October 31, 2008
Bart Simon (Sociology and Anthropology, Concordia University), “Next-Gen Video Gaming and the Place of the Screen”
Event report: Bart Simon’s talk considered the Nintendo Wii Phenomenon in relation to the analytic possibilities of screen culture studies. Currently the best-selling next-gen console, the Wii has shaken both gamer culture and the game software industry by challenging the conception of the television monitor as an access point to high-fidelity immersive virtual worlds beyond the screen. Wii play unsettles this by placing the gamer in an unconventional relationship to their screens, their bodies and to digital culture in general. Over the course of his talk, Simon outlined various aspects of this altered relationship between gamer and game. The Wii, for example, is advertised as providing real-world, kinesthetic play, a fact which ‘frees’ the player from the screen (commonly considered the goal of a ‘virtual reality’ approach to game play). Simon, however, argued that the opposite is actually the case: the screen is still very much at the centre of Wii play, so much so that injuries often result from players forgetting their actual surroundings. The screen is constitutive of the immersion in the game, and in fact exerts a sort of digital control on the gamer’s body.
A similar tension between the real requirements of Wii play and the constructed expectations surrounding the game is evident in the phenomenon Simon names ‘gestural excess.’ The excess occurs in a player’s performance of large movements when using the Wii controller – movements which are entirely unnecessary for affecting onscreen play. This excess speaks to another unusual aspect of Wii gaming: the social nature of Wii game play. Unlike more traditional video games, in which the goal is to efficiently master and complete the game, the pleasure of Wii play seems to derive largely from performing gameplay in the presence of friends. Simon noted, though, that this gestural excess should not be taken as an uncomplicated ‘liberation of the body;’ Wii game play is circumscribed in terms of both gender and race. As an example of this, Simon described the connection between the atypical popularity of Wii play among young women and the derisive claims by gamers that Wii games are not ‘real’ video games. In effect, Simon’s talk outlined the importance of studying the Wii as a productive and useful tool in terms of both video game and screen studies.