Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein argued that games were an ‘open concept’ in that no universalizing criteria could be used to define what constitutes a game. [1] The same holds true for videogames more so than ever given various goals, skills, concepts of winning and losing, and interfaces.  The list can go on, but the point here is that if there is no stable means of classifying videogames then a stable meaning of what constitutes a gamer cannot equally be surmised.  I have been playing videogames since I was a child.  I remember the Atari 2600 with its distinctive wood paneling and waiting impatiently for games to load on the Commodore 64.  Since that time videogames have changed and diversified in ways that I could not have imagined.  I consider myself a gamer because I have been playing videogames without interruption since I was young.  However, I do not hold other gamers to these criteria.  A gamer is whoever identifies as such.

Recently, I was eating at a restaurant in downtown Seattle with my wife and child.  The PAX convention was in town and a group of attendees sat in the booth behind us—identified by their badges, gift bags, and general gleefulness.   In overhearing their conversation they began to discuss Street Fighter IV.  More specifically, they sardonically remarked on the character Zangief.  The content of the discussion and the age of these attendees caused me to inwardly reflect on my relationship to the Street Fighter series.  I first played Street Fighter II at a local convenience store in Kentucky twenty years ago when these individuals had perhaps yet to attend grade school. Even though I had not played Street Fighter IV, these PAX attendees and I shared a common experience despite such a separation in time.  At first glance this would seem simple nostalgia, but this is not the purpose of my anecdote.  Rather, this conversation forced me to begin thinking of how gamers come to possess and share an overlapping knowledge of characters, lore, gameplay, technical aspects of creation, etc., and how I am situated in this process.  In essence, videogames constitute a distinct form of historical knowledge that is uniquely witnessed given individual relationships to games and other gamers.

My goal in this article, then, is to craft a general framework for conceptualizing ourselves (gamers) as historical actors in that videogames are not so much as objects in history but constitute an historical experience. As mentioned above, the various forms of knowledge that are passed down from past to present constructs a narrative establishing how games and gamers are spaced temporally to one another.  Because of this, videogames produce an historical subjectivity in the form of the gamer.  Viewing videogames as an historical experience is significant as “subjects use history and understanding of the past in order to act and in order to project themselves into the future”. [2] The question is not what videogames will look like in 30 years, but what will be our relationship to them. Through this approach, I formulate below what I mean by an historical subjectivity through videogames and how such subjectivity gives rise to certain forms of labor as a source of historical change.  Conceptualizing labor and videogames is especially intriguing as videogames have been thingified from plush toys to furniture.  These commodities are the product of accumulated historical knowledge existing side by side a history of what generally  can be referred to as ‘the real world’.  If we look at videogames as history and how this constructs a particular form of  subjectivity based on this historical experience, then gamers are poised with a unique historical agency that can transform the future—but only if we are aware of it.

For the purposes of this article I wish to posit videogames, as an historical experience, through a postmodern lens so as to establish a historical subjectivity of the gamer.   While the content of videogames differs significantly, videogames lack any single dominant aesthetic and often employ, to various degrees, pastiche in terms of content and visualizations.  Videogames also defy periodization despite appearing serially. The 8-bit platformer Oniken, developed in 2012 by JoyMasher (an independent Brazilian game developer), can help to elucidate the points above.  Borrowing influences from Nintendo videogames and 1980s anime (e.g Fist of the North Star), Oniken is a retro gaming experience but cannot be considered obsolescent despite appearing side-by-side with more technically sophisticated videogames.  Games such as Oniken may be postmodern in terms of pastiche and the resurrection of nostalgic influences, but videogames are not fixed in a permanent present; there is a very strong attachment to and sense of the past.  In other words, while videogames can be viewed as postmodern in a conceptual sense, they do not signify an end of history—an aspect of postmodernity.   Oniken, like other videogames, are also not necessarily confined by an idea of progress given that games continue to implement various strategies and aesthetics reminiscent of the old and new.  It is this continued interplay between the past and present which formulates a historical subjectivity.  But why is this significant and how does this relate to gamers?

Because videogames are history they also possess an archaeology—artifacts recording change over time.  The magazine Nintendo Power is an excellent example of this and one that defined my early relationships with videogames.  Starting in 1988 from humble origins, this magazine traced not only the technological shifts in Nintendo games (NES, SNES, Gamecube) but also served as a multivolume work recording a plethora of characters, worlds, and artifacts which could be memorized, analyzed, and compared.  This gamer literacy would seem to constitute an alternate version of crafting history and mastering knowledge.  Furthermore, fan art submitted to Nintendo Power showed an independent movement reflecting the experiences of gamers and a desire to extend games beyond the medium in which they were contained. 

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In taking a step back for a moment, these practices have only come recently into light as an academic interest.  When Nintendo Power was initially published no discourse existed that considered games or gamers in this fashion.  Rather, videogames were narrowly defined along two lines of inquiry which viewed players as the object of study.  While such discussions continue to this day, initial arguments positioned videogames within a rigid binary.  Videogames were ‘good’ because they aided in education or other areas of cognitive development, or they were ‘bad’ due to issues with addiction and violence.  The other means by which videogames and players were discussed was through technology and marketing.  In these cases the language of economics and industry defined the relationship between player and gaming platform as seen in the commodore 64 advertisement.  Neither viewed players as gamers possessing an independent subjectivity (i.e personal feelings, value and emotional experiences).  This is why it is important to think of videogames as history because this opens the pathway for historical agency.  But in order to address what I mean by this I must discuss the relationship between videogames and history a little further. 

As history, videogames do not show a clear telos— a definable historical trajectory or end goal.  While an extended explanation of postmodern views of history are beyond the scope of this paper, for the purposes of my argument it is only important to point out that these views are generally pessimistic and often revolve around an end of history.  French sociologist Jean Baudrillard argued that history had largely ended as daily life had come to be defined by simulations of our everyday experiences (hyperreality) and the recycling of images, of which media such as TV, the internet, and videogames played a significant part.  [3] But is the recycling of images and hyperreality truly an end to history?  I would argue that history has not so much ended but been transferred to these areas.   Videogames, I argue, allow new ways to encode history within game narratives and visualizations.  In addition, videogames as a whole also constitute a new way of engaging with history.  In this case videogames may not pose so much as a threat to history but a new step.  The various characters, discourses, and even the Critical Gaming Project are all the result of a series of objects which have no physical mass; they cannot be experienced except through the visual, the hyperreal.  Yet this comes back to us in the form of historical artifacts (game cartridges, strategy guides, playing cards) which constitute the historical artifacts of a lived experience.

This leads me to the final part of my discussion.  Taking one view of history, historical change is enacted through agency in material terms such as labor.  One of the reasons that postmodern arguments of history are pessimistic is a belief in the current lack of crafting historical trajectories through such processes.  The otaku are a prime example of ardent, creative production but also a lack of historical subjectivity.  At the risk of overgeneralization, otaku is a Japanese term that defines obsessed fans of anime and manga and, dare I say, videogames.  However, given the transnational dimension of Otakudom, Otaku are not solely a Japanese phenomenon. [4]  Indeed, not all gamers are otaku and not all otaku are gamers but there is some overlap that is important to consider in terms of considering historical agency.  Otaku and gamers share similar traits due to fandom such as the sharing of technical knowledge, independent creation of their chosen medium, and the mastery of skills related to that medium.  Otaku production of models, anime, and manga is decentralized as it is without hierarchies or fixed social attachments.  Gamers have come to exhibit similar traits as seen in the production of independent videogames and commodities such as furniture and wooden models which blur the boundaries between gamer and game so that “the distance between viewer and image collapses”. [5]  One significant difference is that, despite similar practices, otaku lack historical agency as their labor is solely directed at the recurrent fixation and fetishization of particular images.  They are posthistorical as their labor is not attached to any narrative from which to construct a past or direct a future. [6]

At the beginning of this article I implied that gamers were an ‘open concept’.  However, identifying as a gamer comes with obligations.  While not all gamers will have the capacity to effect change through videogame design, fan created products or academia, gamers must have a critical awareness of the games they play and purchase.  Without this, we, as gamers, run the risk of becoming posthistorical in that we become trapped into an endless cycle of serial repetition—the production/consumption of games for the sake of more production/consumption.   The study of videogames within academia must also be careful so as to avoid becoming a closed, abstract conversation about games and gamers.  With all that gamers are doing and saying about videogames today, we can no longer be satisfied with asking can videogames make better cities, a better society, a better self.  Gamers at all levels must be engaged with utilizing videogames as history to show how videogames can make better cities, a better society, a better self.  We may not all agree on these points, but that is the point.   Such a dialectical process provides a future to look forward to. 

Notes

[1] Donald Palmer, Does the Center Hold? An Introduction to Western Philosophy 3rd ed. (McGraw-Hill, 2002), 420-425.

[2] Ericka Tucker, “The Subject of History: Historical Subjectivity and Historical Science,” Journal of Philosophy of History 7   (2013): 211.                                                                                                                     

[3] Steven Best and Douglas Kellner, Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations (New York: The Guilford Press, 1991), 120, 133, 134. 

[4] Thoma LaMarre, “Otaku Movement,” in Japan After Japan: Social and Cultural Life from the Recessionary 1990s to the Present, ed. Tomiko yoda and Harry Harootunian (Duke University Press, 2006), 376.

[5] LaMarre, 368.

[6] For more on Otaku and Otakudom see:  Otaku nyūmon (2000) by Okada Toshio

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