One-A-Day: Alexander Galloway, Gaming: Essays in Algorithimic Culture

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.]

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7 Responses to One-A-Day: Alexander Galloway, Gaming: Essays in Algorithimic Culture

  1. Bob Rehak says:

    Tim, thanks for drawing my attn to Galloway’s book. I’ve requested it from TriCo. Got to admit, I’m most curious to read his chapter on “Origins of the First-Person Shooter,” as I’ve written on the connections between the FPS and cinema’s subjective cameras myself.

    Nice points, too, about the mad proliferation of new vocabulary within game studies. Something about the field, and digital studies more generally, seems to encourage neologism, and I agree that this can be read both as an innocent (if not always wise) desire to coin appropriate, specific terms for artifacts and processes that are, well, NEW, and less nobly as a kind of disciplinary marking of territory and tactical move toward branding one’s own professional identity. (It would be so much easier if we could just trademark everything.) The linguistic arms race is frustrating because it pushes those of us in the field into a paradoxical state of being very competitive with each other, yet often ignorant of what everyone else is saying. For such a small field, it’s already surprisingly balkanized.

    Personally, I like the terms diegetic and nondiegetic in game studies — I think they’re pretty useful carryovers from film theory. But I’ve been accused of engaging in excessive jargon myself!

  2. Bill McNeill says:

    The problem of opaque academic prose styles is usually framed as a case of intellectuals writing in a way that frustrates the general public, but unnecessary jargon is a big time waster for intellectuals as well. If I was a liberal arts professor with a professional obligation to plow through a certain number of cultural theory articles a year I’d be annoyed every time I had to do mental contortions to understand “gamic” when “interactive” would have served just fine. Of course you’d get good at doing those contortions, but why should you have to? Presumably there are better uses of your time.

    Jargon has its place. My own field of computational linguistics employs plenty of it, and papers often contain row upon row of mathematical equations, the most opaque jargon of all. But riding above it all is an Orwellian (in the sense of the Miller article) sensibility. Obscurity is permissible only to the extent that it is unavoidable, and part of the intellectual skill you develop is to know when you don’t understand something because it’s hard as opposed to when it’s poorly presented. (Obviously, that is, or at least should be, a general reading skill.) In practice, of course, none of this is clear cut. Some scientific papers are harder than others, and some people are better writers, but in general obscurity provokes tetchy impatience among my colleagues. It’s a variety of tetchiness I find weirdly absent when I talk to friends who study critical art theory, or the like.

    I’m not trying to some kind of tired Two Cultures retread here. These are the same groups of people, drawn from the same narrow cultural band, at the same institutions, with the same predisposition for vanity and bluster–and yet the rhetorical goals seem markedly different. I wonder if there are reasons for this that are inherent to the disciplines. For example, scientific prose is dull by design, but even highly technical philosophical writing has a literary cast. Sometimes it seems to me that the obscurity is a kind of literary effect (albeit one that is not my cup of tea). Or maybe, as you allude to, certain technical terms are chosen to have a harsh “scientific” sound, a form of science-envy that more technical fields are not going to be as prone to. (Though not immune to either. Sometimes when theoretical linguists start slinging around Greek letters and quasi-mathematical formalisms it’s hard not to roll your eyes and say, “Physics envy strikes again!”)

  3. Gavin Weaire says:

    “Gamic” is fascinating. “Ludic” is so widespread in other contexts that it can no longer be used of *actual* play?

  4. Bill McNeill says:

    So now I’m curious, where does the pressure to invent jargon, phrase things obliquely, and generally carve out linguistic turf come from? Is it all implicit imitation of the way the heavy-hitters do it, or will an academic adviser periodically take a grad student aside and say, “Look, if you’re going to be taken seriously you have to murk it up a bit.”

    Over in my corner of the world there is a fair amount of talk how best to write and present scientific information, most of it concerning the dilemma of how to be sufficiently precise without being grindingly dull. I’ve had long editing sessions with academic advisers focused on making my prose clear–for example, making sure I’m using the standard jargon in the same way everybody else does. Of course the target audience is specialists, not the general public, but even within this circle there is professional pressure to reach as many people as possible. In my own discussions with colleagues about presentation I find myself adopting what I think of as advertising language: even the driest equation-laden slideshow has “arcs” that “tell a story”. Some of the pressure to do this feels structural: there’s a lot of competition out there, and if you’re paper/slideshow/poster is too hard to grasp people will just pass it by. All in all, it’s better to be understood than ignored. I would think similar pressures would apply in other disciplines.

  5. Doug says:

    Mountaintop mania strikes me as math envy. “Let T be the set of all theory, and T-prime be the set of all theory plus my brilliant contribution…”

  6. Western Dave says:

    “All in all, it’s better to be understood than ignored.” That’s the audience problem right there. My high school students have grown up differentiating between sex and gender: the former biological; the latter a social construction. They would not be baffled by the last sentence but they find the Preamble of the Constitution exceedingly hard to read. So who do you write for? The incoming college students who are perfectly comfortable with the term social construction but complain about the founders’ use of “domestic tranquility” when the could have said “peace.” Or for 50 something tv commentators who grew up on Safire’s column in the Times but find Judith Butler concepts (as well as her less than stellar prose) completely obscure.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    Right. How we write is a sign of whom we wish to be heard by, and there’s no absolute argument to be made for or against seeking a particular audience.

    Suppose you’re a scholar interested in the theory of games as an expressive form. Do you want to seek the widest possible public audience? Why? What’s in it for you? On that topic in particular, a wide public audience is as likely to treat you with scorn as appreciation even if you communicate clearly and make important points. It would only be worth it if you were aiming to engage some intersection of public interest and games-as-expressive-media, say on the question of “violence”, with the aspiration of changing the way that we legislate about or publically debate that question. Or, for example, if you wanted to convince people who presently see digital games as valueless that they’re really quite important and aesthetically interesting. But that’s a well-occupied niche.

    So instead let’s say you’re trying to talk to scholars. Which ones? Galloway primarily chooses “critical theorists, film theorists, media theorists”, and therefore quite rightly selects their preferred vocabulary, their general intellectual aesthetic, and even the conventional aspect of that genre of writing which requires novel terminologies and theoretical claims. If Galloway were primarily talking to scholars in what’s becoming known as “game studies”, he might write somewhat differently–and my critique here could be merely seen as a game-studies oriented scholar peevishly complaining that he’s not first talking to me rather than those guys.

    This is why I like that Miller article: it tries to sketch out the deeper reasoning about why we write the way that we write.

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