Mountains of Trash

An Essay on Videogames, Recycling, and Digital Culture

Jansen cover image

Dennis Jansen is a second-year RMA student of Media Studies at Utrecht University. His current research interests include the materiality of videogames and digital culture, critical theory in game studies, and fan-made archives for The Elder Scrolls. Dennis is managing editor at Junctions, a graduate journal for the Humanities. Follow the author on TwitterMore about the author

“Maybe this is what digital culture is. A monstrous mountain of trash, the ash-heap of creativity’s fountain. A landfill with everything we ever thought of in it. Grand, infinite, and unsorted.” – Bennett Foddy, Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy (2017)

Videogames are trash. More specifically, among the many things videogames supposedly are—interactive digital environments, simulations of (un)realities, ideal post-Fordist commodities, paradigmatic media of Empire, and so forth—they are also mountains of trash. We might take this statement very literally, and some videogames indeed do. David O’Reilly’s Mountain (2014), for example, features a mountain floating somewhere in outer space that is occasionally bombarded by seemingly random objects. Sundae Month’s Diaries of a Space Janitor (2016) offers the perspective of a janitor in an alien city who spends their time picking up litter to survive intergalactic capitalism. Bennett Foddy’s Getting Over It (2017) takes the metaphor to its utter extreme, as the player controls the unfortunate Diogenes, doomed to spend eternity with his legs stuck in a large kettle and nothing but a large hammer in his hands. His near-impossible task is to climb a mountain created from a great variety of reusable digital assets: boxes, umbrellas, row boats, front doors, oranges, radio towers, staircases, et cetera.

In Getting Over It, as the player ascends and almost inevitably suffers the occasional dramatic plummet down to the foot of the mountain, Foddy delivers a witty voice-over monologue about a range of subjects like perseverance in the face of failure, the underestimated value of frustration, and the trash-like nature of digital culture. “When everything around us is cultural trash,” he says, “trash becomes the new medium, the lingua franca of the digital age.” Interestingly, he equates this ‘cultural trash’ with low culture: “You can build culture out of trash, but only trash culture: B-games, B-movies, B-music, B-philosophy,” by which he means those cultural objects that forego polish and (user-)friendliness (Foddy, 2017). They reuse and recombine pre-existing materials instead of creating ‘original’ ones, and they are made for the sake of making rather than for aesthetic value or facilitating a ‘smooth’ experience for their audiences. This essay is not a dismissal of trash culture, nor of the videogames that are part of that culture. Instead, I take an interest in the various economic and environmental implications of these dynamics of salvaging and repurposing that seem to proliferate across digital cultures in general, and in videogames specifically. Trash culture is not merely about a lack of refinement or even an intentional rejection of elitism, exclusivity, and ‘triple-A’ standards. For better and for worse, trash culture is a culture of recycling.

The Lively Afterlife of Videogames

These notions of trash and recycling apply to videogames in a much broader sense than Getting Over It would have us initially believe. Raiford Guins writes about the “afterlife history” of videogames (2014, p. 6), paying attention specifically to what happens to the physical stuff that videogames are made of—arcade cabinets, console cartridges, packaging, et cetera—when they are no longer serving their intended function as hardware. This afterlife may take place anywhere, from museums and archives to garbage dumps and suburban garages. According to Guins, the life of a videogame is far from over when its original players have lost interest and have, let’s say, thrown away the cartridge: the becoming-trash of a videogame “would not mark an end but the opportunity for further mutability through recycling, scavenging, looting, restoration, reuse, recollection and remembering” (p. 225). His own notorious, and again quite literal, example of such a post-trashing afterlife is Atari’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestial (Atari, Inc., 1982). The game, already considered to be ‘trash’ in terms of quality during its conventional shelf life, has today acquired a sort of mythos as the symbol for the collapse of the North American videogame market in 1983. It has also become a “holy grail of Atari memorabilia finds” for videogame collectors the world over (Bates, qtd. in Guins, p. 209). Most of E.T.’s (and other videogames’) cartridges that were dumped in a New Mexico landfill in September 1983 were destroyed in the process, but some were indeed scavenged from the trash heap and continued to ‘live’ long after their publishers had written them off as dead weight.

The implications of this story are manifold, but a few are worth highlighting here. Guins suggests that the image of videogames as literal garbage is in itself subversive, in the sense that the industry’s preferred narrative about its products does not consider their afterlife worthy of discussion: “We rarely witness video games’ disposal because [electronic waste] is often exported or processed domestically at remote locations” (p. 209). The E.T. dump’s notoriety and its cult status are exceptions to the rule. Indeed, the industry’s preferred consumers do not often consider the ways in which the electronic waste produced by the videogame industry impacts the world environmentally and socioeconomically—nor do they accept any perceived ‘politicization’ of the medium in general (cf. Condis, 2015). If we try to look for what Gay Hawkins calls an “ethos of waste” (2006, p. 3) among Gamers™, it is quite likely that we won’t find it at all. While real gamers are talking about games” (Braithwaite, 2016, p. 6), few people are discussing how neoliberal recycling policies disproportionately place “an ethical obligation on end users, […] rather than on the design of devices or the economics of disposal” to reduce the environmental impact of electronic waste (Cubitt, 2017, pp. 120–121). Even fewer are talking about what the afterlife really looks like for some electronic waste, and thus for some videogame hardware—and it’s really about time that we started to. Sean Cubitt, for instance, mentions old game consoles as one of the many digital media commodities that are sometimes illegally exported to the “global recycling villages of West Africa, India, and southern China” (p. 123), where their highly toxic materials cause local ecological pollution and increased cancer rates in children. Recycling isn’t inherently positive; it matters how we do it.

Recycled Software: Modding the Source Engine

I now turn from plastic and metal to the more ephemeral aspects of videogames and the ways in which they are subject to recycling. After all, digital culture as a whole is more than just a collection of physical objects: it takes place in programmable infrastructures and thrives on interactions within those infrastructures—between objects, but also between people. We need only point to internet memes as evidence for the prominence of recycling as part of those interactions, given that users are often “repackaging” existing images into new forms and contexts to communicate their own unique messages (Shifman, 2014, pp. 19–22). Somewhat paradoxically then, while hardly anyone seems to be bothered with preventing their electronic waste from becoming harmful to the environment and/or their fellow human beings, digital trash is gleefully kept alive in perpetuity: it is always ready to “leap into prominence” (Thompson, 1979, pp. 25–26), to suddenly regain its value as a socially meaningful object instead of a worthless thing.

Like all forms of digital culture, videogames are not only the sum of their physical parts, nor even of their digital assets, regardless of whether those assets are newly created or recycled. They are, among other things, their engines and development tools too, and it is quite a common practice for engines to be used multiple times for several different titles. Scavenging does not only take place in landfills, but in game development studios too. Take, for example, the Source engine, created by Valve Corporation: the first videogame built in the engine was Counter-Strike: Source (Valve Corporation & Turtle Rock Studios, 2004), shortly followed by Half-Life 2 (Valve Corporation, 2004). Since then such wildly diverse titles as Dear Esther (The Chinese Room, 2012), Dota 2 (Valve Corporation, 2013), and Titanfall (Respawn Entertainment, 2014) have been developed using this engine (see the engine’s Wikipedia page for more examples). Some bear the traces of the videogames the engine was originally designed for more overtly than others, yet all of them inevitably work with the same basic infrastructure, even if they have moulded it to fit the needs of a drastically different genre. For instance, Counter-Strike: Source, Half-Life 2, and Titanfall emphasize first-person gun combat, but Dota 2 takes an isometric perspective. Dear Esther eliminates the presence of weapons altogether and instead uses its first-person camera perspective to focus on environmental storytelling (see Pinchbeck, 2009), thereby effectively inventing a new videogame genre—the ‘walking simulator’—in the process and demonstrating that even in recycled trash there is still originality to be found.

One title in particular stands out in making overt how videogames are deeply invested in this culture of recycling: Garry Newman’s ever-popular Garry’s Mod (Facepunch Studios, 2006). Its Wikipedia entry characterizes it as a “sandbox physics game,” but perhaps it does the content more justice to term Garry’s Mod a playable digital asset library, a “game made from other games” (Nelson, 2017). It effectively opens up the Source engine to expose its trash pile, to make available the veritable mountain of stuff that is hidden within, and subsequently tells its players to simply create or enjoy the creations that others have made from that same bunch of scraps. Sometimes this even leads to relatively novel games or digital recreations of analogue games in the Source environment, which then become officially recognized parts of the Garry’s Mod ecology—think about popular game modes like ‘Trouble in Terrorist Town’. Presented in this way, the myriad digital assets in the Source engine never completely lose their value: when thousands of people sift through the same landfill in search of the next ‘Prop Hunt’, anything can potentially be meaningful or useful to someone.

The Dark Side of Trash/Recycling Culture

As its name suggests, Garry’s Mod began as a modified version of Half-Life 2. It was created and first released in 2004 (Pearson, 2012) by Garry Newman, who combined the asset libraries of multiple games made in the Source engine with player-made entities and made them all available in an “open playground” (Nelson 2017, p. 1). It was soon noticed by Valve and released as a commercial product in 2006, thus becoming yet another example of Valve’s reliance on free labour and user-/player-generated content for some of its most popular titles (cf. Ehrentraut, 2016). In fact, the game franchise from which the Source engine spawned, Counter-Strike, started as a ‘total overhaul’ mod of the original Half-Life (Valve Corporation, 1998) which was also eventually bought by Valve (cf. Kücklich, 2005). Since the original, there have been three major entries in the Counter-Strike franchise and several spin-offs. We see a similar cycle occurring again with the various Dota 2 spin-offs, such as the recent auto-chess-mod-turned-standalone-game Dota Underlords (Valve Corporation, 2019). Recycling is not just a subversive consumer practice, it seems, but also a profitable business strategy for multi-billion dollar companies.

Hawkins notes that “the process of enterprising waste that recycling reveals is also a process of enterprising the self” (2006, pp. 94–95), a remark which distinctly resonates with the very enterprising way in which the players of Garry’s Mod are expected to relate to the Source engine. Of course, the story of videogame players and ‘amateur’ modders becoming—or hoping to become—professional game developers is not particularly new (e.g. Jackson, 2019). It has long been argued that the videogame medium is, in fact, inevitably rooted in the masculinist, passion-driven, hacker mentality that still today persists among both the creators and consumers of videogames, which serves to “‘close the loop’ between corporation and customer [by] reinscribing the consumer into the production process” (Kline, Dyer-Witheford, & De Peuter, 2003, p. 57). Modders and other passionate game creators whose ideas were picked up by videogame companies had been working for the videogame industry long before they ever got paid for their labour. From a somewhat cynical perspective, then, Garry’s Mod is but a “game engine masquerading as a game,” as Peter Nelson calls it (2017, p. 3), a training ground where this easily exploitable mindset is cultivated and encouraged rather than critiqued or democratized.

In other words, it matters how we recycle. While there is much beauty to be found in the principles of recycling culture, we cannot ignore that these principles can be and have been co-opted by videogame companies with tremendous success: Foddy’s trash culture is firmly in the mainstream. A lot of good has come from the absolute rubbish that we call the videogame industry, but nowadays people are collectively becoming more aware of the trash that is not recycled well and are taking action against the garbage circumstances in which this recycling takes place (see Moralde, 2018). Perhaps “Take Back the Trash” can be one of the slogans for that movement?


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