Following in the footsteps of his first book Enjoying It: Candy Crush and Capitalism, Bown’s The Playstation Dreamworld operates as a welcome evolution of a philosophy concerned with videogames and how we interact with them on an expanding cultural scale. The book sets out to convince us that videogames need a psychoanalytic touch to be understand (yes, Freud, but more important to this project, Lacan). Additionally, he argues that the “dreamspace” occupied by videogames can only be subverted from working on the inside. He thirdly attempts to show the potential disruption possible through the enjoyment of videogames. Throughout, it is vivid with clear, relatable examples and enough depth of thinking to spark genuine, productive discussion around a topic rarely touched in modern philosophical corners.
Bown begins with a grounding of cyberspace in that he makes clear it is a corporate- and state-controlled space, not a democratic one. Why (beyond the obvious) this becomes problematic then is because “The videogame world is a space that constructs and transforms our dreams and desires.” Bown uses Pokemon Go as a case study, noting how the app developed to a point where it was no longer mundane or neutral, but something that could in essence direct users where it wanted them to go. He gets close to full-on Big Brother territory (we are, appreciably, more and more in that kind of monitored space), and he’s not wrong in the way he acknowledges the dangers in this sort of game’s application, even bringing up the “social-credit” game system proposed in Beijing.
For Bown (and I quite agree), “What is much scarier than the fact the user can fulfill desire via the mobile phone is the possibility that the phone creates those desires in the first place.” Instead of coming to a game looking for our desires to be fulfilled, games provide us with new desires we never knew we had. He attempts to disrupt this authoritarian potential by introduction of Lacan, whose theory of the unconscious “would operate as the enemy of Google, showing us Google’s ability to organize our desires.” In essence, get wise to the beast. The only problem maybe being, I’m not sure how many of us want to.
Gaming for the Machine
Bown next moves into a wonderfully argued section on the usefulness of gaming for capitalism’s ends. What at first might sound ludicrous quickly becomes all too prescient. “If games can turn feelings of boredom, fragmentation, and depression into productive positivity then we should be careful what ideological structures are being associated with this positive force.”
By escaping to our phones for brief minutes during an otherwise arduous workday, we can bounce back to capitalistic productivity, thereby reinforcing exactly what the masters of profit would dictate. What seems like an escape actually turns us into better profit-makers. But the profit is not ours. And the digital space is assuredly not neutral, as Bown uses Westworld to explicate before concluding, “the virtual technological space… change[s] what and how we desire.”
He moves to cap the project with the potential for videogames to subvert what has so far been conformism, noting how we should neither give in to technophilia nor retreat to technophobia. We need a middle ground that might allow us to shirk the “corporate forces” currently controlling our virtual spaces. In this, as in everything previous throughout The Playstation Dreamworld, Bown deftly draws back the curtain, explains the reality in our heads, and invites us toward a better future. I can think of no better position for a philosopher to take. It remains to us whether or not we look up from our screens and follow the pointing hand where it leads.