Belatedly, and since I am more or less cowed by Andrew Stern’s coverage of the Level Up conference, I am going to first jump in on the conversation that he, David Thomas and Mark Bernstein have been having about what games could teach us about the human condition. I want to invert the question somewhat, because the problem of the human condition may well be framed by the media in which it is asked. (That rumbling over in Canada is Marshall McLuhan’s body turning cartwheels, but pay it no mind.)
Perhaps the question of human subjectivity posited by and embodied in the game as a cultural artifact is distinct from the beginning, much in the way that the novel and the film each produced compelling constructions of the nature of human subjectivity. The vernacular novel, in its career from an incidental form of literature through its “relegation” to a women’s media in the time of Jane Ayre and the Bronte sisters, posits an idea of human subjectivity in which interiority is equal to or ascendent over exteriority; in which the workings of inner life and inner voice (and I’ll dodge the question of the modern in this) are often priviledged over the self as a body among others. The subject of the novel is the subject of Freud and Nietzsche: the self who thinks itself into its position, for whom the objects of thought are as determinant as the objects of the world. As film ascended as a definitive cultural form, it carried a distinct kind of filmic subjectivity with it, one in which the self was known by surface effects, by exteriority and signs and the possibilities of mistaken and decieving impressions of the self. I think the capitulation of exteriority to the regime of signs is most obvious in the films of Godard, but I think it’s latent in film all the way back to Eisenstein and D.W. Griffiths.
So, with the videogame, there’s another framing of the question of the human that occurs: that of humans as systems of state and value, of implicit and explicit rules, of the disintegration of the boundaries between body and mind (which is, after all, what “twitch” really is: the neuron as a muscle.) Asking videogames to address the problems of the human condition framed by novels or films is to do it a disservice: it reframes those problems completely. Could a novel or film really find the expressive power to reveal what The Sims suggests about the structures of daily life? I don’t think so, or only in limited ways (a film could offer an explanation of one possible configuration, and one or two theories for those configurations). I’m not ready to suggest a unified theory of videogame subjectivity, but there are a number of elements and characteristics I think it would have: combinational power, the estrangement between implementation and phenomenon, the tension between the explicit model and the implicit structure; emotions as systems (Facade, the Sims, Japanese dating sims); relationships as emerging from the collisions between and interactions of interior systems; the tension between the cell and the body; the ambiguity of the body’s self and the symbolic self. Videogames will become more fluent at expressing the human condition when it becomes more aware of how it has reframed the question, and how it has participated in the reframing of this question in parallel with other social/historical forces.