Published: “Do(n’t) Hold Your Breath: Rules, Trust, and the Human at the Keyboard”


My article “Do(n’t) Hold Your Breath: Rules, Trust, and the Human at the Keyboard” was just recently published in a special issue of New Review of Film and Television Studies entitled Breath: Image and Sound, edited by Jean-Thomas Tremblay. Readers of the blog may recognize it as being built on the bones of this previous blog post. Hooray! Academic blogging acting as a stimulant for future writing, just as it is supposed to.


The maintenance of rules within the ‘black box’ of code, away from human eyes, constitutes a major difference between digital games and the social history of their analog counterparts. Meanwhile, the incorporation of new types of human behavior into digital games’ rulesets has placed games on the cutting edge of machine surveillance technologies. This article examines several digital games that stand in opposition to these trends, by opting out of monitoring certain aspects of player behavior, and opening social dynamics of trust and cheating that digital games have historically avoided or shut down. Chief among these examples are Asphyx (Droqen, circa 2012) and With Those We Love Alive (Porpentine, 2014), two games that incorporate player breathing into their mechanics, while forgoing any technical means of monitoring players’ respiration. In place of the usual command/output logic of human–machine interaction, these games map a more intimate alternative, in which players’ relationship to their avatars and in-game actions is built from a foundation of trust, shared truth, and consent between human bodies and software operations.

DOI link for those with institutional access here. I’ll be uploading a post-print version, suitable for those who don’t have institutional access to New Review, soon. [UPDATE: It’s here.]

Games of the Decade: Intimacy


The games in my “ambition” category all “aimed big.” They tried to simulate the daily lives of an entire community, or put the entire history of videogame storytelling in their satirical sights. This category can be seen as the reverse of that. If my “ambition” games were large in scope, these games are small. They are cozier, more intimate, content to make sharp observations on a small scale, or to experiment within a tighter and more focused domain.

You can also think of this category as an extension of sorts to my “stakes” category, from two days ago. Much like Gravitation or That Dragon, Cancer, many of these are about interpersonal relationships. They are about acting ethically as a parent, or a sibling, or a lover, or … an interstellar salvager who has rescued a couple of AIs.

Okay, so, the connection might not be obvious at first. But, much like the games in my “stakes” sub-list, these are games that give you stranger, more precise goals than saving the princess or saving the world. They give you goals that are deeply intertwined with the hopes and fears of characters you get to know … well, intimately.

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Here on My Side of the Screen


(I’m officially retiring my usual “Ian here” greeting, as, in the absence of student posts, there will be no one but me posting on this blog for the foreseeable future.)

Early in his book Pilgrim in the Microworld, a phenomenological account of videogame expertise that stands as landmark work of first-person game criticism, David Sudnow attempts to describe, to a presumably completely ignorant reader, the experience of playing Breakout (Atari, 1972). “There’s that world space over there, this one over here,” he writes, “and we traverse the wired gap with motions that make us nonetheless feel in a balanced extending touch with things.”[i]

Today, the term “wired gap” is archaic—we sit comfortably in the age of wireless game controllers. But the general logic of this gap, and how it is traversed, nonetheless persists. On the one side, we have the electronic world represented on the screen. On the other side, we have ourselves, cordoned off from the world of the game by virtue of being flesh-and-blood. If we act upon that other world from our side of the screen, it must be by virtue of some sort of electronic input device: keyboard and mouse, DualShock 4, Wii Remote, Jungle Beat bongo drum, what have you. Wired or not, the relationship we have with that world on the other side of the screen is necessarily mediated by technology: sever that particular link, and our involvement with it ceases.

Not all games follow this logic, however. In this post, I’ll be looking at three games, all of which came out around 2012–2014, that ask you to do more, as a player, than simply manipulate an electronic interface. These games have a different sort of contract with their player. They ask you agree to more wide-ranging sets of behaviors over on your side of the screen, which, by their very nature, cannot be regulated in strict procedural terms. These are games that re-map the points of contact between our fleshy, spacious realm and the realm of bits and pixels.

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