How effective is it?

“The artist himself becomes enclosed within restricted borders, indicating that the radical dichotomy between the game and the real is ultimately not sustainable” (Raley 63)

When Luis Hernandez was detained by Homeland Security in 2005, and later barred from entering the United States for five years, he “in a sense became embedded in his own game” (Raley 63). Obviously there was something politically threatening about the game in order for it to warrant such a reaction from the government. Maybe it was the posture it took towards the importation of illegal narcotics into the States, in a way sanctioning it by making it the “goal” of the game and a sympathetic representation of the traffickers? Or was it essentially the maps revealing the underground tunnels which facilitated the move of drugs into the country, making it a practical threat to national security? Interestingly, Hernandez himself sees it as “art” and as a piece of art it was commissioned to help educate Americans and give them a greater “cross-understanding” of the issues surrounding the U.S. and Mexican border (63). He separates it from the material realities it represents, and then surprisingly finds himself subject to those same realities.

It brings up the question how separated can it really be if it its goal is to be effective? At some point groups like Critical Art Ensemble in order to have any impact at all, need to cross the line into potentially subversive and risk-necessitated actions. If something is just educational, or pedagogical in purpose, can it have the influence that would eventually predicate action on the part of the audience? How convincing is a game or a disturbance or a symbolic action if it appears, creates a scene, attracts attention and then disappears again with the waters of social and cultural normality closing over it? Can it be more persuasive than the judges on “The Voice”? In a fattened society like America with so much to gain (always) and nothing to lose (always), what kind of messages or PR could move them towards actions? Maybe not video games…

I think there is not desperation enough to warrant it. We certainly don’t have the desperation which would risk life and limb, suffer and keep trying, to cross a border so that they could share our Lazy-boys with us.

Sometimes the best tool for dismantling is the master’s…

Raley’s “what’s the point?” is misplaced conclusion to her discussion of  swarming and other denial-of-service attacks (and a little lazy.)  This is not the material question. Unfortunately, I think (perhaps in an effort to feign neutrality at the end and in her discussion of the meaning of “hactivism”), she fails to more clearly connect the dots between how material-but-ultimately-symbolic structures of border control: fences, web cams, signs, etc. that require equally material-but-ultimately-symbolic exclusionary modes of resistance (36).

Just like the aim of increasing strict immigration legislation and border security is the exclusion of certain bodies from participation in the United States (further reinforced when those some of same bodies do make it stateside, but do so illegally, and are still excluded because of their status as non-citizens–Agamben’s homo sacer[38]), the tactics of political resistance must also exclude. The Cult of the Sacred Cow may take issue with the application of the term “hacktivism” to these efforts, but their aim as activists is different from EDT or the EZLN (41). Hactivism that seeks to maintain an open Internet can’t rely on cutting off the free-flow of information. The physical expulsion (itself a “denial of service”) of migrant people from the U.S. requires a like response. This isn’t about opening, it’s about exposing the mistreatment and marginalization of migrant and indigenous people for whom the “free-flow of capital” does not exist. They are exploited non-entities within the system governing U.S./Mexican trade relations. This kind of activism cannot deny capital. It cannot reverse that power structure so instead it temporarily limits the free-flow of information. These are as much symbolic/media events in response to the “systemic logic” (43) of denial as they are literal disturbances against individual entities that perpetuate that denial. Maybe it isn’t Sacred Cow’s idealized protest, but it’s still in-keeping with the larger disruptive logic of protest.

With this in mind, Dominguez’s admission that there is no endgame (46) shouldn’t be read  (without a better context in which to frame it) as an inability on the part of activists to look beyond “the next five minutes” or or a failure on the part of media tacticians to coalesce around a singular identity. There is no singular identity. This is what protest looks like when it is in resistance to similar unending assault  It’s an acknowledgement that on this particular front the notion of an “end” does not exist because undeclared wars do not have declared ceasefires. Moreover, it’s not a matter of just doEAT-ing it and her cutesy imperative directs (46). Dominguez’s understanding that to notions of utopia cannot be anymore clearly fixed seems to be a nuanced understanding of the nature of resistance: as the systems and logic of oppression shift, so too must the resistance to that oppression and what it means to escape it.

The Negation of Negation

The kind of defamiliarization and reappropriation that Raley discusses in “Border Hacks” is not unfamiliar to all of us. In the recent presidential debates, Romney’s comments about “binders full of women” caught fire and was all over Twitter and Facebook in “meme” form and otherwise. The joke took on a life of its own to the point that the context was lost. Those who did not even watch the debate knew of this comment and were amused and weren’t even sure what was so funny.

Raley writes that rather than interfering with infrastructure, “Web activism aims to transform the social conditions in which that infrastructure is situated” (42). I would consider some events like Facebook going all pink for breast cancer awareness to be a form of web activism. Additionally, Google does this almost daily with changing their widely recognized logo to alert users to and important event going on in the world such as the anniversary of a significant discovery or invention or the birthday of a person who a noteworthy person.

This “border hack,” as Raley calls it, is one of many acts that seek to defamiliarize the signs of everyday life, pursuing a series of provocative events or spectacles rather than a program of systematic change. An event like the Occupy Movement could be a form of border hacking. Protesters were occupying, invading or hacking a space in which they did not belong. Which begs the question of where does border hacking end and go ol’ fashioned protesting begin? Isn’t a border always being “hacked” when a protest is taking place? I would say Raley would agree when she sums up this non-revolution as the “negation of negation” (46). I think she would feel that the Occupy Movement would certainly apply, especially considering the media was confused and almost annoyed that there was no coherent message coming from the movement, but Raley would consider them a success because, as she says, “A temporary provocation, however momentary, can change the signifying field in which it occurs” or to put it more simply, any disturbance is good because it causes the observer to pause and think about why that disturbance occurred. Much like the changing of the border signs.

Antiwar or Proterrorism?- Rita Raley

Rita Raley’s description of persuasive war games in Tactical Media raises inquiries regarding the extent to which a game can be considered persuasive and political or a threat to national security. She exemplifies antiwar games as a form or persuasive videogames that “advocate for social change” through procedural rhetoric (“they way that a videogame embodies ideology in its computational structure”) that indicates the limits and downfalls of war (Raley 85-86). For instance, the persuasive game September 12 demonstrates that aerial bombing creates more terrorists and enemies as innocent civilians are often killed in the process of eliminating terrorists; friends and family of the innocent victims then become terrorists to fight against those who wrongfully killed their loved ones (Raley 86-87). Due to the fact that the game cannot be won or lost, September 12 evokes a clear antiwar message by indicating that there is no positive end to war, yet more problems are created by engaging in warfare.

In contrast, games such as Battlefield 2 can be juxtaposed against antiwar games such as September 12 in the sense that Battlefield 2 “allows players to switch sides” and portrays the United States as the enemy (Raley 74). Several other controversial games allow players to learn about the various functions of operating aircrafts and eventually let players hijack airplanes (Raley 73).  These games, in contradiction to antiwar games, do not spread an antiwar message but one that is pro war from the point of view of the enemy. Raley indicates that games in which the player acts as the terrorist intend to portray “sympathy and identification” so that the player can identify and sympathize with the opposing party (Raley 78). While the intent of such games may be to evoke sympathy, Raley points out that “Representation, or in this case simulation, paves the way for real experience” (Raley 78). In other words, at what point does the simulation of terrorism become reality?

While persuasive videogames aim to evoke a powerful political message through the use of visual and procedural rhetoric, games in which the player acts as the enemy use procedural rhetoric in the sense that users are actually embodying the terrorists in order to sympathize with the character. However, this form of procedural rhetoric calls into question the extent to which players are sympathizing with the characters or actually thinking as the enemy. If players embody the enemy in thought and action, it poses a threat to our national security. These games seem not to spread a political message but the sympathy of terrorists appears to endorse, condone, and even promote terrorism. It is one thing to promote an antiwar message, yet when a videogame attempts to sympathize with the enemy, at what point is it considered a threat to America?

Tactical Media and Social Consciousness: A Help or Hinderance?

Having finished reading the second chapter of Raley’s book, I felt there was a pretty distinct tilt on the debate over illegal immigration. The argument surrounding the pros and cons of “migrants” goes well beyond the scope of what can be considered in a 400-word blog post. But what can be considered, and I think what must be examined, is just in what ways tactical media works to dissolve social binaries—and whether or not they should be.

Echoing popular anticolonial works like The Wretched of the Earth, Raley replicates Fanon’s warnings against errant nationalism. Argued as a re-enforcement of colonial dichotomies, Fanon believed that nationalism bounded citizens in the eternal binary of colonizer versus colonized, internal versus external. For any collective to identify itself as fully decolonized, it must thus reject the internalization of nationalism. For Raley, this argument is appropriated to a more contemporary setting: specifically the “border war” between the United States and Mexico.

Raley scaffolds her argument with Huntington’s assertion that to define the United States and Mexico as oppositional is flawed; the division of “Anglo” versus “Latino” is both “putatively archaic and primal” as it fails to recognize the globalizing trend of migration (37). And so long as these social binaries continue to be exerted, “migrants” will be eliminated from social consciousness. With the additional help of Judith Butler, Raley concludes that, as “de-realized” individuals, any acts of violence against these dehumanized migrants are invisible to the American public—as the famous adage says—out of sight, out of mind (39).

But to argue that tactical media cares about awakening social consciousness is a difficult pill to swallow. DDoS attacks on servers fly in the face of “hacktivism” and its genuine protest on internet censorship. By “violating the principle of free flow,” groups like SWARM prove to be shockingly contradictory to Raley’s argument (41). By shutting down sites, they do not improve American social consciousness so much as obscure it. Many of these activist movements, such as Tuesday Afternoon’s demand to terminate American borders, shows the efforts of tactical media are more symbolic than actual (47). Perhaps it is as Dominguez says:  as “permanent cultural resistance” that constantly changes with the times, tactical media doesn’t yet know entirely what it wants—except only to keep questioning (46).

Why is it now personal?

It’s personal; but it’s not business—according to Douglas Wilson and Miguel Sicart’s take on abusive game design.  Then what is its “personal purpose”?  Like a broken record, they repeatedly state that abusive game design forces a dialogue between the player and the designer—but they neglect to move on to “why?”  In their reasoning, the functionality of conventional, conservative game design makes the product entirely player-centric—as the designer must be “an advocate for the player” and “…must be egoless” (both qtd. in Sec. 2).  However, when game theory abuses this standard, the product becomes designer-centric, thus promoting a dialogue between the player and the designer.  They reason that the game, in this case, “is not about mastering the system, but about knowing the designer” (Sec. 5.1).

Perhaps Wilson and Sicart’s intent is to simply define and describe; yet even if this is the case, it must still contain reasoning or purpose.  All methodology does.  Or is the methodology only to go against the current gaming methodology?  Furthermore, how is abusive game design situated within the methodologies of new media?

First, could abusive game design turn a profit as subgenre of gaming?  In “Countergaming” Alexander Galloway discusses how the mod Counter-Strike of the successful game Half-Life became so popular in itself that the company who designed the original licensed the modified code and sold it commercially (113).  If an abusive game design follows Wilson and Sicart’s evaluation of success (described in Section 6), is it not possible that it too could become a consumer product?

Second, is abusive game design a type of tactical media that challenges the status quo and initiates a counter dialogue?  Fat Man Down—which is dialogue-based—certainly crosses over into this category as it meant to reveal society’s negative discourse toward obese people (Ostergaard).  However, only the “socially abusive” or politically-based games—such as September 12th or PhoneStory that have a real-world application can raise these questions.  All other abusively-designed games keep the dialogue between the designer and the player.

Lastly, could abusive game design be a form of artistic expression, a way to push the creative boundaries in this form?  Wilson and Sicart allude to this when they state: “abusive game design is not a functional approach to design, but an aesthetic one…” (Sec. 5.1).  (Emphasis mine.)  In Kaizo Mario the enemies and obstacles are creatively placed in each level to provide the ultimate challenge for the player, which yields creative strategies from the hands of the player.

Countergaming … What?

If we can reduce the definition of a countergame as merely defying expectation, what is ultimately the point of it? Similar to something like a “YouTube Poop,” where a user splices various segments of a television show or movie, often with other shows/movies, and molding them into something else entirely, countergaming sounds like nothing but an exercise of contradiction camouflaged with a “Dude … So meta!” self-reflexive existence.

That sounds harsh, though I don’t mean to be (entirely).

Aesthetically, Galloway’s framing of the countergame is digestible.  Commercial gaming often seeks to sell a believable experience. Often named “AAA” titles, they work best on high-end computers and console platforms, and are often lauded for their closeness to realism. In a way, commercial gaming is all about creating that sense of “transparency” – a suspension of disbelief modeled closely to reality that it then masks the scaffolding layers of code. You do not feel like you’re playing a “game” as explosions sound off and you struggle to the next objective. That is, until your character clips through a gap between the sandy beach textures and a large rock you were trying to hide behind – where your character falls infinitely into white, grey, or black space until you return to the previous checkpoint.

It is this unmasking of code—foregrounding—and the celebration of such glitches—visual artifacts—that frames the existence of a countergame. In a regular, commercially-produced title, things are supposed to move as we expect them to. When I pull left on the stick, my character should look or strafe left. Both the control scheme and the physics of a game should feel “natural,” even if not modeled by reality.

To the countergame, attention to realism is not the goal. Unlike commercial games, where narrative and form are interlocked in a working manner, a countergame has no interest in cohesion. Similar to the YouTube Poop, aesthetic becomes central. Game physics are invented and molded to the artist’s desire,  and interactivity is all but entirely eliminated.

But if interactivity, if the very elements of a “game” are removed from the countergame, how exactly is it still a “game?”  Galloway unfortunately doesn’t answer this, and leaves the door open to interpretation.  I think he’s on the right track by dropping machinima (like the very web-famous Red Versus Blue) and other methods of intersecting gaming as some type of mixed-media pursuit, but perhaps the problem is that countergaming-while-gaming just is not possible.

deconstructing game play

I should probably start by saying I am a terrible video game player. Despite three obsessed brothers who coached me through countless hours spent trying to play everything from Super Mario Bros. to Final Fantasy (I think the furthest I ever got in a game was about halfway through Oddworld), I am a miserable gamer. To me, even winnable games are unwinnable. In searching for pieces for creative responses earlier in the semester, I found one of Jason Nelson’s pieces:  evidence of everything exploding. After spending a solid half hour trying to get beyond the first screen, I gave up on the game and went about looking for another piece. It did not occur to me that a designer or artist might make a game with the intention of frustrating the player. However difficult, I assumed the failure was mine–not an element of the design.

Reading Wilson and Sicart’s piece for this week (and seeing Nelson on the syllabus) I was reminded of my previous experience. We’ve previously discussed the physical book as the un-discussed element of text. The materiality of the book seems to go without saying until the author or designer forces the reader to confront its physicality either by restructuring the page (mirroring the text so its backwards or upside down) or closing it off entirely (a book enclosed on all sides so that it cannot be read without being literally broken apart.) I see abusive game design as forcing the same kind of dialogue between the player and the previously un-discussed designer. Relative to the book, the video game is still in its infancy, but we still have established modes of interacting with it: start up game, play game, win game (eventually.) This is, as the authors point out, a fairly conservative approach to play design and well-worth interrogating.

While the author remains privileged within the text, the player (in my limited experience with conventional gaming) appears foregrounded in the game.  Abusive game design flips that dichotomy. The player is still there, the structure of the design also reveals itself in order to question the conventions of traditional game design. That said, I wonder if this goes as far as a personal conversation between the designer and the player as the authors suggest. Instead, I would suggest that abusive game design uses the gamer in order to in order to de-center the conventions of game play. Another poster (Zach?) compares the way this piece privileges the designer to what Barthes advocates against in Death of the Author. I like that, but I don’t see gaming as having previously privileged the designer. If anything abusive game design kills the player.

The Purpose of Abusive Video Games

Two questions were pointedly raised when reading Douglas Wilson and Miguel Sicart’s article, “Now It’s Personal: On Abusive Game Design.” The first question elicited is as follows: what is the rhetoric or intent of the designer when creating abusive games? Wilson and Sicart propose that abusive videogames engage in a “dialogic interplay between player and designer” (Wilson and Sicart 3). While most video games segregate the player from the designer, as users interact with a system instead of a designer, abusive videogames forge a relationship between the creator and player through techniques that make the designer visible. As with authors, designers of videogames are hidden in the sense that they “’won’t be there to explain [the meaning] to each and every player’” (Wilson and Sicart 2). One theory provided regarding the intent of abusive game designers is that they want to create a relationship between the user and the designer—possibly for recognition as the creator and to more effectively communicate their message to the user.

Additionally, Wilson and Sicart claim that designers intend to invoke power over abusive game users by forcing players to submit to their manipulations, lies, tricks, and seemingly impossible challenges. Instead of using power as a means of the game to motivate users with rewards, abusive game designers use power to “[encourage] players to focus on the human designer” rather than on the game system (Wilson and Sicart 6). Such designers utilize power over players by forming a relationship with users and forcing them to recognize the design. According to Wilson and Sicart, “Power is only productive in a dialogue” when the users recognize the power a designer yields over them (Wilson and Sicart 6). Abusive video games force players to acknowledge the designer as designers make purposefully choices—such as visual discomfort, emotional discomfort, sensory discomfort, lying, manipulation, impossible challenges, etc…—that frustrate players, causing them to consider the designer’s intent and the reason they are enduring such games. By continuing to play abusive games, players recognize, acknowledge, and submit to the power abusive games designers have over them.

The interplay of power in abusive videogames yields the question of why users continue to play such abusive games that seem utterly impossible or downright tormenting. Generally, videogames are structured around the principle of “lusory attitude” where the games seek to satisfy user needs and reward players for their interaction (Wilson and Sicart 2). Conversely, abusive videogames offer limited, if any, rewards as players are challenged beyond physical capability and frustrated with manipulations, emotional distress, and visual irritations. However, it is evident that players continue to engage in such games because they offer a “’…glimmer of hope that it is possible’” to complete the game successfully (Wilson and Sicart 7). Abusive game designers purposefully give players hope that they can succeed and overcome challenges even when such challenges are impossible. Such hope drives players to continually struggle through the game, ultimately receiving nothing for their endeavors. While it is evident why abusive game designers choose to create such games—as they invoke power over users and are revealed through games in which designers are typically hidden—, it is still unclear why users continue to purchase and interact with games that serve no satisfactory purpose and do not fulfill user needs.


If the Author is Dead, so is the Designer

Douglas Wilson and Miguel Sicart emphasize the importance of “gamers [engaging] in a dialogue with the designer” in Now It’s Personal: On Abusive Game Design, especially in the realm of abusive gaming.  Having assumedly killed the Author with Roland Barthes just a few weeks ago, however, I find this assertion particularly bothersome; I think Barthes would happily expand his theory to the gamer/designer paradigm.

In what way do games like PainStation, Kaizo Mario, or Desert Bus call for the aforementioned dialogue to be had any more than Call of Duty, Halo, or Madden NFL?  They don’t.  These abusively designed games do not elicit a dialogue any more so than books like House of Leaves or Infinite Jest.  In either case – the abusively designed games or the unconventional novels – the author/designer is beside the point.  As readers work their way through these puzzles they are interested in responding to the work itself, responding to the platform, responding to manipulations of normative expectations (by playing/reading).  And though these things may be imbedded in the authorial intent, revelations about the author/designer and the ‘intent’ are again beside the point.  I realize that the dialogue is a metaphorical one, and that reversing normative gaming experiences for the gamer is resultant to the kind of ‘discussion’ that must exist between designer and the already established body of gaming expectations (developed and upheld by gamers).  However, the emphasis on the designer in the article is unwarranted.

The “dance” between gamer and designer is no more apparent or profound in abusive game design than it is in “conventional game design”.  In both cases, gaming expectations are taken into account as designers create their games.  When the game is played, figuring out whether the designer sought to adhere to or distance himself from said expectations seems a frivolous task.  The response of the gamer is what counts; the gamer can solve the problem of abusive game design by simply playing.  Accordingly, the line that separates abusive game design from conventional game design becomes more blurred as there are trends in abusive game design that gamers are likely to identify and respond to.  The more these trends reveal themselves, the more they become convention.

Abusive game design is forged with just as much intent and with just as much of a direct response to gaming expectations as conventional game design; falling further away from normative expectations (and likely popularity) doesn’t mean abusive game design offers more rhetorical insight than conventional game design.  It is just different.