A Player of Games

The title comes from the Ian M Banks novel ‘The Player of Games.’ I read the novel years ago, having been lent it by a friend. I still don’t get on with Banks’s writing style, but I found TGoP engaging and read it start to finish in a brief sitting. I find myself looking back on that novel now, with its main character who is consumed by game playing and potentially by the particular game of Azad.

I was intending to write a little about my self-published novella This Grave Kingdom, but I’m not quite sure what I’m going to say about it. You can pre-order it for Kindle here or for Other Stuff here. I’m also looking at some other sites, and Print on Demand at Createspace. It will be released on 30 September. The idea is probably to promote but I’m learning the ropes on that.

In the meantime, I’m going to talk about games. I have always played a lot of games. Computer games, role-playing games, the odd board game. My earliest memories involve Dungeons and Dragons in some way or other. Specifically, one game where my older brothers thought I wasn’t paying attention so I ran in to a wall and got eaten by a Carrion Crawler. Then, another one which was The Best Game Ever. A tale for another time perhaps.

At the moment I find myself with a great deal of spare time. I apply for rather a lot of jobs (in a bunch of different places around the country) and try to come up with things to write. Just as often I find myself playing games. In the past month I have bought The Secret World, downloaded Star Wars: The Old Republic, been bought the expansion for Diablo 3 and most recently been gifted Destiny on my Playstation. I still play Civilisation V and Crusader Kings 2. I also talk with my older brother about games of Star Frontiers (an old RPG). More of my life is gaming than is life. Part of this is inevitably the result of my location. The Forest of Dean is beautiful, peaceful and rather dull. I don’t drive and getting anywhere by taxi is expensive. The public transport options are limited. So I fire up the laptop or my PS3 and drop in to other worlds than this.

For most games I play the narrative logic is one of empowerment (for certain values of empowerment and for certain people) whereby one, that one being inevitably the player controlled protagonist, can alter the shape of a given world. Even the games I play where character is abstracted such as CK2 or CivV one is inserted into the position of a ruler (or weird god construct) vying with others for dominance. In other entertainment, I’d find these sorts of stories dull. Quite often, in games, the opposition is one of will, not of circumstance. If there is any acknowledgement of a character’s social situation, it is as a footnote that is swiftly overcome as an exercise of the self. More often characters emerge almost ex nihilo, fully formed and ready to take down the alien/diabolic/invading menace. They are immunized from material concerns; they are empowered to triumph.

It is a heady brew to indulge in the fantasy of power, of conquest, and also of simple task resolution. I used to play World of Warcraft (which uses Skinner box psychology to tremendous effect) and remember in The Burning Crusade days using my paladin to effortlessly slaughter hundreds of a particular type of monster to gain a whoozit with a particular group of people. In retrospect it is probably unsurprising that I played Warcraft the most when I was at University and rather lonely, as well as despondent with my course. Similar patterns repeat across my game-play library.

I am currently playing Destiny, Bungie’s new MMOFPS. It is absolutely gorgeous, a triumph of style and (possibly) one of the most expensive cultural artefacts of human history. It is immersive in a way that a lot of computer games fail at because it allows the world to represent itself. Whoever was the artistic lead on the design team deserves plaudits not just because of the singularly beautiful vision of the game, but also the absolute iron discipline that it must have taken to resist tedious infodumps. This is a refreshing contrast to the history of computer gaming that insists on telling rather than showing. It is supported by an amazing score and eclectic voice cast to transport the player into a fallen future retaining just enough visual cues to elicit the dissonance of the familiar (cognitive estrangement ahoy).

This transport to another world is the pattern of interaction with games, and one I am becoming increasingly certain is a little harmful. I’m not an idiot, and I am on the internet, so I am aware of the rather toxic atmosphere in to which the world of computer games currently finds itself in. Nothing I could say has not already been said better elsewhere by others.

The allure of the game is a life other than your own. It engages the reader in a narrative of cause and effect but also of effort and reward. When I go into the murderpit and kill a bunch of murderpitters, I am gifted with the murdergun. This contrasts with my lived experience of going in to the office to run a bunch of reports… which are replaced the next day with more reports to be run. Or right now, sending off a dozen CVs and getting nothing in return. Or submitting a short story and not getting so much as a rejection slip. Life comes with demoralisation; games come with the promise of reward.

Putting aside for a moment the issue of ‘real vs. ‘unreal’ (I do, after all, work in return for an abstraction representing my hours of labour) I think that a consequence of this game interaction is the flattening of experience they offer. Conventional games very much operate on a formula of time + effort = reward. And that effort is further refined into particular types of effort ie the most killingest. It rewards those behaviours (games rarely if ever punish any more, which is kind of a good thing in my opinion). I think this may feed in to culture in some ways. Games encourage a formulaic approach to problems, in that there is a ‘best’ solution to a preprogramed response (‘builds’ in MMOs for example). There’s little room for ad hoc activity. It incidentally teaches the player that all problems have a solution; all things are on the player, all failures are because you did it wrong.

I am not making a case here that computer games are the root of all evil, nor that they didactically instruct their consumers to behave in a similar manner. They are part of a larger cultural narrative that enforces a particular logic. But they are part of it, part of the neoliberal project that champions the entrepreneurial self. The allure of the game may be that in its simply reproduction of the dominant cultural discourse of late capitalism, it becomes more enticing to operate in a world encoded (deliberate pun there) to follow the rules of that culture. It is the same appeal as from books of speculative, creative fiction.

To grab from (I think) earlier Nietzche, art is consolation. In reading books or experiencing any art, we can be spectators to a world that conforms to how we are told the world is, and confirms our prejudices. How much more enrapturing then is the simulation that not only does this, but allows us to take the active role in the affirmation of our illusions. Of course, Nietzche eventually developed the idea that true art rejects the reproduction of illusion and instead embraces the real. So computer games about shopping it is.

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