McKenzie Wark’s GAM3R 7H30RY is one of those very rare academic books that makes me envious. I say to myself, “damn — if only I could write something that good.”
Wark’s book is a kind of meta-commentary on computer games. This puts it in a different category from Alex Galloway’s excellent recent gaming book. Galloway theorizes games, analyzing them formally, and pushing toward questions of their socio-political implications, the way they both mirror and help to constitute what Deleuze calls the society of control. But Wark’s book sort of begins where Galloway’s ends: it moves to a higher (meta-) level of abstraction in order to reflect upon how computer games relate to and mirror or encapsulate the world, and vice versa. Wark is less concerned with delineating either the communities surrounding gaming or the formal properties of games, than he is in tracing the computer game as a diagram of larger social processes. For Wark, all of social reality today is a vast “gamespace,” dominated by the algorithmic codifications and unequal power relations that are displayed within computer games in their purest and clearest form. Social reality today is governed by the same “military-entertainment complex” that actually manufactures and distributes computer games. Wark uses actual computer games as lenses or prisms to examine the “gamespace” of our media-saturated, simulacral world, and to discover the structures of feeling, or forms of subjectivity, that we find ourselves exhibiting as inhabitants of that world.
GAM3R 7H30RY — like Wark’s previous book, A Hacker Manifesto — is written with a lapidary precision. There are nine chapters, each of which consists of exactly 25 numbered paragraphs. The chapter titles are arranged in alphabetical order (though Wark only gets a little bit of the way through the alphabet; the last chapter is CONCLUSIONS). Each chapter refers to one particular computer game (they range from Deus Ex to The Sims to Grand Theft Auto: Vice City). The exception is the first chapter, AGONY, which refers not to any actually existing computer game but to The Cave(TM), as in Plato’s cave: which is to say, to the lived social world as illusory “gamespace,” from which there is little hope of escape to the outside world of sunlight, and to the spaces of actual computer games as allegories or models or idealized maps of this world-as-gamespace. Wark relentlessly tracks this more-than-metaphor through his chosen series of games. The 25 paragraphs of each chapter present a linear argument, but they do so by introducing one or two key concepts, and then relentlessly mulling over alternative implications and ambiguities of these contents. All this in a honed-down, sharpened prose that is almost mathematical — or algorithmic — in its repetitions and pitiless clarity. Each game is thereby revealed as an allegorithm — Wark’s neologism, a portmanteau word combining “allegory” and “algorithm” — of social gamespace.
[Added Note: as Wark says in the comments, the neologism “allegorithm” was in fact first invented by Alexander Galloway.]
The result is a book that is very schematic and abstract. But this is justified, because the features of social life that Wark abstracts away from in order to perform his analyses are those very features that games themselves — and the game-like simulation models that control social reality in business, in education, in military action, and so on — themselves ignore, repress, and abstract away from. Computer games clarify the inner logic of social control at work in the world. Games give an outline of what actually happens in much messier and less totalized ways. Thereby, however, games point up the ways in which social control is precisely directed towards creating game-like clarities and firm outlines, at the expense of our freedoms. In this way, Wark remains alert to the ambiguities that infect the gaming paradigm, but he also registers the very way that this paradigm works to keep those ambiguities at bay, to reduce or destroy them.
Wark’s analyses thereby point to the ways in which “postmodern” society:
- is increasingly virtual,
- is saturated by digital media,
- is oblivious of time or history and indifferent to particularities of space or topography,
- is governed by impersonal algorithms that tend to reify “choice” as a series of binary options without ambiguity,
- is increasingly homogeneous as it absorbs any possible “outside” within itself,
- is increasingly being reduced, not just to a spectacle, but to a â€œpure agon,â€ a perpetual Darwinian competition, a struggle that no longer respects divisions between work and leisure, or between private and public, and that never ends, but that nonetheless continually divides the world into “winners” and “losers.”
Although each chapter of GAM3R 7H30RY is pretty much self-contained, the book as a whole traces a Marxist/McLuhanite metanarrative, or historical progression, from â€œtopicalâ€ to â€œtopographicâ€ to â€œtopologicalâ€ conceptions of space, and from books to movies to games as media forms. Like Adorno and Debord and Foucault, Wark sees the history of technological progress as also a history of increasing subjection. It is not that he idealizes the past in any way, but that he insists on the configurations of unfreedom that constitute the present, and that inhabit our very narratives of liberation and progress. In a certain sense, GAM3R 7H30RY is the dystopian flip side of A Hacker Manifesto, in which Wark presented a utopian, post-Marxist (or, as Wark himself put it, “crypto-Marxist”) vision of liberation, by rethinking the slogan (or the truism) that “information wants to be free” in the context of class analysis and “the property question.” In, GAM3R 7H30RY, in contrast, Wark looks at the structure of space, rather than the narrative of liberation that (necessarily) unfolds in time. For the time that it takes to play a computer game is in a certain sense an illusion, since all the game’s possibilities are given in advance by the algorithm that constitutes and governs it. “Gamespace” is therefore a maze that seems to be closed or closed off (though the last two chapters flirt with the very distant possibility of a way out of the maze, a possible escape from the closure of a space in which every contingency is governed by an algorithm).
In the penultimate paragraph (224 of 225), Wark states that “only by going further and further into gamespace might one come out the other side of it, to realize a topology beyond the limiting forms of the game.” This is both a warning, and a hope. It’s a warning that we will not get anywhere by expressing horror at “gamespace” or by yearning for an older world, and older media, before the algorithmic calculations of the military-entertainment complex ruled everything. We can’t ever go back; the only way out is through. The hope is that there is something better if we do go through. It’s a process, Wark says, of “pressing against the limits of the game from within, to find the contrary terms behind the agon.” Such is the hope; it is really a matter of faith. It is demonstrated within the pages of GAM3R 7H30RY only by the dry exuberance of Wark’s prose itself, as it pushes against the limits by which it is circumscribed, the limits of the games themselves and their ruling algorithms. The exhilaration of gameplay comes from the working out, the mastering, of its algorithms. Wark suggests that this exhilaration, this victory, is ultimately the sign of a deeper subjection; but he still holds out the fugitive hope of a different kind of victory, an active playing against the game. Is it even possible?