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Joost Raessens

As the reader can see in the other chapters of this book, of participatory media culture from a political-ideologi-
many authors refer to concepts such as ‘‘interactivity’’ cal perspective.
and ‘‘participation’’ to characterize the distinctiveness
of computer games and the media culture that has R e m e d i a t i o n a n d S p e ci fi c i t y
developed around them. In this book, as well as else- Participatory media culture is not limited to cultural
where, these terms are used in various and sometimes forms such as computer games (think for example of
contradictory ways, a situation that leads to confusion. peer-to-peer technology such as based networks such
When we look closely, there appear to be what I call as Napster, KaZaA and Gnutella; see Oram, 2001) nor
three domains of participation: interpretation, reconfi- to the digital so-called ‘‘new’’ media: computer games
guration, and construction. Therefore, in this chapter, are re-mediating the participatory culture that has
I systematically discuss and challenge these concepts, formed around media such as film and television. In
and describe these three domains to characterize com- this process of remediation computer games do ‘‘exactly
puter games as a form of participatory media culture.1 what their predecessors have done: presenting them-
Taking the theoretical framework of a young branch of selves as refashioned and improved versions of other
philosophy, namely the philosophy of information and media. Digital visual media can best be understood
communication technology, as my starting point, I through the ways in which they honor, rival, and revise
focus on the interpretation and evaluation of the onto- linear-perspective painting, photography, film, televi-
logical and political-ideological presuppositions and sion, and print’’ (Bolter & Grusin, 1999, pp. 14–15).
implications of computer games.2 The ontological di- One of the advantages of the concept of remediation is
mension refers to the specificity of computer games in that it allows us to break with the modernistic novelty
relation to film and television, for example, and the myth from which angle researchers often approach dig-
political-ideological dimension refers to the tension be- ital media in general, and computer games specifically.
tween the dominant and the critical, social and cultural Computer games have to be defined based on specific
practices in the realm of computer games. combinations of technical, social, cultural and economic
I start this chapter with a discussion of the specific- characteristics and not on exclusive, essential ones.3
ity of computer games in order to determine in which The view that participation is a new, exclusive, and es-
way they, as opposed to film and television, are able sential characteristic of computer games ignores the
to form a specific type of participatory media culture. fact that radio, film and television, for example, each
Next I analyze the phenomenon of ‘‘interpretation.’’ have their own versions of this concept. As far back as
Even though the interpretation of computer games is 1932–1934, Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin
not distinctly different from the interpretation of, say, argued in favor of transforming radio from a distribu-
films and television shows, this is nevertheless part of tion into a communication device that would make a
what I call participation. After this I focus on the phe- listener not only a consumer but also a producer of in-
nomenon of ‘‘deconstruction’’ as a specific form of formation.4 Also devices such as Xerox machines and
interpretation that seems characteristic for computer audio/video recorders allow users not only to copy,
games. I continue by further defining the concept of but also to edit other people’s material. We see such
participation as the active ‘‘reconfiguration’’ of existing activities in participatory cultures that take shape in fan
game elements and the creative ‘‘construction’’ of new communities surrounding science fiction films and tele-
game elements. I finish this chapter with a discussion vision shows such as Star Trek (see Jenkins, 1992;
Jenkins & Tulloch, 1995).
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Nevertheless, this approach has one pitfall. When (interpretation, in particular deconstruction), and
Joost Raessens

studying ways computer games remediate the participa- ‘‘more’’ (construction).7

tory effects of other media, you run the risk of being a A game computer should after all not just be seen
victim of the ‘‘horseless carriage syndrome,’’ the incli- as a technology that can simulate multi-medial virtual
nation to understand new techniques (the automobile) worlds one can interact with; it is also increasingly
in terms of old techniques (horse-drawn wagons). The being connected to other computers over the Internet.
risk is that computer games’ specific ability to shape Whereas players of computer games on discs (CD-
participatory media culture will then be neglected. We ROM, DVD-ROM) or cartridges can only navigate
should, therefore, not only focus on this remediation, within the designated boundaries of the game, online
but also on the distinguishing, specific characteristics gamers can jointly construct events and actions through
or principles of computer games as a form of digital the fourth characteristic, connectivity. For example,
media: multimediality, virtuality, interactivity, and in massive multiplayer online role playing games
connectivity. (MMORPG’s) such as Ultima Online (Electronic Arts,
The particular thing about multimediality is not 1997), Everquest (Sony, 1998), and Star Wars Galaxy
so much the combination of stationary and moving (Lucas, 2003), we see decentralized and self-organizing
images, three kinds of sound elements (spoken word, communities help shape the stories (Murray, 1997,
music, and noises) and written text5 —computer games p. 86; Murray & Jenkins, 1999, pp. 52–54). Further-
share this with, for example, film and television—but more, we see that this connectivity offers players the
the fact that these elements share one common digital ability to exchange ideas, knowledge (like walkthroughs
code, a characteristic with all kinds of economic and or cheat codes) and game-elements (like updates or
legal implications. Think of the ease with which com- patches) amongst each other via the Internet. We see
puter games can be (illegally) modified, copied, and dis- these practices for example in the subcultures that have
tributed without the loss of quality.6 been formed around certain computer games and fans
The second specific characteristic of computer modifying these games.8
games is virtuality, the possibility to simulate virtual
worlds a gamer can explore. Michael Heim described Interpretation
VR as ‘‘an event or entity that is real in effect but not To place the concept of ‘‘interpretation’’ within partic-
in fact’’ (Heim, 1993, p. 109); in other words, a digitally ipatory culture, I will use the conceptual framework
produced reality that can have effects which are com- developed in the British tradition of cultural studies.9
parable with effects of factual reality. This characteris- The development of cultural studies meant a break
tic embodies the metamorphosis that computer games with two principles that have long been dominant in
have undergone since the eighties: from an expres- the humanities and social sciences, and that are of im-
sion of ‘‘a modernist culture of calculation’’ in which portance with respect to this book on computer games.
a player enters a battle with the program behind First of all, cultural studies broke with the traditional
the game, toward a ‘‘postmodernist culture of simula- definition of culture that only allowed for the ‘‘higher,’’
tion’’ in which a players’ activity is restricted to navigat- elitist art forms, such as literature, classical art and
ing the surface of the computer game (Turkle, 1996, music. That is, cultural studies also focus on ‘‘lower,’’
p. 20). more popular art forms in which so-called ‘‘good taste’’
Thanks to a third characteristic, interactivity, a was sacrificed for commercial success and the de-
gamer is able to control the game’s proceedings and/or mands of the general public.10 In this context, think
its conclusion. According to British film theoretician not only of pop music, soap operas, music videos on
Andrew Cameron, interactivity means more than the television, and Hollywood films, but also of computer
interpretation of a computer game, it means ‘‘the ability games that enjoy great popularity, especially among a
to intervene in a meaningful way within the representa- young mass audience. Cultural studies also focus on
tion itself, not to read it differently’’ (Cameron, 1995, cultural practices that fall outside of the high culture/
p. 33). In contrast with a ‘‘passive’’ film audience, an low culture dichotomy by studying how we, as subjects,
interactive game player is enabled, for example, to take are constructed by the everyday and the ordinary—
up the role of narrator and influence the course of think of divergent social and cultural practices such as
events and actions, possibly as a character in the plot. sports, shopping, design, and advertisement.
It is the purpose of this chapter to argue that participa- Secondly, the cultural studies movement resists the
tion is not only this (reconfiguration), but also ‘‘less’’ idea of an audience as a passive object at the mercy of
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the surrounding and influential top-down expressions other groups and achieve a kind of ascendancy in both

Computer Games as Participatory Media Culture

of culture. Cultural texts, in contrast, are viewed as thought and practice over them. This form of power
open texts that different groups of viewers interpret dif- Gramsci called ‘hegemony.’ Hegemony is never perma-
ferently, depending on social, cultural, and other con- nent, and is not reducible to economic interests or to
texts: ‘‘Culture, as the site where meaning is generated a simple class model of society’’ (Hall, 1997, p. 48; see
and experienced, becomes a determining, productive Williams, 1988, pp. 144–146).
field through which social realities are constructed, This struggle not only exists between different
experienced and interpreted’’ (Turner, 1996, p. 14). forms of culture—think of the struggle between tele-
Mainly in the area where these two principles converge, vision and computer games to get attention (‘‘eyeball-
the influence of cultural studies is most pronounced. hours’’)—but also within the individual expressions of
It is important to note that cultural studies breaks popular culture. Different ideologically colored read-
both with the work of the Frankfurt School and the so- ings of computer games can be in disagreement, and,
called media-effect theoreticians. Whereas the media- as it were, battle for hegemony. What lies at the
effect theoreticians focus mainly on the effects that the foundation of this discussion is the idea of the active
so-called powerful media as a form of one-way traffic role of the audience in determining the meaning, or
exert on the audience, for Horkheimer and Adorno significance, of an expression of culture.
(1986), as they wrote in 1944, culture for the masses, This active role of the audience is worded in
such as film, is what reduces the audience to mindless an exemplary fashion by Stuart Hall in his article
slaves and thus to victims of capitalist consumer soci- ‘‘Encoding/decoding’’ (1980). Hall shows that an ex-
ety.11 In my opinion, there are still several arguments pression of culture contains not only one opinion,
in favor of Horkheimer and Adorno’s position. Despite but in the process of communication that stretches
the possibility to participate that computer games offer from design/production (encoding) to reception/con-
their users, and despite extensive participation by spe- sumption (decoding), the meaning of it is formed by
cific groups of users (think of fans, hobbyists, hackers), a number of factors. Not only the design and pro-
there is also an element of what Douglas Rushkoff calls duction of a computer game, but also its reception
‘‘coercion’’ involved in computer games: manipulation and consumption has to be considered an active, inter-
encouraging users to buy products through different pretive, and social event. In other words, expressions of
forms of marketing and the use of sophisticated, but culture are ‘‘polysemic,’’ that is, they are open to vari-
sometimes rhetorical used notions such as ‘‘interactiv- ous readings by various (groups of ) readers.
ity’’ and ‘‘participation.’’ ‘‘It’s not always easy to deter- Hall distinguishes between three different reading
mine when we have surrendered our judgment to strategies the ‘‘decoder-receiver’’ can use to interpret
someone else. The better and more sophisticated the texts; the ‘‘dominant-hegemonic or preferred read-
manipulation, the less aware of it we are’’ (Rushkoff, ing,’’13 the ‘‘negotiated reading,’’ and the ‘‘oppositional
1999, p. 3). reading.’’ Respectively, these strategies point out the
In the framework of this chapter on participation, I possibility to read a text according to the dominant ide-
will limit myself to one of the two above-mentioned ology, the possibility to negotiate this dominant ideol-
principles, namely the idea of ‘‘the active audience.’’12 ogy and to varying degrees mix adaptive elements with
One of the starting points of cultural studies that is rel- oppositional elements, and the possibility to go against
evant with respect to this issue is Gramsci’s concept of the dominant ideology and come up with a purely
hegemony: Gramsci ‘‘acknowledges the power of the oppositional reading.14
individual human agent within culture by analyzing not The chapters by Birgit Richard and Jutta Zar-
only the overdetermining structure that produces the emba, and Anna Everett further illustrate the fact that
individual, but also the range of possibilities produced from a political-ideological viewpoint it is useful to al-
for the individual’’ (Turner, 1996, pp. 29–30). Both low for various readings of a single text.15 Richard and
the hegemony, sometimes called ‘‘domination,’’ of Zaremba analyze different readings of the Lara Croft
certain forms of cultural expression, as well as the criti- phenomenon, from 1996 on the protagonist of the
cal, political resistance of minorities against oppressive Tomb Raider series. In the dominant reading, the male
power relations, reveal that culture is in fact a constant player enjoys Lara Croft in a harmless way (a ‘‘harmless
struggle. According to Hall, ‘‘Gramsci’s notion was dream woman, whose physical attractions can be looked
that particular social groups struggle in many different at with impunity, lust and joy’’). The negotiated read-
ways, including ideologically, to win the consent of ing brings to our attention that the portrayal of her
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self-conscious lifestyle could make it easier for young imperialism’’ (p. 134). Therefore, he does not agree
Joost Raessens

women to position themselves as such (a ‘‘postfeminist with the critics who claim that these simulations give
icon’’ who ‘‘at no point has any orientation toward players the illusion that ‘‘they have encountered not
domesticity’’). The oppositional reading of Lara Croft just one version of the way the world works, but the
condemns her as an object of lust, made by and for one and only ‘objective’ version’’ (p. 143). The ‘‘base-
men, a stereotypical portrayal of femininity (‘‘the over- line ideological assumptions that determine which strat-
fulfillment of female proportions that are designed for egies will win and which will lose’’ (p. 144) will become
the male gaze’’ makes her ‘‘female enemy number apparent while actually playing the game. That is why
one’’).16 Everett demonstrates that in computer games, Friedman claims that ‘‘to win . . . you have to figure
‘‘blackness’’ is present, but almost always in stereotypi- out what will work within the rules of the game’’ (p.
cal characters (as is the case with ‘‘whiteness’’) who are 136). The reason for this is for a large part found in
situated in a lower hierarchical position. Gamers who the fact that a computer game, as opposed to, for exam-
readily recognize themselves in such a position may ple, a film, is played over and over again until the mo-
consciously or unconsciously accept this dominant ide- ment that all the game’s secrets have been discovered.
ology, and, in Hall’s terms, give a dominant reading of In my view, we can describe this process of demys-
such computer games. Other groups will take up a tification as ‘‘deconstruction,’’ the translation of the
more negotiated reading and search for nonracist role French word déconstruction (detachment, dissolution).
models they can identify with. In oppositional readings, This term, a central notion in the work of the French
finally, the dominant ideology (the ‘‘unbearable white- philosopher Jacques Derrida, refers to the method of
ness of being,’’ as Everett calls it) will be unmasked as interpretation that aims to bring to the foreground
racist. In any case, these authors make clear that the those elements that operate under the surface, but
meaning of the representation of, for example, gender break through cracks in the text to disrupt its superficial
and ethnicity in computer games—as well as the co- functioning.
construction between them and other axes of significa- Not only Friedman, but also Turkle refers to this
tion, such as class and nationality—is under continuous practice I describe as deconstruction. However, thanks
discussion. Representations are thus not only reflec- to the development of computer games, this decon-
tions of society; they also play an active role in shap- struction is no longer self-evident, as Friedman seems
ing it. to suggest. That is, Turkle notices a shift from ‘‘calcu-
lation and rules’’ to ‘‘simulation, navigation, and inter-
D e c o n st r u c t i o n action’’ (1996, p. 19): ‘‘When video games were very
Following the terminology of British cultural studies, new, I found that the holding power of their screens
authors like Ted Friedman and Sherry Turkle empha- often went along with a fantasy of a meeting of minds
size the political-ideological importance of computer between the player and the program behind the game.
games: ‘‘Computer programs, like all texts, will always Today, the program has disappeared; one enters the
be ideological constructions . . . learning and winning screen world as Alice stepped through the looking
. . . a computer game is a process of demystification: glass’’ (p. 31).17 Brenda Laurel notices this transition
One succeeds by discovering how the software is put and accordingly refers to the specificity of computers
together. The player molds his or her strategy through by describing them as ‘‘machine[s] naturally suited for
trial-and-error experimentation to see ‘what works’— representing things that you could see, control, and
which actions are rewarded and which are punished’’ play with. Its interesting potential lays not in its ability
(Friedman, 1995, pp. 81–82). to perform calculations but in its capacity to represent
Friedman’s position is special in that he believes action in which humans could participate’’ (1997, p. 1).
that the process of playing computer games as such Let us take a closer look at Turkle’s argument. She
reveals this ideological construction. Whereas other discusses this transition in the section ‘‘The Games
kinds of texts mask their ideologically colored con- People Play: Simulation and Its Discontents’’ (pp. 66–
structedness, Friedman believes that ‘‘computer games 73). According to Turkle, the development of the com-
reveal their own constructedness to a much greater puter game lead to the ‘‘socialization into the culture of
extent than more traditional texts’’ (Friedman, 1995, simulation’’ (p. 67). Because in the early days of com-
p. 82): for Sim City this is ‘‘the political and economic puter games (she refers to games such as Space Invaders,
premises it rests on’’ (Friedman, 1999, p. 133), and for 1978, Asteroids, 1980 and Pac-Man, 1981) the rules were
Civilization II ‘‘the familiar ground of nationalism and simpler and more easy to grasp, this meant that for the
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players ‘‘getting to know a game required you to deci- ‘‘deconstruction’’ films of the 1960s (De Mul, 2002a,

Computer Games as Participatory Media Culture

pher its logic, understand the intent of its designer, pp. 85–102; Raessens, 2002, pp. 149–150). French
and achieve a meeting of the minds with the program New Wave-films such as Last Year at Marienbad
behind the game’’ (p. 67). (Resnais, 1961) tried to tempt viewers to deconstruct
Even though today computer games are still ‘‘rec- the film, to make them aware of the ideological presup-
ognizably rule-based,’’ the rules have become much positions of the classical Hollywood style: ‘‘Marienbad
more complicated and less accessible. The reaction to offers what we, using a term of Derrida, could refer to
this development was twofold: among certain groups as the deconstruction of the découpage classique as it was
of gamers (think of hobbyists and hackers), fan cultures developed in Hollywood Cinema’’ (De Mul, 2002a, p.
developed in which knowledge of the rules was shared. 89). The goal of the découpage classique or ‘‘continuity
Turkle also notices, however, an opposing develop- editing’’ was ‘‘to control the potentially disunifying
ment. Because the rules were getting more complex force of editing by establishing a smooth flow from
and because the games were characterized more and shot to shot’’ (Bordwell & Thompson, 1986, p. 210).
more by ‘‘realistic simulation through graphics, anima- This method of editing concealed this underlying con-
tion, sound, and interactivity’’ (p. 68), a large group of structive process in order to have the often ideologically
‘‘average’’ users became interested only in the surface charged message come across as natural or transparent
of the simulation, and not (or no longer) in the to-be- as possible.19 The criticism Resnais and his contempo-
deconstructed depth of the game. raries expressed aimed at making this naturalizing pro-
In the framework of this chapter on participatory cess visible and, wherever possible, expose it as such
media culture it is relevant that Turkle describes three by including in their film contradictions that were spa-
possible answers to what she calls ‘‘the seduction of tially, temporally, or causally unsolvable. Attempts to
simulation’’ (p. 71), three answers that strongly resem- mentally construct the causal and chronological story
ble what I referred to earlier as dominant, oppositional, are doomed to fail using the available, ambiguous
and negotiated readings. We can either surrender to chunks of plot: ‘‘Marienbad’s story is impossible to de-
the seduction (‘‘simulation resignation’’), we can reject termine. The film has only a plot, with no single consis-
it (‘‘simulation denial’’), or we can—and this is the op- tent story for us to infer’’ (p. 304). The desired result
tion Turkle seems to favor—‘‘take the cultural perva- intended was that the audience would become aware of
siveness of simulation as a challenge to develop a more the constructedness of film stories.
sophisticated social criticism.’’ This social criticism This analysis concurs with Hall’s analysis of ideol-
would rest on an analysis of the assumptions that are ogy, which claims that messages continually try to erase
built into the simulation: ‘‘Understanding the assump- their own ideological presuppositions in order to come
tions that underlie simulation is a key element of polit- across as spontaneous presentations of so-called ‘‘real-
ical power’’ (p. 71). ity.’’ Hall calls this process of naturalization ‘‘the reality
What makes Turkle’s approach worth noting is effect’’: ‘‘certain codes may . . . be so widely distributed
that she not only adds a historical dimension to this in a specific language community or culture, and be
form of participation, but she also manages to systemat- learned at so early an age, that they appear not to be
ically distinguish between the ways different subcultures constructed . . . but to be ‘naturally’ given . . . This has
deal with it: ‘‘Although I have introduced the terms the (ideological) effect of concealing the practices of
hacker, hobbyist and user to refer to specific people, coding which are present. But we must not be fooled
they are best understood as different modes of relation- by appearances’’ (Hall, 1980, p. 132).
ship that one can have with a computer’’ (pp. 32–33). There are two explanations for Resnais’ failed at-
According to Turkle, a user is ‘‘involved with the ma- tempt; one is an overload, the other a shortage. It
chine in a hands-on way, but is not interested in the was an overload because it expected too much of the
technology except as it enables an application. Hackers audience, which only wanted, in a more or less passive
are the antithesis of users. They are passionately way, to enjoy an easily reconstructable story. The audi-
involved in mastery of the machine itself. The hob- ence did not want to do the desired deconstructive
byists in their own way were equally enthralled’’ labor. The reason for this is found in the enjoyment
(p. 32).18 that an audience derives from fiction. Christian Metz,
In order to realize the distinctiveness of this pro- a French semiotician, has extensively studied this en-
cess of deconstructing computer games, it is useful to joyment, or lack of it, particularly in relation to such
draw a comparison with the pretensions of the so-called deconstruction films. According to Metz, viewers are
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not willing to give up the ‘‘lust premium’’ that is transition from interactivity to participation and finish
Joost Raessens

attached to a fictional film, and they do not enjoy the with a further elaboration of the concepts of participa-
‘‘intellectual-sadism’’ related to ‘‘deconstruction mecha- tion and ‘‘participatory media culture.’’
nisms,’’ ‘‘disassembly,’’ and ‘‘intellectual self-control’’:
‘‘The joy of a toy has to be converted into the enjoy- Interactivity
ment of tearing that toy apart’’ (Metz, 1980a, p. 19). Interactivity refers to ‘‘a distinctive mode of relating to
The second reason why the film failed was that it audiovisual representations or fictions. The player is
fell short of Resnais’ ambitions to make the viewers provided with a way of directly taking a leading role in
actual co-creators of the film. Because Marienbad is a what occurs, given the means to control—at least in
film, the plot is fixed and the enjoyment that can be part—what will unfold within the scene on the screen’’
derived from playing computer games is out of reach. (Darley, 2000, p. 156).
This despite the gamelike structure of Marienbad: This somewhat abstract relation of the player to
‘‘The whole structure of Marienbad is a play with logic, the game, can be concretized as the possibility for the
space, and time which does not offer us a single, com- player to take up the role of narrator and influence the
plete story as a prize for winning this ‘game’ ’’ (Bord- course of events and actions, possibly as a character in
well & Thompson, 1986, p. 308). the plot.20 In this way computer gamers can make Lara
To me, computer games are possibly more able Croft (Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation, Eidos, 1999),
than avant garde films to make this deconstruction hap- Mario (Super Mario 64, Nintendo, 1996), Indiana Jones
pen, and thereby more able to realize the emancipating (Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine, Activision,
functioning that is connected to it in an aesthetic and 1999), Link (The Legend of Zelda), and Niobe and Ghost
political sense. In the light of the foregoing description (Enter the Matrix, 2002) move and carry out certain
of British cultural studies, one could consider this the actions using keyboard, mouse, controller, or joystick.
ultimate revenge of low culture computer games against Even more specific are the games in which the player
high culture avant garde films. Looking through and can play the role of an actual character, think of games
exposing the hidden, naturalized, ideologically presup- such as Doom, Quake, Half-Life, Soldier of Fortune, and
posed rules of the medium is in my opinion a form No One Lives Forever.
of participatory media culture. This does not imply, Along the lines of Metz’ research on the specific-
however, that we do not need to distinguish between ity of film, we can consider this role as typical for the
different readings and genres of computer games. This computer game. According to Metz, film viewers can
kind of deconstruction is possible and commonplace in be characterized by a perceptive, affective, and cognitive
readings of computer games that are aimed at acquiring participation, but with bodily activation absent or lim-
knowledge (for example, by hackers and hobbyists), and ited to physically commenting on the film.21 The im-
in specific genres (such as simulation games). There- mobile and predominantly silent film viewer behaves
fore it is probably no coincidence that both Friedman ‘‘like a viewer, not like an actor. The actors have their
and Turkle focus on a rather specific group and genre designated spot, which is elsewhere: at the other side
for their studies. In everyday practice, however, such of the film’’ (Metz, 1975, p. 118). If we, on the other
deconstruction will regularly be overshadowed by the hand, look at the history of computer games, it is re-
different forms of enjoyment that users may experience markable that with increasing frequency we find our-
while playing computer games. Not only film viewers, selves in three-dimensional virtual worlds in which we
but also computer game players, seem to me, more su- not only stay close to the POV of the main character,
perficial than Friedman and Turkle maintain, at least if but in which we are able to fulfill the role of main char-
we define superficiality as staying at the surface of the acter due to this POV structure (see Rushkoff, 1997,
fiction, the story and the game, as opposed to the previ- pp. 177–178).
ous in-depth deconstruction. In making the player a character in the plot, com-
puter games accomplish what has only been themed or
R e c o n fi g u r a t i o n a n d C o n s t r u c t i o n tried in vain in film or other media. Both in the music
The concept of ‘‘participation’’ is often considered an- video Take On Me (A-ha, 1985) and the film The Purple
other term for what some call ‘‘interactivity.’’ In order Rose of Cairo (Allen, 1985) a female character respec-
to establish the relationship between both terms more tively walks into a comic book and a film to experience
clearly, I will first describe the concept of ‘‘interactiv- all kinds of adventures, while the film Lady in the Lake
ity’’ and a criticism of it after which I will discuss the (Montgomery, 1946) goes even a step further by
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maneuvering its own audience into the position of to human input. Ascribing magical ability to a piece of

Computer Games as Participatory Media Culture

being a character in the film. In the opening sequence, technology in such a way is in conflict with the techno-
detective Philip Marlowe addresses the viewer talking logical interactionism I adhere to: social processes are
about a case he has recently cracked. He announces not only influenced by technological developments (as
that the viewer will take his place and see the same in technological determinism), nor are they solely con-
things he saw, after which he challenges the audience trolled by human negotiations (social constructivism),
to solve the case like he did. The rest of the film merely but by both (De Mul, 2002b, pp. 29–39).
consists of a series of POV-shots aimed at giving the Using a number of examples, Aarseth demonstrates
audience a sense of being the character in the film. there is ‘‘a growing discontent with the dubiousness of
This failed for a number of reasons (Sobchack, 1992, the term’’ (1997, p. 48) and that the issue described us-
pp. 230–248). In this context, the most important rea- ing this terminology can better be described using the
son for this failure is that, after having been invited to terms ‘‘participation, play, or even use’’ (p. 49). Con-
play this part, the audience also wants to influence the sequently, he ends with the ravaging criticism that
actions and the course of events. Because this is impos- interactivity ‘‘is a purely ideological term, projecting
sible—it is after all, a film (cf. Marienbad )—the viewer an unfocused fantasy rather than a concept of any ana-
is constantly confronted with the presence and limita- lytical substance. This should be sufficient reason for
tions of this medium. The pleasure normally experi- theorists not to use it’’ (p. 51). Also Laurel criticizes
enced while watching a fictional film is at best replaced the term: ‘‘The search for a definition of interactivity
by an intellectual appreciation for Robert Montgom- diverts our attention from the real issue: How can peo-
ery’s experiment. ple participate as agents within representational con-
In Bolter and Grusin’s terms we can describe this texts’’ (1997, p. 21).
failure as an unsuccessful attempt at achieving transpar-
ent immediacy and an undesired realization of a con- From Interactivity to Participation
sciousness of the construction of the film. We found I agree only partly with Aarseth’s criticism of the ideo-
comparable results in attempts to realize interactivity logical significance of the term ‘‘interactivity.’’ I agree
in the collectiveness of a cinema, for example, by occa- with his criticism of the authors who use it as a purely
sionally giving the audience a choice over how the film ideological term, i.e. those who do not define how it
will continue. The explanation for the failure of such actually takes shape within a game and what the effects
experiments seems to lie in the fact that the influence of it are outside the game. But to reject any ideological
exerted by the audience cannot be considered a direct meaning is to flush away the political child with the
result of the individual viewer’s choice. In this sense purely ideological bath water. And, as I demonstrated
interactive cinema seems to be an oxymoron, because above, interactivity is not necessarily a vague concept,
cinema seems to need an audience, and interactivity an but can be defined as the possibility for the player to
individual relation with, for example, a television or take up the role of narrator and influence the course of
computer screen. Even computer games that are played events and actions, possibly as a character in the plot.
with several people over a local network or the Internet In my opinion this lack of precision in the term
are based on this starting point. ‘‘interactivity’’ has, among other things, a historical
Criticism on the concept of ‘‘interactivity’’ is prob- background. In comparison with other forms of media
ably just as diverse as the attempts to define it. In Cyber- like television and the PC, people seemed easily content
text (1997), Aarseth qualifies interactivity as a form of with the vague term interactivity to determine the
‘‘industrial rhetoric’’ (p. 48), which calls to mind all uniqueness of computer games. In chapter 27 of this
kinds of vague connotations to improve the selling book, Rushkoff shows that interactivity, as the specific
potential of products, such as newspapers, video, and characteristic of a computer game, was often mentioned
television. Aarseth demonstrates how this ‘‘commercial by comparing it with the working of a TV-remote con-
rhetoric is accepted uncritically by academics with little trol (that deconstructed the content of television media)
concern for precise definitions or implicit ideologies’’ and the PC-computer’s mouse and keyboard (with
(p. 48; see Manovich, 2001, pp. 55–61). One of Aar- which we could create [construct] and disseminate our
seth’s justifiable pieces of criticism is that the promised own content). Interactivity in the early is described by
ideological implications of ‘‘freedom for the user’’ and Rushkoff as moving around the pixels years on the
‘‘equality of man and machine’’ are said to be caused screen, something I define as a form of reconfiguration.
by the mere technical ability of computers to respond Hence Rushkoff describes the game Pong (1972): ‘‘You
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Table 24.1 sis of ‘‘user functions’’ (1997, pp. 64–65), he observes

Joost Raessens

From interactivity to participation in computer games

that the interpretive function is important for all texts
Television: Deconstruction Deconstruction (and thus, I would claim, also for computer games): ‘‘If
remote all the decisions a reader makes about a text concern its
meaning, then there is only one user function involved,
Computer Move the pixels Computer Reconfiguration here called interpretation’’ (p. 64). And only because
game: game
an author such as Marie-Laure Ryan (2001) is exploring
different forms of interactivity, she claims on the other
PC: mouse Creation Construction
hand that she sees ‘‘no point in regarding ‘interpretive’
keyboard as a distinctive user function, since interpretation is
involved in all intelligent text handling.’’ In this section,
¼ interactivity in games
¼ participation in games I will give an explanation of the domains of ‘recon-
figuration’ and ‘construction’ against the background
of the ideas of Aarseth and Ryan on this point (see table
were celebrating the simple ability to be able to move
the pixels on the screen for the first time. It was a mo-
ment of revolution!’’ (p. 417) From a historical per- Reconfiguration First, reconfiguration exists in the
spective he was of course correct, because that is about exploration of the unknown, in the computer game rep-
as far as the development was in those days. resented worlds. In this ‘‘explorative function,’’ the
If we look at today’s computer games as a form gamer is ‘‘making strategic choices about alternative
of participatory media culture, we need to come to paths and, in the case of adventure games, alternative
the conclusion that computer games are not only char- actions’’ (Aarseth, 1997, p. 64). Characteristic of the
acterized by reconfiguration, but also, more or less, by ‘‘exploratory mode’’ is that ‘‘the user is free to move
deconstruction and by construction. We encounter this around the database, but this activity does not make
development in the scheme shown in table 24.1. history nor does it alter the plot; the user has no impact
on the destiny of the virtual world’’ (Ryan, 2001). It is
Participation this exploration and attempt to control worlds that are
Thus, in my opinion, a more precise alternative for unknown to the player, that is often mentioned as a
interactivity to characterize not only the specificity of specific characteristic of computer games (see Fuller &
computer games but also the media culture that has Jenkins, 1995; Johnson, 1997, pp. 72–75; Manovich,
formed around them, is the concept of ‘‘participation.’’ 2001, pp. 244–285).
As already stated in the introduction, I consider partici- Second, we speak of reconfiguration when a player
pation to consist of three domains: that of interpreta- in this process of exploration is invited to give form to
tion (deconstruction is understood as a specific form of these worlds in an active way by selecting one of the
interpretation), the domain of the reconfiguration of many preprogrammed possibilities in a computer game
existing game elements, and the domain of the con- (this is what Aarseth calls the ‘‘configurative func-
struction of new game elements. In this section I will tion,’’ Aarseth, 1997, p. 64). Here, a player is ‘‘building
mainly focus on a short explanation of the latter two. the virtual world by selecting objects and actions from
Espen Aarseth also noted that interpretation a fixed set of system-internal possibilities’’ (Ryan, 2001;
should be considered part of participation. In his analy- see also Manovich, 2001, pp. 218–243).

Table 24.2
Domains of participation

Domains of
Hall Friedman Turkle Aarseth Ryan participation

Dominant Simulation resignation Interpretation Interpretation

Negotiated Demystification Simulation understanding
Oppostional Simulation denial
Exploration Exploration Reconfiguration
Configuration Selection
Addition Addition Construction
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Thus, reconfiguration enables the player ‘‘to con- referred to in relation to digital culture: ‘‘the hacker

Computer Games as Participatory Media Culture

trol the transformation of a body of information to culture and contingent ‘open source’-methods are alive
meet its needs and interests. This transformation and kicking in the online gamer circuits’’ (Schleiner,
should include a capability to create, change, and re- [2]).22
cover particular encounters with the body of knowl- It is important, finally, to notice that only a minor-
edge, maintaining these encounters as versions of the ity of gamers will engage in these more ‘‘radical’’ forms
material’’ ( Joyce, 1995, p. 41). It is the actualization of of participation. Compared to reconfiguration, con-
something that is virtually, in the sense of potentially, struction seems to me a much less familiar use. More
already available as one of the options, created by the than with exploratory computer games, constructive
developer of the computer game. ones ‘‘require a capability to act: to create, change, and
recover particular encounters within the developing
Construction Construction, understood as the addi-
body of knowledge. These encounters . . . are versions
tion of new game elements, can exist in the making of
of what they are becoming, a structure for what does
new games or—and this is much more common—the
not yet exist’’ ( Joyce, 1995, p. 42).
modification of existing games, described as ‘‘to decon-
The domains of reconfiguration and construction
struct and alter an existing system for the joy of it’’
make clear that the relation between player and game
(Diniz-Sanches, 2003, 67). By modification, ‘‘the users
is much more complex than the different forms of
can extend or change the text by adding their own writ-
interpretation I described above as part of cultural stud-
ing or programming’’ (Aarseth, 1997, p. 64) in which
ies: ‘‘The cultural studies’ embrace of the model of re-
‘‘the ability to add permanent components to the text
sistant reading . . . only describes one axis of a more
presupposes the demiurgic power to co-create the vir-
complex relationship between readers and texts’’ ( Jen-
tual world’’ (Ryan, 2001).
kins & Tulloch, 1995, pp. 262–263). Although you can
Construction is an activity that can take a multi-
give both negotiating and oppositional readings of a
tude of forms. It is suggested that, partly out of com-
single character as Lara Croft (interpretation), we
mercial consideration, you can find one of these forms
have to turn to a computer game such as The Nomad
in the preprogrammed hacker system that we encounter
Soul (1999) to be able to play with a diversity of pre-
in Enter the Matrix (Atari, 2003): ‘‘The game also fea-
programmed characters and their gender-identities
tures a unique ‘hacking system’ that allows the player
(reconfiguratie). And it is the use of independently
to hack into the game, or his/her character, exploring
produced game patches (construction)—think of Lara
and unlocking secrets.’’ However, these activities are
Croft as female Frankenstein, as drag queen et cetera
better described as a form of reconfiguration. You can
(see Schleiner [3])—that further increase the possibility
really speak of construction when players work with
of the player to really arrive at a diversity of ‘‘sheroes.’’
game-mods or game patches, editing tools and source
codes. These mods or patches can be described as
Participation in Political-Ideological
follows: ‘‘A patch (or a skin, a wad, a mod, a map or
Pe r s p e c t i v e
a shape) is an add-on to an existing game engine that
The political dimension resurfaces, publicly articulated
alters the original code or state of a computer game.
or not, in the ideological criticism that is contained in
A patch can range from a simple repair of an error in
many reflections on participatory media culture. Hence,
the original game to elaborate manipulation and cus-
considering the specific characteristics of computer
tomization of graphics, sound, game play, architecture
games, I wonder in what way and to what extent com-
or other attributes of the original computer game.’’
puter games can contribute to the development of new,
(Schleiner, [1])
or the remediation of existing practices of participa-
Despite the fact that some of these practices of
tory media culture in which the autonomy of users is
game modification have been accepted, encouraged
as great as possible. You could call this a form of ‘‘inter-
and commercially exploited by developers and publish-
vention analysis’’: ‘‘Intervention analysis seeks not only
ers, when ‘‘pirating, cracking, and repackaging games’’
to describe and explain existing dispositions of knowl-
(Rushkoff, 1994, p. 185) the gamer can still be con-
edge, but also to change them’’ ( Jenkins & Tulloch,
sidered as a point of resistance against the gaming
1995, p. 238). At a time when the Western world is fac-
industry. The act of copying, modifying and hacking
ing the transformation from ‘‘industrial capitalism’’ into
of computer games, is a specific form of the piracy
‘‘the new age of cultural capitalism’’ (Rifkin, 2000)—
and parasitism that Gilles Deleuze and Hakim Bey
that characterizes itself as an ‘‘entertainment economy’’
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(Wolf, 1999) or ‘‘experience economy’’ (Pine & Gil- tational. Culture jammers want to ‘‘jam’’ the dominant
Joost Raessens

more, 1999), which is characterized by the sheer media, while poachers want to appropriate their content,
economic importance of cultural expression—it is be- imagining a more democratic, responsive, and diverse style
coming increasingly important also to give a political- of popular culture. Jammers want to destroy media
ideological reading of computer games as participatory power, while poachers want a share of it. ( Jenkins, 2002,
media culture. p. 167).23
It seems to me that this reading should consist of at
least four elements, which I want to deal with in this fi- We see these bottom-up cultures both where
nal section. First of all, the question of who will have or independent games are being developed and spread—
get access to the media culture, the influence of which like Waco Resurrection (2003) and Under Ash (2003)—
reaches all of us (top-down versus bottom-up). Second, and where existing game-elements and game-engines
a question concerning the results of this access to the are modified and used for own, for example, political
practices of the media culture (homogenization versus purposes, like Velvet-Strike (2002), Diplomatic Arena
heterogenization). Third, the matter of the status of (2003) and Civilization IV—Age of Empire (2003). These
the different forms of media culture that we should re- games could be played during the ‘‘Exploding Cinema:
late to (the real versus the possible). Fourth, these three Power: Play’’ program of the International Film Festi-
elements combine to make it possible to distinguish be- val Rotterdam 2004:
tween different levels of participation: culture participa-
tion versus participatory culture. A new genre of critical games . . . is emerging. People can be
informed about economic exploitation or political migration
Top-Down versus Bottom-Up via games . . . Why remain a passive consumer when there
The question of who can participate in our culture can is just as much fun to be had in adopting games to our own
be further elaborated on by asking whether we face sets of rules . . . One thing all the selected games . . . within
or will face a top-down culture in which a small num- Power: Play have in common is the notion of empowerment,
ber of computer game developers and publishers run speaking out, looking critically, taking the initiative ourselves
the show all by themselves (Microsoft, Electronic Arts, (Carels, 2004).
Atari, Eidos and others), or whether we face or will face
a multitude of bottom-up cultures, in which computer As the reader can see in Anne-Marie Schleiner’s chap-
gamers can (continue to) participate, one way or ter of this book, we encounter these bottom-up cultures
another. What is at stake here is the possibility for where gamers use sharing and open-source techniques
players to exert their fair-use rights on copyrighted to recycle existing products of the mainstream practices
material. As I described above, even in cases in which of the cultural industries.
users have no control over the production of culture,
they can still control its ‘‘consumption,’’ described as Homogenization versus Heterogenization
‘‘the art of using those imposed on it’’: ‘‘characterized In spite of the fact that within mass media processes of
by its ruses, its fragmentation . . . its poaching, its clan- homogenization seem to prevail at first sight, there are
destine nature, its tireless but quiet activity’’ (De Cer- still possibilities for processes of heterogenization (see
teau, 1988, p. 31). Raessens, 1998, pp. 109–111; 2001; 2002, pp. 129–
In line with Henry Jenkins’ criticism of Mark Dery 131). Relevant here is the critique of the Italian phi-
(1993), I would rather plead for an open, negotiating losopher Gianni Vattimo on the work of Horkheimer
relation with producers from the computer game indus- and Adorno. According to Vattimo, Horkheimer and
try than for an attitude of refusal, or, as Jenkins formu- Adorno (1951, 1986) are of the opinion that the mass
lates it, for the development ‘‘from jammers to media would produce ‘‘a general homogenization of
bloggers’’: society’’ in which ‘‘the diffusion of slogans, propaganda
(commercial as well as political) and stereotypical
Culture jammers want to opt out of media consumption and worldviews’’ would dominate (Vattimo, 1992, p. 5).
promote a purely negative and reactive conception of popular Vattimo, on the other hand, is much more opti-
culture. Fans, on the other hand, see unrealized potentials in mistic about the role of the mass media. According
popular culture and want to broaden audience participation. to him, they have played a crucial role in ‘‘a general
Fan culture is dialogic rather than disruptive, affective more explosion and proliferation of ‘Weltanschauungen,’
than ideological, and collaborative rather than confron- of worldviews’’ (Vattimo, 1992, p. 5). All kinds of
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minorities and subcultures have seized the opportunity people as inconceivable and therefore frightening, the

Computer Games as Participatory Media Culture

to express their views in the relative chaos of today’s children of chaos are able to deal with it, and they
media. According to Vattimo, this is a development picked up the necessary cognitive skills to survive in
that has contributed to the rise of the postmodern soci- today’s world partly while playing computer games.24
ety characterized by relativity, contingency, heteroge- As Rushkoff demonstrates in his chapter in this
neity and diversity. book, gamers are the ones (as long as they are not only
If we apply this analysis to computer games, we ‘‘gaming,’’ but also become game programmers and
have to state that they, as a form of popular culture, thereby move from game to metagame) who realize
contribute to the representation and reproduction of that our reality is open source: ‘‘gamers know that the
ideologically charged values. I would call for theoretical reality they are engineering isn’t real’’ (p. 420) they
and practical resistance to homogenizing tendencies of have ‘‘the ability to rethink and redesign our world us-
the media, aiming to realize variety of expression rather ing entirely new rule sets’’ (p. 421). This analysis shows
than uniformity. This is how homogenization can be strong agreement with Vattimo’s analysis of the post-
replaced by diversity, inequality, and singularity (Raes- modern: ‘‘If the proliferation of images of the world
sens, 1998, pp. 109–111). entails that we will lose our ‘sense of reality’ [psycholo-
Living in a period in which processes of globaliza- gists warn us that this is the case with gamers,] as the
tion of economies and cultures put pressure on this saying goes, perhaps it’s not such a great loss after all.’’
cultural diversity (see Smiers, 2003)—as we live for (1992, p. 8). Although the reality of the world cannot be
example in ‘‘A world of Gameboys and Walkmen’’ denied (see Zizek, 2002), there is an emancipating and
(Rushkoff, 2001, p. 75) where toys are mainly made by liberating significance of this plurality and loss of real-
and for white boys—the processes of heterogenization ity. This can be found in the recognition of the plural-
become of great importance, as I mentioned above in ity of perspectives that can no longer be suppressed or
regard to gender and ethnic identities. silenced in the name of a superior story. An allegedly
But also on quite another field, we see the necessity comforting myth that wants to undo this plurality, and
of these processes. Computer games are usually based trade it in for a solid, singular, and authoritative reality
on the sensor-motor model related to classical cinema, then becomes unacceptable.25 Gamers are well aware of
a model which is almost exclusively oriented toward the fact that the reality they find themselves in is but an
the actuality and causality of action (Raessens & actualized form of the many possibilities they have at
Kattenbelt, 2003). To do justice to the complexity of their disposal, it is just one version of the way the world
human experience, this dominance should be broken works, never the one and only objective vision. This
through with games that are also based on the intensity could lead to a ‘‘potentialization of reality . . . reality
of feeling and the reflexivity of thought. An example of submerge into a multitude of possibilities’’ (Vuyk,
this dominance is the computer game Metal Gear Solid 1992; Raessens, 2001, p. 228).26
(1999). Although at specific moments, this game comes
up with intensity and reflexivity, both domains of C u l t u r e P a r t i c ip a t i o n v e r s u s
human experience are overruled by the dramatic mode. P a r t i c i p a t o r y C u l tu re
On the other hand, in the so-called ‘‘serious’’ or ‘‘non- To conclude I want to distinguish between ‘‘culture
entertainment’’ computer games we see the diversity of participation’’ and ‘‘participatory culture.’’ Culture par-
experience. In these games, it is not the entertainment ticipation is a broad concept that refers generally to the
value that is central, but an external purpose: receiving fact that we participate in the surrounding culture
a certain experience, the communication of a message, be that in a passive and consumptive, or a more active
the acquisition of knowledge, understanding and/or and productive way. I consider participatory culture
certain skills or the realization of a certain change of the latter, more active attitude that, as we have seen,
behavior (see Prensky, 2000 and chapter 6 of this makes special demands concerning the interpretation,
book). the reconfiguration, and the construction of computer
games.27 Negotiated, oppositional, and deconstructive
The Real versus the Possible readings (more so than dominant ones), configuration
In the turbulence of the media Rushkoff sees, like and selection (more so than exploration), and construc-
Vattimo, the development of a proliferation of world- tion (more so than reconfiguration) are all, in their own
views that today’s young people will have to relate to. specific way, part of what I call participatory media cul-
Although this new world comes across to many older ture. Computer games are not just a game, never just a
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business strategy for maximizing profit, but always also wide piracy is estimated to have cost the US en-
Joost Raessens

a battlefield where the possibility to realize specific, tertainment software industry over $3.0 billion
bottom-up, heterogeneous forms of participatory media in 2001, robbing game developers and the game
culture is at stake. industry of revenue that could be used to under-
write the creation and marketing of an even
Acknowledgments wider array of game titles.’’ See: www.theesa.
I thank Chiel Kattenbelt, Jos de Mul and Mirko Schäfer com/piracy.html.
for their comments on an earlier version of this chapter, 7. Janet Murray describes interactivity as the
and Joep Damen for help with the translation. merger of agency (‘‘the satisfying power to
take meaningful action and see the results of
Notes our decisions and choices’’) and transformation
1. Whereas the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (‘‘Computers offer us countless ways of shape-
defines philosophy as the creation of concepts shifting’’), see Murray, 1997, pp. 126 and 154.
(Deleuze & Guattari, 1991, pp. 8, 11), the A film viewer is passive in the sense that while
philosophical method I will use in this chapter watching a film there is no such thing as recon-
also involves analyzing and criticizing existing figuration or construction, in my sense of the
concepts. word. For an analysis of ‘‘The Viewer’s Activ-
2. Deleuze formulates this method as follows: ity’’ while watching a film, see Bordwell, 1985,
‘‘introducing the concepts of ‘meaning’ and pp. 29–47.
‘value’ to philosophy’’ (1962, p. 1). This allows 8. These Internet-constructed collaborative fan
us to interpret the forces that are articulated in communities are typical for participatory media
computer games, for example, as homogeneous culture; think also of peer-to-peer networks,
or heterogeneous, and to evaluate them, for ex- collaborative and reader edited news networks
ample, as desirable or undesirable. (e.g., Slashdot, News for Nerds, Stuff that
3. The view that the development of interactive Matters), open-source based activities of pro-
technologies as such is sufficient for the real- grammers and users to develop software for
ization of a new participatory culture has to be general use, nonprofit activities (Linux) and the
rejected as a form of radical ‘‘technological de- activities of bloggers. For further elaboration
terminism.’’ Also the social-constructivist view, on these examples, especially concerning their
which claims that mainly nontechnological fac- implications on the practice of citizenship, see
tors matter, has to be considered: ‘‘Rather than Uricchio, 2003.
talking about interactive technologies, we should 9. British cultural studies for the most part came
document the interactions that occur among into existence in the 1970s at the Birmingham
media consumers, between media consumers Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies
and media texts and between media consumers (CCCS, established in 1964) under the super-
and media producers’’ ( Jenkins, 2002, p. 157). vision of director Stuart Hall (see Turner,
4. See Brecht, 1932–1933, p. 553: ‘‘den Zuhörer 1996).
nicht nur hören, sondern auch sprechen zu 10. The introduction of new, audiovisual technolo-
machen’’; and Benjamin, 1934, p. 110: ‘‘Und gies is often linked to the fear that the ever
zwar ist dieser Apparat um so besser, je mehr er so tempting images and sounds will impair the
Konsumenten der Produktion zuführt, kurz aus reflexivity of the printing culture (Birkerts,
Lesern oder aus Zuschauern Mitwirkende zu 1996). Think of the novels by Aldous Huxley
machen imstande ist.’’ (Brave new world, 1932) and Ray Bradbury
5. The term ‘‘multimediality’’ refers to the multi- (Fahrenheit 451, 1953), in which, respectively,
tude of means of expression (‘‘matières de l’ex- the film theatre from the 1930s and the rise of
pression’’) see Metz, 1977, pp. 10, 17–18, 25, television in the 1950s is characterized as mis-
and 130–131. leading. Since the 1970s, this fear is formulated
6. Both the Dutch Association of Producers and with respect to computer games, which, by com-
Importers of Audio-visual Materials (NVPI) bining moving images, sound, and interactivity,
and the Entertainment Software Association supposedly only provide immediate satisfaction
(ESA) refer to the problem of piracy: ‘‘World- through stimulation of the senses.
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11. A more current version of this position is visi- personal computers began to present themselves

Computer Games as Participatory Media Culture

ble in a discussion of The Matrix Reloaded as opposed and even hostile to the traditional
(Wachowski, 2003): ‘‘We are not just plugged modernist expectation that one could take a
into their matrix to be sold movies and other technology, open the hood, and see inside. The
entertainment products. These companies [the distinctiveness of the Macintosh was precisely
media giants], can also plug the nation into that it did not encourage such fantasies; it made
news narratives as ubiquitous and lightweight as the computer screen a world unto itself. It
The Matrix Reloaded, but with more damaging encouraged play and tinkering. Mastering the
side effects. . . . One way or the other, we all in- Macintosh meant getting the lay of the land
hibit the Matrix now’’ (Rich, 2003). rather than figuring out the hierarchy of under-
12. For a discussion of high versus low art, see Jen- lying structure and rules’’ (1996, p. 35).
kins’ chapter in this book. Using Gilbert Seldes’ 18. Compare to Nissen, 1998, which describes
model of analysis (1957), he places computer hackers as the ‘‘masters of modernity and
games on the side of the so-called ‘‘living’’ art modern technology.’’
forms. 19. Christian Metz described this process as an at-
13. ‘‘We say dominant, not ‘determined,’ because it is tempt to disguise the ‘‘discours’’ as a ‘‘histoire,’’
always possible to order, classify, assign and de- i.e., instead of having someone with an ideologi-
code an event within more than one ‘mapping,’ ’’ cal motive tell the story, it is a story that trans-
Hall, 1980, p. 134. For a description of these parently tells itself: ‘‘But characteristic for this
three positions, see Hall, 1980, pp. 136–138. ‘discours,’ and especially its editing principles, is
14. One of the limitations of this model is formu- that, in fact, it erases the traces of the ‘énuncia-
lated by Fiske: ‘‘Hall . . . had overemphasized tion’ and disguises itself as an ‘histoire’ ’’ (Metz,
the role of class in producing different readings 1980b, p. 77).
and had underestimated the variety of determi- 20. See also Friedman, 1995, pp. 77–78: ‘‘The game
nants of readings’’ (1987, p. 63). In Fiske’s cri- player takes on the role of the protagonist. . . .
tique, the role of the text is dethroned and the The idea of computer ‘role-playing’ emphasizes
importance of extratextual determinants of tex- the opportunity to identify with the character
tual meaning are stressed. Think for example of on the screen—the fantasy is that rather than
the different readings of a text respectively by just watching the hero, you can actually be the
regular users, hobbyists, and hackers. See also hero, or at least make all the hero’s decisions
Bryce and Rutter’s approach in this book that yourself.’’ Despite the fact that a simulation
‘‘moves from textual exegesis and places gaming game such as SimCity (1987) ‘‘makes you Mayor
within a real world context in which gaming and City Planner, and dares you to design and
practices are negotiated in real time and space build the city of your dreams’’ (p. 80), some-
(p. 304).’’ thing else happens, too: ‘‘ ‘Losing yourself’ in a
15. Turner (1996) discusses these issues in the sec- computer game means, in a sense, identifying
tions ‘‘Women Take Issue’’ and ‘‘There Ain’t with the simulation itself’’ (p. 85).
No Black . . .’’ in which the central argument 21. See Metz, 1983, pp. 14, 16, and 21; and Metz,
revolves around the production of gender and 1975, pp. 108, 112, and 118–119.
ethnic subjectivity. 22. See Deleuze, 1990, p. 244: ‘‘piracy or the in-
16. Richard and Zaremba are aware of the fact troduction of viruses’’ and Bey, 1994, p. 20:
that a critical discussion of the Lara Croft Internet-related forms of resistance, respec-
phenomenon is in general limited to the negoti- tively those of the Web (‘‘the marginal zine-
ated or oppositional readings you can give of her. netwerk, the BBS-networks, cracked software,
In a game such as The Nomad Soul, on the other ‘hacking,’ telephone-‘phreaking’ ’’) and those of
hand, players can choose from a number of the ‘‘contra-Net’’ (‘‘the clandestine, illegal and
characters (reconfiguration), while using patches rebellious use of the Web, including data-piracy
and the like (construction) can further increase and other forms of parasitism’’).
the possibilities of creating your own ‘‘sheroes.’’ 23. In an earlier online version of ‘‘Interactive
17. Turkle relates this transition to the rise of ‘‘The Audiences,’’ Jenkins describes Dery’s culture
Macintosh Mystique’’: ‘‘With the Macintosh, jammers as classic avant gardists who, in line
| 386 |

with the Frankfurt School, ‘‘celebrate their own Birkerts, S. (1996). The Gutenberg elegies: The fate of
Joost Raessens

freedom from media control even as they see the reading in an electronic Age. London: Ballantine Books.
‘masses’ as still subjected to manipulation . . .
Bolter, J., & Grusin, R. (1999). Remediation: Under-
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own interests, distracted by ‘bread and circuses’
entertainment.’’ According to me, participatory Bordwell, D. (1985). Narration in the fiction film. Madi-
media culture is more widespread than avant son: University of Wisconsin Press.
gardist criticism (Dery) and less widespread
Bordwell, D., & Thompson, K. (1986). Film art: An in-
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yourself media production suggests.
24. Children of chaos: Surviving the end of the world as Brecht, B. (1992). Der Rundfunk als Kommunika-
we know it, was published in 1996 under the tionsapparat. Rede über die Funktion des Rundfunks
more descriptive title of Playing the future: How (1932–1933). In Bertolt Brecht. Werke, Schriften 1.
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the American myth of the Western to legitimize
the war on terror. See Faludi (2003) and Raes- html.
sens (2003).
26. Deleuze and Vattimo call this process ‘‘fabuliza- Carels, E. (2004). The state of play. In E. Houtenbrink
tion,’’ referring to Nietzsche’s text ‘‘Wie die (Ed.), Catalogue 33 rd International Film Festival Rotter-
«wahre Welt» endlich zur Fabel wurde’’ (1989, dam. Amsterdam: Publish Amsterdam.
pp. 80–81): ‘‘It may be that in the world of Certeau, M. de. (1988). The practice of everyday life.
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27. When we consider participation from the per-
Deleuze, G. (1990). Post-scriptum sur les sociétés de
spective of the rules of the game, we can define
contrôle. In Pourparlers. Paris: Les Editions de Minuit,
it as ‘‘re/de/construction’’: in the reconstructive
pp. 240–247.
mode, the player plays according to the rules of
the game; in the deconstructive mode, he or she Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1991). Qu’est-ce que la phi-
penetrates the rules; and in the constructive losophie? Paris: Minuit.
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Dery, M. (1993). Culture jamming: Hacking, slashing
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