Being a fan sometimes has its costs

I should be working on a book chapter, but the news today has me thinking in parallels. Elisabeth Sladen, the actress who played Sarah Jane Smith in Doctor Who and the Sarah Jane Adventures has died due to cancer at age 63. It has been a bad year for fans with the passing of the great Nicholas Courtney in February, but as an acafan I’m wondering about the experience of loss for fans of the series, fans of the actors and fans of their characters.

I’m currently researching and writing about multiplayer First Person Shooter games and thinking about the role of ‘death’ in games, especially violent and militaristic means of dealing ‘death’ in games like Call of Duty: Black Ops and the disconnection between death and ‘death’. As a fan, but never having met Sladen, I’m wondering about what is has more emotional intensity for the fan, the passing of the actor or the knowledge that the character’s ‘story’ (at least in the ‘cannon’ of the television series) is now finished, even if they aren’t ‘dead’?

Death of a character is not an obstacle in science fiction and especially in shows like Doctor Who, where regeneration, paradox and deus ex machina and generally overcoming ‘death’ in the narrative are part of the experience of watching and participating in the fandom. Only rarely does ‘death’ of a character in Doctor Who have an ongoing significance or ‘meaning’ for fans in terms of the impact on the story and mythology of the series, as was the case with Adric.

A new season of Doctor Who will start in a couple of days, but it is due to people like Sladen and Courtney and their generosity towards fans over the years, and their own role as fans, that there is a future in the series. So the expectation of the new series, the gradual build-up on fansites, blogs, the trailers and teasers designed to increase the expectation and chatter between fans ‘looking forward’ to the new series takes on a new tenor.

For a non-fan, the news of the latest series, and the death of Elizabeth Sladen (and the loss of Sarah Jane), ‘matters’ in a very different way to that of the fan. It is this mattering, and not it’s significance (or meaning) that suggests an overlap with ‘death’ in FPS games. In games, and in Doctor Who for characters like Rory Pond and the Doctor, ‘death’ is a tabula rasa (Richard, 1999), a chance to do things over, where as death (or Death) is, as Tom Stoppard (1968) describes in Rosencrantz and Guildestern are Dead, the ultimate negative:

Rosencrantz: Do you think Death could possibly be a boat?
Guildenstern: No, no, no… Death is “not.” Death isn’t. Take my meaning? Death is the ultimate negative. Not-being. You can’t not be on a boat.
Rosencrantz: I’ve frequently not been on boats.
Guildenstern: No, no… What you’ve been is not on boats.

Lawrence Grossberg has been immensely helpful in thinking about how ‘death’ and military ideology is involved in the ‘mattering’ of FPS games. In writing on the subject of fandom, Grossberg explains that “a fan’s relation to cultural texts operate in the domain of affect” (Grossberg, 1992, p. 56). In this context, affect is not the same as emotion or feeling. Grossberg privileges the ‘pleasures’ of affect in the sensibility of fandom as having greater determination of what makes the popular popular than the ‘meaning’ of the cultural texts. Not denying that texts are embedded with discourse, but arguing that ideologies are maps of meaning, Grossberg suggests that affect is also embedded and provides an organising function.

Affect operates in tandem (and potentially in competition) with ideology, as it is involved in the production of maps of mattering that indicate with what intensities and degrees of investment texts become part of the make up our self-identification: I am a Doctor Who fan because Doctor Who matters to me, not because of what Doctor Who signifies to me or anyone else, although how I make meaning of the text is dependent on what matters or what degrees of investment are involved:

Affect plays a crucial role in organizing social life because affect is constantly constructing not only the possibility of difference, but the ways specific difference come to matter.  Both ideology and pleasure depend on defining and privileging particular terms within various relations of difference. But it is affect which enables some difference (for instance, race and gender) to matter as markers of identity rather than other (foot length, angle of ears, eye color) (Grossberg, 1992: p. 58).

For example both Sarah Jane and Elizabeth Sladen matter interms of my self-identity, and my social identity as a fan because she was the first female character in a show (that mattered to me) to demonstrate, discuss, and reveal qualities and statements that I would latter associated with feminism. It was less the discourse and unpacking of feminist ideology (however naive in execution and reception) that ‘mattered’ and more the intensity of investment in the series that became part of the experience of becoming a fan. What exists before and after signification is the intensity of investment in that experience.

The feelings I have now as a fan are not entirely a subjective experience:

[Feeling] … is a socially constructed domain of cultural effects. Some things feel different from others, some matter more or in different ways, than others … different affective relations inflect meanings and pleasure in very different ways. Affect is what gives  ‘color’, ‘tone’ or ‘texture’ to our experiences ” (Grossberg, 1992, p. 56).

Following Grossberg who defines affect qualitatively, by the ‘inflection’ of a particular investment, and quantitatively in the magnitude of that investment in experiences, practices, identities, meanings and pleasure (although both are difficult to measure) and difference, being a fan of a popular cultural text has its rewards (the anticipation of new content and the familiarity and enjoyment of older material) and its costs ( the feelings, emotions, associated with the death of this involved in the production of the text). The ‘mattering map’ of self-identity as a fan is then marked out by the an  intensity and excess, that has a bearing on “how to live within emotional and ideological histories” (Grossberg, 1992, p. 57). The news about Liz sladen’s death had a very different emotional register (puzzled sadness), tone or modulation, than news about a child’s death or suffering (horror and helplessness), for example, due to the mattering map of self-identity that is dominated by the intensities of identification as a ‘father’ compared to that of the ‘fan’.

Affect does not explain, what the death of Elizabeth Sladen or Sarah Janes formative feminism means to fans, but does help to explain why these and not other events and ideologies matter. I was watching The Sontaran Experiment, just the other day and it occurred to me that watching the episode for the first time when I was 5 or 6, Sarah’s interaction with Harry didn’t really mean much:

Harry: OK, old thing?
Sarah Jane: Harry, I am not a thing.

This exchange didn’t feature, as far as I remember, in what Doctor Who meant to me as a child, but it certainly expanded my investment in the show as an adolescent and as an adult and why it continues to matter.  This history of an intensity of investment, the “ideology of excess” (Grossberg , p. 61) became part in some sense of my own identity, and the relationship between the ideology of excess and the ideology of feminism registers on the mattering map of that fandom and self-identity and intersects with how I enfold characters like Ace, and the new sexual politics of Amy, Rory and the Doctor into my understanding of what the series means and how I understand the competing discourses of that show to be limited or expanded.

The ideology of excess, what can be said and interpreted as part of my own identity that includes being a Doctor Who fan, governs the types of conversations I have with other fans and non-fans and the patterns of meaning and mattering that can occur, it does not suggest that I take on the significance of Sarah’s feminism in its entirety, only that it marks a point on the mattering map of my identity.

Similarly, to get to my long winded point, the ‘death’ in FPS games does not register in the same way that the death of Elizabeth Sladen, or the Death of someone more personally known to me, or news about civilian or military personnel deaths in Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya, does. Rather, the less something ‘matters’ as part of the my self-identity the more strongly the ideological component seems to mean: the military discourse of violence, fetishism of weapons, and ‘death’ in FPS games are no less ideological, than the ways the game is organised into a quasi-sports matches, and the way gender or race are portrayed but matter to a different degree, register with a different affective intensity, than the social experiences, trials of competition, achievements in victory and defeat that matter personally to my self-identity as a gamer.  So the gamer self, the political self that abhors the invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan, is conflicted about the US and NATO role in Libya, and the fanself saddened by both the prospect of no more Sarah Jane and the significance of an individual’s death, are all part of the assembly of  identity, that is composed out of the relations of differences that are being constantly reordered and made sense of:

It is in their affective lives that fans constantly struggle to care about something, and to find the energy to survive, to find the passion necessary to imagine and enact their own projects and possibilities (Grossberg, 1992, p. 59).

Sarah Jane [In The Monster of Peladon]: Now just a minute. There’s nothing “only” about being a girl, Your Majesty.

Sarah Jane [In Arks in Space, about the Doctor]: He talks to himself sometimes because he’s the only one who understands what he’s talking about.

I would have liked to have seen Sarah Jane go on to be a batty old woman too.

Farewell Sarah Jane and thank you Elizabeth Sladen.

Grossberg, Lawrence (1992). Is there a Fan in the House?: The Affective Sensibility of Fandom, in Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, Lewis, Lisa A (ed.), pp. 50 -65. Florence: Routledge.

Richard, Birgit (1998). Norn Attacks and Marine Doom, in Ars Electronica: Facing the Future, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Realism and Immersion

(I’ve posted on this previously but this is an updated version, as part of some reflections on the topic for the chapter mentioned in the previous post)

My issue with the use of the terms ‘realistic’ and ‘realism’ to talk about texts like movies and games started when I first went to the cinema to see Saving Private Ryan, a film the entertainment news media readily claimed as ‘realistic’, and I recall a newspaper article that had interview with Second World War and Vietnam veterans, who after seeing the film spoke about how how ‘accurate’ the portrayal of the battle scenes were, including how ‘real’ the Omaha Beach scene was. I remembered the odd sense of dislocation at the time of watching, wondering how anyone could compare the comfortable and entertaining experience of viewing a film in a cinema with surround sound and bag of Maltesers with the horrible, brutal and ‘actual’ experience of war. I felt a great disservice being done to the text and the those involved in the historical events and I recalled those thoughts years later later playing Call of Duty: Allied Assault game, the first PC game of the series, which featured ‘Operation Overlord’ a mission to survive the Omaha Beach scene.

Lights down, a comfortable seat, tasty snacks and a decent sound setup once again for the experience but this time something else occurred, responses that were totally unlike those of the cinema event. As I directed my character out of the landing boat, the pelting of bullets decimating my virtual squad members I ‘died’ immediately and sank beneath the bloodied waters only to instantly reload the scene and try again. As reloaded, died, and reloaded again and again, I slowly pieced together the tactics necessary to survive. Hiding behind the large metal anti-landing placements, but only for a second as the briefest hesitation would mean an enemy volley of machine gun fire would find me, I began too look around, to take in and explore scene, putting together an overall strategy in response to the visual and audible clues as to how to solve the puzzle of the game, while directing my avatar with enough speed and accuracy to perform accordingly to the code’s mechanics. I witnessed a scene of a medic attempting to pull wounded soldiers to the forward position – and wondered if they were subject to the same rules of the game or did they exist at a different point in the uncanny valley, and at no point did I confuse the trajectory of the simulated bullets with the effects of ‘actual ones. My elation of making it to safety against a sand bank was ironically ripped from me as the Captain ordered me back into the surf to retrieve weapons from the fallen, not because I’d survived, but because the overlooked the now standard component of game design that it is cheaper to force players to go over the same area twice than it is to design and build more areas in total.

The feelings, emotions, responses I had during this game play were some of the most intense and rewarding of my FPS playing experience, comparable to early victories in Wolfenstein 3D against cyborg Hitler, and the terrifying experience of playing Doom in the dark. At no time did I feel the experience was a realistic simulation of the events, it wasn’t ‘immersive’: the endless reloading of my character, bathroom breaks, a spot of vacuuming and a walk to the shops during the time it took to finish the mission, meant that while I was ‘absorbed’ by the entertainment at no point did I confuse the ‘real’ experience of playing as anything else than a representation, a fictional and interactive account. The discourse of ‘realism’ is an elemental factor in the media effects response to the FPS genre, one that is contributed to in the marketing of games that focuses on pixels and polygon counts. The replication of ‘real’ world locations and ‘accurate’ sounds, models and textures are imagined to create a mythical status of immersion, drawing the player into the game experience through more and more detailed environments, and as such the ‘realism’ and the ‘effects’ of ‘realistic’ media violence has taken centre stage in the criticism of FPS games, and the moral, political and legal cases that have been against the genre in recent years. I will go into more detail on this in and I’ve been slowly putting my thoughts together on the notion of game play as being ‘absorbing’ rather than ‘immersive’ and I will explore some of the theory involved in the construction of ‘immersion’ and take a look at some of the  theory involved replacing the notion of ‘absorption’ over ‘immersion’ in the next post.

FPS Abstraction

An abstract I submitted last year to a call for contributions for a book on First Person Shooter (FPS) games (with the awesome title: Guns, Grenades, and Grunts: The First-Person Shooter) has been accepted for further peer-review. Now I have to get cracking and write the chapter. Here is the abstract:

Creativity, Contagion and Control: Affect in Online Multiplayer First Person Shooter Games

The FPS genre attracts attention to the degrees of ‘realism’, ‘interactivity’ and ‘immersion’ afforded to the player. Such terms, however, only communicate part of the FPS experience and are not adequate in fully accounting for the social and political scope of gamer culture. To be sure, the subjective view has served gamers well: a combination of diegetic and non-diegetic visual information and the appropriation of the screen language of cinema (Galloway, 2006), coupled with ever increasing polygon counts, photo realistic rendering and physical simulation result in a focus on the events represented on and by the screen. The discourse of ‘realism’ encourages the concern over ‘effects’ that pervades the news media, obliging the top-tier FPS games’ courting of controversy, but moral panics are the result of media, no longer mediating, but amplifying and modulating the negative affective dimensions of the genre, leading to louder calls for stronger State-enforced regulation of games content.

Game scholars have begun to map out new theoretical ground in a consideration of the role of  games ‘affects’, increasing the understanding of games as ‘real’ events that involve visceral and embodied experiences. These accounts, including Carr (2003, 2006), Shinkle (2005), and Shaw and Warf (2009) still tend to overstate the degree to which ‘realism’ and ‘immersion’ have a primacy in the experience of FPS games. With attention to Medal of Honor (2010) and Call of Duty: Black Ops (2010), this chapter considers the role of affect in the creative play, marketing and distribution of FPS games for the PC. It provides an analysis of three vectors of affect intersecting in these games.

First is a consideration of the presence and role of creativity in FPS game play: affect, according to Massumi (2002a, 2002b) is what remains of the body’s potential after each or everything a body says or does, it is a remainder of excess, a reserve of creativity. This account of creativity in FPS games is also grounded in the account of Silvan Tomkin’s (1965) affect of interest, which is the precursor for creative action.

Affect contagion, is the second vector to be considered, which involves sympathetic communication through linguistic, mimetic and memetic modes of communication. Contagion is considered in terms of the full spectrum of interaction, and biological capacities within online multiplayer environments: through the cybernetic interface to the dynamics of multiplayer action and the role of the voice in online games.

If affect is the politicisation of potential, then its methods of control are equally politicised and industrialised. Deleuze (1996) extended Foucault’s account of societies of discipline to consider societies of control, and in third vector of affect to be mapped through these FPS games, this chapter considers the games industry new means for control in terms of the affective marketing strategies enabled via digital

It seeks to contribute to the understanding of the means for which everyday practices of the gamer, including the formation of gamer personas, have become forms of value-producing labor and characterise the way power functions in the games industry around the play between representation, affect and access.

Carr, D. (2003). “Genre and Affect in Silent Hill and Planescape Torment.” Game Studies 3(2).
Carr, D. (2006). Space, Navigation and Affect. Computer Games Text, Narrative, Play. D. Carr,     K. Buckingham, A. Burn and G. Schott.
Cambridge, Polity Press: 59-71.
Deleuze, G. (1992). “Postscript on the Societies of Control.” October 59(Winter): 3-7.
Galloway, A. R. (2006). Gaming, Essays on Algorithmic Culture. London, University of Minnesota Press.
Massumi, B. (2002a). Parables for the Virtual. Durham, London, Duke University Press.
Massumi, B. (2002b) ‘Navigating Moments: Interview with Brian
Massumi’, Hope: New Philosophies for Change, Annandale Pluto Press (available:, accessed
November 15, 2010).
Shaw, I. G. R. and B. Warf (2009). “Worlds of Affect: virtual geographies of video games.”  Environment and Planning A 41(6):
Shinkle, E. (2005). Feel It, Don’t Think: the significance of Affect in the Study of Digital Games, DiGRA 2005 Conference: Changing
Views – Worlds in Play, Vancouver, Authors and Digital Games Research Association.
Tomkins, S. (1962). Affect, Imagery, Consciousness, Volume 1. New York, Springer Publishing Company.