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Video Games as an Enhancement of Human Communication: The Case of Documentary Video Games Melita Zajc

Abstract Controversies relating to games such as Super Columbine Massacre, from 2005, and 9-11 Survivor, from 2003, point towards a particular discontent regarding games within society. When games are celebrated for their realism, this is typically a reference to their visual verisimilitude rather than an association with actual events. As new works, sometimes called documentary or serious games, attempt to make more tangible connections to the living world, new issues emerge concerning the appropriateness of doing so within a form commonly used for entertainment. In this chapter, I analyse documentary games from two angles. From the perspective of documentary genre understood not as a transmission but as a representation and interpretation of reality, and from the perspective of the particular role of the player. The effect of the uncanny, caused by serious games, results from that relationship between game and player that demands inclusion, previously unknown to mediated communication. Games not only deliver messages, but also simulate experiences. Applying the concept of the dispositive as initially developed for the cinema, I explain the particular mode of the address and the transformation of the role of the viewer into that of the player. These features enable an unprecedented form of user involvement and are also a major potential for games to enhance human communication. Key Words: Documentary video games, documentary cinema, realism, dispositive, participation. ***** 1. Video Games as the Uncanny: Super Columbine Massacre Super Columbine Massacre 1 is a role playing game, offering a reconstruction of the Columbine High School Massacre. The players relive the events of 1999 through the eyes of the two senior students who committed the killings. The tragedy initiated a set of critical considerations on American society and inspired cinematic reflections by Gus van Sant 2 and by Michael Moore. 3 Contrary to similar films, the reactions to the game were quite ambiguous. In 2007, it was named a finalist at the Independent Games Competition at Slamdance Film Festival. Controversies were such that the game was excluded, yet this also meant the end of the Games Competition at Slamdance. SCM can still be downloaded from the games site. 4 It was made using a simple program RPG Maker and looks like Nintendo games from 1990s, with low resolution, pixilated characters, and cheesy music. As reviewers have pointed out,


Video Games as an Enhancement of Human Communication

__________________________________________________________________ SCM replaced visual spectacularity by attention to narrative detail and dialogues, based on meticulous research of the killers life stories. 5 The game refers to historical events and asks questions relating to the actual living conditions of the public. Its accuracy and consideration of actual events are what matters. However, a large part of the American public reacted negatively to the game. SCM is not the only video game addressing s. c. serious issues. Another example, Darfur is Dying, from 2009, is an online flash game providing information on the genocide in Sudan. It was developed by MTV Networks college network - mtvU - in partnership with human rights organisations and with the advice of scholars, subject matter experts, and activists. They present the game as a social-issue-driven digital gaming, which seeks to effect real world change. 6 Similarly, McDonalds video game, from 2006, developed by Molleindustria, aims at introducing a critical view of the fast food industry. 7 These games have been classified under different terms, from serious games to documentary games. The problem with a name, as well as the controversy surrounding SCM, might be explained by the fact that the act of playing a game inherently trivialises the issues it tackles and thus renders any game about a serious topic inherently unethical. 8 Implied in this interpretation is the opposition between non-serious and serious media, which is based on a tradition of making a distinction between entertainment contents and news or serious contents in media such as film and television. On the other hand, the erosion of the borders between news and entertainment in contemporary media is one of the more pressing issues for contemporary media scholars. There are several realms involved in this shift, from media economy to audience psychology. In this article, I would like to argue that video games have a notable role within this change. This role rests on the way games address their audience, which is not based on the realism of visual representation that was traditionally the main indicator of the quality and relevance of serious visual media contents. 2. Documentary Video Games Genre Particular mode of address, or gameplay, is studied by the discipline of ludology. In ludology, the video game medium is seen as being defined primarily through the concept of interactivity and simulation rather than interpretation and representation. 9 Whilst in ludology this often leads to a significant hesitance to consider any resemblance between video games and other media, 10 my aim is to argue for a distinct quality of games through cinema theory. Clearwater introduces serious games and documentary games as two categories where representation matters more than address. Gameplay, format, and platform are secondary, and the defining elements are subject matter and intent. 11 Other scholars similarly define documentary games in relation to documentary cinema. 12 The notion of documentary is based on the presumed representational capacities of visual images, and scholars assert that games obviously cannot lay

Melita Zajc


__________________________________________________________________ claim to the type of ontological relationship with their subjects in the manner of photography or film. 13 This claim rests on the presumably essential connection between photographic image and depicted object which Andre Bazin defined as the ontology of photographic image. 14 With the development of widely-available digital tools for the modification of photographic images such as Photoshop, the connection between photographic image and its referent has been materially broken. Historical evidence indicates that, even when this connection existed, it was disrespected in the way it supported the assumptions of ontological realism. A celebrated photograph of July 1863, Slain Rebel Sharpshooter at the battle of Gettysburg, for example, has been revealed to contain the same body as the one in an earlier photograph of a fallen Union Sharpshooter. 15 The body was apparently staged as a still life and photographed as if it were a record of a scene that had occurred. This is an early example of producing a virtual image insofar as the image does not exactly lie. 16 It is a virtual construction of a reality of war with no actual or particular referent. Virtual construction of reality takes place within video games too. Apart from documentary games that attempt to place the players in specific historical moments using increasingly realistic behavioral and visual simulations, 17 there exists a different type of documentary games, where the way the game addresses the player is more important than realistic representation. A recent example is The Cat and the Coup, from 2011, 18 created by documentary filmmakers Peter Brinson and Kurosh ValaNejad. The players avatar in the game is the cat of Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh, the first democratically elected and immensely popular Prime Minister of Iran. During the summer of 1953, the CIA engineered a coup to bring about his downfall. As the cat is coaxing Mossadegh back through significant events of his life by knocking objects off shelves, scattering his papers, jumping on his lap and scratching him, the player learns about the rather unknown historical circumstances. 3. Dispositive 3.1 Involvement While the aesthetic of The Cat and the Coup is non-realist, the player gets involved by the mechanisms of the play itself. Even in the case of historical facts, involvement seems to be more important that representation. Indeed, involvement was an important element of the history of media. Within oral tradition, narrators recited the stories and changed them in response to audience reactions. 19 After the invention of print, handwritten versions of books and journals, dedicated to individual readers, were more highly valued than print versions. European nobility at first rejected printed books as vulgar and was reading only handwritten books. 20 In video games, various levels of play turn the player into the author who can choose from various modes of the game to be experienced.


Video Games as an Enhancement of Human Communication

__________________________________________________________________ Clearly, the possibilities for interaction are limited even in the case of games. As Manovich has pointed out, the interactivity in video games is actually a special kind of variability. 21 Yet, the gamers are much more actively involved than users of older media, and they themselves seriously take on the idea of co-creation. Here too, the video games have enhanced those possibilities that existed with older media. With film and television, fan communities were engaged in transforming and adopting dominant media contents to their own interests and tastes. 22 Similarly, in modding, officially designed environments of popular games are modified by players themselves. 23 It is within this particular environment that the use of games for reflection on past and present historical events or actualities has developed most forcefully. One of the most controversial mods is 9-11 Survivor. 24 It places the player in the World Trade Towers in the role of a victim on the day when they were destroyed. The exit is blocked and the only remaining possibilities are dying in the flames or jumping from the tower. Only a few months after its release, the art collective that produced the game withdrew it from the net, because the game caused severe disapproval. Critics objected that the game trivialised the events 25 whilst the authors claimed that they created the game in order to understand the tragedy. Gaming, as a subset of simulation ... lacks the authenticity of television and film (especially documentaries), but you gain a new set of tools for creating and disseminating these expressions. 26 In the place of a narrator in news media coverage or in a documentary film, they created the possibility for virtually experiencing the situation. 3.2 Between Participants and Observers Documentary games do not communicate through reporters, they communicate by putting players into the roles of participants. Raymond Williams defined this as the step from observing an action to sharing or communicating its experience. 27 For him, the capacity to enter a situation and show what was actually happening in it was an intrinsic element of television. 28 Williams formulated his argument on the basis of the drama-documentary genre that developed in television during the 1960 as a way of rethinking and reworking of the conventional distinction between reality and fiction. 29 Television did not follow its early endeavors and remained, until the present day, focused on the traditional way of reporting through journalists and other observers, whilst participant observation blossomed in what is considered to be an inferior kind of entertainment, for example reality shows. Disinterested observation is one of the postulates of modern science, and knowing through observing is nowadays still considered to be the more credible. However, sciences have already acknowledged different methods of cognition, human sciences in particular value approaches based on participation. Doubt in disinterested science is one of the main driving forces of contemporary

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__________________________________________________________________ epistemology of science. 30 The gaze was one of the prime media of disinterested observation, presumably offering direct access to the world without interfering with it. On the other hand, the image was traditionally mistrusted in Western cultures. The authors of documentary cinema dealt with this ambiguity of the visual from the very beginnings. One of the documentary cinema pioneers, John Grierson, defined documentary as creative treatment of actuality. 31 Documentary cinema movements of the postwar period, cinma vrit in France and direct cinema in USA, developed particular approaches to documentary film making. They connected naturalistic representational techniques with formalist cinematic editing and shooting techniques, including staged set-ups, and the use of the camera to provoke subjects. These approaches were a reaction to the post-war film propaganda, and are today, with new widely available tools of visual expression, the prevailing mode of documentary film making. Instead of aspiring to impartially record and reflect the actual world, documentary filmmakers are representing, and even interpreting the actual world. The medium of games offers the possibility of going one step further. To explain this, let me introduce the notion of the dispositive, le dispositif in French. 3.3 The Dispositive The theory of the dispositive is a key theory of visual media. It is known as theory of the apparatus, based on an understanding of the French term le dispositif in terms of the apparatus as the mechanism, whilst I rely on the understanding of the dispositive as involving the apparatus within the actual viewing situation. 32 The key concepts were developed by Christian Metz 33 and Jean-Louis Baudry. 34 Baudrys ambition was to explain the fact that technology in cinema plays a more important role than was generally acknowledged during his time. Starting with the technological particularities of cinema, he proposed a distinction between primary and secondary identification, and also between imaginary spectator and individual viewer. The distinction between primary and secondary identification can be compared to the distinction between gaming and narration in video games theory. Just as narration in games relies on the process of gaming, the cinema audience can identify with the leading characters of the on screen narration only if they first identify with the mechanism of the representation. Baudry reject the ontological realism of cinematic representation. The impression of reality in the cinema does not depend on what is shown on the screen, but on the position of the spectator. This does not mean, however, that every viewer experiences film in the same way. Even if the dispositive of cinema does provide an imaginary subject position, which is compulsory and the same for every viewer, it also addresses individual members of the audience. Le dispositif concerns projection and ... includes the subject to whom the projection is


Video Games as an Enhancement of Human Communication

__________________________________________________________________ addressed. 35 Within the dispositive, the subject is not only a simulated point of view that one must take in order to recognise the representations, and take them as reality, but it is also the actual spectator as a condition of the duration of these representations. In games, the avatar represents what Baudry defines as the imaginary subject position - a condition within which the game can be played. Yet the avatar as a hero of the game world can only exist in the actions of the actual, real player. This distinction explains the discontent regarding games such as SCM and 9-11 Survivor. Identification with the avatar is necessary to play the game, yet this does not imply that the player identities with the features of the character, represented by the avatar. The player identifies with the avatar within a gameplay, yet retains individual autonomy. In cinema, too, the secondary identifications with heroes of narration can take place regardless the off-screen preferences of viewers. However, the activity of the actual viewer is reduced to the act of observing, whilst in games the players subject position/avatar is an active part of the games dispositive, making the player an active participant of the narration. 4. Discussion Traditionally, the Western world has preferred observation to participation. Since the introduction of computers, learning by doing has become a legitimate and reliable mode of adopting technology that has been paralleled by a set of cultural changes. Games, being one of the more elaborate ways of participating in regard to cognition, are causing discontent. I propose to take this as a sign of change, and that the potential of games to enhance human communication requires further exploration. The concept of the dispositive is a reliable mechanism for this exploration. It signifies a major step away from the cause and effect logic of mainstream communication and media theories. This cause and effect logic seems justified in the case of observation, yet it proves itself inadequate from the perspective of participation. The distinction between primary and secondary identification within the concept of the dispositive, aims at explaining the complexities of those processes of identification and verification. The dispositive acknowledges the relevance of the technology without technological determinism, by considering instead the inevitable unity of form and content, hardware and software, gameplay and narration. On a more general level, the dispositive exposes the intertwining of reality and fiction, and points to the shortcomings of those assumptions that media contents directly influence the behaviours of actual persons. Recent events have renewed the relevance of the dispositive concept. In June 2012 the Guardian newspaper reported that Iran is producing computer games as, in the words of a Student Association representative, one way to combat the cultural war against Iran. 36 This proves that games are already in use for communication far beyond sheer entertainment. It also raises to another level the

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__________________________________________________________________ phenomenon of news-games, the contemporary practice of using computer games to explain or comment on current news. 37 The Colorado Movie Theater Shooting during the premiere of The Dark Knight Rises 38 on July 20th, and frequent allusions to the suspected gunman as The Joker, the villain in the second film of the Batman movie trilogy, shows that the eternal questions still persist about relations between the media and society. With video games, identification and authenticity acquire new meanings. From the perspective of the dispositive, they might also be helpful when searching for the answers.

Danny Lendone, 2005. Elephant, 2003. 3 Bowling for Columbine, 2002. 4 Super Columbine Massacre, accessed May 10, 2012, 5 Clive Thompson, I, Columbine Killer, last modified 2007, accessed May 10, 2012. 6 Darfur is Dying, accessed May 10, 2012, 7 McDonalds Videogame, accessed May 10, 2012, 8 Jose P. Zagal, Ethically Notable Videogames: Moral Dilemmas and Gameplay, in Breaking New Ground: Innovation in Games, Play, Practice and Theory. Proceedings of DiGRA 2009, 2009, 2. 9 David A. Clearwater, What Defines Video Game Genre? Thinking about Genre Study After the Great Divide, Loading The Journal of the Canadian Game Studies Association (2011): 1. 10 Clearwater, What Defines Video Game?, 8. 11 Ibid., 36. 12 Tracy Fullerton, Documentary Games: Putting the Player in the Path of History, in Playing the Past Nostalgia in Video Games and Electronic Literature (Gainesville, Fla: Vanderbilt University Press, 2005), 3 and Cynthia Katherine Poremba, Real|Unreal: Crafting Actuality in the Documentary Videogame (PhD Diss., Concordia University, 2011), 3. 13 Fullerton, Documentary Games, 4. 14 Andre Bazin, Quest-ce que le Cinma? (New edition: Les ditions du CERF, 2003 [1958-1962]). 15 Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright, Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 140. 16 Ibid.
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__________________________________________________________________ Fullerton, Documentary Games, 1. 19 Janet Murray, in Matt Hanson, The End of Celluloid: Film Futures in the Digital Age (Hove East Sussex: RotoVision, 2004), 57. 20 Asa Briggs and Peter Burke, A Social History of the Media: From Gutenberg to the Internet (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2002). 21 Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge: Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2002). 22 Sturken and Cartwright, Practices of Looking. 23 Hanson, The End of Celluloid, 132. 24 Brennan, Caloud and Cole, 2003. 25 Joyce Goggin, Therapeutic Gaming and 9/11, Reconstruction 11, No. 2 (2011). Accessed May 10, 2012. 26 John Brennan, in Hanson, The End of Celluloid, 135. 27 Raymond Williams, Television, Technology and Cultural Form (London: Routledge, 1990 [Schocken Books, 1975]), 73. 28 Williams, Television, 72. 29 Ibid. 30 See for example Donna Haraway, Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium. FemaleManMeets_OncoMouseTM: Feminism and Technoscience (New York: Routledge, 1997), and Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991). 31 Bill Nichols, Introducing the Documentary (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2001), 24. 32 For additional arguments for translating French dispositif as dispositive, see Jeffrey Bussolini, What Is a Dispositive?, Foucault Studies 10 (November 2010): 85-107. 33 Christian Metz, Le Signifiant Imaginaire, Communications 23, No. 1 (1975): 355. 34 Jean-Louis Baudry, Cinma: Effets Idologiques Produits par Lappareil de Base, first published in Cinthique 7-8, Paris 1970, in Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology, ed. Philip Rosen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 286298, and Jean-Louis Baudry, Le Dispositif: Approches Mtapsychologiques de Limpression de Ralit, first published in Communications 23, Psychanalyse et Cinma, Seuil, Paris 1975, in Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology, ed. Philip Rosen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 299-318. 35 Baudry, Le Dispositif, 317. 36 Saeed Kamali Dehgan, Salman Rushdie Fatwa Turned into Iranian Video Game, The Guardian, 26 June 2012, accessed June 28, 2012,
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__________________________________________________________________ 37 Miguel Sicart, Newsgames: Theory and Design, in Entertainment Computing Icec 2008 , eds. Scott M. Stevens and Shirley J. Saldamarco (New York: Springer, 2008), 27-33. 38 Christopher Nolan, 2012.

Baudry, Jean-Louis. Cinma: Effets Idologiques Produits par Lappareil de Base, first published in Cinthique 7-8, Paris 1970. In Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology, edited by Philip Rosen, 286298. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986. . Le Dispositif: Approches Mtapsychologiques de Limpression de Ralit, first published in Communications 23, Psychanalyse et cinma, Seuil, Paris 1975. In Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology, edited by Philip Rosen, 299318. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986. Bazin, Andre. Quest-ce Que Le Cinma?. New edition: Les ditions du CERF, 2003 [1958-1962]. Briggs, Asa, and Peter Burke. A Social History of the Media: From Gutenberg to the Internet. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2002. Brinson, Peter, and Kurosh ValaNejad. The Cat and the Coup. Accessed May 10, 2012. Bussolini, Jeffrey. What Is a Dispositive? Foucault Studies 10 (November 2010): 85107. Clearwater, David A. What Defines Video Game Genre? Thinking about Genre Study After the Great Divide. Loading The Journal of the Canadian Game Studies Association (2011). Darfur Is Dying. Accessed May 10, 2012.


Video Games as an Enhancement of Human Communication

__________________________________________________________________ Dehgan, Saeed Kamali. Salman Rushdie Fatwa Turned into Iranian Video Game. The Guardian, 26 June 2012. Accessed June 28, 2012. Etherington, Daniel. Gaming Violence: Content Vs Context. BBC Collective, 2007. Accessed May 10, 2012. Fullerton, Tracy. Documentary Games: Putting the Player in the Path of History. In Playing the Past Nostalgia in Video Games and Electronic Literature, 128. Gainesville, Fla: Vanderbilt University Press, 2005. Goggin, Joyce. Therapeutic Gaming and 9/11. Reconstruction 11, No. 2 (2011). Accessed May 10, 2012. Hanson, Matt. The End of Celluloid: Film Futures in the Digital Age. Hove East Sussex: RotoVision, 2004. Haraway,Donna. Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleManMeets_Onco MouseTM: Feminism and Technoscience. New York: Routledge, 1997. . Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991. Lendone, Danny. Super Columbine Massacre RPG! Accessed May 10, 2012. Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2002. McDonalds Videogame. Accessed May 10, 2012.

Metz, Christian. Le Signifiant Imaginaire. Communications 23, No. 1 (1975): 3 55. Nichols, Bill. Introducing the Documentary. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2001.

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__________________________________________________________________ Poremba, Cynthia Katherine. Real|Unreal: Crafting Actuality in the Documentary Videogame. PhD Diss., Concordia University, 2011. Sicart, Miguel. Newsgames: Theory and Design. In Entertainment Computing Icec 2008 , edited by Scott M. Stevens, and Shirley J. Saldamarco, 2733. New York: Springer, 2008. Sturken, Marita, and Lisa Cartwright. Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. Thompson, Clive. I, Columbine Killer. Last modified 2007. Accessed May 10, 2012. 01/72491. Melita Zajc, Assistant Professor of Media Communication at the University of Maribor, holds PhDs in Anthropology and Philosophy. Her research interests are social dimensions of new media technologies, visual culture and film, her recent publications include Nigerian Video Film Cultures (Anthropological Notebooks 2009, 15/1) and Slovene Web Series and Participative Media Cultures (in Proti Koncu, Slovenska Kinoteka 2011).