Medium of modulation: the contradictory configurations of power in video games

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Fong, Byron Tuck

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Video games have formal structural properties that create tensions between simplicity and complexity, transparency and obfuscation, systems of power and individual empowerment. This thesis investigates these tensions in two directions of inquiry: 1) video games as software and 2) video games as assemblages within media ecologies. One dives into video games’ code. The other challenges video games’ boundaries to understand how they intertwine with other media systems. These two perspectives complement each other to expose the contradictions of power within video games as a medium. Drawing on Wendy Chun and Alexander Galloway, this thesis uses software studies to investigate how the properties of software condition video games’ ludological structures. A theoretical approach to video games’ existence as software exposes that they are not media objects with clearly defined, static boundaries. Instead, a video game is an assemblage of many component parts and interacting systems. Using Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s understanding of assemblages, I argue that video games are constituted not only of the software contained within the game’s executable code; they are always-already interacting with other media systems, which in turn become component parts of the game. Matthew Fuller’s theorization of media ecologies provides a framework for conceptualizing video games as software-based assemblages within intersecting media ecologies. Player-encoders, a term I develop in the thesis, are a site where both perspectives visibly intersect. Player-encoders are players who create paratextual media to complement existing video games. They decode games’ structures, and then re-encode this knowledge into paratexts that other players can utilize. By encoding new media objects through the process of decoding existing games, player-encoders expose the tensions between powerful systems and individual empowerment. Video games as software, as assemblages in ecologies, and as affected by player-encoded paratexts, reveals them to be unstable media objects modulating within contradictory configurations of power.


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