“These six offset lithographs are smaller versions of a series of enamel on Perspex paintings created by Peter Struycken. The original paintings measured 150 x 150 cm and were made in 1969.
Struycken created the paintings from a series of computer-generated images produced using a computer program, or code, written by the artist. The first image in the top left corner, entitled ‘PROGRAM’ is an example of this code.
Struycken welcomed the ability of the computer to calculate endless visual alternatives for the arrangement of a series of different coloured squares across the picture plane. These 5 images are from a series of 8 paintings, which were chosen as the final selection from a much larger sequence of images, all of which are versions of one another. For Struycken, the computer enabled him to investigate the role of chance in the creative process, whilst also retaining some measure of control.” – V&A South Kensington collection
Click here for information about the OSTRC program the artist used to create these artworks.
This is not a self-help blog about ‘cheat codes’ to reach life goals. This text is about gamers who game the game itself, no cheating involved. Rules, calculation and classification govern our virtual experience of the world. Likewise, the digital (video)game is very binary; true or false, right or wrong, win or lose. Barely any space for free interpretation in the system. Players are paid with coins, bells, credits, souls, Munny and virtual gold1 or rewarded with points, likes, or upvotes. Sometimes the end justifies the means. Gamified systems take elements from the video game environment. Although, gamification is more about engagement and motivation. Who does not want a new high score? Who shoots the most targets in a single run, has the shortest running time, walked most miles in a day, completed shield only, made the most sales, got first blood? It is the executives’ new approach to gain more revenue. 🤑💀
“The rhetorical power of the word “gamification” is enormous, and it does precisely what the bullshitters want: it takes games—a mysterious, magical, powerful medium that has captured the attention of millions of people—and it makes them accessible in the context of contemporary business” argues Ian Bogost here.
This text is not a plea against gamification either, although it could be read as such. We (a.o. self-quantifying-, young-, working- or scholarly people) find ourselves in a very competitive world. But what if we could bypass the competition or ‘change’ the game?
In their book about Metagaming, Stephanie Boluk and Patrick Lemieux write that rules are merely collective agreements. Our game mechanics are not up for discussion, and they are mandatory, non-adjustable and essential. We play within the limitations of automatic systems when we play a video game. Boluk and Lemieux write about metagaming. In its adjusted method of playing, the metagame assesses and questions how we carry out the game critically; the gameplay, its making and the winning conditions, among other questions beyond play and scoring, emerge. “After all,” Boluk and Lemieux state, “metagames are not just games about games.” There is a difference between the videogame as a commodity, videogames as an act to nudge individuals’ behaviour (employees, students or customers, for example) with gamified elements and the videogame as the principle for critical practice. When there are no rules, gamers cannot break them. However, mechanical systems are unchangeable. A gamer can use cheat codes2, add mods, manipulate memory and discover exploits, but this is not cheating and has more in common with basic hacking. Playing the game in this way is not about following its intentions. There are many ways to play, and each video game has a set (number of) pathway(s) to follow towards a goal.
One example is the challenge run. Any challenge run is similarly to speedrunning, which Boluk and Lemieux describe as “a game within a videogame”. They argue that when a challenge run (community) adds rules to the metagame, it both changes the gameplay and “questions the very ontology of videogames”. For the category’ shield only run’ in the videogame Dark Souls the voluntary rule added is to attack by only using a shield. Gamers collaboratively research, discover and practise -playing the game repeatedly- new techniques for this game within the videogame. As they say: “nothing is out of bounds,” and the author’s or public’s aims are utterly optional in and of the metagame.
Furthermore, a video game, unlike offline gameplay, is not spontaneous. The videogame is, as game designer Jane McGonigal argues, more than free play. McGonigal investigates the psychology behind the gamers’ gameful mind’ from her position as a gamer. Videogames might not teach us to be playful, but they teach us to question their system. We cannot always change (or cheat) the mechanics, but we can game the game. We can challenge the environment of competition. Only then, if we game the system, the executive loses effectiveness.
1 Virtual money, in game exchange value. For example currency used: coins (in: Super Mario Bros.), bells (in: Animal Crossing), credits, souls (in: Dark Souls), munny (in: Kingdom Hearts) and virtual gold (in: World of Warcraft and RuneScape). Most of these virtual currencies are sold and purchased at online market for very real money. Some have substantial real world values.
2 Cheat codes play a very significant part in video game culture.(meme ‘You Cheated Not Only the Game, But Yourself’ screenshot from Part of a series on Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.)
We are at home, listening to fake news and watching propaganda while omnipresent government surveillance mechanisms monitor us. People are in constant denial, and the current situation is uncomfortable. In the premise of 1984, Big Brother is watching through the telescreen. If we misbehave, we are locked up. In the panoptic prison, the prisoner does not see the guard hidden in the central tower and behaves as if they are constantly under their gaze. The architecture is both a building and theory, envisioned (in the late eighteenth century) by Jeremy Bentham. The panoptic mechanism’s disciplinary power, the effect of self-interiorisation of the surveillant gaze, is not limited to the penal institution and can be implemented at educational, corporal and clinical institutions. Even consumerism (although initially missing from surveillance studies in Foucault’s Panopticism) thrives on surveillance. Both these metaphors, bluntly put, are insufficient to cover today’s surveillance mechanisms.
Zuck is Watching
James M. Harding argues that (biblical) metaphors like ‘the all-seeing eye’ and Bentham’s panopticon obscure the basic fact that surveillance is a form of punishment. In agreement with this concept of punishment, Shoshana Zuboff’s current omnipresent observer, what she coined ‘Big Other’, is guarding every detail of our digital lives. Zuboff once made use of the panopticon’s metaphor but acknowledges that this is outdated.
“Even the panopticon of Bentham’s design [..] is prosaic compared to this new architecture [..]. In the 1980s it was an apt metaphor for the hierarchical spaces of the workplace.”
Computer mediation, tracking devices and cameras dismissed the panopticon. Software systems take the place of the guard. There is no stranger in the tower. Companies (a.o. Amazon, Alphabet Inc., Facebook, Alibaba) replaced the totalitarian Big Brother. The question haunting us today is, as foreseen by Zuboff, “Did George Orwell die in vain?”
This no-longer stranger, the surveyor, is unfamiliar familiar to us. “Big Other’s knowledge is about us, but it is not used for us. Big Other knows everything about us, while we know almost nothing about it,” Zuboff clarifies in the TIME. We have entered a new era, she claims, the era of ‘surveillance capitalism’. Tech companies transformed the world and our logic of accumulation. The current political power is transferred by their ’coup from above,’ as Zuboff claims. Modern capitalism’s market and non-market products, like services and activities formerly produced with concealed forces, are now transparent and anticipatory; however, their mechanism is opaque. From Facebook’s Marketplace to sponsored posts on Facebook’s owned Instagram platform, instant messages, Facebook’s recent additional feature Video Room and Stay at Home stickers for Instagram stories a.o.; the tech company has many tricks under the pervasive cover of linking everything for everyone’s benefit. Photos posted, quiz answers submitted, views counted, location logged, the number of likes given; all data -extracted, calculated, analysed, clustered, combined and processed- produces a predictive mechanism for oversight. Zuboff claims that the Big Other controls us by not only predicting what we will post (feel and do), but the Big Other also “automate[s]” us to do these things. Facebook’s -or Big Other’s, sticking to Zuboff’s term- tower of power stretches beyond the panopticon, the workplace and settles in its ‘community,’ piercing within the architecture of ourselves. As Zuboff argues, “There is no place where the other is not. In this world of no escape [from the Big Other], the chilling effects of anticipatory conformity give way as the mental agency and self-possession of anticipation is gradually submerged into a new kind of automaticity.”
Conformity, as Zuboff states, works differently from Foucault’s notions of the self-internalisation of the surveillance gaze; it is “not as action but as result, not cause but effect.” For example, an already liked post will likely get more likes, a post a ‘friend’ commented on will likely speak to you too, critical comments from someone you follow will make it more likely to agree with them; fake news, dis-information performative activism, memes and advertisement… We submit to, willingly or are required to this anticipatory conformity.
Much of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is controlled by Big Others, companies and totalitarian government systems (likethe Social Credit System in China), including Alibaba, Amazon and Google. All their data transactions involve monitoring, rewarding and targeting -real!- people. Habitually or routinely, unknowingly, locally and globally, we are pushed in a new era of bigger, more intrusive surveillance expanding discursively. The Big Other is unavoidable present.
The Tower of Power is a short-reflective essay video about a year in lockdown. A collection of images and memes received and sent (to), my digital prison tower. The digitally rendered Tower of Power is a response to Michel Foucault’s disciplinary power from Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison’s (1975) chapter Panopticism. Duration: 00:02:22