Games

Essays on Algorithmic Culture

A breakdown of Alexander Galloway's collected essays on video games.

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

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

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

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

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.

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

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Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

The Hall of Fame has been harshly criticized for some of its more inexplicable exclusions and for neglecting certain subgenres of music. Cynicism and negativity over the Hall's selection process and membership is fairly widespread. That said, despite the controversies and legitimate gripes, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is still widely viewed as a career milestone. The Hall's stature feeds its surrounding controversies: after all, nobody would care to argue so vehemently about the merits of one artist over another if it wasn't important. Very rarely will a newly inducted artist miss the opportunity to appear at the star-studded ceremony to accept their honor.

The criteria for nomination is as follows: "Artists -- a group encompassing performers, composers and/or musicians -- become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first commercial recording. Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock and roll." Specifically for performers, "This category honors bands or solo artists which demonstrate musical excellence. Such a descriptor includes (but isn't limited to) influence on other performers or genres; length and depth of career and catalog; stylistic innovations; or superior technique and skills."

These standards allow the selection committee wide latitude with their choices, and generating a list that would create zero controversy is an obvious impossibility. As for those deserving artists yet to be included, their time will surely come. There has purportedly been an emphasis on increasing diversity among the nominating committee and voters in recent years, and the list of contenders for the class of 2018 reflects this.

Radiohead, as expected and deserved, are nominated in their first year of eligibility, and there is little doubt they will be inducted. Other nominees include Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, the Cars, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, Eurythmics, J. Geils Band, Judas Priest, LL Cool J, MC5, the Meters, the Moody Blues, Rage Against the Machine, Nina Simone, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Link Wray and the Zombies. It's a strong and varied group.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the list, however, is the British duo Eurythmics. Even though they've been eligible since 2006, this is their first nomination. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox certainly deserve recognition for their important contributions to the musical fabric of the last 40 years. While Eurythmics have always been generally respected, they've never been darlings with the critics like some of their contemporaries. It's puzzling as to why. Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting and creative audacity. Lennox is second to noone as a vocalist, not just in her lead parts but also in the creative, often rhythmic way she uses her voice as an instrument. This nomination could boost the stature and perception of Eurythmics' body of work immeasurably.

Although Eurythmics are often consigned strictly to the synthpop genre, that designation fits only a portion of their repertoire. Each of their nine studio albums has its own unique vibe while retaining the duo's core identity. Eurythmics never repeat themselves, often taking bold risks and swerving in unexpected directions. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Eurythmics didn't "sell out" or compromise by chasing after obvious Top 40 hits. Even their most popular singles aren't commercial in the traditional sense, and they've always sounded like nobody else on the radio.

Despite the sudden emergence of their 1983 single "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" as an MTV staple and international smash, Eurythmics are far from an overnight success story. Their story begins in London, 1975, when Stewart fortuitously encountered Lennox at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. The Scottish singer had recently dropped out of the Royal Academy of Music, which she felt didn't suit her musical interests. Stewart and Lennox strongly connected over their love of music, and they quickly became a couple who were inseparable. Along with singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Peet Coombes, Stewart and Lennox formed a short-lived group the Catch. After one failed single, they added two members and renamed themselves the Tourists.

Coombes was the dominant creative force and primary songwriter behind the Tourists. Lennox and Coombes shared vocals on the band's dour and melancholy power-pop. The Tourists released three albums and managed a handful of chart appearances in the UK. Two of their singles, a peppy cover of Dusty Springfield's "I Only Want to Be With You" and the hard-rocking "So Good T\to Be Back Home Again", made the UK Top 10. The band toured extensively, but their success was fleeting. The Tourists' third album, Luminous Basement (1980), tanked badly despite containing their strongest material yet, and the group dissolved shortly thereafter.

Lennox and Stewart also endured a painful ending to their sometimes tumultuous romance, but they recognized the power of their musical chemistry and decided to continue working together as a duo. They were a pair "who couldn't be together, and who could not be apart", as Lennox reflects many years later in the song "17 Again". History has shown that they made the right decision: Stewart and Lennox compliment each other intuitively through a shared passion for music, the thrill of experimentation, and the need for emotional release that songwriting and performing allows.

The name Eurythmics was derived from a technique used to teach music to children based on sensory and physical methods of learning rhythm. The newly-christened duo signed with RCA Records and in early 1981 headed to Germany to record their debut album with highly-respected krautrock producer Conny Plank.

Plank already had a long string of acclaimed albums to his credit, including collaborations with Neu!, Can, Ultravox, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno among others. The sessions for what would become Eurythmics' debut album, In the Garden, were held at Plank's studio in Cologne. He brought several of his regular collaborators into the proceedings, including bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit of avant-garde rockers Can, Blondie drummer Clem Burke and D.A.F. electronics whiz Robert Görl. Stewart has described the sessions as a learning experience that helped expand his perception of what pop music could be and how it could be created without following any rules, a perspective that served Eurythmics well.

Eurythmics' austere and hypnotic debut single "Never Gonna Cry Again" was released in May 1981. They filmed a low-budget video and landed a couple TV slots to promote the track, but the song's haunted nature did not translate to mainstream success: it barely scraped the lower reaches of the UK singles chart. A second single, the dreamy guitar-rocker "Belinda", followed in August but failed to chart.

In the Garden was finally released in October 1981, but without a hit to generate momentum it was barely noticed. Despite scant sales figures, the album's gloomy psychedelic guitar-pop makes for a rather strong debut. In the Garden exists in late summer shadows, densely atmospheric and shrouded in a veil of dread. Lennox's vocals are understated, subtle and lower in the mix than on subsequent albums. Sound effects, odd vocalizations and bits of sonic experimentation fade in and out like flashes of hazily repressed memory.

RCA wasn't eager to invest in a follow-up to In the Garden after its disappointing reception, so Stewart financed Eurythmics' second album largely through a personal bank loan. Faced with a minuscule budget, they worked in a London warehouse to avoid spending money on studio time. They were able to purchase cheap second-hand equipment for the sessions, including the basic TEAC 8-track on which most of the album was recorded. Adam Williams, former bassist for the ska band the Selectors, helped the duo learn the equipment while co-producing some of their earliest tracks.

The primitive set-up was the ultimate blessing in disguise. Since they were financing the sessions and self-producing, Eurythmics had the freedom to experiment with no oversight. As both Lennox and Stewart were enduring periods of deep personal strife at the time, the sessions evolved into an emotional and creative catharsis that helped shape the mercurial nature of the music. It was out of this environment that a classic was born.

Despite appearing only a few months after their debut album, the first single to emerge from the new sessions proved radically different than any of Eurythmics' prior work. Released in April 1982, "This Is the House" is a flamboyant, horn-driven spectacle on which Lennox belts out a vocal more confident and brash than any of her prior work. The song's odd mix of synthpop, R&B; and latin influences renders it completely unique, but despite its infectious ingenuity and beguiling loopiness (or perhaps because of it), "This Is the House" failed to chart.

The follow-up single that landed two months later is even better. Entrancing and soulful, "The Walk" exudes the anxiety, drama and innovation that became Eurythmics' hallmark. The vocal arrangement is ingenious, and Dick Cuthell (known for his work with Madness, the Specials, Fun Boy Three and others) lets rip a blistering trumpet solo. As in many of their songs, "The Walk" slowly ratchets up the tension through hypnotic repetition and the gradual addition of more layers of sound until it reaches a haywire frenzy. Although a brilliant recording, "The Walk" fared no better than its predecessor.

With the duo's second album Sweet Dreams (are made of this) completed, RCA began a strong promotional push, issuing the opening track "Love Is a Stranger" as a single in November 1982. Lennox's dazzling vocal ranges from icy cool to fiery passion over a relentless electric groove bracketed by sinuous lines of synth. "Love Is a Stranger" rose to #54 in the UK, their highest placement yet, and momentum was finally building for the duo thanks in part to the single's provocative video.

The first significant chapter in a series of visually arresting promotional clips that Eurythmics generated over the span of their career, "Love Is a Stranger" showcases Lennox's dramatic presence and her innate ability to command the viewer's attention. She plays multiple roles, ending the clip with her red hair slicked back and dressed androgynously in a man's suit. Image was quickly becoming an important part of the Eurythmics' equation, with Lennox always compelling no matter which character she inhabits, and Stewart often appearing as her sort of mad-scientist counterpart.

Sweet Dreams (are made of this) hit the shelves on 4 January 1983, along with its title-track, a single that continues to reverberate through pop music nearly 35 years after its release. Suddenly everything changed for Eurythmics. An obscure British duo, barely managing to survive in the music business, soared to the top with one of the more unconventional songs ever to scale those lofty heights.

"Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" has an unusual structure, with no real verses or chorus. Lennox has described it as a mantra, and indeed it is. The lyrics, which Lennox rattled off spontaneously in a matter of minutes, are a simple but profound statement about the human condition: "Everybody's looking for something," the search for meaning and fulfillment, the ephemeral "this" of which sweet dreams are made.

Lennox begins the song with a single line of vocal, then starting with "some of them want to use you" at the 0:24 point it doubles. From there the song gradually builds intensity, with the vocals increasingly layered. A masterful finalé combines all the sonic elements before fading to black, the mantra repeating endlessly, the "this" still stubbornly undefined. The booming minor-key bass riff and the epic string-motif solo starting at 1:31 are played by Lennox on a Roland Juno-6 synthesizer. The main riff (improvised by Lennox while listening to Stewart working on a drum-machine pattern), is a simple two-bar arpeggio that loops throughout most of the song. Two parts were recorded separately and panned on opposite sides of the sound spectrum, creating a richly resonant effect. "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" is no dated relic from the early days of MTV burdened by the limitations the time. Its massive waves of synth flood out of the speakers with enormous power, as inexorably as the tide.

The music video, which became wildly popular on MTV during its heyday, is forever entwined with the song in listeners' collective consciousness. The iconic image of Lennox in her masculine suit and flaming orange flat-top helps to define the new wave era. Her forceful demeanor, nervy confidence and the subtle nuances of her facial expressions amplify the song's inherent tension. She confronts the viewer directly by pointing right in our faces at the 0:24 mark. At 1:56, she offers a sly half-smile with, "some of them want to abuse you", and at 2:15 she pounds her fist just as the song reaches its dramatic apex. Stewart appears throughout the video stoically pecking away on the drum machine he used in the recording of the song, the Movement MCS Drum Computer MK1 (except for that part where he and the cow have, well, a moment… It's all in the eye contact).

After a slow climb up the US pop chart, "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" was finally able to derail the Police's "Every Breath You Take" from its seven-week reign at the top during the week of 3 September 1983. It would be Eurythmics' only chart-topping pop hit in America, and it reached #2 in the UK. In the wake of Eurythmics' new-found fame, "Love Is a Stranger" was re-released, this time becoming a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

The album's deep cuts are every bit as strange and fascinating as its better-known singles. The ghostly "Jennifer" is a narcotic reverie of keyboard swells and spectral atmospherics. "I've Got an Angel" and "Somebody Told Me" are serrated neurotic fits, swerving dangerously off-the-rails from anything that would normally be considered pop music. A long and mesmerizing exploration of urban isolation, "This City Never Sleeps" is a powerful finalé. Sweet Dreams (are made of this) is an examination of the human psyche fraught with turmoil, a series of jagged recurring nightmares and anxiety attacks set to music that is soulful and experimental, melodic but eccentric, a stark electronic soundscape that bristles with horns and unexpected sonic jolts.

Next Page: Potent and Ferocious

This film suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

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Here comes another Kompakt Pop Ambient collection to make life just a little more bearable.

Another (extremely rough) year has come and gone, which means that the German electronic music label Kompakt gets to roll out their annual Total and Pop Ambient compilations for us all.

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Winner of the 2017 Ameripolitan Music Award for Best Rockabilly Female stakes her claim with her band on accomplished new set.

Lara Hope & The Ark-Tones

Love You To Life

Label: Self-released
Release Date: 2017-08-11
Amazon
iTunes

Lara Hope and her band of roots rockin' country and rockabilly rabble rousers in the Ark-Tones have been the not so best kept secret of the Hudson Valley, New York music scene for awhile now.

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