In this episode we speak with Regina Seiwald and Ed Vollans on paratexts and their forthcoming collaboration “Not in the Game: History, Paratext and Games”, soon to be published with De Gruyter.
Regina Seiwald is highly interested in the relationship between literary theory and narratology across the languages. Her focus thereby lies with the Anglo-American and Germanic tradition. In her PhD thesis, she researched metafiction in the postmodern British novel to determine how texts communicate the relationship between fiction and reality. The insights generated have subsequently been applied to video games and digitalisation more generally (also XR/AI/MR), particularly in the context of paratextuality and Cold War narratives.
Ed Vollans’ research interests explore the promotional culture of the entertainment industries, how they promote, market and position themselves within the wider popular sphere. Specifically focusing on film and videogame promotion, his work has explored the emergence of trailers for the games industry, and audience reception of film promotion.
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.
Please consider supporting Critical Distance at https://www.patreon.com/critdistance
Production Team: Darshana Jayemanne, Zoyander Street, Emilie Reed, Bettina Bodi.
Audio Direction and Engineering: Damian Stewart
Double Bass: Aaron Stewart
Transcription: Charly Harbord
Darshana: You’re listening to Keywords in Play, an interview series about game 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.
Bettina: Welcome to Keywords in Play Podcast. Today in the virtual studio with me is Regina Seiwald and Ed Vollans. Welcome to the podcast. Could you please introduce yourself?
Regina: Hi, I am Regina. I’m a lecturer in Modern Languages at the University of Birmingham with a very deep interest in games, and particularly in narrative structures in games and also Cold War narratives.
Ed: And I’m Dr Ed Vollans. I’m a lecturer in Media and Advertising at the University of Leicester, where I run the MA in Media and Advertising. My research primarily focuses on paratext and paratextual promotion across the entertainment industry.
Bettina: Today, we’re going to focus on your recent collaboration, you co-edited a book titled ‘Not in the Game: History, Paratext, and Games’ to be published soon with De Gruyter. What is your elevator pitch for this book?
Ed: The elevator pitch for this book, essentially, is that games are no longer considered a single finite narrative structure. They span a range of different texts. And they span a range of different moments in space and time. We are trying to give students and the next generation of scholars, the tools with which to successfully connect these different texts, essentially in a broader meta-narrative and a broader textual network that enables students and scholars to work in a, work in an environment that already has that basis for further development. So, we’re trying to create a standalone textbook that will enable students to kinda read it and then just jump straight in without having to go back to the basic debate.
So, this is one of the problems that we’ve been having within the field of paratextual studies is that so many of the works start with introducing what a paratext is, and why we should care about paratexts and paratextual relations. And we’ve moved beyond this debate, we’ve moved beyond introducing what Gérard Genette did and how this matters. What essentially, we now need to focus on is where the field is going and how we make sense of that when other fields have had similar debates. And what we’re trying to do is to blend together different debates in a way that provides a clear framework for, for analysis, for scholarship, for discussion. We’re trying to cut out, frankly, all the, the background that people still feel as a necessity, because it isn’t a necessity.
What we’re seeing increasingly is a movement away from analyses of games as standalone texts. And rather we’re seeing work that is now situating games within the critical and creative industries. We’re seeing analysis of games as markers in the cultural landscape; moments in time and space. And if we consider the famous phrase you know, if a tree falls in the woods, does it make a sound, how can sound exist if no one’s around to hear it, then we have to then start to take into account promotional, and industrial surround. We need to move away from solipsistic analysis of games, we need to move away from solipsistic textual analysis more generally. And to start understanding that the, the output that you pay for, the output that you buy; be it a bit of film, or be it a game, or be it a book is one object in a much wider textual network. And that wider textual network is the reason that you bought the book, the reason that you’ve engaged with the game, the reason that you go to the cinema. So, what we’re now trying to do is we’re now trying to bring together from different disciplines, existing debates and research and discourses that have already influenced different strands of study. In film studies, there’s this idea that you have to now take into account conditions of production. So, a film that was released in 2000, might have been on the books right the way back for two, three years prior and might be influenced by the socio-political implications of the world around it and then not the world around it as, as the movie is released. The same is true with games, and the environment into which a game is released is not the environment in which it was created. What we’re now seeing is more and more scholars, particularly students doing dissertations are now looking and saying, “Okay, I want to look at how this game was marketed, or this game was promoted”, or “I want to look at industry interviews”. And they don’t have an immediate go-to framework for doing so. So, what we hope in the book is through using different case studies and different approaches, we cover as much as we possibly can about games as a wider cultural and textual network. And we offer, in effect, direct guidance for any scholar, any student looking to work in this area, a clear mode of reference and a touchstone, that allows them to bypass a lot of the heavy lifting that scholars like myself, scholars that Regina have had to do.
Bettina: You mentioned students a few times in your answer. So that kind of ties into my next question, who is your target audience? Or why are students your main target audience?
Regina: Students, are our main target audience, because like Ed says, it’s very difficult for students to really find answers about what paratexts are. But let us take a look at the student body. So, we don’t necessarily have that game studies student, right. So, we find game scholars in different departments. So, they might be from history, they might do you know, games design degree, but not necessarily a narrative degree. Or they might be doing something like literature or a language degree. And what we try to do is to synthesize all of those students into one approach. In our practice as lecturers, we have often experienced that students have some idea of what paratexts are, but they mostly get lost in those convoluted and dated ideas, tracing back to Genette, for example. But even, even theories in game studies tend to be a bit convoluted nowadays. So, one of the problems we both saw is that paratext as studies is either done with very theoretical tools in that sense, or in recourse to literature. Now, games are completely different to literature, both in the interactivity and in the ephemerality, which also means that we need to change those theoretical approaches, and we need to redefine and actually invent our own tools. This means that we first need to address the kind of text we are dealing with before we can actually talk about its paratexts. And then similar to the diverse notion of text found for games. So, what is the game text? Is it the narrative, for example? Or is it the gameplay, the paratext can also relate to many different aspects of the game. And the paratext can be really various as well. We might find more conventional ones, like say, trailers or posters, we all know those. But we also find more medium-specific ones such as avatar creation, that’s something that’s quite unique to games, and those are paratexts that can be addressed in different frameworks. So essentially, the main aim of our collection is to show students what games as texts are and what kinds of paratext surround them. And individual chapters in the collection do so from very different perspectives, such as unpacking the historical side of theories of paratexts, addressing how history is a paratext to games, and how paratexts themselves create game history. And all this is done through looking at case studies, which hopefully help the inquisitive student to apply their theoretical framework devised in each chapter to their own research. And I think a key point of our collection is that our contributors are from different fields themselves. So, we have historians, we have game designers who really worked in practice, we have people in digital humanities, my background is literature. So, we all share an interest in paratextuality in games, but from really various perspectives. And that’s what we want to communicate to the student reader.
Bettina: So, as you already have said, Regina, the word paratext has been understood in a lot of different ways in their ontology and then gained further meaning since then in the various disciplines, but it has been adopted to especially in digital games or digital media and analogue games as well in recent years. So, what do you mean by paratext? And how does it differ from for example, something like transmedia?
Regina: So, I think that this is essentially the main question of our collection and one which we seek to answer from many different perspectives. At the same time, it’s also very important to us that we do not lay any claim to finite definitions, you know, that kind of authoritative prepositions any critical discourse should try to avoid. Games and gaming are constantly changing and evolving and new paratexts are added with each new advancement. So, think about VR, for example. So, since we have the introduction of VR, we have completely new paratexts; that’s really exciting. It’s something new every day basically.
So, any aesthetic definition of paratext would be pointless because the medium changes too quickly. The theory that Genette developed for the Codex book medium had a much longer shelf life so to speak, because literature in its you know, in its convention about book form didn’t change as quickly. But even if we apply those theories to today’s literature, it doesn’t really work anymore. We run into problems; think about eBooks, we don’t really have the traditional book feeling, the material book if we have an eBook. And now we need new definitions of paratext in literature. So, what we and all our contributors share is a mutual understanding that paratext does not denote a kind of textual category or some kind of genre, but a textual characteristic. So, this perspective means that something can be paratextual, but it can also be textual. Say, for example, look at the game P.T. originally, it was designed as a playable teaser for the forthcoming Silent Hills game. But Silence Hill, Silent Hills got scrapped, and we ended up with a paratext without the text, actually. So, P.T. was already out in public, people played it, people loved it. And what happened was that fans talked about it. So, there are online forums where people share their gameplay experience. They share screenshots, they share any other fan-made artifacts, like fan bits, drawings, diaries, anything, all of those elements are paratexts. So, what happened here is that we have something that was originally conceived as a paratext, it lost its text, or it never had a text, and it became a text itself. So, what we can already see here is that the notion of paratext is not something that defines a genre. But it says, what a text can be, what it can have, or what it cannot have. It’s also something that a text can win or lose. Now, in that paratext differ from transmedia content, which we understand as the relationship between two texts. When a game is made into a film or series, for example, it moves into a new medium and a new textual category, it still displays a strong paratextual relationship to the original genre. But it is also text in itself, which can be surrounded by its own set of paratexts. So, this idea of paratext as a textual characteristic underpins our project and something we all share.
Bettina: Thank you. Ed, you were nodding very enthusiastically. Do you have anything to add to that question or Regina’s answer?
Ed: Regina and I have battled out our notion of what is a paratext, quite famously, actually, and there are bars, we no longer allowed in because our violence got so great. I mean, I come from the school of thought, which is largely influenced by Nick Couldry. In that paratexts are a group of texts, group of things, group of objects linked together by what the reader, the user, the consumer, the audience, consider to be a discrete and unified whole. And this kind of comes back to this issue I said earlier about if a tree falls in the woods, if something is advertised, then we are logically engaging with a, an idea of the text, an idea of the object, before we actually got our hands on the object, whatever that object may be. Nobody would suggest that, you know, a trailer or a video game, trailer or a poster is a game in its own right. But we all acknowledge that they are connected. You know, something for Red Dead Redemption, for example, poster for Red Dead, is connected with in some way. And it might be the reason that we buy the game, or it might just be something that we recognize as belonging to a group. So, it comes back to these issues of kind of categories and relational situation. But I think, I think part of the problem that paratextual studies has had is that people will get too hung up on trying to classify different relationships, on trying to classify different characteristics of a medium, or of a text. And I think that it’s best in many respects, it’s best to think of a paratextual network as a family, you might be slightly closer to your cousin, but they are not necessarily as close to you biologically as your, your brother or your sister. But that doesn’t change the actual relationships you have with people. And I think that’s a kind of a helpful analogy. When we start thinking about relations between texts because different users will use different things in different ways.
Regina: Isn’t that exactly what makes it unique? That our contributors each come from different fields, and they each bring their own notion of paratext to the discussion, and the chapters speak to each other and really engage in you’ve just mentioned that?
Ed: I mean, you’re absolutely, you’re absolutely right. At this moment, we have content on and obviously it’s a work in progress, but we have content on conventions and conferences, on industry notes, on trailers, on what else, what else do we have, help me out here? We have flyers and promotional materials for industry training events. We have them different sections and what we hope from, from anyone reading these case studies is that they can see the paratext the best approximates their own study. And they can borrow from that and use that as a kind of a framework, even if they’re saying “so and so did it wrong”, “so and so does it I don’t agree with it”, because it’s academia. And we can’t agree, we are, academia is built upon discourse and debate. If we all start to agree, we actually lose momentum, we need to kind of ask these questions why. So, part of our hope is that we’ll put forward enough case studies that scholars will be able to use them as, as, as I say a touchstone, and agree or disagree as they see fit, and thus further the field in their own way. And in doing so, from different approaches, we’ve got colleagues who work in games, we’ve got colleagues who work in history, we’ve got colleagues who work in film and creative industries, these different fields all coming together on a kind of a, in a somewhat abstract manner. And I hope no one will take offence at this. But we’ve grouped these people from different backgrounds and different discourses with different debates, and different methodologies and different ways of engaging with something. And they don’t always add up, what chapter one will do will be different from chapter three, will be directly opposed to Chapter Four to chapter five. We need this debate, we need these different approaches because if we’ve learned anything from the past couple of years is that we need to be flexible in how we access things, we need to be flexible in how we collect data, we need to be flexible in how we approach certain topics because that is part of the methodological challenge. It’s all too easy to go and find an archive where everything is pre-done, pre-ready, and, and there for us. Now, we’re, we’re in the moment whereby much of our, many of our paratexts are not available, we have to build our own archives, they are ephemeral, they are disappearing, they are not something that is regularly archived. And this brings us I think, nicely to the key themes of the topic, this idea of history. Because what we have is we have a moment whereby paratexts represent a snapshot if you will, of any given text in any given moment, as part of any given set of discussions and set of events. You know, and we see this, we see this all the time, something, something major will happen, things will get removed, because you can’t put that in the, in the book, the film, the video game. You can’t do this now, because it’s not culturally appropriate. Things have changed, people die. All of this kind of stuff means that what we have then, are sort of breadcrumbs if you will, breadcrumbs to a house that maybe never was, breadcrumbs to a house that was half-built, that is built. Students are Hansel and Gretel in this in this metaphor, I quite like it, to be honest. What we have, though, is evidence of a history. And that history may be hidden from us, we may not realize the significance of something. But we do, in fact, have a history of something. And this kind of brings back to the idea of Linda Hutcheon, the idea of history as metafiction the idea that we are bringing together different texts and different objects to build a discourse, not unlike an edited collection.
Bettina: There is a bit in your introduction or the draft that I have seen, which talks about how it seems both logical and yet problematic to claim that all historians are to some extent scholars of paratexts. So, can you tell us a bit more about why you decided to focus specifically on history and paratext, paratext as history etc? What is the connection there that you ask the contributing scholars to reflect on?
Ed: So, there’s, there’s two strands to this to this question. And I’m pleased that you asked that, Betti. The first half is that I just really wanted to annoy historians. Second point is that everybody, everybody is a paratext scholar. Of course, if you ask the sociologists in my department, they will tell you, tell everybody, all media scholars are sociology scholars and around we all move, the philosophy scholars say that all sociology scholars are in fact philosophy scholars and work around this way. Essentially what we have is a couple of competing notions. And I make no claims to being a historian. I leave that to my learned colleagues. But what we have is the opportunity that paratexts represent. So, paratexts, by definition, are connected to a central text. That central text as Regina said, may or may not still exist. And we see this all the time. When you take a game, particularly the game that is on a disc or something, you buy the disc, which has code on it and put it into a, into a machine, and then it becomes the game. Without the machine, without this assemblage, you just have a disc. And you don’t actually have a game, what you have is the potential for a game. So, the very notion of buying something is itself to buy sort of a range of texts that point to different stages of its history, you know, that, a game is, is only really a game (and I appreciate this is debated) when it’s being played, the act of play, and I can hear now scholars running to their desks to write the angry emails, that’s okay. That’s okay, join the queue. But when we think about the idea of a text as being not just a single game, but an assemblage of different texts, we’re talking implicitly about moments in time, in history. Now, Linda Hutcheon put forward the idea that history is essentially a discourse around an event. And if we take kind of the almost ‘Back to the Future’ paradox, again, I’m not a historian, and I can’t pretend to be, if we take this ‘Back to the Future’ paradox, this idea that what happens in the past is immediately ephemeral. And what you have then are, are sort of ripples in a pool or events that are impacted by an event in the past, everything becomes a paratext. I don’t know what happened at the Battle of Hastings, I know what other people have said of the Battle of Hastings. And that’s based on what’s been found on the fields in the Battle of Hastings or that’s based on what other people have said about the Battle of Hastings, they put together a meta-narrative made out of wait for it… Paratext!
Text itself is the historical event and the paratexts is the evidence that we have. And this is, if you think of it this way, this is how we can, we find that moments in historical debates change. Oh this didn’t happen, we’re now moving away from this, the historiography is changing. So, in part, we wanted to find a way to unify all of our different studies of paratexts. Because pitching a book that is entirely about paratexts, when you’re trying to help kickstart the field isn’t going to sell to a publisher, essentially, we have to kind of find a way that is the most accessible. And the most accessible way to link these different cases is through history. Because every paratext is, as I say, a finite snapshot, a crystalline image, if you will, a moment in time, and charting these paratexts is implicitly to chart the history of a particular text. And so, by moving away from a single text into a range of different texts that are created at different times, we are implicitly studying history. So, we’ve organized the book with sort of a history as paratext and paratext as history approach. So, the first part of the book, explores historical games, explores the nature of history as a discourse. It explores the idea that history itself is combined at different moments in time, etc. And kind of indicated that these moments of times are sort of indicated with different forms of evidence. And then we shift into case studies that are explicitly not historical, they are paratextual. But they are all implicitly looking at history, that all implicitly building a discourse about something that is fundamentally ephemeral. The act of play, a game, a moment in time, a training program, a conference, because nine times out of ten, when a student is looking to study something, the, the event, the thing that they are studying has been and gone.
Regina: What really interests us here is the dual nature of the relationship between history and paratext, and also paratext as history. So, paratext not only impact games as artifacts, but also our experience of that with them in history. So, like Ed said, we will find all those paratexts, all those elements that tell us something about the history of games, how it was made, how it was created, who wrote its story, who designed its characters, how was it promoted, etc? But what we also find interesting is how did gamers, how did players experience them? In what situations did they play the game? Were they happy, were they sad, were they anxious? How did it help them, for example? So, there’s so many interesting forums out there where players really shared experiences, especially during lockdown, you know. I mean, Animal Crossing became so famous because people just met up there and the shared experience, they, they somehow avoided being lonely. And all of those stories that came out of that experience are essentially paratext as well. And that’s how we, as players, can write our history. We can tell the world how we experience a game and how it’s shaped us, how it helped us, how it opened to completely new worlds to us. And so, we create our own history through talking about those games. So, the kind of history we look at, it’s not a history necessarily concerned with historical effects. So, we do that as well. If we look at historical games in the sense of games that view actual historical events and how they rework it, that’s one side of the project to look at. But the other one is a really personalized one. Subjectivised history, if you would like to call it that. So, something that’s not concerned with, you know, the disorder, we find the artefacts, we can touch something that tells us about the truth of what has happened, something we personally value as, as valid, as being there. And something we want to keep alive as well, with games to problem is that a lot of them are in a digital space. And there is always that idea of it’s not tangible, we can’t touch the game world the same, in the same degree as we can touch a book, for example. So, we need to create a few things that really say to the future generations, this game existed, it may be, you know, the Lara Croft figurine or something like that, or may be the ‘Pip Boy’, if you want to connect Fallout to something like that. So, all those artefacts, create history for games, through our experience. And that’s, I think something that’s quite new to the idea, because it’s, it’s something that’s so unique to video games, that we can actually create our own history. But we in that edited collection really want to draw on that and really want to make sure that the process of creating that history from the perspective of the players and not sort of researchers is kept in our memories.
Bettina: You both co-authored the introduction to this volume and also have a chapter each. So how does this idea of paratext and slash or slash as history relevant to your own work?
Regina: Yeah, I think since we both come from different fields, we also see paratext differently. We have had more than one heated debate about what is and what isn’t a paratext. If there’s any value in Genette’s theory? Yes, there is! Ed’s shaking his head! If we can even talk about a game as a text, or if it’s just made up of many paratexts. So that’s actually quite philosophical question here. My personal background is in a very conventional grounding of narratology. So, during my undergrad and postgrad years as a student of German Philology, English and Linguistics in Austria, I mainly engaged with a quiet formalist approach to textural studies. I then did my PhD and a three-year postdoc in the UK, which really opened up a new perspective to the kind of research I was doing, when I also really kept my own forming years. So, I combined the quite taxonomic approach, a formalist approach with this new, I would say, more liberal approach to how you conduct research and moving from literature to games also shaped my critical thinking. My research interests still largely lies with the terminological history and the diachronic study of games paratext. But I have certainly moved away from taxonomies and stringent definitions, very much to Ed’s pleasure I think sometimes, but I think it creates a lot of interesting discussions between us, which is just what critical discourse is about and what academic debates are about.
Ed: My background was in films and film promotion, and my PhD thesis, available at all good PDF hosting sites, explores the emergence of new forms of trailer; so for books, for
theatre and video games. And one of the things that I found was that because of the nature of, the commercialized nature of much of the entertainment industries, trailers acted as a, audio-visual quote-unquote free sample, of course, they are not a free sample, but they act in that way, the best approximate the medium of the products on offer, but they change so much. And we are reliant on video hosting sites, we’re reliant on sites that will collect and store them for us because there are no coherent archives of trailer promotion, promotional content for games, specifically. And whilst we can be reliant on other people curating and developing these archives, they’re not going to be done in the same manner as a scholarly archive. So, this is kind of my perspective here is that I ideally would like to indoctrinate every paratext scholar into paratext scholar-cum-archivist whereby we actually start to look at the implications of archiving these promotional materials. And this I know, it’s something that you’ve covered with Dr Wright’s work. And actually, her chapter in this in this book is pushing forwards the idea of that process of how do you build an archive when you don’t know that you’re necessarily building an archive, which is really quite fascinating. So, from my own perspective, I’m, I’m very keen to see paratexts scholars work together. Within a, dare I say it, formalized methodological framework, where we can start to collect some, if not all of the paratextual materials that form the history of a particular project or a particular text. And that for me, the trailers, the audio-visual promotion is, by the way, the most important thing that we can look at. And there are other contributors to the to the book that will, you know, take issue for yet another bar fight. But that’s okay, because we need this debate. But for me that the launch information that, the audio-visual recordings of conventions, of announcement trailers, teaser trailers, all these kinds of things are really important because they give us not only an idea of what the industry thinks it’s selling, but an idea of to whom they think they are selling, to whom they think they are speaking, and how they want to be seen. And this is, I’m paraphrasing Lisa Kernan, here, I can’t kind of take the take the full credit. But what we have then is an audio-visual text, which is itself a construct and a performance, and yet a form of persuasion. And so, my own chapter in this, in this contribution is fundamentally looking at these moments of kind of very specific history in the campaign of a particular project, of a particular text.
Bettina: Thank you so much to both Regina Seiwald, and Ed Vollans for this super insightful conversation. Where can people find out more about your work?
Ed: We have both through, through chance, I think we both got contributions to a recent publication, also with the greater paratextualising games. My own chapter now is exploring the shift in advertising rhetoric as we go through the lifecycle of a game platform. So, how we moved from introducing the platform and then introducing games for that platform specifically, and looking at the kind of the tension between the two aesthetic modes within that. That’s where you can find kind of the precursor, I guess you could say, to this, to this book, and our, our forthcoming work is coming out. Again, it’s on the website, as part of the Digital Humanities series. There is a link somewhere, there’s a website link, which has lots of numbers in it that I can’t recite. So that’s, that’s primarily where you can find most of our, most of my work, at least.
Regina: Yes, my chapter in that collection is about the ludic nature of paratext themselves. So how paratext can actually be quite playful so that they reflect our ludic engagement with the game in the paratext themselves. So that’s a really interesting collection and many of our esteemed colleagues have contributed to that collection as well, which can be found in or published by Transcript. So, it’s a free downloadable open-source document, so head over to the Transcript site and get your copy. Really worth a read.
Bettina: Right once again, thank you, Regina Seiwald and Ed Vollans for coming to the Keywords in Play podcast and looking forward to your co-edited book.
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.