Interpreting Game-Play Through Existential Ludology

Interpreting Game-Play Through Existential Ludology

Matthew Thomas Payne (University of Texas at Austin, USA)
Copyright: © 2009 |Pages: 15
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-59904-808-6.ch036
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This chapter introduces and operationalizes an innovative interpretive strategy called “existential ludology” to explain how the game-play mechanics of two tactical shooter video games?America’s Army: Rise of a Soldier (Microsoft’s Xbox) and Full Spectrum Warrior (Sony’s PlayStation 2)?educate gamers on how to play militarily. These titles, both produced in part by the U.S. Department of Defense, engender strict, doctrinal learning opportunities by embedding official combat protocols into their game-play structures. By employing existential ludology as an interpretive tool we can understand these military-backed games from an experiential, player-centric perspective, while also recognizing how their seemingly innocuous game-play is located within, and linked to, larger networks of power. Moreover, existential ludology’s flexibility as an interpretive instrument encourages educators to recognize the educational affordances of popular video games so that they might adopt these popular media artifacts for their own pedagogical ends.
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This chapter defines video game-play as an experiential relationship produced between a human and an electronic game device. And because all game-play experiences are the product of lived relationships between players and game technologies, the “philosophy of technology” camp of philosophic criticism emerges as a key literature for this discussion. Don Ihde, Bruno Latour, Donna Haraway, Andrew Feenberg, and Andrew Pickering are probably the best-known scholars of this interest group. Don Ihde’s work is particularly instructive because it fuses a phenomenological sensitivity with a view to how technologies are adopted by different cultures to “present a radically demythologized story of the structures and limits of human-technology relations, as well as a critical reflection on technologies and their uses” (Jorgenssen, 2003, p. 214). In the latter half of this chapter’s main section, I will follow Ihde’s lead (1977) in using phenomenology to forge my own self-fashioned program, and then apply this interpretive method to two military console games, thereby teasing out the titles’ similar educational logics. I begin first, though, by examining Ihde’s phenomenologically grounded view of human-technology relations to lay the foundation for existential ludology.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Intentionality: The always already directedness of human consciousness. Human thought must always be about, or be directed at, some object or thing (one’s own consciousness included). Intentionality is a core concept in phenomenological thought.

Tactical Shooter Games: Generally considered a sub-genre of the first-person and third-person shooter titles. These games stress combat realism; a fidelity to simulating real-world physics, ballistics, and armaments; and the utility of following tested battlefield protocols. These games also commonly emphasize the combat value of deft resource management, stealth, and reconnaissance. Well-known tactical shooter game franchises include: Full Spectrum Warrior, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon, and Rainbow Six.

Phenomenology: A twentieth-century philosophical movement concerned with the question of how phenomena appear to human consciousness. Although the term has been used since the eighteenth century, it was not until Edmund Husserl systematized this descriptive method of creating objective structures for subjective observations that phenomenology gained traction as its own scientific movement.

First-Person Shooter Games: A popular video game genre that is distinguished thematically by its combat-oriented game-play, and is characterized visually by its three-dimensional gamespaces that players navigate by way of their avatars (their digital proxies). Well-known first-person shooter game franchises include: Doom, Half-Life, Halo, and Unreal.

Affordances: Actionable opportunities in one’s environment. Psychologist J.J. Gibson coined this term in 1977 and stresses that affordances are limited both by physics (wishful thinking is not enough), and by an agent’s ability to recognize available opportunities for action. For instance, a stone can only be used as a weapon if one recognizes that prospect and can wield it accordingly.

Maximum Grip: In phenomenology, the tendency for a person to refine his or her actions so certain desired outcomes obtain more frequently and effortlessly than others.

Existential Phenomenology: A thread of phenomenology that changes the direction of phenomenological inquiry from epistemology (study of knowledge) to ontology (study of being). The major figures of this derivative camp are Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Martin Heidegger.

Intentional Arc: In phenomenology, the connection between perception and action that explains how skill acquisition takes place.

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