March 7, 2004

Notes from Form, Culture, and Video Game Criticism

by Nick Montfort · , 2:07 am

Form, Culture, and Video Game Criticism

Princeton University
6 March 2004

“We are not here to condemn games or to defend them, but to interpret them,” Roger Bellin, of Princeton’s PhD program in English, said in introducing the conference, as he cautioned against seeking a single, hegemonic approach to games and pointed out the diversity of approaches that are represented here. This excellent conference was co-organized by Dexter Palmer; it ran quite smoothly after the one audiovisual hitch (which involved my Atari 2600 Jr.).

About 45 people were there at the very beginning of the day; the number quickly swelled to about 75. I was slated to speak first, but was shuffled into the last spot of the panel as Roger went to chase down a coaxial cable. What follows are just my notes on the conference, posted after my late-night train trip back, pretty lacking in analysis, but perhaps of some use to those who want to know what the conference was like:

Session 1: Contexts

Laurie Taylor: A Ludic Model? Smooth and Striated Space and Sid Meier’s Civilization Games. Strongly based on Deleuze and Guattari’s concepts of space, with reference to ludic space in chess and go. In Civ, space has a fluid and fragmentary nature. “Fog of war” (darkened areas) prevents perfect information. Numerous elements (different values for different “pieces”) striae space. Distinction between maps and tracings.

Jordan Hall: 540+ Polygons and the Men Who Love Them. Were Tomb Raider movies exploitative of the female image? Games were already drawn from cinematic ideas (of the male gaze) via remediation. (Resident evil considered, too.) Video games differ, though; they have gameplay. How does the game alienate male players from the female avatar? Connections to cinema via the screen (Manovich). Programmed space exists beyond the screen in games, however. Avatar almost always faces away. Lack of suture, no shot/reverse shot. Mechanisms of secondary identification. “Cinematics” as a reward; they use shot/reverse shot and suture to player to male characters. Scopophilia, fetishistic voyeurism.

Nick Montfort: Combat in Context. [The full text of the talk is available at Thanks to Hanna and Dennis for playing Combat on the main screen during my presentation.] Basics of the Atari VCS and a parodic review of Combat are related. A five-level model of analysis is introduced: 1. Platform, 2. Game code, 3. Game form, 4. Interface, 5. Reception and Operation; all are surrounded by social and cultural context. Combat is a two-player game in the context of two-player games, set the standard for the VCS. Would be anachronistic to assign a genre. VCS was designed to fit into a living room, was very difficult to program for. But the code can be understood, and explains decisions made about game form. The 27 games are truly different games. The interface is without ornament. In considering reception, play, not viewing or reading, is most important – ties to billiards rather than Tank Girl should be considered first.

Session 2: Limits

Dennis Jerz: You Are Standing at the Beginning of a Road: Examining Will Crowther’s Advent. >DENNIS The original Advent, c. 1975, had the puzzle with the rod, combat with dwarves. Handout with a December 26, 1974 vector map plot of the cave. [Helps to date Adventure, if it was later?] Quote from one player of the original about how many played at once, how Crowther didn’t want to polish the program. Information from the usual sources (Buckles, Kidder) that I cited in TLP. Quoting Mary Ann Buckles’ comment on Many objects created by Woods; Crowther had been sparing, because of caver endurance/dislike of unnecessary equipment. Other connections to caving practice. Underground role-playing of rescue was done with textual command-line experience.

Christy Wampole: Electronic Games as a Constrained Medium. A curious need to reconfigure equipment in Metal Gear Solid 2. Proposing a “Workshop for Potential Video Games.” Broader constraints and conventions (meter, chapters). “Naturally existing constraints.” Cost of production, capabilities of system, ratings. Marketing. [A long way from the Oulipo!] Art game example. Oulipo history, manifestos, lipogram. Suggested exercises: Insert character or set of characters from one game to another. Rearrange event sequences. Ports to much more primitive platforms. Cross-imposition of genre elements. Split screen with the same character in different contexts. [MOOlipo and Ad Verbum came to mind.]

Robert Bowen: Musical By-Products of Atari 2600 Games. Early 2600 games lacked background music. Generated musical sounds, allows us to consider how video games relate to musical composition. TIA had two oscillators, could only generate 2 independent voices. 16 volume gradations, 5-bit pitch (32 notes). Instruments are even fewer than specs suggest. Confines of hardware make 8-bit systems appealing, but most focus on Game Boy. Slocum’s synth cart for 2600 is the exception. Timing of sounds based on individual bits of the one-byte frame-counter clock. Sound is made musical by order is time, not pitch. Quasi-musical phrases in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Missile Command. Frequency and Amplitude provide “music minus one” interaction – complete a song. More sophisticated? Rez, closest to being a game/composition hybrid.

Session 3: Cultures

David Thomas: Video Game Vocabulary: A Lexicon of Experiential Anchors. Wants a way to describe what makes game A better than game B. Interpretation of experience important, many academic tools brought in with different vocabularies. Short proposed vocabulary on one slide, about 20 terms. All can’t be borrowed; “camera” poor because there is no camera in video games. Asteroids is on a torodial playing field; what weird camera could look at it? Space does not need to be represented as by a cinematic camera, even if it often is nowadays. Game developers don’t have all the necessary terms for critics.

Peter Bell: Hidden Play and the Identities of Mobile Video Gaming. Game Boy Advance, cell phone games, and the like in shaping one’s public image. Often considered for kids, but more adults are mobile gamers; design of devices reflect this. Walkman has been considered in social context, why not the Game Boy (the only portable to succeed)? Sony wants to make the PSP the “Walkman of the 21st Century.” Williams’ “mobile privitization.” Objects allow users to be centered personally, privately. Users deployed the Walkman strategically, are empowered and constrained to be hipsters. Mobile games make one a youth (“boy”) but phones can conceal that you’re playing.

Greg Lastowka: Virtual Crimes. Virtual words: “Computer-mediated, interactive, representational, spatial, persistent, immersive, social, avatar-mediated place.” Tolkien, Spacewar, Pong, Adventure, Atari VCS Adventure, MUD1, Habitat, LambdaMOO, ActiveWorlds, Coke Music, Ultima Online, Everquest, Dark Age of Camelot, Anarchy Online, Sims Online, ToonTown,, Second Life. Are they games? Lack quantifiable/final outcomes. If they are, they take place in an ontologically separate space and are governed by separate rules. Hilarious PKing in Ultima Online. Narratives? Williams 1982 case, player claimed he was the author. How to understand markets for virtual property? More than $3.2 million of virtual assets traded on eBay so far. It is cheating to buy virtual merchandise with real money? But it’s built in with Are you fencing if you buy stolen (hacked) virtual property?

Session 4: Reading Games

Tevis Thompson: But Our Princess is an Another Castle: Towards a “Close Playing” of Super Mario Bros. Close reading of the box back: Princess always captive, you (not Mario) must save her. Begin to understand games by actually looking, playing. Playing in game studies is like reading in literary theory. Close play is not Turkle’s “deep play,” but not surface – replay, local acts of interpretation. Uses of jumping to explore 2D space, which hasn’t been considered in the way it is traversed. Super Mario Bros. is about jumping, not saving the princess. “Mastery” of Mushroom kingdom? No, mastery of ability to jump, jumping to explore and attack, not just to evade. Can change direction in mid-jump: unrealistic, but fun. Critics should learn to use their “hand-eye.”

James Graham: The Resurgence of the Realist Art Form within the New Cartesian Theatre: Present and Future Directions. Apply an art-historical model, consider shifting meaning of “realism” in gaming. 1997: “lifelike detail and realism.” 2002: “photo realism.” CG term used generally – relative to current technological standard – but originally referred to the (paradoxical) artistic technique of recording photographic images in print. Actually does now involve photographic artifacts (lens flare, motion blue). Resolution may be a factor in how offensive art is seen to be. But Exidy’s crude Death Race game pilloried, although movie it was tied to was not. 16×9 aspect ratio may come to be used more often in games. Artistic influences in Half-Life 2, XIII and America’s Army.

Eric Hayot and Edward Wesp: More on Race and Style in Ergodic Literature. [Presented by Edward.] Aarseth argues that video games typify “ergodic literature.” Success means maintaining tension with rules. Common ploy: replace symmetrical, standard pieces of chess with Age of Kings-style choices of different pieces. Pieces have more semiotic presence than in chess, more representational, related to, e.g., the historical Byzantine Empire. Game form can shape understanding of cultures; superiority of Mongols as archers is encoded as high ability. Coercive memeticism, ethnic writers expected to write in an ethnic style. Players are disciplined to use strategies that accord with their in-game ethnicity. Racial logic, of the sort that encodes the Chinese as rapidly reproducing and able to build up their population, is even clearer in fantasy worlds where races are not real (and do not map easily).

Session 5: Game Studies

Eric Hayot and Edward Wesp: Re-presenting simulation. [Presented by Eric.] Responds to Gonzalo Frasca. Consideration of film, drama, and literary history is important for games – they aren’t ahistorical, looking at them isn’t “colonization.” Use ludological categories to look at literature. Why not, since consideration of the camera in film can help people understand novels? The approach is that of comparative media; different media foreground different aspects. Frasca’s titles announce an agon: video games vs. everything else. He doesn’t really distinguish narrative and representation. Simulation models behaviors: as a kalidescope is not an image, a simulation is not a representation. Not just “sim games”; making choices in an RPG determines a storyline. Frasca’s discussion of narrative makes it unrecognizable: supposedly, narrative can only show one choice, only give a snapshot of past events. Counterexample from Fisher’s reading of Cooper. Narrative can establish a system of rules, can teach and lead people to draw conclusions about the world. Footnote in which Frasca claims simulation and narration only differ by degree. Different perspectives will bring strength to the new discipline.

Barry Atkins: “Can I Please Reload from Last Save Game?”: Getting it Wrong (and Right) in a Nascent Discipline. “Is Game Criticism Working?” In Utrecht, attempts at grand unified theory, not much discussion of the specific pleasures of games. Huge diagrammatic definition of games by Jesper Juul, no mention of pleasure. Aarseth has led the way for game studies via Cybertext, focused on work, not play. “All Work and No Play Makes for a Dull Video Game.” Imagine Nicholson’s character in The Shining, who is incapable of the production of the aesthetic object. Players aren’t immersed in the world, but the experience of play. Answering Murray: Tetris does not enact an assembly line, but provides variation and increasing difficulty; hence it is play. “Kill the Boss.” Workers play games on corporate machines, despite play being banned by IT departments. Games cannot fire me for not completing them. Games may be a leisure practice antithetical to work. No accident that adversaries who must be overcome are “bosses.” Other play represents work, but people play games because they like it. Pleasure has to be at the heart of what we talk about.

All in All

From the final bearing and velocity, it might look like the conference was an onslought against Scandinavia, but it seemed, more importantly, to bring together a very wide variety of disciplinary perspectives and approaches in a thoughtful and thorough way.

By the way: to conference attendees who want to get in touch, and any other Grand Text Auto readers who aren’t spambots, my email is nickm followed by an at, a nickm, a dot, and a com. If you presented at the conference and your talk is online, please let me know; I’ll link it here.