It’s hard to believe that Horkheimer and Adorno’s landmark essay The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception was written as far back as 1944. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you use the link here to check it out. While I certainly don’t agree with everything in it–it seems to leave me with a feeling of hopelessness rather than empowerment–some of their criticisms really strike a chord with me. I thought it’d be worthwhile to make some connections between their essay and the “games industry.” My point for doing so is that the “games industry” is seemingly unabashedly committed to ally with a purely capitalist ideology–that is, to openly admit that the whole affair is driven only by profits, catering solely to the lowest common denominator, content to reify the status quo and all its inequities, and completely uninterested in producing anything resembling art in the fine arts sense or criticism in any sense. I know many game designers who do aspire to do much more than provide cheap, soulless amusement for the masses, but their aspirations are as worthless as the games they make instead.
I’ll begin with a quotation from Horkheimer and Adorno that gets right at the heart of the matter:
Movies and radio need no longer pretend to be art. The truth that they are just business is made into an ideology in order to justify the rubbish they deliberately produce. They call themselves industries; and when their directors’ incomes are published, any doubt about the social utility of the finished products is removed.
It saddens me greatly that videogames, with all of their latent potential to effect change and encourage genuine thought and criticism, have, quite deliberately and consciously from the outset, styled themselves as an “industry,” their creations as “products,” and if they have recognized anything remarkable about their own enterprise, it is only the mountain of grimy quarters they have accumulated. Unlike, say, movies or radio, who at least to some extent have occasionally claimed to pursue a higher goal–think of the pop stars who resist “selling out,” or the rare “art” film produced by a famous director–games languish somewhere near the bottom of the cultural spectrum. Indeed, the few pieces that the culturally impoverished “gamer” can point to as an example of something greater are pieces whose sole attraction is their superficial similarity to and aspiration to be a special-effects Hollywood blockbuster. Unfortunately, these pale imitations only mimic the style, and never the substance, of the movies they emulate. It’s as if the only meaning these withered souls can muster for the likes of Saving Private Ryan is that soldiers shoot guns at each other.
There are, no doubt, game developers–particularly among the so-called “indie” scene–who quite rightfully scoff at the likes of Destiny and gesture at the trumped-up “art” or “niche” games that seem to buck the trend. Sadly, even the likes of Braid or Fez or Minecraft are considered notable mostly because of the unexpected profits they turned, and few recognize that that these talented designers “belonged to the industry long before it displayed them,” and are much more eager to fit in to that industry than destroy it. Regardless, those who “offend against the tricks of the trade” are, if regarded at all, regarded favorably because they “all the more strongly confirm the validity of the system.” “See, it’s not all just thinly disguised jingoist capitalist fantasy–we have Flower.”
According to Horkheimer and Adorno, there is an unspoken agreement among producers “not to produce or sanction anything that in any way differs from their own rules, their own ideas about consumers, or above all themselves.” Can truer words be said about the many producers, at the major and minor types, who I have had on the show? I would add, though, that this is not just the dogma of producers, but most especially of both the consumers themselves (the games) and, perhaps tellingly so, the so-called “journalists” and “reviewers” who enforce this status quo. Indeed, so complete is this myopia, that best-selling series and entire categories of games are either unknown or completely ignored by the self-styled gaming “press.” I speak, of course, of the many commercially successful games played by women and girls (notably the Nancy Drew series) and, more generally, the interactive fiction community, whose lone profiteer (Howard Sherman) seems all the more crazy to gamers precisely because he is the lone voice crying out from the wilderness.
Horkheimer and Adorno’s grave concern for the “sound film” may strike us as comical today:
Real life is becoming indistinguishable from the movies. The sound film, far surpassing the theatre of illusion, leaves no room for imagination or reflection on the part of the audience, who is unable to respond within the structure of the film, yet deviate from its precise detail without losing the thread of the story; hence the film forces its victims to equate it directly with reality.
The problem, of course, is that the film “moves along” whether or not you’ve finished cogitating on whatever moral issue or dilemma was presented. By the time a spark begins to form, it is blown out by the next explosion or hormone-stirring image. However, what could be said of a sound film must apply ten times to videogames, who are even quicker to “move on” before we fully grasp whatever point was being made. Indeed, the science of game design prides itself on precisely negating the need for sustained attention, instead calculating the exact moment when a new sequence or layer must be grafted on to maintain “immersion.” Immersion, of course, being the preferred term for mindlessness.
Perhaps the most insulting branch of “game studies” is that repugnant term “gamification,” the banal assertion that labor can be made more “productive” (or, at least, less onerous) by imitating the same mind-numbing techniques employed by the game designers. These starry-eyed cheerleaders seem to have missed something. As Horkheimer and Adorno write
By occupying men’s senses from the time they leave the factory in the evening to the time they clock in again the next morning with matter that bears the impress of the labor process they themselves have to sustain throughout the day, this subsumption mockingly satisfies the concept of a unified culture which the philosophers of personality contrasted with mass culture.
The problem with “gamification” is not that work is not enough like videogames, but that videogames are already too much like work, and daily work on us to convince us to work still harder. The fact that you are shooting a zombie instead of delivering a pizza, drafting a spreadsheet, or configuring a router means little. A moment’s reflection is sufficient to realize that the actions we endure while working are, if at all, little removed from those we employ while “gaming.” This is all the more true for jobs centered on using a computer.
What would serious art look like in a videogame? We may never know. According to Horkheimer and Adorno,
Serious art has been withheld from those for whom the hardship and oppression of life make a mockery of seriousness, and who must be glad if they can use time not spent at the production line just to keep going…What happens at work, in the factory, or in the office can only be escaped from by approximation to it in one’s leisure time.
How many times has the poor “gamer” complained of the long work day, the lack of control over his or her setting and conditions, and how World of Workcraft is the only “escape” from the endless toil? Surely, they should not be expected to expend their last active brain cell playing a game demanding thought.
A game worth playing would be unplayable, at least in the sense of stupor–or, to use the industry term, immersion. While we might be said to “enjoy” a great work of art, music, or literature, we certainly do not do so easily. Indeed, we must work quite hard to resist the inevitable boredom that comes from not being able to see, hear, or understand a real work of art. I emphasize “work” here. A game worth playing would be as impenetrable and “boring” to those tired, worn-out “gamers” as a Wagnerian opera.
In short, the games industry, with its mighty array of almost indistinguishable “products,” is exactly the insipid, mindless entertainment that we demand, and so rightfully deserve.