Tag Archives: procedural rhetoric

ENG 730: Play, Agency, and Activism

My main takeaway from this week’s readings concerns questions of agency. More specifically, I saw the possible tension between the human players and the nonhuman elements of the game through its rules or “procedural rhetoric.” This is the more localized interaction of agency. But, in a broader sense, one also has the agency of the designer, perhaps distributed into the game, and the agency of the larger ideologies and structures that further inform the designer.

Rather than a “magic circle” outside or “ordinary life,” as Huizinga would see it, playing a game is more of a crossroads or gathering where human and nonhuman open up a particular form of interacting, an “assemblage,” to use Deleuze and Guattari’s term, where larger experiences and practices may emerge and where the constitutive components, themselves, may also change. I want to argue more what I mean below, but first a quick note on agency.

I’m using agency here in the way that people like Bruno Latour, John Law, and Michel Callon have taken it up in work in Actor-Network Theory.  In this outlook, agency is more about the possibility of acting and interacting in the world a  certain way. Different actors have different possible actions, sometimes passive or active, sometimes sentient or insentient. A mug can hold liquids. A dog can bark or run. A human can generally perform a whole range of actions. And as different actors interact, link up, or break apart, argues Latour, both new actions, situations, materials, relations, etc., arise.

His famous gun example makes this clear. A gun alone cannot do much, though it can shine or exert weight on a table. Similarly, a human without a gun can’t shoot anyone, though they have a considerable array of possible actions. In order to shoot, the human must grab the gun, creating a gun-human hybrid, then decide to shoot.

Through this framework, I think one can see that the agency of the game rules presents a certain experience when the human players interact. But this agency is fraught and contested, and as Bogost and Flanagan discuss, it can be used for different things.

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Civilization, Ideology, and Informatic Control

One of the elements I find most interesting is the distinction between ideological critique and the algorithm, which Galloway, in particular, describes, but also seems to inform Friedman.

When describing playing Civilization, Galloway notes the “soft racism” and questionable God view that informs the game, like the problematic “attributes” given to civilizations–like how the Aztecs aren’t “industrial–or the absence and simplification of many civilizations. To Civilization‘s defense, subsequent additions have addressed some of these issues, like the inclusion of more civilizations, like Polynesia, and dropping essentialist attributes for more civilization-specific qualities.  But, things like the progress narrative, the valuing of military dominance, the potential simplification of ethnicities, and the role of commerce and territory still pose potential problems, ripe for ideological critiques.

Galloway moves from this into what he calls the “third level” of critique, “informatic critique,” which he describes as a “formal critique rooted in the core principles of informatics that serve as the foundation of the gaming format” (99). He asks, “whether it [Civilization] embodies the logic of informatic control itself” (101). Though I still had some trouble ultimately figuring out what Galloway meant by this, I think it reflects the way a phenomenon gets enacted by a computational system.

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