Benjamin Geer on 2 Nov 2000 21:24:20 -0000

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[Nettime-bold] Video games and collective fears

Yesterday, not having played any video games for many years, I
downloaded the arcade game emulator, MAME, and the original ROMs of
several games that I fondly remember playing in the U.S. in the early
1980s: Battlezone, Tempest, Joust, Xevious, Tron, Star Wars, Major
Havoc.  It was eerie seeing and hearing them again.  After all those
years, I still remembered details of the terrain in Xevious.  I felt
as if I was 13 years old again.  It struck me that my adolescence
coincided with the advent of video games, and their early period of
creative ingenuity using very limited technology.  I have mixed
feelings about them.  They were a much-needed escape for teenagers who
wanted desperately to get away from the real world, which we found
cold and hostile.  That may be part of the reason why, although
they're all war games, they're sufficiently abstract so that the
violence isn't disturbing.  Perhaps this came back to haunt us during
the Gulf War, when television showed us real bombings as if they were
a video game.  At the same time, the early video games definitely fed
on real anxiety and frustration.  Missile Command, from 1979, brings
back vividly the everyday dread of nuclear war.  Video games, as
computerised objects, offered us the opportunity to try to control,
symbolically, the computer technology that were were afraid was going
to control us.  The hint of political rebellion in the Star Wars game
was tantalising: I remember my intense desire to belong to a "Rebel
Force" (a mixture of medieval chivalry and a dash of proto-Marxism)
and overthrow the establishment.  But playing all these games again, I
was struck by the way they're all variations on the same theme: you're
being attacked, your attackers get increasingly numerous and fierce,
your anxiety increases because you're less and less able to fend them
off, and finally you get killed.  That probably reflects pretty
accurately how a lot of Americans felt about their relationship to the
world in the 1980s: overwhelmed and unable to cope.  It also struck me
that, in order to learn how to play these games, you have to die many
times.  In Major Havoc, from 1984, you have to engage in a series of
suicidal experiments in order to learn the exact procedure for getting
through each level.  Of course, this was meant to get you to spend as
much money as possible while playing.  But I think it also expresses a
fear that we all had: whatever you do, something you can't anticipate
will be lurking around the corner, and it will get you.  The cards are
stacked against you.  I suspect that this collective experience hasn't
changed much in the past 20 years.  Even with the emulator, which lets
me give myself as many lives as I want, I still feel the same anxiety.

I stopped playing video games when they started to be about bloody
hand-to-hand combat.  I couldn't relate to them anymore.  Did they
start tapping into different emotions?  Or just express them

Benjamin Geer

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