Even critical theory, which once took its distance from damaged life, becomes another game. Apply to top ranked schools. Find a good coach. Pick a rising subfield. Prove your abilities. Get yourself published. Get some grants. Get a job. Get another job offer to establish your level and bargain with your current employer. Keep your nose clean and get tenure. You won! Now you can play! Now you can do what you wanted, secretly, all those years ago. Only now you can’t remember. You became a win-win Situationist. Your critical theory became hypocritical theory. It is against everything in the whole wide world except the gamespace that made it possible. But gamespace is now the very form of the world, and this world eluded your thought even as it brought home the glittering prizes. It’s gamespace that won. The hypocritical theorist, while dreaming, meets the ghost of Guy Debord, and proudly cites a list of achievements: Ivy League job, book deals, grants, promotion, tenure, recognition within the highest ranks of the disciplinary guild. The ghost of Debord sighs: “So little ambition in one so young.”
What then has the gamer seen in that bright world, that gamespace, beyond The Cave™? You see people hunched over screens, their hands compulsively jerking controllers. Each sits alone, and talks or texts to unseen others, dazzled by images that seem to come from nowhere, awash in pulsing and beeping sounds. The enlightened gamer sees how the world beyond the games of The Cave™ seem like an array of more or less similar caves, all digital, each an agon with its own rules, some arbitrary blend of chance and competition. And beyond that? Not much. The real has become a mere epiphenomenon without which gamespace cannot exist, but which is losing, bit by bit, any form or substance or spirit or history that is not sucked into and transformed by gamespace. Beyond gamespace are only the spent fragments of nameless forms.
Gamer theory starts with the suspension of the assumptions of The Cave™, that there is a more real world beyond it, somewhere, and that someone — some priest or professor — knows where it is. The gamer arrives at the beginnings of a reflective life, a gamer theory, by stepping out of The Cave™ — and returning to it. (See Fig. 1) If the gamer is to hold gamespace to account in terms of something other than itself, it might not be that mere shadow of a shadow of the real, murky, formless, a residue in the corners. It might instead be the game proper, as it is played in The Cave.™ Grand Theft Auto, maybe, or Deus Ex. Here at least the game shadows the pure form of the algorithm. Here at least the digital logic to which gamespace merely aspires is actually realized. The challenge is — ah, but even to phrase it thus is to acknowledge the game — to play at play itself, but from within the game. The gamer as theorist has to choose between two strategies for playing against gamespace. One is to play for the real. (Take the red pill). But the real is nothing but a heap of broken images. The other is to play for the game (Take the blue pill). Play within the game, but against gamespace. Be ludic, but also lucid.
For a gamer to be a theorist might not require the ability to play any particular game especially well. The prizes have nothing to do with thinking the game. Nor might it be the ability to dismiss the game as unreal in the name of some supposedly more solidly grounded outside. What? These luminous pixels are not real, you say? Then neither is your world. If anything, The Cave™ seems to be where the forms, the ideas, the abstractions behind the mere appearance of things in the outside world can be found. Whether gamespace is more real or not than some other world is not the question. That even in its unreality it may have real effects on other worlds — is. Games are not representations of this world. They are more like allegories of a world made over as gamespace. They encode the abstract principles upon which decisions about the realness of this or that world are decided.
Here is the guiding principle of a future utopia, now long past: “To each according to his needs; from each according to his abilities.”10 In gamespace, what do we have? An atopia, a placeless, senseless realm, where quite a different maxim rules: “From each according to their abilities — to each a rank and score.” Needs no longer enter into it. Not even desire matters. Win what you desire; desire what you win. The score is the thing. The rest is agony. The gamer as theorist at first sight seems to have acquired an ability that counts for nothing in gamespace. The gamer as theorist might begin with an indifference to distinction, to all that the gamespace prizes. One plays not to win (or not just to win). One trifles with the game to understand the nature of gamespace as a world — as the world. One trifles with the game to discover in what way gamespace falls short of its self-proclaimed perfection. The digital game plays up everything that gamespace merely pretends to be: a fair fight, a level playing field, free competition.