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THE VIENNA PSYCHOANALYST wants to give not only already internationally established psychoanalysts, but also still unknown psychoanalysts the opportunity to post a self-written and not yet published article on the FrontPage of our online magazine!

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(For reasons of readability, the male form is used with personal names, however the female form is also always intended.)

Homo Ludens

Author: Sabrina Zehetner (TVP)

(05/24/2017)
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Treat it like a game. The 21st century is marked by a gamification of culture. With ludic technologies, virtual reality becomes real virtuality. From a psychoanalytic view, virtual identities promise complete autonomy at an unconscious level but there is an inherent difference between mere play and the ratio of a game.

Even though the idea of the sub specie ludi is quite ancient, success in the digital age requires a certain level of playfulness – thou shalt have fun at work! Ludification and game design have become the dominant approach in education, art, politics, economics and warfare – even human identity itself is in a constant state of game-playing. Johan Huizinga’s book Homo Ludens (1938) is experiencing a renaissance despite the fact that – in his theory – technology and play have virtually (pun intended!) nothing in common. Johan Huizinga was a Dutch historian who discussed the importance of play as a formative element in culture. His theories are especially popular in modern game design. Huizinga refers to the activity of playful pretending as “the consciousness that it is different from ordinary life” which temporarily creates order and perfection but what Huizinga fails to address is the fact that play exists in an intermediate world between the ordinary world and the world of pretense. In psychoanalysis, the ability to have two contradictory experiences at once is called an ego-split. If you’re watching a horror movie you may feel scared but another part of your ego is conscious of the fact that the serial killer committing murders on the screen is not real. The occurrence of these contradictory feelings – pleasure and fear – is called “Angstlust” (thrill or the tingle of fear”) – a term that can be traced back to Greek tragedy and mythology. Digital media play a crucial role in the fragmentation of the self because of the sheer unlimited number of possibilities they offer and the very nature of ludic technology.  

To this day, nostalgic cultural pessimists the likes of Baudrillard assume that the passive consumer is manipulated by mass media and unable to distinguish between reality and pretense and is therefore stuck in a continuous state of hyperreality.  Media and communication scientists have proven this assumption to be wrong – the one-way communication model died with the rise of the digital age. We’re not dealing with “dumbed down masses” but with individuals oscillating between different personae (or ego-splits) and multiple realities. With the right equipment and a little know-how, anyone can produce media content and become a co-producer.  We don’t need to acquire special knowledge to use the interface of an iPhone properly – the good old trial and error tactic usually works just fine. Taken to the extreme, however, this nonchalant modus operandi can lead to dire consequences and raises ethical concerns when we don’t expect to suffer any repercussions or criticism for our actions because we´re under the impression that we are merely playing a game - with other people’s feelings, their money, or in the case of drone warfare, with their lives.

As Georges Bernanos predicted,

“The cleverest killers of tomorrow will kill without any risk. Thirty thousand feet above the earth, any dirty little engineer, sitting cozily in his slippers with a special bodyguard of technicians, will merely have to press a button to wipe out a town, and scurry home in fear – his only fear – of being late for dinner.” (Diary of a Country Priest (1937)

In play, the individual can pretend to be someone else and create an unlimited number of personae. This enables children and adults to develop their creativity and quoting Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin, “a reader lives a thousand lives before he dies”. Acquiring empathy and a level of emotional intelligence - what German classicists like Schiller called the “Herzensbildung” (nobleness of the heart) - is at the heart of play.  To understand a child, you need to understand its play; through play, the child expresses manifold emotions and copes with past and present concerns. It is a means to prepare the child for adult life by helping it develop cognitive and motor abilities. It represents an instinctive activity without serious intent. The word “play” is associated with an earlier stage of development while “game” is related to maturity. Play is characterized by the lack of any goals not related to the activity itself. Anna Freud and Buhl focused on the coping aspect of play as a mechanism to overcome anxiety. Freud himself regarded play as a tool to partially satisfy drives with the intention to solve conflicts and release painful, traumatic experiences– a cathartic approach that bears a striking resemblance to today’s concept of game since game involves the intention to achieve a goal. Furthermore, it usually includes a level of competitiveness - thus, playing a game can be a rather stressful experience.

In the adult world, game has become serious business.

Game Theory, or what psychologists call “the theory of social situations”, is a branch of applied mathematics that focuses on human conflict and strategic decision making in a competitive environment.  Here, game is referring to an interactive situation where choice of optimal behavior is the focal point of interest. Costs and benefits depend on the choices of other individuals who attempt to maximize their returns. Sounds complicated? It certainly is a little more than rocket science. In game theory, game is mathematized and can, theoretically, be applied to any economic or political occurrence.  

Maybe the answer to our doubts lies in the very nature of the play. Game can be defined as rationalized play but it is the natural state of play itself that provides us with the necessary tools and emotional intelligence to deal with situations in a mature and ethical way throughout adulthood. Ludic technologies such as virtual reality are tools shaped by how the individual chooses to utilize it. Whether in play or game, playful identities oscillate between collectivity and individuality, reality and appearance and determinedness and change. Although playful identities enjoy the possibility of continuously changing masks, they still feel the eternal craving for rest at the heart of their subjectivity.


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