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Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture

Alexander R. Galloway

(University of Minnesota Press)

“[Sid] Meier’s Alpha Centauri...position[s] the player in the ultimate expansionist haven, outer space. This has the added bonus of eliminating concerns about the politics of expansionist narratives, for, one assumes, it is easier to rationalize killing anonymous alien life-forms in Alpha Centauri than it is killing Zulus in Civilization III.”
—Andrew R. Galloway, “Allegories of Control”, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture

For an awful long time now, video gaming has gone beyond the label of “kid stuff”. Even so, it’s still quite difficult to explain that development to someone to whom you mention video games as a hobby. A little condescending smile, a giggle, or even a question usually follows such an admission: “Aren’t you a little old for that?”

This is why, by default, a lot of gamers are predisposed to literature that takes their pastime of choice seriously. Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, a collection of short papers from NYU assistant professor Andrew R. Galloway, is just such a book, one willing to take video gaming seriously enough to discuss it as a relatively new, potentially infinitely varied method of cultural expression. It is especially interesting in that it actually largely takes the point of view of the gamer rather than the developer of the games—rather than try and dissect the thought and the cultural implications of those creating the games, Galloway chooses almost exclusively to investigate the philosophy behind the play of the games. Of course, the two can never be completely separated (the two sides of the spectrum invariably influence each other), but his choice of point of view makes it far easier to relate to what he is trying to express, rather than simply to understand it.

What Galloway presents us with, then, are five essays dissecting the social and cultural implications of video gaming. Two of the chapters serve largely as setup—the first explains his thesis on the four “moments” of video game play, quadrants formed by using an X-axis to represent the Diegetic and Non-Diegetic nature of events in the game (that is, events that happen within the game’s “world” vs. events that happen outside of it) and a Y-axis to represent the source of events in the game (whether it be human or machine). Using this as a jumping off point, he goes on to describe in the essays that follow ways in which the relationships between events in the four moments give the game players varying emotions and senses of control; in his second essay, entitled “Origins of the First-Person Shooter”, he plays compare-and-contrast between the feelings and emotions prompted by a first person view in games and in movies, and in the fourth, “Allegories of Control”, he shoots down the idea (or, perhaps, the label given to the idea) of “history simulators” such as Civilization by pointing out the inherent fallacy that history could be simulated via any combination of finite game code. He even goes so far as to point out the ethnocentrism that is so prevalent in both the choices Civilization gives its user and the strategies that user is encouraged to employ in order to achieve something resembling success, a revelation both humorous and horrifying to those who may enjoy the game.

The most interesting of the essays, however, is the final one, an essay called “Countergaming” in which Galloway explores the effect of various game “hacks” on the part of the gamers themselves, ultimately finding the current incarnation of countergaming rather useless in the context of the medium it tries to revolutionize. This is because most of the hacks available separate the “play” from the “game”, turning the game into another medium altogether. These hacks are unplayable and, in many cases, uninterpretable, making them interesting only by the fact that they exist.

Galloway’s exploration of these topics makes for interesting, if not quite riveting reading. He never talks down to his audience, actually giving his work the air of academia in his choice of vocabulary, not to mention his historical and philosophical points of reference. Perhaps most importantly, he is very, very effective as a persuasive writer, exploring each of his points step-by-step, punctuating each of those points with at least one example (and often many more), arriving at his conclusions in a calculated, methodical manner. Even so, it is the parenthetical in that previous sentence that often dooms his writing, at least for the reader not interested in repeatedly poring over the text he has been given—Galloway has a propensity to overuse his examples, to the point where their inclusion becomes a distracting annoyance. This is a habit that extends beyond his videogame examples into other realms where comparisons are necessary; his movie examples are particularly pervasive in “Origins of the First-Person Shooter”, where he uses them as both platforms to jump off of and points of comparison.

What such a glut of examples does also serve to demonstrate, however, is just how knowledgeable Galloway is of his subject matter, and how much he cares about it. Someone who doesn’t care deeply about the acceptance of video gaming as a legitimate source of cultural study could never have written these five essays, and in turn, those that do care deeply about such matters will find much comfort and interest in this collected set of works. It is only through writing such as this, as opposed to the mainstream media’s constant, redundant concentration on the effects of videogames on children, that the concept of gaming as a healthy adult hobby will ever be taken seriously. Galloway should be commended for his work.

Mike Schiller is a software engineer in Buffalo, NY who enjoys filling the free time he finds with media of any sort -- music, movies, and lately, video games. Stepping into the role of PopMatters Multimedia editor in 2006 after having written music and game reviews for two years previous, he has renewed his passion for gaming to levels not seen since his fondly-remembered college days of ethernet-enabled dorm rooms and all-night Goldeneye marathons. His three children unconditionally approve of their father's most recent set of obsessions.

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