Transgressive vs. subversive

"Hot Coffee Mod" (Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (Rockstar 2004)) and warthog jumping (Halo (Bungie 2001))
“Hot Coffee Mod” (Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (Rockstar 2004)) and warthog jumping (Halo (Bungie 2001))

When we started planning this project, we were debating the terminology that best describes the kind of content that we were interested in. Working with the anthology The Dark Side of Game Play: Controversial Issues in Playful Environments, the editors wanted the book to focus on games that allow players to play with behavior that would be considered offensive, illegal or amoral outside the game context. Opening the perspective to also include games that present the player with ethical and moral dilemmas, as well as the debates and controversies such games, the anthology became a collection of papers about the content of, and the activity of playing such games.

While we didn’t use the term transgressive to describe the content of the anthology, we could very well have done so. However, the anthology does not only concern transgressive content, but also certain kinds of subversive gameplay. I want to discuss the difference between the two in this blog post.

Aarseth on transgressive play
In connection with games, transgressive and subversive are two terms that often have been used interchangeably. In 2007 Espen Aarseth used the term transgressive play to indicate play that goes against that of the “implied” or idea player envisioned by the game designer. This is a kind of play where players are breaking the rules of the game, utilizing bugs and exploits, and in other ways using a playstyle that wasn’t intended in the first place. For Aarseth, transgressive play is possible because

“Games are machines that sometimes allow their players to do unexpected things, often just because these actions are not explicitly forbidden. In other words, they are not part of the game’s intended repertoire, and would in most cases have been rendered impossible if the game designers could have predicted them” (Aarseth 2007).

This understanding is quite different from what we are talking about when talking about transgressive in the GTA project. When something is truly experienced as transgressive, the way I see it, it is not only representing a norm-breaking action or event, but is also experienced as uncomfortable and unpleasant. If it is not experienced as uncomfortable or unpleasant for the player, it is not really transgressive.

We could argue that this illustrates that there is a difference between transgressive content and transgressive play. However, I believe that this illustrates a difference between subversive and transgressive.

Is it transgressive or is it subversive?
It is important to differentiate between what is socially norm-breaking and for that reason experienced as uncomfortable, and what is breaking the rules of play. Differentiating between transgressive and subversive is helpful here. While the transgressive tends to be related to something that is experienced as uncomfortable because it crosses ethical, emotional, cultural or social boundaries, the subversive is defined as

“Tending or intending to subvert or overthrow, destroy, or undermine an established or existing system, especially a legally constituted government or a set of beliefs” (Dictionary.com 2015)

The subversive concerns the rejection or undermining of an established system, and is for this reason a term that describes well the act of exploiting or breaking the rules of a game. Aarseth’s example of warthog jumping in Halo is clearly an example of this, rather than an example of something that makes us uncomfortable because it crosses ethical, emotional, or social boundaries.

Subversive play in Daggerfall
There are examples that are more ambiguous. Breaking into the shop at night and stealing all the merchants’ goods, just to sell it all back to the same merchant in the morning in The Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall is an example of subversive gameplay: It is possible to do, but the absurdity connected to the fact that the merchant doesn’t recognize his own goods indicates that this was not intended by the design. Since the player is breaking in and robbing someone, it oversteps legal and possibly moral boundaries. But most players would probably not feel that this action is transgressive in that particular gameplay context. The offense is committed towards a character whose main function in the game is to sell the player gear – and who doesn’t even remember ever having been in possession of the stolen items. Also, stealing is a relatively minor offense – not least compared to the amount of killing that the player does in the game.

The case of Grand Theft Auto
Another example: The possibility in some Grand Theft Auto games to pay a prostitute for her services and then kill her to get the money back in the next may be seen as an example of subversive gameplay: Although the game engine makes it possible to do so, it is not part of the story of the game and does not reward the player with the exception of the money dropped from the dead body.

However, doing so may very well be understood as transgressive gameplay: To pay someone for their services and then turning to violence to get the money back definitely oversteps moral and legal boundaries. But whether or not such an action feels transgressive for the player in that particular gameplay situation is a different question. Although many may find that killing and robbing a prostitute is crossing a line of what is appropriate in a game, it may not feel as a transgression in the gameplay context. The sandbox genre that the game belongs to invites exploration the environment and testing its limits its part of the gameplay. Players may choose to focus on this aspect, ignoring the thematic transgression for the sake of exploring the behavior of the game. Other players may however look at the relationship between theme and gameplay differently and as a consequence find this offensive. Others again may find that the transgression intriguing because it makes them uncomfortable and they start reflecting over different interpretations that help them understand why they feel the way they do.

Connecting the subversive with the transgressive
These examples show that games may have content that indeed are representing something controversial, but which may not be experienced as transgressive in the gameplay situation. For some, certain transgressions may also be enriching for the gameplay experience.

Of course, as the Dark Side of Game Play anthology demonstrates, the concepts transgressive and subversive are related, and it is relevant to explore them both – and the relationship between them – in the GTA project. In that context a relevant question arises: Is there a difference between games that intentionally creates transgressive experiences; and games where transgressive experiences arise from emergent events? Are there examples of games that unintentionally create transgressive experiences for certain players?

About Kristine Jørgensen

Professor in Media Studies at the Department of Information Science and Media Studies, University of Bergen. Project manager and principal investigator of the Games and Transgressive Aesthetics project.

2 Replies to “Transgressive vs. subversive”

  1. Well, words tend to have more than one legitimate meaning and definition, Kristine. To make a distinction between transgressive and subversive might seem like a good idea, IF you can make it stick. But, looking at how these words are used, there is no clear-cut difference, and these are not phenomena, but labels, quite often used interchangeably for the same phenomenon, perhaps for different effect. Was Boklöv, the revolutionary ski-jumping Swede, subversive or transgressive, or merely creative? Probably all three. It depends on who you ask. For some of his critics, his method was “a shame”.

    At a conference in Finland, a long time ago, after I presented the warthog-jump video as an example of player creativity, an audience member approached me and expressed dislike and concern regarding my poor choice of showing it, since it reminded her of a recent bombing at a mall. To me, that same video was a source of delight and amazement.

    The word transgression literally means stepping across. To insist on a specific emotional effect in order to define a specific type of act seems, to me at least, overly deterministic and conflating. One player’s unpleasantry is another player’s fun. This is the ambiguity of play, to follow Sutton-Smith. In my examples from the 2007 paper I don’t disregard the unpleasant, but include it, along with creativity and subversion, in a larger category that I (not only use, but) define as transgressive play.

    I suppose the real problem is, are we discussing transgressive acts, or a type of emotions they in some cases may entail? If it is the latter, can transgressive play exist in itself, and function as an analytic category?

  2. Thanks, Espen, for your comment! I’m glad I was able to provoke by narrowing the understanding of transgression.

    I agree that the using transgression to refer only to unpleasant experiences is very narrow, and in many cases too narrow. I don’t argue that this is the way the term always should be used, or that this is the only understanding we will embrace in the GTA project.

    There are, however, three reasons for this use of transgressive in this post: The first was a first stab at discussing different interpretations and understandings of the term transgression itself. Another reason was that it worked well as a way to distinguish two ways of breaking the rules, or stepping out of the border. Which takes me to the last reason: The kind of transgressions that creates certain unpleasant experiences is of particular interest in the GTA project. Although some may disagree on the delimitation of the concept transgression, I believe that this way of using the two concepts as tools enabled my to communicate this point.

    Of course, events that create this kind of experiences or emotions in the player are rare in games. And as one of the hypotheses of the projects points to, the play situation may often lead the player to re-negotiate the situation or event so that it is not experienced as controversial or transgressive when they’re playing. Also, there are individual interpretations. We will probably look at a range of different kinds of experiences and kinds of transgressions in the project and will probably find that there are a range of opinions of what is, and should be, considered boundary-crossing, controversial, or unpleasant in games.

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