2 June 2004
Occasionally I like to go on safari, well-slathered with mosquito cream and toting a rifle, through the peculiar jungle that is academic writing about videogames. Partly this is to ensure that I don’t disappear any further up my own arse than I might already be located by certain sections of the beloved Edge readership. Partly it is out of sheer curiosity, and the strange mixture of fascination and incredulity that washes over me when I read a lot of this stuff.
Here, for example, at gamestudies.org, is a paper by Laurie Taylor called “When Seams Fall Apart: Video Game Space and the Player”, in which the author’s combative opening gambit is to accuse me, along with two other authors, in a tone of patronising distaste, for naïvely assuming “the absolute authority of a rational scientific order”. Failing quite to remember where I said this, I nonetheless do not wish to dissociate myself from such an assumption. As it happens, I do think “rational” science is the most authoritative mode of discourse about the world, assuming that by authoritative we mean normal things like predictably accurate, provably useful, the kind of authority that ensures my kettle boils when I want some coffee, that sort of thing.
The trouble is that everywhere in today’s academic world except (for obvious reasons) inside science departments, to say such a thing marks one out as a feckless reactionary throwback, as someone imprisoned in an imperialist and probably phallogocentric Enlightenment mode of thinking, certainly someone who has not read enough Lyotard, Baudrillard, Derrida, and so on. As it happens, I have read and admired much of these authors, but it pays to keep one’s sceptical hat on when they veer into the realms of science, as documented by the book Intellectual Impostures (which seems to me about half-right, given that at least half the time the writers under attack are working explicitly in the realm of evocative metaphor, a thing the usefulness of which the hard-headed scientific authors simply don’t appear to understand).
But let us get back to Laurie Taylor, who is researching “interface issues and survival horror games” (good luck!) for her PhD. What does she propose we embrace in place of her despised “rational scientific order”? Why, an irrational one, of course: the key to her conception of videogame space will be “the concepts of Lacanian psychoanalysis”. Now let us remember that Jacques Lacan is a man who proposed, in all pompous seriousness, that i, or the square root of minus 1, is equivalent to the penis. Got that? Good. Anyway, the rest of the paper talks about the “mirror stage” and “narcissistic projection” and “the gaze”, and is led by these borrowed concepts to end up saying this:
“Taking in my own actions does not allow me to pass through the screen, but only to act on the screen because the screen acts as a divider until I can find a way into the game space – a way which an active image provides for and which an icon in a control panel does not. Essentially, from a position alone the player cannot enter into the game space as part of that game space because of the lack of context which embodiment, in third-person point-of-view games, provides.”
Translated into the normal language of gamers, this appears to mean that first-person games are less immersive than third-person games. Now this in itself is an intriguing position, because many of us, I suspect, will instantly disagree with it. Do we not feel more *there*, more *in* the game space, when we play Halo as opposed to Brute Force? Perhaps we do; on the other hand, perhaps we feel a greater sense of physical identification when we are commanding a third-person character such as in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. In fact, it just seems to me that Taylor is confusing two concepts: that of spatial immersion and character identification. As I argued in my very first Edge column, character identification only really works in third-person games: you cannot “become” a character whom you rarely actually see, as is the case with Joanna Dark. But the first-person viewpoint provides a greater sense of “being there”, as cannot be doubted if you watch the physical head-duckings and leanings of someone playing an FPS.
Herein lies the unfortunate nature of much academic writing about videogames: fashionable concepts are roped in to a simplistic argument, and tend to pervert it towards a conclusion that lacks credibility according to the ordinary experience of gamers. It is also too often the case that academic game researchers do not actually spend a lot of time playing games themselves. It seems weird for Taylor to complain that, when one is attacked by monkeys in System Shock 2, “one cannot see or fight the monkeys without manually changing view to look down”, as though it were a considerable effort, and took some clunky and long-winded manipulation of controls, to look down.
But the most compelling evidence for the prosecution is that her main exhibit is The X-Files Game from 1998, in which she perceives her cherished rupture in the first-person game-space (it occurs when your character looks in the mirror). When she says “This is how most first-person point-of-view games operate, by allowing the player to function *on* the space, but not *within* the space”, she is actually thinking of point’n'click adventures such as The X-Files Game, Myst, and so on, and fondly imagining – in an article published in 2003 – that this nearly-extinct style actually constitutes “most” first-person games. Well of course, in a point’n'clicker, the player functions “on” the space, but to extend this argument willy-nilly to real FPSs like System Shock 2 and Call of Duty is patently absurd, and this blunder torpedoes her entire argument.
I do not mean by picking on this one lamentable example to imply that I think all academic research into videogames is worthless. It is doubtless a worthwhile project to conduct psychological investigations into the mechanism of projection and immersion in the videogame space (except that for Taylor, “cognitive-psychological” research would fall under the rubric of her dreaded “rational scientific order”, and so is too horrible or oppressive or something to contemplate). There are doubtless numerous other sub-fields in the subject of games in which the leisured, forensic approach of an academic can yield conceptual rewards. But we need fewer academics who seek to armour themselves in the borrowed authority of postmodern jargon, and more – for positive examples, look up the work of Jesper Juul or Kurt Squire – who are passionate, intelligent gamers.