No Pain, No Game(space)
(Harvard University Press, 2007)
Before Gamer Theory, there was GAM3R 7H30RY, McKenzie Wark’s online experiment which reverses the traditional publishing algorithm: public scrutiny before publication. Hosted by the Institute for the Future of the Book, the site (still extant) allows readers to comment on the manuscript as a way of refining its ideas. Wark’s original text appears on-screen in a cascading series of numbered index cards, while reader comments hover alongside, creating an interesting call-and-response style experience.
Gamer Theory, the old-fashioned print version, captures the results of this process. Some attempt is made to maintain the innovative form but the dialogue of reader comments is relegated to the back of the book in the endnotes. (The revolution, it seems, will not be coming to us just yet in book form.) What remains, instead, is Wark’s meditation on what it means to be a gamer in a world increasingly appearing to us like a game we cannot win.
This is only a book about video games in the way that the story of Noah’s Ark is about the weather. For Wark, the game exists as an allegory, informing and illuminating the more dystopic elements of our reality, the world-as-gamespace. Now that the video game is the dominant cultural symbol of our times (played regularly by 60% of Americans), play itself has ceased to be a form of liberation or escape. As Wark writes,
“Play is no longer a counter to work. Play becomes work; work becomes play … The utopian dream of liberating play from the game, of a pure play beyond the game, merely opened the way for the extension of gamespace into every aspect of everyday life (Note 016).”
The aesthetic of the digital game, according to Wark, has “colonized reality”, and as a result, the world-as-gamespace increasingly resembles an unfair, corrupted version of the game itself. In fact, it is only in video games that the ideal of a “level playing field” still has any hope of achieving realization. The world, our larger gamespace, is still too pockmarked with the inequalities of wealth, education, race and gender, as well as countless other limiting categories. Inside the game, gamers play in relative equality in the shadowy game world, much like the prisoners in Plato’s cave allegory. A sort of simple justice reigns in the logic of the game. As Wark writes, “The computer games that the gamer finds there are the ruins not of a lost past but of an impossible future.”
Wark explores this idea by considering several games and their implications—the consumerist satire of The Sims, history-as-strategy in Civilization III, the triumph of digital over analog in Katamari Damacy, the heterotopia of Vice City, targeting the other to advance the self in Rez, and the limits of playing God in SimEarth, among others.
It is in this last comparison—of SimEarth to the world-as-gamespace— that Wark achieves some of his most interesting prose. SimEarth, a game now considered “extinct” in the gamer world by virtue of having no sequels or extensions, shows us the limits of our gamespace. Worlds created in the game often are destroyed, in a matter of hours, all their resources exhausted and their populations destroyed by famine, war, or environmental collapse. There is no way to “win” SimEarth, or no satisfying payoff to be gained from achieving a boring ecological stability. By including everything—the entire planet—within the game, it leaves nothing to be conquered, no unknown to pursue. The gamer-as-God gets disillusioned or uninstalls the game. In playing God within the game and failing repeatedly as the worlds die, it soon becomes clear that games like SimEarth tell “the inconvenient truth about gamespace— that it can know its limit, its end, but not what to do about it.” That is a frightening idea, that the gamespace which defines us draws us toward a conclusion it can only know, but not control.
What Gamer Theory proposes to be, in response, is a primer for gamers, teaching them how to think critically about this gamespace we live in. In a new digital era, in which we contend, not as citizens of one nation against another, or one belief system against another, but as gamers against other gamers, Wark believes the new “historical persona” of the gamer is best equipped to navigate the world by becoming not just a gamer, but a theorist. “The form of the digital game is an allegory for the form of being,” he writes, and as such, we should use video games not just as entertainment, but as a way to inform and educate ourselves about the world we now live in, its potentials as well as its current failures.
LAURA STOKES is a writer and teacher living in Fairfax, Virginia. She has an MFA from The New School, in New York City, and her work has previously appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, as well as XOJane, BUST and Bookforum. She lived in Brooklyn for seven years and still misses her old street in Greenpoint very much.