Alienation & Games:

by tommy.rousse

For the Game Cultures seminar at ITU, I presented a companion lecture for our session on Co-Creative Labour and Culture.  For that class, we read Hector Postigo’s “From Pong to Planet Quake,” Henry Jenkins’ “Interactive Audiences?”, a chapter of Jon Dovey & Helen Kennedy’s Game Cultures: Computer Games as New Media titled “Interventions and Recuperations?” and “A Playful Multitude? Mobilising and Counter-Mobilising Immaterial Game Labor” by Greig de Peuter and Nick Dyer-Witheford (I’ve previously discussed their book, Games of Empire, in this journal).

Almost all of the discussions of immaterial labor we read for class discussed exploitation, but they also generally took the term for granted without going into too much detail about its specifics.  I was reminded of the first paper I had written about game studies several years ago, an essay on Caillois’ four elements of play.  In that paper, I had argued that each of the four elements was focused on the displacement or temporary abandonment of the ego.  Since then, I have been intrigued by the relationship between games and alienation.  I think they have a number of striking formal similarities, and I wanted to share my preliminary thoughts on these matters with the class and get their feedback.  Fair warning: these ideas are even more germinal than most of the stuff I share on this journal, and if I wasn’t getting graded on this little sojourn I’d probably keep it to myself until I had done some more work on it. But if you have any suggestions or criticism, please let me know.

To establish a common theoretical ground I briefly outlined Marx’s concept of alienation as expressed in the essay “Estranged Labour” from The Economic and Political Manuscripts of 1844.  In this “early Marx” essay, Marx describes four sources of alienation caused by wage labor:

1. Alienation from the product— Workers produce for the benefit of someone else, and seldom use the commodities they make.  These products are sold and generate a profit, the whole of which is not given to the worker.

2. Alienation from the working process— In the structured environment of capitalist production, workers must pursue their work in specified ways which do not allow them the opportunity for self-expression and exploration that they might seek in non-alienated labour. The focus of their labour is also defined by the needs of the market, rather than their own needs or their creative urges (e.g. a worker might want to devote his labour-power to writing poetry, but the market forces him to flip burgers instead).

3. Alienation from the fellow worker— In the competitive marketplace, each worker who enters the labor pool reduces the value of his fellow laborers.  The “reserve army” of the unemployed makes individual workers easy to replace and drives wages down.  Thus, workers come to compete with each other, and do things that are in their individual self-interest but not in the interest of the working class as a whole.

4. Alienation from the species-being— This element of alienation is perhaps a little too much to explain in a capsule like this.  In short, Marx believed that humans are creative by their nature, and the wage labour system constrains the essential activities that define man as a species.

Can we imagine four similar types of alienation caused by games?  Perhaps we can think of games as an alienated form of play— I owe a great debt here to Bernie DeKoven’s Well-Played Game, which does an excellent job highlighting gaming’s many failures to produce joyful flow experiences. As a thought experiment, I proposed:

1. Alienation from the product— As Caillois puts it, games are an “occasion of pure waste.”  They are essentially unproductive, and no goods are produced during their execution.  Naturally, recent phenomena such as real money trade considerably muddy this criterion, but for the vast majority of games it is still accurate.

2. Alienation from the playing process— Consider Bernard Suits’ claim that games are a less efficient means of achieving a goal. More generally, the rules of a game inherently restrict the more freeform conception of play— DeKoven suggests that the competitive basis for most games diminishes the opportunity to participate in a truly playful and joyful experience.

3. Alienation from the fellow player— Most games create an artificial conflict between two groups of players, often reinforced by geographic boundaries or affiliation with an extraludic group.  While these players could enjoy a common bond (after all, they need each other to engage in a common game), they are more likely to come to dislike their opponents because of the obstacles they represent, especially if teams are fixed or the consequences of the games are stretched over time (as in a football season). The competitive nature of most games intensifies this phenomena. (Of course, in professional sports, the alienation from the fellow worker still exists, as this excellent New York Times profile of a would-be NFL player demonstrates.)

4. Alienation from the species-being— If you subscribe to Johann Huizinga’s homo ludens theory, then essentially all of Western civilization is actually the alienation from the species-being.  On the other hand, (if you even subscribe to the essentialist notion of a species-being at all) we frequently conceive of the gamer as being somethings set apart from the normal, practical self. That basic conceit lies at the heart of the magic circle.

In short, both games and labour can be seen as competitive systems with artificial constraints that are both commonly construed as being “outside” of our normal selves.  When we are “on the clock” or “on the field,” we recognize that we are different in some way from our typical life.

Of course, while wage labor is essentially forced in Marxist terms, participation in games is usually marked by freedom.  Naturally, this makes professional players a particularly thorny issue for theorists who define the “voluntary” nature of games as a core theoretical definition.  Caillois excludes them from play altogether, a position that I have always found unconvincing and counter-intuitive.