Video games on a psychoanalyst’s couch

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A gamer in headphones sits in front of a monitor in a darkened room. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

How have video games transformed the nature of self?

This is one of several points of philosophical inquiry examined in “The Playstation Dreamworld” (Polity, 2017) by Hong Kong-based British author Alfie Bown, a book that charmingly articulates a critical theory of technology and capitalism in the context of technological entertainment.

In contrast to other texts on the subject that are largely uncritical or laudatory in their advocacy of gaming, what’s striking here is an emphasis on caution, drawing the reader’s attention to the anti-progressive aspects of gaming’s propensity to lull players into states of enjoyment that undermine social solidarity in the service of ideology.

The ideology in question here is a form of capitalism defined by cultural neoliberalism’s emphasis on ever-enhancing worker productivity and the emergence of monopolistic tech firms with an ever-greater power to create and organize conceptions of desire. Bown’s book is unambiguous in its political bent, and thankfully so.

Yet, his volume is far from a technophobic or anti-gaming screed.

With an incisive eye and an obvious affection for gaming, Bown, an assistant professor of literature at Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Management College, is compelled by the subversive potential for games to function as powerful tools in the service of counter-ideologies amid rapid technological advances and a widening space for independent game developers.

Gaming is no niche subculture. The video games industry boasted a worldwide user penetration rate of 26.1% in 2017 with a projected revenue of US$108.9 billion. Smartphone and tablet gaming, the most lucrative segment, claim 42% of the video games market, piggybacking on the centrality of mobile devices in our lives.

The last decade in gaming has seen small studios and indie developers enter the fray with an array of idiosyncratic offerings and player experiences that tread on territory generally avoided by big-budget games.

Futuristic urban street.

A futuristic urban scene as depicted in a video game. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

There appears to be more mainstream acceptance of gaming as a medium for self-expression rather than strictly as products for entertainment.

Spaces within games themselves have also become vastly richer, more detailed and immersive than ever before, evidenced by the staggering scale of so-called open-world games.

Mass online play has given rise to shared social spaces, while companies like Sony, Samsung and Facebook, among others, are pushing virtual reality (VR) technologies in earnest.

The Playstation Dreamworld is rightly concerned with the future politics of these technologies and the revolution of desire they represent. The book’s most intriguing argument is that the enjoyment derived from the world of video games can only be fully understood and explained by psychoanalysis.

Freudian dream analysis and the notion of jouissance, or enjoyment, associated with French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan feature prominently.

Video games are fascinatingly described here as “the dream of the culture into which the game arises,” drawing from a range of gaming examples, from “Clash of Clans” and “Candy Crush” to franchises like “The Legend of Zelda” and “Persona.”

Milan, Italy - November 10, 2013: Woman hand holding Apple iPad 2. Apple Ipad displaying iOS 7 with 'Clash of Clans' application. iOS 7 is the latest mobile operating system designed by Apple Inc. Clash of Clans is one of the most popular games of Apple world

The “Clash of Clans” video game played on an iPad. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Video games are a form of enjoyment in which the player experiences the wishes and desires of another as the wishes and desires of the player’s own, if even in a momentary or unconscious way, Bown claims.

Games are experienced actively rather than passively, and any apparent agency over a game is illusory as the player controls neither the environment nor the plot or outcome, as in dreams.

Just as a misreading of dreams can lead one into falsely believing things about oneself, video games are “most dangerous” in their capacity to force a desire onto the player while misleading them into thinking of it as their own.

Think, for instance, of the glorification of militarism inherent in gunning down opponents of US foreign policy in “Call of Duty” and the pride one may derive from it.

This naturalization of the enjoyment of “the other” increases the potential for state and corporate control of desire.

Part and parcel of this control is the capacity to physically direct people in the service of their desires, exemplified in the perpetual hunt for augmented-reality critters in “Pokémon G0.” The popular location-based smartphone game tracks players around their cities using GPS and directs their path to the objects of desire.

A gamer plays “Pokemon G” in front of a busy crossing in Shibuya district in Tokyo, Japan, July 22, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Toru Hanai

Control over desire means control over the actions and paths of people, which are configured in ways to best produce profit for advertisers and corporate interests, or at any rate, regulate and influence the player’s experience of physical space.

There are certainly dystopian qualities in the sight of strangers congregating at locales of an imaginary electronic world, tapping their screens furiously without the pretense of actually interacting with one another.

Other aspects of the book identify smartphone games as an ideological tool of the workplace, providing spurts of “pleasure” throughout the day that renew a worker’s productivity without them having to confront their own workplace dissatisfaction.

Gaming on commutes and lunch breaks, spaces otherwise used to reflect or share experiences with colleagues, leads to a fragmentation of worker solidarity, Bown argues.

Described in the book as a supplement to capital and corporate methodologies to regulate the workforce, gaming plays a role in eroding distinctions between work and leisure: indulgence throughout the day brings with it work commitments after hours.

The same could be argued of periodic social media checks-ins and the endless scrolling of news feeds throughout the workday.

Retro futuristic city street.

A futuristic city scene. Image: iStock/Getty Images

Bown sees the relationship between gaming and reality as being dialectical: games have the power to alter our relationships to reality as much as they are informed by or reflective of it. In the case of disempowered labor, he makes a compelling argument for how interdependent reality and the virtual world can be.

Rather than retreat into technophobia, Bown champions the subversive potential of gaming and its capacity to critique conformist enjoyment and transform desire itself, advocating the utilization of technology and virtual worlds as a means for politically subversive and progressive-minded ends.

“If this subversive potential of the dreamworld can be harnessed, it can be used to reach a wide and often initially unreceptive audience,” he says of the enjoyment produced between the subject and a game.

“The Playstation Dreamworld” is ultimately an accessible, original and highly perceptive critique of video games that delves into a range of hyper-contemporary concerns and political anxieties that inform the infinite digital spaces of games, if only unconsciously.

Bown has the foresight to see the politics of this space and the pleasures derived from it and argues it is well worth fighting for.

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