A couple years back, I wrote a dissertation on Heidegger and videogames. This was, from the outset, a contradictory endeavor. Heidegger would not have liked videogames.
Already in his lifetime, Heidegger did not like the cultural changes brought about by newly emerging digital technologies. “Cybernetics transforms language into an exchange of news,” he wrote in 1972, the very year Nolan Bushnell debuted Pong. “The arts become regulated-regulating instruments of information.”[i]
Moreover, Heidegger wasn’t big on moving-image culture, in general. He had no particular love for the cinema, which he saw as sapping our sense of the wondrous (das Er-Staunen, Heidegger’s translation of the Greek θαυμαστόν) in lived experience. “We might think in passing of all the extraordinary things the cinema must offer continually,” he writes, “what is new every day and never happened before becomes something habitual and always the same.” The uncommon acquires an “insidious habituality.” Genuine wondrousness is supplanted by manufactured spectacle.[ii]
In titling this category, I fought against a perverse desire for maximal irony: I didn’t call it “wondrousness.” I wanted to, though. Absent the burden of context, “wonder” is precisely the word I would use to describe the feeling these games provoke in me.
I chickened out, though. I went with the word “delight,” instead.
Tomorrow marks the 163rd anniversary of the publication of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods. I have decided to celebrate the occasion by resurrecting my old “Process Genre in Videogames” blog post series, turning an eye toward the USC Game Innovation Lab’s recently-released Walden, a game. I ended up having too a bit too much to say about it to fit into a single blog post, so I’ve split up my thoughts across two days.
Just a quick refresher: in this series, I borrow the term process genre from Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky’s work in cinema studies. According to Skvirsky’s definition, “process genre” films are films about labor, films that focus on processes of doing and making, that are fascinated with seeing tasks through to their completion. They are deliberately paced, meditative, and often political. In this series of posts (you can see them all here), I examine games that strike some of the same chords. Today, that means turning to the life and work of everybody’s favorite environmentalist pseudo-hermit, Henry David Thoreau.
The itch.io page for Walden, a game claims that the game is the product of a “very small core team” at the USC Game Innovation Lab working on the project for “the past ten years.” I first became aware of it in November 2011, when Tracy Fullerton sat down and had a wonderful talk with students during a session of the University of Chicago’s New Media Workshop. Back then, Fullerton described the project as a difficult balancing act, balancing the quantitative and systems-heavy “gamey” aspects of games—which are actually right there in Thoreau’s text, making this entire project of adaptation especially tempting—with the need to present nature, and the labor one does when living in it, as a source of unpredictable inspiration, worthy of our respect and wonder.
Night in the Woods tells the most vital story of any game in 2017. We’re only halfway through the year, but I doubt very much that it will be bested in this regard. Find out why below the fold, but beware of spoilers if you haven’t played it yet, and plan to. I will be discussing how this very important game’s themes resonate all the way to its ending.
What follows is an invited talk I gave last month at a university that will remain unnamed. Here, things get a little awkward: the talk in question was actually a job talk, and I am technically still waiting to hear back on the school’s final decision. Hence, the location of the talk remaining unnamed.
Originally, I was going to wait to post this talk until I had heard official word back on the status of the position (whether that news was good, or bad). I’ve decided to post it now, though, mostly because I attended an excellent panel at SCMS 2017, “Video Games and Queer Affect,” chaired by Bonnie Ruberg (an old compatriot of mine from Bard College) with papers by Whitney Pow (with whom I co-organized this conference) and Diana Pozo. Bonnie and Diana’s papers, especially, shared considerable overlap with the trends outlined here, down to including some of same case studies. It seems, then, that this material is very “of the moment,” and I didn’t want to let the opportunity to make is publicly available pass. I’m planning on moving this material forward into an article in the coming months. It’s exciting to be part of a community of peers who finds it as interesting as I do, and I’m definitely going to alter the direction and focus of aspects of this piece in response to the work I saw happening on the panel.
This post is part of a series that borrows the term process genre from Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky’s work in cinema studies, and explores its utility for videogame analysis. A quick definition: “process genre” films are films about labor, films that focus on processes of doing and making, that are fascinated with seeing tasks through to their completion. They are deliberately paced, meditative, and often political, in that they cast a penetrating eye on labor conditions. Are there games that the same chords? Posts in the series so far can be seen here.
On the docket for today: Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please (3909, 2013), a simulation of being a border guard in the fictional Soviet-bloc-style nation of Arstotzka in 1982. As you scrutinize people’s documents, weeding out the undesirables, stamping the passports of some travelers and detaining others, there is plenty of opportunity for political drama—in particular, do you do your best as a servant of your obviously oppressive government, or do you quietly aid rebel factions? But there’s also just the matter of making enough money to keep your house heated, your son fed, and getting medication for your elderly uncle. Since you’re paid by the number of entrants you correctly service, this means being good at your job: memorizing the bureaucratic rules, getting good at both quickly and carefully examining documents, and keeping your desk clean and orderly. It is, all things considered, as much a game about a desk as it is about a family, or a nation.