In Vice City, the world exists already made over as a complete gamespace, an atopia. It is not ‘nowhere’ (utopia) or ‘elsewhere’ (heterotopia), but ‘everywhere’ (atopia). In the game, spaces all have the properties required of them of a certain kind of play. Hidden on Vice City’s islands are one hundred secret packages. Some are Downtown, some are in Little Havana, some in Little Haiti, some on the golf course, some at the airport. Collect them all and you can trade in even your best motor vehicles for the ultimate ride. Or if that is not your preferred goal, pick another one. Either way, the qualities of space always guide you to its real values, which always have a score. This space is perfect, seamless — and bounded, like Thomas More’s Utopia. And just as the utopia points to what is lacking beyond the page; so too atopia points to what is lacking, beyond the game. Atopian space is a real enclave within imaginary social space. The possibility of atopian space is a result of the impossibility of adequate and effective spatial and social quantification and calculation.
For quite opposite reasons, the utopian text and the atopian game both stand accused of incitements to violence. What if the atopian game, like the utopian book, is merely the scapegoat? What if the book was merely a harmless repository of the potential of the line that was already imprinting itself on the world? What if the game is merely a repository of a new potential of the line? In utopian books, the writing shows the everyday world transformed as only writing can transform it. The utopian book merely pushes writing’s abilities the furthest, to a point of almost complete consistency, within the special topic of the book. The atopian game, likewise, is the algorithmic in a more complete and consistent form. Neither book nor game is ever wholly complete and consistent. They always negotiate with what is beyond their bounds. In Vice City as in More’s Utopia there is a traveler who mediates between one world and another. But in either case, the utopian book or the atopian game lacks the power to transforms the world. But where signs and images may bleed off the utopian page into the world, the algorithm of the game, in which each relation depends on one another, may not. At least not yet.
It is not the ‘content’ of Vice City which might give a gamer theorist cause to pause. It really contains no sex, no violence, no drugs, no guns. These are merely the art — the images and stories — via which the game mediates between what is within its own purely algorithmic line, and the less than perfect topology within which the gamer lives. Rather, it is the form of the game itself and its compromises with a world beyond that can work as the topos of a critical gamer theory. The atopian game, like the utopian book, expresses what has the power to remake the world of its time, but is not itself that power. It is a useless, impotent form of a powerful line. Which is why critical theory best becomes gamer theory, and why gamer theory best becomes critical. The critical attaches itself to what power is but not where it is. It attaches itself to power in a powerless form. The atopian game is exactly the site that has this ambiguous property when things reach the topological level, when the lines run everywhere through space and everything is coming together as potential for digital calculation.
In games, as in gamespace, some calculations happen quicker than others. Sometimes there is a moment to think it over, negotiate. Sometimes not. When there is no time for calculation, the gamer must act on the basis of a calculation made in advance. There’s always a backstory, providing some dividing line along which to weigh one’s interests. It’s never quite as game theory proper would predict. The gamer is rarely an autonomous agent, acting on rational self interest. If game theory was objective, rational, abstract; gamer theory is subjective, intuitive, particular. If game theory starts with the self contained agent, like a prisoner in a cell, looking out at the world; gamer theory wonders how the agency of the gamer comes into being as something distinct in the first place. In the midst of battle, how does the gamer decide when and where to pull the trigger? The atopia of the game is a safe haven in which to enact the problem of being as it appears in gamespace, but without the oppressive stakes of one’s own life on the line.
Everyday life once had the resources to resist, adapt, appropriate or embrace utopian schemes. It pushed the promise and threat of other ways of being off into the corner, while it got on with the business of wresting freedom from necessity, building a world in which to dwell. With the very success of that labor comes a renewed challenge to its resourcefulness. Having developed a topography in which to dwell, mined and molded from raw possibility by collective labor, boredom rises to a new pitch, and the heterotopian past-times become more than a mere recompense for a dull life. They become the driving force of development itself. Out of the heterotopias of agon and alea arise the atopias of gamespace, via which topology makes itself known to us, as an ever more intricate matrix of the digital line. It’s not that theory, even a gamer theory, can achieve all that much when confronted with the digital indifference of gamespace. It might aspire merely to describe what being now is.