Sometimes I have to cast about for topics to write about, but sometimes they come right to my door in the morning, giftwrapped. In today’s Wall Street Journal is this story about how real rock stars enjoy playing the game “Guitar Hero,” which allows them to pretend to be rock stars. In other words, they prefer to play the video-game simulation of their life rather than live life itself.
For many rock musicians, the game’s virtual stage would seem to be a pale, unsatisfying facsimile of what they experience every night. The music they’re playing along with usually isn’t even an original recording. Most of the songs in Guitar Hero have been re-recorded by studio musicians.
Many professional rockers, however, say the game lets them act out a fantasy that their real lives don’t quite match. Sometimes, pretending to be a rock star for a few minutes can be more fun than being one.
Rock stars escape from the pressure of their actual lives to a simulated version of the very same life. Is this just a tragic lack of imagination? Maybe by escaping into an idealized form of your own life, you reinforce the ultimate desirablility of the profession you’ve chosen or fallen into. It is akin to athletes who enjoy playing the EA Sports versions of their profession, and anyone who has spent any time playing the Sims. You want to remind yourself that whatyou do is so important that other people have taken the trouble to meticulously replicate it.
Perhaps the impulse to play a simulation of one’s own life comes from a desire to simplify the variables involved and achieve a greater sense of control over that life as it is regressed into fantasy. The mediated simulacrum of life experience has defined the pleasures of experience in such a way that actual experience can no longer live up to it. The experience of fantasy is more pleasant than actually doing anything you might fantasize about, because so many more elements of the fantasy ultimately remain under the dreamers control, and having control has become the ur-pleasure, perhaps because society celebrates autonomy and mastery while undermining our chances to achieve it. Even for rock stars and athletes apparently it’s not enough to demonstrate their unique skills for massive audiences; this still pales in the face of the total systematic mastery games promise hints of (and use stimulus-reward inducements derived from behavioral psychology to deliver). The unambiguous success of the game world is preferable to the compromised ambivalent successes avaiable to us in real life (where we must share the credit and acknowledge luck’s role for the partial victories we can secure). The pleasures of shopping—if sociologist Colin Campbell is correct—have a great deal to do with the ability to foster elaborate fantasies about goods. Perhaps as we become habituated to ths method of producing a sense of value for things, we seek to apply it to the particulars of our own actions. We look to apply it to the course our entire lives and not just the stuff we buy.
Still, you don’t have to be Baudrillard to note the peculiarity of this shift away from the real into hyperreality. But in Simulacra and Simulation, he gives the classic explanation of this phenomena when discussion Disneyland: You can produce an astute analysis of how Disneyland “represents” America, “but this conceals something else, and that ‘ideological’ blanket exactly serves to cover over a third-order simulation: Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that it is the ‘real’ country, all of ‘real’ America, which is Disneyland (just as prisons are there to conceal the fact that it is the social in its entirety, in its banal omnipresence, which is carceral).” The video-game version of rock stardom conceals how much of a synthetic, contrived game actual rock stardom is. The Simsprotects from seeing how regimented and manufactured our own lives are by putting us in control of radically simplified versions of those constitutive elements.(Not that profound an insight, I guess, but worth noting.)
As fun as it might be to play yourself in a video game, the awareness of your own simulation potentially creates anxiety, because it seems to suggest that life can go on without you; that anyone can be put in your shoes and make you essentally superfluous. Baudrillard suggests as much, anyway: “It is no longer a question of imitation, nor of reduplication, nor even of parody. It is rather a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself; that is, an operation to deter every real process by its operational double, a metastable, programmatic, perfect descriptive machine which provides all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes. Never again will the real have to be produced: this is the vital function of the model in a system of death, or rather of anticipated resurrection which no longer leaves any chance even in the event of death.” Even if the guys from Korn and My Chemical Romance should die, we can still access the crux of their experience through this PlayStation game (and videos and recordings of them and through the ways their image has been consrtucted and mediated in all of society’s various disseminating structures, etc.). Perhaps these games make rock stars feel as though they have been cloned; maybe this makes them feel a touch more immortal.