Video Games as Cybernetic Processes
I’ve just started reading “Gaming – Essays on Algorithmic Culture” by Alexander R. Galloway, which discusses video games in terms of the following diagram:
The diagram comes about by recognizing two intersecting polarities that are intrinsic to video games: the operator/machine polarity, and the diegetic/nondiegetic polarity.
In this model, the operator is defined as the video game player. The machine is the hardware and the software that creates the gaming environment. The video game only exists through the interaction of the operator and the machine. Being part human and part machine, Galloway labels them “cybernetic.”
The second polarity in Galloway’s diagram is the diegetic/nondiegetic polarity. Diegetic actions are actions that take place within the perceived reality of the video game world. Nondiegetic actions are actions that are part of the game software, but outside of the game world, such as actions to configure or control the game itself. Nondiegetic actions cannot be predicted or explained from within the reality of the game world.
Galloway’s diagram defines four quadrants useful for analyzing the gamic process: diegetic machine actions, diegetic operator actions, nondiegetic machine actions, and nondiegetic operator actions.
Diegetic machine actions take place when the game software is running, but the operator is absent. The game is in a sense “playing itself.” In the game world/reality the sun rises and sets, the tides ebb and flow, and NPCs (non-player characters) and critters come and go.The game world is in an ambient or “pure process” state. In this state, the game software can be viewed in a purely aesthetic sense, as in how we might view a movie.
Diegetic operator actions are the actions taken by the operator within the game world. These are actions in which the operator deliberately controls the actions of their avatar by extending their consciousness into the game world. This can be thought of as a “ritual act of identification” with one’s avatar as one becomes immersed in a game. There are various levels of this immersion. Sometimes an operator becomes so immersed in a game that they lose their sense of personal identity and identify completely with their avatar. Becoming one with the game world, they dance to the rhythm of the machine
Nondiegetic machine actions are actions taken by the machine outside of the game world. These are the internal forces that impinge upon the game world such as network lag, software bugs, and other code-related issues, or also actions taken by the machine that lie outside of the game world such as the “death act” (declaring the operator dead). The granting or denying of privileges to the operator in the game world by the machine also falls in this category. For example, the machine could grant the operator extraordinary privileges such as the ability to fly or to teleport to another location, or could take away privileges like the ability to move.
Nondiegetic operator actions are actions that take place outside of the game world/reality, but still within the boundaries imposed by the game software. These are configuration and control actions such as setting or changing game software settings, starting, pausing or terminating game play, the use of cheats or hacks. These actions are liminal in that they border on two realities: the reality of the game world, and a larger reality that is defined by the gaming software.
Galloway’s diagram from the first chapter of “Gaming – Essays on Algorithmic Culture” was interesting on many levels. First and foremost, it provides a logical framework for analyzing video games as processes. Perhaps because “real life” is in many ways much like a video game, this diagram can be easily generalized to provide a way to look at our own perceived reality:
Reality is the game that we are always playing, whether we want to play or not. We can deny our role as operators, but the truth is that we are not spectators, but participants who cause change and are changed through our actions (or inaction).
As we attempt to make meaning out of ourselves and the world, we are forced to look at what we are inside and to try to make sense out of it. To do this, we are in effect trying to perceive some reality beyond what we can currently see, one that makes plain (external/objective) what is currently hidden (internal/subjective).
In this way, our perceived realities are like nested Russian dolls or onion skins, the outer layers of which provide context, meaning and purpose for the inner layers. The borders of the layers are where the inner layer nondiegetic actions begin to be perceived (by a larger Self) as diegetic actions of some outer layer.
How big is your world? Or better yet, how big is the game you are playing?