Essays on Algorithmic Culture

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Book: Gaming. Essays in Algorithmic Culture. Alexander Galloway


"Galloway’s work in Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, meanwhile, takes a slightly different tack from a similar premise: digital games are action-based media. As opposed to readings based on the active audience, the analysis is also less concerned with the interpretation of texts than with the gestures of the player and material reconfigurations of the technical system itself – ‘one plays a game. And the software runs. The operator and the machine play the video game together, step by step, move by move’ (2). It is argued that through these dimensions, games offer crucial insights into the functioning of socio-technical power (86). Drawing in part from Fredric Jameson’s film theory in Signatures of the Visible, Galloway advances the argument: ‘video games are allegories for our contemporary life under protocological network of continuous informatic control’ (106). There is no deeper meaning to games in sense of ideology critique, they do not denote any exterior referent, but actually exist as expressions of informatic control itself. In the extreme, McKenzie Wark has even pushed this notion (the ‘allegorithm’) to the centre of critical analysis, arguing that videogames offer tools for thought in tracing the sentiments, subjectivities and political affects that define contemporary worlds: they are control in the purest sense, against which everyday life merely appears as an imperfect and flawed copy (2007).

Despite the drive toward universal acceptance, however, control is not seen as an all-encompassing totality. For Galloway, the pursuit of radical difference is a potential within this regime, but only in terms of channeling the active forces of play. Here, digital games are no longer texts that are re-interpreted by readers, but things that can potentially be re-enacted toward alternate ends. The concept of ‘countergaming’ is, accordingly, introduced by Galloway to examine modifications based on subversive art practices. In the analysis of projects by artists such as Brody Condon, Jodi, Anne-Marie Schleiner, retroYou and Cory Arcangel, countering refers explicitly to avant-gardism. In particular, such works are said to disrupt the formal qualities of games by undercutting physics, interactivity, narrative and representational modeling. Software modifications such as Jodi’s Untitled Game (1996-2001) or Tom Betts QQQ (2002) undo the physics of the game engine by heightening glitches and propagating visual artifacts. These games convey a sense of technical system failure, errors and buggy software, but are also deliberately programmed toward this end: they are modifications that re-direct the gamic experience through extreme self-reflexivity.

While his essay concludes on a critical note, pointing toward how play is consequently effaced from these interventions, counter-actualization is nevertheless used to direct attention to the transformative affects that create structural differences from an existing state of materials. It is here that we want to add a simple corrective – we argue that counter-actualization actually covers a great deal more than Galloway states in his framework. In other words, we believe that artistic modification should be interpreted as just one expression of re-directing codified regimes of play. Interestingly, networked games are not a central concern of Galloway’s formalist study. Neither are the tensions and contradictions between labour and play that drive the global gaming industry, nor the controversies that erupt around networked governance and the problem of cheating. Some precedents exist for this kind of expansive reading of counter-conducts in gaming (Franklin 2009), although we are not concerned with ideas of ‘nonexistence’ or the privileging of technical expertise or knowledge. For our purposes, we simply state that artistic modification should be included alongside many other diverse practices of making things different. Counterplay, therefore, examines and explores the reconfiguration of gaming within already existing, localized, enacted practices of unruly innovation in digital game play." (