Thursday, February 20, 2014

Aperture Science Compared to Modern Work Environment

Aperture Science Compared to Modern Work Environment

The Aperture Science Labs of Valve’s “Portal” are futuristic technology laboratories that use human subjects as tools for testing weapons technology. Like Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, one of “Portal’s” artistic messages is to convey the manipulation of laborers for the sake of progress, especially in the fields of the scientific, the rational, and defense technology.

               In One-Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse emphasizes the importance of the “estrangement effect,” or breaking the audience’s engagement to the events of some theatrical effect (Marcuse, 67). Through the gameplay of “Portal”, the player’s character, Chelle, experiences an estrangement effect. It is reasonable to assume that Chelle is just learning about the world she is in, parallel to the first-time player of “Portal,” upon her awakening. Thus, both Chelle and the player are actively engaged in learning. But as danger of the level increases, it becomes egregiously apparent that Aperture Science is exploiting workers while “disappear[ing] behind the façade of objective rationality,” (Marcuse, 32). This estrangement from Aperture’s testing is accentuated by interruptions in the puzzle gameplay of “hidden passages” like the one pictured below. 

               This kind of interruption serves to disrupt Chelle from the testing as the only world, and to imply that an overarching deception is used to manipulate the laborer; simply put, “The cake is a lie.” From this, “Portal” is alerting players that the evidence of their exploitation for rationality is present when the system is examined more closely. Yet, just as Chelle continues with the exploitative testing, real world labors continue to subject themselves to their toils for lack of any escape. “Portal” designers are attempting to alert the player to the “totalitarian” nature of their day-job. Also, that managers and administration will deceive employees with the false hope that there will be compensation, beyond that of their wage, for cooperation with the system (i.e. promotions, bonuses, titles, etc.).

               A remarkable development in “Portal” is found in the climax of the video game. Though game character Chelle is aware of her enslavement, by Marcuse’s definition of slavery as a person devolving to a mere tool to be used, she remains compliant (Marcuse, 32). This compliance is promptly terminated as Chelle faces her fate of death as a worn out tool to be discarded.

               “Portal” designers are attempting to convey that, in only matters of life and death, individuals will rebel against their oppressor. This is a situation in which the evolutionary “fight-or-flight” response overwhelms the urge to submit to slavery. Chelle’s rebellion was an extraordinary one; players can assume that many previous subjects were unable to create the opportunity for liberation. This should be viewed as a warning of how the big corporation guiltlessly discards humans as tools, yet only a small percent of individuals have the courage and the means of a revolt against the company.

               Would not the modern worker be protected from these repetitive violations of occupational safety violations? Of course they would; the Union would never allow workers’ life or limb to become a liability to the company. Would, though, the Union protect the average worker’s liberties? “The union is not going to convince missile workers that the company they work for is a fink outfit when both the union and the corporation are out lobbying for bigger missile contracts,” (Marcuse, 20). This lack of union representation allows Aperture Science to construct a truly hostile work environment for its subjects. Though the modern worker is unlikely to face the threat of literal conflagration, they do, especially in a tumultuous economy, face the constant threat of losing their job and means to support life. Without the strong union behind them to protect them from vulnerability, workers could likely accept a poor work environment with constant reminder that they may be expended. And laborers accept that they “Are in the swing of things” or as Marcuse explains the oppression is misguidedly regarded as, “Things swing rather than oppress and they swing the human instrument- not only its body, but also its mind and even its soul ,” (Marcuse 26).

               Examining the artistic storyline of “Portal” provides a revealing image of the modern workplace in which the big corporation is able to oppress laborers. Ultimately, the protagonist of the game committed to a rebellion of her slaver and, though futile, the revolt is depicted as a favorable end. “Portal” conveys a message of encouragement of self-determined liberation from the laborers’ working place of imprisonment and servitude.



Alec Brace said...


I really like your argument of comparing to the working conditions in Portal to the modern work environment today. When I was playing the game I did not make this connection but after reading your paper and reflecting back on the game I can definitely see it as a strong argument. Your connections between the game and Marcuse are also very spot on and validate your argument even more. One small detail I think you're missing though is making the connection between a CEO and GLaDOS outright. I feel like it is implied throughout the essay but I if you make it explicit you could pull a few more examples out of that. For example, the people responsible for putting the morality core on GLaDOS didn't do so because of the testing procedures that were being done, they did it because she started killing everyone with the gas. Take this and maybe you can apply it to the board of directors in a company today versus its CEO. Overall this is a good response to the prompt and definitely leaves some openings for expansion should you choose to revise it.


Brendan Demich said...

Thanks Alec,

I appreciate the concept of comparing GLaDOS to a CEO. It is a strong idea that I could use for revision. I really hadn't considered the role that GLaDOS and the Board of Directors would play into my essay while writing, but I am intrigued by the idea now.

Adam said...

Does Chell experience the estrangement effect, or do we? The latter would be more in keeping with Marcuse's understanding of art, although that doesn't mean that the former isn't what's happening in *Portal*. Should we think of her, or as us, as being the ones interpreting? It's an interesting question which could help you develop the essay if asked more directly.

There's some slippage in your discussion of Chell. Is she a laboratory animal, a laborer, a slave, or something else? You move a little too freely from lab rat == laborer == slave, when it was really worth stopping to think through which of these you were really invested in.

Making Chell into a worker is not necessarily absurd - but you needed at least to work to argue that as a subject of an experiment she is also a kind of worker - that seems like a major gap here.

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