The school year’s done and I’ve made it half way through my Master’s degree in Digital Communication and Culture. I came back to school with the plan to take the work that I’d been doing at the intersection of media, education, and activism, and rethink what that work means and how it works when this stuff we call media mutates into new shapes and streams. Below is an extract of an essay I wrote in the second semester on space in video games (as in geography, not outer space), and the construction of arab/muslim/oriental identities in video games. Full text downloadable here: MappingFauxrabia.odt
Fauxrabia [...] is a way of articulating the contradictory nature of this imagined (and in some sense experienced through gameplay) country that is both unreal and contributes to the production of reality. To describe the cultures represented in these games as being arab, or muslim is to conflate the vastly diverse cultures of people from as far afield as Morocco and Kashmir, Kazakhstan and Somalia into a singular signifier of Otherness when held in oppositional relationship to the Western player-character.
Fauxrabia is a simulacrum (Baudrillard, 1994). It is a lie that expresses a truth about the West’s conception of itself in opposition to the Other. It is a computer-generated, player-navigated, screen-represented space. It is a contemporary cultural manifestation of Saïd’s model of Orientalism:
“…it not only creates, but also maintains; it is rather than expresses, a certain will or intention to understand, in some cases control, manipulate, even to incorporate, what is a manifestly different (or alternative and novel) world; it is, above all, a discourse that is by no means in direct, corresponding relationship with political power in the raw, but rather is produced and exists in an uneven exchange with various kinds of power…”
-Edward Saïd, Orientalism (1978, p 12). Italicisation from the original.
The spatiality of video games is suggested in the very fact that we refer to them by the visual medium of the interface through which we interact with them. In all but a few novelty games where audio monitors or haptic devices are foregrounded, the video or computer monitor takes primacy as the device used for human-computer interaction with the underlying code that embodies the game’s rule system and its representation through a graphical user interface. Furthermore, the vast majority of games involve the simulation of a spatial environment, often organised as one or a series of maps, segmented into levels. These two geographies taken together, the space of the interface-screen and the space of the game map, constitute what I will refer to as the gamespace. McKenzie Wark (2007, pp006-008) has argued that the logic of gaming has become such an integral aspect of contemporary culture that it has “colonised reality”, moving out of the sites of processor and screen that support the virtual world and extending the gamespace into material space.
Transcending the contentious narratology-ludology debates of video game studies, Jesper Juul (2005) suggests that games should be considered “half-real” in that they are comprised of both rules, the underlying system of game mechanics, and fiction, the narrative and representative aspects of the game. Thus, descriptions of characters, spaces, and events in a game are real insofar as they describe the mechanics of the game-system, and unreal, in their description of a fictional story or abstract setting. Questions of spatiality bring up an interesting challenge to this binary.
“[...] space in games is a special case. The level design of a game world can present a fictional world and determine what players can and cannot do at the same time. In this way, space in games can work as a combination of rules and fiction.”
Jesper Juul, Half-Real (2005, p 163). Italicisation from the original.
To put it another way, game level maps determine the affordances of a gamespace available to the player, as well as the representation of simulated space that is mapped onto a video monitor.
Maps are inherently political (Wood, 1992, Kolko 2000). They include and exclude aspects of geography, simplifying and distorting the material world to frame their users’ interaction with space through the embedding of their creators’ worldview. The computer interface can be seen as a map that allows human interaction with the underlying system of a software’s code (Selfe & Selfe 1994), which in turn also carries ideological assumptions (Nakamura 2005, Kolko 2000). In their study of the politics of computer interfaces in educational settings, Selfe & Selfe note:
“Within the virtual space represented by these interfaces, and elsewhere within computer systems, the values of our culture – ideological, political, economic, educational – are mapped both implicitly and explicitly, constituting a complex set of material relations among culture, technology, and technology users.”
- Cynthia Selfe & Richard Selfe, Politics of the Interface (1994, p 485)
In Fauxrabian geographies, the ideologies that we see encoded in these maps remediate stereotypes of the oriental Other from older cultural forms such as cinema and literature (Shaheen 2001), as well as from contemporary political and journalistic portrayals of Western conflict with Islam.
Consider the above remediation of militarist aesthetics in regards to the nature of the United States’ current military engagement in Pakistan. Predator drones are controlled by pilots at Creech Air Force Base near Las Vegas, using an interface that features a screen and joystick. As satellite imaging has extended the US military’s map across the entire globe, the distance between the seer and the seen has both been extended to tens of thousands of kilometres and collapsed to the space between eyeball and screen. Viewing the terrain from above, the drone pilot is able to see and therefore to control, with the power of death from above, the territory on the ground on the other side of the world pictured on their screen. This space, framed by the ideologies of military and moral superiority, contains an alien Other whose domination defines the character of its observer in opposition. The alienation of the remote cyborg warrior in the US from their targets on the ground in Pakistan parallels that of the Modern Warfare player from their Fauxrabian enemies.
“Once games required an actual place to play them, whether on the chess board or the tennis court. Even wars had battle fields. Now global positioning satellites grid the whole earth and put all of space and time into play. Warfare, they say, now looks like video games. Well don’t kid yourself, war is a video game – for the military entertainment complex. To them it doesn’t matter what happens on the ground. The ground – the old-fashioned battlefield itself – is just a necessary externality to the game.”
– Mckenzie Wark, Gamer Theory (2007, p10). Italicisation from the original.