Aug 31

The Neurotic Joy of Gaming

by in Philosophy and Psychology

Nels Anderson recently pointed out a post over at Jamie Madigan’s Psychology of Video Games blog. While Madigan’s post does not really say anything new (and is based on the kinds of experimental social scientific research that went out of style in the 1960s – sorry, couldn’t help myself), it does bring up the most important unanswered question that we have as gamers: Why do we play video games?

Nels takes us a large step in the right direction towards understanding this problem when he observes (in his own response to Madigan’s post) that, “We need better ways to talk about what makes games enjoyable.” Gamers, I’ve found, lack articulacy when it comes to understanding our own experiences playing games. Sure, we can go on for hours about what we like/dislike about the game’s rules or design, which characters we found empathizable and which we could not connect with, or how “immersive” the world is. But that’s not the same as being articulate about our own experiences and what they mean to us. Speaking articulately about ourselves requires some kind of language to put things into perspective, especially when it comes to sketching out what makes playing games so darned enjoyable.

Towards that, I want to play with the idea of “mastery” that both Madigan and Nels mention, and how mastering a game is its own enjoyment.

Mastery as Pleasure

Nels writes,

… there are certainly some [games] where I engaged with the story and characters (Planescape: Torment, Fallout, any adventure game, etc.). But the majority of my favourites would be games where I had the opportunity to master their systems, to improve skills. I think this also helps explain why so many games can have a terrible story and lackluster writing but still be a very satisfying experience…

I share in his enjoyment of mastery and skill acquisition, as I think most gamers do. Recently I’ve been playing through Final Fantasy VII again, and re-acquainting myself with the world after a long hiatus. Even though this is the n’th time I’ve played through the game, I’m always finding out something new and surprising (I truly didn’t understand Elemental materia until now, for instance) – or learning how to exploit certain areas of the game to maximize my characters’ levels. Anyone who has played Tetris understands the joy of mastery (think of your pleasure at completing four unbroken rows).

Mastery as Unpleasure

At the same time, mastery is not the only way in which we enjoy things. Often, mastery stands in the way of enjoyment. For instance, there is a large nature preserve near our city that my fiancée Stacey and I like to go hiking at. It is a large and complex forest, with plenty of trails to get lost on. We have hiked with people who wish to master the trails: they want to know all of the short-cuts, the fastest way to get from beginning to end, the most efficient method of eating (on your feet!), etc etc. When Stacey and I go for a hike, it’s to see the scenery. The land, the trees and the water all speak to us – we have to be very still, very silent some times for this to happen. This kind of joy cannot happen when we distance ourselves from the park by trying to master it.

Back to gaming. I worry that gaming has become predominantly a means for mastering imaginary places. Shadow of the Colossus, as a game that definitely lends itself to killing things, becomes an exercise in dominating other beasts. The rich joys that it’s sparse landscape evokes are passed over in favour of a joy of control, mastery, usage. The same can be said for games like World of Warcraft that throw the player into an exploitative form.

This is especially obvious when, as Madigan recognizes, many of us primarily play games as “to temporarily detach escape from reality, including our jobs or school. While some games leave us whit knuckled, others can be very relaxing. And at their heart, games are about mastery, developing new skills, or acquiring new knowledge.” Games have become a way of managing psychological symptoms – they allow us to withdraw from the stressors and responsibilities that fill our everyday lives. Our desire for mastery in the private world of games seems to point, most obviously, to a desire for control that is unmet in our public lives. We turn to games to fulfill that desire, and they become what is termed (in Freudian language) “substitute-gratifications” or “neurotic pleasures”. Gaming, when negatively defined as a way of managing work or school stress, is a form of repression. That is what I call a “negative definition” of gaming – a method for modulating stress without realizing anything positive in itself. Work now circumscribes and enframes play. That is a dangerous place to be in.

The Way Out (or: Poetic Joy)

I wish to resist that pessimistic interpretation. That is what got Freudian psychoanalysis into trouble in the first place, because he saw the end-product of civilization to be repression. I would rather follow the path that Norman O. Brown carves out in his magnum opus Life Against Death (Chapter XVI: The Resurrection of the Body) and Gaston Bachelard does in his Poetics of Space. Joyful living: true enjoyment, free from the burden of repression, “pure sublimation” as Bachelard calls it, is possible. This activity is called Play. Playfulness – expression as a pleasure in itself – does not abhor boundaries nor does it see them as unbreakable “rules”. Play takes boundaries and makes them part of its expressive dynamism. Work – all of our institutionalized settings – become places for playing. But playfulness for adults is not the naïve polymorphous perversity that we see in infants. Adults must learn to play through the language, cultural practices and institutions that we live in, whether we like them or not. Video games and work are two of those institutions.

I see the “poetic imagination” as one source for the joys of play. When I imagine through the world that a story, a poem, or a game  has to offer, part of me is “in the game” and part of the game “is in me”. I cannot distinguish very easily between myself and this imaginary world. In those moments, where I allow myself to imagine freely while respecting the world the place has to offer, I am at my most playful. I see things that I did not see before. I feel things – fear, pleasure, anger, surprise, disgust – that I did not feel when I stood outside of the world and peered into it from a distance. That world calls out new emotions and experiences from me – Shadow of the Colossus is no longer a series of quests with colossi that must be overcome in order to complete it, but an austere landscape that allows Agro’s trot, canter and gallop, to explode with vitality. Watching Agro run, and imagining the wild thunder of its hoofbeats echoing across the canyon, is a pleasure of its own. Feeling the awesome earthquake of a colossi’s footfalls as Wander stumbles madly to get away is frightening. As I play and use the world’s contours to enrich my imagination, I am reminded that I not only have a body, but that I am a body.

Becoming Expressive

In other words, I sometimes play games to “blow off some steam” from work, or to escape from the nightmarish demands of a student life that stands outside of my control. But when mastery (or domination, violence, aggression, etc) becomes a game’s central source of pleasure, it places a mortgage on my desires, gratifying them temporarily until they rear up again in a few weeks. It is neurotic pleasure.

However, when I fulfill a game with my own imaginings and make myself a part of the world it offers – whatever that might be – and allow myself to be transformed (emotionally, bodily, spiritually) in the process, I enjoy the game in a completely different way that does not pay dues to repression or neurosis. This poetic way of imagining changes the game: I can no longer just shut down the game after a few hours and call it a night. The game dwells in me. I lay awake at night imagining how to express to my fiancée, family, or friends, what I experienced earlier that night. Poetic imagining places within me the demand to become an artist of a kind: to express for others something that demands re-expression. Learning to play a game in that second manner, and showing for others how a game is part of my means for expressing myself, has become my life’s work.

15 Responses to “The Neurotic Joy of Gaming”

  1. From JP Grant:

    Chris, this is a thought-provoking post, and nails something I’ve been thinking about lately as well: that moment when you realize a game you’re playing for enjoyment has become instead a task to be completed. At a certain point, playing the game becomes, like work, an activity to be scheduled and completed, a series of objectives to achieve rather than an end in itself. I wonder if all games inevitably reach that point, or if there are some that can and do avoid that trap. Or maybe the failing is not in the games themselves, but in us, as I think you’re implying in your last paragraph. We’ve been conditioned to approach games in a certain way, so when something more freeform that’s about the experience, not the goal, comes along – something like Flower, for example – we don’t know what to make of it.

    Of the popular games that could be said to avoid the “neurotic pleasure” trap most consistently, I think endless, simple puzzle games like Tetris or Dr. Mario come the closest. Unless you’re playing competitively (either against another opponent or yourself, trying to beat your high score), it’s easier to enter that state of “play” you describe than it is for, say, Mass Effect. You don’t boot up Tetris expecting to beat it.

    Collectible- and objective-heavy games like Crackdown, Red Faction: Guerrilla, and Just Cause 2 exploit “neurotic pleasure” pretty thoroughly by rewarding you (leveling up your character) for collecting items and achieving objectives; the same could be said of almost every Rockstar game. Yet these are interesting cases because they also encourage you to just go off and explore the world, with no set goal, and don’t necessarily punish you for not pursuing the collectibles. I often have this weird love/hate relationship with open-world games for this reason – I’ll vacillate between open-world “play” and collectible-obsessed “neurosis.”

    So-called “open world RPGs,” on the other hand, may never really escape the neurosis trap. While I love Fallout 3, I spent so much time minmaxing my character, searching FAQs for bobblehead locations, that I sort of forgot how to just go out and explore without always needing a goal to work toward. How much of that is my own OCD tendency and how much of it is conditioning by the game? I don’t know. But it’s an interesting question to explore.

    Posted on August 31, 2010 at 2:53 pm #
    • From chris:


      I like the examples you bring up – it definitely shows that certain games lend themselves to “instrumentality” (that’s the best word I can think of right now) than others. I had never even considered trying to “beat” Tetris or Dr. Mario, but at the same time I did have some very specific goals in mind… finishing the level with the highest score, in the shortest time… all ends supported by the game. Smaller goals, but still ordered by an instrumental way of thinking.

      Crackdown, Red Faction and JC2 are all great examples of games that set up a very neurotic environment especially in terms of the goal-oriented quest systems that they have. But, as you said, that’s counterbalanced by an open world concept that undermines that kind of approach. One thing critical in these three games is the level of violence and aggression in them.. they reward a neurotic play with hostile encounters, the ability to beat the shit out of someone (or shoot them), etc. Because physical violence is repressed so heavily in day-to-day life, I suspect that the violent aspects of these games play a much heavier role in substitute-gratification than their collectibles. At the same time, when obsessive collecting becomes a pleasure (as it has for me, many times in my life!) – I would immediately think of a player who wishes to contain things, control things, manage and keep track of things.

      As any pencil’n'paper DM knows, min-maxing is the worst thing you can have from a player. It degrades creativity and turns a character into an excel spreadsheet. I have done this many, many times in my life – especially in games like Fallout 3 where there are no rewards for making a “weak” character. Fallout 1, on the other hand, rewards all kinds of idiosyncrasies in the player – I even finished the game once as a purely mélee-only fighter! Another time, I played as a socialite who persuaded her way into the mutant base with very few fights.

      I suspect that in the end, games have very very few mechanical rule systems that “prevent” us from doing anything – it is more that our habitual ways of playing games make poetic play appear to be impossible, when it is merely difficult.

      Thanks for the thoughtful reply! Always surprised when something I write strikes a chord with someone else. :)

      Posted on September 1, 2010 at 10:12 am #
  2. From codicier:

    Really interesting writeup thanks for doing it there are alot of good thought provoking concepts.

    Had a couple of rambling thoughts while reading and thought i would try to share them(apologies in advance I’m not entirely sure I’ve manged to distill them down very well)

    -Might it be better to to talk about looking for Understanding rather than Mastery in games?

    Mastery a very loaded term, as you state it seems to bring up the idea of a almost compulsive desire for control of a system. But if we talk about games as a conscious act to engage with, and understand somethings it allows a lot wider range on interpretations. If we talking about the understanding not mastery it allows both your attempt to gain a sense of place, and other peoples search for the most efficient route.

    Know Unknowns

    Imagine you are on the walk you talk about with your fiancée and suddenly you come to a fenced off area which you couldn’t see into. Wouldn’t you be curious to look for a hole in the fence, or a vantage point somewhere further along the walk where you could see in.
    As soon as you start defining something in a game as having a significance beyond being a integral part of the system of the world it creates a problem.
    By saying “this object is separate from the rest of the world” the game is also implying “your world is incomplete”.

    once again apologies if i didn’t articulate myself very well and thanks for the read

    Posted on September 1, 2010 at 2:38 pm #
    • From chris:


      You read my mind re: “understanding” over “mastery”. That’s exactly the kind of transformation in play that would, in my opinion, reward a player ten times over. Understanding is a much more inclusive term. At the same time, I still want to distinguish between players who Min/Max, or play for pure skill/stat gain – and players who get a sense of place, sense of the characters, etc. I do not want to collapse both of those kinds of experience into one term; “mastery” seems to really cover one aspect of that experience – understanding is a broad term.

      I’m not sure exactly how to answer your second point, because I think I’m confused about the situation you are describing…

      Thanks for the insights!

      Posted on September 5, 2010 at 1:59 am #
  3. From Matthew "Sajon" Weise:

    I have never once played a game “to blow off stream”. I don’t even understand what that means. Games that relieve my neurotic anxiety do not do so via violence. I like games with nice music and fun navigation.

    Also, I haven’t read Bachelard, but how is “pure sublimation” not also a form of “mastery”–a mastery over repression? I agree that Freud was too pessimistic, but taking the opposite view–that there’s something a thing as a perfect existence free of all repression and anxiety–strikes me as sort of a religious, utopian, messianic notion. Maslow was just as bad, with his self-actualization nonsense.

    Posted on September 5, 2010 at 10:03 am #
    • From chris:


      Thanks for your thoughts. I agree – there is plenty of room for other “outlets” for anxiety. Freud was, for instance, very appreciative that sublimation through all kinds of art (dance, painting, etc) were just as powerful as our desires for sex and violence. As I’m sure you know, my article was directly addressing mastery and not these other forms of expression (repression) in order to understand what we mean by mastery. If you read the articles that I cited – both Nels’ and James Madigan’s article – both involved mastery as the central notion. I doubt that when you play a game with nice music and fun navigation that mastery is your approach, as you said. However, you have not explain what exactly your approach to play is? What attitude do you take towards gaming that makes you different from a person with an instrumental attitude? Another person might take the same games you play and populate them with a completely different attitude – so pointing at the games themselves resolves nothing.

      I agree that taking the “opposite” view to repression resolves nothing. But as you said, you have not read Bachelard. I did not want to address the theoretical issues implied by his approach in the article, so let me clarify things a bit.

      Bachelard is an extremely difficult author, and his response to psychoanalysis is not the reductive approach that you are suggesting. He appreciated that repression was central to the human condition, but he also believed that “poetics” had something equally powerful to say about our situation as dwellers as repression did. “Pure sublimation is”, for him, a transformation of Being (think of Heidegger here) and not reducible to the psychical management of desires. When we understand or are moved by a poetic image, our world changes. Yes, our desires are satisfied in that process – but they are also changed in that process. Pure sublimation is therefore not a mastery of repression (here you are clearly thinking like a Freudian, who sees repression as the only situation relevant to our species) – but a transformation and expansion of living.

      I think, like most authors who have views different from ours, we benefit from reading them rather than dismissing them outright. Maslow is rich in his own right, even if I disagree with his spiritual and theoretical sentiments (I agree with you – there is a utopian sentiment to many new-agers who take up Maslowian psychology); but I would be the last one to call his work “nonsense” simply because I have not read his life’s work.

      - Chris

      Posted on September 5, 2010 at 12:35 pm #
      • From Matthew "Sajon" Weise:

        “I doubt that when you play a game with nice music and fun navigation that mastery is your approach, as you said. However, you have not explain what exactly your approach to play is?”

        I dunno. Somehow I feel if I answered that question it would cease to be play. :)

        Seriously though, I play games for different reasons at different times. I am capable of playing a game for mastery, but that’s not how I relieve stress, at least not consciously. Its true that my use of games tends away from being “instrumental” as you say. A videogame to me is in some ways a computer-aided form of dreaming, and what is the purpose of dreaming? Mastery?

        As for Maslow, all I meant was his utopianism is nonsense, since I personally tend to find all utopianism to be nonsense, but that doesn’t mean everything he wrote was nonsense. I like Maslow, though I admit my understanding of him is more of less an overview.

        And I certainly shouldn’t be judging Bachelard without having read him. I wasn’t really meaning to. The way you used him in the discussion simply reminded me of my distaste for utopian rhetoric, which prompted my (not terribly thought out) response.

        Posted on September 5, 2010 at 4:12 pm #
        • From chris:

          “A videogame to me is in some ways a computer-aided form of dreaming, and what is the purpose of dreaming? Mastery?”

          I’m writing a dissertation chapter on that very idea right now, and I could not put your phrase better myself!

          This is where the difference between Freud’s approach and Bachelard’s approach to the meaning of dreaming is extremely important. “Early Freud” understood dreaming as an attempt to master the unknown/anxiety-inducing. The World War 1 veteran who dreams of saving his comrades in the trenches is attempting to master a situation that probably turned out much worse for him in real life. Late in his career (in his book Beyond the Pleasure Principle), Freud came to revise that stance a bit. Either way, Bachelard felt that Freud(ians) put too much stress upon nocturnal dreaming. Instead, Bachelard felt that – like you and me – poetic daydreaming was salutary and expressive. Daydreams, for Bachelard, allow us to consciously express ourselves through our imaginations. Reading (for him) is a ‘poetry-aided form of daydreaming.’ ;)
          That’s where you and I seem to be in complete agreement! Computer/video games allow us to daydream, and by implication, imagine the unreal. My argument is simply that daydreaming and imagining aren’t just whimsical experiences that make no difference – but rather that they somehow transform me in the process. And furthermore, that imagining is a “playful” activity, compared to mastery.

          Bachelard is hardly the kind to defend any utopian sentiment, and in fact is quite conservative, so any implication that he sees “pure sublimation” as some kind of society-saving activity is my mistake and not his. Pure sublimation is his attempt at overcoming a theoretical problem in Freud’s metapsychology.

          Posted on September 6, 2010 at 6:13 pm #
          • From Matthew "Sajon" Weise:

            Cool. We’ll, I’ll be interested to read it when it’s finished. Also, this dreaming idea came to me in an article I wrote about Demon’s Souls for Well-Played Games 2.0. The book isn’t out yet, but I think it will be out this year. All the best games I’ve played I remember the same way I remember dreams upon waking.

            Posted on September 6, 2010 at 10:11 pm #
          • From chris:

            I’d love to read it when the book comes out. I’ll be sure to post my chapter on video games and ‘imaginative dwelling’ when it is ready (i.e., when my dissertation is ready for defense).

            Posted on September 9, 2010 at 9:39 am #
  4. From WOGSCZ:

    I thought you might like to read this

    It’s an early example of a blend between discussion of “game” as event and “game” as discourse.

    Unfortunately, articulacy about gaming isn’t a mainstay of the industry….

    Posted on October 3, 2010 at 12:50 am #
  5. From WOGSCZ:

    You can see the rest of the Green Screen issues here

    Posted on October 3, 2010 at 1:05 am #
  6. From Irfon-Kim Ahmad:

    I actually had exactly the opposite reaction to Shadow of the Colossus that you did. I didn’t think it was at all about mastering the domination of beasts, control, killing, etc., nor that it was escapism. In fact, I thought it was primarily a game questioning our detachment and escapism, and the domination-and-killing storylines that we tend to play without question in these games. I felt that they were gently pushing the player to feel less and less comfortable with what they were doing, and with the structure of the game which allowed you no recourse to continue experiencing the world except to unquestioningly kill those beasts. I might have been giving them a lot of benefit of the doubt there, because if that really was the message it’s certainly not unambiguous, but I definitely felt that there were a lot of things embedded in the game that were designed to make you question your motives and the morality of your actions.

    Posted on July 22, 2013 at 7:31 am #


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