“Any future we choose, or fall ass-backwards into for that matter, will have dangers. The greatest of these will always be those who will actively choose no future… Ancient supernatural memes will continue to haunt our species from shallow superstitious graves.”‒Matt Eklund1
Grasping my company’s employee, I remove them from their position researching women’s health in the developing world. I place their body into my bank, then enact a process of liquefaction, and their congealed labor power flows upward as pure capital, taking my debt with it. Now undifferentiated from the other agents, they ready themselves for installation elsewhere, perhaps in the cloud, at NASA, or subcontracting with the Chinese government.
I have just taken a single “fundraising” action in Matt Eklund’s Pax Transhumanity: Humankind’s Next Renaissance (“Transhumanity,” 2019). The latest board game in the Pax series, Transhumanity sees players enacting the role of a “startup entrepreneur in the not-too-distant future”2 endeavoring to ensure that their particular vision for humanity’s future is the dominant one. To accomplish this, players maneuver their “agents”––small wooden cubes––through the game’s various arenas of play, continually transforming and restructuring them according to the logics and demands of the market.
In the opening example, I have performed an act of fundraising, “divesting” an employed agent in order to transfigure them into capital. Fundraising is both the most common and most crucial, even emblematic, action that a player performs over the course of the game. It also illustrates how algorithmic logics of control are recapitulated in Transhumanity’s gameplay. Although such logics are typically associated with videogames, notably in the work of Alexander Galloway,3 board games offer a uniquely productive view of how algorithmic culture has so interpenetrated our daily lives. Analog––as opposed to digital––games can work to demystify the black-boxed operations of code and software, on account of players having to internalize their rules instead of being checked by them. In this way, players must embody the algorithm by which the game is run, laying bare the machinations of the designer, the deus in the machina. As Zavala and Odendaal write, “the materiality of a board game aligns with the digital materialist approach of software studies [in that] algorithms can, through the game, be better understood through visible and tangible interface.”4
Pax games, a niche within the larger niche of tabletop gaming, differ from typical “Eurogames” in that they have a high degree of player-to-player interaction, feature constantly-shifting endgame and victory conditions, and are notoriously difficult to learn. As a result, the Pax series eschews the generic categories of Euro and Ameritrash games. Like the latter, a commitment toward theme and simulation drive the mechanics; the rulebook for Transhumanity sports 59 footnotes which define the game’s terms, clarify thematic considerations, and suggest further reading on the topic of futurism. However, the emphasis on meaningful choices and total lack of output randomness hew closer to a Eurogame sensibility. Paxes are heavily deterministic; the opacity of their rules and board states help create a kind of fog of war, harkening back to the game’s wargaming predecessors. Eurogames are typically thought of as elegant and civil, “multiplayer solitaire,” where the extent of player interaction is the denial of a minor benefit.55 It is difficult to take a wasted action in a Eurogame. In a Pax game, however, it is common for a reversal of fortune to leave a player with zero points by game’s end. Because the goals themselves shift based on player input, it is impossible to play a mere game of efficiency. Dynamism and ruthless opportunism are the hallmarks of a successful Pax strategy game.
Questions of genre aside, abstraction not only figures into the game’s presentation––a necessity in any board game––but also how the gameplay loops, what Ian Bogost terms “unit operations.”6. These game operations denote the same processes of abstraction and alienation that characterize today’s global neoliberal order. Following Devin Wilson’s proclamation that “the question of what is abstracted out is vital,”7 I would like to investigate its obverse: the question of what is abstracted in: i.e., those elements of a game which multiply possibilities of meaning through the use of abstraction. Transhumanity’s agent, its standard-bearer of capital––human, financial, and otherwise––will be the subject of my analysis. Attending to the agent allows us insight into how algorithmic logics are enacted, playfully, in everyday life.
Board games, like all media, are vessels of ideology: “[p]layers assimilate the mechanics, physical elements, and narratives that games employ to construct believable characters and worlds; and thus they willingly believe in the interactive fictions presented to them during gameplay.”8 Here we understand that narrative is constructed through the act playing within the parameters of the game system. But, as Galloway reminds us, “games are actions.”9 They are texts in a continual process of co-construction among the players. More than mere “interaction,” games are facilitated by will: the “undivided act wherein meaning and doing transpire in the same gamic gesture.”10 Therefore, to uncover the implications of Transhumanity’s agent on how we conceptualize global flows of bodies and capital, we must attend first to agency, then to procedural rhetoric, and the logic of informatics.
Process, Operation, Flow
My approach in this paper draws heavily from two conceptual apparatus put forward by Ian Bogost: procedural rhetoric and unit operations. Bogost characterizes procedural rhetoric as “a subdomain of procedural authorship; its arguments are made not through the construction of words or images, but through the authorship of rules of behavior, the construction of dynamic models.”11 Analyzing the procedural rhetoric of games reveals that their procedures constitute the whole bounds of the game’s interactive sphere. Procedural rhetoric examines not just how words are chosen, or images arrayed; its subject is the logic of actions: which ones are permitted, when, and in what sequence. This is not to say that games do not employ written or visual rhetoric; Transhumanity and its rulebook abound in techno-capitalist libertarian philosophy and utopic tropes of science-fiction. Rather, it is to recognize that in games, “image is subordinate to process.”1212 Meaning is yielded up through the processual engagement with text and image; nothing is signified without the actions to which the signifiers correspond.
It is worth noting that although Bogost speaks here of video games, he does state that procedural rhetoric can be analyzed in any medium that employs a processual logic,13 including (especially) board games. As mentioned previously, board games in some ways necessitate the player’s recapitulation of their procedural rhetorics to an even greater extent than video games, due to the fact that rules must be internalized by memory rather than enforced by code. In this way, board games open up a broader space of play, but at their own peril; it is quite difficult to break the rules of a video game compared to a board game.
The bodily freedom afforded by board games––a player can perform bodily “actions” with game components that are not recognized by the game’s algorithm, such as chewing on a piece or hiding a card under the table––also disciplines players into working within the logic of the game system. Meaning emerges out of adherence to algorithmic exigencies. This sentiment, a prolegomenon to any future board game cultural studies, is echoed by Roberge and Seyfert in their call to “take meaning seriously” in the study of algorithmic cultures. “A cultural sociology of the algorithm is possible only insofar as algorithms are considered as both meaningful and performative, that is to say, performative for the very reason that they are meaningful.”14 In the same way, action in board games can only be understood as meaningful on account of the player’s performativity in the context of taking that action, of embodying the game’s procedural rhetoric. Far from stifling creative expression, “the imposition of constraints,” indeed, “creates expression.”15
This brings us to our other conceptual anchor: unit operations. Bogost defines each half of this term separately before fusing them into a whole. The “unit” is “a material element, a thing. It can be constitutive or contingent”; that is, units may be discrete, or they may act in concert; even a system should be considered a unit when it is located within another system.16 Key to the application of this concept to board games is the unit’s materiality. Almost all modern board games rely to some extent on abstracting material into quantifiable units with particular exchange values. Some games privilege this as a major mechanic: the so-called “resource management” genre.17 Units, like Transhumanity’s agents, also carry the same fractured, posthuman abstraction in their nomenclature. A soldier might be a unit, but so too is a piece of currency. Rhetorically, units implore the player to abstract out the latent humanization of actors within games ‒ or, for our purposes here, to abstract in agency that would normally not be afforded to non-human actants, to borrow from Latour.18
Operations act on and through units. An operation is “a basic process that takes one or more inputs and performs a transformation on it. An operation is the means by which something executes some purposeful action.”19 Essentially, all board games can be reduced to this simple definition. Actions undertaken by players alter the game state, which is materially composed of units ‒ resources, cards, territorial control, victory points, etc. These operations then “articulate connections between nodes and networks; they build relations.”20 Understanding these relations is key to the player’s success in Transhumanity as much as it is in any other game, but here relations are rendered consummately more opaque because of the game’s high degree of abstraction and reliance on jargon to communicate concepts concisely.
Lastly, my approach takes cues from the study of what scholars have come to call “algorithmic culture.” Roberge and Seyfert inquire of algorithms: “[h]ow do they make sense of their surroundings?”21 I would like to ask: how do players enact algorithmic culture in the very act of playing? One way to address this question is to consider algorithms as a series of unit operations, put into motion by players, and steered toward some productive course. Thinking again with the opacity of Transhumanity’s complex ruleset, we find that this opacity is “contingent on the in-betweenness of a plethora of actors, both human and non-human.”22 Here, human and non-human might refer to player and game, or more locally to the same agent at different points in time. Yet the algorithmic is far more than a metaphor: its representation is the task set forth by the game itself. Bellomy argues that because cardboard and wood cannot themselves compute, computation is deferred onto the player. “Analog game design is contingent on human algorithm enactment capabilities. Therefore… people qualify as a platform.”23 Human actors are the platforms by which analog game programs are “run.” But Transhumanity concretizes this metaphor by taking as its subject and unit the human actor under platform capitalism; it is this playful recursion which I will elucidate below.
A Description of Play
In Games of Empire, Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter argue that games “are increasingly perceived by corporate managers and state administrators as formal and informal means of training populations in the practices of digital work and governability. A media that once seemed all fun is increasingly revealing itself as a school for labor, an instrument of rulership, and a laboratory for the fantasies of advanced techno-capital.”24 Here, they are addressing the sense in which video games are more than emblematic of our contemporary age of informatic control ‒ they recapitulate it in their very form. Similarly, Galloway says of games of empire like Sid Meier’s Civilization: “[these games] don’t attempt to hide informatic control; they flaunt it.”25 The interface is everywhere apparent, primed for unit operations; the gameplay consists of tuning production queues, managing flows of resources, and waging expansionist wars. What sets Transhumanity apart from these characterizations is that it purports to model the fantasies of advanced techno-capital as the subject of the gameplay itself.
Below is a description of the play in Transhumanity, so we might understand the contours of the game’s mechanical functioning for an analysis of procedural rhetoric. I will do my best to instill a sense of what it actually is to enact operations within the game. Of course, every operation relies on the manipulation of units, and here I concur with Paul Wake’s assessment that “the tokens of analog games, which ostensibly anchor the player within the horizon of the gameworld, simultaneously gesture (vertically) to the world of the player, initiating for the players an unsettling [and] productive oscillation of subject positions.”26 This oscillation, in Transhumanity, is more characteristic of the units themselves than it is of the relationship between the units and the player, but nonetheless the player is impelled to continually reflect on their own subject position within the game, as play pushes the players accelerating ever faster towards the event horizon of the future.
At the start of the game, each player selects a role: Blogger, Citizen, Colonel, or Doctor. Each role begins the game with a progressively larger command of capital, to offset the advantage of acting earlier in turn order. Capital, wealth, and debt, all represented by cubes––the “agents”––are tracked on each player’s finance board. From here the agents are “installed”––placed–– into the game’s four spheres of action: the first and developing worlds, the cloud, and space. Each of these feature infrastructure boards that contain barriers to further capitalist development (in the developing world, for instance, these barriers are things like lack of resources for education and women’s health). Players may found companies which counteract these barriers and solve problems such as aging or global warming in order to potentially score points at the end of the game. Each sphere also brings with it a literal “marketplace of ideas”: cards which represent ideas that players can commercialize and thereby contribute to global “human progress.” These ideas––everything from human cloning to ubiquitous sousveillance devices––all are assigned two colors which are based on the type of idea they represent. The four “disciplines” of ideas are assembly,27 computing, group dynamics,28 and transbiology. Not coincidentally, these map out to ACGT, the base pairs of DNA.
Once commercialized, the idea is moved to the human progress splay, where the colors on the ideas form adjacent pairings that confer “viability” on other ideas in the market. For example, one could not commercialize a “blue-green” idea unless there was already a blue-green pair of adjacent ideas in the splay. As the game begins with only a single idea in the splay, players are forced to conduct “research” on similar ideas before the ones they wish to commercialize can become viable.
All of this action is facilitated by the transformative movement of agents around the board(s). Matt Eklund reveals a tinge of poststructuralism when he writes in the rules: “[e]ach Agent assumes its identity depending on where it is located.”29 Agents alternately take the roles of: capital, wealth, or debt; a syndicate (researchers) or heat (capital spent placating activists); freelance, utility, or company employees; patents; and “future shock” (capital lost to the public’s fear of rapid change).
All of these roles converge in the action of commercialization, the main pathway to victory in the game. Employees are “subcontracted” to do work, syndications on ideas transform into patents, and heat is lost to future shock. Money is also required, although Transhumanity is unique among board games in that money is only generated when needed; there is no supply, no “units” of cash that a player can collect. Money is produced and consumed in the same instant by transferring capital and wealth cubes downward to wealth and debt, respectively. Each agent moved is equivalent to one “unit” of money, although that term is here used loosely, on account of its immateriality.
Finally, a word on victory. Transhumanity boasts no fewer than six different final scoring conditions, though most of these are subsumed under the “Tipping Point” scoring category. In the bottom half of the deck of ideas are four Tipping Point cards which, when commercialized, end the game. Players then score points according to how many companies they have established and how many problems they have solved in the dominant sphere, domination being a function of which types of ideas are most prominent in the human progress splay. This scoring occurs after the Tipping Point triggers a crisis in the sphere that matches its discipline, which sees players having to give up companies and problems based on the amount of “heat” (unresolved potential problems) that is visible in the splay. The game also ends instantly if any player develops their fifth company, or if the splay features five adjacent cards of the same discipline ‒ this indicates a “singularity”; humankind enters a new stage of evolution, and only the players with the most future shock, i.e. those who developed the most groundbreaking and morally dubious technologies, are eligible to score points. This singularity does not necessarily indicate a fusion of AI with human consciousness so much as it signals a posthuman point of no return. In this way, a game might conclude with robotic, biological, or even social sociological “singularities.”
Within the relatively small discipline of analog game studies, strides have already been made30 to think through neoliberal and late capitalist forms of governance and commodity circulation. Yet most of these efforts are constrained by a commitment to formalism, while those who study representations of colonialism (for instance) approach board game rhetoric not procedurally, but principally from an ideological and visual standpoint. Crucially, Transhumanity easily accommodates both of these approaches because it not only recapitulates but also represents as a play space the kind of worker and workplace precarity that scholar of neoliberal ideology Angela McRobbie describes as “the shift from structures to flows.”31
This is evident in my description of the fundraising action which opens this paper. When the player fundraises, they may first divest any agents that are installed on the board. These agents are transformed into wealth. Then, players use any capital as collateral to move one debt to wealth for each capital spent. Lastly, capital accumulation occurs, wherein all wealth becomes capital, ready to be re-invested. A simplistic algorithm, but one which players will perform on nearly every turn over the course of the game. Recall that money is never held, only generated and instantaneously spent when required. Money in Transhumanity is constituted only in the moment of acceleration ‒ that is, the player’s capital and debt agents are always already in the process of increasing and decreasing wealth, respectively, even when, to the player’s eye, the agents are static on the finance board. Capital, “defined as wealth in the production of wealth,”32 maintains a constant velocity, until in a moment of abject violence, it is wrenched horizontally across the board, to wealth or debt perhaps, or to be re-instantiated in the fleshy vehicle of human capital.
Couldry and Mejias emphasize that “the fundamental characteristic of capitalism” is “the abstracting force of the commodity, the possibility of transforming life process into ‘things’ with value.”33 The algorithmic logic of big data capitalism is concretized in the unit operations of the agent ‒ it is literally the pure embodiment of liquid capital, always in motion, never resting but ever poised to strike. What else could be meant here but this, when one’s employee becomes a patent, when capital sprouts organs and skin and takes up tools so that it might labor more substantially? Only what Marx perceived so presciently in 1858:
The production process has ceased to be a labour process in the sense of a process dominated by labour as its governing unity. Labour appears, rather, merely as a conscious organ, scattered among the individual living workers at numerous points of the mechanical system; subsumed under the total process of the machinery itself, as itself only a link of the system, whose unity exists not in the living workers, but rather in the living (active) machinery, which confronts his individual, insignificant doings as a mighty organism.34
Marx, preempting our models of processual flows and procedural rhetorics, speaks here of labor (unit operations) subsumed into a machinic system which has incorporated dead (alienated) labor into its thriving, now organic, body. These units are both diffuse and necrotic, their wholeness deferred. Have we caught the player, or the game?
The subsumption of labor by the machinery of capital mirrors the that of the “game-as-text” by “the category of the gamer, for he or she creates the gamic text by doing.”35 Allegories of informatic control are unavoidable in the play of games because the gamic action itself is not realized until the player interposes their will onto the units. Yet by placing the player into the fraught role of altruistic-by-way-of-self-interest venture capitalist, Transhumanity enjoins the possibility of critique in the same gesture with which it waves it away. Already in the game’s visual and written rhetoric the argument is being made to leave one’s frail body behind in favor of: the coded body; the robotic body; the stellar body; the immortal body. And so it is with its procedural rhetoric ‒ liquify and reconstitute the nano-machinic “bodies” of your agents, sell employees for parts and patent their minds when there is nothing else left. The future will thank you.
Agents, like algorithms, are “constituted by the very possibility of ‘being lost in translation.’”36 Their fluidity is their entire identity; without the capaciousness of their translatability, the game––and the allegory–– would cease to function. When the player sells a patent to subcontract a worker to transfigure heat into “shock” to generate a new patent, and this is all facilitated with the same interchangeable cube ‒ then we understand the agent as “’fractal,’ that is, producing numerous outputs from multiple inputs.”3735
An Archaeology of the Future?
I will conclude here, fittingly, with a treatment of Transhumanity’s endgame conditions. The determination of the Earth’s future is nearly always dependent on what disciplines feature in the “cutting edge” (the most recent three cards) of the human progress splay. The names of the four disciplines were each “cunningly chosen to match the four bases of DNA. Thus, a three-letter codon38 specifies a future in the same way a three-nucleotide codon in a nucleic acid sequence specifies a single amino acid.”39 The authors go on to list all of the “specified futures” in which the game can result. Furthermore, they refer to the splay as “a strand of technium DNA… technology itself [as] an evolutionary being.”40
Matteo Pasquinelli has alerted us to the ways in which the metaphor of DNA as code has been fetishized,41 but there is something more taking place in this characterization. The technium is an epistemic organism: it is fractally constructed of the multiple inputs of players over the course of the game, and it consequently determines the limits of what ideas are thinkable in the game. Games are actions ‒ there is no separation between what is thinkable and what is doable, because there is no way to act apart from, or without, the algorithm. Despite its technocratic trappings, then, Transhumanity actually deploys Foucault’s notion of the episteme, which describes how historical regimes of power/knowledge constrain the discourse of any given era, delimiting what can be enacted, spoken, and even thought.42
The commercialization of ideas is limited by their “viability,” which is primarily dependent on whether a pair of disciplines matching that of the idea exists in the technium. The logic of the technium is thus a combinatorial one. It is not enough for group dynamics and computing ideas to be prevalent in global discourse in order to conceptualize “Stateless Citizenship,” for instance; computing and group dynamics must share the intimacy of adjacency. Future shock, leftover from commercializing a controversial idea, disrupts the global nature of these pairings by restricting that part of the technium to only the player bold enough to realize their vision. The episteme is contested, cordoned off. We are aware of the possibility of action but unable to realize it: we do not know that we know.
Conflict is a prescribed aspect of almost every session of Transhumanity. The commercialization of a Tipping Point, which ends the game, always begets a “nuclear exchange impact,” better thought of more abstractly as conflict based around the unresolved dangers of technologies in the technium.43 Transhumanity’s rhetoric, procedural and otherwise, instills this warning by incentivizing players to diversify in the event of catastrophe. These conflicts might be sensational, or they may be understated. But through it all, what remains unconditional is the primacy of the algorithm. Accepting that there is nothing outside the discourse, outside the text, precludes the ability to conceive of a world without text. Transhumanity can conclude with a bang or a whimper, an AI singularity or a stateless world with borders and climate change eradicated. But it cannot conceive of a world without the algorithm, for it makes such logics exigent from the moment play begins.
Featured image Robot Planet Moon by KELLEPICS
Miles Hubble received his MA in Communication from USC, where he studied the romantic rhetoric of wilderness survivalism in the contemporary United States. His interests span film, video and tabletop games, reality television, and multimedia art, but his work always centers on one principal question: how are the “real” and the “authentic” indexed by cultural productions and rhetorics? Miles writes about video games, new media, and ideology at www.youtube.com/c/SeaofFog.