Game Work: Language, Power, and Computer Game Culture

Game Work: Language, Power, and Computer Game Culture

Game Work: Language, Power, and Computer Game Culture

Game Work: Language, Power, and Computer Game Culture


Video and computer games in their cultural contexts.

As the popularity of computer games has exploded over the past decade, both scholars and game industry professionals have recognized the necessity of treating games less as frivolous entertainment and more as artifacts of culture worthy of political, social, economic, rhetorical, and aesthetic analysis. Ken McAllister notes in his introduction to Game Work that, even though games are essentially impractical, they are nevertheless important mediating agents for the broad exercise of socio-political power.

In considering how the languages, images, gestures, and sounds of video games influence those who play them, McAllister highlights the ways in which ideology is coded into games. Computer games, he argues, have transformative effects on the consciousness of players, like poetry, fiction, journalism, and film, but the implications of these transformations are not always clear. Games can work to maintain the status quo or celebrate liberation or tolerate enslavement, and they can conjure feelings of hope or despair, assent or dissent, clarity or confusion. Overall, by making and managing meanings, computer games-and the work they involve and the industry they spring from-are also negotiating power.

This book sets out a method for "recollecting" some of the diverse and copious influences on computer games and the industry they have spawned. Specifically written for use in computer game theory classes, advanced media studies, and communications courses, Game Work will also be welcome by computer gamers and designers.

Ken S. McAllister is Assistant Professor of Rhetoric, Composition, and the Teaching of English at the University of Arizona and Co-Director of the Learning Games Initiative, a research collective that studies, teaches with, and builds computer games.


Technically speaking, computer games—the term I use to designate any game that requires a computer to work, including those for desktop machines, console and coin-op systems, and handheld devices—are software applications, just like word processors, image editors, and database programs. Anyone who plays computer games seriously, however, will tell you that games are not essentially the same as Microsoft Word, Photoshop, or Oracle, but rather are much more: they are works of art. Using unique combinations of image, sound, and interactivity, computer games draw players in, getting them to think and act, to use their imaginations to solve problems, and to have fun in make-believe worlds. Not all games succeed equally as artworks, of course, but these rough criteria indicate how gamers can quite reasonably lay claim to that designation.

But computer games are really “works” in the broadest sense of that term. They require work to create; they require players to work to engage with them; they are themselves both works of art and industrial works; and finally, they do work, particularly rhetorical and cultural work. Computer games are always condensates of all this work, yet they often seem to stand estranged from it. Splinter Cell, for example, is just another game to most consumers, perhaps at most associated with spy novelist Tom Clancy. But Splinter Cell required the work and labor of hundreds—perhaps even thousands—of people, and in an important way changed the computer game industry by advancing the art of computer game writing—not writing code but rather writing skillfully crafted language around plot twists, scene descriptions, and dialogue. So why aren't the names and faces of Splinter Cell's writers— Clint Hocking and J. T Petty—noted prominently on the packaging? The simplest answer is that where games are concerned, looks are more compel-

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