• Olivier Mauco

The self wich is not me. Utopia and ideology in videogames

2007 / Droit, Économie, Politique / Article

Videogames as a utopia can incarnate player desire. But Utopia is here to hide the ideological component. The self in videogames is a utopian form, structured by ideology of communication and libertarianism

Like television, videogames are settled in a particular space between reality and imaginary, the “interworld” [1] as says Lucien Sfez. Images are real, in one hand they appear on the screen. We cannot deny their existence. But in second hand they are a production, they must be produced by the game designer. Thus, imaginary is incarnated in images, so the player does not have to make the reconstruction effort. He can only dispose, play with the representations.

Because a message is a production, every message can be ideological, which doesn’t mean every message is ideological. Particularly, I would like to add that ideology establishes domination relations. But, videogames should be distinguished from other media. When you play you interact with the message, you receive it by the system of interaction. You are told to be active and not passive.

So, videogames are structured by two logics. The first one deals with the system of representations, the second one deals with the system of individual action, the “gameplay”, in another terms the way it can be played. Both of them are defined by the videogames producers.

You can only evolve in a predefined system, you can only choose between possibilities. This conception is closed to capitalist ideology based on supply and demand logics. Because the player can only choose and cannot create, their acts are structured by ideology. The videogames control system is an ideological production.

When the player chooses his avatar, he doesn’t create it, he is not free. When he plays, he must respect the rules, and have to learn the game play. That’s how the self can be structured ideologically. Moreover, the described world is ideological ; it means that it draws the ways of domination, how you can get stronger, richer. Because this world is very closed, out of space and time, we can consider it as a utopia.

According to Louis Althusser [2] , Ideology interpellates individual as a subject. So we are going to present how videogames contribute to an interpellation process. This ideological process will redefine the individual not in a social perspective, but in an individualist way.

Firstly, we will see how ideology will use utopia, as a possible means to break social belongings. Secondly, we will try to define what kind of ideology structures videogames.

I) Videogames as a utopia : loosing my self and rebirth

The second-self construction

Videogames as a utopia

Utopia suggests a hypothetic world in the reign of the reason and science. Everything is under control, the social relationships are rationalized. There is no place for the whims of fate.

Videogames as a computing production, establish a world well-organized. Videogames as a game are determined by rules which cannot be violated. To enter videogames you have to accept all conditions, the rules, the way it will be play, the whole universe.

As the traveller abandons his identity in Utopia, the first step to play videogames is loosing your self to become a player.

Character construction

Most of game proposes to construct your character, especially role playing games like Oblivion, World of Warcraft, even on-line community as Second Life, etc. I prefer to use the term construct than create, because we will see that the player only choose between different possibilities.

- Choosing your racial belongings. This is generally the first step. You can choose to be a human or something more exotic like alien, elves, or “frogs”. This will reduce your possibilities. Some races are better than others at close-combat, or at magic.
- Choosing your profession. In this part you choose your class, it means you decide to belong to a particular corporation like warriors, magicians.
- Choosing your gender. Here you decide if you want to be a male or a female. We won’t try to make a psychological analyse, that would lead us to conclude on a projection of your fantasies.
- Choosing your appearance. I could notice that players spend a lot of time here. This is quite funny to see how you could look like : Taller or smaller, fat or slim, brown eyes, long hairs, etc.

The triumph of reason

technical process and a utopian form

This choice is a technical process. The designers make what we can call a self tree. When you choose some specialisation in one level, this will reduce the possibilities to the other level. The self representation is a combination of different criterions. This construction process is a rationalisation of the human being. Here identity is just a combination of criterions. There is no place for the social, cultural, political context.

Technical trees

When the player doesn’t incarnate an avatar, he can be a commander or a god. For example in real-time strategy games, you must develop buildings that can produce units, ships, etc. The prioritization of tasks reveals the scientific organisation. You can’t get to the higher level jumping the steps.

Naturalisation process

Videogames offer a world where technology is a part of the environment. Your body can be enhanced by armours, items. When you add a special item to your avatar, a skill can be improved : you can get more magical resources ; you can be quicker, etc. You must acquire technological items to evolve in the game. It is a matter of death or life. The one who doesn’t have efficient armour will die, event if his natural skills are on top. You need this second skin.

Then, practising a world where technology is presented like a natural element, as it would have forever been here, contributes to the naturalisation process of technology. Technology is not good or bad, it’s a natural need.

As a utopia, videogames founds their conceptions of the world on scientific applications, a rationalisation of social relationships. As it is defined by Christian Marouby : “subjecting his ideal world to the reason empire, utopia just only reflects the values and longings from its time. It constitutes his imaginary model.” [3]

We should say that videogames are a kind of preview of the society project. Let’s have a look about those theories.

II) Communication and libertarian ideologies

Ideological statements : communication, computing, technology

Communication ideology supposes that everything is a matter of relationship. This ideology puts down roots in Norbert Wiener’s cybernetic conception. After World War 2, scientists were discredited : atomic bomb, concentration camps, etc. In his book The use of human beings, Wiener dreamed of a new world where man could be transparent and rational. Communication would be his main activity ; the human being was presented as a Homo Communicans. In this perspective, the interiority, the self must be damned replaced by a transparent self.

According to this conception, videogames introduce the figure of the modern man. As defined by Philippe Breton in The communication utopia : “Ideal modern man is a human being without required filiation, entirely information therefore without body.” [4] The player uses is numeric double, the “second-self” described by Sherry Turkle. This second-self is not a human being, just a projection of the player’s desires conditioned by ideological device. It is an ideological conception of what should be human being. In videogames freedom is a belief, an illusion.

The avatar is a subject of action and communication. It is made from a scientific conception of human being, like the sum of criterions. There is no place for secret. You can control everything, struggle against the fate. Furthermore, video games claim you are the fate. This can be understood as an ideological conception because it defines domination relations : setting the self against the system, where everyone can be the master, control the universe.

All those way of playing are part of an individual process. You must control the system in order to win. Let’s see how you can acquire this power.

From a capitalist system to libertarian ideology

How to control the system : accumulation and specialisation

The easier way to win is to get stronger. For getting stronger you need to accumulate power, in a capitalist meaning. Let’s take a look at Guild wars a multi-massive on-line role-playing game (MMORPG)

- You can collect items. The more you get, the more you can get money to buy a better weapon or armour. This is an important part of the pleasure. Lots of players are collectors, because it satisfies their need and willing of power which is a game imperative. This logic is present in every game, except RTS.

- In role playing game, the experience system is a statistic calculation. You have to play in a specific way to increase your skills. For example a warrior should practice the sword more than magic. It is very hard to be well-balanced, because the game does not allow it. (If you want to be good at sword and magic you can only be a middle player, because you do not have enough experience points. Then, you cannot use all the skills in the same time, you must choose before fighting and you have only 8 possibilities.)

Videogames are capitalist in their game play. It is an initiation to resources management, and then some researches try to demonstrate how videogames can teach fundamentals requirements in business.

Utilitarian

The self is omnipotent ; you have the whole power to save the world. In some games you could need help from other players (for example in MMORPG) or from avatars in solo games. But this help is not for free. You will use the others.

- In guild wars, you can set up a group to accomplish the quest, but when the mission is over, the group ends. This kind of relationship is utilitarian ; the group interest is the sum of all individual interests

- In Grand Theft Auto, the hero uses the other gangsters in order to reach of the top of the social ladder. When he gets there, he kills all his partners.

From capitalism to libertarianism

From an economical point of view, which is maybe a little bit simplistic, libertarian ideology can be defined as an individual understanding of liberalism. Freedom is the rule, self-satisfaction the goal. Let’s see how videogames are libertarian in many ways :

- Self property : your player is yours. Nobody can use you. Freedom is the imperative, even if it is an illusion.
- Private property : everything you earn is for you. Most of the games propose to accumulate everything to get stronger. You can even be a thief. The world is yours
- The man who acts : videogames consecrate the action. Playing is acting ; fighting against the world is your leitmotiv. Everything legitimates the action, the mission goal, the necessity to evolve.
- Uses of violence. You can use violence when violence has been engaged. Main stories begin with a murder, a crime which must be repaired. In Guild Wars the world has been destroyed. In Oblivion the Emperor was killed. In Grand Theft Auto you were betrayed. The use of violence against the player will legitimate the use of violence against the environment.

Notes

[1] Sfez (Lucien), L’utopie de la santé parfaite, colloque de Cerisy, 2001

[2] Voir à ce sujet : Althusser (Louis), « Idéologie et appareils idéologiques d’Etat », in Althusser (Louis), Sur la reproduction, Puf, 1995, page 297 : « ce n’est pas leurs conditions d’existence réelles, leur mode de vie réel, que les « hommes » « se représentent » dans l’idéologie, mais avant tout leur rapport à ces conditions d’existence qui leur y est présenté. » page 305 : « Nous suggérons alors que l’idéologie « agit » ou « fonctionne » de telle sorte qu’elle « recrute » des sujets parmi les individus (elle les recrute tous), ou « transforme » les individus en sujet (elle les transforme tous) par cette opération très précise que nous appelons l’interpellation. »

[3] Marouby (Christian), Utopie et primitivisme, Seuil, page 87

[4] Breton (Philippe), L’utopie de la communication, La découverte, 1997, page 98