Posted on 2017/11/09 by

Tracing The Magic Circle: Metagames and Material Agency

In Metagaming, Stephanie Boluk and Patrick Lemieux argue that video games can serve as a site of critical engagement with the dominant systems of power in contemporary society. Their argument can be broken down into two basic moves: First, they suggest that video games themselves are perhaps best understood not as “games” in the traditional sense, but rather as a rigorously structured platform for having a very specific kind of “fun.” As they describe, video games “operate as the ideological avatar of play: a widely held, naturalized system of beliefs that conflates the fantasy of escapism with the commodity form and encloses play within the magic circle of neoliberal capital… Games have been replaced by video games and play has been replaced by fun.” With this conception of video games in mind, Boluk and Lemieux introduce their own technical definition of the term “metagame,” which they argue “transform[s] video games from a mass medium and cultural commodity into instruments, equipment, tools, and toys for playing, competing, spectating, cheating, trading, making, breaking and ultimately intervening in the sensory and political economies of those technologies responsible for the privatization of play.” This is to say, if video games function within the “the magic circle of neoliberal capital,” then the “metagame” describes the indeterminate (or at least, not-yet-entirely determinate) conditions through which subjects (both individually and collectively) integrate video games into the broad assemblage of (social, political, economic, etc.) phenomena that constitute the world.

So the focus, for Boluk and Lemieux, is not just the metagame itself, but rather how subjects engage with (and, importantly, actively create) their own metagames. In this sense, the set of metagames that emerge alongside any given video game serve as a site of tension, wherein both player and game traverse a narrow threshold between the “magic circle” of neoliberal logic and a not-yet-wholly-determined world. As Boluk and Lemieux describe, there is a lot at stake: “Entangled with video games as a mass medium and as a digital technology, play’s avatar incorporates the fantasies and fallacies of the twenty-first-century technical imaginary. As a result, the standard metagame reinforces the techno-utopian belief in the progressivist and teleological upgrade path, the escapist fantasy of sensory and cognitive immersion within virtual realities…the libertarian dream that the market is not only free but just and that ‘voting with your wallet’ is democratic, and the nostalgia for a collective identity based on consuming video games (rather than making metagames)”. In short, if we’re not conscious and deliberate in how we engage with video games (i.e., if we don’t participate actively in the production of our own metagames) we risk simply replicating the “standard” or normative apparatus imposed by the dominant centres of power.

With this in mind, I’d like to consider some ways in which the act and process of collecting video games constitutes a set of metagames that both replicate and subvert these normative power dynamics, and suggest how one might actively intervene and participate in the metagame of collection. To do this, I’d like to talk about styrofoam: specifically, the styrofoam packaging currently entombing R.O.B. the Robot and the Nintendo Entertainment System housed in the Residual Media Depot.


R.O.B.’s styrofoam might serve as an useful point of departure for a consideration of collecting as a metagame, because it raises certain basic questions about what, exactly, is being collected. Is styrofoam part of a video game collection itself? Or is it a kind of para-artifact, contributing to what Henry Lowood might call a “historically valid experience” (5) of one’s engagement with R.O.B. And if that’s the case, what kind of history are we validating? Is the metagame of video game collection under neoliberalism simply another way to fetishize consumer goods as such? Or does a consideration of collecting as an active and participatory metagame provide a vantage from which we can parse out the tension between the act of collecting and the “magic circle” of neoliberalism?

As Philip Mirowski observes, this sense of tension is also one of the basic ideological features of neoliberalism itself: “Even through there has not existed full consensus on just what sort of animal the market ‘really’ is, the neoliberals did agree that, for purposes of public understanding and sloganeering, neoliberal market society must be treated as a ‘natural’ and inexorable state of mankind. Neoliberal thought therefore spawns a strange hybrid of the ‘constructed’ and the ‘natural,” where the market can be made manifest in many guises” (55). This schizophrenic conflation of “natural” and “constructed” is weirdly captured in styrofoam packaging, which, while obviously not “natural,” has certainly become naturalized as an omnipresent filler-of-space, or a looming and uninvited guest at the office party of late consumer capitalism. As Nathan Brown observes in his examination of Alexi Kukuljevic’s styrofoam sculptures, styrofoam is “a commodity whose use value is to protect commodities as they circulate. A consumer buys something else, and some styrofoam comes with it… a material byproduct of circulation, expanded polystyrene packaging is both invisible at the point of sale and already waste at the point of consumption.” This definition is helpful, as it points to styrofoam’s incidental circumscription within the assemblage of consumer goods, but it’s also incomplete: for the collector, R.O.B.’s styrofoam packaging obviously retains a kind of value, but it’s a value that is indeterminate and only ever partially circumscribed within the logic of a “marketplace.”

But we can get a sense of what else R.O.B.’s styrofoam is doing by addressing it directly: Not as a commodity already inscribed within the “magic circle of neoliberal capital,” but as a weird and never-wholly-knowable thing, an elusive and material form of agency. In the most literal sense, the styrofoam directs the collector on how R.O.B. is to be arranged. Its compartmental design produces an organizational structure that implicitly signals R.O.B.’s “completeness” as an object of collection. R.O.B.’s styrofoam produces its own internal logic, and in so doing actively orients the composition of the collection itself. To participate actively in collection, then, is to participate alongside one’s styrofoam in a metagame of human and non-human actors.

In this sense, the metagame of collection can be understood not only as a gamified mode of consumerism, but also as a site of radical interface between a human subject and the non-human other that not only challenges but productively intervenes in the normative structures of neoliberal capital. In approaching R.O.B.’s styrofoam as both a commodity and a force of material agency, the collector confronts his own entangled participation within an agential assemblage: he traces the porous membrane of neoliberalism’s “magic circle” to face the lively materiality through which the subject emerges in the world.

Work Cited

Boluk, Stephanie, and Patrick LeMieux. Metagaming: Playing, Competing, Spectating, Cheating, Trading, Making, and Breaking Videogames. U of Minnesota P, 2017.

Brown, Nathan. “The Logic of Disintegration: On the Art Practice of Alexi Kukuljevic.” Boundary2, Jan. 2017.

Lowood, Henry. “Playing History with Games: Steps towards Historical Archives of Computer Gaming.” Annual Meeting of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, June 2014, Portland.

Mirowski, Philip. Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown. Verso, 2013.

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