- Reading Game/Text: EverQuest, Alienation, and Digital Communities
The essay begins with a review of a recent court case ruling that video games do not constitute “speech” in order to develop arguments about the relationship between “media” (which communicate) and “activities” (in which, U.S. District Court Judge Stephen Limbaugh argues, any communication is “purely inconsequential”). Focusing on the online role-playing game EverQuest, the essay contends that the combination of game-like structures in EverQuest with certain kinds of expressions (spoken by “virtual” bodies) means that the form cannot be read exclusively either as literature or as a game. Drawing on Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, the essay attempts to discern those structural elements in EverQuest that might be understood as shaping or creating large-scale forms of experience (much as the novel, as Anderson argues, gave its readers a new experience of simultaneous time that allowed them to identify in national terms with people they could never hope to know or meet). The essay intends this broadly structural hermeneutic to illustrate the manner in which those things that make EverQuest a game establish the terms by which it participates in culture. Its reading of the game’s structure (which is expressed, finally, in the code that makes the software) is designed to map out the expression of that software’s intelligence as it interacts with the individual people who play the game (and who do so, almost always, on the game’s terms). The essay ultimately argues that EverQuest is an important site for the articulation and experience of cultural and political value, of broader understandings of communities and what they mean, and of the question of “literature” (or, more broadly, “expression”) in digital contexts. —eh, ew
A lot had to happen between 1915, when the U.S. Supreme Court first ruled that cinema was not “speech” and was thus unprotected by the First Amendment, and 1982, when the Court decided that films were one of the “traditional forms of expression such as books” and ought to be considered “pure speech” (Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Comm’n).1 The 1915 Court justified its decision at least in part through reference to “common-sense,” a category whose later reversal neatly sums up the changed sense of film’s legitimacy as a medium: today the opinion that film is not speech would get its proponent laughed out of the room, even if the film in question were silent.
The history of film’s gradual acceptance as an expressive medium—an acceptance mirrored in the academic reception of film studies over roughly that same period—is worth keeping in mind as one approaches new media today. Because while the issue of film as speech has been settled for film and, on the basis of their similarities, television,2 the issue remains alive for new forms of digital culture, especially video games, whose legal history extends back only twenty years. In the early 1980s, courts reviewing cases involving the zoning and licensing of video game arcades generally agreed that video games were not speech, with one court asserting that “in no sense can it be said that video games are meant to inform. Rather, a video game, like a pinball game, a game of chess, or a game of baseball, is pure entertainment with no informational element” (America’s Best v. New York).3 The comparison to baseball or chess is telling, as is the reference to “information”; the test applied to video games in these early court cases draws explicitly from the early legal history of film, in which the expressiveness of the medium (and thus its ability to “inform” its viewers) was deemed secondary to an “entertainment” value that disqualified it as serious “speech.”
But as video games have become more complex—a complexity enabled by the exponential growth in computer processing power—and as they have moved from arcades to home computers and the Internet, it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish them from other constitutionally protected media. As newer games approach the conditions by which we identify mainstream literature and film—that is, as they begin to express ideas, develop characters...