Starter Kit – Hacking Virtual Worlds: Video Games and Critical Infrastructure Studies

Starter Kit: “Hacking Virtual Worlds: Video Games and Critical Infrastructure Studies”

By Ryan Leach, English Department, UC Santa Barbara
Published Nov. 29, 2018

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How might we re-think game studies in relation to the emergent field of critical infrastructure studies, and vice versa? Further, how might games themselves teach us new ways of understanding, developing, reconfiguring, and even “hacking” infrastructure? If we understand infrastructure as a convergence and entanglement of Marx’s base and superstructure—a point at which culture and material technology intertwine—do we find a way out of the relentless emphasis on harder and harder materialities, of the ongoing persistence to go deeper (e.g. from screen essentialism to software to hardware to geological minerals (as in Parikka’s A Geology of Media))? In certain games, might we find infrastructures, and not merely “representations” of infrastructure, on our screens? In addition to putting CIS in conversation with game studies, this starter kit assembles what we might loosely categorize as a “critical hacking” genre, in which the user interacts with computational infrastructures that blur the divisions between content and medium, representation and real.

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A Brief Bibliography of Game Studies and Media Theoretical Approaches. While none of these take an explicitly infrastructural approach, in combination (or perhaps, ‘conversation’), they form the foundation for an infrastructural approach to game studies.

Platform Studies

Software or Algorithmic Studies


Media Archaeology/Hardware Studies

Tactical Media

Cultural Studies

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Gallery of Games

While most of game studies points to the universal—e.g. developing theories that apply to all video games—this starter kit assembles a selection of infrastructural games in order to further demonstrate the relevance of critical infrastructure studies within this field. There’s an obvious shortcoming here: the theory developed out of analyzing these games will not necessarily (or likely) apply to all games; it is an admittedly limited theoretical approach. But the universalizing tendency renders the specifics of the games mute–under-appreciating how games themselves play a role in developing the theory. Rather than applying an already developed theoretical approach to games, this starter kit thinks with a specific set of games in order to develop a broader intervention into infrastructural theory. Or, in other words, the games are just as much participants as the players.


Hacking games emerged during the mid-1980’s on platforms such as Commodore 64, Apple II, and MS-DOS. Arguably, these games set the stage for the design of the hacking genre, from System 15000 and Hacker’s early desktop or command center interface to the more adventure game interface of Neuromancer, combining both navigable space in the character’s world, as well as within a computational network.

System 15000 (1984)
First Hacking Simulation

Hacker (1985)

Hacker II (1986)

Hacker series

Neuromancer (1988)


Desktop Simulations

These games simulate the contemporary computer desktop to varying degrees of accuracy. Some, such as Hacknet, even simulate the Linux command line, requiring the player to learn actual Linux commands in order to progress through the game. Lacking the adventure world environment, these games promote an immersive experience (similar to Bolter and Grusin’s notion of “immediacy”) in which the player can perceive the simulated desktop as their own (with the aid of some suspension of disbelief).

Hacknet (2015)

Uplink (2001)

Code 7 (2017)


Hardware and Engineering

Largely dominated by Zachronics Industries, this sub-genre places the player in the role of the computer engineer, requiring them to build and configure the hardware components of the computer.

TIS-100 (2015)

Shenzhen I/O (2016)


Here, the genre appears to reach a kind of apotheosis, in which game designers realize the potential for games to not only simulate (or represent) hacking, but actually encourage (even require) players to hack the game itself,  through reprogramming the game world within the game and/or through modding the game’s system files. For a more detailed account of this genre, please see my case study of else Heart.Break().

Quadrilateral Cowboy (2016)

Pony Island (2016)

else Heart.Break() (2015)


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Additional Materials

An assortment of other materials for those interested in pursuing the focus of this starter kit further.