Part I: A Prototype Demonstration

I would not be the first, nor the last person to take Michel Foucault’s writings on power, bio-politics, techniques of self-transformation, discipline, subjugation, etc., and apply them to the domain of digital games. It may be far from trivial to speak of video games as games of power and social normalization, as forms of organized or staged transgressions, instruments designed for the venting or the production of violence and so forth, but it wouldn’t exactly be a ground-breaking rupture in the literature on game studies either. The close association between gaming and the military-industrial complex has been noted, emphasized and reemphasized by several scholars in the field. Genealogies of Games are still a buzzword (albeit of a certain minor discourse) in academia and for a good reason too. It is not that difficult to see that we are governed through a kind of gaming apparatus – questions of resistance and subversion notwithstanding – it is quite intuitive to think that game narratives, level designs, avatar construction and different aspects of the gamer-subject pragmatics, tend to feed into a particular consumer-citizen disciplinary matrix. But I want to take a different approach.

What is less often discussed in the “popular” literature on Foucault is how meticulous and erudite he was as a historian. Most of the Foucauldian “parrhesiasts” of Twitter and the new media – mostly without being aware of it – tend to draw on what we refer to as the later Foucault or the Foucault of the ’80s, or Foucault the Genealogist; the Foucault of Power and so forth. The main reason for this is also quite straightforward, it is much easier to skip over the early Foucault, the ‘technician of discourse’ so to speak – the Foucault who devised a complex mathematical algorithm for the analysis of social, institutional, political and even/especially scientific changes in history – because it’s difficult. Granted this is still the ‘post-colonial Foucault’ in some sense, the Foucault of alternative narratives; the guerilla academic and expert on meta-narrative sabotage, in short: the anti-imperialist Foucault. But this topic too, despite its original usefulness and ethico-political relevance, has become a trendy apparatus in itself and a diversion. An overblown pseudo-leftist discourse that probably serves the very same powers it aims to criticize. Once again, I will try to steer this into a different direction.

Foucault the Archaeologist, I hope to show, is the hidden image of a very skilled analytic (you heard me) philosopher. This is the Foucault I would like to discuss here, and perhaps also to draw up a rough sketch of something we could term An Archaeology of Digital Practices or maybe something smaller, narrowed down and more manageable: A Techno-Cultural Archaeology of Video Games. It is important that the object of our current Archaeological investigation has a short history span, that it remains relevant to the present, and that it pertains to something very familiar – an experience that is both widespread and very often taken for granted. The purpose after all is not to initiate some massive research program in media history (from the printing press to the Smartphone), the history of games (from sports and gambling to VR headsets) together with their moments of overlap, mutual reinforcement or struggle, but something that could serve as a mere hint in that direction. Most of all, we need a compact object that we can use as a sketch-board; a miniature model where the archaeological experiment could play itself out as a prototype demonstration.

What Foucault calls the Statement, the so-called “unit” of Archaeological analysis, despite the intuitive appeal, is not really an atom of discourse. With Foucault, the raw materials of historical research, the so-called building blocks of discursive events, are in fact complex functions. This is already quite difficult to wrap our heads around (even though modern science operates with similar notions). Usually, when we think of functions we think of relations; a function is something that links or maps two or more objects together, it establishes a correlation between things. So by definition functions are compound, they are not encountered at the ground level of analysis. The ground level is usually made of the empirical stuff of the world; things, objects and other observables. Once again, quantum mechanics notwithstanding, our worn-out conceptions of science regard the world as a set or a class of things which can be grouped or clustered together through various schemes of classification and order, i.e. we can establish functional relationships between objects, but we cannot say that we encounter functions when we walk around the arcade inside a shopping mall.  

Well, Foucault and some theoretical physicists would beg to differ. Foucault is often termed a radical empiricist, the radicalism of Foucault’s empiricism lies with something that we could also term empirical constructivism, but really from our point of view (and by us I mean those still stuck within the old scientific paradigm), Foucault is pretty much an anti-empiricist. But it’s dangerous to speak in such terms these days: anti-empiricism, anti-realism, social-constructivism, or even worse: Foucault once explicitly identified himself as someone who writes counter-histories of science, or someone who in many ways is in fact – anti-science. And yet, the Archaeological Foucault remains as technical a thinker as any natural scientist. Aside from being the most cited author in humanities, he uses real historical texts and documents to carry out his analyses, he retains a coherent narrative throughout his writing, he identifies a detailed and rigorous methodology and he applies it in a way that remains relevant to the contextual domains it intends to investigate without sacrificing any of its theoretical accuracy. 

Archaeology does not ignore, falsify, or reject the empirical stance, nor does it disregard the constructions of classical historiography. But it does identify them as constructions while attempting to make a clearing for a new ground level of analysis: the strata of discourse. The strata serve as the “building blocks” of those constructions. But these so-called “building blocks” (another unfortunate metaphor like atom or foundation) are not elements, contrary to elements and atoms (superficially understood) they exhibit a complex structure. So the lower we go, and the more we attempt to unveil historical objects behind their outer layers and appearances, the less likely we are to encounter something as seemingly stable and individuated as an “author” or a “book”. What we in fact encounter are strata, webs, layers and functions. We encounter immanent dispersions of statements, which grouped together through exclusively artificial means, form the more familiar objects of empirical historical analysis.  

And nonetheless, Foucault does fear, that he has to some degree merely replaced certain types of discursive unities, with other discursive unities, the question therefore remains – first of all, how is the Archaeological method better than the traditional methods of writing history, especially in its technical, rather than ethical dimensions? And second, do we in fact encounter complexity at the lower ontological registers of being, or is it only another kind of unity which merely remains hidden (a view advocated by Einstein)? The following, a rather extensive quote from Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge, displays some anxieties that seem to resonate with our own concerns:

“And now a suspicion occurs to me. I have behaved as if I were discovering a new domain, as if, in order to chart it, I needed new measurements and guide-lines. But, in fact, was I not all the time in that very space that has long been known as ‘the history of ideas’? Was it not to that space that I was implicitly referring, even when on two or three occasions I tried to keep my distance? And if I had not forced myself to turn away from it, would I not have found in it, already prepared, already analyzed, all that I was looking for? Perhaps I am a historian of ideas after all. But an ashamed, or, if you prefer, a presumptuous historian of ideas. One who set out to renew his discipline from top to bottom; who wanted, no doubt, to achieve a rigour that so many other, similar descriptions have recently acquired; but who, unable to modify in any real way that old form of analysis, to make it cross the threshold of scientificity (or finding that such a metamorphosis is always impossible, or that he did not have the strength to effect that transformation himself), declares that he had been doing, and wanted to do, something quite different. All this new fog just to hide what remained in the same landscape, fixed to an old patch of ground cultivated to the point of exhaustion. I cannot be satisfied until I have cut myself off from ‘the history of ideas’, until I have shown in what way archaeological analysis differs from the descriptions of ‘the history of ideas’.”

(p. 136)

The History of Ideas is something that we can safely identify as an extension of classical or traditional historical empiricism. It operates through precisely those unities that Foucault seeks out to deconstruct and suspend-until-further-notice, in order to offer a methodology that is more suited to contemporary times. Deleuze, elaborating on the Archaeological method in his lectures on Foucault said that nothing is hidden and that the statement is always at the surface, even though it does require special training to see it. This is the defining feature of radical empiricism. Archaeology identifies those discursive events which constitute and shape empirical objects; it does not “get behind” the appearances in order to grasp the “essences”. It describes and analyzes the literal inscriptions, recordings, sentences, their groupings and inter-relationships as well as other concrete yet dynamical aspects of the historical archives which produce the “reality” that we call “empirical”. And it does so with the presuppositionless dullness of an imbecile. In this sense, the discursive formation (a group of statements) is simultaneously more “basic” than things and objects, authors and their intentions, but it also exhibits a type of diffusion; operating as a field of forces, rather than links in a chain. A system of events, rather than objects and their corresponding states of affairs.

Bringing a small part of the later Foucault into this, we could elaborate further by saying that the statement is located at the juncture of power and resistance. That is to say, the statement does things, it does not merely describe (though it can do just that sometimes), but it also makes things manifest. The statement can re-arrange the rules for what counts as an object, or what counts as a “correct move” in a game, a mathematical calculation or a sport activity. The statement can introduce a break in the continuity of events, changing the field of objects and making them disappear or reappear as it modifies the rules of what counts as important/trivial, real/imaginary, scientific/unscientific, etc. Analogously, a statement can affect the subjects of enunciation by modifying the rules responsible for the distribution of status and credibility: i.e. if you are a doctor or an epidemiologist, an expert and a scientist, your discourse presents an authority within a specific domain of objects and events. However, if you make the mistake of producing the wrong types of statements concerning e.g. the recent pandemic, you will immediately enter a very different field of power relations with the danger of being labelled an anti-vaxxer or an “anti-masker” (hard to keep up with the terminology), which will naturally (sometimes rightfully) displace your position within the discursive field and incur serious costs to your status. The statement can be identical to other constructs, linguistic entities, rhetorical tropes, systems of classification or formal languages; it can be part of a natural language, it can be a photo album, but it is never reducible to them, whereas any of the other types of sign-systems mentioned above can and are reducible to the Foucauldian statement.     

Far from an exhaustive exposition of Foucault’s Archaeological method, we will have to make due and move on to the second part. So how could we analyze the history of gaming as a discursive field of statements with their corresponding sites of power and resistance? In other words, where could we find an important rupture, as an exemplar of that transformation in the discourse on games that had a significant impact on how we play? Easy. Let’s take that moment in the history of video games, when the first console appeared. More specifically, the moment (or moments), when the arcade entered the private space of one’s home, or yet in other words: when the gaming apparatus was no longer confined to a common space of consumption, but instead transformed itself into an individuated, no longer (explicitly and physically) collective, technology of the self. Now that is a very good start if we’re looking to isolate a couple of statements. So let’s look at 1980s America, where the golden age of arcade gaming reached its peak and unlike Japan, entered a sharp decline afterwards.

Part II: Extracting Some Statements

If we delve deep into the literature on game studies and gaming history, which is a vast body of academic discourse, we will soon realize it is difficult to find our way about. Even with such a recent phenomenon as virtual gaming, the archive offers more materials than we can humanly manage. Thankfully, by narrowing things down through archaeological questioning, we have armed ourselves with the appropriate tools to scan through the literature and perform a short archaeology of games. By focusing on a specific historical period and a large but finite and more or less clearly delimited set of objects (consoles and arcade cabinets) we should be able to trace their historical transformations, the multiple relations they bear with other entities within the same discursive formation and the various rules which emerged both as a result as well as the cause of their decline or their coming into being.

Let’s take a look at Todd Harper’s book The Culture of Digital Fighting Games (2013). Chapter 2 titled The Arcade Ideal focuses specifically on the historical context of the arcade. Harper cites Evan, a respondent he interviewed asking why he chose to stay home and play console games instead of heading to the arcade. The gamer’s response is something that can definitely be classified as a Foucauldian statement, in fact; it is a superb example of a statement which is located at multiple sites of power and resistance:

“BlazBlue, I had to give that a try on console ‘cause it was just too much stuff going for me to be popping quarters in there to learn a completely new system. . . . I got Tekken 6, I tried getting into that, but that’s mostly on console, which is . . . the whole Tekken 6 was basically just the current economy of arcades thing, where the Tekken 6 cabinet costs, like, a billion dollars and there’s not enough Tekken players to get a machine that costs a billion dollars, so we opted out of that one, yeah.”

(p. 19)

This entire quote can be taken as a statement, which not only reflects the prevalent power struggles between arcades and home consoles, arcade players vs console players, those who can afford to go to arcades and those who can’t, but also facilitates the conflict and deploys its own situated move in the power game. It is hard to tell what Evan’s intentions are and where he stands (or thinks he stands) with respect to the politics of digital transformation. But nor are we interested in that. We are only interested in what he has said, or what was literally recorded as his statement and how it relates to other statements surrounding Evan’s discourse. There is nothing objective about the “content” or the “intention behind” the statement; these are the old unities that the archaeology automatically questions. We want to focus on concrete statements and their hyper-pragmatic dimension.

Several things which may be obvious nonetheless need to be pointed out. The expression: “transformation of arcades into home consoles” or the “substitution of collective forms of digital consumption with individuated technologies of the self” needs to be unpacked. We are really looking at multiple series of transformations, rather than a “historical event”. First of all, we still have arcades, which despite sounding obvious, introduces an important correction; an elucidation of what we mean when we say that arcades were “substituted” by consoles. Not in the literal sense. In plain terms, what we mean is that consoles became more popular; they have become, on average, the most preferable option most of the time within a particular time frame. They overshadowed their larger, clumsier counterparts. Perhaps even less obvious is how during the same period, numerous peripheral objects began to emerge. Various hybrid forms of half-consoles, half-arcade cabinets served as partial objects that helped facilitate the transformation.

Our second example of a statement would therefore be a 1981 Atari catalogue[1], with the picture of the special CX40 joystick. The Atari 2600 still bears a strong resemblance to the classical arcade computer. Its heterogeneous design is a direct reflection of the complexity of discursive forms it occupies within the console/cabinet power-matrix. In fact, we could potentially find and isolate a series of relations between our first statement and the second. Keeping in mind – despite what seems to be an obvious link at the level of words, sentences or other linguistic entities, may be less obvious or completely non-existent at the level of statements within the discursive formation. To repeat, just because i.e. Evan, a subject of enunciation from Todd Harper’s book talks about consoles and even if Harper himself talks about Atari 2600 further down in the book, this does not yet establish a relation between Evan’s words and the 1981 Atari catalogue in the archaeological sense. Repeating a word or a sentence is not the same as repeating a statement (which can take either form). A “direct” link would imply identifying the specific Atari catalogue among the numerous Atari catalogues published in that year, and then trying to find a discursive link between the statements made and recorded by Harper (the sources he used with or without explicitly citing a catalogue) and that catalogue. Of course, there could be intermediate statements; perhaps another book on the history of video games would contain it, possibly a sociological survey etc.

The important thing to note is that archaeologies trace statements and their relations to other statements by following the multiple surfaces of discourse defined through struggles. Where most historical analyses operate through a referential theory of meaning, archaeology advocates for an ontology of mutual capture between words and things. Reality is a result of struggle. Empirical objects are born out of a tension between various fields of forces, competing paradigms and synthetic gatherings of statements.

What I wanted to do here is to offer a prototype for an archaeological device. A compact yet powerful contraption for making sense of historical change. An original new methodology (or at least an original interpretation of a 50-year-old theory) which stresses conflict and rupture over progress and continuity. Much remains to be said about the arcade cabinet’s life cycle, the archaeology of video games and the bio-political scene surrounding digital practices. Despite my best intentions, I feel much of the archaeological method has been neither sufficiently laid out nor applied with enough rigour and effectiveness. But I’m hoping at least, that this could serve as a possible (if not simple) and unexpected (if not fun) introduction to game studies and Foucauldian scholarship.

[1] https://www.gamedeveloper.com/design/a-history-of-gaming-platforms-atari-2600-video-computer-system-vcs

References & Bibliography

Foucault, M. (2013). Archaeology of Knowledge. Routledge.

Foucault, M., Davidson, A. I., & Burchell, G. (2008). The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979. Springer.

Harper, T. (2013). The Culture of Digital Fighting Games: Performance and Practice. Routledge.

Spring, D. (2015). Gaming History: Computer and Video Games as Historical Scholarship. Rethinking History19(2), 207-221.

Spöhrer, M. (2019). Alex Wade: Playback: A Genealogy of 1980s British Videogames. MEDIENwissenschaft: Rezensionen| Reviews36(1), 96-97.

Giorgi Vachnadze is a philosopher specializing in Foucault and Wittgenstein studies. He graduated with a Master’s Degree from the University of Louvain. Former editor and peer-reviewer for the Graduate Student Journal of philosophy “The Apricot”, he currently works at an addiction and rehabilitation centre in Tbilisi (Georgia) and the Tbilisi State University Library. He is a regular contributor to the Lawn Chair Philosophy Foundation, working in parallel on various topics in Media Archaeology, Game Studies, American Pragmatism and Educational Policy.


One thought on “Gaming: A Techno-Cultural Archaeology

  1. Pingback: Giorgi Vachnadze, Gaming: A Techno-Cultural Archaeology (2023) | Foucault News

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s