Justin Keever

Justin Keever is a PhD Candidate in Visual Studies at the University of California, Irvine. His current research involves the creation of a concept called “Unselfing,” which is the way in which videogames may deconstruct the neoliberal subjects which the medium normatively produces. He has published work on the politics of play, transient art, television, and representations of nuclear apocalypse. He has also worked as a freelance writer, who was written about videogames for Paste, Killscreen, Zam and Heterotopias.

Contact Information:
jkeever at uci.edu

Videogames and the Technicity of Ideology: The Case for Critique

by Justin Keever


This essay proposes that the method of Ideology Critique still has much to offer the discipline of game studies, particularly given the field's overarching concern with the concept of "agency." Contra posthumanist approaches which characterize videogames as an entangling of human and nonhuman agencies in democratic assemblages, this essay argues that videogames ought to be viewed as technical arrangements (apparatuses) which constitute their users as “agents.” Posthumanist theories, due to their elision of abstraction from their mapping of the world, miss this fundamental aspect of agency, which Ideology critique can effectively highlight. Following the work of French Philosopher Louis Althusser, this paper demonstrates that ideology is best understood not as a set of conscious beliefs, nor even merely as a set of “representations” in the way that Cultural Studies tends to discuss representations, but instead that Ideology is a technology which constitutes individual subjects, linking subjectivity to our technical being-in-the-world. In so doing, Ideology produces what we understand as “agency.” Ideology critique, when taken as far as it can go in this direction, offers game studies a fundamental starting point for videogame analysis: that videogames are sites of production in which corporeal movement becomes legible as a form of “agency” by subjecting such movement to a grid of computational, economic intelligibility.

Keywords: Ideology, Posthumanism, Agency, Latour, Barad, Althusser



Game studies is a messy discipline. It is, perhaps, less a discipline than a collective of divergent methods that speak to one another only through their common object, games. Of course, that common object is not even a common object: “game studies” tends to imply “videogame” studies, to the detriment of much excellent scholarship on analog games. But if one were to attempt to draw a boundary around a specific field of “videogame” studies, then one would still find a collective which, after a few years of disciplinary and ontological flag-planting regarding how to define its object, would choose to side-step the question of disciplinary specificity and explode out into a boundless network of largely incompatible discourses which seem to fundamentally disagree about the nature of the “videogame” medium.

The irony, though, is that despite this potential for an anarchic constellation of methodologies, game studies does ultimately coalesce around recurrent themes, with the notion of agency being one of the strongest currents cutting through the field on the whole. Agency has been a recurring theme in the brief history of what people might think of as game studies “proper,” i.e., the canon of game studies which begins to develop just before the turn of the 21st century. The term has been a structural void point around which much discussion of the aesthetics and pleasures of games, as well as their capacity to control and discipline their players, has been based, and as such there is a long and multivalent conversation which circles around the word agency. Despite the importance of agency to the field, game studies is only just beginning to ask the question of what, exactly, the term means.

This work to more clearly define the operation of agency in videogame play has, to my mind, co-mingled with the general messiness of game studies as a discipline, which has led to a move towards a theoretical framework which seems up to task of both defining agency and accounting for/making sense of the ontological messiness of games and their study. That is, we are embedded in a general movement towards a conception of distributed and entangled agency, a notion of agency which foregrounds the interplay of human and nonhuman agencies engaged in a form of posthuman intermingling. This increasingly popular conception of agency in videogame studies has emerged with the intent of displacing and critiquing the form of the agent, the figure of the player who possesses agency. What I will argue in this essay is that two popular (one lingeringly so and one relatively new) posthuman theoretical frameworks in fact foreclose any possibility of radical political critique of the agent, and in turn limits the possibilities of political analysis of games. I argue here that game studies must re-discover the efficacy of Ideological [1] critique via a critical re-examination of Althusserian theories of Ideology, and expanding those methods beyond where they’ve been taken in game studies thus far. Ideology critique does not simply allow us to declare whether players have or lack agency: it allows us to analyze how agency is produced. Games studies’ key problematic of agency is best approached through the analytical lens of a form of Ideology critique which recognizes that Ideology creates agents at a non-conscious, material level. As such, Ideology critique allows us to analyze games in a way that reckons with their complex technicity while also recognizing that such technicity is constitutive of player-subjects.

Messy Agency and Posthumanism

To understand the history of discourse around agency in game studies, as well as the emergent trajectory of ANT approaches to the videogame and the kinds of political critique those methods permit and prevent, we might begin with game studies scholar Stephanie Jennings’ excellent “meta-synthesis” of the scholarly discourse surrounding agency in the discipline (2019). Jennings provides a historical overview and categorization of the discourses surrounding agency in game studies, beginning with Janet Murray’s early, influential invocation of agency as a fundamental pleasure of gameplay experiences in Hamlet on the Holodeck. Murray takes agency to be a quality and expectation of interactive electronic environments, defining agency as “the satisfying power to take meaningful action and see the results of our decisions and choices” (1997, p. 123). As Jennings notes, this definition becomes the “launching point” for other studies of agency in games, leaving Murray’s initial definition uninterrogated, which in turn leads to a problematic fogginess around the term itself in a game studies context. Nonetheless, from Murray’s use of the term the initial hegemonic notion of agency in game studies takes form: agency as a human capacity, a liberal conception of agency (“the capacity to cause effects”) that videogames may amplify in pleasurable ways. In response, counter-arguments that videogames do not offer freedom but instead compel their players to obey emerged, which claimed that player actions are already predetermined by the game itself, and so players lack any sort of “real” choice (in Jennings’ summary, such arguments include Alec Charles’ 2009 theorization of illusory interactivity and notion of faux-scriptibility, and numerous responses to the videogame Bioshock) (Charles, 2009, pp. 285-289; Jennings, 2019, pp. 94-95). These sorts of arguments, in turn, imply a form of “true agency” which lies outside of videogame play, which has been theorized as a kind of collective intervention from the “outside” of the videogame (Stang, 2019).

Jennings also identifies a thinking of agency which falls under the wide umbrella of “embodiment.” Common amongst the scholars in this category is the thinking of videogame play as cyborgian: a thinking of the videogame as hybrid human-and-nonhuman apparatus in which agency is distributed. This common theoretical framework, however, seems to pull in two directions: either as a foundation for thinking of games as apparatuses which discipline their players (including Friedman, 1999, and Lahti, 2003) or as a more democratic and decentralized distribution (and co-constitution) of agencies across human and nonhuman actors (such as Keogh, 2018, or Fizek, 2018) (Jennings, 2019, pp. 92-94). The threads of videogame studies which emphasize embodiment either foretell or are of a piece with the rising conception of agency in videogames as a distributed, messy, contingent phenomenon.

The final modalities of agency that Jennings identifies -- and that Jennings most strongly advocates for -- are conceptions of agency that pose a challenge to the Aristotelian active/passive (or agent/patient) binary. These conceptions respond to the liberal, humanist imperative to be an agent. This can entail either a valorization of alternative forms of play, which rejects agonistic play forms that emphasize mastery and intentional action (Jennings cites Bo Ruberg’s (2017) notion of queer failure as one such alternative), or with a challenge to the notion that nonhumans are passive. These latter challenges to the notion of nonhuman “passivity” often take up the theoretical methodologies of Actor Network Theory, cybernetics, and new materialism to challenge the agent/patient binary by extending agency to nonhumans, emphasizing the flux of human and nonhuman agency. This, ultimately, is the position Jennings advocates for: she argues that “agency in video games manifests as plural modalities, rather than scattered along a spectrum of more-or-less or true-or-illusory,” that game studies ought to “reposition players within the massive, tangling, moving configurations of human and nonhuman agencies that compose instances of gameplay.” (2019, p. 102)

This conception of agency as agencies -- as ever-contingent, in flux -- is better suited, Jennings argues, to exploring the “complex, collective, historical contingencies” that inform agency in videogame play by refusing to abstract the particular modalities in which agency emerges into any particular structure or subject form. Here, Jennings identifies a means of thinking agency which is shared within a matrix of posthuman methodologies, which have come to be thought of as “proper” to the plural modalities of videogame agency. Some of these have been present in game studies for nearly a decade, some longer, some of which are emerging as a new wave: cybernetic methods (Giddings and Kennedy, Keogh, Fizek), Actor-Network and Assemblage Theories (Taylor, 2009, Muriel and Crawford 2020, Behrenhausen 2012) and New Materialism (McKeown, 2019, Sicart 2021, Janik 2018).

This matrix of methodologies is positioned as having a more “complete” grasp of the complexity of entangled agencies, and in so doing has a unique claim to a kind of political radicality which is centered on the displacement of the a priori human subject of liberal humanism. However, what do these methodologies occlude in their attempt to grasp complexity directly? A recent essay by sociologists Daniel Muriel and Gerry Crawford takes up a Latourian point of view, arguing that agency is a capacity to produce differences and transformations in reality which is distributed within assemblages of human and nonhuman actors, and that this agency is merely occluded in a straightforward way by dispositifs that reproduce the political rationality of neoliberalism (2020, pp. 138-157). Muriel and Crawford’s treatment of agency as the production of transformations via the interplay of distributed actors leads them to confront what they call a “paradox” of videogame agency: that “video game players are acted on as much as they act” (Giddings, qtd. in Muriel and Crawford, p. 146). This paradox is what Étienne Balibar and Sandra Laugier would describe as the defining feature of agency: “in agency, the agents themselves are no longer only the actors/authors of action; instead, they are also caught up in a system of relations that shifts the place and authority of action and modifies… the definition of action” (2014, p. 17). On the difficulty of translating “agency” into French, Balibar and Laugier remark that “in many cases, ‘agent’ would be more easily translated by sujet (and, in turn, ‘agency’ translates sujet better than ‘subject’ does)” (2014, p. 18). This note on translation affirms that the question of agency is also, fundamentally, a question of subjectivity: i.e., a question of Ideology.

Actor Network Theory leaves us ill-equipped to address this question, because it rejects the notion of structure. This rejection of structure as a means of conceptualizing the videogame medium is put forth in service of a commendable politics of difference, of locality and specificity, of contestation and complexity. However, the rejection of the notion of structure in turn neglects the possibility that agency is produced within a particular political terrain that makes the supposed immediacy of agency ultimately inaccessible. As such, these methodologies fall into the liberal trap which they all seek to evade: as Benjamin Noys argues, Latour’s thinking of capitalism as a multiplicity of local effects -- as a series of micro-networks -- is the result of a network-thinking whose philosophical complement, Noys argues, is “an equalitarian or ‘flat’ ontology exemplified by Latour’s claim, in ‘Irreductions’ (1984), that ‘nothing is more complex, multiple, real, palpable, or interesting than anything else’” (2010, pp. 83-84). The appeal of this egalitarian ontology, that it makes the concrete directly apprehensible, is also the precise reason that it is unable to apprehend capitalism’s ontology of real abstraction (2010, p. 85). Real abstraction -- the process in which the usual distinction between the concrete and the abstract is undermined by the abstractive effects of the commodity, which subjects the real to the abstractions of value -- is the ontological field of capitalism (it is how capitalism “posits its own presuppositions”), which prevents us from reaching the territory of the concrete in the manner which the ‘flat’ ontology of Actor-Network Theory posits we can (2010, pp. 10, 85-86).

What Noys brings to our attention is a need to think of agency as something produced within the ontological terrain -- the assemblage, if you like -- of (neo)liberal capitalism. Instead of opposing a model of agential individuality against a model of a more perfect democratic agency distributed amongst human and nonhuman actors, we ought to consider the former agency a product of the latter. ANT partitions liberalism as a local effect which can be cast aside, when it is in fact an ontological force which conditions agency at every turn.

A rising movement of posthumanist thought in game studies, which also wants to access the real directly, has taken up Karen Barad’s (2007) agential realist reading of Neils Bohr’s quantum philosophy-physics. Barad takes Bohr’s observation that electrons may behave as particles or waves based on the arrangement of the experimental apparatus which measures the electrons’ behavior, and extrapolates from it a new materialist philosophy in which reality consists not of particular objects with determinate ontological qualities, but of phenomena which are the product of an intermingling of objects within discrete apparatuses (pp. 114-121). In this framing, there can exist no boundary between objects and agencies of observation. Barad calls this philosophy “agential realism;” a view in which reality is composed of intra-acting (entangled, prior to independent “subjects” or “objects”) agencies that produce phenomena in an ongoing process of mattering. Matter, for Barad, is less substance than verb: matter refers to the ongoing materialization of phenomena -- matter is the “congealing of agency” (2007, pp. 148-151). In turn, agency in Barad’s schema is the intra-activity of mattering -- agency is the enaction of iterative changes to apparatuses that are productive of all reality (p. 178). Apparatuses are “material-discursive practices” which articulate the possibilities of agency (which, as entangled intra-activity, is always involved in the process of reformatting those apparatuses that produce this entangled intra-activity) (p.170).

In some contemporary game studies work, Barad’s philosophy plays a supporting role (as in Stone, 2018, or Sicart, 2022). However, other contemporary posthumanist orientations towards the medium place Barad front and center: Justyna Janik (2018) applies Barad’s onto-epistomology of “agential realism” to Tadeusz Kantor’s notion of the “bio-object” (a term which refers to the inseperability of actor and object in the context of theater) in order to expand the latter term and destabilize its lingering anthropocentric tendencies. With this, she crafts a theory of the videogame-as-bio-object, in which player and videogame are mutually constitutive and engaged in an act of mutual transformation during play. Janik frames this vision of videogame play as an “ethical” experience, insofar as it decenters the human subject and allows the digital object to impose its “otherness” upon us. Conor McKeown (2018) reads a particularly transformative instance of hacking in order to argue that videogames are best understood not as texts-to-be-read but a series of software processes and hardware configurations which are mutually constitutive and chaotic and malleable -- in other words, videogames reproduce Barad’s onto-epistemology in microcosm. Elaborating on this position in another piece via a close reading of Return of the Obra Dinn, McKeown (2019) argues that the player is “ultimately involved in creating the Obra Dinn, in co-operation with their computer, Lucas Pope (and so on, and so on).” Thus, player and game co-engage in a “reconfiguration” of reality which uncovers (and is determined by) the sediment of history (and colonialism). Running through all these accounts is a sense of possibility that results from displacing the central human subject.

However, Barad’s radical displacement of the transcendental, thinking human subject oddly reinstates it. The intra-active becoming of the universe achieves a non-hierarchical universality which human beings can access (or, really, create!) through the privileged hermeneutic of “realism” -- i.e., an ability to apprehend the real directly beyond representation, or beyond the correspondence of thought to material existence. Barad’s philosophy of entanglement is a “realism” insofar as Barad rejects what she calls “representationalism,” or “the idea that representations and the objects (subjects, events, or states of affairs) they purport to represent are independent of one another.” (2007, p. 28). Barad’s notion of absolute onto-epistemological entanglement ought to plunge the human subject and everything else into a cyclone of absolute indetermination, and yet, curiously, objectivity remains contingently possible within Barad’s philosophical framework.

Barad’s notion of objectivity is what she calls “exteriority within phenomena,” or “agential-seperability” (2007, p. 140). The agential cut, enacted by the apparatus, “resolves” (2007, p. 143) the ontological indeterminacy which has been unveiled by quantum physics, allowing phenomena to be discernable at all. That is to say that at some point, for Barad, even though subject and object are not distinct entities a priori, there is a moment at which there is a subject and an object (albeit in a moment of co-constitution). From this position of exteriority-within-phenomena, one can set about the task of establishing objectivity, which “requires an accounting of the constitutive practices in the fullness of their materialities,” including those practices exclusions, their historicity, and their virtual potentiality (2007, p. 391). As worthy a project as such an accounting is, a question remains: how does one’s relationship to the apparatus perhaps create the conditions of possibility for accounting for the full materiality of being? I don’t mean to suggest that the mere presence of the subject in Barad’s philosophy somehow undoes it: quite the opposite, Barad’s argument that subjectivation is secondary, rather than an a priori quality of real experience, places her in direct alignment with the position I am about to defend, that of Althusser, whose early intervention into Marxism is to develop the concept of Ideology in a manner that demonstrates that consciousness is a secondary effect of material rituals. Barad’s notion of the apparatus is coincidentally conversant with Althusser’s writing on Ideological “apparatuses” and his emphasis on the “primacy of the structure over its elements” (1982, p. 190). Moreover, Barad’s use of the term “onto-epistemology” to describe the necessary entanglement of the material and the discursive captures in a single term what I will argue is a key aspect of Althusser’s theorization of Ideology: that Ideology is not merely contained within the realm of epistemology, but that Ideology is embodied; that the Ideological formation of the human is a material process which is entangled with the realm of the discursive.

However, Barad’s theory only gets as far as demonstrating the secondariness of the subject and does not clue us in as to how subjectivity sets boundaries upon the conditions of possibility that account for the material world. There is no real engagement with the notion of the subject as an emergent product of entanglement, which leaves Barad’s onto-epistemological void ultimately void of politics. This is not so in Althusser: as Catherine Malabou explains, the subject emerges from the void of the real: it is its a posteriori, the result of the taking of form which is the secondary consequence of the aleatory encounters which take place in the void of the real (2021, p. 493). The residual subject, which emerges secondarily from the real, is the theater of the encounter which takes place in the material encounters in the void -- as such, the void is the political site of utmost importance (2021, p. 494). In Althusser there is an accounting for the production of law, i.e., the process in which the production of the void of the real, may become teleological (where structure precedes its elements) and becomes a process of re-production: i.e., Ideology. That is to say that there is a moment in Althusser’s materialism which accounts for the way the subject becomes a barrier to the radical potentiality of the real in its differential becoming. Barad’s realism gives us no such moment, and as such remains haunted by the very anthropocentricism it wants so much to cast off. In a telling moment, McKeown describes Barad’s ethics as a taking into account the fullness of one’s material impact on the constitution of the universe, describing one’s co-constitution with the material universe as a kind of “universality.” While McKeown uses the word “universal” to refer to a scale of being several times in his latter article, it is difficult to not read “universal” in the sense of “all-encompassing” as well -- the human is given access to the “universality” of the real in Barad’s agential realism without being given the tools to self-reflexively analyze how one’s subject position may function as a barrier to account for our ontological entanglements.

Both actor-network theory and new materialism proceed from a premise of direct access, sidestepping the centrality of the human subject, but in doing so cast the human (now reconfigured as a distributed assemblage or the product of an agential cut made within universal entanglement and collective becoming) as an ethically neutral position from which one gains access to reality in the full richness of its complexity and becoming.

I argue that these attempts to define agency as messy, contingent, in flux, and/or distributed amongst human and nonhuman actors have not displaced older, (neo)liberal conceptions of agency: they have merely identified the site in which the agential playing subject is produced, and declared this site of production the site of a more democratic, more truthful vision of agency. The rising conception of agency as entangled and distributed is implicitly posited as being a post-ideological conception of agency, a truth of how agency operates in the world which, when properly identified, frees us from the ideological notion that there are agents in the world. However, this vision of the liberating truth of distributed agency obscures the fact that the material function of Ideology is the formation of subjects -- of agents -- through ritualized practices that are shaped by nonhuman actors. Ideology is a technology that creates agents through a sociotechnical milieu, which we might imprecisely call a kind of nonhuman agency. A modern method of Ideological critique does not posit preexisting subjects, it details the creation of those subjects within a material apparatus: as such, positing that agency is distributed between humans and nonhumans simply points us back at the problem of Ideology.

What is I/ideology, Really?

A complete history of the concept of ideology is beyond the scope of this paper; rather, I wish to offer here a basic delineation between the initial Marxist conception of ideology, and how Althusser shifts that understanding. In Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ essay The German Ideology, ideology is the false notion that the independent existence of ideas comes into being with the advent of the division of labor (that is, the assignation of a typified role in the labor process which makes it involuntary and thus alienates an individual’s labor from themselves) (Marx and Engels, 2010, p. 47). For Marx and Engels, it is precisely in the division of labor that labor attains an ideality which is separate from labor-in-itself (2010, p. 46). Ideology, in The German Ideology, is essentially equivalent to idealism.

Marx and Engels’ critique in The German Ideology is at its core a critique of abstraction: ideology is those abstractions which obscure the primacy of material conditions in determining the contours of one’s life. As such, within the pair’s critique of German philosophy is a critique of the concept “Man.” The abstraction “Man” resides within the independent domain of concepts and ideas that are taken to be the products of consciousness, and it is those mental concepts alone which function as “chains” of “Man” that alienate him from his essence. “Man,” particularly the Man at the center of Ludwig Feuerbach’s philosophy (which is a key target of Marx and Engels) is merely capable of achieving a higher and more correct consciousness of the essence of the sensuous things in which Man is confined. Man is incapable of recognizing the historical contingency of that sensuous world, that is, the extent to which that world is the product of a particular material arrangement in which concrete individuals, historical subjects, actually reside (Marx and Engels, 2010, p. 39).

Louis Althusser points out in his essay “The Humanist Controversy,” that Marx and Engels do not fully succeed in their critique of German philosophy’s idealism -- especially vis a vis their critique of the category of “Man.” Rather, the pair displace Man onto their category of “individuals,” which are still themselves bound up in a Feuerbachian essentialism. We can see this essentialism in the way Marx and Engels’ “concrete individuals” remain subject to the process of alienation: their critique of ideology in The German Ideology centers on the way the division of labor creates a false world of self-sufficient ideas which alienate individuals from their essential interrelatedness (Althusser, 2003, pp. 260-261). While Marx and Engels emphasize the production of the material world in a way that Feuerbach fails to, their critique of the alienation of the individual leaves them trapped within Feuerbach’s humanist teleological schema. In this schema, history is the process of the alienation of the subject Man (now called individuals) with the ultimate telos of human self-consciousness (albeit achieved through material revolution). And so, Marx and Engels remain within the very ideology that they are attempting to critique. Althusser will take humanism to be ideology par excellence, insofar as humanism, in its positing of a concrete individual subject that serves as the foundation upon which any philosophical inquiry is made, serves to conceal any meaningful inquiry into the question of how those subjects are produced by their material conditions.

Before we proceed, we must acknowledge a difference often unnoticed in cultural studies-adjacent humanities scholarship between Ideology singular and ideologies plural in “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” [2] a distinction that is relatively understated in the text but key for its argument. Althusser’s theory does not concern ideologies, which are contingent sociohistorical products, instead focusing on Ideology singular (which I have been, and will continue to, capitalize to distinguish the concept from its plural sibling), which is the function of subjection that is omni-historical, eternal, in a manner that Althusser likens to the psychoanalytic unconscious (2014, p. 255). This is the beginning of Althusser’s key intervention into the concept of Ideology. Ideology is no longer an aspect of consciousness, but a process of subject formation beneath consciousness, which guides consciousness while never rising to the level of consciousness as such -- not thought but lived (and is therefore not equivalent to what Lukacs calls “false consciousness”) (Althusser, 2005, p. 234; Lukacs, 1971, p. 52). It is expressed via practice and formed through material rituals.

The point most commonly ignored or dismissed regarding Althusser’s theorization of Ideology in the ISA essay is that Ideology is fundamentally material. Ideology is the material configuration of subjects through ritualized practices whose form is determined by the material construction of the apparatus that is actively constituting the subject. For Althusser, actions do not follow ideas. He does not even invert such a relationship between actions and ideas, but instead altogether deconstructs it. Ideology is an act of material, physical formation of subjects through ritualized (i.e., habitual) practice. Ideas disappear from this schema, their independent existence conceptualized as a consequence of material arrangements (Althusser, 2014, p. 261). Althusser strips ideology of its very ideality, deconstructing the binary between materiality and ideology (and in doing so making it difficult to speak of a clear distinction between ontology and epistemology). This theory of Ideology qua material formation radically does away with any sort of pure interiority. What is misrecognized as the subject’s interior consciousness is always a secondary consequence of an exterior condition. Human subjects are always conceived of as contingent products rather than givens, and the function of Ideology is to constitute concrete individuals (i.e., bodies) as subjects.

The name that is given to the act of forming the human subject, its verb, is the well-known word “interpellation,” or “hailing.” Interpellation becomes the synecdochic keyword for Althusser’s theory of Ideology going forward, the word given to the concept of ideological subject formation; this, to my mind, is a shame, because the term’s close association with the explanatory anecdote which follows it, the “hailing” of an individual in the street by a police officer, makes interpellation into something of a red herring in Althusser’s theory of Ideology. Interpellation comes to be overly tied to a poorly conceived “concrete” example which actually contradicts the process of subject formation as Althusser describes it elsewhere.

The story of interpellation goes like so: imagine you are walking down a street, and a police officer (or just some other person) cries out, “hey, you there!” One individual turns around to face the officer who hailed them, and in so doing becomes a subject “because he has recognized that the hail was ‘really’ addressed to him, and that ‘it was really him who was hailed’ (and not someone else)” (2014, p. 264). This anecdote, evidently designed to be a concrete metaphor for interpellation, sacrifices any sort of explanatory power because of its concreteness, and should not be taken as representative of Althusser’s theory of Ideology. Interpellation is a more abstract process, which constructs abstractions.

The use of the cop-in-the-street example is not its capture of the moment of interpellation in the actual world, but its dramatization of the ideological function of the word “you.” The value of Althusser’s anecdote is only evident if you strip away all of its concreteness: interpellation takes place not in the utterance of a police officer (who is, after all, a representative of the Repressive State Apparatus) but in the effect that the word “you” has on the disorganized net of existence. “You” reverberates through the disorganized ether that is the world and isolates a target, a subject, enframing that interpellated “you” as an organized entity with definitive boundaries. Interpellation, therefore, is the imposition of a subjective pronoun onto a concrete entity which has been isolated as a target. Interpellation is a violent severing of an individual subject from the disorganized, chaotic “net” of the world.

This subjection does not happen through the sheer epistemological force of representation, but through the material arrangements of ritualized practice. The existence of the subject “is inscribed in the actions of practices governed by rituals defined in the last instance by an Ideological apparatus. It therefore appears that the subject acts insofar as he is acted by” the arrangement of practices that have been organized via the ideological apparatus (Althusser, 2014, p. 261). Ideology is, therefore, the material arrangement of the world which founds the subject’s experience of being: it is the physical ordering of life which makes bodies and consciousness legible as “I” and “you,” creating individual subjects by isolating them, creating forms out of the unformed world. Ideology unveils the extent to which bourgeois notions of private and public are inherently imbricated: the private subject is a consequence of a public formation, and that which is understood as interiority is a misrecognition of an interiorized exteriority. Ideology functions by structuring life through outside stimuli which affect internal change: that is, by creating habits. What you understand to be “you” is a function of the individuating, interpellating machine of Ideology, which creates a society of “you’s” through regimes of corporeal discipline.

Wendy Chun has written at length about the formation of ‘you’ happens in new media. “You,” as Wendy Chun notes, is a “shifty shifter,” both singular and plural, both an injunction to a mass and the individuals which compose that mass. This singular and plural “you,” what Chun refers to as the all-caps “YOU,” is a key part of how Chun theorizes the ideologically habitual function of new media. “New media are a function of YOU,” writes Chun: new media address (and in doing so, forms) subjects which are paradoxically private-in-public. New media addresses individuals, en masse, as individuals, while also connecting them asynchronously in network forms (Chun, 2016, pp. 3-4). This connection happens, writes Chun, through the creation and fostering of habits. For Chun, habit has lost the creative capacity that is granted to it by theorists such as Félix Ravaisson and post-Deleuzians such as Elizabeth Grosz. Rather, habit has become the manifestation of ideology in the supposedly post-ideological milieu of neoliberalism. Habit has become coupled to precarity, which has in turn transformed habit into addiction: it is motivated by a loss, (a lack), which in turn fosters dependency on the technologies which create habits in network society. This transformation of habit, from creative stability into addiction/loss, has occurred due to neoliberalism’s proliferation of crises. Crises are moments which interrupt ‘normal” (i.e., “habitual”) time: these are states of exception which demand a “real-time response” in the form of a decision by a sovereign subject. New media are “crisis machines,” constantly injuncting their users to use: that is, to make decisions in response to the stimuli which new media provide (Chun, 2016, p. 85). These decisions are constitutive of what we sometimes call “interactivity.” The ability to use, to touch the “real” through our devices, is a moment of crisis -- a state of exception -- in miniature. The possibility space of these decisions, however, is always predetermined by the design of the devices (i.e., the “code”), which facilitate our experience of new media “agency.”

Chun likens this experience of perpetual crisis/decision specifically to the experience of videogame play: “what [users] experience is arguably not a real decision, but rather the already planned in an unforeseen manner: increasingly, user decisions are like actions in a video game. They are immediately felt, affective, and based on user actions, and yet at the same time programmed” (2016, p.79) Here, Chun evokes the existing tradition of ideology critique in game studies, which emphasizes how videogames, as ideological apparatuses, function through the nonconscious operation of habit formation. Her argument recalls that of Matt Garite, who argues by way of Althusser, Foucault and Fredric Jameson that videogame play is a form of ideological labor in which the relation between player gesture and on-screen effect is naturalized by subjecting the player to a series of repetitive tests, in which the linkage between arbitrary button presses and represented effects is reinforced until the link becomes fully internalized -- that is, “until response is a matter of habit” (2003, p. 3). Garite argues that videogames construct their players as freely acting, autonomous subjects -- a consequence of the mirrored refraction of player actions onscreen -- only to the extent that all of the player’s possible actions are already predetermined by the game (2003, p. 12). Garite’s argument that videogames “program” their players is prefigured by cybernetic critiques of the videogame, such as Ted Friedman’s critique of Civilization II, in which Friedman characterizes the connection between player and videogame as a cybernetic circuit in which the boundaries between the player’s consciousness and the computer system blur, or Martti Lahti’s argument that games produce commodified cyborg consciousnesses through regimes of bodily discipline (Friedman, 1999; Lahti, 2003).

As vital and -- to my mind -- accurate as these arguments are about the fundamental nature of the videogame apparatus, they perhaps do not go far enough in identifying the fundamental Ideological crux of the videogame medium. These theories remain haunted by the lowercase-i, plural version of “ideologies” through their (sometimes implicit) emphasis on discipline. While theorists such as Garite, Friedman and Lahti are extending their observations to the entire medium, the language of framing the videogame’s ideological mechanics as a matter of “tests,” or “rewards,” or “discipline,” or the “logic” of a program implicitly suppose an interpretive openness which creates a space for what one might be tempted to call a “resistive” mode of play. To take Ideology as a material force seriously is to engage with the subject-formation which precedes such regimes of discipline.

The purpose of differentiating between lower-case ideologies and upper-case Ideology is to distinguish between particular modes of corporeal discipline and habit formation that are specific to individual game texts, and the form of subject formation, which any player -- good or bad -- is contained in the moment they touch a videogame. The immediacy of this digital capture is described by art historian Julian Stallabrass anticipates the arguments made by Garite and Lahti. Stallabrass argued in 1993 that videogames enforce “on players a mechanization of the body in which their movements and their self-image as alter-ego provide both a physical and a simulated picture of the fragmented, allegorized and reified self under the conditions of capital” (Stallabrass, 1993, p. 87). Like Garite and Lahti, Stallabrass’ dedicates much of his critique of the medium to the ideological regimes of discipline which videogames impose on their players through tests which hone players’ skills and coerce them to embody the games’ particular system. However, Stallabrass also calls attention to the “fragmentation” that precedes this discipline:

For while all games are based on economy, the control system -- the interface between player and operating system -- is largely arbitrary. Control systems which are marketed as ‘intuitive’ merely display some internal consistency… New systems of ‘fixed and equational’ structures in which all ambivalence is excluded, where the sign acts as ‘discriminant’, are regularly invented in the game world and indeed in all programmes. Any notion of computing as a postmodern realm of chaos and shifting identifications must take on this founding act of universal reduction which, far from being imposed over an anarchic flux of signals, is built into the physical and virtual architecture of all systems from the start. [emphasis mine] (1993, p. 93)

Videogames translate action into a machinic language, and they do so as a precondition to any kind of corporeal discipline which game systems might enforce on their players. This act of translation is how videogames “exclude” ambivalence: videogames, through their interfaces, encourage motions, which are translated into straightforward effects (via the fragmenting grammatization of action inherent to “capture” systems) that are rendered in real-time on the representational layer of the screen. Any sort of “postmodern” flux is preceded by this capture and economic fragmentation. Even if a player does not act in a way that internalizes a specific videogame’s ideological structure, even if they play in a less-than-ideal way -- even if they play as mindlessly as possible, with zero regard for what is happening onscreen -- they are engaging with a system that is imposing rationality upon that action. This is what Stallabrass calls the “universal reduction,” which is present in the architecture of all computer systems from the start: to engage with a computer is to engage with an ontology of calculability unavoidably. This is how videogames take hold of their playing subjects as homo oeconomicus: they read their players through an architecture of rationality, a reading which restructures the player who plays. The player is created by being subjected to this computational, calculable, economic grid of intelligibility: it is the material interface by which the player is “read” and by which they respond -- which really means that this interface is the material practice which forms the player as a player-subject.


Let us conclude by way of example through an all-too-brief critique of the videogame Outer Wilds, a game which appears at first to decenter its playing subject but at a technical and narrative level makes evident the way in which the posthuman apparatus collapses back into the formation of the human subject. Outer Wilds takes place in a miniature solar system wherein the sun goes supernova. The player takes the role of an alien resident of this solar system, a Hearthian, who is resurrected 22 minutes before the supernova consumes the solar system whenever they die. It soon becomes evident that the player-character is trapped in a time loop at the edge of the apocalypse, and the implicit central task is to figure out how and why they are caught in this loop, and what is causing the supernova. Outer Wilds is structured as an iterative series of time-loops, in which the system’s astronomical bodies orbit the sun and alter their surface in consistent, predetermined ways each loop. Unlike many games, where the world-state remains relatively static until the player moves the plot along, in Outer Wilds the diegesis moves and alters itself without the player’s approval. The player has no direct control over this looped time, and if they wish to proceed in the game’s story by successfully navigating the game’s environmental puzzles, they often must adjust account for how the planets’ surfaces transform throughout the 22-minute cycle.

At a technical level, this decentering of the player is achieved by making the player, to quote the game’s director Alex Beachum, “literally the center of the world at all times.” In an interview, Beachum describes a technical problem that arose in simulating a miniature solar system that an individual player could move through: because videogames require game cameras to remain near the center of the gameworld’s coordinate space (or else the diegesis will begin to jitter and collapse), Outer Wilds “keep[s] the player near the mathematical origin of the world” by applying an equal and opposite force to every object in the game whenever the player moves. As Beachum summarizes: “when you jump in Outer Wilds technically every planet’s jumping out from under you, and you’re more or less not moving” (2020, 30:20).

The material centrality of the playing subject is ultimately expressed at the representational level as well, in a narrative whose structure across loops and eschatological themes ultimately demonstrate the way in which the posthuman collapses back into the human. As the narrative of Outer Wilds unfolds, the player discovers that the solar system was previously colonized by a species of aliens named the Nomai, who originally crash-landed in the solar system hunting for what the Nomai call the Eye of the Universe: the source of a signal that is somehow older than the universe itself. The player’s discoveries regarding the Nomai and their quest are recorded on the Ship Log, a computer terminal in the recruit’s spaceship that tracks where the player has been and what plot-pertinent information has been discovered at those locations (Figure 1). This computer is also, curiously, the only other entity in Outer Wilds that seems capable of registering that the Universe is caught in a time-loop, because the Ship Log does not reset itself between loops but persists across them. As such, the ship log functions as an index of the player’s experience of time: as a repetitive sequence of identical cycles that nonetheless proceed sequentially, and in doing so constitute a linear unfurling of a narrative of knowledge accumulation with what is, ultimately, a clearly defined telos. The Ship Log’s network renders the player’s past in Outer Wilds legible to themselves, and so the Ship Log addresses the player as a mirror: this network is “you,” it is your history. The Hearthian at the ship log is a mise-en-abyme of the player-at-the-videogame.

Figure 1. Ship Log from Outer Wilds (Mobius Digital, 2019). Click image to enlarge.

As the narrative progresses, the player discovers that the Eye of the Universe is a quantum object: it is an astronomical body which exhibits “quantum” behavior, which is visible to the naked eye (as opposed to the phenomena that serves as the basis of “quantum” physics, which manifest at an atomic level). The Eye is one of many “quantum” objects in Outer Wilds, though it is the source of all other quantum objects in the game (such as shards of shifting rocks, a mysterious moon which orbits the Eye, as well as every other planet in the solar system). In the context of Outer Wilds, “quantum” behavior manifests as changes in an object’s position depending upon where the player is looking; a quantum object stays in place as long as the player-character’s gaze is upon it, but it jumps to another position as soon as the player(-character) looks away. The player’s gaze and the quantum objects which the gaze holds in place are, we might say, intra-acting, constitutive of an apparatus which produces a reality of Hearthian-and-object that is broken when the apparatus no longer holds those two objects in place in the same way.

We might understand this intra-action of the player-character and quantum objects as being of a piece with the game’s insistent 22-minute cycles, insofar as both seem to destabilize the centrality of the player: the former entangles the player-character with other objects, linking them in a productive apparatus (Outer Wilds itself), and the latter generating a diegesis characterized by a movement (of time and of objects) which seemingly cannot be resisted by the player. The 22-minute loop confronts the player with a world that moves without her, and quantum objects confront the player with an agential becoming where reality is co-constituted through the intermingling of ontologically slippery entities.

And yet, when the player finally reaches the Eye of the Universe at the game’s conclusion, something strange happens. The player enters the Eye (Figure 2) and this moment of absolute entanglement transforms into a sequence of absolute interiority: the player visits an ethereal version of the planetarium where they first receive the launch codes for their spaceship. The player then enters a forest populated by miniature galaxies, which begin to blink out one by one until the entire forest has gone dark. Out of this darkness, a campfire emerges around which the player-character locates not-quite-real versions (implied to be internal images) of each of the fellow explorers they’ve encountered on their journey. They all gather around the campfire to join in song and collectively give birth to a new universe. This series of events, says the Nomai that the player-character meets on the Eye’s moon (and who reappears in this final sequence), is the result of a “conscious observer” entering the Eye. The Nomai explains:

I believe we’ve reached the end of our journey. All that remains is to collapse the innumerable possibilities before us. It’s tempting to linger in this moment, while every possibility still exists. But unless they are collapsed by an observer, they will never be more than possibilities.

The moment of creation takes the form of an explosion, an emanation of pure light (Figure 3): the release of an entirely new regime of Being, created through the presence of a conscious observer.

Figure 2. Eye of the Universe from Outer Wilds (Mobius Digital, 2019). Click image to enlarge.

Figure 3. Creation of New Universe in Outer Wilds (Mobius Digital, 2019). Click image to enlarge.

The player, in this final sequence, becomes coronated as the locus of creation: the subjectivity which gives birth to the world that they occupy. It becomes clear in this moment that the moment of mise-en-abyme, the Hearthian-at-the-ship log, which is a double of the player-at-the-videogame, is itself a double for the Eye of the Universe’s position relative to the solar system that makes up the diegesis of Outer Wilds: the network map of the ship log that addresses the Hearthian also places them in the position of the Eye, rendering them contradictorily exterior to the world they inhabit. The position of the player-Hearthian is what holds the universe together, in the representation of the solar system, in the ship log and, ultimately, ontologically. The Eye of the Universe is, in Outer Wilds, the Absolute Subject: the Eye is an image of the originary form of Being in the universe, the form that the player takes on as Outer Wilds ends to reveal that the Eye is the form they have always taken on: the player as the transcendent, exterior vision which is constitutive of reality. We are the view frustum around which other objects are culled from existence: we are the determinant body in the universe. This transcendence is, crucially, the product of an apparatus. The sheer ontological power of the Hearthian’s reality-creating gaze is derived from what we might call an “agential intra-action” between the Hearthian and the Eye. This does not undo the Hearthian’s transcendence -- rather, we are able to bear witness in Outer Wilds’s fiction to the creation of a transcendent subject out of an agential apparatus: the transcendent subject is produced by the apparatus of the Eye of the Universe, but the fact that it is a product and not a pre-existent given does not mean that the subject does not exist and hold power in its production.

It is crucial that we hold both things in our head at once: the apparatus and the subject it creates, because both hold meaningful onto-epistemological power in our present reality. We need to go looking for the subject, not as a local effect that may be easily displaced by acknowledging the existence of an apparatus, nor as a representational tendency. Rather, we need to think of agency and subjectivity as co-constitutive, and question the presupposition that there is a means of conceptualizing agency that is inherently or uniquely liberatory. Critique lets us hunt for the subject that is ever-emerging from the circulation of agency: the subject which forever threatens to hold us in stasis.


[1] I am capitalizing Ideology for a reason which is explained later in the essay.

[2] In Althusser, the superstructure is more entangled with the economic base than is typical in Marxist theory. Moreover, the “state” is not a synonym for government: the state for Althusser is the overdetermined material arrangement of forces which act upon concrete individuals to create subjects.



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