Nick Sherriff
Chapter 2

The Pleasures.

The problem with analysing video games is that they tend to be less academic in status than other objects like narratives and because of this, formal game studies are fragmented through differing disciplines. One of the most challenging and interesting reasons for researching video games is that far too often existing research/opinion tends to deal with value judgements and terms like ‘addiction.’ This piece however, is a genuine attempt to get away from this type of discourse and look at video games purely in terms of pleasure regardless of value or morality.

Previous attempts to define pleasure have acknowledged its social and simultaneously individual nature. Pleasure can be social, socially located and embedded in social occurrences and events whilst equally being capable of individual connotations.  This piece will outline a system or nonclamenture of pleasures that are available within video games. Although, as Rojek suggests pleasures are polymorphous in character and are therefore exempt from the unitary value system (1993. Chapter 1). ( see references) It could be agreed that Rojeks’ notion of value in terms of ‘how much’ is actually immeasurable but that does not negate the existence of such a pleasure itself. How much an individual finds something pleasurable may be impossible to quantify given that pleasure is both facilitated and restricted by individual and social experiences or interpretations.  As Campbell concurs, ‘sight (and hearing) offers a degree of discrimination…proportion [al] to the arousal to be gained’ (1987:66).  Thus sight and hearing are tainted (discriminated) by both the individual and the social. The system at appendix 1 describes the process and content of pleasures that appear to be on offer in almost all video games, although it is accepted that many other pleasures could be found, an underlying trend of potential pleasures does seem to exist (Appendix 1).


This system differs from Bentham’s taxonomy of pleasures, which it could be argued is an oversimplification of utilitarianism. Thus by not being totally reductionist in terms of finite categorisation this system attempts a more post-modern approach. (Cited in Rojek. 1989) Rather than total categorisation of types of pleasure a more post-modern perception is preferred similar to but without the fatalism of Lyotard who suggests, ‘…one listens to reggae, watches a western, eats McDonalds for lunch and local cuisine for dinner, wears Paris perfume in Tokyo…’ (1984:76.) Thus, the categories serve a small but important role as points of reference allowing a more playful use of the categories. The system does not attempt to quantify human emotion but to acknowledge its existence within the video game.

At this point it is important to note that pleasure is firstly, fundamentally personal and individual especially in terms of level or degree i.e. how much pleasure a person finds in a particular activity. Pleasure can look as if simply social though, for instance an individual finds pleasure in going to soccer matches but so do many of his/her fellow fans; therefore they could share similar pleasures. However this is an assumption, opposing fans could also have the same simple pleasures in wanting to see their team win and even if one team loses, both sets of fans could recognise the same ability to play the game. This is often seen when opposing fans give standing ovations to particular players or teams that have beaten them. 

Rojeks ‘polymorphous character’ of pleasures is acknowledged as well, players will have a degree of differentiation not only between the games themselves but also the individual’s experience of the game. One assumption could be that all games provide a simple fantasy element but the experience of such a fantasy is obviously polymorphous, although the simple element of fantasy exists for all. This piece of work will try to examine pleasures that are specific to the video game. Thus the complexity associated with pleasure has been both simplified and applied in order to get started. The result is a flow chart or system of pleasures.


Video games seem to have a particular set of pleasures and to a certain extent operate systematically although parts of the system can operate independently from the whole in a sub-cyclical fashion. (See Appendix 1) For the purposes of this piece of work the mere fact that an individual uses their free/non-work time to play video games will be used to suggest that such a pleasure exists.


The initial pleasures will concern themselves with the game itself and not the cinematic marketing tool known as the introduction although it is accepted that this sets the tone for the game and enriches the challenge for the player. Challenge as a pleasure could be seen as the games players pitting their wits against those of the programmers or game constructionists, although the player here must always be able to win. Howland agrees suggesting, “You are not interested in creating a perfect reactionary machine in a game enemy, you are interested in providing a challenge for the player.” (1989.) What’s the challenge then if I [players] am always going to win? Well a good question, that needs to understand that success and winning moreover, the manner in which it is facilitated is arguably the key to a successful game as Howland posits, “To create a fun and successful game you need to be able to challenge your players. They need to feel that they are overcoming something by beating your game.” (1998.)

The important part here is the players ‘overcoming something’ suggesting that the task is surmountable. Challenge with its degree of difficulty must be considered as sitting on a continuum. Set the challenge to high and players are unable to progress, resulting in less chance for pleasure. Set it to low and the challenge fails to be so becoming mundane and tiresome. This suggests that something either too hard or too easy is not as pleasurable as a challenge, set at the applicable level.


Furthermore the challenge could be more pleasurable if it was staggered as Howland explains in The Essence of Games,

“The games that I have seen succeed over and over again are the games that anyone could walk up off the street and play, but to really play well takes a great deal of work. The interface allows the player to grow into the game.” (1998.)


Challenge must not be seen in isolation to other parts of the game moreover, challenge comes in many forms and is interlinked throughout the Video Game Pleasure System (VGPS).

Having established that challenge underpins many aspects of the VGPS and to varying degrees, the next stage is that of exploration and learning. It is hard not to see exploration and learning as a pleasure.  For some writers such a Crawford, this pleasure might be the result of a natural drive to learn and explore or human inquisitiveness. Whether natural or social, the ability to learn is rewarded via the video game with extra levels, secrets, weapons, characters etc. Even as the game pad is picked up for the first time the player must learn to master the control of the game, be that controlling the movements of a character as with Fighting, Sports, Platform, Driving, Action Adventure and Shooting games (Quake 3, FIFA, Oddworld and Getaway) or the menu guided user interface of Role Playing, Strategy and Puzzle Games (Final Fantasy, Championship Manager and Fantavision). From this point on the player is engaged in an almost limitless post-modern opportunity, at least in terms of the lack of narrative (See Lyotard. 1984, Fiske.1989.), to explore the game bound only by the ‘paradigm of choices provided by the microchip’ (Fiske. 1989:89.) and the imagination of the programmers. This initial stage is a cyclical process (See Appendix 1) in that as the player explores more they learn more which alters the challenge in various ways such as making things easier via practice or opening new previously unknown challenges by discovery.


To understand the next stage, plaisir or story, the previous elements must be seen as building blocks and plaisir therefore as the sum of such parts. Barthes (1977) suggested that pleasure was delivered by texts and in the case of plaisir this was a ‘rather obedient pleasure gained from following a skilfully-told story’ (Harris. 1996). Harris further suggests the obvious pleasures of texts themselves,

“We already know a good deal about the pleasures delivered by the texts themselves, such as narrative pleasures, when the text builds suspense and then resolves it, or offers us some puzzling events and then explains them, or when different perspectives are resolved and ordered…” (1996)


Harris also posits the notion of fruition where ‘…the narrative is followed through to the delivery point…’ (1996) This is perfectly true for reading books and watching films (after all who would only be interested in half of a story but what of the video game?). Certainly some games have a distinct scenario that develops into narrative of sorts especially the Role Playing Games like Orphan on the Playstation 2 (PS2). Orphan has a framework scenario of a party of three trying to escape from Chaos Island but in order to do so the player must negotiate three sub-quests with characters Selphie, Zeus and Mar. Similarity with Harris’s ‘obedient pleasure’ is present in that all three quests must be followed through in order to finish the game but the lack of strict authorial obedience is what sets video games apart from say books or films. When, with who and in what order are elements of the narrative that have been interactively left for the players use but a general what could be suggested as a framework narrative is present within most video games.

Herz (1997) offers what could be considered as a generic narrative she calls the ‘stepwise build-up’ where players move from level to level with the action and opponents getting respectively faster and harder, moving the player ‘further up the slope of a long neurological crescendo.’ (1997: 141) This does allow for the easier inclusion of games like Tetris or Fantavision that seem to have little in common with say adventure games in terms of narrative. Players are accustomed to this pattern of increasing difficulty and, as discussed earlier, could find it pleasurable as it keeps the challenge alive or fresh. Thus, narrative pleasure [plaisir] is available within the video game but coupled with the interactive possibilities facilitated by the microchip, the player has the potential for a degree of autonomy unavailable in books or film. Fiske suggests the, “Lack of narrative authority… evacuates the author, and into the space the player inserts himself. The player becomes the author.” (1989: 89) Here Fiske seems to be suggesting that whilst there has been a change of ownership the idea of narrative still remains. The phrase degree of autonomy is used because the level of interactivity is governed by the constraints of the machine code and the imagination of the programmer used to write the game. As Fiske further argues, ‘the empowerment of grabbing the joystick and controlling the actions of the player are false and confined to the limited choices offered by the consoles microchip’ (1989:89) although it could be suggested much more choice or potential pleasure than existing mediums. Fiske has however failed to appreciate that whilst control is ultimately the remit of the microchip the mere perception of control could be pleasure in itself. Thus it could be argued that the lack of narrative authority, which could be perceived as player control, is interactivity itself and as such the video game allows for greater personalisation, therefore the ability for fantasy is more readily available.


Whilst there is obvious pleasure with the individual aspects thus far discussed, taking a holistic viewpoint is also possible. The players immerse themselves into the game via the medium of fantasy but with the added pleasure of personalisation through interactivity. Here the notion of fantasy has changed from passive to active seeing the player as no longer an observer but an actor actively engaging with the virtual environment. Video game fantasy therefore, cannot be seen without relationship to interactivity, which facilitates a kind of personalisation in a similar but more intense way to authorship, which as discussed is now much in the hands of the player.  Crawford however suggests,


“A movie without a believable or enjoyable fantasy is just a collection of pretty pictures: a game without an entertaining fantasy is just a collection of interactive pretty pictures.” (1997:Chapter 2)


Although, he fails to see that interactivity adds to the pleasures in its own right, or at least fuels fantasy just as the imagination fuels the fantasy facilitated by a book or artistic impression. That is not to say that the imagination does not play a part in video games but that interactivity makes fantasy more accessible. Rojek (1993:59) suggested that Freud saw ‘individuals as isolated atoms in a social cosmos’ therefore it is not such a big step to see video game players as isolated pixels in a system of machine code. The player is projected into the game via coloured pixels not unlike the atoms in the human body taking on the roll of the characters and situations within the video game.  Thus unlike the book that requires text to ignite the imagination and the minds eye, the video game projects visual imagery onto the screen that can be manipulated and controlled in a much more tactile way.


In my opinion this easy access to fantasy is the root of video games negative press. There is a similar reaction to the pleasures of youth culture and the participants’ rebellion against their parent’s (societies) ideals and norms. (Hall, S and Jefferson, T. 1976)  There might be something in this view: Crawford suggested that within the fantasy lies the idea of ‘nose thumbing’ (1997) where the player ‘can break out of his chains and create a secure, orderly world fit for his passions to abide.’ (Rosseau in Rojek. 1993:13) The constraints of society do not allow for the unauthorised taking of life but in the virtual world of the video game, players can take many uncomfortable forms such as Mafia Boss, Hitman, Sniper or other cold-blooded killing forms. Urry further posits that ‘people must experience particularly distinct pleasures which involve different senses or are on a different scale from those typically encountered in everyday life.’(1990:12) This does sound incredibly similar to that of escapism, which could be suggested, is a part of fantasy although as the evidence will show not all fantasy is so simple.


For whatever reason, a plethora of video game genres mean that not only can the player act in a role that is anarchistic, dangerous or threatening to the fabric of ‘society’ they can also do it in the relative safety of their own home. Thus a kind of social resistance similar to that of Fiske (1989: 87) is perceived. This is however not without narrative cajoling as all video games offer a scenario of plausible legitimacy in the form of planetary invasion (Half-Life) or dehumanising guises of the victims (Quake), facilitating for Crawford ‘violence without guilt.’ This does appear to facilitate a social inclusion of sorts albeit not one we would all agree with. These are of course the extreme but fantasy does allow for the pleasure of inclusion, roles can be taken on by literally anyone providing they can fund video games play. Although it could be suggested that this is more akin to temporary social inclusion rather than definitive inclusion as the player always leaves fantasy at the end of the game and to suggest that the role is carried on into reality is unproven. The video game has the potential to place the player in a role that was either previously unobtainable or socially unacceptable, therefore serving the purpose of nose thumbing or temporary social inclusion respectively. Thus one pleasure could be a snub at one of the most sacred official beliefs, the preservation of life. The games player is thinking outside the box and above society by not only suggesting that there are situations that deem the use of violence and death as acceptable, not unlike war but that they [players] see fit to choose whom their enemies are. For society or more obviously authority this is a terrifying situation to know parts of society think this way, and that is powerful for the player and threatening for societal fathers. Exploration and plaisir are parts forming the whole [fantasy], which can operate in a sub-cyclical fashion, i.e. interactive exploration expands the story [plaisir], which fuels the fantasy.


Rather than solely chronological the next phase should be considered complimentary to the system as a whole, a form of recognition by the self [player] and others. As discussed earlier Barthes (1977) argued that pleasure was derived from texts themselves [narrative pleasures]. He also posits another form of pleasure namely jouissance, a kind of ecstatic pleasure in language that escapes the devices of narrative and rejoices in the experience itself. (Harris.2001) This for Barthes is pleasure in the signification of hidden meanings within the text available only to the skilled reader. Linking this to the video game is relatively simple, frequent players or connoisseurs build up a catalogue of cognitive gaming knowledge, which could render them as skilled. Thus such players are able to recognise the subtle nuances like intertextuality in a semiotic fashion as well as the inherent qualities of graphics, game-play, storyline, artificial intelligence for instance.


  Recognising these experiential aspects of video games is similar to that of Barthes’s jouissance (1977) although the video game affords the pleasure of others as well as the self that leads to what Crawford (1977) posits as ‘social lubrication.’ Video games are used as a vehicle for social lubrication acting as a catalyst or facilitator for social interaction. (1997) This is underestimated in Barthes probably because his examples are reading books although that is not to say that skilled readers do not like to share their expertise as well. Pleasure is derived from the sharing of knowledge or the recognition by others of such knowledgeable abilities. Smith, whilst a little strong does suggest; the most valued of goods [is] another’s affection. (Cited in Rojek. 1998:60-61) He further posits ‘the chief part of human happiness arises from the consciousness of being beloved.’ (Rojek. 1998:61) This is evident with the video game high score that is displayed on screen acting as the player’s standard. During my youth I was plagued and impressed by a player known only by his high score name – UFO. Although as to whether the player was aware of such reverence is unknown. There are some additional pleasures of watching a game being played in a similar fashion to that of hearing books being read something, which again Barthes failed to acknowledge. A person plays a game that is watched by others and it looks to them like an animated story, perhaps there may be more pleasure especially if they have played the game beforehand facilitating an appreciation for the difficulty faced by the player or feeling of affiliation to the characters.


Video games allow for this standard to be taken into another’s territory for display of a player’s skill and prowess. Thus the video game must now be regarded as catering for the social by facilitating a kind of competition with players exporting their abilities to the machines of their peers like a sort of portable adulator and thus a throwing down the gauntlet is observed.


Video game players not only compete against each other ‘one on one’ but also can compete against the game and each other, as with being the first to finish ‘Metal Gear Solid’ for instance. There is financial reward as well in the form of national and international tournaments like Quake. Pleasures here are more readily recognisable such as winning and the joy of participation itself. At this point however, winning should be altered to include the pleasure of not loosing, as many games do not produce an outright triumph as with flight simulators. Although they may have limited tasks to complete the pleasure of the game is the ride itself, as LeDiberder affirms, ‘they [video games] are more like toys or playgrounds.’ (1993)

Finally, the game is exhausted in terms of pleasure, for now at least, only time can refresh the pleasures perhaps in the form of nostalgia. Of course new players can be found to play against but once the story has been completed the game loses some of its pleasure and appeal, although that is not to say that pleasure is lost forever. On the contrary new games are just around the corner with bigger and better pleasures (if you believe the hype) waiting for players to grasp the challenge and thus the process begins again.


As you can see this sort of subject matter is difficult to pin down but an attempt has been made none the less. It is acknowledged that the sample is relatively small and more extensive research will have to address this. However a start has been made into what is the diverse and in some ways the uncharted territory of the video game and its pleasures. Difficulties have been raised concerning the study of such personal and polymorphous feelings of pleasure; hence the rather messy fell to the research. Apologies are also given to the aspect of prompting people almost steering them but as discussed such feelings are not superficial they run deep and need to be coaxed out. Finally my own inexperience within research has lead to many imperfections but despite all this a genuine attempt has been made into a worthwhile subject area.

(next chapter)