The Dreamworld

There are four features of the classic Freudian dream, summarized well enough by the Freud Museum:

  1. Dreams are the fulfillment of a wish.
  2. Dreams are the disguised fulfillment of a wish.
  3. Dreams are the disguised fulfillment of a repressed wish.
  4. Dreams are the disguised fulfillment of a repressed, infantile wish.

Even the first of these statements is already complex. For Freud, a wish is not just something instinctually wanted or something the subject wants to happen, but a desire instigated by a prohibition. In “The Censorship of Dreams,” Freud writes that “dreams are things which get rid of psychical stimuli disturbing to sleep, by method of hallucinatory satisfaction.”[1] If games have something of this feature, it is not simply a matter of saying that they give us what we want (i.e. fun or entertainment) but of considering what kind of hallucinatory satisfaction they provide in response to what kinds of cultural prohibitions, interruptions, and frustrations.

The second statement makes this point clear. The game is a disguised fulfillment of a wish, meaning that it is not the game that we want but something else. A clichéd Freudian might argue that the plot and gameplay of each game is enjoyable as a disguised fulfillment of more instinctual desire for sex, and many games would of course bear this out.

A clear example would be the Dead or Alive series (1996 — present), a program which simply displays a ream of young Japanese women only loosely disguised as a fighting simulator. Anita Sarkeesian, a YouTuber well-known to most gamers, has consistently explored the incredible number of exploitative representations of women found in almost every significant game at her channel Feminist Frequency, showing that these titillating images are almost always presented as insignificant supplementary material to the main action of the games. All gameplay could be seen as stand-in for this more instinctual desire and the argument could be extended to every game, since the frustration or displacement of sexual impulse seems not far away even from the grind of Candy Crush.

However, the third statement above, that dreams are the disguised fulfillment of a repressed wish, throws this oversimplified argument out. Heteronormative sexual desire for objectified electronic women is far from being a repressed desire. It is, on the contrary, something most males are more than confortable with confronting. What desires, then, are such enjoyments (of both the images and the gameplay) to be seen as distorted repressed versions of or substitutions for? It is well known that Freud did not “invent” the concept of the unconscious, but his conception of it broke significantly from other ideas. Where other theorists of the unconscious saw it as a space for the underlying drives which propel us, Freud was clear that the unconscious should be seen as by definition unknowable and necessarily resistant to conscious articulation. As such, once a desire is identified and designated, it is no longer or never was in the realm of the unconscious. However, this is not to say that the unconscious should not be interpreted. The fourth and final statement, that dreams are the disguised fulfillment of a repressed, infantile wish, needs qualifying in these terms. Infantile need not be thought of as instinctual, with its associations with the natural, but should be thought of instead as a foundational or formative desire. It is drive rather than instinct, a distinction made by Jacques Lacan:

Trieb gives you a kick in the arse, my friends – quite different from so-called instinct. That’s how psycho-analytic teaching is passed on.[2]

Drives move us forward, propelling us as if from within, but they do not originate from the inside. In other words, while our instincts (insofar as they exist) to a certain extent belong to us, our drives certainly do not. Like a decision made inside the virtual dreamworld, we are given a kick in the arse but nevertheless feel instinctive agency driving us in the directions in which we move.

With the implications of the four statements considered, Freud’s argument needs to go one step further than he took it. While Freud might argue that dreams are the disguised fulfillment of a repressed, infantile wish, in the context of this discussion the diagnosis can be reformulated in the following way: dreams are disguised as the fulfillment of a repressed, infantile wish. Whilst the dream is the dream of the other, it is disguised as the fulfillment of the subject’s internal or instinctive desire. Dreams give us a kick in the arse, coming from outside like a drive, but they can appear to be propelled from instinct or internal desire. In fact, though later commentators neglected to notice, when Freud used the term “infantile” to describe “wish” he did not mean instinctual desires. In the case of subject Professor R, for instance, he notes that the realization of one of the “immortal infantile wishes” was “the megalomanic wish,” which is instilled by cultural factors.[3] It would be better to conceive of such dreams as carefully constructed ideologies which appear to be internal impulses.

Video games, then, insofar as they are the experience of another’s dream, can be a unique form of enjoyment in which the wishes and desires of another are experienced – perhaps momentarily and unconsciously – as the wishes and desires of the gamer’s own. It is this peculiar brand of enjoyment which can be at once the most ideologically dangerous and the most subversive, which makes such experiences central to our conceptions of enjoyment in a wider sense. Thinking first of the purely ideological side of this function, games can naturalize the enjoyment of the other, forcing the player to feel a kind of affinity between themselves and the role they play within the game when they fall into the dreamlike gamer state. This is often not as simple as direct identification with a playable character and is a more complex connection between the unconscious of the gamer and the unconscious of the game. In such moments the player increasingly feels their emotions programmed by the game’s algorithms. In this sense desire is becoming increasingly algorithmic and video games are playing a key role in this reorganization of desire. This is a particular concern considering that increasing corporate organization of technological space means increasing potential for corporate control of desire itself, as discussed above.

This can also be understood in the terms of the unconscious. Of course, games reflect unconscious dreams, wishes, and desires, but they also play a role in constructing these unconscious assumptions. So far, this is nothing so different from other forms of media. Yet games have a particular and more unique role in this construction: the role of naturalizing the dreams, desires, and wishes of a political moment by making us experience those dreams, desires, and wishes as our own. Furthermore, as has been intimated, since the desires and wishes of a political moment can be unconscious to that moment itself, games have a quality of being able to predict as well as construct the dreams of the future.

There are two ways, then, in which this corporate “desirevolution” could be turned on its head via this same dialectical ideological enjoyment that it creates. The patterns of enjoyment found in the video game dreamworld tend toward the enforcement of traditionalist and conservative values which support the core values of contemporary capitalism or move them further to the political right. This is less because the structure of video games is inherently conservative or reactionary per se and more because the dreamworld is a reflection and even anticipation of coming political and social trends. Yet, if games serve the function of naturalizing forms of ideological enjoyment, could they not do for a subversive agenda what they appear to have been doing for corporate and state powers? Could we conceive of a video game which aims at reprogramming desire against the fascist, corporate, and capitalist tendencies found in video games in general, or would the only “morally ethical” game be the kind which denaturalized desire, showing our wishes to be not natural but the naturalized wishes of the other? This is a question about the politics of subversion in a much wider sense, since embracing this possibility would involve an admission that it is necessary not only to deconstruct existing ideological assumptions but to construct new ones, operating consciously to manipulate the emotions of others. It may be time for the left to accept this necessity.

Yet, even without the potential of a radical subversive revolution in video gaming, the ideological enjoyment found in gaming threatens to turn inside out and subvert the very organization of desire that it simultaneously enacts. Since video games can naturalize forms of enjoyment in the service of ideological forces, so too do they have the potential to make this naturalization visible, unseating the connection between enjoyment and nature and showing the political structure of enjoyment. The experience of algorithmic desire only works because it is not experienced as wholly algorithmic. On the other hand, making visible the algorithmic structure of desire undoes its ideological function. If video games can naturalize programmed desires, as explored further below, they can only do this by making the gamer experience such desires as natural. This kind of desire reprogramming can only function on its subjects if those subjects don’t realize what is happening and instead remain invested in a traditional idea of desire as free from politics. Even if we “know” that there is nothing instinctive about the desires and enjoyment experienced in the game, it is nonetheless important that such enjoyment is experienced as if instinctual. The corporate desirevolution, then, a reorganization in the service of Silicon Valley, works not only by algorithmically reprogramming desires but also by hiding this fact so that desire is experienced as an enchanting moment of authentic yearning for the object in question. Recognizing the programmable nature of desire – a psychoanalytic realization – upsets this traditional way of seeing desire which serves corporate interests, so that gaming, in all its conformism, has acquired the potential to undo this logic from within.

Alfie Bown is co-editor of the Hong Kong Review of Books. He is author of ‘Enjoying It: Candy Crush and Capitalism’ (Zero, 2015), The PlayStation Dreamworld’ (Polity) and ‘In the Event of Laughter: Psychoanalysis, Hegelianism and Comedy (forthcoming). He also writes for many non-academic publications.

This book excerpt appears on Public Seminar with permission of Polity Books.


[1] Sigmund Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XV: Introductory Letters on Psycho-analysis, ed. and trans. James Strachey (London: Vintage, 2001), p. 136.

[2] Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book XI, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: W. W. Norton, 1998), p. 49.

[3] Sigmund Freud, “The Interpretation of Dreams,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume 5, ed. and trans. James Strachey (London: Vintage, 2001), p. 218.