Right now I am reading through chapter 8 of Bogost’s Unit Operations. I have to say that this chapter is fucking amazing. I’m particular fascinated with the section entitled “Biased Videogames”. There Bogost discusses video games that don’t simply aim to be “fun”, but which also aim at a sort of pedagogy. Through the exploration of a world and the consequences produced by actions, players are able to explore the implications of their own ideologies and positions. At the outset of the section, Bogost gives the following example:
In late 2003, Gonzolo Frasca released a small Web-based game called September 12, the first in a series he calls Newsgaming. The Newsgaming series is an attempt to make social and political statements with games, much like political cartoons. September 12 is a very simple game; it depicts a Middle Eastern town, rendered in colorful cartoonlike detail. People wander around the town by foot; a few of these people are terrorists. The player controls a reticle on the screen, which can be moved around to target terrorists. Clicking the mouse sends a missile to the selected target, after a short time delay. Missiles wreak significant damage, and each missile destroys not only the targeted terrorist (if the player's timing is right), but also any nearby buildings and innocent people. When innocents die, surrounding people mourn over the body and then turn into terrorists themselves. The game's message is simple: bombing towns is not a viable response to the terrorist threat; it begets more violence. (119)
Bogost also provides examples of more complex simulatations such as Balance of the Planet which allows you to explore the various consequences of different educational policies, and Sim Health which allows you to model health care systems. What I find so fascinating about these games is the way in which they allow you to explore the consequences or effects of ideologies, positions, and practices. To be sure, we should maintain a critical attitude towards simulations, but simulations are also one venue in which we can explore our world and how it relates to our positions.
In the domain of rhetoric, I’ve often wondered why people often are unpersuaded by arguments. Perhaps part of the reason here is that argument occurs purely at the discursive level where every position appears just as defensible as the other. Games such as the ones described above suggest the possibility of a rhetorical space of persuasion where beliefs might begin undergoing transformation as a result of exploring what follows from them.
In this connection, Sim City played a key role in bringing me around to object-oriented ontology. To be sure, my discussions with Graham played a significant role as well and Harman provided me with a conceptual space for thinking these things. However, in my brief encounter with Sim City I discovered what a big difference the placement of a road, the presence or absence of power factories, telephone lines, etc., make in the world. If these things aren’t done correctly, the population of your town begins to riot or leave, you lose tax money, traffic jams and power outages ensue, unemployment rises, etc. At the time I was in the midst of my heaviest Lacanian phase, interpreting all phenomena in the world in terms of the signifier and twists in the real (often when I rail against the linguistic and semiotic turn I’m arguing against myself). What I learned from Sim City was that there’s a whole set of phenomena that plays a role in how humans come together or fall apart that can’t be accounted for in terms of representations, ideologies, the signifier, artifacts, etc. At that point I realized I needed an ontology capable of accounting for both the semiotic and these nonhuman actors. Harman to the rescue.
In a recent article Latour has contrasted composition with critique. Critique occurs purely at the discursive level, unveiling the manner in which agents have been duped by a set of mistaken propositional attitudes. By contrast, composition is the hard work of building something, of grappling with strange strangers, and, consequently, of encountering how entities resist. Composition involves mucking about with a medium. Unlike Plato’s Demiurge that freely imposes form on unformed matter, composition always involves the other making contributions such that no work can be attributed to any one agency. Games such as the ones Ian describes are one example of compositionalist practice. In these sorts of games we encounter the aleatory manner in which the world always responds to our acts, our intentions, our signs, our practices. This is precisely what fails to appear in the work of critique.