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  • Dead Time: Aporias and Critical Videogaming
  • Sarah Cameron Loyd Grey (bio)

In an attempt to circumvent the triviality typically assigned to videogames, theorists in the nascent field of game studies have suggested many different approaches to the question of the “serious game.” Some feel that this is a contradiction in terms and that games should be lauded for their opposition to normative labor practices; others wish to promote games that raise social consciousness and spur players into action in the real world. The “Serious Games Initiative” (SGI)1 represents the latter, and many academics have hastened to endorse “useful” and “progressive” games.2 This move, however, promotes praxis before there is actually theory enough to support it. It is a call for socially responsible games before we have a thorough understanding of how these virtual realms change our perception of what “action” means. At this juncture, theorists should consider videogames in a broader, more conceptual way. Stepping back will allow us to see how games can incite philosophical reflection and subsequently invite a more open discussion on the future of progressive gaming.

In this paper, I use the work of Theodor W. Adorno to suggest means by which we can reflect on games. While he does not specifically formulate a theory of play, playfulness is central to Adorno’s theory of art by way of the “enigmatic.” An artwork is a riddle that the viewer must toy with, tease out. As Adorno says, “It [the artwork] makes itself dark” (1997, 115). Artworks worthy of the name have a quality that cannot be deduced or categorized by scientific means. Its enigma functions as a kind of puzzle or game and begins to reveal itself through the exercise of critical engagement. A viewer may fully cognize the intended “message,” but this is insignificant. What matters about the artwork is the resistant, puzzle-like quality that continues to goad and vex us long after we have cast our last glance or heard the final note. [End Page 231]

Though many theorists focus on the immersive aspects of games (either narratological or visual), I find enigmatic aspects much more provocative: where continuity and verisimilitude fail, where the logics of progress and stability are ruptured. The gaps and dissimilarities are the most evident when contrasted with a prior state of immersion or captivation. Interrupted flow may reveal why and how the player has lost herself in playing. To be sure, sites of rupture may simply be explained as loading screens, glitches, etc. However, certain games are built on a less absolute model and thereby highlight the enigmatic.

The Black Bargain

One such example is Shadow of the Colossus (figure 1), an adventure game wherein the player must destroy a number of living stone colossi in order to bring his love back from the dead. The story begins as the character rides through a deserted, melancholic landscape and meets a mysterious being in a ruined temple. He offers to revive the character’s lost love, provided that the character completes the trials he assigns. It seems to be a typical hero-quest narrative, but as we will see, in the end the narrative becomes radically inverted. Fractures within the game will become sites from which a player may interpret it beyond the frame.

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Figure 1.

Cover art for the game

Shadow of the Colossus.

© Sony Computer Entertainment Inc.

Adorno, in Minima Moralia, describes how textual gaps provoke meaningful interpretation. There must be moments of insolubility in a text wherein the reader (or in my case, player) must halt: “[T]he value of a thought is measured by its distance from the continuity of the familiar” (2002, 80). If [End Page 232] one were to dictate to a player everything that she needs to know, in a world that is utterly predictable and totalized, there would be no room for learning or even the pretext of agency. By including impenetrable objects, actions, and environments, players are forced to reflect on their circumstances.

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Figure 2.

A boy and his horse, plus a flying stone dragon, from the game

Shadow of the Colossus.

© Sony Computer...


Additional Information

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pp. 231-246
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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