I came across an article today that tries to refute the idea that videogames are about power fantasies. Here’s a quote:
Perhaps games aren’t really about power, they’re actually more about agency – the idea that we can have any sort of influence and control over what happens to us, and the world around us.
The problem here is that influence and control over ourselves and the world around us is power. It doesn’t matter if that power is fantastical or mundane. Whether it’s military killing machines or being able to stand up and walk, we’re talking power.
The article does not distinguish between power and “agency”, rather it distinguishes two aesthetics that power often assumes. One is explicit, the other implicit. The explicit power, the fantastical one, involves things such as flying like Superman, mass murder without consequences, conquering nations, that sort of thing. This explicit power, when it appears in videogames, is often a bit campy, a bit over-the-top. It is a very useful fiction, however, because it helps us conceal the other form of power. It is a power simultaneously boring and impossibly horrific: the passive power of a person or group already at the top. When you’re a part of that passive power, you often don’t notice it’s there. Another quote:
Games, then, aren’t about power as much as they are about just having one fricking place where the system does what it says it will…
A world where things “just work” without hassle is very much a power fantasy, of human control via individual and infrastructure. That we pull stuff out of the earth and burn it to power the devices we use, that is power. That we shape the landscape to suit our needs, cutting down forests, building roads, that is power. That we can hold a toy in our hands produced by this massive machine, and simply accept it has a purpose it’s “supposed” to fulfill—that we are so sure it has been built for us that we feel justified in getting angry at it—this is power.
When read from this deeper understanding of power, the article unwittingly makes the opposite argument, that videogames are inherently power fantasies. That the very interface with which we interact with videogames is itself a power fantasy:
So game machines are specifically built to present us with symbols of control – buttons, touchpads, interfaces – it’s just that here, the symbols really do work.
The controller is built for us, with the express purpose of doing what we tell it to do. Sounds a bit like power to me.
There are so many events that lead up to us holding that controller, though. Who pulls stuff out of the ground so we can power these toys? Who works at the factories that build these things? What animals are displaced or killed by these acts? We are so powerful as a species that the majority of us in the industrialized world do not have to think about this, or care. We can choose to forget the entire human industrial machine that makes these products, and then claim these products aren’t about power. That is passive power. That is power already claimed. Power taken for granted so thoroughly we’ve forgotten it. But the things we do within that bubble are only possible because that power is in place and has been for centuries.
In Videogame Land we take that passive power and call it “agency”. It sounds a lot nicer, after all, and makes you feel a lot better about yourself. It makes power feel innately good. It makes it easier to just do stuff without questioning whether you should or not.
The point here isn’t that we should feel guilty, or some weak “we are the world” sentiment, or a Luddite call to arms. The point is that you cannot remove power from the equation, you can only disguise it. Power is a factor at every scale, from microbes to nuclear bombs. There is no cutoff point where power stops mattering. This applies across the board, not just to videogames.
Rather than questioning if videogames are a power fantasy, we need to ask ourselves better questions. What kind of power do these fantasies evoke? What power might they conceal? How do we use these fantasies in a social context? What impacts of these fantasies do we refuse to acknowledge?
If there’s a statement to make about the allure of the typical videogame power fantasy, it is how we use it to uphold our industrial fantasy of powerlessness. There is a reason the demographic that most violently clings to the over-the-top, explicit videogame power fantasy is a group that already holds the most power. It’s a simultaneous refutation of existing power, and a way to feed the desire for more. It’s having your cake and refusing to pay for it. Or even, getting angry when you are asked to pay for it. After all, the whole world was built just for you, wasn’t it?