September 27, 2006

Gaming‘s Rapidly Refreshing Theory

by Nick Montfort · , 2:08 pm

GamingA Review of Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture
Alexander R. Galloway
University of Minnesota Press
168 pp.
$17.95 paper / $54.00 cloth

The five essays that make up Galloway’s book Gaming are conversant and compelling, offering valuable perspectives on gaming and culture. They are appropriately concise and well-written, and they show Galloway’s sure command of theory and his solid understanding of games and how they are played.

To be sure, the essays take a high-level view of gaming and its place in culture; although Galloway cites and considers numerous titles, his book will be less useful for close critical encounters with particular games and more useful for understanding the shape and topology of gaming overall. There is another strange twist: the essays fail to inform one another on important points and perspectives, limiting the reach and success of the discussion. But this book does work very well in opening up new ways of thinking about gaming – for instance, in showing how new connections to film and art can be usefully drawn – and supplies good food for thought for scholars and students.

I’ll briefly mention some of the most intriguing things about the five essays in Gaming in order:

1. Gamic Action, Four Moments

Here, Galloway characterizes games as actions and presents two orthogonal axes along which games can be placed: One that varies between diegetic and non-diegetic and one that varies between the control of the operator and the machine. “Diegesis,” although known to me as a term from narratology, is applied here with an understanding of the differences between narratives and games and with good discussion of theories of game experience. These axes can be used (and are used) to classify entire games as being characteristic of a particular point. But these moments are better at classifying particular states and time-slices within games. A full-motion video sequence featuring characters in the game is diegetic and machine-controlled. My selecting whether or not the score will be displayed in non-diegetic and operator-controlled.

While extremely useful, I find that adding an additional axis clarifies the understanding of games considerably without causing too much of an explosion in dimensionality. Along this axis, the variation is between computation and playback. Your computer opponent’s move in Advance Wars would be seen in the original scheme as being on the diegetic and machine ends, and so would Shenmue‘s introductory full-motion video sequence. The two-axis approach is good at making many important distinctions, but results in an unfortunate conflation here. The “action” of the game is clearly different in this case because a more computationally intensive process is present in one situation, and this fundamentally affects the experience of the game. The distinction makes sense whether what is happening is diegetic or not; the computer could be either generating or playing back non-diegetic decorations for parts of the screen, for instance. And it even makes sense when the operator is mostly in control: is the operator responding to something that is being played back (Dragon’s Lair) or to something that is being generated or simulated on the fly (Geometry Wars) or something in between, something that mostly follows a standard, pre-scripted behavior but which might have a random or generated element of some sort (Space Invaders with the flying saucer)?

2. Origins of the First-Person Shooter

This essay draws some very nice connections between the subjective shot in film and the first-person shooter, and is persuasively illustrated. Galloway distinguishes the subjective camera as a special case of a more general “first person” view, showing how the photography in this case does more to enact emotion, perception, and mental state. Numerous antecedents of first-person shooters in film are found and discussed.

The odd thing here is that this essay almost completely overlooks an important conclusion of the previous one, that video games are actions rather than motion pictures. By looking only at the visual predecessors of first-person shooters, it uncovers little from the past that informs how these games work. Where are the target ranges, carnival shooting galleries, and clay pigeons that explicitly inspire several games – Duck Hunt, Hogan’s Alley, and less directly stand-and-shoot games with gun controllers such as the Time Crisis and House of the Dead series? I would guess that the shooting gallery and other game antecedents must also leave their mark on first-person shooters in terms of how these games function and how they are actions, and that they are part of the origin of these games and relate to the filmic ancestors discussed here.

3. Social Realism

Here Galloway makes an important distinction between the quest for verisimilitude and what is thought of in film and literature as realism. I found that the discussion ofAmerica’s Army lacked surprises and fell short when compared with the rest of the essay and in the rest of the book. The essay is quite valuable for engaging the issue of realism and social realism in gaming, and adds an important dimension to the discussion of abstraction versus representation, for instance, Mark J. Wolf’s article in the Video Game Theory Reader.

4. Allegories of Control

In this essay, Galloway treats power, control, and ideology as embodied by games, particularly Civilization III, and finds the more explicitly represented ideology of such games to be trappings or decoys when compared to the deeper function of the games. This essay is notable for having a strong focus on a particular game as well as theoretical heft; it would be a good selection for those teaching Civ III.

5. Countergaming

Here’s the really fun stuff: a look at subversive work by artists that challenges the game concept in various ways. The relationship of commercial gaming to artist-made mods and games (including work by Jodi and Tom Betts) is considered in terms of Peter Wollen’s seven thesis on counter-cinema, opposing Godard’s work to “old cinema.” While quite explicitly cinematically-driven, this essay adapts cinematic ideas in a way that is sensitive to the nature of games.

Overall, Galloway makes valuable theoretical contributions in Gaming, drawing on earlier aesthetic and critical approaches rather than bludgeoning games with them. It also covers a nice array of games from interesting perspectives. Game studies scholars, and those looking into games from other arts, will want to read this book. The main thing I would have liked would have been for Galloway to continue – there are plenty of ways to further develop the ideas here and put the conclusions of one line of thinking into practice in another.