The Poetics of Reflection in Digital Games

Schenold, Terrence E. The Poetics of Reflection in Digital Games. 2019. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.

The Poetics of Reflection in Digital Games explores the complex relationship between digital games and the activity of reflection in the context of the contemporary media ecology. The general aim of the project is to create a critical perspective on digital games that recovers aesthetic concerns for game studies, thereby enabling new discussions of their significance as mediations of thought and perception. The arguments advanced about digital games draw on philosophical aesthetics, media theory, and game studies to develop a critical perspective on gameplay as an aesthetic experience, enabling analysis of how particular games strategically educe and organize reflective modes of thought and perception by design, and do so for the purposes of generating meaning and supporting expressive or artistic goals beyond amusement. The project also provides critical discussion of two important contexts relevant to understanding the significance of this poetic strategy in the field of digital games: the dynamics of the contemporary media ecology, and the technological and cultural forces informing game design thinking in the ludic century.

The project begins with a critique of limiting conceptions of gameplay in game studies grounded in a close reading of Bethesda's Morrowind, arguing for a new a "phaneroscopical perspective" that accounts for the significance of a "noematic" layer in the gameplay experience that accounts for dynamics of player reflection on diegetic information and its integral relation to ergodic activity. The next two chapters zoom out to consider systemic challenges to reflective thought and perception in the contemporary media ecology generally, and the ludic century particularly. Synthesizing Hartmut Rosa's theory of social acceleration with critical discourses on the digital in the humanities, I identify a general problem of speed in the digital media ecology resulting from its increasing synergy with historical processes of social acceleration, arguing for the development of an idea of "slow media" to supplement the existing cultural and technological strategies of deceleration. Returning to the domain of digital games, I criticize Eric Zimmerman's characterization of the "ludic century" through expansion of Paolo Pedercini's argument that "videogames are the aesthetic form of rationalization," using close reading of Molleindustria's Every Day the Same Dream to discuss critical aesthetic strategies in game design as necessary supplements to the existing critical developments of the ludic century. The final chapter develops the poetics of reflection in a technical direction through close readings of four exemplars: Giant Squid's ABZÛ, The Chinese Room's Dear Esther, Richard Hofmeier's Cart Life, and Playdead's INSIDE. These readings identify specific design strategies, such as design for musement or an aesthetic of slowness, that educe and develop reflective activity in gameplay and actively disrupt habitual and instrumentalized modes of attention and perception. The project concludes with reflection on the significance of the "videogame avant-garde" identified by Brian Schrank.

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