Thought seeks an object suitable to its aims as the one who thinks departs from procedure amid distractions posed by others. How best may I advance my cause? Perhaps by listening to “Session Add” by Skee Mask — a track that evokes IDM of the kind promoted around the turn of the century by labels like Mille Plateaux.
The track puts me in mind of some relatives of mine visiting from out of state — probably because these relatives happen to be “digital natives” obsessed with the game Pokémon Go. Upon their arrival a few days ago, these relatives immediately invited me to tag along with them as they met up with fellow players IRL in order to conduct a “raid.” Because I’d never played Pokémon Go before, the relatives had to explain to me that a raid is an event where players gather in public and collaborate with one another to take down powerful “boss” characters. Intrigued by what I consider to be the as-yet-unrealized potential of augmented reality games, I assented to the invitation. I’ll play Tom Wolfe to these Pranksters, I told myself. I’ll fashion myself for an hour or so as a kind of amateur ethnographer. And so, there I was, watching as a diverse group of strangers came together in the streets, a bit like a smart mob or a local chapter of the direct action cycling group Critical Mass. Unlike the latter, however, “raids” and “community days” offer little by way of direct action’s collective pursuit of demands, given the profoundly indirect, cellphone-mediated nature of players’ interactions with one another. Minus a few references to how many times players had seen the new Avengers film, conversations at the event I witnessed revolved almost exclusively around the game itself. “How many points have you earned?,” players asked one another. “How many creatures have you captured?” This on a day when, elsewhere in the country, students were being gunned down in their classrooms by a self-described “incel,” or “involuntary celibate.” So much for new media and its promise, I thought to myself on the drive home afterwards — at which point, as if in reply, Spotify’s algorithms selected for me the old Bad Religion song, “Fuck Armageddon, This Is Hell.”
Life is an insubstantial thing, an élan vital, wearing all substances as its veil. Minutes pass. The gameworld, operating in “neighborhood” mode, supplies the subject with new inputs, and with those inputs, new decision-trees. I walk a path and savor ambient soundscapes filled with interacting wind chimes. Small birds root among dead leaves, then perch atop a chain link fence. When I close my eyes, the sounds intensify. As one ages in the game, one advances in level. The alien is all-present: a coherent totality, the “all but me.” I relax some of my defenses and, through receipt of found or “gifted” sense-data, attempt to learn its language. I imagine beneath me hundreds of little concreted over creeks and streams. The unconscious: earthen, mythic center of being. It dreams us, and then we run away, reinvent ourselves, project ourselves into mind-made constructs. Dual time-tracks, time-sense surrendered to serial eternal presents peppered with patterns discoverable among arrangements of images and sounds.
Operators were warned early in the game that their minds would one day melt under the pressure of neoliberal operant conditioning dispersed across the gameworld through takeover of the phenomenon known as work. Foreknowledge of a danger lacks consequence, however, when one is powerless to change one’s course. Several well-received monographs have already been written on the subject. Yet here we are—integrated into the narrative despite ourselves. An enterprising young cartoon skateboarder rolls up and says, “Feel free to customize the pipes on your virtual persona!” Practicing a few simple laws, our overseers have grabbed and conquered. “Just like that,” says the skater, fingers snapping. His friends arrive and line up beside a food truck. “Welcome to Biscuit Town,” mutters one of them. We roll our eyes and look grimly upon the scene ahead. To a rhythmic interplay of xylophones, triangles, and cowbells, they tie us up, they weigh us down. Their employer, from another hemisphere, gives a command like so. Push/pull. A scuffle. “Nobody move,” shouts a man in a mask, “it’s a stick up.” And like that, they rob us blind.
The current year already seems crueler than the one prior. Late capital downloads and installs updates while subjects sleep. The system reboots itself each morning with an ever thinner sense of its past, a few more artifacts sold off, a few more disciplines abandoned, imagination channeled instead into complex games of strategy and cunning. The problem with consciousness is that one only ever acquires it amid these games. And in the absence of any observable outer limits to these games, what can one do but play? We too often reduce ourselves to mere decision-making machines. Like the entities at the ends of men’s magazines. Food lions caught in predator-prey relations. Energy divided, individuated, and pitted against itself, turns life into the Parable of the Tares. Better to step back and contemplate silent immensities. Life, having taken many forms, evolves toward one form. Rhythmic breathing of the individual engenders trails of thought, mental approximations of planetary biorhythms. The return to the body can be dizzying.
My countrymen turn to one another. “Is this the apocalypse?” they ask. “I thought it would be a bit louder.” They see the world entranced, fragmentary mirror images morphing and quivering as in a kaleidoscope. Observation of beautiful forms. Symmetry is a special kind of doubling. The repetition begins at an imaginary center point. “Somehow it’s all connected,” we tell ourselves. We just don’t know how. We need keys to unlock other parts of the game-board. Study maps, search for Ariadne’s thread. Do we wish to escape our prison, or do we wish to know ourselves to be bound to a plan, our every step designed? All I know is, 4:20 comes around and it’s like I’ve leapt levels. The mind-world is mine to do with as I please, or so it seems, the object-world confronting me but for money like a floor laid out with puzzle pieces and Legos, or like a playroom, an amusement park from my youth. Or better yet: a forest or a beach or a library. As part of me rejoices, however, another part of weeps, for the world melts and drips. I take action upon reading Denise Levertov’s “The Unknown.” “The preparations,” she writes, “are an order one may rest in. / But one doesn’t want to rest, one wants miracles.” So out I go for a walk. Some part of me announces, “Any politics that has recourse to Law is of no interest to me.” I gasp for breath at times, the pressure of my workload crushing me. I feel better about being alive, though, upon watching the 11-minute Oscar-nominated trailer for a new videogame called Everything.
Players toy with object-oriented ontology, a mix of identification and detachment as one directs one’s focus among multiple scales of being. I feel it may be time for me to learn about the game’s creator, David O’Reilly. We have arrived at the precipice of a new teaching, now that we’ve devised a way to think it: the Interactive Nature Simulation. Philosophy’s new frontier.
I sometimes pray silently to the equivalent of a program, a ghost in the machine, in hopes that it will take pity on me by unlocking invisible doors onto other quadrants of the game-board. And it does, language leading me to Ian Bogost’s “The Metaphysics Videogame.” Finally — a theorist of videogame ontology. Weed is a kind of rhetoric that delivers its arguments not with words or images or programs but through chemical reprogramming of neurons. It alters perception so as to dodge any system the General Intellect might try to impose onto Being. I wish to operate free of rules devised by others. This is why I’m writing and blogging. Games too often feel to me like a distraction from whatever aspect of Nature is described in terms like grounded, earthy, and wild. My fellow Marxists don’t take the Romanticist theory of Nature as seriously as they ought to. Even if just for the sake of personality and mental health. I like sunlight. I like sitting outdoors. Dr. Andrew Weil takes me on a “sonic journey to where healing happens.” Profound states of relaxation lead listeners down into a realm Weil calls “the Deep.” Of course, it’s all just schmaltzy classical music. A total betrayal of psychedelia’s revolutionary beginnings, the latter co-opted and, in true bait-and-switch fashion, replaced with something tacky and false. I want videogame theorists who, rather than trying to sell me on games, are instead able to help me better understand how videogames have influenced the way I think. The warring halves in me cause my ego formation to vacillate back and forth between an outdoor nature associated with public pools and summer camps, and an indoor nature associated with comic books, paperbacks, and videogames (but also movie theaters, roller rinks, and malls). Against both of these natures stood the culturally imposed tedium known as “school.” That boredom I experienced in classrooms as a kid makes me deeply cynical about my profession. If corporations weren’t the ones funding it and shaping the content, I would happily watch Viceland’s “The New Classroom” and say, “Yes, we should all integrate VR technology into our classrooms.” But really I’m more of a back-to-the-lander. I like to sit in the woods and read books.
Beyond the edges of the game-space runs a single, circular backdrop, a projection. I no longer have access to the polis, I think to myself, the space where the coding occurs. My only access points are ideology and everyday life. The rest of it lies beyond the game-space: visible, but inaccessible, and thus, for all intents and purposes, immutable. I dread most nights having to wake up the next day and work. I despise that capitalist society compels me to dispense by its means my daily labor-power. That shit ought to be mine to hoard or spend as I wish. Each of us should be free to act in accordance with whatever chemicals we wish to add to humanity’s neuro-cultural evolution. The hero has no parents and has to invent through testing an identity in relation to the ever-reloading, ever-renewing game-world. Others, in their mere being, pose for us the question: “Which rules shall we let be of consequence?” What keeps us from devolving into mere rage monsters? Predators who reduce others to roles as props or prey. Games reveal the limits they impose on being only through their play. And since we can only ever be within games, these limits can only ever appear for us as neither necessary nor contingent but both-and. I’m bitter. I don’t like this game! I seek everywhere for some way to rebel. How do we convince our fellow players to grant us freedom to think, while they bend, lift, haul dirt? What is “consciousness,” when those are one’s conditions? Rapt attentiveness to objects and material processes. Rules learned, tasks assigned, one does as one’s told. To reverse this, one would have to step out of character — the ultimate risk — and convince others, in a church-forming act of assembly, to do the same.