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Structuring Feeling, Feeling Structure: Affect and the Game Engine


Critical engine studies is a burgeoning subfield of games studies that takes as its point of departure not games themselves but the tools used to create them. Scholars in this field take seriously the influence that game development software, also known as game engines, have not only on the development process but on games culture and beyond. Far from viewing them as abstract tools or apolitical pieces of software, critical engine studies insists upon understanding engines as sociocultural objects as much as technical ones. This work requires, and the field calls for, new conceptual frameworks and analytical methods to advance our understanding of engines and the work that they do.In this thesis, I consider affect as one approach to developing a more nuanced perspective of game engines. Affect is, I propose, well-equipped to refuse the abstraction that critical engine scholars problematize by not merely attending to game engine use but to the game engine user— and doing so with radical specificity. I consider three approaches to affect across the social sciences and the humanities in order to think broadly about what its multiple modalities can offer critical engine studies. First, I look at how affective game engines like GAMYGDALA strive to reproduce affect in the games that they are used to make. By providing prebuilt code structures that developers can then deploy in their own games, these engines formalize but also flatten emotional experience in order to render it machine-legible. Second, I turn to a more expansive definition of affect to consider how engines structure feeling for users themselves. By looking at objects such as Become a Great Artist in Just 10 Seconds, I argue that game engines are always already affective, although some are felt more intensely and more deliberately than others. Finally, I consider how feeling could itself act as a mode of inquiry for critical engine studies. Drawing from queer theory and personal experience feeling different game development software, I argue that we can use affect to advance our understanding of game engines and how they act upon the user. Even when a game engine’s structure cannot be seen, it can still be felt, and it is through such feeling that we can come to characterize engines beyond a binary discourse of freedom versus control.

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