Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Patrick Jagoda's "Experimental Games"

Patrick Jagoda is Professor of English and Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago. He is the author of Experimental Games: Critique, Play, and Design in the Age of Gamification (2020), Network Aesthetics (2016), and co-author with Michael Maizels of The Game Worlds of Jason Rohrer (2016).

Jagoda applied the “Page 99 Test” to Experimental Games and reported the following:
Page 99 falls in the middle of my analysis of the independent video game Braid (2008). On this page, I begin to show how this game uses the medium-specific properties of video games to experiment with nonconscious experiences of computational technologies. Braid happens to be “experimental” in the sense of being an avant-garde or art game: a category that really took off around 2007 and of which this game was a successful example. But Braid is also experimental in a more profound sense: the game shows that, in any video game, a player is both an active experimenter and someone who is experimented upon. To give the player some critical distance from this technological experiment, this game plays with the figures and tropes of the familiar Nintendo game Super Mario Bros. (1985). On this particular page, I begin to discuss the ways the subtle narrative and visual details of the game gesture toward a post-1945 scene of the nuclear arms race, the rise of computation, and the eventual emergence of video games themselves.

In many ways, page 99 is not especially representative of what came before this page in my Experimental Games book. The opening pages operate at a more macroscopic scale, introducing a framework for understanding the importance of games in our time via economic, political, and technological histories of game theory, behavioral economics, neoliberalism, and experimentation across disciplines. The opening pages offer a large context, whereas this page is one of the first in which I zoom into one specific video game.

At the same time, page 99 contributes to a key method of my book: close and sustained engagement with a video game. As the book unfolds, I delve into popular games such as Starcraft and Candy Crush, as well as independent games such as The Stanley Parable and Undertale. Too often, games do not receive the same care that critics extend to literary texts across a broad historical range from The Canterbury Tales to Moby Dick to Native Son. With the rise of cinema studies, that kind of attentiveness is also evident in close readings of classic cinema such as Citizen Kane, Casablanca or Seven Samurai, as well more recent films such as Moonlight, Get Out, or The Act of Killing. An assumption that remains common among people who do not avidly play or study games is that video games, in particular, are more akin to mere children’s toys or entertainment products. While that is arguably the case for some games, others reward the same depth of analysis as important cultural works from other media. Even in the field of game studies, particular games are sometimes discussed quickly or superficially en route to a broader point.

Beyond the core argument of my book, about games as a host for experimentation and a medium of “problem making” in our digital and networked age, I’m invested in taking video games seriously as occasions for philosophical, social, and political thought. To do that, it is important to interpret particular games according to the unique experiences of space, time, velocity, interactivity, participation, system perception, and networked sociality that they make available. Video games are not just entertainment or even vehicles for behavior modification, but can also be media that impact how we can think, act, and change the world.
Visit Patrick Jagoda's website.

--Marshal Zeringue