Game Work: Language, Power, and Computer Game Culture

Game Work: Language, Power, and Computer Game Culture

by Ken S. McAllister


View All Available Formats & Editions


Video and computer games in their cultural contexts.

As the popularity of computer games has exploded over the past decade, both scholars and game industry professionals have recognized the necessity of treating games less as frivolous entertainment and more as artifacts of culture worthy of political, social, economic, rhetorical, and aesthetic analysis. Ken McAllister notes in his introduction to Game Work that, even though games are essentially impractical, they are nevertheless important mediating agents for the broad exercise of socio-political power.

In considering how the languages, images, gestures, and sounds of video games influence those who play them, McAllister highlights the ways in which ideology is coded into games. Computer games, he argues, have transformative effects on the consciousness of players, like poetry, fiction, journalism, and film, but the implications of these transformations are not always clear. Games can work to maintain the status quo or celebrate liberation or tolerate enslavement, and they can conjure feelings of hope or despair, assent or dissent, clarity or confusion. Overall, by making and managing meanings, computer games—and the work they involve and the industry they spring from—are also negotiating power.

This book sets out a method for "recollecting" some of the diverse and copious influences on computer games and the industry they have spawned. Specifically written for use in computer game theory classes, advanced media studies, and communications courses, Game Work will also be welcome by computer gamers and designers.

Ken S. McAllister is Assistant Professor of Rhetoric, Composition, and the Teaching of English at the University of Arizona and Co-Director of the Learning Games Initiative, a research collective that studies, teaches with, and builds computer games.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817354206
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 07/02/2006
Series: Rhetoric Culture and Social Critique Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Ken S. McAllister is Assistant Professor of Rhetoric, Composition, and the Teaching of English at the University of Arizona and Co-Director of the Learning Games Initiative, a research collective that studies, teaches with, and builds computer games.

Read an Excerpt

Game Work

Language, Power, and Computer Game Culture

By Ken S. McAllister

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2004 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-5420-6


Studying the Computer Game Complex

Steve, a happily married forty-four-year-old man with two kids, sits before a nineteen-inch flat-screen computer monitor, a joystick in his hand. And not just any joystick. Steve grips the award-winning Logitech Wingman Force, a game controller modeled after the joysticks in the latest fighter jets. It has nine buttons, a throttle mechanism, and a "POV" hat switch that allows him to look sideways, above, and behind his simulated "Warthog," a U.S. Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II. The Intel Pentium 4 processor (3.2 GHz) and NVIDIA GeForce Ultra 5950 video card with 256 MB of onboard RAM render the ground below the aircraft with amazing realism, and because Steve has activated the simulator's "weather effects," the joystick shakes in his hand when he flies through turbulence. The stick also gives him a jolt when he kicks in the afterburners and vibrates when he pulls the trigger. The vibrations are rapid but dull in his palm, just how Steve expects it would feel to fire off thirty-millimeter rounds loaded into a real nose-mounted General Electric GAU-8/A Avenger seven-barrel cannon. And though Steve is only a casual player of Jane's USAF — five to ten hours a week — he has already played this simulation for more than fifty hours (and he's still working on the training missions). Tonight he plans to focus his training on air-to-ground attacks, especially moving targets like tanks and supply convoys. Lieutenant Colonel "Scooter" Davis, the simulator's training persona, warns Steve that today's practice is going to be a tough one but wishes him "Happy Flying" just the same. Steve smiles and tightens his grip on the joystick. "Bring it on," he says, and moments later he loses touch with the real world as he works the sluggish virtual Warthog down runway 22R of Nellis Air Force Base and takes to the sky.

* * *

In the media wake of the Littleton, Colorado, high school shooting in 1999, news coverage quickly turned to finger-pointing as people struggled to understand what could have motivated such youth violence. Within twenty-four hours, national TV news programs were reporting that the young men who had walked into their school and shot thirteen classmates to death had two unsavory pastimes: listening to Goth music and playing computer games. Within forty-eight hours, dozens of newspapers had printed stories specifically on these two elements of this tragic event.

Nothing about these stories, which seemed most interested in scapegoating the band Marilyn Manson and computer games like Doom, was very revealing. Music has been blamed for corrupting youth for centuries. And despite the fact that at the beginning of the twenty-first century they are arguably little more than a hybrid medium extending the genres of film, TV, fiction, and comic books, computer games have a similarly troubled — if shorter — past. Stories about both were formulaic: music and games are popular, engaging, and filled with disturbing images of rage, despair, supernaturalism, and death. It is to be expected then, the stories suggested, that those who are exposed to such material are going to be changed, made somehow more amenable to acting out in their own lives these supposedly artistic expressions of others' profound frustration with the world. This narrative formula generally continues with a bit of scientism noting the considerable research that purportedly establishes a link between media exposure and violent tendencies in youth, offers several semi-shocking excerpts from a song or a violent screenshot from a game, and concludes by advising people — parents especially — to attend to their children (and to themselves) lest they be further exposed to such deleterious effects.

Newspaper headlines demonstrated this formula as well. After the Littleton shooting, the Reuters newswire service distributed a story headlined "Colorado Teen Gunmen Liked Computers, War Games" (Reuters). Appreciation is enough to warrant claims of causality in this early "report." USA Today took the liberty of explicitly expressing the implied generalizations of earlier computer game–blaming stories by running a piece headlined "Kids, Online and Off, Feast on Violence" (Thomas). This story summarized in broad and affirming strokes the various claims that have been made about how TV, movies, and computer games breed real violence in children by exposing them to its simulated two-dimensional representation. The Littleton assassins, like everyone else but more so, were made psychopathic by their gluttonous consumption of simulated, interactive violence, argues this piece. Three days after the shooting, the Los Angeles Times strengthened this accusation — actually a strongly contested one in social science circles — by bolstering it with a remark made by the president in a public address expressing his sorrow about the Littleton shooting: "Clinton Sees Violent Influence in 3 Video Games" (Gerstenzang). Here, in what could reasonably be considered an ironic statement made by the political and military leader of one of the most heavily armed and historically violent countries in the world, Bill Clinton pronounced judgment on violent video games, more or less effectively diverting attention away from the politically sensitive subject of gun control that was concurrently dogging his administration.

Those who are sensitive to media spin-doctoring likely saw this scapegoating of computer games for what it was and dismissed it. Computer game players, however, responded more protectively, arguing in both print and online that one can't blame a technology or its designers for what consumers do after they've had exposure to the technology. Chief among their evidence was the simple fact that millions of people play computer games, but very few of them turn their play into acts of real and sociopathic violence. In the same year as the Littleton shooting, for instance, the Fairfield Research Group conducted a national survey of computer users and determined that there were more than fifty million households with at least one regular computer game player (Eddy). Game players and gaming industry insiders were quick to point out such statistics and to observe further that very few of these households included homicidal maniacs. Instead of blaming Doom and Duke Nukem, this community tended to blame poor parenting, neurochemical imbalances, and societal values for such random acts of violence.

Andy Eddy, the West Coast editor for Game Weekly, articulates this view most succinctly:

On the surface, it makes sense to take games like Doom, Quake, or Duke Nukem — [full of] what many would call violence-inspiring activities — and say that they're destroying our youth's ability to discern right from wrong. Of course, it would be great to find a concrete connection between a heinous event and the activities of the ones who committed it, but pointing such a finger at electronic games or other entertainments is at best a knee-jerk reaction.

However, millions of people get enjoyment out of such games every day and don't become deranged murderers. And that's because 99.99% of those gaming enthusiasts see electronic games — and movies and TV — for what they are: entertainment sources that inspire the imagination and delve the participant into a diversionary fantasy world for a period of time.

For Eddy and millions of other computer gamers, games are mere diversions, virtual toys that harmlessly entertain the mind, despite their powerfully charged emotional themes.

This position, though, is as untenable as the one held by the scapegoaters. The claim that spending dozens and sometimes hundreds of hours immersed in a simulated interactive environment — exploring, communicating, deciphering, planning, stalking, hiding, and killing — has no significant effect on players is naive at best and malicious at worst. Eddy claims that those who point fingers at electronic games are having a "knee-jerk reaction." While I don't dispute this possibility, in this book I take up the probability that such reactions take place on all sides of the gaming debates and are often equally misinformed. Such a situation results in a rhetorical stalemate that artificially stabilizes the dialectical struggle within which arguments and analyses concerning computer games take place. In the next chapter I will discuss in greater detail what I mean by "dialectical struggle." For now, suffice it to say that it is generative argumentation over irreconcilable viewpoints. A central struggle that was frequently engaged in the stories about the Littleton shooting, for example, was generally reduced to one of the following claims:

1. Computer games affect players only temporarily, that is, only while they are being played. They activate players' imaginations, but for most people, engagement in such fantasy play has little or no effect in their real lives, except perhaps to relieve tension;

2. Computer games incline players to change their behaviors long-term in the real world. They may make players more violent, more selfish, and less patient, but they may also improve their abilities to think logically and strategically and may improve certain psychomotor skills.

These two positions do not, of course, represent the fullness of the struggle concerning the value(s) of computer games but rather reveal a particular subset of the struggle — a struggle that is itself linked to other struggles in society. Despite the media's oversimplification of this antagonism, however, even this subset can give scholars interested in critiquing the computer game complex a gross starting point away from which they can work toward developing a more informed understanding of computer games, the gaming industry, and all the people whose lives are touched by computer games. Working toward just such an understanding is a major purpose of this book.

As is always the case with struggles about power, those involving computer games reside at a nexus of forces that, in their interaction, directs how the struggles evolve. The fact that a struggle, a contradiction, or an antagonism — three varieties of ideological and material conflict — can exhibit movement and change is what characterizes it as "dialectical." By identifying the rhetorical forces at this nexus and observing the moments when and the ways in which each of them is sometimes privileged over the others, computer game scholars (professional or not) can develop an understanding of the forces' scopes and ranges of influence. Consequently, we may begin to see more broadly the cultural and psychological complexity of particular struggles — in the case of computer gaming, this broader view would encompass the entertainment industry — and fashion the beginnings of a critical framework that can help us to see new alternatives for working with the struggles in their cultural contexts. Such alternatives may reveal previously unrecognized opportunities for redirecting particular struggles toward more desirable ends; this is the praxis that follows critique. In the sections that follow, I characterize the most influential of these rhetorical forces and describe how they are made to work in and through the computer game complex to construct meanings that shape minds, bodies, and cultures.

Computer Games as Mass Culture

Few people would challenge the assertion that computer games are popular. Games are installed and played on millions of personal computers and console systems like GameCube, PlayStation, Dreamcast, and Xbox. Millions more are loaded into Game Boys, N-Gages, Zodiacs, WonderSwans, and Neo-sGeos, handheld computer games that use memory cards and cartridges about the size of a book of matches. Virtually every mall, bar, bowling alley, and movie theater has a sizable video arcade, many of which — unbeknownst to most players — are test beds for the popularity of future PC and console games; if a coin-operated arcade game is popular, developers have learned, so too will be the home version.

Another sign of the popularity of computer gaming is the level of celebrity attained by game characters. Many such characters have become household names, from such 1980s classics as Pac-Man and Mario, to the 1990s game stars like Sonic the Hedgehog, Duke Nukem, and Lara Croft. Recent games facilitate this trend by periodically crossing over into other media genres. Dozens of games in stores today include digital movies starring famous (or once-famous) actors: Wing Commander (Mark Hamill, John Rhys-Davies, Malcolm McDowell, Ginger Lynn Allen), Star Trek: Starfleet Academy (William Shatner, Walter Koenig, and George Takei), and P.Y.S.T. — a parody of the extremely popular Myst — which stars John Goodman. In addition, more than a dozen games have been turned into feature-length movies, including Wing Commander, Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, Tomb Raider, and Resident Evil.

All of these markers of popularity suggest that computer games do become manifest in culture, but in what way does popularity constitute a "force," that is, a power capable of effecting or resisting change? Cultural studies scholars generally agree that there are actually two kinds of popularity: one that emerges naturally and another that is imposed. Donal Carbaugh, for instance, offers three criteria for determining whether or not something is "popular": it must be "(a) deeply felt, (b) commonly intelligible, and (c) widely accessible" (38). This definition reflects a more emergent conception of "popular," one that fits such cultural phenomena as folk music and mythology. On the other hand, Barry Brummett's citation of Raymond Williams's "venerable" definition of "popular" as "work deliberately setting out to win favor" suggests how contrived popularity can be (Brummett xxi). Carbaugh's definition, which is an amalgam of many similar understandings of the term "popular" used by pop culture scholars, discerns that a popular artifact affects a wide audience's emotions ("deeply felt") and minds ("commonly intelligible") and is readily available ("widely accessible"). Unlike Williams's definition, which clearly points out the agency behind popular artifacts, Carbaugh's "popular" provides only the merest hint of the people behind the artifact, the popularity makers.

Richard Ohmann takes up this very distinction, renaming it the difference between "popular" and "mass" culture. He writes that "mass culture"

signals the homogenization, the overriding of local and subcultural distinctions, that has accompanied the expansion of media in our century, and rightly implies the power of the culture industries to shape audiences and groups of consumers. It wrongly implies a passivity and a static uniformity of audiences, and connotes a snobbish disparagement of popular tastes, or at worst of the people themselves. "Popular culture" restores the respect withdrawn by the other term; it credits popularity as authentic (not cynically imposed from above), and rightly implies a more active role for audiences in choosing and interpreting entertainments. But it erases the stark inequality inherent in late twentieth-century cultural production, and often implies a politically mystifying celebration of marketplace democracy. (14)

In the end, writes Ohmann, "[n]either term is adequate," but he opts for "mass culture" as the ruling one for his subject — early-twentieth-century popular magazines — because he wants "to keep questions of production and power in the foreground" (14).

I share this desire, and I find that Ohmann's definition of "mass culture" works particularly well for describing the role of computer games and gaming in industrialized societies where they are most popular: the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Scandinavia, Japan, and several urban areas in Korea and China. For Ohmann, "mass culture ... includes voluntary experiences, produced by a relatively small number of specialists, for millions across the nation to share, in similar or identical form, either simultaneously or nearly so, with dependable frequency; mass culture shapes habitual audiences, around common needs or interests, and it is made for profit" (14).


Excerpted from Game Work by Ken S. McAllister. Copyright © 2004 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. Studying the Computer Game Complex,
2. A Grammar of Gamework,
3. Capturing Imaginations: Rhetoric in the Art of Computer Game Development,
4. Making Meanings Out of Contradictions: The Work of Computer Game Reviewing,
5. The Economies of Black & White,
Works Cited,

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews