Vigilante P.I.Mike Hammer dispensing “justice” in the Mickey Spillane adaptation I, the Jury.
Robert Taylor’s tortured vet in The High Wall. A feature of the vet's anxiety in many of the noir films was the veteran’s having to face the atomized competitiveness of a greedy capitalist landscape after the collective experience of the war.
Police shootout in Grand Theft Auto, one of the progenitors of LA Noire by the same company, Rockstar.
Image from Born on the Fourth of July, the opening sequence of which details the interpolation of the young U.S. male into the war machine, an interpolation now being continued in games like Call of Duty.
Call of Duty is a game which is careful not to offer any sympathy to or understanding of those who are being annihilated.
The Cognitariat at work.
The proletariat at work at Foxconn, Shanghai, creating the instrument on which the Cognitariat practices its more rarefied functions. The practices of this group of workers are often ignored by media theorists who respond only to the surplus labor hidden in the media object, in this case, in the computer game.
Workers of the Digital (and Financial) World Unite.
D: Relating to your point, Jonathan Beller discusses the “Attention Economy.” [open endnotes in new window] He deals with how visual media grabs and retains attention and how this cinematic and now internet system works. We’ve talked a little about attention grabbing in terms of the military-industrial complex, where, as Miller points out, this attention is then focused as a training ground for indoctrination, training, and recruiting.
K: He uses the example from the film The Last Starfighter (1986) and how the military “borrowed” the title from the game to give their recruitment caché.
D: If we apply Miller’s point, LA Noire is the domestic equivalent of the military’s occupying foreign countries, in terms of patrolling domestic streets. In addition, as more and more countries outlaw actual war games, these virtual games have taken on a new importance for purposes of training. You pointed out an article to me recently that there will soon be drone flights in U.S. domestic airspace.
K: Yes, simulators and simulation. The most popular games for the Xbox and PlayStation 3 are war games: the Call of Duty series and Battleground series. Call of Duty 3 came out the same week as Uncharted 3 and sold three times as many game units, amounting to a billion dollars in sales. In a week. Worldwide.
D: That’s amazing. And when you think of how far we’ve come from, say, the brilliant sequence at the beginning of Born on the Fourth of July (1992), with the two kids on Long Island growing up and playing soldier as a part of maturation, to how people now are continually socialized to be playing these games at all ages and hours of the day all around the country, the intensification is extraordinary.
I think that where LA Noire fits into the military-industrial-entertainment complex is that it’s training for domestic action. It trains you in how to look at a neighborhood, how to interrogate a neighborhood, how to drive through it in order to get immediately what you want out of it and then leave. The streets of L.A. here are occupied territory. It’s the gamer who is the occupier, in a sense.
K: Usually in the games like Call of Duty that we were talking about, you don’t interact with the people you’re “supposed to be” shooting. You shoot them from a distance and never talk to them at all.
D: That’s the Dragnet perspective where everyone is a suspect. Not a person, not a worker but a suspect. Let’s look again at the game being an immersive experience. Beller, in talking about the Attention Economy, has this to say:
So it costs a certain amount to buy the game and then you’re immersed in it—but I also think it’s training for the Attention Economy. That is, I think it’s training you in how to evaluate something. We can talk about how (commercial Hollywood) cinema was about grabbing your attention and keeping it for a while and now it’s much wider in terms of attention-grabbing. Now, grabbing attention and keeping it generates profit directly. That’s what [sites like] Facebook are about, what its impending offering as a public company (IPO) which could value it at $100 billion will be about.
K: YouTube, with one-to-five-minute videos, speaks to a short attention span, but then you watch ten or twenty of them in a row so you’re watching the equivalent of a full-length film but the attention is more scattered and malleable.
D: So how might we see the game as contributing to or fitting into the Attention Economy? To this idea of producing its own value by grabbing attention?
K: Practically, there’s a number of different ways. Some games now will sell product placements within the game and, for example, driving games have a high replay value. Every time you cross the finish line on a lap, you’ll see the giant Bridgestone sign right there. A game company will have product placements in their games, of course, to break even financially before the game ships but also to make the experience for the player more “real,” serving the same purpose as the surface detail in LA Noire.
In terms of focusing and maintaining attention, these games have many playable levels. LA Noire has sixty cases spread across five levels plus additional downloadable cases. Some are short and some are very long. There are difficulty settings, which affect gameplay. In the Uncharted series, there are five difficulty settings. You play it through the first time and get a few of the rewards. Finally a hundred hours later, you play it through at the highest difficulty and maybe you have all the rewards. And if not, you may feel compelled to spend another 20-30 hours going through it again. Sometimes you get the books that you have to buy separately from the game, which are an extra twenty dollars on top of the sixty-to-seventy for the game itself.
D: Can we say also that what it’s doing is training you in a particular way of looking, of clicking-on, of interacting quickly—essentially like the Hollywood action film—of scanning a shot to get what you need from it and then your attention goes elsewhere. So it reinforces what a lot of the Internet does, as well as its predecessor, the cinema, in the action cutting in the Hollywood summer blockbuster. It furthers the idea of quickly draining the shot, the game interaction, the Internet screen of all meaning and then moving on to the next thing. Attention no longer is the precondition for reflection, it is now its opposite. It’s something where there’s a shiny object in front of you, you spot the shiny object, you make it a trophy, and then you get onto the next shiny object.
K: Media observers talk about how games have replaced the cinema, or movies in general, as one of the go-to entertainment outlets for people. People have the choice of either spending twenty dollars for two hours at say IMAX movies or going to GameStop and buying a used game for twenty dollars and getting fifty or more hours out of it.
D: More bang for your buck. There used to be that dynamic between television and movies. Why would anyone go out to see a movie when you can stay home and get one for free? Now you can get many more hours in the game than you could in a movie. That’s a reason for games to move to be more immersive, more like movies.
K: Almost every game that comes out now has the capability for multi-player or co-op[erative] play. Every platform connects to the Internet and you can play your games with (or against) anybody in the world who gets online to join you. That drives the game on for another hundred hours on top of the single-player time you spend with it.
D: That’s a great segueway because the last thing I’d like to mention is how to view the game in terms of the dialectic of cognitive capital. On one side is the proposition that we are completely subsumed, the spectacle is everything, and along with this the idea that online gamers perform unpaid labor. The more commodified term for this is “prosumer”—a combination of producer and consumer—which implies that the typical passive consumer has now become a more active participant in his/her own entertainment. But underneath that term is perhaps simply a further delusion since the “participation” is often at a rather minimal level. To combat industry language, there is now an alternate term, “produsage,” defined as an extreme form of exploitation where the users work for free and are completely exploited.
On the other hand, you have the opposite pole, which is Marx’s idea of the general intellect. That is, that the game is a way of communicating: you can plug it into the Internet, you can play with other players so that what you’re doing, really, is you’re building knowledge. And you’re building it collectively. One of the interesting things we did in terms of the game is that since we didn’t have enough time to play every case, we watched patches on YouTube. These patches featured other people playing through the game, sometimes with their comments and that was a part of our experience of it.
So there’s a sense of collectively generating knowledge about the game. On the other hand, there’s also that sense we’ve talked about where what you’re doing is reinforcing an already dominant ideology. It’s unlikely that you’re going to exceed the limits of the game in that communication. Another thing is that you’re creating the market for another game, or at least the taste for another game. So perhaps it is more “produsage” than “prosumer.” The “prosumer” is someone who stops just being a consumer and becomes at least in part an active producer, while the “produsage” individual works for capital for free. That’s the question I pose to you, being an experienced gamer.
K: Why, thank you!
D: There does seem to be a great deal of pleasure in this. Is there also an amount of what Adorno might see as the information economy imprinting its specific patterns of work on subjectivity, along with a certain degree of just zoning out? Is this “produsage” just reifying one’s place in a now alienated on- and offline world?
K: I think so. I’ll impugn one game that I played, Assassin’s Creed. I’m really into the Middle Ages and the Crusades. I’ve read a number of research books about the Templars and that era. I got the game thinking, I can play a game in which I can return to the time of the Crusades! But it’s not that. It’s got a high-tech storyline about a contemporary guy who accesses the consciousness of his ancestor in the Middle Ages. And what does that have to do with experiencing the time period? I have to collect 400 flags from the four sections of the game. I got close to a hundred hours into it—having been entranced by ancient Damascus and Tyre—before I realized that it was more rote work and I stopped playing it. Some games have so much repetitive action that they really will drive you insane.
Let’s talk about another term mentioned in relation to cognitive capital, the cognitariat, which includes game producers and how they drive gaming. One side drives the war simulations, like the ones at the University of Southern California, while another side drives LA Noire, and another side drives Zynga games on Facebook. It’s the same cognitariat broken up into a lot of small groups.
D: The other thing about the cognitariat is that that phrase often doesn’t include the people who make the game, and they need to be included in these discussions. The production of the game, as we’re just finding out with Apple now, may be farmed out to third world production centers in China, for example, because there’s an awful lot of work in terms of the modeling that went into this. An awful lot of that work is a kind of outsourced grunt work. Not just coding but all of the things that need to go into producing the games, and the unbelievable number of shots that are in this game. But that cognitariat isn’t usually talked about because of the class differences so that you have, as Naomi Klein relates in No Logo, the case of a woman in the Philippines who makes computers but can’t use one.
K: Along those lines, I read about an “underground economy” of teens and twenty-somethings in Asian countries who go to Internet cafes, using several computers at the same time, playing World of Warcraft or some other massive multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMORPG), mining the game elements to then sell to the hardcore gamers in the West for cash. That’s another form of a cognitariat based on global inequality, which, instead of being able to enjoy the game, is forced to find loopholes in the economy that they can exploit.
D: Very often, the cognitariat is not discussed at the level you’re describing but more along a privileged upper level and that’s the problem and the need for re-voicing that term.