Nintendo and the art of mass manipulation – Reader’s Feature

A reader offers a Freudian analysis of Nintendo’s silence concerning their new games and explains why instant releases are so unexciting.

As anyone who has seen Adam Curtis’s superb documentary The Century of the Self will know, corporations are experts in the art of mass manipulation. Or at least they’re very good at soliciting experts for advice on how to manipulate the masses into wanting things people have no use for. Curtis begins his documentary with the story of Edward Berneys, the nephew of the ‘father’ of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud. Berneys lived in New York where he helped to pioneer the field of what we know today as public relations, another word for propaganda.

Freud hated everything that the US represented and would’ve been horrified by how Berneys put his theories of the human personality to use. What Berneys helped corporations to recognise is that products sell not by appealing to reason but instead to unconscious and irrational desires. Rather than market a product according to its specifications, Berneys showed that what really sells a product is the irrational feelings we associate with them. It’s why when faced with the option of having two identical products we tend towards the one with a logo.

You see this with the way that video game consoles are marketed. Gamers are fascinated by tech specs but these barely get a mention in the advertising campaigns leading up to their release. Recall the advertisements for the Wii console. The focus was not on the games themselves. Rather we saw healthy looking, multi-ethnic, and attractive young people with smiles on their faces stood together in sporting postures seemingly having fun. The message was simple and highly effective: video games are no longer for gauche, unhealthy, sexually frustrated and prurient adolescent boys at home in isolation – no doubt in underpants and eating pizza.

It showed that as well as for boys and men, video games are for girls and women, people of all shapes, sizes, and colours. In a stroke Nintendo had made video games socially acceptable and there was no longer any shame in declaring your passion for them. They had expanded the market for video games and, much to the annoyance of some ‘hardcore’ gamers, the Wii console was a roaring success. Nothing had really changed. Aside from the novel motion control technology, the form and content was essentially the same. But through these associations Nintendo tapped into unconscious and irrational defence mechanisms and provided everyone with an alibi to play. It was a masterstroke in the art of mass manipulation straight out of Freud’s textbook.

This brings me to the frankly baffling lack of advanced publicity for upcoming releases on Nintendo’s current console. The absence of any information on forthcoming first party releases is one thing. But matters were taken to new heights of absurdity the other day when during their mini Direct they dumped without notice Panzer Dragoon onto the market. Bearing a resemblance to Star Fox 64, a game I got a lot of pleasure out of on the N64, I was keen to give it a try. So you would think I’d be delighted to learn I could download it immediately. Not at all. I lost all enthusiasm for the title.

Someone should hand Nintendo a copy of Todd McGowan’s book, The End of Dissatisfaction? Jacques Lacan and the Emerging Society of Enjoyment, and quickly. A rebellious disciple of Freud’s, Lacan broke with some of the biological assumptions that undergirds Freud’s theories and placed language at the centre of our unconscious and irrational drives. To anyone not already versed in psychoanalytic theory, Lacan is impenetrable and I would only recommend people read his fascinating and compelling theories if they enjoy riddles. The best introductory text, though still challenging, is Bruce Fink’s The Lacanian Subject.

But I digress. Picking up on Lacan’s theory, McGowan points out that contrary to what we tend to think, pleasure does not lie in satisfaction. It’s not about the video game that is bought and played but rather in the (dissatisfying or frustrating) anticipation of pleasure. Think about it this way: to be satisfied is to be hungry no more, to desire no more.

McGowan gives the example of the Christmas ritual of children unwrapping presents. Picture little Timmy. He’s being going on for months that he’d love a Nintendo Switch console, but his parents are poor and can barely afford to pay their rent let alone purchase an expensive console. Yet somehow, unbeknownst to Timmy, they manage to save enough money to buy one and surprise him with it on Christmas morning. Timmy bounds downstairs that morning, races to the tree under which his presents lie wrapped in pretty paper and bows and eagerly starts to unwrap them.

‘Slow down’, say his parents. But one after another he races through them, ripping the paper away and creating a big mess on the living room floor, each time casting the unwrapped gift to one side. And then, behold! To his surprise and delight it’s a Nintendo Switch console. All those weeks seeing those presents wrapped under the tree and guessing what’s in them, now that they’re opened the mysteries are resolved. Nothing else to look forward to. Christmas is over, at least the best part of it. ‘He seemed more interested in unwrapping the gifts than the gifts themselves’, his parents chuckle. And this is precisely McGowan’s point. The more intense pleasure is in the unwrapping of the gifts, not the gifts themselves.

Which is not to say there’s no pleasure in playing the game. Take Zelda: Breath Of The Wild. Hypothetically, you can confront Ganondorf at any time. But despite acquiring all the powers needed to defeat him, I, like many gamers, spent many hours traversing its vast and open world to extract every secret from it. When finally you do defeat Ganondorf it’s game over. Nothing more to play. Enjoyment no more.

Another example I could give is the cinematic or video game spoiler. When reviewing video games GameCentral are rightly at pains to avoid disclosing plot twists, later additions, and so forth. They don’t want to spoil the surprise and thereby enjoyment of playing the game. But wasn’t it the point of playing The Last Of Us, for example, until the very end to find out about that twist everyone had been going on about? Didn’t those viewers of The Empire Strikes Back want to know who in fact Luke Skywalker’s father is? The thing we desire is the last thing we want.

Now imagine a different scenario. This time Timmy’s parents decide to save him the bother of unwrapping the presents themselves and instead put them unwrapped under the tree that very same Christmas morning. It’s the stuff traumas are made of. Despite getting precisely what he wanted, Christmas for Timmy would be spoiled and he’d likely forever hold a grudge against his parents and probably in adulthood be seeking therapy from a psychoanalyst.

This is what Nintendo appear to have forgotten. The drip feed of information stokes our desire and is an essential part of the pleasure. Knowing the release date well in advance is an important aspect of this. To be fair, they do this quite well with their AAA first party releases. But it’s important also to give plenty of advance notice, not too much, but just enough to whip up the anticipation and excitement. By launching Panzer Dragoon on the very day they announce its release they’ve done the equivalent of opening up little Timmy’s presents on his behalf. They’ve spoiled my enjoyment.

By reader Ciara

The reader’s feature does not necessary represent the views of GameCentral or Metro.

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