Identity and conceptions of the self
IDENTITY AND SIMULACRUM: THANK YOU MARIO, BUT YOUR IDENTITY IS IN ANOTHER CASTLE
Eurídice Cabañes Martínez
María Rubio Méndez
«[The simulacrum] Far from being a new foundation, it engulfs all foundations, it assures an universal breakdown, but as a joyful and positive event, as an un-founding: “behind each cave another that opens still more deeply, and beyond each surface a subterranean world yet more vast, more strange. Richer still… and under all foundations, under every ground, a subsoil still more profound.”»
The video games transgress – in the majority of cases unknowingly or while attempting to reproduce – the different conceptions of the identities found throughout the History of Philosophy. From the being thrown into the world (Geworfenheit) to the being towards death (Sein-zum-Tode), video games set forth a new type of identity, consciously created that, unlike the presumed essential identity, can always be transgressed, dismantled and put back together. This presumed essential identity has carried enormous problems and philosophical contradictions, like social conceptions that given rise to discriminatory politics; racist, sexist and classist.
Being aware of the political force the simulacrum can entail, we want to undertake a cartesian adventure, of course, perverting its origin. If Descartes intended to find a secure foundation for Science and with this purpose, in the peaceful retreat of his home next to the hearth, he trod the path that led him to the methodic doubt, we, among the hustle and bustle of the city and bathed in the light of a screen, prepare ourselves to hit all those foundations that Descartes hit himself using the doubt, but our aim, far from seeking an indubitable truth inside the conscience, will not go beyond the pleasure of doubt itself.
We propose five simulacra that operate in video games and open the path to spaces for the experimentation and creation of identities, simulacra that will shake the sense of oneself and allow us to assert the existence of some kind of self-gamer. An analysis of, and experimentation with these simulacra could lead us to new conceptions of the self, outside the context of video games, that we hope will help impulse the imaging of emancipatory social structures and policies. You can take this as a crazy and desperate experiment carried out by those who searching for meaning, had no option but creating a new one.
FIRST SIMULACRUM: INSERT COIN (EXISTENCE AND ITS MEANING)
Throughout the history of thought, human beings have tried to find the meaning of their existence through the search of an origin. The different cosmologies have served as a way to fulfil this need of meaning inherent in human beings, often locating their existence in a mythological framework of creation. Within the western tradition, the two classical myths of origin are found, in their main versions, in Hesiod's Theogony and in the Bible. In both myths, the origin and meaning of human existence is divine and, therefore alien and external to the human being itself and even to the totality of the universe accessible to experience.
Subjects tend to rebel against these external explanations about the meaning of their lives, which do not pertain to them, and to affirm an identity. In the affirmation of her identity, the subject confronts God appealing to her body: the resource to the organic as the true, essential origin of human beings is the outcome of the first adolescent heresy of the humans against their father, motivated by the dissatisfaction of not being the owner of their lives, as well as by the necessity of appealing to an act of faith that forces them to place their essence beyond their experience.
If the essence instilled by God is immaterial and incorporeal and it constitutes a far more authentic reality (Plato, Saint Augustine, etc.), the human being will cling to the body as the receptacle carrier of meaning. Both skeptics and rebels have found in the recourse to the material and, thus to the organic, a refuge in which they can unfold their own, self-created identity. However, the organic has betrayed us, revealing that it may be an even more cruel father than the former.
In the video game, the question of origin can be articulated following the same scheme that we find in the human quest for origin in general. At first, choosing voluntarily and consciously to insert a coin and, therefore to throw ourselves into the world appears to be a sufficiently satisfactory solution to the question of origin. What is the meaning of the game if it is not a voluntary act of the player? But in this moment a new factor comes into play unexpectedly, yet inevitably: the immersion. Our one-self experiments the first metamorphosis in her self-gamer and abandons the primitive coordinates of her world to enter a new universe which she has to account for in order to survive. The role of God, the omnipotent father that has designed and programmed the universe and even ourselves, is attached to that of the Programmer, against whom we will rebel countless times and sometimes would like to confront directly; however, those who hold a materialist ontology even when gaming will search in the code a correlate for the genes. Both believers and atheists need to transgress the traditional framework (God-Programmer, genetics-code) if they are to construct an identity of their own inside the game.
In short, there seems to be a clear answer to the question of origin in the world of video games: the origin is the act of pressing the “start” button. But once the phenomenon of immersion has unfolded, we find ourselves in an universe in which the answer to the origin is explicit (again a creator to whom we cannot have access in the experience of gaming is responsible for the universe where we find ourselves, as well as for the origin of our character).
Thus, we can see how different video games assume part of the cosmologies that try to give an answer to the question of origin, using it as a model for their identities and the universe of its characters: we can be Mario confronting evil in a theological universe as a hero in a Greek tragedy or we can be lost in Silent Hill without knowing who we are with little more protection that the dim light of a lantern in a sartrean universe.
However, it is necessary to stress that, in contrast to everyday life, the player knows that her origin is inessential, totally artificial and malleable, which produces in her conscience a doubt concerning her sense of the self-gamer: her identification is with a character that is inessential and arbitrary but cannot be destroyed if we want the game to continue. That is, we are aware of the contingency and artificiality of our identity in the game, and our own life as gamers can either assume the mythology implicit in the game, taking it as the character's life motto, or reject it. In plain terms, once the coin has been inserted, you can either a) embrace the mythology of origin and the purpose of your virtual existence as the driving force of the game, or b) you can find in the game the answer to the game itself, or c) you can even manipulate the code in order to modify the world or your own character, thus transgressing everything established as essential and assuming the whole responsibility concerning the meaning of your existence.
The first of these cases corresponds to a mythical or religious conception of origin. The second case would be that of existentialism, which rejects a mythical essential origin and admits no meaning of life other than life itself. The third implies a reappropriation of the technologies that configure the universe and the bodies that inhabit it, in which the self-gamer positions itself in the place where the simulacrum appears at its most powerful. The original creation is transgressed not by its being destroyed, but being replaced by something new that improves it, something that, following the inner logic of the game, uncovers the contingency of the game itself, thus operating a radical transformation of its essence that cannot be amended: it is the simulacrum itself that positions itself in the origin and the essence. In this level of analysis, we could equate the action performed by the hacker on the ontological universe of the game and on her own identity with the operation that Haraway's cyborg performs on nature and technology: a hybrid of machine and organism, the cyborg dismantles the narratives about its origin and puts them back together, without fear of losing something essential in the process, just like the hacker dismantles the genetic code of the game and puts it back together, introducing changes that, from her point of view, do not involve the loss of anything essential, since there was nothing essential to lose.
Any of these options, and even the possibility of choosing among them, embeds the force of simulacrum at the root of life beyond the screen. Nevertheless, in order to secure the solidity of a firm ground under our feet that guarantees an answer to the question of who we are, we can simply drop the controller and stare at our hands, at our arms and even at our reflection on the screen. I am here —we say to ourselves—, I am my body. My life does not have anything to do with what I have just experienced in the game. If the video game codes can be transgressed it is precisely because they are artificial, but not me, not my body. It is in this refuge in the organic as safeguard of the ultimate meaning of existence where video games operate the next simulacrum.
SECOND SIMULACRUM: THE AVATAR (DENATURALISATION OF THE BODY)
In the tangle of social relations and in our self conception, the body appears as a solid ground within which to plant the identity like an immovable pillar of the self. The transformations of the body seem as if they are moulding an essential substrate that remains natural, hence the belief that, despite all the modifications (surgical operations, prosthesis, implants, etc.) that can be operated on the body, an immutable substratum persists we cling to in order to establish our identity upon it: in some way we feel that we are our body. But inside the video game the body acquires a similar form to that of the body in a dream. When we begin to play, somehow a disembodiment takes place, we leave our real body out of the spatio-temporal reality of the game. In its place another body consisting of pixels appears on the screen, or multiple bodies, or even none.
The relationship between the self-gamer and her avatar could be easily assimilated to a simulacrum of the essentiality of the body; the pact that we establish with the corporal dimensions of the avatar can not only be transgressed, but also created self-consciously and therefore it becomes inessential.
The inessentiality is determined by its being a construct, however, in the game praxis the coordinates of essentiality become inevitable despite the fact that they only take shape in the concrete and temporal space of the game. We can create our avatar at will, taking into account complex features that go beyond the physical appearance, like in The Sims, where not only can you design the body of your characters, but also select their character traits and aim in life. But once the body-avatar has been established, the phenomenon of immersion makes us assume it as necessary: if you do not accept the pact established with the avatar the game loses its meaning. This pact is feasible precisely because we are aware of its contingent character, as it is a pact we can assume time and again with respect to different virtual bodies. The form in which this simulacrum operates on relationships and meanings of the body inside the video game, helps understand and highlight that our organic body outside of the screen is a simulacrum too.
The reflection on the contingency of the body-avatar might lead us to a reflection on the contingency of organic body and, as a result, we can apply the simulacrum occurred in the video game to our own everyday life, so that we realize that we are constantly assuming pacts with different bodies (despite their having the same empirical reference): the body as a medical construction (which establishes exclusionary distinctions like healthy/unhealthy body, breaks up the body into organs, chemical components, pathologies, and therefore operates physically on it, removing parts and administering medication), the sexual body (which sets patterns of desirability and beauty standards that often come into conflict with the medical ideal of the healthy body, demanding shaving, make up, administration of medication and even surgery), the working body, the body for procreation and many other types of constructed bodies that function as our avatars in the different spheres of life. In this way, we can become aware that we assume many pacts with plenty of bodies, which always refer ultimately to our organic body; pacts with bodies that are fiction pacts, just as the pacts established with the avatars.
The contemporary philosophical schools, reflecting on the constructed character of our body and our identity, have devoted their theoretical efforts to deconstruct both of them, situating us in a different relation to our body, which has not come to light until the second half of the 20th century. The conception of the body as a prison —a milestone in the classical philosophical tradition—, or the body as the limit of our identity —in the empiricist and materialist traditions— may have a correlate in the game, but no conception is mirrored in it as perfectly as that of the body as a laboratory where to experiment tearing, sewing and assembling multiple and fluid identities. The simulated essentiality of the avatar denounces our own contingent corporeality, an idea that, as noted above, constitutes the praxis of contemporary philosophy, where the body becomes a cultural product and can no longer be understood as a neutral biological act: the obsolete categories natural/artificial, body/mind have been transgressed.
In the film eXistenZ, the Canadian director David Cronenberg develops a cinematographic essay on the impact of the total gaming experience on identity and the conceptions of the body; the film presents the possibility of playing a bio-video game plugging a pod, an organism hybrid of animal and machine, directly into your nervous system through an umbilical cord, this suggests the idea of a rebirth to a new reality —a birth where we appear as hybrids, as cyborgs after all.
The players find themselves immersed in a sartrean universe where they are condemned to be free, moreover, that freedom comprises not only the possibilities of self-construction through action, but the game is the place where identity itself gets subverted. The players (characters in the film) acquire different identities even on the same reality levels, but these identities are not the result of an evolution or of a construction, but that of a continuous metamorphosis that ranges from the physical appearance to the social roles; identity, thus, is no longer an equation A=A and becomes something fluid.
The imagery displayed in Cronenberg's film is not far from the possibilities inherent in present technology, just as he himself has stated:
«I think the particular type of game that I present in the film can become a reality in near future. Computer technology is developing in an increasingly biological direction. Chips are developed at the molecular level and there's already talk about obtaining chips that grow using protein. On the other hand, the idea that one can have a direct access to the nervous system through surgery is becoming increasingly possible. I'm sure there would be people willing to try it to have a total gaming experience.»
Even though such a total game is not feasible at present, there is a real possibility of constructing different identities through the creation or assumption of new conceptions of the body, in video games as well as outside them. Here lies the importance of understanding the scope of simulacrum to the whole extent, since practicing the simulacrum implies the possibility of a conscious creation of meanings and bodies, which are inhabited as if they were necessary.
Although this step requires a purposeful analysis of the game experience, a conscious and critical gaming form can open the path for an understanding of video games as an authentic identity laboratory, where the vital experience, and the experimentation with it, go beyond the controller, permeating the body and, with it, the organic in its entirety, so that it becomes evident that the organic can no longer be the secure refuge for the one-self to which one can recourse in search of an essential identity.
THIRD SIMULACRUM: THE INTERFACE (MEANINGS, PLAYER’S ONTOLOGY)
Stripped of an essential origin and body, we can only entrust ourselves to the universe of surrounding material things in our quest for a solid terrain to anchor our existence. It is here where the third simulacrum starts. Once the body has been eliminated as the interface with the world, we are left with the senses, language and interpretative activity. Therefore, if «the world changes with our interface», we have the inalienable capacity to create different virtual realities both for the real world and our own identity. In this context, video games constitute a magnificent space of experimentation since the simulacrum in the interface suspends all those truths whose legitimacy is based on reality. Disrobing ourselves of categories and systems of truth sustained by reality in order to dress ourselves in the different costumes of the game of simulacrum, we discover that our own reality is only another mask. We are no longer essential, because we never were: identity is no longer fixed and immutable and becomes mobile, changeable, nomad, multiple and plural, open to all the possibilities of being.
Let us examine how this third simulacrum takes place and the promises it entails. In the first place, the alleged direct access to the world is effected through the interface of senses. Our senses are our interface with the world (with reality). But there is neither a single interface, nor a single way of establishing a relation to the world, as long as our perceptual system, being different from that of other species in the animal kingdom, is only one among the existing interfaces. Each perceptual system is an interface with the world that captures and processes some data, but is unable to do so with others. Obviously, our perceptual system is limited, so that the limits of my interface are the limits of my world, an idea Kant already advanced in the 18th century.
But that is not all, thanks to the available technology we can generate different interfaces with the world, modifying our own sensory system, a circumstance that has altered considerably the way we are related to reality: from artifacts that today seem ordinary, such as telescopes, night vision devices or magnetic resonance scanners, to those newer that transform and mix the information obtained through our senses, such as the eyeborg that makes possible to hear colors or The vOICe that enables blind people to see through sound). Video games might situate on the intersection point where technology simultaneously modifies and creates interfaces, the exact point where the simulacrum deploys all its power, bringing down the foundations of the entire reality. Although video games create new interfaces (hardware as well as software) that present themselves as such and permit the interaction with a technologically structured world of video games, they can also constitute an interface per se, whose perceptual and cognitive role might go unnoticed. In a lecture given at Playlab, Abelardo Gil-Fournier talked about the “gamification” of the world, which consists in an ability incorporated by subjects to approach the world through the structures generated by video games.
In the constant gamification of the world, all human processes get codified through video games, the game structure invades the world introducing a new interface that does not limit itself to its ludic component: we learn playing at the university, we can select candidates for a job through a game, we can play reading the newspaper or in order to determine the chances of preventing a pandemic. The gaming fiction can provide with new structures of knowledge, but, if the potential of the game entails a promise whose limits are unthinkable, it reveals, at the same time, the framework and the process of the game construction, so that its partiality is evidenced and so is ours. The tentacles of simulacrum spread again to hold us in an increasingly comfortable embrace, one in which our world, a world decreasingly hostile, can finally begin to break out of its chrysalis, for the metamorphosis process is about to reach its climax.
When at the end of the film eXistenZ it is asked, addressing succinctly the spectator, if the game is still going on, the spectators, probably hesitant, will eventually answer negatively, acknowledging that the game is over. However, on leaving the cinema, they will certainly switch their cellphones on and they may activate the GPS to come back home or to find a bar in the vicinity. The gamification process has permeated our lives so deeply that our language is full of metaphors around games, a game logic underlies our cognitive structures and social relationships: when we want to know the hidden meaning or logic of something we ask what the game is about, if we confront the limits of our knowledge and expertise we justify ourselves defensibly saying that we stick to our own game, we even talk about foul play to refer to murderous criminal actions, and when something has finished or is no longer possible we declare that the game is over.
We increasingly conceive of the world as a game, we name it using terms related to playing and we even apply games to execute the most serious and painstaking tasks. Video games, as a physical, cognitive and linguistic interface, have uncovered the contingency and instability of our supposedly solid, original interfaces, displaying new promising possibilities before us.
The teaching-learning process has become more appealing and less dogmatic, job interviews too, and even our perception of reality has freed itself from atavistic schemes that burdened it with solemn but enslaving imperatives and has become a game where we can develop our potentialities. Therefore, it does not seem necessary to emphasize the relevance and effectiveness of the interface simulacrum, since it is already operating in our everyday life. The game keeps going, Allegra Geller has won and we are trapped in eXistenZ.
FOURTH SIMULACRUM: SAVE (MEMORY AND TRY AGAIN)
The past is another source our identity makes recourse to seeking a foundation: our past is fixed and immobile and seems to find its place in memory as the principal element for the cohesion of identity. We acknowledge that we can find in our memories the facts and events that have led us to the present through a succession of causes and effects that have moulded our identity. In fact, psychoanalysis has clung to past in this sense, trying to make us produce coherent narratives that explain in every detail the path that has led us to our current situation. The cyborg rejects its origin since it knows its parents are inessential and it comes from the conscious act of voluntary and contingent creation. Just as the cyborg, video games are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and, as such, they subvert their past, yet simulating it as if it were their true reality. Shrapnel, cannons and assault tactics populate our video game consoles and splatter with blood our eyes everyday, however, it is just fiction; the creation, life and death of the game as such and as the space of appearance of the self-gamer: the video game, at least in its traditional format, offers us the possibility to transgress the past, return to a previous state to alter it and experience all the possible worlds where our decisions might have lead us. The simulated experience of memory in the video game comforts our Faustian appetite; it is a simulacrum of our sense of identity based on memory that transgresses the principle of lineal temporality and, yet, maintains the cohesion of identity. When playing, our memory is open to conscious modification through action, and this, evidently, does not transgress the cohesion of identity, therefore it might constitute a practice that renders bearable the awareness of the creation of the past beyond the limits of the screen.
Discovering that our past is inessential and contingent and the countless times we transgress it conscious or unconsciously (be it because of lying, of blocking our memories, or of creating new ones that fit better our self-image), gives us a glimpse of the fissures of memory, where recollections seep out while others seep in: How is identity to take refuge in a cracked space? How can one settle down in a cracking ground? Simulacrum has arrived in the realm of our memory, preventing identity from taking root on it.
We have noted that our own neuronal processes block, repress and make up memories in order to restore a coherent self-conception, and how this implies that our identity is not tied to a determining past; all this leaves us in a state of perplexity concerning our identities. The simulacrum of memory present in video games allow us to extrapolate to real life the comforting try again, or the promising .save: if our past is inessential, the infinite horizon of our possibilities unfolds before us. We can decide being other at any point, without fear of losing anything essential.
Feeling yourself inevitably determined by your past can cause an angst that has been perfectly reflected in One step back, a video game where your past actions haunt you, so that you have to escape from yourself (your identity as a result of your past) through labyrinthine spaces in a frenetic struggle against time. If the uncovering of self-deception about the past was a therapy that carried with it the healing (the restoration of the “true” memories in our conscience), practicing this simulacrum allows us to shake off the insanity of an atrocious and suffocating determinism and to embrace another way of being freer, where the fictional self-construction plays a more relevant role than the veracious reconstruction.
THE LAST SIMULACRUM: GAME OVER
That's you —you say to yourself: a survivor returned from a hundred little deaths.
The last simulacrum concerns the last patch of firm ground where identity can establish itself. If the possibility of an essential identity can substantiate neither in an origin, nor in the body, nor in the world, nor in the memory, we can only cling to the essence entailed by death itself, that is, our being towards death (Sein-zum-Tode) or the final act that provides our existence and identity with the meaning we have been seeking.
To ask if death can be simulated may seem a senseless question if taken literally. However, the experience of a thousand deaths with no consequences could shed light on the sense of Heidegger's being towards death (Sein-zum-Tode). The tragedy that overwhelms the life of those who feel the harrowing truth of death deep inside, may turn into a comical scene in the video game, relieved of all its dramatic character. The video game Five minutes to kill yourself shows us how death is not only the end, but it can be the aim of the self-gamer's life: you have to kill yourself within five minutes, otherwise... you'll die. Inevitably, in some video games we should die if we want to follow another path or try again new possibilities. For instance, in the video game In the company of myself, if we are to clear the different levels, a present self must die to become a past self that will stand still on the screen helping our new, present self (serving as a stair or step to reach a higher level) to survive the ordeal: letting die a part of ourselves is the only way to keep going. To be aware of the contingency of death in the game helps us uncover the inexorability of our biological death, something that awakes in us the awareness of our being thrown into the world and the significance of decision.
However, the biological death is not the only death, we can die countless times and keep breathing and throbbing. The question we pose in respect to Heidegger's being towards death (Sein-zum-Tode) tries to determine which of those deaths is the decisive one (does not the teenager kill the child when she throws away all her toys? Does not the worker kill the student when she signs her first contract?), which one among them will finally awake the need for coming back to life, for decision-making, for questioning our existence, for creating new possibilities; in short, which one leads to authenticity.
The simulacrum of death brings into question the possibility of identifying an authentic way of being that assumes the experience of death in the most radical manner. We raise the question whether Heidegger, just like Deleuze pointed out that Plato laid the foundations for his own simulacrum, opens the possibility of a simulacrum around the very notion of authenticity. The reflections on death will not revolve around the biological fact, but around the psychological circumstance that imposes a virtual barrier upon our self realization. But dying might be equivalent to a rectification of the past or even to a rebirth. We wonder if this sort of death might not be, in some sense, an ontological death. Death in the game (game over) gives us the possibility of inserting the coin again to play the same game or another, consciously throwing ourselves to the game world in order to explore new paths and develop new identities. On the other hand, the game over returns us into the world beyond the screen and, thus, we wake up to a new understanding of what seemed the last redoubt of identity, i.e. the fact that I am going to die. Understanding this simulacrum consists in understanding the limits of experimentation in the game, as well as the seriousness —sometimes ironic, sometimes mocking— of a simulated life, the limits of what death without consequences can give rise in us: maybe the awareness that there is no single end of the path, but the path consists of little ends, and this might turn out to be brutally cynic or it might imply a new perspective that live up our lucidity.
«And then everything changes. Then to ask about the events that compose a man's life is to ask about the true memory. It is to ask how many little deaths make up a man's life. It is to evoke those moments experienced amidst the little death, during which eyes are blurred by a strange light, just as when snakes are about to change their skin.»
METAMORPHOSIS OR THE END OF SIMULACRUM
«Tell me the truth, are we still in the game?»
If we find in video games the possibility of experimenting and bringing to light countless philosophical conceptions of the self, this reflection, that takes place in the experience of playing, does not disappear when you switch the console off, rather it persists in reality modifying it, since it modifies ourselves and our perception; as mentioned above, in contemporary society we are witnessing the process of the gamification of life.
We hope that the proposal of these simulacra, that can be operated on life taking the experience of gaming as a starting point, might at least have aroused certain inquiring curiosity, the curiosity that leads to reflection and research; besides, we expect we can obtain new theoretical and practical approaches and models that allow us to open the path for the unveiling of the virtual nature of reality, since once it has been unveiled, we are left to rebel against all those virtual realities that attempt to pass themselves as real. We understand that this requires a reflexive questioning of any dogmas that impose themselves on us, ridding ourselves of the signifiers that weigh us down, shaking from our bodies every dogmatic discourse and continually generating interpretations, virtual realities, being aware of their virtuality, revising and constantly modifying them; becoming nomadic experimenters, wandering in the places of the subjectification where to rebel against reality means to take on the task of generating it.
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