Vol. 17 Editors’ Note: Rules of the Game

This is the editorial note to The New Inquiry Magazine, Vol. 17: Games. View the full table of contents here.

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“Can a game be art?” The banality of the question isn’t only in the way it deploys art as the Platonic ideal of all cultural production, or the way it invites tautological answers. (Are games art? Is art a game? Yes. No. Maybe. Sometimes.) No, the real failure is that it elicits a precise, elitist definition of art — who’s in, who’s out — while assuming games are both straightforwardly simple and in search of dignity.

Games can seem less like artistic creations and more a simple consequence of the human condition. No one has to make a game; the collective struggle for survival invented all their tropes. Gamification is a commonsense management approach and a mating strategy, as Neil Strauss’s rape-culture classic The Game suggests.

So we take for granted certain definitions of playing and of games, of rules and boundaries and transgressions and rewards, and we internalize their contradictions as inherent to the social operating system: In the market-democratic utopia of games, everyone is equal within the system, equal before the rules, at least at the start, and through some combination of cunning, creativity and will, a player can demonstrate she is the best. Games allow freedom that depends entirely on the restrictions of arbitrary rules. The freeform fun of play is better when its instrumentalized. Competition brings out the best in us by destroying our spirit and inculcating failure. We work at leisure; we play goal-driven games to escape the grind of pursuing life goals. With the rise of video games, we’ve begun to play alone more and more often, while the games themselves are becoming more insistently “social.”

Creativity, curiosity, and learning are always encouraged, as long as they’re not deployed against the logic of the game. This reaches an apotheosis in contemporary work culture: Be creative! We’ve got a pool table and a beer fridge and a big open office without cubicles and no benefits and an 80-hour work week! Play with us! Or play around at home on special projects!

The rise of gaming’s cultural prominence reflects broader changes in structures of control and value extraction. As Sarah Wanenchak shows in an essay for this issue, SimCity’s always-on DRM points to the transitions capitalists are making from producers to rentiers. Kathleen French reviews the subtle and insidious limitations of Bioshock Infinite’s open-ended world. Rob Horning looks at social media as gaming system (and data-generating profit center), whose roots can be traced to 1960s pop psychology and its behaviorist dogma. According to Mike Thomsen’s “Reign in Drool,” games placate us with opportunities to submit and plague us with farcical rehearsals of the way our mortal bodies always limit our possibilities.

But there is another conception of play that’s subversive, insurrectionary. The ultimate game is revolution: new rules, no rules. This sort of play comes into view when the contradictions inherent in gameplay begin to destroy its necessary logic, opening a new terrain of possibility. What might weaponized games look like? Finch Kaye interviews Porpentine, a writer and game designer producing games as bombs, opposing misogynist gaming culture while destabilizing video games’ basic elements. In “Playing Outside,” Leigh Alexander elucidates the history of bro-centric video-game culture and points past it to games with goals — social, ethical, and political — that move beyond the limiting trap of familiar pleasures and “fun.” Though as Tim Maly shows in “How to Destroy a Commnuity” massively multiplayer games can also be training grounds for destroying collectives, for innovating means to re-isolate the people that games bring together.

Hermione Hoby interviews Fatima Al Qadiri, an artist and musician who composed an alternate soundtrack for Desert Strike, a 1992 Desert Storm video game for a Sega console. Al Qadiri, a Kuwaiti survivor of the Gulf War, played Desert Strike as a child just after the war and hasn’t been able to play video games since.

Opting out of games and game playing and competition and authority is something that games themselves let us fantasize about. It’s not clear whether this helps. Enjoy the rules!