Warcraft and Utopia

The theme of "imagining life after capitalism" is once again the topic of academic attention, renewed mostly through fresh interest in certain messianic or predictive claims about the transformation of the mode of production. Now, however, computers and the information economy play a central role in the debate.[1] The theme of utopia, in the work of Fredric Jameson for example, is closely tied to this question, utopia being a site in which possible non-capitalist scenarios are worked out, worked through, or otherwise proven not to work at all. Here, I will examine some of the problems and challenges for the task of imagining life after capitalism, then I will discuss two interesting areas -- networks and play -- that have historically represented threats to or departures from capitalism. Finally, I will describe how networks and play have in recent decades become entirely synonymous with the present mode of production and exchange.

Various leftist utopias come to mind when discussing life after capitalism. The more overtly political, predictive texts from Marx are conventionally read and contextualized in this manner, as a utopia for the "after." In Specters of Marx, Derrida refers to this as the messianic thread in Marxism, a fervent desire for what is to come. This reading posits Marxism as somewhat of a meteorological science (to use Toby Miller's expression) for the prediction of the inevitable. This first theory of utopia, of life after capitalism, pays chronological attention to the word "after." Of this first variety one has no doubt heard a great deal and witnessed a good deal less. There are promises made but forever deferred.

However, there is a second model of utopia that is less often identified: nostalgia as utopia. This utopia privileges life before capitalism, minimalism and disengagement from the world system. Thus, in the historical period in which the commodity is no longer primarily an object, but has become an image -- the so-called society of the spectacle that emerged in the middle twentieth-century -- one sees the emergence of minimalism as an aesthetic project. This project grew out of the ascetic principles and formal aspirations of modernism. The utopian longing for the "before" also characterizes romanticism. In Friedrich Schiller's letters, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, there is an interesting nesting of one utopian aspiration within another: a future state is proposed, which Schiller termed the Aesthetic State, yet this proposal is tightly encased and layered inside the rhetorical shell of romanticism. (Indeed, "before utopias" may be identified as the driving force behind classicism, or many varieties of conservatism.)

Schiller's "play-drive," the central philosophical term in his letters and around which his entire spiritual development of man revolves, is also the recipient of newfound attention in recent years. This attention may be fueled by the increasing prominence of the medium of the video game, which has renewed interest in theories of play and games. Let me now preview the question of play, and unpack a little of what I believe to be one of the most compelling, if not utopias, then certainly allegories of the present moment. This is the case of the online multiplayer game World of Warcraft launched in 2004. (The game recently surpassed five million players worldwide.) An argument can be made that all video games are, at a certain level, utopian projects, simply because all video games create worlds in which certain laws are simulated and certain other laws are no longer simulated. The freedom to selectively simulate, then, operates in a video game as the most important scaffolding for utopia. Further, multiplayer games instantiate (both materially and interpersonally) a utopian space in ways not seen in previous media, for the diegetic world itself is larger than the imaginative plane of any given player (who indeed may even be offline while others remain online). Groups, guilds, raids, and other in-game collaborations both ad hoc and otherwise, what philosophers of action call "shared cooperative activity," are often required for game-play. These social groups gesture toward a distinctly utopian possibility for social interaction, a shift analogous to Marx's theory of primitive accumulation and the institution of more collaborative labor practices, which themselves were the conditions of possibility for collective action. Like factories before them, multiplayer games require and support a whole variety of group-based play scenarios (I will address whether they are also labor scenarios below). This echoes Johan Huizinga's claim -- his 1938 book Homo Ludens is foundational for any critique of play -- that play necessarily promotes the formation of social groups. World of Warcraft evokes a pre-modern hodgepodge of technologies and narrative scenarios (given time, one might cognitively map the historical fantasy of the game's narrative -- trace when exactly the blunderbuss was invented, or the introduction of certain kinds of armor, for example, all the while knowing that such a pursuit could never be "fixed" or arrived at with any degree of precision), overtly participating in the "utopia for the before," imagining life before capitalism. However, the functionality of the game is pure software culture, suggesting that perhaps the more one tries to strip utopia of its machinic core, by cloaking it in any manner of pure fantasy or pre-modern worlds ("dungeons and dragons," "swords and sorcery," etc.), the more informatic and algorithmic it becomes, reverting to the software equivalent of twenty-sided dice. Indeed dice are repurposed in World of Warcraft: into the various logics of software code; random number generation; action statistics; and particularly in terms of how identity is defined as a set of mathematical variables such as stamina, agility, health, and so on.

There is a great work of popular culture commentary worth mentioning at this point, Jim Munroe's short video "My Trip to Liberty City." In this satirical clip the game Grand Theft Auto is presented in the genre-form of the amateur vacation video. Midway through the work, the voice-over narrator admits something profound, that the real reason why he loves "visiting" Liberty City, the city where Grand Theft Auto III transpires, is that there's no advertising. The game, despite being a hyper-mediated cultural artifact, produces an imaginary world where mediation itself is on vacation. This is in accordance with the understanding of minimalism as a utopian reaction to image-rich society.

A similar force is at play in World of Warcraft, and brings me to the first of two related claims: the game is a utopia for a world without signifiers; it is characterized by a minimalist desire. Ignoring the interface overlay for one moment, one notices that the game's diegetic world (the imaginary narrative space within which game-play transpires) has very few linguistic or symbolic signifiers; this is in sharp contrast to our offline world of brand logos, advertisements, linguistic signs, and so on. To be sure, the game is not free from signification. There exist guild insignias, visual placards for various vender's buildings, and indeed the entire three-dimensional model of the game is, at root, a form of digital signification. Yet inside the diegetic narrative, World of Warcraft projects a space of pure formal representation, cleansed of unnecessary symbolic or linguistic ornamentation. Brands and logos are gone, as are words and images. This is part of the fantasy of fantasy. "Ornaments cannot be invented," wrote Adorno on the Viennese modernist Adolf Loos. "In art the more that must be made, sought, invented, the more uncertain it becomes if it can be made or invented. Art that is radically and explicitly something made must ultimately confront its own feasibility."[2] This is essentially the conundrum of formalism in modernism: reducing art to pure form, and hence cleansing it of all invention or contingency, causes it to remerge in some sort of content-less but pure shape which itself nevertheless pops up anew as "style." Removing linguistic and symbolic signifiers from the diegetic space of World of Warcraft is an extension of this aesthetic project.

However, anyone who has played World of Warcraft knows that this is not a game free of signifiers or of iconography at any level, and neither is it free of symbolic or abstract representation. I noted above that this was the case for the diegetic space of the game; nevertheless, interfaces cannot and should not be ignored. Thus, while the diegetic world of the game aspires to be signifier-free (even prominent in-world linguistic signifiers such as player names or NPC quest markers are, I argue, non-diegetic), the rest of the interface is flush with these aesthetic forms.

Consequently, my second claim contradicts the first, but in a way that affirms the very internal tensions of utopian desire itself: the game performs a semiotic segregation whereby textual and iconographic signifiers are divorced from the diegetic world of the game, which itself is saved for so-called transparent representation. In this scenario, all symbolic and linguistic signs migrate into a purely functional layer and are removed from the diegetic layer. This is precisely how World of Warcraft functions. Playing the game one realizes that the vast majority of signification exists in the heads-up-display, the two dimensional gamic overlay which itself has a long history as an abstraction from the physical and embodied interfaces of military aviation. The signifier has been banished from diegetic or representational space, this is true, but the non-diegetic or functional sections of the game are constituted almost entirely by iconographic and textual signifiers. Thus, this minimalist utopia represents a segregation or separation effect, a desiring utopia where signification is understood purely as machinic functionality. For example, spell-casting and fighting in World of Warcraft are processes of algorithmic unfolding. Commands are issued by players and interpreted by the machine in series. "The Utopian text does not tell a story at all," wrote Jameson, "it describes a mechanism or even a kind of machine."[3] While this may seem to be an incredible claim -- utopia always describes a machine -- one need only to examine the game-play of World of Warcraft for an example of such a utopia. (And, as I mentioned above with reference to selective simulation, the reverse possibility must also be explored, that all video games, as machines, might be understood as experiments in utopia.)

Thus far, I have discussed two permutations of utopia, both of which gesture toward some sort of absence of capitalism. The first permutation is a post-capitalist utopia in the form of progressive political desires, while the second is a pre-capitalist utopia in the form of romanticism, classicism, or minimalism. Nevertheless, there is certainly a third option: the present as utopia. As life before capitalism poses just as much of a threat to capital, capitalism tends to foreclose the past as well as the future. It forecloses on both as possible options for utopian practice. In Laws, Plato states that in a utopian state there would be no laws at all. There would be no abstraction of sovereignty. In a utopian state there would be a one-to-one mapping between any instance, any infraction, any particular case and its adjudication. However, Plato admits that in absence of this perfection, actual states must tolerate laws. This acknowledgement of unachieved perfection is precisely what capitalism is unable to do, either epistemologically or even practically. It is a central prohibition of capitalism: never to think the present as second best. As Jameson wrote recently, it is "our imprisonment in a non-utopian present without historicity or futurity."[4] What capitalism teaches us is that the present moment is the best of all possible worlds, that stasis is utopia. In the Marxist tradition this is the notion that capitalism and history are essentially at odds, that history is implicitly a critique of capitalism, resulting in the left's call to "always historicize."

Keeping in mind the example of the utopian visual mode encased in a dystopian narrative of conflict discussed above, I will now examine a narrative of conflict that is encased in problems around knowledge and cultural imagination. This narrative is one of the most fascinating aphorisms of political philosophy in recent years. It reveals the intricate interplay between visions of life outside capitalism while simultaneously illuminating how threats to capitalism are put into discourse. In the quote below, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is responding to questions from the press in regards to the lack of evidence connecting Iraqi weapons of mass destruction with terrorists.

Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me ... Because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know.[5]

This passage can be understood in a variety of ways. First, it is possible that Rumsfeld is making an empirical claim about what is the case. In this sense, Rumsfeld may be lamenting the problem of verifiability: that it is very difficult to say with certainty that something has not happened. This is an ontological challenge, a problem of empirical verifiability in regards to one's knowledge of the world and the objects within it.

However, Rumsfeld's quote is also a claim about knowledge, and quite explicitly so. While he is making a claim that one can know, he is also saying that one can negate knowing: the unknown is something that can be circumnavigated. (This is formally analogous to paranoia. The paranoiac perceives the unknown in every miniscule detail of life. Every little thing is a clue into an intricate conspiracy against the paranoid individual.) However, Rumsfeld goes beyond this and says something much more profound, which is that the utter negation of knowledge is in fact always a double negation. One must negate knowledge twice. This is, using his terminology, the "unknown unknown." Consider imagination and the process of thinking: imagination is a cognitive, or knowledge-based process, that itself is oriented toward the creation of knowledge. It is a doubling from the get go. Thus, the absolute negation of imagination, of utopian thinking, also has to be a double negation. One cannot close the book on utopia. One must forget how to think, about utopia or anything else. Jameson makes a similar claim in The Seeds of Time when he states that it is easier to imagine the end of the earth and the end of nature than it is to imagine the ends of capitalism. For Jameson, the real problem is the crisis of imagination, not simply the crisis of the earth. Now instead of paranoia, one is in the grip of schizophrenia. (In computer science this is analogous to the difference between zero and null, zero is the known unknown while null is the unknown unknown. Null is the absence of a value, while zero is, in fact, a value, it refers to the number that comes below one and above negative one.) Rumsfeld is in fact saying the opposite of Jameson, or at least diverting from Jameson significantly, that it is indeed very hard to imagine and predict all possible methods for destroying the earth and nature. Indeed, Rumsfeld's own warcraft is to be an "imagineer"; his task is to imagine all possible destructions of the empire, all possible dystopias. This is why the unknown unknowns are key for Rumsfeld, but also why they are potentially very threatening. To recap, Rumsfeld's aphorism makes claims about: what is the case (the verifiability challenge); what one can know and what one cannot know; and how it is possible not to know what one does not know (a riff on the Socratic conceit).

To expound upon the third claim one must examine the status of dystopia and its location in current society. Again we return to Jameson: "dystopia is generally a narrative, which happens to a specific subject or character, whereas the Utopia text is mostly non-narrative and, I would like to say, somehow without a subject-position."[6] In Rumsfeld's consideration, the unknown unknowns, the moment when knowledge is negated twice, are always already a narrative for the annihilation of the state. The point here is that the double negation of knowledge, the unknown unknowns, are for Rumsfeld never utopian, but instead, consigned in advance to the work of dystopia. Utopia is understood as a deficiency in one's ability to imagine annihilation, not a deficiency in one's ability to imagine liberation or anything else more pleasant. Warcraft looks tame when compared to Rumsfeld. Thus it is clear that while Rumsfeld and Jameson are engaging similar issues, they are on opposite imaginative planes. In light of September 11, 2001, Rumsfeld's diagnosis must be understood as an illumination of a crisis of imagination: Americans were unable to imagine that terrorists would use planes as missiles. Following this logic, if American officials had been able to imagine that terrorists would use planes as missiles, they would logically have been able to foreclose on that possible future. (This is precisely the same claim that was made many years ago about Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entrance into World War II: the crisis of Pearl Harbor was that American military leadership could not imagine that kamikaze pilots could threaten the fleet.) The aphorism from Rumsfeld thus aptly fits into the third mode of utopian thinking, mentioned above, which is the utopia of the present: the yearning for the present, or the ongoing project of the maintenance and sustenance of the present as the best possible scenario. Thus the unknown unknown is a threat first and foremost because it is a deviation from the maintenance of the present, and therefore quite difficult to bring into imagination as utopia or any another mode of thought (because it is a double negation of thought itself), but second, and this is the contradiction, the very process of attempting to imagine the unknown unknown drags into the light its opposite, the end of imagination itself and the end of humanity in the annihilation of Ground Zero. So the moment when Rumsfeld triumphs by cracking through the barrier of the unknown unknown is the same moment when the state cracks and crumbles. Or, when Rumsfeld succeeds, he fails.

The previous section concerns communicating the threat to capitalism, and how various kinds of threats are put into discourse, or indeed are prohibited from being put into discourse. Let me return to the question of networks and play, mentioned above in the context of World of Warcraft. Historically, networks and play have represented either a departure from or a direct threat to capitalism. Nevertheless, are networks not foundational to market circulation and hence the very fabric of capitalistic exchange? Yes, certainly. Yet, at the same time, threats to capital are also often understood and articulated as networks. This is particularly true of the specific graph form known as the distributed network, which is characterized by horizontality, a rhizomatic structure, and bi-directional links (called "edges" in graph theory). Hakim Bey's notion of the nomadic fits in here, as does Deleuze and Guattari's rhizome; also relevant are the "grass-roots" movements (to use a synonym term for the rhizome) or the new social movements of the 1960s and '70s (in addition to the so-called anti-globalization movements). These are all specifically defined as networks. But, at the same time, Al-Qaeda, and any number of terrorist groups, are also often defined as networks. On closer examination of this protagonist/antagonist scenario, it becomes clear that the opposition to the network is never a network; it is always a center, a power center, whether it is the World Trade Center, or America itself as a kind of hub or authority point for a global empire. In short, the historical tendency is that networks exist in opposition to centers and that networks are the unknown unknown of capitalism.

In recent decades, this has all changed. In recent decades the powers-that-be have become conscious of the above. Today's revolution in military affairs confirms this, as does the retreat from Keynesian economics of the 1970s and the evolution into a post-Fordist economic model after that decade's energy crisis. The powers-that-be have developed a new awareness and are adopting flexible, network structures at very core levels. They are adopting flexible network structures not as an apology or concession, not as a sacrifice, but as essential techniques for the very processes of sovereignty, control, and organization. In other words, distributed networks have ceased being a threat to control and have become the model for control. What was once the problem is now the solution. Today, this is one of the core challenges for imagining a life after capitalism: one can no longer rely on networks as a site for imaginative desire.

The second example is the question of play as an unknown unknown. Play conventionally operates in a very unique and interesting position in the history of western thought: play is an irreducible, heterogeneous, unquantifiable, absolutely qualitative human endeavor. Conventionally speaking, play is entirely divorced from any kind of productive activity. Play is defined as a negative force that is often a direct threat to production. Play is leisure; play is the inversion of production. Play is an uncapitalizable segment of time. One may return to Friedrich Schiller on the play-drive: the play-drive is a pure moment, and it is a very necessary moment, Schiller would claim, for man's development, but one that is entirely outside the formal, or the abstract, or all the kinds of human drives that lead to the creation of society as a whole. Huizinga, the twentieth-century intellectual historian and critic, makes a similar claim. For Huizinga, play is entirely central to both human action and the creation of culture: however, he is also unwavering in his claim that play is totally outside the base unfolding of production. Huizinga writes that play is external to any kind of material gain (if material gain exists, one no longer is dealing with "play" but instead its double, sport). For Derrida, who in most regards could not be more different from Huizinga, play is one of the few philosophical concepts that emerges mostly unscathed. This is rare in the work of Derrida, particularly when the philosophical concept is not a Derridean neologism. Surprisingly, for Derrida play remains an absolutely utopian and positive concept.

But today it would be entirely naïve to believe that play retains its anti-capitalist or anti-work status. One finds traces of this in Adorno in the Aesthetic Theory where he dispenses with Huizinga and Schiller alike. Adorno claims that Schiller's notion of play is nostalgic, in that it is entirely removed from the circuit of production and capital. "Playful forms are without exception forms of repetition,"[7] is Adorno's lament. (This is not such a radical claim, as many theorists of play agree that repetition is an essential aspect of it. Indeed, for Freud, play is articulated through repetitious activity. In the "fort/da" game, which is an act of play, the game is "constantly repeated" by the child who "never cried when his mother left him for a few hours."[8] For Freud, neurosis is only ever experienced as a repetition. The common interpretation of the "fort/da" game is that it is a game of presence and absence, essentially a game of peek-a-boo. However, in Lacan, one sees a slightly different reading of the Freudian scene: the game is not about the cotton-reel, it is about what Lacan calls the "ditch" or the gap between the reel and the child. Lacan argues that "the game of the cotton-reel is the subject's answer to what the mother's absence has created on the frontier of his domain -- the edge of his cradle -- namely, a ditch, around which one can only play at jumping."[9] Lacan claims, contrary to Freud, that it is not the mother who is miniaturized in the cotton-reel, but that a part of the child is detached from himself [detached in the form of the petit a] and miniaturized there. For Lacan, the game is not about the return of the mother but is simply about repetition and alternation; the game "is a here or there, and [its] aim, in its alternation, is simply that of being the fort of a da, and the da of a fort."[10] So, fort/da is not only a game of peek-a-boo, but also a game of fish. The string is the thing, not the cotton-reel it retrieves. If fort/da were simply about appearance and disappearance (or even Lacanian subject formation), there would be no string, just as the game of peek-a-boo has no string. But the string exists. In short, fort/da is a kind of network game, the string being a link in a miniature network. The string is the edge and the cotton-reel is a node. In this sense, the game of fort/da is a game of connectivity. The string is connectivity, and the story it tells is how connectivity trumps presence. It is a relational game, in which the creation of links -- sending and pulling, linking and retrieving -- is paramount. A thoroughly modern youngster, the child playing the fort/da game is a spinner of mesh-works, a weaver of webs.)

Adorno argues that play activities are forms of repetition, and on this many agree, but he goes further to assert that "in art, play is from the outset disciplinary [and] art allies itself with unfreedom in the specific character of play."[11] For Adorno, play has been co-opted by the routine of modern life. "The element of repetition in play is the afterimage of unfree labor, just as sports -- the dominant extra-aesthetic form of play -- is reminiscent of practical activities and continually fulfills the function of habituating people to the demands of praxis, above all by the reactive transformation or physical displeasure into secondary pleasure, without their noticing that the contraband of praxis has slipped into it."[12] Thus, in the work of Adorno, play is not a vacation from the pressures of production, but rather the form-of-appearance ("afterimage") of that mode itself, with repetition, displeasure, and competitive interaction being but symptoms for deeper social processes. Recently, many writers have written on how play and creativity have moved from the periphery or the outside of capitalism (if it was ever there to begin with) to the very center of productive activities. For example, see Alan Liu's recent book The Laws of Cool, which examines the commodification of immaterial labor, or Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's work on immaterial labor (the "labor of Dionysus," as their first full length collaboration is titled, concisely evokes the relationship between labor and play). In other words, the trend today should be not toward the further development of a labor theory of value, but the formulation of a play theory of value. As someone once told me: in contemporary life the tool used for labor, the computer, is exactly the same tool that is used for leisure. I'm not sure this has ever been the case before.

After trying to understand how to imagine a life after capitalism, and seeing how this is both done and undone in everything from World of Warcraft to the stratagems of Donald Rumsfeld, what one sees is how two of the hitherto most useful tropes for communicating a life after or outside capitalism -- networks and play -- are slowly shifting from what Rumsfeld calls the unknown unknowns, which is what they were fifty or a hundred years ago, to the known unknowns, and perhaps simply to the known. Is World of Warcraft labor or play? I'm not entirely sure. What is clear is that the possibility of life after capitalism is often articulated today through a utilization of the very essence of capitalism. Play is work and networks are sovereigns. And finally that virtual worlds are always in some basic way the expression of utopian desire, and in doing so they present the very impossibility of imagining utopia; this is not simply a knee-jerk ontological paradox, that code-utopias, being immaterial, formal, and virtual, are by definition not "real," but that the very act of creating an immaterial utopian space at the same time inscribes a whole vocabulary of algorithmic coding into the plane of imagination that thereby undoes the play of utopia in the first place. The key is not to morn this transformation, but to examine cultural and media forms themselves and through them (borrowing a line from Jameson) to pierce through the representation of social life both how it is lived now and we feel in our bones it ought rather to be lived.


[1] An early draft of this essay was delivered at the "Communicating a Life After Capitalism" panel during the May 2005 International Communications Association conference in New York. A conference titled "Life After Capitalism" was held at the CUNY Grad Center in August 2004.

[2] Theodor Adorno. Aesthetic Theory, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997. p. 26.

[3] Fredric Jameson. The Seeds of Time, New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. p. 56.

[4] Fredric Jameson. "Politics of Utopia," New Left Review 25, January/February 2004: 35-54. p. 46.

[5] Donald Rumsfeld, "DoD News Briefing -- Secretary Rumsfeld and Gen. Myers," United States Department of Defense news transcript, February 12, 2003. http://www.defense.gov/transcripts/2002/t02122002_t212sdv2.html (accessed June 7, 2005).

[6] Jameson. The Seeds of Time, p. 55-56.

[7] Adorno. Aesthetic Theory, p. 317.

[8] Sigmund Freud. Beyond the Pleasure Principle, New York: Norton, 1961. p. 13.

[9] Jacques Lacan. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, New York: Norton, 1998. p. 62.

[10] Ibid. pp. 62-63.

[11] Adorno. Aesthetic Theory, p. 317.

[12] Ibid. p. 318.

Alexander R. Galloway teaches media at New York University and is founder of the Radical Software Group.