March 6th, 2006

Some might say us gamers are fetishists. After all, we spend a serious portion of our collective day playing, designing, and writing about video games. They’ve become – in our obsession with them, in the time we dedicate to them, and in our insistence that they are something more than what they seem – like fetish objects.

Of course, the very concept of the object is one that doesn’t quite fit, but, in our virtual age, who’s to say an electronic environment can’t be reified in the same way a tangible item can. Think of World of Warcraft. It is everything and nothing at the same time: totally meaningful and totally banal.

And around here, at a site like Heroine Sheik, some might even claim we get off on games. Well, what if we do? Wanna fight about it?

But the idea of the fetish goes beyond our common, kinky conceptions, back to good old Freud.

In his essay on the subject, Freud links fetishism to female castration. The gist of it is this: in the fetishist’s life, there is a (apparently horrifying) moment when the boy-child realizes his mother is not like him, that she lacks a penis. And the first thing he sees in that moment of realization, whether it be his mother’s bottom, her stockings, or the hair between her legs, becomes his fetish.

Why? Because the fetish serves to both block and endlessly remind of that horrible understanding. A foot fetishist adores feet — so the theory goes — because they distract from the truth of female genitalia, but also because, simultaneously, they always bring with them a hint of that original, frightful memory.

So, in that way, a fetish object is that which brings us back to, but also covers up, some unbearable truth.

Which, it might seem, doesn’t have much to do with video games. Except that it does.

Video games offer us something new… not merely the chance to shoot at things previously unshootable, to sleep with beauties previously unsleep-with-able, to press restart and obtain immortality. No, first and foremost they offer us an identity. What we choose to do with that identity is up to us. But before we can do anything in-game, we must have an avatar, or at least the overarching power of an unseeable, but undoubtably present being. We must exist.

So, from the second we turn on a game, we have created a doubling: our real-life selves, our game-selves.

If video-game identity is the fetish object, then what is it covering up? What trauma is it standing in for? Our real-life selves, of course. And this is where video games operate though genuine fetishism. These virtual identities hide away our real ones, but, in their mere existence – in the simple fact that someone must be controlling that avatar – they endlessly remind of the true identities they try to hide away.

Why would we want to shove our real-life identities back into the realm of the unconscious? Why would we seek a fetish like this in the first place?

Think of our image of the stereotypical gamer. Anti-social, perhaps over-weight, certainly no winner with the ladies. Now, to be sure, it’s a stereotype, not a blanket statement, but such stereotypes come into our social consciousness because they are so often true. This is a person who – so society often says – is of little worth. Their identities, for a number of reasons, are traumatic.

Does gaming make people like this, or are people like this attracted to gaming? Is it a coincidence that people whom society marks as marginal and valueless choose a passtime in which they can recreate their bodies – simultaneously hiding, and constantly being reminded of, themselves?

If video games are the fetish, we ourselves are the painful memory – one that, despite the ever-increasing complexities of technology, we will always come back to.

Tags: Blog

11 Responses to “Identity: Video Game as Fetish”

  1. Carl Says:

    This was pretty clever. Good entry. I suppose it’s not entirely original to argue that games are escapism, but you expressed it really well and also tied in a bit about fetishism that I never really thought of before. I like it.

  2. Brummbar Says:

    Thing is, though, that people who talk about “Freud” are really talking about penises.

  3. Duncan Says:

    “The fetish properties are not unlike porn. I would feel guilty taking their money if I wasn’t, kind of, well, one of them.”
    -Rob, High Fidelity (The Movie Version)

    Fetish is also generically defined as “an object of unreasonably excessive attention or reverence” (Dictionary.com). Something that we put a lot of our time and attention into. The sexual overtones that have been collected and hoarded by this word often obscure the much simpler definition. I’d be interested in learning other reasonings behind the development of fetishes. Freud could be a little, um, focused for my taste.

  4. FerrousBuller Says:

    Aw c’mon, Bonnie: sometimes a phallic symbol is just a joystick!

    . . .

    I swear that makes more sense in my head.

    Interesting post: I’ll have to mull it over. As Carl said, gaming as escapism is nothing new, but tying it to fetishism? Now that’s pretty clever. David Wong may have said it best, though: some day, it’ll all be about Awesome You. :-)

    But I thought Freud was passe these days with the intelligentsia? Or has he made a retro comeback? Hmmm…

  5. Brummbar Says:

    Freudianism will never be passe with the intelligentsia because, like all ideology and critical theory, it enables one to “understand” things without actually knowing anything about them.

  6. matt Says:

    i tend to place more stock in marx’s idea that membership in a social class is what drives most people towards certain goals, dogma and distractions over freud’s psychosexual development theory.

    with that in mind, i’m inclined to run with duncan’s version of games as a “fetish” in that for many of us they are "an object of unreasonably excessive attention or reverence” and i suggest that this “excessive attention” is made possible by the nature and means of our social class. and, while there’s an undeniable link betwixt sexuality, escapism and gaming (and entertainment in general), i offer that the fetishistic approach to gaming is due more to class affiliation as the modern replacement to television than it is related to childhood sexual trauma.

  7. sotonohito Says:

    I think Freud is full of it. My parents were semi-nudists, I saw my mother nude on a semi-regular basis from the time I was born onward, its pretty much impossible that I ever had this “horrible” moment of revelation that my mother didn’t have a penis. Of course, I don’t have any genuine fetishes (a few kinks, but who doesn’t?) so maybe he isn’t so full of it. Maybe that’s why I never went through that “girls are icky” stage little boys are supposed to; I’ve always thought women and girls were great.

    As for games as a fetish, I’d say they’re more of an addiction than a fetish. While admittedly there’s an escapist aspect, I don’t think the game really constantly reminds a person of what they really are, anymore than the game lets you forget who you really are.

    I just started playing Master of Magic again after taking a couple of years off and I just can’t stop playing. I must find out what happens on the next turn. But I’ve never actually thought “I am a powerful wizard” while playing, anymore than I confuse myself with my (female) Night Elf rogue character when I play WoW, or, for that matter, anymore than I confuse myself with the characters in any books I read.

    Now, I do sometimes confuse my life with Sailor Moon’s life, but since I routinely transform and fight monsters animated out of household objects to bring about the creation of Crystal Tokyo that’s hardly surprising…

  8. FerrousBuller Says:

    “My parents were semi-nudists, I saw my mother nude on a semi-regular basis from the time I was born onward, its pretty much impossible that I ever had this "horrible" moment of revelation that my mother didn't have a penis.”

    To be fair, I don’t think most people would characterize that as an “average” upbringing. You couldn’t have that “horrible moment” of realization about your mother because you knew all along. And one mustn’t forget the time and place Freud was doing his work – late 19th / early 20th century Europe – not exactly the most sexually liberated era. Then there’s the belief that we treat sex and nudity as taboo (and intrinsicly linked) only because we are taught they are taboo (and intrinsicly linked). If you grow up in a more liberated environment, you end up less sexually repressed – or at least with a different set of problems. :-)

    Bottom line: your upbringing was probably quite different from the upbringing of most of Freud’s subjects, which doubtless influenced your psyche differently.

    “As for games as a fetish, I'd say they're more of an addiction than a fetish.”

    That’s probably Bonnie’s cue to argue that addictions are actually fetishes too, ones fraught with sexual overtones.

    I mean, sucking on a bong? Impaling yourself with a needle? Isn’t it obvious?

    :-)

  9. Brummbar Says:

    Sometimes a hypo is just a hypo.

  10. Bonnie Says:

    Fetish is also generically defined as "an object of unreasonably excessive attention or reverence" (Dictionary.com). Something that we put a lot of our time and attention into. The sexual overtones that have been collected and hoarded by this word often obscure the much simpler definition.

    You’re right, Duncan: Freud’s understanding of the fetish is by no means the only one, or the one most commonly accepted. But, as pointed out at the beginning of the post, I think that our obsession with video games fits within that more commonplace definition of the fetish as well.

    But I thought Freud was passe these days with the intelligentsia? Or has he made a retro comeback?.

    As far as actual psychology is concerned, Freud is definitely passe. But he’s often useful in other areas, such as literary criticism (which is the model behind this post). What I mean is, he doesn’t have to be right or wrong for his theory to be fun/constructive/interesting to apply to gaming.

    i tend to place more stock in marx's idea that membership in a social class is what drives most people towards certain goals
    Hi, Matt. I think that’s a valid body of theory to bring up – though I don’t know that it negates the Freud (both because you can apply both to games, as an exercise, and because seemingly contradictory theories are often, in fact, complementary :-). Could you elaborate? In what way does our class status push us toward the fetishization of games? Also, Marx has a lot to say about fetishes, too, right? The commodity fetish, if I’m remembering right. Maybe you know more about that…?

    its pretty much impossible that I ever had this "horrible" moment of revelation that my mother didn't have a penis.

    It’s important to remember (and I think I didn’t make this clear enough) that Freud isn’t saying that everyone has this moment of horror. He is saying that everyone has this moment of realization of difference, but, for the fetishist, it’s a trauma. Also, as for whether or not you’re a fetishist (in the Freudian sense) because you play video games… that’s not really my point. I just mean to show how Freud’s theory can be applied to our gaming experience. Like I mentioned above, it’s like an exercise in critical thinking.

    That's probably Bonnie's cue to argue that addictions are actually fetishes too, ones fraught with sexual overtones.
    And fetishes are addictions. In the BDSM community (Kelly Rued will probably shake her finger at me for the term, but, where I live at least, there really is one :-), I’ve heard fetish described as something you need to get off.

  11. MD² Says:

    Hi, Matt. I think that's a valid body of theory to bring up – though I don't know that it negates the Freud

    It doesn’t. After all, when you get down to it, wasn’t Deleuze’s work in L’anti-oedipe an attempt at reuiniting the two ?

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