112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

Surface Play: Kinetic Ethics in Theory and Games

Christopher Weinberger, San Francisco State University

By first surveying reception histories of the video games Assassin’s Creed, Portal, and Bioshock, and then tracing the mutual challenges and inconsistencies that arise through comparison to what more purely literary approaches yield, I demonstrate that these games make ethically productive demands on players and critical methodologies themselves.  I propose that we consider “surface playing” an instructive model of responsiveness to immersive aesthetic experience.


            My paper takes up the contrarian position that debates between narratologists and ludologists have not led video game studies astray.  Quite the contrary, they have productively generated space within scholarship and classrooms for a new wave of literary theorization and practice.   I focus on what we might learn from the rare points of convergence and critical points of divergence among cognitive, game, ludological, and narrative perspectives on the concept of agency, and their implications for studies of novel ethics.   When we take up games like Portal, Assassin’s Creed (I-III), or Bioshock (I-III) in comparison with literary texts, we immediately confront structural and hermeneutic questions of comparability that vex fundamental assumptions of literary criticism, particularly in terms of reader response.   By first surveying the reception history of these games, and then tracing the mutual challenges and inconsistencies that arise through comparison to what more purely literary approaches yield, I demonstrate that these games make ethically productive demands not only on players, but on critical methodologies themselves. 

The video games I examine all stage reflexive scenes of immersion within which represented agents are required to participate in new, constraining world-systems whose rules must be worked out from within.  In some sense, then, they dramatize the situation of players and simulate the (ethical) implications of particular forms of responsiveness to the normative and often violent pressure exerted by media, genre, and the virtual world(s) themselves.  Each of these games deploys radically different methods and induces strikingly divergent forms of engagement, however.  Assassin’s Creed insists on “synchronization” as both gameplay mechanism and thematic device, compelling character and player to conform to the violent world in which they find themselves immersed in order to achieve freedom from analogous threats in a framing reality.  Portal, on the other hand, requires players to become mindful, critical “readers” of its environment, and to link (literal) passages in subversive ways that ultimately deconstruct the system of constraint itself—or at least appear to do so.  Bioshock, finally, involves players in perspectival shifts at first among agents within a given virtual world and ultimately between alternative worlds themselves, raising urgent questions about the relationship between responsibility to and for virtual worlds and ethical dispositions in real life. 

All three games solicit forms of kinetic adaptation and affective response presently theorized, but rarely demonstrated with any effectiveness, as alternatives to predominantly cognitive models of reader response: surface reading, reparative reading, uncritical reading, and so forth.  By involving and shaping cognitive, affective, and kinetic modes of engagement simultaneously, these games model configurations of aesthetic experience whose ethical contours and consequences require terms other than those provided by literary theoretical discourse to illuminate.  In the productive failures of narrative and other literary theories to account for these processes, then, we might descry the limits of our models of reader response in literature.  We might even entertain the notion of applying ludological theories of design and exploration to the mobile geographies of literary texts, to see what alternative spaces and ethical frontiers they make possible for the rarefied virtual world of literary criticism.  In conclusion, time permitting, I will gesture toward what such readings might look like by a summary analysis of Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves as though it were a literary game.