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Semiosphere as a cake: the multiple layers of semiotic competences and the videogames that play with them


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Slides for my presentation at the VIII Juri Lotman conference, hosted by Tallinn University on May 25-27, 2016.

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Semiosphere as a cake: the multiple layers of semiotic competences and the videogames that play with them

  1. 1. Mikhail Fiadotau Dept. of Social and Cultural Anthropology School of Humanities Tallinn University
  2. 2. Semiosphere and mediascape “While some semiotic approaches tend to concentrate on message interpretation, most medium theorists emphasize the medium or media form rather than content. A link between these two theoretical realms can allow for a more cogent analysis of media and their place in society.” (Leverette 2003)
  3. 3. semiosphere: 1. “interconnected Umwelten” (Kull 1998) 2. continuity of sign systems Semiosphere and mediascape “The five scapes” (Appadurai 1990): ethnoscape technoscape finanscape ideascape mediascape
  4. 4. Semiosphere and mediascape Conventional understandings of the sign do not accommodate the idea of the medium the sign is reproduced through. and yet The medium chosen to deliver a message shapes our interpretation of the message: • because of the intrinsic properties of the medium (McLuhan: “The medium is the message”) • because of the conventions that emerge around the medium
  5. 5. Semiosphere and mediascape Illustration: Gershon (2010): “media ideologies” create “idioms of practice” and infuse the choice of medium with moral value: e.g. breaking up via a text message is seen as immoral (“the medium is at odds with the message”).
  6. 6. Semiosphere and mediascape conventions competences
  7. 7. Media literacies Media literacies are sets of competencies which give one “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and create media.” The term is often employed in education science, where the the emphasis tends to be on the critical/relfective and the creative components. But even accessing media (watching a movie, playing a videogame) requires a set of competencies → primary media literacies.
  8. 8. Media literacies can overlay and re-signify signs which exist in other semotic spheres (religious, ethnic, political, etc.): 1. graves as places of honoring and reminiscing about the dead (matches wider cultural code) 2. graves as places to look for clues (taboo in wider cultural code) 3. the grave as an indicator that the current playthrough is over
  9. 9. Media literacies can also comprise signs not directly found in other semiotic spheres, enabling comprehension, mastery, and suspension of disbelief: • deadly spikes sticking out of the floor • “platforms” hanging in the air • a two-dimensional world with very weak gravity • a hero who has several lives • etc.
  10. 10. Primary media literacies in videogames 1. Control scheme 2. Level design: e.g. free-roaming vs. unlockable 3. Perspective/world representation: 2D vs. 3D; photorealism vs. cartoon aesthetics; etc. 4. User interface and inventory 5. Points and achievements 6. Game mechanics icon index symbol What should I do? >> pick up the flashlight etc.
  11. 11. Primary media literacies in videogames interpretative competencies performative competencies mastery other semiotic competencies other semiotic competencies
  12. 12. Indie games and playing with media conventions • The indie game movement started in the 2000s thanks to the emergence of consumer-grade game production technology and a favorable distribution infrastructure • Indie gamers favor originality, experiments, and artistic expessiveness over the high production values of mainstream videogame industry • The advent of indie games has widened the reach of videogames as a medium
  13. 13. Indie games and playing with media conventions Perdition: Plays with both religious symbols (re-signifying God for subservience and Satan for self-indulgence) and with the simplistic “good vs. evil” dichotomy characteristic of most platformer games.
  14. 14. Indie games and playing with media conventions Karoshi series: A platformer game where the goal is to kill your avatar. Inverts the basic premise of platformers (navigate your way past dangers to advance to the next level); re- signifies many of their “stock signs” (e.g. spikes).
  15. 15. Indie games and playing with media conventions Fez: A game about a creature that discovers the third dimension in a world whose inhabitants are only aware of two. Plays with the “2D world” convention employed by platformer games in a way meaningful for the story.
  16. 16. Indie games and playing with media conventions 1213: A platformer game made with Adventure Game Studio (AGS). Challenges the meta conventions established within the AGS community: the expectation that developers use the tool to create an adventure game.
  17. 17. Indie games and playing with media conventions These examples pertain to different “layers of the cake,” but the mechanism is the same: deliberate re-signification of a “stock,” ready-made symbol with the aim of evoking a metasemiotic reflection in the player.
  18. 18. Indie games and playing with media conventions Lotman: semiotic processes are more dynamic on the periphery, leading to a production of new meanings, some of which may replace semiotic structures of the core. But these processes on the periphery can also can push the boundaries of the semiosphere as such. periphery
  19. 19. Indie games and playing with media conventions Crucially, most of the new meanings emerge at the intersection of different layers (Lotman: “fusion of leves”): “New information in the semiosphere can be produced only as a result of a dialogue between different codes” (Steiner 2003).
  20. 20. So what kind of cake is the semiosphere? • A cake with many layers, each of which you have to learn to eat • (And yet there are no clear boundaries between the layers) • A cake which tastes differently in the center and the periphery • And whose taste, moreover, constantly changes, particularly on the periphery and where different layers meet • A cake that is constantly growing in size • But whose size is impossible to meaure