culture narrative Psychology

The Psychological Vacuum of Games

I am for my own reasons holding out against complete personal digital metamorphosis and still receive a large percentage of my news media through television, regardless that the electromagnetic signal itself is digitally-encoded. An advantage that I derive from television news is that, unlike the overtly digital communications channels of social media and YouTube, the menu of content with which I am engaged through television is not adaptively and algorithmically curated to my tastes, not progressively refined by a persistent bias of commercial self-interest towards slot-machine-like behavioural dependence upon the symbol stream. Where the mischievously clever algorithmic logic of social media content is clearly designed to reframe conscious experience within an autocatalytic envelope of commercially or culturally persuasive choice – and from those choices to further both target and opportunistically, reflexively, define and cultivate human subjectivity and experience – it is also a filtering mechanism. What novelty or substantive information content of unexpected entropy percolates through the technologically-mediated news stream of social media is, even when it is notably entertaining or shocking, really quite sanitised and reaffirming or (in other words) almost entirely devoid of actual interest or information.

Being that the television news is much less likely to serve up anything less than a predictable spectrum of curated content, I find that there is often a featured news story or topic that is not central to my own range of interests – it infuses my narrative experience with the useful entropy of difference. Tonight, there was a story about a talented Australian basketball player performing persistent and professional savant-like athletic gymnastics in the US NBA. Not generally following the sport (or sport in general – to be honest), the thing which struck me about the news story was not the specific player, nor was it the specific team and only coincidentally was it of interest that basketball was the game being played or the particular flavour of fame on display. The most fascinating feature of the news story was the dawning catharsis that the popularity and commercial or cultural center of gravity that the game (in fact – any game) represents is the abstraction and possibility that the logic of a game provides.

Games provide that abstraction and grammatical order or patterned continuity that in their teleology and directed nature create a reflexive and participatory experience of self, of the reflexive subjectivity by which we inflate our interior surfaces with meaning. A game is in some sense always a contoured arc of perceptual-shaping; it is that logical persistence which allows us to assert that “here in this Other artefact and entity I have found an order and meaning through which that order and meaning I cultivate within and as my Self has reality, extension and self-evident validity.” Our various and diverse games provide us with that mirror image of structural self-definition that, if not ever truly providing epistemological closure or any kind of anchor in the actual semiotic turbulence and complexity of our shared symbolic spaces, allow us to spin the roulette wheel of belief in the possibility of order and meaning; and by projecting a plausible external certainty of order and (thus) meaning, allow an aspirationally self-affirming and inverse inflection of order, meaning and (eventually, also) purpose within our Selves.

This is all a little like the game someone plays (with themselves) when they buy a lottery ticket. Few people ever actually believe that they stand any chance of winning a jackpot prize. Purchasing a ticket in a lottery provides something that in many ways is more valuable than a literal truckload of cash – notwithstanding that upon winning a lottery many people find the dramatic influx of money to be catastrophically life-changing. The true value of a lottery ticket is in the simple acquisition of the possibility of winning; the potential engorgement of wealth is itself a game which reaffirms the existence and the validity of that straightforward logic of games themselves. The social and psychological self-validation of participation in an abstract logic of simplistic algebra and impossible odds is a comforting reassurance that the logic and continuity, the sensibility and meaning of Self is a truth, a provable fact of the world and of mind.

All the games with which we engage are in essence algorithms and computational patterns. We don’t often notice it but even the process of reading and interpreting, deriving or articulating personally-significant meaning from narrative text (such as that here) is a logical game that we all play. What we only very ever very rarely perceive is that this logic of games, of reflexively self-affirming subjective experience and synchronous externalised projections of order and meaning – it is not actually or verifiably a game that we, ourselves, play. It is that autonomously self-propagating shockwave of logical complexity (some 13.78 billion years ancient, by current calculations) that passes through us, as us and our doubling-down on a bet of obtaining psychological closure and subjective certainty through all of this is in fact the game that this logic plays with us. These games, after all, only ever play themselves – through us, as us and it is in our self-seeking aspirations towards participatory self-validation that we are endlessly (and willingly) blinded as to the fact of our own essential non-existence.

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