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Speedrunning: Transgressive play in digital space

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Abstract

In How To Do Things With Videogames, Ian Bogost argues that videogames offer “an experience of the ‘space between points’ that had been reduced or eliminated by the transportation technologies that began with the train” (2011, 49). But when we watch a speedrun of a game such as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Nintendo EAD 1998), what we instead see is a player determined to destroy as much of that ‘space between points’ as possible. It is a game that takes most players tens of hours to complete, but is finished in just over 17 minutes by the best speedrunners, utilizing glitches that manipulate the game’s code to skip enormous chunks of both the narrative and the gameworld. Once an underground hobby conducted between users swapping footage on obscure internet forums, speedrunning has shot into the mainstream in recent years following the rise of livestreaming platforms and livestreamed events such as Games Done Quick and the European Speedsters Assembly. So what does speedrunning mean as a mode of play, and what can it reveal about the relationship between player and gameworld? This paper examines speedrunning as a transgressive mode of play. Building on previous work on this topic by scholars such as Rainforest Scully-Blaker, I first aim to define speedrunning as a practice and then to explore its relationship with the space in the gameworld, the game’s narrative, and with the ideological and representational implications that arise from them. To do this, I bring in spatial, digital and videogame theorists such as Paul Virilio, Tom Apperley and Espen Aarseth, as well as work on other transgressive spatial practices such as parkour in order to see if and how they relate.
Proceedings of Nordic DiGRA 2018
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Speedrunning: Transgressive Play
in Digital Space
Dom Ford
IT University of Copenhagen
dofo@itu.dk
dominic.ford@live.com
EXTENDED ABSTRACT
In How To Do Things With Videogames, Ian Bogost argues that videogames offer “an
experience of the ‘space between points’ that had been reduced or eliminated by the
transportation technologies that began with the train” (2011, 49). But when we watch
a speedrun of a game such as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Nintendo EAD
1998), what we instead see is a player determined to destroy as much of that ‘space
between points’ as possible. It is a game that takes most players tens of hours to
complete, but is finished in just over 17 minutes by the best speedrunners, utilizing
glitches that manipulate the game’s code to skip enormous chunks of both the
narrative and the gameworld. Once an underground hobby conducted between users
swapping footage on obscure internet forums, speedrunning has shot into the
mainstream in recent years following the rise of livestreaming platforms and
livestreamed events such as Games Done Quick and the European Speedsters
Assembly. So what does speedrunning mean as a mode of play, and what can it reveal
about the relationship between player and gameworld?
This paper will examine speedrunning as a transgressive mode of play. Building on
previous work on this topic by scholars such as Rainforest Scully-Blaker, I will first
aim to define speedrunning as a practice and then to explore its relationship with the
space in the gameworld, the game’s narrative, and with the ideological and
representational implications that arise from them. To do this, I will bring in spatial,
digital and videogame theorists such as Paul Virilio, Tom Apperley and Espen
Aarseth, as well as work on other transgressive spatial practices such as parkour in
order to see if and how they relate.
In defining speedrunning, I will primarily look at Scully-Blaker’s definition: “the
practice of players or ‘runners’ attempting to ‘travel’ from a game’s opening state at
its first necessary button input to the game’s conclusion at its last necessary button
input in the smallest amount of time possible” (Scully-Blaker 2014, emphasis in
original). Crucially, this definition ties speedrunning to the real world, anchored on
either end by a material start- and end-point outside of the game. This, I will argue,
establishes speedrunning as a metagame and divorces the act of playing during a
speedrunning from the narrative and gameworld in which the player is ‘supposed’ to
be immersed. That is, play has a weaker tie to the narrative actions of the game.
Killing enemies and bosses, using the avatar’s abilities and so on are largely stripped
of their narrative context and become instrumental, rather than representational.
To delve deeper into this, it will be useful to use Aarseth’s implied player model:
“The game houses expectations for a player’s behavior, which is supported by an
interface, and represented in-game by an avatar (but not the latter in all games)”
(Aarseth 2007, 132). Crucially, Aarseth views the implied player as “a boundary
imposed on the player-subject by the game, a limitation to the playing person’s
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freedom of movement and choice”. I will also turn to Apperley here, who makes a
similar argument. Using Ted Friedman’s concept of cybernetic subjectivity, Apperley
claims that “the players are insinuated into the rhythm of the game through the
process of play; they must ‘fit’ into the rhythm of the game and not vice versa,” and
in this way “the player is also forced to accept the ideological underpinnings of the
game as absolute” (2010, 24). What speedrunning offers at this point is a way of
playing outside these limitations. Playing outside of the limitations of the implied
player or the game’s rhythm is, Aarseth claims, “a symbolic gesture of rebellion
against the tyranny of the game, a (perhaps illusory) way for the played subject to
regain their sense of identity and uniqueness through the mechanisms of the game
itself” (2007, 132). Speedrunning, I will argue, is a demonstration of that. It is an
example of a mode of play that allows players to remove themselves from the game’s
inscribed ideological framework, and possibly even make it anew. The player makes
the game.
These ideas seem to run parallel to those offered by theorists of parkour. Matthew D.
Lamb talks about parkour as a “dialectic struggle” (2017, 43) between traceur (a
practitioner of parkour) and the architectural space inscribed with social meaning.
“Thus, parkour is not only a tactical use of strategical architectural space through
bricolent appropriation but is at once a tactical (mis)use of my body as a site of
strategic power,” he concludes (2017, 43). By reducing the spatial environment to
objects and obstacles devoid of social, cultural or narratological meaning, the traceur
and the speedrunner find a means by which they can rewrite, reappropriate or ignore
entirely the inscribed space. Lamb says that “put plainly, parkour is about unrestricted
movement in an environment constructed to restrict movement” (2014, 108), denoting
an inherent subversiveness to the practice. Speedrunning read through the lens of the
implied player model does the same. Speedrunning is about unrestricted movement in
a digital environment constructed to restrict movement ludically, spatially and
narratively.
I hope to tie these ideas together in order to reach a better understanding of
speedrunning in the context of narrative, space, and the player’s relation to those
through play. As speedrunning and other forms of non-standard play gain traction
amongst players, it is important to think about what these modes of play mean and
why players are drawn to both playing and watching them. Furthermore, I believe that
through non-standard modes of play like speedrunning, we can gain a better
understanding of games as objects and computational structures, allowing us to see
more clearly the lines of ideology and representation inscribed in gameworlds, their
stories and their presentations.
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BIBLIOGRAPHY
Aarseth, Espen. 2007. “I Fought the Law: Transgressive Play and The Implied
Player.” DiGRA ’07 – Proceedings of the 2007 DiGRA International Conference:
Situated Play. The University of Tokyo. www.digra.org/wp-
content/uploads/digital-library/07313.03489.pdf
Apperley, Tom. 2010. Gaming Rhythms: Play and Counterplay from the Situated to
the Global. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Institute of Network Cultures.
Bogost, Ian. 2011. How To Do Things With Videogames. Minneapolis, MN, USA:
Minnesota University Press.
de Certeau, Michel. 1988. The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven
Rendall. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA, USA: California University Press.
EA DICE. 2008. Mirror’s Edge. [Xbox 360], Electronic Arts, Europe.
Franklin, Seb. 2009. “ ‘We Need Radical Gameplay, Not Just Radical Graphics’:
Towards a Contemporary Minor Practice in Computer Gaming.” symploke. 17 (1-
2). 163-180. DOI: 10.1353/sym.2009.0013
Iser, Wolfgang. 1978. The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose
Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett. Baltimore, MD, USA: The Johns Hopkins
University Press.
Lamb, Matthew D. 2014. Misuse of The Monument: The art of parkour and the
discursive limits of a disciplinary architecture. Journal of Urban Cultural
Studies. 2, (1). 107-126. DOI: 10.1386/jucs.1.1.107_1
Lamb, Matthew D. 2017. “Traceur as bricoleur. Poaching public space through
bricolent use of architecture and the body.” The Journal of Public Space. 2, (1).
33-44. DOI: 10.5204/jps.v2i1.48
Lefebvre, Henri. 2004. Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life. Translated
by Stuart Elden and Gerald Moore. London, UK: Continuum.
Nintendo EAD. 1997. Super Mario 64. [Nintendo 64], Nintendo, Europe.
Nintendo EAD. 1998. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. [Nintendo 64],
Nintendo, Europe.
Nintendo EPD. 2017. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. [Nintendo Switch,
1.5.0, The Master Trials, The Champions’ Ballad], Nintendo, worldwide.
Scully-Blaker, Rainforest. 2014. “A Practiced Practice: Speedrunning Through Space
With de Certeau and Virilio.” Game Studies. 14, (1).
http://gamestudies.org/1401/articles/scullyblaker
Virilio, Paul. 1986. Speed and Politics: An Essay on Dromology. Translated by Mark
Polizzotti. New York, NY, USA: Semiotext(e).
... Hence, as Scully-Blaker discusses, even a game that included glitches for speedrunners to find would nevertheless itself being pushed and engaged with in a way that the programmers did not intend. Like parkour, interacting with an environment in the way that it was intended to be interacted with by the creators defeats the purpose of the activity (Ford 2018). A space created intentionally to be used as a parkour course, regardless of the skill required to traverse it, would simply not be in the spirit of parkour. ...
... In this regard, again, speedrunning can be usefully compared to parkour (Ford 2018). It involves taking an environment that someone else has provided and using in in ways contrary to the intentions of the creator. ...
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