Things That Can Only be Expressed with Games

Things That Can Only be Expressed with Games

Here is a sneak-peek into my dissertation, which will soon be published by the University of Jyväskylä. In this chapter, I argue that there are some things that are best expressed by games.


In addition to the features that games have in common with other media, they are also apt in expressing ideas in particular ways. One of the ways this works is through what Bogost (2007, p. 85) calls the rhetoric of failure:

If procedural rhetorics function by operationalizing claims about how things work, then videogames can also make claims about how things don’t work. (italics in the original)

The rhetoric of failure works by creating situations that cannot be solved or won. The player may try, but the game is written into such form that winning is either impossible to begin with or that success only makes the game harder until it becomes too hard to beat. Weise (2003, pp. 10–11) describes such a situation in Fallout 2, simultaneously showing the unique rhetorical effect this has:

Although this entire sequence has a satirical appeal, it becomes rather scathing in the conversation with “Vice-President Bird” an obvious parody of real life Republican Vice-President Dan Quayle. The rule-based system here is the conversation itself. The joke is that trying to have an intelligent conversation with Mr. Bird is itself a game… a game that’s impossible to win. The player can to try [sic] reason with him by choosing seemingly “correct” responses in the conversation, but every avenue disintegrates into non-sensical rambling by the Vice-President, and the player’s options are reduced to responses like “What the hell is wrong with you?” or “You’re out of your mind!” The real gag, however, is that all Mr. Bird’s silly responses are actual statements made by Vice-President Quayle during his time in office. In other words, what the designers of Fallout 2 did was make a “Dan Quayle AI” which, the player would inevitably discover, was a raving loon unfit for any sort of political office. Of course, the fact that the player can only discover this via interacting with the Vice-President ads the finishing touch which makes this social commentary unique to videogames.

Of course, it would be possible to make this argument in other media too, by for example citing Quayle and then arguing that the quotations are nonsensical. Yet this would constitute a different kind of argument from the one Fallout 2 presents, which makes the player experience the frustration of trying and failing to make sense of Vice-President Bird.

Weise comments that this form of satire is unique to videogames, but that again depends on how videogames are framed. It could also be possible to use the rhetoric of failure in other interactive media, like electronic literature. However, in that case we might also be willing to call such literary works games.1

Figure 6: Happy customers in *McDonald's Videogame*

Other games use a similar rhetoric. The anti-advergame McDonald’s Video Game by Molleindustria has the player in charge of the fast-food chain McDonald’s, controlling all aspects of the business from agricultural production and slaughtering of animals to food service and marketing (see Figure 6). The game promises that through playing it,

You’ll discover all the dirty secrets that made us one of the biggest company [sic] of the world.

The rhetoric of failure shows the player how running McDonald’s in an ethical manner is impossible. In order to make the company profitable, it is necessary to employ tactics from an array of unethical means from media spinning and firing angry employees to giving growth hormones to the cows and clearing an indigenous tribe’s village to make room for cattle and soy fields.

Again, this is different from criticizing the fast-food chain in any other media. Extensive written reports about the harmful nature of their business practices could be written, but these would have a different effect than experiencing the rhetoric of failure first hand. The player may start the game with noble intentions of running the business in an ethical manner, but they will need either to compromise their morals or see the company fail. The rhetoric of failure argues that McDonald’s is run in an unethical manner because there are no other options. Experientially that is significantly different from reading a written criticism or seeing a documentary about the practices of the fast-food company.

Figure 7: The aftermath of a missile attack in *September 12th*

Another game that uses the rhetoric of failure is September 12th: A Toy World.2 It uses a very simple, yet effective, rhetoric. Groups of civilians walk around in a town that also contains armed figures identified as terrorists (see Figure 7). The player controls a targeting reticule that can be used to launch missiles into the town. If the missile hits a terrorist, the terrorist is killed. However, any civilian hit by a missile is also killed in the explosion. When other civilians happen upon the bodies of dead civilians, they bow down to mourn those that died – and turn into terrorists themselves.

Because there is a slight delay between clicking a mouse button and the missile hitting its target, and because the explosion is bigger than a terrorist, it is almost inevitable that the explosion kills more than just the intended target. Any attempt to quell the flood of new terrorists created by the effects of the previous attack only ends up creating more terrorists. The rhetoric of failure argues that attempting to use missile strikes against terrorism creates more problems than it solves. The player may again start with the best of intentions, only to realize that the tools at hand do not allow for the problem to be solved. The only solution is to adopt other tools.

The rhetoric of failure is not the only form of expression that is typical of games but rarely found in other media. Paper 5 describes a form of focalization that provides the player with access to the player character’s actions, but not to their motivations. The game can present clear goals for the player to pursue, while reserving some of the reasons and justifications for doing so. This allows games to make the player feel complicity in a way that other media have a hard time producing. This could be seen as a variant of the rhetoric of failure, tentatively called here the rhetoric of ethical failure.

For example, the military shooter Spec Ops: The Line follows Captain Martin Walker’s slow descent into depravity as a series of unavoidable and necessary steps. The game tries to turn the tropes of modern military shooters into a narrative of ethical failure (Heron & Belford, 2014, pp. 16–18). The enemies attack in endless waves and must be killed in order to proceed. Walker and his companions start out with tactical precision and the goal is self-defense, but eventually they become accustomed to the killing and finally revel in it. Walker’s statements of neutralizing an enemy turn into aggressive shouts. Violence becomes an end, not just the means. Heron and Belford (2014, p. 18) describe the distinction between the player’s intentions and the actions they guide Walker to make:

The nature of the game is such that it becomes an intensely disquieting experience after a while. We do not control Walker—at best we point him in a direction. We are responsible for driving him, and yet we may find ourselves repulsed by what he does.

However, the game is not content with maintaining that distinction. Soon it starts hinting that the player is complicit in Walker’s actions by guiding him deeper into the violence. This is done through meta-textual commentary on the game’s loading screens (see the page header image). In the beginning of the game, the loading screens contain standard textual summaries of the events of the game, but by the end of the game, their tone has shifted. One loading screen asks:

How many Americans have you killed today?

It questions the actions taken for Walker’s quest, which was originally about gathering information, then about saving American lives and finally only about finding absolution through revenge. A later loading screen accuses:

This is all your fault.

Since the comment is meta-textual, it is directed at the player, not just at Walker. In addition to the change in tone, the text starts directly questioning the player’s choices. The loading screens use the meta-textual level to comment on the ethics of killing:

To kill for yourself is murder. To kill for your government is heroic. To kill for entertainment is harmless.

By stating that all the killing done in the game is harmless, the game ironically questions the player’s actions. Is the killing harmless? The game never provides an answer, but by posing the question to the player it forces them to ponder the ethics of the game. The commentary is very aware of the medium that is being used for delivering the comments:

The US military does not condone the killing of unarmed combatants. But this isn’t real, so why should you care?

Videogames are not real and thereby the killing does not matter, the game again suggests with an ironic undertone. Heron and Belford (2014, p. 18) argue that the only ethical choice left to the player is to stop playing, which can also seem like a problematic argument for a videogame to make.

For the purposes of this study, it is irrelevant what the ethics of Spec Ops: The Line is. The important part is that it seems to be posing an ethical question, and it does so in a way that is hard or impossible to do in another medium. While Spec Ops: The Line relies on the narrative structure of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, as a ludonarrative game it necessitates complicity from the player in a way that is impossible to achieve in literature.

In order to make its point, Spec Ops: The Line uses a sophisticated approach that is aware of operating on several levels at the same time. Narratively, it follows a storyline that has already been captured in multiple media, relying both on the cultural reading of the events it portrays and the allusions to earlier depictions of similar events. In a reference to American military campaigns, the game is set in the Middle East instead of the Africa of Heart of Darkness.

However, as shown by the quotes above, the game is also very conscious of its nature as a game. It uses the standard mechanic of the games of its genre and a set of familiar tropes from cover-based shooting to endless waves of interchangeable enemies that seem to appear out of nowhere. The main character is a standard American hero-soldier that commonly stars in the military shooters. Spec Ops: The Line uses these genre assumptions consciously, highlighting the assumed heroic nature of these kinds of quests in one of the loading screens at the end of the game:

Do you feel like a hero yet?

Considering the actions the player has to take in order to reach that point in the game, there is only one possible answer. The use of multiple layers of meaning, from the cultural status of the American hero in the Middle East to the nature of the heroic main character in most action shooters, necessitates a complex hermeneutics that takes into account all these levels and their interplay. The horizon of interpretation is necessarily complex, as it must account for a diverse set of cultural contexts from military politics to videogame tropes. It is also difficult to see this message conveyed in any other media, partially because it is a message so wrapped up in being about videogames. However, this does not restrict it completely into the confined territory of things only relevant to videogames, as it manages simultaneously to engage in a discourse about the nature of choice, heroism and morality.

  1. Crookall, Oxford and Saunders (1987, p. 152, 161) argue that simulations are a safe way of experiencing failure. In contrast, they do not see games as simulations exactly because there are consequences for failure in games. They seem to be mostly concerned with games like poker, where losing means losing money. Other scholars argue that part of why games are enjoyable is exactly because they are a safe place to fail (cf. Juul, 2013, p. 4).

  2. The introductory text in September 12th states that it is not a game, but a simulation. For the current purpose, the distinction is irrelevant.