It is so cool to start your blog entry with a reference to what you have just heard Henry Jenkins say in his class at MIT. (As if he did not touch on the topic of his academic celebrity status and the fact that his name is being attached to everything CMS, for better or worse; now I'm attaching it to my puny blog.) We mainly discussed authorship, the way it shapes our interpretation of the text, and, briefly, the way authorship is assigned to texts. And Henry Jenkins pointed out that in the field of videogames, we constructed a figure of the game designer but the matter is still not sorted out. By that time, I had been already thinking about it. About who's the author, who we adore, what is considered a personal achievement in videogames...
A faerie ninja made me think about it.
On Monday, I checked the schedule of Alice Robison's excellent all-MIT class on videogame theory and found out that Linda Currie (née Sirotek) was coming to give a talk.
Wow!, thought I - for the following reasons: a) she co-designed and produced one of my all-time favorite games, Wizardry 8, the sequel to the Crusaders game mentioned in the last blog entry; b) for me, she became the symbol of the whole Wizardry series, through which she had worked her way, first (1981!) as an involuntary help-line operator, subsequently as a producer and designer. She simply was THERE and, as a fan, I wish I had seen what she saw - "the making of" the legend. And even if Wizardry is now largely and sadly forgotten, it had a unique twist, a distinct, quirky and unpredictable personality, that elevated it high above your average sword'n'sorcery hack'n'slash. One of the funniest things was the fact that fans intentionally played the game with weakest possible characters "to get more fun out of it", often opting for Faerie Ninjas, an absurd and legendary race-class combination; c) she carried the tradition as long as she could, making the beautiful swan song which is Wizardry 8, a testament of (I would say) her own fandom of the series; d) she's half-Czech!
After an entertaining discussion with her and her colleague Scott MacMillan, I asked her a few fan questions and was on my way home. But making my way through a half-lit MIT corridor, I realized that I cannot just leave. I am a fan. Fans do certain kinds of things. Music fans get their records signed (I do!). Star fans get their... whatever signed. But what should I do? I found myself in utter lack of games-specific cultural knowledge I could utilize. I didn't bring a copy of the game. I knew this was a special and great moment of my fan life and that I had to do something about it. But still I felt strange asking Alice to take a picture of me and Linda. I just din't know whether this is the way it is done.
In the tradition of aca-fandom (though I'm probably more fan than aca), I started to explore, why it felt new; what constitutes my fandom and its relationship to authorship, art and the medium. First of all, I had a hard time thinking about with whom else I would like to have a picture taken. John Carmack? That's an engineer, great, but I guess not exciting in the fan way. Chris Avellone of the Planescape: Torment fame? As much as I loved his game (very much!), I didn't really know anything about this guy until I've read a recent interview. To be honest, I'm quite surprised I could still remember his name. Sorry, but that's how the gaming discourse goes. Ron Gilbert? Maybe. Maybe I would be disappointed should I find out he's not as funny as Monkey Island is.
Although I am a fan of games, I cannot usually see myself as a fan of their authors. Are there Peter Molyneux fans in the way there are David Lynch fans? Are there Richard Garriot fans, or just Ultima fans? I can imagine people respect the game designers. In Smartbomb, Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby describe the cautiously respectful way young designers act towards Will Wright and Shigeru Myamoto. They are celebrities, but in their own circle, more like say famous architects than pop musicians or Hollywood directors, although their work is a part of the popular culture. They don't tour, they just make their scarce appearances at gaming expos and conferences. Chaplin and Ruby do give examples of gaming industry people like Cliff Bleszinski, who try to play the role of gaming-world rock stars. Yet an ordinary player won't connect the games he plays with CliffyB's name and face. But maybe I am wrong and you can correct me.
Game is also a collective work, making it harder to think of it as an authored work, but so is film. Even film pushes the credits to a place where people can choose whether to skip them or not, and credits in games are usually made to be skipped and are not a part of the game as such. Maybe the reason for the disconnedtion stems from our perception of games as software, as industrial, technical products, blueprinted, designed, refined, tested, burnt onto CDs, packaged and published, just like spreadsheets. We are probably still at the beginning of the process of establishing our relationship to games as an expressive medium (or to reference Henry Jenkins again, a "lively art"). Unlike films, each game is a technology of its own, not only a manifestation of technology, and game designers stay virtually anonymous, being "technicians" whose power is to know, not to be known. The author is dead and we don't feel any urge to resurrect him, maybe because imagining him tinkering with world design might break our illusion of the virtual world's existence*.
This saves us some trouble with the interpretation, however, because, as we also heard in the class, our knowledge of the author always shapes the way we read her or his work. Most of my gaming experience is untinted by any thought of game designers. But hey, I am going to try out Wizardry 8 once more now, to see whether my interpretation has changed knowing that Linda Currie was a teenage hard-core RPG girl picking up phones and telling people what the gold key is for.
*It's also rather hard to create a whole world in one person (unless you are a god), which makes the intricate webs of texts like Lost the TV show a more team-based and also anonymous work (a collective god-ship?). It might be interesting to look at the way game authorship was treated at the time one or two people usually made the whole game. Hey, I could do that.