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<nettime> Notes on "Gaming"
Alexander Galloway on Tue, 2 Oct 2007 04:53:51 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Notes on "Gaming"

Notes on "Gaming" (Oct 1, '07)


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 (WoW) 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-à-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-à-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.

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