The official strategy guide for video game studies



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THE OFFICIAL STRATEGY GUIDE FOR VIDEO GAME STUDIES:

A GRAMMAR AND RHETORIC OF VIDEO GAMES
By
Nathan Clinton Garrelts

A DISSERTATION


Submitted to

Michigan State University

in partial fulfillment of the requirements

for the degree of


DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
College of Arts and Letters

Program in American Studies


2003

ABSTRACT

THE OFFICIAL STRATEGY GUIDE FOR VIDEO GAME STUDIES:

A GRAMMAR AND RHETORIC OF VIDEO GAMES
By
Nathan Clinton Garrelts
Video games constitute a significant portion of our documentary culture, and as such they not only reflect our values, but also are in constant conversation with them. Although there have been many studies that comment on the connection between video games and culture, and several other studies that attempt to understand how playing video games may affect audiences, almost no video game studies actually study the formal, substantive, or interactive qualities of video game content. Of those studies that do discuss video game content, most are incomplete because they treat video games as a pre-composed static media, which cotemporary video games are not. The consequence of this is that we have a very shallow understanding of video games and have no systematic way for understanding the ways in which ideological content may be communicated when people play video games.

The first chapter of this dissertation briefly outlines the history of video games, surveys popular focuses and methodologies of video game studies, and identifies problems with the current trajectory of video game scholarship. In the second chapter, I draw on past video game studies and propose a terminological framework to objectively dissect the video game as a dynamic and interactive medium. At the end of the chapter, I propose that this framework provide the base for a grammar of video games. The third chapter of this dissertation analyzes three games in the Final Fantasy series: Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy VII, and Final Fantasy X, and tests the effectiveness of my framework for elucidating dynamic video game content, and locating and informing current video game studies. The fourth chapter proposes that the content presented in video games, with which players make the reality of a game, is rhetorically structured, and that identification and interaction with the content is directed through various orienting systems. The fifth chapter demonstrates the use of this model by studying the rhetoric of the previously studied three games in the Final Fantasy series.

In the final chapter of this dissertation, I evaluate the effectiveness of my proposed terminology, grammar, and rhetoric for contributing to our understanding of video games. I assert that throughout the development of the medium, advances in technology (and the interests of the culture industry) have resulted in an increased sense of reality and complexity in games and simultaneously strengthened their postmodern textual qualities and correlative relationship to the current situation of United States dominated late-market global capitalism. I also point out that, in the future, video game studies must take the individual utterance of the played game into consideration and attempt to understand the ways in which game-play results in accordance or dissonance with various ideological structures within a particular video game.

Copyright by

Nathan Clinton Garrelts

2003



For Judy and David.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
This manuscript reflects the coursework and professional influences that shaped me as a student at MSU, and those same influences that will continue to shape me as a professional in academia. Thus, my indebtedness and acknowledgements expand a bit beyond than document.

I would especially like to thank my dissertation chair, Dr. Kathleen Geissler. Throughout the writing of this dissertation her continual feedback and encouragement have been invaluable and her guidance and encouragement throughout my studies at Michigan State University have helped to shape me into a professional academic. No doubt, this was not an easy task. Nevertheless, Dr. Geissler mentored me with genuine concern and tact, which made her an excellent adviser. I would also like to extend a special thanks to Dr. Danielle De Voss who often reminded me of the value of my academic pursuits, and listened patiently as I tried to express half-formulated ideas—not always dissertation related.

The contributions of others toward my successful completion of this dissertation and completion of my degree program are also notable. In my days as an undergraduate student at Michigan State University, Dr. Larry Landrum exposed me to literary theory in one of his senior level English courses. I distinctly remember struggling to understand and apply the theories he taught us to the texts we were reading in the class. It was this experience, and challenge, that prompted me to take several literary theory classes as a master’s student at Ball State University and continue taking theory classes when I returned to MSU as a doctoral student. The first two courses I took were an American Studies methodology class with Dr. Dean Rehberger and a Media Arts theory class with Dr. Gretchen Barbatsis. While Dr. Rehberger introduced me to various cultural studies theories, among other things, Dr. Barbatsis introduced me to more cultural studies theories, as well as reader response theories, and applied media aesthetics. I later took an independent study course on rhetorical theory with Dr. Geissler and an independent study course on film studies with Dr. Landrum. The influence of all these teachers and the knowledge they shared with me is obvious in this dissertation.

I am also thankful for my close friend Jeremy Martin who since childhood has kept me informed about video game culture. His continual enthusiasm for video games has several times reminded me why I began studying this medium. Finally, I would like to thank my wife Beth who always kept my coffee cup full, made sure that I didn’t starve, and gave me continual encouragement.

PREFACE

I grew up with video games. In fact, at about the time that PONG invaded homes across America, I was just old enough to hold a video game controller. Of course, I was also small enough to have the controller ripped from my hands by older cousins vying for a spot on the floor in front of a small black and white television at my grandparents’ house. As a child it seemed that I played video games everywhere I went. I played games on an Atari 2600 while at my parents’ friends’ house and Intellivision at another parents’ friends’ house. When my family went to the local roller rink I watched the teenagers play arcade games--many of which I was still too short to play--and waited for my turn. I also played games with friends on one of the most popular personal computers of the 80’s, the Commodore 64. It wasn’t until 1986 that I had my first video game console. That summer I had managed to save enough money to buy a Sega Master System and asked my parents if they would go to the store and buy it for me. My parents not only came back with the system that I sent them to buy, but also came back with a stack of video games.1 Since then, I have owned countless game consoles and personal computers. I am a gamer and cannot remember a time that I was not a gamer.



Accordingly, when I began thinking about what I wanted to write about in my dissertation, a video game related topic sounded like a great idea. As I am among the first generation of academics raised on video games, I thought that I might be able to bring a unique perspective to the existing discourse on video games. Plus, video game studies seemed particularly urgent in the world beyond the ivory tower. As Craig Anderson and Karen Dill assert in “Video Games and Aggressive Thoughts, Feelings, and Behavior in the Laboratory and in Life,” “the active nature of the learning environment of the video game suggests” that video games have a greater affective ability than “TV and movie media” and for this reason video games warrant immediate study.2 Unfortunately, I quickly learned that the opportunity to study such a new media did not come without a cost. Whereas I initially anticipated that the published literature on video games would be limited and manageable, when I began writing this dissertation, to my chagrin, I discovered otherwise.

Video game studies today are as methodologically diverse as cultural studies and draw from whatever disciplines seem to be useful. Unfortunately, as video game studies gain critical mass, the interdisciplinarity of video game studies is proving to be problematic. First, it is very difficult to find the most recent video game studies scholarship unless one is pointed in the right direction.  Much of the current scholarship is published in a wide variety of journals, and many of the most recent and best essays are only available on the internet in published conference proceedings, in on-line journals, and through dedicated video game studies organizations. The difficulty of finding recent scholarship is worsened by that fact that, at the moment, there are (almost) no published collections of essays on video game studies and very few books on the subject. Of the currently published books, many focus only on violence/gender, or are otherwise problematic because they study the culture surrounding video games and not video games themselves. Because of the openness of video game studies to new theoretical approaches, there also seems to be a contingent of academics that enter video game studies without having actually played video games, or having played only one or two games. These non-gamers often misrepresent video games or use obscure examples in their studies.



As more video game players come of age, the continual influx of new scholars, websites, conferences, and organization dedicated to studying video games has begun to correct these problems. Yet, it seems to me, as an academic and someone who has grown up playing video games, there is a greater problem. Like (popular) cultural studies, video game studies is still struggling to legitimate its object of study as worthy of academic attention. For example, given that video games “remediate” elements of several different media, video games are being studied as narrative text, cinematic text, and new media. While such studies reframe video games in terms of media that are already valued in academia, thus legitimizing the study of video games as a worthwhile academic endeavor, the application of theories designed for other mediums has resulted in studies that pervert the medium of the video game. When one subtracts the sum of canonized media from video games there is often something left over —the difference is a profound amount of choice and interactivity. Indeed, most current video game studies only consider a handful of the individual images, essentialize the narrative, and then quickly digress to the world outside of the game. Almost no studies address the increasingly interactive and dynamic quality of video games and the varied content and narratives that result from different types of interactivity during game play--video games are treated as simple and static texts. This perversion of the medium has given academic studies of video games a poor reputation among gamers and game developers, and prevented video games studies from developing an accurate critical media literacy of video games.

To be sure, representing one medium in the terms of another also facilitates analysis when no other alternatives are given. This transference of theory from one medium to another also entails making choices about what content to discuss and what content to ignore, and whatever medium is being represented will be in some way distorted. This task is even more difficult when working with a medium whose content refuses to be pinned down, filtering it through the lens of film studies, or narrative studies, etc. and then translating it to prose. Indeed, as I began to study video games and present conference papers in preparation for writing the dissertation, I immediately noticed that while I had a lifetime’s worth of knowledge about video games, I found it impossible to articulate what I knew and experienced. As a result, as I struggled to discuss video games, along the way I developed a terminology, grammar, and rhetoric, which combined what I knew about video games from experience with what I learned about video games from studying the scholarship. It then became possible for me to talk very specifically about video games in a way that, for me, captured the essence of the medium. As I proceeded to write my dissertation, I found that the best contribution that I could make to video game studies was not to study an individual game, as I anticipated in my initial dissertation proposal, but to provide video game studies with a useable framework so that everyone can finally study video games themselves and not just the issues surrounding the games.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

LIST OF FIGURES…………………………………………………………………..…xiii


CHAPTER 1

VIDEO GAMES, VIDEO GAME TECHNOLOGY, AND VIDEO GAME STUDIES:

COMPLICATIONS DURING THE REBIRTH OF VIDEO GAMES……………….…..1
CHAPTER 2

A GRAMMAR OF VIDEO GAMES: A TERMINOLOGICAL FRAMEWORK FOR DISSECTING AND DISCUSSING VIDEO GAMES…………………………….……37


CHAPTER 3

ANALYSIS: A DISSECTION OF THREE GAMES IN THE FINAL FANTASY SERIES…………………………………………………………………………………...72


CHAPTER 4

A RHETORIC OF VIDEO GAMES: THE STRUCTURE OF IDENTIFICATION AND INTERACTION IN VIDEO GAMES…………………………………...………….….116


CHAPTER 5

ANALYSIS PART 2: IDENTIFICATION AND INTERACTION IN THE FINAL FANTASY SERIES………………………………………………………….…………..139


CHAPTER 6

THE FUTURE OF VIDEO GAME STUDIES: IDEOLOGY, POSTMODERNITY, AND AGENCY IN VIDEO GAMES…………………………………………………....…...163


APPENDIX……………………………………………………………….……...……..177
BIBLIOGRAPHY………………………………………………………….…….……..180

LIST OF FIGURES

Figure 2.1: Objects…………………………………………………………………...…..45
Figure 2.2: Agents……………………………………………………………………..…49
Figure 2.3: Commonly Depicted Interaction……………………………….….……...…57
Figure 2.4: Commonly Depicted Programmed Response……………...…………...……61
Figure 2.5: Video Game Base……………………………………………….……...……66
Figure 2.6: A Grammar of Video Games…………………………………………...……68
Figure 3.1: Final Fantasy Objects…………………………………………………...…..77
Figure 3.2: Final Fantasy Agents……………………………….…………………….…79
Figure 3.3: Final Fantasy Commonly Depicted Interaction………..………….……...…81
Figure 3.4: Final Fantasy Commonly Depicted Programmed Response……………..…83
Figure 3.5: Final Fantasy Video Game Scenes……………………………….…………84
Figure 3.6: Final Fantasy VII Objects……………………………………………..…….88
Figure 3.7: Final Fantasy VII Objects Continued………………………………….....…89
Figure 3.8: Final Fantasy VII Agents………………………………………………..…..91
Figure 3.9: Final Fantasy VII Commonly Depicted Interaction………………………....94
Figure 3.10: Final Fantasy VII Commonly Depicted Interaction Continued…………....95
Figure 3.11: Final Fantasy VII Commonly Depicted Programmed Response……..……96
Figure 3.12: Final Fantasy VII Video Game Scenes…………………………………….97
Figure 3.13: Final Fantasy X Objects……………………………………………….….101
Figure 3.14: Final Fantasy X Objects Continued………………………………………102
Figure 3.15: Final Fantasy X Agents………………………………………….………..104
Figure 3.16: Final Fantasy X Commonly Depicted Interaction………………………..106
Figure 3.17: Final Fantasy X Commonly Depicted Interaction Continued…………….107

Figure 3.18: Final Fantasy X Commonly Depicted Programmed Response…………...109

Figure 3.19: Final Fantasy X Video Game Scenes……………………………………..110


CHAPTER 1
VIDEO GAMES, VIDEO GAME TECHNOLOGY, AND VIDEO GAME STUDIES:

COMPLICATIONS DURING THE REBIRTH OF VIDEO GAMES


I believe in the recognition of devices as devices -- but I also believe in the reality of those devices. In one century men choose to hide their conquests under religion, in another under race. So you and I may recognize the fraudulence of the device in both cases, but the fact remains that a man who has a sword run through him because he will not become a Moslem or a Christian -- or who is lynched in Mississippi or Zatembe because he is black -- is suffering the utter reality of that device of conquest. And it is pointless to pretend that it doesn’t exist- merely because it is a lie. (Hansberry 248)
Today, an “estimated” 60% of Americans, “or about 145 million people, play video games on a regular basis” (“Fair Play?”). According to Mark J.P. Wolf, people “now spend more time in the interactive virtual world of games than they do in watching movies or even television” (“The Medium”). Contrary to popular belief, adolescent boys are not the only people playing video games. In addition to statistics that show that girls now “make up 43% of PC players and 35% of console gamers” (“Girls and Video Games”), researchers have also noted an increase in the penetration of video game consoles in “urban areas” as well as an increase in the number of game consoles owned by minority group members (“Comparing Generations”). It is also increasingly the case that homes with video games are “wealthier and have fewer people in the household,” which suggests that there is “a growing adult market for this entertainment medium” (“Comparing Generations”). Indeed, the Interactive Digital Software Association reports that the average video game player is now 28 years old (“Ten Facts”). It is no surprise then that video game sales have surpassed Hollywood box office sales and are quickly closing in on other forms of entertainment media such as movie rentals.3

Because of their popularity, video games constitute a significant portion of what Douglass Kellner has termed “media culture.” In his book of the same name, Kellner asserts that for many Americans, “the fabric of everyday life” is woven from the “images, sounds, and spectacle” of popular media (1). The prominence of media in our lives has made it a popular site for “key social groups and competing political ideologies [to] struggle for dominance” (2). The result is that popular media, including video games, can potentially promote “racism, sexism, ageism, classism, and other forms of prejudice,” or, conversely, “advance the interests of oppressed groups if it attacks such things” (4). This formulation is similar to that proposed by Cynthia Selfe and Richard Selfe in their essay “The Politics of the Interface: Power and Its Exercise in Electronic Contact Zones.” In this essay the Selfes conclude that “computer interfaces,” of which video games are a variety, present audiences with various “non-innocent” borders that “run the gamut from liberatory to oppressive.” The implication of both of these studies is that video games are complicit in communicating ideologies, which as defined by Stuart Hall are “the mental frameworks -- the languages, the concepts, categories, imagery of thought, and the systems of representation -- which different classes and social groups deploy in order to make sense of, define, figure out and render intelligible the way society works” (26).4

Recognizing the ideological content of media culture, Kellner suggests that media patrons increase their “critical media literacy.” Likewise, in order to combat the unthinking consumption of what they term “non-innocent” content, Cynthia and Dick Selfe encourage teachers and students to make themselves aware of the veiled connotative meanings inherent in computer interfaces. Unfortunately, the emerging discipline of video game studies has not been well equipped with frameworks to study video game content in its simultaneously formal, substantive, and interactive form, and attempts to study the ideological allegiances of video games often ignore the dynamic nature of video games and place an unwarranted premium on certain images or interactivity while ignoring others. Simply put, many studies are shallow, preferred readings.
As is elaborated throughout this chapter, the current state of video game studies is largely a side effect of the historical development of the medium. When video games first became popular, they were still a very unrealistic handful of colored pixels on a screen, with computer-generated beeps for sound effects, relatively simple interactivity, and a sparse or non-existent narrative. Consequently, the first studies of video games discussed the world outside of the game, which usually meant a discussion of psychological and sociological issues that resulted from interacting with video games. Current video game studies has its origins in these studies, and it makes sense that those who wished to study ideology in video games likewise focused on select images and simple interactivity and then drew conclusions about the ideological allegiance of an individual video game from this simple analysis.

Granted, recent theorists such as Espen Aarseth and Gonzalo Frasca have encouraged scholars to study video games as dynamic interactive texts, and recent video game studies by Mark Wolf and Ted Friedman have proposed that the connection between identification and interactivity is an important site for “winning” a game, the production of narrative, and ultimately the communication of ideological content. Yet, no framework has been proposed to distill dynamic video game content or the intersection between identification, interaction, and ideology. The result is that our knowledge and understanding of ideological content in video games is still incomplete.

Accordingly, this dissertation develops a framework to help scholars elucidate the varied content of video games as well as the non-innocent “secondary production hidden in the process” of a video game’s “utilization” that results from identifying and interacting in a dynamic virtual world (DeCerteau xiii). I propose that video game studies first needs a method, a terminological framework, for distilling complex and expansive video game content. Such a framework can help ensure that no content is ignored or disproportionably discussed. This framework, I assert, might fruitfully elucidate the objects, agents, commonly depicted interaction, commonly depicted programmed responses, and video game scenes, all of which constitute the substance of the game world, which I have termed the video game base. Secondly, I propose that although the content presented gamers during the course of a video game may differ depending on the choices a gamer makes, video games are rhetorically structured and video game scholars can study how identification and interactivity are encouraged. The second part of my model for studying video games identifies several orienting systems within the video game base that direct players’ interactivity and suggests that studying these systems may give us better insight into the ideological allegiances of a video game. My hope is that the application of both parts of this model will generate a more accurate context for studying video games and distilling ideological content. Throughout this dissertation I test both parts of this model on three games in the Final Fantasy series, and in the final chapter of this dissertation evaluate the effectiveness of this model.



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