Tag Archives: mckenzie wark

The Cave

First, a brief but hopefully fruitful digression: Julian Dibbell’s essay on the history of Adventure, the first computer role-playing game. (Dibbell posted a link to the essay in a comment on the first page of Gamer Theory v. 1.1.) The essay is pretty long, but definitely worth reading if you have time.

To briefly summarize Dibbell’s essay: an allegory of ‘the cave’ is intimately bound up in the history game design. In this case, the cave in question is Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, the longest known cave system in the world and model for Will Crowther’s pioneering computer game Adventure (the game that later inspired Zork, which we played in this class.) Dibbell suggests that ‘the cave,’ or rather, the cave network, is an important metaphor for life in the information age:

[…] Crowther’s role as an Internet pioneer suggested the cave’s new meaning and new centrality: it had become iconic of life in the fast-approaching information age, an epoch in which the occupation of open territory (and the exploitation of its resources) matters less than the knowledge of complex, hidden passageways and what they lead to.

Here, the cave network functions as a symbol of the possibilities of exploration and new knowledge in an age when the world’s surface territories have already been mapped. The cave network promised a new, invisible, and seemingly infinite chain of territorial discovery much in the same way as the computer network promises a seemingly endless web of information.

In Gamer Theory, Wark returns to the original ‘allegory of the Cave’–Plato’s, that is–but this time, the Cave is already a simulation. The introduction to Gamer Theory begins by more or less paraphrasing Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, with a few key details updated for the 21st century. Instead of being entranced by shadows on the wall of a cave, our hero is submerged in the games of The Cave(TM), a franchise-node in a network of Internet cafes. Here’s the twist: when our hero leaves the cave, he doesn’t find an ordered world leading him away from the shadows toward the Pure Light of Reason and disdain for the pitiable delusions that pass for reality in the world of the cave. Rather, he finds the world outside to be very much like the one he just left. The ‘real’ world is equally beholden to the digital logic of The Cave, where everything is commodity, spectacle, and competition. Utopian exodus from the cave is no longer a possibility.

Wark is interested in the ways that games model reality–model both in the passive sense (mimic, reproduce) and in the active sense (shape, reform, structure). Even the most fanciful game scenarios can function as powerful allegories for the culture and politics of the postmodern ‘gamespace’ that constitutes the world(s) we live in today: ‘The game has not just colonized reality, it is also the sole remaining ideal. Gamespace proclaims its legitimacy through victory over all rivals. The reigning ideology imagines the world as a level playing field, upon which all men are equal before God, the great game designer. History, politics, culture — gamespace dynamites everything which is not in the game, like an out-dated Vegas casino.’ (8)

(For another example of gaming-as-reality, I’d like to point again to the TED talk I linked to earlier: Jesse Schell on “When games invade real life.”)

If we’re trapped in a world of games-within-games, what’s a gamer to do? Wark suggests the possibility of subverting the system from within–finding ways to hack, tweak, and creatively break the rules of the game. True play isn’t playing to win; it’s playing to explore the full creative potential of the gamespace. And here’s where the Adventure/cave network metaphor (maybe) comes in handy. The Cave can be a space of darkness and delusion, or it can be a space for underground subversion. Or both.

What do you think?