Consumerism and Cultural Tourism in the Monkey Island games.

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The Monkey Island games represent both an example of and a defence against the homogenisation of all the world's cultures into a Western, corporate utopia. Computer games have become big business, "People in the UK now spend more money on computer games than on renting videos or going to the cinema" according to the BBC. The new economics of the gaming industry makes it obvious why companies are willing to invest in it, as "top games cost between £1.5M and £3M to produce, with films upwards of £20M". The aim of this essay is to explore the complex relationships that exist between Monkey Island, Postmodernism, Cultural Materialism, Roland Barthes' concept of the Death of the Author and the twin phenomenon's of corporate capitalism and globalisation. I shall attempt to resolve the antagonisms that exist by analyzing the Monkey Island texts using the tools of Postmodernism and Cultural Materialism and suggesting where the strengths of one theory can be used to balance out the weaknesses of the other. This essay does not intend to delve deeply into the technical side of making a computer game.

Postmodernism is defined by Lyotard as the death of "universal legislation", the monolithic truth-centred narratives that inevitably lead to "terror in the name of freedom" and their replacement by "a multiplicity" of smaller narratives. Cultural Materialism takes a different view. According to Scott Wilson, the theory's political commitment is "to seek to transform society for the good". Like Marxism, it is concerned with attacking the dominance of conservative ideology, but the difference lies in the fact that "it no longer privileges class in its politics of difference." Gender, race and sexuality are no longer superstructural by-products of the economic structure of society but are relevant discourses of inclusively.

The Death of the Author is a useful concept for postmodern critics who wish to close the gap between high and low culture as it destroys the Romantic notion of the individual genius creating a work of transcendent value and replaces it with a multiplicity of signs and meanings. As the texts I am concerned with were produced by a company rather than an individual it might be expected that this is not a problem anyway, but we could still judge the work according to traditional notions of ‘intention' and 'meaning' just as we could for a play that has been devised by a particular theatre company. Monkey Island can be said to be very much a part of the institution of corporate capitalism as it is made by LucasArts™, a division of Lucasfilm™ owned and run by George Lucas, who recently admitted in Time magazine that "There's only one issue for a filmmaker..Will this one make its money back so I can make the next one?" If business interests are seen as a vital part of the creative process at Lucasfilm™ then it is probably safe to assume the same for LucasArts™. Indeed, as the main character Guybrush says "LucasArts™ have their grubby hands into everything" a deprecating self-reference that turns the issue into humour and thereby defuses it.

The form of Monkey Island has consequences for theories that involve the relationship between the reader and the author. Being a computer game, the reader/player directs the action themselves, and chooses how to shape the conversations from several different options. The action revolves around solving often-bizarre puzzles in order to advance the narrative plot, which invariably involves striving to foil the machinations of the evil demon pirate LeChuck. These puzzles could be related to a Postmodern multiplicity of mininarratives, as most of the time spent playing the games are concerned with them rather than the overall plot, the Voodoo Lady foreshadows this when she tells Guybrush that his "journey will have many parts". Thus the reader/player has an unusual amount of interactive ability with the text, an ability that coincides with Lyotard's prescription that "..a reader is an addressee of written messages. A reader who starts to talk is something else." Lyotard wishes to do away with the passive "addressee" because texts written towards such an audience presuppose a universal subject who is invariably a white, middle-class male, thus excluding any who are Other to this category. So the text's interactivity allows for those who have previously been excluded to be included. Admittedly Guybrush is an American middle-class male, but there is no need for the person controlling him to be so, just as young men have no problem controlling Tomb Raider's Lara Croft (just the opposite in fact). The game often pays homage to its interactivity, Guybrush talks directly to the player when he says that he does not ordinarily like torturing strangers, "present company accepted of course." The theme for this direct address is a running joke on the quality of the game, for example after completing his sword training at Captain Smirk's Guybrush says to the player "I can't help but feel like I've been ripped off. I'm sure you're feeling something similar". We have passed from the reader having power of interpretation over a text to their direct control over its content and direction. Thus "the pole of the addressee" has replaced the "pole of the author".

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moo March 02. 2005

hehe a talking monkey...
but seriously good article but sadly no references (could u post them pls!)

nerdyacademic August 18. 2002

Well i wanted feedback, looks like i got it. Thanks to those who had the patience to read it, i realise this isn't the sort of thing that is generally posted here. Seems like some liked it and some didn't, which is kind of what i expected. Maybe i have a "rudimentary grasp" of Postmodernism (Andi Wan) but i certainly wouldn't criticise someone for that without stating how i know better. I can't agree that the Monkey Island series is simply an "American consumer product" (iisaac) as firstly i have played the games but am not an American consumer. The games have worldwide reach, reflected by the fact that they are sold internationally. American cultural products, like American politics, have international influence and should pay more attention to this fact. Especially when they are set beyond the unreal bubble that is the United States. Im afraid that one day, when America is no longer the world's dominant power, this will make more sense than it does now. Oh, i got a first, thank you very much.

Jojo Sr July 31. 2002

I read the title...that was about it really.

Digital-Holocaust July 12. 2002

Brilliant thoughts there, Owen. I really enjoyed reading it. When I played the 4 MI games I felt basically the same way, Consumption of products and cultural materialism will always thrive because people are dumb enough to fall for it. If they don't want to be part of the in-crowd (or are actually not dumb enough to fall for marketing policies.) Then they will be forced to buy by making products more expensive, especially when the buyer's favourite interests are concerned. Problem is, everything's for sale. It is an unstoppable beast. ;\

Seepgood June 30. 2002

Wow. Great article. It's interesting to have stuff like this applied to modern entertainment. It was fun to read and brought out a lot of good points while still treating the game with respect as you've obviously played and enjoyed them thuroughly. I'm curious what you got on this paper?

Too bad you couldn't continue this discussion with Herman Toothrot.

Ben_Whatsisname June 30. 2002

Very nice and insightful read. :) Also kinda reminds me of the scene in "Chasing Amy" where Willam tells Holden that his comic book characters are like "Bill and Ted meet Cheech and Chong" and Holden counters with a more philisophical comparison. It is nice to be able to get subliminal learning into a fun series like these. Makes you think without feeling like you're thinking. That's why my LEC adventures collection are going to be on my daughter's computer right along with the "traditional" learning titles.

scabb- June 28. 2002

Fancy words make letters from the start of the alphabet magically appear on the piece of tree that you accidentally spilled your fancy words on.

ZeroXcape June 20. 2002

This is really long... I'll have to remember to read it later. Nice title though, wonder if the teacher got it.

mxbx June 19. 2002

And what mention of postmodernism would be complete w/out Roland Barthes?

marek@adventuregamer June 19. 2002

No. Postmodernism is that it's made out of people.

Right?

MrManager June 19. 2002

I always thought it had something to do with a modern post system. What? What?

marek@adventuregamer June 19. 2002

Yeah, if only half of them knew what postmodernism really is... -_-

lowman June 19. 2002

Arrr... and I thought it just be a Piratey Adventure

sheesh June 19. 2002

This is probably the time Monkey Island and Shakespeare start to coalesce: versatile confabulation that can be interpreted in any way imaginable is used by academics to make a point..

Geez, I even remember someone who made his theses on "The similitude of Elvis and Shakespeare". No matter how _stupid_ this sounds, he got his degree!

Evil.Murray June 18. 2002

Hmmm...and what exactly is this guy studying to be?

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