“You Can't Mess with the Program, Ralph”: Intertextuality of Player-Agency in Filmic Virtual Worlds

“You Can't Mess with the Program, Ralph”: Intertextuality of Player-Agency in Filmic Virtual Worlds

Theo Plothe (Walsh University, USA)
Copyright: © 2016 |Pages: 14
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-0477-1.ch008
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Abstract

This essay posits two crucial elements for the representation of digital games in film: intertextuality and player control. Cinematically, the notion of player-agency control is influenced greatly by this intertextuality, and player control has been represented in a number of films involving video games and digital worlds. This essay looks at the use and representation of player-agency control in films that focus on action within digital games. There are three elements that are essential to this representation: 1) there is a separation between the virtual and the real; 2) the virtual world is written in code, and this code is impossible for player-agents to change, though they can manipulate it; 3) the relative position of the player to the player-agent, is one of subservience or conflict. I argue that the notion of player-agency control is essential to the cinematic representation of video games' virtual worlds.
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Introduction

The digital game industry is now the largest, most popular, and profitable form of media on the planet. The worldwide video game marketplace is expected to grow to $111 billion by 2015. According to the Entertainment Software Association, digital games are being played by more a diverse population than ever, finding that 59% of American adults play some kind of digital games and that the average U.S. household owns at least one dedicated game console, pc, or smartphone (ESA, 2014). Digital games, then, represent a large aspect of popular culture, and elements of games, from their narratives, characters, game worlds, and particularly game mechanics (discussed here as ludological features), are the object of representation and exploration in other popular media, particularly film.

Brookey (2010) discussed at length the convergence of the film and digital game industries, where films are adapted into digital games and vice versa. This is a rich area of scholarship in considering the effects of media convergence on both of these industries, as well as the similarity of digital games and film elements. In this essay I instead examine the representation of game experiences in narrative films. Cultural products such as these are important to study in order to consider the place of digital games in culture at large, the elements of digital games represented, and the ways in which elements of these games are considered. Burrill (2008) also noted the importance of studying digital games and their influence through the ideologies they impart to culture at large: “In a world where ‘play’ has become an operant word and war looks like a video game, it is essential to avoid categorizing the games as simply dangerous or trivial” (p. 83). As game elements become part of larger cultural narratives like films, it is important to consider their greater impact in examining how elements of games are taken up in other media.

This chapter examines notions of player agency, a tenant of digital games' position as an interactive medium. How do films remediate these notions of player agency in their cinematic representation, especially in films that take place in the “virtual world” of digital games or systems? Often, player agency control becomes a central point of conflict within these film’s narratives, and this chapter seeks answers within the rule-bound system of films that represent digital game worlds. This study focuses not on films that are adaptations of digital games, but on films that represent digital game and virtual worlds. While some of these films are not explicit games, like The Matrix, they contain game-like elements in virtual worlds. These films include Tron (1982), Tron: Legacy (2010), The Matrix (1999), The Matrix Reloaded (2003), The Matrix Revolutions (2003), The Lawnmower Man (1992), eXistenZ (1999), Avalon (2001), Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over (2003), and Wreck-it Ralph (2012). While not exhaustive, this list is comprehensive in presenting a range of representative films that take place in a virtual world. Through a consideration of the gaming elements represented in these films, this essay suggests important criteria for the representation of games in cinema: There are three elements essential to this representation: 1) there is a separation between the virtual and the real; 2) the virtual world is written in code, and this code is impossible for player-agents to rewrite, though they can manipulate it; 3) the relative position of the player to the player-agent, is one of subservience or conflict. The chapter argues that not only is the notion of player-agency control elemental, it is essential to the cinematic representation of digital games’ virtual worlds.

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