Some phrases I absolutely hate:
“Video games are nothing but mindless entertainment.”
“Gaming is for nerds/losers/boys/kids.”
“They’re just games, right?”
Admittedly, I don’t hear these phrases very often anymore: most of my friends are either fellow game studies students, fellow gamers or simply open to the idea that video games are a political medium. Those who do still think that video games are only an entertainment medium often have very little experience with them. Some see no political value at all in any medium that hasn’t officially been given the designation ‘art’. Even worse are those gamers who demand their hobby be taken seriously but reject any political reflection on their favourite titles–as exemplified by the comment sections under some Errant Signal uploads, most notably his video essay on Grand Theft Auto V.
Like I said, I personally don’t encounter them much, but I am aware that these sentiments still exist. They go hand in hand with the technophobic framing we can see in popular culture and news media from time to time. But, again, I must admit that even this general technophobia is on the decline. Video games, and especially the culture surrounding them, are being taken seriously by ‘the mainstream’ more and more: for instance, the Dutch NOS has recently written pieces on bullying in online gaming and on video game Let’s Play streaming. There are more examples, of course, and these really are steps in the right direction. However, the overall trend has been to focus on the political economies and cultures around video games, rather than to seriously look at the games themselves. Yes, I’m consciously ignoring the academic discipline of game studies here, because academia and popular culture are, sadly, quite separate from each other most of the time. How, then, can we show the political potential of video games without requiring the audience to be well-versed in both the medium itself and in the academic background that enables critical reflection on such a medium?
One solution could be found in the exposition “Everything is Political: The Politics of Gaming”, which recently ran at the Nieuwe Vide in Haarlem. The name speaks for itself. The exposition comprised artworks made in or about video games and discussed themes such as sexism in games, the problems of group mentality, and the commodification of culture. The term ‘politics’ was taken very broadly here: as De Volkskrant remarked in their piece on the exposition, perhaps it would have been better to ask, “how is the entirety of life reflected in the world of the video game”. Most of the works are excellent, but one in particular stands out for me: Killbox, by Joseph DeLappe and the Biome Collective. This game is the very embodiment of what, in my eyes, is needed to legitimise video games as a political medium. A brief analysis to demonstrate this point.
Killbox is a game that involves two players sitting opposite each other, each with their own screen. One player controls a coloured sphere in a peaceful mountain village. There are other spheres to interact with: when the player’s spherical avatar collides with them, they make a xylophone-like noise and change colour. While that player is having a virtual ball–pun intended–the other is receiving instructions on how to operate a drone console. When the tutorial is complete, they target the mountain village and fire a missile at it. Just like that. The consequences are, predictably, horrifying, even if the village’s inhabitants are just geometrical shapes. The impersonal nature of drone warfare, the horror and chaos it creates, explained–experienced—in only a few minutes.
This angle on the issue of drones isn’t anything new, I know, but Killbox demonstrates perfectly how a game can say very much with very little. We aren’t even presented with a coherent narrative or emotional backstory to make us empathise with those that were killed. We establish a connection with a coloured sphere and then that connection is brutally, senselessly severed, and everyone knows what happened, why it happened and what it means. This is what games are capable of: they convey meaning through playing, by letting the player experience something instead of telling/showing them. In its epilogue, Killbox presents some statistics on civilian deaths caused by drone warfare, but the words aren’t necessary: the message was delivered by the missile that destroyed the village.
Nothing but mindless entertainment? Please.