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The Video Game Theory Reader

The Video Game Theory Reader, 2003
The video game theory reader. — Edited by J.P. Mark Wolf and Bernard Perron. — London : Routledge, 2003. — 343 p. — Includes an index. — Includes a bibliography. — ISBN 0415965799.

This anthology brings together current theoretical discourses that video games have given rise to within numerous humanities disciplines (communications, film studies, cultural studies, psychology, philosophy). Video games, which were for a long time approached as a by-product of cinema and computer graphics or seen exclusively in terms of their ideological dimension, as a trigger for regressive behavior, are here the object of a nuanced analysis. In their introduction the editors Mark J.P. Wolf and Bernard Perron review an initial corpus of texts dedicated to video games since the end of the '60s. Wolf and Perron then map out the contemporary field of discourses on video games by presenting a number of key concepts that will be discussed at length in the anthology.

The first two contributions approach the development of the video game from a broad perspective in which the design of the interface and components of the game is considered on equal footing with its content.

"Theory by Design," by Walter Holland, Henry Jenkins and Kurt Squire evaluates the educational project "Game-To-Teach Project" developed by MIT, by proposing an approach in which the theorists reflect on games in their developmental stage. In "Abstraction in the Video Games," Mark J. Wolf is interested in graphic abstraction in the first generation games. Though at that time the technological limits obliged the developers to schematically evoke figurative elements, the perfecting of the games then led to a greater degree of real environment simulation. By isolating certain examples of dynamic interfaces and elements, which were radically simplified in the rudimentary platforms of the '70s and '80s, Wolf mentions that nowadays game developers under exploit the abstract side. According to the author the use of schematic forms for certain designs would result in a far richer and complex cognitive environment.

The three following essays dwell on the status of the user's subjectivity by mapping the modes of identification that the games' designs encourage. In "Immersion, Engagement, and Presence: a Method for Analyzing 3D Video Games," Alison McMahan studies the problematic of the simulation of real experience in video games. In order to better define the notion of presence—one of the first game evaluation criteria among users—the author draws up a typology of terms linked to the different degrees of immersion in the game protocols. Moreover, Mac Mahan mentions other simulation devices, such as virtual reality or telepresence, which are now integrated into some game navigation tools. In his essay, "Hyperidentities: Postmodern Identity in Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games," Miroslaw Filiciak oberves the phenomenon of identity multiplication under the form of avatars (1) within Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games. The author compares the mutability of avatars to the model of subjectivity relayed by the postmodernist discourse, in which the subject, fragmented into monads, can reshape itself at leisure. This reflection is pursued from another angle in "Playing at Being: Psychoanalysis and the Avatar," in which Bob Rehak attempts, for his part, to link the analysis of the identification in video games with psychoanalytical theories of the film spectator that were developed in the '70s (in the English journal Screen). Making use of the concept of suture and interpellation, he suggests that the games, which employ a first person shooter point of view, create a collusion of this point of view and the parameters of the user's psychomotor experience. He, however, distinguishes the subjective film shot from the video game navigation tool, which produces different types of identification. The author thus underlines the effect of invulnerability that is created by the perpetual renewal of the avatar, a factor that contributes to the reinforcement of an identity that is sheltered from the contingent aspects of real life. In "Stories for the Eyes, Ear, and Muscles: Video Games, Media, and Embodied Experience," which constitutes the counter-thesis to the preceding essays, Torben Grodal applies models derived from cognitive sciences to video games and suggests that the reactions of the participants in their simulated environments come close to real life experiences. Grodal hence affirms that these reactions do not only constitute effects derived from identity constructions in a space of signification. It would be advisable, according to the author, to put the semiotic and cultural studies approach on the back burner and to first establish the parameters of the game users and the extent of their intervention within this register (their oculor-motor reflexes, mnemotechnical tools that are developed to improve performance, etc.). Martii Lahti situates herself between this standpoint influenced by cognitive sciences and discourse analysis that puts an emphasis on subjectivity. In "As we Become Machines: Corporealized Pleasures in Video Games," he describes the video game as a person-machine complex that gives rise to an excess of experience (and bodily pleasures). Like Miroslaw Filiciak, Lahti evokes the mutability of the subject. She also insists on the trying out of identity positions that would be impracticable in everyday life, but possible in the virtual space of the games (changing sex or cultural belonging, for instance). With "Hot Dates and Fairy-Tale Romances: Studying Sexuality in Video Games," Mia Consalvo reports incidences of the inscription of sexual or sexualized content in video games. Although pornographic games are evoked, the author is primarily interested in the inscription of the genre in games that have the greatest market share.

Strongly inspired by cognitive sciences and game theory, the four following essays give an account of the pragmatic aspects of the video game experience. With "Video Games and Configurative Performances," Markku Eskelinen et Ragnhild Tronstad show to what extent video games can be compared to artistic practices that go beyond representational dichotomies (for example the spatial segregation of the spectator and the spectacle). To support this thesis, they place the operational modes of the games alongside the notion of the happening elaborated by Allan Kaprow in the '60s. The authors underline, among other things, the kinship of the video game with the happening through the multiple path structure that these forms induce on traditional narrative. Gonzalo Frasca's essay, "Simulation versus Narrative: Introduction to Ludology," proposes to abandon the analogy between video games and film narration as it is applied to this object by many theorists, and to analyze the form of the game itself, its rules, the types of participation that it encourages, etc. The author considers that thanks to their open structure, even if delimited, video games constitute tools of rhetorical simulation. With "From Gamers to Players and Gameplayers: The Example of Interactive Movies," Bernard Perron chooses the little commented upon genre of "interactive cinema"—a genre that suggests a series of narrative resolution possibilities by way of an interactive platform—to approach narration in the video game. Perron takes care to distinguish the strictly ludic aspects of these audiovisual products which he then qualifies as movie games rather than interactive cinema. He consequently deems the term inappropriate to qualify the user's experience, which oscillates between following rules and randomness. On a mode that is more pragmatic than theoretical, Chris Crawford's essay, "Interactive Storytelling," attempts to define the meeting point between interactivity and storytelling. He examines early attempts (Adventure by William Crowther and Donald Wood, made in 1976) to multiply reading paths in narrative experience. Along the way Crawford comments on the many flaws of these forms: failing to reinvent the traditional narrative experience, they propose choices to the unfolding of the story that are often disappointing. The author believes that one must assimilate the fundamental principles of narration with interactive storytelling rather than evading them in a fragmented form. To carry this out he describes the operating mode of his software "Erasmatron" which generates and manages interactive content, and which makes it possible to articulate the main components of a story conceived on a computer platform. In "Gametime: History, Narrative, and Temporality in Combat Flight Simulator 2," Patrick Crogan comments on the phenomenon of Hollywood's recycling of video games with military content. He does so by studying two examples of this circularity between genres and media (the game combat Flight Simulator 2: WWII Pacific Theater (2000) by Microsoft and the film Pearl Harbour (2001) by Michael Bay). To complete the anthology Mark J.P. Wolf, Bernard Perron and David Winter provide a list of home entertainment video platforms (put on the market between 1972 and 2001) as well as an extensive bibliography.

Vincent Bonin © 2004 FDL

(1) The avatar is the form adopted by a game user in a simulated environment, for instance by choosing the name of his or her character, its ammunition, etc.