Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University


the game of love and chance: a discussion with Paul Virilio

Paul Virilio, urbanist and militant, lives in Paris. He has published, among other works, Speed and Politics, War and Cinema, Pure War (with Sylvère Lotringer), Popular Defense & Ecological Struggles, The Aesthetics of Disappearance, The Vision Machine, The Art of the Motor, Open Sky, and The Politics of the Very Worst. Reviews of The Art of the Motor and Open Sky by James Der Derian and Ian R. Douglas respectively appear in the dialogues directory of this site. Virilio is currently working on two projects: a book his notion of "the accident", and a book on media and Kosovo. He is best known as the protagonist of what he calls "dromology"; the science of, and study of speed.

by Jérôme Sans

JÉRÔME SANS: The contemporary world is witnessing a great evolution of the society of leisure. With home shopping and Pay TV, video games and virtual reality, we are developing a full-fledged aesthetics of play.

PAUL VIRILIO: Two attitudes are possible with respect to these new technologies: one declares them a miracle; the other—mine—recognizes that they are interesting while maintaining a critical attitude. The imminent home installation of domestic simulators and virtual space rooms for game-playing, poses many questions, and in particular this one: "What is a game once the virtual invades reality?"

There are two ways of understanding the notion of play: playing cards, dominos, checkers; or the play of a mechanical part when it is loose in its housing. I think, in fact, that the second is the angle from which we should envision play today. Play is not something that brings pleasure; on the contrary, it expresses a shift in reality, an unaccustomed mobility with respect to reality. To play today, in a certain sense, means to choose between two realities. A concrete factual reality: meet someone, love that person, make love to that person. Or, the game reality: use the technologies of cybersex to meet that person from a distance, without touching or risk of contamination, contact without contact.

What is at play in this case is an illness different from that associated with traditional games and provoked by chance. Gamblers can’t do without chance—they are addicted to it and can’t break the habit. I believe that alongside those addicted to chance, to roulette, to cards, or to any game, a new kind of addict is forming: the addict of the virtual. People who can’t do without virtuality will become hooked on virtuality and will find themselves in an awkward position, torn between these two realities. We can see it on Wall Street and in the stock markets, already casinos where the "traders" or "golden boys" play with the virtuality of international markets which are increasingly disconnected from the economic reality of the world.

JÉRÔME SANS: It's a kind of electronic addiction which leads to a virtual addiction.

PAUL VIRILIO: You could say that drugs are a game people get "hooked" on. Those who are addicted to card games or the roulette table always end up playing Russian roulette. Games and death, games and accidents, are related. When you play at chance, you are compelled to play and thus no longer free to play; and a physical or mental death occurs. Now video games or the more sophisticated games of tomorrow's virtual reality will induce this same desire for death. A desire to cross the boundary.

I am not a big player. What interests me today in the state of play is cybersex, because it seems to be the most extraordinary aspect of social deregulation. In addition to today's divorce epidemic—which can be attributed to other things than a lack of morality (I’m not playing the moralist here)—another type of divorce is brewing. Instead of living together, people now live apart. An example of this (without cybersex, but in an atmosphere that cybersex will cultivate) is the student couple who invited me to their wedding, and after the ceremony, went home separately. They told me, "This way we stay free." "That's great," I said, "your children won't be shocked if you get divorced one day because they'll have divided their time between your two homes anyway." Cybersex pushes this logic even farther. It’s not divorce, it's the disintegration of the couple. You don't make love anymore because it's dangerous, because sometimes there are problems—one person may not be very skilled or the situation may get messy. So you use a kind of machine, a machine that transfers physical and sexual contact by waves. What is at play is no longer the connector rod in its housing, but the loss of what is most intimate in our experience of the body.

The actor Louis Jouvet wrote, "Everything is suspect, except the body and its sensations." From now on, with virtuality and electronic copulation, even the body and its sensations will be suspect. In cybersex, one sees, touches, and smells. The only thing one can’t do is taste the saliva or semen of the other. It’s a super-condom.

JÉRÔME SANS: The sociologist Michel Maffesoli speaks of the development of "neo-tribalism," a desire to regroup, through all the possibilities of long-distance communication. It seems, nonetheless, that we are still dealing with an experience of solitary satisfaction.

PAUL VIRILIO: I don't believe in a return of tribes and I don’t think that a gang is a tribe. As I said in my book L’Inertie Polaire, what's on its way is the planet man, the self-sufficient man who, with the help of technology, no longer needs to reach out to others because others come to him. With cybersexuality, he doesn't need to make at love at his partner's house, love comes to him instantly, like a fax or a message on the electronic highway. The future lies in cosmic solitude. I picture a weightless individual in a little ergonomic armchair, suspended outside a space capsule, with the earth below and the interstellar void above. A man with his own gravity, who no longer needs a relationship to society, to those around him, and least of all to a family. Maffesoli's tribalization is a totally outmoded vision; the future lies in an unimaginable solitude—of which play is one element.

JÉRÔME SANS: One has the impression that the player's quest ends in a narcissistic orgasm.

PAUL VIRILIO: Yes, but it's a narcissism that is expanding.

JÉRÔME SANS: Some go so far as to say that video games mark a modern triumph of the icon.

PAUL VIRILIO: Those are the thaumaturgists, the miracle-criers. You have to be extremely wary of what the critic Jacques Ellul called "the technological bluff." Today we have admen, even experts, who spend all their time saying how wonderful technology is. They are giving it the kiss of death. By being critical I do more for the development of new technologies than by giving in to my illusions and refusing to question technology's negative aspects.

When the railroad was invented, so was derailment. Then there were people like me who said right away that they didn’t care if trains were great and went faster than stagecoaches. What was more important was that they not derail, that the accident specific to the train not prevent its development. These people worked on the problems of railroad accidents and invented the "block system" for signalling, which has made the TGV possible in France. The same can be said for aviation and so on. The accidents of virtual reality, of telecommunications, are infinitely less visible than derailments, but they are potentially just as serious. And there will be no "block system" as long as we listen to the prophets of joy.

JÉRÔME SANS: Video games have an incredibly imaginative side, a marvelous narrative, a journey through which the player can be transformed into a hero.

PAUL VIRILIO: This is crucial. In writing societies, the narrative is the journey. Melville's first line to Moby Dick—"Call me Ishmael"—sets the story in motion, starts Ishmael's journey. In writing, the narrative carries you along. On screen it's the journey, the visual rather than descriptive simulation of a voyage (a voyage along tracks, through a labyrinth, through a tunnel), that moves you. Thus the simulator becomes the new novel. And the simulation quality of the virtual journey replaces the poetic quality of the story, whether it be The Arabian Nights or Ulysses.

JÉRÔME SANS: So the new player is a traveler.

Yes. But now the travelers are traveled. Dreamers are dreamed. They are no longer free to move about, they are traveled by the program. They are no longer free to dream, they are dreamed by the program.

JÉRÔME SANS: This player is a hero in a hurry.

He's a man hurried by the machine. Mental images are replaced by mechanical instruments. When reading, one fabricates a mental cinema: each of us sees a different Madame Bovary at her window. In the Bovary video game, there will be only one Madame Bovary, the one in the program.

JÉRÔME SANS: We're getting back to your old hobby-horse: the idea that images are weapons.

PAUL VIRILIO: Cybersex is really the civil war of sex, since people are divided by it. More sophisticated games could replace society altogether. Aren't polls—electronic democracy, in a sense—big electronic games which are replacing political reality?

JÉRÔME SANS: What difference is there between video games and the simulations produced by war programs?

PAUL VIRILIO: As I wrote in L'Ecran du désert (my chronicle of the Gulf War), many strategists said that it was easier to understand the Gulf War by buying American video games than by watching the news on television. In a certain sense, they were right. We didn't see concrete events—how the ground troops broke through the Iraqi border, for example—but we did see war transformed into a video game, with the same image repeated over and over: a weapon hitting its target. That image is still very present. The division of perception into two realities causes a blurring comparable to intoxication: we are seeing double. It's impossible to imagine what this will ultimately produce, several generations down the road. To live in one reality and then, from time to time, enter another, through a night of drinking or hallucinogens, is one thing. But to live all the time through telecommunication and the electronic highway is another. I don't think we can even imagine what it may provoke in people's minds and in society to live constantly with this "stereo-reality." It is absolutely without precedent.

JÉRÔME SANS: Faced with the plethora of possibilities, what game should we play?

PAUL VIRILIO: Play at being a critic. Deconstruct the game in order to play with it. Instead of accepting the rules, challenge and modify them. Without the freedom to critique and reconstruct, there is no truly free game: we are addicts and nothing more.

info dialogue links
symposium participants netcast