WILL SELF: What gaming tells us about the human condition

Grand Theft Auto. Photo: Submitted

Grand Theft Auto. Photo: Submitted - Credit: Archant

WILL SELF on Grand Theft Auto, avatars and Nietzsche.

My son's alter-ego is called Franklin. He's a light-skinned African-American man of around 30, who wears sneakers, blue jeans and a short-sleeved polo shirt over a long sleeved T-one. Look, I've been accustomed to my sons having these alter-egos for years now – going right back to the 1990s, when my eldest regularly incorporated himself as chubby Italian plumber called Mario. My middle son is probably the most compulsive gamer of the trio – and he's had scores of avatars over the years, some of which I've been rather more attached to than he was. I recall – I think it was in Skyrim, but possibly some other virtual realm of sword-and-sorcery – a wife of one of his alter-egos had, who seemed pretty busy in the background, clearing up his weapons and generally straightening-out their thatched homestead. But when I asked my son what this character was called, he simply grunted 'Dunno'.

Some might say that this is the logical end-point of a certain kind of gaming: the complete absorption of a psyche – for the most part, a male one – into an over-adrenalized zone, where insofar as any thinking is going on at all, it's of the purely automatic point-and-click-to-simulate-violence kind. Certainly, from where I'm usually sitting, on the other end of the sofa to the person who's killing the witches, warlocks and Nazi zombies, it can look that way. The sort of skills involved in these first-person role-playing games, for all that they try and introduce tasks and quests, really boil down to nimble fingers and a bloodless lust for the lives of fictive others.

As I say: I've been watching my sons game for decades now – and as one gamer 'dies' so another is 'spawned'. Of course, I understand that not all computer games are merely simulated violence and killing – I've spent plenty of time watching their blocky-little alter-egos dig into mother lodes of pixels when they're playing Minecraft, and I've even observed my middle son play long-term strategy games, where the analogy would be not paint drying, but weird bacteria crawling over the sterile culture of the screen. But for the most part it's been the prestidigitation of circle, square and triangle – a Cabbalistic series of motions ham-fisted me is never going to join them in.


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Although this doesn't mean I can't enjoy their gaming. You can try this at home if you like: stand behind your gamer, so that he becomes your avatar. The avatar-gamer relationship itself resembles that termed by literary critics 'monoperspectival narration', whereby the action of a tale is wholly focalised through a given character that the reader is tethered to, without being synonymous. This was the method deployed by Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Kafka in Metamorphosis; key Modernist texts written in the first 20 years of the last century, exactly at the time when film – with its capacity to do this in a visual mode – was in the ascendant.

But here's the oddity: if the gamer becomes the observer's avatar, what this meta-gamer then perceives is that the environment of the game is not something his own avatar moves through (which is the sensation the player has if he's in a flow-state, playing virtuosically on his controller), but that rather, his eidolon is entirely static, while the pixel world swirls about it. If we map this experience back on to the reader of Joyce or Kafka, we might say that the genius of applying this technique lies precisely in the writer's ability to enlarge or collapse the distinction between character and reader, so as to correspondingly show the extent to which we are at once within the world physically, while psychically detached.

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Certainly, when it comes to my son's relationship to Franklin (and my relationship, in turn, to my son), this narrative about the extent to which we are embodied at all seems to emerge. But I'm almost certain it's because he resists gamification entirely. Franklin lives in Los Santos, one of the three cities that make up the fictional state of San Andreas in Grand Theft Auto. In a normal game (or life), he should be engaged in crime of one sort or another, with the aim of evading the law and enjoying its proceeds. But my son, by using so called 'cheats' – such as short term invincibility, or giving his avatar the ability to leap tall buildings – instead takes Franklin for free-running sessions that turn into Dadaist meditations on the nature of the body under Neoliberalism, as he hurls his pixel-puppet off high buildings, or thrusts him, wilfully, into the path of speeding cars.

In not playing the game he thus aspires to a higher reward: that of insight into the human condition – which is not simply to be at the mercy of our instinctive drives, but to be driven in particular towards that state of mind that is mindlessness. Watching my middle son's alter-ego effortfully exterminate hordes of unreal beings makes me feel trapped in what Nietzsche termed 'the miserable bell jar' of sentience – but each time Franklin lands badly I expect him to get up, dust himself down, and then make a break for genuine freedom.

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