This entry is an attempt at a larger reflection on the nature of shame in computer games, for those who are interested…
Whom do you call bad?—One who always wants to put others to shame.
What do you consider most humane?—To spare someone shame.
What is the seal of liberation?—No longer being ashamed in front of oneself.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Gay Science 273; 274; 275
Our increasingly digital culture is routinely depicted as being divorced from emotion, a divorce that might well spring from the cultural wellsprings of digital culture, science fiction. The scientific and technological worlds that fostered science fiction – and thus pop cultural representations of digital culture are often lumped together in ways that privilege rationality and science, and thus pretend that emotions can be neatly factored out of human relationships. The icons of this schism are purportedly emotionless characters like Spock or Data from the Star Trek franchise, and their familiarity and seeming naturalness nicely . This separation results from a bevy of causes, but the prevalence of the dissociation of emotion and digital culture occurs throughout the pop culture world.
As noted, however, this dissociation is problematic enough that it becomes contested, and digital culture – especially as the elements of which it is composed become reflections and meditations on these relations – is no exception. The forces that shape this culture often struggle with how to encompass, express, and otherwise engage with emotions, and this struggle takes interesting forms within popular culture itself.
In particular, the primal emotion that is shame is a particularly troublesome one for digital culture. For example, social networks appear to thrive on episodic and occasional shaming sessions to enforce codes of conduct, and computer gaming communities routinely invoke shame as an emotion that can be either transcended or utilized in ways that both mimic and deviate from perhaps more familiar cultural practices that feature shame.
Science Fiction Roots
Science fiction has always been tightly connected with digital culture, and authors in the genre have examined the cultural implications in a myriad of ways. In what has become a canonical science fiction/fantasy short story, Ursula LeGuin asks us to think about the place of shame in “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” in our culture. In the story, her narrator describes a city by the sea, ringed with mountains, a place that for Western science fiction and fantasy readers might well be considered utopic. Her narrator lets the reader fill in the blanks in order to make the city an ideal that meets whatever the reader desires – although LeGuin pretty carefully sees ideal human as not in any way either puritannical or hedonistic: as her narrator argues,
Happiness is based on a just discrimination of what is necessary, what is neither necessary nor destructive, and what is destructive,
and LeGuin’s fiction carefully caters to this balance, whether she’s making a case for gender ambiguity in The Left Hand of Darkness or figuring out how to make an anarchy work in The Dispossessed.
The trick to Omelas, though, is something that as Americans we’re not very good at – understanding viscerally what our beautiful lives cost (see M.T. Anderson’s Feed for a young adult take on this American ignorance) others. The residents of Omelas are taken as children to see an ill-fed, ill-treated, ever-child-of-neglect who they somehow know (according to the narrator) is the basis of their own and their city’s happiness. They have to look, and they have to know, and even if they eventually reconcile the existence of this child in their minds’ they must always remember what their city is founded on.
In typical LeGuin fashion she adds, at the end of the story, a choice: the ones who walk away. The narrator tells us that some citizens walk away from this beautiful space, purposefully leaving for a place that the narrator does not know, but that does not mean that the ones who walk away are simply running blindly from the :
But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from
These citizens of Omelas are not heroes – they make no effort to fix these problems. Even if they do know where they are going, they do not address the privilege they have been part of growing up. Is it shame, then, that drives them away? If so, what effect does shame have on those who stay?
The ambivalence of our cultural relationship with shame evident in “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is also reflected in computer games. (I’m using “computer games” in the light of McAllister’s and Ruggill’s discussion of what to call these artifacts found in Gaming Matters).