Books Special

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As a book on videogames traces the history of play from Plato to Pac-Man, Michael Bracewell asks what's next for medium.

Trigger Happy: The Inner Life of Videogames
by Steven Poole
Publication details:
Fourth Estate, 254pp,
£12.00, ISBN 1-84115-120-3

Back in 1999, the acclaimed music-video director Chris Cunningham was commissioned by the advertising agency TBWA to make a television commercial for Sony PlayStation. Employing extraordinary digital imaging effects, Cunningham came up with 'Mental Wealth' - an advert shot in the style of a video diary which featured Fi-Fi the Celtic cyber-pixie holding forth about the need for a new kind of ambition. "It's no longer about what they can achieve out there on your behalf," asserted Fi-Fi, with bags of late-90s advertising-culture attitude, "but what we can experience up here in our own time." Tapping her digitally expanded forehead as she got to the "up here" part of this statement, the Celtic cyber-pixie was being put forward as the latest embodiment of Sony PlayStation's socio-cultural aura.

Part rebel, part free-thinker, part postmodernist urban mystic, Fi-Fi had as her mission to suggest that "mental wealth" lay in the power of your imagination - as stimulated by PlayStation, presumably - rather than in the suspect tedium of the 'real' world. "Land on your own Moon," she concluded before cutting through the solemnity of the moment with a sudden - and faintly irritating - giggle.

As an advert geared towards the ever expanding demographic tribe of youth (a market sector connecting the mid teens to the early fortysomethings by way of Glastonbury, internet banking, Damien Hirst and twisted Levis), 'Mental Wealth' used the idea of resistance and non-conformism to push the cultural identity of its mass-market product. The spirit of individualism embodied in Fi-Fi is, of course, nothing more than the pixellated voodoo of a corporate monolith.

It is this ambiguous relationship between the cultural promises of videogames and the varied experience of actually playing them that forms the heart of Steven Poole's meticulously detailed study of the whole phenomenon. His concept of the "inner life" of videogames is based on a pan-cultural enquiry into their significance, examining the ways they conflate art and entertainment and throw the usual distinctions between different media, and different concepts of narrative, into total disarray: "When people talk about videogames, they tend to compare them with forms they already know and love: film, painting, literature and so on. But there's one critical difference that we need to bear in mind, and it throws a huge spanner in the works of any easy equation between videogames and traditional artforms. It's this. What do you do with a videogame? You play it."

From this simple observation Poole begins to re-route his subject through Platonic notions of 'play'. Quoting from Plato's 'Laws', he identifies a classical definition of 'play' which becomes the perfect focus for studying the revisionist ideas of play that videogames might suggest: "It's a version of a very old question about art, concerning what Plato called mimesis ('representation'). How can videogames claim to be realistic at all? But the peculiar nature of videogames gives the old question several intriguing and novel digital spins. The problem of mimesis in this context - the virtual representation of 'realities' - informs the inner life of nearly every videogame."

And this is the core of the argument: what precisely is the temper of the relation between 'reality' and new media? The speed with which new media has developed - even in the time since Steven Poole completed Trigger Happy - reveals a potential for the issues raised by videogames which has far less to do with gaming per se than with our understanding of ourselves in relation to technology, communications and creativity. Today, a game such as The Sims - in which an entire virtual community will begin to evolve organically, prompted by the player but essentially autonomous - can be seen to represent the replacement of destruction (within the videogame) by a nurturing form of creativity. One understanding of this shift, therefore, could be related to traditionalist perceptions of gender: that the adolescent, masculine 'beat 'em up' sensibility has achieved a feminised maturity. But this maturity has been a long time coming.

Throughout the early to middle 90s, as videogames brought us new pop-cultural champions in the shape of Sonic the Hedgehog or Super Mario Bros, so the ensuing status of these champions became a useful bridging tool between the swiftly dissolving, yet still vociferous, factions of low and high culture. Videogames, as the latest pop-cultural contortion to articulate the acceleration of the zeitgeist, were dizzying in their potential but limited in their reality - and even in their ambition. Useful free-floating cultural signifiers, Sonic et al expressed above all the speed of change: head down, they charged towards the future.

In many ways there was an infantilist reflex at work across the cultural landscape of the early 90s. This was a pan-cultural expression of nostalgia for the values of adolescence and it existed in both a debased and heightened form. At the debased end of the scale it could be seen in the return to gender stereotyping which existed in print and television media - through mid-shelf men's magazines or situation comedy. In its heightened form it became articulate through animation: the adult cartoons of Beavis and Butt-head or South Park, for instance, which became, albeit briefly, useful forces of opposition to the powers of cultural commodification. (As medieval English poets disguised political satires as 'dreams', so adult animation - and later such videogames as Resident Evil - could be used to express sentiments, or permit attitudes, that would probably be disallowed in other media.)

By way of this infantilist reflex, a means was evolved to disrupt and question the controlling cultural fall-out of the 80s. In this much, the popular culture of new media, made eloquent through different types of animation, was replacing the forces of irony or brute critical theory as the means by which to get a relevant take on contemporary society. (Today, for instance, we might think of the pneumatically breasted Lara Croft of the Tomb Raider games as far more relevant than, say, Madonna as a pop icon.) With this in mind, the brainy end of last decade's fashionable cultural media - such as The Modern Review newspaper, for example - would claim the new champions of the infantilist reflex as linked to their anthropological mission. Sonic, for instance, came to represent not only a kind of cartoon heroism but also, by extension, the redundancy of lingering in old analyses of culture. This little ball of spikes, tapping his foot and impatient to be off, seemed to authorise a whole new attitude towards dealing with the speed and complexities of modern life. But how?

Maturing from the infantilism of mere escape - the videogame as a womb with a view - our relationship with videogames in the late 80s and early 90s could be seen as the prelude to some far greater sense of a sudden, bewildering expansion of our world. In this much, the development of videogames could also be seen as a kind of contemporary gothic romance: attempting to keep up with the scope of new science, we entered yet another virtual childhood, searching for compensatory wonders or the thrill of fear in a world of diminishing mystery.

For Poole, pinning down the strands of his subject, the inner life of videogames becomes a kind of cultural adversary - a series of technological, artistic and even ethical contortions which result in a stand-off of intentions between different strands of gaming and the player. As a consequence of this engagement, large sections of Trigger Happy are devoted to the minute and necessary deconstruction of actual gameplay, investigating the graphical and spatio-visual effects of entire lineages of videogames.

Throughout these investigations, Poole's exhaustive research is never lacking in persuasive critique, tracking not only the history of videogames but also considering the played experience of that history as a form of social commentary or even philosophical allegory. Hence, perhaps, his arch yet apposite triptych of quotations at the beginning of the book: from Plato ("Man is the plaything of the gods"), through T. S. Eliot ("Human kind cannot bear very much reality") to Lara Croft, defined by the exclamation of discovery, "Aha!"

Poole's passion for his subject becomes most infectious when he's on the trail of some interpretative link between an aspect of videogame technique or technology and its broader role as emblem or signage. In this respect, the opening of his chapter on the semiotics of Pac-Man is so intellectually astute, and such a glorious piece of mock-heroic camp, it deserves to be quoted in full. "A jaundiced figure floats across the screen. He is constantly searching for things to eat. We are looking at a neo-Marxist parable of late capitalism. He is the pure consumer. With his obsessively gaping maw, he clearly wants only one thing: to feel whole, at peace with himself. He perhaps surmises that if he eats enough, he will attain this state of perfect selfhood, perfect roundness. But it can never happen. He is doomed forever to metaphysical emptiness. It is a tragic fable in primary colours."

The deft brush-strokes of this little portrait bring to life a whole new empathy with the dogged determination of Pac-Man. Viewed in this manner, Pac-Man's identity is elevated from that of a primitive videogame cipher to something closer to a social type. Suddenly we have all felt like Pac-Man must feel, pointlessly chewing his way around an otherwise barren void, hoping to up-grade his nourishment from simple dots to super-boosting blobs.

As Poole closes in on a summation of his subject, he begins to consider the real world by the standards of the virtual universe. Los Angeles, for instance, is "a game of SimCity played by a maniac" and "a satirical dystopia too weird to be anything but real". In this much, Poole comes to regard the inner life of videogames and the world in which those games are played as constant reflections of one another - extending, perhaps, the Platonic line of 'play' to include Plato's symbol of living in a cave and seeing only the shadows on the wall.

In his classic analysis of Los Angeles, City of Quartz (1990), Mike Davis conveys the idea of a (real) modern city which is becoming a maze of social and architectural vectors, the consequences of a process of fragmentation. For Poole, exploring a virtual world "of glowing green and red lines" (in his description of the game Battlezone, for instance), the real urban centres on his journey, as he researches his subject in America or Japan, become redolent of the deliquescing cities of science fiction.

In this much, the city has become a prehistoric concept to the modern videogamer: prehistoric in the sense that real cities date from a time before videogames, and as such are little more than the inspiration for further examples of gothic ruins - the cyberclichés of a post-apocalyptic society or the desolate rural settlement where occult forces have transformed the stock characters of 70s Americana into a cast of living dead. "The purpose of a videogame, then," writes Poole, "is never to simulate real life, but to offer the gift of play. In a videogame, we are citizens of an invisible city where there is no danger, only challenge."

Ultimately, however, Poole finds the world of videogames somehow lacking in direction. Analysing a medium that works to a massively accelerated timescale, he concludes that the value of videogames - what Plato calls "charm" in his definition of play - will only be realised if their content can keep pace with the maturing of the medium. Otherwise, he warns, "if videogames continue to plough clichéd visual and formal ruts, they will furnish the anomic mental landscape of an impoverished and unimaginative future generation."

In this, Poole is entirely correct, positioning his study as the perfect perspective from which to monitor the high-speed development of his subject. Today, the sophistication suggested by the forthcoming Republic: the Revolution game, in which an entire country maintains its own autonomous existence - even while the game is 'turned off', so to speak - suggests yet a further stage in the evolution of new media. Linked to the ambition of television to create fully interactive programmes - thus dismantling the traditional meaning of 'broadcast' - the new media of videogames is set to make virtual worlds which the player participates in rather than simply plays.

What could emerge is something closer to a virtual The Truman Show in which the videogame becomes a window on to a 'living' community and the player a benign version of the film's power-drunk creator Christof. Certainly the move away from conflict and high drama towards a mimesis of daily life - the most volatile and random scenario of all - would seem to be on the cards. Ultimately, we just want to play at being ourselves, after all.

With the imminent release of PlayStation2 being geared to marketing gaming consoles as a piece of general domestic technology through which one is linked to an entire broadband of digital services, this move towards games that mirror the world of the player seems more than pertinent. It suggests a holistic construct of videogames that is also faintly sinister: the idea that, as we live in a real world of increasing surveillance and paranoia over access to the data that's the official record of our existence, we are creating, through videogames, a portrait of our own situation. Plato might have loved the irony.

But Poole's analysis is rightly liberal humanist, foregrounding the need for lucidity and purpose in the face of a technological revolution which could easily exploit the masses it purports to service and entertain. As he remarks in the conclusion to his comments on those videogames such as Civilization which allow you to 'play God': "Such games offer you a position of infinite power in order to whisper the argument that, as an individual in the world, you have none at all."

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012