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Andrew Ryan on the Couch: An Introduction to Subliminal Projection in Gaming

“Omission and simplification help us to understand – but help us, in most cases, to understand the wrong thing” Aldous Huxley tells us, in reference to his own seminal work – Brave New World.

Already, many of you are probably thinking ‘where is this going?’, or ‘I thought I escaped that compendium of lachrymose sentimentality and triggering themes in high school’. Huxley’s prescient nightmare, a desperate call to “Attention!” was parenthesized by a deeply personal projection into the future of his thoroughly researched anxieties in a grammar of satire that became (quite unintentionally, if you go by his own thoughts on the subject) a desolate, nihilistic tragedy. The motif he fixed on when attempting to provide a solution to his own socialized Gordian’s Knot of tacit complicity and the tyranny of unchecked validation was an Education for Freedom. In the modern video game industry, the highly democratized development, the ubiquity of increasingly complex gaming titles and the shifting exigencies of narrative written for a diverse and vocal consumer culture all conspire to disinter the systemic mendacity of everything from misogyny to cultural appropriation and the collective tip-toeing around issues of marriage equality and gender identity from video games; poisonous reeds hauled from a murky pond and left to desiccate in the intense heat of public scrutiny. There has been a long winter of the consumer in their cosy cabins engaging with the anaesthetic warmth of insular simplifications, parochial omissions and harmful stereotypes, it’s time to step out of our domestic confines and look back on the rot that has settled into the cabin exterior. In critiquing the mandates of marketing, the insidious, erroneous generalizations, conscious and unconscious, in game development and characterization, gamers are becoming a part of their own Education for Freedom. 

Critics like Anita Sarkeesian are the champions of a new movement toward long overdue transparency in games. In a similar vein of critique – with the emphasis on the games, not the gamers, I’m not here to indict the player – and with a similar animus to Huxley in his statements of proud meliorism against the impersonal forces of totality and a pernicious Social Ethic, I will attempt to deconstruct one of what I consider to be gaming’s most judiciously concealed infections – a puppeteering phantom in the system touched on by many of gaming’s more interrogative and comprehensive critics in one form or another: Subliminal or Pre-Conscious Projection.

*Science Warning*

Most everyone is familiar with the concept of ‘subliminal messaging’. Of a message that is presented in some form, written or visual, at the level of an undetectable subterfuge; a message which bypasses rationality and appeals to the reactionary, emotive core of human cognition. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud draws attention to Poetzl’s marginally earlier work which experimented with tachistoscopes (a magic lantern of sorts that projects an image briefly onto a wall or canvas) and how the information acquired from an image was retained in the subconscious state; in this case, test subjects recorded their dreams. Most of the test subjects retained more than was originally thought. In dreams, it was found, subjects retained not only what they remembered in terms of sensory information, ‘the face was yellow, it was smiling etc.’ they also manafactured meaning and canonized that image through associative filters.

Put simply, the face was smiling, therefore it was happy, therefore the dream in which the smiling face appeared was memorably pleasant, therefore it contained what the test subject considered to be pleasant, flowers or fairies or a favorite piece of music. It’s this chain of ‘para-logic’, beyond Reason and creating justificatory, ramifying reality from personal assumption. That is a more precise definition of subliminal projection.

This, of course, is not a new finding.

The manipulation of this once purely theoretical discovery in a sphere shockingly contiguous to our own daily experiences has been well documented. The territory of ‘soda’ has been slowly encroached on by that of ‘Coke’. The superimposition of Camel cigarettes over a lover’s embrace may have been replaced in modern times by comically anthropomorphized chocolate snacks, the effect is the same. Funny chocolate snack man – funny – fun – happy – happiness, then at this point, the message becomes abstracted from the original, and suddenly the viewer is being retailed a charming amelioration, a happiness inducing opiate, the gap of reality between consumer and an idealized version of themselves is bridged by the enticing myth that a dancing chocolate man will be a salve on boredom and unhappiness. Insecurities and compensatory dreams are exploited in this way ever more conspicuously and blithely by the demagogues of merchandising.

A presumptuous parody of a person’s lived experience admittedly, but not a gross one.

*End of Science Warning*

Back to video games. Subliminal projection may take the form of an unfiltered consumption of characterization (A picture of Gannondorf is flashed on a tachistoscope – we immediately think ‘bad’, ‘villain’, ‘kidnapper’, ‘pig-man’, because of the LoZ context), or through role of player positioning (we play as a murderous thug with a military arsenal or an impartially cruel, psychopathic God of War, codifying that experience and the sociopathic traits necessary for acts of brutal apathy as an acceptable product of one’s own actions), or even through the homogeneity of character models and ideals of physique (heroes are largely lithe and gender-typical, villains are grotesque or victimizing a particular culture or personality type in some way or another) and the subliminal expectation there of a certain qualifying dynamic to fill the ‘hero’ mold. There are others outside the scope of this piece, but those are the core contentions I would like to analyze at present.

Collating cursory case studies to illustrate the impact of subliminal projection isn’t difficult considering the banal orthodoxy and lack of creativity that monopolize much of modern character development – or lack thereof.

Here are several contexts and characters and how aspects of each are “strobonically injected” beyond debate and rational rubric to advance a harmful narrative. The following should be read against the background of ‘subliminal projection’.

Kratos: He’s pallid. He’s built. He’s not the Pale Orc. But, one could argue, almost as vindictive and more definitively a channel of priapic sexual pessimism from his creators.

What are we being sold subliminally in the character of Kratos?

Violence is the answer. Revenge is a fulfilling denouement. Machismo is permissible, nay, something to be cultivated. Women are slabs of meat to be capitalized on in sexual conquests and used as gruesomely literal doorstops.

If this kind of message was the dominant motif of a hollywood film, a preacher’s sermon, a political manifesto, it would be abhorrent and justly condemned, just as the Right wing agenda of ignominious American Sniper is being torn apart by the anti-establishment Left or as abnegation from dealings with the Mormon church in the late 70s over racism became an effective protest. But instead, God of War, and its misogynistic verbal vesicant, its sociopathic protagonist is allowed free air time for millions of people to become immersed in, arguably more immersed than if they were watching the God of War film. To the effect that as the player, the unbridled rage is subliminally validated, the paleolithic utilitarian amorality, the phlegmatic massacre totally devoid of effectual dissentient voices and constructive counterpoints, is passed. To stand by the profligation of such protagonists and concomitantly claim to be ambassadors for good will in gaming is a perverse aporia – the type of total conviction in self-abasing contradiction, ignorance nearing doublethink, that allows for archetypal murderers like Kronos to luxuriate interminably in their hot springs; populated by two dimensional female window dressing and cosily insulated from just critique in gaming worlds.

The First Person Shooter: The FPS shooter. Immersive? Yes. But what are the psychological implications of playing through the eyes of a gun-slinging, condottieri-type splenetic soldier? Readers may protest at the lumping of First Person Shooter Protagonists into one category; but apart from the interposing grunt, pejorative or racial slur, there’s very little to distinguish them when the player is actually engaged in running and gunning – and that’s the majority of the time.

The issue here is, like Kratos, we are allowed – almost encouraged – to accept and condone the results of our own actions as we murder shadowy, faceless enemies, spurred on by an undertone of orgiastic dualism, the belief that there always exists the ‘other’ who is wrong and so should have their right to existence revoked. Troubling. What makes it even more so is the immersion. We are physically connected to our CoD, our Bioshock and our Evolve, thumbs on controller, to the action on screen.

Not so in a film.

This amounts to a disturbing blur of fiction and reality; a menace once removed where people are constantly bombarded with validation for their real-time animistic brutality. A dark taint which settles like oil and tocsin on the surface of water, obscuring the qualifying ethics and morality of daily life with a thin veneer of hatred and belligerent feelings of ‘me against the world’ and acceptance of a nefarious class of ‘other’, architects of all wrong-doings and problems in society. Is allotting prime screen time to vaunt such vulnerability to our darker blind impulses, our unconscious cravings or our latent fears, a path we want to take as creators and consumers of media and (or developers) as educators?

(Footnote: No matter how facile video games claim to be, or are claimed to be, they are formative influences and ongoing educational devices for many, and certainly those less inclined to critical thinking and rational analysis – manipulation of such minds and the minds of the pseudo-academic-epistemology-philology pundit exists, intentionally or not)

I would say no.

I would say it’s time to get rid of the faceless hive-mind enemies; add depth to our shadows so to speak. And no, that doesn’t mean a single predictable plot twist involving one or two keynote roles swapping sides. The FPS is the scene of barbaric slaughter in the thousands of drone-type enemies, each of whom, in real life, have personalities and are thinking, feeling human beings, (even the zombies of LFD or The Last of Us are a manifest of ‘The World and I’ syndrome which is the antecedent of isolation and violent riposte to that solitude) more or less educated, more or less loved, more or less cared about. To paraphrase Solzhenitsyn, the line between good and evil runs through every human heart. The absolute evil of a human being is nigh on impossible to prove, and to condemn – as we do in the FPS – the flower of a generation: young able bodied men, impressionable and ignorant, to death and dissolution, is crass at best. Absolute conviction in self-righteousness and similarly erroneous convictions of the inferiority of others (to the point of willfully denying their existence) are the messages that need to be tactfully replaced in the first person shooter, and not by simply presenting pornographically tragic viewpoints from one side and not the other as a way to incite hatred and vitriol spewing at the TV screen – I’m picking on the FPS, as opposed to the TPS, because it is the more prevalent and the more immersive, whereas the TPS is a tag-along, over the shoulder role, but the same critique can be applied to both genres.

Bioshock: I love Bioshock. It’s what you might call my problematic fave. Andrew Ryan’s assiduously planned opportunist’s utopia; the tragedy of effacement and renewal in Sophia Lamb’s twisted Collectivism, even the heart-string strumming vicissitudes of the Bioshock 2 multiplayer narrative is an enduring parable to be sure.

What’s the subliminal message retailed to us through the ‘Bloody King of Rapture’?

‘How can I be successful?’ asks Johnny, a youthful player, “Well,” Bioshock replies, with a certain casual solicitude, “You start by unleashing the sum of man’s enlightened self-interest, every jaded inhibition contained in decorous limits, the inviolate animal core of humanity. The flint of greed catalyzes the burning of Man’s indolent, fragile, dried up exterior of transient social mores and ethical platitudes. Watch with a persistent indifference as the remaining mass of exposed nerve and absurd, chaotic reflex aggression tears civility apart; weather-proof your cosy prison of affluence from the ensuing rain of cinders and screams.” An intellectual iontophoresis shifts Johnny’s passive reticence with a jolt. An ominous smirk takes hold of his features and he dashes off to the nearest sporting supply store with vivid homicidal premonitions coloured by an Oedipal indulgence.

Then there is the Tragedy of Sophia Lamb. Mutatis mutandis, Johnny returns from his 9-iron swinging rancour to ask again of Bioshock how he might achieve success and moral equillibrium in the rapids of uncertain futurity and incompleteness and mutability.

The answer is little more encouraging.

The result of this is that, in a vacuum, underpopulated by contradictory conditioning, Johnny is compelled to one of two ends – dependent on his disposition. Feats of dastardly enterprise if he can associate with or romanticize more readily the villains of the piece, or a total despondency in the negation of any favorable conclusion (even the Little Sister salvation is a cheap, bitter-sweet denouement).

Nowhere is there an ending in favor of rationality or diplomacy- only gratuitous and/or perfunctory slaughter.

No ending in favor of compassion for the Splicer, of humanizing the monstrosities spawned by Rapture’s vogue of excess. Johnny is disillusioned, frightened and lost. He regards drug use as unstable and universally unpleasant; the victims of addiction as sub-human and beyond reconciliation. In the freakish carni ride, the gruesome abbreviation, the confronting necessity in the shoot-em-up context of a streamlined, railroaded world of conveniently closed shops, and the window-dressing of violence against women, the historical indifference of Bioshock Infinite, ‘adds up’ (as only a scientific formula of ‘objectivity’ and ‘apolitic’ can), to an effectual dissolution of engagement with real-life concepts. Johnny is reassured of his control over a world with a neat ending.

Johnny forgets that Splicers are even people. Johnny becomes the dimly animated puppet of the contemptible intelligentsia position; above politics, above ethics, nothing means anything, everybody is against you.

If that, the subliminal message of Andrew Ryan, of Bioshock, doesn’t sound like an exceedingly straight-white-man-in-a-basement type of intellectual pessimism, untouched by the wonders of vitamin D and human interaction, I don’t know what else I can say to convince you.

Even more harmful to the development of young Johnny’s reciprocity with his living world is the portrait of women, of sex workers and of relationship dynamics found in Bioshock’s shady corners, back alleys and grimy, dilapidated design. Johnny passes by images of women in artfully torn dresses, he is conditioned to accept the exploitation and liquidation of female figures, he becomes indifferent to the inherent humanity he glimpses briefly in the doctrinaire, iterative spectacle of Bioshock. Female NPCs are disposable or infrequent or unimportant in the chronology of the series. Even the paternal implications of the Little Sister dynamic is hardly a victory for the representation of women in gaming.

Like much poor science fiction, Bioshock almost attempts to kick the fourth wall down to get across its self-aware narration. Through our familiar process of “strobonic injection”, we can interpret: “Here,” Bioshock says, “look at this delightful world I’ve dreamed up, look at the impartiality, look at the glitter and forget about the grunge, everything will be alright, you aren’t responsible for this.” And unless Johnny gets up and physically walks away from the game, at the cost of not experiencing the much extolled ending, he is rewarded for his impartiality and for fulfilling Bioshock’s shocking mandate of apathy. Pavlov conspires with Orpheus. Reflex conditioning – some people are more equal than others, blow them to bits – with its augmentative, coeval counterpart, the aesthetic, the musical cues, the pictoral triggers that drape each character with the tawdry sensory context.

As a map of possible solutions to the interminable crisis of political reconciliation, Bioshock is profoundly discouraging. As an educational device, the effect is even more disturbing. Combine the ultimate futility of your struggles in Rapture – a stirring performance before an audience of graves – with the moral message of Andrew Ryan and the even more pivotal response of Jack Ryan – that Johnny should manipulate and murder his way to peace and success – with the sexualization of female corpses; conspicuous allusions to sexual violence and the complete absence of moderate role models, Bioshock quickly becomes an ‘Education for the Degradation of Women and the Futility of Passion.’

As far as subliminal messaging goes, not an uplifting or even a realistically balanced portrayal of passion and politics can be found in Bioshock. In attempting to remain sterile politically, it forces on the player a certain destructive apathy, an ensconced college-student-named-Ned-nihilism-type frustration.

In review then, video games are received not only by the rational mind, but beyond the comfort of point and counterpoint, at the level of the subliminal. Bioshock’s conservative, apolitical agenda, the encouraged brutality of Kronos, the taxonomy of ‘good guys and bad guys’ of the FPS shooter, are absorbed beyond conscious reciprocity. And that’s the most troubling part. In playing a game, in reviewing a game, we shouldn’t be looking to ‘does this game have good graphics? Is the sound satisfactory? Was it fun?’ we should be questioning the political agenda of games, the representation in games, the characterization in games, as much as we would a book or a film. No longer can we afford to allow video games to transpire in an unaccountable bubble of aesthetic mealy-mouthing and hackneyed, school-yard numerical values.

We have to assume that, in the absence of any reasonable justification for a uniform reception of the experience that a gamer has, (I like Super Metroid over Metroid Prime, someone else might like Metroid over Super Metroid, someone might think Orwell a venal hack or Mozart a tone-deaf antiquity, every artistic opinion exists, therefore all are natural and ‘true’) every reductive, harmful trope, every gratuitous plot device is received unfiltered by young Johnny via subliminal projection.

So let’s critique games with the transcendental honesty of admitting and endorsing the subjectivity of any review, (a review is an opinion piece) but let’s actually critique them. Not just the graphics, not just the fun, not just the bangs and the tachistoscopic imagery; critique the effect. Critique the educational propensities of a game’s narrative, how it can be received, across cultural divides and with vigilance for the representation of minorities.

Only when gamers strip back the tired scraps of servile affection, ‘loved the mechanic, loved the aesthetic, loved the world blah blah blah’, and look at the throbbing exposed nerve, the emotive wellspring of a game’s message, will the gamer be truly free of the tyrannical propaganda, intentional or incautious, of the video game developer.

Lest Johnny or you, or I, fiddle while Rome burns, but unlike most, fiddle while looking into the blaze.