Written by Frederik van Dam
On Tuesday 7 June, the student association of the Arts and Culture Studies programme hosted a symposium on the relationship between art and pleasure. Invited to share a few thoughts, I thought I’d escape the confines of my home territory – literary studies – and talk about an art form that continues to exert a particular fascination, the art of videogames. I thought that it might be worthwhile to rehearse my ideas on this electronic art form, but I must confess that I am not an expert in the field of videogames studies (or ‘ludology’ more broadly). My only hope is to show that an investigation into videogames from the point of view of cultural theory forms a profitable line of enquiry. To give these musings some coherence, I will focus on the genre of the so-called ‘first-person walker’, a genre that differs from the popular ‘first-person shooter’ (think Far Cry and Call of Duty) insofar as interactions are minimized, movement speed is slowed down, and interface elements are removed.
Before moving to this particular genre, we might want to begin by reflecting on the relationship between games and pleasure. For many people, games are a guilty pleasure: apparently easy to enjoy and, after a hard night’s playing, even easier to regret. We may have misgivings about the time that is wasted playing games, but one might argue that time is also wasted – albeit in a different way – when reading novels, watching films, or being engaged in conversation with friends: in all these occupations, we are imaginatively immersing ourselves in an imaginative world. Still, even talking about games seems to cause a sense of shame that these other imaginative pastimes do not.
To understand the causes of this sense of pleasure mingled with shame, one might turn to Sigmund Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle (Jenseits des Lustprinzips 1920). In this text, Freud tackles various negative drives by which the ‘normal’ working of our mental lives is disrupted. One of these drives is the compulsion to repeat, which is characteristic of traumatic neurosis. In his examination of this compulsion, Freud describes a game played by his grandson Ernest. As the following image from Anne Simon and Corinne Maier’s Freud: An Illustrated Biography (2013) nicely shows, Ernest would throw objects out of his cot and then reel them back in. Left to his own devices, because his father had gone to the front and his mother had other duties to attend to, this game occupied him for hours on end. Freud posits that Ernest’s compulsion to repeat is a good example of displacement: the object’s disappearance reenacts his mother’s disappearance. In other words, the young boy plays the game because it allows him to imagine his mother’s departure and eventual return, thus giving him the pleasurable experience of representation and imitation. Probing into the origins of this sense of pleasure, Freud offers two interrelated explanations that complicate what may seem an innocent hypothesis. On the one hand, Freud reflects that the game allows the boy to assert a level of control that he does not have in reality, thus transforming him from victim to master of the situation. On the other hand, Freud speculates that the child may be trying to articulate a vengeful, aggressive response that he must repress in ordinary life, that of actively rejecting his mother. Freud’s theory, then, offers us at least one reason why we play videogames: to immerse ourselves in substitute worlds from which we are normally excluded and where, possibly, we can act our aggressive, destructive instincts.
One could refer to many popular videogame genres, from action-adventure series such as the Grand Theft Auto or strategy games such as the Total War franchise, to see how these instincts are given a free rein. Although the slow pace of first-person walkers suggests that walkers do not – or at least not as obviously – have such an appeal, they do feature the pleasure of mimesis. The Stanley Parable (2013), for instance, features an office worker whose world is suddenly transformed. As the game begins, a voice-over describes how, suddenly, everybody seems to have left:
This is the story of a man named Stanley. Stanley worked for a company in a big building where he was Employee #427. Employee #427’s job was simple: he sat at his desk in Room 427 and he pushed buttons on a keyboard. Orders came to him through a monitor on his desk telling him what buttons to push, how long to push them, and in what order. This is what Employee #427 did every day of every month of every year, and although others may have considered it soul rending, Stanley relished every moment that the orders came in, as though he had been made exactly for this job. And Stanley was happy. And then one day, something very peculiar happened. Something that would forever change Stanley; something he would never quite forget. He had been at his desk for nearly an hour when he had realized not one single order had arrived on the monitor for him to follow. No one had shown up to give him instructions, call a meeting, or even say ‘hi’. Never in all his years at the company had this happened, this complete isolation. Something was very clearly wrong. Shocked, frozen solid, Stanley found himself unable to move for the longest time. But as he came to his wits and regained his senses, he got up from his desk and stepped out of his office.
Stanley is caught in a position of abject captivity. Like Sisyphus, he seems to be caught in a cycle of never-ending repetitions, pushing buttons all day long without any kind of creativity or originality, making his actions resemble what Freud would call a neurosis. But just as Ernest’s act of throwing stuff out of his cot is an (ultimately futile) assertion of power, so Stanley is given the opportunity to challenge the orders that he is given. As Stanley begins his journey, the voice of the nameless ‘Narrator’ is his only companion, and it is in the negotiations with the Narrator that the game’s pleasure resides: the Narrator describes what Stanley is supposed to do, but the player can decide to disobey these commands and to do the opposite – or even nothing at all. When the player is faced with a choice between two doors, for instance, and the Narrator says that Stanley “entered the door on his left,” the player is free to take the right door, thus upsetting the Narrator. This dynamic illustrates Espen J. Aarseth’s foundational insight that players enjoy the “pleasure of influence,” in contrast to readers, whose pleasure is that of a voyeur: “Safe, but impotent.” As the game unravels, the story’s development is determined by the way in which the player responds to the Narrator’s instructions. Depending on these choices, the game features at least 19 endings. It is not too difficult to interpret the game’s dynamic from a psychoanalytical point of view: don’t we all want to disobey our fathers? But even though the player can make the Narrator’s blood boil, in the final analysis the Narrator is all-powerful: the player’s disobedience will make him feel the Narrator’s wrath. In order to reach the so-called Art Ending, for instance, the player must press a button to save a carton-board child from being burnt for 4 hours; midway through this game, “in a moment of rapture,” the Narrator introduces a second button, with which the player must simultaneously save a puppy from being lowered into a bucket filled with piranhas. And this kind of game, the Narrator ironically claims, is what videogames may mean as a true art form. Clearly, one might say that the pleasure to engage in this kind of interaction is masochistic.
Not all first-person walkers lend themselves to this kind of Freudian perspective, however. In Infra (2016), for instance, you play as Markku ‘Mark’ Siltanen, a structural analyst and engineer, who is tasked with mapping and fixing the faulty infrastructure of the fictional city of Stalburg. To fully grasp Infra’s originality as a walker, it is instructive to compare it with Half-Life (1998), a first-person shooter which revolutionized the genre, and to which Infra alludes in numerous ways (not least in utilizing the ‘Source’ engine that was developed for its successor, Half-Life 2, which is also used in The Stanley Parable; both games originated as so-called mods). In Half-Life, you are put in the shoes of Gordon Freeman, a physicist employed at the Black Mesa facility. As the first chapter proceeds, you engage in small talk, ruin your colleagues’ lunch, and don the Hazardous Environment Suit (also referred to as the Mark IV suit, whose name the eponymous hero of Infra also alludes to). But when Freeman pushes a new and promising mineral sample into the Anti-Mass Spectrometer’s plasma stream, a resonance cascade occurs, and various aliens are allowed to invade planet earth. Accompanied by many energetic techno tracks, Gordon battles (and occasionally thinks) his way through armies of aliens and human soldiers, travels to another dimension, and ends up floating through space in a railway carriage. Mark Siltanen’s adventure is not as spectacular. Like Half-Life and like The Stanley Parable, the game begins in an office, where Mark must retrieve his gear and car-keys. As Mark travels to the Hammer Valley Dam, the game ironically teases the player as Mark stops and exits the car, playing the last snatches of some fast-paced techno before replacing these with the sounds of a purling river and rustling leaves. Although there are moments of excitement in the game, as when a tunnel system collapse and Mark must escape, Infra does not rely on thrills. Mark’s main task is to inspect infrastructural damage with his camera, collect spare batteries, fix faulty machines – and, along the way, uncover the conspiracy that led to the dilapidated condition of the industrial environment (from which, as in The Stanley Parable, humans are strangely absent; although we see some co-workers in the first chapter, the main other voice that we hear is that of Mark’s boss, with whom he occasionally telephones). Clearly, this game creates pleasure in a different way: the job of a physicist handling extraterrestrial material is more exciting than that of an engineer charged with the task of surveying faulty bridges, mills, and powerplants. In short, while the pleasure of mimesis is there, the possibility of ‘taking revenge’, and of pretending to be more powerful than you really are, is minimized. Where, then, does the pleasure of Infra reside?
To come close to an answer, it is helpful to look at the theory of gaming developed by Walter Benjamin, who builds on Freud’s ideas but also subverts them. According to Michael Powers, Benjamin suggests that “the child enjoys each repetition in a singular manner, each time as uniquely and differently from the last.” In his Berlin Chronicle, Benjamin describes how this childlike gaze, constantly on the lookout for differences and similarities, finds correspondences between the world described by stories and the material layout of signs on the page: “The rapture with which you received a new book, scarcely venturing a fleeting glance between its pages, was that of the guest invited for a few weeks to a mansion and hardly daring to dart a glance of admiration at the long suites of ceremonial rooms through which he must pass to reach his quarters.” In the transition from childhood to adulthood, this kind of attention to the differences within repetitions is turned into numb habituation. The promise of play, then, lies in the way in which it offers these moments of childlike creativity to reappear. Infra allows the player to find such moments: the game’s slow pace and the minimalism of its interface shift the player’s attention from the game to the audiovisual environment. The result is similar to the joy of knowledge encountered in real-life urban exploration, a practice that is symbiotic with videogames, as Luke Bennett points out: “There is a search for the ‘big picture’, in a sense of understanding how the physical world, and in particular its vital but rarely noticed infrastructure, works.”
While these analyses are in no way meant to be conclusive, I do hope that they illustrate how first-person walkers create particular kinds of pleasure that differ from the addictive thrill that is often associated with videogames. The experimental ways in which The Stanley Parable and Infra modify and play with the conventions of the genre of the first-person shooter make players adopt a more reflexive attitude, towards the form of the game as well as towards the real-life world which these games imitate. The desire to ‘beat’ an opponent is replaced with a more open-ended desire to explore what the world has to offer. I would like to close by suggesting at least one more way in which these games create a certain kind of rapture: given that they both use a an engine and thus a kind of aesthetic that dates back to a period in my life when I still had time to play games, they are also suffused with nostalgia, the pleasure of lingering on the dreams of another place and another time.
With thanks to KNUS for the invitation to participate in the colloquium and to László Munteán for sharing his insights about the pleasures of urban exploration.
Benjamin, Walter. “Berlin Chronicle.” Selected Writings, edited by Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith, translated by Rodney Livingstone and others, vol. 2, part 2, Belknap Press, 1999, pp. 595–637.
Bennett, Luke. “Bunkerology: A Case Study in the Theory and Practice of Urban Exploration.” EPD: Society and Space, volume 29, 2011, pp. 421–434
Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, edited by James Strachey, Hogarth Press, 1953–74. 24 vols.
Half-Life. Sierra Studios, 1998.
Infra. Loiste Interactive, 2016.
Muscat, Alexander. “Ambiguous Worlds: Understanding the Design of First-Person Walker Games.” 2018, RMIT University, PhD dissertation.
Powers, Michael. “The Smallest Remainder: Benjamin and Freud on Play.” MLN, vol. 133, nr. 3, April 2018, pp. 720–742.
The Stanley Parable. Galactic Cafe, 2013.