Posted by: bracehare | September 16, 2011

Murder simulators: Are games a reflection of us?

I had the privilege of running across this quote from one Slavoj Zizek, and it brought my attention back to what has been a “debate” for some time now regarding the implications of video games as a medium.

“Our fundamental delusion today is not to believe in what is only a fiction, to take fictions too seriously. It’s, on the contrary, not to take fictions seriously enough. You think it’s just a game? It’s reality. It’s more real than it appears to you. For example, people who play video games, they adopt a screen persona of a sadist, rapist, whatever. The idea is, in reality I’m a weak person, so in order to supplement my real life weakness, I adopt the false image of a strong, sexually promiscuous person, and so on and so on. So this would be the naïve reading… But what if we read it in the opposite way? That this strong, brutal rapist, whatever, identity is my true self. In the sense that this is the psychic truth of myself and that in real life, because of social constraints and so on, I’m not able to enact it. So that, precisely because I think it’s only a game, it’s only a persona, a self-image I adopt in virtual space, I can be there much more truthful. I can enact there an identity which is much closer to my true self.”

It would be easy to dismiss this quote as sophistry, playing on an oversimplified view of self which somehow posits the self as utterly disentangled from and separate from society, as relatively static, as self-made and so forth.  However, these are honestly and commonly held views of self, regardless of their ultimate tenability.  Zizek’s bombastic style can certainly make him appear more concerned with showmanship than philosophy, but in this case all of his thoughts stem from basic premises which can be traced easily to other, more academically rigorous philosophers.

Of course, to look at this quote and understand as much leads us to an intriguing conclusion fairly quickly; video games project meaning onto the player in conjunction with player perspective.  This is very significant.  It implies that in video games, players become part of the text.  It also implies that all of the intractable bugbears of philosophy (free will, morality, personal meaning etc.) which are employed in various forms of media analysis, and which result in the eternal metastable nature of texts, are reflected back onto the player when the media in question is a game.  In this sense video games are an exceedingly poor medium when it comes to providing an objective, external substrate in which to play out thought experiments and articulate conundrums.  Can this lack of distance be useful?  Of course.  Objectivity is something which only a small number of philosophers strive for (most will settle for something like consistency), and art, with the exception of the most purely didactic sort of art, has no use for objectivity whatsoever.  However, a video game allows for an unsettling amount of freedom when it comes to how the player interprets themselves in the context of the game.  Ultimately, that is the strongest argument against Virek’s position; the player decides whether the game represents them or not.  They decide, for that matter, whether a given action is moral or not, and whether they have free will or not.  The game may even explicitly state “you have no choice” (as in Half Life 2, Bioshock, Metal Gear Solid 4, Mother 3, and many other cases); but then that may be precisely why video games seldom involve us deeply in them.  After all, how many people play with a puppet (and one which has, at that, specifically been labeled “puppet” even within the fantasy space it occupies symbolically) and view it as a more authentic version of themselves?

Not impossible, but markedly nihilistic.  As opposed to other options.

– Jessica Evans

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