Lecture Notes Week 4

Bodies, Platforms, and Materialism

In the previous two classes we talked about how games have been approached from a cultural and academic standpoint, now we’re going to focus in on the materiality of games and platforms, and the way they connect to the human body.

Before we talk about the body, we first need to discuss something known as the mind-body split. This is sometimes referred to as Cartesian dualism, in connection with 17th-century French philosopher René Descartes. The idea is that the mind and body are two distinct entities, with the former taking precedence over the latter. This comes through in everyday language and expressions such as “mind over matter.” Similarly, vision, which is associated with intelligence and spirituality, is often given primacy over touch, smell, or other “bodily senses” (a trend which Behrenhausen refers to as occularcentrism), while reason is privileged over emotion, and language over practice. These binary divides are equivalent to good versus evil, high versus low, the divine and the earthly.

The privileging of immaterial ideals, or idealism, is evident throughout Western philosophy, from Plato’s theory of “forms” onwards. Idealism is the tendency to treat reality as a reflection or manifestation of a set of ideals, rather than the other way around. German idealism (associated with philosophers such as Kant, Hegel, and Schopenhauer) played a major role in Enlightenment thinking. Priority was given to the mind and to “reason,” which was assumed to be a masculine trait, while women were considered emotional and irrational.

Idealism is fundamentally different from the intellectual tradition known as materialism (not to be confused with the love of commodities and material things). The distinction between the two has been summed up quite succinctly by an anonymous author known as Dialego:

 Whereas a materialist seeks to explain the world of society and nature according to the material conditions and processes at work, the idealist believes that events take place because of the existence of spiritual forces or “ideas”.

An idealist might argue that apartheid in South Africa has been brought about by the “ill-will” or “evil intentions” of white people who don’t wish to face up to reality. For a materialist, on the other hand, this “ill-will” or “evil intention” still needs to be explained, and the real reason for apartheid is not to be found in people’s heads but in their pockets, in that material system of capitalist exploitation which makes apartheid highly profitable for financial investors, factory owners and the giant farms. It is here that the roots of the system lie.

When describing human behaviour, idealism focuses on morality and intention, often at the expense of historically situated, and material explanations. Idealism is also evident in the lack of attention paid to the material construction, operation, and circulation of media technologies. Instead the focus tends to be on meaning, discourse, language, and the ideals which reality then supposedly embodies or reflects.

One of the reasons why idealism is so prevalent is that it tends to suit the needs of the ruling class, which plays a large role in determining what language and discourse is considered “legitimate.” Ignoring material realities also tends to serve those in a position of power. In other words, the very same people who are responsible for funding artists, intellectuals, and cultural and religious institutions such as museums and universities have a vested interest in promoting lofty ideals that in no way challenge the status quo (or in some cases serve to justify it), while deflecting attention away from more “earthly” matters such as the distribution of wealth and resources.

A more recent manifestation of this phenomenon is the tendency to view digital worlds as “immaterial,” despite the fact that all data is stored and transmitted via physical devices such as hard drives, fiber-optic cables, and CD-ROMs. As a result, digital technology becomes a blank slate or tabula rasa upon which to project all our hopes and desires.

XKCD - Simple Answers

This process is materially reinforced by blackboxing, a term which refers to the ways in which platforms are closed off, making it difficult to see or access their internal operations, either to understand how they work or to make changes. Apple products and game consoles are often closed off. This allows companies to control how they are used and places people in the position of consumers rather than producers.

Why does this matter for games? When talking about digital games (or literature), or any other primarily screen-based media, there is a tendency to ignore the platform, the interface, and the body of the player, and focus on the form and content of the game. Games are decontextualized, reduced to formal, visual, textual, and (sometimes) aural elements. We forget about the physical location of the player, their bodily needs and capacities.

This changes somewhat with gestural games and peripherals, devices like the Kinect, Guitar Hero, and the Wii. Suddenly we see more attention to physical space and the bodies of players in marketing materials, as well as academic papers.

Watch: Sega Activator training video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ql-UZv3AS-E

Think back to the “ideal player” I mentioned in the first class. Often he is assumed to be a white, straight, cis-male, but he is also, as we can see in this video, physically able and middle class. You need a large, clutter-free living room to play these games, as well as lots of free time, disposable income, and mobility.

Accessibility issues in games go beyond questions of representation; physical access is also important.

Watch: Are Videogames Biased Against the Disabled: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IyASY5wv_Qo

Another thing we often ignore is how consoles and other gaming devices are built, where they come from, and how their raw materials are acquired, shipped, and assembled in factories around the world. The production and consumption of digital games is concentrated in the US, Canada, Japan, and a few other relatively wealthy European and East Asian countries, but assembling and manufacturing gaming devices relies on a global supply chain.

Watch: Phone Story: An educational iPhone game: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sSMSFLAsNzc

We also tend to overlook what happens to these devices once they are sold, how devices are recycled or discarded. As the link below points out, “Of the 20 to 50 million tons of electronics discarded each year 70% will end up in poor nations.”

Watch: Agbogbloshie, Accra, Ghana: http://andrewmcconnell.photoshelter.com/gallery/G0000oLuiBLHIsmM

Beyond the issue of the digital divide, which is basically the question of who has access to information and communication technologies and who doesn’t, we also need to consider the social and environmental impact of those technologies, where they are located geographically at different stages in their lives. It is not just the bodies of players that are frequently ignored in game studies, but the bodies of the workers that mine, transport, assemble, and recycle the materials and technologies required to run these games in the first place.

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