Dr. Alfie Bown is a lecturer at the Royal Holloway University of London at the Digital Media Culture and Technology Chair. He is the author of Enjoying It: Candy Crush and Capitalism (Zero Books, 2015), The Playstation Dreamworld (Polity, 2017), In the Event of Laughter (Bloomsbury, 2018), Post-Memes: Seizing the Memes of Production (Punctum Press, 2019) and most recently Dream Lovers: The Gamification of Relationships (Pluto Press, 2022). He regularly writes articles in media including The Guardian, The Paris Review, The Independent, New Statesman and Newsweek. I am glad for the interview he gave me and I hope that everything he analyzes will be a trigger and a legacy for a new generation of scientists to come.
You are working in the academic field of digital media, psychoanalysis and video games. What have you found in video games that you want to express through your scientific work?
Videogames are a unique form in that they are computational programs as well as art. Games relate to us cybernetically – we create them, but they also create us. When we play, we are transformed by the processes of play – we become the subjects of the future through the plasticity of our minds and their capacity to transform. In this sense, games are programmed by us but we are also programmed by games. They make us think, empathise, desire, feel and love in new ways. To understand desires, affects, feelings and drives we can use psychoanalysis. Doing so shows us how powerful games are – the grip they can have on us.
Critical dystopia and video games is a very promising and exceptional theme in academic studies. Gerald Farca in his book Playing Dystopia Nightmarish Worlds in Video Games and the Player’s Aesthetic Response argues that “The player thus steadily realises that the gameworld is not so far from the capitalist world system of his empirical surroundings“. Do you believe that through video games humanity could rediscover itself? Could we use video games in order to deconstruct this
socioeconomic system and rearrange it based in social direction?
I think games can be part of socialism, and I think this argument is a valid one. Games inherit structures of capitalism and are restricted by them, but perhaps they can reveal to us how capitalism functions. However, on the other hand we need to think about how games are made. Most games, and the consoles and computers we play them on, are embedded in global supply chains fraught with environmental concerns and connected to global exploitation of workers and resources. We can’t celebrate socialist games until we produce new systems to create hardware and software that can begin to divorce itself from the very worst patterns of contemporary capitalism. There’s no point celebrating a strong female lead when the components of the console the game is used to play on were made in a factory in the Global South than employs mostly women and children in abysmal working conditions.
I don’t think videogames particularly play a role in imagining the future from a socialist position. Games don’t imagine the end of capitalism, even if they can critique it. However, gaming as an industry is at the heart of global capitalism – and so it can also be part of a resistance. Low tech gaming, permacomputing, Indie gaming and hacker movements, among other things, are all examples of where the gaming community intersects with politics in progressive rather than simply complicit ways. So in short, I’m simply saying we need to think not only about the content of games but about the hardware and software they run on, if we want to imagine a better future for games or think of games as a way to a better future for us.
Video games, as all the mass media, are trying to pass whatever message their creator/developer want. Do you believe that today’s video games could be used as a state tool for politics and alt-right rhetoric and hate speech?
I don’t agree that games pass the message their creator or developer wants. Games are often unconsciously ideological. In fact, a lot of game designers and production houses tend to resist admitting how political their games are. The CEO of Ubisoft said that The Division 2 had nothing to do with politics, for example, which is of course nonsense. Whether the designers want them to or not, games carry the ideology of their creators and of their culture. Its been clear, to give an obvious answer, that after 9/11 American games increasingly stereotype and present the Arab enemy in politically dangerous ways. This doesn’t mean games are bad or that we should be wary, however. It means that they are immensely powerful things that shape and influence how we think and feel as a culture. For me, although we might think immediately of ‘negative’ examples, I think we should see this as an opportunity to use games to reflect our own ideas and powerfully influence players – to support socialism for example, rather than American imperialism or whatever it might be.
Why do you think ludology has so much acceptance in the academic studies during the last 20 years? A lot of PhD’s from the most scientific fields (even from the religious point of view) are studying the video games’ phenomenon.
I would just say that everyone is taking games seriously because they are shaping our future. However, I am not a ludologist. The academic tradition of ludology is very different to my own approach. I think the key thing is to connect play with politics. That’s something that starts from Gamergate in 2014, runs through the Trump election, and its something we’re still (just about) grappling with now.
As you mention in your book “The Playstation Dreamworld“: “Living in what Walter Benjamin had
predicted would be a “culture of distraction,” we now experience and enjoy hundreds of apparently mindless things that fill our time – not only mobile-phone games and internet tabs but also social-media notifications and YouTube clips”. Do you believe that this culture of the unconsciously encouragement and repeatability, via video games, could mean the end of personality and free will as we know it? The same concept is being used for the so called “digital cities” where the citizens will earn some kind of points if they follow specific orders and ways walking and driving in the city. It seems there’s a pattern here.
The question of distraction via Benjamin came from a small book I wrote when I was much younger called Enjoying It: Candy Crush and Capitalism. At the time I was a training academic but working as a full time chef. In 2005 I was using my break time to criticise my boss with my colleagues, just moaning and talking about our working conditions. By 2010 we were each taking breaks separately and not talking, but playing Candy Crush or Temple Run. The potential solidarity between employees was being fragmented by a change in our relationship to games, phones, work, etc. I wanted to explore that a bit.
Predictive applications that are at the heart of the smart city (including Uber, Grindr, Pokemon GO and hundreds of others) should be seen as particularly important technological developments of the last decade in this regard. They are specifically complicit in these new regulatory practices and work to construct the new “geographical contours” of the city, regulating the paths we take and mapping the city in the service of both corporate interest and the prevention of uprisings. More importantly, and more unconsciously, they are part of what Jean-Francois Lyotard once called the “desirevolution” — an evolution and revolution of desire, in which that what we want is itself now determined by the digital paths we tread. In my new book Dream Lovers: The Gamification of Relationships, just out with Pluto, I explore exactly this question: is it possible to live in a smart city but also have agency? My argument, which is too long to repeat here, is that we need to seize the means of production of technology if we are to have any say in our own future, even our own desires.
Johan Huizinga in his “magic circle” found a similarity between ritual and play which both of them have social characteristics. Do you think that through the symbolic communication of video games could someone find a formation of social grouping especially through MMO games? In other words, could video games support the public and the collective? Also, could video games help us understand the Other?
Our experiences online and in digital life can be very fragmented. Often, our screens demand that we move from one thought, feeling or desire to another with high frequency. We switch rapidly from meme to meme, from game to game, from one simulated burst of libidinal energy to the next. The result of this might be to produce an experience that is divided rather than consistent. In ‘Postscript on the Societies of Control’ Deleuze introduced his concept of the ‘dividual’, which has in recent years become a staple term for discussions of the subject in his/her digital environment. The ‘dividual’ is the idea of the individual as a collection of data but also as a being who can only follow certain predetermined paths, just as computational machines can. As opposed to an individual, imagined as a consistent identity who stays the same day to day or who changes in a continuous way over time, the dividual is an experience of ourselves in which we are encouraged to restart and reorganize ourselves regularly in a ruptured or fractured way. The possible paths that we can follow are refreshed in each moment.
“The different internments or spaces of enclosure through which the individual passes are independent variables: each time one is supposed to start from zero.”
For Deleuze, when we pass into these experiences we are ‘reset,’ experiencing the moment in isolation or before moving on to the next. As such, we become subjects characterized by division and flux. This situation might create temporary moments of identification – even of empathy – but they may prevent rather than encourage the longer-term development of solidarity and fidelity. We are not only divided from others but from and within ourselves. In this theoretical context it is easy to see how Virtual Reality events have been used so successfully to attract consumers and investors in venture capitalism and big business, such as companies like Aures London, or even to encourage charitable donations to particular philanthropic causes such as the company Within. By momentarily capturing attention and libidinal energy, such experiences foster temporary identification with the ideology in question. What might be less likely is the creation of long-term support and solidarity to develop through such acts of digital identification. Nevertheless, we should try. As I said before, this is a power of games. The capitalists are using it – now we should too.
So, video games are political and I could not agree more. In the same article of yours from “The Guardian”, you argue that writers like Dickens who criticized the social and the state through their books could not change the world order people because people read books just for pleasure and before bed time. The same thing is happening with video games, as you argue. Many video games, like The Stanley Parable or Disco Elysium, are using an effective way to criticize the modern era and the state. Both of these games were instant hits and their narrative is exemplary. How could pop and digital culture become a preliminary work for social change?
The point I wanted to make about the connection to literature (which I know is kind of silly, given how different these things are), is that it is not the content that matters most but the form. So, we can have games, like Assassins Creed, where we play as the oppressed class against the dominant order, or we can have strong female leads, or even good LGBTQI+ representation. But this does not *necessarily* mean that those games are helping social change. There has to be something in the *form* of the game, its ludo aspect, its gameplay, which forces us to think differently. I think Disco Elysium is an interesting example of this. I was recently told by a trans gamer that it is extremely popular with trans players and they didn’t think this had anything to do with representation. It is not Overwatch, for example. Instead, there is something in the form of play that the game offers that makes it appeal to marginalized groups. I think this is a great start – to move away from only thinking in terms of representation.
To finish with something maybe more provocative developing this idea – I think we need to change what fun is. People always say to me that a socialist game would not be fun, compared to shooting someone in the head with a sniper rifle. Don’t get my wrong, I also like to shoot heads off and I understand that it is fun to do so. BUT – it is fun because we have been trained by a long history of games to enjoy this, and we can also be trained anew. Games like Disco Elysium and Papers, Please are often boring for the first hour or two of play, while we adjust to their fun structure. Games can reprogram what fun is. That is their most radical potential.