Play It Again, Pac-Man

An appreciation of the peculiar allure of early video games
by Charles Bernstein  posted January 15, 2009
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This essay by poet Charles Bernstein was commissioned by the Museum of the Moving Image on the occasion of its exhibition Hot Circuits: A Video Arcade (June 6, 1989 through May 20, 1990). Drawing on a wide range of intellectual sources, Bernstein offers strikingly original ways of thinking about what early arcade games meant, socially, technologically, and politically. The exhibition aimed to present the original games as physical, playable artifacts, allowing visitors to experience viscerally—or re-experience—their peculiar allure. Bernstein's ruminations complement that aim, offering crucial analysis as to why that allure exists. In the essay, he evokes the similarities between computer "thought" and the narrative logic of the games. It is an analysis that was unique at the time, and still seems fresh—pinpointing nicely the means by which computers became instruments of culture. —Rochelle Slovin, Director, Museum of the Moving Image

Your quarter rolls into the slot and you are tossed, suddenly and as if without warning, into a world of controllable danger. Your "man" is under attack and you must simulate his defense, lest humanity perish and another quarter is required to renew the quest.

Drop in, turn on, tune out.

The theories of video games abound: poststructuralist, neomarxian, psychoanalytic, and puritanical interpretations are on hand to guide us on our journey through the conceptual mazes spawned by the phenomenon. Acting out male aggression. A return, for adolescent boys, to the site of mom's body. Technological utopia. As American as auto-eroticism. The best introduction to computer programming. No more than an occasion for loitering in seedy arcades. A new mind-obliterating technodrug. Marvelous exercise of hand-eye coordination. Corrupter of youth. Capital entertainment for the whole family. Not since the advent of TV has an entertainment medium been subjected to such wildly ambivalent reactions nor such skyrocketing sales.

If the Depression dream was a chicken in every pot, today's middle class adolescent's dream is a video game in every TV.

More and faster: better graphics and faster action, so fast you transcend the barriers of gravity, so vivid it's realer than real.

A surprising amount of the literature on video games has concerned the social context of the games: arcade culture, troubled youth, vocational training for tomorrow's Top Gun. So much so that these scenarios seem to have become a part of video game culture: nerdy kid who can't get out a full sentence and whose social skills resemble Godzilla's is the Star of the arcade; as taciturn as Gary Cooper's sheriff, he gets the job done without designer sweaters or the girl.

In the Saturday Night Fever of Computer Wizardry, achievement with your joystick is the only thing that counts; success is solitary, objectively measured, undeniable.

Or, say, a 1980s Horatio Alger. A failure at school, marginal drug experimenter, hanging out on the wrong side of the tracks with a no-future bunch of kids, develops a $30-a-day video game habit, can't unplug from the machine without the lights going out in his head. Haunts the arcade till all hours, till the cops come in their beeping cruisers, bounding into the mall like the beeping spaceships on the video screen, and start to check IDs, seems some parents complained they don't know where Johnny is and it's pushing 2. Cut to: young man in chalk-striped suit, vice-prez for software development of Data Futurians Inc. of Electronic Valley, California; pulling down 50 thou in his third year after dropping out of college. (Though the downside sequel has him, at 30, working till 2 every morning, divorced, personal life not accessible at this time, waiting for new data to be loaded, trouble reading disk drive.)

Like the storyboards of the games, the narratives that surround video games seem to promise a very American ending: redemption through the technology of perseverance and the perseverance of technology. Salvation from social degeneracy (alien menace) comes in the form of squeaky clean high tech (no moving parts, no grease). Turns out, no big surprise, that the Alien that keeps coming at you in these games is none other than Ourselves, split off and on the war path.

The combination of low culture and high technology is one of the most fascinating social features of the video game phenomenon. Computers were invented as super drones to do tasks no human in her or his right mind (much less left brain) would have the patience, or the perseverance, to manage. Enter multitask electronic calculators, which would work out obsessively repetitive calculations involving billions of individual operations, calculations that if you had to do by hand would take you centuries to finish, assuming you never stopped for a Coke or a quick game of Pac-Man. Now our robot drones, the ones designed to take all the boring jobs, become the instrument for libidinal extravaganzas devoid of any socially productive component. Video games are computers neutered of purpose, liberated from functionality. The idea is intoxicating; like playing with the help on their night off, except the leisure industry begins to outstrip the labors of the day as video games become the main interface between John Q. and Beth B. Public and the computer.

Instruments of labor removed from workaday tasks, set free to roam the unconscious, dark spaces of the imaginary—dragons and assault asteroids, dreadful losses and miraculous reincarnations.

If a typewriter could talk, it probably would have very little to say; our automatic washers are probably not hiding secret dream machines deep inside their drums.

But these microchips really blow you away.

Uh, err, um, oh. TILT!

Okay, then, let's slow down and unpack these equations one by one, or else this will begin to resemble the assault on our ability to track that seems so much at the heart of the tease of the games themselves.

Playable online version of the arcade game Frogger

Spending Time or Killing It?

The arcade games are designed, in part, to convince players to part, and keep parting, with their quarters. This part of the action feels like slot-machine gambling, with the obvious difference that there is no cash payoff, only more time online. Staying plugged in, more time to play, is the fix. The arcade games are all about buying time and the possibility of extending the nominal, intensely atomized, 30-second (or so) minimum play to a duration that feels, for all impractical purposes, unbounded. Clearly the dynamic of the ever-more-popular home games is different enough that the two need to be considered as quite distinct social phenomena, even though they share the same medium.

Like sex, good play on an arcade video game not only earns extra plays but also extends and expands the length of the current play, with the ultimate lure of an unlimited stretch of time in which the end bell never tolls: a freedom from the constraints of time that resembles the temporal plenitude of uninterrupted live TV (or closed-circuit video monitoring) as well as the timeless, continuous present of the personal computer (PC). In contrast, a film ticket or video rental buys you just 90 or 120 minutes of "media," no extensions (as opposed to reruns) possible. Meanwhile, the home video game, by allowing longer play with greater skills, simulates the temporal economy of the arcade product while drastically blunting the threat of closure, since on the home version it costs nothing to replay.

Video games create an artificial economy of scarcity in a medium characterized by plenitude. In one of the most popular genres, you desperately fight to prolong your staying power, which is threatened by alien objects that you must shoot down. There's no intrinsic reason that the threat of premature closure should drive so many of these games; for example, if your quarter always bought two minutes of play, the effect of artificial scarcity would largely disappear. Is this desire to postpone closure a particular male drive, suggesting a peculiarly male fear? It may be that the emphasis on the overt aggression of a number of the games distracts from seeing other dynamics inherent in video game formats.

Another dynamic of the arcade games is the ubiquitous emphasis on scoring. These games are not open-ended; not only do you try to accumulate the most points in order to extend play and win bonus games but also to compete with the machine's lifetime memory of best-ever scores. If achievement-directed scoring suggests sex as opposed to love, games more than play, then it seems relevant to consider this a central part of the appeal of video games.

An economy of scarcity suggests goal-oriented behavior: the desire for accumulation; this is what Georges Bataille has dubbed a "restricted" economy, in contrast to an unrestricted or "general" economy, which involves exchange or loss or waste or discharge. The drive to accumulate capital and commodities is the classic sign of a restricted economy. Potlatch (the festive exchange of gifts) or other rituals or carnivals of waste ("A helluva wedding!," "Boy, what a Bar Mitzvah!") suggest a general economy.

While the dominant formats and genres of video games seem to involve a restricted economy, the social context of the games seems to suggest features of a general, unrestricted economy. For while the games often mime the purposive behavior of accumulation/acquisition, they are played out in a context that stigmatizes them as wastes of time, purposeless, idle, even degenerate.

These considerations link up video games with those other games, in our own and other cultures, whose social "function" is to celebrate waste, abandon, excess; though the carnival or orgiastic rite is clearly something that is repressed in a society, like ours, where the Puritan ethic still holds powerful sway. What redeems many sports from being conceived as carnivals of waste is the emphasis on athletics (improvement of the body) and the forging of team or group or community spirit (building a community, learning fair play)—two compensatory features conspicuously absent from solitary, suggestively antiphysical video gaming.

In a society in which the desire for general economy is routinely sublimated into utilitarian behaviors, the lure of video games has to be understood as, in part, related to their sheer unproductivity. Put more simply, our unrestricted play is constantly being channeled into goal-directed games; how appealing then to find a game whose essence seems to be totally useless play. Yet it would be a mistake to think of the erotic as wed to de-creative flows rather than pro-creative formations: both are in play, at work. Thus the synthesis of play and games that characterizes most available video games addresses the conflictual nature of our responses to eros and labor, play and work.

So what's really being shot down or gobbled up in so many of the popular games? Maybe the death wish played out in these games is not a simulation at all; maybe it's time that's being killed or absorbed—real-life productive time that could be better "spent" elsewhere.

If the Message Is the Medium and the Genre Is the Message, Who's Minding the Store?

Like movies, especially in the early period, video games are primarily characterized by their genre. The earliest arcade video game, PONG, from 1972, is an arcade version of ping-pong, and so the progenitor of a series of more sophisticated games based on popular sports, including Atari Football, Track and Field, 720° (skateboarding), and Pole Position (car racing). (Perhaps driving-simulation games are a genre of their own; they certainly have the potential to be played in an open-ended way, outside any scoring: just to drive fast and take the curves.)

Quest or "fantasy" adventures, typically using a maze format, are another very popular genre, especially in the home versions. Arcade versions include Dragon's Lair, Gauntlet, and Thayer's Quest. Dragons, wizards, and warriors are often featured players, and each new level of the game triggers more complex action, as the protagonist journeys toward an often magical destination at the end of a series of labyrinths. In the home versions, where there may be up to a dozen levels, or scenes, the narrative can become increasingly elaborate. Still, the basis of this genre is getting the protagonist through a series (or maze) of possibly fatal mishaps. In their simplest form, these games involve a single protagonist moving toward a destination, the quest being to complete the labyrinth, against all odds. So we have Pac-Man gobbling to avoid being gobbled, or Donkey Kong's Mario trying to save his beloved from a family of guerrillas who roll barrels at him, or, in Berzerk, humanoids who must destroy all the pursuing robots before reaching the end of the maze.

But the genre that most characterizes the arcade game is the war game, in which successive waves of enemy projectiles must be shot down or blown up by counterprojectiles controlled by joystick, push button, or track ball. Some of the more famous of these games included Star Wars (a movie tie-in), Space Invaders (squadrons of alien craft swoop in from outer space while the player fights it out with one lone spacecraft that is locked in a fixed position), Asteroids (weightless, drifting shooter, lost in space, tries to blast way through meteor showers and occasional scout ship), Defender (wild variety of space aliens to dodge/shoot down in spaceman rescue), Galaxian (invaders break ranks and take looping dives in their attacks), Stratovox (stranded astronauts on alien planet), Centipede (waves of insects), Missile Command (ICBM attack), Robotron: 2084 (robots against humanity), Seawolf (naval action), Zaxxon (enemy-armed flying fortress), Battlezone (which so accurately simulated tank warfare, so the press kit says, that the Army used it for training), and, finally, the quite recent "total environment" sit-down, pilot's-view war games—Strike Avenger, Afterburner, and Star Fire.

A related, newer genre is the martial-arts fighting-man video games, such as Double Dragon and Karate Champ, where star wars have come home to earth in graphically violent street wars reminiscent of Bruce Lee's mystically alluring Kung Fu action movies: another example of film and video game versions of the same genre.

Discussions of video games rarely distinguish between medium and genre, probably because the limited number of genres so far developed dominate the popular conception of the phenomenon. But to imagine that video games are restricted to shoot-'em-ups, quest adventures, or sports transcriptions would be equivalent to imagining, 70 years ago, that The Perils of Pauline or slapstick revealed the essence of cinema.

A medium of art has traditionally been defined as the material or technical means of expression; thus, paint on canvas, lithography, photography, film, and writing are different media; while detective stories, science fiction, rhymed verse, or penny dreadfuls are genres of writing. This is altogether too neat, however. Since we learn what a medium is through instances of its use in genres, the cart really comes before the horse, or anyway, the medium is a sort of projected, or imaginary, constant that is actually much more socially and practically constituted than may at first seem apparent.

In trying to understand the nature of different media, it is often useful to think about what characterizes one medium in a way that distinguishes it from all other media—what is its essence, what can it do that no other medium can do? Stanley Cavell has suggested that the essential elements of the two predominant moving-image media—TV and movies—are quite distinct. The experience of film is voyeuristic—I view a world ("a succession of automatic world projections") from a position of being unseen, indeed unseeable. TV, in contrast, involves not viewing but monitoring of events as its basic mode of perception—live broadcast of news or sports events being the purest examples of this property.

It's helpful to distinguish the video display monitor from TV-as-medium. Several media use the video monitor for non-TV purposes. One distinction is between broadcast TV and VCR technologies that, like PCs, use the television screen for non-event-monitoring functions. Video games, then, are a moving-image medium distinct from TV and film.

In distinguishing medium from genre, it becomes useful to introduce a middle term, "format." Coin-op and home-cassette video games are one type of—hardware—format distinction I have in mind; but another—software—difference would be between, for example, scored and open-ended games, time-constrained and untimed play. Similar or different genres could then be imagined for these different formats.

The Computer Unconscious

The medium of video games is the CPU—the computer's central processing unit. Video games share this medium with PCs. Video games and PCs are different (hardware) formats of the same medium. Indeed, a video game is a computer that is set up (dedicated) to play only one program.

The experiential basis of the computer-as-medium is prediction and control of a limited set of variables. The fascination with all computer technology—gamesware or straightware—is figuring out all the permutations of a limited set of variables. This accounts for the obsessively repetitive behavior of both PC hackers and games players (which mimes the hyper-repetitiveness of computer processing). As a computer game designer remarked to me, working with computers is the only thing she can do for hours a day without noticing the time going by: a quintessentially absorbing activity.

Computers, because they are a new kind of medium, are likely to change the basic conception of what a medium is. This is not because computers are uniquely interactive—that claim, if pursued, becomes hollow quite quickly. Rather, computers provide a different definition of a medium: not a physical support but an operating environment. Perhaps it overstates the point to talk about computer consciousness but the experiential dynamic in operating computers—whether playing games or otherwise—has yet to receive a full accounting. Yet the fascination of relating to this alien consciousness is at the heart of the experience of PCs as much as video games.

Video games are the purest manifestation of computer consciousness. Liberated from the restricted economy of purpose or function, they express the inner, nonverbal world of the computer.

What is this world like? Computers, including video games, are relatively invariant in their response to commands. This means that they will always respond in the same way to the same input but also that they demand that the input be precisely the same to produce the same results. For this reason, any interaction with computers is extremely circumscribed and affectless (which is to say, all the affect is a result of transference and projection). Computers don't respond or give forth; they process or calculate.

Computers are either on or off; you're plugged in or you're out of the loop. There is a kind of visceral click in your brain when the screen lights up with "System Ready," or your quarter triggers the switch and the game comes online, that is unrelated to other media interactions such as watching movies or TV, reading, or viewing a painting. Moreover—and this is crucial to the addictive attraction so many operators feel—the on-ness of the computer is alien to any sort of relation we have with people or things or nature, which are always and ever possibly present, but can't be toggled on and off in anything like this peculiar way. The computer infantilizes our relation to the external, re-presenting the structure of the infant's world as described by Piaget, where objects seem to disappear when you turn your back to them or close your eyes. For you know when you turn your PC on, it will be just like you left it: nothing will have changed.

TV is for many people simulated company, freely flowing with an unlimited supply of "stuff" that fills up "real time." Computers, in contrast, seem inert and atemporal, vigilant and self-contained. It's as if all their data is simultaneously and immediately available to be called up. It is unnecessary to go through any linear or temporal sequence to find a particular bit of information. No searching on fast forward as in video, or waiting as in TV, or flipping pages as in a book: you specify and instantly access. When you are into it, time disappears, only to become visible again during "down time." Even those who can't conceive that they will care about speed become increasingly irritated at computer operations that take more than a few seconds to complete. For the non-operator, it may seem that a 10-second wait to access data is inconsequential. But the computer junkie finds such waits an affront to the medium's utopian lure of timeless and immediate access, with no resistance, no gravitational pull—no sweat, no wait, no labor on the part of the computer: dream of weightless instantaneousness, continuous presentness. The fix of speed for the computer or video game player is not from the visceral thrill of fastness, as with racing cars, where the speed is physically felt. The computer ensnares with a Siren's song of time stopping, ceasing to be experienced, transcended. Speed is not an end in itself, a rollercoaster ride, but a means to escape from the very sensation of speed or duration: an escape from history, waiting, embodied space.

The Anxiety of Control/The Control of Anxiety

Invariance, accuracy, and synchronicity are not qualities that generally characterize human information processing, although they are related to certain idealizations of our reasoning processes. Certainly, insofar as a person took on these characterizations, he or she would frighten: either lobotomized or paranoid. In this sense, the computer can again be seen as an alien form of consciousness; our interactions with it are unrelated to the forms of communication to which we otherwise are accustomed.

Many people using computers and video games experience a surprisingly high level of anxiety; controlled anxiety is one of the primary "hooks" into the medium.

Since so many of the video game genres highlight paranoid fantasies, it's revealing to compare these to the paranoia and anxiety inscribed in PC operating systems. Consider the catastrophic nature of numerous PC error messages: invalid sector, allocation error, sector not found, attempted write-protect violation, disk error, divide overflow, disk not ready, invalid drive specification, data error, format failure, incompatible system size, insufficient memory, invalid parameter, general failure, bad sector, fatal error, bad data, sector not found, track bad, disk unusable, unrecoverable read error; or the ubiquitous screen prompts, "Are you sure?" and "Abort, Retry, Ignore?"

The experience of invoking and avoiding these sometimes "fatal" errors is not altogether unlike the action of a number of video games. Just consider how these standard PC software operating terms suggest both the scenarios and actions of many video games and at the same time underscore some of the ontological features of the medium: esacpe and exit and save functions ("You must escape from the dungeon, exit to the next level, and save the nuclear family"), path support (knowing your way through the maze), data loss/data recovery (your "man" only disappears if he gets hit three times), defaults (not in the stars but in ourselves), erase (liquidate, disappear, destroy, bombard, obliterate), abandon (ship!), unerase (see data recovery), delete (kill me but don't delete me), searches (I always think of John Ford's The Searchers, kind of the opposite of perhaps the most offensive of video games, Custer's Revenge), and of course, backups (i.e. the cavalry's on its way, or else: a new set of missiles is just a flick of the wrist away).

The pitch of computer paranoia is vividly demonstrated in the cover copy for a program designed to prevent your hard drive from crashing: "Why your hard disk may be only seconds away from total failure! Be a real hero! Solve hard disk torture and grief. You don't need to reformat. You don't need to clobber data." How much these errors already cost you in unrecoverable data, time, torture, money, missing deadlines, schedule delays, poor performance, damage to business reputation, etc.

Loss preventable only by constant saving is one PC structural metaphor that seems played out in video games. Another one, though perhaps less metaphoric than phenomenological, revolves around location. Here it's not loss, in the sense of being blipped out, but rather being lost—dislocation—as in how to get from one place to another, or getting your bearings so that the move you make with the controls corresponds with what you see on the far-from-silver screen. Or else the intoxicating anxiety of disorientation: vertigo, slipping, falling, tumbling...

What's going on? The dark side of uniformity and control is an intense fear of failure, of crashing, of disaster, of down time. Of not getting it right, of getting lost, of losing control. Since the computer doesn't make mistakes, if something goes wrong, it must be something in you. How many times does an operator get a new program and run it through just to see how it works, what it can do, what the glitches are, what the action is. Moving phrases around in multiple block operations may not be so different from shooting down asteroids. Deleting data on purpose or by mistake may be something like gobbling up little illuminated blips on the display screen of a game. And figuring out how a new piece of software works by making slight mistakes that the computer rejects—because there's only one optimum way to do something—may be like learning to get from a 30-second Game Over to bonus points.

If films offer voyeuristic pleasures, video games provide vicarious thrills. You're not peeking into a world in which you can't be seen; you are acting in a world by means of tokens, designated hitters, color-coded dummies, polymorphous stand-ins. The much-admired interactiveness of video games amounts to less than it might appear given the very circumscribed control players have over their "men." Joysticks and buttons (like keyboards or mice) allow for a series of binary operations; even the most complex games allow for only a highly limited amount of player control. Narrowing down the field of possible choices to a manageable few is one of the great attractions of the games, in just the way that a film's ability to narrow down the field of possible vision to a view is one of the main attractions of the cinema.

Video games offer a narrowed range of choices in the context of a predictable field of action. Because the games are so mechanically predictable, and the context invariant, normal sorts of predictive judgments based on situational adjustments are unnecessary and indeed a positive hindrance. The rationality of the system is what makes it so unlike everyday life and therefore such a pleasurable release from everyday experience. With a video game, if you do the same thing in the same way it will always produce the same results. Here is an arena where a person can have some real control, an illusion of power, as "things" respond to the snap of our fingers, the flick of our wrists. In a world where it is not just infantile or adolescent but all too human to feel powerless in the face of bombarding events, where the same action never seems to produce the same results because the contexts are always shifting, the uniformity of stimulus and response in video games can be exhilarating.

In the social world of our everyday lives, repetition is nearly impossible, if often promised. You can never utter the same sentence twice—not only technically, in the sense of slight acoustic variation, but semantically, in that it won't mean the same thing the second time around, won't always command the same effect. With video games, as with all computers, you can return to the site of the same problem, the same anxiety, the same blockage, and get exactly the same effect in response to the same set of actions.

In the timeless time of the video screen, where there is no future and no history, just a series of events that can be read in any sequence, we act out a tireless existential drama of "now" time. The risks are simulated, the mastery imaginary; only the compulsiveness is real.

Paranoia or Paramilitary

"Paranoia" literally means "being beside one's mind." Operating a computer or video game does give you the eerie sensation of being next to something like a mind, something like a mind that is doing something like responding to your control. Yet one is not in control over the computer. That's what's scary. Unlike your relation to your own body—that is, being in it and of it—the computer only simulates a small window of operator control. The real controller of the game is hidden from us, the inaccessible system core that goes under the name of Read Only Memory (ROM), that's neither hardware that you can touch nor software that you can change but "firmware." Like ideology, ROM is out of sight only to control more efficiently.

We live in a computer age in which the systems that control the formats that determine the genres of our everyday life are inaccessible to us. It's not that we can't "know" a computer's mind in some metaphysical sense; computers don't have minds. Rather, we are structurally excluded from having access to the command structure: very few know the language, and even fewer can (re)write it. And even if we could rewrite these deep structures, the systems are hardwired in such a way as to prevent such tampering. In computer terms, to reformat risks losing all your data: it is something to avoid at all costs. Playing video games, like working with computers, we learn to adapt ourselves to fixed systems of control. All the adapting is ours. No wonder it's called good vocational training—but not just for Air Force Mission Control or, more likely, the word processing pool: the real training is for the new regulatory environment we used to call 1984 until it came online without an off switch. After that we didn't call it anything.

In the machine age, a man or woman or girl or boy could fix an engine, put in a new piston, clean a carburetor. A filmgoer could look at a piece of film or watch each frame being pulled by sprockets across a beam of light at a speed that he or she could imagine changing. A person operating a threshing machine may have known all the basic principles, and all the parts, that made it work. But how many of us have even the foggiest notion—beyond something about binary coding and microchips and overpriced Japanese memory—about how video games or computers work?

Yet, isn't that so much Romantic nonsense? Haven't societies always run on secrets, hidden codes, inaccessible scripture?

The origins of computers can be traced to several sources. But it was military funding that allowed for the development of the first computers. Moreover, the first video game is generally considered to be Spacewar!, which was developed on mainframes at MIT in the late 1950s, a byproduct of "strategic" R&D and a vastly popular "diversion" among the computer scientists working with the new technology.

The secrecy of the controlling ROM cannot be divorced from the Spacewar! scenario that developed out of it, and later inspired the dominant arcade video game genre. Computer systems, and the games that are their product, reveal a military obsession with secrecy and control and the related paranoia that secrets will be exposed or control lost. Computers were designed not to solve problems, per se, not to make visually entertaining graphics, not to improve manuscript presentation or production, not to do bookkeeping or facilitate searches through the Oxford English Dictionary. Computers have their origins in the need to simulate attack/respond scenarios. To predict trajectories of rockets coming at a target and the trajectory of rockets shot at these rockets. The first computers were developed in the late 1940s to compute bombing trajectories. When we get to the essence of the computer consciousness, if that word can still be stomached for something so foreign to all that we have known as consciousness, these origins have an acidic sting.

Which is not to say other fantasies, or purposes, can't be spun on top of these origins. Programs and games may subvert the command-and-control nature of computers, but they can never fully transcend their disturbing, even ominous, origins.

So one more time around this maze. I've suggested that the Alien that keeps coming at us in so many of these games is ourselves, split off; that what we keep shooting down or gobbling up or obliterating is our temporality: which is to say that we have "erring" bodies, call them flesh, which is to say we live in time, even history. And that the cost of escaping history is paranoia: being beside oneself, split off (which brings us back to where we started).

But isn't the computer really the Alien—the robot—that is bombarding us with its world picture (not view), its operating environment that is always faster and more accurate than we can ever hope to be, and that we can only pretend to protect ourselves from, as in the Pyrrhic victory, sweet but unconvincing, when we beat the machine, like so many John Henrys in dungarees and baseball hats, hunching over a pleasure machine designed to let us win once in a while?

The Luddites wanted to smash the machines of the Industrial Revolution—and who can fail to see the touching beauty in their impossible dream. But there can be no returns, no repetitions, only deposits, depositions. Perhaps the genius of these early video games—for the games, like computers, are not yet even toddlers—is that they give us a place to play out these neo-Luddite sentiments: slay the dragon, the ghost in the machine, the berserk robots. What we are fighting is the projection of our sense of inferiority before our own creation. I don't mean that the computer must always play us. Maybe, with just a few more quarters, we can turn the tables. 


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Charles Bernstein is a poet and the Regan Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania.

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