«‘Live in Your World, Play in Ours’: The Spaces of Video Game Identity Sheila C. Murphy Journal of Visual Culture 2004; 3; 223 DOI: ...»
Journal of Visual Culture
‘Live in Your World, Play in Ours’: The Spaces of Video Game Identity
Sheila C. Murphy
Journal of Visual Culture 2004; 3; 223
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Keywords identification identity space television video games ● ● ● ● I’m sitting around... thinking about what you can do with a TV set other than tuning in channels you don’t want. And I came up with the concept of doing games, building something for $19.95. This was 1966, in August.
(Ralph Baer, inventor of the Magnavox Odyssey television console gaming system) (Kent, 2001: 22) Videogames do not have any competitive edge over movies as an enter- tainment form. We have to pursue something that movies cannot do.
(Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo game designer and creator of Donkey Kong, The Legend of Zelda and Mario) (Borow, 2003: 145) Hey, tell me the truth... are we still in the game?
journal of visual culture Copyright © 2004 SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi) Vol 3(2): 223-238 [1470-4129(200404)3:2]10.1177/1470412904044801
I thrash, ollie, and grind my way through an abandoned park, then a suburban neighborhood and a parking garage. As I move through these spaces, I get better and better at maneuvering on my skateboard and the spaces I encounter are increasingly complex. Yet as I move through these spaces I am actually relatively immobile, seated near my television screen, which I am linked to via the mediating technology of my Sony Playstation 2 video game system and the umbilical that connects my game controller to the game console and television. I am not actually the rad skateboarder making these moves – but my virtual player-character is – inside the game world of Tony Hawk: Pro Skater III.
Since 1976, video games have been a key way of using television sets as something other than program receivers and video game systems have functioned as an alternate model of televisual space, mapping the TV screen into a multitude of game worlds and environments. In this article I consider how gamer identity and identification are constructed in relationship to video game space, which in turn is a specific manifestation of televisual space as a deeply interactive and embodied media zone. While video games potentially draw gamers into the screen space of the game through their storytelling devices and highly interactive game play, I argue that these video game systems also significantly extend televisual space outside the TV screen through ‘force feedback’ technologies on handheld game controllers that allow gamers to actually feel the rumble, shock and action of the game as corporeal sensations linked to onscreen game play. Instead of just drawing gamers into the virtual worlds represented onscreen, contemporary video games also extend the space of the game out into the space traditionally reserved for televisual spectatorship and consumption.2 In doing so, contemporary video game systems mark that space out as one of action and engagement, rather than inaction and passive reception.
Leaving Reality Behind: Entering Game Space
Throughout much of the academic discourse surrounding digital media culture, the cyberpunk desire to escape or transcend mundane reality – as demonstrated in countless science fiction novels, films and television programs – is oft discussed as symptomatic of a desire to leave the ‘meat’ of the body behind in exchange for a perfect virtual body accessed through a screen or virtual reality interface/input device. Playing a video game is a riskfree and socially acceptable way of engaging in a bit of virtual body play – one gets to repeatedly ‘do-over’ an action or re-live an experience infinitely until one has perfected the necessary game skill to advance through the game.
This play with the virtual body, which we could also call an avatar or what gamers call a player-character, is also a play with identity. When I game I am both player and character simultaneously – in the virtual space of the game I am Tony Hawk and Sheila Murphy. If my avatar were simply a character – Tony Hawk – he would effortlessly skateboard his way through every level of the game. But since my avatar is imbued with game artificial intelligence that gives him some of Tony Hawk’s style and skill and my gamer ability to Downloaded from http://vcu.sagepub.com at University of Limerick on November 16, 2008 Murphy ‘Live in Your World, Play in Ours’ 225 control and manage the virtual Tony Hawk, he stumbles and scrapes his virtual knee and doesn’t make his way seamlessly through the game. My actual skill at button mashing (the common gamer strategy of repeatedly hitting any and all buttons on a game controller device to progress in a game) has virtual consequences – Tony bleeds, falls, fails because of me. My meatbody has tainted his virtual-body, for together we constitute the playercharacter. Like a 1990s cyberpunk in mirror shades, I haven’t left reality behind after all.
What then of this new virtual identity? How can I reconcile it with discourses of digital media identity and media identification? The topic of identity has been much explored within digital media studies – though the result has
been a series of prognosticating and often celebratory essays around identityin-flux or free-play. In his introduction to the anthology Web.Studies:
Rewiring Media Studies for the Digital Age (2000), British media theorist David Gauntlett bemoans the ‘tedious and repetitive’ academic attention paid to the concept of online identity-play that has manifested itself in numerous scholarly articles on cyberculture, which, according to Gauntlett, ‘basically all say “cyberspace... you can play with identity... nobody knows who you really are... gosh...” but fail to develop any theoretical insights beyond this once-engaging thought’ (p. 15). Much of the early critical writing on identity in digital media studies foregrounded questions of gender and performance, and the proliferation of virtual identities in cyberspace. During the 1990s, academic discussions of virtual and digital technologies, spaces and identities often triumphed the virtual as a realm where one could escape ‘lived’ reality and act ‘freely’ in the realm of the ‘technological sublime’ – in a cyberspace that was untainted by the social realities and inequalities of class, race, and gender (among others); see Negroponte (1995) and Dyson et al. (1994).
‘Identity’ in digital media culture is often understood through acts that dislocate embodied identity from the self online and how such a dislocation enables one to enact multiple, contradictory identities. By understanding digital identity as the virtualization of identity and as a form of free-for-all identity play, new media theorists risk ‘reinstalling a new millennial version of the “universal subject” of 1970s film theory’ (McPherson, 2002: 184). As Williams notes in the introduction to Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film (1995), the ‘universal subject’ of 1970s apparatus theory that focused upon the gaze was ‘both oversimplified and ahistorical’ because such theories didn’t take into account the many different contexts in which cinema is viewed (p. 3). Within digital media studies, the diverse structures of new media technologies and experiences are just beginning to be theorized.
Unfortunately, Gauntlett’s comments on academic explorations of identity are on-target: very few theories of identity in digital media culture tackle the ways that virtual identities are deeply connected to the non-digital world.
Downloaded from http://vcu.sagepub.com at University of Limerick on November 16, 2008 226 journal of visual culture 3(2) Televisual Space as Cinematic Game Space?
I’d now like to discuss how the structures of many contemporary video and computer games utilize the codes of cinema and continuity editing, along with interactive perspectival systems, to expand one’s involvement and interaction with a game – though sometimes such strategies actually work against this goal. Video games – not to be confused with computer games – often emulate cinematic style and form even though they are primarily experienced through the interface of the television screen. Or, more tellingly, one can understand the space of the screen through the analysis of how television production and reception imagine televisual space as more diffuse, less direct, and more ambiguous than the grand spaces one encounters in a movie theater. Why games do not aim to emulate televisual style is a larger question that this article cannot answer but perhaps can be gestured to through the familiar refrains of cinema as high culture and television as low culture. Whatever the reason, game designers and programmers often look primarily to cinema for cues on developing and organizing video game space.
In contemporary video and computer games, the discourses of identity and the processes of identification are complicated by the shifting aesthetics of games that combine interactive action sequences with elaborate ‘cinematics’ (also called ‘cutscenes’ or FMV – full motion video) that advance a game’s main storyline and plot. These sequences often advance a game’s narrative and plot and borrow their aesthetics from the continuity editing system of motion pictures. Yet gamers have mixed feelings about these cinematic interruptions into active game play. Some gamers resent the interruption and strategically ‘mash buttons’ in the hopes of bypassing a cinematics sequence.
Other gamers play to get to watch a particularly well-rendered cinematics sequence as a reward. The Japanese game company Square Soft is known for its visually poetic cinematics sequences and their 2002 title Final Fantasy X overtly foregrounds numerous lengthy (over three minutes long) cinematics sequences and when one plays the game it often seems that one is watching rather than playing. But cinematics sequences are just one of many ways that contemporary games blend watching and playing through the importation of filmic elements into game design.
Perhaps the most successful gaming franchise of recent years, Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto games are designed to combine the pleasures of watching with advanced, open-ended forms of gamer interactivity. The premise of Grand Theft Auto 3 (GTA 3),3 which was the top-selling video game of 2002, is that you are an escaped convict in Liberty City (based on New York) who is out to seek revenge on the woman (and others) who doublecrossed you. In addition to the story established in this opening sequence and its overt invocation of cinema through the simulated camera work, editing and the letterboxing of the screen, Grand Theft Auto 3 also includes a ‘cinematic camera’ setting that can be activated during game play that takes the visuals of the game out of the player’s control entirely in order to crosscut between action and provide the most panoramic views of the game’s action and mayhem.4 Game cinematics force the gamer to perform yet Downloaded from http://vcu.sagepub.com at University of Limerick on November 16, 2008 Murphy ‘Live in Your World, Play in Ours’ 227 another shift – from gamer to viewer – again complicating identification in relation to the relative activity and passivity of the subject. Before this ‘cinematic’ sequence – which continues for several minutes – begins, Grand Theft Auto 3 has a long credits sequence, as though it were a feature film.
The cinematic elements of the Grand Theft Auto games are even more elaborate in GTA 3’s sequel, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. The main character of the game and the avatar that gamers take on is Tommy Vercetti, a hired mafia thug in 1980s Miami, aka ‘Vice City’. In the game’s cinematics, Tommy is voiced by Ray Liotta; other actors who appear in Vice City include Tom Sizemore, Dennis Hopper, Burt Reynolds, Luis Guzman, Philip Michael Thomas and Gary Busey, among others. The appeal of both GTA3 and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is the careful arrangement of elaborate ‘cinematics’ with an expansive game world for players to explore.
While there has been a great deal of attention to the violence of GTA3 and GTA: Vice City and the way the GTA games let players pick up, abuse and kill hookers, the games are extremely open-ended. One can complete missions or just drive around in Liberty City or Vice City and listen to the radio station in the car one has stolen. For gamers, this open-ended structure is incredibly liberating. As Jenkins puts it, ‘Grand Theft Auto expands the universe’ (Kushner, 2002b: 614). Though many contemporary games use cinematics and cutscenes to engage gamers, not all games have the open-ended gameplay structure found in the Grand Theft Auto series.