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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

Has not Timothy Welsh paid the dearest tribute of all? Can one really be writing on the as yet unknown? Is there even the faintest approximation of "topics with no examples" in this text? If this is a form of thought, is it not that special form of thought sought by all and realized by none? One dreams of this. It is the "future future" tense, a grammatical construction prohibited by the English language, but nevertheless desired by so many. If one catches even a glimpse of Welsh's "avant avant-garde" as it recedes ahead, always ahead -- like Socrates' winged soul in the Phaedrus which rises, rises only to peak, in its most holy incarnations, over the precipice into the light itself -- then one's work is over in fact. In fact, over. The only act left to perform is the final act itself: to expire, give up, draw with and withdraw.

But there is always more to write. And in the "future future" there shall will be more to write too. Hence what follows is a series of omissions, extensions, and reformulations encountered in the intervening gap between the time when the book was written (Spring 2005) and the present day (Fall 2007).

First let me address the so-called segregation effect. The segregation effect has to do with vast movements within electronic media to cleanse certain modes of signification from other modes. An example from World of Warcraft will illustrate this most easily. In this game, a monument to the rise of ludic media in today's world, one sees quite vividly the quest for a "world" without signification. Certainly WoW's vaguely pre-modern narrative helps greatly in this regard, but one must be vigilant about "explaining" such details through reference to seemingly objective states (of narrative, of mise-en-scene, and so on). So where is the segregation effect? It happens not in-world, but through the generative friction contained in the "interface" itself. (Let me point out that the word "interface" has been unfortunately infected by a colloquial usage designating screens, keyboards, controllers, and so on; I use the term instead in the specific computer-scientific sense of an algorithmically and linguistically determined bridge of inputs and outputs between two different code libraries.) Thus, in WoW representational techniques rooted in textual and iconographic encoding (texture images and multitexturing decals, mouseover highlights, the heads-up-display) are starkly divorced from representational techniques rooted in the traditional Enlightenment approaches (volumetric simulation, matrix transformations, light and material states, collision detection, ray tracing, etc.) The fantasy here, then, is not that of swords and sorcery, but that of matter and mind: the spatial world of matter is clear and lucid, unblemished by neither flesh, nor falsity, nor language, nor the social, while the world of the mind is purely and exclusively machinic, bound by the rules of semiotic exchange, algorithmic parsing, the perpetual deferral of signifiers, the exploitation of political power, debasement, and alienation.

The recent censorship of Manhunt 2 is also a useful index into this segregation effect as well as larger anxiety over ludic media. With Manhunt the segregation effect appears through figures of violence. The difficulty with the ongoing public controversy around the game is that many politicians and opinion leaders assume that media violence is univalent. This of course is not the case. In Manhunt there are (at least) two types of violence: (1) machinic violence of the algorithm, versus (2) images of tortured flesh. What is often overlooked is that the "actual" violence in the game almost exclusively appears in the second register: the violence is mediated through a foregrounding of low-resolution video aesthetics and/or optical spectacle in general. The "actual" violence comes in the most in-actual modality: inert optical spectacle. At the same time, the "normal" play of the game is relatively non-violent vis--vis gore, guts and all the rest. The normal game play is about stealth and shadows, safe spaces versus hostile spaces, the collision detection between "dark" zones and "light" zones. Algorithms have their own special brand of violence, but it has nothing to do with crowbars and chainsaws. Algorithmic violence is a question of the regulation of flows, behavior modeling and preemption, the selective creation and prohibition of "worlds," not to mention the physiological violence of repetitive stress disorder, the trauma of twenty-four-seven work cycles, and so on. So an argument about the segregation effect in Manhunt is really an argument about the divorce of algorithmic violence from spectacular violence. The question one must answer today, particularly in the wake of the non-event of Abu Ghraib, is: Do images of tortured flesh have any power any more?

Second, previewed by the first, is the question of the interface itself. The key issue with the "four moments of gamic action," and the real reason why it is a useful framework, is that it gives center stage to the nondiegetic. We have always known of the importance of the nondiegetic, at least since ancient times (Homer's "Sing in me Muse..."; Genette's "paratext"). But today's media objects, games in particular, have a special relationship to the nondiegetic. Would it be too reductive to say that the nondiegetic realm is the same as the algorithmic realm? The two domains are clearly related. (I've suggested in the book that a "control allegory" might be the best way to map back and forth between the two.) Thresholds occupy a very special place in informatic media. In fact, if pressed, one might go so far as to say that informatic media are nothing but a set of thresholds, layered and nested in chains of systems and subsystems, shells and still greater shells. This is why the nondiegetic is so crucial, because: (1) it underscores the fact that informatic media are much more overtly structural and formal than previous media formats (stressing that this is always a purely material set of formal interactions); and (2) that because of the intimate relationship that informatic media have with actually existing material structures, they beckon toward a political understanding that is more vivid, more readily accessible, and more raw than in the past. We have, in short, a medium which tells its own story through the interface itself. One must simply be ready to listen. However this in no way assumes some sort of transparency of mediatic "message" or immanent political emergence springing forth from the medium. Not at all. Hence the return to what Eugene Thacker calls the "occult numerology" of informatic media: the expression of number -- an arbitrary number perhaps, or perhaps a code that is part of some superstition or conspiracy theory -- is precisely the moment in which the number becomes obfuscated. Or there is also the phenomenon of "disingenuous informatics" (24, Metal Gear Solid, Fight Club) in which sets of data are constantly and unrelentingly swapped with their opposites in a hypertrophic update on the old whodunit mystery genre.

A first corollary to these divergent claims is that montage is on the wane in today's moving image. This is mentioned in the book under the banner of the first-person shooter. In crude terms: temporal cutting has been superceded by spatial cutting. This phenomenon appears in the graphical user interfaces (GUIs) of personal computers. Just as the cinema created the sensation of coherent spaces through cuts from shot to shot spanning different locations, the GUI creates spatial continuity through the simultaneous windowing of different spaces: instant messenger, browser, file-sharing client, programming IDE. Fusing cuts within the frame replaces fusing cuts in time. All of this is not surprising given the inherently networked quality of spatial montage -- windows are nodes, they form graphs on the screen, they may or may not interconnect, and so on. In this sense, the Mac OS desktop of 1984 was one of the key moments in the use of the rhizome as an aesthetic construction. To ask why and how this comes about -- that is the political question.

A second corollary is that the most important gamic genre today, particularly vis--vis the political question, is the real-time strategy (RTS) genre. The RTS genre best displays how informatic media and informatic labor are essentially coterminous in today's world. But there is a nefarious tinge to all of this, for the labor of the web surfer or the gamer or the blogger goes unpaid. There is a massive development of the productive forces happening right now -- on par with the historical transformation Marx dubbed "primitive accumulation." But what makes this new revolution unique is the fact that labor today is often simply donated as a "gift" to the economy. This will be the ultimate tragic denouement of the open source movement: it will result in the open-sourcing of all labor; the demand for "volunteer" outputs of varying shapes and sizes will metastasize across all spheres of public life. My desires and habits are "open sourced" to profilers like Google or Amazon. The Web is, in this sense, the world's largest sweat shop. "Multiplayer labor" encounters like in WoW will soon be the norm; today's guilds, raids, and clans will be tomorrow's call centers, product development teams, and leadership groups. All games simulate miniature economics of some sort or another, but in the RTS genre these economic simulations are featured center stage. In an RTS game one must cultivate a multinodal ecosystem of flows and factories, resources and expenditures, secure zones and hostile frontiers. The RTS genre is informatic capitalism pure and simple. Hence the anticipation felt around the future release of StarCraft 2. If previous media formats disciplined human beings into becoming better workers, today's informatic media liberate human beings so they may become better bosses. (Distributed computing and global outsourcing go hand in hand in this regard: command and control remain over here, while both the objects of production and the manual or "variable" capital get piloted remotely.) To formulate this same observation in psychoanalytic terminology: previous media formats, cinema famously, were fundamentally masochistic; new media however are fundamentally sadistic, in that they require the manipulation, selection, transformation and command over objects (data objects, commodities, behaviors, life forms, and of course other human beings). It is no longer a question of "docile bodies" but rather a question of commanders and overlords. This is the key problem for desire today. The recent trend around casual, "mini" games such as Brain Age for the Nintendo DS is a perfect instance of this. In years to come we will see a steady rise in games devoted to informatic therapy and training.

People often comment on the so-called problem of Chinese gold farming in games. Besides its corrosive racism, this claim also has the distinct disadvantage of being wrong. We are the gold farmers.

Alexander R. Galloway


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