Context in Parallax

[Cross-posted to Doubt is an Art.]

Generic Corn Flakes Box

Image 1

This past Wednesday, the Lunch Zone explored Parallax, a stark and yet somehow intimate puzzle game. The resolute black and white imagery, the abstract and icon-marked shapes, and sense of containment from being apparently enclosed in a rational sphere (complete with indexed x-y-z axes) combined to support a real sense of being set-apart. I was reminded of so-called “generic” goods that were sold for a brief time in U.S. groceries stores during my childhood (Image 1).

Anthropologists have probably never encountered an attempt at context-free design that they couldn’t skewer by exposing its referentiality, and so naturally we spent some time doing so. But even though it may be easy, it’s a useful exercise precisely because of how digital spaces within which we act can so swiftly stand as taken-for-granted, as natural. And this holds true whether that space is saturated with a contrived social context, as in The Witcher, or is seemingly denuded of cultural specificity.

A screenshot of Parallax (from Steam's listing of the game).

Image 2

In Parallax, as we discussed, the performance of the abstract at first glance may seem to direct our attention away from anything particularly cultural. After all, it is not wearing a particular question of social import “on its sleeve,” as does, for example, Tranxiety, or Gone Home. In that sense, we might say that Parallax seems to stand as “unmarked” in the linguistic sense – enjoying the privilege of not being marked (as a game about gender transition, or queerness, or race, or poverty, or imperialism, or…).

It was interesting to hear the cultural unpacking happen, however, once we pushed past Parallax’s presumed generic-ness and noticed what it has to say about individualism and individual mastery, the social relation between puzzle-level designer and individual player (in this kind of game as compared to others), and the amount of time a player of this game is presumed to have (alongside other unmarked affordances).

All of this is not to decry Parallax’s makers, however. In fact, a step beyond where we went in our discussion might be to ask what role “abstract” games can play in bridging some cultural boundaries, even as they may reproduce or disseminate certain culturally-situated assumptions.

Thank you to everyone for such a great discussion last week.

Thomas

Thomas Malaby (PhD 1998, Harvard) is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His research interest is in the ever-changing relationships among institutions, unpredictability, and technology, especially as they are realized through games and game-like processes. He has published numerous and widely-cited works on the status of games in human experience. Dr. Malaby’s work suggests that the increasing use of digital games by institutions marks a fundamental transition in modern governance. His book, Making Virtual Worlds: Linden Lab and Second Life (2009, Cornell University Press), is an ethnographic examination of a San Francisco high tech firm.

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