On digital games incorporating “material” gains (Game Cultures work in progress)

By Poppy Wilde on April 20th, 2020

This blog post takes the place of my Game Cultures BCMCR research cluster work in progress presentation on 11 March 2020, which was cancelled due to the global health crisis.


The ways in which materiality and digitality go hand in hand are important to consider through the study of videogames. All too often outside eyes view videogames as “immaterial” when this is clearly not the case – videogames involve physical machines, bodies, controllers, and the classic reminder that zeros and ones weigh something is pivotal, especially when we consider the ever expanding cloud storage and servers required for online games. Much of my own work explores the affective, embodied experiences of the avatar-gamer, and the ways in which these account for a posthuman subjectivity – a subjectivity in which different entities intra-act and are mutually reliant upon the other to form gameplay experience (see Wilde and Evans 2017; Wilde 2018). The materiality of the hardware is another component that forms this intra-action, and in a posthuman view we should privilege neither human nor machine, but consider them as components that cannot meaningfully be separated from one another.

From this perspective, it is interesting to see the ways in which materiality itself becomes a “theme” or narrative tool in videogames. Whilst it would be possible for an avatar to be “pre-packaged” with powers or abilities, or for the avatar attain those powers or abilities in ways that are not “held” through an object or attire, the majority of videogames make use of our inherent understanding that “stuff” has value – and, of course, this acquisition is what creates a “quest”, thus exemplifying our own joy at finding these materials too.

In the videogame Beyond Good and Evil (Ubisoft, 2003), the player-protagonist, Jade, is a staff wielding photojournalist who ends up working with a rebel organisation to expose the infiltration of the alien “Dom-Z” in her homeland. Jade’s “individuality” is disrupted through her reliance on “others”, be they human or nonhuman. Her “tools” are part of her subject formation and the affordances granted to her in the game, thus further complicating the subject/object binary.

Jade is proficient in a form of martial arts, and utilises her Daï-jo combat staff to engage in fights with the alien forces. Whilst at times she has aid from her comrades, she is often the lone fighter against multiple alien foes. Through the player’s use of keyboard/controller, Jade is able to engage in co-ordinated attacks against her enemies. Her abilities allow her to wield her staff in a variety of attack moves; Jade can collect the energy of the Daï-jo which stores it temporarily before releasing a super-attack function that inflicts more damage on the surrounding enemies.

Furthermore, Jade is not able to operate as a photojournalist (through which she makes a living, earning credits which can be spent in-game) without her camera, and therefore both camera and Jade are equally important to the formation of this subjectivity. This links back to Barad’s (2007) consideration of agency not as a possessed quality, but as ongoing material-configurations in the world. Rather than Jade possessing the agency to become a photojournalist, it is precisely through her intra-action with the camera that this subjectivity is possible.

Her skills are therefore not simply an implied mastery on her own part, but a confluence of the “objects” that she uses. These enable her to operate in different subject positions, and allow her different abilities within the game. However, Jade’s efficiency at fighting and photography is brought into being in part through the gamer’s proficiency at the game itself – i.e. their skill in the use of the physical game controls, be they keyboard, mouse, or console controllers.

Where videogames could have the power to circumvent “stuff”, they instead draw on our pre-existing understandings of materiality. I’m interested to explore how this operates in a variety of ways, on the one hand potentially reaffirming a capitalist, consumerist worldview, on the other hand perhaps enabling a consideration of new-materialism and “thing-power” (Bennett 2010).

If you’d like to hear more about this research, along with other works in progress from our Game Cultures cluster, look out for our upcoming online seminar. Details will be posted on our Events page.

(Image credit: Microsoft Store)