Abstracts 2009

Under the Mask Abstracts - 2009

  1. Maria Bäcke (Blekinge Institute of Technology, Karlskrona, Sweden) Neko Culture in Second Life
  2. Alessandro Canossa (IO Interactive / Denmark Design School, Denmark) Towards a Theory of the Player: Designing for Experience
  3. Giovanni Caruso and Mauro Salvador (University of Bologna, Italy) The Dilated Fruition: Video game and Movie Produsers
  4. Alec Charles (University of Bedfordshire, UK) Playing with one’s self: the illusion of agency in the video game
  5. Steven Conway (University of Bedfordshire, UK) A Circular Wall?: Reformulating the Fourth Wall for Videogames
  6. Vicente Diaz Gandasegui (University of Glamorgan, UK) Spectators of videogame
  7. Jessica Enevold & Charlotte Hagström (Lund University, Sweden) Time to Play: Ethnographic Perspectives on Mothers’ Digital Gaming
  8. Philip Lin (University of Westminster, UK) The Military-Entertainment-Complex-“Me”: Exploring Global Gamers’ Identities and Agency in the War/Military Videogame Genre
  9. Esther MacCallum-Stewart (University of East London, and an associate lecturer at the University of Chichester, UK) The Right Stuff; defining 'good' play amongst MMORPG communities
  10. Brendan Main (Brendan Main, Trent University, Canada) Pod People and Swappable Selves: On the Buying and Selling of Avatar
  11. Souvik Mukherjee and Jenna Pitchford (Nottingham Trent University, UK) Shall We Kill the Pixel Soldier? : Perceptions of Trauma, Morality and Violence in Combat Videogames
  12. Adrienne Shaw (University of Pennsylvania, USA) Peliharrastaja, or what gaming in Finland can tell us about gaming in general
  13. Gavin Stewart (University of Bedfordshire, UK) Paratexts: What Lessons Can We Learn From Inanimate Alice and Corporate ARGs

Maria Bäcke

Neko Culture in Second Life

Based on as sources as varying as for instance Japanese manga fiction, Egyptian mythology, Batman’s Catwoman, the musical Cats and conceptions of what “cats are like,” the Neko culture has become one of the most visible subcultures in Second Life. The cat-inspired avatars look like hybrids of female-shaped humans and cats, with cat’s ears, tails and, less often, whiskers and cat skins in various colours. Wearing urban street fashion or perhaps Japanese school girl uniforms, these Second Life residents live out the fantasy of who they might have been had they been born as felines, or perhaps they only gather strength from idea of the individuality and independence of the cat.

Neko is the Japanese word for cat, and the origin of the Japanese Neko community is primarily the 2002 movie “The cat returns,” which tells the story of a schoolgirl being abducted by the prince of the “Cat Kingdom.” Before the shotgun wedding she begins to transform into a cat, but before the transformation is complete she is rescued and the girl is left in human form but with the addition of cat’s ears and a tail. The movie inspired a large number of fans to dress and act like the schoolgirl. Using sources such as blogs, forum discussions and interviews I intend to study the Nekos in Second Life as a form of fan culture, which has been imported into the Western cultural sphere and, while retaining its Japanese name, been transformed both by Western examples of “cat people” and its incorporation into the Second Life community.

Alessandro Canossa

Towards a theory of the Player: Designing for Experience

This paper provides a sketch of a theory of the player drawing from psychological personality theories (Assagioli’s Psychosynthesis), neurophysiologic studies (Damasio and Pert) and previous work on player’s theory with the purpose of tracing a functional procedure for designing gameworlds. I will make use of the concept of sub-personalities to show how potentially, all player-types coexist within the implied player. Once player types are individuated I intend to show how a “flow” path for each one of them can be planned and included during the design phase of gameworlds.

Giovanni Caruso and Mauro Salvador

The Dilated Fruition: Video game and Movie Produsers

Little Big Planet (SCEI, 2008) is the best example of latest generation video games based on audience content production. Its gameplay makes possible the overlapping of author and gamer. To analyze this connection we choose a comparison between Cinema and Video games because both their audiences have grown more and more aware of themselves and act as produsers in a similar way. Walking on this path is problematic: talking about author and spectator as one figure would force us to revise the enunciation theories conceived for Cinema. Furthermore, the work on interpretation is not the center of the video game experience. Thus, the unavoidable choice is to focus on pure empirical fruition and all the connected border activities. These issues allow us to introduce the paragon among gamers and viewers as well as the rise of a new idea of author, similar to the one emerged from Be Kind Rewind (Gondry, 2006). In Cinema, the new movie-goer reads about the film before the vision; he works on it, comments it on-line, dubs it, reassembles it, re-shoots it. He demonstrates to possess new practical competences. The last generation video gamer challenges softwares that allow him to edit and share parts of the game. As for cinema spectator, the gamer recall the figure of an expert who owns and blends all his abilities to produce contents, showing a ludic involvement, both cultural and emotional, with media products.

Alec Charles

Playing with one’s self: the illusion of agency in the video game

In his discussion of hot and cool media in Understanding Media (1964), Marshall McLuhan writes that “in reading a detective story the reader participates as co-author.” McLuhan’s sense of a mode of textuality which invites co-authorship is very different from that advanced by Roland Barthes in his depiction of the ‘double sign’ in Mythologies (1957), his elucidation of the scriptible text in S/Z (1970) and his celebration of ‘The Death of the Author’ (1968). We might therefore usefully distinguish Barthes’s sense of co-authorship from McLuhan’s. Barthes’s scriptibilité recognizes that (despite the implications of the gerund) the subject of meaning is not sited in intention but in interpretation (that to mean is not, after all, to intend but to interpret). Developing arguments implied by Wimsatt and Beardsley’s ‘Intentional Fallacy’ (1946), Barthes’s position anticipates Stuart Hall’s notion that the act of decoding a text may not be the inverse-yet-equivalent to the process of its encoding – but may encompass negotiation with, or opposition to, the dominant meanings privileged by the sense of authorship. Barthes announces that interpretation is a creative act – no, more so, that it is the creative act. By contrast, McLuhan’s sense of the detective story’s capacity to invoke co-authorship seems utterly illusory: the reader of the detective story does not invent new pathways of interpretation, does not rewrite the text, but follows the trail of clues and red herrings which the author has laid down. One might advance similar diagnoses of those populist modes of mass cultural creation which (as Adorno, Horkheimer and Chomsky might have it) have been dumbing us down for generations. Like the TV game show, the detective novel gives us the illusion of active participation – an illusion of significance which (in Althusser’s term) interpellates its audience. We might therefore add a third category to Roland Barthes’ classification of scriptible and lisible texts: the pseudo-scriptible text which proclaims its openness to interactivity – which gives its user the illusion of meaning, power and agency, and which, in appearing to satisfy its audience’s desire for agency, in fact sublimates and dissolves that desire. The pseudo-scriptible text is thus significantly more reactionary (and influential) than the lisible. Offering a vicariously illusory mode of agency and liberation, it is perhaps obvious enough that the videogame appears to fall into this category.

Steven Conway

A Circular Wall?: Reformulating the Fourth Wall for Videogames

Within videogame culture there are many references to famous breaks of the fourth wall; Psycho Mantis' reading of the memory card in Metal Gear Solid, X-Men's use of the Sega Megadrive's reset button, Startropics' use of the letter packaged with the game, and so on.

Though always cited as brilliant breaks of the fourth wall, this paper contends that such "breakages", and numerous others, are not breaking the fourth wall at all; "breaking" implies the shattering of the suspension of disbelief, the acknowledgement of the audience or ostensible self-referentiality.

The hypothesis of this paper is a new conception of the "fourth wall" in game-specific terms, as instead expansions and contractions of Huizinga's magic circle. Expansions of the magic circle occur when the "synthetic world" of the game expands beyond the screen, encompassing the technological apparatus of the console/PC or the paratexts packaged with the game, so that the console, memory card, controller, or game manual momentarily become part of the game. Contractions occur when the magic circle "shrinks" behind the display, for example Sonic tapping his knuckles on the screen, or the game faking a crash in Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem.

In unpacking and re-conceiving the notion of the fourth wall in gamic terms, this paper hopes to provide a valuable analytical perspective on the use of these expansions and contractions by developers, players, and the wider gaming culture. In doing so, we gain not only a deeper understanding of the videogame medium, but also a further insight into the unique relationship between player and game.

Vicente Diaz Gandasegui

Spectators of Videogame

Cinema and videogames are analogous audiovisual mediums that share the aim of entertaining the spectator/player and also reflect, in some sense, the beliefs, fears and value system of the society in which they were created. In the last few years both mediums have tended to converge, not only in their aesthetics and arguments, but also in their economic ambitions and conventions. Films have adopted the visual narrative of videogames as it is possible to observe in The Matrix (Wachowski and Wachowski, 1999) and Run Lola Run (Tykwer, 1998) and videogames are adopting cinematic narratives as in Grand Theft Auto and other First Person Shooter games.

New technological and digital imagery is continually being discovered and investigated, and the concept of interactive and personalised films, in which every spectator will have their individual film ‘built’ to his requirements, is no longer science fiction. Therefore, if we wish to explore the future of cinema we should look to the videogames industries and the possibility of accessing virtual/alternative worlds where responsibilities are reduced to a minimum, boredom is eliminated and satisfaction maximised.

Hybrid forms of films and videogames have been explored recently with the apparition of machinima, games that are recorded and dubbed, providing a new film language not restricted by the real world. The boundaries in the virtuality of the games and the future of the interaction in cinema become clear with the physicality of the interfaces, something that video consoles such as Wii are reducing with the virtual/real connection of the player and the avatar. Thus, the challenge for the future is to create a connection between technology and the nervous system as Cronenberg illustrated in eXistenZ (1999).

Jessica Enevold & Charlotte Hagström

Time to Play: Ethnographic Perspectives on Mothers’ Digital Gaming

Today an increasingly large and diverse audience spends more and more time and money on computer games. Gameplay, whether it is raiding online in World of Warcraft, an evening of Singstar in the living room with friends, or a daily dose of Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Training on the Nintendo DS while commuting home from work, has become part of the everyday life of millions of people regardless of age, sex and background. Play and everyday life combine in new exciting ways with new patterns of communication, interaction and behaviours emerging as a result.

But different players play under different conditions. Their life situation restricts and defines their possibilities to when, where and for how long they are able or allowed to play. This paper focuses on the relation between time and play for a specific category of players: mothers. Part of an ongoing project, Gaming Moms: Juggling Time, Play, and Everyday Life, it centres on how mothers integrate play in family life and which constrains and conflicts their gaming may lead to. How does gaming influence, change and organize adult women’s and their families’ everyday life? What happens when the mother, in popular gaming discourse often represented as a person, who either guards or supports the play of her children, is a gamer herself? The paper is based on interviews with mothers who play, on questionnaires and studies of media discourses.

Philip Lin

The Military-Entertainment-Complex-“Me”: Exploring Global Gamers’ Identities and Agency in the War/Military Videogame Genre

The last few years have witnessed the rise of videogames featuring wars and civil conflicts. More and more academic attention has been given to this fast-growing new media phenomenon. After Poniewozik and Cagle introduced the term ‘militainment’ in the 2002 Time magazine, the following documentary ‘Militainment, Inc: Militarism and Popular Culture’ in 2007 produced by Stahl then officially announced to the world – that today war has taken its place in the culture as an entertainment spectacle. The war/military videogames, as a representation of the entertainment spectacle, are defined as distributed by the neo-liberal media to both western and non-western audiences through the complex global information network (Thussu 2007).

Although so much has been said about the current global entertainment culture as a consequence of Americanization and neo-liberal imperialism, there are still some gaps that need to be filled in our understanding in audiences’ interaction and engagement in various new media content. As more war and military videogames are produced today given references to this new wave of global gaming culture, what is the relationship between gamers and war/military games in reality, and how do gamers respond to this particular genre with their own participation and experiment? In this regard, my research project examines the global war/military videogame players in relation to the issues of content, genre and industrial practices of this so-called military-entertainment-complex.

Esther MacCallum-Stewart

The Right Stuff; defining 'good' play amongst MMORPG communities

Over the last few years online worlds have become a growing part of the virtual landscape. The development of MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games) has also helped give credence to the idea that online spaces can support valid social communities. Having proved that these communities exist, scholars are now at a point where they must decide whether these communities are in fact, no different to those in the 'real' world.

What is it, if anything, that makes gaming communities stand out? This paper looks at the ways that players relate to each other, in particular how they deal with deviant play, and how they contextualise this within game narratives. In particular, the ways that players use the rules and narratives of each game, and the paradoxes that these structures create is investigated. With multiple sets of rules and codes of behaviour available to the player, as well as the formation of thought communities that often shield them from alternative beliefs, MMORPGs are rife with social tension. Players appear to use a series of different social codes when they justify their behaviour, borrowing from the different rules sets available according to their need. Often, this results in a strange amalgam of criteria determining, for example, whether a player is considered socially useful or able to play ‘well’. These determinants often cross-pollinate personal experience, high diction gleamed from the games’ internal narratives (after Fussell: 1975), and an assumption of the codes of conduct stated by the game providers themselves. They are not necessarily accurate or even logical.

In order to contextulise this, the paper looks briefly at how players express and argue through these ideas. Like fan communities (Jenkins), players wish to appropriate the text of the MMORPG for themselves, reinscribing it according to their own conceptions. However, whereas fans must usually do this away from the source, in MMORPGs, they are able to discuss the text as they play it out. Thus fans actively work upon the text in a much broader context, and their discussions are often visible to large amounts of people within the game. If all players also consider themselves as fans, then how does this affect the perception of the text itself.

Finally, the paper concludes by summarising the role do the shifting narratives of game, quest and player. It asks the question formed from these observations - are online societies really any different from 'real' ones, or are they simply the same rules in a different context?

Brendan Main

Pod People and Swappable Selves: On the Buying and Selling of Avatar

This paper examines the extent to which player reactions to characters illicitly ‘purchased’ and ‘sold’ for play in MMOGs differs fundamentally from attitudes towards other sorts of permissible character modification. Presenting a brief history of the selling of characters online, from eBay’s refusal to host the sale of virtual characters to actions taken by companies such as Blizzard Entertainment to control this practice, and examining the ways in which these practices complicate and undermine notions of ‘player’ in these games, this ‘body trade’ is shown to represent a central ambivalence of virtual interactions – the threat that we are not who we seem.

As every change made to players’ avatars may be understood as a modification, the act of selling and buying characters online might be framed within a context of modified selves. However, where other, permitted processes of purchased modification such as the “premium content” of the free-to-play Maple Story are seen as legitimizing and authentic acts, the purchasing and selling previously-played characters is widely rejected as alien and inauthentic.

By breaking from assumptions that frame the virtual body as organic, gradual and contiguous, these acts of character swapping belie notions of a harmonious union of player and character. These cases ultimately reflect upon questions of player identity – when illicit characters are introduced to MMOGs, it is inevitably the players themselves who are decried as inauthentic.

This study is founded in the theories of Herve Fisher concerning ‘digital shock’ and Mark Hansen’s ideas on avatars in virtual environments, and its analysis is grounded in Barthesean semiotics.

Souvik Mukherjee and Jenna Pitchford

Shall We Kill the Pixel Soldier? : Perceptions of Trauma, Morality and Violence in Combat Videogames

It felt like I was in a big video game. It didn't even faze me, shooting back. It was just natural instinct. Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!

Sgt. Sinque Swales quoted in The Washington Post

Sergeant Swales’ comment provides an easy link from the so-called moral desensitisation of soldiers in the 2003 Iraq War to their experience of videogame combat, an apparent connection that is eagerly picked up on by Western media. Videogame criticism, surprisingly distancing itself from contemporary challenges to the notion of media effects, persists in conflating the technologically-mediated experience of the Gulf War with the increasingly face-to-face interaction in recent Middle-Eastern conflicts. Contemporaneous accounts have compared the Gulf War to the electronic experience of ‘a child playing atari’; despite vast developments in gaming, commentators still contend that ‘thus far, games have avoided engaging the real-life issues to which they are responding’. A key issue that games are accused of avoiding is that of combat trauma. Contrary to such positions, many videogames already simulate the trauma in their gameplay experience; this paper will explore this concept from Laura Brown's definition of trauma as ‘outside the range of human experience’. This evokes recent work in games studies on in-game involvement and identity-formation. It also opens up further questions against ignoring the role of morality in gameplay, especially in multiplayer interaction in combat games like Counter-Strike, Call of Duty 4 and America's Army. Working from these hitherto overlooked aspects of trauma in gameplay experiences, our analyses challenge the oversimplified association of videogames with the desensitisation of US troops in recent conflicts, and by extension, with wider issues of violence.

Adrienne Shaw

Peliharrastaja, or what gaming in Finland can tell us about gaming in general

This paper is based on a case study of gamers conducted in Finland in July and August of 2008. Over the course of two weeks I conducted 16 interviews as well as participant observation at Assembly, Finland’s largest gaming festival, and at video games stores in Tampere and Helsinki. Interviewees included gamers, game researchers, and game designers (though in all cases about their personal game play). In this paper I interrogate the boundaries of “gaming culture,” the theoretical, methodological and cultural differences between “gaming culture” and “games in culture,” and the interrelated issues of identity, identification and representation.

As in my previous studies with marginalized gamers, there was little desire for a distinctly “Finnish” video game representation. This, as in early studies, was understood in terms of economic audience value as well as an assertion that such inclusion needed to matter to game-play for it to be a valuable addition. The level to which Finnishness “mattered” in games was related to the distinction between “gaming culture” and “games in culture.” Moreover, the role of identification in relation to questions of representation was also addressed in my interviews, specifically by demonstrating how complicated an issue it is. Finally I elaborate on two major difficulties in studying audiences and the desire for representation. First, that it is easier to describe what is problematic in representations that do exist than it is to imagine what might be possible. Second, identities are not stable and fixed over time, and neither is identification.

Gavin Stewart

Paratexts: What Lessons Can We Learn From Inanimate Alice and Corporate ARGs

In developing his model of the role played by publisher’s apparatus in the reception of printed literature, Gerard Genette described a largely stable, binary account in which these paratexts provide a threshold of interpretation to the main text. However, in applying this concept to cheating in commercial videogames, Mia Consalvo provides a more agonistic model of paratexts in which forums, cheat texts and walk-through challenge the authority the games they describe. This paper will explore this agonistic relationship further by turning to paratexts associated with ludic texts with non- game industry economic models, including recent examples of digital fiction and ARGs. It will use these peripheral examples to explore the relationship between their economic status and instability of their text/paratext relationship. It will then explore the issues arising out of this instability of this binary to argue for a rethinking of the position of the magic circle in games studies.