in bookish play: a commentary of myst

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Zachary McCune's Honor Thesis for the department of Modern Culture & Media at Brown University. The Licensing is Creative Commons 3.0. So read it/use it/cite it/distribute it/respond to it!

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in bookish playa commentary of Myst

A Senior Thesis Project By Zachary McCune

First Reader Professor Wendy Hui Kyong Chun Brown University Second Reader Professor Alexander Galloway New York University

Department of Modern Culture & Media Brown University April 22, 2010

-3 introduction

truth abandoned by play would be nothing more than tautology. - Theodor Adorno, The Essay as Form A book itself is a little machine. But when one writes, the only question is which other machines can be plugged into, must be plugged into in order to work." - Deleuze & Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus In gamespace even if you know the deal, are a player, have got game, you will notice, all the same, that the game has got you. - MacKenzie Wark, Gamer Theory

This project comes as a consequence of a long planted concern with how critical theory will metabolize and respond to the rise of the video game as a mass cultural form. In that, the project has many, many fore bearers. Theorists like Alexander Galloway, Ian Bogost, McKenzie Wark, and Nick Montfort (among many others) have formally addressed video games as objects requiring their own theory. Many of these scholars have come to the video game from literary, cultural, and media theory backgrounds. But perhaps more importantly, these scholars have found video game theory massively (inescapably) informed by film theory and the growing academic ubiquity of film studies in the American university. Film theory proves inspirational to the would-be video game theorist because it gets us away- however briefly- from textual (here explicitly alphanumeric symbol system) analysis which has been the focus of Western scholasticism. In film theory, the video game theorist finds that a contemporary media discourse developed within the past 150 years, can be transformed into a critical text, like and unlike the written word, which is by its very existence, in need of interpretation. So film theory presents in its discourse the ways in which contemporary culture objects can be recuperated into objects for theory.

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Simultaneously, film theory presents a success story for the invention of an academic practice founded on dynamic visual media objects. There are many teaching today who remember and discuss how film theory was legitimized. How it progressed from a society of committed cinephiles to scholarship, and how it in informed subsequent film production and consumption. As much as the game scholar attempts to deny that his/her analysis will treat the video game as a film (as a passive narrative medium) the game scholar cannot deny the importance of film theory. It has provided a road map for the gamer theorist, and a source of inspiration. Film theory proves that the academy can engage productively with contemporary entertainment media, and even allow critical theory to intervene in the production of these entertainments. McKenzie Wark has hailed the present as a moment in which the study of the video game becomes essential and unavoidable. He writes, Games are no longer a pastime, outside or alongside of life. They are now the very form of life, and death, and time itself (Wark, Agony 006). This is to say that games are not merely at a cultural or social periphery, a pastime that is somehow secondary or merely a distraction from life, but instead the very form in which we now conceiver of life, and death. No doubt Warks statement plays at the fact that ideas from video games, such as multiple lives in platform games or fragging in first person shooters, have altered social ideas of life and death, forcing cultural mutation. Time too has been altered. Our time, Wark adds, has become the time of games. In Run Lola Run, the heroine hurtles through Berlin trying to beat a difficult day. Montages actually occasionally re-render Lola as a 8-bit avatar. Robert Ebert has called this slippage Lara Croft made flesh and focused his review of the film on the fact that the narrative repeats three times, until Lola manages to clear it (Ebert Run Lola Run). Game time has invaded and changed cinematic time, giving it a game-like reproducibility. With the option

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for repetition, time becomes a try, a chance, and in this change, it shifts from the passing, durational time of cinema into the looped time of computers. The video game has invaded life, and in the process, become visible in life outside of games. In a recent music video for Happy Up Here, Norwegian electronic duo Ryksopp present an ambiguous western city as the site of an alien invasion. Except that the aliens are really invaders Space Invaders. The city is changed from a site of contemporary living into a space of imagination and nostalgia, all informed from a game fiction. The game is never mentioned. The familiarity of the allusion is assumed. Moreover, the alien figures are really not extraterrestrials, but figures formed from the lights and signs of the city. The suggestion is modernity and its technologies have given birth to these new, gamerly forms of life. These are forms of life that co-inhabit spaces of physical reality, having escaped from their technologies in the nostalgic recollections of society itself. In a recent advertisement for the XBOX 360, a man is walking through a train station when he suddenly pulls a gun on two men walking by him. But its not a gun. Its his hand held statically like a Desert Eagle. The two men instantly turn and pull their guns on him. The entire train station follows creating an impossibly oversized Mexican standoff in which every member of the station has become interlocked, related. For a few tense moments, the camera surveys the people. They are businessmen, janitors, students, mothers, fathers, taxi drivers, the diversity suggesting that this somehow all of society. Bang! yells the instigator, and the station erupts in mock violence, the hand guns playing out a childrens fantasy in the adult world. As the violence spills out of the station, there is a moment in which we fear that game is only permissible inside; a taxi driver will not respond to being shot. And then, finishing his phone call, he joins in, dying dramatically. The XBOX 360 logo appears. A slogan invites us to jump in. The impression is, at any time, in

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any place, the entire world is a game is waiting to be played. Or to return to Warks point life, death, have (all of which are presented in this ad) have become games in contemporary society. This project has always been a consequence, a reaction, and a result of this society. This project is in inextricably embedded within a society where everyone has been remade by the game. Consequently, theory has moved past the film, and in seeking new bodies with warm blood to prey on, theory spies the video game. It finds it in places like the XBOX 360 train station. It feels its own familiar objects like Run Lola Run, made over in the time of game. Theory is ready for video games, and, more importantly, the gamer is finding theory. For every emerging scholar who is taking on the video game project is approaching the subject with some gamerly persuasion. Bogost is a game developer, as are Galloway and Montfort. Wark on the other hand comes as a player, as a gamer, and thus grounds his theory in play itself, not design. Be a gamer, he writes but be a gamer who thinks- and acts - with a view to realizing the real potentials of the game, in and against the world made over as gamespace (Wark, Agony 025). So this is where a gamer theorist must begin: in and against the world made over as gamespace, in and against the world that has been altered by video games. In becoming theorist, the gamer has a unique problem: how best should video games be approached critically? Again, a certain way forward is provided by film theory, which struggled with a similar approach question at the inception of its own studies. Informed by theater (Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein likened cinema to Japanese Kabuki theater), by literature (American poet Vachel Lindsay would write an early poetic approach to cinema called The Art of the Moving Picture), and by the still nascent psychology (see Hugo Munsterbergs The Photoplay: A Psychological Study) film theory invented a hybrid approach.

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Video games too will need to build on existing discursive techniques from literary criticism (the game as text as in Janet Murrays Hamlet on the Holodeck), from film theory (Alex Galloway carefully historicizes the first person shooter as an outgrowth of cinematic framing (Galloway 39-69)) and from developing fields like media archaeology (such as Anne Friedbergs The Virtual Window) which will prove indispensable in asking questions about the origins of the video games visual preoccupations and tropes. The roots of game avatars and views/framing are something that media archaeological approaches will hopefully provide. In developing a hybridized approach, critical video game studies will approach the game as the gamer finds it: familiar and alien, filmic and literary, historical and futuristic. But we must start by playing. Espen Aarseth makes this clear in writing games are both object and process, they cant be read as texts or listened to as music, they must be played (Aarseth, Computer Game Studies, Year One). In seems impossible not follow his advice. The game must be played. It must be participated in and with as a game. So thats where the project begins and remains: this is a playing of a video game. There is simply no other way to take the object on, for as Aarseth writes it is more than object, it is also process. Which means the game must be taken on as sequence and as an experience. It must be considered as what Ian Bogost has called a procedural rhetoric which is to say as discourse that makes certain moves in sequence and as part of a exchange- an exchange between player and the game/game-as-machine (Bogost