A Case for Narrating Gameplay

1982

I begin on the shaggy tan carpet of my living room in front of a wood paneled television flickering the image of a game I later find out is called Missile Command. My hands grip the rubber of the joystick and click it violently left and right, smashing the big concave red buttons in a vain attempt to stop the onslaught of lightning bolts sent from some undefined elsewhere. The bolts accumulate and splatter across the ground in fuzzy blasts of sound and flashes of light. Some time later my next door neighbor peaks my curiosity when he playfully raps the line “I drop bombs like Hiroshima” in a cartoonish Japanese accent during a street hockey game. That night I learn about the violence of those flashes of light.

Writing the Body in Play

The reflection above is the first bit of writing in my dissertation and is similar to various bits of first person reflection at the beginning of every chapter and scattered throughout the rest of the project. My influence for this style is feminist work in the 70s and 80s, specifically Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Woman, Native, Other. This diverse critical tendency intervened into dominant patriarchal and masculine discourses within academic writing that privileged abstraction, reasoned distance, and logical analysis. As with many institutions, academia has been structured in such a way as to valorize a masculine disposition and its attendant rhetoric in order to systemically exclude dissent from women, people of color, and the economic underclass.

I believe similar oppressive tendencies exist in game scholarship and maintain exclusions that undermine the potential of the field. However, I think it is perhaps even more damaging within game studies because writing about games can benefit immensely from more embodied, personal, and affective critical engagement since games are played or interactive or actions or ergodic or whatever you want to call it. For feminist critics, struggling over what counts as scholarly work is primarily a way of exposing and giving voice to feminine perspectives. But when applying the same strategies of critical reflection to games, we both provide an outlet for diverse perspectives and are more traditionally rigorous in our understanding of the games themselves. We can do the impossible; we can satisfy the formalists and the experimentalists!

Writing the body was one of the most productive approaches developed by feminists. Scholarship that practiced this tradition worked to use the embodied and visible nature of feminine subjectivity (as opposed to the abstract/universal white male subject) to expand the possibilities of affect, sensation, and consciousness beyond the cerebral. Feminist writing focusing on the body also reclaimed the power of the body from scopophillic pleasures and the masculine gaze. For clarification, let me differ to the far more elegant summation of Trinh:

“Writing the body” is that abstract-concrete, personal-political realm of excess not fully contained by writing’s unifying structural forces. Its physicality (vocality, tactility, touch, resonance), or edging and margin, exceeds the rationalized “clarity” of communicative structures and cannot be fully explained by any analysis. It is a way of making theory in gender, or making of theory a politics of everyday life, thereby re-writing the ethnic female subject as site of differences. 44

I think there’s immense untapped analytical and political potential in mining the voices of critics and members of the game community. In a medium infamous for, at best, its reductive representation of non-white male subjectivity and characters or, at worst, the outright exclusion of diversity, consider the value brought to games when we actively encourage the exploration of difference through personal reflection on gameplay experiences. The writing of the personal is not limited to a specific subject either. As Trinh is careful to parse, personal writing is about a kind of embodied experience that is not attributable to a specific author (a designation that kills potential) but a voice that is specific, real and, paradoxically for those very reasons, generalizable. It allows for connections and affinities. “For writing, like a game that defies its own rules, is an ongoing practice that may be said to be concerned, not with inserting a “me” into language, but with creating an opening where the “me” disappears while “I” endlessly come and go, as the nature of language requires” (35).

Affect, Difference, and What a Game Does

Moreover, this style of writing will work to uncover and unpack how difference is not just a matter of visualization onscreen but a product of a player’s affective experience. There’s been robust debate over precisely what a game object is or isn’t and what we should be studying or not. I think one of the biggest omissions in this work is affect. Just as important as rules, mechanics, or narrative is the player’s visceral, phenomenological, and sensational reception of the experience within specific contexts. Writing about games not as objects outside us but as experiences we’ve had makes affect central to what the object is and how its meaning circulates. We need to stop writing instruction manuals and start writing play.

Consider how frustrating it is when writing about games to describe the game in the traditional mode of literary or film studies. What precisely are we describing? Working within the conventions of traditional academic writing we rely on a description of the plot, setting, and controls and some cursory depiction of visuals perhaps bolstered by screenshots. But this ends up being ultimately unsatisfying because this is only a partial explanation. We’re not getting at what a game does.

Now think about how you talk about games to your friends—you narrate experiences. And in these narratives you describe the visuals, the sound, the controls, the key mechanics, and, most importantly, what you did and how it made you feel. You get at the play of the political in its activity on the body and mind. And I phrase this as “the play of the political” because emotional engagement and personal reception tie directly to a kind of politics where your body and its reactions are in contest with the desires of the game.

A New New Games Journalism?

What I am proposing is not revolutionary. Many of us were excited at the possibility of New Games Journalism (NGJ) and its attempt to do something similar to what I am describing here. And it’s no surprise given the marginal focus of the form that one of the most famous pieces of NGJ was “Bow, Nigger” a first person narrative recounting the response and reflections of the author to a racial slur while playing Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast online. Within the confines of old style games journalism this piece’s affective power would have been neutralized (not to mention never accepted as a pitch or solicitation (although it was eventually published in PC Gamer UK)). Unfortunately the NGJ movement dissipated and its practitioners, like Kieron Gillen and Jim Rossignol, are now doing the equivalent of NGJ elsewhere. While NGJ is often described as having disappeared it continues to have tangible impact. Certainly games journalism is still incredibly infantile and market/value driven, but the discourse is maturing and there are new publications and voices representative of a more mature and critical engagement with games.

So what I am asking for is an intervention in the field of game studies similar to NGJ but with the political acumen of feminist critique. At its best, this new discursive mode will use the experiential perspective to combat marginalization, encourage difference, and exponentially expand the boundaries, capabilities, and meanings of game objects and the people that create meaning out of them. Furthermore, personal writing about games might be located historically and extend the act of play beyond the confines of the screen to the everyday contexts in which games are experienced, particularly in the play of affect and sensation. If we’re really lucky this writing might also surpass the confines of the digital game object to play’s myriad forms throughout life experience.

But most of all, it’s less boring.

Caption image via Lost in Translation

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6 Responses to “A Case for Narrating Gameplay”
  1. Jason Tondro 24 August 2010 at 9:33 am #

    I have been thinking about your project for a few days now, so first off thanks for posting a preview. I’m not as familiar with most of your criticism resources as you are, obviously, but I certainly like the idea that academic writing can be more fun without making it less useful. It seems to me that when I read criticism of the approach you are talking about, it seems to focus on accusations that this kind of academic writing is too “autobiographical”. That is, rather than focusing on your attempt to write the body, this kind of disapproval dismisses your approach as, basically, too much about you — as a kind of mock-academic memoir. Entertaining to read, perhaps, but not ultimately useful to others who don’t share your experience.

    That’s not how I feel; frankly, my critical barn doors are pretty open to just about any approach, and although I have never heard of NGJ I do know that the way you describe the experience of gaming sounds very much like the way we also describe the experience of reading comics — another form which seems to pride itself on its personal connection between audience and creator. When you’re lying on your belly playing Space Invaders, it’s not all that different than when I’m curled up on the sofa with Spidey Super Stories.

    But comics scholarship has this same kind of disassociative behavior. We’re all so busy trying to pretend we’re “serious academics” that we are careful never to let on that these comics might also be just plain fun. In comics criticism, we talk a lot about nostalgia and all kinds of other things which are code words for “why I’m a comics fan boy”, and it’s all ultimately very dismissive. And that just seems like such a shame, since comics are a fantastic — and I mean that in the sense of fantasy, not “really good” — imaginative medium that makes reading fun, and wouldn’t it be nice if we could bring that fun with us to comics scholarship? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could not be ashamed of why we fell in love with this medium in the first place?

    Anyhow, look forward to seeing more.

  2. Tanner 24 August 2010 at 4:40 pm #

    My point here too is that other approaches (like what we’re both discussing) which are more honest of the critic’s relationship with the text, whether of the fanboyish variety or not, can also be, and really should be, rigorous and critical in ways or via avenues not accessible to the traditional distanced critic. As I am working on my dissertation I find moments of personal reflection on my relationship to games throughout my life as providing valuable insights about how race operates on a basic level for the players.

  3. Chris Lepine 1 September 2010 at 11:08 am #

    Hi Tanner,

    There is a fascinating psychology of personal agency at play here, that I am trying to explore in my own way, in my own dissertation. While I don’t take on the problem of personal expression in academia directly (trust me, academic psychology is far worse than most other disciplines for an objectivistic attitude), I do consider the problem of what we mean by “personal” or “self-expression” and its connection to embodiment and affect.

    Towards that, I am turning to “expressivist” philosophy … a writing tradition that turned away from Cartesian objectivity and made the expressive community the centre for meaning. The challenge is to make communality (our belonging to social communities, histories) central in understanding the expressive person, rather than turning the individual against the collective. It is a difficult dynamic to tease apart in my experience.

    Imagine my face when I saw the line “A New New Games Journalism?” I wrote that very line, with the same sentiment and goals, over a year ago. It gave me a good laugh. (here is the link)
    http://www.artfulgamer.com/2009/02/09/new-games-journalism-is-dead-long-live-new-new-games-journalism/

    I’d love to talk with you some time, as I think we have some common ground (and I suspect, some political differences) worth exploring.

    Great post. Wish I had this much clarity.
    - Chris

  4. Tanner 1 September 2010 at 11:55 am #

    Chris,

    That sounds like a fascinating approach and from a rather unexpected place. The only personal/communal/expressive philosophies I have exposure to emerge from African traditions that have been mostly excluded from the philosophical canon. Do you have any specific philosophers you’re looking at?

    (And it’s nice to see someone else fighting for the return of NNGJ!)

  5. Chris Lepine 1 September 2010 at 1:36 pm #

    The philosophers that I have made central in my thesis are (in no particular order): Charles Taylor (who is partly responsible for making the argument that expressivist philosophy has always been around, and is a viable counterpoint to objectivism/Cartesian thought/etc), Gaston Bachelard (who makes the ‘poetic image’ and ‘poetic imagination’ central in our existence as expressive people), Johann Gottfried Herder (who takes up the position that cultural difference and moral plurality are what makes us human), and Giambattista Vico (who argues that we can, through imaginative historical work, come to understand other cultures – in fact, he is responsible for creating the idea of ‘the human sciences’).

    These are just a few – and I obviously am making some of these philosophers more prevalent than others in my thesis. The overall goal of each of these figures is, in my opinion, to undermine the belief that there is one “essential” reality for all human beings, and instead offer a form of cultural/historical understanding that makes expression and human experience central. Expressivism is, for me, a counterpoint to the entire Enlightenment project that has enjoyed too much influence in modernity.

    In particular, I’d recommend Charles Taylor’s “Philosophical Papers 1″ and Isaiah Berlin’s “Three Critics of the Enlightenment: Vico, Hamann, Herder”.

  6. Kriss 5 September 2010 at 3:47 pm #

    I agree, what’s really important here is the writing, not the games.

    So few people really see that.

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