// Issue 8 2006: Gaming Networks


Issue Edited by Chris Chesher, Alice Crawford and Julian Kücklich

‘It is increasingly difficult to think of cultural formations as distinct entities because of our awareness of the increased interconnectedness of our communication systems’, writes Tiziana Terranova in her 2004 book Network Cultures, and nowhere is this felt more acutely than in the domain of computer games. Phenomena such as Pokémon, which sweep the entire planet, employ a multitude of media channels to plant their memes in the brains of millions, and erect merchandising empires of unprecedented magnitude, are only the most visible symptoms of this development. Massively multi-player online games like EverQuest and World of Warcraft bind players together in social networks that span the globe, and extend well beyond the realm of the virtual. In part, this is because gaming has become an increasingly online phenomenon, and technological developments bear witness to this fact: for the new generation of game consoles, including Xbox 360, Wii, and PlayStation 3, network adapters are no longer an optional accessory, but part of their core functionality; portable devices such as the PSP and the Nintendo DS facilitate the set-up of ad-hoc networks through wi-fi, while distribution of PC games is shifting from “brick and mortar retail to content delivery over networks such as Steam.

The result of this increased interconnectedness is a blurring of boundaries – between real and virtual, private and public, global and local. In the last year or so, we have seen a number of publications on the subject of games which address the difficult questions arising from this blurring of boundaries, and embrace the network paradigm, thus opening up new avenues of inquiry for future research. Books like Edward Castronova’s Synthetic Worlds (2005) and TL Taylor’s Play between Worlds (2006) are spearheading the second wave of game studies, characterised by an awareness of the social, cultural and political contexts within which gaming is taking place. Game Studies 2.0, as one of us has recently called it, has much more in common with Terranova’s research on network cultures than with, say, Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck or Espen Aarseth’s Cybertext. As important as these books were for the birth of game studies as an academic discipline, their usefulness in the contemporary world of networked gaming is limited. While the likes of Halo, Grand Theft Auto and Metal Gear Solid will continue to deliver engrossing experiences for individual players, we no longer associate gaming primarily with single-player games.

In order to account for these developments, game studies must try to answer the question of how games create links between people, institutions, and cultures. It is undeniable that games create networks between players from different cultures, but this does not mean that the cultural differences between them are suspended. More often than not, these differences are highlighted, and may even become a source of conflict, due to the fact that games that are created for a global audience are not only localised for different markets, but are also appropriated by players in different ways. Take the example of Starcraft, an American real-time strategy game published by Blizzard in 1998, which subsequently became one of the best-selling games in South Korea. In the context of South Korea, Starcraft quickly acquired the status of a professional sport, complete with celebrity players, sponsorship deals, and games being broadcast on national television. Of course, this raised the stakes considerably, and it can be argued that the changes implemented in later updates of the game, such as stronger cheat prevention, and the option to ‘record’ games, are due to its lasting popularity in South Korea. As this and many other examples indicate, there is an ongoing, complex interaction between the local and the global. Finding ways of describing and analysing these networks of interaction is one of the challenges game studies faces.

Another, directly related challenge, is to develop ways of accounting for the variety of fashions in which games become embedded in everyday life. If we subscribe to the view that culture is not something that is simply passed on from one generation to the next, but something that is kept alive through practice, and we recognise that play is a cultural practice, then it is obvious that games cannot be described in purely formal terms. In the example given above, the game remains the same, but the manner in which it is played varies across cultures. It is important to note that play differs not only inter-culturally but also intra-culturally, as players find different uses for games in their lives. Cultural imagery and values may be understood differently in a different context, and the same is true for ideological messages. While games often come burdened with ideology, this does not mean players cannot find ways of resisting interpellation. There is a long tradition of playful subversion, from the Quake players who wrapped female ‘skins’ around male avatars and early game modifications like Castle Smurfenstein to the sophisticated ‘countergaming’ culture of today, which includes mods that act as a form of political critique (e.g., Escape from Woomera), games that engage directly with social issues (such as those created by Molleindustria), and satirical machinima like The Strangerhood. But this does not mean that simply playing a game off-the-shelf does have to be affirmative of the status quo. Modders, machinima makers and creators of ‘serious games’ started out as simple players too, but that apparently hasn’t stopped them from engaging with games in a critical fashion.

The multiple, active ways in which gamers perform both as consumers and, in many ways, producers of the games they play, draws attention to the question of technicity, whose significance for game studies has recently been highlighted by Helen Kennedy and Jon Dovey in their book Game Cultures. As they argue, technicity must not only be understood as a set of technological skills, but as a way of engaging with technology that impacts upon both the way we see ourselves and others. While it is significant that games are often one of the first access points to new technology for children, and that the skills required to play a game are remarkably similar to the skills required for most kinds of informational labour, it is also worth highlighting that games allow for an affective relationship with technology. In other words: games are where we learn to love machines. Games are also the sites where many of the first experiments in a post-human lifestyle are taking place: where fortunes are made selling virtual real estate, where people fall in love with other people’s avatars, where new algorithmic art forms are invented. Importantly, this also allows us to see how old these new lifestyles are, how virtual we have always been. Technology, understood as a combination of techne and logos, has always been at the heart of the social networks humans create.

Taken together, these four vectors – the increasing interconnectedness of games, games as a site of interaction between the global and the local, play as a cultural practice, and games as an apparatus of a technological subjectivity – point to a problematic whose surface has hardly been scratched so far: the politics of play. Recognising that play takes place within specific social, cultural, and economic contexts allows us to understand that it is interwoven with diverse political discourses, ranging from ideology to identity, from intellectual property rights to labour rights. First inroads into this territory have been made, most notably by Nick Dyer-Witheford, Ian Bogost, and Alexander Galloway, but much more work remains to be done. Ensuring the success of this work will require us to think about games in a new way, unencumbered by established theoretical paradigms, and it will also require us to come up with new methods of studying games. If we want to account for the myriad ways in which games are interwoven with everyday life, we will need to look at games much more closely than we have been doing. At the same time, we will need to learn to take a step back, and pay attention to the interplay between games and the large-scale processes that shape our world. Finally, we need to find ways of identifying correspondences between these micro- and macro-political processes.

The articles in this issue of Fibreculture Journal all contribute to this project in different ways. They all trace networks – between fans and academics, between institutions and players, between technologies and their affordances – but they do so in different ways, thus demonstrating the strength and flexibility of the network metaphor. One example that makes the usefulness of a network approach immediately obvious is Gillian Andrews’ article on Dance Dance Revolution (DDR), which uses Actor-Network Theory to tease out the often subtle relations between the affordances of gaming technology, the establishment of vernacular codes of practice, and cultural domains. Her specific focus is on the interaction between global and local influences on the dance styles of DDR players, and it is fascinating to see how arcade machines become the sites of cultural hybridisation. In the process of linking all these various factors together, Andrews touches upon questions of publicity and privacy, cultural hegemony, and the commodification of play, thus drawing attention to the fact that an aesthetic discourse is inevitably tied to political questions of visibility, dominance, and identity.

The interaction between the global and the local also plays an important role in the work of Dean Chan, who uses his article to map the cultural flows between Japan, South Korea, China, and Taiwan in order to outline the formation of a specifically Asian games culture. He reveals how traditional notions of ‘Asianness’ are translated into the new medium of gaming, and how the localisation of games across borders goes hand in hand with a renaissance of nationalism. This nationalism not only informs the production of games that draw on traditional mythology in East Asia, but also permeates the discourse of players of massively multiplayer online games. This is evident in the problems that have arisen due to the exploitation of virtual resources, which is often seen as the work of Chinese ‘immigrants’ to virtual worlds. While Chan is careful not to take the aggressive backlash that ‘Chinese farming’ has provoked as a sign of outright racism, he raises serious questions about what this development may spell for the future of online games culture.

Further adding to the variety of gaming cultures considered in this issue of Fibreculture Journal, Laurie Taylor explores the fan networks that have developed around the Fatal Frame series of games, highlighting the importance of fan-created resources for academic research. She draws attention to the fact that game researchers depend on sources such as fan websites to understand the way games become embedded in everyday life. While playing games is an important way of approaching game culture, researchers often lack the time and resources to immerse themselves fully in the culture of a game. Importantly, Taylor also draws attention to the fact that games research may often involve taking recourse to ‘walkthroughs’, which is often considered as a form of cheating. However, an intimate knowledge of game texts is sometimes simply unattainable without the help of such extratextual resources, which are themselves subject to a process that can be compared to academic peer review. At the same time, this perspective on games makes clear that their textuality is de-centred and fluid – and that the network metaphor is uniquely suited to account for these characteristics.

That networks are not immune to ideology is demonstrated by David Nieborg in his article on the recruitment game America’s Army. Portraying the game as a propaganda instrument, Nieborg highlights the connections between the entertainment industry, the U.S. Army, and the Bush administration’s War on Terror. It seems ironically appropriate in the light of American unilateralism that the game only allows players to play on the side of the Americans, even when they are perceived by other players as ‘enemy combatants’, and vice versa. But Nieborg also draws attention to the way civilian computing technology is being turned into a military training apparatus, thus revealing how technicity can feed into the ideological entrainment of the player. At the same time, the Army’s strong stance against cheating and modding may be read as a sign of a growing awareness that ideological messages my not be controlled as easily in games as they are in other media.

While America’s Army can be seen as a prime example of what Kline et al. have called the militarized masculinity of computer game culture, gender is constructed in an entirely different way in the culture of casual mobile gaming that Larissa Hjorth studies in her article. Focussing on the in-game representations of players, she employs the concept of cute culture to account for the way games like Kart Rider establish a gendered aesthetics, which allows her to outline the politics of cuteness that operates in Asian gaming cultures. Noting that the number of Kart Rider players has surpassed the number of Lineage players, Hjorth raises important questions about the future of gaming, and challenges us to reconsider our assumptions about gaming, gender, and technology. It is often assumed that gaming will continue to take place predominantly in the home (or in PC bangs), and that the number of male players will remain significantly higher than that of female players, but if we can take the developments in South Korea that she describes as an indicator, these expectations may turn out to be entirely off the mark.

Finally, Bo Kampman Walther invites us to imagine an entirely different future, one in which games blur the boundaries between real and virtual worlds to an even higher degree than today’s games already do. Looking at the emerging culture of pervasive gaming, Walther employs the network metaphor to deconstruct Huizinga’s notion of the magic circle of play, which is still prevalent in game studies today. Pervasive games allow us to see familiar places in a new light, establishing a virtual topology on top of the real one, and creating connections between real-world places that may remain invisible to the naked, un-augmented eye. Walther’s description of these multi-layered spaces as heterotrophic spaces is reminiscent of Foucault’s term heterotopia, and thus draws attention to the fact that space itself is transformed by political forces. Making these transformations visible may well be one of the ways in which future game designers create opportunities for meaningful play.

As the editors of this issue of Fibreculture Journal, we are pleased to see such diversity in the articles published here. While there are certainly many aspects of gaming networks that have not been covered, we hope that these articles will inspire others to follow the lines of thinking mapped out here, and to connect them with other perspectives and approaches. In other words, we would like to see that this collection of papers will itself become a node in a network that increases the connectivity between people, disciplines and institutions. As the articles in this issue show, a network perspective is not tied to a specific discipline or school of thought. It can be employed by social scientists and humanists, by ludologists and narratologists, by formalists and nonconformists. Thus, the increased connectedness of communication systems may work in our favour, opening up the possibility of a truly transdisciplinary approach to games.

The editors would like to thank the authors for their patience during the editing process, and the reviewers for their perceptive comments. Special thanks to Ned Rossiter for coming up with the idea for this issue, Andrew Murphie for his unfailing support even in times of crisis and Lisa Gye for making sure it all came together in the end.

Alice Crawford
Julian Kücklich
Chris Chesher

October 2006