Here is the guiding principle of a future utopia, now long past: “To each according to his needs; from each according to his abilities.”* 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. Uncritical gamers do not win what they desire; they desire what they 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. You does not play the game to win (or not just to win). You trifle with it — playing with style to understand the game as a form. You trifle with the game to understand the nature of gamespace as a world — as the world. You trifle 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.
No wonder digital games are the emergent cultural form of the times. The times have themselves become just a series of less and less perfect games. The Cave presents games in a pure state, as a realm where justice — of a sort — reigns. The beginnings of a critical theory of games — a gamer theory — might lie not in holding games accountable as failed representations of the world, but quite the reverse. The world outside is a gamespace that appears as an imperfect form of the computer game. The gamer is an archeologist of The Cave. The computer games the gamer finds there are the ruins, not of a lost past, but of a lost future. Gamespace is built on the ruins of a future it proclaims in theory yet disavows in practice. To the extent that the gamer as theorist wants to hack or “mod” the game, it is to play even more intimately within it.* The gamer as theorist is not out to break the game. The point is not to reduce the game to the level of the imperfect world outside it. Like any archeologist, the gamer as theorist treats these ruins of the future with obsessive care and attention to their preservation, not their destruction.
Gamespace needs theorists — but also a new kind of practice. One that can break down the line that divides gamer from designer, to redeploy the digital so that it makes this very distinction arbitrary. It is a characteristic of games to render digital decisions on all shades of difference. One either wins or loses. One either hits or misses. The practice of the gamer as theorist might be to reinstall what is undecidable back into the gamespace whose primary violence has nothing to do with brightly colored explosions or mounting death counts, but with the decision by digital fiat on where everything belongs and how it is ranked. Lars Svendsen: “How boring life would be without violence!” The real violence of gamespace is its dicing of everything analog into the digital, cutting continuums into bits. That games present the digital in its most pure form are reason enough to embrace them, for here violence is at its most extreme — and its most harmless.*
Of all the kinds of belonging that contend for allegiance — as workers against the boss, as citizens against the enemy, as believers against the infidel — all now have to compete with one which makes agon its first and only principle. Gamespace wants us all to believe we are nothing but gamers now, competing not against enemies of class or faith or nation, but only against other gamers. A new historical persona stalks the earth. All of the previous such persona had many breviaries and manuals, and so this little book seeks to offer guidance for thinking within this new persona. An ABC of theory for gamers. Not a strategy guide, a cheat sheet or a walk-through for how to improve one’s score or hone one’s trigger finger. A primer, rather, in thinking about a world made over as a gamespace, made over as an imperfect copy of the game. The game might not be utopia, but it might be the only thing left with which to play against gamespace.
No wonder gamers choose to spend their time holed up in The Cave. Here at least the targets really are only polygons, and the prizes really are worthless, mere colors and numbers. These are not the least of its merits. And yet The Cave is a world you can neither own nor control. Even this substitute for utopia is in someone else’s possession. The digital game is both an almost utopian alternative to gamespace and its most pure product. Or was. Perhaps the game is collapsing back into business as usual. Perhaps the single-player game will become an anachronism, superceded by multiplayer worlds as venal and benighted as the rest of gamespace.* Perhaps, like silent cinema, the stand-alone game will be an orphaned form. Perhaps game designers such as Will Wright and Tetsuya Mizogushi will be the Sergei Eisensteins and Dziga Vertovs of a lost art. Perhaps, in this moment of eclipse, the classic games have something to show us. So by all means necessary, be a gamer, but be a gamer who thinks — and acts — with a view to realizing the real potentials of the game, in and against this world made over as a gamespace. One might start with the curious gap between the games one loves and an everyday life which, by the light of the game, seems curiously similar, and yet somehow lacking.