Tag Archive: SCMS

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.

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!


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”

SCMS and our new AirQuest Promo

It’s been a hectic week trying to squeeze all I can out of this year’s Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) conference in Boston, while fielding requests from the other coast in the lead-up to a grant deadline for our AirQuest game. The good news is, there’s been a substantial game studies line-up at SCMS this year, with one rather unexpected highlight being a presentation by Ralph Baer, the developer of the first video game console and the well-known game Simon, as well as the Video Game Studies Scholarly Interest Group’s celebration of Baer’s 90th birthday with a cake in the shape of a Magnavox Odyssey:

The raw and the cooked? The actual Magnavox Odyssey and its tasty simulacrum.

The Motorola empowerment grant is also in, and the short video that went with the application shows some of the interviews and other footage we recorded on our last trip to the San Joaquin Valley (in early March). It’s great to see some sort of product come out of our crazy stops on the side of freeways, our tour of the cogen/waste incineration plant in Stanislaus, covert stops at dairy farms, and months now of building relationships to Valley communities, including students, educators, air officials, air-quality advocates, medical professionals, families and more.

Please watch and pass it on–the more views and feedback the better!

Visualizing Data

Good word is in! I’ll be co-chairing and presenting on a panel at this year’s Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Boston (March 21-25, 2012), with my colleague Kris Fallon from UC Berkeley’s Film and Media Department. Kris and I brought these papers together in an attempt to get at the growing transition from “optical” and photorealistic media toward “nonoptical” and interactive media. At the core of all the panelists’ concerns are issues surrounding how we convert or interpret data into forms amenable to handling and understanding, and how such practices exert both rhetorical and epistemological effects on data that in and of itself is neither objective nor sufficient.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012 02:00PM-03:45PM (Session C)

C1: Scaling Data’s Many Faces: Data Mining, Information Visualization, and Other Non-optical Vistas
Room: Alcott
Chair: Kristopher Fallon (University of California, Berkeley)
Co-Chair: Alenda Chang (University of California, Berkeley)

Kristopher Fallon (University of California, Berkeley), “The Optic-less Unconscious: Data Journalism and the Quest for Visible Evidence”
Alenda Chang (University of California, Berkeley), “Exponential Vision and the Powers of Ten”
David Bering-Porter (Brown University), “Screening the Genome: Visualization, Speculation, and Uncanny Vitality”
Lyn Goeringer (University of Rhode Island), “Emote = Ping : Data Mining Emotion as Conceptual Art Practice”

Here’s the abstract for my particular talk:

In 1977, Charles and Ray Eames released the short film Powers of Ten, which uses the mathematical and visual framing of a geometric progression to take viewers on a journey from macrocosm to microcosm in just over nine minutes. Touted as surpassing the static image in its presentation of movement between scales, Powers of Ten was itself the inspiration for another qualitative leap in the visualization of scientific information—the evolutionary video game Spore (2008). In Spore, players develop from unicellular organisms adrift in primordial oceans to terrestrial creatures that eventually pursue social organization, progressing from tribal communities to city-states to sophisticated spacefaring civilizations.

Meanwhile, Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison have articulated the history of science as a series of overlapping visual epistemes, beginning with truth-to-nature, proceeding through mechanical objectivity, and ending with trained judgment in the era of nanotechnology. Given the close ties between documentary and scientific ethos, what do we make of an educational science film like Powers of Ten, in which the images are often imaginative composites based on real data, or a game like Spore, where interaction replaces viewing as the dominant perceptual mode?

As Daston and Galison begin to suggest, and as Colin Milburn elaborates in his recent treatise on nanovision, the extension of scientific sight into the subatomic realm promised by Powers of Ten has been fulfilled in unexpected ways—bypassing optics in favor of proprioceptive intimacy, a kind of touching-seeing or Deleuzian haptic vision exemplified by the images produced by scanning tunneling microscopes (STMs). The strange reversals of nonoptical molecular imaging (not to mention the artful depiction of data garnered outside the visible spectrum at the macrocosmic scales of radio, ultraviolet, and infrared astronomy) offer one reading of the transmedia journey from book to film to game that describes Spore’s revival of Powers of Ten. At such scales, and as the cinematic medium evolves into the algorithmic, visualization becomes fabrication, and seeing cannot take place without doing, with important ramifications for the politicization of science.


So, please stop by if you’re attending or presenting at SCMS. We’d love your feedback!