A Ludic Century?
Games, Aesthetics, the twenty-first century
Could we call this a ‘ludic century’? That’s the provocation of game designer Eric Zimmerman and game journalist Heather Chaplin. His ‘Manifesto for a Ludic Century’ and her commentary on it have lit up the game world like a pinball machine. But I think their provocation calls for a wider discussion. Like Zimmerman and Chaplin, I too think that the digital game is the emblematic cultural form of our times. If one is to think the nexus of art and tech, then the game is a key place to start. Let me begin with some points of agreement I have with their texts, and then I’ll try to take the discussion elsewhere.
Games are an ancient kind of interactive system. Traditional games like Go or chess are already a kind of computer, machines for creating and storing numerical states. But it is only in the twentieth century that a really powerful kind of computation comes into being, one capable of forming an abstract plane of measurement and control which subordinates physical things to its logics.
In the twenty-first century, a whole infrastructure develops for managing truly vast amounts of data, mostly for strategic or commercial purposes. There is a sort of enclosure of the world within what I call gamespace, where the logics of the game become the general patterns of organization.
Perhaps this is why game-like media seem to function as allegories of the times. The twentieth century seemed to be the era of cinema and television, where audio-visual narratives, assembled by the culture industries, functioned as allegories for industrial production of everything else. It was a spectacle in which, as Guy Debord famously put it, “that which is good, appears; that which appears, is good.” All under the command of the one supposed to know. Hence the fountainhead fantasy narrative and imagery of the time.
But the twentieth century still depended on command logics within which realtime data on the ground played a limited role. There simply wasn’t an infrastructure with which to complete the feedback loop between a commercial and military action and the reaction on the part of the consumer or combatant, via which the initial action could be modified or withdrawn.
The twenty-first century – the ludic century – is animated in part by just that fantasy: that the feedback loop can be closed, and action can be modified in realtime depending on data about its immediate effects. Of course in reality it is always rather more imperfect. Google and Facebook never quite tailor the advertising on which their business in part depends to our actual wants or desires. Given what we know about how imperfect those systems are, imagine what its like for the NSA or other security agencies, trying to needle of ‘terrorism’ in the haystack of trillions of bits of data banality. It’s the very impossibility of closing the feedback loop that drives the tendency to total surveillance.
“Our matching algorithm is highly computationally intensive,” says OK Cupid CEO Sam Yagan. Apparently dating site companies are now going into the recruitment website business. Because it turns out that finding a romantic partner or finding an employee is pretty much the same thing. The business of describing, assessing and connecting people is becoming a generalized game. It doesn’t matter whether you want someone who gives good Powerpoint or good blow jobs, there’s an app for that, and pretty much the same app. Of course anyone who has used them has stories about how imperfectly they work.
All the same, this imperfect enclosure, this gamespace, changes space and time itself. As I put it in my book Gamer Theory, space is no longer topographic, it is topological. This is no longer the era of maps and strategies, where the struggle is to adequately map a terrain and exploit its features. The entire surface of the earth is now enclosed in continual mapping and remapping process. GPS turns the whole surface of the earth into a board game. Mobile media connect a commodity or a weapon in motion into an abstract space of realtime strategic calculation.
Of course, one fantasy is of an ever-perfected doubling of the world of physical things and its allegorical parallel, the world of data and calculation. But who knows? It may take more energy to perfect that data double than it does to actually run the physical world.
However, I think we have reached a point in this enclosure of the physical world in gamespace that a certain turning point appears, and not least for any aesthetic strategy that might work in and against a world made over as gamespace.
The aesthetic, as Steve Shaviro reminds us, is a kind of necessary inefficiency. It is the domain of the useless. It is only to the extent that my contemplation of it is disinterested that a work of art can really participate in the aesthetic. This, incidentally, is why there’s no neat mapping of the aesthetic and what we call the art world. Too much of the art world is in actuality a game of calculation. But on the other hand, there are plenty of aesthetic moments outside of the art world where a free, disinterested contemplation and experience is still possible. One of those domains, in these times, includes games.
To the extend that gamespace includes at least a palimpsest of the whole planet within the space of calculation and strategy, the aesthetic can no longer be about an outside. A certain kind of romantic aesthetic may finally be dead. There can be no outsider art, no transgression. There can be no wild art because as Tim Morton argues, there is no external and separate ‘nature’ any more. The whole planet is included in the game of commodification. There’s nothing to subvert or divert or invert. There’s nothing to resist, as resistance is included in advance in the rules of the game.
An example: when George Zimmerman (no relation to Eric!), was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin, the riot in South Central LA that some expected did not happen. A large number of people, including young, African-American men, took to the streets. Maybe a window or two was broken. They were loud and angry. But the whole situation stayed just this side of anything that the police could take as a definitive provocation. It was, in short, a game well played. Those young men know that there is surveillance everywhere. They know that they face very, very long prison sentences for quite slight infractions of public order. So they played the game up to the limit of transgression. To do any more, to actually transgress, as they know only too well, is just in the service of the law.
As in social contestation so too with the aesthetic: there isn’t an outside. So we have to play from within gamespace. But perhaps there’s another way. In Gamer Theory, I proposed that we become gamer-theorists, trifling with the affordances of constraints. Eric Zimmerman goes one better, and proposes that we all become designers. As he writes: “To play a game deeply is to think more and more like a game designer – to tinker, retro-engineer, and modify a game in order to find new ways to play.”
That strikes me as a very contemporary idea of what the aesthetic might become. The aesthete today is what Bernard Suits calls a trifler, someone who observes the rules of the game but is disinterested in winning it, who rather plays with the rules rather than within them. The trifler is not a cheat, who breaks the rules to win, nor a spoilsport, who transgresses both the rules and the goals. The trifler knows there is no outside.
So: in trifling within gamespace, perhaps we can find ways to redesign the way data controls the physical world. Given that the current world gamespace is based on putting more carbon in the air than the climate system can stand, perhaps there is even a certain paradoxical urgency to the aesthetic, to trifling, to play that points to how the game might change.
How might this twenty-first century phenomena, of the enclosure of whole worlds within gamespace, manifest itself in aesthetic terms? First, let’s look at an actual game. My example is a game called Dwarf Fortress, which is arguably the hardest computer game of them all. It is so hard that its slogan is “losing is fun.” Its full name is Slaves to Armok: God of Blood Chapter II: Dwarf Fortress. It is designed by Tarn and Zach Adams. It is available free from Bay 12 Games. It has no complicated 3D interface, like the big AAA games. Its interface is a simple, flat, 2D screen of colored icons. It is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.
The visual interface might be simple, but the physical, chemical and social systems Dwarf Fortress models are fiendishly complex. Your dwarves can have all sorts of personalities and skills. The world generated for each game has astonishing geological and historical texture. There are dozens of labor processes your dwarves can engage in, using the geology and geography of their world. Compared to Dwarf Fortress, the systems and decisions of everyday life seem refreshingly straightforward.
Heather Chaplin, in her coda to Eric Zimmerman’s ‘Manifesto’, wonders how gender plays into this privileging of games and systems. Is this an era of the quant? An era for what is usually taken to be stereotypically male orientation to the world? Is this perhaps even a militarized world view, where everything is s target and the only goal is to score? (As I also argued in the ‘Battle’ chapter of Gamer Theory). She asks what place empathic abilities, stereotypically thought of as women’s work, might have in this world. Now, Chaplin is not suggesting any neat alignment of systems as masculine and the empathic as feminine in actual everyday life. But certainly these activities are coded that way.
What I think is missing from the discussion up to this point is an understanding of the role that the imperfection of gamespace plays. More and more data – so called big data – does not make uncertainty go away. In many instances it multiplies it. Systems built on even the slightest misalignment of assigned values and algorithmic calculation can go terribly wrong. Those quant-built trading systems in high finance work beautifully until some underlying value assumption fails to hold, at which point they turn into what Ben Bratton calls “bezerker algorithms.”
In short, our complex, game-like systems still contain massive uncertainties, calling for decision based on hunches, intuition, experience, guesswork or sheer chutzpah. Most games are also confidence games. Moreover, no matter how much we make things into agents of systems, we still have a lot of human agents, often doing things that are not easily quantified. A surprising amount of the contemporary workplace appears to be ‘aesthetic’. We don’t even know any more when we are working and when we are not. When you are tethered to your iPhone, all of time becomes work-time, and also not. You could be taking a business call at midnight, or goofing off with Tetris during a conference call at noon.
So the other example of the contemporary aesthetic I want t mention here is the work of Tino Sehgal. His work is famously made only of people and the actions of their bodies. He insists that there be no documentation, and even the contracts for the sale of his work are verbal. The works are always game-like protocols for human interactions.
I was in two of his pieces. One at the Guggenheim, and one at Marion Goodman gallery in New York. That one was called This Situation. Six of us where in the gallery space at any one time (we worked in four hour shifts). We were taught a movement discipline, via which we moved slowly around the walls. And we had conversational rules, where we would toss out a quotation that was about ‘situations’, and talk about it, both among ourselves and with the gallery-going public. It was a remarkable experience. Some people came for hours, then came back and brought their friends. The art critics Jerry Saltz pretty much camped out in the space for while.
This is a very different kind of game to Dwarf Fortress. But both are I think interesting examples of a kind of trifling with systems. The former trifles with the whole technology and economy of how computer games are supposed to be. The latter trifles with not just the art world – who doesn’t do that? – but with the codes of social interaction. Could there be a way of making value, Tino suggests, that reduces physical consumption to almost zero?
So I am mostly in agreement with Zimmerman and Chaplin: that this is, in manifesto-speak, a ludic century; that the game is the emblematic form of our time. But I would want to distinguish this a bit from what is called game-ification. Game-ification is actually the opposite way of thinking about all this. To game-ify is to try to make what would otherwise be an aesthetic moment something other than indifferent contemplation. It’s the attempt to make play entirely functional. The basic goal of game-ification is make all of play a kind of work; the basic goal of the ludic century is to keep all of play as play.
It’s a difficult time for the ancient culture of play. What it always had in common with the aesthetic is an indifference to anything directly functional or necessary. If an earlier modernity tried to make work more and more efficient; in its current form it seeks an efficiency of play. We are all exhorted to be creative and playful and innovative in our lives, but mostly just to find better ways to make the same old crap.
This is why I want to insist on the trifling quality of good play in our times, its indifference to the awards, the prizes, the scoreboard, the rankings. Good play cares only about what it itself discovers as the internal tensions, ambiguities and possibilities within systems. Perhaps its only by playing within this system that we will work out how to design other ones – before this one crashes. But that play has to trifle, it has to be indifferent to what this system considers a win. We want not just another aesthetic, but another civilization.
[First presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami.]