Category: Writing

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.

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).

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!


From California to Connecticut

Hooray! I’ve moved across the country, from one ocean-hugging state to another, to start my new job as an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Connecticut. In an uncanny fit for my current ecocritical work on video games, I’ve been hired to write and teach about both environmental literature and the digital humanities. Though I don’t consider myself a “digital humanist” in the narrow sense (an alternative academic or professor using digital tools and platforms to create online projects, often grant-funded, often archival in nature), I’m more than happy to carry that flag if it generates support for smart, open-minded, and ambitious collaborations across the usual disciplinary divides. UConn is in the midst of a considerable faculty hiring initiative, largely centered around the STEM-focused Next Generation Connecticut plan put forward by Governor Dannel Malloy and UConn President Susan Herbst. And while most of the hires are taking place in engineering, science, and related fields, a few of us literary folk slipped through under the auspices of terms like “DH” (see the English Department web site for information about the three other new DH hires: Bhakti Shringarpure, Yohei Igarashi, and Gregory Pierrot).

Also up and coming are the new Digital Media and Design department, within the School of Fine Arts, and the Scholars’ Collaborative, named in honor of the Scholars’ Lab at University of Virginia. While things digital are just starting to gain bureaucratic momentum here, UConn just hosted THATCamp New England, this week we have ReMEDIAting Flusser, and I’m already teaming up with Anna Kijas and Tom Scheinfeldt to bring Joanna Swafford here in February to talk about her project, Songs of the Victorians. I also take comfort in UConn’s close proximity to New York City and Boston, both hubs for innovative media research and game design (if you’re in the area, take advantage of the Boston DH Consortium mailing list).

Anything I should add to my new local lists? Let me know!

Critical Game Studies Panels at SCMS 2013 in Chicago

This year’s SCMS will feature another exciting games-related lineup. I’m particularly excited to see more academic interest in game sound as well as continuing meta-level concerns with the state of the field.

Here’s the list of panels officially sponsored by the Video Game Studies Scholarly Interest Group (VGSSIG). My panel is at the end, but I’m thrilled to be writing and speaking about some new material on Journey.

Please note that there are other games panels that may be of interest, including presentations from my brilliant Cal friends and colleagues Irene Chien, Chris Goetz, and Kris Fallon.

B17 (Weds, Mar 6, 12-1:45, Room 17) : Debugging the History of Game Terminology: Critical Studies of Marginal Concepts

Chair: David Thomas
David Thomas (University of Colorado, Denver), “The Serious Problem of ‘Fun’ in Games”
William Huber (University of Southern California), “D-Day”
Audrey Larochelle (University of Montreal), “Graphical Projection in Game Studies: A Hitchhiker’s Guide”
Andrew (Andy) Keenan (University of Toronto), “Cheating: A Critical Exploration of Rules and Subversive Play”

C21 (Weds, Mar 6, 2-3:45pm, Room 21): Platform Studies: Debating the Future of a Field

Chair: Caetlin Benson-Allott
Ian Bogost (Georgia Institute of Technology)
Jonathan Sterne (McGill University)
Steven Jones (Loyola University, Chicago)
Peter Krapp (University of California, Irvine)

D24: (Weds, Mar 6, 4-5:45pm, Room 24): Engaging the Avatar

Chair: Harrison Gish Co-Chair: Jessica Aldred Harrison Gish (University of California, Los Angeles), “Avatar Interactivity: Modifying and Manipulating Play”
Brian Greenspan (Carleton University), “Mass Effects: Believable Avatars and Networked Engagement”
Jessica Aldred (Carleton University), “LEGO My Avatar: Abstraction, Convergence, and the Contemporary Movie-Game Character”
Reem Hilu (Northwestern University), “Embodying the Avatar: Transformative Play in Urban Games”

F5 (Thurs, Mar. 7, 11-12:45): War and Science Fiction in Contemporary Film and Video Games

Chair: Tanine Allison
Tanine Allison (Emory University), “The ‘Good War’… Now with Aliens! Remediating War in the Science-Fiction Blockbuster”
Gerry Canavan (Marquette University), “‘I’d Rather Be in Afghanistan’: Antimonies of Battle: Los Angeles”
Nathan Blake (Northeastern University), “Attack of the Drones: Science Fiction Terror and Combat in Call of Duty: Black Ops 2”
Matthew Payne (University of Alabama), “The Ludic P/remediation of American Empire–From Homefront to Spec Ops: The Line”

G1 (Thurs, Mar. 7, 1-2:45pm, Room 1): Canon Formation in Digital Game Cultures

Chair: John Vanderhoef
Felan Parker (York University), “Prestige Games”
Christine Kim (Ontario College of Art and Design University), “Blockbuster Exhibitions of Digital Games: Art or Spectacle?”
John Vanderhoef (University of California, Santa Barbara), “Retrogame Roadshow: Collecting and Canon in Classic Gaming Culture”
Sean Feiner (University at Buffalo), “Disciplined Design: Games Studies and the Digital Game Canon”

J19 (Fri, Mar 8, 9-10:45am, Room 19): Sound in Video Games and Interactive Media

Chair: Lori Landay
Respondent: Benjamin Aslinger (Bentley University)
Chris Russell (Northwestern University), “The Atari VCS and the Making of Digital Sound”
Costantino Oliva (University of Malta), “Soundmarks in Digital Games Soundscapes”
Lori Landay (Berklee College of Music), “Sound, Embodiment, and the Experience of Interactivity in Video Games & Virtual Environments”

L24 (Friday, Mar 8, 2:15-4pm, Room 24): Debugging the History of Game Terminology: Critical Studies of Key Concepts

Chair: Henry Lowood(Stanford University)
Raiford Guins (State University of New York), “Console”
Henry Lowood (Stanford University), “Game Engine”
David Myers (Loyola University, New Orleans), “Simulation”
Peter Krapp (University of California, Irvine), “Control”

M3 (Sat, Mar 9, 9-10:45am, Room 3): Playing the Past, Playing the Future: Time in Contemporary Video Games

Chair: Jen Malkowski(Smith College)
TreaAndrea Russworm (University of Massachusetts, Amherst), “Gaming the Racial Past into the Future”
Edmond Chang (University of Washington), ““A Man Chooses, A Player Obeys”: Bioshock, Transhumanism, and the Limits of Queerness”
Jennifer Malkowski (Smith College), “‘You’ve Got to Watch Them All the Time’: Games, Cinema, and Looking in L.A. Noire”
Alenda Chang (University of California, Berkeley), “Game Over? Duration, Distance, and Environmental Disaster in thatgamecompany’s Journey”

Slow Violence (link to Ant, Spider, Bee)

The editors at Ant, Spider, Bee recently asked me to pen something about the place of video games in the growing digital environmental humanities, and I’m happy to report that these thoughts are now online. The post is, perhaps surprisingly for those who know my work, strongly inflected by the latest hullabaloo over video game violence following the Sandy Hook shootings in December, as well as Rob Nixon’s rumination on the ecologically disenfranchised in Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor.

Please head on over and let me know what you think!

FarmVille 2: “Capitalism is king”

I admit, after my chapter on farm games was completed, I let the dozens of virtual farms I had once carefully managed languish. But the release of FarmVille 2, in June, couldn’t help but catch my interest, and I’ve now been playing this new, “3D” version for a few months.

If you’re familiar with my earlier grumpiness over the original FarmVille’s lack of ecological aptitude, I’m happy to report that FarmVille 2 makes definite strides in this respect. For one thing, you now actually have to feed your animals in order for them to produce materials, including yes, even the tactfully named “fertilizer.”

Secondly, you now have to water your seeds in order for them to grow. Victory! (If you’ve never played a farm game, and you’re wondering how it’s even possible to farm without watering, let’s just say that wells were purely decorative objects in the original FarmVille.) Zynga has even partnered with to promote charitable donations toward solving world water shortages.

Of course, in many ways, FarmVille 2 is more of the same. It’s still a paean to pastoral harmony, as well as capital accumulation, spending, and expansion. Even so, I nearly fell out of my chair when I first visited neighbor “Walter” and this speech bubble popped up:

Capitalism is king, they say? It’s fascinating to see the game’s inescapable subtext blazoned so boldly. Meanwhile, FarmVille 2 has already led Wired contributor Ryan Rigney to dub it “the perpetual-motion money machine,” while Stephen Totilo’s New York Times review concludes that FarmVille 2 and games like it inevitably “retain the stench of a casino.” Even Kotaku’s Kirk Hamilton, who genuinely gave the game the old college try, eventually had to bid the game goodbye.

At this point, I consider myself a connoisseur of the cunning reward-and-frustration dynamics characteristic of these supposedly “free,” “casual,” and “social” games, so I’m hardly fazed by the constant temptations to buy and then spend “farm cash,” rather than coins. For now, I’m just happy that watering is now a crucial game mechanic and that it is a scarce, but renewable resource. Consider me temporarily placated.

Upcoming presentations at MLA 2013 in Boston

If you’re going to be at this year’s MLA convention in Boston and you’re interested in what’s going on in the world of ecomedia, please consider attending the following panels. Saturday’s panel is sponsored by ASLE, and Sunday’s forms part of the growing DH line-up at MLA.  I’ll be presenting on both (though note that I’m missing from the official program for the second panel, due to some late-breaking schedule juggling).

Saturday, 05 January

428. Environment and Media

8:30–9:45 a.m., Beacon D, Sheraton

Program arranged by the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment

Presiding: Rosario Michelle Ramirez Matabuena, Florida State Univ.

1. “Visualizing Extremes: Photography and the Representation of Climate Change,” Karla McManus, Concordia Univ.

2. “Playing Nature,” Alenda Chang, Univ. of California, Berkeley

3. “You Are Here: Locative Media and the National Park Experience,” Alison Byerly, Middlebury Coll.

Sunday, 06 January

763. Digital Technology, Environmental Aesthetics, Ecocritical Discourse

1:45–3:00 p.m., Public Garden, Sheraton

A special session

Presiding: Elizabeth Swanstrom, Florida Atlantic Univ.

1. “Decoding the Desert: Reading the Landscape through the Transborder
Immigrant Tool,” Mark C. Marino, Univ. of Southern California

2. “Thoreau in Process: Reanimating Thoreau’s Environmental Practice
in Digital Space,” Kristen Case, Univ. of Maine, Farmington

3. “Networks, Narratives, and Nature: Teaching Globally, Thinking
Nodally,” Melanie J. Doherty, Wesleyan Coll.

4. “Games as Ecomedia,” Alenda Y. Chang, UC Berkeley
For a more detailed rationale and abstracts for this session, visit Lisa Swanstrom’s site.

Mark Sample also has a convenient list of all the digital humanities panels to be found at this year’s MLA on his site.

The Art of Video Games?

2011 was a banner year for video games, at least in terms of aesthetic and institutional recognition. Not only did the National Endowment for the Humanities revise its charter to include games as a fundable art form, but the Smithsonian American Art Museum also opened online nominations for a groundbreaking exhibit entitled The Art of Video Games, which opened this year on March 16 and closes on September 30. With the help of a Berkeley Center for New Media summer research fellowship, I was able to visit the exhibit in June and meet with exhibition coordinator Georgina Goodlander, exhibition designer David Gleeson, media specialist Michael Mansfield, and curator Chris Melissinos. What follows is a very brief glimpse into my behind-the-scenes experience at the museum.


The Art of Video Games occupies a modest, three-room footprint on the third floor of the American Art museum. Though many visitors mistake the massive Nam June Paik video installation near the start of the exhibit as its opener, The Art of Video Games in fact begins with a projection wall featuring gameplay footage and a small, introductory area that testifies to the imaginative and artistic merit of games through displayed concept art, filmed interviews with leading game designers and scholars, and my personal favorite—a triptych video installation offering screen’s-eye-views of players’ faces as they game, wearing expressions running the entertaining gamut from disbelief and zombie-like engrossment to surprised elation. (The faces shown belong to actual Smithsonian personnel and their relatives, most of whom are not self-professed hard-core gamers.)


At the heart of the exhibit is its large, softly lit central room, which highlights five games, one for each “era” of videogame history (the eras are labeled Start!, 8-bit, Bit wars!, Transition, and Next Generation, and together comprise the years between 1970 and 2010). The featured games, each playable in its own semicircular kiosk, are Pac-Man, Super Mario Brothers, The Secret of Monkey Island, Myst, and Flower. Chances are at least one of those titles holds a fond place in your childhood memories, though for me it is the last and most recent game, Flower, that has proven integral to my research as one of my go-to examples of ecological gameplay.


The exhibit’s final room provides a comprehensive look at the eighty games voted into the exhibit in 2011, drawn from a list of 240 first handpicked by curator Melissinos and advisory board members from the game industry, game journalism, and academia. Members of the public voted within the pre-established matrix of five eras, four genres (action, adventure, target, and combat/strategy), and historically significant game platforms, and in the end, some 119,000 people in 175 countries cast over 3.7 million votes.


For exhibit curator Chris Melissinos, a longtime video game enthusiast and “chief evangelist” and “chief gaming officer” at Sun Microsystems, games are “a unifying, multi-generational medium.” For him, the exhibition examines “the 40‐year evolution of video games as an artistic medium, with a focus on striking visual effects, the creative use of new technologies, and the most influential artists and designers.”

Though the exhibition will soon end its run in Washington, D.C., The Art of Video Games begins a limited national tour of 10 cities in October. For more information, visit the extensive online archive.