What is Love?by Olli Tapio Leino
Assumedly, in the multidisciplinary environment of game studies a question has to be quite definitive to the object of study to attract interest of scholars across disciplinary borders. Questions related to the ways in which we can say meaningful things about games have this uniting potential. It is in this light that I find Alexander R. Galloway’s promise - in his book Gaming - Essays on Algorithmic Culture (University of Minnesota Press, 2006) - of conceptual vehicles for “thinking about videogames” truly refreshing. Gaming, as its subtitle suggests, is a collection of five essays which discuss computer games, movies and the society from a variety of perspectives. The five essays are discrete pieces of work, each plunging into separate discourses to address topics of their own. If the reader is to detect a thread running through the length of the whole book my guess is it will be the postulation of a discernible ‘computer game medium’, on which many of the arguments in the essays rest. The second thread, or perhaps more fittingly, a recurrent theme, is the notion of “algorithm”, to which Galloway attributes significant descriptive powers.
In the preface Galloway sets the tone for the upcoming discussions by introducing a Deleuzian idea of a concept as a vector for thought, as “a cognitive vehicle designed to move things from one place to another” (p.xi) and goes on to promise “a few conceptual algorithms for thinking about video games.” With this promise, the book invites to be evaluated on pragmatic terms - our primary concern should not be whether these concepts can give us an accurate picture of reality but instead, the meaningful question to be asked from Gaming is whether its concepts can take us to places, and, furthermore, whether we will find these places worth visiting.
The first essay, Gamic Action, Four moments offers a model of four kinds of action in computer games. A key premise in the analysis is that in contrast to media like film and photography, in which actions lead up to a finished work, in the case of computer games “the work itself is material action”. (p.2) Furthermore, apart from the player, (whom Galloway calls an “operator”, which despite an explanation feels like a throwback to the times when studying games was something to be ashamed of), also the machine can execute actions. Fusing together the inclusion of a machinic operator to complement human agency with a concept drawn from narrative theory, that is, the possibility for an action to be either “diegetic” or “non-diegetic”, Galloway is able to distinguish between four kinds of in-game actions. Thus, one axis of the model distinguishes actions executed by the player - operator acts - from those executed by the machine - machine acts. The other axis accommodates “diegetic” actions that “take place within the world of gameplay” (p.22) and “non-diegetic” actions - those that are “not contained within a narrow conception of the world of gameplay” (p.28).
Galloway problematises the analogy between computer games and traditional games, suggesting that there is more to computer games than the possibilities they contain for being played. (p.37) An important waypoint on this trajectory is the concept of the “ambience act” (p.10), which refers to that which happens when a game is left alone, not on pause, but running with no input from the player. What seems to distinguish a game running in the ambience act from, say, an installation depicting a world on a computer screen, is what Galloway calls “charged expectation” (p.11) - the possibility of the player’s return. The concept of the ambience act fulfils the promise of vehicles with which to get to places, as it paves way for appreciation of features which can be easily overlooked from perspectives focusing on computer games via an analogy to traditional games, or as machines set in motion by a human player.
Alluding to “other approaches” which privilege either play or narrative (p.37) Galloway signals his awareness of the ‘debate that never took place’. Thus, it seems somewhat strange why a comprehensive body of recent scholarly work on the topic of games and narratives is completely overlooked, especially in an essay which touches upon the themes at the heart of that debate. Establishing a dialogue with game studies could potentially have strengthened Galloway’s concepts - now rather uncritical references to ideas like “exterior of the world of the game”, “non-diegetic space”, “narrative of the game” seem vague, if not even problematic as well as ontologically weak.
The inclusion of non-human agency in the analysis results in a focus on the “cybernetic relationship” (p.5) within which the game and the player are merged into a single unified entity. This serves as a healthy reminder about the alternatives available to the focus on the cognizing human being as the preferred subject within game studies - a point made later also by Giddings and Kennedy (2008). However, Galloway’s account of the relationship between the machine and its operator as a cybernetic one is not contextualized in relation to earlier similar maneuvers, many of which, e.g. that of Friedman (1999), specifically address the relationships between computer games and their players.
The second essay, Origins of the First-Person Shooter, suggests that the emergence and popularity of first-person shooter games have contributed to the transformation of the cinematic convention of the subjective shot from a marginal technique used to convey feelings of fear - “predatory vision” - into “active vision” that does not denote a threat of violence but “facilitates an active subject position”. (p.69) This interesting observation about the transformation of the subjective shot is supported with a wealth of examples from Hollywood cinema and computer games, and is to be applauded as a result of an analysis of solely visual or representational conventions. The conceptual algorithms the essay offers emerge in relation to debates within film studies and make sense against the historical backdrop of a body of work making use of techniques of filmic representation. Thus this essay, more explicitly than the others in the book, seems to talk to those concerned with theorizing works on visual media.
The argument of this essay rests on the assumption that we can make sense of computer games by explaining them in relation to cinema, made explicit with the description of FPS games as “the visual progeny of subjective camera techniques in the cinema” (p.57). While it is not necessarily unjust to assume that games and cinema have something in common, taking for granted the relationship between cinema and computer games instead of explicating its conditions imparts a somewhat precarious undertone into the essay.
The notion of “gamic vision” seems potentially useful for an analysis that seeks to draw parallels between computer games and visual media. When it comes to computer games, this essay, however, leaves it to its alert reader to complete the picture by contextualizing a theory of visuality into a theory of computer game play. Thus from the perspective of computer game studies, it is possible to suggest that this essay would have benefited from a more careful account of the similarities and differences between players and viewers. Galloway explicitly observes that the analysis in the essay is confined to FPS games, and that “an entirely different theory of visuality would need to be developed for RTS games, turn-based RPGs, and other games(.)” (p.57-8) However, only from a premise privileging the conventions of cinema does the perspective implemented in first-person shooters appear as somehow ‘more subjective’ than, say, the isometric perspective of real-time strategy games, thus warranting its own theory of visuality. What is the player’s perspective if not always a subjective perspective on the game being played?
The third essay, Social Realism, published in 2003 in this journal, offers a lucid treatment of the concept of realism for the context of computer games, asserting the game-player relationship instead of the game itself as the primary locus of significance for the concept.
Connecting with the debates on computer game violence and looking at examples such as America’s Army (2002), Under Ash (2001) and Special Force (2003), the essay distinguishes between realistic narratives and realistic representation on one hand, and between realisticness and realism on the other. The discussion, especially around the latter distinction, is interesting. By drawing on Jameson’s (1990) observations about the contradictory relationship between realistic and aesthetic modes of representation Galloway breaks away from discussing qualities of representation to contextualizing games into the socio-cultural realms they are being played in. Realist games, in Galloway’s view, are “those games that reflect critically on the minutiae of everyday life, replete as it is with struggle, personal drama and injustice”. (p.75) For such reflection to be possible, the in-game situation must resonate with the player’s social reality, argues Galloway. The necessity of this resonance is what Galloway calls the “congruence requirement” (p.76).
The fourth essay, Allegories of Control, offers a critical interpretation of Civilization III (2001). The essay draws on Deleuze’s ideas on control and the film studies discourse of allegorical interpretation to arrive at a reading of Civilization III, targeting not only the ideology implied in the game’s representational and simulational aspects, but also the structures of control manifested in the “logic of the software” (p.102).
I find the argument concerning Civilization III somewhat confusing, most likely due to my limited knowledge about the references it builds upon, but perhaps also due to not being able to figure out the discourse in which the essay should be situated. My uncertainty originates from the inability to recognize the perspective from which Galloway looks at Civilization. In the “ideological critique” (pp. 95-99) of the game, Galloway sees it possible to find Civilization, a “particularly loaded cultural artifact” (p.95) logo-centric, nationalist, imperialist and expansionist (p.96). Furthermore, referring to the qualities of individual civilizations, such as the ‘Scientificness’ of the ‘Germans’, Galloway writes:
(…) this sort of typing is but a few keystrokes away from a world in which blacks are “athletic” and women are “emotional.” That the game tactfully avoids these more blatant offenses does not exempt it from endorsing a logic that prizes the classification of humans into types and the normative labeling of those types.The reading does not take into account the fact that the meanings of the offences highlighted here, no matter how controversial they may be, are competing for the player’s attention with the meanings of the game features which the player extracts by exploring their instrumentalities utilizable in different ways in different contexts of individual instances of gameplay. This is not to argue that through being played Civilization would become innocent or “immune to meaningful interpretation” (p.95) like Galloway initially fears, but to make explicit my confusion about the role of playing in Galloway’s methodology. In the first essay (p.3), Galloway quotes a line from Aarseth (2001) about games being both objects and processes, a line we might remember as a ludological war-cry highlighting the importance of playing to game analysis. In this fourth essay, Galloway observes that “to interpret a game means to interpret its algorithm” (p.91). After such expressions of commitment it is surprising that the ideological critique of Civilization seems to look at the game as if its “algorithm” was accessible as a static constellation of meanings: the essay makes no reference to individual playings of the game and it remains unclear what are the observations based on which Galloway draws his conclusions about the game’s “algorithm” and the ideologies it implies.
The lack of a pronounced perspective is not as much a problem to the “informatic critique” (pp. 99-104) as it is to the ideological one, perhaps due to the perspective being more distanced from the game artifact and the claims being more general. The discussion takes almost an ontological turn, as the focus shifts from what Civilization represents to the structures of informatic control manifested in the game, addressing Civilization as a “control allegory” (p. 99). The informatic critique provides a much needed context for the ideological critique. It touches upon the questions associated with the phenomenon we might call simulation (e.g. Frasca 2003), but surprisingly makes no reference to any precedents. The earlier critique on history and identity that referred to the textual descriptions of individual civilizations’ properties is balanced with the observation of racial and national identity being “a codified affair within the logic of the software” (p.102). Of history in Civilization, Galloway observes that it is present in the game as transcoded into “specific mathematical models” (p.103). This transcoding, Galloway observes, “can only ever be a reductive exercise” (ibid.) in which “diachronic details of lived life are replaced by the synchronic homogeneity of code pure and simple” (ibid.). In terms of methodology, again, here it is somewhat unclear how individual playings fit into the picture: playing, as a finitude between a beginning and an end, seems to translate the synchronicity which Galloway assumes as a property of the game “back” into a diachronic form. Galloway dispels this concern partly by articulating a need for a “theory of pretending”, necessary for the interpretation of games as allegories. Here Galloway goes back to the premise of the first essay, that games are actions, and develops it further by suggesting that an interpretation of gamic acts is about understanding “what it means to do something and mean something else” (p.105).
The ahistoricity of the argument around the passages on “informatic critique”, not unlike the discussion about diegesis and computer games in the first essay, contributes to my confusion about what is the discourse in which this essay should be situated. The comparison between “deep allegories” of cinema and “control allegories” of videogames at the end of the essay suggest a scope wider than game studies alone. Given Galloway’s grasp of games with artistic intentions, demonstrated by the fifth essay, it is surprising that Eastwood Real Time Strategy Group’s Civilization IV Age of Empire (2004), a modification of Civilization III that uses artistic means to highlight issues of political control and capitalism, is not mentioned in the analysis.
The fifth essay, Countergaming delineates strategies for what we might approximate as tactical game art - game art which seeks to highlight the potential for criticizing the very device of gameplay itself. Drawing inspiration from Peter Wollen’s seven theses for “counter-cinema”, Galloway looks at works by JODI, Anne-Marie Schleiner and others, and arrives at a definition of “countergaming” which is described in terms of its differences to “conventional video gaming”. The first five strategies, such as “4. Natural physics versus invented physics” (p.125) are positive categories drawn from the descriptions of existing works, and Galloway wisely uses their conventionality to push for a sixth strategy, radical action. Galloway writes that:
We need an avant-garde of video gaming not just in visual form but also in actional form. We need radical gameplay, not just radical graphics. (p.125)This is one of the precious few passages in the book at which the reader is rewarded for reading the essays as a collection rather than as individual texts, as the notion of avant-garde in “actional form” can be deciphered in relation to gamic action described in the first essay, as action indescribable through Galloway’s model.
While Galloway seeks to establish games, whose algorithmic and technological nature he has emphasized elsewhere in the book, as a medium of artistic expression, he does not situate this attempt in the broader context of avant-gardism at the overlap of art and technology. Thus from the description in the essay it seems as if the phenomena of cinema and computer games were the only contexts in relation to which the tactical-artistic potential of computer games can emerge. While “gameplay” is indeed a peculiar feature within the field of new media art, found mostly in computer games, the works Galloway mentions do not lack conceptual interfaces to connect them with examples of algorithmic and new media art. Exchanges with for example Oliver Grau (2003), or even Gene Youngblood (1970) would have been appropriate to historicize Galloway’s argument.
However, here, not unlike in the discussion of “ambience acts” in the first essay, it is evident that Galloway’s break from the somewhat paradigmatic notions of computer games as games can yield interesting results: by readjusting the theoretical instrument to focus on what some might describe as non-games he illustrates the critical potentiality in what we would not hesitate calling games. Equally interesting as the end result of this analysis is the path Galloway takes through the brief history of artistic game modifications in order to arrive at the strategies, which results in a comprehensive account of the significant artistic game modifications so far.
The notion of “algorithm” which is used throughout the book, including its subtitle, is not defined beyond the somewhat colloquial meaning delineated in the preface as “a machine for the motion of parts”. It certainly bears a resemblance to terms like “rules” and “game mechanics”, “simulation”, but seems to refer to a wider range of phenomena. While the concept seems useful in terms of rhetorics, it does not necessarily add to the clarity of the argument in which it is being used. (Take for example a description of that which a player of Civilization IV must become intimate with as a “massive, multipart, global algorithm” on p.90.) The “videogame medium” to which Galloway refers in the book is one incorporating both playable and narrative elements alongside configurative (in the sense of changing settings) possibilities. In Galloway’s description, the friction between narrative and non-narrative elements does not seem to be significant enough to warrant further explication.
From the perspective of game studies, many of Galloway’s positions and arguments throughout the book are provocative, and as such guaranteed to stir up discussion. Thus, reading Gaming on the terms delineated in the preface - as offering conceptual movements for thinking about computer games in the context of contemporary culture - is rewarding. Trying to fit the book into any imagined narrow frame of “game studies” would be unwise. Looking at the kind of references Galloway turns to a projection of the vectors of thought in the book points at the general direction of new media theory, with the individual essays resonating with debates in film studies, critical theory, game studies, and new media art, even though this resonance is not always made explicit. Indeed, some of the places I was taken by Galloway’s conceptual vehicles seemed strangely familiar, yet alien.
Going back to the first essay, Galloway’s description of “gaming” as the “entire apparatus of the video game” (p.1-2) extends from the “physical level” where bits are moved, to “data” issuing “instructions to the hardware of the machine” to the “codified messages” exchanged between the operator and the machine. Here the only reference which makes this description a description of computer game play, explicitly, is the description of the machine simulating “the rules of the game through meaningful action”. Interestingly enough, the integrity of this description is not compromised even if we, in the spirit of imaginative variation, replace ‘simulating the rules of the game’ with something else the computer might be doing, such as ‘operating as a calculator’. In other words, the description of gameplay-specific features does not enjoy any special significance compared to a general description of using a computer. My assumption that Galloway is intentionally saying that computer games are very much like word processors is confirmed as he writes:
- Video games are games, yes, but more importantly they are software systems; this must always remain in the forefront of one’s analysis. In blunt terms, the video game Dope Wars has more in common with the finance software Quicken than it does with traditional games (p.6)
Aarseth, E. (2001). Computer Game Studies, Year One. Game Studies, 1(1) 2001 URL: http://gamestudies.org/0101/editorial.html
Frasca, G. (2003). Simulation versus Narrative: Introduction to Ludology. In The Videogame Theory Reader. Edited by M. J. Wolf, and B.Perron. NY: Routledge.
Friedman, T. (1999). Civilization and Its Discontents: Simulation, Subjectivity, and Space. In: Discovering Discs: Transforming Space and Genre on CD-ROM. Edited by G. Smith. NYUP.
Giddings, S. & Kennedy, H. (2008). Little Jesuses and *@#?-off Robots: On Cybernetics, Aesthetics, and Not Being Very Good at Lego Star Wars. In: The Pleasures of Computer Gaming: Essays on Cultural History, Theory and Aesthetics. Edited by M. Swalwell & J. Wilson. Jefferson, NC: McFarland. 13-32
Grau, O. (2003) Virtual Art: From Illusion to Immersion. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Jameson, F. (1990). Signatures of the Visible. New York & London: Routledge.
Youngblood, G. (1970). Expanded Cinema. Boston: E P Dutton.
U.S. Army. (2002). America’s Army. U.S. Army. (PC)
Dar Al-Fikr. (2001). Under Ash. Dar Al-Fikr. (PC)
Hezbollah. (2003) Special Force. Hezbollah. (PC)
Firaxis Games. (2001) Civilization III. Infogrames. (PC)
Eastwood Real Time Strategy Group. (2004) Civilization IV Age of Empire. (PC)