dicks dicks dicks: Hardness and Flaccidity in (Virtual) Masculinity Amanda Phillips / Georgetown University
is a game that depicts dicks/firearms and blurs the lines between the two
We sit around a table laughing our asses off at a cell phone playing a video of a pug chowing down on a floppy green dildo. The dog snorts and slobbers, delighted by the springy texture of its new toy. The dick’s shaft expands and contracts whimsically, rubbery balls chasing curly tail. Nom nom nom nom nom. Snort. Bark. Growl. Fling. One friend, a gay man, looks up from the screen, catching his breath. “Why… would anyone have a soft dick like that?”
I shift in my chair, the soft lump between my legs a secret marker of my gender expansion. At the time, I wasn’t ready to disclose the centrality of packing devices to my sense of personhood. My first floppy dick had been condom filled with hair gel; like transmen and other masculine of center women, I have used any number of improvised genital devices to suit the mood and occasion, from socks to overpriced strapons. Today, there are many options for those who want an all-purpose dick that can slide discreetly into your pants but is ready to spring into action when necessary. My tastes in everyday dickwear, however, are strictly squishy.
This is one of the many things about my body that fails to square up with expectations about my gender. Society wants masculinity to be hard, from its cock to its biceps to its steely, impenetrable self-assurance. The first thing one can think to do with a flaccid dick, in fact, is to make it hard again. The centrality of hardness is no different in the virtual world. Robert Yang’s The Tearoom, a game that critiques homophobia, toxic masculinity, and gun culture, features flaccid dicks in the shape of firearms that slowly lose their fleshiness to become fully erect metallic weapons before shooting off their loads (See Figure 1). This metaphor brilliantly captures the convergence of masculinity, hardness, and the digital, and it gestures toward the harm that these can cause. Yang’s game also, however, exhibits what was at the heart of my friend’s amusement with floppy dicks: even in queer cultures, and perhaps especially in gay male culture, a hard cock is the focal point of sexual activity and identity.
My first digital dick, of course, came from Second Life. The virtual world that launched a thousand webcam careers has a robust genitals market. Second Life avatars are like virtual Barbie dolls: choosing a “sex” grants one the secondary curves of a gendered body, but these avatars are nothing but smooth surfaces all the way down. The gendered sliders of the customization interface allow users to tweak these surfaces, adding a groin bulge here or a breast augmentation there, but if you want extra bits and bobs, you’ll have to wear them like the accessories they are.
Second Life offers a variety of body customization, but no option for “soft” dicks
body shops are a smorgasbord of gender. Dog cocks, dragon cocks, nipples, labia, clits, and dilating anuses can share virtual retail space with the vanilla human penises on offer. Each part comes with a fantastic set of controls, allowing the user to enlarge, shrink, change angles, and even change the type and volume of fluid coming out. Amongst all this variety and customization, however, Second Life dicks are never floppy. Even when “soft,” they arc rigidly downward (See Figure 2). There are pages upon pages of physics scripts for sale in the marketplace that add jiggle and bounce to breasts and buttocks, but a search for “male physics” turns up only a handful of options. .PictureMe.’s “Aesthetic Niramynth Avatar Physics” hosts unsurprising complaints: “TOO JIGGLY mens [sic] boobs don’t move like that…and if they do they need to get back to the gym… Hence the words HARD BODY?” [ (( Online commenter (2017). Re: Aesthetic Niramynth (Natural Physics). [Video File]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/3VhiiCEHqTo))] “The Aesthetic avatar has hard tight abs, which wouldn’t move at all on a toned muscular male body; but this product has them bouncing like Santa Claus on the run. Completely unrealsitic [sic] and, thereore unuseable [sic].” [ (( Online commenter (2017, April 5). Re: Aesthetic Niramynth Avatar Physics (Natural Version). [Product Review]. Retrieved from https://marketplace.secondlife.com/p/Aesthetic-NiramythAvatar-Physics-Natural-Version/11004691))] Too much jiggle spoils the man.
Our masculine bodies must remain firm and disciplined, ready to penetrate enemy ranks with bullets that rip through flesh. On the digital battlefield, they reach what Colin Milburn calls the “maximum hardness” of a pumped-up cyber warrior (181). [ ((Milburn, C. (2015). Mondo Nano: Fun and Games in the World of Digital Matter. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.))] Death in gaming is a loss of this illusory control: the entire body becomes as useless as a floppy dick. When digital soldiers twist into their final repose, they expose the instability of their ultrahard gamic masculinity. Unpredictable, accidental bodily positions confront them: face down, ass up; hips thrusting toward the sky; arms crossed over the head as if tied to the bedpost; in suggestive embrace with a fellow fallen soldier. Ragdoll bodies are always already erotic, even when they make us laugh. Why not, then, floppy dicks?
The ragdoll’s unmaking of the hard, controlled masculine body has given way to games that put uncontrollable bodily performance in the service of gender experimentation and masculine anxiety. Bo Ruberg has made a compelling account of how Octodad engages queer modes of embodiment by asking the player to perform rituals of passing. [ (( Ruberg, B. (2016). “Passing for Human: ‘Octodad’ and Queerness as a Video Game Mechanic.” Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference, Atlanta, GA.))] Ian Bryce Jones writes about the comedic potential in so-called dehiscent performance, where the disconnection between avatar and gamer bodies are central both to humor and to what he describes as an ecstatic experience of being out of one’s own body. [ (( Jones, I. (2016). “Do the Locomotion: Obstinate Avatars, Dehiscent Performances, and the Rise of the Comedic Video Games.” The Velvet Light Trap 77 (Spring): 86 99.))] For the sake of exploring the erotics of the floppy dick, it is important to push Jones’s use of the ecstatic into its sexual registers. Does a flailing phallus, with its inability (or outright refusal) to obey its handler’s iron will, offer us another way to think about the erotic potential of soft masculinities?
Mount Your Friends, for example, is a ragdoll game that challenges the gamer with constructing a tower of scantily-clad, beefy, customizable men. The tower’s base, to which the first avatar must attach, is a goat – that unsubtle symbol of climbing ability and voracious sexuality. The avatar’s dick helicopters freely as he struggles to mount his friends, an uncontrollable reminder of the fluid vitality pulsing through an otherwise stiff body and the trace of a physics engine aching to pull him back down to earth. While the ostensible goal is to fling the avatars higher and higher up the tower, the real star of the game is the dick itself, which concentrates the anxiety of the ragdoll all in one: a failure to remain super hard, an inability to control one’s body, the terror that a latent queerness will burst forth amongst your friends and betray you. Your friend’s dick flops all over you – face, body, hands – while he mounts you. You laugh. You love it. You go for another round.
An example of gameplay from Genital Jousting
The spirit of Mount Your Friends has been distilled in Genital Jousting, a multiplayer party game where the avatar is the uncontrollable phallus itself. The gamer controls a genital creature consisting of a penis, testicles, and anus, and scoots it around a playing field with other dicks, competing in various sporting events and accidentally-on-purpose fucking each other in the ass. Genital Jousting imagines sexual penetration beyond the realm of ultrahard raging cocks. It is phallus worship of a different order, allowing dicks and dildos to caress each other in flaccid abandon, twisting into wild orgiastic configurations and triumphantly squirting at the end of a good match (See Figure 3).
The fixation on hardness restricts masculine individuals to a limited range of emotional and physical responses. Anger and violence, with their obvious shows of strength and rejection of weakness, predominate. So does a toxic cocktail of oppressive behaviors: hardness must repudiate fatness, disability, femininity, transness, and, frequently, homosexuality in order to maintain its integrity. Yang’s bathroom simulator explores these contradictions well. On the other hand, games like Mount Your Friends and Genital Jousting, in asking us to laugh at, play with, and celebrate the floppy dick, relax our expectations of hard masculinity and help us to imagine a world through the lens of what Vincent Del Casino, Jr., calls “flaccid theory,” which challenges accepted truths about normative sexual and gender practices. [ (( Del Casino, Jr., V (2007). “Flaccid theory and the geographies of sexual health in the age of Viagra ™.” Health & Place 13.4 (Dec): 904-11.))] This thinking begins with the phallus itself but allows us, in the manner of other queer theories, to think about other totalizing cultural expectations that move us further from a just society. By cultivating rather than ridiculing or avoiding flaccid masculinities, from the queer packy to the homoerotic digital jouster, we can find an alternative to the strong men and hard bodies that compose our current nightmare of toxic masculinities.
In my own life, I take the absurdity of my detachable, stretchy, floppy dick as a reminder that everyone bears the burdens of masculinity in different ways. The world would be a better place if we would give our dicks a little twirl now and then and fling them across the room, just for fun. Splat.
Just… watch out for the dog.
1. The Tearoom image of gameplay (author’s screen grab)
2. An example of dick depiction in Second Life (author’s screen grab)
3. An example of gameplay from Genital Jousting (author’s screen grab)
Please feel free to comment.
How Adapting Content to Cultural Expectations Intersects with the Practice of Censorship Kate Edwards / Geogrify
Censorship is a contentious political issue.
“Censorship” – it’s considered such a strong, polarizing word in the English language and particularly in the United States where the concept of “freedom of speech” is one of the highest held principles and enshrined in the nation’s Constitution. Censorship is typically defined as the suppression of information which could be perceived as offensive, sensitive, politically incorrect or potentially harmful. This determination is most often made by the institutions that govern a particular locale, such as governments, media, and other local institutions such as the faith system and/or citizens’ groups.
Most of us clearly understand the notion of censorship and would likely all agree that it’s an unwelcome part of any society, especially in today’s plethora of virtual spaces where the flow of information is not only expected but is being perceived as a fundamental human right. Yet over the course of history, institutions have long wielded their power to censor – which essentially means to suppress, alter or enhance information in ways meant to protect the institution’s existence and/or continue to reinforce a particular reality or worldview that is considered most beneficial to the populace.
Censorship usually implies intention, in that certain pieces of information are being enhanced or suppressed for a specific purpose. Whereas propaganda is focused on emphasizing a specific message in order to influence opinion in a desired direction, censorship is almost the opposite: removing a specific piece of content to avoid influencing perception in a certain negative direction.
Cultures have leveraged both censorship and propaganda in their own ways and for various reasons throughout their histories. But one key factor we need to recognize is the difference between censorship and cultural expectations. Censorship most often does connote negativity in purpose but the adaptation of content to cultural expectations can occur for many reasons, some of which may seem like censorship or even propaganda when in fact it’s serving what we construe to be the majority opinion about a fact in a specific locale.
When the South Korean Ministry of Information and Communication complained about the PC-based game Age of Empires and its version of history, and requested a change in order to allow the game to be distributed, was this censorship or just meeting cultural expectation? In the game, the Choson Empire on the Korean peninsula had to fend off the invading Yamato forces from Japan and were overwhelmed, which is essentially what the historical record tells us. The South Korean government strongly disagreed with this “interpretation” of their history, claiming that the Choson people were never overpowered to the degree shown in the game. As a result, a special patch for the South Korean version had to be created that changed history for South Korean players to the degree that the Choson Empire invaded the Yamatos in southern Japan.
The invasion of the Choson Empire by Yamatos in Age of Empires.
The ratings assigned to games in the U.S. by the ESRB.
Some would argue that the role of these bodies is to effectively act as censors, working to extract content from creative works that may be deemed harmful or sensitive to consumers and/or otherwise negatively reflect the local culture (such as the use of blatant cultural stereotypes). From the viewpoint of the ratings boards, it’s a matter of tailoring content to local expectation. However, it’s critical to highlight the fine line between careful tailoring and blatant suppression. Culturalization is focused on preserving the core intent of creative content and simply ensuring it’s compatible with local customs and expectations. Censorship takes another turn towards an active suppression of facts that may remain relevant to a culture but for various reasons, the central authority may want to ignore those facts for their own purposes.
One of the more controversial examples has been the ongoing tendency of the Japanese government to rewrite their history textbooks to modify certain aspects of their imperialistic past, particularly as related to World War II. In Japan, textbooks go through a rigorous process of review by the Ministry of Education to ensure that it meets specific standards and guidelines. In recent years, the government has faced increased criticism around their supposedly objective review process, wherein textbooks which negatively portray Imperial Japan and its aggression during World War II are rejected, partially under pressure from the more conservative government. In 2000, a group of right-wing scholars produced the “New History Textbook” which put a positive spin on Imperial Japan’s actions and drew considerable backlash from inside Japan and beyond. In June 2007, over 100,000 people protested in Okinawa after the Ministry of Education suggested that the Japanese military’s role in forced suicides in 1945 on Okinawa be deemphasized for the history books. And the controversies around revisionist history in Japan have persisted since. This type of revisionist move by Japan evokes calls of censorship as well as generates backlash not only from Japanese citizens who desire a truthful rendition of history but also from countries that were affected by Imperial Japan’s actions, most notably China and South Korea.
Newsweek cover story on Japan’s revisionist history.
Is the historical revision of Japan’s role in World War II a case of cultural tailoring or blatant censorship? Based on the reactions even within Japan, it could be concluded as a clear case of factual suppression. This then calls attention to the issue of how one gauges “majority” opinion and what constitutes a case of censorship. In most of the cases I’ve ever dealt with in creative content, it was an issue of very specific, surgical tailoring to ensure that a single content element doesn’t set off a wave of local backlash. And in most of these cases, it was related to deeper cultural sensitivities such as religious faith, ethnicity and cultural stereotyping.
However, some types of content lend themselves quite easily to censorship, mainly because they are so closely tied to government messaging and/or perception of government control. Probably the best example of this would be the use of maps in information products. Sometimes the map must be tailored to meet the widely-accepted local expectations, but more often the maps are revised for local consumption due to a government’s strict policy on how their territory must be displayed. If you ship a product to India that doesn’t show all of the disputed Kashmir region as Indian territory, it will be censored. If you ship a map to China that doesn’t show Taiwan as part of greater China, it will be quickly censored. Part of the impetus depends on how tightly the government desires to control the message of the content, and with the visual nature of maps and the government’s desire to reinforce their perception of territorial sovereignty (what I call their “geopolitical imagination”), blatant suppression is the only way they see to limiting exposure to an alternative viewpoint.
Depictions of Kashmir region in Google Maps.
For those of us who create content, and especially those responsible for global distribution, we need to remain very cognizant of our decision-making and strategy – whether we are carefully tailoring to positively meet expectations or if we are serving the cause of local censorship because of government restrictions. This is a core dilemma for many multinational businesses; at which point will a business decide to not cross a line, effectively the “moral compass” of the company? There is no easy answer to this question and it varies from company to company.
Games Done Quick: Performing Live for Charity Kaitie Hilburn / University of Texas at Austin
Games Done Quick logo
The biannual event Awesome Games Done Quick (named Summer Games Done Quick during its July broadcast) brings over a hundred players together in a showcase of gaming mastery. Unlike traditional esports tournaments, this event remains largely uncommercial and fan driven, using the weeklong live broadcast to raise money for charity. The Twitch broadcast lasts for a week, with over one hundred games featured on the schedule.
Speedrunning as a form of expansive gameplay highlights the collaborative and social nature of gaming that often goes unnoticed outside of designed multiplayer games. An attempt to complete a game in the shortest amount of time, this style of play pushes a game to its limits without breaking the explicit rules of the game. Whereas most gamers play within the implicit rules of the game, paths and sequences intended by the developers, speedrunning explores the limits of the game’s explicit rules. This allows for sequence breaks and exploiting glitches naturally found in the game. Speedrunning also allows for players to experience a familiar game in a brand new way.
Gamers gathered at a Games Done Quick Marathon
Speedrunning marks its origins in early PC games such as Doom (1993) and Quake (1996), as these games allowed players to record and save play throughs as “demo” files to share with others [ ((see History of Quake speed-running)) ] . These early demo files only loaded on other copies of the game, making them only shareable with fellow players, thus emphasizing the dual nature of the gamer as both performer and audience. Very soon after Quake’s release, gamers began finishing levels as fast as possible and sharing their feats with others to try and beat each other’s time.
These early demo sharing speedrunning communities eventually spread as a form of gameplay with advances in gameplay capture software and online streaming video opening up the possibility of showcasing games without recordable demo files. Sites such as Speed Demos Archives and Speed Runs Live provide resources and serve as community sites for further exploration and exploitation of hundreds of games. The rise of Let’s Plays, E-Sports, and other forms of online gaming videos certainly plays a role in the increased visibility of speedrunning as a gameplay style, though it originated well before online video, emphasizing the performative and social nature of gaming inherent to gameplay itself.
Speedrunning a video game might sound obsessive or isolating, but this overlooks the inherently performative and communal nature of this play style. Discovery and planning takes place within a community of dedicated players, functioning as a knowledge community with the shared goal of pushing a game to its limits. Speedrunning emphasizes high performance, working to add these additional player-made challenges in order to re-create the initial satisfaction of beating a game. However, arguably more of the satisfaction of these additional challenges comes from sharing and performing these runs for an audience.
Cornel Sandovss argues that conceptualizing fans as performers, rather than just passive recipients of texts, “offers an alternative explanation of the intense emotional pleasure and rewards of fandom” [ ((Sandvoss, Cornel, (2005). Fans: The Mirror of Consumption. Cambridge: Polity. 48.))]. Indeed, conceptualizing the gamer as a performer helps us better understand not only the pleasure they take in this emergent style of gameplay for themselves, but also the pleasure in performing to an audience and creating a new narrative experience for them. Games Done Quick offers a chance for selected members of the community to perform to a wider audience.
This video features speedrunner Shennagans playing through Pokemon Green version with the goal of getting to the end credits as quickly as possible, drastically subverting the expectations of traditional Pokemon gameplay. We see a number of things happening on the screen beyond just gameplay. The gamers are framed in a somewhat traditional social gaming context: on a couch surrounded by fellow players. This, along with game information, time, and information about the event, create a hypermediated space for viewers that both harkens to a familiar gaming space and provides maximum coverage of the run itself. Though largely silent in this particular clip, gamers seated on the couch often provide additional insight, explaining tricks and strategies to the audience. Given the popularity of the event, speedrunners often try to make these runs more accessible by explaining the game as they play through.
The Twitch interface also includes a chat sidebar for viewers to comment and interact with the event. Twitch chat often functions under a mass crowd mentality, especially as more users participate in the chat, with memes, chants and inside jokes being the most common forms of expression.
Screenshot of Twitch chat
The speedrunning community remains largely uncommercial, with only a select few runners making an income from Twitch streams. Games Done Quick functions on a volunteer basis, distinguishing itself from other large-scale e-sport events. The event itself serves as both philanthropic community as well as and showcase and celebration of the community.
Gamers have arguably always existed as both performers and audience, alternating between identities as needed. The speedrunning community probably exhibits this more than any other style of emergent play communities, as indicated by their extreme subversion of gameplay, their quick adoption of live streaming as a means of disseminating gameplay to an eager audience, and their commitment to community collaboration. With live streaming on the rise and the accessibility of video hosting, gamers have more means to reach an audience than ever. Games Done Quick utilizes the social bonds of gamers and existing networks of speedrunners to collaborate for an altruistic cause while showcasing their mastery over various games. Looking at speedrunning as an obsessive and isolated hobby overlooks the immense community effort that goes into this gameplay style.
Player Two Wins: Announce Your Game Second Cameron Lindsey / University of Texas at Austin
The reveal trailers for Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare and Battlefield 1 premiered within 4 days of one another.
On May 2nd, 2016, the reveal trailer for the newest installment of the Call of Duty (CoD) series of video games, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, appeared on YouTube. Four days later, the Battlefield (BF) YouTube channel uploaded the reveal trailer for the newest installment in their franchise, Battlefield 1. Both trailers boasted a substantial number of views within the first few days, [ (( At the time this article was written, the CoD trailer had 29,480,442 views. The BF trailer had 41,499,713. ))] and video game and technology journalists quickly posted articles about the newest installations of these rival franchises; however, the tone of many of these articles did not praise both games equally. In fact, many of articles seemed primarily concerned with the record-breaking failure of CoD’s trailer and the overwhelming success of BF’s trailer. At the time this article was written, the BF trailer had over 1.9 million likes while the CoD trailer had just under 3 million dislikes. In fact, the reception was so diametrically opposed that Forbesclaimed “‘Battlefield 1’ is the Most Liked Trailer in YouTube History, ‘Infinite Warfare’ the Most Disliked.” [ (( Tassi, Paul. “‘Battlefield 1’ Is The Most Liked Trailer In YouTube History, ‘Infinite Warfare’ The Most Disliked.” Forbes. 9 May 2016. Web Accessed 27 June 2016. ))]
Articles on the reception disparity draw a couple of conclusions. Some articles focus on the apparent failure of the CoD trailer and see this as the result of repetitiveness in the CoD franchise and its reliance upon the futuristic trend. [ (( Tassi, Paul. “”Battlefield 1′ Shows Why ‘Call of Duty’ Should Have Gone Back To World War II.” Forbes. 7 May 2016. Web. Accessed 27 June 2016.))] Other articles focus on the apparent success of BF’s trailer and praise the developer’s inventiveness and creativity in setting the game during WWI. [ (( Whitaker, Robert. “Why Battlefield 1 Could Be The Best WWI Game.” Rock, Paper, Shotgun. 17 May 2016. Web. Accesses 27 June 2016.))]
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and Battlefield: Hardline featured similar pros and cons, but they were not met with the same reception.
These claims seem suspect, though. If inventiveness were the rationale for BF’s success or repetition the rationale for CoD’s failure, then why did the previous installments not follow this pattern of massive likes and dislikes? After all, BF: Hardline took a novel approach to the genre by setting the game in the “War on Crime,” and both CoD: Ghosts and CoD: Advanced Warfare continued the slow progression into futuristic shooters. And yet, both CoD games appeared in the list of the top ten best selling video games that year, unlike the BF installment. [ (( IGN Staff. “These Are the Best Selling Games of 2014 in the US.” IGN. 15 Jan 2015. Web. Accessed 27 June 2016.))] One possible rationale for the fanfare towards the BF trailer and the disdain towards the CoD trailer stems, not from anything specific about the games or trailers themselves, but simply their proximity and the order they were released. BF’s trailer may have received such fanfare because it premiered only four days after the CoD trailer, which had already received tepid, if not outright negative, reviews. [ (( Koch, Cameron. “The ‘Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare’ Reveal Trailer Has 340,000 Dislikes and Counting.” TechTimes. 5 May 2016. Web. Accessed 27 June 2016.))] In fact, in the video game industry, releasing second— being the respondent, not the pioneer—seems to be advantageous.
Take the announcement of the Sony’s Playstation 4 console at E3 in 2013 as another example. Only hours before the Sony press conference, Microsoft revealed their new console—the Xbox One. In their reveal, Microsoft announced the pricing, design, and features of their console. As such, when Sony later revealed their product, they were able to make obvious jabs at Microsoft. Sony highlighted their support of independent developers, their continued support of physical game discs, a lower price, and a lack of continual surveillance machinery. The response from journalists and bloggers was swift, noting the PS4’s many advantages over the Xbox One—many of which were first pointed out by Sony. [ (( Sam Byford. “PlayStation 4: Sony Outmaneuvers Microsoft on Price, Design, and Common Sense.” The Verge. 11 June 2013. Web. Accessed 27 June 2016.))] Based on reported sales, the PS4 has gone on to outsell the Xbox One by several million units and, while the aforementioned features likely played a significant role in consumers’ choice to buy one console over the other, the “better” choice was made more obvious by the contrast between the two companies’ reveals. Simply put, Sony benefited from revealing their console directly after Microsoft. Clearly, it is advantageous to reveal video game products—games, consoles, etc.— directly after your competitor.
The reveal of the PS4 right after the Xbox One mirrors the reveal of CoD and BF.
This may seem like an obvious claim. However, it seems particularly true in the video game industry. The same kind of reveal seems less likely in film, especially since film teasers or reveal trailers accompany films from the same studios. For example, it is unlikely that someone in a theater setting would see the trailer for a DC superhero movie directly after a trailer for the competing Marvel movie. The same can be said of television. However, gaming platforms and AAA video games are often revealed in direct competition through digital platforms or at major conventions where multiple publishers are likely to reveal their newest products.
Only after the release of these CoD and BF games and the accompanying sales reports can we draw any solid conclusions. It’s likely that these record-breaking likes and dislikes have little effect on actual sales. While the PS4 has outsold the Xbox One, the sales of the Microsoft console are not meager—still in the tens of millions. If both of the games succeeded, like both of the consoles have succeeded, it could represent a continued trend in video game marketing recognized by Zackariasson and Wilson in 2011. After observing and interviewing professionals involved in video game marketing they noted, “Unfortunately, we still see examples where developers use the Internet to distribute their games with the logic ‘if we put it out there, it will sell.’ This approach creates noise and is detrimental to good games as they may get lost in the noise”. [ (( Zackariasson, Peter, and Timothy Wilson. The Video Game Industry: Formation, Present State, and Future. London: Routledge, 2011. Print.))] Whether or not the possible success of both CoD and BF in future sales would cause other good games to get lost in the noise is a debate for another article, but such hypothetical success would certainly support the old adage that, “any press is good press.”
Wicked Games, Part 3: Caution — Contents May Be Hot… and Hidden Matthew Payne / University of Alabama Peter Alilunas / University of Oregon
Cover Art for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
Case Study #3: Grand Theft Auto’s “Hot Coffee” Controversy
In our first column, we argued that Dungeons & Dragons became a convenient scapegoat in the 1980s for moralists seeking a ready-made crusade on which to pin their anxieties about children’s leisure time activities. In our last column, we made a similar argument about the cultural landscape surrounding the formation of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) in 1994 and, specifically, the ways in which the gaming industry’s own marketing missteps led to the necessity of self-regulation. In both cases, we argued that the fears of “dangerous play” are always lurking, ready to surge to the surface at the slightest hint that culture — and especially children — might be corrupted.
In this, our final entry, we conclude our examination of flashpoints in gaming history by focusing on a more recent moment when the combustible mix of technology, play, pleasure, and social taboos revealed extant anxieties and fears. As with the previous columns, this case study likewise illustrates the predictable way these moral conflagrations play out in cycles of rupture, panic, and regulation. The story of the “Hot Coffee” modification of Rockstar Games’ 2005 Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (GTA: SA), represents the ways in which moral panics can never truly disappear, even with the momentary soothing balm of regulation. They can only return underground, waiting to rupture all over again.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004)
Such was the case with the ESRB, which was designed in 1994 precisely to prevent any more ruptures and panics for the rapidly growing game industry. The self-regulating board would offer ratings and guidelines to parents, but, more importantly, it presented an image of concern and care for children. It kept a lid on the simmering pot of sex and violence that was always threatening to boil over. The ESRB held that lid in place, or it purported to at the least. Nevertheless, despite its sole purpose as a guardian of the moral boundaries around video games, the anxieties around content and its regulation never truly disappeared.
For example, in late June 2003, the ESRB announced it would add more descriptions, new guidelines, and bolder labels to its ratings system in an effort to make the system more visible and effective (and to continue to stem external political intervention). Senators Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), who, as we discussed in the previous column, were prime instigators in the 1990s in the effort to regulate the industry, praised the ESRB’s changes. Lieberman noted, “I have always said the ESRB system was the best rating system in the entertainment media and these changes will make it even better.”[ (( “Kohl, Liberman commend new voluntary computer and video game ratings improvements, ESRB, June 26, 2003. http://www.esrb.org/about/news/news_archive.aspx#06262003B ))] Such language is a key part of the panic cycle: the regulation structure makes the problem seem under control or “fixed” when in fact its inherent fragility might better be understood as its defining feature.
That fragility was dramatically exposed in late 2004. Rockstar Games studio, owned by Take-Two Interactive, released the PlayStation 2 version of GTA: SA in October. This was the fifth entry in the spectacularly successful open-world action-adventure series (and the second GTA game designed by Rockstar). The game’s blatantly adult content triggered cultural unease, and further criticism of the ESRB for failing to proactively protect children.[ (( Katie Hafner, “Game Ratings: U is for Unheeded,” New York Times December 16, 2004: G1, G6. ))] The ongoing ripples of panic around video games swelled up, as evidenced by Washington D.C. city councilman (and later mayor) Adrian Fenty’s effort in early 2005 to pass a bill that would prevent merchants from selling video games with violent content to minors in the city, and by the high-profile case in Tennessee in which two teenage brothers blamed GTA: SA for inspiring them to fire shotguns at passing traffic. [ ((http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/discussion/2005/02/03/DI2005040308224.html ; http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/story?id=124797 )) ] Both stories became national news. [ (( For example, both were included in a CBS Evening News broadcast on February 20, 2005. http://tvnews.vanderbilt.edu/diglib-fulldisplay.pl?SID=20160418691680908&code=tvn&RC=780751&Row=480 )) ] Hillary Clinton, then Senator from New York, seized the opportunity to call the sex and violence in children’s entertainment “an epidemic,” and called for a uniform ratings system across the media industries. [ (( Raymond Hernandez, “Clinton Seeks Uniform Ratings in Entertainment for Children,” New York Times March 10, 2005: B5. ))] A familiar snowball was forming — but it was only the beginning.
Shortly after the GTA: SA release, Dutch programmer Patrick Wildenborg began sifting through the source code during his leisure time. Wildenborg and his fellow Internet-based “modder” cohort, named so for their interest in modifying video games for their own entertainment (an activity that is often supported by game developers for the way it frequently engenders robust play communities), made a surprising discovery buried deep in the software. What they found were traces of files for scenes involving the game’s characters engaging in various sexual activities. While the sex scenes were not playable in the PS2 version, the modders nevertheless created ways to visualize them. [ (( Simon Parkin, “Who Spilled Hot Coffee?” Eurogamer November 30, 2012, http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2012-11-30-who-spilled-hot-coffee. ))] Then they waited. The PC version, which could be examined in much more substantial detail and manipulated with greater ease by modders, would be released in June 2005.
What Wildenborg found were traces of content that Rockstar had decided not to include at the last moment. But rather than eliminate the code entirely, which would have been time intensive and expensive, Rockstar “walled off” the sexual gameplay. [ (( Parkin, “Who Spilled Hot Coffee?”; David Kushner, Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto (Nashville, TN: Turner, 2012). ))] These ghostly artifacts, buried deep in the source code, could not be accessed without special gear and know-how. To be clear: these scenes were never meant to be seen by those outside of Rockstar Games and they could not be activated with a simple cheat code. It is easy to appreciate why such a discovery would excite Wildenborg and his peers: this was the ultimate in hidden content — the stuff of apocryphal gaming legends. [ (( Hanuman Welchm, “20 Video Game Myths, Conspiracy Theories, and Urban Legends to Celebrate Halloween,” The Complex, October 31, 2013, http://www.complex.com/pop-culture/2013/10/video-game-myths-conspiracy-theories-urban-legends-celebrate-halloween/ ))] It was also precisely the sort of thing that made GTA’s critics, and critics of games generally, so anxious. What started as a snowball was about to become an avalanche.
Although it has its fair share of “Easter eggs,” hidden content has never been GTA’s primary selling point. Indeed, the enduring appeal of the franchise — an element that is borne out in the marketing materials surrounding its 2004 San Andreas installment and one that the series helped to establish for the sandbox-style genre of open-world games — is its promise of free-form play.
Promotional trailer for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004)
To wit, the game’s promotional trailer showcases vignettes of kinetic exploration across eclectic landscapes. The vehicular travel by land, sea, and air, is accompanied by spectacular destruction and wanton criminality, all of which is underscored by the pulsing soundtrack of Guns and Roses’s rock anthem, “Welcome to the Jungle.” The GTA games possess an aura of unscripted mayhem, and San Andreas represents an expansive terrain waiting to be explored. That promise of exploration and discovery, however, creates the opportunity for well-known questions to creep in: what else might be lurking in this game?
Wildenborg and his fellow modders definitively answered that question within hours of the release of the PC version on June 7, 2005. Not only was the code present, it could be “switched on” and accessed with a simple patch that the group made available online for download. [ (( PatrickW, “Hot Coffee” mod, GTA Garage, June 9, 2005, http://www.gtagarage.com/mods/show.php?id=28 ))] In the release version of the game, C.J., the protagonist, must impress his various girlfriends to be invited into their homes for coffee — upon which the game would cut to the follow morning, implying that sex had occurred. The “Hot Coffee” patch created by the modders allowed players to engage in the walled-off mini-games that had been originally planned, partially developed, then abandoned. It was a bizarre and surprising discovery, to say the least. Even if it couldn’t be accessed without a fair amount of technological sophistication, what was this code doing in the game?
For a few weeks, at least, the discovery was of interest only to the tech-savvy gaming community, making the rounds on various blogs and gaming-related websites. It wasn’t until Leland Yee, a California Assemblyman (D-San Francisco), got involved that that the lurking anxieties finally exploded, triggering the seemingly pro forma regulatory reaction familiar to any entertainment-driven panic. On July 6, 2005, along with the the National Institute of Media and Family (NIMF), Yee released a statement accusing the ESRB of failing to protect children from the “explicit sexual scenes” in GTA: SA. [ (( Steve Lohr, “In Video Game, a Download Unlocks Hidden Sex Scene,” New York Times, July 11, 2005, C3. ))] The floodgates opened and within 48 hours ESRB director Patricia Vance announced it would investigate Rockstar to see if the “full disclosure” rule had been violated. “The integrity of the ESRB rating system is founded on the trust of consumers who increasingly depend on it to provide complete and accurate information about what’s in a game,” she noted. [ (( Curt Feldman, “ESRB to investigate ‘San Andreas’ sex content,” CNET, July 8, 2005, www.cnet.com/news/esrb-to-investigate-san-andreas-sex-content/ ))] Her comment captures the confluence of elements that sparked the “Hot Coffee” panic: concerns over “completeness” and “accuracy,” fears that something uncontrollable — and unknown — was lurking in a game too complicated for adults to understand, and general unease that the game’s developers had deliberately misled a naive, susceptible public. Wildenborg, for his part, sensed his discovery was already being misunderstood. To his credit, shortly after the panic set in he took the patch offline and wrote in an email to the New York Times, “GTA is not a game for young children, and is rated accordingly. [The patch] is not something it is possible to accidentally stumble across.” [ (( Lohr, “In Video Game, a Download Unlocks Hidden Sex Scene,” C3. ))] However, by that point the time-tested narratives around his discovery were far outside of his control.
‘Hot Coffee’ mod unlocks sex mini-game in GTA: SA
Rockstar’s reaction to the discovery and to the investigation was not to tell the truth, but to lash out at the modding community. On July 13, they released a statement claiming that the incident was the result of a “determined group of hackers” who, in violation of the software user agreement, had been “disassembling and then combining, recompiling, and altering the game’s source code.” [ (( Lisa Baertlein, “ ‘Grand Theft’ maker blame hackers for sex scene,” Reuters News, July 13, 2005, http://expressindia.indianexpress.com/news/fullstory.php?newsid=50636 ))] Essentially, Rockstar accused the modders of creating the scenes — which inadvertently fed the panic. It was a costly mistake. The next day, political regulation re-entered the scene. Clinton called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Rockstar, but she also spread the blame to others, including the ESRB. Describing the images as “graphic pornographic content,” she argued that “parents who rely on the ratings to make decisions to shield their children from influences they believe could be harmful should be informed right away if the system is broken.” [ (( Raymond Hernandez, “Clinton Urges Inquiry Into Hidden Sex in Grand Theft Auto Game,” New York Times, July 14, 2005, B3. ))] The NIMF released a statement in support of Clinton “demanding the truth about secret GTA: SA pornographic content.” [ (( “National Institute on Media and the Family Joins Senator Clinton in Demanding the Truth about Secret Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas Pornographic Content,” Business Wire, July 14, 2005, http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20050714005395/en/National-Institute-Media-Family-Joins-Senator-Clinton ))] Here was more panicked language, more fears of the unknown, more calls for “truth,” more invocation of explicit pornography, more anxiety about vulnerable children — even though it was a group of technologically skilled adults who made the discovery and created the patch for a game rated for adults — all driving a discourse of containment and protection.
The following day, on July 15, writers for Gamespot.com sounded what would be the death knell when they confirmed that the scenes were accessible on the PS2 disc with a simple patch and cheat code, further eroding Rockstar’s insistence that “hackers” had created the problem, and adding fuel to claims that bad things were lurking in the game’s code. [ (( Tor Thorson, “Confirmed: Sex minigae in PS2 San Andreas,” Gamespot, July 15, 2005, http://www.gamespot.com/articles/confirmed-sex-minigame-in-ps2-san-andreas/1100-6129301/ ))] On July 20, the ESRB announced it had re-rated GTA: SA with the dreaded “Adults Only” (AO) label, the gaming equivalent of an NC-17 film rating, meaning major retailers would not carry the title for sale. [ (( Alex Pham, “Hidden Sex Scenes Spark Furor Over Video Game,” LA Times, July 21, 2005, www.latimes.com /news/la-fi-sexgame21jul21-story.html ))] Indeed, Wal-Mart, Target, Best Buy, and others — all members of the Interactive Entertainment Merchants Association — announced they would pull the game immediately, which by that point had reached six million in sales. [ (( Chris Morris, “‘Grand Theft Auto’ ceases manufacturing,” CNN, July 20, 2005, money.cnn.com/2005/07/20/technology/personaltech/gta/ ))] Rockstar discontinued production of GTA: SA, saying it would release a new, edited version as soon as possible.
Far more consequential than any fine, though, were the far-reaching effects of the controversy. The fear of prurient content hidden from parents and regulators precipitated renewed attempts by legislators at state and federal levels to proactively guard consumers from the threat of suspect gameplay. To wit, Senators Clinton, Lieberman, and Evan Bayh introduced the “Family Entertainment Protection Act” in December of 2005 [ (( Seth Schiesel, Video Game Bill Introduced,” New York Times, December 17, 2005, B10. ))] (it later died in committee), while similar protectionist bills were later proposed at the federal level [ (( Jason Dobson, “Upton Reintroduces ‘Video Game Decency Act’,” Gamasutra, March 20, 2007, http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/104164/Upton_Reintroduces_Video_Game_Decency_Act.php ))] and were passed by bipartisan state legislators in California, [ (( John Broder, “Bill is Signed to Restrict Video Games in California,” New York Times, October 8, 2005, A11. ))] Louisiana, [ (( Jason Dobson, “Louisiana Senate Passes Video Game Violence Bill,” Gamasutra, June 7, 2006, http://gamasutra.com/view/news/100584/Louisiana_Senate_Passes_Video_Game_Violence_Bill.php ))] and Florida. [ (( Jason Dobson, “ESRB Scrutiny Proposed by Latest Video Game Bill,” Gamasutra, August 8, 2006, http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/101320/ESRB_Scrutiny_Proposed_By_Latest_Video_Game_Bill.php ))]
“Family Entertainment Protection Act” Press Conference (November 29, 2005)
Hot coffee was a black eye for the industry and for its regulatory body that was, only a year prior, heralded by concerned politicians as being the model system for media content. The controversy did little to scald the game’s studio and its publisher, however. If anything, the clandestine mod and the subsequent PR crisis was a source of pride — commercially and culturally, speaking — for Rockstar and Take-Two. This flashpoint only further cemented GTA’s legacy as a good financial bet in an industry that is characterized by enormous risks (even for established franchises), [ (( Bethany McLean, “Sex, Lies, and Videogames,” Fortune, August 22, 2005, http://archive.fortune.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/2005/08/22/8270037/index.htm ))] and for Rockstar as a studio that clearly benefits from its “rebel reputation.” [ (( Alexander, “Opinion,” Gamasutra. ))] Rockstar’s design modus operandi has long been about crafting taboo gameplay elements, whether it is drunk driving in GTA IV (2008), full-frontal male nudity in its The Lost and Damned (2009) downloadable content, dealing drugs in Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars (2009), or torture in GTA V (2013). Hot coffee was not a break with their design strategy; it was their design strategy.
Of the three popular controversies we’ve covered across three decades, the hot coffee mod presents video gaming’s critics with the most legitimate grounds for concern. The sexual mini-games hidden in GTA’s code seemingly substantiate long-standing fears that gameplay — be it mediated by a console, PC, or a tabletop rule set — is nothing but a Trojan horse prepared to surreptitiously corrupt players. The fact that those mini-games could never be played by non-hackers is beside the point, as were the specious connections between D&D and the occult before it. The hidden code validated the panic, and quickly became yet another episode in this recurring morality play.
Play is a powerful human experience. And the three controversies that we’ve examined prove that play’s ability to enrapture those within its magic circle are as attractive to those looking to lose themselves in a fiction as they are threatening to non-playing observers who fear that shared fantasies might escape their ludic bounds to contaminate the real. There will be more gaming controversies to be sure, precisely because of the dualism embedded within the play experience. Play’s essential liminality troubles and destabilizes discursive boundaries. And therein lies its nascent challenge to the existing social order. All forms of gameplay are potentially “wicked” because these betwixt and between happenings elide simplistic categorization and definition. Analog and digital games present players with alternative worlds built on alternative rules. Thus, to play a game means to play with a different way of being in the world(s). Regulation, meanwhile, promises to mitigate play’s inherent risks and to quell experiences that might lead players to consider not just the game’s rules, but those governing our reigning social order.
Wicked Games, Part 2: Blood, Sex, and Pixels Matthew Payne / University of Alabama Peter Alilunas / University of Oregon
Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) Ratings
Case Study #2: The Birth of the ESRB
In our last column, we argued that Dungeons & Dragons became a convenient scapegoat in the 1980s for moralists seeking a ready-made crusade on which to pin their anxieties about children’s leisure time activities. Crucial to our argument was the notion of control: what happened to D&D when its creators no longer controlled how the game was perceived by the public? And, even more alarming, what happened once D&D was thought to be an actual danger to that public and therefore in need of juridical oversight?
In this column, we explore another crucial moment in the history of games and their control; namely, the formation of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) in 1994. This story is a predictable one in many ways. It begins with relatively simple concerns about children’s play, which escalate to moral panic status replete with a legislative response, culminating with the formation of an industry’s self-regulation mechanism designed to keep the government away and the cash registers ringing and game machines chinging.
But what is often lost in popular tellings of the ESRB’s origin story is how this particular flashpoint was, in large part, a self-inflicted wound; a by-product of an industrial arms race that sought to capture players’ hearts and dollars. In their zeal to better identify and pitch their wares to an aging community of gamers for the fourth generation of home consoles (e.g., the Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, and Neo Geo) — to say nothing of trying to control that lucrative marketplace for themselves — Sega and Nintendo were blinded to how their games and marketing efforts were being perceived by an increasingly wary public. Game publishers knew their consumers were growing in numbers and aging in years. Gamers were not putting down controllers as they exited adolescence. The American public, however, was less cognizant of this demographic trend, and without a regulatory body that promised commercial transparency to parents and cultural watchdogs (or at least its veneer), the very idea of a video game containing sex and violence was anathema. After all, video games were still deemed to be children’s toys, and gameplay still unfolded primarily in private spaces, be they dimly-lit arcades at the local mall or a neighbor’s rec room. What follows is an all-too-brief historical narrative of the commercial battle for the 16-bit home console marketplace of the early 1990s and the controversy that followed. This flashpoint illustrates demonstrably that while the cocktail of blood, sex, and pixels made for good business, the resulting commercial success invited the sort of headlines and popular scrutiny that threatened a nascent but growing cultural industry with the real specter of censorship.
ROUND #1 (1985-1990)
The contentious console wars waged between Sega and Nintendo spanned three generations of home consoles (4th-6th), and lasted nearly two decades. Sega’s first entrant in the 8-bit console market, the Master System (known as the Sega Mark III in Japan), was released in North America in 1986, a year after its main competitor, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was released in the United States. Although the Master System was armed with better hardware, Nintendo’s powerful marketing efforts, its expansive library of exclusive titles produced by third-party publishers, and its head-start in the marketplace ultimately proved too powerful. Sega never caught up to Nintendo during the 1980s, with sales of the NES far outpacing that of the Master System.[ (( Sega did have better success in Europe, where the Master System outsold the NES. ))] Indeed, at the height of its dominance, Nintendo controlled a whopping 83% of the home market.[ (( Douglas C. McGill, “Nintendo Scores Big,” New York Times, 4 December 1988. http://www.nytimes.com/1988/12/04/business/nintendo-scores-big.html?sec=&spon=&pagewanted=2. ))]
The Sega Master System, circa 1985
Sega’s first company mascot, Alex Kidd
Nintendo’s dominance over Sega during the 1980s is evident even today in the comparative celebrity status of their respective 8-bit mascots. Sega’s monkey-like Alex Kidd, who saw his debut in 1986’s Miracle World, proved to be no competition for Nintendo’s mustachioed Mario. The plumber and his brother, Luigi, have since appeared on countless pieces of licensed merchandise while Alex Kidd has languished in relative obscurity. Sega was down but it was not out. More importantly, it learned its lessons quickly as it readied itself for the next round of competition.
ROUND #1 WINNER:Nintendo
ROUND #2 (1988-1998)
Sega wanted to beat Nintendo to the punch by being the first to release a 16-bit home console (5th generation). It also saw an opportunity to lay claim to an aging gamer demographic by appealing to teenage boys and young adults; the Genesis was something you graduated to after you were done with Nintendo’s “toys.” By specializing in sports titles (which included forging an important relationship with Electronic Arts) and by licensing popular culture properties, Sega differentiated itself from Nintendo’s more family-friendly fare. Or, as their marketing campaign memorably put it: “Sega does what Nintendon’t.” The following multi-page ad appearing in Sega Visions, the company’s response to the popular Nintendo Power magazine, illustrates the company’s thoroughgoing focus on sports and pop culture icons: Joe Montana, Buster Douglas, and Michael Jackson (to name a few).
Sega’s famous anti-Nintendo marketing campaign
Sega also cultivated the sense of a pronounced production culture divide between the firms. The following ad, for example, takes aim at Nintendo’s “nerdy” developers. (It is worth noting that the game being advertised is the controversial Night Trap, described in “Round #3” below).
Sega targets Nintendo’s nerdy designers
Also central to Sega’s re-branding effort for their 16-bit lineup was their new mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog. This speedy blue critter was a far cry from Sega’s previous standard-bearer, Alex Kidd, or Nintendo’s more famous Mario brothers. Sonic the Hedgehog (1991) was a platformer; but it was a platformer with an attitude.
Sonic breaks the fourth-wall with his finger-wagging and toe-tapping attitude.
Although the 16-bit Super NES sales figures would eventually crest and surpass that of the Sega Genesis (49 million to 29 million units sold, respectively[ (( IGN, “Genesis vs. SNES: By the Numbers,” 20 March 2009, http://www.ign.com/articles/2009/03/20/genesis-vs-snes-by-the-numbers. ))]) no other company came close to dethroning the reigning video game giant during these years. Moreover, Sega’s steadfast effort to expand the content boundaries of home console titles put them in direct opposition to Nintendo in the marketplace and, eventually, in opposition in the halls of congress.
ROUND #2 WINNER:Sega
Sega promises catharsis to its aging core demo
ROUND 3: Sega vs. Nintendo … vs. Congress
Hoping to press their momentary advantage, Sega released the Sega CD in 1992, a CD-Rom peripheral for the Genesis. With the CD’s additional storage space, game producers could package far more material into a game including full motion video (FMV) starring human actors. The pursuit of “realism” quickly became the center of attention. Among the early “interactive movie” games was Night Trap (1992), a schlocky horror title where players save young women at a slumber party from a group of fangless vampires. Of particular interest to panicked cultural critics was a scene depicting a woman in a nightgown being captured in a bathroom. Despite such apparently scandalous subject matter, the game, while moderately popular (especially in the UK), was not necessarily a smash hit. At least, not until it became the one half of an ensuing moral panic around sex, blood, and video games.
Sega’s original cover art for Night Trap (1992)
Night Trap’s preview complete with dripping blood
The other half of the panic was Midway Games’ Mortal Kombat, also released in 1992, which was designed to compete for gamers’ quarters against Capcom’s wildly successful 2D brawler, Street Fighter II (1991). But whereas Street Fighter II was stocked with cartoonish combatants, Mortal Kombat starred digitized human fighters who bled and did grave bodily injury to one another. The game was a smash hit, and both Nintendo and Sega desperately wanted the game for their 16-bit consoles and portable devices (i.e., the Nintendo Gameboy and Sega Game Gear). Following a tremendously successful “Mortal Monday” release event preceded by a $10 million marketing effort that included primetime TV spots, magazine advertisements, promotional trailers in 1,600 movie theaters, Mortal Kombat made millions of dollars and became a cultural phenomenon.[ (( Lindsey Gruson, “Video Violence: It’s Hot! It’s Mortal! It’s Kombat!; Teen-Agers Eagerly Await Electronic Carnage While Adults Debate Message Being Sent,” New York Times, 16 September 1993, B8. http://www.nytimes.com/1993/09/16/nyregion/video-violence-it-s-hot-it-s-mortal-it-s-kombat-teen-agers-eagerly-await.html ))]
“Mortal Monday” print ad for Mortal Kombat’s September 13, 1993 console release
Despite their different degrees of success, Mortal Kombat and Night Trap did share one common feature: the capacity of their increased “realism” to inspire cultural panic. In June 1993 Sega, sensing the rising anxiety surrounding the games, assembled experts in education, psychology, and sociology into a “Videogame Rating Council” (VRC). The company’s games were slotted into one of three categories: GA for general audiences, MA-13 for mature audiences, and MA-17 for adults. The move, which only rated Sega’s games, did little to quell the growing panic that the screen violence would somehow inspire worldly violence. By late in the year, Senators Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) initiated legislation that would force the game industry to implement a ratings system within one year or face government intervention.
Hearings on the bill were ugly: Lieberman showed clips from Night Trap, wielded the plastic gun shipped with Sega’s Lethal Enforcers game, and played a Sega commercial that he claimed was targeting children to play Mortal Kombat. The assembled panel of industry executives surely could not have been pleased to hear Lieberman’s inflammatory rhetoric, particularly such statements as, “These games teach a child to enjoy inflicting torture.”[ (( John Burgess, “Video Game Firms Yield on Ratings,” Washington Post 10 December 1993: F1. ))] It was shades of D&D all over again: the fear of blurring the lines between children, adults, and games.
“Lethal Enforcers was the target of congressional scrutiny ” print ad for Mortal Kombat’s September 13, 1993 console release
By that point, though, the industry was already scrambling hard to ease the legislative pain and shift the discourse away from potential harm to one of self-control. Eighteen software companies and the Video Software Dealers Association formed a coalition in early December 1993 and announced they would create a ratings system. “Parents have every right to know and understand what their kids are getting,” said Electronic Arts executive Jeanne Golly in a press conference outside the hearings; such self-serving statements may have contradicted the narratives at play in commercials like the one for Sega shown by Lieberman, but they clearly fit the requirement that something was “being done” about the problem.[ (( John Burgess, “Video Game Firms Yield on Ratings,” Washington Post 10 December 1993: F1.))] It was certainly not a moment too soon for the industry: by mid-December, Toys ‘R’ Us and other retailers announced they would stop selling Night Trap, pouring fuel on the panic fire (and, of course, making the game even more taboo and thus desirable).[ (( Tom Redburn, “Toys ‘R’ Us Stops Selling a Violent Video Game,” New York Times 17 December 1993, B1.))] In early January, Sega threw in the towel and pulled the game from the market in order to “revise” it. Lieberman called the announcement a “small victory” on a larger road to a less violent society.[ (( John Burgess, “Sega to Withdraw, Revise ‘Night Trap,’” Washington Post 11 January 1994: D5.))]
The game industry didn’t wait for things to get worse. It was during meetings at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in early January that the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) was born. The self-regulatory agency, created and managed by a coalition of software companies, offers guidelines, ratings, and strategies to convey information to retailers and parents. Moreover, and most importantly, they also ensure nervous politicians stay out of game stores and living rooms. Ultimately, while Lieberman and Kohl might have declared some sort of victory, it was the game designers and retailers that survived the battles to emerge with deeper pockets and an “official” mechanism in place to placate those who feared adult games were encroaching on children’s play.
ROUND #3 WINNER:Sega, Nintendo, and the Industry itself…
Once the ESRB was established, Sega’s VRC folded and disappeared, as it had become an unnecessary redundancy. The result in the years since has been very nearly a replication of the ratings system overseen by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which serves a similar purpose: maintain an “official,” internal mechanism to regulate content (one that promises to control the spectatorial and play behavior of children) and which will keep the threat of government interventions at a distance.[ (( For more on the history of movie regulation, see: Richard Maltby, “The Production Code and the Hays Office,” in Grand Design–Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise, 1930-1939, ed. Tino Balio (New York: Scribner, 1993).))] This regulatory moment was inevitable, perhaps even overdue, for the game industry. The combination of aging consumers, technological advancement, and creative and commercial investments meant boundaries of cultural acceptability would be pushed, eventually, into the ever-present and always on standby anxiety around “the children.”
While initially resistant, the game industry came to accept and embrace the economic necessity of creating a self-regulatory body. It was a strategy that the creators of D&D and other tabletop role-playing games certainly could have utilized to mitigate the moral panic that swept across the cultural landscape during a previous era. Despite their ability to keep politicians and anxious publics at bay, such bodies also inevitably have a creative chilling effect in that they lead first to distribution suppression. No major theater chains will play NC17-rated films, for example, just as no large-scale retailers will sell “Adults Only”-rated games, even though these are both “official” ratings categories. This means, obviously, that very few creators are willing to create content that will lead to such ratings. Even with such internal suppressions, though, the overall result for self-regulated industries is economic stability and discursive control, not to mention a mechanism for foreclosing episodes that might lead to public outcry, Congressional response, and moral panics. Ultimately, in exchange for imposing creative limitations, the ESRB helped guarantee a predictable marketplace and economic return on investment.
Despite the clear intentions of regulatory bodies such as the ESRB to contain the industry in a tidy, controversy-free package, ruptures are also predictable and unavoidable. The nature of regulation is that boundary-crossing is not only inevitable, but even, ironically, occasionally necessary. It allows regulators to keep the boundaries clearly defined and supported by a vigilant and wary public. In our third, and final, column, we will examine an example of just such a prominent and inevitable rupture: the “Hot Coffee” modification of the 2004 game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas that permitted users to see a sexually graphic sequence hidden by the game’s creators. The predictable panic that followed was rooted in anxieties about visibility, dependability, and trustworthiness: what happens when self-regulatory mechanisms designed to keep play transparent, such as the ESRB, fail to do their critical job? The fear of “dangerous play” is always lurking in the shadows, like the monsters in D&D’s mazes or the escalation of graphic content during the arms race of the fourth-generation console wars. In our concluding column, we continue to explore these tensions, and argue that the cycle of panics, regulations, and ruptures are an inevitable, predictable, and useful way of understanding how gameplay is produced and consumed.
1. Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) Ratings
2. The Sega Master System, circa 1985
3. Sega’s first company mascot, Alex Kidd
4. Sega’s famous anti-Nintendo marketing campaign (Author’s screen grab from Sega Visions Vol. 1, Issue 1. June/July 1990 pp. 25-27.)
5. Sega targets Nintendo’s nerdy designers (Author’s Screen grab from Sega Visions Nov/Dec 1992, pp 6-7.)
6. Sonic breaks the fourth-wall with his finger-wagging and toe-tapping attitude.
7. Sega promises catharsis to its aging core demo (Authors screen grab from Sega Visions, Aug/Sept 1993, pp. 20-21.)
8. Sega’s original cover art for Night Trap (1992)
9. Night Trap‘s preview complete with dripping blood (Author’s screen grab from Sega Visions, Nov/Dec 1992, pp 38-39.)
10. “Mortal Monday” print ad for Mortal Kombat‘s September 1993 console release (Author’s screen grab from Sega Visions, Aug/Sept 1993, p. 3)
11. Lethal Enforcers was the target of congressional scrutiny (Author’s screen grab from Electronic Games, Vol. 2, Issue 4. Jan. 1994)
Wicked Games, Part I: Twenty-sided Demons Matthew Payne / University of Alabama Peter Alilunas / University of Oregon
Of course, flirting with the boundaries of what is socially acceptable in the service of moving product routinely results in mishaps that attract the wrong kind of attention and threaten to sabotage sales. To wit, the director of Activision’s Call of Duty: Black Ops III (2015) apologized after the company used Twitter to circulate a fake news account of a terrorist attack in Singapore. [ (( Kyle Orland, “Call of Duty Developer Apologizes for Fake Terrorist “News” Twitter Promo,” ArsTechnica, October 13, 2015, http://arstechnica.com/gaming/2015/10/call-of-duty-dev-apologizes-for-fake-terrorist-news-twitter-promo/. )) ] Evidently, the 18 tweets about the “attack” were intended to promote the game’s near-future narrative action.
Backlash to tone-deaf marketing efforts are not restricted to mediated channels, however. At the 2011 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, hundreds of red balloons were released as a publicity stunt in support of THQ’s upcoming first-person shooter Homefront (2011). [ (( Owen Good, “THQ Homefront Balloons Don’t Fly in San Francisco,” Kotaku, March 2, 2011, http://kotaku.com/5774934/gamestops-balloons-dont-fly-in-san-francisco. )) ] Condemnation quickly mounted though as many balloons ended up in the city’s bay, raising concerns about the event’s unintended environmental effects on local marine life. The preceding marketing snafus are fairly limited in scope and in duration. But this isn’t always the case. Indeed, there are a handful of controversial moments in gaming history that are so seismic and consequential that they not only rose to the level of national dialogue, they permanently changed the popular discourse around games.
In our three columns, we will examine flashpoints in gaming history with the goal of exploring how popular controversies reveal deeply held beliefs regarding the intersection of technology, play, pleasure, and social taboos. What happens, for instance, when media and entertainment companies lose control of how their games are perceived? What about when the problem is no longer about a single game or its marketing, but is emblematic of an entire industry and its playthings? Worse still, what about when games are thought to jeopardize public safety; or, to quote Helen Lovejoy of The Simpsons fame, “Won’t somebody please think of the children?”
A meme of Helen Lovejoy’s Panicked refrain
We seek, first, to examine various engines of gameplay and their production of pleasurable play, and then ask why and how those experiences became lightening rods of controversy that seemingly demanded regulation. Our goal is to showcase how cultural and commercial stakeholders create and regulate gaming pleasures for dissimilar ends. And because we are interested in understanding gameplay’s cultural politics across different times and spaces—from fantasy play in the 1970s, to industry battles in congressional hearings in the 1990s, to hidden code in the 2000s—we are casting widely to appreciate how gameplay’s magic circles get coded as deviant, thereby justifying the intervention of outsiders (e.g., critics, religious leaders, policy makers, politicians, etc.) seeking to re-establish “acceptable” boundaries.
The initial audience was part of a larger community of science fiction and fantasy enthusiasts. Typically, they were white, middle-class, and middle-aged men interested in simulating battlefield tactics of historical conflicts such as the Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War, and World War II. Although tactical wargaming had been around since the turn of the century, tremendous growth began in the late 1950s. [ (( William Gildea, “War Games Fascinate Thousands,” Los Angeles Times, November 28, 1975, H1; Mary Rourke, “Fantastic Voyages,” Newsweek, July 11, 1977, 49. )) ] But D&D was something else altogether, quickly turning from an underground activity for hobbyists into a cultural phenomenon. Gygax estimated in mid-1979 that 250,000 Americans were playing the game, and around 6,000 sets selling each month. [ (( Gildea, H1; Rourke, 49. )) ]
Once the sales boom boosted the game to cultural phenomenon, D&D quickly became ensnared in larger cultural debates about the appropriate boundaries of play and shared imagination. The moral panics and hand-wringing over vulnerable youth that were gripped by D&D both looked backward, reprising concerns around comic book readership, and previewed what was to come later with video games (which we will examine in future columns).
Original game set of Dungeons and Dragons
If D&D’s player communities reveled in sharing detailed, imagined realms—narrative play made possible by having a dungeon master (the game’s referee and primary storyteller) adjudicate complex rules with dice throws—it was precisely this shared headspace that fueled the initial panic. Outsiders wondered: What effects might sustained periods of shared fantasy have on users? D&D’s signature accouterment did little to dispel myths of sorcery and the occult: cloth maps, multi-sided dice, character sheets with strange characters and foreign runes. Of course, these were minor factors compared to the collaborative gameplay proper: improvised, fantastic, and not easily regulated by outside interests.
There was also considerable confusion about what D&D was exactly; after all, the game was not played in the conventional, competitive sense. Moreover, D&D was open-ended, it lacked a “winner” and “loser,” and its gameplay was emergent, created by its users as it happened. D&D featured meticulously detailed worlds starring monsters and magic, all of which was predicated on complex rule sets and player ingenuity. One early newspaper description described it as “frightfully complex.” [ (( Beth Ann Krier, “Fantasy Life in a Game Without End,” Los Angeles Times, July 11, 1979, H1. )) ] The complex rules, immersive gameplay, and devotion of its community combined to make D&D an object of mass suspicion.
The primary fear surrounding D&D was that its players, typically described as children and adolescents, would not be able to distinguish fantasy from reality. If such fears simmered under the surface during the initial rise of the game’s notoriety, that all changed in August 1979 at Michigan State University. It was there that James Dallas Egbert, a 16-year-old sophomore computer science prodigy went missing. Within weeks, Egbert’s story — and D&D — became national news. Replete with curious clues, a suspicious suicide note, and anonymous tips, the mystery of the missing student was made even more bizarre by Egbert’s fascination with D&D. The game would come to occupy the nation’s attention because the Egbert family’s hired investigator, William Dear, possessed a deft understanding of how to generate publicity and manage the media’s attention.
Private investigator William Dear
Dear’s sensationalism strategy triggered an avalanche of suspicion and tension around D&D that became all but inseparable from its cultural meaning and legacy. Dear fed the national press exactly what an anxious public was ready and waiting to hear. The initial reports captured the breathless fear that had embroiled D&D: Egbert may have become “the victim of an elaborate intellectual fantasy game that may have become all too real.” [ (( “Fantasy Game May Have Claimed Missing Genius,” Los Angeles Times, September 7, 1979, A2. )) ] Familiar elements appear here that define panics around games: rules and gameplay mechanics that are dangerously complicated; a fear of the game being too “smart,” and thus disconnected from more grounded, physical play; and, most importantly, escaping too far into fantasy, making it all but impossible to return to the “real” world.
These multilayered fears were epitomized by the fascination with a set of steam tunnels under the MSU campus, where Egbert was possibly dead or hiding. A D&D group on campus was rumored to have played in the tunnels, and now the public feared Egbert was trapped there in some bizarre conflation of game/reality. They were the perfect embodiment of the “too real” fears around a game that literally had “dungeons” in its title. Egbert’s young age and vulnerable status—he was already “trapped,” as it were, in an intellectual space typically occupied by older people with more experience—made him the perfect image on which to project such concerns.
In the end, Egbert was not in the steam tunnels, and though he played D&D, his disappearance had nothing to do with the game. In mid-September, after discovering the national media attention, Egbert contacted his family (and Dear) and put the speculation to an end. He had taken a bus to New Orleans and unsuccessfully attempted suicide. He suffered from severe depression; a year later, he killed himself. [ (( William Robbins, “A Brilliant Student’s Troubled Life and Early Death,” New York Times, August 25, 1980, A20. )) ] The Egberts publicly told their son’s story, criticized Dear as a “flamboyant” opportunist just as interested in selling the movie rights as finding their son. [ (( In 1984, Dear published The Dungeon Master, which recounted his experiences searching for Egbert in his trademark sensationalist tone. )) ] They tried to downplay the D&D connections, but the damage was done: by that point, the game was no longer just a confusing intellectual object, it was now a target of suspicion that needed to be reined in before it could do more damage.
Following the Egbert story, the discourse shifted to include the possibility that D&D wasn’t just a game. This framing is evident in a New York Times report in October 1979 on the game’s popularity: “What is this game, which its players call D and D? Is it a harmless battle of wits and craftsmanship originated by J.R.R. Tolkein, the science-fiction and fantasy writer? Or is it a bizarre exercise involving the occult?” [ (( Linda Lynwander, “’D and D’ Plus Sci-Fi,” New York Times, October 7, 1979, NJ10. )) ] The 1982 made-for-television film Mazes and Monsters (dir. Steven Hilliard Stern), starring a young Tom Hanks, was even more sensationalistic—telling the story of a college student obsessed with blurring fantasy and reality in a D&D-like game, effectively delivering to the public the story they didn’t get the first time. [ (( Mazes and Monsters was based on Rona Jaffe’s novel of the same name from 1981, which was a work of fiction loosely based, in part, on the media coverage surrounding the Egbert case. )) ]
1982 advertisement for Mazes and Monsters in TV Guide
A climatic moment from Mazes and Monsters
In the 1980s, D&D’s reputation as a site of dangerous play intensified even as it grew in popularity. This twin effect is not coincidental: the taboo object became increasingly popular because of the moral panic. Colleges began banning the game, communities held heated meetings, and school boards were forced to decide whether or not D&D could be played by after-school clubs. “I can feel the devil right here in [this room],” said one parent in Utah during a meeting, demonstrating the growing fear that D&D played literally with satanic power. [ (( Molly Ivins, “Utah Parents Exorcise ‘Devilish’ Game,” New York Times, May 3, 1980, 8. )) ]
By 1983, the backlash coalesced into a clear set of discourses pitting normal play against the dangerous fantasy/reality world of D&D that led to horrifying consequences. Patricia Pulling, whose 16-year-old son committed suicide in 1982, not only blamed D&D, she sued TSR, accusing the company of negligence. She claimed that, hours before his suicide, another player had placed a curse on her son during a game. Even though the lawsuit went nowhere, Pulling did not give up. [ (( Michael Isikoff, “Parents Sue School Principal; Game Cited in Youth’s Suicide,” Washington Post, August 13, 1983, A1. )) ] She formed “Bothered About D&D and Other Harmful Influences on Children” (B.A.D.D.), creating newsletters, pamphlets, giving interviews, working in an advisory position to community leaders, acting as an expert in court, and generally establishing herself as the voice of concerned parents everywhere. Her B.A.D.D. introductory letter illustrated how D&D was merely one cog in a much larger cultural wheel:
We are concerned with violent forms of entertainment such as: violent-occult related rock music, role-playing games that utilize occult mythology and the worship of occult gods in role playing situations like Dungeons & Dragons (R), teen satanism involving murder and suicide, and pornography as it is affecting adolescent behavior and reshaping attitudes and values in a negative manner. [ (( Mary Dempsey, Pat Dempsey, and Pat Pulling, “Introduction,” Dungeons and Dragons, N.D., from the authors’ collection. ))]
Like Dear, Pulling turned to sensationalist tactics—citing alarming, but exaggerated and decontextualized, statistics to make her case. That case was always rooted in D&D’s vague capacity to illuminate the edges of the boundary between reality and fantasy for a vulnerable population. “With 6,500 teens committing suicide and over 50,000 attempts every year, we cannot afford to overlook a ‘game’ that teaches witchcraft, Satan worship and a cult-like religion not to mention specific suicide phrases,” wrote Pulling, using the tone that captured the vivid and frightened imagination, ironically, of many seeking just such rhetoric. [ ((Dempsey, Dempsey, and Pulling, “Introduction.” )) ]
Pulling’s anti-D&D pamphlet
Throughout the 1980s, D&D was also blamed in court for all manner of violent incidents involving children and youth—especially when there was any connection, however tenuous, to the occult. In November 1984, for example, after two teenage brothers committed suicide together in Colorado, the national media reported it as a “suicide fantasy involving Dungeons and Dragons.” [ (( “Young Brothers Found Dead,” Washington Post, November 4, 1984, A6. )) ] When another teenager strangled two school friends that same month outside of Toronto, a psychiatrist testified that the boy had been reading a D&D book the morning of the murders. [ (( Thomas Claridge, “Orangeville Slaying Victims were Stand-Ins, Trial Told,” The Globe and Mail, February 27, 1985, NP. )) ] Similar examples from this period can be found across North America. D&D became a dangerous menace that required legal disciplining and boundaries.
TSR’s response throughout all of this was remarkably restrained and quiet, given the charges that were being leveled. Occasionally, Gygax would comment—such as when he called some of Pulling’s accusations “witch hunting balderdash”—but mostly the company remained focused on growing its customer base and profit margins. [ ((GAM, “Where the Dragons Are,” The Globe and Mail, March 25, 1985, NP.))] By the time of Gygax’s death in 2008, D&D had sold an estimated $1 billion worth of products, and more than 20 million people were estimated to have played the game since its creation. TSR was acquired by Wizards of the Coast in 1997, which was later acquired by toy giant Hasbro. D&D lives on in online and tabletop versions, where it continues to inspire creativity and imagination as well as provoke the occasional fear, though nowhere near the panic of the 1980s. [ ((Seth Schesel, “Gary Gygax, 69, Game Pioneer, Dies,” New York Times, March 5, 2008, C11. )) ]
In Flow 22.04, we will leap forward to the early-to-mid 1990s to examine the video game industry’s (semi-)coordinated attempts at self-regulation following outcries about violent content. But before we transition from D&D to the ESRB (Entertainment Software Ratings Board), it bears asking: if culture’s compunction to regulate the magic circle of play is nothing new, then what might we learn from placing historical case studies into dialogue? We have two provisional responses. First, these cyclical flashpoints offer detailed insights into a historical moment’s preoccupations with taboo subjects. In the case of the “missing” Egbert, D&D became a convenient scapegoat for moralists seeking a ready-made crusade. The evocative fantasy art covering the books and magazines, the colorful, multi-sided dice, and the long, ritualistic play sessions offered more than enough evidence that D&D was an engine for sinning. Even the passage of several decades and the failure to link D&D to its reputed social ills has done little to erase those infamous, formative associations. The dark side of D&D’s cultural legacy brings us to a second potential insight; a point that has less to do with the specific details of the games than the experiential play that breathes life into them. Play is many things; it is frolicsome, precarious, elusive, and ephemeral. In short: play’s liminality and hidden imaginary make it threatening precisely because control is never a given. The gaming controversies we chronicle are, in effect, battles about what may or may not be imagined.
Biometrics and Machinima, Reanimated: Jacqueline Goss’s “Stranger Comes to Town” Dale Hudson / NYU Abu Dhabi
1: Night Elf discussing NSEERS in Stranger Comes to Town.
In Jacqueline Goss’s Stranger Comes to Town(USA 2007), green Orcs and purple Night Elves appear to discuss their experiences of U.S. customs and immigration policies. The humanoid forms of avatars from the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft (WoW) perform difference between citizens and non-citizens in the United States, as the video’s critical texture emerges within its assemblage different types of animation and anonymous interviews. By appropriating and reworking sound and visual images from machinima shot in WoW and Google Earth’s program that allows users to fly over 3D renderings of satellite and aerial photography with a United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) documentary, Goss identifies what might be called the “unseemly” intervals within the purportedly seamless interface of digital technologies. (( I discuss comparable intervals within globalized digital interfaces in “Undesirable Bodies and Desirable Labor: Documenting the Globalization and Digitization of Transnational American Dreams in Indian Call Centers,” Cinema Journal 49.1 (fall 2009): 82–102.)) Like Alex Rivera’s short video Why Cybraceros? (USA 1997), discussed in “Race and Labor, Unplugged: Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer,” Goss’s video reanimates an extant documentary that draws upon rational discourses of scientific progress and national exceptionalism to divert attention from corporate capitalism and racialization. If Rivera’s video exposes ways that globalization and digitization converge on the bodies of non-citizens along physical borders according to U.S. immigration and labor laws guided by private industrial interests, then Goss’s video exposes a similar convergence on non-citizen bodies along the “virtual” borders according to customs and immigration policies that use the purportedly objective technologies of biometrics.
2–4: Three views of a WoW avatar: machinima, rotoscoped, and prepared for biometrics.
Goss reanimates the US-VISIT animated documentary to contest its implied claims that racially/ethnically determined “barred zones” and “national quotas” of U.S. immigration law before 1965 have been replaced by racially/ethnically blind policies. One such policy is the “layer of security that uses biometrics” in US-VISIT. Biometric systems include a variety of means by which the physical bodies and behaviors are rendered as digital information that can be sorted for verification and identification. Promoted for its ability to “protect” privacy and “prevent” identity theft, US-VISIT is an identity-management system that collects biometric data, such as fingerprints and retina scans, to control the mobility of “international visitors” at points of entry to and departure from the United States. (( These phrases are taken from U.S. Department of Homeland Security, “US-VISIT What to Expect When Visiting the United States,” http://www.dhs.gov/files/programs/editorial_0525.shtm (“last modified and revised”, 04 March 2011; accessed, 01 February 2012), where the video may be streamed, and “US-VISIT Biometric Identification Services,” http://www.dhs.gov/files/programs/gc_1208531081211.shtm (“last reviewed and modified,” 18 March 2011; accessed, 01 February 2012). The video does not mentioned “outsourced” border regulation before departure for the United States. )) Goss complicates the scientific efficiency of biometrics by interviewing people on their experiences of US-VISIT. “You can calculate who will stop the line because he or she looks a certain way,” comments one of her subjects on variations in wait time. In biometric systems, the term “failure to enroll” (FTE) describes an event that occurs when the biometric program’s algorithms cannot capture data, when they cannot scan bodies in ways that produce legible data. FTEs often cause additional layers of security and longer wait times in queues containing bodies that fail to enroll.
5–6: Nationalist title card of US-VISIT video; same title card, rotoscoped by Goss.
Goss allows her subjects to be identified only by their voices, which are mostly “accented” according to normative U.S. standards of spoken English, and by what they reveal about themselves in words. Their visual identities are camouflaged under rotoscoped machinima and critically inserted into the US-VISIT video [images 2–4]. Developed during the 1910s by Max Fleischer, rotoscoping typically involves frame-by-frame tracing over images from live-action filmed sequences, so that movements and expressions appear natural; however, Goss rotoscopes over the “action” in the animated US-VISIT video precisely to denaturalize its assumptions about biometrics. As Tess Takahashi argues, the video can be considered a “speculative documentary” for its use of “animation’s formal malleability to emphasize the uncertainty of much of the information we encounter.” (( Tess Takahashi, “Experiments in Documentary Animation: Anxious Borders, Speculative Media,” Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal 6.3 (November 2011): 235. )) Goss’s rotoscoped copies of images disrupt the original video’s conceits of clarity and objectivity through simplified graphics and limited colors that promoting legibility for—and of—international visitors [images 5–6]. Black stick figures suggest an ease and orderliness with which visitors are processed. They resemble familiar stick figures on toilet signage in airports.
7–9: Caution: DOT’s racially/ethnically unambiguous “illegal aliens” and internet memes of “illegal immigration” and “alien immigration.
If live-action films rely on facial expressions and bodily gestures to convey emotional meaning, then these graphics erase that level of meaning, generating the appearance of a rational and impersonal system. They adapt principles from constructed universal pictorial languages, such as Otto Neurath’s Isotype (International System of TYpographic Picture Education), to suggest that all international visitors are treated equally and fairly. The figures resemble ones on Department of Transportation (DOT) road signs, as well as in internet memes that parody DOT caution signs about “illegal aliens” crossing highways by revealing “illegals” as seventeenth-century Christian pilgrims from northern Europe and “aliens” as beings from outer space [images 7–9].
Goss challenges the universalizing strategies of stick figures by replacing them with avatars from WoW whose racial/ethnic, class, and sexual characteristics are exaggerated in caricature. By representing US-VISIT’s international visitors (aka “aliens”) as humanoid avatars, her video reanimates processes of differentiation that are erased by biometrics yet continue to sort international visitors according to race/ethnicity, sex, religion, class, and nationality. Goss’s video asks what biometric information might look like in playback.
10–11: Smooth round-headed silhouette in US-VISIT video and pointy-haired and bearded silhouette in Stranger Comes to Town.
The humanoid silhouettes of Night Elves and Orcs reanimate particularity within the universalizing stylization of human figures [images 10–11]. In one scene, a Night Elf watches as fellow arrivals approach a US-VISIT kiosk [image 12]. His jagged beard and spiky hair distinguish him from the smooth, shaved or bald, heads of the other figures. Paired with the voice of Goss’s male Egyptian subject, the characteristic silhouette of a Night Elf visualizes ways that the DHS might tag and sort biometric data to produce results comparable to racial/ethnic, religious, or national profiling. Other scenes include DHS officers identifying WoW humanoids on their computer screens and rotoscoped WoW avatars looking at other WoW avatars on US-VISIT screens [images 13–14]. By making DHS screens visible, Goss exposes invisible layers of mediation within the US-VISIT application of biometrics. Bodies are made legible for security. In another scene, a female voice describes the inspection of her “private parts,” perhaps so that her records can be tagged as female, in a procedure not visualized with the male-only stick figures in the US-VISIT video. Like new media in general, data can be tagged, sorted, and recombined according to needs by data aggregators, and algorithms can be programmed to make interpretations automatically. (( This point is illustrated by Lori Andrews’s “Facebook Is Using You,” The New York Times (04 February 2012), http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/05/opinion/sunday/facebook-is-using-you.html, an op-ed piece that went viral on Facebook at the time of writing. She points out that Facebook and Google make huge profits by selling personal information on posts, searches, and the content of email to advertisers. “If I’ve Googled “diabetes” for a friend or “date rape drugs” for a mystery I’m writing,” she explains; “data aggregators assume those searches reflect my own health and proclivities.” ))
12–14: Goss’s interpretation of screens within the US-VISIT user interface.
Goss’s male Egyptian subject discusses changes to his mobility and sense of identity after the USA Patriot Act of 2001 and National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS, or “Special Registration”) of 2002 for male nationals of states categorized as predominantly Arab and/or Muslim by the United States [image 1]. Identity is tied to biological data from scans, which is translated into political categorizations (“risk assessment”) and racial/ethnic profiling that are, in turn, internalized. Living in the so-called cosmopolitan diversity of New York City, he thought that being Egyptian was irrelevant until he experienced certain DHS procedures. The information gathered makes him knowable according to anything that is “broadly physical” yet renders him invisible and unknowable in terms of everything else like how his friends and family know him or how he feels about being in the United States. “Am I here because of a girlfriend or to make more money or because I don’t like it in Egypt, that, they have no idea about,” he explains; “and I don’t think that it would to translate them in any way because actually it doesn’t translate into a document.” Special Registration makes him legible as suspicious. Before when asked whether he was Muslim, he would reply that he was not; now, he says that he was “brought up in a Muslim family” but “is not religious.” “That’s the kind of difference,” he explains. Identity is prescribed and precedes the individual. Self-definition functions according to the anticipated criteria of others; it is ever contingent.
Goss links the animated security world of the US-VISIT video, the satellite-view of the “real world” of Google Earth, and the role-playing world of WoW, explaining her attraction to the MMORPG due to its “game-logic that suggests that species and races of avatars naturally belong to specific geographies.” (( Jacqueline Goss, “Drawing Voices,” Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal 6.3 (November 2011): 247. )) WoW relies on an understanding of the isomorphic correspondences of nation and state in modern nation-state that produces certain bodies as belonging “naturally” in certain places, as appearing “normal” there. Players select avatars by race and class according to political allegiance with one of the two warring factions: Alliance or Horde. Goss asked her subjects to select an avatar. Canadians chose to represent themselves as Orcs, a non-native race to Azeroth where most action takes place, aligned with the Horde. Their “naturally brown skin” turned a “sickly green” due to exposure to “fel magic” which caused their “ancestral lands to wither and die.” (( Blizzard Entertainment, “Races of World of Warcraft: Orc,” http://us.battle.net/WoW/en/game/race/orc (2012; accessed 01 February 2012). )) Egyptians and Argentineans represented themselves as violet-skinned Night Elves on the Alliance side.
15–17: Tagged and untagged borders rendered on Google Earth.
The video incorporates machinima shot in WoW. A process of recording video of live gameplay within the game engine developed in the 1990s, machinima emerged as a means of sharing tricks and cheats among videogame players. It has also become a mode of narrative filmmaking. Goss’s use of the 3D animation rendered by the game engine differs from the original stories, literary adaptations, and amateur music videos (AMVs) that are often shot in SIMS and WoW. (( A WoW machinima that became a viral video is “Leeroy Jenkins.” )) The machinima sequences in experimental and amateur media, such as She Puppet(USA 2001; dir. Peggy Ahwesh) and Red vs. Blue: The Blood Gulch Chronicles (USA 2003–2007; dir. Burnie Burns, Matt Hullum, and Geoff Ramsey), comment upon commercial video games that are designed to “entertain.” (( She Puppet was shot partially in the first-person shooter (FPS) game Tomb Raider and questions assumptions gender and media, and Red vs. Blue was shot in the FPS Halo and questions the binary logic of politics and political life in the United States during the invasion and occupation of Iraq in search of “weapons of mass destruction.” )) Those in Stranger Comes to Town serve to protect (rather than confirm) the identity of Goss’s interview subjects, as well as to reanimate a certain “game logic” within the US-VISIT video on biometrics.
Goss’s video opens with a fly-over an undifferentiated blue landscape. A female voice describes going for a “biometric recording for immigration” in “same building, interestingly enough, of the national archives.” Towards the end, images from Google Earth focus on digital renderings of militarized zones, such as the Line of Control (LOC) between India and Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir and the Ceasefire Lines between Syria and Israel in the Golan Heights [images 15–16]. These zones are reminders of wars and violent displacements of millions based upon assumptions that political geography can be mapped onto cultural identity, often with race/ethnicity and religion as prime vectors of segregation. Globalization propels migrations over borders that might not be tagged with names [image 17].
by: Dan Leopard / St. Mary’s College of California
Jarrell Pair of the Institute for Creative Technologies stands behind Sgt. John Blackwell
Emerging from behind the singed black rubble of a factory wall, a ruggedly handsome infantryman outfitted with the latest in Army field gear flashes an all clear sign to our party of bemused observers. He lowers his rifle, smiles, and introduces himself as Sergeant Jon Blackwell. His movements are life-like, and he seems to glance about as he speaks to us. Our tour group is clustered before a translucent screen wedded to a large movie-style flat, a standalone, movable wall used on film sets. The screen itself approximates the height of a person. Facing us stands Blackwell, a resident of this life-size screen, rendered in an animated visual style evoking the characters one encounters during videogame play.
Our tour guide chats with the Sergeant using conversational banter designed to promote Flatworld – the immersive reality project within which the Blackwell pedagogical agent system represents an incremental step toward the goal of designing a fully interactive virtual human. Flatworld is one of several projects funded by the United States Army and being carried out by the Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. If the screens of daily life – the video monitors that are embedded in the designed media ecology of the everyday world – are invisible through their ubiquity, ever-present through impression and instruction, then the movable interactive screens of the Flatworld Project are invisible through their status as advanced research. They are removed from public view as they are meant for the consumption of only those with a need to know – in this case military trainers and entertainment industry professionals (and those like myself who have been allowed to observe through an expressed interest in machine-human interaction).
Everyday screens call to us. At a glance they entreat us to be particular people, to do particular things. I am confronted by a screen on a bank machine. It requests that I type in my PIN number and press enter. The trailer at the movie theater urges that I attend a screening of a film on opening day or soon thereafter. These are examples of the banal entreaties that bind the producer and the consumer during the myriad interactions that constitute a market economy. These screens subtly condition our identities. Implicit in screen-based transactions are forms of training regarding the world. They train us to behave in certain ways – summoning up a spark of thought not so distant from Althusser’s notion of the ideological state apparatus (without succumbing to the siren song of its most – let me emphasize “most” – sinister implications).
The Flatworld project stands at the intersection of two of the most powerful of societal institutions – the school and the military. The stated intention of the project is to create a human agent that can stand in for a human trainer. This interactive virtual human could be programmed to give instruction to new recruits as they prepare to enter actual combat situations. “Green” troops have the highest mortality rates on the battlefield as they move through the learning process necessitated by the life-threatening person-to-person, person-to-machine confrontations of combat. Each step involves a trial-and-error set of choices, each of which carries with it potentially extreme consequences. Whether one considers military action moral or immoral, the actuality for the soldiers in the field, regardless of their motivations for participating in battle, stands as a highly traumatic and disorienting experience. Interactive agent Jon Blackwell provides a new recruit with a human-like guide through participatory scenarios that will allow the recruit to make mistakes and walk away with knowledge, but without a bullet or shrapnel in the back.
Back at the tour, as Sergeant Blackwell jokes and interacts with our tour guide and responds to carefully phrased questions from selected tour members, it becomes obvious that Blackwell, at least in this version of the interactive virtual human scenario, is using a set of canned, scripted answers. Obviously, the intention of our audience’s interaction with this virtual human prototype is merely for the sake of publicity which side steps the hard-to-access actuality of a fully functional programmed avatar for military instruction. Blackwell shifts occasionally from side to side and gestures to us as he responds to questions ranging from the functionality of the flats that comprise the Flatworld simulation room to the voice recognition program that drives the real time interaction during training with virtual humans.
I glance about at the cavernous space of the warehouse that houses Flatworld. I notice two additional areas that are designated as models of Flatworld as it will come to be realized at some future date. One space approximates a shanty house with wall width screens representing a view looking out over the horizon of a war ravaged middle eastern city, while another space opens out onto an alleyway that at times harbors a swarthy enemy combatant and at other times a fellow soldier or civilian non-combatant. Should the new recruit shoot or offer a gesture of good will? This is the stuff of spy stories and cop shows, of course, replayed through countless television and film narratives of training for espionage and law enforcement (as well as representing the basic play structure for both first-person shooter games and even the much lauded Sims 2).
If one performs a web search for Flatworld, it seems that this project has been exhaustively written about by many newspapers and mentioned on numerous blogs, but if one is careful to read what has been written or produced about the ICT, most of the work closely follows the contours of a single ur-narrative, most likely the excellently produced publicity material generated by the ICT itself. Through whatever underlying intent, the ICT’s PR materials function to blur the militarism inherent in all of their projects, funded as they are by the US armed services, while emphasizing the gee-whiz wunder-tech aspects of each of the technologies embedded in each project. While the ICT screens have been exposed to the public-at-large through various media outlets, their projects still remain unseen by most, and what has been seen is always mediated by the filter of promotion designed to bathe each project in the glow of an aesthetics of videogames and movie special effects. (Both of which are, of course, influential in the visual and conceptual style of ICT projects and will in turn benefit from the research conducted at the ICT).
It is tempting, if one is sympathetic to the play of videogames such as Halo and Grand Theft Auto, to confirm this form of training new recruits as merely the next step in the use of simulation training by the military, a tradition that stretches back to at least the cold war world of the 1950s. Conversely, if one opposes the already overwhelming militarism of the current world picture and the ratcheting up of representational violence in media content, then this use of the videogame and special effect mentality can seem to be the latest step toward a scalding dystopia of programmed (in)humanity. Either way, one would be hard-pressed to deny that games like Halo and Grand Theft Auto present to their players a symbiotic relationship between violent character interaction, pulsing sound effects, and stylized graphic environments. And a modified form of this cultural form is exactly what the Flatworld military training simulation represents. Obviously, on the ground during combat it does matter whether the figure standing behind that door as it opens is friend or foe, but, in the world of screen technologies and their use in developing virtual interactive humans, is that binary – friend or foe, at base the most fundamental human interaction – the defining way to conceptualize relations between flesh-and-blood people and their programmed counterparts?
An Analog Form in a Digital Box: Sitcoms, Mitcoms, and New Media Pliancy
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A CNN Screencapture
There’s a lot of static these days, in both industry and academic circles, about the ways in which new media are reshaping television’s visual field. Folks are talking about the flattening and fracturing of televisual space, the addition of overlays, banners, text crawls, and side bars to news and information programs, and the borrowing of many other techniques and aesthetics from the world of computer software.
At the same time, there doesn’t seem to be much talk about the powerful influence television exerts on new media aesthetics and the methods of information delivery. In the interest of prompting more discussion, we’d like to share some thoughts on machinima, a method of making animated videos using off-the-shelf computer games such as The Sims (Maxis) or Halo (Bungie Studios), and ways machinima sitcoms (or “mitcoms”) such as The Strangerhood (Rooster Teeth Productions) represent a kind of “televisualization” of computer games.
For readers unfamiliar with machinima (short for “machine cinema”), it’s basically bricolage storytelling for the information age. The repurposed objects in this case are computer game graphics and the engines that produce them. With real-time machinima, game play is recorded as “raw footage” and then edited using a digital video editing package such as Premiere Pro (Adobe) or Final Cut Pro (Apple). Script-driven machinima, on the other hand, requires machinima-makers to input action commands directly into development environments such as the ones that sit behind Unreal Tournament (Epic Games) and Quake (id software). These commands then are translated into animations by the game’s engine.
Though machinima depends on repurposing both stock and fan-created digital assets (e.g., 3D avatars and buildings, soundtracks), as well as the techniques used to generate such material, machinimations don’t always wind up resembling the games they’re derived from. Indeed, much of the appeal of machinima is the artistic freedom it allows. Academy of Machinima Arts & Sciences board member Hugh Hancock documents this point well when he lists machinima’s most significant liberties: “with ‘virtual cameras’ you can develop an entirely new language…not hampered by the constraints of the real world.” Moreover, Hancock continues, there’s “the sheer flexibility of a world where you make up all the rules of physics, the option to add interactivity…. And on. And on.” Strangely enough, machinima-makers are using this seemingly infinite creative flexibility to explore the aesthetic and storytelling possibilities of the television sitcom.
We say “strangely enough” for several reasons, not the least of which is that television sitcoms may very well be going the way of the dodo. A leaner (and definitely meaner) kind of program has appeared — the reality show — and it’s chasing the sitcom from the airwaves. Whether or not television sitcoms eventually become extinct is anyone’s guess, but there is certainly a sentiment shared by both the broadcast and cable industries that the genre’s time is running out. This anachronistic quality is, in part, what makes mitcoms such as The Strangerhood — replete as it is with a living room couch, goofy neighbors, and a laugh track — such odd ducks: they’re emerging just as the sitcom form has been declared dead (or, at least, dying an expensive and unpleasant death) by its progenitor, network television.
The mitcom also is weird because of the inherent pliancy of machinimation. If machinima-makers are not “hampered by the constraints of the real world” (which they’re not), and therefore have the opportunity to “develop an entirely new language” (which they do), why are they looking to one of the most famously formulaic modes of storytelling? Ten years ago, when the first machinimations started appearing on the Internet, serialization and an adherence to well-established genres were necessary because of bandwidth restrictions. The pipes were simply too narrow to allow much content through, meaning machinima-makers (like the early game developers before them) had to rely on well-worn and thus easily and quickly recognizable tropes and iconography to tell their stories.
Today, that’s not the case: consumer-level broadband connections and distributed, self-organizing networks with multi-source file sharing such as eDonkey (MetaMachine) and Morpheus (StreamCast Networks) make short work of even the largest video downloads. There really are no restrictions to storytelling, which makes machinima-makers’ interest in the sedimented and highly-structured narrative form of the sitcom so curious.
Granted, in the case of The Strangerhood, the sitcom form is used in part because of its antique qualities (e.g., ensemble cast, laugh track, catch phrases, and recurring plotlines). What better way, then, to both parody and critique the medium (not to mention indulge in a bit of nostalgia) than through one of its most iconic forms?
That said, The Stangerhood and mitcoms like it are more than just parodic: they’re also explorations of televisuality — of the form and function of television as a medium, an art form, an industrial complex, and a cultural force. In both borrowing from and playing with the sitcom form, mitcoms bring to the surface the nature of that form and the agential and structural networks that created it.
Of course, mitcoms as explorations of televisuality are yet nascent, but they nonetheless show the resiliency and potential of televisual forms of meaning-making across media. The pre-machinima history of computer games includes numerous examples of the television/game crossover, some of which — such as the run-a-network simulation Mad TV (Rainbow Arts) and Eugene Jarvis’ infamous parody/action game Smash TV (Acclaim Entertainment) — exercised the new medium’s pliancy far more vigorously than such ham-fisted tie-ins as The Adventures of Gilligan’s Island (Bandai America), Yes, Prime Minister (Mosaic Publishing), and ALF (SEGA Entertainment).
The mitcom may very well be a kind of televisual future anteriorism, a seeing of what will have been, an artifact from the future documenting an interregnum. We can’t help but think of Harold Innis’ observation that “sudden extensions of communication are reflected in cultural
disturbances.” Perhaps in drawing on the sitcom, the mitcom is not only celebrating a predecessor’s aesthetic, but also subverting that aesthetic’s representations of social relations.
Our guess is that we won’t find out what will have been until we see how HDTV, digital cinema, and next-generation game consoles such as the PlayStation 3 converge. That’s likely to be sooner than most of us expect.
We prefer the term “computer game” over “video game” as the universal designation for electronic entertainment software because it privileges the medium’s inevasible technological foundation rather than its admittedly dominant but nonetheless excludable sensory element, video. There are many games that have no video at all (see Games for the Blind for examples).