Alfie Brown, The Playstation Dreamworld (Theory Redux)

Alfie Brown, The Playstation Dreamworld (Theory Redux), (Cambridge: Polity, 2018), 140 pp., £40 Hb, £9.99 Pb. ISBN: 978-1-509-51802-9

Alfie Bown’s The Playstation Dreamworld provides a preliminary response to the question: what would Lacan say about videogames? I say preliminary because despite the book’s aim to argue ‘that the world of videogames can only be fully understood via the analysis of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’ (3), the analysis that unfolds is at times more indebted to Walter Benjamin and the Frankfurt School than it is to Lacan. That said, where Lacan is discussed, The Playstation Dreamworld provides a succinct introduction to certain complicated concepts and engages in otherwise inaccessibly abstract debates at a level which the reader can enjoy and feel they have sufficient grasp of thereafter.

The book is divided into four chapters. The first chapter ‘From Farming Simulation to Dystopic Wasteland: Gaming and Capitalism’ situates the book as an examination of how videogames reproduce capitalism. This chapter explicates the capacity of videogames to ensure our loyal adherence to capitalism through various means. Some videogames like World of Warcraft induce a continued sense of success in our otherwise mundane lives (32). Others like Virtual Beggar firmly situate and define success within a capitalist paradigm of economic efficiency and productivity creating bonds of association to ensure our loyalty (33). Certain games like Candy Crush serve to induce a sense of guilt by distracting us from our work in the short term, ensuring our commitment in the long term (35-36). Finally, this chapter examines the ways certain games like Stardew Valley and Bioshock create conformist escapism. We are given the opportunity to return to a nostalgic pastoral past utopia, or a post-capitalist apocalyptic dystopia, all the while presenting the capitalist present as the only feasible option (49). Bown suggests that the presentation of life under pre- or post-capitalist conditions as undesirable renders life under capitalism, as problematic as it may be, the only reasonable option for the gamer.  Although, as a gamer, I feel the inclusion of Bioshock into this list fails to appreciate the criticism of Ayn Rand’s endorsement of capitalism throughout the game’s narrative. Bioshock’s presentation of the underwater city ‘Rapture’ is clearly a depiction of Ayn Rand’s ‘Galt’s Glutch’ introduced in Atlas Shrugged (1957), an archetypal capitalist society regulated only by free and selfish exchange between individuals. Rapture depicts the deterioration of Galt’s Gulch over time, as a society regulated only by self-interested exchange pits people against one another. Rapture thus serves as an indictment of the capitalist rationale.

In the second chapter ‘Dreamwork: Cyborgs on the Analyst’s Couch’ the text takes a turn towards psychoanalysis. This chapter seeks to reconceptualise the analysis away from assuming subjectivity to explaining the constitution of subjectivity beginning with an explication of Freud’s dream analysis: ‘games can naturalize the enjoyment of the other, forcing the player to feel a kind of affinity between themselves and the role they play within the game’ (76). Games create subjects with specific desires by positioning them within the game’s narrative revolving around the completion of certain goals. The subject position is indeed bound by the goal itself, as in the case of the pursuit of money and subjects under capitalism who facilitate an economic system predicated on the endless pursuit of profit. Bown exemplifies and articulates a nuanced understanding of the role played by games in constituting subjectivity but there is a problem here insofar as Bown superimposes Lacan’s emphasis on the linguistic constitution of subjectivity on Freud’s theory of the unconscious. This is evident in Bown’s discussion of the Grand Theft Auto series where, still in keeping with a discussion of Freud, he discusses the game’s ability to constitute subjects with specific desires thus contesting the notion of trans-historical desire. The problem is that Freud’s unconscious clearly assumes the very trans-historical desires (for example the inevitable desire for mother) that Lacan wants to remove from psychoanalysis. René Girard’s chapter ‘Freud and the Oedipus Complex’ in Violence and the Sacred (1977) articulates this reading of Freud and I believe emphasises the point I am making.[1]

It is not until the third chapter ‘Retro Gaming: The Politics of Former and Future Pleasures’ that a greater emphasis on Lacan develops. By exploring the game Link’s Awakening, Bown cleverly articulates the tightrope on which games are balanced: between the cynical conformist notion of ideology and the potential for subversion. In the first instance, the game outlines the role played by fictitious ideas to organise our lives. The inhabitants that the player (as Link) comes across know that they live within a “Wind Fish”. Bown understands the Wind Fish to be a metaphor for ideology conceived here as a system of meanings which we live by, the narrative of the game itself. The inhabitants implore the player not to awaken the creature for fear of depriving them of the illusions which inform and organise their lives (105). At the same time, the game disturbs and subverts the rigidity of this illusory structure by incorporating characters such as Yoshi from the Mario series into Link’s Awakening where it does not belong (104). This relates to the psychoanalytic concept of the ‘uncanny’, a feeling that brings us uncomfortably close to the linguistic processes constructing subjectivity (103-104). Bown’s incorporation of the uncanny into his analysis provides a unique insight into the subversive potential of games whereby the incorporation of certain characters into games they do not belong potentially destabilises the narrative, the system of meaning in which the player is positioned.

The third chapter concludes with a discussion of the conceptual difference between jouissance and plaisir, enjoyment and pleasure. Where plaisir denotes a conformist pleasure, one which reproduces (capitalist) paradigms, jouissance is a more subversive enjoyment, one which traverses and challenges predominant concepts of the subject. It is here that the biggest shortcoming of the book becomes apparent and bleeds into the fourth and final chapter: ‘Bonus Features: How To Be a Subversive Gamer’. Bown has a wonderful ability to articulate clearly otherwise abstract theoretical debates and his explication of Deleuze/Guattari’s debate with Lacan is no exception (124). Bown considers whether a mechanical subjectivity, one devoid of traditional features associated with human identity is favourable. This is fundamentally a question about life beyond or without the narrow confines of traditional subjectivity and it is for that very reason the omission of Kristeva and Irigaray is unacceptable. Throughout the book women are, to the best of my knowledge, substantially employed merely five times in the analysis. This is made even more problematic when we consider that both Kristeva, with her concept of the ‘Semiotic’ and Irigaray, with her concept of ‘Ecriture Feminine’ (women’s writing) both theorise subversion by employing Lacanian concepts. Both the Semiotic and the Ecriture Feminine pose as discursive strategies to disrupt and confuse heteronormative patriarchal discourse and are thoroughly relevant and indeed necessary to Bown’s analysis. Part of the problem is that the book takes as its starting point the reproduction of capitalism, completely failing to account for the perhaps more pervasive and immediate concern of patriarchy. 

Alfie Bown’s The Playstation Dreamworld is a succinct introduction to various strands of critical theory through videogame analysis and I recommend the text. One glaring limitation that needs recognising, however, is the complete absence of any consideration as to how videogames reproduce patriarchal gender relations. This also concerns the absence of a sufficient engagement with women thinkers like Irigaray and Kristeva whose utilisation of Lacanian concepts warranted their inclusion in Bown’s analysis of video games. Women are already heavily marginalised in the medium of videogames and it is problematic that they are further marginalised here in the analysis of that medium. Insofar as our writing is part of our political practice, my recommendation comes with a recognition that the text is not as subversive of predominant power dynamics as it otherwise could or should have been. Despite this, the book’s virtues still warrant it being read by anyone interested in power and subjectivity.

Yanos Soubieski, Teaching Fellow in Politics & IR, University of Reading

[1] Girard, R (2008) Violence and the Sacred. London: Continuum.