Review of Christopher B. Patterson, Open World Empire: Race, Erotics, and the Global Rise of Video Games

November 2020

Bjarke Liboriussen

University of Nottingham Ningbo China


Having your cake and eating it (off your naked partner): Review of Christopher B. Patterson, Open World Empire: Race, Erotics, and the Global Rise of Video Games. New York University Press, 2020.

In public and scholarly debates about video games, participants can find themselves in uncomfortable positions where they are forced to declare themselves either for or against video games. In Open World Empire: Race, Erotics, and the Global Rise of Video Games, Christopher B. Patterson offers a way to break free of such limited and limiting discursive options, and the thinking that gives rise to them, by “[understanding] games as players do – as mere playthings that afford new passions, pleasures, desires, and attachments, that place grave attention on our own positions in the world and make us conscious of our power over others” (p. 1). In short, the book offers ways of being simultaneously passionate about, and critical of, video games.

The term erotics is crucial for this project. As Patterson explains in the introduction, “Erotics is an art of conceiving how pleasure, desire, and the interactive work upon the body as a way to master ourselves and to recognize how our pleasures impact others” (p.  22). Patterson arrives at this understanding of erotics through the work of three “queer theorists” (p. 17), namely, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Patterson engages with the three theorists throughout the book and pays special attention to the ways that the three thinkers towards the end of their lives increasingly fetishized Asia and drew on their “obscure queer identities” (p. 24). Patterson’s own identity as “a queer traveler of multiple racial genealogies who has lived in Korea, China, and Hong Kong” (p. 70) is relevant to appreciate the book’s style and intention. Although Patterson describes himself as a “matchmaker” (p. 17) between game studies and queer theorists – which perhaps makes him sound like someone who facilitates a meeting and then observes from a safe distance – many of the book’s observations draw on deeply personal experiences ranging from childhood memories to both sexual and non-sexual role play.

The book consists of an introduction, six chapters and a brief conclusion (or “Coda”, pp. 271-272). Chapter 1 covers “global games”, that is, games that distance themselves from, or even deny, their national origins. This strategy is well known from Japanese popular culture where it has been described as mukokuseki, odourless, by Koichi Iwabushi, but Patterson adds nuance by reading global games erotically. The chapter opens and closes with its main example, Overwatch (Blizzard Entertainment, 2016), but also an older game, Street Fighter II (Capcom, 1991), is examined in depth. Throughout the book, historical parallels often deepen understanding of contemporary examples (for example, e-sports and the rise of Twitch). Chapter 2 moves from games to makers of games and covers three types of developers: The invisible American developer, the Japanese auteur developer (appreciated by the “ludophile, the audience member who seeks intimate knowledge of a game” [p. 88]) and the Asian North American developer. Chapter 3 covers role play, an activity characterised by anonymity, impersonality and power play that embraces rather than denies that power relations are involved in play. Power play can be erotic in the true sense used here if it ethically cares for all (both seen and unseen) who are involved, but this ideal can be unobtainable when roles are played in an imperial setting. Here Patterson relies on Foucault’s writings on aphrodisiac and stresses how the erotic involves care, not just for the self but also for others.

A brief “Pause” (pp. 150-153) uses Sedgwick’s notion of “paranoid reading” to conclude that the first half of the book “used games as a utility to decipher empire” (p. 152), whereas the second half of the book will ask: “what can playing video games erotically do to us, rather than for us?” (p. 153; emphasis in the original).

Chapter 4 expands on Sedgwick’s writing on paranoid and “reparative” readings and applies them to bodily postures known from the playing of video games, particularly the playing of horror games; the chapter includes analysis of Alien: Isolation (Creative Assembly, 2014). Chapter 5 covers the Far Cry series (Crytek, 2004; Ubisoft, 2005-). Patterson simultaneously (and erotically) problematizes empire while appreciating the pleasures of doing the same things, such as shooting, over and over again (Barthes’ distinction between pleasure and bliss is at work here). Chapter 6 offers additional theoretical background for the book’s three main theorists. The chapter also reflects on the concept of, and study of, the transpacific. Main examples include the Civilization series (MicroProse, 1991-) and Google Earth VR (Google, 2016).

The book’s main contribution to the interdisciplinary academic field of contemporary game studies is its invitation to reconsider key concepts that the field has relied on for the past two decades, for example, immersion, player agency, interactivity and the magic circle. Some of the descriptions of these concepts and their application in game studies are quite blunt. Is it really true that “immersion” has been described as an experience of the mind rather than the body (p. 199)? Was “the magic circle” really “conceived as direct [refusal] of what [Patterson is] calling the erotic” (p. 13)? Answering these questions would only be worth time and energy if Patterson was actively trying to discredit existing game studies concepts and steer the field away from them, and that is not the intention underpinning the criticism. Instead, the book seems aimed at infusing existing game studies concepts with new meanings and pairing them together with concepts from Patterson’s three queer theorists in ways that can open new lines of enquiry for game studies.

My main quibble with the book has to do with its structure. Each chapter keeps a fine balance between theory and analysis, ensuring that the reader never experiences being introduced to a concept without also experiencing a fairly immediate analytical payoff. This makes for a comfortable read and avoids having the reader give up halfway through a lengthy description of the book’s analytical framework. However, I would personally have preferred having had a more substantial introduction to Barthes, Foucault and Sedgwick in the introduction – where such an introduction belongs – rather than in the last chapter (pp. 250-260). The price for smooth structure on the level of the individual chapter is paid for in uneven structure when zooming out to the book as a whole.

From a game studies perspective, Open World Empire might not be suitable for undergraduate students unless they are already attuned to some of the scholarly debates around video games. The most ambitious students, and game studies scholars in general, will enjoy having their favourite theorists and concepts played with in unthought – sometimes surprising, sometimes demanding – yet always caring ways.




比亚克·利布鲁森(Bjarke Liboriussen)








“情色”是本书中的关键词。正如帕特森在开篇引言中所介绍的:“情色是一门艺术,它构想了快乐、欲望和交互作品是如何作用于身体的,以此来控制我们自己,并认识到我们的愉悦是如何影响他人的(p.22)。”帕特森对“情色”的理解来自于三位“酷儿理论家”的作品,即罗兰·巴特(Roland Barthes)、米歇尔·福柯(Michel Foucault)和伊芙·科索夫斯基·塞吉维克(Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick)。三位学者的身影贯穿全书,他尤其关注他们三人如何直到生命末期都还对亚洲越发迷恋、如何运用他们“模糊的酷儿身份” (p.24)。

要理解本书的风格与意图,就要先了解帕特森的身份,他是“一位曾经生活在韩国、中国和香港地区的混血酷儿旅行者”(p.70)。他自称是联结游戏研究与同性恋理论家的“媒人”(p.17),说得就好像是他促成了一场会面,而自己则呆在安全距离外进行观察似的。但是,书中的许多观察来自深刻的个人体验,从儿时的记忆, 到含有性爱元素和非性爱元素的角色扮演,凡此种种,应有尽有。

该书由引言、六个章节和一个简短的结论(或者说是“尾声”,pp.271-272)组成。第一章主要介绍了“全球的游戏”,这类游戏与民族起源保持距离,甚至加以否认。这种策略在日本流行文化中广为人知,它被日本学者岩渕功一(Koichi Iwabushi)描述成无味的“无国籍者”。但是帕特森从情色的视角来解读则给全球游戏添加了内涵。该章深入研究了两款游戏案例,并以它们开篇和收尾,即《守望先锋》(暴雪娱乐,2016年)和另一款较早的游戏《街霸2》(卡普空,1991年)。书中展示的历史上的相似案例进一步加深了人们对当代游戏案例的理解(例如电子竞技和游戏直播Twitch的兴起)。第二章将视线转向游戏制作者。它涵盖了三种类型的开发者:第一,隐身的美国开发者;第二,日本导演开发者(为“暴虐狂(ludophile)”游戏迷所喜欢,他们寻求更为私秘的游戏内容[p.88]);第三,亚裔北美开发者。第三章描述了角色扮演,一种以匿名性、去人格化和权力游戏为特征的活动。这种活动接受而不是否定这种游戏中的权力关系。如果游戏在道德上关照所有参与其中的人(无论是否可见),那么,权力游戏可以是真正意义上的情色游戏。但当角色扮演是在帝国情境的环境下时,这种理想的状态则无法实现。在这里,帕特森借用了福柯书中的“春药”的论述,并强调情色是如何涉及到关怀的,这种关怀不仅是为了自己,也是为了他人。

在 “暂停” 一节中,帕特森使用赛吉维克的“偏执阅读”的概念简要总结道,该书的前半部分“用游戏作为解码帝国的工具”(p.152),但对后半部分则提出了这样的疑问:“玩电子游戏真的是能我们产生什么情色影响,而不是我们带来什么情色影响吗?”(p.153;原著中强调)

第四章进一步拓展了赛吉维克书中关于偏执狂和“修复性”的解读,并用其分析玩电子游戏,尤其是玩恐怖游戏时的身体姿势。这一章分析了《异形:隔离》游戏(Creative Assembly,2014)。第五章则研究了《孤岛惊魂》系列(Crytek,2004;育碧,2005-至今)。帕特森对游戏中重复同样动作(如射击)带来的快感表示理解,同时也(从情色的角度)对帝国提出质疑(这里运用的是巴特关于愉悦和狂喜的区分法)。第六章对本书三位主要理论家的理论背景做了进一步的介绍。该章还对泛太平洋的概念和研究进行了反思,所举案例主要来自《文明》系列(MicroProse,1991-至今)和《谷歌地球VR》(谷歌,2016)。