Category: Games

Interview for The Christian Science Monitor

Given the current spate of video game movies (Warcraft, The Angry Birds MovieRatchet & 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.WarcraftMovie

CFP: Permadeath and Precarity

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

Summer 2017

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 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


Editor Info:

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.

Growing Games on Ant Spider Bee

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.

CFP: Queerness and Games Conference 2015


Passing this on from conference organizer Bonnie Ruberg:

“The Queerness and Games Conference, an annual, community-oriented, nationally-recognized event dedicated to exploring the intersection of LGBTQ issues and video games, is accepting submissions for presentations at the 2015 conference now through June 15!”

Full details here.

Reposted from the CCRMA blog. Note: travel expenses and room and board are not covered, just tuition. But no previous experience in computer music is required! Just lots and lots of enthusiasm for both music and games!

Women in Music and Gaming Scholarship

Summer workshop opportunity to study Music and Gaming

Promote the engagement of young women in the fields of game design and development and interactive electronic and computer music.


Up to 2 (two) women (between ages 16-30) will be selected to attend the Designing Musical Games::Gaming Musical Design Summer Workshop at CCRMA with full tuition scholarship. A certificate will be given to each participant upon successful completion of the workshop.


This hands-on workshop will explore cutting edge techniques for building interactive sound and music systems for games and 2D/3D rendered environments. To better understand the link between virtual space and sound, students will learn the basics of 3D art and modelling, game programming, interactive sound synthesis and computer networking using Open Sound Control. During this intensive week, students will build their own fully functional interactive musical game world. Each student will leave the workshop with a fully playable demo of their own custom musical game experience.
Topics and technologies covered will include:
● Game Design and Development with Unreal Engine 4 and Unity3D
● Interactive Audio Programming with Pure Data, LibPD, SuperCollider and ChucK
● 3D Art and Modelling with 3DS Max and Maya
● Procedural Music and Sound
● Algorithmic and Generative music


The Stanford Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA, pronounced  ‘karma’) is an internationally renowned multi-disciplinary facility where composers and researchers work together using computer-based technology both as an artistic medium and as a research tool.


Young women enthusiastic about music and gaming are invited to apply. Age range is approximately between 16 and 30. No previous background in computer music is required.
Please send an e-mail to Nette Worthey (networth _AT_ ccrma _DOT_ stanford _DOT_ edu) with the following information:
a) Full name
b) Date of birth
c) Phone number
d) Preferred e-mail address
e) Current school (if any)
f) A one-page document stating why you are interested in this opportunity. Though no previous experience is required to attend the course, feel free to mention any past work you may have done (for example, any relevant game design or development experience, musical experience, music and gaming software you have used, etc. If there are links available to any of your work online, feel free to include them as well).
DEADLINE: June 1, 2015.
Recipients will be selected after review of all applicants’ materials.


*  The workshop will take place from July 20 to July 24, 2015 (click here  for details: )
*  The recipients will receive a full tuition waiver to register for the Designing Musical Games workshop. This scholarship does not include room and board, nor transportation expenses, and it does not have any cash value.
* The selected student(s) may choose to participate of the workshop at either full time or part time capacity (see workshop website for details on each option).

Friend and colleague Timothy Welsh is organizing the latest installment of the Games and Literary Theory Conference Series, to be held at his home institution of Loyola University in New Orleans. The call details are below:

# International Conference Series in Games and Literary Theory Third Annual Conference

Hosted by Loyola University New Orleans, Department of English & School of Mass Communication

New Orleans, Louisiana USA

November 20-22, 2015

The Games and Literary Theory Conference Series addresses the scope and appeal of interdisciplinary approaches to the study of games and games’ impact on other fields in the Humanities. It began in 2012 as a PhD seminar and workshop arranged by the Department of English at the University of Malta in collaboration with IT University of Copenhagen and subsequently expanded into an annual conference. The inaugural Games and Literary Theory conference convened at the University of Malta in 2013 (; the 2nd annual conference was held at the University of Amsterdam in 2014 (

The 3rd annual Games and Literary Theory conference is scheduled to meet in the USA at Loyola University New Orleans during November 2015.

We are particularly interested in digital game modalities and how these might be seen as reconfiguring and questioning concepts, practices and orthodoxies integral to literary theory (i.e.

textuality, subjectivity, authorship, the linguistic turn, the ludic, and the nature of fiction). The conference will also explore the ways in which theoretical discourses in the area of game studies can benefit from critical concerns and concepts developed within the fields of literary and cultural  theory, such as undecidability, the trace, the political unconscious, the allegorical, and the autopoietic. Likewise the conversation about narrative and games continues to raise questions concerning the nature of concepts such as fiction and the virtual, or indeterminacies across characters, avatars and players.

The Games and Literary Theory conference has adopted a single-track format allowing all attendees to attend all presentations and discussions. The organizers of the Third Annual International Conference invite proposals that focus on issues related, but not limited to, any (or a combination of) the following:

– Textuality in literature and games

– Rethinking fiction after with digital games

– Characters, avatars, players, subjects

– New forms of narrative and games

– Games and the rethinking of culture

– Genre study and criticism

– Digital games, literariness, and intermediality

– Digital games and authorship and/or focalization

– Reception theory, reader experience, player experience: New phenomenologies for critique

– Gender in games, literature, and theory

– Digital games, literary theory, and posthumanism

– Representations of disability in interactive media

– Possible Worlds Theory and games

– Digital games in literature

For earliest consideration, please submit abstracts of 250-300 words as the body of an email with a subject line “GamesLit15” to Timothy Welsh ( by April 1, 2015. The organizers will review proposals and confirm acceptances beginning May 1, 2015.

For information and updates, please refer to the conference website

( and twitter feed (@gameslit15).

The Game Without Us

This March, I’m fortunate to be presenting again at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) conference (in Montreal 3/25-3/29). As usual, the program is so packed with goodies that conflicts are inevitable, but this promises to be a stellar panel, on a topic that remains largely unexplored in academic game studies. The original CFP and my talk abstract are included below.

Thursday, March 26, 2015 05:00PM-06:45PM (Session J)

J16: You Only Live Once? Permadeath and Video Games
Room: 16
Chair: Braxton Soderman (University of California, Irvine)
Alenda Chang (University of Connecticut), “The Game without Us”
Jesus Costantino (University of Notre Dame), “Death by Design: Permadeath and Precarity in Indie Games”
Braxton Soderman (University of California, Irvine), “No Room for Play: The Politics of Permadeath”
Respondent: Peter Krapp (University of California, Irvine)


CFP: Video Games and Permadeath

It has become a cliché that games are attractive to players as forms of risk management—they can venture out with avatars because even if they get wounded or killed, the game allows you to continue from the point of failure. And right away we are confronted with the next “entrepreneurial” cliché—that what one learns from mistakes is not their avoidance but the allowance for some room for error. Even in more extreme cases such as the game Braid, death itself is nullified and removed in order to elevate the logic of puzzle solving over the thrill of potential (and sometimes devastating) failure. But what if games did not allow for easy recovery, continuance, and persistence of accumulated resources and identity?

Yet, this is nothing new. Permanent death or permadeath (PD) was widespread in the early days of video games and coin-op machines before being considered a “dead-end” for game design and going “underground” (e.g. in roguelike games). Yet PD has recently respawned and is experiencing a renaissance with the release of games such as Heavy Rain, DayZ, Don’t Starve, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, One Chance and others. Why is this 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?

This panel will not only explore what perspectives PD games open up in terms of game design, the psychology of play, and interactive narrative in single-player games, but we also seek proposals for detailed discussions of why PD is less prevalent in multi-player 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. Proposals should discuss at least one concrete example of PD in video games in some detail.

Some potential ideas (though certainly not exhaustive):

The history of PD

PD and narrative

PD and avatar identification

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 responses to PD “Save scumming”

PD as an emerging genre (as opposed to PD as a feature across game genres) PD as a feature of roguelike games (or part of “The Berlin Interpretation” of such games) The concept of PD in relation to ideas/concepts such as thrill, tension, frustration, failure, risk and mastery A close reading/playing of a game related to PD

From The Last of Us

“The Game Without Us” (A. Chang)

Consider two recent, related thought experiments:

  • Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, which imagined what Earth would eventually look like if humans vanished all at once, leaving their wheatfields and plastics, ranch homes and land mines behind (the short answer: just fine, albeit with lots and lots of rotting wood and a depressingly stable smorgasbord of synthetic chemicals), and
  • Eric Zimmerman’s “real-life permadeath” game design challenge at the 2010 Game Developers’ Conference, which asked its competitors to pitch games incorporating death in the real world. The three entries, Last Game and Testament, HeavenVille, and Karma, tackled the composing of wills, building social networks out of dead people, and facing death as the terminally ill.

Given this, we might be tempted to read permadeath’s resurgence symptomatically, as evidence of a growing awareness of the precarity of human existence in what has been dubbed the Anthropocene (or the sixth megaextinction). After all, permadeath games are often survivalist dramas, pitting people against each other or against environments characterized by scarcity and unpredictability. But while player-character permadeath is usually the necessary corollary to ecological permadeath, current definitions and realizations of game permadeath remain narrow-mindedly anthropocentric—this despite many of the most compelling permadeath games (Minecraft, Dwarf Fortress, Don’t Starve) featuring complex natural environments. The winning GDC pitch, the parodic HeavenVille, dreamed of awarding points for famous dead people, not the rapidly growing ranks of extinct species. And even when permadeath explicitly confronts ecocide (One Chance), salvation lies in the preservation of a human cellular blueprint.

What would an expanded notion of permadeath allow, one that placed the nonhuman (Shelter) and even the nonliving on par with the human (death is, by definition, not just the end of life, but also the termination of the existence or duration of things)? How might permadeath force a rethinking of resource management (expendability, limitation) or survival or even win/fail states in games? While the permadeath conceit of randomly generated worlds obscures both a generic impulse and what we might call the hyperobjective operations of games’ environmental logic, games in this genre testify to the fantasy of permanence and how inseparable contemporary notions of individual risk are from narratives of global environmental change.

A new school year at UCONN is underway, but I will be making a trip up to Bangor in September to give a talk and run a workshop for University of Maine students and faculty. I’m particularly excited to be using the new IMRC Center for my workshop on environmental storytelling through games. For details, see the linked poster: UMaine_EcologyofGamesPoster.


Upcoming talks

I’m happy to share this poster for my upcoming talk at UConn (in English). If you’re in the area, I will also be presenting on April 8th as part of UConn’s Digital Media and Design department’s new Digital Directions speaker series (part of a celebration of this year’s Day of DH).

For those attending next week’s SCMS conference in Seattle, consider becoming part of the new Media and Environment Scholarly Interest Group (SIG). I’ll be on a Saturday morning Media and Sustainability panel, chaired by Nicole Starosielski and Janet Walker.

Last but not least, I’ll also be speaking at Drew University on April 21st (running a workshop for English and environmental studies students, but the lecture is open to the public), and the University of Maine (Bangor) on September 24–more details forthcoming. Please distribute to those who might be interested!


The Secret Lives of Objects

Time is scarce these days, but I finally finished my first play-through of an indie game called The Novelist, developed by Kent Hudson. The game is essentially an interactive drama that chronicles the lives of one family during a summer on the Oregon coast, revealed from the viewpoint of some kind of spirit (a.k.a. you) that inhabits their vacation rental home. Dan Kaplan, the father, is a writer struggling to complete his latest book. Linda, the mother, is an aspiring painter. And their son, Tommy, is a young boy having a tough time with school, his parents’ evident preoccupations, and the isolation of their temporary summer place. As one learns, Dan has brought the family to this beautiful but secluded location in order to dislodge his writer’s block, so as each chapter of the game unfolds, he must make difficult, often heartbreaking choices between the demands of his career, his marriage, and his child. Each narrative episode permits only one primary desired outcome (Dan’s, Linda’s, or Tommy’s), as well as one subsidiary compromise–in other words, one family member will always be disappointed, and another only partially mollified. Though the exact options shift from segment to segment, Dan always faces the same basic dilemma: work on his book by sacrificing quality time with his wife or his son, or not.


Dan Kaplan ponders the imponderable as he looks out at the Pacific Ocean. Screenshot from

First, let me say that this game hits uncomfortably close to home for me, having just moved my own family across the country for my career as an academic. Like Dan, I often feel paralyzed by fears of mediocrity and the inevitability of letting others down. (SPOILER ALERT) Frankly, when the last decision Dan must make was revealed as whether or not to accept an assistant professorship in literature, which would require relocating his family and thereby squelching his wife’s painterly ambition and his son’s tenuous progress in school, I nearly groaned aloud.

I could take issue with the game’s ruleset, or its assumptions, of course–why must life be zero-sum, with someone always gaining via someone else’s losing? Should I experience a certain schadenfreude now that fathers can apparently join mothers in the murky depths of career-family negotiation? But I understand that the game’s constraints are designed to wound. They are inflexible to the extent that deadlines, schedule conflicts, and human potential itself require us to pick and choose. Though we might like to reassure ourselves that, were it us, WE would find the time to tutor Tommy between insanely productive bouts at the typewriter, while also helping Linda with her art show, this game renders its choices starkly. We could even say that The Novelist is foremost a resource-management game, if we consider Dan’s attention the scarce resource in question (something that Kate Hayles has argued is a feature of our contemporary media- and technology-saturated environments).

Perhaps most interesting to me is less the game’s branching textual structure or dramatic content than its use of matter and environment. Ordinary objects take on numinous significance, including a whole host of documents (diary entries, letters, shopping lists, post-it notes, magazines, books, etc.), images, and personal belongings. Some of these are manifestations of the creative process, like Dan’s scrawled ideas for plot points or Linda’s half-finished canvases. Others are prized possessions, like Tommy’s favorite toys. Some are conduits for particular activities, like firewood for a campout on the beach; and still others are almost threats, like the whiskey Dan begins to overindulge in as his deadline draws closer. Many of these are actionable, their glowing or flickering forms indicating to the player that they may be read or otherwise inspected. Often, the window of their narrative efficacy is short–a single chapter–so at all other times they lurk in the background as evidence of decisions already made or still-to-come. The story advances when, in each section, after exploring all the available options and discovering each character’s preferred outcome, you select an object that will set in motion the outcome you deem best (e.g. Dan’s jogging shoes, instead of the whiskey bottle, if you want him to lay off drinking and revert to a healthier lifestyle).


An epistolary game. Screenshot from

As the presiding player-spirit-author-voyeur, you may quickly roam the house by “possessing” lights or choose to “emerge” from the nearest incandescent bulb to creep about. The game can even be played in stealth mode, so that the family members can actually spot you during their peregrinations.

While The Novelist isn’t an ecological game, since the player-as-spirit stays resolutely bound to the home, it is arguably an environmental one. Beyond the clear metaphorical importance of the game’s isolated forest setting and spectacular but also eerie coastal bluff views, it is because the game emerges through the hidden lives of objects, rather than explicit conversation, that it seems to celebrate the nonhuman. The characters’ default verbal exchanges verge on the inane, but in their memories and thoughts, and the emotional and historical residues of the property, surprisingly profound situations unfold. In fact, though the story is ultimately a human one, The Novelist might qualify as an example of speculative realism, or object-oriented ontology.

Want to try it yourself? It’s on Steam.