Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Archive for January, 2011

Theodor Adorno Wasn’t a Gamer

Arguably idealistic, the Hacker Ethic posits a few lofty goals, including the notion that art and beauty can be created on a computer. Possibly incorporating elements of the philosophy found in cultural theorists like Theodor Adorno, one can understand the efforts of early game designers as an attempt to produce art for art’s sake. Looking at modern society, Adorno (a notable member of the Frankfurt School) might very well castigate video games as part of the culture industry—with some exceptions, video games have become manifestations of creativity or art that are more valued for their ability to make money than for their aesthetics.

Although I tend to view Adorno’s position as unnecessarily elitist, I also recognize that his views developed in a period that held strikingly different views on art and culture. This is, of course, not to imply that Adorno’s critiques cannot be applied to the current state of affairs, merely that society has possibly changed in ways that cannot be accounted for solely by Adorno.

In particular, if we are to accept that the presence of Atari in the late 1970s planted the seeds for a radical shift in thinking among consumers, we can see an immediate point of contention with Adorno, who viewed audiences as passive and deriving pleasure purely through consumption.[1] Contrasting with this view, modern cultural theorists often understand today’s audiences as being potentially active and participatory—media have become interactive and academics race to understand the ways in which channels like television, video games, and the Internet affect cognition, learning, and community. Moreover, I would argue that the interactivity suggested by video games has altered the way that people react/respond to art. Increasingly art is not merely something that makes you feel or think but something that you experience and do; we are learning to experience alternate forms of art (often multi-sensory!) while simultaneously gaining a new perspective conferred through our increased role in modes of production.

[1] Adorno’s thoughts also overlap with Marxist views on the power of ideology to distract workers from noticing the ways in which the state oppressed them, but this is a larger discussion that I do not have space to expand upon.

Game Layer

In a recent TEDx Boston talk, Seth Priebatsch spoke briefly about the ways in which game mechanics are currently being employed in a variety of areas, offering incentive/loyalty programs as a relatively palatable example. Arguing that a developing “game layer” existed (separate from the “social layer”), Priebatsch sought to convince his audience that understanding game mechanics was key, for these were the rules that governed influence and behavior. Getting away from possible connotations with games as childlike or superfluous, we might also consider how real world game mechanics are really no different than the structure provided by religion—both constitute frameworks that order our choices based on our expectations for future outcomes.

As someone who works in Higher Education, I immediately began to consider the ways in which games and education have been paired in the past. Although we certainly have had some success using games to teach children skills through scaffolding, the merging of the areas has often resulted in concepts like Edutainment or serious gaming, which seem to represent an attempt to harness gaming into something pro-social or productive. Reversing the direction of influence, Jesse Schell spoke at DICE 2010 about how the logic of games can be applied to educational settings, transforming the way that we think about grades to resemble the process of leveling up.

Although this approach made much sense to me, as it spoke in a language students seemed primed to understand, I also began to wonder about the quantification of achievement. Are we turning into society largely motivated by trophies or unlockables? Is this really different from previous cultures or have we simply found a new way to express our desire to gain a sense of identity through external labels that we manufacture and then bestow upon ourselves? Does our sense of self become dependent on “real life achievements”? We buy into a system that designates some accolades as worthy of a title or a badge, but who gets to make these decisions?

Simply Passing

Shots fired. A breath taken. Reset, reload, refocus. Faith tested and testaments of faith.

Indeed, on one level, “Blowback” was an episode rife with tests:  from the A story of Lacy to the background created by Daniel and the literal blowback of Durham/Clarice, we see characters subject to various types of tests. Who succeeds? More importantly, who fails? Why?

But also consider that our main cast suffers setbacks, learning to triumph in their own ways. Facing challenges small and large (Lacy’s whole trip to Gemenon–and her life in general–is, in its way, one big setback, is it not?), we see characters hardening before our eyes. Although the easy connection presence of faith in the show can be discussed in the context of mono/polytheists, terrorism, and the kissing of Apollo’s arrow, I would argue that a more interesting discussion to be had centers around the role of faith (is it even there?) in the face of adversity.