Unit Operations IV

Part I defined the foundational terms (units, operations)

Part II applies the principles of Unit Operations, arguing for a “comparative approach to videogame criticism that identifies and analyzes configurative expression in multiple media”.

Part III was on “procedural subjectivity”: the the nature of simulations, their limitations, and the critical role of the user.

Below Bogost writes on complex network theory, Deleuze and Guattari’s Schizoanalysis, “and the limits of nomadism and complexity as expressions of unit operations”, an extended analysis of “freedom in large virtual spaces” [I excerpt from this on Grand Theft Auto], and a “vision for the future of videogame criticism and research that models itself after the configurative approach to analysis I advance throughout.”


 I. Complex Networks

Complex adaptive systems, and Bogost’s lens on Deleuze and Guattari (recall: I wrote on Delanda’s Deleuze not long ago).

“Complexity theory offers a framework from which to approach the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, especially the second volume of their capitalism and schizophrenia twosome, A Thousand Plateaus, and specifically their notion of the rhizome and the practice of nomadism. The rhizome gained a sudden boost in popularity in the 1990’s, first as a potentially useful device for understanding new electronic hypertexts and later as a compelling theoretical model for the Internet. […] Despite this close history with digital media criticism and practice, there are important differences between Deleuze and Guattari’s approach and that of unit operations.”

Deleuze and Guattaru (henceforth, D+G) “demonstrate a lingering fascination with madmen, wanderers, and mechanical connections.” Bogost compares them with Wolfram in that they “critique the ordering principles of major fields of human thought”- although Wolfram is interested in the sciences and D+G are specifically interested in the “human sciences”. In A Thousand Plateaus, they proide “liberation strategies” to attack the “three Goliaths of meaning-making: psychoanalysis, physiology, and semiotics”. “To do this, D+G concentrate on disrupting unities of meaning and replacing them with assemblages of singular states of meaning.”

The rhizome is “a plant-growth model, according to which growth spreads by nonhierarchical tubers instead of hierarchical roots.” The logic of the “free-form movement of an entity” within a rhizomatic structure is nomadism [warning: Pokemon], and can be contrasted with “state space”, which focuses on rigid structures, organization of various kinds.

According to Bogost (via Massumi, summarizing Deleuze…), “nomad thought resists thinking of the world in discrete components, devouring individual decision into an amorphous whole. This obsctacle stands in the way of nomadism’s embrace of unit operations, despite the apparent similarity of their attempt to disrupt unities of meaning. Deleuze and Guattari endorse assemblages that make individuated changes in constant progression. These assemblages create and destroy broader contexts and structures, but they always return their allegiance to the flow.” As Bogost reads it, nomad and rhizome are metaphors for extremely abstract operations. Subjectivity is “replaced by assemblages and machines.” Assemblages only exist in a constellation between things (“the heavy plow exists only in a constellation between field, oxen, soil, and mouth”) . Machines are the places where flows enter or leave structures. D+G “privilege aggregate flows over discrete unit operations.”

Bogost then delves into complexity theory, and the history of how mathematics came to struggle with how relatively few rules or units can create dazzling complexity. This is simple stuff and I will omit it. Weak ties vs strong ties, “degrees of separation”, Erdos, the network, the 80/20 rule and scale-free networks, etc. You likely know this drill.

Ross Mayfield evaluated social networks by four operations: declarative, in-person, conversational, and referral. “Important characteristics of these tools include not only their underlying structure, but also the nature of the individual gestures by which people traverse that structure.”:

[Mayfield:] “Social Software design fosters specific social norms by regulating possible behavior. Regulaton is a good thing. A stem cell can grow into any cell in the human body not by hard coded instructions of what to be come, but regulators telling it what not to become. Simple rules in complex adaptive systems, like social networks, yield complex results… Social Software encodes political bargains that are required because of natural social tension.”

[Bogost:] “Within [a] network of possible decisions, unit operations regulate movement between nodes, or impulses between intensities. This is why madmen like Judge Schreber and Antonin Artaud are such operative models for Deleuze and Guattari’s analysis: they are unaffected by the systemic, overarching burden of institutionalized sanity.”

“But despite Deleuze and Guattari’s wide readership, applications of nomadism or schizoanalysis as a viable praxis have been limited. Understanidng nomadism as a kind of complex network theory helps lay a viable groundwork for using Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Complexity and nomadism underscore the importance of free-form, localized maneuvers that constitute larger systems through creative configuration. Emergence in complex networks relies on individual gestures, not on coordinating system operations.”


II. Complex Worlds

“In complex network theory terms, [the game Grand Theft Auto] derives its representational power from the links or edges that connect the player’s possible unit operations together. Fire a gun, steal a truck, explore a hidden building, bludgeon a cop, explode a car: although important to the games appeal, the specificity of these actions is subordinate to the ease of transition between them, an the conscious player decision associated with that gap.”

Bogost sites a review that argues that although “choosing a life of crime has its consequences”, there is a freedom in playing GTA that within five minutes you can be doing something wildly different merely because the opportunity seemed to present itself. (ex. from cop-killing to driving and ambulance to the hospital to listening to the radio in your car.)

“In a short review of the game, Gonzalo Frasca suggests that most players call this ability freedom, and they cite is as the most important and compelling feature of the game.”

Freedom has a long and conflicting history.

“Those who argue that one can “do anything” in Liberty City are mistaken: the game constantly structures freeform experience in relation to criminality.” (Thus, even those who play an entirely peaceful session are cognizant of their relationship with the violence that wasn’t.) “GTA crafts the game experience in terms of a set of relations between possible actions and their consequences; in the game between these decisions, simulation fever reigns. This is where the player must frame his next action in relation to a web of motivations, fears, and preconceptions, both within and without the game.”

“Both nomadism and complexity rely on unit operations that traverse complex structures in an arbitrary but deliberate way.”

“Complex systems and nomads are state machines that must persist in some form, even if they constantly rearrange themselves. Both complex network theory and nomadism inch toward formalizing their respective structures.”

In an open-ended game, “the size of the world and the quantity of possible actions matters less than the significance of those actions.” Legend of Zelda: Windwaker involves traversing huge bodies of water by boat, offering more degrees of freedom and autonomy than a drive in Liberty City. “Wind Waker is still a terrific adventure game, but it fails to create the complex relations of experience found in GTA, even though the latter boasts no technical achievements whatsoever.”

“[Nonplayer] characters in GTA are the most noticeable empty spaces in an otherwise replete urban landscape. Frasca cites the lack of talking NPCs as a design accomplishment that avoids breaking the immersion of the experience; indeed, given the lack of meaningful person-to-person interaction, the game’s lack of reliance on credible speech is wise. Perhaps more important, Frasca notes, is that the game’s failure to render human characters in any meaningful detail ‘dehumanizes and objectifies NPC characters.’ The lack of humanity that the NPCs exhibit could be seen as a testament to the overwhelming technical complexity of believable characters […] or as an implicit declaration of the game’s endorsement of sociopathic behavior. Alternatively, one could understand the shallow NPCs as the game’s primary strategy for alienating the player from productive social interactions, a unit operation for sociopathy.”

GTA [framed through “relational networks of unit-operational meaning] also demonstrates that we don’t need extreme-fidelity, body-encompassing technology for rich interactive experiences”. “GTA offers a convincing and meaningful world in a technically bereft environment. GTA suggests how videogames may resist the common opinion that dematerialization of the literal body is a necessary step toward greater interactivity (another theme of A Thousand Plateaus). We should be less inclined to condemn works like GTA for their brutality than try to evolve the core problem they present: how to understand and refine each unit operation of our possible actions so we can interrogate and improve the system of human experience.


III. Critical Networks

The study of videogames has been slow to uptake in American Universities, though it has shown more success in Northern Europe. Its separation from other fields of study, a condition mentioned already, has been productive although suboptimal in Bogost’s opinion (as mentioned in Part II).

“Universities are often testaments to system operations [see part I]: academic departments deal only in specified structures of knowledge, and those departments are highly segregated, resistant to change, and afford few exceptions to innovation. Instead of segregating disciplines into the independent, static divisions that would characterize any new academic department or critical discipline, a meaningful intellectual interrogation of fields like videogames, software technology, and information systems demands flexible organizational units that act more like adaptive networks than stodgy corporations.”

Bogost draws on comparative literature and emerging programs like biotech and human complex systems as being leased or kludged together without formal department status. He acknowledges the difficulties of reduced legibility induced by interdisciplinarity- management, funding, etc.

“Interdisciplinarity is, by definition, an exception; it requires stable, formal disciplines between which to construct working relationships.” Deadlock, competing interests, and complex promotion and tenure review politics result.

Naturally, Bogost offers “the idea of unit-operational academic practice.”

“A unit-operational university would look like a complex network: a series of constantly changing relations between highly disparate groups, ideas, and resources. Instead of belonging to static, isolated departments, faculty and students would constantly make and break ties with one another, some indefinite, some lasting only the length of a meeting. Intellectual projects would structure themselves more like software: units of encapsulated production with structured ties to multiple potential applications.”

“Michael Serres conceives of an ‘ultimate parasite’ who ‘produces disorder and who generates a different order.’ In a reconfiguration of cyberneticist Claude Shannon’s conception of information as a relationship between organization and disorganization (signal/noise), Serres suggests a fundamentally creative force is at work in disorder. Reading Serres, Mark C. Taylor argues that knowledge emerges through a process of screening in what selected information is destroyed. This practice is similar to Hayles’s notion of a cybernetic dialectic, and another example of the production of meaning through a process of inclusion and exclusion.

“No matter one’s moral opinion about the value of ubiquitous computing and its impact on contemporary social practice, the process and infrastructure for the exchange of procedural unit operations now makes possible alternative models for production. Conceptually, extending this logic to the practice of research would yield a network of units of criticism, a kind of postdisciplinary critical network. Critical in every inflection of the word: for one part, it embraces criticism like the various forms of literary and philosophical inquiry. For another part, it underscores a kind of general analysis that relates to other fields. For another, it admits to a certain danger of collapse and the need to keep the possibility in mind. And for yet another part, it telegraphs an exigency of action.”

Mark C. Taylor claims that the modern university claims lineage from Kant’s Conflict of the Faculties, a “blueprint for the University of Berlin”, with separate departments with stable curricula, and “higher” and “lower” faculties. Higher faculties include “medicine, law an theology”, apparently Kant’s conception of doer or manipulative fields. The “lower” faculties were “historical” and “pure rational knowledge”, appreciative fields such as philosophy and literature. 

Bogost marks the University’s two-century-old positioning as places of “knowledge for knowledge’s sake”. This positioning was ostensibly to “protect the low faculties from the high faculties’ attempts to colonize, hold responsible, or otherwise capitalize on them.” This disconnect between industry and the humanities probably did no favors to the latter. “As Taylor points out, such a position is fundamentally inconsistent with many of the basic tenets of critical theory, including Derrida’s many analyses of the undecidable ambiguity between risk and opportunity, poison and cure. A conceptual reorganization is in order.”

“Critical networks require an embodied study, a fusion of theory and practice. Badiou’s name for this is a thinking.

“[Badiou:] I call thinking the non-dialectical or inseparable unity of a theory and a practice. […] in physics there are theories, concepts, and mathematical formulas and there are also technical apparatuses and experiments. Physics as a thinking does not separate the two. ”

[Bogost:] “Successful comparative videogame criticism strikes me as another kind of thinking, one that musters the cultural critic as much as the programmer, the artist as much as the marketer.”

“Videogame criticism has a role to play in his cutthroat corporate ecosystem. The market does take the public’s changing needs into account, but only visionaries who are able to understand the types of cultural texts that will prove successful will succeed themselves. It is here that a configurative relationship between criticism, production, marketing, and other fields can evolve industrial, humanistic, and artistic responses to videogames. […] Videogames ask the critic to ponder the unit operations of procedural systems. It is only appropriate that we also begin thinking of such criticism as a thinking, in Badiou’s sense of the word: a set of relations between parts, not just in the text, but in the world as well.”