Tuesday, 11 December 2007

"You just keep on trying 'til you run out of cake..."

This recent gaming article claims that the excellent first-person-puzzler, Portal, is a “feminist critique of the FPS genre.” Certainly Portal is a refreshingly different video game to most of those on the market but it seems to me that the analysis of this game goes too far. The idea that the titular portals that form the premise of the game are subconsciously representative of female genitalia really is the product of a subverted mind.

Psychology is very important to a balanced human life. As the inscription above the Oracle at Delphi said; ‘Temet Nosce’ – Know Thyself. Understanding how the human mind works has been a great boon for mankind through the twentieth century. Freud and Jung’s psychoanalysis may not be scientific but it helps people to understand themselves and the people around them. For several people, it’s probably made them happier as well. Psychology, along with spirituality and philosophy, is one of the three pillars that contribute to a healthy life in this world.

However there’s a limit. As Karl Popper pointed out, the theories of psychoanalysis are simply that; theories. This is because they are not refutable. Even if the game designers at Valve vehemently denied that they created Portal with any feminist undertones whatsoever, a psychologist could simply reply that subconsciously they did. This idea of the subconscious is important because it essentially means that none of us, through the eyes of psychology, can ever be truly responsible for our actions; there’s always some deeper motive lurking beneath to guide us and manipulate us.

The problem with psychology, or more rightly, psychotherapy, is this emphasis on that subconscious, inaccessible part of us. It’s like positing a ‘ghost in the machine’ that secretly controls everything we do and the inherent problem is that it’s essentially impossible to confirm yet psychologists persist in their belief of it nonetheless. It’s possible for them to make claims about feminist undertones in Portal precisely because the subconscious runs in the background supposedly influencing everything. This is why I have such a problem with Freud; his emphasis on maternal/paternal influence is without empirical basis and has led to a slew of people calling things ‘phallic’ simply because they’re cylindrical. It’s a cliché but it says more about the inventor than the subject. While the environmental factors of our ingrained mental processes are a contributing factor to our psychology (in other words, our past determines our present), I believe that choice plays more of a factor than psychologists presently accept. Defeating our own psychology can be difficult and escaping the traps of custom even more so but I think most of intelligent people’s actions can be attributed to choice. Free choice.

I don’t think there are any feminist undertones in Portal over and above it having a female antagonist. A video game is not like a painting; it’s a community effort rather than individual and even ‘subconscious’ elements don’t get put in a group project except by common assent. Maybe Valve did make it a female emancipation piece but that’s the kind of thing you mention in the developer commentary and, to my knowledge, it’s not in there. Is it too much to believe that they made a game as an artistic medium to serve as raw entertainment and a demonstration of technology? I also don’t think video games have a “context in which only the male perspective exists.” Yes, there are plenty of damsel-in-distress type video game characters like the ever-annoying Princess Peach but since 1986 one of the most popular video game characters, Samus Aran, has been a woman; one who, like the antagonist in Portal, doesn’t conform to established gender types.

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