BURKE: I'D AXE VIDEO PARLOURS
So West Australia's Brian Burke would take an axe to them (Daily News, 27.6.83: lead headline). The most popular Labor premier in Australia has his finger accurately enough on the pulse of popular feeling to make an off the cuff remark on a radio talk show with the confidence that his intuition would be probably unchallenged, certainly unencumbered by thought and surely strengthening of his position as the spokesperson of the middle west of Australia. Interestingly, the press did provide some challenge to his prejudice, but only within an ideological frame closely allied to the one that produced the Premier's remarks.
Mr Burke's concern that the game parlours were becoming a problem was immediately supported by two of his ministers. Mr Wilson, the Minister for Youth, Sport and Recreation, called them 'detrimental and addictive':
They lead to the development of petty crime and appear to be the focus for vandalism and hooliganism ... the financial damage they do to children of school age is considerable. (Daily News, 27.6.83)
He went on to claim that they made children spend their lunch money, steal and collect for false charities. Mr Pearce, the Minister for Education, lent his support by claiming that children were 'wagging class to play the machines' (Daily News, 27.6.83) .
'The West Australian weighed in with reports of 'Children as young as 12 spending up to $30 each week on Space Invaders or other video games', and claimed that: Electronic games have been accused of causing children to lose interest in school work and contributions to truancy, child crime and juvenile delinquency. (2.7.83)
The Western Mail (2.6.83) was not to be outdone, quoting references to the parlours as 'dens of iniquity where mindless young video addicts while away their time', though Sue Burke, the Premier's wife, put a dent in the wholesale condemnation by admitting that their children played the games at home, and explaining that what her husband objected to was the cost: 'Brian was referring to the amusement
centres'; 'the home entertainment thing is quite different'a difference we will discuss later in this paper (Daily News, 27.5.83). The upshot of all this was that the Premier was hinting strongly at the need for some kind of government control.
And yet, as the Western Mail (2.6.83) reported, 'The Police aren't worried', and quoted a professor of education who said, 'The games are a good thing. They are lots of fun and develop some interesting abilities'. They also reported a major survey carried out by the South Australian government which found 'insufficient evidence to suggest a causal relationship between the playing of amusement machines and serious behavioural problems'.
Lack of any evidence of the harmfulness of video parlours has been unable to dent the concern that they lead the young to waste time and money, that they divert them from school, home and work, that they are addictive (which probably means that they provide a means of escaping the social control exercised by the school-home-work nexus), and that they lead to petty crime and delinquency. This confusion about how to understand video parlours suggests that they perform a variety of functions according to their uses. In particular, they seem to contain paired contradictions on two levels. For the socially central, who are not parlour users, there is widespread concern about their anti-social effect which is contradictorily coupled with evidence of their being comparatively harmless. For the subordinate, the young user of the parlours, they offer opportunities of resisting social control, yet they achieve this without rejecting the society that imposes that control.
These contradictions are centred in the technical nature of the games themselves, in that they offer disapproved of versions of activities that are normally highly valorised by society at large: they position the player in interaction with a machine (the reference point for this is clearly the production line) and they position him in front of an electronic screen like that of the television set. Clearly, the similarities to two such central social activities as manufacturing and television-watching cannot be responsible for the parlours' antisocial image, but they provide us with a starting point for our investigation, which must concern itself with inversions of the normal, not with reproductions of it.
Two of the most obvious and most basic inversions of the manufacturing relationship are, firstly, that the human/machine interaction produces not goods for the material well being of society, but a resistance, a kind of sense/identity for the machinist, and, secondly,
that the machinist is not paid, but pays, for the use of the machine. Machines that consume instead of producing can be used as powerful metaphoric interrogations of social norms. If the machine, whether it be a productive one or a games one, is seen as a metonym for industrialised capitalist society (and it's hard to think of a more fruitful one), then we are justified in arguing that inverted relationships with the machine can be used to signify inverted relationships with society. In the manufacturing man/machine relationship the machinist has the illusion of being in control of the machine. This control is, of course, an illusion because the machinist has to produce what he and the machine are 'programmed' to; in other words, he has to work with the machine in conformity to the demands of the owner/bourgeois society.
This control may be illusory, but Willis (1977) has documented the attempts to make it real:
Another main theme of shopfloor cultureat least as I observed and recorded it in the manufacturing industries of the Midlandsis the massive attempt to gain informal control of the work process. (83)
Interestingly, for our thesis, he goes on to link adult behaviour in the work place with student behaviour in the school:
Again this is effectively mirrored for us by working class kids' attempts, with the aid of resources of their culture, to take control of classes, substitute their own unofficial timetables, and control their own routines and life spaces. (83)
We, too, wish to develop the similarity of work place and school as agents of social control, against which leisure is defined. Barthes (1970/1982) also sees a relationship between parlour machines and the social world of work. Describing pachinko, an equivalent of pinball, he writes:
The pachinko is a collective and solitary game. The machines are set up in long rows; each player standing in front of his panel plays for himself, without looking at his neighbour, whom he nonetheless brushes with his elbow ... The parlour is a hive, or a factorythe players seem to be working on an assembly line. The imperious meaning of the scene is that of a deliberate, absorbing labour. (27-28)
Pachinko differs from video games in that the player can win the silver balls necessary to play itthese may be used for more games or exchanged for small prizes. Barthes continues:
Here we understand the seriousness of a game which counters the constipated parsimony of salaries, the constriction of capitalist wealth, with the voluptuous debacle of silver balls, which, all of a sudden, fill the player's hand. (29)
The Japanese game, which appears to be played by adult workers, provides a semiotic compensation for a lack of money; the video game, we contend, works semiotically within the domain of power and control, not money, and thus inverts the normal, constraining relationships.
With the video game machine, the machinist works not with the machine, but against itthe time his (gender deliberate) 20 or 40 cents buys is extended to the degree that he can resist, work against, the machine. The better the machinist is, the less he pays, and the lower the profit of the owner. This must be a unique phenomenon in capitalism, when the skill and speed of the machinist results in lower profits for the owner. The relationship between capital and labour is not truly inverted (after all, only one of them ends up in pocket) but it at least allows the machinist the sense, however illusory, of asserting his class interests in opposition to those of the owner. This resistance is encouraged and rewarded by the machineextended periods of good play are rewarded with bonus points, extra lives or complimentary messages on the screen.
But there is a further inversion involved at this operational level of the games. The metaphor that time is money is so central to our culture that we tend to ignore its metaphorical nature, and think of it as literal. Thus expressions like 'saving time', 'wasting time' or 'investing a lot of time in' are rarely seen as metaphors. And here we are following Lakoff and Johnson (1980) who have demonstrated that metaphor is not just an imaginative piece of literary decoration, but that a limited range of metaphors have become so embedded in our culture (call them cliches if you wish to dismiss them) that they have become culturally central sense-making devices. In particular, they seem to be used in Lévi-Strauss's (1979) sense of the 'logic of the concrete', that is, they provide material signifiers by which to conceive of, to make sense of, awkwardly abstract areas of our social experience. So money, with its associations of ownership, earning, paying, saving and spending, is used as a vehicle to organise our understanding of time. The political and ideological implications of metaphors elevated by a culture to the rank of uninspected cliche are obvious, but rarely investigated. All we wish to point out here is that a machine which can both prove that time is money, and in so doing 'waste' both, has the potential for causing profound social offence.
This active waste of that most precious commodity, moneytime, is only non-productive in the material sense. For these are machines for-leisure, and the phrase is only superficially paradoxical. In the same way that machines-for-work produce material commodities, so do machines-for-leisure produce semiotic commodities. Leisure is essentially a time for self-generated semiosis, a time to produce meanings of self and for the self that the world of work denies. The main productivity of work is obviously that which produces the commoditythe semiotic work of producing the subject is necessarily secondary to, and driven by, the economic. And the economic relations of work always position the machinist subordinatelythe subjectivity produced is the subjectivity of a subordinate class, determined by the interests of the dominant.
In leisure, however, there is a chance to indulge in a differently determined semiosis, and we take semiosis to be the common centre of all leisure activities. This means that leisure is primarily spent (notice the 'time is money' metaphor) producing a subjectivity that, while paradigmatically related to that produced by work, is significantly different to it. And the difference resides in the apparent choice and the way that this choice is internally motivated. This is to say that we think we choose our leisure activities according to person al taste (that which is ours) or at least by our class or subcultural interests. The determinations appear to derive from a similar social position to our own, and the meanings of ourselves and our social relations that are produced appear to be meanings for us, and not for others. The semiosis is self-interested. No wonder then that manufacturers have latched on to this self-interest and have attempted to steal it back into their interest by turning leisure into an industry, and by producing and promoting a range of products that, while pre serving the illusion of the self-generation of choice, actually ensure that that choice is exercised within a paradigm that is consonant with their own interests, and thus readily incorporable.
But the illusion of self-interested choice remains for the user. And this is what matters. The video game machines, like video clips, seem to us to be capable of serving two opposed sets of intereststhose of capital, and those of resistance.
Thompson (1983) makes a similar point in his discussion of the purchase of pleasure as a commodity:
From the seller's point of view it is rule-governed, rational and calculable, whereas from the buyer's point of view it i9 rebellious and liberationalin a word, pleasurable. (134)
The interests of capital, of social control, and those of the subordinate, of resistance, can, according to this model, both be served by the same activity. The main ways in which the interests of resistance are served are the production of a non-economically determined subjectivity, the existence of a control button, and the production of an
alibi through these so that the resistance is not finally isolating and terrifying.
This subjectivity which appears to serve the machinists' interests, because it is leisure generated, not work generated, may well offer an explanation of the perceived popularity of the games parlours with the unemployed and the truants (for school is the young's equivalent of, and preparation for, work). And the fact that the media construct video parlours as against the interests of work, of school and of the respectable family is important here, for this dominant construction provides the space for the oppositional semiosis that is the heart of the games-playing activity. Society may not like subjectivities produced outside the school-work-home nexus, but most of the games players do.
Wasting moneytime is a positive semiotic act within the politics of pleasure that offers a resistance on two dimensions. For the metaphoric association of time with money works not just on the level of language and thought but also on the level of social practice. The same interests that control the distribution of money in society control the distribution of time. Work and school not only exert minute control over the temporal behaviour of the people in them, but also organise the annual and diurnal cycles around their demands. Even within the family, social control is exercised by controlling the organisation of time for the subordinate membersmeal times, homework time, television time, bedtime are constant constructors of subordination.
Games players have frequently reported to us the satisfaction of making 20 or 40 cents last for hoursand our own experience of playing witnesses the depth of this satisfaction. For the player is frequently consciously aware that in resisting the machine he is asserting his interests against those of the owner. The longer his 20 cents lasts, the greater his pleasure at 'beating the system'in the all encompassing sense that the phrase has in the vernacular. Not putting more coins in the slot, the pleasure of not paying for pleasure, is a grasping of economic and temporal control.
But economic resistance must generate a semiotic resistance that is centred in the production of a new subjectivity and a fracture of the old. Economic relations and semiotic relations work together not on the old base-superstructure model, but in the construction of meanings of and for the subject. When these meanings are ones of resistance, pleasure is a major medium for achieving them. Thompson (1983) and Bennett (1983) both argue that the pleasure principle is a function of the self and of desire (which we will extend shortly to include the body), and that this is necessarily opposed to the reality principle which is a function of society.
So the resistance to the machine-as-society then becomes the assertion of pleasure over social reality. This is a complex opposition to work with, for while pleasure is a function of the self, at least insofar as it is signifyingly opposed to society, this self must not be seen as a biologically determined individuality. Pleasure is rather located in the subjectivity, the culturally constructed self seen as a moment or space in the act of semiosisthe space that is delineated by all previously experienced discourses and meanings-having-been-made, and within which the discourses and meanings meet in each fleeting moment of semiosis.
Let us step aside from these theoretical abstractions and return to our video parlours. Their popularity is greatest amongst the subordinate, including the unemployed and the truant student. We observed, too, a larger proportion of black and yellow than in many other places of entertainment, and a remarkably small proportion of girls. The most noticeable common factor among the consumer/machinists appears to be that they are the masculine subordinate in a patriarchal capitalist society. We may deduce from this that their subjectivities are the site of potentially disabling contradictions between a socially determined subordination with its lack of access to power in any form, and the equally, but differently, socially constructed sense of masculinity with its right to dominance. We say it is equally socially constructed, but differently, because subordination is felt to be a social construct, whereas masculinity is felt to be natural, on the side of the self (pleasure) rather than of society (reality). Thus, in sitting down to the video game machine, the vital act is the grasp of the joy stick, the touch of the firing button. In this moment 'control' passes from society to self, and pleasure becomes possible. This metaphoric transfer of control defuses the contradictions between subordination and masculinity as experienced by the subject within the discourse of power and fractures the hold of the social upon the subjectivity. What the playing subject is doing, in grasping the controls, is gaining the power to control not just the machine, but his own meanings, and these meanings are intimately connected with masculinity, and its relationship to power/subordination.
But the machine always wins in the end. Pleasure exists only in opposition to unpleasure (Thompson, 1983) and the pleasure principle only in opposition to the reality principle. Pleasure can, by definition, only arise from, and fall back into, a bed of nonpleasure. It does not function to change society, but to change subjectivity, even if fleetingly. But these fleeting moments of pleasure, when the subjectivity
is unified, simplified, and apparently free from social control, may well leave a residue of subversion that remains in the subject, to the discomfort of the social controllers. Certainly, most of the Judao-Christian system of morality is built on the fear of pleasure and the need to deny it in the name of some greater reality, which always happens to be constructed in the interests of those with social control. The eagerness with which capitalism produced its own version of the denial of pleasure in the Protestant work ethic is further evidence of our point. In the video parlour, the normal power relationship when reality/social control dominates pleasure/self control (literally control by self, not of self) is temporarily, but significantly, inverted.
And this inversion foregrounds the signifier and the body, for social control is exercised through the signified and the mind. The physicality of the body is frequently the only way for the subordinate to construct a non-paranoid subjectivity (for example breakdancing and soccer hooliganism) and the flashing mass of signifiers with their consequent physical reactions are the roots of the video pleasure.
Pleasure, with its foregrounding of the signifier and denial of the !lignified, then becomes a means of ideological resistance. And video parlours are the carnival of signifiers: the signifieds pale into insignificance before the insistence of the flashing, darting electronic signifiers. The machines produce messages but no meanings, thus leaving a semiotic space for the player to become author. Baudrillard (1983) makes a similar point in his discussion of the mass media. He claims that 'We are in a universe where there is more and more information and less and less meaning' (86). Here, he is using information in the sense that it has in Communication Theory as being the form of the message or its signifiers. This accords with our account of the video games as being full of information, but empty of meaning. For Baudrillard the absence of meaning allows the rejection of a subjecthood defined by the dominant system, and this rejection is more important than resistance:
The resistance-as-subject is today universally valorised and held as positivejust as in the political sphere only the practices of liberation, emancipation, expression, and constitution as a political subject are taken to be valuable and subversive. But this is to ignore the equal, or perhaps even superior impact, of all the practices-as-objectthe renunciation of the position of subject and of meaningexactly the practices of the masseswhich we bury and forget under the contemptuous terms of alienation and passivity. (107)
He goes on to argue that:
The system's current argument is the maximisation of the word and the maximal production of meaning. Thus the strategic resistance is
that of a refusal of meaning and a refusal of the wordor of the hyper-conformist simulation of the very mechanisms of the system, which is a form of refusal and of non-reception.
This is the resistance of the masses: it is the equivalent of sending back to the system its own logic by doubling it, to reflecting, like a mirror, meaning without absorbing it. (108)
Baudrillard was talking about the mass media here, but his ideas seem applicable to video games. Admittedly games do not produce that passivity which he sees as a positive stance of rejection, but they do act as mirrors and send back to the dominant system meaning without absorbing it. The player of Space Invaders saves society from the aliens only on the non-absorbent level; in accepting the signifiers only, but sending back the signifieds, he renounces his position as subject, and becomes a practice-as-object, a body, that for the moment of the game is liberated from the process of ideological construction. This moment of liberation, when the body plays with the signifiers, is the moment of pleasure.
Pleasure is such an elusive concept, and theorised so differently that we need to use it circumspectly. For Lacanians, pleasure derives from the satisfaction of desire, which is located in the gap between the real and the imaginary. This, too, seems relevant, for the hero that we become on the screen (and the physical nature of the link between machinist and screen hero means that the identification has a strong dimension of the real as well as the imaginary) is an adult version of the image of self-as-other that the child sees in the mirror, and this image, of course, is one without the felt inadequacies of the realthe imaginary image of the self-as-other as material fulfilment of its own potential. Desire is born in this gap between potential and performance, between the imaginary and the real, and pleasure is produced insofar as this gap is closed during an act of semiosis. The degree to which the real machinist at the controls becomes the imaginary hero on the screen determines the degree of pleasure. Lacanian notions of desire should not be understood as confined to the individual psyche, for the imaginary, in so far as it is associated with the symbolic, and it must be, for it is essentially a representation, is a social construct. This is setting up an important contradiction with our earlier argument, but Lacanian theory revolves around the inescapability of contradictions. For if the machine stands for the self as-other, the self reflected in the mirror of the imaginary, and if the gap between the imaginary and the real is closed (thus producing the pleasure of playing), then playing the game becomes not an act of resistance, but a creation of identity. On the one hand, our argument has proposed the machine as a metonym for the social order and the
act of playing as resistance; on the other, we are now proposing the machine as producing the imaginary to which the real aspires, and thus the act of playing as an integration, a coming together. This contradiction can be handled in Lacanian theory by the notion of the ego as 'an essentially paranoid construct founded on the OPPOSITION and IDENTITY between self and other' (Wilden, 1971: 21). Lacan's readings of Freud to emphasise this 'splitting of the subject' accommodates the paradox that the subject can simultaneously resist the social construction of its subjectivity and work to realise its desire for identification with its imaginary other. Opposition and identity are opposing sides of the same coin, and thus appropriately striven for in the same semiotic moment.
Our argument so far has concerned the political economy of semiosis, and now we intend to revert to a more traditional textual semiotics. Video games share characteristics not only with machines, but also with television: they have screens upon which symbolic narratives are played out. In this respect we must compare them to television if we are to arrive at a more complete understanding. In the same way that the machinist-machine relationship inverts that found more normally in society, so the player-screen relationship inverts important elements of the more normal viewer-screen one. The existence of the control stick is at the heart of this inversion. We know that the viewer of TV is active in the construction of meanings, but this activity occurs only at the ideological level of the narrative. As Bennett and Woollacott in their forthcoming book on James Bond demonstrate, the readings of James Bond shift from his being a cold war hero in the sixties, to being a definer of the new sexuality and gender relations of the seventies, and a redefiner of that sexuality in more traditional terms in the eighties. But the texts of Bond do not themselves change. The activity of the reader sets up new reading relations which change the ideological effectivity of the text.
But the reader of popular narrative cannot physically alter the events of the narrative as he can, and does, in video games. In prac tice, of course, this reader-power is exercised only within the paradigm of choices provided by the microchip, and is limited to delaying the inevitable end. But the sense of control is there. And this is another vital difference between video games and TV or other forms of popular art. For even though the reader does exert some control over the meanings of the TV narrative, s/he has no consciousness of doing so. The conscious grasping of control by the games machinist is a vital part of the pleasure of the activity. The outcome of the video game narrative may always be the same, but the means of achieving it appears to be in the control of the player. The absence of meaning
evacuates the author, and into that space the player inserts himself. The player becomes the author.
The linguistic link between author and authority is not accidental nor insignificantnothing in language ever is. Propp, and others working on the structure of narrative have shown us how limited the power of the author really isthe deep structure of the narrative is determined, the outcome preset, and the author's authority limited to the transformations through which the deep structure is manifest and the outcome achieved. But our post-romantic culture still ascribes to the author a degree of power and self-determination which is both false and widely believed in. In the same way, the microchip provides the deep structure and predetermines the outcome of the video narrative, and the player-author exercises his illusory but believed-in power only within this overdetermination. Nonetheless, grasping the control knob is assuming authority, even if such control and authority are imaginary, not real. And the act of grasping the control, assuming the authority, closes the real up towards the imaginary.
Another difference of video games is their location in games par lours. Unlike TV, they are not at home; unlike machines, they are not at work. And for the young and subordinate, home and work (together with school) are the places where social control is exercised most nakedly. This social control, as we have seen, is not just a function of the organisation of space, but of time also. And it is significant that the largest chain of video parlours in Perth should have chosen the name 'Timezone' with its connotations of a non-place and a non time to attract and please those who feel themselves to be non members of society or who at least wish to interrogate that membership.
Yet these consistent invitations to resistance coexist paradoxically with signs of social conformity. These are seen not just in the hortatory noticesno barefeet, neat dress onlybut in the surface structure of the games themselves. The resistances they offer always occur within a manifest narrative of social acceptabilitythe hero constantly saves society from invasion by aliens, from attacks by ghosts or monsters, or even saves chickens from foxes. In a home video game, Auto Chase, manufactured by Dick Smith, the player controls a robber's car (clearly identified by the traditional motif of a black mask) which is chased through a maze-like road system by three police cars. As it goes, it has to pick up bags of money (or loot). This explicit identification of the player with the socially deviant is unacceptable, so the instructions go to great lengths to refute it:
YOU DRIVE THE GETAWAY CAR! On holiday in an evil dictatorship country, you are contacted by the freedom fighters and asked to deliver vital cash reserves to the free world. But first you have to drive around the city and pick up the money bags. Unfortunately the evil secret police have been notified and are out in force to stop you.
The social centrality of the signifieds, unabsorbed though they may be, is crucial. Nowhere do we find video representations of Bob Hawke, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher to be blasted out of the skies, nor do cartoon figures of bloated capitalists, school-teacher bullies or the fuzz appear as monsters to be avoided or zapped into smithereens. Even the fabled games, that all of us have heard of, but never seen, the ones that really offend, are ones that offend those on the left or the subordinate. These are the games that involve the rape of women, the killing of red Indians, or the success of the Klu Klux Klan in catching and killing niggers. (In 1983 there was, reportedly, a stripper game in a Perth parlour, but by 1984 both the parlour and the game had disappeared.)
The video parlours are not, therefore, despite our argument so far, hot beds of social revolution nor dens of corruption. The Premier's outburst against them was followed by reports in the press of studies that showed no cause for concern, of reports that the police were not worried and of quotes from educationalists that the games were positively good. Yet Timezone still needs to claim that it works closely with police and social workers, and the favourable comments were frequently balanced or framed by headlines that concentrated on the money spent by young people without their mothers knowing where they spent it (a remarkably common theme with its strong suggestions of dishonesty and social disapproval) and fears that the need to provide this money leads to petty crime.
These contradictions need further explanation. Some are easily dealt with. The educationalist, the therapist, view accords with the fact that even Brian Burke's children play video games at home, in a socially controlled institutional setting. The positive role of games in general as supporting the social order, as developing necessary skills and valued attitudes, is argued strongly by Roberts (1978). He contends that games relieve anxieties generated by broader patterns of social life:
Hence the type of game that is popular depends upon the type of anxiety that a particular society engenders. When the emphasis is upon achievement and mastery of the environment, games of physical skill can offer a form of simulated achievement. In contemporary America, therefore, such games are most common among men in the higher
socio-economic strata where childhood training stresses individual achievement. In contrast, games of chance are prominent among women, reflecting the relative passivity of the female role. (266)
(We may note, in passing, the absence of women in video parlours.) The facts that the skill has, in video games, become highly technologised, and that the Premier's children play them at home, only support Roberts' thesis, but his position is essentially a liberal pluralist one that cannot take account of the semiotic idea that the same game (text) can, and does, generate different meanings for different classes in different contexts. The Bennett-Woollacott position is much more fruitful here. They argue that any work of popular art is popular be cause it offers both potentially contradictory positions and the means of reconciling them. For them, the popularity of a work depends upon the degree to which it provides a space for ideological readings of (possibly oppositional) subcultures to occur within a framework that fits the dominant ideology of the culture. The work of popular art thus provides the opportunity both for the generation of oppositional meanings and for their articulation within that dominant ideology to which they are in opposition.
In video parlours the resistance to the social order is given a semiotic materiality for the duration of the game. It takes the form of pleasure experienced physically and thus free from ideological constraint, but there is no evidence to show that it goes beyond a resistance. There is no evidence of an alternative ideology asserting the freedom of pleasure/leisure over the control and constraint of work, and proposing a new social order to achieve this. This is no counter culture of the sort offered by the hippies of the sixties and seventies, but evidence only of a masculine, subordinate, oppositional youth subculture whose pleasure derives from the inversion of the dominant social relations and thus meanings that constitute that subordination. This inversion is necessarily achieved within the framework of the dominant ideology, and the ideological effectivity of the video par lours resides in their ability to provide a space where an opposing subject can generate oppositional meanings and resistances without denying that dominant frame against which the resistance necessarily defines itself.
For instance, there is, as Bennett (1983) describes in his account of Blackpool pleasure beach, an aggressive display of progress and modernityfashions for individual games change frequently, and most parlours have a game labelled 'The Latest'. There are strong connotations of Americanism, the ideology of the future, yet these coexist alongside traditional pinball machines, updated versions of traditional shooting galleries, and even non-electronic skee ball. The
social order that constitutes the ground of resistance is clearly there in its normalitythere is none of the carnivalesque disruption of the social order, just some evidence of a much more contained and controlled resistance to it. The excesses that characterise carnival, particularly the excesses of the body, eating, drinking and sexuality, not only are absent, but the first two are expressly forbidden. The only excess is the excess of concentration, and this is one that produces not a disruption but a release, which liberates the machine player from the constraints of the signified performing its ideological work upon the mind, and allows a momentarily liberated relationship between the signifier and the body. An excess that uses the body to escape social control may be a residue of the carnivalesque but the frame within which this excess is experienced appears to deny any significant liberation of a populist spirit from a controlling social order.
But it may be that the politics of pleasure are better explained by this fleeting liberation than by programmes to reform the social order. This intensity of concentration on the video game that is both loss of self and society (for they are finally the result of the same pro cess) into the freedom of the body is close to what Barthes (1973/1975) refers to as jouissance, which Mercer (1983) glosses as 'the 1088 of stasis, loss of the fixity of relationship between the key terms of 'signifier' and 'signified' and the consequent absence of a fixity of meaning (for the text, the ideology, the commodity) and in favour of a sense of movement, of play' (86). He goes on to argue that:
Politically, Barthes's break-out from the prison of message and meaning is most helpful insofar as it shifts our attention away from the fact of language, style and so forth towards their productivity, their active articulation, their utterance, their economy. (86)
In the Pleasure of the Text Barthes is concerned with what a text does in its relationship with the reader, and not at all with what it means So, too, we maintain that video games are essentially texts without meaning, their essence lies in what they do, in their productivity of pleasure and resistance.
This seems a more convincing account than that of Baudrillard's optimistic Marxism. Baudrillard seems to see the populist rejection of subjecthood as a permanent state manifest in apathy or passivity. We incline more to Barthes's position which is that pleasure exists for the moment of reading (or playing) and that the most we can say is that this keeps the possibility of resistance alive, or that it is evidence of a possibly permanent need to fracture subject positions. This brings us closer to the Bennett-Woollacott view that popular art, be it video games or the Tames Bond phenomenon, must provide the means for the subordinate to rearticulate their relations within the dominant order, rather than to deny that order.
The resistance of the games is selective, not wholesale. It is a resistance against the subordination produced by a capitalist technocracy, but not against the society itself. The games provide opportunities for resisting that subordination by inverting, not rejecting, social relations, and thus the oppositional meanings and subjectivities are articulated with and within the dominant frame.
For the subordinate, then, the parlours offer the opportunity to generate a subject position that, by inverting key social relations, can resist subordination within an overall acceptance of the society that produces that subordination. For others, those with the capital to equip their homes with the technology, the games offer the chance to develop skills, masteries and attitudes that the society which they are entering will reward and value. If there are subcultural meanings here, they probably centre around the social fact that the parent/ teacher generation is generally inept at the games, and thus the normal relationship of youth to maturity can be inverted. In both cases, subordination is resisted, but the system that produces it is accepted. Resistance within acceptance is the paradoxical core of the pleasure of video games.
John Fiske and Jon Watts teach at the Western Australian Institute of Technology
Barthes, R. (1975) The Pleasure of the Text. Trans. R. Miller. New York: Hill and Wang. (First published 1973.)
Barthes, R. (1982) Empire of Signs. Trans. R. Howard. New York: Hill and Wang. (First published 1970.)
Baudrillard, J. (1983) In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities ... Or the End of the Social and Other Essays. Trans. P. Foss. New York: Semiotext(e) .
Bennett, T. (1983) 'A Thousand and One Troubles: Blackpool Pleasure Beach'. In Formations of Pleasure (1983). London: Routledge and Kegan, Paul, 138-155.
Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. (1980) Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lévi-Strauss, C. (1979) Myth and Meaning. New York: Schocken Books.
Mercer, C. (1983) 'A Poverty of DesirePleasure and Popular Politics'. In Formations of Pleasure, 84-100.
Roberts, K. (1978) 'Culture, Leisure, Societythe Pluralist Scenario'. In Bennett, T., et al. (eds.) (1981) Culture, Ideology and Social Process: A Reader. London: Batsford Academic and Educational with Open University Press, 265-284.
Thompson, P. (1983) 'Carnival and the Calculable'. In Formation of Pleasure, 124-137.
Wilden, A. (1971) System and Structure. London: Methuen.
Willis, P. (1977) 'Class and Institutional Form of Counter-School Culture'. In Bennett, T., et al. (eds.) (1981), 81-110.
New: 3 October, 1997 | Now: 27 April, 2015