Sunday, January 9, 2011

Coming of Age in Call of Duty: Black Ops

Ok, it’s an awkward title but I use it as an allusion to Tom Boellstorff’s book Coming of Age in Second Life which in turn is a play on Margaret Mead’s much more famous ethnography. In a short blog post of course I’m not going to do real ethnography but like Boellstorff I do wonder whether the tools of cultural analysis can be used to redeem (because they certainly can’t edify) my recent delinquent immersion into the much acclaimed video game Call of Duty: Black Ops. When I was describing my interest in doing an ethnographic analysis of the game to a colleague of mine he snickered which is a sensible reaction. After all, why even try to redeem a game that falls squarely in the genre of a first person shooter where the main activity is killing (virtually) other people?

Why not just embrace pretend warfare’s pleasures on face value? And isn’t this total folly in light of the recent assassination attempt of Rep. Gifford in Arizona? Shouldn’t we be moving away from symbolic violence?

There are those considerations, of course. And I won’t discount the desire for entertainment as a primary motivator for shelling out $300 on a Sony Playstation and another $45 on the actual game and a good portion of my waking life since I brought it home on Christmas Eve. If I’ve learned about all sorts arcane weaponry like a Claymore mine and a China Lake I might like to say that I’m doing it to become “more deeply acquainted with the artifacts that make up and populate Call of Duty’s culture.” But admittedly there are more base -- and less intellectual --motivations at work here.

So my colleague’s snickers are legitimate.

Still, serious studies of gaming culture and virtual worlds are increasingly common. Boellstorff isn’t alone and you are more than likely to have a colleague or two who treats the enterprise with gravitas. Here at Weber State for example my colleague Greg Anderson in the Computer Science department recently finished a dissertation titled “The Impact of Video Games on Team Cohesion” at Indiana State University. As Boellstorff reminds us, when we venture into virtual worlds we’re often plagued with the notion that we’re engaging in escapism. But that doesn’t mean that the experience can’t bleed back into our real life in positive and constructive ways if we allow ourselves to reflect on the experience. Here’s a rudimentary beginning. Think of the following as merely as a first day's set of field notes. If my spouse doesn’t grab the Playstation away from my cold dead hands, perhaps something more substantive will follow later:

First, despite what anyone tells you, gaming, at least for an initiate like me, is a real learning experience. The learning might not be about texts, or numbers, but it is deeply and engagingly a kinesthetic education in how to use one’s hands to operate the Playstation’s controller. The first time I picked up this tool I couldn’t do anything with it. But gradually, over the course of a few days of playing it begins to feel like an extension of one’s self. Following Matthew Crawford in Shopcraft as Soulcraft, maybe this intense use of one’s hands deserves more consideration than we’ve given it up until now. Here is Crawford quoting Mike Rose in The Mind at Work:

‘…..our testaments to physical work are so focused on the values such work exhibits rather than in the thought it requires. It is a subtle but pervasive omission….It is as though in our cultural iconography we are given the muscled arm, sleeve rolled tight against biceps, but no thought bright behind the eye, no image that links the hand and the brain.”

To be sure, there are problems with extending the analogy between craftwork and gaming too far. One works with actual material things in the real world whereas the other works with things in virtual worlds. And craftsmanship, is about making things whereas the traditional first person shooter is primarily (although not exclusively) about destroying things. But the intense use of one’s hands (and one’s eyes) is still there.

Second, when I finished the campaign (one of four distinct games in the Black Ops software) the credits which scrolled up the screen lasted much longer than they do at the end of a movie. And what was even more notable was how large their pool of quality assurance testers was. (Testers are people who go through the software attempting to uncover and document bugs so that the programmers can then fix them). In spite of this, the game still had its share of bugs in it which impelled me as a gamer to patiently and laboriously discover work-arounds. Unless I engaged in this discovery process I couldn’t proceed with the game. While there’s much more to quality assurance testing than just this, it’s an important part of the process. As such the game is socializing at least some section of the gaming public to procedures they will come across in the work force.

Third, Black Ops isn’t just developed by programmers. In the credits you’ll see a whole slew of citations to art directors, character artists, effects artists and environmental artists (to name just a few of the positions) that suggest that aesthetics isn’t just a passing concern to the studio which produced it.

In fact, unless you’ve got an antiquated Arnoldian high brow sensibility, you’d be hard pressed not to call this art and very engrossing and engaging art at that. So if there are manual and intellectual and work cultures embedded in Black Ops there are also artistic and aesthetic cultures to be found as well.

None of the above is to say that the symbolic violence which is produced and consumed in gaming culture isn’t something that we should be worried about. But this violence is embedded in a whole slew of other cultural practices and sensibilities which make gaming's simple dismissal unrealistic. Which might be another way of saying that gaming ethonography is good; we can learn a little more about who we are and who we want to be by promoting it.


  1. Comment Part I

    In his work Coming of Age in Second Life, Tom Boellstorff is quick to point out that his anthropological studies are not conducted to determine if a certain cultural construct is good or not, but rather the studies are to analyze cultural practices and beliefs. (pg. 5) This seems to be a typical approach of ethnographic research, and I believe this “objective” approach is a useful means of assessing culture. I also agree with the implicit idea that popular culture merits study and that humanity can learn much about itself when it looks at all aspects of human endeavors, even entertainment.
    Dr. Fernandez’s rumination on “Call of Duty: Black Ops,” using Boellstorff’s paradigm, indeed should not be snickered at. Looking at the extension of oneself into a virtual world, the connectivity of brain to hand-movement, and other social and cultural markers within the video game are valid avenues of research and exploration.
    While not passing judgment on the “goodness” of a particular practice may be laudable, Boellstorff, and perhaps Fernandez, ignores the question of meaning. Sure, one may not want to say that something is good or bad and one should just take it as something that happened, but by the very nature of studying something, do we not automatically give that thing meaning. So while these scholars analyze cultural events in a supposed objective light, do they not, by the very nature of studying the event, attempt to validate the meaning of it?

  2. Comment Part II

    Is Fernandez attempting to understand himself and humanity better, by reflecting on the elements of this video game, or is he merely using the analysis to salve his conscience at what could be considered a waste of time? His “waste of time” has now become “meaningful scholarship,” just because he studied it. Fernandez may merely be the champion raising the banner of introspection (or should I say the Alex Mason leading his fellow ops) for all ridiculed husbands to rally around. “Yes dear, I know that the garbage needs to be taken out, and I should be paying more attention to the kids, and I realize that I’ve been playing this game for eight straight hours, but don’t you understand, I’m on a journey of self-discovery!” “I know I could be reading a book, but don’t you see that I am ‘LEARNING’!” “Honey, screw the ballet; look at the credits: I AM participating in Art!” “Babe, what you see as a violent rampage amounting to nothing, is in actuality my means of fulfilling the Socratic imperative of self examination!” Beleaguered gamers of the world your messiah has come and his name is Luke Fernandez!

  3. Comment Part III

    Embrace the nihilism, Dr. Fernandez. Why must we find meaning in all that we do? So many Americans lament wasting time. It is the modern man’s plight. In some senses the medieval peasant had it easier, because if you spend all day trying to survive you don’t have to deal with the guilt of wasting your free time. With disposable time came the guilt of idle pleasure. But if we just embrace the meaninglessness of life (as seen by the carnage of these video games, where “killing” thousands of men is so automatic) we won’t worry about the time spent on these games. Of course, then we will also realize the meaninglessness of all scholarly pursuits and introspection, for it all is vanity.
    Here then is the paradox of the video game. On one hand it teaches the meaninglessness of life and the thoughtless extermination of life, but on the other hand it also teaches that if we are killed we just have to respawn and continue on our journey. In some senses the video game may be the antidote to nihilism in that we enjoy it because we can live on and accomplish our goals. Where in the real world we face our ultimate and complete destruction, in the virtual world we wait a few seconds and our avatar moves on!