The Modern and the Postmodern: On Alienation, Paranoia, and Video Games
I’m taking a course right now in which we’re examining the dominant affects of modernist and postmodern literature, and as a result, I’ve been thinking a lot about the dominant affects of alienation and paranoia and how such ideas might be made manifest in the realm of video games.
The dominant affect of alienation, for one, results from the modernist preoccupation “with the inner self and consciousness…Instead of progress and growth, the Modernist intelligentsia sees decay and a growing alienation of the individual. The machinery of modern society is perceived as impersonal, capitalist, and antagonistic to the artistic impulse.” But theorists have argued:
The cynicism and alienation of the first flowering of Modernist literature could not persist. By mid-century, indeed by the Second World War, there was already a strong reaction against the pretentions of the Moderns. Artists of this newer generation pursued a more democratic, pluralistic mode for poetry and the novel. There was optimism for the first time in a long time. Commercialism, publicity, and the popular audience were finally embraced, not shunned. Alienation became boring. True, the influence of Modernist literature continues to be quite astonishing. The Modern poet-critics changed the way people think about artists and creative pursuits. The Modern novelists changed the way many people perceive truth and reality. These changes are indeed profound, and cannot easily be replaced by new schemas.
But one such new schema, it has been argued, is that of postmodernism, and Alistair Brown highlights the postmodern response to modernist alienation: “Fredric Jameson suggested that whilst modernist artists consciously alienated themselves from the capitalist world in order to posit a more utopian alternative, postmodern art unselfconsciously works with the same economic codes as the society in which it is produced.” And one way postmodern art works with such codes is through representations of paranoia, a concept that “refers to the distrust in a system or even a distrust in the self. Postmodern texts often reflect paranoia by depicting an antagonism towards immobility and stasis.”
But one potential problem with thinking through these schemas, when thinking through concepts like modernism and postmodernism, alienation and paranoia, is the manner in which something like postmodernism, as Brown puts it, becomes “little more than a broad synonym for the present and a pseudonym for the patchwork character of contemporary culture.” And Brown believes that the imprecise usage of the postmodern is especially “evidenced by the way in which the term continues to be used in relation to video games which, even as they offer fundamentally new models of narrative, are still described as postmodernism’s technological apotheosis.” He continues:
[I]t is important not to presume that games must be always already postmodern simply because their structural features—variability and unpredictability, the blurring of subjectivities between embodied player and virtual avatar—seem to slot within an extant framework. For before we even ask the question “is a particular game postmodern?” it is not at all clear that when we talk about “games” in general we know precisely what it is we are referring to. Perhaps uniquely among media objects, games challenge our attempts to adjudicate between different stylistic and formal qualities so that we can, say, judge one artefact as modernist, another as realist, and another as postmodernist.
And the potential problem with claiming that “all video games are postmodern then…implies that running beneath different examples of games there is a common substrate based on which we can judge finer aesthetic differences between examples, or from which we conclude that games are, in general, examples of postmodernist ‘texts.’ However, just how much ground is shared between different video game specimens?” As such, when asking ourselves such a question and when “thinking about game styles, we must acknowledge that different games, though superficially similar, may be better understood according to different models, sometimes from outside the field of video games entirely. Even as we do this, though, we should not impose metaphors from other fields unreflectively.” But Brown notes that all this “is not to say that video games cannot be postmodern, just to stress that we should not unreflectively assume all games are so simply because of the way we engage with them, interactively.”
I think that Brown makes some good points, and as a result, I’ve been reflecting a lot on my own discussions about the postmodern and video games. Whether it’s making connections to Linda Hutcheon’s definition of postmodernism as complicitous critique or reading the metanarrativity of a game like Pony Island as a postmodern move, I’ve made several arguments about manifestations of the postmodern in video games. But I think that Brown is right in arguing that such manifestations are not the only ones we see, and I think that the interplay between representations of modernist alienation and postmodern paranoia might be one way of problematizing all this. Indeed, while a game like Pony Island might be said to make use of postmodern paranoia through its “devil in the machine” and the manner in which this devil causes us to question who really is in charge of our play, a game like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, perhaps, might be said to reflect more on the concept of modernist alienation through its isolated, lonely, unpopulated landscape and the manner in which it asks us to travel through it. And then there is a game like The Magic Circle, which could be said to represent all these things, in its representation of the alienated-artist-as-game-developer character of Ish Gilder as well as its paranoid gameplay that relies on our distrust of the game’s system so that we might hack it and break it in order to win.
All this is to say that to argue that all video games are postmodern would be to (as Brown puts it, unreflectively) oversimplify what games do and say and how we interact with them. However, what I do think may be useful is to make connections across periods and across mediums in order to better understand the kinds of concerns and representations that get repeated and what such reiterations mean for the ways we interact with them.