Case Study #4: Exaptation, Interpretation, PlayStation

Rob Gallagher

Postdoctoral Fellow at Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Console videogaming has long been defined by the so-called ‘hardware cycle,’ whereby a system plays out a lifespan of several years before ceding its place to a next generation successor. The relationship is customarily cast in terms of heredity, evolution, even quasi-regal lineage – hence Sony’s PlayStation dynasty, a set of very different computers branded as scions of the same regal house, each a stage in a progressive evolution masterminded by ‘Father of PlayStation’ Ken Kutaragi. [1] Such rhetoric reduces videogame history to a chronicle of ingenious (male) innovators making seminal leaps forward, pointedly minimising the role of circumstance, contingency, and accident in shaping digital play. It is telling, as such, that the PlayStation 2’s ‘backwards compatibility’ with PS1 games – a crucial factor in shoring up the sense of a PlayStation dynasty and encouraging players to move from one generation to the next – was a result not of masterful strategy but the felicitous discovery that the older console’s CPU could be repurposed as an I/O processor for the new one. Somewhat like the vestigial amphibian jawbone that, biologists believe, came to form a key component of the mammalian aural apparatus, this component just happened to be fit for a new purpose. [2] Backwards compatibility was not an inspired paradigm shift, but a fortuitous fluke, as Sony’s failure to implement the feature in later, notionally more advanced consoles shows.

Evolution of PlayStation: The Beginning, PlayStation, 2013, YouTube screen capture https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U7w5i_YCFmQ, accessed June 28, 2014.

Evolution of PlayStation: The Beginning, PlayStation, 2013, YouTube screen capture https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U7w5i_YCFmQ, accessed June 28, 2014.

As this example suggests, exaptation provides a useful framework for foregrounding the switchbacks and sideways moves, happy accidents, and dead ends that are usually written out of the history of technology. It also allows us to address the way in which that history privileges what Judith Halberstam calls ‘repro-time’ – the putatively natural periodicity of heterosexual procreation – as a model for understanding temporality, iteration and progress. [3] Perhaps understandably, critiques of sexism and heteronormativity in videogame culture tend to focus on the ‘sexy’ stuff: improbably-proportioned polygonal bodies, abusive online exchanges, who is represented how and by whom. It is also important, however, to address the assumptions and temporal schema that underpin particular hardware and software platforms. What follows is an attempt to do just this, offering an account of videogame consoles’ ‘save data’ systems that responds to the provocation of exaptation by crossbreeding platform studies with queer theory. If the former enjoins careful attention to the specifics of particular “computing systems in their interactions with creativity, expression, and culture,” then the latter has, in the last decade or so, developed a rich set of tools for thinking sexuality, representation and time, from Halberstam’s theorization of ‘queer time’ to Freeman’s work on ‘chrononormativity,’ Bond-Stockton’s discussion of childhood and ‘growing sideways’ and Berlant’s engagement with the forms of ‘cruel optimism’ that keep us attached to toxic cultural fantasies. [4] These texts ground my discussion of the history of the save game, a subject that videogame scholars have largely ignored. This neglect is perhaps understandable given that it’s both tempting and, in a sense, correct to see digital memory as a blank slate waiting to be inscribed (and wiped and re-inscribed) with data. It’s also true, however, that digital storage, however ‘dull’ and inconsequential it may seem, plays a crucial role “in shaping the everyday experience of computing, interactivity, and new media” – and, by extension, in supporting particular ways of experiencing the passage of time, of framing play and of understanding selfhood. [5]

The North American version of The Legend of Zelda (1987) is generally held to be the first console game to allow players to save their progress, incorporating a battery-powered backup mechanism into the game cartridge. As with the PS2’s backwards compatibility, this innovation was less an inspired masterstroke than a pragmatic workaround, necessitated by the fact that Nintendo had opted not to release the Famicom disk system peripheral in the West. Other games would use similar approaches throughout the 8- and 16-bit eras, though as the extra parts required inflated cartridge production costs developers had to have a good reason for offering save game functionality. As a consequence such systems tended to be limited to roleplaying games (RPGs). Focused on leveling-up by earning experience points and acquiring ever-more powerful equipment, the RPG has been described as a kind of ‘statistical bildungsroman’ in which the player battles their way toward their heroic destiny – saving, in other words, is already bound up with masculinity, maturity, and the fashioning of biographical narratives. [6]

Replace the Batteries in your NES Cartridges! Anna Hegedus, 2010, YouTube screen capture, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_NXBrAJIbfg, accessed June 28, 2014.

Replace the Batteries in your NES Cartridges! Anna Hegedus, 2010, YouTube screen capture, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_NXBrAJIbfg, accessed June 28, 2014.

With the PlayStation, Sony decided to issue games on CDs rather than cartridges. A cheaper and more capacious medium, CD also had drawbacks that make it inadvisable to see the switch purely as a matter of progress. For one thing, discs did not allow for storing save data. Sony’s solution was to issue 128-kilobyte memory cards that plugged into the console itself. Initially presented as optional extras, more and more PlayStation games began to require the cards, and eventually designers could assume that most players had storage space available, allowing them to experiment with save systems in all manner of genres. In answering the question “what could we do with the memory card?” these designers end up throwing light on a much bigger question: “what is a videogame?” On the basis of their output, many developers working in the 1990s still understood games primarily as sequences of obstacles or challenges and save facilities as a spur to make these sequences longer and more complex. Some, however, were captivated by the idea that games could become a storytelling medium to rival cinema, and the combination of save game facilities and CDs (which afforded room to pack games with recorded music, speech samples and pre-rendered videos and images) catalysed a swath of narrative-driven single-player epics in which the memory card essentially operated as a bookmark, registering the player’s position in a linear story. Other uses of the cards suggested other ‘rhetorics of play:’ some foregrounded games’ status occasions for competition by letting players save and share top scores, others framed games as platforms for skilled and stylish performance by facilitating the creation of replay videos. [7] Still others emphasised the social aspects of gaming, capitalizing on the portability of the memory card and encouraging players to bring their data (data representing, say, a virtual Nissan with painstakingly-calibrated suspension and a custom paint job) to friends’ houses or arcades.

As storage space became more readily available, designers gradually began putting less emphasis on challenging players and more on drip-feeding them rewards – a shift toward understanding play in terms of acquisition, investment and progress. In the process the dominant metaphoric frame for understanding save files changes, with the card or hard drive increasingly being figured, whether implicitly or explicitly, as a vault, gallery, or garage rather than a bookmark. If it was once possible to argue that digital games were, in keeping with Suits’ reading of play, a self-sufficient, ‘autotelic’ pleasure (or, less charitably, a waste of time), memory cards enabled designers to begin framing play as purposeful or productive. [8] Today, games of all genres incorporate ‘persistence mechanics’ that serve to reassure players that they are perpetually making progress, accreting virtual capital, inching toward multiple milestones and targets. The popular shorthand for this phenomenon is ‘RPGification’ – a term that neatly captures the way that a feature intrinsic to one genre has proliferated across an entire medium. With the seventh generation of consoles – which, released in the mid-2000s, were the first to embrace built in hard drives, online functionality, and social networking features – persistence mechanics were implemented at a system level, so that the activity of playing any single game was subsumed within the metagame of improving one’s gamerscore, earning trophies, and achievements, cultivating an online identity and adding to one’s friends list. Gaming, in essence, became gamified.

XBOX 360 – My Garage on Project Gotham Racing 4 – 03, 1969Diabolic, 2013, YouTube screen capture, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SiFWf8gLlKU, accessed June 28, 2014.

XBOX 360 – My Garage on Project Gotham Racing 4 – 03, 1969Diabolic, 2013, YouTube screen capture, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SiFWf8gLlKU, accessed June 28, 2014.

In a striking number of recent games – Rust (2013), The Last of Us (2013), Fallout 3 (2008) and Deadlight (2012) among them – survivalist aesthetics and dystopian or post-apocalyptic settings are used to imbue this drive to acquire, invest, calculate and dominate with context and urgency. Diegetically, these games often fall back on the heteronormative logic of what Edelman calls ‘reproductive futurism,’ whereby the imperative to protect ‘the Child’ and perpetuate the species sanctions violence against those who pose a perceived threat to family life. [9] But if some of these games beg to be read as affirmations of a particular model of neoliberal masculinity, valorizing cut-throat realism in the face of scarcity and precarity, others encourage us to understand memory, temporality, economy, and play in other, queerer ways. Jason Rohrer’s The Castle Doctrine (2013) is one such title, a multiplayer online game in which players build traps and barricades to protect their wife, children and valuables before setting out to rob other players. A libertarian, for Rohrer the game constitutes an attempt to explore his ambivalent attitude toward ‘stand your ground’ laws that leave homeowners free to use deadly force against intruders. [10] It is, as such, less the procedural critique that many liberal commentators initially took it for than an intriguingly anguished meditation on masculinity, property, the structure of paranoia and the mobilization of the family to legitimize violence. It is also a prohibitively difficult game, which quickly teaches players to be cynical, grasping, and sadistic. Reviews have, as such, been decidedly mixed, even as reviewers relate experiences that, one can only assume, correlate with Rohrer’s intentions. [11] The game’s success in making its point, in other words, is being interpreted as failure to fulfill the expectation that games should make us feel like we are always making progress, working toward goals that justify whatever means we choose to employ.

The Castle Doctrine – Part 14 – Alpha 21, MyGameplaying, 2013, YouTube screen capture, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l9NQP1NboLs, accessed June 28, 2014.

The Castle Doctrine – Part 14 – Alpha 21, MyGameplaying, 2013, YouTube screen capture, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l9NQP1NboLs, accessed June 28, 2014.

The uneasiness that The Castle Doctrine has elicited calls to mind Freeman’s discussion of ‘temporal drag,’ theorized as a form of stubborn attachment to the ostensibly outmoded which serves as both a “productive obstacle to progress” and a mode of “archiving culture’s throwaway objects.” [12] More than a mode of dress-up, drag, here refers both to the way that texts and performances can attest to pull of the past and to the way that they can function as feel-bad correctives to heady promise that things can only get better – becoming ‘a drag’ in the sense of a bummer, buzz kill, or downer. [13] If The Castle Doctrine’s unforgiving difficulty and primitive pixel graphics evoke gaming’s past, they do so not in a spirit of cozy nostalgia but because this style befits what Rohrer calls the game’s ‘pre-apocalyptic’ setting. [14] Where games like Fallout license violence by telling players that the end has already come, Rohrer’s game “takes place in ’93… not in the future. Things were pretty bad in the United States in 1993, things have gotten a lot better since then and nobody can really explain why.” [15] I close with Rohrer’s comment (presumably a reference to the decline in violent crime that has needled those who would like to claim that videogames make players more aggressive) precisely because it is so far from being definitive or convincing. [16] This feels appropriate for what has in many respects been an exercise in what Eve Sedgwick calls “weak theory” – a term she insists we should be able to understand other than pejoratively. [17] If strong theory seeks to offer an exhaustive genealogical account of causes and effects, brooking no alternative interpretations, I have instead tried to sketch the play of certain trends and tendencies, rhetorics and technologies – while remaining aware that simply by placing one word, one example, in front of another, I risk imposing hierarchical structures and chronological schema onto that which I describe. Indeed, using exaptation to talk about technology may itself be a misappropriation of a term initially meant to function as a corrective to humanity’s apophenaic mania for discovering designs and imputing intentions – though perhaps this is forgivable if it pushes us to pay closer attention to the very real critical potential of provisional hypotheses, failed projections, and arresting anachronisms.

References:

1. Reiji Asakura, Revolutionaries at Sony: The Making of the Sony PlayStation and the Visionaries who Conquered the World of Video Games (New York: McGraw Hill, 2000), xi.
2.Neal Anthwal, Leena Joshi and Abigail S. Tucker, “Evolution of the Mammalian Ear and Jaw: Adaptations and Novel Structures,” Journal of Anatomy 222 (January 2013): 147.
3. Judith Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (New York: New York UP, 2005), 5.
4. Ian Bogost and Nick Montfort, “Platform Studies: Frequently Questioned Answers,” After Media: Embodiment and Context, Proceedings of the Digital Arts and Culture Conference, UC Irvine 2009, 6; Halberstam, Queer Time and Place, 1; Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 34; Kathryn Bond Stockton, The Queer Child, or, Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century (Durham N.C.: Duke University Press, 2009); Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2011) 1-2.
5. Matthew Kirschenbaum, Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 4.
6. William H. Huber, “Epic Spatialities:The Production of Space in the Final Fantasy Games,” in Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives, ed. Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), 380.
7. Brian Sutton-Smith, The Ambiguity of Play (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 9.
8. Bernard Suits, The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978), 78.
9. Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 2.
10. Alec Meer, “Rohrer on The Castle Doctrine, Guns and Chain World,” Rock Paper Shotgun, 1 February 2013, http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2013/02/01/rohrer-on-the-castle-doctrine-guns-chain-world-pt-2/
11. “The Castle Doctrine,” Metacritic, 29 March 2014, http://www.metacritic.com/game/pc/the-castle-doctrine
12. Freeman, Time Binds, 64, 24. Italics original.
13. Ibid. 62.
14. Meer, “Rohrer on The Castle Doctrine.”
15. Ibid.
16. Erik Kain, “As Video Game Sales Climb Year Over Year, Violent Crime Continues to Fall,” Forbes, 19 April 2012, http://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2012/04/19/as-video-game-sales-climb-year-over-year-violent-crime-continues-to-fall/
17. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (New York; London: Routledge, 2003) 134.

Bio:

Dr. Rob Gallagher is a postdoctoral fellow at Concordia University’s Technoculture, Art, and Games lab. His current research concerns videogame fan cultures, gender, and sexuality and theories of collective creativity. His work has appeared in journals such as Games and Culture, Alluvium and Nyx.
https://concordia.academia.edu/RobGallagher
twitter: @rgealga