Insomnia | Commentary

Videogame Culture: Preface


It all comes down — to make a long story short, and to anticipate our conclusion, which is not fully elaborated in these essays, and with good reason (since it lies beyond the domain of game theory, cutting across all disciplines, to finally end up as the ultimate question of philosophy proper) — to the debacle of meaning. Now meaning is never, as popular superstition has it, something that one discovers inside things, but something that one imbues them with, something that one creates — meaning is will to power. To look for meaning therefore, to go off into the bushes in search for it, whether in the manner of the so-called "existentialists", or our modern little artfags and pseudo-academics (which is merely that of uneducated existentialists—), is far from the dignified intellectual pursuit that these people would like to make it appear to be, but symptomatic of quite a different, and far less dignified, condition: that one no longer knows how to create it. "Whoever is incapable of laying his will into things", writes Nietzsche, "lacking will and strength, at least lays some meaning into them, i.e., the faith that there is a will in them already." To conceive then of meaning as something that already exists, as opposed to something to be created (in other words, as something supposed to come from without, as opposed to from within), is simply to submit to someone else's idea of meaning. The question, therefore, should never be "What is the meaning of that thing?", but always "What does that thing mean to me?"; the former is merely part of an elaborate little ritual meant to pass off submission as discovery (which explains why all interpretation aimed at discovering the "intended meaning" of a thing is of its nature comical). Let the slaves then torture themselves over "the meaning" of this or that artwork, or of art generally, or ultimately even of "life" — such "torture" is always anyway yet another act, yet one more ploy meant to create and project the appearance of intellectualism, for it is plain that none of these people feel intellectual problems deeply enough! (their staunch refusal to educate themselves, if nothing else, proves it), hence are not capable of being tortured by them!
   So what, then, we may finally ask, do videogames mean to us? — for this is without a shred of doubt the ultimate question. And the answer should come easily, immediately, instinctively — as long as one has somehow managed to pass through the slave society's pseudo-intellectual masquerade and institutional brainwashing without being tainted by it — without being ruined for life! — as long as one has managed to retain even the slightest degree of honesty! Videogames, and therefore art in general, and also games in general (being precisely the point where games turn into art, and art turns into a game — which is to say the point where these two concepts lose their specificity and blend into, and flow into each other), are for us above all pleasure (even though we realize that some kinds of pleasure are more pleasureable than others, and are far from the folly of claiming videogames, let alone any other artform, as the supreme pleasure); then recreation (which is to say another kind of recreation, since, being masters, and therefore unable to distinguish work from pleasure, our entire lives are nothing but a non-stop recreational activity); and finally relaxation (though we are of a species of man that relaxes precisely in the midst of the most strenuous activities). — This, then, would be our answer, and if anyone asks us for reasons we'll reply that that is simply how we feel; that we don't need reasons; and moreover that, if it comes to that, we can even provide reasons for why we don't have any (in short, because ethics and aesthetics, as Wittgenstein correctly grasped, "cannot be put into words").
   But the question inevitably arises at this point, whether videogames can also be, besides all the above, anything else for us, anything more. For this is precisely what the slaves contend, and exhaust themselves trying to prove to us (and to themselves): that games are not "merely", or do not have to be "merely" about pleasure, recreation and relaxation, but can also be about something more. This "more", of course, on close examination turns out to be less, for the design philosophy that is inaugurated on the basis of the craving for this "more", results invariably in games that are the opposite of pleasurable, recreational and relaxing — in games, that is to say, which, in a single word, are boring. So in place of the fun game you get what the slaves call the "meaningful game", with its hidden message and profound moral meaning (and it has to be moral since, as far as the slaves are concerned, only moral meaning has meaning — immoral meaning doesn't), in place of the recreational game you get the "serious game", where the slaves' brutalizing, unrelenting work ethic invades even the supposedly freest and most innocent of spheres (the sphere, that is, of play), producing games that feel like work (and are designed precisely to create better workers), and so on and so forth for every spurious category of games invented (as they always are, if one looks closely enough) in order to excuse incompetence, weakness and bad taste on the part of poor designers, weak players and bad critics (who, naturally enough, recognize and understand each other), and transfigure their failings, whether of talent, capability or taste, by appealing to intellectually bankrupt ideologies and prevalent moralities (which, in the current world order, invariably means slave moralities), and ultimately deny and obscure the fact (at least in the short- and medium-term, for in the long run all these shenanigans only serve to underscore it) that pleasure, that the essence of pleasure, is immoral.

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Yet the question still remains, when one has seen through the slaves' pathetic theories to a sufficient degree to laugh at them, indeed to find them so hilarious that one would not under any circumstances desire to impoverish the world by completely eliminating them — whether, nevertheless, videogames can indeed be to us anything more than pleasure — only with the understanding, now, that the only thing that can be more than pleasure is even greater pleasure — something, that is to say, more pleasurable. We now desire, in other words, to see whether there is some way to derive even more pleasure from games than we already do.
   Let us clarify something important here. This "more" that we are now seeking is by no means necessary, and, were we to arrive at the conclusion that it does not in fact exist, our passion and enthusiasm for games would not at all diminish. For even without this "more", the pleasure we've already derived from games (and continue to derive on a regular basis) would suffice to justify the existence of the videogame industry to all eternity. It is, therefore, merely our greed, our insatiable, unquenchable greed and lust for more and more pleasure that drives us in this direction, not some pathetic need to "justify" anything to anyone — let alone a desire to propagandize on behalf of some naive and grossly outdated moral ideal. We are intelligent, educated humans of the twenty-first century for christsake, not fucking peasants from the Middle Ages. So even though to a short-sighted observer we now seem to be inquiring in the same direction as the slaves, our reasons for doing so are fundamentally different, and hence our answers, whatever these may be, will necessarily be different as well (in other words, it's not the same direction).
   It is, then, a question of us versus the slaves, of the battle of our meaning against theirs, that will decide the fate of videogames at this higher (or deeper, depending on how you wish to visualize it) level. And what, then, is the slaves' answer to the question of the ultimate meaning of this artform? But there is no room for doubt here; as far as the slaves are concerned, the ultimate meaning of videogames (as of any artform (or indeed of any field of human endeavor)) is "To make us better" — this is their unanimous reply, the deeply instinctive and endlessly repeated cry of the entire herd, unmistakably discernible across all their sayings and writings (or rather bleatings and scribblings) on the subject. Now let us leave for a moment the question of what they really mean by that — of whether perhaps what in their language is called "better" may not be precisely that which in our language is called "worse", and vice versa. Let us set aside for now the question of whether we and the slaves, being different species of beings, would necessarily speak different languages! Let's see if we can be spared such ruthless and unprecedented (also "immoral" and "inhuman") analysis, at least for the time being, by appealing instead to McLuhan's answer on the subject — a generally accepted scientific formulation, and thus an apparently "objective" one. Science is supposed to be objective, no? At least every uneducated person seems to think so — and all the slaves are uneducated. Let us then pursue our inquiries into this higher meaning of videogames using this objective science of theirs, which they love so much and unconditionally trust, so that we can perhaps lay hold of it, and then, at some later time, when our inquiries have been completed, turn around and clobber them over their heads with it (— and for what other purpose have claims of objectivity ever been used on earth?)
   "The medium is the message", McLuhan had then said, in the seemingly paradoxical and strictly-speaking meaningless manner that signifies either a confused mind or deliberate obfuscation, or often enough both. And then he rambled on for 300-odd utterly insufferable pages so as to demonstrate that he was incapable of explaining what he meant. It shouldn't therefore be surprising that no one so far has understood him, however many years have passed, and it is high time, I believe, that someone explained what he had meant. "The medium is the message": this phrase merely means that the effect of any single work or group of works of any given medium is far less important, far less powerful, than that of all the works taken together. Not exactly an earth-shattering revelation, then, indeed once expressed in plain English one could call it common-sensical or even banal — which is where the paradoxical phrasing and book-length "elaboration" come in.
   And yet its implications for the current debate (if we could call it that; it's more like a one-way shouting match) on "meaningfulness" are profound. For it implies that the analysis of a single game is immeasurably inferior (less "meaningful") to the analysis of all games simultaneously, so that the "meaning" of videogames, this higher, or deeper, or whatever you want to to call it meaning that everyone's so desperately "searching" for, would lie, not in the differences between specific games (much less in the fanciful interpretation of mere colors and textures, as every aspiring pseudo-critic would like to have us think), let alone in some utterly fantastical moral imperative snatched out of thin air and wishful thinking, but in precisely those things that all games share, their common aspects — so that it would be naive to think that one could identify those aspects by examining specific games, on an individual basis, as in criticism, but would be instead obliged to look for them in entire groups of games, larger and ever larger and more inclusive groups, and ultimately in all games, that is to say in the concept of the videogame, which is to say in theory, in science — in the present essays. The meaning of videogames, then, whatever that might be, would end up being identical with science's!
   And what's the meaning of science, then? would now be the next question. Why does anyone bother with science at all? We build little models of the world inside our brains, in order to "understand" it — which is to say to master it and shape it to our wishes! But what is a videogame if not a mini-world? — yet another of our little models (albeit a more colorful and pleasant, a more "artistic" one). And what is the craft of game design if not the creation of many small such worlds? So that, by carefully studying the behavior of the little ones, and extrapolating the results (which is precisely the "scientific method"), we'd get closer to figuring out, to "understanding", how the great one works. And what higher meaning could we possibly ascribe to games than this? What higher meaning could there be than the comprehension, the "understanding" of the universe? — It is precisely this meaning then, this theory, which, were we inclined to take a break from our games for a moment in order to pursue it (which would be difficult; the darn things are so much fun!), would constitute for us the highest meaning of the artform (and indeed, as I'll be showing elsewhere, of all artforms, of art itself). Any other meaning, including so-called "transcendental" (that is to say religious) ones, in comparison, would be shallow.
   And what if, when this theory was completed, we were to discover how naive we'd been when we began our study, how young, idealistic and full of "good intentions"; only to realize in the end that videogames were never fated to make us "better", but — to stick with the slaves' terminology, for the sake of consistency — more evil?


ALEX KIERKEGAARD