Patched In: A Conversation with Anne-Marie Schleiner about Computer Gaming Culture

Patched In: A Conversation with Anne-Marie Schleiner about Computer Gaming Culture

2003-09-11

An essay by Tara McPherson (and a conversation with Anne-Marie Schleiner) concerning patch mutations, opensorcery, and other explainable gaming offshoots.

One of the most under-analyzed areas of today’s vast entertainment conglomerate must surely be computer gaming. In terms of economic impact alone, gaming has exploded in the past decade, becoming an increasing presence online. Video game sales now outstrip movie ticket receipts, and the sale of game hardware and software in the United States is expected to top $17 billion a year in 2003, probably surpassing the music industry in total revenues. The audience for these games has shifted as well, with almost two-thirds of gamers now over eighteen and more than a quarter over age thirty-six. The notorious gender gap has also closed; men and women now play games in roughly equal numbers.

But, beyond its status as big business, computer gaming is also a powerful cultural force along other registers, a force which ripples across diverse on- and offline spaces, modeling new modes of experience and of interactivity. Video games stand as powerful examples of what might be called the lures of many new media forms, lures that cut across several genres, shaping our modes of engagement with new media technologies. These lures include digital media’s capacity to produce two different sensations: volitional mobility and transformation. Capitalizing on the user’s perception of control, computer games structure a sense of causality in relation to movement and presence, a presence we navigate and move through, often underwriting a feeling that our own desire drives the movement. Games thus generate a circuit of meaning not only from a sense of immediacy and immersion, embedding the user in a navigable world, but through yoking this presentness to a feeling of choice, structuring a mobilized liveness which we come to feel we invoke and impact, in the instant, in the flick of a wrist, in the push of a button. I term this sensation volitional mobility. We feel we are in control, making choices, and these choices propel us forward through the game.

This aspect of choice, of volition, is closely tied to what I categorize as a second modality of digital experience, the promise of transformation. From the avatars we select to ‘embody’ us when playing the mythical narratives propelling many titles to the sprawling cities and homes we build in simulation games, the spaces of gameplay harbor hopes of transformation. Regardless of content, there’s a haptic potential to these spaces. When one enters a game world, the play that unfolds can equal a loss of self, structuring a transformative space, an imagined place of possibility and change.

Of course, very little is materially transformed via hours of game play. Likewise, the feeling of volition and control which games so seductively proffer can be read as, finally, just that: a seduction. A computer game is, in its own unique way, as structured an experience as a film or television show, deeply rule-bound and formulated at multiple levels. It’s important to recognize that the experience of volitional mobility and transformation are both specific to the medium of games themselves, a function of their materiality, and also ideologies packaged and promoted by the gaming industry, i.e., corporate strategies of narrative and structural address.

We might say that popular culture has always thrived on illusory promises of transformation, but I think we might find in computer games and the cultures they inspire a different enactment of these promises. While games might be read as just another tentacle abetting corporate culture’s ever-growing reach, as yet one more facet of ‘brand’ identity (witness the game tie-ins for most hit books or films), computer games have also inspired a lively culture of ‘bottom up’ engagement, perhaps most interestingly in the form of ‘game patches’ or ‘mods’.

Game patches are ‘add-ons’ to games that alter their look, play, or feel, alterations of code that transform the original game. While a patch might be released by a company to fix a bug or extend game play, patch culture really took off as hacks, as ‘unofficial’ infiltrations of a game’s engine, often crafted by game fans. The Internet helped patches travel, creating their own version of a gift economy, and organizing communities of players around modifications to popular commercial products, a homegrown development which has not gone unnoticed by the game industry. Artist and writer Anne-Marie Schleiner was among the first to theorize the pleasures and possibilities of patch culture. Here she and I discuss the phenomenon of game patches as well as the need for a more sustained critical attention to gaming culture in general within the spaces of humanities computing.

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TM: Academics and theorists have been slow to turn to computer games as a vital aspect of digital culture, despite gaming’s vast economic success and game culture’s increasing ubiquity in online spaces. How might we account for this relative lack of attention from critical quarters? How’d you get interested in gaming culture and its variations?

AS: Unlike film, computer games until recently have been seen by many academics as a children’s entertainment medium. The few academics who have researched computer games, besides those computer scientists working in 3-D computer graphics or artificial intelligence algorithms, often take a pedagogical perspective, beginning with questions like whether games are good or bad for children and how learning math and other education areas can be made more fun through educational games. (There also seem to be grants around for this sort of research.) I think that as the computer gaming public ages, computer games will be seen as a legitimate entertainment medium like film, literature and art. Games are toys for grown-ups as well as children, toys which, although unlike literature, film, and art in very important ways, are capable of generating nuances of emotion and complexity of experience that adults can appreciate. I think this shift to viewing computer games as an entertainment form for adults will turn the way we look at gaming inside out. For example, instead of asking whether violence in computer games is a good or bad influence on children, gaming “critics” may ask how the particular type of simulated combat or competition in a newly released game engenders new kinds of pleasures.

My own interest in gaming began as a player. I spent a lot of my time playing computer games at the same time as I was studying media theory and computer art in graduate school. The more immersed I became in gaming culture, (making my own add-ons), the more areas I saw ripe for theoretical and cultural exploration, from gender politics in gaming to online social dynamics within coded environments (RPGs) to the online gift economies and digital folk art of game modmakers and hackers. At this time there was very little written by theorists about computer games, and I found myself turning to film theorists to inform my writing.

TM: Games seem, at one level, to engage very different mechanisms of identity and desire than do films or novels. In your view, how important is it to theorize games in their specificity as a new medium, offering distinct pleasures, dangers, and possibilities? What similarities are important to note?

AS: Film theory can really inform how to approach such issues as visual identification of players with game avatars. Feminist film theorists have already articulated ways which viewers identify with certain actors in films through camera positioning, and the ways in which women are fetishized through cinematic tropes such as fragmentation and close-ups. Games offer differing subject positions like 1st person or 3rd person or godlike “camera” positions. Feminist film theory can also be helpful in looking at these subject positions in computer games. I have also found queer-theory-influenced film theorists (a mouthful :-)) helpful in articulating various curious ways that cross-gender identification occurs between players and avatars.

Some games have directly adopted cinematic tropes. In many 3-D games a high-resolution animated movie introduces the game, providing background story and setting the mood. The player is then immersed in the first game level at a lower resolution with 1st person or 3rd person control of her or his avatar. When the player completes a level of the game, again the game again takes control of his/her character and s/he is treated to a short animated movie sequence, before being plopped down into the next level with full control. Some games, like Tomb Raider, even afford shifting camera angles and dramatic “soundtracks” while the player is immersed in gameplay. Games are incorporating cinematography into their vocabulary, (or perhaps Marshall McLuhan would say they are devouring the old media of film). And writing has always been an important part of Muds and even more recent Graphical RPG’s.

But there are important differences that necessitate games developing their own set of theories. Most importantly, and obviously perhaps, is the interactive nature of computer games. Although working within certain parameters of the game world, rules and cultural conduct, the player, not a director, controls her or his actions in the game space. If this is a networked game social dynamics come into play. Competition, combat, group dynamics, flirtation, romance, power, are all aspects of online role playing games which merit their own investigation. Even if a game is in single player mode, artificial intelligence algorithms allow the player to “socially” interact with non-player characters (NPCs). Oftentimes players take a game in a direction not foreseen by the game designers. Rampant player killing posed quite a problem initially for Origin, creators of the graphical RPG Ultima Online. The Sims can barely keep up with banning the “naughty” Sims add-ons people keep posting to their fan site. Thus game theory should extend beyond theories of “game design” to also include theories of distributed cultural production and network social dynamics. Also, currently games are rather rigidly genrified and it is interesting to trace the historical roots of genres (often to various military simulation technologies) and to define their various characteristics.

TM: Game patches seem a particularly rich and intriguing Internet phenomenon, offering possibilities for endless mutations of commercial products, reconfiguring play from new points of view. What patches would you list among your favorites? How is ‘patch culture’ like and unlike other forms of ‘hactivism’?

AS: Game patch or mod culture is a phenomenon that is native to the Internet and like open source software, Napster and other arenas of open exchange and cultural mutation and production, have flourished in the networked environment. I like your description of games patches as viral. Popular patches are quite viral in behavior, spreading to gamers around the Internet faster than a game publisher can promote a new game. Sometimes the patch will “mutate” as various gamers make improvements and release new versions. There are multiple versions of an old doom wad called “Aliens” from various changes that were made to the original wad by different gamers.

My favorite patches or mods are often those which affect a total re-articulation of the game. I remain very fond of “Los Disneys” by Jason Huddy, a patch for Marathon, an early Mac shooter, which replaced the drab spaceship environment with a post-apocalyptic Disneyland built in the shape of Mickey Mouse’s head. I also like artist group jodi ‘s Wolfenstein 3-D mod, “S.O.D.”, which replaced a nazi soldier environment with beautifully fractured, disorienting, black and white pixelated flickering walls. (And I have included these and other favorites in some of the online game add-on exhibits I have curated, linked from opensorcery.net.) There are many others; lately, the Sims players seem to be producing interestingly perverse stuff.

Although game mods are definitely “hackerish” I would not necessarily describe the majority of game add-ons as “hacktivist”. The majority of game mod makers are not motivated by a particular political agenda just as a programmer participating in a shared development of a piece of software for the Linux platform is not a “hacktivist.” Like the Linux programmer, the game modmaker simply wants to participate in cultural production as an active participant outside of or regardless of the market economy. However, distributing the development process more broadly can have political outcomes, allowing some games worlds to be created that reflect more politically motivated concerns and visions, game worlds that are too unique, personal or political to have been produced as commercial games.

Fig. 1. Jason Huddy’s Los Disneys, a Marathon patch, unfolds in a not-too-distant future in which the U.S. has sold Florida to the Disney Corporation. As players battle camera-toting tourists, exploding Eisners, and a towering Goofy in a revamped Disney themepark, the modified first-person shooter foregrounds the corporatization of mass culture under global capitalism and allows the user to ‘fight’ back, if only figuratively. The game, true to its genre, is pretty blood-soaked, but, within the confines of Huddy’s altered Magic Kingdom, the violence seems to operate at a more critical level. Huddy also maintains a website, www.losdisneys.com, filled with further commentary on the world of Disney, the status of intellectual property, and the nature of parody, as well as a message board, press coverage, and a ‘souvenir’ shop.

TM: Game patches also engage quite directly with consumer culture, creating a kind of dialogue between producers and consumers where those very binaries become unstable. Of course, the industry has been quick to respond; at our most cynical, we might say the corporate response simply seems to capitalize on patches as yet another form of PR but the situation strikes me as much more complex. Is it useful to think of these patches as a more flexible and rhizomatic strategy, less clearly ‘political’ in an ‘old Left’ sense, more viral?

AS: Although game publishers and development houses obviously have an interest in catering to the market, the markets which they create and cater to are often self-defined. In other words, the people working as game developers are white North American men and the games they create reflect their biases, despite other market potentials. They also reflect the biases of the game publishers, who are notoriously afraid of taking risks with new game genres. In any event, opening up game engines to hackers and gamers has allowed other visions to be expressed in gaming. Sometimes if a trend gains enough momentum it leaks out into commercial games. This is how I think female heroine games came to be popular. Of course the game companies are making money off an idea that was thought of by gamer fans, but it also means that more games are being released with female heroines, and this is an important improvement for the general population (general consumers and more avid game hackers). How market economies and online gift economies intersect in parasitic and symbiotic ways is an interesting area for further exploration. A few months ago I took an interest in the “KiSS” phenomenon and put together an online exhibit of erotic interactive “paper dolls”. These dolls are made by KiSS artists entirely independently of any commercial game engine and are distributed freely online between KiSS artists and players, with the understanding that they are not for commercial profit. The KiSS phenomenom has erased any industry involvement whatsoever from the loop.

TM: You point to two interesting and seemingly divergent paths here: on the one hand, a kind of symbiotic relationship between the game industry and its fans, not unlike the relationship between the TV industry and the fan fiction community, and a second, more independent, trajectory of alternative, non-commercial production. Do you think the web will continue to allow for both possibilities or do you see the commercialization of the web as limiting the potential of this second path? Do you think it makes a difference that many of those working in the game industry are themselves avid gamers? Perhaps it doesn’t make a lot of sense to talk about the ‘industry’ as somehow separate from the patch or mod community. It seems we need more flexible models of explaining the relationship between production and consumption if we are to account for the complex politics of online gaming culture.

AS: I think it does make a difference that many of those working in the industry are avid gamers. Great games are made by people who love gaming. This is why I think it is so important for more women who are avid game players to become involved in the industry. (And for more female computer scientists and programmers to go into gaming.) Once you have a significant influx of female gamers in the industry you will start to see amazing games (and some not so amazing ones, just as there are mediocre games made by men) that cater to more “female” and heterogeneous interests. This approach to the “games for girls” issue, the so-called untapped female market, is in my view preferable to the approach that some have taken, including large companies like Electronic Arts, of doing market research on what kind of games girls would want to play and then forcing their reluctant male employees to make artificially stereotyped games based on market research.

Although there is crossover between the industry and the mod community, there are important differences. Gamers simply have much more freedom to express what interests them when they are not confined by the demands of the industry. This quirky, perverse, genre busting freedom of expression is native to gift economies on the Internet and is an attractive space for many. I think these spaces and online communities will continue to flourish on the Internet despite commercialization. Occasionally the gift economies will feed off of industry engines and code, and occasionally the gift economies will be scavenged for content and modalities by commercializing interests (like in the case of The Sims), but this user driven component of the Internet will persevere and grow.

TM: As a game maker, artist, and teacher, how do think we can best prepare our students to engage fully with digital culture? How can universities best respond to the widespread popularity of computer games and to the increasing importance of online worlds? Put differently, how can we help our students to become better citizens in an information age?

AS: I think we need to prepare students with both an interdisciplinary approach and a disciplinary approach. Gaming programs should integrate gender studies, film and television theory, computer science, sociology, digital art, and cultural studies into computer gaming curriculums, (and allow for different emphases.) We also need to discover what would be specific to a discipline of game design and gaming studies. Developing such an interdisciplinary and also disciplinary program would allow for a common language to be shared among programmers and artists, as well as informing gaming culture in general. There is much territory yet to be explored and we should prepare our students to better understand both the history and context of current genres as well as providing them with technical, visual, and conceptual toolsets for new areas of innovation.

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Anne-Marie Schleiner inhabits a nodal point at the intersection of theory and practice, creating her own patches that interrogate the gender politics of commercial gaming culture; chronicling and theorizing online culture via her curatorial and written work; and fostering new forms of online practice by connecting artists with technological tool kits. For instance, her online exhibits of mod and patch culture do not simply collect existing patches; Schleiner also recruited artists to make their own add-ons, providing them with software donated by Bungie, makers of the old Mac shooter, Marathon, as well as with tech support for their efforts. Schleiner’s MFA thesis project, a Marathon add-on called ‘Madame Polly’, functions at the crossroads of commercial computer games, fine art practice, and online player communities, providing a distinctly feminist take on game spaces. Currently, she’s at work on an erotic role playing game which fully engages both commercial paradigms and feminist debates over sex workers and visual representation. In her theoretical, pedagogical and creative practices, Schleiner takes up computer games as an important cultural practice, one ripe with both pleasures and pitfalls.

Taken as a whole, add-on game culture defies easy political categorization, blurring the boundaries between commercial and ‘homegrown’ endeavors. Many of the projects Schleiner samples in her curated exhibits clearly take a position we might recognize as ‘progressive’ or ‘Left,’ including Mongrel’s revisions of ‘old-school’ console games to speak more pointedly to minority youth or Josephine Starrs’ and Leon Cmielowski’s witty revamping of game space into a nightmare of domesticity and kitchen filth. Nonetheless, many of the best-known patches reflect the representational limits already so apparent in corporate gaming culture. For example, the popular “Nuderaider” patch simply takes the step mainstream technocapitalism steered clear of, stripping down Tomb Raider ‘s already-buxom heroine, allowing players access to a nude Lara Croft. Not exactly the stuff of political revolution. In many ways, the patch phenomenon highlights the limits of a binary understanding of corporations versus ‘the people’ or of production versus consumption. Many gamers are avowedly nonpolitical, investing their time and energies in informatic practices without obvious political valence that, at the same time, evidence a deep participation in online cultures as well as a turn toward authorship, toward digital self-expression. Such developments underscore the need for more nuanced and precise techno-theory, a move away from the ‘one-size-fits-all’ surety of both the cyber-utopians of the early 1990s and the doom and gloom theorists who followed them. Yes, corporate culture has taken hold of the web, and, yes, individuals do speak back to power, re-mixing digital possibilities, but the valences of power are neither fixed nor easily readable. Theory needs to be as flexible as the mod makers themselves, quick to respond and resilient. If computer games, and digital culture more generally, really do underwrite new modes of experience like volitional mobility and transformation, then our critical engagements with this culture must take its very forms seriously, respecting their specificity and understanding the unique pleasures, limits, and possibilities they stage for their users.