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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

"We were born here and love it. Short attention spans, cultural fragmentation, the speeding up of life, identifying change in every nook and cranny -- these are neuroses in the imagination of the doctor, not the life of the patient. So, above all, this book is about loving video games" -- Alexander R. Galloway, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, xii.
Alexander R. Galloway's opening preface reads more as a cybercultural call-to-arms than academic foreword. Throughout the five essays contained within, Galloway, assistant professor in the Department of Culture and Communication at New York University, maintains an energetic, charismatic rhetoric, providing a refreshingly clear-cut voice alongside a keen insight into the world of video games. Explaining his book as offering "conceptual algorithms" (xi) for understanding game culture, he hesitates in activating methodologies poached from other disciplines (cinema, literature, and anthropology, for example), intent on providing his own conceptual framework for understanding the idiosyncratic aspects of digital game production and consumption. Galloway focuses upon game as process, as pure code, disregarding any analysis of game as representational or, to an extent, even game system. As he notes: "Video games are games, yes, but more importantly they are software systems ... In blunt terms, the video game Dope Wars has more in common with the finance software Quicken than it does with traditional games like chess, roulette, or billiards" (6).

I hesitate to review this book as a whole, as it is clearly intended as five distinct essays that, though related by subject matter, undertake very different issues. Therefore, I will review each chapter separately, illuminating the core of Galloway's ideas before extrapolating their applicability and merit for the potential reader.

In the first chapter, "Gamic Action, Four Moments," Galloway cuts to the chase with trademark simplicity and elegance, "If photographs are images, and films are moving images, then video games are actions. Let this be word one for video game theory. Without action, games remain only in the pages of an abstract rule book. Without the active participation of players and machines, video games exist only as static computer code" (2). In one swift movement, Galloway pinpoints the foundation for comprehending video games, intentionally illustrating both why gaming is such a distinctive medium, and why interdisciplinary approaches will find themselves lacking. To this end he devises a framework of gamic action, anchored by four fundamentals that compose two interweaving axes: operator versus machine, and diegetic versus nondiegetic.

The "four moments of gamic action" (36) spawned by this approach are extremely versatile and inclusive. The diegetic machine act, for example, best expressed as a cut-scene/interlude, is brilliantly deconstructed by Galloway in the following passage: "Cinematic interludes are a type of grotesque fetishization of the game itself as machine. The machine is put at the service of cinema ... ironically, what one might consider to be the most purely machinic or 'digital' moments in a video game, the discarding of operator and gameplay to create machinima from the raw machine, are at the end of the day the most nongamic" (11-12). By contrast, the nondiegetic operator act, such as configuring your keyboard/graphics settings, selecting a weapon on your HUD (heads-up display), or even taking advice from your friend as you play the game, is an essential part of the computer game experience, completely different from a diegetic operator act, yet still as important in comprehending. Privileging neither narrative nor play, machine nor player, interface nor aesthetics, Galloway's proposed framework is neutral, adaptive and improvisational -- much like the ideal algorithm.

The second chapter, "Origins of the First-Person Shooter," explores the relationship between cinema and games by tracing the subjective shot from the beginning of cinema to its adaptation by video games. At times, it is extremely enlightening, especially Galloway's explanation of the subjective shot succeeding through the overt use of informatic aesthetics, or the "technological patina" (56). Galloway's engaging and eloquent style makes this chapter an enjoyable read, and his summations are as instructive and absorbing as elsewhere.

Yet it still feels somehow out of place within the context of the book. Structurally-speaking, this chapter is the book's weak-point. Though a stimulating and perceptive read in its own right, the section falters for three reasons. First, Galloway breaks the promise of his preface, devoting an entire chapter to comparisons between video games and cinema, further limiting its applicability to Game Studies by focusing solely upon the first-person shooter perspective. Second, the focus seems more upon how video games have impacted cinema, than vice-versa. And third, the chapter serves more as an enticing read on the history of the relationship between technology and cinematography than any form of concrete analysis.

Realism is an extremely tricky concept to tie down in computer games -- how do we define reality? is it the narrative, representational system, or ludic system that makes a game "realistic"? Translating "realism" into a measurable quantity within the medium is even trickier. Yet this is what Galloway attempts in his third chapter, "Social Realism." Instead of focusing on the representational system as the sole yardstick for measuring "reality" in games (photorealistic graphics, for example), Galloway delves deeper into the essence of a game to divine what constitutes its "realism." Terming aesthetic accuracy "realisticness" (72), as not reality but instead "simulation or modelling" (73), Galloway confronts the other facets of the text. Among the questions he asks are: is the narrative realist (Madden NFL) or fantastical (Final Fantasy)? is the game socially or politically accurate? Is there "fidelity of context" (or what Galloway refers to as an experiential link between the player and the setting/content of the game - for example, a US Marine playing the U.S. Army's America's Army, p. 78) between audience and product?

Analyzing various texts, Galloway comes to the conclusion that there should be a definitive correspondence between the social reality of the game and the player -- a negotiation between the social circumstance the player finds him/herself within and the correlative realism of action offered by the game. As Galloway notes: "A typical American youth playing Special Force is most likely not experiencing realism, whereas realism is indeed possible for a young Palestinian gamer playing Special Force in the occupied territories" (84). Although this concept is, as Galloway admits, provisional and not without problems, it is a valid and helpful method of understanding the complex relationship between audience, text, and the concept of "reality" that lies both outside and in-between.

The fourth chapter, "Allegories of Control," is the most enthralling chapter and Galloway delivers a dazzling and incisive deduction of game culture read as metaphor for regulation. Galloway argues that if previous media could be read for ideological allegories, video games should be played for control allegories. Consequently, you cannot understand a game by reading or viewing, but by succeeding through action: "To win means to know the system. And thus to interpret a game means to interpret its algorithm" (91).

Using Sid Meier's Civilization, Galloway masterfully exposes the ineptness of traditional allegorical interpretation when examining digital games. Political and ideological considerations are merely part of the code, Galloway argues, another algorithm to be adjusted by the player, serving to mask the real allegory of control espoused by the gameplay, by action. Though at first seeming in direct contradiction to the author's earlier examination of social realism in gaming, it is in this allegory of control that Galloway's idea of social realism finds its truest expression -- for who among us does not live to some extent in a society governed by protocols, procedures, rules and regulations?

"Countergaming," the last essay of the book, explores the modification of game technology by artists to subvert an existing text's interpretation, or to create their own work (often referred to as a "total conversion"). A simple example is the popular Velvet-Strike movement, where anti-military "sprays" (simple graphic files, normally insignia or custom messages, that can be "sprayed" upon any
texture within the game environment) are provided to players of popular online first-person shooter Counter-Strike, a militaristic modification of Valve's Half-Life, undermining and challenging the concept of armed confrontation demanded by the gamic system.

Galloway identifies five traits distinguishing countergaming from conventional games: transparency versus foregrounding, gameplay versus aestheticism, representational modeling versus visual artifacts, natural physics versus invented physics, and interactivity versus noncorrespondence (124-125). For example, with the "gameplay versus aestheticism" category, the author argues that countergaming focuses too much on graphics and animations, sacrificing an artistic or original approach to game mechanics in the process. Lamenting the state of countergaming as visually innovative yet ludically redundant, the author adds a sixth category to aspire towards: "Gamic action versus radical action (Conventional gaming poetics versus alternative modes of gameplay)" (125). In other words, the countergaming movement needs to go beyond the surface, modifying not only the graphics but also the game's algorithm to provide original and thought-provoking game mechanics. Galloway suggests that countergaming will never truly revolutionize game culture until it accepts itself as its own medium, as action, and becomes self-reflexive of such features, providing a critique of play, meta-gameplay if you will.

In conclusion, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture is an exciting read for the game enthusiast and an invigorating and useful read for the academic. Galloway's writing style is a welcome paradox against that which he studies -- a warm, inviting, human voice through which to understand the neutral, cold quality of an informatic culture. The aspirational manner in which Galloway approaches the medium cannot help but inspire the reader, laying before us an array of concepts and methodologies for grasping the elementary nature of the digital game as art, as convergent media, as social mirror, as action. By conceiving these principles put forth by Galloway, one can approach video games from a fresh perspective, an algorithmic perspective.

Steven Conway:
Steven Conway is a PhD student and Visiting Lecturer at the University of Bedfordshire currently studying the genre of sports simulations within digital games.  <aries_steven_conway@yahoo.com>

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