BCNM at SLSA 2019

05 Feb, 2020

BCNM at SLSA 2019

SLSA 2019, the annual meeting of the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts, took place last November.

Berkeley Center for New Media attendees included alumni Bonnie Ruberg, Chris Goetz, Alenda Chang, Brooke Belisle, and current students Xiaowei Wang and Nicholaus Gutierrez. Read the abstract of their works and projects below.


Bonnie Ruberg

Puppy Play: Nintendogs and the Present Absence of Queer Sex in Video Games

Nintendogs (Nintendo, 2004), a popular pet simulator for the Nintendo DS handheld console, seems like an unlikely site for exploring queerness in video games. The game includes no LGBTQ characters. Indeed, the world of Nintendogs is populated almost entirely by dogs--playful puppies whom the player purchases, cares for, and trains. However, there are a number of ways in which the narrative and gameplay elements of Nintendogs resonate with queer experience, specifically queer sex. Here, I look at how the game echoes two elements of queer subcultural sex practices: “puppy play,” a form of kink play that grows out of gay men’s leather communities, and cruising. Puppy play manifests in the game through the sensory and sensual interactions between players and their dogs. The Nintendo DS was the earliest mainstream console to integrate touch-screen and voice recognition features. Nintendogs, one of the console’s flagship titles, invites players to interact intimately with their pets by calling their names and literally touching them. This, I argue, represents an embodied and erotic form of play. One of Nintendogs’ core gameplay elements is the walk mechanic, in which players take their dogs for walks while stopping for “random encounters” with other dogs and their owners--all of whom are, strikingly, men. This mechanic is reminiscent of cruising, in which subjects seek their own random encounters for queer sex and, as Tommy Ting has argued, queer worldmaking. To unpack the resonances with queer sexual practices in Nintendogs, this paper draws from Cody Mejeur’s writing on the present absence of queerness in video games: queer elements that remain on the level of implication and potential without appearing on screen. Building from work by Braidon Schaufert and Jason Lajoie, this work also contributes to current conversations in the sub-field of...

Chris Geotz

From kinetic to moral legibility: the case of melodramatic videogames

When discussing melodrama as a popular narrative mode that transcends not only genre but distinct media as well, Linda Williams often evokes Henry James’ analogy of a “leaping fish”. Whether this “fish” can or does leap into the medium of the videogame--a medium typically on the margins of narrative production--is an open question. There is certainly no shortage of digital games whose narratives exemplify melodrama by sharply opposing the forces of good and evil, foregrounding the suffering of victims (usually women), and calling upon players to act with moral purpose (often violently). However, this project investigates a more profound space of convergence between games and melodramatic narrative. I position gaming’s kinetic legibility (its fundamentally diagrammatic organization of action and space) as an affective correlate to melodrama’s production of moral legibility. When the virtue of the innocent is recognized and protected in melodramatic action-hero narratives (e.g., our recent superhero blockbuster cycle), moral legibility can be said to underpin kinetic legibility in a dialectic of pathos and action. However, the moral stakes of gaming often seem less clear, especially during prolonged moments of embodied, affective engagement between narrative cutscenes.

The recent turn to affect theory in game studies--e.g., Anable (2018), Jagoda (2018)--has laid the groundwork for bridging kinetic and moral legibility within gaming’s complex assemblage of body, screen, image and code. This project tests the framework of melodrama on the margins of narration and embodiment and develops a theoretical model for discussing games as vital participants in our melodramatic mode’s current historical moment. Because of their narrative frames, long duration, and careful organization of game space, I focus my discussion on the popular “Metroidvania” genre of side-scrolling adventure and exploration games, such as Super Metroid (1994) and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (1997).

Alenda Chang

Power to the Player: Literacy, Legibility, and Play as Critique

As media objects, videogames are imbued with values held by their makers. This is done intentionally by serious games practitioners (Laff, 2007) but also occurs independently of design goals (Nissenbaum and Flanagan, 2014). One of the more problematic manifestations of ‘values at play’ is playbour, a putting-to-work of play that recalls Agamben’s mourning the loss of ‘menuchah’, an inoperativity that is more than a means to prepare one for more work (Kücklich, 2005; Agamben, 2011). But is there a way to rescue leisure from its subservience to labour? Or, if not, is there a way to make the work done through play operate against the logics of late capitalism? If such emancipation exists, then it cannot come “from a theoretical articulation” alone (Hardt and Negri, 2000, p.206). Nor do I believe that answers can come from the proceduralist school of game studies, for whom, problematically, the designer is the arbiter of meaning. Instead, I situate these questions within work that examines both how players interact critically with games regardless of authorial intent (Schleiner 2017; Ruberg 2019) as well as work that accounts for the relationship between player and game (Taylor 2009; Voorhees 2013). To unite these conversations, I develop two concepts: legibility, or the degree to which a system can account for the actions of those operating within it, and literacy, a measure of an actor’s understanding of the methods through which a system understands their movements. Through the use of gameplay examples from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Nintendo 1998), I use these concepts to galvanize play into a force for laying bare a game’s operational logics so that they may be subject to our scrutiny, a working on and at play that interrogates not only videogame machines, but the larger machines of ideology that drive them.

Throwing Shade: Environmental Civil Disobedience and the Changing Preconditions for Play

Global environmental change and its associated socioecological consequences are altering, and sometimes even precluding, the very preconditions for play itself--a stable climate, infrastructure and power supplies, and the raw materials out of which we fashion everything from chess sets to smartphones. Already, many scholars have problematized established notions that play must be unproductive and separate from ordinary life. Not only is play sometimes ugly and deadly serious, but the “magic circle” is also always permeable to considerations ranging from misogyny and racism to global warming and disaster capitalism. Even now, sea levels are rising to consume coastal golf courses, soaring temperatures have tested ice arenas and jeopardized athletes and spectators in open-air stadiums, and relentless planetary-scale warming is predicted to stymie the ability of all but a few cities to host international sporting events like the Winter Olympics, Paralympics, and FIFA World Cup. It is increasingly clear that our celebrated acts of play, which themselves rely on a kind of experimental indeterminacy, may falter in the face of radical environmental indeterminacy. From sporting games that traditionally take place on ice or snow to digital games that draw on scientific research to more realistically model environmental states and behaviors, this presentation explores a narrowing of the conditions of play, even as the rise of environmental civil disobedience sustained by school-age children suggests that one answer to systemic and institutional failure is truancy--a kind of ludic disrespect for the status quo.

Brooke Belisle

Smile for the Computer: AI and Everyday Photography

ABSTRACT. The cameras in our phones are getting better through computational strategies that compensate for physical limitations like a small aperture, short focal length, and shaky human operator. Some algorithmic adjustments are invisible to users; but some are promoted as features. New autocapture modes can take your picture for you, at the moment people smile or kiss. And you can select portrait mode on some cameras to make any snapshot look special. Portrait mode works by mapping an image into planes of depth, identifying the plane that contains the subject, and sharpening that plane while proportionally blurring the others. This relies on machine learning algorithms that have been taught to identify which pixels of an image are a person’s face, and which other pixels are should count as part of that person. The algorithms of portrait mode promise to focus on what’s important, eliminating distractions. In practice this means people show up as what matters, unique individuals against a general backdrop, the world fading away around them. AI isn’t imposing this way of way of seeing and representing ourselves, it has extrapolated our preferences from pictures we share and circulate. But, when those preferences are baked into our tools, they become new kinds of constraints. Limits of focus and depth, traditional constraints of photographs, have been tools for conveying meaning. What might seem like technical decisions are also aesthetic, and aesthetics are never neutral. This talk will explain how AI intervenes to modulate aesthetics in some of the most common practices of everyday image-making, and explore why that might matter.

Xiaowei Wang

Let's Have a Pearl Party: Style and Livestream in the Making of Subculture

Why do we ask about the future of work, when we could instead ask, when will work end? In this paper, I look at the phenomenon of pearl parties on Facebook Live to examine how artifice and style form a subculture that is against the dominant neoliberal ideology of hard work. In pearl parties, hostesses draw on a combination of nostalgia and campiness to open oysters that contain pearls for a live audience. These hostesses are typically in geographic peripheries, with a concentration of hostesses in states such as North Dakota, Iowa and Wyoming, leading pearl parties as a source of necessary, extra income. The pearl oysters themselves are a form of high camp: the pearls originally grow in a larger oyster, the pearls are then implanted into these smaller oysters, and then the smaller oysters are vacuum sealed and then shipped to the US from China. I draw upon Dick Hebdige and Stuart Hall's work on subcultures to examine how this type of informal work has created its own subculture enshrined in refusal, how pearl party culture articulates the jubilant failures of neoliberalism and the difficult contours of representing the actually existing working class. It is through this subculture that we might understand one path for failure and refusal as a way to counter and put an end to work as we know it.

See the full schedule here.