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Archive for the ‘videogames’ Category

nora barnacle’s bum and virtual shotguns

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Maybe I’m just being silly, but I find this video strangely fascinating…

For one thing, I could see these videos dragging Stephen Joyce into his most insane legal action yet. But beyond that I have this vague sense that I’d love to write something that somehow was the exact fictional equivalent of these videos. Not sure what that would mean, exactly. But here we have attention-in-distraction (is he actually playing while he reads these?) plus porn (excellently – porn in epistolary form captured in a streaming video – brilliant!) plus the asynchronous “plot arcs” of the letters and the games (on one of the later video you get JJ abruptly cutting off the letter because he purportedly just uh-oh’d himself in the course of writing it) plus virtual sociality (the erotics at a distance of the letters crossed with the fascination of the girl gamer with the letters, and perhaps, we might imagine, the guy who is reading the letters) plus the stupidity of imitative pastiche (the guy who keeps resaying lines from the letters – quite accurately, as if he’s writing them down – in a sort of movie-announcer-cum-Halo-guy voice….)

I could keep going. Sometimes I really miss the US PhD seminars that I ran. I’d totally throw this in for us to kick around at the end of one of the three hour blocks….

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November 9, 2010 at 10:56 am

“misjudged utility”: addiction and narrative

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Christopher Caldwell writes about on-line video games this week in his column in the Saturday FT. The piece takes as its occassion the following harrowing story:

Kim Yoo-chul and Choi Mi-sun had been on the run for months – allegedly for doing something unspeakable – when they were arrested last week in Gyeonggi province in South Korea. Mr Kim, 41, and Ms Choi, 25, were ardent internet users. They met online. They had a baby. But becoming parents did not temper their computer habit. They grew fascinated with an online game called Prius, which allowed them to raise a virtual “child” called Anima. In the interests of their virtual child they neglected their real one. Last September they returned from a 12-hour session at an internet café to find their baby dead of starvation.

Caldwell procedes to consider the reasons why such games are so addictive by seeing them through the lens of developments in video gambling:

If we consider the matter neurologically, raising a virtual baby can in some ways be more “rewarding” than raising a real baby. You get points. You get to undo your mistakes. Like art, video games can seem better than life.

The problem is that, unlike art, video games are increasingly sophisticated and subtle. A lot of recent academic research has focused on how video gambling machines take advantage of the predictable vulnerabilities of problem gamblers. Many non-gambling games are built the same way. They are designed to trick the reward centres of the brain through a variety of techniques: “near misses”, delayed rewards, illusions of control. In other words, they induce the same sort of misjudgment of utility that leads a crack addict to neglect his job. Designing machines to be pleasurable or useful is one thing – designing them to be addictive is quite another.

The phenomenology and false economies of the crack addict, yes, but also of the reader caught in the rhythms and deliberate temporalities of narrative. I am definitely not the first to see, say, in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary a performative diagnosis (even a deconstruction) of the relationship between the logic of addiction and narrative organization. But Caldwell’s piece (and other recent thoughts about parallel forms) leads me to think that perhaps the right way to conceive of the recent history of narrative is in terms of a split, a fissuring of narrative elements into two sectors.

On the one hand, new(ish) forms such as pornography, advertising, video games, and gambling, have taken up the neurological tricks long resident in narrative and brought them right to the profit-generating center of the works produced. On the other hand, literary modernism and its aftermath seems in this light a movement in fiction centered on the disavowal of the technologies of narrative addictiveness: a resistance to the traditional rhythms of plot is combined with a diminishment of the sense of authorial (and thus vicarious readerly) control. The phrase “misjudgment of utility” maps crookedly though provocatively onto, say, Adorno’s discussions of modernism’s uselessly utopian attempts at autonomy. Modernist fiction is that fiction that does not tease you into thinking that you can win. Which is of course better than video slots, but also… perhaps politically pernicious in a deeper sense.

At any rate, I am thinking this morning that I’m starting to understand a bit more clearly a turn that I’m taking in my own work. I’ve finished (though not yet sold – Christ is the process slow) a book about modernism and the temporality of its plots. And I keep telling everyone that I’m done with literature for awhile – that the next thing is going to be about stuff like education and advertising and pornography and the like. “Oh, so you’re going into ‘cultural studies’?” they ask with an unavoidable sneer. I am never sure what to say about that – it certainly doesn’t feel like that’s what I’m doing. “Cultural studies” is not quite right – maybe what I’m interested in is the persistence of narrative in a culture whose best literary works have long since disavowed it, the fault lines that run between this disavowal and the profit-driven enhancement of narrative in other forms.

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March 14, 2010 at 10:45 am


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Maybe, maybe not, you’d be surprised to learn that when I was a little kid I was absolutely obsessed with war and the military. OCD-type obsessed. “Playing war” in suburban backyards, military simulators on the computer (I think the last Xmas when I can remember what I actually got was the one when I received this, and they played it for something like twenty-four straight hours….), reading Jane’s Guides and the like. Best of all, was this – which I never actually played with another human being, but whose modules and rule books I read and reread and tried to play by myself but you can’t, really.

Anyway, memoirs of a lonely, semi-Aspergersy childhood in late cold war America I guess. All this is prologue introducing a childhood epiphany, one of those little tiny moments of philosophical insight that you have when you’re a child but which stick with you. Maybe you, if you were like me, thought miniscule thoughts about causality (I remember discussing, basically, Zeno’s arrow problem with my mom long before I’d heard of Zeno’s arrow – she was, erm, unhelpful. I can’t even imagine, actually, what she thought but I remember the day like it was yesterday…) or had the thing that everyone has when they set vanity mirror parallel to the bathroom mirror and, boom, infinite regress.

But the one that I’m thinking about tonight is a little less abstract. I remember realising, all at once, that one of the presumptions that I had about soldiering was – had to be, mathematically – all wrong. The presumption was this: that if you served in the armed forces during a war, likely you would kill several members of the opposing side during the course of that war. That is, that say the average veteran of, say, WWII would have killed several people during his tour or tours of duty.

Simple math shows that this simply cannot be the case. Imagine a war in which there are 100,000 front-line troops on each side. If on side A, the average soldier killed even 1.5 enemy combattants, well, that would be 150,000 dead, just from the start. Of course, some on side A would die before they had killed, and then there are injuries to account for and the like. But I think you see the point: I realized that it must be relatively rare for one solider to kill another soldier during a war. That is, it would be a fairly hotshit thing to have killed even one of the enemy. (In WW2, about 3 million of 17 million German soldiers died – a fairly high percentage, but only 17 percent… So it’s very unlikely that whatever grandpa told grandma to get her in the sack and / or justify his drinking was true…)

Huh. This came as a great shock to me, and it’s really no wonder that it did. Movies make killing seem common, depending on the realism of the picture in question. Video games, of course, arc the issue into absurdity. Remember all those scrolling Nintendo games, where you fight your way through level after level of the enemy, killing thousands and thousands of bad guys before you’re done?

Then again…. We know tonight that semi-final tally of the current war on Gaza comes to 1200+ / 13, a set of numbers that seems preordained to force newswriters into the absurd position of putting an almost before the phrase a hundred to one ratio… if they were brave and honest enough to write the phrase into their work to begin with. These are movie ratios, if not numbers more appropriate to a video game. The fact that they include both military and civilian casualties only makes the point horrifically worse.

Perhaps, then, what was unrealistic about the films and game when I was a kid, and which led to the misunderstanding that gave way to mathematical revision, has actually now been reversed. It’s not the cold war any more, which had a tendency to turn asymmetrical battles symmetrical through direct or indirect support of the “other side.” But the counterweighting effect has long since passed….

But it’s interesting that the newest war videogames both enact and critique at the same time this turn toward hundred-to-one ratios in war. Call of Duty 4, from which the images in this post are drawn, has two modes of play like most “first-person shooters” today. There’s a conventional game, where you follow a storyline from training to, well, something to do with seizing a post-soviet missile silo, and in which you fight against all of those computer directed badguys that we’re all long familiar with from videogames. On this side of the game, since you play as a single named character (OK – two named characters, one from the British SAS and the other from the US Marines), the presumption is that, yes, in the course of the game “you” kill hundred and hundreds of Middle Easterners and Russians without dying yourself. This was once unrealistic, but since your solidiers go into battle in this game with the ability to summon Air Force bombing runs and helicopter gunships, UAV flyovers and the like, well, maybe not as unrealistic as it once was…

The other mode of play, however, offers what we might call a utopian revision of the game played in the first part – if a vision of war can ever rightly be called utopian. This is the multiplayer mode, where you sign on and can join a game set in one scenario or another against other human beings who have logged on to play against you. In each case, you pick a side to join – the Americans, or in the case of most of the scenarios, some sort of Middle Eastern army or resistance movement, a hybrid I suppose of the Iraqi national army and Hamas. But, in order to make the game fair and attractive to players, whichever side you select you choose from the same sets of weapons, and have the same ability to call in airstrikes or UAV reconaissance missions. Asymmetrical war has been rendered symmetrical for the sake of fun and sportsmanship – it is an odd sight to see, F16s flying over a photorealistic Falluja dropping clusterbombs on American Marines, but one that you accept for the sake of the game. Suspension of disbelief, a fair fight, a kill-to-die ratio of approximately 1-1 in the case of all but the best and worst players, whichever side they prefer to fight on.

And it all leads me to wonder what it would be like to write a videogame in which one dies a hundred times over before one successfully kills a single antagonist. The boredom of waiting to fight the enemy would be punctuated, in all but the rarest of cases, by sudden death from the air. After hours of waiting, the screen would simply go blank, over and over and over, without the player ever getting to fire a shot. The sole variety, perhaps, would come from death by other means – a sniper’s shot to the head or a round from a tank. But no matter how, the screen goes blank just the same way – you probably shouldn’t even get to appreciate the difference in the way that you just died again.

And it further leads me to wonder whether the ability to countenance the deaths of others on our fields of battle arrives via the fact that, when confronted by numbers like 1200 or 600,000, we have no more sense that each of those individuals had a backstory, independent subjectivity, a fully human life than we are able to believe that the programmers of games give each of the computer-contolled enemy figures independent initiative, fuzzily human logic, and the rest of the markings of existence equivalent to those that play the game and, eventually, win the game. The bad guys circle their programmed rounds, follow the strings and orders of the code, fire more slowly and less accurately that we do as we kill them. They are robots, bots, spam, studio-manufactured figments. And they all look the same with their swarthy skin and balaclavas and with the AK-47s that they grip and sometimes fire.

Their corpses, as in the games, fizzle and melt back into the earth a few seconds after they die. If they didn’t, their mouldering bodies would litter the field, the screen, and make it impossible to see the next one for the piles of previous victims.

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January 18, 2009 at 2:55 am

Posted in distraction, videogames, war