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Gamer Theory

Author: McKenzie Wark
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007
Review Published: October 2008

 REVIEW 1: Denisa Kera
 REVIEW 2: Shawn Miklaucic

...if not meaning, then at least an algorithm (096)
Gamer Theory is an attempt to move beyond the two common strategies in game studies: either subsume games under previous methodologies and concepts or claim a new field and discipline. Narratology, ludology, media studies, or new media studies take games as objects among other (media) objects and try to use or develop a proper method for studying them. In Gamer Theory, games are not objects but a specific state of the contemporary (digitalized) world and its "subjects." This basic observation that "the questions of the form of the game cannot be separated from the questions of the form of the world" (067) is then developed in a performative manner by coupling different games (The Sims, Civilization III, Katamari Damacy, Vice City, Rez, State of Emergency, Deus Ex, SimEarth), philosophers (Plato, Walter Benjamin, George Lukácz, Deleuze & Guattari, Michel Foucault, Martin Heidegger), and issues (from allegory of the cave to alienated labour, temporality of being and even ecology). In the nine chapters the games and the philosophical concepts perform the important changes in the social, natural, and technical relations that influence our world, being, society, and even the planet. According to Wark, we cannot reflect anymore about our being or our society as historical or logocentric because they became ludocentric. We should even avoid words like "reality" or "world" and speak of a gamespace in which continuum and differences are transformed into quantifiable bits that form the pulsing data of all kinds of networks. Gradually we see how games and "the game" and their intrinsic relations to capitalism and digital technologies have got not only us and our society but also our culture and the whole planet. Everything is just a combination of variables and even if it is not always easy to identify the rules of the game one thing remains certain: there is a rule of the game (008).

The main problem with this pervasive digital transformation of which games are its most clear expression is that any difference has been lost: "In this digital cosmos, everything is of the same substance ... The digital separates everything into discrete segments by imposing a universal code that allows anything to be connected to anything else -- topology -- but prevents anything from ever being different" (084). The digital destroys all differences while transforming the whole world, society, and even the human into what could be described as its posthuman condition: "The problem is that in gamespace things target people, rather than the other way around. It is not that the digital is a technology that cuts into the world and presents it to the human as if it were always and already cut to suit us. It is that the digital cuts into us, rendering as bits, and presents those bits to the world made over as a gamespace in which we are targets" (174). In this sense the gamer theory is not only a critical theory of games but also something of a posthuman philosophy.

The "gamer" in the course of the chapters transforms himself from uncritical gamer who never "wins what he desires but desires what he wins" (021) into a gamer theorist who understands the game as an emergent cultural form of our time and tries to reveal the nature of gamespace with which he is interlinked. He can not simply stop playing and choose a real life in a world of "endlessly varying games" of the "military entertainment complex" (016) in which the algorithmization of everything rules. The only thing possible is to reflect and take part in this process at the same time. By playing the Sims, the gamer understands the "algorithms" of everyday life in gamespace where everything is arbitrary and devalued and just reproduces the logic of the digital and where play merges with work. The fair and purely rational world of different games and new virtual worlds is based on a gamespace that is neither fair nor rational but built on slave work of the people from the industry (including an example of an Electronic Arts employee) and the third world (the ugly truth about coltan which is the one of the building blocks of all the hardware and causes political and ecological disasters in Congo and Australia).

By playing Civilization III, the gamer grasps the history of media but also the principles of colonial exploitation which is, like the game itself, indifferent to any cultural and historical differences and presents only one version of the future, the "American dream" and its total colonization of all space. In the game Katamari Damacy, he faces a world in which industrial engines and the digital revolution replaced the old gods and myths and transformed all of us into Sisyphus with his pointless, repetitive, and endless labour (077). We are like the little character from this game which rolls an endless ball on which he tries to stick the whole world. By playing Vice City, the gamer is confronted with another form of digital indifference of gamespace -- the utter boredom and atopia, where there is no escape. The utopia and the dystopia, even Foucault's heterotopia, are all transformed into a space or buying, selling, and stealing. By playing the game REZ, the violence is even more abstract and becomes a philosophical issue of the difference between the self and the outside world, human and machine. It is a battle in which targeting and shooting abstract objects transforms time into a medium of self-fulfillment (134) and in which the new digital being does not strive for authenticity but for the next level of the game.

This concept is developed further in the chapter on the game State of Emergency, where the only goal of this new digital being becomes to displace boredom into yet more games. The subject is replaced by collective forces (nations, groups, etc.) which can act and rebel but the only effect is that they develop further the symbiosis between man and machine. This posthuman phase of the gamer is culminating when playing and theorizing Deus Ex: Invisible War, where he can choose between four different collectives having different ideas about the merging of humans and machines. The gamer faces the critical stage and the possibility of being a "non-player" character, controlled by someone or something else and feeling that he has been played and governed in gamespace or other conspiracy (187). In this game and in gamespace he could prefer to become hacker -- the one who makes the algorithms, who makes his own rules and protocols of success, and who tries to develop a practice beyond work and play (198).

The last chapter and game, SimEarth, then transforms the gamer and the game theory once more by pushing harder the issue of external sources that power games and the problem of ecology. In SimEarth the whole universe is included and life becomes a game that can be lost (216). That is why the gamer does not play himself nor groups of people but God. He is actually Walter Benjamin's Angel of History expecting and taking part in a horrible catastrophe where he experiences to be "flung toward nothingness by the terminal transformation of nature, an experience of truth as hell seen too late" (218). Here the gamer faces the limits and the end not only of one session of a game but of gamespace and even of himself.

The posthuman future merges with the possibility of total extension and the game theory, like the mentioned games themselves, is no longer only a pastime but "the very form of life, and death, and time itself" (006). This is also the reason why the book is written in an almost apocalyptic tone. It is not just a philosophy of games nor does it follow completely the rules of the philosophical game. It is not a set of instructions on how to "mod" philosophy and play its different levels and it does not use games as an introduction into the myth of cave, or Benjamin's allegory, even if it could be used for that. Its task is neither to rethink philosophy after digital games nor to create a better game study discipline but almost a religious one. It is reinventing the genre of "media eschatology" with all its strength and weaknesses mastered previously by thinkers such as Paul Virilio, Jean Baudrillard, and others. It is a book that is disturbing while you read it but it ends up in your bookshelves and you wonder why it is so serious and whether the apocalyptic tone is just an attempt to save poetics in a world obsessed with information and facts. The apocalyptic genre and its rhetoric of absolute fear and hope left nothing for the everyday life of a theory. For good and for bad, the gamer theory refuses to play philosophy or to philosophize games. A gamer theorist remains a cheater and a trifler after all in both levels. At times, he ignores the context of both games and philosophy to cut straight to the objectives of some strong philosophical thesis about life and death or at least of the hidden goal of the game. Being a trifler, such a gamer often ignores the objectives and lingers within the space of the game and the different philosophical concepts (040). Bypassing the normal limitations of a game but also of philosophy, he accesses different stages and levels and becomes invincible and non-refutable.

Denisa Kera:
Denisa Kera is an assistant professor in the Communications and New Media Programme at the National University of Singapore. With a background in philosophy and information science, Denisa's current research focuses on web 2.0 phenomena, especially map mashups and the culture of open APIs.
  <denisa [ at ] nus.edu.sg>

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