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Games and Symbolic Transformation

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games and symbolic transformation - Games and Symbolic Transformation

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What is a videogame? The literal answer is pixels on a screen combined with sound from speakers. Perhaps more accurately pixels and sound which respond to input by a user. But what the thing is in physical terms doesn't capture it's essence. The pixels and the sound are both transducers of meaning. They convert electrical signals into patterns which can be registered in our brain. Outside of cultural context, the videogame becomes a very slippery and amorphous idea.

Within cultural context, a videogame is easier to define. Based on past precedents we may say it's a electrical program with goals designed to engage various cognitive functions of the gamer. Keyword being engage- not challenge. Sometimes the engagement does manifest as a challenge- To kill an enemy, but other times engagement manifests as a creative activity- To decorate one's house.

But the possibility for objectives is limited only by imagination- and consequently too is the definition of a game.

So then how might be begin to explore the limitless possibility of what a game might be?

When one plays a game, it is said one enters into the world of the game. For this reason videogames are often conflated with escapism. Games represent various windows away from unified reality. And unlike other artforms such as books and movies, the player takes an active role in their escape.

But where exactly do they go? Not into nowhere. Into the world of symbols and dreams. Games a devices made from pure symbols and archetypes, and have internal rules which govern how these archetypes interact with each other. And within these worlds is the player, who takes on a position within it all.

By playing the game, no matter which game, the player is able to transform their position within the symbolic order. By making lines disappear in Tetris, the player is taught to see themselves as a logical organizer of spacial objects. By getting kills in Call of Duty, the player learns to see themselves as a self-sufficient, indomitable individual. In Animal Crossing, the player may learn to experience their being as a designer, a florist, or even an empathetic individual. In RPGS like Skyrim, the player is given options to play in any manner of ways, and allows them to create an inner life completely beyond the control and needs of their outer reality.

The game is where the inner symbolic world of the player comes into contact with the symbolic world of the game. If the game is fun, it signifies an alchemical reaction has occurred within the symbolic structuring of the player. This could occur for any number of reasons, and when we begin to analyze games from this perspective, we open a window to understanding why some games become popular and others don't, and if I dare make the leap, we begin to understand the workings of subconscious on a grand scale.


To bring back the Tetris analysis, what does its success tell us about its times? Or in other words, why did so many people feel compelled by "self-realization as an organizer of abstract space"? In Laconian terms- if desire is generated by lack- we discover a hidden repression of the role of "organizer" on a mass scale, whose libido spills over in the form of the game. In simple words, it's fun to organize abstract blocks in Tetris because you lack organization of abstract blocks in real life. You may then interpret this analysis through the lenses of different ideology. Perhaps the inundation of advertising in America is to blame for stripping individuals of this identity-of-organizing- via transformation into submissive consumer.

In some games the alchemy being practiced is much more literal. Just look at Call of Duty. The symbols being employed is that of the soldier, but not as a nameless grunt, but as a highly customizable avatar of destruction. Early moral critique of the game revolved around its capacity to incite violence. But a symbolic analysis allows us to understand the game and its consequences on a much deeper level. In order for the game to become popular, there had to exist a prior subconscious need to become a powerful, indomitable soldier. Analysis of the game then turns into a cultural analysis of how the "soldier" SYMBOL has become a widespread motif to designate toughness, resourcefulness, masculinity, and a manner of other good things which are perhaps contrary to what a soldier literally does.

Do I mean to say Call of Duty is bad you shouldn't play it because it's based off American war propaganda? No. There is nothing wrong about experiencing the thrill of outplaying your opponents, and becoming the "most deadly soldier"- it may inspire self-confidence in someone who lacks an outlet to manifest these symbols in real life. But when the "Call of Duty" shooter formula is repackaged and sold over and over again for years and years, it suggests that it fulfills a symbolic need which isn't being fulfilled in lived experience, and you must question why. Perhaps because American media has wired boy's brains to equate a symbolic "soldier-ness" into the very essence of masculine self-confidence- artificial lack generated to both sell products like CoD and fuel the military industrial complex. But that's just my interpretation.

In conclusion, even games are not the so called "neutral" escapes from reality. They are portals into alternate "modes of being" within symbolic orders designed by game-makers. The active role a player takes changes the symbolic order of the gameworld, whose consequences then cause reflection on one's own self image.

Traditional game development discourse revolve around engineering concepts such as feedback loops, microtasks, stat checks, etc. But the "soul" of a game is determined by it's interaction of symbols.

And games which rehash the same symbols over and over do nothing to evolve and grow the minds of their players. If you want to make your game mean something you need to depart from the symbolic order which has been cemented into contemporary games, society, movies, etc, with subtle variations and subversions of your own.

(Preferably to uplift the collective symbolic existence of society, to include peoples who aren't well "symbolically represented" in media, in pursuit of a more just and balanced symbolic pantheon of belief.)

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