Dancing with the Modern Grotesque

War, work, play and ritual in the run-and-gun First Person Shooter

Published in Italian as:

Klevjer, Rune (2006) “Danzando con il Grottesco Moderno. Guerra, lavoro, gioco e rituale nei First Person Shooter run-and-gun” in Matteo Bittanti (ed.) "Gli strumenti del videogiocare. Logiche, estetiche e (v)ideologie", Costa & Nolan, Milano, pp. 223-249.

[return to Rune Klevjer]

This essay aims to give a theoretical discussion of the aesthetics of the single-player First Person Shooter. Following Doom (1993), the dominant strand of the FPS single-player genre has been a series of relatively simple, linear and spectacular run-and-gun adventure-shooters. The biggest commercial and genre-defining successes include Quake (1996), Unreal (1998) and Half Life (1998) for the PC, and GoldenEye 007 (1997), Medal of Honor (1999) and Halo (2001) for the consoles. Although these games are quite different from each other – each contributing to and developing the genre in their own way – they do form a distinct category in contrast to other strands within the FPS genre, notably the tactical FPS and FPS/RPG-hybrids like System Shock (1994) and Deus Ex (2000).

It seems that in the public debate, the archetypical First Person Shooter has become the epitome of everything that is negative with computer games. Doom and its followers do not only serve as handy examples of mindless and brain-numbing macho-entertainment par excellence - they also seem dangerously violent, aggressive and destructive. The question of their ‘effect’ on young minds, in empirical terms, is not my concern here. I want to ask how the mindless shooter becomes attractive and meaningful in a cultural context. By discussing how generic forms of mastery and fantasy relate to more general practices of work, war, play and ritual, I hope to be better able to situate the game-world within the real world, and shed some light on the interface between pleasure, ideology and modernity. Is there a cultural and ideological relevance to the FPS-fantasy beyond primitive notions of male superiority, expansion and violence?

What I want to argue in the following is that a standard run-and-gun FPS requires the player to be at once very primitive and very civilized, indulging simultaneously in the pleasures of violent excess and civilized work. Drawing on a range of theoretical models – from Roger Caillois to the British paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald W. Winnicott - I suggest some possible interpretations of this ambiguity. On the one hand, the primitive and the civilized together add up to a spectacular and modern-ritualistic celebration of modern violence and power. On the other hand, this celebration is constructed around cultural contradictions, parody and play, and does not seem to be entirely defined by traditionally militaristic and imperialist ideologies. Following a conceptual model from Victor Turner I argue that the FPS-aesthetic delineates a liminal space of techno-romantic power-play, a space where dominant ideologies are celebrated and negated. Adding a more psychoanalytical perspective, I also suggest that the on-rails, repetitive and ritualistic dimension of the game aesthetic represents an exclusively modern form of regressive pleasure. The individual is given the opportunity to engage intensely with the grotesque and destructive dimensions of modernity, in a ritualistic dance of spectacle, power and powerlessness.

The single-player aesthetic

In Doom, all the basic building-blocks of the arcade action game are in place, including hordes of enemies against a lone hero, repetitive action, and an arsenal of powerful weapons, escalating throughout the game in pace with the accelerating force of the opposition. However, the game takes this action into a textured and consistent 3-dimensional game world, making the excess less abstract and more visceral. The first-person camera highlights the disorientating action and the thrill of movement, as well as making aiming fast and effective in a 3-dimensional game-world. The hand with the gun is always up-close in the frame, ensuring loud and spectacular gunplay. Because this hand is fixed in relation to the framing of the first-person perspective (as if mounted to a subjective camera, immovable), the gunpoint will always be at the centre of the player's vision. Looking and targeting comes together in the same movement, and the player is invited to follow his gun.

A more appropriate term for the run-and-gun shooter would be the ‘First Person Shooter Adventure’. Unlike the squad-based, tactical shooters, the FPS-Adventure is a sub-genre of the wider category of action-adventure. Doom, Half-Life and Halo all share the basic structure of an adventure story. Much like the Platform game, which was the dominating action-adventure genre at the time, Doom was structured as a linear adventure of exploration and conquest, placing various resources along the way (health, ammo, weapons, power-ups), and simple puzzles as obstacles to entering new areas.

As generic narrative fiction, the adventure not only structures the play in a typical way (as a game of exploration and conquest), it also gives the mimetic dimension itself a potentially much more dominating role within the game. Like the modern novel, the game-quest of the adventure story is especially designed for solitary pleasure - unlike the majority of games in the world, which are by definition a social activity. In this respect, the single-player computer game is a typical expression of the digital computer as a technological form. The digital computer is a procedural and performative machine, which can mimic the actions of another player. It can play. It is this technological invention that has opened up the possibility for a play-form that adopts and radically re-interprets a kind of solitary spectatorship that was first established with the modern novel.

In a single-player adventure, the role of the absent other player is taken over by the design of the story-game. The solitary play enabled through this design is more defined and restricted than when playing against other players, which is a more open and free-form type of play.

In single-player Doom, violent combat is taken away from the gladiator arena and adapted to fit the linear, progressive model of the adventure story. In this perspective, the multiplayer variant was just a release of the savage warrior - let back into his natural habitat, so to speak.

The ambiguity of excessive play

In his influential meta-study The ambiguitiy of Play (1997), play-theorist Brian-Sutton Smith sets up a general theoretical framework for how people talk about play and games. The overwhelmingly dominant strand of play researchers, according to Sutton-Smith, share a fundamental interest in rationality and human development, and consequently frame their work within what he calls a ‘rhetoric of progress’. In contrast, his own theoretical project in Ambiguities of Play seems to be an anti-rationalist or anti-progressivist one. The book can be read as a broad and well-informed critique of the assumption that play – animal and human - must be understood as a form of growth and adaptation to the requirements of life. His concern is to explore the various discourses that emphasise the irrationality of play – including childrens play, adult play and animal play. A typically irrational rhetoric of play is what he broadly identifies as the ‘rhetoric of fate‘, most directly applicable to gambling and other games of chance. The general idea is that people play because they must play, responding to a kind of external, obsessive force that reflects the playful nature of gods, the universe or our own brains. For a modern and secular version of this rhetoric of irrationality, Sutton-Smith refers to child play theorist Erik Erikson, who defines play as “to hallucinate ego mastery” (Sutton-Smith 1997: 54).

“The rhetoric of power” focuses on play as the expression of conflict and power. Because it places the gun in the central position of the universe – both perceptually and symbolically – the FPS can indeed be seen as the ultimate form of masculine power-play. There are, Sutton-Smith argues, two main ‘rhetorics’ about the meaning of power-play, two different cultural histories of masculine competition - and consequently two different conceptualisations of violence in play. On the one hand, it can be argued, macho competition is an outlet of brute testosteron, of irrational, mythical and disorderly forces. On the other hand, these forms of violent excess are rational and rule-governed. Following Johan Huizinga’s classical ‘apology’ of play, Homo ludens: A study of the play element in culture (1955 [1949]), the FPS-adventure can indeed be read as an enactment of rational power-play, an example of the competitive ‘play principle’ in culture. To Huizinga, the effort to assert superiority in skill and mastery is the same agonistic principle that has fuelled the development of politics, law and art in our societies.

Certainly, there is no inherent contradiction between rational competition and violent, spectacular play. However, Huizinga’s approach does not provide much answer to the question of how playing an FPS might be different from other competitive play forms. Homo ludens does not try to interpret the appeal of excess and primitive violence in modern play.

Roger Caillois’ main critique of Huizinga in Man, Play and Games (2001) is that the reductive abstraction into just one unifying principle means that the diversity and scope of actual forms of play is not paid attention to. Caillois’ alternative is to analyse the historical relationship between different types of games and the development of modern civilization. His central argument is that at any point in history, the diversity and structure of play-forms within the separate realm of play acts as a mirror of the serious business of economy and culture. Certain types of games have developed in correspondence with the emergence of civilization. Culture can be read from its games. It is as a part of this wider theoretical project Caillois constructs his now well-established typology of play-principles. Agon (competition) and alea (chance) are the building-blocks of rule-based games, which are ultimately civilized forms of play. Mimicry and vertigo, on the other hand, are principles of play that were dominant in the primitive past of our modern societies. They do still have a place in modern societies, admits Caillois, but cannot easily be combined with rule-based and more sophisticated forms of play – in particular not with games that are strongly competitive.

Although recognising that mimicry has developed into highly civilized forms of art, Caillois makes great effort to explain how dangerous to culture the potential combination of mimicry (or ‘simulation’) and vertigo can be (2001: 81ff). The two principles live in a natural symbiosis in traditional and religiously based cultures, taking the forms of various ecstatic rituals and festivals. The gradual suppression of this wild, trance-like, and unruly form of play is one of the distinctive marks of the civilizing process. This suppression runs parallel with the development of more complex and rule-based play, games in which the principles of agon and alea co-exist under the laws of numerical rigidity. Pure forms of vertigo (as found in amusement parks) are in modern societies nothing more than harmless outlets for the majority of simple-minded people. They are necessary residues from pre-modern times, preventing the regressive influence of the more dangerous mimicry-vertigo-combination.

In this perspective, Doom stands out as a remarkably uncivilized game. Caillois gives a quite striking description of this strongly mimetic and sense-assaulting type of play:

Games involving glass, special effects, and ghosts all lead to the same result – the creation of a fictional world in desired contrast with the ordinary life that is dominated by the conventional species and from which demons have been banished. The disconcerting reflections that multiply and distort the shape of one’s body, the hybrid fauna, legendary monsters, nightmarish detectives, the grafts of an accursed surgery, the sickly horror of embryonic gropings, larvae, vampires, automatons, and Martians (for everything that is strange or disturbing is of use here), supplement on another level the wholly physical thrill by which the vertiginous machines momentarily distorts one’s sensory stability (Caillois, 2001 [1961]: 135).

Caillois’ way of identifying in modern entertainment some distinctively pre-modern forms of culture finds general resonance in psychology as well as in cultural and literary theory. Due in large part to the influences of Edmund Freud and Mikhail Bakhtin, bodily and sensory vulgarity and excess has come to be associated with the forces of the pre-modern, or more specifically the pre-bourgeois.

However, Mikhail Bakhtin turns the implicit ideological judgments of Caillois upside down. In Rabelais and his world (1984), he celebrates the anti-authoritarian aesthetic of the carnival. The carnivalesque, according to Bakhtin, is an aesthetic of mockery, inversion and excess, grown out of the body-based and grotesque elements of popular culture in the middle ages and the renaissance. To Bakhtin, the carnivalesque is not so much a description of historical practices as it is a certain kind of spirit, an aesthetic of vulgar, popular gaiety which is identifiable in the writings of Rabelais. Central to this spirit is the appreciation of what Bakhtin labels grotesque realism, an attitude that turns the vulgarity of excrement, orifice and bodily dismemberment into a joyful affirmation of the materiality of the body.

According to Bakhtin - and in many ways echoing Caillois’ model - this affirmation of the grotesque has been suppressed and dispersed under the influence of rationalism and modernity from the seventeenth century onwards. In other words, what is destructive and dangerous to Caillois seems to be equally subversive and life-affirming to Bakhtin. Although he does not address to the same extent the specific activity of vertigo-like play, he takes his clues from the same pre-modern and cyclical practices of ritual, festivity and play, and contrasts them with practices and perceptions defined by the linear, rational progress of modernity.

The operator

However, Doom is not all about spectacular excess. Navigation and gathering of resources are inseparable activities, unified in the same logic of kleptomaniac exploration. The player is not supposed to play around, but must dedicate effort to the serious business of exploration, colonization and careful resource management. Half-Life represents a significant development in this respect. The name of the developer, Valve, is really quite illustrative, suggesting that this is a game for the engineer as well as for the soldier.

Progressing through the game is like an exercise of rational, problem-solving, painstakingly systematic, and ultimately very civilized, work. The teleported monsters as well as the 'government marines' are placed in an environment of switches, hatches, conveyor belts, docking bays, science labs, valves (!), toxic pools, pipes, elevators, control rooms and various other industrial-scientific machinery, with a lot of operating and 'activating' to do for the adventurous player. In Half-Life, childish play has become even more firmly contained by a rationality that mimics adult work. Also, the military-style combat in the game (driven by an artificial intelligence far more advanced than in Doom and Quake) evokes a sense of realism and strategy as much as the sensation of excessive violence. Freeman is still a gladiator, but he is also a professional, a soldier-worker, who must be able to act with patience and precision. The player is asked to perform the routines of an unmistakably modern gladiator - a super-human and lethal machine.

However, the work-like tasks of the FPS-Adventure are usually not part of any intellectually challenging puzzle. Instead, they are more like simple checkpoints of navigation. The player just presses whatever buttons are placed along the linear path of the forward-moving adventure. Moreover, switch-mechanisms are quite often sequential, so that the player must repeat an identical enabling/disabling-operation on different locations. Such routine operations follow the logic of the assembly line. The player is offered the role of machine operator, mimicking the alienating kind of work that was visualised by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times.


The action-adventure FPS thus has an ambiguous relationship to real-world practices of combat and war. The spectacle of combat is on one level a reflection of real violent practices in modern societies, playing with familiar rules of tactics, movement and weapons-handling. Still, the basic appeal does not lie in any realistic simulation of the rules and challenges of real war. The games do not carry the same educational potential as squad-based shooters or management games like Civilization (1991), which frequently make the player rehearse socially useful forms of strategic and administrative intelligence. The action-adventure is too spectacular, too rigid, too grotesque and too industrial to be able to offer any significant degree of healthy, developing play. It does play with the powers of explorative and experimental rationality, but is no “adventure of civilization” in Roger Caillois’ meaning of the words.

On the other hand, neither do the excesses of the genre quite fit with Bakhtin’s notion of the carnivalesque. This is partly because there seems to have been a process of general ‘sanitation’ during the short history of the genre. This development is a sign of a broadening of the genre, as its major franchises are becoming more and more a part of mainstream entertainment. The B-film-style, dark fantasy world of Doom is not the most dominant characteristic of the genre anymore. More importantly, however: the grotesque elements of the FPS-Adventure have, with few exceptions, never included the protagonist and player-avatar. The role of a warrior-body that the player is offered represents in many ways the opposite of the grotesque as described by Bakhtin:

As we have said, the grotesque ignores the impenetrable surface that closes and limits the body as a separate and completed phenomenon (1984:??).

In the FPS, orifice and bodily dismemberment is a feature of the others, the ones who are to be annihilated - not the avatar. On the contrary, the avatar enjoys an unrivalled sovereignty and unity within the game space. The task of the player is to assert the supreme individuality of the one-man-army. Failure is when the player is not able to defend what Bakhtin describes as the modern, sovereign body:

The opaque surface and the body's "valleys" acquire an essential meaning as the border of a closed individuality that does not merge with other bodies and with the world (1984:??)

The representation of the grotesque-as-other corresponds well with how Peter Stallybrass and Allon White in The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (1986) analyse the role of the grotesque in modern societies. Their analysis is both a development and a critique of Bakhtins idea of the carnivalesque as something unambiguously pre-modern. The book is also a critique of literary theorists like Julia Kristeva, who, inspired by a Foucaultian notion of modernity and power, have made bold claims about the transgressive power of the carnivalesque within enlightened, rational technocracy.

According to Stallybrass and White, the best model for understanding the role of the carnivalesque in modern society is found in Freud’s accounts of hysteria in the Victorian bourgeoisie. However, they argue, the repression that Freud interpreted as a psychological phenomenon can more productively be interpreted as a cultural and social repression - experienced by some individuals as traumatic given specific circumstances. More importantly, repression is just one possible way of dealing with the grotesque in civilized modernity. Conceptual and emotional articulations of how human beings live their lives on the most bodily and primitive level cannot be expelled from culture, but in contrast to Victorian times, the characteristic mechanism of dealing with this today is displacement, not repression. The fascinations and fears towards the ‘lower’ strata of our bodily existence are abundantly expressed, only these cultural expressions have been given the position of the negative – and as such legitimate – Other within the discursive hierarchies of society.

This move on the behalf of the bourgeoisie means that the carnivalesque should not be understood as something that is necessarily or inherently transgressive in relation to dominant values. The grotesque has found its place as a displaced Other. It operates therapeutically as well as being a potential source of disturbance within culture. Hence – and this is my central point in relation to computer games – there is no contradiction between the carnivalesque and the modern:

The bourgeoisie, as we have seen throughout this book, is perpetually rediscovering the carnivalesque as a radical source of transcendence. Indeed that act of rediscovery itself, in which the middle classes excitedly discover their own pleasures and desires under the sign of the Other, in the realm of the Other, is constitutive of the very formation of middleclass identity (Stallybrass and White 1986:??).

Furthermore, the transgressive promise of carnivalesque representations and practices, in its seemingly celebratory negativity and marginality, is nothing more (or less) than a sleeping potential, remaining impotent as long as it does not become part of political action:

Only a challenge to the hierarchy of sites of discourse, which usually comes from groups and classes 'situated' by the dominant in low or marginal positions, carries the promise of politically transformative power (Stallybrass and White 1986:??).

It seems to me that this attempt to explain the role of the subversive within a Marxist theoretical framework (in this case, a Marxism mainly interpreted through the theories of Pierre Bourdieu) is a productive one, as far as it goes. In the action-adventure FPS, there seems to be a mutual interdependence between ‘subordinate’ and ‘dominant’ forms of culture. It is a site where the ambiguities between rational and carnivalesque perceptions of the body, so typical in many forms of popular culture, are played out to the extreme.

Riding the machine

The run-and-gun hero represents an inverted, exaggerated and grotesque version of Tom Clancy’s special-ops hero. The former can be compared to, and is commonly inspired by, the cyborgian heroes found in Sci-Fi and cyber-punk. However, this time the cyborgian attraction lies in simulated practices, not just in symbolic imagery and narrative.

The narrative framing of the FPS-Adventure ensures that a high level of information-enhancing resources can be integrated in the fictional game world. Typical is the support by some form of ‘headquarters’ or back-up unit, a powerful information and coordination centre offering a range of modern or futuristic forms of intelligence and gadgetry. Obviously, the technological enhancements of the avatar are not limited to visual resources. The amount of firepower that the avatar can resist without running out of health and armour is truly super-human. The same goes for the force and weight of the artillery that the avatar is supposed to carry and operate.

The archetype of the cyborg warrior has acquired a fundamental position within the FPS genre. Scientific-industrial and techno-futuristic environments are found in a wide range of computer games, not just the FPS, and can be seen to reflect or mirror the computerized, machine-based nature of the play form itself. Any computer game does by definition involve the challenge to master and take pleasure from the procedures of a machine, in a very physical and hands-on sense. The fantasies performed are fantasies about abilities, made possible by the representational and procedural powers of the computer. In this sense, therefore, all computer game avatars – and all computer game players – are cyborgs.

Still, the FPS does represent a quite specific articulation of the cyborgian computer game logic. The persistent leaning towards narratives of techno-fantasy finds a perceptual grounding in the tunnel-vision of the subjective camera-gun. Historically, there are interesting similarities between the technological power-play of the FPS and the attraction of the various "ride-films" from the beginning of the 20th century, which were shot with a camera mounted on the front of a train (Fielding 1983). The FPS-look is a machine-look, offering a form of pleasure not unlike the sensation of driving (or being driven by) a train, a car or an aircraft. The super-human avatar of the FPS finds strong support in this cultural tradition of machine-driven subjective cameras.

The FPS-Adventure cannot be unambiguously situated within a historical tradition of techno-scientific rationality and control. The genre also belongs to an alternative technological history, a story of magic machines and sensational joyrides. In the midst of the battle for control and mastery, there is always a contradictory dimension of loss, of being trapped by, overwhelmed by or unavoidably taken for a ride by the first-person-camera. The FPS-Adventure is – to return to Roger Caillois – a vertiginious machine, and in many ways a terrifying and disturbing one.

The archetypical FPS-adventurer absorbs the power of modern production and war. It is as if the power of civilization is residing in, or being swallowed by, the individual cyborgian hero. The player performs the role of a mythic warrior like Achilles or Odysseus (although Achilles maybe would be more the multiplayer variant). The rationalistic and techno-augmented violence of this modern Odysseus is as grotesque and spectacular as in the ancient coliseums. An inversed form of civilized challenge and mastery is celebrated – one that is mediated through a monstrous individuality. Half-Life’s Gordon Freeman is a true super-man, not from the planet of Krypton, but from the science lab at MIT.

Liminality and the ritual

Playing Doom is like speeding through a horror novel on a train, guns blazing. The structure of navigation and problem-solving is very restricted, unidirectional, and repetitive, unlike most of the fantasy role-playing games from which the game borrows the general narrative framework. The navigation through the game-space has a definite flavour of on-rails motion-ride to it, similar to many of the arcade shooters. The ‘missions’ and puzzles involved resemble routine operations in a factory. This restrictive and linear design, which puts the emphasis firmly on the atmosphere, spectacle and emotion of the forward-running shooter action, is one of the distinctive marks of the genre. The playing requires some creativity in terms of style and tactics, but in this creativity takes place on a micro-level only, and is dominated by a limited set of ‘rules of thumb’. The relative dominance of linear, repetitive and cinematic features (including the musical score) ensures the orchestration of a. The navigation through the game is orchestrated as dramatic and ritualistic performance - a trance-like dance.

In From Ritual to Theatre. The Human Seriousness of Play (1982), the anthropologist Victor Turner claims that all modern cultural practice, from experimental theatre to football, is historically related to transitional and ritual practices of liminality in traditional, cyclical societies. In rituals, performances and festivities people in traditional societies take a break from daily life, and these activities commonly involve practices of playful parody, inversion and exaggeration. The grotesque elements in liminal practices represent a principle of playful recombination:

Then the factors or elements of culture may be recombined in numerous, often grotesque ways, grotesque because they are arrayed in terms of possible or fantasied rather than experienced combinations - thus a monster disguise may combine human, animal, and vegetable features in an “unnatural” way, while the same features may be differently, but equally “unnaturally” combined in a painting or described in a tale. In other words, in liminality people “play” with the elements of the familiar and defamiliarize them. Novelty emerges from unprecedented combinations of familiar elements (Turner 1982:27).

However, Turner argues, cultural expression in large-scale and complex societies are different in nature from the liminality of cyclical, homogeneous and relatively small-scale societies. Pre-industrial liminality was a practice of affirmation, a very serious obligation to uphold the social and cosmological order through regular and temporary carnivalesque inversions. Turner suggests the term liminoid for modern and liminal-like practices that are freed from this basic ritualistic necessity. These activities and expressions are most often commodities which the consumer can choose to buy into or not. In such modern forms of expressive culture, experimental play has replaced the logic of serious work that pervaded religiously motivated rituals and festivals. Consequently, the liminoid becomes a site of critique and subversion, not affirmation.

Turner’s idea of cultural liberation is quite different from what is generally implied by Marxist cultural theory.

So far this has been almost the entire subject matter of the social sciences - people playing roles and maintaining or achieving status. (…) But full human capacity is locked out of these somewhat narrow, stuffy rooms (page 46).

To Turner, the important question about a cultural activity is not whether it is a ‘dominant’ or a ‘subordinate’ form, but to what extent it has the potential of generating new symbolic meanings. He identifies the key to all forms of symbolic invention in what he calls ludic recombination, which allows people to liberate “human capacities of cognition, affect, volition, creativity, etc.” (1982:44). In some respects this is Turner’s version of Huizinga’s ‘play element’. He also borrows Sutton-Smith’s concept of “experimentation with variable repertoires” (1982:52), and emphasises that this experimentation is “both more creative and more destructive than the structural norm” (page 47).

Drawing on this model, it is not unlikely that the FPS-Adventure upholds an otherwise marginalized space of potential symbolic innovation in culture. However, Turner admits that not all forms of play and entertainment offer much in the way of ‘ludic recombination’. Major forms of cultural expression in industrial society have developed their own protestant ethics - an ergic or work-like structure that mirrors their commodified nature across the industrialized divide between work and leisure. These professionalised and formulaic forms of cultural production “...tend more closely than the critical productions to parallel tribal myths and rituals - they are “liminal” or “pseudo-“ or “post-“ “liminal”, rather than “liminoid” (1982:40).

The FPS-Adventure absolutely qualifies as such a ‘pseudo-liminal’ form of play. It is a strictly commodified and industrially manufactured piece of entertainment software, providing an artificial realm of ritualistic performance that is both nostalgic and hyper-modern.

The ritual and the subject

Brian Sutton-Smith pays considerable attention to the ritualistic nature of play, arguing that an understanding of play must be rooted in ritual as well as in innovation (1997: 171). As he points out, the much-celebrated creativity of play is strikingly absent from dominant forms of modern play:

On both the animal and the human level, the play phenomenon is for the greater part banal and repetitive. Little girls play a game called house for years on end, and little boys play a game called trucks, while mothers do crossword puzzles every morning for thirty years and fathers either play or watch baseball or golf every day, forever (Sutton-Smith 1997: 31).

Exploring what he calls the ‘rhetorics of imagination’, he observes that ritual and repetitiveness are key components in child phantasmagoria – a category of mimetic child play that is “oriented toward irrationality as well as rationality” and is based on “a fantasy of emotional events” rather than a mimicry of events in the real world (Sutton-Smith 1997: 152, 158). The single-player FPS-Adventure would certainly fall into this category of play. It offers a strongly repetitive fantasy of action-adventure, staging violent emotional events of ‘adult phantasmagoria’.

In his book Playing and Reality (1971), Donald W. Winnicott provides a useful interpretative background to this phenomenon. His point of departure is that to a child, play is a way of negotiating the space between the subject and the object, between the child’s inner life and the objective existence of shared reality. Through playing with what Winnicott calls the transitional object, a child learns that the world (or the crucial part of it: the mother’s breast) is separate from the child itself, while at the same time discovering that this Not-me can be used. The object is not forever lost into an unattainable reality, because the child can transform the object and manipulate it. On the other hand, the object offers resistance. It is different from a dream, in the sense that it is no longer just a part of the child’s subjective reality. It stays an object, a Not-me to the child. A subject-object-relationship has been established, and if everything goes well, this relationship becomes - and continues to be through the person’s life - a creative relationship. The child’s play is the fundament for adult and creative play, as well as for cultural expression and cultural creativity in general. If a person cannot play, and cannot express herself culturally, the person is not living, because to Winnicott, living in the world (as opposed to existing and functioning in it) is defined by a creative relationship to it. Without this fundamental creativity - this fundamental power of the subject - life is meaningless. The person cannot do anything, and nothing matters.

In computer games, the creativity of play is strongly restricted by what I have elsewhere referred to as “the paradox of mimesis” (Klevjer, 2002). Entering the fantasy of James Bond, I want my actions to be real here and now as much as I want them to mimic actions from a mythic world. Consequently, I seek to find a way to actually perform, to actually do and work my way through those actions (just daydreaming about them or watching a film depicting them will not do). The dramatic, but relatively restricted ritual of the FPS-Adventure can be seen as an answer to this contradictory desire. The creativity that is allowed to me within this performance, and the degree to which I am able to operate imaginatively, confirms that I matter as a subject in the world. The trouble is, of course, that playing a typical run-and-gun FPS is really more like working in a factory, a form of practice in which I hardly exist as a subject at all.

In light of Winnicott’s model, then, we might say that the relatively primitive ritual of the FPS-Adventure serves as a prime example of regressive behaviour, or maybe a spectacular form of cultural sadomasochism. As a player, you happily operate under the logic of stimulus-response. You jump when the game says jump. Being non-creative in relation to the game-object means that you do not create a distance to it, the way one would do in a proper use-relationship to an object (which according to Winnicott is the normal and healthy relationship to objects in the world). As a player you are invited to unite with the object, to be all powerful (because there is no object with a separate existence), and at the same time all-powerless (because there is no use-relationship). You work to master the rules and objects of the game, to subject to their logic, to melt with them. The game is indeed a transitional object, only this time offering an inverted transition, back to the blissful solipsism of infancy.

Fate and obsession

The mindless First Person Shooter is a parody of life, an excessive waste, like a child that smashes everything. According to Sutton-Smith, this is a typical experience of child phantasmagoria, which is characterized by “irrational, wild, dark and deep play” (1997: 151). Our understanding of the genre must be rooted in the recognition that adult play as well as child play indeed seems to be driven by a cultural and psychological mechanism of ‘fate’, as it were, a fate of obsession and destruction. The centrality of the grotesque in child’s play as well as in adult play suggests that play cannot only be understood as a life-affirming and joyful space. In many forms of play, there are strong undercurrents of tragedy and death.

In the FPS, the tragic is visible in the destructive and terrifying nature of the actions that are mimicked, as well as in mechanisms of obsession and addiction. In this respect, Sutton-Smith’s adaptation of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow is a useful one. He emphasises the role of ritual and repetitiveness in the experience of flow as an alternative to the creative process of continuous feedback that is commonly celebrated - where infantilism and fatalism is generally ruled out (1997: 66-67). Obsessive and addictive flow can, Sutton-Smith argues, be compared to the altered state of consciousness involved in religious rituals and prayers. Games and religion are “rivals for the promotion of such altered states of consciousness” (1997: 67).

Phantasmagoria and religious-like alteration are particularly relevant interpretations of the concept of ‘flow’ as it is articulated through the FPS-Adventure. In the monstrous individualism of its power-play, the ego (somewhat paradoxically) disappears, it goes with the flow. However, as is argued above, we must also keep in mind that the typical structures of this flow do indeed engage with dominant histories and practices of contemporary industrialized societies. As Victor Turner points out in his own interpretation of Csikszentmihalyi, “.., there is no solipsism, mere autism, about the experience. Flow reaches out to nature and to other men...” (1982: 57). The flow of the ‘pseudo-liminal’ enables, within a ‘safe zone’ inside our daily lives, an uncommitted and playful interaction with the forces of real life. The techno-fetishist and heroic power-play of the FPS-Adventure is a twisted and morbid version of our increasingly techno-augmented societies - only not as a political expression or an intellectual reflection. Its general naivety, carelessness and obsessive childishness is far from the critical rhetorical engagement displayed in the Sci-Fi dystopias of Blade Runner or Neuromancer.

The modern grotesque

Studies about how people play the single-player First Person Shooter, and the various meanings and pleasures they draw from their play, remains to be done. My discussion here has been concerned with the aesthetical pre-articulation of these activities and experiences. The genre holds up a grotesque mirror of civilized rationality. Through simulation, exaggeration, inversion and parody, it enables a playful mimicry of real-life practices of production and violence in modern capitalist societies. It fits into and expands the tradition of fun fairs and magic machines - all carnivalistic interpretations of the history of scientific and technological progress. The motion ride, the horror house and the run-and-gun First Person Shooter are as much true representations of civilized modernity as quantum mechanics and spreadsheets. Modern civilization has not repressed ‘shamanistic’ modes of practice, but rather displaced them. Disconnected from religion and its authoritative status, practices of trance, spectacle and bodily excess have become re-connected and re-contextualized within the cultural realm of technological capitalism.

The cyborgian and infantile warrior of Quake, Half-Life and Halo is truly a modern mythical hero, with a playful and ambiguous relationship to the technocratic nature of modern, complex societies. Although a destructive and disturbing figure, there is no voice of cultural or political critique to be found, only regressive parody. As such, the genre represents a distinctive contribution to society’s variable repertoire of playful practices, and upholds a space of potential therapeutic as well as transgressive pleasure. Run-and-gun shooters belong to a wider category of ‘foolish play’, which, according to Sutton-Smith, defies the whole premise of human progress. As in pre-modern carnivals, monstrosity, violence and death are turned into a spectacle. A game like Quake makes a childish mockery of the human condition, blurring the distinction between creation and destruction. It is an obsessive performance of romantic techno-power, an epitome of the modern grotesque.

The FPS-adventure gives you the carnivalesque in a box. The genre is tailor-made to let you experience the spectacular mimetic and responsive powers of the magic machine. As in many other genres, this sensation is typically created through simulated grotesque power. The grotesque element renders the mastery of the player visible, immediate and spectacular. Carnival is the perfect ingredient in techno-fetishist forms of play, augmenting the simulated power fantasies. The abstractness and invisibility of modern technological power is transformed into a simulated realm of mythic heroism and violence, where it suddenly becomes something concrete, magical and terrifying.

There is no doubt, then, that the run-and-gun First Person Shooter is inherently conformist and affirmative as a cultural form, but the genre does also, more than most ‘healthy’ and educational alternatives, open up to the modern individual a playful space of potentially transgressive practice. This dimension of their aesthetic must be of central importance within a wider cultural critique of the genre.



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Deus Ex, Ion Storm; Eidos Interactive 2000.

Doom, Id Software; Id Software 1993.

GoldenEye 007 , Rare; Nintendo 1997.

Half-Life, Valve; Sierra Entertainment 1998.

Halo: Combat Evolved, Bungie; Microsoft 2001.

Medal of Honor, Dreamworks Interactive; Electronic Arts 1999.

No One Lives Forever, Monolith; Fox Interactive 2000.

Perfect Dark, Rare; Nintendo 1999.

Quake, Id Software; Id Software 1996.

Red Faction , Volition; THQ 2001.

Civilization , Microprose; Microprose 1991.

System Shock, Looking Glass Studios; Electronic Arts/Origin 1994.

Unreal , Digital Extremes/Epic MegaGames; GT Interactive 1998.

The development of the FPS single-player genre, the central characteristics of its aesthetic, with variations, sub-genres and hybridisations, is discussed in Klevjer (2004).

For more about the distinction between the tactical FPS and the adventure-based FPS, see Klevjer (2004).

“.., in which either the gods or our own brains influence us playfully beyond our control, has about it an externality not likely to be popular in modern everyday parlance.” (Sutton-Smith 1997: 58).

Sutton-Smiths meta-analysis is on this point explicitly indebted to the work of Mihail Spariosu and his Dionysus Reborn (1989). See Ambiguities of Play, page 80.

See Csikszentmihalyi (2000 [1975])

For a pioneering user study of the online multiplayer First Person Shooter, see Wright, Boria and Breidenbach (2002).

”And this child is the child not of Christ but of Heraclitus. It is the innocent power as eternity, beginning its game creation and destruction each time anew, without remorse, in blissful self-forgetfulness.” Nietzsche, cited by Sutton-Smith (1997:113).