Computer games have variously been described as a ‘paradigmatic media of Empire’ (Dyer-Witheford & de Peuter, 2009, p.xv), as ‘allegories for our contemporary life under the protocological network of continuous informatics control’ (Galloway, 2006, p.106), and as ‘the best metaphor for contemporary culture’ (Kirkpatrick, 2008, p.127). Their status as rather awkward objects, seemingly offering a sense of free play or self-expression, must be understood in the context of a landscape where discerning consumption can be vulnerable to ‘containment’ (Fiske, 1989), and where the flexibility and product customisability lauded by many corporations today enables people’s tactical subversions (de Certeau, 1988) to be ‘turned into strategies now sold to them’ (Manovich, 2008, p.38).
I propose that computer games raise the issue of unity and fragmentation, in which neither the analysis of the whole or of a part is sufficient; what is required is a synthesis between them. The game conceived in its totality as a series of components defined by particular pre-set causal relations to one another can be counterpoised against it as an experience, which is a distinction that refers to their ambivalent status as object-processes: viewing a game as a system is perhaps to see it as an ergodic object with particular properties that can be catalogued once one has gone through it as an experience. There is a structural homology with the logic of capitalism, which, as Jameson writes, is that of a force which ‘operates uniformly over everything and makes heterogeneity a homogenous and standardizing power’ (Jameson, 1988, p.52).
If the traditions of poststructuralism and critical theory have explored the deep structures of modernity (Dews, 2007, p.297), then understanding the impasse of the fragmentary impulse and perspectivism of poststructuralism can sharpen the analysis of what is presumed in the following question: how and in what way do computer games abet and hinder the constitution of various subjectivities? The question itself is rejected as falling foul of various presuppositions, which will be illuminated through an analysis of what Foucault left behind in the transition into the phase of his later work, but it nevertheless serves as a useful point with which to begin the process of a spiralling enquiry that will dialectically reformulate the question and make its obscurity one of the objects of analysis (Jameson, 1971, p.341).
In particular, I will contest approaches that argue that computer games are essentially disciplinary in form. In contrast to some classic games that simply escalate in difficulty, like Tetris or Pac-Man, many contemporary games make possible very different ways and styles of playing; not so much a series of obstacles to be overcome, they are more like labyrinths that can be navigated in more than one way. There can be said to be an obligation on the player through a non-coercive ‘truth’ that is felt ethopoetically, of the player’s own accord, and to which he or she submits given that it is ‘true’ (Foucault, 2012, pp.95-96). However, it is far from clear that computer games, even if they do not dictate to us what to do, facilitate in us what Foucault called the capacity to ‘think otherwise’ (Foucault, 1988 1984, p.9), or encourage the kind of ‘ascesis’ or austere self-mastery that he lauded as the means by which to realise freedom.