Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Foucault on the Pleasures of being Subject

First off, more good news for the good ship Clu: our exchange with Michel Abbott and Corvus Elrod garnered a mention on N'Gai Croal's Level Up blog, which means that now I can die in peace.

Second, we continue a weeks-spanning tradition of giving big ups to GameSetLinks. Thanks for reading, Simon Carless! I am going to name my first-born Simon Carless Pliskin in your honor.

And now to business. Michel Foucault was one of the most important and influential philosophers of the 20th century. Foucault's main subject was a historical development of social and cultural phenomena he came to call “discursive regimes,” and the theory of pleasure that grows out of his inquiries into these regimes illuminates many different cultural practices, including play.

The easiest to way to think about a discursive regime is to think of it as a set of rules that govern practices in sphere of life-- civic government, economics, medicine or even hygiene. These rules specify which sort of behaviors count as “normal” in that sphere and which actions count as “abnormal.” So in the case of medicine you have all sorts of practices that are used in order to determine who is (psychologically and physically) healthy and who is unhealthy, in the case of law you have a bunch of rules and procedures that determine who is a criminal and who is a functional member of society, and so on. Foucault thought that analyzing the history of distinctively modern practices like clinical psychology cast a good deal of light on the nature of modern society. (For example, he was interested in how the idea of mental diseases like hysteria and schizophrenia supplanted the old, theologically-based idea that mental illness was the result of a damaged or possessed soul.)

One of the main theses of Foucault's later work was that many other interpreters of these phenomena had failed to understand these aspects of human cultural life because they had a mistaken understanding of power. There is a temptation to think that the way these regimes operate is purely punitive: those in power, who make the rules, coerce the populace into compliance with them, purely through violence and sanction. On this line of thought, removing these artificial systems of control would allow our natural desires to find their full expression. Marxists, for example, often though that once the populace was free of the ills visited upon them by the political and economic regimes of capitalism, a type of social cooperation inherent in our species-nature would reassert itself and come to govern our social lives.

Foucault thought that there was a good deal wrong with this picture, but one of his main points is that discursive regimes to not just function negatively, through punishment, but also positively, through pleasure. This is why these regimes are so powerful: not because they terrorize us into conformity, but because they create new forms of pleasure through the imposition of discipline on our lives and bodies. As he once said in an interview: “If power were never anything but repressive, if it never did anything but say no, do you really think one would be brought to obey it? What makes power hold good, what makes it accepted, is simply the fact that it doesn't only weigh on us as a force that says no, but that it traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse.”

Thinking about regular and well-understood cultural practices, like ballet dancing, illustrates his point. Learning ballet requires the imposition of all kinds of arbitrary and physically unnatural rules on one's actions and body. You have to learn to tailor your bodily movements and to manipulate your feet in a way that is painful and difficult. However, by doing so you develop the capacity to use your body in a way that is elegant and pleasurable.

To take another example, think of Guitar Hero. Guitar Hero is a regime of power: it induces me to play the correct notes with the correct rhythm, and it punishes me when I fail to do so. The game poses problems I would not have otherwise in my life. But it also creates a certain type of pleasure that would not exist otherwise: the pleasure of playing all the correct notes in the correct rhythm.

Towards the end of his career, Foucault came more and more to regard the ancient Greek and Roman practices of self-discipline-- their forms of care over their own conduct and bodies-- as a model for liberation. Unlike self-sacrifice undertaken for the sake of God or for the State, the Greeks were disciplinarians who assumed these regimes for the sake of pleasure. The Olympics, in a way, are a paradigmatic product of this Greek enthusiasm for creating pleasure by submitting one's body and conduct to rules.

Many game designers think that that long-term goal of design is to bequeath real freedom on the player by removing all of the arbitrary limitations on the worlds they create which are necessitated by the limitations our technology, giving her the same liberty of action she enjoys in real life. And to be sure, the pursuit of verisimilitude, especially when it comes to expanding our modes of interaction, is a worthy one. But it seems to me that over the long term you cannot remove the rules without removing pleasure. Games are systems of rules, and you cannot make more fun by taking rules away. It is the limitations on our action imposed by systems of government that lends significance to our behavior. And they also make for all of the pleasure we get from flipping out and killing ninjas.


Anonymous said...

While reading your article, I was prepared to disagree with Foucault on this issue. I have a tendency to being politics into issues it has no business meddling in, and so playing more freedom off against more structure set off alarm bells in my head.

However, I feel that I agree - in games, having the freedom to do anything can be liberating, but it can also be stultifying. Though many gamers claim that, first and foremost, they seek liberty in games, the most popular and the most artistically impressive games (NB these categories are not mutually inclusive) tend to be based on a complex system of rules.

Games like Loco Roco or Katamari Damacy have a very specific, finite set of rules, despite what might be superficially analysed as 'anarchic' gameplay. Without these rules, the games could not be said to have the same personality which they obviously exude.

It is true to say, though, that rules can confine expression. Tetris is hardly known for its ability to bring out the artistic merits of the player, but that doesn't matter. The point is that it is still buckets of fun to play.

It is as you say.

Kirk Battle said...

Good read.

Wiggy though, I'm knee-deep in criminal law theory for class and I've been going through Bentham's and Kant's essays on this same concept. They were discussing the merits of punishment but it builds on your point: a rule is composed fundamentally of the perk of obedience and the punishment for breaking it. There is no point in the rule if you do not punish violation, on some levels there is no rule at all.

It didn't quite occur to me to apply that to game design though...the world of saved games, time rewind, and other punishment avoidance designs create fundamental issues about the purpose of a rule if I can just circumvent it.

Uh...put another way, why bother having a cliff for me to fall off if I can just undo it?

Anonymous said...

The sheer concept of freedom is fundamentally flawed when it comes to the field of games. As you said a game is a system of rules, but more than that a game is a means of performing some task under explicit constraints.

I've used this example elsewhere but consider golf; the overall purpose of the game is to get the small ball in the small hole. The optimal way of doing this does not involve hitting it into the hole from a distance with a club. But any other way of getting the ball into the hole is not going to lead to the pleasurable play of golf (If you like golf of course).

Games are defined as much by what is not allowed as what is allowed.

Anonymous said...

Freedom in games does indeed come with a great many limitations. A student of mine and I presented a paper a few years ago called "Being the Sons of Submission: Playing as Obedience to Authority in Metal Gear Solid 2" asking some of these questions, though we used the prison experiments by Stanley Milgram to frame some of the discussion.

In a nutshell, the interesting thing about games is (as Iriquois suggests) there is a degree of authority in them and (as Justin points out) that rules serve as one of the formulations of the "voice" of authority. The rules define your freedom or lack thereof.

For my student and myself, we were very interested in the fact that towards the close of MGS2 that neither of us were comfortable killing Solidus Snake because we sympathized a bit with the cause of the (ironically titled in this context) Sons of Liberty. But (in order to progress), the game brought you to this point and made you do just that in order to achieve the "carrot" of game completion.

This problem seems to have arisen for many players even moreso recently in Bioshock with the scripted killing of Andrew Ryan. In my mind, though, Bioshock is largely interested in the dichotomy between freedom and slavery that rules and voices of authority have in games--how we are made subject to authority in games in many ways without being conscious of that authority.

Good stuff especially coupled with the Foucault observations, Iriquois.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@L.B. Jeffries: I don't necessarily think time rewinding and quick-saving are mechanisms that help us "avoid" obeying the game's rules. They're just different from how we games have taught us rules in the past. Usually, a game kills us and forces us to repeat a section in order to teach us the rules, and at times this approach is both frustrating and unnecessary. Games with these mechanics just have a different approach to teaching you the correct way through the game, and I welcome being taught the rules without having to repeat the same tasks over and over again. (This is something I really enjoyed about Braid, for example.)

@g. Christopher Williams: It's interesting that you bring up these two games-- Metal Gear 2 and Bioshock-- because they are among my favorites of all time. What I like about them is that they make the ambiguities inherent in the player's obedience to the designer into an explicit topic of the narrative. And they do this, to a great extent, through the game mechanics. (The scene with Ryan and all of the odd Brechtian moments in Arsenal Gear were brilliant, because they conveyed the this idea about control without recourse to explicit narrative) I also believe that aspects of the Half-Life 2 saga deal with much of the same ideas.

Anonymous said...

Great post. Relates somewhat (as does your comment down here) to how I reacted to the recent Game Narrative posts over at Brainy Gamer.

Another authority in games is the designer who wants to tell a story or make a point. If they take away all restrictions and just give us mechanics to play with, it becomes awfully hard to convey anything meaningful. The reason I also adored Bioshock was that it toyed with the idea of freedom, giving you just enough leeway to make you realize how little you really had all along. But if they'd just set us loose in Rapture to play and explore, instead of moving us through a story (including that jaw-dropping Ryan moment), it would have been a much less moving game.

The ending, eh, we'll just leave that alone.

Anonymous said...

Great, great post. I'd been waiting for someone to apply Foucault to games for some time now, and you've done it simply and well.

Anonymous said...

I very much enjoyed your Foucault-in-a-few-hundred-words! I had a similar reading through a couple of his lectures - Abnormal and Hermeneutics of the Subject.

I agree that the ultimate exercise of subjectivity is creativity - the activity of fulfilling arbitrary rules for the sake of fulfillment. When I wrote an article on Michael Samyn and Auriea Harvey's "The Endless Forest" I was greeted with quite a bit of flak - a lot of people don't want to hear that the more constrained the rule system is, the more opportunities we have for true subjectivity. I'm glad that you've spelled out Foucault's argument here - because it's a good one.

It reminded me of a long quote from M. Merleau-Ponty in Phenomenology of Perception:
"An unclimbable rock face, a [sic] large or small, vertical or slanting rock, are things which have no meaning for anyone who is not intending to surmount them, for a subject whose projects do not carve out such determinate forms from the uniform mass of the in itself and cause an orientated world to arise - a significance in things. There is, then, ultimately nothing that can set limits to freedom, except those limits that freedom itself has set in the form of its various initiatives, so that the subject has simply the external world that he gives himself."

I think one of the questions worth asking is - What makes something "difficult" or "frustrating" or "challenging" or "puzzling" or "gratifying" - all words we use when we commonly talk about games? What are those experiences about? Are these all expressions of pleasure? Is gameplay a form of masochism? etc etc.

I guess what I'm asking is - are we actually creative when we play games? Or is it simply a form of intellectual masturbation? Foucault provides room for both, remember.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@Chris: great point on Merleau-Ponty, I think the quote you have there put the point I was going for perfectly.

I think your question is exactly the right one to ask. What I'm inclined to say is that these puzzles/challenges are "satisfying" when the game communicates them in a way that is both non-obvious and reasonable.

When I think of really great games, they have this way of leading you to the correct understanding of rules without forcing you to guess or die repeatedly-- it's like it's teasing the correct solution out of you rather than holding the solution behind its back. (I'm tempted to say there's something near-socratic about this method, and at other times I'm tempted to think of this as a kind of collaboration between the player and designer.) When we look back and reflect on the experience we tend to see the limits the game imposes on us as reasonable and conducive to the common goal of fun.

So, I don't think that play is always fundamentally a creative sort of act. But there are also ways of setting up the rules such that there is a great deal of leeway in how the players can solve certain problems in the game, and even possible solutions that were not foreseen by the designer. This is fun too. And there's plenty to be said on the topic of masochism, because we often love games that drive us in to a white-hot rage.

Humingway said...

Wow, great post! On the whole I agree, but this seems like an overstatement: "Games are systems of rules, and you cannot make more fun by taking rules away."

You can make more fun by removing restrictions over the course of the game. Think of "Metroidvania"-type exploration platformers, in which items grant the player new abilities. You may not agree that this constitutes "changing the rules," but to the extent that the player is concerned with different risks once their life bar is doubled, they're playing a different game.

This is like what St├ęphane Bura says here (with nearly incomprehensible diagrams), and what Manveer Heir says here.