Colin Milburn – Inside Out: Videogames and the Technological Impulse

Liveblog,Post March 14, 2016 11:05 pm

A “Liveblog” of Colin Milburn’s STS colloquium presentation, March 14, 2016. Compiled by Erik Stayton with the help of Mitali Thakor and anonymous others. The discussant was Emily Wanderer.


Hanna Shell: She welcomes us to the first STS Colloquium of the Spring 2016 season. Colin shared with us chapters of his book. Before she moves on to introducing Colin, she notes that Emily is an STS graduate and welcomes her back.

Colin is the Gary Snyder Chair in Science and the Humanities at UC Davis, where he holds affiliations in STS, Cinema and Media Studies, and English — “he has to be sitting in three offices all at once at all times!” He has dual PhDs from Harvard in English and History of Science. At UC Davis he works on issues of scientific visualization as well as being director of the ModLab.


Colin Milburn: Thanks for coming today. First he’s going to provide an overview of the book project Respawn: Video Games and the Practice of Technogenic Life, of which we will discuss two of the chapters (which had been circulated).

Cue a SEGA video clip:








Video ends, showing the opening screen of Zero Wing
(This is the oddly translated European release for the Megadrive.)


In the game, one takes the place of the Zig pilot fighting against the cyborg CATS army. Invading force represents the force of total cybernetic takeover. The game is an allegory of the information age, dependence on technological systems, and all your base might already be controlled.

But it also hints to some failures: mistranslations and epic malfunctions abound.

The “all your base are belong to us” phrase has been taken up by Internet culture, with its threat of complete control while hilariously failing to use proper grammar. Memes range from the banal to cryptic. Zero Wing serves as commentary on, or playable simulation of our current moment of video game media: the rising dominance of games as a medium of aesthetic expression. Citing Harold Goldberg’s book, All Your Base Are Belong to Us: How Fifty Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture (2011).

Cue funny cats sitting on laptops.

Momentary paralysis of the Zig fleet captain (“WHAT YOU SAY!!”) is because the CATS attack is not the beginning but the conclusion of the war, most of human civilization has already become part of the cyborg collective. The distressing implications of the game’s setup are evoked by the failed translation: its syntactical chaos. An ontological condition: all the base, to the cyborg world, are an essential belonging as if always already. Not just the bases—the colonies and outputs—but the very foundation of human society, the wellspring of culture, all utterly transfigured under this regime of alien science.

This presents a claim about technogenesis: an affirmation of technogenic life. Technogenesis, as a trope of science fiction, suggests the emergence of new forms of life, intelligences, from technologies. (See Syne Mitchell’s Technogenesis; or Wil McCarthy’s novel Bloom).

“Technogenic life is the real thing; it eats, sorts, metabolizes, reproduces.” –Bloom

The emergence of technogenic life is also the moment of recognition of the technical qualities of human life. Technogenic life describes the way the conditions of life emerge, evolve, “transmogrify” especially with respect to pervasive computerization. Its practices include political and parapolitical gestures, direct action at the level of technics, artistic creation, and a set of subversive pleasures referred to as “the lulz.”

Bottom-up productive practices that respond to what Alex Galloway describes in Protocol as “The current global crisis…between centralized, hierarchical powers and distributed, horizontal networks.” Games present themselves as a way of training, making available tactics and strategies of engagement for the world today.

For example, in response to the Snowden revelations, a number of geeks peppered the internet with “ALL YOUR DATA ARE BELONG TO U.S.” memes. And ALL YOUR SELFIES ARE BELONG TO NSA. Some even defaced US Govt pages with the phrase. These images call for the recognition of games as an important part of culture, and as responses to modern political environments.

Snowden himself has supported videogames as part of such education today, and claims them as part of his own decision making. Snowden’s sense of social responsibility was formed in part by games. Glen Greenwald had seen this before: “Years earlier” he wrote “I might have scoffed” but he now recognizes that games do present complex moral dilemmas. However, Colin says, we can go further: they are also simulators, methods of training: see Eddy’s Run, or the Australian game Need to Know, which are also in response to the Snowden revelations and also take critical positions.

That games might be resources for political response or even insurgency seems to have been of concern to the NSA itself: the NSA was concerned that networked games were hotbeds of radical thought and insurgency. Games are sites of many kinds of activity, but sustained engagement with games can contribute to an understanding of hardware/software as inherently political things. Colin’s book focuses on how players come to see games as techno-political systems. And how games shape the foundations of technogenic life.

Now, we transition to Portal: the concluding credits with GLaDOS’s song.

“This was a triumph

I’m making a note here:


It’s hard to overstate

my satisfaction.

. . .”


Hanna: The song was even better than I could have even imagined. Now she is introducing the discussant:

Emily Wanderer is currently a visiting professor in the Sociology and Anthropology Department at Bowdoin, and her book manuscript in process looks at biology as an object of security practice in Mexico.

Emily Wanderer: She thanks Colin for these provocative and fascinating chapters. They sent her to the internet to find videos, how to’s, to find out how to pronounce Chell: is it “chell, or shell?” . . .

She is going to focus on chapter 4: what kinds of publics, what approaches to the world emerge from Portal. And how do practices of play engendered by the game produce new subjectivities. As you move through the space as Chell, you enact the role of a test subject in this dystopian, technoscientific place in the military-industrial complex. Chell, drafted to test this new tool (the portal gun), is promised the reward of cake for her coerced labor. But with this tool she tests the limits of the environment, and thereby encounters with the game change player’s perspectives on the possibility of social action.

Anonymous in particular is inspired by the possibilities that Chell suggests for the subversive use of science and technology. Despite the appearance of rigorous technoscientific control, subversive action is still possible in the world today. Chell represents an image of grassroots agency, and of turning the tools of the system against it.

Of course, people have long used computers and computer programs as models of and for the world. For example in Paul Edwards’s Closed World, computers promise complete control over vast systems. They are also tools through which world politics can be understood as a closed system, which can therefore be controlled technologically. This is in some way the inverse of Portal, in which it is demonstrated that complete control is impossible.

Emily is also reminded of Chris Kelty’s work on OSS, and recursive publics: groups constituted by shared interest in the technical and legal implications of technology, the infrastructure that allows them to come into being in the first place. For OSS, this is about freedom of information, open access, and other concepts that do seem to resonate with Anonymous. Software and technological practices become models for approaching other areas of life.

Emily was also particularly interested in the other representations of technoscience in the game: sacrifice represented through the weighted companion cube. It is presented as a vital apparatus and though its vitality is never specified, its ambiguity is generative, as the players become attached to it. The cube is a lab rat which much be euthanized in the search for progress. But savvy game players, keen to demonstrate their skill or teach each other, have produced many videos of how to save your companion cube, documenting the elaborate pathways you can go through to rescue it (by glitching the game).

As Mike Lynch has described, scientists do feel an empathetic identification with lab animals, which must be tended and soothed and turned into data up until the moment they are sacrificed. For scientists, this is not sadistic, but necessary. In ecological and invasive species research too, Emily notes, scientists sacrifice animals, even entire species, in the service of saving a particular ecosystem. In Portal this sacrifice refigured as mere sadism, without the usefulness sacrifice has in the lab.

Now she shifts to the second half of the chapter to focus on Anonymous, those for whom Portal, Chell, and GLaDOS are shared points of reference, a delineation of insiders from outsiders. Colin argues that the narrative of Portal is important for helping to codify political aspirations for Anonymous as well as providing a template, tools for subversion. This is a particular technopolitics with particular democratic stakes.

Chell subverts power by using her tools in ways not before imagined. What are the political aspirations for Anonymous, and who is enabled by the subversive system in which technical skill is the route to power? Is this really subversive? Having emerged first as a sort of joke collective, (for the “lulz”) it has refashioned itself as a check on power. It is important to talk more explicitly about who might find Portal/Anonymous empowering, particularly the gendered dimensions of this.

Who is the audience? As a loosely hierarchical group, Anonymous appears on its face to be inclusive. But not everyone is equally equipped to participate. Who has access to its “tools of applied science fiction”? And what is the significance of Chell as a woman of color?

The player is symbolically in the position of the disenfranchised, the body most commonly used as source of scientific knowledge as well as one faced with systematic repression. What is it to say that Anonymous identifies with Chell? It seems to be only at the most shallow level, not really empathetic, though it does allow a group of white male players to imagine themselves as an oppressed other. Significant gatekeeping mechanisms in gamer/hacker culture stand in the way of women and people of color, so though it is hard to get demographics for an anonymous organization, Anonymous certainly appears to be an organization of white men under 30. The vast majority of “lulz” are against women, gay/trans people, and people of color.

Tinkering with and subverting systems in the name of fighting censorship is a particular resource. While some Anonymous campaigns have feminist leanings (like revealing violence against women), not everyone may be able to treat the world as a game in the same way. So it is worth asking difficult questions about who has power here, and the political consequences of this mode of subversive action.




Q: Regarding the origin story for Anonymous taking on Scientology, someone asks: it is an attack on thought control, sure, but also an unprovoked attack against a religious minority . . . is it just continuing hierarchies of power? And what about the political consequences of the language used, the GLaDOS lessons to Anonymous protesters: “try not to use internet memes on your signs” shows an awareness on the part of organizers of the exclusiveness of this lexicon for political action. But this lesson didn’t work.

Colin: When we look at the moment of movement from pure trolling to the self-aware parapolitical action, this attack on Scientology seems odd in retrospect. It was triggered specifically by a Tom Cruise interview, in which he says “interesting” things re. Scientology. Websites hosting this video were getting takedown notices/lawsuits from the church, 4Chan noticed these threats, and that started Project Chanology, to go after this organization trying to stop speech on the Internet. And it blossomed into a worldwide phenomenon! The moment Anonymous takes to the streets, they start to realize there are so many of them all around the world. They of course retroactively justified their attack as not on a minority religion but a powerful organization, but it was a moment when they realized their potency. And this began other sorts of attacks, on everything from government sites to drug cartels.

Regarding how language functions here, Colin says: the use of Internet language and memes has been a thing that has brought cohesiveness and solidarity among people who have never met, don’t want to know each other’s names, and their speech turns out to be the way they share ideas and identities. The attempt to police this was futile because it was the way they communicate. But at the same time, it was obvious they were using it as exclusionary to begin with, to create an in-group and out-group. So this makes the rampant racism/sexism so perplexing. They have a set of well articulated principles about why this language is used, (though we can contest this all over the place). They use this as a way of enforcing boundaries on the social group. But as an on-the-ground movement they needed public acceptance, at the same time as needing the elite, exclusionary language to keep the group cohesive. There’s an embracing, for example, of homophobic language of “fags” as a way of saying we are “all dispossessed together,” but it doesn’t have the effect of openness.


Q: What about the designers of Portal, their choice to create a space for subversion, and their choice of the woman of color?

C: Yes, they see this. There are moments you see documents that expose the deeply sexist and racist culture of Aperture Science: “The Girls of Aperture Science” calendar on one wall, and then documentation of some disturbing medical studies. The game sets up that by resisting Aperture Science you are also resisting structures of racism, sexism, in society more broadly. So Chell’s identity is important. But at the same time that Valve presents this narrative of resistance, clearly intended to train players to hack their way to freedom (see the alternate reality game released alongside Portal, in which you were encouraged to hack your way into the Aperture Science mainframe), they are offering customers ways to resist the very structures they produce. They aren’t alone in this regard, the games industry does this more often: creating opportunities for revolutionary energy, but exhausting this energy internally. The catharsis of the game internally usually takes care of any feelings of insurgency, but not always. And in this case, we can start to see the external parapolitical dimensions forming.

Gabriella Coleman’s and Colin’s senses are that the movement has globalized and diversified tremendously, though it does still appear very white. There is anecdotal evidence of women participating in Anonymous, and most of the people who have come forward with stories to Colin have been women. But they were not there for the on-the-ground protests! So their participation is partial.


Q: Could you talk more about the glitch, and how glitches connect to Anonymous’s politics of “outing”, whether it be pedophiles or others? How does this relate to the glitch, the exposure of technical failures. And does this say something about labor, even micro labor that is being manipulated in this search?

C: There is a connection between glitch and the politics of exposure. Hackers are obsessed with finding exploits: to look for well-formed software and expose failures in code. The triumph of being able to show that something has gone wrong is part of the culture for hackers/activists. Finding zero-days and other failures is very equivalent to the exposure of failures of social responsibility, or good governance, or moral behavior in the world. Exposing bad governments is like exposing flaws in software.

There’s also a utopian horizon that isn’t clearly reconcilable: is the horizon for hackers that perfectly functioning software is the equivalent of a perfectly functioning society?

Part of the ideology of labor here is that they are in the trenches, they react very strongly to allegations of white-knighting etc. They are fully aware that this is potentially exploitable labor, but believe that in the long run it is better for everyone. The ultimate benefit is to “All of humanity”. This is a particular moment of financial capitalism where we just have to accept a certain amount of complicity.


Q: How do you process the incredible amount of racism/sexism etc in these situations? This reminds one of the politics of mobs, and there is a deep history of studies of these sorts of organization (carnivals are another form of mob activity, but a playful one, about dispersing transgressive energy). So what is it about a game, as opposed to book or a play, that gives one a feeling of the inside/outside that provides a feeling of power for this community?

C: Playing the game presents a model of a transformable world; the game provides a set of actions that alter the world. The game is a series of state changes. And this is not the experience of the diegetic world in print fiction, for example. Games as interactive fictions present themselves as simulations of a world that is transformable, and they present worlds that literally run on technoscience. And so technical knowledge can intervene in that world. This notion traces back to Spacewar, playable worlds that can be enacted in off-the-clock or other sort of transgressive labor. Many games are commentaries on their own status as games, and say something about how this technical practice can have impact on the world. This brings us back to Wargames, and Colin pushes back against the Wargames comparison (that “the only winning move is not to play” while here it is “clear” you can win): hacktivists are complicit in worlds; they don’t think a game can really be won or lost, a win is still a lose because you are still inside the system. So I think the hacktivists accept the Wargames idea, but believe there is no choice today but to play.


Q: Let’s talk about Valve software, sales and marketing, profit centers and media. How much does it cost to make it, to buy it, what do you need to run it? What sort of inclusion/exclusion is there here? And are there pirated versions? How does this as commercial interact with the “information wants to be free” movement? How does Valve as a company fit here?

C: Valve is a weird and perhaps indicative case. Early on it discovered the amazing resource of free labor of players who would embrace it if it did not act like an authoritarian: if it allowed players to hack, to pirate, without copy protection. Moreover, it discovered that players would produce mods and media that would increase the value of the software. See Counter Strike, which began as a Half Life mod, and the modder was subsequently hired by Valve. Our existing models around labor don’t exactly fit all the transformations we are seeing in the market today. So Valve saw advantage in being quite open. And it turns out Valve is hugely successful, so it is able to employ lots of developers! So it is seen as one of the examples where allowing piracy, and not attacking your customers, helps your company.  Valve has also tried to make its games playable across many platforms: today Portal runs on Linux, Mac, Windows, Playstation. There is indeed a de-facto exclusion for videogames that require expensive systems, but this is where we see the culture of piracy in part motivated: that these media are good for society, they ought to be out there and available, and limiting this due to economic issues is bad for everyone.


Q: One questioner asks: Could you speak to the profoundly physically passive experience of being a videogamer? I love Portal, but I’ve played it for way too many hours. There’s an immersive passivity of training your body to sit very still except pushing these buttons that are given as your interface to this system, training yourself to make these micro-movements you need to complete the puzzle. Is there tension between lived/embodied passive experience of a gamer and the activist in the world?

C: In some ways this is an irresolvable tension, but one that some gamers who have become politically active have tried to own. There’s a sort of embracing of hypotrophic body, a cyberpunk image recycled since the 80s. You are stuck in this chair, so the machine has to be fetishized, turned into the enabling device that gives you access to the world. The world must be seen not as just physical space, but both meatspace & cyberspace. This is a reconceptualization of the phenomenological “being in the world.” There’s an embrace of the gamer subject as intersubjective and everywhere via Anonymous: my agency is distributed worldwide, my name is shared with all others in the group.


Q: Someone asks about literature and myth: William Morris, someone who was highly technical in the technics of his own day. Morris is looking back to myths for how to behave in this world. In his case, he discovers a mythology of the northern races that is a brutal but brave saga. And he gives up on writing myths that relate to this world and invents secondary worlds. Could this work connect to other ways of trying to live within highly technical worlds?

C: Morris is part of a longer tradition of utopian thinkers. For Morris in particular, to imagine a utopian transformation he has to imagine it as utopian nowhere, nowhere but through dream and the future. It is also a reversal of history of industrialization, production of an arts/crafts mentality in the future. Something similar is happening with these hacktivists, but there isn’t an imagination of an outside, a space (Morris’s pastoral elsewhere) for solid critique. Their very existence depends upon ubiquitous technologization. They inhabit this position of not creating utopian elsewheres, but hacking the system itself: modulation, tweaking of the system, but one that doesn’t imagine a utopian revolution.


Q: Circling back to theory of media subjectivity/meaning: and the uses and limits of narratology of a framing approach. You’ve provided a close read of Portal, and some threads about how players are picking this up. But some of the most profound things we’ve learned in game studies are in instrumental play, where the narratology isn’t the point.

C: I think we have learned that there is instrumental play, narratively rich play, and a huge variety of types of play. And the only way we can see these is ethnographic work, to understand play in practice. What Colin says he has found is that the most passionate engagement with game worlds happens around the narrative, even in games that are otherwise very instrumental. Players start to accrue myths around the games, which then begin to have rich mythologized, narrative, memic content, that form opportunities for cultural/conceptual investment. The games that often produce these intense fan reactions that verge on political action are generally narrative games, ones that provide outlets for further engagement with the world. We may see huge sales numbers for Call of Duty, but these games seem to exhaust, internally to themselves, the possibilities for their use.


Q: Someone asks about magic, from the game Adventure: Magic is literally encoded to be an illusion, these representations are simulations. Can you talk more about magic in terms of the political goals of Anonymous? Magic is not fantasy, but encodes certain things.

C: He hadn’t thought about magic in relationship to Anonymous. But magic is not only another name for unexplained science, but is the name of another sort of illusion in which magic is dispelled but will never fully be expelled. The biggest lie you could ever tell yourself in the techno-magistic culture is that you could see through the smokescreen. This is part of the cynical, ironic, culture of “the lulz”: you are duped, and you know you are duped, but you cannot think yourself unduped. And they embrace contradiction, paradox. It is all the more delicious, the more multiply refracted the contradictions are. You must inhabit the lies. So magic is working here as a concept, that it is both truth and lie at the same time, illusions that overcome their own illusion. This may be part of why there was such a vehement response to Scientology, as propagating a sort of magical thinking around technology that wants to see “through” the lies, but which is neither science nor science fiction, and this seeing-through is precisely the sort of thing Anonymous believes we can’t do.

Even Anonymous itself is applied technoscientific magic, in its global reach.

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