Give Our Regards To the Atomsmashers
Gaming Matters: Art, Science, Magic, and the Computer Game Medium
by Judd Ethan Ruggill and Ken S. McAllister
University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, AL, 2011
155 pp. Trade, $35.00; eBook, $28.00
ISBN: 978-081731737-9; ISBN: 978-0-8173-8559-0.
Reviewed by John F. Barber
The Creative Media & Digital Culture Program
Washington State University Vancouver
As one of the most powerful cultural forces in the United States since the mid-1970s, computer games have long been debated and theorized from a wide range of rhetorical perspectives. Further discussion on every front quickly assumes an irreconcilable quality similar to M.C. Escher's 1953 lithographic print "Relativity" with its series of ascending and descending stairs infinitely looping one into the other. The result is a much better understanding of what such games are in their concrete, distilled sense as well as a vision of what they may be in their grandest, most abstract sense––but little has worked in the past to link the two together.
Judd Ethan Ruggill and Ken S. McAllister seek to address this gap in their book Gaming Matters: Art, Science, Magic, and the Computer Game Medium by arguing for a game medium as the preferred focus of inquiry and, then, seeking to detail the specific features that give rise to computer games that are both similar and diverse within this medium. Their approach makes sense for both those new to the study of computer games as well as those seeking a fresh approach to old ideas.
Ruggill and McAllister establish a variable set of skills, habits, techniques, codes, conventions, and the constantly shifting articulations between them as the basis for a computer game medium. Although games are rule based, there are no inviolable, universal rules for designing and building them. The medium is plastic, limited only by taste, technology, and imagination. The structure, meanings, and experiences of computer games are discrete and peculiar, specific and ambiguous. "Quintessentially transdisciplinary," say Ruggill and McAllister, the computer game medium "sits at the nexus of engineering, mathematics, hermeneutics, logic, kinesthesia, narratology, performativity, art, and many other ways of seeing, understanding, and interacting". This multiplicity of perspectives makes computer games "synergistic artifacts whose nuance really only begins to make sense when approached in kind" (3).
Ruggill and McAllister propose seven qualities—idiosyncrasy, irreconcilability, aimlessness, anachronism, duplicity, work, and alchemy—as fundamental to the creation of a staggering array of computer games that are at once diverse yet consistent. Devoting a chapter to each quality, the authors probe critical, cultural, technical, economic, artistic, and scientific underpinnings in order to capture the complexity and diversity that facilitates the practice of each in computer game culture.
In the first chapter, "Idiosyncrasy," they argue that computer games are complex, engaging both human players who play them and the machines on which they are played in nested and multifarious ways. The result is that computer games are idiosyncratic and difficult to apprehend through singular or specific ways of seeing.
The "Irreconcilability" chapter explores the complex and often conflicting discourse(s) surrounding the development, play, and analysis of computer games, arguing that this multiplicity of attempts at explanation by developers, players, and scholars to talk to one another is often unsuccessful because the very terms used for such discussions, even those widely used like "genre" and "style," disintegrate when examined closely.
The "Aimlessness" chapter argues that computer games are essentially boring. Computer games and their developers must constantly provoke ("hail") players into action. Thus, players not only play computer games, but also are played by them in turn. This insistency is what drives gameplay and what keeps players interested and immersed. This prompting is, on one hand, interesting and worthy as a quality of computer games. On the other hand, it is not always precise, or successful.
The "Anachronism" chapter argues that while there is a future and past to game development, there is virtually no present. A short shelf life and long development cycles conspire to prevent games to be built using current cultural trends or technology. Instead, developers strike a balance between the past and future, relying on play objectives that can be traced back to ancient games such as chess, hide-and-seek, and go and massive promotional campaigns to assure that such compromises are well received by consumers.
In the chapter devoted to "Duplicity," Ruggill and McAllister argue that computer games are "dependent on rhetorics of truth despite being determined by fictions, fantasies, and lies" (6). For example, both game hardware and software is purposefully designed to as to appear simple and seamless, thus masking the complexity that lies below the interface. Such duplicity, they argue, serves a controlling function as an element of computer game design with regard to the "technical design, industrial and interface design, game design, industry practices, and scholarship" (11).
The "Work" chapter argues that computer games are better understood as work than play in that it is the work of developers, players, and scholars, as well as audiovisual and kinesthetic technologies that ultimately constitute the computer game medium.
The final chapter, "Alchemy," argues that the computer game medium can only be understood momentarily, tangentially, because of the speed and complexity with which it changes. The medium is thus enigmatic, unpredictable, and evanescent despite seeming mechanical, evident, and predictable. This suggests a number of ways—technology, art, discourse, science, and magic—that computer games can be studied.
The overall approach of Gaming Matters: Art, Science, Magic, and the Computer Game Medium is to promote a sustained and cohesive theoretical examination of the constitutive elements and meaning making process in the computer game medium. Ruggill and McAllister are careful to note that the qualities of computer games they probe can be shared to some degree by other media, but rather than a comparative study, they seek a concentrated one and in this sense their book is both stimulating and informative, contributing to ongoing discussions and debates about computer games, perhaps moving forward some that have stalled.