Robert Stoller, Sigmund Freud and Heinz Kohut provide essential insights into the way contemporary entertainment -- including movies, television, theme parks and computer games -- lets us act out our fantasies and desires, and master the traumas of life.


A Culture Based on Fantasy and Acting Out

by Ken Sanes

In a rundown section of downtown Boston, inside a partially abandoned building, one can find an indoor playing field for a combat simulation game known as paintball. The playing field consists of two large rooms splattered with paint on the walls and concrete floors. Free-standing wooden barriers have been placed at random in both rooms to provide players with something to hide behind when their opponents fire at them.

 Players divide into two teams and take positions behind the barriers. Each player is equipped with a protective suit, including knee pads and goggles, along with an air-powered gun that shoots "paintballs" or gum ball-sized gelatin capsules filled with paint. When a game begins, players proceed to fire at each other with their air guns in an attempt to eliminate opponents or capture something on the other team's territory. When players are hit by one of the paintballs, they feel a pinch as it explodes and "bleeds" on their clothes and skin. They are then officially "dead" and have to wait out the rest of the game.

 Paintball is one of a growing number of combat simulations that turn the mock gunfights of childhood into adult and adolescent war games, by paring down the elements of battle to a number of essentials: combatants with guns, an opportunity to run around, and places to protect oneself from enemy fire. In effect, it retains the form of a battle but not the substance, offering players a reenactment that lacks the stakes or physical injury of genuine combat.

 There are similar indoor and indoor playing fields for paintball around the United States and a burgeoning subculture with its own tournaments and heroes. There is also a growing arsenal of air-powered guns that can be purchased by players, which parallels the fascination with real guns in the larger society.

 Paintball is an example of a new kind of symbolic arena that now characterizes popular culture. By way of a preliminary definition, symbolic arenas are protected domains that make it possible for people to act out fantasies, embodying their fears and desires, in ways that aren't possible in everyday life. The settings, situations and actions they are created out of, are lifelike representations -- fictions -- masquerading as something authentic.

 Some symbolic arenas make it possible for participants to directly play out fantasies, either by engaging in physical action and role playing, or by manipulating images or objects that represent them. In addition to paintball, examples of these "high-interaction" simulations include laser tag; video and computer games; interactive movies; some rain forest exhibits in zoos; virtual realities; children's toys; board games; pinball; sexual role playing; interactive computer pornography; voice acting on 900 numbers; and so-called MUDs on the Internet, in which people play roles in fictional worlds created with text descriptions instead of images.

Other symbolic arenas place the audience in a more passive role, in which it is taken for a ride or watches, and identifies with, characters who do things in fictional situations. These include television, traditional movies and the theater, amusement park rides and the more recent movie rides.

 What kinds of fantasies do participants reenact in symbolic arenas? As in theme parks, they experience the illusion of transcendence, not only from time and space, but from the roles they play in society. They become part of stories that are larger and more interesting than those in everyday life. The adolescent video game player becomes a space pilot trying to save the universe; the child becomes a parent ministering to a doll that acts as a surrogate child; the television viewer, acting vicariously through the character of the detective, solves the crime and defends the moral order of society.

 Symbolic arenas also provide participants with a sense of mastery and safety by showing us characters, or allowing us to play characters, with various abilities and forms of power. Through these characters, we then reenact the universal story line that is common to all fiction: danger and obstacles are faced, but we, or the characters we identify with, win in the end.

 Thus, one can say that many symbolic arenas are acts of self- and world-repair: they allow us to face and overcome simulated dangers and problems, which are a more exciting version of what we face in everyday life. In these characteristics, they are similar to daydreams, in which we convert our defeats into victories and our losses into gains to bolster the sense of safety and self-esteem.

 What Dr. Robert Stoller, a psychoanalytic theorist who looked at the way the mind creates scripts, said about art, daydreams and pornography, is true of all symbolic arenas. They allow us to convert personal trauma into "simulated trauma, mastered trauma," he said. And they create aesthetic excitement by presenting fictional dangers that seem real, while allowing us to control the production to be certain it isn't real.

 "...aesthetics is like a game," Stoller wrote "Like chess or football, it simulates by manipulating the symbols of danger."*

In addition to letting us master trauma and danger, and escape the limits of physical reality, symbolic arenas also allow us to play out every other kind of desire we know from psychoanalytic theory and everyday life. Power, phallic aggression, revenge, sex, love and success are routinely acted out and temporarily sated in these fictional worlds.

Symbolic arenas, based on these principles, now define popular culture, which is becoming a giant arcade that draws everyone into its lifelike fictions. Overseeing it, we once again find growing numbers of designers and fabricators who take images and ideas from nature, history, the contemporary world and their own imaginations. They convert these into forms of entertainment, which make it possible for millions of people to act out personal and collective fears and desires in artificial worlds.

Like all entrepreneurs, the creators of symbolic arenas find and exploit market niches, designing story lines for specific personality constellations. In so doing, they have turned popular culture into a vast inventory of the fears and desires of the human personality.

 Here are some examples of symbolic arenas:

 * Video games provide a realm of virtual action in which players can incarnate in fictional worlds by manipulating image surrogates on the screen. Players choose from a selection of imaginary adventures that are, for the most part, the same as those found in television, movies and theme parks. Like those other forms of entertainment, video games offer simulations of journeys to exotic places, of space travel, of futuristic battles and one-on-one combat, to name a few well-known examples. And like them, video games let players experience a sense of transcendence from time and space, and from the roles that players routinely find themselves in, in everyday life.

But behind all these fictional roles and situations, many games are intended to make it possible for adolescent males to act out a limited set of desires that are central to their psychology, involving phallic aggression, competition, strength, the display of masculinity and conquest. This is a hormone-saturated simulation in which competition dominates and almost everything is an arena for a contest or fight. These basic desires may be dressed up in exotic situations but, in the end, the fantasies being acted out are very mundane.

Video games similarly allow players to express anger, hostility and desires for revenge, which are blended in with desires to express phallic aggression (as they are in life, in general) in the experience of destroying things on the screen.

As a 14-year-old player I interviewed for a newspaper story in 1983 put it: "It's a way, if you're mad, to get rid of your tensions. You can blow up wave after wave of spaceships."

His friend then added: "If you keep all this tension inside you, you can go crazy" -- a statement that says a good deal about the role of symbolic arenas in the lives of young people.

But what is unique about video games is that players are spectators, manipulators of the simulation and participants at the same time, controlling image surrogates that represent them on the screen, and acting in the virtual environment through their surrogate. In their role as spectators and manipulators, they watch and dominate the action. In their role as participants, they experience these image surrogates as an extension, not only of their will, but of their body. In essence, their body image expands to include the image under their control, allowing them to take on a virtual presence in the game, as part of their fictional role.

An example of how this division works can be seen in the way players act out a set of desires described by the psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut. Kohut said that children have the need to idealize the perceived greatness of adults, on the one hand, and they also need to have their own sense of grandiosity mirrored back to them, by having other people admire them. In effect, they need to admire and be admired -- needs that are carried into adolescence and adulthood, and acted out in various ways throughout life.

We can see these desires vividly expressed in video games, where players manipulate all those images of overdeveloped fighters and super-powered machines, so they experience themselves as having a kind of virtual body, full of strength and firepower, which express fantasies that they have grandiose physical selves. At the same time, because this virtual body is separate from them, they can admire it as if it is another person. The games thus provide a unique way for players to admire and be admired at the same time: the games are mirrors that reflect a grander self back to the player.

But the expression of these desires doesn't remain hermetically sealed inside the simulation, because playing video games can also be a form of social interaction in which players test their skills against each other and experience victory. In the game Sega Daytona USA, six players sit lined up in seats in front of six screens, all of which display the same virtual roadway. Each player is assigned the image of a car as his surrogate self. Each must navigate his car on this same virtual road, on which the images of cars controlled by the other players are also displayed, allowing players to try to bump each other off the road and see when their competitors pass them in the race.

This is a game of speed, competition, and violence. One can see in the players' expressions, the excitement of the chase, coupled with the enjoyment of bumping and knocking the cars controlled by their friends, so they will go off the road. The game is the equivalent of a wrestling match between adolescent males to see who will come out on top, but here transposed into a virtual world of images with a more exciting story line.

We can thus see in video games, the way basic elements of personality are acted out in a virtual world. Players experience excitement by facing and overcoming fictional dangers and obstacles; they experience greatness and victory, and enact phallic and aggressive urges; they learn tasks and have accomplishments, in which they win against the machine and other players, and they have opportunities to impress friends and confirm social standing, all of it made more exciting by the simulation, which makes it seem they are doing all this in ways that transcend the usual limits of life.

Just as there are a limited number of desires being expressed in the manifold story lines, so video games also operate almost entirely according to one basic principle: the player's surrogate self must come into contact with or avoid contact with other images. This is a world that moves as a result of a mock physical causality rather than according to the complex meanings of plot. This simple pattern of operation is able to generate so many possibilities because of the diversity of images and story lines; in other words, because of the richness of the simulation.

* Another kind of symbolic arena makes its appearance every Halloween, when theme parks modeled after horror movies pop up in many cities, using stage sets, props, costumed actors, animatronic figures and other special effects to create nightmare worlds full of ghoulish delights. Typical sights encountered by visitors include mutant creatures writhing in agony; zombies wandering the grounds; scenes of torture, and disembodied heads.

 These haunted environments allow visitors to play the role of victims of evil, creating a fictional risk in which they survive to tell the tale. Visitors encounter their own nightmares and the kind of fantasized monsters that, as children, they imagined were hiding in the closet or under the bed at night. The excitement is in the fact that it looks dangerous and terrible, but isn't. As in video games, visitors win in the end, in this case by demonstrating to themselves that the evil that is portrayed is harmless after all.

* Toys provide another kind of symbolic arena, aimed at the developmental level and gender of children. Typically, the toys are used as props, which allow children to lose themselves in the dramas of play, acting out issues that are central to their stage of development. For girls, there are plastic reproductions of stoves, dishwashers, vacuum cleaners and other appliances, and lifelike dolls that talk, walk, cry, and offer (surprisingly explicit) opportunities to act out issues that revolve around toilet training. For boys, there are more opportunities to act out phallic aggression, with plastic guns and action figures, much of it spun off from the science fiction fantasies of the movies.

Like many other symbolic areas, toys are becoming strikingly realistic, resulting in such strange cultural objects as a lifelike imitation of Burger King Restaurant Food, which lets children stack plastic burger, lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle on a plastic bun. Walking through toy stores, today, one finds oneself in a simulation bazaar lined with boxes, each trying to lure would-be customers with claims that they contain an imitation that is so realistic, the buyer won't be able to distinguish it from the real thing.


How are symbolic arenas created?

 Using an analogy to the psychoanalytic idea of dreamwork, one might refer to the process by which these invented worlds are spun out of our minds as simulation-work. Simulation-work involves everything that is done by artists and those in the entertainment industry to make simulations as realistic possible. But it also involves the way all of this is completed by audiences and participants, who spontaneously suspend disbelief and work to enhance the lifelikeness of the experiences. Thus, the creators of paintball provide players with barriers and imitation guns; it is the players who complete the simulation, running around like they are soldiers in battle.

Simulation-work also has another element discussed, to some degree, by Stoller: making certain the simulation isn't so real that it creates a physical danger to participants or compromises their moral identities. And it involves making the simulation unlike reality in ways that enhance the aesthetic experience, for example, by condensing the events portrayed into a brief period of time or making them all relate to the story.

Finally, it involves the process that makes it possible for these invented worlds to embody narratives and images that express and disguise our fears and desires. In short, the creators of all kinds of fiction start off with fears and desires. which are invested in cognitive schemas or models of themselves and their surroundings. They then take hold of whatever raw materials are available (words, paint, computers, etc) and whatever artistic techniques their culture offers (or that they can develop) and they spin those schemas into imaginary worlds that let us act out what is on our minds.

The history of art and entertainment is the history of advances in the techniques and technology of simulation-work, from stories told around the campfire and paintings on cave walls to contemporary movies, Disney World, and Back to the Future...The Ride. Today, those advances are enhancing the realism of  our invented worlds; expanding our opportunities to experience physical, sensory and psychological immersion in our invented worlds; and allowing for more participation in the simulation. In place of looking at an imitation of life, we increasingly find ourselves inside one. In place of identifying with the characters, we increasingly are the characters. In place of merely enjoying scripted stories, we have more opportunities to create part or all of the story as we go along. And in place of imagining a relationship with various characters, we increasingly interact with them.

This change is resulting giving us a new kind of fiction that only existed in an undeveloped form, before. Whereas traditional literature and drama allow us to see characters with all kinds of abilities and desires, this new kind of fiction creates the illusion that we have these abilities and desires, ourselves. The manufactured experiences of art cease to be merely vicarious and happen to us directly.

 But this culture of acting out environments that refer to various meanings in ourselves, comes with a number of dangers. One is that we will act out issues that are central to our personalities and culture, in disguised form, in place of becoming aware of them. As Freud said, we can reenact the traumas of the past or we can remember them. But we can't do both at once because the reenactment is a defense against remembering. In other words, popular culture is, in part, the ultimate stealth simulation. It is a maze of forgetting, a road away from the truth of the self, even as it also expresses the self in disguised ways.

There is also the danger that this culture will draw us into fields of engagement in which nothing is at stake. It invites us to stand at a remove from things; to act decisively when the stakes aren't real and when there is no danger that we will make a true mistake. It encourages us to encounter other people only through mediations -- computer images, voices, and so on -- and to interact with fictional characters in place of people, so we are protected from intimacy or the judgment of others. Behind the facade of daring exploits and journeys, it offers a reality in which we always play it safe. Simulation, the ultimate imitation of life, becomes a wall that stands between us and the true experience of life. 

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*Robert J. Stoller, Observing the Erotic Imagination (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985) pp. 58-61.

There is more on simulation at:
The Age of Simulation

1996-2011 Ken Sanes