Gamer Theory by McKenzie Wark

The Sunday, 20 May, business section of The New York Times reports on the recent introduction of Rave, a software product created by Seattle-based Entellium that uses video-game techniques to help sales people manage customer relationships more effectively. Users assign avatar identities and profiles to prospects and clients, and they keep track of their performance against individual target levels as well as against peers, among other game-like functions. According to media theorist McKenzie Wark, it isn’t just the business world that operates these days like a video game; more and more it’s all of life. His new book Gamer Theory ponders how and why. Like its predecessor, the 2004 A Hacker Manifesto, Gamer Theory brilliantly mixes pop culture expertise and in-depth knowledge of critical theory to illuminate the times in which we live, work, play, and dream.

Gamer Theory started out a little over a year ago as an experiment in online authorship under the auspices of the Institute for the Future of the Book, a project of Bob Stein, creator of some of the earliest electronic books. The first iteration, which Wark calls GAM3R 7H3ORY version 1.1, was organized as stacks of virtual file cards, one for each paragraph, tabbed and color-coded by chapter. The text evolved from a predetermined set of rules — nine chapters consisting of 25 paragraphs each initially limited to 250 words. Alongside the paragraph cards was space for reader comments. An RSS feed was also available. More dynamic than a blog but not quite as free-form as a wiki, GAM3R 7H3ORY 1.1 incorporated the deconstruction of its own authorial voice as part of its development.

The offline edition, the printed and bound book Wark refers to as Gamer Theory 2.0, integrates some of the online commentary directly into the main text with additional comments and sources collected in the notes section at the end. Gamer Theory the book has a narrative coherence that’s not evident in the online version, no surprise to anyone who knows their Marshall McLuhan. (For the uninitiated, one of McLuhan’s basic arguments is that the linear thought process of the Western mind is a direct result of the left-to-right-from-the-top-down-starting-with-a-capital-letter-ending-with-a-period one-way march of typeset printed material.) Rather than prove one format superior to the other, the differences between versions 1.1 and 2.0 illustrate how form and content correlate and the medium’s effect on the message. On the one hand, there’s the ebb and flow of creative work in progress, on the other the organic unity of a finished product.

For Wark, video games are worth studying because they offer insights into contemporary society and culture. For example, Katamari Damacy exemplifies the way digital technology has altered the experience of space and time; Rez demonstrates how individual identity is now a matter of action not essence, doing not being; Vice City maps out the territory of the new world order of seemingly unending risk and reward. Gamer Theory devotes complete chapters to particular games and the key concepts they clarify. The exception is the first chapter based on the Allegory of the Cave, where Plato claims that the world of our daily experience is but a shadow of the real one, which is the realm of Ideal Forms, the principles of cosmic order governing the universe. In Wark’s reading, however, outside the Cave isn’t the light of day, i.e., “truth,” but another Cave and beyond that another, and so on. The succession of Caves is a metaphor for the levels of gaming mastery. Gamer Theory concerns itself with more than just the interpretation of video games; it’s about gaming ambience — that is, gamespace — as the kinetic field within which game players exist.

According to the aforementioned New York Times article, it isn’t only business software that works better taking cues from gaming; gamers apparently make better employees. Research cited in the story maintains that people versed in video gaming are more self-directed and adaptable than non-gamers. They also tend to be more loyal to their companies. For Wark, the gamer represents a new social type (or as philosophers would have it, a new subjectivity). The gamer is the opposite of the hacker, the subject of Wark’s previous book. Where the hacker produces; the gamer reproduces. The hacker opens up new worlds of opportunity; the gamer exploits them to their fullest potential. Where the hacker often resists, the gamer is the ultimate collaborator, the quintessential operative of global capital unbound. Thus Gamer Theory is a much darker book than A Hacker Manifesto, although arguably a necessary complement to it.

One of the more astute media theorists currently at work, Wark is going for major bonus points with Gamer Theory, and he indeed racks them up. Gamer Theory opens a new level for media studies, offering a successor paradigm to the culture industry thesis of the Frankfurt School and the spectacle society critique of the Situationists, the former developed in the 1940s and the latter two decades later. Where the former portrays individuals as the dupes of weapons of mass distraction and the latter sees them as inextricably enmeshed in an artificial forest of signs, Gamer Theory sees them as more-than-willing participants — not just game, but gamer. Gamespace, in Wark’s estimation, provides a mechanism for revoking the modern condition of enlightenment, which the 18th-century philosopher Immanual Kant defines as coming to self-knowledge and then independently acting on it. The mechanism for crawling back into the Cave is what Wark, in one of his trenchant semantic mash-ups, terms “allegorithm” (“allegory” + “algorithm”), i.e., the lines of digital code that set the preconditions of meaning (also known as the storyline) and structure the limits of what can be accomplished.

If there’s any area one might wish Wark to have explored it’s the option of tunneling from Cave to Cave, providing pathways to re-channel the agon (the struggle of all against all) of gamespace into the agape (communal fidelity) of the networked collective that many assert new media make possible. It isn’t that Wark is unaware of these issues — the reference sources listed in his books clearly show he is. And a couple of times in Gamer Theory he specifically declines to go there, for example, as it relates to multiplayer games. That’s too bad, because notions like Pierre Levy’s theory of the collective intelligence in cyberspace seem like such ready targets for Wark’s trigger switch. Perhaps he’ll go after them in the next round.