Volume 4, Cycle 3
My son sits at the desk, knee propped on its edge, keyboard in lap. Nearby, a television bolted to the wall displays a high-definition humanoid, clad in luminous armor inscribed with obscure heraldry, dancing with ecstatic abandon. Were it not odd enough that they are dancing in the lugubrious depths of a biomorphic dreadnaught inhabited by a terrible and hostile alien race intent on destroying the earth and everything upon it, the dance they dance is the “Carlton,” made famous by actor Alfonso Ribeiro on the 1990s sit-com The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
As his avatar frolics, the boy’s eyes focus on a second screen, his computer’s monitor. I move in closer to take a peek. He is posting a comment to a Reddit discussion board, so I lean in a bit closer. Reddit is a user-moderated web-content aggregation and rating website; it has a well-earned reputation for free-wheeling expression. Along with Twitter, 4chan, and 8chan, Reddit was one of the social media platforms weaponized to harass and threaten feminist and queer game critics and designers during the so-called “Gamergate” controversy of 2014–15. But it’s difficult to be a serious player of video games—or scholar, for that matter—without participating in online communities like Reddit. I see he’s adding comments to a thread about recent changes made to weapon ranges by the developers of the game he’s playing. There’s some salty language here and there, but by and large, it’s mostly technical stuff.
While his fingers flick across the keyboard, he speaks into his headset microphone, evidently to school friends he’s playing with, something about homework, the Treaty of Versailles from the sound of it. I notice he’s using their in-game player names, which means that at least one person on the channel is someone they don’t know personally. This isn’t unusual. The part of the game they’re playing—known as an “end-game raid”—poses the most difficult challenges and requires a team of six highly skilled players, all of them playing from separate “in real life” locations, all of them performing in close coordination. It’s not always possible to find six friends who have the time or skill, so it’s sometimes necessary to recruit from one of the many “looking for group” websites moderated by other players. If a raid member isn’t a friend, then “stranger-danger” protocols are in effect. So, Kalie and Aarav, elite Warlock and Hunter, respectively, are “Butternubs” and “AstroFail.” Evidently, a third classmate, Jack (a.k.a. “Salteen”), had to take the garbage out, so the others are taking a break. Which explains the homework conversation and impromptu dance party.
I step back to my desk, where I place the notes from my undergraduate course on video games and literature. Today’s topic was the queer gaming scene, an emergent trend of independent designers and players who are challenging stereotypes, queer-phobic gamer culture, and assumptions about what games are and can be. We discussed an exquisite interactive text game by Porpentine called With Those We Love Alive, in which we play an artisan of mercurial gender in a post-human world of biological horror. And we explored a short, elegant role-playing game by Mattie Brice, Mainichi, in which we play a trans woman negotiating the queer-phobic micro-aggressions of daily life and the obdurate misunderstandings of our close (and cisgendered) friend.
My son trades his keyboard for a game controller—evidently, Salteen has returned. The avatar’s dance abruptly ends, camera perspective shifting so that only arms, gun, and heads-up display are visible—first-person view. His tone shifts just as abruptly. Assigning positions to his teammates, he speaks with the casual confidence of a grizzled veteran, which, for all intents and purposes, he is, as he’s run this raid dozens of times and died a hundred deaths.
I set Anna Anthropy’s book Rise of the Videogame Zinesters and Stephanie Boluk and Patrick LeMieux’s Metagaming on top of the notes. I remind my son that he has to set the table for dinner. He nods as his avatar fires its gun on a charging behemoth, deftly avoiding the monster’s claws and energy bolts and disintegrating the smaller creatures that defend its right flank. But he’s outmatched and calls for help. A brilliant flash of particle effects fills the screen. When the smoke fades, I see in the distance the teammate who launched the grenade—Butternubs—break into dance. They are dancing, of course, the Carlton.
If all goes to plan, my son and his team will save the solar system by the time the milk is poured and the candles lit.
And if there is better evidence that the avant-garde is alive, if not necessarily well, in the twenty-first century, I have yet to find it.
A long-running debate in the field of avant-garde studies concerns whether the artistic avant-garde remains a viable sociocultural strategy or has mutated into some terminally dysfunctional parody of itself. And while scholars argue about the validity of the avant-garde as either historiographical concept or coherent movement, there is little doubt that avant-gardes (minus the aggrandizing the) are more active than ever: radical religious sects sending suicidal killers into the transport and leisure nodes of European capitals, military special operations launching innumerable covert missions into sites of capitalist crisis, couture designers and haute-cuisine chefs competing on reality shows to make the most outré creations. But one avant-garde exceeds the rest in terms of its hold on imaginations, leisure time, and consumer dollars: the avant-garde of video games. The ubiquity of the avant-garde trope in the global videogame market—a market with revenues of $137.9 billion in 2018—has received no attention from scholars or pundits. And yet every day thousands of people around the world pretend they are in the vanguard, indulging fantasies of power and agency that are, to say the least, problematic.
By “avant-gardes” (or, the English variant, “vanguards”), I don’t mean the usual suspects of modernist studies: experimental poets, rule-breaking painters, manifesto writers, guerilla performers, and their ilk. While you can find those in videogames if you look hard enough, the vanguard of choice for most videogame players is the vanguard of war. The “Modern Warfare,” “Black Ops,” “Ghosts,” “Advanced Warfare” and “Infinite Warfare” iterations of the Call of Duty series, in which one plays as a member of various elite special operations military teams, have led year-end global sales charts between 2009 and 2016 and have sold almost 221 million copies of the games, including those released in 2017 and 2018. Though less grounded in the history and technology of our own time, Destiny, the game my son played with near-religious devotion for two years, is also about elite military operatives. As of September, 2016, 30 million players were registered to play Destiny and, if they spent a few extra dollars at the Bungie store, their avatar could dance the Carlton.
That said, while games featuring military vanguards may command an outsized share of the consumer dollar, there are other games that could be considered “avant-garde.” They might reference avant-garde art and artists; hack the status quo of videogame aesthetics, mechanics, or interactivity; or be created and played in social settings and for purposes that challenge injustice and stereotype and galvanize a sense of community and cause. Such dissident designers and games have been around almost as long as videogames themselves. However, as game-design software, programming skills, sales and distribution networks, critical discourse, and critical game studies courses have become more widespread and accessible, the vanguard of video games has grown and diversified “IRL.” There are more games being made by more people now than ever before, and many of them seek to change, if not the world, then at least the way we play.
Thus, when I speak of “avant-garde videogames,” I speak on one hand of games that deploy the avant-garde as a figure of fantasy; on the other, of games, players, and design communities that intend aesthetic and cultural effects that roughly align with the painters, playwrights, dancers, and activists that have been historically associated with what historians have termed “the avant-garde.” In light of these developments, it would seem a timely moment to take another look at the avant-garde and explore its literal and figurative avatars in the medium, market, and culture of video games and gaming. To do so requires a multi-faceted approach that comprehends video game design, player performance, software procedures and mechanics; the production, distribution, and reception of games; and the communities that produce, play, and talk about them.
In terms of game texts, we can define four ways that videogames express an “avant-garde” impulse:
1. As aesthetic. Since at least the 1980s, dissident designers have built video games that challenge gameplay conventions, communicate dissident political perspectives, or aim to educate and activate the player against injustice. These games recall—often quite explicitly—the formal experiments and ideological aggressions of twentieth-century avant-gardes like Dada and the Surrealists. With the advent of more user-friendly design tools and the emergence of design communities whose aims exceed the merely commercial, such games are growing more common and more accessible to players and critics. Unfortunately, as I’ve mentioned, critical analysis of such games, like that of the avant-garde more generally, tends to be stuck in conventional historiographic and disciplinary frameworks, and thus falls short of comprehending their full institutional, sociopolitical, and historical significance. This is especially evident when we consider avant-garde video games in relationship to the discourse of avant-garde art; the use of games, screens, and electronics in the avant-garde; the emergence of gamified performance as a dominant organizational, cultural, and technological paradigm; and the rise of the so-called “alt-right.”
2. As narrative agent. The avant-garde is an enduring and popular figure, whether as gun-wielding, Carlton-dancing protagonists; doughty fellowships of warriors and wizards exploring sepulchral dungeons; secret global cabals; alien expeditionary forces; or other real-life human beings in competitive team-combat games. How their stories are told—how the vanguard functions as a narrative trope—reveals much about widely held attitudes towards and fantasies about the nation state, race and ethnicity, multiculturalism, patriarchy, and individual power. Indeed, the avant-garde of video games would appear to express virulently anti-modern attitudes, enjoying the agencies provided the cybernetic consumer in an era of failing liberal democracies.
3. As procedure and mechanic. Digital games are software programs that execute a complex set of directions in response to player performance. Ian Bogost describes these procedures and mechanics as constituting a “possibility space,” a set of systemic capacities that govern the performative boundaries of the play experience. Mechanics and procedures are more than “rules.” In addition to governing play, they produce the game’s fiction, the processes and affordances that construct the playful reality of a given game world. Thus, Bogost concludes, they are essentially rhetorical. I would add that they are also fundamentally ideological. The procedures and mechanics of games are often conventional, determined as much by what has worked in the past, by budget limits, or by the constraints of a given game engine or genre as they are by the imaginations of their designers. And though procedures and mechanics enable player agency, that agency is often in tension with the figurative and narrative dimensions of the game.
4. As intertextual reference. Artists, art, and movements conventionally recognized as “avant-garde” often serve as intertextual references in games, evident in environmental design, audio-visual quotation, and allusion. This can take the form of in-game objects: the apartment in which Sunset (2015) takes place is festooned with Surrealist and primitivist art as well as third-world revolutionary propaganda (figs. 1 and 2). Piet Mondrian’s brightly colored geometric compositions provide a model for both John F. Simon Jr’s ComplexCity (2000) (figs. 3 and 4) and Prize Budget for Boy’s Pac-Mondrian (2002) (fig. 5). But avant-garde art can also be referenced in less overt ways; for example, in the way space and movement is designed or in the construction of character. While such references might be viewed as a kind of digital kitsch, we can also see these as reflecting a desire among designers and players to restore familiar avant-garde artworks to a condition of free play, risk, and spontaneity; to liberate time and space from the conventions and constraints of video game storytelling and figuration; or explore the limits of a genre, procedure, or platform.
In addition to these “in-game” modalities, video game vanguards can be tracked in the discourse and social networks of games and gaming. These suggest two more ways of thinking about the vanguards of video games:
5. As trope in writing about games. The familiar modernist figures of technological and formal innovation are ubiquitous in the market-focused, “enthusiast” press. But in contrast to such technophilic, entertainment-focused rhetoric, we might look at academic, fan-based, and so-called “middle-state” criticism for perspectives focused more on the social and the ideological. Similar to the manifestos and little magazines of early-twentieth-century avant-gardes, progressive websites and social media streams celebrate and disseminate the work of designers, games, gamers, and critics who challenge the formal and ideological mainstream. Notwithstanding the achievements of such writers and writing communities, we note that the narrative conventions that govern game historiography and the difficulties of maintaining the historical archive make telling the story of video game vanguards an intrinsically problematic endeavor, an issue explored at length by Lana Polansky. And, finally, there is the question of how we accommodate video games in the broader history of the avant-garde, for as more than a few vanguard artists and art communities (i.e., Duchamp, Fluxus, the Situationist International) have suggested, the avant-garde is essentially a discursive game—or, to recall Stephanie Boluk and Patrick LeMieux, a “metagame.”
6. As identity and culture. For many players, playing video games is more than a pastime; it is an identity. While this has been true for decades, the rise of serious and art games, academic departments dedicated to the critical study of digital games, and a community of social-justice-minded designers and players have brought with them rhetorical and practical combinations of aesthetic, political, and social critique and practice. And with these have come other ways of identifying as a community member, whether such identification occurs in the virtual spaces of social media or in the brick-and-mortar spaces academic programs, game jams, and creative collectives. Boluk and LeMieux characterize feminist gaming and design collectives like New York’s Code Liberation (est. 2013) as “cultural platforms oriented less around the production of playable objects and more around community play, support, and solidarity” (Metagaming 39). Similarly, reactionary formations within the gaming community (for example, those that attacked feminist and queer critics and designers under the banner of #GamerGate) figure themselves as activist collectives intent on securing the hegemony of straight, white, male game design and gamer sociality against what they perceive as illegitimate and unethical “social justice warriors.”
I will focus here on aesthetics, narratives, and procedures/mechanics. But even a partial consideration of the modalities I’ve identified suggests that the avant-garde—understood variously as a minoritarian identity, as historical reference, as a model of resistant sociality, or as a repertoire of aesthetic strategies—remains a significant, widespread presence in our moment, visible on computer monitors and flat-screen televisions, marching forward both in the malodorous depths of alien dreadnaughts and in the less alien, but no less hazardous spaces of “meatspace.” And though academics may argue that the avant-garde is dead, millions are playing the avant-garde and millions of dollars are being made while they do it. This suggests, on one hand, that “the avant-garde,” understood as a trope or ideologeme, is deeply embedded in the culture of those who make and play videogames. The avant-garde, in this respect, might be characterized as a compensatory fantasy for an increasingly claustrophobic and managed society. But the popularity of videogames about vanguards and the increasing presence of self-styled vanguard communities in the culture surrounding videogames additionally suggests that the particular modes of agency, collectivity, creativity and utopian aspiration that are historically associated with avant-gardes, particularly art-world vanguards, have achieved worldwide distribution, providing diverse individuals and communities a theory and praxis of progressive representation and performance.
The Avant-garde as Aesthetic
Video games designed to challenge player expectations or express dissident viewpoints have been around almost as long as video games have. Polansky points to Deux Ex Machina (1984) and Takeshi’s Challenge (1986) as games that, in distinct ways, challenged the formal, mechanical, and ideological conventions that dominated the videogame industry in the early 1980s (“Art History”). But it wasn’t until the late 1990s that academic critics and museum curators began paying attention. Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center presented Beyond Interface in 1998, featuring a variety of network-based digital works, many of which had game-like mechanics. The online exhibition of game patches and plug-ins curated by Anne-Marie Schleiner in 1999 included, among others, BlackLash by the London-based collective Mongrel and Simcopter by RTmark. The former appropriates the look of 1980s-style space shooters, but the player must destroy waves not of outer-space aliens, but the Ku Klux Klan (fig. 6). The latter hacked the popular 1996 Simcopter flight simulator so that the hyper-sexualized women in the game were replaced with “boy bimbos in bikinis” (fig. 7). While these have obvious political intentions, Schleiner notes, “Not all of the patches included in ‘Cracking the Maze’ are subversive in a political sense; some offer alternatives in game ontology and aesthetics” (“Parasitic Interventions”). As an example, Ctrl_space, net.art duo jodi’s mod of the 3-d real-time rendering Quake game engine, “hacks the diegesis of the game environment, rupturing the 3-d Cartesian grid of the game to reveal the ‘void’ and the code lurking behind 3-d virtual worlds.”
Though avant-garde video games are not new, the last decade has witnessed remarkable growth in the number and kinds of games designed to criticize, provoke, and subvert. This reflects a confluence of events. First, the market for such games has expanded, and independently designed games, such as Jonathan Blow’s Braid (2008), the Fulbright Company’s Gone Home (2013), and Zoë Quinn’s Depression Quest (2013) have garnered widespread critical and consumer attention. The discourse surrounding games and gaming has expanded and diversified. Academic journals like Game Studies and Games and Culture; “middle-state” publications like First Person Scholar, Unwinnable, and Heterotopias; critical video-game studies curricula in universities; and multitudinous online forums have helped more voices communicate more perspectives in more ways than ever. And more people are making games, too, due to the development and distribution of user-friendly design tools. Mattie Brice’s Mainichi, for example, was created using RPG Maker VX. As she describes it, “My goal was to make a game on my own that didn’t require programming and used community resources. I want to make games that feasibly anyone can do on their own.” It’s much easier to find games that not only don’t fit the mold, but in fact try to break it. Online distribution platforms like Steam, Newgrounds, and itch.io, and increased indy support from companies like Microsoft and Sony have made it easier for dissident designers to get their games into the hands of players. Independent designers often distribute games through their own websites, as is the case with Brice (mattiebrice.com), Molleindustria (mollindustria.org), and Porpentine (slimedaughter.com). Finally, institutional support from museums and galleries, universities, governments, and professional organizations has grown significantly. There is little doubt that we are living in a period of remarkable ferment in game design and discourse.
That ferment has produced a remarkable and diverse wave of games that challenge the way we play and think—the way we perform—video games. However, that very diversity presents a number of challenges to those who would attempt to organize and define the field of “avant-garde video games” in terms of their formal characteristics. As readers who have followed recent debates in avant-garde studies will know, designating any artwork “avant-garde” is inherently problematic, as the term can be applied variously to the production, form, content, distribution, reception, historiographical framework, and institutional position of the work in question. Further complicating matters, video games are a unique medium in terms of their relationship to social media, the military-industrial complex, the entertainment industry, and more broadly, the “technoculture.” Thus, if we wish to define as “avant-garde” a particular game or game genre or a particular position that a game-maker might hold in respect to some putative mainstream or establishment tradition, we need to take care. And this is true if we consider only the games themselves. As I’ll discuss below, there is an inherent flaw to any argument that would attempt to analyze games outside of the social networks and player cultures in which they are played, as these networks often function similarly to games in terms of their procedures, the expectations of their participants, and their mediation by screen technologies and social media.
Among those who have risen most energetically to the challenge of defining the term is Brian Schrank. In Avant-Garde Video Games (2014), Schrank constructs a taxonomy of the games, designers, theorists, and players that have challenged the commercial mainstream of game design, exploited the “growing interdependence between technology and culture,” and accelerated the historical blurring of boundaries “between public and private, local and global, and human and nonhuman” that constitutes the most radical implications of the technoculture. Fundamental to this effort is a widely held understanding of video games as being, first and foremost, systems and game play as fundamentally a matter of playing with systems. As Schrank puts it, video games “teach players how to engage and optimize systems as well as how to manage their desire in a contemporary world. This makes the world of games a principal site to expose, unwork, and rethink the protocols and rituals that rule technoculture” (Avant-Garde, 4). Schrank’s argument aligns with that of Walter Holland, Henry Jenkins, and Kurt Squire, who note that avant-gardes produce “theoretical insights . . . when they push their media in new directions or provide aesthetic rationales for their work,” but because video games are a new medium, “all works produced are in a sense avant-garde—they are mapping still unfamiliar terrain, requiring a heightened consciousness about the medium itself.” Thus, there cannot be a single, encompassing definition of “avant-garde video game.” If, as Holland, Jenkins, and Squire put it, “[g]ames model not only principles but processes, particularly the dynamics of complex systems,” then we must approach games with a flexible understanding of those systems, particularly in terms of how they shape the interaction of player, game, and context (“Theory by Design,” 29). Like Schrank, I advocate an approach to the field of avant-garde video games with the assumption that we will discover within it “a host of strategies, ranging from radical to complicit in degree, formal to political in nature, and local to global in scope” (Avant-Garde, 1).
Schrank is clearly aware of the analytic categories that have generally governed scholarly work on the avant-garde. He deploys two categorical binaries familiar to scholars. The first distinguishes an avant-garde of form from an avant-garde of politics. An avant-garde approach to video game form “opens up the experience of games” the same way that a new approach to painting—a monochrome color field or simultaneous representations of multiple temporal moments in a single image—opens up visual experience (21). An avant-garde approach to politics gives the player a different “experience of being in the world,” whether by incorporating explicitly political content into the work or by deploying video games in contexts that expose the tacit power dynamics of game and/or context (21).
Schrank’s second binary is informed by theories of the avant-garde that emphasize the institutions and discourses of art—think, Clement Greenberg, Griselda Pollock, Peter Bürger, Hal Foster, and Mary Ann Caws. Schrank calls “radical” video games that challenge the institutions of technocultural entertainment from an institutionally independent position or in a way that challenges the normative processes of those institutions. Those that challenge conventions from within institutions or proffer a critique of video games without evident consciousness of their institutional position or intent to criticize those institutions he calls “complicit.”
Schrank collocates these binaries so they form a four-sector grid, each sector the combination of two of the four categories: the radical formal, the radical political, the complicit political, and the complicit formal. I have some reservations about these categories, both in general and as they apply to video games (which I’ll address below), but they serve well to articulate the multiple ways video games might be positioned within the critical-theoretical framework of avant-garde studies, and so are worthy of additional consideration.
The “radical formal” puts into play the “material supports, the social and cultural conventions at work, and the range of sensations and aesthetic experiences afforded” (27). Like Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (1862–63), which mashed up historical styles and pricked the tastes of the haute bourgeoisie, ROM CHECK FAIL (2008) by Farbs “mashes up avatars, music, enemies, mechanics, and background screens” from familiar commercial games to disrupt the flow of play and inspire divergent forms of interaction (fig. 8) (52). Like ROM CHECK FAIL, David O’Reilly’s Mountain (2014) subverts the agency of the player, but by disabling most of the activities that usually count as “playing a video game.” Our actions consist almost entirely of observation. We watch the eponymous mountain floating in empty space. Sometimes, things happen: Trees grow, a sailboat falls onto its surface, a bit of text unfurls (“I can’t say a bad word about this windy autumn day”) (fig. 9). If ROM CHECK FAIL recalls the vanguard tradition of collage, Mountain recalls Donald Judd’s minimalist cubes or the scintillating monochromatic tiles of Mary Corse’s Black Earth Series (1978) (fig. 10). Judging from the user reviews on Steam, Mountain caused more than a bit of consternation.
The “radical political” puts into play the “rules of discourse” and “how meaning is made or communicated” by games, revealing and unraveling the power dynamics that govern both what they “say” and how people interact with them (57). Historically, radical political artists have produced works that challenge simultaneously aesthetic, political, economic, and institutional power structures. During the Black Arts Movement (1965–1975), African American writer Ed Bullins composed theatrical works that, for example, plunged the audience into darkness for twenty minutes or directed the performer to murder white spectators. These forwarded a specific political agenda—Black Power—but also attempted to short-circuit the theatrical technologies of racism, disabling forms of white privilege embedded in the theatrical gaze. Molleindustria does something similar with digital games, attempting to liberate the medium from “the dictatorship of entertainment.” Acidly satirical works like Orgasm Simulator (2004), The McDonalds Video Game (2006), and Operation: Pedopriest (2007) “forc[e] the player into unethical or awkward roles . . . to question the wish-fulfilling function of most mainstream games.” For Molleindustria, video games can draw attention to social issues and, by way of gamifying the institutions and attitudes that enable oppression, satirize power. Equally important, their games are distributed outside the usual commercial channels by dint of a Creative Commons license.
The next two categories in Schrank’s taxonomy concern games that do not challenge in an obvious or overt way—are “complicit” with—mainstream ideological and formal conventions. Johanna Drucker coined the term “complicit formal” to distinguish between an “’old-style formalism’” which emphasizes the autonomy of the art object versus a formalism that emphasizes the “social act of meaning making” (Schrank, Avant-Garde, 85, 86). Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1965), for example, directs audience members to cut pieces of clothing off the performer, highlighting the connections between the analytic, the erotic, and the social. For Schrank, complicit formal games “advance[e] art for art’s sake while taking into account the messy technocultural milieu in which its work is engaged . . . putting games in traditional gallery spaces . . . searching for new ways to play with things . . .” and so on (85). He cites Wafaa Bilal’s Domestic Tension (2007), in which the Iraqi-American artist lived in a gallery space for a month during the United States occupation of Iraq while online participants shot (or attempted to stop others from shooting) a remote-controlled paintball gun at him (fig. 11) (Avant-Garde, 90–91). Mary Flanagan’s [giantJoystick] (2006) asked gallery visitors to use a six-foot-tall joystick to play video games projected on the wall (fig. 12). Schrank writes, “Figuring out how to collectively play the thing becomes the game, turning players into artistic performers” (92).
Schrank’s final category is the “complicit political.” The difference between “radical” and “complicit political” games lies in the latter’s use of “inviting, populist methods rather than the revolutionary tactics of the radical political avant-garde” (113). These, Schrank avers, create “temporary ad hoc utopias and moments of collective, festive anarchy,” revealing “cathartic glimpses of utopia” (113). He cites as precursors the Situationist International’s tactical experiments with urban space and mass media and the “New Games” movement of the 1960s, to which I would add the experimental composition techniques devised by the French Surrealists: Exquisite Corpse, Frottage, and so on. The Beast (2001) was a viral, online marketing game released in conjunction with the movie A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001). Thousands of players, some self-organized into research teams, participated in the solution of a three-part mystery whose clues were provided by the film’s trailer, a network of fictional websites, and strategically deployed physical and telephonic clues. Though intended to promote a commercial project—thus, its “complicity”—the sharing of knowledge and the collaborative solution of problems demonstrated that “if we play better together, we live better together” (117).
There is much I admire about Schrank’s taxonomy, not only for its capacity to organize a densely populated field, but also for being in tune with recent developments in avant-garde studies, especially the growing emphasis on heterogeneity, positionality, and intermedia. But I have several reservations about his critical categories and the way he applies them. Though Schrank is attentive to how dissident designers manipulate, reconfigure, and deconstruct games, players, play contexts, and the relationship among them, his understanding of what constitutes a game is tied to a limited concept of the video game and an incomplete and disciplinarily parochial history of the avant-garde. Additionally, Schrank doesn’t consider the diverse cultures and practices of metagaming that, as Boluk and LeMieux explain, locate video game play in linguistic, conceptual, historical, and social terms.
When analyzing or historicizing a game, it is conventional to consider it in terms of its software (the game program, including its procedures, mechanics, interface, and so on), its hardware (the computer and interface devices such as controllers, motion detectors, and touch screens), and the player’s performance (both physical and cognitive). However, this leaves out two vital dimensions of game design, game play, and player culture: social networks and play cultures. One of the most onerous stereotypes of video game players is that they are isolated and anti-social. This is hardly the case. According to a recent annual report of the Entertainment Software Association, of those who play games the most frequently, half play games that involve multiple players, and those play with friends, family members, and spouses or partners. Half of frequent gamers consider video games a way to connect with friends; slightly fewer consider them a way to spend time with family. But the social nature of games extends beyond those with whom we play; indeed, it’s difficult to imagine any game that does not connect in some fashion to other players. Even those who don’t play with others play with others.
Let’s return to my son and what he does when he plays Destiny. Of course, he interacts with the game itself, completing missions in campaign mode or competing against others in player-versus-player team-based combat. But though this is the primary action and attraction of the game, he does far more than run, jump, dodge, hide, shoot, and cast spells. He interacts with others in game via the audio chat channel and in designated social spaces. He reads and participates in web forums, checks out video channels where players post recordings of their game play or stream live performances, and participates in various social media. He periodically visits the developer’s website, where he is able to find technical information, tips, narrative, personal statistics, news about upcoming patches or special events, and the like. He scans fan-produced sites that provide technical advice, advance notice of game changes, fan art and fiction, the latest metagame, and so on. He can participate in social networks in more direct ways, too. He can travel to conventions to socialize with players and designers, dress up like his favorite characters, and play in or watch tournaments. And he can take courses on game design, game history, and game criticism. Even casual players of games participate in social networks and player cultures. Designers understand that consumers will spend more money and more time if their experience is connected to others, so build into games features such as Facebook and Twitter alerts or gifts that can be enabled if a player visits a website. And they are increasingly attentive to player cultures. In the case of StarCraft (1998–present), player culture in Korea “has changed the way Blizzard makes StarCraft”; changes to the game reflect “the ongoing playstyles of professional gamers” (Boluk and LeMieux, Metagaming, 62, 63). Videogame play, in sum, is increasingly “distributed” across media and media platforms.
I would argue that the emergence of this kind of “distributed play” marks an inflection point in the history of the videogame medium. A focus on distributed play not only provides a more complete picture of how video games work, but, in terms of avant-garde studies, enables us to align game studies with the expansive, sociologically attuned definition of the avant-garde advocated by many scholars, including myself. In The Sociology of Culture, Raymond Williams complains, “No full social analysis of avant-garde movements has yet…been undertaken.” In The Avant-Garde: Race Religion War, I join Barrett Watten, Fred Orton, and Griselda Pollock, among others, and respond to Williams’s challenge by defining the avant-garde first and foremost as “a minoritarian formation” (41). I argue that an emphasis on the social status and dynamics of avant-gardes not only improves our “efforts to theorize and historicize the avant-garde, but also provides the most concrete approach possible to the specific politics of a given vanguard” (41). De-emphasizing the military connotations of the term “avant-garde” and highlighting the avant-garde as an intrinsically and essentially social phenomenon, we can “orien[t] our scholarship and criticism towards relationships and detailed, concrete, and historicized descriptions of the ‘politics of form’” (41). Given the inherently social nature of video game play and the increasingly distributed nature of games and game play, a focus on relationships would seem especially apt if we are to understand the avant-garde of video games.
How might a consideration of social networks complicate Schrank’s taxonomy? Consider the queer game jam. Game jams are hybrid social/production events during which participants gather to create video games as quickly as possible, doing so in terms of a shared theme, genre, technology, or identity. They are, in the words of one of their inventors, “designed to encourage experimentation and innovation in the game industry.” They are brief—between 24 and 72 hours—and can be competitive or collaborative. They can be small, intimate affairs or globally distributed events with thousands of participants. The idea is to have fun and to create without the usual pressures of the game-design process, pressures that can harden assumptions about what constitutes a good game and a good game-production process.
But game jams function as more than just a way to shake up the creative process. For those who have been historically excluded from or marginalized within the game industry due to their tastes, their skill-level, their identities, or their politics, game jams provide an opportunity for the theorization and praxis of diversity, whether the aim is to reform the mainstream industry, to encourage the development of sustainable independent game design and criticism communities, or to put game design tools into the hands of hobbyists. For the scholar of the avant-garde, game jams are reminiscent of the poetry cafés of the Parisian avant-gardes (think of the Parisian Surrealists, busy playing games like Exquisite Corpse), the consciousness-raising circles of the civil rights and second-wave feminist movements (in which strict rules concerning honesty and tolerance governed the process), or the Situationist International’s practice of dérive, which requires participants to negotiate urban spaces in a way that breaks the conventional rules of pedestrian performance.
Though their focus is the creation of games, game jams are also, in and of themselves, games—or, better, “metagames.” They are social events structured, as all games are, by shared rules, expectations, and outcomes and mediated by the hardware and software upon which the games are built, shared, and played. They are, in other words, games that produce games; in Boluk and LeMieux’s words, “a ludic practice that profanes the sacred, historicizes art, mediates technology, and de-reifies the fetish” (Metagaming, 25). And like so many of the avant-garde video games Schrank describes, game jams reveal, engage, and exploit the “forces that are material and sensual” in video games, the video game industry, and the community of game players, but that might otherwise remain obfuscated (Avant-Garde, 8). They are literally “a microcosm of technoculture itself . . . teach[ing] players how to engage and optimize systems as well as how to manage their desire in a contemporary world” (4). Of course, simply because game jams are games or challenge the normative processes of commercial game design does not mean they are avant-garde per se. For that to be the case, other conditions—conditions governing the kinds of ludic forms, figurative content, critical positionality, interpersonal process, engaged outcomes—must obtain. I’d argue that is the case with some of the game jams organized by and for the LGBTQ+ community.
Queer game jams provide a space that is safe and encouraging to LGBTQ+ designers and to game content and design that isn’t intended to appeal to the straight, white male consumer or mainstream game industry. And they provide a space for the simultaneous creation of critical play and critical sociality—in other words, modes of self-conscious performance that queer at once the production, circulation, and reception of games and the relationship of form and context. Zoë Quinn describes one such jam, the 2013 QUILTBAG gathering at the MIT Game Lab she co-organized with Todd Harper, as simply a place where designers could avoid being harassed. “The fact is,” she told Jason Johnson, “when I go to game events, it’s not uncommon for me to be the only woman in the room. So I can guarantee I’m the only queer woman in the room.” QUILTBAG was inclusive not only in terms of LGBTQ+ participants, but also in terms of interest and expertise: “The event is open to everyone of every sexuality, gender identity, and field of interest, whether you’re an artist, a writer, a hardcore programmer, or simply someone who likes games.” To reiterate, the significance of queer game jams to the study of avant-garde video games is not a matter of those who participate in them or any specific oppositional stance taken by organizers or participants. Equally important are the rules, procedures, and objectives of the game jam as a socio-creative metagame. At another QUILTBAG jam held in 2013, participants were advised by keynote speaker Chelsea Howe to “fail early” to “keep scope small” and to think of “queer games” as not one thing, but many. A queer game can be defined in terms of “queer content,” “queer mechanics,” and “queer authors.”
The inclusion of game jams not only expands and complicates Schrank’s taxonomy, but also the genealogy of the avant-garde itself. Though varied in terms of their politics, objectives, duration, and durability, game jams are part of a genealogy that includes the dissident literary salons of late-nineteenth-century France, Italian Futurist serrate, Soviet Blue Blouse troupes, Fluxus concerts, Black Arts Movement community events, and the Occupy movement. These share an emphasis on collective, collaborative, experimental, and decidedly performative sociality, providing opportunities for their participants to share, to express solidarity, and, crucially, to enact dissident or alternative forms of social posturing and creative belonging.
Ultimately, I affirm Schrank’s argument: “Avant-garde games crack open the patterns of the world in games and beyond so we may reengage in a radical kind of play with them” (Avant-Garde, 12). And I affirm his desire to recognize and celebrate the heterogeneity of the field. However, as with the field of avant-garde studies more generally, I’d press that argument to take account of more than just form, politics, and positionality. Limiting our understanding of video game vanguards to the register of aesthetics—no matter how politicized those aesthetics might be—limits our understanding of the avant-garde as a social and cultural praxis and an enduring ideologeme.
The Avant-garde as Narrative Agent
Which leads to the question of how we tell the story of the avant-garde; more precisely, how stories of the avant-garde circulate and perform. We might assume that the most common stories of the avant-garde are about cutting-edge fashion designers, molecular gastronomists, and radical terrorist organizations. But I would argue otherwise. As my sons and their friends will gladly tell you—as those armor-clad humanoids dancing the Carlton will show you—the stories of the avant-garde most common in our moment are the stories about vanguards found in fantasy, science-fiction, and military videogames. Delving into the way the stories of these vanguards are told can help us better understand commonly held beliefs concerning the nation state, race and ethnicity, multiculturalism, patriarchy, pleasure, and agency.
The first video game vanguards emerged in the social spaces shared among fantasy fiction enthusiasts, tabletop game players, and computer geeks. Though there had been other games that melded the pulp fiction fantasy of the 1920s and 30s with the procedures of tabletop war gaming, Dungeons & Dragons was the most popular and influential, particularly in terms of computer culture. In Dungeons and Dreamers: From Geek to Chic, Brad King and John Borland argue that “it's almost impossible to overstate the role of Dungeons & Dragons in the rise of computer gaming.” Computer games like pedit5 (1975), dnd (1975), Akalabeth: World of Doom (1979), Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord (1981), and moria (1983) were replete with the trolls, treasures, and penumbral labyrinths that thrilled players of D&D. These “computer role-playing games” (or CRPGs) appropriated the essential affordances of the tabletop experience, so that sitting in front of a computer with low-processing speed, little memory, and two-tone graphics felt a little like sitting around a table with friends battling kobolds between handfuls of nacho-cheese dusted tortilla chips.
But before we address the specific way avant-gardes were represented in these games, we must address the stories these games told. First and foremost, they told stories about space. As Henry Jenkins notes, video games are essentially spatial, both in terms of game mechanics and the interface that mediates player performance (i.e., the screen). Those with narrative ambitions, Jenkins argues, are generally “centered around enabling players to move through narratively compelling spaces.” Indeed, games that do a poor job of telling stories fail precisely because they don’t meld the ludic and the narrative, producing an unpleasant, distracting feeling of ludonarrative dissonance. That was hardly the case with early CRPGs. Despite their lean audio, visual, and ludic affordances, the dungeon chronotope was immediately recognizable to the D&D crowd. To recall a line from Colossal Cave Adventure (1976–77), the games promised “a maze of twisty little passages” to explore, whether it be a cavern, a haunted temple, or, most commonly, a dungeon.
The objective of these games was and remains as conventional as the space in which it is accomplished: to transform the unknown into the known. The space of risk and reward is a space to be mapped, whether with pencil and graph paper or an in-game map interface. At the same time, the dungeon is a space that is narrated, the story unfolding with every door opened or corridor cleared of monsters. In an almost literal sense, the dungeon adventure is an adventure of enlightenment. And with enlightenment comes empowerment: as they grow their understanding of the space of play, players gain wealth, power, ability, and knowledge. In this respect, the vanguards portrayed in the fantasy role-playing video game would seem to align almost perfectly with a right-wing, Eurocentric vision of vanguardism, the tendency we associate with, say, Henri de Saint-Simon and racist Saint-Simonians like French medical doctor and proponent of Algerian colonization Auguste Warnier.
That said, the ideological valence of these narratives is difficult to pin down, as is evident when we address how these games simulate the social. Yes, in early texts like pedit5, Zork (1977–79), Rogue: Exploring the Dungeons of Doom (ca. 1980), Akalabeth, and The Legend of Zelda (1986), and, more recently, Fallout 4 (2015) and Witcher 3 (2015) the player controls a single protagonist. But I resist calling these characters “avant-garde,” due to the fact that, as I detailed above, vanguards are not just defined by their position in space or in respect to some putatively less advanced body, but by their intrinsic sociality. With this emphasis on the social in mind, I would argue the first video vanguards are found in Dungeon (ca. 1975), Wizardry, and Oubliette (1983), games in which the player doesn’t just control a single heroic avatar, but constructs a team of characters and engages in a simulation of the social.
These games allow us to simulate the interpersonal dynamics of tabletop RPGs, in which a group of friends play together, each controlling a single persistent, unique character, each participating in the co-construction of the narrative. The emphasis on the heroic team is another legacy of speculative fiction. Games like Wizardry adapted the high-friction inter-character dynamics of, for example, the fellowships of J. R. R. Tolkien and Terry Brooks, the spaceship crew of Star Trek, and the superhero teams of Marvel comics. For sure, the characters in early CRPGs like Dungeon and Wizardry were little more than names and numbers. But in more recent works like Baldur’s Gate (1998) and the Dragon Age series (2009-present), PCs have fully-fleshed back stories, interpersonal conflicts, the ability to judge player-character actions, even an openness to friendship and romance. And with the development of servers that can manage thousands of players in a shared and persistent world, the social is not just simulated, but performed. In World of Warcraft (2004–present), Destiny, Overwatch (2016–present), and other so-called “massive multiplayer online” games, players control a single character, but form groups with other players to attempt more challenging missions, and are often members of in-game communities such as guilds or clans that provide resources as well as opportunities for social interaction, in-game or out, friendly or toxic.
But the social is almost always instrumentalized. Characters in an adventuring party don’t just have roles in the sense of personalities, but differential functions and responsibilities. In World of Warcraft, a player’s character specializes in one of three roles: the tank, a frontline warrior who attracts and absorbs enemy damage; the healer, whose main job is keeping the tank alive; or the DPS, a weapon-wielder or spellcaster who excels at dealing damage (“DPS” standing for “damage per second”). Failure to perform effectively one’s assigned role on a dungeon run or raid can result in a team wipe, costly armor and weapon repair bills, a torrent of chat-channel trash-talk, even a vote of dismissal from other mission members.
The primary intention behind this division of labor is to enable tactical complexity and promote team play. But the instrumentalization of the social also reflects larger ideological and historical tendencies, tendencies that play in and against the Enlightenment chronotope I described above. One of these is an essentially neoliberal understanding of multiculturalism, the other the emergence of military special forces as a fantasy figure in an era of failed states, dysfunctional political process, and widespread anxieties about masculinity and patriarchy. I’ll discuss these in turn.
The Multicultural Vanguard
In fantasy and sci-fi culture, essentialized racial and ethnic categories are taken for granted, if not expected. As with the chronotope of the benighted dungeon, racial essentialism can be traced to the narrative framework and design principles of Dungeons & Dragons, which transposed literary ogres and dwarves into statistical tables and random-number generators. In brief, for there to be a playable difference between said ogres and dwarves, those differences have to be quantifiable. In the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons, for example, player characters were defined, in part, by numerical attributes such as strength, constitution, dexterity, and intelligence. In turn, these numbers were affected by the race a character chose. A dwarf, for example, received a bonus to constitution (because they’re hardier), but a penalty to charisma (dwarves are an insular society and impatient with non-dwarves). A player’s character also received bonuses and penalties that applied in specific situations; for example, resisting the effects of a magic spell or poison. Further, the race of one’s character impacted class choice; dwarves, for example, could not be wizards.
But if essentialized racial categories are taken for granted in fantasy and science-fiction games, so is multiculturalism, “a conception of social integration that expects racial and ethnic groups to visibly and proudly express their given racial identities in order to be recognized politically and to be accommodated socially.” It is common for a player to assemble a team composed of characters with diverse ethnic backgrounds and racial identities: orcs, gnomes, humans, halflings, and other fantastic types. In some games, that diversity is a source of delicious narrative tension. In Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014), if one plays as an elf, a marginalized and despised ethnic group, additional dialogue options are enabled that allow one to confront, ignore, or discuss racist slurs or, with elfish non-player characters, discuss matters that would not be raised with members of other ethnic groups. Tabletop role-players will often perform these kinds of conventional racial repertoires, adopting accent, syntax, and attitude in order to play their appropriate racial, class, and dramatic role in the party.
But regardless of the diversity of the team or the level of awareness about the politics of diversity designed into the game, the first and fundamental purpose is to get the job done. CRPGs are typically organized around exploration and combat. Thus, diversity is concomitant with efficient performance. As with the social, race and ethnicity in video games are instrumentalized, hardwired to the different functional roles of an effective adventuring party. The elf is on the team because we need someone with the skills of both a thief and a mage. The Asari’s biotic skills are mandatory if we’re going to make it past that mercenary blockade. Gerald Voorhees views this gamification of multiculturalism as a reflection of neoliberal ideology. Difference, Voorhees argues, is meaningful to gameplay and narrative “only to the extent that it can be made to contribute to some pre-established goal,” meaning the acquisition of power and profit. I agree, though I’d add that the transposition of literary figurations of race into game procedures doesn’t just reflect neoliberal ideology, but produces it. Neoliberalism, in sum, is the procedural rhetoric of the CRPG.
Adventures in Failing Democracy
Which leads to a second way of thinking about the instrumentalization of the social in games about vanguards—an instrumentalization that concerns anxieties and fantasies about global geopolitics, the role of the state, and individual agency. To understand this, we turn again to the avant-garde of war, military special forces.
Special forces are elite combat units whose responsibilities include reconnaissance and surveillance, “force amplification” of other states’ or insurgents’ military and security forces, counter-insurgency operations, sabotage and demolition, and, on the more troubling end of the strategic spectrum, assassination and terror. These are literal advanced guards, the first and most mobile force whose mission (to recall Renato Poggioli) is “an advance against an enemy . . . a marching toward, a reconnoitering or exploring of, that difficult and unknown territory called no-man’s land.” And while we can debate the viability of the avant-garde model when it comes to art, the military avant-garde has never been more active and effective than now in terms of its role in incipient military conflicts, geopolitical crises, backchannel diplomacy, and neo-imperialism.
The special forces video game generally abides by two conventions, one governing play, the other plot and setting. In terms of the former, the player is expected to be adaptable, adjusting strategy and tactics to accomplish varying objectives with varying equipment. Regarding the latter, the stories they tell are paranoid, expressing distrust of the civil state, neoliberal capitalism, the chain of command, the patriarchal family, and masculinity.
Like real-world special forces soldiers, players of these games are tasked with diverse missions that can be completed only if they perform multiple skills competently. In Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 (2012), for example, the player must perform effectively with assault rifles, handguns, light machine guns, shotguns, sniper rifles, machetes, flamethrowers, rocket-propelled grenades, mounted turrets, and “combatant suppression knuckles.” They must kill or incapacitate hundreds of humans with different movement patterns and weapons (some of them in weaponized exo-skeletons), as well as gunboats, aerial drones, and automated security robots. The player must learn to deploy mortar launchers, six different kinds of grenades, animal traps, nitrogen tanks, riot shields, anti-tank mines, jet packs, and optical camo. And they must successfully drive multiple vehicles, including jet fighters, personalized flight suits, horses, and weapon-carrying drones. In addition to the main campaign, which is performed in first-person mode, the player can also complete optional “Strike Force” missions, real-time strategy games that utilize an “eye in the sky” perspective and require the player to guide the movements of multiple soldiers and vehicles as if they were sitting in a remote command center.
Adaptability is concomitant with paranoia. It is the very contingency of the world and its powers, the mutability of alliances, the instability of subjectivity, the inevitable betrayals and mind-blowing reveals, that require the player to play as an avant-garde. Take the first Rainbow Six game. Our initial missions are rapid responses to a cluster of seemingly random attacks by the eco-terrorist organization Phoenix Group. Our close ally in these efforts is John Brightling, the CEO of the biotech company Horizon Inc. However (spoiler alert!), we discover Phoenix is a front for Horizon, and Brightling is a mad scientist intent on wiping out most of the human population to forward his dastardly plan. While the plot twists are intended to thrill and chill, they also serve a ludic purpose. The repeated changes in mission and context force the player to expand their repertoire of skills, their weapon and armor load-out, and tactical acumen, adapting to the shifting challenges and contexts. This kind of paranoid, nested-box plot is a veritable cliché of the genre, though in the hands of masters like Metal Gear’s Hideo Kojima, they can be sculpted into baroque fantasias of violence and intrigue, though that is a subject for another time.
What is the affective and symbolic crux of such pleasurable and productive paranoia? In other words, what makes these games so fun for so many people? To paraphrase Jerry Rubin, sometimes you just want to dance on the rubble.
On this point, both dungeon adventure and military special operations games titillate the same fantasies and anxieties. Though the worlds in which they take place might seem very different, in fact they both take place in similar realms of failed or non-existent modernity. The player swings their virtual sword or shoots their virtual gun, enlightens the dusky dungeon or maps the global threat in settings where the rule of law is absent, in flux, or illegitimate and where the institutions of liberal democracy are inefficacious, irrelevant, or historically pending. In such worlds, family authority, particularly patriarchy, is entrenched and perverse, entangled with heinous economic and technological powers, selfish, mutative, grotesque.
And that is what makes these games so much fun to play. The agency of the player is enabled by the failure of the state. Because the democratically elected government has proven so feckless protecting its data infrastructure, we get to be part of a high-adrenaline firefight with the cybernetic, drug-enhanced agents of a powerful criminal organization in the streets of Singapore. And not only that, we get to be the hero of that fight. Because the kingdom is ruled by a demon-worshipping, child-eating matriarch, we wield the magic shield, ride the speedy steed, and lead a team of dedicated and doughty companions into the sepulchral depths where we will not only murder the demon, but make a mint in the process. We are not the hapless victims of state failure, but the chosen ones who, by dint of our exceptional access to supernatural agency, benefit from it. The video game avant-garde is, in sum, a volatile, titillating concatenation of power fantasy and socioeconomic anxiety. What makes this particularly fascinating is that players across the ideological spectrum enjoy playing these games. Indeed, franchises like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and Overwatch have been lauded by the LGBTQ+ community for their progressive representations of gender and sexuality.
Though the conjunction of power fantasies, failed democracy, and fun are rarely acknowledged in such games, there are exceptions. In Dragon Age: Inquisition, as the player-character acquires more personal and political power, they are often asked by non-player characters to justify their authority or make decisions about how that authority should be justified to others. Are the events that led to our being chosen as the “Herald of Andraste” divinely ordained or mere accident? We might answer the questions differently depending on how we perceive the character who is asking them, how we wish to shape our relationship with them, and so on. Spec Ops: The Line (2012) remediates the plot and anti-colonialist, anti-enlightenment perspectives of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). It tells the story of a Delta Force team assigned to locate a U.S. Army battalion gone missing in a near-future Dubai engulfed by sand storms and political chaos. We play as Captain Martin Walker and, as the game progresses and the horror of the situation is revealed, our character loses his mind, the trauma of his past and the war crimes he/we are forced to commit during the game driving us past the edge of reason. As “we” lose our sanity, our in-game actions become more troubling and contradictory, until, in the game’s most stunning turn of events, we are forced to directly confront the horrific consequences of our actions. It is an unforgettable experience, both in terms of the story it tells and the manner in which it abjectifies the pleasures of video gaming.
The exceptions prove the rule. In the midst of modernity’s spectacular collapse, in the ruins of liberal democracy, the vanguards of video games wield the most fantastic and intensely pleasurable power, unfettered by political process, economic limitations, or mores. For the player of such games, the dialectic of Enlightenment produces exquisite cybernetic power fantasies of personal agency and social belonging.
The Avant-garde as Procedure and Mechanic
As with the study of avant-gardes whose medium is painting or poetry, the study of avant-garde video games must be attentive to the ideological, economic, political, and social forces that govern the production, circulation, and functions of the medium. Indeed, when we look at the avant-garde games described by Schrank, we note how often their designers follow the modernist injunction to “bare the device,” exposing the internal systems of software and hardware the same way modernist painters exposed the canvas and museum wall or poets the blank space and the printed page.
Though video games are as diverse as the players who play them, one thing all video games have in common is that they model systems and processes, whether that be the calculation of a player’s score as they achieve game objectives, the acceleration of an automobile up a steep mountain road, or the tumbling of triangles across a two-dimensional field. As Anna Anthropy puts it, if “[a] painting conveys what it’s like to experience the subject as an image . . . a game conveys what it’s like to experience the subject as a system of rules.” They do this by way of software programs composed of interdependent algorithms that function, in Janet Murray’s words, as “sets of instructions that the machine will execute” in consistent, dynamic cooperation with player input. Murray defines “the simulation of real and hypothetical worlds as complex systems of parameterized objects and behaviors” as a “representational strategy, as powerful as spoken language or recorded moving images” (Inventing, 434). The interaction of player with program is governed by “procedural systems.”
“Procedural systems,” Bogost explains, “generate behaviors based on rule-based models; they are machines capable of producing many outcomes, each conforming to the same overall guidelines.” Regardless of genre, “[v]ideo games represent processes in the material world—war, urban planning, sports, and so forth—and create new possibility spaces for exploring those topics. That representation is composed of the rules themselves.” In sum, to understand video games as representations and, by extension, expressions of culture and ideology, we need to understand them not just as figurative texts, but as procedural systems.
The utility of this approach is evident when we consider games that tell stories about the avant-garde, whether those be dungeon spelunkers or sci-fi special operatives. Yes, we can critique the game’s manifest level of figuration—as I did above—but we can also delve into its procedural systems and the relationship between those systems and the text’s manifest figuration. That is what I will attempt here, focusing on a ubiquitous procedure in games about avant-gardes and in the videogame medium more broadly: leveling.
The idea behind leveling is fairly simple: a player’s avatar grows in power as they accomplish objectives, enabling them to attempt more difficult challenges. Typically, a leveling system is composed of interlocking sub-procedures:
- The game is structured in a series of quantitatively defined levels that are reached by accumulating a pre-determined number of “experience points.”
- Experience points are rewarded for accomplishing objectives such as defeating a foe, solving a puzzle, practicing a skill, or completing a mission. These points vary in quantity, providing designers an easy way to selectively incentivize player performance.
- The tasks a player is asked to accomplish become more difficult, complex, or resource-intensive as they rise in level.
- Experience level functions as a gate mechanism. When a new level is reached, the player-character will gain access to new regions, new abilities, improved characteristics, more powerful equipment, an appearance that is more “epic” or “elite,” new followers, etc. (fig. 13).
The leveling system is pervasive—and not only in role-playing games. The Ludite explains, “Even games that aren’t typically called RPGs can still have what we call ‘RPG elements,’ which inevitably end up being some kind of leveling system.” Indeed, we find leveling procedures in popular mobile games like FarmVille (2009), Candy Crush Saga (2012) and Clash of Clans (2012). However, they are particularly pervasive in role-playing video games: “Whatever form that system may take, all RPGs seem to have a way for the player to get stronger, often in raw power alone rather than diversity of skills. Everything else can vary” (“A Brief History”).
Why is this?
Once again, we turn to Gygax and Ameson, the creators of Dungeons & Dragons. As The Ludite points out, we tend to think of D&D as a social game in which players collaborate on the construction of narrative. The dungeon master (DM), who designs the play session, interacts with the players, and in the process, a narrative unfolds, with setting, dialogue, and action emerging in both planned and improvised fashion. However, D&D “is ultimately a competitive game. For the game to function, it is necessary that one player, called the dungeon master, . . . oppose the other players and obstruct their goals” (“A Brief History,” emphasis in original).
The Ludite further explains that, in order to make this curious hybrid of competition and collaborative creation work, Gygax and Ameson adapted the procedural systems and mechanics of table-top military strategy games, in which “representative miniatures with prescribed stats [are pitted] against each other in turn-based combat” (“A Brief History”). For such games to be fun, the sides must be balanced, which requires a system to ensure equity, typically a numeric system. One common way for this to be achieved is to give the players a certain number of points with which to purchase units. Such units will be quantified in terms of pertinent criteria: attack power, defensive capacity, mobility, and so on. In the final calculation, the player who has chosen five ten-foot-tall steel-booted ogres should not be able to roll over the player who has chosen a half-dozen elven archers and three flying hippogriff cavalry. Skill should determine the outcome. However—and this is crucial—skill is defined as the ability to effectively deploy and manage game affordances with specific, quantitatively defined capacities.
But Gygax and Ameson didn’t just adapt game rules. They also adapted the narrative conventions of heroic fantasy narratives, including their teleological structure. Players desired the superficial trappings of fantasy narratives—lugubrious ruins, leering trolls, virtuous paladins, and the like—but also the opportunity to be part of a continuing story, to grow from an ambitious nobody to a legendary hero with authority, wealth, and influence. This presented a tricky design challenge: How do you quantify story? How do you translate into numbers the hard-earned wisdom of a life lived well and widely? How do you transpose the narrative arc of a Grey Mouser or a Conan into a system of statistical tables and dice rolls? Leveling provided a solution to that problem, but not without consequences.
First, because D&D was built on the procedural framework of war games, it emphasized violence and the practical utility of player-character attributes. In other words, being a wise character generally did not mean that you would be able to negotiate complex ethical situations or empathize with a person’s suffering any better. It meant that you could cast certain spells more effectively or have a statistically better chance of reducing the effects of enemy attacks. Character was utility. And that was the case even if players wanted their experiences to be about complex interpersonal and ethical situations. In early editions of the game, it was difficult to design meaningful quests that didn’t focus on the killing of enemies. Likewise, in-game rewards—weapons, armor, rings, amulets, and so on—were valued primarily for their ability to deal or mitigate damage.
Second, the leveling procedure amplified an insidious, contradictory ideology lurking in the genre fiction Gygax and Ameson adored. Robert E. Howard, L. Sprague de Camp, Fritz Lieber, Poul Anderson, etc. consistently express distaste for modernity. Indeed, the fantasy genre might be characterized as an escape or consolation from the challenges of modern living. But though the tales they told typically take place in worlds where modern technologies, economic organs and regulations, and the civil state don’t exist, those worlds are full of marvelous things: rings, swords, cloaks, crowns, staves, and so on. And those things, in the hands of characters with special knowledge and a unique role in the events of their societies, give to those characters potent forms of agency. Indeed, it is often the acquisition of such magical things that empower and obligate the hero to rule and confront the forces that shape their world: the one who finds the magical sword must defeat the big baddie; the poor sap who inherits the cursed ring must trudge to the volcanic mountain in which it was forged and toss it in. In sum, we find in these anti-modernist stories a curiously technocratic ideology and a tendency to conceive of the self fetishistically, as a thing wielding things.
In novels and films, these technophilic tendencies are largely mitigated by compelling storytelling, interesting characters, complex interpersonal relations, and memorable world-building. But the mitigative role of narrative is less effective in games constructed around leveling procedures precisely because video games are, fundamentally, a performance-based medium that privileges action, particularly violent action. In a perceptive reading of the problems attendant on designing a narrative video game around non-violent game-play, Marsh Davis argues that violence provides a reliable “means of engagement with interesting systems that excitingly change the tactical landscape of [the] world [of the game]. Avoid combat, and nothing in that environment changes.” This is not to say that non-violent games can’t be made or can’t be fun (quite the contrary), but the medium wasn’t designed to do that. Further, because games are defined not only by rules, but by the objectives of play, it is difficult to design into games immaterial rewards. Typically, the prize for achieving an objective is a tangible reward of some kind and another, most often a more challenging objective. The prize for defeating the troll is a mystical dagger or powerful potion that enables one to get a fighting chance at defeating that troll’s boss and winning the legendary armor which, in turn, allows one to gain access to the boss of the troll’s boss, and so on. When the D&D system—itself a reification of the fantasy genre’s emphasis on things—was adapted to video games, adapted to play experiences that replaced a human dungeon master with a congeries of software procedures and mechanics, the role-playing game evolved into an almost perfect expression of commodity fetishism.
Such fetishism is most evident when we look at the multiple teloi that shape games about vanguards and how players perform within those. In storytelling, a telos is a conclusion, a final action and a summation of themes. As we know, the conventional model of the avant-garde is intrinsically teleological. For avant-gardes, the telos is the point towards which the struggle tends: the utopia, the moment of liberation from oppression, the production of a summative alterity. But in computer role-playing games, the end of the narrative, the ends of one’s activity, tends to be an uneasy conflation of two, independent teloi, neither of which is particularly conclusive. Yes, the end of the game is generally the conclusion of the primary narrative: The antagonist is defeated, the conspiracy purged, the disaster averted. But, because these are games, such end states tend not to be truly conclusive.
Games are defined, in part, by the fact that they can be replayed. We can take the board and pieces back out of their boxes and have as much (or as little) fun this time as we did the last. Replay value is particularly prized by videogame consumers, and designers may gift the player special bonuses for repeated attempts: unusual abilities, a new avatar, or a higher degree of challenge. Even without such bonuses, replaying a game is essentially different from re-reading a novel or re-watching a movie or play. Yes, like the reader or spectator, the player seeks to repeat pleasures and discover overlooked details. But CRPGs, for example, often allow the player to make choices that are formally significant, both narratively and aesthetically. I might play Mass Effect 3 (2012) a second time not as male, but as female. I might play not as a diplomatic, compassionate paragon, but as a cold, pragmatic renegade. Many video games have multiple endings that depend on player actions. At the conclusion of Dragon Age: Origins, the player is faced with a decision that, in conjunction with the actions they took earlier in the game, will result in distinct endings, including some in which the player-character dies.
And sometimes the end of the game is just the beginning, the beginning of the “endgame.” My son has long ago reached maximum level in the current iteration of Destiny and has completed its most challenging raids multiple times. He has acquired the most powerful—and epic-looking—weapons and gear. And yet he continues to play. It’s not simply compulsive repetition. Destiny’s developer regularly releases limited-time opportunities for new weapons and gear, which offer microscopic improvements in performance or subtle aesthetic changes. These are “opportunities” in the literal sense. Presuming his team completes the mission, there is a pre-determined statistical rate at which loot drops, and it tends to be unforgiving (players sometimes refer to “RN Jesus” in reference to the seemingly capricious random number generator that determines loot drops). In World of Warcraft, the endgame is a game unto itself. When a player reaches the maximum level—maximum until the next version is released—they gain access to content unavailable to lower-level avatars. And if one wishes to play the most challenging content—the so-called “mythic” level of raiding, in which one takes on the major antagonists (the “world bosses”) at the highest pitch of difficulty and is rewarded with the most powerful and glamorous gear—one must spend dozens of hours attempting the raid itself and even more time gathering the resources required to attempt it.
This is “the grind.” As Aidan Wall describes it, the repetitive structure of endgames like those in World of Warcraft “ultimately leads to play sessions becoming work sessions: you must clock in and work until you’ve earned your weekly salary of marks, materials, and possible exotic weaponry.” Wall traces the origins of the grind to 2007’s Call of Duty 4, which “popularized a new trend for incentivized repetitive play” (“Economics”). Specifically, the unlocking of new gear was “not necessarily awarded for good play but rather on a basis of time invested,” including accomplishing quantities of otherwise meaningless achievements such as successfully hitting enemy combatants in the head. However, I would note that this procedure was only implemented in CoD 4’s player-versus-player, non-campaign mode. The more influential game, at least from the perspective of storytelling, was the first expansion of World of Warcraft, The Burning Crusade, also released in 2007. With that expansion, Blizzard introduced “’daily quests,’” described by Daniel Lisi as “tasks that can be completed on a daily basis to earn the same reward each time, usually a sum of in-game currency and ‘reputation points,’ a metric used to determine your standing amongst in-game factions.” Regardless, I agree with Wall that the grind is the apotheosis of the “capitalist idea of invested time as currency” (“Economics”).
But the lure of the grind is not solely its rewards. It is difficult to capture in words the piquant pleasures of the grind, particularly in light of the intense peer pressure, performance expectations, and challenges of raiding. The fact is, most players of Warcraft or Destiny don’t raid, but these “casuals” nevertheless engage in the same repetitive tasks as their “hardcore” peers. It’s a bit like going fishing or playing solitaire. Indeed, the very term “grind,” which describes the repetitious completion of in-game tasks to earn in-game currencies, is “an entirely subjective measure of whether the game is enjoyable or not.” But irrespective of how we judge the grind, it is irrefutable that the narrative arc of video game vanguards leads to repetition and fetishism. The labor it demands is wholly attuned to the game’s procedures and is rewarded with goods whose value obtains only within the economy of the game and is recognizable only to those who labor along with you. It is gamified commodity fetishism.
Though I have covered only a small sector of the discursive, ideological, and performative territory shared between avant-gardes and video games, I can nevertheless gesture towards two broad conclusions that extend beyond those I’ve already made. It is clear that, whatever its fate in the spheres of art, the military, fashion, and global geopolitics, the avant-garde enjoys a robust and manifold presence in digital games, the game industry, and player culture. The implications of that presence are palpably contradictory. On one hand, the avant-garde is a narrative cliché. For game designers, the vanguard trope, whether cloaked in high-tech gear or swords and sorcery, is a beloved convention (the videogame version of genre fiction) and a convenient way for writers to provide players a power fantasy that mixes in equal measure supernatural agency, political cynicism, and opportunity for extra-judicial violence. But we can speak to the presence of the trope among games journalists, too. Reviews of games and game hardware often breathlessly praise the newest, fastest processor or the next achievement in photorealistic gore as the ne plus ultra of the medium. Like their Italian Futurist forebears, for such journalists the engine of innovation is technological fetishism, as opposed to storytelling, community development, or player education. And, no surprise, even a whiff of feminism or critical race theory tends to send these technophiles into a fury. Of course there are games and game journalists that engage the desire for formal innovation in a conscious, critical, and progressive way, that steer the conversation towards a more self-reflexive assessment of power, agency, and historicity. But on the whole, the mainstream video game industry is stuck in a semantic feedback loop that caters to the most technocratic, heteronormative, Eurocentric understandings of the medium.
However, we can also speak to the way the avant-garde ideologeme speaks to promising historical developments in the medium, discourse, institutions, and social and organizational structures of video games. There has always been space in game design and criticism for dissident and alternative expression and sociocultural positioning, but that space has significantly expanded over the last decade. This is due to the expansion of the video game as medium and industry and the maturation of discourse about the medium, both how we talk about games and the venues that provide a forum for that talk. In line with Peter Bürger’s thesis concerning the historical development of the aesthetic avant-garde, the video game as medium and discourse appears to have arrived at a moment of formal and analytic inflection, a moment of qualitative and quantitative transformation in “the nexus between the unfolding of an object and the categories of a discipline or science.” As with the so-called “historical avant-garde,” designers and critics of video games have reached a moment at which they are able to conceptually encompass the historical nature of the video game as a medium, the diversity of aesthetic approaches and design concepts, and an understanding of how the institutions, discourses, and ideologies of video games have governed how we make, think about, and play them. To be clear, there are many ways creators, critics, and players might respond to this historical development. An “avant-garde” strategy is neither the only nor the most effective response to the opportunities and constraints of our moment. Yes, violent disruption of the formal, procedural, performative, social, and economic dimensions of video games can catalyze promising, unexpected developments. However, such disruptions can empower reactionary hatemongers every bit as much as they do social justice warriors. Yes, games about avant-gardes can do more than simply titillate our desire for socially and politically unbridled agency. However, they necessarily bind agency to narratives and procedures that appear inextricable from the ideologies of neo-imperialism and commodity culture. Yes, there is empowerment and license to be found in creative communities founded outside the mainstream industry, but it’s an open question whether these can exert meaningful pressure on the mainstream. Regardless of how we judge the efficacy of a given “avant-garde” strategy, there is no question that video games are an increasingly ubiquitous part of our lives, often in ways that are difficult to detect. Understanding how we play the avant-garde may help us better understand the powers that control us and the power we literally hold in our hands.
 For more on what I’ve called the “Eulogist School” of avant-garde theory, see Mike Sell, Avant-Garde Performance and the Limits of Criticism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005), 35-48.
 There is an extensive body of criticism on the historiographical and disciplinary problems surrounding the concept of “the avant-garde.” These include Fred Orton and Griselda Pollock, Avant-Gardes and Partisans Reviewed (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996); Paul Mann, Theory Death of the Avant-Garde (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991); James M. Harding, Cutting Performances (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010); Kimberly Jannarone, ed., Vanguard Performance Beyond Left and Right (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2015); and Mike Sell, Avant-Garde Performance and The Avant-Garde: Race Religion War (Chicago, IL: Seagull Books, 2011).
 Tom Wijman, “Mobile Revenues Account for More Than 50% of the Global Games Market as It Reaches $137.9 Billion in 2018,” Newzoo, April 30, 2018.
 Chris Morris, “Here Are The Best Selling Video Games of 2015,” Fortune.com, January 15, 2016; Statista.com, “All time unit sales of selected games in Call of Duty franchise worldwide as of February 2019 (in millions),” February, 2019.
 Stephaney Nunneley, “Activision Q1: Destiny Has Nearly 30M Players; 55M Monthly Players for All IP,” VG24/7, May 5, 2016.
 On the challenges of writing an “art history” of video games that positions avant-garde designers and games within a generally technocratic, market-oriented discourse, see Lana Polansky’s “Towards an Art History of Videogames,” Rhizome, August 3, 2016.
 See Polansky, “Towards an Art History for Videogames.”
 Stephanie Boluk and Patrick LeMieux, Metagaming: Playing, Competing, Spectating, Cheating, Trading, Making, and Breaking Videogames (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 1.
 Anne-Marie Schleiner, “Parisitic Interventions: Game Patches and Hacker Art,” Opensorcery.net, December 14, 2001.
 On middle-state criticism and video game studies, see Steve Wilcox, “Feed-Forward Scholarship: Why Game Studies Needs Middle-State Publishing,” First Person Scholar, June 12, 2013; Jason Hawreliak, “Hybrid Publishing: The Case for the Middle-State,” First Person Scholar, July 31, 2015.
 Which raises a broader question about the ideological and discursive function of the term “avant-garde.” Unfortunately, the importance of both sustaining and deconstructing the term is an issue that can’t be treated here. See in particular the introduction to Sell, The Avant-Garde.
 Brian Schrank, Avant-Garde Videogames: Playing with Technoculture, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014), 4.
 Walter Holland, Henry Jenkins, and Kurt Squire, “Theory by Design,” in The Video Game Theory Reader, ed. Mark J. P. Wolf and Bernard Perron, (New York: Routledge, 2003), 25–46, 26–27.
 Paolo Pedercini, “Hot off the Grill,” Molleindustria, February 27, 2006. J. C. Herz’s term “military-entertainment complex” comes from Joystick Nation: How Video Games Ate Our Quarters, Won Our Hearts, and Rewired our Minds (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, and Company, 1997), 197–213.
 See Boluk and LeMieux, Metagaming, 2–3.
 See Entertainment Software Association, 2016 Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry, 6.
 Raymond Williams. The Sociology of Culture, (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 83.
 Brad King and John Borland, Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Games from Geek to Chic, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003), 4.
 Henry Jenkins, “Game Design as Narrative Architecture,” in First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game, ed. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), 121.
 Colossal Cave Adventure, developed by Will Crowther and Don Woods (1977).
 On the role of the French Medical Corps in the colonization of Algeria, see Sell, The Avant-Garde: Race Religion War, 98–101.
 Christopher B. Patterson, “Role-Playing the Multiculturalist Umpire,” Games and Culture 10, no. 3 (2015): 207–28, 213.
 Gerald Voorhees, “Neoliberal Multiculturalism in Mass Effect: The Government of Difference in Digital RPGs,” in Dungeons, Dragons, and Digital Denizens: The Digital Role-Playing Game, ed. Gerald Voorhees, Josh Call, and Katie Whitlock (London: Bloomsbury, 2012), 259–77, 274.
 Renato Poggioli, The Theory of the Avant-Garde (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968), 27–28.
 Dana Priest, The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace with America’s Military (New York: Norton, 2004), 14.
 Anna Anthropy, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Dropouts, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art Form (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2012), 2.
 Janet H. Murray, Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012), 434.
 Ian Bogost, Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames, (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007), 4.
 Ian Bogost, “The Rhetoric of Video Games,” in The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning, ed. Katie Salen, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 177–40, 121.
 Marsh Davis, “How Deus Ex: Human Revolution Fails—Fail Forward Ep. 3,” YouTube video, 14:01, posted by “RockPaperShotgun,” July 2, 2015, 14:01, 6:49–7:00.
 Aidan Wall, “The Economics of Bloodborne; or, Why You Keep Clocking Into Destiny,” Kill Screen, July 8, 2015.
 Daniel Lisi, “The Crushing Design Of World Of Warcraft’s Big Raids,” Kotaku, June 28, 2016.
 Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 16.