Monday, January 9, 2012

“But What Does It All Mean?”: Lacanian Reading and Video Games (Part I)

At the risk of dredging up the tired “Are Games Art?” debate, I think it's safe to say that anyone taking the time to read this weblog has probably felt some kind of emotional connection with a game at some point during their lives. Whether they cause us to see things a different way, force us to ask provocative questions, immerse us in an engaging fantasy world or give us vivid characters and stories to relate to, video games, like all forms of creative expression, have the power to resonate with us on a personal level and leave a lasting impression. Taking the time to unpack this truism, however, is an altogether different project and one that is uniquely rewarding. If it is safe to claim that games *can* affect us and that *why* they affect us differs from person to person, what about asking a third question? That is, *how* do they affect us as human players? Well, perhaps I ought to call us “readers”, because for this piece I'm going to try and subtly move us away from the language of pure game journalism and into the language of philosophy, media studies and, to be blunt, artistry.

The reason I make that fine redefinition of terms is that I believe video games can be read and understood as what we call “texts” in the world of theoretical humanities and social sciences. The word “text” carries an implied connection to books (which is typically what we talk about in philosophy), but really it can be applied to any creative work that has textual, subtextual and meta-textual elements to it, like a movie, a piece of music or, yes, a video game. I think the world of philosophy, media studies, qualitative social science and radical psychoanalysis offers a wide array of tools that we can use to look at games and read them better, and part of the reason I started this site was so I could highlight them and hopefully contribute something to a new level of discourse for our medium. That said, one of the simplest, most profound and most important tools we now have available to us is the concept of textual meaning, and, more to the point, where it comes from and how we read it.

There have been many theories and many debates about how we communicate, discuss and read one another, but the one I think is most appropriate to us is the one embodied by the work of one Jacques Lacan. Lacan was a controversial mid-20th Century French psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who nevertheless wound up making a sizeable number of important contributions to a bunch of different fields apart from clinical psychiatry, like philosophy, sociology, feminist theory, literary and film studies. Although, truth be known, we're actually going to be drawing more from Yale University professor Shoshana Felman’s contemporary reading of Lacan put forth in her truly excellent book Jacques Lacan and the Adventure of Insight. In it, Felman argues that Lacan’s work can be read as a kind of metaphor or subject, through which we can re-evaluate what it means to be a reader and what it means to be contemporary. In other words, Felman thinks that psychoanalysis, particularly the kind done by Lacan, has made possible a unique new way of reading that allows us to get a closer look at the actual act of reading itself and the significance that has for discourse.

I'm going to extrapolate Felman’s analysis further, using her conception of reading and the reader gleaned from Lacan as a starting point. For you see in this piece I am going to make the claim that not only can video games be read in exactly the same manner as any other kind of text, but that talented game designers can actually literalize this way of reading works as a key part of the final product. This is actually an underlying principle of the way I approach games and gaming, and I'll be returning to this thesis many times in subsequent articles for this site because I think it can be applied to any number of different titles and situations. For the meantime, however, I am going to concentrate on one game I feel is a perfect microcosm of my theory but of which, in a deliciously paradoxical manner, this might not be apparent at first: Shigeru Miyamoto’s groundbreaking 1985 classic, Super Mario Bros.

And yes, for those of you keeping score at home, I am reading Felman’s reading of Lacan (who more often than not was reading Freud in his work), and then appropriating those concepts so that I can read Super Mario Bros. I'm also going to be basing the conclusions of my case study somewhat on what Dave Sheff wrote about what Miyamoto said to him in the 1998 book Game Over: Press Start to Continue, but I'll touch more on that later. And, by the way, you're reading me as I'm doing all this, so that's another layer in of itself. Isn't deconstructive philosophy fun? Of course it is, so lets get started. But first, let's learn a little more about Lacanian thought and how we can even know what anything ever means.

Felman has quite a lot of different applications for Lacan’s work in contemporary philosophy and literature studies, but the one most relevant to us is the idea of how meaning is generated. Essentially, what a text “means”, what it's “about” and how it acquires any level of significance other than words on paper (or in our case binary bits in an NES cartridge). If you think back to your High School English days (and I knew as soon as I wrote those words some of you weren't going to want to, but bear with me-it wont be long) you'll probably remember your teachers once told you how great works of literature have a “deeper meaning” inherent in the text and how to look for symbolism and metaphors within it that explicitly related to those overarching themes and concepts. Some walk away from those classes thinking authors spend months and months toiling away at works to load it up with as many obscure symbols and hidden concepts designed to create for the reader a nasty web of ideas forcing them to analyse each and every last little thing. While I'm not denying some authors might do this (I can think of a few right now) this is, at heart an overly-simplified, reductive and narrow-minded way of approaching texts. In fact, I feel perhaps the most important thing to take away from this discussion is that textual meaning does not derive solely from the author (the author is certainly important, and that's a point I'm going to return to, but there's more to it than that). Here's what I think Felman, and by extension Lacan, is saying:

When we read a text, there are actually three very specific things happening in tandem that work together in order to generate meaning. Therefore, if we're ever going to figure out what our works mean, we have to pick apart each one of them and keep them in mind, because this is not only where we're going to figure out what the meaning is according to this specific reading (and yes, it will change depending on the reader), but it's also going to help us decide what constitutes a valid reading (more on that a little later). Let's look at these three concepts then: Firstly and probably most importantly, is what does the text actually, literally say? In a book, this is the first and easiest step: Pick it up and read those words. What are the actual words printed on the page (or represented by pixels on your iPad)? It boils down to a very simple binary (though I usually dislike them immensely): Did you or did you not actually read this book?

In my Super Mario Bros. example this is a little trickier because the game has next to no dialogue, but we can discern a lot from things like the onscreen prompts and the sumptuous instruction manual Nintendo kindly provided, which, for the purposes of this exercise I'm going to count as part of the game, mostly because without it Super Mario Bros. essentially has no story seeing as how the technology wasn't capable of fully conveying one yet. This isn't even taking into account the somewhat obvious fact that if you picked up the game when it first came out without reading the manual you probably would have absolutely no idea what you were looking at. In more recent games there are other ways of reading this level like in-game cutscenes, acted dialogue or pantomime sequences.

Returning to my case study, however, what we can discern about Super Mario Bros. on a superficial level is that it's a video game where you move a sprite left to right, jumping over obstacles and looking for passageways. The manual elaborates on this further, telling us that we “are” one Mario (a very important and loaded phrase that demands deeper later examination), a humble plumber who vows to help repel a band of wizard turtles who have invaded the Mushroom Kingdom and kidnapped Princess Toadstool, who is the only one versed in magic enough to defeat the invaders. The “Bros.” comes from the fact that Mario’s brother Luigi joins him on the adventure and can be controlled by a second player. Right away we can ascertain a basic yet fairly functional idea of what this game is, however we're far from done.

The second key needed in creating a claim to meaning is the obvious: Authorial intent. That is, what did the authors of the work intend when they sat down to write it? Now, this is a very complex issue and I actually fear the words I have laid out are not fully capable of conveying the thorniness of it. In brief, the whole notion of intentionality is a contentious one and one certainly worthy of full examination at a later date (I can already think of at least two philosophers who would like a word or two with me after saying this). For the moment though, let's simplify things and say that yes, the author had a specific intention to create a work and a specific idea of what the work is supposed to mean. How then can readers know what the author explicitly intended the work to be about?

Well, the easy answer is to read it, but this isn't actually as easy as it might appear at first glance due to another concept I'll address soon. No, the only way to truly get a firm idea of what the literal authorial intent of a piece is would be to ask the author straight up. This is admittedly difficult when the author has been dead for several centuries, so in those cases we are often reliant on other places where the authors wrote about their works for the record or, barring that, having endless discussions with other reader-philosophers in comfortable seminar rooms about what we feel Kant was really thinking when he wrote Kritik der reinen Vernunft.

With video games we have a slight advantage on this level because the medium is so young so many of its foundational artists and creators are still alive to talk about what inspired them to make their works, often at great length, and much has been written quiet extensively about it. Super Mario Bros. was, as stated above, the brainchild of Shigeru Miyamoto: Nintendo’s very own “staff cartoonist” and creator of many of its biggest hit titles. Much of Miyamoto’s biography and his thoughts on his own oeuvre is well-documented public knowledge, and the reason it is so is due to the work of journalist Dave Sheff compiled in his comprehensive history of Nintendo’s early years as a game publisher, Game Over: Press Start To Continue. Taking a look at how Sheff profiles Miyamoto, we can gain some insight on what his games mean:


Sheff details how Miyamoto's childhood growing up in Kyoto shaped how he came to view the world. Miyamoto loved cartoons, and would travel with his family great distances to see animated movies and spend countless hours drawing, making puppets, putting on shows and reading different kinds of fantasy books. A particular favourite of his were stories like Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. His love of fantasy belies Miyamoto's greatest love however: Exploring.

To Miyamoto, his neighbourhood, the maze-like corridors inside his house and the forest behind it may as well have been mythical fantasy lands full of adventure. Getting past his neighbour's angry guard dog was like a valiant fight to the death and a trip to the basement could be a grand adventure to find secret treasure hidden in the old chests stored there. Perhaps the most special moments for Miyamoto, however, were when he would take long walks into the forest to see what he could find. He would rejoice at finding a lake he didn't know about, or a cave leading to a network of underground tunnels.

For Miyamoto, the world is far, far more than it appears to the naked eye: Even when he moved to the city, he would always look around and find ways to let his imagination flourish. He would look at a manhole cover on a wall and wonder what it was doing there or, more to the point, what would happen if you opened it and crawled inside-Where would you end up? Miyamoto's childhood adventuring instilled in him a sense of breathless wonder at the world and a desire to explore it and broaden his horizons, and that profoundly shaped how he looked at it and how he would approach his works later in life.

After getting a job with Nintendo and asked to help out in the creation of some new games, Miyamoto felt it was a perfect opportunity to share his emotions and experiences with children all over the world. He really wanted players of his games to feel the same sense of wonder, magic and discovery he felt as a child, and that was a guiding tenant that went into all of his early games. His first masterpiece then undoubtedly has to be Super Mario Bros., which was consciously, explicitly designed around these very principles. Mario and Luigi are plumbers, a profession chosen because Miyamoto wanted a humble, working-class profession that a lot of people could relate to, thus hopefully broadening his potential audience. Fitting with the plumbing theme, many of the obstacles Mario and Luigi must jump over are large green pipes. However, these pipes hold secrets: Should players choose to stop and play around for a while instead of racing through the level at full tilt, they might choose to find out what happens if they try and go through a pipe. Occasionally, they would find themselves in a hidden area with a stash of gold coins as a reward for their curiosity.

Warp pipes are not the only way in which Super Mario Bros. encourages exploration and lateral thinking, however: From the very outset of the game Mario and Luigi will be confronted with mysterious hovering bricks. These can be used as platforms to navigate the level, but they can also be broken from underneath if players jump into them. Sometimes, these bricks would conceal a mushroom, flower or star which, when grabbed would grant a power-up (a conceit taken, of course, from Alice) a coin, or even a magic beanstalk which, if climbed, leads players to a secret world high above the clouds full of treasures. Other times, the bricks are invisible and only activated if Mario or Luigi make a lucky guess and jump into thin air. In other words, what would appear at first glance to be empty space is in fact something altogether more wondrous and strange to the careful eye.

One of the cleverest things players can do in Super Mario Bros., however, is a trick in the underground areas. In some levels players manoeuvre through an underground cavern, just like the ones Miyamoto was so fond of as a child. These levels are surrounded on all sides by bricks, the same kind that can be broken from beneath. By clearing a few blocks, players might be shocked to find Mario and Luigi can actually end up above the level walking on the ceiling. Follow this new-found path all the way to the end, and Mario and Luigi might stumble upon a secret room with three warp pipes, allowing them to bypass whole swaths of the game entirely. It's an incredibly charming trick, and it's only accessible if players think outside the box and actively want to satisfy their curiosity.

This touches on another major aspect of Super Mario Bros.: It's difficult to tell in hindsight, especially as its gameplay has become the core of almost every platformer made after it, but Super Mario Bros. was, in its day, an incredibly revolutionary and unorthodox game built essentially around challenging and deconstructing player's expectations about what video games should be about. Released into an era where arcades and arcade-style games were still the default, or at least an extremely prominent and important genre (albeit in the waning days of that era), Mario seemed to do everything differently. In an age where it really still wasn't uncommon to see games with one screen at a time about shooting things, Miyamoto gave us a side-scrolling platformer about a plumber trying to save a fantasy kingdom from a marauding band of magic turtles. Every single aspect of the game, from the side-scrolling core to the entire concept of warp pipes, warp zones and secret power-ups, is designed to fly in the face of what gamers would expect from a game at the time. In a way this only makes sense: If Super Mario Bros. is inspired by imagination, creativity, unconventional thinking and curiosity, it's only logical that it should be designed around forcing players to shed their preconceptions and think creatively. I can't think of a better showcase for Shigeru Miyamoto's worldview than that.


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