(Please note that I need to add hyperlinks in this post.)
Manifest Destiny 2.0: Video Games as National Literature
The overarching goal of this project is to examine video games that depend on American literary genres to frame their narratives, using two best-selling video games Rockstar Games’ Red Dead Redemption (2010) and L.A. Noire (2011) as case studies. These games are, for all intents and purposes, a western and a detective noir, respectively, which, much like their print and film counterparts, disseminate U.S. ideals and values transnationally. This project will show that these video games continue to market particular brands of American nationhood through the “frontier myth,” which is a designation that defines the dissemination of American ideologies – most predominantly exceptionalism, white supremacy and imperialism – through well-understood and mass-produced symbols of the American West. When these primarily print and film genres are refashioned 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 and their rhetorical purpose.
This research addresses the following questions: what happens when national literary genres are remediated into video games? How do these modes of social and cultural communication operate in a digitized, ludic environment? There has been a great deal of discussion and debate over how to analyze video games, but there has not been as much analysis of specific video games and their cultural, social, rhetorical, and political functions. For example, Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greg de Peuter’s Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games (2009) offers wide-ranging insight into the role of video games as paradigmatic media of empire, yet the concept of video games as historically situated, multimodal forms of ideological communication is subordinated to broad discussions of globalism and functionality. This project resituates video games as part of historically constituted networks of genres and forms of communication that deploy enduring discourses. Both Red Dead Redemption and L.A. Noire highlight how video games can narrate discrete forms of imperialism via durable American genres in ludic environments. By “durable,” I mean to say that certain genres do not die out but are consistently refashioned to not only continue the development of the genre but also sustain the forms of social control that these genres enact through the “laws” of communication they encode (Bakhtin, 1984; Derrida, 1992).
The cultural, national, political and social power of literary genres is not to be underestimated. Carolyn Miller (1984) explains that we should pay careful attention to genres, because they are much more than a form of critical determinism that simply list tiresome numbers of categories. Rather, the repetition of the elements that comprise a genre induce social action. Genres help us to group symbols that, in turn, supply meaning and significance to various contexts and situations (Miller, 1984; DeVitt, 2004). Through genres, we are able to construct answers to questions posed by social and political situations and contexts (Devitt, 2004, p. 14). Miller argues that studying genre must not simply be a study of form and substance, but must also focus on the actions that genre produces. A genre is a fusion of rhetorical forms bound together by an internal dynamic that provide guidelines for dealing with varied rhetorical situations. So literary genres, particularly durable literary genres (such as the western), have an internal dynamic that is repeated and through this repetition, readers both learn the formula of the genre, and, in turn, gain knowledge from the formula that they can then apply when needed. Thus, literary genres have influence on social situations by giving readers a repertoire to draw from. If genres, including literary genres, have such a powerful influence on our capacity to deal with social situations and relationships, what happens when these genres not only frame a game’s storyline but the procedures of gameplay that reward the player for performing the genre correctly? There has yet to be an in-depth exploration of the influence that specifically American “ludic” narratives have on the production of American identity and, in turn, on the transnational dissemination of U.S. values and ideals in the Western world.
Therefore, there is an urgent need for a scholarly investigation of what might be called a new form of American literature or, more properly, American “ludic” literature that can help to explain the persistence of the frontier myth and its attendant ideals of imperialism, progress, white supremacy and exceptionalism, particularly in relation to the spread of American neoliberalism globally. Indeed, the economic disparity that neoliberalism has helped to institute is part and parcel of the frontier myth that informs both Red Dead Redemption and L.A. Noire. American forms of neoliberalism embrace ideals that have traditionally defined the mythic American West, such as individualism, self-sufficiency, profiteering, and unencumbered progress (Moos 2005; Harvey, 2005). My study addresses this critical need by showing that the “old” media, such as American print and film narratives, is not “dead” but has been remediated into video game environments that influence the cultural understanding of the U.S. and the identities that comprise the nation. By paying attention to specific uses of durable American genres in video games, this study offers a much needed cultural analysis of the pervasiveness of the frontier myth in video games.
In order to show the crucial significance of durable literary genres, specifically the western and detective noir, in shaping the form, function, and ideological framework of video games, I will explore the specific iteration(s) of these genres that Red Dead Redemption and L.A. Noire engage. The identification of the genre elements these games use enables me to explore the ideologies and, in turn, social actions and relationships these genres were (and are) meant to control. Christine Bold (2012) explains that the western formula instituted via the dime western “wielded long-term influence, especially in suturing nationhood to white, male individualism and reinforcing hierarchies of race and gender (p. 318). Red Dead Redemption follows the action sequence of the classic dime western that includes graphic violence, captivity narratives, frontier settings, and stock characters, such as the rugged hero who evolved from the eighteenth-century frontiersman. This iconic American hero, whose development has been extensively documented by Richard Slotkin (1992), is a liminal figure who lives in two social orders: civilized/barbaric. However, he must only protect one – the civilized, white, and patriarchal – at the expense of the Other – the barbaric, raced, and feminized.
Similarly, in L.A. Noire, the mythic frontier tradition of saving civilization at the expense of other social and cultural groups is narrativized through the detective noir genre. Several scholars, including Richard Slotkin (1988) and William Stowe(1988), have traced the origins of the hard-boiled detective story to frontier narratives. Slotkin argues that the hard-boiled detective evolved from the iconic frontiersman, who traverses binaries but can never live comfortably in civilization or in the criminal element. Despite being able to speak the language of the Other, the hard-boiled detective will almost always choose to support the normative civilized order. Because L.A. Noire is a type of frontier narrative and a video game, the player is sutured to the main character and, therefore, must fulfill the narrative destiny of WWII veteran and police detective Cole Phelps, who fights for the preservation of American society (Slotkin, 1988).
Therefore, video games offer rich sites for analyzing national ideals. When literary genres like the western or detective noir are remediated in video game formats, they become much more realistic and “life-like,” which increases the ideological influence on a viewer trained to appreciate and value realism as a “truthful” model of the world (Ricoeur, 1976). Game systems model things, relations, and events from material reality in order to create a seamless diegetic world that does not expose its computational executions; in other words, video games appear visually and linguistically “real” (Bogost, 2006). The only way to achieve such “life-like” representation is to draw upon genres of communication, particularly literary genres, that can map political, social, cultural, and historical processes. By interactively following the game narrative via the controller (or control pad) and the desire to win the game (only possible by reading the game’s genre correctly), the player is sutured to the game narrative. That is, in much the way that film constructs a subject-position for the viewer as the meaning of the film emerges, so too is the player ideologically positioned within the game (Silverman, 1999). As I explain in my essay on genre, performance and gaming: “[t]his performative frame that governs the relationship between game and gamer leaves the player much more susceptible to the ideological stance of the game in question. While games like Red Dead Redemption [and L.A. Noire] are usually criticized for extreme violence (which is a convention of the western genre), the more pressing point is the ability of open world games to move beyond the register of print or film narrative interaction and into the register of performance and performativity. Performativity moves beyond Cartesian duality and explores how the body and mind function to connect a person with his or her epistemological and ontological reality” (2012, p. 210).
This study significantly expands on the concerns of my dissertation which, through a cross-media study, considers the rhetorical purpose of the captivity narrative as a means to organize American identity into gendered, racialized, and economic strata. I am intensely interested in how apparently disparate forms of media intersect to further or even create paradigmatic myths that govern how people live their lives. My current project extends my research interests in genre, media, and material culture into the field of critical game studies. My initial foray into this field involved a comparative analysis of the popular western and Red Dead Redemption that met with positive reviews at the 2011 Western Literature Association conference. Subsequently, Dr. Michael K. Johnson solicited the paper for publication in a special edition of Western American Literature. This paper has since become the first chapter of my manuscript.
My research in the relationship between the popular print western and video games has added to the burgeoning field of critical game studies by showing that certain video games organize American identity into gendered, racial, and economic strata through the incorporation of American literary genres. Because earlier studies focused primarily on the functionality of video games, the effect of video games on U.S. identity politics has not been fully realized. For example, theorists have noted the unique ability of new media – particularly video game environments – to encode, digitize and transcode settings, objects and people in order to (re)create reality (Bolter, 2000; Manovich 2001; Thacker, 2004). Other theorists have been more interested in proving that games cannot be studied as forms of narrative, because they are not read but played (Galloway, 2006; Aarseth, 1997).
Because these earlier studies are primarily interested in differentiating video games from other forms of media, they could not explore the larger cultural implications of video games that incorporate American literary genres. Indeed, the methodological arguments that attempt to co-opt the study of video games into, most predominantly, either the field of ludology or narratology have tended to elide the study of video games as a form of cultural expression that influences how players behave and interact in real situations and circumstances. This project answers scholarly calls by Janet Murray (1998) and Ian Bogost (2006) to examine the cultural work that video games perform.
Since I plan to focus on the social and cultural implications of using durable literary genres to frame video game narratives and, therefore, gameplay, I will make use of a variety of critical, digital, sociolinguistic, and rhetorical theories, because it is impossible for any one theory to do justice to the complex ludic narratives of video games (Bogost, 2006; Nitsche, 2008). While a number of theories inform this project, of particular use are digital materialism, critical theory, critical discourse analysis, and genre theory, each of which offer insight into the ways in which
(i) digital gaming environments have been shaped by cultural traditions, including print, cinema, and computer interfaces (Manovich, 2001)
(ii) hierarchies of race, gender and class are sustained in digital gaming environments
(iii) structures and modes of language (including images and moving images) enforce social relations of power (Kress & Hodge, 1993; Fairclough, 2001)
(iv) genres group symbols and supply coherence by offering answers to questions posed by various rhetorical situations (Devitt 2004; Miller 1984)
There have been many western-themed and hard-boiled detective games released, but these games do not have the combination of narrative complexity and popularity that Red Dead Redemption and L.A. Noire each possess. Since its release in 2010, Red Dead Redemption has won numerous “Game of the Year” awards for its compelling narrative and rich gameplay (Jensen 2010; Thorsen, 2011); in addition, game sales remain robust, with 13 million units sold since its release (Curtis, 2012). Similarly, L.A. Noire has received several honours, including being the first video game to be viewed at the Tribeca Film Festival and breaking sales records upon its release (Schreier, 2011; Barker, 2012). L.A. Noire is consistently reviewed as a ground-breaking game: in part because of the motion-scan technology that produced life-like characters and also for incorporating a unique form of gameplay that asks players to behave less like traditional gamers and more like readers who must judge and interpret the narrative (Goldstein, 2011; Petit, 2011). Red Dead Redemption and L.A. Noire are open world games with complex narrative systems that enable players to engage with the game on many levels rather than simply follow a linear narrative path. Much like a novel, these games contain multiple storylines – possibly in the hundreds – which creates a highly immersive experience. Further, because open world video games have become dependent on literary forms, conventions, and tropes to produce stories, literary and cultural studies must be central in the study of these type of video games.
My research assistants and I will collect data not only from the case studies for the project, Red Dead Redemption and L.A. Noire, but also from a wide range of westerns and noir detective games. We will systematically note instances of the following:
- The incorporation of the frontier myth and attendant ideologies, including white supremacy, unfettered progress, and exceptionalism
- Genre conventions of the western and noir detective fiction and how they are remediated into a 3D gaming environment
- The responses of various cultural and racial groups to these games in online forums and gaming environments
The process of collecting and examining each game’s narrative, including character development, structure, spatial and temporal analysis, in terms of the frontier myth and associated genres will take some time. I have finished playing the main storyline of Red Dead Redemption and L.A. Noire but I have not completed all of the “side missions” (which might be called “sub-plots”). Further, I have not yet played in multiplayer mode, which involves interacting with other players in these open-world environments. My research assistants will help me to achieve these ends.
In addition, there are other games with complex narratives besides these two case studies that circulate the frontier myth, and they need to be documented in order to show the pervasiveness of the frontier myth and also to provide useful data on the relationship between literary genres and video games for scholars, instructors and gamers. A preliminary list of these sources is as follows:
Primary Case Studies: Red Dead Redemption; L.A. Noire
Western-themed games for quantitative data analysis: Assassins Creed 3; Red Dead Revolver; Call of Juarez; Lead and Gold: Gangs of the Wild West; Gun; Odd World: Stranger’s Wrath
Hard-boiled detective games for quantitative data analysis: True Crime: Streets of L.A.; True Crime: Streets of New York; The Getaway; Heavy Rain; Max Payne (I, II, III)
My research assistants and I will play the games listed above, identifying relevant episodes and documenting genre conventions. One very time-consuming task will be playing in multiplayer mode and also parsing data from the linguistic interactions drawn from online gaming communities. My graduate research assistant and I will analyze this data in order to gain an understanding of how certain cultural groups respond to the racial, national, and cultural discourses these video games deploy.
We will use the excellent framework for such analysis supplied by Kiri Miller (2012), who has created a methodology for documenting and studying how gamers create online communities through shared gaming experiences. For example, one of the online communities for Red Dead Redemption is a Latino group on Youtube. We will ask why Latino gamers play the game when the representation of Latino identity in the game is largely negative? Do these gamers play the section of the game that is set in Mexico? Do Latino gamers attempt to subvert the game in certain ways? Rather than focusing on one specific group, my research assistants and I will focus on the connections between gaming experiences across gendered and racialized groups in order to gain insight into how these communities deal with the ideologies narrated via these games, which are deeply influenced by the frontier myth.
- We will search for patterns of generic representation in western-themed and detective noir games and, in turn, analyze how the generic elements of the western and detective noir narrate ideologies of the frontier myth. This data will offer insight into how these games are forms of national literature that “sell” particular “brands” of American identity and nationhood.
- We will study responses to the frontier myth and its attendant ideologies through analysis of the interactions and speech genres created through the online gaming communities of Red DeadRedemption and L.A. Noire.
- This data will be shared through a number of academic and non-academic venues, including journal articles, blog posts, and tweets.
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