Code is Law: Subversion and Collective Knowledge in the Ethos of Video Game Speedrunning

Sport, Ethics and Philosophy 15 (3):435-460 (2020)
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Speedrunning is a kind of ‘metagame’ involving video games. Though it does not yet have the kind of profile of multiplayer e-sports, speedrunning is fast approaching e-sports in popularity. Aside from audience numbers, however, from the perspective of the philosophy of sport and games, speedrunning is particularly interesting. To the casual player or viewer, speedrunning appears to be a highly irreverent, even pointless, way of playing games, particularly due to the incorporation of “glitches”. For many outside the speedrunning community, the use of glitches appears to be cheating. For speedrunners, however, glitches are entirely within the bounds of acceptability. Because of this, however, speedrunning frequently involves sidestepping what are typically taken to be the core challenges of the game. By examining the distinction between the use of glitches and cheating in speedrunning, we can gain a greater understanding of the unique ethos of this activity; that is, we can make sense of what fundamentally constitutes speedrunning as a metagame. I argue that by understanding the code of the game not as rules but as physics, and by examining what actions are deemed impermissible by the speedrunning community – such as hardware modification and hacking – we can see that the ethos of speedrunning has three components: constitutive skills (including dexterity, memorisation and mental fortitude); a collective, fine-grained knowledge of the game and the desire to subvert the intentions of the programmers. Each of these components limits and structures the earlier ones: collective knowledge takes priority over constitutive skills, and subversion takes priority over both. These three components form the ethos that structures speedrunning as a metagame, expressing what speedrunners take to be its central aim.

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Michael Hemmingsen
Tunghai University


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