In this episode we speak with Rob Gallagher about “digital subjectivity”. Rob was recently a postdoctoral researcher with the European Research Council-funded Ego Media Project at Kings College London, and is now a teaching fellow in literature and the digital at Royal Holloway, University of London. His book Videogames, Identity and Digital Subjectivity was published by Routledge in 2017.
As a joint venture, “Keywords in Play” expands Critical Distance’s commitment to innovative writing and research about games while using a conversational style to bring new and diverse scholarship to a wider audience.
Our goal is to highlight the work of graduate students, early career researchers and scholars from under-represented groups, backgrounds and regions. The primary inspiration comes from sociologist and critic Raymond Williams. In the Preface to his book Keywords: a vocabulary of culture and society, Williams envisaged not a static dictionary but an interactive document, encouraging readers to populate blank pages with their own keywords, notes and amendments. “Keywords in Play” follows Williams in affirming that “The significance is in the selection”, and works towards diversifying the critical terms with which we describe games and game culture.
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Production Team: Darshana Jayemanne, Zoyander Street, Emilie Reed.
Audio Direction and Engineering: Damian Stewart
Double Bass: Aaron Stewart
Darshana: You’re listening to Keywords in Play, an interview series about games research supported by Critical Distance and the Digital Games Research Association.
As a joint venture Keywords in Play expands Critical Distance’s commitment to innovative writing and research about games while using a conversational style to bring new and diverse scholarship to a wider audience.
Emilie: In this episode, we’re talking with Rob Gallagher who is a teaching fellow in literature and the digital at Royal Holloway University of London. His most recent book is ‘Videogames, Identity and Digital Subjectivity’ and now Rob will introduce himself and his work.
Rob: Hi, thanks, Emilie. Yes, my name is Rob and I am now based at Royal Holloway but until very recently I was working as a postdoctoral researcher at Kings College London on a European Research Council project called ‘Ego-Media’ and the remit was to investigate the impact of digital technologies on how people present themselves, narrate their life stories and understand their identities. And a lot of my work focussed on the networked voice and on avatars and on gaming. Which is obviously the topic of my book, so I’ve been thinking a lot about that intersection of identity, life stories and digital games.
Emilie: The topic that we’re going with for this episode is discussing interface games. So to start off, this is something that you’ve written about and how would you define interface games and how do they relate to your larger research area of digital self-presentation and life writing?
Rob: In terms of a definition I guess I would say interface games or ‘desk-top sims’, which is another tag that people sometimes use, kind of mimic the look and to some extent the features and functions of digital platforms and devices and this is obviously something that games are uniquely suited to doing. A novel or a film could kind of represent a social network or a digital device but games can kind of incorporate these scaled-down simulations of them into the game world. And it terms of how that relates to self-representation and life writing, some of the games I’ve looked at are very directly autobiographical, so a game like Nina Freeman’s ‘Cibele’ sort of recounts a particular period in her life by kind of giving you access to a recreation of her desktop from the time and it incorporates photos and chat logs and other files from that era into the game. In other cases, it’s not so directly about recounting a particular person’s life story but it might be that the game is foregrounding and asking us to think about ways that digital platforms kind of frame our identities and our relationships and our interactions. So another game that I looked at in my book was Mitu Khandaker’s ‘Red Shirt’, which kind of satirises the way that Facebook gamifies our relationships and introduces this element of competition and calculation into things like romance and friendship. I suppose another way or a different spin on the idea of the interface game would be to say that the player’s device assumes the role of the player character’s or the protagonist’s device. So like in ‘A Normal Lost Phone’ by Accidental Queens, the phone that we’re playing the game on kind of stands in for the phone that in the game’s fiction the player character has found. So I guess I would define the them that way and say that they’ve become a really interesting vehicle for thinking about questions of privacy and consent, especially in cases where we’re playing the games on the same devices that we use to kind of conduct online banking or buy things or do work or interact with people.
Emilie: I think that’s kind of, like kind of demonstrates why these sorts of games have been getting a lot of attention recently I think. Because these are also a lot of issues that are very much in the news. Like about issues of privacy and consent when it comes to these major online platforms and stuff and what’s going on there. So I guess, we can say that this, this genre of game has been a little bit popular or maybe even had like a resurgence recently and even won some awards. Like I’m thinking of the work of Sam Barlow who did ‘Her Story’ which is kind of based on the older, like 1995 style Windows desktop and his newer one ‘Telling Lies’ which is much more kind of contemporary bits of media. And also Natalie Lawhead’s work ‘Everything is going to be OK’ most recently and also her electric zine maker project also kind of riff on, you know, the kind of typical desktop looks and kind of make it, you know kind of crazy and abstract. So, I think yeah, these are all really interesting things that kind of have to do with, you know, what people are thinking about and what a concern is. But are you aware of any kind of interesting earlier examples that you’ve come across?
Rob: Yeah so I guess I was writing a lot about games that are ‘Post-Snowden’ in a way and I think ‘Telling Lies’, I haven’t actually played it yet, but I believe that it’s sort of engaging with the national security agency and their kind of mass surveillance. Which is also true of a game like Robert Yang’s ‘Cobra Club’, which kind of starts off as this risqué selfie-simulator, but then there’s this kind of twists that again very much plays on the idea that you’re, you’re sort of playing on this machine that’s also connected online and is sort of doing things with these photos you create in-game that you have given consent for but you might not understand the implications of clicking agree on that. So certainly a lot of of them from this period but there are, there are some kind of interesting slightly earlier titles. I mean, I think Christine Love’s ‘Don’t Take it Personally, Babe’ is from 2011 so it kind of pre-dates Snowden and Cambridge Analytica and a lot of those discussions. But also in terms of Sam Barlow and his work, one game I do talk about in the book is ‘Silent Hill – Shattered Memories’, which he was a designer on and is kind of a remake of the first Silent Hill game from like 1999 that came out ten years later and it’s not necessarily desperately successful on its own terms but it is really interesting for a number of reasons. One of which is that it now ten years later kind of really reads as a precursor to walking sims so-called or story exploration games, in that you’re walking around this town from a first-person perspective and kind of scouring for clues and picking up these objects and them as you search for your daughter. But also, there’s a degree of sort of interface game in there, in that you are equipped with a smartphone that is a way of doing all sorts of things, including sort of picking up messages and registering these spectral presences all over the town through taking photos and listening to voicemails. And it, perhaps most interesting of all, the game attempts to kind of psychologically profile the player as you play. Not dissimilar to what Blast Theory’s ‘Karen’ app did, I guess. It uses one of these kind of five-factor models of personality, which is the sort of thing that Cambridge Analytica also used to, to try and build psychological profiles of social media users and it attempts to kind of reshuffle the game assets and to rejig the storyline according to it’s reading of you. So it’s, it’s really interesting as a quite early attempt to, to kind of think within the confines of what was quite a commercial game, about how games read their players, what kinds of data they can collect and what the implications of that might be and it kind of wraps it all up in a kind of gothic mystery. But yeah, it’s not, not entirely successful. I’m sure there are kind of earlier desktop-sims and interface games and of course games sort of share this genealogy with simulations and training programmes of all sorts. But I guess I’ve mostly looked at ones that are kind of engaging with the implications of smartphones and social media and kind of mid-noughties and beyond kind of culture.
Emilie: Yeah, I mean it is, it is kind of a really contemporary issue especially, you know with regards to like the psychological profiles that maybe you know existing out there on the internet about you that you don’t even know about for advertising and algorithmic curation and all of those sorts of things. But something I found really interesting is that in your research you also connect these games like Christine Love’s ‘Don’t Take it Personal Babe’, which was the first one that you mentioned but also her later stuff like ‘Analogue’ and the ‘Hate Plus’ series, which also kind of involve snooping around in a database of things that you’ve come across and also Fullbright’s ‘Tacoma’, which has a similar concept. These are all games where the player explores a database of writing and media related to several different characters and you kind of connect that to Henry James’ novella ‘The Aspern Papers’, which also involves an archive of a fictional poet’s life. I’m just kind of wondering, what lead you to make that comparison, like what do you think are like the surprising similarities between these works despite how separate they are in time and maybe what’s the most interesting difference as well?
Rob: Right, yeah, great question! I guess, I guess part of the answer is just that my own background is in literature. And like my masters’ work was mainly about late Victorian queer literature, so it’s, it’s a moment when there were also quite a lot of new and emerging technologies, not least the telegraph and the kind of mass media that were making people think about secrecy and scandal and surveillance. It’s also a moment when particularly in the realm of gender and sexuality, the ideas of identity are shifting or up for grabs in some respects. Partly to do with emerging ideas in medicine and psychology but also things like Oscar Wilde’s trial. This kind of scandalous revelation about a homosexual sub-culture in the UK. And James as an author, he’s very much read by, by queer theorists. His work is interested in kind of secrets and in revelation, he destroyed a lot of his own kind of personal archive, partly perhaps people speculated because he didn’t want revelations about his own sexuality to get out. In works like ‘The Aspern Papers’ he’s sort of engaging with a sort of epistolary fictions, so kind of books where there are letters and diaries woven into the plot and also with the gothic. And gets into some interesting kind of ethical grey areas, that I think are sometimes missed in contemporary games dealing with these things. I’ve been quite inspired my Melissa Kagen’s work on what she calls ‘archival adventures’. And she sort of argues that many of these games that we think of as walking sims or as, I think Hannah Wood calls them ‘story exploration games’, we might instead think about as archival adventures. You move around these spaces or these databases, you kind of collect and piece together these different scraps of information from kind of photos and diaries and cassette tapes and you kind of build up a picture of what’s happened in the past. And of course, Fullbright’s games like ‘Gone Home’ and ‘Tacoma’ are incredibly influential and have been incredibly important not least in their positive portrayal of queer characters. But I think they’re often quite celebratory of this idea that all of these old dark secrets need to be brought to light and that telling these stories is always a kind of ethically good necessary act. When in fact I think digging around in the archive raises quite a lot of uncomfortable ethical questions. I think Love’s work may be much better at bringing those questions to light. In ‘Analogue’ she kind of pits these two AI characters against one another. They have very different readings of what has happened and why on this space station that we’re poking around in the databanks of. And she kind of confronts us with the fact that our understanding of how people behave and why, shifts over time and that there’s not necessarily one true uplifting historical narrative that can be brought to light if only we sort of do the necessary digging. So, I think there are still obviously resonances with older work, and with Henry James’ work in particular. But I guess as we move towards a kind of digital world where forms of prediction and calculation, that were impossible in the era of telegraphy takeover there’s also maybe some concerns that maybe don’t apply now.
Emilie: Yeah, that’s really interesting cus I guess in general the, the like interface game and the walking simulator are kind of considered apart or two different genres but I do think you have to be in the same kind of attitude to play them where you are snooping and curious and maybe…
Emilie: Maybe, I dunno the, the interface of the interface game where it is something that is kind of familiar or even like a bit nostalgic to us that makes it a bit more real. So there’s more of like, you kind of get the ethical consideration more, where I feel like in a lot of the kind of more well know walking simulators, your relationship to this information and how it exists in the space is like very abstracted. Like you just kind of come across it so it’s a little innocent in a way. Like ‘whoops!’, you know. So yeah, it’s, it’s interesting to see how the form of the game kind of changes how we engage with these two very similar actions but represented differently spacially.
Rob: Yeah right! And I would argue that ‘Gone Home’, for example, is very much responding to kind of digital ways of collating and displaying information. But it’s doing so by kind of rejecting them and instead trying to place you in this story world where everything is tangible, in ‘Analogue’, it’s there by its absence and obviously ‘Tacoma’ deals with the digital but in quite a similar way.
Emilie: Coming back to the idea of the interface that is presented in these types of games. A lot of them are kind of a bit nostalgic, I guess ‘Her Story’ is probably the strongest example of that, because it really goes out of its way to make it look like a CRT monitor and kind of include all these, you know, bits of Windows 95 style buttons and so on. But a lot of others try to, you know, represent things that are a lot more contemporary or even, you know, kind of futuristic or like speculative like “oh they could potentially make an app like this and this is how it would work and these are kind of the weird things that would happen with collecting data in this way”. So, I guess do you see these games as changing as the way that we relate to technology is always, you know constantly changing?
Rob: That’s a really good question. I think particularly with the kind of more autobiographical games there is often a concern with capturing the look and feel of particular kind of systems and softwares because they are obviously very evocative of a particular time and place. But yeah, you’re right there are other interface games that are kind of more futuristic and more speculative. And in some cases might be helping to fuel the hype for developments like augmented reality, which we’re perpetually told is just around the corner. But also maybe can play this kind of more critical role in helping us to think through the implications of new systems. I think I’m quite interested in general in the way that gaming culture, while it’s obviously very forward-looking in some respects and is always obsessed with the kind of next-generation and with the next upgrade or iteration, is also profoundly nostalgic. In some ways that are just sentimental and retrograde but in some ways that sometimes seem a bit more sinister and reactionary. I guess people like Robert Topinka have talked about there’s a degree of nostalgia in all right politics and aesthetics, and where some of that crosses over with aspects of Cyberpunk and Vaporwave and these kind of engagements with outmoded but at the time futuristic technological aesthetics that allow people to sort of pine for a time before PC culture notionally ruined everything and civil rights ruined everything. But they’re also I suppose more reflexive forms of nostalgia, and I’m drawing there on Svetlana Boym’s distinction between restorative nostalgia and reflexive nostalgia. I think looking back to some of these systems as well as kind of giving people warm and fuzzy feelings of nostalgia, it can be a really potent reminder that not that long ago there were ways of interacting online that were kind of less centralised and more kind of DIY. For example, Nina Freeman’s games are obviously very nostalgic but it is a kind of a window on a different age where learning a bit of HTML was a route to a different experience of the internet and a way of building different kinds of communities.
Emilie: Yeah, for sure. I mean I definitely, like all the time think about how it’s kind of like: oh well, you know we don’t really have blogs we just post on like twitter or other cura-centralised sites. We don’t really have, you know, Aim. We just kind of use these other like web-based services to chat and communicate with people. It’s, it’s really not the same though, there’s, there’s certain things about, you know, the kind of, you know, disconnectedness from everything else that was, an Aim account, it wasn’t something you had to use your real name on, it wasn’t something that was connected to your email address and all your other things. So it’s, it’s interesting to see how these things evolve and kind of condense, you know, certain activities and kind of remove other ones. I guess speaking of all the variety of things, people are coming up with and doing online you kind of also written about other forms of digital self-presentation like ASMR videos. Yah, that’s a little…
Emilie: Crazy [laughs]! I mean, I guess I don’t get it so I don’t understand the videos fully I guess. There’s, there’s a lot of discussion around that and that also has a bit of overlap with, you know, anything kind of involving streaming personalities like ‘Let’s Play’ videos or, you know competitive gaming or gaming spectatorship. I guess to kind of wrap things up, what are some other examples of platforms or tools for this kind of activity that you find especially interesting at this point in time?
Rob: Sure, well I guess to go back to ASMR videos, maybe people won’t even know what that acronym means, but these are videos designed to induce this tingling sensation that certain people apparently experience in response to particular audio/visual triggers including kind of whispered speech. And there’s this whole universe of role-play videos in particular, where performers kind of do these whispered monologues in character as dentists or shop assistants or librarians to try and trigger this. And I really became aware of this while looking at videogame ‘Lets Play’ videos and looking in particular at a kind of subset of ‘Skyrim’ players who role-play as their avatars on youtube, and kind of deliver these commentaries in what is happening in-game in-character. And some of these videos would also be ASMR videos. And I guess I find that culture interesting, I don’t experience ASMR either but not unlike videogames they are kind of a form that’s designed very much to speak to the body and to engage people in a very visceral way. Although I write quite a lot about more narrative-based games, I play a lot of kind of twitchier, more simplistic kind of real-time stuff that doesn’t necessarily deal that much in kind of meaning or symbolism or narrative, it engages you on a different level. And I think that that’s obviously a huge part of streaming in ‘Let’s Play’ and vlogging culture in general. I suppose scholars like Kat Brewster have talked about this whole streamers kind of perform these very affective responses to games. Whether it’s exhilaration or fear or exasperation or or… and they kind of allow communities to have these feelings in common. So, I am really interested in the role of social media in allowing those kinds of cultures to emerge and also the way that platforms kind of push people towards kind of amplifying certain aspects of their performances or allow for the kind of cross-breeding of different genres in ways that are sometimes quite sinister. Cus I guess the metrics drive people to try and double-down on certain traits to turn them into assets. But they have also kind of given birth to these amazing scenes like ‘speedrunning’, which I know you’ve looked at a bit.
Emilie: Mmm, yeah!
Rob: These cultural scenes seem to kind of developed out the petri dish of the internet. Particularly since the growth of sort of metrics and up-votes, and down-votes and algorithmic recommendations and these often slightly opaque ways of just shuttling content around.
Emilie: Yeah, I mean, I guess that about wraps up the amount of time that we have. Do you wanna mention any projects or like the current direction you research is going in right now, just to close off the interview?
Rob: Sure! So I guess my current book project is looking a bit more at this question of gaming and growing up and how games have always been dogged by this idea that maybe they’re for kids but maybe one day they’ll develop into a serious medium. And I’m quite interested in what that might even mean in a culture where things like homeownership and marriage and pensions and having kids are increasingly either unavailable or undesirable for people. So gaming culture in relations to notions of what it means to grow up and to be an adult is kind of my focus right now and I’m trying to get that book together.
Emilie: Alright, well that was all extremely interesting, so thank you very much.
Rob: Thank you. Thanks for such great questions!
Darshana: We hope you have enjoyed this episode of Keywords in Play. For more great ideas around games check out criticaldistance.com. Or take a dive into the DiGRA archives at DiGRA.org