Affordance, Actionability and the Gamic Medium

This piece was written for the Beyond the Gaming Principle – User at Work conference, hosted 17 February 2022 at Prague’s Academy of Fine Arts (https://www.avu.cz/event/2022-02-17/beyond-gaming-principle-2022-user-work-6773)

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Moment 1: “[February 9, 2022] French video games giant Ubisoft has teamed up with the The Sandbox metaverse platform in the latest sign of the fusion between game development and non-fungible tokens (NFTs). […] However, gamers are grappling with NFTs’ place in video games, with some pushing back because they believe it represents a new form of monetisation which could be predatory, or even ruin the game experience if abused.”[1]

Moment 2: “KANSK, Russia [February 10, 2022] — A court in Siberia has sentenced a 16-year-old boy to five years in prison in a high-profile terrorism case prompted by plans he had with two friends to add the building of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) to the popular video game Minecraft to allow players to blow it up.”[2] The 16-year old Nikita Uvarov was sentenced behind closed doors to serve time in a penal colony for “training for terrorist activities.”[3] In June 2020, the three teens, all 14 y.o. at the time, were caught disseminating pamphlets in support of previously sentenced Azat Fanisovich Miftakhov, taping one to the doors of the local FSB building. They also made a replica of the Moscow FSB building in Minecraft, which they then planned to blow up with TNT blocks.

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In this short post I would like to assume video games as a medium. This is to say that virtual gaming ought to be discussed as more than a medium which mediates a message from sender (designer) to receiver (player), but rather that it has become a cultural and technical hyperobject which serves as vehicle for the playing out of power relations and diverse entanglements which minutely filter, manage, afford and preclude certain actions. Much like air is a medium for sound or light a medium for imaging, so are video games a medium for dreams and social hallucinations.[4] In the words of Keller Easterling, “medium design” looks “beyond object to matrix”;[5] it looks past the presence of objects and rather focuses on the interplay of the milieu in which those objects perform. For Easterling, the designed medium is about “the interplay of things – active forms that enact change in urban spaces, larger territories, and even planetary atmosphere,”[6] and the virtual worldings which a user/player works through certainly does all this: contemporary virtuality is less a virtual reality than a “real virtuality”[7] in that it has palpable materialist reverberations engaging with energy consumption, social choreography, financial flows, the entertainment economy, ideology or art production.

The following paragraph will aim to show that what we can call the “affordance” of the gaming medium has, in a previous era of gamer theory, been called “actionability.” In his book Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, Alex Galloway describes actionability as follows: “Not everything in a game is available to the expressive act. There are actionable objects and nonactionable objects. […] Nonactionable objects are inert scenery. No amount of effort will garner results from nonactionable objects. The actionability of objects is determined when the game’s levels are designed.”[8] What Galloway considers the object-centered “expressive act” of actionability can easily be expanded onto the “affordance” of the gamic environment, a neologism coined by psychologist John J. Gibson: “The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill. The verb to afford is found in the dictionary, the noun affordance is not. I have made it up. I mean by it something that refers to both the environment and the animal in a way that no existing term does. It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment.”[9] The ‘animal’ and its pre-cognitive mapping of affordances is analogous to the gamer in the virtual world, unconsciously, yet exhaustively and strategically mapping the game’s affordances. Both actionability and affordance assume a degree of affect exerted on the virtual environment, and this exerted affect in turn affects the player’s experience and her investment into the game.

Minecraft, the culprit medium-within-a-medium of the case of Nikita Uvarov, is a sandbox game which affords ubiquitous actionability, to a degree never before seen in any virtual game – every block is minable and actionable, and the affordance of such a sandbox is conceivably endless.[10] Would the case of the Minecraft terrorists be the promise of what Alfie Bown has called “subversive gaming”? Had Uvarov and his mates unexpectedly found a neuralgic point of the Russian repressive state apparatus in their Minecraft experience (two counts probational, one incarceration to 5 years)? Rather than “Philosophy and technology becoming one and the same again,”[11] is subversive gaming not so much in the eye of the gamer herself, but rather in the relationship of designer and legacy systems of power?

Nikita Uvarov with family

This would perhaps be the most Lacanian reading we could give subversive gaming: that the exposition of lack in the Other (i.e. Uvarov prompting the Russian state to intervene) precipitates jealous repression. Yet gaming today has acquired a new stratum of relations, one which escapes repression in favor of processes of distributed control. With the case of NFTs, we are witness to the schizo-liquidity of capital achieving escape velocity from the ideology of the Master Signifier within the medium of gaming.  Can the NFT ever be put back inside its Pandora’s box? Congratulations! Whatever has been playing you has made it to level 2 – such is the NFT sublime.

Two regimes of power operate here: one is that of the Symbolic register and its jealous workings, while the other relies on liquid capital as a medium for micro-transactions of power, waiting to be reterritorialized. Much like the disciplinary apparatus never goes away but rather finds its sublimation in the society of control, so too is the medium of virtual games a setting for socio-technical subversion whose functioning is indeed social before it is technical. The sublime horizon of gaming and NFTs will settle into business as usual also since technology and games are social before they are technical, and their disposition will tend towards domestication and the taming of the sublime in favor of social, economic and otherwise political affordances.


[1] https://www.scmp.com/tech/tech-trends/article/3166366/ubisoft-experiment-gaming-nfts-sandbox-metaverse-despite-player

[2] https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-teenager-minecraft-terrorism/31697608.html

[3] https://www.euronews.com/next/2022/02/10/russian-teen-jailed-for-5-years-over-terrorism-plot-to-blow-up-virtual-spy-hq-on-minecraft?utm_source=flipboard.com&utm_campaign=feeds_business&utm_medium=referral

[4] For a great analysis of the overlap of games and dreaming see Alfie Bown, Playstation Dreamworld (Polity, 2018).

[5] Keller Easterling, Medium Design: Learning How to Work on the World (Verso, 2021) x.

[6] Easterling, xi.

[7] Judy Wajcman, Technofeminism (Polity, 2004).

[8] Alexander Galloway, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture (University of Minnesota Press, 2006) 24.

[9] J. J. Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1979).

[10] Consider how Minecraft has allowed players to build computers through installing switches and have been able to run Windows 95 (see https://www.theverge.com/2020/7/25/21338092/minecraft-windows-95-pc-doom-vm-computers-mod ) as well as Tetris ( https://screenrant.com/minecraft-tetris-fully-playable-game-redstone/ ) within the game engine.

[11] Bown 132

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