Alexander Galloway‘s new book, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, has recently been published. And McKenzie Wark has made his forthcoming book, Gamer Theory (or, rather, GAM3R 7H30RY), available on the Web. These books are quite different from one another, but both provide considerable insight on the subject of video games or computer games. Both rightly regard these games as the major media form of the early 21st century, playing the role for us today that film and television did for most of the 20th century. I will comment about Galloway’s book here, and Wark’s in a subsequent post.
Gaming is a useful and thoughtful investigation of some of the formal properties and political possibilities of computer games. His five chapters are pretty much separate essays. “Gamic Action, Four Moments” presents a typology of the kinds of activities that take place in computer games; such activities can be initiated either by the “operator” (i.e. the person playing the game) or by the machine itself; and these activities can be either diegetic or not. (“Diegetic is a term taken from film theory; it refers to the parts of the movie that are parts of the actual action; i.e., something we see a character do is diegetic, but the theme music playing while she does it is nondiegetic, since the character doesn’t hear this music, only we do. Similarly, in a first-person shooter game, firing a gun and killing a monster is diegetic, but the readout of the player’s points, energy level, etc., is nondiegetic). This first chapter is useful simply on formal grounds, because it gives us a more precise vocabulary for talking about what actually happens in various games. It also begins to explore some of the deeper issues Galloway is interested in; particularly the import of “play” as a human activity, and the question of what it means to be in a space governed by algorithms and the programmatic reduction of ambiguity.
The second chapter, “Origins of the First-Person Shooter,” considers the history of the “subjective shot” in film — the shot taken directly from through the eyes of a character — and follows the mutation of this unusual sort of shot into the predominant point of view of shooter games like Doom. In film, it is quite common to see things from a particular character’s point of view (POV); but this shot is usually not literally equated with what the character sees with his/her own eyes. Rather, we are “sutured” into the character’s POV precisely by seeing the character’s act of seeing, together with what he/she sees. We look from over the character’s shoulder, for instance, or we have a cut between a shot of the character looking, and a shot of what he/she sees. Actual subjective shots, on the other hand, are quite rare. They often seem awkward, and fail to get the audience to identify with the character through whose eyes we are seeing. A classic example is Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake (1946): nearly the whole film is shot through the eyes of Philip Marlowe, and the effect is weirdly (and unintentionally) alienating. Probably because they seem alienating or unnatural, subjective shots were often used in the 1970s and 1980s to give us the POV of the monster in horror films (like the shark in Spielberg’s Jaws, and the killer in the Halloween films). And Galloway points out how these shots have also been used to signify machinic, robotic, or otherwise inhuman vision: as in the Terminator and Robocop films. But if these shots are alienating in the cinema, why are they so successful in first person shooter computer games? Galloway suggests that this is because computer games involve active movement through space (whereas films are more about the passive contemplation of space, or — a la Josef von Sternberg — of patterns of light). Gamespace must be “fully rendered, actionable space” (63); the operator/player must be able to roam through this space at will (as is never the case in film, where the camera angles and shots are all determined in advance). This gamic sense of active space makes montage superfluous (64), and instead demands full freedom of movement. So the subjective shot works in games, as it does not in films, because the gamer is active in ways that the cinematic spectator cannot be. All in all, I found this chapter powerful and persuasive from my own point of view, or subjective stake, as a film scholar (but as someone who is determined not to see film as the be-all and end-all of media evolution).
The third chapter, “Social Realism,” and the fourth, “Allegories of Control,” go more deeply into the political consequences of computer games’ formal properties. In the former, Galloway considers the various senses in which computer games might (or might not) be thought of as “realistic.” He tries to shift the emphasis away from mere representational naturalism (that the world of the game looks, as much as possible, like the “real world”) and towards the more interesting questions of how games might intervene in social reality, or relate to the outside-the-game experiences of the people who play them — how they might have “a special congruence between the social reality depicted in the game and the social reality known and lived by the player” (83). This leads, on the one hand, to further questioning of the concept of “play,” and on the other, to a consideration of games and war. Though “play” is supposed to be, by definition, apart from the “serious” business of living in the world, in fact, “with the growing significance of immaterial labor, and the concomitant increase in cultivation and exploitation of play… as a productive force, play will become more and more linked to broad social structures of control” (76). War, similarly, has become progressively more entwined with gaming: from the presentation of bombing raids as being like video games in the First Gulf War, to the promotion today of games like America’s Army as recruitment tools for the actual US Army. In both these ways, the question of “realism” in games is tied up with the question of action: of what actions players can take in the games, and how these resonate with actions we are allowed or incited to do in the real world.
“Social Realism” is really just a preparation for the larger arguments of the fourth chapter, “Allegories of Control.” Here Galloway points up the insufficiency and lameness of content criticism of games (e.g. that they are too violent, misogynistic, Western-centered, etc.), and points up the need instead for a more system- and media-based (I am inclined to say McLuhanist, though Galloway himself does not say this) form of critique. The real limitations of a game like Civilization reside less in its dubious, ethnocentric assumptions about world history, than in the way in which, precisely, Civilization embodies “the logic of informatic control itself” (101). What’s crucial is not the particular content, but the basic algorithmic logic of computer games, the way that they reduce everything to quantifiable bits of “information.” It is in this formal dimension that computer games not only reflect, but actively participate in, what David Harvey calls the regime of “flexible accumulation,” and what Deleuze calls the “control society.” Gameplay promises freedom, at least imaginatively and allegorically — that is to say, at least in “play” — to the gamer; but at the same time it reproduces the very structures of domination that are becoming increasingly prevalent in postmodern, or “late” capitalist, society. “A game’s celebration of the end of ideological manipulation is also a new manipulation, only this time using wholly different diagrams of command and control” (106).
Galloway’s final chapter, “Countergaming,” describes the (would-be) subversive strategies of net artists who have made works that try to mess with, or actively subvert and critique, the formal structures and political implications of mainstream games. He compares the work of JODI and other “countergaming” artists to the “countercinema” of Godard and others in the 1960s. His account of these artists, and their work, is detailed and sympathetic, but he concludes (rightly in my estimation) that they do not succeed in their subversive mission, either aesthetically or politically. Works by JODI, for instance, mimic the look and feel of games, but frustrate the gameplayer’s expectations, because progression through the game becomes impossible; instead, you get simulations of crashes and breakdowns and random output on the screen. But this means that “countergaming is essentially progressive in visual form but reactionary in actional form” — and in games, actional form is the most important thing. “It serves to hinder gameplay, not advance it. It eclipses the game as a game and rewrites it as a sort of primitive animation lacking any of the virtues of game design” (125). Galloway concludes, therefore, that JODI is no Godard, and that countergaming is still “an unrealized project” (126). I find this harsh conclusion both sobering and extremely important. Computer games are a relatively new medium; and we still do not really know what they can do, or what we can do with them or to them. When it comes to creative resistance, or radical re-creation, we still haven’t caught up with them.
Galloway’s own book, I think, itself participates in the very dilemma it describes. Galloway declares in his Preface that “this book is about loving video games. It’s about exploring their artistry, their political possibility, their uniqueness” (xii). And clearly his lucid and powerful formulations could only have come from somebody who has spent a lot of time with video games, who has lived them and loved them, who has experienced them from the inside. Yet ultimately Gaming testifies to a kind of blockage, and failure of imagination — not on Galloway’s part so much as on that of all of us. For the book points to a political deadlock — the ubiquity of the new systems of control — and to the inability of gamers (of players, designers, artists, and activists) thus far to oppose, to work through and work out of, these systems of control. Galloway powerfully describes some of the parameters of the new media environment in which we (even those of us who don’t play computer games) find ourselves living today. But he also testifies to our continuing inability to think — or to act — with it, through it, and around it.