Getting Good: An Introduction to the Becoming Machine Series

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Nick Taylor is an Assistant Professor in NC State’s Department of Communication, where he conducts critical and qualitative research on issues of inclusivity in competitive gaming, game spectatorship, and collegiate e-sports. He is also co-editor (with Gerald Voorhees) of a volume on gaming and masculinity, to be published in late 2017. bio-blog

As a researcher who studies games and their practices, communities, and industries, I am deeply interested in the ways that my own proficiency with games (or lack of) modifies how and what I know about them. To take a pithy example, my years-long experience playing in Guild Wars 2’s PvE scene affords me some insight into the ways that the game has evolved to create some opportunities for incidental collaboration between players while suppressing others. At the same time, my utter incompetence with the game’s PvP play leaves me less capable (and less willing) to investigate it – to ask, for instance, how the Guild Wars 2’s meta has evolved in response to the demands of top competitive guilds.

This is, of course, well-trodden territory; since games are “actional” media (Galloway, 2006), their meanings and cultural significance can’t be gleaned from screenshots or read off summaries of the game, but must be unlocked through play. The corollary to this, as many have argued, is that proficiency at games is a particular form of literacy, understood as the capacity to participate in shared acts of meaning-making; like my deep understanding of Guild Wars 2’s boss battles, gaming proficiency generates specialized (and in many cases, obscure) forms of knowledge.

That said, proficiency with games does not just modify how and what we know about them. Proficiency is also an embodied process that works to shape our sensory abilities, our capacities for attention, and our propensities for proprioception – our awareness of our bodies’ internal workings. In other words, the process of getting good is one which alters not just our knowledge of the game — it transforms our bodies.

To return to Guild Wars 2: upon accessing a challenging part of the game, a few things happen. I adopt a particular configuration of hands, arms, neck and legs, one which allows me to maneuver the mouse quickly and without encumbrance from wires and beverages. This posture also primes my head and eyes for rapidly moving between the game’s key interface elements and gives me easy access to the keyboard’s function keys. My attention filters out certain sources of distraction (the television on behind me or my phone) while also attuning to the anticipation of certain in-game cues (tells for incoming enemy attacks or teammate health bars). My whole body takes on a kind of learned receptivity and sensitivity to particular in-game stimuli — stimuli that I have been trained, through repetition, to expect and automatically respond to. In these ways, I have incorporated the game into myself and, by dint of sustained and intensive effort, it has altered what my body is capable of and how it (re)acts under certain, highly-technologized conditions.

Attention to what games do to us – at a granular level – can be fascinating and  even unsettling. It is also safe to assume that what games do varies depending on player, game platform, and physical context of play. This is why the question of “what happens to us as we get good at games?”, or to put it differently, “what do games do to us as we become proficient at them?” is both very compelling and, ultimately, sort of unknowable – or at least, inexhaustible.

Becoming-machine

To help address this question, I outsourced the work to graduate students (a tried and true strategy). I teach a graduate seminar at NC State dubbed “Gaming the Body.” The course requires us to approach games via emerging theories of temporality, embodiment, attention, cognition, and affect — perspectives on bodies and technologies which broadly (though not exclusively) direct our attention to the material, non-representational aspects of game play. The overarching goal of the course is to understand, via Karen Barad (2003), how games “materialize” our bodies; how they activate and configure our senses, muscles, and attentional and proprioceptive faculties; and how we in turn are incorporated, via games, into broader forms of social control through gaming’s increasing array of surveillance apparatuses and techniques.

A central problematic in the course is, therefore, the transformations we undertake as we get good.

Ran as an experiment in Fall 2016, the main assignment for the course required students to play 40 hours of a game they’d never tried. This is certainly an arbitrary and absurd number, and one which the more casual players in class raised their eyebrows over, but which some of the more intensive players said they could do in a week. In addition to 40 hours of play, which were to be meticulously documented via photographs, screenshots, and written observations, students had to spend another 10 hours watching streams of the game and reading paratextual material to support their play (forums, walkthroughs, wikis, etc).

I called the assignment “Becoming-machine,” in deference to the notion (via Deleuze, Zizek, and others) that our engagements with other entities (including games) might be more productively approached as intersections of forces and intensities — as “machinic assemblages” — rather than as interactions between discrete, autonomous entities (Cremin, 2016). In keeping with this, the assignment required students to attend to the human-machine apparatus they used to get good: which specific configuration of input device, thumbs and fingers, head and neck, graphics settings, furniture, and so on they relied upon.

Such apparatuses are, of course, crucial to our ability to develop and express proficiency. Give me a new mouse, mousepad or keyboard; introduce lag; update the game’s AI, character skills, or interface; and the finely-tuned body/machine is at least temporarily thrown off. Emma Witkowksi discusses this in her groundbreaking work on the physicality of e-sports, where she writes:

e-sports LAN players talk of being prepared for the idiosyncrasies of specific event halls, knowing whether to bring a hair dryer along for a hand warmer, or to carry with them a variety of mouse pads (shape and material) to adjust to the table setup. They could tell you about their experiences of sponsored equipment; talk to how standardized tools do not necessarily fit the needs of each and every body; acquaint you with the best make-do’s and tweaks for optimal performance…. The things in and of play require sensuous engagement for actions to be shaped ‘‘just so” (Witkowski, 2012, p. 368).

Part of being (and acting) expert, as Witkowski shows us, is an awareness of and attention to the minute functionings of our gaming apparatus, and it is through these acts of material reconfiguration that we are able to develop and exercise proficiency. Witkowski’s work (among others) demonstrates that our expertise with games is simultaneously in our bodies and distributed amongst the other elements – the other non-human actors – that make up our gaming apparatus.

 

Bodies of knowledge

The “Becoming-machine” assignment invited students to read up on academic literature around gaming and proficiency. The question “what do games do to us as we get better at them?”seems a relatively straightforward question, yet given its centrality to games and their play, it is arguably underrepresented in academic accounts of digital games. It’s a question that psychologists and educational researchers seem, at first glance, primed to answer, with their shared (albeit divergent) stakes in determining the outcomes and behavioral implications of intensive gameplay. According to the more well-cited researchers and commentators in these fields, videogames teach us how to kill, and/or solve the world’s problems, and/or play videogames better. More often than not, however, these claims are generated via a priori valuations of what games could and should do – make us into better citizens, better students, better soldiers, etc. At the same time, the attendant transformations in perception, cognition, attention, and physiology — the embodied processes of becoming competent — remain black-boxed.

We also have rich ethnographic considerations of expert players’ practices and dispositions, including the activities of theorycrafters, competitive gamers, modders, and so on. These are players who invest an incredible amount of time and energy in improving their gameplay and for whom it is, in many cases, their livelihood. Yet these excellent ethnographic accounts often gloss over the perceptual and affective transformations that intensive play produces, focusing more on getting good as a process of socialization and discursive belonging (Chen, 2012; Steinkuehler, 2006).

In my own post-doctoral research as part of a team conducting mixed-methods study that explored the communicative practices of MMO players (VERUS 4 Life!!), we encountered a few memorable articulations about the work that gaming proficiency exerts on players, from players themselves. During a raid, for instance, one WoW player described expert play as a kind of “synchronized swim,” encapsulating much of what we saw and heard from our observations, and much of what’s been written about regarding the tendency towards standardized modes of hyper-efficient play and ‘min-maxing’ among “power” gamers (Taylor, 2006) and theorycrafters.

While qualitative research on expert gamers and their play practices is invaluable, it was not the focus of the “Becoming-machine” assignment. Rather, we drew on three other distinct areas of research. The first is phenomenological accounts of intensive gameplay that can be traced back to David Sudnow’s Pilgrim in the Microworld, with more recent works by Emma Witkowski (2012), Brendan Keogh (2015), and Benjamin Gattet (2016). These focus intently on changes to our perceptive and proprioceptive capacities over the course of intensive play — how and when our muscle movements become automatic, how our posture and gestures become trained towards and around the contours of chairs, desks, input devices and screens, and how our bodies incorporate (and are incorporated into) the apparatus of play, creating “a play of bodies” (Keogh, 2015).

The second research area is a tradition of media studies that explores the ways we become enmeshed into material, computational and algorithmic networks of play, and the attendant affective and physiological recalibrations that happen as a result. These works can be broadly referred to as “posthumanist” theorizations of play, insofar as they move us away from treating ‘the player’ as a discrete, bounded entity; instead, they invite us to think of how our bodies and our subjectivities are formed through, and constantly, inextricably bound to, encounters with the non-humans (animals, technologies, objects) that co-populate our social worlds. Key works here are Seth Giddings’ “Events and Collusions” (2008), he and Helen Kennedy’s “Little Jesuses and Fuck Off Robots” (2009), Christopher Moore’s “Invigorating Play” (2012), and James Ash’s “Technologies of Captivation” (2013).

Taken together, these trajectories acknowledge that video games do indeed act on us — not in the crudely behaviorist ways envisioned by some psychologists (and would-be reformists) who see games as addictive murder simulators that sap male virility, but in ways that prime us, however temporarily, to the rhythms and routines of whatever game we are playing. They also give us valuable vocabularies for addressing the mechanics and processes going on under the hood of these human-machine apparatuses. Moore offers the notion of “attunement” to describe how games refocus our attentive and perceptive capabilities; Keogh offers “embodied literacy,” and Witkowski, the “balanced body” as a means of acknowledging the ways our muscles and senses are recalibrated during play; and Giddings and Kennedy provide us with the rich metaphor of a human-machine “choreography” of agencies that constitute any gameplay moment.

The politics of (intensive) play

Where these phenomenological and posthumanist perspectives on play provided students with two rich traditions for thinking through the ways our bodies engage digital play, the third tradition – constituting research informed by feminist, Marxist and other critical approaches to games — addresses the systems of inequality that help produce (and are reproduced through) gameplay.

Expert play is complicated and absolutely central to how we understand ongoing transformations in digital play; it is also deeply political, insofar as it requires (and arguably reproduces) a privileged relation to leisure time, tools and technologies, and contexts. This remains constant whether examining 1980’s arcades (Kocurek, 2015) or present-day man caves; documenting the “intersecting oppressions” that characterize online places of play (Gray, 2012); asking (via Sarah Sharma’s work) whose time are we playing with when we play games for upwards of 40 hours a week (Sharma, 2014); tracing the racialized history of PCs and consoles (Kendall, 2011; DiSalvo & Bruckman, 2010); or addressing why there continues to be relatively few women in the e-sports industry, devoted to professionalizing players and constructing audiences for competitive play (Taylor, 2012; AnyKey). As these numerous concerns demonstrate, access to the material, the temporal and spatial infrastructures of play, is contingent upon our social positioning in relation to gender, class, age, sexuality, ability, and so on. And of course, all of these are tethered to ideologies that sanction the marginalization, even punishment, of unwelcome bodies, subjectivities and expressions. Indeed, even defining expertise primarily in terms of operational competency is a political act, excluding as it does other expressions of investment such as role-play (Taylor et al, 2011).

Because of both the political dimensions of “getting good” and its repercussions for how we know of and talk about games, gaming proficiency is a foundational issue for scholars, designers, and critics alike. For designers, attending to this issue may involve (as an example) unpacking the assumptions regarding how their game imagines its players — assumptions that are not only reflected in its portrayal of gender, race, and so on, but which are also embedded in its tutorial design, in the shape and button layout of its input devices (Parisi, 2015), and so on. For scholars and critics, it might entail reflections on how our own privileged relation to games shapes our appreciation of its cultural significance. And generally, reflecting on what sorts of bodies can become proficient at what sorts of games in the first place invites us all to acknowledge the ongoing imprints of ableism, sexism and racism in the material elements of gameplay.

The essays in this “Becoming-machine” series by Krystin Gollihue, Brandon Rogers, and Mark Bentley collectively exemplify what this line of thinking through and with gaming expertise, understood as a continuous process of becoming rather than a fixed state, makes possible. Each in its own way productively engages with the fundamental question of “what happened to me as I got good at this game,” while also addressing the attendant concerns outlined here: what resources, tools and contexts does this process depend on? And how was access to these shaped by each author’s social positioning within broader systems of gender, race, class and ability?

I will continue to include this assignment in my graduate gaming seminars, though I may, in future, tweak some of the criteria. For instance, this might involve insisting that we all play the same game, or play different games on the same platform (Nintendo Switch, anyone?) – allowing more focused points of comparison between our experiences. Or it may involve co-situated observation sessions, paralleling experiments in “couch play” carried out (separately) by Mia Consalvo and Mickael Jakobbsson. Regardless, what I have found most instructive in facilitating this assignment are the insights it produces into the myriad ways games interact with and “attune” our bodies (Moore, 2012). As I noted above, this is a near-inexhaustible topic, and its potential case studies are as numerous as there are games to play and ways to play them.

For me, these concerns around expert play form part of a larger problematic: once we understand more fully, beyond (but including) a representational level, what videogames are doing to us and making us do — how they materialize us into new compositions of organic and technical bodies, and new formations of power — then we can be in a better position to ask how this matters.

Works cited

Ash, J. (2013). “Technologies of captivation: Videogames and the attunement of affect.” Body & Society, 19(1): 27-51.

Barad, K. (2003). “Posthumanist performativity: Toward an understanding of how matter comes to matter.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 28(3): 801-831.

Chen, M. (2012). Leet noobs: The life and death of an expert player group in world of warcraft. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Cremin, C. (2016). Exploring Videogames with Deleuze and Guattari. New York: Routledge.

DiSalvo, B. and Bruckman, A. (2011). “Race and genre in play practices: Young African American males.” Proceedings of the Foundations of Digital Games Conference.

Gattett, B. (Jan. 2017). “Virtual bodies in virtual worlds: A phenomenology of play in video games.” First Person Scholar.

Galloway, A. R. (2006). Gaming: Essays on algorithmic culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Giddings, S. (2009). “Events and collusions: a glossary for the microethnography of videogame play.” Games and Culture, 4(2): 144–157.

Giddings, S. and Kennedy, H. (2008). “Little jesuses and fuck-off robots: On aesthetics, cybernetics, and not being very good at Lego Star Wars.” In M. Swalwell and J. Wilson (eds.), The Pleasures of Computer Gaming: Essays on Cultural History, Theory and Aesthetics. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 13–32.

Gray, K. L. (2012). “Intersecting oppressions and online communities.” Information, Communication & Society, 15: 411–428.

Guild Wars 2. (2012). Arenanet.

[Image of a robotic arm reaching for a white bishop on a chessboard]. (n.d.). Retrieved April 4, 2017.

Kendall, L. (2011). ““White and nerdy”: Computers, race, and the nerd stereotype.” The Journal of Popular Culture, 44(3): 505-524.

Keogh, B. (2015). A play of bodies: A phenomenology of videogame experience (Unpublished PhD dissertation). RMIT University, Melbourne, AUS.

Kocurek, C. (2015). Coin-operated Americans: Rebooting boyhood at the video game arcade. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Moore, C. (2012).  “Invigorating play.” In G. Voorhees, J. Call and K. Whitlock K (eds.) Guns, grenades, and grunts: First–person shooter games. New York, NY, USA: Bloomsbury Publishing, 341-363.

Parisi, D. (2015). “A counterrevolution in the hands: The console controller as an ergonomic branding mechanism.” Journal of Games Criticism, 2(1), 1-23.

Sharma, S. (2014). In the Meantime. Durham: Duke University Press.

Steinkuehler, C. (2006). “Massively multiplayer online videogaming as participation in a discourse.” Mind, Culture & Activity, 13(1): 38–52.

Sudnow, D. (1983). Pilgrim in the microworld. New York: Warner Books.

Taylor, N., de Castell, S., Jenson, J. and Humphrey, M. (2011). “Modeling play: Re-casting expertise in MMOGs.” Proceedings of the SIGGRAPH2011 Conference, Vancouver, BC.

Taylor, T. L. (2006). Play between worlds. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Taylor, T. L. (2012). Raising the stakes: E-sports and the professionalization of computer gaming. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Witkowski, E. (2012). “On the digital playing field: How we “do sport” with networked computer games.” Games and Culture, 7(5): 349-374.