Just released: The Game Culture Reader

Though it’s a bit hard to find at the moment (Amazon is really treating this book a little too exclusively), The Game Culture Reader is now available!  I’m delighted my essay, “Movies in the Gameworld: Revisiting the Video Game Cutscene and its Temporal Implications,” appears in its pages among such an august collection of video game scholarship. A special thanks to editors Jason Thompson and Marc Ouellette, who braved the vagaries of publishing like polar explorers to bring us this little gem of a book. It can be ordered directly from Cambridge Scholars Publishing.


My chapter grapples with the problem of time in video games, especially as the various (and often incompatible) timeframes found in games become further perturbed by cinematic cutscenes–a “film time” that can steal temporal and interactive coherence from the game in favor of narrative drive, cinematic spectacle, and other potent but problematic “benefits.” However, as I find in analyzing combat cutscenes during Fallout 3–insights occasioned by the game’s frequent glitches during those very cutscences–the movies we find in the gameworld can actually serve a salutary function, restoring temporal order and reinforcing player-world coherence. This doesn’t make me a fan of the current trend in big-budget games to indulge in gratuitous cinema envy, but if nothing else my analysis reminds me that even bad tendencies have good applications.

Up in the clouds and down in the streets of GTA V

I’ve been endlessly driving through the streets of Los Santos née Los Angeles, trying to complete the main storyline of Grand Theft Auto V, the latest title in the “let’s print money” franchise by Rockstar Games (to the tune of a billion Washingtons in just three days after release). Players, too, can make it rain (virtually) at the Vanilla Unicorn, a strip club one eventually acquires. But in my experience of game play thus far (both stand-alone and online), the most vexing return on my investment has not been financial but existential.


Whether toggling among one of three playable personas in the stand-alone version—or waiting for glitches to resolve in the online game—players will spend a disconcerting amount of time disembodied, floating in the clouds above Los Santos (a visually stunning vantage point giving credence to the cliché that Los Angeles is most beautiful at a far remove). Eventually, the player falls back to Earth and into the waiting arms of a camera position behind one of three playable characters. Once re-embodied, beauty surrenders to the franchise’s beloved, street-level brutalities and a sandbox of crimes just begging to be committed. But glitches in the first two weeks of online play—and the fragmented nature of trying to control three different characters—makes playing-at-being in the world of Los Santos a spasmodic existence.

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UCLA Game Art Festival to present a “lightning-round” showcase of cutting-edge videogames

One night only! 7-10:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 8 @ The Hammer Museum Courtyard

Festival to feature more than 35 playable games, tournaments, machinima screenings, and other game art installations

Two giant projection screens, multiple game cabinets and live music will contribute to the festival’s cacophonous, carnival-like atmosphere

skull2013Now in its third year, the 2013 UCLA Game Art Festival is taking a lightning-round, everything-at-once approach to showcasing a curated, international collection of the year’s most cutting-edge videogames and other interactive arts. The festival returns to the Hammer Museum Courtyard from 7-10:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 8.

Sponsored by the UCLA Game Lab in conjunction with the Hammer Student Association, the UCLA Game Art Festival will feature more than 35 playable games, tournaments, machinima screenings, and more. Surrounded by game art, attendees will enjoy a cacophonous, carnival-like atmosphere: two large-screen projections flanking the Courtyard will simultaneously showcase many of the festival’s exhibits, while individual games can be played on arcade cabinets stationed throughout the area.

As with last year’s festival, which attracted more than 1,000 attendees, the focus remains on sharing an eclectic mix of cutting-edge, independent, student and professional projects that may not otherwise reach the public. Eddo Stern, UCLA Design Media Arts professor, artist, and lead curator of the festival, said many of the games selected for this year’s event will encourage attendees to think about the interplay between games and other media. “One of our curatorial goals for the festival is to examine independent games and game art within a multidisciplinary context,” Stern said. “Games and gaming culture are intertwined with other media arts—performance, sculpture, theater, music, design, film, and so on—and many of the games selected for the festival play with the relationship between media forms.”

Though still in its infancy, the UCLA Game Art Festival is already earning a reputation for supporting games that often go on to win accolades from entertainment media and other game conferences. For example, the retail-simulation gameCart Life, one of several standout games from last year’s festival, received best-game honors at the Independent Games Festival in March. The game’s creator, Richard Hofmeier, is back again this year as the event’s emcee.

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“Playing” Mexican in Guacamelee!


Mainstream videogames often shy away from interpretative ambiguity, finding commercial safety—and ludic economy—in well-worn generic personas and dramatic milieus. Terrorists, monsters, aliens, Nazis—these are the culturally uncomplicated enemies who, in stereotypical scenarios and archetypal narrative arcs, must be slain by the solitary hero (i.e., the player) on a quest to save the princess/community/world.

But what happens when a videogame uses people, places and contexts that aren’t so culturally clear-cut or historically remote? This is often the space in which indie and art-project videogames operate, offering through simulation various interpretations of real-life people, issues and events. When big-budget games do attempt to play with ongoing social conflicts, or with aspects of race, gender, class and other complex cultural representations, they do so at great financial risk and critical punishment. Certain titles justifiably earn our scorn for their cultural callowness: consider the first-person shooter Call of Juarez: The Cartel (Ubisoft, 2011), a game that twists the real horrors of cartel violence and human trafficking on the Mexican border into a racist, clichéd, fear-mongering narrative about white slavery. For a stirring takedown of the game—and remarkable analysis of the drug war in Ciudad Juárez—see the compelling Extra Credits review.

Bad-faith media objects abound, but perhaps the more challenging case for analysis would be a mainstream videogame that attempts to honestly—but humorously—replicate cultural tropes for playful purposes. For example, I’ve been playing Guacamelee! (2012), a Mexican-themed, platform-style game now available for download on the PlayStation Network. As the assistant editor of Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies published at UCLA, I’m keenly attuned to issues of Chicano representation, and I was eager to play a mainstream game in which a Mexican milieu, regardless of abstraction and superficiality, permeates a game’s aesthetics.

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Comment: Video game aesthetics and films-trying-to-be-games (and vice-versa)

Like a crazy in-law haunting the attic, I occasionally post comments to UCLA’s Mediascape, an online journal where I served as a section editor and have published a variety of articles, video essays and interviews. Now I just bang on the journal’s ceiling from time to time and shout down unsolicited opinions from upstairs. My latest example (reproduced below) ponders how films these days are drawing upon video game visuals, and vice-versa—a trend I find both intriguing and disheartening. My comments come in response to an interesting conversation between two colleagues at UCLA on the subject of digital aesthetics and game spaces as depicted in Resident Evil: Retribution, The Expendables 2, and other recent action films. The conversation is published in the Mediascape blog, titled “What My Knees Knew: Cinematic Action, or Milla Jovovich in the Flesh,” and my comments are appened to the piece and reproduced below….

Thank you both for a wonderful discussion! I especially appreciated the restraint around attributing certain cinematic elements to video game aesthetics which, as a formal property, transcend audio-visual depiction and are inexorably tied up with their interactive mechanisms (core mechanics provided by design, input mechanics provided by interface controllers). Certainly some films engage/indulge in metaphors of video game visuality (graphically integrative tie-in opportunities abound for RE and other franchises)–just as Timecode and other films employ metaphors of database. But if these objects were actual databases and actual games (a la new media) we could manipulate them as such, and then judge their aesthetic qualities accordingly. Even if we leave aesthetics behind and talk about video game visuality or spatiality in cinema, we should probably strive for specificity; text-only Zork, abstract Tetris, and (near) photo-real Skyrim are all video games but, like painting, reflect radically different visual techniques, compositional concerns and, oftentimes, materials. Just trying to study videogame aesthetics in isolation is crazy-making enough to reach for a gun (talk about videogame violence….).

Returning to film, however, I’d throw 2009′s Gamer into the discussion, as it offers (and foregrounds by title) metaphors/signifiers of gamic activity (e.g., heads-up displays), while also thwarting through plot concerns and photo-real style an easy separation between ludic space/time/event and “real” space/time/event. Indeed, one might argue, pushing it a bit, that the film’s meta-commentary suggests that we may still phenomenally know the difference between game and reality, but we’re running out of (visual) evidence to distinguish them (perhaps this is a state en route to eXistenZ, in which even phenomenal difference evaporates). This “ludic effect” writ large–life is but a game–seems an emerging theme, if that’s the word for it, in Neveldine and Taylor’s work (see for example the conclusion of Crank for a delightfully perverse equivalence between character death and 8-bit extra lives). Perhaps the mutual love affair at the moment between games-wanting-to-be-films and films-wanting-to-be-games is reflective of the techno-industrial overlap between their productions, combined with market insecurities plaguing both media. But for those of us who love film, television, and video games equally but differently, here’s hoping media’s progenitors–despite their mutual infatuations, their incestuous appropriations—stop trying to make all their children the same.

Pointing and clicking on Curious Rituals

“Haunted” interfaces, sensor tricking, and cell trances are just a few of the gadget-enabled gestures cataloged in the fascinating online publication Curious Rituals: Gestural Interaction in the Digital EverydayProduced by researchers working last summer at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA—Nicolas Nova, Katherine Miyake, Nancy Kwon, and Walton Chiu, along with Dan Hill and Julian Bleecker—this recent work investigates the pervasive—but often overlooked—gestures and behaviors that emerge from our co-habitation with electronic devices, such as waggling a dying remote in front of a TV, or rapidly inserting and ejecting wonky DVDs as an “obsessive fix.”

Haunted interface

The impetus for the project in part is the cultural misperception that digital devices and their interfaces somehow render users passive, even paralyzed. As one of the researchers frames in the introduction to Curious Rituals, casual use of the term “digital” often neglects its original definition—manual manipulation:

The hidden assumption behind the use of such an adjective is that these digital artifacts are not very engaging from a physical standpoint. That is, people sit at their desks with their laptops; couch potatoes play games on their sofas; commuters stare at their smartphones in their smart-phone with blue-glow faces. But is this clichéd version of the everyday life true? Are we really so immobile when using the vast panoply of digital apparatuses? (7)

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The pin-up origins of computer art

A recent article in The Atlantic documents what may be the earliest-known example of computer-generated art. Likely inspired by the image of a calendar pin-up “girl,” a technician working with the military in the 1950s used punch cards to program a vector-traced outline of a semi-naked woman, striking a pose reminiscent of airplane nose art from World War II.


The image, known by some computer operators at the time as “girley1” (“girley2,” a hula dancer, would come along a few years later and serve as an example of early computer animation), often appeared on the radar-like consoles used by the Air Force in the 1950s and 60s as part of the air defense computer system. The computers combined static maps of the U.S. coastline with real-time radar monitoring of the air space and an interactive, graphical interface. With a light gun, operators could point at the blips on their screens and call up flight information—or spot unknown objects.

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Never linger in front of a door: Interface lessons in Borderlands 2

Writing about glitches and less-consequential aberrations in video games is my way of rehabilitating bad play experiences through (hopefully) good analysis. Landing at present “squarely” in my sights (a pun in the making here; stay tuned) is the mapping of game actions in Borderlands 2 to the buttons of a PS3 gamepad.

I find gamepad mappings fascinating, and I often examine them in detail to discover how a game’s “verbs”—the possible, meaningful actions in a game—have been arrayed for interactive use. While detailed, printed instructions for playing video games have become relics, infographics of available gameplay action are still published within a video game’s liner notes and tucked into “option” screens on the game’s main menu. As a practical matter, these gamepad “maps” communicate to the user an equivalent of “You are here” for the thumbs and fingers.

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“Swift”-ian rhetoric in the new media age

The digiscape was predictably flooded this week with “binders full of women” memes after presidential hopeful Mitt Romney inserted both feet into mouth during a town hall debate. In the aftermath, a lot of people are raiding the usual sites that serve as clip art generators for Facebook and other social media (repurposing is the lifeblood of new media) to distribute those little billboards of intertextual richness and variation: the immutable image, the malleable captions (“Trap Her, Keep Her!” the epitome of the moment). Sometimes my Facebook stream reads like an endless demonstration of the Kuleshov effect, expressed in the grammar of LOLcats.

But my favorite digital response was not the stream of snark, but rather a series of “reviews” posted to an Avery binder page on Amazon.com. (Thank you, Michelle, for cluing me into the phenomenon.) I wanted to include a couple of screen grabs, just in case Avery or Amazon decide to pull the plug, but they look terrible here. As of this writing, some 900 posts and thousands of “helpful” clicks have been logged in response to Romney’s binder comment.

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Encyclopedia of Video Games has arrived!

The long-anticipated (at least by me) Encyclopedia of Video Games: The Culture, Technology, and Art of Gaming has been published! I wrote a couple of entries (on biomechanics and gestural interfaces), and I am delighted to be included with friends and colleagues in what is sure to become an essential reference in the field. As the PR copy for the two-volume set attests, “Video games are far more significant to society than they may seem. They were the first form of interactive audiovisual multimedia, introduced consumers to computer technology, and were one of the main selling points for early home computers, launching the digital age for the general public.” Also: video games are fun. A special thanks to editor Mark J. P. Wolf for undertaking such a massive endeavor, and to John Underkoffler at Oblong for image permission.