Mechanics of Speculation: Review of Cameron Kunzelman’s The World Is Born From Zero
The World is Born from Zero: Understanding Speculation and Video Games. Cameron Kunzelman. De Gruyter Oldenbourg, July 2022.
The eighth volume in De Gruyter’s Video Games and the Humanities series, Cameron Kunzelman’s The World Is Born From Zero is a fascinating look at the intersection of games and science fiction, presenting a novel argument for what constitutes this intersection at the “formal and (often) microscopic level”—namely, Kunzelman’s concept of “mechanics of speculation”. After surveying the terrain in his introduction, Kunzelman elaborates this concept across four substantial chapters. He situates his argument against the backdrops of game studies, science fiction studies, and the tradition of speculative philosophy in chapter one, then proceeds to apply his argument to questions of labour and subjectivity in chapter two, anti-Blackness and visuality in chapter three, and climate and politics in chapter four. A two-page conclusion ends the book with a light touch, inviting engagement with and extension of the preceding inquiry.
Kunzelman’s primary interlocutors, the three French philosophers Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, and Quentin Meillassoux, make for lofty intellectual scaffolding. However, the care and sensitivity with which Kunzelman situates himself while attending to the “allied ways of addressing the world” that aid him in his study—most importantly, the vital work in Black studies without which his own thought would not be possible—is admirable. Furthermore, while he recognizes the academic context of his book, Kunzelman also acknowledges that many different audiences may find something of interest in it, and so takes pains to “give the reader all the tools they might need to see what [he] sees” in his chosen materials. Chief among these tools is the concept of mechanics of speculation that is central to the book.
Kunzelman argues that mechanics of speculation in video games are seen in “moments of slight interaction,” often “so routine as to be invisible,” and yet “have robust effects on how our subjectivities form, how we interface with racial logics, and how we frame potential futures for humanity and the planet we share.” Video games do things, and some of their most potent actions can be discerned at the “formal” and “microscopic” level of moment-to-moment mechanics, while nevertheless having societal, and sometimes even planetary effects. For Kunzelman, the uniquely science-fictional of these mechanics are the ones that “activate speculation within a player,” allowing a player to “swerve and transform their expectations,” exploring “something more than the material conditions of our world.” What makes Kunzelman’s argument compelling, however, is not that his mechanics of speculation flee this world in some escapist fantasy, but rather find their motivation in the “contingency” of the world, a contingency that makes possible “radically other worlds or potentials for our own world,” glimmers of which we might first discover at the “micro-level of interaction” while playing a video game.
Importantly, nothing about such mechanics is guaranteed to be liberatory. Indeed, much of Kunzelman’s analysis is concerned with the failures of speculative interaction and its capture by capitalism, racism, and ecologically destructive global interests. But in the same way, mechanics of speculation can never be entirely foreclosed, creating space for action wherever player and game meet. Every time a player is prompted for input, video games “create a condition within which something unexpected could happen,” an input-output structure that Kunzelman considers to be fundamental to games. This argument could be read fruitfully against Ian Bogost’s early game studies works, Unit Operations (2006) and Persuasive Games (2007), wherein the concept of the “unit operation,” a “discrete, compressed element of fungible meaning” takes a similarly fundamental position. Where I have been critical of Bogost’s “purposes of persuasion” in the past—that is, “assessment”, “deliberation”, and “conversations”—which are made possible in games by the unit operations he theorizes, Kunzelman’s mechanics of speculation improve on Bogost’s rhetorical operations by introducing the possibility of “direct intervention” to the situation. Bogost’s deployment of another French philosopher, Alain Badiou (who happens to be Quentin Meillassoux’s teacher), never attains the militancy that is core to Badiou’s project, and though I would not consider Kunzelman’s book an activist text, it is refreshingly frank about the oppositional and contested reality of political life.
In his conclusion, Kunzelman makes no claim to solutions, and only gestures toward the “hope” of “speculations that free rather than imprison.” And yet, insofar as Kunzelman is primarily concerned with action, with the interactive subtleties of ideology in play, with the subject-forming potentiality of games before and beyond any rhetorical moves a game makes, his book presents scholars, designers, and players of games with a radical instrument for speculating about and working toward “radical possible outcomes” for the world in which we live, outcomes that “give us something beyond ourselves” and take us past the “very edges of what we can conceive as possible arrangements of the world.” Mechanics of speculation are not mysteries but tools, or more bluntly, bricks, as Brian Massumi writes of concepts in the translator’s foreword to Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus (1980): “A concept is a brick. It can be used to build the courthouse of reason. Or it can be thrown through the window.” A concept is not something to merely converse about; a concept “is an act.” It is in this conceptual mode that Kunzelman leaves his readers, beckoning us to delight in the “speculative breakage” that happens “in the day-to-day experience of games,” to throw bricks through the firmament in order to catch a glimpse of the world to come.
Eric Stein is a games industry professional and a game development instructor at Trinity Western University. He has written extensively on games such as Dark Souls, The Last of Us, and Kentucky Route Zero, with special focus on the intersection of narrative and gaming. He also has a strong interest in tabletop roleplaying games, publishing numerous game zines on itch.io, as well as conducting research on tabletop games like Dream Askew / Dream Apart and Trophy Dark. You can find him on Twitter.
This review was commissioned by an emailed pitch from ARB’s monthly calls for review. The review author was acquainted with the editors through previous ARB work. It was edited by Misha Grifka Wander and copyedited by Jake Casella Brookins. ARB arranged a review copy from the publisher.