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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

In his work on the emergence of new technologies, Roger Fidler (1997) suggests that new media do not emerge out of the ether as a new form, but rather grow in relation to changes in old media. This may well be the case for the emergence of new theories of studying media as well. Few fields show this as clearly as the rapidly growing study of video games. Though video games have been around for more than thirty years, attention to them as a distinct cultural form is a recent development. Instead, researchers have been content to try and fit them into the tight molds of film, television, and literature. In part, this owes to conflict within the study of games about what qualifies as a game and what does not. Are video games a fancy combination of existing technologies, a twisting of traditional story-telling techniques, or something else all together? Similarly, it is common for essays on games to begin with a justification -- possibly about how long the author has been playing them or how they came to them from another seemingly more legitimate medium. Such beginnings tend to doom most attempts at theorizing video games to a lingering tendency to look adoringly at established media and their theories and wonder what it would be like to one day be invited to the ball.

One consequence of this tendency, however, is that theories which have grown in response to older media forms often prove limited in addressing media which have come after. It is the need for a response in the field of video game studies that serves as the impetus for Alexander R. Galloway's Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. This is a response that is long overdue, not only because video games have been theorized in fairly limited ways, but also because the variety of theoretical tools brought to bear from film and literary studies have been fairly limited. Consider how many discussions of the interpretation of video games have emerged while there have been very few which have addressed their creation in any truly satisfying way.

In the preface, Galloway tells us that game players and theorists "need to shrug off the contributions of those who view [the emergence of video games ] as new and shocking" in order to offer a means of looking at video games as a distinct medium or a "cultural object, bound by history and materiality" (1). In other words, video games are not just new ways of telling stories, as literary theorists might have us believe, or a slightly tweaked version of cinema, as film theorists may suggest. Galloway recognizes how problematic the appropriation of theories from other areas has been. It is common for applications of film theory to video games to wholly ignore the nature of the audience or the creator; so eager have we been to see games as texts for interpretation that we ignore the operations which force their stories from the stasis needed for interpretation. In video games, the symbols -- just like the game world -- change. Video games are not merely read or seen -- they are played and therefore require approaches that focus on gameplay. This approach is both liberating and dangerous, as the desire to distance the study of games from the study of other mass media runs the risk of throwing out the baby with the bath water. Such a formulation, used carelessly, would ignore not only the range of effects which are associated, however weakly, with gameplay even as it threatens to place too much control in the hands of the player and the rules of the machine. It would risk ignoring the intentional similarities that video games have with both film and literature in favor of mere provocation.

Fortunately, Galloway's work does more to advance the theory of video games than it does to limit it. In spite of the tension between video game theory and theories of film and literature which pervades the first essays, there is more than enough food for thought. Rather than attempting to write the definitive work on video game theory, the book attempts to set up a series of provisions that allow earlier applecarts to be overturned, examined, and, if necessary, overhauled. The book is divided into five essays which build on each other, the book adapts the notion of diegesis from film and literary studies to emphasize that discussions of game environments always involves elements which are directly related to the game narrative and elements which fall well outside of the narrative. Making this more complex is the recognition that there are controls on video games working in two directions: controls by the player and controls by the game. It is the use of these dual mechanisms -- diegetic versus non-diegetic and machinic versus operator initiated -- which drives the remainder of the book, allowing it to rework preexisting ideas about film, literary theory, and game studies into something more complex.

Galloway is not afraid to borrow from both film and literary theory in order to better challenge preconceptions of what video games might be. This allows the book to move from considerations of the construction of the game experience to questions of control and realism to genre and countergaming. It is in these sections that the book not only finds its stride but sets a pace for other works. The theory here is both emergent and enlightening. As Galloway notes early on, video games are much more than merely games that people play on computers. They are cultural objects that have ceased to follow the formulations of previous media; rather, they have begun to influence them and change them. The second essay, focused on the ties between first person shooters and film, is both enlightening as a history and challenging to the ways in which genre theory has been used thus far in the field of video game studies. Similarly, the third essay, focused on realism in video games, lays down challenges to existing theory even as it directs the reader to rethink how political video games might be.

The book is strongest when it not only challenges the common attitude of adoration in game theory but also pushes us to think of new ways to use the existing theoretical tools at our disposal. And when in the final essay a case is made (albeit somewhat implicitly) to recognize the artistic potential in video games -- particularly through countergaming -- it is clear that the essays succeed in pushing the study of video games to step out of the shadow of more established theoretical traditions. If there is a weakness to the book it is that in some spots it does not seem to go far enough. In the early essays, it is possible to find oneself wondering what would have happened if more time had been spent with the examples used to distance video game studies from its predecessors. And in the latter chapters, it is almost impossible to avoid rethinking and adjusting one's favorite concepts in relation to the video game. And ultimately, video games still seem to sit in a place that is somehow free from the constraints of their programmers -- where the algorithms come from and what they are intended to represent are questions left unasked. This, however, is less a failing of Galloway's book than a challenge that seems to flow naturally from it.

Fidler, R. (1997). Mediamorphosis. Thousand Oaks, California: Pine Forge Press.

Randy Nichols:
Randy Nichols is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Niagara University. His work has focused on the production of video games and the use of games by other cultural industries. He is currently completing a book on the global video game industry for the British Film Institute and has published articles on economic history of the SimCity franchise and on the interplay between Hollywood and the video game industry. He also serves as one of the editors of the international, online journal Eludamos: Journal for Computer Game Culture. He reviewed Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds for RCCS.  <rnichols@niagara.edu>

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