Global gaming networks are heterogenous collectives of localized practices, not unified commercial products. Shifting the analysis of digital games to local specificities that build and perform the global and general, Gaming Rhythms employs ethnographic work conducted in Venezuela and Australia to account for the material experiences of actual game players.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Mo(ve)ments paper: Everyday Empowerment

Hi Folks, I'm putting this one online for a while, until I can figure out what to do with it. Drop me a line if you want me to mail you a copy... the footnotes didn't come out...

Everyday Empowerment? Videogames in the Developing World:
A Situated Study of Caracas, Venezuela


In her groundbreaking book Playing with Power in Movies, Television, and Videogames: From Muppet Babies to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1991), Marsha Kinder maintains that the interactive nature of videogames gives children a sense of empowerment. A key caveat that she places on this sense of empowerment is that it is linked to acts of consumption, both within the game, and outside the game. Kinder locates this phenomenon of empowerment through the play and consumption of videogames in a global context. In this paper, I will re-evaluate Kinder’s claims in the light of the inequality of the power relations between the global videogame industry and their audience. In order to do this I will turn to the ethnographic data gained during fieldwork in Caracas, Venezuela from March through July 2005.

My intervention in Kinder’s argument takes the form of the following question: Can the interactivity of videogames be empowering in the developing world, in the same manner as they are in the wealthier countries of the ‘developed world’? This paper examines the ways in which game players’ that are otherwise excluded from consumptive practices due to lack of resources may nevertheless be empowered through game-play. Through a investigation of videogames in the context of the everyday lives of the players’ I will argue that empowerment in the context of Venezuela, is not so much linked to empowerment through consumption; but rather to empowerment through community, participation, and creativity.

Keywords: Global Media, Participatory Culture, Software Piracy, Videogame Industry

These youngsters on the street[s of Caracas], with their Nintendo dreams and Nike shoes, experience life in the larger context of global and transnational processes (1999, Márquez, p. 220).

Patricia Márquez in her book The Street Is My Home, a detailed ethnography of street and barrio children in Caracas, Venezuela, argues that the children in her study construct their identities in relation to various global and local media. The role of traditional media like Venezuelan music and telenovelas, is emphasized, along with the growing importance of transnational media forms, such as gangster rap, and important for the concerns of this paper, videogames. By drawing on fieldwork conducted between March and July of 2005, as a part of a larger project that examines the role that localized situations have on videogame consumption, and reception, this paper’s aim is to explore the significance of the ‘Nintendo dreams’ of Caracas’ youth. With this purpose in mind, I will first examine the notion of ‘participatory culture’; then I will use this notion to highlight the uneven surface of – and contradictory attitude towards – global participation, through an examination of the context of videogame play in Caracas.

Participatory Culture

Participatory culture is often evoked in order to mark the change from mass media notions of media reception, production and dissemination that is understood to be precipitated by the qualities which are associated with new or digital media. In the following discussion I would like to highlight a shift in how participatory culture has been conceptualized by contrasting the approach taken by Marsha Kinder in Playing with Power (1991), and Henry Jenkins in Convergence Culture (2006). In the fifteen years between the two publications the internet became the key object of discussion for scholars of participatory culture. While Kinder’s discussion predates the introduction of the term participatory culture, her concern is to examine the new subjectivities that were emerging through children’s engagement with interactive media. In this sense Kinder and Jenkins are engaging with the same phenomena, but on a sliding scale of cultural significance. Interactivity, ghettoized in videogames in 1991, is in Jenkins’ description of convergence culture now paradigmatic for the understanding of media, and media cultures.

In Kinder’s writing she regards the key innovation of videogames to be the choices and physical challenges posed by interactivity. This suggests a new form of empowerment, albeit one that is defined by consumption. At the game screen – which is not simply eyes looking at the screen, but also hands and fingers on controls and buttons – they are constructed as ‘consumerist subjects who can more readily assimilate and accommodate whatever objects they encounter’. For Kinder, videogames ‘help prepare young players for full participation in this new age of interactive multimedia – specifically, by linking interactivity with consumerism’ [my emphasis]. Kinder reads this link at the textual level, her study conducted with the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) version of Super Mario Bros: Mario Madness (1988) notes how empowerment – and transformation – within the game is always through consumption. In addition Kinder reads this trope linking interactivity with consumerism at a meta-level, where she recognizes videogames as heralding a new media aesthetic, that she dubs ‘transmedia intertextuality’, and an imbricated form of commodification, the ‘supersystem’. In this configuration, the consumption of one text leads to directly to another through deliberate intertextual linkages forming a contained media supersystem that crosses many media platforms. The Matrix (1999-2003) trilogy affords an excellent example of the supersystem, the three films containing deliberate lacunae that are filled in by other The Matrix® products, The Animatrix (2003) collection of anime, The Matrix Comics (2003), and the videogame Enter the Matrix (Shiny Entertainment, 2003). Space precludes elaborating this supersystem, which expands far beyond what I have described here.

P. David Marshall in his recent publication New Media Cultures (2004) reiterates the tension that Kinder has located between commodification and technological empowerment. Marshall regards the supersystem as a commercial usurpation and structuring of play that is: ‘designed to have a complete system of interaction for the audience with all forms of investment and engagement made possible and realizable’. This closed system of engagement envisioned by Marshall is the antithesis of the creativity and dynamism that is typically associated with ‘free play’. In fact, Alexander Galloway in Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture (2006), recently argued that the interactivity that is so-valorized in discussions on videogames, is an allegory for what Deleuze in ‘Postscript on Control Society’ dubbed ‘the control society’, a shift from confinement in molds – Foucault’s disciplinary society – to confinement through modulation.

The imbrication of play and commerce follows Deleuze’s argument that in the society of control nothing is ever finished, that there is a breakdown of the discreet activities of the disciplinary society into coexisting unfinished and open, metastable states. I suggest that this means that the subjectivities produced through play, are not solely playful, experimental, or creative, but linked to, and imbricated in, a modulated system of controlled consumption. During my fieldwork in the cyber café Avila, I noticed one man, in his early twenties, whose ragged clothes and homemade tattoos, suggested association with malandro – a criminal underclass – subculture playing Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002), several times. Once I was caught by the owner of the café watching at this strange figure, slouched down in his chair, gazing intently at the screen where he was guiding Harry Potter through the game with subtle motions of the mouse. The owner remarked – without fear of being overheard because of the headphones the malandro was wearing – ‘this guy is crazy, this game is for children’. Although I never spoke with this Caraqueno I don’t understand his actions in this way. The ‘Nintendo dreams’ of the Caracas youth must be read in the context the breakdown between work and play, and also between the romanticized notion of the free and creative play of childhood and that of the empowerment of interactive consumption. While videogame play performs a liminal role in opening spaces of escape from the pressures of the everyday, it also allows the players to consume media culture on a global level.

In Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (2006), Jenkins situates transmedia intextuality in a radically new form of media culture, which is characterized by the participatory power of the audience precipitated by digital networked technology. Behind this is a global system of co-operation between media industries through conglomeration, partnerships and licensing. Jenkins describes the participatory audience as ‘migratory’, in the sense that they will: ‘seek out new information and make connections among dispersed media content’. Jenkins emphasizes the audiences’ productive role and how this shapes and influences narrative arcs and genres by mobilizing their collective power. However, again this can be read in the context of the society of control; what occurs through the internet is a metastable modulation of the audience and the media producers. Fans’ productions are imitated by corporations as promotions; the participation is encouraged and organized into channels, and individuals productions become genres of, and assets within, the supersystem. Jenkins reads the phenomena in positive light and while I cannot say I share his enthusiasm, I suggest that the significance of the audience and media being in a state of metastable coexistence is the notion that media products are produced through a process of modulation that must simultaneously encapsulate the commercial imperative of the industry, the integrity of the intellectual property being developed, and the audiences’ expectation of participation.

Kinder is explicit in underscoring the global nature of the videogame phenomena, but specifically with reference to Japan. She suggests that the dominance of Nintendo in the USA’s videogame industry since the 1985 release of the NES foreshadowed the end of the dominance of USA owned companies in the entertainment industry. Jenkins’ also focuses on the USA. This is a problem, especially when we consider the stakes that Kinder and Jenkins place on participatory culture. Because if participation is equated to empowerment, then the inability to participate equally dis-empowering. In the gigantic mall of Sambil, the three shops selling videogames were mostly empty, but outside them often children would congregate, to watch the displays endlessly repeating the start sequence of Super Mario Sunshine (Nintendo, 2002), or FIFA Football 2005 (EA Canada, 2004). Reduced to watching an interactive media, these children were – at that moment at least – locked out of participatory culture, readers in a world increasingly defined by the interplay of reading and writing, observers in a media, and media paradigm characterized by action.

Global Videogames Industry

In order to explore the viability of participatory culture globally I will now examine the state of the global videogame industry. In Digital|Play: The Interaction of Technology, Culture, and Marketing (2003), Stephen Kline and his co-authors, locate a specific inequality that they describe as being a contradiction between ‘enclosure and access’ in the global patterns of consumption of videogames. This problem is manifest in three areas of the industry:
• The uneven global labor practices that locate the software industry in the ‘North’ – primarily Canada, Japan and the U.S.A., even Europe is relatively periphery –while the videogame consoles are generally produced in the maquiladoras of the ‘South’. In contrast, both the software and hardware are generally consumed in the ‘North’. The global industry is exclusionary in practice because hardware is material: videogames require expensive hardware, and potentially – for many contemporary games – a high-speed internet connection. This expense was felt heavily in Caracas, where even after the release of the Xbox 360, the original Xbox console was still selling for 800,000 Bolivars (480 Aus$), approximately a month’s salary for a newspaper journalist.
• The orthodox production cycle of commercial videogames mobilizes the audience in the production process, through beta testing. ‘patches’, and open source releases of game development tools. This breakdown between play and work, and the proprietary and legal issues that it raises has become something of a refrain in videogame scholarship. I suggest that this is an example of industry practices that are adjusting to capture the migratory audience, and harness their creative and productive power.
• This breakdown between consumer and producer is linked with the conflict between the software industry and pirates. Kline and his co-authors state that: ‘piracy is the shadow aspect of the interactive play industry’s own labor practices’. A substantial proportion of the global videogame piracy industry involves the black market software economy in countries of the ‘South’ that is a tactical response to global inequalities.
Deleuze points out that piracy is one of the few remaining dangers that remains to the control society, so the existence of a global media culture of pirated videogame play potentially challenges the global smoothness of that notion. In addition piracy plays an important role in equalizing global variances in the ability to take part in the comsumerist empowerment of participatory culture.

Piracy in Venezuela

Piracy was ubiquitously evident in my ethnographic research. On the streets, stalls selling pirated software, DVDs, playstation one games, and music CDs – not to mention bootleg publications of popular books – were common, especially in Libertador the municipal district of Caracas in which I made my investigation, which has a large area of barrios (shanty towns) and a predominently chavista local government (supporters of President Chávez). But even away from the streets, piracy was common. The videogames stores, empty of customers, kept a few dusty originals in glass cases, but my inquiries about games were met by the clerk producing either a folder or file of pirated games that were available from behind the counter, which if desired could be brought in from the back room. The clerks of the stores where I tried to buy pirated games were bemused and vague at the question of the location of the games origins: Chino or Asia was the standard reply. Only console games were available this way, computer games were so easily copied and cracked across ‘warez’ networks, that the transnational black market could gain no toehold in Venezuela.

The street-sellers – the homegrown entrepreneurial ‘hackers’ – of Caracas uniformly confessed to obtaining their games using file trading protocols, transnationally, either with strangers or in many cases acquaintances: relatives, friends, or partners – members of the post-Chávez middle-class diaspora that support folks back home by sending them software. Some businesses used a publish-to-order system, for example the innovative street hackers tu pana (Australian translation: your mate), running a business from home, downloading software, films and music to order, and delivering them anywhere in Caracas by motorbike. These combined methods were efficient, a new game being available readily on the street within 48 hours of its North American release was a standard that I witnessed many times, especially with much anticipated high profile releases like The Sims 2 (Maxis, 2004).

Interview subjects described to me how they would watch the game sellers carefully while they were walking on the street, in order to see if there was anything new which sparked their interest. With a cost of just 6000 Bolivars (4$ AUS) for most games, some players told me they would buy their own copies of the game even if they did not have a computer at home, so that they could ensure they could play a game that interested them. Taking it to the cyber café them selves and giving free copies to staff, to make sure that it ended up on the computers there. On the second or third day of my fieldwork, a café employee copied all of the games I had brought with me, all of which were historic strategy games in English that I had with me for a project I was working on. He then installed several of the games Medieval: Total War (Creative Assembly, 2002), Victoria: An Empire Under the Sun (Paradox Interactive, 2003), and Civilization II: Test of Time (1999), all of which were played sporadically by customers over the next five months. Other games would be installed and then just as quickly removed, as the café strove to keep up with consumer interest.

The media industries in Venezuela have been adversely affected, and are deeply critical of the lack of official response to the endemic piracy. The most critical anti-Chávez media outlets accuse the President of adopting a ‘bread and circuses’ approach to the poor masses in Caracas’ many barrios. Since Chávez’s presidency, the media has become a key site of contestation between the President and his opponents. In the first case this means that the content of media has become focused on political issues, either pro- or anti- chavista. However, beyond this it also means that the production of media itself has become an increasingly political act, which is subject to intense regulations and scrutiny by the government; primarily because the privately owned media is perceived as having global business concerns which compromise their coverage of the Revolucion Bolivariana. This has been the key motivation for the development of Telesur, a Pan-Latino network with links to al-Jeezera, widely perceived in the USA as being a propaganda tool for Chávez, that will be used to export the Revolucion Bolivariana across Latin-America. This was the also motivation behind the government’s recent refusal to renew the license for Radio Caracas Television that will expire this March.


This ideological conflict with the perceived USA-dominated global media and Chávez’s desire to make life easier for Venezuela’s millions of jobless barrio-dwellers has created a situation where piracy of global entertainment media is almost universally ignored, while media covering local issues are under severe restrictions. I suggest then that that stakes of videogame play in the context of participatory culture in Venezuela are dual:
1. Videogame piracy allows consumers to participate in a new, and global media culture;
2. Videogames are one of a few media that are outside the control and regulation of the state in Venezuela.
Thus I will conclude by suggesting that the Nintendo dreams of the ‘children’ of Venezuela have a political subtext that extends beyond the new form of empowered consumerism outlined by Kinder and Jenkins. Videogame play in this part of the globe is precarious in that it is caught between the global regulation of intellectual property and the local regulation of global media.

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About Me

This blog started as a PhD blog, for my project 'Global Rhythms: Video games and the Transformation of Play'. It finally become a book. This is a "historic" record of the trials a tribulations.