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Videogames: A Quest for Preemption

by Sean Lawson

Videogames have become an increasingly prominent form of entertainment in Western nations, with profits from blockbuster videogames rivaling those from movies. But there has been no shortage of concern over their social, cultural, and even moral implications. In fact, an entire field of scholarly research — videogame studies — has developed to explore these issues. Gameplay Mode argues, however, that much of this scholarship has paid insufficient attention, first, to the role of the military and war in the development and proliferation of computer-based games and simulation and, second, to the new orientation to both space and time that videogames represent and constitute. Author Patrick Crogan argues that effective distance has become a matter of attention more than geographical space. Where time is concerned, he sees videogames changing our orientation to the past as well as the future.

Crogan argues that simulation is central to contemporary technoculture and that computers are simulation's primary technological medium. In turn, videogames are the primary manifestation of computer simulation in contemporary culture. Simulation is a "technics of anticipating what has not yet happened," about "experiment[ing] with...hypothetical futures." This encourages the "preemptive regulation of the future's emergence" (pp. xix–xx). Thus, the development and proliferation of computer games points to a societal shift from a quest for control toward a quest for preemption.

Paul Virilio's work on shifting meanings and practices of war in Western societies provides the primary theoretical foundation for Crogan's analysis. In particular, Crogan draws on Virilio's notions of "pure war" and the "logistical trajectory" of post-World War II society, including his observation that society has become a standing reserve that is always mobilized for war.

Gameplay Mode begins with an historical background, recounting Norbert Wiener's cybernetics work during World War II, the US Air Force's development of the SAGE air defense system during the 1950s, and Darpa's development of SimNet during the 1980s. Crogan argues that these developments mark the emergence of important societal "tendencies — the cybernetic, the virtualizing, and the converging of real and simulation" (pp. 17–18) — all of which remain dominant today.

Two chapters are devoted to analyzing the history and importance of flight simulators (Chapters 3 and 4), and another covers first-person shooters (Chapter 5). Crogan sees both as exemplary of logistical, cybernetic, and virtualizing tendencies.

Other chapters address key issues such as the definition and value of studying videogames (Chapter 2), the possibilities and limitations of online communities (Chapter 6), and the critical potential of videogames and simulations (Chapter 7). Crogan argues that videogames "offer a privileged avenue" for understanding society's "war on contingency" and attempts to make the future "virtually accessible to preemption" (p. 36). He rejects the claim that online interactions are not "real" because they are not geographically colocated. Instead, he argues that online interaction is the latest manifestation of human togetherness that has always been technologically mediated.

Gameplay Mode provides an important corrective to accounts that are either overly optimistic or pessimistic with regard to the actual or potential impact of computer games, simulations, and virtual worlds. Nonetheless, the text's greatest weakness is that it leaves the reader wanting more discussion on the possibility that videogames could exceed their militaristic heritage. Early in the book, Crogan argues convincingly that videogames can open a space not only for undermining society's logistical and preemptive tendencies but also for reshaping the trajectory of videogames' own future. This possibility, he says, is evident in activist interventions into the worlds of game play and production, but also in player practices such as gold farming and "modding," which subvert the intentions of corporate producers. These examples of gaming the game production system open a space for realizing a different future for videogames. Nonetheless, this theme is largely dropped and only returns again at the end of the book. Crogan ends by cautioning that change is neither automatic nor inevitable, but he does not provide an in-depth discussion of how we might find the critical potential in games and simulation.

Although I would have liked to see more from Crogan on this issue, the thoughtful analysis that he provides in Gameplay Mode positions him well for exploring the critical potential of videogames in greater detail in his future work. Anyone interested in understanding the past, present, and future potential of videogames from a critical perspective should read Gameplay Mode.

Sean Lawson is assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Utah. Contact him at sean.lawson@utah.edu. This review excerpts a longer version that appeared in IEEE Annals in Computing (July–Sept. 2012, pp. 67–68).

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