On Games of Empire

I finished Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter‘s Games of Empire yesterday (then powered through Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology immediately after). The short version of my review is that Games of Empire is a great analysis of the material conditions that make up the system that enables us to play video games. The authors’ deployment of Hardt and Negri as their cornerstone theorist creates a grand unifying theory of social/technological relationships that surround video games, which is useful to think through. However, if you are already familiar with their work, be prepared for long boring sections where they quote the basics at you. That isn’t a bad thing, mind you, just something that anyone who plans on reading the book should be aware of.

Even shorter review: I liked the book. It is absolutely necessary for people who study games to take the information in this book seriously.

But beyond that, there are a couple moments that I find fascinating. Let me quote them at you!

Games are machines of “subjectivation.” When we play an in-game avatar, we temporarily simulate, adopt, or try out certain identities. Games, like other cultural machines, hail or “interpellate” us in particular “subject positions” (Althusser 1971). These subject positions may be utterly fantastic, quite realistic, or somewhere in between. But such in-game identities are never entirely separated from the options provided by the actual social formations in which the games are set, from which their virtualities derive and into which they flow back. (192)

This is a point I make all the time–games create you as a subject. Here, the authors are arguing that the subjectivity that the player “tries out” in a game is inextricable from the material conditions from which that game comes out of–what enables the digital world, for example. This is true, but it flows both ways; the material conditions of the subject are crafted through a fiction process. The creation of the subject is a process of fiction-craft. The subject, from the moment of birth, is the product of ideological thrusts, fairy tales of culture, and so on. Short of basic genetic function, everything about the human is constructed. So video games are an additional step in this process, and they can inform the way that we act in the physical world. I know this isn’t exactly mind-blowing or new, but it is important. The argument normally goes that video games make us perform certain behaviors–they make us more violent, for example. This is one step further: video games can allow us to relate to and understand our world in a different way.

Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter move toward a similar argument earlier in the book during their discussion of Full Spectrum Warrior.

. . . games such as FSW generate subjectivities that tend to war. They prompt not atrocities of gothic delinquency but displays of loyal support for “staying the course.” Their virtualities are part of a wider polyphonic cultural chorus supporting militarization, a multimedia drumbeat for war. . . . But the battle song is loud.

Our social interactions, which are all of our interactions, become drawn along the lines of the subjectivities that we take on. It isn’t that people are playing games and gunning down their friends, but that they totally accept the necessity of black ops and all the terrible shit that entails.

But what we need are counter-subjectivities. I really thought that Games of Empire could have been stronger and more explicit on this point. They describe counter-gaming, but there is not a strong showing of what it means to take on a role in the losing side of a battle. I want to see people playing games where they are NPCs. I want to see games where people are the killed, not the killers. Following a body into a lime pit. What would it be like to play a game where the player takes on a subjectivity that then dissolves into nothing?

In any case, read Games of Empire.

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