Saturday 7 December 2013

Video Games and Social Critique

When you play a video game, you're playing fast and loose with communism. Who knew? Well, Paul Mason did, for one. His piece, 'How computer games can help us overthrow capitalism' demonstrates how critiquing games can, as much as any other media product, help illuminate certain cultural logics; sets of ingrained, commonsensical social practices; and the continuous structuring and restructuring of political economy. Quite why this kind of writing in relation to one of capitalism's cultural mainstays continues to be underdeveloped is baffling, both in and out of the academy and radical social movements.

There are two basic points about Paul's piece that are interesting. Firstly, he notes how contemporary capitalism is utterly dependent on free stuff. Networks, information, user-generated content, collaborative working; all this is where the cutting edge is at. And capitalism increasingly needs this digital global commons to keep the wheels of innovation turning - it's about harnessing its power and finding ways of making money from it (more in Cognitive Capitalism by Yann Moulier Boutang, review coming ... eventually). In one respect, while the free flows of information are public goods that can be mined profitably is a new thing, capitalism's relationship with artefacts held in common is not. Just think about the post-war institutional landscape. The NHS, social security, road-building, nationalised industry, these were "free" tax-payer owned goods that capital could make use of without impacts on their balance sheets beyond the taxes they paid. And as successive waves of privatisation have shown, in the vast majority of cases sold-off industry and infrastructure have proven to be virtually risk-free and massively profitable. These programmes of sell-offs are analogous to the process of "grinding" found in many role playing video games. Paul talks about killing infinite numbers of respawning wolves, that can then be sold for gold, which in turn is used to buy better weapons, armour and the like. The relationship of the player character to the game's environment is redolent not just off privatisation, but of capitalism's symbiotic relation to nature. It proceeds as if the globe is an infinite resource. Capitalism converts natural wealth into riches measured by money or digits on a bank balance, and the costs - pollution, waste - are dumped back into the environment as if it were a bottomless toilet bowl. This is video game as allegory.

The second point is about using play styles to subvert capitalist logics. While it is possible to mod games that are 'closed', like nearly all video games have been since the Magnavox Odyssey, and thereby play them out according to new rules, multiplayer game worlds cannot. Introducing mods that fundamentally alter the digital world is like daubing pro-Hamas slogans on the White House wall. It ain't going to happen. So Paul raises the possibility of subversive gaming modes. Why not occupy a player character's castle? Why not set up picket lines outside of dungeon entrances? Why not do a digital Swampy and prevent others from ransacking the infinitely bountiful forest? Being awkward could be fun - though I doubt annoying others who pay monthly MMO subs will make them firm friends of anti-capitalist causes.

Gaming has always been a social experience. Mine, and I'm sure many others', first introductions to video games were usually around a mate's house. From the Spectrum to the Mega Drive, that's how it was for me. Thursdays and Fridays at FE college saw a gang of us all trying to play public domain games on my mate's cigarette ash-covered Amiga. Given the amount we smoked, it's a wonder we didn't prematurely succumb to respiratory problems. But games were closed. Most "proper" games had two-player options - usually taking in turns after the other player died - and very few had more. All have traditionally required players to be in close physical proximity. Yet most games have been solitary experiences. The social element came in when you were showing off at home, or talking/arguing about them in the school yard.

Whatever the case, for most of video gaming history, the standard model of play has been a player, a controller, a computer/console, and a display. And most games are typically a journey, of getting from A to B while avoiding enemies and obstacles; or of amassing points and advancing through the levels by completing certain sets of tasks, like lining them blocks up or clearing the screen of baddies. This is certainly the case of the old non-canonical games I've covered here - Smash TV, RoboCop, and RC Pro Am. Playing such arcade-style games required (and do require) that one disciplines one's body for serious lengths of time. Sitting still, learning the controls, and developing the reflexes - the embodied memory - was what it was all about. The player is oriented toward something that exists outside themselves, and to control it demanded one conformed to its rules. This was where the fun and the challenge lay. Hokey stories were a barely acknowledged excuse to blast waves of alien scum. As such while present, ideologies and common cultural tropes barely stood out. So what if you were rescuing a princess or a girlfriend? So what if your hypermasculine player character mowed down hoards of enemy soldiers. So what. It was all a bit of fun. Gameplay was the point, and it was the ethics of playability that was officially sanctioned and reinforced by the video game review industry.

Throwing together Adorno, Foucault and Bourdieu would leave an unseemly pile of bones. You might also have a sense of subject construction appropriate to the age. From Adorno, video games see the (im)patient repetition of commands learned by rote in a form of entertainment that excludes the possibility of a critical relation to it. Have you met anyone who plays the Metroid franchise because of its deep insight into the decadence of late capitalism? From Foucault there is the self-disciplining of the body. You will sit there until you beat that level, even if it means you're dying for the loo. And from Bourdieu is the acquisition of habits of mind that fit the sedentary, repetitious, problem-solving workplace environment typical of most jobs. Of course, subjectivity is always a creative process. The video gamed body makes decisions and devises stratagems, not all of which are anticipated by game studios in advance. But these are within the terms of the game's universe. And this also applies to the POKEers and crackers of yesterday, and the modders of today. They expose game code and rewrite it, making a familiar experience ever so slightly unfamiliar. Yet this hardly troubles the Adornian/Foucauldian/Bourdieusian matrix. Their activity is entirely within the digitised realm, and their acts of game rule subversion reproduces game player subjectivity at the very moment pertinent questions about the ideological composition of game worlds are raised.

Therefore, you have two senses, two levels of the social critique of video games. One that is a property of all ideology critique - the teasing out of overt and hidden politics, of making plain the history and transformation of tropes utilised, of the logics of abstract social processes they sometimes unwittingly reflect. You know, the stuff literary critics, theatre critics, film critics, and music critics have been doing since the year dot. And then there is the second level, of the specific and unique body discipline/practices that one must perform as condition of gaming and the subjectivity or habitus this inculcates. And where it gets interesting is when these two levels, the in-game and the 'meta' interact, as we shall see in the follow-up post.


Anonymous said...

so what you're saying is video games school us, but then give us the back-handed compliment of the illusion of control. and for a lot of people, don't you think that feeling of being in control is all important, even, or perhaps especially when its all on a little screen, reducing reality to something you can seemingly master?

by the way, for some reason, your post here reminded me of the closing passaga in gramsci's essay "on educations"

Undoubtedly, the child of a traditionally intellectual family acquires this psycho-physical adaptation more easily. Before he ever enters the classroom he has numerous advantages over his comrades, and is already in possession of attitudes learnt from his family environment; he concentrates more easily, since he is used to "sitting still", etc.

Phil said...

Yes, video games are one way of schooling us in the habitus, the embodied modes most appropriate to 'hegemonic' forms of work today. It is control-as-entertainment without any adverse social consequences for the prevailing system, beyond numerous panics about people staying at home and living increasingly privatised lives, etc.

And yeah, Bourdieu clearly used Gramsci as one of his many departure points.