with how particular technologies change the overall style and quality of life. Here's Neil Postman on the subject:

If you remove the caterpillar from a given habitat, you are left not with the same environment minus caterpillars: you have a new environment, and you have reconstituted the conditions of survival. ... In the year 1500, fifty years after the printing press was invented, we did not have old Europe plus the printing press. We had a different Europe. After television, the United States was not America plus television; television gave a new coloration to every politi­cal campaign, to every home, to every school, to every church, to every industry."

Keeping the biological metaphor, the individual range of func­tions afforded by a particular medium's properties could be com­pared to a microhabitat, a small, specialized environment within a larger ecosystem. Postman's caterpillar is not merely an aspect of the woods but also an agent in its own right, one that relates to leaves, logs, and pollen. Indeed, the dedicated media ecologist must be concerned not only with the overall ecosystem but also with the distinctive functions of its components. Media micro­ecology, we might call it. Such an approach sometimes requires a more specialized and perhaps a less glamorous method: like the


ecologist reveals the unseen purposes of a decomposing log, so the media ecologist must do with particular media forms.

Following the lead of media ecologists like McLuhan and Postman, media micro ecology seeks to reveal the impact of a medium's properties on society. But it does so through a more specialized, focused attention to a single medium, digging deep into one dark, unexplored corner of a media ecosystem, like an ecologist digs deep into the natural one. Just as an entomologist might create a collection that thoroughly characterizes the types, roles, and effects of insects on an environment, so a media micro­ecologist might do the same for a medium. In doing so, the value of that medium (the sort of question authors like Carr and Shirky pose) is less important than the documentation of its variety and application. For it is only after conducting such an investigation that we should feel qualified to consider distinct varieties of a medium as promising or threatening to a particular way of life. And indeed, after doing so, we might well feel less certain of such definitive moral positions anyway.

In this book, I attempt such an effort for videogames. Its goal is to reveal a small portion of the many uses of videogames, and how together they make the medium broader, richer, and more relevant. I take for granted that understanding games as a me­dium of leisure or productivity alone is insufficient. Instead, I suggest we imagine the videogame as a medium with valid uses across the spectrum, from art to tools and everything in between. I won't assume that the best or most legitimate specimens are still to come, or that laying a groundwork for designers, markets, players, or critics will help them realize the videogame's poten­tial in some revelatory master work. Instead I'll take for granted that videogames are already becoming a pervasive medium, one as interwoven with culture as writing and images. Videogames are not a subcultural form meant for adolescents but just another medium woven into everyday life.

Yet most of us haven't begun to think about games in this way, as a medium with many uses that together pervade contemporary

[optlcns of the form havebeen

Imply ignored. In the short essays that

mples of applications for, sensations of, wit h vldcogames. In each, I hope to show how ¥itI"..,.m,. h,tvt' seeped out of our computers and become en­

lin IIUI' lives, I offer these essays not as a complete catalog .. I' vltlauM" mes' present or future potential but as a starting point Ibl' WI to think about how to do things with videogames.

Are videogames art? It's a question that's sparked considerable debate, most notably thanks to the film critic Roger Ebert's dec­laration that "the nature of the medium prevents it from mov­ing beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art,"! For the philoso­pher and game designer Jim Preston, it's an absurd and useless question:

To think that there is a single, generally agreed upon con­cept of art is to get it precisely backwards. Americans' attitude towards art is profoundly divided, disjointed and confused; and my message to gamers is to simply ignore the "is-it-art?" debate altogether."

Preston sheds light on a fatal problem with the "games as art" onversation. Forget games, art doesn't have any sort of stable meaning in contemporary culture anyway.

There are many reasons for such a development, perhaps the

most important being that the twentieth-century avant-garde hanged art for good. In the turbulent times of the first two de­ades of the last century, localized movements in Europe gained ttention by rejecting traditionalism. Futurism's founder Filippo

Marinetti spurned all things old and embraced youth, machine, violence. Then when violence became reality in World War I, a handful of artists in Zurich concluded that if progress since the Enlightenment had led to the destruction of the Great War, then such progress had to be rejected. They called their work Dada. The futurists called for a total reinvention of cultural and political life.


One of the unique properties of video games is their ability to put us in someone else's shoes. But most of the time, those shoes are bigger than our own. When we play videogames, we resemble children clopping around in their parent's loafers or pumps, imagining what it would be like to see over the kitchen counter. In many cases, these roles fulfill power fantasies. Videogames let us wield deadly weapons. They let us wage intergalactic war. They let us take a shot on goal in the World Cup final. They let us build cities, and then they let us destroy them. But powerful roles are not the only ones games afford.

Darfur Is Dying, created by Susana Ruiz as part of her MFA thesis at the University of Southern California, is a game that breaks this tradition. In one part of the game, the player takes the role of a Darfuri child who ventures out of the village to a well to retrieve water for his family. To accomplish this task, the player must run across a sparse desert in search of a well, and then back again, while avoiding jeeps of [anjaweed militia that easily overtake the slower, more vulnerable child. The player can hide temporarily behind shrubs and desert trash, but staying still for too long leads to inevitable capture.

On first blush, it would be tempting to call Darfur Is Dying a stealth action game. This common subgenre of the action/ adventure game rewards covert action over overt action. In Thief, the player's character must hide in the shadows while pilfering mansions. In Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid, the player must obscure evidence of his.or her actions, such as by asphyxiating guards and hiding their bodies. And in Deus Ex, the player can

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choose whether or not to be stealthy, such as by hacking a com­puter to pass a locked door or by killing a guard to gain passage, Darfur Is Dying offers a similar challenge: the player must avoid contact with militia, either by evading them or hiding behind bar­riel'S. But it lacks a feature crucial to the stealth action genre. In stealth games, covertness is a skill imbued with power. The thief' furtiveness and the secret agent's craftiness are honed abilitie that separate them from the brutes they battle against.

Conversely, stealth is a weakness in Darfur Is Dying. The play­r's character hides because he or she must do so to survive, not because doing so gives him or her an advantage over an orthogo­nally powerful enemy. The player does not sneak, he or she cower .. , Among contemporary commercial videogames, the closes

omparison to the experience of weakness in Darfur Is Dying might be found in The Legend of Zelda; Wind Waker. In the open­lng stages of that game, the protagonist travels to the Forbidden flol'tress to confront his sister's kidnapper. But since he is too weak to combat the enemies he faces there, the player must instead hide in dark corners and inside barrels to pass unnoticed. Later In the game, the player returns to the Forbidden Fortress, much more powerful and experienced than before. And it is here th Wind Waker differs from Darfur Is Dying: weakness-enforced

tealth in Wind Waker accentuates the player's future growth in power: enemies who previously overwhelmed the player are eas­Ily defeated. In Darfur Is Dying, weakness is all the player eve I.' Kcts. There is no magic to invoke, no heroic lineage to appeal to;

trength adequate to survive is simply inaccessible.

If a game about the Sudanese genocide is meant to foster em­I~athy for terrible real-world situations in which the players fOI'­t u nate enough to play videogames might intervene, then rhos Komes would do well to invite us to step into the smaller, mol'

incomfortable shoes of the downtrodden rather than the larger, more well-heeled shoes of the powerful.

I've attempted to implement such a strategy in some of my own Romes, albeit in the service of less geopolitically charged topl


"",,,11 An'lctll1 poll tics. For example, in Disaffected!,

,.Iv 'I' kill kO'fII, the player is stripped of the power to service

u('ccssf'ully (a feature common to order-fulfillment Irem Tapper to Diner Dash). Instead, one is forced to per­IC)l'm under the powerlessness of alienated labor.

Darfur Is Dying and Disaffected! notwithstanding, opera­tionalized weakness is not new to games. In leo, for example, the player takes responsibility for an almost helpless companion. But we can trace the dynamic back much farther, to one of the most maligned titles in videogame history: E. T. the Extra-Terrestrial for the Atari Video Computer System (VCS).

In 1982 Atari paid Steven Spielberg $20 million to license the right to make a game based on the popular film. 1 To take advan­tage of the film's hype, Atari persuaded Yars'Revenqe programmer Howard Scott Warshaw to complete the game in only five weeks, the deadline necessary to ship for Christmas. The result was wide­ly panned for terrible gameplay and unintuitive controls. Many of the millions of cartridges that Atari printed came back unsold, and the company eventually had hundreds of thousands of E. T. cartridges crushed and buried in a landfill in the New Mexico desert." Along with the abysmal and equally overproduced VCS adaptation of Poe-Man, E. T. is often blamed for the videogame industry crash of 1983.

No matter their frequency, complaints about E. T. assume that games must fulfill roles of power, that they must put us in shoes bigger than our own, and that we must be satisfied with those roles. But Spielberg's film was not about the terrific power of aliens invading-the title character, it should be noted, was a space bota­nist, not a space invader. It is a movie about the isolation of one alien who remained. In the face of a world that perceives E. T. as an implicit threat, a few children attempt to understand him on his own terms. It was a film about alienation, not about aliens.

Warshaw's videogame respected this core principle, whether or not it meant to. In the game, the player cannot easily predict the topology of the virtual landscape, and he or she often falls into

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wells. Once at the bottom of a well, the player can use E.T:s ability to levitate to rise up and continue. While this feature of the game hi universally panned for causing intense frustration, it also bril­llantly juxtaposes E.T.'s purported powers with his actual weak­nesses. Levitation, an ability that another game might deploy for

dvantage in combat, becomes a small victory that merely allows ItT, (and the player) to realize the possibility to be hunted. Once bock above ground, the FBI agents and scientists give E.T. chase. And as in the film, the alien has no power to combat these foes. Just like cowering as a child in Darfur Is Dying, playing the role of [l,T. is an expression of weakness, not of power.

Darfur Is Dying is part role-play, part simulation. First the player takes the role of a displaced Darfuri child trying to re­trleve water and avoid Janjaweed militia patrols. But if successful, the game becomes a management game, in which the player must usc this water to grow crops and assist hut builders. Even though the camp management game bears more similarity to traditional titles-using resources and time wisely-the water-fetching part of' Darfur Is Dying feels more effective as a game about genocide. The management game's social rationalism betrays the sense of

motion portrayed in the water-fetching game.

USC MFA students Jamie Antonisse and Devon Johnson heed­d th is lesson from their forerunner. Their game Hush also creates personal experience of a complex historical genocide, this time, the 1994 slaughters of the Rwandan civil war.

Hush's creators recognized that Darfur Is Dying successfully Ibcuses on a singular, personal experience as a solitary approach 10 the topic of genocide. The game is about a Rwandan Tutsi I nether trying to calm and quiet a baby to avoid discovery by Hutu

old iers. Its gameplay attempts to simulate patience. It's a rhythm Home, but one that demands slow response rather than the fast I"lion of Dance Dance Revolution or Guitar Hero. Letters cor­l't'Nponding with song lyrics fade in and out. Pressing the correct key at the apex of brightness registers a successful hush. Pressing 100 early or too late fails to calm the child, and its crying increases.

It ..... MA"I,;, II litkc6 around five minutes to play, maybe Itl"VI!I'~ who take a while to acclimate in the how-to at ',,"IIN, Allowing the child's crying to increase too much paNslng Hutu patrol, and the screen fades to red, a not-so­hnpllcation of the pair's bloody end. Successfully working

hreugh each "level," which corresponds with a word of the lul-

laby, ends the game, as the Hutu patrol passes.

Darfur Is Dying and E. T. offer holistic experiences: the player has direct control of a character, even if that character's abilities are severely limited. Hush works differently, using illustrations and broadcast-style motion graphics as a stage-setting tool, to create ambience. Well-crafted, stylized renderings of documen­tary imagery and sounds from Rwanda of the early 1990s give a sense of the time and place. The static woodcut-style image of mother and baby are the only figures who remain static through­out the game.

If Darfur Is Dying and E. T. emphasize the role-playing prop­erty of videogames, Hush emphasizes the world-building prop­erty. But it does so in an unusual way: not by re-creating a vivid, realistic environment but by suggesting one. Hush is a vignette rather than a simulation.

In literature, poetry, and film, a vignette is a brief, indefi­nite, evocative description or account of a person or situation. Vignettes are usually meant to give a sense of a character rather than to advance a narrative. As in a literary sketch, vignettes are impressionistic and poetic, depicting an experience or environ­ment, roughly, softly, and subtly.

As an aesthetic, the vignette is rare in videogames. One rea­son might be the relative scarcity of small-form representations of human or natural experience in the medium. Minigames like those of the Wario Ware series are not vignettes; they do not lightly paint a sense of an experience or character; rather, they overtly depict mechanics thinly wrapped in a fictional skin. The small-scale experiences of casual puzzle games like Zuma are too

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hstract and unremitting to sketch a particular experience. When I!\ I'gcr-scale commercial games attempt similar goals, they typi­lIy do it through narrative techniques like cinematics, as in the :utscenes of Final Fantasy VII, or through artifactual evidence, as In the found recordings and notebooks in Bioshock.

I n writing and cinema, the vignette is often used to inspire mpathy rather than to advance narrative. The House on Mango

ureet, Sandra Cisneros's collection of poems and stories about an dolescenr Hispanic girl coming of age, offers one example." In

film, vignetted style can be found in Robert Altman's Short Cuts, which offers detailed, sordid glimpses into the lives of residents

f Los Angeles.' The vignette is neither essay nor documentary.

It does not make an argument, but characterizes an experience, Hush offers a glimpse of how vignettes can inspire empathy in Rnmes. As an exploration of the potential of the style, the game is

uccess. And as a vignette of a situation in mid-1990s civil war­LOt'n Rwanda, the game offers a compelling invitation to empa­lhl:1.(! with an actor in that geopolitical system without ernphasiz­InR the latter's operation. The anxiety of literal death contradicts I he core mechanic's demand for calm in a surprising and satisfy­Ins way, like chili in chocolate. The increasingly harsh sound of a I'ftby's cry that comes with failure attenuates the player's anxiety, I\u'thcr underscoring the tension at work in this grave scenario.

Perhaps in 1982 the world was not ready for a videogame about Iw loneliness and frailty of an extraterrestrial. But, oddly, we WUI'(! ready for a film about it. E. T.'s role in the videogame crash 11M surely been overstated, but certainly players and developers like have used its failure as part of an ongoing excuse to embrace oilly roles of power, and never those of weakness. Critics might

I'MlI(! that frail situations are not fun. Feeble characters do not W{lnl' shoes anyone wants to wear. And that may be true. But when I l'omes to the world we inhabit today, it is the vulnerable-like 11.' 1'" 01' better yet, like the Darfuris or the Rwandans-who de-

I've our empathy.


Videogames are often accused of disrespect, especially for cele­brating violence and for encouraging disdain of man, woman, and culture alike. But can a game do the opposite, embracing respect, deference, even reverence?

In 2007 the Church of England threatened to sue Sony Com­puter Entertainment Europe for depicting the Manchester Cathe­dral in its sci-fi shooter Resistance: Pall of Man. The church had complained about the game's inclusion of the cathedral, which was named and modeled after the seven-hundred-year-old church in this industrial city in northwest England. After consid­erable pressure and public condemnation, Sony issued a public apology. 1 In a statement, the company expressed regret for of­fending the church or the residents of Manchester, but not for including the cathedral in the game.

Amazingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, none of the mass media coverage of the cathedral controversy discusses the game itself. Sony didn't say much about it either, save a self-defeating , statement from noting that the title is "a fantasy science fiction game and is not based on reality'? This statement implies, but does not actually address, the absurdity of critiquing a game about a hypothetical postwar twentieth century in which a hybrid alien race called the Chimera invade and assimilate the human population. But neither Sony nor the developer Insomniac Games ever tried to explain why they wished to include the cathedral in the first place. Ironically, the cathedral creates one of the most. significant experiences in the whole game, one steeped in rever­ence for the cathedral and the church rather than desecration.

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Resistance is not a game richly imbued with wisdom. It is a first-person shooter, and a pretty good one. It's beautifully ren­dered, taking apparent advantage of the advanced graphical ca­pabilities of the PlayStation 3. The game is linear, both in its plot and the paths through each level, but that linearity allows it to focus the player on a smaller, more tightly crafted environment. Resistance takes up a common theme in science fiction: an ul­timate test of humankind against the Other. This is also one of the classic themes of videogames, one that has been around since Space Invaders.

Because of its simplicity, Resistance is also a predictable game.

You shoot aliens. A lot of them, over and over again. Your charac­tl;!r, Sgt. Nathan Hale, is a one-note brute of a fellow with a mys­terious past and a permanently furrowed brow. As is the case in most games of this kind, he is alone in his quest to rid the world of its space invaders, a turn justified by a feeble deus ex machina

t the game's outset, when all of Hale's unit is killed in a series of overwhelming ambushes.

Manchester Cathedral's representatives expressed their affront in two ways.' The first appealed to intellectual property. They laimed that Sony did not have the right to include the cathedral's name, image, or architecture in the game in the first place.

Discussions of intellectual property rights have become so 'ommon, they risk replacing talk about the weather. Lawyers alone once obsessed over ownership, but now organizations and Individuals alike invoke proprietary rights as cultural curren­'Y, The videogame industry is among the worst culprits of this practice. The public may squint when Disney lobbies to extend copyright terms to cover the products it itself adapted from pub­lic domain fairy tales, but no one bats an eye when videogame publishers issue press releases about their "all new intellectual property" or when journalists refer to forthcoming titles as "new I P" instead of "new creative work:'

I fa movie studio had wanted to film a scene for a postapocalyp­I lc action film in.the Manchester Cathedral, indeed it would have

ese's permission. But not for the right to depict

I hl! cl-'thedl'al-that could have been done by shooting from the

ereee outside. Rather, the film crew would have needed to get

rights to be on location, including accounting for any potenti damage and covering insurance lest anyone be injured during the shoot. What if the movie studio had created a computer graph­ics Manchester Cathedral, shot their scene on the lot with green screens, and digitally composited the shots together? The answer is unclear, as digital rights usage for landmarks is largely untested.

The cathedral's second affront appealed to media outrage.

Manchester's bishop took the opportunity to issue a statement against videogame violence in the broadest sense, connecting his objections to the city of Manchester's ongoing gun crime problem

and the church's record of youth support.s

Let's leave the issue of property rights issues to the attorneys.

Instead, consider the cultural issues. What does

Cathedral mean in the game, and why might its appearance sup­port the cathedral's relevance more than it detracts from it?

A cynic, unbeliever, or Internet troll might point out the irony of the church pointing the finger, given the millennia-old history of church-sponsored violence. A gamer might rely on the title's status. as fantasy fiction to nullify the validity of the affront. Such impres­sions are merely instrumental attempts to foil the church's

rather than reasoned attempts to justify the expressive ends served by depicting the cathedral in the game. And despite its creators' silence on the matter, the game does indeed have one.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Resistance is its depic­tion of repurposed spaces of 1950s Britain. The game is set on an alternate time line, but one that shares much with our own his­tory, making its environment familiar. This feature distinguishes

Resistance from similar games with wholly invented worlds, Halo. For example, early in the game the humans make a stand

at a bus depot, period-appropriate vehicles strewn asunder.

a fish cannery becomes a breeding ground for human-alien hy­brids. The military occupation of civilian spaces is the reality of


.tny wars fought on civilian terrain, butvideogames have a unique powel' to simulate the experience of this estrangement thanks to I hell' propensity for world building. The first time the player cow-

1'8 behind a bus or encounters a destroyed bathroom, the reality of war surfaces in a powerful way. The Manchester Cathedral level II'j the most powerful of these moments, and also the subtlest in this otherwise barefaced fantasy shooter.

hurches have a long history of providing alms, community, fo houses, care, and passage. The earliest hospitals were often 'I'cllted by bishops and other clergy to serve the local poor and lek, or travelers on pilgrimage. In the fictional backstory of UIJs/stance, Manchester Cathedral had been converted for use as

hospital during the Chimera's initial attack. On entering, the ploye,' can see the rows of cots and dismantled medical equip­ment. Either this field hospital had been abandoned, or, more likely, its patients and staff had been overcome.

11'1 "civilized" wars, opponents distinguish military from civil- 11m targets. The fact that the cathedral-made-hospital was not pared attack in the game's fiction not only helps establish the vnge inhumanity of the Chimera but also demonstrates that in I ho face of this apocalypse, the church carried out its charter, to lIl'port people in need, to stand resolved in the face of death. 1I11e might argue that such a claim could be made about any :hlll'ch. In their rejoinder of Sony, the Church of England asked I hlN very question: why Manchester instead of a fictional city?

Videogames frequently re-create real cities as settings. Usually I ileNe cities are immediately identifiable for players worldwide:

IJIIN Angeles (True Crime: Streets of LA) , London (The Getaway), Nl'W York (The Godfather). Such major cities provide a built­n context for gameplay that helps set expectations and con­~\ll(t', Resistance uses reallocations but not well-known ones-

Mnllchester, Nottingham, Bristol, York. This wasn't a matter of hometown pride; Insomniac is based in Burbank, California. ( hllNide the UK, players likely have little or no personal experi-

11I'l' of cities like Manchester, and thus their expectations for




ge08,'aphic accuracy are lowered. Like Burbank, Manchester

jures up a culturally specific location without the overwh"ul1JuJ;.

expectation of cities known the world over.

Manchester Cathedral cements this sense of place in the game.

The cathedral is an impressive monument, a marker of cult-. __ I. and social heritage with a long history. It was constructed in thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, in the Gothic style LUUl1llUI

to that era. The cathedral occupies a prominent place in Manchester, a historic region of the city that can trace its

back to the first century A.D.

Graphical realism is where PlayStation 3 really shines, and in-game cathedral is a convincing rendering of the real thing.

with most Gothic churches, the player can't help but look up

take in the sublime grandeur of the cathedral on entry. The affords a few seconds of exploration and awe, but then a torrent Chimera appears, a barrage of creatures unlike any that the player has previously encountered in the game. The natural response to unleash a frenzy of fire, swirling rapidly around the cathedral, between what remains of its pews and its enclaves. Careful covel' and selective bursts are not much of an option here.

Apocalypse films often use monuments-the White House, the Empire State Building-as symbols for total destruction. Indeed, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, targeted structures with symbolic as well as military and economic value. But Resistance does not use Manchester Cathedral in this way.' The Chimera have no interest in destroying a monument, nor do they have any concern for ailing, human civilians in a makeshift church hospital. The game's detailed, accurate re-creation of the cathedral, as well the structure's symbolic isolation in its own spe­ciallevel, encourages the player to pay attention to the structure. It is not just another anonymous row house or shack or factory.


Instead, it's a structure of note, a unique place, one that demands

respect. This sense of awe stands in stark opposition to that of the Chimera, who disrupt and undermine the cathedral's sublime


Hlsthetics and religious purpose. The cathedral does not become ymbol of humanity's annihilation but of the Chimera's total lsregard for human culture and creativity. This is a much worse nightmare vision than simple eradication.

It is not Sony or Insomniac who defile the Manchester Cathe­II'nl In Resistance: Fall of Man. It is the Chimera who do. Their

ual contempt for the structure cements the player's under­Iftnding of these mutant creatures as entirely inhuman, so much o that they aren't even capable of noticing markers of human thos such that they might choose to destroy them outright.

Yes, the player must discharge his or her weapons inside the 'Mhedral to avoid defeat. But when the dust settles, the cathe- 11'1\1 empties, and the player is left to spend as much or as little lime as he or she wants exploring the cathedral's cavernous in-

1'101'. For it survives the barrage, much like the real Manchester

I~thedral withstood a German bomb attack during World War II, SI nee Resistance is such a linear, scripted game, this open time hi unusual, even excessive. It offers a break from the incessant h!l!nbal'dment of indistinguishable Chimera. It's a time to pause, tlll'l'Aect, perhaps even to meditate on the relationship between

ud, human, and alien.

Manchester Cathedral was ransacked during the English 'Ivll War in 1649, half-destroyed by a German blitz in 1940, and

hllm bed by the Irish Republican Army in 1996. It survived all these uaeks, Its patrons rebuilt it. And it still stands today. Resistance cldH I) fictional homage to the church's resolve, this time in an IWI'I1nte history fought by an enemy that neither understands

lilli' cares for human practices like religion. And it survives this well. The Church of England sees its cathedral's presence in /Sl'o nce only as a sordid juxtaposition, the sanctity of worship

11'IBl'Iinst the profanity of violence. But when viewed in the con­I of' the game's fiction, the cathedral serves a purpose in the

lilt! consonant with its role in the world: that of reprieve for the --lI'y and steadfastness in the face of devastation.


We tend to think of music as a purely aural medium. But one

not search hard to find that listening is only one way we expenenc.

music. In the ancient world, for example, music and indistinguishable. Epic poetry like that of Homer wasn't read

bound volumes but sung by minstrels who performed for Shorter ancient verse, called lyric poetry, was so named because

was written to be sung with the accompaniment of a lyre.

From the early first millennium through the Middle

music served a liturgical purpose. The plainchant (most know better as the Gregorian chant, thanks to a compilation made Pope Gregory the Great in the seventh century) wasn't intende

to be particularly musical, but to prime the listener for reflection. By the twelfth century jongleurs revisited the ancien. oral tradition, performing songs and tricks in the streets courts of medieval Europe. A combination of secular and religlUU). hymns emerged in the early Renaissance, and by the sixteent century composers were penning music for church and mnrp

alike. Music became more theatrical, with stagings of and, of course, opera's emergence in the seventeenth

The melodic age of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries music rise to the level of art, thanks largely to great composers

Mozart and Beethoven. Throughout this era, music still served a narrative or painterly purpose, whereby the music was medium for carrying another message entirely, whether from

church, the people, or the imagination.

The twentieth century witnessed new styles, among them j

which secularized the sacred traditions of music and

< 30 >

MUSIC < 31 >

In Africa and blended them with the instrumental and perfor­Illative role of music in the West. Dance has existed throughout human history, but the last century reintroduced music as a habi­tilt for movement and action. The Victorian waltz, the modern

tndium rock concert, the 1930s swing club, the rave warehouse, II of these venues exemplify music's carnivalesque role as an invi­tatlon to overcome inhibitions and to perform physically in ways otherwise prohibited by polite society.

Music's strong social history notwithstanding, today we often it in isolation. We insert our earbuds in the gym or on the

subway as much to drown out sound as to take it in. The concert nd the dance club still exist, but we've also adopted new musi­~I)I functions. The emergence of soft jazz and piped music slows town and calms listeners in elevators or shopping malls, reduc- 11'8 anxiety during idle waiting and encouraging browsing while

hopping. The music video may have been popularized by MTV III the 1980s, but it had existed in prototypical form in the silent [llm of the 191Os, the musical film of the early 1960s, and the pro­motional films of the later part of that decade. It was this latter

I)J,lication that most influenced the MTV generation: short films ~ut to songs acted as advertising for singles, albums, concerts, and the musical artist more broadly. While it still serves as promotion Illday, the music video has exceeded this purpose, and it now acts like storytelling or vignette as much as the medieval chanson de

!;ll'e or the early modern opera had done.

Videogames enter the domain of music here, in the era of 1l.'ll!vision. While much of the history of music takes place in the publ ic space of ritual or diversion, videogames enter the picture at time when more and more cultural activity began to take place t home. Even as memories of Woodstock were still fresh, the IIIt11l of capturing the experience of psychedelic musical theat-

Ille!'! at home was already in developers' minds in the early 1970s. '111ll' year before the introduction of its seminal Video Computer

YNtum, Atari created the Atari Video Music, a hi-fi system com­Illli1Cl1t that could connect to a television through an RF adapter.


MUSIC < 33 >

!( .' I.lptccl RCA inputs from a stereo audio source, an '!jQI' of' buttons at the right time. For the vocal track, or in the vo-

d I'he changing signals to modify the parameters of cals.only varieties of these games like Singstar, the player must

bIJlJ'i'lct pattern rendered on the television-an early version r liustaln an accurate tone at correct intervals. Success allows song's

the visualizers that come with today's computer music progrard !lutes and vocals to be heard through the speakers.

like iThnes or WinAmp. Push buttons and potentiometers' Thanks to the massive commercial success of music perfor­lowed the operator to modify the output by changing the patter I!lIUlCC games, they've enjoyed a great deal of public attention, in-

colors, and shapes. Illuding both support and lamentation. The commonest critique

Like the music video or the opera, Atari Video Music ma IIW't'OU nds the fear that "fake" instruments and cursory under-

an auditory medium visual. But unlike those earlier forms, t: .hiDdlng risk replacing real engagement with musical creativity. device focused on manipulating the audio signal itself, the mus Mti~cnl'chers have responded that Guitar Hero and its ilk do just directly instrumenting the visuals. The device could hardly' 'htl Ol,posite, culturing a new interest in music. In a 2008 study

called interactive, but the viewer can manipulate its settings, umducted in the UK, more than half of young people reported

fectively "playing along" with familiar music in an unfamiliar w ' ItI!lyl liS music games, a fifth of whom said they took up an instru-

While primitive, Atari Video Music offers a sign of wh ltItt.nt Ilftel' the videogames spurred their interest. 1

would become the unique contribution videogames offer to t' Thftt might very well be the case, but as the game designer

experience of music. Instead of listening, watching, dancing, , ~1'lmk I .antz quips, why should we celebrate the fact that video-

otherwise taking in music, videogames offer a way to perform, ",,"'UN might encourage teenagers to pick up the rock guitar? In

Naturally, one can perform music withoutthe aid of a computer tWIIllt v-flve years, will we see a new trend in, say, robotics that

playing the guitar or the piano or the bassoon hardly requires t '"I'IIUI'tlges kids to play videogamesi? Praise or blame for Guitar

aid of a videogame, nor does it constitute a novel way to e ""'11 !ihould surely come from something other than its mere

rience music. But videogames offer something subtly differe .hllit y 1'0 help or hinder a kid's likelihood to play the guitar.

than playing a traditional instrument: just as Atari Video Mu Hl1I'C Atal'i Video Music's lesson is instructive. Like the hi-fi

renders audio on a television screen in a new, unexpected way, , .. tpl that allowed its viewer to "play" a familiar song visually,

videogames apply a distortion to musical performance, sheddi ",,,klntl It possible literally to see music in a different way, so

new light on seemingly familiar songs, sounds, or rhythms. '11111111' Ilc/'o and Rock Band do the same. But instead of recast-

These days, the most visible sorts of videogame renditio '''II iii 1111-48 as psychedelic light shows, these music performance

of music are the rock performance games Guitar Hero and Ro "'''1.11 HbRI'I'act away the dance or lyrical quality of songs, forcing

Band. Games in these two series ask players to manipulate si tt'i IJlaylH' to focus on their rhythmic and musical construction.

plified versions of guitar, bass, drum, and vocal parts to compl Whlll yllll play Guitar Hero, you see, feel, and hear the musical

songs in the context of a fictional cover band rising to the t ""f~ll!i In a song that otherwise go unnoticed, blending into the

of the charts by playing real hits from classic and modern ro'l ""I .11 lit IW fI nd feel of its melody, harmonies, and rhythm. When

Following in the footsteps of dance games like Dance Dan Atft t!llto execute the notes of a run through a hammer-on or a

Revolution, these games are usually categorized under the ge I ,"Iii 'lin', I he abstract patterns of these playing techniques rise

rhythm action, as they require the player to depress a particu .""".llw din of the song itself.

l'hlll'IUY, often absurd fictional skins. To play the game, the player IlIlINt operate a series of weird minigames by performing rhythmi­lIy along with a musical accompaniment.

In one such game an Easter Island mo'ai incants an abstract 1111111, The player, controlling the opening and closing mouth of IIl1lhcl' monolith with the stylus, must repeat the first statue's II'" tern correctly. In another, the player operates a fuel dispenser I ~ I'Obot factory. The computer sets the parts of a robot in time II II th~ rhythm of the music, and the player must tap and hold III .. l'itylus for the correct number of beats to fill it completely Ihout overflowing. In yet another, the player helps a guiro liz-

III ftlll'lIct a mate by rubbing its tail against its back (through the .' V"IN on the touch screen), which makes a noise.

lbvlously, the mating habits of lizards and the songs of hu­

IItllold monoliths have little to do with the reality of music per­hWllIilnce. But by recasting the rhythmic patterns as concrete, if ,.UllilNI'Ic actions, the game distorts the very concept of rhythm It II II I he side effects of successful performance in comical games. 1'1'1' 1'(J!iult allows the player to grasp rhythm in a different way, hv wluldlng scratching lizard, emoting statue, eating monk, and

I' oddities simultaneously as actor and as instrument.

1,Iko Atari Video Music, Rhythm Heaven offers a different per­Iltll'llvc on music. By operating a device that intersects with mu­II Itl pt'l'fol'mance but does not mirror it, this and other music hh'IIJ4l\meS offer what the philosopher Slavoj Zizek calls a "paral­

'H' V/tlW," a shifting perspective between two points without syn­t ""Id~, I A ra ri Video Music invites the listener to render music vis- 11.1.1 viii I he distorted abstractions of a circuit connected to a hi-f

Ill, and Rhythm Heaven invites the player to render music

'tt"l'llllol1al via the distorted abstractions of a monk or a crane or Itlhnt [ucler, It's a connection that even extends into the paratext III I III! Wlme's marketing: just as music labels once used MTV vid­"lflll market their records and concerts, so Nintendo created an II\UIliIi visualizer to advertise Rhythm Heaven. Instead of using a

MUSIC < 35 >

, "IIIIMIi jH'U grouped not by genre or period

I, with wider variation and more rapid change

In., l.liU'klllg, 01' sustaining becoming the primary

h'dl'liI~. Yot they are not mere pedagogical prototypesl The

, ... ,'I""t't1 of' playing a song again and again in Guitar Hero IIUlld, at higher and higher levels and toward greater and mastery, does not lead the player to a greater state of mastery

a musician but to a greater depth of understanding as a listen",.

It is here that the true aesthetics of Guitar Hero, Rock Singstar, Karaoke Revolution, and Dance Dance Revolution

root: by becoming increasingly familiar with a song's

and form, players experience the transition from the LCLUlULc

pedantry of an amateur to the smooth confidence of an Dance Dance Revolution, the expertise is not that of ation but of musical response: the patterns of steps, and shifts out of which a dance is constructed. This

up from basics to fluency makes these games music performan games, not just rhythm action games. The feeling of perforrninl comes partly from the visual and aural simulation of a crowd the screen, and partly as a side effect of the requirement to

up with a plastic instrument in front of friends. But even

so, the process of unlocking the songs' deep structure allows

player to experience the performance in its professional through a transition from fumbling novice to effortless

Guitar Hero-style games offer a new perspective on performance by simulating the actual performance of music

an abstract but relatively direct way. Other possibilities exist,

In Nintendo's Rhythm Heaven, a game for the Nintendo DS held system, the player uses the stylus to tap, flick, hold, slide, release on the DS touchscreen in concert with the rhythm of

pIe compositions. In this respect, the game bears much ~uU"Q"Ll

to Dance Dance Revolution or Rock Band. But Rhythm does away with the natural mappings between instruments

their rhythms, replacing the visuals and player interactions

< 36 > MUSIC

modern, computer-generated version of the psychedelic, "'hC!tr"' ....

graphlcs of the original Atari Video Music, Nintendo's

es robots, spaceships, rice farmers, and mo'ai monoliths rhythmlc motion with your digital library of Bjork, the Beatles, Brahms, Altogether, plastic guitar, rhyth. m stylus, and visuali~1 remind us that music and games share a fundamental proper:1 both are playable, offering their listeners and operators an expre sive experience within the framework of melody and rhythm.

( the many memorable moments of Ricky Gervais's BBC n series The Office, troublemaker Tim encases jobsworth 'lltl'Nh's stapler in [ell-O.! Gareth is annoyed, and the viewer I. "1I11lsed, because both comprehend the act immediately: it's


Jll'llnks are a type of dark humor that trace a razor's edge be­II amusement and injury. The risks inherent to pranks con­Hllllile to our enjoyment of them. This includes the danger of Illng caught in the act or the chance that the object of the prank IIIIMhl become hurt or insulted. But risk also gives pranks their 11'1111 power. Because he or she risks blame, the prankster affirms " Itlllicable, if mischievous relationship to the victim. The same I. true for the victim, when he or she chooses to laugh off the 1"" Ilk rather than to mope about it. If that victim later retaliates, II.IIU tcome counts as a playful type of social bonding, not as spite.

( )ne form of videogame pranks arises from tricks that game lopers play on their employers or publishers. Consider the """len Easter egg. An Easter egg is a hidden message in media of II MOlts, from movies to games. In software, Easter eggs are usual­IV 11'I~Bered by obscure sequences of commands, such as the ones Ilhil I he flight simulator programmers hid in Microsoft Excel 97. ol'tware Easter eggs arose as a partial response to the cold IIl1nymity of the computer, and the first videogame Easter egg h"ll precisely this purpose in mind. In the late 1970s engineers I '\11\1'1 created games singlehandedly, from concept to comple­I It II I. I )espite their undeniable role as authors of these games, the I III1JlOny did not publish credits on the box, cartridge, or manual.

< 37 >

1111' ''HI'''~',

PRANKS < 39 >

III 1II1IIi"~I!" I('t' of' such official recognition, programmers

flll.ilpI hid U slgnature within the game. When Warren ftuuuu::_ "lIll1plt'I(.'d his best-selling classic Adventure in 1978, he 1J1UUl I,d ~I hidden room with graphics that read "Created by W;arrA


The process of discovering the hidden message was

plex and counterintuitive, although not difficult enough that couldn't be done (the prank was revealed when a fifteen-year­player wrote to Atari asking about it). 3 Atari would eventually the gag to their own benefit, spinning it as a "secret message" the first issue of the fan magazine Atari Age. Soon enough, company's higher-ups embraced the Easter egg as a way to deeoeil

players' relationships with their titles. Howard Scott inclusion of his initials in 1982's Yars' Revenge was fully

by management.

A more controversial Easter egg-style prank can be

in SimCopter, a 1996 Maxis title that lets players fly helicopt. missions around the cities they create in SimCity 2000. The veloper Jacques Servin secretly added Speedo-clad male bim (Servin called them "himbos") who would meander through

city and passionately kiss." In interviews Servin has cited SPVPl'_ motivations for the prank, including gay pride (the himbos

out, so to speak, on particular dates, among them Servin's friend's birthday) and poor working conditions." He was su quently fired. This was just the start of pranking for Servin,

has since made a practice of public interventions as a member the subversive activist collectives The Yes Men and RTMark, latter having been the sponsor of the SimCopter prank.

Despite their clear status as prank, Easter eggs play jokes games' sponsors or publishers but do not turn the games selves into pranks. To find games that play practical jokes on

players, I'll have to turn to pranks of another sort.

Many pranks function by subtlety rather than uau iuoyar connecting a coworker's supply of paper clips together so they

out of a drawer in a long chain; switching the "push" and

~I'~ on an outside door; taping over the laser eye of an optical IIIIIIINt' NO it doesn't work; or tying someone's shoelaces together. 1IIII14t' small-scale pranks are probably the commonest type. They 11111'1 I'C''lli i re significant preparation, yet they can facilitate an on­,IIIIIK Ieud among participants. The setup and follow-through of 1111111 Ncale tricks can even take on a playfulness that resembles a 111111', At the office, these activities often revolve around limited

11'11""1'1 'CS. One might hide or move supplies of particular worth, III plol 19 arrive at the office early to lock a coworker out of the IWIII plII'king spaces.

l'c'I'hit's no surprise that these topics might translate di- 11'1 fly 11110 games that let players play pranks on each other, IIIIIIIIK" I he game itself. Take parking, a strange and complex til I,ll nctlvity that Area/Code adapted into the Facebook game

"" ~/IIIJ Wars.

III I'tll'king Wars each player gets a street with several spaces

clll aN a handful of cars, which come in different colors. Play ImlllYl'Il the virtual parking of these cars on the simulated streets ,.1 11111"'" Facebook friends. Each car earns money by remaining Ihll ~llti on the street over time, but a player can cash out a car's ""'III'd value only by moving it to another space. Players level up

I "ll!wllic dollar figures, earning new cars as they do so. Some ""'I_IJI4 hove special rules, like "red cars only" or "no parking al­liiWi~IJ" II IS possible to park illegally in these spaces, but if their ilill N e.uch you they can choose to issue a ticket, which tows IIII' "I'IYI'I' from the space and forfeits the money earned to the n!U),I~ owner.

Will'" possible, it's best to park legally. This isn't easy in prac­

I !i" hnwevcr, since many players vie for the limited resources of !i!; It 1111111(,"';' collective parking lots, just like they do with cowork­iii .11111 .. office. And very occasionally the signs on spaces change, 1,." 1,,, y III never guaranteed.

111 •• yIIlK Parking Wars is an exercise in predicting friends' I ... 1'III'ti, A colleague in Europe is likely to be sleeping during the .~lIiJ II' In I he North America, and thus his street might offer safe

hour, And just as some meter maids don't get arou t.:onsider again the world of The Office. A prank like Tim's in

to patrolllng real streets, so some players of Parking Wars do Ih(l ~how's first episode brings us pleasure because it requires an

get around to patrolling their virtual one. Of course, such play Illvulved setup that cashes out in only a few moments of amuse-

might just be busy, or they might even be baiting their colleagu "'tt"l, It also amuses us because we can imagine all the work

so that they can later issue a whirlwind of unexpected ticke t l'U'411 h has to do to retrieve his stapler-unearthing it from the

Receiving a ticket in Parking Wars isn't a prank on the level je.IIV mound, soaking it in hot water to remove the excess. Other

spreading dog poo on the underside of a buddy's car-door h ,,, .. uk .. on this scale include covering someone's entire office in

die. Rather, the combination of latent, ongoing play and oc .""" Inum foil, or drywalling over the boss's door, or filling a

sional "gotchas" makes plays in Parking Wars feel like pranks. t'tfWI1IIket's cubicle with packing peanuts. The workers depicted

game weaves its way into the player's ordinary use of Facebo In t",I4llcvision show push paper in two ways: first in the usual

rather than requiring complete immersion. This latency create ." ... Ilf' mindless tasks, and second in the literal peddling of of-

credible context for surprises, just as the flow of the workday s "" 1'''Ptil', the business of the show's fictional company. The jelly-

the stage for switched desk drawers or shoe polish-smeared te "",,,,,IIIlU\plcl' draws our attention to the blind pushing of papers

phone receivers. Gotchas come in at least two forms: in giving ,Ii the stage for the social critique that follows in subse-

receiving a ticket (which pops up as a big, bright overlay across '" illlllOdes. The prank is what the show is about.

screen), and in the silent knowledge of having taken advantag I II lit III'ICIllIy, there are many examples of pranks as confronta-

another player's inattention. ....II,tlHponses to social and cultural situations. The Dadaists

Many games give players the opportunity to trick, fool.: ...",.""c!IHltl-art like the nonsense poetry of Tristan Tzara and

swindle an opponent out of resources-just recall the plea 'hUllillut of Marcel Duchamp. Just as Tim's jelly stapler un-

of seeing an opponent land on a particularly valuable prope '''''11 t he logic of work, so Dada pranks the rationalist ideals

Monopoly. But in Parking Wars players aren't always expect WMt III the 1950s the beat concept of the Happening popu-

it. By setting up an ordinary social environment for disrupti . ',.ublk performance art, a concept the situationists made

Parking Wars becomes a medium for pranks, a kind of videog .1111 I he 1960s. The "situation" used public performance

whoopee cushion. ....11,1111 II'\(: foundations of everyday life on which it relied,

The parking space reminds us that the office is a popularve ''''"1 helped lay the cultural groundwork for more recent

for pranks. We're stuck there most of the day, everyday, by ne I..,ulkN like flash mobs, which often draw attention to how

sity more than by choice. Moreover, we have little if any con . _ 'I'''t,'tl hes become privatized or monitored. Pranks like

over our fates during the workday; the worker's time is suppo ,."' . 1411(1 Hllsh mobs first amuse, or distract, or disturb just

to be spent at labor, efficiently producing widgets or moving .... lIlit!!I' RilS, But they also dig deep into social conventions,

formation. We prank at work to exert agency in an otherwise . 'hlllll hlll'tl In mockery and reclaiming them in liberation.

controllable environment. As with Robinett's Easter egg, 0 ~ _ ,til IIl1hpII U ITIOl'e contemporary example: parodies like The

pranks help their perpetrators exert their humanity in an a It,,", sud 'rile Colbert Report prank broadcast shows to un-

industry. But even more so, pranks offer an opportunity to un -_ till UIf' .. how's pretenses, absconding with their audiences

mine the very values of the office.


PRANKS < 41 >

III'tI MI1IlUIJIj iH tcillpt to direct similar ridicule at the very co ,IlltY(II' Into a robot that crashes through the floor and dies. The "II,,"~ of KftlllCplay. One is Myfanwy Ashmore's Mario Batt ""'Illl tokes control away from the player and uses carefully timed Nu, I, 1\ hack of the Super Mario Bros. Nintendo Entertainme I' hlktll'Y to make decisions that would be reasonable in the origi­"YHtt!1ll cartridge in which all platforms, enemies, and objec ""I MMne require complete rethinking.

hove been removed, resulting in an empty expanse with no go 1101' example, the game preserves the end-level flagpole famil-

and no challenges. When time runs out, Mario dies. By laying t I,u' 10 Sl,per Mario Bros. fans but distorts it perversely. Just as the

architecture of the game bare, Mario Battle No.1 invites the play' 111"Yt!I' Jumps off the ledge toward the flagpole, a long projectile to ask deeper questions in their absence: where do the Goomb' a"'fldkH across the screen; the only way to avoid it is to backtrack come from? Do they serve Bowser willingly? 111111' the ledge again to jump over it. After successfully mount-

But like Cory Arcangel's Super Mario Clouds, Mario Batt 111M I he flagpole, the game takes control of the player character No.1 is more art object than videogame prank; it is not real ""d moves it toward the castle, just as in Super Mario Bros. But a playable as a game, at least in the same way The Daily Show, I,u'l'fldly timed enemy falls from the sky, colliding with and kill­viewable as television." A better example of a game conventid 111M tho player. Success comes only when the player jumps over prank is Syobon Action (Dejected Action), a Japanese platform! Ih .. tlagpole, avoids the resulting enemy, and then backtracks to also known in the West as "Cat-Mario" or simply "Mario fro': IlIlIIplcte the level.

Hell." The game is playable, challenging, and enjoyable, but it ' ('omplex pranks like the jelly stapler, the foil-wrapped office,

constructed in a way that defies every expectation of Mario-s 1111111 he unconventional platformer are amusing when witnessed

platform conventions. ""lllmnoying when experienced. But they also act as profound

In Syobon Action, the floor sometimes falls away unexpec I .. Interventions. By mocking the rules we don't otherwise

edly. An invisible coin-box appears as the player attempts to ju 111I,fjtl0I1, they possess carnivalesque qualities; they allow us to

a chasm, hurtling him or her down into it instead. A bullet fir' 'Ullfltlnd our ordinary lives and to look at them from a different

from an unseen source off-screen just in time to knock the play 1' .. 11Npective. It's possible to pass Syobon Action off on a friend. as

from the most direct trajectory across an obstacle. Hidden bloc " 1.1MIt I mate Mario clone, only to laugh uproariously when things

trap the player if he or she doesn't take a counterintuitive pat' a!lU11 10 go wrong, This is the garlic-flavored gum usage of the

Spikes randomly extrude from some surfaces after the player ste' .,.11\11, But it's also possible to let SyobonAction prank you willing-

on them. IV. nN il player, to stop and reflect on the conventions of platform

The game's genius is that of a well-honed, methodicallyplann "lAY I hilt have become so familiar that they seem second nature.

prank: it systematically disrupts every expected convention III.' I1N Tim's stapler gag mocks the values of office productivity,

2- D platform gameplay. Instead of allowing equal viability to n "1 NynlJO/l Action indicts the specialized language of videogame

merous approaches to a physical challenge, the game deman jItIllk{lI'Y, This is the Dadaist usage of the game.

that the player undertake bizarre and arbitrary routes. It punish J.,14 vldeogames become a larger part of everyday life, the op-

rather than rewards genre conventions, like item collection (i 111111111111 les to prank friends, coworkers, housemates, and fam-

addition to coins and power-ups, enemies sometimes pop out !ly members in videogame form will surely increase. But part of

question-mark blocks). And the rules change arbitrarily: som IIillIIIUIl1entum required to carry out a prank is in its customiza-

times a mushroom acts as a power-up, other times it turns t 1111111 I'(lrking Wars is a commercial effort, funded by A&E as an

PRANKS < 43 >

"1111111111<' manufacturers and airlines sometimes try to hawk " W"I'l'H by suggesting "the journey is half the fun:' In today's ,1.101' low-frills, high-speed transportation, it's a tough pill to

lIuw, 11111 therewasa time when one had no choice but to think Ihpllllll'llCY as part of the trip, simply because it took so long I 1\llywhcl'C.

III I lit! mid-eighteenth century, for example, it would have II hIli dnys to travel from London to Edinburgh by horse and '1111",," nder the best conditions. 1 By the 1830s the trip took less

htll" I WI) dllYS by railroad. The convenience, speed, and econo­U1w III I'fll1 travel were immediately apparent for both freight and ".11 purposes, and the early days of rail made it clear that the hl,'hllology had fundamentally changed the very experience

11'11 "VI'I ,

Willi,· the railroad introduced many changes, two stand out ,1111 IIUI perspective of tourism. First, by removing the majority

f 1111111 ""om a journey, the railroad also removed much of the 1"11 hllH'c of the space traversed. Even though travelers covered l!i" .,,"ll' distance, the new speed by which one would pass that 111111,.11 made it impossible to experience space in the same way.

III !thl hiNt ol'y of the railway journey, Wolfgang Schivelbusch de­I III "'Ii II lIS follows:

IIlp 10 IlI'Ulllolc II television series of the same name. ,.,YII/" '" AI" 1011 tsnn Independent title, a curiosity produced for I iWlllillkc and a t great effort. The future of videogame pranks

11 several literacies that are not yet well developed. pranksters must have the know-how to make games and to grate prankish ideas into them, or to manipulate the contexts existing games to transform them into pranks. A much fluency with game conventions, tools, and craft will be

for videogame pranks to become an ongoing concern. They commercially unviable in large part, but socially meaningful, tifying considerable effort even if they disappear soon after like the [ell-O that melts when Gareth retrieves his stapler.

II 1 III' one hand, the railroad opened up new spaces that I'II not as easily accessible before; on the other, it did so IIV dCHLl'oying space, namely the space between points.

l hul In-between, or travel space, which it was possible to

< 45 >


TRANSIT < 47 >

"liiWOI,II while using the slow, work-intensive eotechnical fonn of transport, disappeared on the railroads."

landscape as it was filtered through the rna­lUicmble.'

Schivelbusch compares this change with the "loss of aura" in chanically produced works of art, as famously theorized by Benjamin." While waypoints along a route had once been nected to one another continuously through the slow tr;!vpr~;! foot, horse, or carriage, the railroad disrupted this flow. As Schivelbusch explains, "What was experienced as annihilated was the traditional space-time continuum characterized the old transportation technology. Organically bedded in nature as it was, that technology, in its mimetic tionship to the space traversed, permitted the traveler to

that space as a living entity." 4

Second, the railroad changed the traveler's experience of countryside as it was seen from the railcar. The carriage or back had provided a relatively unmediated view of the landscape. If the traveler so wished, he or she could interruoi journey and step down from the coach to inspect a vista or to ander into a meadow. But even from his or her seat, the experienced a more deliberate revealing of scenes along the That changed with the railroad, which bombarded ever

along the single path afforded by the iron road, each

scene visible through the railcar's window for only a brief

If the carriage functioned more like a landscape painting, the way functioned like a cinema camera. Schivelbusch explains:

Ih",wh's thoughts about the railroad remind us that travel '. " IIlIlv~,..snl experience but one mediated by the particular ,h .. 1 give rise to it. A continuous, sensory voyage through I\N(cmning countryside characterized travel by carriage. f 1'011, the train produced a staccato vista through its W, And of course today, in the era of the airplane, the ,'I,f' t PAvel have been removed entirely, replaced by the white

I IIf clouds or the vague pattern of farmland five miles

practice begun thanks to the railway, travelers now landscape traveled with the "imaginary, surrogate f' the book-a form that enjoyed considerable sue­Id or loaned in rail stations."

"'I'ltUI'Y preceding the rise of the rail, media had al­un to offer a kind of practice run for the travel experi-

(1I1'orne, In "panorama" shows, audiences viewed paintings '.' .. 1\1 destinations without requiring the massive time and lltlCCSSal'Y for a journey abroad. Schivelbusch recounts

The empirical reality that made the landscape seen from the train window appear to be "another world" was the railroad itself, with its excavations, tunnels, etc. Yet the railroad was merely an expression of the rail's technologi­cal requirements, and the rail itself was a constituent part of the machine ensemble that was the system. It was, in other words, that machine ensemble that interjected it­self between the traveler and the landscape. The traveler

IIpWHI}oper of the year 1843 describes the Parisian pub­IItl "I'tldlnlng on well-upholstered seats and letting the five I'f III I h IIlM ts 1'011 by at its pleasure without having to leave Ilip ~'II y and without having to risk bad weather, thirst,

h IIlUltl I', cold, heat, or any danger whatsoever,"?

Imnd soon offered a real implementation of the panora­f D .lInlll\ary view of the countryside. But the panorama show

.. ti.I1i\(Jowcd the coming railroad age, offering an early taste of IIIttJl hlllR that was still impossible at the time.

If till! panorama anticipated a kind of travel yet to come, the hhhlKillllC looks back on one that's already passed. Games restore th. PIIJlI1I'h::nce of resistance and adventure that the rail (and the


TRANSIT < 49 >

"II pllllll' 1111.' 1' II) had removed from travel, even if only


1"01' one part, a videogame constantly asks its players to

'I 'he seemingly passive experience of piloting a car around Theft Auto's Liberty City becomes a task in the game's larger

ster fiction. And in many games, including the

ly forgettable ones that adapt motion pictures, a story's plot mapped to the physical traversal of a landscape, such that

a problem amounts to moving successfully through the UU:;ldl:_

of an environment.

But for another part, videogames tend to offer contim rather than discontinuous space that must be traversed Ut:llU,­ately and actively, the opposite of the panorama show and the way. Even the earliest 2- D games rely on patient traversal as damentals: the spaceship of Asteroids moving through its field rocks, Pac-Man moving through his maze collecting pellets.

it's 3-D games that make continuous transit a fundamental

of the experience of play.

Crazy Taxi was first created for coin-op play, but was

ized with its release on the Sega Dreamcast in 2000. The plays just like its title suggests: the player takes the role of a cab who must pick up and drop off fares at locations throughout a A large, green arrow at the top of the screen points the player the general direction of the destination, but the challenge

in navigating the winding streets .of the city and countryside

reach it before the fare grows impatient.

A taxi-style minigame mimicking Crazy Taxi appears in Theft Auto 3, but that title also makes transit a fundamental

of the gameplay, by situating its challenges throughout a

city that takes considerable time to traverse. GTA3 and its

also offer an important shift away from the arcade-style play Crazy Taxi: since players can complete missions at a time of choosing, the game's default state is essentially that of trans.

~espite popular opinions suggesting that GTA3 allows a player "do anything," it actually offers precious little freedom of actio.

Ililll'l'lI olily a small number of acts are really supported in \ilill WIII'1t1. Instead, the game offers freedom of continu-

Iii IiHI\'IIIlII'nl, which players sometimes partake of as its own tllllll"lIlIl While the railroad cuts out the scenery and replaces it V; Ii!! 1',111111'.1111", Grand Theft Auto and other open-world game 11'''i1ill'll hy IlN design offer scenery worthy of experience in it 11\t" ""h!' j

I '11111'.111 walk instead of driving in GTA, although it's a tim .. -

!!1'tl,1I11111P; process. But walking also finds more fundamental in­

UI~I .. IIIIIII"Ic) games in which slow, continuous traversal becom iI" ,,_I.IIIII'"I.ll aspect of gameplay. In Nintendo'sAnimal Crossing i liili, 'IflVlq',rI human players share an idyllic pastoral village with Iltflillhill .uilmals. It's a strange game with few defined goals,

II!ft~~11Ii 1'.111 talk to the animals, fish or catch insects, search fOI' tliil jj;illl'lljlNIII'C, buy and sell goods, and tend to the village's gar- 11 .. "ill14 III'I,IIN. Play proceeds over many weeks or months, and th

III II UllII 1t'lIl changes along with the calendar and the seasons.

"I llil' process, one has to traverse the hills and paths and Itlitlklllllllhll'lvel'banks of the village many, many times. Bitty th llijillilllllHll1 dllk the player to deliver a modern table toAziz across Im~ II, "'lIltll'lng the slow, pleasant promenade across the river and I!I" IIlllIlIllO the peach tree orchard on the opposite end of the vil­I~W' 11I1i'1' 1 here, as happenstance would often have it, Aziz might Iltllllll 1I1I',Inclcl'ing or shopping or fishing, forcing the player t It1lltlll .wolher day to complete the errand. In the process, not Itioll IIlil"- hut over many such encounters, the player develops an iiillllllVII,Ind continuous relationship with the village's landscape. ("",,,,{ "'/11'/1 Auto and Crazy Taxi simulate an experience many of Ii~ II ,I \-1' I'Vl'I'Y day: commuting by car. But Animal Crossing offers

i IIIIIK'II!' (or one that we began replacing first with the railroad

lid 11,"" wlt h the automobile: an experience of the "space be­I II 1111111111" that had been reduced or eliminated by the trans- 111,flllllllcchnologies that began with the railroad.

1111' IIliRht observe that a videogame is a strange way to get ( 111111 ,II' Ill(! space between points when one could simply find

I~At 11111

TRANSIT < 51 >

101'.11 ptll'k 01' JUSl go outside and walk around the llt:Jglluur Vldt'()SdIlICS, after all, are often accused of ripping people out

I he natural world and placing them into an artificial one. But

bjection misses an important feature of the prerailroad experience: the necessary unfamiliarity of a space being tr::lvpr~ Places once felt isolated from one another, and the process eling itself served to unite them. Before the railroad, the

also doubled as adventurer, taming the spaces in between nations by passing through them, both literally via foot or

or carriage and figuratively by vision and judgment. The gets you from place to place, but the latter solidifies the ous space of transit and the real effort required to get there.

If this distance comprises the aura lost when technologies allow travelers to access a faraway locale going through the effort of long-distance travel, then it

be tempting to see the rapidly loadable locales of Grand

Auto and Animal Crossing as similarly collapsed, the

and video game console taking the place of the locomotive or airplane. But even as these simulated places may not embrace remoteness by remaining so easy to access, once there players

perience a new, simulated remoteness: how to get from place to the Liberty City Ferry terminal or how to find the museum from the seashore. For these locations to simulate moteness effectively, they must start out entirely unfamiliar, viting the player to come to understand them through slow rather than the speed of transportation technologies. It helps

the temporal expectations in videogames are distorted. It take hours to drive from Brooklyn to Hoboken, but since the tion in most videogames is expected to be nearly immediate, a small prolonging of the simulated experience reproduces

extended travel associated with earlier forms of transit.

The result inverts the function of the photograph and the orama show in the mid-nineteenth century. Instead of lUUl\.1'_ forward to a future in which the risky, laborious process of versing space could be lessened, in-videogame transit rp_rrp::ltp.

f iii \\ hll'll "I',llity had not yet been dissolved into bits, but had

tw '1o'~111 1'111<1 deliberately. Like the panorama show, the transit 111 .. 111111 III.) kind of replacement therapy for an inaccessibl

I h'IIIIIII" movement. Two centuries ago, that missing experi­,hlel 10 truncate space. Today, it takes the reverse form,

I'~I h'III'I'lhatdemands continuity. In this respect, the video-

IilU I~ t II IIII' alrplane and automobile what the on-board novel .lIi til rho railroad.

! hl'l'~ I he most ironic example of videogame transit come • tilt! \'III Y ",I mulation of the technology that first dissolved real­

'.V' ,III' Iliill'OJd itself. Games like Microsoft Train Simulator offer ""'IIII\I,III'nl of flight simulators for the railways. Popular mostly l'IUtlN 1',1111'0",1 hobbyists, they're complex and intricate simula­hili' til' 11111 operation of various rail lines all around the world. I h~lw t 1IIc'N require players to stop and start a locomotive using ilIII_lI,Ih1c! rontro] levers, to couple and uncouple wagons, and

"I!!~i III 1111 10 follow the signals and schedules necessary to de­II VII I 1"'''''I'III{CI'S or cargo along real or fictional routes built into .11111',0" constructed by the player.

h 11111 I Ill' perspective of transit simulation, perspective be-

IIIIWIl Ihtll<(.IY feature of Train Simulator. Rather than being situ­ilill 111(1 passenger carriage, where vistas captured like photo­

"",Ii. !I!' I',lNlonally interrupt the pleasant silence of a book, th I!",," I I .. I hl'lIst into the operator's cab. There, he or she not only til"'!1 III'H()1 IMe the physics of track curves and locomotive speed ,il .hll r.Ylllhologies of signal direction but also must embrace a I lIt1t It II H IliN attention to the unfolding scene. In this case, th

nor just half the fun but the entire experience.


DMU Timestamp: March 28, 2013 23:38