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This paper will be present at the mediaterra festival GAMING REALITIES , 4-8/10, 2006 Athens.

Ilias Marmaras & Alexandros Spyropoulos for Personal Cinema.

Virtue as software

By no doubt, most of us are sincerely involved and concerned to implant democracy within the virtual space. But is this thought embedded within the vast majority of games which try to address simulation of public space? Politics are the ongoing, incomplete and under discussion constitution of the rules of coexistence for the citizens of the ‘polis’ and possibly for the alienated so called ‘barbarians’ as well. Historically all the possible practices of politics which have been invented, exercised and experienced, resulted in forms of power which constituted regimes. This categorisation, which occurred during the era of Enlightenment, defined the realm of the new born episteme of political science. The result was the definition and the study of regimes such us Democracy, Monarchy and Despotism. Among these, Democracy is still in question as commodity, and at the same time it is the most demanding concept of political struggle.
Democracy claimed that ‘demos’ (the citizens) decide for the legislation by assigning lords to serve directly the common good. Solon the Athenian, in the beginning of the fifth century BC, claimed while writing the Athenian constitution, in the aftermath of a confrontation between the lower and the upper Athenian class, that he feared the “love of the wealth and an overweening mind’1 . In addition Montesquieu in his book “Esprit des Lois” points that each of the major forms of regimes has its own principle. In particular, democracy has virtue, despotism has fear and monarchy has honour. In his reading the important role of virtue in democracy is the state where the individual has to think and act for the common good, “virtue is defined as the passion for the public.”2 Virtue at the same time is the Achille’s heel of democracy. “…Because virtue has its own codes and rules […] Democracies could maintain their stability only within the context of austerity”.3
In the realm of the democracy of the virtual we are mainly concerned with the image of democracy, the image of the universal suffrage and less with the action at the virtual or real public space. Consequently, the image of democracy itself results to be based on narrative, immersion and interactivity which became more important by replacing and raping the ‘public’ political discourse itself. But any public space, which asks to be defined as such, should evoke communication, and the constitution of the political life should advance and aim on coexistence.
Virtue, as memory reveals today in the infosociety’s contemporary politics, is mostly related with the designers of the software and less with the obedience or disobedience of how we act and behave in the virtual public space. It is more important how the designers of the software expand the horizon of the user and less how the users expand the horizon within the given software.
“When democratic culture become technological, sooner or later democratic rules also have to be hardwired into the technical systems , for example in the form of software.[..] Instead of asking how representative democracy can be saved or renewed by using the internet, the first question that needs to be asked is how democratic the internet (and its culture) itself is.”4 But how the democratisation of the virtual environments and the internet in general can be measured? Is still the production of virtue, within the context of the virtual, the Achille’s heel of democracy?
By software we refer not only to programs like Photoshop, a game engine or how wiki works but the internet itself and in a great extent the ‘physical’ public space with its rules of use. Software expresses itself with interfaces which tend to function as social sculpture. It is a space where the rules - that have been set up usually by the designers - are supposed to expand the cognitive horizon, the desires and the needs of the user; meanwhile they create and store the collective memory. Interfaces for that reason become the gatekeepers of perception, knowledge, imagination and memory. Although there is an opposite perspective to that, which could be concluded in the trendy slogan that runs across some parts of European elites: How Marcel Proust can save your life from the internet. However, the grass root participation in virtual environments appears to transform the platforms to a state that encourages critical thinking. This in its turn assures the production of the essential principle of virtue that feeds and retains democracy.But interfaces could easily transform the potential space to a participatory immersion that raises propaganda and seduction.

Rules as narrative

At this point it is important to address to what Gonzalo Frasca mentions when he wishes to make a clear distinction between narrative and play and to an extent between narratology and ludology.5 In his article he distinguishes the electronic text (cyber text) from the simple text:
“Traditional literary theory and semiotics simply could not deal with these texts, adventure games and textual-based multiuser environments because these works are not just made of sequences of signs but, rather behave like machines or signs generators. The reign of representation was academically contested, opening the path for simulation and game studies.”6
The question that arises here is the one that makes the distinction between the language-based narratives versus the image/sign based medium.
According to Bruno Latour computers are not abstracts. He refers to a computer philosopher called Brian Cantwell-Smith: “The fact that there is (either) 0 and (or) 1 has absolutely no connection with the abstractness. It is actually very concrete, never 0 and 1 (at the same time).”7 The fact that these sign generators exclude by definition the simultaneous existence of the 0 and the 1, in other words the impossibility of the ‘’maybe’’ or the ‘’probably’’ at the generating process, is in itself a form of narrative. And B. Latour continues: “There is only transformation. Information as something that will be carried through space and time, without deformation, is a complete myth.”8
Let’s see another example situated at the origins of the narrative and drama forming.
In Aristotle’s book ‘’Poetics’’ there is a paradoxical sentence in which he claims that, a theatre tragedy could exist without action, even without actors. The beginning and ending (telos) of the tragedy, says Aristotle, is the mythos.
At this point one should not get confused between the meaning of the words mythos and narrative. Mythos, stands here in its primary sense and holds the same position as the word logos in pre-classic texts (Heraclite) and in the Old Testament.
Mythos, is at the base of every narrative as a matrix from which by acting (playing) we form paradigms of existence. Mythos in pre-classic ontology refers to the primordial Chaos and Gaia, which give birth to Eros. It is Eros that affects us to create our life stories. Those stories can take the either the form of representation either can be simulations.
Let’s try to imagine a video game based on the same characteristics as in Aristotle’s
suggestion: A video game without game play (action) and without actors (avatars/users). It would be like if we were trying to imagine a ghost without its pale whitish appearance. Mythos cannot be simulated. But certainly, we can simulate other things.
Ethos (character) and intellect are the two basic concepts of any action and are obliged to refer at the acts of tragic heroes. Consequently, the quality of those (heroes/avatars) involved in action demonstrates through their character (ethos), in other words, by the way that they react to situations. And also through their intellect, that is to say, by their intellectual faculty. Heroes/Avatars are rated by the way that they are able to express their thoughts, their arguments, philosophy and ideas. In conclusion they are rated by how they perceive the world. Coming back to the dilemma between narratology and ludology, Markku Eskelinen claims that, outside academic circles, people are usually excellent in making distinctions between narrative, drama, and games. He says:
If I throw a ball at you I don’t expect you to drop it and wait until it starts telling stories.
Certainly, from that perspective we don’t have to wait the ball to tell us a story, but we still expect that the adventure of its action will bring on something better than the ‘’exciting ‘’drama of a football match.

Beyond dilemmas

Simulation is an abstraction of the real world which is constituted by signs instead of the real. Something that is not a brand new story, if one draws the parallel lines with the ancient theatre, which was a simulation of the ‘’polis’ in that era too. Concerning the democratisation of virtual environments and the comprehension of the importance of virtue in simulation, it is essential to understand that rules in it are a form of narrative as well. Because these exact tools of the software that reproduce simulation, form the space of the potential, political, productive thinking and finally the democratisation itself. It is the creation of spaces where the ‘ethicodesign’ could possibly expand the horizon of the user. What we have to keep in mind is that simulation is always an abstraction and consequently it presupposes that the author decides what is included and what is excluded.
To give an example, in the case of Microsoft’s flight simulator we certainly couldn’t have an airplane crash with a pilot called Joseph Beuys, who instead of bombing the Russians on behalf of the Nazis, realises that he could become an artistic shaman who makes shows in New York in collaboration with a coyote. This kind of abstraction in the experience of flying is in itself a form of story telling and narrative. In other words, inclusion and exclusion within a simulation of a system predefine both the narrative and the game play.

Immersion and Critical Thinking 9

In most of the cases, entertainment industry merges narrative and simulation in one. Script-writing and game-play hold an important role in the overall potentiality of immersion and/or critical thinking that the user experiences. It is more accurate to examine the process of democratisation in virtual environments, in a frame of critical thinking and/or immersion, than what appears to be the phenomenology of the dilemma in the bipolar of narratology and ludology.
It is not only interactivity that makes video games a different form than the older media. Video game developers take seriously in consideration the user’s participatory creation of virtual spaces, via mods, volunteer design, and forums of radical criticism. The ongoing need for users to personalise, customize and create their avatars and in general the virtual spaces and storylines, shape them us major elements that render possibly video games as a more democratic platform than TV and Cinema. Critical thinking is not only based on the way that narrative is told but on the build-in creation of the potential space that the users could ‘imagine’.

Democracy to come

If we consider for example the case of a video game like the Eidos Interactive Deus Ex, we observe that users faced the option of some multiple choices. The ability to choose some features of your avatar and alternative plots which have three or more possible overlapping storylines, do not really represent a democratic choice but this notion that Derrida defined as “democracy to come” (democratie à venir).10 The democracy to come is a state where the notion of democracy approaches utopia, where the common good that it promises could be fulfilled in the future, but it is always unrealised in the present. The process of going towards the realisation of common good is a dynamic process, which contains in its structure amongst other democratic elements, but democracy itself lies far into the timescape always as a ‘democracy to come’.11 Democracy is not something static, an object or commodity. Its real opposition lies within the core of democracy from those who claim that they already realise it, as Oliver Marchart clearly indicates.12 With the same tactics Deus Ex suggests that we could create a space where choice is important, but because technically is impossible, due to the usual problem of technological inability combined with creative stagnation, we stay with a few naïf alternative plots. These plots don’t negate the fact of a ‘democracy to come’ even if we don’t see the plurality of the production of discourse. But it could easily fall to a state where Deus Ex, in between others, claims that they realise democracy, a fact that is encouraged by the stagnation and repetition of the creative industry. In fact as Buckminster Fuller said “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a NEW model that makes the existing model obsolete”13 This tactic clearly indicates a process of becoming, where democratic virtue is the key stone for the creation of the necessary condition which gathers the potentiality of transformation.

Democracy not yet

In the early history of video games Ralph Baer inventor of the Magnavox Odyssey in collaboration with Midway during 1980 decided to test a prototype video game that had a camera which could get a picture of the player and display it in his/her avatar and at the high scores. They decided to test it in Chicago. Everything seemed excellent the first day but the second day one of the users decided to get a picture of his testicles. The project was abandoned.14 This is the case of the democracy “not yet”. The colonisers in India had exactly the same political understanding of a democracy “not yet” for a state of –mostly- ‘illiterate’ people. This understanding of a linear historical time of the “not yet”, is quite different from the notion of “to come” in democracy.15 While ‘democracy to come’ is the notion of the becoming in a constant process of examination against doctrine and rigidity, the “not yet” is the tactics of the oppressors who deny the freedom to the oppressed. By no means would someone like to draw a parallel between exercised politics in India with Midway’s action and demonise their decision to abandon the project. This scheme belongs to a much bigger frame where the risky steps in the videogame industry, could only be realised in a kind of scene like independent, alternative cinema.


Setting aside that users experience games like Grand Theft Auto, as a simple form of play and entertainment, there is still in such games a meaningful structure of an urban environment which hosts and reproduces human interrelations. The subversion of Grand Theft Auto uses the notion of freedom in public space, in a violent and anarchic environment which by the way justifies the existence of urban forces of repression. But of course, that is the political consequence of the notion of freedom in an isolated environment that does not include the same codes of coexistence as it happens in real life. In other words there are not distinct criminal behaviours in GTA but simply a simplification of the socio-political reality. What is of major importance in Grand Theft Auto and with the incident of Ralph Baer’s camera, is the suggestion that a form of democracy of everyone means ochlocrasy as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri put it.16 A state where the cannibals (we) are doing whatever we want in a constant desire to kill old ladies in the street and go back to observe their blood on the concrete. This political notion of a flocking herd that is unable to handle any circumstance because is deeply involved in a criminal individuality belongs to a common misconception. It is a misconception that functions as concealment for the hypocritical hesitation of the political systems - that are supposed to have established and represent democracy- to include the citizen within the sphere of interaction. The real question for a citizen which has been detached from any form of power in our contemporary society is not if s/he is able to get involved in a critical thinking concerning something collective, but if s/he is able to negate the form of thinking that relates him/her to be a product of power.17 By the way, that was the case thirty years ago. Today the individual engages him/herself in the reproduction of the self as a product power. Unfortunately we face the situation of a voluntary production of the subject as a power object. We haven’t got to do with just a criminal and unimaginative flocking herd but with citizens that they aren’t eager to think for themselves as an entity in the polis (city).
As Negri and Hardt state “Representation fills two contradictory functions: it links the multitude to government and at the same time separates it.”18 The current state of representational democracy boosts this kind of individuality where individual thinking is related to a process of self-protection in a political reality of precarious life. When the citizen is detached from any form of power by means of representation and looses his/her involvement in the public sphere, means that there is no way to think outside individualism and at the same time there is no place to reveal virtue as democratic corner stone of politics. This is not of course a contemporary phenomenon.
From the Athenian city where demos (citizens) banished and executed a few of the most important figures, to the French revolution and up to the cleansings during the revolution of October 1917, we experienced the role of the individual who is obliged to get involved as a Homo Ludens that no instructor had ever paid attention to teach him/her the rules of the game while at the same time that he has been permanently excluded from the creation of the rules.19

Included Exclusions

In contemporary democracy and virtual environments the icon of several notions expresses the notions themselves. These icons stand as an active political concealment for the failure of representational democracy. The image of the poll with the hand which is ‘capable of choosing’ is more important than democracy itself. And in virtual environments the image of a cursor pressing whatever combination of buttons accompanied by the sound of the click, is much more important than the content someone ‘chooses’. It is a state of representational democracy again, where the intermediation between the citizen and politics, which forms the icon of democracy, becomes something beyond perception, a spectre of a constantly moving power, which takes the responsibility from the individual. It is the job of the individual to realise the social whole20 and not something that the power structures will do for him/her.
Giorgio Agamben, notices that the notion of politics and consequently Democracy is a mechanism of exclusion itself, where the construction of a legislation system by [hypothetically] the majority of the people exclude the others from the city. We could say that this form of exclusion is a viable system even with the middle ages, a few world wars, and a planet ready to collapse both in physical and political terms. So in practice there is no utopia of a total inclusion within the frame of politics; neither in an hypothetical state of the “democracy of everyone”, nor in the case of the ‘realised’ democracy. But in that fragile realisation we don’t have to demonise politics in general. We have to understand once more that virtue is the Achilles’ heel of democratisation. A form of exclusion which functions through virtue, with the notion of thinking for the public, could be the ‘feedback loop’ of a “democracy to come”. In the contrary, the exclusion based on the realm of the individual thinking and acting, which is opposed to the public benefit, is formed under the domination of fear, a characteristic of despotism as Montesquieu clearly indicates. Even though nowadays we experience politics which have a great similarity with a form of post modern despotism, the potentiality of the virtual environments offers a probable field of critical thinking. It is the detachment from the real world of capital, property and individuality that allows space for studying the alternative forms of coexistence. Maybe it is the ‘fraud’ of the virtual that could engage people in a re-reading of politics and reconsideration of social interrelations.
We want to conclude by mentioning that Athens was the birth place of the idea of democracy, from where it was spread through the entire world. In today’s geopolitical map, you can see that on the left of Athens there is Lebanon, on the north are situated the 'marvellous' Balkans, towards the northeast we find Tsetsenia, in the east lies the 'devil' himself and finally at the west we have the democracy ‘realised’…

Althusser’s conclusion on Montesquieu.

If I had to end by returning to my first words, I would say that this man, who started alone and discovered the new continents of history, hasn’t got but one thing in his mind:
to come back home. The land he conquered, this land he salutes in his last page, wasn’t anything else than the land of the return.
He crossed such a distance in order to go back to his home, to go back to his old ideas after so many novelties, to the past after of so much future. It is like this traveller
who departed one day for a distant place and stayed for years to the unknown, believed
when he returned, that the time had frozen.
Even thought he has opened new roads.


1.Aristotle, 305B.C The Athenian Constitution, Translated by Sir Frederic G. Kenyon, part 5
2.Louis Althousser,2003, Montesquieu, la politique et l’histoire . Athens, Plethron, P.103
3.Ibid, P.75
4.Geert Lovink,2003.My first recession: Critical internet culture in transition, Rotterdam, V2_Publishing/NAi Publishers, p.236
5.Gonzalo Frasca, 2003. The Video Game Theory Reader. New York - London, Routledge, p.221
7.Bruno Latour (interview by Geert Lovink),2004. Uncanny Networks. Massachusetts, Mit Press p.155
8.Ibid p.155
9.Marie-Laure Ryan, 2001. Narrative as Virtual Reality, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, p.10
10.Oliver Marchart (Editors: Okwui Enwezor, Carlos Basualdo, Ute Meta Bauer, Susanne Ghez, Sarat Maharaj, Mark Nash, Octavio Zaya),2002.Democracy unrealised, Documenta11 _ Platform1. Ostfildern-Ruit, Hatje Cantz publishers, p.259
11.Ibid. p259
12.Ibid p.266
13.Geert Lovink,2003.My first recession: Critical internet culture in transition, Rotterdam, V2_Publishing/NAi Publishers, p.236
14.Steven L.Kent, 2001. The ultimarte History of Video Games.New York, Three Rivers Press, p.173
15.Oliver Marchart (Editors: Okwui Enwezor, Carlos Basualdo, Ute Meta Bauer, Susanne Ghez, ->Sarat Maharaj, Mark Nash, Octavio Zaya), 2002. Democracy unrealised, Documenta11 _ Platform1. ->Ostfildern-Ruit, Hatje Cantz publishers, p.259
16.Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, 2005. Multitude. London, Penguin books, p.241
17.Michel Foucault preface (Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatari), 1972, Antioedipus (Capital and Schizophreneia), London, Continuum, p.XVI
18.Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, 2005. Multitude. London, Penguin books, p.241
19.Don Henaro, 2006. Democratisation of virtual environments, London, Third Ring of Power p .678
20.Michel Foucault preface (Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatari), 1972, Antioedipus (Capital and Schizophreneia), London, Continuum, p.XVI
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