Concept Analysis #4

Role-Playing

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As role-playing games become more technically advanced and more pervasive, one of the main questions scholars must ask is: What kind of learning or experiences can/do players take from these types of games? As John Tynes notes in his essay “Prismatic Play: Games as Windows on the Real World,” we understand how to learn from films, books, and music, but video gaming and organized role playing are still in their relative infancy, even if games, in general, are not. As these newer types change the conception of games and play in general, scholars have begun to tease apart the appeal of these games and what players can expect to understand after having participated; some thinkers claim that role-playing might be worthless unless it fits a range of criteria, while others maintain that role-playing is imbued with inherent worth.

At opposite ends of this spectrum we find the aforementioned Tynes and Torill Elvira Mortensen, author of the intriguing essay “Me, the Other.” The former insists that RPGs require a sea change to become worthwhile, a type of RPG he refers to as engaging, which are starkly contrasted against those he identifies as escapism. The latter author takes the opposite view and conveys how RPGs have much to tell us about society and human nature just by how they’re structured—no change needed. The former wants to change the genre, the latter to examine it as it is and take from it what can be taken. In this respect, one can’t help but liken Tyne to prescriptivism and Mortensen to descriptivism. Although disagreements are common over which is the best approach, for me, it’s nearly always the latter that makes sense, and this argument offers no exception.

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One way we could examine this is through Netflix’s popular show Stranger Things, which received critical acclaim and was renewed for a second season in 2016. The show opens with a quartet of young boys playing a Dungeons & Dragons-esque role-playing game that seems to come to life, as they soon find themselves embroiled in an adventure that follows the narrative of the RPG. But is the show and what the boys are supposed to learn from a strange mix of role-playing and real life merely nostalgic escapism? Or can we glean something deeper from it?

One of the running themes of Stranger Things is whether or not to believe. Are others telling the truth? Is a supernatural event real or just imagined? Is belief in oneself warranted? In the world of role-playing, according to Mortensen, players are able to navigate In Character and Out Of Character with little trouble; it’s reality where playing a variety of roles becomes troublesome. But allowing role play to help players navigate between roles is not necessarily a bad thing: “Once we have seen through the layers of play surrounding us, what happens is not that we lose our grip on reality, but that we see it more clearly” (304). Because the characters’ role-playing has left the confines of the board game, they are no longer able to move between roles in an uncomplicated manner, which means they will need to come to grips with how a subject perceives reality and how to react to that perception. The bounded world of role-playing is a place to try on new roles and work through these difficulties in a safe space.

If we were to follow Tynes in an examination of Stranger Things, however, we might be forced into a far less critical examination, since the main elements of the show are supernatural, and therefore, not real enough: telekinesis, monsters, secret and evil government experiments are not the stuff of life. Tynes writes:

We live in the real world, and our lives are full of real problems and real joys. When works of interactive storytelling can teach us how to solve those problems and discover those joys, while entertaining us just as novels, movies, and music do, these works become worthy of real cultural critique and join the great conversation of human thought. (227)

Tynes goes on to insist that “Endless regurgitations of dwarves and elves or action-packed recreations of Omaha Beach will not get us there” (227). Under Tynes’ formulation, Stranger Things, with its mysterious and supernatural elements, should not to be examined too heavily for meaning as it lacks enough “real world” substance to be worthy of “the great conversation of human thought,” making it a form of what he calls escapism. After all, it is pastiche, a variation on the themes elaborated by the horror greats: King, Romero, and Serling, among others.

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Which is it, then? Which conception of role-play do we accept? I suppose it depends on whether we accept that it’s possible to learn something concrete from products of the imagination (something that even Tynes himself must admit, since his “Puppetland” is apparently designed as imagination-slash-education). If not, then we might be forced to separate play and games from education entirely. Play, as Mortensen notes, is unbounded. It stands outside of rules and certainly does not have an educational message as its driving force. Can play be historically involved or situated, as Tynes wants to make it? Yes, certainly. But to exclude every other kind of role-play is to insist that games are not games and they should not be played: They should be learned. And here you have, by prescriptivism, removed the ludic. So, what Tynes argues for, in the end, is not a role-playing game, not play: he wants an educational experience; he wants to give the kid a bowl of broccoli and convince her that it’s broccoli she wants, not ice cream. For this reason I would agree with Mortensen’s descriptive approach. Let the play be play, let an RPG be an RPG, and let’s find what is contained therein and use it to an advantage. Sometimes ice cream isn’t bad; sometimes it’s the sweet release that helps make the healthier more enjoyable, too.

Works Cited:

Mortensen, Torill Elvira. “Me, the Other.” Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media, Harrigan, Pat and Noah Wardrip-Fruin, editors, The MIT Press, 2010, pp. 297-305.

Tynes, John. “Prismatic Play: Games as Windows on the Real World.” Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media, Harrigan, Pat and Noah Wardrip-Fruin, editors, The MIT Press, 2010, pp. 221-228.

Blog Post #12

The End, My Friend

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To be perfectly frank, I didn’t know what to expect going into this course. As a longtime reader, I’ve never been hugely into movies or TV shows. Movies, especially, hold little fun for me because I prefer an immersive experience in a fictional universe and movies are so short. I also don’t like watching a show one episode at a time, spread out over a season. I almost always wait and binge-watch a show obsessively, losing myself in the fictional world in much the same fashion I would a book. This makes me horrible to watch TV with, actually, because I don’t like any talking that will disrupt the suspension of disbelief, and I have been known to make a big to-do of pausing a show while watching it with someone until they get the hint to knock off the commentary. Of course, I do enjoy talking about a show when it’s over, just not during.

So, I didn’t know what to expect, but I feel that I now have a firm foundation in what’s going on in this realm of media studies (as well as a justification for my viewing habits). I understand what’s at stake, to whom the main voices belong, and what sort of vocabulary is under discussion. Now, the question that remains for me is: how will I be able to use this in the future?

I inevitably see myself ending up somewhere at the junction of writing, textiles, and crafts, and perhaps unexpectedly, I see digital media studies as a sort of propelling force along that path. Perhaps this is because arts and crafts are no longer able to remain in only the realm of the physical; the digital component has become huge and unavoidable, and anyone who works in this area must address this fact. Perhaps it’s because my design work has always interestected with narrative and fandom, and digital media studies provides more ways to work in this realm. And perhaps it’s because craft has a social component, as does digital media studies, and the overlap between them is often particularly striking to me. No matter the reason, though, I certainly see how my knowledge in this area (limited though it is) provides me with more lines of inquiry and jumping off points than I previously had.

I’ve enjoyed reading everyone’s postings and having discussion in class meetings, and I hope you’re all able to put the knowledge from this course to good use, too. I have to say that our discussions have also prompted in me a desire to watch a wider range of TV shows or movies and perhaps even check out a few video games! It seems as though all in the class are much more knowledgeable in these areas, and it’s been fun to see what everyone is interested in. I’m definitely having a Netflix week after finals.

Oh, and there is one last thing I’ve learned: Star Trek really and truly is the answer to everything.

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Keyword Post #9

Calling gaming and play the same type of activity would be simple; we “play a game,” after all, which suggests that the ludic is part of the event of a game. Bhaduri complicates this idea, though, by expanding on how play and gaming are different.

Play, according to Bhaduri, starts from Huizinga’s conception that play is the basis of human culture and in fact predates it (142), is bound up in it, and cannot be removed. Play is a free activity but when in the context of a game or sports activity, it remains rule-bound (143). Gaming and games, on the other hand, “feature the possibility of subversion, strategy, and manipulation” (143). Games move beyond the realm of play and therefore have different and perhaps even more serious social concerns. It’s been suggested that playing is constructivist, it creates, whereas gaming is behaviorist, it can condition through repeated action and strategizing. In any case, the two are not mutually exclusive nor must they always occur together.

This ability to separate and co-mingle might come from Bhaduri’s structuring of the game as composed of two contradictory elements: “On the one hand, a game has to have a structure, fairly set rules, and definable goals and objectives; on the other, a game is supposed to lead to enjoyment” (141). The first sense, the goals and objectives, is the game, although we also see rules in play; the second, the enjoyment, is the area of play but is bound up in games, too. Because they exist together in tension that’s not always resolved, the two structures can be pulled apart and meshed together, swapping terms as needed for the activities they must describe.

Games that are not play, for example, might include bitcoin mining games. While attempting to produce wealth might arguably be fun to some people, for the most part, the strategic action coupled with economic goals would not be part of the ludic, unconstrained nature of the game. If this “game” is undertaken as a solution to a problem, a strategy for gaining desired wealth, it becomes work through the method and interface of the game.

Play that is not a game, on the other hand, could be that of playing an instrument. Anyone who has lost hours strumming on a guitar knows that there is no strategy, there doesn’t have to be an end goal; the action is purely one of enjoyment and harkens back to the origins of culture of which Bhaduri reminds us.

Of course, there is no need to separate the two, as noted, since collectivization, rules and delight, are already held in “playing a game” or “gaming.” Digital gaming, for instance, meshes them together as players cycle between freer and more bound investigations and actions. Some parts of the digital game ask for exploration; others require repeated action and strategy. This sounds simple, but requires careful analysis; as Bhaduri writes, “There are many critical reflections that must be examined in contemporary gaming culture and subcultures—no less than the reifying and fantasizing of the virulently toxic politics of gender, race, and class discrimination that many scholars have analyzed” (146).

Works Cited:

Bhaduri, Saugata. “Gaming.” Digital Keywords, edited by Benjamin Peters, Princeton University Press, 2016, pp. 140-148.

Blog Post #11

Narrative? No Thank You.

In “The Sands of Time: Crafting a Video Game Story,” Jordan Mechner offers a fascinating glimpse into the world of video game creation. He describes the relative importance of various elements and what makes characters memorable, but his various musings about game design are perhaps not the most interesting feature of the work. What’s most appealing is that his conception of narrative and gaming is exactly in line with Azuma’s theories regarding database, narrative, and otaku culture. These striking similarities allow us to draw useful parallels between otaku culture and computer media/gaming at large.

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For example, Mechner essentially describes a database structure with concentric rings, but here, the innermost layer is not that of character traits or chara-moe (as in Azuma) but that of gameplay. Gameplay is made up of the actions that players can perform, such as exploration or combat. The author, in fact, acknowledges this directly when he asserts that most importantly, the gameplay would involve acrobatic exploration, combat, and one “cool, original feature,”; only after these elements were set could the story and characters be created: “The challenge for the writer is to invent a story that will fit this gameplay, making the most of its strengths without highlighting its limitations” (112). From this insight, we begin to see that fans, for the most part, choose a game for the type of gameplay experience they will get and not necessarily because of the game’s linear narrative. Of course, all of the elements, including the story, are important, but those outside the gameplay are not the foundation.

What’s perhaps most intriguing about this similarity in database structure is that the innermost layer of database is interchangeable, and this interchangeability probably speaks greatly to why certain people are drawn to one form of media and not another. Of course, it’s difficult to posit what kinds of people would be drawn to which types of media without making large generalizations that might be unfair, harmful, or exclusive, but overall we might look for trends that could be useful in understanding where a particular media form is going or what it could do to help or hinder in areas of life (the social, for instance, or the industrial).

But to move beyond group mentalities, I think we might also see how the similarities in database structure reinforce Azuma’s animality at the higher level: the inclusive group of all media users. The gameplay database, the character database—they’re ways of making meaning that aren’t about a grand narrative but rather the smaller, random, database-driven narratives that can be personalized to the user. So, in this way, we might find in Mechner’s ideas an endorsement of Azuma, who writes: “To this extent, the functions of moe-elements in otaku culture are not so different from those of Prozac or psychotropic drugs. I believe the same observation can be made of some trends in the entertainment industry, such as Hollywood films and techno music” (94). Here, the game is the palliative for postmodern angst, the playable features providing a sense of purpose that’s rebuilt again and again, endlessly, from the random database.

Perhaps (though media seems to change with rapidity) the more things change — the more they stay the same.

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Works Cited:

Azuma, Hiroki. Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. Translated by Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Kono, University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

Mechner, Jordan. “The Sands of Time: Crafting a Video Game Story.” Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable MediaHarrigan, Pat and Noah Wardrip-Fruin, editors, The MIT Press, 2010, pp. 111-120.

Concept Analysis #3

Exploring Narrative through Fandom

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Narrative, according to Azuma, is a “surplus item” (Azuma 41), just one of many different pieces that might fit into the database of a media creation, which includes characters, products, settings, themes, and more. In his analysis of otaku culture, he is able to show that each of these pieces isn’t necessarily connected in the database, although they are important parts of experiencing a media product; and (perhaps most importantly), no part of the database must be founded on a bottom-level narrative layer. As he writes, “there is no longer a narrative in the deep inner layer. . . .The consumer, knowing this, moves easily back and forth between projects with a narrative (comics, anime, novels) and projects without one (illustrations and figurines)” (Azuma 53). Media projects are enjoyable even when they don’t have a strong or grand narrative, in other words, and so users do not necessarily feel any compulsion to give them one.

One way we can see this is not necessarily by examining one work, since each work does have some type of narrative, but by examining the proliferation of products attached to a media franchise. A classic and ubiquitous example, the Star Trek universe has become particularly abundant with media products: as of 2017, there are 726 total episodes, over a dozen movies, seemingly countless games (from board to video), innumerable action figures, novels, and comic books, and such a sundry list of other products that it would be cumbersome to list them all. Although seeing this media world as transmedial could be tempting, the way stories are spread out would seem to go against Jenkins’ most basic definition of transmedia:

“Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes it own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story.” (Jenkins)

While there are themes and characters that repeat and tie each series and product together, there is not one, dominant narrative arc that viewers can only learn by watching and reading all of the elements in their entirety. Certain threads are best understood by interacting with all pieces that deal with them (for instance, the Borg are best understood after watching all Borg-related episodes), but nothing is so left out as to make the narrative unable to be understood by the casual viewer.

In this way, the Star Trek franchise has narrative pieces but it also has so many other elements, including characters, worlds, and even languages, that fans do not need to pursue, reconstruct, or create narratives as they explore connected media. Fans might, for example, collect action figures or dress as their favorite characters; they don’t necessarily need to act out any specific narrative as they engage in these ways — they can simply partake in the parts of the database that are most enjoyable to them.

This conception and analysis might not be agreeable to all, however. With a somewhat different view we find Paul Booth, who is unable to erase narrative completely from his conception of the database, fan communities, wikis, or any other media-franchise-related area. He writes not just of narrative, but of the narrative database:

“This narrative database is a reflection of a changed media environment, which reconceptualizes narrative from a ‘chrono-logic’ mode to an archival one. Instead of representing ‘plot’ through causality, fans represent it spatially, using the inherent hypertextuality of the web to create connections between narrative elements” (Booth 82).

Taking wikis as his example, he attempts to show that narrative is ordered “through communal interaction,” meaning that it’s never at the random, unconnected level asserted by Manovich or Azuma. Narrative, whether focused around characters, worlds, or fan interaction, is always part of the equation—there is always a story going on, somewhere, at some level.

Going back to Star Trek, it should be surprising to no one that there is a fan wiki, entitled Memory Alpha. Fans can use “portals” to explore the people, TV and films, society and culture, merchandise, and more. In this way, all of the wide and disparate parts of the Star Trek universe are pulled together and ordered. A fan can navigate the site and build the Star Trek narrative in her own way, moving from one page to the next in an exploration that reforms and recreates the ongoing narrative of this media franchise.

If the Star Trek universe can be adjusted to both perceptions, random non-narrative and narrative database, how is it then possible to decide which is the correct view of narrative in today’s modern media environment, especially taking into account the fact that the two viewpoints seem to be in opposition? Perhaps the answer is not one of quality but merely of difference; in other words, either is not necessarily better than the other, but perhaps the method of assessing narrative is dependent upon the way one chooses to view fan community.

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Overall, I believe these differing conceptions point to a basic difference in how Azuma and Booth see fans: for the former, they come together in groups but still have an intensely private connection to a media work, but for the latter, a piece of media is always experienced through the social, which deprivileges the isolated experience. This is perhaps why Azuma is able to talk about narrative while simultaneously erasing the need for it, a feat that Booth does not accomplish, as is seen in the fact that he continually refers to the “narrative database,” even though many scholars from Manovich on agree that a database does not need to have a narrative to tie it together.

One reason for this difference, perhaps, is that stories tend to be more socially leaning than the random elements of a franchise. Or, to be more general: Stories are about connections. There’s something in a story that demands we talk about it, share, find meaning in it. A character, though, can be experienced in a “relationship” that doesn’t require other people. A fan can experience (admittedly one-way) relationships with the characters they see, but constructing a story is often done best with others. Fans, then, are both narrative and non-narrative creatures.

Works Cited:

Azuma, Hiroki. Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. Translated by Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Kono, University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

Booth, Paul. Digital Fandom: New Media Studies. Peter Lang Publishing, 2010.

Jenkins, Henry. “Transmedia Storytelling 101.” Confessions of an Aca-Fan, 22 Mar. 2007, henryjenkins.org/2007/03/transmedia_storytelling_101.html.

Blog Post #10

Media studies seems to be in a constant state of needing to deal with Bolter and Grusin’s conception of “remediation,” of which they write:

“It would seem, then, that all mediation is remediation. We are not claiming this as an a priori truth, but rather arguing that at this extended historical moment, all current media function as remediators and that remediation offers us a means of interpreting the work of earlier media, as well.” (55)

In other words, media are in a constant state of informing and changing one other. The authors go on to claim that this does not remove reality; it still exists, there “is no getting rid of the real” (56). The real can, however, be reformed in the ongoing process of remediation.

Paul Booth, in his attempt to fit remediation into current understandings, quibbles with Bolter and Grusin’s conception. His concerns are several: it’s (1) deterministic when it claims not to be, it (2) doesn’t adequately address social and cultural factors, and it (3) forces immediacy and hypermediacy into a position of polar opposition. He uses the logic of mediacy in alternate reality games (ARGs) to work through these issues, eventually coming to a conception that he calls demediation.

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Demediation, put simply, is “a state where the ubiquity of mediation hides that selfsame mediation” (181). Demediation is the state a participant in an ARG enters when their mediated play so mimics reality that there is nothing outside of mediation: “To become completely engulfed in a mediated world. . .is to lose the ability to tell mediation from reality” (187). With this concept, Booth can then answer the concerns he raises about Booth and Grusin’s remediation.

First, the demediated state is one that accepts the entire, enmeshed web of technologies and can also encompass such experiences as flow (186), which means that technology is not remediated in each new generation in a linear fashion as according to Bolter and Grusin. Second, the user experience of an ARG is an important and valued part of the demediated state; in fact, demediation could not be explained without examining users and their forms of participation, concerns which need not be addressed when speaking of remediation. Third, ARGs “mash up” immediacy and hypermediacy, showing them not to be separate sides or drives; rather, they “inhabit an interreal space that has characteristics that can be described as both immersive and as obvious. . . .the ARG highlights the hypermediacy as an immediate experience” (189).

To Booth, then, demediation moves media studies past remediation, past looking at media as iterations of something out there, apart from reality (although able to affect it). Instead, media studies must acknowledge that all is media, whether daily life or game, never examining concepts such as “fans” or “participation” without first acknowledging that “mediation becomes a way of life” (192).

While I’m unsure whether I agree with Booth, I do find an interesting echo in Manovich’s conception of the interactive, of which the latter writes: “In relation to computer-based media, the concept of interactivity is a tautology. Modern HCI is by definition interactive” (55). Just as interactivity is no longer a state that has any difference from non-interactivity (since media can be thought of as always interactive), so does demediation show that the state of non-media doesn’t exist, making mediated living the default. As we march forward with technology and media, which other states will we become unable to enter? Will one of the “public/private” binary be erased? What about choice? Although I don’t pretend to be able to guess, I would assume it’s an important area to continue to study.

Works Cited:

Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. MIT Press, 2000.

Booth, Paul. Digital Fandom: New Media Studies. Peter Lang Publishing, 2010.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. MIT Press, 2002.

Blog Post #9

In Digital Fandom, Booth explores the concept of the database, but unlike Manovich or Azuma, he doesn’t see it as quite so random or far-removed from narrative structure. He refers to it, in fact, as narrative database and credits to it a great reliance on fans and their work. He uses the example of fan-created wikis that explore popular cult shows, such as Heroes and Lost. One might argue that these examples work against his point in no small way, since their orderedness and structure give them the feel more of fan texts than of a database (which wouldn’t necessarily have any kind of order, as explained by Manovich: “As a cultural form, the database represents the world as a list of items, and it refuses to order this list” [225].)

Further, it would probably be fairly easy to argue that Booth isn’t describing a database at all but is instead describing a narrative structure that is supported by a database. As Azuma identifies, there are many layers to a database, each with their own elements and each supporting those above. Booth doesn’t perhaps dig all the way down to the lowest level, doesn’t take the elevator all the way to the basement, so to speak. He instead stays where a user-created database is still essentially a communal narrative experience.

One way he avoids theorizing this bottom, random layer, is by stating that the interaction of story and discourse, or the actual story and the way it’s presented, can now be formed into “a mashed up third form” rewritten by audiences that creates “a new, interactive discourse”; the wiki is “the storehouse of a narrative database” (96-97). He styles the narrative database as the site of this new type of audience interaction, one formed not only by a narrator or story but by the members of the audience themselves. But I think here, we must ask — how is this actually a form of database and not merely one method of audience participation in highly participatory digital media? His argument seems to be entirely founded on a conception of narrative that takes over the database and rewrites it as potentiality of narrative, eventually getting rid of the notion of the database as personal, random, un-orderable. He does this by continually forcing a conception of narrative onto it, even when it’s necessary to twist and turn the definitions of both concepts.

This argument is (to me) unconvincing, as I find that Manovich and Azuma are more persuasive with the idea that a true database does not have to give us a narrative. We can use it to other ends. What Booth is creating is something else entirely, a way to use these same terms as a way to fit one possible way of experiencing the items in a database. Ultimately, it would seem he’s using the term “database” in a much more pedestrian way, as a word for a storehouse of information that supports or becomes part of the narrative rather than a place that’s opposed to narrative as Manovich or Azuma would have it be. He writes, for instance, that “fans indicated a rereading of the Heroes narrative that makes each of these issues important for the cult serial narrative as a whole—as a database” (98). Here, the database is a place (a wiki) that holds information that is already in some sort of order and holds some sort of narrative weight — a far cry from Manovich’s “enemy of narrative.”

Works Cited:

Booth, Paul. Digital Fandom: New Media Studies. Peter Lang Publishing, 2010.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. MIT Press, 2002.