I’ve spent the last hour reading Freud. My brain physically hurts readers, it physically hurts. I’m aware that there aren’t any pain receptors actually in the brain, drawing into question the very notion of a headache, but I’m sure that if anyone had an explanation as to why my head is thumping it would be Freud himself.
Freud pioneered the notion of the unconscious, an alien presence within ourselves that works and manipulates under its own motivations to the extent that we often act in ways which we don’t understand or consciously intend to; an idea that strikes an intriguing chord with the world of video games. While the player is trapped within the narrow parameters outlined by the game’s developers as to what they can physically or logistically do, the player’s own internal desires and motivations are often quite different to the agreed objectives set out by the game. While society (or in Freudian terms, the superego) prevents us from acting upon our impulses in a truly uninhibited manner, the (typically) consequence-free domain of video games allows us and in many ways encourages us to subvert the dominance of the programmer as we try to find shortcuts, explore map boundaries and try to run over/cut in half/jump on the heads of perfectly pleasant NPCs.
The dominion of video games itself has always struck me as an interesting avenue to explore in terms of psychology; intensely fragmented worlds that we seek to deconstruct as part of our playing experience. While we prattle on about immersion and realism in gaming, there’s at least one time in every gamer’s life where they’ve seen the camera pan out to the distance and decided, “I will run as far towards that as I can, I will test the boundaries.” And inevitably, games always have limits. Eventually we crash into a low-texture landscape, an insurmountable rock face, a warning that the waters beyond this point are too dangerous to explore etc. Our unconscious desires to explore precisely what we are discouraged to investigate are brought into line by the authoritarian God-like power of the game.
Of course this only applies to the games which (at least pretend to) offer us a sense of exploration or self-determination; these titles that offer us freedom to test their flaws are perhaps less real than the ones that direct us from pillar to post as we carry out a list of objectives. The linear game, undistracted by the notion of sandbox independence or the will of the gamer as a free thinker instead place the player upon the rails of a series of objectives in a similar anti-realism quest to “complete” your in-game life or to fulfil a quasi destiny (another impossibly yet psychologically fetishised concept for the individual, one which can never be attained in reality.) The attempt to do all that one can in a virtual context, whether that be save the Princess or complete the Pokédex, reflects in us a sense of perfection, of contentment that, once attained, restricts us from progressing any further with the game, piloting the player to race for a state of existence in which the game is rendered meaningless to them.
And yet we’re never disappointed when we reach the end, when we find the invisible walls that force us back into the delusion or catch that last Pokémon and realise we have nothing left to achieve. Perhaps the fact that we contend everyday with being our own authoritative force, our self-punishing superego as it were, we cherish in some way the safety offered to us by a pseudo higher dominance that will take responsibility for telling us when we overstep the mark, when we’ve done enough. The fact that we’re in some grand way wasting our time in the process (for what is the point of gaming, as with any activity?) is exiled from the debate, it merely compounds this notion of a consequence-free atmosphere in which we are playing by someone else’s rules and the loss of time into that construct makes it all the more enticing.
There will be articles this week, they will be interesting and well written with appropriate imagery to accompany them. Until then, I have more Freud to read.