Could the protagonist of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel, American Psycho, be a template for Western people to aspire to?
Play up, play up, and play the game.
In these accelerating times, we are often encouraged to view life as if it were one big game and the greatest proponents of that view are usually people we associate with the concept of success. These people we associate with success are skilled at ‘playing the game’ and become part of an archetypal template for this sort of symbol of success.
If capitalism is a survival of the fittest scenario, then characters like Patrick Bateman, the high net worth main character of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, have been created to resemble, in their parodic fashion, the fittest. Therefore, to be successful at the game, and thus the fittest, you, the player, should emulate the strategies that have been shown to be successful for the fittest.
Patrick Bateman was a psychopath who murdered innocent people and obsessed about his business card. Surely, I can’t be serious in suggesting that someone so immoral is to be aspired to? The player doesn’t need to kill anyone; they just have to take the actions that are the most beneficial to them. Morality differs across myriad criteria. What is moral for one person, is immoral for another. What used to be immoral at one point is now perfectly reasonable. It is possible that something that has come to be seen as reasonable, from a previous state of immorality, may be deemed immoral once again in the future. Given that morals are so varied and flexible, on an objective basis we can conclude that they don’t exist. They are just useful tools in directing group behaviours and so don’t really matter outside of situational use to the player. What matters, according to the rules of the game, is what is successful. So a player might conceive of lying, cheating, stealing, and so on as being immoral – but under the rules of the game these are merely tools to advance their position. Played to its logical conclusion, murder might be beneficial, providing the player can get away with it. We see this a high risk/high reward play undertaken by either desperate players or players who have enough influence to expect to tip the odds of success, and thus reward, in their favour. If a player can’t get away with it – and they probably can’t – they shouldn’t kill anyone.
There are, naturally, objections that the game is rigged against the majority of players. Correct. The game is rigged against the majority of players. But playing it in the way that it has been suggested to work may bring a player more success. Otherwise, what? Aim simply for mediocrity? Or do they play within the looping rules of mediocrity, hamstrung by other players who want to keep them in their place? Mediocrity isn’t bad if one has earned enough to sustain a mediocre existence. All too often, even a mediocre existence is eked out at such an exhaustive cost to the mind and body that there is nothing left at the point that players need to slow down or stop. What can you put aside now? Nothing. That is deliberate. Nevertheless, you must. The successful have enough to put aside, thus be like the successful player. How are you successful? In part, by abandoning the rules given to you and adopting effective modes of play. Where can a player find a veritable tutorial on playing the game and winning? In Patrick Bateman.
Admittedly, that’s an easy position to take from behind a computer monitor. Viewing life as a game only works if a player has enough resources to absorb the consequences of losing. However, viewing life as anything other than a game doesn’t seem to be paying dividends for many players. They are frequently too busy trying to get by with what they have, under the misguided notion that this is virtuous, to make the slightest headway in advancing their own interests. Otherwise, they are attempting to anticipate all manner of future malignancies, misfortunes and outcomes, that the mere thought of, say, leaving a job, becomes a panic-inducing kaleidoscope of ‘what ifs’. As a result, players hedge their bets, they do not move, they can even tie themselves to sinking ships long after they should have left, owing to some imagined obligation – a sense of obligation that is often deliberately cultivated to the players detriment and another’s gain. The rules are: stay safe, aim low, do not strive to achieve anything beyond your station. Do not will more for yourself. This is deliberate.
Playing life as a game, frees a player up enough to take those risks by creating distance between the player and the problem. It may be that in doing so the player gains enough resources to keep going, and finds the means by which to advance their position, and the will to aim for something other than the baseline. Even the player does not achieve what they set out to, they may nonetheless find themselves in a better state than they started, which is still progress – and progress is far preferable to stasis. In our survival of the fittest scenario, merely surviving is not enough.
Well, that’s nice, but only a few people can occupy those sorts of highly successful positions and lifestyles characterised by Patrick Bateman. Not everyone can go around sipping champagne in penthouses, or becoming incredibly emotional about specific restaurants. True, but let’s not get hung up on the aesthetics. This is about the behaviours that players exhibit, and the behaviours that players are dissuaded from exhibiting. The actions a player is dissuaded from taking are, often enough, the actions that have a high reward rate, provided the actor is skilled enough in executing them. These behaviours and actions are ensconced by social codes that teach players that certain behaviours and actions, while useful in furthering a player’s advantage, are ‘bad’ and should be avoided. Meanwhile, many ‘virtuous’ behaviours are ineffective but draw passive respect from other players and that respect, though localised and relatively insubstantial, is treated as if it holds effective value – if not metaphysical value. But what if those codes were just there as another ploy to dissuade potential rivals from utilising effective strategies to improve their position in the game? Afterall, don’t other players utilise these same ‘bad’ strategies to great benefit? Look at politicians, media personalities, the sociopathy rates in high-level business figures, and so on. The persona is merely a tool in the arsenal, worn like a suit while espousing the values of authenticity and being ‘real’. This demonstrated the effectiveness of misdirection via the tools of lies and hypocrisy. Under the rules of the game, players are compelled to ignore those espoused social codes in favour of effective strategies, despite reflexive opposition from other players.
You’ll note that Patrick Bateman was never happy. However, he was comfortable. More than comfortable. Honestly, that’s all the vast majority of people want. Bateman was also trapped in a world, which was as distant from him as he was from the world – there was never even a chance of him having anything like a connection. Which was the point. Conversely, a player does not have to emulate Bateman at a 1:1 level – they may choose to wear the mask every hour of the day in all company. But they can also stop wearing the mask if and when they feel it is necessary or desirable.
It could be suggested that the big idea here is to boil the entirety of society down into a nightmarish Darwinian survival of the fittest. It’s already a nightmarish Darwinian survival of the fittest. A scramble away from the meatgrinder. Some have suggested that viewing life as a game makes the entire thing meaningless and valueless. Find me a shred of evidence that life, inherently, has either meaning or value. I’ll wait. Either the majority of players keep scrambling and battling, ultimately failing by playing the game wrong, or more players learn how to play the game correctly, unused to it though they may be and unpalatable though it may appear. But if more players play correctly and reap more of the rewards, then they may not find it so unpalatable. More players may start, finally, to enjoy it.