Wednesday, July 23, 2008

O Tempora! O Mores! (pt. 2)

Yesterday I talked some about Benjamin R. Barber's Consumed, and took him to task for having a laughably antiquated understanding of games and for willfully misconstruing the work of Stephen Johnson. But games and the business of gaming are as much a part of American consumer culture as any other medium, and Barber's analysis sheds light on how this culture shapes games for the worse.

There are some obvious targets for Barber's charge of infantilism, of course: The message board culture is famous for its its impatience with civil dialogue and its tendency to reduce conversation to name-calling. Designers of team-based shooters have often complained that it is impossible to get individual players to subordinate their private goals in service of cooperative play. Kid-targeted MMOs are making a killing on turning children into consumers of in-game goods. Spend even a brief amount of time on Xbox Live playing certain games and you are likely to get a dispiriting object lesson in juvenile self-aggrandizement.

But the more interesting implications of Barber's analysis lie elsewhere. His account of branding in modern commerce is an instructive example. As he explains it, there are two different ways to cultivate consumer desire for a product. The first is to offer a product that is functionally different and better than that of your competitors in the market. When capitalism functions this way it fosters competition, and the consequent diversification and improvement of products benefits consumers. However, you can also create consumer demand through branding-- forging a connection between a product and a larger identity or lifestyle through advertising.

The aim of branding is to make the consumer feel that they are choosing their identity when they choose a product: “consumerism has attached itself to a novel identity politics in which business itself plays a role in forging identities conducive to buying and selling. Identity here becomes a reflection of 'lifestyles' that are closely associated with commercial brands and the products they label.” (167) When you walk into a Starbucks, everything that you see and hear in the store-- the music, the furniture, the look of the cups, the decor-- conspires to communicate your selection of a particular lifestyle in your choice of which coffeehouse to patronize. Dunkin' Donuts just as consciously cultivates the counter-lifestyle: you're the kind of person who doesn't go in for all that Starbucks shit. This is branding at work. Another example: I know that the Advil and the cheaper Wal-Profen on drugstore shelves are exactly the same product, and I buy Advil because I have seen it on television.

Branding is a spot-on as a diagnosis of the blight on gaming culture that is the console wars. We all know that there are functional differences between the consoles. They deliver some different games and they have different interfaces and controllers. But we also know that some folks have lost sight of these real differences long ago and forge on because they believe that their choice of console reflects who they are as a person. Such is the power of branding when allied to that innate human tendency which Shaftesbury and Hume called the "spirit of faction." Even though most games critics and reporters chafe at hashing out the minor differences in cross-platform games, and would like to be talking about something interesting instead, stories about these minutiae dominate gaming coverage. The growing consensus is that the biggest story out of E3 this year is that Final Fantasy XIII will be multiplatform. Now, this was a big surprise and there's no denying that this move reveals a lot about the changing economics of game development. But at the end of the day the biggest story out of E3 involved a game that showed absolutely nothing new at the conference: no gameplay, not even a new trailer.

Barber also explains how branding homogenizes the marketplace. Branding stifles innovation and product diversity because it allows companies to spur consumer interest without changing the underlying product for the better. If it is possible to exploit the consumer's brand loyalties in order to sell the same product on a year-to-year basis it is smart business for the companies to do so. The economics of consumer capitalism favor the proliferation of brands around a functionally similar product, and one result is creative stagnation in the arts: “the infantilist ethos tends to homogenize taste and narrow rather than expand variety.” Michael Abbot recently decried the overabundance of shooters at this years' E3, and although I think the genre is in the thick of a golden age (and I sense that both Michael and I are “let a hundred flowers bloom” kind of people) I think he is right that the growth of the industry as a whole has been accompanied by a paradoxical decrease in the range of genres represented. Abbot is right: this represents a misallocation of resources. For every Bioshock there are four or five by-the-numbers shooters released-- the same set of weapons, the same level design-- and the people who made these games could be out trying something new.

I think Barber's analysis of the film industry may point the way out of this situation. The economics of consumerism lead to conservatism and creative stagnation in cinema, but Barber also talks about “Hollywood's capacity, as old as the industry itself, to respond to demands for more challenging and socially or morally engaged films whether or not they are profitable or popular.” (304) Perhaps, like in film, we will see an economic climate where the expertly crafted genre entertainments (the Ocean's Twelves and the God of Wars) will finance the innovative and creatively risky projects (the Solarises and the Heartlands). I hope that the expanding base of adult game-players will create this environment.

There is a final aspect of Barber's infantilization thesis, one which troubles me than the others. Shawn Elliott has complained that game design over the last few years has increasingly favored handholding; that is, the whole architecture of game design-- the structure of opening levels, the invention of “achievements”-- is centered around constantly doling out rewards to the player that indicate that they are doing the right thing, that they are making progress. Jonathan Blow (in a must-read interview with Stephen Totilo), in a similar vein, has said that the constant trickle of rewards given to string the player along in Mario Bros or in MMOs like World of Warcraft is an instance of “unethical” game design. What Elliott and Blow both fear is that, by stringing together “first-order” desires for loot and approval, these games train us to be passive pursuers of one desire after another rather than engaged critics. I have talked a lot on this blog about how I think games turn us into inferential reasoners-- recognizers of patterns, users of rules-- but maybe Barber is right that the underlying aim of the game business is to turn us into consumers.


Unknown said...

But isn't the underlying goal of a philosophy department to turn its students into philosophers? I'm not being facetious, I think, because a philosopher, according to philosophers, is someone who subscribes to the brand "philosophy" instead of e.g. "psychoanalysis" or "rhetoric."

The comparison gains even more traction I think when we think about how brands work within philosophy--e.g. the "continental" brand and the "analytic" brand--to say nothing of the "Marcusian" and the "Foucauldian" brands.

Turtles all the way down, IMHO.

Unknown said...

I fear that I'm very much out of my league. Falling somewhere near the middle of the bell curve I need a few hours and a dictionary to get through these posts.

That said, I've had something of an epiphany. And while I share some of Mr Travis' reservations, it's welcome to see others write words that express feelings and thoughts that I cannot.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@roger: I guess I see what you saying, in that any form of discipline (or sub-discipline) functions by making a certain identity for its practitioners. That's what disciplines do.

But on the other hand (and call me naive) I think not all disciplines are created equal, and when you think of the larger social context it matters what sort of identities our cultural activities create for us.

Ender said...

"some folks have lost sight of these real differences long ago and forge on because they believe that their choice of console reflects who they are as a person."

This explains so much.

Anonymous said...

Alright.....set....and here we go!:

1)You're fully aware that Wal-Profin is the same as Advil but cheaper, and you still buy Advil??

2)Yes, I personally know gamers that choose their systems based on which one they identify with. Me, I look at the longest stretch of snapshots and previewed games for each system possible, then the prices, and pick from there.

3)Final Fantasy XIII went multiplatform? Yeeesssssss. Man, Sony is losing it. See what happens when you charge gamers half the price of a Neo-Geo?

4)Yes, I must admit that I myself do brand loyalty. I usually assume that when Capcom releases something big-budgeted, it will be good, being as how they hardly ever fail. But this doesn't mean I ignore crappiness, e.g. the Devil May Cry series lost me at the second installation.

5) Achievements have definitely made gamers, including me I must admit somewhat, a little more superficially goal oriented rather than intelligent critics of the game.

6) "Heartland" - Wow......I

7)I think in the first sentence of the last paragraph, you meant "troubles me more than the others".

chade fallstar said...

I'm psyched to have received a "big ups."

On an only moderately related note: I recently discovered that David Foster Wallace wrote a (lengthy, not that that's a surprise) essay on David Lynch's film-making and what it means to me "Lynchian."

My mind essentially "blew."

WTB Epic Wang x 1 PST

Unknown said...

@iroquois: Apologies for coming back to this late! I guess I will in fact call you naive :D, though I seriously doubt I can make the charge stick.

At any rate, isn't the real point to be aware that we're being turned into consumers and to be able to critique our various brand-consumptions? This is the thing that I sometimes find so frustrating about Marxist philosophy, which I suppose can be encapsulated as standing behind your enormous plate glass window and trying to shoot someone in the middle distance with a rocket-launcher. It never fails to get the materialist juices flowing, though!

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