Ludopolitics: Videogames Against Control
John Hunt Publishing, Alresford, UK, 2018
We’ve never lived in a better worse moment for politics in gaming. Worse in the sense that mass layoffs, union busting, and the leftover gg trash pockmark the landscape like a bad skincare routine, and best in that now is the moment where taking a stand is starting to show its payoff. Game Workers Unite is gaining steam, Queer indie devs and Queer Game Studies are making bigger impacts on the industry and academia, and theorizing the politics of games is a scaffolding taking the shape of a space in which we can all find room. Coeval to this dialectical change is Liam Mitchell’s Ludopolitics: Videogames Against Control published in 2018 by Zero Books.
Mitchell opens with a compelling observation: video games, in a way not paralleled, by any other media, offer us control over our world. Pausing, saving, resetting, and even a “defiance of death” are exercises in maximized control. Mitchel contrasts that code which undergirds video games with the “codes,” de facto and de judo, that govern our everyday lives—Aggressive Architecture and Internet Protocol being key examples. The text ultimately poses the question: What does our hyper focus on ludic control say about our present moment?
If the phrase “the Hobbesian conflict of digital-political control in a post-Stuxnet world” ever summarized anything that would be both intensely cool and an accurate portrayal of Mitchell’s first chapter. Here Mitchell attacks the conceptual framework of algorithmic control with the Suitsian Trifler. While our lives become increasingly guided by the cybernetic hand of algorithms, there are those that trifle with these seemingly immutable cyber structures in the same manner that they might trifle with games. Hackers mute the immutable and trifle with the sanctity of code—whether the video-ludic or legislative. Mitchell goes on to suggest that if gaming can be built upon the rigidity of code and the fundamental truth of game mastery, it could also be designed against it.
Mitchell takes an innovative approach with the explication games in his text. Rather than using a solely narratological framework, Mitchell instead shifts the focus to be dominantly ludological. Mitchell opens chapter two with a discussion of the ludonarrative dissonance inherent in some games ostensibly designed to question control. Notably, he remarks that Fallout 3’s design decision to “systematize choice” in the manner it did ultimately recreates a morality that resembles the dominant power structure, rather than confronting it. He goes on to contrast this with Undertale, which by systematizing morality in a more nuanced way, undermines player control and represents a challenge to the kyriarchy.
Resisting systemic control may seem paradoxical in the context of video games regulated by strict and immobile code, but code is not as unmovable as it would appear. Mitchell spends the latter half of the book in a discussion with the political implications of data mining and speed running. While conventional play yields conventional results, these triflers convert gaming into true meta-gaming by playing, Mitchell writes, with the code—rather than under it. Super Mario, Undertale, and countless other games have a devoted fanbase of players actively breaking the politics of control.
Ultimately, video-ludic control is an artists tool and like any tool used without concern it tends to reflect the dominant cultural modes. Without concern, these reflections encode and stabilize the violent modes of control our society. When used with intention, they can challenge and break down systems of control. Ludopolitics: Video Games Against Control parses the complicated and under-explored nature of control in games. This text helps blaze the path out of the dark and to a more politically conscious gaming. The only meaningful choice is: Will you read it?
On a more critical note, I have to lower the score for “videogames” and not the far superior “video games.” #videospacegames