It is of great concern that my life’s constant is videogames. Were the subculture less vapid I would feel otherwise. As it stands, the community at large — “gamers” — are little more than a rag-tag group of cultural dropouts, addicted to diminishing returns as late capitalism erodes what semblance of non-monetary joy they (I hesitate at ‘we’, for reasons that will become apparent) previously derived in isolation from capitalist excesses elsewhere (school). These excesses, as far as I can discern, are: preference for attaining material wealth; external presentation over inner reality (really existing life; really existing happiness); comparative materialism (“I feel poor.”); petty bureaucracy (infantilisation by higher-ups); targeted advertising in conjunction with self-submitted, coerced data (attention economy); alienation; and work-esteem (“what do you do, and for how much?”).
Post Homo Reaganus, individual capitalistic success (fame, wealth, power, stuff) is necessarily stillborn for the many, for the predicate of capital is capital, and capital is, most likely, in the forever ratcheting hands of the few. Nowhere has this absurdity of riches been more effortlessly distilled than at Grenfell Tower, whose victims, according to new-Thatcherite Theresa May, must pay their way out of future suffering — all in a borough that is not exactly dirt poor itself. Contrast this to the members of parliament, who at the expense of the tax-payer, have self-designated 1.3 million of the Magic Money Tree’s finest to pay for Westminster’s new sprinklers (and one billion to stay in “power” at the behest of women haters). Since – absurdly given this context — we believe ourselves responsible for our destiny (‘can’), we must surely know it is our fault when the proverbial fire strikes, and we should have done differently (‘ought’): “if only you had invested wisely (perhaps with a small loan of a million dollars), you would not have burned to death.” — such attitudes are performatively condemned, of course.
I am not about to say that videogames are some bohemian counter-cultural refuge from the above described geohell. In fact, I am suspicious that they are a distillation of The Man’s core tenets: breed hogs; get more hogs (buy the hoggest machine, coming next year!). Videogaming is (contingent on failure to integrate into a system of ever decreasing probabilities of integration) a subsidiary, supplementary replicate capitalism for those unable or unwanting of (but usually rejected by) capitalist excess.
The White Male Gamer is the archetypal (and perhaps foremost) consumer of videogames in the west (I specify for it is my field). And it is here we might consider his relationship to the above described. Could his attitude — namely, rampant consumption conjoined with hostility to any and all criticism of the (“his”) medium (especially from women) — be not the product of some divinely imbued assholeishness, but something else?
Consider that the contemporary social commentary to which the White Male Gamer is exposed (mainly through rightist youtube content, and his no doubt overbearing parents) is primarily at pains to point out his position as one of Most Potential Success (highest privilege, available capital; isolation from “adversity”); following this, will he not feel a greater burden with regards to his eventual lacking position (final destination), and dismiss the probability of the aforementioned (and indoctrinated) likely success as necessarily false? (For he knows his status, and It Is Not Good). An ounce of empathy, here, enlightens us as to the internal frisson that is the self proclaimed struggle of the White Male Gamer (or at least, those who unironically and proudly identify as such). I offer that a sensitivity to the gamer’s self-knowledge of doubly earned low status may be the driving force behind his reactionary movements — and that they spew forth in a seemingly alien nature (dressing up as a frog; wearing shit hats; studying the blade; et cetera.) is testament to the fact that they are wholly outsiders (perceived and felt).
Let us pause to carve out a definition from the above.
1) The Gamer has an enabling capital supply (for example, parental or state-driven), vis. duh.
2) The Gamer is rejected (willingly or otherwise) of late capitalist excess (power, possessions, elite schooling).
3) Due to the above rejection, the gamer has little or no extra-videogame contact, especially with women (perhaps as a result of all boys school, or through self-imposed exile as a result of painful peer-group or familial rejections).
Here we can infer then that feminist critique a la Sarkeesian is not, as the rest of the sane world sees it, harmless (and constructive), but instead, a very attack on the gamer’s existential essence – who are we to deny the moral sanctity of their final crutch in a world that hates them so?
I am friends with many ex-gamers. I would say, intuitively, that a good number “quit” not on purpose. Most got jobs, girlfriends, a dog, university, or some combination thereof. That is to say: the factors that conspire to pull the gamer from his sphere are those akin to societal success; and, conversely, any relapse is a reaction to fissures in the aforementioned: relationship troubles, depression, anxiety, redundancy, and so on. It’s perhaps possible to infer that from the lofty heights of societal “success”, the cult of videogames is less magnetic. I remember, specifically, a friend at the age of sixteen declaring that his videogaming was inversely proportional to his social life, which contains within an interesting sub-claim: that videogames are not a social life, or, at least, that the two are ontologically incompatible. Ironically, this was coming from a friend I gained through videogames. Were it not for our cooperative Halo 3 endeavours, we would perhaps not be as good friends today as we might have been. Whatever the case, it is interesting to sit here and cast looks around the wreckage — though, what I will say, is that videogames do, discernibly, provide us with a social life in the sense that they are cultural currency, but — and this is crucial — this currency is unsustainable, as it is inherently depreciative, and, as a common language, relies on those of us without extra-videogame commitments to be sustained. The gamer loses a subset of friends from school to university, for example, and then a further subset when of that subset those who remain acquire partners. And on and on regressively (dogs to children to death). Perhaps in this way videogames are self-selecting and self-reinforcing for those inclined to emotional distress: without their friends, on whom they are vampirically dependent to sustain the cultural currency of their pathology (I am disinclined to refer to videogames as a hobby), their alienation increases (unless they can find a reliable method of generating a rolling friend stock; itself a transactional and depressing prospect).
This inevitable emotional distress and resultant anhedonia is highly desirable for the beneficiaries of late capitalism, as it successfully redistributes what meagre income the gamer might have to a select few. Let us consider the basement dwelling gamer archetype — he is, in essence, a parasite: he does not work (often stated as “lazy”); he uses either the state or his parents to fund his consumption; he does not go outside; he gets fat, consumes unhealthy food; he has no aspirations; he does not learn; he does not read; he stagnates mentally; and so on. And yet, he is highly motivated in some regards. He might spend some one-thousand hours pouring over some particularity or other of some videogame’s system. He may have overwhelming and esoteric knowledge with regards to the opportunity cost of certain minutiae within a videogame’s subsystems. He may create forum posts detailing the relative merits of this or that thing within a videogame. He may be well respected amongst his peers. He may feel completely and utterly alone. It is in this context that we might be able to sense a misdirection of talents and capabilities. Clearly, somewhere lurking within the gamer, is the capacity to work or do mindblowing, soul-destroying shit (when looked at from the outside in). Why this is not directed to themselves, but instead the system that they partake in, remains something of a mystery.
Perhaps it is that they choose the system, willingly become its slave, and necessarily succeed. Videogames, after all, have a vested interest in a lacking fail state, and must therefore — if they are to be successful — cushion their users of any potential failure, or at least make it so sweet as to convert it from pain to pleasure (Hume’s Dark Souls). It is interesting to note that for the international tyrannies who pump the funds into these softwares, their fail state is the loss of the gamer’s attention — specifically, having him leave the house and demand a life better than one of amoral and pointless consumption.
The art form (deception) is now fully subsumed by large-scale transnational private tyrannies (unless one is to distribute software independently, a near impossible task without running up against some Microsoft, Valve, or Paypal tax), each of whom are interested not in the medium itself, but their shareholders; indeed, to be “indie” is not the moniker it once was, as large corporations increasingly incorporate talent into their all consuming blob (as witnessed at E3 where they throw awkwardly to The Indies). An interesting exception is perhaps the wealthiest company (per person), Valve, which is beholden only unto itself (and, of course, capital). It is, however, not a structural aberration in that it has a near infinite source of income as a result of an extremely powerful (transnational) monopoly (all of PC gaming), and its owners and beneficiaries are afforded the luxury of infinite control: what amounts to a tax on all transactions through their (self-declared) ‘service’ (Steam), which must have a near one-hundred percent adoption rate among PC gamers. In an attempt to emulate this (really existing ingenuity), or more likely, circumvent The Steam Tax in search of larger slices of pie, rival tyrannies have produced their own versions — ‘clients’ — such as Origin and Uplay, much to the irritation of the community. Nonetheless, Steam (Valve) et al are rogue states, operating outside of the law with regards to consumer rights (Steam only fairly recently implemented a (not comprehensive enough) refund policy in the U.K.); especially problematic is under-aged gambling. It is also perhaps not a coincidence that Steam no longer develops videogame software.
One need only spend five minutes in a Videogame Office to see that ingenuity (“market research”) constitutes collating the existing product and asking, how may we best replicate this, so that the consumer might not notice? Yes, it is possible to draw up charts, collate various mechanics, and cross-reference with metacritic scores (review aggregates), and more importantly sales data — though, this does nothing to explain the success of New Ideas to corporate interests, and only confounds when a product of sufficient corporate mimicry fails. There are also lingering questions with regards to the ongoing monetisation of videogames, when compared to other mediums. Increasingly, it is asked: how can we best monetise the user per hour of play? It seems a reasonable line of argument. A film costs ten pounds and lasts two hours. A videogame between ten and one-hundred pounds (with or without added content), and lasts upwards of one thousand hours (Street Fighter IV). Increasingly, the answer to the Revenue Stream Problem is either to 1) cut up the product and resell parts of it at a later date; 2) sell “consumables” (items that provide temporary “bonuses”) — often the incentive here is to reduce time spent at the mercy of a predatory videogameic system; and 3) market the game as an ongoing service and charge accordingly, either through downloadable content, monthly subscriptions, or cosmetic items. These cosmetic items are often probability contingent, and lead to the problematic exploitation of those who are vulnerable to gambling addiction or the lure of replicate high status (these victims are known as ‘whales’ in sociopathic circles), with users betting their real money on the probability of an item appearing in-game (the list of guilty parties is endless), or just forking out extreme lumps in order to blood-stoneishly role play as high status — all the above culminates in something like The Sims Social.
Cosmetics are of endless fascination to any of us concerned with videogames as a substitute for capitalistic success for the conventionally unsuccessful, in that they — videogameic items — are a replicate conspicuous consumption. They are commonly publicly adorned in hub worlds, lobbies. Unlike real life, though, it is often assumed by those of us extra-videogame, that a player wielding high status items is, in fact, a kissless virgin who spends their life grinding (“slaving”) in their basement (citation forthcoming), or, who has spent too much money within the system and thus is a dunce for having done so, especially considering they could have bought something real instead. They are, in reality, a symbol of low status. Further this, the videogameic item often serves no other purpose than to look “good” — it is performatively high status — and is without function. Consider that, IRL, A King’s crown conspicuously denotes he is King, and can make Kingly decisions. Conversely, in a videogame, a King’s Crown is ‘Item No. #467 Blue King’s Crown’, and serves only to remind us of the owner’s commitment to the system which birthed it — he is certainly not a king in any conventional sense. Perhaps there is a collective want, a tacit suspension of disbelief by those privy to any videogameic cosmetic system: “if we all believe; it is true”. Indeed, I am not disputing that cosmetics are highly sought after or “valuable”. There are also rare cosmetic items, acquired through arduous, incessant and mindless work, hundreds of hours of hard toil, or sometimes pure luck, that gamers concurrently disavow and seek. Further, forking out is often the prerequisite for participation (World of Warcraft subscriptions). We (rational outsiders) are here no doubt confounded — though is there anything more capitalist than paying to mindlessly toil in exchange for functionless tat that will ultimately be rendered obsolete.
Aside from cosmetics and the like, there is a fouth way, that proves profitable, but does not increase or project increasing profitability, and thus is of little interest to large corporations (EA, Activision Blizzard, Ubisoft) beholden to shareholders (short term gains). CD Projekt Red comes to mind with their Witcher series; and also Monster Hunter, that — despite Capcom’s corporate ownership — seems to be content singling out a particular market, and then taking a good slice once every few years. This rewards all involved; the creators, for manufacturing their niche, and fans, who enjoy updates infrequent enough to encourage (genuine) excitement and deter fatigue.
We might conclude this portion slightly ill at ease. I have established, I hope, that The Gamer is beholden to two predatory capitalistic systems. The first is doctrinal, in that an individual’s beliefs with regards to their relative successes and failures lead them to consumption of videogames in lieu of conventional capitalistic success (as defined at the outset), and these beliefs are necessarily impossible to reconcile with the system as failure is probable. Second, to compensate, The Gamer then seeks a subsidiary, replicate capitalistic success (videogamic system, which are, in essence, manufactured capitalistic success), which is itself beholden to predatory transnational tyrannies, whose incentives align with short term profits to the cost of the consumer (exploitation).
Modern videogamic systems are primarily designed to incorporate a selfish agent in control of an avatar at the (fictional, and often mathematical) centre of a universe (game-state) — all calculations within the engine (universe) are player centric (be it his mouse cursor, button presses or his avatar). This replicates, more or less, one’s sense of self. It also replicates the level of control that we intuit. When this perceived control bears failure in real life, the potential for one to become a gamer increases (this is the case that I’m concerned with). We need not delve here into a discussion of free will (‘control’; whatever) only to say that we generally feel that we have it, and yet it is debatable what the process of actually having it entails. Regardless, videogames afford us far greater control than real, lived experiences, as within the system is a guaranteed end state (it is predictably deterministic) and potential outcomes are often explicitly stated on screen (do x; get y).
There are varying degrees of interaction, agency within videogameic systems. I would argue that the simple overarching theme is one of expected dependable certainty, communicated from the designer to the gamer. And where the former fails, the latter provides. By way of example, let us consider the choice architecture of the science-fiction role playing game Mass Effect, in which a player is permitted to make decisions regarding the fate of certain characters through dialogue choices (and sometimes in-game behaviours) — it is marketed as a “choose your own adventure” style game. Comically, in its system, “good” dialogue is presented explicitly for selection as blue (“paragon”) and “bad” as red (“renegade”). Similarly binary systems exist elsewhere, for example in Fable 2, Fallout 3 and many moderner videogames — though, it is increasingly unfashionable to present morality as such (the systems may in all actuality still be binary). In the wild, Mass Effect’s choice architecture is illuminating of the gamer’s attitude to control, in that — (as deduced from my own lived history, from actual history, and contemporary commentary) — two outcomes are unacceptable. 1) that of causal unpredictability (a favourite character died when you sent them to “safety”, as you did not know it was in fact dangerous.); and 2) when the decision selected does not result in difference (for example, everybody dies in the end, regardless of your behaviour).
The first is essentially the question “how was I supposed to know that y would happen when I did x?”. IRL, a good response at least entertains the infinite void: consider “how was I supposed to know the cat was hiding in the washing machine?”. You might respond “you should have checked for the cat”, but the fact is you didn’t check, and that still leaves you asking why it was that you did not check, which prompted the question in the first place. In a videogame, conversely, there is a tangible designer, and that designer has power to dictate the rules, and in this sense there is only one possibility: that which has been determined by the designer (and either he told you, or he didn’t). Perhaps, then, it is the designer’s responsibility not to generate red herrings. In other words, if everything the gamer perceives tells him one thing, and then that proves to be a lie (misdirection), then he is entitled to feeling betrayed. That the entirety of fiction is a misdirection is something of an irony lost here. The answer to “how was I supposed to know?” is, for the gamer, “you should have told me!”. This bears no correlation to lived experience. How can one expect to be told, exactly, the potential consequences of their actions — who might we ask to explain, a priori, these available potentials. Often, regardless of our best efforts, good intentions have bad consequences. Though I do not deny this gap in knowledge is frustrating — be it in videogame form or lived experience — it is interesting to note the gamer’s demand for predictable consequences in absolute moral terms.
The second asks “if the same thing happens anyway, whats the point of engaging?” This is perhaps harder to answer, for it is a bad question — might we just wheel out an accusation that the gamer is a lazy sophist?
Years ago, in another life, I lauded the videogame The Walking Dead for failing to provide the gamer with any conventionally meaningful decisions (consequence) towards its end – the protagonist was destined to die, regardless of whether I chose to amputate his arm. I argued, that because of this futility, was I afforded a greater truth: reflection. Similarly, in lesser moments (with lower stakes) I chose between whether to say “oh shit” or “damn” which, although seemingly inconsequential, were pure acts of role play. Perhaps we can dismiss the second question, for the game is not asking “what do you want to happen” it is asking you to pause and reflect (how are you feeling?). Is the situation bad enough to warrant an “oh shit” or is it only a “damn”? Instead of thinking that the choice between whether or not to amputate an arm to stop the spread of a deadly disease is only valuable in terms of its consequence, might we do better to remember who is making that decision, and for what reasons?
That’s me. Regardless, what is certain, historically speaking, is that the gamer is consequentialist. By this I mean that he will demand heads roll if it is shown, objectively, that he does not matter.
Is there any greater irony than a player who seeks control, yet also wants to be dictated exactly what the content and consequence of each and every decision will be, thus causing him to enact a framework or model when making “decisions”, without bringing any critical thought to bear on the decisions themselves, for example, enacting the Good Model, or the Bad Model, or the model that gets them x reward. I link to the Mass Effect morality guide again above, purely because it is a fascinating artefact of gamer culture. It is both pure and tragic.
The above describes how videogamic “choice” systems relate to the gamer. Where life is vague and messy, filled with uncontrollable and inevitable failures, videogames should instead be concrete and consequential. And when they fail on this point, they are not just “bad” videogames — they are a betrayal.
Extreme consumption of videogameic systems results from the disconnect between the gamer’s intuition that something of his experience is increasingly hollow — as observed in the anhedonia of those who are in its throes — and the denial that that is the case in his continuation at the videogameic systems; and though it is understandable that he seeks permanent relief from the tide of capitalistically induced emotional distress, the solution is not the same but more. He cannot ignore that what he does feels hollow (it is not real capitalistic success, only a substitute), and yet turns to increased videogame consumption to further quiet his mind.
What sustains this dissonance? I suggest a lazy nihilism: “though it feels as though I am hollow, that is true of all things, therefore, regardless of experience, it will feel hollow, so I might as well continue playing videogames.”
Consider that, though he claims to believe all actions to be hollow in the absolute, he behaves as though that is not the case: he is motivated to perform actions in videogames. It would be rather odd to act at all if he did not believe in any kind of causal effect, or at least, in a spectrum of hollowness along which he places actions within videogames above actions extra-videogame — remember, his claim is that all actions are equally hollow. All I am saying is that he does not act as though this is the case. If you are unconvinced, try to remove his videogameic supply, and watch him embrace hypocrisy.
Whatever of this, I am inclined to agree with his sentiment, however. I put it to you at the start of this essay that, as I have described it, what constitutes success in late, selfish capitalism is necessarily impossible for the many, for it requires as a prerequisite for one to have already amassed large swathes of capital — all this, in the shadow of Dear Leaders, who are, by all reasonable accounts, fucking clueless. What is this if not a hollowing prospect? And is the success that he (subconsciously) so aspires to also not empty, vapid? Faced with such overwhelming, insurmountable odds, the gamer responds the only way he knows how: compulsive consumption.
That this consumption causes him to mentally stagnate, and isolate himself from the intellectual world (“I don’t read; it bores me”) is a happy accident for the perpetuation of his struggle. The videogameic system offers him nothing challenging, and certainly will not present him a mirror in which to analyse his preconceptions as to what, exactly, has caused him to feel a failure, which is, I state again, a failure that is highly probable. Regardless, he is not a failure; he has been failed.
I have argued that videogames are reactionarily magnetic; that is to say, there is a distinct subset of humans who become susceptible to videogameic systems — gamers — in response to capitalistic rejection. I have also described aspects of the pathology as laborious (“doing mindblowing shit”) — and that this is partly compensated for by perceived absolute control and consequence (centrality, power), though I have also attempted to shine some light on how this is probably not control or consequence in practice. Knowing this, and further, that they are living an increasingly dissonant fiction, the (eventually) “extreme” gamer becomes pathological in his consumption, which compounds his already burgeoning anhedonia and emotional distress as it obfuscates what he knows: that he is a failure. (‘He knows his status, and It Is Not Good’).
To remedy this, the gamer must examine his doctrine or face permanent misery. This is no quiet ultimatum: the gamer must reject his selfish capitalism.