The 1984 film The Last Starfighter (Castle) confronted its largely pre-adolescent audience with a metaphorical expression of the effect of arcade games upon their youthful players. The film takes the form of a technological bildungsroman, the story of Alex Rogan, a youth whose obsession with the arcade game ‘Starfighter’ allows him to escape the banality of his small-town, trailer-park existence, and the pressures of adult responsibility. After reaching a new high score in ‘Starfighter,’ Alex is visited by an alien who solicits his help in an intergalactic war. Unbeknownst to humanity, a galactic federation is defending the galaxy against an evil threat and they are in need of new recruits. The game is revealed to be a complex military training simulation. Alex’s skills learnt in virtual space are now applicable not only to the self-contained digital game-world, but to the wider film universe. The skills that he developed in the game’s micro-world become the means for his propulsion into outer space, into the unknown space of the wider universe, and into a confrontation with the ‘Other’ that resides there. The arcade game in The Last Starfighter serves a similar narrative function to the black monoliths of 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1969); it becomes the mystical vehicle for transformation to a new level of human consciousness, imbued with an encompassing macroscopic vision of humanity’s place within the cosmos. Alex’s focused internal gaze enabled him to see the larger picture: the microscopic game-world was a map of the macroscopic world-view. In Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject In Postmodern Science Fiction, Scott Bukatman explains that the post-modern era is characterized by a change in the symbol of technical aspiration: the rocket has been eclipsed by the personal computer to reflect a changing concern from outer to inner space; the explosive thrust of the rocket has given way to the implosive investigation of cyberspace (2). The Last Starfighter stands on the fulcrum of this changing metaphor, exploring both outer and inner space, and clearly conflates them. By focusing on this enduring theme, the tranformative power of computer games, it is possible to redeem a film that could be otherwise regarded as a puerile ideological expression of the Reaganesque fantasy of war and technology. Although the complexity and appearance of computer games has vastly increased since the time of the film’s production, the question that The Last Starfighter poses regarding computer games remains the same: In what ways do computer games affect the ways in which the players’ perceive and conceptualize their external and internal worlds?
This dissertation approaches the critical analysis of computer games with the above question in mind. To date discussions on computer games have been conceptualized (and contextualized) within the broader field of media studies. More precisely, analysis of computer games has been undertaken through the critical lens of media studies. One issue confronting such an analytic paradigm is the collapse of difference between computer games and other media forms; the other is the closing down of possibilities of opening a critical approach beyond those available within the field of media studies. Against this, the purpose of this inquiry is to establish a framework for analyzing computer games, one that acknowledges the specificity of computer games and the need for an analytical approach that addresses this specificity. To do this, I will identify the unique attributes of the computer game text, and the peculiarities of computer games, which require media analysis to move beyond the engagement between individual and text, and into the broader community that the practice of gaming engenders.
Whilst it would be unfair to categorically criticize the majority of past scholarly work on computer games and gaming, in general I have found most writing on the topic to be somehow lacking, in that it was incongruous with my own experiences of gaming. I am inclined to suspect that this is because it has been written without committing considerable time to playing computer games. A commitment to playing the games has a positive effect on critical analysis as it is through play which the people who make up the games’ audience experience the text. I am not arguing that only those who play computer games can critically comment on them. Rather, ignoring the element of interaction - between humans and between humans and machines - that takes place within the activity of play privileges the visual aspects of computer games over the social. The elevation of the visual invites two particularly reductive conceptions of computer games. First, the privileging of the visual makes the concatenation of computer games with television and film unproblematic. Second, by ignoring the interaction, and the unique modes of socialization enabled through interaction, computer games can be conceived as a passive medium. It is against the reductionism aforementioned that this dissertation argues that computer games can be productively negotiated through play.
While the notion of play remains a central concern, equally important to the appreciation of computer games as a unique medium are the particular forms of interactions that take place within play: play with the computer and play with other human players. The first involves an appreciation of the complex, reciprocal relationship established between the human player and the computer during play. The second involves grasping the novel forms of human-to-human communication that game playing opens up.
In order to emphasize these overarching concerns, the dissertation will focus on a particular type of computer game - historical strategy games - that highlights the way in which computer games exceed the theoretical parameters of approaches taken to established media. This genre is a subset of the industry genre of the ‘strategy’ game, and will be referred to as historical strategy games, in lieu of an official designation. This particular sub-genre lacks many of the features that other theorists have identified as points of aesthetic congruence between computer games and other mediums. Thus discussion of them in this context does not involve complex negotiations and refutations of prior analyses. As historical strategy games do not fit any of the established models of textual analysis because they lack ‘spectacle’ or ‘viscerality’, they serve to stand in for the way in which computer games as a whole exceed analyses that focus on the visible. Thus historical strategy computer games articulate the need for an approach to analysis of computer games that acknowledges their unique mode of technological engagement.
The approach I have taken to computer games conceives them as marking a shift in technological mediation. Like all forms of mediation, computer games precipitate a particular perception and understanding of the world. It is this shift in perception that accompanies the shift in the technology of mediation that is the subject of The Last Starfighter. However, computer games must not only be conceived in terms of its perceptual paradigm shift at the level of the individual. The imbrication of gaming and telecommunication technologies, and the novel modes of socialization that computer gaming enables require an examination of how this perceptual shift in the subject affects the constitution and focus of the gaming community. A second form of blurring, a changing notion of the ‘real’ that defies and subverts official versions of ‘reality’ accompanies this blurred boundary between the game and its community of interest. These three categories – the subject, the community and the ‘real’ – which are affected by the shift to computer games as a form of representation are described in turn in the chapters of this dissertation.
The focus of the historic strategy computer game reflects the multiple potentials of gaming technology unfettered by ‘rearviewmirrorism’. In her article ‘The Scene of the Screen: Envisioning Cinematic and Electronic “Presence”’, Vivian Sobchack identifies the predominance of electronic or digital media with changes in perceptions that accompany the cultural shift to the postmodern (141). Computer games constitute a part of the electronic or digital media that are associated with this shift. That creates a radically different experience of embodiment from that of the primarily visual medium of cinema. The games that are theorized as ‘interactive films’ are not aligned with this perceptual shift, as they rely on the same techniques and aesthetics as cinema. Historical strategy games exceed this type of analysis as they recreate a different aesthetic. These games offer a visually less spectacular form of engagement to those of the popular ‘shoot’em up’ games. This engagement is more cerebral than physical, and is not necessarily dominated by quick decisions and reflexes, but by long-term strategic thinking. Thus, at stake in the examination of historical strategy computer games is the appreciation of this shift in perceptual engagement and its consequential effect on the subjects’ experience of time, space and embodiment.
The experience of play can only be understood from the perspective of one of its everyday practitioners. The player of the game does not necessarily know how the game works in a technological sense, but they understand how to move and act within the world created by the game. While this experience may be obtained through play, an examination of play practices must appreciate computer games’ plurality of usage. This does not necessarily require interviews with players, as the experience of play is documented on the Internet in various official and unofficial game-related on-line forums. An examination of these sites reveals the complex and contradictory ways in which players put computer games to use. Crucially, they act as an indictment of the notion of computer games as passive. The sites encapsulate the complex participatory nature of computer games, which exist as a shared site of meaning between many players who put the games to myriad and multiple uses. At stake in the examination of on-line gaming communities is the conception of the computer games' audience as active participants in the production of meaning.
This technologically instigated perceptual shift also affects the category of the ‘real’ as it changes individual subjectivity, and creates new communities around the experience of new forms of subjectivities. It also engenders a particular way of viewing the world. As the subject matter of historical strategy games is historical, in this case it is the subjects’ view of history that is affected. This has an impact on the category of the ‘real’, as game play involves the creation of various different historical trajectories. Although many of these trajectories are extremely implausible, the more significant point is that the games represent history as an opened category, and encourage a different understanding of history and history making. Potentially, computer games represent a powerful tool for examining the past, not necessarily to establish any historical ‘truth’, but rather to reveal history to be a construction justifying a hegemonic vision of the future. Historical strategy computer games are a form of representational media that portray the past as a field of multiple possibilities. Thus, what is at stake here is that this technology enables the past to be represented in ways that disrupt ‘official’ history.
However, it is crucial that any discussion of the perceptual shift associated with computer games acknowledges both the negative and positive consequences of this shift. While the players of historical strategy computer games have access to both creative and radical potentials, these games simultaneously subject the player to new forms of interpellation. The negative consequences of computer games are emphasized in much of the academic work on computer games, while the positive benefits are ignored, serving to legitimize myopic moral panic tracts that focus on potential threats to children’s health, morals, and sense of ‘reality’. Against these negative positions, the work of Henry Jenkins seeks to examine the computer game as a radical space of libratory potential, particularly for children. However, his work does not address criticism that the possible creative and radical potentials of computer games are effectively mitigated and muted by their commodity status. Early films on computer games, like The Last Starfighter and TRON (Liseberger, 1982), negotiated this territory and challenged the commodity status of computer games by focusing on their libratory and empowering potential. While this potential is the focus of the dissertation, I will also address arguments that claim computer games are irreducibly constrained by their commodity status, to establish a view that balances both the positive and negative potentials of the medium, rather than focusing on one at the expense of the other.
Both of these polemical criticisms arise because of a proximity to media models that are insufficient for computer games. The notion that computer games interpellate their audience relies on the outdated hypodermic needle or media effects model. This is also influenced by a focus on the visual or spectacular aspect of computer gaming, which again harkens back to the hypodermic needle model. Computer games are theorized under the aesthetic of the ‘spectacle’ by Andrew Darley for example, who locates computer games alongside other digital media as part of what he calls the resurgence of the spectacle: a mode of visual engagement that combines the fascination for a realistic verisimilitude of the image with a fascination for the technological means by which that image is created (52). By focusing on the visual engagement of the viewer, the notion of the spectacle encourages, but does not necessarily require, a jejune reading of computer games, which despite their very obvious interactivity regards them as fundamentally passive. This regressive application of imported media models does no credit to the potential of computer games. However, any analysis of a computer game must acknowledge the way in which they constrain the choices of their players and how these constraints may reflect ideological concerns. A crucial issue at stake in the elucidation of the notion of play is the way in which play as a mode of engagement with the text allows the player a large degree of freedom that subverts the ideological constraints imposed by the game.
Computer games embody the cutting edge of the congruence between technology and capital. Thus they encapsulate a creative visualization of the telos that equates capitalism with technical progress and utopianism. This telos is further emphasized by computer games' status on the cutting edge of a new paradigm of media commodity, what P. David Marshall describes as the new intertextual commodity (69). The commodification process involves the creation of a mass media event that proliferates across the various terrains of a multi-faceted mediascape. This causes an aesthetic convergence as games become films and films become games, with the product itself being derived from and also then transferred to other media forms.  As a result the dominant aesthetic reflects a desire to produce media texts that are clearly recognizable across the myriad forms and to recreate the allure of the original text in its subsequent permutations. This aesthetic, derived entirely from the computer games’ commodity status suggests that computer games lack any form of libratory potential; as they are submitted to the circuits of capital. Again, this view lacks an appreciation of the active role that the player takes on within the game. It shuts down the possibility of conceptualizing the ’play’ or ‘creative engagement’ with computer games as subverting the totalization of capital.
Thus far, I have marked out, in general, the central concern of the thesis to suggest that what is at stake in the critical analysis of computer games is a practice that potentially challenges the dominant system from which it emerges. In Chapter One I will discuss the technological aspects of the computer game, and focus on how the technology of computer gaming creates a radically altered form of subjectivity that affects the players’ notion of self, space and time. By focusing on the relationship established between human and machine during the process of play, this investigation also seeks to understand the active role that the computer performs in this new subjectivity, as it is formed in reaction to, and in interaction with, the computer.
Chapter Two of the dissertation will explore the concept of play as it pertains to computer gaming. In order to establish the radicality of ‘play’, I will examine the unique potentials that it has to produce spaces outside of the everyday rules. In order to refigure the game audience in a productive rather than consumptive model, this chapter will turn to the practices of the game communities, to illustrate the active role of the computer game audience. It will then focus on the postmodern and poststructuralist conception of ‘free-play’, to further entrench the notion of play to open up the over-structured and over-determined space of the computer game to creative and radical potentials.
Chapter Three focuses on the creative potentials of the historical strategy game for representing multiple, alternative views of history. By employing the notion of counterfactual history, this chapter explores how historical computer games open up the past to re-examination by allowing multiple historic trajectories to be explored. To disrupt the notion of ‘official history’ as a hermetically sealed and homogenous site. The chapters that follow negotiate the three central concerns that animate the dissertation: technology, play and community, and radical potential. The constant thread that flows through each of these concerns is the tension between the games’ disruptive potential and its status as a consumer good.
 Exceptions to this are the works of Henry Jenkins, Ted Friedman and Brett Nichols and Simon Ryan.
 See Kolker Film, Form and Culture p 188.
 The official designations of Real-Time Strategy (RTS) and Turn-Based Strategy (TBS) are not particularly useful here as they include other games that are not based on history, like Starcraft (1998).
 See Darley Visual Digital Culture, Bolter and Grusin Remediation, and Manovich The Language of New Media for theoretical frameworks that conceive the computer game as part of an aesthetic continuum with other new or digital media.
 The only scholarly analysis of historic strategy games that I have found to date has been Freidman “Civilization and its Discontents: Simulation, Subjectivity and Space” and Caldwell “Settler Stories: Representational Ideologies in Computer Strategy Gaming.”
 For analysis of these types of games see Darley Visual Digital Culture, Berger Video Games: A Popular Culture Phenomenon, Manovich The Language of New Media, Bolter & Grusin Remediation, and Wolf The Medium of the Video Game.
 For example see Provenzo “Video Games and the Emergence of Interactive Media for Children” and Stallabrass “Just gaming: Allegory and Economy in Computer Games.”
 For example the Harry Potter franchise began as a series of books, was then made into a series (to date two) of films and subsequently into video games: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, published in all platforms by EA Games. In the other direction the PlayStation game Tomb Raider first proliferated across all other game platforms, spawned numerous sequels and eventually inspired the films: Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (West, 2001) & Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (de Bont, 2003).