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Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture

Author: Alexander R. Galloway
Publisher: Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2006
Review Published: October 2007

 REVIEW 1: Kelly Boudreau
 REVIEW 2: Steven Conway
 REVIEW 3: Ted Kafala
 REVIEW 4: Randy Nichols
 REVIEW 5: Timothy Welsh
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Alexander R. Galloway

Recognizing the need to treat video games and their analysis as a unique medium and process, Alexander Galloway creates a text that leads the reader towards thinking beyond the idea of video games as mere extensions of other creative media such as cinema and art. By describing points of similarity and divergence between various mediums and their cultures, Galloway develops a conceptual toolkit for the reader to draw on as they work their way through each essay.

Gaming: Essays in Algorithmic Culture begins by introducing two types of action within video games that exist in a type of cybernetic relationship -- the machine action and the operator action (4-5). The machine action stems from the hardware and software of the game and the platform that it is being played on, while operator action is the actions made by the player whether directly related to gameplay (jump, duck, shoot) or with the hardware/software itself (pressing pause, loading the game, etc.). Adding to this analytic split, Galloway situates these two types of actions within either a diegetic or a non-diegetic space within the video game. He describes diegetic space as elements contained within the game's total world narrative, which includes both on-screen and off-screen actions (7) that directly relate to the story, characters, and gameplay. Elements that are external to the world of the narrative action, such as in-game music and camera-angles, are said to occur within non-diegetic space. Although non-diegetic elements are part of the game's overall "apparatus," they are not directly connected to the character or story of the game. These four concepts create an analytical quadrant, which Galloway calls "four moments of gamic action" (8). While parts of this quadrant exist within film and literature theories, it is suggested that the medium of the video game broadens the complexity of the relationship between them.

Galloway spends the remainder of the opening chapter situating the analytic quadrant within theories of play by describing the intricate potential combinations of these four elements through examples found in particular games and through the written works of Caillois, Huizinga, and Derrida. As Galloway concludes the chapter with a recap of the "gamic action, four moments" framework, he reminds the reader that the quadrant is intended to be viewed as "provisional observations" (38) that arose through the analysis of the games discussed throughout the chapter and may not fit every analytic situation of every game.

Galloway transitions into the remainder of the book by moving from the conceptual framework developed in the first chapter to essays that deal with specific game related topics. From the important differences between the use of camera angles and point-of view in the chapter "Origins of the First-Person Shooter," to the relationship between allegory, control, and ideology in video games in "Allegories of Control," each chapter can be situated in some respect within the gamic action / diegetic space framework developed in the first chapter.

In "Origins of the First-Person Shooter," Galloway describes how the subjective camera position (narrative through the eyes of the character) in film is often reserved for moments of horror, alienation, or marginalization of a character. In the shift from film to video games, and first person shooter games in particular, the subjective position is no longer used to marginalize a character, or alienate the viewer, but rather to create a sense of identification between the player and the character, moving the player into the active perspective of the on-screen character. This differentiation exemplifies a non-diegetic operator act within the video game that Galloway describes at the end of the first chapter.

The following chapters, "Social Realism" and "Allegories of Control," shift from direct elements of gameplay and coded design to game content and meaning. "Social Realism" deals with the increasing element of realism in video game aesthetics and narrative, and the cyclical relationship between the gaming world and the "real" world. As Galloway explains, "one of the central issues in video gaming is how and in what way one can make connections between the gaming world and the real world, both from the inside outward in the form of affective action, and from the outside inward in the form of realistic modeling" (71). This relationship between the game world and the real world becomes more complicated as Galloway aims to move beyond viewing the concept of realism simply in terms of representation. As he clearly states, one of the main ideas behind this chapter is to "suggest that game studies ... not turn to a theory of realism in gaming as mere realistic representation, but define realist games as those in games that reflect critically on the minutiae of everyday life, replete as it is with struggle, personal drama, and injustice" (75). With this idea in mind, the reader is prepared to head into the chapter on "Allegories of Control," which explores the "relationship between video games and the contemporary political situation" (89). Although these two chapters are more theoretically abstract, they work well in creating a conceptual transition into the final chapter by demonstrating the social and ideological elements found within the code and design of video games.

The concluding chapter, "Countergaming," brings the reader back to a more direct, active relationship between player (user) and the video game. Drawing on Film Studies literature on "counter-cinema," Galloway outlines seven theses defined by Peter Wollen (1982). Galloway further contextualizes the ways in which people take a video game in its original, designed state and find ways to alter it for various purposes such as advanced or alternate game play and artistic statements that move beyond the function of gameplay. This action creates a form of hyper-diegetic/operator act that redefines the original purpose or function of the game. With this in mind, Galloway goes on to summarize the "formal differences between video gaming and countergaming" (124) following Wollen's original seven theses outlined earlier in the chapter. While Galloway acknowledges that countergaming, within this definition, remains an unrealized project, it is a potential future direction of video games as a cultural medium.

Although Gaming is a collection of essays, the conceptual framework that holds the book together is coherent as Galloway refers back to the previous chapters throughout. While Galloway uses language and ideas that come from other disciplines, he reminds the reader that through the shift in medium (say, from film to video game) there is a shift in the definition of the terms. To do this, he borrows the base definition of a term or concept and then adds contextual meaning through examples and elaborated discussion of the differences that make the video game definition unique. Throughout this process, Galloway's writing remains clear and easy to understand as he iterates traditional and contextual definitions before developing them and is attentive to the limitations of his analysis, making it a good introductory book to some key ideas within the field of Game Studies.

Peter Wollen, Readings and Writings: Semiotic Counter-Strategies. London: Verso, 1982.

Kelly Boudreau:
Kelly Boudreau is a PhD student in Film Studies at Universite de Montreal. With a BA and MA in Sociology, her research focuses on identity construction and maintenance in video games, as well as on forms of mediated sociality ranging from the dynamics of social identification in online computer games and virtual worlds to the fusion of internet activity and everyday life.  <kelly.boudreau@gmail.com>

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