Video Game Spaces: Super Dodge Ball (1989)

This is part of a series of posts exploring video games as spaces players inhabit. If you’re wondering what this is all about, I tried to explain myself here.

Cosmopolitan Liberty: Dodgeball Nationalism

“Any text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another.” — Julia Kristeva, “Word, Dialogue and Novel”

Super Dodge Ball is an NES game in which the player takes control of an American dodgeball team and competes against other national teams on a journey around the world.* There is an English team–replace New York and the Statue of Liberty in the screenshot with London and the Tower Bridge–an Indian team, an Icelandic team, a Kenyan team, Team Japan, and, finally, a boss battle with Team USSR. You should watch the playthrough here if you want to see the game in action. Nintendo thought highly enough of the game to include it with the NES games on Nintendo Switch Online, which is where the screenshot comes from.

Odds are, if you played this game in 1989, you were familiar with Rocky IV, which debuted in 1985, and Top Gun, which came out a couple years later. You might have watched the 1988 Olympics, which were relatively drama-free following the political scrimmages surrounding the 1980 and 1984 games, but still drew huge audiences to a spectacle of nationalist competition. Maybe, inspired by the World Cup in 1990, you pulled the game down from the shelf to play through it again. That is something I would have done, substituting dodgeball for soccer to reenact the thrill of the television event. Maybe the looming Kremlin in the game’s final showdown flashed across your mind when the Berlin Wall came down and the USSR along with it. Super Dodge Ball probably sat on your shelf when the United States invaded Iraq for the first time in 1991.

Rocky IV, Top Gun, the Olympics, the World Cup, Super Dodge Ball (and other games like it), the fall of the Soviet Union, Operation Desert Storm. These things appear disconnected, but they were woven together in an intricate pattern, disparate phenomena contributing to a noumenon of nationalist triumph in the eye of the American beholder.

Super Dodge Ball USA vs ICELAND - YouTube
Is this the moon? No, just Iceland. Screenshot from Youtube.

Set against world-historical events like wars and political collapse, cultural products like films and video games seem to speak with an infinitesimally small voice in the historical record. We should reconsider this point of view. Because these events take place out there in real time and space, the vast majority of people experience them passively. Movies, games, recorded music, and other cultural products occupy personal time and space. We experience them actively and use them to think through events.

For most Americans, the Soviet Union collapsed on the news. Americans who played Super Dodge Ball contributed to this collapse in their minds when they played the game. Along the way, they internalized certain ideas about difference, about strength, agility, and development. Many of these ideas were expressed spatially. Players have inhabited these spaces for more than thirty years.

* I’m describing the American version, of course.

Magical Spaces

Across the driveway opposite my bedroom window there is a little field. The little field is more of a yard than a field. It is less than a hundred feet wide, maybe two hundred feet long. It drops a few feet down from the entrance driveway and parking lot, like a little emerald bowl carved out of the earth to compensate for the concrete piled up next to it. Still, the field rises above the busy road on the other side. It is an engineered space.

It is also, I have found, a magical space.

The little field is shaded almost completely by stately pine trees emerging from the bowl. I like to take my dog, Penny, over there for walks. She finds little things in the grass to chase and smell. Sometimes she is overwhelmed by some aroma there, driven to flop over and roll around, covering herself in its wonder. There are patches of grass she enjoys eating. I call this “salad time” and we do it almost every day.

At the back side of the field, right up against the fence separating us from the high school next door, there is a tree unlike the others. Where the pines tower, telegraphing their power to absorb the sun’s energy by shading the ground far below, this tree huddles. Its branches swirl and cascade, creating a sort of greencast temple underneath the spreading boughs. I like to pause there on our walks and bask in this little space. This tree, a mulberry in a pine field, is the wellspring of the field’s magic.

There is magic everywhere you go. I don’t mean abracadabra magic, rabbits from hats, wand-waving, magical beasts. I mean magic as an expression of the mysterious power that certain spaces can exercise over us. You know it when you see it. We are drawn to these spaces. Perhaps it is an echo of the space’s past. Our neighborhood used to be a dairy, for example, and the little field calls out to this past in stark contrast with the lumber, concrete, and steel of the parking lots and buildings surrounding it. Or perhaps the magical space is a zone of quiet in an otherwise hectic environment. It could be a nook, a void, a hiding place, a lively spot in a drab surround. It could be anything, but it must be powerful to pull us so.

As often as not, the magic that a space works on us has as much to do with what’s happening in our own minds while we’re there as it does with the power the space possesses of itself. Behind my workplace, for example, there was once a little picnic area cleared out of the squat hardwood margin between the interstate and the parking lot. They ruined it some time ago by dropping a big wooden gazebo back there, but it was a nice place for awhile to read a book and eat a sandwich while the cars and trucks roared by on the other side of trees. This was a magical space for me, but now that it is gone the magic persists in my memory as an enchantment of time and place rather than harmonic space. It was magical because I lived with significant feelings there.

I started my job at the end of my graduate coursework. It was a time when most of my colleagues began turning their attention from seminars to teaching and conferences in preparation for the workforce. I will spare you the “quit lit” picaresque–which is an insufferably self-absorbed genre that exists out there on the wild internet–but in order to explain the magic of the lunch clearing I need to explain that I felt like there wasn’t much future in academia. Living here was as good as living anywhere else, I thought, and if I got a job instead of starting to teach I would still be free to write and do all of the big thinking that I went to grad school to do in the first place. But it still felt like giving up on the dream. I remember making my way to the clearing some time in my second week on the job and thinking, this isn’t so bad. I remember the autumn afternoon, watching the long shadows playing across the building through the trees while completely re-imagining who I was and who I could be. Sitting at one of the picnic tables there I got a text message from my friend which read, “Is it soul-crushing?”

“No, actually,” I replied, “it’s not bad at all.”

I would return to the clearing again and again, day after day. I read books there: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was one. I wrote there: poetry, essays, emails. I wrote about a Water Oak tree living next to the bench where I sat to read and think. I wrote an ode to my wife sitting beneath the tree’s branches. Occupying this magical space helped me escape the workday. It charged my creativity and gave me peace. It helped me adapt to a period of profound change.

Think of a magical space like a power-up in a video game. Being there may recharge your batteries or allow you to focus. It may give you a moment of peace or an hour. What it is and what it means will vary as widely as the people who occupy the space and the feelings shaping their experience from moment to moment. On this blog I intend to share examples. Perhaps, by doing so, I can better explain myself.

(Virtual) London: People and Places

Photos from a single day in London in the game Watch Dogs: Legion. These people and spaces exist on a virtual machine within a Google server.

This photo essay is part of an ongoing exploration of video game spaces on this blog. This is only the second post. I explain what I’m trying to do here. If you like this, maybe you’ll like the rest of the series as it develops.

Video Game Spaces: Arkhangelsk Facility

You enter the facility through an abnormally large air vent in the bathroom. The vent hangs open over an empty bathroom stall. You can see, in the next stall over, a young soldier in a garishly green uniform. You take aim at his head, probably not thinking about his neatly pressed garrison hat at all as you peer over the sights of your silenced handgun. You fire a single shot, killing the young man instantly. You drop—silently, ever so–into the stall below, careful not to slip on the toilet looming beneath the vent. You kick open the door, gun poised, and fire two more mercifully silent bullets tsk tsk into the body of another soldier regarding his reflection in the mirror. If you are skilled, he is dead before he even realizes you’ve entered the room. His body slowly disintegrates until nothing remains. One more soldier cowers in a stall across the room. You kick open the door, gun blazing, and he is gone.

Now the bathroom is yours. You’re free to take in the surroundings.

The ceiling and walls are an unassuming gunmetal gray—a dark, damp concrete poured, no doubt, with a careful eye on the ledger book instead of the architect’s vision board. An economical white tile begins at eye-level, continuing onto the floor beneath your feet. A large service column divides the room into moieties, like restrooms you’ve seen in a truck stop or rest area. There are sinks set into the outer walls. They are bare-bones fixtures; stainless steel, no flourishes to arrest the eye or introduce a measure of warmth to the fluorescent cold. Opposite the sinks there are urinals bolted in the recessed wall of the service column. Perhaps an elevator or chimney shares the column with the plumbing. Perhaps if you waited long enough you would hear the inner workings of the facility behind these spartan walls. Unlike the soldiers guarding this facility—two of whom will never live, laugh, or love again—you won’t be spending a great deal of time in this restroom. You are merely passing through.

You are not an assassin or spy. Perhaps you are a student, in fact. You could be a cashier, a mechanic, maybe a teacher. But for a few nights a week, especially if you were alive around the year 1998, you may have spent a lot of time here or somewhere nearby. This is the opening scene in a level of the classic first-person shooter video game GoldenEye. The rest of the level, like the rest of the game, is full of similarly constructed spaces: offices, archives, corridors, laboratories, guard towers, missile silos, control rooms, closets, warehouses, a naval vessel, even a radio telescope. More than anything else, in fact, GoldenEye is characterized by space–by hundreds of spaces, each designed with care and constructed from raw materials and assembled through a combination of logic and skill. The facility in GoldenEye is a building. Its designers were architects.

If architecture is a way of shaping the human experience by shaping the spaces in which it unfolds, we must include video games in this category. We spend so much time there. My first exposure to a personal computer unfolded in the corridors of the Castle Wolfenstein nearly thirty years ago. I remember spending hours exploring the dungeons, hallways, banquet rooms, guard rooms, on and on, spellbound by the castle’s winding corridors, by its secrets. I’ve been back many times.

I still feel that sense of immersion and awe I experienced as a child. I’ve passed more time in the world of Wolfenstein and GoldenEye than the lavish spaces of the colleges and universities I’ve attended. I remember the facility bathroom in GoldenEye better than the restrooms at my middle school. If those schools are works of architecture, so is the facility.

GoldenEye is designed as a series of spaces through which the player navigates, but all video games—even card games, board games, and puzzles—are primarily spatial. They draw us into the action unfolding on the screen, compelling us through the strength of their design to withdraw from the space in which the screen is situated. Unlike television or movies, however, they invite us to interact with that space, to inhabit it and make changes.

Unlike movies or television, then, we should criticize and praise video games, perhaps glory in them, just as we would a work of architecture. We live in these spaces. We socialize there. If we view Zoom, Teams, and similar software as gamified work platforms, we work and go to class in these virtual spaces as well. As more of our life moves from physical to virtual spaces, the architectural aspect of video games—their ability to shape how we feel about ourselves and how we interpret the world—is more significant than it has ever been. It is worth exploring some of the many electronic spaces we inhabit in more detail.

Similar to other recurring features I’ve been launching lately, I will explore these virtual spaces on the pages of this blog by posting screenshots and recordings from the games I play along with personal or critical essays. Hopefully I’ll hear from you along the way! Feel free to comment below. I welcome thoughts and suggestions for spaces to explore.