book review

Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture

Alexander R. Galloway (2006)

This little book presents a approach to games grounded in media theory, film theory and critical philosophy. As it title implies it is essayistic in nature; Alexander Galloway is more interested in presenting trajectories for though than fully formed theories. His insights are often radical, socially inspired, intelligent and informed. Even though I do not always agree with him, and he sometimes relies too much on film theory, his contribution to game studies is a valuable one. I think the trajectories he outlines will shape game studies for the years to come.

There are five chapters or essays in the book, of varying length and quality, and only loosely related. The first chapter deals with games as a medium of action, which he uses as the essential aspect of games that sets the medium apart from other media. He sets up a broad classification of game actions in an attempt to cover all types of action possible in games. His scheme works on the double axis of diegetic versus nondiegetic action, and machine (or game) versus operator (or player) action. Of the four possible extremes that this scheme suggests, some have been covered quite extensively by game scholars, while others (most notably nondiegetic operator action) reveal qualities in games hitherto largely left ignored.

The second chapter is called the origins of the first-person shooter, but it is not a historical account of that genre. It is a lengthy disposition on the different uses of the subjective first-person camera in films and games, but films mostly. It starts and ends with the intriguing observation that subjective perspective in films are avoided, or used to convey alienation and fear, while in games it is used to facilitate action and control. Although his account of the uses of the subjective camera in film is sound, I do not necessarily agree that in games its function is directly opposite. I question Galloway's claim that in games the subjective camera creates identification. For that characters we are supposed to identify with are rather shallow. Instead I think it might make more sense, and be more revealing, to use the cinematic interpretation of this perspective for games, too.

The third chapter is very short, but it is also one of the best in the book. It deals with realism in games, social realism that is. It favours realism of action over polygon count, and shows that the representation of daily chores in The Sims is far more realistic than the realistic heroism of your average shooter. After all, the general audience orders pizza's more frequently than that it shoots aliens. Galloway calls for a theory of games that focuses on social realism instead of representational realism, and I agree that many would do well to heed his call.

The fourth chapter discusses games (Civilization in particular) as an allegory of control. He shows that games fit contemporary society rather well: a society in which we need be able to play the streams information; a culture that is algorithmic in nature. Although the words he uses are different, it is a claim that is similar to the recent work of Ian Bogost, and one that I also underwrite. It is a framework in which society can help us understand games, but in which games can also help understand society.

The last chapter deals with artistic strategies that work against the mainstream idea(l)s of what games are and what games should be. It discusses the work of some artist that use games as their canvas or material. Although I am sympathetic to what Galloway tries to achieve I think his list of six strategies of 'countergaming' is a little premature. What I think should be the most important strategy (disrupting the normal gameplay action) is absent from most examples he discusses and added almost as an afterthought, which is altogether more strange considering action is central to gaming throughout the previous four chapters.

Still, Galloway's book possesses quality style and substance. It lacks the academic rigour so treasured by most ludologists, but it is radical and inspiring in its aim and scope. It leaves the reader with a lot of food for thought and, most importantly, fresh ammunition for the serious deconstruction of games.