In “Allegories of Control,” Galloway introduces us to Gilles Deleuze‘s concept of the control society. With this concept, Deleuze seeks to account for a shift in the way that ideological and political power operates in the contemporary world. Deleuze’s work builds on that of his contemporary, Michel Foucault, who had identified the emergence of an early “disciplinary society” during the industrial age. A disciplinary society creates numerous institutions–prisons, hospitals, schools, factories, court systems, etc.–that organize people in specific ways. Individuals are categorized into established identities and these institutions enforce these boundaries. A control society, Deleuze explains, is more subtle in its uses of power. Obviously the institutions of a disciplinary society remain, but their operation shifts somewhat and new institutions develop such as mass media and consumer culture. Indeed, consumer culture is an excellent example of how a control society works. It is now conventional in our society for people to construct their identities through their purchases, particularly of clothes but also of media. Where a disciplinary society offers you a solid state identity (i.e. gender, race, class), a control society offers you a plug-and-play identity (e.g. the way Facebook allows you to construct identity around likes and dislikes or eHarmony establishes a profile through a questionnaire.). As Galloway seeks to explain, these mechanisms of control are typically hidden from us while instead we focus on feelings of desire and the experience of choice.
Games, however, give us something quite different. As he writes:
video games deliver to the player the power relationships of informatic media firsthand, choreographed into a multivalent cluster of play activities In fact, in their very core, video games do nothing but present contemporary political realities in relatively unmediated form. They solve the problem of political control, not by sublimating it as does the cinema, but by making it coterminous with the entire game, and in this way video games achieve a unique type of political transparency. (92)
Later though, he gives us a different perspective, arguing that “In fact, the more emancipating games seem to be as a medium, substituting activity for passivity or a branching narrative for a linear one, the more they are in fact hiding the fundamental social transformation into informatics that has affect the globe during recent decades” (106).
I can’t say I fully agree with Galloway. I have become suspicious of cultural critique and its foundations in hermeneutics. As practitioners of literary interpretation, you are aware of the seeming insistence that there is always something “hidden” within the text. For critique to operate, one must posit something hidden that can be uncovered through its methodology. However, rather than thinking of the process of interpretation or critique as uncovering, one might imagine it as a process of composing. That is, a critique of Civilization, as we see in this chapter, does not tell us some truth about the game, but makes new meaning out of the game by combining it with critical methods. How much difference is there between uncovering truth and composing meaning? I’m not sure; you tell me. I would suppose the main difference from my perspective is that one starts to realize that critical methods always tend to compose fairly predictable meanings.
But let me roll this back a little and return to gaming. It is an interesting observation that games like Civilization provide a new way to document our shifting understanding of history and social development. History is not driven by divine manifest destiny or “great men.” We get both of these within Civilization but they are subsumed beneath an algorithm. Economies and social attitudes are controllable by sliders, a balancing act of data flows. Ideology is drag-and-drop, customizable like a drink at Starbucks. We don’t believe in any of these things. Believing in an ideology is like believing in a frappuccino. What we do believe in is information and our capacity to control information: informatics. Civilization is like this. No culture is inherently better than another; no ideology or religion is truer. They are all playable with differing strengths and weaknesses. There is no sense that the world should be one way rather than another. There are even multiple win states. No doubt one can say these are savvy design choices that give the game rich replayability. You can play as may different cultures and try to win in different ways. But such options only make sense when we believe that our history and our future are not going anywhere in particular. Instead we are all just malleable data, and that’s what it means to be part of a control society.