zealots of ontographic metagaming (zomg)

I scribbled this down one morning a few years ago following some thoughts which had been buzzing around my head for a few months. I then put it up on my now superseded zealots of ontographic metagaming site – and while I’m still yet to do anything substantial with the idea, the present sketch has prompted a couple of interested and interesting responses, so I’m putting it up here too.

On the Zealots of Ontographic Metagaming[: a Speculative Poetics]

Once I finally get around to writing it, this article will introduce ontographic metagaming as a philosophical, ludological and poetic practice, and/or theory of poetics. Its opening section will consider three works, all set in the game-world of Grand Theft Auto V: GoldVision’s GTA Pacifist, Michael Crowe’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in GTA Online, and the author’s own Rock, Star, North. It will show how each of these works presents a subversive or countercultural response to the game-world insofar as they renounce the express objectives of the game with their own ontographic (literally, ‘writing-being’) methods/objectives and, moreover, that these methods/objectives are drawn from philosophical, religious/spiritual and literary models, whether GoldVision’s Buddhist and Daoist beatitude, Crowe’s Oulipian observation or my own romantic/postromantic ‘quest’. In so doing, it will propose each as examples of ontographic metagames: practices of writing/making/being which take game-worlds as their ground and the prospect of ontological reorientation as their figure. It proposes the term ‘pursuit’ as fittingly capturing these dimensions, with pursuit as play (activity, pastime) and pursuit as search (in pursuit of). Elaborating on this definition – and noting a shared tonal pose in each of these works, pitched somewhere between irony and sincerity – it goes on to make a final claim in preparation for the theoretical exposition to follow: namely, that this tension speaks of one fundamental to the ontographic metagaming enterprise: between the sublime and the ridiculous, solemnity and silliness, faith and doubt. At some point this section will also suggest four aspects of contemporary life to which ontographic metagaming constitutes a necessary and valuable response: a) the ascendancy of videogames as the defining artform of the 21st century; b) the ‘speculative turn’ in philosophy, with the ludic emphases of ontographic metagaming an alternative to the centripetal poetics of the ‘linguistic turn’; c) environmental apocalypse and contemporary ecopoetry and the consequent ramifications of real-trapped ‘no exit’ thinking; d) the gamification of social life and concomitant instrumentalisation of ‘play’ in the service of surveillance capitalism.

Next the article will develop its terminology. It will consider ‘ontographic’ with reference to Ian Bogost’s ‘ontography’ in Alien Phenomenology: What It’s Like to Be a Thing, celebrating Bogost’s adoption of the term but proposing a broader application against Bogost’s narrow – or rather, ‘flat’ – focus. In the process it will make some claims about the unexamined poetics at work in Bogost’s philosophy, arguing that contemporary philosophy of the ‘speculative turn’ can only thrive if it takes poetics seriously as a discipline – and suggesting, furthermore, that the poetics of ontographic metagaming in particular has much to contribute in this regard. (Certainly there are considerable shortcomings with OOO as applied to lit crit so far – only Morton a notable exception, and he becomes less OOO insofar as he excepts it.) It then moves on to consider ‘metagaming’, with reference to Patrick LeMieux and Stephanie Boluk’s Metagaming: Playing, Competing, Spectating, Cheating, Trading, Making, and Breaking Videogames, again asserting the value of their research – not least the concept of the ‘messy circle’ contra John Huizinga’s famous ‘magic circle’ – but again proposing a different tack with regards the prefix ‘meta-’: to construe it not (or rather not only) in sociological terms but also in transcendental terms: not outside the game, but ‘beyond’ it. (It will be necessary here to iron out the apparent contradiction between the ‘realist’ philosophy of Bogost and the ‘idealist’ implications of transcendence – which is easy enough to do when one considers the essential tensive/oscillatory quality of ontographic metagaming.) The section will then further discuss the implications of the magic/messy circle split, linking it with theories of ontology and poetics such as those of Friedrich Schiller to reveal an analogy between the ‘two circles’ of videogame theory and the ‘pursuit’ of much poetic mysticism – namely, the desire for an ‘absolute’ sign, an essential correspondence between word and thing. That is, as poets have desired this ‘poetic impossible’, so ontographic metagaming teaches us to think of every game as the desire for its circle to be magic even as we become reconciled to its messiness – in other words, to wish for the sublime but to know oneself ridiculous. Finally, it will draw on Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur to show how this reconciliation is itself another circle – the hermeneutic – a practice of doing/making/gaming/being which accepts neither magic nor mess as given, and whose role in the pursuit is to mediate between these magic/messy poles.

The next section elaborates on these ideas with reference to two key texts: Mackenzie Wark’s Gamer Theory and Tim Leary’s The Psychedelic Experience. From the former it takes Wark’s ontological fervour for reading the ‘game’ rather than ‘gamespace’, as a way to better know both and to subvert the latter. It draws an analogy too between Wark’s game/gamespace distinction and that presented in Leary, between ‘game-reality’ and the ‘bardos’ of hallucinogenic enlightenment. It suggests we understand social media (to name only the most obvious example of our desperate gamified late capitalist existences) as a perfect example of Wark’s gamespace – a game that fools us all into thinking it is real life – or, to cast it in Leary’s terms, a ‘narcotic’ ‘game-reality’ (see Twitter – a nefarious compound of game, drug and poem that is only dangerous because of how effectively it convinces us it is none of these things in our playing/(ab)using/reading of it). It concedes that contemporary videogames – and especially triple-A titles such as GTA – are another manifestation of this game-reality. But it proposes that the awe (referring back to Bogost’s thoughts on ‘wonder’) of virtual worlds presents an ‘hallucinogenic alternative’, deploying the glitch as a metaphor for the ‘dropping of the tab’, a gateway to spiritual enrichment(/enhancement?). Following on from this, it further proposes that on a practical level it is useful to think ontographic metagaming as a composite of set and setting a la Leary’s acid trip: set, a philosophical or poetic mindset; setting, the game-world in question, the arrangement of the pursuit.

The next section proposes some literary precedents that are further useful for thinking ontographic metagaming, all drawn – following my own research interests – from modern and contemporary Scottish literature. Most important are Nan Shepherd, whose The Living Mountain prefigures the ‘meta’ of ontographic metagaming in teaching us to think ‘into’ rather than ‘up’, and Ian Hamilton Finlay, whose garden Little Sparta presents a kind of virtual world, the navigation of which can teach us much about poetically approaching virtual worlds in the digital. Also significant are Alexander Trocchi, whose notion of ‘homo ludens’ in Cain’s Book is instructive for considering play as a creative state, Veronica Forrest-Thomson, whose notion of ‘poetic artifice’ offers guidance for thinking of the formal interplay of magic and messy circles, and Thomas A Clark, whose poem ‘In Praise of Walking’ offers a postromantic paradigm of perambulation ripe for subversion in the virtual.

Finally, the article returns to the fundamental tension of ontographic metagaming, and questions sincerely if it can be of any value – or indeed if it matters if it is of any value or not. Drawing on Alenda Y Chang’s Playing Nature: The Virtual Ecology of Game Environments and Timothy Morton’s Dark Ecology it suggests that the hallucinogenic alternative of ontographic metagaming can contribute to ecological awareness, as it meanwhile reserves most of its ire for the gamification of life, with the practice of ontographic metagaming at least offering respite through its denial of the very form of ‘gamespace/narcotic reality’ for ‘game'(pursuit). This game, then, is ‘zomg’, and so finally it describes the formation of the zealots of ontographic metagaming (zomg) – an imaginary religious organisation dedicated to the poetic pursuit of virtual sublimes – as the hyperbolic and parodic codification of ontographic metagaming, a secular spiritualist’s ‘pataphysical response to a gamified world in which surveillance capitalists are playing us all.

zomg is a speculative poetics – more fictively than philosophically speculative, but a bit of both. Which is to say it is a theoretical fiction. Apropos, the question always comes back to: a sublime fiction that reveals a significant, non-discursive truth? or a ridiculous fiction that renders pitiful and leaves us in a place even further back than we’d started? Stay tuned to find out.





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