A brief Actor Network Theory history of the videogame blogosphere

After a very productive meeting with my PhD supervisor today I want to try distil some of the renewed focus my project has gained.

My PhD project, tentatively called ‘An Actor Network Theory assessment of online community creation’, is all about the critical videogame blogosphere and how it came about.

There’s a bunch of assumptions already present in the title which Actor Network Theory will help me unpack – for starters a massive part of the ‘community’ is its shape and constitution. Who’s “in” and who’s “out”, and that process of contestation will be a big part of the analysis. Case in point – the phrase that was applied to a list of blogs that were all running at similar or related purposes was “The Brainysphere”. The true originator of the phrase is now lost to time and collective memory (I think it may have actually been a Roger Travis invention, and his alternative ‘the middle circle’ remains much more enduring), but it was first deployed with any serious impact by Dan Golding in his “Mapping the Brainysphere: 29 blogs switched-on gamers should read”.

That post, published on January 1st 2009 was part of a general zeitgeist concerned with making the community more accessible, and in particular, easier to find. That zeitgeist culminated, for me, in Critical Distance which has been (with a few notable exceptions) remarkably well received and an overwhelmingly positive development. Incidentally, those notable exceptions are extremely closely tied to the same issues that got Dan Golding and others into some hot water viz. the shape of the community based on the inclusion/exclusion of certain blogs, voices and perspectives from ‘The Brainysphere’. In fact, the word itself was banished from the vocabulary because it served to place (not entirely unfairly, but quite problematically) Michael Abbott and his blog ‘The Brainy Gamer’ at the centre of the videogame blogosphere.

This is all to say that my research project is a case study in applying Actor Network Theory to the videogame blogosphere, and I recently stumbled upon ‘A brief actor network theory history of speculative realism’ by Levi Bryant, a member of the Speculative Realism blogosphere. Now that particular rhizome of bloggers and the history of their formation, oddly enough, quite elegantly mirrors the story I have told above, with a diverse cast of actors deploying their time and effort in interesting and profitable ways. Bryant summarises the happy and unanticipated accidents that brought together the disparate group of bloggers under the umbrella term ‘Speculative Realism’, and it provides a great blueprint for my own (eventually much longer!) take on the formation of the critical videogame blogosphere.

Bryant also mentions in his brief history, a term used by the philosopher and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan called the tuche. Here’s Bryant explaining the concept:

Now, the tuche or missed encounter refers to the phenomenological structure of anticipation in our cognition. Tuche is that event that happens when one wasn’t anticipating or expecting it. It can be something like getting in a car accident, winning the lottery, meeting the love of your life, or being hit by lightning. The point is that it didn’t fit the structure of anticipation.

And weirdly enough, this idea seemed to have resonance with my previous posts on ‘the tenor of experience’. The tuche seems to fit the bill exactly for the initiating event that serves to kick off the process of an altered tenor of experience.

To put the concept into a practical example: a fortnight ago I very much had no anticipation of finding myself kissing a beautiful young woman, and it’s very tuche-ness threw my sense of regular experience for the following few days. The aftershocks, if you will, are still making themselves known even weeks later in minor and unanticipated ways. Mini-tuche events happening in sympathy to the original, or something like that.

Conversely, when Michael Abbott said in an IRC chat discussion back in early ‘09 “Ben, why don’t you make it happen” (referring to the creation of a website or aggregate portal site that organised and cemented the critical blogosphere, i.e. Critical Distance) I had already anticipated to a degree performing that kind of role. I had not, however, wanted to volunteer feeling as I did as though I were a bit of a minor player in the community.

That early insecurity probably played a big part in some of the early mistakes I made (and which I perhaps continue to make) but the technological environment of the internet itself also had a hand. There is no middle-ground to including or excluding a website in a blogroll or list of ‘must read’ articles – it either ‘makes the cut’ for relevance or it doesn’t, and that at times has placed an unbearable burden on my own judgement. I’m as fallible as anyone, and I’ve failed in that judgement before. I probably will again as I continue Critical Distance, but my failures are amplified by the nature of the technology. To use Latourian vocabulary, the technology is as much a formant of the blogosphere and its formation as I am. The inability for some to recognise that technology itself played a hand (or my inability to communicate this point at the time) caused me no end of grief, and serious personal anguish.

But that insight into the nature of the network that plays out between ‘people’ and ‘the internet’ is what’s driving my PhD project, so I should also be extremely thankful. My PhD research has already taken me to some wonderfully interesting places and I hope that insight or intuition or hypothesis continues to act as such an exemplary guide in future.

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