brief thoughts on counter-gaming

As I’m writing this, a close friend just gave me a re-mastered version of the seminal game LOZ: Ocarina of Time, which many still argue is the best exemplar in mainstream video gaming. Placed in the history of gaming, in the context of digital culture, and specifically game art, I thought, why has this game captivated an entire generation of gamers including myself? What does the fact that, the trend of linear adventure games with singular narratives like this has given way to open sandbox games where users generate narratives and content, reveal about post-Fordist capitalist strategies and digital sovereignty?

I recently picked up Artists Re:thinking Games published by FACT and, two UK-based platforms for media art. What drew me to the book was the fact that it was the only publication I found to have contained anything on Guy Debord’s game Kriegspeil and Alex Galloway’s remake of the game. To my disappointment, the board game devised by the infamous French radical theorist/artist in the late 70’s and the digital remake by the media theorist do not appear to share the critical and philosophical lens of either of these theorists’ work. The brief interview was mostly about the logistics and minute details of the game design/play (which sounds like a standard 4X game - explore, expand, exploit, exterminate - set in Napoleonic times), with Galloway admitting he too pondered why is there nothing “Situationist” about this game.

The Situationist (SI) strategies and legacy was often cited in this book, linking détournement – the subversion through hijacking of dominant ideological strategies and turning it against itself – directly to the act of play, in this case conceived as playful artistic strategies utilized to provoke, reverse, and reveal the underlying structures and rules within games and their ideological progeny. Although Daphne Dragona’s essay acutely links this playfulness within the historical artistic movement of institutional critique and draws a parallel between institutions and games (structured and rule-bound), she did not give any examples of game art that actually deal with the political economy of the game industry or how the gameworld mirrors RL. She did, however, mention Cory Arcangel’s Super Mario Clouds, like everyone else (which always felt more like a study in existential dread to me rather than game critique). Although this parallel, I believe, offers fruitful insight to the questions I posed at the beginning, which I will return to at a later point.

Invoking SI again, Corrado Morganan unnecessarily and poorly distinguishes between art games and game art (and briefly admits to blurred boundaries), framing experimental media art as art games and traditional art objects situated in galleries as game art. The essay does list a number of game/art that present a subversive, resistant, and critical leaning, such as games that play themselves (Progress Quest) and offer frustrating, unusable game play and counter-intuitive mechanics (Achievement Unlocked, This is the only Level). A personal favourite is Jetro Lauha’s Racing Pitch, where the user controls a racing car by making car noises, a parodic act in which the only way a user can play the game is to constantly contribute to the creation of the simulation, rather than the game immersing the user in its simulation. Similarly, Mathias Fuchs talked about what he termed ‘ludic’ and ‘zero’ interfaces as approaches of game art in subverting and opposing the traditional conceit of HCI, by ‘playfully’ examining the interface or by completely withholding interaction (encompassed by what he termed ‘interpassivity’). “The interface is as much an inhibiting device as it is an enabling one. [...] Technically engineered interfaces are ideological in this regard, as they contain implicit rules, where we least expect them.” (56)

Elsewhere in the book, an appallingly one-sided and tenuous argument comes from Mary Flanagan’s inappropriately-titled essay “Creating Critical Play,” where a language of techno-optimism and tech industry PR pervades flagrantly, espousing simply that games offer addictive and beautifully-rendered worlds for exploring endless possibilities and creativity. She argues for the capacity for ‘activist’ games such as Layoff to educate players about socio-political issues and to induce empathy. I wonder how successful the game can be, to that end. Do my friends who are playing H1Z1 and Minecraft experience a palpable anxiety about ecological prudence and survival ethics, and the insatiable resource-hoarding of capitalist hubris? Or do they simply want to fuck around, build stuff, and act out Lord of the Flies? As someone who grew up playing LOZ and Final Fantasy, my experience of games have been hermetically self-contained and I am sceptical of the degree to which commercial games can offer critical reflection on RL. As Sherry Turkle noted in the beginning of Simulation and its Discontent, what simulations want is full immersion. By definition, its ontology negates self-reflexivity and awareness of exterior elements.

The idea that games offer creative exploration, new meaning-formation, and infinite possible realities is simply too one-dimensional and shallow. The rhetoric of ‘openness’ (along with other buzz terms such as interactivity, viewer as author, networked-connectivity, lack of singular author…etc.), which is so often facilely used and abused in any writing on media art, is again utilized as legitimation in game discourse. Openness, unfortunately, doesn’t mean shit. The argument assumes that all openness automatically leads to positive outcomes and it neglects the fact that games are created under specific ideological structures and ignores their political economy. As Trebor Scholz has argued, open/free has become a disguise for the dominant power regime to assert its irreplaceability in society. As always, Nicolas Bourriaud’s treatise on “Relational Aesthetics’ and Umberto Eco’s “Poetics of Open Work” are propped up here as poster boys, strengthening the idea that openness in interpretation and meaning-formation necessitates validity in contemporary culture and knowledge-production. It amounts to the relativism that plagued postmodernism (which clearly is still lingering) while concealing the underlying powers capitalizing on such framework. Galloway’s “Reticular Fallacy” does a fantastic job of declaring this line of thought. The danger of utilizing such theory-lite and meaningless words such as possible, potential, and open, is that it forecloses further and deeper discussions on what video games as a medium can actually achieve as a critical artistic tool.

To return to the opening thought I had and the parallel between institutions and games, I would like to suggest the following: the trajectory from structured and linear games heavy on narratives (ie. Final Fantasy and Metal Gear Solid) to the popularization of open sandbox games (ie. WOW and Minecraft) parallels (art and academic) institutions’ move from a structured curatorial and pedagogical model where the authority resides with the institution to a model that increasingly wishes to appeal to audience participation and production. Situated in the art historical context after institutional critique and postmodernism, this move seems logical, but more importantly it might also be indicative of the contemporary capitalist strategy of profiting from the idea of openness, user-generated products, user-as-author, user-centric interfaces and experiences, user customization, inflated sense of self-importance, fabricated individuality, and the emphasis on ‘YOU’ (a nod here to Austin Grossman’s meditative and compelling novel on game culture).

Derrida’s notion of play was utilized to elaborate on the impossibility of empirically totalizing being/language. Not because the field of examination is infinite, but rather because it is constantly fluidly undergoing the process of play, substitution, and agitation. Play creates a permanent and ambiguous non-wholeness, making quantification futile. In Galloway’s book Gaming, he links this notion to what he terms non-diegetic machine acts in video games: actions performed by the machine that are not integral to the gameplay and narrative of the game. For example, malfunction, ‘game over,’ and the emphasis on illegibility and disruptiveness in the works of JODI, all constitute non-diegetic machine acts. In contrast, Galloway elaborates what he terms the non-diegetic operator acts, which are acts of configuration executed by the user, that takes place outside the game’s narrative, such as ‘pause,’ cheats, and hacking, and this is where he locates the space for political intervention and critique in the coded system.

His most recent post on 'counter-gaming' expands a tiny bit on what he glossed over in an interview with Mo Salemy in a 2013 issue of the art publication Fillip (where he disclosed the difficulty in realizing one in practice and briefly mentioned Kriegspeil). Just a tiny bit. Perhaps he has written about it elsewhere, maybe at the end of Gaming, which I have yet to finish. Seeing that video games seem to be the medium par excellence in the informatic/algorithmic/cognitive/attention/immaterial economy, with their micro economics, free labour justified as creativity and passion, work/play dissolution, digital sharecropping, bolstering the simulacra paradigm and therefore the simulation industry, escapist spectacles, contribution to globalization and its entrenchment...etc., which was succinctly articulated in Games of Empire by Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter, I have thought for awhile now that video games are naturally the most appropriate medium for one to get into, if they wish to critically examine contemporary digital culture and ICT with visual art. As I read through his post, Galloway makes a distinction between two types of counter-gaming he has witnessed thus far: negation and deprivation, with the former stripping all that makes a game a 'game' and the latter taking a more nuanced approach and becomes a self-aware and self-reflexive exercise (like a meta-narrative of the post-war era). He then very briefly but cogently makes a case for failure and the deprivation of something some would argue is intrinsic to games: fun. This is certainly echoed by the games listed by Morgana above.

I was partially disheartened and partially encouraged by this, as I had for awhile now imagined what my project would look like if I were to make a piece of game art. Without giving away the details, it would certainly fall into the deprivation category, painfully self-aware and tedious, devoid of enjoyment and constantly throw the player back into the physical world, languoring in real time.* I was disheartened because now that it has been labeled, it seems dated, naive, and simply sounds like an exercise in form, even though it is an exercise that attempts to resist the mindless identification and cognitive prescription and to encourage transparency of the medium. Perhaps because this particular iteration doesn't seem to get into the political economy of the game industry within the larger umbrella of cognitive capitalism and attention economy. But I was also encouraged by Galloway's optimism and the line he drew in relation to failure, which is often where I end up theoretically in the attempt to thwart the capitalist mandate. It appears that while there are many iterations counter-gaming might take, for Galloway they all revolve around a displacement of the games' imbrication with the market and militarization. And in a functional and instrumental society, a displacement from the intended purpose would equate failure (unless they end up generating revenue in unintended ways). We return, then, to the Heideggerian idea that only when a tool is broken does it become opaque - Vorhandenheit (present-at-hand).

Full disclosure, I am now going to play Ocarina of Time. I was just on my way to Hyrule Castle. The full examination of why this game was so engrossing to my thirteen-year-old self and many others will have to be a different piece of writing, but suffice to say this is not a critical game, and if it were, I would not have enjoyed it, or even have been able to play it. To return to Flanagan's essay, the title of which she never fully addressed, what is critical play and is it even possible?

*As a side note, dreaded video artist Bill Viola has put out a piece with a game studio called Night Journey, as an example of 'slow gaming.' Unfortunately, despite my initial desire to see slow gaming as an attempt to thwart the users’ need for instant gratification and to induce frustration and alienation from the game, Bill Viola’s conceit is to induce further immersion by letting the user slow down and check out the beautiful environment (which, upon closer inspection, reveals collages of his previous work…self-indulgent and nauseating like his other output). Gratification has only been replaced with visual immersion, and speed and rewards replaced by more intricate simulation, which is ultimately disappointing if slow gaming was designed to be a critical strategy.

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