Friday, December 2, 2011

Book Review: Tomb Raiders and Space Invaders by Geoff King and Tanya Krzywinska

“Realism might, in one sense, be intended to create a relatively transparent effect, based on not drawing attention to the deficits in the level of representation achievable in the playable parts of games, or reducing somewhat the gap between visual resolution of the game and audio-visual media such as film and television. But it also offers what can often be termed a 'spectacle' of realism: degrees of graphical realism that are flaunted and designed to be admired as striking or impressive images in their own right. As a form of spectacle of this kind, as in other respects, realism can be a source of appeal in the realms of either real-world reference or more outright fantasy.” --Tomb Raiders and Space Invaders by Geoff King and Tanya Krzywinska.

Every time I finish a book on video game theory, I feel obligated to write a review of it, for posterity's sake, if for no other reason. And so, we come to Tomb Raiders and Space Invaders: Videogame Forms and Contexts by Geoff King and Tanya Krzywinska. Published in 2005, this book has had a relatively modest (to be generous) effect on videogame scholarship as a whole. And that's a shame, because while many of its claims are a little too widely accepted to be really innovative, and its organization could use some refinement, in general, Tomb & Space (my oh-so-clever shorthand) has some very useful ideas on subjects such as immersion and realism.

The book starts with a very brief introduction that establishes a continuity between the two title games, then segues into the authors' main argument: that games need to be studied in terms of both their gameplay and their wider context. Again, not exactly an approach that is very controversial, but their dedication to the stance throughout the book is admirable. The first and longest chapter is loosely on explicitly that subject: gameplay and its context. More specifically, they cover a very wide variety of subject matter. It starts with some definitions of gameplay and games, taking some well known definitions from Johan Huizinga and Roger Callois. The play vs. game notion is explored in some detail, with the conclusion that play occurs within a system, allowing them segue nicely into the next topic, how games function in larger cultural contexts. This leads them to examine gameplay in terms of hooks that motivate the player, and a very thorough discussion of the concept of flow, as defined by the commonly cited Mihaly Csikczentmilhalyi. That leads to the official discussion of game context, with a discussion on how games draw on common cultural narrative frameworks and genres, such as the quest motif or the fantasy setting. In general, they argue, this setting helps with establishing immersion, though it tends to disappear from attention once that flow is established. (Jesper Juul argues something very similar in his book Half-Real.) To put their work in context with the narratology/ludology debate (is a videogame a system of rules or a story?), they're essentially arguing that while games vary greatly, in general, narrative is used as a secondary element, but a really important secondary element. And its effect depends on the background of the player as much as the game itself. And that's chapter one. Yes, that's all chapter one.

Chapter 2 examines the notion of gamespace, and how a game offers the player opportunities for exploration and presence. The amount of freedom offered in a game vvaries greatly; on a most basic level, there's the range from the single screen representation (Pac-Man) to fully 3D worlds (Mario 64). There are hard boundaries, which are impassable, often invisible, boundaries in the game world, as well as soft boundaries, which are temporary, and used to direct player's progress (ie. you need a key to open a door in Tomb Raider.) There's also a variety of navigational aids, ranging from game maps to NPC advice to the presence of enemies. Familiarity with game space is a form of knowledge that can be leveraged for power in game communites, especially for players in MMO games (online games such as World of Warcraft). That brings us to presence. They distinguish between perceptual and psychological immersion--particularly, the closer the presence in the game world, the greater the perceptual immersion, the feeling that the player is actually there. Thus, a game in first person view is more perceptually immersive than an overhead view. But because you can't see behind you in a such a game, it would be harder to play, which creates frustration, which disrupts the psychological immersion, or flow, as it was defined last chapter. It's one of the many useful distinctions that King and Krzywinska make, one that I can't recall being made elsewhere. The chapter covers other issues of presence as well: sound, camera control, player death, and HUD (head's up display--the information the game presents on screen), concluding the chapter with a brief section on how, following Kendall Walton, we turn games into objects that enable imaginary play, and thus psychological immersion may be more significant than sensory immersion.

Chapter 3 is the one most useful to my own work, a chapter on realism, spectacle, and sensation. Here's another handy distinction: the authors distinguish between visual realism, which is how closely the graphics resemble the real world, and functional realism, which is how closely the gameplay resembles the real world (ie. an enemy combatant dies with a single head shot, or the player character has to eat regularly). Much of game design and commercial promotion revolves around claims of superior graphics, but the authors note that it's not so much real-world versimilitude that's being pursued, but accepted mediated versions of the real world. For example, a sports game doesn't present the game as experienced in real life so much as how it's experienced through TV cameras. And the functional realism has to maintain a balance--familiar enough that we can relate it to the real life equivalent, but not so identical that it's as difficult as its real-life equivalent. Think Guitar Hero--it presents playing a guitar, but a simplified, less difficult version. Finally, there's a brief section on spectacle, and how games use various forms of spectacle--expansive vistas, big explosions, dizzying sequences--to direct player experience.

The fourth and final chapter examines games within cultural and political contexts. After briefly mentioning overt political games such as Frasca's September 12th, they take a broader approach, noting that games follow conventional Western notions of the power of the individual, the evils of science amok and shadowy corporations, and a hodgepodge of myths cribbed from various cultures, especially fantasy. Character representation tends towards reinforcing white masculine fears. The female heroine straddles a line (a very familiar line, in video game arguments) between empowerment and sex object. And race is almost erased entirely, with few games allowing any focus on racial difference in their protagonist.

The above covers the "visual" part of the ideological context; the rest of the chapter looks at ideology in terms of gameplay. Again, going as broad as possible, the competition aspect of games fits nicely with late capitalism, especially the imperialist model found in your basic strategy game such as Civilization. In the discussion of game violence, they raise the notion of Althusser's interpolation, that video games are ideological apparatuses trying to assign players subject positions. The complication here is that they distinguish between the player's subject position and the player character. Generally, the player-character is put into a position of the hero fighting evil; the player is put in the position of someone playing a game in a particular manner. Thus, a shooting game doesn't turn the player into someone who's likely to shoot things in real life, but into someone who's likely to shoot things in the context of a videogame. I should be opposed to this idea, because it really wrecks a paper I wrote on Mass Effect, but it's actually rather appealing. they continue in this vein for a bit, and then end with a section on game industry, largely derived very explicitly from De Pueter, Kline, and Dyer-Witheford's excellent book, Digital Play. The brief afterword reminds us that game studies is very big, and there was no way for them to cover everything.

I have a few niggling points with some of their choices. For example, they argue that hardcore players prefer to focus on mechanics and it's casual players who want better graphics, which doesn't really work as an argument in face of the massive casual player embrace of less graphically superior things as phone games, browser games, and the Wii (in comparison to other current consoles, at least). And ending your book on a section that relies very, very heavily on someone else's book is an odd decision, to say the least. But overall, I agree with their arguments. I don't think you'll find many who dispute that games need to be considered within wider contexts, and the study of narrative and genre is broad enough not to ruffle any but the most steadfast ludologists, while still being applicable enough to be useful. And many of their distinctions I know I'm going to find very useful--player vs. player character interpellation, pscyhological vs. preceptual immersion, and most importantly, visual vs. functional realism. So that's all good.

What's less good is the way the information is portrayed. Let's start with the use of games. It's rare that King and Krzywinska focus explicitly on an individual game for an extended period of time. Rather, they bring the game up, move on, and bring it up again, in the next section or chapter where it happens to be mildly relevant. It creates an unfocused feeling. Moreover, there's no real sense or argument that the specific games they chose were particularly significant for what they wanted to discuss. For example, while I personally have very fond memories of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Chaos Bleeds, with the best intentions in the world, I wouldn't hold it up as exemplar for promoting cooperative gaming, just based on the fact that its characters talk during cutscenes and you play as different characters.

But for my largest complaint, let's go back to the issue of focus. My main problem with the book is that focus exists only on the macro level, and even then, in very broad strokes. Within a single section, the authors will switch from setting to character to gender to race to violence, all with nothing but a brief segue that sometimes ranges on a non-sequitor. It left me with a constant uncertainty over where the argument was going, and how everything fit together. It's a shame, because it's really a problem in terms of editing and presentation rather than the argument per se. A longer introduction or a few chapter subheadings could have made a world of difference.

So yes: it's a good book, with useful ideas, but its content is hurt somewhat by its disorganized form.

Later Days.

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