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Dérive: Exploring Video games and the Situationist Legacy. (Part 1).

May 1, 2012

On Saturday April 28th, I presented at the Intersections conference at Ryerson University hosted by the Joint Program in Communications in Culture, which is Graduate Program co-administered by York U and Ryerson U. The theme of this year’s conference was ‘Occupy;  seminars, workshops and an art exhibit (called Cross Sections), all works related to the Occupy movement as well as cultures of resistance at large.

My presentation was titled #occupygamespace: Cultures of Resistance in Video Games.   Originally meant to be a paper, but due to time constraints it became more of a presentation of the research of a project in progress.

The research began with several questions.    How present are representations of resistance cultures within game culture?  If they are present, how effective are they?   In what ways  do video games convey themes of or portray cultures of resistance?

While that paper is still forthcoming, there was another sub-topic that emerged out of this research (and through discussion after my presentation with several attendees) that I feel directly connects a great volume of video games with the legacy created by the Situationist Internationale, a group of avant-garde thinkers, writers, activists and artists that operated in France from 1957-1972.   The SI cast a wide net of influence,  having helped influence the May 1968 General Strike in France,  as well as influencing such figures as Malcolm Mclaren, former manager for the Sex Pistols and one of the original founders of the punk rock movement (and often credited for its rise to popularity). A key member of the SI was also Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, which has become a foundational text in many a Culture Studies class.

For all of their theories, premises, and publications.. it was in the zero hour of preparing my presentation when I made a small break through that led me to connect Situationist practices to video games from an angle of approach that  I had never considered before; that of the concept of the Dérive.  A practice that I believe articulates itself through acts of both game design and game play;  situated as a key concept in throughout the history of the medium.

If you’ve read the link I provided above, you’ll note that at heart of the dérive is a drive for exploration; for moving off the beaten path (or ‘axis of habit’) and exploring your environment in ways that you had not.  For the SI, this was linked to the concept of psychogeography; a term coined by Guy Debord, describing how our geographies (environments) affect us, how we move through them, how they make us feel, etc.   When connected, we can see that the dérive gives us agency; it illustrates that we understand the relationships between ourselves and our environments, and gives us the power to alter that relationship by exploring our environments in new ways.   This concept is articulated remarkably well in the history of video games.

The first example of the dérive in video games i present to you is Walter Robinett’s Adventure, a landmark game in its time for many reasons, but perhaps for one over all the others;  Adventure was the first game to feature what is now commonly referred to in gaming culture as the ‘Easter Egg’.

The story goes something like this:  fed up with the lack of credit that he and his fellow programmers at Atari (each of whom where solely responsible for the creation of a game: art, code, everything package design) where not being respected by the company at a time when it was making the lion’s share of the home video game market, Robinett decided to stage a secret protest while working on Adventure.   Within the game he created the above ‘room’, but access to this room was exceedingly difficult to gain.  The player had to take a single black pixel (key) from near the end of the game, all the way back to the game’s beginning and walk through a section of wall (also only a pixel wide), using the key to gain entrance.   When those absurd conditions were met, the player was greeted with this room, a room containing only one thing: Robinett’s claim of authorship over the game.

At the time game designers  didn’t experience the respect as creatives that they do today.  They were paid mediocre wages and were not given credit anywhere on the game’s packaging as the title’s author.   This was Robinett’s protest against these practices.    And yet, no one knew about it until a teenage player sent Atari a letter asking about this screen.

While it took a while for the practice of including hidden items and pathways to completely catch on in video games, Robinett’s act of protest is an excellent example of how the dérive articulates itself in a video game; from Robinett’s designing of this secret room, to the young player who clearly had decided to explore the game in ways not set out by his instruction manual.  Leaving the final official goal of the game behind for the sake of exploration, this teenaged boy becomes an example of the first (public) practioner of the dérive through his play experience.   Little did  Robinett and the boy who found his secret know, that they were the first designer/player in a practice that would become a central component of game play design.

There are no games in the history of video game culture more emblematic of the search for secret items and pathways than the Super Mario series of games, by Shigeru Miyamoto.  From hidden coins, powerups (mushrooms), 1ups (also mushrooms) to whole rooms called Warp Zones that enable the player to skip ahead by multiple levels in order to reach the games’ end more efficiently, Miyamoto understood the dérive as a design concept like no other designer before him.  And the player’s understood it too.

I can’t recall how I came to know where every secret item and warp zone is in the original Super Mario trilogy for the NES, but I do know them.   And while some of them were simply secret routes planned out in advance by Miyamoto and his team for players to expand their understanding of the games’ geographies, other routes seemed like we were discovering ‘tricks’ or exploits; bending the ludic constraints of the game to reach our destination.  As an example of the former, here is a video outlining how to collect all 3 warp whistles from Super Mario 3.

To get the first warp whistle it to step behind the two-dimensional plane of the game level itself to discover a secret room, hidden behind a black field.  In the second example, the player must ‘fly’ Mario up past the level’s ‘ceiling’ until he passes a secret barrier, then must move (unseen to the player) to the right until he enters a secret door.   Please keep in mind that these are elements designed into the game to be discovered by the player.   This is derive as it articulates itself as a design concept in a video game.

The second example I have for you is of the latter: the player trick or exploit:

In this you can see that at sometime while playing this level, some player somewhere discovered that you can simply ‘swim’ under these ships, and reach the level’s end unscathed.  Another example of this in also in Super Mario 3, where if the player possesses the Raccoon Tail power-up, the player can fly over an armada of flying airships in much the same way.

This idea of the exploit or trick in these instances could be argued, as the designers left the space open both above and below the viewable screenspace in order for players to discover these alternate routes.   While I haven’t been able to find any writing on these level exploits from a design perspective, the outcome is constant, the player feel empowered by these actions.   By feeling like they’ve cheated the game itself, it becomes a small act of protest and victory over the ludic constraints set out by the game’s creators.

I could cite a myriad of games from the 8 bit era that house examples of this exploration practice.  Miyamoto’s other famous franchise, the Legend of Zelda, features a vast Overworld full of Dungeons that players must explore in order to find all of the items needed to reach the game’s end.   The theme of exploration in Zelda gives the game a decidedly open and non-linear feel to it’s gameplay.   Squaresoft’s Final Fantasy also used this technique effectively by having players only able to progress through certain areas they could visit, but not pass through until they found key items located elsewhere in the game world.

The derive as a design practice created richer environments for players to explore, which then enabled the player to continually play games in new exploratory ways in hopes of discovering new secrets, finding new pathways and ultimately gaining new intimate knowledge of the structure of the game.  This altered the player’s relationship with the game, giving them agency to move throughout the game in ways that were no pre-described by the game’s ludic constraints.    But it also became a premise that many future video games did not just incorporate, but made central to the themes, narratives and further means of navigation within the games.

This post was the first half of my research into the derive as a concept connecting the legacy of the Situationists with video games,  dealing with explorations in two-dimensional worlds.    In the next week or so, I will post about how this concept finds new articulations in three-dimensional games and how these games connect to the  representations of youth neo-tribal cultures in urban video game spaces.

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