Monday, February 25, 2008

The Fantasy of Fantasy

Cybertypes, identity tourism, cosmetic multiculturalism… for someone who’s suspicious of academic kludges, Lisa Nakamura sure is full of ‘em. But the thing is: they work for me – they make sense immediately, the way good theory should do. It’s one of the many things I like about Nakamura.

Because there are so many things, I’m just going to focus on one: nostalgia.

I love what Nakamura says about nostalgia vis-à-vis new media and race. Here’s a passage I used in my paper on racism in WoW:

As machine-induced speed enters our lives – the speed of transmission of images and texts, of proliferating information, of dizzying arrays of decision trees and menus – all of these symptoms of modernity create a sense of unease that is remedied by comforting and familiar images of a “history” and a “native” that seems frozen in a “different time and a different place. (7)

Re-reading Chapter 1 this time, a later passage also stuck out:

As Susan Stewart defines nostalgia, it is a “sadness without an object.” Nostalgia is “always ideological: the past it seeks has never existed except as narrative, and hence, always absent, that past continually threatens to reproduce itself as a felt lack” (23). … Cybertyping keeps race “real” using the discourse of the virtual. The object of digital nostalgia is precisely the idea of race itself. As Renato Rosaldo defines it, nostalgia is “often found under imperialism, where people mourn the passing of what they themselves have transformed,” and is “a process of yearning for what one has destroyed that is a form of mystification (quoted in hooks 25). Cybertyping works to rescue the vision of the authentic raced “native” that, first, never existed except as part of an imperialist set of narratives, and second, is already gone, or “destroyed” by technologies such as the Internet. (26)

Nostalgia, in this sense, is the dominant feeling of the fantasy genre. For you non-geeks out there, the fantasy genre is that spic-and-span Medieval Europe that’s populated by swords and sorcerers and so forth. Tolkien is its great granddaddy, though in games, its direct ancestor is Dungeons and Dragons. As you’ll soon discover, it’s the setting of World of Warcraft. It’s also the setting of 94% of MMOGs. So fantasy’s popularity in games makes it interesting enough to me, but what Nakamura made me realize is that it taps into a nasty set of Western ideologies – ideologies about imperialism and racism.

[Amusing note: MS Word put the Fuzzy Red Line of Misspelling under “cybertype,” but not under “kludge.” The politics of the program(mers) revealing themselves?]

1 comment:

kristin said...

I'm glad you brought up WoW as when I first entered last night I started whining to Jeff (I always whine when I use a new technology, it's unbecoming and hilarious given what I do for a living). The whine went something like this, "why do games like this always have to have to have all these weird medieval rootings? I don't want to live in a time of warriors and maidens, I don't want to pretend I'm trying to save middle earth, and why are these creatures so scary looking?" At which point Jeff yelled at me, "what do you want? An organic farm where you get to sit in the dirt and pick tomatoes while talking to furry woodland creatures?" The answer was yes, and he gave up. At this point I started chasing the bunny b/c he seemed like an alright dude and the people I saw looked mean so I wanted to avoid them. Then, the crevice. Alas.

So, what does this have to do with what you said? Nostalgia is what I'm thinking about. I am really curious about how all D&D based games always have these ties to a past rooted in this sense of time and space. What is it about this time and space that is so appealing to so many people and so scary to me? Is there a sense of the past, fixed and stable where good and bad are clear and where man and woman are stable? I'm sure I'm totally oversimplifying this, but it is an interesting point your raise about the role of nostalgia and mmorpgs.

Ok then, back to my organic farm and my bird friends....