Book Project

Manifest Destiny 2.0: Genre Trouble in Video Games

Summary

While video games provide a completely new medium for storytelling,  most game narratives do not offer new ways of understanding the world.  Quite to the contrary, most videogames with complex storylines are based on enduring American literary genres that disseminate problematic ideologies across the cultural field.  This book counters the claims of game theorists, such as Alexander Galloway, who have dismissed the power of stories to not only shape and direct gameplay, but influence the gamer.[1] Stories are fueled by the dynamic engines of genres, which dictate the form of the story, and this power is also apparent in video games, but none more so than in games that narrativize the frontier myth.  Through intensive analyses of two case studies, Red Dead Redemption (2010) and L.A. Noire (2011) that are, respectively, a western and a detective noir thriller, this book shows that the frontier myth is still performing its cultural work in the twenty-first century.  Indeed, when these primarily print and film genres are remediated as video games, they not only continue their original purpose to circulate exceptionalist versions of the U.S., but also create a new form of embodied, performative literacy that, I argue, intensifies the power of literary genres (of any kind) and their rhetorical purpose.

Both games require players to perform as a failed yet heroic protagonist whose main goal is to repair the fractures in the American dream of property ownership. For example, the main character in Red Dead Redemption, the reformed outlaw John Marston reluctantly leaves his ranch, the symbol of his recuperation from outlaw to ranch owner, to rescue his family.  However, his main mission, which is to hunt down his former gang members to appease the government agents who are holding his family hostage, is often sidelined as he consistently protects the property of others from rustlers and “savages.”  As Marston, the player performs “missions” or narrative sequences that mostly involve Marston admitting that the government and corporations are to blame for making life difficult for small ranching and farming operations; however, instead of attacking the corporate culprits, he punishes the rustlers, Indians, and banditos (in other words, lower class and raced characters)  for these fractures in property and ownership.

Similarly, the protagonist in L.A. Noire, detective Cole Phelps consistently states that he “wants to make the world a better place by enforcing the law,” but he can’t understand that the law does not apply to those of a certain class and wealth level. Much like Marston, Phelps is disillusioned by his discovery of corruption, but he still supports and sustains the corrupt status quo rather than fight against economic disparity and other social ills. While both characters are disgusted by the corruption they witness, they do not see an alternative to sacrificing themselves to support a neoliberal and neocolonial American system that ultimately views them as expendable. Indeed, in both games, political apathy is promoted as the best choice while those who try and gain equal access to economic advantages, social mobility, and other aspects of the “American Dream” are framed as criminal and subversive. Much like their print and film progenitors, these games each quell anxieties over economic, racial, and gender inequality through the performance of Anglo cultural, racial, and economic superiority.

Curiously, no other media, literary, or game theorist has studied the rhetorical power of genre in video game environments. Scholars like Alexander Galloway and Espen Aarseth argue that the stories told through video games are subordinate to the computational processes (that make the game function), but they have not considered that it’s the narrative genre that guides these processes.[2][3]  Indeed, games like Red Dead Redemption and L.A. Noire have more than “storytelling ambitions.”[4]  In the case of these games, it’s the durable genre that controls the way the player performs and behaves: the genre provides the “rules” that drives the game forward. For example, Marston must capture rustlers, learn to use certain guns, gain control over encroaching “savages,” and these elements are all part of the western genre that the player must perform.

While it’s true that game critics and scholars know that genres structure games and gameplay, genre is simply viewed an invisible power of which they take little notice. Much like the wizard behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz, genres seem to “magically” provide the tools to deal with social and rhetorical situations.  However, as both Carolyn Miller and Amy Devitt note, it’s not magic but the rules of communication that run like a computer program behind all of our interactions.[5] For example, when video game critic Harold Goldberg states repeatedly that the incredibly popular Grand Theft Auto series is based on “a crazy conglomeration of all the best gangster movies,” he means that the game creator Dan Houser was utterly dependent on a durable literary and film genre to produce the game.[6] When Sacha Howells notes that cut-scenes give the player his or her objectives in the game and offer causal relationships, he means that the reason these short filmic sequences work so well is due to the genre conventions that they adhere to.[7] But even more important than acknowledging that genre studies must be made central to any study of games with a complex narratives, we must be cognizant and critically aware that it is  mainly durable American genres that shape these kinds of games. Scholars and rhetoricians from Aristotle to Mikhail Bakhtin, have told us time and again that genres control our worldview and social interactions, which means we need to consider the social and cultural implications of actually performing genres like the western and detective noir. As James Loxley explains, performance and performativity are incredibly powerful cultural mediums because we cannot tell when the performance begins and where it ends.[8] That is, when gamers put the controller down, they take this performance with them, because the line between reality and fantasy is blurred when performing in digital environments (or “stages”) and then in “real” life. Therefore, we must question why the classic western dominates the video game market when in their print and film forms, they have been shown time and again to be racist, heteronormative, and neocolonial.[9]

This book explains why we must be mindful and critically aware of the narrative genres games employ, and it does so through a variety of critical theories and approaches because “it is incomprehensible that any single theory could do justice to a form as rich and vivid as the video game.”[10]  My book breaks new ground by engaging genre studies, literary and rhetorical theory, discourse analysis, visual rhetoric, film theory, psychoanalysis, Marxism, and queer theory in order to throw light on how genres guide how the game’s mechanics operate, thereby influencing the player’s worldview. Scientists have only recently come to study how games can influence gamers’ cognition in positive ways, but are careful to warn that the powerful tools games offer have yet to be fully fathomed. This book exposes how popular games are blithely using primarily American genres that circulate the paradigmatic myth of the frontier, with its attendant ideologies of unfettered progress, heteronormativity, and neocolonialism through the performative 3-D landscape of open world games.

 


[1] Alexander Galloway. Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minneapolis Press, 2006).

[2] Alexander Galloway. Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minneapolis Press, 2006) 2.

[3] Espen Aarseth. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).

[4] Jesper Juul. Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011) 5.

[5] Please see Miller, Carolyn. “Genre as Social Action.” Quarterly Journal of Speech (70, 2004) 151-167. Retrieved from http://www.english.illinois.edu and Amy Devitt. Writing Genres. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004).

[6] Harold Goldberg. All Your Base Are Belong to Us: How Fifty Years of Video Games Conquered Pop Culture. (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2011) 238.

[7] Sacha Howells, ed. ScreenPlay: Cinema/Video Games/ Interfaces. (London: Wallflower Press, 2002). 113.

[8] James Loxley. Performativity. (New York, NY: Routledge, 2007).

[9] In particular see Christine Bold’s most recent book The Frontier Club. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

[10]  Michael Nitsche. Video Game Spaces: Image, Play, and Structure in 3D Worlds. (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008) 1.

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5 thoughts on “Book Project”

  1. Hi Sara,
    I have forwarded this post to CT who works at UC-Q with me. He’s working on a publication project that investigates the the criteria for “collecting” video games in libraries. Anyway, I have spoken of your work on numerous occassions even though your work is beyond my intellectual scope. I’m sure though when I have the opportunity to read the book, it will all be clear!

    Falina

    1. I don’t think my work is beyond you intellectual scope at all – don’t say things like that! What that means is that I am not explaining myself enough – did you read the abstracts to the first two chapters? Let me know what you think!

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research, teaching, and a little angst

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