12 Nov Video games, transmedia, and cultural memory
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag: Freedom Cry (Ubisoft, 2013) Photo: 11 bit studios, 2014/2016
I’ve played video games for as long as I can remember. From the electronic games like Munchman and Astro Wars developed by the British and New Zealand manufacturer Grandstand in the 1970s and 1980s, through my first Atari computer in 1983, to arcade games and consoles like Sony’s PlayStation and Microsoft’s Xbox, games have been a recurring feature of both my personal and professional life.
As well as playing games, along the way I’ve worked in the games industry as a writer and narrative designer for companies including Sony and Rebellion, set up Britain’s first undergraduate course in Game Cultures, written for leading game industry magazines like Edge and Develop, and completed a PhD exploring the interrelationship of story and play in video games using ideas of affect and memory.
I’ve grown with games as they’ve moved from cartoonish, abstract approximations with simplistic levels of interaction to heavily realistic character and environments with increasingly complex mechanics. When I became a man, I certainly didn’t put away childish things – instead I chose to weave them into my life.
Like any cultural artefact, subjective memory is a crucial component of how games are made, engaged with and perceived. This can range from remembering where a particular object is located in the environment or a piece of advice given to the player by an NPC (Non-Playable Character) to calling back to an event the player-character experienced in a previous adventure, to fondly recalling playing Asteroids relentlessly with my sister’s then boyfriend and my future brother-in-law.
The game itself is constantly remembering too: remembering where the player is on the screen, what weapon the avatar is carrying, how many enemies have been dispatched, when to play a particular sound effect of piece or music, the list is extensive, because contemporary video games are such complex ecologies.
But memory comes in many guises. Subjective memory is constantly shaped by collective memory, so much so that it’s not always easy to spot where one begins and the other ends. According to neuroscientist Steven Rose, at the root of all memory activity are the biological factors determining bodily remembering, from “circulating hormones, physiological processes, the immune system”, all of which are engaged in an ongoing, reciprocal state of interaction (2003:7).
Our bodies are energetic and material containers interacting with other energetic and material containers. Machines possess memories but they’re also memories themselves, of previous models, interacting with software that similarly remembers prior iterations. Processes of updating, of patching, are often an effort to reconcile remembering between technologies.
The complexity of these interactions between different kinds of memory are hard to underestimate. I remember the kind of game I could play on my first home computer – an Atari 800 I won in a national competition to design the “House of the Future” – being heavily proscribed by the amount of RAM (Random Access Memory) the machine possessed. At the same time, the disc drive that I’d won never worked, meaning that I had no way of storing any of my work on my computer. This meant that if I typed in a program from a magazine, book or the document supplied with the computer, perhaps to produce an image of the American flag or blues musical tune, there was no way of saving my work.
Operating my computer, situated in the fug of a family living room in which my disabled father chain-smoked cigarettes, was a live performance. The computer couldn’t remember, meaning we had to. Together these were such issues that I lobbied my parents for the next generation of the same computer, replete with 64K and a disc drive, knowing this would open up a vast array of new gaming opportunities, while also allowing me to save my own creativity. The recall of this itself lingers, as one of my most powerful memories of my late father.
In a peculiar inversion of the evolution of visual art, video games have largely eschewed the abstract representation of their early years – Pong, Pacman, Asteroids – in favour of verisimilitude. This can even extend to remembering mistakes: car racing games emulate lens flare, a flaw in how cameras process light, to make the immersive experience more akin to televisual presentations of racing.
The tension between video games as interactive stories and video games as recreations of reality has been much discussed within the field of game studies, probably because the tension remains a pertinent and challenging one within the games industry itself. War games struggle to understand whether they’re simulations or playable dramas, sometimes ill-advisedly attempting to be both.
Players seeking to recreate the exact specifics of using a particular kind of weapon and seeing the resultant havoc are not necessarily interested in being reminded of the human cost of their actions. At least this is often the assumption on the part of game developers. With notable exceptions, it’s assumed that players don’t want to see portrayals of the human suffering arising from war, of murdered or maimed civilians, especially children, of displaced people, of genocide.
To some extent this arises from an ongoing issue of how video games are constructed by the wider culture. 911 Survivor, a “mod” built using the Unreal Engine by a group of artists and game designers, attracted opprobrium for using the video game medium to engage with the terrorist attacks on America on 11 September 2001. In contrast, similar criticisms were not levelled at either the Oliver Stone film World Trade Center (2006) or Philip Greengrass’ film United 93 (2006), both of which essayed fictional representations of the epoch-defining events of that day, albeit in cinematic form.
Though cinema in its early days was considered a vaguely pornographic, low-culture medium, it has now developed into one evidently capable of dealing with difficult subject matter. Some theorists have suggested video games will undergo a similar transformation, though the associations of play and childhood inherent in the word “game” may render such a transformation more fraught than might be superficially assumed, if it happens at all. Video games, as a cultural form, are remembered as games first and foremost, and games are childish, at least for dominant discourse in Western culture.
A mainstream World War Two game attempting to portray and engage with the reality of the Holocaust remains difficult to envisage for a variety of complex, interweaving reasons. Indeed, French film-maker Claude Lanzmann found fictional filmic representations of the Holocaust like Schindler’s List objectionable, utilising witness statements to an almost exclusive extent in his own masterpiece Shoah to avoid using constructed material such as archive footage.
The moniker “game” suggests play, and playfulness – with its connotations of triviality – would seem to make engagement with such horrors both an intellectual and humanitarian impossibility. An associated, though more fundamental commercial reason for games not to engage with the Holocaust is that some territories around the world classify video games as Entertainment rather than Art, and therefore forbid discussion of this particular topic.
Arguably, however, in an era in which Fake News has warped dominate discourse to the extent that it’s producing political and economic results inimical to the functioning of liberal democracy, the need for a truly popular – populist – medium like the video game to engage with historical reality has become increasingly pressing. A number of mainstream and independently produced video games have engaged with issues of atrocity. Freedom Cry (2013), the downloadable content for the fourth Assassin’s Creed game entitled Black Flag and developed and published by Ubisoft, allows the player to personify the character of Adéwalé, a freed slave from Trinidad, and explicitly engages with the brutality of the slave trade in the Caribbean of the eighteenth century.
This War of Mine (2014/2016), developed and published by 11 bit studios and inspired by the Siege of Sarajevo in 1992 to 1995, deals explicitly with the experience of a civilian population in a war zone, rather than the familiar gun-toting action hero stereotype.
What these examples suggest is that video games are eminently capable of remembering accurately and engaging seriously with difficult subject matter, if the subject matter in question is appropriately handled. As the medium matures, video games set in the geographical arenas and historical epochs in which atrocities occurred but which do not engage with the realities of those atrocities might start to be accused of a sin of omission, of deliberately non-remembering, to adapt a term used by Anna Reading (2014), a fellow contributor to this issue of Media Development.
A further way in which memory studies understands video games relates to their increasing role in transmedia ecologies. “Transmedia” in its contemporary sense emerged in the work of Marsha Kinder, who explored children’s consumption of media, suggesting that young consumers move cheerfully between different kinds of media while simultaneously remaining engaged with a consistent storyworld throughout (1993:47). Henry Jenkins extends the idea to postulate “transmedia storytelling” (2003), which he has himself subsequently refined on a number of occasions and which has been critiqued and redefined by a variety of successive theorists and practitioners, including Christy Dena, Matt Hills, Jason Mittell, Andrea Phillips and myself.
A transmedia network or ecology might comprise video games but also films, television shows, comics, novels, short stories, audio plays and varieties of User-Generated Content (UGC). Notable high-profile examples include Star Wars, Doctor Who, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, tend to sit within the science fiction and fantasy genres, as I’ve explored in my own academic book on the subject, Fantastic Transmedia (Palgrave-Macmillan 2015). Arguably this is because the kinds of fans science fiction and fantasy franchises tend to attract are also the kinds of tech-savvy people who enjoy tracking down the various parts of a storyworld across multiple media.
Additionally, expanding a franchise transmedially often results in contradictions in terms of plotting, characters and timelines, and science fiction and fantasy material often provides in-built ways of dealing with such contradictions, rooted in time travel, parallel universes and magical powers.
In Fantastic Transmedia, I argue that entries within a transmedia network are effectively engaged in a process of “remembering” elements from elsewhere in the storyworld in question. For instance, in the case of Star Wars, the character of the golden robot C3PO is remembered from medium to medium, undergoing a process of translation in each instance: the audiovisual image from the Star Wars films is remembered textually as words in a Star Wars novel, as a still graphic in a Star Wars comic, or as a heavily stylised computer graphic in the Star Wars Rebels television series (though in the latter example retaining the voice of the original film actor, Anthony Daniels, from the film series).
The interactive nature of video games means that as a medium they tend to exist in a different relationship to the rest of a transmedia network than other, sequentially organised media such as novels and television programmes. For instance, the forthcoming Star Wars: Battlefront II (2017), comprises a wide variety of levels set within the milieu and extensive time frame of the Star Wars universe, but also tells a story intended to bridge the gap between the events of Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983) and Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015).
The events of the Battlefront II “campaign” are deemed “canon” by the Star Wars Story Group, established to identify which elements of the sprawling Star Wars franchise remain canon from the past and going forwards. To achieve the canon ending, a player must work through the game in a specific way, since this is the ending that the collective memory of the franchise will recall in the future; playful activity in the other elements of the game, no matter the fidelity of the audiovisual elements involved, is not deemed canon and will be consequently forgotten.
Memory is a central component of engagement with the video game sphere and manifests itself in multiple ways. Games remember where a player is geographically located in an environment, what they’ve accomplished and what they’ve missed; players remember these things too, using their experience to plan a way forwards through the game. Games are intertextual, remembering other media, and sometimes the specifics of a transmedia network in which they operate.
Throughout the fifty-year history of commercially available video games, they’ve been repeatedly called upon to remember real-life events. Like any fictional construct, they struggle to do this with fidelity. The supreme irony is that games, which seemingly privilege the subjective experience above all else, might offer a compelling means of experiencing objective truth. That will only happen, though, if we as players demand it of games and game-makers.
11 bit studios: This War of Mine. 11 bit studios 2014/2016
Atari Inc: Asteroids. Atari Inc 1979
Atari: Pong. Atari 1972
EA DICE: Star Wars: Battlefront II. Electronic Arts 2017
Grandstand: AstroWars 1981
Grandstand: Munchman 1981
Harvey, Colin (2015) Fantastic Transmedia: Narrative, Play and Memory Across Science Fiction and Fantasy Storyworlds. London: Palgrave-Macmillan
Jenkins, Henry (2003) ‘Transmedia Storytelling’ in MIT Technology Review, January 15th 2003, available at https://www.technologyreview.com/s/401760/transmedia-storytelling/, accessed 27th August 2017
Kinder, Marsha (1993) Playing with Power in Movies, Television and Video Games: From “Muppet Babies” to “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”. London: University of California
Kinematic: 911 Survivor (Unreal Mod) 2003
Namco: Pacman. Namco/Miday 1980
Reading, Anna (2014) “The Journalist as Memory Assembler: Non Memory, The War on Terror and The Shooting of Osama Bin Laden” in Zelizer, B and Tenenboim, K (eds) Memory and Journalism. Basingstoke: Palgrave-Macmillan.
Rose, Steven (2003). The Making of Memory: From Molecules to Mind. London: Vintage
Schindler’s List, 1993. Dir. Steven Spielberg, US: Universal Pictures.
Shoah, 1985. Dir. Claude Lanzmann, France: New Yorker Films.
Star Wars: Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, 1983 Dir. Richard Marquand, US: 20th Century Fox.
Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens, 2015. Dir. JJ Abrams, US: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.
Ubisoft Montreal: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag: Freedom Cry. Ubisoft 2013
United 93, 2006. Dir. Paul Greengrass, US: Universal Pictures.
World Trade Center, 2006. Dir. Oliver Stone, US: Paramount Pictures.
Dr Colin Harvey is a writer, narrative designer and academic specialising in digital storytelling, video game narrative, shared storyworlds and transmedia storytelling. He is currently writer and narrative designer with To Play For, and has previously worked as a narrative designer for Rebellion Developments and for four years undertook freelance story development work for Sony. His work in other media includes tie-in material for Doctor Who and Highlander, published under license from the BBC and MGM/Davis-Panzer respectively, the novella Dead Kelly for Abaddon Books, set in their Afterblight shared storyworld, and comic stories for 2000AD and Commando. His gothic short fiction won the first Pulp Idol award, jointly conferred by SFX Magazine and Gollancz Books. He has written and presented extensively on the subjects of video game storytelling and transmedia storytelling and is the author of Fantastic Transmedia (Palgrave-Macmillan 2015), an exploration of science fiction and fantasy-themed transmedia. He is currently a Visiting Professor with King’s College London.