115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Fantasies of Digital Overcoming: Visualizing Autism in To the Moon’s Neoliberal Aesthetics

Daniel Ante-Contreras, MiraCosta College

This paper will challenge the idea that games are “algorithmic” rather than representational by analyzing the neoliberal visual politics of To the Moon. Representing an autistic character and her economically unsatisfied husband, To the Moon demonstrates how representation and subjectivity are central to understanding the intersection between hegemonic practices of viewing and playing.


Attempting to create a strict binary between old and new media, Alexander Galloway claims in Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture that “[w]hile the mass media of film, literature, television, and so on continue to engage in various debates around representation, textuality, and subjectivity, there has emerged in recent years a whole new medium, computers and in particular video games, whose foundation is not in looking and reading but in the instigation of material change through action (4). Galloway argues that the relationship between game and player is fundamentally predicated on interactions with algorithms, not with visual signs. Games are not about “looking.” This argument ultimately, however, prematurely forecloses questions regarding how games function as both textual and algorithmic systems. If, as Galloway argues, games allegorize the space inhabited by information workers, such a social role exists at the intersection of ways of playing and viewing/looking within very particular historical matrices of representation, textuality, and subjectivity.

In this paper, I will explore the importance of the visual politics of games in relation to playing in a neoliberal economic context through analysis of the 2011 game To the Moon. Specifically, I will discuss how To the Moon highlights and emphasizes hegemonic practices of looking at autism and how it simultaneously deconstructs “gamic action” as defined by Galloway to resignify the player’s relationship—visual and ludological—to the gaming apparatus. To the Moon, whichfocuses on a dying man, Johnny, hiring a company to change his memories, challenges the concept of a “game” (and is often called a “narrative”), constraining the traditional gamer. By representing on autistic character, however, Johnny’s wife River, To the Moon also allows analysis of how that traditional gamer, and the video game as a medium, is predicated on narratives of agency and action derived from neoliberal visual politics.

At the end of the game, Johnny is finally able to live his ideal fantasy: he overcomes his own mental illness and travels to the moon, with River also joining him by securing a job at NASA. The fact that this scene is merely a fantasy implanted by the company he has hired is, however, concealed. This paper will discuss, then, how To the Moon integrates what Stuart Murray calls in Representing Autism “the Hollywood logic” of overcoming autism that attaches to “national ideologies of promise and achievement” (132). Such ideologies mediate both gamic action and the visual components of games, complicating or facilitating the interactions between players—who attempt to appropriate a sense of narrativized and visualized able-bodiedness and able-mindedness—and algorithms, which often create or disrupt illusions of freedom. Beginning with analysis of the visuality of representing autism, my goal is to ultimately explore how games more generally rely on the visualization of successful, achieving bodies, especially in terms of turning disability into playable and viewable ability. To the Moon shows how representation and subjectivity are centrally important to the algorithmic nature of games, particularly in terms of understanding the intersection between hegemonic practices of viewing and playing.