Video games are no longer the culturally empty electro-blocks and easy-to-swallow impulse receptacles that once defined them during their formative years. Instead, as the technology that shapes them as vehicles of variable interaction has evolved over time, their ability to straddle more complex cultural lines and more nuanced processes of thought has accelerated to a point that qualifies them for more serious consideration. Indeed, part of my original motivation for writing these articles grew out of my own despair at the lack of critical discussion video games were being subjected to.
Without wishing to get tied down in debates surrounding the empirical prerequisites for what constitutes ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ forms of art and culture, I want to suggest that video games have reached what I would consider a significant threshold of cultural relevancy that qualifies them, if not to be accepted, then at least to be considered for what they bring to the cultural table. While the trend for games to absorb and incorporate more traditional cultural influences such as cinema and literature has certainly contributed to this ongoing development, I think the real reason for this evolving shift toward ‘legitimacy’ is much simpler, and more universal. That is, interactive games have reached a position of thematic and reflexive maturity that allows them to frame, extrapolate and mythologize upon the cultural wellspring of the human frailties; a process generally shared by all serious cultural outputs. As cinema discovered for itself very early on, prolonged durability as a medium depends not so much on the precise technical particulars of your craft (the raw technological ‘thrill’ of moving pictures as a spectacle in and of itself faded extremely quickly) but in being able to readily address the spoken and unspoken tensions, aspirations and fears of a emotionally perceptible audience. It is this quality that renders film culturally and epochally specific, in a sense inseparable from the context of native time and space; where its thematic scope is rooted to and rises out of a certain cultural milieu which is then reabsorbed by that same body in the form of material consumption.
Interactive games of the more serious type have been gradually moving closer to this form of cultural dynamic. At their very best, their themes and stories extrapolate from a complex and multifaceted socio-political fabric and repackage themselves as compelling, hyper-real cyber realities. The original Deus Ex and Fallout 3, for instance, are both essentially groundbreaking titles not simply for what they were able achieve technologically, but also for their acutely relevant channels into socio-political discourse intensely specific to both time and space. This is not to suggest these titles are necessarily high-brow art forms, but that their thematic sensitivity to wider social predispositions and tendencies should cement them as works of serious cultural discussion.
One of the most groundbreaking early studies of cinema, conducted by German critic Siegfried Kracauer in From Caligari to Hitler identified what Kracauer argued was a direct psychological link between the prevailing themes and subject matter of post WW1, pre-Hitler German cinema and the subsequent rise of fascism in that country. Despite minor differences of surface, Kracauer suggested a whole body of films that not only reflected certain ‘authoritarian’ dispositions, but also thematically preempted the dramatic political and social changes that modern history now registers there. According to Kracauer these films exhibited a problematic moral duality that projected the pre-Hitler future of Germany as a binary pathway between wholesale tyranny, or a kind of primitive mob anarchy. This duality suggested, as Kracauer argued, that the German people had perhaps already psychologically ‘accepted’, at least on a subconscious or pre-subconscious level, the inevitability of, or even, the ‘natural’ procession toward a duly authoritarian state.
I refer to this example from cinema as I think it exemplifies the idea that certain forms of media are able to act as prescient markers for social and political trends and attitudes, something that I dare suggest we are now moving towards, if not in all video games, then at least a select few that represent a high watermark of cultural relevancy. That video games so often straddle the genre of science fiction is also significant. Science fiction, despite its fantastical excesses, tends to be the most socially and politically reflexive form of popular myth; a grand theatrical canvas where the hopes, fears and anxieties of the present are extrapolated and played out within a theoretical, hyper-realized future.
For instance, an entire thesis could be written for a game like Fallout 3 and what is a veritably rich textual and sub-textual layering of themes, symbols and metaphors. It potentially offers, in its broadest scope, a comprehensive treatise on the grand American neo-liberal experiment. By fiercely juxtaposing, for instance, the familiar iconography of America at its cultural and economic apex: the heady, sickly-sweet and nostalgia-bled 1950s, against the engulfing, inescapable backdrop of post nuclear fallout decay, it casts a certain tension and anxiety to the future of this great mythological American dream. Later, when we enter into a direct manifestation of this ideal in the form of a cruel virtual reality prison at Vault 112, there is a sense of uncanny repulsion at the ensuing scenes; that of an impossibly sanitized community of polite 1950s automatons going about their sterile pre-scripted lives, oblivious to their own psychological capture. It is telling that the gameplay that characterizes these moments becomes, in effect, a mission to disturb this polite social veneer via the calculated framing of adultery and the performance of various other social transgressions. It is as if the hero/player is being encouraged in these moments to take pleasure in this perverse social subversion, to break apart its very superficiality. Much like the original juxtaposition, the intended effect of these scenes is a further deconstruction of one of America’s most highly exalted cultural paragons: the typically American aspiration of 50s style suburbia and the picture-book nuclear family recast as a chiefly hollow and synthetic simulacrum of human (non)interaction.
Politics too are drawn with a similarly pessimistic tone and cynicism. The loquacious President ‘Eden’ who can be heard throughout the airwaves as the hero makes his way around the faceless derelicts and wastelands, is later revealed as a nothing more than a form of advanced artificial intelligence; a mathematical amalgamation of personalities, slogans and verbal-inflections of former American presidents (whose election we are told is a matter of state secrecy under grounds of ‘national security’). This display of grandiose political artifice emerges from within a Western culture where political speeches are readily dissected for their cunning rhetorical devices by an army of analysts and speechwriters, and then recycled back into ‘the system’ in the form of newly calibrated political speeches.
In Deus Ex, government bodies are not only cast as hollowed out entities, but also as sinister constructs engaged in bio-terrorist acts against the very citizens they are presumed to govern. Owing to its Cyberpunk influences, its primary dialogue is one between the nature of technology and the relationship it upholds with contemporary systems of power. Its commentary on state surveillance, for instance, is crystallized in the form of the hero, JC Denton, a high-tech covert agent, who is ‘nano-augmented’ with a built in cranial spy camera which broadcasts directly to UNATCO HQ (a kind of Orwellian international police force) in real-time and for official state observation and archiving. Thus, as the player performs various missions within the game world, they are repeatedly made aware of this all-seeing presence that, we are told, cannot be switched off. While simultaneously, agents from UNATCO HQ are able to appear within a personal eidetic display to comment, praise or condemn the player as they perform various actions. This randomized and often unexpected interjection of government agents into the player’s private visual space, combined with a narrative which develops directly in response to this act of digital intrusion, creates a subtle psychological tension that operates within the boundaries of virtual subjectivity. The effect of this complex diegetic arrangement is the creation of a kind of meta-ontology of systemic surveillance, one the player is compelled to operate under as they psychologically and subjectively engage within this morally ambiguous virtual world. In doing so, it actualizes a techno-driven re-conceptualization of the Panopticon; a technical construct designed to create a forced internalization of the very act of surveillance within the subject, described by its creator Jeremy Bentham as a “new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example”.
The social relevancy of these titles is tacitly woven yet maintains a direct psycho-active link to many of its unspoken, symbolic tensions. The thematic appropriateness of Deux Ex, for instance, is confirmed in hindsight when viewed through the lens of post-9/11 angst, where its uncanny prescience cements itself as a significant cultural artifact. Consider briefly the techno-fears and anxieties that are drawn so heavily upon here prior to this horrific event, that in many ways now find themselves manifest within physical and psychological reality. The basic narrative framework, that of a devastating terrorist attack against New York City, prefigures an international crackdown on ‘global terrorism’ and an ensuing, indiscriminate curtailment of individual liberties. More eerily, artwork included within the game also shows the Twin Towers markedly absent from the distinctive Manhattan skyline. While the physical parallels to 9/11 are striking, the psycho-social echoes between fiction and reality also suggest a more dynamically rooted interplay. Indeed, that a significant cultural subset now subscribes to grand conspiracies of government involvement in 9/11, for instance, would appear to directly mirror Deus Ex’s own sinister portrayal of shadowy government agencies actively plotting against their own citizens. Its comprehensive treatise is a systematic layering and exploration of the grand act of political conspiracy, locating it not only as mere theme, but at the very core of its ideological drive. It urges the notion that for as much as this is the product of creative choice, it is also a form of reverberated and diffuse mass-cultural response. While I do not wish to prescribe a sense of legitimacy to such conspirational views, it is important to note what is a form of authentic social and political tension, one that would, in this instance, appear to represent a muted and dispersed anxiety in the nature of contemporary political agency at root of the body politic. An animus, in effect, that attaches itself as a form of collective psychological undercurrent in the Kracauerian sense, and finds itself re-manifest through the highly stratified channels of mass production and popular entertainment.
What becomes notable within these titles when taken together is their apparent mirroring of a similar moral dualism to the one characterized by the pre-Nazi Germany films discussed by Kracaeur – that of the ideological juxtaposition between a world defined via anarchy or tyranny. In Fallout 3, for instance, the player must choose whether to cooperate with the shadowy ‘Enclave’ (the de-facto ‘government’ and fascistic overseers of the Capital Wasteland) by helping ‘purify’ the remaining population with aid of the FEV virus; or, assist in securing the ‘Fountains of Life’ – a clean water supply free from toxic radiation that would ensure the survival of all within the Wasteland; a future which ideologically rejects the Enclave and the promised ‘stability’ of centralized government. In Deus Ex, similarly, the player must decide whether to ally themselves with shadowy global entities who seek to control the world through advanced cybercratic means, or else, destroy the ‘Global Communications Hub’; an action which would – the game informs us – plunge civilization into a new ‘dark age’, effectively crippling all form of structural government.
In each case, the narrative structure of these titles can be seen to accelerate toward a kind of thematic ‘polarity’ where the individual must decide, essentially, between a world of liberty underpinned by chaos, or conversely, a world of order governed via tyranny. As players, we are positioned as dynamic agents occupying a transitional space in and between each of these binary points, where ‘completion’ of the game involves the performance of tasks that fall ambiguously within either side of this complex ideological spectrum. In some instances, players must perform certain ‘quests’ without explicit knowledge of their precise ideological footprint. A mission to hunt down an ‘evil’ character, for instance, will often reveal a far more sinister plot which, in turn, implicates the very individual(s) that assigned the original mission; a kind of ideological reversal where the ‘evil’ character becomes, in essence, an ally in pursuit of a far greater ideological threat. Such reversals are often nested like Russian dolls to the point where all ideological foundations are rendered systematically hollow, as merely temporal points which serve to highlight the subjectivity inherent within all moral reality.
The ideological dualism on display within these titles represent not isolated cultural events, but an emerging pattern or myth within the domain of the video game – one which forms the basis for some of its most popular and endurable outputs. That some of the most successful and influential titles of the last two decades – games such as Half-Life 2 and Final Fantasy 7 – also heavily incorporate this same dualism into their narrative framework, confirms the presence of a form of emerging cultural mimesis. Together with Fallout 3 and Deus Ex, the significant economic success of these titles should be seen, I would suggest, as an indication of an active psycho-social channel, in the Kracaeurian sense, between media object and consumer subject; one which, in its heavily codified form, is able to speak to the popular techno fears and desires internalized by the mass video gaming audience. Indeed, it is their thematic relevance to this cultural milieu that has not only secured their economic success, but also cemented them as a form of modern ‘cyber myth’ that underpins the subconscious political fabric of this emerging cultural subset. Like the films of pre-Nazi Germany, the mass production and consumption of such inimical ideological binaries suggests a form of psycho-social tension within the boundaries of the political conscious, one which draws upon an ambiguously circumscribed moral aesthetic and broadly inflected iconographic array to express many of its unspoken anxieties.
However, the event or consumption of such forms should not be viewed automatically as a kind of fascist predilection or tendency. On the contrary, it demonstrates an anxiety and distrust toward all forms of structural authority, and of any attempts to naturalize or make legitimate its own branded ideology.