Tuesday, July 22, 2008

O Tempora! O Mores! (pt. 1)

I've been reading the book Consumed, by Benjamin R. Barber, on the advice of Shawn Elliott. I thought the book had a lot of provocative things to say about the culture and business of gaming; some of its criticisms are uniformed nonsense, and some of them not. I want to deal with the former in this first post; I'm going to talk a little bit about its main thesis and then explain how he misunderstands games. In the next post I'm going to talk some about the things I think he gets right.

Barber's central argument is that modern culture has been corrupted by consumerist infantilism, a phenomenon he attributes to late capitalism. Capitalism requires the creation of desires for unneeded products in order to fuel the growth of the market, and infantilism is a cultural mechanism for the manufacture of those desires. In a nutshell, “infantilism” is the tendency of consumer culture to turn children into consumers and consumers into children. It transforms children into consumers by targeting them with advertising, with the aim of making their economic behavior resemble that of adults. It arrests the psychological and moral development of adults by subjecting them to forms of media that inculcate puerile attitudes, primarily thirst for easy, simple, and fast pleasures. It doesn't take much imagination to see where gamers fall into this picture: “consumerism urges us to retrieve the childish things the Bible told us we had to put away, and to enter into the new wold of electronic toys, games, and gadgets that constitute the modern digital playground for adults who, the marked seems to have concluded, no longer need to grow up.” (14)

I have to admit there is an aspect of this argument that hits a little close to home. I have a bunch of plastic instruments in my living room, for chrissake. Like many others of my generation, I've delayed assuming many of the responsibilities of adulthood like marriage and childrearing in order to pursue schooling or our careers. I think many of us worry that that the lives that we have cultivated in the absence of these responsibilities deprives us of the virtues of self-discipline needed to cope with the demands of maturity. These are the anxieties exhaustively cataloged in Judd Apatow's movies-- the challenge for the men in his films is not escaping the world of adulthood (like in The Graduate) but attaining it.

Barber casts himself in the mold of other cultural-jeremiad writers of the last 20 years, most notably Allan Bloom, whose Closing of the American Mind reached similar conclusions about the state of American culture from an avowedly conservative standpoint. Like Bloom's book, Consumed has an avowed debt to Rousseau, who had been raising worries of this very kind since the beginning of the modern era, supposing that “The progress of the arts and sciences has added nothing to our real happiness... it has corrupted our morals; and... that corruption has vitiated our taste.” Barber's book is at its best when he draws on the civic republicanism of Rousseau and De Tocqueville in order to articulate his worries about the fate of democratic culture in an economic system built around the unlimited satisfaction of private desire. His advocacy of this tradition is clearly presented and persuasive; he presents the complicated philosophical ideas at work in this critical tradition in a great depth without sacrificing accessibility, which is an achievement.

The long pedigree of his arguments about modern culture, however, also points to the most telling point against them: arguments of this exact form have been raised against nearly every distinctly modern art form. The novel, modern popular music (both jazz and rock), and cinema were all accused of undermining the fabric of society by instilling sensual lassitude in the audience. (The jury is still out on the other great society-destructive medium of the 20th, century, television. But not for long.) Twentieth-Century Marxists of Barber's intellectual stripe, in particular, have a deplorable record on producing unprejudiced views of postmodern cultural forms: Adorno, in a personal nadir, called Jazz a form of ritualized castration.

Barber resembles no one so much as the neo-Marxist cultural critic Herbert Marcuse, whose Freudian analysis of consumer culture as a form of infantile repression he adopts wholesale. Much like Marcuse, Barber makes a set of provocative and insightful observations about the cultural dynamics of capitalism and then proceeds to overstate those observations to such a degree that its makes those original insights look unappealing. Barber also resembles Marcuse in his shrill, humorless tone and his slipshod and uncharitable treatment of his intellectual opponents. Barber's paean to the hard-won pleasures of civility and mutual understanding would be more convincing if his work exemplified these virtues.

His critique of Stephen Johnson, author of Everything Bad is Good For You, is a prime example of this. Barber derides Johnson as a modern-day Pangloss, but Johnson's central thesis that modern forms of media require a relatively high degree of cognitive engagement on the part of the audience is not even seriously considered, much less refuted. Because Johnson's claim runs counter to Barber's central argument, he owes the reader a refutation; instead he asserts that Johnson's work is illustrative of the dangers of critical slumming: basking in the transgressive thrill of shallow consumerist entertainments. There are good criticisms of Johnson's work to be made, but this is not one of them. Johnson's account of fames is, if anything, excessively cerebral: he resolutely stresses the problem-solving element of games over against their immediate aesthetic pleasures.

Because he dismisses Johnson's work without bothering to understand it, Barber rehearses the antiquated criticism that games are exclusively about developing reflexes: “Video games too depend on rapid neurological response and instant reaction to stimuli. Such games are intrinsically tied to the perpetuation of childhood and represent turning adults into consumers of children's commodities... But even as measured by speed alone, intelligence in the world of digital games is associated with rapid firing of extant synapses rather than the forging of new synapses that constitutes traditional associative intelligence.” (100) Leaving aside that fact that Barber offers no evidence for the latter claim (which I might find justifiable had Barber not specifically criticized Johnson for inadequately supporting empirical claims), the conception of games advanced here is just antiquated: it trades on a knowledge of games that begins and ends with Pac-man. Place him in front of the game Civilization (which gets an unearned swipe on page p.7) for a bare three minutes and Barber's argument will begin to look silly.

The ironic thing about all this is that Barber approvingly cites Erik Erikson's description of the function of play, “Play is the infantile form of the human ability to master reality by experiment and planning,” and then goes on to equate this exercise with art: “Adults invent and create by transforming child's play into a grown-up tool, which is an aspect of what artists do, for example.”(84) This is as good a description of what goes on in video games as you will find.

Tomorrow: What Barber gets right.


Nelsormensch said...

While this is a reaction I have to almost anyone who rails against games in this fashion, I honestly have to wonder if Benjamin Barber has spent any meaningful time at all playing games. His arguments sound (I haven't read Consumed, but might now if I can find the time) like someone who watched 30 seconds of Dig Dug or Doom and believe this is representative of the entire medium. Tragically, this seems common in nearly everyone over 40 and Barber's nearly 70. But that's a position so naive it's almost laughable. Would anyone take a critic of film serious if they condemned that medium after watching only Gigli and Notting Hill?

Just like any other medium, there are games that are shallow, derivative and seriously lacking in substance. But there are plenty that are quite compelling and substantive and that's more true now than ever. It's a little dismissive, but Barber's arguments largely sound a lot like "You damn kids and your rock and roll. Get a job!"

That being said, I'll be the first to say there are problems with the medium and I'll be interested to see if Barber's legitimate objections line up with mine.

Roger Travis (TinPeregrinus) said...

It's turtles all the way down for Barber's sort of critique. Plato and Thucydides say much the same about the Athenian love of sophistic rhetoric--and the sophists great "crime" was becoming purveyors of consumer-driven education. Sigh.

Ptolemy said...

I often defend the amount of time I spend playing games by comparing the activity to passively watching television, something I hardly do anymore because I can't take the repetitive commercials and lack of interesting programming. When I'm gaming I'm being active, maybe only somewhat physically since I've gotten a Wii, but something is definitely happening in my brain that wouldn't be happening during a rerun of Friends. What's even more beneficial is the communication that transpires during multi-player and more importantly co-op play.

The other point I want to make is this. Am I the only one that is completely unaffected by advertising? Are we as a culture so dimwitted and malleable? The word infantilism strikes a nerve with me because I feel like I'm aware of what's going on and I am not at all compelled to go and buy everything that passes before my eyes. When I need something or want something I look for it. No random buckshot ad campaign has ever swayed my decision. I've never stood up from the couch and decided to go to McDonalds because of the culturally diverse people dancing to catchy tunes, I still haven't switched to Geico despite any geckos or cavemen's shenanigans, I have not shopped at Walmart because they pretty much said I'm stupid for not wanting to save money. So aren't there more people like me out there? I'm sure there are those with disposable wealth who have no idea what else to do with their money, but that can't be the majority, aren't many of us living comfortably within our means and totally happy?

I often scoff when I hear about this recession, I don't think its that there's less money flowing around, I think its that there's less of a rate of increase of money floating around. The ones that are ultimately concerned are the ones that separate us from our money. Of course I must follow that statement up with the fact that I know very little about economics.

ps - Great read, I found out about you from Michael Abbott

Philippe said...

Can somebody say a few lines on "playing"? How can it be that on one side, the "Homo Ludens" is considered an evolutionary step, while on the other hand, everything that is "fun" is also considered childish?

(Please excuse my English - it is not my first language and I do certainly not have the vocabulary to take a real part in this discussion.)

Denis said...

What happens if those responsibilities of adulthood are not a given? While there may be something to the queer fascination with Peter Pan, to say we'd be stuck in an infantile state due to this does seem a bit odd.

I am much in the same boat as Ptolemy. Whenever I do meet new people, invariably they will ask what television I watch. I respond with a list of books and videogames with which I find myself engaged.

Most of us actually thinking about games and not wishing them just to entertain us without actually examining why will probably agree that there are problems in the medium, though, as has been pointed out, this happens in every medium. Unfortunately, this particular one does seem young enough not have produced quite the amount of quality work with which we'd normally wish to associate.

As for instant reaction to stimuli, I think we'll find that we have many 'instant reactions' when engaging with any form of art, game, or visual representation. However, to say that videogames depend on that is to, again as a commenter above has stated, ignore a large swathe of games that do not have such a problem.

Will be curious to see what points do align with your thinking.

laz said...

O tempora! O mores!


secondquest said...

Nelsormensch said: "Would anyone take a critic of film serious if they condemned that medium after watching only Gigli and Notting Hill? "

Honestly (and I owe much to the Brainy Gamer on this), it's more like judging modern Hollywood based on some b-rolls from old Buster Keaton films. If BG's assertion that games like MGS4 are more our "Birth of a Nation" than our "Citizen Kane", then our critics not only miss the scope of input, but the meteoric development of the medium as a whole.

Ptolemy said "I'm sure there are those with disposable wealth who have no idea what else to do with their money, but that can't be the majority, aren't many of us living comfortably within our means and totally happy?"

Don't get me wrong, I like cultural studies as much as the next guy (and actually understand a bit of the academia driving recent "colonization" and "racism" critiques), but let me just say:

you can never let the facts stand in the way of a good Marxist critique. (the comments re: Adorno are particularly pertinent here)

sean (Or a Freudian analysis for that matter.)

PS After reading Brainy Gamer and Shamus' Twentysided Tale, I have to say I LOVE where this blog is going and what is discussed here. Thanks and keep up the good work!

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@roger: Let's not forget that Plato wanted to exclude poets from the Republic too.

@Ptolemy: I think you're totally right that Barber (and many other critics) are basically blind to the sort of cognitive engagement involved in games; on this level games are completely on par with television or film if not better. Cognitive engagement isn't all there is to aesthetic worth, but it's a start.

I also think that you're right: branding and advertising is so pervasive now that I certainly don't feel like it has much purchase on my consumer preferences anymore. And while Barber hates Tivo (he has this weird idea that it mutilates time, or something) it has totally allowed us to avoid watching any advertising, which is a blessing.

@laz: that title was basically a "big ups to laz"

@secondquest (and Nelsormench): You're right that a lot of the misperception comes from the over-40s crowd's unfamiliarity with games and the consequent inability to judge games relative to the progress of the medium as a whole. But I think the accessibility hurdle posed by most of the really great games is a problem too: even if someone like Barber wanted to play "Bioshock" I don't think he'd be able to get through it. These games presuppose so much past experience that it's impossible for regular cultural critics to play them. I sometimes think we shouldn't be surprised by so much misunderstanding.

The Clandestine Samurai said...

I'd have to take this post, print it and sit with it in order to really dig in, but for now I can say I also disagree with Barber. It doesn't sound like he's played anything recent, or has taken into account things like plot, message, goal, context, etc.

P.S. Childrearing and Marriage are only responsibilities after you take them.