Videogames and Sociology: Twitter's pic of the day summary (41-45)

This is the ninth round of Pic of the day RECAP (41-45). To understand what all of this is about, check out the original entry.

41 - Max Payne 3:  There was always something rotten in the air
In one of the most wonderfully unsettling scenes in the history of TV series, an aged agent Cooper sits in the centre of the Red Room accompanied by The Man from Another Place (a dwarf in a red suit) and a ghostly Laura Palmer. Actually, it's not the most unnerving sequence of Twin Peaks, but in that weird dream-like state takes place a very chilling short conversation: "Where we're from, the birds sing a pretty song and there's always music in the air". Is this a metaphor of the fact that Laura Palmer lies in her grave? Are the birds the ones singing in the cemetery? Is the music in the air the cracking sound of the casket slowly collapsing under the weight of soil? When an also aged Max Payne pronounced those similar words, "there is always something rotten in the air", everything became crystalline. "Of course," I thought, "there are always music and something rotten in the air because we all are living in our own grave". And that grave is society.

42 - Moebius: Empire Rising:  What exactly is my destiny?

Destiny is about the future. What will I be doing? With whom?  Where? In sum, who I will be? Destiny is fate, ergo, it belongs to the realm of what remains uncertain. And uncertainty is a powerful emotion. It makes us anxious, restless, frightened. That's the reason why we keep asking the question to ourselves, even if we do it out loud in front of one of our peers. The question is aimed at us and we already know we can't answer it. But we keep trying, in the fond hope that its reverberation echoes through our daily life anxieties and helps us to overcome the deep feel of uncertainty that once was shallow but now is almost unbearable. What has this to do with sociology? Almost everything. A sociologist is, among other things but mainly, a tracker of destinies. The problem is we are better tracking actors' past and present destinies than the future ones. The real destinies are for fortune-tellers, prophets, groundhogs, meteorologists, peasants and, sometimes, for deputy directors and ministers for pensions.   

43 - Arma III:  Keep landing zone clear at all times

There are several reasons why we should keep a landing zone clear at all times. The main reason, though, seems to be pretty obvious: to avoid uncomfortable encounters between aircraft and whatever might be on the landing zone. However, the command falls into a paradox. If the landing zone must be clear at all times, how are aeroplanes and helicopters supposed to land on the designated area? In case they touched down, they would be occupying the landing zone and, here's the paradox, it wouldn't be clear anymore. Therefore, the landing zone is both a physical space where aircraft land and a symbolic one where there is the possibility of aircraft landing. When an actual plane lands, it uses the physical space, fulfilling (and destroying temporarily) the potentiality of the symbolic space. The social is quite similar, physical and symbolic at the same time, and full of paradoxes that sustain the fundamental fabric of what we call society, identity, meaning or individuality. Hence, keep the ground of the social clear at all times but don't forget to always occupy it as well.

44 - Catachresis: If only you were not under that veil

If only you were not under that veil. If only you were not so far away. In only you were not underground. If only you were not on the other side. If only you were not occupied. If only you were not afraid. If only you were not married. If only you were not a policeman. If only you were not dead. If only you were not saying if only at all times. All these are wishes that yearn for a particular reality to be different. They all have in common that are enunciated using a negative structure, wishing that things were not as they are right now. This reminds me of all those sociologists who are always projecting their wishes over reality, trying to get rid of those aspects they interpret as being a nuisance for their work. The most common metaphor used is that of the veil. These sociologists insist on unveiling what is behind the mask, erasing the layer that distorts the truth hidden by reality. It is surprising how these scholars haven't found yet that there is nothing beneath the veil; that reality is wide open and available to whomever wants to have a look.

45 - Injustice: God Among Us:  But Let's think bigger
There is a global tendency in the circles of self-help gurus that encourage us to think always bigger. We live our meaningless and aimless lives without knowing that we could (and should) think bigger. Escape from one of Weber's worst fears, the iron cage in which we are confined nowadays. It might not be the Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare that he envisaged in his The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (2003), too far to foresee the havoc created by financial capitalism and its neoliberal political rationalities, but it is still a symbolic prison, in the end, the worst kind of jail for an individual. Then, we think bigger, but after doing so, we are still inside the cage. What did we do wrong? Well, just focusing on the bigger picture is not enough. Sometimes it's good to think bigger; we must know the things that surround us can only be explained by other things that are somewhere else both in space and time. However, we should also think smaller: the iron cage exit is not beyond its bars, it's closer than we think, in the details. Those details that explain and make possible those big ideas. Once you master how to think bigger and smaller at the same time, only then, you will be free.

Previous entries:

The normalisation of video gaming

Edited June 2019: as the 2014 ESA report has been removed from their website, I included the closest report available (2015) and changed the data accordingly. Thanks to Anna Gryshko for making me aware of this.

Today, I'm going to back up my hypothesis on the existence of a growing video game culture crunching some numbers that show how the act of video gaming is becoming a normalised activity.

One of the most notable indications that hints there is more than an incipient video game culture is the increasing numbers of people playing video games. It seems that more and more individuals, of different backgrounds, ages and gender, are becoming players (or at least have played once in their lives). Two examples of groups of population that are not usually linked to the generalised representations of video gamers can help me to introduce the debate.

In the first one, Egenfeldt-Nielsen et al. consider that the number of 'people who have never played a video game, from first graders to retirees, seem to be inexorably dwindling' (2008: 134). They illustrate their affirmation with a New York Times article in which the author (Schiesel, 2007) explains how video games are being regularly played in compounds for retirees. A generation of people who did not grow up in a world where video games existed - not at least as a cultural relevant phenomenon - is entering in the dynamic of playing video games.

The second example emphasises the fact that women play more video games than men. Historically, research done in the 1980s and 1990s have suggested that women have been marginalised as video gamers (Crawford, 2012: 53), but in the last years it seems to have changed dramatically. The Guardian published the main findings of the research conducted by the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) in the UK (Stuart, 2014), where they assert that women account for the 52% of gamers.

These two snapshots of how more people are playing video games regardless of their demographics, convey the idea that video gaming is not a subculture anymore and has become mainstream culture. 

This growing tendency of video game culture sneaking into Western society households seems to be confirmed by more recent surveys. According to the Essential Facts about the Computer and Video Game Industry report of 2015 produced by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), the most important video game industry association in the United States, the 42% of Americans play video games. In their report they also state that the 51% of American households own a dedicated game console. Other data of interest shows that the average game player is 35 years old, 44% of gamers are women, and 44% of video gamers are over the age of 35.

If we turn now to the data gathered by the UK Interactive Entertainment (Ukie), the principal video game industry association in the UK, it shows similar figures for the British households. In their UK Video Games Fact Sheet of 2014, which draws on various research reports from different sources, Ukie estimates that 55% of the United Kingdom population plays video games. Depending on the source cited, the distribution of male players and female players in the UK varies between 55% males-45% females and 48% males-52% females.

All the data points to the same facts: around half of people in Western countries play video games, the number of women who play games is almost the same as men, and even those who were not socialised in a video game culture have started to play video games. That would be the general portrait of video gamers, which quantitatively corroborates the hypothesis of an existing and growing video game culture. 

However, the brush strokes are so vaguely defined that there is still a great deal of detail missed in that data. Not only do they tend to miss information about who plays what video game on what device - although in fairness some of the reports provide partial data on those issues, but there is also a lack of elaboration on critical aspects of their research. For instance, they define a video gamer as someone who has just played at least once in the last year or in the last six months. This approach quickly overlooks what the implications of that assumption in terms of identity and community construction are. This will be a topic which I will come back to in the future, because it directly affects the controversy about what a video gamer is and who belongs to the community of gamers.

In any case, those are not the only concerns that can be raised against this data. The fact that the ‘original sources are often poorly referenced’ (Crawford, 2012: 51) and that they seem to mix the information from different reports without taking into account the methodological differences between them does not help to figure out how to weight their importance and reliability. Being representatives of the video game industry, these organisations are expected to ‘convey a very particular image of video gaming as normal, social and healthy pursuit’ (Crawford, 2012: 51). In contrast, it can be argued that these organisations seek to accurately represent video gamers because they want to provide the best information for marketing reasons.

Even if the information selected is biased to stress the most spectacular figures in order to give a certain impression of the product they are trying to sell, it is still a valid information that tells us how video game culture has burst into our contemporary societies. Whether this is caused by the rise of new kinds of video games and platforms (the so called casual games, to be played on browsers, consoles like Nintendo Wii or Ouya, mobile phones and tablets) as it has been suggested by authors like Jesper Juul (2010) or by any other factors, the fact is the normalisation of video games and video gaming in our society is now an unavoidable reality:
Video games are becoming normal (...). The rise of casual games is the end of that small historical anomaly of the 1980s and 1990s when video games were played only by only a small part of the population (Juul, 2010: 20).
This is what Juul considers a casual revolution among the world of video games, which in the last years have reached - and keep reaching - a broader audience. The definitions of hardcore gamers and casual gamers will be deal with in other blog entries in order to explain how identities of video gamers are constructed, but it is important to recognise that the expansion of the universe of video games and video gamers is fundamental to understanding the constitution of video game culture: ‘Video games are fast becoming games for everyone’ (Juul, 2010: 152). And if video games are for everyone, that means they are an essential part of our society and not just a subset of it: 
Certainly some gamers do seem to belong to a culture distinct from mainstream society. The term subculture, however, is too limited to adequately explain the broader world of games and game players that currently exists (Consalvo, 2007: 3).
All in all, the emergence and consolidation of video game culture in contemporary societies may be best reflected, though not solely, by the inexorable growth of different people playing video games regardless of their age, gender or social status. It is one of the most notable characteristics of this video game culture and is an important evidence of its normalisation in today’s world.


A definition of video game culture

The fundamental premise on which this research project is based is the idea that there is a growing and already consolidated video game culture, which permeates our contemporary societies to a great extent and makes possible to think in terms of video gamer identities, subjectivities and communities. Obviously, this culture is part of broader social phenomena and transformations, such as the existence of digital culture, neo-liberal political rationalities and many other aspects of reality with regard to patterns of leisure, consumption and production in late capitalism. In any case, video game culture is an addition -  it does not substitute other cultural forms - to other ‘cultures’ and social processes present in today’s world with which it intertwines in complex ways: expert culture, epistemic culture, knowledge society, risk society,  network society and so on.

Let me attempt a practical definition of video game culture: 
Video game culture is the institutionalisation of video game practices, experiences and meanings in contemporary societies, which places video games and video gaming not only in a central position among other cultural products but also traverses everyday life: an increasing number of people play video games and they are starting to be recognised as part of our social imaginary, enabling the construction of identities and communities based on them. 
This definition shares Garry Crawford’s argument by which video gaming should be understood not as a simple isolated leisure activity, but as a 'culture which extends far beyond the sight of a video game machine or screen' (2012: 143). Crawford states that 'video gaming is not just the act of playing a game, but also a source of memories, dreams, conversations, identities, friendships, artwork, storytelling and so much more’ (2012: 143). That is the definition of culture I would like to apply to the universe of video games, understood in a broad sense as “a system of meaning” (Mäyrä, 2008: 13) as well as a set of social practices.

In this sense, the definition of culture I am looking for to describe video games as culture can be situated between the traditional holistic anthropological approach to the notion - almost everything that is produced by humankind - and the more restrictive humanistic one - a particular aspect of a society, usually what is understood as the high forms of culture and within the field of arts. 

In its humanistic sense (the most restrictive), culture can be understood as that which is possessed after the effort made to take care of it. Culture distinguishes those who posses it from those who don’t. For the European elites of the 18th century, culture allowed the distinction between the Western European who have achieved the most remarkable human qualities and those, the poor and illiterate along with the non European, seen as primitive in their scale of progress (Berger, 1995: 15). This conceptualisation of culture is not useful for my research because it is too restrictive and discriminating.

In the turn to the 20th century, this ethnocentric usage of the voice ‘culture’ gave way to the traditional anthropological notion of culture, defined by Tylor - whose influence in the emergence and consolidation of anthropology is beyond doubt - in the following inclusive and universal terms:
Culture or Civilization, taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society (Tylor, 1871: 1).
The problem with Tylor’s approach to culture is what Geertz points out: it is so eclectic that forces us to take all directions at the same time, what makes the concept impracticable from a theoretical and practical point of view (1973: 4-5). Even though I feel inclined to theorise video game culture in a broad sense, I agree with Mäyrä when applying those kinds of accounts: 
If the concept of culture is taken in this broad and general sense, and applied as such directly into game studies, this can lead into a rather heavy-handed way to conceptualize ‘game culture’. (…) One could also certainly argue that games do not define our existence or place in a society in a way that belonging to a traditional ethnic culture, say Bantu or Inuit culture, defines the way of life and identity for those people. But games and game playing practices do have some significance for those people who are actively engaged with games (Mäyrä 2008: 23).
Mäyrä helps to delimit the notion of culture I want to attach to video games and the group of people who play them. In sum, he is defining culture as a set of shared experiences. If I blend this definition of culture - as shared experiences and meanings - and add other parts like those mentioned by Crawford above - which include certain social practices, I will have as a result the definition of video game culture.

I would not go as further as affirming that video game culture is the most important reality of the present century, but it would be difficult to understand it without its presence. There is no doubt that video game culture is part of and overlaps with other cultures and social processes, but it is still important in order to understand our society and, above all, provides the opportunity to study contemporary identities and social universes of meaning in a strongly framed and bounded way, as if it were an almost perfect sociological laboratory.

  • Berger, Bennett M. (1995). An Essay on Culture: Symbolic Structure and Social Structure. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Crawford, Garry (2012). Video Gamers. London: Routledge.
  • Geertz, Clifford (1973). The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.
  • Mäyrä, Frans (2008). An Introduction to Game Studies. London: Sage.
  • Tylor, Edward B. (1871). Primitive Culture: Researches Into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom. London: John Murray.
[An extended version of this post in Spanish can be found here at Zenhgames]

Touching the heart of video gamers

'What kind of impact would you like to have on the people who play your video games?' This is a question I have been posing lately in my interviews with developers within the video game industry. My aim is to understand what developers, who usually define themselves as gamers, are trying to achieve with their video games in terms of their influence on video gamers. I have found out that there is a similar pattern in their answers, which can be summarised in the following quote:
It's really hard to explain but it's just... if you can touch somebody's heart (...), if you read that last page or you get to the end of the movie or whatever, you just feel like you've really been touched somehow... I guess I just call that, you know, that there is heart in it and that's what I look in for when I'm able to put it into my work.
Actually, this cite does not come from my interviews; it's the answer that Jane Jensen, the famous video game designer and writer, gave to a question I put on Youtube's comments when they were streaming their launch party for the 20th anniversary edition of the video game Gabriel Knight. Here is the video fragment where she expresses her views on the subject (sorry for the quality of the video!):

In any case, it accurately represents most of the answers I've been receiving in my fieldwork. For instance, they speak about having the same impact on people that they had when they were growing up playing games, making  people "emotionally accelerated to play the game", or delivering "powerful emotions" to players. It's all about affecting the individuals who will play their video games in a deep emotional way. At least, two main ideas can be developed from here.

Firstly, video game designers and developers seek to reproduce on others the emotional and meaningful impact they had in the past while they were playing other video games. All of them, without exception, define themselves as being gamers. Video games are a fundamental part of their identity. This means that, intentionally or not, they are participating in the reproduction of the gamer subjectivity, the gamer identity.

Secondly, this approach could be linked to a more general question with regard to the contemporary political rationalities of our time, as it is sustained by Nikolas Rose and other neo-Foucauldian theorists. I'm focusing on a specific consequence of the generalised neo-liberal political rationalities that traverse our today's societies, the ethico-politics:
Ethico-politics reworks the government of souls in the context of the increasing role that culture and consumption mechanisms play in the regulation of forms of life and identity and selftechniques (Rose, 1999: 188).
If ethico-politics are understood as the set of processes and methods through which it is possible "to shape the conduct of human beings by acting upon their sentiments, beliefs, and values" (Rose, 2007: 27), we will find ourselves in an epoch in which, in governmental terms, there is an explicit - though not necessarily intentional - approach to ethical, cultural and identity construction issues (which are not the outcome of other objectives any more: disciplinary - control of passions - or biopolitical - maximisation of the social forces). 

In sum, gamers's identities are  being addressed - whether they succeed or not - by designers within the video game industry in contemporary societies. There are many ways to allude to it: their soul, their emotions, their heart, their identity, their ethos. No matter what term is used, they all want to touch it, shape it, affect it. The debate on what a gamer is or how a gamer identity is constructed is officially open.

  • Rose, Nikolas (1999). Powers of Freedom: Reframing Political Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Rose, Nikolas (2007). The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
[An extended version of this post in Spanish can be found here at Deus Ex Machina]

Videogames and Sociology: Twitter's pic of the day summary (36-40)

This is the eighth round of Pic of the day RECAP (36-40). To understand what all of this is about, check out the original entry.

36 - The Forest:  I love my guts
This out of proportions love for himself might be interpreted in two, kind of related, ways: one in a metaphorical sense and the other as quite literal. According to the former, he may be referring to his determination and boldness. Who does not love the strength to face obstacles and rise to the challenges? But the guy is actually lying - presumably dead - on a table in the middle of a dark cave. If that careless daredevil attitude got him in there in first place, why would he love those stupid guts? However, if he is alluding to his actual guts - those that we can observe sprouting from his belly, that's, at best, ironic. If fact, everything is just based on a false premise: that the guts were in the T-shirt before they were pulled out. Just like society: did it exist before sociologists say it was there? There's an important difference, though. I would never say 'I love my society'.

37 - Free to Play:  Gaming will be the death of you one day
If your aunt prophesies your death by the hand of gaming - and this happens in the film Free to Play (the prophecy, not his demise) - then you should start worrying (I would!). But since she doesn't specify what type of death awaits him, we can only speculate about it. Is it a social death? Gaming has traditionally been linked to social isolation, but lately, and Free to Play is a good example of this tendency, gaming has become mainstream. Is it a professional death? That's more likely, because if he wants to succeed in a eSports career, his time as a pro player will eventually come to an end. Nevertheless, he will still be able to work in other areas (related or not to gaming). Is it a final biological death? There have been reported some ludicrous deaths because of playing video games, but unless he spends more than two days in a row playing uninterruptedly while he solely drinks Mountain Dew (and, to be honest, we don't know if he actually does this), he's not going to die any time soon due to gaming. There is still one unexplored death. That of the inner self. The soul, say some. The subject, say others. In that case, he's already dead and is probably unaware of it.

38 - Faster Than Light:  Intruders detected
No matter how far we are from our local coordinates, spatial and temporal, we will always make distinctions between us and the others, the local and the foreigner, our own and the outsiders. Groups, nations, countries, factions, communities, guilds, gangs... wherever and whenever a collective of individuals exists, there will always be people seen as the intruders, which are fundamental to the definition of the group: its constitutive outside. 

39 - Penumbra - Black Plague:  There cannot be one, there can only be us all
I never get tired of a good old agency-structure debate. Is the individual detached from society a possibility or is just an illusion, a trick played by the collective imagination that creates it? Is society just the outcome of the addition of several individuals or is it something greater than the sum of its 'parts'? What the hive - that collective mind - says in the video game Penumbra is true and false at the same time. We, the sociologists, have been fighting this war for more than a hundred years. Too many casualties, too many efforts to solve the problem. Giddens's structuration theory (1984), Bourdieu's theory that links habitus, field and capital (1998) or Berger and Luckmann's description on how social reality is constructed (1967) have been some interesting and, to certain extent, successful proposals to overcome this problem. I particularly like Latour's elegant approach: "the social possesses the bizarre property of not being made of agency or structure at all, but rather of being a circulating entity" (1999: 17). 

40 - Far Cry:  Stay low and avoid contact if possible
How many times have we been given this sort of advice? Stay low, don't stand out. Avoid contact, people are dangerous. Is the man lying motionless on his own blood one of those who tried to step out of line? What if he was the one who played by the book and the one holding the gun is the smart guy who didn't listen to the same old story? You can try to avoid contact, but reality is all about connections. No escape there. And sometimes, staying low is precisely what attract all that unwanted attention. Here's my tip: stay low if you are passing behind a low ceiling and avoid contact in case there are sparks coming from it or you see a politician reaching out his hand.

Previous entries:
Videogames & Sociology: Twitter's pic of the day summary (11-15)
Videogames & Sociology: Twitter's pic of the day summary (16-20)
Videogames & Sociology: Twitter's pic of the day summary (21-25)
Videogames & Sociology: Twitter's pic of the day summary (26-30)
Videogames & Sociology: Twitter's pic of the day summary (31-35)

  • Berger, Peter L. and Luckmann, Thomas (1967). The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. New York: Anchor.
  • Bourdieu, Pierre (1998). Practical Reason: On the Theory of Action. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Giddens, Anthony (1984). The Constitution of Society. Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Latour, Bruno (1999). “On recalling ANT” en Law, John y Hassard, John. Actor-Network Theory and after. Oxford: Blackwell, 15-25.

Diaries from The Forest (vol. 3): Shark Attack!

This is the third volume of my particular Diaries from The Forest series. This is based on alpha 0.02To know more about these diaries, please, have a look at the first and second volumes.

Shark Attack!
I decided to move quickly on this occasion. First collect some items around the wreckage and then move towards the beach. It worked perfectly in my mind, what could go wrong? So, I took some provisions, including two circuit boards from the plane (how can they possibly be useful on an island like this?).
I tried to hit a rabbit with a couple of tennis balls, but I missed. Not a proper way to catch animals, I think. 
After that, I hit a rabbit with my axe. That seems to be a better way to secure food for myself.
I kept collecting things that I consider useful for my short-term future, i.e. some sticks.
I was headed to the beach once again. A sudden burst of painful memories came to me at that moment. I needed a couple of minutes to compose myself. 
I saw a school of sharks in the distance. I decided to have a closer look.

While I was swimming carelessly, I spotted a turtle under the water. Do you know the difference between a turtle and a tortoise? A hint: this is a turtle. And it's in the water. But you can also see them wandering on the island. Walking on soil. I think you've already figured it out.
Out of the blue, a shark started to follow me. I thought it was amazing at first...
... and then I realised that it was coming closer very fast...
...extremely closer...
To my shame, I was devoured by a shark. It seems that I have a new enemy on the island. Days survived, 1.

It's interesting to see how PewDiePie - the most famous Youtuber - deals with the sharks in the following video:

Is the introduction of new actors in a game, even supporting ones,  relevant enough to make a difference, to transform the global experience, to make people notice it?

An open letter to journal reviewers

This time I'm not going to write about video games, not even sociology (at least not in a specific sense). I'm in angry sociologist mode and I would like to address my complains to all those journal reviewers/referees out there, including myself. You know, those people who, taking advantage of the blind review process - let me hold my laughter for a moment, become the jury, judge and - if it comes to that - executioner of your paper. It's going to be brief and I'll keep it simple. Here I go:
  • Journals usually don't let you submit articles containing more than 8000 words (some ask you for less, others might let you add a few more words). Keep that in mind when you are reviewing the text: it's an article, not a fucking PhD!
  • Remember that you are discussing the content of the article, not the works of the people who are cited in it. If you have a problem with them, go and tell them directly, don't use me as a scapegoat!
  • Suggest whatever you want to suggest but don't fucking patronise me. I'm a doctor! And if I weren't one, well, I wouldn't like to be patronised either!
  • Reviews are intended for evaluation purposes, it's not an excuse to show the world how much you know about the subject. Look for your own damn audiences!
  • The amount of articles published in high impact factor journals  that are cited in the paper is NOT indicative of its quality. It's NOT that simple!
  • Don't you like the article? That's fair. Can you just reject the article politely and provide academic reasons that are exclusively related to the article? Even if you think the text is complete rubbish, you don't need to behave as a pretentious plonker. If not nice, be at least professional!

The rant stops here. Only temporarily. One last thing: if after reading this, you keep playing the idiotic reviewer role, here's what I have for you, courtesy of Phil Fish:


Videogames and Sociology: Twitter's pic of the day summary (31-35)

This is the seventh round of Pic of the day RECAP (31-35). To understand what all of this is about, check out the original entry.

31 - Doom 3:  That way

We are always compelled to behave in a certain manner by different forces (invisible or not). Some of them are subtle, like the smell of  recently baked pies. Others are more direct, like a panel in a road which gently reminds you that your speed is being checked by radar. Of course, there are those that are extremely persuasive, like the one we are able to see in the picture: an armed soldier telling us that we must go that way. He doesn't even sweeten his mandate a little bit with a "would you mind..." or a similar grammatical construction that could show a shred of politeness. We're talking about power here. I
n Foucaldian terms, conduct of the conduct. The most interesting thing of Foucault's notion of power, apart from its relational nature and its link to knowledge, is that there wouldn't be power without freedom. Power exists because you have the chance of not following what is asked of you (directly or indirectly). In fact, if you have a gun pointed at your head, that's hardly a power relationship (although you still have the freedom to cry "shoot!"). When someone does something after having the opportunity to do several other things, then, my friend, that's power.

32 - Papers, please: Papers, please

Speaking of power, let's talk about the power of inscriptions. According to Latour, who initially borrowed the notion from Derrida, inscription is "a general term that refers to all the type of transformations through which an entity becomes materialized into a sign, an archive, a document, a piece of paper, a trace. Usually, (…) inscriptions are two dimensional, superimposable and combinable" (1999: 306). I could write words and more words on inscriptions and their importance in life in general and in science in particular. However, I will focus on the particular transformation that entails ID documents such as passports, work permits, visas, national identity cards or driving licences. What do they all have in common? They're papers (well, some of them are more plastic than paper but that doesn't matter here), yes, but very specific ones: they all translate an entity - your body, your life, your skills, in sum, your identity -  into a bidimensional document. It's all there: when you were born, your sex, your name, your address, your likeness, your marital status, your occupation, your ability to drive, to work, to reside. But like any other kind of translation, there is not just a simple correspondence between what is being translated (basically, you) and the translation (the inscription). Everything is transformed in the process. Don't you believe me? Play Papers, please or just try to enter in a foreign country without the required documentation. After all, if those papers are just a plain translation of you, and you're already there, why should you need anything else? And then it's when you start thinking that your body, your identity, yourself might be actually the translation of those inscriptions.

33 - Fez: Reality is perception
Fez is, among other things, about the reality of the real. If we state that reality is perception, we are suggesting that reality is, at least to a certain extent, what we think reality is and not what is just out there. This sounds like ontology to me. But far from the philosophical debates in which the notion of ontology is born, I prefer to use a more practical definition. For instance, García Selgas considers that what "allows us to talk about ontology is not the aspiration of drawing the being of things, but the acknowledgement that every scientific theory entails a specific model of what it deals with" (2003: 29). Substitute "scientific theory" for "theory" or just "personal perception" and, voilà, you are there. Nevertheless, remember that perception is just that, an assumption of what reality is, not reality itself (if there's any). Be specially careful with walls, gravity, policemen, boundaries, grumpy old people, wet floors, and other regular impersonations of the real. Don't go wild just because it's all about perception.

34 - Outlast: Witness

Witness. Is the word written in blood referring to the noun or the verb? If it's the former, who is the witness, that dead guy sitting on the loo? In that case, is that bloody graffiti trying to convey the message the dead of the witness? But is it referring to that particular witness or the witness as a social figure? That would be an interesting interpretation: the witness, a dead body with his head between his legs, is lost in one of the darkest corners of reality, those of its wastes. He's not witnessing any more. And if there is no witness to observe the events that are happening in reality, who would produce narratives of them? Will they stop happening because there is no one watching? Even though this might be seen as a creepy scenario, in my opinion, there would be a more unsettling one: that it is a verb, an imperative: "witness!". You would be situated in the position of the witness, forced to watch and trusted with the responsibility to give testimony when the time comes. And there is no bleaker situation than witnessing the end of witnesses. 

35 - Gone Home: You can do better

You can do better, you can always do better. But what about doing worse? Because there is also always space for doing things far worse. Would we say things like "I try hard but it doesn't get any worse"? Or should we say something like "I don't try anything at all but things keep improving"? It might seem odd, but there are a few reasons why we should try doing things worse, at least as an experiment. One of them would be to prove we are in control of things: if you are not able to worsen what you did before, this could mean that your achievements are due to external factors and not as a product of your determination and expertise. Another reason would be to look more human and less conceited. Because nobody wants to hear that they are too good to be true (unless they're in a song). And finally, probably the most important reason to do worse: to do better later on. In the end, worse and better only make sense in relation to each other. 

Previous entries:
Videogames & Sociology: Twitter's pic of the day summary (11-15)
Videogames & Sociology: Twitter's pic of the day summary (16-20)
Videogames & Sociology: Twitter's pic of the day summary (21-25)
Videogames & Sociology: Twitter's pic of the day summary (26-30)

  • García Selgas, Fernando J. (2003). “Hacia una ontología de la fluidez social”, Política y Sociedad, 40 (1): 27-55.
  • Latour, Bruno (1999). Pandora's Hope. Essays on the Reality of Science Studies. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press.

The Groundhog Day effect in video games

Have your ever had that feeling of being repeating the same actions over and over again in a video game? I'm not speaking about the same set of mechanics within a game (which, in fact, can also make you feel that way), but repeating the very same actions and killing/collecting/running through the same enemies/items/corridors. Dark Souls, for instance, could be seen as the paradigm of this particular Groundhog Day effect, but almost in every game you have the chance to feel it. Here's an example of this kind of experience based on Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth (in the last attempt almost got it, or that's what I thought, but at the end I failed miserably - once again):

Another good example would be Gods Will Be Watching. Actually , all the game is designed with that idea in mind, you fail and repeat all the time. An endless and painful trial and error process. Even the mechanics are designed to be repetitive, day after day, task after task. You can only manage contextual menus to perform the actions required to progress in the game in a turn-based game. It can be frustrating, but that's the core mechanic of the game: learning the proper strategy, the adequate sequence of actions. Somehow, it makes you keep trying and trying again until you succeed. If you're patient enough, obviously.

The interesting thing is how the mechanics merge into the narrative during the game. Near the end, you realise that all this Groundhog Day vibe is justified and is a fundamental part of the story (and also explains why some characters reappeared even if they were dead, well, sort of). There are random events in the game, little variations that echo through the continuum space-time, but it's always the same situations, performing the same actions.

Is this Groundhog Day effect frustrating? It is, indeed. But why do we keep trying? Do we pursue the temporary relief experienced after overcoming a groundhog-day's segment, even if we know it's just a question of time to bump into the next one? Is it all about a sense of achievement or of a controlled safety? This makes me return to known subjects that are constantly appearing in my research: are video games interactive experiences used for a temporary escapism (the exceptional) or do they belong to the mundane activities we carry out in our daily lives (the ordinary)? On the one hand, video games can be seen as breaks from reality, the quotidian one, because they let us experience unique universes - fantastic or realistic - in which we momentarily detach ourselves from what surrounds us. On the other hand, video games have been integrated into everyday life as part as the many actions, including dull tasks, we carry out on a regular basis. 

What happens when these two situations are closely intertwined in the same experience? In other words, what happens when the Groundhog Day effect makes an appearance? Are we escaping from the monotonous aspects of everyday life just to enter into another land of repetitiveness? Are this repetitive quests and actions reassuring in some way? Is this effect that, sooner or later, we all feel playing video games what makes them exceptional? How do we know we're playing any more? Are video games subverting their own playful nature?

I have recently come across Twelve Minutes, a video game in development that its main mechanic seems to be principally based on the Groundhog Day effect:
TWELVE MINUTES is a top down “point-and-click” adventure game in real-time. You are doomed to live the same twelve minutes inside your apartment unless you use your knowledge of what is going to happen in order to change the outcome and break the loop.

This means, along with the other examples mentioned, video games are starting to include, more or less explicitly, the Groundhog Day effect as part of their core mechanics, logic and narrative. They're playing with it. Subverting the subversion?

[An extended version of this post in Spanish can be found here at Deus Ex Machina]

Videogames and Sociology: Twitter's pic of the day summary (26-30)

This is the sixth round of Pic of the day RECAP (26-30). To understand what all of this is about, check out the original entry.

26 - Broken Sword 5: The Serpent's Curse:  Can we ever truly know another human being? 

Not that I'm a functionalist, but what is the social function of rhetorical questions? What is the reason we ask questions that we don't expect to be answered? Is it self-awareness of our conditions of possibility, that is, the limits of what can be thought and known in a particular epoch and cultural context? Are they pointless statements of a meaningless discourse, void of any real social purpose? Have I just posed a series of rhetorical questions myself ? In my opinion, they are quiescent screams of horror destined to silence our fears to the unknown. Or maybe it's just an excuse to practice some cheap existentialism. So, can we ever truly know another human being? If there's one thing I'm sure of is that you'll never be able to truly know anyone, or anything for that matter. Not at least with sociology, monsieur. 

27 - Slender: The Arrival: Can you see it?

In his reflections on the Foucauldian notion of dispositif, Deleuze described one of its dimensions, the curves of visibility, as the lines of light that let us see by forming different shapes, which are inseparable from the dispositif in question. Thus, each dispositif  distributes "the visible and the invisible" (1992: 160), what we can see and cannot. It's important to emphasise that those lines of light don't just fall upon pre-existing objects, the light is helping to create them. Therefore, when we are faced with the question Can you see it?, we should ask ourselves if the social apparatus in which we dwell is letting us see it, whatever that is, an in what shape. Sometimes, there are things we don't want to see - i.e. the Slenderman - but the dispositif keeps projecting those shapes in front of us. Is there any way out of it? Yes, Deleuze also delineated them: the lines of subjectification, the lines of escape. It's the dispositif escaping from itself, breaking its regimes and boundaries. Of course, after that, new social apparatuses will be established,  imposing new curves of visibility, which includes all sorts of Slendermen and other, fantastic or not, dark creatures.  

28 - Dinner date: Perhaps I should give it up, move on
We tend to cling to what we think it's true, even if we have plenty of evidence in support of its spurious nature. Most of the time it's because we're used to it or are afraid to change or improvise. We might come to assume the lack of truth in what we believe, but we still hang on to it. Those moments in which including the most recalcitrant constructivist endures the heavy weight of the social structure. Why do we keep doing things we know that are a dead end? Why don't we give up and move on? It might be the hope of a highly improbable (positive) denouement. Eventually, you'll move on or the structure will do it for you.

29 - Portal: The cake is a lie

There are white lies and half-truths. There are also blatant and downright lies. Some people would feel ashamed of telling a lie,  even a harmless one; others would do it barefacedly. No matter what type or how they're delivered, lies are told all the time and are part of our social landscape. Let's face it, lies are a fundamental pillar to sustain the well-being of our societies. A world without lies would be as bad as one full of them. Try to be honest everywhere at any time and you'll see what I mean. Although necessary, there are cruel heartless lies that can be devastating. Those that are pregnant with broken promises of a better future, a endless love, or a delicious cake. The ones involving cakes, those sweet pieces of heaven, are the worst of them.

30 - Aliens Colonial Marines: Caution, quarantine area

Quarantine. What an interesting concept. Like a laboratory or a heritage site, quarantine suspends the current socio-material conditions of existence. In this case, we're not testing reality to know more about it or trying to experience what cannot be experienced any more; it's all about controlling an epidemic. Quarantine implies, therefore, the temporary closure of a space in order to isolate an area, an ecosystem, a population. The main aim of quarantine is to prevent an outbreak of a particular disease. What if quarantine was applied to broader social aspects of reality such as ideas, patterns of behaviour, cultures, or rules? Then you realise that the social structure is a big quarantine area continually trying to hold the winds of social change. Obviously, like in all those films and video games - and because every quarantine always comes to an end, it's only a question of time that the quarantine area is breached. 

Previous entries:
Videogames & Sociology: Twitter's pic of the day summary (11-15)
Videogames & Sociology: Twitter's pic of the day summary (16-20)
Videogames & Sociology: Twitter's pic of the day summary (21-25)

Deleuze, Gilles (1992). "What is a Dispositif?" in T.J. Armstrong (ed). Michel Foucault Philosopher. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, pp. 159-168.