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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

McKenzie Wark's Gamer Theory is a keenly smart, compellingly written book. Given the popularity of digital gaming and interactive online collaboration that contributed to its construction, the title implies that it might be a great place for the avid gamer with little theoretical background to begin exploring the expanding field of academic gaming criticism. It isn't. But it is a challenging, insightful, and important contribution to the critical theoretical literature on digital games.

The book comes out of an interesting collaborative project set up by the Institute for the Future of the Book. A draft of the book (still available online and appropriately named GAM3R 7H30RY), divided neatly into nine chapters with twenty-five paragraphs each, was made available to the public online in April of 2006. Readers thus had the opportunity to comment on the book before its hard copy publication in 2007, and many of their comments can be found in the notes section of the printed version. While this dialogue may have been useful to Wark as he revised his text, it does not seem that the online commenters had a significant impact on the final text. What is useful about the online version is its accessibility for educators wishing to use portions of the book for classroom discussion, and the links within the comments and discussion forums that lead to various online discussions of and reactions to Wark's text.

Wark, who is an Associate Professor of Cultural and Media Studies at the New School for Social Research in New York, comes at gaming from a perspective heavily influenced by Marxist critical theory: the twin epigraphs for the book come from Theodor Adorno, whose aphoristic writing style Wark productively takes on, and Henri Lefebvre, the French Marxist philosopher. Two other Marxists whose writings heavily influence Wark's approach include Walter Benjamin and Fredric Jameson. While a knowledge of this tradition is not essential for reading Gamer Theory, those readers who are familiar with and sympathetic to this tradition will find Wark's book evocative. Indeed, he makes tantalizing connections and uses key quotations from these thinkers to frame the complex social, ethical, and ontological issues that digital gaming often asks us to confront.

That said, those readers interested in an accessible introduction to thinking about gaming theoretically, or those who are turned off by looser applications of thinkers like Baudrillard or Foucault, beware. Wark makes what seem useful connections in many places, but his mode of argument is allusive and allegorical rather than tightly explicated and documented. He can skillfully juxtapose Foucault's theory of disciplinary power with the classic prisoner's dilemma of economic game theory, but a reader less than passingly familiar with either will have a difficult time following his insightful conclusions.

The chapters of the book focus on a different topic or game. While chapters can be read independently, each forms part of a larger argument that is slowly built upon previous chapters. Wark begins with an extended exploration of Plato's Cave as an analogy for what he calls "gamespace." Wark argues that virtual game spaces are not just simple representations of a more complete outer reality. Instead, "the beginnings of a critical theory of games -- a gamer theory -- might lie not in holding games accountable as failed representations of the world, but quite the reverse. The world outside is a gamespace that appears as an imperfect form of the computer game" (022). This initial argument is central to Wark's task -- he is not simply trying to develop a set of tools to let us better understand digital games, but instead using games as tools to better understand the world.

The second chapter takes up The Sims as a tool to think about the relationship between allegory and algorithms. As allegory, the game functions as a morality play about suburban American life. Algorithms are the codes and structures that define the rules of the game. Wark combines the two into the neologism allegorithm: "Allegory is about the relation of sign to sign; allegorithm is about the relation of sign to number" (041). Allegorithm represents the relationship of player to gamespace -- our task as players is to decode the set of rules that define the game we are playing. But it also represents the relationship of the game to our lived gamespace. From the overworked programmers writing code for games to the political ramifications of coltan mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Wark sketches out the very real linkage between virtual "play" and material labor and labor practices. Echoing Walter Benjamin's claim that there "is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism," Wark's virtual sim-Benjamin adds: "There is no realm of the pure digit which does not betray the hand marked with muck and blood, somewhere" (048).

Later chapters similarly use specific games as tools to develop and explore new ways of thinking about games and how they might help us think about their relationship to our lives in gamespace. Wark extends Lev Manovich's work on the database as aesthetic form in a chapter on Civilization III. Another chapter takes up Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and, following the work of Michel Foucault and the Situationists, explores how the games can function at heterotopian spaces. State of Emergency, Rockstar Game's follow-up to the controversial Grand Theft Auto III, becomes the focus of a meditation on Heidegger and boredom. Boredom here becomes a philosophical state with political implications: "The military entertainment complex is above all the management and maintenance of boredom ... What is pronounced good is the war on boredom, which, like the war on drugs or the war on crime or the war on terror, can never be won -- was never meant to be won -- and is merely displaced, as the boredom index rises and falls" (175).

Wark's strength in such chapters is his ability to link philosophical and theoretical traditions to games in useful ways, showing how the formal and aesthetic qualities of games are essential in understanding our changing conditions of existence in a world increasingly organized by the digital. Those who have thought deeply about games but are unfamiliar with Foucault, Heidegger, and critical theory can find new ways to articulate what games mean and will perhaps be spurred to explore theory. Those who are theoretically savvy but new to games will come to understand the importance of digital gaming in thinking about social and material relations in the digital era and will be spurred to explore games. Those unwilling to see digital games as just entertainment, either positively or negatively, will most likely be disappointed.

Gamer Theory does not take up the recent explosion in online gaming and massive multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft and Second Life. While the arguments it makes are certainly applicable to such sites, Wark's book does not need them to make its case. Wark sees games not as isolated new media texts that we must learn how to analyze aesthetically. Rather, he sees digital games as key sites wherein the social, cultural, and technological logics of our times are being developed and refined. Rather than rehashing older arguments about whether games are narrative, or whether games can be art, Wark asks us to consider the ways in which the logics we internalize in playing games are increasingly being employed to structure numerous other aspects of our lives.

Walter Benjamin, "On the Concept of History," Selected Writings, Vol. 4 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), p. 392.

Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001.

Shawn Miklaucic:
Shawn Miklaucic (Ph.D., Institute of Communications Research, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, 2004) has taught media studies and mass communication at Pace University and DeSales University. His research interests include new media, television studies, cultural studies, and media ethics. He currently lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, and is writing a book on gaming and culture.  <shawn.miklaucic@gmail.com>

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