Keynote Address Delivered at the Justice & Democracy Forum
VIDEOLOGY: VIDEO-GAMES AS POSTMODERN SITES/SIGHTS OF IDEOLOGICAL REPRODUCTION
Symbolic Interaction Vol. 18 (1): 1-18. 1995
As new technologies, video games are becoming increasingly popular among today's pre-teens and teenagers. Relying on systematic observation of video-games found in public arcades, participation in them, and engagement with the relevant literature, I explore in this paper eight central assumptions of “videology”: the ideology which organizes these games. While suggesting that these assumptions articulate and exaggerate problematic ideological themes, I also explore the relationship between videology and a postmodern culture or moment.
It has now become cliche to assert that both our private and public environments are becoming increasingly computerized, robotized, and otherwise invaded by a multitude of new technological devices such as television sets, Virtual Reality, computers, V.C.Rs., work-out machines, invisible cameras, video-games, etc. Although these devices are appreciably different from each other, they share with many others the characteristics of having emerged relatively recently, of constituting an “electronic environment” (Ellis 1983, see also Ross 1991, Anderson 1990, Diani 1992, Chen 1987), of being based on a logic of simulation, and of being associated by many theorists with the shift from a modern to a postmodern society, culture and consciousness. Of course, the postmodern shift is predicated on much more than a simple association with these new technologies, but such a shift is importantly informed by their presence and multiplication.
For example, in his analysis of the works of Lyotard, Foucault, Derrida and Baudrillard, Poster (1990) discusses the still elusive transformations engendered at the cognitive and macro-social levels by the introduction of television, computers, and other new technologies constituting the “mode of information.” Focusing on TV, the FAX machine and the computer, psychologist Gergen (1991) suggests that these “technologies of social saturation” “populate the self,” encourage “multiphrenia” and other little understood experiences. While Agger (1992) and Denzin (1992) discuss the transformative influence of television on sociological theoretical concerns, Clough (1992) problematizes the relationship between sociological modes of representation and existing modes of mass-communication, and Pfohl's (1992) self-reflective postmodern ethnography simulates the impact of the televisual logic on his experiences of self, epistemology and politics.
Meanwhile, various scholars not necessarily associated with postmodern perspectives are also reflecting about the puzzling sociological effects of television in particular. Postman (1985) suggests that this device might very well precipitate important transformations in our cognitive functioning, and in the possibilities for and engagement with serious political discourse. Mitroff and Bennis (1989) suggest that television might collapse our conceptions of reality and obliterate our capabilities to engage with it, and Meyrowitz (1985) suggests that our “sense of place” is constantly disoriented by the televisual blurring of once-clear social boundaries and categories (see also Ross 1991, Silverstone 1989, Gottschalk 1993).
Investigating the growth of more advanced technologies such as Virtual Reality, journalist Rheingold (1991, p. 17) posits the emergence of a “reality-industrial complex” whose dimensions, structure, resources, and possibilities we are barely beginning to imagine. In a recent article, Chayko (1993) also suggests that the increasing presence of Virtual Reality requires symbolic interaction theorists to reevaluate existing definitions of “the real” (see also Heim 1993). It is also fairly obvious that, beyond their most visible effects and uses, many of these new technologies will interact with older ones, will merge with newer ones, and will continue to transform our macro and micro-social environments in unfathomable and -- some say -- hallucinatory ways.
In sum, empirical and theoretical explorations of the effects of many new simulational technologies reveal that they have profoundly changed our global and social landscapes as well as the cognitive, emotional and behavioral codes with which we engage them. The rapid rise and dissemination of postmodern theory must at least to some degree be also understood as a consequence of -- and response to -- the changes unleashed by this electronic revolution.
Suddenly a new medium -- and a new market opportunity -- has opened up in the place where Hollywood , Silicon Valley and the information highway intersect. Games are part of a rapidly growing world of interactive amusements so new that nobody knows what to call them ... (Dickerson and Jackson 1993, p. 68)
As the offspring of the coupling between a television screen and a computer, video-games constitute new simulation technologies which are enormously popular among male teenagers, and which constitute a large and lucrative industry. According to Provenzo (1991, p. 8) the total 1990 sale for the Nintendo corporation amounted to $3.4 billion, and total sales for the entire video-game industry for that same year were $4 billion, encouraging the rapid emergence of new companies. In February 1989, 16 of the 20 top selling toys in the country were video-games or video-game related, 12 percent of all American homes owned Nintendo systems, and during the 1987, 1988, and 1989 Christmas seasons, Nintendo was the single best-selling toy, commanding 23% of the total $11.4 billion spent on toys in 1989 (Provenzo 1991, pp. 12-13). Kinder (1991, p. 88) reports that
In the United States alone, consumers spend more on video-games -- about $9 billion a year, including some $8 billion for coin-op and $1 billion for home games -- than on any other form of entertainment, including movies and records. One game alone, Atari's awesome Asteroids earned about as much just in its best year ($700-$800 million) than the biggest money-making film of all time, Gone with the Wind , has made in four decades of screenings.
As Provenzo's study (1991, p. ix) also reveals,
There are currently 19 million Nintendo game playing machines in the United States . The overwhelming majority of these game machines are owned by children. In addition to the games, there are Nintendo television programs, Nintendo books and magazines, Nintendo movies and video tapes, Nintendo lunch boxes, even Nintendo cereal, as well as social codes and traditions based on the Nintendo games and their characters.
And a recent Time Magazine article (Dickerson and Jackson 1993, p. 68) also declares that the video-game industry has become “a global moneymaking machine that is gobbling up some of the most creative talents in Hollywood ... Globally, game revenues exceed $10 billion each year, and the worldwide sale of a single hit can top $500 million.”
In this paper, I explore “videology”: the system of interrelated ideological assumptions which organizes video-games. Although we might minimize the importance of toys and games as indicators of anything sociologically or culturally significant, it might be useful to recognize that beyond their immediate pleasurable manipulation, toys are also cultural objects, socializing agents, carriers of the dominant ideology, “instruments of a larger, political, and cultural hegemony.” (Provenzo 1991, p. 115) As Barthes (1957, pp. 63-64) suggests in Mythologies,
Contemporary toys essentially represent an adult microcosm ... [they] always signify something , and this something always carries social inscriptions; it is constituted by myths or technologies of modern adult life: the army, the radio, the postal service, the medical institution, school, air travel, transportation, science. Literally representing the universe of adult functions, toys inevitably prepare the child to accept them all, constituting in him [sic], before he can even think, the alibi of a nature which has always created soldiers, postal workers, and vespas (translation mine).
Similarly, in his research on video-games and the world of play and games in general, Toles suggests that such a domain of activities “allows for a subtle expression of the ways of perceiving consensual reality held by a culture. Games serve as extensions of social man [sic], giving new meanings to social structures which have become so familiar that their meaning is forgotten or obscured as we conduct the routine activities of everyday life.” (cited in Provenzo, 1991 p. 72)
There has been a considerable amount of research carried out by psychologists exploring various aspects of video-game playing. These include: the motivations behind their uses, their presumed addictive qualities, the cognitive strategies involved in the games, the pleasures they provide, and other various effects (Turkle 1984, Malone 1981, Greenfield 1984, Dominick 1984, Anderson and Ford 1986, Loftus and Loftus 1983, Morlock 1985, Graybill et al. 1985). Among sociologists, researchers have investigated the relation between the use of video-games and gender (Kaplan 1983, Kiesler 1983), personality and other demographic variables (McClure and Mears 1984), patterns of consumption (Panelas 1983), relationship with deviant behavior, sociability and academic performance (Ellis 1983), and family dynamics (Mitchell 1985).
Whereas many psychologists explain the essential pleasures of video-games by using Skinnerian, Freudian, Kleinian and cognitive models, Fiske (1989, pp. 77-93) adds that playing video-games also produces important semiotic pleasures. By allowing players to metaphorically transfer the power of control and meanings from machine, the sphere of work, society, school and parents to the self, video-games create a series of interesting inversions from everyday life. For example, by comparison to the player's location in the machine-dominated sphere of labor, the player does not work with the machine, but against it. In contrast to the factory, improved speed and skill on the part of the player does not bring higher profits to the owner/producer but to the player him/herself who saves money by extending play-time. Additionally, skilful video-game playing demands an “excess of concentration” which results in
a release, a “loss of self,” of the socially constructed subject and its social relations ... “Losing oneself” (in a text or a game) is for Barthes the ultimate “eroticism of the text,” which is experienced at the moment when culture collapses into nature or when the ideological subject reverts to the body ... The physical intensity with which the games are played produces moments of jouissance that are moments of evasion of ideological control (Fiske 1989, p. 93).
Although video-games are not the only games which allow such pleasurable loss-of-self experiences, their requiring energetic intervention in and control of a dynamic and colorful TV-like screen seems to constitute important and unique features of these games. Taken together, the player's necessary identification with electronic icons through their activation in spectacular, fast-moving and action-packed decors, the high-tech visual, aural and -- sometimes kinetic -- stimuli of video-games, and the instantaneous translation of digital impulses into televised events produce a total and high-tech “visceral” (Stallabrass 1993) environment. Such features might be especially attractive to young people who can now actively participate in electronic spectacles, control them and master them, rather than passively watch them.
Another significant aspect of video-games that differentiates them from other games is that their ending is known in advance. The very essence of the games can be summarized as the prolongation of one's already doomed electronic survival. Upon inserting a coin in the slot, the player knows that the machine will always win. Whether a player can make the game last twenty seconds or twenty minutes, s/he will always run out of time, “fuel”, planes, tanks, ammunition, “energy”, protective shields, or “lives”. Yet, although the machine always wins, the essence of “video pleasure” consists in outsmarting it if only for a while, and in extending the game to long sessions so that a single coin gives as much pleasure/time as possible. Fiske (1989, p. 93) thus calls video arcades “the semiotic brothels of the machine age” and suggests that, although “the video arcade and the machines in it are bearers of the dominant ideology,” they also allow space for a loss of self and resistance where the player becomes a temporary empowered author. For Fiske, these “moments of evasion” from the dominant ideology are central dimensions of video pleasures.
Whereas Fiske emphasized the empowering pleasure of resistance derived through skilful video-playing, I want to concentrate here on “videology” -- the system of interrelated assumptions video-games articulate. Following Provenzo's (1991, p. 32) contention that video-games are “symbolic systems” which select cultural ideas for amplification and others for reduction, I situate these acts of resistance within this broader symbolic system, and propose that it articulates problematic assumptions which frame and inform the pleasures perhaps too readily celebrated by Fiske.
Context and texts
The observations I report here have been gathered in the video arcades located in most of the major casinos/hotels which crowd the Las Vegas “Strip”. Besides and beyond the ubiquitous walls of slot machines, Las Vegas casinos/hotels are also central tourist sites complete with concert halls, mini-zoos, movie theaters, shops, rides, art galleries, and video arcades. Being prohibited from gambling by Nevada laws, children and teenagers visiting the casinos often congregate in the video arcades where they also participate in the casino/hotel economy by playing video-games. Not surprisingly, these arcades are usually located in the areas of the casino most removed from the central gambling areas: close to the exits or to the various shopping sections, and sometimes on different floors. Interestingly, the very location of these video arcades in expensive casinos/hotels may very well indicate that the fears of anti-social behavior parents and politicians once associated with video arcades (Fiske 1989, Ellis 1983) might have been significantly reduced 1 .
Because video arcades are public areas accessible for observation and participation, I have chosen to limit my investigation to video-games which are located in those sites. Accordingly, I do not include in this analysis video games which can be played on TV consoles at home. As such, the extent to which the eight videological assumptions I explore here also organize home video-games should constitute the object of future research. By comparison to the private space of home where one can play video-games on TV or computer consoles which might be located in a wide variety of settings, arcades are highly structured spaces. They construct meanings which coincide with those articulated by the games and, as Stallabrass remarks (1993, p. 93), “form a digital phantasmagoria, far more menacing and effective than the piped music and the plastic trim of the shopping-mall.”
Upon entering the video arcade one is immediately assaulted by an overpowering cacophony emanating from the different consoles. The sounds of repetitive electronic notes merge with that of male martial voices ordering to shoot, with the sound of flying bullets, exploding bombs, crashing planes, revving engines, screeching tires, vicious kicks, and the moans, groans and screams of electronic victims. These sounds of speed and violence hailing male teenagers as subjects of videology are reinforced by a continuous bombardment of colorful signals, pictures, and numbers urgently flashing from the screens. Human presence is not required in the video arcade for this ambience to exist. When unused, the consoles of video-games are neither silent nor are their screens idle. Instead, they are locked in a computer program which projects a repetitive sequence of sounds and colorful moving graphics. These depict the object of the various “missions”, the main characters involved in them, situations the player is likely to encounter, instructions on how to operate the electronic gadgetry, the names of the champions of these games, etc. It seems that whether a player decides to operate them or not is relatively unimportant. The consoles are always “alive”, they “communicate”, they challenge and generate excitement without the need of human interference. In such a situation, players become temporary insertions in a continuous electronic text. This is one first message of video-games which is conveyed simply by the context of their location in arcades and by their very design.
My observations of and engagement with a wide variety of these games lead me to suggest that they are organized by eight interrelated assumptions which constitute what I call “videology.” When analyzed in and outside of the arcade context, I find that videology both (1) amplifies several cultural orientations which have much currency in everyday life, and (2) expresses important themes which several theorists associate with an emerging postmodern culture and consciousness.
First Assumption: It's a Violent World After All
The central organizing assumption of videology is unarguably that of violence. Although the humans, machines, robots, animals and mutants video-games simulate are technically capable of a wide range of activities, videology translates these objects into violent, dangerous, and destructive ones. The game titles written in attractive colorful letters on the sides, front, and hood of the video-games consoles are quite explicit about this obsessive theme permeating the electronic playground: Car Riot, Street Fighters, Crime Fighters, Guerilla Attack, Contra, Elevator Action, Cyberpolice, Battle of the Solar System, Air Battle, Beast Buster, Captain Commando, Archrivals, Shootout, Wrestlefest, U.N. Squadron, Final Fight, Crime City, Buster Brothers, Operation Wolf, Terminator, Thunderblade, Rampage, Danger Zone, Pit Fighter, Total Carnage, Mortal Kombat, Final Blow, Wrestle War, Mechanized Attack, Punch Out, Road Blasters, Lethal Enforcers, Desert Assault, Air Inferno, Shark Battle, Vendetta, Desert Commander, Fire Line, Lethal Weapon , and even -- in the age of anorexia and the fitness craze -- Food Fights .
Of course, not all video-games contain violent themes, but in an overwhelming majority of them, violence is the basic assumption, the given. The only relevant question posed by videology is not whether a particular situation calls for negotiation or violence, but how efficiently can one administer violence. By rewarding violence with more points, credits, and play-time, videology also sends clear messages as to what “pays” and “works” in the games, and perhaps also “out there”.
By selecting the theme of violence as central both within and across the games, by associating it with a broad range of objects, situations, and types of encounter, videology amplifies the cultural importance of violence, and positions it as the axial and organizing rule of its logic. In videology, violence is not one among the many behaviors humans, animals, or machines sometimes participate in. It is the most typical behavior we can expect from these various entities constituting our (real or fantasized) environment.
The videological construction of machines, animals, and humans into dangerous entities is also replicated in the simulation of temporal decors. Thus, whether simulating the past (wild West, medieval times), the present (Third-World jungles, inner cities), or the future (alien planets, postnuclear urban landscapes), videological texts also indicate that, no matter what particular point in time and space one “enters”, it is inevitably a violent one. Past, present and future are thus invariably simulated as an electronic slaughterhouse and a “paranoiac environment.” (Skirrow 1986, p. 130, Provenzo 1991) 2
Second Assumption: The Other is Violent
Videology essentially organizes the majority of the games around the predetermined confrontation between a single entity (machine, human, mutant, animal) and a multitude of “others” (machines, humans, mutants, animals). When video-games simulate texts of battling humans, the “hero” (the one the player identifies with through activation) is overwhelmingly young, white, muscular, and male. The others-as-enemies are overwhelmingly male, often browner or yellower than the hero, are sometimes assigned foreign-sounding names and when they speak, do so in heavily-accented English or in unrecognizable languages altogether. This is an ironic aspect of videology, considering that many of these games are manufactured in Japan and Taiwan .
That many of these confrontations are simulated in decors reminiscent of Third-World jungles or “inner” cities is also indicative of underlying cultural and political messages of videology children learn while blasting as many “others” as possible with patriotic zeal. Thus, whereas in many games, the enemies/others are depicted as “natives” or “terrorists” battling in Third-World jungles, the Persian Gulf , or airports, in others, they are hostile chiefs of state and their malevolent cronies implicated in hostage-taking or drug-smuggling activities. In still others, they are represented as delinquent youth terrorizing inner city neighborhoods, banks, homes, and (usually white young) female residents. Both the “Third-World” jungle and the inner city are thus simulated as dangerous breeding grounds for criminals and as free-fire zones where excessive violence is always already the only logical strategy. Not surprisingly then, while the player's (hero's) own “lives” are valuable, limited in number, and monitored by flashing warning signals, the “others'“ lives seem unimportant and expendable, as swarms of them electronically hurl themselves at the hero's bullets, bombs, kicks and missiles, and vanish off the screen as soon as they have been killed (see Stallabrass 1993).
Third Assumption: Violent Individualism
A related aspect of this videological paranoid violence concerns its individualistic nature. EE Even though many games are designed to enable two individuals to play side by side (Smith 1983), most players prefer to play alone against/with the machine. This preference makes sense when considering that the scenarios of these games are most frequently organized around a single entity launched against hordes of others. Thus, although the design of many video-games allows two people to play side by side, they can most often only play one at a time rather than as a team. Even when two people do play simultaneously, the rapid circulation of entities on the screen and the very construction of the scenario reduce all choices of strategy to that of chacun pour soi (each person for him/herself). Thus, among the 40 top-selling violent games reported by Player's Poll “virtually all are based on the rule of an autonomous individual acting on his or her own.” (Provenzo 1991, p. 127) The imposition of this theme of the young white male hero who single-handedly defeats countless others articulates and extremizes deep-seated ideological myths of individualistic and violent conquest. The electronic hero the player activates and identifies with neither cooperates nor negotiates nor organizes with others. He maims, bombs, kills en masse and dies alone.
Fourth Assumption: Helpless in Videoland – The Place of Women in Video Games
My observations confirm that women are underrepresented in video arcades (Fiske 1989, Provenzo 1991, Kiesler 1983) and that videology constructs them as highly stereotyped subjects. Simulated most often as a young, white, oversexed and defenseless victim, she is rarely depicted as an active agent participating in whatever mission the game involves. Provenzo's (1991, pp. 108-109) research thus reveals that of the 47 top-selling games covers, “a total of 115 males and 9 females were identified. Male versus female figures predominated by a ratio of nearly 13 to 1 ... approximately 30% of the games contained scenarios in which women were kidnapped or had to be rescued as a part of the game.” As Skirrow (1986, p. 129) remarks, “women are not there as rewards, they are the landscape, the scene in which the performance takes place.”
For example, at the beginning of one game, a bruised young white woman is depicted with a torn shirt, looking terrorized. She implores the player for help in eliminating her assailants and then disappears from the screen, never to be seen again, as the object of the game really consists in destroying the “others” rather than in rescuing her. In still another game, upon its conclusion, a holographic depiction of a scantily dressed and attractive young white woman appears on the screen. Laying on her side, she talks directly to the player and seductively asks him to insert more coins and play another round. The act of additional p(l)aying is thus interpreted as a move that will bring both her and the p(l)ayer conspirational pleasure -- a situation not unlike other transactions organized around the expending of cash in exchange for the promise of pleasure uttered by a suggestive female voice. Fiske's idea of video-games arcades as “semiotic brothels” (1989, p. 93) may be more than just a metaphor clarifying the nature of “video pleasures”.
The meanings this videological under/misrepresentation conveys the primarily male players are not hard to fathom: Women are objects of temptation and violent rescue/appropriation, but are usually excluded from active participation in the meaningful aspects of the electronic world. Women are simulated as characters who are “acted upon rather than as initiators of action.” (Provenzo 1991, p. 100) Depicting women as invariably in need of being rescued through violent male intervention, videology reinforces and exaggerates gender stereotypes for both young male and female players. This ideological bias partly explains the overwhelming male presence and female absence in video arcades. Kiesler (1983) also makes the interesting observation that when female teenagers do visit video arcades, their behaviors there mimic those of the women of videology. They rarely play and most often act as an audience witnessing male prowess. As Turkle (1984) and others also explain, given that video-games represent a first important entry point of the child into the computer world, women might be disadvantaged in this area as their participation in video-games is importantly limited through their sexist simulation in videology.
Fifth Assumption: ViolentNo to Drugs
Another interesting assumption of videology concerns the juxtaposition of drugs and violence. Besides explicitly embedding drugs within invariably violent contexts, videology goes one step further. As suggested earlier, when unused, arcade video screens are not idle but project sequences of images and sounds. In many cases, unused video screens display as part of this sequence an image of the seal of the F.B.I., with a caption underneath stating that “Winners don't use drugs.” 3 In one game, this slogan is uttered by the hero of the game as he looks at the potential player with authority and determination.
This juxtaposition of images/texts which contain both an official condemnation of drugs embedded within an implied celebration of excessive violence endorses additional important ideological messages. More specifically, it communicates that excessive violence is acceptable when it is unleashed on the “drug problem”. As prologues to commando-like missions where patriotic Marines bomb and kill “Third-World” natives in decors simulating Central American jungles, messages such as these might significantly contribute to socializing young players into accepting as normal similar scenarios when they appear “for real” on television screens or on the front page of daily newspapers.
This same logic often applies in games where the player activates/identifies with a (usually) white policeman risking his electronic life in a drug-bust mission carried out in decors reminiscent of those depicted on America's Most Wanted, Cops, F. B. I., and similar TV “infotaining” programs glorifying the everyday professional practices of the official agents of social control. Symbols of the political, military and legal institution thus preside over, encourage, and reward the efficient and systematic elimination of those who are involved in the drug trade, and of those who evidently couldn't “just say no.”
Sixth Assumption: From Screen to Shiny Screen: Videology and Intertextuality
Video-games often simulate characters or texts which were/are/will be simulated on other media screens, especially television and cinema. From the Mario Brothers, to RoboCop, Hulk Hogan, Star Wars, Tron, the Teen-Age Mutant Ninja Turtles, Airwolf, Batman, Indiana Jones, Bart Simpson, the Terminator, etc, videology icons often refer to characters which players recognize from previous encounters on the multiple screens of the mediascape. Indeed, it is often difficult to establish whether a particular media icon traces its electronic roots back to the screen of television, cinema, or video-games. While Stallabrass (1993, p. 85) remarks that the “mutual dependence” between video-games and cinema is increasing, journalists Dickerson and Jackson (1993, p. 72) report that “at Sony Interactive, every movie script that Columbia buys is screened by the video-game department for its game potential ... In some cases the movie script is actually changed to add what Sony's creative team calls IPMS -- interactions per minute -- to make for a better game ... In some cases, extra footage is shot on location to provide additional material for the games.”
The global range of these icons' circulation and claims to authenticity are further enhanced through their reproduction on everyday objects such as lunch boxes, cereal boxes, pens, children's shoes, notebooks, postcards, bumper-stickers, posters, ties, socks, baseball caps, T-shirts, etc. Video-games thus represent a growing sub-program of a much broader and “ever-expanding entertainment supersystem” based on “transmedia intertextuality.” (Kinder 1991, p. 1) According to her,
In order to be a supersystem, the network must cut across several modes of image production; must appeal to diverse generations, classes, and ethnic subcultures, who in turn are targeted with diverse strategies; must foster “collectability” through a proliferation of related products; and must undergo a sudden increase in commodification, the success of which reflexively becomes a “media event” that dramatically accelerates the growth curve of the system's commercial success. (pp. 122-23)
Individuals consuming these everyday objects branded with a reproduction of these icons then in some sense also proclaim their position as subjects/spectators of the “entertainment supersystem” or, to quote Guy Debord (1983), of the “society of the spectacle” whose boundaries are rapidly reaching global dimensions and where “staying tuned is the chief political act.” (Poster 1990, p. 136)
But besides simulating the prominent icons of the entertainment supersystem, video-games also simulate texts which refer to real mass-mediated events such as the Gulf War, the invasion of Panama , World War II, the Vietnam conflict, etc. With its ability to simulate texts/icons which belong to radically different spheres (Bart Simpson or/and General Noriega), videology may thus contribute to and accelerate the collapse of the boundaries between fantasy and reality, a collapse introduced long ago by the television logic. Like television, videology flattens the difference between mass-mediated serious event and cartoonish fantasies by reproducing both on its colorful screens, and subjecting both to its (il)logic. It is only a while before Bart Simpson goes to Vietnam or before Batman captures General Noriega on the screens of video-games. 4
Sevennth Assumption: Hyper-s(t)imulation
The videological simulation of excess allowing the “loss of self” mentioned above by Fiske (1989, p. 93) deserves further attention. As Skirrow (1986, p. 121) remarks, video-games “attempt some kind of totalising experience which demands our undivided attention, temporarily eclipsing all other worlds.” Turkle (1984, p. 82) suggests that “for many people, what is being pursued in the video-game is not just a score but an altered state.” Her respondents indeed describe the effects of the games in a Zen-inspired vocabulary, explaining that such games allow for intensely pleasurable “centered” feelings and sharply aware mental states.
In video-games, then, the pleasure of the loss of self takes a particularly interesting form which resonates with various depictions of postmodern culture as one of electronic simulation and excess 5 . By comparison to many other loss-of-self practices involving meditation, visualization and concentration in sites where sensorial stimulation has been minimized as much as possible, losing oneself in video-games requires first immersion in, and then mastery over, the vertigo of electronic excess. By “plugging” into the game, the player finds him/herself inserted in an orgy of hyper-stimulation consisting of attacking others, flying bullets, flashing signals, noise, speed, movement, and megalomaniac destructiveness available at one's fingertips or in one's fist clenched around the joystick. That teenagers and younger children achieve this pleasurable loss-of-self experience through the strategic administration of excessive violence in the midst of electronic chaos will be discussed further below.
Eight Assumption: Modern Pleasure for Rules and Postmodern Rules for Pleasure
Videology articulates an additional type of pleasure overlooked by Fiske, a pleasure which might become increasingly important in the midst of a social world constantly and rapidly transformed beyond recognizable logic. As Skirrow suggests:
Part of any account of the popularity of video-games must be the fact that the games represent very powerfully the breakdown of boundaries characteristic of postmodern culture: boundaries between fantasy and science, between high-tech and primitivism, and between play and real life ... As the explosion in information and technology in the last few years has made the possibility of division seem infinite, the difficulties incomprehensible, and solutions remote, the popular imagination appears to have taken flight either into a world like those presented by the pop videos where signs not anchored to anything seem to suggest and encompass everything or into model environments like those of video-games where systems still have their own limited and understandable -- though strange -- internal coherence (1991, pp. 118-122).
Accordingly, although video-games texts produce an excess of visual and aural stimuli rapidly circulating on the screen, videology also offers the promise of reliable rules. To some degree, the videological message embedded in the games postulates that beyond and beneath this chaos of electronic excess, there exists an organized set of rules, a decipherable computer “order” where pleasure, control, and survival are possible once one has accepted its (il)logic and successfully cracked its code. For Greenfield , “part of the excitement of the games surely must lie in this process of transforming randomness into order through induction.” (1984, p. 112) For Turkle:
Unlike the real world, the game universe always conforms to rules. There is violence, murder, and theft, but the rules for what can happen and how to handle it are precise ... Their constraints are those imposed by rule systems, not by physical reality or moral considerations (1983, p. 79).
In sum, if anybody with a quarter to spend can play at video-games, video pleasure requires the player's total immersion in the electronic text, trust in the existence of a code imposed by invisible experts, and the self-affirming and empowering experience of its incremental mastery. Predicated on the ability to rapidly discriminate between circulating signs (some hostile, some neutral, and some friendly), and to appropriately respond to them, such a pleasurable mastery involves a skillful and rapid navigation in a chaotic electronic text, a navigation propelled by strategic violent moves administered digitally.
In videology then, the modern pleasure of discovering the rules of a seemingly random electronic text is implicated in the postmodern rules for experiencing electronic pleasure. In other words, in order to experience a pleasurable loss of self in the midst of electronic excess, one must first immerse oneself in the “logic” of videology and accept its rules so as to decipher them. If those rules appear “illogical” when compared to those organizing everyday life and the physical world (Turkle 1984, p. 79), they also replicate the (il)logic of other media texts where anything is indeed (graphically) possible.
CONCLUSIONS: VIDEO-GAMES AS postmodern SITES/SIGHTS OF ideological reproduction
Whereas Fiske suggested that video-games represent sites or practices of resistance against the dominant ideology -- moments of evasion from its grip -- I have focused here on the assumptions of videology, the broader context within which this resistance is situated. As I have shown, the pleasure of video-game, this loss of self cum control players seek to attain, is framed and predicated by eight interrelated assumptions. When examined outside of their electronic context and translated into everyday language, such assumptions can be seen as intensifying problematic ideological orientations. These hail and re-inscribe the young male p(l)ayers as subjects of a decidedly violent, paranoid, individualist, racist, sexist, militarized and oversaturated electronic New World Order whose trigger-happy patriotic young white male agents brutally enforce a “zero-tolerance” policy towards drug-smugglers and a great variety of others, while keeping women “in their place.” In contrast to Fiske's celebration of the pleasurable resistance video-games allow, I emphasize here that such resistance and pleasure rest on the tacit acceptance and reproduction of these assumptions.
The first videological assumption which organizes the vast majority of the games posits that excessive violence characterizes time, space, human and nonhuman entities. It is the given, the foundation of video-games texts. The second and corollary assumption implies that whatever is not-self (the polymorphous “other”) is most probably hostile, dangerous, and involved in unacceptable activities. Since these others' presence and circulation signify one's electronic “death” and the end of video pleasure, their brutal elimination is the quintessential means and ends of a majority of video-games. The third assumption premises that one essentially administers and experiences violence individualistically in a world where the only person one can truly count on is oneself. The fourth assumption implies that, while women are always white, young and attractive, they are essentially passive decorations flaunting their body; victims whose sole raison d'etre is to be rescued/appropriated by male characters/players. In videology, this task is most often accomplished through a spectacular and violent confrontation with the “other.” Through the juxtaposition of quasi-official symbols simultaneously expressing the political/legal/military institutions' condemnation of drugs and their celebration of violence, the fifth assumption of videology communicates that the institutions so symbolized approve the use of excessive violence when its aim is the elimination of illegal drugs and of those “others” engaged in their traffic. The sixth assumption of videology confirms its insertion in a wider entertainment supersystem: the global mediascape whose icons are reified, kept “alive” and authenticated through their constant circulation as electronic signals on media screen and as everyday material objects consumed by citizens/spectators. The seventh assumption communicates and exaggerates the reality of electronic excess, an excess which simultaneously contains risks and tensions on one hand, and opportunities for pleasurable loss-of-self through mastery on the other. The eighth assumption affirms the existence of reliable, decipherable, and systematic rules, a purely objective computer “order” which promises control and survival in the midst of electronic excess, an order with “little moral complexity or ambiguity” (Stallabrass 1993, p. 90), unencumbered by the “limitations of physical laws, compassion, negotiation, or due process.”
The last three assumptions (one's insertion in an entertainment/spectacle supersystem, the normality of electronic hyper-s(t)imulation, and the increasing organization of everyday life by a computer (il)logic) articulate and amplify important social and social psychological characteristics which authors such as Baudrillard (1983, 1981, 1970), Pfohl (1992, 1990), Kroker and Cook (1990, 1986), Gergen (1991), Anderson (1990), Gottschalk (1994, 1993) and others have associated with an emerging postmodern consciousness and moment.
While these three interrelated postmodern assumptions/characteristics constitute novel parameters complicating an assessment of the impact of video-games on players 6 , they also indicate that such effects cannot be understood in isolation from the broader social and electronic context of which they are part. Thus, for example, if engagement with violent texts/games does sometimes generate therapeutic and cathartic outcomes, the nature and dynamics of such outcomes might be significantly transformed by (1) the unique technological properties of video-games and the kind of participation they require, (2) the positioning of violence as the axial principle rather than as the exceptional and cathartic crisis point, but also by (3) the interpenetration of these games within a broader mediascape where the boundaries between “the real” and the spectacle are themselves becoming increasingly blurred.
What happens when the “real” world provides a diminishing contrast with the world of play, and when both increasingly seem to become a series of interrelated electronic spectacles remains an open question that requires further research. As an example, many journalists have commented that televised military operations in the Gulf war looked like scenes on a video-game screen. In situations where the real looks like its simulated version, and when the simulation approaches the real to the point of virtual reality, one's perceptions of the real, of one's actions and of their effects on others might become substantially altered 7 .
As s(t)imulating machines, video-games enable active participation, encourage the mastery of various skills, and translate those into spectacular and instantaneous screened events. They obviously produce intense pleasure and allow for momentary and imaginary empowering experiences. As socializing agents, they might offer more pleasure than television-watching and might thus displace it as a site/practice of ideological communication. It is unfortunate but hardly surprising that the obvious talent necessary for the writing of such sophisticated video-games programs is channelled into the invention of ever more convincing aural and visual experiences of violence, faster and more precise responses to digital impulses, and other technical priorities. Presently, the channelling of such talent into the simulation of texts which could communicate a radically different worldview and encourage equalitarian, cooperative, and conciliatory skills remains outside of (v)ideology.
I wish to thank Dmitri Shalin, Andrea Fontana and David Dickens for their comments and suggestions on earlier versions of this paper. Thanks also to an enthusiastic and anonymous reviewer.
1. On the other hand, casinos/hotels are constantly monitored by a network of omnipresent but concealed cameras which -- as one casino worker told me -- can observe absolutely everything and everyone within the casino boundaries. The casino and its attached tourist areas are also constantly patrolled by a multitude of armed and unarmed security personnel both in uniform and plain clothes talking/listening to their walkie-talkies, to invisible others. The adult fantasyland many associate with Las Vegas casinos is also a high-security zone, a buzzing Panopticon where multiple and mobile hidden electronic/human eyes are constantly watching the human traffic.
2. See for example Burgin (1990) for an exploration of the paranoid dimension of postmodern culture.
3. This videological assumption might be limited to video-games found in video arcades.
4. The most revolting expression of this mixing of genres appeared in the form of a video-game produced by a German underground network of video-games programmers. Simulating the decor of a concentration camp, the object of the game was to dispose of inmates in the most efficient way. The German government banned the game upon its discovery.
5. See for example Baudrillard (1990, 1983, 1970), Chen (1987), Kroker, Kroker & Cook (1990,1986).
6. This assessment becomes especially problematic when considering that video-games are constantly improving in their sophistication and and enable a growing range of experiences. New hybrid machines combining virtual reality and video-games are already being marketed by SEGA and other corporations.
7. The puzzling nature of the Gulf War for many Western citizens/spectators might be a consequence of this accelerating electronic spectacularization of warfare (see Baudrillard 1992, Stallabrass 1993).
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