Category Archives: Essays

Projective embodiment in Videogames and Digital Spaces

Brothers_header_601x232This article argues that gaming is an embodied phenomenon which is distributed across multiple conceptual domains. Videogames are, as Gee notes, “’action-and-goal-directed preparations for, and simulations of, embodied experience’” (23)[1]. However, gaming is more than just what happens on screen. It is a highly mediated experience (the screen sits between that player and the game) in which the player straddles two worlds. They simultaneously exist in the ‘virtual’ world as their character on the screen as well as in the ‘real’ world as they press buttons and manipulate the interface of the game. Indeed, Juul argues that playing a game is a “dual structure” in which “the actions we perform have the duality of being real events and being assigned another meaning within the fictional world” (141)[2]. Thus, when I click the mouse, I perform a real world action (moving my finger to press the button) as well as a symbolic action in-game (moving a character or selecting an item). Whereas Gee was primarily interested in what happens between the player’s head (mind) and the screen, I intend to examine embodiment across this dual structure of physical/virtual experience—that is, not just in the game but in the game play.

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Visual Analysis Toolkit (Short Version)

There is an earlier draft of this analysis as well that goes a little deeper into the theory, though it has changed since I originally wrote it. I’m also working on a longer, revised version that fleshes out my thinking based on all the feedback I’ve received. This version is what will appear in the GLS 9.0 proceedings. In short, there are many versions of this theory and the joy of digital media is that you can watch me draft and revise publicly. I love the future.

This paper provides a methodology for analyzing the visual elements of videogames, and in particular how those elements can help players understand the contexts of the game and prepare them to act within it. Visual elements help orient players to the mechanics of the game (what they do) and to the stories they enact (why they are doing it and how). There is a risk in isolating visual elements from other modes of meaning-making in games, as gameplay is about how these modes work together to make the meaning of the game possible. However, this analysis considers how the visual elements point towards these other modes, how the game cues players in how to interpret and act, and how to use the visual features to “do” the game. Building on a framework developed by Serafini (2010), this methodology for visual analysislooks across several interrelated features: the representational and orientational elements within the game screen; structures and conventions called upon; and ideological choices and frames used by the designers in creating the game and by players when interpreting and enacting that design. If, as Serafini suggests, we think of these as nested layers within a sphere, then the outermost level is the ideological frame, the middle is the structural and conventional frame, and the innermost is the representational elements or “noticings”; we look inward through ideologies, through conventions, at the “noticings,” which reflect back to us those other features. It is important to understand that the boundaries between layers is porous; conventions are certainly ideologically motivated; color is both a semiotic structure (Kress and van Leeuwen, 2002) as well as a noticeable element. These features blend into each other and isolating them is useful only in the most abstract deconstruction. In the everyday world players experience these things simultaneously and as compound meaning-potentials.

The work of meaning: Orientation and Preparation

Gameplay is about the mechanics of play, about  Continue reading

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How to Look at Videogames: Three Perspectives

WoW - Visual - Crop - 600

What we need is a grammar of understanding, a way of describing how meaning making occurs in and around videogames. We’ve already made some progress across various disciplines and discourses, from design and art theory to cultural studies and educational applications. Often these approach games by examining what they mean. I care less about what videogames mean than how they mean it. I’ll leave meanings to critics; I care about the ways they mean, the perceptual features, the structures that support the creation of meaning. These are questions which inform both the making and playing of games. Indeed, I feel strongly that questions of meaning serve as a unifying space for both ends of videogames, design and play. Often it’s easy to treat these as wholly separate dimensions, where play is simply an emergent property of the design of the game, or where players interact with a “text” that comes pre-packaged and is simply decoded. I think this stems not from ignorance of the interdependent nature of design and play but in issues of access: critics from either dimension often lack effective ways to interact with and interrogate what the “other side” is doing, from the actual process of design and development to the multitudes of ways to play. Instead, it is far more productive to conceive of games as both designed and enacted.

This is why I feel how meaning happens (or doesn’t) is so important: it provides a more robust vocabulary across the practices of making games and enacting them. Continue reading

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Seeing Action: A Visual Analysis of World of Warcraft

High-level character view

The view of a high-level character in combat as part of a group of other players

Amid the flashes and the thrills of a videogame, something profound happens: a player comes to the game and together, they collaboratively create an experience (Holmes 2004). While this is true of any media to varying degrees (indeed, all phenomena are ultimately “experienced” and therefore interpreted, a co-creation of event and experience), a videogame is a unique text, for in a videogame the player is a necessary actor through which the game “happens.” Most analyses of a videogame must confront this fundamental circumstance: that the player and the game interact. Certainly, the notion of interactivity is unsettled and contested (see Gee, 2010; Turkle, 1995; Aarseth, 1997; Juul, 2005, and Wilson, 2004 for an example of the variety of interpretations). For the purpose of this analysis, I define interactivity as the condition through which the player controls certain events within the game world, and that this world informs the choices made by the gamer. So, a player uses an interface (actually, several—physical as well as conceptual) to influence the outcome of the afforded design of the game; and, depending on how previous actions affect the game world, the player then uses this interface to make additional choices, and the cycle repeats.

What are these interfaces, and how do they make the game possible? Continue reading

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Hunting for Identity: Community, Performance, and the Curious Case of the Huntard in World of Warcraft

The hunter marked her prey and crept closer, careful not to alert her enemy to her presence. She had followed the same tactics for hundreds of battles and honed her skills: send in her faithful hunting pet first to attack, let loose her array of arrows and traps, run away if the enemy came too close and—above all—try not to die. Now, it was her first chance to fight alongside friends and allies, who had invited her to battle alongside them, and she was eager to show off her skills. No one had made a move yet, so she decided she would try to kill the enemy first, to be the hero, to show how powerful she was, and how valuable to the group. She sent her pet in, waited a few seconds, and fired her own shots. She expected a quick kill—they had almost always been that way so far, after all—but it did not come. Instead, other nearby enemies noticed the commotion and joined the fray, swarming the allies and sending them scattering and shouting. In the chaos and confusion, she watched her companions die before being overwhelmed herself. As the dust settled, the recriminations began, chastising her, mocking her, calling her names: “huntard” they shouted, then kicked her from their group and far away into a another place in the world, with wounded pride and little confidence, left wondering: what had happened? Why had her companions abandoned her? What had she done wrong?

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