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GAME OVER: thinking beyond death in video games

GAME OVER: thinking beyond death in video games

As video games continue to become more and more “lifelike,” they bring users closer to visual experiences of actual “death.” They desensitize us to the act of death, however, by having immediate rebirth as a procedural norm. This project responds to the procedural rhetoric of contemporary popular video games in addressing death. Most games found in the market today have some feature of numerous chances, several “lives,” and/or rebirth with little consequence. Through their pervasiveness, I fear how these games make light of death and refuse to acknowledge the ramifications of dying. Many theorists and intellectuals have studied and highlighted how the procedurally of video games can be affective and I do not think enough thought has been given to the effect of rebirth in so many games. Through this project, I work within the format of a video game to redefine the death of an avatar.


The first level of my game is meant to mirror “life,” with multiple paths the user can take, all with various “life events” that pop up as you go along. Each “life event” that a user activates, however, is followed with a user-directed question, mirroring the existential angst that often comes along with life. For example, a life event pop-up may read: “got a puppy” and be followed by: “do you feel less alone now?” The user has control to move at their own pace through this level, and can even go back to follow a different path and move through different “life events” if they are willing to put in the time (much like in life!). There is no “winning” or “completing” the first level. There are however, spikes, which, if landed on, “kill” the user. As the user travels on a “life” path, the spikes increase in frequency over time, eventually becoming almost unavoidable. One of the last “life events” (which entails retiring and then asking what “you” will do with all the free time) evenrequires “dying” in order to be activated. If, however, the user does reach the “end” of the level, there is simple a wall, boxing them in, forcing them to stay where they are, consider turning back, or consider purposefully “dying.” After this initial level, come three levels of questions. The first such level asks the user to state whether or not they are religious. The answer input does not matter; both answers take the user to the next level. Rather the level acclimates users to the new diegesis, in which they are asked to respond to serious questions with honest answers. The following level, and the second “question level” asks users to state whether or not they believe in rebirth. This is the real kicker. If users answer “yes,” they believe in rebirth, then they are brought back to the first level and allowed to “play again.” If the user answers “no,” however, they are led to the final question: “believe in afterlife?” Here, if the user answers “no,” they are “stuck;” they constantly restart this level over and over again in perpetuity. If the user answers “yes,” however, that they believe in afterlife, they are taken to the final level. The final level is a blue space filled with white, cloud-like objects. The user may somewhat jump from cloud to cloud but that is all. Using the gaps between clouds, the avatar will eventually fall out of the frame and not be followed, leaving the user with nothing to do other than stare at the static screen of a sky-like canvas. (See video to left for playthrough of game!)

As a result of my own coding limitations, I created this game through a third party platform, Flowlab. In using this format, I was unable to create a game involving commonplace violence or gun action, which perhaps make up the most problematic games in which rebirth is a given and death is stripped of value. Nevertheless, the “death” that occurs in my game is treated with weight. I view the resulting product as a prototype. Flowlab has allowed me to create a functional game, playable by others, but it is a first attempt to approach the issue of death/rebirth in games through a game. My prototype approach does have its own rhetorical advantages, however. For instance, in reminding us of the simplified origins of videogames, the product asks us to reconsider what we have come to “expect” from a “game.” Is the commonplace, vivid violence of so many modern games now a critical feature of gaming? Without this violence and “life-like” interaction, what does it even mean to “die” in my game? By redefining more than one aspect of the popular modern game, my project seeks to approach these various questions. However, other limitations were also imposed by flowlab. My free subscription to the service allowed me to have only 5 levels in my game, for example, and therefore limited the number of question levels I could have. Nevertheless, the game serves its most basic purpose; through playing my game, users, ideally those with experience in other forms of gaming, have to reexamine their own gaming habits and the rhetoric they receive from other games. My game not only gives gravity back to virtual dying, connecting it back to that of the “actual” world, but it also further highlights the disconnect between death and “play” in most traditional or commonplace games.

My project was largely inspired by a piece from Brody Condon. Suicide Solution, 2004, by Condon ( is a compilation piece in which the artist commits suicide in “over 50 first person and third person shooter games.” I first viewed portions of this piece and was less than phased. I was then horrified -- not by the work itself but by my reading of it, my inability to be disturbed by the display of the piece. Even as someone who does not play many video games, I realized how accustomed I had become to viewing death in video games as something so far from its base in reality. You are shot in the head in a video game, your character flashes a bit, perhaps you are transported in time/space, perhaps you push a few menu buttons, and the game continues. We have been enculturated into this mode of gaming. It is disturbing and I seek to challenge it. I believe the only way to do so is to redefine and challenge video game rhetoric through its own procedurality.


In Chapter 1 of his book, Gaming, Alexander Galloway discusses the work of Clifford Geertz, reinforcing, “play is a cultural act and because action is textual, play is subject to interpretation just like any other text” (16). My work responds to this claim by creating a mode of play that is meant to be read and interpreted like any other argumentative text. “Play is a symbolic action for larger issues in culture. It is the expression of structure... It is an aesthetic, enacted vehicle for ‘a powerful rendering of life’” (16). My piece returns meaning and expression to the process of death and dying. It is returning this “rendering of life” to its origins to remind players of how video games have warped dying, removing it from its real life ramifications. Bogost follows up on the possibilities to construct expression and meaning through play expressed by Galloway; “in a video game, the possibility space refers to the myriad configurations the player might construct to see the ways the processes inscribed in the system work” (121). My “possibility space” is constricted, with only 2-3 possible outcomes. Users are reborn and continue “play” or will get “stuck” in a realm of clouds or an otherwise stark level where they may no nothing other than question their beliefs in an afterlife. Within this possibility space, however, the process of my project becomes clear in trying to address what happens after one “dies” in a game. “We encounter the meaning of games by exploring their possibility spaces. And we explore their possibility spaces through play” (121). While my game does not make use of traditional modes of “play,” it’s ability for some user control maintains its status as a game and forces users to “play” through the non-traditional possibilities. Game players ideally want to keep “playing” a game, but they are only be allowed to do so in my program by exploring how continued play intersects with their “actual” beliefs about death and dying.


I must reiterate here that my game serves as a prototype; it is simplified, meant to give an impression of my argument about gaming and death rather than represent the most “affective”/effective way I might argue this thesis. If I continue to work on this project, I am interested in how gun violence and/or other “life-life” attributes might alter the significance of this game. Regardless, I hope my piece as it is, on flowlab, serves as a strong first draft demonstration of how the consequences of death are often lacking from modern games and how we might draw attention to this problematic aspect of gaming rhetoric.


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