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Power Fantasies (Part 3) - Act 2
I want to get off Mr. Bones' ride, but I already got the season pass
This article is the second act of an article on psychopower and how it manifests into our art-form, whose first part you can find here. This article itself is part of a long-spawning series on technologies of power and the fantasies they shape, which has previously touched necropolitics and biopolitics.
Finally, let’s go down to psychopolitics within games. Remember the key-principle: psychopower uses self-actualization, permissiveness and transparency so you “willingly” become the desired entrepreneur-project1.
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This is not of games, as systems, having to deal with variability while preserving its identity; some attenuation is essential, as a game has to be about something. The crucial difference in psychopolitical games is that the game is not subject to these attenuating forces; instead attenuation is applied to you.
The psychopolitical game seeks to manufacture its audience; it must make you into its created player2. At the same time, the game that fulfills the psychopolitical power fantasy is one where you can become more fulfilled through toxic healing, self-hate and hammering yourself into that fitting shape.
Failure-State of You
Pyschopolitical games have an odd relationship with failure and the role you play in it. This was just meant to be a small footnote, but it devolved into an entire different article, whose assumptions I will carry into this one.
What you are not able to do is an important aspect of vulnerability, which allows bounding with what is outside of our experiences. Psychopowered games have a strange fascination with Failure. Outside of games, in our psychopolitical world, you are the solo actor of an ongoing project. As such, failure is your responsibility; so when you fail the onus is on you. You did not work enough on yourself to succeed.
If psychopower had its way, games would have the same soul cop shit permeate them, reducing most of “game design” to different ways to rewrite “Do This” and “Do Not Do This” over and over — but be permissive and Yes And, no bummer or negative feelings when doing these two imperative directives. However, the tensions and contradictions affect how games actually manifest the ubiquitous psychopower film. Because everyone involved is themselves an entrepreneur/project complex captured by permissive transparency, artists, when making a game under psychopower, struggle with psychopower even when one is unaware of it — just as much as they reproduce it. The struggle allows for more than simple reproduction of the unexamined psychopolitical, producing games with strange relationships between failure and you.
Games create gamespaces where psychopolitics work as promised. To deliver that experience, games have to refuse to acknowledge failure; but they cannot have a healthy, material, problematized relationship with it: games where psychopower actually delivers in its promises must celebrate failure. Celebrating it manifests in many forms of design and play: story still progresses, the game expects you to fail, failure is the desired state, you are not punished by failure, failing forward, etc3. It needs to replace what outside of the game would have been punished as a failure of transparency and/or self-management that needs to be corrected by the exclusion of you from the Game of the Real. That’s the fantasy these games deliver, that is the promise of the psychopolitical that can be repaid in games.
Sometimes a game is so aware of the psychopolitical connection with failure that it makes real the lie every entrepreneur wants to believe: you cannot fail, you can only be failed. Psychopower makes entrepreneurs-whose-life-is-an-ongoing-project of us all, so there is much appeal in a message “If you fail, it is because Someone, Some Other, made you fail.” This, besides hiding many of the reasons why you fail that cannot be sublimated into toxic positivity or self-healing, creates an antagonistic stance against the Other. It goes without saying how exclusionary that is, but there is a much more harmful aspect nurtured by such toxic positivity deployed to redirect the required enmity towards you.
Failure is an essential form of expression. When encountering the Other, as mentioned previously in this discussion of this power fantasy, to form the bond you need the vulnerability only afforded by failure to “integrate” or “compute” the Other as a known-entity — as an external Self. Success is how you possess, know and integrate the Other: this closes you off to love, condemns you to the inferno of the Same that the transparency and permissive control of psychopower desires from all. If failure is a consequence of the agency of the Other, they are a variable to exert power over for your enjoyment; they exist only in so far as your pleasure demands4.
And the loneliness of the inferno of the same is delivered, even in the fantasy of the psychopolitical. When failure is seen as maliciousness — either from you being unwilling to improve yourself and/or the Other conspiring against your identity-project, — rather than necessary for vulnerability, then no bonds, love or community can emerge. And thus so many toxic positivity games that claim to be about such things fail.
Agency and Who Gets To Play
Games are an art-form defined by agency5; this is especially true for TTRPGs: collaborative storytelling requires communication and transformation that can only be socially construed — there is absolutely no space in TTRPGs for the bourgeois artiste6; to labor in the art-form socially is the artform. Anything else is accessory or peripheral.
Everyone involved in the art-form contribute to the collaborative storytelling nature of TTRPGs through exercitation of their agency, developing autonomy and transforming themselves through the artistic process. Asynchronous collaborators — game designers and similar artists — explore their own agency and create a game-space through manipulation of goals, rules, an environment and the seeds of a culture. Players then take this game-space and make their own in an active, dynamic form, using it as tools to make our own art and experiencing that transformation by voluntarily stepping into the shoes of said goals, rules and environments; choosing to make them a real construct through the synchronal social play.
In the first part of our discussion of psychopower, we briefly touched how gamification is a tool of psychopolitics. Psychopower works by making you the entrepreneur in absolute control of the project of your life; but as a technology of power, it has to actively constrain the forms of your agency. That is the process of gamification: making not-games, that are not-agency, but selling you on it through the illusion that you have the agency granted by the art-form of games. After all, how would it work otherwise? Games need agency to work as games7. Well of course, these are not-games; so they work what they aim to do: control.
Okay, but how does that control works? Well, games are a social process and as I mentioned many time, games are game-space systems of rules which we voluntarily choose to accept. To socially collaborate in the art-form you need to subject yourself to rule systems, from both synchronous and asynchronous partners: because for it to be art-form of agency, you need to be willing to restrain it in order to socially create a communal agency for collaboration and social knowledge to happen. To be able to make use of agency requires compromising what that agency can take shape as.
To put it short, for us to do things with games, we have to let games do things to us. That’s how gamification works: it presents not-games and let’s us surrender our agency to the terms set to it, has us voluntarily surrender ourselves to its rules, and then only lets us have agency when all the ways we can exert that agency are the ways it desires8. Psychopower: exerted; soul: managed.
But alas, there is one thing about dominant ideology; they soak back. The non-game/game-like elements have crept back into games. If you play video-games, you don’t need me to tell you how game-like they have become, where most economic dominant agents seek only to implement gamefied life-services rather than, you know, agential art-forms — aka, games. TTRPGs themselves are not immune.
The “most innovative”, “groundbreaking” and other buzzwords TTRPG games are not games per see but non-games/game-likes. Just like the other gaming art-forms, they “innovate” by taking something external and gamifying it. They take a HR management procedures, play scripts and/or concept albums, gamefy it and present it to you “Behold, a TTRPG”. They are not interested in the conversation of art, on its transformative potential; they abhor the idea of having you as a collaborator with their own agency, that the game is “played” is a disgusting prospect they have to endure for the gamification to work9. But it will do, and once your values are captured10, until all your agency can be has been reduced to theirs, that is interested in the HR soulcoppery, the performing of the play they wrote or listening in silence sending text messages as you listen to their concept album, sure, look how free you are to act on your agency! Some scores and metrics here, character progression there, some card drawing or dice rolling, not to get you going as the active social collaborator of the art-form but to convince you there is a game to play here. At best, these game-likes are just performance pieces being done at you, not involving you; at best your presence here is tolerated.
It goes without saying how much this limits who gets to play, and who gets to be a player, and how they get to play.
Picklists: From Inclusive Invitation to Exclusionary Management
Picklists are a perfect innocent piece of tech that has been slowly turned into a perfect example of pyschopower deployed within the art-form of TTRPGs.
They started simple enough, as a letter of introduction: a list can be a pretty evocative way to get people to fill the gaps, convey setting and tone with one word or sentence. It had appeal as effective use of language and was quite successful when one was designing tools that made use of negative space: most of the work of picklists is done by you imagining what or does not belong in that list.
That use of negative design space is what made many people realize that what was really powerful was what is not in a picklist. Thus, picklists became popular as invitations for you to add to the list what you don’t see there but feel that it belongs to. Masks’ reminds you there are non-Caucasian superheroes; Dream Askew’s creates what is like in the queer enclave beyond and invites you to reimagine gender. They are there to inform you this is fertile soil, inviting you to plant a seed there and see how it goes through the art-form.
Subject it to over a decade of psychpower domination over human life. Those same properties of picklists make them powerful vehicles for the permissive psychopolitical control. The picklist proposes to you to pick who you are or who you want to be real for this performance of the art-form; where it once was an inclusive invitation, it now uses what-belongs-here negative space to exclusionary management. You sure you belong here? Do you see yourself here? What is your problem that you feel like you need to change this picklist that does not seem to have a problem with including everyone else? Why do not you fit into this database-narrative? For example, whas is wrong with you, when a queer game bends over to accommodate cishet dudes and you still cannot see your queerness in the choices given to you?
You are not the right type of player we want for this; fix yourself or leave.
So, this is a powerful way to create your audience. Not in the algedonic sorting way of complexity and variability attenuating, but by shaping the audiences into the desired one. Where this psychopower application goes the extra length is using the permissive guise and transparency goals to take picklists to the next level. Pick what applies to you and what does not. Or rather, identify what problems you have to fix. This is a test. In which it is actually pretty normal to get a good score, and impossible to get.
And then the picklist ends up making a game of you being hammered into the shape the game wants you to be.
Cozy Mandatory Self-Denial
There is a lot of focus on the subject of “community” in contemporary design within the TTRPG art-form; it is something everyone desires, something which the psychopolitical society is beret of, and — due to the unique collaborative storytelling features of this art-form — necessary for the social knowledge formation that makes TTRPGs possible. However, art is not made in the vacuum; when there is no “TTRPG community”, it is no surprise with the people that inhabit that psychopolitical construct that wears the leathery stripped skin of actual community to have it warp the art they and their tools create. No bummer zones, toxic positivity, self-healing punishment, false permissiveness, transparency policing, etc11.
All the psychopower toys are across TTRPG games; a coffer so full there is no space for what makes a community: love as a series of overlapping relationships. How can a game without space to be the Other ever achieve those? How can a game seek to deliver community soaked in psychopower, when it is undesirable to the background ideology and said technology of control?
Love requires one to put aside the self and elevate those loved above themselves. All kinds of love require some element of self-denial; it is not just what feels good and what others can do for you. This capacity for love, this capacity to engage in self-denial to know love, is essential to build bonds and relationships; these connections are what make communities12.
Psychopower hates communities; it cannot thrive where those exist13. But that self-denial shit? They love it. So it flips it in its head and it becomes “You must love self-denial to be worthy of love.” Self-denial becomes the point, and the requirement for love passes for love. Love becomes being an enemy of you.
To put it bluntly: for you to be part of a “community”, be of players of this game, “TTRPG community” or any subset of it, you need to do self-denial and be okay with a lot of things — you need to “be normal”. But that’s it, that is where it begins and ends: that self-denial is conflated as the only component of love. This includes saying you love a game you never played, taking the self-denial to be part of the “community” and deserving of love, or more literally in games and their mechanics. For example, in Cozy Town, there is no space for negativity, and if you have some — well, even if you are not enthusiastic enough, if your positivity is not effusive enough — you are given less agency over the game and self-exiled from the “community” of play.
This trap is coated with the honey of narcissism passing as self-love. Remember, technologies of power favor the unexamined hegemony: if you are aligned with the hegemony, you will be rewarded with the Same — you, repeated forever. Narcissistic feelings will pass as self-love as you can safely “deny yourself”, knowing you are not really doing that — a “you” will be presented, nevertheless. You are never failing to reproduce the fixed, permitted, transparent “you” you are allowed to you; you are never given the opportunity to experience the Other. Your “no bummers” zone will never be distressed by encountering an Other: the psychopolitical functions made sure those people would feel uncomfortable, unwelcomed and channeled away to fix themselves.
The TL;DR of this is that psychopower cannot offer you love, because, like everything else psychopolitical, the enemy is You and it exerts its work in reducing the entire world of the possible to an isolated you. You are not even allowed to perceive the fundamental truth: the crisis of love and inability to form community is because the Other disappears more and more from our lives.
Games About Hating You
The entire premise of psychopower bases itself in a promise of relief that it cannot grant: under capitalism you are forever either a debtor or in default. Psychopower avoids actually delivering said relief by throwing crisis after crisis at you, testing your ability to contract and replay debts, and when you default with burnout, depression, etc, telling you to fix yourself to keep playing. Relief is just over the next grind.
Psychopower games promise that jubilee: you can keep paying those debts and never burnout. Which, even when the game is great, leaves you with this weird feeling the game hates you and you are being played14.
Starting with one that is not so subtle: Blades in the Dark wallows in the psychopolitical, and as such holds nothing but contempt for the you that interacts with it through individualized characters. It dangles the promise of retiring into landlord petit bourgeoisie in front of your character, and lets them be entrepreneur/projects that pour themselves into jobs, crew, turf, projects, heat management, etc. But your character will not make it; while the crew fulfills the fantasy, your character is utterly expendable, internalizing violence until they burnout into Trauma until they are no more. It is as a game, a transparent reproduction of how psychopower works and, as such, openly hates you. The fantasy, of course, is that despite chewing you into nothing, somehow psychopower will not take away your achievements. Those clocks will remain filled even when you are ash.
While Blades in the Dark is obvious in its presentation as a game about the psychopolitical with psychopolitical disregard for burnout, some games are equally crass about it while being coy about their presentation. Hard to picture a better example than Numenera/Cypher system, or just the entire role of Monte Cook in the shaping of what agency looks in the art-form of TTRPGs. Numenera and to a lesser degree the entire Cypher system is a psychopower take on the biopower of Cook’s “Ivory Tower Design”: non-magic users will have a bad time, the game hates them, and they are bad on purpose so games learn that they should play a caster and/or rely on magic items more than their characters’ abilities. While the early 2000s adventurer-conquistador genre was very negative in how conveying that, Numenera is the toxic positivity of hammering you until you abandon all those ideas of not playing a magic-user and getting the ivory tower inside your head15.
But perhaps no games excel more at making a game of hating you than the game that does not let you meaningfully play a game16. When you sit around listening to a soundtrack for one hour in silence, flipping cards towards a conclusion you cannot move; when you are handed a cast of dramatis personae, a series of scripts and have the selection between scripts done by boorish mini-games that care not for you: when you could not be there and the outcome of the game would be used. It is not hating you through a character like the previous examples; it is hating you for being there as a game piece.
There is no form of hate more dehumanizing than treating you as a useless and/or interchangeable part of the game-like machine. Soul managed into an energy resource or waste product.
No Bummer Zones
Violence does not disappear just because you say so. Psychopower society makes a big show of being against violence, but all it does is cover it up by making it internalized, psychologized and all-around invisible17. Negative violence is abhorred when revealed by the alleged transparency in “no bummer” spaces.
It is the same in our games, with games celebrated for their hostile attitude towards negative violence, while authors, games and players that explore in their gamespaces negative violences are derided, or even denied-personhood as this is deemed as a failure to self-heal and self-actualize. However, counterbalancing this extreme attitude against negative violence, there is little to be said about the positive violence; in fact, that is often embraced in games: overachievement, overproduction, overcommunication, hyperattention, and hyperactivity.
Negative violence is pushed to the camp-form of necropolitics: to the non-place where the non-people live, so it is really violence and do I even need to pretend to care? The pressure of violence becomes internal for the project/entrepreneur you. You exploit yourself until you burnout.
Games that are no bummer zones offer the fantasy of you being able to exploit yourself without ever burning out: you can keep producing, externalizing your inner self, keep doing things, keep doing things, always being doing things, never having to stop. It fulfills this fantasy and never stops to consider how harmful this violence is: keep doing things. Rest, inaction and all the rest are instead the means for you to be able to do more things.
An odd quirk of this is that psychopolitical games, especially “no bummer” ones, cannot imagine designing for an ending. Oh sure, they may have options for retiring characters, but keep tempting with “oh there is so much more you could achieve”; they tend to be played as one-shots, but that is an external pressure upon the game that only further prevents it from confronting it inability to just end. The psychopolitical game is one that would you just keep you strapped to its engine, forever producing and achieving, without ever getting permission to stop as the “excuse” of burnout is removed. Instead, it lets outsider “real” burnout do its job. If not for these other reasons of your life, you could play this game forever.
These gamespaces hold immense critical potential; however, replicating psychopower uncritically and fulfilling its broken promises within, they serve only as a way to perpetuate the unexamined, internalized psychopolitical tools carved into your soul.
Rolling for Therapy
One cannot go one week in the artform without some mainstream statement about the therapeutic value of a game or, more worrisome, of games as literal therapy. Beyond causing migraines to mental health specialists, it raises many questions about the use given to this art-form18. For our purpose today, this is quite revealing, not about the nature of TTRPGs or therapy, but the uses and contempt psychopower has for either.
Therapy has been co-opted by psychopower as the ideal form of self-healing. The band-aid when transparency reveals to be inadequate or when burnout renders you unable to perform self-improvement; get in, get out and produce. When people talk casually about TTRPGs — or peripheral art — as therapy, they speak of them having the same ability as band-aid: the performance of managing and addressing psychopower demands of positive self-improvement19. Looking at what we been talking about, it is easy to see why: it reassures you in your position as entrepeneur-whose-self-is-an-ongoing-project, rather than destructive failure is an accepted state and/or blamed on the Other, where burnout is impossible and the self-denial you must endure actually pays off.
While I will invite a guest author to further elaborate on psychology and TTRPGs and self-healing permissive technologies of power for another article, one thing is apparent even to me, so let’s say it before moving over:
Games that embrace psychopower may not be therapy, but do perform the same functions that psychopower demands from therapy. In this way, they are more like Human Resources, using the same soul management language.
Will finish next time with what does all this mean to the art-form, and how can a fish imagine a world without water; we will talk about how the art-form can benefit from becoming more aware of psychopower. And we will also do a post-mortem of the entire Power Fantasies series.
Byung-Chun Han, Psychopolitics (2017)
Shira Chess, Ready Player Two (2017)
This is why a conclusion like on the quoted article on Failure, that failure only makes sense when discussing desired game states, and thus should be something that a game should strive to avoid, came like a fresh revelation when it is such a at-face-value obvious statement.
Emmanuel Levinas, Time and the Other (1987)
C. Thi Nguyen, Games: Agency As Art (2020)
Alexander Bogdanov, Art and the Working Class (2022)
Immersion, or rather, what is colloquially called “immersion” comes at cost of agency, besides not being a real thing — or rather, an useless thing that does not do in game what it claims it does. But that is another article.
Adrian Hon, You've Been Played: How Corporations, Governments, and Schools Use Games to Control Us All (2022)
Ian Bogost, Why Gamification is Bullshit (2014)
Monetary and otherwise.
Eva Illouz, Happycracy: How the Industry of Happiness controls our lives (2018)
Byung-Chun Han, The Agony of Eros (2017)
Who would take self-healing, self- improvement, self-flagellation, self- therapy, self-actualization when they could take all of those communally? Who would take the fake individual freedom over the freedom the integration in a community actually confers?
Because you are, not necessarily in the game or by the game.
Thankfully, Monte Cook has mellowed a lot about his ivory tower and despite deploying a psychopower version of it, it is much less controlly about it. However, the legacy of ivory tower in this art-form has been quite damaging and has long outgrown him.
The ones that do that as their intention and have design to facilitate that. The ones that do that accidentally get a pass (on this and only this).
Byung-Chun Han, Topography of Violence (2018)
How helpful/harmful it even is? What responsibilities one hold as collaborating in art used for therapeutically uses? How can other people even engage with this safely? How many people seek this from games without seeking consent and participation from other players?
Rather than the actual proven benefits of TTRPGs, just like other artistic endeavours, in therapeutical environments: Varrete et al., Exploring the efficacy of cognitive behavioral therapy and role-playing games as an intervention for adults with social anxiety (2022); Abbott et al., Table-top role-playing games as a therapeutic intervention with adults to increase social connectedness (2021); Bean and Connell, The Rise of the Use of TTRPGs and RPGs in Therapeutic Endeavors (2023).