Death Stranding: Manipulating the Brain for Good?
Growing up, video game creator Hideo Kojima often remarked on suffering from profound feelings of isolation, loneliness, and separation. He felt “different,” which made it difficult to connect with others. In a strange irony, many individuals today can relate to this feeling of loneliness, despite living in an increasingly connected world. The truth: A “like” is the closest some may get in an entire day to validation from another human being. For Kojima, salvation appeared in the form of creating video games. Cultural paradigm shifts and mental health issues are often linked to video games in a negative way, but this need not be the case.
In Hideo Kojima’s most recent video game/interactive movie experience, Death Stranding, the creator tackles all the themes you might expect from a philosophical game: existentialism, automation, addiction, loneliness, and identity. But he goes much further, Kojima is attempting to shift collective societal behavior through the medium of play. Put another way, Kojima wishes to evolve our culture through playing online games. It would be difficult to contest that our culture is evolving as we amalgamate our online persona with our identity; we curate ourselves for consumption, how many likes we get, how many followers, and how much attention we receive. Increasingly who we are and our presence online is becoming one of the same. If we are culturally evolving online, it would make sense that the nature of how we play in our culture will become increasingly online. It is here Kojima wishes to direct our cultural evolution.
Kojima’s company mascot is Homo Ludens, a play on the term Homo sapiens, coined by Dutch historian Johan Huizinga. His thesis surmises that play is not only a vital part of human culture but directly alters it in profound ways throughout our society. We see this in war, art, and even the legal system. He goes further: Given that civilisation arises out of play, a subspecies of human, Homo Ludens, has evolved to experience and express culture through play. There is little doubt Hideo Kojima firmly believes in the power of tackling complex human societal issues within the video game medium.
His critically acclaimed Metal Gear Solid series tackled war, trauma, and the problems with creating a hero to be worshipped. With Death Stranding, he fundamentally tackles one of the greater problems currently facing our society; how are we adapting to social media, which seeks to manipulate the worst part of ourselves?
Symbolism in play, that being art, writing, and expression, has always played a pivotal role in communicating information through the ages. In Death Stranding, Kojima focuses on “the rope and the stick,” tools as old as mankind itself — one pulls things toward us and connects us, the other wards of evil and threats to our survival. Especially, the rope is something he feels has been missing in video games; a simple yet profound statement.
Your role in the game is to literally build bridges and reconnect a post-apocalyptic America, which has been fragmented by a catastrophe. You do this by hiking across vasts geographically diverse landscapes, delivering much-needed resources to alienated cities in an attempt to reconnect them to the central hub of America.
But where the game comes into its own is its critique (and remedy) to the toxic online culture society currently faces. The like button has been exploited by businesses such as Twitter and Facebook to hijack the dopamine response area of your brain to create feelings of being “valued” and “liked” — both fleeting and addictive. The issue, of course, is what garners attention is emotion-based, reactive, and often negative. Thus human behavior is shaped to share and create information which will get the most likes, often to the detriment of cultural discourse.
The Japanese culture posits that individuals wear three masks: the first is how you present to the world, the second is to those close to you, and the third no one sees. Facebook understands this perfectly and exploits this desire to curate a superficial, inauthentic version of oneself to the outside world. The like button only reinforces this behavior of being “valued,” leading to many connections that lack authenticity and ultimately why people who spend most of their time on social media still feel lonely.
Kojima appears to have taken the theory of Homo Ludens literally by wishing to exploit this feedback loop in the brain during play but for good. He does this by creating a world in which players create structures for communal use, and the best, most helpful placed structures are rewarded with many thousands of likes; the envy of many a Twitter user. Build a ladder across a treacherous water rapid someone can use, and you get an automatic like. The player can “tip” you by adding additional likes if they feel so inclined.
This system of rewarding cooperation and empathic behavior is reinforced as the player gets their dopamine hit when those “likes” come rolling in. The player feels “valued,” which might explain why people are playing Death Stranding and coming away feeling a sense of positive well-being and fulfillment. You may have traversed the mountain alone, but others helped you along the way, and you helped them. The only thing you got out of it was “like,” a small hit of feel-good juice that has no detriment to the game or to other people. No one was cancelled and no one was filled with hate.
Kojima has outwardly stated his deep concern for the hijacking of the brain’s reward system to create an online world where people use the stick, at a major cost to society. With millions of dollars, A-list actors and gorgeous visuals, Kojima has created a place to play that exploits those parts of the human brain that are easily manipulated but for good. In a very real sense, Kojima is attempting a cultural paradigm shift away from the online stick toward the rope.