What is the connection between how computer games work and what they mean? What do we do with games and what do they do to us? In its exploration of these questions, Stuart Moulthrop sees Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s How Pac-Man Eats (MIT Press, 2020) as helping to urge game studies in a productive new direction: one that critically traces interactions between games and the broader culture in which they're embedded. More specifically, he observes some of the ways Wardrip-Fruin’s work links “technē to social purpose”, and thereby “re-engages questions of value and justice”. This, he contends, is part of what distinguishes this author—"a scientist who is also a socially aware literary writer", as he approvingly puts it—from many of the “anatomists” with whom he founded this developing field.
!! U B THE * !!
Many Main-Run Features Starring U!
She read it through and then went back to the first line, puzzled. U B the asterisk? Was she tootoxed or not toxed enough?
You be the ass to risk.
Gina nodded. For all she knew, she was looking at the secret of life.
-- Pat Cadigan, Synners (1991, 142)
Noah Wardrip-Fruin excels at illuminating the not-so-obvious, regularly serving up Eggs of Columbus, concepts that seem entirely self-evident once he has explained them, but which somehow elude understanding until he opens our eyes. Consider his indispensable
ELIZA effect, the tendency of formally simple software to elicit investments of meaning from human operators (Expressive Processing, 25). This notion, along with the complementary
TaleSpin effect for software whose intricate labors produce simplicity, forms an important foundation for the analysis of things like games and simulations. Wardrip-Fruinhas a place among the inventors of game studies, people like Brenda Laurel, David Myers, Janet Murray, Espen Aarseth, Ian Bogost, Jesper Juul, Markku Eskelinen, and Gordon Calleja. Many in this group could be called primary anatomists, scholars who have named and articulated the components of an emerging form. At the same time, Wardrip-Fruin could also fall in with a different scholarly tradition less interested in anatomies than ethnologies and ethnographies, tracing interactions between games and culture. Important contributions in this area have come from Mary Flanagan, Celia Pearce, T.L. Taylor, and Thomas Malaby, among others. How Pac-Man Eats serves both communities, potentially establishing dialogue between them; though its most important contribution may lie in suggesting the limits of both emphases, the formal and the social.
As computer game studies moved toward its second decade, there was a notable shift from functional to cultural thinking. Like the largely mythical ludology-versus-narratology debate, this was never really a binary proposition. For instance, though avowedly formalist, Myers' works are as much about social interpretation as rules and structures (see e.g., Play Redux). Likewise, for all his careful tabulation of
media positions (Eskelinen, 20-22), Eskelinen's remarks on metarules and the uncanny re-engage questions of value and justice (Eskelinen, 387). The cultural turn is expressed most strongly, though, in studies like Flanagan's Critical Play, Mia Consalvo's Cheating, and Miguel Sicart's Ethics of Computer Games, which created frameworks for a new generation of cultural game studies. The most recent exemplars include Stephanie Boluk and Patrick Lemieux's Metagaming, Shira Chess' Ready Player Two, Bo Ruberg's Video Games Have Always Been Queer, and Melissa Kagen's Wandering Games. Again, there are no absolute distinctions. The culturalists are often keenly engaged on a formal level – Boluk and Lemieux, for instance, operationalize their theories through conceptual levels and mini-games – but they are mainly attuned to questions of expression and social reception. Much of this interest, as Consalvo and Christopher Paul note in their recent book Real Games, is driven by ongoing attempts to say what games are – a notoriously difficult problem. The matter has been vexed by the eruption of GamerGate, an intense campaign in the larger culture war between liberal and illiberal forces (see Warzel). A key part of this conflict has been the rise to prominence of solo and small-team productions, sometimes called independent, art, or craft games.3 As Wardrip-Fruin notes:
We are seeing profound shifts in the world of video games. The question is how to understand them (How Pac-Man Eats, 54).
The key to that understanding, Wardrip-Fruin argues, is linking technē to social purpose. Wardrip-Fruin notes that the
indie and art gaming communities have been joined by a third group, the
research games community, in which his colleagues and students in the Games and Playable Media program at the University of California Santa Cruz play a prominent part. We could also point to similar establishments at New York University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of California at Davis, and international centers such as those at the Technical University of Copenhagen and the University of Tampere in Finland. Wardrip-Fruin discusses the multiplayer game Prom Week, his program's testbed for development of game AI as well as studies of player interaction. He also offers intriguing insights about Interruption Junction, a conceptual game by Dietrich
Squinky Squinkifer who was for a time part of the Santa Cruz group. Both games interrogate the relationship of formal systems and emergent meaning. It is good to see these experimental projects treated in detail.
However, current trends in game design and criticism seem at least partly at odds with this combined techno-social approach. Wardrip-Fruin reports that
these communities seem to be pulling away from one another – with the Independent Games Festival, for example, having taken the unfortunate step of eliminating itstechnicalcategory (between the 2013 and 2014 festivals) removing a natural way for games emerging from technology research contexts to come together with indie and art games. (How Pac-Man Eats, 32)
Wardrip-Fruin insists that
critical play, as Flanagan has named it,
rests on a foundation of logics and models. It succeeds when it engages them creatively, and we can only understand it by taking them into account (How Pac-Man Eats, 167). By
models, Wardrip-Fruin means what his colleague Michael Mateas has called
playable models, expressions of relationship within software systems that allow significant differences in behavior in the hands of users. These models are implemented through
logics that describe operational possibilities for playable models: for instance, the
linking logic of hypertext (A leads to B), or the
graphical logic of animation and collision in arcade games, including the eponymous eating effect, about which more presently. On the emergent or interpretive side there are also
cultural logics, including what might also be called strategies of innovation – or as literary theory used to say, conceptual turnings or tropes. Wardrip-Fruin offers a trio of these, the
alternative, as in the disarmament that turns first-person shooters into walking simulators, the
expansive, seen in the diabolical ramification of possibilities in Papers, Please, and the most radical
inventive logic, expressed in the emergent social dynamics of Prom Week.
How Pac-Man Eats offers a formal guide to these systems. In this respect it strikes a note of recognition in this reviewer, who is old enough to remember books like Wayne C. Booth's Rhetoric of Fiction, Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, and Austin Warren and René Wellek's Theory of Literature – describing allegedly universal structures that underlie works of imagination. Like the old literary anatomists 4, Wardrip-Fruin anchors his formal exposition in astute readings, including deep dives into the ur-games Tennis for Two and Spacewar! and illuminating accounts of genre-defining classics like Gone Home, Dys4ia, and Grand Theft Auto. However, the book's greatest value may lie not in its elaboration of a system but in the conceptual frame within which it sets that system, in which the book might be said to describe its own limits. Wardrip-Fruin may be to some extent a functionalist – his first graduate degree was in Computer Science – but he is also a social thinker (a committed Quaker, as he reminds us) and a conceptual artist who significantly expanded the field of electronic literature with works like News Reader, Regime Change, and Screen. His doctoral degree is from the Brown University program in Literary Arts. To give this book its full measure we should see it from multiple angles, as the work of a scientist who is also a committed literary writer. Along with his elegant anatomy of game design, we need to consider what Wardrip-Fruin has to say about metaphor, which may be the real key to all mythologies – if not, as Gina Aeisi might say, the
secret of life.
In the way that certain musical cadences will suggest a note never played, we need to add another, implied logic to Wardrip-Fruin's conceptual set: the logic of naming or titling. How indeed does Pac-Man eat? The apparently simple answer is that the character doesn't: the effect is a systematic illusion. As Wardrip-Fruin explains, what we are encouraged to see as consumption is really a trick of digital graphics. The visual technology of Pac-Man is based on sprites, component images that can be displayed in any cell of the game grid. Pac-Man is represented by a set of sprites showing his jaws open or closed, oriented left, right, up, or down. When player input relocates this sprite-identity to a different cell, an evaluation is performed. If the targeted cell contains a dot or fruit bonus, the targeted sprite is overwritten by Pac-Man. If that cell is occupied by a ghost, or if a ghost enters Pac-Man's cell, other conditions come into play. On completion of its status review the game program rewrites the display. Either Pac-Man advances to the targeted cell with appropriate changes to his health status, or the game suspends on a loss of life.
Eating comes into this transaction only conceptually -- or perhaps linguistically. As the Japanese root of his name implies (paku-paku, or gobbling), Pac-Man is just a set of jaws with eyes. He has no real body. Like those Edo prints of lustful men with gargantuan phalluses, Pac-Man is a reduction to absurdity. The business of so-called eating is more like semaphore, the instantaneous replacement of one symbol by another. We understand this videographic transaction as something else (eating, movement) because of cultural conventions that turn semaphore to semiosis. As Wardrip-Fruin says, we have here in very pure form the contact point between functional logic and meaning. In a productive sense, much of game design can be considered an elaboration on Pac-Man.
There is much to be said for this straightforward tracing of the conceptual pathway; but in questions of media, no movement is ever just one-way. We must consider the possibility of reversal, recursion, or as we might aptly say in this instance, feedback. Richard Grusin writes of post-digital technologies in general:
these new formations of technical media produce the mediations through which such oppositions, and more radically such multiplicities, are generated in continuous, but by no means seamless, feedback loops. And because you and I and it and we and they are all transformed, generated, or created by the ubiquitous processes of radical mediation, they are not simply brought together, connected, related, linked by them. Hence, the question of mediation… remains among the most pressing questions of our time. (Grusin 146-47)
Considered as field guide or rhetoric, How Pac-Man Eats plays a part in the philosophical project Grusin lays out. The work can be the starting point for a deeper inquiry into mediation, through its logic of titling or naming, which engages a primary metaphor. In thinking about how Pac-Man eats, we are invited to pivot from feed to feedback, traveling upstream along a certain vicus of recirculation until we arrive at the unstable root of allegory. If allegory is as A. Bartlett Giamatti famously said, a
play of double senses (Giamatti), then we may be excused for putting a certain emphasis on the play part -- if we happen to be critics and makers of games, or perhaps just radically mediated subjects.
What happens when we play around with allegory? One answer to this question can be seen in McKenzie Wark's re-writing of Plato's allegory of the Cave as the monstrous ideal of game space – a self-referential prison-house of systematic illusion (019). However, an even more radically playful footnote to Plato was written two decades earlier, in the
Love Theme from Mystery Science Theater 3000:
If you’re wondering how he eats and breathes
And other science facts
Then repeat to yourself, "It's just a show,
I should really just relax"
(MST3K Love Theme)
Perhaps the self-help advice of this lyric is no longer tenable, or laughable, in our calamitous new century. With pandemic raging, we may no longer be content to give shows and showmen their way. But these words come from (though it seems unbelievable to say) a more innocent time. Like Pee-wee's Playhouse, Mystery Science Theatre 3000 was a deliberately wacky re-styling of after-school kid shows from an earlier age of television, its scenario centered on a gormless wage slave launched into orbit at the whim of his bosses, condemned to watch endless re-runs of
cheesy movies. Quite literally, the show also sends Plato's allegory into space, re-figuring the Cave as the viewing room on the Satellite of Love (see King). Its theme tune applies, however ironically, the same critical turn we are invited to perform in How Pac-Man Eats. How is poor Joel (later Mike) supposed to survive from one episode to the next? Which is also to ask by implication, how are the prisoners in Plato's cave sustained? Wouldn't any practical solution for care and feeding break the conceptual frame that locks the subjects into unbroken speculation? Would it disrupt the play of double senses with a squall of feedback?
Really, just relax. In either ancient or recent instance, the phenomenon in question is only a show, a linguistic maneuver, setup for a major epistemological gag or a weirdly necessary mashup of puppet theater and improv comedy. In a reassertion of Cave Logic that is very much the point, the consumer is not meant to ask questions. If we want wisecracks, we have Joel and the bots. The wages of skepticism is deconstruction, an effect that jams the otherwise seamless circuit that connects technology to expression, sundering ideas from materiality. This playable model of yours is all very elegant, but when do we eat? To understand this problem in full, consider two additional eating scenes.
The first features Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp sitting down to his famously desperate meal in The Gold Rush (1925). The Tramp shares with his glowering fellow diner a boiled boot. We see him tend the object in a steaming pot, serving his companion the uppers, reserving the sole and boot nails for himself. Much of the charm of this scene stems from the fact that Chaplin appears actually to eat the shoe leather. We see him bite off a piece and chew laboriously. We do not see him swallow, though that omission is curiously arbitrary. There is a cut between the shot of the boot in the pot and on the plate, during which the first prop is replaced by a version made of licorice. (Close inspection will show a difference in texture in the second prop.) Everything on Charlie's plate is edible, whether we consider what the camera sees (the pro-filmic view) or biological/biographic reality.
Pac-Man eats in semaphore; the Little Tramp eats in mime. Chaplin performs an elaborate set of dining behaviors, sharpening his knife, carving up the boot, recommending a choice bit to his neighbor, politely covering a persistent belch, picking his teeth with a boot nail. Mime is mimesis or embodied simulation. Unlike Pac-Man, Chaplin has human anatomy, which he apparently puts at risk in the scene, putting a dubiously edible morsel into his mouth. As in the video game, we are meant not simply to understand this action as eating, but to develop its context. The Tramp is so desperate he will eat shoe leather. Even in this extremity, he remains fastidious in his manners, indefatigably bourgeois. We laugh at him and we feel for him. Simulation -- in this case a playable model that is cinematically performed -- delivers a dramatic and social message.
Our second eating scene extends the logic of simulation from the impoverished past into our precariously abundant present. Pick any episode of The Great British Bake Off and watch Paul Hollywood judge a contestant's work – bread, cake, biscuit, or patisserie; signature, technical, or show-stopper. Ingredients and finished servings are presented in Rabelaisian excess: dozens of identical pastries, towers of cakes. We are not dealing with the Tramp here but his opposite, the gastronome. Obesity and diabetes are the specters here, not starvation. Our share in the suffering of the Tramp becomes vicarious anxiety for the baker facing judgment, waiting to see if the cake will have acceptable crumb, the loaf a well-baked bottom, the biscuit a pleasing crack. The ultimate criterion is flavor, for which food actually must go into the judge's mouth.
Tasting on Bake Off takes the simulation of consumption to the next level of similitude. Chaplin mimes. Paul Hollywood actually eats, thoroughly enough to process often complex, developing flavors. Though the camera almost never catches him swallowing what he puts in his mouth, he generally spits out only raw dough, presumably because of bacterial risk. It is part of the show's legend to assume Hollywood and his judging partner consume what they eat (Sulway). If Chaplin's performance is mime, Hollywood's is something else again. He performs for the entertainment of others a bodily function associated with pleasure, taking part in what Cadigan named
food porn. Her novel Synners includes this prescient guide to the coming age of media feeding:
Valjean had a screen for every porn channel, jammed together in the wall so that food porn overlapped med porn overlapped war porn overlapped sex porn overlapped news porn overlapped disaster porn overlapped tech-fantasy porn overlapped porn she had no idea how to identify. Maybe nobody did, maybe it had just bypassed the stage where it would have been anything other than porn. Meta-porn, porn porn?
I don't know what it is, but it makes me horny… (Cadigan, 140)
Or in our case, hungry. The original brand of pornography (sex porn) belongs to the family of
body genres, where depicted experiences elicit vivid sympathetic responses from the viewer – laughter, horror, sexual arousal (Williams). Food porn could be added to this set. We could say the feedback loop of performative eating breaks the frame of metaphor or allegory to remind us of our embodied condition – as Cadigan's protagonist says in our epigraph, that each of us is not the star but the
ass to risk in any fictive scenario. There is a paradox or disjunction here, a necessary limit to imaginative expression. We are taught not to speak with our mouths full. Intake after all is the opposite of outering or uttering. It is an intimate act not normally associated with public address.
Meanwhile there is also a second, more profound sense in which showmanship is divided from the body: the fact that all three spectacular eaters, Pac-Man, Chaplin's Tramp, and Paul Hollywood, are in an important sense unreal. As Wardrip-Fruin teaches, Pac-Man is actually a suite of image-states, and with only slight adjustment in thinking we might say the same for Chaplin and Hollywood, whose performances come to us as a series of celluloid or digital frames. As we see them, they consist of data presented in one of three formats. They are ghostly appearances, moving pictures. We understand them as characters through a process that passes conscious understanding, imprinted on our brains not long after birth. McLuhan famously said writing gave us
an eye for an ear (McLuhan, 26). Something similar happens in the depiction of eating, substituting an organ of interpretation for one of desire and consumption. It gives us a brain (or a visual cortex) for a stomach.
It is difficult to have one without the other, of course, and How Pac-Man Eats argues compellingly for the integration of signs and bodies. It is notable how many times Wardrip-Fruin returns to problems of embodiment in games, in one case a Tetris variant about stacking bodies in mass graves (293), in another, a historical game about slavery in which the player must optimally load captive people in a slave ship (328). Despite our proper, necessary investment in logics and models, we have to remember that games resonate not just with minds and abstract systems but with lived experiences, with lives that matter. The two must map meaningfully onto each other. That task is far from easy.
This is in some ways a difficult moment to be concerned with the future of game design and criticism. Various civilizational questions take precedence, such as the fight against racism, colonialism, and their legacies. Several populous countries (India, Brazil, the U.S. and probably Russia) are suffering historic numbers of daily deaths in the continuing pandemic, even as their national politics are beset by emerging or existing tyrannies. In the United States, the ruling party has become a collective disease vector, with the showman-in-chief preaching insane disregard for science and hygiene. Wardrip-Fruin argues that game designers can join the struggle against depravities like these. He is not the only one saying this. We might set next to Pat Cadigan's rebus a more recent formula, used to notable effect in a talk by Meg Jayanth at the 2016 Game Developers Conference (Jayanth):
PROTAGONIST != HERO
The exclamation point here may be as puzzling for some as Cadigan's asterisk. In popular programming languages, it negates the equality, meaning in this case does not equal. The figure at the center of a game is not always or necessarily heroic. Play may entail control, but that is not the same as agency. Aligning Jayanth with Cadigan, we might say, it's ass-to-risk, not star -- you may play the game, but don't expect to be the hero.
Based partly on her experience as lead writer for Inkle Studios' steampunk adventure 80 Days, Jayanth argues for replacing single-actor quest and salvation narratives with more complicated stories that have begun to emerge in open-world series like The Witcher, Elder Scrolls, and the Legend of Zelda games. Arguably these stories – in which it may be noted, characters often have to provide for everyday necessities, including eating – take us out of the quasi-cinematic cave, into a territory that is both more accessible to playable modeling and notably closer to social reality. In these story-worlds we may learn of crimes, scandals, and revolutions, not to mention princesses in need of rescue. However, as we unfold the possibilities of these games, we often find ourselves unable, or not especially compelled, to address major problems.We pursue side quests. We take in the scenery. We wander from what Davey Wreden satirically calls The Adventure Line (Wreden). Heroes are not necessarily protagonists and some risks are not addressable.
In these stories we may feel more swept away than called to duty. These games may, as Kagen says in her review of Hideo Kojima's Death Stranding, trouble our understanding of games and stories, evoking flaws in our affective repertoire as much as they deliver visions of redemption (Kagen,
Worries). Like Death Stranding (a game that regrettably came too late for How Pac-Man Eats), games of this sort may reveal the worst parts of our civilizational predicament, but they are not inevitably negative. It is worth remembering the advice with which Porpentine Charity Heartscape opens the celebrated indie game With Those We Love Alive:
Remember, nothing you can do is wrong (Heartscape). Whether that allowance holds for game designers, and perhaps more acutely for critics, remains to be seen. It is clear, though, that the creative form of the video game has entered a phase of development that is both fraught and promising, attracting notably intelligent designers and scholars. How Pac-Man Eats should figure prominently in the way these makers take on a catastrophic world.
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