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Matteo Bittanti

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The Technoludic Film: Images of Video Games in Movies (1973 - 2001) - Matteo Bittanti

A thesis presented to the Faculty of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications San Jose State University by Matteo Bittanti in December, 2001

Excerpt sourced for research purposes at http://www.gamasutra.com/education/theses/20020501/chapter4.doc [May 2004]

This thesis argues that the technoludic film could be interpreted as a progression of what Sobchack (1987) defined the “post futurist science fiction movie,” (p. 220) that is, the last step in the evolution of the science fiction cinema. Like most, if not all science fiction movies, the technoludic film subsumes and grapples with the fascination and fears brought on by rapid technological changes. And like the “post futurist science fiction movie,” it exemplifies many of the postmodernist preoccupations. But it differs from its predecessor in its concerns for specific technology, i.e., video games. Technoludic is used as an umbrella term for a variety of films that incorporate video games into their narratives. This neologism combines two different words: technology and ludus, a Latin word for play. Technoludism refers to the technology of play (Bittanti, 1999).

The technoludic movie is cinema’s interface to video games, as the two are becoming more and more interconnected. As Bell and Kennedy (2000) suggested, “from the virtual reality experiences of The Lawnmower Man to the technobody horror of Videodrome, from Hackers playing war games, to the biotechno matrix of the Borg in Star Trek: The First Contact, the images pouring out from our (filmic) screen are fed back through our (computer) screens in a loop which ultimately blends ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’, ‘reality’ and ‘fantasy’ to create our sense of cyberculture” (p. 3).

The emergence of electronic entertainment has been accompanied with a multi-layered film commentary that consists of more than 50 movies from 1973 to 2001. Surprisingly, most of these movies have received just a cursory critical attention. Very few are blockbusters. However, or maybe just because of their marginal status, they are representative of important contemporary debate about the social importance of crucial concerns such as technology, alienation, and identity. And some of these films, Tron, for example, have acquired an underground cult status. This thesis argues that, although the technoludic film as a film genre is still in an embryonic stage, its main features (themes, conventions, and iconography) are already recognizable.

The modes, meanings, and implications of the video games’ incorporation into film vary significantly. As summarized in Table 1, the analysis of selected films resulted in the identification of four major modes of inclusion: commentary, quotation, adaptation, and remediation.


Although films are products of particular industrial and commercial frameworks, they also function as cultural barometers. The technoludic movie is, first and foremost, a text that reflects society's attitudes towards video games. It presents, in a fictionalized, narrative manner, the merits and demerits of video games, and implicitly or explicitly evaluates or devaluates their significance. The cinematic commentary on video games ranges from a bland criticism to explicit attacks and condemnations. There are a few positive depictions as well, although their number is significantly smaller. To use Genette’s terminology, the technoludic commentary functions as a metatext, that is, it expresses a “critical relationship between one text and another, whether the commented text is explicitly cited or silently evoked” (Stam, Burgoyne, & Flitterman-Lewis, 1992, p. 208).

This category comprises films that explicitly use the electronic gaming metaphor as the main focus of their narrative. These texts are part of a critical discourse on techno-culture in general, but video games in particular. To use Genette’s terminology, the technoludic film as a commentary is a metatext that provides a critical commentary on video game culture and technology. Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999), for instance, represents an emblematic example of how a cinema can engage a complex dialogue with video games. A chronological list includes: Tron (1982), Joysticks (1983), Nightmares (1983), Cloak and Dagger (1984), The Last Starfighter (1984), Hollywood Zap (1987), Toys (1993), Brainscan (1994), Virtual Combat (1994), Arcade (1994), Evolver (1995), The Wizard (1989), The Lawnmower Man (1991), Carver's Gate (1994), Nirvana (1997), Tokyo Eyes (1999), eXistenZ (1999), and Avalon (2001).

Quotation [...]

The verb “to quote” derives from Medieval Latin quotare, that is, “to mark the number of, number references.” In its transitive sense, to quote denotes the act of speaking or writing “a passage from another usually with credit acknowledgment” and “to repeat a passage from especially in substantiation or illustration” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 1997). It also means: “to cite in illustration.”

This mode of inclusion is comparable to Genette’s intertextual relation, which he defined as the effective co-presence of two texts in the form of quotation, plagiarism, and allusion. Stam, Burgoyne, and Flitterman-Lewis (1992) defined intertextuality as: “a verbal or visual evocation of another film, hopefully as an expressive means of commenting on the fictional world of the alluding film” (p. 206).

This category includes films that display video games in one or more scenes for allusive or illustrative purposes. Among the cited texts are: Soylent Green (1973), Beneath the Valley of Ultravixens (1979), Blade Runner (1982), Android (1982), Brother from Another Planet (1984), Superman 3 (1983), D.A.R.Y.L. (1985), Clockers (1997), Titus (2000), The Beach (2000), and Center of the World (2001).

Adaptation [...]

Originally from the Latin verb adaptare, “to adapt,” means “to make fit (as for a specific or new use or situation) often by modification” (Marriam-Webster Dictionary, 1997). This process “implies a modification according to changing circumstances” but also a “reconciliation” that demonstrates “the underlying compatibility of things that seem to be incompatible.”

This mode of incorporation is analogous to Genette’s (1997) notion of hypertextuality, i.e., the relation between a text and an anterior hypotext, a text or genre on which it is based and, simultaneously, transforms, modifies, elaborates or subverts. Here, the filmic adaptation of a video game is interpreted as a “hypotext’s being transformed by a complex series of operations: selection, amplification, concretization, actualization, critique, extrapolation, analogization, popularization, and reculturalization” (Stam, 2000, p. 68).

As novels, comic books, and plays, video games have been translated into movies for quite some time. The practice became commonplace in the 1990s. The first adaptation, Super Mario Bros (1993), was followed by Double Dragon (1993), Street Fighter: The Movie (1993), Mortal Kombat (1994), Mortal Kombat II: Annihilation (1995), Wing Commander (1999), Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001). Currently, 11 new game-based film projects are in different stages of production. The increasing popularity of video games adaptations makes this examination particularly timely. -- --The Technoludic Film: Images of Video Games in Movies (1973 - 2001) - Matteo Bittanti

Remediation [...]

As noted in the Conceptual Overview section in Chapter 2, the notion of remediation (Bolter & Grusin, 1999) accounts for the means of repurposing narrative techniques and modes of representation from historical forms of media and also co-evolving with the existing ones. By experimenting with familiar conventions from other media such as the video game, film has produced new formulas of narrative discourse and modes of representation. Thus, this third category includes movies that embody into their narratives and/or style some of the conventions of video game language. This happens with films like Groundhog Day (1993), Run Lola Run (1998), Being John Malkovich (1999), Dark City (1998), The Matrix (1999), Toy Story (1995), and Toy Story 2 (2000).

The dialectic is a dynamic process in which one proposition, the film, is matched against another, the video game, to bring a third, combinatory proposition into being. In this relationship, the function and importance of the two propositions—film and video games—vary significantly.

In both the technoludic film as a commentary and as quotation, the source text, that is, the video game, is subordinated to the film. In fact, film operates as a discourse on video games and makes full use of its language to critique the other medium.

In the technoludic film as remediation and as adaptation, on the contrary, the film-text is subordinated to the video game text. In the former, film borrows video games visual style and narrative strategy. In the latter, it works as a spin-off of an already established franchise. In both cases, the film’s language and content depend on the secondary text, e.g., the video game.

--http://www.gamasutra.com/education/theses/20020501/chapter4.doc [May 2004]

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