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Posted by: Emilie | OCT-28-2019

A lot of discussion around the politics of videogames has recently, whether deliberately or not, taken the end position of projecting political beliefs onto the player who partakes in specific choices or actions presented by the game, rather than examining the politics of the work. Of course, I think it’s probably less likely that someone who insists on aggressively teabagging in online play or acting out the crusades in every historical strategy game that allows it shares my politics than someone who doesn’t go out of their way to do those things. But I also think this logic runs into some obvious limitations that come from the videogame form itself.

To make the argument too sincerely, that actions in videogame match in a straightforward way, if not with actions in real life, to real attitudes or emotions, is the type of uncurious conclusion that leads not only to outsize attention on certain types of videogame violence within the broad menu of media representations of violence that are readily available, but also to uncritical boosterism of videogames as empathy machines, mental health aids, learning tools that “immerse” the player and put them in a “flow state.” There’s a lot of vocabulary specific to the latter discussions and this is precisely because so much of the positive social, cultural, and actual capital that pours into videogames relies on this rhetorical position of games as unique in potential and effects.

Treating choices in games as representative, even on a small scale, of actual ethical or political choices also misrepresents games in this potent, exceptionalist way.  But games are not so different from any other media forms where the ethical actions depicted are placed in a context and subject to limitations created by the author. This is how, through the decidedly non-interactive and perhaps only intermittently-absorbed “ticking clock” format, the TV show 24 created openings for inarguable atrocities to be “entertained” and “discussed” among the general public all the way up to major political figures. Which means, I think, that it’s less that videogames “make” people more or less anything, but that they are a medium like any other where creators, from individuals and small teams to corporate entities with various attachments to militaries and governments, state their own politics, with varying degrees of guile.

Something limited by the framing of being a videogame makes it hard for it to be consequential, in my opinion. Partly due to formal norms, and partly due to their digital structure, a videogame is often constantly self-renewing. As your SimCity begins to decline due to poorly managed zoning or funding decisions, you reach for the disasters menu, select “Earthquake” and “Monster” and “Nuclear Meltdown” until your limping superstructure is razed from the map,  and maybe carve a  smiley face into the earth with the road tool before staring again. Videogames generally possess a moment-to-moment forgetfulness that lets you start over at any point or take back just about anything; this is also what lets them yawn to take up hours and hours of (finite) life with a seeming infinity of repeated, modular content. That is their initial charm (usually encountered as a child with nothing but time to kill), and eventual uncanniness.

As thecatamites writes: “Lara Croft shooting a wild eagle is unfortunate, Lara Croft shooting a thousand wild eagles is bizarre – but really those thousand eagles are just the one eagle, the one self-contained pulp encounter fantasy, which has been extended, extrapolated, systemised as result of being placed in this machine.” The idea of violence as irreversible is, of course, based to an extent on material reality (“People die when they are killed!”), but this is also an element of ethical arguments about what types of violence are truly unacceptable (that which irreversibly harms a sufficiently human subject), and a constitutive concept in tragedy, as counter to comedy, where the characters are rescued or restored or simply bounce back from any instance of harm.  So with few exceptions we have to say that videogames are generally comedic.

Obviously some types of violence, presented comically, does not strike us as such. Shooting the baby… repeatedly (how nice that such a blatant example would appear right before I write this blog post!) in Modern Warfare, is not very funny, nor in general is violence against random bystanding women, LGBT-coded people, or people of colour, because dehumanization and repetitious violence against these groups is already common and far less likely to be taken seriously, repeating the cycle. It’s entirely too fucking real. But there’s a weird contrast between how, for example, a RDR2 player harassing and assaulting a suffragette NPC to the point where the programming routines for managing NPC behaviour begin to glitch out is surprisingly uncomfortable, and how much attempts at actual tragedy and pathos in a game’s content, usually through drawn out character deaths or other forms of major loss, fall flat at being tragic.  

And if they do succeed, to an extent, it’s most often not expressed by the gameplay (which continues on modularly with perhaps one previously accessible character type and related capabilities solemnly scrubbed from the menu, RIP) but by those frequent objects of game studies’ derision, the bad objects invading the purity of the game, cut scenes and dialogue, film and writing. I remember there was a brief trend in online artgames to use browser cookies to create an online game which “could only be played once,” and any subsequent attempts to load the game would display what the results of your first play session were. But instead of giving the game an effective feeling of gravitas, it just felt kind of hokey and withholding, like Lucile Bluth whisking away Buster’s promised candy bar.  

My first response, rather than sit and have deep thoughts about it, was to head to google to investigate what temporary internet files I had to delete to clear my fate, not out of the desire to play the entire game again, necessarily, but just to eliminate this imposed limitation. I feel like, similarly to the “found footage” framing in film and gritty realism in television, these sort of artificial consequences in a medium where it is very unusual for anything to be consequential display a sort of lack of faith in the given medium to be sufficiently effective or compelling or meaningful “as is.”

Bringing this back around to the Goose Game which has been the subject of much rhetorical effort, it surprised me the vigour and seriousness with which it was discussed in terms of violence, a framing which almost immediately dominated the discussion of a game that, to me, is (for once) deliberately comedic. It was either a supposedly rare nonviolent game, or actually surprisingly violent. The discussion of videogame violence (and media violence in general) is usually extremely binary, and this was no different. The idea of nonviolent videogames being rare, and Goose Game being a particularly unusual example expresses its own perspective on what counts as both videogames and violence, as does the claim that it is “actually violent,” a phrasing which creates a category of forms of violence in games that are not immediately apparent. This might be a slightly useful observation when the only forms of violence videogame ratings boards seem to differentiate meaningfully on are amount and colour of gore spray, but going on to associate the Goose Game by analogy with the politically loaded ubiquity of titles focused on gun violence is homogenization in another direction.

The reason the Goose Game is (sorry Ian) a fun game to play is precisely because it embraces the formal qualities of a videogame, not to accurately represent systems or meaningfully instruct or evoke a particular response or mental state, but that the small town you terrorize is consistently renewable, and utterly helpless when it comes to the effective strategizing against an annoying goose that any sort of long term memory would enable. Very few things break permanently, and all of the NPCs will determinedly go about their 15 minutes of routine no matter how long you play. Everything can be stolen and put back, again and again, allowing you to wreak fresh slapstick havoc every time. So, I have to conclude, encapsulating the beginning and end of my thoughts on the matter… (and here I pause, the sort of pause that indicates the speaker is working up to a punchline, so you know, from all the other times you’ve heard people make these type of jokes, that they're trying to be funny) that Untitled Goose Game is a good videogame.