Mckenzie Wark first presented his Gamer Theory online in form of flashcards, wherein readers commented and contended and Wark replied. Then Harvard University Press turned the Theory into the dead-tree version that incorporates all the marginal comments as footnotes. Arguably the affordance should only change what we are seeing, i.e. a computer screen or pieces of paper. The digital version of the Theory, however, appeals to me more in various aspects than the physical book, or a pdf scanning of the book.
The flashcards online itself makes the reading experience less painful because they segment the book into several chapters and further into 5-flashcard groups within each chapter. Navigation through the flashcards also expedites the reader’s journey in the Gamer Theory. The search function, were it able to function properly, would help the reader to find keywords and main ideas. Of course, readers can also exchange their opinions of the Theory on the margin of the webpage. On the other hand, the printed version of the book (or a scanned pdf) takes away all these features and is just utterly boring to read.
The theory itself, however, does not come along deep or practical, in the first two chapters at least. The Theory draws a close analogy between game space and human lives, which sounds fanatical to begin with and superficial/ill-purpose in actuality. Why would someone think that our life is a game anyway? Wark started the Theory with Plato’s Cave Allegory that challenges the common view on the nature of reality. If cavemen were tied up and forced to see only one side of the cave from the day they were born, their reality would only contain the shadows on the wall and the echoes whose sources are mistakenly thought to be the shadows. The example implies that our reality cannot be some objective world happening outside but precisely our perceptions of it. Wark then moved on to describe Benjamin’s Sims world (a game) that in various ways resembles our world (the gamespace), but of course the fact that Sim is a life simulation game predicates the resemblance and the allegory; other games may not carry the allegory at all.
The reason why the Plato’s allegory of cavemen works is because Plato himself notoriously endorsed the ideal world, the perfect world afterlife, and physical existence of the perfect abstract objects. Plato alleged that our world is a failed version of the perfect world; not surprisingly, what’s in parallel in the author’s argument is that the world is actually an imperfect game play. Admittedly, it is hard to argue against idealism because our senses channel in the information from the outside and our inner ideas evolve to be more capable in the so-called mental world than our physical body in the outside world because our ideas can predict the physicals and we can think that we know it. We think that we know what games are and that we know what constitute reality. We can also think that our life magically resembles a game like Wark does. We make all these silly analogies because we can, not because it is ever for a second true. Nevertheless, we can also remind ourselves that it is life that generates all kinds of games and that it is we human who create all the games that have ever existed. Playing a word game cannot reverse the relation of game and life. I agree that epistemically we cannot question whether there exists a larger entity than the life as we know it; but the argument that says we should live life according to the perfect game rules that are, in fact, produced by, in, and from the imperfect life is simply malarkey.
Living a life as a game leads us to nowhere, if not to fatalist exasperation. Honestly, what game in the world can get as a millionth complicated as the life on earth (not to mention what happen in the outer space capable of destroying everything we know)? Since no such game exists, what game rules and what algorithms are there for us to follow? All the games oversimplify our real lives and that’s partially why people escape from the actual, complex life to the simplified virtual world wherein there are no hard problems and people to deal with. The most complex algorithms written to generate the game almost have nothing to do how the gamers win the game. A game that asks the gamer to modify its own code to win the game does not attract any gamer at all; rather, a game that asks me to earn money and survive in a war to win the game does. Because earning and surviving operate at a level way above the perfect algorithms running in the kernel, nobody would bother to decode the algorithm of this life and then abide by the code. It is like saying we should abide by the principle of quantum mechanics to live a life, which actually sounds much more reliable than the Game Theory. Treating life as a game doesn’t benefit us in any way.
At some point, the author mentioned that some gamers focus more on following the rules and winning but other gamers focus more on the items, or as I call the byproducts/side-effects of the game, such as collecting the furniture in Sims. This more or less jibes with a certain part of our life, but not entirely. For example, I myself value the experience of things, but I also like things themselves. So what would be the winner of my life – the Cathy who has more experience or the Cathy who has more possessions, prizes and good grades? They both die one day for sure. Or actually the Cathy who lives longer? Who is there to tell me the rules of this life? (I am a hundred percent serious but the premises of the Theory now just read like jokes.) There are other problems with the analogy such as the relationship between the gamer and the Sim’s character. Is Cathy both the gamer and the character? If the character cannot know there is a gamer, will the gamer know that the character can know this (have consciousness)? [The introduction of the Bogost’s How to Do Things with Videogames explicates lots of problems with the Gamer Theory]
At last, the comments at the margins are not peer reviews because the author did not revise the content accordingly (not that I know of) but simply inserted them as footnotes. Academic peer reviewers must review the content carefully and give the author constructive suggestions; only after the author revises accordingly or defends herself can the content being reviewed again and so forth until finally published. Comments do not serve these purposes. The book might have undergone some real peer reviews before publishing but the discussion section beside the flashcards cannot be counted as peer reviews.
If by “medium”, we mean any substance that is used to convey information in some way, then without a doubt games can act as a medium. Moreover, as with all media, games have a unique set of affordances to them, which are not captured well by any other sort of media. One of these affordances, echoing Katherine Hayles, is that our interactions with games, especially particularly immersive ones, can be remarkably embodied interactions. They can make us physically feel relaxed as in Cloud, or they can make us feel regret as in Regret. Studying games is, therefore, a valuable enterprise for two reasons: it lets us nail down precisely what are the possible affordances of the medium of video games, which can let us utilize the medium to the best of its abilities, and studying games can shed another perspective on the “real” world as well. For example, taking the perspective of McKenzie Wark’s Gamer Theory, by looking at the real world itself as a game, another perspective on reality is opened to us by which we can address some philosophical questions.
Ian Bogost, in the text How To Do Things With Video Games, defends the idea that games are a serious multifaceted medium in the following quote:
Games – like photography, like writing, like any medium – shouldn’t be shoehorned into one of two kinds of uses, serious or superficial, highbrow or lowbrow, useful or useless. Neither entertainment nor seriousness nor the two together should be a satisfactory account for what videogames are capable of. After all, we don’t distinguish between only two kinds of books, or music, or photography, or film. Rather, we know intuitively that writing, sounds, images, and moving pictures can all be put to many different uses. (5)
This is not to say that the value of video games as a medium for entertainment should be downplayed. As a child, I often played the video game series Kingdom Hearts with my sister. Although for sure it provided us with countless hours of entertainment while we explored several different virtual worlds in the quest to save Sora’s best friend Kairi, we also unconsciously internalized several moral lessons about friendship, teamwork, and perseverance. An interesting empirical, psychological question in the vicinity here about video games as a medium is this: how well do they serve, particularly in children, as an educational tool for the teaching of important life lessons? Several of these lessons are already imparted to children through storytelling, but there is no reason to think video games can not participate in this. In fact, new research is now confirming the utility of video games in this area. For example, a study done in the University of Victoria, which took a total of five years and studied gaming in teens aged 13 to 17, found that “playing video games can make children more ethically and morally aware” (Vincent). Studies like this provide a much needed contrast to the popular opinion expressed in the media that video games only promote morally bad behavior, e.g. violence.
We may also ask whether video games can be used as an artistic medium. Although it is true that the question, “Are video games art?” is latent with vagueness, I am absolutely confident in its answer, and I suspect that most people who have played enough of the right games are as well. The first point to make is that many video games explicitly hire artists to aid them in creating their virtual worlds. So if we understand the question of whether video games are art operationally, we get the easy answer “yes”. However, to be completely convinced of this fact, one only needs to look at examples. For example, we may look at some particularly big video games put out by Blizzard Entertainment, World of Warcraft and Diablo III. Each is set in a very elaborate fictional world, and the corresponding games literally created entire virtual worlds for them. These worlds are completely filled with artistic details, from the creativity required to dream up and design templates for countless different species of creatures, to the beautiful game mechanics of lightning, meteors, totems, teleportation, etc. At the opposite end of the artistic spectrum, there are games like Parallax which are much more minimalist, but they still manage to be awe inspiring in their artistic creativity. A final example of a game in the genre of “art games” is Antichamer, a game which lets players explore non-euclidean geometries with extra spatial dimensions!
What can we learn from games when we look at them from a critical context? Can there be a critical theory for video games? These are the sorts of questions that McKenzie Wark explores especially well in Gamer Theory. One interesting theme to explore in the relation between games and reality is the notion of teleology, or purpose. Most games, though not all, have goal structures that are built into them from the outside. One has to beat the bad guys, maximize the number of points one has, get from point A to point B, etc. Is this fact shared by reality? Here we get embroiled in deep philosophical questions. For example, if certain religious traditions like Christianity are true, then the answer seems to be yes. We even have a reward system for whether you accomplished God’s goal or failed, i.e. heaven and hell! However, even in this picture, we can always step outside. Why does God have the purposes he has? Are there some objective purposes that are even placed on him, or are God’s purposes ultimately arbitrary? If the first option, where did those objective purposes come from? Is this not heading off to an infinite regress? If the second option, why should we care about God’s purposes if they are ultimately arbitrary? Reasoning like this, it might be tempting to come up with the conclusion that the notion of an ultimate, objective, external purpose is simply incoherent. If there were any such thing, it would either have a higher objective external purpose and we would have an infinite regress, or it would seem to be arbitrary. If this objective purpose came out of nowhere, why shouldn’t we invent our own purposes in our lives? This is the fundamental thought behind the philosophical school of Existentialism, which we have found can interestingly be arrived at by thinking about the nature of gaming. Not only can games be enjoyed by children for the sake of pure entertainment, games can be studied by serious philosophers to achieve new insights into the nature of reality. This is the remarkable range of affordances that the medium of gaming provides.
Blizzard Entertainment. Diablo III. 2012. PC
Blizzard Entertainment. World of Warcraft. 2004. PC
Bogost, Ian. How to Do Things with Videogames. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2011. Print.
Hayles, Katherine. How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2012. Print.
Parallax: Steam Greenlight Trailer. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Oct. 2014.
Square Enix. Kingdom Hearts. 2002. Play Station 2
Vincent, James. “Video games ‘can make children more morally aware'” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, Web. 13 Oct. 2014.
Wark, McKenzie. Gamer Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2007. Print.