fictions of science and narratives of technology in SF games

Much of my primary research is concerned with the many and varied creative cultures of production in the games industry, but I am also a long time science fiction fan and have recently begun to consider an intersection between Doctor Who and another research interest; the obsolescence of technology and the environmental and social impact of electronic waste, particularly from games. This presentation was delivered as a short paper to the first gathering of an emerging research group on Science Fiction at Deakin University, at the Waterfront Campus City Centre, on Wednesday, November 5.

The initial plan was to examine three ‘fictions’ of science across the three major games media platforms the PC, consoles and mobile devices. Ultimately the ten minute window for the presentation prohibited the ambitious scope and even as I was writing I saw the distinction between PC and consoles almost vanish completely now as Steam, XBOX Live and the Apple Game Store mean the digital distribution model and the movement between devices of the same operating system is increasingly practical, transferring across desktop, portable and mobile devices.

[The link to the ‘prezi’ presentation slides is here: ‘The Fictions of Science and Narratives of Technology in mobile, console and PC games on Prezi‘. I hope to re-record the audio for the presentation and combine the two via YouTube soon as the recording on the day didn’t come out very well.]

The earliest digital games were science fiction games for a number of suitably obvious reasons connected to the military industrial complex and the still male dominated environment of software and hardware engineering in the private and higher education sectors. Right at its origins one of the very first computer games neatly encapsulates the doubled ontology of the entire multi-subgenre spanning range of the science fiction game category.

Spacewar! created by Steve Russell and others on the PDP1 at MIT in 1962 is a game that strictly adheres to an internally consistent and purely scientific world order. The game’s code simulates gravity and involves player decision making through cybernetic interaction with logically predictable outcomes. The content of the game play is contextually framed in a world of rockets and interstellar flight, the battles of Spacewar! are not unlike the relativistic light speed navel ballet of Peter F Hamilton’s space opera and  scientifically literate and imaginative Nights Dawntrilogy.

Spacewar--the world's first computer video game.
[image by richardzx]

What is immediately noticeable about Spacewar! is the ‘science’ of the game, as the two players must navigate around the gravity pull of a star through trial and error, observation and testing, navigating and understanding the world from the perspective of curved gravity and momentum. Also immediately apparent to the player is the choice between the two ships, known as the ‘needle’ and the ‘wedge’. The controls and weapons are similar, but the look and feel are not exactly the same. Affect and difference are encoded directly into the ‘game world’ for the player to experience through the software, the code’s iterative universe.

Simultaneously the body of the player is engaged through the cybernetic interaction of the physical human machine interface, and further the player is involved in the symbolic action of play and negotiation of the representative capacities of visual and audial information, right from the very start of the video game format.

These three categories of Code, Cybernetics and Symbolism are just three of the ‘fictions of science’ in science fiction (and non-overtly SF) games, but they conveniently overlap the three orders of science fiction simulacra populated by Jean Baudrillard (1991) in his ‘Two Essays: Simulacra and Science Fiction’, the natural, the productive and the simulation. Baudrillard schema was new to me, but I found real measure in the notion that in terms of science fiction texts the ‘ordering’ structure is typically a statement about the relationship between concepts of the real and the imaginary and is governed by the principle logic of distance. The orders of simulacra immediately seemed to correspond with the three categories I’d arrived at. Like Baudrillard, I don’t consider these definitive, but illustrative of a domain of experience that is unique to the science fiction game.

The Natural Order

365:162 I found utopia (and it is a food store?)

[image by pennacook]

In the natural order, Baudrillard regards science fiction as a realm of the pure imaginary, at its most complete distance to a known ‘reality’. The natural order is a harmonious balance, the cycles of life and death and the ordering laws of the universe; the harmonics of the light spectrum in science fiction of this order are, for example, consistent with a quantifiable known existence. The natural order of simulacra is most famously represented in Sir Thomas More’s Utopia and Ursula Le Guin’s novella, The Word for World is Forest. This order of simulacra situates Utopia and the ‘natural’ are more unending if not unchanging in its cyclical patterns of nature. This order neatly maps over the structuring effects of software code, especially in computer games which are orchestral systems of feedback, databases, algorithms, inputs and pixels, and however ‘messy’ and labyrinthine the code layer becomes once in operation it is the wheels of game universe turning.

The primary order is operatic, theatrical and maintains the gothic fantasy of almost arcane high machinery, like the Steam Punk sub-genre and the “grand Opera” of technology (Baudrillard, 1991) in the ‘Gaslamp’ fantasy of web comic serial, Girl Genius (2006). Games like Tetris and WipeOut embody the Utopian principles of order and balance, the system requires the human player to assist in its operation, an endless search for completion.

Games like Audiosurf use their code to translate one material world, music, to that of another, the game world; players must integrate listening as much as viewing as they steer their spaceship across a lightbridge whose spatial dimensions are encoded by the frequencies of the their music collection and their familiarity with their musical selection guides their ability to steering effectively along the courseway to gain points. Audiosurf is the encoding of the harmonic capacities of music into the material dimensions of the game world. The software ‘playing’ itself is not a game. Tetris may be the literally encoding of the Sisyphean punishment, but its emergent narrative for is the player is therefore near operatic in scale, acting almost at the subconscious level. The game’s content is abstract, but it’s narrative is what happens when the player plays.

The Productive Order

Modern plantation

[image by t_a_i_s]

Baudrillard’s framing for the second order of simulacra is the productive, it is through the productive that the dominant structures of energies, forces, politics and actions are  Promethean obsession, modernist drive, mechanical fetishism, expansionist logic and the extreme ends of the mutated desires of capital. The productive order is the centre ground for much science fiction and can be considered an intersection of the distance between both the real and the imaginary.

The productive or projective order, as described by Baudrillard, arises from the capricious indistinction of distance between the real and the imaginary, occurring from its proximity to the third order of simulation. It is the immaterial that is altered in this encounter, given structure and purpose through the processes of the productive order, but the second order is similarly infected with the exponential gearing of the non-material modes of production. The computer is key and illustrative of this doubling:

“One can, for example, clearly discern the difference between machine robot-mechanics (characteristic of the second order) and cybernetic machines like computers which derive axiomatically from the third. But one order can easily contaminate the other, and the computer can very well function like a supermachine, a super-robot, a mechanical superpower: exhibiting the productive genius of the simulacra of the second order, not following the processes of pure simulation, and still bearing witness of the reflexes of a finalised universe…including ambivalence and revolt, like Hal in 2001.” (Baudrillard, 1991.)

The second order’s operative production of energy and mechanistic organisation of power according to industrialised logic on a grand scale is iterative within a great deal of science fiction games, especially science fiction themes in First Person, Role Playing and other game genres. It can be observed clearly in the Real Time Strategy (RTS) genre with the classic SF text reborn as Dune 2 in 1992 and the decade long obsession in Korean with StarCraft, and the global hit Starcraft 2, which model the productive order of simulacra.

The projective framework of the RTS genre operates symbolically, encapsulating the second order of simulacra, in the mechanic production and micromanagement of mechanised troops, itself a simulation of the toy soldier simulacra (entering the third order in the networked era with online play) across space battlefields and alien environments in endless mimicry of imperial expansionism for territory and heroism.

The Simulation Order

Some kind of cybernetic warrior in Trona!  O_O

[image by nasw.rm]

The third order of simulacra for Baudrillard is an informational model, the simulacra of networked and cybernetic play, it’s hyperreality is always in a state flux and is as imprecise as it is chaotic. Simulation, like cybernetic interfaces, are operational, existing indeterminantly and  with a capacity for “meta-technologicality” to mangle Baudrillard’s (1991) concept. Simulation possess a textuality which corresponds with all kinds of interfaces, narratives, concepts, states of memory and imaginative worlds that are produced today within the overlapping conventions of the SF genre and computational networks. The distance between real from imaginary is at its maximum with the utopian claim to a natural order and at its most logically compatible but subjectively indeterminate in the information model. Games in the information model include the dystopian Ayn Rand dystopia of the 2K’s Bioshock and EVE online

EVE Online is a galactic space opera, a massive multiplayer online role playing space simulation that straddles the second and third orders of simulacra and is a perfect ‘ant colony’ example of Pierre Levy’s culture of collective intelligence in operation. Eve is a perfect vision of real time network cybernetics of the third order: there is no scripted and governing narrative to the game, the players play the role of a spaceship captains flying spaceships from small scout to mammoth capital ships, forming factions called corporations with other players, mining, bounty hunting, pirating and privateering. The productive order infects the virtual as players looking to discover their fate amass a fortune of virtual (but real) currency and players invest hundreds and thousands of hours of play, driving the emergent narrative of the persistent world through their actions. The played can customise their skills and specialities of their characters, ships and allegiances across a galaxy consisting of more than 7,500 individual star systems connected by stellar sized stargates.

Eve Online was released in North America and Europe in May 2003, ahead of the other MMORPG giant (and despite its heavy fantasy elements is a science fiction text) World of Warcraft. The many moons, asteroids, planets, space stations and deep space features like wormholes, occupy a persistent popular of 400,000 active subscribers. Hundreds of players simultaneously coordinate their various factions in colossal  fleet battles, multiple corporations align momentarily in a delicate dance of space naval warfare, each player occupying a specialist role on the battlefield from frigates and incredible massive capital and battleships, to long range and short range ships, medics and shock attack, scout and sniper. Eve’s connection to the productive  is unique in the MMORPG genre with its ‘real-time’ character advancement system  in which characters develop or ‘train’ and advance their game skills according to a 24 hour clock cycle forever anchoring the incredible expansive virtualised simulation of a galaxy and its inhabitants in the labor cycles and planetary rotational spin of Earth.

Common to all these games is another fiction of science: the narrative of technology that, for the player, promises empowerment and agency through research, innovation and scientific progress, but in most cases even within first order game worlds, it is an illusion, and worse an enslavement. Power, through scientific advancements; ‘power-ups’ are a common feature of FPS games, paths of progress for more efficient troops are standard RPS features, and common to all RPGs is the advancement of player skills of intellect, knowledge, as well as strength and dexterity. The player is at their most free at the start of any game, they can make the decision to follow the narrative but use cheats, to record machinima, to complete every mission, destroy every adversary and accomplish every achievement. As the player invest time and emotion in their characters, factions and stories their options become narrowed, by investing in particular ‘classes’, skillsets, weapons, contacts, and game information they are limiting their option, reducing their own agency. This is why the character creation screen on role playing games like Oblivion and Fallout can take hours, in public online worlds investment in the character’s look and feel extends throughout the game, some players even sacrificing power for the ‘look’ of their in game operatives.

In, Imaginary Games, Chris Bateman (2011, p.30) considers SF as a marginal experience coded through the discourses of symbolic materialism, but marginality can also be found in the first order of simulacra at the code level of the game. The first and second orders of simulacra occur at the code (especially in the production of the game) and at the content layer aligning and tuning the science fiction themes of the games content to a unique range and set of symbolic expressions of what it is to be marginalised, while the third order of simulacra arises from the network connections and broader meta-game textual elements of what Jenkins calls transmedia fiction.

Borderlands 2

Welcome to the Borderlands

It was the 2K published Borderlands that successfully serialised the narrative FPS game, by combining the ‘loot’ and fixed-path role playing elements of games like Diablo and the team-play focus of Left4Dead series, with a model of downloadable content (DLC), within a post apocalyptic Western frontier style science fiction.  The Borderlands world of Pandora, is Mad Max in  Wonderland, and like Matrix everything is at once familiar and different, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz you are thrust into the role of an adventurer, a killer, know in the Borderlands folklore as a Vault hunter.

Richard Adams (2006) says of Frank Herbet’s novel: “The world of Dune throws the alien into relief against a background of familiarity and therefore makes Otherness all the more striking.” In Dune, Herbet was constructing an elaborate simulacra of concerns about the ecologies of religious fanaticism and environmentalism, and of course the idea that superheroes were disastrous for humans. “… In societies such as ours,’ suggests Adams ‘where Otherness is often demonised, Science Fiction can pierce the constraints of ideology by circumventing the conventions of traditional fiction.” Borderlands, like Dune, is very much in the second order of simulacra, equipped with what Adams calls a ‘retro-vision’ that offers as a symbolic referent point to contain ourselves within; for example the elements of Dam Busters in Star Wars the original film to Dam Busters (Adams, 2006, p.34), the re-writing of Lawrence of Arabia in Dune and the Western reinterpreted in Star Trek, and in a typical post modern turn, remodelled again in like Firefly, and again in Borderlands.

The game is at its most vibrant when in multiplayer mode, with up to four team members, the game increases its difficulty and dynamics. Action is brutal and sporadic , numbers fly out of the attacking robots, aliens, monsters, mutants and freaks as the code layer is symbolised in a intricate dance between dealing damage and receiving it. Otherness is encoded everywhere in borderlands, it is the carnivale written large across a planet of immense danger and reward. Alterity and otherness, like the damage code, are symbolically realised as with Dune in concerns of the environment, religion, sexuality and heroism.

Conclusion

To discuss ‘science fiction’ games is somewhat incongruous, as all digital games are virtualised according to one or more of the order of simulacra of science fiction. The science of games (used in game theory) appeals to the ‘natural’ order of code, but is compelled by the productive order and slaved to symbolic logic and consistency as a recognisable text, but it is in the play of networks and the creativity and investment of individuals in communities of practice and cultures of production that new kinds of science fictions texts may be produced (see Antichamber).

Darko Suvin (1979) defined Science Fiction as the establishment of a narrative hegemony of a fictional ‘novum’ validated by its own internal cognitive logic. The novum contains within it a symbolic function to inform us to the changed nature of reality, reforming the distance and relationship between the real and imaginary. The novum of science fiction in Borderlands is an attempt at confronting the intertwining of science fiction with scientific advancement, military superiority and corporate structures of dominance and control, and of course a clear subversion of male and female heteronormativity, through hyperreality, pastiche and parody, humour and comedic violence. Although the visual aesthetic of the game may appear to be caricature, it is through such extensions and ridicule of such simulacra that the limits of the science fiction and first person shooter genres are revitalised, if not quite transcended, with meaningful engagement and comprehension of the marginality of otherness.

References

Adams, R. (2006) Science Fiction, New York: Routledge.

Bateman, C. (2011) Imaginary Games, Zero Books.

Baudrillard, J. (1991) ‘Two Essays, Simulacra and Science Fiction’, Science Fiction Studies, vol 18, no. 55.

Suvin, D 1979 Metamorphoses of Science Fiction,  Yale University Press.

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