On Not Gaming
Art by Martin Mbuguah (IG: @toskago)
Open the source code on any webpage and you come upon a very complicated poem – you come upon the infinite, essentially, its multiverse of options.
During lockdown I’ve slipped into a state I’ll tentatively call ‘post-gaming’. Which is to say, I’m unable to play games because of financial and technological restrictions (I only have a laptop, and am unemployed at the time of writing), yet find myself immersed in video game culture, but feeling I don’t have the ‘credentials’ to be a participant.
Yes, reader, I am but a gamer in name only… a dilettante of the Gamer Code… on the one hand, this is absurd for me to believe. I do play with games when I have the time, indie ones primarily, the games which are taking the most exciting risks (I’m currently ploughing through Hylics 2). But when it comes to the full spectrum of gaming, from mainstream consoles to MMOs to mobile apps, I don’t engage with the whole as much. Maybe this is the kind of identity crisis the film buff feels when browsing Criterion Channel, or how the bibliophile feels in a bookshop, or the yearning of a theatre kid who isn’t from London or New York; that kind of overwhelm. Maybe this is a case of nostalgia – are my childhood memories of gaming (hunched over my DS immersed in Pokémon Ranger/Diamond or Animal Crossing or WarioWare, or battling through LEGO Star Wars on my brother’s PS2, or cartwheeling through Super Mario Galaxy by shaking my Wii remote like a madman) what makes me feel this kind of yearning?
Either way, the condition persists, because I have this firm foot planted in the wider video game culture, a culture rooted in the internet. I watch analyses of game mechanics on YouTube, documentaries on game history or development too, video-essays on labour unions in the industry, developer’s coding diaries, how-to-hack/decompile game data, Twitch streams, Giant Bomb podcasts, Brian David Gilbert’s latest masterpiece… but of all the games discussed in these videos, I have probably only ever played a handful of them. If our usual froth, that time of the day where we allow our brain to become a pink fungus, to decompress, used to be television, then these screen cultures have become the replacement. This ambience, this passive-active hum, proliferates and multiplies through the digital; content engaging with texts but not the texts proper.
This is part of a multiversal turn in gaming. In regards to distribution, streaming services such as Playstation Now, Google Stadia and Xbox Game Pass now provide an alternative to physical disc ownership, a kind of unlimited flitting between innumerable crafted worlds and ludic systems, for the same price as Netflix. In terms of design choices, meanwhile, Sony’s PS5 announcement back in June premiered in-progress footage of Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart, a game which involves the titular characters jumping and falling and leaping between purple portals, flicking through a variety of dimensions in seconds. Other contemporary games with similar mechanics include Quantum League, The Medium and Deathloop.
Whether this is the cultural knock-on effect of Rick and Morty’s runaway success, or the result of a more poignant contemporary condition, or both, is still to be seen, but it seems to be here for the current moment. And as in the art, so too the surrounding culture – my engagement with this idiom has become multiversal, like any time spent on the internet. Most people online are never situated in one place, one website; there are usually ten tabs open at once, ten chronologies, tonal shifts and different aesthetics and competing interactions with each click. As Rebecca Gill writes, the desktop is a place where “each thought is hashed out, half-formed and sequestered into folders, deposits of data that collect under the keyboard as folds of code”. If the 20th century was jagged, the 21st is told in glimmers, not fragments. Plural voices, simultaneous, shift as subtle as hues along Photoshop’s colour-wheel, flashes between wholes with soft boundaries, the transition between parts so smooth it occurs subconsciously. We fall through portals a thousand times a day without realising, especially in lockdown where the internet has become our primary locus of contact, since the alternative is currently preoccupied with dystopic dalliances, like the pandemic (a bleak stratification of human society Death Stranding, the Ulysses of gaming (one is very long, very difficult and very ambitious; the other is by some Irish guy), predicted a year before).
The multiverse is the slant cousin of sci-fi settings in that it offers the most abstraction; the multiverse literally defines the infinite as the playing field. In stories with different dimensions or alternative timelines, the author can expand beyond a single character’s decisions, or even clone a character or augment, modulating towards complexity and reward. So too the player – choice is the central tenet of a player’s experience with a game, and the radical quality of video games is their interactivity. Each game constitutes a billion, in this sense; the shift to open-world environments (as in Horizon Zero Dawn or Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild) is symptomatic of this. Here creators – no longer singular, either, as most games are created in collaboration (though auteurs like Toby Fox, Jason Roberts and Daisuke Amaya do exist) – cede control to the infinite variety of audience reaction, from thwarting initial vision in fanfictions, to custom Mario Kart courses, to Clone Hero, to Mario Maker, to Super Mario Odyssey edits, to the endless tessellation of Nintendo 64 hacks, to speed-runs and their poetic breakage (the opening of a skybox, bouncing over the unloaded exoskeletons and framework and unasserted foam and structure of AAA productions). Here the limits of nostalgia open to infinite avenues, nostalgia itself a kind of multiverse.
Sure, this kind of multiversity has been around since the 60’s, but the internet exacerbates the condition. Speed-runs are a good example of this. Attempting to finish a game as quickly as possible, both as humanely possible and also with AI assistance (TAS), unlocks an even wider multiversal truth in the artform, by breaking the very diegesis of the video game for an extraneous goal. In the e-sport of speed-running ‘cheating’ is not objectively defined, unlike in real-life sport where, because the rules are fiat, breaking them has to be cheating, unless an institution/sports body legislates a change of rules. In speed-running, however, the competition’s rules are internally imposed, and evolve depending on the discovery/perishing of glitches. The “objective” video-game rules (i.e. hard code) are an ontological constant that does not exist on the football pitch, where the rules exist because millions believe in them, the most laddish example of the Tinkerbell Effect. The playing experience itself splits and multiplies in just one text – you can sink over thirty hours into Skyrim, collecting every alchemical herb or reading up on the lore, or finish the epic in fitty minutes.
Like any shameless frustrated graduate worth their title, let me paraphrase Derrida. If that Frenchman’s infamous topos “there is nothing outside the text” was meant to be taken metaphorically, in the world(s) of the digital it becomes literal. Code is ‘architextual’; from text comes signals which build visuals, text masquerading as reality, textual reality that interferes with its own construction. Open the source code on any webpage and you come upon a very complicated poem – you come upon the infinite, essentially, its multiverse of options.
So what does it mean to define gaming apophatically, i.e. to be in this weird limbo state of post-gaming? It means that in a world built on violence (violence in the widest term, violence as denying choice, a world currently flexing said violence to new horrifying levels) there is the desire for choice, the desire to explore alternatives in the infinite proffered by the digital, from the infinitude of video games to the potential for socialism or anti-racist liberation or anything-but-this in the democratisation of reading lists, a multiverse of theoretical PDFs once rooted in the academy, but no longer. The loading of new worlds, always, even when direct engagement is denied, the thrum of that work.
Please buy me a Nintendo Switch, dear reader.