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Controlling the Political
Videogames and politics have a lot to say about one another, but not in the way you might think. It's sometimes said, for instance, that games model and promote problematic personal and institutional politics. Just think about 90s games like Duke Nukem 3D or Colonization, which put the player in the respective positions of a one-liner dropping, jet pack sporting, alien killing ladies' man on the one hand and a European monarch looking to conquer the new world on the other. If these games are unapologetic representations of violence, misogyny, commodification, and imperialism, then you might say that they're encouraging these values, ideals, or ways of thinking. Or you might dispute this line of thinking, arguing that violent games don't make people violent; in fact, you might argue, Duke Nukem 3D and Colonization are examples of games that encourage critical reflection on the politics that they represent, since their mechanical implementation of various dehumanizations puts the player in a position to experience inhuman actions as they play the game. Colonization, in this reading, is in fact only problematic in that it fails to fully represent the horrors of the colonial past, notably omitting the slave trade from its mechanical implementation of history; that, in other words, it's not offensive enough.
Whether you think that specific games promote problematic political values or harbor the potential to model, reflect on, and critique them, you might be inclined to limit your argument to those specific games. Duke Nukem 3D valorizes sexism and violence, for instance, but other first-person shooters – say, the kid-friendly Splatoon, where bullets are replaced by ink and the objective is painting territory rather than killing enemies – do not. Videogames, that is, should be analyzed individually, or at most grouped together according to genre and then thought through. In this understanding of the relationship between videogames and politics, individual videogames can always break the generic political mold, and they should be encouraged to do so.
The most problematic mold is arguably the power fantasy. When a videogame takes the form of a power fantasy, it encourages players to live out their impossible desires in extreme fashion, treating the people of the world as things, the things of the world with dispatch, and the world itself as a playground. Power fantasies crop up in all kinds of media, of course, and they're not necessarily problematic; the feeling that I get from efficiently blasting away sprites isn't "bad." That said, videogames seem especially prone to the sort of escapism that power fantasies offer, since the simple act of playing and mastering the game is the source of that satisfying feeling. Stylish representations of violence can help, of course, but they're not the principal source of that feeling. The sensation of power particular to videogames derives from the mastery of a system.
This sense of power dovetails with the sense of immersion that stems from the "fit" between the player character and the game. Players feel powerful to the extent that they can seamlessly immerse themselves in systems. For Christopher Franklin, the videogame power fantasy tends toward overt representations of violence because videogames excel at simulating space, the setting for bodies and the objects that impact them. They mostly fail to simulate relationships. Consider the difficulty of "systemizing interactions" between two people in a conversation: branching dialogue trees, which are the dominant forms used for modeling conversation, haven't advanced much since the 1980s, and attempts at employing them often leave the player less immersed in the game than they were before. Consequently, "games tend to be more about spatial and physical conflicts, and as a result of that, violence pops up thematically more often than it does in other media." This problem is amplified when the pleasure of systemic immersion and spatial simulation dovetails with big budgets and the traditional thematic fare of masculine power fantasies: superhuman abilities, advanced weaponry, moral decisionism, docile female bodies, and so on.
This is even the case for games that make a pretense of tackling the kinds of "real world issues" that stem from the unequal distribution of power. Big budget videogames might insert seemingly thoughtful fare about this sort of inequality into their dialogue, exposition, or mise-en-scène, but the fundamentally empowering nature of their gameplay cannot help but take priority over the politically minded exploration of a theme. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, for instance, is a well-reviewed major studio release set in a dystopian future in which prosthetically-augmented humans find themselves divided from the unaugmented, a political situation the developers described as "mechanical apartheid." The game makes continual reference to this violent inequality, all but hitting the player over the head with the theme: "A wrench is a tool, not a human being!" reads the graffiti; "Augs Lives Matter," say the banners. Even if this mode of exposition didn't trivialize or appropriate the Black Lives Matter movement and apartheid, among others, producing an arguably racist product in the process, it would nevertheless fail to deliver on such serious fare because of the conflicting character of the gameplay: neatly divided off from the thematic material, delivered in non-player characters' barks and assorted visual reminders of the bifurcated character of post-human society, the gameplay presents the player with the opportunity to master a small variety of action, exploration, and stealth systems while controlling an ever-more-powerful player character who can do nearly anything without narrative repercussion. As Franklin puts it: "It is hard to speak truth to power or discuss the nature of power when your game is itself a celebration of unrestrained and unexamined power."
Not all power fantasies attempt to incorporate political material, of course, and there might be no more straightforward example of violent escapism than Bulletstorm, a first-person shooter that puts the player in the position of Grayson Hunt. Angry, sarcastic, and frequently drunk, Hunt is prototypically masculine, a near-parody of the space marine archetype in everything from his personality to his physique to his dialogue. He is armed with the usual battery of weapons, each one more ridiculous than the last: the energy leash lets Hunt pull enemies toward him (slowing time in the process and allowing him to reposition them to be kicked into things), the "flailgun" shoots bolas made of grenades, and the "penetrator" features skillshots with names like "MILE HIGH CLUB" and "DRILLDO." Those skillshots are what helped the game stand out back in 2011: when the player kills an enemy or group of enemies in a creative way, the game offers points and praise as a reward for the demonstration of skill.
While Bulletstorm is obviously a violent, escapist power fantasy, it also seems self-aware. In addition to the volume and absurdity of ways to "kill with skill," the game's over-the-top visual style, the fact that developer Epic Games also authored the utterly unironic space marine shooter Gears of War, and the fact that the game's 2017 re-release gave players the option to replace Grayson Hunt with a very confused Duke Nukem, consider Bulletstorm's obsession with penises.
The developers and promoters know exactly what guns so often represent (designer director Cliff Bleszinski has said that "[t]he minigun is basically an extension of Grayson's penis"), there are more than a dozen skillshots that make reference to male genitals (including "EJECULATED," "MONEY SHOT," and "BONED"), and the dialogue features no word more frequently than "dick" – often misused with a nudge and a wink. Take the following exchange from the game's second act, knowingly titled "Damsel in Distress," by way of example:
Trishka Novak: "If you shitpiles give chase I'll kill your dicks!"
Grayson Hunt: "What? What does that even mean? You're gonna kill my dick? I'll kill your dick! How 'bout that, huh?"
This might be interpreted ironically, but there are reasons to think that Bulletstorm shouldn't be read as a parody. The main character is a muscular white man who speaks in a gruff cadence, the game tries to provide him and the other caricatured characters with human motivations, and the game delivers a straightforward thrill when Hunt successfully executes a chain of skillshots. As G. Christopher Williams puts it: "can a game really be kitsch if it's so close to the truth?"
In any case, Bulletstorm is an emblematic power fantasy, and whether you think that it straightforwardly models violence, racism, misogyny, and so on, or that it offers a self-aware critique of these things, your analysis could remain restricted to Bulletstorm alone, or to first-person shooters more broadly. But this would be an unfortunately limited approach. Not only are first-person shooters not the only videogame genre to offer players the opportunity to live out power fantasies, they are in some ways the most innocuous genre to do so: they are transparently power fantasies. They wear their values on their sleeve. Most other videogames – regardless of genre – work in the exact same way, giving the player the chance to learn and master their algorithms, exerting more and more perfect control as they become more and more familiar with the game. For Wark and many others, this process is less about winning than it is about learning the game's rules. While games in general certainly require a basic understanding of their rules, the videogame requires that the player learn its algorithms, those "finite set[s] of instructions for accomplishing some task [that] transforms an initial starting condition into a recognizable end condition." If a videogame is constituted by a set of more or less opaque algorithms that govern player action, then the power that the player feels derives from learning and mastering them. Given this understanding of videogames, the power fantasy that players are living out has less to do with guns, violence, conquest, or women than with achieving an intuitive relation to a set of rules. First-person shooter games like Bulletstorm and The Division are obviously power fantasies, but so are real-time strategy games like Starcraft and casual games like Candy Crush. All of them demand a relationship to the game that moves beyond understanding its basic rules and possibilities, and all of them reward the player for developing that deeper relationship. This might seem innocuous in comparison to the stereotypical power fantasy in which the player is given the opportunity to violate vulnerable bodies, but, as I will argue throughout this chapter, its violence – a violence ultimately enacted at an ontological level – has the potential to be much worse.
An extended example might help make the case for this reading. I focused on Colonization before, but the more popular choice would have been Civilization, also designed by Sid Meier. The original Civilization helped to define the 4X genre ("eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate") and paved the way for five successful sequels, each of which puts the player in the position of an eternal sovereign dictating the course of an empire over thousands of years. And this is a complicated position: the player oversees major developments and turning points, but he or she is also responsible for micromanaging military units, trade deals, urban development projects, and so on. At the same time, the game manages to lull the player into a trance, always taking "just one more turn." The game generates this "smooth flow" out of a "tangle of roles" by requiring the player to enter "an unfamiliar, alien mental state," Ted Friedman argues: it requires them "to think like a computer." And not just to think. Civilization is a strategy game, not a roleplaying game, but the player nonetheless inhabits the role of the computer; they learn "how to engage and optimize systems," as Brian Schrank puts it, but they also learn "how to manage their desire." A formal critique of Civilization, then, has little to do with its progressivist historical narrative, its orientalist presentation of non-Western cultures, its technological determinism, or any other ideological mistake. Instead, this focus on the game's form suggests that Civilization should be critiqued on the basis of the way that it teaches its players to think, intuit, and even desire algorithmically.
Thinking in terms and on the basis of discrete, bounded, computerized information-processing systems is an incredibly significant form of contemporary political power: we are building systems that operate in algorithmic terms and we are being entrained to them. Whether miniature consumer electronics or massive infrastructural constellations, these computational systems constitute an opaque machine ecology of their own. Contemporary finance capital is unsurprisingly exemplary here: high-frequency trading, in which proprietary algorithms conduct high volume, short term trades at speeds thousands of times faster than human traders, accounts for half of all US equity trading volume. Because it takes place with incredible speed, and because it takes place between competing and exceedingly complicated algorithms, it can generate unpredictable consequences – black swan events like the 2010 flash crash. High-frequency trading is exemplary, not exceptional; our technological systems tend toward complexity, autonomy, and opacity. As Samuel Arbesman puts it: "many of these systems are actually no longer completely understandable. We now live in a world filled with incomprehensible glitches and bugs. When we find a bug in a video game, it's intriguing, but when we are surprised by the very infrastructure of our society, that should give us pause."
Arbesman's reference to videogames is not coincidental. The algorithm is a form of power that is just as difficult to represent in traditional media as it is easy to depict in videogames. Alexander Galloway extends Friedman's analysis in his own reading of Civilization, which he takes as a stand-in for videogames in general:
In the work of Meier, the gamer is not simply playing this or that historical simulation. The gamer is instead learning, internalizing, and becoming intimate with a massive, multipart, global algorithm. To play the game means to play the code of the game. To win means to know the system. And thus to interpret a game means to interpret its algorithm (to discover its parallel "allegorithm").
Videogames, for Galloway and many others, illustrate the technologized condition of contemporary politics; they are, "at their structural core, in direct synchronization with the political realities of the informatics age. If Meier's work is about anything, it is about information society itself. It is about knowing systems and knowing code, or I should say, knowing the system and knowing the code."
Not only, then, do videogames like Civilization operate as allegories for the variety of different algorithmic systems that touch on or even make up so much of the world, they also give us the impression that the world as such, despite its incredible and growing complexity, can be understood algorithmically: everything can be systematized, everything reduced down to a single code. Everything, to add a fifth "X" to the list, can be exhausted – understood, played with, and disposed of. Videogames, more clearly than any other medium, present us with an allegorithm for the purported comprehensibility, controllability, and monolithic character of the world. What greater power fantasy is there than that?
Gamer Theory as Media Theory
So videogames operate allegorithmically, which is to say symptomatically – at least in part: they tell us, indirectly, about what we take for granted. Before saying more about these hidden and taken for granted assumptions about what the world is and should be, I want to focus on the character of this allegorithmic or symptomatic function. What kinds of things do videogames tell us, exactly, and what else do they do?(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Ludopolitics"
Copyright © 2017 Liam Mitchell.
Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Gaming Time,
The Politics of Play,
The Eternal Return of the Game,
Technology and Time,
The Idle Ideal,
Chapter One: Controlling the Political,
Gamer Theory as Media Theory,
Chapter Two: Design against Control,
Open Worlds: Fallout 3,
Immersion: BioShock and Spec Ops: The Line,
Chapter Three: Bastion,
The Eternal Return of the Same,
The Twilight of the Idols,
Evacuation, Not Escape,
Chapter Four: Play against Control,
Play and Counterplay,
Speedrunning Super Mario Bros.,
Mythologizing Twitch Plays Pokémon,
Trifling and Time,
Chapter Five: Pokémon Plays Twitch,
Arbitrary Code Execution,
Consoles and Computers,
Conclusion: Memento Mori,