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Open Access Publications from the University of California

At Home Everywhere: Empowerment Fantasies in the Domestication of Videogames

  • Author(s): Goetz, Christopher James
  • Advisor(s): Whissel, Kristen
  • et al.

This dissertation engages conversations about the meaning and function of videogames within domestic spaces in 1990s and 2000s convergence culture. The introductory chapter discusses fantasy as a constituent of domesticity, and makes a case for how fantasy can be thought of as a bridge for videogame formalism and research into the context of play. It begins by discussing the “rhetorics of play” in game studies along with videogame medium specificity, introducing the notion of empowerment fantasy in relation to a rhetoric of frivolity, and providing a historical sketch of the arcade spaces where games were played before they were a primarily domestic phenomenon. It argues that the videogame precursor, arcade pinball, was understood and validated through a rhetoric of power, skill, and control, and a corresponding “sports masculinity.” This is consequential for how we think of what gaming, as a business and cultural phenomenon, inherited from discourses on the threat and function of arcade spaces. In turn, this is an important context for gaming’s transition into domestic spaces.

By identifying textual activity in games outside the auspices of narrative, Chapter 1 expands prevailing models of media-content convergence, which tend to assume games are inherently cinematic for their storytelling potential (and movies game-like when made with branching narratives). I argue that a far more meaningful site of convergence between videogames and movies is a shared body fantasy about collision and movement through space—a kinetic expression that is mapped to body schema through repeated practice in videogame play, and that takes on broader narrative significance in action-hero cinema. Building on feminist film theory’s use of fantasy for textual interpretation of repetitious home viewing (Walkerdine, 1986), this chapter lays the groundwork for thinking about empowerment fantasy in popular entertainment.

The second chapter introduces and tracks a “body-transcendence” fantasy in action videogames of the 1990s and 2000s. In defining the fantasy of having a transcendent body, it considers new applications in entertainment media for Niedzviecki’s (2006) “I’m specialism,” in which a longed-for specialness (extreme individuality) represents a new kind of (American) consumer conformity. It explores the wish for mastery expressed at the level of body memory in action videogames in terms of what Carlson (1981) calls a “politics of powerlessness,” an overtly ineffectual exercising of traditional mechanisms of power that blends protest with a kind of withdrawal from political reality (George Wallace, Donald Trump). This chapter’s central fantasy connects games with a melodramatic action cinema, which is addressed here, but discussed extensively in the following chapter.

The third chapter discusses the “body-transcendence” fantasy in melodramatic action-hero television and cinema, a super-genre that Shaun Treat (2009) called the “superhero zeitgeist” of the late-1990s, and 2000s. In these films (e.g., The Matrix, The Iron Giant, Kung Fu Hustle) and television shows (e.g., Naruto, Daredevil) the transposition of narrative conflict into bodily terms (a phenomenon remarked upon by Lisa Purse, 2007) reflects a wish for mastery expressed at the level of body memory shared with action videogames in the early 1990s. The chapter uses games and cinema to inform one another, developing new approaches for thinking about convergence in entertainment media.

Chapter 4 identifies and describes a core empowerment fantasy shared by videogames and narrative media. The “tether fantasy,” which is defined through careful videogame textual analysis as the pleasure of leaving a safe point and venturing into unknown, dangerous spaces, as well as the pleasure of returning to safety. The chapter draws from a variety of academic sources that discuss a tether (or equivalent) phenomenon. “Tether fantasy” is a literal psychoanalytic term to describe a kind of residual separation anxiety, and this corresponds to the behavioral-psychological framework of attachment theory. But rather than grounding its claims in these disciplines, this chapter focuses on demonstrating how a “tether fantasy” can be described in other domains, such as architectural design, narrative media, and (increasingly) as an empowerment fantasy in videogames. This fantasy, more than any other in the dissertation, describes gaming’s relationship to the home, since the tether is part of the design of many games, but is also descriptive of how games fit into what Barbara Klinger calls the “home-entertainment fortress.” This chapter explores the implications of reading games in relation to other media through a shared “tether” fantasy, an analytical lens which influences how we think about empowerment in games, videogame genre, historical precursors to games, and gaming’s relationship with broader cultural and historical patterns.

The fifth and final chapter identifies and describes a core empowerment fantasy driving growth in videogame genres, but which does not exist as coherently in narrative media or contexts outside of videogame and tabletop play. The “accretions fantasy” is defined through careful videogame textual analysis as the pleasure of correcting weakness by gathering and accruing objects, items, and power from a game’s spaces and characters. In a game, the accretion represents increasing stability in the face of threat, and I tie this pattern to Freud’s “nirvana principle,” but through the disguise of an endless array of busy activity (the seeming opposite of quiescence). This chapter tracks the accretion fantasy as it intersects with other empowerment fantasies in games—especially the tether fantasy (but also the fantasy of bodily transcendence)—extending analysis into videogame genre begun earlier in the dissertation. The chapter intervenes directly into research into videogame motivation predicated on “Skinner box” theories (stimulus-response and reward schedules) of psychology in order to argue that videogames cannot be reduced to reward schedules alone (cannot be conflated with slot machine play). The notion of fantasy here—and how this fantasy intersects with other, more readily “narrative” fantasies like the tether—helps articulate how games are both structured by but not reducible to their systems, their core loops or hooks.

The dissertation’s conclusion briefly discusses nostalgia as an effect of a particular kind of relationship between daily life and videogame fantasy in domestic space.

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