In the chapter one I examine Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s psychological concept of flow which describes the experience of an individual completely absorbed in a challenging activity that provides clear goals, feedback, and the possibility of increasing one’s skills. Csikszentmihalyi’s theory is often referenced in both popular discourses of game design and academic investigations of video game forms, yet, there is almost a complete absence of critical engagement with the theoretical framework which subtends his theory of flow. This chapter fills this absence. While focusing on a close reading of the video game flOw, designed explicitly in relation to Csikszentmihalyi’s theories, I compare the concept of televisual flow developed by Raymond Williams with Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow activities. Through this comparison I detect design principles in the video game form that are similar to the formal properties of networked television flow that Williams identified in the mid 1970s. For example, both forms of flow—televisual and video game flow—seek to increase the temporal duration of media consumption (watching TV or playing video games for longer periods) which ultimately leads to the increased commodification of the spectator or player. Such an expansion of temporal duration, I argue, is intimately connected to the decoding and recoding dialectic of capitalist modernity where disruptive media flows need to be formally “solidified” and recoded in order to extend and sustain their profitable utilization. Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow influences a theoretical design model for video games that continues historical forms of control under capitalism where an individual is disciplined to avoid boredom, anxiety and distraction in order to become an attentive consumer. Moreover, his theoretical model of flow privileges a unified subject position, a flowing subject as I call it. Such a subject becomes a conduit for ideologies that the flow experience perpetuates—for example, the loss of critical reflection and the production of a growth model of the self where the self becomes a mirror image of capitalist accumulation that ultimately benefits the perpetuation of exploitation and alienation.
In chapter two I examine the recent, vibrant rise of art and political games— “indie” games of often modest size created by individuals or small teams that pursue innovative gaming experiences. In Andreas Jahn-Sudmann’s recent article, “Innovation NOT Opposition: The Logic of Distinction of Independent Games,” he argues that these games do not offer oppositional stances to mainstream game development but embrace a relentless search for gameplay innovation: that is, indie games desire to endlessly “make it new” but do not formulate a political, oppositional aesthetics similar to, for example, avant-garde film practices in the nineteen-sixties and seventies. Beginning with an analysis of Bertolt Brecht’s innovative, modernist aesthetics (which were grounded in political opposition), I analyze the contemporary fascination of innovation in the indie game movement as a kind of Brechtian aesthetics that has become detached from the political: while these indie games “oppose” mainstream game forms by pursuing innovations in game mechanics that mainstream games lack, such innovation becomes an end in itself and a possible source of perpetual decoding that can feed back into capitalist recodings. Through this obsession to innovate within indie game culture, I analyze the contemporary, cultural situation of “total innovation” (Liu), a massive fluidity of change and cultural decoding, a situation of “total flow” as Fredric Jameson has called it in his essay “Surrealism Without the Unconscious.” In this situation everything seems to change while nothing changes at all. (In a sense, total flow is the dialectical opposite of the notion of coded and managed flows which I discuss in the first chapter). Within this situation I interrogate the possibilities of opposition that remain. Indeed, in Anti-Oedipus Deleuze and Guattari write:
What is the revolutionary path? Is there one?—To withdraw from the world market…? Or might it be to go in the opposite direction? To go still further, that is, in the movement of the market, of decoding and deterritorialization? For perhaps the flows are not yet deterritorialized enough, not decoded enough… Not to withdraw from the process, but to go further, to ‘accelerate the process,’ as Nietzsche put it: in this matter, the truth is that we haven’t seen anything yet. (239-240)
Such an answer, it seems, requires out innovating the innovators. Oppositional practices would seek to push capitalism to its extreme in order to burst its limits. Yet, pulling back from such an answer I instead embrace the Brechtian idea that innovations can become renovations—that is, changes that are not changes at all but perpetuate dominant social relations, becoming a fluid stream of decoded flows that are easily recoded and channelled back into the mainstream. What is needed then, I argue, is a continued interrogation of innovation while also recoding these decoded flows back into more solid formations that can resist the onslaught of total innovation—a solution that Deleuze and Guattari would have “opposed.”
In chapter three I turn to analyze issues regarding gender and video games while focusing on three main goals. First, I return to flow in relation to video games, in this case analyzing time management games as an emergent women’s genre through a close reading of Diner Dash and the game’s protagonist Flo—an obvious nod to Csikszentmihalyi’s theories. Investigating scholarship concerning daytime television’s relationship to the work of women in the home I analyze Diner Dash‘s relationship to women’s time in contemporary, everyday life, exposing how the casual game form is designed to smooth over, recode, and manage the fragmented and interrupted temporalities of women’s work and leisure. Here flow is less about a dominant model of the game’s structure, and more about the relationship of “time management” games to the social function of contemporary, gendered time experience. Second, casual games are commonly seen as simple games differentiated from more complex, “hardcore,” and masculine offerings in the mainstream game world. The emergence of the casual games market has created a palpable anxiety in the game world, largely expressed in terms of the feminization of gaming culture which threatens male, mainstream gamers. I interpret this process of feminization as the reemergence of a modern, gendered discourse which has traditionally feminized mass culture; such a reappearance suggests that the discourse of aesthetic modernism (in terms of a divide between high and low culture) has hardly disappeared, remaining entrenched in gendered divisions which, I argue, are a significant driving force of modernist dynamics in general. Finally, I also demonstrate the interconnectedness of representation (both narrative and visual) and gameplay dynamics, intervening within the field of games studies where representation is often undervalued as a meaningful object of game analysis. Such a devaluation is often expressed within traditional gendered binaries where the feminine is placed in the position of the insignificant (e.g. representation) while the masculine is associated with the essential (e.g. formal rule systems, etc.)—a similar binary expressed in the casual vs. hardcore divide.
In the chapter four I turn to the representation of clouds in video games. The cloud is a figure of temporal and spatial mutation that resists closure, capture, and delineation. That is, clouds are seemingly that which cannot be coded. Moreover, in discourses of modernity clouds often stand as a fluid nexus of transcendent, imaginative resistance to the static and immanent iron cage of modern bureaucracy and rationalization. Clouds are an escape, an outside space of fantasy forms and projections, an imaginative source of freedom; in many ways they act as forms that resist systematization and thus become important for investigating moments when systems break down. Since clouds are forms which reveal the limitations of a representational system, they also provide insight into the materiality of a medium’s constraints. Analyzing clouds as they appear within many games that I discuss within this dissertation—while also examining other games and artworks that make intriguing uses of clouds—I focus on the cloud as a marker of escape, attempting to investigate the space of video games and how such an escape is foreclosed and recoded. Comparing the cloud in video games to the theorization of clouds in the history of painting by Hubert Damisch and John Ruskin, I attempt to theorize the continuation of traditional perspectival codes and visual realism within the 3D space of video games while also describing a nascent, emergent system of interactive space and realism in video games which is augmenting the realism of perspectival space. As a form that touches the limits of a medium’s ability to frame reality, the cloud helps to disclose the relationship between a medium and the reality it strives to capture.