Alexander R. Galloway


Assistant professor in the Department of Culture and Communications, New York University

There are two alternatives today for a “counter gaming” aesthetic: negation or deprivation. With negation, the game is stripped of all possibilities of game play, left to lapse back to other media altogether (video, animation). With deprivation, the game is censored and scolded, allowed to continue to play, but only in an enlightened or “self-aware” mode. Cory Arcangel and PaperRad’s “Super Mario Movie” is a negation; Eddo Stern’s “Darkgame” is a deprivation. Brody Condon’s “650 Polygon John Carmack” is a negation; Julian Oliver’s “2nd Person Shooter” is a deprivation. The fi rst is play’s destruction, while the second is play’s revision.In either mode, the very essence of what makes a game a game is withheld, deferred either for all time, or just for a moment. “I love to put the things I love in extreme peril,” wrote the artist Jean Dubuffet. “It is only at the point of failure that the thing reveals itself.” In a game, what else but fun itself can be subjected to failure? Can we blame the artist who wishes to destroy fun entirely? Deprivation blows gently in one direction, but negation carries the failure to the end of the line. Both modes are glorious, even if they are trapped within a spiral of selfcontradiction. One must never forget that there is an important utopian possibility contained within any type of aesthetic failure. Or as Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in his “Discourse on the Arts and Sciences” of 1750: failure has an infi nity of forms, but the truth is singular. Today one should take this as a celebration, not a lament. Unfun has an infi nity of forms.These artists reveal software’s essential paradox: source code as a medium is unable to mediate as such and thus negates and resolves itself into other forms (the interface, the executable, the game, the website). This is what one might call, following a suggestion from Eugene Thacker, the occult logic of software. Code hides itself in the very act of consummating its own expression. A game expends itself in the very act of its being played.And so the game retreats from its own essence. But only in such a way as to be more true than the essence could ever be. The mystical shell (game) obfuscates the rational kernel (play). The paratextual is the treason of the textual. As interface, software does the same thing. The nondiegetic apparatus is inferior to the diegetic narrative. The artifi cial is false; but the real is true.Or no, this is not the case with software. The artifi cial is, with software, if not true then at least actual. It is a question of simulation and symbolic economies. Are not such simulations allowed to be actual if not actually real? For the “real” real is always someplace else – offl ine.This is not to say that Joane Leandre or Mary Flanagan are lying to us in their artwork; this is not a conspiracy theory. It goes something like this: software is a technological apparatus that knows it is true that it is false. This puts software in a special category, related to but not quite the same as a number of sibling concepts such as the commodity or the unconscious. The commodity, an apparatus that is internally false but does not know it is false; the unconscious, false if and only if the subject recognizes it as true. The commodity, a true object that must be transformed into a mystery. The unconscious, a true mystery that must be transformed into an object. With software it is a mixture. Software is false, but only in a truthful way.As Slavoj Žižek says about ideology: No, I don’t believe in it, but I was told that it works even if you don’t believe in it.So the problem is not with us. We do not “misrecognize” the game. The problem is how the game speaks about itself. Unfun is falsity, but always truthfully so.With videogames one often speaks using the language of the “magic circle.” This rhetoric positions games as fi ctional, ritualistic spaces where hypothetical fantasies may be explored without risk of real life damage – of course we do not really want to kill people, even if we play violent games, and so on. But games and software are not a question of the “magic circle.” It is precisely the opposite. The offline, non-gamic world is the magic circle, and the experience of software is the real. The offl ine is an elaborate fi ction that must be propped up at all costs. Play is the real, and normal life is the suspension of play into all of the forms of social stratifi cation and reifi cation. Play is not a suspension of normal life. It is the other way around: the world today is a suspension of normal life. Play exists as play only to convince us that this life is real. This is what Jacques Lacan meant when he said that the truth has a structure of a fi ction. Again, software knows it is true that it is false.So in negation and deprivation, the counter-gaming aesthetic of Brody Condon, or Joane Leandre, or Eddo Stern reveals software culture as it actually is. Unfun is a revealing. It reveals the essence of the game as something withheld. Microsoft Word is not “software” in this strict sense, only some strange perversion of it. Joane Leandre’s work is software because it realizes the essential gap that exists within any technological system. And the gap is not denied in his work; it is accentuated and extended, becoming coterminous with the medium itself.But there is a third way, always a third way. It is pure joy: “The Endless Forest.” With the work of Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn there is no hint of negation, nor deprivation in any form. It is a dream of the Eden garden before the fall, a vision of art as communion. The game is life and beauty, a fantasy exchange in a forest beyond, connected in a living environment of many souls distributed across as many worlds.