In 1995, Erkki Huhtamo invited me to contribute an essay on videogames to his upcoming book Mariosophy:The Culture of Electronic Games. The book was published several years later, in Finnish, and the essay was first published in English in Martin Reiser and Andrea Zapp's New Screen Media: Cinema / Art / Narrative.
MASTERY (SONIC C’EST MOI)
Earlier versions of some sections of this essay were published in Leonardo Vol. 28 No. 5 1995
Sonic’s World: Physics & Geometry
In some recent videogames (such as the Sega signature series—Sonic, Sonic 2, Sonic 3, and Sonic and Knuckles—and the newer Nintendo64 games such as Super Mario 64, Donkey Kong, and Zelda), both the obstacles that impede the characters, and the devices that assist them, are not virtual machines governed by lighter-than-air laws of cyberspace. They are simulations of springs, ratchets and pulleys, encumbered and regulated by familiar mechanical principles–weight and gravity, force and acceleration, elasticity, leverage. The human player controls animated creatures that need air to breathe, rotors, wings, or gyroscopic platforms to fly, momentum contributed by springs or rocket motors to navigate loop-de-loop tracks and aggressively steep gradients, and trampolines or cannons to propel them to colossal heights.
In this essay I would like to make some observations about a subset of computer games: games that I consider explicitly cinematic. The basis of these games is the moving picture, and the player can manipulate a character through a set of environments with registered input a more or less constant possibility. These games, are, I believe, the most extreme examples of ‘interactivity.’ They are the shock troops of new media, always advancing into new territory, at least in their structural characteristics and their unprecedented object-spectator relationship.
The environment of Sonic the Hedgehog and his colleagues, Tails the Fox and Knuckles (an indeterminate species), or that of Mario, the hyperactive toddler-with-a-moustache, is a Newtonian physics demonstration. It is a pool table, a roller coaster, the world of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, not that of William Gibson or Neil Stevenson. Unassisted flight, hyperwarp speed, and Roadrunner rates of acceleration (to say nothing of time travel or jacking into databases) are not features of the worlds of most current cartridge games. The milieus these games depict are strangely 19th century, un-futuristic, non-science-fictional, though we like to take their international prevalence (not to mention the huge gross earnings of the corporations that produce them) as signs of the encroachment of a future on the present. And, I would say, rightly so.
However, though the physical laws of the depicted environments are within the high school applied mathematics syllabus, the spaces depicted cannot be endorsed by any traditional educational curriculum. Buildings with no visible support structure ascend infinitely, so that characters can keep climbing up and up and up, while abysses descend equally far into the bowels of a virtual earth. If a character changes direction, going back does not necessarily return him to his initial course. Spatial continuity is either absent (there is no connection between one area and the next), or too present (when, for example, advancing past a certain point brings you back to where you started). To put it another way: the geometry of the space represented in these games is postmodern while their physics remains pre-Einstein.
Since the first version of this article was finished in January 1998, 3D games, for Nintendo64 and Playstation, have overrun the cartridge game market. In these games a character controlled by the player can move perpendicular to the plane of the screen, as well as parallel to it—away from the viewer as well as up, down and sideways. These games often include zones from which a character can transmigrate from one place to another (the “Beam me up Scotty” principle). Compared with a game like the N64 Zelda, Sonic feels primitive — almost medieval. But as a general rule the same principles apply. Link, the main character of Zelda, is as inhibited as Sonic by the laws of Newtonian physics—until he collects the devices that enable him to breathe underwater, glide across gulleys, and warp to another location. These devices are strictly magical, difficult to obtain, and often need to be mastered themselves. They reinforce the physical limits of the everyday, non-magical, world, the world that Link gradually, item by item, frees himself from. The possibility of movement in three dimensions gives the player a powerful sense of geography and personal placement, as well as an overwhelming feeling of conquest as he liberates the enslaved inhabitants and finally the trapped Princess Zelda — to win the game. The 3D world also encourages the player to move aimlessly, to sightsee, and simply to walk, run, gallop, jump, and tumble around. Indeed he is rewarded for non-goal directed meandering: he often finds secret hiding places or insubstantial creatures he can defeat, and wins magic, money, health, or useful gear. He also meets off-track characters who challenge him to contests and tests of skill, and in engaging in these minor games, the player hones his own skills with the joystick and buttons, and later finds himself drawing on his practice bouts when he engages a Boss or other significant enemy. Zelda is a highly intricate environment, with a complicated economics, an awesome cast of creatures, a broad range of landscapes and indoor scenarios, and an elaborated chemistry, biology, geology, and ecology so that its world can almost be studied like an alternative version of Nature. The game allows its players to feel as if they have acquired genuine skills and knowledge for use in their encounters with tougher and tougher adversaries. It is regrettable that these skills have no application outside the contained world of the game. But overall, my points about the simpler games are confirmed, not negated, by these more recent products.
A first proposal to account for this mismatch between physics and geometry might be that the laws regulating movement in the videogame need to be immediately comprehensible, while infinite and foundationless architecture and geography do not affect the player's moment-by-moment navigational understanding. The player manoeuvres the keypad with two general aims: acquisition–of tools, health, weapons, and "powers"; and destruction–of obstacles, enemies, and "bosses". The overall goal is to preserve the life of one’s character and increase his health whenever it flags so as to reach new levels of play-action. It could be said that operating in a world of familiar laws makes the game more "intuitive." But this does not seem right. There is a harsh learning curve associated with these games. In a sense, ascending the learning curve is playing the game. A player could equally adapt to new set of physical laws as he gets in synch with the rhythms of a game and learns how different combinations of buttons make his character jump, hit, kick, shoot, climb, cling, and crouch. Indeed in some older games, characters can fly without assistance, swim underwater without breathing, and transmigrate from one place to another from anywhere. However, these games are less compelling.
My guess is that the world governed by mechanical laws is designed to create a visceral resistance. The everyday physics of the game world keep the player anchored to his seat, held down by the sense that the laws of the simulation are precisely the laws of the world he is struggling to overcome in daily life: in soccer and basketball in the schoolyard, and on roller-blades or skateboard on the streets and half-pipes. In both the game world and the real world, gravity and friction, if not opponents, are forces to domesticate, while elasticity, momentum, balance, and co-ordination are allies. The rhythms of recent games are not based on hand-eye dexterity as much as unexpected accents and changes in tempo. Reaction time, in other words, is no longer the winning ingredient as much as adaptability and familiarity with the ebbs and flows of the game's changing currents. Compare Joan Didion’s description of driving on the freeways of Los Angeles in the 1970s.
Anyone can "drive" on the freeway, and many people with no vocation for it do, hesitating here and resisting there, losing the rhythm of the lane change, thinking about where they came from and where they are going. Actual participants think only about where they are. Actual participation requires a total surrender, a concentration so intense as to seem a kind of narcosis, a rapture-of-the-freeway. The mind goes clean. The rhythm takes over. A distortion of time occurs, the same distortion that characterises the instant before an accident. It takes only a few seconds to get off the Santa Monica Freeway at National-Overland, which is a difficult exit requiring the driver to cross two new lanes of traffic streamed in from the San Diego Freeway: but those few seconds always seem to me the longest part of the trip. The moment is dangerous. The exhilaration is in doing it.
Joan Didion, "Bureaucrats," The White Album (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979), p. 83
But the pleasures of surfing the currents, of finding the rhythms of a computer game, can only account for part of its success. The fact is that we cannot beat than the computer, and every player knows it. In order to keep us believing the patent falsehood that we might be able to best it at exactly what it does best, the computer depicts a scene of 19th century machines, an Adam Smith world of profit and loss, credits and debits, laws we feel we can comprehend and bend to our advantage. But this is a false illusion. The computer eventually will outpace the player. Simulating an opponent, the computer can always win.
The compulsion to play, which is clearly not the same as the compulsion to win, is almost pathological for many players. Time flashes by, obligations are forgotten, while the computer game fills the imagination of the player, despite its minimal rewards and scant story-line. What is it that keeps the player glued to the screen?
Closure Compulsion: Breakout 1978
In a startling autobiographical memoir published almost twenty years ago, author David Sudnow describes his obsession with a computer game in a style and level of detail that matches the state of mind.
[. . .] I serve. I get the first shot right, There’s the return, and it’ll come right about here, and I’m right about there. Don’t miss. Got it. It goes up, hits the correct brick, here comes the return, it’s going to be a little further to the right now, so I’m moving to the right. Be careful, don’t go too far. So I don’t go too far because I’m scared, and instead of bringing the second section under the paddle I bring the middle under it and the ball shoots off to the far right side, Be more careful. So exactly the same thing happens three times in a row, the third shot always hit fearfully in the middle with a full paddle that can’t miss the ball but can’t hit that brick.
David Sudnow, Pilgrim in the Microworld (New York: Warner Books, 1983), p. 130
On the screen of Breakout, rows of bricks are aligned in front of the back wall of the court (at the top of the screen), and bricks disappear when a puck-like object hits them. The object is to eliminate all the bricks. The puck bounces off a paddle that the player moves along a single axis at the bottom of the screen. The behaviour of the puck is not entirely rational or predictable. Hitting certain bricks change the speed and direction of the puck’s bounce, and at specific points in the game its velocity changes without warning, while different regions of the surface of the paddle also affect the bounce in different ways. Breakout was designed in 1976 as an arcade game by then Atari employee Steve Jobs, aided by videogame enthusiast Steve Wozniak[!] (Information from the Videotopia website at http://www.videotopia.com retrieved January 1998.) It was released as a home cartridge game for the Atari 2600 system in 1978, and David Sudnow played this version for several months in 1979. His book is a painfully detailed documentation of his extended attempts to “beat” the game—hundreds of hours of play are described, move by move, in a writing project that is reminiscent of the early novels of Samuel Beckett.
I’ll pretend it doesn’t matter, since I can immediately witness the consequences of caution. Be casual this time and make believe you couldn’t really care less one way or the other. Get back that naturalness you had when you woke up. So I go again, and the first two shots are fine, and now comes that third one a little farther to the right, and so I’m casually pretending it doesn’t matter that I swing broadly and nonchalantly in that direction, while before the movement to this side was cautious. And now I hit the ball on the very tip of the paddle, which sends it to the left wall. [Pilgrim in the Microworld,] p.131
Sudnow delivers almost two hundred pages of this relentless prose, with very little in the way of conclusion or analysis. Though Breakout is in some ways quite different from more recent character animation games, Sudnow’s description of the game’s appropriating the imagination of the player like an army of occupation certainly applies to Zelda and Sonic; and no one else has undertaken this kind of phenomenological study. The combination of self-consciousness (Sudnow is a psychologist) with his obsessiveness as a player is unique. The very existence of the book demonstrates the authority a computer game can exercise over its player, even when there are no game-characters to identify with, no more narrative than a game of solitaire, and no rewards for winning or even witnesses to a victory. Breakout gripped the mind of an adult so firmly that, like a recovering alcoholic, he felt the need to write a book to document his capacity to overcome its power.
What is the source of this power? What is in the compulsion to play and replay the game, missing appointments, losing sleep, sacrificing meals, companionship, and even sex?
Sudnow’s battle with Breakout is a battle to win consistently. He discounts his occasional “lucky” strikes in a search for a repeatable victory. In the first part of the book he looks for rules to the game, even going so far as to track down the programmers (he is too late for Jobs and Wozniak, unfortunately, but he finds the software engineers that repurposed the arcade game for home cartridge use.) They cannot help him, because the software is constructed not on principles of game theory or a rule book, but on testing and revision: engineers develop a version and then modify it based on observing users’ interactions with it. The criterion of a success is that it grips the player precisely as Sudnow was gripped. So he could not expect to find the principles behind the game by interviewing the programmers—their approach was experimental, ‘bottom-up.’ Since Breakout was originally designed as an arcade game, the design objective was that the frenzied player keeps feeding the machine quarters. It is clear what keeps the player playing. His basic desire is for mastery over the apparatus. The point of the game, and I think this can be generalised, is to keep the player between two frontier zones—on the verge of mastery, on the verge of losing control. A little more effort, a little more timing, a little more spring and co-ordination, will reach the next level; and a little less will result in a Death. The pleasure is in overcoming what was just a few minutes ago insurmountable. What keeps the boy playing is a promise–the intimation that with enough energy, enough focus, and enough lives, he might master this machine.
Mastery. Even when I write a personal letter now, there are two mental activities involved: the creative act of writing, and word processor expertise, the mastery over the apparatus that I depend on to operate the device with which I write. I've more or less "learned" the word processor by now, though there are always unexamined features, software upgrades, and new output devices. The fact that I can endlessly edit without effort—all you need is … not love, but rather time—enables me to input a text early, perhaps too early, in the writing process. Before the word processor, for me at least, thinking was the first step of a writing project. Now, however, thinking is keying in, a necessary unpleasure. And writing becomes editing.
Mastery’s Deletion of the Master
In his essay “Cyberspace, or the Unbearable Closure of Being,” Slavoj Zizek argues that this breakdown of the distinction between writing and editing eliminates the concept of the definitive text. He suggests that a need for a new Authority, other than the author of a text, has appeared. This Master’s (Zizek’s term) function would be to adjudicate between competing text versions based on an expertise different from the author’s. The computer therefore allows (forces?) the author to abdicate his authority. Zizek calls this the “decline of the function of the Master in contemporary western societies.” He suggests that the illusion of open choice in contemporary media corresponds to the disappearance of acknowledged authority, and in fact results in a decrease of ‘freedom.’ “It is when there is no one to tell you what you really want, when all the burden of the choice is on you, that the big Other dominates you completely, and the choice effectively disappears” (p. 153). However, Zizek is rarely straightforward. He ardently embraces a fundamentally paradoxical approach, where every pivotal concept incorporates its obverse, and it is nearly impossible to extract a coherent position from his jubilant stream of quotations, arguments, jokes, and examples drawn from mainstream cinema, literature and politics. He does seem to suggest, however, that interactive technologies (or what he calls “cyberspace”) leave a gap where a symbolic authority formerly existed. The sense of Mastery offered by the videogame can plug that gap temporarily, allowing the player to regain—for himself—the illusion of authority.
Mastery. Am I arguing that it is a “drive” like Sex, Death or Survival? Or should we look for a more fundamental psychological principle to account for the game’s impoundment of the player’s imagination? I wonder if a search for fundamentals is the right approach to the problem. For Sudnow it is the micro-focus of playing the game that keeps him interested—the fact that he is always just short of winning, that a death is always the result of a minor error, an error that should be easy to avoid in the next round. So he always goes on to that next round: he plays it again and again Sam until he can no longer hold the controller. Sudnow does not expect practice to make perfect. He does not think that reps will increase his skill—and here he contrasts playing Breakout to playing the piano—he simply expects not to repeat his previous error. In other words, the game is isomorphic: the structure of each moment of play, in its success and failure, mirrors the structure of the whole game. Winning the game is linking together a series of winning moments, and no more than that. There is no one overall drive governing the player’s compulsive behaviour, but rather a series of tiny desires for one small victory after another. Like the structure of a computer program, the experience of the game and the impulse to keep going are built out of atomic components.
In the character games there is a similar isomorphism between player and character. Mario faces the same task as the player who drives him, though for the player it is a fictional task while for the cartoon creature a (virtually) real one. Exactly as the player is striving for mastery over the apparatus, so the character—whether it is Sonic, Mario, Duke Nukem, or Link—is striving for mastery over his environment. This mirroring is one of the factors that leads the player to refer to his character in the first person—“I just destroyed one of Dr. Robotnik’s robot machines and liberated his victims” or “I need more health” or even (spoken with frustration or anger) “I died.” That fact that the player describes the character’s struggles as his own indicates a peculiar and specific kind of identification, and has led recently to the introduction of the term “avatar” for one’s on-screen representative, particularly in networked environments.
Identification: I am Mario
Is the relationship of player to avatar different from a reader’s or viewer’s identification with a character in any work of fiction? Identification has been a major topic in film theory for over twenty-five years. Recently Zizek has encapsulated and added to this research, writing very elegantly about the contrivances of identification and its connections with ‘the gaze’ and specific film editing techniques. The essay “‘In His Bold Gaze My Ruin is Writ Large’” is in Zizek’s compilation with the extraordinary title Everything You Wanted to Know About Lacan but Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock. Again it is difficult to summarise the ricochets of Zizek’s reasoning; he turns his argument around the concept of gaze, arguing that identification can be directed to a character during the times when the screen portrays that character’s point of view. In those moments we can feel as if we are seeing through the character’s eyes, and the mechanisms of identification, according to Zizek, are linked with this epistemology. For my purposes, his most relevant line of argument deals with the shifting of points of view. He sees one of the main functions of montage in the fiction film as enabling the viewer to adopt an ever-changing point of view, shifting from one character to another even within a single scene. Whom I identify with corresponds to my point of view as I find it migrating from one character to another. This thesis is most compelling when Zizek employs it to account for the experience of the horror film. He suggests that in Psycho, for example, there are moments when we find ourselves not only looking through the eyes of the mother of Norman Bates, the embodiment of evil, but also identifying with her to the extent of feeling her unspeakable desires. At the moment Bates stabs Detective Arbogast, we, in identification with Norman’s mother, also wish for the death of the prying detective. And this identification with what Zizek calls “the Thing,” i.e. with a creature we regard as morally sub-human whose outlook we find repugnant, is one of the factors that gives rise to the intensity of emotion the horror film generates.
Zizek’s subtle analysis of the “coincidence of our view with the Thing’s gaze” culminates in his claim that we do not through this experience gain a greater understanding of Norman’s pathology, of the character of the psychopath. At the moment of coincidence of viewpoint, we feel the Thing’s wish for the detective’s death, without understanding the motives or psychology that bring this desire into being. This is unlike an identification which carries an understanding (sympathetic or not) of the character whose eyes we see through—a quality that Zizek attributes to our identification with Marion, the secretary who steals the money and is famously killed in the shower. Indeed, Zizek is reluctant to give the name “identification” to our moment of coincidence with the Thing’s point of view, since there are no qualities of character to fill out the experience.
In a videogame the “coincidence of view” is achieved very quickly and by means of a single, elementary device–that the movement of the character is fully determined by the actions of the player. Without my action on the keypad, Sonic is static. My actions bring him to life—and I have to see the world through his eyes to keep him alive. There are few, if any, qualities of character to attribute to Mario, Sonic, or Link. Yet the identification is intense. No viewer of Psycho would ever refer to Mrs. Bates with a first person pronoun, but Mario is me. I am Mario because I am responsible for Mario’s (physical) actions. If Zizek is right, one of the horrors induced by Psycho is connected with my experiencing Mrs. Bates’ despicable desire as my own, while her actions are beyond my control. Thus I feel her desire without any way to take responsibility: responsibility depends on the ability to act, and, if necessary, to act against my desires. In a videogame, on the other hand, the fact that my actions determine the actions of the characters endows me with total responsibility. Thus horror is a difficult, if not impossible, emotion to elicit in a computer game: I cannot be induced to desire the unthinkable while I am responsible for the actions of my character—the force driving me is the desire to keep my character going.
The idea is that if you consume every Mario artefact you can get your hands on, if you can play the Super NES game in a Mario Brothers sweatshirt while scarfing down an individually wrapped Mario Brothers snack, then through some mysterious process of celebrity transubstantiation, you can become Mario, or at least take on some of his abilities. It's kind of like Pinocchio in reverse—millions of real boys dreaming of someday turning into a digital marionette.
J. C. Herz ,"Mario Über Alles," in Joystick Nation [New York: Little Brown, 1997], p. 136
So by playing the game I become Sonic, Mario, or Link; but not in the sense of feeling their desires or understanding their motives, since they have neither desires nor motives, not even fictional ones. As Henry Jenkins points out in an essay I shall discuss in some detail later, “[t]he character is little more than a cursor that mediates the players relationship to the story world […] lack[ing] even the most minimal interiority. ” [Fuller and Jenkins, p. 61]. In contrast, the player does have an interior life, and in manipulating his avatar’s movements, he attributes his own motives and desires, his hopes and fears (at least in relation to the game) to the character he controls. I need to acquire abilities, better weapons and extended time, to reach the next level and to win the game; and these attributes are precisely what Mario needs, in order to stay alive, vanquish his enemies, and achieve the next level. Thus in effect my mental states and Mario’s are one and the same: the mindset I read into Mario or Sonic is my own. It would be surprising if I did not refer to him in the first person.
Mario is Me. Am I a Psychopath?
I am Mario. What are the implications of this? In their perceptive collaborative article, “Nintendo® and New World Travel Writing: A Dialogue,” in Steven G. Jones (ed.) Cybersociety: Computer Mediated Communication and Community [Thousand Oaks California: Sage Publications](also quoted earlier), Mary Fuller and Henry Jenkins remark on the pervasiveness of conquistador and colonialist metaphors in the description (and especially in the promotional literature) of Virtual Reality. This inspired the authors to make a detailed comparison of computer games and Renaissance travel narratives by such explorers as Columbus and Walter Raleigh. Both computer games and Renaissance travel accounts privilege space traversed over plot and characterisation. This approach yields unsatisfying narratives, since plot dynamics and character depiction and development are two of the primary conventional measures of narrative success. In underplaying these qualities, both forms emphasise exploration, discovery, acquisition, and exploitation.
Does it follow that our ten-year-old boys are becoming virtual neo-colonialists as they guide their animated avatars through the environments of data space? How would this state of mind manifest itself? Do they believe that they can master and control their environments more than they used to? Clearly to attempt a general answer to this question would be pointless—but it is remarkable how recent teenage trends seem to emphasise control and empowerment. Skateboarding, roller-blading, and snowboarding are skills that depend on developed expertise, and, once mastered, allow the enthusiast to dominate the sidewalks, the schoolyards, or the slopes. Body modification, such as piercing and tattooing, suggest that the territory of the body is entirely the domain of its owner. But at the same time, the emphasis on command and control over areas as limited as these might suggest that the commanders feel particularly disenfranchised in other areas of life, areas that are perhaps perceived as more significant. Perhaps part of the interest in videogames is in reaction to a sense of powerlessness—with controller in hand one can became master of a world, limited though this mastery is.
The US government treats the notion of videogames causing psychological damage with some gravity. In 1993 and 1994 the House and Senate assembled a joint subcommittee on violence in videogames. Of course the members of the committee were not concerned as to whether videogames affected the attitudes of their players toward colonialism and conquest: the main issue was the protrayal of violence. The senators and congressmen, as well as the expert witnesses they called, all seemed to accept without question the (untestable) presupposition that violent images provoke violence in those who view them. Dr. Robert E. McAfee went so far as to read the following statement into the record, claiming that it represented the official position of the American Medical Association:
The AMA believes that something must be done to deal with video game violence. We have suggested in Congressional testimony earlier this year that perhaps a written message should appear on the video game screen at the beginning of each game in which some character is killed, such as:
“THIS IS A GAME THAT SHOWS MURDER AND KILLING. IT IS ONLY A VIDEOGAME, BUT IN REAL LIFE, MURDER AND KILLING ARE PERMANENT. IT IS VERY WRONG, IT CAUSES A LOT OF PAIN AND SADNESS, AND MURDERERS ARE PUNISHED AND CAN GO TO JAIL FOR A VERY LONG TIME.”
We also suggest, in the spirit of the video medium, that scenes should be incorporated into games in which the consequences of violent acts are depicted in connection with some innocent character being injured or killed—scenes such as an ambulance rushing the character to a hospital or cemetery, and other characters representing the family and friends of the injured or killed character crying and grieving.
Robert E. McAfee, MD June 30 1994, statement of the AMA to the subcommittee on telecommunications and finance, house committee on energy and commerce
I’ll leave the ideological underpinnings of this paranoid text to a future grammatologist.
The government’s prime example of was Mortal Kombat, a combat tournament game in which the player’s selects a character (from a gallery of mugshots) and also selects his character’s opponent. The possible contestants form an exotic multi-cultural assembly, male, female, and of indeterminate gender, from Japanese Ninjas to African warriors. Each character has specific fighting skills, which the player must learn to manage. Some of the deaths are spectacular, including reaching into the opponent’s chest and removing his or her heart, or twisting off the enemy’s head to harvest a shower of ruby blood. But, finally, Mortal Kombat is only an animated costume and makeup exhibition, with little connection to real world violence. The anger and frustration children feel comes from the fact that they invariably play until they lose; until the computer, to which they do indeed attribute qualities of character, wins. Losing to a dumb machine can make anyone mad.
What are the long-term effects of videogames on their players? If the characters we control are men without qualities, surely the enemies are also empty shells, bundles of functions not traits, however elaborate their appearance. Mortal Kombat’s preferred mode is competition between players rather against than the computer, and the game allows its player to costume his avatar, tp select some physical qualities to project his own personality onto. In those games where the primary mode of play is against the machine, the enemies are often two-dimensional cyphers—robots controlled by the dreaded (offscreen) Dr. Robotnik in the Sonic series, and silly hinged discs with teeth in Super Mario64. In Taurok the enemies are a variety of prehistoric beasts and armed foot soldiers, and Link’s enemies are a variety of magical and robot like creatures, from zombies to despots. However, even in most cases these beasts rapidly lose their minimal realism, because even after dying they reappear. Destruction, no matter how bloody, is make-believe: the creature will be reconstituted to attack you later. The economics of software demand repeatable objects. It is unfeasible to build a unique software enemy for each hostile encounter, of which there are hundreds in a game session. Repetition mitigates the bloodiness of the violence. Does it also contribute to a sense of triviality in regard to real world violence? In prison on the day of their arrest, the two Arkansas children who were accused of gunning down their classmates in 1998 reportedly cried for their mothers and tried to exchange their chicken dinners for pizza, obviously misunderstanding the implications of their confinement, if nothing else. Has the culture of videogames contributed to their cavalier attitudes? Of course the answer one gives to this question is determined by the presuppositions one makes about a number of fundamental issues, by one’s general world-view. To pin the blame on videogames in isolation is clearly a case of ostrich thinking.
Is Mario a Christopher Columbus? Does Sonic’s world reinforce colonialist values, as Mary Fuller suggests? The point of the videogame is mastery—there is never the option of adjusting one’s behavior to fit the environment, e.g. learning and adopting the habits of its natives. (This is not absurd: other games such as Civilisation II and The Sims can be described in this way.) The only habits the natives have are aggressive behaviours toward the intruder—exactly the qualities the conquistadors attributed to the natives of the New World. Success is based on conquest, not co-operation. As to whether this is the attitude the game communicates, whether the player is left with a desire for mastery over his real world when he puts down his controller—this must be an empirical issue. Many aspects of our contemporary societies reinforce the view that there are winners and losers in life, and becoming one or the other is largely a matter of outdoing the other participants in whatever game one has chosen as one’s own. Like most entertainment, videogames reflect dominant ideologies as much as they originate or communicate them.
Military Training and Reaching the Next Level
There is one final distinction that I think is important, though I’m not sure I am capable of developing it in sufficient detail. I started this essay with the claim that a player’s task in the range of games I’ve discussed is mastery over a system of apparatus. I suggested that while Mario’s goal was to master his environment, the player’s task was to master his own environment, not Mario’s. The player is looking for an expertise over the system he is playing on, and he achieves this expertise by guiding Mario through exploration, murder, conquest, pillage, and exploitation. Though, as I have indicated, the player identifies with Mario to the point of referring to him in the first person, there is a difference between the depicted “virtual” world that the avatar exists in, and the apparatus that accomplishes the picturing of the virtual world. The player’s task is to master the apparatus by getting Mario to master his world.
If anything, extreme realism compromises a videogame’s play-through and hobbles its pacing. Lockheed Martin’s first draft of Desert Tank was a lousy arcade experience, because it was too much like a real tank. The vehicle dynamics were great—you could practically feel the terrain rolling underfoot. When you fired the cannon, there was a great force feedback effect. But you had to wait forever to fire again, because real missiles generate so much heat that you have to pause while the cannons cool down. This stuff is really key when you’re training tank pilots. They have to know all this stuff. But it doesn’t make for the greatest gaming experience. Taking a minute and a half to reload kind of kills the buzz.
J. C Herz, Joystick Nation [New York: Little, Brown and Company: 1997] p. 207
This distinction between depicted world and depicting machine collapses when one considers a type of application that has emerged in the last five or six years. I am referring to military training simulators, and the games that are based on them. The point of using a flight simulator, for example, is indeed to learn the apparatus, but, at the same time, the apparatus is a simulation of a fighter plane, the function of which is, in a word, military. Since the Gulf War, a number of games have been licensed from, or retooled by, companies like Lockheed Martin that developed training simulators for the Military. BattleTech, for example, a networked arcade game in which each player operates his own tank-like vehicle in a battlefield, was developed from a training simulator that was used by soldiers, who were soon sent to fight in the Gulf War. What the operator experiences from inside the cabin of the tank is almost exactly what he experiences in the actual field of battle, since the world outside is brought into the cabin through cameras and other electro-mechanical mediation. Being in a real battle is experientially the same as being in a simulator—unless, of course, a missile hits you. In other words, Killing (in contrast to being killed) feels the same whether there are actual enemy tanks out there or not. Even the Military, however, does not believe that tank simulators in any way prepare the soldiers for the horrors of killing. Other more traditional techniques, centred on drill and basic training, develop those aspects of soldiering. In fact, one of the criticisms of contemporary war (voiced by Lieutenant Col. Dave Grossman in his book On Killing) is that the modern soldier is so far removed from the enemy he kills that he cannot feel the moral compunction that the infantry man, for example, has to overcome when bayonets his opposite number. Even from a military point of view, this is undesirable. The soldier’s effectiveness suffers as does his mental health and his acceptance within the greater society. Grossman suggests that the US military is now deficient in training its soldiers in dealing with the realities of warfare—certainly tank and helicopter simulators do nothing in this direction. This troubling situation results in battle scenes like the so-called ‘Highway of Death’ at the end of the 1991 Gulf War. US helicopters used their videogame-like consoles to guide their missiles into the bodies of teenage Iraqi soldiers as they fled along the road from Kuwait City to Basra after the US recapture of Kuwait. According to Douglas Kellner, the US ground troops who saw the results of this manoeuvre were disgusted and mortified, unprepared for the sight of the actual burned and hideously maimed bodies. [See Dave Grossman’s On Killing, Doug Kellner’s The Persian Gulf TV War, and Manual De Landa’s War in the Age of Intelligent Machines for detailed discussion of these issues.]
These facts are deeply disturbing. But they are unavoidable facets of the contemporary world. Whether a game is necessarily tainted with militaristic values because it was repurposed from military training devices is a complex issue. Training simulations prepare soldiers for operating weapons and other military apparatus, but fail, according to military experts, precisely in the area of imparting effective soldierly values. For someone who would like to steer children away from the ideologies of war, this is good news. On the other hand, it is possible that some military values are passed down—I hope we don’t forget too quickly the tragic recent Jonesboro and other high school shootings. Obviously much work remains to be done in these areas, and there is some urgency.
If the overall force motivating one’s play is the desire for mastery, the specific desire that keeps the player in the game is the desire for closure. I want the game to end, and to end with me the winner, a fact that, if achieved, will prove my mastery over its apparatus. As I have suggested, this is a rare treat, and even when tasted, not as satisfying as the craving made one think it would be. According to Lacan, desire is that which is never satisfied. The fact is that most players tire of a game before they beat it, and it is left perpetually open, unfinished, questions unresolved . . .