A Frame of the Kingdom of Freedom
They are still often dismissed in respectable circles as a teenage boy time waster; mere ‘escapism’ at best. Or worse, an addictive substance poisoning young impressionable minds with depraved sex and violence. But I enjoy playing video games nevertheless without a care for what uptight prudes and religious moralists may ludicrously assert.
Growing up I remember having so much fun whizzing through Pro-Evolution Soccer (in the days when it was far superior to FIFA), plundering my way through San Andreas on Grand Theft Auto the post-nuclear holocaust wastelands in Fallout New Vegas with Frank Sinatra’s classic Blue Moon playing in the background, or smashing it with an arsenal of martial artsa combos as Yoshmitsu or Kazuya Mishima on Tekken.
There is certainly a base pleasure to experiencing gaming in this way. This what Freud called the ‘return of the repressed’, where desires and impulses, mainly revolving around sex and violence, that are repressed by society’s conventional morality have an avenue to express themselves in the virtual world. This is one of the main thrills of many video games: a knowingly superficial digital nihilism where you can express a libertine freedom and your conscience doesn’t flinch. Speaking from experience, video games certainly do offer many people an ‘escape’ from their turgid, alienated lives with cheap, yet satisfying and pleasurable entertainment.
Most video game are plain genre entertainment pieces. Take Call of Duty. There’s fun, yet familiar gameplay. There are some really beautiful set pieces and fun stories, but ultimately it’s just a game. However, at their best video games can be great works of art, a virtual literature of a sort, reflecting the boundless capacity of the human imagination and the precision and symmetry of human artistry in telling a story. Red Dead Redemption II tells the tale of a brutal outlaw slowly developing a conscience as he confronts his own inevitable mortality. The Last of Us is the story of a quasi father-daughter relationship between Joel and Ellie as they battle to survive in a post-pandemic United States, making difficult choices along their journey. Like other art forms these stories with fleshed out complex characters explore and illuminate the human condition with all of its contradictions.
A game can convey intentions and ideologies, it can immerse the viewer into an alternate world just like a book or a movie, it can be interpreted, it bleeds cultural influence. But the difference is it combines the visual stimulation of a film while boasting a similar length and level of detail that a book delivers, with you, the player, as the agent mediating with this experience. In a book you envision the amazing things happening on the text. In a movie you see the amazing things happening on the screen. In a video game you do amazing things. The potential to coalesce music, storytelling, graphics design, animation, interaction with the medium into a single masterpiece is. Science, technology, industry and art mix together to create a wonderful, exciting, moving experience and a method of story telling that lubricates the imagination. It deserves more respect and seriousness as an art form than whatever snotty cultural snobs may assert about it.
Nonetheless, this is an art form attached to a multi-billion industry, and like all other industries under the dictatorship of capital, is run by big corporations that exploits its workers, putting them under immense stress, long hours and tight schedules while paying them peanuts; and attached to the profit motive to the point of threatening the quality and creativity of the medium. Anyone of familiar with ‘crunch time’ will know the depths of the extraction of surplus value that exists in the industry. Moreover, one of the worst trends in video games in recent years has been the monetisation of the gaming experience with endless DLC’s and micro-transactions smuggled in to maximise as much profit as possible from players.
Some on the Left, mainly culturally conservative Marxists and left critics (especially if influenced by Adorno’s critique of the culture industry), dismiss video games as another form of ‘false consciousness’. A mechanism of consumerism to dull the player to the reality of his exploitation and oppression under capitalism in the name of frivolous play. Thus retarding class consciousness. These apostles of wisdom take themselves way too seriously, exhibiting a cynical, puritanical sensibility with a faint echo Nietzscheanism in the background against popular culture that is anti-fun, anti-pleasure and despairs for the fate of the compliant ‘herd’.
Then you have another tendency on the Left that doesn’t reject video games. Rather they see seek to engage with it, viewing it as an important ‘terrain’ of cultural struggle- especially as the hard right have penetrated the gaming demographic — not just in terms of organising exploited games workers, but, in an almost evangelical fashion, spreading the socialist gospel among the gamers. I have my reservations with this approach as I fear it could backfire badly. There is already enough fatigue with having all areas outside of politics turned into another political arena. It isn’t a coincidence that with the decline of politics (with a big P) culture has increasingly been politicised. Micropolitics acting as counterfeit to actually transforming society. As we see so often in the ‘culture wars’ this isn’t a cultural radicalism dedicated to freeing up culture for the masses or expanding cultural expression, but about controlling it, setting up barbed wire fences about what the ‘appropriate’ content should be to patronise people with from on high with your ideology. Ideology then colonises culture to the detriment of culture itself.
This isn’t to say that video games can’t be used to offer new insights and critiques of society, or games can’t be political. But like the Protekult wing of the Bolsheviks desiring to create a ‘proletarian culture’, which Trotsky quickly dismissed as a fools erand, one always runs the risk of needlessly politicising video games, or having a purely instrumental view wherein video games are only useful in so far as they promote ‘revolutionary’ ideas. Sometimes I just want to put my turn off my leftist ‘critical’ brain for a moment and just enjoy the base pleasure of playing a game — as a game. There is nothing wrong with that.
It would be too easy to state, as casual observers often do, that video games are just about power trips or the base, perverse pleasure of incinerating someone or staring at a well endowed woman. Sure, there is a sense of achievement and a surge in ego when you have mastered a game in all of its nooks and crannies, or emerge as the alpha male swathing away all of the competition.
On a deeper level however, or perhaps on a superficial one, the seductiveness of video games perhaps lay in the sense of of agency and control they provide the player. There are many aspects of our lives that we do not control, or we wish we did but there’s to many obstacles in our way to achieve it. You may want to travel to Los Angeles but if you can’t afford a ticket for a flight, or if immigration restrictions are too stringent then it will be very difficult for you to achieve your goal. But in a video game you press a button, your command is followed. What you intend to do is actualised.
It’s not that humans have no agency at all. We do. We are able to make choices, we are able to make history, more so now than in previous epochs, but as Marx famously opined we don’t do so under circumstances of our own choosing. But under circumstances already laid down from the past. History and our social organisation places vast structural fetters upon what human can actually do and affect in the world. This is the dialectical riddle that both sides of the free will debate often ignore.
While video games are on the one hand often deterministic where the ending is planned out for you beforehand, even in open world games with multiple endings, the dream world often conjured by video games, albeit in a fuzzy and distorted manner — a rational kernel if you will — might offer a reflection, a frame of what Engels called “the kingdom of freedom”: the radical realisation of human freedom that awaits us with the transcending of capitalism and all of its contradictions: freedom from necessity, freedom from alienation from himself and the world. A realm where man is able to make his own history unencumbered and not be made by history. No longer will the “tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” Man will no longer be a mere subsidiary of his environment, but the environment will be a subsidiary of him. He will be free to express his emancipated creative impulse on a higher plain than ever before according to his own standards. Man, to paraphrase Frantz Fanon, will become his own foundation.
Fundamentally, this is why I am a Marxist, socialist and above all a humanist. Socialism, as I understand it— communism if we really want to be frank — is not about progressive taxation, a fetishised notion of equality or a maudlin quasi Christian sentimentality, but the realisation of unlimited human freedom. Liberated from the slumber of alienation, awakened as a free spirit walking on the starry floor of the universe, humanity will achieve full self-consciousness. Hence why I do not subscribe to any form of self-proclaimed ‘socialism’ that doesn’t have freedom as its raison d’etre.
As the idea of human agency has been undermined, frequently described as an ‘illusion’, creating the disillusionment that humans could actually transform the real world, people now increasingly seek agency in the virtual world. This is what puritanical leftists and schoolmarm feminists ignore in their critiques of video games. If one really wants a ‘terrain of struggle’ then it should be to make the latent desire for agency and freedom a reality in the real world.