Saturday, May 5, 2012

Book Review: The Meaning of Video Games by Steven E. Jones

"McGann and a number of other textual-studies scholars have been experimenting with using gamelike environments to study the interpretive universe surrounding texts; the implication is that the social text is like a game.  I simply want to suggest that the converse is also true: games are examples of the social text, and they can and should be studied in the same way Ivanhoe can be.  Games are already complex digital models of engagements with their own possibilities" (96).

Steven E. Jones' main argument for his book The Meaning of Videogames: Gaming and textual strategies is pretty much exactly what states it to be in the quotation above.  A Professor of English specializing in textual-studies, he wants to use the basic tenants of contemporary textual-studies and apply them to videogames.  Since textual studies (I've made an executive design to drop the damn hyphen) as a discipline may not be familiar to anyone reading this, I think a discussion of it might be a good place to start.

When I was doing my Masters, a class on the subject was mandatory.  It was very much the black sheep of the department course offerings.  Professors hated teaching it, and students hated taking it.  I certainly hated taking it, for example, although in this case, it's a good thing I did, since it grants me at least a basic familiarity with what Jones is talking about.  Textual-studies, or bibliographic studies, is a little off the beaten path from many forms of literary studies, even though almost everyone in the field practices it, to some extent or another.  Essentially, it's the study of everything about a book that isn't the book itself.  To illustrate, the book for the course I took was G.C. Greeetham's Textual Scholarship, and it included chapters on the history of written records, the composition of paper, the development of script, the varieties of typography, and what it means to produce a variorum edition.  And until you've read 50 pages on the difference between uncial and Caroline minuscule scripts, you do not know what boredom is.  Of course, boring doesn't mean not useful, and the histories of the technologies in play in a work allow a much better understanding of that work, and what's at stake in its connection to a historical context.

 Anyway, to get back to Jones, he's using a very specific, recent movement in textual studies.  Historically, textual studies' focus was reconstruction and preservation.  Through compilations of all the variations of a medieval manuscript, for example, a textual scholar would move backwards, weeding out all the corruptions and errors in subsequent texts until he or she reconstructed an ur-text that more closely resembles the author's original intention.  This aim run afoul in the second half of the twentieth century, however, when scholars such as Foucault and Barthes were very loudly declaring that the original version doesn't exist (or at least doesn't matter) and the final word on an issue is rarely the one the author intended to be there.  Textual scholars took up the call to arms, and Jones cites two scholars in particular as influential on the subject as it currently stands: Jerome McGann and D. F. McKenzie.  In one form or another, the two both argued  that a wider definition of text was needed, one that took into account the variations and considered them not as corruptions or replications, but as texts that also stem from a unique and important social text.  What that means when applied to videogames is that they can't be considered purely in terms of the game mechanics, the player interaction, or the designers' intentions.  Rather, all three of these need to be considered, in juxtaposition with the game's larger social history.

After presenting this premise, Jones spends the rest of the book pursuing it, with each chapter of the book furthering it in the context of some specific game or game-like thing.  Chapter 1 is on Lost, the TV show.  Not only is it game-like (the characters go on quests, the puzzle of something like the hatch is a game-like mystery) and it calls (well, called) for its fans to treat it as if it was a game, a sort of ARG they discuss and theorize.  The theoretical approach he applies here is Gerard Genette's notion of paratext, which can be loosely considered anything that shapes the reader's interpretation of a main text. (Mia Consalvo also uses the notion of paratext extensively in regards to videogames, in her book Cheating.)   A movie trailer is a paratext for a movie (both the movie it advertises and the movie it appears before), and so is the fan forum discussing the film--as well as the composition of the audience viewing the film.  In terms of Lost's paratext, Jones considers the novel by fictional Lost character Gary Troup, the ARG Lost Experience, and the fan interaction.    Chapter 2 is on Katamari Damacy, a game that has a little boy gathering up balls of junk so that his father, King of All Cosmos, can turn them into stars.  Jones' argument for this game is that is that it parodies and glorifies the gamer acts of fan participation and collecting.  The theory in this case is Walter Benjamin's discussion on collecting, that those who once collected artifacts for those unique auras are now forced to fetishize collection, since objects are now interchangeable and mechanically reproduced.  Katamari Damacy is a parody of that fetishized collecting, but one that presents it not as something to be considered seriously, but a form of play.

Chapter 3 is on the Halo universe, and once again, it's a discussion of paratext.  Only a small fraction of Halo players bothered with the ARG for Halo 2, I Love Bees.  But Jones argues that it's things like I Love Bees that demonstrate best how Halo is more than just a videogame; it's a cultural artifact without discrete boundaries that exists in multiplayer matches, game interviews, scholarly discourse, ARGs, novelizations, comic books, and other videogames, from Space Invaders to its current contemporaries.  Jones' "theory" for this chapter is a mash of various game scholars, including Jane McGonigal (who deserves no small amount of credit here, considering she led the team that designed I Love Bees), popular culture scholar Henry Jenkins, and others ranging from Jesper Juul to Ian Bogost to McKenzie Wark.  Chapter 4 is on a lesser known game (in gamer circles, not game studies circles), Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern's Facade, a game where the definition of game is questionable, as it's just you, interacting with a NPC couple that have invited you over drinks.  The big theoretical text here is Janet Murray's Hamlet on the Holodeck, and, following her dramaturgical argument, Jones argues that games should be considered more like the performances of a play, in that every performance is a little different, and no script captures the complete nuance of the experience. 

Chapter 5 is not on a game, but a platform, as Jones considers the newly launched (well, new when the book came out) Wii.  Somewhat briefer than the other chapters, Jones here argues that the Wii needs to be studied not just in context with the hardware it possesses in comparison to its contemporaries, but also the culture Nintendo created for the Wii, positioning it as a system that was for everyone, of all ages and genders, not just the "hardcore" gamers that most systems at the time seemed to cater towards.  The theoretical comparison here is a little odd (even for this book), as Jones compares the development of the Wii to the Jerome McGann's study of 19th century gift-book annuals for young British women in the first half of the 19th century.  The final chapter is on Spore, a game which hadn't even been released when Jones had written the chapter.  As such, Jones focuses on its projected intentions and the incredible amount of fan fervor generated by these intentions (and as someone who wasn't/never was that interested in Spore, I can confirm, I can still remember the enormous hype machine the game prompted).  He closes the book with the argument that what Spore does is create a space for exploring interesting possibilities, and in this sense, perhaps it's time for textual studies to take a page from videogames.

As a bit of a digression, one of the questions that is perennially asked in game studies classes I've taken is "how much of a game do have to play before you're qualified to write scholarly papers on it?".  It's not an easy question.  With a book, you'd probably want to finish it.  But a game such as Mass Effect can take 40+ hours to reach the ending, if you do all the sidequests.  And that's not counting the multiple choices and paths the game can take.  Other games, such as SimCity, have no ending at all, but a player's perspective after playing it for an hour is very different from the one who's played it 10 hours--which is different again from the one who played it 100 hours.  An MMO changes radically based on when you play it--it's a very different thing to have played Everquest when it was first launched as compared to a week before its servers were stopped.  Personally, my answer to question is "you've played enough when you've decided you've played enough for what you want to talk about," but I appreciate other circumstances might require other approaches.  Considering the book at hand, though,  Jones answered the question with the smallest amount of time possible, dedicating a chapter to a game he never played at all.  Such an approach plays up his own argument, which is on the relevance of the culture and hype surrounding a game, and how it starts long before the release of the game itself.  I felt, however, that when discussing what the game could potentially be, he was going a step too far, trying to comment on the hype surrounding Spore, while at the same time, perpetuating that hype through his own predictions.  One of the worst indulgences of game studies--and new media studies in general--is a tendency to be so focused on the artifacts we want to exist that we ignore what does, and Jones comes close to that here.

  That seems like a good segue to start into my negative feelings regarding the book.  Coming from an English background, I'm not much of a ludologist.  But if I was, I'd hate this book.  It's the quintessential example of subjecting game studies to outside perspectives, in this case, saying game studies amounts to little more than a form of textual studies, only not done as well.  In his defense, Jones' scholarship demonstrated in the book clearly shows he's more than a lit scholar "slumming" in videogames, and even if he is more textual studies than game studies, it shouldn't detract from his argument.  But at the same time, if you're going to argue that paratext is important, then the paratext for this book is textual scholarship and encroaching disciplines, and I think that game studies can be more open to paratext without necessarily becoming involved with textual studies (again, see Mia Consalvo).  This connects tangentially to my other complaint of the book, its organization, or lack thereof, which doesn't help with the feeling that Jones is a scholar dabbling in game studies.  I recently finished Alexander Galloway's Essays on Algorithmic Culture, and one of my criticisms was that the book wasn't really a unified discussion, but four rather separate ones (which, to be fair, is an intention signalled rather plainly in the book's title).  Jones' book doesn't have that problem; the basic argument is consistent throughout.  It's hard to argue that there's much progression of that argument, though, as it's all pretty much encapsulated in that quotation above, and that comes about midpoint through the book.  And the individual chapters themselves are rather scattered.  Take the one on Katamari Damacy--it's about the game, and collecting, and Benjamin, but it's also about otaku culture, eBay, D. B. Weiss' Lucky Wander Boy, and the flaneur.  Jones does very well to keep everything together, but the connections do feel a little arbitrary at times (chapter on Wii and 19th century gift books, I'm looking at you.)

If those criticisms sound half-hearted and nit-picking, that's because they are.  Jones' basic premise is that we should study videogames without isolating them, and I'm behind that sentiment wholeheartedly.  I would argue that we sometimes need to focus on just the formal elements or just the social aspects of a game for the sake of the unity of discussion, but the larger context should always be acknowledged in some form.  And I have to say, I did love Jones' choice of games and game-like objects; it was an excellent mix of popular forms and more auteur artifacts.  I'd recommend the book to those who don't mind a more esoteric approach, and those who are interested in the paratext that surround the social milieu of videogames.

Later Days.

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