Musings about Ready Player One

Ready Player One is a recent novel by Ernest Cline. It’s about a contest to find an easter egg in OASIS, the novel’s uber MMO that has absorbed all MMOs, games, shopping, Internet et cetera. Right before dying, the bachelor, shut-in, and stuck in his childhood in the 80s creator of OASIS created a huge easter egg, and made a contest of solving the easter egg. Whoever won got his fortune, which was the largest in the world by far. It takes the world some 7 years to solve it, and the book is about the solving. It gets almost all of its allure, unabashedly, from 80s pop culture (although this extends to 70s and 90s in parts), and the plot itself is basically about how the crazy megabillionaire’s own nostalgia for his past has affected the rest of the world in their search for the easter egg that will grant them his megabillions. So, that’s the plot, but what’s interesting is the nostalgia.

I use the term ‘nostalgia’ here rather loosely though as it isn’t exactly nostalgia. Or rather, it isn’t nostalgia for everybody. For the author it probably is nostalgia, for the reader it might be, for the diegetic creator of the game it was, but for the players it was entirely second hand. As egg hunters (“gunters”) they’re obsessed with 80s pop culture as it is assumed to be (and in fact is) the key to solving the easter egg. It was never their culture, and this is doubly sad as their own culture, as the book is so quick in its distopia to point out, is dead and escaping in virtual worlds that comprise OASIS. The real world sucks, so they get out, but the virtual worlds (at least the ones visited in the book) are completely filled with 80s nostalgia. They’ve lost their past and present and instead live in somebody else’s past. It’s a bit trippy in some ways. It makes me wonder about whose nostalgia it is now. By ‘now’ I mean now now, outside in the real world where remakes and demakes and minecraft and the SC2 lost viking minigame splash screen are all present.

The other thing I can’t help but think about is the large number of environmentally distopian novels I’ve read recently. While Wendy Chun has written about sci-fi as the never coming future I wonder if that holds with the more scientifically frightening science fiction like Oryx and Crake and Ready Player One that are really all based on the belief that we’re screwed because of a built up fucking over of the planet.

(New Media) Translation After Pound

The 20th century turn toward domestication essentially stems form Ezra Pound’s translations, but impurely, through the modern emphasis of the author mixed with the business of selling books.

According to Ronnie Apter in Digging for the Treasure: Translation After Pound, Pound influenced translation theory and practice in three major ways. First, was the move from “Victorian pseudo-archaic translation diction” to modern style. Second, is by arguing for a criticism of the original in some form: not simply the objective transfer (an acknowledged impossibility by the Victorians as well), but to focus on some particular element and thereby “criticize.” And finally, the creation of a new poem: not just something derivative.

These three were all essential breaks with both the Victorian practice, which focused on three criteria: paraphrase with no additions (subtractions were inevitable, but additions were taboo), the reproduction of the author’s traits (just what the traits were was, however, up for grabs), and the reproduction of the overall effect of the text (whether the “effect was of the original on the original’s original audience, or the original on the modern audience who can read the original text is unknown). It was also an adaptation with the contemporaneous translation theory professed by Matthew Arnold and F. W. Newman.

However, while Pound was translating against the Victorian grain, we have come full circle to a new norm. The fashion of the times has changed to one that embraces Pound’s basics, but not the depths. If “great translators transcend the fashion of their times [and] minor ones merely manipulate it” Pound was a great translator, many minor figures have manipulated his transcendence, but Pound himself would simply be one of any in the current fashion. As Lawrence Venuti has argued, the times and dominant style have changed and another transcendental shift is called for.

What I want to argue is that this shift is called for by the media itself. The move from literary page translation to multimedia and digital forms leads into new possibilities for and understandings of translation. In an interesting way, however, it is Pound’s logopoeia, his style of meta-translation, that can still lead the way. Whereas Pound focused on the meaning of words to bring into focus both the older era and the present, a type of dialectical juxtaposition, the move toward searchable, digital data in opposition to static, analogue data allows the simultaneous existence of both data sets and a new type of logopoeia. This new form of meta-translation involves the layering of translational tracks. Instead of juxtaposition, there is the coexistence of both tracks/languages/cultures.

This is similar to the possibilities evoked by subtitles and abuse (Nornes), but it considers the issue in relation to digital, new media and not simply film considered in an analogue manner. Instead of the ability to simply choose one or another track/language, it gives all, or switches between languages. It renders the possibilities of putting three real languages into a game such as Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3 (English, Russian and Japanese to use the fictive world), but more meaningfully (and less deliberately/offensively stereotypically), of switching them on the fly so that one game has the US speaking English, the Russians Russian and the Japanese Japanese, but another switches so that the US speaks Japanese, the Russians English and the Japanese Russian. The media uses its ability to draw from the swappable data files not to simply replace one with another, thereby changing one representation into another, but to abuse the user with a constant active experience that questions the submerged normativity of language that exists with translated entertainment products (games in particular) at present.

Castles and/as History for an American

That I’m an American is something I just realized while walking around Edinburgh. Specifically I realized that Disney Castle is a crock and real castles rock.

Slightly more generally I should point out that from the moment I went away to Japan I played with my nationality (just as I’d begun to play with my identity previously). Because of the (then) recent World Trade Center incident I remember reading and being told that Americans abroad should by evasive about their nationality in fear of repercussions against their selves. What this amounted to was a) don’t hang around the US embassy in Tokyo, and b) don’t broadcast that you’re American. For me, it had the added effect that because of my Portland (lack of) accent, being surrounded by an international and Japanese crowd and predominately speaking Japanese I was able to hide my nationality quite well. My accent in Japanese was completely unrecognizable and my English accent was relatively unplaceable, but most guessed somewhere in Europe (also because of my appearance).

So, I have generally thought about nationality and my ‘Americanness’ as something that is easily hide-able, unimportant and generally malleable. Of course, this is a rather obnoxious assumption as my Americanness is, of course, marked in various ways from mannerisms to specific words to those who look, but more importantly, it’s highly related to my understanding of particular terms, concepts and ideas.

I understand theory from a particular cultural perspective. Which is to say that I understand the world as an American. And one of the things that Americans don’t understand is History with a capital H that goes back into the architecture and ground. Sure, some cities on the east coast go back a few hundred years now and places have been around for a hundred plus years, but there certainly aren’t any castles or five hundred year old under layers of the city that have been built over.

So if Baudrillard and every other continental theorist must make the trip to California to see Disneyland and find simulacra, America, late capitalism, or whatnot, perhaps it is just as ‘necessary’ for Americans to go and see castles, cobbled roads, and old skinny streets to understand history and the real.

Everything is relative. This much is known. So maybe the relative understanding of the present depends on your knowledge of the past, real or simulation (or representation), etc.

Such were my thoughts before going to Edinburgh Castle, but having seen it from various vantage points around the city. Having done the castle visit I’m not quite as enlightened as I might have been, but it was interesting for a number of reasons.

Primarily, the castle was interesting because it was a glorified museum. Things were blocked off, things were accessible, people were funneled through the different sections to get pumped up info about topics from the history of Scotland and war (the predominant aspect of the information), the history of the crown jewels, the castle’s renovation as a prison, the rooms where Mary Queen of Scots was born, etc. The strange part to me is that the castle becomes the site of a museum for various things at the same time that it embodies (minimally) history.

However, the building as history did not happen like I somehow thought would be. Part of this is that the process of history entails building over the old things. Placards that announce any give piece of information are new. The books that announce the war dead from years past in one area were from 2008. The cobbled street, which one may guess is rather old is half paved over in some spots and who knows when it was actually cobbled.

There are no placards informing the visitor of when history took place, when it was imagined and altered. Instead, there is simply what ‘happened.’

Second, because the rooms present certain themes they exist outside of their original purpose. Even the birth of the queen of scots etc and the great hall are semi outside of history as it is presented as her birthplace but also some other’s birthplace and they are separated by numerous years. And the great hall seems to host various weapons, but its original purpose is outside of representation. The rooms are a smashup of time. However, the honours are possibly the best example as they are a long, almost Disneylike progression from start to end going through various rooms. The castle goer travels from room to room getting the history of the Honours, the sword, scepter, crown and jewels of Scotland including their making, the hiding for 111 years and finally in the last room one sees the actual objects. Two points of interest are that one sees replicas of the artifacts in almost every room before the final room (perhaps most interesting are the bronze replicas with lots of braille information surrounding them, and a half size sword, right before the final room). The second is that one is walking through rooms of the castle that have been completely reappropriated from whatever their original purpose might have been. You have no idea what the rooms might have been at any given point.

The result of this decontextualization of the space the castle becomes a vantage point to see the city and a place of (military) history, but it is taken out of time.

The ground and place itself, which I immediately thought of as history were turned no more into history than 100 and 200 year old buildings on the east coast of the United States. Which, I guess points to my innocence that there is actually some sort of feeling of time in places that is not history, which is the same whether it’s a day, a decade, a century or a millennia old.

Game Preservation and Remakes

There was a panel at DiGRA’09 about game preservation that asked questions about how to preserve games, what to preserve, what was being done, etc. One thing that struck me then and now is how the trope of preservation is truly opposed in some ways to the logics of the remake that I wrote of previously.

Preservation is to keep an old thing in a usable state: to freeze it. On the surface, this is similar to what the remake does: it takes something and preserves (a part of) it for usage. Of course, the key difference is that whereas preservation thinks to hardware, greater experience (as well as the futility of this due to data decay), remakes take one single element as something worthwhile: they story and general play or rule set as it might be called.

Game preservation efforts and remakes preserve different things. So what about the demake? Well, it seems to preserve the other elements. While a remake preserves story/play, a demake preserves graphics/sound/hardware. Finally, the preservation efforts try to preserve both sides.

Now where does this then place preservation, or I’ll say it simply: museum historicism, on the one hand and logics of repetition on the other? Are they anathematic or related?

Translation, Adaptation, History, Controversy (and back)

My own interests with translation have recently come crashing into one of the current big gaming controversies: Six Days in Fallujah. The path of my interest goes form translation to adaptation to the construction of history, of which the game Six Days in Fallujah is a prime example. It is also an example of gaming controversy and protestation.

Recently, Ki Mae Huessner wrote a piece for ABC News about Rendition: Guantanamo and gaming controversy. She lists 9 games that have “gone too far” in that they have brought about large controversies. Some of these games like Grand Theft Auto IV (and the rest in the series) thrive off of this controversy. Others, like Super Columbine Massacre RPG! and JFK Reloaded are completely and unfortunately misunderstood in their intent because of the controversy and crash because of it. The main problem is the conflation of games, children, play, sugar, spice and everything nice, which excludes concepts of art, theory and all things serious. This split has been problematized time and again in different fora (Serious Games, Meaningful Play, Art Games), but primarily dismissed by the people who count: the media (ABC News) and the producers who cave in (Konami). Obviously, my interests are not aligned with advocating for or against  games in general or any game in particular. What I am interested in is the interaction of culture and games, or as it is more often written in conferences sections and on journals, Games and Culture.

At this point I would like to jump back along the windy path of my interest away from controversy, which is generally disinteresting to me, through the construction of history (and knowledge), to adaptation and finally arriving back at translation

Six Days in Fallujah, Rendition: Guantanamo, and JFK Reloaded are all controversial games. They are so controversial, in fact, that the former two are likely not going to be made, and the latter is barely known outside of people who study games and people who study history. All three of these are about ‘history’ and its construction, but that’s not why they’re controversial. Their controversy stems from the particular events that they dwell in/on. Moments of national trauma and embarrassment. Other games, such as Kuma/War, which features John Kerry’s Silver Star mission, or the sundry World War II RTS games do the exact same thing as the controversial games, but spark near no negative reaction as they are based around events of national (and international) pride and success.

History is constructed after the event happens. History is the ordering of the past to fit with, justify the existence of, perpetuate the goals of a given political entity be it nation-state, company, individual, or other. Text books, movies, novels and even historical treaties all do this; games are no different. The problem, of course, is that whereas some of the above have been welcomed into the serious realm games have not. So, games can construct history and the three above games do exactly that. Time for another step backward to the idea of adaptation.

Adaptation involves the re-ordering of logics from one form to another. The intent is that the overarching logic (or under-girding structure) remains between versions/editions/adaptations, but such is of course the difficulty in adapting anything. While most adaptations are thought to be from one form of popular media to another (between books, plays, movies, radio shows, television shows and so on) what must also be understood is that the definition of media need not be so limited. Language can be considered a medium, hence the difficulty in adapting between language/word and visual representation. History is another medium. History games are all adaptations, imperfect re-ordering of the events, feelings, beliefs, half-truths, full truths and lies in order to construct History.

And finally back to translation. While adaptation admits to changing the object (a book is turned into a movie; a historical event is turned into a game), translation hides and objects to this simple fact. Translation is based around the impossible goal of equality that is embedded within the concept of translation (See Walter Benjamin, “Task of the Translator”). (Perfect) translation is, and will always be, impossible. What remains then is choosing what will be successfully translated from one culture to another. History games make a very particular choice in what they translate, but that choice is also what leads to controversy as it does not match up with the dominant perception of what should be maintained.

Back to Six Days in Fallujah. History games are necessary for a number of reasons. On one level they are important in that they are part of the construction of history. Popular culture is one part of historicism despite official history’s denial of such a fact. On another layer, history games are an important step in the definition of games as a medium outside of the realm of (uncritically happy) play with sugar, spice and you get the picture. Art Games, Serious Games and Mature Games (theoretically mature, not thematically mature – Beyond Good and Evil, not RapeLay) are other parts of this movement. Six Days in Fallujah would have done both of these things: critically bring up issues of the interpretation of the past event and construction of future history; oppose the uncritical simplicity of games where you play the unquestioned, good guys and kill the unquestioned bad guys.

Life is not simple. Play is not simple. Games should not be simple.