Playing Games: Notes on Culture of Narcissism

The central causal argument of Cultural of Narcissism: lack of felt historical continuity leads to an abandonment of pro-social endeavors, leading to a "turning inward" toward the self, aka narcissism.

This is not necessarily wrong, but vague. What caused the lack of felt historical continuity? Why didn't something else replace it, and instead we ended up with "narcissism"? How can we treat "society" as a totality in this sense without missing a lot?

Using Lyotard's frame: we can think of "society" as a network through which language games are transmitted. Language games have functions for the individual playing them: creating, maintaining, and satisfying desires.

"Historical continuity" as Lasch uses it is really a set of language games. They are historical in the sense that they were inherited from prior generations, but also historical in the sense that they involve a historical fantasy as "part" of the game, i.e. the image of future generations and legacy as a motivating factor in one's present behaviors, or really a driving force behind present desire.

Language games require communication media, which shapes the "form" of society, and also rules, which determine "how to play". But a game only persists insofar as it is able to create, maintain, and satisfy desire.

So we can look at the "historical" language games in two directions: we can see the change in media, which takes place fully on a material level: economic and technological. Suburbanization was a material change in media (especially coupled with "mass media"), and games carried over from small towns and older urban regions cannot manifest desire in the same way. In this case, the social "fabric" became much "looser", fewer social interactions means fewer opportunities to transmit messages (although this has a different effect on teenagers), so the nature of the game must shift.

And further, employment culture itself represents a significant language game, and as the parameters of employment have changed due to economic constraints (in Lasch's time: the growth of MBA culture, but more recently startup and gig economy cultures), the nature of the employment game shifts and it becomes more or less satisfying, more or less able to effectively sustain a route for one's psychic energy (in these cases, almost unilaterally less able, as a result of the "de-socialization" of the workplace; you can view the movie Office Space as a Zombie version of the "social workplace", dying... but isn't it interesting that the job found by the main character once he quits his white collar gig is at a construction site, within a culture where the "social workplace" still lives on, to some extent? The story is ultimately reactionary rather than radical, in that sense: a "return to tradition" rather than a reinvention).

We can use a classic dichotomy here to orient ourselves a little: Player vs Environment (PvE) vs Player vs Player (PvP) games. The former type of game involves the agent acting on some "world" to satisfy a goal, whereas the latter type of game involves agents acting on other agents to satisfy a goal. Both have group and solo forms, but require different strategies and mindsets.

A common mistake here made by e.g. "trads" is to assume that "Environment" must be the result of some "nature" or "God". This is not true: PvE games simply mean that the "enemy" is in some way "other" from the player. So, a game played against an "institution" is just as PvE as a farming game (at least, until the final boss battle where you go head-to-head with the Evil Chairman, but even then, they are still "othered" in a sense because they are playing an entirely different game; there is no social bond, no shared language game going on between you and the Chairman. They might as well be an NPC to you, which in this context we can say means something closer to a "Non-Participating Character").

On the other hand, what characterizes a PvP game is that both sides are playing a common game, but against each other. Standard "sporting" games qualify, but (lately) so do games like college acceptance, job hiring, stock trading. So a PvP game is still a shared language game, and both sides still share in the same "society" as defined by game, but they also might take on an adversarial relationship, depending on the strategic constraints and their goals within the game. This leads to a different set of "values" than in a PvE game (more temptation to act Machiavellian, perhaps?), but both can still function to maintain "society".

If we take a "standard" viewpoint and consider the last 50 years as a major shift from PvE to PvP games, then we might see different "values" emerge across culture, as a result of the shifting nature of the social bond. In general, PvP games encourage self-orientation, because many are "paranoid" games: you don't know who your friends or enemies are, they can shift at any time. Whereas PvE games encourage a group-orientation, because the enemy is always some "other", and the other "human" players all share in the results of the achievement.

Within the process of playing a game, even before "winning" outright, there is a sense of "partial satisfaction" at the knowledge of your ability to win, of your position in the game, etc. And if this involves preparing oneself, then we hit a situation where one achieves a partial satisfaction merely at the image of themselves, before the actual "PvP gameplay" occurs. This relationship, of a desire that is satisfied by one's own image, is precisely how Freud defined "Narcissism" (an instinct or drive whose object is one's own body or self)[1]. Hence the emergence of a "Culture of Narcissism".

But we should not take this "shift from PvE to PvP" for granted: what happened? Following Lasch's Marxist frame, we could argue that novel resource constraints created competition for once scarce goods. But we have to go further. If we consider something like "college", really what happened was (1) a huge wave of students went to college as a result of the GI Bill, which (2) created a newly large demand within later young people to attend college, which then (3) made it more difficult to get jobs without a college degree, further raising the demand of college education. If we think about step (2) here, the main change that occurred was ideological, even though it had a source in material changes (the ideological change was not necessary as a result of the material changes: speaking counterfactually, a state and media program could plausibly have prevented the increase in desire even after the degrees were granted).

Now we're in a position to evoke the Zizek meme: "everything is just ideology". We want to avoid falling into another "conspiracy" trap, where we assume a "coordination" among institutions, when in fact what we actually have is a dynamic equilibrium as a result of many institutions all acting at the same time toward their own goals.

We can see the divide that ideology creates right within our own politics: certain factions want to maintain PvP games (while perhaps gesturing at a PvE game for ideological support), others want to create a new "other" in order to restart PvE games. Some PvP factions find "othering" harmful and hateful across a broad "humanistic" (in the sense of "shared nature") social bond (which it is, to the extent that the group being "othered" didn't elect to join that group), whereas some PvE factions find PvP exclusionary and harmful toward other players involved within the same "cultural" (in the sense of "shared symbolism") social bond. At least, this is how our contemporary political games position themselves within the shared framework of liberalism: both still invoke the dyad of individual vs. institution, exhorting the individual to act on behalf of a group goal.

How to respond to this? A new PvE game would be a huge cultural boon, and Marxism comes with one written into its DNA (everyone against the bourgeoisie). But it's important that the "other" in the PvE game be a target toward which we can legitimately justify opposition, ideally on material grounds. Racial and national ideologies therefore cannot apply, the arguments are too tenuous, implicate too many "neutral observers" as potential casualties. So the question becomes one of identifying institutions worth "othering", as opponents in a shared PvE game, and then getting other players to join (aka the "minigame" that Marxists are well aware of), by making sure the game creates and then satisfies desires.

Beyond that, perhaps the adversarial framing of liberalism itself, of a single player engaging in PvP or PvE, is worth questioning, the style of voluntary participation in endeavors and attending to one's own stat sheet. The "solution" may well be to ask players to join into the game of pursuing a common narrative together, in a way that transcends both PvP and PvE. Perhaps the ideal politics might be found in the JRPG.


Thanks to @unplaceableface for his invaluable contributions to this theory of gamer philosophy.


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