What do we mean when we use the term 'the game' in analysis? What is diluted by this all-encompassing phrase, what is devoured entirely?
Playing Naughty Dog’s The Last Of Us, I shift uncomfortably in my seat as sunlight obtrusively peppers the entire 42 inches of television screen. The Playstation 3 controller, after years of familiarity, lies transparent in my grip. I direct my avatar, incognito, through an abandoned University populated by the undead.
Ellie, a character I’ve been charged with protecting, makes an ill-advised move towards a zombie, hurling a beer bottle at its head. Calamity ensues; in a panic I indiscriminately spray the area with shotgun pellets. Too indiscriminately. A ‘clicker’ closes the distance and banquets upon my avatar’s neck.
I shake my head and blame the opacity of the television screen, hastily pulling down the blinds in a paroxysm of displacement. Darkness blooms and the room recedes from view; the television image takes on a lividity that consumes sight. I adjust screen brightness, contrast level, temperature; the screen cools and the image is less bellicose. Reloading the last save-point I consider lowering the difficulty, the contra-ludicity of the clickers and bloaters is grating.
No, I decide, wagering the sense of accomplishment, fiero, will balance out my mounting anxiety and frustration. The game has reloaded and I decide upon a different tactic: set fire to everything that moves.
Crafting a Molotov cocktail, a Playstation Trophy, ‘Let’s Gear Up’, pops onto the top-right of my screen. The unexpected intrusion momentarily changes my relationship to the game, igniting a conditioned response, a slight tingle of satisfaction. I shift a key from Player-Character to Gamer, thinking on my Playstation profile level and whether this trophy counts towards Sony’s recently unveiled ‘Bid For Greatness’ scheme, which allows Playstation owners to bid their digital trophies on rewards such as physical props used in the design and promotion of triple-A digital games.
I redirect my attention back towards my player-character, and once more a sense of embodiment is established: tension becomes a palpable centripetal force, twisting my body inwards upon itself. I take a drink from an ice cold glass of water and resume play.
My finger, having gathered condensation from the glass, betrays me, slipping across the right trigger of the controller. My character lets off an erratic shot, and I am once more mobbed by the undead horde. I glare contemptuously at the controller, now a strange, alien object in my hand, and wonder why Sony gave the trigger such a slippery convex profile.
One week later, I am not playing The Last Of Us, but watching a friend play in his living room, joined by many others. The player-friend is hunched forward like a vulture, controller tucked tightly between his knees as his avatar charges across the gamespace, lunging forwards into clunky hand-to-hand combat sequences. My friend laughs and gesticulates wildly, a dyspraxic mirror of the action on-screen. He is enacting role distance, attempting to orphan this inept performance as indicative of his general competence. This is not me, he is saying, this is not a role I am accustomed to: don’t judge me!
Other friends take turns; all of them feel the panopticon at their back, the sword of Damocles swaying above their status within the group. Some perform well, inviting cheers from the crowd. They respond passively with lip-bitten smirks, refusing to draw their attention away from the screen. Others perform less well, engaging in loud, one-sided debates with inanimate objects, the often invisible apparatus of play: the couch, the television, the light fixture, the controller. This is self-talk, a rhetorical strategy allowing onlookers access to one’s inner state: the couch is too far from the television, the light is reflecting upon the screen, the controller is faulty, the user interface is confusing, the mechanics are unclear, the artificial intelligence is unfair. Again, the subtext is clear: it is not my fault.
I take a turn, and find the difficulty is set lower than my own version. I take gleeful advantage, mowing down all comers, zombie and cannibal alike, depleting ammunition and items I normally stock meticulously. The crowd roar in laughing approval, some offer commentary from the character’s perspective, self-aware rebukes of the zombie genre. My tense horror experience has become an action movie satire.
In analyzing The Last Of Us, what fits inside my Procrustean bed? What must I chop away? What do I stretch to fit? Examining the game text, should my discussion include the hardware features of the console? Perhaps not, a Playstation 3 is quite a stable set of specifications common to most readers of game studies literature. What about the television? Should I offer details on screen size, resolution, dynamic contrast ratio, picture mode settings, refresh rate? Surely I would mention such features if playing Naughty Dog’s last effort, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, in 3D mode, or their Playstation Vita entry into the Uncharted franchise. Should the textual analysis ignore my body? My view of the television, my familiarity with the controller, my exasperation with the design of the R2 trigger?
Where do I draw the line under my ontology? What objects exist in my definition of ‘the game’? In a sociological analysis, I may focus upon the players, upon the physical location and props, upon language, proxemics, even the hardware features of the console, yet often at the expense of the game story, mechanics, subculture; these may instead form the basis of an ethnographical study. In a psychological analysis, I focus upon the player and his or her relationship with the game’s story, mechanics and feedback, at the expense of physical location and props, hardware features, subculture, and so on. In a traditional textual analysis, I examine signifiers and the larger intertextual relations of the game to its culture, society and industry; their material constituents will often disappear from view. No matter how many heads of the hydra I take on, more rise in their place.
This all seems common sense; par for the course. Yet is this inevitable? Must it always be so? Often we speak of inter and cross-disciplinarity as essential to the study of games, as though we will bring such practices into being through bumbling incantation. Yet looking across the field, I frequently see the same old silos maintaining traditional divisions, my own work included.
Positing a solution to the conventional divide between sociological and textual analysis was a core dilemma of my PhD, and it’s something I still grapple with today.
Yet I believe it is a struggle worth having. As a discipline we must devise an ontology robust enough to repel attack. Object-oriented philosophy, with all of its misgivings, internal and external disagreements, may offer such a starting point, a first principles for our field. To paraphrase Levi Bryant, there is no ‘world’, no harmonious totality that subsumes all objects. There are simply objects, numerous and largely autonomous: the post-apocalyptic narrative, the character of Ellie, the Playstation 3 controller, the hand-to-hand combat dynamic, the difficulty setting, the software version, the hardware, the sunlight coming through the window, the television screen size, the chair, even the frosty glass of water: all maintain fluctuating sets of qualities and may perturb one another in different, often unexpected ways. We must endeavor to pay greater attention to how these objects relate both to one another and to our analyses, instead of repeatedly, unreflectively doing violence to a host of unexamined objects when we discuss the game. Instead of splintering, specializing and holing ourselves up in our siloes, we should endeavor to understand the allogamy of objects that populate our field.
Game studies has suffered its birth pangs, its teenage tantrums, its young adulthood. It is now old enough to undergo an existential crisis: a re-evaluation of its history, its motivations, and its identity. As Jung noted, there is no birth of consciousness without pain. It is time to become fully aware of the vast network of objects that come together in the enactment of ‘the game’, and to give each its due.