Research Statement

My work focuses on two varieties of moving image media: videogames and cinema. Although I pursue a broad comparative media approach, I balance this broadness with careful case studies of specific objects. I am committed to integrating conceptually rich philosophical inquiry with a strong devotion to rigorous formal analysis. I believe that digital games especially benefit from this approach. As games have passed through various academic fields, they have become a fragmented object, analyzed in terms of their narrative functioning, the systems of their mechanics, their rhetorical potential as cultural objects, and their status as software. In my own work, inspired by the prominent role of close reading and visual analysis in cinema studies, I delve deeply into individual games, looking at them not only as software, systems, and modes of cultural exchange, but also as objects grounded within the history of visual media.

This mix of philosophical inquiry and rigorous case studies animates my current book project, Tactile Abstractions: Game Interfaces, Identification, and Intimacy. When videogame studies was still in its infancy, many scholars, borrowing from film studies, tested out the efficacy of film theory’s concept of identification for analyzing interactive media. As comparisons of games to cinema waned in popularity, a new conception of games’ potential towards encouraging empathy took hold as a popular alternative. Recently, however, some of the game designers whose work has been a flashpoint for discussions of empathy in gaming—for instance, the queer trans designer Anna Anthropy—have rebelled against the term, criticizing its political presumptuousness. In Tactile Abstractions, I argue for a richer and more nuanced vocabulary for describing game interfaces and the connections they engender between players and their avatars. Games allow us to feel and to know things with and about characters that is not possible in any other medium: Their feelings bleed into ours as the distinction between self and other blurs, and we gain access to their expertise as we guide them through their activities. A fuller account of these affective and epistemological dimensions of the player-avatar relationship can offer enhanced explanations of games’ distinctiveness from other media. It can also keep hyperbolic pronouncements about games’ political and ethical potentials in check—while, simultaneously, enabling careful study of the successes of more achievable political projects. My investigation of the collaboration between games and players extends my dissertation’s analysis of the phenomenology of gaming, building upon a foundation of case studies attuned to the sensory and somatic experiences produced by videogame worlds. Tactile Abstractions focuses on games that bend the player-avatar relationship in productive ways, producing dramatic irony, suspense, or comedic appreciation—effects which exploit the epistemic gap between player and player-character.

Cinema studies presents a good starting toolset for the analysis of game interface audiovisual design, but I also turn to a component of games that has been shockingly under-theorized: control schemes. As the very title Tactile Abstractions indicates, our access to player-characters’ being-in-the-world is highly abstracted, but it is also richly haptic, consisting of bodily engagement and practiced gesture as much as images and sounds. Each chapter of Tactile Abstractions pushes and pulls between different types of “knowing” about a player-character and their world—visual, sonic, and tactile. For instance, the book’s third chapter, “Lines of Force,” examines the multiple registers through which the game Mirror’s Edge imparts its players with the expertise and mindset of an expert athlete. The game’s visual strategy for directing player attention—painting potential parkour paths through urban environments in bright red—is richly innovative, literally “coloring” our perception of the games’ world in terms of the player-characters’ expertise. The game’s control scheme, however, allows potential gaps to open up between character knowledge and player execution, creating a productive tension. Drawing from ecological psychology and the enactive approach to perception, I compare the control scheme of Mirror’s Edge to those of competing parkour-based action games, while contrasting its visual language to that of contemporaneous action cinema. The sensorimotor loops of Mirror’s Edge, I argue, offer a clear limit case of the usefulness of “identification” for game studies. Whereas psychological identification is based upon a foundation of the recognition of subjectivity, the player-avatar relationship has its roots in the realm of pre-reflective self-consciousness: the basic coherence of one’s action and one’s perception. This does not mean that identification is an obsolete term in interactive media, but it does mean that it requires some re-assessment, in order to re-appreciate its potential diversity and polymorphousness.

Since completing my dissertation, I have been writing and publishing new scholarship that will ultimately be incorporated into Tactile Abstractions. “Do the Locomotion: Obstinate Avatars, Dehiscent Performances, and the Rise of the Comedic Videogame,” an article that appeared in the March 2016 issue of The Velvet Light Trap, explores the conundrum of games based on physical comedy. How can games get us to laugh at the failures of a character that we control—and therefore, in some sense, “are”? Is the mechanism at work here masochistic, or is something more complicated afoot? In this article, I explore a handful of games that place players in the role of spectacularly physically inept characters, examining these games’ systematic de-skilling of their players through cumbersome control schemes. The end result, I argue, is the emergence of a unique character from the collaborative performance of user and machine, one that can serve as the butt of violent sight gags while insulating players from feelings of embarrassment or frustration. Furthermore, I argue that comedic games such as Octodad: Dadliest Catch—which places players in control of an octopus attempting to pass as human—witness the surprising emergence of game interfaces that critically interrogate the performative aspects of able-bodiedness.

The theoretical method that I developed in my dissertation—a mode of phenomenology that draws from perceptual psychology, alongside theories of playfulness and the imagination in art—is diverse in its implications. Tactile Abstractions explores one manifestation of my principle animating concerns. In my second book project, I turn my theoretical lens to a quite different arena: found-material films and videos. What does it mean to build new worlds from readymade parts? How do viewers imaginatively make sense of moving images constructed from detritus? To investigate these questions, this book turns to the work of three artists: Janie Geiser, an animator who works with children’s toys, Lewis Klahr, whose stop-motion films appropriate cut-out imagery from comics, and Phil Solomon, a found footage filmmaker who more recently has assembled videos out of footage captured from videogames. The films and videos of these artists, I argue, simultaneously address spectators’ imaginations and fingertips, resonating deeply with tactile memories of the manipulation of playthings during childhood and adolescence. Taking advantage of what Walter Benjamin characterizes as children’s ability to bring together “materials of widely differing kinds” into “their own small world of things,” these films encourage spectators to engage in long-dormant forms of imaginative sense-making, as a way of navigating their disparate found components. Drawing from phenomenology, Benjamin, and conceptions of the social role of play in contemporary cognitive science, this book explores the modes of spectatorial engagement encouraged by found-material moving images, and points a new way forward for studies of the haptic qualities of cinema.