Playing through the Noise

Recently, game critics have been ridiculing the usefulness of a term used to describe the disconnect between the experience of playing a game and the narrative content of said game. That term is ludonarrative dissonance. Chris Franklin of Errant Signal describes  the primary argument for discarding it:

“Ludonarrative dissonance [establishes] potentially something of a false dichotomy – play gains much of its meaning through the same representational metaphors (characters, actions) as cut scenes do, so why do we frame the two as opposing forces?  It may be better to simply call games where there are opposing themes and ideas simply internally conflicted than to make up a word that describes a thematic disconnect between two supposedly competing sides.  That concept doesn’t come with a trendy new buzzword we can spout at each other, but it’s probably closer to how games really operate.  After all, it’s not like a film or novel can’t be self-conflicted without gameplay to complicate things.”

I suggest a new term and approach to examining these sorts of disconnects in game criticism: “noise.” I derive the concept and approach for “noise” from two separate sources: (1) the concept of the signal-to-noise ratio, to which Franklin’s own project “Errant Signal” alludes; and (2) the field of aesthetic theory. In my view, “noise” or “noisiness” expresses the degree to which the experience of playing a game causes the player to recognize the component parts of that experience as discrete, as opposed to as an integrated, sensuous whole (read: signal).

Here I mean sensuous in the Mendelssohnian sense, meaning that an object (1) can be perceived by the external senses and (2) that an object can be perceived all at once. The term connotes clarity in meaning and communicative capacity but not distinctiveness. Mendelssohn affirms that every object can potentially be represented to the senses as perfection if its presentation meets the standard of indistinct clarity and totality. Mendelssohn’s point about the sensuous whole is useful to game theorists in part because its aesthetic approach is so fundamental; game critics need vocabulary which accounts for the experience of play, and Mendelssohn’s insight begins with the focus on how our senses perceive the stimuli a game(work) transmits as either integral or discordant.

“Noise” adds to the vocabulary for critiquing games in a way that the term “ludonarrative dissonance” cannot, because it does not presuppose that the play and the narrative exist as discrete and potentially opposed elements of the game work in the first place. Moreover, “noise” is quite straightforward to understand, especially to the technologically-native players and readers of recent generations, for it invokes notions of imperfection, like the white noise on an empty radio channel or the snow on a television screen.

Noise is a disruptive force. Noise reminds the player of the medium through which the game is played. Noise pulls disbelief out of its suspension. Noise ends the voyeuristic pleasure of the spectator. Noise is a challenge to the fluency of experiencing the game and its own medium. Noise is sand in the gears. Noise reverses the immersion of the player and brings the medium of play to the fore. Some games might do well to capitalize on achieving noise as part of the player experience, but noise will be the enemy of many games that seek to seduce players into an environment, ruleset, and narrative world that functions seamlessly and enthralls its player by eliminating noise altogether. Noise is game dust.

On Games

Although games themselves are ancient, criticism of games as a medium is a relatively new enterprise. Only recently have scholars begun the process of developing an analytical toolset for examining and studying games in their own right. Games are quickly becoming a substitute for cinema, which itself largely unseated the novel, as the go–to space of cultural production and experience.  Since the proliferation of technologies to deliver computer game experiences began in the 1980s, gaming has penetrated segments of the human experience that other media have not, and probably cannot. Furthermore, games uniquely exemplify and simulate the dynamism, psychology, and nuance of the human experience through their principal mechanism: interaction. So why has games studies taken a backseat in the humanities? Are games mere artifacts of pop culture that are too low brow for critical investigation?

In the beginning of the 20th century, film found itself in a similar position. Was it simply a visual art? Was it narrative and therefore a work of literature? Was it a theatrical performance? A circus sideshow? These questions were influential for both the trajectory of film production and criticism over the next century. At this point, however, film critics have built the vocabulary and honed techniques for the examination of cinematic works; it is a well-established field in the humanities. Nowadays, the question, “is film truly an art?” is bygone. Over the last decade, droves of undergraduates have sought out media studies and film degrees from their universities. Film studies is safe.

Yet the discipline of game studies suffers from growing pains. The status of games as an art form worthy of critique lingers. Just as film incorporated various media into itself, such as two-dimensional and three-dimensional plastic arts, music, and theatrical performance, games too exist at the intersection of various disciplines. Games combine other art forms with a rather unique functionality: interactivity. Unlike film’s spectator paradigm, games set forth the paradigm of the player and the game. Roughly defined, games exist as rules sets and encourage participation from the player. Most art forms can exist without the spectator, for they are either static or “play” themselves regardless of whether they are observed or not. Games, however, demand participation in addition to observation. Player sensation and motor activity, however realistic or dynamic, creates meaning. Thus, gameplay requires more of the audience than mere spectatorship—at least one member of the audience must actively participate in order to propel it. Theoreticians have proposed definitions for terms such as “game” and “player” that carve out territory for games as a medium. Unfortunately, sins of omission and commission are common here.  Is the internet a multimodal game? Is there any aspect of the human experience that resists transformation into game-like experience (i.e. game-ification). Perhaps these reasons explain the paucity of peer-reviewed journals in the field of game studies.

Problematically, most game audiences clamor for the inclusion of “fun” as a metric for game criticism, despite the intrinsic subjectivity of its usage and difficulty posed in its application as a critical tool. Here the arguments differ from those launched in aesthetic debates over art, film, and theater. While other media can entertain through beauty or impress through adherence to genre standards, games exist within a plane of potentiality. The audience member must take action in order for the rules of the game to become visible. Without audience action, the rules of the game, and hence the experience of the game itself, may as well not exist. The same cannot be said for non-interactive media, like painting or film, where the plastic or progressive nature of the medium governs spectatorship, but exists without it. For these reasons, games are most similar to a dramatic work in which a member of the audience is not only himself an actor, but the quintessential cog in the theatrical machine necessary for its progression. Therefore, any coherent theory of games must respond to the following question: In a medium where interactivity is an existential prerequisite, how do games elicit participation without incentivizing the player through fun, or some analog for it? Likewise, game criticism must cultivate the notion that while games can be fun, criticism of the medium requires objective methodology and a rigorous analytical approach. Professors across the humanities unite in their dismay at hearing students explain how they “enjoy” the subject matter and find it “interesting.” So what?

If you are curious and would like to learn more about deep game analysis, I highly recommend the Errant Signal video series, which provides a unique and easily digestible survey into some of the larger questions in game studies. The narrator, Chris Franklin, discusses gaming paradigms as loose sets of rules, gives context to his criticism of games within their genres and franchises, and edits video game montages into each commentary. He sometimes employs the terminology of game studies scholarship, and sometimes creates his own where necessary. In sum, I believe that Errant Signal is an excellent primer on the topic of game studies for gamers, and might just serve as the gateway for future scholarly pursuit in academia. Here is a classic episode of the series about Kinaesthetics, which Franklin presents as an alternative to the recently popularized but overgeneric term: “game feel.”

On Rap Competition

I read Kendrick’s verse on “Control” as a lament about the lack of productive clash in hip hop and the rapper’s own worry that rappers have lost sight of the discursive function of rap. It is a long-standing paradox in rap that (1) rappers only improve through competition, either in the consumer market or within rap battles, and (2) that the best rapper loses traction due to lack of worthwhile competition, resulting in a freefall and collapse. Some rappers, like the Run the Jewels crew (free album), understand this perfectly. It is noteworthy to mention that these two rappers resolve the above paradox by working as a duo, such that each rapper’s verses create a positive incentive for the other’s advancement as a lyricist.

Unfortunately, most responses to K.dot’s verse do not address his commentary on rap as a competition–based paradigm. Pey3ree is a notable exception to this, but his voice is drowned out by others hopping on the hip hop bandwagon without merit. This mashup of Downfall with a hip hop listener’s commentary on the topic is pitch perfect. Especially in light of the fact that Hitler and Downfall are explcitly referenced in the lyrics of Control and Lupe Fiasco’s response to it.

Clothes Make the Man

Over the last century, the acquisition of counterfeit titles and uniforms clashed repeatedly with cultures that give credence to the these proxies for authority, and the respect and merit that authority conveys. Some of the most recognizable occurrences of these phenomena occur in Germany. I recently stumbled across an enthralling article from Wolfgang Kaes in the Bonn General–Anzeiger about Consul Hans-Hermann Weyer Graf von Yorck, also known as “Der Mann mit den vielen Titeln.” I highly recommend the biographical essay, because it grants insight into the value of honorary, academic, and professional titles in Central Europe in the wake of the Second World War. Here is a picture of Honorary Consul Weyer , who changed his surname to “Graf von Yorck” as part of an intentionally duplicitous scheme to appear to be descended from nobility. In actuality, he was adopted late into his adulthood by members of embarrassed aristocracy.

Consul Weyer

Lotte Eisner describes a similar situation in her essay about The Last Laugh (1924), a film that thematizes the role of the uniform in Prussian society. She states that the story represents a ”preeminently a German tragedy, and can only be understood in a country where uniform is king, not to say god. A non-German mind will have difficulty in comprehending all its tragic implications.” Here is a picture of the former bathroom attendant-turned-official.

Der Letzte Mann

In the Hauptmann von Köpenick (1956), audiences bear witness to yet another identity theft via costume change. This time, describing a real incident, the Berliner Morgenpost wrote:

„Daß ein ganzes Gemeinwesen mit allen seinen öffentlichen Funktionen, ja daß eine Abteilung Soldaten selbst auf so überwältigend komische und dabei doch völlig gelungene Art von einem einzigen Menschen düpiert wurde, das hat in unserem Lande der unbegrenzten Uniform-Ehrfurcht ein militärisches Gewand getan, mit dem sich ein altes, krummbeiniges Individuum notdürftig behängt hatte.“

Captain of Köpenick

Besides an affinity for buttons, all three of these figures demonstrate their unrelenting desire to change their lot in life. When they realize that titles and uniforms exist as a shortcut, all three toss aside their scruples and take it. Consul Weyer has mentioned that the embarrassed plagiarist and former German Minister of Defense, Guttenberg, should have solicited his own help if he wishes to add the PhD title to his name with less effort and risk. This is quite significant coming from Consul Weyer, who has staked his reputation on building a false reputation.