Skylanders and the Semiotics of Eversion

There may be no better illustration of the eversion of the network we’re all living through right now than a kids’ game (and the best-selling videogame of the past year): Activision’s Skylanders. Collectible toys, plastic cartoony action figures, “come to life” inside the game when you place them on the Portal of Power, a small round glowing platform.


The action figure glows, the portal glows, and the character beams into the game moving and talking and fully playable, ready to go. You swap out the toy on the portal for another, and it appears. It’s a neat trick, but when you look a little deeper into the development of the game and get over the stigma attached to toys, there’s a lot more going on. As Roland Barthes said 55 years ago (though he was talking specifically about French toys): “toys always mean something, and this something is always entirely socialized, constituted by the myths or the techniques of modern adult life . . . ” (Mythologies, 53).

Barthes would have hated Skylanders, I imagine, since he railed against the “bourgeois” significance of plastics, “graceless material, the product of chemistry, not of nature” (54). The game’s action figures are the direct result of the spread of 3D printing and the resultant ability of a small shop to design objects in software that are then turned into physical objects. Barthes ends his brief essay sounding like a grumpy old man, with a nostalgic panegyric to wooden toys. Modern plastic toys, he says, “die in fact very quickly, and once dead, they have no posthumous life for the child” (55).

Skylanders might stand as a refutation of this conclusion, since the game can be read semiotically as an exploration of the imaginative life of objects in transit between physical and digital worlds (and back again). As the backstory motto goes, “frozen on the outside, alive on the inside!” The action figures are meant to be imagined as in suspended animation, their vitality stored as data on RFID chips to be brought to life in the digital game world. Every time someone puts a little plastic statue on the glowing portal and it appears, animated, inside the game, the process recapitulates in reverse the way that very figure’s prototype, at least, was produced: from drawings on paper and in a computer to a physical object hot off the printer. Besides the 3D printer–which is a kind of portal of power for everting digital objects–Skylanders development depended on various wireless and hardwired communication channels, RFID and USB, for example (the Portal platform conceals a circular copper wire that serves as a radio antenna). It was inspired by and prototyped using Nintendo’s WiiMote, which had already begun to imagine the game system as a network of devices, and to configure physical space as a place for hybrid digital and physical gaming. The developers at Toys for Bob are clearly part of the Maker subculture. They used Adafruit’s easy-to-program, small Arduino boards and LEDs to prototype the Portal of Power. Like the Wii, Skylanders imagines itself as a distributed system in physical space–a constellation of small portable processors and sensors–that mirrors the inversion of the network as a whole.  But Skylanders is more far-flung than the Wii, cross-platform in significant ways, making the game feel to players like it’s happening out in the world, rather than being trapped in DVD or on a console or on the screen. Each action figure carries its updated stats with it, so that it can be taken across town and brought to life in a friend’s game, for example, or can travel from the Xbox or Wii or PC to the handheld 3DS to an online gameworld (Skylanders Universe) accessible from any computer.

If, as Barthes said, toys “prefigure the world of adult functions” (53), then the semiotics of Skylanders suggests a world in which the normal relationship to the network and its data takes the form of repeated easy transit back and forth across a porous boundary between the physical and the digital in mixed-reality spaces.

Interview on Codename Revolution and Wii U

Our interview about the Wii and Wii U just appeared on Fast Company’s co.create website. It was good timing. This week’s Nintendo news out of E3 has been underwhelming for some journalists. Overall, the Wii U is just a less emotionally compelling design than the Wii was back in 2006, harder to grasp in an instant. But we found that Mr. Iwata’s pre-conference video and the press conferences confirmed much of what we said in Codename Revolution about the direction the new system represents as a successor to the Wii. In the book, we cited Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (1) and suggested the Wii was designed to address the problem of isolation through a very Nintendo kind of retro-innovation, by using motion control to turn the living room into a mixed-reality gamespace. Our icon for this design goal was the coffee table that signifies this old-school social gaming in shared physical space. This week’s Iwata video cited Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together on the isolating tendencies of today’s technology, showing an slide with an image of a family sitting in a circle in the living room, all engrossed in their separate devices and screens, while Mr. Iwata said the goal of Wii U would be to counteract that tendency, to bring people together in local social interactions–to make the living room a better place, a physical space, for social interaction.

“Together better” is the lame slogan, but the goal is actually concretely tactical: to undermine the TV’s tendency to monopolize its space, instead distributing gaming and viewing and control among a constellation of devices, including especially the new tablet-like touchscreen control pad. Someone can use it as a personal handheld console while someone else uses the main console and TV (or just watches TV), it can serve as a touchscreen remote for the TV, and videos on the handheld can be “flicked” to the TV to share with everyone in the room. (There’s even a theatrical curtain animation that allows you to cue up a video, send it to the big screen, then open the curtain to reveal it.) New game designs are planned that make use of the tablet controller for “asymmetrical” play–one player as the ghost chasing everyone else in the room (they’re using Wiimotes), or a karaoke game that allows you to face the room when you sing, reading lyrics off the tablet, while others match dance moves on the big screen behind you and sign along at the right moments. There’s a new emphasis for Nintendo on online interactions in the “Miiverse,” though it’s still no Xbox Live. (One story out today revealed a plan for live screening of chat posts by Nintendo employees to keep the Miiverse family friendly. The result, reportedly, might be a 30-minute lag.) But, aside from recapturing some core gamers (demos were heavy on AAA titles and there’s even an Xbox-style gamepad with all the buttons), the real heart of the system would seem to be an extension of the design goal of the Wii, the deliberate use of the system as a constellation of devices for reconfiguring the living room as a mixed-reality possibility space, a space for digital and physical social gaming.

Agrippa, the Eversion of Cyberspace, and Games

The Oxonian Review has just published today an interview with Kevin Begos, the publisher behind the experimental multimedia artist’s book and transmedia happening, Agrippa (1992). Agrippa the work included at its center a poem, “Agrippa,” by William Gibson, which appeared ten years after Gibson coined the term “cyberspace.” The poem was found on a floppy disk physically embedded in the book, and the text of the poem famously encrypted itself as it was read, disappearing as it scrolled down the screen for the first and last time.

(from The Agrippa Files)

Except that the text of the poem was very quickly released into the wild, out on the Internet, and remains available in various versions to this day, as documented and thoroughly analyzed by Matthew Kirschenbaum in his brilliant book, Mechanisms (the book takes its title from Gibson’s poem), and on The Agrippa Files website on which he collaborated with Alan Liu and others, a good example of what Peter Shillingsburg has called a “knowledge site,” a kind of collaborative, multimedia archive of the larger work that is Agrippa.

Back in the 1990s, the work was represented by many as a paradigmatic example of the immaterial, disembodied nature of the network and its hacker elite–a text that appeared to literally dissolve into thin air! It took Kirschenbaum’s forensic and materialist textual analysis to reveal that it was actually something very different, a prime example of multiply material textuality in the digital age.

I would add that Agrippa as a work–digital poem, physical book including artwork, performance and “transmission,” afterlife on the Internet–is the far-flung network it spawned, something like a distributed game of meaning, a view that would seem to be supported by remarks made by Begos and his interviewer, Courtney Traub, in today’s piece.

Begos: . . . I doubt that there would be any publisher ready to experiment with such innovation, which tends to be driven by artists and designers rather than the companies themselves.

I would contrast this to the enormous investment that online game makers have made. It’s come out of virtually nowhere to become this multibillion-dollar world market. Hypercompetitive but constantly evolving—there’s this incredible competition to make games more realistic and more experimental, and it’s attracting a lot of creative people.

Traub: I think many people might argue that much of the true narrative experimentation is taking place in the games realm. The experimentation people thought would be happening with books is going on more in gaming.

Begos: I think that’s completely true. That’s where the real developments are taking place and legitimate breakthroughs in terms of how people interact with artwork and with each other. They’ve built platforms that will evolve.

One way to further our understanding of Agrippa now, I’d suggest, would be to compare it to games, and especially trans-platform games such as ARGs, which deliberately play with the interpenetration of digital data and physical objects and spaces. Kirschenbaum recently suggested on Twitter that Agrippa anticipated the New Aesthetic. I’d argue that it’s an early harbinger by the inventor of cyberspace of the eversion of the network, its transformation out into the mixed-reality experienced most effectively and widely embodied today in games. Agrippa appeared in 1992, ten years after “Burning Chrome” introduced the term “cyberspace.” But The Agrippa Files, and thus the involvement of the new Digital Humanities with this mixed-reality artifact, went online in December 2005–a crucial moment when, as Gibson was just then on the verge of saying in print, the network was everting. The timeline is meaningful, and the connections between Agrippa, the new Digital Humanities, the eversion of cyberspace, and games, are richly suggestive, as I’m beginning to see.

Platformers and Dimensionality

Braid and other platformer games with which it shares a family relation are obviously about movement through gamespace, left to right, mostly, jumping or climbing up and down. The fact that 2D side-scrolling gameworlds have in some cases been supplanted by 3D versions and in other cases have been crossed with them, making strange hybrids, suggests that the whole genre has continued to be about exploring the dimensionality. The Mario franchise embodies the whole history of this exploration, from Donkey Kong to Super Mario 64 to Super Mario Galaxy. Super Paper Mario famously built in the ability to toggle between dimensions–the player can switch from 2D to 3D views for brief periods, literally adding perspective on puzzles–and Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2 made sandbox puzzles out of planetoids, each of which is a (game)world of its own with sometimes weird physics to deal with. Yes, the preoccupation of indie art games with 2D side-scrolling platformers is in part about employing a knowing, lo-fi, retro aesthetic, and is in part about what’s practical or even doable by a single person or small team on a limited budget; either way, it’s about making a virtue of the necessities. But I think it’s also often an attempt–especially true in the case of Braid–to return to foundational questions about gameworlds, starting with the question of what happens when you add a dimension (literally) to the gameworld, or are aware of multiple dimensions as possibilities for gameplay.

This question is obviously what lies behind the design of Marc ten Bosch’s promised Miegakure, which has only been seen in preview glimpses. It’s an art game about adding a 4th physical dimension (Braid toys with some 2D vs. 3D spatial elements but most centrally plays with the dimension of time).

What strikes me about Miegakure is how its multidimensionality is narratively or figuratively structured: as the irruption of one dimension into another. The player swaps between dimensions, yes, but especially in order to cause a block or other object to protrude into a dimension where it was previously invisible or inaccessible. Warps, wormholes, cracks in the fabric separating one dimension from another, are where strategy unfolds and the key moves are made. (In this respect, Portal is a related experiment, and so is  Super Paper Mario, not to mention another indie art game, Fez.) In other words, gameplay in Miegakure–and in many related platformers–is about negotiating the extrusions and eversions between dimensions.

In this context, the plaformer as a genre explores some of the same metaphorical territory as novels such as Danielewski’s House of Leaves, or Pynchon’s Remains of the Day, or Murakami’s 1Q84, or traditional SF works such as Flatland and, most significantly, H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction, with its eldritch horrors from another dimension, “from beyond,” that are only partly glimpsed when they break through briefly and extrude themselves into everyday reality: “. . . strange, inaccessible worlds exist at our very elbows, and now I believe I have found a way to break down the barriers,” one character declares, then reports, “I felt the huge animate things brushing past me and occasionally walking or drifting though buy supposedly solid body.” And passages like the following one really resonate in our current media climate, which includes the New Aesthetic, or the spooky live performance at Coachella by Tupac’s weird Idoru hologram:

“Suddenly I myself became possessed of a kind of augmented sight. Over and      above the luminous and shadowy chaos arose a picture which, though vague, held the elements of consistency and permanence. It was indeed somewhat familiar, for the unusual part was superimposed upon the usual terrestrial scene much as a cinema view may be thrown upon the painted curtain of a theatre. . . . I saw to my horror that they overlapped . . . . the newly visible world that lies unseen around us”   (H. P. Lovecraft, From Beyond).

In his digital humanities work on visualizing the discourse of TV Tropes, Elijah Meeks associates this Lovecraftian uncanny, this breaking-through from a parallel dimension, with “the weird geometry of the Internet.” I can’t help but see Lovecraftian dimensionality as a figure for the general eversion of the network, which as Gibson has said, is “leaking out into the world,” especially via mixed-reality or augmented reality experiments, which, to use Lovecraft’s terms, superimpose digital realities–a “newly visible world that lies unseen around us”-on “the terrestrial scene,” suggesting that a weird geometry connects them at points of overlapping layers, extrusions, places where the unseen turns inside out and reveals itself as a potential layer of experience.

Anyway, it seems reasonable to speculate that art games’ fascination with platformers may have something to do with the possibility of exploring this kind of multidimensionality (and the eversion itself) in a procedural, playable way.

Kindle edition as first edition

The Kindle edition of our Platform Studies book, Codename Revolution, is just out, a couple of weeks in advance of the hardcopy. It was fun to download it and see it on the iPad and iPhone via the Kindle app–which is what I use to read most commercially purchased ebooks. But it wasn’t a startlingly new experience, since we had composed the book (wrote it and read it and rewrote it) in a string of environments, from early conversations on Google Wave to drafts in Google Docs, then out into MS Word and Apple’s Pages (and I think my coauthor George drafted some portions in LaTeX), from which we regularly exported PDFs for sharing and viewing–and especially for viewing the illustrations on mobile platforms. We’ve experienced the text in various electronic platforms since its inception. We’ve only seen it printed out once, as page proofs. So handling the hardcopy print edition in March will be a much stranger, more exotic experience, in many ways, than downloading and reading the Kindle book was this morning. This is all of course perfectly ordinary for text production of all kinds these days. The usual relatively closed genealogy of electronic texts descended from electronic texts. This is one reason all the talk of ebooks in the popular press sometimes seems so weirdly, willfully idealized.


If a class studies film, it has to have screenings of some kind. There’s an old soundproofed theatre with cushy seats and a raked floor in our university library that used to serve that purpose, back before DVDs allowed for individual viewings. Students attended lectures and a screening session in the theatre every week, like the required labs in science classes.

And if you study video games, you have to play. Some time ago I decided that forming playgroups that meet between classes was the best way to accomplish this, especially in the absence of a dedicated game lab (even our Center can’t really serve that purpose, at least not yet). Each group meets weekly for gameplay and preparation, then each reports back to the larger group during the course of the semester, with demos of controls, gameplay and paratextual materials, and accounts of their collective experience. Ideally, every group should have a mix of “kinds” of gamers (self-indentifed): core and casual, experienced and not. The underlying purpose–not unlike that of the playground playgroups from which the name is playfully taken–is social, to promote collaborative learning drawing on diverse strengths in each group. Come to think of it, that may be something that’s lost with the demise of the weekly film-class screening in the little theatre at the back of the library.

MLA session: “Close Playing”

As the year winds down, I’m looking forward to participating next week (1/8/12) in a roundtable discussion at the MLA conference in Seattle on “Close Playing: Literary Methods and Video Game Studies.” The session’s chaired by the inimitable Mark Sample and includes a number of terrific game studies specialists–Edmond Chang, Jason Rhody, Anastasia Salter, Timothy Welsh, and Zach Whalen. My own brief introduction will focus on my coauthored book, Codename Revolution, as an example of a platform studies approach to video games, an approach I see as related to bibliography and book history in its close attention to the material technologies for the production, transmission, and reception of creative works. Here are the slides I plan to show, in a sort of truncated pecha kucha presentation.