Video Game Iconoclasm


Screenshot from the alpha of Iconoclasts. Source:

We are all heretics, at least those of us who play video games. We seek to communicate with that which we cannot see, but to do so we have to interact with objects. When that communion concludes, players take it on faith that the invisible remains accessible, and event present.

Video games embody a paradox that stems from centuries of creating things to give people access to the unknown or the unknowable. Victor Buchli in his book An Archaeology of the Immaterial (Routledge 2016) states in his Preface that “the production of the immaterial has been and always will be an important operation in human social life. To intervene materially, to reject the materiality of the world, is at the heart of the productive paradox of the immaterial.”

So what does that mean for game-play? Someone writes code that becomes a game. That code lives on media somewhere: a cartridge, a smart phone, a server. The code waits to be activated by the player who then works within the rules established by that code in order to play the game. Upon completion of play, the player disengages with the code wherever it lives, unseen, by removing contact with the hardware used to play it. The code remains, waiting to be accessed again, or not. Code is amoral. It exists until it doesn’t, and it doesn’t care if it is accessed zero, one, or one million times. The code itself is immaterial, albeit manipulated by its maker for the player to interact with, but on another plane, that of gameplay. Playing the game, the player is conscious of one world while unconscious of the world above it. It’s another dimension. Glitches in the game give fleeting, frustrating access into that other plane, although the interpretation of why a glitch happened remains beyond most understanding. We see the fallibility of the maker, but not the exact reason for that mistake.

Buchli continues on p. 19 about the paradox: “An . . . aspect of the immaterial’s paradoxicality is its profound visuality. This paradox is more an ‘artefact’ of our of our received visualist sensorium which requires the de-corporealization of sight for its efficacy.” In other words with video games, seeing is believing. We hold a world on a disk. We place the disk in the drive/slot. The world is either created or accessed, or is created upon being accessed. This leads us to consider how the world is created in the first place, and I don’t think it matters if the game is static (e.g., Donkey Kong), or procedural (e.g., No Man’s Sky). Is the world waiting for us like some amusement park at dawn, or is it created for us on-the-fly, the code generating the world as fast as we can explore it? And when we are done exploring it, does it reset to a zero-state, or does it continue to exist with or without us? As players, are we creating the artifacts of the world just be interacting with the environment, working within the rules of algorithms to create it? Are we then in turn makers and producers of what we see, the code itself lying dormant until played with?


It’s video games as embodiments of the Heisenberg Principal. And not only that, but when we start to pay attention to how and where and when and why things are created based on our observations, we might begin to recognize patterns, and when we recognize patterns, we can begin to create our own rules to quantify them, and when we begin to combine those rules of creation, we approach a Grand Unified Theory of a particular game, which operates on its own set of rules separate from other games, which have their own GUTs. In effect, each game is its own universe with its own physics governed by rules that can be clean or messy, strict or arbitrary, really reflecting the state of the maker responsible for the code itself.

The code is the supreme artifact, which can itself be broken down further into its grammar, syntax, and orthography. Think of code as you would an ancient (or modern) clay pot. The pot is an artifact, a thing. But the pot might be glazed. The clay of the pot can be examined; we can learn about its crystals and structure. That data in turn can inform where the clay was sourced, and we can deduce who might have sourced it, where it went for production, and ultimately for use. The pot can be interacted with and can serve multiple functions desired by the user. The pot was not spontaneously generated. It was made, in most cases by an unseen hand. So it is with video games, made by people most of us will never see, comprised of syntax and grammar most of us will never understand or even notice, creating something we can manipulate to get at the sweetness of fantasy, or a world not of this one, but of one or more imaginations. The game has become a metaphysical arifact/object occupying two states at once, a thing in the real world, and a visual space in another.

So what happens when we reach Iconoclasm in video games? In certain interpretations of Christianity and Islam the faithful must eschew the material in order to approach the divine. How will we as players interact with these immaterial worlds post-media, post-hardware? What then becomes the archaeological artifact of the game, and how will that be defined when the artifact cannot be counted or weighed, when we shift between worlds without console, controller, keyboard, or mouse?

-Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming

(Thanks to D.S. for an inspiring conversation that led to the above.)


4 thoughts on “Video Game Iconoclasm

  1. Reblogged this on Small Swan and commented:
    Yo, this piece is tugging on my mindstrings. And, as cliche as the phrase is starting to become, in a meta fashion; since I’m resonating a piece on multiple levels in a way which has multiple levels, dog.

    For one, it really pushes me to make a corollary on the disparity between how an artist must feel about appreciating their work against how an audience does. A member of the audience will never understand the design process and millions of microdecisions that construct a work; the artist groks the source code of the art. At the same time – could the artist ever appreciate the art in the same way as a professional critic.

    On another level, it touches on the idea that games are an ignorant subject of scrutiny. To someone with a more technical bent, this is something that you can see as logically provable. The source code don’t change no matter how often it’s executed (for now I guess, until we get to the next evolution of roguelites). This gives some insight for these technical peeps that philosophically, the same is true for any art, and perhaps any remote observable. Neat.

    Great work, dog!

  2. Pingback: Corporals against Incorporeality | Archaeogaming

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