A few years ago, Eric Zimmerman wrote about the oncoming century as a ludic one, explaining that games fundamentally change the stakes of media. Altering each encounter, everyone becomes a designer. Consumers become participants. We’ll be able to learn about complex systems because we will be able to gamify them, and in being gamified they will become understandable.
Zimmerman skimmed over the fact that, across cultures, we love to play games at a loss. We understand them fine. But we bet against the house or we roll snake eyes or 13 becomes 23 or we can’t catch or throw a football and it all goes up in flames, over and over again, which we enjoy. We’re burning cash or time in front of ourselves, trying to rid ourselves of Georges Bataille’s le parte maudite, the accursed share, the excess energy of living beings which must be spent “gloriously or catastrophically.” But it’s hard to shake the feeling, these few weeks into COVID-19 in the United States, that we are living through a weird combination of Zimmerman’s all-consuming game universe and the expenditure logic that characterized Bataille’s thinking.
I say that because never before have I felt like games were so all-encompassing. Everywhere I look there are people playing games, or talking about games. I see long lists of games that we should play through our shut-in times, and I see recommendations for how to wile away the hours, and even my friends who aren’t plugged into games are talking more and more about the games that they are committed to, the Animal Crossing characters they hate, and the new franchises they are experiencing.
The ones who are not interacting with churning monetary heart of games culture are even more bizarre. They’re playing surreal meme games: posting image after image of albums and film screenshots with a rule that requires them to say nothing about context. It’s a game of interaction, prompting everyone else to either say “I love that thing” or “what the hell is that thing,” feeding Facebook or Twitter or Instagram’s need for comments and engagement. An abstract impressionism of affects, the albums that “mean something to me” constantly spill down the timeline. A picture of the soul via System of a Down covers.
So it’s an epidemic accompanied by a ludic plague, making Zimmerman right in a way. In a total stoppage, with productive time proliferating, we’re looking for strategies of waste. Like Bataille said, we’ve got all of this potential built up, and we need to exercise it out, and games are this wonderful thing that we can pour endless amounts of energy in but never exhaust. You can grind Apex Legends levels or participate in the Stalk Market or 100% whatever game you want. Then you can start it over so that you can do it again.
The last refuge isn’t somewhere deep in the mountains, it’s this mesh-space where games are somehow accessible to all of us who remain in our homes with mounting amounts of time on our hands. It’s in rolling dice, Roger Caillois’ games of the gods, and taking everything that we have pent up inside of us and trying to expend or waste it to the best of our ability. Bataille, writing before the onset of neoliberalism, just didn’t know how accelerated it could get: every moment in the life of the cognitariat is dedicated to doing some kind of labour. And when the conditions where that labor can land somewhere are removed, what’s there to eat all of that energy?
And, of course, there are plenty of us who are scraping by without access to proliferating free time: postal, warehouse, driving, shopping, civic infrastructure, health, fast food, and dozens of other kinds of workers who are newly-essential, keeping the actual economy afloat in the crisis. After 12-hour shifts, games are there for them to, giving them the critical feeling of a big win at the end of a round or the thrill of a decorated house.
I’m not demonizing games here, or saying that people are wrong to put their time into them. I’m saying that Zimmerman’s claim that games were going to be effective in this century skirted exactly what they’re effective for: burning productive time. You can put energy into them and get good feelings that are real and matter. Making good tactical decisions in the sci-fi shooter of your choice is like knocking a wildly swinging world back into shape. For just this moment, all of that anxiety and worry that shoots out of my body in spikes when I enter into the mental space of the miasma that is what the hell is happening right now is calmed. Enemies went down. I won the mission.
Expending energy gloriously is the underside of whatever we’re doing right now, and I wonder if the world after, whatever it looks like, will keep the consoling power of games, or if they’ll get cast away again once we can go to restaurants and public parks again. And will our games have made us better able to understand this or make sense of it? Unlikely. But they will have dominated the time, even if we didn’t think they did, and it will be fascinating to see the long-term effect.