MLA 2012: "Close Enough"
This past weekend, I was honored to present a short lightning talk at the Modern Language Association. I did this as part of a roundtable session, “Close Playing: Literary Methods and Video Game Studies,” organized by Mark Sample and including 5 other participants besides myself: Anastasia Salter, Steven E. Jones, Edmond Chang, Jason Rhody, and Tim Welsh. We each stuck to our allotted 6 minutes, which left plenty of time for a great discussion. I’ve included the text and images from my presentation below, along with a few notes, links and a bibliography.
This talk reflects two overarching goals: 1) to share some updated research from my dissertation, and 2) to put these ideas directly as possible to the question of "Close Playing." I think it came together pretty well, even though, due to my netbook’s betraying me at the last minute, it took me way longer than I expected to put my slides together. Also, since I was limited to 6 minutes, I decided to make my talk as 18 images, 20 seconds per image, with around 60 words of text. I set up my presentation to auto advance, so I had to stay on pace. I think that worked well, but I worried that I had to leave out so much that it wouldn’t be coherent. Some of my images try to pack in multiple valences or point in some other directions, so hopefully that actually helped. I’ll also add some notes along those lines as I go.
At any rate, enjoy, and certainly feel free to comment.
1) Hello. For some time now, I’ve been interested in the specific affordances of video screens and how the different technologies for producing videogame images influence matters such as expression, interpretation and signification. For example, what does an image produced by a cathode-ray tube do or mean differently than an image produced by an LCD?
2) I think the differences do sometimes matter, and in the next 5.5 minutes, I’m going to try and convince you that the video screen still deserves some attention within game studies and new media scholarship. Call this a kind of medium-specific analysis2 or maybe even Platform Studies3. If nothing else, call it yet another problem facing curators of digital texts and vintage game hobbyists.
3) I want to approach the surface of the video screen through the figure of closeness Mark used in the title of this roundtable, “close playing.” My suggestion here is to take “closeness” literally by considering the implications of a spectator’s proximity to the surface of a text and exploring what that could mean for videogame studies when that text has a screen.
4) Likewise, I hope I can relate this idea of literal proximity to the figuratively proximal analytical reading procedure suggested in the familar term “close reading,” ultimately, this may reveal the ways in which the presence of the videogame’s screen becomes a site of textual negotation and interpratation.
5) IA Richards advises in Practical Criticism that reading closely attenuates the reader or critic to the expressive intents or aims of the poem itself. There is an interesting implication in some of his phrasing that the poem contains an inherent meaning which the reader, through careful attention, can discover. Of course, it is the interior of the poem that we are meant to approach, not (typically) its concrete presence on the page.
6) Beyond Richards, the figurative deployment of proximity and presence is evocative of reading — the OED’s earliest use of the adverb “closely” is actually relating to reading — Still it is not surprising that Genette places material aspects such as typography at the “threshold of interpretation” as a paratext. Efforts to bring our readerly attention back to the page is a characteristically postmodern gesture.
7) Furthermore the figure of the page as a *surface* remains relevant when we speak of being “immersed” in a book. As a synonym for submersion or baptism, “immersion” suggests passing bodily through some threshold or membrane to find oneself fully present in diegetic space, and This fantasmal metaphor has become a fictive trope for all screen based media, including videogames.
8) In 1989’s The Wizard, for example, the final combatants play Super Mario Bros. 3 in front of giant video screens. Similarly, in 1995’s Hackers, the characters’ mastery at a videogame is conveyed through a series of shots that progressively suggest he is entering or at least being surrounded by the screen.
9) That sense of the screen as a site of absorption suggests the more sinister aspect of this relationship, as we can see perhaps most clearly in Cronenberg’s Videodrome, where the sense of being possessed dovetails with notions of fantasmal reading as Peter Schwenger has discussed it — a kind of, vampiric process through which the reanimated text feeds on the reader.7
10) Even in Richards, phrases like the “aims” or “intents” of the poem suggest an uncanny agency for the text. Thus, for both reading and videogamed, the reader/player/critic’s proximity to the physical or figurative surface of the text conveys a sense of proximal authority. The closer one is to the text, the more power is at stake.
11) But whereas the concreteness of textual media’s surfaces are performative, videogame screen surfaces are present, essential and aware. Responding to our input and informatically conveying the status of our in-game self by writing those vital statistics (health, shields, points, weapons) to a heads-up display interface.
12) As Lori Emerson implied yesterday,8 we don’t really want our interfaces to disappear, and videogame HUDs are an excellent example of present interfaces which remind us we are playing a game, connecting us to the diegesis of the game world by providing an interstitial layer of their own, often with their own illusion of interior depth, and often with a narrativized scaffold in the game world.
13) Like book typography or graphic design, HUD design is perhaps most effective when we our attention is focused on the deeper game world. Some games exploit this assumption, such as Eternal Darkness, released for the GameCube in 2002. In this game, players may notice, among other things, bulletholes or insects crawling in the corners of their screen . This happens when the player character’s sanity drops to a dangerously low level.
14) Other so-called “sanity effects” in Eternal Darkness call attention to the screen in different, very creepy ways, and, interestingly, Eternal Darkness is a frame narrative depicting an act of reading. As Alex Roivas reads the Tome of Eternal Darkness, we play the characters she is reading about, thus making literal the kind of fantasmal textual possession Schwenger describes for reading fiction.
15) But in order to conceive the CRT screen as both a reading AND a writing surface, it is important to remember that this is a flat surface, where colors shift in response to our gestures as the game engine inscribes its illusion of depth onto the receptive surface of the screen. That there is a 3 dimensional world “inside” the screen is of course purely a fiction, unless you include the vacuum chamber of the CRT monitor.
16) What happens here is an electron gun sprays light at the phosphor-coated inner surface of the screen. We see the image because that surface works to direct those electrons into red, green or blue regions, and then captures it momentarily. This scribal apparatus is fundamentally, grammatologically, different from the ubiquitous LCD screens which work by modulating the refractive properties of individual liquid cystal cells.
17) If nothing else, the obsolescence of the CRT (which Max Dawson describes as something constructed) calls us to question what difference it makes for videogame analysis. My own research has looked at the exaggeration of graphemic drift in videogame emulation.
18) The hobbyist community producing the MAME project also circulates filters to make LCDs look more like CRTs. Clearly, there is some nostalgia involved in these attempts to recreate dead technology, but moreover its a reminder that the screens we look at and look through are in fact opaque and one does not need to resort to a “screen essentialism”9 to recognize its role in the production of ludic meaning through gameplay. At least, if we play closely enough to the screen, perhaps we’ll see that signifiers do occasionally still flicker.10
- 1. I resisted the habit of doing the "[play on words]: [serious title]" format, so this title is supposed to mean a couple of different things. First, I’m interested in the idea of the user’s physical distance from the text, so I’m asking that we position ourselves close enough to see the differences that makes. Seconds, I’m looking at emulation technology, which is an attempt to recreate older hardware and software platforms on new technologies. Capturing the CRT look is an extra step that some user may feel is unnecessary. Standard emulation, one might say (incorrectly), is "close enough" to the original.
- 2. Lori Emerson discussed this term in her presentation on Saturday. What I mean here is just that the video game screen is part of its medium, and it affects and constrains it in various ways that influence how the imagery is both created and consumed.
- 3. One would have to stretch this term, a bit, to fit my application of it here. The screen doesn’t fit easily into the canonical levels Montfort offers — unless maybe you make a perpendicular stack of levels off to the side?
- 4. This rage comic isn’t really that funny, but it’s a good illustration of my basic point here: that closeness is an aspect of gameplay, but whereas proximity is (in the term “close reading”) a metaphor for expertise for reading, it’s a signifier for intensity of engagement in videogames. I originally wanted to tabulate factory cord lengths for various consoles in order to definitively establish a range for proximity, but it would have been too complicated, I think. It would be an interesting connection, though, to Steve Jones’ discussion of the Wii as a platform, where he noted that the space of the living room must be included as part of the game’s interface. (I couldn’t find a definitive source for this particular image.)
- 5. In this shot, you see animator Winsor McCay after he has stepped into the screen with Gertie. Actually, this isn’t necessarily the best example of what I’m talking about here, but it lends itself to a good single image. What I’m getting at is the trope where a live action character enters the cartoon world, often becoming a cartoon at the same time. This was a trope very early in the history of animation, and it often occurred within a phantasmagorical or surreal milieu. Ko Ko the Clown did this a lot. As did Walt Disney’s first, lesser known, Alice.
- 6. Videodrome isn’t about videogames, but it might as well be. This is a whole other paper, perhaps, but it’s interesting that Cronenberg’s more recent film, eXistenZ (which I think might as well be a sequel to Videodrome) deals directly with gaming, but it’s interesting that the gaming devices are not actually screen-based media. Perhaps Cronenberg felt that the screen imagery had been overdone, or perhaps there’s something else going on.
- 7. This point probably doesn’t come through very well unless you’re already familiar with some of these ideas, which Schwenger is really pulling from a variety of prior thought. He quotes this from Georges Poulet What I’m getting at is that there seems to be a permeable sense of what stands before the being-there associated with reading, and I think the same could be said of playing games as well. In both cases, there’s a surface involved — both literally and figuratively — and in both cases, there’s an uncanny sense of possession that works to cross over and into that surface. New flesh all around. I realize that The greatest advantage of literature is that I am persuaded by it that I am free from my usual sense of incompatibility between my consciousness and its objects…So long as it is animated by this vital inbreathing inspired by the act of reading, a work of literature becomes at the expense of the reader whose own life it suspends a sort of humaning being…It is a mid conscious of itself and constituting itself in me as the subject of its own objects.” (Poulet, qtd. in Schwenger 9)this image would more closely illustrate my point regarding Videodrome, but I thought it was perhaps a bit too on the nose.
- 8. I hope Lori posts a summary of her talk. Her point about interfaces was, I think, a smaller observation within the larger structure, but it made a lot of sense. In her session, it led to some discussion about the economics of touch screens and what kind of labor practices (for example) get white-washed by the all-white Apple aesthetic.
- 9. This is one way of formulating what the recent material turn in new media studies responds to. I believe Nick Montfort gets the credit for the term. By using the term here, I’m pointing out that the screen is still material, lest anyone think my approach to it was naively essentialist (in other words).
- 10. A reference to Hayles’ essay. Even if she has (I believe) modified her viewpoint dramatically since 1993, even to the point of distancing herself from this essay, I still think it holds some important value for my approach here.