Assemblage Theory and Video Games


The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

A horse. A rider. A bow. Taken separately, they exist on their own, in their own world, and in their own time. They have properties and behaviors distinct from one another. One would not confuse a horse with either a rider or a bow. But combine these three distinct entities together, and they become something wholly different. The rider on horseback draws the bowstring to her ear and lets fly an arrow into the heart of the quarry. It is a scene of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. It is a scene out of the old American West. We have an assemblage, a collection of heterogeneous things that when combined serve a purpose impossible to achieve through one element alone. A bow cannot draw itself. This thing is dependent on another thing, an agent in this case, in order to fulfill its function as enabled by its design.

A console. A screen. A controller. A player, power supply, electricity. And yes, a game. None of these can perform their intended function unless connected one to the next as an assemblage. Without one of these pieces, the entire system falls apart. There is no synthetic world to enter, or perhaps more accurately, the synthetic world persists in stasis until the player can enter it as a mediated agent.

Each of these parts is itself an assemblage of other discreet elements. Plastic, chips, lights, wiring, circuits, and drilling down through each of these we arrive an distinct materials, then molecules or atoms, and so on. Things made of things made of things that when combined in a certain way assemble to do something together that alone they could not. These assemblages combine with other assemblages to create another, bigger assemblage, and so on, building systems we can use. When thinking about consumer electronics, these built systems are complicated, but they are not complex. They can be constructed and then deconstructed into their constituent parts, then reassembled to achieve identical, prior functionality. The complexity comes with agent-interaction in the digital spaces the hardware and software create together, assemblages of metal and of code.

Assemblage theory is best articulated by Manuel DeLanda in his book by the same name published in 2016 by the University of Edinburgh Press, and he bases his theory upon the thinking and writing of philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Its application to archaeology should be obvious with its focus on materials, things, agents, and how they combine to form larger systems such as cities, civilizations, societies, and culture. The notion of the assemblage (a collection of artifacts from a single context and thereby have shared meaning) is already familiar to archaeologists. We should then also be able to apply assemblage theory to video games, treating them as their own self-contained civilizations of code and, once inside as players, seeing how in-game elements combine to create other elements including social networks and communities comprised of individual agents, some of whom are human.

There are two other, major elements to assemblage theory that go beyond the idea that independent, unrelated things when combined with each other can create something new with new functionality (e.g., the five lions and their diverse pilots combining to form Voltron, a colossal, sword-wielding robot): 1) genetic connectivity, and 2) possibility space.

Genetic Connectivity

Traditional archaeology concerns itself with time, and examines things and their contexts in order to establish chronologies. Archaeology of the contemporary past, however, does not focus so much on time, but rather on function, use, and how people interact with their material surroundings. Time is immaterial, and has always been. For example, ancient Greek buildings were occasionally knocked down in order to provide raw materials for the construction of later Roman buildings. A column drum from the past was placed next to a limestone block in the present to form a wall course for a new building to be completed in the future. Separately, the stone elements served different purposes, but once assembled together, they create a strong foundation for a wall. The fact that the blocks are separated by hundreds of years is not important. Their functions, however, are of key importance. Their connection is genetic instead of temporal. Assemblages concern themselves with what they do as opposed to when they are.

Within the context of video games, we can see similar things happening with modifications to existing code, new lines interwoven with the old, or new chunks replacing old chunks as games grow and change. Software is composed of routines set to activate as certain conditions are met, and these routines can be replaced as needed to improved software performance. The routines themselves are assemblages of lines of code, and when taken together form larger assemblages in the form of completed software, or of software updates and expansions. We can read each line on its own, or as a small assemblage that comprises a larger whole. It’s very much a kind of code epigraphy, with palimpsests of new work dovetailing with the old to make something improved, to fix a bug. There is no superposition here: both the old and the new code merge into an assemblage to run a particular function.

As a player of contemporary games, one can also enable the creation of in-world assemblages. This happens mostly in role-playing games (RPGs) with a crafting mechanic. I can take multiple, disparate ingredients that have unique individual properties and then combine them to create something completely new with new properties of its own. The crafted material is a digital assemblage. On the programming side, rules combine that satisfies the conditions they set for a particular crafting event with a specific set of materials. On the gameplay side, the assemblage of two generic, low-level items can combine to form something nourishing and/or magical. These higher-level assemblages can then be traded or sold, activating social assemblages managed by other routines. Things merge with events into an assemblage of gameplay.

Possibility Space

To DeLanda (p. 6), a virtual space (like a video game) is “already caught up into actual ensembles, trapped into their materiality and expressivity to a degree specified by the parameters,” and somewhere in those assemblages is a “cosmic space” that exist “free from the constraints of actuality.” This is defined by the term “possibility space.” To DeLanda and his assemblage theory, “we also need to explain the status of capacities when they are not being exercised” (p. 180). He continues:

The possibility spaces associated with all the interactions that a given phenomenon is capable of are not nearly as well studied as those for tendencies, and we do not have a well-defined procedure to sort out the points composing those spaces into those that are significant and those that are insignificant. Nevertheless, candidates for these possibility spaces do exist and they must be philosophically investigated.

Interpreting the above passage, DeLanda indirectly criticizes most archaeology. Archaeology perhaps focuses too much on the things we see, the things that are directly observable through observation, survey, and excavation, archaeologists entranced with phenomena. DeLanda’s thinking can tie in with my concept of “noumenophenomenology,” which I define as the archaeology of things that are not there. This is about the “possibility space” out in the field. For archaeologists in the natural world, this can be looking at a landscape to understand why things are not in it, why it was not (or is not) utilized. Absence is just as important as presence when thinking about archaeology and about material culture. Perhaps two trading partners traded some goods but not others. Why? The possibility space existed between them to trade other goods. What about the cultural, social, economic, and material assemblages led to the trade of barley but not dates?

Concerning video games, possibility spaces abound, primarily when one waits for action to happen. The player-as-agent can set things in motion in a game merely by being present in a space, and can also trigger coded events through both action and inaction. This is perhaps best illustrated through the video game concept of “aggro” meaning that a player’s proximity to an enemy can trigger aggressive behavior towards the player by that enemy. Prior to “drawing aggro” the possibility space is wide open, but gets smaller gradually as the player approaches the target. This, too, is an assemblage of player-avatar and non-player character (NPC) within a digitally constructed synthetic environment. Left alone, nothing happens. But taken all together, the possibility for conflict runs high and can result in the digital death of the avatar, the NPC, both, or neither, as well as the possibility for the emergent behavior of a “loot drop” or material reward for a successful sortie by the player. Most games are socio-material in nature, combining conflict resolution (often by the sword) with some kind of tangible, practical prize. Loot tables (behind-the-scenes probability charts for treasure dropped in combat by various enemies) can serve as diagrams for these possibility spaces or what might happen post-conflict. And down the rabbit hole we go . . . .

DeLanda’s assemblage theory gives the video game archaeologist (and more broadly the software archaeologist) some additional methods to explain what happens in game design as well as gameplay, the interior and the exterior of digital built environments. I look forward to exploring this more as I proceed in my work.

THANK YOU to Gísli Pálsson for recommending DeLanda’s Assemablage Theory to me. It altered the course of my thinking, including my PhD.

—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming


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