Essays on Algorithmic Culture

by L.B. Jeffries

15 September 2009

 

One of the most interesting questions about video games is, if they are art, how do they communicate a message to a person? How do they cross from what Roger Ebert once described as “sport” into making a plausible statement about the world in a game? A book recommended to me that extensively handles the topic is Alexander Galloway’s Essays on Algorithmic Culture. The text is very short, 126 pages total, and consists of five modified essays Galloway published in various journals. I’m going to focus on his points about political games and player vs machine relationships for this essay. Chapter 2, ‘Origins of the First Person Shooter’, is a comparison of the cinematic techniques of the First Person and how video games build on these. For a variety of reasons, I personally don’t agree with this argument. Intellectual pissing matches where one person cherry picks convenient quotes and attacks another author rarely produces anything useful, so I’m going to just focus on the parts of Galloway’s book I found persuasive. You can read the book and make up your own mind about the rest of it.

From Final Fantasy X

From Final Fantasy X

That said about his heavy reliance on film theory, Galloway is an interesting critic on video games for that same reason: he doesn’t necessarily organize a game by ludic and narrative components. Instead he relies on a series of arbitrary distinctions between types of events in a game. For example, there are machine actions and operator actions. He writes, “The difference is this: machine actions are acts performed by the software and hardware of the game computer, while operator’s act are performed by players. So, winning Metroid Prime is the operator’s act, but losing it is the machine’s.” (5) He acknowledges himself that the distinction is meaningless in most games, falling into the lava in Super Mario is just as much because of the operator as it is the machine’s depiction of a loss scenario. To Galloway though, this cinematic interlude is, “a type of grotesque fetishization of the game itself as machine. The machine is put at the service of cinema.” (11) These moments are our windows into the world of the game, the point at which we are allowed to look at the machine as a whole rather than just plot or identifying something on the screen. This duality of machine depiction as well as narrative depiction are essential. These machine elements are depicting non-diegetic (outside the film’s world) information. He uses Final Fantasy X as an example, the way that you see all the numbers and stats despite the fact that they are never acknowledged in the plot. A game must continually do this in order to make the player aware of the algorithms that govern its world so they can modify their behavior to become better at play. This is where literary theorists like Derrida become relevant to video game theory, there are multiple layers of what is going on in the game and what is specifically ‘real’.

From http://literature.sdsu.edu

From http://literature.sdsu.edu

I’m probably going to bungle this summary of Derrida’s points, the man’s writing is ‘Go F*** Yourself’ hard to understand, but as Galloway puts it there is no central meaning to a video game. It’s not just the plot and it’s not just the ludic elements, it’s both interacting. Derrida, while discussing literary theory, was making the point that the meaning of words and historical events changes over time and from person to person. Little House on the Prairie read today is fairly racist towards Native Americans but in the past was considered a heart-warming story, to give an example. Derrida uses the word ‘play’ to then describe how the meaning of a text is generated; it doesn’t come from one source but rather is bouncing off the person, history, social stigmas, education, etc. The meaning of a word is constantly being adjusted and played with by a reader. Galloway writes, “So while games have linear narrative that may appear in broad arcs from beginning to end, or may appear in cinematic seques and interludes, they also have nonlinear narratives that must unfold in algorithmic form during gameplay. In this sense, video games deliver to the player the power relationship of informatics media firsthand, choreographed into a multivalent cluster of play activities.” (93) In a video game the process of generating meaning through play is made very literal. There is a game’s narrative meaning and then the player constantly playing with those values through the game design, bouncing around these interests.

From SOCOM

From SOCOM

Galloway goes on to explore the discrepancy between realistic graphics and realistic action in a video game using these ideas. Ordering a pizza in The Sims looks like a cartoon but in terms of action it is more accurate than SOCOM’s storming of an enemy base despite the fact that SOCOM has better graphics. That’s not really how you storm a base but it looks more realistic than The Sims, which features plausible conduct. So the distinction between realism is not really one of visuals, but rather how much you are properly coercing realistic behavior in a player. (73) He writes, “I suggest there must be some kind of congruence, some type of fidelity of context that transliterates itself from the social reality of the gamer, through one’s thumbs, into the game environment and back again. This is what I call the “congruence requirement,” and it is necessary for achieving realism in gaming. Without it there is no true realism.” (78) This is where Galloway draws the distinction between a game depicting a fantasy and one depicting reality, “it boils down to the affect of the gamer and whether the game is a dreamy, fantastical division from that affect, or whether it is a figurative extension of it.” (83) A strong example of this would be Duncan Fyfe’s explanation of why Call of Duty 4 is a fantasy. There are no civilians in the game. There are no complications to any battle except whether or not you’re playing well. Unlike a real war, which requires that you manage all of these complications, the game is just a fantasy war scenario where there are no innocents. It affirms Galloway’s point: the game design is what makes something realistic, not the graphics.

From The Sims

From The Sims

This brings us to Galloway’s ultimate point about how a game communicates a message to the player. Almost every game in existence, whether you’re stabbing dragons or driving cars, presents a depiction of reality. It does this by making its rules transparent in the non-diegetic moments. (93) Rather than the way a film communicates a political message, which is to just have us observe a story and its various characters at work, a game shows us the process and has us go through it ourselves. In this way games often reveal political bias, racism, and other ideologies. Native Americans in Civilization, for example, have a technology handicap that builds on their stereotypes. He adds, “The other great simulation game that has risen above the limitations of the genres is The Sims, but instead of seizing on the totality of informatics control as a theme, this game does the reverse, diving down into the banality of technology, the muted horrors of a life lived as an algorithm.” (103) The game becomes a message about the horrors of suburban life as you engage in meaningless task after meaningless task for a win condition that doesn’t exist. Galloway concludes, “the interpretation of gamic acts is the process of understanding what it means to do something and mean something else. It is a science of the “as if”. The customary definition of allegory as “extended metaphor” should, for games, be changed to “enacted metaphor.”  (118)

The final chapter of the essay explores the opposite approach of delivering a game’s message, rather than focusing on changing the rules you change the visuals. Galloway sees this mostly occurring in the mod and indie scene, something that was just coming into existence when he was writing the book. He notes one quirk about the mod scene, “aesthetic experimentation often trumps interactive gameplay…the three aesthetic realms most often modified in artist game mods are space, visuality, and physics. Modding the flow of gameplay itself is less common.” (118) Galloway cites a few examples like using glitches in the game’s visuals to make you more aware that you’re playing a game or tinkering with the physics so that the visuals become very reflective of your actions. This portion has dated a bit but I think he nails the core force driving the indie scene even today: redefining the concept of play itself for gamers.

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