putting your avatar in a funny hat doesn’t make it less problematic

After the first Friday morning session was Break Out 1.2, Games and Narratives.

I came in a little late to Jennifer Smith’s “Meta Discourse: An Investigation into Possibilities of Meta-Fictions in the 21st Century“. Smith’s presentation was one along similar lines with a few others of the conference, referencing older print works as precursors to the forms of electronic literature (or in the context of something like Espen Aarseth’s cybertext, these works all belong to the same class of literature and present in different forms). On the face of it this is pretty basic, right? But it makes me wonder if this analysis gives less weight to digital media as a new art form in itself, sharing in common with writing, visual art, film, but a separate art form in its own right. Do we lose something by considering much of digital media as electronic literature in the first place — and not digital media itself?

Jason Farman (faculty at WSU Tri-Cities) followed up with an entertaining talk on Grand Theft Auto and what he termed the alienation effect, citing Brechtian concerns over an invisible interface between art and the person that experiences it. This follows from recent games (a simple example would be fLOw, but Jason indicated he was talking about AAA titles) where the designers subsume the interface into the game experience, desiring as little between the player and the game as possible. Specifically Jason was talking about concerns over the violent content in GTA: San Andreas.

The premise of the alientation effect is that by fostering distance between the spectator/interactor and the work, you (the designer or producer of a work) promote the possibility of social critique, social (and emotional?) change, but by fostering identification and sympathy, you impede change. The question is whether this effect doesn’t also promote other affects, I don’t know enough of this to say.

This is a very interesting question for IF with its command line interface and the parser, perhaps one of the most mediated interfaces in games, and at the same time an interface with perhaps the most possibility for an ‘invisible’ interface depending on the game (I’m thinking of Jon Ingold’s Fail-Safe in particular). Furthermore players often praise games where the designer ‘thinks of everything’ the player might throw at the game, maintaining mimesis (Lost Pig is a good recent example). What you’re setting yourself up for is a situation where you can violently break the spell you’ve laid on a player. Ideally you would want to do this only for a very good reason — but IF is one of the few genres I can think of where doing this wouldn’t be considered a deal breaker.

The final talk in this track was Jimmy Maher’s “Blending the Crossword with the Narrative: An Examination of the Storygame“. Jimmy (at the University of Texas) along with editing SPAG and writing histories of interactive fiction (and writing IF as well from what I hear) has set out to define the storygame — his term for narrative-oriented games. Jimmy’s storygame has four characteristics: it is interactive, computational (though not necessarily run on a computer), character-based, and has a clear endpoint. He also talked about his ideas of the 3D game, where the text is a window into a world and otherwise gets out of the way, and a 2D game, where the text is more concerned with qualities of itself (perhaps its style, etc.). Of course, and Jimmy makes the point, that the greatest population of readers is interested in 3D reading (and 3D games it seems).

I think at one point Jimmy asked (rhetorically?) what a ‘literature of storygames’ might look like, but I’m not sure if he answered or even asked this question. This was just in my notes. Though since I’m in the camp that thinks literature means not just ‘literary’ writing but a body of writing that is ‘good’, a cut above the rest, what would a literature of storygames look like? Must it have ‘good writing’? It seems like this can’t be as major a criteria it might be for novels or short stories. Do we say it has ‘good interaction’ and ‘good computation’? As funny as it sounds I think we do need to say that, and Jimmy’s four characteristics mentioned above (which don’t mention art assets or writing quality, incidentally) seems like a good criteria to at least start from.

The room then went to Q&A:

Q for Jimmy: Are certain [authoring] systems better suited for certain types of storygames?

Jimmy: you have to decide on the type of story you want to tell.

Q for Jimmy: about Battlechess (Jimmy referenced this in his talk), does the extra ‘fictional’ layer make this game transcend its non-storygame chess 2Dness?

Jimmy: while the animations are initially cool, I think eventually most players turn them off to just play the core game — chess. It’s an example of a mismatch between form and content.

Q for Jimmy: why doesn’t agon (conflict/competition, referenced in his talk) work for storygames?

Jimmy: a storygame can have conflict, but not two people outdoing one another.

(I’m not sure I have this exchange exactly right, as I’m pretty sure agon would be A-OK in a storygame.)

Q for Jason: Is GTA electronic literature? Is it a storygame? Or do gamers tend to focus only on the gameplay (‘Brecht is no obstacle’).

: yes, but even as you are just experiencing the gameplay, your perspective is in the game environment and you’re participating (tangentially) in the story. Critique is still possible (via the alienation effect). Yes, GTA is e-lit.

There are different modes of play, experiential, narratological, gaming the system — but good stories will bring more people in.

audience response: Genre novels can have explosions and sex (was he equating this with gameplay?!)

Q for Jason: what about Boal and his Theatre of the Oppressed?

Jason: yes, but in these single-player games you may lack the community (to make this happen).

(I wonder if there really are single-player games anymore — not the first to wonder this obviously).

Here the question and response brought back the topic of serious games, the top-down approach they often dictate, and Jason’s preference for doing this (serious stuff) from the bottom up, as in GTA, or with a game that is not explicitly intended to be a ‘serious game’ (as with GTA).

Q for Jason: (on a player choosing the role of clown/satire in GTA, a topic of Jason’s talk) — what player will actually do this? Further, how serious/bad is it that players are immersed in games such as GTA? This can be a safe way to express a particular discourse.

Jason: I think you’ld be surprised by the number of people who do it, intentionally or not, the result is a distanciation (Jason’s term I think), or hyper-mediation.

response: this could be negative as well, negative satire.

Jason: yes, however part of the process is contrasting the environment with the avatar (creating a deficit of immersion).

Q for Jimmy/Jennifer: if 2D is literary (and 3D is genre?) how does meta-fiction fit — you need to engage the 2D and the 3D, right?

Jimmy: there is a reader preference, but also look at an example like Ulysses. (I think Jimmy was saying here that Ulysses was strictly a 2D work? Though to me Ulysses contains large elements of ‘3D’, i.e. genre-riffic plot)

Jennifer: also literature doesn’t necessarily need to include narrative.

audience response: speaking from a theatre experience, Brecht is ‘dry’. I like to mix in the ‘wet’. Consider the research on mirror neurons (humans mirror experience with action). The Greeks didn’t show violence on stage. Serious games are tied to the military-industrial complex. Brecht would be rolling in his grave (at the idea of Brecht in GTA). Most people playing GTA are not satirizing/being alienated. This is game porn giving pleasure and this is problematic. “I don’t think putting your avatar in a funny hat makes it less problematic.” Do later GTAs try to address this problem (of violent content?).

violence is not the primary issue…the issue is the melting of the interface, the invisible interface and the immersion it fosters. The response is to make the interface obvious (alienation effect).

‘make the strange familiar and the familiar strange’. The scariest stuff isn’t shown, if you front-center it you take away from its aesthetic power.

response: “Brechtian’ is known as an excuse for ‘bad’. There are still players who will hack the system (e.g. ARGs). Players are self-organizing. There are ‘answerers’, people who get the answer, and people who hack for answers. There is an ethics of community answering here (I’m majorly condensing this question — I believe it was posed by Jay Bushman).

response (from Mark Marino? My notes say ‘Mark’): regarding violence in games, there often is a subtler thing missing, the question of player assertion of agency. I like ‘critical’ rather than ‘serious’ games. I like the idea of agency. Expected subversions are not really subversive (referencing Jason’s comment that satirizing your avatar in GTA is subversive, but that of course this is designed and therefore somewhat expected).

Jason: I’ll definitely think on this, but cf. with Debord, the Derive, subverting the structure and reascribing signfication.

And on that note, Friday afternoon will have to wait for another day and post.


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