Gameplay is politics

We attempt to bridge the concepts ‘gameplay’ and ‘politics’ by reinterpreting Alain Badiou’s Theory of The Subject (1975) in terms of the contemporary game design praxis. The book is written in the context of political practice; it has no official relevance to game design or gameplay, but we discover that Badiou’s dialectics is also appropriate to use in the context of digital games. If this late discovery is partly due to Badiou’s political motivations in developing his theory, it is also due to the fact that the most popular game was Pong at the time when he wrote this book.

The book is well-organized in 6 parts, each distinct and building on the previous ones. It is in a style similar to Jacques Lacan’s seminars, and it was an actual seminar that took place in 1975-1979. As of now, we finished the interpretation of the first part, ‘The Place of the Subjective’, which elaborates the fundamental concepts in the political theory. We are interpreting the following parts of the book based on this framework. Here is a brief summary on what we developed until now:

Badiou develops his materialist dialectics by following Marxist theory of the Maoist tradition, with a reinterpretation of Hegel by referring also to contemporary thinkers such as Lacan and Mallarme. His practical motivation at the time was to make clear that communist politics cannot restrict itself to building and defending a stable socialist party-state, and that the next task consists of abolishing this apparatus. He invents purely abstract concepts, while at the same time keeping in mind political events such as May ’68 and the Cultural Revolution for the practical relevance. For example, “outplace” and “splace” are concepts defined in their own right, but they also refer to the “proletariat” and the “imperialist world” in political practice. In terms of game design, we take these to refer to “player” and “gameworld”.

Badiou begins by presenting the One as Two, as the scission between something (A) and something-in-its-place (Ap). We take these as the player and her avatar. The avatar determines this scission Ap(AAp) which in turn divides into the determination proper Ap(A) of the player by the avatar (immersion of the player) and the relapse Ap(Ap), the dead-end of ‘rightist’ deviations such as ‘trade-unionism’ or ‘economism’ in politics (too much focus on game structure and mechanics, metric-based design, as well as grinding and gold farming practices in MMOs). Then the player counter-determines her determination by her place: A(Ap(A)) which is called torsion. This divides into the proper counter-determination or limit A(Ap) (engagement) and the relapse A(A), the dead end of ‘leftist’ deviations such as ‘terrorism’ in politics (too much focus on gameplay, leading to smaller games, as well as imaginary terrorism and violence in games).

To demonstrate his notions’ relevance to Hegel’s dialectics, Badiou applies them to Hegel’s conception of Christianity, which as a matter of fact also works for our interpretation. Referring to the Nicea statement that “The Son is consubstantial with The Father”, he designates Son/Father by the scission A/Ap. This means for us that The Father was the player and The Son was his avatar. The Earth was the gameworld, and the Crucifixion was the ultimate “Game Over” screen.

A primary aim of Badiou is to provide a theory for periodization: to comprehend the historical successes and failures of revolutionaries as a real historical process, an ongoing struggle of opposing forces that at times actually close older periods and open new ones. Badiou refers to the repetitive nature of revolutionary political practice and its conditions for achieving real progress. For us, this refers to the repetitive nature of gameplay and its conditions to improve a player’s gameplay skills, as well as her becoming a game designer by this experience.

But there’s an inherent ambiguity: Were the older revolutionaries ‘merely’ playing their own game? Or are current players and game designers secret revolutionaries?

We don’t know. Time will tell.


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