Just Gaming

Julian Stallabras

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 to complete. 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.'[1] Taken from a computer game advertisement, this is the puerile plea of digital characters, 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 of simulacra, 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 and the 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. While Benjamin 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 data gloves, 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 actions which operate the controls still attempt to reflect on a larger scale the frantic movements of their digital protagonists; the player winces as the character falls from some precipice, is crushed or otherwise meets its demise. Most of all, in trying to provide a palpable and unified reality in which the player operates, by linking response, vision and sound, the computer game aspires to a phantasmagoric experience of total immersion.[2]

Hollywood Dreaming

Computer gaming falls readily into genres as rigid as those of nineteenth- century academic painting. Games are often arranged by genre on the shelves of software stores, so buyers may immediately find simulations or puzzles, adventure, arcade or role-playing games. These genres are characterised by game type rather than directly by subject matter but the two are often married in broad tendencies. With the exception of puzzles and to a lesser extent simulations, the genres are dominated by cinema and may be divided broadly into those which emulate film and those which emulate cartoons. Although interaction tends to be of a cartoon type due to limitations in hardware and programming techniques, there is a constant striving for ever greater resolutions, smoother animation, more naturalistic movement, more colour and a better rendition of volume and atmosphere. Older games were radically different, tailored to the modest capabilities of the machines on which they ran, and coded with great economy to exploit the tiny amounts of available memory with an ingenuity which was also exercised on their content. These games sought to take advantage of their very limitations: certain formats were established, such as platform games and single screen space-invader type games, which were particular to the computer. While these are still common, and while some games are still produced (like the Russian Tetris) which are very much specific to the computer, in general the medium, with increasing sophistication, is losing any sense of itself, becoming entirely subservient to the conventions of cinematic illusion. The common aim is now the `interactive movie'. With the rapidly growing use of CD-ROM, game designers have been able to include photographically rendered scenes and passages of video which sometimes feature well-known film actors; the so far insurmountable problem has been to combine such elements with any significant degree of interaction. Dependence on the cinema is expressed in musical scores which accompany the action, introductory screens, rolling credits, cuts and fades, long shots and close-ups. Movie spin-offs, whether of Indiana Jones or Robocop, are only the most obvious example of an increasing mutual dependence. Flagrant plagiarisation and the quoting of cinema plots, motifs and designs are common, a whole sub-genre of games being founded around Star Wars.[3] Other subjects are immediately familiar from cinema: sword and sorcery, Lost Kingdom scenarios complete with dinosaurs and exotic tribes, detective games and bureaucratic conspiracies.

To some degree separated from cinematic games are a set of Yuppie simulations which take the guise of `serious' platforms designed to show off the capabilities of expensive computers. Here flight and drive simulations (the latter modelling Porsches and other such toys) compete with golf games. The vain yearning for status of those uninvolved in these real activities is partly compensated for by having a computer of sufficient power to run fast and complex simulations. Occasionally the advertisements for these games dwell overtly on the snobbery and envy which apparently drives their players: `Ever sat at your desk and thought "great day for golf"? Or winced as you-know-who swaggered off to yet another tournament? No problem. Wait till you get home and go one better. Just pull up a chair and play LINKS: The Challenge of Golf. And enjoy all the thrills of the game in the comfort of your own "clubhouse".'[4] Increasingly, however, the distinction between simulation and the story- based game is blurred as the more sophisticated simulators are built around campaigns, careers or tournaments, while narrative games often involve passages of simulation.

If part of the pleasure of cinematic spectacle is an identification with the protagonist on the screen, an imaginative replay of the action, then computer games seek to make this mental act palpable. In Hollywood film there is already a marked trend towards producing a visceral and enveloping experience, through extreme close-ups, fast cutting and the frequent use of shock, and this is merely in the process of being completed by interactive technology. While the subject matter of computer games is utterly dependent on cinematic genres, cinema itself mimics virtual reality, presaging its arrival as a domestic technology. These games, while posing as first-order simulations of reality, are in fact second-order simulations of scenarios dreamt up in Hollywood.

Economy and Chrome

The basic structure of the game is overlaid with a visual veneer which programmers call `chrome'. The computer game simulates simulation itself, for to put it in Hollywood language beneath its chrome glove lies the iron hand of economy. In early games this structure was visible to the player; elements in the first text-based games appeared as simple characters, and in early line-drawn games transparent opponents were encountered in wire-frame spaces. Here the simple calculations of the program were as transparent as the virtual enemy. Increasing sophistication has clothed these calculations in simulated flesh. There is something familiar about the visual aspect of many games, and while this is partly because we already know their elements from films, comics and advertisements, beyond this they possess a crisp, hallucinatory clarity, the images being constructed from a precise repetition of tiny blocks of which the viewer is often aware. Their ghostly objectivity, their hollowness, is a purer distillation of the generalised forms found in the commodity and the advertisement. To compensate for this lifeless immateriality, the player is distracted by the frequent appearance of glowing objects, flashes, explosions and phantom lights. In this way, the medium simulates aura, not by slowly impressing on the viewer a sense of presence, but rather by making believe something is there, with a glittering, eye- catching display of movement and transience, linked with speed and inconsequentiality, itself mimicking the flow of digital signals.

At first there also seems to be some convergence between the image of computer technology and the shiny, bright, metallic surface of the games themselves, which form a resistant and inhuman glacis. Colours are generally synthetic and perfectly even, shapes are predominantly geometrical, and become more so close up as they are resolved into polygonal surfaces or the differentiated squares of bit-mapped images. Yet games also play on the precise opposite of the glossy sci-fi world rendered by these over-sharp forms, particularly in the numerous dungeon scenarios where spaces are dark, irregular and confining. The space-ship and the dungeon are two opposing formal and technological ideas of a world which is either a smooth, ordered brushed-steel environment, or its labyrinthine shadow. Between these two extremes, the increasing use of fractals divorces the look of the game from human agency by simulating inhumanly complex natural form.[5] Again, increasing naturalism and not just fractals but greater resolution and more colours than the human eye can distinguish means that games are gradually losing their specific look, in favour of a `style' which is to some degree beyond the control even of their programmers. Nevertheless this glossy complexity is always somehow piercingly clean and sharp, as though seen with a greater intensity than anything in the real world. Specificity begins to find a refuge only in lapses, in the clumsiness of much of the drawing, in the frequent mismatches between the rendering of objects and backgrounds, and in the flattening of virtual space against the screen.

Computer games force a mechanisation of the body on their players in which their movements and the image of their alter-ego provide a physical and a simulated image of the self under capital, subject to fragmentation, reification and the play of allegory. Games demand that the players hone their skills to make the body a machine, forging from the uncoordinated and ignorant body of the acolyte an embodiment of the spirit of the game. For Adorno, cinematic images, particularly the mask-like faces of the stars which always adopt a predictable form, are commands to be like them.[6] These masks, freezing mobile life into a still commodity form, are `emblems of authority' combinations of image and command.[7] Furthermore, like all the products of the culture industr, they anticipate and imitate the required responses of the audience: `The culture industry is geared to mimetic regression, to the manipulation of repressed impulses to copy. Its method is to anticipate the spectator's imitation of itself, so making it appear as if the agreement already exists which it intends to create'.[8] In computer games, the player not only identifies with the image but controls it in obedience to strict rules of conduct or else!, and the sanction is usually a virtual death sentence so conformity has been extended from assent to action.

Computer games are different from films in that players become actors, and they are different from other games because their actions appear to affect a distinct and autonomous world.[9] Action is linked to a fixed narrative structure. In almost every game the alter-ego of the player progresses, at least in obtaining equipment and resistance to damage, if not in more specific skills and even moral qualities. There is a marked liberal and individualist ethic behind such games for the character develops through intrinsically unrewarding labour. The alter- ego is usually the only character which improves, and this growth is always a matter of trade, the self being constructed from a set of thoroughly independent attributes. Labour or virtual money are traded for weapons and equipment or maybe for wisdom or strength or charisma, but intelligence never has a connection to knowledge or charm, nor strength to dexterity or stamina. Measured by number, self-improvement is always unambiguous. As in the ideal market of economists' models, all players start from the same point and with the same resources. Just as exchange value and aesthetic worth wrap themselves mysteriously around real objects, so an idea of progress is always present in the game, shadowing and interpreting the action.

All digital `objects' encountered in the game are types, and all are ranked on a common arithmetical scale in which every quality is tradable. The commodity, with its apparently simple surface concealing metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties, is closely related to computer game elements. Like cast metal sculptures, virtual objects are hollow code, like air, fills their voids, and their surfaces are a reflective chrome. They are mirror images of undifferentiated, mass-produced consumer goods. Games obsequiously reflect the operation of consumer capital for they are based on exchange, an incessant trading of money, munitions or energy, a shuttling back and forth of goods and blows. Those games where trading plays an important part, like the famous space-exploration game Elite, only make this latent content an explicit theme. Pre-selection screens in which the player chooses character attributes or weapons, all reducible to an expression of number, simulate the deployment of investment capital. The player's performance is of course expressed as a numbered score, while objects when captured or destroyed may become, at the moment of their extinction, a floating number, an economic emblem. Each element of the game, each virtual being or object, acts as a commodity, placed in an extensive metonymic chain where each link is defined only in relation to the others.

A tyranny of number is the founding principle of these games and to play successfully is to emulate the qualities of the machine: reaction, regulation and economy in discrete, repetitive acts. This substructure is, however, generally concealed beneath a veneer of muscular and spontaneous heroism. The allegorical nature of computer gaming is apparent in this opposition between literal structure and rhetorical gloss, in which the unrepresented universal fungibility and objectification is expressed through and simultaneously concealed by the organic, the individualistic, and the absolutes of violence and death. The labour forced on the player is not real, the instrumentalism not really consequential, and nothing (except time) is really consumed. As if previewing cyberspace, this simulation takes the form of a commodification which has arrived at a more rarefied stage emptied of all materiality. Here in the world of the computer game, use value and exchange value are no longer opposed, but are collapsed into an ideal unity. The game world appears as a perfect, utopian market, in which bright, clear-cut commodities are, for once, all that they seem to be.

Space, Time and Allegory

In the game, temporal progress is mapped onto spatial projection. Game- time is divided between two types of activity: in some games the player is permitted to stop and think, to work out puzzles or strategies, in others there is an unceasing flow of monsters, as though from a production line. Co-ordination and timing are all important in the second type where, as in a time and motion study, a purely mechanical efficiency is demanded. In adventure games there is a mix of slow deliberation and fast reaction, of periods of repetitious, aimless wandering and desultory combat. In both types the action is rigid and episodic. For Benjamin, writing of another allegorical form, German tragic drama of the baroque period which he used to illuminate the allegorical aspect of modernism: `The Trauerspiel is [...] in no way characterised by immobility, nor indeed by slowness of action [...] but by the irregular rhythm of the constant pause, the sudden change of direction, and consolidation into a new rigidity.'[10] It would be hard to arrive at a better description of action in computer games. This is characterised by a discrete series of blows, flashes and sudden plunges into darkness, often accompanied and signalled by disk access: these flashes are like inspirational leaps, suddenly taking the game to a new state in a movement so fast that it borders on the imperceptible. In arcade and adventure games there appears to be a simultaneous unwinding of allegory in time and virtual space. Plot combines the spatial disposition of elements with the hierarchy of progress: it is the allegorical projection of the spatial axis onto the temporal. While the linear unfolding of the plot as actually played is halting and uncertain, with many a wrong turn taken or target missed, the hierarchical structure of the game in virtual space is fixed from the start. In the game of a perfectly coordinated and omniscient player the temporal and the spatial worlds would be brought into harmony, and it is very much the player's task to assure this accord.

The player doggedly follows the plot but, since the computer limits and governs the options, this action tends towards a lightning fast and almost automatic selection, a switching procedure in which each discrete action mirrors the sudden transitions of the game. Taken together they form a repetitive beat, producing a trance in which all sense of time is lost. A striking feature of these games is their compression of time, both in the world of play where moments separating action are dramatically foreshortened, and in the real world of the players who re-emerge to discover that more hours have elapsed than they thought possible. Benjamin claimed that the joy of unrolling Ariadne's ball of thread is deeply related to trance, and to creation. `We go forward; but in so doing we not only discover the twists and turns of the cave, but also enjoy this pleasure of discovery against the background of the other, rhythmical bliss of unwinding the thread. The certainty of unrolling an artfully wound skein is that not the joy of all productivity, at least in prose?'[11] Following the trace of the plot through the virtual labyrinth of the game is not a productive activity, but, as a simulation of production, it elicits from the player the same entranced state, and given the constant repetition of elements, possesses the same structure of discovery against a background of similarity.

Furthermore--and again Benjamin's shade seems to haunt the virtual world--if utopian forms were unconsciously produced in the nineteenth-century architecture of the arcades, an ideal past is a constant feature of these new forms: in computer games the rigidity of the genres, the jerky movements and naivete of the staging (harking back involuntarily to early cinema) and more consciously the simplicity of plot and characterisation, all evoke an age of pure belief and a regression to childhood simplicity. In these worlds there is generally little moral complexity or ambiguity, and the binary opposition, 0/1, may serve as a register for the rigid dichotomies of the game. A lost innocence briefly returns in which even knowing parodies and self-referential jokes have an adolescent air, winking at the player. The allure of this early technology is often complemented by its depiction of a childishly romantic, fake medieval or Tolkeinesque past. Here games, self-consciously youthful, though so much wanting to grow up, depart a little from the cinema where sword and sorcery scenarios are much less popular. While for Benjamin, the utopian aspect of the arcades took the form of a dream, in computer games it is a theme knowingly played on and even mildly mocked, yet at the same time demanding from the player a suspension of belief and conformity in action.

Mass Carnage

Plainly, though, the game world is not simply utopian. One reviewer put the matter candidly, `... computer games have always been about mass carnage on a grand scale and there's nothing quite like a spot of carpet bombing to really make you feel as though you're doing some damage.'[12] In games with modern military scenarios the new medium is found in its most unmasked form. A magazine feature asks, `What was it really like to fly an American B-17 heavy bomber on dangerous daytime raids over occupied France and Nazi Germany during the Second World War? Microprose [...] is busy preparing such a simulation for your playing pleasure.'[13] Despite similarities between the conduct of war and its simulation, the essential difference is fixed on here, that however realistic the game, however capable of inducing fear, vertigo or repulsion, as in watching a horror film, these are always found pleasurable. The contrast between the engaging, repetitive, but essentially anodyne activity of the game and the actual experience of the often drunken, short-lived bomber crews let alone those beneath them could hardly be greater. This contrast is masked in various ways: an advert for F117A Stealth Fighter reads, `Spectacular night graphics with special HUD [head-up display] features, sprite explosions and smoke, along with cluster bomb explosions will intensify the game's visual appeal'. In the aberrant marriage of gaming and weapons of terror, even so mild an emotion as `appeal' is qualified by a verb with militaristic connotations. The discord between the scenarios acted out and the players' pleasure is disturbing, even to some manufacturers. The Chairman of Sphere Incorporated warns the users of his sophisticated flight simulation, Falcon 3.0: `Unfortunately war is still a reality. We hope you will use this product to gain a better understanding of the dangers our pilots face and the complexity of the systems they must master. We hope you also understand that war is not a game you can simply reset or play again. In war, every truck, tank, plane or building that is destroyed costs human lives. Soldiers and pilots understand this. [...] Use this product with respect and keep in mind the differences between fantasy and reality.'[14] It is unclear of course how this product could be used with `respect', for the very purpose of the game to cause maximum mayhem among those digitised vehicles and buildings. Such replays of military experience are fundamentally false yet take cover behind the realism of their technical details; objectifying their characters and their eternal offer of a rematch, they radically denaturalise acts of mortal violence.

Digitised combat has established a fiction of multiple lives and `hit-points', which measure the degree of injury a character can sustain. This lack of consequence is indicated by the disappearance of bodies and other debris soon after they fall or even in the act of their annihilation so that the arcade machine-gunner may see hundreds of zombies fall before the muzzle, but not a corpse will be left in sight when the smoke clears. Or, if they do remain visible, as in Doom, no matter where they were shot or how they fell, all the corpses of a particular monster always look exactly the same. In Operation Wolf, and its numerous clones, the player guns down countless foes (and innocents if careless) slowly sustaining ever greater damage from enemy bullets and grenades, as if this were mere work, sapping energy. When the player finally succumbs, he finds himself in jail! ... with the option to continue for another coin. In adventure games characters at death's door can be completely revived by a little food and a good night's sleep. Anyone who has been attacked or injured knows that this is not how it is. Yet the games have to pursue this fiction, largely because of the limitations of the medium and its marketing. In the arcade game there is no time for suspense, and it is unprofitable to kill off the player with a single bullet. Enemies must advance and die in hordes, but for the player nothing can be irrevocable. Here ideology and marketing have arrived at a particularly felicitous marriage. Its single-minded impetus has surprised even those who manufactured it. Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari is disappointed with his progeny: `The repetitive, mindless violence that you see on video games is not anything I want to be associated with. [...] I think it's just shit.'[15]

Such fictions have spilled over into other media, including television, and from there into a hideous reality: in the once popular A-Team the side that wins the gun battle is that with the greatest fire-power (usually cobbled together cannon, mortars and flame-throwers): no one is badly hurt in these fights, the baddies stagger off winded, shaking their heads, and hails of bullets do no more than dishearten the enemy. Similarly for that children's politician Reagan (in propaganda at least) the arms race was something that could be won and even survived by acquiring enough `hit points' and special shielding. In the Gulf War the bodies of the enemy disappeared from the actual scene and from Western memories as fast as virtual corpses disappear from the screen, bulldozed into the ground, uncounted and unidentified as if they were merely particles of some undifferentiated mass; given this, General Schwarzkopf was right to dub the conflict the `first Nintendo war'.[16] In such circles, any conception of real harm, of the true nature of violence is strictly suppressed.

The military-industrial complex strongly influences the world of games, obviously in the general sense that the computing industry has always been heavily subsidised by military expenditure, but also in more specific ways: in the exchange of information and sometimes personnel. The game industry's parasitic relationship to the military-industrial complex may explain why the most over-militarised countries, Britain, France and the United States, have the most successful games industries.[17] Many computer-game scenarios are based on military simulators and war- game programs. Computers which aim to predict the outcome of real military actions perform much the same task as those which take care of the onerous calculations in war-games. When a game tracks the path of a virtual missile it simulates a function controlled by a software cousin in real life. Current strategic objectives and political propaganda set the scene for game settings: in flight simulations for instance, Cold War games involving flash points in the East-West conflict have given way to `low intensity' operations against drug barons and uncooperative Third-World tyrants. Soon after the Gulf War flight simulators started to include Desert Storm scenarios. Nostalgic interests are also catered for, from First World War flying to rewriting history Rambo-style in Vietnam.[18] There is also a chance in some games, especially simulations, to play the forces of `evil': in Battle of Britain the player may take the role of a German pilot and swing the war the other way. Within limits, then, the plots of these games show a degree of amoral lassitude.

Yet if games are allegories, it is reasonable to ask what their demons personify. Aliens, in the broadest sense, take on the guise of demons, whether they are from outer space, politically beyond the law or beyond the pale, perhaps most often being people of the Third World. Vietnam is the genocidal model which lies at the heart of many games, whether they are explicitly based on events there or not. Its vocabulary finds its way into these rewritings of history, where it is of course misused so `fragging' in the Wing Commander series means simply killing the alien enemy, not assassinating your own officers. Whatever form the enemy takes, whether they are extraterrestrial beings or demons from hell, a subtext relates them to contemporary targets.

As games borrow from the military, so military technology takes on the appearance of becoming more virtual, not in its consequences which are increasingly destructive, but in its remote manner of delivery, in the judgment of its effect and most of all in the attitudes of those who use it and those who urge them on.[19] Such attitudes are not, of course, new and a direct line links the low-tech Gulf War media sandpit with its little plastic tanks to the videos tracking `smart' bombs and Cruise missiles, replayed as prime-time snuff movies but they are reinforced by such technology. Objectification is the bottom line.

The Arbitrary Interface

The player of a computer game has the feeling of inhabiting a discrete world where unchangeable truths may be learned. Such learning is not only about plot and scenario, but is also a familiarisation with the control system--the interface between player and operating system which is largely arbitrary. Control systems which are marketed as `intuitive' merely display some internal consistency. In relation to postmodern theory, it is interesting that this arbitrariness is very much of the sort that Jean Baudrillard describes in his essay `The Political Economy of the Sign', being inherent in the very act of positing an equivalence between sign and signified. New systems of `fixed and equational' structures in which all ambivalence is excluded, and where the sign acts as `discriminant',[20] are regularly invented in the game world and indeed in all programs. Any notion of computing as a postmodern realm of chaos and shifting identifications must account for this founding act of universal reduction which, far from being imposed over an anarchic flux of signals, is built into the physical and virtual architecture of all systems from the very start.

For Adorno, the virtuoso performance in modern culture is achieved not by triumphing over difficulty, but through subordination. This is highly apparent in computer games, both literally in their agonistic scenarios and also in the way they force a particular form of action on the player, of rhythm, timing and reaction.[21] The player's subordination of the game is achieved through the game's conquest of the player. Computer games perform simulated acts of reification where slices of immaterial code act as living beings but are arranged and treated as objects. The brutal simplification of these digital figures is a register of objectification. The player, too, is blatantly objectified by the act of playing: this is invoked in a television advertisement for the Super Nintendo console in which the player is swiftly transformed part by part into a bio-mechanical being. The player buckles on virtual armour and, in responding to the stimuli of the game, is doubled both in body and on screen as a bio-mechanical being of single mind. Such a construction of the self apes those genetically and mechanically modified warriors of film and comic book, and perhaps prefigures the hideous creations of the military exploitation of genetics, nanotechnology and computing.

For unsympathetic or bemused onlookers, computer gaming is collapsed into two worrying but possibly contradictory characterisations; of mindless addiction to an alien and impoverished experience, and also the feeling of utter exclusion, that they could not possibly begin to understand or play the game. Both are perhaps based on the hunch that the `interface' between person and machine is quite unlike that with a tool, that it is somehow mysterious and threatening. Behind these feelings is the correct impression that the interface dehumanises the user, while (in an equal and opposite reaction) the user tries to humanise the machine. Computers are made more `personal' by the addition of cute trivia to the screen or keyboard, or by tailoring the operating system with sound patches, pictures, or a particular colour scheme. On the PC, Windows users may attach sampled sounds to certain program events,[22] while Macintosh owners have long been able to accompany disk insertion and ejection with moaning and retching noises. User and machine, then, meet halfway in a realm of decorated inhumanity where certainties still hold fast and where each may rely on the other as mere examples of a type.

Another property of the interface is the game's visual presentation. The look of computer game settings is often reminiscent of the stage: the difference between isometric and platform games is only the difference between the views of the stage from the circle and the stalls. The alter-ego may be rendered in first person or third so that the player either sees what the character sees, or directly sees the character. There are also games where the personification is abstract and invisible, and where as a result the player merely influences rather than controls aspects of the game. In Simcity or Populous ,which now have numerous offspring, the player becomes respectively a mayor or a mythological deity seeking to influence events though the game will run quite happily without intervention. Here the player is co-extensive with the alter-ego, an immaterial thinking presence, which needs no representation.

In the digital phantasmagoria being dreamed up for us, there may be few points of interruption onto which criticism can latch. For the moment, however, computer games contain many glitches which, again, often echo the charming clumsiness of the first movies, sharing with them unsynchronised sounds, spelling mistakes and continuity errors. Other problems, specific to the computer game, include the difficulty of the character's initial insertion into the virtual world: one of the simplest strategies used to overcome this has the player `awake' as an amnesiac, and part of the task involves the rediscovery of identity and the recovery of memory. At other times, transport to a different world may be the device but the transition can be awkward, particularly with the presentation of contextual information which the player really ought to know (`Greetings. I am Jessica, your mother', and so on). Another foothold for criticism is provided by the machine itself, for sometimes the game hangs as the disk is accessed, disrupting the player's involvement, while at others what ought to be a surprise event is announced by the flashing of the disk light. Points of critique are also provided by bugs (programming errors) and in the manifestly typical nature of each object encountered. Beyond this, there are ways of finding paths behind the coding, whether by hacking or by chance. Games are generally hacked either to cheat or to get past copy protection. Cheats are generally created by the programmers themselves in order to test the game with ease, and are then discovered by hackers, and these back-door aids, conferring assets or immunity from damage, are often published in games magazines. All of these points of fracture, of which hacking is the most extreme because it is deliberate, are marginal but radical, points at which the phantasmagoria is breached, and the structure of the game peeps through. Increasing technical perfection will perhaps make the glacis of the game ever more slippery for criticism.[23] Such footholds for critical perspectives are, in any case, fleeting and ephemeral, and are certainly no ground for drawing positive conclusions about the media's development.

Arcade Nightmares

Outside the home, computer-game arcades form a digital phantasmagoria, far more menacing and affective than the piped music and plastic trim of the shopping mall. While the wandering consumers of both the nineteenth century and the contemporary arcades effortlessly submerged themselves in a phantasmagoric environment, entering a digitised world often requires commitment and an act of attention, though once this immersion is achieved, virtual wandering is both absorbing and highly controlled. The ambience of these gaming arcades--the noise, the heat, the relative darkness and intense concentrated points of frenetic activity--is insalubrious. They are, for all their puerility, like sex parlours, and in fact often share their locales with sex shops and gambling halls. No wonder that in the tabloid imagination the true aim of virtual reality is `dildonics' simulated sex, using either a digitised partner or linked with a real person via a phone line.[24] Arcade play is an essentially solitary, often male activity which involves a tension between public and private spheres. A reflection of the arcades is found in the games themselves. One advert reads: `You're in the depths of your own worst nightmare ... but this time there's no waking up. Lost and alone in a dangerous and alien world you must discover where you are, how you got there ... and how you're going to get out! [...] Re-emerging in to daylight you race along perfect parallax action scenes, dispatching enemies as you battle ever deeper into the unknown.'[25] This nightmare aspect is common in many games, an enclosing, claustrophobic vision, which evokes the restrictive space of the arcade and the barriers imposed on the player by a digitally constructed world. Dungeons and labyrinths are of course traditional places for the exercise of allegory, and the links between scenario, environment and computer architecture may be viewed as allegorical, all referring back to the discrete and enclosed action of commerce which produces them.

These arcades naturally recall Benjamin, for there are various levels on which the computer game conforms to his analysis of bourgeois culture. He wrote of a lithograph showing the occupants of a gambling club, `the figures presented show us how the mechanism to which the participants in a game of chance entrust themselves seizes them body and soul, so that even in their private sphere, and no matter how agitated they may be, they are capable only of reflex action. [...] they live their lives as automatons and resemble Bergson's fictitious characters who have completely liquidated their memories'.[26] Just this combination of automatic action and affective engagement characterises the playing of computer games. Especially with arcade games, the computer produces in the player a simulacra of industrial work: the autonomy of each action, its repetition, precise timing and rare completion are all reminiscent of Benjamin's analysis of the gambler's actions. The jerky movement of early games, and even many current ones, clearly presents a progress which takes place in separate steps, and which maintains the idea of a game move. In many slower adventure games, too, play takes the form of labour in which the exploration of highly complex spaces involves repeated sequences of simple actions. Other games punish failure by constantly pushing the player back to the start. As in work, the effect of this endless iteration is dulling. Yet it is only the signs of labour that are apparent in computer gaming where the physical strain of heavy, repetitive tasks is replaced by the digital twitching demanded by the control system. Because of the media's intrinsic paucity, emotional attachment to the game is established through labour, emerging out of the Sisyphean nature of the player's task. The arcade, while evoking gambling and sex, is actually a furtive simulacra of the sweat- shop.

Adorno analysed the simulation of work in hobbies and this may be applied to computer games: free time is shackled to modern work which requires useless, disengaged leisure activity to bring about uncritical recuperation. Free time is strictly divided from industry but working habits have become so internalised that `contraband' modes of behaviour appropriate to work are smuggled into leisure.[27] In the futile tasks set in computer games, as opposed to hobbies, a simulation of this mimicking of working practices is established, for while time is consumed and while the repetition of tiny, discrete tasks and the loss of the self in labour are real enough, the activity is entirely unproductive. Adorno argues: `No fulfilment may be attached to work, which would otherwise lose its functional modesty in the totality of purposes, no spark of reflection is allowed to fall into leisure time, since it might otherwise leap across to the workaday world and set it on fire. While in their structure work and amusement are becoming increasingly alike, they are at the same time being divided ever more rigorously by invisible demarcation lines. Joy and mind have been expelled equally from both. In each, blank-faced seriousness and pseudo-activity hold sway.'[28] The computer game merely makes this simulation literal, being a true pseudo- activity which is nevertheless structured like work. The conceptual demarcation lines between the two even materialise, becoming visible in the borders which outline the screen areas of work and play. Yet this raising of pseudo- activity to a purer, more rarefied level in which no material is ever touched, has been accompanied by a radical shift of scene. Adorno wrote at a time when industrial workers found leisure in hobbies and games which emulated labour. In `postmodern' Britain and the United States, where manufacturing industry is failing, a population is filling its hours with simulated labour, a fictional activity which gestures towards and mocks the lack of work in the real world.

Another distinction is also apparent. While the actions of the player are fragmented and repeated, the progress of the game taken as a whole is most unlike gambling or factory work, for story lines are constructed, consequences are followed through, and progress can generally be saved (or restored) at any point. Just as shafts of sunlight pick out patterns in floating dust, narrative meaning is born out of a swarm of acts as various elements of continuity are superimposed upon the basic structure of the game. These include thematic music, interventions by a `narrator', and scenes which comment on or frame the player's performance. Games may be more or less authoritarian in forcing the player to follow sequences of specific acts in order to progress, or in allowing a degree of latitude. Unlike the hackneyed plots of movies, especially those which transparently build up expectations and then seek to surprise, the plot of some computer games is truly polyvalent and non-linear. The player-hero may even end up losing, though this eventuality is usually realised outside the game, when it is abandoned from boredom or frustration. While a huge number of possible worlds are established as each stage is won or lost, and while only a very few of this panoply of a thousand plots lead to final success, the lost game is always discounted in the construction of plot, these branches being forever closed by the restoration of a previously saved position. In the virtual world, the player is usually offered unlimited chances to make good but for each path to victory, there are a hundred diverse ways to fail, most involving some more or less spectacular death. These hundreds of lost or abandoned games for each one completed, their heroes dead or left in digital limbo, echo the fate of billions of lost individuals under the vast play of capital.

As in the Trauerspiel, where the chorus represented the world of dreams and meaning, and interpreted the action, so very often there appears in computer games a similar divide (again often established for technical reasons) of action interspersed with animated sequences, dialogue, dreams or visions. These scenes have the function of frames which are placed around the action to make it meaningful, usually by developing the plot. There is also a more literal form where animation is seen inside an ornate frame, or where a screen is framed by hardware. Of course these frames, especially if they cut across the field of vision, like the struts of a cockpit, act as stable reference points and enhance the illusion of movement; in technical terms, they usefully restrict the proportion of the screen that has to be animated. Like a constantly chanting chorus, the elements of the frame (dials, gauges, or numbers) comment on the action.

Be Somewhere Else

More connects the computer game and the heritage industry than their use of digital technology to promote kitsch simulations of an idealised past. Many games take the form of a staged, touristic exploration. To complete the game, the player is forced to travel everywhere, and there is a mental compulsion to do this too, a digitised equivalent of the cultural imperative to ubiquity. As with the exploitation of `heritage' themes, many of the game elements are familiar since childhood and are recognised at once. They are collected, combined and packaged as entertainment, inevitably with a strong flavour of pastiche. The experience is evocative rather than informative, being less the stuff of history than of television series and pulp novels.

Like tourism, computer gaming is largely based on spatial exploration. This is partly because there are several problems with producing temporal development in such games. Actions may obviously be triggered by the player's acts but other characters cannot be permitted to develop independently, or to complete actions autonomously, or the whole plot might collapse. When other characters act, it must be in a circular manner, literally going about their business.[29] The spatial nature of computer gaming means that progress can only be expressed in terms of travel, or if it is marked as a definite stage, in the breaching of some barrier. Hence the overriding importance of locks and keys, levels, hidden items, secret doors, and false walls. The tasks the player must perform to gain entry are often of the boxes within boxes type, a way of hierarchically structuring an otherwise free space. Travel, moral progress, the return home, topography and mapping, the distorted spaces of the dream, the dungeon, and the labyrinth are all mainstays of allegory.

There is another way of looking at this aspect of the computer game, through the relation between allegory and script. Allegorical writing takes the form of a monograph or hieroglyph.[30] In the earliest games the computer's text characters were used to stand in for fictional characters and objects. More broadly, the inquisition of words and signs in adventure and detective games is allegorical since they are utterly separate from one another and function less as carriers of meaning, than as passwords or magical incantations, serving to open doors or motivate actions. Lastly, the whole form of the computer game may be seen as a figure or monogram to which all the characters except the player are tied to specific locations in a strict configuration: the tracing of the figure is the completion of the game.

Although they always have a purpose, computer players act as the flaneurs of the digital realm in their wandering, their detached engagement with virtual objects, and their feeling that nothing really matters. This is the aspect of computing which has endeared it to postmodern theorists: the lack of apparent consequences of action and knowledge, the adoption of multifarious roles, the simulation of phenomena which are already simulations, the self- consciousness of the players and the manifest nature of the fictions. The player is aware of, and even mocks these game elements, but this does not prevent participation. Yet, unlike the postmodern aspects of plot, role and simulation, the modernist dream of eternal technological progress is not treated ironically. Unlike the aimless flaneur, the computer player (like the shopper, the snapper and the hack) loiters with intent. It might appear that acts of objectification are ameliorated by detachment, but engagement and belief on all levels is hardly necessary for its functioning. Such detachment is partly produced by the current limitations of the medium, and is, in any case, a mere epiphenomena. To concentrate upon it is to ignore the fundamental features of computer entertainment, most particularly the nature of interaction which not only enforces conformity but does so through the use of a rigid, exclusive sign system.

Fashion and Memory

The operation of desire in these games is simply an acute form of the normal procedure of the market in a fashion-driven culture: there is always a sense of something beyond the present experience, of some unused potential within the machine, of a task never quite finished, of a realism not quite complete. The yearning for completeness in allegory is never satisfied so details proliferate and plots endlessly lengthen.[31] In computer games, scale, complexity, the number of characters and the size of the playing area, are still celebrated as intrinsically positive points, partly because hardware and software restrict these factors, but also because of their allegorical aspect. `A daemon never tires or changes his nature',[32] claims Angus Fletcher, and so as long as it survives, the allegory must continue. Indeed objects and characters encountered in the game world are generally emblematic, being name-image assemblages and examples of a type. A very literal example of this can be seen in recent adventure games where the player may click on some object causing its name to appear above it. In a game like Ultima Underworld the characters encountered are often allegorical expressions of virtues and vices, which can be relied upon to forever act according to their chosen principle, whether it be greed, vanity or pride. The slaughter of the last demon is indeed the only hope for a conclusion. Of course, if it was any different, if expectations were fulfilled or demons took a break, then the game would cease. Computer games have a distinct difficulty in providing an adequate ending: nothing can quite fulfil the expectation of such a long task finished, especially because the conclusion so often jumps up arbitrarily before the player, not as the result of some supremely difficult task, but as the chance consequence of just another combination of key-presses. The ending is longed for but known in advance to be a let-down. The impetus to move onto the next thing is of course an accurate reflection of consumer fashion culture, both in playing the game itself and in the yearning for the next game with its attendant technical advances. A symptom of this is the fixation of the computer leisure magazines on previews which often dominate coverage of what is actually available.

As the boundaries of illusion are pushed back, and players' expectations follow suit, games very quickly become obsolete. Yesterday's state-of-the-art games are unplayable today since the act of imagination and involvement necessary is intimately tied to the progress of the technology at any particular moment. Constant amazement at the predictable improvement of hardware and software keeps players engaged. As we have seen, the current goal is utter illusionism. As a consequence, games become ever more immediate as in the interests of realism but also because of their dependence on films and television words are progressively abandoned in favour of pictures and speech, typing in favour of mouse and joystick movements, even when the former would be more efficient. Yet there are anomalies in this onward march of technical progress. It is ironic that those with sophisticated machines running Windows (that most profligate of operating systems) are now treated to a reprise of some of the crudest early games, running in little frames.[33] The advantage of Windows for the employee is of course that its multi-tasking system is ideal for playing, say, Asteroids at work while pretending to be working on a spreadsheet since the two can be quickly switched between. The increasing dominance of the `Graphical User Interface' over text-based systems may be partly due to the general trends towards visuality and illiteracy in the culture, but it is comforting also that the great popularity of Windows may be owed to the ease with which one can cheat on one's employers.[34] The irony is that employees fool their bosses only to engage in a simulacrum of work. Many of the points of critique which have been examined here, and many of the aspects of computer gaming which are most obviously allegorical, are the product of technical limitations manifested in framing devices, pauses in the action, the fragmentation and repetition of characters and objects. These allegorical forms will probably decay as the medium advances leaving a seamless, apparently natural face which nevertheless conceals an uncompromising allegorical structure: the mapping of plot onto structure and the disguise of economy behind aggressive heroism.

A Utopian Apocalypse

According to Robert X. Cringely, the documenter of Silicon Valley mores, awkward, alienated adolescents founded the microcomputer industry:

[...] they split off and started their own culture, based on the completely artificial but totally understandable rules of computer architecture. They defined, built and controlled (and still control) an entire universe in a box an electronic universe of ideas rather than people where they made all the rules, and could at last be comfortable.[35]

Social dissatisfaction is certainly inherent in the alternative realities of the game world, and fantasy scenarios often refer to contemporary problems. The well-known Ultima games, for instance, definitely have a liberal agenda, confronting problems of pollution, drug addiction, racism and religious fundamentalism. The idea that a single individual is able to rectify such problems is of course a deeply ingrained part of Hollywood ideology and if the real world's problems are too intractable, why not go to a `place' where they are not? The ambition behind these games is to create a new world and this time to do it right, to make something which is much better, much worse or at least less tedious than reality. The scenario is more often dystopian than utopian, but at least dystopia is not boring. Computer games, whether offering images of heaven or hell, may be seen as the desires for and fears of an imagined history.

Benjamin thought that in games of chance, the player empathises directly with the sums bet, paving the way for an empathy with exchange value itself.[36] Computer games which, as we have seen, form an ideal image of the market system, obviously serve this same function, but also have a wider ambit. The action of the player is a disturbing reflection of relations which hold true, but remain largely hidden, in the real world. In an ironic simulation of political and military power, the player is accorded an objectifying force and apes those in power, manipulating realistic forms which are actually numbers, rather than manipulating figures which are actually people. Computer games present a precise, reversed reflection of the preoccupations and even the techniques of capitalist power. Marx and Benjamin arrived at widely differing analyses of the nature of phantasmagoria,[37] but the computer game apparently simulates them both. The virtual world is a dream of an alternative, complete and consistent reality in Benjamin's terms, while the cloaking of economy with chrome conforms to Marx's account of the camouflage of actual relations. What, though, is the utopian dream concealed by, if we are to allow the game as phantasmagoria in Benjamin's sense? This is a delicate question since to the outsider the answer would certainly be behind violence and objectification. So for those looking on, simulated `real' relations mask utopian dreams, while for the initiate it is the dream which masks economy. Here simulation is the most crucial factor: in the establishment of virtual commodities, exchange and objectification, and even base and superstructure relations, the game creates an ideal structure in which all these elements are harmoniously united.

Computer gaming is no longer the affair of a small minority, nor are the programs written by amateurs in the hours after school. Major companies are involved, deploying substantial development budgets to create games which involve the participation not only of programmers but of writers, actors, artists and musicians. The specific form and ideology of computer games are, then, of much wider concern than the examination of the mores of a narrow and obsessed male-dominated group. Indeed players are decreasingly defined by gender or even age.[38] The advent of virtual reality, which will have profound effects on our culture, has its basis in the methods and the ethos of computer gaming. Current computer games are already emulating virtuality in their use of first-person perspectives, and their obsessions with space, speed and flight. In their structure and content, computer games are a capitalist and deeply conservative form of culture. Their political content is proscribed by the options open to democracy under contemporary capitalism, that is from those with liberal pretensions to those which are openly fascistic. All of them offer the virtual consumption of empty forms in an ideal market. By confining the ideal forms of work and exchange to the digital world, computer games might appear to offer an implicit critique of post-industrial societies where these ideals are no longer on offer. Actually, they only conform to the views of the propagandists who say that work is always available and that opportunity can always be grasped, that the system is in fact ideal but for the laziness and stupidity of those who people it. Computer games do set out to give the player an escape into a world of certainty and fulfilment, yet they merely echo the past forms of industrial work in an ideal, nostalgic vision of the marketplace.

The technology of computer leisure is not consciously controlled by politicians or captains of industry, but driven by market forces, and conditioned by the parameters of the computer industry's links with the military. Nevertheless, these games exhibit a dialectic of increasing naturalism and objectification which leads to an ever greater concealment of the latter behind the former, to an ever greater blurring of the use of people as instruments in the world and the game. Computer gaming often produces an extreme social atomisation of the players; because of the fragmentary and episodic nature of the activity, it is very difficult to relate the experience of it to anyone else even if they know the game. All that can be recounted are the scores. This is all the more so because forgetting is an essential part of the operation of the market, vital to the rapid obsolescence of any particular game, the unplayability of old games and the impetus of fashion. There is a shadowy ambition behind the concept of the virtual world to have everyone safely confined to their homes, hooked up to sensory feedback devices in an enclosing, interactive environment which will be a far more powerful tool of social control than television.

The aspects of computer gaming I have chosen to examine allegory, fashion and reification are all related. Allegory is manifest in a double sense: there is an allegory of plot (where spatial structure is mapped onto temporal progress) and of action (where the absolute of death is laid over with a structure of trading and economy). Allegory is linked to fashion because of its fragmentation of the image into elements, and fashion is like objectification because of the fungibility of its elements, in that there is no restriction on the number or type of combination allowed. Fashion is an endless and circular process which runs through all the possible sequences of a fragmented ensemble, as in the autonomous rising and falling of hemlines or hair lengths, like the ebb and flow of waves on a shore. Memory and fashion are also linked since, as we have seen, there must be a constant forgetting of meaning which leaves only the husk of forms. There is clearly also a connection between allegory and objectification, for allegorical characters are empty shells, not creatures but remorseless robots, absolute embodiments of the principle they serve. Like Max Ernst's painting The Angel of Hearth and Home, a premonition of the demon of Fascism unleashed on Europe, or the robot in Terminator they proceed inexorably towards their goal, incidentally trampling everything in their path. For Benjamin, dialectical thinking is embodied in the current epoch dreaming of the next: `Each epoch not only dreams the next, but also, in dreaming, strives towards the moment of waking'.[39] While the old arcade culture perhaps produced dreams of the collapse of commodification and an ideal glass architecture, behind the strained heroics of the computer game lies another dream, which takes cluster bombing for spectacle and slaughter for heroics, a dream of the apocalypse, of instrumentalisation, of forgetting, and of mechanical stupidity. It contains both the bright metallic environment of a brave, new world, and the nightmare spaces of Piranesi's dungeons, identified with Utopia and apocalypse respectively, but each embracing elements of the other. It also holds a dark fantasy of bio-mechanics, where the exchange and manipulability of digital elements are mapped back onto the human body itself. Finally, it is a dream of dreaming itself, invading subjectivity at a very deep level, and producing manufactured memories and dreams which are so powerful because they are based on simulated action.

Adorno, writing of high culture, described how works of art are `not just allegories, but the catastrophic fulfilment of allegories', in which the most recent art appears as a shocking `explosion' which consumes appearance and the aesthetic itself. Even this form is appropriated by computer games which, despite their fake realism, also, `As they burn up in appearance, they depart in a glare from empirical life', being life's antithesis. Adorno concludes, `Today art is hardly conceivable except as an orientation anticipating the apocalypse.'[40] Adorno's pessimistic belief that the cultural means of Fascism were adopted by those in the West who helped defeat it, has obvious relevance to the computer game's militaristic glorification, knowing employment of myth, and relentless objectification. In these games there is a tenebrous dance of the utopian and the apocalyptic, an ambiguity which it is tempting to resolve by saying that they present the apocalypse as Utopia. If this is so, it is because the absolutes of destruction and death are sought as an escape from the virtuality and artificiality of everyday life. While this is only achieved in a digital simulation, its effects may spill back into the real world. The defining image in all this comes, not from any game, but naturally enough from a blockbuster film, Terminator 2; it is the jarring crunch of human skulls under the bright chrome of a robot foot.