Rear Left


I have scarcely begun to make you understand that I don’t intend to play the game.” – Guy Debord, Critique of Separation (1961: film)

It’s been about six weeks since I submitted my dissertation, and I think I’m almost ready to read through it and begin thinking about making revisions to spruce it up for submission to publications.

Writing this piece was difficult for a number of reasons. I work. I have a young child. I also don’t find the act of writing easy. The ideas are there, and I enjoy research, but putting sentences together is hard. Let alone 5-figure word counts. I blame television. And videogames. So I write about videogames as television.

From the outset I was pretty sure that I’d be writing something about machinima, but it took me a good 6 months to nail down a topic. Just when I thought I had a pretty good idea of where I was going, the academic-publishing complex went and dropped a bunch of new publications on machinima in the last month I was writing. In the end I settled on using one video as a case study of the form’s potential to disrupt the immersive spectator-position of videogames.

Paolo Pedercini(of Molleindustria)’s Welcome to the Desert of the Real is far from representative. Not of machinima. Not of Molleindustria’s other work. That said, I argue that this piece demonstrates the capacity of machinima to promote a critical spectatorship position by disrupting the immersive characteristics of its videogame source, America’s Army.

The thrust of my argument is that machinima can be read in film/video studies terms, but that the spectator mode triggered in a game-literate audience by the low grade 3D animation of videogames and other visual cues demands a syncretic analysis that incorporates both film and videogame studies. Moreover, this piece speaks to both Alexander Galloway‘s notion of countergaming, and the concept to which it refers, Peter Wollen‘s description of Jean-Luc Godard‘s later work as countercinema. Amidst clamour for the gamification of everything, this instance of machinima offers the possibility of speaking within games against the dominant and oppressive logic of gaming.

I’m going to revise it and send it out to some journals. If it’s not accepted anywhere I’ll post it here and elsewhere. Hit me if you really want a look.


Mapping Fauxrabia

Posted in Dog Food, Gaming the System, Personal/Meta, Race/ism by rearleft on December 10, 2010


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.

Mapping Fauxrabia

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.




    The Cat and the Coup

    Posted in Dog Food, Gaming the System by rearleft on October 26, 2010

    The very idea of a “documentary game” may be hard for many to come to terms with. By their respective definitions, documentaries claim to portray the truth or reality of a situation, and a game is a cultural form that is defined by the variability of its outcome.

    The winner of this year’s Indiecade Award in the Documentary category, The Cat and the Coup, leads the player backwards through time in an exposition of the life of Mohammed Mossadegh. Mossadegh, a largely unknown historical figure in the West, was the Iranian Prime Minister who was deposed by a CIA coup following his nationalisation of that nations oil industry, which had previously been run by the monopoly Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which later became British Petroleum, most recently rebranded as BP.

    Still looking for a platform for release, promotional videos for the game give a sense of its aesthetics and mechanics. Persian miniatures provide an ingenious reference point for a two dimensional representation of a meaning-rich, hypermediated mise-en-scene that incorporates both images and text, augmented in the game by interactivity. The Cat and the Coup‘s narrative moves backwards through time, with user experience personalised through the character of Mossadegh, but placed at a distance by focalising user interaction through the character of a house-cat. The curious player, embodied as cat-avatar, leads the deposed Prime Minister from his death-bed back through memories of events to the point of his election. In this procedural metaphor for the process of engaging with the subjective experience of engaging with concrete historical events, designers Peter Brinson and Kurosh ValaNejad create a give an audience that is often presented with dehistoricised version of the US and UK’s relationship with Iran a way into a narrative in a manner that is simultaneously playful and rooted in political history.

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    Videos are now available online of presentations and panel discussions from the Art History of Games Conference, held at the Georgia Institute of Technology in February of this year. By locating video games in the discourse of art history, the conference’s gathering of a distinguished line-up of media theorists and game designers take on the stubborn critique of video games as being merely toys, crude entertainment, distractions, cultural forms that are something other than art. A key tension that runs throughout the presentations is the need to on one hand balance the desire to promote games and game studies as having attained a degree of maturity as a legitimate fields within the elite academic and art worlds, and on the other to recognise and account what makes a game a game and how this sets games apart from other cultural forms that are elevated to the status of art.

    Two main tactics for arguing this point can be seen in the presentations:

    1. The location of video game aesthetics in a history of other artistic forms (painting, cinema, theatre, etc).
    2. The development and identification of “art-games”, cultural artifacts that function both as games and as works of art.

    What is perhaps most valuable about this conversation is not the rehabilitation of video games as a “legitimate” “high” “art”, but the tricky challenges that describing the conditions under which a video game would qualify as a work of art pose to art criticism itself.

    Using the analogy of cinema, much of what seems to qualify any particular game as a work of art is the signature style of an auteur. In games commissioned for the conference, Jason Rohrer, Nathalie Pozzi and Eric Zimmerman, and design team Tale of Tales each demonstrate their particular authorial voice in game-form. Jason Rohrer’s 2003 game Passage is often held up as an exemplar of an art game that is both beautiful and efficient in its ludic meditation on life and death. We see the themes of death and memory appearing again in Tale of Tales’ Vanitas, while Pozzi and Zimmerman’s 16 Tons seems to contribute to current conversations around play and labor, and Rohrer’s Sleep is Death is a sort of meta-game, a story-building environment.

    The emergence of the art-game auteur can be compared to directors of the European New Wave and later to iconoclast film directors in the US and elsewhere. Art games play with the conventions and audience expectations of the form in much the same way as art-house cinema played with the conventional narrative and production modes of films produced under the studio system. Taking this analogy a step further, one might consider the possibility of future gaming movements equivalent to Third Cinema, the explicitly anti-colonial mode of filmmaking that emerged in the Americas in the 1960s. To revolutionise art is one thing, the art of revolution is quite another. It would be foolish to attempt to transpose the history of cinema or any other cultural form onto video games directly, but in the search for ways in which cultural work can be incorporated into social justice struggles, the experience of prior movements which have sought to do such work may be instructive.

    Fifty years into its history, auteurism instituted a particular approach to artistry for a cultural form that was often seen as being mere entertainment. Video games seem to be entering a similar era. Those concerned with the political impact of the video game form should already be looking forward to what’s coming next.

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    Social Galaxies

    Posted in DigiCult, Dog Food, Gaming the System by rearleft on September 10, 2010

    A recent study from The Nielsen Company shows that US internet users are spending a greater proportion of their time online using social networking sites, in online games, and watching videos. Concurrent with this increase, a significant decrease has been seen in the proportion of time users are spending on email, instant messaging services, and “portals”, walled gardens often maintained by service providers (eg Yahoo, MSN). For the first time, US internet users are spending more time overall playing video games than they are using email.

    2009 - 2010 Change (%) in Time Spent on Top 10 Internet Sectors. Source: The Nielsen Company

    To complicate questions around how users spend their time online, the function of online social networks and gamespaces has begun crossing over into the traditional territory of other categories of internet use as measured by Nielsen’s NetView studies. For example, instant messaging, email-like messaging, and accessing news and weather updates are activities that are increasingly taking place in social networking sites (as studied by Naomi Baron in Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World, 2008).

    Furthermore, Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPG) increasingly exhibit characteristics of social networks, with the added complication that the personas that inhabit these spaces often straddle the identities of their “in-game” avatar and their IRL (In Real Life) or “meatspace” personage. A recent article by Kjartan Emilsson, Managing Director of CCP Asia, a game developer, highlights the interrelationship between the social networks that appear in gamespaces, the information architecture that underlies the game, and the physical computer networks on which they run. Emilsson’s description of these layers of networks (social, informational, and machinic) that make up the world of EVE Online, a MMORPG with 340,000 user accounts, centers around the benefits of employing a “single-shard database architecture” (ie everyone and everything in one big database) versus a “sharded architecture” (several seemingly continuous, but actually separate gamespaces). Emilsson argues that in spite of the significant technical difficulties posed by having such massive numbers of players coexisting in a single-shard architecture, the emergent social aspects of the game facilitated by maintaining a continuous gamespace create a richer game environment and by the very complexity of the system they create, encourage innovation by the game’s designers.

    image source:

    Although highly technical in its exposition, this article can be understood in conjunction with the work of theorists like Manuel Castells, Sherry Turkle, and Howard Rheingold when they discuss concepts of individual and community identities on the internet. Writing in the mid 1990s in reference to MUDs, the primitive predecessors of MMORPGs, Turkle notes “We come to see ourselves differently as we catch sight of our images in the mirror of the machine” (in Life on the Screen: Identity in the age of the Internet, 1995, p9). Technical choices made in structuring of networks that underlie the social spaces of MMORPGs play a significant role in setting the discursive frame for the construction of social identities in these worlds that exist both within and parallel to materiality.

    If internet usage continues its drift away from modes like email and portals and towards social spaces such as social networking sites and massively multiplayer online games, how will the social practices of communication and identification online change? What will this mean for the technical infrastructure of the networks that support them?