By Jo Lindsay Walton. This is an excerpt from a chapter published in The Science Fiction of Iain M. Banks, eds Nick Hubble, Esther MacCallum-Stewart and Joseph Norman (Gylphi, 2018).
Introduction: What’s in a Game?
On an estate belonging to the Ancraime family, at the edges of Stonemouth, a Scottish coastal town, a group of boys gather to play paintball. They come from a range of economic backgrounds: Stonemouth is not large enough for the boys to be segregated according to class. The poorest member of the group is Wee Malky. As dusk draws in, the boys begin the last game of the day, a hunting scenario in which, in consequence of a “complicated arrangement of scoring across the various [earlier] skirmishes” (Banks 2012: 146), Wee Malky finds himself the quarry, and the rest of the group, hunters.
Eventually, “near the furthest western extent of the house gardens […] [on the edge of] the rest of the estate and the grouse moors and plantation forests beyond,” (ibid. 149), the scattered group begins to converge. Wee Malky is making a perilous crossing along the round-topped, weed-slicked stone of the top lip of a reservoir, which feeds various water features in the gardens. He has the undertow-prone, peaty reservoir water to one side, and the steep, slimy slope of the overflow, dotted with concrete pillars, on the other.
George Ancraime, “the older brother, nearly twenty at this point but with a mental age stuck at about five” (ibid. 142), suddenly appears near the bottom of the slope. He has been back to his parents’ mansion and retrieved a large antique sword, which he brandishes smilingly at Wee Malky. If Wee Malky can make it across, he wins the game. But if he loses his balance, he loses his life.
The scene, a suitably cruel allegory of class violence, is in many ways typical of how games often appear in Banks’s fiction. It raises the question of what makes a game a game, and at what point it stops being a game. Game studies theorists Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, after a survey of existing definitions, define a game as “a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome” (Salen and Zimmerman 2003: 96). Another good starting point is the philosopher Bernard Suits’s succinct formulation: playing a game is “a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles” (Suits 2005 : 55). […] Banks’s games resist both definitions. There is a sustained interest in Banks’s work in involuntary games, necessary games, games-within-games, games that burst their boundaries, games that overcome their players, games with hidden purposes, fragmentary games, games that arise spontaneously, games whose rules change, and games whose outcomes are nebulous and defy calculation. More generally, there is a fascination in Banks’s writing with ludic affordance: the capacity of any situation to absorb and be transformed by play.
This chapter explores the representation and uses of games in Banks’s writing, focusing on his science fiction. It examines how Banks’s games bump against Salen and Zimmerman’s definition (Salen and Zimmerman 2003), against Jesper Juul’s refinements (Juul 2011 ), and against some of the ludological theory which feeds into their definitions (e.g. Suits 2005 ). For Banks, a game is a forceful entity, which may exert an agency above and beyond whatever agency its players feed into it. Moreover, part of what makes a game a game is its capacity to have fuzzy borders, to be porous, to flex, to accommodate, and – like Wee Malky himself – to slip.
Discipline and Pleasure
For Banks, the disciplinarity in and around games is not only a repressive, constricting, censoring dynamic. It is also a productive one, both limiting and enabling. (Cf. Foucault 1991 : 194). An example of a more optimistic presentation, in the Culture novel Matter, is Djan Seriy Anaplian’s induction into the utopia of the Culture (and, eventually, into Special Circumstances), which braids together dream, reality, game, and simulation; Djan takes part in “semi-hallucinatory experiences that seemed like games but which she knew were also lessons and evaluations” (Banks 2008: 148; cf. also Banks 1990: 252).
The theme of disciplinarity and pleasure comes through in two novels featuring longevity and potentially perpetual imprisonment – Walking on Glass (1985) and Surface Detail (2010). Roger Caillois regards freedom and pleasure to be intimately bound up in games, so that there is “no doubt that play must be defined as a free and voluntary activity, a source of joy and amusement” (Caillois 1961: 6). Salen and Zimmerman devote a whole chapter of Rules of Play to pleasure, though pleasure does not feature in their definition of a game. Games are oriented to play, and there is something plausible about Caillois’s assertion that play must be “a source of joy and amusement” (1961: 6).
To understand the subtle role of pleasure in Walking on Glass and Surface Detail, it is useful to compare Salen and Zimmerman’s definition with Jesper Juul’s. Like Salen and Zimmerman, Juul surveys a variety of existing definitions of games, in order to propose his own spruced-up synthesis. Some of the older definitions he surveys suggest that a game must be inefficient, unproductive, disconnected from profit, autotelic, and/or transcendent of ordinary life. Like Salen and Zimmerman, Juul believes that such criteria are beginning to look misleading and dated, plagued by “obvious objections and counterexamples” (Juul 2011 : 33). For instance, gamification, which attempts to use “game-based mechanics, aesthetics and game thinking to engage people, motivate action, promote learning, and solve problems” (Kapp 2012: 10), clearly exposes more complex relations between games and efficiency, productivity, profit, instrumentality, and everyday life.
But the criteria which Juul rejects also carry an indirect implication that players may experience pleasure during play. Juul’s effort to conserve some role for affect is commendable. The definition he reaches is substantially similar to Salen and Zimmerman’s, except for one extra criterion: in a game, “[t]he player is emotionally attached to the outcome of the game” (Juul 2011 : 36). […] Juul also goes further, suggesting that “a player will be a winner and ‘happy’ in case of a positive outcome” (ibid. 36).
Yet earlier theorists have good reason to express themselves so delicately on the subject of pleasure. Emotional attachment to the outcome of a game can come and go while playing it, and most games never stop being games in consequence of this. In Walking on Glass, Ajayi and Quiss demonstrate how one player may be attached while another is not; or both may be attached in very different ways. Chinese Scrabble, for instance, frustrates Quiss far more than it does Ajayi. Quiss is grittily insistent on completing a valid board and earning a chance at escaping the castle. Ajayi is more inclined to reverie in the midst of play. Chinese itself becomes “a marvellous, magical gift” (Banks 1985: 174) for her. Ajayi is described as “excited” and as experiencing “immense satisfaction” (ibid.).
At the same time, Banks proposes a more mediated way in which pleasure is intrinsic in games: through their very disciplinarity. The castle, Quiss speculates, “moulds” them and “makes [them] as [they] are” (ibid.). The games work to discipline Ajayi and Quiss, sometimes brutally, sometimes very gently, into becoming unlike themselves. Patterns of felt pleasure and pain may of course be disciplinary apparatuses. More subtly, even a game that is pleasurable for nobody may imply a certain kind of person for whom it would be pleasurable, even if this figure remains an implied ideal, an unattainable focus imaginarius. Indeed, despite their long drift from agony to stoic resignation, neither Ajayi nor Quiss ever quite achieves contentment in the castle. The castle may even be designed to avert ultimate contentment; one of its other inhabitants, the cigar-puffing red crow, is perpetually scornful of Ajayi and Quiss’s bathetic pastimes. “You two looked like proper twats, I can tell you, standing in the middle of an infinite board, cut off at the waist” (ibid. 168). The red crow carries out a bullying, Popeian mockery of the pleasure the games proffer, and of the kind of people that they tacitly invite Ajayi and Quiss to become. The castle strand of Walking on Glass has a faint aura of divine judgment, and perhaps of Purgatory or Limbo. Ajayi is generally more open than Quiss to becoming closer to the kind of person that the games, and the castle, expect her to be. Yet even Quiss, whose instinct is to cheat, to revolt, to seek glitches and loopholes, and to disrupt play with violence, evolves psychologically, and eventually acknowledges that “he would miss this place, in some strange, twisted way” (Banks 1985: 253).
In the 2010 Culture novel Surface Detail, Banks’s portrayal of Hell is evocative of digital games. The Hells in Surface Detail are computer simulations, into which the damned are uploaded as digital bodies with digital consciousnesses. Two colossal king-demons fight “over the centre ground of Hell, throwing forces into the fray with a sort of manic relish, uncaring how many fell because they would always be resurrected again within days for fresh punishment” (Banks 2010a: 395). Their endless war is reminiscent of an online multiplayer arena in which every victory leads only to respawn and rematch.
One infernal whistleblower, Prin, escapes from a digital Hell, using a piece of smuggled code to temporarily give himself “the body of one of the grinning demons, and the biggest and most impressive type at that; a giant six-limbed predator long extinct in the Real” (ibid. 53). No clear explanation is given as to why Prin’s transformation should be temporary, nor why its duration should nevertheless be so precisely known. But gamers, and any within range of their cultural diffusion, will recognise that such a powerful advantage – such a powerful buff, in gaming terminology – would ordinarily be time-limited, simply to prevent it from upsetting the balance of play in Hell. It would probably come supplied with a countdown bar. “Four pulses and then he’d be back to his earlier self” (ibid. 87).
Against the idea that games must be free and pleasurable spaces, Surface Detail manages combine ludic elements even with eternal enslavement and torment. At the same time, for another damned soul, Chay, the desire to escape Hell is not straightforward. Imprisoned and in agony, the only agency available to Chay is to choose not to hope:
There was no life before this. This is all there is, all there ever was, all there ever will be. Eternity, this is eternity. Only this is eternity. Surrender to that thought and at least the agony of hope that can never be fulfilled will disappear.Ibid. 47
Because Chay’s hope is absent or infinitesimal, Hell’s algorithms have difficulty constituting her as a subject capable of what it deems an acceptable level of suffering. Fredric Jameson remarks that hope is, among other things, “the principle of the cruellest confidence games and of hucksterism as a fine art” (Jameson 2005: 3). Friedrich Nietzsche calls hope “the most evil of evils because it prolongs man’s torment” (Nietzsche 1996 : 45). As a temporary workaround for Chay’s dearth of hope, she is turned into an angel of death, thereby altering the rules of Hell. Chay is “used to bring a little extra hope to Hell, removing one lucky winner per day as though in some fatal state lottery of release, to increase the suffering of the vast majority left behind” (ibid. 370).
In the castle of Walking on Glass, and the Hell of Surface Detail, Banks portrays ludic disciplinarity writ large. The survival of Ajayi, Quiss, and Chay is suggestive of the riddle that runs through Walking on Glass: what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? On one hand, these processes reveals the durability and adaptability of the prisoners. On the other, it reveals the vast disciplinary power of the ludic afterlives to which they are condemned. Both the castle and Hell are capable of transforming their inhabitants in deep-reaching, complex, and fine-grained ways. Within these games, choosing to remain the same is not an option. The characters’s capacity to nonetheless choose “how to play the game” (Slocombe in Colebrook and Cox q.v.) that will change them, and to exert agency within their own transformations, is suggestive of the closest thing to an answer Walking on Glass ever gives to its riddle. “The unstoppable force stops, the immovable object moves” (Banks 1985: 217).
Outcomes and Overspill
For Salen and Zimmerman, a game is “a system […] defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome” (Salen and Zimmerman 2003: 96). But as David Leishman suggestively notes, “Banks’s fiction often concentrates on the permeability of near-closed systems” as well as “the indirect communication between worlds” (Leishman 2009: n.p.).
One way of thinking of permeability, and/or the indirect articulation of worlds, in relation to games, is Juul’s notion of “negotiable consequences.” For Juul, games are “characterized by the fact that they can be assigned consequences or a per-play basis. That games carry a degree of separation from the rest of the world is entailed in their consequences being negotiable” (Juul 2011 : 36). Seeing games as half-real (cf. ibid. 1) is an improvement over the older emphasis on the separateness of games, and even their circumscription by some kind magic circle (cf. Huizinga 1950: 13; Caillois 1961: 5; Zimmerman 2012). Contemporary LARP gaming, for instance, makes it abundantly clear that games may be far more supple, porous, and integrated with their environments than talk of a magic circle tends to lead us into thinking. At the same time, Juul’s approach captures the way in which, for all their porosity, games are still formal systems presenting relatively rigid interfaces, and are highly legible to bureaucratic rationality. Such formality can be seen in the ease with which they plug together in meta-games, as in Banks’s Walking on Glass.
But Juul’s formulation still cannot really capture the kind of overspill Banks gives us. It underemphasises games as locuses or even origins of agency. Banks’s games do not always like the consequences they have been assigned, and may forcefully assign consequences of their own. Banks often upsets the hierarchy between simulation and reality. For example, the lava rafting episode in Look to Windward, there is one crewmember who is inexplicably convinced that he is in a simulation.
‘Wow! Hot hot hot! Some sim!’
‘Get this guy out of here. He shouldn’t have been invited in the first place. There are one-timers here with no savers. If this clown thinks we’re in a sim he could do anything.’Banks 2000: 105
A similar episode occurs in The Hydrogen Sonata. A security android is despatched into some fairly desperate circumstances before it can be fully debugged. As a consequence, it is cheerfully convinced that everything happening to it is part of a training simulation, to the harried chagrin of its teammates. (Banks 2012a: 105).
In Surface Detail (2010), controversies which might have led to war – controversies such as the imposition of virtual Hells – are instead resolved in immersive simulated realities. Inside the simulated wars, suffering is real, but loss of life is not. As Crawford might put it, the results are “less harsh than the situations the game models” (1982: 14). By convention, the outcomes of these simulated wars must be respected: real governments may be deposed, real territory may be ceded, and so on.
However, during the course of the novel, this convention is broken. A simulated war occurs which “all concerned had agreed to treat as settling matters. Hence as real as these things ever got” (Banks 2010a: 106). But it is not quite as real as these things get; one faction eventually escalates the conflict into the material world:
[…] if cheating didn’t work, then – despite all the accords and laws and customs and regulations, despite all the agreements and solemn treaties – there was always the truly last resort: the Real.Ibid.
The conflict escalation of Surface Detail is a particularly sharp example of a common motif in Banks’s work, of games whose boundaries are uncertain and confused, such that elements of them may seem to ‘come to life,’ with chains of events apparently originating within a game transgressing outward into the containing environment. In Consider Phlebas, Damage has its own distinctive overspill:
From a spectator’s point of view, Damage’s special attraction was that the closer you stood to the emotor unit of any particular player, the more of the emotions they were experiencing affected you directly, too. A whole subculture of people hooked on such third-hand feelings had grown up […]Banks 1987: 182
In The Player of Games, Banks invents a civilisation whose political system is almost entirely encapsulated within a complicated game, Azad, that has evolved over millennia. Azad is thoroughly explored elsewhere in this volume. One of the impressive aspects of the Mornington Planet adaptation of Azad is the way it preserves the nimble and mercurial Banksian spirit, while also paying homage to the totalising aspect of Banks’s Azad. Azad is the game that is also a model, an empire, a political system, a machine; it is the game that can contain anything and everything.
Azad takes its cue from Herman Hesse’s Glass Bead Game, described as “a mode of playing with the total contents and values of [its] culture” (Hesse 2000 : p.6). But Azad is even more totalising. In Azad, “whoever succeeds at the game succeeds in life” (Banks 1988: 76). Indeed, the game and life are more-or-less the same thing, although really this is not an ontological identity, but contingent mapping together, sustained by factors that are somewhat independent of the game:
The set-up assumes that the game and life are the same thing, and such is the pervasive nature of the idea of the game within the society that just by believing that, they make it so. It becomes true […]Banks 1988: 76
Still, Azad is totalising enough that escalation beyond its boundaries – like the spillovers of Surface Detail – appears unlikely. Ideological struggle itself is merely one dimension of gameplay. For individuals of this civilisation, it is difficult to conceive of a political argument being stronger or weaker except in the context of its deployment within the game. Nothing can be done inside the game which does not reinforce the game itself.
Or can it? Gurgeh, the player of games, is a visitor from another civilisation, and an instrument of the Culture, who unlocks a kind of “Machina ex Machina” (Banks 1987: 214), rich possibilities within Azad that have been invisible to generations of Azad emperors. With his unprecedented style of play, Gurgeh successfully revolutionises both the game and the political system of Azad.
The discovery of copious abundance within apparently fully quantified systems is another Banksian fascination, and, like the fascination with “the permeability of near-closed systems” (Leishman q.v.), is part of what situates the Culture series within the utopian imaginary. It can be seen again in the 2008 Culture novel Matter, when Holse, a servant from a pre-industrial society, visits a more technologically sophisticated milieu, and encounters the Infinite Worlds theory. The Infinite Worlds theory holds that “all possible things had already happened, or were happening now” and that “all that one does in mapping out the course of one particular game is trace a path from that central Beginning of things out through more and more branches, chances and possibilities, to one of the near infinitude of Ends at the periphery” (Banks 2008: 323).
The Infinite Worlds conceit blends the many-worlds interpretation of quantum theory (cf. Everett 1957) with the device of game trees used by graph theory and economics, as a way of revisiting an idea Banks explored in Azad, that “the game and life are the same thing” (Banks 1988: 76). But Matter tries to press the game and life together more tightly than The Player of Games ever did. Now it is not a rough identity sustained by a social imaginary, but a fully ontological proposition. Life becomes a solvable game, not different in kind to noughts-and-crosses or Chess. Life just contains more nodes and connections. Nevertheless, the aspiration to deny totality – and to discover within everything that exists, the affordance for something else to exist as well – still remains. The rules cannot be known for certain; Holse “immediately wondered how you could cheat” (Banks 2008: 323).
But it is Stonemouth that contains Banks’s most intriguing specimen of overspill. This chapter began with Wee Malky poised at the top of a slipway, just as a potentially lethal element intruded into a game of paintball. It is a tense moment, as Wee Malky tries to keep his footing, while Hugo Ancraime tries to persuade his brother George that the game is over, and that he should put down the sword. What happens next seems to originate within the game:
While we were all watching this, Callum raised his gun and fired, hitting Wee Malky in the head with a yellow splash of paint.
Wee Malky yelped and fell, splashing into the water on the overflow side, one arm reaching out to try to grasp the round stones at the summit, but failing. He started sliding down the slipway, arms flailing as he tried to stop or slow himself.
‘Aw, fuck,’ Callum said quietly.Banks 2012b: 153
Wee Malky struggles fiercely during his slide to his death. The descent is a macabre détournement of upward mobility via a trickle-down effect. The narrator Stewart describes what would plague his nightmares for years: “watching Wee Malky trying everything to save himself. It hadn’t been his fault he’d fallen in the first place and now he did all he could to stop himself falling further” (ibid.). He even tries to shoot George with his paintball gun. But eventually Wee Malky finishes up at the bottom, where he is murdered.
In the aftermath there is “too much blame, too much detail” (ibid. 156), and the event is eventually suppressed as a senseless tragedy. But it is far from senseless. George Ancraime picks up on the atmosphere of bloodlust. There is a rule about not swearing in front of George, “in case he parroted the same language” (ibid. 147). But there is no rule forbidding an intensive day of theatrical dehumanisation and murder in front of George. George refuses to see the hunt for Wee Malky as a game that is sealed off from reality; and, even setting his own intervention aside, George he has a point. The attitudes of the other boys to Wee Malky, the poorest member of their group, participates in the often nebulous but unmistakably real systemic violence which shortens the lives of the working class.
Although it is George’s sword that kills Wee Malky, it is also Callum’s paintball bullet. The paintball bullet which spills into real death is one of many examples of a game disregarding its boundaries, refusing to have outcomes which can only be internally adjudicated. Models may have ways of remaking the things they model to fit with their own syntax. […] But Callum’s act also deserves a psychological explanation. Callum might have acted out of confusion, or panic, or a misguided plan to save Wee Malky by persuading George that the game is over.
But perhaps Callum’s is a more knowledgeable act. It could even be read as a kind of witticism. It would be a very dark sort of humour, based on an assessment of Wee Malky’s status within the group that is both exaggerated and close-to-the-bone. Stonemouth begins: “Clarity” (Banks 2012b: 3); clarity is a theme that runs throughout. In this moment, Callum portrays himself as addicted to clarity. Ostentatiously fed up with the complex and unpredictable situation, Callum reverts to the supposed certainties of a self-contained and internally adjudicable system of points scoring. Read this way, Callum’s act contains a certain amount of self-parody. ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if I cared more about the game than about real life?’ The joke is at his own expense. But of course, also at Wee Malky’s.
Conclusion: Forceful and Fuzzy Games
The games in Banks’s novels tend to destabilise the theories of Bernard Suits, Salen and Zimmerman, Jasper Juuls, and other ludological thinkers. Instead of being hermetic, sealed, quasi-sacred spaces where everyday life is suspended, and where safety is guaranteed, Banks’s games often have fuzzy boundaries, interwoven with everyday life. This means that they are also interwoven with the disciplinarity, danger, and violence of everyday life. Even the idea of a game as a system of rules is drawn into question: Banks may represents games as spaces in which rules can be contested and changed, or drilled into to discover more fundamental rules; or he builds a sense that different players are playing by different rules.
Because the boundary between the player and the played upon is fuzzy, as is the boundary between the player and the game. Banks’s games resist reduction to inert systems, that might be voluntarily taken up for the sake of play, and freely discarded when play is no longer desirable. Instead, Banks’s games are forceful entities. Banks’s games do not exist only for their own sake, but give shape to myriad purposes and instrumentalities. They help to produce the agency of their players, and may even exert agency of their own, ‘spilling over’ what previously appeared to be a fixed line between game and reality.
This chapter concludes with a proviso: to some extent, none of the preceding findings should come as a surprise. There are three reasons for this. The first is to do with literature itself: Salen and Zimmerman’s definition, and other touchstones used in this chapter, all have affinity with positivist psychology and the social sciences. Translating these ideas into more humanistic forms of knowledge, suitable for the study of literature, is quite naturally accompanied by shifting emphases: from definite boundaries to indistinct ones, from substances and objects to processes and actions, and from fixed essences to states of affairs maintained by human practices.
The second reason is to do with games themselves. As Salen and Zimmerman et al. are well aware, games are notorious for evading attempts at one-size-fits-all definition (cf. Salen and Zimmerman 2003: 2-4). Games demonstrate family resemblance, “a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing” (Wittgenstein 2001 : §66). Indeed, games are one of the main examples – families, of course, being the other – which allow Wittgenstein to create and use his concept of family resemblance in the first place. (Cf. ibid. §65-71).
The third reason is to do with science fiction itself. Science fiction is a literature of estrangement, and as Bertolt Brecht puts it: “[a] representation which estranges is one which allows us to recognize its subject, but at the same time makes it seem unfamiliar” (Quoted in Suvin 2005 : 25). Making games seem unfamiliar may of course entail presenting them ways that do not suit existing definitions. Science fiction is interested in pathologies, mutations, virtuoso extrapolations, theoretical limit conditions, and impudent transgressions, and this generic interest is manifest in Banks’s treatment of games.
It is also worth emphasising that, although Banks’s games are accommodating, versatile, and energetic phenomena – which seem to be capable of far more than mainstream theoretical understandings of games would have led us to believe – Banks resists the temptation to dissolve the universe entirely into a kaleidoscopic ludic flux. Despite the ubiquity and fluidity of games in his work, Banks remains at heart a materialist. He resists a naïve postmodern celebration of play, and insists that there are limits to the ludic as a mode of explanation and transformation.
In Excession, we learn how Culture Minds spend most of their days imagining, tinkering with, and inhabiting virtual universes. “That was where they lived. That was their home […] The Land of Infinite Fun” (Banks 1996: 141). By many sensible standards, the Land of Infinite Fun is more real than the material world on which it supervenes. But Banks reminds us how base reality asserts its priority:
It didn’t matter that base reality was petty and grey and mean and demeaning and quite empty of meaning […] if that was the single foundation-stone that all your higher-level comfort and joy rested upon, and it was kicked away from underneath you, you fell, and your limitless pleasure realms fell with you […]Excession, 143
Games are ways of inhabiting and transforming reality, but they are not reality itself. Physical matter, and the consciousness life it instantiates, exhibit a depth and an autonomy that goes beyond any game. In the non-Culture science fiction novel Transition, Mrs Mulverhill, a somewhat sagacious figure, declares that “once you reach the level of an individual consciousness – for all practical purposes, a single human being – you can usefully reduce no further. It is at that level that significance lies” (Banks 2009: 146). In Matter, Hyrilis adapts the well-known problem of evil – the idea, conventionally though problematically attributed to Epicurus, that evil is incompatible with divine omnipotence and benevolence – to argue that “we must, after all, be at the most base level of reality” and “we are as a result our own moral agents” (Banks 2008: 285; cf. e.g. Larrimore 2001).
For all that his games are fuzzy and forceful, Banks never proposes an endless heterogeneous tumble of simulating games without simulated reality. The interplay of reality and games may sometimes become too tangled to solve, but it is a distinction which Banks is at pains to preserve in principle.
Copyright Gylphi 2018.