Pretty Hate Machines: A Review of Gameplay Modeby Ian Bogost
If game scholars share any intellectual common ground, perhaps it is our tendency to stake claims regarding the scope of game studies. Games are their own cultural form, extending back for millennia, say some. Games are a kind of computational media, say others. Games are a social practice, say others still, or a formal structure, or a kind of storytelling, or a neoliberal ideology made flesh. And on and on.
Such distinctions are sometimes interesting and often convincing. Who can deny that games are different from other forms of human activity? But yet, who too can deny that games share much in common with previous forms of human activity?
Perhaps the era of claim staking in game studies is coming to a welcome and overdue close. One signal of such accomplishment is a book like Patrick Crogan’s Gameplay Mode: War, Simulation, and Technoculture (2011). Crogan makes a surprisingly modest if far-ranging argument in the book, which amounts to: computer games owe much to Cold War military technology, both in their construction and in their conceptualization.
The book starts with an understated example: EA/Maxis’s famous title Spore. Some of its connections to militarism are explicit: the routinization of entire genres based on military tactics like “realtime strategy” and the ultimate goal of planetary victory and intergalactic expansionism. But others, argues Crogan, are less explicit, namely the various military genealogies that make a game like Spore possible in the first place. Not just the digital apparatuses on which the game was made and is played, not just the global network that makes its “passive multiplayer” sharing possible, but something slightly different: “to model phenomena by hypothetically extending and extrapolating its future to see how that future may be predicted, modified, and controlled” (p.13).
For Crogan, video games don’t just share material features in common with computers, like digitization and procedurality. Nor are they are simply forms evolved directly from military training simulators, nor are they forms entirely separate from such traditions. His caution and ambiguity speaks in a different tenor than we are used to hearing in game studies, which remains largely positive, even euphoric about games (even if its members disagree about the particulars). Crogan gently rejoins us all:
Most media studies and video game researchers either outright reject or avoid engaging the mainstream moral panic approach to video games and their relation to violence. They throw the baby out with the bathwater, avoiding the question concerning technoculture’s relation to war and the military that computer games pose so insistently beyond the media effects debate, which itself is unable to articulate it adequately in these terms. (p.13)
“Technoculture” is one common name for media and culture’s tendency to inherit the logics of technology (Penley & Ross, 1991), and it’s the feature Crogan finds most absent in today’s literature. Technoculture is a uselessly broad term, but Crogan’s project is far more specific anyway: it traces connections between Cold War science and technology and computer games. This is the move Crogan calls a correction to “the elective naivety of much media and games studies, which avoid a frank consideration of computer games as forms that emerge out of ongoing interchanges between war, simulation and contemporary technoculture” (p.14).
Specifically, Crogan identifies three features of twentieth century military technology that exert a hidden force on computer games: cybernetics, real-time control, and the overlay of real and simulated events. He chooses three specific examples as indicative of these trends: for cybernetics, Norbert Wiener’s design for antiaircraft (AA) weaponry; for real-time control, the U.S. Air Force’s Semi-Automated Ground Environment (SAGE) air defense system; for real-time network simulation, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)’s SIMNET. Together, these three “tendencies,” as Crogan ends up calling them (p.17) provide part of computer games’ foundation as a medium.
In terms of cybernetics, the computer age developed and cultured an interest in remaining ahead of the enemy through predictive modeling driven by cybernetic feedback loops. Wiener’s AA predictor was a calculating device meant to predict the future position of an enemy plane, but computational cybernetics promised anticipation and response of a far more general sort. Beyond the well-documented influence of cybernetics on computational design, Crogan argues that this desire to model complex processes is not merely an expression of computational procedurality, as Noah Wardrip-Fruin and I (among others) have argued (Bogost 2007, Wardrip-Fruin 2011), but a new obsession with prediction. Crogan groups these trends under the general term logistics, a concept he advances via Paul Virilio’s theory of “pure war” (Lotringer & Virilio, 2008)—the contemporary extension of wartime practices in times of peace, indeed at all times.
In terms of real-time control, the SAGE project necessitated an enormous, nationwide software and hardware engineering effort in the 1950s and 60s, one that Crogan credits as the progenitor of the entire personal computing revolution. This may seem like an overstatement, and to some extent it is one. But there’s no denying the fact that command and control centers prefigure the amalgam of operator-screen-machine-network-information that now comprise almost all of our work and play.
In terms of real-time networks, SIMNET, DARPA’s networked, simulated training network of the 1980s provides the model. Crogan traces networked simulated training to a new fiscal pragmatism that emerged at the close of the Cold War. At this point, hardware and software for computer graphics and networking were economically viable on their own, such that defense projects could make use of them as both conflict preparation and as a means to record and review actual conflicts.
These three tendencies are quite high-level accounts of today’s computer games, and Crogan does considerably more work connecting them to contemporary critical theory (Stiegler, Ricoeur, Nancy) than he does connecting them to contemporary video games. Some readers will rightly criticize the book for the relative absence of concrete examples and interpretations of specific games in relation to the three tendencies that serve as its theme (the most detailed are discussions of a few flight simulators). But a more generous reading would allow Crogan a different goal: to characterize one of the modes of thought that underlies video games as a medium.
While he never formally explains the term that serves as the book’s title, puzzling over it will help the reader understand Crogan’s project. In ordinary enthusiast parlance, a “gameplay mode” is a way of playing, one that assumes certain knowledge already—“easy” or “multiplayer deathmatch,” or “arcade,” for example. Crogan’s book suggests that over and above such modes, computer games possess additional, holistic patterns, one of which is the “gameplay mode” of military logistics that imbues all such games. One definition of gameplay mode might go like this: the tendency to blend reality and simulation in the hopes of better controlling reality.
Not surprisingly, Crogan’s not terribly thrilled with the gameplay mode that is his subject. He interprets the logistical model of reality as a deliberate if unacknowledged attempt to reduce or remove contingency. Just as military defense is meant to eliminate contingent outcomes in favor of ones knowable in advance, so “computer games play with the playing out of the war on contingency” (p.36). That is to say, left to their own devices, video games retain unassailable traces of the logic of military logistics in their form and function, even if particular games may not take up explicitly militaristic themes.
Of course, a strength looked at awry can also become a weakness, and Crogan devotes a good portion of the book to the “critical potential” games possess to disrupt the virtualization of preemptive modeling in a kind of subversion of the sort Alex Galloway and Eugene Thacker present in the context of network culture (Galloway & Thacker 2009). In so doing, Crogan cannot accept the argument that games’ capacity to model the behavior of systems might lead to ideas or actions orthogonal to militarization—after all, such assumptions of control only replicate the predictive conceit of logistics (p.84), silently encouraging us to redefine ordinary life in terms of computer metaphors (p.90-91). The first step in escaping gameplay mode, then, is to acknowledge it as ideology: “computer games are the reproduction rather than simply the ‘product’ of…Cold War mentality” (p.105).
Fair enough. But Crogan’s examples of “alternative and critical game practices,” the title of the book’s last chapter, seem surprisingly arbitrary given the discussion that precedes them. For example, Crogan argues that apparatuses like Tekken Torture Tournament (Tekken 3 rigged to an electric shock machine) and Painstation (a cocktail table that plays Pong while administering physical abuse) combat gameplay mode by demanding “bodily commitment” as an “explicit response to the widely perceived virtual character of computer gaming (p.138). Crogan hopes works like these put the lie to the suspended reality of simulation as logistics, since they “incite participants to think about gameplay and game consoles and their historical relation to warfare and the history of computing.” (p.141). Such an incitement might occur to self-described radical leftist academics, but it would probably strike the average person as preposterous.
Put differently, Painstation could be interpreted to perform the opposite intervention: a reinforcement of the networked, cybernetic reality of “gameplay mode” with the addition of its commonest abstraction: genuine bodily suffering. It’s not so much that military logistics have alienated us through technological ideologization, but rather that our own disconnection with physical pain and disfigurement produce a worse kind of alienation. To use a more contemporary example that might have made it into Crogan’s book had he written it this year, military drones could be called immoral not because they hunt down and kill human beings in the name of defense, but because their operators are no longer fully present for the physical and psychic aftermath of such violence.
Crogan is right to call game studies naïve; we have underemphasized the role of military technology as an important foundation of computer games. His book offers a welcome new perspective that belongs on the shelves of any games scholar, for all of us should embrace the many traditions that intersect with digital games. But another naivety is at work in Gameplay Mode too: one that takes computer games’ undeniable genealogical relationship to military logistics as primary, trumping all others. Gameplay Mode’s strength is its convincing account of Cold War military technology’s unseen influence on video games. Its weakness, perhaps, comes from the assumption that such origins can only ever stain the medium until we cast it off through the same predictable critiques leftist cultural critics have provided for decades.
Gameplay mode worries Crogan because it recuperates all experience into logistics, so that “all the interacting elements can be perceived and controlled effectively.” And he’s got a point: even the purportedly progressive uses of games for education and social good wind up becoming attempts to account for their own future efficacy. But in his attempt to rescue contingency, to fight “a battle for criticality against the overarching tendency of the program industries to standardize and predetermine the nature of access and utilization of their products” (p.174-175), Crogan may miss the fact that logistics itself is a toy worth playing with, a feature of the world that both haunts and intrigues us. In that sense, gameplay mode not only makes us complicit in the Cold War’s logics, but also provides us with the pleasure—and the honesty—of fessing up to that complicity.
Bogost, Ian (2007). Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
Crogan, Patrick (2011). Gameplay Mode: War, Simulation, and Technoculture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Galloway, Alexander R. and Eugene Thacker (2007). The Exploit: A Theory of Networks. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Lotringer, Sylvètre and Paul Virilio (2008). Pure War. Trans. Mark Polizzotti and Brian O’Keefe. Semiotext(e).
Penley, Constance and Andrew Ross (1991). Technoculture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Wardrip-Fruin, Noah (2009). Expressive Processing: Digital Fictions, Computer Games, and Software Studies. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.