On March 8th 2018 the White House revealed its weirdly abstract violence-in-videogames supercut to minimal applause. Game enthusiasts and Trump nay-sayers were quick to point out the obvious cherry-picking that had occurred; more astute viewers such as our own Oliver Fox noted that games really should aspire to be more than miscellaneous murder-sims. The presidential montage stirred non-profit organisation Games For Change to release an alternative video showcasing the many beautiful moments games can offer. While an obligatory round of sycophantic back-patting occurred, others noted that this video was in fact just as guilty of cherry-picking as the Trump-endorsed montage. To my eye at least half of the Games For Change video features games that are mired in violence once you’re done admiring the pretty colours.
“Lethal approaches are designed and animated in a way that is gruesome yet slick, stylish and endocrinically satisfying.”
A recent play through of Dishonored 2 highlighted this strange contradiction to me. On the one hand the painterly aesthetic, extravagant sun-bleached architecture, and dramatic lighting create a fascinating world to enmesh yourself in. On the other it is a world that the player is invited to paint red with the blood of their enemies. While the game’s underlying morals guide the player towards non-lethal solutions where possible, it’s a play style that is ultimately slow, clunky and cognitively demanding. Comparatively, lethal approaches are designed and animated in a way that is gruesome yet slick, stylish and endocrinically satisfying.
There is never a moment where either of the game’s protagonists – Emily or Corvo – ever miss with the blade, bouncing off an opponent’s rib cage or getting their sword trapped in the vertebrae of their victims’ spines. Neither ever have to hold their nose to keep from retching as the dumpster-destined corpse they’re carrying releases the contents of its bowels – as is so common post-mortem. Emily seems entirely unfazed by her first kill, presumably driven by rage at the loss of her empire – ever the “strong woman”. In short, even a game that makes some effort to stigmatise violence can’t seem to help but present it as glamorous, and its characters as cool-headed killing machines.
Even developers with the best will in the world have become victims of their peers’ received wisdom. We think of software development as an iterative, ever-improving process, comforting ourselves with the notion that videogames are one of the few mediums where the sequel tends to be better than the original, with little thought as to what “better” actually means.
“Gaming has been iterating on violence for a long time.”
As an industry, gaming has been iterating on violence for a long time, arguably fuelled by a swerve towards experiences defined by competition and machismo in the late ’80s and early ’90s. In a 2016 paper Graeme Kirkpatrick notes that during 1986 and 1987, closely following the Atari crash, games marketing and games journalism in the UK embraced an increasingly gender-biased tone aimed squarely at adolescent males – a demographic for which marketing strategy was already well-defined, especially regarding technology.
This article isn’t really about whether videogames are violent (they are) or whether they’re sexist (they are) or whether they’re violent because sexist (probably not, actually). More it’s to further illustrate that within the realm of videogames we have been re-skinning the same few ideas for decades. It’s a point that the White House murder-reel and the Games For Change beauty contest make painfully obvious. This is not news.
Thankfully, the internet holds a burgeoning mass of independent, experimental game creators willing and able to give brief insights into the strange alternative histories that videogames could have had. Data Mutations is one such attempt. In their own words, the project seeks to find “which kinds of experimental interactive systems are possible in the framework of a commercial game engine if the pressure of time consuming, skill-heavy asset creation is circumvented by the creation of a collective gene pool”.
Data Mutations is a vision of game creation where Mario Maker was released in 1983, Half-Life is a niche offshoot of Garry’s Mod and Quake was built on the Thirty Flights of Loving engine. It’s a project that invites you to think about what you could have won, and then make it; the collective actively encourages anyone to create their own games using the pooled assets.
“There are truly unique expressive moments that eschew the notion a game must be cinematic to convey feeling and emotion.”
While the bizarro, glitched-out dystopias of the Data Mutations project tend to ape some of the conventions of contemporary art games – there are a few “walking simulators”, a first-person puzzler, an interactive semi-narrative toy – the unifying aesthetic of distressingly-fleshy-cyberspace-cum-late-capitalist-hell is not one I’m capable of being dismissive of: it speaks to my modernist anxieties on too deep a level.
Further still there are truly unique expressive moments throughout – titbits of creative nuance that eschew the notion a game must be cinematic to convey feeling and emotion in favour of embracing the possibilities of digital manipulation. All That is Solid Melts Into uses jarring switches between perspective and orthogonal cameras to express the oppressive emptiness of future wage-slavery; New Age of Swarms mixes the warped playfulness of Noby-Noby Boy with a set of inexplicable, morbid and beautiful endings; Best Practices hides a critique of productivity and work amidst a psychedelic puzzle game; Wildlife Museum invites the player to explore semi-destructible virtual spaces – spaces that can be reconfigured and explored from the inside – giving us a designer’s eye view of its procedurally curated anti-archive.
The most striking aspect of Data Mutations, and possibly its most unique, is the emergence of an unintended visual language within the player’s mind. The combination of a shared asset pool, the semi-convergent interpretation of those assets by the developers’ minds, followed finally by the player re-interpreting those creations, leads to the sneaking suspicion that all these worlds are somehow connected – it’s emergent universe-building. On top of the ideas each individual game is exploring there is an emergent layer of meaning built from repetition and reference – one that is critiquing commercialism, the tendency of capitalism to hollow out subcultures for profit, and the stagnancy of mainstream videogame creation while simultaneously embracing a form of mass-manufacture. Data Mutations is a reminder that art is better in context – something the rest of the games culture would do well to remember.