Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games

Steve Redhead on an uneasy mix of gaming-culture study and European academic discourse

July 8, 2010

This is the most recent book in an intriguing University of Minnesota Press series entitled Electronic Mediations. In this, the 29th volume in the series, Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter have produced a study of video games and virtual environments as part of global media culture. Second Life, Grand Theft Auto and World of Warcraft are familiar names to even the most technophobic among us. They are part of the international gaming world that is subjected to rigorous empirical focus here, alongside Guitar Hero, Chinatown Wars, Virtual Iraq, Full Spectrum Warrior and many more.

The authors argue that the old stereotype of gaming culture as the latest in a long line of young male subcultures is no longer accurate. Around the world, adults over 30 are just as likely to be consumers of games today. The authors also make a good case for seeing video games as the new Hollywood, and a major site of corporate development and ideological influence rather than a minor part of any national creative industries sector. Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter also ably analyse the exploitative labour process for the gaming industry, and its links with the military-industrial-entertainment complex.

The work is very much the product of a Canadian university seminar called Games of Empire, as well as other discussion points, and it certainly has the feel of an ongoing argument in the global academy about how to make sense of the fast-changing culture of capital, an accelerated culture that is already replacing video games with internet games and heralding new platforms such as the iPad that make the subjects of this book "old media" already. The empirical research on gaming presented in the book is wide-ranging and international, and an important contribution to gaming studies in anybody's language. Any reader interested in gaming culture in the 21st century will learn a lot from this book; not only about the content of games but the history of the platforms and the interconnections between the sources of military technology and the video games industry.

Where I have reservations about the project is in the theoretical framework employed. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri are the main gurus for the authors and their influence is pervasive here, especially their book Empire (the source of the title of this book), and the subsequent Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, which takes into account the War on Terror in the wake of 9/11. Hardt and Negri's introduction as master theoreticians of our modern world is, nevertheless, controversial. Theirs is a particular take on capitalism and its global culture.

The fit, or homology, in Games of Empire between theory and practice seems pretty forced, as does the introduction of Michel Foucault on bio-power and Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari at various junctures in the book. Guattari and Negri collaborated in the past, in a proto-analysis of Empire, and their nexus is revisited here in what seems to be a vain attempt to join the dots of the theoretical and the empirical in relation to gaming culture worldwide. What this theoretical melange represents is not so much a cutting-edge tool for analysing gaming culture as a reflection of a specific international academic process that has dominated global scholarship for the past three decades.

European theory has been imported by North American scholars in a particular way, so that, say, Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio - who have just as much, if not more, to impart on global media culture and military technology - are sidelined altogether because of some spurious attachment to postmodernism, and Deleuze and Guattari, Hardt and Negri are given a Champions League status that is barely warranted.

Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter can be read gainfully as producing either a discourse on the consumption and production of video games, or a discourse on European theory and its effects, but the two rarely intertwine satisfactorily in Games of Empire.

Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games

By Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter
University of Minnesota Press 320pp, £37.50 and £12.50
ISBN 9780816666102 and 6119
Published 1 December 2009

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