Panel: Critical theory and meaning in the computer game

Panelists: Emma Fraser, Graeme Kirkpatrick and Feng Zhu
The purpose of this panel is to explore the application of critical theory, understood as the tradition of social and philosophical thought associated with the Frankfurt School, in relation to computer games, with a particular focus on the question of meaning. Each draws on critical theory in a different way to make a specific argument about the nature and importance of meaning to gameplay. Drawing on ideas from Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Georg Lukács and Fredric Jameson, the presentations are united in exploring the definitive formal-aesthetic and structural features that define computer games while at the same time elaborating on the relationship between those properties and certain recurring thematic contents, especially ruin and catastrophe. Each paper thus attempts to bring the intellectual tradition of dialectical critical theory into engagement with games and game studies. In this way the panel addresses a body of theory that is of obvious importance to game studies, since critical theory has a long-established concern with popular media and the Frankfurt school tradition in particular presents more than one model for assessing the visual, the mass, the subjective, etc. In light of this work we need not reinvent the wheel to determine what might be unique and what might be banal about computer games.
The audience for the panel would be those interested in other media forms and theory, and also those wanting to expand discussions beyond both the traditionally philosophical and the intellectual limits imposed by disciplines that underpin much work in Games Studies as currently construed – education, communication, history, and so on – by focusing on media, art and aesthetics from a critical perspective.
Paper 1: Feng Zhu

‘A Jamesonian concept of totality for game studies’

This paper draws on Jameson’s project of continuing the tradition of Western Marxism through rehabilitating a concept of ‘totality’ from the poststructuralist critique of the commitment to holism.  The central argument is that game studies can benefit from a more sophisticated view of the imbrication between computer games, what they are deemed to be, and how they provide meaningful patterns of experience for players, with a conception of the totality in which they exist, are played, and are produced. To this end, game studies must simultaneously resist the urge towards the kind of fragmentation outlined by Aarseth in ‘Transgressive Play and the Implied Player’ whilst also avoiding a homogenising, structural reductivism, or simplification of both the totality and medium (discernible at points in Games of Empire), which would be particularly inapt for the analysis of ergodic artefacts and insensitive to
theorisations of the complex aporetic dimensions of the totality – as a heterogenising homogeneity, for example.  Some objections against this reflexive approach will also be examined, which bear on the conditions that make critical theory possible.   
Paper 2: Graeme Kirkpatrick

‘Adorno’s critical aesthetic theory and the video game’

This paper presents a definition of video games in terms of their formal-aesthetic properties as these are disclosed by an application of ideas from Adorno’s work, especially his Aesthetic Theory. Taking Adorno’s distinction between construction and mimesis as opposed but interdependent moments in any created work, the paper presents a theoretical model of gameplay as a negative dialectical structure in which the game solicits a mimetic response of ‘moving with’ the scenario presented by the game, only to cancel it out with an overbearing moment of construction, such as the discrepant motions of controller use or the first challenging puzzle. The video game object is characterized as comprising multiple, super-imposed levels of experience, each super-imposed on the others and each depending on the others for its range of effects. The disparateness of these experiential levels is the key to form
in the video game and this form has three possible outcomes for the subject who plays, each with its own specific temporal mode. These are: the corrective laughter of failure, which folds us back into anticipation (addiction); a cynical sense of mastery, which leads to resignation, and an experience of subjective evanescence arising from the instabilities of gameplay, whose temporal modality is hope. In different ways the first two affirm ontological certainty – the idea that this is the only real world – while the third is more progressive, leaving the player with a sense of future possibilities.
Paper 3: Emma Fraser

‘Awakening in ruins: the virtual spectacle of the end of the city in video games’

If the first two papers are concerned mainly with the formal and aesthetic capacities of games to parse meanings, this one takes the stymied and allegorical signification of games as a given to explore the multiple resonances of one highly significant recurrent theme of video game topography: the ruin. Drawing particularly on the ideas of Walter Benjamin, the paper uses the salience of ruinous imagery in games as a launching off point for a redeployment of the idea of play itself as a category in game studies. For Benjamin play is a relational concept rather than an anthropological one. Its revolutionary or subversive energies are not given but depend on the social and historical context in which they arise. Video game play, as play with mass-produced, standardized commodities, is far from presenting a recuperative panacea as some have suggested. Rather, the paper will argue that games take on critical power largely through the role of ruins (and the ruinous city), and the capacity of these images to unsettle, even to haunt the dreamworlds of contemporary capitalism. Questions of meaning and representation can thus be explored in a more deeply theoretical mode, encompassing Benjamin’s urban centered work on mass media, dialectical images, and mediatized experience.