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New Left Review I/198, March-April 1993


Julian Stallabrass

Just Gaming: Allegory and Economy in Computer Games

‘We need a leader. We have many missions to complete. We have to assassinate leaders of our aggressors, we have to destroy heavily guarded installations. We have many enemies, and they are not all human. We need to cross alien landscapes, over rocky surfaces, through vast subterranean caverns and across insect infested swamps. We need help. We need a leader.’ [1] Advert for Laser Squad, Krisalis Software Ltd. Thanks to the many people I have had discussions with about this subject, particularly Petrine Archer-Straw and Mick James. Taken from a computer game advertisement, this is the puerile plea of digital characters, a call echoed in hundreds of such games which invite players to become the ghost in the machine, to enter a virtual environment in which they will learn, travel and kill. To look at the new industry of computer entertainment is to take up issues of exchange and competition, the character of the commodity, fashion, allegory and objectification. It is also to deal with the issue of simulacra, much beloved by postmodern theorists. Far from believing that postmodern ideas of simulation adequately describe computer gaming, I shall look at two older cultural models which provide a more compelling account: Benjamin’s writing on allegory and Adorno’s theories about aesthetics and the culture industry. There is of course a considerable gap between the perspective and the technology of our time and that of these two thinkers, yet there are parallels for they witnessed the rise of the electronic mass media, at a time comparable to the current rapid growth in the use of computer games. This growth has been a quick, broad flourishing after more than a decade of minority use by a clique of technically minded and (in popular mythology) socially maladjusted, anorak-wearing males. While Benjamin and Adorno stood before a new age of television, we are currently entering a new era of interactive media.

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