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Alienation and Enclosure: Landscape Theory for the First-Person Shooter

Panel Presentation, Royal Geographical Society Annual Conference

Cardiff, August 2018



Landscape studies are a powerful heuristic for understanding relationships to the physical environment. Existing scholarship has made a compelling case for studying computer games as a paradigm form of landscape (Vella 2013) (Liboriussen 2008) (Martin 2011). However such studies are yet to develop a methodology that balances the emplaced experience of the player with the material context by which the player and the game relate to the world. At the 2008 Landscape Theory Seminar, the gap between phenomenology and material culture studies was identified as a key problem for landscape theory. (DeLue and Elkins 2008) To remedy this, my paper uses a phenomenological and a material study of Half Life 2 and the Valve Source Engine to derive landscape theory. I identify alienation, predation, and the shuttering affect of the ego as the basis of subjectivity for the first person shooter game. (Casey 1997) (Punter 1994) (Galloway 2006) I link the alienation of the player to the alienation of the narrative protagonist, as two examples of the Promethean dystopia. (Winner 1977) I then locate alienation and the Promethean dystopia to the linear actionable landscape, which has its origins in New World colonial literature. (Tilley 1994) (Fuller and Jenkins 1995) Finally, by examining the Valve Source engine itself, I contextualise this alienation within the economic enclosures of the End User License agreement, and how this landscape should be understood in relation to software modification. (Kuchlich 2005) Through my case study of the Half Life 2, I derive productive landscape theory from a computer game, and demonstrate how computer games can function as a paradigm form of contemporary landscape.



Encoding the Symptom or the Cause? Values in the Design and Play of Computer Games that Represent School Shootings

The Philosophy of Computer Games Conference

Copenhagen, July 2018



In this paper, I examine how two first-person shooter (FPS) computer games set in North American high schools communicate different values in relation to the same violent phenomenon. While both commit the same transgression by making a game based on school mass-shootings, the socio-cultural, institutional and material context of their designers in relation to the violent phenomenon results in two very different readings, and very different ways to understand violence in computer games.


In this paper, I locate the representational affordances of the FPS genre according to Rune Klevjer’s 2006 paper ‘The Way of the Gun’, Alexander Galloway’s research on FPS subjectivity (2006), Paul Virilio’s (1989) theory of military optics and John Bale’s (2003) research into the transgressive appropriation of non-game environments in various sporting traditions. Building on the paradigm of values as expressed through both game design and the social context of play found in procedural rhetorics (Bogost 2006) and simulation theory (Frasca 2001), I examine how the context of my designers relative to their games expresses particular values about the sociological factors surrounding school mass-shootings. By revealing the different values within these games, I seek to offer an important way to differentiate between different forms of violent representation in computer games.


The case studies for this paper are a student-made modification (mod) of the first-person shooter (FPS) game Counter-Strike (CS) and a training simulation produced using the Unreal Engine for the US Department of Defense and repurposed by the US Department of Homeland Security. In 2007, a student from Clements High School, Texas, was expelled for building a replica of his school as a playable CS mod on the grounds that this representation was inappropriate in relation to school mass-shootings. (Sinclair 2007) In 2017, the US Department of Homeland Security built an FPS simulation set in a high school as part of the larger Enhanced Dynamic Geo-Social Environment (EDGE) project, which is designed to train police and first responders for mass-shootings in North American schools. (BBC 2017) (Wales 2018) By analysing both of these within the FPS game genre, I will establish their common procedure and language of expression. Using Julian Küchlich’s economic analysis of the amateur modder compared to the professional game developer, I will differentiate these games on the basis of the context of their authorship.


I will then introduce relevant insights from a meta-review into the causative factors that relate to the school mass-shooting, published by sociologists Nils Böckler, Thorsten Seeger and Wilhelm Heitmeyer (2013). In particular, I will examine how their umbrella concept of ‘Social Disintegration Theory’ (Böckler et al. 2013, p.28) reveals a clear dividing line between the values implicit in the Clements High School CS mod and the EDGE simulation. I focus specifically on how causative factors such as the violence-affirming setting and the lack of social mobility (what Böckler et al refer to as a ‘recognition gap) (Böckler et al. 2013, p.43) experienced by North American adolescents relate to law enforcement response of further militarising the school environment.


In this paper, I show how the Clements High CS map, made by a student modder for the consumption of his peer group is consistent with the recognition gap endemic to both the modding community and the North American adolescent identified under Social Disintegration Theory. By contrast, I show that the EDGE school mass-shooting simulation, designed for the US Department of Homeland Security, is more consistent with the “violence affirming setting” identified as a causative factor in Social Disintegration Theory. I argue that the differential of social, economic and political power between the student modder and the government agency, and the student player versus the police/first responder player illustrates how these two FPS games express completely different values in relation to the school mass-shooting. Put simply, I argue that the Clements High CS mod represents the symptoms of this phenomenon, whereas the EDGE simulation represents the cause.

A Game Made From Other Games: Actions and Entities in Garry’s Mod

The Philosophy of Computer Games Conference

Krakow, November 2018



This paper analyses how actions define entities (objects, characters, etc.) in the game Garry’s Mod (Facepunch Studios 2006). This game is a sandbox environment built as a modification of Half-Life 2 (Valve Corporation 2004), and comprises entities that have been ported and appropriated from other games, and simulated together into a new game landscape, devoid of the contexts and goals that once defined these them. In this way, Garry's Mod appears to be the game that is played after all other games have finished. Entities from other games are simulated by Garry’s Mod, but it is up to the player to give them new meanings via their actions. The constant improvisation of new games and new modes of play seems to exemplify the ludic Situationist utopia New Babylon, conceived by Constant Nieuwenhuys. However, the actions within Garry's Mod are upheld by the economic logic of Web 2.0, making Garry’s Mod an exemplar of what is known as “Game 3.0” – those games that anticipate play activities across Web 2.0 platforms. This socio-economic context, combined with the spectacle of self-referentiality and pastiche within the game itself, make Garry’s Mod seem more emblematic of the cultural logic of late capitalism described by Fredric Jameson. This paper sets-up both of these readings as equally appropriate, yet contradictory characterisations of the game. By analysing how player actions define the ontology of Garry’s Mod, this paper evaluates whether Garry’s Mod is a ludic utopia or a postmodern spectacle.