Steve Wilcox is editor-in-chief of First Person Scholar. He is also a PhD candidate at the University of Waterloo, where he studies the intersection between ludology and intersubjectivity.
Let’s talk about satire and games for a moment. Where these two intersect successfully we find critical, thought-provoking works that challenge contemporary social, cultural, political, or ideological beliefs. For this article I’ll adopt a rather loose definition of satire as an attempt to critique accepted beliefs through “irony, derision, or wit.” And while there are a wide range of beliefs worthy of criticism, I’m interested here primarily in accepted notions of violence and aggression as a means of resolution in mainstream videogames. The argument put forward here is that games provide a new form of criticism, ludic satire, that emanates from choice.
Quit to Progress
One way of framing the issue at hand here is through an article I’ve discussed on FPS before: this Rock, Paper, Shotgun interview with the writers of Spec Ops: The Line (Walt Williams) and Far Cry 3 (Jeffrey Yohalem). Both SO:TL and FC3 have moments in which the player must engage in what would typically be considered immoral behavior in order to perpetuate the narrative. In the case of the former, you ultimately must kill civilians not engaged in the combat and in the latter you must brutally torture your brother. Both Williams and Yohalem view their games as critiques of contemporary war- and combat-simulating games. At one point in the interview the conversation turns to the subject of how the player is to respond to moments of excessive violence. For Yohalem:
…the shocking thing is that a lot of people who were most upset by the game, they never once suggested that they could have turned it off and done something else. I find that fascinating. They’ll say, “There’s no choice! You just have to go through this.” You could just stop playing. That never occurs to them, I think, and that, again, is the addiction thing. But, I mean, we have the power to say “no.” (Yohalem).
To which Williams adds:
There comes a point in the game where the ultimate real choice of any video game is not the choice that we’ve given you in the game. It’s the choice of, “Do I want to play a game where I do these things, or do I not like to play that?” Turning off the game is a valid player choice… it’s about looking at what you’re comfortable with doing and realizing that you’re simulating truly terrible acts. Even though they are simulated, even though they are not in the world that we are in, you are still choosing to do them over and over. Admitting to yourself that you’re not comfortable with that and that’s okay to be not comfortable with that. I don’t have to do this if I don’t want to. Totally valid, and it’s something that we need to begin accepting as valid. [emphasis added]
This is a deeply problematic perspective for a number of reasons. Immediately one should be troubled that the take-away is to stop playing. The cost of these games alone ($70+ CAD after tax) compromises the player’s choice to ‘turn off the game.’ Secondly, and more importantly, quitting the ‘real-world’ counterpart of these represented systems (the military, threats of rape, torture, and ultimately the cyclical nature of violence,) is not an option, or at the very least it is not so simple. That said, I think these two writers have isolated a unique property of satire and videogames, namely: how the capacity for interaction should influence the structure of a satire that is intended to critique its own players.
Clicking Cows and Killing Civilians
When Far Cry 3 was released it received resounding critical praise for its entertaining combat mechanics and open-world encounters. This must have been rather troubling, if not disappointing, for Yohalem, who describes the game as a send-up of the genre. After all, Yohalem saw his work as clearly satirical. For example, the villain’s speech about madness as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results (a reference to the reloading/replaying of games, as well as repetitive nature of the shooter genre in general). And then there’s the absurd collection of exotic animals on a single island (a reference to the artifice of the setting and the idealized hunting or killing scenarios instantiated in combat games). These moments are rather witty but given the medium, they are not particularly persuasive because they rely primarily on textual and visual elements.
We can use Ian Bogost’s concept of procedural rhetoric to emphasize the persuasive potential that games like FC3 fail to take advantage of: “Procedural rhetoric is a subdomain of procedural authorship; its arguments are made not through the construction of words or images, but through the authorship of rules of behavior, the construction of dynamic models” (29). And as Bogost notes later on: “Just as visual rhetoricians argue that verbal and written rhetorics inadequately account for the unique properties of visual expression, so I argue that verbal, written, and visual rhetorics inadequately account for the unique properties of procedural expression” (29) [emphasis added]. In this respect the ‘unique properties’ of games include interactivity and player agency. These ludic modes of satire have gone largely overlooked.
We can look at Bogost’s Cow Clicker, a game intended to critique Zynga-style Facebook games such as FarmVille, as an example where the procedures themselves are intended to be a means of criticism. With Cow Clicker the criticism is neither a written document (perhaps a modest proposal that we should create a cow-clicker industry in order to save the waning economy) nor a visual image (maybe a 1984 themed animated gif of people endlessly clicking cows). Instead, Bogost adopted the mechanics of a Zynga game in order to carry out his critique. And so Cow Clicker is FarmVille stripped down to its most basic and crude form, thus allowing the commentary to emerge through play. Note that the critique is not authored in the content alone but in the decisions the game designer provides for the players. If we look closer, Cow Clicker is not so much a commentary on Zynga games as it is a critique of an individual who has the time, resources, and desire to perform a simple, repetitive task for arbitrary rewards. In other words, it critiques the player who chooses to play the game. Similarly, the board game Monopoly is not ultimately persuasive for its images or text (representations of property and names of places, prizes, etc.) but for the actions it encourages but does not obligate you to take (acting within the system you can become a land owner that extorts and eventually monopolizes a space). What emerges from playing Monopoly is a greater understanding of the mechanics that persuade you of certain behaviours (i.e. we can understand that a capitalist system encourages such an extortionist mentality).
This moves us closer to a persuasive use of games as satire but it still falls short. After all, Monopoly is the prototypical example of a failed or, at the least, easily subverted satire. The original game on which it is based, The Landlord’s Game, was designed to critique the power imbalance between land owners and tenants but as a game concept it was co-opted by Parker Brothers and is now packaged and sold by Hasbro. What’s more, over the decades the game’s anti-capitalist message has gone largely unnoticed. Similarly, Cow Clicker ‘failed’ because it ‘succeeded’ (see this article here for a summary). At the height of its popularity Cow Clicker reached 56,000 players, a number that rather obviously contradicted the intended outcome: “I didn’t set out to make it fun,” Bogost said. “Players were supposed to recognize that clicking a cow is a ridiculous thing to want to do.” Despite their vastly different subject matter, this is not unlike Walt Williams’ intentions with Spec Ops: The Line: “it’s about looking at what you’re comfortable with doing and realizing that you’re simulating truly terrible acts” (Williams).
I would argue that these games struggle with the relationship between play and satire because ultimately we have to choose to become the objects of derision in order to appreciate that which is being critiqued. This paradox gets to the core principle of ludic satire: choice creates context for action. Adding the option in Monopoly to communally share property or allowing players to develop other aspects of the social infrastructure excluded by the strict focus on property provides a context for those players who choose to play the game as exploiters and extortionists. At this point we can make a distinction between traditional forms of satire, which take an established representation of a behavior, culture or class as their object of derision, and what we might call ludic satire, which critiques elected performance, action, or choice. This is not to say that choice entails play or even that play requires choice, but for a game to persuasively satirize those that engage with it, alternatives are crucial to the critique.
This is due, in part, to the fact that as players we seem to not question our actions so long as they are in accordance with the rules of the system. In other words, this isn’t about the ethics of killing people and clicking cows, it’s about the absence of a context in which our choices have meaning and consequence. Bogost, Williams, and Yohalem all share the belief that their representations of exploitative games/morally dubious behaviour ask players to ultimately quit participating in such systems. I would argue that the systematic exclusion of alternatives in the games themselves ensure that players never encounter the question. This is because ultimately, unlike films, novels, and television shows, games are less effective when they exclusively replicate the faulty or unethical characters or systems that they seek to represent. The increase in agency on the part of the player (versus that of reading or watching) closes the critical distance needed for reflection on the actions of the characters.
And so a successful, persuasive game that satirizes those that play it would give the player the option to become the object of derision and then demonstrate the folly of that choice. In other words, the satire is performed by the player when he/she chooses of their own volition to enact the questionable behaviour. And thus, in true procedural form, ludic satire is the process of being satirized. Players must become a Don Quixote or a Nick Bottom and in that process they encounter their own flaws, their own misguided attempts. In short, ludic satire does not address an already-informed audience; it makes satirical figures out of its players. How effective the satire is depends upon its capacity to persuade players that the folly belongs to them. In this case a proper satire of a violent game is one where you choose to be a tragic figure.
In Miguel Sicart’s The Ethics of Computer Games we find a thorough reading of games in light of existing theories of morality and ethics. For Sicart there is one game series that is a particularly interesting subject: Grand Theft Auto. Sicart even goes so far as to claim that Grand Theft Auto IV is “a true ethical masterpiece” (105). In part this is because of its tragic main character. For Sicart the protagonist of GTAIV, Niko Bellic, embodies the ‘dictum of Heraclitus’: “’ethos anthropoi daimon’—character is fate, or the design philosophy behind Grand Theft Auto IV” (61). Of particular interest here is Sicart’s recognition of the contrast between character and player: “Grand Theft Auto IV is built around the fundamental tension between a character who does not want more violence, and a player who is commanded to play this violence. This is a tension that takes place between the fiction of the game and the actions afforded to players, its gameplay” (Sicart 62).
It is worth noting that both the main characters in FC3 and SO:TL follow classic tragedy arcs and in this respect Sicart nicely summarizes a complication raised by GTAIV that could easily apply to all three of these games: “Grand Theft Auto IV does not use humor, but tragedy: we empathize with Niko, yet we are forced to drive him to crime. Do we really want to do that?” (Sicart 105). My argument here is that the absence of in-game choice precludes that question from being raised effectively. And so just like SO:TL and FC3, it is difficult to appreciate the criticism supposedly embedded in a system that sees the player “commanded to play this violence,” sexism, and misogyny. According to our definition of ludic satire, for the critique to be effective the player needs to elect to perform the behaviour being criticized. In other words, the game cannot both satirize the player while maintaining that character is fate. The two are at odds with one another and ultimately this results in a disassociation of Niko Bellic from the actions the player has him perform.
This might seem to suggest that playable characters are at odds with ludic satire but this is not always the case. Shortly after his discussion on GTAIV Sicart turns to another iconic and ill-fated figure. In Metal Gear Solid 3 players control Snake and throughout the game they are given the option of lethal versus non-lethal modes of combat. Your approach to combat is then reflected near the conclusion of the game when you are forced to walk along a riverbed that is populated with the reanimated bodies of every soldier you have killed thus far. As you walk past each solider and encounter the scale of violence (both in terms of sheer numbers and in the fact that soldiers visibly reflect their mortal injuries), you are confronted with the outcome of your actions. Sicart refers to this as “one of the most accomplished translations of the ethical possibilities of games into actual game design” (108).
But it also serves as an effective moment of ludic satire as it confronts the player with the recognition that things could have been otherwise: you could have tranquillized the soldiers or avoided them entirely but you were the type of person that pursued violence. Without that choice the narrative is making a commentary on the character. With that choice, the commentary is on the player. Games like FC3 and SO:TL rig the system in order to make their satire, eliminating the object of derision in the process: the choice to kill/torture/maim. Ultimately, these games are satires of writing in the FPS genre, not of players and the culture of violence.
We can summarize much of the above in the following two tweets:
I was driving fast in GTA and the passenger said “whatever male power fantasy you are trying to engage in stop!” So I turned the game off
— Rich Woodward (@Woodfella15) September 19, 2013
If #GTAV were a critique of misogyny or traditional masculinity then it would make most straight men feel profoundly uncomfortable to play.
— Jonathan McIntosh (@radicalbytes) September 24, 2013
We cannot turn off or quit culture, any more than we can quit the patriarchy or quit racism. These systems persist without participation from those that they disenfranchise and discriminate against. At the very least, games, given their procedural nature, offer a unique means of confronting those that perpetuate such systems with the consequences of the actions they choose to pursue. If game designers genuinely want to satirize the culture of violence and misogyny then they should demonstrate the harm the cultures does to the people that choose to perpetuate them. Instead they glorify such cultures by ensuring that events can unfold in no other way. A character fated to be violent or misogynistic is a player predetermined to perform those actions, a problematic proposition given that these games employ mechanics that are motivated to entertain. But while we ultimately cannot quit these cultures, we can ‘jailbreak’ them, that is, we can expose how they work and question the cost of perpetuating them.
Bogost, Ian. Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007.
Sicart, Miguel. The Ethics of Computer Games. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009.