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Angry Birds and Semiotics--Who Knew?

This is the first in a series of guest posts by Hali Sofala and Eric Jones on the connections between video games and the literary.

The game is simple. All you do is pull back the bird, loaded gormlessly into a giant slingshot. The strain of the digital sling creaks until you’ve built up a quiet momentum. Then, let go.

The bird smacks into a heavy carton of wood and bricks, hopefully moving through and smashing into a green pea-sized pig that erupts deliciously into a plume of smoke. This is all that the game is. And, to a varying extent, all any video game is: a set of digital parameters voluntarily adhered to for enjoyment. But as those parameters widen, they exert a peculiar influence on the literary landscape.

This is the first blog of a series investigating those influences with the purpose of determining how writers and writing programs should and shouldn’t respond to the emergence of video gaming as a socially predominant story-telling medium. While Angry Birds doesn’t tell much of a story, it does serve as an introduction into how we engage with interactive media.

If you initiate a game of Angry Birds you’ll be rewarded with slapstick humor, increased level difficulty, and new rules that add varying complexity to each level. It is the thrill of using your limited resources (the birds) in various ways to achieve a goal (hitting the pigs). While these “time wasters” may seem silly, they constitute a shifting paradigm in childhood development from a world of structuralism to a world of semiotics. They initiate children into the role of action and reward, and the nature of the semiotic environment.

For instance, a child will understand almost innately that the moment he or she puts the game down that they are no longer within the realm in which the rules of Angry Birds apply. Birds do not sit dumbly in a sling waiting to be fired at their mortal enemy. Even the bitterest of rivals do not catapult themselves at one another.

A child will also understand that their role has changed within the shift from one game to the next, just as their own roles might shift from the household to the school to the supermarket. James Paul Gee, a Professor of Literary Studies at Arizona State, defines these semiotic systems as “human cultural and historical creations that are designed to engage and manipulate people in certain ways.”

When we participate in a video game, we understand that manipulation, and bargain with it. When launching a yellow bird directly at a pig hiding behind a wooden wall fails, we might launch the bird lower to knock the floor out from under the pig, or arch a heavy black bird high into the air to land on the pig from above. Readers of literature are subject to the writer’s whim, and viewers of cinema are at the mercy of the director, but players of a video game are engaged in a struggle for control of their own destiny.

What this blog hopes to accomplish is explaining the perils of examining the literature behind that three-dimensional fourth wall, to shoot down some of the anti-gaming rhetoric, to create some of our own anti-gaming rhetoric, and demonstrate what adults can learn that kids already know. Angry Birds isn’t just a game. Angry Birds is the universe, man.

Hali F. Sofala is a PhD student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where she is studying English, specializing in Ethnic and Women's Studies. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin, Madison and a BA in English from Georgia College. She is currently the Book Prize Coordinator for Prairie Schooner.

Eric Jones is a writer and editor currently based in Lincoln, NE. He holds a BA in English from Georgia College. He has served as an editor and contributor for the Star City Blog, StarPulse.com, Bookreview.com, and many others. His works of fiction can be found in The Peacock's Feet and The Susquehanna Review, among others.

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