Videogames may be transformative of desires, empathies and emotions

With Alfie Bown about technologization of instincts and the question of guilt

According to Alfie Bown, a Hong Kong-based theoretician of popular culture, video games carry hidden messages with which we identify inadvertently - unless we reflect on them rationally. Is the use of computational mechanisms that change the very essence of what gives us pleasure a historically unprecedented way of preventing any social change?

It has been few weeks now, since your article “How video games are fueling the rise of the far right” was published by The Guardian. What kind of reception did it receive? Does such a statement not seem akin to conservative views that try to see video gaming as a reason for rise of violence? What is the difference between your stance and this conservative one? Do you claim that a specific artifact is the reason for a very specific behavior?

If I can be completely frank, I think that the Guardian article was given a title which made it seem rather more like that old conservative position that it was and it also got a reaction in part on that basis. My position is not that games are the cause of violence (I think that argument is defunct) but that video games are incredibly powerful and transformative and that - at the moment - they lean more towards the endorsement of what I would think of as right-wing or liberal values rather than what I think of as left-wing ones. What I want to see is not blame placed on games for the rise of the far-Right, but a greater engagement with and production of games from the Left. The video game space is not innocent - it is pure ideology - and in that space battles must be fought and won. At the moment, I don’t think the Left is taking part as much as it ought to. Where my position is more controversial is that a lot of people in and around gaming already consider game developing and games to be leaning to the Left or even far-Left (that was what people claimed during Gamergate and what quite a range of people believe) whereas I think that true left-wing politics are almost entirely absent in the gaming world.


When you suggest that the new desires, incubated by games, lean to the far right - could you mention some examples? What do you mean by that?

Your question above helps to frame it: it´s not that a specific artifact (a video game like Hotline Miami, for example) is responsible for a specific behavior (misogyny online, for example) but that there is a dialectical or symbiotic relationship between these things. In my new book The Playstation Dreamworld I use a psychoanalytic framework to explore how video games may be transformative of desires, empathies and emotions. Where a lot of people see video games as wish-fulfillment or escapism, I think of them as much more political and as having the power to transform us - even on a very instinctual level - and if these games lean to the right-wing, the capitalist and the liberal and leave the left nearly unrepresented then I think we face a danger with games being as dominant as they are becoming as a form of popular culture.

Examples can be complicated because in my analysis I want to move away from the content of the games to think about the structure of them, or more precisely, to think about the forms of enjoyment they produce. This is also the psychoanalytic approach. I explore how the innocence of Splatoon for example, which is all paint brushes and splashes of colorful ink, might produce more dangerous enjoyment nevertheless.

More obvious examples can be given though: one interest I have is in comparing nostalgic pastoral games which endorse an idea of natural serenity in the mythic past (community building in Animal Crossing, farming simulation in Stardew Valley, restoration of natural balance in Bastion) with the prevalence of dystopic futures in collapsed capitalism games (FallOut, Transistor, many others). These are two dominant trends in contemporary gaming and they are counterparts of each other (it is not a surprise that Transistor and Bastion are made by the same people). Taken together, we can see a time line here which leads from natural pastoral serenity in the past to dystopic collapse in the apocalyptic future – a narrative which serves the right-wing capitalist class in at least two ways: by allowing them to encourage nostalgia for the idealized past and by making out that capitalism protects us from dystopia.


The Witcher III and recently the Kingdom Come are both games situated in the context of medieval times in the middle or Eastern Europe - both have been criticized for not having any other ethnic groups than Caucascians included in the game. The authors of both games rejected this objection, claiming that such was the situation in the Middle Ages - there were none non-white people in Poland or Lands of the Bohemian Crown at all. Do you consider this rejection to be valid?

I am not sure that I think all games need to be ‘woke’ and include all genders and races, so I am probably not on the same page as the criticism of those games. However, the response is also a bit weak because the claim to historical accuracy is hardly the issue in these games, which are not representations of the medieval period but ‘medievalism’ – a political tool in itself which usually presents the medieval as the space of unregulated desires and simultaneously as the barbaric and uncivilized world. I think this could be related to the time line discussed above. Also, there is the question of whether the ‘legitimate’ whitewash of the medieval period might be part of its appeal to gamers who are on the Right.


You take interest in how predominant ideologies are incorporated into video games, and what kind of message they, as ideological constructs, disseminate. We tend to think that it is innocent to enjoy pop culture, yet f.e. big data are being gathered continuously during our online gaming and it is very hard to escape this process. Even our choice of the specific game we use to escape from our daily duties may prove to provide important information and may be significant commercially and as well as politically. Are there no “non-guilty pleasures” anymore?

Yes, here you touch on a different aspect of my interests, which is in specifically mobile gaming and the importance of various other mobile apps in transforming our cities and (again) our very desires. I think augmented reality (AR) is probably the most important thing here. Of course there is the data collection issue (there are even AR apps which use the camera to conduct ‘interior mapping’ which is basically like a Google Maps that records the inside of your home rather than just your street). The example is a quirky and scary one, but it shows the element of data collection prevalent when you are playing all games. I’ve elsewhere tried to show how something like Pokemon GO could be seen as an important part of Google projects to turn into ideal future citizens.

Again though, my own approach is different. I am working on these technologies in their capacity to not only predict but to transform desires. Predictive apps and AR technologies (e.g. Google Now) work not only to work out what we want but to slightly modify our desires to bring them in line with corporate profit and even (potentially at least) with state conformism. The in-game rewards that might be implemented in Beijing for example, which reward people who are a ‘good citizen’, might not be a million miles away across the globe. These new technologies – in a very dystopian way – look to transform what and how we desire, and how we go about getting those desires fulfilled. I can’t really prove that argument in the scope of this short interview, but even as a possibility I think it´s very concerning.

I think we should not think of guilty and un-guilty pleasures, which implies we are making a kind of moral judgement on what to enjoy, but to investigate the role of guilt in cases of such games. Some games might function to deal with guilt, others to instill it, others to attach it to something. Games and guilt would be a good topic, I think.


Can we say that artificial intelligence (AI) is already taking some kind of power over its users – be it the gaming industry, social networks etc.? Or is the relation between the symbolic system in power and users still a relationship between groups of people? Alternatively, is AI already to be recognized as an entity of its own in these “power games”?

My position is that AI ought not to be recognized as a power of its own precisely because we are still looking at the relationships between people here, specifically the class of platform capitalists and technocapitalists who own the technology and those who use it (almost everyone else). I think some of the reason those Silicon Valley guys want us to think AI has a mind of its own is so that there will be diminished responsibility on the part of those who created it. If AI has ‘rights’ – as robot rights activists have actually demanded – we are simply giving over more power to the Elon Musks of this world.


Can you imagine a time when it will be more fun to play with or against an AI than with a human, who actually is somewhere on the globe?

Here I have only a crazy tin-foil hat answer: the distinction between the virtual and the real, the human and the AI, will be more blurry than that in the future. One concrete thing to say here is that this is why I am slightly more interested in AR than virtual reality (VR), because while VR seems to sustain a distinction between reality and the virtual, AR is changing the ‘real’ physical city itself.


Is AI being used to control people’s leisure now? As early neomarxists have noticed, by controlling the kind of desires we have and cultural forms we use to fulfill them, a revolution of any kind can be prevented. Can we discern how to effectively create a need and how to fulfill it by using computing mechanisms in an unprecedented way? Are video games the autocorrect function of capitalism? And, when our needs and desires are programmed by machines, are we not changing into machines ourselves?

Your question here is wonderful, and it is quite close to something I argued in my first book in 2015 which is called Enjoying It: Candy Crush and Capitalism. I argued there that with new technology in gaming we are looking at a second wave of what was called ‘rational recreation’ in the Victorian period in the UK. The brilliant Marxist historian E.P. Thompson argued that in the 1830s the UK was ‘within an ace of revolution’ and at that time this program to regulate and control leisure time was started (people were directed to parks, museums, sports, etc) precisely in order to ensure that this revolution did not happen. I certainly think we are looking at something similar with some types of gaming – especially mobile gaming – today, which might in a certain sense be preventing revolution.

The most popular time to play mobile phone games is on the way to and from work or actually from our work computers. These distractions, far from being as useless as they pretend to be, are productive and powerful tools that transform us into suitable workers. They set into motion a strange guilt function that turns one into a good capitalist and ultimately makes more money for companies and increases conformism. It´s no surprise that some companies even use games in the workplace to increase productivity in their workers. In a simple way, I can think that in the early 2000s when I worked as a cook in a bar, I used to spend my five-minute breaks bitching with my co-workers and while it was not always the case, that bitching might have contained the potential to turn into making some concrete or even revolutionary demands from our employer. Now, we spend those five minutes alone on Temple Run or socializing with others on MMO mobile games, not on confronting our working conditions with those we work with which creates a kind of alienation. As you say, the games are essentially capitalism autocorrecting. Another way of putting it would be to say that games sometimes function in the service of what the late Mark Fisher called ‘capitalist realism,’ smoothing out the potential cracks and inconsistencies to allow capitalism to continue on.


How come video games are so good at offering an experience of complete disconnection from the world? Is the notion of escapism still useful when describing the influence of popular culture?

I don’t think so. I subscribe to the old Zizek point (I am a card-carrying Zizekian) that when we feel most free is when we are most subject to ideology and I think this is very relevant when it comes to video games. These things are escapism in a certain sense, but that simply serves to put the user into a particular psychological state in which they can be made the subject of ideology.


Do we need to stop playing games to be able to crush capitalism once and for all? Is it a necessary and a sufficient condition?

I really am the most addicted of gamers – I have been playing for nearly 25 years since I was quite young and at the moment I intend to continue playing until my last breath. I think this didn’t come across in the Guardian article, where some people seemed to think I was saying we should not play games. I think rather the opposite – as I tried to touch on in your first question – these games are here to stay and saying we should not play would be like asking someone not to go to the movies or watch TV (I know people did say that!). The point is that we need to recognize the political nature of the space and think about it, and also to work towards the production of some new games which use the space in the ways we want it to be used. I think a lot of exciting new games are emerging which are beginning this work, for example Post-Capitalism, Nova Alea, Papers, Please, even Anarcute (though that is a controversial one because it also commodifies protest). I want to encourage these games but at the same time not police what people play (we can still play a range of games and think critically about them). That said, the days of Candy Crush maybe should be over!

Dr Bown is a journalist and author of Enjoying It: Candy Crush and Capitalism (Zero, 2015) and The Playstation Dreamworld (Polity, 2017). He is assistant professor of literature at HSMC Hong Kong and writes for The Guardian and other places.