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June 05, 2006

Book Review


Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture

Review of Alexander R. Galloway's Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture by Thomas Beard, commissioned by Rhizome.

The literature of video games is a curious one. Ranging from Martin Amis's all but forgotten debut, Invasion of the Space Invaders -- a compendium of hot tips for arcade classics like Defender -- to the coin-op psychologizing of Charles Bernstein's "Play It Again, Pac-Man" and beyond, it somehow manages to encompass at once the enthusiasms of that British belletrist and analyses from every imaginable clique of critical theory. Different as those two camps might be, a recent addition to this growing body of work, Alexander R. Galloway's Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, has drawn from both. An NYU professor, media theorist, and founding member of Radical Software Group (RSG), Galloway states from the outset that his is a book "about loving video games," setting him firmly apart from the more clinically-minded of his peers. That said, the book is hardly the stuff of fanboy effusion, but rather a skillful address to the broad intellectual histories of gaming and a likely source of new debates.

Beginning with the idea that video games are actions, as opposed to traditional forms of image or story, Galloway attempts to outline a poetics for the medium. Much like the film scholars of previous decades, making their case about the unique qualities of the art they treasured, he situates the study of games as needing new conceptual frameworks, new models of thought, presenting a four-part schema to outline the nature of action within them. He claims that the medium¹s most fundamental relationships exist between two axes, that of the operator-machine on the one hand, and the narrative world of a game‹its diegesis‹and exterior properties, on the other. Simply put, each quadrant translates to one type of action. There are diegetic-machine acts, ambient rustlings where the game is running without operator input (day turns to night, a fireplace crackles), nondiegetic-operator acts like setting preferences or choosing weapons, diegetic-operator acts like moving or firing those weapons, and finally nondiegetic-machine acts, which include both disabling acts like 'game over' and network lags as well as enabling acts like power ups. Structured with an Aristotelian rigor, these categories could prove quite pertinent to the future of video game criticism, accounting as they do for the cybernetic dynamism so basic to the experience of gameplay.

Equally thoroughgoing is Galloway's history of the first-person shooter, whose roots he traces through a study of subjective camerawork in film. Citing such examples as Notorious' drugged-up Ingrid Bergman, Robert Montgomery's failed noir experiment, Lady in the Lake, and the knife-wielding predators of Psycho and Halloween, he positions the perspective as almost exclusively marginal within cinema, frequently used to depict mental affection, detachment, or monstrosity. Of course, according to Galloway, there is one exception to this otherwise awkward way of seeing, the cyborg. He argues that we view the subjective POV of Robocop and the Terminator, all bleary video and cursor prompt, as more acceptable than that of a character in, say, Dark Passage precisely because conflating the machine of the camera with an already mechanized body makes for a far less dubious pairing than with that of a human. So it's through a movie like Predator that Galloway sees a link, aesthetically speaking, to video games, where the first-person perspective is hardly marginal. Instead, it's quite crucial to the vision, the action of play. "Where film failed," he writes, "games succeed." A thoughtful mapping out of Marshall McLuhan's proposal about finding old media in new ones, the essay points toward the larger project in digital aesthetics, a quest of origins.

Traditional notions of realism are parsed in a similar fashion, revealing their unique relevance to gaming. Looking outside the verisimilitudes offered by ever-increasing polygon counts, Galloway considers gaming "a third moment of realism," after those based in image and narrative. Since the gamer is required to act, not simply look or read, Galloway sees the realism of a game as inextricably bound to the social context in which it is played. "Any game that depicts the real world must grapple with this question of action," he maintains, positing that America's Army, despite its high-end design, is actually not realist insofar as it's disconnected from the lived realities of the vast majority who play it. Games like Under Ash, however, by setting their conflicts within the Israeli occupation, are occasions for genuine realism, at least by the Palestinians who play them, if not others.

Theories of allegory are also revised and updated by Galloway in what is perhaps the most provocative essay in the collection. Following Gilles Deleuze and expanding some of the ideas in his earlier book, Protocol, he contends that video games are consummate expressions of what it means to live in a network society. Deleuze saw the highway as epitomizing a major phenomenon of late twentieth century culture, allowing endless mobility that was nonetheless entirely controlled. So too with video games, Galloway argues, which, despite appearing to offer a liberating smorgasbord of option and outcome, simply hide the lateral system of information control that characterizes contemporary existence. Unlike earlier, "deep" allegory, as typified by forms like cinema, what Galloway calls "allegories of control" are not ideological manipulations, but a complex process of masking new forms of control as an escape from older ones. Though I wonder about this last point, and the limits it places on the possibility of alternative play.

By centering a means of control in the deep-seated architectures of gaming, Galloway recalls older critiques of Hollywood. He puts forth, for instance, that a seemingly progressive update of the imperialist Civilization would still be subject to the same regulatory principles as the original. In much the same way, certain theorists in the seventies saw narrative film of all stripes as a political dead end. Outlandish as the claims of Laura Mulvey and company might look now, they instigated critical dialogue that was nothing short of vital; perhaps Galloway's article will do the same.

The book then closes, appropriately enough, with a discussion of counter-gaming, something of a new media analogue to counter-cinema, a la Peter Wollen, in which Galloway considers the work of artists like JODI, Cory Arcangel, and Anne-Marie Schleiner. But no matter how virtuosic their respective manipulations might be, for Galloway, a true avant-garde of video games is still ahead of us. Moving beyond a dominant preoccupation with visual elements, he ends by calling for creative intervention into more basic concerns: "We need radical gameplay, not just radical graphics." Such a statement leads one to think about what the future holds for video game criticism as well. Who will be the Greil Marcus of Mario? The Sontag of Shenmue? The Hoberman of Halo? Those are all questions that will no doubt answer themselves in coming years, but, given his project of analyzing the poetics of these particular social forms, one might say already that, in Galloway, the medium has found a contender for its Fredric Jameson.

Thomas Beard is the Program Director of Ocularis, a non-profit media arts organization based in Brooklyn. He has also served as a programmer at the Cinematexas Film Festival, and curated screenings and exhibitions at such as venues as Aurora Picture Show and the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Thomas Beard
Program Director
at Galapagos Art Space
70 North 6th Street
Brooklyn, NY 11211

Posted by jo at June 5, 2006 10:43 AM