Playing With Death

[r]Screenshot from 2012's Tokyo Jungle[/r]

Critics say videogames devalue life. Maybe that's a good thing?

Never far from the headlines, the issue of videogame violence has been back on the media agenda in the wake of the Sandy Hook, with the National Rifle Association leading calls for censorship and The American Psychological Association convening a task force to investigate the effects of violent games. We’ve been here before, of course, whether it be 1993’s Senate hearings, which led to the formation of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, or attempts to attribute the Columbine massacre to DOOM. In each case the charge is the same: that videogames desensitize players to violence, misrepresenting its consequences and, ultimately, cheapening death itself.

The difference this time is that even among those who play, make and study games there is a growing sense that things may have gone too far. You don’t have to buy into the idea that games consoles are--as self-styled "killologist" Lt. Cl. Dave Grossman puts it--"teaching our kids to kill" in order to find the industry’s ongoing love affair with the use of lethal force troubling. Months before Sandy Hook put gamic violence back in the limelight, videogame bloggers, designers and academics were already embroiled in a bout of collective soul-searching catalyzed by the Summer’s E3 expo, which showcased a slate of upcoming titles notable for their focus on decapitation, neck stabbing, and shotgun blasts to the face. Instead of ethical and political considerations, these pundits were concerned with the aesthetic implications of virtual violence. Is an obsession with murder stunting the medium’s expressive potential? And is this dependency a matter of laziness (as designer Steve Gaynor notes, "The easiest thing to do in a videogame is to draw a line between the player and something else and then take hit points off of it.") or a symptom of some graver deficiency? If films, plays and novels are capable of taking death seriously what does it say about games that they always seem to end up cheapening it?

Such questions miss the point. They’re underpinned by an insistence on comparing games to other media, and on seeing them in terms of stories rather than systems. They’re also underpinned, at a deeper level, by a humanistic belief in the sanctity of life, as reflected by the pathos-inducing power of classical tragedy. If we abandon these assumptions, however, we start to see that what initially looks like an inability to do death "properly" actually brings with it some exciting expressive possibilities. And these possibilities are already being explored in a number of recent games that, rather than presuming life is beautiful, call its value and definition into question, inviting us to think mortality in terms of accident and arbitrariness, futility and cycles. These titles don’t just push us toward a new understanding of videogames and their expressive potential, they also hint at the possibility of a revolution in the popular understanding of life and death.


Professional discussions of game death have, in recent years, tended to revolve around what designer Clint Hocking terms "ludonarrative dissonance" --instances where story and gameplay pull in different directions, derailing bids for pathos and plausibility. Where’s the suspense if we know we can just try again? And how are we supposed to believe our hero is basically a good guy if he guns down literally hundreds of thugs/ninjas/enemy combatants in cold blood? In the years since Hocking’s influential critique it’s become increasingly common for designers to try and put killing in context. Some studios have taken to wearing their Heart of Darkness on their sleeve, mining Joseph Conrad, Cormac McCarthy, and Colson Whitehead to present drab, "gritty" gameworlds where war is hell, zombies are allegories, and real men keep journals. Death, these self-consciously maudlin and muted games assure us, is a serious business. Other developers have embraced and amplified ludonarrative dissonance, confronting players with meta-textual twists (It’s only a game – or is it?) that are meant to make them rethink their actions.

This move toward to acknowledging and attempting to justify in-game violence has produced games that are very good, or at least commendably thoughtful (Hockings’s own Far Cry 2 and the uneven but occasionally ingenious Spec Ops: The Line among them), and even more cynical examples of the form offer a welcome alternative to gaming’s prevailing tenor of macho triumphalism. Nevertheless, there tends to be something ultimately unsatisfactory about the way these games frame death: a pervasive sense that the teams responsible are having their cake and eating it, commenting on but also perpetuating lazy design choices.

This impression was hardly allayed by the Narrative Summit at this year’s Game Developer’s Conference, the largest conference of professional game-makers, where the focus was very much on death and destruction. Spec Ops writer Walt Williams came out on the side of anguished earnestness, holding that proper contextualization can imbue violence with meaning and urging designers to explore moral ambiguity, ambivalence, and hypocrisy. By contrast, Far Cry 3’s Jeffrey Yohalem invoked the irony defense, claiming that the game’s abundant gore was not gratuitous but "meta"--an argument that holds little water unless you’re willing to believe a smattering of Lewis Carroll allusions a postmodern masterpiece maketh.

The GDC summit throws into stark relief some problems with the way the debate as it stands is being framed. The first is that, whether we’re talking about would-be censors or frustrated designers, discussions concerning gaming, violence, and death tend to understand videogames primarily as an audiovisual, interactive medium – that is, they focus on what games let us see and do, whether that’s shooting artfully-modeled aliens or mugging virtual hookers. Williams may advocate psychological subtlety, Yohalem gonzoid self-reflexivity, but both remain within this framework. This fixation on interactivity obscures the fact that games are also a computational medium, based on models and protocols, codes and commands, simulations and rules. By assigning literal, numerical values to life and death, games are necessarily going to "cheapen" them to some extent – but, as we’ll see, this cheapening can render the form peculiarly suited to exploring what life is worth in the era of biopower and computerized risk assessment, drones and cloning, artificial intelligence and data mining.

It’s also telling that these discussions of death and violence occurred as part of a narrative summit, and in relation to "cinematic" action games. When videogames are accused of cheapening death the implicit model against which they are being judged is that of classical tragedy (or at least Hollywood’s take thereon), a genre based around cathartic representations of credible, psychologically "deep" characters facing up to their mortality over the course of a linear narrative arc.  And, as critics such as Jesper Juul and Graeme Kirkpatrick have argued, judged on these terms, games are going to fail--not least because predestined doom, or the bracing arbitrariness of senseless death, are themes that tend to translate poorly to a medium that is supposed to be about agency and choice.

But why should tragedy be the gold standard? Where tragedy has traditionally presumed that time is linear, death is final, and the difference between things that are alive and things that are not-alive is clear, videogames are better equipped than most media to help us understand a world in which these convictions are ever-more open to question - a world in which, as Nigel Thrift has argued, "the realm of not-quite-life is growing apace," where "materials are beginning to have characteristics which used to be reserved for life and biological material is being incorporated into all kinds of things, from plastics to robots." Hamlet, Madame Bovary, and Citizen Kane are fine, but it should be clear by now - after Sisyphus, Beckett, and Stein, Robbe-Grillet and Wile E. Coyote, Groundhog Day, Solaris and Celine and Julie  - that you don’t have to play by tragedy’s rules, that it’s equally valid to explore the horror of immortality, the possibility of artificial life, the absurdity of meaningless repetition and the implications of looped and scrambled timelines. This is terrain eminently suited to a medium based as much on simulation as story.


A whole range of recent games--from blockbuster war epics to educational software, art pranks to fantasy role-playing titles--are already proving that letting us play with death, consequence, and finitude can be entertaining, thought-provoking, and even profitable. While immersive shooters pride themselves on offering story-driven, Hollywood-like experiences, these titles embrace the aleatory, using procedural generation and randomization to produce experiences that reject scripting and hand-holding – and, encourage us to rethink the meaning of death.

This trend has its roots in the comparatively archaic form of the "roguelike," a subgenre of roleplaying game that began with 1980’s Rogue and emerged from the culture of tabletop, dice ‘n’ graph paper dungeoneering. The roguelike’s key characteristics are randomly generated environments and "permadeath" – i.e. there’s no saving your progress at checkpoints here; once your avatar dies you’re back to square one, in a fresh set of levels. Different games appropriate different bits of the roguelike template, but this readiness to let the player fail, suffer the consequences, and roll another scenario is paramount. Many modern games assume that the players can’t cope with being shown a Game Over screen. But in a title like Derek Yu’s Spelunky (which swaps Rogue’s turn-based battles for the plumbing of procedurally generated caverns and tombs) players die constantly, and one poor decision, botched command or algorithmic caprice can spell doom. Likewise, in indie space exploration sim Faster than Light the number of factors beyond the player’s control mean that your crew is far more likely to end up atomized, asphyxiated, or pasted onto the side of a passing asteroid than they are saving the day.

Rather than simply cheapening death, though, this changes the terms on which we are invited to understand it. In many games we’re encouraged to think in terms of ideal outcomes, which we either succeed or fail at bringing into being; here, by contrast, we learn to view life probabilistically, from a perspective informed by the sum of all our prior in-game experiences. A roll of the virtual dice can throw up characters, places and events we might never see again, and parameters of success change accordingly. Life is no longer a given.

This capacity to make us think about what is--in a statistical sense--normal is also central to Real Lives 2010. An "empathy building educational simulation" in which you are randomly assigned the identity of a Bangladeshi farmer, a Polish IT professional, a Nigerian cop, "or any of thousands more," the game is meant to help players understand how socioeconomic factors, political ideologies, and policy constrain the degree of control people around the globe have over their prospects. On your first turn, you might be born in Zambia and die of malaria before your third birthday. On your next turn, maybe you’ll save enough money working on a conveyor belt in Mumbai to support the parents you left back in the village. On the turn after that you might even get lucky and roll an affluent Caucasian with a generous healthcare plan and internet access. These aren’t pre-written plots but rather emergent outcomes generated from the interplay of the various factors that the simulation models.

The game makes no attempt to render anyone’s interior life, to bring out the tragic dignity and miraculous uniqueness of human individuals—but neither do immigration statistics. Here, we are invited to understand life not, as in serious drama, at the level of personal biography, but in relation to what Foucault calls biopower - the tactics used by governments to monitor and manage populations. In the process, you start to appreciate that while we humans tend to use words like ‘normal’ and ‘random’ in very loose and contextually specific ways, computers are bracingly capable of taking these terms literally. Where traditional narratives tend to follow individuals who have to serve as synechdoches, symptoms, or exempla, a simulation like Real Lives 2010 can picture reality in a different way – one that allows Occupy’s "99%" to come sharply into focus.

True, Real Lives is an outlier, a worthy exception in a world of shooters and sports games. But similar systems are finding their way into commercial titles like X-Com: Enemy Unknown, a sci-fi epic in which players command a crack team of soldiers charged with repelling alien invaders. Characters are randomly generated, given a nationality, and, if they survive long enough, a nickname. And, once they die, they’re dead for good. The fascinating thing is that, while these figures – featuring cartoonishly exaggerated features and stock responses – are mere ciphers, players have confessed to becoming far more attached to them than the notionally better-rounded heroes of games with professional writers and cinematic production values. On the basis of a few metonymic details, players find themselves unconsciously assigning their squad members pasts and personality traits, rationalizing their actions by reference to their psychologies, and feeling responsible when a bad call sees them wiped out. Testament to our willingness to imaginatively and emotionally invest in the idea of things being alive, the game also shows that interactive media can provide a platform for exploring guilt and panic, pride and shame.

On a different affective tack, games also lend themselves to dealing with the comic and the absurd  - as Pippin Barr’s Let’s Play: Ancient Greek Punishment proves. Rather than seeking to convey the pathos of mortality, Barr’s set of unwinnable minigames highlights the bathos of immortality, casting players as Sisyphus, Prometheus, and others doomed by the gods to perpetually repeat the same pointless activities. Rendered in cute pink and black pixel graphics, these classical tortures seldom fail to raise a snigger – though, like the best jokes, there’s a darker subtext here, with Barr highlighting the grim irony that the dynamics of repetition and deferral which render videogames so addictive are, if you think about it, only a hair’s breadth from the hellish fate of Tantalus – or, indeed, Vladimir and Estragon.

A similar blend of the absurdly comic and the insidiously distressing can be found in Tokyo Jungle (2012). On one level, the game is a wacky arcade-style experience about zoo creatures roaming an abandoned city; on another, it’s a portrait of life as blindly deterministic force almost Lovecraftian in its bleakness. The game’s main draw is its "survival mode." Here, rather than simply trying to keep an individual creature alive, players must attempt to propagate a bloodline. The first step is to fend off rivals and predators while hoarding enough food and claiming enough territory to attract a mate. Then, after finding a nest, the happy couple will prepare to exchange genetic information as the screen fades tastefully to black. When the visuals fade in again, control switches to one of the original avatar’s offspring and the cycle starts over.

Essentially you play as the selfish gene, hopping from generation to generation with no ultimate motive beyond stringing things out for as long as possible in a violent and fundamentally indifferent universe. The character models--realistically but crudely rendered springboks and jackals, panthers and hippos--have no real ‘personality’, exuding a disturbing blankness. If freak meteorological phenomena or packs of marauding lions don’t wipe them out, hunger or old age probably will. In short, at first appears to be a zanily good time gradually turns into something altogether more dispiriting. The critic Ian Bogost argues that games communicate via "procedural rhetoric," articulating messages and values through their implementation of certain rules. Tokyo Jungle procedurally argues that the idea that life is precious is little more, in practice, than a consolatory humanistic platitude--another Victorian fiction that Darwin should have put paid to.

In a sense, then, those who suggest that videogames fail to respect the sanctity of life might be on to something. If critics have praised other media for inducing sympathy or sorrow, contemplation, humility, or horror in the face of death, interactive media may be better equipped to provoke fear, hilarity, culpability, cynicism, frustration, and curiosity. But isn’t this equally valid? True, a great many games are content to let players simulate shooting and punching people. Other games, however, have begun to use games’ capacity to devalue life to explore what death means in a culture of digitization, where life is increasingly understood via mathematical models, aped by artificial intelligences and supported, monitored and extinguished by way of machinic prostheses. Embracing the expressive potential of simulation, they move beyond the model of the life story, with its implicit emphasis on a central protagonist and single transcendent author, and encourage us to think instead in terms of probabilities and permutations, the interplay of various agents, factors, and phenomena. In so doing, they may end up helping to redefine death itself.