As long as there have been animals, the historical record tells us, animals have played games. For fun, for education, for the chance to understand something that words—a later genetic quirk—cannot explain as well as the performative lesson of experiencing something-like would convey. To compete without stakes beyond pride of place at the day’s end. To work together for a shared goal. Games are social engines, community builders, ways to feel in our own head in a crowd of others. It is no different for us human animals.
We often use the term “games” without qualifier in this way to refer to multiple different forms of work at once. It is a point of pride for the videogame to belong to this lineage of “games.” To the AAA manager, it suggests a beautifully unbroken lineal ascent of more perfect communication of meaning through more precise refinement of technological advancement. To the scrabbling disenfranchised laborer of the modern itch.io mold, it suggests a heritage of appropriately scrappy communal participation in taking a suggestive desire through to a playable vibe. To the entrepreneurial indie auteur, it suggests a mystical creative effort through which participation in the electronic life’s work of their imagination is just a historical reappraisal away. It’s an inspirational feeling, this historicized legacy, across these different paths through an industry that sees no real room for feeling when there’s quarterly profits on the line. Everyone wants to believe it’s true. It makes “videogames” feel important, feel expressive, feel revolutionary, feel powerful, feel vital. And not just an important, expressive, revolutionary, powerful, vital form of artistic labor, but—the metrics insist—the most.
The most vital. What an insistent answer to a question it isn’t aware it’s asking. I’ve got a few bones to pick with that idea … and a few to break. Because that’s the trick, isn’t it? The gamified body makes for more interesting stories if, when you hit it, it ragdolls away and mutates into something … unpredictable. Isn’t that how it feels?
So let’s start with the ribs: What makes the “video game” a videogame? Do you know?
How about an easier question, then: What makes the human animal a human being?
The human condition is one of consciousness, which is as best as we can determine a genetic accident; a mistake, a miracle by any other name, where one day something alive no longer instinctively knew the answer to the question “am I alive?” and asked, instead, “what does it mean to be alive?”, cursing an entire line of descent within the animal kingdom with the unbearable anxiety of never being sure of anything ever again. And so we invented meaning. It fills the gap where certainty could be.
“What does it mean to be alive?” This is a rhetorical question, which isn’t the same thing, of course, as an unnecessary question. Rhetoric is a linguistic device philosophers and critics deploy to understand the terms of our condition. So, we critics ask, is it enough to be alive to be “living?” What does it even mean to be “alive?”
I believe I know the answer to this question. I believe, but I do not know, because I’m a human being and I can be nothing else, but also because I live in the United States of America and to live in the USA is to be a catalogue of inseparable parts: the stream of bills to pay for the pieces of your life you need to afford to be able to work to be able to afford the pieces of your life you need to work, the insurance you don’t have for the aches and pains you do, the light outside your window that you spend so little time in and the light from your computer and television screen you spend so much time around, the skin that never quite fits right, the fingers that cramp around phones, around computer mouses, around dishes, around steering wheels, around console controllers. The brain that feels fried out like an egg on a burning electric-car hood, insensate amidst the crash into the guardrail that sent its driver careening out into open air, beyond the senses of this burning existential mystery that is the egg which was never going to birth a chicken in the first place.
I don’t feel like a full person. I feel like a series of inputs I have to figure out how to mash in the right order to make the world make sense out of me in a way it’ll accept. I feel like a metaphor for a person waiting to attain a sense of self just outside my grasp and I’m worried I won’t ever attain it until right before my entire story ends, and then I’ll just be dead, someone else’s story to tell themselves about myself. I feel out of my own control.
Not much of a life, is it? Is that living? Is that what it means to be alive? What does it mean, to be alive? This question is momentous to me, in all senses of the word. I’m alive only temporarily. My hope is that my words live on without me—a vain hope, considering that if no one preserves these words outside of a digital urn their lifespan likely won’t be much longer than my own—but I am a human being and as a human being I live now. I can only hope the future nows to come are not like this one. I live in the age of openly-practiced necropolitics: in this abyssal when that is the present moment, it’s far more in the interests of the internationally conglomerated corporations who define the terms of the world we have to live in to determine what qualifies our bodies as institutionally “dead” and treat our lives accordingly. Position the target in the center, pull the switch, to borrow a phrase from fiction. I, lesbian, butch, transsexual or transgendered as you fucking please it, am not really alive in the eyes of the law. I’m a corpse who hasn’t accepted it yet; my being alive at all is living inconveniently in their eyes. So it matters to me a great deal, this despair that lives and gnaws at the heart of my humanity like a world-serpent. When I ask “what does it mean to be alive?” I am looking for an answer.
But what makes a video game a videogame?
The videogame is a quirk of capitalist design and industry, reliant so thoroughly, from the most minimalist revolutionary thought experiment on itch.io to the most boisterously gun-ho manshooter on the PlayStation Store, on infrastructures and technology that demand the ceaseless and violent consumption of so many natural resources whose complete annihilation by this process my, “millennial,” generation will likely see within our lifetime. The videogame will not be salvageable. It will not remain playable. It doesn’t matter what the actual contents of the videogame in question are. The future won’t have them.
A game, in the broadest possible context, is a participatory tool. A bridge between community and individual. A “video game”, in the broadest possible context, is a phrase you can use to describe just about any such broadly-conceived game that requires a screen onto which the boundaries and therefore nature of the game in question will be projected. The videogame, though, comes into being in that smelter-hot picosecond after mass engineering is called for as a required function of the video screen, so much so that it becomes impossible for the game to exist without it. The question of these games presupposes the technology required to present them already exists. They do not/can not/will not exist without it. In a world with so few certainties and so many ghosts this is just about the one thing we can be certain of—we have passed the threshold where it’s possible to maintain the inter-networked and electronic present we live in, especially not in the shape it currently exists and upon which so much of the videogame medium depends, very far into the future of humanity at all. It will all become so much rotting, useless garbage, at best accessible to a miniscule population devoted to careful preservation, constantly fighting a losing war against time and decay to maintain a shrinking category of “experienceable” works.
And yet something strikes at the core of us, when we say to ourselves, or even merely hear, “videogames are the most vital art form of our generation”. What does it mean, “most vital”? “Vital” is a word that goes hand in hand with “living”. The clinical term for “vital signs” makes the connection clear: “vital” is “necessary”. Without vital signs, we are medically (institutionally) dead. To call the medium “vital”—not just any measure of “vital” but the most “vital”—it implies that videogames perform a necessary function, without which we cannot live; that they have become one of the integral components of what it means to be alive.
My generation is the much-maligned-by-headline “millennial” generation, and I have survived 32 years of my life under that nom de guerre; long enough to have watched every promise made to me by every single entity with the power to enforce such promises evaporate, often because of the actions taken by those same entities, those massive, oligarchic superstructures of capital arrogance, long enough to see them, in turn, blame me for it. We are a ghost generation, haunted and haunting in equal measure. No one believes us capable of anything, not even changing anything, not even an ending, not even a firm statement of generational/existential meaning to be supplanted, much less rebelled against, by any generations to come. And when I hear this sentiment of “vitality” expressed, it is by my generational peers. It’s an interesting sentiment, in the pejorative sense of “interesting”.
Perhaps it’s a reflection of a darker fact we’ve all had to reckon with harder and longer than most: our lives are very coffin-sized, not from some finger on a button but the long fall of so many other people’s choices but ours leading to a sudden, sharp, stop. Or perhaps it’s something more banal and less compelling. Because, in a very real sense, they might be right: ours is a generation that was born obsolete. We are beaten down by jobs we do not know how to feel like anything but cogs inside, unable to imagine that any work that belongs to us could ever be worth more than pennies because we want other people to love what we do as much as we want to love what we do and we know that other people are just like us and only made of pennies to spare after all the gluttonous threshing of our wallets done to us under the claim that this is what it costs to keep us living. And we want, we want, we all want to be loved. Even if it won’t last. We are the generation after the last generation that was ever promised a tomorrow it had a reason to believe it would inherit.
An interesting kind of “vitality” this is, then: a vitality not of “integrity” but of “utility”. Perhaps videogames are not vital to us because they help us live, but because we look at them and see something we can make use of as a tool to describe the circumstances in which we are now living. We are glutted on waste, reformatting our own symbolic destruction into a bond we know our descendants will not be able to understand that we shared, in this long hour before the next chapter of the life of the earth, whether that chapter arises with a single human soul left to stare up at it in the wonder and terror and confusion that comes from not knowing what it means to be alive, or not. What better symbolism to take up for ourselves than an art form that we have witnessed within our very own lifespan not just merely decay into illegibility but lock whole generations of itself away into obscurity and inaccessibility because the architecture of the machinery on which it depends to function no longer exists to make this—presumably fertile—era of invention make sense of itself anymore? A toy that its maker dreamed of seeing be a force, maybe not even for change but merely for a few minutes’ pleasure or perusal, but finds instead time has changed it so drastically it cannot even function anymore. A broken link, a grey space where a place used to be. A peripheral without a hard port to plug itself into. A box with a broken board inside. What Rosetta stone will decipher this? Well, someone must own a manual, or a repair guide—do you? Do you know who does? Is it bound in a book or is it on another electronic board inside a box? Do you know where to find such a thing? Do you know what it means to be alive?
I don’t know. I’m going to die, like any other ragdoll under the capitalist reticle, before I find out. I’m not going to let that stop me from trying. Respawn in 5.
As you can see, Tara Hillegeist is a critic.,