The Game of Critique

April 4, 2021   •   By Andrew Fleshman

Experimental Games: Critique, Play, and Design in the Age of Gamification

Patrick Jagoda

IT IS COMMON — even in our digitally saturated culture — to associate games with triviality. Playing games is something we do when the serious business of living relaxes its grip on us, making space for us to indulge — however fleetingly — in the idle pleasures of distraction. Doubtless, this is a function that games often serve; who among us could not use a bit of distraction every now and then? And yet, it would be a grave mistake to observe the capacity of games to amuse and entertain and stop there, insisting that their powers were exhausted by these surface qualities. There is historical precedent for avoiding overly hasty conclusions as well: with the advent of every new media form — from the novel, to film, to radio, to television — one sees a tendency within the culture to dismiss the new media oddity as nothing more than a simple technological gimmick, lacking in any real application or social and aesthetic value (a tendency summed up by the clichéd phrase: “It’s only a game”).


The question of what games (video games in particular) are and can do is an especially pressing one for understanding the digital milieu within which we all live and move. According to some estimates, 2.7 billion people played video games in 2020. In 2019, consumer expenditures on digital games (i.e., nonphysical copies of games, mobile games, “microtransactions”) alone exceeded $120 billion worldwide, nearly three times the $42 billion that the film industry took at the box office. As with the rise and evolution of older media forms, video games are shaping our cognitive and social lives in unprecedented and unpredictable ways. But how might games work to critique dominant modes of thinking and being, while demonstrating productive alternatives, as the preeminent media form of the 21st century?


These are the questions at the heart of Patrick Jagoda’s monumental new study, Experimental Games: Critique, Play, and Design in the Age of Gamification. He ambitiously pursues two modes of analysis that are too often separated in the field of game studies: on the one hand, he provides a detailed genealogy of the historical and social conditions that gave rise to the invention of the video game and enabled its flourishing as a media form in the succeeding decades; and on the other hand, he explores the aesthetic qualities of games — both as formal, rules-governed structures and as ludic (from the Latin ludere, meaning “to play”), process-dependent activities — that manifest their capacities for experimentation and expressive investigation. The ultimate aim of this complicated, imbricated style of argumentation is to show how video games can do more than present players with problems to be solved (e.g., if the player satisfies condition x, y, and z, they “beat” the game). Often, they make problems that call into question the underlying structure of our social and economic order, or make us reflect critically on the constructed nature of our own subjectivity. At their best, video games are more than simple puzzles: they are models of potentiality.


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Jagoda’s argument begins in Part I with an analysis of the rise of the game as a model for strategic planning and analysis during the Cold War. Game theory — originally propounded as a tool for understanding economic systems as game-like structures composed of multitudes of players — was adapted in the mid-20th century to predict the behaviors of the prevailing nuclear superpowers, pitting them one against another as rational actors working to maximize their own interests. This mode of thought represented a significant shift from older “art of war” scenarios, wherein one military force sought to overcome another military force in a particular context (e.g., on this battlefield in these conditions). Instead, game theory projected a paranoid logic of totalization, wherein everything in personal and social life could conceivably be figured as a game, playable by knowledgeable actors, according to a system of rules, and in pursuit of one inevitable outcome: the victory of one party and the concomitant defeat of the other.


The modern video game was born in the later decades of the 20th century, in the era of neoliberalism. Jagoda argues that neoliberalism inaugurated a new idea of subjectivity — one particularly ripe for “gamification.” Neoliberal markets, he explains, require subjects who are disciplined and conditioned to think and act in a manner that conforms to market logic. They must constantly work to maximize their own value, train themselves in new skills, receive higher and more prestigious educational credentials, and so forth, all in pursuit of making themselves more desirable as laborers for powerful corporations. Neoliberalism encourages (and “rewards”) individuals becoming complicit in their own alienation.


Like neoliberalism, contemporary gamification leaves no domain untouched: exercise apps encourage users to “level up” their account by running habitually, language-learning apps grant students “badges” for completing courses of instruction, a Domino’s Pizza app allows customers to build and order their own pizza through a mini-game (which doubles as an employee recruitment and credentialing tool for customers who play the game exceptionally well). Under the logic of neoliberalism, gamification functions to colonize greater and greater swathes of our psychological, interpersonal, professional, and social lives. The German philosopher Walter Benjamin marveled at the possibilities inherent in cinema as a technique for seeing the world in new ways in the early 20th century. Following his lead, Jagoda argues that the ubiquity of the game as a paradigm changes the conceptual structures that we use to organize experience.


In a gamified world, alienation takes on new forms. Instead of encouraging passivity and indolence, as exemplified in an older critique of television as “the idiot box,” games instead demand constant action and engagement. As a format, video games require a certain kind of heightened attention and focus that precludes the narcotizing effects of older media forms. In this way, they more closely resemble the novel than they do television or film. Whereas television and film can be experienced passively by a viewer splayed out on the couch as the images wash over them, the reader must be alert to the text, imagining and processing the words on the page as they read in order to be “pulled into” the novel’s world. Similarly, the video game player is required to take action as they play, whether through rapid (or “twitch”) movements requiring exceptional hand-eye coordination, or — in more sedate and narrative-driven games — through progressing on-screen text boxes to advance the story.


Jagoda’s lengthy history of game theory, neoliberalism, and the evolution of the video game form results in a kind of conundrum: if video games arise out of an alienating neoliberal logic, how can they also serve as a method of critique and experimentation? It’s here that Jagoda produces some of his most dazzling and thoughtful analyses of the ways in which games can work on us, and in which we can reciprocally work on games.


Neoliberal gamification relies on a logic of gratification. The player is made to understand their goals and the means at their disposal for achieving those goals. They then execute the operations that satisfy the goals set for them, resulting in the spike of pleasure so often felt with achievement, no matter how minuscule or insignificant. The player is made to feel that they accomplished something. Input produces output. Problem is met with solution, whereafter the problem itself is dissolved.


But for Jagoda, the experimental potential of video games exists in the relational interval between the set of rules that circumscribe the scope of the game and the ludic (or “playful”) potentiality that makes the actual playing of the game into an event. On this model of “experiment,” one does not engage in trial-and-error manipulations until a predetermined and expected outcome is reached; instead, one plays with “a designed repetition that produces difference,” where it is the production of difference itself that is the desired outcome, a difference that can neither be entirely known nor imagined in advance. In other words, the type of experiment that games can make possible is distinct from a more familiar notion of experiment commonly used to describe the scientific method. Experiments that adhere to the scientific method are rigorously controlled, with dependent and independent variables specified, and observations recorded that serve to confirm or disconfirm an initial hypothesis. The experimental play involved with games, on the other hand, does not begin with hypotheses, nor can it identify the parameters of the experiences that it makes possible (i.e., dependent and independent variables); experimental games create an open-ended experience, allowing the player to experiment with the possibilities of experience itself and thus free the player from the confines of habit and the inertia of a stultifying common sense.


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Part II of Experimental Games focuses on four concepts, each of which has a certain sense under the neoliberal/gamified idea of games as problems to be solved, but a much more complex sense under the idea of games as makers of problems. These concepts are choice, control, difficulty, and failure. Let’s consider control, perhaps the primary modality associated with video games. Indeed, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that if you’re doing anything whatsoever with a video game, you are at least controlling it. Video games often indulge and encourage systems of control that elicit “flow” states, wherein players become absorbed by the activity of play, unreflectively reacting to events on the screen and forgetting anything outside of the game itself. Jagoda refers to this as a kind of “sovereignty” of control that manifests at the social level (where the neoliberal subject is expected to be in sole control of their fortunes) as well as the game play level (where the gamified player is expected to be a master of algorithmic systems). The supposed “meritocracy” of social life finds its analogue in the sovereign control schemes of the average mainstream video game: all the tools are there for you (it is asserted); it’s just up to you to make skillful use of them.


Video game control becomes critical and experimental, in Jagoda’s sense, when it short-circuits the feelings of mastery and power that one typically finds in the average mainstream video game. The genre known as queer games challenges the normative control mastery found in the sovereign game model, provoking feelings of uncertainty, ambivalence, discomfort, and dissociation. By decoupling control from power, they construct control as in tension with a player’s desire and understanding: they model non-sovereignty. For instance, in Liz Ryerson’s game Problem Attic, the player is never allowed to finally understand the control scheme, the level design, or even the visual organization of objects on screen. Each step on their journey — each level they complete — simply confronts them with a new set of controls, visual disorientation, and confused objectives. Players may quit the game in frustration, complaining that it is “badly made,” but such a judgment reveals a set of values of which they may be more or less conscious: that games must be fair, that they must explain themselves, that they must never arbitrarily deviate from the categories or genres of intelligibility that make them recognizable in the eyes of players who may be ideologically predisposed to affirming the legitimacy of those categories or genres. But a game like Problem Attic is an experimental game because it upsets expectations, because it forces players to experience nonnormative, nonconforming modes of being, and it dwells with the player at the ambiguous intersection of experiential flux and constructed structuration. It makes a problem that it does not solve.


The same is true for the idea of failure in video games. Failure is often used as an impediment to progress along a predefined path to victory: the player must confront some obstacle (e.g., a “boss”) and repeatedly challenge it until they’ve defeated it, at which point they can continue on to the next section of the game. For such games, failure is a state that sorts players into a privileged pair of categories under neoliberalism: winners and losers. Either the player defeats the boss, in which case she becomes a winner, or the player is herself defeated by the boss (and perhaps must start the game from the beginning or give up altogether), making her a loser. The experimental games that Jagoda analyzes treat failure less as a binary state to be avoided (no one wants to be a loser, after all) and more as a constitutive element of existence in the neoliberal social order.


The indie game Little Inferno, for example, stages the complex relationship between success and failure through manipulation of player motivation and the desire for continuous progression. In this game, players are thrust into the role of a citizen in a dystopian-futuristic society and charged with one task: order items from a catalog and burn them in their home’s fireplace. The more items the player burns, and the cleverer the combinations they find to burn them in, the more successful they are at the game. However, as the player continues to burn more and more items, they slowly discover the effects this burning is having on the outside world. Even though the player spends the majority of the game confined to the isolation of their own home, with only the fireplace and the catalog to look at or interact with, the game’s world is populated by countless unseen characters doing the exact same thing. The pollution generated by all of these characters (the player included) literally consuming their belongings in the flames is ruining the climate. Ultimately, successfully playing the game (i.e., burning the best and the most items) precipitates a larger and more significant failure: the destruction of the environment. While easy to play, the game challenges the player by making her question what it means to succeed or fail. It makes a problem by suggesting that simply following a system’s rules might not generate the positive outcomes that participants in the system expect but refuses to tell the player how to feel or think about that ambiguity.


And this is precisely the kind of experimental power that Jagoda is trying to draw out of the video game form. Video games have the striking and dangerous power to reinforce neoliberal norms of unlimited consumption, individualistic self-absorption, and zero-sum competition. But they also have the critical power to model the neoliberal social order as well as the subject position that it produces, undermining its often hypnotic allure. As a media form, video games are situated at the interface between the subjective/personal and the social/communal; they are the product of a certain historical and political moment, and they embody its logic. But they also have the potential to lay bare the contradictions and distortions of neoliberal subjectivity. The great hope of game designers/players/lovers is that this potential is realized. My great hope is that they do so with and through this exceptional book.


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Andrew Fleshman is a PhD student in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Los Angeles.