Insomnia | Essays

Jean Baudrillard and the Definitive Ambivalence of Gaming

By Gerry Coulter

Gerry Coulter teaches sociology at Bishop's University in Sherbrooke, Canada. He is the founding editor of the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies.


Abstract: Baudrillard's "game" was writing and in it, he had interesting things to say about games. This article explores his thought concerning our passion for games and the experimental role gamers perform in our culture. It concludes that Baudrillard was ambivalent about gaming despite the fact that he saw it as a central aspect of the obsession of our age -- the lack of distinction between the real and the virtual.


It is not reality which holds sway today, but virtuality.
Baudrillard, 2002b, p. 31

The world is a game.
Baudrillard, 1993a, p. 46


In a mysterious, paradoxical, and lyrically complex way, Baudrillard found in gaming a definitive ambivalence. Baudrillard neither praised nor condemned games and gamers while recognizing the importance of both for writing about the contemporary. Baudrillard's writing on games and the virtual points in two compatible directions: Gamers are possibly a new social form (homo fractalis) and they are also the explorers of our age, traversing the cool universe of digitality. Baudrillard was no gamer; or more accurately, his game was writing, and in it he often liked to play with games and gamers. Part 1 of this article traces Baudrillard's writing on gaming to explore his thought concerning our passion for games and what that passion may have replaced. Part 2 assesses both the explorer-experimental roles gamers perform in virtuality and how gaming is, for Baudrillard, a central aspect of the obsession of our age -- the lack of distinction between the real and the virtual.


1. Our Passion for Games

Some detractors treat electronic games as if they were a hard drug, but for Baudrillard (1979),1 the games are merely the equivalent of soft drugs. Like drugs, games fascinate us as much as they repel, and from the standpoint of Western reason, they arouse intellectual ambivalence (Baudrillard, 2002b). The game does this by leading us into an environment dominated by a mental surgery of performance -- a kind of "plastic surgery of perception" (Baudrillard, 1993c, p. 49). Yet when we are in the game, we are also protected from "the brutalizing effects of rationality, normative socialization, and universal conditioning" taking place in the social (Baudrillard, 1993c, p. 67). This is a very important aspect of the ambivalence of digital games for Baudrillard -- they originate in a society that is increasingly ambivalent about its future. The pleasure of the game is at best an uncertain and cool pleasure (Baudrillard, 1988). Baudrillard (1979) pointed to the artificial intensity surrounding the playing of digital games, but he found this to be not unlike that surrounding a person watching sports on television -- and every bit as unhealthy. But we are too concerned with health; the gamer worries about boredom far more than obesity and death. It is better to be a gamer than a jogger in Baudrillard's world! The jogger -- contrary to the delusional state he or she may be in -- struggles only to exhaust and destroy the body (Baudrillard, 1993c). Joggers disappear in Baudrillard's world. The gamer, too, longs to disappear, but in an ecstatic disappearance from which he or she is eternally reborn in the next game (Baudrillard, 1990). The gamer fears only the dizziness induced by the connections -- the lassitude of network man (Baudrillard, 1987). Gamers are viewed as immoral in the eyes of those who work to engage all of society in the production game. But the gamer is seduced by other possibilities and attempts to turn away from the order of production to an order of reversibility (Baudrillard, 1979). Reversibility for Baudrillard is the opposite of production, and gamers may be understood as an exemplary form of it. Ambivalence, however, is a two-way street: Ironically, the gamer is worked very hard by the game into a frenzied state of a will to mastery -- mastery of what amounts to nothing as the game he or she masters becomes instantly obsolete (and soon "upgraded" or replaced by another new game). Games, too, are victims of fashion, and there is no greater game than fashion (Baudrillard, 1993a).

The gamer exists on the margins of political economy and is understood by some to be an example of the élan of the system in capturing everyone. The gamer, however, attempts to gain an escape velocity from the system of political economy. Some gamers feel their virtual worlds are the opposite of political economy and its hard currencies on which they frown. The currency of the gamer is simulacra, and simulacra now exist in abundance (Baudrillard, 1990). So with a nod to the political economist, we must recognize that the game should not take so long to master that it would interfere with the next round of the production of games. Like a drug that kills too many users, such a game would be against the interest of the system. The flow of games, like the flow of drugs, must not stop; the effects may be profitable and brutal but not fatal. Baudrillard forces us to wonder, though, are gamers actually onto something critics from outside of their realm miss? It seems a little too easy now for the political economist -- and some players of that productivist game have survived into the 21st century -- to see the social relations of the world outside of the game encompassing the world of the gamer. But as much as society reaches inside the game (attempting to capture the gamer), the world of the game infects society outside the game. Two Harvard researchers have recently released a study on how the "gaming generation" is changing the workplace as much as the places of play (Beck & Wade, 2006). Games infect all forms of entertainment today. The latest James Bond film (Casino Royale, a film stuffed with special effects; Campbell, 2006) contains a chase scene of several minutes' duration. It takes place high above the ground, between boom cranes, in a fantastic realm where the actors are placed in a field not unlike a Super Mario Brothers game. Only an audience that grew up in the realm of games could truly appreciate such a scene. Here the game seeps out into other areas of life. Perhaps it is by incorporating game logic that the system now attempts to pull some people out of the game and into the movie theatre. Attendance at films is in decline whereas game sales soar.

At Casino Royale, the young people in the audience appeared to take great perverse delight in seeing the world of the game infuse the cinematic screen. Our tenuous grasp on the real (or in this case, what we will accept as "realistic" in a film) is challenged to the core by gamers. With so many people today gripped by the virtual, it is not surprising to see so much cinema devoted to the idea. Baudrillard (2000) has written about several films that fall into this obsession: The Truman Show, Total Recall, Existenz, and The Matrix. Baudrillard, who did not like The Matrix (he said it was "the kind of film about the matrix that the matrix would have been able to produce"; Baudrillard, 2004, p. 1), must have smiled wryly at the release of The Matrix Online (a role-playing game where players are required to protect "the matrix"). We may wonder if this is some sort of cinematic revenge on gamers or even an attempt by cinema to regain some of its lost confidence (Baudrillard, 1998).

Gaming may also be, Baudrillard (1996) tells us, the only democracy we still know. Those who might have become political players in earlier times may well be the gamers of today -- virtual exiles of politics circulating the networks of a muted world. Gamers are among the contemporary inhabitants of the transpolitical -- "politically indifferent and undifferentiated beings" (Baudrillard, 1993c, pp. 24-25). Unlike reality, which incessantly demands we believe in it, the illusion of the game (which the gamer never really believes in) does not hold such a requirement. For Baudrillard, it is precisely because the gamer does not believe in the game that he or she enters into a more necessary relationship with the rules of the game. Here society and the law are replaced by a symbolic pact with the rules -- a series of ritual obligations (Baudrillard, 1979) -- that are, for Baudrillard, an order of fate. All are equal before the arbitrary rules of the game in a way we are not equal before the law in society (Baudrillard, 1996). The game is a very severe place of rules where wealth and social standing have no purchase. If games attract us, for Baudrillard (1979), the reason is clear: "Games are serious, more serious than life" (p. 133).

The game is a challenge and the dark sphere inhabited by its players involves a strong passion for rules (Baudrillard, 1979). Baudrillard (1979) understands the gamer to exist in a kind of hyperfreedom where the arbitrariness of the program is exchanged for society and the law. The game is perhaps the most poetic way we have yet discovered to "rid ourselves," he says, "of social conceptions of freedom" (Baudrillard, 2005b, p. 55). The spirit of gaming extends, for Baudrillard, back to well before the arrival of the virtual and technological gamer of today. We have long been avid devotees of games -- of a kind of rules-bound uncertainty and unpredictability we enjoy in our simulated absence from society while engaged in any game (Baudrillard, 1990). For Baudrillard (2001), the rules of the game "seem to come from some other sphere, with nothing to justify them -- just like chance, that eternal unjustified principle" (p. 90). Ambivalence reappears here as he considers that our submission to chance in the game is, at the same time, a way of parodying the ethics of work, value and economy (Baudrillard, 1979).

The game contains the passion of illusion and appearances, and who is more passionate today than the gamer? (Baudrillard, 1990) For Baudrillard (2005a), "the fundamental passion is that of the game" (p. 149). This passion, in our transpolitical era, is replacing political passions from earlier times. Today, Baudrillard (1993a) says, even "hope bringing movements" (green or feminist) become part of the promotional machine of American and Western culture (p. 152). The cool passion of the game, an important aspect of its cool ambivalence, works to replace the former hot passions of politics or the body. When we play a game, we are impassioned, says Baudrillard, by the stakes -- not necessarily a positive or negative passion but a passion just the same -- the "passion of battle," he calls it (Baudrillard, 2005a, p. 149). We play the game, we make progress through its network, we lose, and we lose again; eventually we may even win -- it is the passion of this experience. In the place of liberty in today's society, Baudrillard (1979) finds instead the game and reminds us that our very passion for games and rules parodies all ideologies of liberty.

The gamer thus plays for the charm of the game, its seductiveness, and as such embraces repeatedly the catastrophe of losing the game. The gamer accepts the arbitrary rules of the game for what Baudrillard (1990) calls "ceremonial purposes" -- for the ambivalent pleasure of play and of playing in a realm away from the contractual and regulated legal exchanges of society (p. 153). For Baudrillard, what we desire most in the game is that the "inexorable procession of rational connections" of the social cease for a while (p. 153). The purpose of playing the game, or of gambling for Baudrillard, is not in believing one can win but in escaping the system of rationality outside of the game. The old sites of gaming, such as the casino, are now contaminated with leverless push-button electronic games. In the loud and monotonous corners of casino machine gaming today, the almost lifeless human prosthetic of the game plays for money, whereas the virtual gamer at his or her computer plays for passion. Gamers seek passion in one of its last discernable places -- even the passion of the virtual sex gamer is poured into the networks in a world where sex, like politics, has been divested of passion. "From the virtual perspective the real is only a vestige, so too are sex, work, and the body" (Baudrillard, 2001, p. 42). And it is from the vantage points of the virtual that the gamer plays himself or herself into Baudrillard's lens. Our passion for games arises, to a good extent, from our lack of passion for anything else. Politics itself has always been a game, but now it is one that "continues in secret indifference to its own stakes" (Baudrillard, 1993c, p. 6). Is the gamer the true citizen of the postmodern? For Baudrillard (1993a), the postmodern is itself a kind of game -- a game with the vestiges of what has been destroyed.


2. The Gamer and the Obsession of Our Age

The master gamer is a wizard in virtuality; Baudrillard was a wizard of virtuality. Some of his ambivalence about games and gamers no doubt has much to do with the role of the gamer as one vital part of a system that he felt is seeking to become increasingly virtualized. As astronauts (the explorers of a previous age) were the white mice of a world learning to live with less gravity, the gamer is the experimental creature who teaches us about life in the virtual. The gamer, for Baudrillard, is an experimental explorer in virtuality who participates in a kind of test humanity is putting itself through in the contemporary.

Baudrillard (1997) says that when he or she is playing the game, the gamer ceases to be an agent of the real and becomes a double agent of the virtual. Today, the limits of virtual reality are pushed greatly by the demands of gamers. In the game, we pass over into the extreme of technology and become extreme phenomena (Baudrillard, 1996). Baudrillard has long understood that we learn a great deal from the study of extreme phenomena. Among the lessons of thinking about gamers is that any power we possess in the virtual is merely a virtual power (Baudrillard,1998). In a most ambivalent way, this virtual power mirrors the world outside of the game, where genuine power no longer exists (Baudrillard,1994). There are no masters of a virtual universe where power is fragile (Baudrillard, 2002b). We can certainly understand what Baudrillard means by the fragility of power, even global power in our so-called real world, following September 11, 2001.

For Baudrillard (2002a), the gamer is a traveler into our future of total immersion in virtuality -- as yet a kind of techno-tourist basking in the sickly artificial light of the virtual. Here, as a visitor to what may come after the end, the gamer enters the "horizon of programmed reality" in which, for Baudrillard (2000), our human functions -- emotions or sexuality -- become progressively useless (p. 37). The world of the gamer is both an escape from the social and a passage into a clone of the so-called real world (Baudrillard, 2002b). In the game, we adhere to our sticky monitors (a good game "glues" us to the screen). With or without our condom-like data suits (Baudrillard, 2005b), we enter the world of the digitized and operationalized (Baudrillard, 2003), the highest stage of simulation (Baudrillard, 2005b). But with Baudrillard, it is never long before the ambivalence returns and he encourages us to wonder why, if our "real world" is so magnificent, we would seek to build its virtual double, including our own doubles to inhabit it? Baudrillard (1995) forces us to wonder if we prefer the "exile of the virtual" to the "catastrophe of the real" (p. 28). It is one of the sublime qualities of Baudrillard's writing that he forces us to see ourselves as occupants of an uncertain world where the real hides behind appearances (Baudrillard, 1998). Ours is an existence of unceasing illusion.

Against notions of an artificial paradise of "technicity and virtuality," Baudrillard (2000) also urges us to preserve traces of our illusory world's definitive opacity and mystery (p. 74). Before the digital and virtual, we were full-fledged citizens of a world not of the real but of appearances, behind which the real hides (Baudrillard, 2006). Our passage into the screens of virtuality is merely one step farther away from our world of appearances -- already one step farther away from a world we never "really" know. So Baudrillard understands the efforts of the gamer to be a kind of experimental existence in a world that we can never actually inhabit. At some future point, our "immersion in the machinery of the virtual, the man/machine distinction may no longer exist," but at present, the failures of the gamer to remain in the game are a hopeful sign for Baudrillard (2005b) of the insuperability of the barriers to a virtual existence (pp. 80, 192). As he wrote near the end, "It is one thing to note the vanishing of the real into the virtual; another to deny it so as to pass beyond the real and the virtual as Nietzsche passed beyond good and evil" (p. 162).

To the question, "What if Baudrillard were a gamer?" the answer is Baudrillard was not a gamer and he could never be a digital gamer -- they held no personal fascination for him. The only interest the cool universe of digitality held for him was as a writer (Baudrillard, 1993b). Like television, once he had broken its code, so too for games, the interest was lost (Lotringer, 2007). Baudrillard, it seems, wished to pass beyond both the real and the virtual, and his ambivalence rests on the fact that he had little interest in participating in either. Writing, of course, was another matter. The world of gaming and all forms of virtuality were, by the end, merely things he wished to pass beyond, and writing is how we get to the next horizon. Games enter Baudrillard's writing so often because of their important role in writing about our contemporary -- a period during which, Baudrillard felt, we are undertaking a grand experiment (perhaps the greatest game of all) to see if anything human can truly survive. The realm of the game is a highly artificial realm, but it is merely one such realm in our contemporary that is a time of cloning, simulation, modeling and programming, and genetic ordeals:

Perhaps we may see this as a kind of adventure, a heroic test: to take the artificialization of living beings as far as possible in order to see, finally, what part of human nature survives the greatest ordeal. If we discover that not everything can be cloned, simulated, programmed, genetically and neurologically managed, then whatever survives could be truly called 'human': some inalienable and indestructible human quality could finally be identified. Of course, there is always the risk, in this experimental adventure, that nothing will pass the test -- that the human will be permanently eradicated. (Baudrillard, 2000, pp. 15-16)

Conclusion

And so for Baudrillard, the time of this experiment is an uncertain one. The other side of our possible eradication is that the virtual -- the game -- may save us from the perfect crime, of what Baudrillard (2000) calls the "extermination by technology and virtuality of all reality" (p. 55). Here Baudrillard wonders if the digital game participates merely in the ironic game of technology, of what he calls "an ironic destiny of all science and all knowledge by which the world, and the illusion of the world, are saved and perpetuated" (p. 55). Here Baudrillard was decidedly undecided as gamers and games aroused in him a definitive ambivalence. Baudrillard matched the ambivalence of games with an equal or greater ambivalence of his own. Baudrillard was a writer and the game of the writer, from Baudrillard's (1993a) point of view, was the game of indifference and ambivalence. For Baudrillard, notions such as truth, meaning, or the real can be known only locally, as partial objects, along restricted horizons. The point of writing about a world that is enigmatic and unintelligible is not to add meaning to it but to make it even more enigmatic and more unintelligible. As he put it,

Here... lies the task of philosophical thought: to go to the limit of hypotheses and processes, even if they are catastrophic. The only justification for thinking and writing is that it accelerates these terminal processes. Here, beyond the discourse of truth, resides the poetic and enigmatic value of thinking. For, facing a world that is unintelligible and enigmatic, our task is clear: we must make that world even more unintelligible, even more enigmatic. (Baudrillard, 2000, p. 83)

The gamer is the ambivalent explorer of an age experiencing first-hand the immersion, immanence, and immediacy of the virtual. Baudrillard (2005b) wonders if the gamer may even be the cusp of a new evolutionary form: homo fractalis. If the gamer is not such a form in the long run, then he or she may be remembered simply as someone who became caught up in the obsession of our age, "the lack of distinction between the real and the virtual" (Baudrillard, 2006, p. 92). Today, few are more ambivalent about our contemporary than the gamer surrounded, as he or she is, by virtual technologies that propagate undecidability (Baudrillard, 1998). Given that none of us really knows the rules of the "game" today, indifference and ambivalence become very strategic terrains for a writer (Baudrillard, 1993a). Baudrillard was not a gamer but he shared with them a definitive ambivalence.


Note

1. For Baudrillard's books, I have used the date of publication in English translation.


References

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