“Our imaginations can be drawn in, as they are in playing games and watching movies, and no doubt, if we are sufficiently involved to feel we are taking risks, such simulations can help us acquire skills, but in so far as games work by temporarily capturing our imaginations in limited domains, they cannot simulate serious commitments in the real world. . . . The temptation is to live in a world of stimulating images and simulated commitments and thus to lead a simulated life.” – Hubert L. Dreyfus, On the Internet
For all the entertainment that virtual being in a videogame can provide, it can also be a particularly alluring and even potentially dangerous form of fictive immersion. Now that we’ve already touched on the formal operation of videogame immersion elsewhere (which I’d recommend having read first) it seems like a logical next step to discuss the phenomenon’s ethical implications. With reference to Marcel O’Gorman’s book, Necromedia, this post will explore the videogame industry’s culpability in a technoculture that idealizes gaming as an infinite cycle of immersive consumption. In response to this problem, I will consider how reflection on one’s gameplay experiences can disturb this cycle and thus work gameplay productively back to its origin in the finite self – that is, the player as human.
O’Gorman’s term necromedia comes from the understanding of humanity’s primordial relationship with death and technology. Human being is inherently technological and we have developed technologies as a way to extend beyond our immediate physical and mental capabilities. As we invent new technologies, we begin to coevolve with them in a process that philosopher Bernard Stiegler calls epiphylogenesis: the idea that technologies function as human prostheses that we are not so much in control of, but rather co-determined by them. We become our technology and technology expands our understanding of humanity. Furthermore, O’Gorman suggests that the purpose of humanity’s adamant technological evolution is to distract us from “the single most imminent possibility of everyday life—the possibility that we might, on any given day, stop living” (8). We obsess over our technological ability to extend and reconfigure ourselves electronically because of the false promise of immortality that such bloated distractions from our present reality hold over us. This principle of technological immortalization is not just applicable to videogames, but everything from simple photography to carefully curated social media presences.
For the purpose of this discussion, however, we will focus on this false promise of immortality strictly in relation to gaming and the game industry. This promise takes the form of a consistent and thoughtless immersion in the delights of virtual simulation without any consideration of its purpose in our lives. The pleasurable wish fulfillment such games offer can “distract us from necessity altogether through an ever-renewed product line, or they can immerse us in an alternate, illusory necessity that is rule governed and free of physical risk” (O’Gorman 21). O’Gorman’s critique of immersion here is well-founded, but it only considers the concept from a technological standpoint. While it’s important to keep these issues with immersion in mind, we must also acknowledge immersion as the principle aesthetic of the videogame medium. In this context, immersion is the phenomenon that draws the player into the world of a game and therefore must be considered as central to a player’s interpretative interaction with said game. To extract meaning from gameplay, then, is not only to consider: what is my avatar doing? but to consider: what am I doing? and, by extension: what is the game making me do? To engage with gameplay is to be operating on multiple diegetic levels: immersed narratively in the representation of the game’s fiction and immersed ludically in our participation in that fiction. As discussed in our theory on immersion, these two forms of immersion operate independently of each other, but through the player’s mental effort they can be conceived in a holistic unity.
This is not to say that there is any inherent problem with seeking the tactile thrill of ludic immersion on its own. The inherent lack of purpose in a pure act of play is what has made philosophers such as Johan Huizinga and Keiji Nishitani (and game designers such as Hideo Kojima) regard homo ludens, “man the player,” as a transcendent form of being that is liberated from the directive drive of real work. The issue with ludic pursuits emerges when this technologically facilitated thrill is embedded in the ideology of what O’Gorman calls technoculture: “a culture of technology for technology’s sake, in which the technological nature of human being has been transformed into a system of heroic cultural action” (14). To buy into the technoculture that drives consumption in the game industry is to use the progression-focused gameplay loops that inform the structure of most mainstream games as an escape from the human anxiety towards our inherent finitude. Here, ludic immersion isn’t just an indulgence in the human desire for play but an illusory ideal of an infinite existence: where we can extend beyond our human capabilities virtually and experience the satisfaction of earning virtual rewards (that are usually contextualized as immortalized “heroic action”) without the threat of physical harm.
O’Gorman’s book proposes that the manner through which we can alleviate the allure of technoculture without denying the technological nature of our being is by creating new technologies that are informed by critical purposes, which he calls applied media theory. We propose another potential method, at least in the particular context of videogames: the engagement in ludocriticism itself. Like O’Gorman’s applied media theory, our vision of ludocriticism depends on critical reflection. In order to engage in a holistic interpretation of videogames that accounts for both the tactile play of ludic immersion and the thematic contextualization of narrative immersion we must give ourselves the opportunity to reflect on our gameplay experience outside of the virtual tunnel vision that the space of immersion draws us into. Through immersion we are granted a blissful temporary liberation from self-consciousness. Yet in order for this immersion to be productively repurposed for our real selves we must reflect on it and search for meaning from it. Through the retroactive contemplation of our gameplay experiences we can rescue our immersion from becoming just another function of escapist technocultural consumption.
Because interaction in videogames does not provide the tangible, natural feedback that real action does (since it is inherently designed), it must be filtered through reflection in order to be meaningfully repurposed and interpreted for the player’s real life – whether in regards to themselves, their outlook on the world, or even just their relationship with gameplay. We must emerge from immersion (emersion?) in order to make sense of an immersive experience objectively, yet without losing sight of its subjective origin. Gameplay is always an intermingling of a virtual subjective being made possible through an objective foundation of coding and game design. Sometimes this intermingling between player subject and game object will be fruitless and fail to provide a foundation for meaningful reflection. This is, of course, a principle of all interpretation. The games that come to resonate philosophically for me will not necessarily resonate in the same manner for you, if at all. Yet, unlike with literature or film, where interpretation is based on a fixed and stable object, to interpret gameplay is to reflect on a subjective experience objectively – i.e. where the self has been (at least partially) disassociated from itself through immersion. The personalized nature of a playthrough, compared to a film viewing or a book reading, is what makes preference not just a determinant factor of enjoyment but of successful interpretation. Viewing one’s own gameplay can have an uncanny effect because we are not just watching ourselves act; we are watching ourselves act through our avatar under a fictive immersive spell. The virtual space in which this extra layer of being takes place allows for a self-liberating form of play that can provide personal insight outside of the constrictive social bounds of the real world. Reflection then becomes the means to extract these insights objectively and incorporate them into the self’s understanding of itself, the world, and/or play.
As a sort of conclusion, I wish to take a moment to clarify that my intention with this post is not to critique any mode of gaming based primarily on ludic enjoyment (e.g. speedruns; competitive multiplayer) or to propose that our vision of ludocriticism entails the most ‘correct’ way to play videogames. Rather, my purpose goes back to LudoCrit’s founding principle: to provide a philosophical entryway into thinking about gaming that rejects ‘fun’ as the bottom line. I, too (believe it or not), often play videogames for fun, but alternative perspectives on gaming criticism are severely lacking. I hope, then, that this post might prompt a fellow gamer to pause every once in a while to reflect on why they love the games they love, and perhaps discover how that love may have seeped into their real lives.
O’Gorman, Marcel. Necromedia. University of Minnesota Press, 2015.