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08 Jun

Animal Avatar Jaws Unleashed

Written by Michael Fuchs
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Becoming the Shark and/vs. Controlling the Shark: Jaws Unleashed and the Animal Avatar

The great white shark starring in Jaws has stimulated a variety of interpretations. For example, Peter Biskind has claimed that "[t]he shark … can only be the young man's sexual passion, a greatly enlarged, marauding penis" (1). Similarly, Dan Rubey has argued that "the shark reflects a disguised hatred of women and the preoccupation of our society with sadistic sexuality," which he goes on to link to various "predatory and irresponsible" human actions (20). Jane Caputi, on the other hand, has read the movie "as a full-blown male nightmare," in which the great white shark symbolizes "not only … castration, but also … abortion" and "represents the untamed female, the Mother, the vagina dentata, the Lesbian, the White Goddess, […] the wild, the unconscious" (35–36; italics in original). Robert Torry has suggested that the shark represents the Vietcong, which is why the movie, for him, is an "obvious wish fulfillment narrative of the annihilation of a murderous, devious and implacable enemy" (27). More recently, David Ingram has concluded that Jaws, but even more so its sequels, reduces the fish to "a threatening automaton, needing to be controlled and put in its place by human action" (90). And this is just sampling. Faced with such an abundance of different interpretations, one may find solace in Fredric Jameson's conclusion that the multiplicity of interpretations "suggests that the vocation of the symbol—the killer shark—lies less in any single message or meaning than in its very capacity to absorb … all of these quite distinct [meanings]" (142). Nigel Morris has continued this line of thought, remarking that "[t]he shark" thus "ceases to be a metaphor" and comes to represent "nothing other than its terrifying concrete presence" (ch. 4).

In the video game Jaws Unleashed, players take control of this body that purportedly symbolizes "nothing other than its terrifying concrete presence." Now, if the animal avatar is "the user's representative in the virtual universe" (Filiciak 89) and defines "what the players are able to do in the game-world" and "how they do it" (Rouse 310), the question that emerges is what Jaws Unleashed tells us about the interconnections between the player and the avatar, on the one hand, and the human and the nonhuman, on the other. Putting players in control of a shark proves especially significant in this context, for in her BFI companion to Jaws, Antonia Quirke suggests that sharks are "unanthropomorphisable" (6). So, the questions I want to address in the following are: Do players identify or even "become" the shark while playing Jaws Unleashed? And what meanings does the game communicate by putting players in control of a shark? In order to do so, I will first briefly introduce the video game and its mechanics, then discuss the animal avatar, and conclude my talk by elaborating on some of the ecological meanings the game communicates by allowing players to control the shark.

Introducing Jaws Unleashed

Jaws Unleashed was released for the PS2, the original Xbox, and Windows in 2006. The game's story is set 30 years after the original movie. Amity Island has become a growing economy. The resultant increased population and concomitant increased activity on the beaches and shores has once again attracted a great white to Amity's waters. The tutorial introduces players to the basic gameplay mechanics: Jaws can swim, use the tail to stun prey and opponents, bite, eat, and acquire fancy new skills in the course of the game, such as the ability to crash boats.

At the end of the tutorial, the shark is captured and incarcerated in a SeaWorld-type park reminiscent of the park in Jaws-3D. The mayor, true to the franchise, wants to display the shark to the visitors, allowing both the theme park and the island to generate revenue, while Michael Brody warns him that the display tank won't hold the shark. Of course, the shark escapes. Once it has made its way out of the oceanarium, the game becomes an open-world game featuring story missions and side quests. In the main story, the shark eventually kills the mayor, a shark hunter tasked to kill Jaws, and Michael Brody. In clear contrast to the movies, the shark is still alive when the narrative comes to a close. The side quests, on the other hand, consist of such funny tasks as killing lifeguards before they can return to the beach and throwing swimmers at buoys.

The brief sketches of the side quests may already indicate that Jaws Unleashed is the video game equivalent of a trash movie. While the game will seem rather tame from today's perspective (partly due to its antiquated visuals), it depicts violence in excessive detail—you can tear off swimmers' limbs and heads, eat them or let them bleed to death; in addition, the game features explosions galore, and its plot defies logic, for the shark is, for example, assumed to understand the connection between an ID card and the opening mechanism of a gate and shown to destroy an oil refinery. Both the game's narrative and its gameplay mechanics are simple, but Jaws Unleashed is a rather difficult game, which is in large part due to the atrocious controls and the related lack of responsiveness of the animal avatar. But causing havoc around Amity Island can also be surprisingly entertaining.

The Shark Avatar

Allow me to repeat a quotation I mentioned a few minutes ago: According to Miroslaw Filiciak, the avatar is "the user's representative in the virtual universe" (89). While this definition may work well enough for gaming magazines and other popular outlets, video game scholars have fine-tuned this conceptualization. For example, James Newman has suggested that the avatar serves to mediate the player's agency; players are not necessarily meant to identify with their avatars. As Newman put it:

[Avatars] are embodied as sets of available capabilities and capacities. They are equipment to be utilised in the gameworld by the player. They are vehicles. … [While playing,] Lara Croft is defined less by appearance than by the fact that "she" allows the player to jump distance x, while the ravine in front of us is larger than that, so we better start thinking of a new way round. (¶ 9)

Newman here focuses on the avatar as a piece of 'equipment to be utilized.' In the context of Jaws Unleashed, the tool metaphor proves significant, for it verges on mechanomorphism; that is, by conceiving of the simulated shark as a tool, the simulated animal is metaphorically transformed into a machine that is for the human to control. Interestingly, this notion echoes ideas expressed in the movie series. After all, both in the original film (1975) and in Jaws: The Revenge (1987), characters verbally construct the shark as a machine and nothing more.

When we return to and take a closer look at Newman's quotation, we may come to understand that his emphasis on the tool-like function of the avatar eclipses his implicit acknowledgment of the fact that the metaphor he employs cannot, in fact, quite explain the function of the avatar. There seems to be an underlying understanding in Newman's wording that the avatar functions both as a tool and a virtual embodiment of the player. In their seminal book Rules of Play, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman make this idea explicit, stressing that the avatar

is a persona through which a player exerts him or herself into an imaginary world; this relationship can be intense and emotionally 'immersive.' However, at the very same time, the character is a tool, a puppet, an object for the player to manipulate according to the rules of the game. In this sense, the player is fully aware of the character as an artificial construct. (453)

As Salen and Zimmerman indicate, there is a paradox at the heart of this understanding of the avatar: It assumes that the player simultaneously extends into the game space from the physical space outside it (the tool metaphor, that is) and comes to occupy the game space (the immersion metaphor). Drawing on Martin Heidegger via Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Rune Klevjer has thus suggested the avatar "offers a playful and exploratory mode of being-in-the-world" ("What" 96). The avatar, he argues, "becomes … part of the player's 'I can'" (i.e., the player's agency in the virtual world), while "[t]he player is … re-wired and re-directed … through the integrated prosthetic apparatus of controller and … avatar" ("Enter" 27–28). The avatar "extends the body-subject and the corresponding bodily space into screen space" and acts as a "replacement of our objective body" and thus makes possible a "temporary separation of subjective and objective body" ("Enter" 28). While playing, not only the player and the virtual environment interact, but, maybe more importantly, there is a constant interaction between player and avatar. As a result, Klevjer suggests, while playing, the player exists "as a composite of flesh and technology" and thus comes to "objectively exist[] within synthetic space" ("Enter" 34).

Interestingly enough, in her book When Species Meet (2008), Donna Haraway echoes these ideas when she argues that "those who are to be in the world are constituted in … interaction. … [S]pecies of all kinds, living and not, are consequent on a subject- and object-shaping dance of encounters," which is why "[t]o be one is always to become with many" (4). Haraway here draws on Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's notion of becoming-animal—a concept I'll return to in a couple of minutes.

Making Meaning

As indicated earlier, the great white shark starring in Jaws has been discussed from various perspectives. However, as David Ingram has remarked, although many academics have "produce[d] perceptive interpretations of the symbolic connotations of the [shark], they tend to displace critical attention away from the representation of the animal itself" (72). Following Ingram's call for "an environmentalist critique of the representation of wild animals" in popular culture (72), I am here interested in what meanings the shark avatar in Jaws Unleashed suggests in ecological terms.

It seems easy enough to read an environmentalist message into Jaws Unleashed. Indeed, one may even argue that the game text imposes an ecological reading on players who pay attention to the minimal (and largely irrelevant) plot. After all, at one point, Michael Brody stresses that certain "machines are having a dramatic effect on the local shark population. It's causing them to approach human settlements and to become increasingly more violent." The game's narrative thus makes explicit how mankind's interventions in natural systems can have negative effects on the ecosystem. Indeed, in such a reading, the great white shark controlled by players emerges as the agent enacting nature's revenge. From this perspective, Jaws Unleashed follows one of the more prominent generic scripts of animal horror—as the editors of Animal Horror Cinema (2015) note in their introduction to the volume:

An important tradition of animal horror cinema envisages a just and necessary animal revenge. Just as centuries of geographical and epistemic colonisation was disrupted by anticolonial struggle, decolonisation, and postcolonial theory, the exploitation of animals and their habitats is sometimes imagined by animal horror cinema as the real horror that forces animals to respond with disturbing violence. (10-11)

Typical of the sub-genre, the narrative thus centers on the conceptual divide between the human and the nonhuman, but opens up spaces in which the usually spatially separated humans and animals meet.

From a different perspective, John Berger (among others) has pointed out that the relationship between human and non-human animals is characterized by "a narrow abyss of non-comprehension" (13)—humans cannot truly understand animals or perceive the world through their eyes, and neither can animals truly understand humans or perceive the world through humans' eyes. Mike Brody's aforementioned explanation that certain "machines are causing [the sharks] to approach human settlements and to become more violent" exemplifies such a misunderstanding. While Brody's intervention on behalf of the sharks (and the other species living in Amity's waters) most definitely has the creatures' best interests in mind, his statement merely presents an anthropocentric point of view—a seemingly rational explanation, which, however, need not truly capture why the sharks' behavior has, in fact, changed. Somewhat counter-intuitively, the sharks thus become mere tools exploited by Brody in support of his environmentalist agenda, establishing an analogy to the shark avatar which, likewise, could be considered a mere tool the player exploits for different purposes.

However, as indicated earlier, the avatar-as-tool metaphor is flawed and ignores the different kinds of interactions between player and avatar. Adapting Colin Cremin's elucidations in his recent book Exploring Videogames with Deleuze and Guattari (2016), I would suggest that players enter "into an affective relation with the molar (representational) [shark] to produce a molecular [shark], through assemblages of different kinds and complexities, [swims, bites, and whips its tail] with various magnitudes of intensity (speed, [force]) that affect every aspect of play" (98). As a result, "[t]he lines separating […] digital and material worlds dissolve in the space of becoming" (98). However, crucially, while "[t]he human imposes her will on the […] avatar […], at the same time, […] the avatar indicates ways to proceed" and thus "to exceed […] what the [player] was, until then, capable of doing" (101). Although we are thus still presented with the notion of control, control is somewhat counteracted, for only through the assemblage of player and avatar does action become possible.

Deleuze and Guattari's approach implies a clearly anti-humanistic line of thinking which prioritizes desubjectivization—an approach which, some would say, always already entails ecological thinking. Becoming, Deleuze and Guattari note, is always "political affair" (Plateaus 292), as it implies a distancing from majoritarian power. Becoming-animal, in particular, "is to participate in movement" and "to cross a threshold" (Kafka 13)—a very appropriate description of the player–avatar relationship in a game such as Jaws Unleashed. Alain Beaulieu accordingly diagnoses that in "Deleuze and Guattari's Nature, fixed identifies give way to assemblages, alliances, passages and becomings between both beings and things" (73–74). Deleuze and Guattari here "articulate a virtually limitless connectivity between heterogeneous beings […]—a non-teleological and unpredictable network of symbiotic alliances, trans-species affiliations, symbiogenesis, and co-evolution" (Chisholm ¶2). Indeed, in Deleuze and Guattari's worldview, human beings ideally participate in nature; they are not separate from it.

It may seem somewhat anticlimactic—like the end with a whimper rather than a bang—but if Jaws Unleashed conveys an ecological message, it is through the connection between the player and the shark avatar rather than through its narrative. By breaking down the dividing lines between material and virtual reality, this connection invites players to ponder their relation with not only the simulated shark maneuvering through the digital world, but also the various interrelations between human and nonhuman animals, between the human world and 'nature.' The molar shark, to take up Haraway's idea, invites the player to participate in an inter-species dance. Whether the player, however, accepts the simulated shark's offer is, quite literally, in her hands.

Works Cited

Beaulieu, Alain. "The Status of Animality in Deleuze's Thought." Journal of Critical Animal Studies 9.1/2 (2011): 69–88.
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Caputi, Jane. Goddesses and Monsters: Women, Myth, Power, and Popular Culture. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 2004.
Chisholm, Dianne. "Rhizome, Ecology, Geophilosophy (A Map to this Issue)." Rhizomes 15 (2007): n. pag.
Cremin, Colin. Exploring Videogames with Deleuze and Guattari: Towards an Affective Theory of Form. Abingdon: Routledge, 2016.
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