Robert Stoller, Sigmund Freud and Heinz Kohut provide essential
insights into the way contemporary entertainment -- including movies,
television, theme parks and computer games -- lets us act out our fantasies
and desires, and master the traumas of life.
A Culture Based on Fantasy and Acting Out
by Ken Sanes
In a rundown section of downtown Boston, inside a partially abandoned
building, one can find an indoor playing field for a combat simulation game
known as paintball. The playing field consists of two large rooms splattered
with paint on the walls and concrete floors. Free-standing wooden barriers
have been placed at random in both rooms to provide players with something
to hide behind when their opponents fire at them.
Players divide into two teams and take positions behind the
barriers. Each player is equipped with a protective suit, including knee
pads and goggles, along with an air-powered gun that shoots "paintballs" or
gum ball-sized gelatin capsules filled with paint. When a game begins,
players proceed to fire at each other with their air guns in an attempt to
eliminate opponents or capture something on the other team's territory. When
players are hit by one of the paintballs, they feel a pinch as it explodes
and "bleeds" on their clothes and skin. They are then officially "dead" and
have to wait out the rest of the game.
Paintball is one of a growing number of combat simulations that
turn the mock gunfights of childhood into adult and adolescent war games, by
paring down the elements of battle to a number of essentials: combatants
with guns, an opportunity to run around, and places to protect oneself from
enemy fire. In effect, it retains the form of a battle but not the
substance, offering players a reenactment that lacks the stakes or physical
injury of genuine combat.
There are similar indoor and indoor playing fields for paintball
around the United States and a burgeoning subculture with its own
tournaments and heroes. There is also a growing arsenal of air-powered guns
that can be purchased by players, which parallels the fascination with real
guns in the larger society.
Paintball is an example of a new kind of symbolic arena that now
characterizes popular culture. By way of a preliminary definition, symbolic
arenas are protected domains that make it possible for people to act out
fantasies, embodying their fears and desires, in ways that aren't possible
in everyday life. The settings, situations and actions they are created out
of, are lifelike representations -- fictions -- masquerading as something
Some symbolic arenas make it possible for participants to directly
play out fantasies, either by engaging in physical action and role playing,
or by manipulating images or objects that represent them. In addition to
paintball, examples of these "high-interaction" simulations include laser
tag; video and computer games; interactive movies; some rain forest exhibits
in zoos; virtual realities; children's toys; board games; pinball; sexual
role playing; interactive computer pornography; voice acting on 900 numbers;
and so-called MUDs on the Internet, in which people play roles in fictional
worlds created with text descriptions instead of images.
Other symbolic arenas place the audience in a more passive role, in which
it is taken for a ride or watches, and identifies with, characters who do
things in fictional situations. These include television, traditional movies
and the theater, amusement park rides and the more recent movie rides.
What kinds of fantasies do participants reenact in symbolic arenas?
As in theme parks, they experience the illusion of transcendence, not only
from time and space, but from the roles they play in society. They become
part of stories that are larger and more interesting than those in everyday
life. The adolescent video game player becomes a space pilot trying to save
the universe; the child becomes a parent ministering to a doll that acts as
a surrogate child; the television viewer, acting vicariously through the
character of the detective, solves the crime and defends the moral order of
Symbolic arenas also provide participants with a sense of mastery
and safety by showing us characters, or allowing us to play characters, with
various abilities and forms of power. Through these characters, we then
reenact the universal story line that is common to all fiction: danger and
obstacles are faced, but we, or the characters we identify with, win in the
Thus, one can say that many symbolic arenas are acts of self- and
world-repair: they allow us to face and overcome simulated dangers and
problems, which are a more exciting version of what we face in everyday
life. In these characteristics, they are similar to daydreams, in which we
convert our defeats into victories and our losses into gains to bolster the
sense of safety and self-esteem.
What Dr. Robert Stoller, a psychoanalytic theorist who looked at
the way the mind creates scripts, said about art, daydreams and pornography,
is true of all symbolic arenas. They allow us to convert personal trauma
into "simulated trauma, mastered trauma," he said. And they create aesthetic
excitement by presenting fictional dangers that seem real, while allowing us
to control the production to be certain it isn't real.
"...aesthetics is like a game," Stoller wrote "Like chess or
football, it simulates by manipulating the symbols of danger."*
In addition to letting us master trauma and danger, and escape the limits
of physical reality, symbolic arenas also allow us to play out every other
kind of desire we know from psychoanalytic theory and everyday life. Power,
phallic aggression, revenge, sex, love and success are routinely acted out
and temporarily sated in these fictional worlds.
Symbolic arenas, based on these principles, now define popular culture,
which is becoming a giant arcade that draws everyone into its lifelike
fictions. Overseeing it, we once again find growing numbers of designers and
fabricators who take images and ideas from nature, history, the contemporary
world and their own imaginations. They convert these into forms of
entertainment, which make it possible for millions of people to act out
personal and collective fears and desires in artificial worlds.
Like all entrepreneurs, the creators of symbolic arenas find and exploit
market niches, designing story lines for specific personality
constellations. In so doing, they have turned popular culture into a vast
inventory of the fears and desires of the human personality.
Here are some examples of symbolic arenas:
* Video games provide a realm of virtual action in which players
can incarnate in fictional worlds by manipulating image surrogates on the
screen. Players choose from a selection of imaginary adventures that are,
for the most part, the same as those found in television, movies and theme
parks. Like those other forms of entertainment, video games offer
simulations of journeys to exotic places, of space travel, of futuristic
battles and one-on-one combat, to name a few well-known examples. And like
them, video games let players experience a sense of transcendence from time
and space, and from the roles that players routinely find themselves in, in
But behind all these fictional roles and situations, many games are
intended to make it possible for adolescent males to act out a limited set
of desires that are central to their psychology, involving phallic
aggression, competition, strength, the display of masculinity and conquest.
This is a hormone-saturated simulation in which competition dominates and
almost everything is an arena for a contest or fight. These basic desires
may be dressed up in exotic situations but, in the end, the fantasies being
acted out are very mundane.
Video games similarly allow players to express anger, hostility and
desires for revenge, which are blended in with desires to express phallic
aggression (as they are in life, in general) in the experience of destroying
things on the screen.
As a 14-year-old player I interviewed for a newspaper story in 1983 put
it: "It's a way, if you're mad, to get rid of your tensions. You can blow up
wave after wave of spaceships."
His friend then added: "If you keep all this tension inside you, you can
go crazy" -- a statement that says a good deal about the role of symbolic
arenas in the lives of young people.
But what is unique about video games is that players are spectators,
manipulators of the simulation and participants at the same time,
controlling image surrogates that represent them on the screen, and acting
in the virtual environment through their surrogate. In their role as
spectators and manipulators, they watch and dominate the action. In their
role as participants, they experience these image surrogates as an
extension, not only of their will, but of their body. In essence, their body
image expands to include the image under their control, allowing them to
take on a virtual presence in the game, as part of their fictional role.
An example of how this division works can be seen in the way players act
out a set of desires described by the psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut. Kohut said
that children have the need to idealize the perceived greatness of adults,
on the one hand, and they also need to have their own sense of grandiosity
mirrored back to them, by having other people admire them. In effect, they
need to admire and be admired -- needs that are carried into adolescence and
adulthood, and acted out in various ways throughout life.
We can see these desires vividly expressed in video games, where players
manipulate all those images of overdeveloped fighters and super-powered
machines, so they experience themselves as having a kind of virtual body,
full of strength and firepower, which express fantasies that they have
grandiose physical selves. At the same time, because this virtual body is
separate from them, they can admire it as if it is another person. The games
thus provide a unique way for players to admire and be admired at the same
time: the games are mirrors that reflect a grander self back to the player.
But the expression of these desires doesn't remain hermetically sealed
inside the simulation, because playing video games can also be a form of
social interaction in which players test their skills against each other and
experience victory. In the game Sega Daytona USA, six players sit lined up
in seats in front of six screens, all of which display the same virtual
roadway. Each player is assigned the image of a car as his surrogate self.
Each must navigate his car on this same virtual road, on which the images of
cars controlled by the other players are also displayed, allowing players to
try to bump each other off the road and see when their competitors pass them
in the race.
This is a game of speed, competition, and violence. One can see in the
players' expressions, the excitement of the chase, coupled with the
enjoyment of bumping and knocking the cars controlled by their friends, so
they will go off the road. The game is the equivalent of a wrestling match
between adolescent males to see who will come out on top, but here
transposed into a virtual world of images with a more exciting story line.
We can thus see in video games, the way basic elements of personality are
acted out in a virtual world. Players experience excitement by facing and
overcoming fictional dangers and obstacles; they experience greatness and
victory, and enact phallic and aggressive urges; they learn tasks and have
accomplishments, in which they win against the machine and other players,
and they have opportunities to impress friends and confirm social standing,
all of it made more exciting by the simulation, which makes it seem they are
doing all this in ways that transcend the usual limits of life.
Just as there are a limited number of desires being expressed in the
manifold story lines, so video games also operate almost entirely according
to one basic principle: the player's surrogate self must come into contact
with or avoid contact with other images. This is a world that moves as a
result of a mock physical causality rather than according to the complex
meanings of plot. This simple pattern of operation is able to generate so
many possibilities because of the diversity of images and story lines; in
other words, because of the richness of the simulation.
* Another kind of symbolic arena makes its appearance every Halloween,
when theme parks modeled after horror movies pop up in many cities, using
stage sets, props, costumed actors, animatronic figures and other special
effects to create nightmare worlds full of ghoulish delights. Typical sights
encountered by visitors include mutant creatures writhing in agony; zombies
wandering the grounds; scenes of torture, and disembodied heads.
These haunted environments allow visitors to play the role of
victims of evil, creating a fictional risk in which they survive to tell the
tale. Visitors encounter their own nightmares and the kind of fantasized
monsters that, as children, they imagined were hiding in the closet or under
the bed at night. The excitement is in the fact that it looks dangerous and
terrible, but isn't. As in video games, visitors win in the end, in this
case by demonstrating to themselves that the evil that is portrayed is
harmless after all.
* Toys provide another kind of symbolic arena, aimed at the developmental
level and gender of children. Typically, the toys are used as props, which
allow children to lose themselves in the dramas of play, acting out issues
that are central to their stage of development. For girls, there are plastic
reproductions of stoves, dishwashers, vacuum cleaners and other appliances,
and lifelike dolls that talk, walk, cry, and offer (surprisingly explicit)
opportunities to act out issues that revolve around toilet training. For
boys, there are more opportunities to act out phallic aggression, with
plastic guns and action figures, much of it spun off from the science
fiction fantasies of the movies.
Like many other symbolic areas, toys are becoming strikingly realistic,
resulting in such strange cultural objects as a lifelike imitation of Burger
King Restaurant Food, which lets children stack plastic burger, lettuce,
tomato, onion and pickle on a plastic bun. Walking through toy stores,
today, one finds oneself in a simulation bazaar lined with boxes, each
trying to lure would-be customers with claims that they contain an imitation
that is so realistic, the buyer won't be able to distinguish it from the
How are symbolic arenas created?
Using an analogy to the psychoanalytic idea of dreamwork, one might
refer to the process by which these invented worlds are spun out of our
minds as simulation-work. Simulation-work involves everything that is done
by artists and those in the entertainment industry to make simulations as
realistic possible. But it also involves the way all of this is completed by
audiences and participants, who spontaneously suspend disbelief and work to
enhance the lifelikeness of the experiences. Thus, the creators of paintball
provide players with barriers and imitation guns; it is the players who
complete the simulation, running around like they are soldiers in battle.
Simulation-work also has another element discussed, to some degree, by
Stoller: making certain the simulation isn't so real that it creates a
physical danger to participants or compromises their moral identities. And
it involves making the simulation unlike reality in ways that enhance the
aesthetic experience, for example, by condensing the events portrayed into a
brief period of time or making them all relate to the story.
Finally, it involves the process that makes it possible for these
invented worlds to embody narratives and images that express and disguise
our fears and desires. In short, the creators of all kinds of fiction start
off with fears and desires. which are invested in cognitive schemas or
models of themselves and their surroundings. They then take hold of whatever
raw materials are available (words, paint, computers, etc) and whatever
artistic techniques their culture offers (or that they can develop) and they
spin those schemas into imaginary worlds that let us act out what is on our
The history of art and entertainment is the history of advances in the
techniques and technology of simulation-work, from stories told around the
campfire and paintings on cave walls to contemporary movies, Disney World,
and Back to the Future...The Ride. Today, those advances are enhancing the
realism of our invented worlds; expanding our opportunities to experience
physical, sensory and psychological immersion in our invented worlds; and
allowing for more participation in the simulation. In place of looking at an
imitation of life, we increasingly find ourselves inside one. In place of
identifying with the characters, we increasingly are the characters. In
place of merely enjoying scripted stories, we have more opportunities to
create part or all of the story as we go along. And in place of imagining a
relationship with various characters, we increasingly interact with them.
This change is resulting giving us a new kind of fiction that only
existed in an undeveloped form, before. Whereas traditional literature and
drama allow us to see characters with all kinds of abilities and desires,
this new kind of fiction creates the illusion that we have these abilities
and desires, ourselves. The manufactured experiences of art cease to be
merely vicarious and happen to us directly.
But this culture of acting out environments that refer to various
meanings in ourselves, comes with a number of dangers. One is that we will
act out issues that are central to our personalities and culture, in
disguised form, in place of becoming aware of them. As Freud said, we can
reenact the traumas of the past or we can remember them. But we can't do
both at once because the reenactment is a defense against remembering. In
other words, popular culture is, in part, the ultimate stealth simulation.
It is a maze of forgetting, a road away from the truth of the self, even as
it also expresses the self in disguised ways.
There is also the danger that this culture will draw us into fields of
engagement in which nothing is at stake. It invites us to stand at a remove
from things; to act decisively when the stakes aren't real and when there is
no danger that we will make a true mistake. It encourages us to encounter
other people only through mediations -- computer images, voices, and so on
-- and to interact with fictional characters in place of people, so we are
protected from intimacy or the judgment of others. Behind the facade of
daring exploits and journeys, it offers a reality in which we always play it
safe. Simulation, the ultimate imitation of life, becomes a wall that stands
between us and the true experience of life.
- - - - - - - - - -
*Robert J. Stoller, Observing the Erotic Imagination (New Haven and
London: Yale University Press, 1985) pp. 58-61.
There is more on simulation at:
Age of Simulation
© 1996-2011 Ken Sanes