Playing American: Open-World Videogames, Ambient Operations, and the Reproduction of American Culture
Dissertation in Culture
First supervisor: Prof. Frank Kelleter
Second supervisor: Prof. Martin Lüthe
Third supervisor: Prof. Andreas Sudman
This dissertation argues that the popular open-world videogame franchises Grand Theft Auto
(Rockstar Games, 1997-), Watch Dogs (Ubisoft, 2014-), and Red Dead Redemption (2010-) transnationally reproduce American culture through a phenomenon described as playing American. Building on concepts by Alexander R. Galloway and Ian Bogost, among others, the concept of ambient operations as a significant analytic focus for the study of open-world videogames is introduced and accorded importance in analyzing and understanding the cultural meanings produced in such videogames. Advocating an action-based understanding of both videogames and culture, and specifically the reproduction of the latter, three case studies—each centered on one of the videogame series considered—reveal different figurations of playing
American. Drawing on work by Bruno Latour and Frank Kelleter, the chapter on Grand Theft Auto describes the actor-network that forms around the series and demonstrates the agency of American popular culture in the production of the videogames, the reproduction of distinct discourses in American culture through reception practices around the franchise, and how those very same discourses inform the ambient operations in the gameworld of GTA V, the series’ latest release. The chapter on Watch Dogs employs theorizations of contemporary surveillance regimes (especially Frank Pasquale’s concept of the black box society), with a specific focus on practices of racialization and racist discrimination (drawing on work by Ruha Benjamin and Simone Brown, among others). It shows how the videogames in action reproduce the exact same practices they appear to criticize on a narrative level, thus not only normalizing comprehensive surveillance but also affirming colorblind conceptions of surveillance and algorithmic technologies like predictive policing, which in reality are clearly aligned with the histories and present of racial discrimination. The chapter on Red Dead Redemption applies digital media theory by Galloway and Lev Manovich to the series’ realization of the Western in videogame form. It demonstrates how the series reconfigures the genre as a database, with its ambioperative gameworlds serving as interfaces, which ultimately leads to a withdrawal from history and a politics of disavowal. The chapter furthermore shows how American culture is reproduced transnationally here—bringing a line of argument started in the first case study full circle—and how this reproduction in the videogames’ development is firmly based on ideologies and practices of a globally operating, neoliberal capitalism. The dissertation contends that the videogames examined are agents of cultural reproduction that do distinct cultural work for American culture.