Most of the avant gardes celebrate transgressive, sublime play, erupting beyond a rule-bound world. The Oulipo group did the opposite. It preferred self-imposed rules, elegant as they were arbitrary, that might be conductive to new kinds of play. Rather than resist heterotopian marginality, they reveled in it. Given that the passage from topographic to topological space eliminates even the margins within which heterotopias flourished, this might prove a more enduring gameplan for gamer theory. Oulipian novelist George Perec saw what was coming, in his late-dystopian creation of W, a textual island devoted only to total sport: “The life of an Athlete of W is but a single, endless, furious striving, a pointless, debilitating pursuit of that unreal instant when triumph can bring rest.” What Caillois sees as a win for civilization over the Nazis, Perec sees more darkly, as the triumph of The Triumph of the Will. Both enter the gamer theory hall of fame by providing it with its object — gamespace — and its critical impetus — the gamer’s odd attunement toward the game.
No utopia pulls at the topological world, calling it away from itself. Even dystopian texts become marginal, confined to the playground of literary gamesmanship. The once discrete heterotopian spaces no longer co-exist with everyday life, as compensation. Rather, gamespace seeps into everyday life, moving through its pores, transforming it in its own image. Marshall McLuhan: “Games are a sort of artificial paradise like Disneyland…”. And unlike it. Rather than a timeless utopian ideal where history ends, rather than the allotted hour of the heterotopian, everyday life now pulses constantly with moments of unrealized atopian promise. Everywhere, all the time, the gamer confronts the rival impulses of chance and competition, intoxication and spectacle, as homeopathic antidotes to a boredom that challenges being from within. In Vice City all of Caillois’ four kinds of play — chance and competition, intoxication and spectacle — come together. The destruction of the spectacle becomes the spectacle of destruction; the derangement of the senses becomes the arrangement of drug deals. In Vice City you chance your arm in an agon of all against all.
No work of art can aspire to transcend this gamespace, which has realized art by suppressing its ambitions. Yet perhaps a game like Vice City can function as the negative of gamespace, its atopian shadow, in a parallel to the way that the very positivity of a utopia acts as a negation of the world outside its bounds. Not the least of the charms of Vice City is that while it appears to be about a life of crime it is thoroughly law abiding. It is a game about transgression in which it is not possible to break the rules. One may succeed in the game or fail, but one cannot really cheat. (Even the ‘cheats’ are part of the rules.) This is the atopian dream of gamespace, where the lines are so dense, the digital so omnipresent, that any and every object and subject is in play, and all of space is a gamespace. Every move contrary to the rules of a given game is merely a move into another game. The game imagines topology perfected.
Atopia has one quality in common with utopia — its aversion to ambiguity. Vice City may take place in a dark world of guns and drugs, but every mission produces an exact and tangible reward. If your mission is to find porn stars Candy and Mercedes, you drive to the right location, dispatch some body guards, chase Candy’s pimp, run him over, return to pick up Candy, drive to the pizza joint, collect Mercedes, drive them both to the Studio and deliver them to the director. Your reward is always exactly one thousand dollars. If utopia thrives as an architecture of qualitative description, and brackets off quantitative relations, atopia renders all descriptions arbitrary. All that matters is the quantitative relations. By excluding relations, utopia excludes violence; by privileging relations, atopia appears as nothing but violence, but only because it excludes instead any commitment to stable description. Anything that matters can be transformed in precise and repeatable ways into something else. The relentless working out of the algorithm leaves behind a carnage of signs, immolated in the transformation of one value into another.
The rules of Vice City call for a vast accumulation of cash, cars and cronies, of weapons and real estate. Most of these activities are outside the law, but law is just part of a larger algorithm. In any case, the story and the art are arbitrary, mere decoration. If in utopia, everything is subordinated to a rigorous description, a marking of space with signs, in atopia, nothing matters but the transitive relations between variables. The artful surfaces of the game are just a way for the gamer to intuit their way through the steps of the algorithm. Hence the paradox of Vice City. Its criminal world is meant to be shocking to the literary or cinematic imagination, where there is still a dividing line between right and wrong, and where description is meant to actually describe something. But to a gamer, it’s just a means to discover an algorithm. Vice City’s film noir world implies not that one can step back from it into the light, but that while driving around and around in it, one can discover the algorithm of to which gamespace merely aspires and by which it is to be judged in its entirety.