Adorno's analysis of capitalist culture-- the "culture industry"-- in The Dialectic of Enlightment, twins this stance towards the social significance of culture with Freudian analysis. On his veiw, there is a distinct psychopathology manifest in modern cultural forms, a tendency to masochism.
Genuine aesthetic pleasure is a threat to technical society because it offers an alternative-- call it an escape, or as Proust put it, “a promise of happiness”-- to the routinized degredation of industrial capitalism. The job of the culture industry, is to manufacture entertainments that reinforce the underlying logic of capitalist society and blunt the potentially liberatory potential of art. And this is where Freud's theory of masochism comes in. A key to understanding the culture industry, on Adorno's view, is to see that its pleasure is a delight in our own impotence. Adorno has manifold examples to back up this thesis-- titillating-yet-prudish films made under the eye of the Hayes board, slapstick comedy, even Donald Duck. (An example which I used once in class is the classic TV series “I Love Lucy.” Every episode Lucy dreams of stepping outside the household and playing with Ricky's band, and in every episode these aspirations are humorously punished. The spectator is meant to enjoy the pain visited on her due to her aspirations after transgression.) The goal of the culture industry is to dull the anarchic force of pleasure by encouraging the spectator to revel in their own impotence. (NB this is all gross oversimplification of Adorno's Byzantine views on these issues, but is not actively misleading to my knowledge)
Though I've never put much stock in this thesis as a diagnosis of modern culture as a whole (it's freighted with more Freudian commitments than is wholly sensible), it does have a way of explaining some things. For example, it's got a lot of explanatory payoff when it comes to golf. It is difficult to explain the staggering injustice of golf to a layman. It is perhaps the most arbitrary and maddening form of leisure ever devised. You see, golf is a game in which you have a very very slight margin for error. The ball is so small that very minor faults in your swing the thing can cause things to go horribly wrong. I've been playing golf since I was 12 or so, and I can still completely miff shots-- knock them with the blade of the club and send the ball dribbling 2 feet to the left. Even when I'm doing hitting the ball squarely, I have some insidious, ingrained element of my swing mechanic that imparts a spin on the ball, curving it ever rightward.
It makes you want to smash up the implements you use to play the game, because they're the closest you can get to smashing golf itself. Back during my caddy days I witnessed grown men throw clubs into water hazards and trees, and though I was embarrassed on their behalf my heart was with them. On what else can you wreak revenge?
I say: here is a game that neatly captures the masochism of late capitalist culture. For eighteen holes your life is prey to the whims and malicious and arbirary forces, forces made all the more hateful by your sense that you should be directing their course. Every once in a while, seemingly at random, your efforts towards competence seem to pay off (sometimes you'll string a few decent shots together), but this is just another turn of the screw. Golf is life under the thumb of an inscrutable corporate overlord.
Which brings us to Halo. I'm crap at Halo. And yet every few months I'm mysteriously driven back to it. Despite my stack of unplayed and unfinished games, games that do not require interfacing with horrible racists, I keep playing Halo every time I sit down with the controller in my hand. I'm not sure why. It causes me actual dismay to keep throwing myself against the limits of my own competence. At least golf is outside. Golf courses are picturesque and varied, which is something I can't say of team slayer on Guardian. And yet I'm always coming back for more, lured by the illusory promise of that one decent game.
Aside from my basic puzzlement at my own motivations it occurred to me that frustration-- frustration of the controller-throwing sort-- is a disturbingly common emotion that when it comes to games. Especially the beloved games of your youth: those games were insane and difficult and arbitrary. There was always some ornate enemy behavior or finicky jump or boss battle that made you want to swing your NES controller above your head and launch it into the nearest water hazard. What does this say about us?