Debord as Programmer: Alexander Galloway on the Game of War

On: October 27, 2007
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About Michael Stevenson
I am a lecturer and PhD candidate in Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam. I've been a contributor to Masters of Media since 2006, though I now only post occasionally. A short list of papers and projects can be found here


The Game of WarOn Thursday night Alexander Galloway, NYU assistant professor and founding member of the Radical Software Group, gave us a peak at his latest project, an online version of the Game of War.

This is a ‘remake’ of a board game created by French Situationist Guy Debord in 1978, a somewhat forgotten departure by the filmmaker and writer so closely associated with the Paris riots of 1968.

Antagonism and algorithms
Before showing the work in progress, Galloway spoke some about his interest in games research, as this relates especially to the ways games model antagonism. He asks whether these can help us think about social and political forms of conflict and struggle. Traditional games assume symmetrical forms of conflict, with two opposing sides of equal ability, but is it possible to model different forms?

Here, Galloway is thinking specifically about the distributed networks he theorized at length in his book Protocol. Such networks recall the rhizome and the radical politics of French Post-structuralism, but also describe the material organization of the Internet. If there are games that simulate the swarm-like behavior of the distributed network, do these provide any clues as to how progressive this organizational form is, or can be?

Modeling the network economy: Starcraft and World of Warcraft
Real time strategy games can be distinguished by a couple of traits: they are continuous and not turn-based, they are often played with a bird’s eye view of the action and they tend to be about resource-gathering in some form or another. For Galloway, the best example is Starcraft (image), which he discussed alongside World of Warcraft. Both of these games clearly display some of the swarm characteristics he mentions, but the key is how and why they do so. Galloway argues that simulation of the distributed network goes hand in hand with that of a different kind of economy.

As Fleur noted, cooperation on World of Warcraft depends on an engineered scarcity. It makes certain types of collaboration possible and necessary. And one can draw comparisons between, for instance, the strategies the games facilitate and the project-based work of ‘Tiger Teams’ and other post-industrial forms of labor. What the games suggest is that such distributed behavior is not an abstract, ideal form superimposed on reality, but something that emerges from specific material and economic conditions.

Galloway points out that the relationship between contemporary gaming and the network economy goes deeper than this level of ‘play’. It is no coincidence that the machines we work on also house our games: informatic labor and informatic play are continuous, meaning each can seamlessly transform into the other. And while this echoes theories about the dissolving boundaries of ‘private’ and ‘public’, Galloway’s argument stresses the materiality of this shift.

What is the effect of having such a strong connection between a medium (the Internet and gaming) and a means of production (post-Fordism)? Isn’t the multi-tasking, team-working World of Warcraft player ‘training’ to be a better ‘knowledge worker’? Maybe so, Galloway says, but this would be very different to training in a disciplinary sense. Rather, these games are about liberation and desire. They promote autonomy, even if this must be achieved paradoxically through cooperation. So instead of thinking of games as making us better workers, Galloway argues we should look at how they make us better bosses.

Guy Debord and the Game of War
In the last part of the presentation Galloway talked about Debord’s Game of War, its history and about the project to remake the game in online form (what Galloway calls “a massively two-player online game”).

Here is the original version of the game, which Debord brought out in limited edition, fine silver:

The Game of War

Game of War is strangely traditional: it resembles chess in that the board is square and there are two evenly matched opponents, each with the same set of class-based pieces. However, there are also some twists. On the one hand, the board has an uneven topology, with mountain ranges and immobile defensive forts, and on the other there is a strong emphasis on keeping pieces within lines of communication with command centers, or ‘arsenals’ (the communication lines are visible in the online version). In short, not all squares are created equally, and the degree to which a particular area of the board is strategic changes throughout the game.

Alexander Galloway’s java version of the Game of War, which is not finished quite yet:

The Game of War

Debord wrote that he first came up with the idea for the game in the 1950s, and that it “embodied the dialectic of all conflict”. He was fascinated by it, and saw it as an abstraction and perfection of war. Some now go so far as to say it was his most autobiographical work, though it has received considerably less attention than his films and writings. But Galloway says this is changing, and Debord’s game is especially interesting from the perspective of New Media and Game studies.

Game of War leaves behind some questions. Why would a filmmaker like Debord turn to the politics of the algorithm? Given his involvement in the radical politics of the 1960s, what sense did it make to privilege the strategic and logistical aspects of such a game, when he could have developed something more along the lines of the rhizome? In an age of asymmetric warfare, why the fascination with something so symmetrical? Perhaps the Game of War has a surprising move or two waiting to be discovered.

(Photographs courtesy of Anne, see also her summary of Galloway’s presentation)

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