Play and Possibility in the Rhetoric of the War on Terror: The Structure of Agency in Halo 2by Gerald Voorhees
This essay examines the popular military-themed first person shooter video game Halo 2. It contends that Halo 2 is a post-9/11 rhetoric that helps position players attitudinally in relation to the War on Terror. Articulating Halo 2 to the post-9/11 context, this essay uses Michel Foucault’s theory of agency and Northrop Frye's theories of fictional mode and thematic genre to consider a range of possible, potentially overlapping affective responses to Halo 2. These possibilities, which variously affirm and contest the Bush administration's narrative of the War on Terror, foreground both the rhetorical efficacy of digital games and the player’s agency to determine their rhetorical effect.
Keywords: video games, play, attitude, rhetorical effect, agency, war on terror, Michel Foucault
Though war, terrorism and ideologically driven conflict are staged in numerous military-themed games, in the later months of 2004 when the American public debated the 'merits' of torture and reevaluated its commitments to the Iraq War, the game that everyone was playing and talking about was Bungie's plot intensive science-fiction shooter Halo 2 (hereafter H2). The sequel to Halo: Combat Evolved (Bungie) which is widely recognized as the "killer app" that quickened the adoption of Microsoft's Xbox game console, Halo 2 had been in development since late 2001. Released in November 2004, it garnered critical acclaim as well as popular approval. Players purchased 2.4 million copies of H2 on the day it was released (Thornson, 2004) and went on to buy another 6 million copies to make it the all-time best-selling Xbox game (Moses, 2010). Critics praised H2's gameplay, story, visual effects and audio, netting the game several awards including the title, "Console Game of the Year," from the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences and earning a 95 percent score on review aggregation services Metacritic and Game Rankings.
Without diminishing the quality of Bungie's work, my contention is that Halo 2's success owes something to the social and cultural context of its production, circulation, and consumption. In short, its structural similarities with America's War on Terror and its stance toward the conflict contributed to its popularity. Of course, the game's developers deny that it is designed to communicate any political message. Just a few days before the game was released, an article in Entertainment Weekly quoted H2 lead writer Joe Staton, "You could look at [the story] as a damning condemnation of the Bush administration's adventure in the Middle East" (Keighley, 2004). After this story was discussed on the ultra-conservative blog Free Republic, Staton posted a clarification:
Let me be really clear about this: there is no intentional political message in Halo2, anti-Bush or otherwise. While I tried to be mindful of folks' sensitivities as I wrote its story, I knew that the game was going to scrutinized by a large, diverse audience, and would, therefore, be interpreted (or mis-interpreted, as the case may be) any number of different ways. The EW journalist chose to include one of my examples of possible misinterpretation in the article, but not all of them. Most importantly, the journalist left out my closing statement: "Look, you can read anything into the story that you like - call a damning condemnation of the Bush Admnistration's [sic] adventure in the Middle-East, for example. But you'd be wrong." …Halo2's story is non-partisan. Any meaning you ascribe to it is yours alone. And remember, at the end of the day, whatever some journalist says I said really doesn't matter. The proof is in the pudding. Play the game, and I think you'll see it's just that: a fun game with a good story.What makes this statement so interesting is not the disavowal of politics, a common move for the commercial, entertainment game industry, but the simultaneous recognition that the game would be articulated to various political agendas regardless of the writer's intentions.
Indeed, players have taken to the internet in order to express how H2 has informed their understanding of the War on Terror. For one, a good number of the other 172 comments on the Free Republic blog post either endeavour to puzzle out the 'real' meaning of the game or attack Staton for 'reimagining' the politics of the franchise. That is to say, these commenters/players had very strong feelings as to whether H2 supported or denounced the War on Terror. Essays on the website of conservative think tank, The New America Foundation (Pinkerton, 2004), a student-centered international relations forum called E-International Relations (Sykes, 2010) and in The Escapist magazine (Travis, 2006) argue that H2 articulates a message that is profoundly favorable of the War on Terror. On the other hand, an essay on the FerretBrain zine (Damien F, 2007) and a 1UP.com blog post (Parish 2012) make the case that H2 critiques the War on Terror. Additionally, an essay on the fan driven wiki, Halopedia (Dragonclaws, 2010), and discussion on the Black Flag Café website express difficulty understanding H2 outside of the context of the War on Terror, even if they do not offer definite claims about the advocacy of the game’s argument. What these conflicting claims suggest, ultimately, is that in player discourses of H2, the game is a sort of floating signifier that some players have understood as supporting and others as critiquing the War on Terror.
I argue, however, that the game's interweaving of narrative and ludus structures the player's agency to interpret the social, cultural, and political significance of H2. In other words, the story and gameplay together enable different articulations within a tightly constrained field of possibilities. Careful, critical interrogation of H2 and the context in which it was played - the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan constituting the War on Terror - yields an intelligible and reasonably limited range of possibilities that can be mapped and examined further. Specifically, by alternatingly positioning the player as characters on opposite sides of the game's central conflict, H2 encourages players to accept, reject or entertain ambivalence about America's War on Terror. Where each player will wind up on this grid of possible affects cannot be pinpointed by rhetorical analysis alone, thus this essay aims to better understand the potential positions H2 players may inhabit relative to the War on Terror, not to position specific players or demographics of players.
The following section outlines some of the starting points of this inquiry, looking at critical studies of military-themed first-person shooter games and briefly explicating the notion of agency underwriting this analysis. Where most of this work tends toward insightful textual analysis, as a result it overlooks how the player's participation helps shape the meaning made of the experience. The next section examines the social and narrative contexts in which H2 was played. The game's narrative contains elements that can be readily articulated to contemporaneous current events and resonate profoundly with the narrative of the War on Terror -- as that narrative was espoused by the Bush Administration. In the final substantive section, Northrop Frye's theorizations of the affective qualities of fictional and thematic mode are used to chart a grid of possible player experiences. This analysis not only foregrounds the cultural politics of digital games, it calls attention to the relationship between determinacy of structure and the pliability of meaning-making in media studies in general and digital games criticism in particular.
Rhetorical Effect and Agency
The games in the Halo series are first-person shooters (hereafter FPS), games in which the player views the gameworld from the (first-person) perspective of the playable character and the core mechanic, or primary activity, of the game is shooting. While there is a general dearth of critical inquiry on digital games, the FPS has received a fair amount of attention. Some of this scholarship (for example Morris, 2002) is more ludological (to the extent that it is in that it is concerned with the formal structure of the games) in its approach. Others have examined the history and cultural semiotics of the first-person perspective of the FPS (Galloway, 2006) and the emergent behaviours enabled by FPS game rules (Wright, Boria and Breidenbach, 2002). Several scholars have examined how historical military FPS games, most notably the Medal of Honor and Call of Duty series, promulgate a participatory commemorative rhetoric that valorizes WWII (Hess, 2007; Allison, 2010; Gish, 2010). There is a sustained line of inquiry concerning the use of digital games in general and FPS games in particular as propaganda for military recruitment (Miller, 2012; Hunteman and Payne, 2010; Delwiche, 2007; Stahl, 2006). However, of particular interest to this inquiry is the recent scholarship exploring how military-themed FPS games intervene in contemporary culture.
In this vein, critical scholars have examined how historical, contemporary, and science-fiction military FPS games make claims about American hegemony and empire post- 9/11. Stahl (2006) provides a most comprehensive analysis of the game industry's role in the post-9/11 media landscape. Recounting the Bush administration's efforts to reach out to entertainment media industries, Stahl gives a thoroughly contextualized accounting of numerous games released in the five years following the attacks on the World Trade Center and argues that the game discourses blur the distinction between citizen and soldier. Others have looked closely at specific games in order to tease out their relationship to contemporary discourses. For one, Ouellette (2008) reads military FPS games Medal of Honor: Rising Sun and Syphon Filter as allegories for post-9/11 politics. By highlighting game references to events constitutive of the post-9/11 "new normal" and the War on Terror, Ouellette argues that how Syphon Filter promotes some degree of reflexive play but Medal of Honor: Rising Sun encourages players to enact a violent vengeance in defense of the state. The allegorical character of FPS games is further explored in Lizardi's (2008) analysis of Gears of War and Resistance, military-themed FPS games whose conceit is an alien invasion of Earth. Lizardi astutely connects the image of the alien Other, a stand in for a more contemporary foreign Other, to a wider discursive field that encompasses ethnocentric and exceptionalist ideology. Collectively, these scholars have helped to bring attention to the cultural work FPS games perform in the service of American interests abroad. More germane to the scope of this article, Lizardi and Ouellette demonstrate that military FPS games set in historical and science-fiction milieus contain powerful narrative discourses that intervene in contemporary life.
This examination of H2 is inspired by arguments articulating fiction to social reality but premised in a different understanding of rhetorical effect. Like much of the scholarship on FPS games, Lizardi and Ouellette's works are grounded in a notion of rhetorical effect that presumes a single story or address which structures the player's thought and in this manner predisposes action. By locating the game within a sea of sometimes complementary but often contradictory discourses and also recognizing the game's capacity to generate competing meanings, its rhetorical effect can only be understood as a set of potentialities: a field of possible actions structured by the game but traversed by the player's agency.
This understanding of rhetorical effect, rooted in Michel Foucault's theories of power, enables critical scholars to give serious weight to the player's interpretation of the experience of play as well as the rule-bound, story-laden structure of the game. Foucault theorizes power as the productive effect of the relationship between discourse and knowledge. Biesecker explains, "[P]ower names not the imposition of a limit that constrains human thought and action but a being-able that is made possible by a grid of intelligibility. Power is a human calculation performed within and inaugurated by the 'lines of making sense' that are operative at a particular historical moment…" (1992, p. 356). In this sense, power is an effect of knowledge materialized though the actions of subjects. Power operates to the extent that the actions make sense in the context of the discourses that shape how people know the matter in question. This does not mean that power is domination. Quite the opposite, "It operates on the field of possibilities in which the behaviour of active subjects is able to inscribe itself" (Foucault, 2000, p. 341). This paradigm, cognizant of the ubiquity of power and the importance of intelligible action, maintains that agency "must emerge from an analysis of the particular concepts that enable specific modes of being, responsibility and effectivity" (Mahmood, 2005, p. 14-15). Agency, in this light, is neither the freedom from domination characteristic of liberalism nor the power to impact the gameworld banalized by scholars of game design, but the ability to create meaning in a situation not of one's own making.
This analysis of H2 takes its bearings from Foucault's notion of agency. Even though, as I argue, the game's mechanics and discourses structure and constrain the ways players might interpret and ultimately act upon the experience of H2, there is nevertheless agency. H2 does not enable escape from nor does it inculcate an attitude of radical disavowal of American imperialism, but it does constitute the basis for a "capacity for action [that] is enabled and created by specific relations of subordination" (Mahmood, 2005, p. 29). H2 offers players frames of acceptance and rejection, as well as a healthy dose of ambivalence - attitudes that make sense within the context the game was circulated.
The War on Terror and/in the Halo Universe
President George W. Bush may have hesitated before finishing My Pet Goat on the day of the attacks but his Administration quickly developed and deployed the images and ideas constitutive of a new world -- a post 9/11 world -- through a series of nationally televised speeches, including the famous 21 September 2001 speech that introduced the phrase "war on terror," multiple State of the Union addresses, (one of which debuted the term "Axis of Evil,") and countless roundtable discussions, interviews, and statements given to the press by Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, among others.
This world took shape around three ideas outlined in Bush's September 21, 2001 speech, which addressed a special session of both houses of Congress, a collection of foreign dignitaries and heads-of-state, and an international television audience (Murphy, 2003). First, Bush named the attacks acts of war calling for a military rather than police response. Second, and most significantly, the attacks are constructed as ideological rather than practical. According to Bush, the attackers were not motivated by concrete goals like the cessation of American economic and military aid to Israel, but rather because they hate freedom and America and seek nothing less than the destruction of these intangibles. Though Ivie articulates this aspect of Bush's rhetoric to the construction of an 'us versus them' mentality, he also explains how it contributes to the perception that the War on Terror is a theo-political conflict with Islam (2007, p. 223). Together, Murphy holds, these first two propositions produced the third: even though we have not declared war we are already in the midst of a war with the greatest possible consequence. Talk of mushroom clouds, Iraq "threatening the world," and Islamic terrorism as the very "ruin of civilization" bring the apocalyptic urgency of the conflict to the fore (Ivie, 2007, p. 226; p. 234).
In the face of this danger, (an undeconstructed notion of) agency becomes a key theme in official discourses alternatively celebrating and justifying the War on Terror. One benchmark of the Bush Administration's initial response to the 9/11 attacks focused on constructing a national ethos capable of weathering the difficulty of the trauma (Murphy, 2003; Ivie, 2007). Agency, to seek justice, to redress wrongs and to "define our times, not be defined by them," is central to this ethos (G.W. Bush, quoted in Murphy, 2003, p. 624). The same polarizing rhetoric of "us versus them" that highlights the ideological character of the War on Terror figures American agency as a Biblical power wielded against the forces of evil (Ivie, 2007). This imagery is far from novel and underwrites much the ideology of American exceptionalism, which was a cornerstone of the Bush Administration's post-9/11 rhetoric and inspired the bravado that underwrote Bush's claim that "in our grief and anger we have found our mission and our moment" (quoted in Murphy, 2003, p. 623). Indeed, as evidenced by claims that the War on Terror would bring about the "democratic globalism" espoused by conservative commentators at the American Enterprise Institute and produce what the National Security Policy of the United States of America describes as "a balance of power that favors human freedom" (both quoted in Rojecki, 2008, p. 72) the War on Terror is deeply entrenched in exceptionalist ideology.
While neither definitive nor comprehensive, these characteristics constitute the foundational premises of the discursive construction of the War on Terror. It is figured as a war declared upon America, where nothing less than the survival of humanity is at stake. The conclusion is nevertheless already written: no people or nation is more powerful or capable than America.
The first title in the series, Halo: Combat Evolved (HCE), establishes the Halo universe, sets the stage for the narrative of H2, and lays a foundation for the game discourses - narrative, visual and aural - that contextualize H2's gameplay. In HCE players enter the twenty-sixth century, where humans have been attacked without warning, just like the Americans in the World Trade Center on the day of 9/11, and thus find themselves embroiled in a war with an alien civilization known as the Covenant. HCE begins when a human spaceship pursued by a Covenant armada makes a blind 'jump' into deep space and discovers a Halo, an ancient but technologically sophisticated relic of the heretofore unknown Forerunners. Upon learning that the Covenant seek to use the Halo as a weapon of mass destruction, the player sets out to commandeer or destroy it. Over the course of this first game it is revealed that the Halo, if activated, would destroy all life in a significant portion of the galaxy, including the star systems colonized by humanity and the Covenant. HCE ends when the player destroys the Halo ring and escapes the explosion by hopping aboard a spaceship bound for Earth.
H2 picks up where HCE ended, and significantly, develops themes that articulate it more closely to America's War on Terror. While H2 does not return to reflect on the initial attack that begun the Human-Covenant War, the persistence of the conflict as well as its theological/ideological underpinnings and apocalyptic character are not only emphasized but also amplified throughout the game.
An undefined conglomeration of aliens in HCE, in H2 the Covenant is identified as a religious movement. While dialogue concerning the "sacred rings," "holy rings" and "sacred journey" pepper the game's script, the theocratic nature of the Covenant is also highlighted by several non-interactive cut-scenes toward the start of the game. One scene is a 'trial' that takes place on the Covenant Holy City, High Charity, (identified in an establishing shot). In this scene, a Covenant soldier of the Sangheile species (called Elites by human soldiers) is publicly humiliated for failing to safeguard the Halo ring destroyed in HCE. He is dragged from a kangaroo court to an amphitheater, where thousands watch, and approbated: "There can be no greater heresy. Let him be an example for all who would break our Covenant!" Then, he is tortured and branded with a hot iron. Because this scene takes place before gameplay has begun, it frames the conflict that follows. More important for this analysis, the scene also evokes the fundamentalist ideology of the Covenant and theo-political character of the Human-Covenant War, paralleling the Bush Administration's construction of America's War on Terror.
H2 also quickly reestablishes the apocalyptic nature of the Human-Covenant War. When they first encounter the ring, the humans are reminded, "If activated, this ring will cause destruction on a galactic scale." Later, a Covenant transmission proclaiming that the activation of the ring will commence a Great Journey is intercepted and a human soldier calls out, "Great Journey? Doesn't he know what these rings do?" By linking the Covenant's misguided religious fundamentalism with the potential destruction of all life in the galaxy, the game buttresses the analogical relationship with the War on Terror that players must negotiate as they play H2. Far more frightening than the mushroom clouds that Condoleezza Rice described, the consequences imagined in the Halo universe nevertheless situate the player in a similar context.
Furthermore, the exceptionalism that underwrites America's War on Terror is manifest in H2 in two ways. First, the game's narrative reserves a privileged place for humanity as the descendants of the Forerunner civilization. This is revealed through cut-scenes and scripted dialogue concerning the activation of the Halos, which explains that only those with Forerunner DNA - humans - can perform the task. In other words, because of the special history of humanity, only we are capable of firing the Halo rings. Second, and more importantly, because the human activating the Halo need not be living, only the player is capable of stopping the Covenant from firing the rings and bringing about a galactic conflagration. While the great majority of digital games position the player as a hero, most are common people in uncommon circumstances. For example, the protagonist of the canonical FPS game Doom, is the last surviving marine because he was left behind on guard duty. Alternatively, Gordon Freeman of the Half-Life series is a nerdy scientist in the wrong place at the wrong time. The archetypical digital game hero, Mario, is a plumber. H2 eschews this convention and narratively positions the player as an extraordinary and exceptional individual uniquely capable of the task.
At different points determined by the game itself, the player's interaction is represented through the action of one of two playable characters, the Master Chief and Arbiter, though both offer players the same possibilities for interaction. As Burns and Schott (2004) explain, game characters must be understood multi-modally, both as dramatic representations within the fiction of the game's narrative discourse and as mechanical vehicles for the execution of gameplay. This means understanding "character as sets of capabilities, potentials and techniques offered to the player" (Newman, 2002). While this is a thoroughly ludological explanation of character, it is not so far removed from the character of Gremias's narratological theory. Barthes explains Gremais' conception of character as actant: "since the actant defines a class, it can be filled with different actors…" (1977, p. 119). The character is considered not in terms of an individual identity, but rather, as a class or type of actions or events. In this regard, the two characters of the Master Chief and Arbiter are the same character. Both are the same size and build, and allow the player to run the same speed, jump the same distance, and crouch equally low. They can drive the same vehicles, use the same weapons and generally, interact with the virtual environment of the gameworld in the same manner.
Because H2 is a game, the player necessarily has some degree of control over the experience of play, but because its narrative discourse crafts a special place for the Master Chief and Arbiter, players are encouraged to develop a heightened sense of power. The Master Chief, also the protagonist of the HCE, is the last, best hope for humanity. He is a cybernetically enhanced super-soldier created and adapted to battle the Covenant. Even his designation, Spartan-117, evokes a warrior mythos. The Master Chief's special nature is emphasized repeatedly by the game's dialogue and drama, including one cinematic cut-scene near the start of the game in which he rides a bomb through space -- Slim Pickens style -- and steers it into a Covenant ship. The Arbiter - who, in development, was called the Dervish in reference to a follower of an aesthete Islamic sect (Kumar, 2008) -- is essentially the same character. After the player guides the Master Chief through several levels of gameplay, a cut-scene shows the Sangheili from the initial cinematic brought before a secret council and given a second chance. He is offered and accepts the post of Arbiter, which the players learn is both a ceremonial and sacrificial role: "…[V]anguard of the Great Journey… Each created and consumed in times of extraordinary crisis." The counterpart of the Master Chief, Covenant soldiers rejoice when the player arrives as the Arbiter to join the battle.
Though it is a science-fiction themed digital game that takes place in the twenty-sixth century, H2's narrative discourse is readily articulated to the context of its production and circulation. Like the post-9/11 world that the Bush Administration constructed to simultaneously mobilize and quiet America, the Halo Universe is defined by a war for human existence. Like the War on Terror, it is waged against an ideologically driven opponent whose beliefs are rooted in religious fundamentalism and disallow any alternative but conflict. And, just as official discourses of the War on Terror produce the belief that the conflict is winnable by drawing from the ideological mélange of American exceptionalism and Christian fundamentalism, H2 assures players that the game is winnable by positioning them as one of only two remarkable characters uniquely capable of addressing the woes that assail the galaxy.
The point of this is not to suggest that the development team at Bungie Studios explicitly encoded these parallels with the War on Terror, but rather that they could not help but reference their social and political milieu. In turn, the millions who played H2 could not help but to interpret the game in the same context. However what remains to be discussed are the possible understandings that players may generate, in such a context, from the experience of play. After all, H2 does not simply evoke the War on Terror, it offers players strategies for dealing with it.
Mapping the Affects of Gameplay
As evidenced by the bloggers, essayists and commenters discussed earlier, players are understanding H2 as a part of the rhetoric of the War on Terror. What remains to be explained is how to account for the diversity of opinions on this matter. Rather than attempt a definitive account, in what follows I offer a theory-based but ultimately unverifiable explanation.
Mapping the player's experience with H2 is not a matter of tracking down possible narrative resolutions and identifying the rhetorical effect of each, but rather of determining different ways of relating to the same sequence of events. The player's actions will never change the outcome of the game narrative, only produce the outcome predetermined by the developers at Bungie by prompting its telling through gameplay. Thus, it is by interrogating how the game's design structures the player's experience that I analyze H2's rhetorical affect, identifying a field of possible attitudinal or affective stances the game’s rhetoric produces, each of which differently impacts the player's experience with the game and the meaning they might take away.
Though the relationship between story and game has been disputed by game scholars (for example Aarseth, 1997; Eskelinen, 2002; Frasca, 2004), in H2 the attitudinal positioning of the player occurs on these two distinct but interrelated registers. H2's narrative structure enables players to view the events that transpire through either a comic or tragic frame. Given the events of the story and the shifting of focalization between the Master Chief and Arbiter, it is possible to view H2 as either a tale of alienation and loss or one of fellowship and renewal. H2's gameplay is structured so that the player is capable of relating to the gameworld from the perspective of the Master Chief, a leader and champion of humanity, or the Arbiter, the downtrodden and disgraced Covenant Elite. Significantly, H2's gameplay makes the equivalency of the Master Chief and Arbiter an important and all but unmistakable element of the game, unlike a purely textual narrative (even supplemented with visual images), where the distinct biologies and social backgrounds of the characters would suggest they are radically different characters. It is this equivalency, this slippage between characters, that enables players to frictionlessly inhabit the sensibility of one or the other or both.
In order to keep these multiple and possibly overlapping perspectives manageable, in what follows I put Northrop Frye's theorizations of the affective qualities of fictional mode and dramatic frame to work charting a grid of possible player experiences. Frye's theory of fictional modes provides an excellent shorthand for thinking about how audiences relate to a work of fiction based on the protagonist's relationship to his or her environment and the characters that populate it. It distinguishes between five modes of fiction, each of which is defined by two characteristics: the epoch in which it was the dominant form of fiction and the "the hero's power of action" (2000, p. 33).
Of particular interest to this inquiry are the high-mimetic and low-mimetic modes. The high-mimetic mode, which dominated European cultural life during the Enlightenment as the modern nation-state came into being, is exemplified by works such as Milton's Paradise Lost and Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress and celebrates great persons who are decidedly mortal but nevertheless clearly leaders and exemplars worthy of imitation. In the low-mimetic mode, for example Dickensian literature, the "the hero is one of us: we respond to his [sic] sense of common humanity, and demand from the poet the same cannon of probability that we find in our own experience" (Frye, 2000, p. 34). Still worthy of imitation, the low-mimetic hero is distinguished by their struggle and effort to overcome adversity.
These fictional modes are further distinguished by thematically constituted dramatic genres of the tragic and comic mode, which are premised upon the relationship between the hero and society. Frye defines the "'comic' tendency to integrate the hero into his [sic] society, and a 'tragic' tendency to isolate him [sic]" as opposing themes (Frye, 2000, p. 54). The hero's alienation from society evokes rejection and the atrophy of social order, which characterizes Frye's notion of tragedy, and the hero's inclusion into society conveys acceptance and the restoration (or replacement) of order, characteristic of Frye's notion of comedy. These fictional and dramatic modes are not mutually exclusive; they overlap, and in this manner form a grid of possible experiences of the game.
A first look at H2 suggests that the Master Chief and Arbiter, whose abilities to run, jump, reload, aim and fire are equal to one another, are superior to most other characters in the game. This is the capacity to act characteristic of heroes in the high-mimetic mode, who share little other than mortality with other characters. And it fits. Only the player, controlling the Master Chief or Arbiter, can defeat the challenges that constitute the game. Controlled by the game's artificial intelligence, almost every other character in the game, apart from two plot-essential characters, may be of some help to the player but is helpless without him or her. And, ultimately, this is a product of the Master Chief and Arbiter's capacity to run faster, jump further, and endure more damage than other characters.
However, a second look at H2 complicates this assessment. Six of the thirteen levels of the game are played from the perspective of the Arbiter. Although the Arbiter is superior to human soldiers, (to the same extent as the Master Chief, his equal) he is but one of an entire species within the Covenant. Coupled with dialogue that reveals that the Arbiter's armor, (though equal to the Master Chief's,) is actually inferior to that worn by other Sangheile, this is significant grounds for considering H2 as a low-mimetic fiction in which the hero's capacity to act is equivalent to the common folk who populate the game's diagesis. H2 can be considered low-mimetic for another reason, too. As is typical of first-person shooter games, the player's character dies frequently. Players are not expected to complete the game without their character dying and respawning to continue the fight. In this regard, the player will continually be reminded of the hero's mortality. In the face of this repetition, it may be difficult for players to be present to the narrative construction of the Master Chief as a cybernetically enhanced soldier who is superior to other characters in the game.
Though these various story and gameplay elements foreclose the possibility of definitively naming H2 a high-mimetic or low-mimetic text, the distinction remains a consequential one. Each fictional mode also expresses an attitudinal orientation. The high-mimetic mode expressed themes of "convergence," "nationalism" and "unity," and is "more strongly established around the court and the capital city, and a centripetal perspective" (Frye, 2000, p. 58). The low-mimetic mode, on the other hand, generally deals with themes of "an intensely individualized society" (p. 59). These themes are at odds and invite the player to inhabit different, competing sensibilities. More specifically, a player that understands the game as a high-mimetic work and, surveying the gamescape, finds only inferior enemies, is better enabled to experience H2 as centripetal discourse. In such a world, the player's superiority is inscribed in the game and victory is a predetermined if temporarily deferred conclusion. In contrast, a player that perceives the game as low-mimetic, in which every character that inhabits the game's diagesis is roughly equal, is better equipped to experience H2 as a discourse that emphasizes the fragility of power and the unknowable outcome of the exercise of agency. In this light, H2 is the story of perseverance against a capable enemy; it is a victory that is far from certain.
Considering H2 as a post-9/11 rhetoric -- as equipment for living (Burke, 1968) during the War on Terror -- forces these two competing affects into relief. For the most part, H2 rearticulates the core tenets of the Bush Administration's construction of the War on Terror. However, only the high-mimetic reading positions the player as an unstoppable juggernaut and resonates with the construction of the War on Terror as "our mission and our moment." If viewed from a low-mimetic frame, H2 contradicts the agentic construction of American exceptionalism, and locates victory -- one that is far from certain -- in the struggles of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. This dissonance contravenes the Bush Administration's narrative and open up a space of uncertainty.
The crux of this ambiguity, and the mechanism through which it operates, is the dual protagonists that generate the possibility of both high-mimetic and low-mimetic fictional modes. Frederic Jameson's reexamination of Frye is insightful at this juncture. Jameson argues that the most telling aspects of a narrative are its "generic discontinuities" characterized by the shifting between fictional, actant-oriented modes (1981, p. 144). These discontinuities occur frequently in H2 in the shifting back and forth between the Master Chief and Arbiter. However, they arise only because the protagonist's capacity to act, relative to the other characters that inhabit the world of the game, changes. Significantly, this capacity to act is functionally equivalent during gameplay, but seems to shift as a result of the game's narrative discourse binding the Arbiter to the Covenant and the Master Chief to humanity and their respective social and biological circumstances. Jameson further theorizes that multiple characters constituting a single actant signals a disjunction or contradiction between "narrative surface and underlying actantial mechanisms" (p. 126). This contradiction cues the critic to the narrative ambivalence that signals an aporia and enables dialectical criticism to recover the text's material intervention, regardless of how fantastic or magical its subject matter. Through such analysis, the text is refigured, "not as a mere reflex or reduplication of its situational context, but as the imaginary resolution of the objective contradictions to which it thus constitutes an active response" (p. 118).
The repeated switching between the two characters and one actant in H2 has the rhetorical effect of opening a field of possible readings. As yet, this field of possibilities is bifurcated on the issue of agency as the equivalence of the Master Chief and Arbiter make the high- and low-mimetic equally plausible frames of reference. However, if we also consider the dramatic framing of H2 as either comedy or tragedy, this field of possibilities can be overlaid with another set of affects, which further differentiates and expands the range of rhetorical effects.
H2 is readily perceived through a comic frame. Gameplay ends when the player, as the Arbiter, prevents the activation of the Halo. The narrative ends soon after with a cinematic that depicts the Master Chief, stowed away amidst a Covenant invasion fleet headed toward Earth, making contact with human forces and promising to finish the fight. Order is restored: the humans and Covenant are free to resume the routines interrupted by the events chronicled in H2 and get back to their perpetual war. Furthermore, a new order is created and the heroes are (re)integrated into society. The Arbiter finds common ground with a band of human fighters and the Master Chief returns to Earth to resume his role as champion of humanity.
While this comic reading is available, it does not foreclose the opportunity to read H2 as tragedy. The same events that made possible the Arbiter's alliance with humanity also inaugurate a civil war pitting the Sangheili against the rest of the Covenant. This not only throws the Covenant into chaos, it also results in the exclusion of the hero from society. Even from the human perspective, there is tragic potential in the ambiguity of the Master Chief's return to Earth on the cusp of invasion. Additionally, (as it is the second installment of a trilogy,) the final moments of H2 explain that the player's heroism has unwittingly activated an array of Halo rings scattered throughout the galaxy, suggesting that the greatest danger to order has yet to be addressed, much less ameliorated.
Though the elements of tragedy and comedy are each present in H2, making any effort to fix the meaning of the game in one or another thematic mode is an act of arrogation, given that it was primarily played in context of the War on Terror each interpretation carries a heavy weight. The comic perspective on H2 is aligned with the Bush Administration's construction of the War on Terror. In this account, the peace and order found prior to the 9/11 attacks has been replaced by a new order, an American Century. On the other hand, the tragic perspective calls into question official constructions of the War on Terror. The player still wins and thus the core of the message is the same: America will prevail in this War on Terror. But the tragic frame encourages the player to ask, "at what cost?" To the extent that H2 is an analogy - intentional or not - for the War on Terror, viewing it as a tale of social disintegration and alienation casts America's conflict in an unfavorable light incongruous with the Bush Administration's narrative.
Bringing the tragic and comic dramatic themes into this analysis makes this question of H2's fictional mode simultaneously more complex and more cogent. It reveals a discrete field of possible rhetorical effects that can be plotted and examined in turn. To the extent that the player cannot change the outcome of the story H2 remains a determinant text, but at the affective level it is indeterminant, and only each player's particular traversing of his or her aporia can determine how he or she is positioned by the game.
The combination of high-mimetic fictional mode and comic dramatic theme offers an intelligible, even persuasive, path for the player to tread. It relates a story about the restoration of order and the creation of community in the context of a fictional mode that asserts a centripetal, gravitational force around an indisputable leader figure. This is the route of quietism and domestification. It affirms the official discourse of the War on Terror, which promises the conflict will produce a newly stable world for American hegemony. As the same time, it encourages acceptance of central authority and assures players of the benevolent and providential guidance of the Bush Administration.
The combination of high-mimetic mode and tragic theme, on the other hand, is a dissonant pairing in that the story is about the decline and fall of order but nevertheless functions in its fictional mode to assert a centripetal, gravitational force around a leader figure. The fictional mode both legitimates the Bush Administration's authority to define the contours of a post-9/11 world and reinforces the agentic rhetoric characteristic of the American exceptionalism underwriting the War on Terror. However, the tragic frame calls into question the positive consequences the Bush Administration articulates to the conflict. This dissonance and contradiction simulates the tension of the cultural moment but fails to offer the player any guidance for how to negotiate the situation. If anything, it preserves the undecidability of the moment by restaging it for the player to experience.
In a similar fashion, the combination of low-mimetic mode and comic theme also highlights the uncertainty of the contemporary moment. It tells a story about the restoration of order and the creation of community, and is presented in a fictional mode that stresses that change is effected through the struggle and perseverance of average individuals. Here, the comic theme resonates with the Administration's narrative, in which the War on Terror is a means to restore America to its place of privilege on the world stage. Just as the Arbiter's struggle to stop the threat of the Halos earns him acceptance among humans, America's campaign to eradicate terrorism legitimates the exceptional status that Americans have long claimed. However the low-mimetic fictional mode undercuts the value of this narrative because it critiques the construction of Americans as sovereign agents able to determine their own destiny. In the low-mimetic celebration of individual, the player is reminded that America is not a "chosen people," that no conclusion is foregone, and that no outcome can be taken for granted.
Finally, the pairing of low-mimetic mode and tragic theme, which produces a story that stresses perseverance in the face of uncertainty in a tale of the decline and fall of social order, constitutes a second intelligible path through H2. The tragic theme is at odds with the Bush Administration's sunny forecast for the War on Terror. Contrary to the promise of exceptionalist rhetoric, it recreates the alienation and loss that opponents of the War on Terror argued would result from unilateralist foreign policy. Additionally, the notion of agency articulated by the low-mimetic mode is a rebuke of the sovereign agent figured by the rhetoric of the War on Terror. And by locating agency in the average individual, this way of experiencing H2 also undermines the ethos of the Bush Administration, as a central authority, to define the War on Terror. Contrary to the mix of high-mimetic fictional mode and comic dramatic theme, the combination of low-mimetic mode and tragic theme cultivates an oppositional stance.
Thinking about fictional mode and dramatic theme as two potentially overlapping ways of experiencing gameplay reveals a grid of possible affects produced by playing H2. In turn, these affects constitute the rhetorical effect of the game, attitudinally positioning players and forming a part of the discursive backdrop of their lives, the pre-rhetoric that precedes the performance of civic identity. Two possibilities offer players decisive strategies - affirmation or skepticism - to respond to the War on Terror, the situation named by H2. The other two possibilities extol the aporia opened by the War on Terror and reenacted by H2, reproducing the very uncertainty and ambiguity that begged the question of the text.
Digital Games, Rhetorical Practice, and Rhetorical Criticism
Digital games can participate in the construction, contestation, and performance of civic and cultural identity by attitudinally orienting players in relation to social and political tensions. H2 does so by constructing a fictional world structured by the same tenets underwriting the more familiar fictional world of the Bush Administration's construction of a post-9/11 "new normal" and the War on Terror it legitimates. However, H2 not only reenacts the War on Terror, it evokes the social and political tensions characteristic of this persistent situation and offers players an array of possible responses. In fact, it structures an aporia, a fork in the semantic path that invites the gamer to inhabit one of several possible sensibilities, two of which constitute definitive stances in relation to post-9/11 war rhetorics and two of which revel in and restage the undecidability of the situation. And while careful study of specific demographics of players may permit the attribution of particular affects, that is not this essay's aim. Rather, I have attempted to explain that the rhetorical effect (and in this case, affect) of gameplay is a crossroads structured by the game's design but traversed by players.
Despite the reticence of the entertainment game industry to have their games associated with the political, digital games are equipment for living. Neither players nor developers need to be conscious of the ludic and discursive parallels between a game and the social context of its production and circulation because lack of intention does not negate the rhetorical effects of the experience of gameplay. Laidlow and Wolpaw, lead writers of Valve's Half-Life series, describe their stance on the politics of game writing:
We put these things together out of the things that are floating around in the environment. It's an intuitive process, and people receive them in an [sic] similar way. There's intuitive stuff going on, but it's not like we had an agenda that we set out to make a dramatic statement. People have fun connecting the dots, and the patterns that emerge might be different for different people (quoted in Graft, 2010).Much like H2 writer Joe Staton's position, Laidlow and Wolpaw acknowledge that players make interpretations and draw conclusions. What they do not acknowledge is the role they play as the rhetors responsible for crafting the game’s discourse, and power they exercise determining the range of possible meanings attributed to a game - their rhetorical agency.
While this essay will not develop this line of argument, it seems reasonable to conclude by suggesting possible lines of future inquiry. In this light, perhaps it is time for game criticism and developers to come to terms with the rhetorical effectivity of digital games and embrace their capacity to call upon game mechanics and features as well as culturally relevant symbols and figurations to influence how players interpret gameplay.
Then again, perhaps the developers already have. After all, H2's narrative and gameplay were structured in a manner that, accounting for their mutually constitutive interrelationship, produced a field of possible attitudinal affects that amounts to equivocation. What better way to ensure commercial success than to offend no one and to please everyone? To say everything and therefore to say nothing at all?
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