Trig­ger Happy

Shoot first, ask ques­tions later

EDGE - - SECTIONS - STEVEN POOLE Steven Poole’s Trig­ger Happy 2.0 is now avail­able from Ama­zon. Visit him on­line at www.steven­

Steven Poole’s new per­spec­tive on the vi­o­lence in games de­bate

The main­stream con­ver­sa­tion about sex’n’vi­o­lence in videogames is one of, gen­er­ally, two po­si­tions. One side says that to par­tic­i­pate in vir­tual depic­tions of evil acts will nor­malise those acts in the player’s mind, and risk en­cour­ag­ing the player to be­have like­wise in real life. The other side cleaves to the “cathar­sis hy­poth­e­sis”, which holds that such games pro­vide a safe out­let for the en­ac­tion of our brutish de­sires. But what if there is a third pos­si­bil­ity? What if we don’t have those de­sires al­ready, but games are pro­gram­ming us to have them?

This is one fas­ci­nat­ing sug­ges­tion in a book en­ti­tled The Plays­ta­tion Dream­world, by Al­fie Bown. It prom­ises to show how aca­demic psy­cho­anal­y­sis can in­form videogame crit­i­cism, which I con­fess I did not im­me­di­ately think a promis­ing av­enue. But his ar­gu­ment about de­sire is in­trigu­ing. From a psy­cho­an­a­lytic point of view, Bown ob­serves, there is no such thing as a deepseated de­sire that all hu­mans across the ages have shared. That there can be tran­shis­tor­i­cal de­sires is it­self an “ide­ol­ogy”, pro­duc­ing a false con­scious­ness through which we fail to ap­pre­ci­ate how our de­sires are formed by our so­cial en­vi­ron­ment. If this is right, the dis­turb­ing corol­lary is that we don’t have an atavis­tic de­sire to kill peo­ple which a shooter videogame just lets us ex­press harm­lessly. It is, on the con­trary, the videogame that is im­plant­ing such de­sires in us.

“De­sire it­self has an imi­ta­tive qual­ity,” Bown writes, “so that there is no orig­i­nal de­sire and cer­tainly no tran­shis­tor­i­cal im­pulses.” In­stead, we de­sire be­cause we see some­one else de­sir­ing, and — to risk a com­i­cal rep­e­ti­tion — we de­sire to de­sire in the same way. So videogames can­not be sat­is­fy­ing deep, “orig­i­nal” de­sires, be­cause such de­sires don’t ex­ist. “The long­stand­ing idea that videogames ap­peal to these ba­sic tran­shis­tor­i­cal con­fig­u­ra­tions of de­sire pro­duces an imag­ined ‘other’ who de­sires as such and in­vites the gamer to de­sire on these terms… So, rather than ap­peal­ing to univer­sal de­sires, videogames can pro­gram the user to de­sire in a univer­sal way.”

The jar­gony prose notwith­stand­ing, what first seems like a too-neat in­ver­sion of ac­cepted wis­dom might come to seem plau­si­ble. Con­sider, for ex­am­ple, the fact re­ported a few years ago that one of the most pop­u­lar dream jobs named by high-school boys in Amer­ica was that of sniper. Clearly there is no deep-wired evo­lu­tion­ary de­sire to be a sniper. In­stead, the de­sire to be a sniper must have been con­di­tioned into these young men by the rise in sniper fic­tions, and par­tic­u­larly videogames. Sim­i­larly, I never wanted to swing on web ropes through New York City un­til I saw Spi­der-Man. Or, to put the point more ba­si­cally, I never wanted to play De­fender un­til I played De­fender, af­ter which I re­ally wanted to play De­fender again.

At Ap­ple, Steve Jobs thought con­sumer re­search was point­less be­cause he saw his job as giv­ing peo­ple what they didn’t know they wanted. Sim­i­larly, videogames give us de­sires that we didn’t know we wanted, and once we have them we want to “com­pul­sively re-en­act” those sce­nar­ios, Bown says. All the more po­ten­tially dis­turb­ing, then, if the sce­nar­ios are mur­der­ous. But the flip­side of the ar­gu­ment is that, in their ca­pa­bil­ity to im­plant new de­sires in us, videogames have more po­ten­tial cul­tural power than they are of­ten given credit for, and they could be a prop­erly lib­er­at­ing and sub­ver­sive force.

Such things have al­ways been pos­si­ble, of course, and Bown is seem­ingly un­aware of the ex­tra­or­di­nary art-games pro­duced in the 1980s by Au­tomata, for in­stance, but in the con­tem­po­rary field he does of­fer in­ter­est­ing read­ings. Pa­pers, Please, he ar­gues, “con­fronts the player with the re­al­i­sa­tion that most of the gamer’s own en­joy­ment has come not from the mi­nor sub­ver­sion of the au­thor­i­ta­tion gov­ern­ment’s reg­u­la­tions… but from the reg­u­lar and ev­ery­day im­po­si­tion of the law onto the other”. It is the in­verse of

Watch Dogs. “Pa­pers, Please is a sub­ver­sive game invit­ing the gamer to ex­pe­ri­ence and re­flect on con­form­ist en­joy­ment, whereas

Watch Dogs is a con­form­ist game invit­ing the gamer to ex­pe­ri­ence sub­ver­sive en­joy­ment with­out re­flec­tion.” Nice.

So far, Bown notes ac­cu­rately, the ma­jor­ity of games are still con­form­ist in na­ture. But with their power to re-en­gi­neer our de­sires, they could yet take us to strange and beau­ti­ful new places. It’s a hope that has ex­isted, more or less, as long as videogames them­selves. But that is no rea­son to aban­don the de­sire — wher­ever it may come from.

In their ca­pa­bil­ity to im­plant new de­sires in us, games have more cul­tural power than they are of­ten given credit for

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