Video Games, Capitalism, and Dreams: An Interview with Alfie Bown
By Łukasz MuniowskiNovember 16, 2017
His book has been described by Slavoj Žižek as an “instant classic,” one that helps readers to “find a way in our confused social life.” I had the chance to ask him some questions about his book, his addiction to video games, and why he thinks gaming gives us a glimpse into the future.
ŁUKASZ MUNIOWSKI: I would like to start off with a question about what I know is an all-time favorite game for both of us, Championship Manager. The classic version was basically some dots, tables, and a lot of text. In your book there’s this beautiful sentence: “The videogame is not a text to be read, but a dream to be dreamt.” I’ll get to the dream part in the next question, but I wanted to ask you about text-based games. Do you think they share dreamlike characteristics with the ones dependent on breathtaking visual presentation?
ALFIE BOWN: A lot of text-based games are coming back in now — both with retro gaming and with the increase in affordable and readily available technology that allows for indie game developers to make low-cost games almost from home. I’ve discussed a lot of these in the book, from old Windows 3.1 games like Election ’92 to bizarre new text-based independent games like the chat simulator Emily Is Away that did well in 2016. So I guess I have a straight answer to your question: yes, this applies to the old games too, not just to those breathtaking and realistic games we play today, and those old games allow us to see how this process developed into what it is today. With developments in VR, the non-gaming media are talking about immersion — how dangerous it could be that these games feel increasingly real — but my opinion is that for most gamers, immersion has never been a problem and even text-based games or the old Championship Manager were totally immersive. I guess I am looking at the history of this kind of immersion — a dream-immersion — and how it has changed us over the last 30 years.
Okay, so what you’re suggesting is that the old tools we use to analyze texts, like psychoanalysis, aren’t useful in the critical analysis of games? Or the opposite?
I think what I am arguing is that the only way to understand video games is through psychoanalysis, and that the only way to understand contemporary society is through video games. My book argues that the gamer is no longer a niche identity taken up by those on the fringes (those gamers who are at the root of alt-right culture for example, or the stereotype of lost teenagers who opt out of mainstream culture) but a term that can describe all of us, whether we grew up playing Nintendo or not. Video games are now at the center of social life. Just as you could say that Hollywood cinema transformed what it meant to be a person in the ’60s and ’70s, video games have transformed what it is to be a person in the last 20 years. This is true whether you spend hundreds of hours on Final Fantasy, a few minutes on Candy Crush, or even if you are one of the few people left who never actively game at all. Some people didn’t go to the movies, but they were still part the society that was transformed by Hollywood.
That said, I am also saying that traditional psychoanalysis is not enough, or that psychoanalysis also needs to change if it is to answer the questions posed by these new subjects. If we are dealing with a new subjectivity — that of the gamer — with a new set of affects, emotions, and desires, then we need to develop the tools we use and create new ways to understand these things too.
What then makes the games dreams, not texts? What’s behind this division?
For a long time the universities have been telling us that everything is text. Of course, in a certain sense — the Derridean one — there is a truth in this. But what I am saying is that we can’t use the old tools that we used to discuss literature, cinema, and art to discuss video games. Games are different. When I considered whether there are any existing toolkits that can be productively applied to games, I came to the question of dream analysis in psychoanalytic theory.
Like a dream and unlike books and television, a video game is experienced actively, as if each player has a role in determining its events and outcomes. Like a dream, the players experience desires, anxieties, passions, and affects, and they make decisions and take actions according to these semi-instinctive and “emotional” responses. Also like a dream, a lot of this apparent agency is illusory and a player can in fact control neither the environment nor the plot. Even a player’s own movements seem somehow governed from elsewhere. Unlike in reality but again like in dreams, the player can be transported from one situation to another with no concern for the laws of time and space. As with dreams, the player returns to the real world afterward, but things are not always as they were before the dream occurred.
Another important influence here is the work of Walter Benjamin. For Benjamin, dreaming was something experienced when awake, particularly when wandering around the new modern city of the 19th century. He used the Parisian Arcades — huge glass domes full of dreamlike commodities — to explore a dreamlike atmosphere that characterized the city at that time. It’s no coincidence that the place we go to game is also called an arcade. Today, I think we live in a new version of this world — the “dreamworld” in my book’s title — in which we enter this amazing and thrilling world of desires, affects, and feelings through the screens of our computers, phones, and consoles. This is also the world of ideology, not a personal space where our deep feelings are revealed, as the bullshit surrounding dreams in our culture would have you believe, but a carefully constructed world of images that is political and ideological. We need to make sense of this dreamworld — a weird, semi-active, passive state which we enter daily through our screen — if we are going to understand what our lives are becoming.
You point out that the freedom in games is illusory, and we play them as if we’re actually living someone else’s dream. You call games “devices that operate us.”
Yes, this is a response to an argument made by Ian Bogost, in some ways the king of video game studies, and someone I much admire. While Bogost argues that games are devices we operate, what seems most important to me is the way that we are devices that are operated by games. If games are dreams, they are not our own individual dreams — as classic arguments about games and wish-fulfillment might have argued — but complex social and political constructions that we nevertheless experience on a personal and emotional level in the act of playing. In saying that games are devices that operate us, I mean that the new technologies that have been emerging in the last few years and have their roots in video games — such as AI, VR, and AR — are making us feel and think in new ways. I wanted to investigate these new affects or emotions that are produced by such innovations in tech, and to work out what effect they are having on our identities and our political and social roles. In other words, I wanted to explore the ways in which we are machines that are being reprogrammed by technology.
This applies to open-world games as well?
Especially in so-called open-world games. In the classic Slavoj Žižek way (I am a card-carrying Žižekian), I think that in making us feel freer they make us even more subjected to ideology.
Through imposing certain actions upon us, video games also reinforce ideology. In Call of Duty, I have to kill Arabs in order to progress. How much does it say about me as a person that I can accept that scenario and pick progress over morality?
There are some games I don’t like to play for this reason, but at the same time I don’t think you should beat yourself up about it. Instead, I think we should play these games (if we insist on playing them at all) “against the grain.” We can experience a simulated kind of pleasure found in doing something (something unethical for example), and we can use this to understand precisely how such pleasure is produced in the real (not simulated) world. That said, the distinction is rather a tricky one. We know that war is becoming increasingly like a video game — we can think of button pressing drone strikes as an obvious example. If we play these games “against the grain,” I think we can understand a little better this world we are living in, in which enjoyment, politics, and even war are connected in strange ways. A major focus of my book is to explore how political the kinds of pleasure produced by video games can be. A point I’ve really stressed is that a lot of the enjoyment found in gaming serves the kind of politics that — from a progressive perspective — is highly concerning. On the other hand, I think there can be a progressive potential in making these kinds of pleasure visible to us and helping us to understand them.
And if we fail, the result is an apocalypse, which is so common in today’s games. Why do you think dystopia is so appealing now? What ideology is behind this?
My book deals a lot with this issue of dystopia, which is a topic best explored by the late Mark Fisher, who died in January and who was a great influence on me. For Fisher, the prevalence of dystopia in capitalist society demonstrates how incapable we are of constructing viable alternatives to capitalism. For me this is a very important idea when it comes to gaming, in which — as you say — dystopic games of various kinds are probably the single most dominant genre (though I also talk about the utopias of FarmVille, Flower, and Stardew Valley, for example). For me though (and readers will have to read the book for this part to make sense as it is the most philosophical part of the book), video games do not fail to develop alternatives that we can construct in the future. Rather, they give us a glimpse into the future that is already coming. In some obvious ways I have tried to show that the rhetoric of Donald Trump, for example, or Brexit, was forecasted in video games. In other more abstract ways, games show us what is coming but what we might be currently unconscious of. Ultimately I claim that video games predict the future, or make us see the concept of the future rather differently. That’s the tricky bit to explore in a short interview!
I like the division between conformist games and subversive enjoyment, and subversive games and conformist enjoyment. Can you elaborate on that?
I guess it’s like what we talked about above with regard to playing things like Battlefield and Call of Duty against the grain of how they seem to demand to be enjoyed. It’s not always that there are conformist games and subversive ones, although I guess I could think of some games which tend toward those camps, but rather that we need to interrogate the various kinds of enjoyment that connect us to the games we play and really think about what and how we are enjoying them and the effects they have on us. From the perspective of American ideology the enjoyment of something like Call of Duty would be “conformist” but the game can be experienced rather differently as a “subversive” response to such ideologies and as a way of understanding how such ideologies work in relation to desire and enjoyment. This focus on enjoyment, as well as the interest in dreams, is also why psychoanalysis is so important for the project. For Jacques Lacan, enjoyment was the one thing that all existing models of theory and philosophy had consistently failed to account for properly, and his work offers an attempt to do that — to understand the politics of our enjoyment — which is absolutely vital when it comes to gaming.
What games are you playing now? And obviously, what’s the ideology behind them?
The right answer here is the of course the VR world, which I have been playing a lot since we spent so much money on the PSVR. I have been working on VR and have written about its capacity to create new affects from a psychoanalytic perspective, though others have done a better job than me here. I think that AR (Augmented Reality) is somewhat more interesting than VR philosophically at the moment though. I’m also moving on to a new project on AI and robotics that is related but deals with the politics of technology more generally. Still. An example of a new game that I think is doing something interesting is Splatoon 2, on the Nintendo Switch.
What I would call “the pleasure of the splat” (any Splatoon player will know what I mean) is something worth considering. Formally speaking, the game is a multiplayer shoot-’em-up, and the gameplay is surprisingly similar to those traditional shooters where you blow up Arabs in the name of the American flag. But, the content is completely transformed. For those that don’t know, the premise of Splatoon is that, armed with a variety of paint guns and weaponry, players compete to cover the most turf or splat each other to retain possession of a certain area or object. The temptation here is to argue once again that the game is ideologically dangerous — that even though the content is innocent, the form is about the destruction and expulsion of the bad guys, et cetera, et cetera. However, I think the opposite can also be true: in showing us that the pleasure in war games is formal rather than based on content, the game undermines the pro-American values of the vast majority of video games. Each splat is a kind of knowing mockery of a traditional war game “kill.” Since you can substitute the content (Middle Eastern rebel for cute Inkling girl, bullets for paint guns) and derive a comparable pleasure from the formal structure of the game, it shows us that the problem we face in contemporary society is less the threat of our enemies and more the way in which we are structurally constructed to derive pleasure in the eradication of the Other.
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