Playing with non-humans: digital games as technocultural form

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technoculture, digital games, videogames, game studies, actor-network theory, cyberculture, ALife, artificial life, simulation
cultural studies, media studies, new media studies

The relationship between the human and the technological has been a persistent concern in the dramas and images of digital games. Gameworlds are populated with mutants, cyborgs, robots and computer networks – avatars are augmented with headup displays, exoskeletons and impossible weaponry. Yet in significant ways digital games can be seen not only as representations of a putative future technoculture – as a technological imaginary of new media - but also as actual instances of a technoculture here and now. To play a digital game is to plug oneself into a cybernetic circuit. Any particular game-event is realised through feedback between computer components, human perception, imagination and motor skills, and software elements from virtual environments to intelligent agents. This cybercultural language has been regarded with some suspicion within the humanities and social sciences. For intellectual traditions founded on social constructivism any sense of technological determinism is problematic – historical and cultural agency, it is presumed, resides solely in the human and the social. This paper will argue that a full understanding of both the playing of digital games, and the wider techno-cultural context of this play, is only possible through a recognition and theorisation of technological agency. The paper will draw in particular on theoretical positions developed within the Sociology of Science and Technology and Actor-Network Theory (ANT) to explore how social constructivism might be challenged by the consideration of what Bruno Latour calls ‘the missing masses’ - the mass of non-human devices and objects that, he asserts, make up the 'dark matter' of society. These masses are unobservable using established sociological lenses, but are theoretically necessary to the existence of human relationships and activities (Latour 1991). Whilst actor-network theory is concerned with artefacts, agents and networks from transport and health systems to road furniture and allergies, this paper will argue that digital game play – given its centrality to the development and dissemination of popular computer hardware, software and cultural practices - is a privileged, paradigmatic instance of an emergent digital popular technoculture (Turkle 1984). In these terms digital game play is a vivid instantiation of Donna Haraway’s figurative cyborg: an ambiguous and monstrous intimacy between the human and organic and the technological and inorganic (Haraway 1990). Digital games aestheticise this cyborg world, but they also realise it: this is an aesthetics of control and agency (or the loss of these) through immersive, embodied pleasures and anxieties; rather than (just) of dramatic scenarios and screen-presented action (Friedman 1999, Lahti 2003). The common experience of digital game play as characterised by the loss of distinction between game, software, machine and player, resonates with the ANT critique of the ‘object hypothesis’ (that entities are bounded, and discrete from other entities and their environment) (Woolgar 1991). Of the boundaries under threat, perhaps the most significant is that between subject and object – precisely the boundary that digital game play transgresses. The playing of the GameBoy Advance game Advance Wars 2 will be analysed, identifying the diverse agencies and valencies of elements or nodes in its circuit – player, console, and software. The latter will also be analysed as itself an actor-network – of algorithms, simulation and cellular automata. The implications for established analytical terms and boundaries in the study of the consumption of popular media will be addressed. Firstly: how is the user/player ‘configured’ (Woolgar 1991). Secondly: what are the subjects and objects of this simulation-conflict between cellular automata? Digital game studies has yet to engage with a sustained debate on the implications of its fundamentally technologically based foundation – i.e. the ‘digitality’ of digital games. This paper calls for such a debate and offers some initial thoughts on issues and directions. References Friedman, Ted (1999) ‘Civilisation and its Discontents: Simulation, Subjectivity, and Space’, in Greg Smith (ed.) On a Silver Platter: CD-ROMs and the Promises of a New Technology, New York: New York University Press: 132-150. Haraway, Donna (1990) ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s’, in Linda J. Nicholson (ed.) Feminism / Postmodernism, London: Routledge Kember, Sarah (2003) Cyberfeminism and Artificial Life, London: Routledge Lahti, Marti (2003) ‘As we become machines: corporealized pleasures in video games’, in Mark JP Wolf & Bernard Perron (eds) The Video Game Theory Reader, London: Routledge: 157-170 Latour, Bruno (1991) "Technology is society made durable"

Contact: Seth Giddings, School of Cultural Studies, University of the West of Englan,
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