Viva voce—“with living voice,” but also (and more commonly) the phenomenon of “word of mouth.” When incidents of speech, song, or shouting take place, it is the mouth that transforms private impulse into audible sound. Articulatory phonetics tells us that this physiological transubstantiation is little more than the aerodynamic energy of breath rendered into sound waves, or acoustic energy. Yet when do words become more than translations, and mouths more than translating machines?
How do words fare when adapted across different media? From censorship to speech impediments to tensions of class, race, ethnicity, and ability, failures to communicate by word of mouth manifest everywhere. Are these failures being remediated, and if so, by what means have words (and mouths) been altered to increase their accessibility and intelligibility? On the other end of the spectrum, how do we prevent our private words from becoming word of mouth in an age…
The driving in L.A. Noire can be tedious, but I actually enjoy getting to know the city, so the complexity and realism of the game environment tends to outweigh having to obey traffic laws. Yes, you read that right: I have to stop at stoplights (I admit to running a few) or face penalties, such as really cutting remarks from my partner.
Why would the developers create such a detailed environment if we weren’t meant to tour around? I realize this is a convention of Rockstar games, in general, introduced in Grand Theft Auto and perhaps perfected in Red Dead Redemption, but let’s think about this for a second. Most of Rockstar’s games work from durable American genres that are what I like to call “landscape dependent.” That is, in the gangster/crime genre, western and noir fiction, land is plenty important. These genres are Rockstar’s bread and butter and in each, the lay of the land and the ability to CONTROL the land is crucial.
This is where knowing about frontier literature and its ideologies comes in handy. Annette Kolodny’s The Land Before Heror even H.N. Smith’s The Virgin Land, lays down the importance of land/property in American literature and, by extension, culture. In American literature, and by extension, culture, land is often equated with the female body and described as being penetrated or taken (among other sexual metaphors). Spread the seed of God and be plentiful, to paraphrase Puritan leaders (like Cotton Mather and John Winthrop). Sacvan Bercovitch argues that Puritan biblical rhetoric turned the geography of the Americas into a “Christianography” where “metaphor becomes fact, and fact, metaphor.” I think it is hard to deny that American most certainly is a Christianography when President Barack Obama recently declared that “No just God would stand for what (ISIS) did yesterday [murder journalist James Foley] and what they do every single day.” The implication is that a just God is on the side of America, but I digress. The point is that the United States, as a land mass is mythologized/fantasized as a female:
While some historians claim that the metaphorical representation of America through the female body has declined, there are ongoing examples of this paradigmatic myth, which is diffusely spread across the cultural field.
Video games like L.A. Noire make for excellent examples of how a certain type of national masculinity operates. The metaphorical positioning of the land as a female, and, in turn, the American male as the rightful one who will possess her, take her, develop her and so forth has already been mapped out by Kolodny, Nancy Cott, and Karen Sanchez-Eppler. While we may have seen the “decline” of such representations of femininity in other forms of mass culture (although this is debatable), the use of literary genres that DEPEND on this kind of representation by game developers reconstitutes and spreads this gendered national metaphor/discourse/mythology. Know why this matters? Because on a macro scale this is how the U.S., in part, maintains its illusory ranking as a superpower; on a “less macro” level, this representation of femininity positions women as passive bodies that require penetrating. This has to stop.
Over the next few posts, I will get into the ways in which the land-property-gender paradigm at work in American culture has informed and is informed by L.A. Noire; for the rest of this post, I am going to look at how “penetrative,” brutish masculinity operates in L.A. Noire (which, in turn, works as a case study – in other words, these types of male characters are widespread in video games).
Let’s turn to one of the authors that instituted this form of brutish masculinity: Raymond Chandler. He famously says,
“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this story must be such a man. He’s the hero. He’s everything. He must be a complete man and a common man, yet an unusual man…he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr. I think he might seduce a duchess, and I’m quite sure he would not spoil a virgin…”
But is Phelps this kind of detective? Yes and no. He does live in a civilized zone that requires protection – Hal Himmelstein defines the popular myth of suburbia as a utopic space set between the frontier wilderness and urban squalor. When we are first introduced to Phelps, we see home leaving his suburban home and waving goodbye to his wife and kids as he sets out on the mean streets. Phelps’ “frontier wilderness” is the crime and criminals he encounters that disrupts the “virgin land” of suburban promise.
Quick aside – it is vital to note that we are not dealing with a print text here. Video games, as I said in my previous post on methodology, are a bricolage of narrative forms and performativity. Video games are so powerful that they are used to enhance cognitive control in Alzheimer patients, among other medical uses. Video games change minds, full stop, so when I say that certain video games are reviving longstanding national metaphors that oppress certain cultural groups, genders, and sexualities, we need to think about how to change the way video games are perceived and used. It’s not about censorship, my God, NO! But we do need to think about how games are developed and for what purpose. Can we, for example, convince companies like Rockstar and EA to be much more ethical in their representations and remediation of durable literary genres? Aside finished.
Phelps certainly fulfills Chandler’s idea of a hard-boiled detective. Chandler says that the hardboiled detective is an honourable man who is honourable in all things; he is a common man, he is a lonely man (despite his seduction skills) – I mean, this is quite a list and the “neither-nor” phrases place this detective as a liminal character, which is what Slotkin builds on, using a copia of evidence to show that the hard-boiled detective is both “policeman and outlaw” – a frontiersman, in other words,a man who recognizes the drawbacks of civilization and authority, but will still “fight the good fight.” In this light, Phelps is a good little hard-boiled detective, except that Phelps is also ambitious and intellectual, two traits that do not fit with of the kind of rugged individualism and de-evolutionary masculinity that defines the hardboiled detective. John Pettegrew explains inBrutes in Suits that U.S. culture privileges a fantastical form of atavistic masculinity that devalues intellectualism and overvalues brute force, conquest, and aggressiveness. Of course, I have to add that this form of masculinity is all too often tied to white privilege, particularly in terms of frontier ideology. While Phelps does ultimately fail as the hardboiled detective (partly because he uses his thinker just a little too much), he is our main protagonist for almost a third of the game, so his male prowess on the urban frontier must be established. His positioning as the possessor of white male power and privilege is achieved through control of the raced male body (control of the female body occurs in force later in the game -privileged white masculinity has a body count in this game, and that’s just fine, apparently).
Edward Kalou is our first bad guy, whose olive skin and shifty demeanor identify him as Other.
He is identified as Jewish, and his faith and race are foregrounded at every opportunity. It is interesting that he is the first character we interrogate or “read,” since interrogation in L.A. Noire is all about learning to read identities – this is a crucial skill. When we are performing as interrogator, we have expected to read facial expressions and choose whether we doubt the suspect, believe him, or accuse him of lying. In other words, through our positioning as a member of the Repressive State Apparatus, we have the power to judge the speech acts of others as felicitous or not. Of course, we, in turn, are under the power of the script and code. If we choose to believe Kalou, we lose points, if we accuse him properly, we win. The rewards of the game are directly tied to our ability to position Kalou as the untrustworthy, irrational Other.
Once we apprehend Kalou, we hear the voice-over explain that there is “the case that makes yah and the case that breaks yah.” This is the one that makes Phelps’ career, because he is given the opportunity to conduct the interrogation. The (Irish stereotype) Chief praises Phelps for being a war hero, who sent “the heathens back to where they came from.” The tone is set: Phelps is on the side of God and now he will go and interview a suspected murderer: a person of Jewish faith no less. Kalou’s purpose is to do more than teach us about interrogation, he is there to be a foil for Phelps. Where Kalou is a coward, who runs away and surrenders with no resistance at all; Phelps chases his man and apprehends him at great personal risk (we encounter this fact when we complete the requisite side missions before encountering Kalou). Where Kalou smokes nervously and swears; Phelps is cool, calm, and clean.
During the interrogation, Phelps implies that Kalou killed Everett Gage because for religious reasons. Kalou asserts that his faith and ethnicity are his business in an apparently free country: “this isn’t Germany,” he yells. This is not an irrational response in the least; after all, the U.S. Constitution guarantees Kalou’s right to expression and religious freedom, but it is Kalou’s performance of masculinity that pegs him as “un-American.” For example, when Phelps implies he is Communist, Kalou loses it, calling Phelps a “goy pud-snatcher.” In fact, 99% of the Yiddish Kalou uses is expletives, indicating to the player that not only is he irrational and hyperbolic, his “ethnic” language is vulgar. He is, therefore, not a “good” man. The game makes clear that he is outside the American symbolic that values Phelps’ performance over Kalou’s (the worm turns later in the game).
Kalou makes it clear that he was harassed by Gage who called him “kike” and tried to run him out of business, which gives us insight into the hierarchical order of race in the game. Phelps is somewhat sympathetic, but makes it clear that Kalou must pay. Phelps’ sympathy plays into white liberal sentimentalism that acknowledges racism is wrong, but also makes it clear that white power structures will solve the problem of racial strife. That is, Phelps – in this section of the game – is the paragon of white masculinity: rational, stoic, loyal, and strong, which is all verified through Kalou as the oppositional Other. This binary positioning of Phelps (white = right) and Kalou (ethnicity = wrong) works to negate Kalou’s complaints. Clearly, he cannot handle bad white people, he needs to leave that up to the best white people, which is Phelps (actually, it’s Kelso but we aren’t to that part of the game yet).
After a summer of designing a new degree program for Trent University (with the help of input from colleagues), I am finally back to finishing up chapter five of Manifest Destiny 2.0. Do you know what that means? I have to start playing L.A. Noire pretty much from the beginning again to get the feel for it. I guess I am a “method” gamer – like method acting, I need to occupy the gaming space and perform within it – that’s really pretentious, my apologies.
I have to start over mainly because the games I write about are incredibly complex. While reading a print text or a film presents its challenges, a video game is a multimodal narrative that incorporates the conventions of print, genre, film, image, and game play. As well, despite the overwhelming number of “how -to” texts on studying games, none really pegs the act of “reading” a game beyond saying something like “gosh, this is really an interdisciplinary act.” If that sounds snotty, I am only fatigued by the sheer number of methodologies on gaming. I mean, seriously, go to Google Books right now and type in “video game criticism.” You will shit yourself not believe the sheer volume of monographs. Hey, and that’s not even counting the articles and online journals (the latter seem to pop up very other day). So why the obsession with methodology in video game studies? I think it has everything to do with the complexity of studying video games. There is so much to unpack, sort through, pick apart and map out that you can go mad. I am very glad for a good number of these books, particularly work by Bogost, Murray, and Galloway.
So now I am back at the helm of my own book, which is not about methodology at all, but an intervention into the world of Rockstar. No, I am not writing about GTA anything and when I can get to into the CSS of this blog, I will make my own banner that only features the other franchises, which have had just as much impact on identity politics and cultural understanding as the GTA series. Basically, there is a hell of a lot written about GTA already and while that’s fantastic, Rockstar is a fascinating case study of how the marriage of games and durable genres reinstates and circulates racist, exceptionalist, heteronormative, and neo-colonial worlds.
And now to jump back into 1940s Los Angeles and chase a serial killer….
Some of the most popular games ever produced belong to one company: Rockstar. Even though the company is owned and operated by two ex-pat Brits, Dan and Sam Houser, the games they produce slyly celebrate and circulate ideals of American Exceptionalism and neoliberalism. The overarching philosophy of Rockstar’s games is largely informed by durable American literary and filmic genres: the western and detective noir. That’s what I am writing about this summer as I finish my manuscript, which is under contract with the University of Nebraska Press.
The other reason I am writing this book is to fill serious gaps in video game, rhetorical, and literary scholarship:
1. Firstly, video game studies is overrun with methodological texts that offer the ways and means to study video games. There are simply not enough sustained analyses of the games themselves. When such studies are published, they tend to supply broad readings of many games but elide the complexities of individual games. One example that comes to mind is De Peuter’s and Dyer- Witheford’s Games of Empire, which uses a postcolonial model to discuss a wide range of games. Can games be lumped together? Yes and no – Games of Empire is a terrific book, but it supplies insight into the function of Empire, and not very much on individual games and their contexts.
2. This brings me to my second point: video game studies needs genre studies to give us a better idea of how games operate as highly influential forms of cultural expression and performance. Not all games have a clear heritage, but the ones that depend on literary genres do. Any good rhetorician/linguist knows that genres of communication define how we come to know our world, our relationships, and each other. The type of narrative genre used in a game influences the gamer’s cognition and social understanding. That’s why genres studies and video games studies need each other.
3. I hope my work will inspire English departments to embrace video games as a vital form of storytelling that requires the linguistic, cultural, and aesthetic expertise of literary analysis to unpack how certain games operate. The debate over whether or not games are narratives has been reconciled: ludology and narratology can get along and play nicely (sort of). Many video games are complex narratives that are a bricolage of literary filmic, game, and computational conventions. The gamification of the world began a long time ago, and our students need to learn how to read these games critically in order to use and even develop game technology in socially responsible ways.
Over the next six months I will be posting at least twice a week as I finish this manuscript – comment, share, read….do your own thing.
Just a hasty post to say that this blog is undergoing major structural changes. My professional e-portfolio can be found at sarahumphreys.wordpress.com and is also under construction.
This blog is my personal (yet widely shared!) research and teaching space, which I will use as a sandbox to play around with ideas, chart the progress of my book and video game, and project in digital pedagogy. I have removed a good deal of what needs to be on the e-portfolio, which is, again, at sarahumphreys.wordpress.com.
Since summer is upon us (at long last!), I will be writing about my manuscript, which means lots of posts about video games!
One of the secondary sources I will be using for my final project, as suggested by Sara after my presentation a few weeks ago, is Jagged Worldviews Colliding by Leroy Little Bear. In his paper he discusses Aboriginal philosophy, values, and customs while also giving an account of Eurocentric values in order to illustrate some of the different ways of interpreting the world through culture. He points out that colonialism created a fragmentary worldview among the Aboriginal peoples (84). Leroy argues that it is this clash of worldviews that is at the centre of many current difficulties in relation to effective means of social control in postcolonial North America (85). This clash is also what suppresses diversity. Leroy also discusses that there is no such thing as objective knowledge and with the jagged worldviews colliding, the idea that there can be objectivity is an illusion.
[transcript below. trent university, oshawa ontario. january 18th, 2014]
i’d like to take a moment before i start, to acknowledge that we are here today on stolen land, belonging to the mississauga-new credit first nations– a part of the ongoing colonial project in canada. institutions, like the post-secondary, like art galleries, may be planted like flags, to become the evolving generative machines of history, for which they were so-designed, but it is the land, its peoples, and their survivance amidst colonial erasure that we must first acknowledge here today.
before i really rev up i suppose i should tell you who i am: i am a story-teller. it what i was born to do. it’s what i’m good at. and in the process of my still quite novice earthly existence, i’ve been learning what that means, for someone living in the 21st century world.
I interpret Leanne’s words to mean that the little five-year-old girl she speaks to holds imbued knowledge and stored wisdom. In this next generation resides the hopes and learnings of her mother, her grandmothers, and all those who have gone before her. They pass on what they have learned…
One late afternoon last spring I received a visit from a former student and budding entrepreneur. I usually schedule these meetings at the end of the workday. It feels like a treat, witnessing aspiration and insight blend into leadership to create something new.
Luis (not his real name), however, had not come to see me for leadership advice. He had come to pitch his tech startup and ask for my involvement.
The venture, he explained, would contribute to the ongoing disruption and reinvention of business education and allow anyone anywhere — not just those as fortunate as himself — to have access to my teaching and insights online, for free.
While I would not be compensated, I’d have the opportunity to reach a broader audience and to be at the front — and on the right side — of the online revolution in education. I would become a better…