The Issue of Gaming in Contemporary Culture
"Are we still in the game?" This banal phrase gains a terrifying meaning in the last scene of Cronenberg's film eXistenZ, when a puzzled character, on the verge of being murdered, asks his potential killer if they are still inside a virtual reality game. The scene denotes the crucial place the issue of gaming is occupying in contemporary culture. If we take sci-fi movies less as an exercise of future divination and more as symptom of our current feelings projected into the future, we can easily see how games are becoming a frequent metaphor that sums up our fear of a world dominated by technology. Matrix, eXistenZ and quite a few other films draw on this haunting idea that technology can be evil and that reality may be just a high-tech game of which we are not aware.
In fact, life has often been thought of as a kind of 'divine play', with God either playing dice to decide our destiny or acting almighty over millions of voodoo dolls. The key difference in contemporary imaginary is that it is no longer God, but human beings (or machines and creatures designed by them) in charge of the game. Moreover, it is interesting to notice that this attachment of nightmarish meanings to games is happening exactly at a time when computers are becoming more than an ubiquitous tool for any purpose, and are acquiring an astonishing ability to accurately describe our environments and convincingly reproduce our bodily senses. The prospect of having a full, working, machinic simulation of the now-called 'real world', no matter how unattainable it might be, is giving a new face to the old free will dilemma: to what extent is life predeterminate and what is our space for creativity inside God's plot? In this context, the otherwise ancient and apparently innocent cultural activity of playing games has turned into this biased metaphor, in which the blurring of the borderline between life and game becomes a sinister menace.
The Nature of Games, Their Cultural Role and the Four Categories of Games
The question that crops up is why games were chosen to re-enact this ever-present human fear before the mysteries of the given world of nature. We know for sure that there is a convergence between game and culture, and that game principles are at the foundation of social institutions, as Huizinga has shown (46). He does not propose that culture is derived from games, but maintains that play is a key element at the beginning of culture, and continues to be an important feature as culture develops. But it is the French sociologist Roger Caillois who has devised a framework in which to approach play and games that can help us, contemporary gamers, to shed light on this question.
Caillois proposed four categories in which every known game can fit: games of chance, where the outcome results from fate rather than player's skills; games of vertigo, that aim to impose a disorder in the bodily senses; games of competition, in which adversaries are provided with an artificial equality at the outset and compete to show their superiority; and games of simulation, in which players create an imaginary universe and see themselves as someone else. However, games don't have to fit into one category only. Several games present a combination between the different types, though they always present one fundamental aspect that overshadows the others. These four categories can easily be extended to the field of computerised games:
- games of chance -- random devices are simulated in the computer (dice, roulette etc);
- games of vertigo -- games that draw on the use of metaphors such as the labyrinth and detective role-play, in which the player has to pursue a task through winding ways. Browsing and surfing are also frequent metaphors for this type of game;
- games of competition -- the usual fighting and 'shoot-and-kill' games;
- games of simulation -- use of development and management metaphor scenarios in which the player can nurture and manage the development of a system such as a town, a civilisation, or even a child as in some Japanese games.
A psychoanalytic interpretation of these four categories helps to get an even clearer picture of the role of games in contemporary culture. According to this theory, playing is a response to unconscious motivations, and games could fulfil a function similar to that of dreams, slips of the tongue and actions alike. Abadi proposes a direct psychoanalytic correlation for Caillois's categories: games of chance symbolise the death drive since it is a bet against destiny; games of vertigo, by pushing the senses to a radical level of disarrangement and ecstasy, denote the symbolisation of sexual intercourse; games of competition are related to the Oedipus complex -- the rivalry between parents and children, or amongst siblings; and games of simulation refers to the construction of identity, an occasion when players work out a way to shape their own identity roles (Abadi 85-93).
While Caillois's classification organises games in a more legible way, to read them through a psychoanalytic framework is to bring them into the realm of desire, or we could say, to the realm of language, or yet to be more precise, to the realm of language as the discourse of a desiring subject. But as an inhabitant of language "the subject is not; he makes and unmakes himself in a complex topology where the other and his discourse are included" (Kristeva 274). So as game and language converge, with this underlying presence of the Other, we can paraphrase Julia Kristeva and consider games as a signifying system in which, through demarcation, signification and communication, the player makes and unmakes him- or herself; in other words, a kind of radical rehearsal terrain where players can experiment with a playful reinvention of themselves.
In this light it is no surprise that games in general, and more specifically games of simulation, have acquired such a paramount role in our 'electronic age'. Confronted with a strange new technology, which is hard to understand because it works mainly at a microscopic level, and which brings up uneasy concepts such as 'virtual reality' and 'cyberspace' (a quasi-mythical ethereal space -- Wertheim 18), we seem to be going through an identity crisis. In the wilderness of this technological 'newfoundland', an uncomfortable paradise of simulation and cloning, the very essence of human identity, our free will, seems to be mercilessly seized in uncontrolled games, since we are unable to differentiate between computers as the Other and computer as a means to the Other.
Games as Scenarios for the Interplay of Determinism and Non-Determinism
However, the same metaphor of game can shift this scenario and revert itself into a tool to rethink the identity problem within our technological daily life, for what is at stake in a game is always the question of free will. The game is essentially a framework for uncertainty, allowing the co-existence of determinism and non-determinism: games of chance by definition include the idea of indeterminacy; games of vertigo deal with indeterminacy by inducing an uncontrollable confusion of the senses; games of competition include indeterminacy in the form of the unpredictable abilities of the competitors; games of simulation present a particular type of interplay between rule and indeterminacy, where the gap between the scripts/rules and the interpretation/gaming provides the sense of uniqueness each time it is performed/played.
Thus, if games and their probabilistic features are put to work in our favour, it would be an answer to a much searched metaphor, a theoretical ground to pervade contemporary culture allowing for creativity in a pre-determined technological environment. Then, the idea of life as gaming, instead of inspiring fear, can serve as a way to escape the false tyranny of a machine based on logic algorithms, without falling into the nihilism of a romantic refusal of a true information age. Precisely because computers are based in coherent and logical algorithms, coupled with game principles they can be a milieu for the delicate and complex interplay of determinism and non-determinism (Bijl). Computers would cease being this monstrous 'big Other', and simply would stand as an ethical tool, a technological mediated way for touching the Other (Cabral Filho and Szalapaj).
We then may be compelled not simply to rebuild or re-shape our identity, but to experiment and question the very idea of such a concept. By exploring the ambiguous and intricate gap between life as gaming and gaming as life, identity can be something that deals with the unknown, based on the always challenging idea of Otherness. As we leave the duty of coherence anchored in non-desiring machines (as Baudrillard has called computers), we are liberated to wander in auspicious new territories. Then, personality, gender, race, colour, and other aspects that were formerly associated with an ideal and immutable image, can become rather playful zones of experimentation. As an open field, identity may be just a nuance in a multitude of flipping horizons. Yet, as freedom is never an easy place to dwell, a disturbing question arises: will it after all be less scary?