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  1. We are about four or five years into the formation of a new discipline, digital game studies. Though by one account computer games have been around for more than four decades (Aarseth), and by another computer and video game sales in the United States are rivaling movie box office sales (Frauenfelder), academic attention to the medium has come relatively recently. At this early stage, digital game studies is necessarily and self-consciously concerned with its own formation, and is heavily engaged with an argument about whether this new phenomenon is to be swallowed by already existing disciplines, or whether it needs to and could develop into a discipline of its own, with a coherent object of study and institutional support. 2001 was an interesting year in this regard. Espen Aarseth, whose Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature aims to unseat "hypertext" as the paradigm for studying electronic literature, editorializes in the inaugural issue of the new online journal Game Studies that "2001 can be seen as the Year One of Computer Game Studies as an emerging, viable, international, academic field." As editor of Game Studies, Aarseth notes "the very early stage we are still in, where the struggle of controlling and shaping the theoretical paradigms has just started." His editorial both invites and warns, however, as he cautions against the "colonizing attempts" of other disciplines: "Making room for a new field usually means reducing the resources of the existing ones, and the existing fields will also often respond by trying to contain the new area as a subfield. Games are not a kind of cinema, or literature, but colonizing attempts from both these fields have already happened, and no doubt will happen again." The problem, Aarseth argues, is the kind of methodological blindnesses that would be imported into digital game studies along with other baggage. While "we all enter this field from somewhere else, from anthropology, sociology, narratology, semiotics, film studies, etc., and the political and ideological baggage we bring from our old field inevitably determines and motivates our approaches," Aarseth envisions "an independent academic structure" (of which Game Studies would surely stand as one institution) as the only viable way for digital game studies to avoid obscuring its object through inappropriate lenses borrowed from other fields.

  2. Also in 2001, the October issue of PMLA contained an article on the "new media" by influential cinema studies critic D. N. Rodowick. Rodowick argues that, for reasons of an "aesthetic inferiority complex" and a sustained debate about both the medium-object and a "concept or technique" that might ground film studies, this discipline "has never congealed into a discipline in the same way as English literature or art history" (1400). While the "great paradox of cinema, with respect to the conceptual categories of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century aesthetics, is that it is both a temporal and a spatial medium" (1401), Rodowick argues that "the new digital culture" is not emerging in the same "theoretical vacuum" that film did; rather, that good digital culture studies, including the study of games, already

    recirculates and renovates key concepts and problems of film theory: how movement and temporality affect emerging forms of image; the shifting status of photographic realism as a cultural construct; how questions of signification are transformed by the narrative organization of time-based spatial media; and the relation of technology to art, not only in the production and dissemination of images but also in the technological delimitation and organization of the spatiality and temporality of spectatorial experience and desire. (1403)

    While seeing film studies as having grappled for a half-century with spatial-temporal images, thus providing us with the beginnings of a vocabulary with which to approach digital gaming, Rodowick nonetheless notes gaming's different status, saying that "interactive media promote a form of participatory spectatorship relatively unknown in other time-based spatial media" (1402).[1]

  3. One can see the gap here between Rodowick's optimism at the prospect of refitting existing conceptual categories for the study of new digital media, including computer and video (console) games, and Aarseth's pessimistic assessment of how such moves amount to a sort of hostile takeover of what might have been a theoretically and institutionally independent new field. These positions seem to me to characterize the current state of digital game studies. (And we might, following both Rodowick's and Aarseth's attention to institutions and power, wonder if it's not coincidental that the optimistic position is articulated by an influential--perhaps even powerful--chair of film studies at King's College, London in a prestigious print journal--itself a disciplinary emblem 116 years old--while that of the pessimists is articulated by the author of the iconoclastic Cybertext in an online journal in its infancy.) While it is likely that much of the actual work getting done in digital game studies falls somewhere between Rodowick's ideal of adaptability and Aarseth's nightmare of ignorant misapplication, I hope in this paper to show what a broadly conceived literary studies might offer the new digital game studies, and so highlight both Aarseth's warning and Rodowick's invitation. Games are not, as Aarseth says, literature, but they can sometimes be productively approached with conceptual categories borrowed from literary studies. Indeed, it may be that what we find most useful in approaching this new cultural phenomenon is the disciplinary baggage accumulated along the way.

  4. Aarseth's concerns are articulated a little more fully in the same inaugural issue of Game Studies in an article by the journal's co-editor Markku Eskelinen.[2] In "The Gaming Situation," Eskelinen, using Aarseth's image of colonization, also mourns the way conceptual categories improperly imported from other fields are misused to study digital games: "if and when games and especially computer games are studied and theorized they are almost without exception colonised from the fields of literary, theatre, drama and film studies. Games are seen as interactive narratives, procedural stories or remediated cinema." Eskelinen's answer to the methodological problem that he and Aarseth delineate is to begin the "necessary formalistic phase that computer game studies have to enter" by developing a complex though introductory taxonomy of the different possible gaming situations. This taxonomy confronts "the bare essentials of the gaming situation: the manipulation or the configuration of temporal, spatial, causal and functional relations and properties in different registers." In the preliminary taxonomy that follows, Eskelinen develops a system for understanding games as "configurative practices" rather than interpretive ones, and draws extensively on the narratology advanced by those such as Gerald Prince and Seymour Chatman. Insofar as it goes, and keeping in mind Eskelinen's own admission that he is initiating a "necessar y formalistic phase" in order to name the parts of a new phenomenon, Eskelinen's approach is a useful hermeneutic grid by which we can categorize and understand the real and potential forms that games take. Though one might not always agree with some of Eskelinen's preliminary thoughts on the gaming experience--his taxonomy seems to overemphasize the movement from start to finish, ignoring the ludic pleasures of side-plots or repetitive play--this style of formal functionalism will help us get a grasp of the variety of digital gaming experience.

  5. That said, what becomes apparent in Eskelinen's critique of other disciplines' colonizing moves is the danger attending any transdisciplinary academic enterprise: the tendency to misconstrue what other disciplines do, or to regard them as monolithic, neglecting their many internal debates and divisions. For example, Eskelinen condemns literary studies for seeing games as "interactive" stories or for misapplying "outdated literary theory." While both of these missteps are certainly possible, they don't exhaust the possibilities for a literary studies approach to computer games (as even Eskelinen's own use of narratology shows). I will use two examples here to illustrate my point. First, it is the lack of a story that provides a useful way into the player's experience of first-person shooters such as Half-Life or countless others; Eskelinen's useful narratological tools notwithstanding, it is the very repetition of the same sequence and the experience of storied intention that might be worth noting from a literary studies point of view. Second, with other games in the tradition of Sid Meier's Civilization series, literary studies' methodologies (as well as its baggage) can help us grasp the way games come into being as repetitions of traditional cultural-semiotic formations.

  6. In Joystick Nation, J. C. Herz makes a distinction between a game's "two stories superimposed. One is the sequence of events that happened in the past, which you can't change but is a very good story. The other is the sequence of events that happens in the present (e.g., you are wandering around trying to solve puzzles), which is a lousy story but is highly interactive" (150). But this split--a good background story that you can't affect and a poor excuse for a plot that you perform as you interact in gaming space--is rarely true for first-person shooters. In typical shooters such as the Quake or Duke Nukem series, there is no interesting background story. Typically, aliens have invaded or monsters have sprung up and you need to shoot 'em. That's it. Half-Life develops this theme a bit by having the player's avatar be a dorky, spectacled, theoretical physicist who inadvertently aids the accidental opening of a dimensional rift that allows all kind of baddies through to our world, but even this is still a rather rudimentary and clichéd background story.

  7. On Herz's other level, however, there's even less "story," and in this sense, shooter games make very poor interactive narratives. Things move, you shoot them. Try to find the right door and make the right jump. There are some more things--shoot them too. This episodic series of encounters does not make an interesting tale, and here one would have to agree with Eskelinen that interpreting computer games of this genre (at this stage of development) as "interactive fiction" would be woefully misguided and wouldn't tell us a whole lot about the game or the experience of playing it. Or, rather, testing narrative against Half-Life reveals an interesting lack. Peter Brooks formulates his inquiry into plot as the "seeking in the unfolding of the narrative a line of intention and a portent of design that hold the promise of progress toward meaning" (xiii). What's interesting in many games is the combination of, first, a plot rarely interesting enough to create in the player a narrative desire for meaning, and, second, a sense nonetheless of design in the world, design that promises absolute meaning. If Half-Life does not enplot me as the character-operator in an interesting way, it is nonetheless existentially soothing in that shooter games (and other genres) encode a kind of narrative of design that is created in part through repetition. That is, I can replay scenes endlessly for a better outcome. Most shooter and adventure games in particular contain several or even many such scenes that necessitate this, such as a particularly difficult jump or a sudden ambush--I must play it several times before I even know what tactic will get me out of a situation into which I am "thrown," and then several more times before I get it right. This might sound like cheating, but it isn't. This is the experience structured into the gaming process--the multiple tries at the same space-time moment. Like Superman after Lois Lane dies, we can in a sense turn back the clock and replay the challenge, to a better end.

  8. In view of this systemic repetition or déjà vu built into a game, one might remember Albert Camus's attraction to the figure of Sisyphus, doomed in hell to eternally roll a heavy stone up a hill, despite knowing that it will tumble back down again. Sisyphus's repetitive act has no resolution to it--he's doing the same thing, but won't be able to figure out a way to do it "properly" eventually, so that the rock will stay put at the top of the hill. In the game world, this would be known as a programming error--I can't make the big stone stay at the top of the hill so I can get to the next level--and the software maker would promptly send out a patch to fix the bug. In other words, it's a flaw in the game world's design. But what attracted Camus to Sisyphus's situation was its resonance with the essential structure of human experience--absurdity. "Sisyphus is the absurd hero" (89), Camus reports. What is absurd is that, against our desire for order and meaning in the universe, the universe meets us as blank, a fact that does not, however, destroy our desire. Camus defines the absurd human situation this way:

    I said that the world is absurd, but I was too hasty. This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. (16)

    Our world is not reasonable, as Camus says, because it is without design--it carries no mark of having been made with us in mind. By itself, this designless, random, irrational world is not absurd. The absurd's structure, Camus repeatedly notes, is always double and relational: the world is absurd only by virtue of being perceived by our minds, which desire order and design in it.

  9. In the face of this absurd realization, humans create constructs that help us escape it--which is where narrative comes in, not only in the narratological sense, but in the sense of creating plots, designs, intentions in our world. We look for something that might assure us of design and intention, which is what religion does, but it's also what games do. Games therefore do not threaten film's status so much as they threaten religion, because they perform the same existentially soothing task as religion. They proffer a world of meaning, in which we not only have a task to perform, but a world that is made with us in mind. And, indeed, the game world is made with us, or at least our avatar, in mind. As Lara Croft's creator puts it, "The whole Tomb Raider world is utterly dependent on Lara's size and animations. The distance she can jump, reach, run forward and fall are set variables. In this way, her world is designed for her to exist in" (qtd in Poole 212). This is true of the gaming world, not just in virtual-physical measurements but also in terms of the lack of autonomy of everything within the world. In the game world there is random chance in the form of computer-generated virtual dice-rolls, but no contingency: I might play a game for 80 hours and arrive at a place where a broken box hides a passage that has been prepared--just for me. Or I might find at the beginning of a game a key, and pocket it with the certainty that after tens of hours of play (sometimes years in game time) the key will be absolutely necessary to open a door I've just found. Of course, I might find and pocket a key in this bug-ridden piece of software we call "reality" as well, but it almost certainly will not end up opening a door for me. Such keys represent sheer potentiality. In my life, many millions of such potentialities are never realized--I'll never know what door this key opens--whereas in the game, most of them are. They come to me by design, not by chance; they are oriented toward my success and enjoyment. Computer games, particularly those with worlds prepared for our exploration like shooters, adventure, and role-playing games, thus existentially soothe us amid the terror that we otherwise feel.[3]

  10. In these ways, literary studies' experience with reading designed worlds (fiction) might help us understand how digital games situate their operators, and give us a view onto the pleasurable work that they do. To "read for the plot," as Peter Brooks puts it, is thus not to see games as stories--even interactive ones that purportedly involve the "reader" more directly than traditional tales or films--but to see the player's experience as one of unraveling the design inherent in the game world.[4] This kind of investigation may, however, differ from what Eskelinen calls "traditional literary studies" which is "based on literary objects that are static, intransient, determinate, impersonal, random access, solely interpretive and without links" ("Cybertext"). Eskelinen foresees a productive "combinatory and dialogic interplay" between literary studies' interpretive practices and that taxonomic formalism that he advocates, and he's probably right--though this Anatomy of Criticism for the playing of digital games remains to be written. In briefly investigating a second genre, that of the turn-based strategy games of Sid Meier's famous Civilization series, I want to show how our interpretive practices are useful in opening up the cultural semiotics of the game. But, just as importantly, it's the very disciplinary baggage coming with old methodologies, which Eskelinen and Aarseth fear will obfuscate the new object, that turns out to be the source of insight into the medium, not only as a text to be read but as the normative historical rules within which the operator works, and which, in turn, work on the operator.

  11. Civilization III, the latest iteration of Sid Meier's influential series,[5] was published in 2001 to much critical acclaim. It is a turn-based strategy game in which the player-operator plays the role of the (fortunately ageless) ruler of a nascent civilization, from 4000 B.C. to 2020 A.D. As ruler, the player governs the developing civilization throughout six millennia by exploring the world, sending out settlers to found new cities, developing existing cities by building city improvements, coming into contact with other, and eventually rival, computer-controlled civilizations, and setting tax policy (how much of a civilization's wealth should be devoted to citizen's consumption, technological research, or to the governor's coffers). Beyond expanding the territory of one's civilization, whether through settling, warfare, cultural influence or espionage, one of the most important aspects of the game is researching new technologies. The game involves 82 "technological" advances which are military, governmental, financial, theological, scientific, and theoretical in nature. New technological breakthroughs allow cities to build city improvements, to build new military units, or to embark on what's called a "Wonder of the World."

  12. Unlike Civilization II, in which Wonders of the World are unique projects (that is, in any game a Wonder can only be built by one city on the planet) with empire-wide beneficial effects, Civilization III has Great Wonders, which follow the above rule, and Small Wonders, which can be built once by each rival civilization. For example, in both games the discovery of Literature (called Literacy in Civilization II) allows a city to build the Great Library, which in turn bestows upon its owner any technological advance already known to two other civilizations. With the discovery of Electronics, on the other hand, a civilization is allowed to build the Hoover Dam, which puts a hydroelectric plant in each of the continent's cities (thus improving production). Typically, a civilization further up what is termed in the strategy game genre the "technology tree" has a competitive edge--social, economic, and military--over its rivals.

  13. The bulk of the game's play in Civilization III occurs around and in the cities. The map of the world is divided into a diagonal grid on which cities are built and over which units move. Once built, cities extend a zone of control two squares in every direction. A city's population works this area, extracting food, production materials, and trade goods. Cities are the sites of industry, commerce, and research for each civilization, and their relative health is an index to the strength of the civilization as a whole. The game accordingly inscribes an expansionist narrative, whereby one wins only by settling new cities or conquering those of one's opponents.

    a beacon on the hill
    Figure 1: A City on a Hill

  14. When the game begins, the world is shrouded in unexplored darkness, the player has no diplomatic contact with the rival civilizations, and the opening message announces that "Your ancestors were nomads. But over the generations your people have learned the secrets of farming, road-building, and irrigation, and they are ready to settle down." The first goal is to found a capital city, from which the empire will proceed to grow (Figure 1). There are two phases to this process of expansion: the exploration of nearby terrain, during which the darkness recedes, and the settling of that terrain by settler units, who found new cities. Eventually, the expanding empire comes into contact with rival civilizations, at which time diplomacy begins.

    the virgin wilderness
    Figure 2: The Virgin Land
    full of howling men
    Figure 3: Full of Wild Beasts and Wild Men

  15. What is interesting for the purpose of this paper is the way in which the land appears empty of inhabitants until one runs into the rival civilizations (Figure 2). Once the terrain is revealed, there is no presence other than one's civilization and its rivals. However, placed at random intervals over the map are village icons (which are not cities; see Figure 3) representing the existence of a "minor tribe"--populations which, according to Civilization III's manual, "are too isolated, not organized enough, or too migratory to develop into major civilizations" (Manual 67). In terms of Civilization's gameplay, however, these are known as "goody huts" in that exploring them often confers benefits upon the explorer, such as a technological advance, a sum of money, a military unit, or even a new city that joins the player's civilization. But frequently one encounters a hostile reception when entering a hut square, during which, as Civilization II's manual puts it, "a random number of barbarian units comes boiling out of the terrain squares that adjoin the village" (83; see Figure 4). Or, as the game screen expresses it, "you have unleashed a horde of barbarians!" In any event, the village disappears, and the land once again is clear for settlement--provided, of course, you can dispatch the barbarians.[6]

    you have unleashed a horde of 
    Figure 4: You Have Unleashed a Horde of Barbarians!

  16. Civilization III and its predecessors thus posit the land as both inhabited and not inhabited by populations that seem to be on the land yet somehow, paradoxically, don't occupy it. The Civilization III manual's explanation of such minor tribes as being "too isolated, not organized enough, or too migratory to develop into major civilizations" must be discounted as the game's first ideological ruse: no village is any more "isolated" at the start of the game than the player is; the tribes are not "migratory" because they remain fixed on a single terrain square; and since such tribes can offer the occasional technological advance, they obviously are not too "unorganized" to develop into a civilization. In fact, these games posit a fundamental opposition between a tribe's mere squatting on the land, taking up space, and the civilization's real tenancy on the land. And here one meets the first paradox of the American national symbolic staged by the game. American mythology has it that the Americas were essentially empty of inhabitants prior to colonization by European powers. What the Civilization series stages is the contradiction between this comforting "national fantasy" (Berlant 1) of the virgin land and the reality of the complex aboriginal societies all over the Americas. In the Civilization series, the barbarians appear to emerge from the land as a kind of terrestrial effect. This effect comes about not only by the exploration of the villages, but from random appearances of several barbarian units in land that has been explored but not settled. This dynamic inevitably takes place on the frontier of the player's civilization--that liminal place where one's smallest cities are located, between the center of one's empire (and its bigger and better-defended metropoli) and the seemingly empty wilderness beyond. It is primarily on this frontier that the logic of civilization finds itself through a meeting with its opposite, the frontier being, as Frederick Jackson Turner imagined it, "the meeting point between savagery and civilization" (qtd in Drinnon xiii). This dynamic, of what the game calls the "boiling out" of symbolic Indians, is enough to strike terror into the heart of the civilization ruler, a terror akin to that American terror of the new world. Our early records of settler conceptualizations of their Indian neighbors give evidence of this terror; early Puritan separatist William Bradford, in Of Plymouth Plantation, wrote in the 1620s of "a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men" (62). For Bradford, "the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hue" (62).

  17. The best defense against barbarian-Indians is to "settle" the land by extending one's cities. In Civilization II, if all squares of what Bradford called the "hideous and desolate wilderness" come within city radii, the "wild men" he referred to never emerge. In other words, the game imagines the indigenous presence as a kind of wildness in the land that simply disappears when the land has been domesticated. In this way, these games arrive at an ideological solution that echoes the one achieved by early Christian settlers of America. The problem is this: how can the pagan Indian presence be accounted for in this land that is understood to have been given by God's grace to his Christian people? This problem and its resolution are nicely articulated in another early Christian record of settlement, Mary Rowlandson's 1682 account of her capture, enslavement, and eventual ransoming from the Wampanoag nation in what is today Massachusetts. When Rowlandson is captured during a raid on the settler town of Lancaster, she has to try to make sense of her Indian captor's presence and agency in terms of the mythology that was currently governing the northeast colonies. In this "the vast and desolate wilderness," as she calls it (122-23), echoing Bradford, the Indian presence is seen, ultimately, to be a method whereby God tests his people. Why, for Rowlandson, has God seemed to leave His people to themselves? After all, God could annihilate the heathens but chooses not to. The answer Rowlandson comes to is that the Wampanoag are the means by which God teaches His people moral lessons (158-59). This answer takes the agency away from the Indians--it's not their own knowledge about how to feed themselves during a particularly brutal New England winter that gets them through it (they've been there for centuries, after all), but God's will. As Rowlandson puts it, "I can but stand in admiration to see the wonderful power of God, in providing for such a vast number of our Enemies in the Wilderness, where there was nothing to be seen, but from hand to mouth" (160). The Civilization games pursue a parallel logic--the Indian presence is understood to be a kind of obstacle, the overcoming of which is the register of the civilization's vitality and superiority. The Indians exist not as a civilization in their own right, but as an obstacle to be surmounted by civilization; in the game, as in Rowlandson's account, the enemy Indian Other is imagined as being the mechanism whereby the nascent American self is tested and found to be powerful.[7]

    pink, pillaging barbarians
    Figure 5: Pink, Pillaging Barbarians

  18. Civilization III transforms this symbolic content and, displaying the result, thereby conceals its ideological commitments. It offers, in other words, a series of interpretive ruses, such as the manual's explanation of the nature of the minor tribes, to distract our attention. Among the other ruses are the fact that, while the "barbarians" cannot become a rival civilization, the game allows you to play as the Iroquois or Aztecs (or Mayans, Aztecs and Sioux in Civilization II). And indeed there are other ruses as well--such as the visibly pinkish skin of the barbarians that emerge from the land in Civilization II's and Civilization III's iconography (see Figure 5). It was the iteration in 2000 of Civilization: Call to Power (one of several sequels to Civilization II) that accidentally literalized the symbolic content in its iconography, having the barbarian units (and the player's early warrior units) replete with headdress (Figure 6).

    Figure 6: Blood Shall Run!

    The barbarian units also respond to a player's commands with the phrase "blood shall run," spoken in the Hollywood Indian's characteristic monotone. Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri came perilously close to literalizing the symbolic when it routinely announced a player's encounter with the aboriginal fauna using the ominous words, "indigenous life-forms," the very postcolonial diction of which raises such intertextual, historical echoes.

    culture tames the wilderness
    Figure 7: Culture Tames the Wilderness

  19. Civilization III adds a new component to this ideological framework, that of national "culture." In Civilization II, the player's civilization does not have a border as such: or, rather, its border is in a sense a series of city states whose collective territory is only the map squares that the cities work. Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri adds a territorial border to the game that exceeds by several squares the immediate land that is worked by one's cities; this is useful because another civilization can't then place dozens of troops almost at one's city gates just before declaring war, since it would have to trespass across the territorial border first. Civilization III adds a logic to this border, and makes it integral to the experience of the game when it introduces the new concept of national culture. In Civilization III, cities can create improvements like temples, cathedrals, libraries, palaces, universities, or Wonders that generate "culture points" every turn; when enough have accumulated, a visible line representing a civilization's cultural borders extends further outward from the city, beyond the squares that the city can work directly. When each contiguous city's cultural borders touch together, a national culture is created, represented on the map by a visible line that demarcates one's territory from that of another civilization (Figure 7). The game also represents the national borders of rival civilizations; in fact, a small city with little culture of its own on the border of a rival civilization with a powerful culture can be swayed to depose its governor and convert to the rival civilization. What's interesting here too, however, is the role that culture plays vis-à-vis the Indians: first, Indian villages don't generate culture, and second, they won't emerge from "empty" land that is within your cultural borders but beyond the reach of your cities. As the manual puts it,

    though you might conquer the active tribes in your immediate area, new ones arise in areas that are outside your cultural borders, in areas that are not currently seen. . . . Thus, expanding your network of cities over a continent eventually removes the threat of active tribes, because the entire area has become more or less civilized by your urban presence. (67)

    In other words, again repeating traditional American mythology, the Natives don't have culture (because their "villages" don't generate it like your "cities" do), but they can be tamed by it. Or, to put it yet another way, the absence of Native title to the land they squatted on is betrayed by their lack of real cultural formations that might confer tenancy.

    barbarians inside the gates
    Figure 8: Barbarians Inside the Gates
    barbarians outside the gates
    Figure 9: Barbarians Outside the Gates

  20. In these games, the fact that the Indians are understood not to occupy the land is linked fundamentally to the Native inability to develop technology. That is, they propose that indigenous populations improperly take up space in the empty land precisely because they don't develop technology and therefore aren't nascent civilizations. Conversely, these populations don't develop technology because they don't have a meaningful presence on the land--when they are in their "goody huts" they don't, that is, work the land (as agriculture, mining, trade) as a resource in order to advance along a teleological model of technical progress. Even when the barbarians manage to take over a player's civilized city (Figure 8), which happens from time to time in Civilization II but which feature has been excised from Civilization III, they work the land in the city's radius but don't improve the land (through irrigation or creating mines), they can't make city improvements (like a granary to store grain or barracks to train troops), and they can't collect taxes or research new technology (see Figure 9 in contrast). In this way, Civilization II and III construct the indigenous population as another obstacle of the landscape--and one which, like the others, needs to be settled and disciplined. Eradicating the minor tribes and the land's erupting barbarians is not an unfortunate side effect to the march of progress--it is actually constitutive of one's civilization.

  21. Thus far I have argued that the Civilization series is infused with an American ideology that is comforting insofar as it justifies genocidal practices and the stealing of land by positing an empty virgin continent that is paradoxically populated by what the game manual calls "minor tribes" that can't improve the land and tame the wilderness. Literary studies' strengths in reading semiotic codes, in seeing historical parallels, and in reading for the gaps and fissures, knowing that "what the work cannot say is important" (Macherey 87), are as important as any narratological contribution it might make to digital game studies. But, in this instance at least, it is precisely the disciplinary-institutional baggage of American literary studies that helps bring into focus the problematics through which the Civilization series works without explicitly naming them. In the last twenty or so years, American literary studies has begun to recognize its own historical and ongoing evasion of the United States's practices of empire and colonization. "The land was ours before we were the land's," intoned Robert Frost in the land's eastern capital in 1961; as his inaugural poem describes America's spiritual "surrender" to the land, "we gave ourselves outright . . . / To the land vaguely realizing westward, / But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced" (467). Five years before, in his well-known preface to his Errand Into the Wilderness, the influential historian Perry Miller retrospectively discerned the coherence in his work to be, as he put it, "the massive narrative of the movement of European culture into the vacant wilderness of America" (vii). Both Frost and Miller articulate a central tenet of one American mythology: that the United States was founded upon an empty land devoid of inhabitants. As Amy Kaplan puts this problem:

    United States continental expansion is often treated as an entirely separate phenomenon from European colonialism of the nineteenth century, rather than as an interrelated form of imperial expansion. The divorce between these two histories mirrors the American historiographical tradition of viewing empire as a twentieth-century aberration, rather than as part of an expansionist continuum. (17)

  22. Though much recent and some older work in American studies has begun to unravel this strand of American ideology,[8] the comforting notion of the "vacant wilderness" awaiting European settlement remains essential to this culture's symbolic self-understanding, even as repressed reminders of the historically vast aboriginal presence in the land continually rise to challenge the empty land hypothesis. In this case, it's the initial blindness to American empire and colonization in American literary studies--and then a corrective movement, represented by such important works as Kaplan and Pease's Cultures of United States Imperialism (1993) and Rowe's Literary Culture and U.S. Imperialism (2000), not to mention the new areas of inquiry opened by postcolonial theory and Chicano and Native American studies--that constitutes the "baggage" literary studies can helpfully introduce to digital game studies. Like the Civilization series, other games might pursue similar strategies of transformation, display, and concealment: strategies now retroactively recognizable within the institutional, disciplinary history of American literary studies. While this baggage is useful, however, the kind of reading of ideology it allows is no different from that which might be performed on Mary Rowlandson, William Bradford, Robert Frost, or Perry Miller, to use my emblematic examples above. But when we turn our attention to the generic status of these texts registering this American ideology, we begin to see how an old style of ideology critique fails to take into account what I have called the "staging" of the ideology in this computer game. By this term I mean not the way the game creates a kind of panoramic representation of a peculiar set of political or social ideals, something that a reader of a book might (more or less) passively receive. Rather, if we, following Eskelinen's lead, borrow Aarseth's terminology and see games as configurative (in addition to interpretive) practices, the peculiar status of the computer game is to actually incorporate the player, making us into actors within the ideological staging: we also produce the ideological effects that the game registers each time we play the game.

  23. In this view, computer games could be understood to set the rules of play wherein the human player navigates through particular ideological or social contradictions; as rules, importantly, they naturalize certain historical and cultural contingencies. A game's rules thus permit a select set of (re)solutions to the conflicts in the national symbolic which the game stages. Among other ideological effects, Civilization III makes inevitable, natural, and universal several Western-centered ideas of technological progress, the use of the land, and the opposition between "civilization" and "savagery." In this way, historical specificity is forgotten, and the game reinforces the sense that those who have been displaced were only ever natural obstacles erupting randomly from the wilderness to block (American) civilization's advance. Because these ideas are coded into the game rules they appear as inevitable historical rules. The game places the player in the position of guiding America's development (even if the name of the civilization we play is different); we reenact the historical-territorial drama. The rules are the natural and naturalized logic of development within which that drama is played out (to a certain end).[9] This process goes beyond the audience reacting to an ideological image or representation; instead, the player participates in producing an ideological effect that is not totally explicit anywhere, and that she or he may not fully comprehend. But of course, full comprehension is not the goal of the national symbolic, or of ideology.

  24. Players also learn to literally "play by the rules" in the game, which helps incorporate us into a society in which there will also be rules to be followed. What some games accomplish at an early age is to establish the idea of rules as something that are given, a status akin to that of a natural law. But Civilization III's typically adult players[10] are taught again that success or failure happens within the rules that create a "level playing field" as the current cliché has it. In board games or computer games, however, players actually do start out in relative equality (although there are some chance elements as well, depending on the game), whereas in real life, so many characteristics of one's life are already determined before birth, including social and economic standing, political freedom, skin color, gender, etc. What games accomplish is the instilling of the ideology of equality, which postulates that we are born equal and that differences emerge later on; the primary difference to be explained in this way is that of economic disparity, and games help explain that difference as the result of, in America, hard work and effort vs. laziness. Thus gaming helps inculcate the ideology that covers over the fact that, with the exception of the information technology bubble, most of those who are wealthy in the United States were born that way.[11] Beyond this narrow ideological function, the game helps create subjects that accept the inevitability of rules as things that are given and must be "played" within--or else there is no game. This process is not total or ever complete, as the current gaming discourse complaining about the rules shows; here, players critique a game's rules in view of a conventionalized notion of how "reality" works, or, less often, how a game's playability is compromised by rules that are too "realistic."[12]

  25. I would further venture that the game helps rehearse this ideology of equal opportunity not only on the individual level, but also on a national-cultural one. Civilization III posits a similar "level playing field" for different cultures at the dawn of human history. But a recent synthesis of work in several scientific and humanist disciplines suggests that the field was anything but level. In Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Jared Diamond advances a biological and geographical study of human history. In probing the ultimate and proximate reasons for why Europeans since the fifteenth century have been able to dominate other peoples in the Americas, Australasia and Africa--why, as he frames the problem in short hand, the forces of King Charles I of Spain were able to subdue the Incan capital of Cajamarca in 1532 instead of the forces of Incan emperor Atahuallpa subduing Madrid that same year (68)--Diamond explicitly and politically frames his work as an answer to the "racist explanations privately or subconsciously" (19) held by many Westerners. Resisting this genetic, and therefore racial, explanation for the fates of human societies, Diamond instead traces the influences of environment on their evolution. To briefly and inadequately summarize Diamond's thesis, the east-west axis of the Eurasian continent allowed for the spread of wild plant and animal species and resultant biodiversity to a much greater extent than the predominantly north-south axes of the Americas and of Africa. The greater range of wild plant and animal species in the Eurasian/north African continent than in the Americas--with, for example, 33 species of wild large-seed grasses and 13 domesticable large mammals in the former, as opposed to 11 species of wild large-seed grasses and one large mammal in the Americas (140, 162)--meant that more human populations on the Eurasian land mass could become farming communities. Farming societies, as opposed to largely hunter-gatherer ones, tended to produce food surpluses and food storage techniques, allowing for the development of "large, dense, sedentary, [and] stratified societies" (87). These populations selected for resistance to several important epidemic diseases whose origins are ultimately in domesticated animal populations in a way that, obviously, societies without those same domesticated animals were never able to (with catastrophic results for those without the disease resistances). The larger and stratified societies tended to produce hierarchical political systems that were interested in territorial gain, writing, and technological developments that would eventually include oceangoing ships, guns, and steel. In summary, Diamond's interpretation of the evidence is that European imperial domination of the Americas, south Asia and Australasia, and Africa was based not on a kind of genetic superiority, but on ultimate factors that Europeans had little control over or knowledge of--geographical and environmental traits.

  26. One can see from this inadequate summary that the kind of narrative Diamond is engaging in is similar to the one addressed by the Civilization games and others like them. By bringing these two texts into contact, I am not intending a critique of the games' failings to accurately represent the dynamics of the growth of and conflicts between civilizations.[13] Indeed, such a critique might be anachronistic, at least for the iterations of the series prior to Civilization III, as Diamond claims that his 1999 book is a new synthesis of old and new data, requiring knowledge of

    genetics, molecular biology, and biogeography as applied to crops and their wild ancestors; the same disciplines plus behavioral ecology, as applied to domestic animals and their wild ancestors; molecular biology of human germs and related germs of animals; epidemiology of human diseases; human genetics; linguistics; archaeological studies on all continents and major islands; and studies of the histories of technology, writing, and political organization.[14] (26)

    Rather, the contrasts between the game's narrative and Diamond's narrative are interesting in that they highlight the ideologically productive ideas at work in the game's code. That is, the gaps between these narratives suggest spaces where culturally useful--and ideological--ideas get worked out. This game's designers did not invent these ideas; rather, they transcribed them from the larger culture into the interactive medium of the Civilization series.

  27. One might argue that Civilization III (and its predecessors) have subversive potential to challenge notions of Western supremacy. The game enables the simulation of alternative histories, recognizable as still being historical because their referents come from real things--names of actual nations and cities and people, and the real things that happen, such as trade, war, peace, exploration. In one sense, these alternative histories can be imagined and simulated, and different historical narratives explored. A player playing the Iroquois nation, or India, for example, might dominate the game, crushing opponents such as the Americans and the British and the Chinese, and win by either defeating everyone else or by sending a colony ship to Alpha Centauri (Civilization II's and III's other "winning condition"). In a lovely moment of irony and anachronism, a player playing Mohandas Gandhi (the game's suggested ruler name for one playing as India, whose robed portrait appears during the diplomacy screens), might face down and conquer Elizabeth I of England, Catherine the Great of Russia, and others. What would be revealed in such a narrative is the contingency of human history: that things might have turned out differently to the extent that those nations understood to have been the losers in twentieth-century history (because the "Iroquois" and the "Indians" beat up on other peoples before the "Americans" and the "British" came along) could have in fact been the dominant society. Or, to put this in Diamond's terms, Atahuallpa's general might have arrived in Spain in the sixteenth century and sacked Madrid. But though some might find the game's recognition of historical contingency progressive and liberating, I would argue that its ultimate effect is to reinforce the pattern of interaction between the colonizing power and the aboriginal. That pattern is reinforced not only by the necessary enactment of imperialism's need to master the native land and its inhabitants, as I have argued above. Rather, a second kind of ideological work this performs is produced precisely because of the possible alternative histories. Things might have turned out differently because the game constructs history as a level playing field. So why didn't the Iroquois conquer the Americans? Why weren't the Indians able to colonize London and its outlying areas? Because those colonized peoples didn't work as hard as--or didn't have the noble spirit of--we Europeans. The game has abstract radical potential, but it is circumscribed by how things really turned out. That radical potential thus works ideologically to reinforce the notion of cultural and maybe racial supremacy. That things might have turned out differently need not produce existential-national anxiety in Western players, in light of the imaginable histories that include the subjugation of those players on an alternative, virtual earth. Rather, the actual story becomes explicable, when faced with the endlessly replayable historical simulations of civilization, only through reference to a kind of spiritual or cultural rightness of European civilization.

  28. These last observations suggest that computer and video games are indeed "configurative practices" rather than merely interpretive ones, as Eskelinen suggests; however, exceeding his taxonomy, the games are not the only thing configured. In fact, games may work on their operators to configure our expectations of the real, our sense of history, national identity, race and gender, or economic justice, not just in terms of representation, but in the way that rules teach universal laws and routine behavior. This is true not just in the way that the FBI and police agencies recognize when they use shooter-type games to train for shoot/no-shoot responses (see the somewhat hysterical Grossman 312-16), or the way in which the U.S. Army and Marines have teamed up with commercial game publishers to develop squad-based games to train officers and others how to "leverage human resources and information" ("Army"; Riddell). Nor is it only the pleasure of forming what Ted Friedman calls a "cybernetic circuit" or feedback loop with the computer, "in which the line demarcating the end of the player's consciousness and the beginning of the computer's world blurs" (137). Even in highly-reflective play, as is intensely the case in fan discourse on games, the ideological procedures of the games may not come to light. On the other hand, the hacker communities and digital game scenario sites suggest that the awareness of game rules--and the urge to rewrite them--often subverts the games' standing rules governing the way a game can be configured, but they also exceed the rules' ability to configure the operator's paths of thought. Such discourse includes discussion of the aesthetic qualities of the rules themselves: why some rules and algorithms are downright beautiful--like the one that recently had a polite, smiling, cooperative Gandhi send an army of 40 or so Indian units across a continent (and many years) and over my peacetime border to launch a Pearl Harbor-like attack on my innocent Persian civilization. This is the two-way process of configuration--operator on game, game on operator--that digital game studies will have to address in the years ahead. We will need all our collective powers.

    Department of English
    Furman University

    Talk Back




    I thank Cort Haldeman for his technical help in rendering some of the audiovisual material quoted in this essay.

    1. Rodowick's essay was a preview of his Reading the Figural, or, Philosophy After the New Media, published that same year. As if in example of the "recirculation" of cinematic concepts in new media studies was Lev Manovich's The Language of New Media, also in 2001. Manovich's book is fascinating as it traces the history of the screen in the West, suggesting both that the classical cinematic screen has its formal genealogy in Renaissance painting's frame (80), and that the computer screen (and thus games) have their more proximate lineage not directly in cinema, but in radar screens that presented information in real time (99). The Language of New Media engages the new media, which include "a digital still, digitally composited film, virtual 3-D environment, computer game, self-contained hypermedia DVD, hypermedia Web site, or the Web as a whole" (14), through a history of visual media, primarily cinema and photography. This breadth is of course its strength--as it relates contemporary computer use to the history of visual form--and its weakness for game studies. Manovich, for instance, spends little time discussing actual games; Doom and Myst (both released in 1993) stand in for computer games in much of his discussion, and when he does refer to other games, they are mostly within the subcategory of action games (that is, wherein the user is the "camera" in a first-person perspective). So, for instance, when Manovich discusses 1990s computer games' debt to the cinematic interface, he argues that "Regardless of a game's genre, it came to rely on cinematography techniques borrowed from traditional cinema, including the expressive use of camera angles and depth of field, and dramatic lighting of 3-D computer-generated sets to create mood and atmosphere" (83). This is certainly true of many computer and video games (the latter of which Manovich, for an unexplained reason, does not mention in his book), but it is not true "regardless of a game's genre." Here, at least, Markku Eskelinen's warning (and he refers specifically to Manovich's book) against the colonizing attempts of other disciplines rings true, as the scope of Manovich's claim about digital games' lineage in cinema needs important qualifications. For example, Civilization III, discussed below, has its genealogy in board games, while Magic Online has its genealogy in the still-popular fantasy trading card game Magic: The Gathering, and though these two computer games emerged in 2001 and 2002, they both existed in previous iterations in the 1990s. Almost all of Manovich's examples are first-person perspective action, exploration, or racing games, and when he does refer to real-time strategy games (such as the Warcraft series), one has to wonder how they make use of cinematic perspectives rather than, with Civilization III and other strategy games (sometimes called together "god-games" because of their omniscient visual perspective and the vast power they extend to players), previous board games or tabletop model wargames. Though these facts qualify Manovich's expansive claims--others are made later when he states that games are experienced as narratives (221-22; always? what about Tetris?), and that "Structuring the game as a navigation through space is common to games across all genres" (248; but what of Tetris and Magic Online?)--they don't negate the future necessity for game studies to attend in detail to the history of film (and other visual arts) and a cinema-derived analytical repertoire.

    2. Indeed, much of the first issue of Game Studies can be seen as a sustained assault against the notion that literary or film studies provide adequate tools for the new phenomenon. Jesper Juul's "Games Telling Stories?" also uses narratology to refute three arguments that digital games can be considered kinds of narratives. That Aarseth, Eskelinen and Juul question the practice of unproblematically applying literary or film concepts to digital games, as Henry Jenkins also did seven years ago, shows how slowly this new discipline is forming. In the now-famous "Nintendo® and New World Travel Writing: A Dialogue," Jenkins notes that two earlier books erroneously "presuppose that traditional narrative theory (be it literary or film theory) can account for our experience of Nintendo® in terms of plots and characters" (60), and offers instead a model of narrative for games as movement through space rather than in terms of characters and plots.

    3. Furthermore, the player alone has real agency in the game world. There do seem to be other people existing in the world, but they don't do anything except wait for you and respond to your requests and actions. That is, nothing really happens in the game except through you. The newer games (Half-Life and Baldur's Gate II) are increasing their use of scripted events, which simulate actions and events independent of you, and which you trigger by walking into a certain area of the game world. In these instances, the game simulates the idea that you come across lives in medias res. But in most of these scripted events, your actions and decisions are why they are there in the first place--they're meant to give you a clue; or, your own action (which side will you help?) proves decisive in determining the outcome of the event. This is, of course, not the case in massively multiplayer online games, in which thousands or tens of thousands of players simultaneously interact in a persistent online world.

    4. And Brooks points to this connection as well, suggesting that "the enormous narrative production of the nineteenth century may suggest an anxiety at the loss of providential plots: the plotting of the individual or social or institutional life story takes on new urgency when one no longer can look to a sacred masterplot that organizes and explains the world" (6).

    5. The series has a rich and varied genealogy. Civilization was introduced as a computer game by Sid Meier in 1990, though it was inspired by a board game by Avalon Hill. It was followed up by Colonization for Windows 3.1/95 in 1995, which was a game focused more narrowly on the various European powers colonizing North America, and by CivNet, an online multiplayer version of Civilization for Windows 95 released by Microprose in 1995. Civilization II (for Windows 95) was released in 1996. Since then there have been several different sequels to Civilization II: these include Microprose's Civilization II: Test of Time (1999), Activision's Civilization: Call to Power (1999), and, after legal wrangling over the Civilization franchise, a sequel by Activision called only Call to Power II (2000). Another kind of sequel to Civilization II is Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri (1999), a science-fiction themed game of the same genre designed by Sid Meier which begins where Civilization II ended, with the colonization of a planet around Alpha Centauri; this can be considered an heir to Civilization II in that its gameplay remains essentially the same--even to the point of including barbarians. The "true" sequel is regarded as Civilization III.

    6. Thus the Civilization series shares with some Nintendo games the mapping of space, but here, as opposed to the Nintendo games that Henry Jenkins and Mary Fuller analyze in "Nintendo® and New World Travel Writing: A Dialogue," the colonization is literal and not merely metaphoric, as it is in their assertion that "Nintendo® takes children and their own needs to master their social space and turns them into virtual colonists driven by a desire to master and control digital space" (71). Touring through and thereby "mastering" a game's digital space is not the same as the simulation of the settlement of land and territory and destroying native inhabitants along the way, as in the Civilization games.

    7. Most strategy games center around gathering resources from the land in order to construct units, build base improvements, or research technology (e.g. the Age of Empires series, the Warcraft series, the Command and Conquer/Red Alert series); all these games imply a similar model of the relation between humans and the land. What I have in mind in this essay is perhaps a sub-genre that imagines a role for the "native" life-form: whether the "barbarians" in Civilization II and its sequels Civilization: Call to Power, Civilization: Test of Time and Civilization III; the "natives" in Master of Orion II; or the "mind-worms" of Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri. In all these cases, these forms that threaten civilization can be tamed and put to work or, untamable, must be destroyed.

    8. See, for instance, Kaplan and Pease, including Kaplan's and Pease's introductions and the essays therein. Kaplan names William Appleman Williams's 1955 The Tragedy of American Diplomacy as an early critic of the American exceptionalism thesis, that America alone among the modern powers never developed an empire.

    9. When Friedman remarks that "the fact that more than one strategy will work--that there's no one 'right' way to win the game--demonstrates the impressive flexibility of Civilization II," he is referring to the two possible "winning conditions" of the game--eliminating all other rival civilizations, or sending a spaceship to colonize Alpha Centauri. My point is that though the game permits these two strategies to win the game, one bloody and one peaceful, both depend on the extensive development and mastery of the land by one's civilization. Only by such mastery can the player achieve the infrastructure necessary for warfare or for the space race to Alpha Centauri. And what the mastery of the land means, as I have argued, is mastery over its barbarian inhabitants as well. This is true even in Alpha Centauri and in Civilization III, where players can pursue diplomatic, scientific, and economic victory paths, although the scientific victory path in Alpha Centauri produces an interesting coda to this paper in that it involves the almost-too-late recognition of the sentience of, and transcendental unity through, the equivalent of the Indians in the game, the "native" life-forms.

    10. Demographically, computer game players tend to be older than video (console) game players. Other demographic distinctions can be made according to game genre, by which turn-based strategy games tend to attract older players.

    11. In this sense, the Civilization series betrays a specifically American ideology that goes beyond an association with other settler colonies like Canada, Australia, or South Africa, all of which model civilization-savagery binaries. The games also carry the mark of the American Dream--that success corresponds to hard work and effort, not outside determining factors like heredity and geography. Since Crèvecoeur, this idea of America as a place where hard work, not privilege, is rewarded has been part of the national mythology.

    12. One example of this "fan" discourse was the demand before its release that the game designers of Civilization III create the more difficult levels of play through a variegated "AI" (or Artificial Intelligence, the optimistic name given to the set of algorithms that manage the computer-controlled rival civilization's moves in the game), and not merely that the computer-controlled civilizations "cheat" by being able to build city improvements and units for a fraction of the cost of human players. Players recognizing this still play the game, but seem disturbed by the violation of the ideology of equality that the game promotes. It's challenging to play as the underdog, with the field tilted against you, but we still understand this to be in some way "unfair."

    13. Say, for example, the historical inaccuracy of having every game civilization begin with the technologies of farming, road-building, and irrigation, despite the actual lack of domesticable plant and animal species in many parts of the world. As Ronald Wright remarks, "Ancient America was criticized for lacking things that Europe had--things deemed epitomes of human progress. The plow and the wheel were favorites; another was writing. It never occurred to Eurocentric historians that plows and wheels are not much use without draft animals such as oxen or horses, neither of which existed in the Americas before Columbus" (6). Native Mexicans did invent the wheel--but, lacking draft animals, used them for toys (Diamond 248).

    14. But interestingly, the demand for realism and accuracy--whether visual or in games' models of economics, physics, diplomacy, strategy, tactics, etc.--plays a large role in the reception of computer games. This requirement that virtual worlds be faithful in some sense to real worlds mirrors similar demands on cinema and literature, and can be seen in both printed and online reviews of games, and in the discourse of player websites devoted to particular games. One interesting example of this is a number of projects sponsored by (a semi-official site catering to the Civilization series and games like them) devoted to the creation of open-source games like the Civilization series. One such project, called none other than "Guns, Germs, and Steel," aimed for increased accuracy and realism in modeling the development of civilizations, and the debate among the game's designers centered on ways they might implement some of the specific ideas in Diamond's book. Though this particular project appears moribund, others continue.

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