This is an extract from Delay: paying attention to energy mechanics, which is currently available in a bundle alongside a book by Anna Anthropy and a collection of Five Out of Ten issues, and other things besides. You can pay what you want for that bundle until Wednesday 10th September.
Why do we feel ashamed of gaming? In a talk at Queerness and Games Conference in 2013, Samantha Allen suggested that at least part of the answer lies in “reproductive futurism”. The mother admonishing her children for spending all their time indoors playing games worries that this pursuit will prevent them from finding partners and having children of their own. In so many stories told in podcasts and on internet forums, the shameful gamer knows that they have redeemed themselves when they spend less time dungeon crawling and more time walking in the park with their romantic partner and/or children. Earlier I said that the idea of the ‘real world’ is normative rather than descriptive. Allen calls the ‘real world’ a ‘heteronormative social economy’ consisting of ‘socially sanitised forms of intimacy’.
That is to say, maybe gaming is shameful because it is counterproductive to childbearing. For all the misogyny in the boys’ club of gamer culture, and despite the ascendant social position of the geek in a capitalism increasingly dependent on the information economy, the geek is still a cultural symbol of failed masculinity: ‘Betas’, as the Amazon TV series puts it. Meanwhile, women in geek culture are dismissed and harassed, called ‘fake geek girls’ because their perceived success at feminine performance is considered incompatible with hobbies such as gaming, or anonymously derided as ‘fat, ugly or slutty’ because their participation in gamer culture indicates a failure to conform to normative femininity. Gaming too much makes us less desirable as heteronormative men and women. It’s little wonder that the games with energy mechanics, a built-in reminder to take us back to the real world and away from self-gratification, are often targeted at a stereotyped image of women as caregivers to children.
In psychology, shame is an example of ‘affect management’. It is a feeling we get in response to another feeling. When we enjoy something but we have been taught that it is wrong, we feel shame. Our drive toward something we need is halted by a complex that developed as we were growing up.
Queer theorist Eve Sedgwick wrote about shame in the context of the cybernetic. Shame is felt when a social circuit is broken between one person and another. Perhaps someone fails to mirror your excited smile as you tell them about a game you enjoy. In that moment, you realise that your enjoyment is not approved of, and you feel shame. Shame operates when a barrier comes down and prevents us from exploring further. Sedgwick highlighted this in the context of a break in the flow of nonverbal communication, but I would argue that we can see it at work in the cybernetic feedback loops between a player and game software. The paywall feels shaming: the game stops affirming your indulgence, and blocks you from exploring further.
Shame manages our consumption of pleasurable things. It tells us when to stop, or at least, when to conceal what we have been doing. Flipping the script on the narrative that told us that those things are shameful feels liberating. Consumerism is often about buying into the reclamation of something that was taken away from us when we were socialised to behave in acceptable ways, or buying our way into a social context where the rules don’t apply anymore.
The most obvious examples of shame-denying consumption relate to sex: not just strip clubs or hostess bars, but burlesque classes, and pretty much any nightclub. Pride events, which transmute shame into its opposite through ritualised solidarity and defiance, have been roundly criticised for their rampant consumerism. As Allen put it in her talk, they “try to sell our own identities back to us”, and they get to do that because those identities were taken from us when we were shamed by a society that repudiates us. Consumerism is used to heal other kinds of shame too: going out for a drink with friends is acceptable, but drinking alone is not; I pay extra for the social context that grants me permission to misbehave.
Shame is not just a private experience. It organises our social groupings: in Gay Shame, David Halperin calls it a “solvent of identities”. Sally Munt argues that specific patterns of ‘affect management’ — the processes by which we deal with our desires and fears — form the basis for our sense of cultural affinity with other people. Our friendships and alliances are built with people who have similar ideas about what is shameful.
Most gamers don’t agree with being shamed for playing a game for a long stretch of time. When a game stops affirming their indulgence, the shaming feels aggressive. Games are programmed with patterns of affect management, and the energy mechanic often represents a pattern that is incongruent with hard-core gamers’ values. If there are players who do not feel irritated by energy mechanics, it may be because the pattern of affect management that it represents is reflected in their own value system. They feel a sense of cultural affinity with the game.
Eve Sedgwick and Adam Frank (1995) ‘Shame in the Cybernetic Fold’, Critical Enquiry 21
David Halperin (2009) Gay Shame, University of Chicago Press
Sally Munt (2008) Queer Attachments: the cultural politics of shame, Ashgate Publishing