Suppose there is a business in your neighborhood called The Cave™. It offers, for an hourly fee, access to game consoles in a darkened room. Suppose it is part of a chain. The consoles form a local area network, and also link to other such networks elsewhere in the chain. Suppose you are a gamer in The Cave™. You test your skills against other gamers. You have played in The Cave™ since childhood. Your eyes see only the monitor before you. Your ears hear only through the headphones that encase them. Your hands clutch only the controller with which you blast away at the digital figures who shoot back at you on the screen. Here gamers see the images and hear the sounds and say to each other: “Why, these images are just shadows! These sounds are just echoes! The real world is out there somewhere.” The existence of another, more real world of which The Cave™ provides mere copies is assumed, but nobody thinks much of it. Yours is the wisdom of Playstation: Live in your world, play in ours.
Perhaps you are not just any gamer. You are the one who decides to investigate the assumption of a real world beyond the game. You turn away from the screen and unplug the headphones. You get up and stagger out of the darkened room, toward the light outside. You are so dazzled by the light that the people and things out there in the bright world seem less real than the images and sounds of The Cave™. You turn away from this blinding new world, which seems, strangely, unreal. You return to the screen and the headphones and the darkness of being a gamer in The Cave™.
Suppose someone, a parent maybe, a teacher or some other guardian, drags you back out into the light and makes you stay there. It would still be blinding. You could not look directly at things. Maybe the guardian prints out some pics of your family or maybe a map of the neighborhood, to acclimatize you, before you can look at things. Gradually you see the people around you, and what it is that they do. Then perhaps you remember the immense, immersive games of The Cave™, and what passes for wisdom amongst those still stuck there. And so you return to The Cave™, to talk or text to the other gamers about this world outside.
You communicate to fellow gamers in The Cave™ about the outside world of which The Cave™ is just a shadow. Or try to. Plato: “And if the cave-dwellers had established, down there in the cave, certain prizes and distinctions for those who were most keen-sighted in seeing the passing shadows, and who were best able to remember what came before, and after, and simultaneously with what, thus best able to predict future appearances in the shadow-world, will our released prisoner hanker after these prizes or envy this power or honor?”1 You bet! The Cave™ is a world of pure agon, of competitive striving after distinction. But suppose you are that rare, stray, thoughtful gamer who decides to try this new game of getting beyond the game again? Suppose you emerge from The Cave™ and decide to take stock of the world beyond? You find that this other world is in some curious ways rather like The Cave™. The pics of family, the map of the ‘hood, seem made of the same digital stuff as your favorites games inside The Cave™. If there is a difference, it may not be quite what it seems.
Here is what you observe about the world outside The Cave™: The whole of life appears as a vast accumulation of commodities and spectacles, of things wrapped in images and images sold as things. But how are these images and things organized, and what role do they call for anyone and everyone to adopt towards them? Images appeal as prizes, and call us to play the game in which they are all that is at stake. You observe that world after world, cave after cave, what prevails is the same agon, the same digital logic of one versus the other, ending in victory or defeat. Agony rules. Everything has value only when ranked against another; everyone has value only when ranked against another. Every situation is win-lose, unless it is win-win — a situation where players are free to collaborate only because they seek prizes in different games. The real world appears as a video arcadia divided into many and varied games. Work is a rat race. Politics is a horse race. The economy is a casino. Even the utopian justice to come in the afterlife is foreclosed: He who dies with the most toys wins. Games are no longer a past time, outside or alongside of life. They are now the very form of life, and death, and time, itself. These games are no joke. When the screen flashes the legend game over, you are either dead, or defeated, or at best out of quarters.