So, a disclaimer: This is not a lesson plan, not precisely. I did in fact teach Harun Farocki’s Parallels series for the final class session for my SAIC writing seminar “Moving Images and Arguments.” But since it was the final class, and since we were in a phase of the course in which my top priority was guiding students during revisions of their final essays, our discussion of the videos wasn’t nearly as detailed and rich as what you see reflected here.
Really, these are notes toward a future lesson, delivered under ideal circumstances. Although it was outside of the scope of my “Moving Images and Arguments” course, what I am most interested in about the Parallels videos are the connections Farocki draws between the videogames’ imperfect simulations of reality and the problem of philosophical skepticism. Although present to some extent in Parallel I (2012), the specter of skepticism is most pronounced in Parallel II (2014) and Parallel III (2014). I was deep in the midst of writing my dissertation in 2014, and didn’t end up seeing II, III, and IV until 2016. This was a shame, because problems of skepticism actually play a large role in the first chapter of my dissertation, and it turns out that I missed the chance to incorporate an analysis of these videos into that discussion. Parallel II and Parallel III form the main inspiration for this post, as a way of making up for that lost opportunity.
It’s a small world after all
Not all videogame worlds are small. Elite: Dangerous (Frontier Developments, 2014) places its players in a 1:1 scale model of the entire Milky Way galaxy. And 2016’s biggest (entirely foreseeable) disappointment, No Man’s Sky (Hello Games), plunks players down in a universe containing 18 quintrillion planets.
But, for most of their history, videogame worlds have been small. And it’s important to acknowledge that this very smallness has often been recognized as an asset, rather than a liability. In a quote that I’ll never get tired of mulling over, “David,” one of Sherry Turkle’s interviewees in The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit, has this to say about a videogame’s world: “It is a small one, maybe not a very important world, but you get to know it all the way.”[i] Elsewhere, David explains more what the draw of this smallness is:
There’s no external confusion, there’s no conflicting goals, there’s none of the complexities that the rest of the world is filled with. It’s so simple. You either get through this little maze so that the creature doesn’t swallow you up or you don’t.[ii]
Twenty years later, games and education researcher James Paul Gee would again circle back to this issue of games’ smallness, and how that reduces our confusion while playing them. Gee dwells upon how games present us with a match between our goals and our skills:
When we do sense such a match between our way of seeing the world, at a particular time and place, and our action goals, and have the skills to carry these actions out, then we fell great power and satisfaction. Things click, the world looks like it was made for us. Unfortunately, this happens, for many people, more often in video games than it does in real life.[iii]
Gee here, I think, directs us to the fundamental nub of videogame’s psychological draw over us (up to and including the possibility of compulsive gaming). We like the world to make sense. And, for most of us, it doesn’t, an alarming percentage of the time. The world is complex and messy, and our position in it is all-too-frequently precarious. Many of us in 2016, whether we are knowledge workers or factory workers, are asking ourselves if our skills will have any place in the world’s economic future. And this is scary. Philosophers from Martin Heidegger to Jonathan Lear have pointed out that there are few things as existentially terrifying and ethically challenging as world death, the possibility that every task you orient yourself toward might someday crumble into insignificance or obsolescence.
Games stave off this possibility. They give us small worlds—”microworlds,” to use David Sudnow’s term—the rules of which are understandable, inviolable, and immutable. They give us a task that we can accomplish, and ask us to accomplish it. I would posit that, on a more fundamental level than their well-chronicled Skinner box techniques, our attraction to games comes from offering us an opportunity to know our way around things, and to be of use (to borrow the title of a Smog song). Usually, this takes the form of a power fantasy, in which we save the girl, or save the world. But it doesn’t necessarily have to. Sometimes, as “David” points out, it’s enough to reach the center of the maze.
Of course, in their smallness, the worlds of videogames are also strange and imperfect. They are, unavoidably, abstractions. Although, as Ian Bogost’s proceduralist position lays out, games gain their rhetorical power by encouraging us to understand their processes as tiny models of larger real-world processes—that is, as simulations—the fact remains that there is inevitably a gap between our everyday world and the small world of games. At a certain level, the similarities break down, and reveal uncanny edges. And of course we should not be surprised that it is exactly these imperfections that draw the attention of Farocki, whose work for decades has focused on the vast and sometimes pernicious effects the logic of simulation has upon our experience and understanding of the world. When the narrator of Parallel I describes the view from under the surface of a game’s water as “reminiscent of the child who cuts open a doll to probe the mystery of representation,” she might as well be describing Farocki’s entire career.
A moving image of skepticism
“Does the world exist if I’m not watching it?,” the narrator intones in Parallel II. “A child’s viewpoint, while taking long rides by train, or car: everything that passes by has been put there only for me, appearing out of the emptiness, and then disappearing again into the emptiness.”
Has there ever been a better, more succinct and elemental description of the inspiration of philosophical skepticism?
Hold on to that in your mind, as I take a moment to indulge in a few quotes from the philosopher of art Mikel Dufrenne. First up:
[O]rdinary perception … reveals a world—a world which always lies at the horizon of the object which the subject utilizes and explores. All consciousness is consciousness of a world from the instant it is consciousness of an object. In other words, there is no relation to an object which is not also a relation to a world. This is why all perception is simultaneously imagination.[iv]
The translation here is a bit dicey, but what I take Dufrenne to mean here is that our perception is never just perception: it is thoroughly shot through with both memory and anticipation, as we consider what came before and imagine what might come ahead. Dufrenne’s invocation of the horizon here, especially, brings to mind similar phenomenological analyses offered by Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jan Patočka. Dufrenne continues, in a quote that brings us into tantalizing proximity to the quote from Parallel II‘s narration:
When we take a train, the train is perceived as what takes us toward our destination. Its world is the space it must cross-a space which we are invited to anticipate by the presence of the train.[v]
What is fascinating about this quote is the way in which Dufrenne takes the logic of Farocki’s description of a childhood train ride, and turns it on its head. Farocki’s story is all about the untrustworthiness of the horizon: the possibility that the horizon might hide some sort of Descartes-style “evil demon” that is constructing everything as we travel along (and, presumably, constructing it only as far as they can see, as a sort of moving bubble of illusion, suspended in nothingness). Dufrenne’s story, by contrast, is all about how, in its elemental distilling of our faculties of anticipation, the train ride presents a model for thinking about how the horizon can reinforce our sense of being-in-the world.
Now, philosophically, I find Dufrenne’s point to be more persuasive than the child’s logic that Farocki sets out. But, the fact stands large: When we discuss videogames, the child’s logic is entirely correct. Farocki was especially prudent to place this bit of narration over footage of the procedurally-generated landscapes of Minecraft (Mojang, 2012). Unlike games in which the digital landscape is designed by human hands before the player romps around in it, Minecraft, as I put it in my dissertation, “offers up a wilderness so pristine that it literally did not exist until moments ago, when it was generated just beyond the horizon of a player’s view in anticipation of their arrival.”[vi]
Stanley Cavell characterizes film as “a moving image of skepticism,” given that “it is a fact that here are normal senses are satisfied of reality while reality does not exist.”[vii] Couldn’t it be said that videogames present an even more potent illustration of skepticism? After all, they present their players with an opportunity to actually walk abound in a Truman Show-style universe, populated by paper-thin sets and bystanders whose behavior is on a simple loop, propped up to present the momentary illusion of a populated world that dissolves upon the most meager of inspections.
In my own work on the subject, I am largely interested in how game worlds cultivate their own internal resistance to skepticism, finding ways to enrapture players even as we know very well that these are mere simulated spaces. But throughout his career, Farocki has been a demystifier and disenchanter. He is not interested in marveling at games’ tricks so much as he is in dismantling them, laying them bare, and asking what our susceptibility about them tells us about technology, human psychology, and art history.
To be clear, there is nothing particularly radical about Farocki’s interventions. This sort of “cutting open of the doll” is something that is routinely carried out by players themselves. As game designer Adrian Chmielarz points out (at least in part in frustration), this tendency toward demystification is prevalent within the gaming community, as players find new and novel ways to break games for their own amusement. Following Neil Harris, we could say that the operational aesthetic is alive and well within the gaming community.
But enough about the culture that Farocki is brushing up against. Let’s dive in deep and dirty into the particular currents of skepticism his videos pull us into.
Out of sight, out of computation
Few aspects of cinema offer as much opportunity for epistemological conundrums as the matter of offscreen space. One can use offscreen space as an opportunity for glib commentary on films’ fictional status, as Noël Carroll does when he asks, “What’s next to the land of Oz? The MGM commissary.”[viii] But one can also treat it more exhaustively and carefully, as Noël Burch does in his essay “Nana, or the Two Kinds of Space.”
Burch defines six spatial categories of offscreen space in cinema: the space outside of each of the cinematic frame’s four sides, plus the space behind the camera and the space behind an occluding object (including, in a resonance with Dufrenne, the horizon, which he names as the ultimate occluder of our visual experience).[ix] Beyond this spatial categorization, though, Burch also offers up temporal and epistemological categories. Imaginary offscreen space is the space that the viewer never, at any point in the film, sees. Concrete offscreen space, by contrast, is space that is seen at some point in the film, but not in the specific moment isolated. Here’s the thing, though: the designation of “concrete” can only be determined by looking at the film holistically. While watching a film, our first experience of any slice of offscreen space will always be predictive and imaginary. And perhaps it will stay on that level. However, if the camera pans over, or tilts up, or cuts away, that previously imaginary space can retrospectively become concrete. The matter of offscreen space being “concrete,” then, is always bound up in a dialogue between perception, memory, and prediction.[x] (Sound familiar? Again, we are in territory mapped by Dufrenne.)
If we attempt to apply this mapping of offscreen space to videogames, some insights into how these two moving image media comparatively handle space emerge. For instance, we can compare Burch’s six spatial categories to the different types of culling that game engines do. “Culling” is a term for modern 3D graphics engines’ ability to completely disregard polygons that aren’t currently visible onscreen, since any attempt to account for them would just needlessly take up processing power. Frustum culling is the term used for the culling of polygons outside the frame of game’s virtual camera, and maps onto Burch’s four “edge-of-frame” categories of offscreen space, plus his “behind the camera” category. Backface culling and occlusion culling, meanwhile, map onto Burch’s “behind an object” category. (Occlusion culling names engines’ ability to disregard polygons hidden by objects in front of them, whereas backface culling means that only the side of an object facing the camera will be accounted for.)
What about Bürch’s distinction between imaginary and concrete offscreen space? We could adapt those, as well. For the purposes of this analogy, we could say that any polygons that are culled form a game’s concrete offscreen space. After all, the reason that they need to be culled during graphical rendering in the first place is that they do, in fact, exist in the game’s data somewhere. They just aren’t being drawn on the screen at the moment.
By contrast, a game’s imaginary offscreen space consists of those areas that are never created in the first place, because there’s never any opportunity for the player to see them at all. Behind walls without doors, and beyond mountains that cannot be climbed, there lies an endless expanse of empty space, populated by things that only ever exist in players’ imaginations. Contra Alexander Galloway, space in a videogame is not “exhaustively explorable.”[xi] It is more explorable than space in cinema, to be sure, but there are always going to be areas outside of the playable area, which most often house secret pockets of nothingness.
There is, however, a very real difference between imaginary and concrete offscreen space in cinema versus videogames. It has to do with space and time. In cinema, the determination that offscreen space has been concrete can only ever be made temporally. We must watch the film in its entire running time, cataloguing which anticipatory invocations of offscreen space were later concretized. In videogames, by contrast, we can make this distinction spatially. Usually, this is done through the use of a no-clip mode, a debugging tool that allows the game’s camera to unfix itself from any simulation of a grounded human, unaffected by either gravity or the solidness of the rendered surroundings. Once in a mode such as this, the distinction between the concretely modeled and merely imagined becomes clear, as we probe the hollowness of the doll’s head.
Farocki is clearly fascinated with no-clip and other debug modes, turning to them frequently throughout the Parallels series to chart the thin lines between games’ concrete space and the startling void that populates its always-offscreen chunks.
Farocki isn’t just interested in showing us what lies in the forbidden parts of videogame space, however. In Parallel II, in particular, he also probes the lengths game designers will go to prevent players from normally getting to this forbidden space, which is supposed to remain forever offscreen. This includes water that will instantly drown the player upon wading into it, and chest-high concrete barriers that are never surmountable nor destructible, no matter how many cars a player requisitions and crashes into them.
Unlike cinema, in which what’s offscreen is simply offscreen, videogames need to take great pains to make sure their players never see the unseeable.
Return to skepticism
In his consideration of cinema, Cavell ultimately posits that cinema helps us see skepticism’s tendencies toward farcical conclusions, and sees it as a ally in his philosophical project against “resisting the pressure of reality.”[xii] If games are an even more potent moving image of skepticism than cinema is, does that mean that they can be an even more potent tool when it comes to avoiding its excesses?
I don’t feel like the Parallels series presents a coherent case for this. Moreover, I suspect that games might actually increase the lure of skepticism. It is a provocative experience to wander around a space that has been constructed just for you, to know very well that its polygons blink out of existent the moment you turn your virtual head, and yet still be swept up in the illusion of spacial coherence.
As YouTube game commentator Matthew Matosis astutely puts it, “the more you learn about games’ development, the more you see how they’re just a massive bundle of cheats precariously cobbled together.” And yet, after listing off many of these cheats , Matosis surmises that, ultimately, “this makes no difference to us, because that’s the way we see the world everyday.”[xiii] Indeed, it is—unsettlingly so. Although I remain a realist, I’m happy to allow the Parallels series serve as an opportunity for students to fly off on some Cartesian meditations.[xiii]
I owe tremendous thanks to Mikki Kressbach, and additional thanks to Jordan Schonig, for providing the original opportunity for me to see these videos.
[i]. Turkle, Sherry. The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984. Pg 186.
[ii]. Ibid, pg 86.
[iii]. Gee, James Paul. Why Video Games Are Good for Your Soul: Pleasure and Learning. Melbourne: Common Ground, 2005. Pg 56.
[iv]. Dufrenne, Mikel. The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience. 1953. Translated by Edward S. Casey, Albert A. Anderson, Willis Domingo, and Leon Jacobson. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1973. Pg 541.
[v]. Ibid, pp 541–542.
[vi]. Jones, Ian Bryce. “Enough of a World: A Phenomenology of Videogames Weltlichkeit.” PhD thesis, University of Chicago, 2015. Pg 127. This moment in Parallel II actually combines themes from the first two chapters of my dissertation: my second chapter considers Minecraft, whereas my first chapter looks at, in part, what videogame train rides (!) can tell us about skepticism. For a bit more on the historical importance train rides have had in videogame world-building, see this lesson plan here.
[vii]. Cavell, Stanley. “More of The World Viewed.” In The World Viewed: Enlarged Edition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979. Pp 188–189.
[viii]. Carroll, Noël. “Concerning Uniqueness Claims for Photographic and Cinematographic Representation. In Theorizing the Moving Image. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Pg 45.
[ix]. Burch, Noël. “Nana, or the Two Kinds of Space.” in Theory of Film Practice. Translated by Helen R. Lane. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981. Pg 17.
[x]. Ibid, pp 21–23.
[xi]. Galloway, Alexander R. Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. Pg 64.
[xii]. Cavell, “More of The World Viewed,” pg 165.
[xiiii]. Hmm, maybe I should construct a philosophy of videogames class where I pair the Parallels series with René “evil Demon” Descartes, and No Man’s Sky with Blaise “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread” Pascal.