Plan for the Day
- Canvas Posts—due Fridays at 11:00pm
- What is American Culture? Essay
- Workshop next week will be on Google Docs (trying something new)
- Revisit Introduction to Critical Theory
- A History of Video Games
- A Critical History of Video Games
What is American Culture? Essay
In ancient pre-pandemic times, we would bring in paper copies of our drafts and exchange them with a classmate. I was fully committed to receiving paper-based assignments until mid-March 2020. Now, I only accept essays electronically. Also, in order to reduce the communicable potential of COVID-19, I want to limit student interactions, so the “workshop” is going online. In lieu of a Weekly Discussion Post for next week, you’re going to review a classmate’s draft via Google Docs. You will share the draft with your classmate and me.
- Post your drafts on Google Docs (see email from 2/9) by 5:00pm on Friday, February 11
- Provide thoughtful comments to your classmate by 5:00 pm on Monday, February 14
Remember, this is in lieu of the 250-word response, so I expect your comments to be comparable, but you don’t have to comment extensively. Don’t focus on grammar and mechanics; instead, try to reflect on their ideas.
Definitely address the following:
- In your own words, summarize the author’s argument. If there isn’t one, explain they need one.
- Comment on the appropriateness of the cultural values the author identifies.
- If they are appropriate, mention that but also offer places for the author to expand.
- For example, the author might state, “Instant gratification is a major American value embodied in such technologies as self-checkouts, drive-thrus, and even credit cards.”
- Your response: After an assessment of the above value’s relevance you might write, “Instant or immediate gratification may also be embodied by this or that practice.”
- Consider providing other media example that reproduce this value.
- Assess the “objectivity” of the author’s explanation: do they rely on taste/conviction, or are they providing an opinion?
- Tastes and convictions
- If applicable, assess whether or not the value might be more of a subcultural value as opposed to a prevailing one.
- A subculture’s values might provide a good analysis of American culture by defining them against prevailing ideology.
- However, that might be harder to do, so the reader should let the author know whether or not the value needs more description to reflect the “essence” of American culture.
- Anything else?
The Assignments Page has the requirements for your final essay, but here are the requirements for this draft:
- Typed, double spaced (except heading), 12 pt font
- 1-inch margins all around
- Page numbers (anywhere)
- A title other than “What is American Culture?”
- At least three (3) pages (4000 & 5000 levels)
Notice that these are less than what’s required for your final essay due 2/17.
Do not pad your essays with long quotations to meet the page requirement. In fact, all quotations are in addition to the length requirement. I’m not sure why you’d need long quotations for this essay, but I figured I ought to mention this.
While I’m on this subject, Wikipedia is a fine place to start research, but do not end there…don’t cite Wikipedia.
Introduction to Critical Theory
These links provide overviews to help you formulate questions for future work. This isn’t the end of the critical theory discussion; it’s a beginning (notice I didn’t write the beginning).
Let’s start with two theories important to cultural studies:
Simply put, technologies tell us much about the society(ies) from which they come. This is a cultural studies approach to technology, so, as usual, definitive conclusions will be hard to nail down.
Before we get any further, we should consider the difference between these two concepts:
- Social Construction of Technology
- Technologies represent the values of the culture from which they came.
- The culture demands these technologies based on often prevailing values.
- The values are often hegemonic and, in late capitalism, manufactured.
- Technological Determinism
- Claiming technology alone shaped an aspect of society.
- Narrating the history of technology as an uninterrupted, linear progression to the present–often implying or explicitly stating that the “best” technologies were created.
Lynn White (1966), a proponent of the technological determinism perspective, used this horseshoe nail proverb to introduce a chapter in his book.
Consider the following “narratives” about DVDs
- After VHS tapes became obsolete, DVDs allowed consumers to bring films and TV shows into their homes before streaming services became available.
- As consumers sought more access to films and filmmaking, the home video market began to supply them with VHS and Betamax tapes that they could play in the comfort of their own homes. Similarly, the music industry responded to this demand by providing records, 8-tracks, and cassettes to consumers.
History in Video Games
In order to focus more on culture rather than the video game industry’s revenue (which I’m not claiming is unimportant), I want us to consider the popularity of war games, specifically games based on actual wars. I’m sure everyone is familiar with Call of Duty’s WWII games; however, are you familiar with these WWII-based games:
- 1942 (Campcom 1984)
- 1942: The Pacific Air War (MicroProse 1994)
- Battlefield 1942 (EA 2002)
- PC Gameplay (with voice over that mentions LAN parties)
- Battlehawks 1942 (Lucasfilm Games 1988)
- Patton vs. Rommel (EA 1986)
- 1942: Deadly Desert (HandyGames 2004/2016)
- Gameplay for 1943: Deadly Desert
There are plenty more WWII-based games, but I selected a theme for the above games. It might also be important to note the films about WWII as well. I’m not sure how we’d categorize 1941 (1978), though. I’ll be testing your history knowledge…by the way, D-Day was June 6, 1944, so that’s why I haven’t listed Saving Private Ryan (1998) or Band of Brothers (2001).
Questions to Ponder
- Think about non-WWII-based entertainment. What’s one war that comes up quite often?
- Why do war films often garner rave reviews and critical acclaim?
- Some video games allow you to choose to be American or German or Japanese (sometimes British and Russian)
- Any comments on that significance for gameplay?
- For a film-related comparable situation, one might explore Flags of our Fathers (2006) and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)–both directed and co-produced by Clint Eastwood.
Egenfeldt-Nielsen, Smith, & Tosca’s Ch. 4 “History”
We won’t cover every game mentioned, but there are some highlights from the chapter I definitely want to address. We will spend lots of time on cultural values–consumerism, individualism, collectivism, phallocentrism–so let’s begin by discussing the rise of video games. Many histories begin with Spacewar!, move onto early consoles and arcade games, and then focus on the home markets for games from the late-1970s to the present. What public gaming trends or practices have you observed?
- p. 63: “The 1960s had seen the commercial proliferation of war games, tabletop games of strategy where maps, dice, and figures were used to simulate battles, allowing players to recreate historical conflicts.”
- p. 65: “characters grow by accumulating ‘experience points,’ which are often acquired by fighting and picking up treasure; similarly, many games revolve around simple missions (also called quests)…”
- p. 66: “[RPGs tap] into our desire for spectacle and our thought-provoking willingness to submit ourselves to strange and arbitrary rules for the sake of entertainment.”
- p. 69: Nolan Bushnell knew “people would pay money to play such games in the right setting.”
- His company, Atari, did what all employers do…
- “This would be the first of many conflicts between the often laid-back culture of game creators and the very different atmosphere of corporate America.”
- Time permitting, I have an example of reading corporate culture(s).
- pp. 75-76: The 1980s–consoles and PCs
- p. 78: Merchandising–“Pac-Man was quickly licensed to appear on merchandise—from towels to T-shirts—at no extra cost to Namco”
- “…with the astounding success of character-based cuteness it seriously challenged the powerful sci-fi templates that had long dominated the industry.”
- What else does cuteness sell?
- Example of cuteness
- pp. 82-83: Strategy games require time and patience, which makes them a more mature type of entertainment.
- p. 86: A matured media–“…early filmmakers sought to enhance the legitimacy of their medium by associating it with already admired forms of expression, particularly classical theater…”
- Consider the evolution of video games. Although this is still the case today, early video games got inspiration from other texts (Tolkien, Dungeons & Dragons, science fiction, etc.). Now, films are based on original video games.
- Any comments on consumerism?
- p. 89: “process-oriented games were unthinkable in a fast-paced arcade but seemed made for home computers. Indeed, quick and intense arcade-like experiences are usually anathema to process-oriented games, many striving for realism, while some focus more on recreating the physical experience of dealing with a real-world system…”
- Simulation Games
- Lots of submarine simulation games
688 Attack Sub (EA 1989)—Play Online!
The Hunt for Red October (Commodore 64/Amiga 1987)–based on the Tom Clancy novel (1984) that became a film and launched the Jack Ryan universe
- Flight Simulators–Notice the categories of these video games…
Microsoft Flight Simulator (MS 1986)—check out this video!
F-117A Stealth Fighter (MicroProse 1992)—PC/DOS Gameplay
- SimCity 2000 (Maxis 1993)—Gameplay montage
- Lots of submarine simulation games
- p. 95: LAN parties!
- p. 96: “[Lara Croft] was both a favorite icon of the era’s girl power movements and an academic object of desire for cultural studies of various persuasions.”
- Their making a subtle remark here, but we’ll hold off…not saying they’re wrong.
- p. 97: “[The 7th Guest (1993)] was technically ambitious as its graphics were digitized film clips populated by real actors. This was impressive to many but bought at the price of limited flexibility in terms of player actions.”
- Let’s watch some gameplay and consider the experience. Comments, please.
- p. 107: “Also in 2007, Assassin’s Creed wowed console and PC audiences with its detailed animation and convincing recreation of twelfth-century city life…”
- Let’s look at that recreation.
- p. 109: New decade, same concept from Scorched Earth to iShoot
- Shareware was a way independent games got out pre-ubiquity of the internet
- p. 114: Angry Birds (Rovio Mobile 2009) “has a cast of characters residing comfortably in the borderland between cuteness and utter madness.”
- Consider the evolution of the video game industry…there’s a new Angry Birds film coming out.
By the way, Guglielmo Marconi actually put into place the first “online” game when his wireless allowed ships at sea to connect, offering players on different ships the ability to play chess through Morse code (Lyle, p. 5843). You actually have him to think for much of the things you like about global communication systems.
Thinking Critically about Video Game Histories…
You will hear me talk some smack about this book, but it is a good introduction to the mainstream discussions surrounding video games, including mainstream academic discussions. In short, it’s a wealth of information and worthy of our attention. However, three recurring issues will appear: 1) the lack of critical technological awareness, 2) the limited understanding of “cultural studies” and analysis, and 3) the downplaying (ignoring, in fact) of gender issues. I will definitely address the issue one and two today, and we’ll return to the third issue throughout the semester. As a preview, re-read the quote from Espen Aarseth about not noticing “the dimension’s of Lara Croft’s body” (p. 13). Aarseth, the Editor-in-Chief of the peer-reviewed journal Game Studies, is actually the norm in wanting to not discuss representations of women in games. I know another editor of a different journal who feels that way too, but I digress…
Critical Technological Awareness
As I’ve mentioned, I privilege a social construction view of technology, so I want us to think critically not about how we use technology but more so about how technology uses us. Sometimes we may conclude we’re zombies, sleepwalking through a hi-tech world; other times we may conclude we’re well-trained robots, performing roles in a hi-tech consumerist world. Most likely their are other conclusions, but, in order to think critically about our hi-tech world, I offer as critical technological awareness “looking beyond a socially constructed artifact’s assumed practical benefit and critiquing its effects and development” (Toscano, 2011, p. 14).
I will readily admit that Egenfeldt-Nielsen, Smith, & Tosca’s Ch. 4 excites me. I love reading about video games I played, and I have great nostalgia for this entertainment media. In fact, my nostalgia is often bittersweet (but I risk oversharing). Although I find their history well done (it isn’t easy to be so thorough without reading like a laundry list of games), what I mainly take issue with is the narrative’s advocacy of technological determinism and, especially later in the chapter, focus on game sales as the pillar of cultural value. Consider these instances where their narrative appears to assume technological advancement was the main (if not sole) reason for video game evolution:
- p. 73: “some designers most likely lacked the skill or resources to actually produce a state-of-the art action game.”
- While the authors do immediately claim, “and no doubt for other reasons” in the very next sentence, the above focus on “skill” and “resources” makes it appear as if the future state-of-the-art game was the inevitability of technological advancement.
- Instead, the entire industry was a reflection of the growing demand of entertainment (including distraction), specifically immersive experiences that adhered to the values of consumerism, competition, and storytelling (which is rather important for a discussion on adventure games).
- The 1990s (p. 93): “In the technology arena, the personal computer…awoke fully as a hardcore gaming platform, due to major advances in sound and graphics hardware.”
- “…the spread of network technology and the rise of the Internet created both explosive growth and broad diffusion…”
- “…the CD-ROM as a software storage medium simultaneously destroyed the floppy disk and swiftly increased the size of a typical game.”
- These statements, although they do reflect the change in practices surrounding gaming, use the logic of technological determinism. These advances stem from planned obsolescence, which made consumers buy newer products. Then, video games advanced to meet consumer demands.
- I realize the above may sound like splitting hairs, but it’s a subtle yet monumental difference between privileging technological determinism or critical technological awareness.
- p. 101: “Rapidly increasing hardware capability created the possibility of ever-more technically ambitious games…”
- Absolutely…again, this is subtle, but the bigger picture cultural studies approach recognizes the value of consumerism demanding more advanced games.
Return to Hyperreality
Hyperreality: (Baudrillard) “creation of media, film, and computer technologies have come to be more real for us, and interact more fundamentally with our experiences and desires, than…realities of nature or spiritual life” (Malpas, p. 125).
We’ll cover this more later, but I thought I’d bring it up here:
Related to the myth of individualism is the assumption of realism. Video games are not actually realistic, but, in a culture that prefers the fake to the real, video games provide an excellent example of what Umberto Eco calls hyperreality. Although Eco was observing holography in the early 1970s when he investigated the American cultural landscape, video games are a new incarnation of being more real than real. Eco notes, “in America, a country obsessed with realism, where, if a reconstruction is to be credible, it must be absolutely iconic, a perfect likeness, a ‘real’ copy of the reality being represented.”[Eco, 4] Extending Eco’s observation to video games helps readers understand how gamers base realism on previous technologies’ abilities to render graphics. Newer video games only seem realistic or real because “the genealogical relationship makes newer war games seem more realistic than they are.”[Colishaw] This also follows technological determinism because the technology drives realism for the audience. Additionally, considering previous games less realistic could contribute to planned obsolescence, which pushes users to adopt the newest gadgets, which keeps the industry very profitable.Toscano, Aaron A. Video Games and American Culture: How Ideology Influences Virtual Worlds. Lexington Books, 2020: 85.
Video Games Reflect the Culture from which They Come
If we were in a sociology class, we’d need to be more careful about using “social, society, and culture” interchangeably. This is the English Department, and we get the final say on definitions, so we’ll be a little looser with the above terms. Video games and all cultural texts do not come about in a vacuum devoid of social demands. Cultural values (which can be manufactured) demand solutions, techniques, and entertainment that reflect those cultural values. Of course, this isn’t to say all values and artifacts monolithic, but we can find prevailing reasons for cultural reproductions. Egenfeldt-Nielsen, Smith, & Tosca actually note that “pen-and-paper role-playing games (RPGs)….did not develop in a cultural vacuum (few things do) but rather were the result of a remarkable convergence of popular trends and interests in the early 1970s” (p. 63, emphasis added). No one created a role-playing game outside of the social (possibly biological) demand for entertainment. However, Egenfeldt-Nielsen, Smith, & Tosca often equate “cultural significance” as the marketability and success of a product rather than the hegemonic values pervasive in a society. Popularity may beget popularity, but what makes something popular? While I’d be 100% unable to defend a position that claims all artifacts derive from hegemonic cultural values, I would be willfully ignoring the prevailing reproductions mediated by prevailing cultural ideology. Let’s examine the following quotations regarding Egenfeldt-Nielsen, Smith, & Tosca’s view of “cultural studies”:
- p. 63: “…[Monopoly] rewards nothing as much as bold capitalist perseverance, and is a fascinating example of how games can reflect cultural values or trends.”
- Clearly, capitalism came first, and Monopoly, released in 1935, became popular during the Great Depression. What other reading (interpretation) can we find?
- Learn more about the goal of Lizzie G. Magie’s Landlord’s Game (1924; 1904).
- After all, there are clear differences between Lords of Conquest (EON 1986) and the original Civilization (MicroProse 1991).
- But what do they have in common? Consider that there are tons of these strategy games. Why are search activities popular?
- What it looks like to win Civilization after growing your empire!
The Fetish of Authenticity
Delving into the intricacies of psychoanalysis is beyond the scope of this class (although we will definitely discuss catharsis and phallocentrism), so consider fetish to be something an observer really wants. I would like us to explore and discuss the need for authenticity in video games specifically but also in entertainment generally. What do these phrases mean?
- Based on a true story
- Inspired by actual events
- Historical recreation/ reenactment
- Relive the [event] of…
Even though we just had a discussion on wanting the fake or hyperreal, we now are discussing all the aspects of “authentic” that might not be, well, authentic. The word simulacrum is important.
Read Ch. 5 and 6 for next week, and have your 3-page drafts shared on Google Docs.
Brian Cowlishaw, “Playing War: The Emerging Trend of Real Virtual Combat in Video Games.” Magazine Americana, January 2005, http://www.americanpopularculture.com/archive/emerging/real_virtual_combat.htm.
Eco, Umberto. “Travels in Hyperreality.” In Travels in Hyperreality. Translated by William Weaver, 1–58. San Diego: Harcourt, 1986.
Egenfeldt-Nielsen, Simon, Jonas Heide Smith, & Susana Pajares Tosca. Understanding Video Games: The Essential Introduction. 4th Edition. New York: Routledge, 2020.
Lyle, E. P., Jr. The Advance of ‘Wireless.’ World’s Work, 1905: 5842–5848.
Malpas, Simon. The Postmodern. London: Routledge, 2005
Toscano, Aaron A. “Using I, Robot in the Technical Writing Classroom: Developing a Critical Technological Awareness.”
Computers and Composition, vol. 28, no. 1. (March 2011): 14-27.
Toscano, Aaron A. Video Games and American Culture: How Ideology Influences Virtual Worlds. Lexington Books, 2020.
White, L., Jr., Medieval Technology and Social Change. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966.