Society, Poisoned by Imageries
by Mark Wegierski
Late modern societies – especially America and Canada – have become increasingly subjected to dark and disorienting imageries, notably in the various subgenres of the fantastic. Among the most prominent and absorbing of these subgenres are fantasy role-playing games (RPG’s) such as Dungeons and Dragons, launched in 1974. D & D arose from a convergence of interest in historical board gaming, medieval miniatures gaming, and the huge popularity of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in the 1960s.
As Dungeons and Dragons became increasingly prominent in the 1980s, some concerns arose about the allegedly occult nature of the game, fuelled by a number of highly publicized cases of teenage suicides. Indeed, there was a made-for-television movie, Mazes and Monsters, which explored the most prominent of these suicides. However, in relation to what was to follow in the 1990s and later, the mostly Tolkienian role-playing background or world prevalent among gamers in the early 1980s, had been reserved indeed.
D & D, as it is probably most commonly experienced today, is far removed from the charming, graceful Tolkienian mythos, while also lacking the Nietzschean textures of, for example, Robert E. Howard’s Conan vision. It is often suggested that D & D often amounts to the personalized power-fantasies (tinged with sexual elements) of frustrated and often highly intelligent adolescent North American males. Moreover, D & D typically conforms to the vision of open-ended progress, amorphousness, florid lifestyles, and wish-fulfillment fantasies, which have increasingly come to characterize the late-modern world.
The 1990s saw a plethora of ever-darker RPG worlds. There have also been parallel developments in other genres, notably science fiction and fantasy writing, film, and television; and the comic-book genre. The latter is known for its pioneering embrace of various forms of the macabre. A “dark turn” in the portrayal of superheroes such as Batman (typified by the breakthrough, graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns) or even Superman (where Superman, for example, was subjected to death) can be identified. The Spiderman comic also went into a period of gritty realism, where its lead figure was plagued with doubt, and afflicted with substance abuse. Horror writing, film, and television, have also intensified, probably far beyond what the older writers and directors would have countenanced. All these tendencies are magnified across not infrequently blood-soaked video, computer and interactive Internet games.
Computer and Internet games have become a burgeoning area, partially eclipsing the dice, pencil, and paper-based games that are played face-to-face. Across the Internet gaming culture, there is a decrease of interest in straight historical games, in favor of so-called First Person Shooters and sci-fi/fantasy. Many games which are ostensibly based on a science fiction background, are in fact dark space fantasy, dark fantasy, or horror.
The vampire is emerging as one of the central icons of our age, the ultimate unattainable sexual fantasy and the focus of numerous subgenres, including vampire romances and vampire erotica. Among the more successful vampire television series was Forever Knight, which portrayed the half-shaded figure of a “vampire-cop”. Now, of course, there is the Twilight book and movie series, and the two prominent television series, True Blood and The Vampire Diaries. Admittedly, the portrayal of vampires today ranges across a very wide spectrum.
Among the most popular RPG’s today are Deadlands: The Weird West (from Pinnacle Entertainment Group), based on the premise that an earthquake sinks California and releases a plague of evil spirits and occult energy in the 1870s, the undead walk the earth, and so forth. Another popular RPG, loosely based on The X-Files television series, is Conspiracy X (from Eden Studios). Eden Studios has also brought out the role-playing games, C.J. Carella’s WitchCraft; Extinction (Conspiracy X, one hundred years in the future); Armageddon: The End Times (subtitled, A Game of War, Myth and Horror); All Flesh Must Be Eaten (“the zombie survival horror RPG”); as well as Abduction: The Card Game (humans trying to escape from alien abductors, the so-called Grays of UFOlogy). A somewhat earlier X-Files-type RPG was Don’t Look Back: Terror is never far behind, from Mind Ventures.
The major RPG industry leader White Wolf has a whole World of Darkness where one can roleplay vampires, werewolves, magicians, wraiths, mummies, demons, and various types of “fey”. The portrayal of the elves is as virtual creatures of horror, again much different from Tolkien’s vision. White Wolf has also brought out a sci-fi role-playing game, Trinity, based on the premise of Psions struggling against Aberrants, who are twisted former humans with superhuman powers.
FASA (another major company) had earlier supported the sci-fi miniatures system, Vor: The Maelstrom, whose premise was that evil energies had broken the Earth up into a twisted shell, with a few humans clinging precariously to survival. One of the flagship RPG systems of FASA had been Shadowrun: Where Man Meets Magic and Machine, originally launched in 1989. Shadowrun is mainly based on the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction, however, it introduces a further twist on the theme. There is the introduction of so-called metahumanity (elves, dwarves, orks, trolls), all manner of other creatures of legend (dragons, etc.), and of the possibility of magical practice for most beings, including normal humans — into a high-tech, gritty cyberpunk world. The setting’s original premise for this evolution is an upsurge of an enormous wave of magical and occult energies around the year 2011, the date being based on the mysterious long cycles of the Mayan calendar.
In our world today, “man meets magic and machine.” There is a burgeoning of the most fantastic occult tendencies today, combined with surreal advances in technology. Shadowrun may both point to an increasingly dystopic world, as well as possibly offer some aid in understanding the parameters of such a future, under siege from both the hyper-irrational (the occult, conspiracy-theories, extreme forms of popular music), and the hyper-rational (hyper-technology, socio-technical controls, and corporate/bureaucratic rule).
Another major company is Games Workshop, based in Great Britain, which supports boardgames, miniatures, and RPG’s based on its WARHAMMER and WARHAMMER 40,000 A.D. backgrounds. The WARHAMMER background is dark-tinged fantasy. The WARHAMMER 40,000 A.D. (or 40K) universe is a very space fantasy, summarized by the phrase: “In the grim darkness of the future, there is only war.” In such a universe, there is no place for soft religions or soft emotions. Earth’s stellar empire is guarded by ultra-elite, very heavily armored Space Marines, who battle against all manner of hideous foes (Genestealers, Tyrannids, and so forth) reminiscent of the Alien/s movie series.
There is also Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu, the main RPG based on H.P. Lovecraft’s delirious horror-stories. The central premise of Lovecraft’s writing is the existence of malevolent, powerful, demonic creatures that will eventually come to dominate Earth – “when the stars are right”. These creatures have “slept” for many millennia, but are now beginning to awaken, encouraged by cultists grouped in various cabals. Pagan Publishing has produced a supplement to that game, called Delta Green, which enhances the Cthulhu mythos with extensive, surreal conspiracies. Delta Green is the name of the fictitious super-secret U.S. government agency – that now operates in deep cover – which is trying to combat the rising tide of evil.
Steve Jackson Games has brought out In Nomine, portraying the struggle between angels and demons in the current-day world, but in a manner far from (and quite offensive to) Christian belief. Steve Jackson Games has also pioneered, in a tongue-in-cheek but somewhat disturbing fashion, the whole surreal conspiracy concept, typified by their Illuminati games and settings. There have also been some other disturbing modules in Steve Jackson Games’ Generic Universal Roleplaying System (GURPS), notably Black Ops, a concept based on the premise of a “secret super-agency” fighting against hidden aliens and supermonsters in the current-day world. The very popular CthulhuPunk combines the dark near-future cyberpunk genre, with the Lovecraftian Cthulhu mythos.
The whole science fiction subgenre of cyberpunk (pioneered by, among others, William Gibson in Neuromancer, 1984), is characterized by highly transgressive bio-tech (genetic manipulations of the sort which, e.g., give a human being one lizard-like arm), and nano-tech (the notion of micromachines altering human mind, body, and perception). There is often in cyberpunk the notion of human beings employing mind-altering drugs and electromechanical implants of various kinds. Some of the GURPS modules contain the ideas of often gruesome genetic engineering – or “gengineering” (Bio-Tech), and of technological and magical manipulation, i.e., so-called techno-magic (Technomancer). The malleability of human beings/human nature is one of the main themes of both cyberpunk, and of current-day society’s “future shock”. Another type of roleplaying is LARP’s (Live Action Roleplaying) games. This is certainly taking the RPG concept even further. Among the most popular LARP’s are those involving horror subgenres such as the Cthulhu mythos or vampires.
What conclusions can be drawn from this rising tide of dark themes? First of all, it testifies to the atheism and/or nihilism of many young people today, for whom the notion of surrounding, powerful dark forces is the basis of diversionary, jaded entertainments. If they do not actually believe in vampires, demons, and conspiracies – they are even more remote from any belief in God. Secondly, RPG’s can arguably only flourish in a milieu in which few people identify with the history of their nation or people. Thirdly, in the late modern milieu, RPG’s serve a role similar to the Violent Passion Surrogate (VPS) described in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The life of these young people is in many cases too comfortable, too boring, and it lacks real meaning. The RPG supplies a kind of VPS, ersatz meaning, and, in some cases, “sense of history” (virtually all RPG’s of whatever subgenre have highly elaborate backgrounds). One recalls the catchphrase of the Call to Power II computer game from Activision – “History is what you make it.”
The advertising catchphrase of the hit-movie, The Matrix, which brilliantly portrayed a dark future based on extrapolating both AI (artificial intelligence) and VR (Virtual Reality), was simply that: “Reality is a thing of the past”. Our life in late modernity is often so fluid and malleable that it may seem that there is no “hard reality” to ever get hold of. The information traffic we are all caught in leads to a “postmodern blur”. The notion of reality may be tied to the sense of both a personal and historical past, of having a sense of ongoing continuity in our daily living. Insofar as we become wrapped up in a never-ending series of fantasies and phantasms, our sense of reality becomes profoundly fractured.
Late modernity, as expressed through audiovisual, electronic and role-playing media, effectively externalizes and commodifies the imaginarium (a person’s imaginative faculties and processes) as a construct OUTSIDE of the person’s own creative capacities. There is a profound difference between reading a book and experiencing multi-media. The former usually involves an active exercise of one’s imaginative faculties, whereas the latter is usually a passive reception of someone else’s imagery, even when there is supposed interactivity provided. Whereas a sense of imagination usually co-exists with a sharp sense of reality, in a world where image and reality blend into a postmodern blur, real imagination and creativity are probably as difficult to achieve as a sharp sense of reality.
So much of the late modern world is based on so-called branding, selling the image of a product or celebrity, usually for driving forward or increasing commercial gain. Among the consumerist and consumptionist pushing of commercial brands, there is the mass-marketing of numerous entertainment franchises – some of which are based on a once relatively-original, initial conceptual impulse – while others are commercially-driven right from the start. In both cases, the multiplication of images and concrete objects related to the franchise is so overwhelming, that it becomes pervasive across much of the culture. Only a few of these franchises, notably that of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Arda mythos, have traditionalist aspects. Serious religious and national impulses, which have developed slowly over centuries, tend to wane in the face of these ephemeral, but often fanatically followed brands and franchises. There is a tendency for non-materialist outlooks (such as those tied to the duties and obligations of traditional religion or nation), to disappear in favor of an orgy of material consumption and a frenzy of imaginative overloading that often amounts to intellectual narcissism.
VR offers the idea of solipsistic self-creation where the notion of human nature and natural limits has been utterly abolished. The computer-generated images often purveyed in current-day sci-fi movies (and television programs, especially the new crop of “cyber” programs for children), are often grotesquely unnatural, transgressive, and horrific, especially if compared to the human and natural worlds. They project a Gnostic, pseudo-spiritual transcendence of the material world.
VR is obviously linked to the postmodern (or hypermodern) notions of radical autonomy, and of continual deconstruction, self-construction, and reconstruction, unhampered by God, nature, or history. The notion of the radically disembodied self (divorced from family, history, and religion) is inevitably amorphous. While elevating individualism above all else, the self in late modern society becomes a shallow, banal construct, filled with mass-media images and concepts and pseudo-collectivities, often of the lowest common denominator. So, the cult of individualism of late modernity actually leads to an atrophy of true individuality and character, and the submersion of most people in a series of very low, herd- or mass-mentalities.
Life increasingly consists of ever more jaded entertainments and diversions. Yet, in the end, only true knowledge of the world is ultimately meaningful. Or, in the words by Ernest Hogan, in the cutting-edge cyberpunk work, Smoking Mirror Blues, “Reality is the only game worth playing”.
This article is based on a draft of a presentation read at the conference,“Poisoned Cornucopia: Excess, Intemperance and Overabundance Across Literatures and Cultures”, Poland: University of Opole, September 12-14, 2012.
Sociologist Mark Wegierski is based in Toronto. He is a science fiction and fantasy aficionado