Notes on "Gaming"

Posted by Alexander Galloway | Mon Oct 1st 2007 11:32 a.m.

Notes on "Gaming" (Oct 1, '07)

Has not Timothy Welsh paid the dearest tribute of all? Can one really be
writing on the as yet unknown? Is there even the faintest approximation
of "topics with no examples" in this text? If this is a form of thought,
is it not that special form of thought sought by all and realized by
none? One dreams of this. It is the "future future" tense, a grammatical
construction prohibited by the English language, but nevertheless
desired by so many. If one catches even a glimpse of Welsh's "avant
avant-garde" as it recedes ahead, always ahead--like Socrates' winged
soul in the Phaedrus which rises, rises only to peak, in its most holy
incarnations, over the precipice into the light itself--then one's work
is over in fact. In fact, over. The only act left to perform is the
final act itself: to expire, give up, draw with and withdraw.

But there is always more to write. And in the "future future" there
shall will be more to write too. Hence what follows is a series of
omissions, extensions, and reformulations encountered in the intervening
gap between the time when the book was written (Spring 2005) and the
present day (Fall 2007).

First let me address the so-called segregation effect. The segregation
effect has to do with vast movements within electronic media to cleanse
certain modes of signification from other modes. An example from World
of Warcraft (WoW) will illustrate this most easily. In this game, a
monument to the rise of ludic media in today's world, one sees quite
vividly the quest for a "world" without signification. Certainly WoW's
vaguely pre-modern narrative helps greatly in this regard, but one must
be vigilant about "explaining" such details through reference to
seemingly objective states (of narrative, of mise-en-scene, and so on).
So where is the segregation effect? It happens not in-world, but through
the generative friction contained in the "interface" itself. (Let me
point out that the word "interface" has been unfortunately infected by a
colloquial usage designating screens, keyboards, controllers, and so on;
I use the term instead in the specific computer-scientific sense of an
algorithmically and linguistically determined bridge of inputs and
outputs between two different code libraries.) Thus, in WoW
representational techniques rooted in textual and iconographic encoding
(texture images and multitexturing decals, mouseover highlights, the
heads-up-display) are starkly divorced from representational techniques
rooted in the traditional Enlightenment approaches (volumetric
simulation, matrix transformations, light and material states, collision
detection, ray tracing, etc.) The fantasy here, then, is not that of
swords and sorcery, but that of matter and mind: the spatial world of
matter is clear and lucid, unblemished by neither flesh, nor falsity,
nor language, nor the social, while the world of the mind is purely and
exclusively machinic, bound by the rules of semiotic exchange,
algorithmic parsing, the perpetual deferral of signifiers, the
exploitation of political power, debasement, and alienation.

The recent censorship of Manhunt 2 is also a useful index into this
segregation effect as well as larger anxiety over ludic media. With
Manhunt the segregation effect appears through figures of violence. The
difficulty with the ongoing public controversy around the game is that
many politicians and opinion leaders assume that media violence is
univalent. This of course is not the case. In Manhunt there are (at
least) two types of violence: (1) machinic violence of the algorithm,
versus (2) images of tortured flesh. What is often overlooked is that
the "actual" violence in the game almost exclusively appears in the
second register: the violence is mediated through a foregrounding of
low-resolution video aesthetics and/or optical spectacle in general. The
"actual" violence comes in the most in-actual modality: inert optical
spectacle. At the same time, the "normal" play of the game is relatively
non-violent vis-a-vis gore, guts and all the rest. The normal game play
is about stealth and shadows, safe spaces versus hostile spaces, the
collision detection between "dark" zones and "light" zones. Algorithms
have their own special brand of violence, but it has nothing to do with
crowbars and chainsaws. Algorithmic violence is a question of the
regulation of flows, behavior modeling and preemption, the selective
creation and prohibition of "worlds," not to mention the physiological
violence of repetitive stress disorder, the trauma of twenty-four-seven
work cycles, and so on. So an argument about the segregation effect in
Manhunt is really an argument about the divorce of algorithmic violence
from spectacular violence. The question one must answer today,
particularly in the wake of the non-event of Abu Ghraib, is: Do images
of tortured flesh have any power any more?

Second, previewed by the first, is the question of the interface itself.
The key issue with the "four moments of gamic action," and the real
reason why it is a useful framework, is that it gives center stage to
the nondiegetic. We have always known of the importance of the
nondiegetic, at least since ancient times (Homer's "Sing in me Muse...";
Genette's "paratext"). But today's media objects, games in particular,
have a special relationship to the nondiegetic. Would it be too
reductive to say that the nondiegetic realm is the same as the
algorithmic realm? The two domains are clearly related. (I've suggested
in the book that a "control allegory" might be the best way to map back
and forth between the two.) Thresholds occupy a very special place in
informatic media. In fact, if pressed, one might go so far as to say
that informatic media are nothing but a set of thresholds, layered and
nested in chains of systems and subsystems, shells and still greater
shells. This is why the nondiegetic is so crucial, because: (1) it
underscores the fact that informatic media are much more overtly
structural and formal than previous media formats (stressing that this
is always a purely material set of formal interactions); and (2) that
because of the intimate relationship that informatic media have with
actually existing material structures, they beckon toward a political
understanding that is more vivid, more readily accessible, and more raw
than in the past. We have, in short, a medium which tells its own story
through the interface itself. One must simply be ready to listen.
However this in no way assumes some sort of transparency of mediatic
"message" or immanent political emergence springing forth from the
medium. Not at all. Hence the return to what Eugene Thacker calls the
"occult numerology" of informatic media: the expression of number--an
arbitrary number perhaps, or perhaps a code that is part of some
superstition or conspiracy theory--is precisely the moment in which the
number becomes obfuscated. Or there is also the phenomenon of
"disingenuous informatics" (24, Metal Gear Solid, Fight Club) in which
sets of data are constantly and unrelentingly swapped with their
opposites in a hypertrophic update on the old whodunit mystery genre.

A first corollary to these divergent claims is that montage is on the
wane in today's moving image. This is mentioned in the book under the
banner of the first-person shooter. In crude terms: temporal cutting has
been superceded by spatial cutting. This phenomenon appears in the
graphical user interfaces (GUIs) of personal computers. Just as the
cinema created the sensation of coherent spaces through cuts from shot
to shot spanning different locations, the GUI creates spatial continuity
through the simultaneous windowing of different spaces: instant
messenger, browser, file-sharing client, programming IDE. Fusing cuts
within the frame replaces fusing cuts in time. All of this is not
surprising given the inherently networked quality of spatial
montage--windows are nodes, they form graphs on the screen, they may or
may not interconnect, and so on. In this sense, the Mac OS desktop of
1984 was one of the key moments in the use of the rhizome as an
aesthetic construction. To ask why and how this comes about--that is the
political question.

A second corollary is that the most important gamic genre today,
particularly vis-a-vis the political question, is the real-time strategy
(RTS) genre. The RTS genre best displays how informatic media and
informatic labor are essentially coterminous in today's world. But there
is a nefarious tinge to all of this, for the labor of the web surfer or
the gamer or the blogger goes unpaid. There is a massive development of
the productive forces happening right now--on par with the historical
transformation Marx dubbed "primitive accumulation." But what makes this
new revolution unique is the fact that labor today is often simply
donated as a "gift" to the economy. This will be the ultimate tragic
denouement of the open source movement: it will result in the
open-sourcing of all labor; the demand for "volunteer" outputs of
varying shapes and sizes will metastasize across all spheres of public
life. My desires and habits are "open sourced" to profilers like Google
or Amazon. The Web is, in this sense, the world's largest sweat shop.

"Multiplayer labor" encounters like in WoW will soon be the norm;
today's guilds, raids, and clans will be tomorrow's call centers,
product development teams, and leadership groups. All games simulate
miniature economics of some sort or another, but in the RTS genre these
economic simulations are featured center stage. In an RTS game one must
cultivate a multinodal ecosystem of flows and factories, resources and
expenditures, secure zones and hostile frontiers. The RTS genre is
informatic capitalism pure and simple. Hence the anticipation felt
around the future release of StarCraft 2. If previous media formats
disciplined human beings into becoming better workers, today's
informatic media liberate human beings so they may become better bosses.
(Distributed computing and global outsourcing go hand in hand in this
regard: command and control remain over here, while both the objects of
production and the manual or "variable" capital get piloted remotely.)

To formulate this same observation in psychoanalytic terminology:
previous media formats--cinema famously--were fundamentally masochistic;
new media however are fundamentally sadistic, in that they require the
manipulation, selection, transformation and command over objects (data
objects, commodities, behaviors, life forms, and of course other human
beings). It is no longer a question of "docile bodies" but rather a
question of commanders and overlords. This is the key problem for desire
today. The recent trend around casual, "mini" games such as Brain Age
for the Nintendo DS is a perfect instance of this. In years to come we
will see a steady rise in games devoted to informatic therapy and

People often comment on the so-called problem of Chinese gold farming in
games. Besides its corrosive racism, this claim also has the distinct
disadvantage of being wrong. We are the gold farmers.
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