How to approach ideology in videogames ?
I read Nate Combs' terranova post wondering about MMO political economy. Are MMO pro-liberal or dirigist ? What are pvp or gvg ideologies? Is Eve on-line democratic?
I did not try here to answer these particular points, but proposed a methodology to study videogames' ideology on a larger scale. Here are some of my PhD's researches thoughts.
Ideology in MMO is quite difficult to define as it is a mix of representation (kingdom, anarchy, etc.) + game goals and rules + practices instituted by players.
Representation, action, legitimization
According to Max Weber analysis, it is more important to define how we are related to objects or system than to define the object or the system. According to this, the representation we've give meaning, more than object's. Moreover Marx (and Althusser) definition of ideology deals with representation of the domination more than a system of domination: how the people define himself as an ideological subject in a political system is the key. Then, ideology is linked to subjectivity issues (Deleuze and Guattari) as it could produce new types of relation of power (Foucault). Then, each videogame is a micro-topic of power and is ruled by micro-politics.
So, when I started my PhD I tried to analyze videogames ideology, focusing on in-game legitimization of power, and how players are encouraged to use different socio-political resources. This focus on the individual is quite interesting because contrary to real world, individual will impact on political system. Depending on the game environment and universe, ideology will differ. For example, as a heroic-fantasy hero you will restore a peaceful feudal state or parliamentary monarchy, a kind of pre-democratic states. In a contemporary universe you will fight against terrorist or aliens in order to preserve democracy.
From this first approach, it’s obvious that there are multiple ideologies in one game, the one sustained by the enemies (the political order they try to institute), the one you defend (the king you serve, the State you defend as a marine, etc.), but for me it appears that the most interesting part is how player action is legitimated. This part is important because it will define your relation to a particular socio-political order, a way to access to its domination, way which can differ from the goal. To be brief, you can restore a communist world with neo-liberal justification. This articulation between three ideological systems in competition produces a multi-level ideology. According to that there are a lot of libertarian or minarchist (cf Rawls) justification system in order to preserve or institute a democratic system.
Then, the use of violence issue is central, because it is both linked to State’s representation and function. For Weber or Norbert Elias, monopoly of legitimate use of violence is the modern State specificity and goal (it comes from pacification process in order to promote economy and exchange).
New relation, new subjectivities?
Then, after focusing on in-game ideologies, because the ideology is both a system of representation and action, I wondered if interaction should be ideological. According to Guattari new technology produces new subjectivity, so computer-mediated relation would be new relation to the social and normative order? Then it appears that the code is not the law (contrary to Lessig), but is more like the physico-chemical matrix defining both the world and the human. The main difficulty in programming is to simulate the complexity of social world, because you can’t code everything, especially what is irrational or unknown. What appears here is that, code produce a rationalisation of humanity conception. (I would not develop here on semantic issues: language vs. code, poetry vs. tekné, etc.). What happens is that coded identity, even if player invest their avatar, produce a very interesting relationship to virtual worlds. I mean that in some ways it is close to Wiener cybernetics’ dream of human without body, a spirit in a theoretical world, a totally communication-oriented mind (with the game system, with others).
But the more fascinating thing for me is how people can modulate this technical determinism by inventing new uses, new practices, and moreover new goals. MUD experience is As Richard said a freedom ideal because it was not a object-oriented space. I mean that graphical rhetoric in MMO does not produce a limitation of the imagination, but limits the expression of this imagination. Manipulating sign is less powerful than coding (or painting) these signs. Player is more a disk-jockey than a musician, and more a musician than a compositor.
Then, one more hot and fashionable topic is cognitive capitalism as french communicaiton studies are so on it. Can videogames be thought as an artefact of cognitive capitalism ? If they are, their political organisations should differ from previous forms of industrial worlds.