Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture
Author: Alexander R. Galloway
Publisher: Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2006
Review Published: October 2007
In the preface to Gaming: Essays in Algorithmic Culture, Alexander Galloway explains that the goal of this, his second book, is not to erect a convincing argument, but, rather, to formulate a concept. For Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, two of his most consistent touchstones, "a concept is always a type of vector for thought, a cognitive vehicle designed to move things from one place to another" (xi). Galloway, an assistant professor in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, sees his collection of five essay as "conceptual algorithms," self-described as "ad hoc," "provisional," and "cobbled together" to stimulate active thinking about both gaming and the "algorithmic culture" that has produced it (xi). This vectoral energy is Galloway's biggest success, while also giving Gaming an unfinished, but forward-looking edge.
Not unsurprisingly, the "vectors for thought" that comprise Gaming do not cohere into a nicely scaffolded argument with introduction, support, and conclusion. Rather, they relate thematically, branching out from a central premise -- namely, video gaming is action.
A central implication of placing action (and specifically not interactivity, which Galloway pairs with "active audience" theory) at the center of discussion is that all critical tools for analyzing previous forms of media like film need to be recalibrated. This is big for game studies. Far too often games are treated as interactive movies, with the focus placed on narrative and image, both of which have long theoretical traditions to fall back on, but neither of which are at the heart of gaming. Each of Galloway's five essays revises this trend, creating a pathway to the study of gaming as such, by introducing a critical tool developed for previous media, meditating on how gamic action changes the terms of discussion, and then positing a modified, action-based version. His first chapter develops out of general game theory to rework the concept of diegesis in order to define four "moments" of gamic action. His second traces the lineage of the first person shooter (FPS) perspective to the seldom-used subjective shot in film and how the FPS subsequently brought space to bear on perspective, as evidenced by gaming's influence on movies like The Matrix. The third chapter replaces the image-centered representation with action-based correspondence to theorize a social realism of video gaming, which extends the social contexts of the player into the game world thereby lending relevancy of game experience to lived experience. In chapter four, Galloway demonstrates then casts aside traditional deep ideological critique, claiming that gaming achieves "unique political transparency" because, in it, meaning and doing are united in flat, unstratified activity (92). Finally, in chapter five, Galloway looks for equivalents in video games for Peter Wollen's (1982) seven theses on counter-cinema and concludes by redefining each for the as-yet-to-be-realized "counter-gaming."
Over the course of these chapters, it is exceedingly clear that treating games as interactive movies simply doesn't cut it. But Galloway wants to take an important step further. Not only is video gaming activity, a fact which separates it from film, photography, or literature, but it is specifically algorithmic activity. It is the running of mathematical equation designed to process real world events, thumb movements and electric pulses, into digital information for processing and storage. In short, video gaming is informatics. As such, video games are synonymous with the forms of technology driving the burgeoning information age and the changing forms of social life and political control it engenders.
Galloway is one of the foremost authorities on this shift to informatic control. His first book, Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization, demonstrates how internet protocols represent a new form of power, predicted by Deleuze's (1990) concept of the control society, which is founded on principles of flexibility and universal standardization. Galloway returns to Deleuze's control society again in Gaming to argue that, as themselves part of the informatic control apparatus, governed by the self-same protocol memoranda governing the internet, video games enact "contemporary political realities in relatively unmediated form" (92). Galloway treats the informatic nature of gaming explicitly in chapter four; however, it is suffused throughout the entire work, the stakes of his entire "conceptual vehicle." Video gaming's "political transparency" at once grants game studies an urgent relevancy for the critique of contemporary culture and justifies the retooling of our conceptual apparatus for dealing with a medium of "polyvalent doing," one in which gamic activity enacts both the play of pretending and the operation of informatic control simultaneously (105).
The concept Gaming assembles, therefore, proves to be quite a significant "cognitive vehicle," the means to a better understanding of the ontological and phenomenological nature of video gaming and, more importantly, of its relation to the social and political forces of contemporary, algorithmic culture. But, as "vectors for thought," Galloway's "provisional" reflections often lack a finely cut edge. In chapter one, for example, Galloway traces the quadrants of his gamic action matrix while admitting that the lines are both "arbitrary" (5) and "quite indistinct" (28). He succeeds, then, in delivering the idea, but not the definition.
Galloway forefronts the concept, foregoing the speed bumps posed by specific applications. In chapter four, for example, Civilization III exemplifies perfectly gaming's informatic core and the implications for ideological critique, but we learn nothing specifically from Civilization as an example. What we learn about informatics from Civilization "is in all video games to varying degrees" (103), for all games are, after all, informatic machines. But by sticking to a generalizable concept of gaming, Galloway leaves us without much specific to say about informatic control either. This is particularly evident as Galloway shifts gears to read The Sims and the entire FPS genre as enacting affective responses to this new control apparatus. Unfortunately, neither The Sims, with its version of the sterile domestic sphere recalling the 1950s, nor the FPS genre, figured as manifestations of the purest surrealist act that Breton imagined in 1930, seem to offer much commentary specific to contemporary culture, much less, to informatic culture. Galloway, thus, presents video games as the inside track to informatic control, but does not make much headway down that track himself.
Such is the case with much of Galloway's conceptual apparatus, which he has designed to inspire active thinking but, to this end, has left largely abstract. This is most evident in the theoretical mileage he gets on topics for which he has no examples. In chapter three, Galloway admits that "there is not a realist game yet like de Sica's The Bicycle Thief" (76) and has to settle for games that approximate this theory, like the two Muslim-produced FPSs, Special Force and Under Ash, which exhibit narrative correspondence but generic action. Likewise, the "counter-gaming" movement as well "is an unrealized project" (126). This is the early stage of game art and, much like the early stage of video art, it is preoccupied with the potentials of the medium rather than political or cultural agendas, which leaves Galloway's search for counter-gaming, unfortunately, avant the avant-garde. But Galloway's trouble with examples is at least partially a failure of the video gaming archive, which still, in this, the sixth generation of consuls, prizes stunning graphics and true-to-life motion physics over innovative gameplay. Although the recent success of the Nintendo Wii may indicate a nascent shift from this trend, the gaming archive is in many ways still too immature to deal with its full action-based, algorithmic nature.
This is perhaps the greatest proof of the need for Galloway's "conceptual vehicle." In a field of new media very much mired in the forms of older media, Galloway has provided the means "to move thought from one place to another" (xi) at least in terms of our critical approach. Theory is typically behind the curve, delineating concepts authors, artists, and film-makers were playing with much earlier. In this case, however, Galloway's meditations on gaming's action-based ontology seem to precede this kind of self-awarenessand anticipate new directions in gaming criticism. More concerned with facilitating the trip than surveying the destination, a preference that results in often abstract observations, which are more "vectors for thought" than fully-realized analysis, Galloway leaves much to be said; or, to put it another way, much building to do along his trajectory. For this reason, Gaming seems poised to become a touchstone for a budding branch of game studies concerned with gamic action and informatic control, not because it pins everything down, but because, like gaming itself, it requires activity.
Deleuze, Gilles. "Society of Control." May 1990. Nadir.org. Retrieved: August 28, 2007.
Galloway, Alexander. Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004.
Wollen, Peter. Readings and Writings: Semiotic Counter-Strategies. London: Verso, 1982.
Timothy Welsh is a PhD student at the University of Washington researching 20th-century US fiction and Media Studies. His essay "Everyday Play: Cruising for Leisure in San Andreas" appears in The Meaning and Culture of Grand Theft Auto: Critical Essays (McFarland & Co, 2006). <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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