The Counterintuition of Countergaming: Active Play

Reading Alexander R. Galloway’s Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture (2006), I felt a moment of serendipity in his chapter “Countergaming” as a space to continue thinking about materiality in digital games/play, in troubling (or blurring or extending or making permeable) the magic circle (the place/time created by a game for the game to take place), and how play affects and is affected by the materiality of digital games. I found myself thinking back to notes I jotted during our class discussion last week on Juul and Wardrip-Fruin and our recounts of playing Agricola; much of our conversation was on the visibility of player agency in the game or the materials of the game—agency is registered by us, the player, when we can see effects on the environment/materials resultant of our choices or nonchoices. I found myself thinking of play, as a result of this conversation, as differing in its intent—play as doing (exploring possibility) play as progress (perfecting skill with mastery/winning in mind). I don’t necessarily think of these as mutually exclusive, in fact, I imagine they are happening as a sort of hybridity. This made me think of a similar distinction of the concept invention in rhetoric in which invention can be hermeneutic (for some thing, an end in mind; ends) versus algorithmic (ongoing; that which seeks possibility in the adjacent). This brought pause as I thought about how I was defining materiality and material to myself, wondering if my interest in the material wasn’t counter-productive to other material interests in game studies (lately I have felt as if my interest in making is actually one in breaking). I don’t know how to define materiality for myself yet, but I root it in the possibility to act/affect. Galloway opens his book with the following quote by Gilles Deleuze from “Intellectuals and Power”

Representation no longer exists; there’s only action.

Action: the capacity to act; the possibility in action, and with action comes the possibility for counteraction. Galloway begins his chapter on “Countergaming” by describing the different ways a game can be modified (or mode(i)fied: an action to come back to) to disrupt the intuitive flow of gameplay: at the level of its visual design (characters, maps, artwork); at the level of the rules of the game (what the repercussions of gamic acts are); at the level of its software technology (game physics, character behavior) (108). Borrowing from Peter Wollen’s seven theses on counter-cinema, Galloway lays out five formal differences between gaming and countergaming:

  1. transparency versus foregrounding: removing the apparatus from the image versus interplay of graphics apparatus displayed without representational imagery
  2. gameplay versus aestheticism: narrative gameplay based on a coherent rule set versus formal experiments
  3. representational modeling versus visual artifacts: mimetic modeling of objects versus glitches and unexpected products
  4. natural physics versus invented physics: Newtonian laws of motion versus incoherent physical laws
  5. interactivity versus noncorrespondence: predictable linkage between controller input and gameplay versus barriers between controller input and gameplay

What is of interest in exploring these further is that these need not fall stray from game/play into art, but can change the way in which materials can act and are interacted with/through.

Videos: Jodi SOD mod of Wolfenstein 3D (top) and Wolfenstein 3D (bottom)

How might mods modify what we think of as a game space? How might they influence the magic circle of play? Or mode(i)fy the space between player/environment and game/system/environment? Does Galloway’s countergaming allow for a more object oriented look at play—one that doesn’t create a new ontological status of materials that overshadow the player, but instead modify how we conceptualize players and space/objects? Does looking at materiality through a lens of counter- afford a different look at the action of play as algorithmic instead of hermeneutic?

I don’t have answers for these many questions, only possibility space. Galloway ends this chapter and his book with the possibility that countergaming can create:

Countergaming is an unrealized project…there will be a whole language of play, radical and new, that will transform the countergaming movement, just as Godard did to the cinema, or Deleuze did to philosophy, or Duchamp did to the art object. And more importantly, artist-made game mods will be able to resolve the essential contradiction of their existence thus far: that they have sought largely to remove their own gameplay and lapse back to other media entirely (animation, video, painting). This will be a realization of countergaming as gaming

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