Can spiritual concepts be applied to videogames – the case of the apophatic
In his article Videogame consumption: The apophatic dimension, Tom Brock of Manchester Metropolitan University writes about videogame players true motivations through two perspectives. He refers to his views on positive and negative mindsets regarding gaming as ‘apophatic’ and ‘cataphatic’. Traditionally understood ‘apophatic’ means defining something by what it is not, and ‘cataphatic’ means defining something by what it is. What he aims to do with this conceptualisation of a new videogame consumption theory is to challenge the existing notions of gamers being more activistic, rational-pleasure seekers. He suggests that actually the value drawn from games by the consumers can come through experiencing failure in games, and from their other more negative, almost spiritual aspects.
When typically the pleasures of gaming are seen to come from the sense of achievement and success by mastering in a game, Brock seeks to establish with his theory, that consumers derive value just as much through some of the more conflictual and profound challenges the games present. In the ‘cataphatic’ sense, players have been seen are as being provided a way to control their moods and emotions through playing videogames. He refers to Molesworth and Denegri-Knott (2007), who argued that “videogame consumers use virtual collectable items as a way to control, order and make-sense of the ‘liminality’ in their lives”. By liminality they mean the players are stuck between two stages of life. If the modern world no longer offers rewarding work or the fulfilling of life opportunities needed to give people a sense of meaning, they will turn to videogames for a sense of control.
In the apophatic sense then, the players lose control and face failure, yet enjoying it despite frustrations. Brock quotes Juul (2013) by stating that more than disliking failing, the players dislike not failing. Obviously game design must be in a reasonable balance, eg. puzzles, challenges and enemies must be able to be overcome. The players understand the arbitrariness of the game, and that it is designed. Failure in a game is never final. However, when facing the unknown challenges of a game, the players give up their sense of agency and control, when introduced to a new obstacle. Even in the Dark Souls games, having to start over after several hours of playing, it is still possible to start over. No matter the level of frustration and despair, the game hardens the spirit of the player. As quoted by Brock, one reviewer of Dark Souls said: “By the end, I understood that making mistakes was not just acceptable, it was essential.
The article then discusses ‘dark play’, which refers to a more cathartic view of playing. Citing Mäyrä (2015), ‘dark play’ refers to for example children playing LEGO games, happily destroying the environments and watching the characters in the game ‘dying’ in various ways. Although bloodless, this way of playing offers players, children and adults alike, ways to explore the morality of violence and death by humorous means.
To conclude, Brock has tried to show that videogame consumption is not only motivated by positive experiences or expectations, but also by the negative form of thinking, the ‘apophatic’. If games are seen in a more oblique way, where players must go through disappointment, failure and frustration to eventually succeed, they can be seen as potentially more spiritual, where even transcendence can be experienced.