Gaming the System
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Gaming the System


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128 pages

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Gaming the System takes philosophical traditions out of the ivory tower and into the virtual worlds of video games. In this book, author David J. Gunkel explores how philosophical traditions—put forth by noted thinkers such as Plato, Descartes, Kant, Heidegger, and Žižek—can help us explore and conceptualize recent developments in video games, game studies, and virtual worlds. Furthermore, Gunkel interprets computer games as doing philosophy, arguing that the game world is a medium that provides opportunities to model and explore fundamental questions about the nature of reality, personal identity, social organization, and moral conduct. By using games to investigate and innovate in the area of philosophical thinking, Gunkel shows how areas such as game governance and manufacturers' terms of service agreements actually grapple with the social contract and produce new postmodern forms of social organization that challenge existing modernist notions of politics and the nation state. In this critically engaging study, Gunkel considers virtual worlds and video games as more than just "fun and games," presenting them as sites for new and original thinking about some of the deepest questions concerning the human experience.

1. Terra Nova 2.0
2. The Real Problem
3. Social Contract 2.0
4. In the Face of Others
5. Open Ended Conclusions



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Date de parution 09 mai 2018
Nombre de lectures 4
EAN13 9780253035752
Langue English
Poids de l'ouvrage 2 Mo

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1. Terra Nova 2.0
2. The Real Problem
3. Social Contract 2.0
4. In the Face of Others
5. Open Ended Conclusions

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Robert Alan Brookey and
David J. Gunkel , editors
Deconstructing Video Games, Games Studies, and Virtual Worlds
This book is a publication of
Indiana University Press
Office of Scholarly Publishing
Herman B Wells Library 350
1320 East 10th Street
Bloomington, Indiana 47405 USA
© 2018 by David J. Gunkel
All rights reserved
No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of the American National Standard for Information Sciences—Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, ANSI Z39.48-1992.
Manufactured in the United States of America
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Gunkel, David J., author.
Title: Gaming the system : deconstructing video games, games studies, and virtual worlds / David J. Gunkel.
Description: Bloomington, Indiana : Indiana University Press, 2018. | Series: Digital game studies | Includes bibliographical references and index
Identifiers: LCCN 2018006657 (print) | LCCN 2018012742 (ebook) | ISBN 9780253035738 (e-book) | ISBN 9780253035721 (hardback : alk. paper) | ISBN 9780253035714 (paperback : alk. paper)
Subjects: LCSH: Video games—Philosophy. | Virtual reality—Philosophy. | Video games—Social aspects. | Virtual reality—Social aspects.
Classification: LCC GV1469.3 (ebook) | LCC GV1469.3 .G86 2018 (print) | DDC 794.801—dc23
LC record available at
1 2 3 4 5 23 22 21 20 19 18
For my father, Peter Gunkel
Introduction one Terra Nova 2.0 two The Real Problem three Social Contract 2.0 four In the Face of Others five Open-Ended Conclusions
I AN B OGOST ( 2007 ) FAMOUSLY CHANGED THE DIRECTION OF VIDEO GAME studies by focusing attention not on narratives or the logics of play but on the mode of argumentation that is contained, produced, and advanced within the operational procedures of the game. Instead of pursuing research by following the established routes, Bogost introduced and demonstrated the opportunities and challenges of investigating games as a form of rhetoric—“procedural rhetoric”—by which “arguments are made not through the construction of words and images, but through the authorship of rules of behavior, the construction of dynamic models” (2007, 29). This book introduces and develops another shift in perspective. Its concern, however, is not the argument in the game but the game in the argument .
An argument—whether in academic research, law and regulation, marketing and advertising campaigns, or on the streets and in popular discussions—is nothing other than the attempt for one party to gain a discursive advantage over an opponent. Crafting a persuasive argument, following the twists and turns of another’s logic, and developing an insightful critique of the different positions that are already available are all aspects of an elaborate game. And the fact is that some individuals play it better than others. In the ancient world, it is Socrates who is considered to be the reigning champion. In the modern period, however, the prize could easily go to Immanuel Kant.
Kant, in fact, did not just play the game; he gamed the entire system. He knew the deck was already stacked against him, and that if he played by the established rules, there would be no chance of winning or progressing to the next level. So rather than continue to play by the existing protocols and procedures, he simply altered the rules of the game. For those who do not know the story, here is the short version: In the Critique of Pure Reason (episode one in Kant’s critically acclaimed trilogy), Kant notes how efforts in philosophy had run aground. For close to two thousand years, he argues, philosophers have been asking questions that they never quite seemed to get any traction on answering. So Kant, instead of trying to deal with and respond to the existing queries, games the system by changing the questions and the terms of the inquiry. As he described it, “Hitherto it has been assumed that all our knowledge must conform to objects. But all attempts to extend our knowledge of objects by establishing something in regards to them a priori , by means of concepts, have, on this assumption, ended in failure. We must therefore make trial whether we may not have more success in the task of metaphysics, if we suppose that objects must conform to knowledge (Kant 1965, B xvi). Frustrated by failed attempts to determine whether and to what extent knowledge conforms to things in the world, Kant flips the script and plays an entirely different game, one based on different kinds of questions and involving a different set of rules.
Kant, therefore, was not content to continue playing by the existing procedures and protocols but questioned the very operational limits of the game itself in order to shift perspective and formulate new and previously unheard of possibilities. This is precisely the task and objective of Gaming the System . Following Kant’s example, what I am interested in identifying and critically examining are those philosophical problems regarding video games, game studies, and virtual worlds that seem, for one reason or another, to be intractable, irresolvable, or inconclusive. This is done not in an effort to offer some novel or innovative solutions to the existing problems but to challenge the terms and conditions of the standard modes of inquiry in order to change what is asked about and why. And this effort falls squarely within the proper purview and domain of what is called “philosophy.” As Daniel Dennett (1996, vii) once explained (and in the first lines of the preface to one of his books): “I am a philosopher, not a scientist, and we philosophers are better at questions than answers. I haven’t begun by insulting myself and my discipline, in spite of first appearances. Finding better questions to ask, and breaking old habits and traditions of asking, is a very difficult part of the grand human project of understanding ourselves and our world.”
FOUR OF THE CHAPTERS INCLUDED HERE ARE BASED ON AND CONSTITUTE significantly expanded and updated versions of research that was undertaken and produced for other opportunities. The first chapter, “Terra Nova 2.0,” was assembled from research that was originally produced for and presented during the Ninety-Third National Communication Association (NCA) convention convened in Chicago, Illinois, in mid-November of 2007. I am grateful to the other participants, Edward Castronova, Lisa Nakamura, and Robert Brookey, for their insightful comments and incredibly useful suggestions, and to the NCA members who came to the session with enthusiasm for the subject and a bunch of really good critical questions. An expanded version of the conference paper was developed in coordination with Ann Hetzel Gunkel and published in a special issue of Critical Studies in Media Communication (Gunkel and Gunkel 2009), which was edited by Robert Brookey, my former Northern Illinois University colleague and partner in crime with the Indiana University Press Series in Digital Game Studies. Additional comments and suggestions were provided by the faculty and students of the Institute of American Studies and Polish Diaspora at Uniwersytet Jagielloński in Kraków, Poland, during the fall semester of 2011. My thanks to Agnieszka Stasiewicz-Bieńkowska for organizing this event and to the students and faculty of the Institute for their interest and insight.
The second chapter, “The Real Problem,” was initially developed for and presented at 10 anos de Filocom: a Nova Teoria nos 44 anos de ECA Escola de Comunicações e Artes da Universidade de São Paulo, Brazil on November 24, 2010. I am grateful to Ciro Marcondes Filho, who organized this meeting and invited my participation; Francisco Rüdiger, Eugênio Trivinho, and Massimo di Felice, who served as respondents; and the students and faculty of ECA/USP, who provided extremely useful questions and insightful commentary. A shorter and arguably less developed version of the text that is included here was initially published in New Media & Society (see Gunkel 2010).
The third chapter, “Social Contract 2.0,” was originally written at the invitation of Can Bilgili and published in a Turkish translation under the title “Toplumsal Sözlesme 2.0: Hizmet Kullanim Sartlari Anlasmalari ve Siyaset Teorisi” in the book Kültür, Kimlik, Siyaset (Baski Mayis 2013). Special thanks to Neşe Kaplan for providing the translation and to Can Bilgili for the invitation to participate in the project. An English version of the text is available in the Journal of Media Critiques (Gunkel 2014) and was presented in bilingual versions at Encontro Nacional da Rede de Grupos de Pesquisa em Comunicação in Natal, Brazil on November 20, 2013, and at Uniwersytet Mikołaja Kopernika in Torun, Poland on January 13, 2016. My sincere thanks to Ciro Marcondes Filho, Lauren Ferreira Colvara, Alex Galeno, and Eloisa Klein for their assistance with and support for the lecture in Natal and to Ewa Binczyk for her hospitality and invitation to speak in Torun.
The fourth chapter, “In the Face of Others,” is an amalgam of three closely related research efforts: “Communication and Artificial Intelligence: Opportunities and Challenges for the 21st century,” which was published in Communication +1 in August 2012; “Another Alterity: Rethinking Ethics in the Face of the Machine” in David J. Gunkel, Ciro Marcondes Filho and Dieter Mersch (eds.), The Changing Face of Alterity: Communication, Technology and Other Subjects (Rowman & Littlefield 2016); and “The Other Question: Socialbots and the Question of Ethics” in Robert W. Gehl & Maria Bakardjieva (eds.), Socialbots and Their Friends: Digital Media and the Automation of Sociality (Routledge 2016). My thanks to Zach McDowell and Briankle Chang at Communication +1 for their editorial insight and assistance, to my coeditors of The Changing Face of Alterity for their friendship and incredibly productive conversations and debates over the years, and to the editors and other contributors to the Socialbots book for their challenging questions that led to even more interesting opportunities and outcomes.
Gaming the System was written in spring semester 2017. The writing was supported by the generous gift of time provided by a sabbatical leave from Northern Illinois University, the manuscript was ushered through the twists and turns of the publication process by Janice Frisch with the capable assistance of Kate Schramm, the index was compiled by Danielle Watterson, and the cover was inspired by Brian R. Gilbert’s incredibly original designs for the promotional poster ( ). Like all previous publication efforts, this entire enterprise would not have been possible without the love and supported of my family: Ann Hetzel Gunkel, Stanisław Gunkel, and Maki, the GSP who always knows how to keep it real.
ALL SYSTEMS ARE FORMAL STRUCTURES WITH RULES THAT GOVERN THEIR behaviors and operations. This holds for belief systems like Judaism or Christianity, social and economic systems like communism or capitalism, systems of thought like Platonism or Hegelianism, and gaming systems like the puzzle game Myst , the first-person shooter game Doom , or the MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) World of Warcraft . As rule-based structures, all of these could be classified as and legitimately called “games.” And as with any game, users first need to learn the rules and then conduct themselves in such a way as to follow or break these stipulations, reaping the benefits from the former, or suffering the consequences of the latter.
Some games are rather simple, and the rules are easy to learn and utilize. Judaism, for example, is a system of belief that operates—at least in its original form—on the basis of ten simple principles or commandments. By contrast, Hegelianism is a rather complex system of thought that requires considerable effort to learn, mobilize, and play successfully. The same is true of video and computer games. Some applications operate with a rather simple rule-set, like Doom . Others, like Second Life (which many researchers argue is not even a game, strictly speaking), may have less specific requirements but still impose some restrictions on what can and cannot be done within the confines of the program.
The phrase gaming the system , which serves as the title to this book, indicates a mode of engagement that goes above and beyond just playing by the rules. It designates an intention and effort not simply to play the game as is—to play by (or even play against) the established rules and regulations—but to learn to manipulate the rules in such a way as to gain an advantage or to modify the program to make the system function differently and otherwise. This takes additional effort that goes beyond simply learning to play the game: it requires careful, perspicuous attention to the operational limits of the game itself and a level of understanding that often exceeds the grasp and comprehension of the system and its designers.

This is precisely the task of criticism, but not as it is usually (mis)understood and characterized. In its colloquial form, criticism is often seen as a negative transaction involved with identifying problems for the sake of error correction. In other words, it is typically understood as a means by which to isolate bugs within the system in order to institute necessary repairs, upgrades, or patches to fix its operations. This common perception of criticism as a form of “debugging,” although entirely understandable and seemingly informed by good common sense, is guided by a rather limited conceptualization of the role, function, and objective of critique. There is a more precise and nuanced definition available in the traditions and practices of critical philosophy. As Barbara Johnson (1981) insightfully explains, “a critique of any theoretical system is not an examination its flaws or imperfections . . . designed to make the system better.” Instead, “it is an analysis that focuses on the grounds of that system’s possibility. The critique reads backwards from what seems natural, obvious, self-evident, or universal, in order to show that these things have their history, their reasons for being the way they are, their effects on what follows from them, and that the starting point is not a given but a construct, usually blind to itself” (xv).
Understood in this way, critique is not simply about debugging. It does not target problems in the operations of the system in order to fix them and make things run better. There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with such a practice. Strictly speaking, however, criticism involves more. It consists in an examination that seeks to identify and expose a particular game’s fundamental operations and conditions of possibility, demonstrating how what initially appears to be beyond question and entirely obvious does, in fact, possess a complex legacy and logic that not only influences what proceeds from it but is itself often not recognized as such. What follows under the title Gaming the System is this kind of critical effort directed toward video games, game studies, and virtual worlds. But saying this already leads to a problem with names and naming.
Nominal Problems
From the beginning—even before beginning—words are already a problem. Although the act of identifying the object of investigation is often considered to be standard operating procedure at the outset of an examination, it turns out that ascertaining the correct term (or terms) in this particular circumstance is exceedingly complex. What the investigation targets and seeks to study has, in fact, been identified by a number of different monikers, many of which are not even names, but rather, acronyms, such as MUD, MMO, MUVE, or the unpronounceable MMORPG. Consequently, at the beginning—even before saying (or being able to say) anything about the object of the investigation—we first need to address and sort out this nominal problem (a problem that can be considered “nominal” in both senses of the word insofar as it is something having to do with names but also presumed to be less significant than the actual investigation of the actual thing that is named).
Video, Computer, and Digital Games
One of the earliest terms in circulation has been (and continues to be) “video game”—also written as “videogame.” What is identified by this seemingly simple expression, however, is anything but simple. As Mark J. P. Wolf (2001, 14) points out, “defining the limits of what is meant by ‘video game’ is more complicated than it first appears.” In an effort to provide a more complete and attentive characterization, Wolf recommends dealing with each element individually. “By the strictest definition,” Wolf explains, “‘video’ refers to the use of an analog intensity/brightness signal displayed on a cathode ray tube (CRT), the kind of picture tube used in a television set or computer monitor, to produce raster-based imagery. A slightly looser and more common definition of ‘video games,’ closer to the popular usage of the term, would also include games that do not have raster graphics, like vector graphic games, and games that do not use a CRT, such as Nintendo Game Boy games, which use a liquid-crystal display” (16). The term “video,” therefore, puts emphasis on a particular kind of display technology and, although it had been initially limited to analog hardware, now extends to all kinds of visual display systems, such that “video” has “become something more conceptual and less tied to a specific imaging technology” (Wolf 2008, 5).
The word “game,” as Wolf explains, includes four defining features: “Elements one would expect to find in a ‘game’ are conflict (against an opponent or circumstances), rules (determining what can and cannot be done and when), use of some player ability (such as skill, strategy, or luck), and some kind of valued outcome (such as winning vs. losing or the attaining of the highest score or fastest time for the completing of a task)” (2001, 14, emphasis in the original). Although these four elements, Wolf argues, are present in any application or experience that would be called a “game”—whether a board game like chess, a team sport like hockey, or a ping-pong simulation displayed on the CRT screen like Pong —different programs contain them to “differing degrees.” In other words, the way the player of a first-person shooter like Doom or Call of Duty implements these four elements can and will be different from the way that they are deployed and utilized in a puzzle game like Myst , a sandbox game like Minecraft , or a life simulation game like The Sims .
Although the terms “computer game” and “video game” have been used interchangeably, the two are not necessarily synonyms. Arguably the first video game, strictly speaking, was Thomas T. Goldsmith and Estle Ray Mann’s Cathode-Ray Tube Amusement Device (1947), an interactive artillery game where users controlled the arc of a projectile (represented in the form of a glowing dot) by adjusting knobs on the CRT display screen. Likewise, Ralph Baer’s early console, the Brown Box (1966), was an analog electronic device that connected to the CRT screen of a standard television and produced an interactive gaming experience ( Fig. 0.1 ).

Figure 0.1. “Ralph A Baer: Replica ‘Brown Box.’” From the Online Collection of the Strong: National Museum of Play.
By contrast, “computer games” are games where gameplay is controlled, managed, and processed by a computer. As the online exhibit at the Computer History Museum points out, “computer games are as old as computers.” Even if “the earliest machines were not intended specifically for play,” engineers and designers were actively involved in developing gaming applications. Notable examples include William Higinbotham’s two-player game Tennis for Two (1958), which was implemented on a special-purpose analog computer and utilized a standard laboratory oscilloscope for its display; Steve Russell’s Spacewar! (1961), a single-player game written for the DEC PDP-1 and displayed using the mini-computer’s CRT monitor ( Fig. 0.2 ); and Maze War (1974), one of the first (if not the first) first-person shooters, initially developed by Steve Colley and then implemented as a multiplayer application on ARPANET by Greg Thompson.
As the underlying digital technology and distribution networks of the personal computer and television have converged, the line that had at one time differentiated a “video game” from a “computer game” has become increasingly difficult to identify and defend. According to Wolf (2001, 17), for example, “‘computer games’ are most usefully seen as a subset of video games, due to shared technologies such as the microprocessor and the cathode-ray tube.” But just seven years later, Wolf seems to reverse this order by situating “computer game” as the generic term: “The term ‘computer games’ is sometimes used, though it covers a wider range of games (including those without any graphical displays), and it is arguably more accurate, since the majority of video games depend on a microprocessor” (Wolf 2008, 5). For Caspar Hartevelt, however, “computer game” and “videogame” (which he writes as a compound word) are two subspecies of a more general category that he calls “digital games” and characterizes as follows: “I prefer the term ‘digital games’ over ‘computer games’ and ‘videogames,’ as these terms refer in a strict sense to either PC games or console games (i.e., games played on Playstation, Xbox or Wii), respectively. The term ‘digital’ includes all games with a computerized backbone. In addition, it is the perfect antithesis of analog. Analog games are, among others, board and card games” (Hartevelt 2012, 8). And for others, like Ulrich Wechselberger (2009) and Steven Conway and Mark Finn (2013), all three terms are equally interchangable: “To simplify matters, this paper uses the terms digital game , video game , and computer game synonymously” (Wechselberger 2009, 91); “Whether referred to as digital game, computer game, or videogame, this chapter uses such terms as synonyms for games played through the medium of electronic computing regardless of format” (Conway and Finn 2013, 232). Although all three terms circulate in the literature, “video game” has been and continues to be the popular designation ( Fig. 0.3 ). 1

Figure 0.2. Spacewar! running on the Computer History Museum’s PDP-1. Image by Joi Ito, , licensed under CC BY 2.0
Whatever their exact relationship, these different names derive from and focus attention on the enabling technology. This mode of identification is consistent with the emergence of other forms of information and communication technology, such as “wireless,” which was the initial designation for radio and indicated the transmission of telegraphic and voice data without the supporting wired infrastructure, or “cell phone,” which derives its name from the technical features of the cellular network that support its operations. This form of nomenclature has an obvious advantage. Because these names originally derive from general technical features, they are often able to cast a rather wide and seemingly all-inclusive net. By focusing on the enabling technology, terms like “video game,” “computer game,” and “digital game” are able to encompass a wide range of different formats, user experiences, and genres, including single-player first-person shooters, such as the Wolfenstein series and Halo ; chess and go-playing programs like IBM’s DeepBlue and Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo; text-based interactive educational games like the Oregon Trail ; online role playing games like Everquest , World of Warcraft , and The Sims ; and causal games for the mobile device like Farmville , Fruit Ninja , and Angry Birds .

Figure 0.3. Graph generated by Google Books Ngram Viewer for the terms video game, computer game and digital game, covering the years 1975–2008 (the last year for which data is currently available). Image created on February 24, 2017, with Ngram Viewer,
At the same time, however, the word “game” can have a counteracting effect, excluding some applications and experiences that do not quite fit the operational definitions. Perhaps the best example of this is Second Life . Second Life , as Giuseppe Macario and Cory Ondrejka (2014, unpaginated) explain, “is a publicly Internet-accessible 3D environment created in 2002 by the Californian company Linden Lab and launched three years later, which presents itself as a persistent, open, unlimited, highly customizable space. The interface and the iconography are strongly influenced by video games, but it cannot be considered a video game proper because of the lack of goals to achieve, points to gain, or levels to complete.” An application like Second Life , then, is both more and less than what is typically identified by the term “video game,” which means that, as Steven Conway and Jennifer deWinter (2016) conclude, “the most important video game emerging in the mid-2000s was not a game at all” (120). Similar difficulties have occurred with social media applications. As Jesse Schell confessed during a presentation he delivered at Dice 2010, “Facebook knocked us [the gaming industry] on our collective ass.” Compared to state-of-the-art video and computer games, Facebook and its casual gaming applications like Farmville and Mafia Wars had not been considered impressive or even a serious contender in the gaming world. But Facebook, as Schell insightfully pointed out, did something innovative: it allowed users to mobilize their social networks in ways that games, even online role playing games, did not. As a result, Facebook managed to surprise the gaming industry by capturing both attention and market shares. And Schell’s presentation, aptly titled “Design Outside the Box,” was designed to get game developers to recognize the importance of the social media platform and to learn from its innovations, even if Facebook remained, strictly speaking, “outside the box” of what has typically been considered a game.
The Acronyms
As with all things related to computer technology, acronyms seem to proliferate with little or no restraint, and the current list is rather impressive with well over a dozen different configurations. RPG (role playing game) is by far one of the oldest in the collection and refers to a kind of fantasy game where participants create and assume the role of a character, or what will eventually come to be called “avatar.” These characters occupy a fictional world that has its own physical properties, rules, and behaviors, which, although not necessarily exact reproductions of the “real world,” are nevertheless internally consistent and systematically regulated. Gameplay involves the development of complex narratives that are collaboratively created through character interactions and imaginary engagements with the features of the game environment. It is, as Edward Castronova (2005) has accurately described it, a kind of “improvisational theater” (107). Despite the name, therefore, RPGs are not necessarily “games.” As Patrick Williams, Sean Hendricks, and W. Keith Winkler (2006, 4) point out, “there are never really ‘winners’ or ‘endings’ in RPGs. Rather, the players are interested in experiencing a good story, but also improving their characters’ strengths and diminishing their weaknesses, thereby allowing them to experience grander and more epic stories.” The most popular RPG has been Dungeons and Dragons ( D&D ), a tabletop fantasy adventure game created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, and first published in 1974 by Tactical Studies Rules, Inc. or TSR.
Online RPGs are similar in design and function to the tabletop versions but are accessed and controlled by way of a multiaccess computer system, either a timeshared mainframe or a computer network. Single player, dungeon adventure games began to appear shortly after the initial publication of D&D and include Will Crowther’s ADVENT (aka “Colossal Cave Adventure”), a text-based adventure game ( Fig. 0.4 ); pedit5 and m199h, both of which were single-player games distributed over PLATO, a timeshared computer system at the University of Illinois; and ZORK, which was developed by group of students at MIT (Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Bruce Crowther, and Dave Lebling) for the PDP-10 and distributed over ARPANET. The first widely available multiuser game was Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle’s MUD1, which was developed at Essex University and made available on the internet in 1980. This first MUD, which stands for Multi-User Dungeon (later Domain and/or Dimension), was directly influenced by Trubshaw’s interest in D&D and designed to emulate the multiuser experience of a tabletop RPG.

Figure 0.4. ADVENT or Colossal Cave Adventure (1977) running on a PDP-10. Public domain image provided by Wikipedia.—_Crowther_Woods.png
The success of MUD1 inspired numerous clones, copies, and modified versions. By the end of the 1980s there were, according to the estimates of Amy Bruckman, some two hundred different varieties of MUDs available on the internet (Kelly and Rheingold 1993). These second generation MUDs—which also go by names like TinyMUD, MOO, MUSH, MUSE, and MUCK—introduced two notable innovations. First, users had the ability to modify the game environment. The world of MUD1 was fixed and predefined by the computer program. Subsequent MUDs, like the MOO (MUD Object Oriented), allowed users to reconfigure the environment and even contribute new features and content. As Kevin Kelly and Howard Rheingold (1993) explain, “You and the other players can add or modify rooms, as well as invent new and magical objects. You say to yourself, ‘What this place needs is a tower where a bearded elf can enslave the unwary.’ So you make one, just by typing in its description. In short, the players invent the world as they live in it. The game is to create a cooler world than you had yesterday.”
Second, as MUDs evolved and proliferated, they began to lose their thematic and structural attachments to the tabletop RPG. “Probably the most interesting development in MUD history,” F. Gregory Lastowka and Dan Hunter (2006, 20) explain, “occurred in 1989, when James Aspnes wrested MUDs away from their D&D roots by writing a short and easily portable MUD program known as TinyMUD. TinyMUD deemphasized traditional D&D elements such as killing for points.” By the early 1990s, then, there existed numerous MUD implementations that were not fantasy adventure games or even games at all but interactive social environments. “Around 1989/90,” as Bartle (2016, 112) explains, “there was a Great Schism in virtual world development. We got a split between social worlds and game worlds. The gamers still used MUD to mean all virtual worlds, but the socials used it to mean just the game worlds, referring to the non-game worlds by whatever codebase they used (MMO, MUSH, MUCK, whatever. They used MU* to refer to all virtual worlds, including game worlds—except for those who only used it to mean social virtual worlds.”
MUDs and MOOs were entirely text-based experiences or, as Kelly and Rheingold (1993) describe it, they were “online virtual worlds built from words.” The features of the environment were presented in the form of brief descriptive statements that would update with new information as the user moved through the virtual space, and user activity, like movement through space or interactions with other players, were typed at the command prompt, usually in a Telnet window. By the mid-1990s, as computing power increased and graphical capabilities became more widely available, MUDs and MOOs began to incorporate images. These “graphical MUDs,” as they were initially called (Bartle 2003, 3), were eventually renamed MMORPG, Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game. By most accounts (Safko 2012, 388; Jøn 2010, 97) the term MMORPG was coined in 1997 by Richard Garriott, who created the Ultima series of games. Looking at the distribution across the literature on the subject, usage of the terms MUD and MOO appear to have peaked just as MMORPG was introduced, and the new acronym has clearly outpaced every other alternative since the turn of the century ( Fig. 0.5 ).
What really mattered for the growth and popularity of the MMORPG, however, was not the inclusion of graphics, but the number of user eyeballs this capability was able to attract and hold. As Bartle explains, “MUD still held on as the dominant umbrella term until the arrival of Meridian 59 . Most virtual worlds before then were textual rather than graphical; there were some with graphics, but these were called graphical MUDs rather than anything special. What M59 brought (or was expected to bring) that made a difference was not the graphics per se but the players attracted by the graphics. Thus we got ‘Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games,’ or MMORPG for short (well, less long)” (2016, 112, emphasis in the original). And growth in the user population has been undeniably impressive. Even at the height of their popularity, in the early to mid-1990s, the typical MUD/MOO rarely had more than a hundred users logged in at any one time, and in 1992 Pavel Curtis estimated the total number of active MUDers worldwide at a modest 20,000 (Rheingold 2000, 149). What distinguishes MMORPGs, like Meridian 59, Ultima Online , and their successors, is the sheer number of subscribers. Ultima Online , for instance, had 200,000 users by 1998 and the most popular early MMORPGs, like Lineage and EverQuest had a subscriber-base approaching the one million mark. By 2012, World of Warcraft was boasting a global population of users in excess of 11 million (Mildenberger 2013, 78).

Figure 0.5. Graph generated by Google Books Ngram Viewer for MUD, MOO, MMO, and MMORPG covering the years 1975–2008. Image created on 24 February 2017 with Ngram Viewer,
Despite its relative popularity and saturation in the literature, the term “MMORPG” is not without its difficulties. First, unlike the other acronyms, it is exceedingly difficult or virtually impossible to pronounce (Bartle 2016, 124), making MMORPG cumbersome for every mode of communication beyond written documents. Second, there are difficulties with the “G.” Not every instance of a massively multiplayer online experience that includes aspects of role playing is in fact a game, strictly speaking. As Geoffrey Sampson (2008, 118) points out, “An MMO that focuses mainly on battles, where the avatar can ‘win’ or be defeated and ‘die,’ is appropriately described as a ‘game,’ but the term scarcely applies to MMOs (such as Second Life ) which are more oriented to socializing and developing virtual communities.” Similarly and in direct response to the question “Is Second Life is a MMORPG?” Linden Lab has provided a rather ambivalent answer: “Yes and no.” It can be considered a MMORPG to the extent that its “interface and display are similar to most popular massively multiplayer online role playing games (or MMORPGs)” (Linden Lab 2008), but it “lacks the goals and built-in rewards and rules of a game” (Humphreys 2006, 82).
Virtual Worlds
As is already apparent, one of the more common, generic characterizations that has been offered to explain, define, or substitute for the various terms and acronyms is the phrase “virtual world.” Richard Bartle’s “From MUDs to MMORPGs: The History of Virtual Worlds” (2010), for instance, situates MUDs, MMORPGs, and every permutation and spin-off situated in between these two acronyms as particular instances in the evolution, development, and linage of “Virtual Worlds.” And according to Castronova, “virtual world” has prevailed over the competition simply because it is the simplest designation available:
“Virtual World” [VW] is a term used by the creators of the game Ultima Online , though they seem to prefer “persistent state world” instead ( ). Neither is a universally accepted term. Perhaps the most frequently used term is “MMORPG,” which means “massively multi-player on-line role-playing game,” apt since VWs were born and have grown primarily as game environments. However, virtual worlds probably have a future that extends beyond this role. Moreover, MMORPG is impossible to pronounce. Other terms include “MM persistent universe,” with “MM” meaning “massively-multiplayer;” also, there is Holmsten’s term, “persistent online world.” “Virtual worlds” captures the essence of these terms in fewer words, with fewer syllables and a shorter acronym; by Occam’s Razor, it is the better choice (2001, 6).
As the “better choice,” it is no surprise that “virtual world” now has a reach that easily exceeds many of the other currently available expressions ( Fig. 0.6 ).

Figure 0.6. Graph generated by Google Books Ngram Viewer for virtual world, computer game, and MMORPG covering the years 1975–2008. Image created on February 24, 2017 with Ngram Viewer,
Despite (or perhaps because of) its popularity, there is, as David Bell (2008, 2) points out in the first issue of the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research (JVWR) “no agreed upon definition, and the term is used in different ways at different times by academics, industry professionals and the media.” This polysemia is not necessarily a problem; it can also be an opportunity. “What are virtual worlds,” the editors of JVWR (2017, 1) ask, “and what is virtual worlds research, within the context of this journal? These are evolving questions that we hope the formation of a community of scholarship will explore and expand.” Despite this, the journal does recognize the need to articulate a basic definition as “a base to build upon” and the common starting point for subsequent discussions and debates: “We consider virtual worlds to be computer-based simulated environment where users interact with other users through graphic or textual representations of themselves utilizing textual chat, voice, video or other forms of communication” (JVWR 2017, 1). Although not explicitly identified as such, this basic formulation is indebted to and draws on the work of Castronova, who proposed an influential working definition some seven years prior to the founding of the journal. “A virtual world or VW,” Castronova writes, “is a computer program with three defining features”:
• Interactivity: it exists on one computer but can be accessed remotely (i.e., by an internet connection) and simultaneously by a large number of people, with the command inputs of one person affecting the command results of other people.
• Physicality: people access the program through an interface that simulates a first-person physical environment on their computer screen; the environment is generally ruled by the natural laws of Earth and is characterized by scarcity of resources.
• Persistence: the program continues to run whether anyone is using it or not; it remembers the location of people and things, as well as the ownership of objects (2001, 5–6).
These three basic characteristics (although not always identified by the exact terminology that had been utilized by Castronova) find their way into many of the subsequent definitions: “A synchronous, persistent network of people, represented as avatars, facilitated by networked computers” (Bell 2008, 2); “Virtual worlds are persistent virtual environments in which people experience others as being there with them—and where they can interact with them” (Schroeder 2010, 2); “Essentially, a virtual world is an automated, shared, persistent environment with and through which people can interact in real time by means of a virtual self” (Bartle 2010, 24) ( Fig. 0.7 ).
Consequently, the moniker “virtual world” is not just popular in the literature; it also appears to provide a good generic designation. It is an expression that is not tied, either conceptually or nominally, to a specific kind of application, like games, or a particular kind of technological equipment, like video. It can therefore serve as an umbrella term that covers games—including both single and multiplayer digital games played on a variety of devices (i.e., consoles, PCs, and mobile devices) and analog tabletop games—as well as other applications, like LambdaMOO, Second Life , or even Facebook, which are typically not considered to be games. At the same time, however, this kind of generality can be a liability. First, depending on how it is defined and operationalized, the term can be too broad, incorporating objects and experiences that one might not necessarily want to include. As Schroeder (2008) points out, “If the sensory element of experiencing a place or space other than the one you are physically in, or of experiencing other people as being there with you, is taken away, then anything goes and definitions become meaningless: why shouldn’t books, text-based Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs), dreams or many other phenomena be called virtual environments or virtual worlds?”

Figure 0.7. Screenshot from the Avatar Repertory Theater’s 2010 staging of Oedipus Rex in Second Life . Image by MadameThespian, , licensed under CC BY SA 3.0
Second, because the term “virtual world,” as Bell (2008) points out, already admits a range of different denotations and connotations, the relationship of “virtual world” to the other terms in the taxonomy remains equivocal and ambiguous. According to the editors of JVWR (2017): “The term virtual worlds, includes, is similar to, or is synonymous (with extensive qualifications) to the terms of virtual reality, virtual space, datascape, metaverse, virtual environment, massively multiplayer online games (MMOs or MMOGs), massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPGs), multi-user dungeon, domain or dimension (MUDs), MUD object oriented (MOOs), multi-user shared hack, habitat, holodeck, or hallucination (MUSHs), massively-multiuser online graphical environments, collaborative virtual environments (CVEs) or multi-user virtual environments (MUVES), and immersive virtual environments (IVEs).” So, what is it? Is “virtual world” a hypernym —the general name designating all these other things such that MUDs, MOOs, and MMORPGs are just hyponyms or specific instances of the general category “virtual world”? Is it a polyonym , just one more name among other names that can be substituted for one another insofar as they all essentially identify one and the same object? Or is “virtual world” a synonym or even a quasi-synonym, which means that it would either have the same or nearly the exact meaning and significance as one or more of the other terms? The problem, as the editors of JVWR demonstrate, is not that it is one or the other; the problem is that “virtual world” is considered—or at least can be considered—all of these.

Word Games
This attention to words is not just about playing around. It is serious philosophical business, especially in the wake of what has been called “the linguistic turn.” For those unfamiliar with the phrase, it denotes a crucial shift in perspective, when philosophers came to realize that the words they use to do their work were themselves something of a philosophical problem. Despite the fact that this turning point is routinely situated in the early twentieth century, it is not necessarily a recent innovation. The turn to language has, in fact, been definitive of the philosophical enterprise from the very beginning—or at least since the time of Plato’s Phaedo .
In the Phaedo , which narrates—among other things—the last hours of Socrates’s life, the aged philosopher pauses to reflect on where it all began. In recounting the origin of his endeavors, Socrates describes how he initiated his research by trying to follow the example established by his predecessors and seeking wisdom in “the investigation of nature” (Plato 1990, 96a). He describes how this undertaking, despite its initial attraction and his best efforts, continually led him astray, how he eventually gave it up altogether, and how he finally decided on an alternative strategy by investigating the truth of things in λόγος—a Greek word that signifies “word” but is typically translated by a number of related terms: language, reason, logic, and argument. “I thought I must have recourse to λόγος and examine in them the truth of things,” Socrates explains (Plato 1990, 99e). Examining the truth of things in λόγος, however, does not mean that Socrates denied the existence of real things or was interested in considering these things merely as they are represented in language. Socrates was no social constructivist. “Now perhaps my metaphor is not quite accurate, for I do not grant in the least that he who investigates things in λόγος is looking at them in images any more than he who studies them in the facts of daily life” (Plato 1990, 100a). What Socrates advocated, therefore, is not something that would be simply opposed to what is often called “empirical knowledge.” Instead he promoted an epistemology that questions what Briankle Chang (1996, x) calls the “naïve empiricist picture”—the assumption that things can be immediately grasped and known outside the concepts, words, and terminology that always and already frame our way of looking at them. In other words, Socrates recognized that the truth of “things” is not simply given or immediately available to us in its raw or naked state. What these things are and how we understand them is something that is, at least for our purposes, always mediated through some kind of logical process by which they come to be grasped and conceptualized as such. In other words, words matter.
In the face of competing terminology, like “video game,” “MMORPG,” “virtual world,” and so on, the way we typically resolve this difficulty follows a procedure that was initially formulated in another Platonic dialogue, the Cratylus . In trying to ascertain “what kind of correctness that is which belongs to names” (Plato 1977, 391b), Socrates discovers what we have already seen in the taxonomy just provided—a seemingly endless chain of reference, where one term is substituted for or used to explain the other terms. This insight, which is often attributed to structural linguistics and the innovations of Ferdinand de Saussure, is something that is, as Jay David Bolter (1991, 197) points out, immediately apparent to anyone familiar with the design and function of a dictionary: “For the dictionary has always been the classic example of the semiotic principle that signs refer only to other signs. . . . We can only define a sign in terms of other signs of the same nature. This lesson is known to every child who discovers that fundamental paradox of the dictionary: that if you do not know what some words mean you can never use the dictionary to learn what other words mean. The definition of any word, if pursued far enough through the dictionary, will lead you in circles.” The principle challenge, then, is to devise some way to put a stop to this potentially infinite regress of names and naming.
This is the task that is taken up by Socrates in the course of the Cratylus . The Cratylus , in fact, supplies two possible solutions. On the one hand, Socrates suggests that there must be some kind of “proto-name” that puts an end to the sequence of terminological substitutions by referring not to other names but to the exact thing that is named (Plato 1977, 244c). This primary or primordial designation would, presumably correspond exactly to the thing it names, and not need other names in order to explain or justify it. But the argument developed by Socrates in the attempt to advance this proposition demonstrates the exact opposite, showing that any attempt to justify the correctness of a name to the thing it names can only take place in and by using other names. On the other hand, then, the regress can only be arrested by an arbitrary but deliberate decision. In the Cratylus this decision, which is quite literally a decisive cut or de - cision that interrupts the potentially infinite substitution of terms, is determined to be the purview of what Socrates calls the “name maker” or “law giver” (Plato 1977, 388e). The series of terminological substitutions is therefore terminated, as Slavoj Žižek (2008a, 95) describes it, “through the intervention of a certain ‘nodal point’ (the Lacanian point de capiton ) which ‘quilts’ them, stops their sliding and fixes their meaning.” This nodal point or knot in the network of interchangeable terms has been called the “master signifier”—a signifier that, although essentially no different from any other sign in the group, is situated in such a way that it masters the entire sequence of terminological substitutions by providing a kind of final reference or guarantee of meaning. This transpires not because of some natural and essential connection between this name and the thing it names but by way of a deliberate and contingent decision, or what Žižek (1992, 119) has called “an abyssal, nonfounded, founding act of violence.” Someone or some group—what Socrates calls the “name-giver” or “the law maker”—asserts one particular term over and against all the others as the universal one that encompasses or masters the entire field. “It is the point at which one can only say that the ‘buck stops here’; a point at which, in order to stop the endless regress, somebody has to say, ‘It is so because I say it is so!’” (Žižek 2008b, 62).

This is precisely what transpires in the literature of game studies. Faced with a set of virtually interchangeable terms, where no one term occupies the ideal position of “proto-name,” researchers have no choice but to make a choice. “The object of this book,” Jesper Juul (2005, viii) declares, “is games played using computer power, where the computer upholds the rules of the game and where the game is played using a video display. I will be using video games as an umbrella term to describe all such PC, console, arcade, and other digital games.” Grant Tavinor (2009, 17) institutes a similar, albeit less decisive, decision: “I have settled on videogame as the generic term in this book partly because it dominates current usage, partly because it does have a generic sense that cuts across the nominal variants just noted, and partly because it has the virtue of referring to the visual aspect of games, a fact which will assume importance later in this book.” Castronova, who originally decided on the term “virtual world,” makes an entirely different decision at the beginning of the book Synthetic Worlds : “While there might be a number of useful new terms,” Castronova (2005, 11) admits, “I will stick primarily with the term synthetic world: an expansive, world-like, large-group environment made by humans, for humans, and which is maintained, recorded, and rendered by a computer.” Geoffrey Sampson (2008, 118), however, takes a very different path, deciding on one of the acronyms: “The term ‘massively multi-player online role playing game’ is cumbersome, and it gets abbreviated in different ways: MMPORG, MMORPG, MMOG, MMO. Some commentators prefer the simpler term ‘virtual world’—but that is too vague, since there are many things at the artificial-intelligence end of computing that might be described as virtual worlds but are nothing to do with what we are considering here. I shall use the abbreviation MMO, for simplicity and also because the concept of massive numbers of participants interacting online is really more central to the ‘game’ concept.”
These acts of decision are clearly necessary and expedient. One needs to make such determinations in order to get on with the examination and to be able to say anything at all about the object under investigation. And this decision (again, quite literally a cut insofar as the English suffix – cision is derived from the Latin word caesa , meaning “cut”), is not something that is typically advanced and defended through extensive argumentation. More often than not, it is simply declared as a fait accompli , or what Žižek (1992, 119) has called “an abyssal, nonfounded, founding act of violence.” A researcher, therefore, selects one term from the field of competing options, simply declares that it is what she or he has decided, and then sticks with it. Despite it utility, however, so much is already decided here that “goes-without-saying” (Barthes 2012, xi). In making this kind of determination, certain elements and aspects are brought into focus while others are (perhaps unintentionally or unknowingly) sidelined or marginalized. Consequently, the choice of words—whether “virtual world,” “videogame,” MMORPG, or any of the other designations—is never neutral. Like the frame of a camera, the choice of a particular moniker frames certain objects, problems, and possibilities by situating them within the field of vision; but doing so also unavoidably excludes other aspects and opportunities from further consideration by locating them in the margins or just outside the field of vision.
This is precisely the theoretical insight that is developed and mobilized in the “linguistic turn.” Language, on this account, is not simply a set of prefabricated, ready-to-hand words that can be organized and combined together in order to say something intelligible about things in the world—things that presumably exist and have been presented prior to becoming represented in language. Instead language participates in shaping and making this reality accessible in the first place. In other words, words do not merely represent things as some derived and pale reflection of what is. Instead, words reveal and provide access to being. Or as James Carey (1992, 25) cleverly describes it by way of Kenneth Burke, “words are not the names for things . . . things are the signs of words.” Understood in this fashion, different words reveal different things or different aspects of things. As Heidegger (1962, 262) explains, it is in and by language that an entity comes to be extracted from its undifferentiated entanglement in the stuff of its environment and exhibited as such. Although this may sound counterintuitive, it is a concept that has gained considerable traction in the latter half of the twentieth century. 2 In his seminal book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus , for instance, Ludwig Wittgenstein famously argued that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (1995, 149), indicating that the world one knows and operates in is shaped, formed, and delimited by the words that one has at his or her disposal.
Because of this, we should not be too quick to pass over the problem of names and the opportunities and challenges made available in and by language. Instead of following the usual procedure and simply declaring a choice and then sticking with it, we will remain attentive to the circulation of different names, the expressions of power that come to be exercised in and by naming, and the terminological debates that are situated within the material of language itself. 3 This means that the object and objective of the investigation is not just what has been called “video game,” “virtual world,” “MMORPG,” and so on; it is also the way that these various designations have been devised, developed, and debated in the technical, popular, and academic literature. The target of the investigation, therefore, is not just video games and virtual worlds but also the words that have been used to talk about and make sense of them.
This attentiveness to words is something that is perhaps best summarized by one of the more famous (or infamous) statements of Jacques Derrida (1976, 158): “ il n’y a pas de hors-texte ” or “there is nothing outside the text.” What he meant by this, however, is not what many critics have assumed or accused him of saying: “That does not mean that all referents are suspended, denied, or enclosed in a book, as people have claimed, or have been naïve enough to believe and to have accused me of believing. But it does mean that every referent, all reality has the structure of a differential trace, and that one cannot refer to this ‘real’ except in an interpretive experience” (Derrida 1993, 148). Working with this particular insight requires a methodology that is designed for and that can scale to this opportunity and challenge. This is what is called “deconstruction.”
According to Derrida, the word “deconstruction” (to begin with a negative characterization) does not mean to take apart, to un-construct, or to disassemble. Despite this now rather widespread, popular misconception that has become something of an institutionalized (mal)practice, deconstruction is not a form of destructive analysis, a kind of demolition, or the process of reverse engineering. As Derrida (1993) himself has said quite explicitly (and on more than one occasion), “the de- of deconstruction signifies not the demolition of what is constructing itself, but rather what remains to be thought beyond the constructionist or destructionist schema” (147, emphasis mine). Deconstruction, therefore, names something entirely other than what is understood and delimited by the conceptual opposition situated between “construction” and “destruction.” So, what exactly is deconstruction? Here is how Derrida described the practice in an interview that was initially published in 1971:
What interested me then, which I am attempting to pursue along other lines now, was . . . a kind of general strategy of deconstruction . The latter is to avoid both simply neutralizing the binary oppositions of metaphysics and simply residing within the closed field of these oppositions, thereby confirming it. Therefore we must proceed using a double gesture, according to a unity that is both systematic and in and of itself divided, according to a double writing, that is, a writing that is in and of itself multiple, what I called, in “The Double Session” a double science . On the one hand, we must traverse a phase of overturning . To do justice to this necessity is to recognize that in a classical philosophical opposition we are not dealing with the peaceful coexistence of a vis-à-vis , but rather with a violent hierarchy. One of the two terms governs the other, or has the upper hand. To deconstruct the opposition, first of all, is to overturn the hierarchy at a given moment. . . . That being said—and on the other hand—to remain in this phase is still to operate on the terrain of and from the deconstructed system. By means of this double, and precisely stratified, dislodged and dislodging, writing, we must also mark the interval between inversion, which brings low what was high, and the irruptive emergence of a new “concept,” a concept that can no longer be, and never could be, included in the previous regime. (Derrida 1981, 41–42)
If we take this apart—if we “deconstruct” it to redeploy what would, by comparison, need to be characterized as the “wrong” (or at least the “insufficient”) sense of the word—we can extract and identify several important features.
Conceptual Oppositions
Deconstruction names a way—what Derrida (1981, 41) calls a “general strategy”—to intervene in “the binary oppositions of metaphysics.” According to the twentieth-century innovations of structuralism and poststructuralism, what we know and are able to say about the world can be characterized and arranged in terms of conceptual opposites, dualities, or binary distinctions. As Mark Dery (1996, 244) explains it: “Western systems of meaning [what Derrida calls “metaphysics”] are underwritten by binary oppositions: body/soul, other/self, matter/spirit, emotion/reason, natural/artificial, and so forth. Meaning is generated through exclusion: The first term of each hierarchical dualism is subordinated to the second, privileged one.” In other words, human beings tend to organize and make sense of the world through terminological differences or conceptual dualities, such as mind and body, male and female, good and bad, being and nothing, and so on. And the field of game studies is no exception—in fact, it is exemplary. “Many discussions in game studies,” as Nicholas Ware (2016, 168) explains, “have centered on binaries. In the 1990s, much was made of the real vs. the virtual. In the oughts, narratology vs. ludology.” Other influential conceptual distinctions in the field include: game versus player (Voorhees 2013, 19), work versus play (Calleja 2012), hardware versus software (Aslinger and Huntemann 2013, 3), and casual versus hardcore (Leaver and Willson 2016). For this reason, as Juul (2005, 11) concludes, “video game studies has so far been a jumble of disagreements and discussions with no clear outcome. . . . The discussions have often taken the form of simple dichotomies, and though they are unresolved, they remain focal points in the study of games.”
For any of these conceptual opposites, the two terms have not typically been situated on a level playing field; one of the pair is already determined to have the upper hand. Or as Derrida characterizes, “We are not dealing with the peaceful coexistence of a vis-à-vis , but rather with a violent hierarchy” (Derrida 1981, 41). In the conceptual duality of real versus virtual, for example, the two terms have not been equal partners. The former already has a presumed privilege over the later, and this privilege is perhaps best illustrated in The Matrix films. Early in the first episode of this cinematic trilogy, Morpheus offers Neo a choice between two pills—a red pill that leads to an authentic life in the real world and a blue pill that will keep one enslaved in the computer-generated virtual reality of the Matrix. 4 In the face of these competing options, Neo does what appears to be the “right thing”; he reaches out and takes the red pill. Like the prisoner in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” Neo selects truth as opposed to illusion, reality as opposed to fiction, and the real world as opposed to the virtuality of projected images. 5
Deconstruction constitutes a mode of critical intervention that takes aim at these conceptual oppositions and does so in a way that does not simply neutralize them and remain within the hegemony of the existing system. This latter procedure, what Derrida calls “neutralization,” is precisely the “solution” that Nicholas Ware (2016) advocates, when he argues that the “versus” that separates the two terms (i.e., real versus virtual, narratology versus ludology, and so on) be turned into an all-inclusive, neutralizing “and” (168). Derrida explicitly rejects this sort of effort as insufficient and ineffectual insofar as it actually does little or nothing to challenge or alter the rules of the game. Deconstruction, therefore, takes another route. It comprises a general strategy for challenging existing ways of thinking and its systems of power, formulating alternative possibilities for “thinking outside the box.”
Double Science
In order to accomplish this, deconstruction consists of a complicated double gesture or what Derrida also calls “a double science.” This two-step procedure necessarily begins with a phase of inversion, where a particular duality or conceptual opposition is deliberately overturned by siding with the traditionally deprecated term. This is, quite literally, a revolutionary gesture insofar as the existing order is inverted or turned around. But this is only half the story. This conceptual inversion, like all revolutionary operations—whether social, political, or philosophical—actually does little or nothing to challenge the dominant system. In merely exchanging the relative positions occupied by the two opposed terms, inversion still maintains the conceptual opposition in which and on which it operates—albeit in reverse order. This can be illustrated, once again, in the Matrix trilogy by way of the character of Cypher. Cypher is a member of Morpheus’s crew, who, after experiencing life in the real world, decides to return to the computer-generated fantasies of the Matrix. Cypher therefore opts for the blue pill. In being portrayed in this fashion, the character of Cypher functions as Neo’s dramatic foil; he is, as Frentz and Rushing (2002, 68) characterize it using digital notation, “the 0 to Neo’s 1.” In deciding to return to the computer-generated fantasies of the Matrix, however, Cypher simply inverts the ruling conceptual opposition and continues to operate within and according to its logic. 6 Simply turning things around, as Derrida (1981, 41) concludes, still “resides within the closed field of these oppositions, thereby confirming it.”
For this reason, deconstruction necessarily entails a second, postrevolutionary phase or operation. “We must,” as Derrida (1981, 42) describes it, “also mark the interval between inversion, which brings low what was high, and the irruptive emergence of a new ‘concept,’ a concept that can no longer be, and never could be, included in the previous regime.” Strictly speaking, this new “concept” is no concept whatsoever, for it always and already exceeds the system of dualities that define the conceptual order as well as the nonconceptual order with which the conceptual order has been articulated (Derrida 1982, 329). This “new concept” (that is, strictly speaking, not really a concept) is what Derrida calls an undecidable . It is first and foremost, that which “can no longer be included within philosophical (binary) opposition, but which, however, inhabits philosophical opposition, resisting and disorganizing it, without ever constituting a third term, without ever leaving room for a solution in the form of speculative dialectics” (Derrida 1981, 43).
The undecidable new concept occupies a position that is in between or in or at the margins of a traditional, conceptual opposition—a binary pair. It is simultaneously neither-nor and either-or. It does not resolve into one or the other of the two terms that comprise the conceptual order, nor does it constitute a third term that would mediate their difference in a synthetic unity, a la Hegelian or Marxian dialectics. Consequently, it is positioned in such a way that it both inhabits and operates in excess of the conceptual oppositions by which and through which systems of knowledge have been organized and articulated. It is for this reason that the new concept cannot be described or marked in language, except (as is exemplified here) by engaging in what Derrida (1981, 42) calls a “bifurcated writing,” which compels the traditional philosophemes to articulate, however incompletely and insufficiently, what necessarily resists and displaces all possible modes of articulation.
Perhaps the best illustration of deconstruction’s two-step operation is available in the term “deconstruction” itself. In a first move, deconstruction flips the script by putting emphasis on the negative term “destruction” as opposed to “construction.” In fact, the apparent similitude between the two words, “deconstruction” and “destruction,” is a deliberate and calculated aspect of this effort. But this is only step one. In the second phase of this double science, deconstruction introduces a brand-new concept. The novelty of this concept is marked, quite literally, in the material of the word itself. “Deconstruction,” which is fabricated by combining the de– of “destruction” and attaching it to the opposite term, “construction,” is a neologism that does not quite fit in the existing order of things. It is an exorbitant and intentionally undecidable alternative that names a new possibility. This new concept, despite its first appearances, is not the mere polar opposite of construction; rather, it exceeds the conceptual order instituted and regulated by the terminological opposition situated between construction and destruction.
Beyond Method
Technically speaking, deconstruction is not a method. This is because “methods,” as Rodolphe Gasché (1986, 121) explains, “are generally understood as roads (from hodos : “way,” “road”) to knowledge. In the sciences—as well as in the philosophies that scientific thinking patronizes—method is an instrument for representing a given field, and it is applied to the field from the outside.” Deconstruction, however, does not admit to this kind of abstraction and formalization. As Derrida (1993, 141) explains, “deconstruction does not exist somewhere, pure, proper, self-identical, outside of its inscriptions in conflictual and differentiated contexts; it ‘is’ only what it does and what is done with it, there where it takes place.” Consequently, “there is no one single deconstruction,” but only specific and irreducible instances in which deconstruction takes place. Unlike a method that can be generalized in advance of its particular applications, deconstruction comprises a highly specific form of critical intervention that is context dependent.
This means that deconstruction is less a method —a road to be followed—and more of what Ciro Marcondes Filho has called metáporo . According to Marcondes Filho (2013, 58), a method is, “by definition, a pre-mapped path that the researcher needs to follow.” It is, therefore, generally “fixed, rigid, and immutable” (58). By contrast, metáporo , a neologism introduced by Marcondes Filho, is more flexible and responsive to the particular: “If on the contrary, one opts for a procedure that follows its object and accompanies it in its unfolding, this opens a way, a ‘ poros ’ or a furrow, like a boat that cuts through the water without creating tracks. With metáporo , the object follows its own way and we accompany it without previous script, without a predetermined route, living in what happens while pursing the investigation” (Marcondes Filho 2013, 58).
Plan of Attack
Applying the method (or, perhaps more accurately stated, the “quasi-method”) of deconstruction to video games and game studies produces four individual movements or chapters. The objective of each chapter is not to take apart or to disassemble things—the vulgar definition of deconstruction—but to unravel, follow, and repurpose the sediment of metaphysical concepts that have already determined how we approach, understand, and make sense of video games, game studies, and virtual worlds. The chapters, therefore, do not develop one sustained argument or one single application of deconstruction; rather, they constitute individual interventions that take place as particular instances of deconstruction. For this reason, the sequence by which one reads the chapters need not be limited to what is presented here, and readers can and are invited to access them in whatever order they find interesting, useful, and engaging.
Terra Nova 2.0
The first movement—and what is designated as chapter 1 in the numbered sequence—takes up and investigates the new world of video games. In fact, the dominant metaphor that has been used to describe and situate this technology and its social impact has, more often than not, been “new world” and “new frontier.” According to R. V. Kelly (2004, 72), for instance, the experience of entering the virtual space of a MMORPG “is like being the first person to walk on the shores of a new continent thousands of years ago. The continent is full of animals, and they’re yours for the taking. You stand on the cliff edge gazing down at the herds and you know you’re going to flourish. There’s no feeling that is more addictive than this sense of discovery of the richness of the world around you and your own competence and independence in that world.” But this “new world” imagery is not something that is limited to descriptions of the gaming experience; it has also found its way into and informed game studies scholarship, where researchers have often mobilized this terminology. Case in point: the collection of essays on Second Life , edited by Donald Heider (2009) and called Living Virtually: Researching New Worlds as well Wagner James Au’s popular blog on virtual worlds and virtual reality (VR) that he calls New World Notes .

By deploying this historically powerful and persuasive imagery, game developers, players, the popular media, and academic researchers draw explicit connections between video games, MMORPGs, other online social experiences, and the European encounter with the Americas and the western expansion of the United States. Although providing a compelling and often easily recognizable explanation for the opportunities and challenges afforded by these new technologies, the use of this terminology comes with a considerable price. This chapter explores the concepts of the “new world” and the “new frontier” as they have played out in game design, marketing efforts, and academic research not with the goal of tearing down the experience or getting “politically correct” about what is often considered to be mere entertainment but to demonstrate how this seemingly simple and often unquestioned choice of words has significant consequences for the way we understand and conceptualize video games, game studies, and virtual worlds.
The Real Problem
What makes the experience of virtual worlds unique and significantly different from that of other forms of visual art, media, and entertainment is that they are not so much viewed as they are entered. “You are not,” Castronova (2001, 6) explains, “looking at a painting. You are in it. And it is not a painting at all, but an immersive scenery that induces you and thousands of other people to play parts in what becomes an evolving and unending collective drama.” How this immersion transpires and takes place is through the instrumentality of the avatar—a digital representation of the user in the computer-generated space of the game. From the beginning, the avatar has been a privileged subject and crucial point of contact for both gamers and game studies scholars. Players report spending an inordinate amount of time working and reworking their avatars’ appearances, even paying out of pocket for upgrades that are not available in the basic package. And this kind of personal investment and involvement was, in fact, an intended effect of using this particular moniker, which was originally derived from Hindu mythology. As Maurício Leisen (2016, 111) explains, “It is worth noting that this term, as the concept for the graphical representation of the user within a digital space, emerged as an attempt to make the player feel responsible for the characters in the game Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (Origin Systems 1985).” Likewise, game and internet studies scholars appear to be obsessed with this stuff, pursuing examinations of the complicated structures and articulations of identity made possible by the avatar, the relationship between the user’s true identity and that expressed by his or her virtual proxy, or the playfulness available with electronic cross-dressing and other forms of identity play. “By acting through avatars,” Beth Simone Noveck (2006, 269) explains, “players take on a role distinct from, yet related to, their own identity. This makes the experience of participating richer and more experiential than the anonymity of the old frontier. At the same time, avatars can be freed from the constraints of gender, race, and class that may impede participation.”
The second chapter takes aim at and deconstructs this conceptualization and understanding of the avatar. It does so not by targeting the virtual side of the real/virtual dichotomy but by investigating the complexities of the real —the undeniably useful but ultimately confused and somewhat misguided concept that has been operationalized in all these efforts. What is at issue, therefore, is not the usual questions and concerns regarding avatar identity but the assumed “real thing” that is determined to be its underlying cause and ultimate referent. In addressing this subject matter, we will consider three influential theories of the real—extending from the standard formulations of Platonism, through Immanuel Kant’s modern interventions and epistemological recontextualizations, to recent innovations introduced and developed by Slavoj Žižek—and investigate their effect on our understanding of computer-generated experience and social interaction. The objective of this effort is not to play around with philosophical questions concerning the true nature of reality. The goal is to get real about computer-generated experience and personal identity, providing a new way to conceptualize and to make sense of the avatar and its consequences.
Social Contract 2.0
The third chapter gets political. MUD1 and its numerous spinoffs—what Richard Bartle (2006, 32) has called the “the world’s first virtual world”—were, by all available accounts, lawless frontier towns where virtually anything and everything was possible. Eventually, however, someone or some group institutes rules. This is done in response to crisis, the need to control the experience as a commercial service, or simply due to the efforts of responsible citizens interested in producing better opportunities for themselves and others. These rules, which go above and beyond the restrictions programmed in a specific game’s codebase, are generally formalized in a contractual document called End User License Agreement (EULA) or Terms of Service (ToS). As Gregory Lastowka and Dan Hunter (2006, 130) explain: “Virtual worlds, to some extent, are just a massively social implementation of traditional genres of computer games. They depend primary on software rules, because, like Space Invaders, they are fundamentally code. . . . But unlike traditional computer games, virtual worlds do not rely exclusively on software for their rule system. Instead, unlike most other computer games, virtual worlds are accompanied by explicit textual rule sets that are carefully drafted by lawyers and game designers and designed (at least in part) to curtail antisocial behaviors. These nonsoftware rules of virtual worlds are often expressed in standard end-user license agreements.” Formulated as a contract, the EULA/ToS requires users to consent to the rules that it imposes prior to entering and participating in a particular virtual world. Although these contractual agreements look to be nothing more than legal documents—and documents that many users never actually read or consult—they do have real social and political consequences.
This chapter, therefore, advances what initially appears to be an unlikely thesis—namely, that the most influential and important political documents of the twenty-first century are these often-overlooked contractual agreements to which users must consent (or, more often than not, merely click “agree”) in order to participate in a video game, MMORPG, or social network like Facebook. The demonstration of this thesis is organized into three parts. The first situates EULA and ToS contracts within the history and lineage of modern political thought in general and social contract theory in particular. The second pursues a close textual analysis of EULA/ToS documents in order to identify and evaluate the kinds of social interactions and political affiliations these agreements make possible and the type of activities and associations they necessarily limit, marginalize, or exclude. The final section extrapolates the broader social and political consequences of the EULA/ToS, arguing that informed users not only need to read these contracts carefully but also need to recognize the way these seemingly unimportant documents define and delimit the very terms and conditions for social involvement and interaction in the twenty-first century.
In the Face of Others
These political documents are necessary, because, unlike single-player video games like Space Invaders , MMORPGs and other online virtual worlds already involve others. But the “other” in a virtual world is no longer—and perhaps never really was—limited to other human beings. In fact, in the face of the avatar, one cannot (as we will already have seen in chapter 2 ) be entirely certain about who or what stands behind and authorizes the actions of the virtual proxy. It maybe another person like me; it may be a person very different from me. But it could also be otherwise. It could, for instance, be a community of different people. It could even be a bot or nonplayer character (NPC)—an avatar not connected to or controlled by anybody but manipulated and directed by the computer. This uncertainty about the other and the possibility of other forms of otherness complicate the social and moral situation that is confronted in online social worlds. As Norbert Wiener, the progenitor of the science of cybernetics insightfully predicted over fifty years ago, the social situation is evolving. At the beginning of The Human Use of Human Beings (1988), Wiener writes the following: “It is the thesis of this book that society can only be understood through a study of the messages and the communication facilities which belong to it; and that in the future development of these messages and communication facilities, messages between man and machines, between machines and man, and between machine and machine, are destined to play an ever-increasing part” (16). In the social relationships of the future (we need to recall that Wiener wrote these words in 1950), the machine will no longer comprise a mere instrument or medium through which human users communicate and socialize with each other. Instead, it will increasingly occupy the position of another social actor with whom one communicates and interacts.
In coming to occupy this other position, we inevitably run up against and encounter fundamental questions regarding social standing and responsibility—questions that not only could not be articulated within the context of the previous way of thinking but also would have been considered inappropriate and even nonsense if they had been articulated from that perspective. What, for example, is our responsibility in the face of these others—an “other” who could be something besides another human user? How do or should we respond to these forms of otherness, and how will or should these other entities respond to us? Although these questions open onto what many would consider to be the realm of science fiction, they are already part of our social reality and are being modeled and played with in video games and virtual worlds. How we decide to respond to these opportunities and challenges will have a profound effect not just on our interactions within the virtual world but also on the way we conceptualize our place in the world, who we decide to include in the community of socially significant subjects, and what we exclude from such consideration and why.
Open-Ended Conclusions
The book ends without a conclusion, or at least without that kind of final chapter that would be designated “conclusion” and that would have wrapped-up everything in a nice, neat package. This is not some clever dodge, cute rhetorical gimmick, or a product of that kind of “obscurantism” for which Derrida was so often criticized. 7 It is necessitated by the approach, objective, and procedure of the investigation. Any attempt at “gaming the system,” like the critical effort of deconstruction, is already situated within and working in response to a specific set of rules, requirements, and circumstances. Like a game mod, deconstruction cannot stand on its own and is not intended to; it becomes what it is only within the context of the texts it occupies, responds to, and plays with. Consequently, what results from this kind of effort is not a set of stand-alone, generalizable insights and outcomes that can be extracted and enumerated, but a necessarily incomplete and ongoing involvement with the systems in which and on which it operates. “Leading poststructuralists [like Derrida],” Mark Taylor (1997, 269) notes, “realize that, since they remain unavoidably entangled in the systems and structures they resist, the task of criticism is endless.” For this reason, the activity of deconstruction is not, strictly speaking, ever able to be finished with its work or to achieve final closure. As Derrida has described it (1981, 41), the end of deconstruction—“end” understood as the goal or objective of the activity—is to be “an interminable analysis.” The final chapter takes up and deals with the meaning of this rather cryptic phrase, producing a kind of inconclusive conclusion.

1. This use of the Google Books Ngram Viewer to represent the change in the occurrence and use of different terms in the existing literature is neither unique nor innovative. I borrow this strategy from Eduardo Navas (2012), who employed it to sort out and make sense of the different terminology surrounding the theory and practice of “remix.” Though providing a quick, visual overview of the relative change in the use and popularity of terminology over a specific time period, the tool has a number of limitations. Specifically, it is currently restricted to books published in the English language between the years 1975 and 2008, which is the most recent year for which data is available. Consequently, the resulting graphs do not account for data from other kinds of publication (e.g., academic journals, newspapers, magazines, and websites), from languages other than English, or for years after 2008. This is—especially in the case of this material—a serious limitation insofar as video gaming and game studies are a well-established global phenomenon that have experienced remarkable growth in the years since 2008. Despite this limitation, however, the graphs do present data derived from a reasonably defined sample and show how usage of the different terms has changed relative to each other over a selected period of time.
2. Similar positions have been developed and advanced in the fields of (1) linguistics with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which in its strong form argues that the language one speaks determines his/her social reality (Sapir 1941, 162); (2) sociology with Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality (1966), which proposes that language and other symbolic forms construct the reality in which human beings live and operate; and (3) critical theory with Jean Baudrillard’s Simulations (1994, 1), in which Baudrillard famously argued (by way of reference to a short story by Jorge-Luis Borges) that “the territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory— precession of simulacra —it is the map that engenders the territory.”
3. Richard Bartle (2016, 8) provides an instructive illustration of what such attentiveness to terminological plurivocity might entail and look like in practice: “Normally, the terminology I use would be virtual world for virtual worlds in general, social worlds for ones along the lines of Second Life with no built-in gameplay, and game-like worlds for the ones along the lines of World of Warcraft that are played as games by most people who use them. However, just for you, I’ll generally use MMO in this book rather than ‘game-like worlds.’ Except I might call them virtual worlds anyway, or game worlds when contrasting them with social worlds, or even games if some point I wish to make isn’t MMO-specific.”
4. Despite the fact that The Matrix is rather “old” in popular culture years—the first film was released in 1999—the trilogy continues to have traction. This is especially the case for the red/blue pill distinction, which has become something of a cliché understood even by those individuals who have had little or no exposure to the films. This can be seen, for instance, on the website for Google’s TensorFlow, an open source software library for developing machine learning applications. The basic introduction on the “Getting Started” page offers users two ways to proceed, represented by a red pill and a blue pill: “To whet your appetite further, we suggest you check out what a classical machine learning problem looks like in TensorFlow. In the land of neural networks, the most ‘classic’ classical problem is the MNIST handwritten digit classification. We offer two introductions here, one for machine learning newbies, and one for pros. If you’ve already trained dozens of MNIST models in other software packages, please take the red pill. If you’ve never even heard of MNIST, definitely take the blue pill” (TensorFlow 2017).
5. For a more detailed consideration of the points of contact between Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” from book VII of the Republic and the Matrix trilogy, see Gunkel 2000, 2006, and 2007a.

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