- Respawn: Gamers, Hackers, and Technogenic Life by Colin Milburn
By Colin Milburn. Durham: Duke University Press, 2018. Pp. 301.
Since their development in the 1970s, digital games have evolved into one of the most significant forms of cultural expression worldwide. In the book Respawn: Gamers, Hackers, and Technogenic Life, author Colin Milburn goes a step further by arguing that digital games are also a primary site for [End Page 1250] what he calls "technogenesis." This concept, based on a trope from science fiction, refers to the emergence of new life-forms or ways for humans to exist in the world, "from within systems of technology." Milburn argues that the increasing pervasiveness of computerization, and digital gaming in particular, have given rise to a mixed online and offline repertoire of "political interventions . . . affective productions and performances, collective mobilizations, and subversive pleasures [or 'lulz']" (p. 7). This repertoire has recalibrated life in general, but Milburn primarily aims to show how it has transformed socio-political activism—in particular as undertaken by hacktivist groups such as Anonymous and Lulzsec over the past two decades.
Milburn singles out digital games as a site for technogenesis because they "offer a model of engagement"; since games require active player involvement, they can "recalibrate our sense of things" and "[present] tactics for inhabiting the world differently" (pp. 8−9). Throughout the book, Milburn tries to illustrate this premise by analyzing how digital games present modes of action that have inspired political activism since 2000. He discusses games such as Spacewar!, one of the first games ever created (MIT, 1962); the spatial puzzle game Portal (Valve, 2007); and the Japanese role-playing game Final Fantasy VII (Squaresoft, 1997).
To explain the concept of technogenesis, Millburn presents an eclectic series of case studies. The book does not offer a systematic insight into how gaming practices and communities have shaped hacktivism globally and historically. Nevertheless, Milburn's technogenesis-concept is innovative and compelling. He presents the argument that digital games play a central role in this process in a rich (but anecdotal) manner. Milburn's discussion of the puzzle game Portal is an excellent example (chapter 3). In Portal, players take on the role of a protagonist who wakes up in a private military research facility and is asked by the facility's central AI to test a new weapon, the "portal gun." Throughout the game, players discover that the protagonist merely serves as a guinea pig for the AI, to be disposed of once the testing has been completed. However, with the help of the portal gun, players are also invited to actively subvert the AI's intentions, and thus engage in resistance from within. Milburn states that the portal gun serves as a ludic (i.e. playful) version of "tactical media:" tools for the "technical subversion" of "dominant regimes of power" that created these tools in the first place (p. 81). Milburn goes on to show how Portal's ludic subversiveness became a source of inspiration for the hacktivist collective Anonymous, when it hacked into U.S. government agency servers and threatened to release "warheads" of stolen data in retaliation for the death of a computer programmer during "Operation Last Resort" in 2013 (pp. 44–50).
Despite such poignant analyses, the book—in particular its theoretical framework—also suffers from omissions and inconsistencies. Firstly, Milburn's technogenesis-concept underplays the significance of modes of existence presented through non-digital cultural forms, despite ample evidence [End Page 1251] to the contrary in the case study chapters. For example, Milburn states that Spacewar!'s creation can be characterized as "an exercise in applied science fiction:" an effort to solve problems through adventurous and improvisational technological experimentation (p. 25). As Milburn correctly observes, this reflects an ethos omnipresent in contemporary hacktivist collectives. However, Milburn also demonstrates how the creators of Spacewar! actively drew inspiration from pulp science fiction novels for their improvisational ethos, thus highlighting the significance of science fiction more broadly for hacktivist culture. Together with other examples, this raises the question why the non-digital isn't integrated more systematically into the technogenesis-framework. Secondly, due...