Course Of The Month
Joystick Lit and the Barrage of Silly Questions

By Jon Sanders


February 15, 2006

Story photo

The scene is a classroom. A professor in white labcoat is demonstrating how to operate a device. Addressing the class, he explains: "... so the compression and expansion of the longitudinal waves cause the erratic oscillation — you can see it there — of the neighboring particles."

His description is cut short by a raised hand, insistent on being recognized. Impatiently he asks, "Yes, what is it? What? What is it?"

The student asks, "Can I play with it?" — referring to the plastic toddler's toy in the professor's hands, a "push popper." Like the rest of the class, the insistent student is a kindergartner.

The professor, TV's John Frink, continues to play with the toy. "No, you can't play with it; you won't enjoy it on as many levels as I do," says the mad scientist of "The Simpsons" in a 1995 episode, before gleefully shouting "The colors, children!"

Granted, Course of the Month has used the "Simpsons lede" before (the writers have a knack for spoofing academic follies), but given this month's honoree it seemed particularly apt and illustrative. The award goes to a Duke literature course offered this spring:

LIT 132S: Weapons of Mass Entertainment: the Poetics and Politics of Video games [sic]

"The Ancient Greeks had theater, Olympic games and even novels," the synopsis begins, employing a rhetorical device particularly favored by academics to lend the air of legitimacy to pop-culture classroom fluff: the homage to classicism. "We still have theater, Olympiads, novels (although in very different form) but we have more: movies and videogames."

The synopsis relies on other course-description mainstays often used to lend the impression of thoughtfulness and rigor. They include:

• the "scholar's ellipses" (i.e., trailing off ungrammatically)

• the labored paradox (e.g., something along the lines of Are we reading the play, or is the play reading us?)

• the barrage of silly questions (speaks for itself)

question-begging (assuming facts not in evidence), and

• the inevitable social-guilt redirection (a combination of the above; e.g., What does what we say about this pop-culture subject really say about us and our society in terms of race, gender, class, sexual preference, imperialism, consumer culture, ad nauseam?).

Here is the rest of the course synopsis:

Do videogames have plots, like tragedies and novels? But how does one play a plot, or play in a plot? What happens to plot under conditions of interaction and multimedia display? What kinds of plots are susceptible to such constraints? Can traces and effects of the old and modern genres and styles (those of literature, cinema, painting, architecture ...) be identified in this new form?

What are the discernible genres of available video games and the possible basis of their categorization? In what relationship do they stand to previous cultural forms and social activities? What gets represented in these new forms of a pre-existing world?

Where and how is the playing subject made to fit in the form, what points of view and modes of agency are opened to him or her — and does gender, here, make a difference —? Is the player the simple conjunction of a spectator and an actor? What implications can video games have for a theory of performativity?

What does the apparatus require of its player? What passions is (s)he led to invest in the operation? What behavior does it compel, allow, and sanction? What strategies does it call for? Is the old Aristotelian Catharsis the point of one's participation in the game? And by the way, what could we mean by Catharsis in the context of a video game?

How do these new forms of simulated violence intervene in the age-old debate (Plato vs. Aristotle) on the social dangers of mimetic fictions and the relationship of fables to life, or to put it in more modern terms: how does the spectacle and simulated practice of violence influence actual behavior? Do immoral songs, slasher movies, serial TV murders and transgressive games lead to catastrophic breakdowns of norms and acting out of violent scenarios? Are video games the ultimate emulators of (a) social behavior or the safest and most efficient imaginary or fantasy spaces in which to release the pent-up tensions accruing in modern subjects?

Videogames started both in arcades and on private, individual machines (Atari). Their latest evolution, hooking them to the Internet, has spawned a new form of practice: delocalized communities of online players. What is the ethos of such sociability? A competitive market? A virtual Polis? A virtual state of nature? A Leviathan?

Athenian attendance at the theater was a ritual of citizenship. Tragedy had a political function. It appears that videogames are used today by the military as recruitement tools. How political is play? How lethal can fiction be? How do forms of mimetic fiction converging with advanced technologies developped initially in view of warfare contribute to new disciplining configurations of self, subjectivity, body and community?

This will be an experimental seminar, exploring questions critically, using various tools of analysis rather than aiming to impart already established knowledge. We will consider some actual videogames (list to be determined at the begining of the course), test play them briefly, dissect them using the tools of narratology and cinema theory. Discussions of their cultural and political dimensions will be informed by classical literature from the fields of cultural criticism, political theory, aesthetics, and critical theory.

The course will naturally draw from the experience of students in the class as players of videogames, but prior practice of videogaming is not a requirement: "naïve" subjects (if there are any left at this point in history) are most welcome. All will be expected to contribute research to the class, exploring current popular discourses (reviews, newspaper articles, internet discussion groups), academic research (in fields as varied as psychology, sociology, law, marketing, etc.), and cross-media effects (movies, novels about games, games derived from movies, novels, comic-strips ...) related our object of inquiry.

It is, of course, a matter of some speculation whether the students can learn to enjoy video games on as many levels as the professor.

Well, not really.


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