Friday, April 11, 2008

Eggs on Slow Heat

McKenzie Wark came to the Irvine campus yesterday morning to discuss his book project GAM3R 7H30RY, which was actually developed as a text online with the input of readers and then updated still further after being printed by Harvard University Press. In his quest for the meaning of a "shared text" of the kind that Wark argued music or television programs can no longer offer, Wark claimed that videogames presented an opportunity to "take a familiar object and make it strange." Moreover, he described his rationale for focusing on single-player games in terms of his intention to reflect on "human interaction with a machine." Before the room of student game designers, he also confessed to his own relatively weakness as a videogame player and his particular struggles with attaining competence in Civilization III, where he depended on the play skills of others to level up.

Wark was careful to differentiate himself from the celebratory culture around fandom promoted by Henry Jenkins several times during the course of the day and at one point described the value of treating a game as an "object of indifference." Furthermore, he described his own lack of enthusiasm for MMO games, because scholarly interest in the economic, social, and political activities going on -- with the work of Edward Castronova as Wark's prime example -- was "not just about the game and game play."

He did find some kinds of ethnography in World of Warcraft worth pursuing for their pedagogical value, but Wark also said that he "hated" Second Life and observed that when he took his classes in to explore the virtual environment, he said that he frequently only met others there touring with classes. As a "class of object that fits the college environment too neatly," he compared Second Life to the MOOs of the previous century.

In Gamer Theory, Wark compares the shadow plays in Plato's famous "Allegory of the Cave" in the Republic to videogames, in that -- as my Cooper translation says -- "honors, praises, and prizes" are awarded to those who are "sharpest at identifying the shadows as they passed by" or "best remembered which usually came earlier, which later, and which simultaneously," much like classic arcade games that rely on pattern recognition activities. Unfortunately, the Perseus Project is currently down or I would have checked the original Greek for its game-like synonyms.

By using this famed parable about the reflective life, Wark points out how the rest of everyday life in our contemporary culture has become game-like, from the casino betting involved in retirement plans to the opportunistic strategizing required for dating. Thus the rules for real life seem comparatively arbitrary and opaque, while the rules of games can be intuited through careful observation in the course of play. Wark claims that games make us more likely to "hold everyday life accountable." In meditating about this procedurality in my own daily interactions, I've cited Ian Bogost's work, but I could see how Wark's inverted latent Platonism could also apply.

Yet Plato also argued that situated media would encourage the young to give in to their violent passions in the spirit of imitation. However, contrary to the messages in the mainstream media, Wark argues that videogames are fundamentally divorced from violent experiences or the desire to do others physical harm as the aversion of gamers to the 2001 electrical shock experiments in Tekken Torture seems to show. As the parent of two young gamers who are also rugby players, I definitely here more talk about real-world aggression and hurt in the latter venue than the former.

Wark insisted that "forms have their time," and just as the novel did "specific cultural work" in the era of the rise of the bourgeoisie and the industrial economy, the videogame may be performing operations that may have relevance outside of the CPU, the screen, and the win conditions of an individual user's play experience, especially now that poetry has become what he called a "minor form."

To explain how the game functioned "as form not representation," he emphasized the constitution of a game as an algorithm, which in turn he felt compelled to define. An algorithm, Wark asserted had a beginning and end directed by a procedure designed to generate a result. Like others asked to define an algorithm, he also came back to the familiar analogy of a recipe. In his case, it was a very specific recipe with only one ingredient: scrambled eggs. Scrambled eggs, Wark counterintuitively declared, required no butter or oil, since there was sufficient fat in the egg itself to promote thorough and even cooking and prevent adhesion, if the heat was appropriately low. In the question-and-answer session, Wark argued that this kind of algorithmic thinking was very different from the mathematics of the ancient Greeks and the world of Plato and Aristotle. (Yet I couldn't help but make a mental note that as early as Homer, the test of civilization was to be among "men who eat bread" and thus sufficiently evolved to have mastered an understanding of the notion of a recipe.)

Here's what I once wrote about defining an algorithm:

An algorithm is any set of computable steps designed to achieve a desired result. It is named after a ninth-century Persian mathematician, Al-Khawarizmi, who wrote a famous book about the rules of arithmetic. Technically, an algorithm must reach a result after a finite number of steps, thereby ruling out “brute force” approaches to a given problem, which can run indefinitely until the desired result is reached.

To understand what an algorithm is, watch any action and try to break it up into a series of distinct steps: a baby crawling up a staircase, a pigeon flying away with a crust of bread, a gardener watering a bed of flowers. Each movement can be divided into smaller isolated movements to make a “program.” The algorithm can be more or less efficient. Change the steps or tinker with the sequence, and the action can be done more quickly or with less effort. The baby advances more confidently. The pigeon gets away more gracefully. The gardener waters more flowers per hour.

I was less sure about Wark's definition of the literary term "allegory" for the undergraduate audience, which sounded like more narrow "typology" to me, but the argument that followed about how "all games are digital without exception" was definitely soundly illustrated, despite the fact that Wark admitted to being more comfortable making analogies to cricket than to basketball, given the fact he is a native to Australia. As an inveterate Dodgers fan, I liked his thought experiment about "what if calls in baseball were like comments about wine."

Although obviously at issue, this argument went beyond simply observing win and lose states. For example, he objected to those who insisted that The Sims was not a game, since one could "level up" and "top out." He also pointed out how much The Sims looked like Orange County, where the U.C. Irvine campus is located. In closing, Wark surveyed how different audiences might accept this binary ordering and yet still invent new goals, which could include the following four choices: Play, Not Play, Cheat, and Trifle.

Wark's own early videogame initiation with Space Invaders had to do with pub culture, gendered spaces, and the social dynamics of buying rounds as well. As table-top interaction, it definitely sounded better than Microsoft Surface. But it may not compare to the bar game with which many men in Providence, Rhode Island were once obsessed. My pal, Clinton-insider and pundit Ted Widmer, who now directs the John Carter Brown Library back in his home town, once took me to see this hole-in-the-wall drinking establishment, where patrons played an automated bowling game. It was said that anyone who bowled over 300 died shortly afterward, so there was a lot of suspicion and folklore about the game.

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