Shoot first, ask questions later
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