Wark on Gamer Theory

McKenzie Wark argues that digital computer games are the dominant form of cultural expression in modern times. The gamer assumes a new position in society, somewhere between subject and citizen, and the implications of this new role are profound.

Gamer theory starts with a suspension of the assumptions … that there is a more real world … somewhere, and that someone—some priest or professor—knows where it is. The gamer arrives at the beginnings of a reflective life, a gamer theory, by stepping out of [the gamespace] and returning to see it. If the game is to hold gamespace to account in terms of something other than itself, it might not be that mere shadow of a shadow of the real, murky, formless that lurks like a residue in the corners. It might instead be the game proper … . Here at least the game shows the ideal form of the algorithm. Here at least the digital logic to which gamespace merely aspires is actually realized. The challenge is—ah, but even to phrase it thus is to acknowledge the game—to play at play itself, but form within the game. The gamer as theorist has to choose between two strategies for playing against gamespace. One is to play for the real. But the real seems nothing but a heap of broken images. The other is to play for the game. Play within the game, but again gamespace. Be ludic, but also lucid.

For a gamer to be theorist might not require the ability to play any particular game especially well. The prizes have nothing to do with thinking the game. Nor might gamer theory be the ability to dismiss the game as unreal in the name of some supposedly more solidly grounded outside. What? These luminous pixels are not real, you say? Then neither is your world … . Whether gamespace is more real or not than some other world is not the question; that even in its unreality it may have real effects on other worlds is. Games are not representations of this world. They are more like allegories of a world made over as gamespace. They encode the abstract principles upon which decisions about the realness of this or that world are now decided. …

No wonder digital games are the emergent cultural form of our time. The times have themselves become just a series of less and less perfect games. …[G]ames [are presented] in a pure state, as a realm where justice—of a sort—reigns. The beginnings of a critical theory of games—a gamer theory—might lie not in holding games accountable as failed representations of the world, but quite the reverse. The world outside is a gamespace that appears as an imperfect form of the computer game … . The computer games that the gamer finds there are the ruins not of a lost past but of an impossible future. Gamespace is built on the ruins of a future it proclaims in theory yet disavows in practice. The game theorist is not out to break the game. To the extent that the gamer theorist wants to hack or “mod” the game, it is to play even more intimately within it. The point is not to reduce the game to the level of the imperfect world outside it.

Of all the kinds of belonging that contend for allegiance—as workers against the boss, as citizens against the enemy, as believers against the infidel—all now have to compete with one which make agon its first and only principle. Gamespace wants us to believe we are all nothing but gamers now, competing not against enemies of class or faith or nation but only again other gamers. A new historical personal slouches toward the ergonomic chair to be born. All of the previous such persona had many breviaries and manuals, and so on … I offer guidance for thinking within this new persona. An ABC of theory for gamers. Not a strategy guide, a cheat sheet, or a walk-through for how to improve your score or hone your trigger finger. A primer, rather, in thinking about a world made over as a gamespace, made over as an imperfect copy of the game. The game might not be utopia, but it might be the only thing left with which to play against the gamespace. …

Gamer theory is not about asserting the absolute uniqueness of games, nor about assimilating them to other forms (novel, cinema), but rather about marking the game’s difference from these forms as something that speaks to changes in the overall structure of social and technical relations. The form of the digital game is an allegory for the form of being. Games are our contemporaries, the form in which the present can be felt and, in being felt, thought through. From this vantage point, the whole of cultural history can be rethought. It is not a question of adding games as the tail end of a history of forms but of rethinking the whole of cultural history after the digital game. Play may be unthinkable, but it nevertheless has a history, and that history traverse both cultural forms and the historical form of being itself. To approach it, to think this unthinkable category of play, is to play in and against language. Gamer theory calls for concepts that make the now rather familiar world of the digital game strange again.


Wark, McKenzie. Gamer Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007, sections 019, 020, 022, 024, 225. || Amazon || WorldCat


Previous || Chapter 2: Directory || Next