Playing Against the Gamespace
Heeding the call for a gamer theory
Gamer theory is not about asserting the absolute uniqueness of games, nor about assimilating them to other forms (novel, cinema), but rather about marking the game’s difference from these forms as something that speaks to changes in the overall structure of social and technical relations. The form of the digital game is an allegory for the form of being. Games are our contemporaries, the form in which the present can be felt and, in being felt, thought through. From this vantage point, the whole of cultural history can be rethought. It is not a question of adding games at the tail end of a history of forms but of rethinking the whole of cultural history after the digital game.
When I first started on this path to making game studies my central academic pursuit there were three books that profoundly shaped my thinking. The first, Ian Bogost’s Persuasive Games, was a clearly expressed, cleverly argued series of case studies that opened my video games up to fresh analytical strategies. It was for me an instruction manual for close reading the games I’d been playing all my life. The second, Alan Kriby’s Digimodernism, broadened the approach to to a sort of technocratic historicism. Kirby’s historicizing was the first place I saw it suggest that the cultural importance of video games derived more from the way they crystallize contemporary social structures into a compact expressive form than for the special powers of interactivity and narration they possessed.
It was, however, McKenzie Wark’s Gamer Theory that really lit my imagination as to what political and social potential the rigorous study of games could yield. It’s a striking work of digital-age scholarship that samples as easily from Marx and Deleuze as it does from Ice T and Buzzcocks. Written in 2007, a number of Wark’s claims now feel more than a little prescient, not just with respect to the development of the constant expansion of gaming into virtually every sphere of our Western technological existence, but regarding the conflicts that would soon arise in game scholarship as well.
There’s a nice symmetry for me as I read Gamer Theory for a second time. It was the first book I read in undergraduate that rooted me in a critical approach to games, and now it is the very last book I’ll read for a graduate seminar. Moreover, the claims that this block quotation makes about the centrality of games to contemporary social relations are, in my mind, a fantastic way to wrap up this semester long series of posts. Indulge me — because no other passage captures why I think games are the central aesthetic phenomena of our times as well as this one does.
Gamer theory is not about asserting the absolute uniqueness of games, nor about assimilating them to other forms (novel, cinema)
For Wark, gamer theory is the pair of goggles that we both take off and put on in order to read a society that has been and continues to be remade by the ludic impulse. It is a holistic approach, a doubling back on the technological processes that structure our interactions with each other and our environment. The gamer theorist is the person who sees that the whole world has become a gamespace, returns to the game, and uses its perfectly contained algorithms to find and isolate the inadequacies and injustices outside The Cave. Gamer theory is a transparency that the gamer theorist derives from the play of her game and then overlays onto the gamespace around her. The gamer theorist knows that games are unique but she does not use that uniqueness defensively in knee-jerk fashion to prove their value. Rather, she recognizes that the uniqueness of the game as an aesthetic form is testament to a changing cultural epoch whose subjects wrestle with their incresingly ludic — but no less dangerous — world in simulations, digital machinations, and rulesets.
But rather about marking the game’s difference from these forms as something that speaks to the overall structure of social and technical relations.
This is not that different from the argument that Alan Kirby made in Digimodernism either. The gamer theorist knows that cultural aesthetic forms are not born fully formed from the giant’s forehead. They are the bodies that carry the ideological pathogens that circulate in our milieu. What’s more, gamer theory specifies exactly what games are able to reveal about the game space — its a structure of affective relations. In games, algorithms invite us into cybernetic relationships that recapitulate the very social matrices out of which our subjectivities have already emerged. Playing a game is to turn our eyes back on our social DNA. The gamer theorist plays games because in the game she sees her own conception.
The form of the digital game is an allegory for the form of being. Games are our contemporaries, the form in which the present can be felt, and in being felt, thought through.
This is the truth that the gamer theorist knows from the outset. She has sensed it in the rhythms of her own play. She felt it in shivers playing the expansionist allegory of Civilization IV. She saw it in the suburban trivilalities of The Sims. The digital game is an index of humanitiy. It is the drifting smoke of posthumanity’s burning cigarette. The game opens itself up to interpretation by being felt. The allegory is of being yes, but the way we experience the allegory is also being. The gamer theorist does not approach her text with the chill of distanced reservation, but rather she relates to it. The relationship is analytics and erotics in equal measure. If Marshall McLuhan is right, and each successive media form contains the mediations of its predecessor, than in games, the massive media accretions of the twentieth century reach their apotheosis — we feel the present, yes, but this is because the game contains all of the past as well. Games alleogrize being because they uncannily reproduce it. When the gamer theorist plays a game she isn’t just reading a text, she isn’t merely watching a screen, she is entering into intimate relationship with the a networked machine whose very vitality pours from and points to the gamespace that has produced it. This is the beginning of critical thought.
From this vantage point, the whole of cultural history can be rethought. It is not a question of adding games as the tail end of a history of forms but of rethinking the whole of cultural history after the digital game.
If all the world is a gamespace as Wark claims, mapped, gridded, and suffused by satellites and algorithms, then the only vantage point from which any cultural history can happen is the one that recognizes its own place within the game. Sure, we could go on theorizing our social space with novels, cinema, television, music, galleries, and poetry — and these things do rightly demand our attention — but if in the mix we have lost the critical value of the game and its privileged relation with the gamespace, than we have missed the whole thing altogether. We must not be like McLuhan and see a succession of technologies, each of which replacing the other. Rather, as gamer theorists we must recognize the epochal shift that has happened in our time of Internet and simulations, and the digital game lives at the nexus of that transformation. This is the scope of Wark’s claim: the digital game testifies to the new warp and woof of the contmporary social fabric, and only in the thorough, self-critical investigation of these forms can we begin to pick apart the threads.
This is obviously heady stuff.
It isn’t the fever-pitched optimism of early games scholarship that saw the emergence of digital games and virtual reality as the harbingers of a new utopia. It is, however, sweeping in scope and more than a little intoxicating to a person like me for whom games already hold a magical sort of aura. A lot gets left out of Wark’s little book. The margins here are wide and contain multitudes: the so-called “undeveloped” third world, the political potentials of “counter-gaming,” the fraught translation of identity politics in a world where all has been remade into zeroes and ones. There are a few troubling implications from this analysis — if the gamespace has really elimnated meaningful difference, what can games do to restore it? Don’t games always work for the gamespace? Quickly nihilism approaches. Though Wark talks specifically about digital games, he also knows that
All games are digital. Without exception.
Of course they are. And if all games are digital, have they always been so? If they’ve always been so, has there really been an epochal shift at all? What about other texts, movies, and songs — are they just machines too? When all the playful energies of our society have been marshalled into productivity by the gamespace, can playing yet another game really yield “freedom without boredom?”
The gamer theorist hears all this, peers out of The Cave, sees that all is still gamespace, and returns to her console, her computer, her screen. She picks her controller back up. She plays on.