Monday, December 30, 2013

2013 in Shit: Ghosts in the Machine

Ghosts in the Machine is a collection of short stories about video games, edited by Lana Polansky and Brendan Keogh. I dug it. And, surprisingly (to me), it has stuck with me a lot more than I assumed it would initially after reading it; there is, I'll say up front, something slight-feeling about many of the stories, but that is, or at least for me was, a mistaken assumption. The stories work in ways that aren't immediately evident, and in ways that I'm not really sure I'll be able to articulate. I do think that you should check it out, especially if you have some interest in games. It's not really what you're bound to expect, no matter who you are, even if it remains uncomfortably close to being so.

Each story tends to focus on a broadly defined "bug;" from hacking players to avatars played against their characterization to unbalanced mechanics, the broadest shared theme among them is the becoming- (or being-)conscious of the avatar as the motivating event, followed by an exploration of the consequences. These range from the mildly interesting "The Hierarchy of Needs" by Ian Miles Cheong, in which a character in what appears to be The Sims Social narrates his existence within the game, to the very neat "Ten Steps" by co-editor Lana Polansky, where a third person perspective follows a character exploiting a bug to escape the game he's trapped in, before smash-cutting suddenly to the kid who was testing the bug and the manager who has to deal with the team. Perhaps the best of the explicitly becoming-conscious of game characters is Maddy Myers' "Unto Dust," which features a CounterStrike-like game in which the characters have to deal with a hacker.

I'll admit that, on my first reading, the dominance of these sorts of stories -- uncharitably, the "lol what if those characters were actually alive, like, what would that even be like," which, as extrapolated in my young teen brain, ends up somewhere like "what if we're all actually just characters in like, some alien version of EverQuest" -- kind of disappointed me. Familiarity breeds contempt, or whatever they say; not that it was contempt, really, so much as just discomfort, and a desire to see these writers -- some of whose work, especially critical work, I am practically in awe of -- work with something that I could deem "more interesting," to myself at least.

Obviously, that's a super shitty way to approach anything. So I paid some more attention, and noticed the way that none of these stories make that fallacious jump into allegory that I thought was So Fucking Cool when I was 13. So strike one down for projection.

This avoidance is done in one of two ways, generally; either, as in Polansky's story, the smash-cut to the player happens, and the world itself is contextualized. Or, as in Myers', the constructedness of the world is foregrounded. The reason her final sentences work so well is not just that they are pleasingly cadenced, or that they signal an end to the narrative conflict. It's that they signal that end as a return to the constitutive materials, even in an ecstatic register. "I close my eyes and let my body go still. I can almost feel the code. It feels safe. It feels balanced."

There are also stories like Dylan Sabin's "If The Sun Rises Again," where the action isn't so much a bug as the disillusioned player; it largely concerns a character from a game which bored the player enough to not go back, and the imagined consequences for that character. It too, on its surface, seems a little too close, to me, to the sort of shooting the shit that gamers do, and that makes it more difficult for me to reckon with the way its presentation as fiction effects that sort of discourse.

There are small gestures that suggest how this could work; Rollin Bishop's "Slow Leak,"about a small town which slowly dissolves into nothingness, opens with an epigraph from The Odyssey. Alois Wittwer's "A Perfect Apple," set in what is almost certainly a game of Animal Crossing, paints a similar slow desolation of a space with the sort of attention that makes the game itself more of an anchor than the focus.

This isn't the collections only through-line, though. One of the most interesting decisions is putting Ashton Raze's "GDD" at the front of the collection; it's a story about an aspiring game developer who is kind of an enormous shit. The character reads as something of a stereotype of the gamer, especially in relation to the recent developments within game culture which have pushed against the idea of the hegemonic demographic (young white male) to make spaces within games for new narratives and modes of representation. As he wanders around feeling entitled and objectifying women and raging against nothing in particular, he ends up devoting his life to a game, ultimately subsuming himself within the system.

The story doesn't really come into itself until the "review" and "news" clips at the end, which reveal that the game this guy has become is some weird indie platformer that is incomprehensible and awful, and then, in a cyberpunk twist, responsible for the dissemination of a virus.

Rather than foregrounding the diegetic universe of the game, and introducing an epistemological problem to it, as the previously discussed stories do, this story is more interested in the culture that conditions those games and the people who interact with them.

"All Time Heroes" by Matt Riche is another of these, telling the story of some sort of undefined arcade space shooter and one player's quest to reach the top of the all time leaderboard. It's interesting how it takes real developments in arcade machine technology (like networked cabinets) for granted in a way that, even though most readers might not be particularly knowledgeable of them (I'm certainly not), feels less like extrapolation and more like simple familiarity. The story's sorta twist at the end, where the scoreboard has a hard cap at the top that is unacknowledged by the community, works fairly well, and is used mostly to reflect, again, on the player himself.

It's only in Aevee Bee's "Good Losers Are Pretty" that these threads end up tying together in a way that really exhibits their full potential. It's about a character from a fictional fighting game who exits the game and posts on forums and makes the convention circuit. The story itself is sensitive to both the mechanical and communal aspects of this subculture of games in a way that I can intuit, even if I'm basically totally unaware of them, and it treats its less realist aspects with a pleasing lack of awe. That it's a world where a video game character can be featured on a panel at a convention is just kind of there, and its a little weird but not really all that. Which is kind of fantastic.

I do wish I was more able to do justice to just how weird and neat this collection is, but there it is. If you're even remotely interested by the premise, I'd say go for it; and even if it doesn't blow you away, as it didn't me, right off the bat, I'm willing to bet that the ways that it linger are worth exploring.

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