Monday, September 13, 2010

Deep Media Retrospective: Zielinski vs Doom

This one's way over the 500 word limit, but it gets a pass; I need to work some ideas out.

My research into video games seems to be pulling me in two directions: cultural studies and art media. Cultural studies, because, as it pulls in billions of dollars each year and encompasses millions of gamers, video games are arguably one of the most influential media currently in production. And art media because that's what academia writ large (and I'm grossly, grossly overgeneralizing here) is currently trying to do with the digital media as a whole: investigate it as a site of social praxis (great word) where art and science and society come together. To be honest, I'm more interested in the pop culture side of things, but I can see the value of the art media approach. Beyond the practical aspect that it presents something tangible to show hiring committees, it also allows your garden variety humanities academic to do something proactive instead of purely reactionary. Thus we reach today's question: can I do both?

To help me muddle through, I'm going to use two texts I've just finished: Masters of Doom by David Kushner, and Deep Time of the Media by Siegfried Zielinski, representing pop culture and media art, respectively. (BTW, I didn't originally choose these books for that contrast; I've always liked to keep an element of serendipity in my reading--which coincides nicely with some of Zielinski's methodology, as we'll see.) First: Masters of Doom. Essentially, Kushner's writing a biography of John Romero and John Carmack, the two creators of the computer game Doom. When it comes to video games, Doom is a big milestone. It popularized the first person shooter. And game modding--the process of players altering and adding to the game's code. (John Carmack, in particular, was highly influenced by hacker culture, and promotes open coding.) And shareware distribution. And Internet deathmatches. And, thanks in large part to John Romero, over the top theatrics and extreme game violence on the PC. It is, in other words, a big deal.

But the book is less about Doom than it is about the two Johns. I think one anecdote in particular sums them up nicely. For years, Carmack and Romero participated in an ongoing Dragons and Dungeons game, Carmack as Dungeon Master, and Romero as one of the players. After a few years of play, Carmack introduced a demon that offered Romero and the others a choice: they could ignore it, or attempt to enter a deal with it in exchange for the Daikatana, a sword of limitless power (Romero later, and fairly disastrously, made a video game revolving around a sword by the same name. See the picture at the post's end.). However, if the players failed the dice roll, the demon would be able to tear its way between the realms, and the world would be destroyed by demons. Over the protests of the other players, Romero made the deal. They lost the die roll, and the world was destroyed. According to Kushner, there was a moment of silence. Then, Romero asked, "What now?" "The game's over," Carmack replied. "Can't we just pretend it didn't happen?" "No," said Carmack, "it's over." And that was it: five years of play decided in one decision and a roll of the dice. I like the anecdote because it showcases both John's personalities: Romero is willing to take any risk in pursuit of the next cool idea, and Carmack is all about inventing the system, without remorse for the human consequences. Between the X-treme Gamer and the Robo-Programmer, they epitome the stereotypes of computer players.

So that, skipping over the early period when the two meet and the later period where they fall apart, is what the Masters of Doom is about. What Deep Time is about is a harder question. I'll talk about the brunt of the book first, then Zielinski's media theory, which comprises the beginning and end. Essentially, Zielinski is trying to present a different picture of media archaeology and history, one that emphasizes moments and the entirety (kairos and aeon) over strict linear progression--linear progression being the common form of discussion when you're talking about media technology. He calls the method anarcheaology, to emphasize its nonlinearity; this method calls for wild digressions, obessive pursuits, and, as he calls it, an appreciation of magic. Zielinski's magical tour consists of a presentation of historical figures: Empedocles, Giovan Porta, Athanasius Kircher, Johann Rittler, Cesare Lombroso. (Admittedly, he presents them in chronological order, which contradicts the "anti-linear progression" thing, but that's a problem a lot of media archaeologies run afoul of.) The individuals are chosen in part for their involvement in media technology--Lombroso was about surveillance, Kircher with encryption, Rittler with electricity, and so forth--but equally for their status. Each was outside of the formal academies of their day, each was interested in science and poetry, each probed into the unknown, and, most importantly, each lived their own experiments. To Zielinski, the crucial connection between each figure is that each lived out their ideas through a social praxis.

And that provides a nice segue into what Zielinski thinks media art should be: Not conservative linear culminations, but an exuberant exploration: "Artistic praxis in media worlds is a matter of extravagant expenditure. Its privileged locations are not palaces but open laboratories." He's not just expounding on what he thinks a study of media history should be, but what media artists should be doing now to create new directions. Another rallying point for Zielinski is that he is opposed to false, totalizing unities; instead, he follows Empedocles, who envisioned the world as a series of intermingling extremes, always in motion, but never becoming something singular. It's appropriate, then, that his book pursues two related, not entirely combinable concepts: a media anarchaeology that promotes the study of tangential figures, and a media practice that promotes not just study, but action. The two are related, and one can grow out of the other, but they're not entirely the same.

So: accepting all of the above, including my less-than-flattering interpretation of the Johns and my more-than-questionable interpretation of Zielinski, I present the following proposition: In Masters of Doom, Kushner is pursuing media history, and John Carmack and John Romero are practicing media art.

This argument hinges on me being able to prove that Carmack and Romero were performing the same sort of social praxis with Doom that the historical figures Zielinski pursues were performing with... various things. First, let's go over some strawman objections I can eliminate:
Video games aren't important enough to allow the comparison. Okay, if you really want to take the stance that video games aren't important, then frankly, I'm not sure there's anything left to discuss. More seriously, video games, like it or not, drive a large portion of modern culture and, to a lesser extent, modern technology; for nearly a decade, Carmack's game engines were considered the gold standard of quality. If your computer couldn't support it, you were behind the grade. Kircher used cutting edge technology to present Jesuit mystery plays; Carmack used it to present video games.

Doom is a violence simulator; real scientific study such as Zielinski is talking about isn't like that. Well, yes, real studies aren't like that, but only because they involved ACTUAL physical violence. Zielinski cites Archimedes' famous glass as an example of optics as weapon, and describes some of the scientists' electricity experiments, which included Ritter attaching electrified clamps to his eyelids to see what visions he'd have if he turned them on with his eyes closed. Romero, at least, didn't forget that the violence need only be simulated.

It doesn't really fit with the anti-progressive aspect of Zielinski's approach, does it? Karmack, Romero, and Kushner were all pretty linear in discussing Doom.
That's... a really good point. Karmack and Romero were very focused on linear progression; for Romero, it was always about the next idea, and for Karmack, it was about the new system. My only real counterargument is that Kushner's study is all about moving towards that perfect moment, that kairos, when Doom reaches its pinnacle. To cite Zielinski, "The determined pursuit of a single idea and its investigation until all possibilities are exhausted will likely stir up unrest among firmly established structures and procedures." Ask the makers of the point-and-click adventure games how if Doom stirred the PC market.

As for the similarities they share with these figures... well, like Zielinski's practioners, they're outside of the establishment; neither completed education beyond a high school level. They combined art and science, with their envelope-pushing graphics engine. They lived their research, and they lived it to excess; Romero paid millions to have a state-of-the-art set of networked computers in his offices that were for nothing but deathmatch games, and Carmack was known to go into personal hiding for weeks at a time to develop his code without any distraction. By the measures Zielinski has set up, they're performing media art, and, through his account, Kushner is performing media anarchaeology.

Thus, I will arrogantly conclude, we can define video game study and research as both pop culture and archaeology. And that's a form of media art I can get behind.

...Pretty hard to justify getting behind this, though. Thanks for making it so easy to defend video games as a scholarly pursuit, Romero. Really. Thanks.

Later Days.


Whitney said...

Thanks for your comment on my blog, leading to this post! Very interesting work, and a novel application of media archaeology. You're making me want to re-read him again.

Whitney said...

(should have been: "leading *me* this post!) Looking forward to reading more of your work.

Person of Consequence said...

Thanks. To be honest, this post is more academically inclined than a lot of my output, but I hope there's something here to keep your interest.