“Quiet, you”: Computer Games, Silence, and the Anti-Aliasing of Expression
The devil’s bargain I made with myself when I wrote about noise in “Handle With Care: Computer Games, Noise, and the Fragility of Play” is that I would write a companion post about silence. It seemed only fitting at the time given the intrinsic binarism of the computer game medium. Games–and, in fact, all digital media–are built on a logic of opposites, on the flow and cessation of electrical current and their representation as ones and zeros, on and off, true and false. In keeping with this logic, I thought, surely there is a quiescent counterpoint to games’ incessant noise, and the post on silence would be immediately forthcoming and practically write itself. If only things were so tidy.
For starters, I got sidetracked thinking about the role of computer game study in the humanities writ large. Then there was the purchase and (ahem) intensive product testing of a new pair of gaming headphones so as to be able to hear with unrivaled precision games’ silence. Finally, there was the fun if ultimately unconvincing conference presentation I saw about the lack of sound in the Zelda series (I say unconvincing because the supportive clips, while certainly sonically spare by many games’ standards, were still loaded with ambient and non-diegetic sounds, making me wonder if games could in fact ever shut up).
The real spanner in the works, though, has been my slow-witted realization that game silence is actually silences–there are all sorts of quiet moments in games, from the abeyance of play in an inter-level break to the stasis of memory registers awaiting incoming data to the constant and ineluctable suppression of electricity in the communication between game hardware, software, and operating system. In addition, these silences are often relative in the flurry of overt, covert, and background noises games produce. It can be hard to hear and differentiate them amidst the hail of hails (e.g., the moment after a game requests an asset from the hard drive and before the hard drive spins up to retrieve that asset versus the moment after the asset is located and before it is loaded into RAM to be utilized in the game).
Needless to say, some of these silences are not particularly interesting, unless perhaps one is pursuing questions of hardware/software optimization or data flows. Others are more compelling, such as the aesthetic and haptic design choices leading to periods of quiet in the rumbles of a force-feedback game controller. Regardless, they pervade the medium and its experiences like so much sand on a beach towel. In some ways it is the silences more than the noises games make that are responsible for ludic experience.
Of course, this theoretical armature of interstitial import is nothing new. Anyone who has ever taken a literature course in college surely recalls the instructor saying “What the text omits is just as important as what it includes.” But I wonder if game silences are any different from those of other media, or if they can illuminate notions of structural space in unusual ways. The line breaks in uncompiled game code certainly resemble the spaces between the still pictures of a strip of movie film, for example, in that both segment their medium and appear to disappear in the exhibition of it. However, one veiling is due to the translation of a programming language into machine code, and the other is a result of a biological phenomenon, the persistence of vision. There are different mechanisms and processes at work, and yet both offer a kind of anti-aliasing of technological expression. Maybe it is here that I strike the next devil’s bargain with myself.