Archive: February 10th, 2009

Jane Austen: Emma

[Readings] (02.10.09, 11:36 pm)

This analysis will be brief, in comparison to the many others discussing Pride and Prejudice.

Quick summary: The plot of the book is about Emma, as young, wealthy, socially secure, and somewhat clueless character. She becomes very interested in managing other people’s happiness through match making. However, her impressions of what other characters are interested in, or what is best for them, are generally incorrect. This leads to an effectual comedy of errors, where Emma’s agendas are put to work against the agendas of the other characters. When Emma acts on her incorrect interpretations, she meddles in the affairs of other characters, which interferes with their happiness more than anything else. Unlike Austen’s other novels, in Emma, there is no financial issue threatening the protagonist, and she is thus doing what she is doing for the pure pleasure of it. Emma is secure in both her social status as well as her finances, so the intrigue and goals that she faces are self generated.

At this cursory level, there are some important differences between Emma and Pride and Prejudice. Both novels share a central element which is the interpretation of other characters. However, the world of Emma resembles more of a sandbox without overt goals and objectives, while Pride and Prejudice imposes a problem that must be faced at the outset. In Pride and Prejudice, the Bennett’s are in financial danger, because the house is entailed. Thus, the daughters of the family must marry otherwise suffer poverty. While this is a goal, it is not a rigid goal, and provides several routes to marriage, and suggests a balance of goals and motives. One can marry for happiness (love), wealth, or social status. Emma’s situation is different. The character of Emma sees her meddling as a way to improve the lives of others, and never has a pressing need to do what she does. Instead, like a player of The Sims, she encourages the other characters to be in certain situations, and then bears witness to the results. Unlike in The Sims, she herself is caught up in the events that she instigates. While it is Emma’s intention as a character to induce the happiness of others, a player in a game may not be so motivated, and would be able to cause some degree of mayhem.

That Emma has no financial or social incentive to meddle, she does stand to lose a great deal in terms of her social status or her happiness, and over the course of the novel does suffer in several cases as a result of her actions (being scorned by Knightley, and embarrassed by Frank Churchill). Emma’s meddling has effects which propagate through the underlying network of characters and turn back onto her, affecting her in ways that were not immediately evident by her actions alone. For instance, dissuading Harriet from marrying Mr. Martin leads her to be scolded by Knightley. Rejecting Elton leads him to marry Augusta, who becomes a significant source of irritation afterward. Like in Pride and Prejudice, each character has their own agenda. In Emma, these agendas are covert, and often include the protagonist in their machinations. In comparing Emma to The Sims, this is an interesting turn of involvement.

Some clear mechanics that leap out are elements of meddling and persuasion, which is manifested in matchmaking, and mentoring (in the case of Harriet). There is a dimension of predicting the actions, intentions, and desires of other characters, however this does not seem to be as much of a mechanic because the interesting results arise from Emma’s failures rather than her successes at prediction. The (1996 with Kate Beckinsale) film gives a few suggestions at how prediction might work, in that it uses flashes illustrating Emma’s imagination of her friends happy due to her matchmaking. There is a great deal of flirting, especially with Frank Churchill, though this is ultimately fruitless, the mechanics of flirting are intricate, in a similar way to the verbal repartee between Elizabeth and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Instead of status games involving lowering one another, Emma’s flirting seems to be much more about suggestions, deferences, and alluding to potential romantic states that may or may not be intended.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorAusten, Jane
Tagsspecials, media traditions, fiction, settings
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

Ted Friedman: The Semiotics of Sim City

[Readings] (02.10.09, 12:03 pm)

This is a summary of an article that Ted Friedman wrote for First Monday in 1999. The article is ostensibly about simulation and semiotics, but relates simulation to subjectivity and identification in an interesting way. His argument is that simulation becomes an extension of consciousness, and the player identifies with the simulation as a component of him or herself. This would have strong support in the space of cognitive science, especially in terms of cognitive extensions. It also provides a way of connecting a model-based view of the world to an embodied and experiential view of the world.

Friedman initially compares the experience of playing a game to the experience of reading a book. Books are non-reactive, though there is exchange between reader and book. Games are artifacts with reactive feedback loops, enabling a tighter sense of identification with the artifact’s contents. Reading gives a variety of interpretive freedoms, but simulation is not free from perspective of player. Any simulation is rooted in the assumptions of its model. Sim City has received criticism for its model and economic assumptions, but Friedman explains that these are not flaws but principles. “Computer programs, like all texts, will always be ideological constructions.”

It is frequently argued that simulation games have an aura of mystification, in that they appear to be realistic. Friedman argues to the contrary that the player succeeds by learning its model and understanding how the model works, which is a process of demystification. I would challenge this, though. The level of mystification is dependent on the self-consciousness of the player. Many players learn the system of a game but do not reflect on its values. Mastery and understanding are different things.

Simulation in Sim City is constant, it does not stop. It is easy to reach a trance-like state where the simulation is an organic extension of the player’s consciousness (referencing Haraway). The actual experience of playing puts the player in a variety of roles, according to what the player actually controls. The player is much more than just the mayor and urban designer (the ostensible roles given to the player). The player has control over details unavailable to those real life roles, and is able to manage and micromanage different parts of the game with relative fluidity. Thus, the player has shifting identifications. This seems like it ought to be jarring, but it is not. Friedman argues that experience is a form of identification, but with the simulation. Losing oneself in a game is identifying with its simulation.

From the perspective of a god-game (like Sim City, The Sims, etc), which gives the player significant controls over the entire system, or a major part of it, a simulation is engrossing. The entire simulation becomes an extension of the player’s cognitive processes, which are both visual and visceral. This suggests that the experience is in some sense embodied. I think it is possible to look back on this, though, and realize that most digital games have simulation elements, but restrict the freedom of the player within them, putting the player under constraint of not only the rules, but also giving the player a more limited part of the system. Civilization, for instance, places the player in control of only one civilization. It can be argued that the player still experiences extension and identification, but only with the substance that the player can control. So the player will identify with the entire city in Sim City, the household in The Sims, the civilization in Civilization, or the avatar in a platforming game.

Friedman concludes the essay suggesting that simulations are a kind of postmodern quasi-narrative: systems of interwoven strands of subjectivity.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorFriedman, Ted
TitleSemiotics of Sim City
Tagsgames, semiotics, simulation, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar

Austen, Austen, Everywhere

[General,Research] (02.10.09, 11:41 am)

It amazes me how Jane Austen has such a prevalent fan culture. I may even go so far as to say it’s cult-like. Not in any pejorative sense, but once indoctrinated into the Janeite world, nothing ever seems quite the same again. Whenever there are literary cults, there tend to be interesting extensions and perturbations. Sometimes these return and intersect with the world of popular culture, such as in the case of the Jane Austen Book Club, but occasionally the perturbations are stranger. Take for example “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” found via the Times.

I am actually really interested in the “zombie phenomenon,” in its relation to popular culture. Zombies are symbols that play on ideas of consumption, mindlessness, individualism, homogeneity, race, gender, and so on. Zombies are a fun and surprisingly productive metaphor for communicating cultural fears and anxieties. The language of zombie horror translates very well into games, and as such there tend to be a lot of games about them. These tend to work out well because the mechanics are appropriate for the genre, and they insecurities, anxieties, and ironies of zombiedom can carry over very well.

I suppose it was inevitable that there be a Jane Austen – zombie crossover.