I was watching TV the other night when a commercial caught my eye. It’s the exceptional ad that does this, since I usually have commercials muted so I can focus on constructive things instead. In this case, I immediately recognised, entirely against my will, the iconography of planet Pandora from James Cameron’s Avatar, a movie I never saw. I was wondering if this meant we were getting an imminent Avatar sequel and was just beginning to ponder the ramifications of that before the true purpose of the commercial became clear: Opening in May of this year in the Animal Kingdom park of Walt Disney World Resort will be Pandora: The World of Avatar, an entirely new land attraction that seeks to create the world of the beloved film in physical form.
My first thoughts were, unironically, “well, that’s going to do incredibly well” followed soon after by “this seems like a good fit”. Though the religiously ecstatic paean to CGI that is Avatar at first glance seems like a strange fit for the ostensibly environmentalist tone of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, the connection seems like a much more intuitive one if you look at it deeper for a few reasons, the least of which is the film’s own loose environmentalist message. The movie itself is in many ways the least interesting thing about Avatar: I’m not going to be doing a full review or analysis of the film or anything like that-Frankly, the fact I’m ever writing about Avatar at all, a movie that’s almost a decade old, leaves me feeling pretty dispirited. For our purposes, what I’m going to say the most important thing to note about Avatar is how it used film technology and genre fiction in a way that was uniquely positioned to manipulate a starvation most people don’t even know they have. Writer Jonathan Zap explains this very well in a piece he retooled for Reality Sandwich a few years ago, and while I don’t completely agree with everything Zap says, he does make a point about Avatar and our relationships with our true selves I haven’t seen anyone else make.
Avatar‘s fans are notoriously rabid, but, as Zap points out, you can’t entirely blame them. They yearn for escape and for sublimation so deeply and so powerfully that they explicitly want to live in the fictional world of Pandora to the point some get suicidal when faced with the fact they can’t. In the most severe cases, they believe themselves to actually *be* incarnations of the characters from the film: Avatar‘s motifs of a kind of postmodern technological spiritual ascension resonated very strongly with people who secretly feel they’re living a life of lies and bullshit (because they are) and are unconsciously starving to reunite with their true self, but who don’t want to openly admit it. Avatar plays on postmodern malaise in a materialist and reductive world and was always perfectly suited to be adopted as part of the burgeoning hyper-reality movement. And now, Disney is going to give those people exactly what they want, to live in a Pandora of their own…For a day, and provided they can pay for it, of course. And it really is a match made in, well, someplace I suppose, as the only fandom that can rival Avatar‘s in terms of sheer blind religious fervor is Disney’s.
But I want to call attention to something else James Cameron said about Avatar and Pandora, and that Jonathan Zap actually quotes him on in that article:
“It’s my world, you all are just living in it.”
Well, of course he would say that. He’s a filmmaker. Cinema’s Deal with the Devil was when a young and insecure film studies, desperate for attention and recognition from the literary establishment, elevated the image of the director to exalted authorial status, and in doing so, literally deified him. James Cameron doesn’t think he’s a god, he thinks he’s God. Monotheistic. Infallible. All-powerful. The director is so obsessed with the master narrative written about him that he conveniently ignores the army of creative figures who it took to bring “his” vision to life. We could take this one step further and even question how much of Avatar really was James Cameron’s vision in the first place: The first thing artists and Gnostic visionaries alike have to accept upon awakening is that the vision can never be conveyed one-to-one to another person. Something will always be lost in translation. That’s life.
But no, let’s get more basic and materialistic. We live, after all, in a materialistic world. The world of Pandora may not be aesthetically or creatively all James Cameron’s, but legally it is, at least in substantial part, because of copyright and intellectual property laws, and the same is true for Walt Disney World. The resort may arguably be the most perfect example of bringing a fictional world to life through clever knowing artifice (which is another way of getting at why the Avatar cross-promotion is such a good fit), and, if you have the money, it’s a wonderful place to visit. But it is, ultimately, fictional, and fiction is not real. Those in genre fiction circles who might be inclined to view science fiction and fantasy as a substitute for something permanent would do well to remember that. Fiction cannot replace what’s missing from your own life. Take it from someone with experience: The best it can do is help point you in the right direction and give you an intellectual framework to play with when you’re just starting to figure things out. At some point, you have to take matters into your own hands.
As Jonathan Zap also mentions, apart from being the title of the highest grossing movie of all time, the term “avatar” is also used both in Hindu religious texts to refer to a god incarnate as a mortal human and in computer and video game circles, where it’s used to mean pretty much the exact opposite concept. The conventional thinking goes that video games offer empowerment and instantaneous validation and recognition for success. For reasons similar to why people might want to escape into genre fiction worlds more generally, that sense of acknowledgment and purpose is not something most people get on an everyday basis under late-stage capitalism. And there is, I suppose, something to that: I’ve seen compelling arguments that the addition of gambling mechanics (really, a removal of the artifice that previously disguised the gambling connection in the medium’s roots) to many modern games that was raising a lot of concern some years back combined with the cultural origins of a certain reactionary fundamentalist movement are damning enough evidence of this.
I tend to approach video games from a different perspective though, one born from creative play and transformative experiences. Talented and skillful games can foster this in a really special and meaningful way (unsurprisingly, I’m going to argue it’s Nintendo and Bethesda Softworks who are the best at it, probably Cyan Worlds too). Fiction may be intrinsically limited in what it can do for you, but I’m going to be a bit brash and maintain that video games can, at least potentially, do more than other kinds of fiction because of the practical way the medium is structured. I’m running the risk of repeating arguments I’ve made a lot of other places, and this essay feels repetitive and superfluous enough as it is right now, so I’m going to try and focus on a different case study if I can.
There is a real vibrancy, I feel, in certain corners of video game culture. To make a half-baked stab at tying this essay together, let’s make the comparison again with cinema. One must always be careful what one wishes for, and film studies got exactly what it wanted by turning film culture, at least to my eyes, into even more of a locked-down, top-down authorial deifying climate of creative bankruptcy than even literature studies. Films (and television, and anything derived from the cinematic tradition) almost seem like the quintessential example of art perverted by capitalism to me, with discrete products we are programmed to find desirable. They are meant to be bought, sold and genuflected before, and then disposed of when the next new release comes out. But video games, in spite of their traditional inferiority complex and nerdish impulses that leads the AAA industry to go chasing cinema for inspiration (though even that seems to have died down some in recent years), and in spite of the selfsame industry’s increasingly appalling business practices, has never quite managed to succumb so thoroughly to this Death Drive.
There’s something about video games that, to me at least, encourages transformative play at a basic level, and that’s carried through into the way the medium has permeated into broader culture. Video games may not be able to send you on a shamanic journey to enlightenment, but the really good ones can maybe give you an idea of what that’s like and their popularity speaks to a subconscious yearning to reconnect with this forgotten path. And that path is by definition intensely personal, which is perhaps why video games, in my eye, lend themselves to remix and reappropriation better than any other form of popular media (though my use of the term “remix” there serves as a nod to the fact something similar occurs with music). The console mod scene (not to be confused with the prolific, and equally compelling, PC gaming mod scene), ROM hackers, chiptune artists and indie fashion designers in Tokyo all share the same drive to create something fresh and new out of their personal relationship with hardware and software many would consider a dated aesthetic.
Unlike Avatar, there is no canon world your gracious and merciful God has granted you the gift of beholding in video games or video game culture, and the idea there is has always been faintly ridiculous (even if certain people don’t want to admit it). As I’ve tried to argue before, that’s basically physically impossible given your role in the creative act. You make the world yourself. You are an active part of the process. You are the process. That kind of thing just doesn’t happen with movies from what I can tell, in no small part because if someone ever tried that with a movie the MPAA would sue them out of existence. But the MPAA is just one emanation of the same Death Drive that consumes film culture and genre fiction, with its insular and incestuous focus on mythological dynasty-building. Avatar marks a kind of zenith for cinema and genre fiction as we traditionally understand it, yet, in doing so, it reveals the worrying shortcomings of both.
As I watch the industry and medium of video games undergo yet another dramatic transition, I can’t help but keep myself up at nights thinking about these concepts. After all, for everything I’ve just said, Nintendo did just release a console that has priced everyone but the hardest of the hardcore out of enjoying it under the auspices of reaching out to them. And last year they signed a deal with Universal Studios to make Nintendo theme parks, which sure is a thing to think about in light of this Avatar business. And yet at the same time, I see the Japanese underground fashion and music scene quietly continuing to plug away, making things that have never been seen before. There is a rockist/popist divide of sorts emerging in video game culture, especially retro game culture (indeed, a case could be made this is built into the psychogeography of Tokyo in the explicitly gendered, and moneyed, divide between Akihabara and Harajuku/Shibuya). Which is something I don’t think anyone really saw coming, at least not in the West, where video games (especially retro games) will always have the stigma of the Nerd orbiting them. But I have to say, I’m kind of glad it is: For the first time it feels like there’s an actual future somewhere for a set of aesthetics and sensory memories that have always been part of me, but that I could never comfortably express.
Still though. I feel obligated to re-evaluate my place among all this. For as much as I want to cheer on and support all the Harajuku Girls, I am equally faced with the painful reality that I am not one and can never be one. In a lot of ways I feel I’ve missed my chance at cultural relevance. Perhaps my entire generation did, though I maintain that at least in my personal case growing up the way I did made that challenging through no fault of my own. Furthermore, I have to question my choice of work as a media critic and historian: I hope I’ve been able to provide insight for people through the work I do, but while I hold the creative energy of eros as a core value, lately it’s been hard for me to feel like I’ve ever actually created anything new in my life. If I’m not careful to balance my hyperawareness of past moments, I run the risk of being, deservedly, swept aside in the cultural tide.
For now though, I’m getting a new Game Boy.