‘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.’footnote1 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.

The key feature which distinguishes computer media from other reproductive technologies is the total manipulation of a limited range of elements. To record a picture or a sound on computer is much more inefficient and expensive than using film or tape, and currently the quality of either on domestic machines is crude, but manipulability makes it worthwhile. The distinctiveness of computer games lies in interaction: the passivity of cinema and television is replaced by an environment in which the player’s actions have a direct, immediate consequence on the world depicted. Players are surrounded by apparatus, in the home by screen, keyboard, joystick and perhaps speakers; in the arcade sometimes sitting literally inside the machine, turned back and forth, shaken in their seats, bombarded by noise; most recently, in ‘virtual reality’ machines, their heads are encased in helmets which provide an illusion of a fully three-dimensional environment, the views of which change with movements of the body. Other devices, not widely marketed at present, produce tactile feedback and allow an apparently direct interaction with the computer-generated world without the need for arbitrary software interfaces. The aim is to produce an illusion not merely of scene but of action. In most games there is a striving towards ever greater illusion and the envelopment of the player to provide an immediate, visceral experience. Given the technical means available, and certainly when compared with those of the cinema, this project appears chimerical, yet the experience of games can be compelling just because it is interactive, because movements made by the player are immediately translated into a change of view and action. In the game, twitches of joystick and mouse produce great apparent bodily or mechanical movements: this is sometimes like driving a car, where the same disparity between movement and effect is apparent. Simulations of flying and driving, where computer screen becomes windscreen, directly exploit this effect as fantasies of movement and control, counterfeiting speed.footnote2 Even when the player looks at the scene as onto a stage and the alter-ego appears as one of the characters, the identification remains compelling because the player directly controls the figure: bodies focused around the tiny actions which operate the controls still attempt to reflect on a larger scale the frantic movements of their digital protagonists; the player winces as the character falls, is crushed or otherwise meets its demise. Most of all, in trying to provide a palpable and unified reality in which the player operates, by linking response, vision and sound, the computer game creates a phantasmagoric experience of total immersion.footnote3

Computer gaming falls readily into genres as rigid as those of nine-teenth-century academic painting. Games are arranged by genre on the shelves of software stores, so buyers may immediately find simulations or puzzles, adventure, arcade or role-playing games. These genres are characterized by game type rather than directly by subject matter but the two are often married in broad tendencies. With the exception of puzzles and to a lesser extent simulations, the genres are dominated by cinema and may be divided broadly into those that emulate film and those that emulate cartoons. Aside from this, interaction and movement tends to be of a cartoon type due to limitations in hardware and programming techniques, but there is a constant striving for ever greater resolutions, smoother animation, more naturalistic movement, more colour, a better rendition of volume and atmosphere. Older games were radically different, tailored to the modest capabilities of the machines on which they ran, coded with great economy to exploit the tiny amounts of available memory with an ingenuity which was also exercized on their content. These sought to take advantage of their very limitations: certain formats were established (platform games, single screen space-invader type games) which were particular to the computer. While these are still common, and while some games are produced (like the Russian Tetris) which are very much computer-specific, computer gaming is a medium which, with increasing sophistication, is losing any sense of itself, becoming entirely subservient to the conventions of cinematic illusion. The common aim is now the ‘interactive movie’. Dependence on the cinema is expressed in musical scores which accompany the play (sometimes different themes are linked to individual characters or events), also in introductory screens, rolling credits, cuts and fades, long shots and close-ups. Movie spin-offs, whether of Indiana Jones or Robocop, are only the most obvious example of an increasing mutual dependence. Flagrant plagiarization and quoting of cinema plots, motifs and designs are common, a whole subgenre of games being founded around Star Wars.footnote4 Other subjects are immediately familiar from cinema: sword-and-sorcery, Lost Kingdom scenarios complete with dinosaurs and exotic tribes, detective games and bureaucratic conspiracies.footnote5

To some degree separated from cinematic games are a set of yuppie simulations which take the guise of ‘serious’ platforms designed to show off the capabilities of expensive computers.footnote6 Here flight and drive simulations (the latter modelling Porsches and other such toys) compete with golf games. The vain yearning for status of those uninvolved in these real activities is partly compensated for by having a computer of sufficient power to run fast and complex simulations. Occasionally the adverts for these games dwell overtly on the snobbery and envy which apparently drives their players: ‘Ever sat at your desk and thought “great day for golf”? Or winced as you-know-who swaggered off to yet another tournament? No problem. Wait till you get home and go one better. Just pull up a chair and play links: The Challenge of Golf. And enjoy all the thrills of the game in the comfort of your own “clubhouse”.’footnote7 Increasingly, however, the distinction between simulation and the story-based game is blurred as the more sophisticated simulators are built around campaigns, careers or tournaments, while narrative games often involve passages of simulation.

If part of the pleasure of cinematic spectacle is an identification with the protagonist on the screen, involving an imaginative replay of the action, then computer games seek to make this mental act palpable. In Hollywood film there is already a marked trend towards producing a visceral and enveloping experience, through extreme close-ups, fast cutting and the frequent use of shock, and this is merely in the process of being completed by interactive technology. While the subject matter of computer games is utterly dependent on cinematic genres, cinema itself mimics virtual reality, presaging its actual arrival as a domestic technology. The essential point is that these games, while posing as first-order simulations of reality, are in fact second-order simulations of scenarios dreamt up in Hollywood.

The basic structure of the game is overlaid with a visual veneer which programmers call ‘chrome’. The computer game simulates simulation for—to put it in Hollywood language—beneath its chrome glove lies the iron hand of economy. In early games this structure was visible to the player; elements in the first text-based games appeared as simple characters, and in early line-drawn games transparent opponents were encountered in box-like spaces. Here the simple calculations of the programme were as transparent as the virtual enemy: increasing sophistication has just clothed these calculations in simulated flesh. There is something familiar about the visual aspect of many games, and while this is partly because we already know their elements from films, cartoons, adverts and comics, beyond this they possess a crisp, hallucinatory clarity, the images being constructed from a precise repetition of tiny blocks of which the viewer may become aware. They exhibit a phantom objectivity, a hollowness, being a purer distillation of the generalized forms found in the commodity and the advertisement. To compensate for this lifeless immateriality, there frequently appear glowing objects, flashes, explosions, phantom lights, iridescence in which the ghostliness of the medium simulates an aura, not by slowly impressing on the viewer a sense of presence, but rather by making believe something is there, with a glittering, eye-catching display of movement and transience, linked with speed and inconsequentiality, itself mimicking the flow of digital signals.

At first sight there also appears to be some convergence between the image of computer technology and the shiny, bright, metallic surface of the games themselves, which form a resistant and inhuman glacis. Colours are bright and synthetic, the shapes they describe are predominantly geometrical, and become more so as they are resolved into polygonal surfaces or the differentiated squares of bit-mapped images. Yet games also play on the precise opposite of this glossy sci-fi world, particularly in the numerous dungeon scenarios where spaces appear dark, often damp, irregular and confining. At the twin poles of space-ship and dungeon, the look of the games amounts on one hand to a virtual image of a smooth, ordered, brushed-steel world, on the other to its labyrinthine shadow. Between these two extremes, an emerging trend is the use of fractals,footnote8 which to a degree divorces the look of the game from human agency, arriving at a simulacrum of natural forms. Again increasing naturalism (in technical terms governed by greater resolution and ever greater numbers of colours), means that games are gradually losing their specific look, in favour of a ‘style’ which is to some degree beyond the control even of their programmers. Specificity finds a refuge only in lapses, in the clumsiness of much of the drawing, in the frequent mismatches in the rendering of objects and backgrounds, and in the flattening of virtual space in a manner which reveals the screen.