Abjection and the Video Game

Over at RPS, Jim Rossignol has a great article up about the way that bodily functions are represented and accounted for in video games.

Rossignol highlights two reasons that biological functions like eating, urinating, etc. are included in games:

1. They are funny.
2.  They “create game systems that are immediately comprehensible.” By this, he means that we can immediately identify with the desire to fulfill the drive to eat and the drive to urinate.

Toward the end of the article, Rossignol says this:

Indeed, why should I feel a glimmer of satisfaction at being well stocked with cooked food as my Minecraft character waddles off into his cubic wilderness? Because the alternative – starving to death in a cave – is so bleak, and so threatening. It’s a shortcut into real experiences. Games in which we must take precautions against even these most basic of needs are games which challenge us to pay attention, to plan, and to reap the rewards of our preparation and our caution, when we are caught in a difficult spot. They are also games that speak directly to us as normal human beings.

“Normal human beings” language aside, this is a great point. I want to think in reverse of this article, though. What does it means that the majority of games actually eliminate those functions? I think of Skyrim, for example. It is a game that is all about taking on the subjectivity of the character you are playing. You shout, you cast fireball, you shoot a bow. But you never poop.

Kristeva’s concept of abjection, that which we must ignore and cast out to live, seems to be important here. “To each ego its object, to each superego its abject,” she writes in Powers of Horror. So, at one time, the abject of the video game might have been mere nonexistence; it could have been the blank screen, the death of the game, or even the kill screen. Maybe it was leftover data, the strange mix of things that exist and yet cannot be represented or shown without throwing the entire assemblage that is a game into disarray.

The project of abjection is to hide things that interrupt our social and personal lives so that we can live them in peace–we hide or destroy corpses because they both physically and mentally attempt to destroy us. They make us aware of death, of the rotting self, and of disease. We don’t like that, and to maintain peace, we eliminate those things. But we also hide them–burying a body isn’t actually getting rid of it, but rather hiding six feet down, preventing us from seeing it, and eventually it biologically morphs into nonexistence.

So, on face, it looks like adding these things into the game provides a more “real” experience for the player. Urinating and eating food become things that you have to do; starving to death in a cave, the ultimate abject that rests in the back of the mind, is simulated in the game world. The game becomes a more full experience, more like real life.

But that is just another kind of mask; adding a poop function to Skyrim is just burying the body. The abjection of the game is separate from that of embodied human experience. Assuming that digital objects (and worlds) are superegos (they probably are), we have to assume that they have an abject. “On the edge of non-existence and hallucination, of a reality that, if i acknowledge it, annihilates me,” is the Kristevan way to put it.

And maybe this is right. The abject of the game object/world is the programming, the code, that hides all of the junk data and complex rigging that produces the world. The only way to see the hidden corpse, the maggots, the vomit of the video game is through looking at code or breaking the game. Clipping through walls or getting to blue hell.


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