This post will provide an overview of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s idea of the ‘Culture Industry’, before going onto to argue that video games may not wholly fit this term’s description, despite being part of modern-day consumer culture.
The ‘Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’ is a chapter in a book called Dialectic of Enlightenment, published in 1944 and written by two German philosophers, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Both Adorno and Horkheimer were part of the Frankfurt School, a philosophical tradition of social theory that was critical of both capitalism and communism. The main concerns of the Frankfurt School theorists were action and critique of society: rather than collecting data and reporting the results, they were more interested in using their theoretical ideas to critique the status quo and change society for the better. This short essay will briefly examine Adorno and Horkheimer’s concept of the “Culture Industry”, how this term redefines the meaning of ‘art’ and finally how the video games industry may not necessarily be as applicable to the Culture Industry as television or film might be.
The “Culture Industry” (Adorno and Horkherimer, 1944) can be understood as the creation of mass culture, not from the masses themselves, but though a top-down system of cultural subordination. The industry produces and distributes cultural goods to cultivate false psychological needs that can only be met with the products of capitalism, and consequently destroys the individual, absorbing it into mass culture. In Western countries, the political and economic forces of the state have colonized the cultural sphere, where entertainment and advertising motivate people to act in a certain way and to follow a specific mode of behaviour. Consumption has essentially been written into the very moral fabric of this media age; that as fundamentally a worker and consumer, what one’s life is within this culture, is if there is a problem, you buy a product to solve it.
To Horkheimer and Adorno however, art – unlike entertainment or advertising – should invite one to think; it should allow the possibility of contemplating another way of seeing the world. True art, they believe, should not automatically be undemanding to consume; we should have to concentrate hard on it to value its complexity. However, in a capitalist order, culture is determined by the market; when works of art are transformed into manufactured goods the market is going to consume – “cultural products” – they begin to undertake a process of sameness. Designers and developers have succeeded in using a formula to generate a product they know the people are going to buy, and fundamentally produce the same product endlessly, with minor aspects changed as a trick of seeming to be unique, presented to the consumer. For example, when one purchases a new phone, the screen may be somewhat bigger, it may have a slightly faster processor than its predecessor, which we may see as much needed improvements. However, in truth, the configuration of the phone we have just bought and the purpose that it fills remains the same. This may not be a problem to many of us, and we may just like to have a new phone every time our contract expires; we may want the opportunity to have better battery life or a more aesthetically pleasing, thinner device in our hands. Regardless if we believe our ever-replacing consumer products to be beneficial, Horkheimer and Adorno do not tell us that we cannot think this, but remind us to understand that these products are unnecessary, though sufficient in maintaining the consumer culture-oriented world we live in today, whilst things that are considered ‘true art’ cannot exist simultaneously within this identity and as a product of mass culture.
What happens, then, when the same operation is utilised towards sections of the “Culture Industry”? Adorno and Horkheimer for example, argue that when evaluating a piece of art, we stress such minutiae as how ‘astonishing the cinematography was’ or the ‘dialogue being fervent’. However, they argue that it has been the same motion picture being made available to the public – in form at least – year upon year for the last twenty years. We focus on these small specifics, because they provide the only differences amongst works of art today. In general, what the authors claim is that it is an identical creation recycled and fed to the masses time after time. Taking the example of ‘rom coms’: there may be unimportant details swapped around within each separate plot, but the general form of a romantic comedy is a film accomplishing the exact same purpose time and time again. The same idea pertains to thrillers, sci-fis and horror movies. These are prescribed templates that allow us to know exactly what to expect from a film and how it is going to turn out, before we even see it at the cinema. We have created a culture of unresisting consumption where the individual is easily pleased by the sheer abundance of popular culture available to them, not stopping to consider or contemplate its effects. On the contrary, listening to classical music at a concert would be deemed by Adorno and Horkheimer as ‘true art’, unaffected by capitalism’s identical movie ‘recreations’ churned out from Hollywood year after year. Unlike thrillers, horror films or rom-coms inherent similarity, the works of Mozart, Liszt or Saint-Saëns are all uniquely different.
Video games, on the other hand, or at least certain aspects of them, whilst being a part of the “Culture Industry” (Adorno and Horkherimer, 1944, p.120), may not necessarily adhere to such templates. A simple reason for this is that videogames by their very nature are more involving and are not prone to a ‘detached consumption’ as a film or radio programme might be. The player has more options at their disposal and can create their own experience of a videogame, where “different games require very specific sets of skills and knowledges in order for users to be successful at them”, (Ash, 2013, p.27).
This attribute is even more significant with sandbox games, a specific type of genre where the player can freely roam and explore their game’s universe, removes any sort of linearity or predetermined outcome; the player chooses how they want to play the game. Animal Crossing, released for the Nintendo Gamecube in 2003, is set in a small village dwelt by animal creatures that talk and interact with one another, one of which is the player. Here, there is no strict ‘objective’ in the game; the player simply lives their character’s life in real time whilst exploring their world of friendly neighbours, countryside and their local town. They can go fishing, get a job, gamble their money, buy furniture for their house – the list is very long. However, the game does not control the player; there are a seemingly infinite set of outcomes for a seemingly infinite set of decisions, and the game can never be completed.
Fig. 1: Animal Crossing gameplay. (Source: Acker, 2013.)
This feature of sandbox games allows the player to take full control of the game world, ruling over it instead of it ruling them. They can be creative in terms of what they decide to do in each day they live in their gaming universe, with no two days ever being the same. The world they manipulate and change becomes the playing environment they create for themselves. In a sandbox game, the world reacts according to your choices, and moulds to it; the player is not existing in surroundings that only change as you progress through it from point A to B. The essence of a sandbox games is that these ‘points’ do not exist.
On the other hand, the genre of ‘shoot ‘em ups’, where the user traditionally has a first-person view of their character, battling through a set number of missions, with a set number of enemies, objectives and weapons, with only the level’s situation changing slightly, could be seen as the epitome of what Adorno and Horkheimer have identified as sameness in the Culture Industry. The user cannot be creative in terms of how they play the game; gameplay only exists through linear progression, whereby the player must complete each individual ‘level’ or ‘mission’ in order to attempt the next. These types of games, it could be argued, only differ in graphics and physics of gameplay; if we compare a classic shooting game such as 007 Goldeneye from 1997, to the latest instalment of the Halo franchise, the latter only looks ‘prettier’. In reality, the ‘plot’ remains the same, with the game remastered to be more visually appealing to the user in order for them to think they are playing something novel, when in fact it is just their console’s processing power that has allowed the game to look near real-life, with gameplay being exactly what it was an entire generation ago.
Fig. 2: Goldeneye 007 gameplay. (Source: Machkovech, 2017.)
Despite this, the gaming industry, as one of the Culture Industry’s latest extensions, allows greater interactivity than what television, radio or film can offer. Games demand a certain interactive perspective from the user, and do not simply require us to passively consume a product. This interaction can allow room for more potential to be creative, and now with the advancement of virtual reality headsets as the next step in gaming evolution, Adorno and Horkheimer’s (1944, p.120) arguing that culture “impress[es] the same stamp on everything […] a system that is uniform” may not be as applicable. Virtual reality allows the player to step into and interact with another world, where the options and choices – to be creative with your decisions – are unlimited. This idea has recently been examined very well in Steven Spielberg’s 2018 science fiction film Ready Player One, in which much of humanity interact within a global gaming network, spending more of their time in a gaming super universe, rather than their dystopian reality. Perhaps, then, Adorno and Horkheimer’s concept of the Culture Industry is wearing away at its edges, slowly becoming outmoded and outdated. It might not be too strange to ask: has time finally caught up with these great German thinkers?
Acker, B. (2013). Animal Crossing: New Leaf Review. [online] Spawn First. Available at: http://www.spawnfirst.com/reviews/animal-crossing-new-leaf-review/ [Accessed 21 July 2018].
Adorno, T.W. and Horkheimer, M. (1944). Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Verso Books, p.120.
Ash, J. N. (2013). Technologies of Captivation: Videogames and the Attunement of Affect. Body and Society, 19(1), pp. 27-51.
Machkovech, S. (2017). We say happy birthday to Goldeneye 007 by looking at my 20-year-old review. [online] Ars Technica. Available at: https://arstechnica.com/gaming/2017/08/n64-classic-goldeneye-007-turns-20-today-and-so-does-my-awful-review-of-it/ [Accessed 21 July 2018].