The Latent Object

Posted on November 17, 2004 by psu

There was a discussion on our local chat system a while back about the genesis of the frenzy over Halo 2. Pete suggested that the pre-release hype for a game such as Halo has its origins in the hard-wired obsessive addiction that hard-core gamers have for the next big hit, having been searching for the next big hit since their first exposure to games as young men.

This, of course, does not apply to me. My strange obsessive frenzy for Halo has a completely different source that Pete could not understand. After thinking about how to explain it, I came up with the following.

It is actually pretty simple. For any given hobby, there is always the object that you can see, but do not yet own, which will improve your experience in the hobby.

  • In photography, that one lens or camera body you do not own yet will make your pictures better.

  • In record collecting, you are always after that quintessential performance or recording.

  • In cycling, that new frame made out of unobtanium will make you ride faster.

  • In cooking, there is that one pan, or stove, or recipe, which will make your sauce, or soup or stew perfect.

  • And of course, in games, there is always the next new game which will be groundbreaking and excellent.

By analogy to photography, I’ll call this object the latent object of desire. Back when we captured images on film, the undeveloped image was referred to as the latent image. Exposed film has the potential of an image on it, but the picture itself is not there until you develop it. Any photographer will tell you that exposed film only contains perfect images. It’s only in development that you find out that you did it wrong. So the reality of the actual image is almost always a letdown compared to the perfection of the latent image.

Similarly, the reality of the real object is always a letdown compared to the perfection and bliss of the latent one. Therefore, it is usually much more fun to shop for things than to actually buy them. Not coincidentally, the way I tend to interact with hobbies, especially when I don’t have much time to really do them, is in shopping for latent objects that will improve my relationship with the hobby when I finally have time later. Which brings me back to Halo 2.

The gaming industry, being full of talented sales people, are masters of manipulating the desire for the latent object. This is the reason that “journalism” in the industry concentrates almost entirely on previews of games that have not been released yet. The game not played is still in a state of perfection. The latent game, if you will, has no save problems, no glitches in the online servers, no gameplay foibles, pacing problems, or unbeatable boss battles. Gaming provides an almost unending stream of new latent objects to shop for, to think about, and to compare.

So of course this drives my natural addiction to shopping into a frenzy, and hence the psychological mania over Halo 2. Luckily, I mostly shop, as opposed to this guy.

My other little shopping project of late has been comparing the GameCube and the Playstation 2 as second console purchases. After weeks of painstaking research, it seems to me that it all boils down to Mario and Zombies against Final Fantasy and cult Japanese imports. But more on that another time.