Rambling In-Between

Who may speak for the gamers?

Let’s go back a step. We’ve discarded the divine right of kings: no-one cares what kind of warlord David Braben was, or whence Kotaku draws its mana. The question is: what are they doing to serve the people?

The functions of the king remain: pontifex, haruspex, public relations, quality assurance effigy. The shattered pieces of the sovereign are assumed by jostling aristocrats so that the people are still ruled. No-one wants a mob, after all. But there is a catch: the aristocracy cannot reign in the name of the kings it drove out, yet the sovereign must encompass us all.

Thus the people was born. We take great pride in our republican traditions: gamers will happily parade past the booth sanctuaries during their sacred festivals. Their votes are counted, though decisions are ultimately made elsewhere.

So, again: who may speak for the gamers? The people can never be assembled in truth, and if it were, it would be felt intolerable — again, no-one wants a mob. The gifted, the great and the good of the world, must be allowed to shine, to produce their works of art. Therefore, the people must be represented. Every aristocrat will invoke the name of the masses, but ‘people’ is necessarily a tactical and therefore a partial and exclusionary term. The true people is pitted against the authentic people. Sonic versus Mario. The majority remains outside of representation, invisible and unreal.


When I was a kid and arcade machines lurked in chip shop corners like flashing brutalist menhirs, Street Fighter 2 was all the rage. It spawned an entire genre of imitators, and they all share one thing in common: they’re terrible. You put a coin in, press start, you die. Fighting games were needlessly obscure and fiddly from the outset, presumably because their purpose was to part children from their lunch money. Now this fiddlyness is a hallowed feature of the genre. It’s not that there isn’t a good game underneath, just that it’s nearly impenetrable. Fighting games have their devoted fans, but the amount of rote learning  necessary to be competitive in the latest Street Fighter means that most people can never be good at it. This is no more or less than historical accident, but it’s hardly accidental.

So, when I say ‘videogames’, I’m not really talking about games. Games don’t exist, certainly not like they used to. No-one ‘owns’ backgammon, pushes out downloadable content, iterates it so that there is always a new product. Old men play backgammon in cafés, which is no doubt another story about context and capitalism — how did coffee become an international commodity, why backgammon, why old men, why tavernas? — but it’s not quite the same, is it? Backgammon just is. There’s also that other sense of what a game is, the one we don’t talk about. A game is something children invent. It’s an act of imagination, and the rules are invented and discarded spontaneously. Street Fighter 2 never had any room for childishness.


How does poor old Huizinga fit into an arcade? Among games criticism types, Huizinga is known as the originator of terms like ‘magic circle’ and ‘homo ludens‘, but for me, Johan Huizinga will always be the man who wrote The Waning of the Middle Ages. The book describes a world in which it wasn’t officially a battle unless all the pennants and banners were on display — where chivalry was a game, a role to be performed, and one that was increasingly anachronistic.

There is some space-in-between here. Somewhere between childish play and play as the embodiment of a deadly real role; between economic imperative and historical accident; between games that train children to embody soldiers in and a world in which most people are neither expected nor wanted to sign up.

This space has not gone unnoticed. Guy Débord would have called the totality of the in-between and the things it unites the ‘spectacle‘, the whole circus of representation in a commodified world, from production to consumption. Michel Foucault might have said something about discipline, conscious or unconscious, as a method of constructing the individual. Louis Althusser called the summoning of the individual by ideology interpellation. Play draws forth a role that has psychic or ideological importance even when it is materially empty; but it is never, as I said, accidental even when it is an accident. We’ve seen that games are not economically innocent, and readers of this blog will know I don’t think they’re politically innocent, either.


Back to the beginning. How does the summoning of the individual end up creating a group? Part of the answer might be: videogames are like pornography. The pornographer, like the Commandant in Kafka’s ‘In the Penal Colony‘, symbolically inscribes a lesson on the living flesh of a human being – a message that, despite the Commandant’s claims, cannot be for the flesh on which it is written. Pornography claims to show you sex, but is actually an invisible hand reaching into your pants, just as games offer subjectivity, but are actually the neurotic repetition of meaningless actions performed while inhabiting a psyche built for you. The avatar is the Commandant’s mechanical flesh stylus; the countless dead are the porn star’s flesh. The role-play is the message.

Each time a player makes Sam Fisher jam some goon’s face through a window in the Splinter Cell series, it’s not the pixellated flesh that is being disciplined. Sam, the heroic secret agent, is doing it for the people; and the people can inhabit Sam and do it for themselves. The particular ‘gameyness’ of the process — press a button to make Sam torture until some vital information drops out of the victim, then repeat until the objective is complete — underscores the ludicrous unreality of the whole concept, as if there were ‘violence coins’ that worked just like ‘kindness coins’, but you’d be forgiven for thinking the designers don’t understand the problem.

Soldiers themselves play a lot of videogames, perhaps out of boredom. They also watch a lot of porn. Allegedly, US fighter pilots were even made to watch it in order to ‘psych them up’ before bombing sorties during the first Gulf War.* Meanwhile, games depicting war are also a form of advertisement, while game designers are military experts. We have gone well beyond mere propaganda, at this point. This recursive process isn’t just farcical: it’s baroque.

So long as gamers/peoples must be invented — that is, whenever there is no functioning democracy — and so long as they have economic significance, I’m not sure what the alternative is.


*I read this once, but I’ve lost the reference. It may well be apocryphal. Drop me a line if you have a source.