Remember: these aren’t reviews. If I were reviewing Galloway’s Gaming, I’d spend a long while talking about why I like much of it, and think it works very well alongside similar works of critical theory applied to games and digital culture by Ian Bogost and McKenzie Wark. One of the old criticisms made by “ludological” scholars doing formalist criticism of games about scholars approaching games from the perspective of critical theory, media studies and film theory was simply that they didn’t know anything about games. Once upon a time, that had more than a little truth to it. When you read Bogost, Wark and Galloway, you can see that the debate, if such it is, has moved well past that point, because they’re thinking clearly about what kinds of “texts” games really are in the context of critical theory.
There is one thing that I wanted to discuss in this shorter, non-review context, however. I’m really taking Galloway’s work as an example of a wider pattern in humanistic scholarship, so it should be understood that what I’m going to say is not just applicable to him.
Rather than complain about jargon per se, what bothers me a little is the largely aesthetic need in critical theory to produce terminological and conceptual novelty in order to authenticate the labor of producing theory. It’s a formal characteristic of some theory-work that runs very deep. James Miller’s Lingua Franca essay “Is Bad Writing Necessary?: George Orwell, Theodor Adorno and the Politics of Literature” is still one of the best, concise treatments of some of these questions. (For all that Lingua Franca sometimes featured weakly reported pieces, I really miss it.)
You would think it would be enough to write some short, clever essays on gaming and digital culture that integrated theoretical insights where appropriate. The problem in terms of building academic reputation capital is that it’s not clear where the specialization or expertise enters into that, or what would distinguish essays by a scholarly critic of digital culture from, say, Steven Poole’s Trigger Happy. My answer would be, in the sense of Miller’s article, Orwellian: what would distinguish the work of the academic is that it is intellectual, not that it is expert. In other words, it’s sufficient to be smart and to write well, that is to say, clearly.
Galloway’s book is smart, has novel insights, and is often (to me, at least), written clearly. The frustration I have is first that Galloway regards theory as something which requires the creation of a technical vocabulary and second that he seems to think that in order to make a contribution which establishes his academic credentials as a theorist in this area, he must fashion that vocabulary himself. (Wark and Bogost do some of this as well, as do critical theorists writing about most forms or genres.)
So, for example, his argument that video games are actions? Completely legitimate, important, useful. His argument that they are algorithimic cultural objects, and thus, that video games in certain ways have more in common with spreadsheets than checkers? Also important. His use of diegetic and nondiegetic, borrowed from film theory? Ok by me, though here I think the vocabulary is beginning to be more about establishing credibility with a chosen set of academic peers than delivering analysis which can only come through this particular terminology.
Galloway’s insistence that this all adds up to a distinctive body of gamic theory? This is where I feel as if something’s going on that doesn’t need to go on, and it’s going on in a fashion that’s has a sort of excess performativity that grates on me. Start with that word: “gamic”. It’s not just that it has the inelegance that theoretical neologisms often have, that harsh-sounding quality that is meant to emulate the unnatural technical sound of much scientific vocabulary. It’s that there’s already a term which Galloway studiously ignores. Not argues against, except in a single footnote: interactive. Yes, sure, I know that a theorist could find a million ways to talk about why that term is misleading, inaccurate, and so on. This is what Galloway does in one footnote. (Not for the first time, I’m struck that critical theory sometimes has a back-door empiricism in the way it coins and dismisses terms and words, as if the goal of a particular term is to provide a fully mimetic match to a particular specific textual or expressive phenomenon.) But it’s there, it has a reasonably good common-language sound to it, and it’s already in use.
What Galloway does isn’t just prefer his own word, gamic. (Which, I was surprised to find, has another existing meaning: a product or consequence of sex.) He declares theory as if he is inaugurating or inventing it. “Begin like this”, he writes, “If photographs are images, and films are moving images, then video games are actions. Let this be word one for video game theory.” (p. 2) You read that and wonder if he remembered to pick up a few extra tablets of God’s Commandments while he was up on the mountaintop. Sure, eventually some of the standard names will be dropped, both on games (Callois and Huizinga) and on theory (Deleuze, Geertz, Derrida). But the essays work hard, especially the first, to perform the role of theory-creator, and to convey sufficient austerity and distance in the relation between the medium and the critic. There’s even the de rigeur exaltation of “countergaming” at the end: no work of high theory about an existing form is complete if it doesn’t wish for that existing form to be displaced by avant-garde alternatives which disrupt the complicit character of a culture-industry mass-medium and therefore aim to produce true art. (Though he makes a great point that most “serious games” or art-games attempt to dissent from the games industry “through a lapse back to other media entirely” [p. 126].)
Again, don’t get me wrong. The essay on the cinematic origins of the first-person shooter is terrific, and the treatment of “allegories of control” in sandbox games is also incredibly useful and insightful. Everything in the book is good and important, and Galloway is very much a peer to Wark, Bogost and others writing on the theory of digital games. But it just seems to me that there is a way to write theory with rhetorical humility, to get down into the trenches with audiences, and to not make neologism and conceptual invention the defining attribute of theoretical contribution.
[I made a slight change to this entry a short while after posting it to note that Galloway does have one footnote dealing with the term interactivity, in which he pretty much performs that back-door empiricism: e.g., that the problem with interactivity is that it’s not accurate to the reality of games.]