Wednesday, February, 25, 2015, 10am – 12pm
Boardroom, SF Campus
Soraya Murray is Assistant Professor in Film & Digital Media at UC Santa Cruz. Her interdisciplinary scholarship focuses on contemporary visual culture, with particular emphasis on new media, electronic games, cultural studies, and globalization in the arts. Her writings have appeared in Art Journal, Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, Flash Art, EXIT Express, PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, Third Text and GamesBeat among other publications.
Student Review by Mailee Hung
Soraya Murray’s forum presentation centered around her paper, “The Rubble and the Ruin: Race, Gender and Sites of Inglorious Conflict in Spec Ops: The Line,” which is to be published in the forthcoming book Identity Matters: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Video Game Studies edited by Jennifer Malkowski and TreaAndrea M. Russworm. Her talk outlined the unique ludic and narrative qualities of The Line that separate it from typical war videogames as hypermasculine fantasies of military dominance and heroism. Its continual presentation of unethical choices, and implication of the player in those choices, forces a critique of the mythology of war and demands that the player grapple with questions about their own motivations in playing such a game. Ultimately Murray’s study of The Line is an exploration into the broader sociocultural implications of videogames and how the unique aspects of their interactive aesthetic experience can encourage cultural critique and self-reflexivity in the player.
Murray began by first grounding her perspective as a visual and cultural theorist of videogames in particular by introducing the notable influences on her scholarship: Evan Narcisse, who writes on issues of race and representation in games and asserts the need for a mature medium to be able to grapple with the sociopolitical issues of its time and place; Stuart Hall, the eminent cultural studies scholar whose ideas about the dream life of a culture as expressed through the narrative myths in cinema, TV, and pop media partially made serious inquiry into “low” forms of media possible; Ian Bogost, a prolific game theorist who argues in his book Persuasive Games that the playable dimension of games is important in their consideration, and that they are not just passive representations; D. Fox Harrell, whose book Phantasmal Media is a rare investigation of the spectres of culture that underlie the decision making processes in computer programming; Miguel Sicart, an ethicist particularly interested in ethics as presented in games; and Mary Flanagan and Helen Nissenbaum, preeminent videogame cultural scholars who try to bring artistic perspective to games, and explore in their book Values at Play in Digital Games how embedded value systems are revealed and enacted in play.
Spec Ops: The Line (2012), designed by Yager Development and published by 2K Games, is set in a post-catastrophe Dubai where enormous dust storms have rendered the city a no man’s land. The player controls Captain Martin Walker of an elite Delta Force team, whose recon mission abruptly changes when Walker finds a group of dead American soldiers with a distress message from his old colleague, Colonel John Konrad. What transpires after his decision to abandon his mission and lead his team deeper into the buried city on the grounds of humanitarianism is not framed as the usual heroic undertaking of videogame shooters, but as an inexorable spiral into the moral ambiguity, chaos, and horror of war. Walker himself consistently becomes something of an antagonist, forcing the player into making decisions for which there is no “right” choice nor opportunity to take a moral stance. Initially foregrounded by the usual jingoistic machismo of war games both in gameplay and early advertisements, The Line subverts this narrative by forcing the player to participate in the most heinous acts of war, such as chemical warfare and civilian massacre. It ultimately asks the player to consider where the pleasure lies in the fantasy constructed by more typical war shooters like the Call of Duty franchise.
The subversive qualities of The Line lie also in the tropes and visual languages borrowed from sources such as Jacob’s Ladder (1990), Band of Brothers (2001), Apocalypse Now (1979) and Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness (1899). The game re-presents the perilousness and disorientation across these various media and negates the fantasy of modern war as a clean, controlled, and precise operation. The war fantasy’s necessity for a hero is also denied as Walker’s increasing levels of psychosis pressures the player into distancing themselves from the very character with whom they are meant to most identify. Yet for its unique narrative features, The Line is not without its issues. Dubai in ruins acts as a kind of sublime nightmare, the inevitable telos of high capitalism in crisis—but a highly racialized nightmare, in which the Westernized but ethnically other, undomesticated megacity is returned to a more “authentic” state of chaos by the storms. Violence against women and the female body is used as a trope to elicit a horrified reaction from the player, but women are never given a voice or major part of the story.
Despite the issues inherent within The Line which are very deserving of critique, Murray notes that their presence should not negate its disruptive possibilities. In response to a forum question about her focus on mainstream games that tend to problematically represent minority groups (if they are represented at all), Murray asserts that it is important to engage with games that are made for a mainstream audience—ignoring them runs the risk of ghettoizing non-normative games and alleviates the pressure for better representation and meaningful critique in the big budget productions. While The Line does not develop a more optimistic perspective by way of representation, it does however place the frustration of masculine fantasy at its core while marketing to people who would be looking for satisfaction of that fantasy. It opens some—though by no means all—doors for developing big budget videogames that act as social or political critiques of certain mechanisms of desire that are at play in popular games.
Murray’s exploration of Spec Ops: The Line at the VCS Forum presented an opportunity to look at videogames as a potentially critical medium. The discussion that took place after her presentation was a lively an illuminating chance to delve a little deeper into the potentialities and particularities of videogames as cultural productions, especially in terms of representational politics. Videogames remain an open field, for which in-depth academic study is both desperately needed and readily offered by Soraya Murray and her trenchant scholarship.