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

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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

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.


System 15000 (1984)
First Hacking Simulation

Hacker (1985)

Hacker II (1986)

Hacker series

Neuromancer (1988)


Desktop Simulations


Hacknet (2015)

Uplink (2001)

Code 7 (2017)


Hardware and Engineering


TIS-100 (2015)

Shenzhen I/O (2016)



Quadrilateral Cowboy (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.