„Techniques have contaminated the white worker, but the black remains the great male of the earth, the sperm of the world“, writes Jean-Paul Sartre in the introduction to Black Orpheus – a collection of black poetry. Taking this picture, ripping it out of its frame of reference, what does it suggest about video games? The white worker expresses himself with empty gestures, empty in a final sense. He scratches the surface of objects without ever touching them. He displaces and transforms things, but never reaches to their core. He is alienated form nature, in all his practice a cultural being.
If culture resides in nature but differentiates itself from it, virtuality resides in culture while differentiating itself from it. A cultural practice may change nature, but it never produces nature. A virtual practice may change culture, but it never produces culture.
Playing video games is empty technique, it is masturbation. Video games are not stupid, nor are they pointless, but they are non-productive.
If culture is the antithesis of nature, video games are their synthesis. Capitalism alienated the worker from nature. Video games try to extinguish nature. The practice of the video gamer is almost immaculately embedded in culture. Culture is a superstructure residing on nature and video games are a superstructure residing on culture. And since the practice of playing a video game is virtual, the player is alienated doubly. In the act of playing, the connection to nature is minimalized. It only exists on the backend and under the hood. The mind migrated into culture, practicing virtually.
The video gamer needs an assemblage of virtual practices for daily survival. A video game itself though, is a pastiche of cultural constructions. If the primary mode of behavior in nature is reaction („Uuuh, look at her, gonna make me some ba-ba-ba-babies!“), the primary mode of cultural practice is reflection („Maybe this works better if I hit it with a stone?“), video gaming, as an accomplished practice, is calculation. While the natural state is pre-reflective, the cultural state a-natural, the virtual state is a bastardization (or synthesis) of both. This lies in the nature of video games. To read a book, you have to decipher language. Sociality and culture as a whole can be read like a language. But reading a language is an act of interpretation. There is no stable meaning, no center from which everything evolves logically. Reading culture can become an automated act. You stop asking: „What does it all mean?“ and just process. But only until she updates her facebook status to „in a relationship“ although you were sure it was just sex. Meaning isn’t hardcoded into society. Even though tasks become automated and processed, instead of problems which have to be solved over and over again, there is always a chance that the routine breaks open and things have to be reconsidered. Operating in culture is a constant reassessment of applicable practices.
Reaction is the modus operandi of nature. Rules are fixed and actions executed. Stones fall to the ground and if an animal is feared, it won’t consider that the intruder spoilt his honor, trespassed his property and that maybe today is a good day to die.
To operate a complex video game, a plethora of techniques is required. Those are branded into the mind of the gamers, over the years of playing. Playing video games becomes, to a part, a processing of techniques. Video games offer challenges. The challenges are beat by processing known techniques and adopting new techniques. The adoption of a new technique is a creative cultural practice. The execution of those techniques is virtual. Video games live off repetition. They require mastery of a technique. First introduced slowly, challenges become harder and harder. The best videogames explore a certain problem space thoroughly. The best video games require mastery of a technique.
Most video games though, get length through repetition of a certain set of problems, without exploring it’s space thoroughly. The player has to assess the situation and apply the needed technique aptly. He is grinding. The operation becomes automated.
Video games are non-paradoxical. The space of a game can be mapped completely. The game can be mastered. Unlike culture, which is read as a language, games have a stable core. That’s what makes them a bastardization between nature and culture. We need cultural techniques to operate them, but their processing has binding rules, games have a hidden truth which can be discovered. They offer the possibility of actual domination of culture (In comparison to modernity’s failed promise). Everything the physics of the game allows is entirely possible, repeatable, masterable. But while the white worker never reaches back to nature, since he is contaminated through cultural technique, the player never reaches back to culture, since he is stuck in virtuality. While I can headshot a freak-show’s worth of cultural icons, I can never reach back to culture. There is no way to interact culturally (i.e. through a cooperative interpretation of its meanings – which also always is an act of creation of meanings) with a video game. But you can interact with it scientifically, unraveling it’s true core, exposing it’s nature.
In recent years the virtuality of video games becomes more apparent. Companies try to reduce the amount of energy needed to establish the techniques to process the game. They try to even out the cultural parts, to make the game more accessible. At the same time players perceive a loss of meaning. How to make player actions meaningful is a hot topic. How make decisions count! This demand runs contradictory to the idea of making games more accessible, at least in some ways. One way of making decisions count, is now to offer more content. Chose action A to see content A, choose B see another part of the game. This is a good trick. In the good old days, games achieved meaningful actions by a different illusion. They tried to simulate culture by making the techniques harder to achieve and by making the results of the player actions unpredictable. Older games tried to create meaningful actions by creating spaces of uncertainty. You have insufficient information about how to proceed, you are not well enough raised in the way of the game to know how and which technique to employ. You are left to reflect on your pool of knowledge prior to this game. This approach goes both ways: It leads to frustration but it also makes games exciting since failure is a probable possibility and success gets created out of ones own decisions reached through reflection (Or at least that’s what one supposes).
Once the player knows all to a certain game relevant techniques and the rules of when and how to employ them, the reflective interaction with the game is complete. Playing the game moves to techniqual mastery.
While culture manipulates nature to create culture – an author writes on a piece of paper, or changes the state of some magnetic fields on a harddrive – video games manipulate culture to create a lot of nothing. I don’t want to suggest video games are virtual products. A video game is a cultural product, like a book, and such is the adoption of techniques required to process games, but the employment of those techniques is just an empty shell, it is virtual. The most creative and meaningful act in playing a video game is finishing it. The moment where the accumulation of all those virtual acts explodes into one big nothing. It is a creation of meaning, a change in how things are, but the end of the whole process at the same time.
I want to say at last a word about multiplayer games. If capitalist production alienates the worker from the natural state of things by forcing him to create goods he doesn’t own, multiplayer games alienate the player from his natural virtual engagement with culture. The fruit of his production, the whole focal point of his action, lies evermore in the future. Like the worker works for pay, every day and every day after that (unless on Sunday of course), the multiplayer plays for progression (unless on Friday of course). While the promise of single player games is also empty (The player can never possess a possible virtual product at the creation of which all those player acts might be directed, since in conclusion of the game, the finalization of the product, everything vanishes), the multiplayer doesn’t even have the promise of the ending in the first place. He just plays on and on, employing his techniques day after day, an empty struggle. He’s running after a carrot on a stick. I can understand that this carrot does look juicy. And since the player covers more ground every day, running straight to the carrot, it seems plausible that someday he might reach it. But apparently he doesn’t. And I would give him a pair of scissors, if I just could.