Alexander Galloway – The Game of War @ Mediamatic, Amsterdam

Alexander Galloway is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication of the New York University. He is the author of Protocol — How Control Exists After Decentralization (2004), Gaming — Essays on Algorithmic Culture (2006) and The Exploit — A Theory of Networks (2007, coauthored with Eugene Thacker). He is also a member of the Radical Software Group who are developing the Java version of Guy Debord’s “The Game of War.”

Modeling conflicts
Galloway started his talk with a background of classic antagonistic games, real-time strategy games (RSG) and swarm games. He is trying to understand the context of how people think about conflict, antagonism and struggle in wargames. It is a certain kind of interface that simulates these things. These games usually have important hooks into current politics and sometimes these games module conflicts. The traditional way of simulating or modeling conflicts through a medium is the classic war movie. These movies usually display symmetrical fighting between two parties that are relatively similar in power. They show a simulated antagonism, just like chess.

We are now living in the age of the distributed network with protocol as its diagram of control (see my previous post on Galloway – Protocol). The distributed network, with its rhizomatic and horizontal nature makes Galloway wonder if it wouldn’t be interesting to try to find out ways to module swarm and contagious phenomena. Are there any games that do that already and how do we model swarms? Are swarms necessarily progressive? Or are they a neutral form of presence that can be used by different political interests? Guy Debord developed his game around 1968 at a time when the rhizome was radically political. The grass-roots rhizomatic used to mean something political but is that still the case today? Does the distributed network still have this disrupted political power?

It makes me wonder if Galloway is directly linking swarm models in games to the current era of the distributed network. Swarm Intelligence is “the study of collective behavior in decentralized, self-organized systems” which would link it to the decentralized network. Swarms do not have a central control structures and are known for the emergence of global behavior.

Work and Play
The real-time strategy game (RSG) Starcraft 2 is a game that models the swarm. RTS is the most interesting genre from a social-political view because the genre best displays how informatic media and labor are basically the same thing in this world. Both informatic media and labor operate the same space. The machines that you work with are the same ones that you play with. This puts a different and weird perspective on what play means nowadays. Work and play are no longer two separate spaces which is not necessarily a good thing. When you are blogging or buying a book on Amazon you are being valorized by Google and other companies. These are important detail that need to be understood.

Characteristics of the real-time strategy game

  • The god’s eye view.
  • It has a scenario that has tons of actors and agents.
  • Time is always moving, there is no way of freezing the game as it is constantly doing its thing.
  • As a player you tweak little things to create flows.

The key thing is that the RTS-genre is a simulation of an economy of things that are being produced. This also makes it different from World of Warcraft, which we might consider to be a mutation of the RTS-genre. WOW is intensely social and has enforced things built into it that require you to be social. The social interaction (with a reference to Marx’ cooperation that helps productivity and unions to form and organizations to happen) is highly evolved. You are forced to collaborate, form groups, guilds and clans. Play and labor are now coterminous.

The Game of War

Distributed Work and Play
This collaboration is also reflected in current software models and it could be a model for how Microsoft Office is going to look in five years. We form groups to do a certain job and then dissolve again. Today’s informatic media don’t discipline desire but liberate desire. They no longer discipline us but liberate us, so we can be better bosses. This explains why software is organized in the way it is. Object-oriented programming is an example because one part of the software is written in place while the other part might be written in another place.

Distributed work and play might also be called ‘outsourcing’ which in the case of games often raises the question of the virtual workshop and the Chinese goldfarmer. Galloway states that these are racist and wrong stereotypes. We are the goldfarmers and that is what we need to come to terms with. The state of games needs to be placed within networking. Emergent (although Galloway explicitly states that he hates the word) networks are not centrally corrosive to central power structures. The trend is that everything is now moving from central power structures (the army as a collective) to cellular special forces (distributed). These are cellular, modular and flexible autonomous units.

Guy Debord
Galloway shows us a short clip of the war movie The Charge of the Light Brigade that Guy Debord used in one of his films.
The Game of War
Debord is what we would now call an innovator in sampling. In 1977 he put together a game (apparently he patented it in the 1960s) and fabricated it in a limited edition in silver plated game tokens.
The Game of War
It is a very fine limited art object which is interesting considering his political background and ‘the fetishism of the commodity’ (Marx).

The Game of War/Kriegspiel
The game resembles chess a bit in the way that things can move in a particular way. We want to make a connection between the movie and the game. Chess is a radical abstraction of warfare and Debord was clear in the sense that this was a perfect abstraction. We could ask ourselves if Go would not represent the most perfect abstraction. The dialectic of all conflict is that it doesn’t describe everything about warfare such as the weather conditions. Then it would be perfect abstraction. Debord is very interested in the emotional intensity of going to battle “I am very interested in war. The logic.” How do we model antagonism in a simulated system?

The nostalgic algorithm
When Galloway played the game it wasn’t anything like he thought it would be like. He had expected a typical Debord derive-ish, whimsical game where nobody wins. This was not at all the case. The game is a nostalgic algorithm not of the present day (with its swarm games) but of the 18th and 19th century. In Debords case we don’t get a swarm race but we get chess! It is an iconographic representation of the game. Debord seems to be in a crisis of format when he ponders “Cinema to me, seems to be over…. these times don’t deserve a filmmaker like me.” What is the appropriate stage of actions in such a crisis?

Debord previously did interventions in philosophy through Marx but has moved into the algorithm with this game. With his geometric writing style he has entered the realm of law/politics. With geometrics into mathematics he has moved into the code-based realm. Debord was cogniscent of the fact that you need a degree in computer programming in order to be able to think algorithmically. This makes us wonder if he know what he was doing? We could answer this with a ‘yes’ as he reflected upon his moves. There is a shift from action through philosophy to action through code or as Debord said “Wargames are a continuation of politics by other means.”

A Java version of The Game of War
A renowned interest in the game came with a new French and English translation. There recently also was a remaking of the Game in London. Galloway is now porting the game to the computer as open-source game that can be downloaded by anyone. He made the first prototype in 2D in Processing. In the current 3D version (with a 2D cardboard effect) he added the lines of communications that Debord described but which were previously not visible. Unlike chess you have to keep your pieces in direct communication with the homebase. This is strategically a big part of the game.

The importance of the game is that he formalized his rules for living. It is Debord’s most autobiographical work that explores the the generative quality of algorithm. Why does Debord look to the past? Is he craving a return to the mathematical models rooted in the early 19th century? Why is he simulating a symmetrical war in the age of the asymmetrical war?

In the lines of communication is where networked reality simulates itself. It is not a distributed network but a (de)centralized network where everything communicates back to the base. Are the lines of communications then lines of control? You can only control your unit if it is within your line of communication meaning it is under your control. In a distributed network communication is not disturbed when a line of communication goes down. In this game that revolves around the (de)centralized network you can take down your opponents line of communication by taking a piece. Taking out a node will destroy a part of the network.

The Game of War

Galloway translated the game from French to Java. It is the translation of one algorithm (the game described by Debord in French) into another algorithm (Java). The main difference with this game and World of Warcraft is that WoW is a turn-based game and not as fast paced. It is more a pedagogical tool.

It is interesting to question why Debord made a game that revolved around a (de)centralized network instead of the distributed network as it was becoming the dominant form in his age. Galloway tries to answer this question by placing Debord’s ‘The Game of War’ in a historical context with a focus on game algorithms.

For Debord, The Game of War wasn’t just a game – it was a guide to how people should live their lives within Fordist society. By playing this Clausewitz simulator, revolutionary activists could learn how to fight and win against the oppressors of spectacular society. (London Games Festival)

(Michael Stevenson wrote an excellent piece on this presentation at the Masters of Media blog)

8 thoughts on “Alexander Galloway – The Game of War @ Mediamatic, Amsterdam

  1. Thanks for reporting! The concept of the Game of War is so interesting (although I’m not at all a games researcher, this is something that can relate to so many situations).

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