American Studies
Film Studies
Television Studies
Media Studies
Game Studies

Playing (with) America: Video Games, Performance, and the American Imaginary

America is, to draw on Jean Baudrillard's travelogue (of sorts) Amérique, a fiction. Yet, as the French intellectual is quick to point out, "[F]iction is not imagination. It is what anticipates imagination by giving it the form of reality" (1988: 95). In this way, "The American way of life is spontaneously fictional, since it is a transcending of the imaginary in reality" (1988: 25). Invented during the journey across the Atlantic (if not earlier), founded during the signing of the Declaration of Independence, tested during the Cold War, emblem of free trade, symbol of First World dominance, bringer of freedom, threat to sovereignty, 'America' may not necessarily be what we want it to be, but it is defined by contradictions, as none other than Walt Whitman noted more than 150 years ago.

Yet despite these contradictions, America is simultaneously founded on a number of unifying "principles" and "ideas," as J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur understood even before the nation called 'United States of America' came into existence. These principles and ideas have since been parlayed across the world through tales (consider movies sporting such telling titles as Independence Day and The Pursuit of Happiness) and (mediated) performances (think of the Super Bowl and its pre-game and half-time performances, or the numerous Thanksgiving episodes in various TV shows).

Admittedly, none of this is new. Indeed, some of these ideas were foundational to the discipline of American Studies. However, my project seeks to add a distinctly 21st-century perspective to these discourses by focusing on the representation and performance of America in video games. While scholars have primarily discussed the representation of America in first-person shooters, my project seeks to cast a wider web by not only investigating games from different genres and produced in different countries (Canada, Germany, and Japan, in addition to the U.S.), but also by adding the dimension of performance to the question of representation. Video games, I will show, allow players to perform and, thus, (virtually) experience America. Whereas this sometimes means following predetermined paths that unquestionably celebrate America, other games force players to perform clearly anti- (or, rather, counter-)American actions, and still other examples are more open and allow players to make their choices in defining America. In either case, though, any repetition of what Susanne Hamscha has referred to as "foundational scenarios of Americanness" (2013), no matter how critical they may seem to be, help cement specific images of America and thus perpetuate American ideas across the world. And it is important to bear in mind that it is "on this fictive basis," as Baudrillard notes in Amérique, that America "dominates the world" (1988: 29).