Saturday, January 06, 2007

The Ambience Act

In Gaming, Alexander Galloway argues that a theory of action for computer games requires at least two dimensions. Acts are either diegetic (set within the narrative of the game) or nondiegetic, and can be due either to the operator or the machine. Diegetic operator acts are probably what most people think of when they think of video games: grinding on a skateboard, shredding, stealing a car, rolling everything in the universe into a giant ball, or what have you. The operator acts in a nondiegetic way when he or she starts, pauses, saves or stops the game. The machine acts in a nondiegetic way by keeping score or declaring "game over" when the operator proves to be too stupid to live (diegetically).

Galloway's discussion of the fourth quadrant of this scheme, diegetic machine acts, is particularly interesting in its implications for digital history because it portrays worlds with change but without history. Here is his description of Yu Suzuki's game Shenmue.

One plays Shenmue by participating in its process. Remove everything and there is still action, a gently stirring rhythm of life. There is a privileging of the quotidian, the simple. ... When games like Shenmue are left alone, they often settle into a moment of equilibruium. Not a tape loop, or a skipped groove, but a state of rest. The game is slowly walking in place, shifting from side to side and back again to the center. It is running, playing itself, perhaps. The game is in an ambient state, an ambience act. Not all games have this action, but when they do, they can exist in an ambience act indefinitely. No significant stimulus from the game environment will disturb the player character. ... Things continue to change when caught in an ambience act, but nothing changes that is of any importance. No stopwatch runs down. No scores are lost. If the passage of time means anything at all, then the game is not in an ambient state. It rains. The sun goes down, then it comes up. Trees stir. These acts are a type of perpetual happening, a living tableau. ... The ambience act is the machine's act. The user is on hold, but the machine keeps on working. In this sense, an ambience act is the inverse of pressing Pause. While the machine pauses in a pause act and the operator is free to take a break, it is the operator who is paused in an ambience act, leaving the machine to hover in a state of pure process. [8-10]

One important role for computer games in education is as things to think with. Many researchers have focused on the kinds of lessons that gamers are implicitly or explicitly learning from the diegesis of particular games. Kurt Squire's work on historical simulation games like Civilization and Age of Empires is an excellent example.

As the ambience act of Shenmue shows, however, computer games can also serve as a laboratory for exploring ideas of change and history in nondiegetic ways. Setting aside the historical relevance of the Shenmue storyline, the game is still interesting because it clearly distinguishes between two kinds of events: those that can have consequences and those that cannot. When the operator is involved, choices and actions can make a difference later on, the score changes and it is possible for the game to end. In contrast, the ambience act is purely ahistorical. If characters aged while the game was idling, or could become sick or die, the game wouldn't really be idling. Allowing students to experience the contrast between game play and the ambience act might be one useful springboard for discussion of the myth of people without history in a historiographical or methodological seminar.

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