Designers Dethroned

Where I previously discussed my (dis)agreements with Georgia Tech’s approach to games as communication, today I ran across Ted Friedman’s “The Semiotics of SimCity.” What follows is a brief review and how it fits into my larger project.

After having enjoyed Friedman’s “Making Sense of Software” I was happy to find his thoughts on SimCity on FirstMonday. The main argument boils down to: “Computer programs, like all texts, will always be ideological constructions.” Regardless of “however much “freedom” computer game designers grant players, any simulation will be rooted in a set of baseline assumptions.”

So far, so good. I agree that games are ideologically skewed by the ideas and beliefs of the designers that make them. Similarly, Galloway focuses on the material conditions under which a game emerges. When discussing World of Warcraft in Amsterdam last year Galloway pointed out: “What the games suggest is that such distributed behavior is not an abstract, ideal form superimposed on reality, but something that emerges from specific material and economic conditions.”

I strongly agree with the notion that game designers are capable of communicating certain values and principles through a computer simulation. But I disagree with the implicit preference for discussing this “expressive potential” almost exclusively from the perspective of a designer. And, by extension, for the myopic discussion of technology instead of human interaction: “The emerging new media technologies are not important in themselves, nor as alternatives to older media, but should be studied for what they can tell us about the principles and evolution of human communication.” (Aarseth, 1997)
Friedman consequently lingers on the idea that simulation is capable of truly capturing reality through a process of demystification: “learning and winning…is a process…of discovering how the software is put together.” Hypothetically it is possible, now or in the future, to come up with a set of code that describes reality in such accuracy that all six billion of us will agree on its fidelity. By placing the gravity point on technology, Friedman thus inevitably concludes: “The computer comes to feel like an organic extension of your consciousness, and you may feel like an extension of the computer itself.”

Such a happy symbiosis between man and machine seems unlikely to me. For one, in this relation we are generally a mere servo-mechanism. A simulation, no matter how accurate or fanciful, does nothing, is nothing, and communicates nothing without our input. In other words, the realities that computers may simulate are merely hypothetical and meaningless until someone blows life into them by living them: “life goes on in an environment; not merely in it but because of it, through interaction with it.” (Dewey)

Nonetheless Friedman’s point is well taken. Building on David Harvey’s Condition of Postmodernity, “computer simulations [allow] the individual not simply to observe structures, but to become experientially immersed in their logic.” But computer simulations are not a type of objective tool with which to describe a reality that exist separate from it: contemporary reality is flooded with hypothetical scenarios and theoretical models that seek to describe what is actually going on. Arbitrage, the practice of buying and selling of commodities across different markets to exploit a price difference, is central to 21st century economies. Similarly, simulations exist in many other areas, like tennis, so that we may, a priori, establish their outcome and expose their underlying principles.

Game designers are not the only ones who live in such a world. My sole critique on Friedman’s approach, and on Georgia Tech’s perspective, is that this seems exclusively focused on the privileged group called designers. One, regular gamers are increasingly capable of describing reality through game epistemologies (modding). And, two, reality is produced through our experience with, in, and through it, instead of a highly theoretical model of it.

Friedman neatly summarizes his insight, and related biases towards the end:

“Escaping the prison-house of language which seems so inadequate for holding together the disparate strands that construct postmodern subjectivity, computer simulations provide a radically new quasi-narrative form through which to communicate structures of interconnection.”

The 14th century Church thought itself to be all-powerful because it had command of the divine Latin. It was dethroned when reading and writing became available to everyone. Similarly, games, and what they tell us, are the privilege of the many, not the few.


Espen J. Aarseth (1997) “Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature” John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, MD.

John Dewey (1958) “Art as Experience.” Capricorn Books, New York.

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