If you’re in the Santa Barbara area, I’m giving a lunchtime talk tomorrow at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), located downtown next to the Paseo Nuevo shops. Information here: http://roundtable.nceas.ucsb.edu/2016/08/30/greening-games/.
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Given the current spate of video game movies (Warcraft, The Angry Birds Movie, Ratchet & Clank, Assassin’s Creed), I was recently interviewed by a reporter for The Christian Science Monitor regarding the challenges of adapting games to the big screen. You can check out the full article here.
Ecozon@: European Journal of Literature, Culture and Environment 8.2
Guest editors: John Parham (University of Worcester, UK) and Alenda Chang (University of California, Santa Barbara)
Green Computer and Video Games
In Last Child in the Woods (2008) Richard Louv indicts computers and game consoles as part of his thesis that the generations of children born since the 1970s are suffering from ‘nature-deficit disorder’. Yet gaming, now, is an enormous growth industry while, correspondingly, computer or video games are rapidly becoming a key area of research in ‘ecomedia’ or green cultural studies.
Ecocritical studies of games and gaming raise fundamental questions about the capacity of popular culture to present complex ecological and environmental ideas and themes and to raise public awareness, not least amongst substantial, often younger, audiences. In several studies critics have legitimately argued that games and gaming can have ecologically or environmentally damaging consequences: they can serve to remove, distance or screen us from nature; games can be ideologically complicit as Witherford and de Peuter suggest, powerfully, in Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games (2009); moreover, as Maxwell and Miller argue in Greening the Media (2012), supposedly low impact new media, including video or computer games, have merely perpetuated the detrimental material-ecological impact of ‘old media’: waste and pollution created by ‘planned cycles’ of obsolescence; or the toxic risk of rapidly discarded and dismantled components of disposable, rapidly evolving media technologies.
Nevertheless, a green reading of computer games encapsulates the contradictions that govern popular texts’ engagement with environmental or ecological themes. In that context, consideration of the anthropocentric and/or ideological dimensions of electronic games has to be balanced and offset against a variety of factors: the educational utility of ‘serious games’; McKenzie Wark’s argument that games productively dissolve the boundary between the virtual and the real (Gamer Theory (2007)); Alenda Y. Chang’s argument that we can learn ecological principles in the act (and interactivity) of playing a game (‘Games as Environmental Texts’, Qui Parle 19:2 (2011)); a complex ‘media ecology’ encompassing both a rich tradition of independent, countercultural, and ‘dissonant’ games, game companies, and gaming communities and online, massive multiplayer games where intercultural dialogue might facilitate an ‘eco-cosmopolitan’ popular culture. Most substantially, at the level of the text, there is also the potential of ‘meditative’ or immersive games to constitute a deep ecological sense of ecological interconnectedness; or, conversely, the role that educational games can play in teaching the precepts of ecological science or in nurturing awareness by simulating processes of social-ecological decision-making around topics such as energy supply, conservation, or the construction of sustainable cities (as in SimCity 4).
Proposals are invited for, but not limited to, essays considering video or computer games in relation to:
- representation, and the modelling of nature, environment, the sublime etc.
- interplays of real/virtual, action/simulation, the physical world/gamespace.
- imagining and constructing utopian and/or dystopian societies.
- environmental awareness and the formal properties of games/gaming, encompassing: interactivity; gameplay; narrative; game design; algorithmic structure; software code etc.
- games and sustainable education.
- games and scientific education.
- genre studies: e.g. farm games; strategy games; conservation games; ‘meditative’ games; adventure games.
- framings of nature and/or ideological framing in computer games.
- modes of production: the gaming industry; ‘indie’ games; massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs); public sector/educational games.
- ‘dissonant’ games, gamers, games companies.
- intercultural and ‘eco-cosmopolitan’ dimensions to gaming.
- the eco-materiality of game production, distribution, waste, recycling etc.
- games and ecocritical theory e.g. mimesis; dark ecology; material ecology.
Please direct your questions to John Parham firstname.lastname@example.org. Manuscripts (6.000 – 8.000 words) should be submitted via the online journal platform no later than January 15th, 2017. See http://www.ecozona.eu/index.php/journal. All submissions will be subject to peer review. Authors must comply with the guidelines of Ecozon@ as indicated on the platform, including title, abstracts and keywords (these must be provided in the language of the article, and in English and Spanish). MLA style is expected for citations. Permission must be obtained for any images used and included in the text. Manuscripts will be accepted in English, French, German, and Spanish. Submissions in other languages may be considered. Please discuss with the editors.
Although this is not a formal requirement, we would like to encourage potential contributors to contact the guest editor with an abstract (approx. 500 words) prior to handing in their full article. Please submit your abstract by September 15th, 2016.
I will also be speaking at UCI’s Critical Game Studies Symposium on Monday, May 2nd.
Details on the schedule and speakers can be found at the UCI School of Humanities’s website.
On Friday, April 29 I will be speaking at the Power Dynamics: Media and the Environment Conference at UCSB’s Loma Pelona Center. UCSB students are encouraged to attend this on-campus event!
Details on featured speakers and topics can be found on the Carsey-Wolf Center’s website.
On Monday, April 25th, I will be giving a short talk at the USC School of Cinematic Arts during a Playthink salon on “bringing games to life” (hosted by the wonderful Bonnie Ruberg and Jane Pinckard, of USC’s Interactive Media & Games Division).
Other featured speakers will include Harrison Gish and Ingmar Riedel-Kruse (Stanford University), and Interactive Media and Game Design MFA students Kylie Moses and Bethany Martin presenting works in progress.
You can find more information on the Playthink website.
Saturday, April 2, 2016
09:00AM-10:45AM (Session N)
N23: Speculative Aesthetics: Media Between Art and Science
Chair: Brooke Belisle (Stony Brook University)
Tung-Hui Hu (University of Michigan), “Media for 10,000 Years: Aesthetics, Visualization, and the Long Duration” (had to withdraw)
Alenda Chang (University of California, Santa Barbara), “An Infinite Canvas in Time” and Space: Big History, or Science Fiction?”
Kristopher Fallon (University of California, Davis), “Data Visualization and Documentary’s (In)visible Frontiers”
Nicole Starosielski (New York University), “Material Compositions of Agricultural Media”
This panel explores speculative media at the intersection of actual and virtual, abstract and material, art and science. The examples we will discuss defy easy categorization, and meet multiple definitions: they are games, models, works of art, experiments, data visualizations, scientific documents or demonstrations. They represent phenomena otherwise difficult to render, such as geological time, or the air that surrounds us. They engage complexity that is difficult to frame, such as the algorithmic extrapolation of a galaxy, or the human and non-human ecology of one farm.
Cinema has always opened an unstable relationship between the fantastic and evidentiary: consider, for example, the similar magic of “trick films” and time-lapse studies, or the intimacy and yet distortion of an extreme close up. Today, the properties of digital, algorithmic technologies both reiterate and reconstruct such tensions between observation and fabrication, perception and imagination. On one hand, digital media have allowed new “techno-aesthetic regimes”, as one of our panelists puts it, to proliferate, allowing for a user to browse and zoom through the massive timescales of a computer-generated Deep History or the infinite space of a virtual universe. On the other hand, scholars have increasingly understood natural and elemental processes–atmospheric, geological, waterways–as themselves forms of media, and used other experimen tal processes to interrogate and expand the boundaries of cinema and media studies. How do the speculative aesthetics of new media draw upon the history of cinematic representation but also extrapolate emergent modes of representation, exhibition, and spectatorship? How do they reshape formal conventions for rendering space and time, stretch our notions of “documentary,” and even challenge our definition of “media”?
“An Infinite Canvas in Time” and Space: Big History, or Science Fiction?
Historians, scientists, and designers of speculative or science-fiction worlds increasingly find themselves before similar challenges. As the range and depth of specialized knowledge expands, they must not only articulate the nature, scale, and complexity of phenomena ranging from stellar evolution to climate change, but also render those articulations compelling for non-expert audiences. Several recent projects are attempting to straddle these aesthetic and scientific imperatives while making grand swathes of space and time accessible: the interactive timeline ChronoZoom, dedicated to “visualizing the history of everything,” and the highly anticipated No Man’s Sky, billed as a “science-fiction game set in an infinite procedurally generated galaxy.”
Even as one emphasizes time and the other space in presenting the cosmos, both ChronoZoom and No Man’s Sky treat representation, navigability, and complexity as integral concerns. Part of a recent push for “Big History,” ChronoZoom’s creators hope that it will introduce a “browsing” model of knowledge acquisition more visual and intuitive than text-based searching. The developers of No Man’s Sky face an analogous task, that of creating organized and engaging complexity out of potentially infinite material. Granted, ChronoZoom has been proposed as a response to the overabundance of information in our contemporary moment, a means to skim and rearrange the ever-growing stuff of history, while No Man’s Sky promises to set before us a fictional computer-generated game universe without end. Yet both suggest novel techno-aesthetic regimes predicated on eliminating the perceived boundaries of existing media—one, a visual epistemology based on “deep zoom” image technology, and the other an alternative method of producing playable content using algorithm-driven procedural generation rather than manual design.
Despite ambitious claims to the contrary, both ChronoZoom and No Man’s Sky are inevitably asymptotic enterprises, always approaching but never reaching total coverage. In fact, what makes them so intriguing is not the rhetoric of absolute scale, but the way they invite us to craft media experiences at effective or relative scales, set against the field of inexhaustible time and space.
 “ChronoZoom.” Microsoft Research. 26 Aug. 2015. http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/projects/chronozoom/.
 “No Man’s Sky.” Hello Games. 26 Aug. 2015. http://www.no-mans-sky.com/.
- Costikyan, Greg. Uncertainty in Games. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013.
- Dyer-Witherford, Nick, and Greig de Peuter. Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.
- Liu, Cixin. The Three-Body Problem. Trans. Ken Liu. New York: Tor, 2014.
- Tong, Chris. “Ecology without Scale: Unthinking the World Zoom.” Animation 9.2 (2014): 196-211.
I was fortunate enough to be on a great gaming panel at last year’s SCMS in Montreal, organized by Braxton Soderman and Peter Krapp at UC Irvine. The success of that panel, which took on the topic of permadeath in gaming, has led us to propose a special issue to the Journal of Gaming and Virtual Worlds. As a first step, we are now soliciting ideas for individual contributions to the issue (abstracts ONLY). Call below! Please circulate widely.
Journal of Gaming and Virtual Worlds
Proposed Special Issue: Permadeath and Precarity
Call for Abstracts
Due: February 15, 2016
Length: 350-500 words
In the early days of coin-operated arcade games, the cost of defeat was clearly defined in monetary terms. A player inserted a coin and played until her skill, luck, or money ran out. But as arcade games waned in many markets throughout the 1990s, home console and PC game development replaced coin-op design with approaches built instead around player empowerment and narrative progress. The sense of risk was minimized. Recently, a new counter-design movement has emerged which reemphasizes the precariousness of play by making defeat, death, and failure irrevocable. Permanent death or permadeath (PD), as it has come to be known, is experiencing a renaissance with the release of games such as Heavy Rain, DayZ, Don’t Starve, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and One Chance.
Why might this be the case? What does PD teach us about the current state of game culture and its future? How does PD illuminate the history of video games? And what distinguishes the new PD from older forms of permanent player death found in coin-op games and roguelikes? How might the rise in ludic experiments with the mechanics of mortality relate to contemporary issues surrounding the Anthropocene, neoliberal economics, and even the so-called death of the monolithic “gamer” identity?
We have paired permadeath as a design principle with the conceptual nexus of risk invoked by the term “precarity” in order to suggest parallel historical and cultural trajectories. We hope that the juxtaposition of permadeath and precarity will inspire contributions that address continuing gaps in games scholarship as well as support ongoing interest in topics such as gamification, game history and narrative, gamer identity, and the nature of play. In this proposed special issue, we would like to assemble not only essays that explore what perspectives PD games open up in terms of game design, the psychology of play, and interactive narrative in single-player games, but also those that discuss why PD is less prevalent in multiplayer games (though this might be changing), and what limitations the option imposes on what is or is not likely to be a part of designing playable characters in the future.
Please note that while we are soliciting contributions that address PD specifically, we would also welcome those that approach issues of precarity, death, and the consequences of failure in video games in broader terms.
Some potential areas of interest:
- The history and culture of PD
- PD and narrative
- PD and crisis culture
- PD and avatar identification
- PD as genre (or PD with respect to “The Berlin Interpretation”)
- Cultural determinates of the rise of contemporary PD
- Player preservation vs. player persistence
- PD as a difficulty setting (hardcore mode in Minecraft, Diablo, etc., or as a player-imposed goal such as a “no death run”)
- Player communities and PD
- Player responses to PD
- “Save scumming”
- PD as an emerging genre (as opposed to PD as a feature across game genres)
- Roguelikes and PD games
- The concept of PD in relation to ideas/concepts such as player affect–e.g., thrill, tension, frustration, failure, risk, and or mastery
- A close reading/playing of a game related to PD
- Comparative media approaches to PD
Abstracts should be submitted to permadeathCFP@gmail.com by February 15, 2016. Please feel free to direct any questions to that account.
Thank you! We look forward to your submissions,
Braxton, Jesús, and Alenda
Braxton Soderman is an Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies at UC Irvine.
Jesús Costantino is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame.
Alenda Chang is an Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies at UC Santa Barbara.
One of the wonderful editors over at the digital environmental humanities blog, Ant Spider Bee, recently asked me to contribute another post, following the site’s exciting relaunch as a PressForward pilot project. The result is an admittedly brief list of resources and tips for those looking to use games in “envhum” teaching or research, but in a later post I will offer a more detailed discussion of game-design pedagogy as well as a case study of some of my work-in-progress.
Find my first Ant Spider Bee Post from 2013, on “slow violence” and ecological game studies, here.