infrastructures are what’s available, activity systems are the movement of objects in circulation

(this was my final post for a class I’m taking this quarter called Why So Serious?: Video Games as Persuasion, Politics, and Propaganda)

I’ve been reading a bit from infrastructure studies (Hunsinger, 2009) (which I didn’t know was a discipline until just last week) which posits that various cultural attitudes are normalized and made invisible by how our social world is structured. The basic idea is that we operate a certain way–customs, beliefs, values, etc.–because of how those ideas are supported by the infrastructures in place that let us do what we do. When people do some sort of activity, they operate in a complex system or network that is made up of a whole bunch of different things in relationship to each other (Latour, 2005). These things are invisible to us such that we live in a sort of hyperreality, a condition of modernity (Baudrillard, 1994) (okay, it’s a little more complicated than that, but pretend hyperreality is part of modernity for bit).

An example is driving where it isn’t just a person and a car, but also the road, the material of the road, the history of engines, the geopolitical forces that allowed certain people to make those engines, the way we’ve agreed on certain rules that constrain how we drive such as stop signs, how we know that speed limit signs might or might not really be the speed limit, *other* drivers, etc. These activity systems are supported by the material and social infrastructure of that particular setting. By being dependent on the infrastructure of the setting, people who have a say in how those infrastructures are set up have political power and can present outsiders with bridges or barriers to their infrastructures. But they aren’t political in the overt sense. Instead the term I’ve been reading is subpolitical (Hunsinger, 2009). Something is subpolitical when it is subtle and hidden and its power isn’t exercised through normal overt political or governed means.

Anyway, this subpolitics-of-infrastructures angle could be used to describe games and how each game is dependent on certain ways of working (game mechanics that make up the game play) and these ways of working, or infrastructures, are rooted in historical genres of games *and* historical societal norms for how our world works. This relates to Galloway’s allegory of control (2006), to me, in that games operate a certain way and by enacting or making the narratives progress, players are embodying those ideological infrastructures. An easy example is Bioshock where the Randian themes of power and super-individualism are highlighted by the way the game is relatively linear yet feels like it is open-ended (and major spoiler: the way in which it’s discovered at the end that the player really wasn’t in control at all).

When you look at social interaction in multiplayer games, the boundary between game and non-game gets dismantled completely. For example, argumentation by various people who play WoW about how loot should be distributed follows certain patterns of behavior that reinforce structural norms of proper behavior such that certain players just aren’t as able to successfully become expert players. Expertise for WoW is determined by certain groups of players (and the game devs) who value specific ways of playing (and arguing) over others.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that, yes, all games are political, or at least subpolitical, in that they all reflect certain infrastructures that dictate how things work in those settings.

The tricky question, of course, is the one that kept coming up in class. Ok, games are political, but do they successfully convey whatever message was intended? This is kind of blown apart, though, in that many games weren’t intended to be overtly or even subtly political. Yet, the subpolitical nature of game infrastructures (of even overtly political games) means that ultimately they normalize certain ways of being or acting. Game devs operate within the bounds of their infrastructures and produce games reflecting those structures.

What does this mean, though? I mean, many of us came away from the different games having taken different messages from the games. This complicates the idea that a game has *a* message. Subjective interpretation turns the modernity associated with invisible infrastructures into post-modernity.

  • Baudrillard, J. (1994). Simulacra and simulation.
  • Galloway, A. (2006). Gaming: Essays on algorithmic culture.
  • Hunsinger, J. (2009). Introducing learning infrastructures: Invisibility, context, and governance. Learning Inquiry, 3(3), 111-114.
  • Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social.

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