Death, Culture & Leisure: Playing Dead

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Synopsis

Table of contents

(16 chapters)

Prelims

Pages i-xi
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Part 1: Playing with Understandings

Abstract

This chapter explores what video games can teach us in light of the ongoing sixth mass extinction in the history of our planet, allegedly caused by global warming and the over-consumption of vital resources. Games made and played by nonhuman actors can shed light on the situatedness and partiality of our knowledge regarding the boundaries that separate and differentiate human and nonhuman, interactivity and passivity, entertainment and boredom, and life and death. Nonhuman games help us to articulate the space and time in-between these dualisms and have the potential to re-route gaming (and game studies) from false myths of agency, interactivity, and instrumentalism, and the masculinism inherent in these notions. Nonhuman games are companions for earthly survival, and as such they can be taken as useful references when considering a more ethical approach to the ecological crisis of the Anthropocene. The chapter investigates notions of posthumanism, interpassivity, and contemporary critiques of the early assumptions of game studies on the agency of human players. It looks at video games that play by themselves, idle and incremental games, and the emergence of nonplaying characters in ludic and open-world simulations. It explores forms of automatic play and the use of bots and Artificial Intelligence (AI) in online role-playing games, procedurally generated virtual environments, and games that far exceed the lifespan of their players.

Abstract

This chapter examines the acts of burial and exhumation in three contemporary British history plays. For the purposes of this argument, a ‘history play’ may be defined as a piece of writing for the theatre that engages with historical events or settings. Such plays inevitably, at the moment of their staging or revival, take on particular meanings for audiences, since theatre as a live, durational art form encourages spectators to compare the historical events depicted with their present historical moment. The chapter argues that acts of burial and exhumation in contemporary British theatre are intimately tied to notions of land, soil and belonging. These became increasingly pertinent ideas in the UK’s political climate in the years following the 2016 Referendum on membership of the European Union. Of the three case studies, Victoria by David Greig (2000) dates from more than a decade before this vote, whilst Common by D. C. Moore (2017), and Eyam by Matt Hartley (2018) were written and staged in the interim between the Referendum result and the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. All three, however, feature corpses on stage as a means to consider time, temporality, place and history. Each play offers a different interpretation of what it means to play dead and to stay dead.

Abstract

Pokémon has proven to be one of the most enduring and successful gaming franchises. Over the last two decades, Pokémon has produced dozens of games, multiple animated shows, and several movies. In this time, video games have found a new footing when it comes to approaching death. Titles like A Mortician’s Tale (2017) by Laundry Bear Games have opened up digital gaming as a place, where death can be explored with serious thought and a new emotional depth. A dichotomy has emerged between games that take death seriously and ones that lower death to a mere game mechanic. This chapter looks to bridge that growing divide and explore the pop phenomenon that is Pokémon through the same critical lens that has been used to examine games like A Mortician’s Tale. Ultimately, the Pokémon franchise emerges as capable of thoughtful and provocative conversation about death and dying.

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Abstract

This chapter offers a brief overview of the ways in which death has been addressed in children’s picture books in a playful or light-hearted manner. The books here are a small purposive sample showing the ‘ordinary’ way, in which death can be dealt with in picture books rather than looking at books with a specific therapeutic intent. The concepts of ‘playfulness’ and also ‘carnival’ are explored before four books are analysed.

Part 2: Gaming Encounters in Gothic Environments

Abstract

As early as Johan Huzinga’s (2016, 89–188) landmark exploration of play, Homo Ludens (1949), death has been recognised as integral to play. Today’s digital games continue this close association. Whilst the past half-century has trended towards limiting the impact of player-death, permanent-death (permadeath) games provide a less-forgiving environment. As the first digital adaptation of Games Workshop’s cult-classic tabletop skirmish game, Mordheim: City of the Damned (Rogue Factor, 2015) utilises permadeath to emphasise death’s inevitability and harsh reality in the precarity of its gothic post-apocalyptic setting. Whilst the majority of apocalyptic videogames follow the comic frame, the player has no agency to overcome or change the events of Mordheim’s apocalypse, setting it firmly in the gothic frame. It is substantially less about overturning disaster or saving the city, and decidedly more about looting its shattered corpse. The close reading of Mordheim: City of the Damned’s theme of death for this chapter identified that death and injury are simply accepted realities; ubiquitous, yet normalised. Whilst every death is significant – through permanently lost warriors – there is always another willing replacement available. Viewed alongside the warband’s primary purpose – that is service to their patron – warriors’ deaths not only become expected and relatively meaningless, but also financially connected. Rather than encouraging association with their warbands, players are subtly shifted to aligning with their patron, viewing the warbands and their warriors as an expendable means towards gaining digital kudos points and bragging rights amongst the other digital noble.

Abstract

Dark Souls heralded a shift from the dichotomy of survival horror, and instead, thrust the player into a world where narrative was everywhere (if only you dared to look). This chapter explores the reimagination of Gothic narrative and narrative engagement in the cryptic and fragmented nested narratives of the iconic FromSoftware, Inc. series. In doing so, this chapter highlights the emergence of a hybrid ludo-narrative form within the Gothic genre, and examines the ways in which the series presents said narratives to the player as it shifts the onus of narrative engagement from the storyteller to the one now living the experience. The chapter explores video-ludic interpretations of death, play, and experientiality through the lens of video game studies, and posits the value of the series as a defining moment in the Japanese action role-playing game genre.

Abstract

This chapter explores how the narrative-based walking simulator What Remains of Edith Finch ludifies traditions of Gothic fiction. Combining Gothic themes of death, the family and the family curse, the game involves the protagonist investigating her abandoned childhood home where every family member died a dramatic and untimely death. Sealed rooms, preserved since their inhabitants’ demise, contain shrine-like displays including a document of some form allowing players to experience the last moments of each Finch. Play involves penetrating these spaces, according to the ludo-Gothic emphasis on boundary crossing, piecing together interactive narrative fragments consistent with Gothic fiction’s patchwork storytelling. In accessing each lost manuscript, players engage in a generically specific process of multi-media trans-subjectivity, experiencing various first person perspectives and engaging with numerous gameplay interfaces. The title’s series of ambiguous unreliable narratives, its refusal of a consistent subjective position, and unreal dream-like sensation contribute to the game’s Gothic atmosphere. In a restriction of videogame agency and control, consistent with horror games, no player option is available other than to complete each pre-determined death. Gothic pastiche, a compulsion to repeat the past, and the embalming processes of photographic media are variously employed across these sequences. Play evokes the melancholy heroine, consumed by maternal loss, masochistically replaying her family’s sorrowful past, hunting for lost objects and exhuming the ghosts of her history. With its nested narrative, morbid preoccupation and ambivalent supernatural presence, the game effectively translates Gothic traditions into the videogame medium.

Part 3: Frolics with Monsters

Abstract

This chapter offers a critical reading of a range of television narratives centred on diverse populations of the articulate dead, including grim reapers (Dead Like Me), sort-of-ghosts (American Horror Story), zombies (iZombie), what appear to be ‘just regular dead people’ (The Good Place, Les Revenants) and some other creepy and unusual manifestations of the undead (Intruders, The Fades). It suggests that the preponderance of the articulate dead on television is symptomatic of a broader cultural desire to talk both about death and with the dead. It also suggests that there are numerous opportunities to learn from fictional engagement with death and the dead, foregrounding the ways in which televisual narratives can operate to reiterate, critique and engage with social and cultural messages. The chapter takes a playful approach and seeks to distil some key ‘self-help’ aphorisms that the dead in these series might offer the living about how to approach life, death and everything inbetween, as they tell their audiences to ‘look within’ to identify the greatest threats to their selfhood, to persevere because ‘it’s never too late to change’, and to ‘never forget’ the dead and what they might have scarified for the living.

Abstract

The Slender Man, an online monster born to the internet in 2009, loves to live in the boundaries, specifically the boundary between the digital and the non-digital worlds. This chapter seeks to explore the full engagement of the community with the myth, analysing it structurally to understand the way, in which the narrative’s construction reflects the relationship of monster to society and society to itself. The sincerity in which the narratives are told, at first appearing intense, is actually a form of play, revealing a boundary blurring between play and non-play as well. While fully engaging in play, the community’s structured narrative is more than this: pulling them into a trapped world in which they play with death in the digital. The triadic structure of the Slender Man narratives reveals an anxiety to the community and their place within broader non-digital worlds.

Abstract

Cultural perceptions of the zombie have shifted dramatically in the twenty-first century. No longer only associated with anxiety and fear, zombie fiction often appeals to pleasure. One source of pleasure comes from ludification, the process whereby game-like principals and gameful elements shape non-game activities. Increasingly, print fiction borrows from games and uses ludic elements to shape narratives. As such, it has become embedded in convergence culture, a dynamic media ecology where top down processes compete with bottom up processes. This chapter argues that ludified zombie fiction brings this media ecology into sharp relief, revealing ways that gamification and ludification are just as apt to reinforce capitalist processes of commodification and neo-liberal ideologies of power as they are to dismantle them. Through a close reading of three contemporary zombie fictions, this chapter exposes tensions and contradictions in ludification. The dead body of the zombie, the nihilistic landscape of the post-zombie apocalypse and the futility of human endeavour in the face of walking death are all elements of genre that undercut the gamified pursuit of external utility-oriented goals. The chapter explores these knotty ethical and ideological problems, not only considering the zombie apocalypse as a gameful space for rethinking social organisation, but also recognising it as a platform for the promotion of neo-liberal ideologies that perpetuate existing power inequalities through coercive disciplinary regimes.

Part 4: Performing Playful Realities

Abstract

The death-positive movement can be described as a de-centralised contemporary social movement originating and operating predominantly in the global West, specifically the United States, connecting death workers, educators, artists, journalists, etc., and geared towards encouraging open dialogue about death and dying. It has succeeded in capturing significant media attention over the last few years and is largely driven by its strong social media presence. This chapter looks at ‘playfulness’ within the death-positive movement. Examining the dimension of ‘playfulness’ addresses the affective aspect of communication that in this movement is inseparable from the message. First, the author investigates the aesthetics of representation through death-positive merchandise, produced and advertised by The Order of the Good Death’s (subsequently – The Order) core members. Second, the author considers some of the cultural output produced under the umbrella of death-positivity, but not by the core movement members, specifically taking the first video game to be explicitly marketed as death-positive – A Mortician’s Tale (Laundry Bear Games, 2017) as a case study. Finally, the author analyses the role of entertainment value in the movement’s leaders’ discourse on death, taking leader of The Order Caitlin Doughty’s playful rhetoric on her YouTube channel, Twitter profile, and Instagram pages. The manifesto, found on the movement’s official website (http://www.orderofthegooddeath.com/) encourages its participants to break the ‘culture of silence’ around death, indicating that the whole premise of the movement is based on the supposed presence of death denial in Western countries. Ultimately, the author argues that by eliciting playfulness, this challenge to the social climate becomes a somewhat jovial and enjoyable endeavour and generates response from outside the movement.

Abstract

January 2016 saw the final release of Numinous Games’ crowdfunded linear adventure game That Dragon, Cancer. An impactful independent title which subverts many of gaming’s traditional and valued norms. In less than two hours of abstracted adventure, players are transported through a series of vignettes documenting one family’s struggle with cancer, and the battle faced by their terminally ill child, Joel. Digital memorialisation has been documented by scholars since the late 1990s. This has come in the form of sites specifically created for memorialisation, social networking sites repurposed by their users for memorialisation (MySpace and more recently Facebook), and online virtual worlds (Second Life and World of Warcraft). However, within That Dragon, Cancer the productive nature of grief has created and envisioned a gaming experience purpose-built for memorialisation. This chapter begins by documenting memorialisation within virtual environments. From here, the author turns to consider the way in which That Dragon, Cancer provides a purpose-built space for grief, memorialisation and understanding, focussing on key stylistic and mechanic-based decisions undertaken in the games design. Finally, the author considers the way in which That Dragon, Cancer, through the use of crowdfunding in late 2014, transformed from a project memorialising one child to the memorialisation of many across the globe.

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Abstract

Throughout history, from ballads to requiems, music has played an important social role in reflection on mortality. Not only do musicians articulate their angst and thoughts about death, but, in so doing, they enable listeners to explore their own feelings. While the relationship between music and mental health can be examined from a number of perspectives, two broad approaches can be taken: artist-centred approaches and listener-centred approaches. The first analyses the life and work of artists, focussing particularly on the ways in which they explore death and angst in their music. The second looks at the ways in which the life and work of an artist is interpreted by listeners. Within these general approaches, a complex set of questions emerge – often at the interface of both approaches. How is the music used by listeners in their reflection on mortality? How is music used to manage mental health? Does reflection on the life and work of an artist contribute to suicidal ideation? Is the reception of music altered by an artist’s suicide? Using both these approaches and drawing particularly on the work of Émile Durkheim, this discussion demonstrates the significance of popular music analysis for death studies, focussing particularly on the issues surrounding popular music’s relationship to suicidal ideation.

Index

Pages 209-216
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Cover of Death, Culture & Leisure: Playing Dead
DOI
10.1108/9781839090370
Publication date
2020-08-20
Book series
Emerald Studies in Death and Culture
Editor
Series copyright holder
Emerald Publishing Limited
ISBN
978-1-83909-038-7
eISBN
978-1-83909-037-0