“What a beautiful day for an Eschaton”:
Game Logic and the Short-Circuit of Meaning
academic essay by Rob Patterson
On a snow-filled Interdependence Day, the final foreseeable round of Enfield Tennis Academy’s homegrown game Eschaton is played. It is by far the most complicated and descriptively dense game within the text, which is notable considering how many different game-like structures are developed in the novel. Wallace is certainly playing on the irony that this, the only iteration of the game we readers are witness to, is the eschaton of Eschaton. Yet, beyond this joke, the unraveling of Eschaton has greater implications for Infinite Jest and its themes, particularly those connected to the games that litter the text. To understand the purpose and function of Eschaton within the novel, we must consider it in the context of the Academy whose students are being trained specifically to be good “players” of the games that they are being prepared for. This paper will first examine the frameworks that Wallace bases Eschaton on: the games of tennis and the instructional/indoctrinating systems of coaching. It will then turn to a closer reading of Eschaton itself, one that will be bolstered with a discussion of similar games that re-imagine the Cold War, and finally turn to the broader repercussions that the concept of “play” has on the varied structures in the text.
The students at E.T.A. are primarily instructed by Gerhardt Schtitt, who “like most Europeans of his generation [was] anchored from infancy to certain permanent values which… may, admittedly have a whiff of proto-fascist potential about them, but which do… anchor nicely the soul and course of a life” (82). Schtitt’s “pre-Unification” childhood existence and training was predicated on a system of meaningful “boundaries”. The major boundary that was stressed in his own sporting education was between the “Kanto-Hegelian” concepts of “the Self – the needs, the desires, the fears, the multiform cravings of the individual appetitive will” – and the “team”/”the State”, a division upheld by “a set of delimiting rules”/”the Law” (82-3). The principle behind creating citizens through seemingly unconnected sports training has everything to do with action: “By learning… the virtues that pay off directly in competitive games, the well-disciplined boy begins assembling the more abstract… skills necessary for being a ‘team player’ in a larger arena: the even more subtly diffracted moral chaos of full-service citizenship in a State” (83). By setting up an individual/public binary and teaching students to sublimate their private desires into the collective geist of their sports team, the instructional institution can ensure that this same logic is transferred onto the players’ later existence as citizens. The imprinting power of such a structure on Schtitt is not to be underestimated: it determines both his worldview, and how he replicates the same systems at E.T.A. in order to similarly shape its students – Hal asks his junior students “you ever see evidence of the tiniest lack of coolly calculated structure around here?” (114).
The imprinting of such logic is accomplished through the repetitive actions of the game of tennis, both in training and competition. Games in general lend themselves to this pedagogical use particularly well. To understand this, we can begin by extending Alexander Galloway’s claim that “video games are actions”(2) to encompass all games, and add that games are actions from the players’ point of view; from a more objective perspective, games are structures that evaluate and thus guide action. Such evaluation is based on a binary of valid/invalid action: games must associate values with a limited set of actions and exclude all others. This claim can extend to both video games and games in general: the pressing of a button that is not bound to an in-game action is ignored by a game’s code in the same way that the rules of the hundred-metre dash do not account for whether or not a runner flapped his/her arms like a chicken while running it. Both button press and high-speed poultry imitation have “meaning” in the wider world insofar as they are real events/actions, but within the value systems of their respective games, they could just as well not exist, as they have no impact on any measured/valuable variable. These systems of evaluation, both at the interface level and at higher levels of the game, are the core of gamic structures. As Civilization designer Sid Meier famously reflected, “A game is a series of interesting choices” (Rollings and Morris, 38): what makes choices “interesting” is the contextual meaning they carry – the choice to play a lob or a dropshot only becomes “interesting” and meaningful within the context of the game. As such, repeated playing of a game conditions both the deliberate action of playing and the underlying structures of value and meaning that underpin the gamic system: as Galloway puts it, “to win, you can’t just do whatever you want. You have to figure out what will work within the rules of the game… eventually, your decisions become intuitive, as smooth and rapid-fire as the computer [game’s] own machinations”. The logic of the game is thus imprinted upon the logic of its players.
At E.T.A., tennis therefore serves as both the game that students are being trained to excel at, and also the source of a game logic that is meant to guide them in life, to allow them to establish systems of meaning. Schtitt actively encourages total immersion in the rules of the tennis game by asking players to “be here in total” (461), to “never cross the lines. Never leave the court” (460) just as he was forced to do when being trained. The restrictions the game places on action are confining and sometimes painful, but they stave off the “large external world where is cold and pain without purpose or tool” (460) that experialist America’s social landscape has become. As James Incandenza’s father tells him, in the “U.S. of modern A” the human being has been reduced to “a machine a body an object” (159), its value equivalent or comparable to every other body in existence – “a body in commerce with bodies” (160). Reducing all elements of the world to their physical presence empties that presence of any value: “We’re so present it’s ceased to mean” (168). Games thus provide players with structures that re-value their existence and actions. Schtitt’s use of “occur” incorporates both presence and action: gamic structures create “purpose past sluggardly self” within their worlds, which gives one “a chance to occur” through “playing”(459). In “this second world inside the lines”, it is not a matter of “adjusting to ignore” the world outside the game “‘as if’” it were not present; rather, by “occurring” totally within the game, to the player there “is no cold. Is no wind…. here there are no conditions” (459). The limited game-world is defined, then, by the variables it incorporates: if there is no defined variable for temperature, for weather, for personal physical condition, then it does not exist within the game. When one “make[s] this second world inside the world [into] the world” (459), then one is reconfiguring reality around the representation the game makes out of it – the player is left in a land somewhat similar to Baudrillard’s hyperreal, where the representation of the world that has been filtered through the logic of the game supplants the original real. The crossover point, where the hyperreal of the game replaces the real of the world, comes when the “repetitive movements” of the game are performed “over and over until… through repetition they sink and soak into the hardware, the C.P.S. The machine-language” (117) and the code of the game becomes the cipher for reality in the minds of the players. While this second world of the game would thus seem initially to provide for a freedom of action, an opening up of potentiality, its logic counters this liberation through the confining structure it places on its players.
Differentiating this from Baudrillard’s concept, however, is the apparent necessity of this structuring representation of the world in the lives of Infinite Jest’s characters, or at the very least its ambiguous/tending-towards-ameliorating qualities. Wallace mentions this in an interview with Michael Silverblatt when he describes Schtitt as “the only one saying anything remotely non-horrifying, except it is horrifying because he’s a fascist… he’s the only figure there who isn’t completely insane”. The latter seems to stem from Schtitt’s resilience, due to his strict systematic worldview, against “the loss of a sense of purpose or organizing principles, something that you’re willing to give yourself away to” that, for Wallace, characterizes the “sadness” implicit in contemporary American culture, in which the “addictive impulse is obvious and powerful because it is a… distortion of the religious impulse”. The implication then is that this impulse can be satisfied in ways that are not as destructive as addiction or as politically questionable as fascism.
This “religious impulse” to be part of something greater than oneself is left unsatisfied in an experialist America. The collapse of the Cold War binary of NATO versus Warsaw Pact leaves American culture without an enemy “to unite in opposition to” (384), which leads to internal conflict and opposition – the “blam[ing]” (384) that threatens to divide further. Mario Incandenza’s Interdependence Day film depicts President Gentle vowing to “find us some cohesion-renewing Other” (384) which proves to be, paradoxically, the two countries with whom they incorporate into O.N.A.N., Canada and Mexico. In amongst the movie-watching crowd, Canadian students are described as training “in the land of their enemy-ally” (485, emphasis mine), revealing that through the conflict over disarmament and O.N.A.N.-formation, these two northerly nations within this new meta-state are at once aligned and opposed. The threats of toxic radioactive self-destruction issued by Gentle during the negotiations result in the nuclear missiles “north of the 44th … [being] remove[d]” and then “reinsert[ed] upside down” (407) – Bradley Fest draws the conclusion that these missiles were detonated in order to create “the highly toxic conditions in the Great Concavity” (133). Thus, the nuclear imaginary which created the ultimate national myth for America – a total war that involved all processes of society, whose stakes were not only the continued existence of the nation but of all life on Earth – is imploded, leaving, instead of a clear Other to position oneself against, a complex and fluctuating “enemy-ally”, with which they are simultaneously united through and divided by the toxic remnants of the tools of the Cold War imaginary.
We now come to Eschaton itself: its players are not only “in the very earliest stages of puberty and really abstract-capable thought” – the perfect time for them to learn the aforementioned “more abstract… skills necessary for being a ‘team player’” – but are also seeing their “allergy to the confining realities of the present… just starting to emerge as a weird kind of nostalgia for stuff you never even knew” (323), a feeling defined in the footnotes by Wallace as being “what more abstraction-capable post-Hegelian adults call ‘Historical Consciousness’” (1023). Eschatonites deal with the quagmire of meaning in their historical moment by turning back to the past, to a cultural representation of the Cold War that is based on the logic of game theory. Players engage with this gamic system in the same “straight-line pursui[t]” of a “short-sighted idea of personal happiness” that their historical moment expects of them and configures them to follow, so while it seems that Eschaton is “complete[ly] dissociat[ed] from the realities of the present”, it is reproducing the real logic of the present in-game. The specific historical period of the game is not what matters here – when J.J. Penn attempts to role-play as leader of his bloc, Pemulis reminds him that, at its core, Eschaton “is not a matter of the principle of the thing [the war, the history] ever” (328). It is not the historical content that matters, but the value of the gamic actions that take place. Thus we can see the complexity of the game – based on “appendices and sample c:\Pink2\Mathpak\EndStat-path Decision Tree diagrams and an offset of the most accessible essay Pemulis could find on applied game theory” (322) – not as driven by a desire for historical realism, but rather as an attempt to add deep meaning and value to the actions of the game’s players.
Eschaton is not the only example of a video game that attempts to represent the Cold War. Games about the Cold War were produced both during and after the conflict, and tracing the thematic and mechanical differences between the games produced in these two periods of time can help us to better understand exactly how Eschaton functions for its enraptured players. We can see that games about the Cold War that were crafted while the conflict was an ongoing matter take a drastically different approach to those that came after the fall of the Berlin Wall: namely, the former group of games engaged with, represented and often re-produced in their players the feelings of anxiety – over history, the future, and the threat of planetary nuclear annihilation – that characterized the Cold War, while the latter group of games engage with what Wallace terms the “weird kind of nostalgia for stuff you never even knew” (322), re-presenting the forms and structures of the conflict while remaining distanced from the full emotional impact of their context.
Within the former group, Atari’s Missile Command stands as a prime example of a game that both narratively and mechanically engages with the heightened anxiety of the Cold War era. The player must defend six cities, which they can name before the game begins in earnest, against an increasingly dense barrage of warheads. The increasing density of this barrage, when combined with the limited firing speed of the anti-warhead missiles at the player’s command, eventually forces players to choose to sacrifice some cities in order to be able to better defend others. In concert with the localizing effect of the aforementioned city-naming, this drives home the harsh realities of Cold War logic for the player, as they are forced to symbolically sacrifice a location and population that they are familiar with. The game also eschews the traditional arcade “Game Over” screen and high-score list, instead opting for a one that simply reads “The End”. Symbolic and mechanical elements of Missile Command are thus united in imagining the stark, brutal realities of a nuclear war scenario from the perspective of those under attack: there is no possibility for victory, and no outcome other than total annihilation, as even the most skilled player cannot play forever. A similar theme is evoked by WarGames, a video-game adapted from the film of the same name by Coleco in 1984, in which the player must contain the damage inflicted upon American targets long enough for a cease-fire to be worked out between the combatants, lest an automatic counterstrike be triggered: here, the breakout of global thermonuclear war is the fail-state of the game, the punishment handed down to the player should they fail to play with sufficient skill. New World Computing’s 1989 title Nuclear War critiques the very premise of open nuclear warfare through parody: while it is one of the very few to feature fully-fledged nuclear strikes as a legitimate element of gameplay, the winner of the game – whichever country has any amount of surviving population at the game’s conclusion – is treated to a caricature of that player-country’s leader celebrating in a barren wasteland; a tie results in an image of an Earth that is literally torn apart in space. 1985’s Balance of Power, a game of geopolitical brinkmanship whose goal is to maximize the player-nation’s “prestige” while avoiding nuclear war, explicitly refuses the player any images or representations of mutually assured destruction: in the game’s own words, “We do not reward failure.” As a final example, Sean Pearce and David Bolton’s strategy title Theatre Europe not only grants a score of 0% to any player that causes a nuclear war to begin in the game, but requires any player that wishes to launch a broad-spectrum nuclear attack to dial a real-life phoneline which plays a recorded message of what a nuclear attack might presumably sound like – air-raid sirens, a massive explosion, the weeping of a survivor – and then after asking if the player is certain this is what they want, provides the code the game requires for such a launch. These gamic structures drastically de-incentivize the player from engaging in true nuclear war, and are committed to exploring and representing the anxieties and realistic projections of what a true global thermonuclear conflict would entail.
In contrast, games set during the Cold War that have been made since the fall of the Berlin Wall are set up primarily as simulations free from the “moral” judgment of the aforementioned games, and also often imagine alternate histories that allow for a clearer, more oppositional cultural narrative than is afforded in the “post-Soviet and –Jihad era” (382) of Infinite Jest. Falling into the second category, 2003’s Freedom Fighters situates the player in an imagined alternate history in which the Soviet Union successfully occupied the United States, where they must co-ordinate and fight in a resistance effort against the new government in New York City. Here, then, the player can engage with what is not only a straightforward and stable national mythos, but one that is localized for an American audience. In the former category stand examples like Introversion Software’s DEFCON (2006), which uses an abstract representational map to allow players to simulate a global nuclear conflict, registering the effects solely in terms of “megadeaths”. Player’s scores are determined, by default, by subtracting megadeaths sustained from megadeaths inflicted; thus, the desire to win in concert with the ruthless Cold War game theory upon which the game is predicated can, as in Eschaton, compel the player to engage in symbolic acts of hyperaggression, conditioning players to both perform this action and internalize the underlying logic that drives them to such action.
Eschaton, as a post-Cold War video game itself, certainly holds affinities with DEFCON and its ilk, as it is primarily what Roger Calleja terms an “extended virtual environment[t] which contain[s] a game… within [it]” (14-15). The virtual landscape of DEFCON is created through the code of the game and maintained through its execution, and thus provides a stable environment whose operations can be defined through rules. However, the game itself functions as a second-order set of rules which determines how points are awarded: we can see that the two exist on separate planes when we consider that the game offers multiple different scoring systems that can each be interchangeably overlaid on top of the base landscape of the game itself. Calleja also points out that there are other sets of rules potentially operating within the same landscape: players “can engage in prepackaged games that have been encoded into the system or they can decide to create their own games within the virtual playground” (8) – to give an example, one could play DEFCON or Eschaton and not aim to win the overall game, but to, for example, try to keep one particular city entirely defended from attack. Multiplayer games also have “conventional rules” (15) that can be based around the in-game interactions and rules – for example, the anti-roleplaying rule that Pemulis reminds Penn of – or simply be re-inscriptions of interpersonal relationships outside the game, an example being a player intentionally setting out to prevent another from winning. Games such as Eschaton thus possess deeply layered systems of rules that can make it difficult to parse which – and how many –“games” a player is engaging with at once.
This final game of Eschaton not only “metastasizes from a controlled set of Spasm Exchanges” – here the language implies the physicality and muscularity of a body operating on the biological rules of nerve stimulation causing involuntary reaction – “to an all-out apocalyptic series of punishing Strikes Against Civilian Populations” (324) but beyond this: the drive for short-sighted pleasure shatters the “delimiting boundaries that are Eschaton’s very life-blood” (335) when Ingersoll attempts to assassinate the heads of AMNAT and SOVWAR. The division between “map” and “territory” (333) begins to dissolve: the game’s logic, that could incorporate and evaluate the symbolic actions taken by players in the realm of the map/ “apparatus” (338) and translate them to changes in the variables of the territory, breaks down when this dissolution takes place. Suddenly the value and meaning of actions, for whose sake the game exists to create in the first place, are unfixed and unrestricted. Wallace’s syntax reflects this: what were consistently referred to as “warheads” (338) quickly become “tennis balls” (339) again, and are discarded as weapons when the real world re-enters the game along with the fact that fists and racquets do more damage. The weather indicates the same breaking down of difference that created meaning: light snow thickens, making everyone playing look “gauzily shrouded” (338), and then becomes “more than heavy enough… to exclude Lord’s not seeing LaMont Chu directly before him” (342, emphasis mine). The specific targeting of certain players – foremost Ingersoll – reveals the intrusion on the official game by the social matrix that is supposed to be superseded by Eschaton. The “logic and axiom” (338) of Eschaton, a “remorseless logic” that can “compe[l]” (325) one to inflict tremendous amounts of damage, is short-circuited and drives the game “into [the] chaos” (338) of the unfettered real. This danger of the cataclysmic collapse of game logic cannot be restricted solely to Eschaton – rather, the game’s implosion bodes ill for the similar, combative, Cold War-esque logic being taught to E.T.A.’s students by Schtitt: “there is in this world you, and in the hand a tool, there is a ball, there is opponent with his tool, and always only two of you, you and this other, inside the lines, with always a purpose to keep this world alive, yes?” (459). Eschaton shows us that Schtitt’s proffered answer here does not always hold when frantic “straight-line pursuit” of goals can cause the game’s logic to collapse in on itself.
Eschaton’s dissolution reveals the fragility of a number of similar systems in the text when confronted with this Euclidean principle of efficiency. We can connect the systems at play in Eschaton with competitive tennis in general through Wallace’s earlier essay ‘Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley’, where he writes that “competitive tennis, like money pool, requires geometric thinking, the ability to calculate not merely your own angles but the angles of response to your angles”, yet many young players he faced in his career were driven “mad” by the high winds that blew their shots off target in-game. While “textbook tennis [is] plane geometry”, all balls travelling in “straight lines”, all action reducible to branches of decision trees, the reality of the game is that the real world can invade the gameworld at any moment. In Baudrilard’s terms, the hyperreal can, in a moment, be overridden by a hitherto unrepresented element of the real; in Eschatonian terms, the apparatus/map can invade the territory at any time.
The instability of systems is re-enforced throughout the text: they are set up only to be shown to be too weak to contain the deep hunger for meaning and value that drives characters’ unrelenting pursuit of their goals. Competitive tennis, in a section in close proximity to the Eschaton episode, is shown to be just as fragile as the nuclear war-game: even those who are skilled enough and manage to resist exterior pressures to rise through to “The Show” are ultimately left unsatisfied when they reach the summit: as Lyle Bland advises LaMont Chu when the latter comes to him to discuss his insatiable desire to secure the fame of a world-class tennis player, the pleasure of reaching the top is only enjoyable “the first time”. Once they have reached that ultimate plateau, famous players “do not enjoy their photographs in magazines so much as they fear that their photographs will cease to appear in magazines” (389). The frantic drive for success is not resolved, but instead turned into a paranoiac urge to remain rooted where one is.
Wallace reflects on a similar topic in “Laughing With Kafka”, where he notes that “the really central Kafka joke [is] that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey towards home is in fact our home”. The desire for the end goal, for the high score, for the trophy at the end of the game short circuits itself when it does not realize that it is the pursuit and not the achievement that properly defines the self. To indulge in cliché, it is the journey and not the destination that matters here, and when the latter is given primacy over the former in this case, the journey to proper self-definition is at risk. If we see the world as a set of gamic structures, then to realize selfhood and seize meaning is not to win but to play, playing for the sake of playing and for the enjoyment of the game. Eschaton is played to win – and to increase players’ lob shots – and Ken Erdedy’s marijuana-smoking preparatory routine (19-20), along with the other drug-based rituals in the text, is not done for its own sake, but for the spike of pleasure he gets at the end – indeed, drug addiction is the example par excellence of this ends-over-means perspective, as it enslaves the addict to the constant pull of getting as high as possible at all times. Losing sight of the fact that “we are inside what we wanted all along” (‘Laughing Along With Kafka’) results in addiction to these spikes of pleasure in which we can only enjoy life in the brief first moment that we attain them. But in the hypothetical case where we could somehow grasp and realize the ideal of complete and perpetual satisfaction that we are chasing, Wallace shows us that we end up suffering from the effects of the p-terminal experiment and The Entertainment: locked in a stasis so virulent as to be lethal.
Eschaton’s dissolution leads directly into a discussion of the structure of Boston’s Alcoholics Anonymous, a juxtaposition that sweeps the reader from the breakdown of one system to the potential for re-establishment that another offers. When one is “Finished” – when one “cannot get drunk and… cannot get sober” (347) – AA offers a new set of co-ordinates and actions that one can take part in: “Coming In” (344), “Commitments” (343), “Losses” (345) all form a new vocabulary that serve as markers in a different kind of “game”. Bresnan considers that AA’s slogan “‘Fake It Till You Make It’… encourages a… serious form of play” (65). Gately becomes the figure that the text follows through this system of restructuring that takes advantage of core gamic elements present in other systems throughout the text: for example, Bresnan identifies that Gately can “separate his words and actions from his ‘true’ feelings” as his “mentors repeatedly assure him that it doesn’t matter whether he ‘sincerely’ believes in the program” (65): rather, through playing along, the repetitive actions eventually sink down into his “machine code”. Gately can “strategically construc[t] a self that can comply with all of AA’s ‘suggestions’” (66) that he can performatively inhabit, and perhaps even become. What is important here is not so much Bresnan’s point that this is “serious play” that unites playfulness with the realities of life, but rather that AA’s dictum of “Stay Active” allows one to continue to play: it does not set up any arbitrary end goals or victory conditions. Rather, it creates a set of rules that does not dominate the landscape of the self, of the self’s potential action, but serves to keep the addicts moving and free from the self-destructive, paralyzing effects of “straight-line” desire. Eschaton, tennis, drug addiction: each falls apart in the postmodern moment, as post-Cold War hunger for new meaning and value can put one into an unsatisfying – or satisfyingly lethal – feedback loop. The winning move is not to not play, but to play a different game, one where victory is not a point, but exists in the playing itself. Instead of “dying to give our lives away to something… [to] God or Satan… to games or needles” (900), the self can fashion, become and be itself through play.
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——-. Infinite Jest. Little, Brown and Company: New York, 2006. Print.
——. Interview by Michael Silverblatt. 1996. Web. http://web.archive.org/web/20040606041906/www.andbutso.com/~mark/bookworm96/