This post was written for Blogs of the Round Table. Read the other entries, when they appear, at Critical Distance.
There is a spectre haunting videogames: the spectre of the holodeck.
Developers, fans and the media are united in doing its work. Janet Murray first summoned the word to game studies, but it has long since escaped her control. In its purest form it is the teleological fantasy that games will one day achieve the status of perfect simulation: computerised experiences of such fidelity that they consume all five senses and immerse the player in a fake reality. But we pay tribute to it whenever we measure our games against it, or imagine that it is the end-goal of the medium; whenever we repeat simple platitudes that immersion is better than distance or the intuitive better than the obtuse.
Unlike the spectre of communism, which was a figment in the fevered imaginations of Europe’s reactionary governments, the holodeck is so real you can taste it. It was visible in 1999 when Sony codenamed its Playstation 2 processor the ‘emotion engine’, clear last August when 2k Games boss Christoph Hartmann claimed the "final console" would be "photorealistic", and it returned with a vengeance last week in the blitz of publicity which launched the PS4. Last Thursday, Heavy Rain perpetrator David Cage told Forbes that with thirty thousand polygons at his disposal he might finally make games Art. “We try to make players forget they’re playing a game,” Cage said. “We want them to live the experience and suspend disbelief.” His interviewer gushed in turn: “If PS4 can solve the uncanny valley, and bring true emotion to games, the industry could have its Citizen Kane.” So perhaps I should be calling it a vampire – because it just won’t die.
I’m sure I won’t lay it to rest with this post, but somebody needs to. Never mind that pursuit of technological aplomb is the primary driver of expense and risk-aversion in game development. Never mind that in order to emulate the holodeck, you need huge companies with hundreds of staff, working crunch hours to realise visions that must sell at staggering levels to justify the expense of creating them to the expected standard. Never mind that such gigantic projects necessarily make it hard for developers to take risks, try new things, or challenge the status quo. Actually, do mind these things. But go deeper.
At bottom, holodeck thinking implies that mimesis is the highest ambition of videogames. But games exist as more than reflections of reality: game places are not only representations of imaginary locations, but are themselves actual places, with all the characteristics of space as we know it; game systems are not only representations of life systems, but independent formal arrangements with their own terrors and joys. This truth acts against the teleological tendency of the holodeck because it implies that a game released two decades ago can be as interesting, complex or beautiful for its own merits as a game released last month. Moreover, it implies that, whatever their specific characteristics and particularities, they are of equal status: equally artificial, equally interesting, and equally ‘real’. They are both and to the same extent things which exist; they are not pale imitations, either of life, of each other, or of games yet to come.
Of course, games often represent reality, and are often read by myself and others as doing so. But they do this as an act of speech, which makes claims about the world, and cannot do so perfectly. This is because the systems of which games are composed, whether they are systems of rules or systems of visual or textual interpretation, will always be different from – and certainly far less complex than – the systems of the world. Game critics call this difference the simulation gap, and it can never truly be bridged (what are you going to do, model the whole truth of the whole universe?). But that’s okay, because art depends on our capacity to depict selective truths. Forget the holodeck: artistic speech is often formed speech, weird speech, speech which makes strange, which does unexpected or surprising things sometimes unrelated to ‘reality’ but which may also help us see reality in unexpected and surprising ways. It has shape and character, focus and desire; it isn’t the world and doesn’t need to be.
Moreover, ‘immersive’ ‘realism’ risks blinding us to the fact of the simulation’s selectivity, to the unknowns boiling in the simulation gap. We hope the holodeck will be “photorealistic” – but even the camera isn’t neutral. Some film stock, optimized for white skin, is notoriously prone to showing black faces as dark blurs with bright white teeth and eyes. For South African authorities during apartheid this was a problem, so Polaroid made a camera specifically designed to boost the flash by exactly the amount necessary to capture black features. In games, the simulation gap is precisely the site – or one site – of politics, because the abstraction of reality into model is where ‘speech’ resides. It is in this act of selection, where the game defines what’s relevant and irrelevant, that politics happens, and this gap which developers must wield, place, and make their own. George Box said, “All models are wrong, but some are useful”. Some are also beautiful, or surprising, or provocative – but all are political.
Holodeck thinking obscures this fact. For Bertolt Brecht, the 20th century playwright who developed ‘epic theatre’, naturalism, emotional engagement, and the illusion of reality (which gave us the term ‘fourth wall’) actually prevented us from thinking critically about what we saw on stage. Likewise, what looks like a fully immersive videogame world remains, and will always remain, a selective simulation with just as many unstated assumptions and highly political omissions as a half-hour slot on the Fox News network. Unchecked, the holodeck becomes an ideological terraforming engine, metastasizing across the fabric of our culture. The beliefs and assumptions of the massive corporate institutions necessary to even produce a holodeck are passed off as universal realities; it obscures its own acts of selection with a pretense of all-encompassing fidelity, pasting over fringe and minority perspectives or the huge unspoken third rail truths of this neo-liberal fun-house hell-world Earth.
In a long post about sexuality, totalitarianism, and videogames, Liz Ryerson suggests that the desire for a holodeck is really “a desire for us to finally realize the complete fantasy of totality within our own world...a perfect world built of perfect systems without disharmony.” She describes an impulse, seen throughout our history, to harmonise the world according to our well-oiled ideas, which has at its beginning the tendency to reduce the particularity of all people and objects to elements of a fissureless unwrinkled system, and has, at its end, the holocaust.
Imagine experiencing a VR game with the graphical fidelity of a Brazilian rainforest but the simplified worldview of the people who made this pro-Israel subway advert. Imagine the crass politics and myopic simulation of something like Homefront blown up to super-size so that we can all be ‘immersed’ in the depiction of a military occupation as one big winnable paintball match. Envision yourself grunting, sweating, shitting your way around a world designed by someone who thinks – who genuinely believes in an Earth where it’s even possible – that the world is divided into bad men with guns and good men with guns, or that women ask for rape, or that 47% of America just doesn’t want to work. Can you imagine anything more depressing?
Maybe one day there really will be totally immersive puzzle worlds only distinguishable from reality by careful examination. I don’t know what we will say of these things, or how we will judge them or whether we will call them ‘games’. But I don’t have to because I’m happy to look like a dinosaur to the imaginary game critics of a hypothetical future even less likely to survive the oncoming crisis of civilisation than it is to exist in my lifetime.
So fuck the holodeck. Break the holodeck, smash its walls, fill its perfect screens with glitched-out snow. Cannibalise it for parts if you will; strip it bare and take what you can, incorporating its technologies into idiosyncratic post-apocalyptic doom wagons. But we can all do without the ghost of its four walls hovering over the unbuilt edifice of tomorrow’s games, or blurring the sight of today’s. Let us banish it.