Even critical theory, which once took its distance from damaged life, becomes another game. Apply to top ranked schools. Find a good coach. Pick a rising subfield. Prove your abilities. Get yourself published. Get some grants. Get a job. Get another job offer to establish your level and bargain with your current employer. Keep your nose clean and get tenure. You won! Now you can play! Now you can do what you wanted, secretly, all those years ago. Only now you can’t remember. You became a win-win Situationist. Your critical theory became hypocritical theory. It is against everything in the whole wide world except the gamespace that made it possible. But gamespace is now the very form of the world, and this world eluded your thought even as it brought home the glittering prizes. It’s gamespace that won. The hypocritical theorist, while dreaming, meets the ghost of Guy Debord, and proudly cites a list of achievements: Ivy League job, book deals, grants, promotion, tenure, recognition within the highest ranks of the disciplinary guild. The ghost of Debord sighs: “So little ambition in one so young.”

What then has the gamer seen in that bright world, that gamespace, beyond The Cave™? You see people hunched over screens, their hands compulsively jerking controllers. Each sits alone, and talks or texts to unseen others, dazzled by images that seem to come from nowhere, awash in pulsing and beeping sounds. The enlightened gamer sees how the world beyond the games of The Cave™ seem like an array of more or less similar caves, all digital, each an agon with its own rules, some arbitrary blend of chance and competition. And beyond that? Not much. The real has become a mere epiphenomenon without which gamespace cannot exist, but which is losing, bit by bit, any form or substance or spirit or history that is not sucked into and transformed by gamespace. Beyond gamespace are only the spent fragments of nameless forms.

Gamer theory starts with the suspension of the assumptions of The Cave™, that there is a more real world beyond it, somewhere, and that someone — some priest or professor — knows where it is. The gamer arrives at the beginnings of a reflective life, a gamer theory, by stepping out of The Cave™ — and returning to it. (See Fig. 1) If the gamer is to hold gamespace to account in terms of something other than itself, it might not be that mere shadow of a shadow of the real, murky, formless, a residue in the corners. It might instead be the game proper, as it is played in The Cave.™ Grand Theft Auto, maybe, or Deus Ex. Here at least the game shadows the pure form of the algorithm. Here at least the digital logic to which gamespace merely aspires is actually realized. The challenge is — ah, but even to phrase it thus is to acknowledge the game — to play at play itself, but from within the game. The gamer as theorist has to choose between two strategies for playing against gamespace. One is to play for the real. (Take the red pill). But the real is nothing but a heap of broken images. The other is to play for the game (Take the blue pill). Play within the game, but against gamespace. Be ludic, but also lucid.

For a gamer to be a theorist might not require the ability to play any particular game especially well. The prizes have nothing to do with thinking the game. Nor might it be the ability to dismiss the game as unreal in the name of some supposedly more solidly grounded outside. What? These luminous pixels are not real, you say? Then neither is your world. If anything, The Cave™ seems to be where the forms, the ideas, the abstractions behind the mere appearance of things in the outside world can be found. Whether gamespace is more real or not than some other world is not the question. That even in its unreality it may have real effects on other worlds — is. Games are not representations of this world. They are more like allegories of a world made over as gamespace. They encode the abstract principles upon which decisions about the realness of this or that world are decided.

Here is the guiding principle of a future utopia, now long past: “To each according to his needs; from each according to his abilities.”10 In gamespace, what do we have? An atopia, a placeless, senseless realm, where quite a different maxim rules: “From each according to their abilities — to each a rank and score.” Needs no longer enter into it. Not even desire matters. Win what you desire; desire what you win. The score is the thing. The rest is agony. The gamer as theorist at first sight seems to have acquired an ability that counts for nothing in gamespace. The gamer as theorist might begin with an indifference to distinction, to all that the gamespace prizes. One plays not to win (or not just to win). One trifles with the game to understand the nature of gamespace as a world — as the world. One trifles with the game to discover in what way gamespace falls short of its self-proclaimed perfection. The digital game plays up everything that gamespace merely pretends to be: a fair fight, a level playing field, free competition.

(7) Comments for 016.
posted: 5/23/2006

This is my favorite passage in the introduction. Not much to say except that it made me want to site and email it to as many academics as I could.

McKenzie Wark responds to David Parry
posted: 5/24/2006

was fun to write, too. its a bit of digression, so it might get axed…

ben vershbow responds to McKenzie Wark
posted: 6/1/2006

Definitely keep it in! Such a wonderful dig at academia, that great medieval network of caves.

Christina responds to McKenzie Wark
posted: 7/12/2006

Every great game has its sidequests =)

posted: 5/24/2006

Don’t axe it, I already have about five places I want to quote it . . .

McKenzie Wark responds to Dave Parry
posted: 6/1/2006

due to popular demand…

posted: 9/14/2006

Card 016 — *ouch*. Now I know where my life went wrong;-) You definitely have to keep this bit for the book.

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(10) Comments for 018.
posted: 6/8/2006

i don’t think i understand the distinction between the game and gamespace. what does it mean to “play against gamespace”

ben vershbow responds to bob stein
posted: 6/9/2006

I’ve also wondered about this. How does one “play within the game, but against gamespace”? Perhaps it’s because I’m not a gamer (or haven’t been since I was a kid), but I can’t really imagine what you mean by playing a video game critically. I mean, being critical in the midst of play. And so what can one hope to “score” against gamespace in the act of play?

In card 125 of Atopia, even you seem to doubt this blue pill strategy:

“It’s not that theory, even a gamer theory, can achieve all that much when confronted with the digital indifference of gamespace. It might aspire merely to describe what being now is.”

So the most the gamer as theorist can hope to achieve is knowledge, but impotent knowledge. If that’s the case, I’ll choose the red pill. But then you say that playing for the real is simply to play amongst shards. Is there no hope then? What happened to the hacker?

McKenzie Wark responds to ben vershbow
posted: 6/9/2006

The hacker makes a brief appearance at 043, but is held over until 198-200. This a book about a different personae. One that is perhaps more popular but less useful than the hacker personae.

ben vershbow responds to McKenzie Wark
posted: 6/9/2006

Right, I noticed the hacker in Complex. But is it possible for a gamer to hack? Machinima is a sort of hack, I suppose. Or is that different?

Brian responds to bob stein
posted: 1/29/2007

the gamespace is the realm within which a game is played. it’s the virtual, digital world, in which all the rules are defined. the game, is the situation(s) that lead to your winning or losing. to “play against gamespace” means to go against the virtual world that has been defined for you. Like in the Matrix. by playing against gamespace one can sometimes find a glitch to exploit, a way in which to bend or break the rules.

To McKenzie: i love the use of ludic and lucid. the play on words seems to imply that they are, at times, the same.

posted: 6/10/2006

Hi Ben and all. Gamers definitely do hack, although maybe always not in the sense that McKenzie uses the term. Rather than creating some new useful service or application, gamer hacks come more from the ‘hmm, what’s inside this thing’ sort of motivation. To the radical mind, there is the advantage here of unlocking some part of the proprietary corporate culture and making it available to the public.

Machinima is one example and within that world there are several divisions, most importantly, hardware hacking vs. software hacking. Much of the machinima world has been embraced and encouraged by the game companies as a way to extend their brand by creating community. But hardware hacking is something that they are firmly against. I have done a little of both and to be honest, for what I do, hardware hacking is less interesting, only because it allows you to do nearly anything with the game and therefore you are no longer working within their world.

This goes to the core of what I would like to discuss with McKenzie: the thing I love about ‘software hacking’ a live online game to make something new, is the extent to which one is beholden to play within the rules of the game as it was made, while at the same time exercising the ability to bend those rules and thereby make the mass produced game do something new and more personal. It’s as if you got a Hollywood set to your self for a day and were able to comment on the text of the film by speaking your own lines from within the film itself.

This is made more interesting to me by the fact that online gaming is now so pervasive and lucrative for the big companies. I want to believe that we are part of a movement, trail-blazed by the two-way nature of the internet, to bring some democracy to media. I do not doubt that the corporations can put an end to this, but I believe there has been some recent tendency in the game industry to see this sort of hacking as a good thing.

McKenzie Wark responds to chris burke
posted: 6/11/2006

A key aspect of hacking as an idea might be that of improvising with limited resources. It’s a question of repurposing what one finds ‘readymade’.

matt responds to chris burke
posted: 10/25/2006

This is all very interesting. But why hack when you can build your own? Have a look at it from the game builder’s perpspective.

Here’s a link… you can download a demo of the “indie” version and buy it for chips.

-It wasn’t so long ago that such things didn’t exist beyond the reach of Corporations. Given the expense of writing code from scratch, I mean enormous expense, this sort of thing requires very little return by comparison.

I guess the whole idea of “indie” this and that is illusory. I mean I can’t see or hear how “indie rock” for example is actually independnt of the sounds and sights of the mainstream.

Nonetheless I am slowly building one based on the premise that it isn’t really true that when you played “Monopoly” as a kid and you could see which of your siblings had an aptitude for ruthless acquisition and material hoarding, that the game Monopoly caused it to be so.

Look at Chess and who becomes it’s Master? With the aid of computers, an animated replay of a game of chess will reveal what the “masters” see in slow motion. What are they trying to do? …. outwit the logic of the game. A serious game of chess seen in motion reveals invisible waves which are completely different from the stasis of the game space itself.

Chess is already built into the language of all computer games… I hate chess because in a “real” game I can’t see the strategy as a sweeping motion and understand it.

But add a few icons and a few narrative shooters and you’re chess game is up and running whether you are aware of it or not… I mean it begs the question what Duchamp was doing resigning himself to playing Chess for?

McKenzie Wark responds to matt
posted: 10/25/2006

Matt writes: “A serious game of chess seen in motion reveals invisible waves which are completely different from the stasis of the game space itself.” Which is a terrific way of expressing what matters about chess, or about all interesting games.

matt responds to McKenzie Wark
posted: 10/26/2006

Thanks dude but I forgot to add the link …


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(2) Comments for 019.
posted: 1/15/2007

I think of the “gamespace” as a 2nd world, 2nd dimension, 2nd life and more. If you think about it it obeys its own laws, “electric laws” if you will and the 2nd world compared to the 1st is like gray to gray to me a “hardcore gamer”.

McKenzie Wark responds to Max Merenda
posted: 2/7/2007

‘electric laws’ is a terrific phrase, Max.

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