[NOTE: The following post parodies/parallels Tim Ingold’s famous 2007 essay “Materials against Materiality,” which you should probably read first prior to engaging with the material below. Although the tone is playful, I hope to make a bridge between Ingold’s real-world thesis and how it might work (or fall apart) when considering digital built environments such as video games. Medium, substances, and surfaces indeed!]
Before you begin to read this post, please go outside and find an Xbox, though make sure that it has a Call of Duty skin. Plug it in, and immerse it in a tub of water or under a running tap. Then place the sparking console near your desk – perhaps on the floor so as not to spoil your Alienware desktop of Macbook Air, being mindful that the flames do not set your floor alight. Take a good look at it. If you like, you can look at it again from time to time as you read the article, mostly for safety, but also for instructive entertainment. At the end, I shall refer to what you may have observed.
As Tim Ingold did in “Materials against Materiality” (Archaeological Dialogues 14(1) 1–16, 2017, Cambridge University Press), I, too, will begin with a puzzle. It would seem that the growing corpus of literature on video game archaeology talks a lot about what happens within games, but largely fails to address what games are made of (or what they are played on). We must look at the hardware as well as the software, and the media that joins the two. We must look at the underlying code as well as the design spec underneath that. And we must consider that video games, as with other kinds of digital media, are byproducts of manipulated quanta governed by both natural and human-created rules. I myself have talked and written about theory, about the dualism present in the player when interacting with a game by way of hardware. Players occupy real and virtual space simultaneously, managing different kinds of time almost without realizing it, inhabiting space both real and virtual, or corporeal and incorporeal: two places conjoined via the nexus of the controller, a singularity. But how do we get there?
As Ingold sarcastically wrote, “to understand materiality, it seems, we need to get as far away from materials as possible.” He follows that with a serious rumination formed during a session of conference papers (when minds tend to drift away from what speakers are saying), to posit: “might we not learn more about the material composition of the inhabited world by engaging quite directly with the stuff we want to understand. . . . Could not such engagement—working practically with materials—offer a more powerful procedure of discovery than an approach bent on the abstract analysis of things already made?”
If we think about this from an archaeogaming perspective, replace “inhabited world” with “virtual world.” To engage directly with that world, we need to understand the materials that compose that world. To me, that means making stuff. Other archaeologists have already come to that conclusion: Colleen Morgan with her digital reconstruction (virtual model) of Çatalhöyük; Shawn Graham with his experiments with Twine; Tara Copplestone’s work with making games as a way to understand archaeology (and the need for video game archaeologists to learn at least a little about how games emerge from code). To make is to understand.
Ingold concludes the first section of his article with questions about authenticity v. artificiality. In his example, is a stone found in nature less artificial than a stone of the same material that has been worked into a hand-axe at the request of the author? Does the material world include “only either things encountered in situ, within the landscape, or things already transformed by human activity, into artefacts?” Where is the division between landscape and artifact?
In virtual spaces, we can ask the same questions, but perhaps with added complexity. Everything we see when playing a video game is a product of light, of an arrangement of pixels constantly in flux. We might see land and sky and stars while we play, but the divisions are artificial. Land and sky and stars in video games are all made of the same material. When we play, we might have a recipe given to us in the game that tells us how to make something new. We combine ingredients collected in the game. The artifact created has new properties and appearance. But underneath all of those rules and algorithms, we are left with pixels and light. Someone, however, has given agency to the pixels to make them do something interesting. We sit in the corporeal world and partake in the incorporeal. We engage with that material, and it engages with us.
Ingold introduces the second part of his article by invoking the 1979 work of James Gibson, who distinguishes three components of the inhabited environment: medium, substances, and surfaces. For people, Ingold-by-way-of-Gibson writes, the medium is “normally air.” We breathe air; we move around in it; we can make and touch things because of it; it transmits radiant energy and mechanical vibration. As Ingold writes, medium, according to Gibson, “affords movement and perception.” Substance, more or less, is the opposite. And surfaces are where medium and substance meet. So where does that leave the player of digital, interactive entertainment?
For video games, the medium, substance, and surface, disappear within the construct of the game. Because everything is made of light, the pixels are at once medium, substance, and surface. What separates them then are rules imposed by the game’s Maker. It is the Maker who decides what the medium is and how it should appear, what the substance should be, and how the two will make surfaces with which players can interact. Medium, substance, and surface are therefore imaginary, and it is the player’s worldly experience that assists with the separation of the three as guided by the Maker’s rules, written as code (also a product of light). The physicality of games is imagined, or can be faked by way of vibrating controllers, of audio design, merged with player-experience in order to complete the facsimile of something “real.” This becomes slippery, though, as the player experiences real physiological responses while playing games, as if events within the game-space are actually happening to the player and the player’s body. We revisit corporeality amidst the incorporeal.
Ingold recalls in citing Hetherington’s 2003 work that touch equals place. Summarizing, when we touch something, it then has a location. We interact with the surface of something. Video games, however, have only imagined surfaces. True, the player interacts with one surface: that of the controller (which could be a pointing device, a touchscreen, a joystick, etc.). By interacting with that single surface, a multitude of responses can appear on-screen, allowing players to interact with imagined surfaces as if they were real. This only works by the grace of electricity, however. Real power must be on to drive the hardware to run the software, otherwise there is no virtual space in which the player can operate. Although other players can operate in identical spaces through their hardware. Things get tricky when speaking of these multiple miniature universes. If one player stops playing, the universe ceases to exist; but remains quite active for those players who remain. Lights wink on and off, and the virtual world persists. Hosted on servers that remain powered up, one could argue that these universes continue to exist even without players.
As Ingold describes, we see the separation of material and materiality. Material is what something is. Materiality is what something does. Material has properties, and materiality describes those properties. Similar might be said of the corporeal and incorporeal: we physically occupy a space in which to interact with something we ordinarily couldn’t by virtue of the properties embodied by the hardware and the game hosted by it.
In the third section of his article, Ingold discusses the usage of materials of things, on how these materials can be repurposed. He notes that trees can be broken down into materials such as wood, bark, sap, gum, ash, paper, charcoal, tar, resin, and turpentine. The tree on its own has “treeness” (my term) based on how its materials are organized, but the tree can be deconstructed into other useful things to other agents (occasionally to the destruction of the tree). With the materials of virtual space, of the software of the video game, no corporeal materials can be extracted. We can certainly deconstruct digital media to understand it, or to make other things with it (e.g., mods, art), but the results are always incorporeal. However, we can (when possible) deconstruct game media (e.g., DVDs, diskettes) and hardware into real world materials to repurpose for other things that are in no way tied to video gameplay. This is a kind of real-world recycling, and reminds us that earthly materials are required to generate otherworldly spaces.
One can argue that “things” are processual. Ingold states that all to often studies in material culture focus on processes of consumption rather than production. “How were things used” instead of “how were things made.” We tend to look at the thing as opposed to the material(s) used to create the thing. We describe the thing via an understanding of its materiality—what it does—as opposed to its materials—what it is. Ingold reminds us that nothing last forever, and that made things over time will always revert to their original materials of composition. The stone sculpture, worn smooth by wind and weather, reverts to stone.
With video games, we could think that these revert to some inert state when not being interacted with either by players or by simple electricity keeping the lights on in the game-space. When the electricity is gone, the quanta extinguish, and that power goes elsewhere to do other things. Electricity is agnostic and amoral. It feels no obligation to keep the game-space running. But when we flip a switch, the electricity is under our temporary control, and is funneled into the hardware, following rules of physics, engineering, and design, ultimately powering up the algorithms that frame the game-space.
This brings up Ingold’s theory of agency, which differs from the anthrocentric, animistic, and fetishistic theories of the past, instead stating that “bringing things to life, then, is a matter not of adding to them a sprinkling of agency but of restoring them to the generative fluxes of the world of materials in which they came into being and continue to subsist . . . . Things are in life.” What we make inhabits a world of our making and activates accordingly. This is as true of video games as with anything corporeal. That is true of rule-governed pixels born of complexity. In fact, Ingold recognizes that all things share an element of complexity or materials working together, as “hives of activity. . . . They are born and grown within the current of materials, and participate from within in their further transformation.” So it is with digital built environments, with interactive digital entertainment, with virtual worlds.
Ingold then considers the properties of materials that might direct them towards various uses. He cites Pye from 1968 when thinking about properties v. qualities of a given material. Properties are “objective and measurable.” Qualities are subjective. Makers know how materials react to various forces; they understand their properties. A game developer knows how to write code to make something happen on-screen, to manipulate those quanta of light. As the code changes and proceeds, the outcome on the screen changes and develops. Ingold states of real-world materials that they are processual and relational. “To describe the properties of materials is to tell the stories of what happens to them as they flow, mix, and mutate.”
This is exactly what happens with the process of coding virtual environments. Code is a linguistic material, but it is also composed of physical properties (operable code is made of light after all) that combine orthography, grammar, and syntax—all things requiring precision—into something new. The story of the game is the story of the underlying material of code. It is the story of how the rules of the code manipulate what the player sees, a physical transformation that one can physically interact with on the code level, but also at the hardware level while the mind is transported into the artifact of the code. In order to understand video games seriously as part of material culture, we must understand the underlying material (and materiality) of the source code.
Now return to the Xbox that has been quietly smoldering near your desk as you have been reading. Without any intervention on your part, it has changed. The fire that once engulfed it has gone out, and the surface is not almost completely charred. There might still be a few hot-spots. It no longer turns on when you push the power button. It just sits there dully. Its appearance has changed, although is still recognizable as a console. But it no longer activates, and no longer serves as a gateway to another place. It is dumb plastic and metal, devoid of any animus, no unable to follow the rules designed for it. It is still an Xbox. It has those qualities. But the properties have changed. The console has changed as its flames extinguished. Its properties emerge through the console’s involvement in its total surroundings—including you, the observer—and from the manifold ways in which it is engaged in the currents of the lifeworld. “The properties of materials, in short, are not attributes but histories.”
Somewhere inside the wreckage of the Xbox 360 lies a savefile of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. As a player, you interacted with Corporal Dunn, your first trainer and the game’s comic relief. He doesn’t know what has happened just now. He’s just a construct built out of code like everything else in his world. He waits forever, unconscious of his waiting, neither alive nor dead. Elsewhere millions of Corporal Dunns engage in training sessions and firefights, obliterated by gunfire, just following orders (of the source code), human-shaped residue of material-driven complexity. An incorporeal corporal.
—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming