Science Fiction Studies

#128 = Volume 43, Part 1 = March 2016


Paweł Frelik

Simulating the Future

Torill Elvira Mortensen, Jonas Linderoth, and Ashley M.L. Brown, eds. The Dark Side of Game Play: Controversial Issues in Playful Environments. London: Routledge, 2015. 272 pp. £90 hc.

Neal Tringham. Science Fiction Video Games. Boca Raton, FL: CRC, 2015. 516 pp. $25.49 pbk.

Pasi Väliaho. Biopolitical Screens: Image, Power, and the Neoliberal Brain. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2014. 208 pp. $35.00 hc.

Gerald A. Voorhees, Joshua Call, and Katie Whitlock, ed. Guns, Grenades, and Grunts: First-Person Shooter Games. London: Continuum, 2012. 428 pp. $42.95 pbk.

The four books listed above could easily be six, or eight, or eleven. Although still young in comparison to other emergent academic fields—when Game Studies, the first academic journal devoted specifically to computer games, was founded in 2001—the study of gaming has sped through developments and transformations that took decades in other disciplines. The number of dedicated academic journals can already be counted in the tens; the number of book volumes and conferences in the hundreds; and the number of articles and reviews in the thousands. The field has already fought its civil wars between ludologists and narratologists, has several large and vibrant academic associations and communities, and has been officially canonized in academia following the creation of degree and research programs at numerous universities in Asia, Europe, and North America.

There are several reasons for this blossoming, but major among them is the intense inter- and transdisciplinarity of the field. This is in evidence both within academe—where game studies has attracted researchers of literature, film, media, communication, and fan studies as well as philosophers, art historians, computer scientists, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and economists—and outside it—where the boundaries among academic study, journalism, the industry, and player communities have been more porous and flexible than in any other contemporary medium. Also, although the large number of print books mentioned earlier may seem to provide evidence to the contrary, the field of game studies has been exceptionally egalitarian with regard to new channels of knowledge dissemination: some of the most interesting and rigorous critical interventions and conversations have appeared in online journals as well as on their authors’ personal or group blogs, again a situation unprecedented in other media and most other fields.

This necessarily cursory overview of the field of game studies leads to the question that is central to the theme of this special issue of SFS: what is the relationship between game studies and the study of science fiction, or—more generally—what is the relationship between video games and science fiction? The answer is neither simple nor definite, but the fact that only one of the four books reviewed includes “science fiction” in its title is noteworthy. In fact, as of late 2015, it is, to the best of my knowledge, the only book that imbricates “games” and “science fiction” in its title.

This illusory absence of science fiction from discussions of video games is tied to their uniqueness as cultural objects and their relationship with traditional genre systems. The crucial difference between them and other sf media is that video games in general function within two separate genre frameworks (Kücklich 101-103). The first of these systems is iconographic and thematic, exemplified by the genre traditions of literature and film: western, historical, fantasy, or horror. This is the dimension that sf games share with sf film or television. The other genre framework comprises categories describing the way in which players interact with games, resulting in such distinctions as adventure games, simulators, shooters, and sports games. In some ways, the interactive genre system behaves like the older system of thematic categories; it is susceptible to the subjective proliferation of denominations—Mark Wolf enumerates as many as forty-two different types of games (117). Its genres are also inherently impure: each Mass Effect game (2007-2012) is at once a third-person shooter, a role-playing game, and an action game, and even includes minor puzzle games.

Recognizing this duality of games as texts, Jesper Juul, in his now canonical Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds (2005), emphasizes that video games are amalgamations of the two components mentioned in his subtitle, insisting that both are equally important and that their dynamic but also generally balanced relationship accounts for successful titles. Nevertheless, much of games scholarship appears to lean towards dividing games according to the types of activity enforced by the rules—hence the relative rarity of “science-fiction video games” as a fixed category. This bias is also reflected in the contents of the section devoted to “Generic Aspects” in Mark Wolf’s authoritative Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies (2014), which includes chapters devoted to action, adventure, role-playing, shooting, simulation, sports, and strategy (221-82). With sixty chapters running at over five-hundred pages, the Companion does not have a single section devoted to what Kücklich calls iconographic genres. On the other hand, dismissing the role of the latter in the study of video games would be premature: there are profoundly compelling reasons why many players will play sf games, regardless of whether they are shooters or strategy games, and will not touch fantasy or historical titles. What is more, I would like to propose that science fiction is absolutely central to game studies in general and critical engagements of gaming genres, conventions, and individual titles in particular—and not just as a genre designation.

The three books that do not have “science fiction” in their titles seem statistically to confirm my proposition in terms of primary texts invoked in them. Väliaho’s intensely theoretical study has an entire chapter entitled “Future Perfect” devoted to first-person shooters, many of which are functionally science fiction. The Dark Side of Game Play continually refers to sf titles, from Lego Star Wars (1999-), to Left 4 Dead (2008-2009), The Walking Dead (2012-) and Resident Evil (1996-), to Mass Effect (2007-2012) and Metal Gear Solid (1987-). Finally, the majority of games discussed in Guns, Grenades, and Grunts are unambiguously science fiction. Elsewhere (and readers will have to take my word for this), there is hardly any significant and comprehensive study of the gaming medium that does not name-check at least a handful of sf titles—although the genre itself does not, typically, even appear in the index. Colin Milburn’s Mondo Nano: Fun and Games in the World of Digital Matter (2015), reviewed in the November 2015 issue of SFS, is a case in point: most, if not all, of the games discussed in it are science fiction, and yet the name of the genre cannot be found on the cover or in the table of contents.

The intimate links between video games and science fiction extend beyond the statistics, however. In the same way in which Brooks Landon suggests that all cinema-of-attractions film is sf film (32) and that sf film has become “the cinema’s own genre” (40), I propose that most, if not all, video games are, in some way, science-fiction games and that science-fictional regimes of thinking are absolutely central to the entire medium for several reasons.

The first area of this enmeshing is the very activity of world-building, which is literally present at the core of every single video game in the form of a game engine—a complex software framework, both directly and indirectly responsible for the functioning of game worlds. On many levels, designing a game is like inventing a world from scratch, a faculty in which science fiction has always been centrally invested. In more cognitive terms, even when in-game worlds pretend to be realistic, as is the case with the city of Los Santos in Grand Theft Auto V (2013), spatial imagination and what Henry Jenkins calls “narrative architecture” (121-22) are crucial to achieving the sense of immersion, both narrative and experiential.

Secondly, as a genre, science fiction has always been singularly committed to constructing times and spaces that are systemic: organized by physics, however imaginary, operating according to knowable—although not always known—principles, both stable and mutable, and infused with complexity and connectedness, even if they remain forever obscured from the individual gaze. If these aspects do not already sound like a description of video games, I do not know what does. Games are, first and foremost, systems: they are software objects whose very existence relies on the correctness of algorithms and the flawless execution of the code; they are imaginary worlds whose levels of richness and detail affect the chances of being replayed, particularly in the face of the game industry’s relentless cycles of obsolescence constructed around the release of new versions, sequels, and mission packs; and they are not immediately obvious and discernible.

Thirdly, many theories of individual and collective subjectivities so central to science fiction, including Donna Haraway’s figure of the cyborg and Ursula K. Le Guin’s imaginary anthropologies, provide some of the best ways to theorize players’ behaviors: the creation of in-game identities that can be radically different from lived ones and the engagement in intra- and extra-game guilds, clans, and kinships whose mores and lores rival in complexity those of actually existing communities. These three convergences do not exhaust possible intersections between science fiction and video games but, characteristically, none of them even begin to engage thematic and narrative elements, which have historically been the privileged area of inquiry for many scholars of sf.

The need to develop new ways of talking about the genre in the gaming medium and the more general difficulties involved in navigating the intersections between earlier cultural genres and the gaming medium are best exemplified in the only title that merges the two fields together. At over 500 pages, Tringham’s book would appear to be a useful source and it is, but not necessarily in the ways it promises in its press release: as a critical analysis. The core of Science Fiction Video Games is a large encyclopedic section comprising entries on game titles, typically two or three pages long. In these, apart from providing basic information, such as plot summaries, histories of development, or listings of sequels and downloadable content (DLCs), the author makes some effort to reach outside the medium and suggest thematic links to genre novels, films, and television series. Many of these references are fairly random and inconsequential, as are the links to the games’ websites (in most cases completely useless given the existence of Google), and “Further Reading.” To wit, the Mass Effect trilogy, often praised as one of the most complex sf games, has no single reference listed, and Bioshock (2007), whose scattered critical literature could fill several volumes, comes with a link to an interview with the chief designer and one other online article. While the listing is fairly comprehensive, it is also notably weighted towards more recent, Anglophone, and AAA titles, with some notable absences of such games as oftlineCyberia (1994) and Blade Runner (1997).

Even more problematic is the introductory section preceding the listings, which promises to problematize sf games—it simply does not, and even the opening chapter, “Videogames and Science Fiction,” is largely devoted to various (and, in most cases, rather rudimentary) considerations firmly belonging in game studies. Many of these problems may well be a consequence of the author’s obvious lack of critical expertise in science fiction. Nevertheless, it is also possible to see them as emblematic of larger issues related to the fact that, as media objects, video games are really different from film or television in how they mobilize the cultural tropes of genres such as science fiction. Consequently, any systematic study of sf games needs to take into account much more than their deployment of narrative elements, characters, and scenarios.

As is probably clear by now, I do believe that sf video games are a distinct cultural category—but they cannot be discussed in the same terms as sf film or sf comics. They deserve sustained critical attention for a number of reasons: their role in the development of sf cultures in the last five decades; their ability to convincingly simulate and mobilize science-fictional modes of action and thought only described in literature and externally shown in film; finally, because many games are simply complex texts, steeped in the genre tradition, that address the same political, social, economic, ecological, and cultural issues as novels or films. More than in any other sf medium, however, future sf game scholarship requires that their authors be far more conversant in game studies than many film reviewers need to be with film theory to offer insightful analyses of science-fiction films. The three books without “science fiction” in their titles are as good a start as many others.

Jenkins, Henry. “Game Design as Narrative Architecture.” First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Ed. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2004. 118-30.

Juul, Jesper. Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2005.

Kücklich, Julian. “Literary Theory and Digital Games.” Understanding Digital Games. Ed. Jason Rutter and Jo Bryce. London: Sage, 2006. 95-111.

Landon, Brooks. “Diegetic or Digital? The Convergence of Science-Fiction Literature and Science-Fiction Film in Hypermedia.” Alien Zone II. The Spaces of Science-Fiction Cinema. Ed. Annette Kuhn. London: Verso, 1999. 31-49.

Wolf, Mark J.P. “Genre and the Video Game.” The Medium of the Video Game. Ed. Mark J.P. Wolf. Austin: U of Texas P, 2002. 113-36.

─────, ed. The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies. New York: Routledge, 2014.

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