Worldplay: Reflections upon the Global Reality Game

Alec Charles


It takes a while for any discipline or medium rigorously to embrace prevalent theoretical perspectives. When, for example, cinema and television scholars first turned their thoughts to matters theoretical, their meditations retained a positivism, an optimism and even a naivety apparently out of step with a dominant mood of risk and problematization.
Videogame theory is, like its focus of study (and to some extent its subject’s audience), still in its adolescence, if not its infancy, and is therefore even now still coming to terms (and to grips) with the complexities of its postmodernist and deconstructionist heritage. For the most part (although not entirely), it maintains unfashionable notions of realism and intentionalism, and often appears ahistorical or apolitical (rather than post-historical or post-political). Like those web sociologists who have proclaimed a new age of electronic democracy, its cyberoptimism makes Marshall McLuhan’s 1964 predictions of an epistemologically egalitarian global village (which transcends the alienation, homogenization and hegemonization brought into being by a mechanical division of labour) seem almost cynical. This paper attempts to begin to address, if not quite to bridge, this metaphysical gap.

Terry Eagleton (1996: 190) has suggested that cultural theory can be interpreted as a response to the encroaching collapse or decadence of its object of analysis: ‘Theory of a grand kind tends to break out when routine social or intellectual practices have come unstuck […]. The emergence of theory is the moment when a practice begins to curve back upon itself, so as to scrutinize its own conditions of possibility, and since this is in any fundamental way impossible […] theory is always in some sense a self-defeating enterprise.’

It may be that the relative youth of its medium still immunizes videogame criticism against this moribund self-absorption. Nevertheless, insofar as each new cultural discipline – literary studies, film studies, media studies – has adopted the rigours of political, psychoanalytic and philosophical theory with increasing degrees of speed and enthusiasm, one suspects that it will not be long before the eager optimism of videogame theory matures into a problematic mode of self-scrutinizing complexity. Yet if this stage of intellectual development will merely serve to shift an adolescent narcissism in the direction of its own onanistic senescence, one might add (not without a note of hypocrisy) that this may not necessarily be such a wonderful thing.

1. War / film

They used to turn wars into movies. Now they turn movies into wars.

Jean Baudrillard (1988: 49) wrote of Vietnam as a ‘television war’ – but Vietnam also of course eventually became a cinematic war, a war primarily recalled in the popular imagination by such films as The Deer Hunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), Platoon (1986) and Full Metal Jacket (1987). Another postmodern conflict, Operation Restore Hope, America’s vain attempt to bring order to Somalia in 1992-93, also began as an event staged for the TV cameras (even to the extent that the Pentagon consulted CNN on the scheduling of the U.S. landings in Mogadishu), and ended up as a film by Ridley Scott: a five-month military debacle immortalized as Black Hawk Down (2001).

There is nothing new in this. What appears to be new, and extraordinary, is the opposite process: the translation not of wars into media events but of media events into wars. John Simpson’s celebrated liberation of Kabul on behalf of the BBC (on 19 November 2001) and Donald Rumsfeld’s announcement (on 17 February 2006) that newsrooms had become crucial battlefields in the ‘War on Terror’ are two notorious examples of the complicity and convergence of the media and the military. As Jean Baudrillard (2005: 77) wrote: ‘If we understand war for what it is today […] namely a violent acculturation to the world order, then the media and images are part of the Integral Reality of war. They are the subtler instrument of the same homogenization by force.’

Ronald Reagan’s abortive Star Wars programme stands as a landmark moment in this process – the Hollywood President’s Hollywood apocalypse – a tableau echoed in George W. Bush’s cowboy diplomacy and in his administration’s use of Hollywood filmmakers as imagineers and worst-case-scenarists.

It has often been pointed out that 9/11 looked like a Hollywood movie. Indeed the events of 11 September 2001 have already lent themselves to a number of film adaptations, including Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center (2006) and Paul Greengrass’s United 93 (2006). Slavoj Žižek (2002: 15) has suggested that ‘the shots of the collapsing towers could not but be reminiscent of the most breathtaking scenes in big catastrophe productions.’ In an article published in The Times on 12 September 2001, Michael Gove wrote that ‘the scenario of a Tom Clancy thriller or Spielberg blockbuster was now unfolding live on the world’s television screens.’ The events of that day were especially reminiscent of one particular Tom Clancy blockbuster, a novel entitled Debt of Honour (1994), a narrative which climaxes when a terrorist crashes a civilian airliner into Washington. (It seems no coincidence that CNN chose to interview Tom Clancy during its live coverage of the attacks on the WTC.)

Six months prior to the catastrophe of 2001, the debut episode of the Fox TV science fiction series The Lone Gunmen (a short-lived spin-off from The X-Files) had depicted a terrorist attempt to crash a hijacked airliner into the World Trade Center itself. The prism of 9/11 – Tony Blair’s geopolitical ‘kaleidoscope’ (2 October 2001) – thus comes to re-envision all history in its own image. This paradigm shift reinvents not only the present and future but also the past. Reality once became television: television now becomes reality.

2. Film / game

They used to turn films into videogames. Now they turn videogames into films.

From Super Mario Bros (game: 1985; film: 1993) to Tomb Raider (game: 1996; film: 2001), this phenomenon is evident enough. Every Hollywood blockbuster must have its own videogame, every studio its own games designers, and, every so often, every very successful game its own film.

When Francis Ford Coppola released Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1992, the film’s accompanying merchandise included, as well as a repackaged version of Stoker’s original novel, a novelisation (by Fred Saberhagen and James V. Hart) of James V. Hart’s screenplay. While the novel Dracula was written by Bram Stoker, the novel Bram Stoker’s Dracula was not. In a similar fashion, the release of Brian Gilbert’s film Wilde (1997) was accompanied by a reissue of Richard Ellmann’s 1989 biography: the book’s cover now featured, in place of a picture of Oscar Wilde himself, an image from the film of actor Stephen Fry in the guise of the great aesthete.

The book which inspired the film is subsumed to that film – and to the film’s own book; the latest media form parasitizes, and attempts to erase the traces of, its forebears. One can imagine a similar scenario in the contemporary interplay between cinema and videogame, a situation in which the film generates the videogame which generates the film which generates the videogame – in a potentially infinite series, from which any sense of origination or authenticity will eventually (like Benjamin’s aura) be lost.

This is Baudrillard’s model of contemporary reality: the relentless simulacrum, the copy (of a copy of a copy…) which has no original, the reflection (of a reflection of a reflection…) without any object; shadow without substance, signifier without signified; an endless chain of signification (as suggested by Peirce, Lacan, Derrida and Barthes) which never leads to any actual meaning. When, for example, Jean Baudrillard (2005: 27) welcomed his readers to the ‘Desert of the Real’, he was referring us to Slavoj Žižek’s 2002 book of that title; Žižek’s title of course points to a line of Laurence Fishburne’s in The Matrix (1999) – which is itself alluding to a phrase of Baudrillard’s (1994: 1), one from the opening page of Simulacra and Simulation – a text which itself appears in the Wachowski brothers’ film.

As both Jean Baudrillard and Andy and Larry Wachowski have implied, there is no longer any sense of the original, the authentic, the real; there is only an intertextuality, there is only the web. Conducting a Google image search on the word ‘Homer’, for instance, one might (on the first page of results) find two Greek poets alongside eighteen Homer Simpsons. (Indeed one study – reported on the BBC News website on 15 August 2006 – demonstrated that while 60 per cent of Americans knew that Homer Simpson’s son was called Bart, only 20 per cent were aware of The Iliad or The Odyssey.)

Originality and history ebb away, to be replaced by a culture, or a cult, of the mass-mediated, the superficial and the contemporary. Baudrillard used to argue that the simulacrum represented an alternative mode of reality; in his final works, however, he proposed that this virtuality no longer existed as such, that it had become so prevalent, so totalizing, that is was no longer virtual – it had become real. We have thus come to inhabit an unequivocally mediated reality: what Baudrillard (2005: 34) called ‘a world so real, hyperreal, operational and programmed that it no longer has any need to be true. Or rather it is true, absolutely true, in the sense that nothing any longer stands opposed to it.’

They have started turning videogames into films: but not merely in the sense of the Hollywood examples cited above. After all, those texts lack the true essence of the videogame: the illusion of interactivity, the myth of co-authorship, a narcissistic adolescent delusion which re-envisages the immutable, impersonal edifice of the game as an aspect of the gamer’s own personality or dreamwork – as if the player could somehow reconfigure the programmatic structure of the game, could escape its preprogrammed linearity (which is a multilinearity, but is still a linearity, and a finite one at that). This narcissism, so central to the gaming experience, cannot be recreated within the unilinear narrative constraints of the cinema film. Thus, when we come to look for the most faithful filmic adaptations of the videogame, versions which retain that defining narcissism, we find them not in the cinema, but on the Internet, the domain at once of self-love and of self-abuse (the realm of blogs and porn).

Those familiar with the video-sharing website YouTube may be aware of this phenomenon: the practice by which videogamers have edited together clips of – or merely recorded extensive swathes of – their gameplay, added music or voiceovers and credits to it, and posted it online as a ‘movie’. This practice has (thus far) reached its most extreme expression in Red vs. Blue (2003-2007), a 100-part narrative reconfiguration of the videogame Halo (2001). The experience of watching one of these gameplay films is nauseating: not only in the physical sense (like being a passenger in a drunken driver’s car) but also in existential terms: this is the Sartrean nausea which accompanies the realization of one’s own lack of control, the revelation that one’s feeling of control (of self-control) was only ever an illusion – that the experience of playing the game and of watching the game being played are, in the end, the same.

When the game becomes the film (the gameplay video), its inescapable parameters and its preprogramming become visible. The game’s self-proclaimed interactivity is not a case of co-authorship: the gamer is funnelled through a limited and limiting series of preset positions. The simulacrum of the videogame – as Louis Althusser (2006) would say – interpellates, constructs and delineates its citizen-user-consumers as avatars of its totalizing ideology.

The videogame, as today’s most potent mode of popular virtuality, comes therefore – in a world which has come to be defined by its own virtuality – to represent the ultimate structuration of reality. The apparent improvements in games graphics (the narrowing of the gap between reality and representation) are not merely a result of the virtual having become more real: they may also result from the real having become more (or totally) virtual. In 1982 Martin Amis published a study of videogames entitled Invasion of the Space Invaders – but today the iconic virtuality of the videogame, and specifically of the war game, no longer threatens to invade or overwhelm contemporary reality: today it is our reality – in a world which has been digitally remastered.

‘Everything,’ wrote Baudrillard (1988: 32), ‘is destined to reappear as simulation […] terrorism as fashion and the media, events as television. Things only seem to exist by virtue of this strange destiny. You wonder whether the world itself isn’t just here to serve as advertising copy in some other world.’

Or indeed whether our reality isn’t merely a media virtualization, a videogame version, of the real ‘real’ world…?

3. War / game

They used to turn wars into videogames. Now they turn videogames into wars.

This much should have been expected. New media follow the courses of older media – such as cinema or television. Raymond Williams (1989: 40), writing of the Malvinas Conflict, referred to television’s ‘antiseptic presentation of the images of war.’ Nine years later, the Gulf War’s emotionally sterile images of bombings – images captured by cameras mounted on warplanes, pictures which saturated the television coverage of that conflict – further diminished the human dimension of warfare, not only exposing a complicity of military and media perspectives, but conspicuously translating mass destruction into the visual idiom of the videogame.

Andrew Darley (2000: 31) supposes of videogames that ‘the dominant visual aesthetic of verisimilitude is now viewed as the main sign of success and progress within the form […] the illusion is […] of producing an experience that is as if one were actually taking part.’ Yet one is tempted to suggest that Darley’s argument might be inverted: that the verisimilitude of external reality may now be judged by its approximation to the virtual world (just as we have come to measure the reality and truth of real-world characters and situations by their similarities to those in fiction and popular drama). Media texts do not merely reflect reality: as John Fiske (1987: 21) suggests, they construct it. Haven’t Second Life and Half-Life come to represent a first and full life: a primary and comprehensive mode of existence against which we may now begin to judge external realities?

David Nieborg (2006) proposes that – although war games may be ‘based on certain aspects of “reality”’ – it is the case that ‘with current design principles war cannot be simulated in online multiplayer FPS games.’ Again, could we not invert this argument: could we not see that in our contemporary ‘society of […] the simulacrum’ – one which, according to Fredric Jameson (1991: 48), transforms ‘the “real” into so many pseudoevents’ – the videogame has become a crucial model and measure of the real? If, as Katherine Hayles (2000: 69) suggests, ‘virtuality is the condition millions of people now inhabit’, then could it not be expected that at the extremes of the real – in a time, for example, of totalizing war, a war against an abstract concept, the absurdist of all possible wars – we might begin to witness a situation in which, in the words of Geoff King and Tanya Krzywinska (2006: 200), ‘the distinction between reality and simulation might occasionally appear to blur, like something out of the pages of Jean Baudrillard’?

As Wright, Boria and Breidenbach (2002) argue, the gamer enters ‘a complex social world, a subculture, bringing together all of the problems and possibilities of power relationships dominant in the non-virtual world.’ It is not so much that the virtual and the non-virtual are becoming indistinguishable; what is significant is that the ‘non-virtual’ is increasingly subordinated to the virtual. The prioritization of the virtual is signified by Wright, Boria and Breidenbach’s terminology: the virtual is no longer the ‘non-real’; the virtual is not defined by its relation to the real – the real is defined by its relation to the virtual; the real is now merely the ‘non-virtual’ – a category of secondary significance.

One is reminded in this connection of ‘FPS Doug’, the protagonist of the cult online satirical videogaming video Boom Headshot (2004). FPS Doug takes a knife with him when he goes jogging because he believes that in the non-virtual world, as in the virtual, ‘you run faster with a knife.’ Doug’s primary reality is the virtual: ‘Sometimes I think maybe I want to join the army. I mean it’s basically like FPS, except better graphics.’

In 2008 the website for the globally popular online First Person Shooter game America’s Army (2002) promoted its latest edition America’s Army: True Soldiers as ‘the only game based on the experiences of real U.S. Army soldiers.’ FPS Doug would no doubt have been (literally) enthralled. This new version of the game originally developed by the United States government for simultaneous training, recruitment and propaganda purposes has, at it announces, been ‘created by soldiers, developed by gamers, tested by heroes.’ It is notable that this promotional copy recognizes no final distinction between soldiers and gamers: both are ‘heroes’ – neither of them ‘play’ the game; they ‘test’ it. This testing serves multiple ‘real’ functions: the reality of the simulation is tested by soldiers and gamers alike to temper and strengthen its military value as a training tool, while the reality of the simulation (which is of course nothing like the ‘real’ reality) becomes the dominant version of that reality (usurps its claim to verisimilitude), and thus serves as a tool both for propaganda and interpellation and for (indirect and direct) military recruitment.

Zhan Li (2004: 137) suggests that America’s Army represents a space ‘which is blurred between rationalities of state, military, commodity, and authentic lifeworld.’ This blurring of traditional generic, ontological and epistemological boundaries is perhaps seen most clearly (that is, least clearly) in America’s Army’s touring recruitment circus, a disconcertingly physical roadshow – the chance to see some ‘real’ U.S. military hardware, alongside videos of serving soldiers and, of course, at the forefront of all this (as the prioritized mode of reality), the gaming experience itself. According to its website, the Virtual Army Experience (VAE) ‘provides participants with a virtual test drive of the Army, with a focus on operations in the Global War on Terrorism.’ It announces that its ‘participants […] enter the mission simulator area where they execute a simulated operation in the War on Terrorism.’

The America’s Army website offers a virtual tour of the VAE – a simulation of a simulation, one which leads the eye through a computer-graphic reconstruction of a room full of computers, their screens displaying scenes from the original videogame. This virtual tour does not allow the user any navigational control: like the YouTube gameplay movie, it leads its impotent viewer through its environment – towards the inevitable end of military interpellation and recruitment – and in doing so betrays the ultimate theme and intent of its platform and of its entire medium (the very opposite of that which it claims for itself): the eventual annihilation of individual self-determination.

The VAE’s virtual tour (a tour of a touring event) represents a meta-simulacrum – an electronic simulation (a virtual tour) of a physical simulation (the VAE roadshow) of an electronic simulation (America’s Army – the videogame) of a military reality which is itself increasingly virtualized. That military reality no longer (in the original sense of the word) ‘really’ exists: King and Krzywinska (2006, 199) refer to ‘the increasingly computer mediated character of some forms of real world conflict […]. Devices such as head-mounted displays can be worn by troops, projecting onto their field of vision data not dissimilar to some of that provided in games.’ The gap between the soldier and the gamer is blurred, an effect of technological developments and disseminations accelerated and intensified by the ‘War on Terror’. While David Nieborg (2006) points out that ‘the same games used by soldiers to prepare for war serve as entertainment for gamers who are eager to experience the virtual battlefield’, Edward Castronova’s analysis (2005: 234) goes somewhat further: ‘The emergence of open-source military game-building tools has effectively turned the entire world into a giant military research lab.’

King and Krzywinska (2006, 199) point out ‘there is, clearly, potential for gameplay […] to be used to “train” the player […] to provide knowledge about the employment of particular military tactics that might also be used in the real world.’ This facility is not only, of course, the province of the United States and its political, military and ideological allies. Such videogames as Under Ash (2001), Special Force (2003) and Under Siege (2007) have promoted (and have been used to train) anti-Israeli paramilitary groups in the Middle East; while even such overwhelmingly neoconservative toys as Counter-Strike (1999) might also offer, as Castronova (2005: 231) suggests, ‘a nice training tool’ for terrorists.

Thus the violent extremes of Ethnic Cleansing (2003), 9-11 Survivor (2003) or September 12 (2003) not only create a reality which reflects that of the-world-formerly-known-as-the-real: they begin to challenge that external world’s ontological supremacy. If history has been overtaken, or adopted, by the hyperreal – if the battlelines of contemporary conflict are being redrawn in cyberspace – then is not subjectivity itself (which has always been a product of mediation) also becoming an increasingly virtual affair?

The First Person Shooter foregrounds the gun, both visually and linguistically. The first person is identical to the ‘shooter’ – both the person who shoots, and the gun itself. Within that one word – ‘shooter’ – the distinction between subject and weapon disintegrates: the self is subsumed to its own appendage, the individual is interpellated as an organ of war, the weapon jerkily spraying forth its deadly seed to inseminate the new world order. America’s Army has promoted itself beneath the slogan ‘empower yourself – defend freedom’ – yet what it offers is a mode of disempowerment, a loss of freedom and, in the end, a loss of self.

The television age is over: this is the age of the game.

I am no longer a camera. I am an M4 Carbine. I am a Kalashnikov.

4. Gamer / game

They used to make games for gamers. Now they make gamers into games.

King and Krzywinska (2006: 198) ask:

Are players, really, interpellated to any significant extent into the particular kinds of subjectivities offered by the in-game diegetic universe? […] Plenty of markers exist that clearly announce the large gulf that exists between playing a game […] and engaging in anything like the equivalent action in the real world. But there are, also, certain homologies. How far these come into play depends on a number of factors, including the […] forms of realism […] which can shape the extent to which the game experience approximates that of the real world.

In the end, this dichotomy might be reduced to a choice between a reading of the gamer as Adorno and Horkheimer’s cultural dope, utterly ‘absorbed by the world’ of the game (1979: 127), and an interpretation of this individual as Walter Benjamin’s inattentive yet independently critical textual respondent (2008). Yet, if it now matters less to what extent the world of the game approximates a dominant notion of ‘the real world’ than to what extent the subsidiary ‘real’ resembles the hegemonic gameworld, then Benjamin’s prospect of critical individuation no longer comes into play. In this situation, the gamer is no longer identical to herself, nor even indeed present to herself: the reality of the game becomes the dominant (the real) mode of being. The subject is interpellated, in Althusser’s sense, and, as this process of interpellation is never without an ideological destination, the subject is thus posited within – or, in the case of America’s Army, literally recruited to – a new reality: ‘ideology,’ writes Althusser (2006: 118), ‘“recruits” subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all), or “transforms” individuals into subjects (it transforms them all).’

Edward Castronova (2005: 45) proposes that ‘the avatar is just an extension of your body into a new space’ – as though the assumption of a mask, or a character, would not transform one’s original persona. Slavoj Žižek (2008, 83) adopts a rather more ontologically problematic perspective: ‘when I construct a “false” image of myself which stands for me in a virtual community in which I participate […] the emotions I feel and “feign” as part of my onscreen persona are not simply false. Although what I experience as my “true self” does not feel them, they are none the less in a sense “true”.’ At the last, as Foucault relentlessly insisted, that which is true is that which is ideologically privileged: the dominance of the virtual secures its own mantle of truth.

Ian Bogost (2006: 136) recognizes the tensions between these realities – or, to be precise, between these subjectivities – at the point at which ‘the game world and the real world spill over into one another.’ Bogost recognizes what he calls ‘simulation fever’ as symptomatic of this conflict: ‘the nervous discomfort caused by the interaction of the game’s unit-operational representations of a segment of the real world and the player’s understanding of that representation […]. The idea of simulation fever insinuates seriousness back into play and suggests that games help us expose and explore complicated human conditions, rather than offering mere […] diversion.’ (2006: 136)

Like Brecht’s theatrical alienation or Eisenstein’s cinematic dialecticism, this mode of play would represent a strategy of disruption rather than one of resemblance or identification. As in the double (self-consciously representational) signs of Barthes’s scriptible texts (1975), this disruption might afford a space for the gamer’s own interpretational strategies or (as Stuart Hall would say) negotiations. It is a mode of disruption which, as Barthes suggests, need not (indeed cannot and must not) take place only within the processes of production; it is a dissonance which the reader-viewer-user can herself introduce.

Yet this dissonance remains dependent upon an absolute (and therefore impossible) balance between the game’s fictive subjectivity and the gamer’s own original (‘real’) subjectivity, in order to sustain their differentiation (rather than for one to engulf the other). It has been suggested by various videogame theorists that the virtual can only achieve dominance when it comes consummately to represent an objective external reality; but is it not more likely that the game’s own subjectivity may eventually overwhelm the gamer’s perspective – may become the equivalent of an objective reality – when (as mass-mediated ideological constructs have always done) the gameworld comes to appear unmediated, natural and true?

Fiat ludus. Ludum nudum tenemus.

Post Script

Much videogame criticism is the work of enthusiasts, even ‘fans’, and, as such, much of this writing seeks to valorize or to proselytize. It sometimes seems closer to advertising copy than to academic critique. When one becomes involved in a text or genre or medium, critical detachment becomes increasingly difficult. The videogame demands involvement; it is a commercial product which seduces its audience into a sense of active participation which is in fact a mode of passive engagement, absorption or enthralment. Some have likened it to an addiction. The field of videogame research becomes of escalating importance as human subjectivity comes gradually to be subsumed to the constructed perspective of the game; and if it transpires that the researchers are themselves irrevocably inscribed within their object’s own economies of pleasure and remuneration, then by the time that the effects of gaming are properly understood, the world may have been transformed into something other than the Utopia many of these users imagine.


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