2/9/11 8:57 AM
This essay first appeared in New Left Review 198 (March/April 1993): 83-106 as "Just Gaming: Allegory and Economy in Computer Games." The present version will appear in the author's book, Gargantua, fortcoming from Verso. It is used here with the permission of the author.
`We need a leader. We have many missions tocomplete. We have to assassinate leaders of our aggressors, we have to destroy heavily guarded installations. We have many enemies, and they are not all human. We need to cross alien landscapes, over rocky surfaces, through vast subterranean caverns and across insect infested swamps. We need help. We need a leader.' Taken from a computer game advertisement, this is the puerile plea of digitalcharacters, a call echoed in hundreds of such games which invite players to become the ghost in the machine, to enter a virtual environment in which they will learn, travel and kill. In looking at the new industry of computer entertainment we shall take up issues of exchange and competition, the character of the commodity, fashion, allegory and objectification. It is also to deal with the issue ofsimulacra, much beloved by postmodern theorists. However, far from believing that postmodern ideas of simulation adequately describe computer gaming, I shall look at two older cultural models which provide a much more compelling account: Benjamin's writing on allegory and Adorno's theories about aesthetics and the culture industry. There is of course a considerable gap between the perspective andthe technology of our time and that of these thinkers, yet there are also parallels for they witnessed the rise of the electronic mass media, comparable to the current rapid growth in computer gaming. This growth has been a swift, broad flourishing after more than a decade of minority use by a clique of technically minded and in popular mythology socially maladjusted, anorak-wearing males. WhileBenjamin and Adorno saw the beginnings of the age of television, we have entered a new era of interactive entertainment. The distinctiveness of computer games lies in interaction: the passivity of cinema and television is replaced by an environment in which the player's actions have a direct, immediate consequence on the virtual world. Players are surrounded by apparatus, in the home by screen,keyboard, joystick and speakers; in the arcade sometimes sitting literally inside the machine, thrown back and forth, shaken in their seats, bombarded by noise; more recently in virtual-reality machines, their heads are encased in helmets which provide an illusion of a fully three-dimensional environment, the views of which change in response to movements of the body. Other devices, such as datagloves, not widely marketed at present, produce tactile feedback and allow an apparently direct interaction with the computer-generated world without the need for arbitrary software interfaces. Whatever the equipment, the aim is to produce an illusion not merely of scene but of action. Games strive for ever greater realism and the envelopment of the player within an immediate, visceral experience.Given the technical means available, and certainly when compared with those of the cinema, this project appears chimerical, yet the experience of even quite crude games can be compelling just because it is interactive. Twitches of joystick and mouse produce great apparent bodily or mechanical movements, rather like driving a car, where the same disparity between movement and effect is apparent.Simulations of flying and driving, where the computer screen becomes a windscreen, directly exploit this effect producing fantasies of movement and control, counterfeiting speed. Even when the player looks at the scene as onto a stage and the alter- ego appears as one of the characters, the identification remains compelling because this figure is directly controlled. Bodies focused around the tiny...