Title: Virtual Dystopias: Scapegoats, suffering and social experimentation in gaming narratives
Keywords: Dystopia, Narrative, Intertextuality, Digital Gaming
This interdisciplinary thesis seeks to present a comprehensive history and analysis of dystopian narratives within the field of video gaming.
The research will begin with a detailed history of dystopian video games across game genres such as adventure, strategy, first-person shooter and roleplaying. From early efforts, such as Ray Bradbury?s 1984 strategy game adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, progressively up to the expansive virtual worlds of contemporary releases such as the post-apocalyptic cold war satire of Fallout 4. Successive chapters will then provide deeper discussion and analysis into individual dystopian texts that are significant for both their critical reach – with sales of over a 100 million units – and for their dense, thematic topographies.
I will argue that the texts are positioned at the nexus point of the ludo-narrative dissonance argument (Aarseth 2004; Juul 2005; Ryan 2006; Eskelinen 2001) in gaming and are therefore ripe for answering questions on the historical and philosophical trajectory of gaming as a storytelling medium. The texts chosen specifically engage and subvert the concept of utopia in their narratives and offer the player substantial, often persuasive ways in which challenge the status-quo of the utopian politic throughout their gaming experience. Furthermore, I will examine whether or not a player can engage with a wider ethical dialectic as they play through gaming narratives. ?Propaganda shooters? (Kinzack 2009) such as Bioshock, Fallout and Deus Ex – akin to the dystopian science-fiction novels of the 60’s and 70’s – are texts that not only present alternative visions of the world, but also attempt to do so by using a self-reflexive approach.
The research extends my Cultural Studies MA project ?The immersive entertainment genre of alternate reality gaming? to further examine intertextuality, representation and challenges to narratology within the digital gaming medium.
This proposal will outline some of the key discussions and conceptual approaches that are taking place within and around the field of study. It will also provide a methodology to analyse the texts, an estimated time frame of work to be conducted and a bibliography of relevant sources.
The originality of the work rests on how I will move the discussion of utopia away from its canonical roots – which are primarily literary texts – and into 21st century modes of digital entertainment, something which has only been partially discussed in academia (e.g. Sargisson 2012 & Fernandez 2010).
Contextually, video gaming continues to grow globally each year. For access, a gamer must have the means to purchase a computer, the game and possibly internet access. Gaming discourses have been mainstream for over a decade with recent releases such as Grand Theft Auto 5, which at the time of writing this has sold over 52 million copies (2015), having significantly more reach than television or film as an entertainment medium and cultural product.
In the past decade there has been much discussion on whether or not video games can and even need to tell stories and further when they do, what is the complexity of these narratives. In game theory there has been historically an academic rift between Ludologists and Narratologists. Researchers like Murray and Ryan et al, labelled Narratologists, support the argument that the medium is a story telling space that promises to reshape how we understand fiction much in the same way as audiences switched from the novel to film for entertainment.
For Juul, Eskelinen and Aarseth games needs to be theorised separately from literary, theatre, drama and film studies. They are essentially games rather than art or narrative and therefore must be analysed as such. Lemke (1992/1995) argues that texts, and their discourse (I would argue further digital texts) can only be understood against the background of other texts and relational instances. Taking this position further, textuality is expanded by Aarseth (1997:20) who insists “instead of defining text as a chain of signifiers, as linguists and semioticians do, I use word for a whole range of phenomena, from short poems to complex computer programs”.
There are risks associated with this approach, with the main obstacle for interdisciplinary game studies being the movement between academic disciplines and barriers associated with these fields of learning. Equally, the inherent danger of eclecticism means that a researcher could enter the project without a clear understanding of the core fundamentals of the fields they are using.
1. Multi-perspectival processes involved in interdisciplinary research can result in more information being collected about the area of study
2. Comparative research with other similar studies will yield a more solid grounding for the field and for further critique.
3. As Interdisciplinary work needs to be conversant with multiple theoretical and conceptual frameworks it, by its very nature, offers the opportunity to make an impact outside of narrow fields of specialities.
In a socio-cultural world experiencing the emergence of the ?Internet of Things? through all aspects of everyday life, it could be argued that such methodology is a fitting move forward for academic studies.
Utopianism is present throughout many cultures and is described in general terms as an ?imaginative projection?. It is the dream of a better future, a healthier and more plentiful life, a golden age in which times are peaceful and free of hardship ? often a drastically different position to that in which the author is present. The word utopia or outopia derives from the Greek ?? ?no/not? and t?p?? ?place? or ?no place?. Lyman Tower Sargent & Gregory Claeys (1999:1) state that ?the primary characteristic of the utopia is its nonexistence combined with a topos – a location in time and space – to give verisimilitude.? Further, these ?no places? must be identifiably good or bad to the reader.
Sir Thomas More coined the term Utopia, which he punned from the word eutopia in his 1516 book of the same name, to describe an ideal society. In writing about this ideal society he used the text to critically examine the failings of English society at the time. Whilst the modern literary genre may have begun with More, it is worth noting that the concept of a ?better future? stretches far back into human history. Hesiod’s Works and Days is a protean version, his ‘Golden Age’, tells of a place “undarkened by sufferings” (1938:133) a time and a land where work, food and peace are all in abundance. Plato?s Republic also addresses utopianism through his descriptions of a caste based society under the tutelage and leadership of its benign philosopher kings. Christianity furthered and complicated this imagery by establishing a clear chronological structure to utopianism with Eden as the starting point (an earthly paradise) and heaven (ascendance) as an end point or place of returning to.
Moving away from the literary genre briefly, it must be noted that not all utopian thought is fictional. Sargent divides and furthers the concept into the following categories:
Utopianism ? Social Dreaming
Utopia ? a nonexistent society described in detail and normally located in time and space
Eutopia or positive utopia ? a utopia that the author intended a contemporaneous reader to view as considerably better than the society in which the reader lived
Dystopia or negative utopia ? a utopia that the author intended a contemporaneous reader to view as considerably worse than the society in which the reader lived
Utopian satire ? a utopia that the author intended a contemporaneous reader to view as a criticism of the existing society
Anti-utopia – a utopia that the author intended a contemporaneous reader to view as a criticism of utopianism or of some particular eutopia
Critical utopia – a utopia that the author intended a contemporaneous reader to view as better than contemporary society but with difficult problems that the described society may or may not be able to solve, and which takes a critical view of the utopian genre (1999:1-2).?
Sargent & Claeys note that the approaches are widely reducible into two utopian traditions, those of sensual gratification (Hesiod, Lucian, Morton) and those of human contrivance (Plato, More, Mercier). The relevance in studying the concept of utopia is its wider inferences; throughout history utopias have assisted and displayed how culture comprehends itself. Sargent & Claeys historically map evolving utopian thought against cultural paradigm shifts thusly:
1. Post-More. Religious radicalism spawning egalitarian schemes (Spartan Ideals, Inward Monastic approach, communal living)
2. 16th Century geographical expansion and discovery. Western colonialism. Increase of wealth and relation to morality.
3. Scientific and technological innovation. Control over nature. Promise of progress, benefits and losses associated with. Emergence of Dystopia from anxiety of progress.
4. Aspiration of social quality and revolutionary movements of the late 18th century. Emergence of centralised state socialism (1999:3)
Foucault on Heterotopias
Michel Foucault contrasts Utopias with Heterotopias, he defines Utopias as:
?Utopias afford consolidation: although they have no real locality there is nevertheless a fantastic, untroubled region in which they are able to unfold; they open up cities with vast avenues, superbly planted gardens, countries where life is easy, even though the road to them is chimerical (Foucault 1966).?
With the word Heterotopia, the prefix hetero- is from Ancient Greek ?te??? (h?teros, “other, another, different”) is combined with the Greek morphemes ?? (“not”) and t?p?? (“place”) ? it is the misplacement of tissue in the body, abnormality. It is Otherness space, neither here nor there, present or absent. Rather than a strictly good (Utopia) or bad (Dystopia) place, in the heterotopia everything is ?different?, replete with otherness and non-hegemony (Mead 1995). This idea is oddly at ease with how Jameson describes utopian space as being ?an imaginary enclave?the very possibility of Utopian space is itself a result of spatial and social differentiation? (Jameson 2005:15).
Foucault cites places such as the graveyard, the prison or the boarding School as examples. One could also add the holiday resort to this list of Heterotopias, as it is not a freely accessibly place, it has its own gatekeeping, or check-in system, which one must subject themselves to before gaining entrance. It is a closed paradise, a transitory and temporary utopia with its own institutional value system and codes of conduct. Adjacent to and intrinsically linked with is the shoreline; a location that by its very nature is transitory, migratory, it is neither Land nor Sea, but rather in a constant state of flux between the two. Heterotopias have been used in speculative literature such as Delaney (1976) Trouble on Triton and China Mieville?s body of work.
Nicholas Mirzoeff (2005), in his study of Visual Culture, and Turkle et al question the optimism of Marshall McLuhan?s ‘Global Village’ with its implication that technological development would coalesce people, unite them through connectivity to a new kind of Utopia. Wendy Hui Kyong (2005:235) in Othering Space uses Foucault?s work and Mirzoeff?s position to argue against the ?openness? initially theorised with regards to Cyberspace. She argues that it is not a no-space, but it can be site counter-site. She argues against cyberspace being a ?new frontier? of subjectivity and against it being a new Utopian space ? warning that notions of super agency and freedom online must be dealt with in cautious and critical manner.
Heterotopia may be significant theoretically in this project as a means to question the spatial transit to and from Utopia. Take Foucault?s rather idealistic view on other spaces where he notes ?In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates? (2005:235). As utopia is often a place of secession the visitor must reach or leave the destination, for example in Bioshock Infinite where the player begins by taking a boat to lighthouse and then to a lift to the utopia in the sky. Boat, lighthouse and lift are all transitory spaces ? heterotopias ? neither land nor sea, earth or sky ? they displace the player?s identity as they pass through to the utopia. This theory, being in a stark opposition to his earlier work on discipline and power in which ?the primary objectives of discipline is to fix; it is an anti-nomadic technique? (1991:207) could also be utilised toward the wider formal aspects of game playing discourse.
Jameson on Utopia
In Archelogies of the Future (2005) Frederic Jameson applies the concept of utopia to the modern age and questions its meaningfulness to debate a globalised and post-communist world. Like Sargent he argues that “Utopia has always been a political issue? (2005:XI), but goes further to question the validity of this literary forms political status. With the discretisation of Communism and the unstoppable, universal acceptance of Capitalization – breaking apart social welfare gains through privatization – for Jameson social change can only occur if we look to the Utopians to conceive new systems. The ?Utopian form is itself a representational meditation on radical difference, radical otherness, and on the systematic nature of social totality.? (Jameson 2005:XII). Utopian politics can then serve as a critical tool from which we can at worst understand our ideological trappings and at best present ourselves with a fresh vision, a blueprint for social change.
The sticking point here is whether or not a blueprint for the future can and is possible. Central to the discussion, which as we shall see has been addressed by many other scholars, are the following questions on ?how works that posit the end of history can offer any usable historical impulses, how works which aim to resolve all political differences can continue to be in any sense political, how texts designed to overcome the needs of the body can remain materialistic, and how visions of the ?epoch of rest? (Morris) can energize and compel us into action (2005:xiv)?. Simply (Marcuse et al) put, how and indeed can culture be political particularly when it is immediately reappropriated and co-opted by the social system from which it emerged.
The duality between Bloch’s open, progressive search for happiness or the ‘Utopian Impulse’ and the closing, blueprint based, formalistic practice of the ‘Utopian Programme’ (More) is certainly relevant to the politics of gaming worlds – worlds that seek to grow larger and larger (GTA 5, Fallout 4) yet are always constrained by the limitations of technology and narrative. Perhaps some middle ground can be found in the analysis of the critical utopias of Le Guin, Delaney and Hopkinson (1999), texts that are progressive, in process and ‘working through’ what Identity, Utopia and Dystopia are conceptually.
Sargent uses the analogous example of the Greek tragedy, he sees the pursuit of such an ideal as a dialectic of hope, failure, despondency and rejection of hope before finally, renewal.
?The dialectic is part of our humanity. Utopia is a tragic vision of a life of hope, but one that is always realised and always fails. We can hope, fail and hope again. We can live with repeated failure and still improve the societies we build (Sargent 2010:127)?.
As modern western politics leans towards the right of the political spectrum, scapegoating could be seen to be present in anti-immigration agendas, Islamophobia, benefit claimants and more generally the prevalent, oppressive, white patriachal discourse.
‘The Scapegoat’, famously depicted by Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt, prefigures Chist’s sufferings and redeptive death. The work and its symbolism refer to the following Biblical passage from Leviticus 16:09-10 NIV which states:
“09 Aaron shall bring the goat whose lot falls to the LORD and sacrifice it for a sin offering. 10 But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the LORD to be used for making atonement by sending it into the wilderness as a scapegoat.”
In the Jewish ceremony of Atonement one goat is sacrificed as an offerring, whilst another ‘The Scapegoat’ is expelled from the community as part of an act of cleansing; it has a scarlet cloth tied between it’s horns which, if the communities offerrings were accepted, would turn white.
Like Zamyatin’s Taylorist one State and the garden world ‘beyond the wall’ of Mephi utopian/dystopian texts question and explore the dualistic opposition between Individual freedom and collective happiness in a dialectic manner.
Writers such as James (1891) Dostoyevsky (1990) and Le Guin (1974) in particular have used utopian parable to ask a moral question of utopianism. Is the suffering of one child (Scapegoat or Pharmakos) worth the wellbeing of the many? Pharmakos and Utopia/Dystopian narratives have been examined to some degree in literature (Knapp 1985, Tschachler 1991, Davis & Stillman 2005), but there is a significant gap in understanding with regards to modern iterations of the question, particularly in the digital game medium.
‘Walking away’ or the path of least resistance is a Daoist strategy employed by Le Guin frequently. Her characters, like Tenar in Tombs of Atuan or those who dissent to the secret of Omelas, often choose resistance by the way of inaction. The exiles of Omelas do not try to overthrow the City, they do not try to liberate the child, why? “perhaps because they know the anarchist teaching ‘that the means you use to attain your object soon themselves become your object’ (Berkman 113) (Elrich 2010:122).
Le Guin?s reflexivity posits how to be politically reactionary and progressive, it?s not enough then to overthrow the dominant ideology ? regardless of morality ? because ?To challenge Omelas might be righteous, but it would also require the challengers to acknowledge Omelas, thereby granting it a kind of sanction. In choosing exile instead, they pursue the limits of dissent.? (Knapp 1985:78).
Equally relevant to this proposal is Le Guin?s active critique of the popular misogynistic narratives of self-sacrifice and not surrendering (see endings of Bioshock Infinite and Beneath A Steel Sky) – she is vehemently opposed to sacrifice, be it in a religious or non-religious sense. Speaking on religious rejection Elrich notes:
“If will and reason have created a transcendent project in Omelas, then it might be well to leave Omelas. if some ‘transcendental power’ has dictated the sacrificial ‘terms” shown in the story (Adams 41), then it would be even more imperative to leave Omelas: Le Guin rejects the ‘Judeo-Christian’ and all similar transcendental powers (Elrich 2010:121)?.
Oppositional to this, in the writings of Dostoyevsky, is the notion that every man contains an element of the divine. If this seed of God is lost or misplaced then the carnal, the Dionysian takes hold of the individual; Is not possible to then found ones happiness upon the happiness of others.
Dostoyevsky says: ?If children?s suffering is necessary to make up the sum of suffering required for the revelation of truth, I say beforehand, that all the truth is not worth the price?I do not want this harmony, out of love for mankind, I do not want it?this harmony is taxed too high? (Maurina 1940:214-215)?.
For Dostoyevsky this price of Utopia is too high, he states that ?no conscious being would wish to be the architect of this structure? (Maurina 1940:196) He questions the egocentricity of those who believe themselves to be the centre of creation through his own characters that display such attributes like Raskalnikov from Crime and Punishment.
From Alyosha?s Monastic position of Orthodox Christianity he eventually challenges Ivan with the notion of a messianic ?sinless one? who willingly became the victim (shed his blood) so that society could live in such a state. They can forgive ? unlike the tortured child. It is this counter that directly leads into Dostoyevsky?s anecdote The Grand Inquisitor.
Le Guin and Dostoyevsky in differing ways point towards an enlightenment through suffering. For both authors, pain is the unifying force, it both binds human together through their shared experience ‘brotherhood’ and is a foundation from which to build a better world (see The Dispossessed and Possessed).
In Powers of Horror Julia Kristeva’s (1982) use of the term ‘abject’ describes the reaction to the threatened breakdown in meaning that occurs when there is a loss of distinction between the subject/objects or self/other. Examples of these threats are items that put question to our materiality, such as the wound, the corpse, excrement and vomit.
Whilst the game texts chosen are not specifically of the horror genre, all have abject occurrences in which horror tropes are used in the form of the grotesque, the living corpse, metamorphosis and body horror see Hanna Dwan (2015). Taking the term in the literal sense of meaning ‘to cast off’ one could also reason that the player in each – and indeed in a majority of games – is one that disturbs the internal social reason of the game world, that they break down identity and systems of order by their placement when the individual presses start.
Kristeva refers to the primitive effort to separate ourselves from the animal: “by way of abjection, primitive societies have marked out a precise area of their culture in order to remove it from the threatening world of animals or animalism, which were imagined as representatives of sex and murder (Kristeva 1982:12-13).? This examination of the breakdown in borders also reaches into the Utopian/Dystopian narrative, as each is challenged by the rebel, the agent of change, the Winston, the Bernard, D-503, these characters fall between the sensuous and the ascetic.
McClintock (1994) and Casid (2005) take Kristeva?s notion of abjection and apply it to Post-Colonial thought. Their discussion on the self/other duality argues that machine technologies have been used to increase imperialism by not only recording, but also projecting outwards European superiority. Of particular relevance is Casid?s decoding of Nalo Hopkinson?s 1998 dystopian novel Brown Girl in the Ring in which Obeah practices ?of raising vision and dummies or spirits of the dead potently combine with other spectral machines of image projection?.to form technologies of resistance (2005:541).?
Game studies, whilst still in its infancy, is an emerging area of study in academia and I support the argument that games are most certainly are texts that can and will stand up to ideological analysis – as opposed to what has been suggested by Juul and Eskelinen in their earlier works (2001).
Historical context and background will ultimately be required to better understand where the later dystopian games selected for analysis developed from. Attention needs to be given to older games, particularly ? as is the case with these texts ? as many have progressed as a franchise or series over several decades and therefore are rooted in history.
Because this proposal retroactively examines games from the past as well as the present, the cross-examination of which will be pertinent in highlighting cultural differences of bygone eras. For example, in ?A Mind Forever Voyaging? an interactive fiction game from 1985 ? itself a critique of Reagonite Politics in which the player is capable of implementing choices that decide of how utopian/dystopian future events become via simulation ? the proposal will be used to examine the emancipatory nature of utopianism through gaming across many timelines, both virtual and real, when contrasted with a modern equivalent like the ?Fallout? series.
This may require emulation to access and research older works with limited availability.
Digital games, by nature, are inseparable from playing (Mayra 2009). To understand their narrative features (and how they are understood as stories) the researcher, myself and possibly other subjects, must play through each game in great detail and record the results.
A middle ground as suggested by Ryan (2006) and Mukherjee (2015) between the narrativist and ludological camps is required to address the texts that I have chosen. Because I will be looking at series of games, comparative patterns should emerge on the nature of Utopian/Dystopian portrayal in the game ‘worlds’ narratives. The advantages of the chosen texts and medium is that each game, like many modern games, has multi-faceted endings and it is this final divergence, that offers the player agency in their choices.
As Tom Bissell notes on Fallout, one of the texts that I will be examining:
?Too many games insist on telling story in a manner in which some facility with plot and character is fundamental to ? and often determinative of ? successful storytelling. The Counter argument to all this is that games such as Fallout 3 are more about the world in which the game takes place than the story concocted to govern ones progress through it?But if the world is paramount, why bother with story at all? Why not simply cut the ribbon on the invented world and let gamers explore it? The answer is that such a game would probably not be very involving. In a narrative game, story and world combine to create an experience (Bissell 2011:11)?.
A certain complexity is then involved in understanding digital games. Unlike other mediums, each is unique in the way it is read/played. Both the narrative and the active experience of playing must be taken into account when researching. And following this logic, each game is a diverse text that must be treated separately in terms of story, game rules and experience within the game world.
Of particular use in this methodology will be Consalvo & Dutton’s (2004) toolkit for the qualitative study of digital games in which they single out Object Inventory, Interface Study, Interaction Map and Gameplay Log as prominent areas to investigate and the work of Mukherjee (2015). Whilst not wholly ludic, and by no means all-encompassing, paying attention to these structural gaming features will provide a more rigorous, holistic critical approach to compliment the reading of the texts.
To record the data from these playthroughs the work of Diane Carr (2014) on ableism and the horror game Dead Space will be adapted for this proposal. Her process involves ?fragmenting the game, and using these fragments to detect themes or threads. These threads were then followed back through the game as a whole (Carr 2014)?.
Initially the games will be played through once for pleasure. Each one will then be replayed with greater focus on exploration of every room, object, threat, obstacle, objective, mission and character.
During this round of play detailed notes will then be taken and screenshots of content. This data will be used to identify themes running through each game (suffering, utopia, dystopia, race, identity, abjection, horror, choice et al). Where these themes are most prevalent, a third and even more detailed play through will take place focusing on that particular scene or level.
All the analysis will then be studied, collated with reflections on the experience of play, and considered in relation to the wider arguments discussed in the review of literature.
Timeline of Research
Introduction (an outline of the project, its hypotheses and key ideas (in brief), why the project is original short signalling of the methodology, outline of the structure of the thesis) 3000
Chapter One (literature review: theory, criticism and the history of dystopian video games) 20000
Chapter Two (methodology, research questions, research design to answer them in detail) 5000
Chapter Three (Fallout 3) 15000
Chapter Four (Bioshock) 15000
Chapter Five (Deus Ex) 15000
Conclusions (answers to research questions summarised, reflection on the hypotheses/argument, the significance of the research to the field) 3000
Bibliography (circa 6000)
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