The Idea of the Gamer, 2

Anxiety, Ethics, and Games

2021-04-28

At last continuing with Amanda Phillips’ Gamer Trouble1 for the No Escape book club,2 it is time we look at chapter one of Phillips’ book, “Of Dickwolves and Killjoys.”

In this chapter, Phillips does an excellent job dissecting the mentality of #GamerGate and identifying its historical precedents. Through analyses of the Penny Arcade “Dickwolves” incident and the affective rage of the Shakesville community in response to gamer “tough babies,” Phillips is able to mount a compelling argument for the ordinariness of such gamer trouble—that the essential and constant anxiety of the gamer’s position produces the toxic and trolling behaviour that has come to characterize much of the popular gaming community.

I do not wish to rehearse this behaviour here, especially because Phillips has already done the work to which I would be adding little, if anything. Gamer Trouble is well worth the read for this historical contextualization of #GamerGate alone. What I am more interested in pursuing is an understanding of the interface envelope, discussed last time, as the material basis of gamer anxiety, and following this understanding through to its more fundamental implications.

Phillips presents the “interface envelope,” theorized by James Ash, as an alternative to the paradigms of flow and immersion that have dominated in game studies for some time. The interface envelope describes the “circuits of power” (both literal and ideological) that “continuously adjust[] and fold[]” themselves around the gamer, so “creat[ing] shifting, extended modes of engagement.”3 The interface envelope is “responsive,” “flexible,” and “temporary,” and as such cannot be universalized across all gamers.4 This understanding of interfaciality allows for more precise descriptions of the varied experiences of gamers, and as Phillips notes, is also more conducive to a “feminist analysis of gaming.”5 In chapter one, though Phillips does not explicitly invoke the interface envelope, it is this material phenomenon that makes the position of the gamer a tenuous one, and consequently an anxious one.

Between 1976 and 2005, Phillips identifies a series of challenges to the gamer’s position that were mobilized by the structural ambiguity of games, the fact that games seem never only to be for games’ sake. In 1976 and 1983, respectively, objectionable content in Death Race and Custer’s Revenge led to moral panic over the effects of video games; in 1993, the Video Games Rating Act and the Entertainment Software Ratings Board were established to regulate content in video games; in 1999, the Columbine shooting identified video games as a prime influence on the perpetrators; and in 2005, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas sparked outrage over a sex minigame that had not been entirely removed from the shipped product, leading to the “video game censorship saga of 2005.”6 As Phillips is quick to point out, such panics did not end there. Indeed, Donald Trump attempted to scapegoat violent video games after the Parkland, El Paso, and Dayton shootings in 2018 and 2019 in order to distract from gun control legislation and preserve the interests of his electoral base.7

But if we engage with the anxiety that games produce on the grounds of such debates, we will quickly discover our critical possibilities to be limited. Trumpish scapegoating of games leads to a false dichotomy—to oppose Trump, to champion gun control instead, led some to the outright denial that games could play such a role, even though we are rightly concerned about the power of games in other contexts. For instance, Xbox controllers have been used to improve the performance of operators in various military applications for over a decade,8 video games like America’s Army have been used as recruiting tools for the US Armed Forces for almost two decades,9 and most recently, the US Army found itself embroiled in controversy over its manipulative recruiting tactics, frequently targeted at children, on Twitch.10 In each case, the reason for concern is that video games entrain or engender specific mentalities, modulating the gamer at even the most basic level of motor skills to be more susceptible to certain perspectives and behaviours.11 The question, then, is not simply one of content, but rather one of form—or, to frame this in a more active way, a question of function. In other words, to address the anxiety that games produce we need to ask the question, what is it that games do?

What is a gamer doing when they drive a car into stick figures on a screen, or commit atrocities against people rendered in pixels, or use a controller to have sex with an in-game girlfriend? This is no longer a question about the representation of such acts, about objectionable content that one could just as likely encounter in literature or film. Rather, the unique concern that video games provoke is about form and about function. These are not mere acts being witnessed but rather interactions being performed. The gamer is put into play through the interface; the gamer is infected with what plays out on the screen; the gamer is mutated from being a distinct entity into a hyphenated player-character. Inasmuch as the concept of the interface envelope indicates that the experience of playing games does not entail an absolute immediacy, a perfect and total immersion, neither does the experience of playing games entail perfect and total separation, the absolute distance to which we might pretend in the interpretation of challenging or problematic works of literature or film. Games, quite distinctly, do something, and they do something to those who play them.

Indeed, games mobilize the very “clue” that serves Hans-Georg Gadamer in his “ontological explanation” of the work of art: the clue of play.12 No art, Gadamer maintains, be it literature, film, or video games, is “an object that stands over against a subject for itself”—all art involves interaction and application.13 In short, all art involves play. And this fact is anxiety inducing, because “all playing is a being-played. The attraction of a game, the fascination it exerts, consists precisely in the fact that the game masters the players.”14 The fact that art, in its structure as play, “takes place ‘in between’” negates the possibility of an aesthetic consciousness standing over against an artwork, negates the possibility of a closed subject who is master of their own actions and experiences.15 On the contrary, “play draws [the player] into its dominion and fills [the player] with its spirit.”16 This, Gadamer argues, is the ontological structure of the work of art, and this is also the answer to the question what is it that games do? Games involve us; games compromise us.

Thus, to address the basic function of games, and so be able to mount an informed and cogent challenge to fearmongering, bad faith arguments about their dangers, we must acknowledge that, in fact, games are never only for games’ sake, that even the most neutral and ambivalent of games still does something, and that games are only ever fully realized when enacted.17 We cannot separate play from being-played.

If we follow this line of reasoning with Gadamer, projecting games back onto the real, we recognize that games—and play more generally—constitute an ontological structure that I might hazard to describe as the ontological structure of what is as such.18 This structure is one we can name in the most general way as original contingency—a notion that I draw from Jean-Paul Sartre,19 François Laruelle,20 and Quentin Meillassoux.21 Games disclose the fundamental contingency of the real, and so are locally productive of that vertigo or angst characteristic of existentialism. The interface envelope, then, is simultaneously the performance of a role that shelters the gamer from the contingency of existence, but also the opening of an experiment with and upon the material of existence itself.

Phillips’ argues that “the problems facing gamers are not abstractions” but “real and immediate,” warranting our attention and concern.22 What should now be clear is that the real and immediate anxiety that games induce is not limited to games but rather is indicative of a more basic ontological problem.

In his Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre maintains that the “for-itself” exists as a “flight toward” an “impossible future … where the for-itself would be an in-itself-for-itself—i.e., an in-itself which would be to itself its own foundation.”23 In other words, to simplify Sartre’s technical terminology, the human being is always searching to become its own ground and guarantee—what Sartre also calls the “in-itself-as-self-cause.”24 This search is a search for the most fundamental of values, which Sartre describes as follows:

The fundamental value which presides over this project is exactly the in-itself-for-itself; that is, the ideal of a consciousness which would be the foundation of its own being-in-itself by the pure consciousness which it would have of itself. It is this ideal which can be called God. Thus the best way to conceive of the fundamental human project of human reality is to say that man is the being whose project is to be God.25

It is this project that Sartre calls a “useless passion” and a “perpetual failure.”26 But, as I have written elsewhere, “it is precisely this passion that Sartre recognizes as requiring an ethics.”27 It is impossible for me to become the “foundation of [my] own being” or the foundation “of the in-itselfs which form the world”—what remains is “to decide the meaning of being,” and this is indeed both our ethical “anguish” and our “responsibility.”28 We “can not possibly derive imperatives from ontology’s indicatives,” but we can engage in “moral description,” in the analysis of the “ethical meaning of various human projects.”29 This means that we can indeed mount a critique of a game perpetuating colonial fantasies, of a game that entices players with the prospect of committing consequence-free war crimes, or of an entire marketing apparatus designed to lure impressionable young people into the fold of an imperial war machine. We can and should critique such projects.

This also means, however, that we cannot attempt to simplify the work of critique through the deployment of universals. We must attend to the particular. So, years of scholarly studies have shown that video games do not produce aggression in gamers,30 but the US Army still boasts of its use of video games for the development of combat skills and tactical thinking,31 and the Israeli Defense Force has talked openly about the transferability of video game expertise in its younger soldiers to the operation of command and control technologies.32 Video games may not directly produce aggressive behaviour or violent acts, but it would seem that certain games are at least conducive to militaristic ways of thinking, and so participate in reinforcing a more general ideological organization of gender, race, class, and national identity that, when taken as a whole, is a strong predictor of a given individual’s perspectives and behaviours.

What is required of our “moral description” is, therefore, a “tangible” ethics as recently described by ziq, which works “on a case-by-case basis” and is “tied to real cause and effect outcomes.”33 To avoid a regress, Sartre helps us understand how this does in fact get beyond fruitless moralism. Sartre writes that such a work necessitates “abandoning the psychology of interest along with any utilitarian interpretation of human conduct,” necessitates getting beyond both “egoism and altruism,” and “beyond also any behavior which is called distinterested.”34 Any such universalizable ethics operates on the “moral plane” and so “concurrently on that of bad faith.”35 A tangible, particularized ethics on the other hand, what Sartre calls moral description, attempts, as freedom, “to take itself for a value as the source of all value,” not as self-cause (and so in bad faith), but that which, in its flight, generates values, and so is both profoundly contingent and profoundly responsible for that which it brings into being.36

We ask with Sartre: “can one live this new aspect of being?”37 Can one live in the play of contingency? Sartre presents us with three options in response: escape situation, remain situated, or become “more precisely” and “more individually” situated.38 The third option is implied to be the option Sartre favours, and it is also the option that studies like Phillips’ help us move toward.

If the human being exists in a state of flight away from its own freedom, its own contingency, and toward the in-itself-as-self-cause that it would make of itself, and the project of this flight is that whereby values come to be injected into a groundless existence, providing authorization of and meaning to that project, a particularized ethics is that which neither denies its situation, its limitations, nor resignedly accepts its situation, but seeks to carefully describe the project of its situation and the particularities of its flight.

In making the connection between ordinary gamer anxiety and the constitutive anxiety of academic game studies—the narratology vs. ludology debate—Phillips undertakes precisely this descriptive work. If “growing up gamer means anxiously reestablishing one’s credentials in the adult world,” then the “anxieties” of game studies “about being taken seriously” as a discipline cannot be treated as fundamentally different in kind.39 Indeed, both popular gaming communities and academic game studies deploy “kinds of border policing” that “share common origins,” “strategies,” and “outcomes”—an ideological organization that, when taken as a whole, is a strong predictor of a given individual’s perspectives and behaviours. To be direct on this point, Phillips identifies this ideological organization as the misogyny, homophobia, and racism endemic to both popular gaming and the academic study of games.40

We “cannot write about it,” we cannot write about these structural violences, “without positioning ourselves within it,” writes Phillips.41 But to position ourselves in this way, to take responsibility for our actions and for our spheres of influence, is to do the particularizing work required of good faith moral description—or we might say plainly, the work of good faith critique. Such work does not provide alibis for abusers, but it also does not allow us to position ourselves on a moral high ground. We are already in it, in the middle of things.

As Jean Baudrillard writes, in the contingency of our situation, we find ourselves inextricably “tied to each other.”42 This is “an obligation that does not require solidarity” precisely because the rule of the tie is “arbitrary and ungrounded”—factical, the phenomenologists might say—and so does “not require a consensus, nor any collective will or truth.”43 Ties “exist, that’s all.”44 Such existence provides no guarantee, no authorization, but it demands responsibility, a demand that entails an “absolute reciprocity” whether we like it or not.45

Such ties are the forms, the functions, the structures of our varied situations, and these cannot be denied. As Baudrillard writes elsewhere, we must “observe,” “accept,” “assume” (in the sense of taking on), and “analyze” that which is before and around us if we are ever to rise to the “imperious necessity of checking the system in broad daylight.”46 And indeed, as Phillips writes, sometimes checking the system requires “anger and ire.”47 The work of critique is necessarily a passionate one because “all human existence is a passion.”48 Which passion, which life, which game remains for us to choose.49


Notes

  1. Amanda Phillips, Gamer Trouble: Feminist Confrontations in Digital Culture (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2020). 

  2. Kaile Hultner, “The Return of the No Escape Book Club,” No Escape, February 24, 2021, https://noescapevg.com/the-return-of-the-no-escape-book-club/

  3. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 14. 

  4. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 14. 

  5. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 14. 

  6. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 33. 

  7. Daniel Arkin, “Here’s what we know about the links between video games and violence,” NBC News, March 2, 2018, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/here-s-what-we-know-about-links-between-video-games-n852776, and Jane C. Timm, “Fact check: Trump suggests video games to blame for mass shootings,” NBC News, August 5, 2019, https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/donald-trump/fact-check-trump-suggests-video-games-blame-mass-shootings-n1039411

  8. David Hambling, “Game Controllers Driving Drones, Nukes,” Wired, July 19, 2008, https://www.wired.com/2008/07/wargames/; Colin Schultz, “A Military Contractor Just Went Ahead And Used an Xbox Controller For Their New Giant Laser Cannon,” Smithsonian Magazine, September 9, 2014, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/military-contractor-just-went-ahead-and-used-xbox-controller-their-new-giant-laser-cannon-180952647/; Shannon Liao, “US Navy submarines are getting Xbox 360 controllers to control their periscopes,” The Verge, September 19, 2017, https://www.theverge.com/2017/9/19/16333376/us-navy-military-xbox-360-controller; and Noah Smith and Leore Dyan, “A new Israeli tank features Xbox controllers, AI honed by ‘StarCraft II’ and ‘Doom’,” The Washington Post, July 28, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/video-games/2020/07/28/new-israeli-tank-features-xbox-controllers-ai-honed-by-starcraft-ii-doom/

  9. Mike Thompson, “Killing in the name of: The US Army and video games,” Ars Technica, January 1, 2019, https://arstechnica.com/gaming/2019/01/army-video-games/

  10. James Vincent, “Twitch tells US Army to stop sharing fake prize giveaways that sent users to recruitment page,” The Verge, July 17, 2020, https://www.theverge.com/2020/7/17/21328130/us-army-twitch-esports-gaming-recruitment-fake-prize-giveaway

  11. See Patrick Jagoda, Experimental Games: Critique, Play, and Design in the Age of Gamification (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press), for an excellent, in-depth analysis of this modulatory quality of video games. 

  12. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, 1960, trans. revis. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (London, UK: Bloomsbury, 2013). 

  13. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 107. 

  14. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 111. 

  15. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 113. 

  16. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 113. 

  17. This final point is one that Alexander Galloway makes in his Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), and which more recently Patrick Jagoda has used to great effect in Experimental Games

  18. See my “From Governance to Planning,” April 10, 2021, https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.4685024; Fear of Play, Tech Jam, itch.io, April 22, 2021, https://vagrantludology.itch.io/fear-of-play; and “Combinatorics,” April 26, 2021, https://steinea.github.io/notes/2021/04/26/combinatorics

  19. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, trans. Hazel E. Barnes (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2003). 

  20. François Laruelle, Philosophies of Difference: A Critical Introduction to Non-Philosophy, 1986, trans. Rocco Gangle (London, UK: Continuum, 2010). 

  21. Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, trans. Ray Brassier (London, UK: Continuum, 2009). 

  22. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 63. 

  23. Sartre, Being and Nothingness, 384. 

  24. Sartre, Being and Nothingness, 640. 

  25. Sartre, Being and Nothingness, 587. 

  26. Sartre, Being and Nothingness, 615 and 640. 

  27. Eric Stein, Useless Passions, Philosophy Game Jam #3, itch.io, October 16, 2020, https://vagrantludology.itch.io/useless-passions, 7. 

  28. Sartre, Being and Nothingness, 577. 

  29. Sartre, Being and Nothingness, 645. 

  30. Timm, “Fact check,” n.p. 

  31. Scott Kuhn, “Soldiers maintain readiness playing video games,” The United States Army, April 29, 2020, https://www.army.mil/article/235085/

  32. Smith and Dyan, “A new Israeli tank,” n.p. 

  33. ziq, “Morality vs. Ethics,” April 27, 2021, https://raddle.me/wiki/morality_vs_ethics

  34. Sartre, Being and Nothingness, 646. 

  35. Sartre, Being and Nothingness, 646. 

  36. Sartre, Being and Nothingness, 647. 

  37. Sartre, Being and Nothingness, 647. 

  38. Sartre, Being and Nothingness, 647. 

  39. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 35 and 50. 

  40. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 63 and 38. 

  41. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 63. 

  42. Jean Baudrillard, Seduction, 1979, trans. Brian Singer (Montréal, QC: CTheory Books, 2001), 136. 

  43. Baudrillard, Seduction, 136. 

  44. Baudrillard, Seduction, 136. 

  45. Baudrillard, Seduction, 136. 

  46. Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, 1981, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1994), 160 and 163. 

  47. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 64. 

  48. Sartre, Being and Nothingness, 646. 

  49. I will leave it to a footnote, but I am here deliberately invoking Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism, even if what follows has become so common as to have become cliché: “You are free, therefore choose, that is to say, invent. No rule of general morality can show you what you ought to do: no signs are vouchsafed in this world. The Catholics will reply, ‘Oh, but they are!’ Very well; still, it is I myself, in every case, who have to interpret the signs.” See Existentialism is a Humanism, 1946, trans. Philip Mairet, marxists.org