Virtually Conservative

Most video games—in which you accumulate stuff and/or dominate the world—are the opposite of progressive.

Michael Atkinson

Another day at the console, Call of Duty-style.

The numbers are daunting. The Entertainment Software Association reports that in 2009, 68 percent of American households played video games. According to Grabstats, 41 percent of all video gaming involves mission/​action/​narrative and enacted violence, while 47 percent of gaming (mostly by older people) involves solitaire, word games and the like.

Video gaming is about control. Your participation is restricted to steering and maintaining the narrative flow, altering the course of the story, eliminating hindrances (monsters, or human antagonists) and generally being the only significant individual anywhere in the game.

The dollars spent annually on games (to play on consoles or PCs) and on online memberships (to persistent”-environment games like World of Warcraft) routinely exceed the revenues of the American film industry. Halo 3, the 2007 best-seller, took in more revenue in its first day of sales than Spider Man 3, the highest grossing movie debut as of 2007.

Concerns about how video gaming will impact pre-adolescent and adolescent development is understandably pervasive; a 2007 Psychiatric Times article found that it was unusual for boys to rarely or never play video games; just 8 percent of boys played for less than an hour per week.”

Adults watch children shotgunning on-screen avatars or wrecking cars in high-speed chases or chainsawing aliens’ limbs off, and we get queasy – especially when we come back in a few hours and the child hasn’t moved from the couch. But the relationship players have to the virtual mayhem, and the narrative worlds that encompass it, is far from simple. Despite scores of studies, psychologists have reached no consensus about whether violent gaming is a pernicious training experience, a healthful catharsis, or a little of both.

The ultimate impact so much gaming will have may be unforeseeable, even as our culture is subsumed by meta-activities long predicted in the fiction of Philip K. Dick. But nobody asks about the politics of the form, the thrust of social meaning inherent in the activity and in the software. In the future, virtual entertainment may take a vast variety of forms, but right now, the real money is spent on shooting games (first person or third person), like Doom, Halo and Call of Duty, or omnipotent strategy games like SimCity, Civilization and FarmVille (a Facebook application reportedly played by about 1 percent of the world’s population).

Either way, video gaming is about control. Your participation is restricted to steering and maintaining the narrative flow, altering the course of the story, using the environment for your ends, eliminating hindrances (monsters, or human antagonists) and generally being the only significant individual anywhere in the game. You are either the shooter Attila or the society-ruling God, the one-man plague or the orchestrator of a greed-based system.

Absorbing a narrative in a film or on TV or in a stage play involves observation but also an exchange of empathy, anticipation, authorial intent and thematic meaning. Playing a game is more single-minded – you dominate the world, accumulate the goods and safeguard your own ass – one way or another.

In this sense, most video games are infantile in nature, and inherently conservative. Think of them as individuated modes of authority disguised as either an escape from authority (the Tea Party esprit) or as benevolent dictatorship (in Spore, you get to control an organism’s evolution, which isn’t evolution, of course, but deism). At the core of the medium is the lust for and the rewards of unfettered control. These are the primitive precepts of conservatism as it’s practiced in the modern world. Whether they realize it or not, devotees of the free market” (who now resemble Jehovah’s Witnesses failing to predict the world’s end over and over again) are players of a vast gaming schema – a world that they maintain is free” yet long to dominate.

The one paradigm that differs from this pattern – the ostensibly egalitarian MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) such as World of Warcraft and Ultima – is just as solipsistic, if impossible for an individual to control. You participate in a vast social web, but only in conflict or in commerce. Apparently, this mechanical Zeitgeist has no room for a democratic idea or a genuine social impulse. Profit and power dominate the players’ modus operandi. MMORPG players can buy virtual currency with real money, instigating a subindustry in which (largely Asian) wage slaves work” in the game for a real employer, accumulating non-existent yet resalable gold and valuables. (In 2008, the BBC reported a richly equipped avatar was itself sold from one player to another for 5,000 £.)

Could there be such a thing as a progressive virtual game”? Or is a responsible, sustainable perspective the antithesis to immersive role-playing experiences? Let’s hope not, because virtuality is one of the largest and fastest-growing modes of human occupation on the planet. We should figure out how communal politics can be expressed in this medium, to say the least – before our culture completely morphs into one all-encompassing dog-eat-dog meta-landscape, and only the conscience-less survive.

Michael Atkinson is a film reviewer for In These Times. He has written or edited many books, including Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (2008) and the mystery novels Hemingway Deadlights (2009) and Hemingway Cutthroat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Conduct.
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