SIMULACRA: Philosophy, Again

Ages back when I wrote on The Old City: Leviathan, I applauded it for trying to deal with philosophy, albeit in its own unwieldy sort of way. I also created a really shitty graphic, so it’s worth checking out just to see that trash. I ultimately summarized The Old City as “a quaint early step in the right direction” – basically I think that in fifty years when people have figured out how to explore philosophical themes in a way more suited to the medium, we’ll all look back at The Old City in a low-key condescending way as a game that’s on the right track, but is a little heavy handed and clumsy. SIMULACRA is another game that falls right into that box. 

The premise of SIMULACRA is that you find a phone and it’s haunted. You unlock the phone, and you can send messages and snapchat the owner’s contacts, and basically root around in this person’s life – and also the phone is haunted. There’s some really interesting reflection on the nature of technology, and how so much of our lives are actually invested into these little fragile machines, uh, and also there’s some really heavy handed Baudrillard.

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Actually, let’s even just pause there for a moment. I’ll give you an example of how heavy handed this game is, one with absolutely no connection to philosophy. One of the influences for SIMULACRA is Black Mirror, and there’s a line in the game that hints at that relationship. It’s in the big villain’s speech – see if you can pick it out. Here’s the dialogue from the villain:

“I am the simulacra. Beyond your glass screens, behind your black mirrors, is a reflection of your reality. I am that reality.” 

Did you spot it? Did you? Did you? Here’s a hint – it’s the part where the villain says the name of the show! And – to be fair, this kind of heavy handed gesturing isn’t alien to games. In Hollow Knight, there’s a ghost who talks about how he “bears a dark soul,” and has “a tendency to go berserk in battle.” The game is joking here, right – it’s pointing at its influences and going ‘Huh? Huh? See!’ It’s silly. It’s just one little side character who never has a great deal more to do with anything. But in SIMULACRA, it’s the big villain’s big speech, his primary monologue – it’s his fucking introduction, really, where he comes out and says I AM SIMULACRA! And the developers decided to distract you in that speech by being like ‘hey did we tell you that we’re heavily influenced by Black Mirror?’ It’s the type of distraction that’s totally inappropriate in that moment.

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So the game has these kinda issues – but frankly they only seem to revolve around the actual monster – the simulacra, I mean. The rest of the game seems subtle and thoughtful and pretty intelligent. And then in the final act, they throw all that out the window and get really heavy handed.

At this point, we need to check in with Baudrillard. So I study video games, and one of the major important philosophical texts is Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. It’s popped up a few times recently in my Youtube, uh, collection – Lindsay Ellis touches on the idea in this video, and Folding Ideas deals with it over here. They don’t necessarily invoke Baudrillard explicitly, but – well, they’re still using his terms and loitering around the fringe of his ideas.

I’ll give a quick summary of some of the key concepts here, but I have to admit I’m not an expert on Baudrillard, so I might fuck it up. Let’s start with the hyperreal. In its crudest form, as far as I can make out, the hyperreal is when you can’t tell the difference between reality and simulated reality – or for our very crude purposes, reality and fiction. Take Instagram. You know that the people on Instagram don’t really live those perfect Photoshopped Instagram lives – but sometimes if you spend too much time on Instagram, maybe you start to forget that. Maybe you enter Baudrillard’s hyperreal. At the core, all of the typical run of the mill criticisms of social media revolve around the hyperreal – it’s not real relationships, you need to go outside and meet real people, it’s all fake, it’s all Photoshop, it’s all constructed identity. It’s not authentic.

And we know that Youtube personalities spend just as much time constructing their image, or their brand. Especially lifestyle vloggers, right – the best of them have these really tightly constructed images, and their videos all reinforce a certain aesthetic, or a certain way of performing identity. And if you start to notice some of those performance tics, the facade can quickly flip into fakeness. And – fuck, I mean, the reason people hate calls to action in Youtube videos is because it reveals the fakeness of the whole enterprise. It reveals the Youtuber’s self-conscious business orientation, their awareness of analytics and Google algorithms and all the other commercial inauthentic money-making bullshit. And there’s a whole other essay there on how authenticity is supposedly opposed to finance, and where that historical opposition comes from, but there’s already a bunch of professional work done on the topic and we’re busy.

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So we’ve got the basic idea of what the hyperreal is, and we know that it pops up in Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. So when a game called SIMULACRA comes along, we might think – oh, I wonder if it’s a Baudrillard reference. And then the monster at the end pops up, and it’s called the Simulacra, and you just think oh shit, this is going to be really basic. And listen to what the Simulacra says:

“I am the new order. An existence perfected. I am society reshaped. A simulation destined for ascension. A hyperreal existence.” 

Ah FUCK, it’s just fucking Baudrillard pretending to be a cellphone monster. Get out of there, you little shit. Come out where we can see you. So the monster is literally just Baudrillard’s simulacra and its big evil plan is to make everything hyperreal and don’t we all spend too much time on cellphones and gosh aren’t all those Instagram models so fake and don’t you wish you had a more authentic – sigh. You can tell that this game is inspired by Black Mirror – they’re both reeeeally fucking impressed by their own hyperbolic criticisms of technology. The Simulacra goes on in a very Baudrillardian vein – material society is fading, it’s being replaced by a digital one, reality is being reduced to symbols on social media – all the rest of it. It’s not bad content, necessarily, but if you’ve read Baudrillard or know anything about him, it’s pretty crude and on the nose.

We could stop here, but against all of that, I want to open up a few of the basic criticisms of Baudrillard’s ideas. They’re worth mentioning even just partly because they’re relevant to how we more widely think about our digital selves. From one perspective, yes, our online personas are constructed and not ‘real’. Obviously. But actually, are our physical lives any more real? When you put your clothes on in the morning, you’re communicating a bunch of things about yourself. If you wear a dress and earrings, they usually signify femininity. If you have nice clothes, you’re signifying wealth. If you have scuffy clothes, you’re signifying poverty, or an unwillingness or inability to dress nicely. Our physical lives aren’t any less constructed than our online lives. When you clean your house before your friend comes over, you’re constructing the living space to communicate cleanliness and an inviting atmosphere, but also a personal composure. You’re saying that you’re composed enough as a person to have a clean house. You’re saying you have the time and the energy to clean your house, that it’s a priority and that you’re in control of your life. Think about how people wear different clothes at their job and on the weekend – aren’t they just constructing different versions of themselves appropriate to those spaces? Digital identity is constructed, but physical identity is constructed too. Some people (including Baudrillard, SIMULACRA, and Black Mirror) act like the online world is fake and the physical world is real. But that fake-real distinction really just veils the fact that we construct our identity in the physical world too.

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So from that perspective, the common criticism of Baudrillard is that technology really isn’t that inauthentic after all. If constructing your identity is the criteria for an inauthentic life, we’ve been living inauthentic since the start of human community. That’s not to say that social media is perfect or even necessarily good, but the criticism from Baudrillard is just too reductive. It’s approaching an important problem from the wrong direction, and it threatens to undermine or displace better criticisms along the way. For instance, I really don’t like social media influencers. I know a couple people who work as influencers, and I think it’s gross and immoral. I’m also a little bit antsy about Youtubers, because I don’t like people using their private lives as essentially marketing tools to sell products. Obviously that doesn’t apply to all Youtubers – I’m especially thinking of the lifestyle vloggers. There are further questions about the intersection between art, social commentary, and capital, and they’re relevant to Youtubers generally, but they’re really just the same questions that already existed for other artists and critics before the internet.

Those are some of the more nuanced questions that I’d move into if I was going to do a full analysis of Youtube and the rest of it. I won’t go any further with them here, because the more basic point is just that Baudrillard’s approach of ‘ugh technology is bad and fake’ is kinda just oversimplified and trash. The criticism pretty neatly undercuts things like Black Mirror and SIMULACRA as well – it makes those texts look a little more scare-mongery and hyperbolic. And you can argue that there’s a place for simplified pop-philosophy, or philosophy-lite or whatever, in the same way as there’s a place for all the other diluted pop versions of different genres and intellectual traditions and all the rest of it. They’re introductory and not really meant to be taken seriously by anyone who knows anything about the topic. My problem is more that SIMULACRA is one of the few games that takes someone like Baudrillard and seriously tries to engage with his work. That engagement basically comes down to uncritically reproducing his philosophy, but it’s still an engagement. My problem isn’t that they’re bad and simple, it’s that there’s not many games going any further – or even looking in that direction in the first place.

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