The Game

Alessandro Baricco (Einaudi, 2018).
23 Jul 2019

Italian Book Review: The Game, by Alessandro Baricco

Ask any Millennial. Better still, ask their parents. They’ll unequivocally tell you how greatly their generation has been affected by the “digital revolution” and the overhaul of traditional thought it brought about. 

But if you ask Alessandro Baricco, he’ll tell you that the influence runs in the opposite direction: that a dramatic change in perception, fuelled by a traumatic response to the twentieth century, upended his and future generations’ relationship with technology and caused the digital revolution so frequently spouted in listicles and blog posts not unlike this one.

And that’s just the beginning. In his 2018 book The Game, part chronological explanation of the tech boom from the late seventies to today, part philosophical playing field for the coining of new terms and exploration of new dichotomies, Baricco maps the changing landscape of cultural currency on a newly technological terrain. From Space Invaders, the first video-game, to the iPhone 8, Baricco’s book-length essay rests on the idea that technological development is, and always has been informed by a game format that incentivizes users and promises them big rewards if only they can keep up. If only. Would that it were simple to do so. The game is difficult to navigate and only a limited few thrive in it. Like an earthquake that disrupts the seismic geomorphology of our surroundings  – changing what remains on the surface and what lies beneath -, the Game unearths human behaviours and tendencies that until recently had remained latent while decisively burying those once more prominent. 

You might say we’re living in The Upside Down. (Well, without the Demogorgon. Or the Mind Flayer.)

The Game takes on Big Ideas, boldly and without reserve. It tackles the changing nature of the “elite” — once a term reserved for institutional bastions of high culture and now more easily applied to your favourite Instagram influencer —, the abundance and calculated inaccuracy of news and the speed at which it travels, the concept of individualism in a world ever increasingly moving toward mass appreciation, the definition of counter-culture once everyone decrees their adherence to it. He talks about movement and freedom, our obsession with them, and the changing perception of movement as it shifts to an online sphere and is defined more by the motion of our minds, assisted by our fingers, than that of our physical bodies. It doesn’t shy away from tackling current events, politics, the tech monopolies that have in large part defined the Game (Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft). But Baricco’s goal in discussing them is neither to support nor to criticize them or the Game in which they operate. He, like his readers, is just trying to make sense of it all and taking us along with him for the ride.

As is true of most of the things I’ve read by Baricco, his observations are almost in equal part pompous and genius — it’s part of his persona, and he is the first to acknowledge it. But no matter where you rest personally in your esteem of him by that barometer, it is difficult to read The Game without becoming completely enraptured by it. Baricco has a singular gift for reducing difficult concepts to their essence, then building those essences into complex but by then understandable terms. You’ll read about the oltremondo or the “world beyond” (read: our online presence), post-esperienza or post-experience (the space in which experience is recreated, often artificially, on an online platform like Facebook for posterity and better to process and share the experience itself), umanità aumentata or augmented humanity (a heightened experience of personal sense the result of a combination of the previous two terms). You’ll ask yourself at first if all this new nomenclature is really necessary. Then Baricco will convince you without much effort that it is, and you’ll never think of discussing digital reality without it. Such is his charm.

Digital Disney prince, sweep me away.

The Game has many quotable moments. I will share just a few that stick out for their revelation of the link between the book’s subject matter and its title (you are welcome).

On the Ultimate Game-Masters: Parents

Provate un po’ a ricordare quante volte nella vita vi siete trovati nella situazione di avere un problema (pratico) la cui soluzione ERA UN GIOCO. Mica poi tante. E in fondo quasi tutte dovete andare a ripescarle in anni lontani, quando eravate bambini, perché i primi veri specialisti della gamification sono i genitori: la forchetta-aeroplanino che vola e poi entra in bocca … Il vasino fatto ad astronave … Il papà che si tramuta in mostro, o aquila, o cactus, dipende dal problema da risolvere. […] Volevo dire che l’iPhone era nato per risolvere molti problemi ma lo faceva come la forchetta-aeroplanino e tutto, in quell’oggetto, stava lì a ricordartelo in continuazione, scegliendo sistematicamente la grafica, quelle icone che sembravano caramelle, il font da bambini cool, la presenza di un unico pulsante. (142)

On Post-Experience

LA POST-ESPERIENZA È FATICOSA, DIFFICILE, SELETTIVA E DESTABILIZZANTE. Ok, lo è come può esserlo un videogame: ma è faticosa, difficile, selettiva e destabilizzante. Chi crede che il Game sia un ambiente facile non ha capito niente. L’iPhone è facile. Non il Game. Non vivere nel Game. Non VINCERE al Game. Quello è tutt’altro che una passeggiata. (166)

On the Reinvention of the Deck

Qualcosa è cambiato, e se cerco di spiegare cosa, devo ricorrere a una metafora, quella delle carte da gioco: in passato fare business consisteva nell’inventare giochi fattibili con un certo mazzo di carte preesistente: vinceva quello che inventava il gioco migliore. Adesso fare business coincide con l’inventare un mazzo di carte che prima non esisteva e su cui si può fare un solo gioco: quello che hai inventato tu. Fine. (234)

On the Unforgiving Game

Attualmente le principali disfunzioni del Game, quelle che davvero stanno portando molti suoi abitanti a viverlo come un nemico, sono tre. La prima è che il Game è difficile. Magari divertente, ma troppo difficile. È aperto, instabile, multiforme, non si spegne mai. Per sopravviverci bisogna avere skill non indifferenti che peraltro non vengono insegnate: si impara giocando, come nei videogame. Il fatto è che qui non si hanno molte vite, e quando si cade, si cade. Non ci sono reti di protezione, né sistemi per recuperare chi è caduto. Chi si stacca, a poco a poco scivola lontano. “Non lasceremo nessuno indietro” non è una frase da Game. (320)

The Game is preceded by its sister work on the digital revolution, I barbari (Feltrinelli, 2006). Recommended reads.