Archive for the My Work Category

Games & Power Structures

Posted in My Work with tags , , , , , , on February 13, 2009 by alessandrovalente

In this essay I propose a  taxonomy of games based on the type of power relationship between the player of a game and the virtual environment he or she explores, reconfigures and/or negotiates. The theoretic framework of this essay is based on Aarseth’s Cybertext, Perspectives on erodic literature, Foucault’s Dicipline and Punish,The Birth of the Prison and Deleuze’s article ‘Society of Control’. With a case study of the games Asteroids, Portal and World of Warcraft, it tries to show how all three games show a different power relationship between user and the game text and how general concepts from the work of Deleuze and Foucault can help understand and describe these power relationships. To hopefully shed some light on games, in how they work, are experienced and are different from eachother.

Link:  Games and Power

An extract of one of the case-studies:


Portal is considered to be a first person action/puzzle game and was developed by Valve Corporations. The game was released in the bundle package The Orange Box for Microsoft Windows and Xbox 360 in 2007. Where Asteroid’s game world only exists of dynamic objects on a black field, Portal presents a completely graphically rendered virtual space where object and the surroundings are all viewed three dimensionally. The player controls the main character named Chell from a first person perspective. At the start of the game Chell wakes up in an enclosed white room. A mysterious robotic voice tells her that she is the object of an experiment and challenges her to navigate through a series of rooms using a “portal gun”. This gun allows the player to create two distinct portal ends, orange and blue. Neither of the portals is specifically an entrance or exit; all objects that travel through one portal will exit through the other. Every level or stage of the game consists of a room that has only one exit point that can only be reached by making clever use of the portal gun. Every room is thus a puzzle that needs to be solved by the player to get to the next room. The more progress a player makes by traveling trough the rooms the more difficult the puzzles become and the more inventive use of the portals is needed to pass. This shows a different relation between the player and the game environment then was the case with Asteroids. The objective of the player becomestraversing an enclosed virtual space, this makes the user traverse through the game text,rather then just managing to ‘stay physically untouched and alive’. ‘Corporal punishment’ or a ‘virtual death’ that means exclusion is no longer what motivates ‘good behavior’ of the player. The power structure of the game system works with a more positive punishment and reward system. Good behavior is awarded by the passing of a closed environment to enter the next one. Each next room implements a more difficult challenge that needs a further enhancement of the player’s behavior for it to be able to pass it. Not behaving according to the rules of the system simply means that the player isstuck in the enclosed space and no progression occurs. The only way the game finishes (without walking away or turning it off) is by clearing all the levels. Mastery of the good behavior needed to pass all the enclosed spaces will at the end result in the ‘Intriguee’ exiting the closed game environment for ever and disappears. This is the moment, when in Portal  the collapsed distanced between user and ‘intriguee’ or ‘avatar’ ends. When playing  Astroids  the opposite is the case, it is bad behavior punished by an exclusion of the game by a virtual death that erases the main character and ends the merging of player and ‘intriguee’. In some of the levels/rooms of Portal it is also possible for main character Chen to die, for instance by falling from an edge into a pool of acid. However when this occurs an automatic save function automatically reloads the game and puts main character Chen right back where she was just before the accident happened. Chen is alive again and the player can instantly continue where he or she left off before getting killed. This shows that the sovereign power at work in Asteroids with its measures ofcorporal punishment, death/exclusion has been replaced for something else. It’s thepositive goal of learning good behavior to traverse the rooms or levels that drive the player. Off course it’s not the implementation of a saving device that changed thestructure of the game; it’s the structure of the game that makes the implementation ofsuch a device sensible. Implementing a device that constantly saves your progress in Asteroids  so one can always start from just before the ship exploded makes no sense. It would take away almost every reason to play and master it.The above also explains why Portal doesn’t have a point system like Astroids. In Portal good behavior is rewarded by the passing of enclosed spaces, it therefore doesn’t need points. In Asteroids good behavior means not being punished, the only way of marking this is by the implementation of a non-diegetic element such as a points system. The described relation between game system and player is comparable with Foucault’s concepts of the disciplinary society. “They (disciplinary societies) initiate theorganization of vast spaces of enclosure. The individual never ceases passing from one closed environment to another, each having its own laws: first the family; then the school (“you are no longer in your family”); then the barracks (“you are no longer at school”);then the factory; from time to time the hospital; possibly the prison, the preeminentinstance of the enclosed environment. It’s the prison that serves as the analogical model…” 30. It is interesting to note that in Portal the prison as analogical model is clearly visible. Main character Chen is constantly imprisoned in white cells and is constantlymonitored by camera’s on the wall in every room. The robotic voice that gives Chen instructions and compliments by monitoring her through the implemented cameras is invisible to her. This situation corresponds therefore exactly with that of JeremyBentham’s ‘Panopticon’. At a certain point escaping this imprisoned panoptic situationbecomes part of Portal’s narrative. After Chen has traversed multiple rooms as instructed by the robotic voice there is a crack in one of the white rooms that the player needs to go through to traverse the level. Chen has then escaped the panoptic vision of the robotic voice and traverses enclosed spaces in the same way as before, but now they are represented as outside the panoptic construction (of the narrative). The enclosed spaces that need to be traversed aren’t the sterile white prison rooms with the mounted camera’s anymore, but dirty environments with visible tubes and electricity cords that give a backstage feeling. Paradoxically while Chen has now changed the power relationship between her and the robotic voice, the relationship between the player and the game mechanic has stayed exactly the same. While Chen is now acting against the instructions of the robotic voice, the player is still following the ‘good behavior’ that is needed to traverse the text. This shows that it was never just the instruction of the robotic voice that motivated the actions of the player to progress the text by passing the enclosed spaces in the first place. In the final level of Portal  Chen reaches the center of the ‘panopticon’, a control room where she meets face to face with the robot/computer system that was behind the voice. Here the player must defeat this robotic entity by applying the inventive usages of the portal gun he or she learned and trained by progressing through all the previous enclosed spaces. When the robotic entity is defeated the player has reached the end of the game. In the structuring mechanic of Portal we can see aspects of Foucault’s ‘disciplinary society’. ‘Good behavior’ is now more internalized as a natural behavior of the player that needs less or no direct physical force to learn how it should behave to progress in the game. The evolution of the activities of the player is controlled by the passing from one enclosed environment to another that discipline the player to absorb the ‘good behavior’ needed to traverse them. While the ‘panopticon’ was clearly present in the fictional world of Portal it is problematic to apply on the structuring elements of the game text. The only gaze that actually exists is the one of the player at the main character or ‘intriguee’. One could maybe argue that the relationship of the ‘intriguee’ and the textual machine is panoptical since the actions of the ‘intriguee’ are based on what a player can deduct only from the interface level. The textual machine however ‘monitors’ every aspect of the ‘intriguee’ (while constantly saving its exact location) to calculate gameswhat will happen next, resulting in an unequal gaze.