Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
The fundamental claim of Paul Virilio, the French cultural theorist who died this week at the age of 86, was that our world is built on war and speed. He spent the last 50 or so years of his life working over an intense melancholy about the world birthed out of the 19th and 20th centuries. He mourned, openly, how the rules of life and living were always changing, and in the moment after his death, I think it is worth thinking through what Virilio offers for those of us who care about video games. If speed changed the game of human life, then what do war and its entailing speed do to us specifically, the ones who care about games?
If, like me, you grew up playing video games, then you can’t even see it. The effect that war and speed have had on modern gaming predates us by a hundred years or more, and in his always-impressive Speed and Politics, Virilio searched for the transformation points that made speed matter. For Virlio, it isn’t enough to look back a couple decades to explain something. He would have laughed at the idea that Space War! or Adventure was the origin point of the history of video games. Instead, he demanded that we look to places where the very world transformed. And in those transformations, media was created.
For Virlio, for example, the origin of cinema was in the explosions of the World Wars. Our media and how we experience them are contextualized by mass movements, all bound up in technology, and most of them disturbing. The awakening of the masses of the French Revolution. The sea-based challenges the British cast against the French during the Napoleonic Wars. For Virilio, the power of those transformations was in how those things, these historical trajectories and decisions, produced the media that we came to love during the 20th century.
Stick with me, we’re coming back around to games.
For some game scholars, like Patrick Crogan, Virilio’s work is a way into thinking about simulation and war. How is it that we have profoundly mechanically and visually complex renditions of shooting people but not dynamic, blockbuster home management simulators? Virilio helps us talk about attention, war, and violence. But when it comes to what Virilio explains, I’m after something else.
Virilio claimed that we live in a structure that he called a “dromocracy.” In ancient Greek, we have dromo, to conduct; we have dromos, path. Virilo argued that life on a global level had shifted into a war of competing pathways. Higher and higher speeds of communication, of transit, of racing to some goal replaced any actual significance of meeting that goal.
“It is speed as the nature of dromological progress that ruins progress,” he wrote. “It is the permanence of the war of Time that creates total peace, the peace of exhaustion.” Which is to say: You don’t have time to measure where you’ve been or where you’re going if all you care about is getting somewhere first. That, for Virilio, is life after the World Wars. From governments to individuals, it is all one big race.
It’s not just noodling French theory. Virilio is trying to explain, though a new way of looking at social history, how capitalism fundamentally transformed itself in the move up and through the industrial revolution. He’s trying to describe how, at the end of the 20th century, things seemed to appear and disappear at maximum speed, how cultural objects appeared, became commodities, and disappeared before anyone had time to really grasp them. There was always a new engine on the horizon, but “it is often obsolete before being used,” surpassed by some even newer engine already in development.
In the dromocracy, things waste away before we can even get a grip on them.
Video games, and the culture surrounding them, came along at a time when this was really getting underway. The computer revolution didn’t slow things down. Instead, they accelerated everything. And, in fact, video games give us some ability to push Virilio a little bit further.
When he writes that the engine is often obsolete before it appears, he’s saying that a technical object can be exhausted in its promise. If my military theorizes a new type of missile, then your military is incentivized to create a response, perhaps a missile defense system, or maybe an even faster, meaner missile. Our countries pour millions of dollars into the programs. When the missile and its response are delivered, we are back to parity, the same equivalence of where we were before. This, for Virilio, is how everything works, from cupcakes to nuclear weapons: It is all a process of hurrying to stay in the same place, and in that race, no one pulls ahead. This is the peace of exhaustion.
And when you go looking for it, you can see the places were video game culture have accepted this as fact. E3 or Gamescom or any of the other major video game events are really just places where companies compete to stay in the same place in the minds of their audience. They release trailers and gameplay demos, sometimes one after another, at an unbelievable pace, simply to stay in the minds of their audiences.
And lets not forget the massive expenditures of time, labor, development money, advertising dollars, and sheer attention that go into games that are declared to be good or bad before they even exist.
In that culture of production, what Virilio would call a war, the fans get to scream at each other about what game is going to “win” E3. Or they can debate over whether Red Dead Redemption 2 or Battlefield V is going to be the “better” game of 2018. We can discuss, seriously, whether a lack of puddles demonstrates a “downgrade” of a video game. What unites these video game culture questions is that they all assume that we are living in a ruin made of things to come. The speed of releases; the speed at which we are meant to come to judgment; the speed at which we need to consume these games is hyper-fast. We need to assert that they are good or bad, worth our time or total wastes of it, six months before they even exist.
And lets not forget the massive expenditures of time, labor, development money, advertising dollars, and sheer attention that go into games that are declared to be good or bad before they even exist. Funding a race to stand still and to remain in the mind of a potential consumer audience. A constant and eternal war, a contestation in all domains, and for what?
It is an open question for Virilio. The cat is out of the bag, and we’re governed by speed and expediency, and we have to live in the ruins. But one always gets the sense that the causes are simply out of hand and our control. There’s no one at the wheel, just many people caught up in a web that drives them ever-forward.
Virilio wasn’t writing about video games, of course. He was writing about real war and how it grew, fungus-like, in the cracks and crevices of all culture. He was writing about how the technological drive for change and radical transformation made everything a field of contestation. Like a warped car frame after a crash, dromocracy shows through in every instance.
And as we spin on into the Fall, with its video game releases and Black Friday sales and fights over which console will dominate the holiday season, it’s hard not to think about Paul Virilio. When I get that new game delivered in the mail or during a Steam sale and I remain unchanged or unsurprised by what it gives me, Virilio is hovering there. Because it has been exhausted for me. That game and I, embroiled in the war, are dromological products. At least we have 2019’s new releases to look forward to.