Badiou on game design, part 1C: the real is the impasse of formalization; formalization is the place of the forced pass of the real

(Intro: Dialectics of Game Design)

“Dialectics states that there is the Two, and intends to infer the One from it as a moving division. Metaphysics posits the One, and forever gets tangled up in deriving from it the Two. There are others, like Deleuze, who posit the Multiple, which is never more than a semblance since positing the multiple amounts to presupposing the One as substance and excluding the Two from it. The ontology of the multiple is a veiled metaphysics.”

For the ‘dialectical game designer’, first comes the Two as the scission: Player/Avatar. From this, the One as a moving division (gameplay) is inferred.

The ‘right-wing’ metaphysics begins from the One as the avatar in the game world; whereas the ‘left-wing’ metaphysics begins from the player’s freedom, excluding the gameworld. And they never reach to the Two.

The Multiple as a starting point, i.e. richness, playability etc. is a veiled metaphysics that has to choose between Player or the Avatar as the One.

“If, as Lacan says, the real is the impasse of formalization, as we saw when we ran up against the limit as return, we must venture from this point that formalization is the im-passe of the real.”

Through the game, we reach the impasse of the gameworld. This is called real. But as the game is not a closed circle, or a simple repetition, we must articulate this ‘impasse’ as a ‘passing’ or pushing through the game’s formal structure.

“The algorithm scission-determination-limit, with its deviations to the right and to the left, is the truth of the structural dialectical sequence but only up to the point where this impeccable formalism is summed up in the ‘do not trespass’ that orders a return.”

The movement of the scission Player/Avatar ends at a point where the process ends. But game sessions are not simple repetitions. A sequence of sessions are periodicized like a history. But where does the ‘practical lessons learned’ reside in between game sessions?

“We need a theory of the pass of the real, in the breach opened up by formalization. Here, the real is no longer only what can be lacking from its place, but what passes (pushes) through by force.

We have to put this  ‘learned’ between game sessions, outside of the formal structure of the game. We cannot assume it to be an in-game place to be reached.

Then, Badiou, referring to Mao Zedong, enumerates the three components of contradiction and their divisions as structural (game’s formalism) and historical (when game is played, developed, etc). “In a real dialectical process, the historical is anchored in the structural. This anchorage is the nodal point of the question of the subject.”

  1. Difference
    • Structural: Differences between places in the gameworld
    • Historical: Antagonistic contradictions between places and states during the game
  2. Correlation
    • Minimal: Player’s control as “pure and simple position of the Two as a processual unity”
    • Structural: Game mechanics (weak correlation as class contradiction: “a permanent structural fact, which can be mapped economically”)
    • Historical: Gameplay (strong correlation as class struggle: “process under particular conditions, entirely political in essence, which is not deducible from the weak correlation.”)
  3. Position
    • Structural: subjugation of the player to the dominant gameworld (weak position as invariant asymmetry)
    • Historical: player’s potential to ‘overthrow’ the gameworld to become the principal aspect (strong position as reversible asymmetry)

In this case, the historical antagonism of differences are anchored in the structure of different places and states; the gameplay is anchored in game mechanics; and the player’s potential dominance is anchored to her subjugation to the game. Each of these anchorages are the nodal points that form the Player as subject.

“To confuse class contradiction with the class struggle, to practice the correlative indistinction of the contradiction, is the philosophical tendency of economism, of workerism, of somniferous Marxism for the lecture hall.”

We can also describe an ‘economism’ of game design ‘for the lecture hall’, that confuses game mechanics with gameplay, focusing on in-game variables disregarding their ‘political’ gameplay context.

Then, Badiou describes two types of contradiction:

  • the contradiction, called fundamental, between productive forces and social relations of production;
  • the contradiction, called principal, between the antagonistic social classes.

The fundamental contradiction defines working class as the “base”, where all the rest are superstructure. The principal contradiction defines working class as the “motor”, where all the rest are ideology. Focusing on these two aspects separately leads to either trade unionism or terrorism. The true dialectical approach is to consider the motor as anchored to the base, and this anchorage as the nodal point of the subject.

The fundamental contradiction concerns the “structural” contradictions and the principal contradiction concerns the “historical” contradictions enumerated above for the subject of Player.

A ‘trade unionist’ player would be like a Chinese gold farmer, or a WoW grinder that focuses on the values of items and actions inside the game economy. She would struggle to receive “higher wages”, in XP, gold, etc. A ‘trade unionist’ player only looks at her stash and her ‘structural’ status and she only plays in order to develop in terms of these.

A ‘terrorist’ player could be destroying cars in GTA2 or fighting the police to death in GTA4. A player becomes a ‘terrorist’ when the “structural” immersion fails.

As the gameworld is part of the reality of the (capitalist) world (they are both fictions, and their parallel “history” is more conceivable in MMORPGs); we can re-state these contradictions including the game developers & managers as well:

  1. Difference
    • Structural: Differences between places & roles in a gameworld and its development
    • Historical: Antagonistic contradictions between these places & roles during the game and its development
  2. Correlation
    • Minimal: Player’s control inside the game / Developer’s control during development
    • Structural: Game mechanics, trade mechanisms, premium items; player/player, player/developer, developers/developer, etc. distinctions
    • Historical: Gameplay, management, patches, real money trade, development of the game etc.
  3. Position
    • Structural: subjugation of the player; dominant position of the developer, manager
    • Historical: players’ potential to determine the game life, subjugating the developers & managers

Badiou’s quote from Lenin: “Politics is the concentration of the economy”, we can restate it like “Gameplay is the concentration of the game mechanics” etc.

Then he says: “Even, I would say, when it is a matter of libidinal economy, the economy of the drives.”

We can easily imagine game elements becoming objects of a player’s economy of the drives.

The final part: “Every subject is political. This is why there are few subjects and rarely any politics.”

Game design is about gameplay. This is why there are few game designers and rarely any gameplay.

Next part: Badiou on game design, part 1D: hegel: ‘the activity of force is essentially the activity reacting against itself’


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