Game Analysis: Text and Paratexts, and the Prehistory of Digital Games
Last Updated: February 14, 2020
Note: The slides for this lecture are available here. Square Brackets  indicate slide transitions.
The purpose of this study is to introduce you to game media industries and develop your proficiencies in textual analysis. So in this lecture we are going to begin with looking at what textual analysis is and understand the relationship between texts and paratexts. We are going to start looking at the process of analysing game media texts and finish with a brief look at the conditions under which the games industry emerged in the 20th century.
I will be drawing on a range of texts throughout this course, but the one we will come back to the most is Clara Fernandez-Vara’s Introduction to Game Analysis.
You should follow Clara on Twitter (@clarafv) and buy the second edition of her book available now.
The idea of a text is typically associated with the written word and textual analysis is usually related to the interrogation of reading and writing.
Textual analysis is, therefore, most often thought of as being limited to English literature and the study of the novels and poems.
In the book Mythologies, published in 1957, the French philosopher Roland Barthes, shows how the term ‘text’ can be applied to multiple forms of human communication and expression: [from a drink can, to a sports match or parade].
Barthes exposed systems of signs and signification in cultural products, not just novels and books, but soap packets and other everyday objects that can be interpreted in terms of the ideologies involved in the construction of their meaning.
Textual analysis, argued Barthes, means interrogating the interests of powerful social groups – the petite bourgeois – and there use of myths.
Myths are no longer purely timeless and universal, according to Barthes, myths are repacked as specific instances of ideology, a system of belief’s embedded in otherwise empty messages that draw the truth out of history and denying cultural objects and ideas from their appropriate time and place.
[“Myth is constituted by the loss of historical quality of things: in it things lose the memory that they were once made.” ]
Barthes’ critique of myth was an important contribution to textual analysis because it invites us to consider the types of meaning embedded in the semiotics of all forms of communication and the process through which new meanings are made from things already existing.
Whenever we actively produce an interpretation of something – like a video game – and suggest a possible meaning we transform it into a [text].
By definition then, a text is something we make meaning from.
[McKee Textual Analysis]
In the 2003 book Textual Analysis: A Beginner’s Guide, Alan McKee describes textual analysis as a way of understanding how we make sense of the world.
Textual analysis is a data-gathering process about the meaning of a text, conducted through informed [interpretation].
We interpret texts by examining the ways in which particular cultures inform the way we make sense of them. This includes seeing the variety of ways it is possible to interpret reality and be aware of the limitations and advantages of our personal sense-making abilities and processes.
Different methodologies of textual analysis produce different kinds of understandings: for example, a [survey] or responses provides a very different range and type of answers to a [focus group], an [in-depth] interview, or a [data analytics] look at player actions in a console game.
When analysing a text we have to take into account the way we make meaning of a text and the way others might make meaning of a text.
Interpreting a text there involves considering the different values that other cultures ascribe to the text at various levels and remembering that value judgments are not natural or universal, they are cultural and social.
There are many methodologies for examining the meaning-making practices of different texts in different cultures. Two prominent approaches that I want to focus on going forward are known as [structuralism and post-structuralism].
[Structuralists] argue that beneath the cultural veneer of a difference there is an underlying system or structure of meaning-making that is fundamentally the same for everyone.
Structuralism – from the name, is interested in the common structure and connections between texts and considers the overlapping patterns in their designs with attention to the formal elements such as setting, controls and interfaces, perspective, sound, graphics, and aesthetics.
The structuralist approach builds on the foundation of the theory established by anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss who provided a system for examining the commonalities across different cultures and societies.
Alternatively [Post-structuralists] argue that people from different cultures have differences that change the way that they make meaning in different ways.
With post-structuralism the focus is on the processes of sense-making that occurs while playing by concentrating on the context in which it is played; the text itself recedes and the analysis attends to the way it may be understood by a range of different audiences.
Scholars like Michel Foucault, Jaques Derrida and Julia Kristeva helped turn our attention to the different ways texts may be read in different situations.
Performing textual analysis is an attempt to [gather information] about sense-making practices. Cultural Science Professor John Hartley, describes this process as ‘forensic science’ because it involves sifting through the evidence to make an informed guess about what happened:
“The material reality [of texts] allows for the recovery and critical interrogation of discursive politics in an “empirical” form; [texts] are neither scientific data nor historical documents but are, literally forensic evidence’ (Hartley, 1992: 29, cited in McKee 2003: 15).
We look for clues, gather evidence and present our argument, but most importantly, there is no definitive interpretation; only substantive but subjective interpretations.
Through textual analysis, we seek to understand the ways in which the form of representation takes place, the assumptions behind them and the things they reveal about the world.
Aesthetic judgment about books, music, television, film and games is a form of social mobility, described by French sociologist and philosopher, Pierre Bourdieu, as [cultural capital]. This involves knowing what others regards as good and bad texts for cultural purposes, not necessarily about capital value such as the worth of a pairing, but rather the subject claims about what makes it a masterpiece.
[Political Economy] approaches to textual analysis insist that [legislation], [industries] and [economics] are the material ‘reality’ of culture. Such approaches as often described as Marxist, because they see the relation to the means of production in culture as a basic material reality; that is, who owns the means of production control what can be made and what they mean.
[Psychoanalytic] approaches to textual analysis see the formation of the psyche – how our minds work – is formed in early childhood which works as a basic reality that must be taken into account in writing about culture. Based on the work of [Sigmund Freud], psychoanalytic theory examines either the motives of the [characters] within the text, or the working of the [author’s] psychological drives.
Other approaches to textual analysis include [rhetorical criticism], [feminist perspectives], [historical criticism], [genre and narrative criticism], [content analysis], and many other structuralist and post-structuralist methodologies, some of which we are going to unpack further as we proceed through this course.
A paratext according to French literary theorist Gérard Genette’s structuralist approach is a heterogeneous group of practices and discourses that act as thresholds of meaning for authors, publishers and audiences.
Paratexts are the texts that exist in the liminal spaces of texts that help an audience approach a text: book covers, titles, indexes, page numbers, publisher information.
For Genette, a text is simply a sequence of statement endowed with significance and is usually adorned with a range of parataxis.
A blu-ray or DVD, for example, has a case, a cover image, a menu, special features, subtitles, credits as so on.
Paratexts are important because they transform and condition how the audience understands and make sense of the main texts. Game media features a proliferation of parataxis, from manuals and scoreboards to merchandise and collectables, mods, cheats, wikis, let’s play, live streams, subreddits and wikis all work to shape the way the audience engages with the primary text and each is a text in itself that is worthy of close analysis.
Indeed it is the paratextual elements of the video game industry that reinforce its importance as a creative industry.
As Fernandez-Vara notes, the way a game is [branded] is an important paratext informing the way we understand it.
Branding creates expectations because it belongs to a preexisting system of identification.
As with primary texts, there are many layers of interpretation when it comes to the meaning-making practices of gamers and players, but games are [different kind of text], unlike books, film and television – the ‘game’ does not materially exist until it is played.
All media requires some degree of participation, books must be read, movies must be watched, music must be listened to but a game is just software until it is played. This makes players another level of paratext.
One way of analysing game media is to focus on how players engage with the text and consider how they make meaning of the text and there are many places we can observe games engaging in play outside of the primary text and outside of typically understand practices.
Communication professor, Mia Consalvo’s book on cheating considers cheats as a paratext, as just another level at which players engage with the text. Competitive esports, online communities, modding, streaming, reviewing are all paratextual levels of engagement that we can take seriously as part of our game media analysis all of which have different [value systems].
Fernandez-Vara argues that game developers are increasingly aware (and being made aware) of the different values and ideas encoded in the representational features of their games – especially the way in which people are making meaning of stereotypes and tropes.
Mary Flanagan’s textual analysis of the 1976 arcade game, Death Race (mostly inspired by the movie Death Race 2000) examines the way in which players are encouraged to engage in vehicular homicide by awarding points to players deliberately running over pedestrians in block black and white graphics. The game incited a moral panic over video games, which was not the first or last, mass media reaction to video games, and the persistent fear about the ‘impact’ on video games on the moral, psychological and sociological well-being of players.
To quote Fernandez-Vara, “Death Race was interpreted as a message inciting players to violence by people who did not play it; however, the creators and many players through it was a fun game and did not think about the implications of their design decisions.”
As we shall see throughout the course of this subject, moral panics over games periodically repeat as the technologies and design decisions increase in sophistication and depth of player involvement, especially as interaction increases and graphical realism intensifies.
Moral panics demonstrate that games can be interpreted differently depending on the audience, the time and place, and the system of values in which the game is embedded in.
To go back to our categories of textual analysis, Fernandez-Vera suggest that a structural analysis of Death Race would examine its connection to the history of two-player arcade games, such as the onscreen information interface and the mapping of steering controls to the drop-down view, or the formal aesthetic elements that it shares in common with the film.
A post-structuralist approach might explore the broader perspectives, and the differences between people who were upset with the game and those who weren’t, examining what different ways they understood the game and compare those responses to the games designers, publishers, advertisers and players. We might also look at how attitudes towards the game have changed over time and compare similar responses to games being released today.
As part of the subject, you will be engaged in game media analysis, are part of the tutorials, as part of your group work and for your individual digital artefact project, and in each one, it is important to remember that analysis involves going beyond the text, and going beyond interpretation.
It involves [making sense] of the text in your own terms, but also taking into consideration [how others] make sense of a text.
As Fernandez-Vara notes, “… we have a general disposition to make sense of texts”, although we don’t receive formal training, we retain informal training of analysis through social interaction – particularly online – in practices that can be observed in everyday life: conversations after a screening or Twitter and Facebook feed during a screening or a review in a blog or YouTube video.
Human beings are programmed to tangle with stories and analyse texts, it is in our culture and possibly our DNA, a kind of natural curiosity for examining the layers of potential meaning embedded within the signs and symbols of our cultural expression. Not just for our own personal sense of wonder but as part of the process of communication, we assist each other in trying to figure things out.
In this subject we are taking textual analysis to the next level by fostering a systematic approach to discussing, writing and talking about games as a part of a wider variety of ways for understanding them better.
The reading last week, by Melanie Swalwell is an important reminder that game analysis isn’t just about the text and/or the paratext, it can also take into account the player and what player’s make of the text. Don’t overlook the meaning-making processes and outcomes of player engagement with games in your analysis or underestimate the importance of your own play experience in the analysis itself.
This is important and useful to a role in the media and communication industries, because of the value of cultural capital. Pierre Bourdieu defined cultural capital as the kinds of knowledge that allows one to acquire power and status, and part of that process is understanding the way that knowledge itself is constructed. For example, part of the problems associated with the current state of general video game criticism is the degree to which the standard of interrogations of games is dominated by marketing information and branding strategies: often described as hype. However it is important to note that until recently video games were widely considered as a waste of time, and it is platforms like YouTube, Twitch and Patreon as well as organised (and sponsored) eSports competitions that have made it possible to readily convert cultural capital of games into economical capital.
Cultural Capital is not a neutral term, as Fernandez-Vara notes, the valorisation of “hardcore” versus “casual” players means that cultural capital is connected to economic capital: having the time available to play instead of work, and having the latest hardware and video game titles to invest your time in.
There is also an important tension between “winning a lot” and “playing well”.
In [“Well Played 1.0: Video Games, Values and Meaning,”] from 2009, Drew Davidson argues that playing well means enjoying the experience, savouring the pleasure that comes in understanding the game, and more importantly, being able to critique the experience without using the terms that marketing dictates.
That is not to discredit those of you looking to succeed in the marketing and advertising major, quite the opposite.
It means being aware of the consequences of the systems that are deployed in marketing strategies, and being an expert in the meaning-making practices of users engaging with those systems.
Being able to play well, and being able to understand how others understand what is meant by ‘playing well’ means that you need to invest in becoming familiar with the ways games are produced, structured, advertised and received by players.
Playing well means engaging in interpretation as a performative ability
It means being able to break down a game media text ins terns of how participation is structured – not just within the game itself but it’s community of players.
Playing well means being able to appreciate the beauty of the system.
Playing well means having an understanding of the intertextuality involved in the game and its paratext. For a closer look at intertextuality in games take a look at the reading in the Moodle site for week one, Mia Consalvo’s article Zelda 64 and Video Game Fans: A Walkthrough of Games, Intertextuality and Narrative.
The aim of textual analysis is not simply to make subjective value judgments. I’m not very interested in wether you think a game is good or not. The aim of textual analysis is to consider and communicate how you and others make sense of games.
Investing in hierarchies of subjective interpretation is one way of developing cultural capital in games: take for example the subbreddit r/pcmasterace a deeply stupid name for an exceptionally elitist notion of what it means to have cultural capital in games.
For those that don’t know, ‘master race’ is a concept from Nazi ideology, in which the Aryans, or Nordic races, were defined as being superior to non-Aryan races.
A much more positive subreddit is r/patientgamers where the discourse is opposite to the latest and greatest, and celebrates the idea of playing well regardless of when the game was released or what platform it is played on.
So much of what passes for playing well relies heavily on the concept of ‘cannon’.
The term cannon comes from the notion of the ‘Western cannon’ the body of high culture of music, art and literature that is considered to have the status of classic and highly value, which includes Bach and Beethoven, Shakespeare, Jame Joyce, da Vinci and Michelangelo.
A game cannon is a community-approved set of resources that establishes common ground and a series of map points in the landscape of games media texts and pretext that police cultural capital for anyone attempting to participate in the discourse, allowing them to chart the corpus of texts that are IN and texts that are OUT
A cannon, however, limits the sense-making practices of players using elitism and a culturally imposed hierarchy of subjective and industry-dependent categories, such as units sold.
The point I’m making here is that all games are worthy of study; small games, big games, new games, old games, mobile, PC, console games, board games and card games, even forgotten and unknown games. All games are interesting because they contribute to the way we understand the sense-making practices of players, designers, publishers, advertisers, and others.
To end this lecture, I want to start a thread that we are going to follow over the next three weeks and just get you thinking about the prehistory of video games. I’ll take more time to unpack why this is important next week, but I want to firmly establish the idea that the modern video game industry has its roots in parlour games, bowling alleys, snooker halls and perhaps most notable pinball arcades.
Parlour games were extremely popular amongst the upper and middle classes of Great Britain, Europe and the United States during the Victorian Era and into the 20th Century. The increased leisure time of the affluent classes and expansive property meant purpose-built spaces for entertainment called parlours and many popular board games and party games like charades, blind man’s bluff, I-spy and of course card games originate as parlour games.
The idea of a specialised space for games was also a source for popular public entertainment and amusement arcades became increasingly common prior to World War 1. Known as Penny Arcades, these halls were filled with coin-operated devices that were very popular including, shooting galleries, love-testers, mutoscopes (that is early moving picture machines that often featured lewd peep shows) and of course slot machines.
The most notable antecedent to contemporary video games, however, is the pinball machine: a table like glass-topped cabinet that features spring-loaded firing mechanism for launching a metal ball to bound between wooden pins set into the board.
The earliest pinball machines with spring mechanisms were created in Southern Germany and were based on the French game Bagatelle, that is a snooker-like parlour game.
It’s also important to note the simultaneous development of games like Pachinko in Japan.
[Pachinko] machines, according to Fortune magazine currently generate around 30 trillion yet each year, that around US$ 300 Billion.
[Modern pinball] machines originate in the 1930s, with games like Baffle Ball (1931), Ballyhoo (1932) and Worlds Fair Jigsaw (1933) but it was the 1932’s Bally’s Bumper that introduce an electrified coil scoring bumper, automatic ball removal and a score tracker that changes the experience from a game of chance, to a game of skill.
Early pinball machines, like pachinko machines, were essentially gambling machines, which agitated government regulators during the prohibition era in the US who were busy prosecuting gambling outfits. In the 1930s the coin-operated industry shifted from slot machines which were being outlined to other coin-based entertainment like jukeboxes and gumboil dispensers. The Major of New York City described pinball operators as “slimy crews of tinhorns, well dressed and living in luxury on penny thievery”.
Note here the very same moral panic is occurring again over the connection between in-game loot boxes and gambling – stick a pin in that idea we will be back to it later in the course.
The same New York mayor famously outlawed pinball machines, conducted raids and famously made newspaper front pages by smashing pinball machines.
This changed in 1947 when D.Gottieb and Co launched Humpty Dumpty, a new type of machine designed by Harry Mabs, which featured electromechanical flippers – bumpers that were player-controlled that could hit, bounce, and launch the ball.
This invention transformed pinball, and in1948 the pinball manufacturer introduced the more familiar dual flippers independently controlled by the player and a new genre of public gameplay had been created.
Many bans on pinball existed until the 1970s, where is where next week’s lecture comes in.
Please do take a look at the reading for this week. Erkki Huhtamo’s Slots of Fun, Slots of Trouble: An Archaeology of Arcade Gaming, as it provides much more context to the approach to video game analysis that we are going to examine next week.
Thanks for playing!