Reading Video Game Trailers – Bakhtin at the Museum

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

Mikhail Bakhtin argues that “if the word ‘text’ is understood in the broad sense—as any coherent complex of signs—then even the study of art…deals with texts.”1 Appropriating this broad definition of text, I would like to extend the realm of textual analysis beyond art and into a peculiar contemporary cultural form: the video game trailer. These trailers are short (30 to 90 second) video clips used to advertise a video game in the same way that movie trailers, or previews, advertise film. Using Bakhtin’s writings on utterance and speech as a loose framework, I hope to use “utterances” as a touchstone for elaborating the video game trailer as a cultural product.Rather than attempting to argue that video game trailers are identical to Bakhtin’s “utterances”, I think it will be more helpful to use “utterances” as a general outline. Utterances are, in my understanding, those concrete “pieces” of language which are given meaning through contextualization. An example of an utterance would be a word in a situated dialog with your friend. A word “in and of itself,” as it were, is nothing. Without context, it is unintelligible. Similarly, a game trailer is a cultural product that can only be understood through context. Game trailers speak to an audience – if only to say, “Buy this, not that!” However the dialogue between trailers and audiences is not always straightforward. While some audiences may recognize the marketing messages implicit in game trailers, other audiences may react quite differently. Multiple messages can be, and usually are read into game trailers. These messages, like Bakhtin’s utterances, depend on context.To illustrate the point, I suggest we look at a recent and particularly interesting video game trailer: the Halo 3 “Museum” trailer. This ad is the first in a series of trailers to be released prior to, and immediately after Halo 3’s September 25th release. The “Museum” ad is part of a $10 million, month long “Believe” ad campaign designed around an incredibly elaborate Halo-themed diorama.2In order to analyze the “Museum” ad as utterance, we should begin with a look at utterances themselves. Bakhtin writes, “Any utterance is a link in the chain of speech communion. It is the active position of the speaker in one referentially semantic sphere or another.”3 In other words, utterances are situated. Each is a link in a chain. Other utterances have come before and more will come after, and, therefore, “each utterance is filled with echoes and reverberations of other utterances to which it is related.” “Every utterance must be regarded primarily as a response to preceding utterances of the given sphere.” Utterances, and therefore game trailers, are not only situated temporally, but culturally. Each game advertisement is not only a link in the ongoing “chain” of game advertisements, but each trailer also reflects and responds to previous links in the chain; it interprets the past, and in so doing, influences the future. Finally, Bakhtin writes: “An essential (constitutive) marker of the utterance is its quality of being directed to someone, it’s addressivity.” This addressivity of utterances and trailers alike is a fundamental concept we will return to shortly.
(from unique characteristics of utterances can be used to help us analyze game trailers in general and the “Museum” ad in particular. The first thing that strikes me about the “Museum” trailer is how little it announces itself as a game advertisement. The trailer has all the trappings of a motion picture teaser: it opens with a simple establishing shot, offers some contextual details—a name, a date, a location—and plays off of narrative and emotion to build suspense. In this sense the trailer is most certainly a link in a communication chain. The formal elements of the trailer mimic those of narrative-advertisement, of the film trailer. The “Museum” ad works with a semantic system we understand. Moreover, even the idea of advertisements that do not look like advertisements is also a particular communication chain we are familiar with. Guerilla and viral marketing has become a cultural form with its own signs and meanings, meanings which we can decode when viewing other links in the communication chain, like the “Museum” ad.
(from, the “Museum” trailer has all the “echoes and reverberations” of Bakhtin’s utterances. Just as the form of this short clip mimics that of film trailers, the imagery and symbols mimic particular genres of film: the war, the epic, etc. Even if you have never seen a game-trailer, even if you have never heard of Halo, the game trailer is still “readable.” The trailer uses familiar language. The emotional veteran-as-historian, the memorial war museum, the diorama of a historical battle. These are all a “complex of signs” that we can unravel, a complex of signs based on past links in the chain of visual media, of Hollywood cinema.What I find most interesting about the “Museum” ad is that in engages in so many of these chains of communication at one time. The form of the ad seems clearly based historically in the conventions of both film and film trailers. However, the trailer is also couched in the history of advertisement. As I said, the “Museum” ad strikes me exactly because it does not look like an ad. In this sense, it has all the “echoes and reverberations” of commercial advertising, of consumer indifference to marketing messages, of consumers as “readers” of commercial texts. Furthermore, the trailer is also a key segment in the chain of communication between game-players and game-makers. If a trailer-as-utterance is “a response to preceding utterances,” then it is a response to consumers as past game-players. “You bought played Halo 1 and 2, now it’s time to buy Halo 3.” And beyond the dialog of game-player and game-maker, there is also a dialog of new media at play in the “Museum” ad. Although the trailer will eventually be aired on television, it primarily exists as an internet-only product. It is one part of a larger campaign, tied to an interactive Halo website, an international touring of the real-life diorama on which the ad is based. The “Museum” ad is a response and reflection of changing ideas of audience participation, of media literacy, and interactive content.
(from list of “chains of speech communion” could go on and on – and hopefully it is apparent that none of these communication chains are clearly established or separate from the others. However, they all point to the last aspect of Bakhtin’s utterances that I want to leave open to interrogation: addressivity. Game trailers address an audience. But who is this audience? If game trailers work as film, then film audiences are assumed. If trailers work as ads, then consumers are involved as well. However, if game trailers are new media, we should question where the lines of consumer, producer, and even game player are drawn. I tend to think that these intended audiences are constructed and imagined quite vaguely. Exactly because game trailers participate in so many media literacies, they become a sort of blunt instrument – when so many languages are involved, it is impossible to keep unintended audiences from participating in the discussion. I see no easy answer. However, the notion of addressivity offers a clear path for investigation. Who are these imagined audiences? How are they imagined? How do they interact? How do they overlap? Do they produce? Consume? Resist? Rearticulate? I would love to hear your opinion.

1 Bakhtin. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. “The Problem of the Text in Linguistics, Philology, and the Human Sciences.” Page 103. UT Press: Austin. 1986.
3 Bakhtin, Page 95.