Quick disclaimer: this is the product of a quick reading several months ago, and it woulden’t surprise me that I might be misrepresenting some of Wark’s arguments. Read with generosity!
A fascinating book, one that needs to be read as a method for play theory generally, rather than any particularly stunning observation about videogames (themselves) that we haven’t heard elsewhere. It helps that it appears Wark didn’t write this book to do that, but rather wrote a book to use videogames as an allegory for understanding the history of society, as well as a blueprint for trying to understand what videogames can do to help us understand our present trajectory under neo-liberal capital.
Wark does this by setting up an ontology of the present that proposes modern society as “gamespace” - a place that has no inside nor out. In gamespace we never know where the game ends and the new one begins. We are always playing, at our jobs, at home, even when we have sex. It is not a utopia, but an atopia – an everyplace without border. Wark sets this up with a retelling of the allegory of the cave, but when one tries to leave the cave, they do not confront the unfiltered real, but rather another cave, another dark cafe full of computer monitors running games. The cave is endless, and inescapable. Gamespace subsumes all, is all, is everything. In a sense then, Wark’s ontology is not particularly different than many of the theorists associated with the linguistic turn, but instead existence as a never-ending language game or hyper-real simulacra, we are left with existence as a never ending game. Maybe Wark harks the beginning of the Ludic turn in philosophy.
This is a helpful theoretical tool, and maybe one that could be used in pedagogy. Wark says that there are two strategies for playing against gamespace – you can play for the real, or your can play within the game - “be ludic, but also lucid”. Because the first option is impossible (again, there is no outside that we have access to), the second is the direction that Gamer Theory goes in. Wark then walks the reader along a path that touches on space, time, battle, the other, and more.
One of the biggest issues for Wark is discussing and breaking down how videogames are a very specific media for a very specific time and place. In a discussion of Civilization III Wark argues that videogame fits perfectly the age of Topology. In the age of topology, (rather than the age of topic and topography) everything is already mapped – space is overcome – all is subject to rule. Gamespace then becomes concerned with management rather than expansion. Civlization III, for Wark, is a game that best showcases the process of making a videogame: the management that you undertake in the videogame mirrors not the reality of the history of society, but the reality of what managing workers to build a videogame is like. In a Deleuzian turn, Wark describes this management as a method of “developing lines” that “deliniate the possible, and the actual.”
I think there are two positions in Game Studies that Gamer Theory provides a challenge to. The reading of videogames and subjectivity in Dyer-Witheford & de Peuter’s Games of Empire and Jane McGonigal’s ludic-utopianism in Reality is Broken. In Games of Empire Dyer-Witheford & de Peuter break down GTA: Vice City finally coming to the conclusion that the videogame (based on the content and art of the game) is not a game of Multitude, but rather Empire – due in part to the narrative cynicism that overruns the game. I believe that this is a significantly limited way to read and understand videogames. Wark provides an ample response to this position in his reading of Vice City.
It really contains no sex, no violence, no drugs, no guns. There are merely the art – the images and stories – via which the game mediates between what is within its own purely algorithmic line and what is a less – than – perfect topology inside which the gamer lives (123).
We can’t begin to make a 1:1 connection between the narrative layer (the art, the dialogue, etc) and the real world and then tell ourselves that a game is part of the problem of society. We need to take into account the less than perfect topology of the player and the algorithmic nature of videogames to really come to any conclusions about the game itself. Basically, shit is complicated, yo.
Similarly, while I believe that there are many valid insights that McGonigal makes in her work (I really want to write more about Reality is Broken), she ultimately fails to take into account that her conception of games as a method of escape from the alienating forces of capitalism is a failure if it doesn’t actually destroy capitalism. Her resistance is unlikely to really lead from alienation to autonomy, in that is operates on an affective shift, rather than a material one. Wark’s argument against McGonigal would be that reality is already a game. She’s late to the party, you realize as you climb out of one screen ridden cave into another, identical screen ridden cave. On each screen is Cow Clicker. You sit down and click.