Presenting at SLSA 2011

I will be presenting at this year’s Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts 25th annual conference in Kitchener, Ontario as part of the Critical Game Studies stream organized by Patrick Jagoda.  This will be my third SLSA, which I find to be a very rich and inclusive organization and conference, and I am excited to be part of a concerted effort to put video game studies on the map.  Furthermore, I will be presenting with two professors Timothy Welsh and Steven E. Jones, which will be an honor and a privilege:

Session 6 – Fri 4pm – 5:30pm
Critical Game Studies IV: Videogame Spaces and Posthuman Agents
Chair: Patrick Jagoda; Stephanie Boluk

Platform Studies and the Construction of Game Space: Kinect vs. Wii
Steven E. Jones

When Microsoft entered the mimetic-interface console market in 2010 with the introduction of the Kinect, it pitched the system in oddly anachronistic terms as the fulfillment of the old dream of total immersion. The symbolism at the E3 2010 Kinect release pageant-which included a performance by Cirque du Soleil-was focused on eliding the mediation of the console itself: “Might the next step be an absence of an object?” The absence of an object meant literally no controller, but it can also be read as an ontological claim implying a total, sublime domination by the subject (“no gadgets, no gizmos, just you,” an ad read). By contrast, Nintendo’s Wii (2006) is a gadget-ridden “object-oriented” system, that shifts attention to physical player space, the living room (Juul), but also shifts attention to the boundary relations between the player and game and controllers-objects all. As a platform, the Wii assumes that gaming is less about cyberspace than it is about cybernetics-in Norbert Wiener’s sense: mechanisms of control and feedback. So its design focuses on the negative space between the player and the game. Drawn from a forthcoming book in the Platform Studies series at MIT Press, this paper will read the two competing platforms in the context of these conceptual design differences, and will turn at the end to the projected Wii 2 and current 3DS to explain these differences.

Queering Bioshock
Edmond Y. Chang

One of the central conceits and mechanics of the video game Bioshock (Irrational Games, 2007) is that of ‘splicing,’ a biomedical, bodyhacking technology that augment the player-protagonist Jack (and his enemies) with superhuman abilities and powers. Set in the fictional undersea city of Rapture, the game renders a libertarian, Ayn Randian objectivist, posthuman utopia where its citizens are free to live, buy, choose, and change their own minds and bodies. Rapture’s technopolitics echo the World Transhumanist Association’s (now repackaged as Humanity+) belief in “the feasibility of redesigning the human condition, including such parameters as the inevitability of aging, limitations on human artificial intellects, unchosen psychology, suffering, and our confinement to the planet earth.” However, what are the risks and stakes of this transhumanist, posthuman future? Drawing on close playing of the game, I offer a “technoqueer” analysis of Bioshock that reveals how its splicing mechanic questions how bodyhacking technologies are available only to certain bodies and identities. Like a pharmakon, these technologies can augment and transcend on the one hand and police and condemn on the other, particularly along lines of normative race, gender, and sexuality. Given that the game begins in the middle of a splicer civil war and the near collapse of the city, I hope to show how the game’s narrative and play critique the colorblind, queerblind liberatory logics and rhetoric of Rapture’s techno-utopian dream and of “radical” transhumanism more broadly.

Sympathy for the NPC: Re-sensitizing Violence in Modern Warfare 2
Timothy Welsh

For this year’s SLSA on the topic of the Pharmakon, that which can both kill and cure, I would like to discuss the much maligned topic of violent videogames. While gaming is often placed on the side of “kill,” because of its ties to the military and to school shootings, my paper will present a case for “cure” through a reading of Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (Xbox360, PS3, PC, hereafter MW2). With its release in 2009, MW2 reignited debates about gaming and violence with its “No Russian” level, in which the playable character goes along with a terrorist attack. As one would expect, the game was immediately dubbed a “terrorism simulator” by the popular press; but what I want to suggest is that these arguments overshadow MW2’s more remarkable accomplishment, which is getting players of a military-themed, first-person shooter to think twice before pulling their plastic triggers. I propose to demonstrate how MW2 uses first-person face-to-face encounters to ascribe emotional significance to non-playable characters. Though Slavoj Zizek might argue that in doing so the game obscures the reality of “depersonalized war turned into a technological operation,” I contend that MW2 challenges players to recognize the face of the human in a digital display that was always already depersonalized. In this way the MW2 and the “No Russian” level have the potential to “re-sensitize” players by exposing them to some of the ways in which the digital mediates real-world military violence.

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