'Tis the season. From Destiny to the Warlords of Draenor expansion, a number of new blockbuster games have been released this fall. Still, the world of gaming seems especially stagnant these days, as if unable to move beyond its own limitations, as if unable to reflect on its own conditions of possibility.
As time passes I'm increasingly convinced that real-time strategy (RTS) games are the most interesting game genre, particularly from the point of view of politics or economics. All games simulate miniature economies of some sort or another -- be they playful economies of desire or more rigid economies of points -- but RTS games tends to feature such economies at a level not seen in other genres. RTS games focus on a multi-nodal ecosystem of flows and factories, resources and expenditures, secure zones and hostile frontiers. The RTS genre is thus informatic capitalism pure and simple. The genre displays how informatic media and informatic labor are essentially coterminous in today’s world. And it's interesting to note how Warlords of Draenor feels more like Warcraft III than any version of WoW thus far.
A somewhat nefarious miasma lingers in all of this, for the labor of the web surfer or the gamer or the blogger goes unpaid, even while exploited by other parties. Thus within the sphere of gaming, we are obligated to come to terms with a new kind of unpaid labor, a new kind of economy. There is a massive development of the productive forces happening right now -- on par with the historical transformation Marx dubbed “primitive accumulation.” But what makes this new revolution unique is the fact that labor today is often simply donated as a “gift” to the economy. This will be the ultimate tragic denouement of the rise of gaming, of the democratization of play, of social media, of open-source software: it will result in the open-sourcing of all labor; the demand for “volunteer” workers will metastasize across all spheres of public life. Tasks will be crowd sourced more and more. Greater value will be extracted for fewer and fewer wages. The kind of “multiplayer labor” scenarios, prototyped so well by the ad-hoc social groups that form easily in WoW, will soon be the norm for social and productive interaction; today’s guilds, raids, and clans will be tomorrow’s call centers, product development teams, and leadership groups. The Web is, in this sense, the world's largest sweat shop, for it is the site of most unpaid labor in the world today.
For earlier generations a pressing concern was that of reification. Has the human body been turned into an object? Are our social bonds now merely the stuff of instrumental rationality? Yet today the concern is different. It's not so much that we are becoming objects, the reified objects of some puppet master -- although that is too often still the case the world over. Rather, computers make us manipulators and masters of objects. A pernicious and ubiquitous agency has thus come to supplement the previous infrastructure of objectification.
To formulate this same observation in psychoanalytic terminology: previous mass media formats -- cinema famously -- were fundamentally masochistic; new media however are fundamentally sadistic, in that they require the labor of manipulation, selection, transformation and command over objects (data objects, commodities, behaviors, life forms, and of course other human beings). In this way, if previous media formats disciplined human beings into becoming better workers, today’s informatic media liberate human beings so they may become better bosses. (Distributed computing and global outsourcing go hand in hand in this regard: command and control remain over here, while both the objects of production and the manual or “variable” capital get piloted remotely.)
Today the question is less that of “docile bodies” but rather a question of commanders and overlords. And this is also the key problem for desire today. The recent trend around casual or “mini” games is a perfect instance of this -- remember how Brain Age for the Nintendo DS was all the rage a few years ago. In years to come we will see a steady rise in games devoted to informatic therapy and training. This is but one harbinger of the coming gamic class being cultivated today.
Hence a lament for the new informatic masters: we desperately need alternative algorithms; we desperately need counter-gaming. But, thus far, alternative algorithms seem hopelessly impossible, beyond the very horizon of intelligibility.
Has anything really changed in recent years? Of course a number of clever and artful games have appeared, from Portal and Braid to Limbo and Monument Valley. And independent gaming has flourished in ways I couldn't have imagined. Still, as time passes the functional mandates of algorithms and the mysterious liberations of play only become more closely interwoven. These days play looks more like labor, and labor looks more like play. Rather than having dissipated, the mutual overlap of games and work has only grown more insidious. We still need alternative algorithms, now more than ever. But what would such algorithms look like?
There seem to be two alternatives today, neither of which is very satisfying. The alternative algorithms of countergaming are either structured as negation or as deprivation. With negation, the game is stripped of all possibilities of game play, left to lapse back to other media altogether (video, animation). With deprivation, the game is censored and scolded, allowed to continue to play, but only in an enlightened or “self-aware” mode. Cory Arcangel & PaperRad’s “Super Mario Movie” is a negation; Eddo Stern’s “Darkgame” is a deprivation. Brody Condon’s “650 Polygon John Carmack” is a negation; Stephen Lavelle's “Activate the Three Artefacts and then Leave” is a deprivation. The first is play’s destruction, while the second is play’s revision.
In either mode, the very essence of what makes a game a game is withheld, deferred either for all time, or just for a moment. “I love to put the things I love in extreme peril,” wrote the artist Jean Dubuffet. “It is only at the point of failure that the thing reveals itself.” In a game, what else but fun itself can be subjected to failure? Can we blame the artist who wishes to destroy fun entirely?
Deprivation blows gently in one direction, but negation carries the failure to the end of the line. Both modes are glorious, even if they are trapped within a spiral of self-contradiction. For one must never forget that there is an important utopian possibility contained within any type of aesthetic failure. Or as Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in his “Discourse on the Arts and Sciences” of 1750: failure has an infinity of forms, but the truth is singular.
Today we should take this as a celebration not a lament, and focus on the failure not the truth. Counter-gaming shall have an infinity of forms. And the lament leads to the remedy: let's demilitarize play; let's uncouple gaming from the mandates of the market; let's dial up the game studies and dial down the game theory. Only then will the virtues of these machines reveal themselves. Only then will our cybernetic ecology return to a balance in which both the human and non-human play a vital role.