Friday, July 06, 2007

On Transgression

Several years ago, when I first read James Paul Gee's assertion in What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy that videogames need an element of transgression, as do the meaningful learning experiences that they emulate, I was poised to disagree.

After all, from my perspective as a university instructor, learning seems to be by and large a pro-social activity that fosters civic integration. Even the few transgressive temptations of forbidden books probably lead to more young people reading The Happy Hooker and The Thorn Birds than to more pedagogically worthwhile ribaldry in Troilus and Criseyde and Lady Chatterly's Lover.

Furthermore, with the advent of large-scale participation in massively multiplayer games, it would seem that game play is aping the economic and social regulatory structures that characterize the bricks-and-mortar world. For example, at the recent Philosophy of Computer Games conference, Ren Reynolds argued that ethics were invariably a governing aspect of virtual actions in game worlds and that self-regulatory morality was often an emergent phenomenon even in games of conflict. In his talk, Reynolds distinguished between conflict and chaos in order to rebut Hobbesian interpretations of game worlds and discussed how guilds policed their own members and that even seemingly cold-blooded "ganking" or ruthless murderousness could be understood as a legitimate mode of play with comprehensible rules. At this conference, Celia Pearce, speaking as a representative of the Ludica feminist collective, also claimed that disinterested "twinking" in which players gift game objects to others fostered social integration and constructive social role-playing around modes of dress.

Nonetheless, in my own experience as a scholarly reviewer looking at single-player "serious games" that are designed to comment on political or social issues or to train, educate, rehabilitate, inspire, or inform, I find myself putting off finishing the games in which I have to play a model citizen, such as the philanthropist in Karma Tycoon, and polishing off the levels of the games where I get assigned a transgressive role, such as a gerrymandering politico or a scheming church official.

Mia Consalvo has written about how cheating and gaming are invariably interconnected, but I think I'm talking about a somewhat different meaning of transgression to explain why someone like me -- a public servant, feminist, pacifist, and former Sunday school teacher -- might prefer adopting a transgressive identity. In other words, Consalvo looks at how both heroes and anti-heroes in games seek to cheat and how rule-bending goes beyond getting Lara Croft to disobey the dictates of authority figure who is a non-playing character to exploiting the actual affordances in the game code and conspiring with other characters to share privileged information.

I'm merely talking about what one game critic observed in "Warrior Woman" when he set his mom up in front of an Xbox for the first time, and he discovered to his shock that her favorite game was a game of urban street violence.

In fact, I actually cringed more while watching her play the further she got into the game. This wasn’t because what she was doing was wrong, like original attempts the first few nights, but instead what she was doing was almost too good. It was somewhat surreal to witness some of the goings on on-screen. At one point, she was being chased head-on by a vagrant. Then, in perfect rapid succession, as he ran close and swung at her, she stepped back, tazered him, and then shot him once in the head with the revolver. She let out a maniacal cackle that made me reposition my chair just a tad farther away . . . Apparently, my mother just so happens to enjoy bludgeoning homeless people with 2x4’s. And that’s the reason, I suppose, she enjoyed Condemned the most of everything she played.

This critic's experiences confirmed Gee's intuition and perhaps my own attitude about game play this week as well.

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Anonymous Jim Miles said...

Was this entry here yesterday? I'm sure that when I checked here yesterday the latest entry was "Your Karma Just Ran Over My Dogma", yet the date here says Friday July 6th.

[[Usual "I'm probably going mad" comment.]]

Anyway, I really enjoy this blog, keep up the fantastic work.

4:07 AM  
Blogger Liz Losh said...

I'm glad you are enjoying the blog. Because of the holiday weekend and summer activities, I have several entries in draft form that I am working on right now.

Blogger uses the date that material is first saved as the time stamp. In other words, I try to write something every day, but it doesn't always get finished and posted. Luckily, I'm hoping to be through my backlog of stories by the end of today.

8:15 AM  

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