Manifest Destiny 2.0

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.

Shedding light on how video games inform our understanding of race, class, and gender
Shedding light on how video games inform our understanding of race, class, and gender (har, har)

A New Outlook on Life

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!

 

The Importance of Language

Sara Humphreys:

Well said – language can be changed to reshape our worlds.

Originally posted on Consumable Bodies:

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.

Little Bear’s paper will be…

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disability, art, and the age of the internet: a tedxtalk

Sara Humphreys:

An insightful look at how social networks build identity in an ableist world.

Originally posted on crooked lunch:

[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.

ah yes, and someone who looks…

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Writing to Educate

Sara Humphreys:

Read and enjoy – such a super post.

Originally posted on Write.Right.Rite.:

“leaks” is written and performed by Leanne Simpson and Tara Williamson.

Take a moment to listen to traditional story teller and spoken word artist, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, as she performs “leaks.” 

For every one of your questions, there’s a story hidden in the skin of the forest:

Use them as flint, fodder, love songs, medicine.

You are from a place of unflinching power,

The holder of our stories,

The one who speaks up,

The chance for spoken-up words drowned in ambush.

You are not a vessel for white settler shame, even if I am the housing that failed you.

Leanne Simpson

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…

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Let Them Eat MOOCs

Harvard Business Review:

The democratizationof postsecondary is actually its aristocritization

Originally posted on HBR Blog Network - Harvard Business Review:

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…

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Sober Up, Missus America

Warning: there are spoilers in the post if you have not played the game.

I know, I know, the title to this post seems misleading, but it really isn’t, so keep reading.

Let’s go through the murdered women you must examine on the Homocide Desk (a level in the game). You are after a serial killer who is loosely based on the “Black Dahlia” murder case and, in the end, it’s him: Elizabeth Short’s murderer. These cases also resemble the Red Lipstick murders, which were equally gruesome (fyi, be careful looking up these murders – you can be led to very gruesome photos.) If we group the victims together, a pattern becomes apparent:

Celine Henry – one of the first female aviators who fell on hard times after a glamorous life of partying with stars and dignitaries. She marries Jacob Henry, a working stiff who she physically abuses. She drinks heavily and flirts with other men at the La Bamba Club. Cole and Rusty find her badly beaten body and the coroner tells them she was brutally sodomized but no semen was found. The was stomped on repeatedly. We catch a suspect who has left the murder weapon on the floor in his apartment – clearly, this arrest was simply too easy and Cole notes this fact.

Deidre Moller – She is an exception to the rule of drink and promiscuous behaviour by the rest of the victims. She is in an abusive marriage. After her husband beats her, he buys her jewelry, which is stolen by the murderer.  She was beaten and strangled but not stomped. However, she was not drunk, which is likely why she was not crushed like a bug.

Antonia Maldonado – is the sole Latina of the victims. She was a devout catholic who married young and discovered too late that her husband was brash and abusive. Phelps and Galloway speculate that her husband drove her to drink, and so she was drunk when she was murdered. it’s not entirely clear if she was stomped to death, but she died “like the others” so we can presume so.

Theresa Taraldsen – loved to dance and drink, but she was a mom and a wife so….well, you know the rest. She is taken upon returning home after a night of carousing and brutally murdered.

Evelyn Summers – seems to be the only unmarried woman who had a career as a studio secretary (hence the name of the case, the “Studio Secretary Murder.”  It is interesting that she gets a title whereas the other women are known for the murder weapon or the trophy taken from them. Summers is a die-hard homeless alcoholic who lives in the back of a liquor store. She has a boyfriend, who is (surprise!) abusive and, yes, she is mutilated and stomped before being strangled.

Likely Theresa Maldonado but most of the victims look the same in death, which is odd.

In each case, the women were fighting with a husband or significant other, so their home lives were unhappy. Envisioned as conquests, the murderer takes a trophy from each of the victims, which he then uses to lead Phelps along. The killer leaves his name as Percy Bryce Shelley – the one and only – and uses excerpts from Prometheus Unbound to lead Phelps to his “lair.” The choice of Prometheus Unbound, Shelley’s great poetic/dramatic experiment is very interesting. The poem (if you can call it a poem) is didactic and meant to change the world through idealism. This is Phelps to a tee. He is convinced that by following his ideals, he can win, but the rules are pretty damn strict and he ultimately fails. Everyone fails in the American symbolic order because if they actually succeed no one will work themselves to death trying (see John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row for more on this idea)

He really is a failed frontiersman, there can be no doubt, but I touched on this fact in an earlier post. This post is all about the weirdness of this particular desk and boy howdy, is it disturbing, mainly because it articulates longstanding discourses of domesticity, sex, and nationhood.

On the spreadsheet of the nation, women have consistently operated in American literature and culture as metonymic substitutions for the nation, often appearing as part of a signifying chain of meaning that includes the American home and other signifiers of domesticity.This symbolic function is continued in a disturbing fashion as Phelps investigates each victim’s murder, who seem to be killed for transgressing their domestic spheres.  Each victim leaves behind a devastated husband, who is invariably accused of the crime – in other words, the family home is devastated by the loss of its central figure. This sentimental trope of the broken home has its roots in the formula of the American captivity narrative, an integral part of frontier fiction,  in which a white woman is captured by an enemy. In fictional portrayals of this formula, the rescuers often fail or are hindered and the game follows this long-standing tradition. As I said earlier, the majority of the victims were drunk at the time of their murders; therefore, the home was already broken and the petticoats of the middle-class are lifted to reveal debauchery, selfishness, and hedonism underneath.

White women have traditionally been the moral compass of the American home; they are the guarantors of cultural and racial superiority, but each of these women are represented as dissatisfied with their middle-class lifestyle, desiring to have and be more than what they are. Their “selfish” indulgences that left them (and their families) vulnerable to attack by evil reflect a nation that also imbibed on a high of easy credit and loans. These women are metonymic signifiers that stand in for the heady hedonism of the pre-collapse world, and as Phelps, the player must investigate the victims, explore their shortcomings, and then, like any frontiersman worth his salt, discover and eradicate the evil within the nation. True to the tradition of detective noir to uncover corruption rather than simply solve a mystery, the killer turns out to be a relation of one of the most wealthy and powerful families in L.A.; therefore, his identity remains a secret and his family, as members of the wealthy elite, are free to reshape the American home at will. These fallen women were at the mercy of a one percenter: the game not only teaches that there is no fighting back, but if these women had sobered up and lived by the edicts of their domestic duty, they would not have fallen, therefore, these women metonymically signify the fallen American middle class.

I’ll leave the last word to that wonderful, old curmudgeon….

This Is for You, Undergrads

I’ll start with my philosophy for success at school and life and then get into specifics for undergrads:
  1. Do the best job you can on every assignment and task. If you do, you will never “kick yourself” or think that you could have done better. You did the best you could with the tools you had and as you learn, you will gain more tools and do better.
  2. Work like hell.
  3. Listen to everyone but do not follow others blindly
More specific to undergrads:
  • This is not high school where you can blow off classes and expect to do well. My formula is that for every three classes a student misses, his or her grade drops by a half grade or 5%. If I were to conduct a longitudinal stats analysis, I believe my hypothesis would be proven true. You can’t skip classes in university without consequences.
  • Don’t skate through; if you do, you close doors. These days, your degree will not likely end at university. You may want to take another degree in ten years (seriously – the workplace has changed drastically in the last 20 years – employees are expected to be life long learners). You may want to go to Teachers College or Law School. You may want to go into social work or nursing. You may go premed. You might want to take a post-graduate diploma from college (they are competitive). You might want to keep going and get an MA. For all of these choices, you need to stay in the B range or even the A range. University is about excellence, not just getting by. If you are falling behind with your grades, see an academic adviser, peer mentor, counselor or your prof. In other words, be proactive with your education.
  • Join in on campus life, which is not only fun but damn smart in terms of networking for jobs closer. In other words, make a plan for your education and follow through. You can add whatever you do in clubs on campus or other activities on your co-curricular AND your resume. Seriously, you’ll punch yourself down the road if you don’t (there is a lot of punching and kicking in this post…). The person you serve with in a club may be the person who remembers you and suggests that you be hired down the road. See what I mean?
  • Be nice to everyone (this was advice given to me in my MA and I have never forgotten it and live by it).
  • Don’t go it alone. Visit your profs; chat with the librarians, hang out and play ping pong in the caf. Those who go it alone just do not do as well as those who join.
  • Understand the grading system and self-evaluate. If you get a C and you don’t know why – ask. Be sure you understand why you get the grades you do; otherwise, you are flying blind and that’s just silly.
  • Don’t be scared of your profs – they were once just like you: an undergrad starting out. They remember what it’s like and they LIKE you to see them. They don’t hold office hours ’cause office hours are just so much fun. Visit them!
  • On that note, friends, don’t try to read your profs’ mind. Tackle every assignment by reading the guidelines and rubrics carefully and using the power of your own thought process. For example, if you think: “I bet Prof X would love it if I said this because Prof X is always talking about this in class,” then you will likely get a much lower grade than you thought you would. You are at uni to listen, learn, and think for yourself.
  • Have fun, for goodness sakes.
and the last bit of advice is the best, mainly because it’s a cartoon and offers you the good and bad about BEER and COFFEE:
I am thinking about beer and coffee right now at the same time

Violence and Women in L.A. Noire

I am on the homocide desk and for those of you new to my blog, I am writing about my game play in L.A. Noire. In a few weeks, I’ll be discussing Red Dead Redemption, a game I have finished but is closely related to L.A Noire. Of course, I am writing about these games, which requires that I replay certain missions (tough life, I know). Red Dead will be in less detail than Noire because I have to replay missions (one of which is the “ethnography missions”…I kid you not).

Harold McDougal is an ethnographer…he’s pretty damn awful

But first, I need to complete L.A. Noire…The first case I encounter on the homocide desk is called “The Red Lipstick Murder” (there really was a red lipstick killer in 1947 and the game riffs off of that case) and what a grisly scene. As always, the opening scene features the crime and the blood is flying. The next scene is Cole’s (my) promotion to homicide and I hook up with my new partner, the alcoholic misogynist, Rusty (Finbarr) Galloway.

At this point in the game, when Cole walks by “bystanders” outside or in the station, people whisper, “Hey!  That’s the cop from the papers” or “That’s the cop who caught all those criminals!” These declarations are reminiscent of playing as John Marston in Red Dead Redemption who eventually becomes famous in his ‘verse.

The victim in this case is Celine Henry, an alcoholic who is beaten with a tire iron, stomped to death and sodomized. The killer writes in lipstick on her body and the brutality of the crime is suggestive of the famous Black Dahlia murder, which was an incredibly brutal case of rape, torture, and murder. The violence in this game is brutal, not only due to the graphic nature of the violence but because you have to investigate (“touch”) the body.

Mid-case, we are introduced to another newspaper flashback (when you find a newspaper, you enter into a flashback that is relevant to the main plot line, which is still a mystery). In this one, we see Fontaine, who is clearly not an ethical doctor, trying to calm a patient down. This patient is on a payphone, with his back toward the camera, freaking out about committing arson and killing an entire family. The patient was clearly led to commit the crime by Fontaine as he screams into the phone, “you said no one would be in the house?!!?” Arson is a property crime and the final desk in the game is arson so….like Red Dead Redemption, a central part of the story line is all about property crimes or fractures in property and ownership, which are both central concepts in the “American Dream.”

back to homocide…In this first case of women being brutally tortured (and tracking what is clearly a serial killer comprises the entire homocide desk), Cole arrests, Alonzo Mendes, who appears guilty but Cole is clearly unconvinced of his guilt. In the next two cases, “The Golden Butterfly” and The Silk Stocking Murder,” each case has the same modus operandi, but in the case of “The Golden Butterfly,” the husband seems to be guilty. I realize how disturbing all of this violence against women is – the crimes are sexual and extremely violent. However, let’s think of this figuratively. In each case, a home is broken, the husband is suspected, the family is fractured and all seems lost. Women are iconic figures in the concept of the United States as an exceptional nation. If we consider John Gast’s famous painting of American Progress (1872), then we can see that white women are the guarantors of progress, purity and driving out the “savage” elements that “plague” the American landscape (check out the Indigenous peoples running away from “progress” in the lower left hand corner).

John Gast American Progress (1872)

It’s important to note that each of the women who are murdered are “flawed” in some way. Celine Henry was a drunk, Antonia Maldonado was also drunk (and raced); Mrs. Moller overspends…each of these women do not seem to perform their femininity “properly.”  The husbands are placed under suspicion and are also revealed to be wife beaters, on average.

So what is Cole’s role? To reveal the corruption at the heart of the American home?  Seems so…

Education and Hard Work Get You Nothin’, So Now What?

As  a person with a boatload of education, you can imagine how disconcerting it was when Stefan Bekowsky replies to Cole’s (that’s me!) assertion that he just wants to fit in:

“Educated, hard-working – hate to break it to you Cole, but you’ll never fit in.”

He’s a blunt guy…

Great. But on a less personal note, the message here is that following the rules set out by a “rags to riches” ideology is not how to get ahead. In fact, according to Bekowsky, don’t get ahead, which means renouncing the type of masculinity that Phelps strives for. In fact, we learn early on that Bekowsky didn’t go to war, so what kind of man is he? A pretty brave one it turns out: he received a citation for bravery. He also helps Phelps out quite a  bit and is a thoroughly likable fellow (particularly compared to Phelps next partner but more on him later).

So what’s the message?  Don’t be ambitious? Keep your nose down and mind your business?  It seems likely, until we meet Kelso, I think but then he isn’t the everyday man. Frontiersmen/noir detectives never are. For the regular guy, much like my argument about Red Dead Redemption in a recent article I published,  the lesson is to be stay apathetic and just do as you are told…but we’ll see.

The cases are progressively involving more violence against women and “The Fallen Idol” is no different. The opening scenes are dramatic – a car goes over a cliff and the female driver and passenger are only saved by a giant billboard (see? Advertising saves lives!). It turns out the driver is a B-Movie actress and her passenger is a corn-fed mid-west 15 year old girl, named Jessica,  looking for fame in Hollywood. June trades her little friend to porn producers for a film role. The girl is drugged and then filmed being molested through a “social camera room.”

The femme fatale

I won’t go into detail about the case; it’s fairly sordid, but we do encounter loads of characters that will pop-up later, such as Roy Earle and “Alienest” Fontaine. The most interesting character, to my mind, is Elsa Lichtman, the singer at the Blue Room Jazz Club.  She is the femme fatale. If you read any Slavoj Zizek, then you know the femme fatale upsets the normative symbolic order so let’s see what she shakes up (I imagine it’s Cole and his dreams of heroism and social mobility!!).

What I am loving about this game are the threads of narrative that seem unfinished in one case only to be picked up and woven into another, such as the references to California Fire and Life, which clearly will appear again. I admit it: I am hooked on this game.

I bet this company is not on the up and up

research, teaching, and a little angst

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