Playing Games

If we are alone, and we are dissatisfied, we can change the scene – either by traveling or adapting the world to suit ourselves. If we are with a few other people, it is usually still possible to convince them to enact some sort of change to relieve the pressure – but, as the number of people increases and increases and increases, the world comes to seem more static, less mutable. Systems of management are devised and implemented, and as the number of people involved in creating these systems increase and their responsibilities diverge these systems, as well, come to seem distant and immutable

Nothing is actually any more permanent than before – actually, probably less so, since we have a tendency to affect fairly rapid change on our environment – but our perception of our ability to intentionally effect these changes fades. Like we’re all trying to push a large rock, none of us really feel like we’re affecting any change – and yet the rock moves. Even those with undeniable power seem to buy into the illusion – to our collective ruin, since rapacious consumption becomes that much easier to justify when one can internally believe the environment to be immutable. You cannot destroy a world that cannot be changed.

It’s a kind of incentivized reasoning. If the world can be changed, then that means we might be making it worse. If the world can be changed, then we have an obligation to make it better. If the world can be changed, but we have no actual capacity to change it ourselves, then we are imprisoned. None of these notions are pleasant to think about.

So we don’t.

We proceed on the assumption that the world is constant, that any changes we make are superficial. We know this to not be true, now, based on our effects on the climate, but the basic belief still lingers: We might, we reason, be able to change the world if we had control, but we don’t have control, our societal structures do – then we feel powerless to change those, in turn, achieving the same basic effect.

“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”

Ursula K. Le Guin

The implied burden of of this power for change is too much for any single person, and so movements must be built around it. The American spirit of rugged individualism tends to work against this necessity. This is probably not an accident.

When we make game worlds to live in for entertainment, they are also mostly static, with some notable exceptions. Even for those games where we can readily change our environment, though, such as Minecraft, we seldom have any significant effect on the underlying systems of these environments. You can carve away chunks of the world, replant it with greenery, open up dimensional portals, but you can’t really change how anything lives or dies, moves or acts. This is fine: Implementing a truly adaptable system like this would be a massive technical and artistic undertaking, but it’s telling how few games even try, or see this as a gap.

One notable exception to this trend I can think of is Dwarf Fortress, a game which is notorious for systematizing everything to an extent that becomes baffling and overwhelming. A careless decision can lead to a base getting flooded with lava or invaded by hippopotamuses. Other useful comparison points are the classic MUD (Multi User Dungeon) games, which allowed players to create their own regions with their own rules, and Second Life, a 3d successor to these primarily notorious for providing a playground for virtual sexual exploits.

Dynamic world games are still rarely respected by “hard core gamers,” though – either treated as impenetrable novelties like Dwarf Fortress, childish playgrounds like Minecraft, or both, as is the case with Second Life. No matter how popular these games may be, they’re always understood to be outside the mainstream of what games are and what gamers want.

What we want, what we are meant to want, is to take what we are given and enjoy it, and to strenuously avoid thinking about the possibilities of change and what they might imply.

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Virtual reality will never be what you want it to be.

What do we want virtual reality to be? We want the complete experience of being someone or something else. We want to be able to do what they can do, see the world from where they see it, understand their life as they understand it. Sometimes we want to be ourselves but in some sort of more exciting scenario, but that’s still more or less the same thing – inhabiting some alternate version of the self that lives in more exciting and fulfilling circumstances is still basically playing a character. There is something greedy, something invasive about it. The sort of greed, not for money or power but for unique perspectives and experiences, that motivated the villains in Get Out, who solve the virtual reality conundrum by essentially hollowing out other peoples’ minds and physically occupying them, living in their reality, colonizing it.

However, say we want to create a simulation of what it might mean to occupy another body, one that does no direct harm to someone. Right now, the gap between virtual reality and actual reality is obvious. Aside from any issues with graphical verisimilitude that we can assume will be addressed to some degree over time with better rendering and artistic technique, there’s a big difference between the experience of seeing through someone’s eyes, hearing through their ears, controlling approximately where their hands are and what they’re doing, and the experience of being that person. It is, perhaps, satisfactory for a simulation of being a robot locked in place, with sensory and interactive apparatus, but even then the virtual entity cannot be wholly inhabited because you still have awareness of your own body, your own place. You cannot escape yourself so easily.

In order to experience what it is to be another person, you’d have to occupy more senses – the senses of taste and smell, the senses of balance and of proprioception, the sense of touch, and while we occasionally make minor forays into some of these with tilting rooms and packaged scents, it is still far from a complete transformation.

That’s still a problem that can probably be solved. We can regard it as something like the issue of graphical fidelity, a problem that is challenging but that we can take concrete steps to approach, bit by bit. There’s a bigger issue. Say we figure all that out, and we create a perfectly convincing all-encompassing simulation of being a star football player winning the Superbowl. I don’t know anything about football, but say you undergo the simulation and experience the entirety of the winning play, from the first pitch through dunking the shuttlecock into the wicket: Who actually did this brilliant, effortlessly physically perfect play? Who ran? Who dodged? Who threw? Who pumped the legs, found the point of balance, who carefully threaded the defenders and perfectly understood the field of play? It wasn’t you, because you didn’t have the lifetime of experience and training necessary to do those things – a person’s unique capabilities stem indelibly from their personal history and understanding of the world. How can you say you’ve had that experience, then, if you didn’t really do any of it?

Thus there needs to be some degree of abstraction. If you’re to control someone who has capabilities you do not, you need to be able to boil those complex micro-decisions down into more digestible macro-decisions. Instead of the tiny piece-by-piece decisions of position and balance, you’re fed the bigger and more understandable decisions of where to run, when to throw, who to pass to, and so forth.

It doesn’t really sound like virtual reality any more, does it? It doesn’t really sound like becoming another person temporarily any more. It sounds like a video game.

If the idea of being able to inhabit one of the characters you play in games sounds appealing, that’s because games are made to only show the appealing sides of their characters. This isn’t some nitpicking realism-critique about characters never needing to use the bathroom, but a lot of character designs, a lot of character animations, a lot if characters are simply not made to be functional. They would be unable to actually draw their weapons, or they would keep falling over, or they would be unable to see past their own clothing if they were a living creature – which is, perhaps, not the experience people have in mind when they imagine what it would be to live as this character.

The point is, art isn’t consistent. Art doesn’t always completely make sense, or create a livable reality. Art is not coherent. That is what makes it interesting, because anywhere there’s a gap in a story or inconsistency in a character or a lack of detail is a place where we are invited to interpret. There’s no bone or tendon to it, no connectivity, merely a series of moments, and in that way art is like dreams, all memory and no substance.

Okay, then. What about lucid dreaming? What about a virtual reality comprised of extremely specific dreams, of remembered moments orphaned from the specific experiences that created them, implanting a perfectly formed recollection of a finely crafted or curated lived experience? This is more or less the plot to Total Recall (and the short story it was based on, We Can Remember it for you Wholesale). Memory implantation is probably the most actually plausible form of a true “virtual reality” – of course, you’d have no actual ability to affect the outcome, but you would remember all of the choices you supposedly made and would rationalize the reasons you made those decisions. That’s pretty much how we live our lives anyway, placing yesterday’s decisions into narratives that make sense based on who we believe we are, since the self of yesterday is essentially a stranger to us. If we’re making fake memories, we can make them perfectly plausible: In John Varley’s novel Steel Beach, a character finding themselves in an implausible tropical paradise lifts up a handful of sand and finds it to be too perfectly detailed for it to possibly be a simulation. However, as the computer running the simulation points out afterwards, the entire beach of sand doesn’t need to be simulated, only the moment of staring at a handful of perfectly detailed sand and of deciding that this couldn’t possibly be a simulation.

We cannot know what it is to be someone else – that experience is forever alien to us. Even more tragically, we cannot really know what it was to be ourselves ten years ago, ten days ago, ten minutes ago – we are severed from our past mind, with only the flimsy bridge of memory and the cataclysmic tower of consequences to tie us to our history.

Virtual reality will never be what you want it to be, and you’ll never be quite sure what actual reality even is.

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One cannot observe without affecting that which is observed – this is true in physics, where even the bouncing of photons necessary for observation affects the outcome, but also more generally true of human beings than we often care to admit. Merely being seen tends to affect us sooner rather than later – and the act of seeing can change who and what we are as well. Observation has consequence.

This affects how characters in stories manifest. There’s no way to portray the experience of an unseen individual, to describe a wholly internalized moment. In order to be described it must be put into words, in order to be shown in must be given shape, and these experiences that rest outside the bounds of word and shape fall through the cracks. We can describe the cat that rests in the sunbeam and the rise and fall of the breathing fur, we can describe the purr, we can describe the collar and the name and the history, but we can never know what it is to be the cat – and we can never tell what it is to be us, who know and cherish the cat, either. When we try, we find ourselves back at describing the beam and the collar and the breath, the moment to moment concrete specifics, or we grasp at cardboard abstract terms such as contentment or anger or love – which describe barely anything at all.

The internal is inexpressible. We can suggest its presence by the contact points it shares with the external world – and this is how we craft compelling characters, by cunningly crafting these supposed contact points that map to their internal world – but it’s just a simulacrum, a mask, and just as masks are false exteriors given their shape by the face, and the face is given its shape by bone and muscle, these personae are false exteriors given their shape by a mind, and the mind is given its shape by internal and inexpressible memory and emotion. They can look real. They can look like a person, like a mind – but it’s all papier-mâché.

Because the internal cannot be seen, we have characters who constantly externalize, who are constantly being watched, under surveillance. Who we are and how we are seen, to us, are two separate things – but, for created characters, they are equivalent. These characters are comprised entirely by their exterior.

I’ve been playing around with streaming various games on and off over the last few years and, though my viewership is mostly restrained to a few online friends and acquaintances, the experience of streaming a game is still so curiously different from the experience of merely playing it. I become observed, and to make that observation interesting I must externalize my internal experience of the game. This is both valuable and burdensome – oftentimes I find myself being more harshly critical than I would otherwise be just because, when you’re searching for something to talk about, picking at minor inconsistencies, flaws, or other noteworthy features tends to be the easiest solution. At the same time, since I’m more busy verbalizing my reactions to the more obvious things, it’s easy to miss subtle things, to miss bits of story or mechanical information, and thereby make things harder on myself. For everything I miss or misrepresent, though, there’s the tradeoff of also having other people around who can offer feedback, offer corrections or additions or agreement. The process of playing the game, of consuming the art, gains additional steps – instead of the experience being between the art and me, it goes from the art to me out into the world through an unknown number of other people and back into me, more messy and complicated than before.

I keep wondering if it’s the right way to experience art, as though there could be such a thing, as though that’s even a question that makes sense. The acts of observation and presentation change the experience, and though the experience may be every bit as valid, I can still never access that completely internalized experience of art again absent the context of our shared experience. The situation comes to mirror the tradeoffs of spoilers and spoiler warnings – though we may enjoy a story more knowing how it turns out already, the experience of being surprised by how it turns out is rarer than that of seeing how it comes together with that foreknowledge. Similarly, though communally experiencing a game might be a more valuable experience, the act of internally and individually experiencing it will no longer be available to me.

It seems like quite a conundrum at times, but that doesn’t blind me to the fact that this whole dichotomy is actually a pile of specious horseshit. All experience is contextual and fleeting. No experience can survive beyond the moment, and there’s no perfect way to experience anything. Yet, still, I have this urge to preserve it all, to never let any moment go. I have a desire for eternity, to always be able to return to the moment I experienced something and revisit that, to observe, to understand. I tend to favor forms of art that last, recordings and objects, discrete creations, rather than fleeting experiences like performances – but they’re all still more or less the same because, no matter how lasting the piece is, that physical object isn’t where the artistic experience lies. No matter what it is, a sculpture or film or speech or concert, the point of artistic experience lies within your perception of the art, not within the art itself.

The thing I want to preserve cannot be preserved. The attempt necessarily externalizes my otherwise indescribable experiences, forces me to verbalize and make concrete my fleeting moments. My reasons for wanting to do this are stupid, quixotic – a naive ambition for eternity and immortality. Yet this attempt still takes me somewhere worth being. Externalizing, expressing, evaluating, understanding the game while I play it, understanding the life while I live it, and trying to put that understanding into words, I attempt to engage with an experience beyond the internal, a shared moment – but these things cannot actually be captured recordings or writing. The missing internal experience, between the game and myself, between the world and myself, is replaced with a new internality, that of me presenting, me outward-facing, me broadcasting the best approximation I can manage of what I am and what my experience is out to any observers.

Every observation affects me.

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What is randomness? We tend to imbue the term with more authority than it ought to have, to invoke an ideal of completely unknowable numbers and events that come from nowhere, from nothing, beyond nature, supernatural. However, all of the things that we think of when we talk about randomness are actually quite predictable: Dice, cards, roulette wheels, these tools of chance generate seemingly arbitrary results through a series of individually very simple and straightforward physical interactions. These are still causal. These are still predictable, if one had the depth and clarity of vision and the time for calculation to glean those predictions. Computer random number generation is no different – every computer science text about random number generation goes to pains to establish that the algorithm is not truly random because the outcome can be predicted, but the same is true of basically everything we consider random. Thus, in practice, random doesn’t mean not deterministic, it means undeterminable.

Every reaction has an action. Every effect has a cause.

All this may seem pedantic, but where it becomes important is it shifts the way we tend to think about nominally non-random events. Even games that go to great lengths to strip out elements of chance, such as competitive FPS games, frequently have an element of luck to them. Sure, you could perfectly predict the behavior of all of the opposing members of the enemy team, but unless you have intimate knowledge of their psychology you’re not going to be doing that. You’re going to be playing the odds, judging where your opponents are most likely to make their move based on the state of the game and their habits as best as you know them. A lot of the time this will work out just how you expect it to, but sometimes the outcome will be completely different, and even though there’s nothing we would traditionally consider randomness at play the outcome of what is an overall strong play may turn out to be dramatically different, may lead to a win or a loss, based entirely on circumstances beyond the human capacity of insight.

Randomness is about lack of insight as much as it is about chaos of result. If you fail to understand what factors lead to an outcome, it will seem random. A feeling of a game being unfair is just as often because of a poor understanding of what situation leads to what outcome as it is about the outcome itself being biased. Almost every game hides information from its player – even in Chess or Go, these pure games of open-information causality, you do not know the internal state of your opponent, possibly the most vital information of all for victory.

It all comes back to luck, the thing no one wants to rely upon. The more we come to understand what random is, what we mean when we say random, the more we come to understand where the boundaries of what we know and can predict and what we don’t know and can’t predict lie; the more we can control luck. When we understand what these factors are and how they interact, we can begin to make our own luck.

We’ve invented probability to estimate the likely outcomes of overly complex systems using simplified models, and this is hugely useful and hugely insufficient – not least because very few people have any sort of intuitive understanding of what these numbers mean. During the 2016 election, people were passing around the supposed 10% chance of victory Donald Trump had as an indication that he had somehow lost. 10% isn’t 0%, and a 10% chance is actually pretty likely – hardly much better odds than those offered by Russian Roulette, a pastime few people would willingly indulge in. And, when the estimate rose to a 30% chance, people were still weirdly reassured – and felt betrayed by these numbers, regarded them as failed somehow, after he won, even though the numbers said there was a 1/3rd chance of this happening. Perhaps the mistake was that people conflated the percent chance of each side winning with the percent of the populace projected to vote for each side – in which case 70%-30% would have been an unprecedented and implausible landslide. Either way, there seemed to be a generalized lack of literacy as to what these numbers meant.

All of which brings me to XCOM. In XCOM, you’re tasked with defending (or, in XCOM 2, retaking) Earth, after it is attacked by a multi-species conglomeration of aliens with mysterious motives. You give your elite squad of soldiers orders of where to move and what to shoot, and each shot has a percentage chance of success, and it is a hugely effective tool for imparting the core concept that a 95% chance is not a certainty. Success, then, becomes a matter of ordering and improving these chances, hedging bets, and trying to keep outside factors from interfering while you do so.

Unfortunately, the game undermines this simple and vital lesson in a few ways. There are a number of options which have zero risk of failure – indeed, most of your options tend to trend that direction as you get late-game upgrades to shot accuracy and abilities with no chance for failure, but even early on there are very few problems that can’t be solved by the simple expedient of a deftly placed hand grenade. Or three. So, in the end, rather than hedging all your bets, most of them are just backed by a couple of completely reliable fallback moves, and when well played the enemy units seldom get any real chance to counterattack.

More insidiously, though, the lower difficulty levels also sneakily tweak the odds in your favor. The more you miss your shots the more likely you are to hit subsequent shots – the gambler’s fallacy, codified into game mechanic. The odds of hitting are, as well, far higher than they are represented as, and your odds of getting shot are similarly reduced. All of these strange concessions and tweaks work to make the game feel more ‘fair’ – or, read less charitably, to uphold fallacious views of what probability means that have been elevated to narrative necessity.

Who do these views serve? Does the belief that the world is fundamentally knowable and controllable outside a few supernaturally random events make us vulnerable to believing that we are more in control than we actually are? Vulnerable to believing that those who have lost control, who are downtrodden and oppressed, deserve this treatment for having lost grip of the reins? Or does it make us think that the world we live in now is far more intentionally, carefully, and competently controlled than it sometimes seems, that any attempt to seek change within such a system is impossible?

We only see a tiny, narrow slice of the world in front of us, and anything outside of that view may as well be RNG. It might be time to test our luck.

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To play a game is to perform a series of tasks it asks of you. Most of the time, these tasks are some sort of challenge of dexterity, cognition, perception, or some combination thereof. There are also, though, a number of tasks that games ask of us that aren’t challenging – that are simple, rote, and obvious. The example which first brought this to mind is the act of feeding in Vampire, The Masquerade: Bloodlines – in this, since you play as a vampire, you have to find isolated people to prey upon, either by luring someone away from the crowd or just finding someone who wandered away on their own. This is rarely actually very difficult to do, and one would be hard-pressed to argue that it significantly contributes to the challenge of the game – but should it? As a vampire, you should find this act of supernatural predation easy and natural – and so you do. However, one could easily imagine a designer deciding that there was no point to having so much play time dedicated to something obvious and easy to do and either cutting the gameplay element or tuning it to be more dangerous, to be less trivial – and the game would be the lesser for it.

We have a tendency to think of game mechanics solely in terms of the challenges they pose. When we consider a game’s systems, it is most often to see how they collide to provide an interesting problem for the player to solve – that is, a mechanical element ought only to exist if it interacts interestingly with the challenge of the game, a sort of Chekhov’s Gun of game design, where if a gun exists in the world there must also be a terrifying monster to be killed with it. What we tend to devalue in this mindset are the simpler pleasures of existing and acting and being acted upon. Often what provides the most enjoyable sensation in a game is not solving an especially difficult problem, but of feeling entirely a part of the world of the game and of performing the role assigned to you.

Of course, you don’t need to perform your role – a great deal of enjoyment can be head from playing games ‘badly’, from refusing to perform the tasks it assigns or performing them in an intentionally awkward and absurd way – but intentional subversions of the role still position you as a part of the game’s world, albeit an incongruous one, like the Marx Brothers at an opera. Challenge, while it can be enjoyable and can serve to contribute to the plausibility of existence within a space, is not what makes the game – the tasks are the game, whether they are challenging or not.

However, the difficulty of the tasks is still important. There’s a certain amount of wiggle room – games depict herculean tasks managed by fairly simplistic and easy player input all the time while some games, like Bennett Foddy’s QWOP, do the inverse, offering very simple tasks than can only be accomplished by incredibly difficult feats of coordination. There’s a lot of charm to be found in this incongruity at times, but it can also work against the simple joys of partaking in a game’s world – which is why, in general, we are better served by trying to map the systems and challenges of the task reasonably closely to the methods and difficulties such a task would present. This is where a lot of the discourse around challenge in gameplay tends to fall apart – the obstacles in the game begin to be viewed entirely in terms of the difficulties they present, and not in terms of how they express the world of the game and how the difficulty inherent to those obstacles fit into that expression.

Another example of mundane tasks presented to provide a feeling of satisfaction and investment in a space is the house cleaning game in The Beginner’s Guide. This is a fairly small part of a fairly short game: You walk into a house, and someone there, who looks like a generic placeholder dummy, welcomes you as though you’re a friend and starts asking you to do small tasks around the house, picking things up and cleaning them and so forth, and eventually these tasks start to repeat because there’s only a few of them to be done – and, as in life, it’s only so long after the floor has been swept that it must be swept again. Nevertheless it creates a small and intimate atmosphere of participation and care which has interesting implications within the greater narrative of the game. Similarly, many of the interactions in The Walking Dead games from Telltale weren’t challenges so much as they were prompts asking you to participate in the story, in tiny unpleasant chores and in the mechanical necessities of survival. These are tasks which must be done, but which aren’t meant to challenge.

Even when tasks aren’t meant to be challenging, though, they’re still part of the mechanics of gameplay, and can have significant consequences. Though feeding in Bloodlines is usually trivial, under some circumstances it can become much more pressing and far more difficult because you’re already dealing with other problems such as pursuit by police or vampire hunters. Similarly, in Far Cry 2, you occasionally have to contend with short debilitating bouts with malaria, during which you can’t do much of anything. You have medicine you can take to recover, and all in all it only takes a few seconds, but a few seconds is all it takes for something to go disastrously haywire, a car to run off the road, a barrel to blow up, an ambush to be sprung – so depending on timing this mundane but necessary task can become a huge wrench in the gears.

There are plenty of games that press against the presumption of challenge, but most of these are presented as open-ended, with no particular required tasks but many possible activities. As many options as we have to make games that aren’t based around proving technical skill, that still tends to be our fallback position. The earliest games were entirely about such skills, with paper-thin narratives built up around them to contextualize and justify the simple gameplay – as games got bigger and more complex, as the actions they could offer gained more capacity for nuance and expression, the stories got more complex as well, but stayed largely in the mold of their predecessors, simple stories that justified simple mechanics. The restraints that held us back from envisioning wildly different experiences at the advent of the medium still hold us back today, just because so much of what we understand a game to be is rooted in the simplistic challenges that the technology once held us to.

Perhaps it’s time to make more games that are as much about existing, about being in a world and performing to the expectations of that world, as about solving, discovering, and controlling.

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Most games are competitive in nature – some might argue that as part of the definition of game, that anything that isn’t competitive is really a puzzle or some other sort of interactive entertainment. What the word ‘competition’ even means in a simulated environment isn’t necessarily obvious, though: Some games have very direct competition between human players – most traditional games and sports fall into this category, alongside multiplayer shooter and real-time strategy games and so forth – but, more recently, video games have created the ability to have simulated competition, other entities which act like competing players but which don’t require a person to provide the input. One could regard these as, since they’re not actually being controlled by a person, being essentially a puzzle to be solved rather than in competition – but they are presented as competition, and provide much of the same sort of satisfaction that we seek from competition.

What many single-player games then boil down to is a sort of competition pornography, a way of simulating an interaction between people in an experience built for just one person. The problems that emerge in these interactions tend to be the same as those that emerge with pornography– the sensations most desirable in the interaction become isolated, then amplified, then exaggerated to grotesque proportion. That which was meant to be intimate becomes raucous, that which was meant to negotiate dictates, and that which was meant to be understanding becomes controlling. This isn’t inherently a problem – it’s fine to enjoy ridiculous exaggerated entertainment as long as we understand it to be entertainment – until it becomes the default, the status quo. When we solely understand conflict and competition through obscene hyper-competition, just as when we understand sex through contrived hyper-sex, we begin to cede the ability to understand how to actually interact with other human beings.

Most of us can figure it out, anyway, but the more artistic license and exaggeration that is taken, the more it feeds into a solipsistic view of human interaction. What separates a game that is grotesquely hyper-competitive from any other competitive game? Is it possible to create a game that simulates the sensation of competing with another person without implicitly boiling human lives and interactions down into insultingly simplified systems? The question of how to portray something meaningful without suggesting that it has only the meaning we assign to it is one that rests at the core of art. How can we reduce something to its appearance, to a set of symbols, to a series of words or interactions or moments, without removing something vital? How can you taxidermy emotion?

The presentation of a game as competition doesn’t rest in any one place within the game. The mechanics contribute by creating opponents with similar capabilities to the player, the presentation contributes by making them look and sound like a person, and the narrative contributes by giving them motives and backgrounds that place them in opposition with the player. Most single-player games function by generating a huge field of completely committed enemies that are categorically opposed to the player and whose only call and only response is lethal violence – which, again, is fine as far as it goes, but is also extremely limiting. Even in most games where they are motivated to oppose the player through more robust systems, enemy NPCs rarely prioritize protection, preservation, escape, or survival as tactical goals – they merely flip a switch over to hostile and attempt to fight the player to the death.

What makes this uncomfortable now is how often we see real groups of real people portrayed this same way. There are those, so the rhetoric goes, whose way of life is inherently incompatible with ours; there are invaders; there are gangsters, there are born criminals, there are those whose only understanding of the world is through violence, and to defeat them we must become the same and only understand the world through violence against them. While I love much of what we have achieved artistically within the medium of electronic entertainment, it has become terrifying to see the rhetoric of dehumanization and the necessary evils of simulated competition slowly grow and knit their leaves together until they become so similar.

It is not the violence that is the problem. It is the understanding of violence as an inevitable consequence of an inevitable action, of the world as a zero-sum game, that is the problem. It is coming to no longer see these contrivances and assumptions as assumed or contrived that has become the problem. Of course it’s not the games that are to blame, and it’s not the competition that has made the world a blood sport. The systems these games are made of are just revealing, and reinforcing, the things we have believed all along.

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Everyone feels trapped. Helpless. We have a problem, and it’s a trolley problem. We are on rails, and the scope of our choices sharply constrained. There is no preventing the harm, only, perhaps, reducing it.

In the face of impending disaster, the scope of the world shrinks. When the tiger is chasing us, there is no east or west, just a one-dimensional measure: Away from or towards. Like an action hero escaping a rolling boulder, the idea of dodging to the side never enters our minds: We must move as quickly as possible away from the threat, even if it dooms us.

We wake up. We eat breakfast. Go to work, go to the movies, go to sleep, and follow the tracks laid out, and the scarier it is the more unthinkable it becomes to change the routine. Even if our routine is part of the threat, we cling to it because it is also the only thing we can rely upon. Trapped in a prison, we reinforce its walls to try to feel safer.

Violence blooms. When you believe your life exists on a single axis, that your worth is measured by your impact and that the only tool you have to create an impact is your violence, it becomes startlingly easy to justify unthinkable atrocity to yourself. It is only expected that someone will do something drastic when they feel trapped – and the more horrible things we do to each other the more trapped we feel by one another, and each act of violence acts catalyst to the next.

What role does art have in this world? What role do games have in it? Violence has always been a huge part of American art. We see the world in terms of violence – the real, physical, undeniable kind, because the tacit violences of oppression and denial are invisible and unacknowledged by us. Crime is violence. Justice is violence. Violence is understood as the alpha and omega, the cause and solution of all of our problems. When presented with a time machine and the horrors of the holocaust, the question we come up with is whether you should go back in time to murder baby Hitler. This probably wouldn’t solve the problem and it would be murdering a baby, but this is the calculus of our morality, atrocity vs atrocity. This has become extremely normal. We export it worldwide.

There is no reason to believe that this is a necessary intrinsic trait of art. It’s just how things are now.

Traditional narrative art, novels and movies and so forth, frequently feature violence – but, because they are singular narratives, it’s easy for us to assume that this violence is just a point of drama and interest in the context of an otherwise full world, with love and science and food and all that other good stuff that we like to spend time on. Games, though… are odd. Violent games aren’t just a portrayal of a violent anomaly in a normal world, they are portrayals of violent worlds, worlds where the only way to interact is through attacking and killing. You are on a track. Your only problem is a trolley problem: What path will you take, and what will the final body count be?

Narrative art, in each case, tells just one story, but implies the existence of many diverse others within its unseen world. Games, by necessity, have to collapse the possibilities of their world into near-nothingness, just so their inevitable bloody endings will make sense. This tendency is, if anything, made worse by the advent of “open-world” games – games which pretend to a living and breathing verisimilitude while presenting a paucity of genuine options. “You can do anything” they quietly promise – and, as long as the only thing you want to do is race cars and shoot people, you might never know the difference.

Obvious lies are not ineffective lies, and are still easily believed by those with motivation to believe them. They tell us we can do anything. They tell us this world exists beyond the boundaries of violence, and then give us only the tools of violence with which to explore it – and, in this way, these games truly are simulations of America: A country that believes it still must arm good guys in order to kill bad guys, a country that believes it is the sole role of a man to stand up and fight for what he believe in no matter what it might be, a country that believes that choosing the hard choice to sacrifice human life for the ‘greater good’ is just and admirable. A country with an entire toolbox but that never lays down its hammer, and sees human lives only as nails.

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