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Power Fantasies (Part 3)
Hating yourself to a better you
Power fantasies abound in media, specially in an artform such as ours, where it is so easy to make our own — so we get the indulgencies we need and deserve. But power, well, power is a well, begotten by violence, information control and personal charisma — but in our current world is built on the first one1. Because our games are material, our imagination is a material product and we are prisoners of its forces, the power we can fantasize about is shaped by the exercise of power around us. We look at three classical acceptable targets of power fantasies in roleplaying games and try to see how they reflect the ways power is applied upon us to manage bodies, lives and minds.
The usual caveats apply 2, and I further clarify what the is implicit in the previous paragraph: this is not some kind of value measurement/judgement of power fantasies, but reflecting on what the imaginary of power is allowed to be, the technologies it uses to perpetuate itself and how it has its reflections in the games and art we practice. Examples were almost random, picked from what was closest at hand when I was writing this because of how ubiquitous those ideas are — they are not a commentary on those individual games.
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The Psychopolitical Enemy: You
That’s right. You.
If necropolitical fantasies were difficult to discuss because they addressed an unfamiliar Imperial audience with terms they would have a hard time comprehending, psychopower fantasies are difficult because they are too familiar, carved into our bones and many of us have spent the last two decades being told this is A Good.
Okay, let’s turn back the clock on this conclusion. This is gonna be a doozy to even get in the same page where we can talk about this.
Chicken Soup For Psychopolitics
Psychopolitics are a category of technologies of control that are difficult to talk about because they are the technologies that are used to manage and enchain all of us living now. No exception. While not everyone is hyper-aware of biopolitics, one is pretty quick to recognize when its disciplinary power is deployed against them; when the body-politics come for the body1, it is pretty obvious when one is being done a crass, negative violence. The same with necropolitics; most of you are not in obvious camp-forms where their role is to put the E in PvE, and in imperial core there is an identarian drive to not recognize those marked for death-worlds and aggro as people that we are doing this to2. So, with biopolitics and necropolitics, they are overlooked by touch untouched by them and pretty damn obvious to those suffering at their hand.
Psychopower is applied against us so overwhelming, daily and omnipresent that it seems absurd to even stop to think about it. It is just the way things are. So, let’s try to convey this idea so that we can get to TTRPGs.
Biopower manages bodies and the spaces and needs for them to exist with disciplinary violence. Necropower declares entire populations as of lacking any value, much less personhood; they are pushed into camp-forms, social or physical spaces where those that end up there die on behalf of the real people outside the camp-form. Psychopower hides itself by shaping what you want, so what you want is to be an ongoing project of self-improvement: and self-improvement is becoming the most obedient hog; if you don’t want that, you are flawed, need to put the work, and need to purge this negativity from you and heal into a cozy, wholesome version of yourself. On your own; okay, maybe with all these other products that have helped others on their life-projects.
The goal is not to actually improve or empower anything or anyone — that is what makes them technologies of power, they are about how the status quo is reproduced; it is to make all your failings manageable to continue the current arrangements.
So the other technologies of power we discussed are about managing bodies and populaces sentenced to death; psychopower is about the capture and management of souls. We can break this down into the following things that you may recognize as the iron maiden you are stuffed inside of:
A culture of positivity, self-management, self-improvement, personal efficiency9, productivity10, self-healing11, where the very act of being human and striving for humanity is turned as the object of exploitation12. Aka: living in a state of Flow1314 15.
A hatred of all things bummers, unwholesome, uncozy, negative, etc16. A toxic positivity where nothing human can be allowed to exist. An homogenizing, sterilizing effect disguised as inclusive, comfortable, approachable, safe — good vibes only17. The only pain allowed is the pain needed to become “good bean”18.
Gamification in order to increase productivity, either directly or by allowing the previously mentioned processes of self-optimization. Everything is a game whose rules you subject yourself to be under; this human social knowledge formation is exploited for psychopolitical purposes19.
Psychopolitics pulls your soul out, checks it for imperfections and expects you to purify yourself; no human allowed, only a digital soul-being the system can database-narrative and exploit. Become information.
Now, armed with this recognition, I’m sure you can see psychopower all around you. Every aspect of existing in post-production, post-neoliberal capitalism is a psychopolitical process. It is in web3, it is in Large Language models, it is in social media, it is in all the training your job forces you go through, it is in HR departments, it is in grindset and hustlepilling, it is in techbros, it is in the managerial class obsession with CBT and therapy as replacement, it is in the social media and other replacements to public spaces and communities; it is.
Closer to the art-form, we have the the constant needs of influencing jobs, social media (again) “games that are not political”/not allowing discussion of “politics”, the grift and hustle of consulting and sensitivity stamps as tools to disarm the political22 23, “No bummers allowed zones”24, etc.
Unexamined ideology is ideology working as intended: it is readily reproduced by engaging uncritically with it or just ignoring it altogether. That’s just how they work: the default ideology of neoliberalism and psychopower technologies of control are going to be the dominant presence in TTRPGs — just as they are in anything else. However, gamespaces allow the exploration of these ideas to their full-extent: neoliberalism and it tools do not work25 around us, but their claims can be examined in the topography of games26. This creates an interesting tension in this artform, which creates unique artistic and political opportunities.
What if all of this worked? What if all these promises of psychopolitics were real? What if I could actually entrepreneur self-improve myself into a better me? If following all these steps actually made me a person instead of breaking me, taking my soul, bleaching it and making it fit the machine that kicks me in the nuts?
That’s the fantasy.
That is this fantasy, the most common fantasy, the end of history (final, for real) fantasy. The fantasy that keeps creeping back in your art whenever you are not paying attention. And you can see where this is going.
If biopolitics to work needs cultists, if necropolitics to do the same needs the savage orcish hordes…
You need to be the enemy for psychopolitics to work as advertised.
You are a problem to be extracted, scrutinized, purified and solved. And in this fantasy, something can be done about it.
Games About Hating You
You being the enemy for the psychopolitical fantasy a factor that shapes the imaginary, possibilities and who gets to play before hitting the tables, beyond what is printed in a TTRPG. It is so ubiquitous we are not aware of the psychopower involved, nor how it influences the artform and what it can be. For example:
“Any game can be fun with the right group.”
An innocent enough statement, right? The artform of collaborative storytelling is deeply social,27 and as such, its qualities and descriptors are created socially: any game can be whatever it is going to be with the right group.
However, this all-too-obvious statement is only deployed as psychopower. You know you can, and probably had, fun (or whatever other qualifier was desired) with the right group. This statement is deployed to disarm any attempt to put some internality as a factor, or to treat anything in the game as anything more than neutral information for you and collaborators for storytelling to treat as part of your individualized being-projects. Games are just information, and all information is exposed and transparent: as such, the onus is on you to fixing whatever is wrong with your group to make them work. “Idk, it works for me, bruh. Maybe it is because rather than engaging with the game as more than data, I actually have good friends I enjoy spending time with no matter what? Why you think so much about just a game?” The psychopower goal is disarm this before you accidentally create art or any other expression through which you discover and communicate an interiority (that, for some reason, you had not splurged out into your information-identity). Not very transparent of you.
You should probably fix that before killing everyone else’s buzz. Everyone else is having fun — you are being a negativity weirdo.
“Violence is easier to simulate”
Statements like this are often meant to justify the other two categories of technologies of control and the associated power fantasies, but the defense itself is deployed psychopower technology. There are two key ideas at play here. One, that the deployment of violence is an accepted social state, and a social expectation to have; if you have a problem with the assumptions of violence in the art-form, it is a problem that you have, that you should fix about yourself — in other words, it establishes that struggling with the assumptions of violence demanded by a game is an undesirable feature on the person struggling and to be healed out. Second, it positions the art-form of TTRPG collaborative storytelling as a mere simulation. Violence is real to some anti-social “realness”, and not used for artistic communication and transformation, to reflect something about yourself or the social constructions we inhabit; violence is data, information, and easy to translate to games. For some reason never expounded upon because alas, these kind of statements are meant to defuse, not problematize28. “System does not matter” by way of “systems just do that on their own”.
It is hard to find any usefulness other than in-group signifier from this contradictory statement, but it is one of the most obvious psychopower cudgels. Why you need contracts and some agreed upon materiality? Cannot you just figure out everything by yourself? Most of the time, it is just a more baffling version of the first example we discussed.
“That was never a problem in my group.”
Okay, again, what is one expected to get from this? You will encounter many knee-jerk reactions like this whenever you talk about difficulties using certain tools for TTRPG art; what am I supposed to take from this? Cool, good that you did not have had these issues, happy for y’all, but we different people working with different partners to make different art, I’m talking about the common axis we actually share. Can we talk of this, develop a common language so we can both learn more and talk about how things are and what they could be?
Well, psychopower is being done to you to make you agreeable to its existing trails; to stick to established lanes as “they work just fine.” See, on their own way, those deploying this against you think they doing you a favor. They are giving you an out. as you just committed one of the classic psychopolitical blunders: you revealed that there was something you were not being transparent about, that there was some internal dimension to you that you have not aired out and this is causing you problems. Mate, this is not a problem for anyone else, you are admitting you have a messed up interiority; take the hint and take it back and fix that on your time and dime. That’s fucked up.
“You can do X on Y”
Oh boy. This used to be mostly a meme about GURPS and other generic game systems, or just a way for someone to advocate for their favorite systems; normal conversation and social knowledge formation — even if it was quite annoying sometimes. However, for one to see what psychopower is acting upon, you need to look at the question this is deployed against.
“You can do X on Y” variants pop up when one is asking for game recommendations, wondering which games can accomplish a desire game-state of variable specificity, emulate something from another art-form, or share a frustration that you have with the tools of the art-form and wish to improve upon them and/or their application.
Any of those, however, psychopolitically, read the same: “I have some interiority that I cannot just externalize as information, that goes beyond what it is acceptable to show and talk; I am striving to use art rather than content to communicate, transform and figure stuff out about me and my relationships, rather than the prescribed info-exposure self-healing so that I can get hammered into the appropriate forms of expression.“
“You can do X on Y” has become a way for conveying information that has been categorized as database back to you, so you can do the self-improvement and actualize to use it and stop being this cringe at admitting how much work you need to get done. Embarrassing! What is your damage that you cannot communicate, transform and change the same way every single other entrepeneur-subject of psychopower subjugation can? Fix that *hearthands*!
Most of the time this is used to reinforce and justify maintenance of status quo — obviously, it is a technology of power, after all, — so, in the case of TTRPGs, defend Hasbro property. If Hasbro IP allows everyone else to do just fine making their Indigenous space knights mecha queer operetta, what is your excuse? Why do you chaff around those limitations imposed upon the art-form? You should fix that (about yourself). The Hasbro sewage is just fine; the acceptable forms of expression and communication trail laid by a corporation entity gives all that one should externalize in proper company.
Even if it favors the more established institutions, the same database thinking shapes indie response; even when one is struggling against the status quo, if you think in databases you think on terms of databases. The same perceived problem (lack of transparency) has the same solution (match you up with the current information-regime). Pastoral peacefulness? Wanderhome. Gay stuff? Thirsty Sword Lesbians. Crimes? Blades in the Dark. Adapt a TV show? PbtA. And so on and so on.
It always comes down to the same procedure: reduce the struggles of art, transformation and expression to something that is information and your relationship with information (which itself is more information). Even when you are not aware or want to, after all, you are an indie designer fighting the monopoly?
Specially when you are not aware or wish to.
“We did not manage to make it work for us, but...”
This is a direct consequence of the previous one, when it coexists and becomes tangled with the toxic positivity of psychopower that ignores the most common forms of violence. Everyone in this art-form, even if they are constantly pressured to make content, strives to make art. And thus, they struggle to make things that transform those experience them/communicate something that cannot be reduced to information to be shelved in the Big Database of the Possible Real. When something is not conductive to art and people keep being frustrated and hampered by it, they still have integrated that information into their externalized (defused) internality, and any incompatible is their problem.
As the hammer of self-healing and positive vibes only lands, the answer is obvious:
“This has not helped us, but clearly it is the best thing.”
Issues are inevitable when art meets content, when being encounters information. The problems will always exist, but that is where expression can communicate through the proces of artistic emergence. But because that is negative, that can never be acknowledge; so there come the many variations of these words and sentiments.
“You know orcs are not real, right?”
*raises hands in defeat*
Again, things cannot be more than what is observed through “transparency”. Everything is information that can be put into transparency; the only relations that are real are the ones that can be build models about from that. You see how this thing is everywhere? I cannot even continue anymore. Pick a random example, if you look at it long enough you will see it; and I bet anyone can see the problem with this one. I give up. Let’s talk some games instead, I am done with this!
Wait, what you mean “near email length limit”?
TO BE CONTINUED…
Such as trans issues, queerness, disability and who gets labeled as such, women reproductive rights, racialization, etc.
One could say that is the whole fucking points of the necropolitical power technologies.
Byung-Chul Han, The Transparency Society (2015)
This is presented as justice, friendliness, fairness, a mark of respecting the freedom of others; in truth, it is about a power mechanic about reducing everything to information that can be databased, dataseted, catalogued, etc. This is what allows all the other pieces of the psychopolitical to work. This false ideal is a to everyone’s detriment and allows the existance of an “inner panopticon”, or as other authors would put it, put the neoliberal cop inside your head ( Boal and Epstein, 1990, The Cop in the Head).
Psychopolitical moves from biopolitics from passing from information as means of surveillance to enable discipline, but the form of how active steering occurs; it models social spaces and imagination in such a “transparent” way that it sets the proper way for a soul to behave.
Felipe Melhado and Jean-Martin Rabot Sentiment Analysis: From Psychometrics to Psychopolitics (2021)
This is, of course, smart power that makes itself invisible by smiling and playing up the doors that are open to you: you are not being actively constraint, you have all freedoms, so the onus on you to reinvent yourself. No strings are pulling you, there is no violence and oppression! You only wear the chains you like and you like these chains, so they are not chains. You are free to be your own marketeer.
Luise Li Lagergaard. Neoliberalism, the entrepreneur and critique of political economy: A commentary on Sørensen’s Capitalism, Alienation and Critique (2022)
Byung-Chul Han, The Burnout Society (2010)
Bert Olivier, The psychopolitics of (and psychotherapy required by) neoliberalism (2020)
Michael Parenti, Against Psychopolitics (1992)
This imperative for self-optimization (whose onus is on you, and if you don’t self-optimize, you have a bad soul), is not about becoming more like yourself or finding fulfillment and personhood but to operate better within the hegemonic systems of oppression. It is not about the human and giving them a good life: it is about hammering the human and whatever passes for soul to fit the market.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (2008).
Striving for the awful Flow state to me is responsible with most problems on TTRPGs and I will come back to this if not later in this article, at some other point.
Braxton Soderman, Against Flow (2021)
Byung-Chul Han, The Topology of Violence (2011)
Eva Illouz, Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism (2007)
Barbara Ehrenreich, Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America (2010)
David Graeber, Utopia of Rules (2016)
Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989)
Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility (2018)
Edward Said, Representations of the Intellectual (1993)
Do not work for their pitched/claimed purpose. These systems do what they aim to accomplish pretty well.
McKenzie Wart, Gamer Theory (2007)
And we have at great length at how it required the rise of constructivism and social epistemology to experience a rebirth amidst capitalism in other articles.
After all, there is an inherent contradiction of deploying the negative violence adverse technology of power to defend negative violence; it is meant to shut you up and stop thinking.