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Play the Movie Panel at MLA

This past week I attended the Modern Language Association (MLA) Conference in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The conference brings together a variety of humanities scholars with interests in literary criticism, language arts, teaching, rhetoric and genre studies. As a film and media scholar my attention was primarily given to the genre segments of the conference.

I presented a paper entitled, “Viral Play: Internet Humor, Viral Marketing, and the Ubiquitous Gaming of the Dark Knight.” The topic for this paper was the viral marketing campaign for the Dark Knight which included an Alternate Reality Game named Why So Serious. In this game fans of the franchise were invited to become one of the Joker’s henchmen or a supporter of Harvey Dent’s campaign for district attorney of Gotham City. The participants followed clues on “Gotham City” websites which led to real world events. In some of these events participants were given “joker phones” provided by the film’s sponsor Nokia. These phones initiated new challenges for the participants, challenges that could only be completed through the collective intelligence of the group of participants.

The game has been heralded by the entertainment industry as a massive success. It has been cited as an example of how to rally a fandom and create a “viral” sensation. The focus on the real world events and the flash mobs which accompanied the game has obscured the details of how it really worked. I attempted to bring to light these details in my paper by applying Ian Bogost’s analysis of procedural logic. From this analysis I showed that the Alternate Reality Game privileged a workspace audience, a group of people with the flexibility to play ubiquitous puzzle games during the weekday and then turn this play into social networking. I have argued that this model for marketing presents itself as a paradigm for digital content but that it is only viable for a select audience of fans dedicated to computer culture and internet humor.

My paper was combined on a panel with Jeff Rush’s (Temple University) paper, “The Flaneur and the Space Marine: Temporal Distention in First-Person Shooters,” Mark L. Sample’s (George Mason University) “Playing the Cut Scene: Agency and Vision in Shadow of the Colossus,” and Aubrey Anable (Hamilton College) “Suture and Play: Machinima as Critical Intimacy for Game Studies.”

Each of these presenters looked at video games through the lens of film theory and the social perception of a cinematic aesthetic. Rush argued that first person shooters share the feeling of alienation that Walter Benjamin attributed to the cinematic experience. He pointed out that playing a game can be divided into two activities; scouting and playing. Juggling these two modes requires the user to constantly rely on a mental map made of the terrain. This self-awareness creates the unique relationship with the screen that Benjamin once reserved for the cinematic arts.

Mark Sample focused his research on a game called Shadow of the Colossus. The game is unique in that it is entirely made up of “boss” battles. Sample made the point that the game refutes a long held assumption about “cut scenes” in video games. He pointed out that “cut scenes” have been considered a cinematic holdover that has interrupted the “interactive” appeal of video games. Using Alexander Galloway’s approach to interpreting gaming he made the argument that the “cut-scenes” in Colossus are designed as reflective moments that focus the player of the narrative events of the game. He went on to argue that the game is really an allegory of control.

Finally, Aubrey Anabel examined “machinima” as a self-reflexive text. She explained how the machinima show “This Spartan Life” uses the animation glitches within Halo 2 to program a talk show. She pointed out that machinima should remind scholars doing video game studies that analysis should not just be about activity and process but also visual representation. The focus on visual details within “This Spartan Life” demonstrates that the video game players are aware of the visual choices and representations within video games. Anabel explains that because of this awareness scholars must be attentive to these details.

At the conclusion of the presentations, panel organizers Anna Everett (University of California, Santa Barbara) and Homay King (Bryn Mawr College) pointed out that there was a consistent theme within each of the papers presented. They pointed out that because video game studies has grown out of film studies there is a tension in regard to issues of immersion and identification. As a participant in this panel I was interested in the way that our personal experiences with a game influence our scholarship. Perhaps this is a point that can be made about any medium, but I feel like the sheer time spent playing a game creates an intimacy that leads to a type of scholarship that is heavily impacted by that intimacy.

I would love to hear any thoughts that the HASTAC community has on these exciting issues.

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