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San Andreas: Agency, Movement, and Containment; or, How the West is (Frequently) Won
Greg Singh (Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College)

Following on from my participation in a panel at Playful Subjects, in May 2005, I have decided to begin by communicating, in this paper, the recent review I undertook in my research regarding my approach to ‘freedom’ discourse. This has inevitably led to the following qualifier concerning the tension between discourses on tendencies towards misrepresentation, tendencies towards negative media effects, and tendency towards freedom of expression through greater player agency. If we develop this discursive tension into a dialectic, which takes into account the notions of ‘freedom’ and ‘control’ in that agency, then, I argue, agency is not simplified in these terms, but is revealed as a medium of playful discrepancy through which, our actions (and indeed, our ability to act) as gamers becomes problematic.

I should note here that I am quite aware that my own account of the tension between conflicting discourses on ‘freedom’ and ‘control’ is in danger of succumbing to, and participating in, a debate that I am attempting to critique. A metatextual approach is therefore needed to deconstruct and demystify the notions of freedom and control as administered policies, which work toward an end-game of judicial containment, limiting the choices and therefore actions of the game enthusiast through systems of legitimacy and legality. One way to demystify these notions, would be to consider the dialectical counterparts of paralysis through freedom (too many consumer choices and dilemmas) and enablement through control (contained, legitimate, indefinite action without the feeling of confinement).

One could choose to cite, for example, Marcuse’s notion of the ‘administered’ society to explain this – a one-dimensional state of existence through which choice is bottlenecked and sold at a premium for its own sake. [1] But this notion, although useful, tends to ignore any attempt at engagement with subject position. Now, this is not to say that I am going to address this issue from the perspective of subject position: merely to outline that I am aware of issues involving haptic (reversible and intersubjective nature of ‘interactivity’) and configurational (subjective and subjectified) pleasures, both of which are most difficult to refine as elements of interactivity, but which nevertheless supply the gamer with pleasurable sensations of participation. However, I would add, as a qualifier, that I do not necessarily think that this negates the phenomena of systemic and social control correspondence that I address here.

Before moving into the main discussion on the dialectic articulation of textuality (that is to say, matter or, the material) in my case study, I would like to directly address the problem of agency, both as a notion of self-determination, and as a dynamic mode of interaction.

The Problem of Agency
In GTA: San Andreas, we have a discrepancy between systemic rules of gameplay and the feeling of 'freedom' that this particular game (although now one of a growing number of such single-player games as I understand it) seems to be characterised by. The subversion experienced through ‘free’ play, that undermines any feeling of containment in favour of a ‘preferred’ freedom, is conceptually similar to an Adorno-esque distractive strategy that the system allows for. This distractive strategy also enables; a sense of confirmation in the gamer, in that, whilst under the confinement of rules and regulation (without the feeling of confinement) the gamer is able to assert some sort of subjective position from which to negotiate the text (although, as we shall see, this negotiation is contingent upon factors that both pre-exist the text itself, and situate it within a specific socio-historical context). Therefore the containments do indeed go unregistered, whilst at the same time this arguably adds to the alienating effect of playing this type of game, especially in an (inevitably) insular domestic context.

Of course, the ‘freedom’ rhetoric and the systemic recuperation that follows it are both fostered through the particular mode of engagement that is encouraged through the structures of progress embedded in the game (in terms of both game design, programming, and play). My approach to this particular text is not intended to be universalised, but should be used as a tool to expose a certain tendency or predisposition of certain militaristic and modernist city-scape game environments to entertain through the antimony between freedom and containment in the sense of a protocological, ideological and discursive functionality.

Needlessly to say, much of the discourse surrounding San Andreas’ extenuated 'freedom of play' is overblown, and many of the problematic tensions that I mention in the abstract to this paper are indeed offset by discourses on the size of the game-world, and the level of freedom of movement not readily available to the game enthusiast until now. But if this is the case, then a central question is raised: what about the 'allowed' aspect of the game in relation to agency? By ‘allowed’, I refer to that enabled action and reaction through a closed hermeneutic system of interpretation, representation and identification, which San Andreas foregrounds so succinctly.

To begin to answer this question, we must review the notion of agency as a concept within the field of game scholarship. For example, Janet Murray defines agency thus:

Agency is the satisfying power to take meaningful action and see the results of our decisions and choices [...] however, we do not usually expect to experience agency within a narrative environment. Even in the rare circumstances when we are invited to participate in a traditional narrative form, our participation is circumscribed in a way that generally limits our sense of agency. [2]

In many contemporary video games, San Andreas included, we are not invited to participate in traditional narrative, but a specifically multi-linear narrative, which tends to highlight agency as a power to take meaningful ‘action’, whilst still directing the player towards a mode of ‘preferred’ play. This recuperation effect through direction of action may be seen as a result of what Frederic Jameson describes as ‘containment strategy’. [3] In a similar vein, it may be argued that the rhetorical positioning of the playing subject is such that, we no longer identify the consumption of less consciously ‘interactive’ texts (such as film) with an active viewing experience; even though we do not expect to experience agency in such an environment, nevertheless it is possible to negotiate the text through imaginative or oppositional strategies.

Furthermore, an approach is needed to bridge the gap between the cultural, representational and the kinaesthetic, in order to fully understand the player in terms of his/her subjective feeling of agency. This approach would consider the imagination not only as a dynamic of the psyche, but as an embodied and fully materialised notion; a notion manifest through not only subjective experience, but also, in the historical materialist sense, a social one. One such approach is that taken by Vivian Sobchack, who states that each moving image technology ‘not only mediates our figurations of bodily existence but also constitutes them. That is, each offers our lived bodies radically different ways of “being-in-the-world”’. [4] The implication of this notion is such that, mediation (whether configured through the narrative, the ludic, or both) following on from Jameson, becomes an analytical tool through which we may consider agency further, as the articulation between the social, the representational, and the material (technological).

Nevertheless, Murray’s definition of agency does demonstrate the futility of basing an argument upon a binary with narratological or narrativist accounts/interpretations of play on the one hand, and ludological accounts on the other. This is because agency, where circumscribed in the case of ‘traditional’ narrative forms, is similar to, if not the same as, an agency that has been circumscribed in engagement through play. One can be playful with a narrative, as well as make up a story to go along with the game one is playing or has just played.

This is the case for screen media in general, and in the many situations we may find ourselves on an everyday basis: for example, in the UK, the popular soap opera Eastenders is shown on week nights with a special omnibus edition on Sundays. Its advertising tag was, for some time, ‘Everybody’s talking about it’. I do not think it is a generalisation to say that, in some sense, this was correct. For those of us who actually watch it on a regular basis at least, Eastenders does provide a talking point – about our own lives as much as the fictional ones on screen. And often, this talk is accompanied by emotional attachments that foster identification, sometimes setting up debates surrounding the issues in the programme.

Clearly, as our Television Studies colleagues have been telling us for years, watching TV is not a passive experience. Neither is playing a video game – and I am not just talking here about simple interaction with the game environment: the importance of the domestic or social environment immediate to the player is of paramount importance to how these games are both played and consumed. From observing both my own playing practice, and participating in the playing experience of others, it is apparent that many players experience gaming as a social act. This is in the sense that there may be a number of ‘non-player players’ present who participate in the game just as much as the player themselves; shouting out instructions, or simply letting the player know how inept they are at the game. This is all part of the pleasure of social play, after all, and ultimately, games playfully mediate intersubjectivity in a number of ways, not least of which, is the gamer’s relation to other gamers (either in the more distant, sub-cultural sense, or in the more immediate, sociable sense).

To frame this in context, we need to get a better idea of how it relates to the main argument in this paper, and why it is so important. There seems to be a large amount of contingency-based engagement, especially when it comes to single-player games. Of course, this could be taken simply as the fact that, although one person may have the control pad, the game can be experienced by several other people who happen to be in the same room at the same time.

However, contingency has a much more prominent role to play in this attitude. This has, echoing Sobchack, something to do with the fact that the game itself can be seen as a ‘text corpus’, or body of work, which may be related to in terms of its textuality: through intertextual, contextual and hypertextual articulation. As a point of fact, one must be careful here not to consider the game text in isolation, for our playing bodies – the avatar, but also the player’s playing body, the machine hardware and its programming – are implicated in such corporeality, multiplicated through intersubjective sensible relations.

To illustrate this point, we must consider the contingency of textuality at play, through various subjects of analysis. Whilst one may simply regard the text as it pre-exists the player, one might argue that, firstly, through the act of play, the game can be addressed in its relation to player-knowledge of, and its place within, a much larger system of technological and 'interactive' containments. In other words, the experience of gaming is to some extent hypertextual. In addition, it is worth noting that this hypertextuality, no matter how technologically determined one considers it to be, works through both a narrative vector and a ludic vector, to produce the (pleasurable, or otherwise) subjective gaming experience. Secondly, engagement is contingent upon knowledge and influence of other texts and is therefore intertextual. Finally, because a game is played within certain situations and is representative of particular environments, it is therefore contingent upon context.

So, how (and perhaps why) does this work? To offer a tentative answer to this, any new approach to narrative and agency in gaming would necessarily need to take the aforementioned contingency into account. This paper aims to clarify this through the application of this contingency model to GTA: San Andreas. Although there is not the room to take this further here, it should be noted that a thoroughgoing consideration of this model would necessarily need to take into account a close analysis of the bodies at play, which I mention above.

Contingency and Configuration in Gaming
Paul Ricoeur, in his series Time and Narrative, articulates the need to consider narrative and its presentation through its relationship with time, and the way function of narrative becomes clear to the reader through the retelling. He does this through a hermeneutic, or interpretive, approach which ‘is concerned with reconstructing the entire arc of operations by which practical experience provides itself with works, authors, and readers’. [5]

If we consider this as a starting point from which to begin to examine the positioning of the text in terms of form, content, production and consumption, what begins to emerge is an awareness of the need to think through the text as contingent upon intertextuality, contextuality, and hypertextuality.

This is clearly related to Ricoeur’s central notion of configuration, where in the reception/reading process of the text, one may be aware of the origins of the text in terms of production, through the familiarity of narrative structure (simply beginning, middle, and end, or in the case of many games, a multi-linear form), generic form, and technological format. One may also be keenly aware of the way in which sense is made of this information through the text’s consumption, and its accessibility, but one may only address these issues ‘in the middest’ of the reading process. This may be achieved through the following system of negotiation:

a) With the text itself
b) With knowledge about the text, and
c) With knowledge about one’s position in relation to the text

This is not to say that the player acts upon these elements in a conscious or contrived manner (although s/he may do so), but this system, arguably, is developed through player negotiation, facilitated by the specific medium through which the information is accessed. By this, one might say that a), negotiation with the text itself, is a continuation of established textual reading practices, part of which, is the phenomenon of intertextuality, reading ‘against the grain’ so to speak, and camp. This intertextuality is complicated somewhat, when one considers the effects of nostalgia and kitsch upon textual negotiation.

For example, I finally got to play Lego Star Wars on the Xbox recently. My nine-year-old nephew outplayed me at every turn, which did nothing but add to the fact that this game is, quite simply, one of the funniest things I have ever seen, and one of the most enjoyable gaming experiences I have had in a long time. I could not get over the fact that there are so many layers of pleasurable meaning: nostalgic pleasure in the sense of sf film, lego, roleplay, and reminisces of childhood experiences of all of these. The problem with this is, of course, that in practice, I had completely forgotten about the fact that the game play itself is actually very structured – even restrictive. At first glance then, it seems as though the mediation of systemic controls mentioned above are not adequate to fully account for this 'forgetting', and for the pleasures that may occur as a result. However, when regarding this in relation to the notion of kitsch, a conceptual and perceptual shift occurs. For example, Milan Kundera, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, describes kitsch thus:

Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: how nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: how nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch. [6]

This, it may be said, goes some way to explaining the difficulty in the ‘freedom/containment’ debate, and the extent to which such a debate might be dismissed as failing to account for pleasurable consumption. One could say that this pleasure is not pleasure that is found in the game itself as such, but for the simple realisation that one may sit down and play. If, indeed, this is the case, then the freedom/containment debate will necessarily burst out of the TV screen and into the quotidian.

Through player negotiation, one might say that b), negotiation with one’s knowledge of the text, is exacerbated through the gaming enthusiast’s exposure to additional materials (walk-throughs, cheats and TV spoilers etc.) concerning the production and deconstruction of the text itself, thus discernibly increasing the player’s knowledge of the text and any potential production intentionality. In related ‘interactive’ media, such as DVD and to some extent the practice of MP3 file sharing, this can be particularly foregrounded, in such phenomena as director’s commentaries, and online buyer ratings systems.

Finally, related to this, one might say that c), negotiation with one’s position in relation to the text, is exacerbated through an interactivity previously unavailable through other visual media such as cinema, video, and to a large extent, TV, thereby problematising an adaptational strategy, whereby a straightforward transposition of (for example) film theory in close textual analysis of gaming becomes inadequate. This also tangentially raises the question of established film theory in general, for which there is no room to discuss in detail here. To address this in terms of the current study, it must be sufficient to mention that the politics of agency necessarily travels beyond the texts we consider, through the levels of social, technological and historical intercourse.

This configurational dimension in terms of both readership and active play is, one might say for Ricoeur, a fundamental part of the textual negotiation process. It mediates between firstly, a prefiguration of the practical field (genre, convention, verisimilitude, and, one may argue, even star personas in the case of San Andreas, where Officer Tenpenny and his crooked partner are voiced by Samuel L. Jackson and Chris Penn); and secondly, its refiguration through reception of the work (genre expectation, pleasurable negotiation, active viewing and interactivity on the part of player and non-player player alike, and fandom). Ricoeur states:

The configurational arrangement transforms the succession of events into one meaningful whole which is the correlate of the act of assembling events together and which makes the story followable […] The configuration of the plot imposes the “sense of an ending” (to use the title of Frank Kermode’s well-known book) on the indefinite succession of incidents. I just spoke of the “end point” as the point from where the story can be seen as a whole. I may now add that it is in the act of retelling rather than in that of telling that this structural function of closure can be discerned. [7]

Of course, a crucial point to be made here is that games are not stories (although, of course, one could argue that stories are a kind of game we ‘play’ – consider, for example, the Matrix franchise, whose story playfully inhabits that textual space of metadiscourse by asking the question ‘What is the Matrix?’, and, by implication, ‘Are we in it?’ when we watch). However, no matter how one might usefully dress them up as, for example, a series of static and dynamic configurative acts and events, it is important to acknowledge the importance of story in the dynamics of video gameplay, as well as the importance of play in the negotiation of any narrative. This is vital to any conception of hypertextual thinking. There is, one may argue, a certain act of ritualistic repetition in which a story may be told and retold through several layers of media, in the perspectives through which it is viewed, and the context of its consumption (i.e. domestic, arcade, or cinema for example).

Hypertextual Contingency, Value, and ‘Cheating’
One of the first things that becomes apparent to the game student upon playing San Andreas, is how few elements of gameplay it can be reduced to whilst still retaining its open feel. This discrepancy scarcely accounts for the brazen mission-based narrative embedded in the gameplay from the very beginning. One might imply a goal-orientated attitude fostered in the player, based upon a simple acquisition/accumulation model. In other words, the game promotes a task-based strategy required to accumulate ‘material’ goods in order to progress. This, in turn, reflects and synergises the dominant, somewhat capitalistic mode of production and problem-solving function of GTA’s gameplay. In another sense, a systemic valuation model is placed upon the ludic elements themselves, which adds to the sense of value in free play and agency within the game’s virtual urban environment. The game’s overall narrative is arguably used to compel the player through the main missions, the main task-based element, while the subsidiary missions and games, which rarely provide the same level of functionality as the main narrative elements, are there to provide a sense of freedom. An example of one such subsidiary game would be the arcade game in the bar – the gym and gambling subsidiary games, for example, provide exceptions to this rule, as they provide avenues of accumulation, which allow the player to progress in the ‘main game’. [8]

This can also be said of the ability to purchase tattoos and clothing from various custom outlets, however, it is quite clear that the freedom to consume is subsumed within the relative freedom of movement in the game’s playability. Apart from constituting a remarkably effective marketing tool, narrative as a back-story and as gameplay does seem to serve a quite functional purpose in a specifically phenomenological sense. It allows the player an avenue of exploration in which a kind of ‘guided freedom’ is installed in the gameplay. No matter how the game might end, it has to end somehow – even if this means that a 'final' ending is infinitely deferred for commercial or longevity purposes. That promise of satisfying closure materialises through the fact that you as a player have brought it to its conclusion. If this means relying upon walk-through literature or cheats, or cheating in the more general, value-based sense of the presentation of violent/dishonest acts, then this may have implications for the identifications that take place in active play and engagement with the text.

The complication starts when one assumes that cheating has either a positive or negative value in terms of gameplay. Cheats are, in a sense, installed in the gameplay (and are therefore embedded in the programming) as a contained freedom, as much as the conscious narrative is. Whilst affording the player more latitude in what may be accomplished at a given stage of narrative development, the cheat also highlights the prospect that because it is built into the system, it is simply yet another containment strategy. Once again alluding to a useful example of a contemporary cinematic text, one might say that this is not unlike the system of control embodied in ‘The One’ in the Matrix franchise, which highlights the central dichotomy of control and freewill in the narrative. The containment strategy embedded in GTA exists within an infinitely reversible relation. It draws upon and inflects issues of representation so that, in an ideological sense, there is a reproduction of common misrepresentation. This, in turn, works to reproduce preferred action at the protocological level. Put bluntly, there is a representation African-Americans on the one hand as thieves and cheats, and a reproduction of urban control and law enforcement on the other.

Thus, in the debate on agency, a metatextual approach would qualify negotiated reader-position as a freedom with which one might 'read' stories into the text, and any textual analysis of the game would need to at least account for this. However, it may be argued that most discourse (both populist and academic) tends to overplay the interactive hand. Various levels of freedom (be they textual, cultural, political or whatever) are accompanied by corresponding levels of systemic control. This is a possibility that an analysis which utilises the concept of mediation, as conceived by Jameson or Marcuse, or the concept of allegory, as conceived by Galloway [9] and (once again) Jameson, ultimately reveals all the more clearly. It should be made explicit here, that it is not only ideological containment within systems of control that is the problem, but also protocological containment, in which different levels of analysis are essential to revealing what exactly can be classified as 'contained', and what exactly can be classified as 'free'. One might therefore tend towards the idea that there is no 'free' as is held in the popular imagination, as this (rather plebeian) notion is based on antiquated models of liberty, which roundly fail to account for protocological control.

Read as technological, or indeed social, protocol can be seen as the allegorical factor linking the two levels (technology and society) theoretically, rather like an invisible mediator or screen. [10] This means that, in a theoretical sense, what one can do within the confines of a game is always-already 'contained' by the system, through protocols of representation, which remain embedded and invisible to the gamer on an everyday basis: just because one 'can' do something, it does not necessarily follow that one is 'free' to do it.

Intertextual Contingency and Identification
Taking San Andreas as our example of a virtual cityscape, in which the player is afforded agency enough to roam, via the avatar, through a number of scenarios and situations, one might say that equally, the player’s movements are contained through a series of strategies, many of which are invisible in the context of everyday gameplay. Thinking about play negotiated through intertextual contingency, one would have to consider the representation of the city, and who/what the avatar might come to represent. This would then have implications for the processes of player empathy, intentionality, and character identification.

For example, when Michael Dear, in The Postmodern Urban Condition, mentions public intentionality within urban development and mobility, he is deliberately evoking the term as a mode of agency: ‘If public intentionality is indeed being erased from urban landscapes,’ via the insistent demands of an industrial capitalism and the state’s responses to crises invoked by capitalism’s inherent inequalities, ‘then the cities of the next millennium may yet become dystopian, unsustainable frontiers where ignorant armies clash by night.’ [11]

As I mentioned in May of this year when addressing public intentionality and the urban at the Playful Subjects symposium in Bristol, this statement perhaps speaks as much about the dominant modes of representation concerning racial difference, as it does about the actual limitations placed upon marginalized groups in real urban streets. One might cite the cinema of John Singleton as an example, as the game San Andreas is set in the California of the early 90s: the period and place where Singleton and New Jack Flicks were taking off in mainstream cinema. New Jack cinema highlighted representations of race, particularly Hispanic- and African-American representation on the streets of LA as a site of self-responsibility: as if difference were a cause of present inequality and civil unrest, rather than a consequence.

The O.J. Simpson trial underlined this mode of representation, by bringing the medium of TV under scrutiny: the mediating power of televisual storytelling was briefly made visible, at barely a remove from its audience, when the cameras followed Simpson’s getaway on live TV. Interestingly enough, the virtual camera position of one of the earlier Grand Theft Auto games, is referred to in the accompanying literature as an ‘OJ Cam’, and follows the police pursuit of the player-controlled vehicle from a bird’s eye view, highlighting the text’s prefigured status.

At the centre of these varying representations of LA, beats the heart of the American Dream, and as such, builds necessary frontiers for ‘us’ to push ‘against’. The examples just cited, open windows into various imaginations in the last fifteen years or so, of an LA which has become, in Ed Soja’s words, a ‘paradigmatic window through which to see the last half of the twentieth century…the place where it all seems to “come together”’.’ [12] This, it may be argued, is the key to the link between an intertextual and a contextual contingent: vectors of the historical, the social, the material and the economic, come together at this point, highlighting the need to engage with potential correspondences between ideology and protocol in both the real world and our virtual environments.

Contextual Contingency and Socio-Economic History
Contextual contingency not only refers to the immediate domestic context in which the game is played (as in the examples mentioned above regarding audience spectatorship and non-player participation) but rests upon a much more general hypermediation. It suggests a deeper historical/ideological penetration of dominant identities and collective imaginations through which systemic containment and notions of legitimate activity operate. It also suggests a further mediation through which the narrative of crime, both inside Grand Theft Auto and outside of it, the preoccupation is principally structured around property, and not necessarily around morality: another articulation of material acquisition. Nowhere is this more apparent in San Andreas, than in the replication of L.A.’s socio-historical past, which reiterates the notion of the US mainland as a former colonial territory-turned-Neo Imperialist power. The complex contextual contingent involved in agency as a real-world phenomenon has a long history in the parallels between physical communications networks, and the contemporary virtual environments and frontiers, which facilitate capital accumulation at the local and global level. These operate through the systemic containment strategies in place in both urban law enforcement legislation and practice, and the dominant representations which arguably help to reproduce the inequalities and conflicts that periodically erupt in a cosmopolitan centre such as L.A., thus informing the reversibility of ideology and protocol.

Henri Lefebvre, in The Production of Space, claims that, in post-war advanced capitalist countries, ‘Technology and growth appeared to complement each other. Computers were to guarantee and carry through this virtually harmonious process…giantism was seductive, it appeared to be one of the criteria of the future’. [13] This phenomenon is a reflection of the complex structures of capital accumulation, revealing correspondences between technological processes and the supervening needs of capital (and thus accumulation and safeguarding through control), which in the post-war period now includes accumulation of information and knowledge in general. [14] However, this state of accumulation would not have been possible but for the results of nineteenth-century growth, which Lefebvre describes as a ‘blind thrust’ of nineteenth-century capitalism in three historical stages. [15]

Put simply, industrial productivity, imperial subjection, and liquidation of excess are, according to Lefebvre, the repeatable historical conditions under which capitalist accumulation promulgated itself in the nineteenth-century. But, one may argue that this development was merely the result of the need to secure legitimisation for the systematic exploitation of resources in, many cases colonial, offshore (in the case of the US, extra-frontier) possessions or ‘interests’. This need, even in the US, had origins in European civilisation (which, thanks to colonial enterprise, quickly became subsumed in a Eurocentric, American civilisation). According to Benedict Anderson, in Imagined Communities, this is because Europeans came from

A civilization in which the legal inheritance and the legal transferability of geographic space had long been established, the Europeans frequently attempted to legitimise the spread of their power by quasi-legal methods. [16]

This regime of the imagination, and the role of myth in the legitimisation of capital accumulation are very much related to the phenomenon that Henri Lefebvre describes as the ‘regime of the repetitive’. [17] It seems to be particularly appropriate to invoke this phenomenon in the case of the convergence of high technology research and development, Ivy-League level educational institutions, and centres of counter-cultural libertarianism (e.g. Haight-Ashbury), in the American South West. This is because the American popular imagination, in common with its history as a British (as well as Dutch, French, and Spanish) colony, imagines an imperial past that never existed and yet persists in the myth of the frontier. Whereas the possession of ‘India’ was imagined by the ‘British’, and was then rendered real through imperialist/capitalist accumulation, and recourse to military adventurism, the US popular imagination could be said to consume this oeuvre of colonial past, to facilitate the legitimisation of its own state-authorised, US-owned multinational corporate fantasy. It is worth quoting Lefebvre in full here:

The voracious consumption of past oeuvres (notably the town) and of history as a whole goes hand in hand with a constant perfecting of the processes of material reproduction. This has reached a point where it is no longer possible to distinguish between the false and the authentic, between the original and the copies. And this authenticates…both the absence of creativity and the myth of creativity which, under the regime of the repetitive, are complementary, to such a point that creation and invention seem to be impossible and withdraw in the face of the permutation of elements already invented long ago. [18]

What this implies for the issue of agency within libertarian discourse, is that the replicable synergistic system of nineteenth-century capitalism (in the form of industrial productivity, imperial expansion, and capital accumulation), as well as its concomitant replicable network architecture (in the form of physical networks such as the railway, and also the facilitation of ‘negative capital growth’ in the colonies), has found new expression in the synergy between high technology production, telecommunications, and digital culture. [19] The common use of the term ‘revolution’ to describe the latest round of digital innovation denies historical connection with modes of human communication and the ways in which big business has mutated to accommodate challenge to its modality. That many people are still using the word ‘revolution’ may in large part be attributed to the highly influential and robust techno-populist, utopian rhetoric of Wired magazine in the early 1990s. Charlie Gere sums up the lasting influence of Wired, by noting that it had ‘become the most influential and powerful force for constructing and disseminating a particular ideology of technology, and granting it legitimacy’. [20] It is this cultural climate of techno-utopianism, synergistic business practice and systemic control through the ideological, representational, and protocological, that returns us to the effect of historical form and content upon hypertextual contingency and player agency in GTA: San Andreas.

To conclude, both game narrative and gameplay are structured in such a way as to determine action through rules, regulation, generic expectation and compliance. In that sense, the game always-already contains 'possibility', in that the player cannot win the game (or complete it) without adhering to the structure, or cheating. Adhering to the structure, and cheating, both have inherent value in the different kinds of pleasure that can be found in such courses of action: certainly, pleasure can be negotiated through unaided completion of the game, as well as through the (rather mischievous) act of cheating. Of course, this also does not necessarily preclude the possibility of pleasure through the simple act of just playing, which may be rewarding in itself.

Notes [ back ]

[1] Marcuse’s excellent account of the ‘administered society’ is a crucial contribution to a full understanding of mediation as a theoretical social concept. See Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991)

[2] Janet Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997), 126.

[3] For more detail on ‘ideological containment’, see Frederic Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (London: Routledge, 1989), 52-56

[4] Vivian Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (London: University of California Press, 2004) p. 136

[5] Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, Vol. 1 (trans. Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer) (Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 53

[6] Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, cited by Hal Foster, ‘Yellow Ribbons’, London Review of Books, vol. 27 no. 13, 7 July 2005

[7] Ricoeur, 67

[8] I owe a debt to Adam Pitt for this particular observation of the tension between main narrative elements and subsidiary ‘side missions’.

[9] For more detail on this, see Alexander R. Galloway, ‘Playing the Code: Allegories Of Control in Civilization’, in Radical Philosophy 128 November/December 2004

[10] This is, conceptually speaking, rather close to Jameson’s ‘vanishing mediator’, especially in terms of theoretical analysis. For more on this, see Frederic Jameson, ‘The Vanishing Mediator; or, Max Weber as Storyteller’, The Ideologies Of Theory Essays 1971-1986 Volume 2: The Syntax of History (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989)

[11] Michael J. Dear, The Postmodern Urban Condition (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 4

[12] Ed Soja, quoted in Carrol, D., ed., The States of Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 63

[13] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith) (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), 103

[14] Lefebvre, 112

[15] For a more detailed account, see Lefebvre, 105-7

[16] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, (Revised Edition) (London: Verso, 1991), 174

[17] Lefebvre, 33

[18] Lefebvre, 33

[19] Lefebvre goes on to say, ‘We find not only processes of reproduction and imitation, but also the manufacture of indefinitely repeatable elements; hence the importance of “models” and simulations in various scientific and social spheres.’ Lefebvre, 33. This has implications for the repeatable process of high technology industries, particularly the manufacture of ICs, which can be used in telecommunications, and in the automation of the manufacturing process itself. Hence the self-justification within the triangulated network of Integrated Circuits, business practice, and Internet histories.

[20] Charlie Gere, Digital Culture (London: Reaktion, 2002) p. 148. The extraordinary prehistory of Wired magazine is traced in Digital Culture, from the unique convergence of techno-hobbyists, high technology business centres, educational institutions, and the counter-culture of the 1970s, to deregulation policy, free-market economics, and the neo-liberalist politics of the 1980s. It represented ‘the apotheosis of the wired counter-culture, in all its techno-utopianist glory, and also its subsumption into the dominant culture.’ Gere, 148-9


Paper presented at the Aesthetics of Play conference in Bergen, Norway, 14-15 October 2005

The computer game conference Aesthetics of Play took place 14 - 15 October 2005, arranged by the Department of Information Science and Media Studies at the University of Bergen, Norway. The AoP Online Proceedings include 14 contributions from the conference, including slides and video from Jon Dovey's keynote presentation. We have also put up some pictures from the conference. For more information, please contact Rune Klevjer [rune dot klevjer at infomedia dot uib dot no].

Greg Singh is Lecturer in Media Studies at Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College, England. He specialises in aspects of New Media and Popular Culture, and in particular, aspects of remediation. He will begin his PhD at the University of Reading in October 2005, where his doctoral research will consider problems of cross-mediation, spectatorship and narrative closure in recent cinematic trilogies.


Keynote presentation: Why am I in Vietnam? A computer game case study [Powerpoint/video]
Jon Dovey

Animated game pieces. Avatars as roles, tools and props
Jonas Linderoth

King of the Hill : Investigation and Re-appropriation of Space in the Video Game
Sébastien Babeux

The Aesthetic Experience of Sound � staging of Auditory Spaces in 3D computer games
Morten Breinbjerg

Character Data Sets and Parameterized Morality
Robert Fitzpatrick, Martin Walsh, Michael Nitsche

Play, Modality and Claims of Realism in Full Spectrum Warrior
Geoff King

The aesthetics of the anti-aesthetics
David Myers

�Elune be Praised�: The functions and meanings of myth in the World of Warcraft
Tanja Kryzywinska

The use of architectural patterns in MMORPGs
Mattias Ljungstr�m

Story-Line, Dance/Music or PVP? Game Movies and Performance in World of Warcraft
Henry Lowood

Coming to Play at Frightening Yourself :Welcome to the World of Horror Video Games
Bernard Perron

San Andreas: Agency, Movement, and Containment; or, How the West is (Frequently) Won
Gregh Singh

Figuring the Riddles of Adventure Games
Ragnhild Tronstad

The aesthetics of antagonism
Jonas Heide Smith