Video games have been a large part of society for an extended period of time. Many individuals play them for multiple purposes. Some of these reasons may be for pleasure, income, or societal factors. Regardless of the cause, it is unknown why video games have such a pull on society. Some researchers have hypothesized that the violence is a large factor (although research has shown this to not be true) while others believe it can be in the spirit of competition. There is much debate on the draw of these virtual realities and the effect on the individuals playing, but very little deduction into the ideas surrounding what video games can teach us. The purpose of this paper is to drawn on psychoanalytic concepts, primarily stemming from Wilfred Bion and Jacque Lacan, to discuss the utility of their theories being played out within video games. Due to the constraints of the paper itself, one concept from each theorist will be discussed, but background for understanding will be conceptualized.
To understand video games, one must have a background on the material. A video game can be considered anything that requires human interaction with a user interface or program. These user interfaces are generally keyboards or controllers of a sort that allow movement within the virtual reality. The virtual reality is projected onto a screen of various sizes and can produce two or three dimensional avatars. The individual playing the game will have to complete tasks in the virtual world or fight bosses on various scales of difficulty. By accomplishing these tasks, the player is allowed further access to storyline, levels, and characters. The overall goal is to continue on within the storyline to discover the world the individual is playing in. Usually, the player gains a sense of accomplishment from playing the game and finishing. These factors have been the primary focus of researchers and companies creating the video games which are considered to be end results. The beginning and middle of the game, where the learning and ideas begin, have not been discussed as much.
The beginning of the game is where basic skills are learned, concepts of the game are acknowledged, and the rules are enforced. The player proceeds through the beginning stages of the game to gain basic concepts. They are unknowingly taught by the program to the player through instructions. In addition, most of the time, it will be explained by the program why the world is the way it is. Through these moments, it is suggested that the individual playing the video game is being taught through alpha functioning from the game itself. Alpha functioning is the process of taking the player’s beta elements (which can be statements, questions, or thoughts) and projecting them back to the player in an alpha functioning form, or a statement of reality. Bion discusses this is greater detail with his thought on how alpha functioning plays a role in the therapy room via a client’s normal projective identification process. To understand the projective identification process and how it influences alpha functioning, it is necessary to explain how it works.
Bion’s model of normal objective identification is important to the relationship that ensues between the therapist and the client. It is based on the theory of thinking and how we, as children, come to realizations, preconceptions, and overall functioning (Bion, 1962). The model includes the interactions we have with our parents growing up and is centered in object relations thought.
The theory of thinking proposed by Bion is based on the idea that thoughts precede thinking and they demand a mind to create them (Bion, 1962). These thoughts stem from how we view the world and start in early childhood. As a child, we view the world as two different objects: good or bad. This world view is based on preconceptions that are hardwired into our selves. Preconceptions are when we inherently seek realizations in nature which in turn cause a rooting response. A rooting response is when we identify an action or object as positive or negative (Bion, 1962). Depending on whether our preconception is realized or not will determine whether we will view the object as good or bad. If the preconception meets a realization it will create a concept or a “positive affect” in the individual. For example, a child has a preconception that the mother will feed him from her breast if he cries. He cries and if he is correct (the mother comes and feeds the child when he cries) then he has developed a concept. By chance that the mother does not feed the child it creates an absence of the individual’s thought. This abandonment of the mother (not feeding the child) is the absence of an object (child did not obtain breast) which creates thoughts and the idea of a “bad baby” (Bion, 1962).
When looking at this from a different world view we think that this can be incorrect in the way that a child sees the world. It creates a disparity of thinking in the child that will continue on during the rest of the developmental years and into adulthood (Bion, 1962). This disparity causes a breakdown of communicating a state of mind from the individual to the second person. It also causes a normal projective identification process to unfold. What happens is the first individual cannot put words to how they are feeling but they want to communicate with the second person. What then happens is they project what they are feeling into the second person in an attempt to have them feel what they are feeling. For example:
“I can’t tell you what I am feeling, but I can make you feel it!”
It is important to realize that this process starts in childhood but extends until adulthood until it has been dealt with. If the client did not have this process enacted upon them, then most likely their parents were projective blocking and rejecting the individual’s identification (Bion, 1962). This leads the child to believe that no one is out there to help them and can cause the child to become terror stricken. In recompense the child will then begin to project even harder out into the world. This can cause the child to have bizarre communications and project them into other individuals. If the rejections continue, the youth will build up a negative alpha functioning. This in turn will cause the destruction of thought within the child and cause a lack of cohesive ideas. They will not be able to find their own meaning or understand their feelings (Bion, 1962).
Normal projective identification is a process of working through these communication difficulties that stem from not being taught how to process personal feelings. It is extremely important in the process of analytic psychotherapy. It is considered to be a gastrointestinal model by the way it works. The premise behind the process is that the therapist is a stomach for the client. They listen to the patient’s complaints and put words to the feelings that the client is experiencing. In essence, the therapist “eats” the words and then spits them back out at the client utilizing reflective listening. The words that the client is projecting into the therapist are called beta elements (Bion, 1962). The therapist takes in all of the beta elements and posits them back to the client in an alpha element form. This in essence teaches the client how to perceive their emotions, thoughts, and overall functioning.
Normal projective identification follows the same pattern as stated above with how the client perceives the world. If the parent’s did not conduct this process with the child then the child will be stuck in only being able to project beta elements into other objects and never get an alpha element projected back. It is then the job of the therapist to utilize their ability to alpha function and let the client know what they are feeling. The principle behind this method is that therapists are teaching the client how to understand their feelings. We have to find ways of giving it back to the client so they can interpret it on their own and introject it. A good example of this would be a mother bird chewing up food for her hatchlings and then spitting it back into their mouths. As therapists we take the bits of information, digest them and then spit it back into the patient. Therapists are acting like the mother and the patient is acting like the child. It is important for the therapist to conduct this method to work with the client to be able to produce their own alpha functioning.
Once their alpha functioning is at a certain level, it is possible that the individual will be able to continue to produce their own alpha functioning independently. Instead of it being negative, there will be healthy projective identification. This means the process will continue on throughout the individual’s life. There may be instances where the process breaks down to a degree, but basic alpha functioning will persist and it may take a few tries to continue the alpha processing. When this breakdown does occur, it may be due to a switching of the game to another video game. The controls and actions within the game switch because of the new rules of the virtual environment. The individual will have the basic concepts of the controls, but would be required to learn how to play with the new rules of the virtual world. This breakdown may not always or even occur with an individual who has the tenacity to be able to switch from one area of functioning to another. For instance, they may be able to switch virtual worlds and even without any knowledge of the new world, be able to play within it without instructions. This ability would be an example of alpha functioning working with the individual to promote independent learning. This concept is on a very basic level of Bion’s alpha functioning and projective identification and requires further studying to the full effect of this process on the individual.
Jacque Lacan, another prominent theorist, also spoke of a psychological style in the therapy room. His system was different than Bion’s on multiple aspects, but there is not time to differentiate nor is it the point to this paper to do so. Lacan came from a philosophy and linguistics background and focuses on particular writings of Freud. The primary point that will be discussed is his idea that the unconscious is structured like a language. He believed that he unconscious was a formation just as complex as consciousness, but constrained by language. By stating constrained by language, it can be thought to the extent that language itself is not able to comprehend or properly state what the unconscious is experiencing. By placing language on the experience, it is thought that part of the experience is lost or misinterpreted. To understand this further, his ideas on the three orders: the imaginary, the symbolic, and the real will be explored respectively.
The imaginary is where images, imagination, and deception by the images reign. In this area, we are bound, as victims and slaves, to the images that we see. These images attempt to guide us to believe in them as if they are real. In fact, they are not, but a façade that we are told to believe by our own unconscious. This illusion traps the individual because it is thought that you are supposed to be loyal to them. This is a trap from the ego and can be considered a menace to the psychological well-being of the individual. Long-term effects of being a victim to the imaginary can be borderline or narcissistic symptoms. To escape the imaginary it is imperative that the individual be destroyed by the image in order to move to the symbolic.
Lacan states that the symbolic structures the field of vision of the imaginary utilizing a linguistic concept. The reason this is true is because the individual is what Lacan considered to be the signifier. The signifier symbolizes the imaginary and therefore forces it to be the signified and for it to be a part of a signification. In order to do this, it requires that language comes into the equation to put boundaries upon the experience. These boundaries do not put a positive existence onto the idea being discussed, but a negative one by the mutual differences that the idea holds. In essence, the lack of the object, idea, or experience is what defines it. The presence and absence of the object is how it is described and defined.
Lacan’s real is at the end of the spectrum of the language of psychology. Unlike the imaginary where there is interplay on the absence/presence of an object; the real has no absence. Lacan called it the impossible because it cannot be symbolized, imagined, or attained. In essence, it defies symbolization due to the ability to describe it. In all three orders, language plays a large role in defining the experience. The author postulates that the orders can be considered and appreciated via a different interpretation of how language is a restriction on the individual.
Taking the three orders into consideration, imaginary, symbolic, and real; can be thought of how images are lost in translation by putting the constraints of language onto them. For example, an individual is having a daydream and there are wonderful colors and images that float through their head, they are in the imaginary. They are then asked about the dream and to describe it in detail. By attempting to put words to the dream, they have to move through the symbolic where they can attempt to talk about the dream, but it may appear to be nonsense to an individual who is not deeply listening. The symbolic stage will sound like garbled words due to the symbolism of the sentences. In order to appease the person trying to make sense of the words, the individual will have to move further into the real where they define the experience in actual words and proper (by societal standards) English.
This constraint on the dream itself has narrowing and harrowing possibilities. The experience itself is lost in the translation of words the individual was forced to speak in. The words used to define the experience constrict and narrow down the actuality of the event. The person listening to the individual retell their experience is undoubtedly dooming them to minimize the experience by the use of vernacular. This deduction of the experience only allows a small portion to be experienced and thought of instead of the full breadth of not putting words to the moment. It is the author’s suggestion that video games in themselves use this brash technique in the video game itself to lessen the experience or to draw attention to one small part of the experience and discard the entirety of the situation.
Another interesting notion about language in the game is everyone may take it out of context and not use or understand it as others would. Every word has numerous meanings depending on the sentence structure. Lacan described this as the signifying chain where the movement of signifiers can change the meaning because of the meaning generated by the signifiers. Context of the situation also makes the language used even more meaningful because it defines the signification of the situation. By this logic, the signifier has dominance over the signified because of the place of the word in the sentence.
The experience within video games has been a profound staple within the virtual world for a substantial amount of time. It has been used to draw focus to certain areas within the game or to further a storyline. By committing these acts, it forces the individual playing the game to be immersed only in the real. It forces the impossible upon the individual by constraining them with language to focus their attention. Lacking in the imaginary and symbolic areas of the consciousness of the game takes away from the experience of the virtual world. Directing the player to continue down a path instead of letting the entirety of the virtual world be experienced inherently damages the play of the game and the player playing the game. Additionally, it only allows a narrow view of the world to be seen and not experienced. This notion could be carried out from the virtual world to the real world and be a practice the player uses in reality. If so, then the damaging effects may be more profound than what is even hypothesized in this paper.
Video games appear to be using psychoanalytic functions within them without even the knowledge of it happening. From Bion’s alpha functioning of playing the game to Lacan’s use of language and psychology on the storyline. These various theoretical ideas are very much alive in the gaming industry, but may be only in their unconscious. Proper usage of these functions may prove in the future to be the key to unlocking potential of the individual if used correctly. Currently, it appears to be damaging not only the storyline, but possibly the individual playing the game as well.