Games are Dreams

Okay, bear with me for a bit. I’m going to pull some crazy literary theory shit.

There’s this one famous footnote that Freud added to one of his books, Interpretation of Dreams, years after it was originally published. The gist of the footnote is this: “Hey, everybody, quit assuming that EVERYTHING in dreams is a symbol for something!” Freud thought that dreams had two layers of meaning: the obvious meaning (what was going on in the dream, on the surface) and the ‘latent’ meaning, which is all the stuff that is symbolized on the dream—the meaning under-the-surface that we always think about when someone says ‘Freud’. Freud said we should, basically, quit getting so overly-Freudian on our dreams. He said that we should try to find the ‘dream-work,’ or the combined meaning of the surface and latent elements of the dream. Instead of just saying, “oh, this obviously symbolizes this,” we should say, “when we take all the surface elements into consideration alongside the symbols, what does the whole of this dream actually mean?” I like to think of it in terms of vector math:

So, dreamwork is what you get when you add the rest of the stuff together equally. It’s what the dream is pointing at.

Now, the only people in the universe who still take Freud pretty seriously are literary theorists, and they don’t even take all of him seriously. I have an awesome professor right now who studies comics, and he uses dream-work to understand comics and graphic novels: “When we combine the effects produced by both the surface and the symbolic aspects, what’s the work of this comic? What is it actually pointing at?” It works very well because comics are filled with icons and symbols, and are very fertile grounds for both latent and obvious meaning.

I like to think about games this way, too. When you combine all the stuff that is in a game—the obvious stuff, like the art and the script and the mechanics, and then all the ‘latent’ stuff, like “how does this control scheme influence the way I think about the game?” or “what’s special about the actions the game makes me perform?” or “what does this game assume about its audience?” or “how did the game’s creators establish its tone and mood?” and so on, it helps you to get a more complete and holistic idea of what’s actually going on in the game you’re playing—what’s special about it, and what it’s doing to your brain. And because games are a bit like dreams, the comparison works.

Anyway: have you ever had a moment where you feel particularly conscious of a game’s latent content? The moment I would cite is probably when, while playing Don’t Look Back for the first time, I suddenly became hyperconscious of the way I normally play platformers, and realized what DLB was doing to force me to change that. The nuke moment in Modern Warfare was also pretty effective in this way. It made me suddenly conscious of what kind of agency I expect to have in a FPS, and, in taking that agency away, attempted to express its political message on a kind of subconscious level. What else could have made me want to shoot those renegade Russians so badly? They’d killed me, Anakin-Skywalker-style, once already!

And what about the gamework—have you ever tried to explain the essential essence of a game to a friend, only to get caught up stumbling over words because games are actions, not words, and it’s hard to heal that breach? I feel like the writers who are best able to talk about a game’s work are the ones who write artistically– who try to articulate gamework through the language of metaphor. Tim Rogers’ recent God Hand article does this brilliantly: the final paragraph is so clever that I cannot read it without being ashamed of myself. There are some NGJ pieces out there that I think really make a serious grab at expressing gamework, too—Quinns’ piece on Wurm Online was scary as hell. It made me feel that through this game I could suddenly understand the essential wickedness of man or some shit, even though I hadn’t even played it yet and don’t believe in the essential wickedness of man.

I wish that I’d have been able to articulate this concept back when I’d been studying games for school. It would have solved so many pointless arguments about what the ‘most important part’ of a game is, or ‘what makes game X different form game Y,’ or ‘what is the point of game genre X’—those are all ultimately very rocky ways to think about games. I feel like we should be encouraging each other to look at what games are pointing at, too. Games are like prefab dreams—which is simultaneously awesome and pretty spooky.