Defenders of Video Game Analysis–Assemble!

In preparation for a chapter in my James Bond book on the franchise’s analog and video games, I’ve been reading up on something called video game analysis. As readers of this blog know only too well, I am an advocate of close–indeed, very close–analysis of film and media. (I’ve tried my hand it at with TV, movies and theme park rides.) So it was with great interest that I came upon Sarah Stang’s recent article, “Too Close, Too Intimate, and Too Vulnerable: Close Reading Methodology and the Future of Feminist Game Studies.” (For those interested in the close analysis of analog games, I would recommend David Jara’s essay, “A Closer Look at the (Rule-)Books: Framings and Paratexts in Tabletop Role-Playing Games.)

Stang puts forward a feminist defense of close reading in game studies, and I like it a lot. Arguments like this one are both useful and necessary. Yet as a defender of close reading–or what I’d call close analysis–I also find the argument incomplete in some ways. Perhaps there’s a way to bridge our positions.

Why is Stang’s argument useful and necessary? Because she stresses the importance of “looking closely” at games in ways that get beyond the widespread view that games are “just for fun” and don’t warrant thinking “too deeply” about their meaning. This isn’t just a view; it’s become a movement that muzzles. Indeed, there continues to be a backlash against those who employ feminist, queer, crip, or critical race theory to read games and their experiences–a backlash often led by “white, heterosexual, abled men” (p. 234). In short, close reading “attuned to questions of social justice, representation, and identity politics is still fraught” (p. 233). Stang recommends a few solutions, including publishing close readings for the general public, and “more collaboration between scholars approaching the same issues and applying the same lenses but with different methodologies” (p. 236). Hear, hear!

Why is Stang’s argument incomplete? Anyone I know who is committed to close reading and/or analysis would stand side-by-side Stang in “the fight for the right to analyze video games closely” (Ruberg, cited on p. 234). And yet, there are some of us who “approach the same issue” with a “different methodology,” one that does not assume, as Stang does, that “close reading is subjective” (p. 233).

The notion that close reading/analysis is limited to subjective responses is based on a simplified, binary epistemology (the well-known subjective/objective couplet). I understand why Stang takes this position. She wishes to expose problematic claims to objectivity. This is the position of Ludologists who target feminist readings as “made up” (p. 232).

Fig. 1. Super Mario Bros. (1985).

But there’s another way to think about analytical writing/reading. Close analysis can be intersubjective, that is, it can aspire (even if it ultimately fails) to understand responses that individual gamers share, across contexts, cultures, and identities, such as those involved in narrative comprehension. Is Mario trying to save Princess Peach? If many/most/all gamers who play the game understand this, by what processes do the game and its gamers interact to construct this meaning?

Constructivist narratology (i.e., neoformalism, poetics, cognitivism) as applied to games proposes the possibility of intersubjective analysis–or looking closely at how games foster shared comprehension of their narratives.

What’s crucial is that constructivism doesn’t look solely for “depth”–for “meanings embedded or encoded in mediated content” (p. 231). This is what Stang places at the center of feminist game analysis. Constructivism posits that surface meaning and other effects are often ignored by common sense understandings of media, too. I am fond of Susan Sontag’s call, in “Against Interpretation,” for a criticism that looks at a work for “what it is.” So we need to analyze all of “what it is”: explicit meaning (narrative comprehension), implicit meaning (themes, “encoded” messages), referential meaning, reflectionist meaning, and types of effect that point beyond meaning, like aesthetic patterns and elemental perceptual cues. (I model the last approach to criticism here.) As such, constructivism attempts to examine the full range of responses we have to games, not just “the messages they communicate to audiences” (p. 235).

A constructivist close analysis and a feminist close reading might be partners in defending close reading/analysis in this respect. We could postpone our debates over distinct (and perhaps irreconcilable) epistemological assumptions and look for a tactical collaboration. For instance, constructivist analyses could be viewed as a resource for feminist scholars, critics, and gamers in their efforts to uncover how games work on us cognitively and affectively (or are designed to work this way, a series of operations which are by no means understood, and continue to change as games change). If read as a resource, these findings could potentially open up new feminist readings, becoming the object of new subjectivities.

I am sure that Stang would recommend that constructivists learn from feminist close readings, too. Constructivism’s intersubjective assumptions are quite flexible, even if they are often inflexibly deployed. So, constructivists could modify their analytical tools, positing different kinds of hypothetical gamer who come to games with a variety of distinct assumptions, and thus “make meaning” differently.

Anyhow, one or two things to ponder! In one way or another, close readers, it’s time to–assemble!