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critical theory, media studies, Johan Huizinga, gamespace, utopia, McKenzie Wark, gamer, Gamer Theory

Gamer Theory

Fifteen Years Later

Charles J. Pratt (New York University)


Published in 2007, McKenzie Wark’s Gamer Theory was one of the first monograph-length critical examinations of how video games have shaped, and been shaped, by contemporary political and economic culture.1 In the text, Wark argues that our world, the overdeveloped world, has adopted the language and often the structure of games, and can now be understood as a “gamespace” that stretches its influence across the entire planet. Built on a foundation of digital and networked logistical control, gamespace cannot be escaped, and we all must play by its rules whether we like it or not. In the fifteen years since its publication, the civic, media, and entertainment worlds have gone through enormous changes, from the further mainstreaming of reactionary politics to the near total financialization of culture, making the analysis presented in Gamer Theory even more valuable today than it was at the time of its writing.

Born in Newcastle, Wark studied communications and media theory at the University of Technology, Sydney, and received her PhD from Murdoch University in Western Australia. From the beginning of her career, Wark was interested in the role that media played in an increasingly globalized world and the path forward for critical theory at the end of the Cold War. However, as her first book, Virtual Geography: Living with Global Media Events, published in 1994, shows, she was similarly interested in how globalized media events were experienced on a personal level.2 Virtual Geography introduces the analytical framework centered around the media vector that Wark would develop for the rest of her career but also meditates on her own perspective of these events while being situated as an Australian public intellectual, far from the center of political or media power.

Moving to the United States in 2000, Wark joined the faculty of the Eugene Lang College at the New School in 2003, shortly before the publication of A Hacker Manifesto in 2004.3 Written as an experiment in developing a new critical language, A Hacker Manifesto expands and fully develops the vocabulary from Virtual Geography. According to Wark, the dominance of the capitalist class has been displaced by a “vectoralist” class that eschews control of the means of production in favor of controlling the means of media transmission.4 This class is buoyed by a legal regime that extends the concept of property to information itself, entrenching the idea of intellectual property. Long before the unionization efforts at tech and media companies like Google and Vox Media, Wark argued that the hackers who produced intellectual property for the vectoralists needed to recognize themselves as a class and join in solidarity with the other workers of the world. A Hacker Manifesto brought a Marxist class analysis to bear on the uncritical exuberance of the late 1990s and early 2000s for the increasingly globalized and consolidated media and tech industries and gave Wark a reputation as one of the most exciting interpreters of Marx and the critical tradition.

Gamer Theory, written and published after A Hacker Manifesto, recontextualizes the framework that Wark had laid out to discuss the aesthetic form that she argues most fits the age of vectoralism: the video game. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the organizing rhetorical and cultural model has become the game, according to Wark, to the extent that it’s best to describe the world as a gamespace. All things, from human capital to mineral capital, are given a strict rank and value that determine their place in the boundaryless field of agon that is undergirded by the vectoral networks of power. But what does this mean for the games that we play for entertainment and, sometimes, escape? In each chapter of Gamer Theory, Wark undertakes a close reading of a particular game and over the course of the book shows how video games, as a reflection of the cultural logic of their time, provide a set of perspectives and analytical tools with which the gamer might critique gamespace.

Gamer Theory was written after Wark came into contact with a new set of game designers and scholars that was attempting to engage games in broader conversations of culture and politics. The middle of the first decade of the 2000s saw an attempt to move away from not only the discourse of the enthusiast games press but also the debates over the form of games and the role of narrative that shaped early game studies. Written shortly after the foundation of the Games for Change festival and published in book form the same year as Ian Bogost’s Persuasive Games, Gamer Theory can be understood in the context of a push for the political and cultural relevance of games, even though Wark doesn’t engage directly with these ideas.5 However, in Gamer Theory Wark ultimately points to the cultural potential of games beyond being vehicles that engage in the marketplace of ideas, and offers a perspective that remains vital in a time when games themselves are one of the preeminent forms of global media and entertainment.

In the decade and a half since Gamer Theory was published, Wark has continued to develop her critical language and analysis around vectoralism with books like Telesthesia: Culture, Communication, and Class in 2012, as well as 2019’s Capital Is Dead: Is This Something Worse?.6 She has also written extensively about the ideas and personalities around the Situationist Internationale (The Beach Beneath the Street, The Spectacle of Disintegration) and foregrounded emerging intellectuals and concepts (General Intellects, Sensoria).7 Her most recent work, Reverse Cowgirl, was published in 2020 and revolves around the concept of auto-ethnography and Wark’s own journey of transition.8 While Wark’s interests have never returned to video games, her contribution to the field of game studies remains, fifteen years later, revolutionary and singular.

This interview is based on a conversation between McKenzie Wark and Charles Pratt at Gamer Theory: 15 Years Later, hosted at the NYU Game Center on September 30, 2021. It was then subsequently expanded over email and edited for length and readability.


CHARLES PRATT: After publishing A Hacker Manifesto, how did you decide on your next project, and how did you decide that it would be about video games.

MCKENZIE WARK: I don’t know where projects come from. In retrospect it seems like there’s a larger metaproject but at the time it was a bit intuitive. A Hacker Manifesto is the more romantic, utopian version of a certain sensibility, and I think Gamer Theory was the more pessimistic corrective. Also I’d spent time with both the media art and game design avant-gardes of the time and felt they needed separate treatments. There’s an “ethnographic” side to all my main book projects. They come out of meeting with people, hanging out, trying to capture what’s emerging. I wrote an essay called “The Video Game as Emergent Media Form” which was in the journal Media Information Australia in 1994.9 I must have also put the text on the listserv or something as Eric Zimmerman read it and brought me into the new games studies and game design world of which he was a key instigator. He brought me to an event in New York called re:play a few years later where I met some of the people doing the new stuff. So it grew organically out of connection between the net art/theory avant-garde and the game design /game studies one.

CP: What was your research process for the book? Both in terms of theory you wanted to bring to bear on the subject and choosing and playing the games.

MW: I decided to make the writing rule-based. So there were a series of constraints like the Oulipo group used. Then it was just going back and forth between games and concepts. I was teaching game studies as undergrad liberal arts and I was focused on the sort-of canonic texts, like [Johan] Huizinga and [Bernard] Suits as well as all the new game studies literature. I was very unsatisfied with the critical theory of the time. Things like [Fredric] Jameson’s postmodernism and late capitalism essay.10 It just didn’t work for me, or land with students. I thought making games the formal object of critique could move critical theory on from certain habits. So I was very selectively drawing on and modifying those traditions, in which I was pretty well versed. Frankly, I probably work more like an artist than a scholar. I see my main books as literature, playing in and against theory as a genre. So the method is just treating certain things as materials for a practice that’s open-ended and experimental. But in this case an experiment with formal constraints. Each chapter is exactly twenty-five paragraphs long, and so forth.

CP: A lot of understanding Gamer Theory is understanding the very particular vocabulary and set of concepts that you develop in the book. One of the most important is the idea of “gamespace.” Could you describe what you mean in Gamer Theory by the term gamespace?

MW: There was a series of debates before the book was written about what a game was. And it boiled down to games having artificial constraints internal to them, being bounded in time and space, and that they have conditions under which they end. So, people can dispute that, but games are something like that. But what if there was no longer a boundedness to games, and the entire planet had become one game without end? There’s no win condition for any individual at all anymore, suspending some of the criteria for the very concept of game. The things that make games not terrifying, if you like. What if you don’t get any choice about that anymore?

The concept of gamespace was trying to think this somewhat bleaker version of what gamification was pointing toward. Writing the book was contemporary to the discussion of gamification as something that would be such a great way to get everybody motivated! Rank everybody. Now everybody is ranking us.

CP: At what level should we take gamespace as a kind of rhetorical move, as a metaphor for the powers that be? The way that they dress up their system as one that has meritocracy, fairness. They use the language of games. Should we take gamespace as a kind of window dressing? Or should we take it more literally?

MW: I think it’s real. I think we’re in it. All of social media became gamified. It’s not rhetorical in that sense.

To me, gamespace is a more useful key to the subjectivity of living in whatever this is. Maybe it’s still capitalism. Maybe it’s worse. But I feel like it’s better than always saying “neoliberalism.” I think that it feels game-like. But game-like also in a bad sense. There seem to be arbitrary rules. It’s not clear what the win condition is. Some people definitely get power-ups that you don’t get. All of those things seem like a way of thinking about what it means to be inside this kind of machine. That’s making you a player in your own life. Whether you want to be or not.

CP: Games play a role in gamespace. In the book you suggest that gamers, rather than trying to escape from the world by playing video games, were actually diving toward the very ideals that the world had taught them to seek out. But unlike in gamespace, it’s in video games that they actually found ideals like fairness and meritocracy. Do you still think that games have that function?

MW: Gamer Theory is a book without Romanticism. So there’s no outside. There’s no idyllic other world that you can go to. There’s no counterculture. There’s no light on the hill. So what you’re left with is different styles of play internal to gamespace. Or different ways of being a gamer, internal to it. Which comes a bit from Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, and comes a bit from Bernard Suits also.11 Gamer Theory advocates what Suits called trifling rather than playing.

If I think and play with the internal affordances, maybe there are spaces internal to gamespace that are some kind of respite. And also are free from the sort of ideological conviction to win at all costs. It’s also not worlds different from Guy Debord’s Society of Spectacle.12 It’s not really expecting total revolution to happen. To save us. It’s very much about being internal to the totality that’s now game-like, rather than cinema-like.

CP: There is a sense that there is no real “after” in Gamer Theory. There’s no revolution that’s coming.

MW: There’s a lot of game criticism that’s about content and about representation. And it’s fine. But that kind of work isn’t really thinking about games in formal terms.

Around the time I was writing Gamer Theory, there were many debates about this. But even the people looking at the form of games didn’t think those forms could also be homologous with the larger structures of this information economy. The formalist approach to game studies tended to just want to talk about games. Whereas I wanted to have it both ways.

Gamer Theory presents a critical theory of games, but I’m not specifically interested in representation. It’s about form. So it’s: how do you look at particular mechanics and structures of games as analogs for things in the real world.

CP: You tell a really interesting history of the eras of human life, and how we got to a world that’s made over as a gamespace. Starting with what you call the “topic,” or the “topical” world. Which is the very beginning of human civilization. Early tribes and villages. With the world being mostly shrouded in darkness.

MW: Like Civilization [3]!13 It’s all dark around you. You have no idea what the map is.

CP: And you talk about how this gives way to a topographic world. The world that was made over in lines. And those lines could be roads or the written word. These lines start to map the world, start to connect it, and at the end of that era, you have “telesthesia.” You have numerous forms of communication that collapse space, quite dramatically, and give rise to a new era. This is the era that you assert we’re living in, which you describe as a “topological” world. In other words, the world has been made over as a logical or a logistics problem, where quantities supersede quality as the most important part of description. And this is a world that is ripe for certain kinds of processes and algorithms to run it. Is that a fair assessment of the story you’re telling?

MW: Yes. In what way are games already maps of a world that is topological in the sense that you can fold space? We live in a world of supply chains and logistics, where something might be made in Indonesia, but it was designed in Brooklyn, and it seems to fold space together using logistics as a way to make that possible. And games seem to me to be really good allegories of that. In a way that the sort of map-based or cinematic universe was not. Cinema doesn’t quite show you how you fold space. The whole space of the planet is a gamespace. So video games are a much better reminder of that than movies or books.

CP: When do you think this changeover between the topographical and the topological world happened? Was it very gradual? What was the point at which we’re recognizably inside of some topological space? I ask this because I was really fascinated to go back and read your first book, Virtual Geography, which was published in the nineties, and to see this idea already there. Already you’re trying to grapple with what it means for an event happening thousands of miles away to be filtered through different vectors of information flow.

MW: It’s got a long history. This is classic Canadian media theory. Harold Innis was the person who started this movement. The Bias of Communication and Empire and Communications are two important books, and for me, James Carey’s book, Communication as Culture, is also really key.14 The key is how space becomes different when there’s telegraphy. Before telegraphy, for information to move through space, it would move at pretty much the same speed as everything else. So markets were just local. Arbitrage was just people who had good intuition about differences between different markets in different places. Telegraphy changes all that.

What we think of now as the market is an abstraction. It’s an effect of telegraphy. Because you’ve got price information from different places all at the same time. The modern sense of market is an artifact of telegraphy.

Telegraphy also changes military strategy. During the Civil War, certain battles happened, just because telegraphy was possible between certain points. So how does the quality of space change when the information moves faster than things do? How does the information start to control how things will or won’t be moved? It begins with telegraphy, but it’s still incredibly difficult and slow. Actually getting telegraphy to work between say, Sydney, where I’m from, and London, which was the colonial center, implies you have a line halfway around the world. And thinking about world events this way gets you to answers to like, why would the British have to colonize certain parts of the Middle East? To run the telegraph line to India! Which is what they really cared about. So telegraphy is so powerful that you’re going to destroy entire civilizations to run a line through it. And I’m not exaggerating too much. So it’s got a couple of centuries of prehistory.

But there’s a point at which communication gets so cheap and so fast that it starts to even more rapidly control things. Such that you’re gathering very fine-grained detail in real time, and feeding that into what is essentially a game engine, that’s now planetary in scale. At that point you’re moving everything in real time around that. Because as we know, we’re shedding streams of data from each of our cell phones constantly. Just by walking around. Any time it’s actually on, or your laptop is on. And engines of calculation, both military and economic, are figuring out what to do with that.

CP: Do you feel like gamespace, and the topological world, are still developing? And if so, do you have a sense of the direction it will develop?

MW: People can forget how rapidly this happened. When the Allies invaded the Normandy beaches they had no idea what was there. There was this whole process of trying to figure out what the actual beaches were like. What was the grade? What kind of sand? No one knew that. Now you can just look all that up. You can just go and invade anywhere, based on very fine-grained information. But even in the middle of last century, no one knew anything. You had maps and they were often wildly inaccurate. There’s a way in which we’ve entered the beginnings of this new, topological world really only twenty or thirty years ago. And already we’re running out of the base-level world to build off. So many people have fantasies of going to Mars because we’ve run out of the actual planet underneath the gamespace and can’t support it anymore. The fantasy is that we’ll find another one. Which is not really gonna work.

CP: There’s no time.

MW: The finance piece is fascinating. The way it works now is that we’re doing arbitrage between all of the activities that are actually going on, and then all the possible alternative activities that could be happening at the same time. That’s derivatives. So you have a bigger economy that’s a game on top of the actual game of moving stuff around. So we just build games on top of games. That’s also gamespace.

CP: The title of the book is important. At the time it came out, if a book was called Gamer Theory, it was almost always a book about, or a theory of, gamers. What are they doing and what are they about? But your book is not about that.

Gamer Theory is suggesting that there’s a kind of theory that gamers can do. That they have a position in the world that is different from the people who engage primarily with other forms of media, such as literature or cinema. Only gamers can do this new kind of theory and you’re trying to sketch out what that might look like.

Do you think there’s still a kind of theory that only gamers can do, or has something changed in the last fifteen years?

MW: There’s a moment when a form is just gathering steam. Where people are more aware of it and more conscious about it. There have obviously been games for a long time. I was playing Space Invaders back in the late seventies, you know, so it’s not completely novel.15 But there was still a sense of the novelty of inventing our culture around games in the early twenty-first century. It’s maybe still worth trying to keep hold of that.

The thing that happened a decade after Gamer Theory was written was Gamergate. And that revealed a whole other model of who a gamer was. But I still think there’s ways you can develop a conceptual practice out of playing or, even better, designing games as a particular way of thinking. A particular way of interacting with the world. A particular set of aesthetics. A particular set of forms. I’m interested in how practices give rise to sort of specific kinds of conceptual and critical possibilities.

CP: To me, as someone who thinks a lot about the game industry and works inside of it on some level, it has always been interesting how much games are at the forefront of some of the protocols and models of control that you talk about in Gamer Theory. These forms of control often show up in games first. We no longer live in the era where it’s common, when you release a PC game, that you also release the tools to mod it. In the past the game industry was much more connected to a kind of hacker culture. The belief that players, that gamers, were closer to hackers.

And now we have many, many more forms of control, where you often don’t even own the game you’re playing. The game is something that is being leased to you for a brief amount of time, and it can be taken away at any time. We have entire games, such as gacha games, that are funded by economies of value that are just artificial people.

MW: There’s a lot of that in my earlier book, A Hacker Manifesto. We don’t get to own the artifacts of our own culture anymore. We’re actually now just renting back our own culture. All of it gets appropriated.

I was just hesitating about downloading a book from Amazon onto my phone for something to read on the way here. And it’s like … God damn it! I don’t actually get that book. I just get leaseholder rights on it. So we’ve all become tenants. Not just in Brooklyn, but in culture. But we make the culture. We are the culture. It’s our labor but we don’t get to own it, and we barely get to lease it, because they can change the terms at any time. Someone will yank something off your phone and you don’t know where it went.

CP: That’s a good chance to transition to talking about the rest of your work. So you wrote A Hacker Manifesto right before starting work on Gamer Theory. And that’s the book I think you’re probably best known for.

MW: Oh, yes.

CP: In your work you’ve been building a set of terms. Terms like hacker, vector, and vectoralism all have certain meanings in the books you’ve written. From A Hacker Manifesto all the way to your most recent book, Capital Is Dead.

What’s interesting to me, reading Gamer Theory, is how little of that language is in there. Hacker appears at the very end, and all of the ideas are there, and people who have read your other work can easily see how Gamer Theory fits into it. But the terms vector and vectoralism don’t show up. Is there a reason that you decided to write Gamer Theory in its own language?

MW: I never really thought of that. There’s some way that the language comes out of the particular critical objects and practices.

Actually, I wrote a new preface for the French edition, and maybe that tries to do that work of synthesis to feed it back into the other books. My recent book, Capital Is Dead, which I did maybe a year ago, was very much about rewriting A Hacker Manifesto in a slightly less laborious language. It’s ironic, given that as a book A Hacker Manifesto is against intellectual property, that I’ve always thought that it got widely plagiarized. People straight up stole ideas from it, and with Capital Is Dead I’m just putting my name back on it.

What are the consequences for the technical changes in media form, for how it becomes a different political economy? Maybe what we’re living in is not even capitalism anymore, but something worse. That’s the idea I wanted to re-establish. A Hacker Manifesto is sort of optimistic about how it was transformable. And Gamer Theory is not optimistic. Now that I think about it, the book I’m currently working on about raves is pessimistic as well, and it also has a separate language. The concepts in it are distinctive to it.

CP: I’d like to talk about vectoralism and your concept of the vector since it’s such an important idea for understanding Gamer Theory and the rest of your work.

MW: There’s a way in which the whole modern period is about ever more refined forms of abstraction, and how you can control production processes at an ever more abstract level.

The innovation of capitalism was the factory. It’s actually controlling the production process by internalizing the workers inside the machine, essentially. But it’s still a huge hulking machine. I’m from a steel town. There were giant factories everywhere. So, it’s abstract, but still incredibly materially embodied. But now we just outsource all of that to somewhere else and control it remotely. Because you can control the flow of information and every piece of the information. You control the intellectual property, which determines the kind of product that gets made. You control the supply chain. Logistics. You know exactly where all the inputs and outputs are going. All the market information is at your fingertips. You know when the consumers are buying it off the shelf. That’s contemporary business. None of that was possible in the twentieth century. Agency used to require having control over the means of production, but I think agency and power now are in controlling the vector, meaning the line of information that’s connecting all those things together. Most big companies, whose logos you see everywhere, don’t really own a damn thing. Apple doesn’t make phones, right?

Now, what they control is the infrastructure to all these things. Google has an enormous infrastructure, but it doesn’t own giant factories. And the workforce, its employees, are a fraction of what a company like Ford used to employ. With the concept of vectoralism, I’m trying to think about things like, how is it possible to abstractly control anything, really? But particularly production processes? Or production and consumption cycles? And is that really a form of capitalism anymore, or is it something else, where information becomes centrally important. Above and beyond capital itself?

CP: There’s also the character of the hacker, the person who, in your terms, produces abstractions. In your framework, there is the worker, who is tearing material from the world, putting it into a shape, and giving it to someone else. And then there’s a hacker, who is sitting and coming up with the intellectual property that the vectoralists use to make their money.

MW: The whole idea of labor in capitalism is you make the same thing. You abstract the making down to particular separate processes, so everybody is just sitting there, doing the same thing, over and over again. And the human is still there, because a human is still sometimes cheaper than getting a machine to do it. But sameness is what that’s all about.

However, the kind of work most of us aspire to do is not that. So that means you’ve got to produce difference rather than sameness. Gregory Bateson says that information is the difference that makes a difference.16 And so now it’s difference that you’ve got to produce. That’s our job. And in New York City, there are basically two kinds of work now. There’s producing information and there’s service work to make it all possible.

The problem is you usually don’t end up owning and controlling all of the consequences of whatever novelty you end up producing. Hopefully you get some benefit from it.

So, the whole of New York City is one of these factories that manufactures novel information. Not so much directly around code, though that’s certainly a thing that happens here. But around branding and marketing, financial information, legal information, accounting information. Everybody you see in coffee shops has got a laptop open doing one of those things. But it’s not quite labor in the traditional sense. It’s still work, but you’re not making sameness. You’re making difference.

CP: And your argument is that hackers should recognize themselves as a class. If these information workers could find some solidarity with more traditional workers, service workers, that sort of thing, that might be a path toward some kind of solution. Maybe not the solution. But a way to get somewhere better than where we might otherwise be going.

MW: I mean, as far as this political economy is concerned, it doesn’t really care what kind of information you make. All of it can be turned into forms of intellectual property. So why do we, hackers and workers, find ourselves at odds over what are essentially cultural differences? How are those exploited to divide us? And among hackers: people trained as humanists and people trained as scientists are supposed to be at each other’s throats about … I don’t even know what. But our job is the same. We just have different protocols.

CP: You talk about hackers as a class. And then you have gamers. Are they also a class? Is solidarity something we should be thinking about for them?

MW: They’re not a class in that sense, but maybe as a social persona. How do we, particularly in the space of the city, interact with each other through forms of persona, the shortcuts to what sort of genre somebody is?

Gamer is something quite different now, compared to what it was. And hacker has lost its “creative good person” qualities. It’s become associated with the criminal.

So I still think class is kind of an open question. Maybe there’s a different kind of ruling class that doesn’t actually directly own the means of production anymore. But owns the information. There is still labor. There are still peasants in the world. But is there a class of information producer that many of us belong to or aspire to belong to? The ruling class would dearly love to proletarianize and find ways to stop us having money.

CP: One of the things that has happened in the last fifteen years is that gamer has become more of a description of someone’s job. With streaming and games as performance, the people who actually now use the term gamer to describe themselves aren’t necessarily associated with Gamergate. The term now describes people who work on Twitch eight hours a day, almost like AM radio hosts that have to produce an enormous amount of content that they have only the slightest bit of control over, often. And they have no means of reaching any of their audience except through these portals that are controlled by other people.

MW: Yeah, the game is content production. And then your immediate rival is producing content in the same genre. But your rival in general is everybody else producing content—all of whom are fighting over scraps and none of whom owns the vector itself. We don’t own Twitch. Or whatever. Name your platform. There used to be this idea of culture industries—it almost seems nostalgic—because they actually made the movies and records and stuff for us. Now you’ve got to make it yourself! They just give you this empty thing and you’ve got to fill it. And get your friends to put stuff in it.

CP: And then we can’t even monetize it ourselves.

MW: Yeah, there’s no way to make a living off it. Because the system of control kind of makes you compete with everybody else, really for attention, more than anything else. And good luck monetizing that. Everybody’s got a T-shirt line now.

CP: The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga has had a big impact on the course of game scholarship, but was also an influential thinker among the artists of the Situationist Internationale, as you said. At the end of his book, Homo Ludens, he worries about play dying out in the world. By one interpretation of Gamer Theory you’re suggesting that he was correct to worry. Play is dead, and play has been dead for a while. Now all that’s left is games. Is that a fair interpretation?

MW: For Huizinga, it’s a good thing that play calcifies into games. As long as the games remain modifiable and can be elaborated and recreated. But, he feared that that spirit of elaboration and recreation would cease to be, and there would be an enclosure of play entirely within games, the unmodifiable structures. I think that’s where we’ve ended up, in some ways. You get to play within a space, but you don’t get to own the space at all. These spaces became enclosed gamespaces, not playspaces.

Homo Ludens is a really important book. It was published in 1938, just before the Nazis rolled into Holland; he was part of the resistance to the rise of fascism in Europe. He is a good guy, historically speaking. But also quite conservative in a lot of ways. Homo Ludens also argues against Marxism and materialist theories of history. That book is about play, not labor. In A Hacker Manifesto I was trying to synthesize these two things, the Marxist perspective that everything is about labor and the Huizingan perspective that it’s all about play.

I first read Homo Ludens because I was working on Situationist Internationale, for whom it was important. But for Gamer Theory I was also reading that and Bernard Suits’s book …

CP: The Grasshopper.

MW: Yes! I love The Grasshopper! It’s a wild book. I have that beautiful University of Toronto edition with illustrations and everything. That’s the other book that was very formative in writing Gamer Theory.

CP: That’s especially interesting in relation to Gamer Theory, since The Grasshopper is a book about utopia. According to Suits, if we did somehow reach utopia, the only thing left to do would be to play games, to set artificial boundaries for ourselves. Gamer Theory suggests that, at least for some people, a kind of utopia has been reached. We’re no longer wringing a life out of necessity, to use your phrase. But the system that brought us here is not as utopian as Suits might have hoped.

MW: The context for The Grasshopper was the lingering influence of Bernie De Koven and the New Games Movement,17 which had a hippie sense of play as a way out of what they saw as the Moloch of industrial capitalism. What they didn’t realize is they were creating its replacement, which would be worse. The Grasshopper is critiquing in advance where some of that energy ended up, even though some of that stuff from the New Games Movement was great. It presented an ethics of play that’s actually quite useful. But we should think of it as far less utopian. At this point those ethics are the little affordances you’re trying to find in a gamespace, which is essentially sucking value out of everything you do, no matter how ethical or utopian.

CP: Suits does talk about play actually being the exception, and that games are far more common in the world. It’s more common, he suggests, that things form structures and order, rather than something more spontaneous and more adaptable. More moddable in the Huizingan sense. That feels very much like a sentiment in Gamer Theory.

MW: Another thing I got from Suits, obviously, is the use of allegory. What I love about The Grasshopper is that it’s all based around the story of the grasshopper and the ants. But in Suits’s telling it’s the ants who are trying to reconstruct the philosophy of the grasshopper. I didn’t quite go that far, but I do employ Plato’s allegory of the cave. What if Plato’s cave was about a game?

CP: Each of your books has a different kind of strategy that you’re suggesting for how to live in the world we find ourselves in. Is there a unity to these ideas? Or are they united simply by their target, the question they all address, which is: How do we operate in this world? How do we operate within gamespace?

MW: It’s all just Marxism and media theory. You know. What if you took the form of technical relations as primary, and what if you thought about labor/play as the practice, as the foundational thing out of which everything is built. Those are the two basic ideas. So each of the books has its own conceptual and aesthetic unity. And some of the books were actually written using game strategies. Particularly Gamer Theory. They all had them, actually, but Gamer Theory is the only one where it’s explicit. So, I feel like there’s a consistent practice there. But I didn’t want to be one of those people who wrote the same book over and over again. So each one is its own distinctive little artifact. I like to explore how the practice of writing about a specific thing generates a book that’s a totality, that’s a little separate.

CP: A book that is its own topic.

MW: Yes. But I’m always gonna steal from my own previous stuff and rework it and play with it. As artists do. I’m an artist, as far as I’m concerned. Just don’t tell the people who tenured me.


1. ^ McKenzie Wark, Gamer Theory(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).

2. ^ McKenzie Wark, Virtual Geography: Living with Global Media Events(Bloomington: Indiana University Press , 1994).

3. ^ McKenzie Wark, A Hacker Manifesto(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).

4. ^ Ian Bogost, Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010).

5. ^ McKenzie Wark, Telesthesia: Culture, Communication, and Class(Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2012); and McKenzie Wark, Capital Is Dead: Is This Something Worse?(New York: Verso Books, 2021).

6. ^ McKenzie Wark, The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist Internationale(London: Verso, 2015); McKenzie Wark, The Spectacle of Disintegration(London: Verso, 2013); General Intellects: Twenty-One Thinkers for the Twenty-First Century(New York: Verso, 2017); and Sensoria: Thinkers for the Twenty-First Century (London: Verso, 2013).

7. ^ McKenzie Wark, Reverse Cowgirl(South Pasadena, CA: Semiotext(e), 2020).

8. ^ McKenzie Wark, “The Video Game as an Emergent Media Form,” Media Information Australia 71, no. 1 (February 1994): 21–30,

9. ^ Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism(Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991).

10. ^ Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture(Boston: Beacon Press, 1971); and Bernard Suits, The Grasshopper—Third Edition: Games, Life and Utopia(n.p.: Broadview Press, 2014), ebook.

11. ^ Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle(Glasgow: Good Press, 2021).

12. ^ Firaxis, Sid Meier’s Civilization 3, PC/Mac (Infogrames, 2001).

13. ^ Harold Adams Innis and Alexander John Watson, The Bias of Communication(Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008); Andrew H. Clark, review of Empire and Communicationsby H. A. Innis and The Bias of Communicationby H. A. Innis, Geographical Review43, no. 1 (1953): 140–42,; and James W. Carey, Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society, rev. ed. (New York: Routledge, 2008),

14. ^ Tomohiro Nishikado, Space Invaders, arcade (Taito, 1978).

15. ^ Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology(San Francisco: Chandler Publishing Co., 1972).

16. ^ Bernard De Koven, The Well Played Game: A Player’s Philosophy(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014).

17. ^ Wark first develops the idea of vectorialism in Virtual Geography; the first use of the "vectoralist class" appears in A Hacker Manifesto.