A little while ago, I took a trip to the city of Bath. Having taken the train up from London, we tooled around the city for a day or so and then decided to spend the following day visiting the nearby countryside. In order to access this countryside, we needed to rent a car and so we walked to the outskirts of Bath in order to pick up our rental. We usually rent a car when we go to visit my girlfriend’s family and so we were well acquainted by the buffer zone of form-filling and scratch-detailing that exists between us showing up to get a car and our driving off the lot with said car. However, we usually rent from quite a small rental company and this was our first experience with a major multinational rental agency and the experience could not have been more different: Potential upgrades were not just mentioned in passing, they were argued for using quite aggressive and manipulative language:
- What if we were heading back late and needed to drive faster to make the drop-off? If we got a faster car we could save ourselves money in the long run.
- What if someone broke into our car and stole our stuff? If we upgraded the insurance to cover everything in the car, we could stop some crook from ruining our holiday.
- What if someone stole the petrol in our tank? If we insured that then we could save the money required to re-fill the tank and call out a tow-truck. Petrol is really expensive these days.
The list went on and on. Obviously working from a script, the woman behind the counter probed and prodded our every fear and concern in a desperate effort to extract more money from us than the price advertised on the company’s website. Sensing my growing irritation, my girlfriend suggested I put our stuff in the car while she sort out the paperwork but I find myself reliving that sense of irritation in more and more aspects of my day to day life. Under pressure from investors, companies are trying to wring more and more money from their existing business models. Customers are not just being squeezed, they are being squeezed in ways designed by people with a profound understanding of human psychology. Nowhere is this understanding of human psychology more evident than in the marketplace for popular culture.
A little while ago, I wrote a piece in which I argued that so-called ‘tentpole’ films such as Bay’s Transformers : Dark of the Moon (2011) and the Pirates of the Caribbean series should be judged according to an emerging set of aesthetic rules that owe a lot more to economics and the quirks of human neurology than to the principles of drama laid down by Aristotle:
Over the last thirty years, it has become increasingly apparent that decent plots, inspiring themes and well-drawn characters are largely irrelevant to the success of a tentpole picture. Yes, a summer blockbuster may have something to say or tell a particularly moving story, but the presence of these elements is frequently irrelevant to that film’s financial success. Because tentpole pictures need to raise money in as efficient a manner as possible the aesthetics of the summer blockbuster have been shaped by a great Darwinian rendering, a process whereby everything that does not directly contribute to a film’s commercial success is stripped from the production. The history of the summer blockbuster tells us that plot, character and theme do not sell movies and so summer blockbusters treat these elements of a film as entirely optional. Over the years, this great Darwinian process has given birth to a new set of cinematic aesthetics, aesthetics drawn not from precepts laid down by ancient tragedians but by the dictatorial fiats of the global financial markets.
In what may come to be seen as the single most important piece of video games writing of the last few years, the journalist, game-designer and economist Tim Rogers makes a similar claim about the rise of social gaming. Rogers’ article Who Killed Video Games? (A Ghost Story) depicts game-industry insiders as chillingly reductive and terrifyingly accurate in their pronouncements on gaming and human psychology. These people know how the brain works and use that knowledge to get you addicted to games that can all too easily consume not just your free time but the content of your savings account too!
In the future, three months will have passed, and you’ll still be checking in, from time to time, just to send items to your friends — all it takes is a single click in your inbox — and then maybe you’ll see that weeds have grown in your garden, and you’ll spend nine energy points to get rid of all of them, and then maybe by then you’ll have gotten a long- and good-enough look at your old homestead to consider coming back, and maybe spending a little money, this time.
In other words: we play, so that our friends are not miserable. We suffer, so that others might not suffer. We pay money so that we might suffer less. What gruesome psychomathematiconomist devised this heart-labyrinth? Or: now you know what happens to psychiatrists who are decommissioned because they break the doctor-patient confidentiality rule.
Michael Bay made billions for Hollywood by taking the noble art of filmmaking and reducing it to nothing more than the skilful juxtaposition of absurdly elaborate action sequences with ‘human moments’ so utterly devoid of context that their emotional outpourings seem hysterical and downright frightening. According to Rogers, the same process is afoot in the world of games design as men in suits reduce the joys to be had in playing video games to nothing but a series of “engagement wheels and compulsion traps” designed to hoover up all of our time and money. Rogers concludes that this attempt to boil the experience of a great game down to an (admittedly sophisticated) set of econometric markers is killing the art of game design and killing video gaming itself:
Through sequels and remakes and demakes and remakuels demakuels and reboots and rebooquels, time and again, the makers of games presume that each element of a thing is some different someone’s favorite part of that thing. The hardcore gamers, in their fondest appreciation, have left clues littered here and everywhere, pointing even the most uninitiated toward the universal facets of electronic games that most directly touch our brains — that here are things whose chief criticism is that they are “repetitive” and “anti-social” gives the clever people the idea to remedy one thing while amplifying the other. Some clever people picked up the trail . . . and a few years later, here we are, each of us a different kleptomaniac in a different candy shop. God help us; Shigeru Miyamoto help us all.
I share Rogers distaste for the increasingly adroit way in which video games manipulate us. Playing Infamous 2, I was horrified by the way in which the game interlinked various in-game currencies and structured its missions in such a way that I found myself spending the whole day with the game almost without realising it. I was horrified by the game’s manipulation of the pleasure-centres in my brain for the same reason that I was horrified by the car rental company’s attempt to coax me into spending more money: I do not like being manipulated and when I say that I do not like being manipulated, what I mean is that I do not like to think of myself as the sort of person who can be corralled and bamboozled by such an obvious exercise in button-pressing. I am more than the sum of my fears and my desires and any attempt at reducing me to either of these things is destined to piss me off. And yet I played Infamous 2 all the way to the end…
When I wrote a column about Infamous 2, I concluded that my ambivalence regarding the game flowed from its unspoken challenge to my vision of myself as a rational and intelligent being:
The difference between mindless fun and mindful entertainment is that mindful entertainment flatters the images we have of ourselves. Tree of Life treats us as intelligent seekers-after-truth, and so we praise its disconnected images and music; Transformers treats us as nothing more than collections of base desires, and so we decry its heavy-handed imagery and fragmented inner worlds.
While I still think that this is true, I was struck while reading Rogers’ piece by how irrelevant his picture of game-design was to whether or not I actually enjoyed the games. Indeed, when I went to see Transformers 3, I went knowing full well that I was being manipulated and reduced to a set of neurological feedback loops but the fact that the filmmakers saw me as nothing more than a set of base fears and desires in no way diminished the impact of their work. This prompts me to ask a single question:
Why does it matter that game designers are evil?
Surely, when engaging with a piece of art, the only thing that really matters is the effect that it has upon you as a thinking individual? Far from sounding the death knell for video games, Rogers’ piece is describing the beginnings of a gaming golden age. An age in which difficulty curves and XP progression are shaped by the contours of our brains, an age in which games achieve the capacity to reward and punish with absolute precision and absolute conviction, an age in which entertainment becomes a branch of neuroscience.
If evil game designers means better games then I shall be the first to fall to my knees and praise the Dark Ones for they are truly the source of our deliverance from a world both boringly cruel and cruelly boring. Evil is not the death of games design… it is its logical end point.
In a culture where everyone seems to be out to swindle you, cynicism becomes something of a badge of honour and, like Al Pacino in Carlito’s Way, we pride ourselves on our capacity to see ‘all of the angles’. However, while cynicism and a resistance to hype are admirable in many contexts, I suspect that the capacity for enjoying art may not be one of them. Yes, games designers are manipulative shits and yes, people like Michael Bay are preying upon your worst instincts in order to make money off of you, but surely these things are only problematic as long as you fail to benefit from the exchange? It does not matter that you spend $10,000 on social games as long as you think you got your money’s worth. It does not matter that you left the cinema after Transformers 3 with a damp lap and an unsightly bulge. What matters is that you feel that your money and time were well spent. My fear is that, by focussing upon the means by which the stuff of pop culture is designed and recoiling in horror at the fact that people might be making money out of entertainment, people might be sacrificing the chance to be entertained for the somewhat less effervescent joys of being smarter than the system. So again, I ask:
Why does it matter that game designers, film directors, novelists, artists, poets and dancers are evil?