Immersive Gameplay – Interview with Evan Torner

September 10, 2012

In honor of the release of Bill White’s and my co-edited volume with McFarland, Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, I am conducting interviews with some of my talented and erudite contributors.

The eighth interview is with myself, Evan Torner, conducted by my co-editor Bill White. In addition to co-editing the book and the introduction, I also wrote a chapter called “Kid Nation: Television, Systemic Violence and Game Design.” The article shows television’s reliance on game mechanics through an analysis of the 2007 CBS reality show Kid Nation. These game mechanics often compete with the voyeuristic fantasy presumably offered by the show and wind up producing instead an incoherent, ideologically charged end product.

Here are Bill’s follow-up questions for me:

Bill White – What tools does being a scholar of film and television give you for the study of games? In other words, how does your field approach games as an object of investigation?

Evan Torner – Film studies approaches games primarily as media. Such a definition situates games as yet another artificial means of information storage and transmission, akin to painting, music, or newspapers. But like these other media, games then also have their own medium-specific logics, to which we must seriously attend in order to understand them on their own terms.In Marshall McLuhan’s media studies rubric, for instance, games would be considered a “cool” medium, meaning that they require much more user input in order for the content to be communicated. Players produce meaning and narrative by interacting with the game mechanics within a specific social context. The compulsive activity loops of Farmville (2007) replicate repetitive-but-satisfying labor, the die-rolling in Monopoly (1934) approximates the whims of opportunity, and the character auctions of Amber: Diceless Role-Playing(1990) reifies the latent competitive instincts of the players in their characters, to name but a few mechanics. Every game mechanic, every line of code (or lack thereof) is a design team’s specific intervention into social reality, just like every shot and cut of a film are scrutinized by its creators with respect to how the audience will react (all the moreso now in the digital age).And just as ironic re-appropriations of films can be folded back into cinephilia, subversion of a game’s mechanics and/or cheating can be easily folded into the overall meaning that gameplay produces. For example, when I use cheat codes in Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast (2003)to throw half-a-dozen stormtroopers into the air, I intensify my engagement with the game’s physics algorithms and satisfy certain power fantasies of my own regarding the manipulability of space and human bodies. The medium rewards interactivity – even the re-coding of said interactivity – but in the end, the medium is still the message. Every game frames its players’ attention, this act of framing has a history, and every such history interfaces with the tangled media histories of the archive.

Then there is the obvious point that most games from the late 20th Century to the present draw heavily on codes of filmmaking for their aesthetic and narrative tropes. Films and games both unfold vividly in real time, but film still gives shape to our temporality. Any player of video games like Red Dead Redemption (2010), board games like Arkham Horror (1987), live-action role-playing games like Delirium (2010), or even alternate reality games (ARGs) like The Beast (2000) can articulate their vastly different experiences in terms of “being in a movie,” even though each of their durations far outlast that of most feature films. That very cinematic consciousness will continue to be somehow latent in most new media, and film studies still has the tools to address that consciousness, as recent work by D.N. Rodowick, Vivian Sobchack and Thomas Elsaesser has shown. Games are also having a huge impact on the way today’s blockbusters are made, which Lorrie Palmer, Nitzan Ben-Shaul and Steven Shaviro among others have also illustrated. For a good depiction of what I mean, watch District 9 (2009), and you’ll see the master medium informing the aesthetic switch from television to film to video games over the course of one film.

Finally, a welcome shift in film studies since the 1990s has reframed the viewer into an active agent over their media experience, rather than mere passive consumers who feed off the pre-packaged ideologies and propositions of industrial Hollywood. Theodor Adorno, as much as I admire his work, fed a deep and often classist cynicism about the nature of your average filmgoer that’s taken us scholars decades to overcome. The new framework offered by Janet Staiger and others reformulates “reception studies” in a way that could also accommodate players of games as well: as discerning subjects processing and interacting with material, possibly to repurpose within their own socio-cultural milieu. Mashing up videos on YouTube and playing Skyrim (2011) as a pacifist character may seem like media experiences alien to one another, but reception studies has the methodology to bring these comparative appropriations into mutual dialog.In summary, film studies opens doors to the structures that underpin media products and their consumption within an evolving media ecology. Games are just another species of plant in the garden, but they’re rapidly growing to be the most important one, so it’s imperative that film studies now follow game design developments as well.

BW – In your chapter, the reality show Kid Nation (2007) emerges as a really badly designed game, at least as far as the children who were its participants were concerned. If you had been a producer of that show, what would have been the most important change you would have made in its organization, and why?

ET – The short answer is: I’d have changed everything. Kid Nation could have become so much, and instead contented itself to be a lame Survivor(2000-present) clone in a fake Wild West town. The problem lies in its vacant core concept (“just another CBS reality show!”) beyond the fascinating initial pitch (“40 kids out in a desert town for 40 days have to learn how to survive together.”) This tends to happen with any network television programming, but such risk aversion becomes increasingly indigestible in our diversifying media diets. Viewers want television to deliver the unexpected, not pre-arranged TV “events.”Given the above, here are the two radical paths I might have taken, had I produced Kid Nation.

1) The Self-Reflexive Documentary Path – Most people alive do not recall watching the PBS documentary American Family (1971), but this was the TV docu-drama precursor to MTV’s The Real World (1992) two decades later. What the series captured was the elliptical, unscripted nuances of one American family’s daily life (in spite of plausible accusations of performance for the cameras). The suspense of the unexpected that “life unscripted” delivered kept the 1970s viewer also conscious of the presence of the intrusive camera on intimate moments. Kid Nation had a fairly large crew of about 50 adults on location, meaning they actually outnumbered the kids they were filming out in the New Mexico desert. After the show was over, some children who were made out to be villains (i.e., Taylor) revealed in interviews that this ponderous crew played a large role in sculpting and editing their various behaviors for TV, from giving them lines to say to staging some of the various major “events” around Bonanza City. Due to legal reasons, adult supervision in such a scenario cannot be avoided, so why not integrate it into the show? The TV audience would have cared more, had the filmmakers not staged themselves as the wizard behind the curtain, but as a real part of the children’s lives – working with them as a TV crew but also giving the children the end authority and agency over how to govern their space. This re-imagining of Kid Nation would most significantly have no game rules whatsoever, except for those which directly guaranteed the survival of the town (i.e., don’t eat all your food supplies in one evening, etc.) What would emerge would be, I think, a fascinating portrait of children who were both politically autonomous, but also under the constant surveillance of adults. You would find tasks and responsibilities breaking down like those of a workplace, as well as tensions regarding who is, in fact, in charge of the town or the “star” of the show.

2) The Larp Path – If you had to structure the Kid Nationshow in a game format, however, why not have the kids play something they know very well: pretend! Every kid would create a fictional persona for themselves, dress up as that character, and behave according to a series of negotiated rules regarding who could determine what in the story world. A fictional alibi for coordinated interventions in the children’s lives would do wonders for everyone involved, as well as maybe demonstrate the strain of living for 40 days as a made-up character. There can be little doubt that this would fulfill the fantasies of many of the kids there, and eliminate much of the personal investment in popularity contests and mugging for the camera otherwise found in the show (since one’s character differs from one’s reality TV persona). This would give us a kind of anthropological insight into kids at play, and also see how they address real-world responsibilities through personas or roles they adopt.In any case, the better Kid Nation would’ve been one in which the kids recognized and solved genuine problems experienced by the community, and used the games (or lack thereof) as a means to that problem-solving. Making a TV summer camp game show is just not properly addressing the kids’ autonomy, the Lord of the Flies metaphor, or the needs of the viewers.

BW – Following up on the previous question, granting that it was a poor game for children, was it nonetheless compelling (or even immersive) television? And even if so, is there any sense in which the the experience of being a viewer of the show could be called “ludic”?
ET – That’s an interesting question. Television shows have only recently been re-envisioned through a game studies lens – particularly Lost (2004-2010) and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (1998-present) – and generally these shows revolve around fan participation in terms of creating wikis and/or steering the plot/competition with their interests. Kid Nation had the idea in mind that it was creating a grand “what if” scenario on the level of science-fiction or social experimentation: what if a group of kids were isolated from their elders and had to form their own society? What would that look like? These questions invite viewers to play around with concepts such as civilization, necessities, luxury and impromptu authority. In contrast to the allure of these questions, however, Kid Nation instead focuses its attention almost myopically on the “characters” – the children playing themselves in a reality show – and mostly avoids the larger ramifications of the social experiment at hand.So the show as it appeared should not necessarily be considered “ludic” with regard to the viewer, though its very production could be considered (as I argue in the essay) a piece of game design. Nevertheless, the show certainly awoke in me the curiosity about the present possibilities of television within a new media environment, and how burdensome reality TV conventions appear to get in the way of the viewers being able to “play” with the material.

BW – It’s clear that the study of digital games is gaining academic respectability. Where does the study of role-playing, particularly in the form of tabletop games, fit in to that picture, as far as you’re concerned?

ET – Tabletop role-playing games are powerful conceptual tools for looking at the construction of narrative and character in the media. Game mechanics create their own narratology. Just look at Jason Morningstar’s summation of the Coen Brothers’ localized crime-gone-horribly-wrong genre in Fiasco (2009; about which Felan Parker has recently written this excellent paper), or the way Greg Stolze and John Tynes’ Unknown Armies (1999) affords the creation of David Lynchian modernist horror. On the topic of horror: the depletion of sanity points in Sandy Petersen’s Call of Cthulhu (1983) simulate the way H.P. Lovecraft’s figures slowly lose their grip on reality over the course of a story. Pulls from the Jenga tower in Epidiah Ravachol, et al.’s Dread (2005) show that a player is risking his/her character’s life with a specific course of action, with a character’s eventual death conforming to generic expectations. Heck, Bret Gillan’s Final Girl (2012) paces scenes through the waypoints of individual characters being killed off in a slasher film simulation. Cinematic consciousness rises up again even in our folk oral tradition! My point is that game mechanics do a lot more work than just produce “entertainment,” whatever that is. They instead frame expectations, incentivize certain behaviors, discourage others, and help players negotiate the social fiction unfolding before them.

On a side note: tabletop RPGs may also structure serial television more than one would think. While I was translating the permanent exhibit at the Filmmuseum Potsdam, I noticed that the process that scriptwriters for a German soap opera used to generate new content was analogous to a role-playing game: about 6-8 writers would sit in a room and, playing their favorite characters, improvise their way through a series’ arc. The writers’ room is, in other words, a perfect foil to the backroom of your local gaming store, but one of them then produces fictional properties worth sometimes millions of dollars. My analysis of the Joss Whedon cult classic series Firefly (2003), for example, finds it directly informed by forms of storytelling from tabletop role-playing games. Each of the series’ nine core characters insists on their own reality, their own instrumental knowledge, and their tongue-in-cheek archetypal quality, as player-characters are wont to do. One can only guess how much television fiction comes from something akin to a role-playing game, and how much role-playing games then draw on serial television to structure their narratives. I venture that it’s way more prevalent on all sides than one would suspect!

So to get back to the “digital games” aspect of the question: developments in tabletop RPGs eventually trickle into digital games (RPGs and otherwise), digital game developments into tabletop, and increased dialog between the different media allow each to re-purpose ideas from each other. I remember how Bioware’s Knights of the Old Republic (2004), one of the most addictive solo digital RPGs you can play, was entirely built on a framework adapted from the D20 Star Wars system published by Wizards of the Coast. Though any layperson could sit down at their computer and play a Jedi with them, the game’s sub-systems are, in fact, nearly unintelligible unless you’ve got some experience with tabletop (i.e., talk of saving throws, DC20 skill difficulties, and so forth). The computer calculates all the data for you – there’s no need to roll the dice or even know what’s going on behind the scenes – but it’s somehow comforting to players that there’s this familiar tabletop RPG system underwriting the whole engine.

In a similar vein, World of Warcraft (2004) owes much of its iconography and tropes to Dungeons & Dragons (1974; 2000; 2008), yet fuses them with a short-term, medium-term and long-term mission structure that’s much more complex than any dungeonmaster could offer. I’m also thinking of the Call of Cthulhu-esque sanity points system found in that Nintendo GameCube classic Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem (2002), in which monsters drive you insane and begin to affect the console player’s actual ability to play the game. On the other hand, tabletop RPGs steal ideas from digital games all the time: John Harper’s swashbuckling RPG about air pirates Lady Blackbird (2009) could have been adapted from console RPGs like Final Fantasy VII (1996) or Skies of Arcadia (2001). Its visual elegance and rules simplicity allow for a plug-and-play feel that appeals to gamers who want tabletop RPGs to play like those games do. Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World (2010) boils all choices down into a series of lists of options – menus, if you will – and reduces the range of player choices to a series of individual “moves” which necessitate interesting narrative outcomes, rather than simply producing player success or failure. These moves could easily be translatable into the forking paths of, say, a work of interactive fiction or a digital game. That is to say, digital games have attained academic respectability, but tabletop role-playing games lurk as the underappreciated conceptual and design basis from which many of these games’ mechanics and storylines emerge.

Digital games are profitable and require all kinds of hardware in practice, but the theory behind them can be simply formulated via pencils, paper and dice. Understanding tabletop RPGs should constitute yet another component of any citizen’s media literacy as the hobby spreads on a global level and remains, above digital games, a low-tech-but-effective way of engaging in collective storytelling, a powerful medium with its own logics like any other.

Bill White is an associate professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State Altoona, where he teaches speech communication and mass media courses. He received a Ph.D. from Rutgers University in communication, information and library studies. His research interests include communication theory and the rhetoric of science and science fiction. He is the designer of the small- press tabletop RPG Ganakagok.

Evan Torner is a Ph.D. candidate in German and film studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is finishing his dissertation on representations of race and the global South in East German genre cinema. As co-editor of Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, he has also written on modernist film, German science-fiction literature and live-action role-playing, and is the official translator of the Filmmuseum Potsdam’s permanent exhibit “The Dream Factory: 100 Years of Babelsberg.”

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