Space Wars

Jamie Sutcliffe argues that virtual technologies offer only a fantasy of freedom

Can artists who repurpose video games, such as Larry Achiampong and David Blandy, Aiden Wall and Angela Washko, connect the virtual with the real to create an equal plane accessible to all?

In his recent book A Prehistory of the Cloud, the network engineer, poet and theorist Tung-Hui Hu recounts a peculiar moment from the formative days of the digital revolution that casts work and play as surprising bedfellows. Hu sets the scene: it’s October 1972 and Stanford University is entertaining a journalist from Rolling Stone magazine as researchers unveil a technological breakthrough. These were the days when computers ‘filled entire rooms’, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to manufacture and maintain, and handled their workload through ‘batch processing’ – that is, the time-consuming linear analysis of bundled data submitted by numerous users. What the engineers in the Stanford labs were keen to demonstrate was a simple video game entitled Spacewar!, a visually primitive simulation of intergalactic conflict originally developed in 1962 in which players were seen to pilot spacecraft, plant mines and fire photon torpedoes. It wasn’t the content or form of the game that were important, however, but the use to which it was being put as a demonstration of ‘time-sharing’, an unprecedented mode of computational labour in which unique tasks submitted by multiple users were apparently processed simultaneously. In this moment, with games being played on the boss’s time, the modern ‘user’ appears to have been born.

The point of the anecdote for Hu is that the ‘user’ is not a natural phenomenon. What we might take for granted as the liberties accorded to us by the use of personal computers, tablets and handheld devices are in fact a fantasy of freedom underpinned by the ideological and material infrastructures of a technological evolution that has sought to maximise productivity, incentivise performance and mine data. The user internalises a model of individuality and entitlement that is predicated by the agency that they feel themselves to have been accorded within a digital network. While the role of Spacewar! in the creation of what is perhaps the most ubiquitous subject position of our time is momentary, it is interesting to think about the history of the private user that it delineates in advance of the release of No Man’s Sky, 2016, a piece of software that is already making headlines for its scale (it will be able to generate algorithmically a constellation of 18 quintillion planets for virtual exploration). Created by Hello Games, a UK-based developer, No Man’s Sky updates the basic premise of Stanford labs’ crudely rendered space-simulator – starships and lasers – and extends it in a tech-sublime demonstration of near-hubristic ambition, through a global entertainment network of players populating the same vast universe.

Earlier this year I attended a screening at Toynbee Studios organised by the artists Larry Achiampong and David Blandy in which a selection of films by Hannah Black, Evan Ifekoya and Harold Offeh, among others, were screened to raise discussion around the postcolonial and the posthuman. The artists’ own film, Finding Fanon 2, 2016, built entirely with the movie-editing software of a video-game engine, prompted one audience member to raise the issue of No Man’s Sky, rightly observing the tragicomic situation in which such a supposedly remarkable advance in visual culture was being used to simulate the military violence and resource acquisition of colonial expansion. Video games and the virtual worlds they tend to create occupy an increasingly lucrative portion of the attention economy. Indeed, protocols of play appear to be migrating out of game contexts and into what Steffen P Walz and Sebastian Deterding have termed ‘the gameful world’, a recharacterisation of labour that motivates productivity with goals and achievements through a process of ‘gamification’ (Walz and Deterding cite the archetypal example of Foursquare, a ‘social, mobile, location-based’ app that rewards a user’s ‘check-ins’ at various business and leisure destinations with points, badges and prizes). Whether or not we consider ourselves to be ‘playing games’ in any strict sense, it is evident that our lives are becoming increasingly permeated by the customs suggested by them.

The boundaries between game worlds and what we might refer to as reality are porous. ‘Whether gamespace is more real or not than some other world is not the question,’ suggests the theorist McKenzie Wark, but ‘that even in its unreality it may have real effects on other worlds is.’ It seems pressing, then, to track the synthetically constructed user and the forays it might make into the virtual domains of networked play, because despite the early aspirations of cyber-utopianism with its fluid identities and refutation of property rights, game worlds are increasingly becoming sites upon which digital rights management, the monetisation of play and the heteronormative compounding of gender, race and class prejudice are experienced. Rather than simply providing vistas of playful emancipation beyond the political turbulences of so-called ‘meatspace’, these texture-mapped locales often replicate the strictures and antagonisms that confront personal freedom in offline contexts, from social territoriality to the policing and suppression of ‘non-normative’ identities.

In a brief but insightful 2014 essay entitled ‘Doss Souls: A Dossier on Speedruns, Dossing and Dark Souls’, the Dublin-based artist Aiden Wall muses on the cultural phenomenon of ‘live-streaming’ in which video games are demonstrated by individual users to an online audience. Wall observes that such activities have recently been characterised by a preoccupation for ‘speed-running’, what he refers to as an unknowingly Taylorist approach to the exploitation of a game’s structural idiosyncrasies in order to perform its completion in record time. This is a process in which the reverie and timelessness of play, what the writer Simon Parkin refers to beautifully as ‘chronoslip’, are replaced by a meticulous economy of movement and the dictates of efficiency. Wall later repurposed the text as the script for a short film bearing the same title. In it, the artist is seen to play in a similar manner, replicating the dual-screen format in which a player’s face can be seen alongside their avatar. This particular mode of address, foregrounding the recapitulation of a certain demonstration of play through the use of in-game footage, seems integral to recent approaches made by artists in articulating something of the complexities of identity-formation within gaming scenarios – specifically, the relationship between an embodied user and the digital environment they inhabit. It is a filmic language derived from game culture that lies somewhere between the ethnographic film, the film-essay and the ‘fan video’, appearing to gesture towards something like an ‘anthropology of the virtual’.

I use the phrase lightly, because an ‘anthropology of the virtual’ would imply a procedural and methodological rigour, as for example outlined by Tom Boellstorff in his fascinating book Coming of Age in Second Life, 2008/15. Supposed pinnacles of this emergent approach, however, are far from rigorous. Take for instance Jon Rafman’s now notorious Kool Aid Man in Second Life, 2008-11, a series of films, interviews and public performance lectures in which the artist undertook personally guided tours and solitary dérives through an online domain created for social use by Linden Labs in 2003. Adopting the form of the Kool Aid mascot – a portly anthropomorphised jug filled to brimming with ice cubes and glaring red beverage – Rafman would venture through breathtaking user-made domains and observe the cultures and communities he would encounter there, usually focusing on elements of sexual deviancy, ‘cosplay’ (costume play) or naive art forms. Paul O’Kane has written critically in this magazine of Rafman’s casual affiliation with romanticism (‘New Romanticism’ AM376) and it is worth drawing attention by extension to his troubling identification with the figure of the 19th-century explorer. ‘Not in a pastiche or postmodern way,’ he clarifies in an interview with Nicholas O’Brien, ‘but in a very genuine way. Kool Aid Man was my alter-ego in search of the sublime in Second Life.’

What is irksome about Rafman’s approach is the assumption he makes regarding the transparency and objectivity of the artist’s presence. In domains that are so diversely populated, idiosyncratically inhabited and territorially marshalled, his ‘point and ogle’ tourism does little to uncover anything particularly revelatory about the social underpinnings or desirous circuitries of the users who choose to spend their time there, let alone the problematic dynamic occurring between Rafman’s own content excavation and the art audience that it might be delivered to. This isn’t to suggest that his approach as a whole is flawed. The remarkable film Codes of Honor, 2011, is an incredibly elegiac meditation on game psychology, its animated protagonist traversing a cybernetic nostalgia-scape while calling to mind the physical locations, heated rivalries and minor victories that defined game culture prior to web 2.0. Still, it is interesting to compare Rafman’s reserved observations of online communities with the activities of a content creator such as DanielfromSL (Daniel from Second Life), an internet prankster whose videos Altis Cries, 2016, and BowMaster Daniels, 2015, use techniques of passivity and non-compliance facetiously to test behavioural patterns within the same communities that Rafman has located himself, frequently exposing the casual sexist, racist and homophobic language that underscores more common player dialogue than you would care to imagine.

This form of confrontation, in which a game isn’t played according to the customs commonly adhered to by its user-base but rather by a willed diversion of its structure, is a technique that has been employed to more insightful and less outwardly aggressive ends by the artist Angela Washko. The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioural Awareness in World of Warcraft, 2013-, is a series of dialogues recorded live within the most popular ‘massive multiplayer online role-playing game’ (MMORPG). In a simple but elucidating move, Washko roves the candy-coloured cities and hinterlands of the game’s fantastical universe asking various players – many of whom are not represented in human guise but as figures from mythical realms – what their initial thoughts are regarding the term ‘feminism’. This elicits a swathe of responses, from women disclosing that they play the game as male characters in order to feel less exposed to unwanted attention to some gender-biased retorts from men and teenage boys whose recourse to sexually oriented threats comes as no surprise.

Washko’s manner is discursive and non-combative, seeking to create conversational channels through which these issues may be raised and continually revisited. The exchanges are documented as short films that replay in-game conversations at breakneck speed, encouraging viewers to embrace the game interface utilised by the artist. That her investigations have played out against the backdrop of Gamergate, a sustained campaign of trolling directed towards notable female critics and developers including Anita Sarkeesian (writer and director of the documentary series ‘Tropes Vs. Women’) and Zoe Quinn (creator of Depression Quest, an independent game exploring the limitations of care available to those suffering from depression), has lent the project greater urgency. As Washko has observed, the subjects she challenges are fundamentally protected by their remoteness and anonymity, an extension of the user pathology mentioned earlier, through which a lack of accountability and an inflated sense of entitlement to a delimited arena of online experience raise urgent questions about web locality, community formation and the attendant assumptions of virtual sovereignty drawn along the lines of gender.

Harun Farocki’s Parallel I-IV, 2012-14, currently showing at the Whitechapel Gallery as an appendix to ‘Electronic Superhighway (2016-1966)’ (Reviews AM394), has a strangely hypnagogic allure and is guided by a diagnostic imperative to survey the topographies that identities like those investigated by Washko are played upon, addressing image production techniques in what Wark has usefully termed the ‘military-entertainment complex’. Its six floating back-lit screens and subdued soundtracks of glitchy bleeps are reminiscent of a defunct arcade, yet the work is saved from wistfulness by the calm affectless voice of its narrator, postulating clinically on the history of digital similitude. Each film in the series addresses a different process of 3D image generation and the ways in which these simulated artefacts and environments might be encountered by players. Parallel I, for example, takes the simulation of natural phenomena – trees, water and fire – and builds a genealogy of representation underscored by rapid technological acceleration. Trees evolve from simple line and stick formations into elaborate multi-planar assemblages blown by artificial wind patterns. This cursory lineage provides a conduit for Parallel II-IV, which develops a more complex, albeit comedically demonstrated understanding of the avatar and the range of movements it may articulate. Characters run helplessly against the invisible borders of hermetic terrains, skirting walls, tripping over. As the animated surrogate of the user, Farocki takes the avatar through a series of important interactions with margins and thresholds, testing them for fissures and breaks that could cause slips through the mesh, thus exposing the underlying structure. Allowing us to glimpse these peculiar architectures, polygonal fields suspended in an infinite expanse of nothingness, the narrator describes them wondrously as ‘islands floating in a primeval sea’. However, in the light of the recent conflicts concerning who has the right to access these virtual destinations, I am increasingly drawn to the writer Joseph Taylor MacRae’s term ‘boy islands’ as a fittingly diminutive characterisation of their parochial and defensive response to non-male outsiders. As the game developer Anna Anthropy has suggested in her wonderful book Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, 2012, the videogame industry is hermetic and homogeneous. The ‘islands’ Farocki studies could be considered the refuge of a defensive and increasingly obsolete form of masculinity.

In Achiampong and Blandy’s Finding Fanon 2, two figures fall from a placid blue sky onto the trash-cluttered streets of a desolate city. They stand, dust themselves down and begin to walk, searching for something, although it is not clear what. Made entirely within the world of Grand Theft Auto V, 2013, a game infamous for the freedom it grants its players to enact violence upon a civilian population, the film sees two characters continue their search for the lost plays of the anti-colonial writer Frantz Fanon. Fanon’s thinking on the complexities of intersectionality and the psycho-pathologies of colonisation hangs heavy in the voice of the film’s narrator, whose words constantly navigate routes between the virtual terrain of the game and the traceries of technologically appended global capital flow that enmesh the bodies of those watching. Like Farocki’s avatars, these characters determinedly trace the peripheries of their environment in search of an elusive ideal. Achiampong and Blandy are acutely aware of the ‘virtual edifices’ of wealth, nationality and property that ‘chain people to their place’, and that the stunning vistas their avatars chart are hemmed by ‘unmarked boundaries’ and ‘areas of exclusion’. Like Washko and Farocki, they don’t succumb to a naive understanding of the virtual as an innocuous domain populated by neutral agents, but instead test it for its points of tension, conflict and exclusion. That they are addressing this work to collaborators as part of their residency at Tyneside Cinema seems essential in its generation of personal narratives. In their vision, if Fanon’s proposal for a new world – an ‘equal plane’ beyond the consolidations of power enacted by colonial modernity – does exist, then it might be waiting here, ‘inside the polygons, behind the texture-maps, through the fields of algorithms, somewhere in the intersection’.

Jamie Sutcliffe is a writer and publisher based in London.

First published in Art Monthly 397: June 2016.

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