This week I went to Luton to Under the Mask, a conference that I first attended two years ago. Since I had quite some fond memories of it and met a lot of nice game scholars there, I thought I’d revisit it this year. Some of the scholars and editors of the Game Love book – a project that’s been up and running for over half a year now – decided to meet here again for a panel on our work, which made this into a neat trip and well-worth writing an entry about.
The trip to London/Luton was also a great excuse to finally get started on my copy of Sherlock and Transmedia Fandom, the exciting book collection that I’ve also contributed to with a chapter and by peer-reviewing some of its content. It’s a great book, but since it’s weird to review it myself, I will just mention this en passant.
Since I caught an early flight, I was able to walk through London a bit. I went from Liverpool street to London Bridge, a quick visit to Tate, then over the Millenial Bridge passed St. Paul’s to eventually end up the British Museum. I admired the collection of Piccasso prints (some of them very cartoonesque and stylized), the Japanese gallery (beautiful artefacts, commodities and prints) and some rooms (Enlightment room was the highlight here, completely devoted to science and inventions of the time). I guess the best thing I saw- and the one most related to this blog – however was the Ur game, one of the first games ever. This really got me in the game mood and the minute I finally understand how it works (I read several explanations of it and they all failed me) this would be great to show to students more, or even play with them. It also got me thinking a bit about old games versus new games and at the conference, this was certainly a big theme.
Can we still speak of ‘gamers’?
Already in the introduction of the conference, the identity of ‘the gamer’ is scrutinized. Does being a gamer still have value and what do we mean with that? In part, gamer is a constructed identity by industries who want to target certain audiences and cater to these consumers. This theme also resonated in Steven Boyer’s presentation who, based on Ien Ang’s audience studies, also showed that gamers are a constructed audience group. Stakeholders and the industry create this image of a very consistent group, even though the audience itself consists of individual members that all have very different motivations and stakes.
Looking at gamers as an audience certainly has it merits, I agree. First of all, you can analyze viewership of games and other dispositions that games allow much better than through the more limited idea of players; Second, you can analyze the relation to other media (or trans/intermediality) as well that constitute related audience groups. Third, you can situate the social context of gaming very concisely by speaking of an audience that consists of different networks. In the various presentations that discuss gamers as an audience or as fans, I also pick up these different lines, mixed with the idea that playing games is also a very engaging practice that in part defines who we are because it raises such engagements and different affects.
In her keynote, Esther Maccallum-Steward’s also cleverly discussed today’s gamers as fan-producers. However, she did not just focus on the creative gamers or made overstatements about fan production, rather she’d try to analyze it in terms of quality and by focussing on the merits of more popular fan productions. She also analyzed today’s gamers as partly constructed by identifying with certain geeky tropes and seeking gamer celebrities. Gamers need heroes, Esther underlined, and in Notch, as well as the Yogcast, they found some. These are people that influence what being a gamer is today and they are inspirational in their work.
Others at the conference emphasize that today’s gamers are consumers as well though, that are constantly satisfied by the industry and envisioned in a very homogeneous way. Gamers are motivated by the industry to keep at it through expansions, reward systems and extensive feedback. They are measured through statistics, get personal ads on Facebook or other media and are expected to buy every instance of a certain transmedial franchise to keep at it as an audience. We unlock and buy bits and pieces of games rather than full instalments. Gamers are capitalized.
How can we analyze today’s games?
After the disappointing E3, it’s no wonder that indie-games are often discussed en passant and also the changes in the industry towards these games. Though they were once like fan-games and modifications, by now indie-games are becoming like a genre and heavily commercialized by the big guys, Sony and Microsoft and so on. The popularity of Steam as a distribution platform is often mentioned (and it is also envisioned as a methodological/networking tool for grad students at DiGRA). With indie-games having higher production values and the possibility of mainstreaming small games, we can wonder where the industry will go next. Obviously the game industry is one made by enthusiasts and has always been ‘indie’ and ‘fannish’ in its development, but we still assign unique qualities to these genres. Indie starts to mean artsie, nice, made by a small team and personal as opposed to the big players in the industry.
At the conference, the ideas of fan, indie and enthusiast often overlap. I perceive this at a problem at times, because I think these are all practices with different motivations and investments that require more specificity today. One presentation by Claudio Pires Franco for instance aims to discuss transmediality in children’s franchises (it reminded me of Marsha Kidner’s book a lot) but ends up speaking of Lord of the Rings fandom and only introduces the case-studies of children late. In fact, only the last example of the speaker about children’s reception of The Swiss Family Robinson shows how children negotiate adaptations of books and what they might like to see in a game.
That brings me to another point and that’s the transmediality of today’s games. It’s difficult to say where the game begins and ends and what media are connected to it. The speakers give some ideas about this but also move into in-depth terrains. Is a game mediated like a town and comparable to the buildings in Manhatten, as analyzed by De Certeau? Daniel Golding suggests that it’s far more complicated and that unlike De Certeau’s strategists, the gamer can never really get a top-down view on the space and its structures (here, his analysis is mostly inspired by shooters like Portal).
Steven Conway emphasizes a fully different element though, and that’s that today’s games include far more reward structures than they once did. They are constantly petting players on the back and keeping them satisfied. Today’s games are always about winning and never about losing. Replaying a full arcade game and the deep frustration of not acing a level, that’s something of the past. And it makes Steven a bit sentimental that there’s no games like Tetris anymore that are contra-play, that don’t just challenge the player, but literally tell the player to fuck off.
In our panel, we (Esther Maccallum-Steward, Ashley Brown, Ian Sturrock, Emily Flynn-Jones, the spirit of Jessica Ennivold, and myself) show that today’s games are also about different forms of love and care. We start off with a game (kudos to Ash for the cards) with different characters, settings, actions and levels that the groups have to combine. They pitch their concepts as a Kickstarter and try to incorporate some ideas about love. Where is the love in games now? It’s in the sociality of today’s games, their progressing narratives and characters as well as today’s fan practices. Games are a very vibrant medium. They inspire people and make them feel. Steven’s nostalgic memories of ‘real frustration’ are just as characterizing of this affect as Richard Gough’s fans, who are afraid to get spoiled and to enjoy them less.
Meeting a Super Smash champion
In the plane, I sit next down to a geeky looking boy playing a PSVita. Obviously, if there’s several chairs left, I pick my company wisely. We don’t talk because he’s gaming intensively, but when he’s asked to shut the PS down at the landing, I ask him what he’s playing and we get talking. He’s a pro-gamer going to The Hague for a competition, for several times the champion in Super Smash Brothers in the UK, and he travels a lot to competitions in other countries. Is he exemplary of what gaming is today? It’s almost ironic to bump into him when I’ve just started working on this blog. He’s a 22-year old that’s well-travelled, that’s for sure, and interested in what I do.
Though he likes competing in small fan tournaments, that only give him a Mario shirt in the end, he does admit that he’s in this for the money. He doesn’t care about fan conventions as much as I do, he wants to game in professional competitions, preferably organized by the industry itself or with rich sponsors that pay for prizes. He loves games but he also needs to live of something and pay for all these trips. He’s unsure about his future even though he makes a strong impression for a young man. I tell him that I’m unsure about mine too. He tells me that he wanted to talk to me before, based on my Yoshi necklace (that I got from Ashley the day before, actually).
Somewhere in between our conversations, I ask him who he plays with, what character he loves best. And it’s Starfox. Also, sometimes Falcon or Jigglypuff. I see some real affect there and something that’s not about the money. When he talks about his game collection at the passport control, same thing, he has that spark in his eye. Like in all media, I firmly believe that it’s not about the industry but about us and what meaning we assign to media products; it’s about what we do with games and how we choose to participate. Be it retro, liberate, artsy, casual, pro, fannish or all of the above.