Two Recent Publications Of Mine About Games

I have two newish academic publications that you might want to check out if you’re the kind of person who enjoys academic publications.

The first is a piece about speculation and video game play that is published in Science Fiction Film & Television. The basic argument is that while we have theorizations of how speculation operates in text or film, with attentive strategies of reading those media for the generation of speculation, we don’t necessarily have a robust amount of information about reading strategies for games. My article looks at a simple mode of game interaction, the click, and how it does speculation. I’m hoping that someone will pick up these ideas and run with them for other modes of interaction!

If you have access to Science Fiction Film & Television, you can read “The click of a button: Video games and the mechanics of speculation” here.

The second piece I’ve published recently is a long-in-the-works essay on Bioshock 2 that is soon to be published in Beyond The Sea: Navigating Bioshock, which is a collection of essays about the Bioshock franchise and was edited by Jessica Aldred and Felan Parker. I’m humbled to be in a collection with so many excellent scholars who were wrangled together by the editors, and I’m particularly proud of the chapter I have in the volume titled “Decaying Bioshock 2: Videogames, Assemblages, Rot.” You can preorder the book on Amazon.

My argument in the chapter is that we can think about games as assemblages, and in doing so, we can think about both how to “decay” them as a mode of understanding. Instead of “reading” or “interpreting” assemblages in the way that you might another medium (or the way that disciplines like literary studies or methods attached to the linguistic turn in philosophy might), instead we should attend to how they cohere and fall apart, both within the 3D environment of the game and in the relation between the human and the game. Despite being originally conceived and written a couple years before the SFFTV piece above, this is another methodological stab at really grabbing at what games are doing.

I don’t think I am interested in arguments about medium specificity, but both of these pieces implicitly argue that games do something different from other media (and produce interlocutors differently than those other media do), and it’s something that I am continuing to do in my dissertation work currently.

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On At The Existentialist Café

I’ve been reading At The Existentialist Café a chapter at a time for a couple months now. It’s a weird way to read a book but, you know, things get in the way when you’re writing a dissertation. I barreled through the last third or so over the past week, and it solidified some feelings that I’ve had through reading the entire thing.

The book is, broadly, about the existentialist movement that bloomed in France during the early 20th century. There are some fellow travelers and some precursors (Husserl gets a lot of time), but the core of the book is the story of Sartre and de Beauvoir. However, bizarrely, the portraits of these people feel incomplete. There is a wax and wane relationship in the book between telling a good story and functioning and being an intellectual biography. A person looking for the former is going to find some great sections and then others bogged down in the minutiae of constantly shifting philosophies; someone looking for the latter is going to see a lot of slippages in the philosophies of the central figures for the sake of brevity.

And at the end of things, I was left wondering what this book is.

It’s a question of audience, I think. The book has the research load of an academic book, but it is aimed at the people who read the figures mentioned in this book in college and want to know a little more about them. If you know the names of Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus, Heidegger, Husserl, Jaspers, and Merleau-Ponty (all of whom get space on the cover), but you don’t know all that much about them, then you are the assumed audience of this book.

This makes the politics of the book strange. Bakewell expends an immense amount of energy making sure that we know that the existentialists who supported the Soviet project (then Mao, then Pol Pot) were absolute jackasses who made a huge mistake in their own time. The version of the French relationship to communism and Marxism that is presented in the book is shockingly simplified to the point of looking like something you might hear in a low-level class in a business school. Here, for example, is the summary of how “communists” thought about morality:

Communists believe that only the party can decide what is right. To turn morality over to a mass of human eyes and personal perspectives is to invite chaos and lose the possibility of a real revolution. [272]

Sartre gets valorized for breaking with this tradition, but that two-sentence gloss is the kind of succinct description that the political opinions other than those of the book’s protagonists get. And, you know, the relation between the public intellectual and communism is so important in postwar France that it might be important to give a systemic reading of these things rather than to focus on them through the lens of single individuals and their responses.

I don’t envy anyone trying to cut this knot in writing a book because knowing when and where and how to summarize is impossible work, but you can feel certain kinds of claims seeping through here.

I couldn’t shake the feeling when reading that the audience question and the ideology question was the same. In the final chapter of the book, the most personal for sure, Bakewell runs through all the things she learned from the mass amount of research she did writing the book. And this sticks with me from the ending:

Heidegger intoned that one must think, but Sartre actually thought. Heidegger had his big Kehre – his ‘turn’ – bur Sartre turned and turned and turned again. He was always thinking ‘against himself’, as he once said, and he followed Husserl’s phenomenological command by exploring whatever topic seemed most difficult at the time. [322]

And then this a few pages later:

This ‘bloom’ of experience and communication lies at the heart of the human mystery: it is what makes possible the living, conscious, embodied beings that we are. It also happens to be the subject to which phenomenologists and existentialists devoted most of their research. They set out to detect and capture the quality of experience as we live it rather than according to the frameworks suggested by traditional philosophy, psychology, Marxism, Hegelianism, structuralism, or any of the other -isms and disciplines that explain our lives away. [325]

To me, this is the most reductive takeway from this period of French thought. The idea that all of those “-isms” are not responsive and constantly shifting with changing times just does not seem right to me, especially in the case of Marxism, which went through several radical transformations during the mid-20th century, especially in an Althusserian France.

The summation of the existentialist and phenomenological frameworks here feels almost like an evocation of a pure libertarianism of the mind, as if these thinkers were totally unhinged from the pull of the history of philosophy and the other ideas of their day. And I think it feeds back into that audience question — this is a book that ends with an appeal to the contemporary neoliberal mindset of sampling, borrowing, and “take it or leave it” political commitments. The book implicitly casts these figures as mobile and ever-malleable, sometimes for good causes and other times for bad, and that is seen as their value in the history of ideas.

In At The Existentialist Café, a longform commitment to the political or philosophical program is seen as a liability that makes one passe and indefensible, and I can’t help but read that as its own kind of political program.

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Francis Bacon’s Gambling

“He adored both cards and roulette, often playing at several table simultaneously, displaying the committed masochism of Dostoevsky, who claimed that the real thrill of involvement only began when he had pawned his wife’s jewels and was staking the proceeds. Francis failed to convince me that there was a deep satisfaction in being completely ‘cleaned out.'”

Michael Wishart quoted in Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, 123-124.

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Carolyn Petit on Blade Runner 2049

Hard to excerpt without spoilers, but Carolyn Petit wrote a piece about Blade Runner 2049 and her own experiences that’s worth reading.

I always enjoy a piece of writing that takes the wax and wane of media and life seriously, and Petit is really doing the work to show how the philosophy that BR2049 explores is operative in daily life.

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Alfred Bester on What a Science Fiction Author Does

The mature science fiction author doesn’t merely tell a story about Brick Malloy vs The Giant Yeastmen from Gethsemane. He makes a statement through a story. What is the statement? Himself, his own dimension and depth. His statement is seeing what everybody else sees but thinking what no one else has thought, and having the courage to say it. The hell of it is that only time will tell whether it was worth saying.

Alfred Bester, “My Affair With Science Fiction” in Hell’s Cartographers

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A Bibliographic Resource for Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011)

I’m planning on writing about Melancholia in the near future, and a short fact-finding mission to get a lay of the land of the scholarship on the film turned into something quite different (and much larger) than I imagined. What follows is a sketch of a bibliography of work that is directly about Melancholia. Inclusion in this list isn’t necessarily an endorsement of the work (I have read, charitably, about a third of these pieces), but I thought that if I was going to do this kind of targeted scraping that I should at least make it available for other people to make use of.

If you have suggestions of pieces that should go here, whether that is your work, the work of colleagues, or just something that I flat-out missed, please contact me by email or on Twitter with your recommendations.

Melancholia Official Website
Amazon link to buy the film


Anselmi, William and Lise Hogan. “Time is Money – The Acceleration of Time and the Vanquishing of Space in Melancholia, Another Earth and In Time.” Film International 62 (2013): 44-53.

Apter, Emily. “Planetary Dysphoria.” Third Text 27, no. 1 (2013): 131-140.

Connolly, William E. “Melancholia and Us.” In Politics, Theory, and Film: Critical Encounters with Lars von Trier, edited by Bonnie Honig and Lori J. Marso, 413-421. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

DeFazio, Kimberly. “Melancholia and Posthumanist Metaphysics.” In Stories in Post-Human Cultures, edited by Adam L. Brackin and Natacha Guyot. Oxford: Inter-Disciplinary Press, 2013.

del Río, Elena. The Grace of Destruction: A Vital Ethology of Extreme Cinemas. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.

Dienstag, Joshua Foa. “Evils of Representation in Europa and Melancholia.” In Politics, Theory, and Film: Critical Encounters with Lars von Trier, edited by Bonnie Honig and Lori J. Marso, 285-304. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Elbeshlawy, Ahmed. Woman in Lars von Trier’s Cinema, 1996-2014. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2016.

Elsaesser, Thomas. “Black Suns and a Bright Planet: Melancholia as Thought Experiment.” In Politics, Theory, and Film: Critical Encounters with Lars von Trier, edited by Bonnie Honig and Lori J. Marso, 305-335. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Figlerowicz, Marta. “Comedy of Abandon: Lars von Trier’s Melancholia.Film Quarterly 65, no. 4 (2012): 21-26.

Floquet, Pierre. “Melancholia and the Apocalypse Within.” In The Apocalypse in Film: Dystopias, Disasters, and Other Visions About the End of the World, edited by Karen A. Ritzenhoff and Angela Krewani, 91-104. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.

French, Sarah and Zoë Shacklock. “The Affective Sublime in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.” New Review of Film and Television Studies 12, no. 4 (2014): 339-356.

Friedlander, Jennifer. “How to Face Nothing: Melancholia and the Feminine.” In Lars von Trier’s Women, edited by Rex Butler and David Denny, 201-214. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.

Grodal, Torben. “Frozen Style and Strong Emotions of Panic and Separation: Trier’s Prologues to Antichrist and Melancholia.” Journal of Scandinavian Cinema 2, no. 1 (2012): 47-53.

Grusin, Richard. “Post-Cinematic Atavism.” Sequence 1, no. 3 (2014).

Honig, Bonnie. “Public Things: Jonathan Lear’s Radical Hope, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, and the Democratic Need.” Political Research Quarterly 68, no. 3 (2015): 623 – 636. [See also the end of James Martel’s response essay “Against Thinning and Teleology” in the same issue.]

Honig, Bonnie. “‘Out Like A Lion’: Melancholia with Euripedes and Winnicott.” In Politics, Theory, and Film: Critical Encounters with Lars von Trier, edited by Bonnie Honig and Lori J. Marso, 356-388. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Kirchner, Andreas. “Painting in Time: On the Use of Digital Visual Effects in Melancholia.” In The Apocalypse in Film: Dystopias, Disasters, and Other Visions About the End of the World, edited by Karen A. Ritzenhoff and Angela Krewani, 191-202. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.

Kollig, Danielle Verena. “Filming the World’s End: Images of the Apocalypse in Lars Von Trier’s Epidemic and Melancholia.” Amaltea: Revista de Mitocrítica 5 (2013): 85-102.

Koutsourakis, Angelos. Politics as Form in Lars von Trier: A Post-Brechtian Reading. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013. [The interview in the appendix contains the most information on Melancholia.]

Larkin, David. “‘Indulging in Romance with Wagner’: Tristan in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia.” Music and the Moving Image 9, no.1 (2016): 38-58.

Latour, Bruno. “Waiting for Gaia. Composing the Common World Through Arts and Politics.” Lecture given to French Institute in London in 2011. [The film is mentioned briefly, but is crucial to the cultural affect Latour is critiquing.]

Ling, Alex. “Lars von Trier and the End of Cinema: Melancholia.” The Pleasures of the Spectacle: The London Film and Media Reader 3, edited by Phillip Drummond, 122-132. London: The London Symposium, 2015.

Lord, Catherine. “Her Green Materials: Mourning, Melancholia, and Not-So-Vital Materialisms.” NECSUS: European Journal of Media Studies 2, no. 1 (2013): 179-196.

Lyons, Siobhan. “The Dialectics of Crisis: The Romanticised Apocalypse in J.G. Ballard´s The Drowned World and Lars von Trier´s Melancholia.” Diffractions: Graduate Journal for the Study of Culture 1 (2013).

McFadden, Dan. “The End of the World: A Heideggerian Interpretation of Apocalyptic Cinema.” Cineaction 95 (2015): 40-47.

McGowan, Todd. “Not Melancholic Enough: Triumph of the Feminine in Melancholia.” In Lars von Trier’s Women, edited by Rex Butler and David Denny, 181-200. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.

Matts, Tim and Aidan Tynan. “The Melancholy of Extinction: Lars von Trier’s Melancholia as an Environmental Film.” M/C Journal 15, no. 3 (2012).

Merola, Nicole. “Mediating Anthropocene Planetary Attachments: Lars von Trier’s Melancholia.” In Design, Mediation, and the Posthuman, edited by Dennis M. Weiss, Amy D. Propen, and Colbey Emmerson Reid, 249-268. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2014.

Mitchell, Sian. “Deleuzian Affect and the Transformative Film Experience: Lars von Trier’s Melancholia.” The Pleasures of the Spectacle: The London Film and Media Reader 3, edited by Phillip Drummond, 301-312. London: The London Symposium, 2015.

Peterson, Christopher. “The Magic Cave of Allegory: Lars von Trier’s Melancholia.” Discourse 35, no. 3 (2013): 400-422.

Peterson, Christopher. “The Gravity of Melancholia: A Critique of Speculative Realism.” In Politics, Theory, and Film: Critical Encounters with Lars von Trier, edited by Bonnie Honig and Lori J. Marso, 389-412. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Read, Rupert. “An Allegory of a ‘Therapeutic’ Reading of a Film: Of Melancholia.” Sequence 1, no. 2 (2014).

Robertson, Eric. “Volcanoes, Guts and Cosmic Collisions: The Queer Sublime in Frankenstein and Melancholia.” Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism 18, no.1 (2014): 63-77.

Sandberg, Mark B. “Apocalypse Then and Now: Verdens Undergang (1916) and Melancholia (2011).” European Journal of Scandinavian Studies 46, no.1 (2016).

Shaviro, Steven. “Melancholia or, The Romantic Anti-Sublime.” Sequence 1, no. 1 (2012).

Shields, Matthew. “From the Sublime to the Romantic: Lars von Trier’s Melancholia.” Bright Lights (2012).

Sinnerbrink, Robert. “Anatomy of Melancholia.” Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 19, no. 4 (2014): 111-126.

Sinnerbrink, Robert. “Provocation and Perversity: Lars von Trier’s Cinematic Anti-Philosophy.” The Global Auteur: The Politics of Authorship in 21st Century Cinema, Edited by Seung-Hoon Jeaong and Jeremi Szaniawski. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.

Sweedler, Milo. “The End of the World of the End: Lars von Trier’s Melancholia and Political Theory.” A Critical Approach to the Apocalypse, Edited by Alexandra Simon-López and Heidi Yeandle, 175-84. Oxford: Inter-Disciplinary Press, 2013.

Sweedler, Milo. “From One End to Another: Allegorizing Apocalypse Now and Melancholia.” Framing the Apocalypse: Visions of the End-of-times,  Edited by Sheila C. Bibb and Alexandra Simon-López, 167-82. Oxford: Inter-Disciplinary Press, 2015.

Szendy, Peter. Apocalypse-Cinema: 2012 and Other Ends of the World. Translated by Will Bishop. New York: Fordham University Press, 2015.

Wenaus, Andrew. “Mechanized Bodies, Human and Heavenly: Melancholia and Thinking Extinction.”  ESC: English Studies in Canada 42, no. 1-2 (2016): 133-153.

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On The Yawning Portal at Paste

Tales from the Yawning Portal rides the line between nostalgia and ease of access for new players. I can imagine sitting down with Danni, my Mages & Murderdads cohost, and replaying “The Sunless Citadel” and having as good of a time as we did all those years ago when we played it the first time (we’ve already had this conversation, in fact). I can just as easily imagine running headfirst into “The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan,” an adventure that I don’t know a single thing about, and trying my hand as a player or as a DM against the monsters and snail gods (yep!) that live there.

I reviewed the new Dungeons & Dragons book, Tales from the Yawning Portal, for Paste Games.

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On Free Fire

I’ve just finished watching Free Fire, the newest film from director Ben Wheatley (and Amy Jump who he cowrote and coedited it with), and while it’s very late I have some thoughts I want to get down about the film.

Back when John Wick was released, I wrote this piece about it in which I argued that the most interesting part of that film was how it replaced fists with guns in the martial arts film. In that genre, a protagonist navigates the world via their martial prowess, and its their mastery of their hands and feet that carves their protagonist film through the trials and tribulations of that world. Within John Wick, the intimacy of that martial combat was maintained, but the navigating tool was the gun instead of the fist.

Free Fire performs the exact same conceptual maneuver, but instead of fists becoming guns, language becomes guns. It’s apparent even from the trailer that Free Fire is a kind of locked-room drama in which the characters move through their arcs in a very tight physical space. It’s very theatrical, very David Mamet, but the actual spoken dialogue is all one-liners out of 1970s films.

The pacing of the shooting, how it wounds those who are assailed by it, and the consequences that are reaped from it all have the feeling of language. There are “conversations” in the film that happen purely formally: a gun fires, another gun fires in reverse shot, and then another, and another. It spins around this factory, never landing anywhere, and the characters joke that they don’t know whose side they are on anymore. There are slow gunfights and there are fast ones; there are spectacular ones and boring ones. And they all function as conversations, punctuated arguments between one character and another.

It’s critical that the constant gunfight opens with a failure of language, or more precisely, a failure of language to produce justice. One character has supposedly “bottled” another’s cousin, and honor has to be restored between both these men and the injured woman. Justice has to be done, and everyone agrees to it, and someone gets beat up. And then language bubbles up again in an insult, and the gunfights begin.

If guns become language here in the sense that the function of language is usurped by the firing of a gun, then we have the assumption that only guns can deliver justice (and this is a familiar argument from a lot of media from a lot of time periods). But even weirder, it means that language can be liberated from its deliberative capacity; in Free Fire, language exists almost wholly to crack jokes around the more serious, deliberative function of the gun that delivers justice. Language gets to play at whatever it wants, while guns have to take over the heavy work of working on group dynamics.

Sharlto Copley’s body is the posthuman image par excellence. From District 9 to Elysium to Free Fire, we have watched this one particular guy become things other than human, and in this film we have seen him become a crappy dude from the 1970s. He’s materialistic, manipulative, willing to sacrifice anything for money, and vicious. More than that, we see some actual horrifying physical transformations that are cringe-worthy. I think that someone should probably write about this at some point: this South African guy who has stood on the precipice of the inhuman, the posthuman, and the neoliberal sleazeball.

Free Fire is a movie that is all about people shooting each other, but it’s very sedated for a long time. Guns don’t necessarily punch massive bloody holes in people. Bullets penetrate and stick, or they go through, or they enter and bounce around. Bullets are not what we’re presented with in The Expendables; they’re much less exciting and much more terrifying for it.

By dialing down the extreme violence for much of the film, the director is able to do some truly surprising and brutal things. A wound being sewn up or a used needle stuck in someone’s hand isn’t shocking in the context of a John Wick or a Bourne film, but in this movie they become cringeworthy, horrifying things. By turning the thing that we associate most heavily with have-to-look-away violence into something banal, the “less interesting” violence becomes that much more difficult to watch. It’s a honed idea, and it works here.

I liked Free Fire, and I think you should try to see it in a theater while you can.

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“The horror of life itself”: Wes Craven on his films

Christopher Sharrett – “‘Fairy Tales for the Apocalypse’: Wes Craven on the Horror of Film,” 1985.

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Weedopia and Everything

Just wanted to crosspost two pieces I wrote that were published today:

  1. I wrote a short essay on the game Everything and what I think it does as a game (and how it is in conversation with the creator’s previous game Mountain). I’m really happy with the piece, so please give it a read.
  2. I was finally able to write something longform about the game-that-isn’t called Weedopia. If you’ve been following this blog for a minute, you’ve probably seen me mention it at some point, but I also really like the essay that I wrote about it for Waypoint. In it, I ask where the How High of games actually is.
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