WEEK 2: Critical Theory & Media Studies

Critical Theory & Media Studies

Prepare Dyer-Witherford, Nick. “Circulation 1: Interactive Media.” Cyber-Marx: Cycles and Circuits of Struggle. U Illinois P, 1999. 116-122.


Manovich, Lev. “What is New Media?” The Language of New Media. MIT, 2001. 18-55. http://dss-edit.com/plu/Manovich-Lev_The_Language_of_the_New_Media.pdf

Wardrip-Fruin, Noah. et al. “Agency Reconsidered.” Breaking New Ground: Innovation in Games, Play, Practice and Theory. Proceedings of DiGRA, 2009.

Wardrip-Fruin et al Agency Interactive

3 thoughts on “WEEK 2: Critical Theory & Media Studies

  1. At risk of being labeled Cybernetics Boy, I want to consider this week’s readings in relation to systems theory and its peculiar formation of freedom. Throughout Manovich’s attempt to identify what is ‘new’ about new media, he traces a history of data processing and mass media technologies developing side-by-side until they converge, until media become stored as numerical data in computers, thereby becoming ‘new.’ Ever the formalist, Manovich makes little room for political and historical concerns.This is why it comes as a bit of a surprise when he drops the ominous warning that interactive media cause us “to mistake the structure of somebody else’s mind for our own.” For example, for Manovich, hyperlinks objectify the mental operation of association, but unlike the unique mental trajectory traversed by subjective thinking, we must follow the hyperlink’s predetermined associations.
    Manovich’s seeming hyperbole actually describes a technical ambition of cybernetic origins. Cybernetics is a transdisciplinary approach to systems that flourished after WWII as it sought to make sense of an increasingly complex world. Many of its major contributions to the field of computing ensued from attempts to formalize cognition into an algorithmic process and create a machine that would function as the brain does. Manovich frames this ambition as a problem for agency because the interactive interface becomes a network of potential actions that feel like choices but are always already circumscribed. For Wardrip-Fruin et al., this is inevitable and we should instead moderate our expectations of agency by taking the system’s limits into account and redefining agency within them. He makes this argument through SimCity, where “the elements presented on the surface have analogues within the internal processes and data [echoing Manovich]. Successful play requires understanding how initial expectation differs from system operation, incrementally building a model of the system’s internal process based on experimentation” (5). (Unsurprisingly, this game was inspired by cybernetician Jay Forrester’s system dynamics; from Forrester to the discussion of Weizenbaum’s A.I., this article is entrenched in the language of cybernetics.) According to this view, agency is contextual and must be defined within the confines of a system.
    Wardrip-Fruin’s analysis is conservative, especially if we want to conceive of our interactions with operating systems as models for our interactions with bigger (social, political, economic) systems. It may initially sound like an anti-technocratic conspiracy theory, but if we look at the influence of models like cybernetics and game theory on neoliberalism, it becomes clear that the dominant systems that organize contemporary life have supplanted the Enlightenment individual’s liberal agency with computational rationality. Freedom has become a management technique—as Foucault describes it, “I am going to see to it that you are free to be free.” Wardrip-Fruin et al. emphasize that agency does not equal freedom, which is fair, but I think that much is lost in their reduction of agency to “satisfying play experiences” (7), to a commodified pleasure inextricable from the logic of capital. Under this neoliberal worldview, the individual is only permitted agency to the extent that disruptive feedback can be absorbed back into the cybernetic system and restored to equilibrium. In a similar fashion, students at USC can exercise their agency by critiquing the institution’s lack of response to white supremacist violence and lack of support to students victimized by that violence, but the administration simply capitalizes on this dissent, enfolding feedback into the system and restoring equilibrium by celebrating the “Trojan community’s” “passion” and “diversity” without condemning fascism or white supremacism.
    For agency to be political, it must be capable of changing the system, which is precisely what Wardrip-Fruin argues against. However, Dyer-Witheford’s piece indicates that interactive media can also provide ways of exceeding the degree of feedback that systems are capable of absorbing, reminding us that systems are not inherently stable. I wonder how we might envision agency in a system in which the goal is not to win the game, but to change the game.

  2. “Agency Reconsidered” discusses what agency means in the world of video games. I’d like to bring this into conversation with the digital in our everyday lives, specifically how does human agency exist in our (heavily) digitally influenced world. In Strange Days, one of the characters remarks on the fact that movies, as a form of media, end. They don’t integrate themselves into our lives. They may have lasting effects, but don’t require us to regularly interact with them, nor is it expected of us. More traditional forms of media, like movies and television shows, lack the practicality and interface to somehow aid or accompany us in our day-to-day endeavors. However, the many technological apparatuses we now interact with on a regular basis are often portable, aid us in communication, are required for our jobs/careers, and/or allow for on the go entertainment. I say all of this simply to point out the forms of new media, forms that often inconspicuously fuse with our quotidian activities. Unlike the media before them, they are viewed not just as entertainment but as functional tools, and even as necessary.

    Considering this, what is agency in a world so keenly married to new media/technologies?
    How do we define agency? Is it simply action and effect? Or do we include in its constitution the idea that actions be self-determined? By “encourage[ing] agency” (1) are game designers encouraging free will or simply encouraging action?

    In the paper’s discussion of “agency as a phenomenon” it determines it to be what “occurs when the actions players desire are among those they can take as supported by an underlying computational model” (7). Meaning one’s actions within the game are for the most part predetermined, if only because the game world is one that pales in scope to that of the natural world and is created by a fairly singular force for a fairly singular purpose. The actions one can take are only so many, resulting in a fairly predictable mode of play and involvement. Even when players ‘get creative,’ they can only be so creative before the game can no longer support their actions. As a result, a player must adjust what they expect to be able to do and accomplish and how they expect their actions to influence their environment. These digital environments can entirely shift the way we interact with them. As discussed, these games “provide constraints and affordances” (3), resulting in agency, meaning action, not necessarily freewill. The balance of these elements give us the sense of moving forward, of making progress, even though we do so on a predetermined path.

    Given this, I wonder how certain digital environments that have managed to integrate themselves into our lives might shape our actions—turning what we want to do into what is suggested, what falls in line with a predetermined path. What does agency become in a world connected by, supported by, influenced by the digital? How are our actions effected or even determined by the digital environments we surround ourselves with? I ask these questions not because this phenomenon is new, our actions have been changed by human invention throughout history, but because in this particular case these digital inventions are both particularly integrated and (at this point) unfortunately formed by the needs of capital. Ultimately, my question is, how might new media “provide constraints and affordances” (3) that may or may not determine our actions? New media is unlike previous human invention as it amalgamates with us and our egos (via interfaces like social media), has an unlimited scope while lacking the true independence and spacial depth of the real world, and is approached and viewed as utilitarian, unlike the media before it. I wonder how might these features lead to an “agency” or false freewill that in the long run is not only debilitating but has no intention of serving us.

  3. Nick-Dyer-Witherford’ argues in “Circulation I: Interactive Media” that the invention of “new technologies” are not only used to advertise products to people, but are also used to give a voice to those who feel they are not heard in today’s society. One point Nick Dyer-Witherford’s makes is how the public is constantly fed advertisements that promote “mass production and mass consumption.” Witherford then explains that in response to the bombardment of advertisements the public “revolted” in the 1960s and 1970s through experiments in music, fashion, art and drugs. He takes a negative point of view with this argument by calling the system of Fordism a regime. I could not help but think that wouldn’t we, as students, want to benefit from such a system? As students, we expect to learn how to sell a product. Whether we create games or films, animated or live action, we are selling a product. We are selling a part of ourselves to the public. We expect a return on our education. In response to Witherford’s point about rebellion of the constant advertisements, I believe that when creative people are immersed in such an environment, we are either inspired by the current trends, try to emulate that trend, take advantage of its popularity and try to make a profit, or we are inspired to break that mold and come out with something completely new. It is a cycle that will continue to repeat itself. This system definitely has its positives and negatives. It is positive because we hope to make a profit from our work, but at the same time we can fall into artistic conformity. We are inspired by work that was created before us which will inspire us to create something new, which will inspire the next batch of artists and so on.

    In Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s “Agency Reconsidered”, he presents three different arguments on the concept of agency and how it is applied to the game player’s experience. However, he focuses on how agency relates to fictional games and interactive media. “Agency Reconsidered” brought up an interesting point about the gamer’s decrease in agency. When they experienced the game using a headset that too closely resembled real life, the gamer said they did not feel as though they were playing a game. The term “the uncanny valley” was used to describe this decrease in agency. I found this point a little funny because I always hear players talk about how the characters in the next game look so real. I wonder why the uncanny valley is acceptable in games that are played with a controller but is not accepted when a headset is used? Wouldn’t we want to be immersed in our favorite game ‘s world to play as one of our favorite characters? I suppose that if the game world players experience comes too close to the reality, they might feel limited by the laws of physics we experience in our everyday lives. Another point I found interesting was that players found keyboard-based interfaces easier to use as opposed to voice-based interfaces because players knew what to expect with everyday interaction with the computer as opposed to face-to-face interaction. My first reaction to this finding was to compare this to how we as a society are today. We rely too much on social media, email and text messages to successfully communicate an idea or thought rather than talking to people face to face.

    The last reading, “What is New Media” by Lev Manovich, brought up an interesting thought about how we create new media as artists today. Manovich states that “we are asked to mistake the structure of somebody else’s mind for our own” when he refers to pre-programmed actions that are created by somewhere else. It made me think about some of the programs that animators use to create their work. We start with a blank canvas in, for example, Adobe After Effects, and can create something from scratch. But do we really? All of the attributes and effects were created by someone else in order for us to use, so are we truly creating something original, or are we, as Manovich argues, mistaking our mind for someone else’s?

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