Hardcore 18: Un-Situated Play? Textual Analysis and Digital Games. Diane Carr

Un-Situated Play? Textual Analysis and Digital Games. [1]

Diane Carr

The shortcomings associated with analysis that focuses ‘on the game itself’[2] are widely and casually acknowledged, yet ‘textual analysis’ as a methodology remains rarely or broadly defined in Game Studies literature. Sometimes broad definitions are appropriate, but when the topic under discussion is a methodology (or its limitations) something more specific is probably called for. I don’t think that we can satisfactorily critique textual analysis just by listing the things that it does not do, and I suggest that defining the textual analysis of games should involve making reference to theories of text. Otherwise, why call it ‘textual’ analysis? In fact, various versions of textual analysis could be proposed, depending on the theory of text that’s being evoked in each case.

Recently I’ve found the work of Roland Barthes helpful for thinking about this because he has written about both structural analysis and textual analysis. Both have application to games, and they can be used together, but it is not a good idea to conflate them because they involve different things, and because games combine structure and textuality in particular ways. When adapted for digital games, Barthes’ work (1977) suggests that structural analysis would involve looking at the units in the game-as-system, and these units’ relative (and shifting) values, organisation, placement, mobility, relationships, as well as the scope for manipulation afforded by these units. So structural analysis offers one framework through which it is possible to examine things like navigation, genre, affect, design, typologies, rules, as well as (when generically appropriate) narrative elements and aspects of characterisation.

Elsewhere Barthes describes textual analysis as a working procedure developed to untangle and trace the codes and signs activated in literature during the practice of reading (1974). This suggests that the textual analysis of a game should respond to the fact that games are played. So, Barthes’ work on textuality indicates, to me at least, that a media-sensitive model of textual analysis would attend to the mobilising or actualising of the aforementioned game-as-structure during play, as well as to questions of signification. This means that the topics that would fall within the ambit of textual analysis would include things like the relationship between structure and play, the tensions between rules, play and interpretation, and the dynamics of intertextuality and (culturally situated) subjectivity. Textual analysis, then, goes beyond content description, it’s not limited to the ‘static’ or the linear aspects of a game, and it does not involve seeing a game as an isolated, static object. It looks to the game-as-played, to games in culture, and to culture in games. For these reasons textual analysis offers one approach to questions of meaning.

Consider, for instance, issues of representation and cultural politics in games. People, objects and events in games are, obviously, represented. Yet Lara Croft, for example, emerges through play as a set of manipulated variables in a system (rules, the game’s economy, the game-space) that are juggled in real time according to the skills, priorities, prerogatives and whimsy of the player. As a player, my actualising of Lara will reflect her tool-like functionality, as well as her (or my) malfunctioning, her programming, my curiosity and sobriety and (to some extent at least) my feelings about improbable breasts, posh accents, Indiana Jones’s politics and Angelina Jolie’s star persona. As this suggests, Lara Croft has multiple meanings that exceed and yet are cycled through ‘the game itself’. A media-sensitive textual analysis would offer a valid approach to representation, one that recognises that games are played, that game-signs swing between internal and external signification, that the player’s interpretive framework is not static, and that play shifts between ludic and less goal-orientated modes.

As for the cultural politics of games – and in games – textual analysis should complicate familiar concepts like interpellation (from Althusser) or subject position (from Foucault) but it does not follow that textual analysis is apolitical. The point is that these issues are important and accounts that rely on unsound theory won’t help.

‘Interpellation’ involves the ways in which a text ‘hails’ users and situates them relative to a text and its values or meanings. The concept is seductive because the potential for interpellation in games seems so self-evident. Players could be considered as looped into various systems during play courtesy of the machine, programming, roles, rules and goals, the onscreen actions and the controls, narrative address and culturally resonant representations. The problem for the theorist, however, is that if interpellation does happen during play, there is no reason to assume that the potential interpellations posed by these various systems would be cumulative. It seems just as likely that they might clash, or that they would be mutually affirming one moment but contradictory the next. For this reason an account of ideology in games that relied on a static model of interpellation would be unsatisfactory. Likewise, an analysis that made its case based on one system of potential interpellation while selectively ignoring others would be flawed.

Structural and textual analysis would suggest that approaching the cultural politics of games via the notion of subject positioning is also complicated. When considered in combination, game structure (rules, programming, economy, components) and textual codes, connotation, narrative address and the variability of play modes all indicate that subject position in a game needs to be understood as a series of possible positions activated or dormant, taken up, dropped or ignored by a player from moment to moment. In other words subject position is not a vacant seat established by the game that is offered to (or imposed on) the player-subject, who must then occupy this single position as a condition of participation. Resorting to the figure of the ‘ideal player’ might be one way to theorise a consistent subject position, but I’m not sure how useful this would be. Further inquiry into the question of agency might be more productive. Employing theories of textuality, agency and authorship in order to propose what constitutes ‘discourse’ in the context of game-play could also be helpful.

As for the limitations of textual analysis, it is true that this approach tends to rely on the actualising of a game from the particular perspective of the player-as-analyst. A common response to this limitation is to suggest a switch to social-scientific methods such as player observation, forum trawling and/or post-play interviews. While these approaches are undoubtedly valuable, I’m not convinced that they automatically avoid the problems faced by the textual analyst. If I conduct a post-play interview, for example, I am asking the player to perform a reductive transposition (from experience, to transcript of experience). My interview might provide useful and valid data, but I’d have to regard it as a selective rendition of the game-play experience provided on request, possibly produced according to what this particular interviewee perceives as my role, interests, needs or gaming competence, in combination with his or her own interests in self-representation. Together these factors might motivate the player to emphasise particular aspects of a game (its rules or its narrative or its trans-medial siblings) over others. I am not arguing that player observation or interviews are invalid methods. The point I would like to make is that the study of games and play is complex, that all methods and analysis are situated, and that all accounts of play are selective. This is the case for textual analysis produced from the perspective of the player-as-analyst, and it is also true for methods that less frequently face these charges.

All methods have their limitations, and textual analysis is no exception. But in order to look at meaning in games we need methodologies that will equip us to investigate issues such as representation, interpellation and subject position while acknowledging play and playability. Existing theories of text offer us a way to think these things through. That is why textual analysis is too valuable an approach to remain poorly defined, and too useful an approach to be prematurely discarded.


[1] The title refers to the theme of the DiGRA 2007 International Conference, ‘Situated Play’.

[2] See, for example, the DiGRA 2007 call for papers.

References Barthes, R. (1974). S/Z (R. Miller, Trans.). Oxford: Blackwell.

Barthes, R. (1977) ‘Introduction to the structural analysis of narrative’, in Image Music Text (S. Heath, Trans.). London: Fontana Press pp 79-124

Biography Diane Carr is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Education, University of London, who has published ethnographic work on play, gender and preferences, as well game analysis. She now realises that she should have used this column to promote an upcoming Games Studies/Film Theory event (link http://playhouse.wordpress.com/gamefilm-event-9112007/) and to draw your attention to the DiGRA SIG on digital games and film (link http://gamefilmsig.wordpress.com). Diane’s doctoral thesis on Meaning and the Playable Text was examined and passed 10 days ago (26.10.2007).

Acknowledgements: Thanks to my colleagues Martin Oliver, Shakuntala Banaji and Caroline Pelletier for their comments and suggestions.

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