Samantha Blackmon (aka dr. b.) does rhetoric and game studies at Purdue and lures unsuspecting students down the rabbit hole. Her interest lays in critique of identity and identity formation in game studies.

Recently I have found myself having lots of heated discussions about racial representation in video games and the importance of paying attention to the history behind these representations (*cough* Cuphead *cough*) and in some cases it has been a bit of an uphill battle, but it’s not new. It’s the work that I have been doing as scholar for 20 years because I think that it is imperative to focus on not only in terms of critical race theory, rhetoric, and education, but also in terms of video games. This focus adds depth of meaning to any medium. And it’s the kind of thing that I have written about before in posts like “On Borderlands, Blaxploitation, and the Art of Critique” (full text below) that draws upon Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera to consider games like GTA V. And it’s the kind of thing that comes to mind often when I’m gaming. (Minor spoilers for Tales from the Borderlands: Episode 3 before video)

This weekend I was playing the latest episode in Telltale Games’ episodic game, Tales from the Borderlands, when one of the vault hunters, Brick, screamed “You shot me in my pinky toe!” I started laughing so damned hard that I had to pause the game. Why? Not because the line in the context of the game was so funny, but because of where the line originally came from. Do you remember the film and the scene that this particular quote came from?

It was the merger of the memory of Harlem Nights and that in Borderlands with the use of the infantilized phrase “pinky toe” coming from a big, burly murderer that brought on spastic laughter. It was the hilarity of yet another blaxploitation film that came place of understanding that is informed by the history of blaxploitation films and the change in purpose and understanding that was made from the 1970s to the 1990s. All in that one moment. All in that one line.

It makes me wonder if the writer knew exactly what she was doing in that moment or if the voice actor Marcus Mauldin had a little fun with the scene (as Drew Hobson did with State of Decay) and it made me wonder how many players of the game would get it as well. So much…in one line.

Race and history runs deep in games. Characters, scenes, analysis, everywhere. Because of this I see projects like my video series Invisibility Blues being invaluable. We need to think about race and representation in games with a critical eye and we need to bring together gamers, scholars, and industry professionals to do this. This is my passion and I want to say thanks to all of you who have supported, tweeted, shared, and talked about this crowdfunding campaign. As we come into the closing weeks of the campaign I want to say thanks and please continue to boost us when possible.

Originally posted on Not Your Mama’s Gamer on March 13, 2015

The ways that I see my seemingly divergent areas of scholarly study constantly coming together still continues to amaze me after years of doing game studies work. This week in my Minority Rhetorics graduate seminar we had a great conversation about Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera and blaxpolitation. To keep it brief, the gist of the conversation was: how effective are rhetorical strategies that use non-traditional means to demonstrate the alienation and oppression that are felt by women and minorities if those strategies are ultimately misinterpreted as being supportive of the very thing that they are fighting against? In Anzaldúa’s case we were specifically wondering if writing “the personal” in untranslated Spanish and the theoretical in the language of the hegemony would give critics and those who most needed to be convinced of what she was trying to say an excuse to skip over those important sections or to be dismissive of them because “she didn’t think that they were important enough to translate,” “it’s too much work,” or “she really didn’t want us to understand.” So it becomes a question of value or audience. Is it worth it? Is it for non-Spanish speaking folks at all?

dap_and_julianThis is something that I have struggled with as I have played through a number of video games. At what point does parody or essentialization of cultural or racial representation become most likely to be reduced to being the foundation for more sexist, racist, or generally xenophobic propaganda? I struggled big time with this as I rode around in stolen cars listening to hip hop music from the time when the genre still had teeth in GTA V. I wondered if the de-contextualized kids playing the game more than two decades after the critically conscious films like Boyz n the Hood (1991) and School Daze (1988) were made would understand that this game could be read as a critique for how people of different races and social classes were being perceived for committing the same crimes or buying into the same fads. Shit, not only don’t most folks under the age of 30 know who Furious Stiles is, they don’t know that Larry Fishburn was a thing before he was frigging Morpheus! And Giancarlo Esposito has always been a Hispanic selling drugs out of a prosperous chicken front. He was never a Black frat boy who went to school with a socially-conscious Larry Fishburn…or was he? Without the context of a whole body of critically conscious film that GTA V seemed to be based on, does the game simply become another perpetuation of the stereotype that ill informed children and adults read as fact?

Titan_2015-03-13-12-09-09Games have the potential to be one of the most interactive critical media around, but they need context. As Alisha and I played Destiny last night we talked about Bungie’s lost opportunity. How rather than forcing us to kill a (not well disguised) Islamic god and his worshippers, they could have given the player a choice and made it an opportunity to think critically about the role that religion plays in war. (Aren’t these the types of conversations that all folks have while killing alien hordes…in the game?) Game developers and writers have an awesome opportunity. And not to sound like Peter Parker’s dead uncle, but with great power comes great responsibility. Recently game devs have come out in support of women in games and that is an awesome thing. I would love to see more of these folks put their money where their mouths are. Let’s see some of these things manifest in the games that they are expecting us to shell out 60+ dollars for. Show us games with positive representations of women, minorities, transgender folks, and folks in general. Maybe we can have story lines that depict these same folks are real people and not just something that is there for the hegemonic, white, male, heterosexual gaze as sex object or perversion. Show us folks as real folks. Show that we all have intersectional issues. This week Alisha brought up that someone in the Twitter-verse made the claim that we can’t be intersectional unless we are all the things and I said in jest “I win!”, but the truth is that once we can see this intersectionality made manifest in games and online WE ALL FUCKING WIN!

Support Samantha’s Kickstarter for Invisibility Blues, a video series critiquing race and representation in contemporary games and game culture.

This post cross-posted from Not Your Mama’s Gamer

Zoya is a historian and journalist of games and playful art. He is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Memory Insufficient, and a consultant at Silverstring Media.

Living in constant contact with a machine changes the things that a body is required to do Click To Tweet

A machine can encourage new patterns of behaviour, building different postures and muscle groups. Historically this has been most clearly understood in relation to factory labour; the industrial revolution transformed people’s lives; public health was devastated by pollution, long working hours, and cramped living conditions. At around the same time, the bourgeoisie was deliberately using machines to change their bodies through the development of exercise machines: technology used for leisure often stands as a direct, although perverted, reflection of technology used for work.

The dot com boom of the late 1990s had lasting effects on culture. Even after the financial bubble burst, the growing role of network-connected computers in both working life and leisure was undeniable. Meanwhile, bodies were themselves becoming more malleable and adaptable, through a rapid rise in the uptake of plastic surgery and other cosmetic procedures; 1999 saw a 66% increase on the previous year, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. In technologically-advanced, capitalist countries, the body was changing in relevance, with a decline of manufacturing and an expansion of the service industries. Increasingly, the human body was a display object meant to do emotional work.

Have you ever watched the video for Linkin Park’s “In The End” and thought that it looked a bit like a post-Playstation Final Fantasy game? Weirdly, “Holler” by the Spice Girls seemed to be set in the same game. The urban fantasy computer-generated city in Evanescence’s “Bring Me to Life” also seems to be replicated in a Spice Girls video. Whatever this may tell us about the Spice Girls aside, this suggests that the image of the digital playground transcended genres.

A game world is a liminal space: a world of leisure and symbolism separate to daily life. The prevailing design ethos at the time was that gameworlds, by necessity, must feature conflict, or danger, or just an endless supply of disorder that the player can busy themself trying to resolve. When music videos looked videogamey, they looked current, but they also looked beset by some problem or another.

From factories to selfies, we have a long history of imagining how machines may be changing our bodies. Click To Tweet

We can look to turn-of-the-millennium music videos’ use of conspicuous computer graphics to understand some of the worries that people had about the effects of new technologies on the body. Music videos’ use of computer graphics to depict bodies often seemed to describe contemporary problems with the changing media landscape — in some of the most interesting music videos from this time, bodies are being digitally altered in videogamey computer-generated worlds.

TLC, “Unpretty”

TLC’s “Unpretty” shows a woman being pressured by a man (maybe her boyfriend) to have plastic surgery: their discussion about the ideal body is shown visually through a wireframe model being transformed with breasts shifting in size. Computer-generated objects inserted into the space around her suggest that the pressure doesn’t just come from the men in her life, or from the mere fact that the technology to change her body exists, but from an ever-present critical gaze, represented by a flying camera drone that follows her everywhere. The same drone is shown in the scenes featuring the band members themselves, who sit in lotus posture in what looks like a computer-generated ashram: here the machine’s shell is closed around the camera, as if in this peaceful state there is an end to the self-conscious vigilance whereby one imagines how one is seen by others.

In the 1960s, anthropologist Mary Douglas argued that the body has special symbolic significance in helping us to understand a society as a whole, that we should “see in the body a symbol of society, and to see the powers and dangers credited to social structure reproduced in small on the human body.”

“The body is a model which can stand for any bounded system. Its boundaries can represent any boundaries which are threatened or precarious. The body is a complex structure. The functions of its different parts and their relation afford a source of symbols for other complex structures.”

The body, like any institution, is not just personal, but also systemic. Click To Tweet

The media gaze wasn’t just an assault on the body personal, but on other social institutions too. A 2010 Adam Curtis mini-documentary drew a link between how the media spectacle came — particularly since the 1990s — to distort the public’s perception of their society, and how it distorted their perception of their own body: through hypervigilance, paranoia, and confusion. As journalism’s access to easy good vs. evil narratives collapsed after the end of the cold war, its reach and remit were expanded by 24-hour news and on-demand information over the internet. Under these conditions, everything became a target for scrutiny and a possible source of corruption, from the highest echelons of power to the unknown internal processes of the body itself.

The era of 24-hour news was also an era of 24-hour music. Teens in the 1990s listened to 4 times more music than teens in the 1970s. The availability of niche TV channels meant that for the first time, music videos could be played for hours on end. This era of pop was about availability not just to the ears, but to the eyes and minds of target demographic groups as part of a perpetually-moving marketing machine.

Robbie Williams, “Rock DJ”

Robbie Williams’s “Rock DJ” was released in 2000, an (admittedly terrible) track on an album called Sing When You’re Winning. The video used a combination of stage makeup and cutting-edge computer graphics to depict Williams taking off his clothing, skin and muscles in order to get a DJ’s attention. The story is partly couched in a heteronormative “boy tries to get the girl” narrative, but another valid reading is that the video is about the quest for fame. The body becomes the central playground in a game for attention. Williams is stood in the centre of a roller derby rink, with women zooming around him, moving too fast to pay much notice to what he is doing until he makes a spectacle of his own self-destruction — a spectacle gory enough to disrupt the flow of play, as they literally consume him.

“Robbie Williams, the deity of levity, is the combustible core of contemporary masculinity,” wrote Tara Brabazon in the International Journal of Culture Studies in 2002, in an article that establishes in clear terms that one of the things that made Williams interesting as a media personality was the way he played with image and pride.

“He has been prepared to not only age in public, but to discuss the crevices and cracks in the facade… surfing the simulacra, he is prepared to reveal paranoia, weakness, and confusion. He strips, smokes, plays football, wears interesting underwear and drinks too much.”

The level of gore in this video as the body is taken apart by a digital gaze is comparable to the way the body’s gruesome innards are made visible and public in Mortal Kombat. This use of the flesh made visible itself recalls Michel Foucault’s interpretation of public executions as the state making a spectacle of its control over bodies, as Amsel von Spreckelsen argued in a previous issue of Memory Insufficient:

“The body of the condemned is the site of justice and the justice takes the form of the state, or the individual whose power constitutes the state, taking ownership of that body and submitting it to their will. There is a side effect in that any torture or deprivation has a public element, a pageantry to it, that might discourage other potential criminals from their criminal acts, but the core of it is in the violent assertion of ownership. The public execution is not about showing to others what  might happen to their bodies should they transgress, but about reiterating that the state has the right to do this to its subjects, as well as enacting and so giving a purpose to that right.”

The public’s demand for information pushes the digital body to expose itself completely Click To Tweet

The “Rock DJ” video worked in part because it came from an artist who had been famous since the age of 16, and had been in the tabloids a great deal, as the press made news stories out of his struggles with substance abuse and depression. And the computer-generated human sacrifice is also, as Brabazon points out, an exercise in the futility of trying to render the white male dominant body into an object of desire: there is nothing interesting about Williams’s striptease until the skin is stripped away and the performance of celebrity draws its first blood.

Kylie Minogue, “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head”

Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” — a Kraftwerk-inspired video for a heavily Kraftwerk-influenced record — depicts an entourage of cyborg backing dancers who, while not themselves computer-generated, dance machine-like in a world that is established in computer-generated opening shots as being unreal and distant. “Even when the location is rendered abstract or uncertain, it is nevertheless always and unambiguously not a natural environment,” wrote Diane Railton and Paul Watson in their analysis of how this video frames Kylie Minogue’s sexuality as clean, controlled, and sterile.

Kylie speeds down a freeway in a sports car, heading deeper and deeper into a cold, grey, unreal city. Buildings pass by her, looking like low-polygon placeholders for where an actual city would be, the pace of their movement uneven as though some buildings were flickering in and out of existence.

The music video seemed to be aware that its purpose was to create fame. Click To Tweet

An overwrought use of lens flare in this video suggests that you are watching Kylie through a camera. She goes through wardrobe changes, from red driving gloves to white ones, to a strange one-piece white garment that accentuates her dance moves while making her body look unnaturally long and stiff (“the fluidity of the dress merely confirms the flesh’s rigidity,” wrote Railton and Watson). Her final costume change introduces a dress that looks as though it is made of metal, suggesting that she has shifted from driving a machine to becoming machine-like herself. All the while, the throbbing beat of the song and its lyrics push the listener into a dispossessed, inhuman fixation on a product as Kylie sings “set me free!”

Media scholar Lee Barron, writing in 2008, explicitly interpreted Kylie’s work through Roger Caillois’s theories of play. He quotes Caillois, “all play presupposes the temporary acceptance, … of a closed … imaginary universe” — music videos are playful objects of make-believe, especially for an artist like Kylie Minogue who takes on different identities at different times, making everything seem like play and leaving nothing stable. For Barron, the “artifice and simulation” at work in her music videos from this era are strongly connected to notions of play and mimicry.

This play and mimicry, acted out in an imaginary universe made to look conspicuously unreal, spoke to problems that were then emerging in the physical, social world. The gaze of the media was ever harder to escape, like the floating drone camera in “Unpretty”. It was aggressive and demanding of its subjects, pulling them apart like the digital meat of Rock DJ. These videos exploited the uncanny valley to speak to how a technologically mediated gaze distorted its subjects and the world around them — all while fulfilling the commercial demand for pop music to provide a spectacle that looked exciting and new.

Digital bodies cover-1
Zoya Street is today publishing a book with Silverstring media called Digital Bodies. It is a collection of essays and articles that he has written over the past few years, covering themes such as digital craft and sexualised bodies. If you like this article, you might like the articles in that book.


Tara Brabazon (2002) “Robbie Williams: a better man?” International Journal of Culture Studies, 5 (1)
Amsel Von Spreckelsen (2015) “The body of the condemned: martial discipline.” Memory Insufficient, 2 (9)
Adam Curtis (2010) “Paranoia.” Newswipe S2E4



Gustaf Zander’s Passive Abdominal Exerciser, c. 1892 Photograph

Devin is the musical director for experimental games studio and consultancy Silverstring Media. He is constantly trying to one-up his own creations with new, bolder musical feats.

As Obi-Wan and Yoda discuss Anakin Skywalker’s future near the end of The Phantom Menace, you can hear the faintest whisper of the “Imperial March” in the background. It’s just a few fleeting notes, but that’s all it takes: you know what’s coming. And when John Williams was composing the music, he knew it too.

Leitmotif is a powerful albeit blunt tool that helps an audience associate a certain person or place in a creative work to a certain fragment of music: when you hear that melody or chord progression, the associated character must somehow be involved.

This is all well and good when you’ve been given the script ahead of time. Dust a little musical foreshadowing here, hint at a long-lost legacy with a French horn there, invert the hero’s melody for her arch-nemesis, and soon — ta-da! People hear your delicious little hidden “Imperial March” nuggets and exclaim, “Oh, wow! I see what he did there!”

Which brings me to The Edge, an experiment I’ve been chipping away at over the past year and a half. The Edge is a collection of music based on a series of tabletop role-playing sessions I’ve been running. Basically, we run a session, and in the next week or so I write music that is tied to the events of that day. We’re into the second volume of music now, which over 33 songs (divided across two albums) documents my player’s continuing adventures in a fantasy world of my creation. One song is released on YouTube each week along with a synopsis of the in-game events that occurred and a couple footnotes on musical decisions I made or issues I encountered while planning or writing.

The Edge Volume II Track 1

Full Album available from Silverstring Media
or on Bandcamp

At first, I approached this as a fun reward system for my players — the actions of their characters would be immortalized in music. As a player, I’ve always loathed the end of a good adventure or campaign and I often suffer the gaming equivalent of a book hangover: an intense longing to delve back into the same world and experience more. The music was intended to be something special for the players to hold on to after all was said and done.

This album would be the ultimate keepsake, because it would be shaped by players' own in-game actions. Click To Tweet

But as I began writing the music, I was faced with an interesting dilemma. How could I do all of the sneaky leitmotif stuff without knowing how it was all going to end, let alone whether or not a player was going to light an entire city on fire in the following session? I could plan and plot and scheme until the cows returned to their domicile only to have a character say something really dumb in front of the King of Nimnaren and unexpectedly get his head chopped off.

Suffice it to say: The Edge is leitmotif hard-mode. And so far it has been a highly entertaining and hilariously tragic, musically embarrassing and confusing exercise that I have enjoyed every moment of. There’s little room for subtle “Imperial Marches” in this experiment, and those that do exist are tremendous, terrifying musical leaps of faith. (I’m still waiting to see if some of my earlier leaps of faith will actually pan out.)

The most intriguing result of this experiment so far (50 songs in and counting) is the rough, organic nature of the music. Without a clear knowledge of the future, I’m forced to write about the here and now. Musical themes relating to the region or city the party is travelling through have become more prominent. Musical themes relating to different characters have become more obvious than normal as well. I can’t account for what a character will do at a later time, so I find I have to announce their current actions with gusto. I find I have to reserve the use of a character’s theme for times when they do something truly noteworthy; if I did it every time they appeared “on-screen” and said something, every song would be a jumble of everyone’s themes playing simultaneously. The story is always about the characters and their actions in the world — there are no plot exposition scenes in some far-away land.

The music on the whole tends to be a lot more fragmented at times than one would expect. I do my best to put a bit of gloss over otherwise gloss-less scenarios, but the fact that the characters are controlled by real people — each of whom plays with a very different degree of seriousness — still sticks out like a sore thumb. In some gaming sessions, the characters spend an entire day accomplishing literally nothing because the players themselves are distracted. Most notably this happens in “Illicit Substances”, the third track of the upcoming instalment. I dutifully wrote a somewhat goofy, two-and-a-half minute song that, with the exception of a little bit of the theme for Nimnaren, (the realm in which this session took place) has virtually no ties to any other song on the album.

Of course, I can’t poke fun at the role-playing abilities of my players without looking at my own shortcomings. At times in the first instalment, I made the mistake of trying to do one song per session. A lot can happen in a single session, especially when there’s dungeon-crawling involved: sudden combat will shift to a riddle then shift to more combat and then to a diplomatic encounter. Encapsulating that all in a single, short song seamlessly is difficult, unless every track runs ten minutes in length. An example of this difficulty is found in the ninth track of Volume I, “Portals to Nowhere”. The song shifts pace many times in a very jarring fashion as I try to address a mystical cavern room filled with active portals, a combat situation, a trap, and a difficult puzzle all in three minutes. And I don’t want to just document these events, I want to save space to address how the characters are affected by them, too. Thankfully, I’ve learned my lesson and now I will sometimes devote two or even three songs to a single session if it’s needed.

These kind of mistakes (there are many more like it that will be touched upon in subsequent YouTube videos) are what make this experiment so interesting and unique: not only are you watching the characters carry out their actions in the context of the story (the end of which is unknown), you’re also watching the players settle into the roles they have made for themselves, one role-playing faux-pas at a time.

You hear the music wrestle with a game system that by nature creates inconsistent narratives. Click To Tweet

Unless your GM leads you by the nose, or your players are immersive RPers, of course. At the end of the day, the direction the story goes is at the whim of a group of casual gamers, some of whom had never picked up an icosahedral die in their life prior to this campaign.

I see Volume I as an introduction: the players, the characters, and the music are all struggling to settle into a comfort zone. Volume II is the start of the meat of the adventure, and the music — finally having figured out what it is supposed to be doing — is beginning to sound awfully convincing. The stakes are higher, character’s lives are in jeopardy, and the players are really starting to buy into it all.

Now we just have to wait and see not just how the music compliments the story, but how the changing story affects the music.

The Edge Volume II album art
The Edge is an epic adventure soundtrack with a twist–based upon a series of live roleplaying sessions, the music follows the story of a group of adventurers as their journey takes place. Each song is written after a gaming session–the actions of the players decide how the music sounds. The result is a soundtrack that evolves organically as the story and characters do.
Full Album available from Silverstring Media
or on Bandcamp
Subscribe to the Silverstring YouTube channel to get The Edge videos as they are released