31 Jul

Computer games and the social imaginary

Posted By Politybooks

Graeme hatMy book is a contribution to the social history of computer games. It wasn’t obvious to anyone what the first computer game programs were for when they were created in the late 1950s and early 60s. The idea of the computer game as much as the technical objects  themselves had to be produced and, in various ways, defended and argued for.

Since the first games were developed in serious sounding research institutes on very expensive machines, calling them ‘games’ might even have been a little bit disconcerting.

To get from that situation in the 1960s to the one we have now, where gaming is a multi-billion dollar industry involving some of the largest technology companies, perceptions had to change. This change was not technologically determined but involved the interaction of technical objects with cultural and social forces which have shaped games and gaming as we know them today.

In my book I describe how a culture was formed around game programs that facilitated the switch from ‘games played on a computer’ to ‘computer games’. People stopped feeling the need to rationalize games as ‘diagnostic’ or ‘training’ programs, which is how early games like ‘Spacewar!’ were often described, and started to think about gaming as an inherently worthwhile activity in its own right.

That transition occurred in the second half of the 1980s and it is associated with the emergence and consolidation of new evaluative criteria for games, especially the idea of ‘gameplay’, and with the appearance of a new subject: the gamer.

The universal recognition computer games now enjoy was to a large extent accomplished by the young people who distinguished themselves from older computer obsessives and other youth on the basis that they ‘got it’ about games; they knew what made good games good and other people didn’t.

Through the pages of gaming magazines in the 1980s and 90s, a culture of taste was established that unified the community and enabled it to establish the computer game as a special kind of object that they related to positively and which other, non-gaming publics could not ignore.

A new ‘imagined community’ was created, of people who identified themselves as gamers and who shared ideas with each other about what made a ‘good’ computer game. Gamers and gaming were not merely a by-product of the commercial activity of the game corporations (Nintendo and Sega) who dominated the industry in the early 90s.

Gamers bought the games but they also made a nuisance of themselves by criticizing them and demanding more controversy from them than was comfortable for large media conglomerates whose primary concern was with their public image.

The arrival of gaming, carried essentially by this new community, was an important moment in the development of contemporary culture and society.
In the book I chart its importance through its impact on our social imaginary: the facility we all have for making sense of experiences in terms of the idea of ‘society’.

A coherent social concept is a product of the play of our social imaginary with available technologies and the kinds of information we have coming in, so to speak, about the wider world. As gaming became a near-global cultural practice it imposed changes on our social map, altering significant parts of the topography.

The 1990s was the decade of the ‘user friendly’ interface; the time when technology changed from being big, challenging machines into colourful, playful devices. Games spearheaded this development, familiarizing us with the idea that computers could be pleasing and fun. They were second only to e-mail as ‘first use’ applications in the spread of the Internet for example.

The meaning of work has also changed. The values of gaming culture are now diffuse and inform much of what we do from day to day. As we use playful computers for shopping, keeping in touch, working and everything else, so all our activity is infused by a sense of levity and play that characterizes digital culture. This is by no means an unambiguous benefit to society.

Precarious and exploitative labour practices are enforced and policed under the guise of what business studies people are increasingly inclined to call ‘gamification’. In the book I suggest that this re-imagining of technology and of work environments has to be seen as a technological extension of Boltanski and Chiapello’s (2005) idea of a ‘new spirit of capitalism’.

There is a kind of cynicism that is promoted by the idea that everything is just a game. This reflects the articulation of gaming values to the neo-liberal formatting of subjective experience.

It’s not difficult to see the connection: gaming is normally a competitive activity and it involves intense activity in the pursuit of one’s own interests or those of a ‘team’. Most gaming is about concentrated focus on the management of dynamic sets of variables and this comports strongly with contemporary forms of labour.

Over the last few decades the ‘gamer generation’ have grown up and entered the workplace. They seem ill-inclined to participate in solidaristic activities with goals that question the rules of the game and even if they were, they don’t usually have the time. The game may not be good for them but it is addictive.

I conclude the book by reflecting on the aesthetics of games and how they might provide the basis for a response to this situation. Most media theorists have focused on the content of games, treating them as texts subject to the same interpretive procedures as TV shows or films. In my view the real significance of games lies in the movement they demand from their players and the discrepancies, dislocations and breakdowns of meaning that guide, inform and intersect this movement.

The ambience of playful media like games tends to undermine or inhibit our capacity to form a stable, coherent image of society. Games are in this sense emblematic of what Boltanski (2011) calls the ‘viscosity of the real’: before we can get a firm handle on it, society has moved and we have to start again.

I suggest that some games offer powerful allegories of this and that in so doing they create spaces in which we are invited to reflect on the nature of our connection with others.

Boltanski, L. Chiapello, E. (2005) The New Spirit of Capitalism London: Verso
Boltanski, L. (2011) On Critique Cambridge: Polity.