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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

"An independent gaming movement has yet to flourish, something that comes as no surprise, since it took decades for one to appear in the cinema. But when it does, there will appear a whole language of play, radical and new, that will transform the countergaming movement, just as Godard did to the cinema, or Deleuze did to philosophy, or Duchamp did to the art object." -- Alexander Galloway, Gaming: Essays on Algorithic Culture, p. 126.
Beyond the limited experiences provided by canned and often predictable commercially-distributed video games, Alexander Galloway invites his readers to engage in and understand the more poetic "smooth experience" of gaming aesthetics. The chapters in Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture are well-thought out and adeptly articulated, and the author's broad knowledge of both cultural theory and game design is impressive. The book is, however, in danger of thinly extending its conclusions about electronic games to other new media objects and networked cultural products under the umbrella of "algorithmic culture." Also, despite skillful application of critical media theory, the essays often seem mired in textual analysis and narratology, sometimes neglecting the more embodied gaming experience.

In this series of related but self-contained essays, Galloway 1) reveals a new language for understanding "material action" between players and machines inside the digressive and unfolding narratives of gameplay, 2) warns of the hazards of the logics of informatic regulation and modulation that are implicit in commercial game design, 3) discusses the convergences between computer gaming and cinema in portraying social and narrative realism and in simulating the subjective, first-person perspective, and 4) points out the potential of gaming as "countergaming," which allows players and hackers themselves to modify, disrupt, or reinvent game code. These interventions permit players to create uncanny and radically unexpected game segues and modules, encouraging a new, independent gaming culture. Like all the games discussed in the book, from role-playing games (RPGs) like the recent Final Fantasy XII, World of Warcraft, and Fallout 3, to first-person shooters like Halo 3, Quake 4, Fall of Duty 4, and Gears of War, Galloway moves through difficult passages, overcomes tough obstacles, and succumbs to seemingly insurmountable challenges in analyzing sophisticated game designs.

Narrative Unfolding in Gameplay

Galloway prefers the phrase action-based medium to the word "interactive" to describe action in gameplay, even though the terms have the same root meaning. By referencing cursorily ideas from critical theory, narratology, and cultural studies (particularly Fred Jameson's (1998)) ideas about the aesthetic and political realities surrounding cultural forms), Galloway is situating games studies close to literary theory in the first essay, "Gamic Action, Four Moments." Drawing on Derrida's (1983, 1981) seminal work on the play of the sign (slippage, irruption, trace, erasure) in Writing and Difference and Dissemination, and on the Nietzchean sense of random play in Spurs, Galloway suggests that joystick, game controller, or keyboard acts may actually undermine the "positivist semiotics" of meaning within a game with the "disruption of the sign's presence, decenteredness, and through Nietzschean affirmation" (37). Galloway places particular attention to the video game's sense of materiality through "grammars of action" (4), or action as a medium to enable material change, as opposed to preoccupations with textuality and subjectivity elsewhere in film and literary analysis. Using ideas about "narrative diegesis" in plot structures from film theory, Galloway then tries to delineate differences between diegetic and nondiegetic operations in gameplay, which relate inexactly to actions made by players and computers. I will follow Galloway's own use of the terms "operator" and "machine," which he uses to accentuate the essentially cybernetic nature of games as software systems involving both organic and nonorganic actors (5).

Diegetic operator acts [1] involving movement and definitive action are most explicitly demonstrated inside gameplay, and easily spatialized in the grid-structure of the interface. What's less obvious and more difficult to discuss are the temporal dimensions and ramifications of operator acts on the unfolding of the game narrative, the interaction between operator and the modular, object-oriented game programming as process, or the effect of repetitive motions and changes in game states on the execution of the game algorithm over time.

In those passages where Galloway considers the manifold nondiegetic acts involved in gameplay across a variety of gaming genres, differences from these and diegetic operator acts get fuzzy and interesting. It seems that the most distinguishing qualities of many types of video games lie in the machinic and "digital" moments that resemble pure process, the "poetry" of the execution of the game algorithm, or the particular interrelationship between the game engine and computer hardware. For example, Galloway mentions how the design constraints of the 8-bit 6502 microchip in the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) game software create a "look" and an informatic logic in Super Mario Bros. that is stronger than any single graphical or narrative element. The multithreading and programming of a specific video game system produces the "conditions of possibility" for certain formal outcomes in the game (32).

Galloway astutely observes that ambient states add complexity to the game through their ordered collections of repetitions, or repetitive loops, which create seques and periodicities inside gameplay [2]. He describes repetitive actions as "micromovements" in a monadic, self-contained state of pure machinic process, creating aesthetic states within the game (10). A discussion of programmed repetitive tasks in The Sims, or in role-playing games (RPGs) like Warcraft would seem appropriate here, but is missing. The definition of an ambient act as "the inverse of pressing pause," or as a "subtle solicitation for the operator to return," also includes cinematic interludes inside the game and more developed "machinima," which expand the narrative. Nonetheless, the argument reduces "cinematech" and edited animated sequences to machinic nondiegesis. Perhaps the term "machinima" is becoming an overused trope and a misnomer for objects that are in their nature cinematic.

Machine code executes the flow and exchange of data. Of course, Galloway acknowledges Kittler (1999) and his strong argument for a digital convergence of media as a technological synthesis that renders moot differences in media: A video game is an "algorithmic cultural object" and also an algorithmic machine that functions through specific, codified rules of operation (5). Conversely, the reader may acknowledge that digital materiality adds its own physical and microphysical texture to the media though its wave-particle activity and its configurations of electron pathways and code in many forms. Nondeigetic operator acts of configuration in video games are allegory for the algorithmic structure of today's informatic culture, social realities in playable form, but let's be cautious about such broad generalizations about the innateness and ubiquitousness of cognitive reasoning. The reader is wise to continue to be suspicious of arguments that extend the logic of computer objects to larger areas of human culture, but may agree that we have to expand our new metalanguage for "interfacing" with digital objects, to translate and transcode between them and other cultural objects [3].

Galloway briefly provides examples of games that create a range or continuum of immersive connections, or "intimate relations" between the algorithm and the player. These range from Shenmue, Myst, or Ico that arrest the desires of the operator in a state of submission to the game algorithm, particularly during periods of ambient nonplay, to the Final Fantasy series where operator acts permit the player to work the rules and configurations of the game and in fact structure the subjective gameplay from inside the machine (17-9). Issues of narrative emergence during gameplay vary in complex and subtle ways in respect to differing relations with the algorithmic programming [4]. Galloway has certainly revealed gameplay as an important area of study, uncovering a pivotal locus of human-computer interchange for understanding this emerging algorithmic culture.

Social Realism and Spatial Environments

The next two beautifully-written essays examine the convergences between games and films, with frequent allusions to cinema studies. "Origins of the First-Person Shooter" compares the literature on the use of the POV and subjective shots in film with their use in first-person shooters. Despite filmic experiments in continuous-shot filmmaking and videography (Time Code, Russian Ark), as well as first-person perspective in cinema verite and in the "reality TV" style, the subjective shot has been largely marginized and is disappearing in cinema, whereas the lack of montage in the artificial, 3D rendered physical space of electronic games promotes the affective, active, mobile quality of the subjective perspective (69). Exceptions to this trend are found less often in the film classics, such as Hitchcock's Spellbound and Topaz, than in the recent science fiction genre which emulates the sense of affective motion in 3D game environments (a more mutable sense of time and space with artificial cameras), in films such as eXistenZ, The Matrix, Strange Days, and The Cell (65-8).

The following essay, "Social Realism," attempts to alter then extend to video games Andre Bazin's (2004) ideas about realism, and his discussion of Italian Neo-Realism with the usual references to DeSica's Bicycle Thief. Galloway distinguishes "realism" as mimesis in representation, which he equates in computer games as a "mathematical process of counting polygons and tracing the correspondences," to "realisticness" as a term for simulation with a sense of difference between copies, or versions (73). Where there is a possibility of social realism in video games, there exist "congruences" with real life situations, in meaningful cause and effect relationships between the affective actions of the gamers and real social contexts (77-8). Once the potential for social realism in games is established, Galloway turns to a comparison of war games, from Electronic Arts and from alternative publishers. Galloway presents evidence of narrative and affective realism in some war games, in their presentation of shifting social contexts, millenarian aspirations, propagandist impulses, political realities, and "unrequited desires," absorbing the player in the game through a more intimate relationship with the gaming apparatus (the material substrate of the medium) (79-84).

Algorithms and Informatic Controls

The final two essays in the book deal with video games as codified conveyers of informatic regulation, and with the avant-garde attempts to escape, or circumvent such "parallel algorithms" of control. In "Allegories of Control," Galloway returns to a similar theme of his previous book, Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization (2004), namely the "societies of control" that inhabit the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries around the "logics of modulation" and the "rapid forms of free floating control" that surround them. These control societies are characterized by the networks of genetic science and computers, but also by much more conventional network forms (87). The logics of informatics and horizontality are privileged in many video games as a kind of "parallel algorithm" that executes within or alongside the game code: Galloway posits that video games do not attempt to hide informatic control; they flaunt it. Gameplay of games such as Tekken or Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, which "hinge on the operator's ability to motor-memorize button combinations" for navigation and movement, simultaneously provides a way to discover explicit "algorithmic" control allegories on the semantic and ideological level (90-91).

Galloway examines Sid Meier's popular game, Civilization, and critiques it on the basis of its logocentrism, imperialism, and ethnocentricism, suggesting that its informatic controls exhibit the plastic quality of being "flexible," adaptable disciplinary mechanisms for a technical and ideational standardization. So, in Civilization and its descendent versions, the quest for knowledge is broken down into neatly packaged discoveries that are arranged on a branching timeline where one discovery is a precondition for the next (98). The notion and presumption of "identity" in the game becomes a "codified affair" within the logic of the software itself: Galloway positions "identity" as a data type, and therefore a mathematical variable, a specifically informatic mode of cybernetic typing, capture, transcoding, statistical analysis, quantitative profiling (102), and so on, similar to what Lisa Nakamura, in Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet (2002), calls "menu-driven identities." So, he reaffirms that computer code can be subject to the same kind of cultural and literary analysis as any natural language.

Then Galloway shifts away from the Deleuzean (1998) idea of "societies of control," which employs diagrammic and topological stratagems for understanding social formations and the regulation of material flows, toward expanding Jameson's (1992) notion of "deep allegory" to encompass video games as events that lack any deep representation or differentiation in meaning. Jameson identifies cinema as the early- to mid-twentieth century media format that was often used for cultural homogenization and standardization, and now this same allegorical form is extended to video games, where "meaning and doing transpire as the same gamic gesture" (106).

Galloway's argument gets a bit tangled and confused as he heralds the emergence of sophisticated games like Final Fantasy X and Grand Theft Auto III as unique algorithmic objects that epitomize the "highest form of cultural production" (86), while also arguing with Jameson that "algorithmic culture" is an impoverishment in its superfluousness and openly homogenizing political agenda. Readers may not find convincing statements that evoke Hakim Bey's (2004) radical cyberpolitics, such as, "The shooter is an allegory of liberation pure and simple, an allegorical interpretation of info-politics," and "Counter-Strike (is) the final realization of Andre Breton's dream of the purest surrealist act" (104). This whole passage seems counterintuitive to the chapter's argument about control structures. How can informatic regulation be written into the code of some games, while a subversive, anarchic aesthetics be made explicit in the algorithms of other games? Readers may want to hear more about the complicity of the code (my emphasis) in allegories of informatic control, or more about the material, haptic dimensions of player engagement with video games, but she is left yearning.

Despite expectations, the following essay on "Countergaming," does not provide answers to such material questions. Instead Galloway turns back to film theory to explain operator interventions in games, most particularly Peter Wollen's (1982) film semiotics of the early 1980s to analyze discontinuous narratives in gameplay and the "formal poetics" of game algorithms. Galloway accomplishes this rather seamlessly and elegantly by referencing Wollen's remarks on Godard's narrative intransitivity in Rules of Play, Godard's self espoused dialectical methods from political motivations of interrupting the narrative flow of the film to refocus audience attention. Galloway uses Godard's methods as a way to think about the "formal grammar of oppositional cultural production" and about strategies of multiple diegesis (108-11).

In a parallel way, players and hackers modify games at the level of visual design by creating "game mods" that alter space, visuality, physics, maps, and environments, etc., which Galloway identifies as the most common interventions in the commercial software products (a kind of media ecology in the modifying of representational and interactional game space). Galloway calls for a more radical gameplay, not just the reinvention of maps and graphics, but the creation of alternative algorithms for a countergaming as gaming, a reassemblage of the "architectural flow of play" that would rupture narrative diegesis. In the near future, countergaming strategies will intervene on the level of the code in game engines and software to devise uniquely radical and political disruptions and diversions, such as on-the-rail episodic structures and digressive minigames (123-4). These may not be hidden for the clever player or hacker to stumble upon, such as the latent mods discovered in Grand Theft Auto III, but be made explicit as part of a new, independent gaming movement. The game engine persists, but artists and activists are free to repurpose it to serve the edicts and subversive motivations of late modernist avant-garde experiments (neo flexus, dada, constructivist), or to satisfy whatever political or aesthetic agenda.

The reader may argue that Galloway is too close to gaming, too inside the game, to be objectively critical of the social influences of commercial video gaming and its massive institutions (industry-based, media-driven, hacker-side) that seem to have emerged almost overnight. But certainly his insider knowledge is a great strength for analysis. Galloway may be lauded for inviting media critics to attempt to interpret "material action" and "polyvalent doing" in video games instead of keeping to the relatively safe haven of textual analysis, but unfortunately the reader easily recognizes that Galloway does not escape what Jameson (1972) calls the "prison house of language" himself. Nonetheless, for the media researcher interested in understanding the social and technological construction of video games, and for the programmer or artist struggling with the larger cultural contexts of algorithmic products, Gaming is a perfect starting point for the exploration of contemporary, complex, embodied, multisensory, malleable, subversive, and experimental video games.

  1. Diegetic acts of the operator, or user, are most obvious and visible, and appear as either move acts, or expressive acts, which are really variations of the same kind of event, and enable the player's avatar to directly alter character, position, or orientation, or to enact decisions that affect the unfolding of a nonlinear gamic plot. Move acts are prompted by the joystick, analog stick, or wand, and effect avatar action and position, but also consist of translation, rotation, stacking, and interfacing of tokens in games like Tetris. Expressive acts usually involve the use of a select button, or mouse-click, and include one-dimensional firing, attack, cast, apply, emote acts in games like Quake or Unreal, and highly complex selection and combination actions in strategy and adventure games. See Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, 23-6.

  2. Galloway insists that for good continuity to flow in the process of immersive and challenging gameplay, diegetic and nondiegetic acts must be fused together as seamlessly as possible. He uses Clifford Geertz's (1972) notion of "deep play" to describe the sense of intimacy that emerges between the operator and the complex, multipart machinic algorithms that enact during Gameplay. See Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, 8-16.

  3. See Jay Bolter and Richard Grussin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (2000); Sean Cubitt, Digital Aesthetics (1998); Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (2002); and Vivian Sobchack, Meta-Morphing: Visual Transformation and the Culture of Quick-Change (1999).

  4. Questions emerge as to what algorithmic styles and strategies make these varying types of gameplay possible; how do we improve our programming skills to better simulate artificial intelligences in games?

Andre Bazin, What is Cinema? Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004.

Hakim Bey, T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism. Andronomedia Press, 2004.

Jay Bolter and Richard Grussin, Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000.

Sean Cubitt, Digital Aesthetics. London: Sage, 1998.

Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

Jacques Derrida, Dissemination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

_____, Spurs: Nietzsche's Styles/Eperon, Les Styles de Nietzsche. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Alexander R. Galloway, Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004.

Clifford Geertz, Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1972.

Frederic Jameson, Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern 1983-1998. New York: Verso, 1998.

_____, Signatures of the Visible. New York: Routledge, 1992.

_____, The Prison-House of Language. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972.

Frederich Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002.

Lisa Nakamura, Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Vivian Sobchack, ed., Meta-Morphing: Visual Transformation and the Culture of Quick-Change. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

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

Ted Kafala:
Dr. Ted Kafala teaches Communication and Media Studies at the College of Mount Saint Vincent & Manhattan College in New York, and was Associate Professor at the University of Cincinnati. He teaches visual communication, new media, motion graphics, cinema and postproduction courses. Ted has published critical articles on the ideas of Deleuze, Virilio, and Baudrillard, as well as papers on aesthetics, cultural studies, cinema studies, and qualitative research. He reviewed Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media and Uncanny Networks: Dialogues with the Virtual Intelligentsia for RCCS.  <kafala@earthlink.net>

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