The Year in Video Games

Dawn Chan on the year in video games

Screenshot of the Bloodbath of B-R5RB in EVE Online, January 27–28, 2014.

A WAR STARTED the year in video games, and another war ended it. That latter—Gamergate, a vituperative expression of cultural frictions among game-makers, critics, and audiences—continues to play out in news feeds and their ids, the comment sections. But the first clash, while less contentious, raised another set of stakes for video-game cognoscenti. Gamers call it the Bloodbath of B-R5RB, and it took place this January in EVE Online: an anarchic outer-space environment where players, to survive, often join one of several thousand-member alliances, many of them locked in ongoing hostilities with one another. When a player in one alliance failed to make a payment on a key space station, a commander of an enemy faction—a twenty-something-year-old engineer from Savannah, Georgia who goes by the name Murph—noticed the slip-up and rallied his troops for a massive counterattack. The resulting battle took twenty-two straight hours, during which urgent directives were translated into Russian and French and transmitted across the globe. Twenty million virtual soldiers died.

But what was intriguing were news media’s attempts to articulate the battle’s significance in real-world economic terms. One Wired headline called it the “Space Battle That Cost Gamers $300,000.” (That number was what it would purportedly take players, via in-game purchases, to rebuild.) It was one of the many vertiginous dollar amounts to spruce up video-game headlines all through the year. Readers learned that Destiny—a first-person shooter set in a sci-fi world of airbrushed-looking beauty—took in a record half a billion dollars the Tuesday it went on sale this September. (The top-grossing movie, the final Harry Potter release, didn’t even generate a fifth of that amount on its first day.) We also learned that the world’s top five paid pro gamers make over a million each year. And that NCAA basketball players reached a $40 million settlement with Electronic Arts, which was accused of using their likenesses in video games like NCAA March Madness.

In a turn toward the absurd, Lindsay Lohan brought suit against the makers of Grand Theft Auto V, citing the character Lacey Jonas’s jean shorts and Chateau Marmont address as evidence she was an “unequivocal” reference to Lohan. Then, in a further descent into absurdity, Manuel Noriega slapped Activision, the company behind Call of Duty, with another lawsuit, looking for a slice of the game’s billion dollars in profit. The suit's since been dismissed. Most surreal, Activision was defended by none other than free-speech pioneer Rudy Giuliani, who said, “Video games are entitled to exactly the same protection as movies and books, under the first amendment,” adding: “It could create a terrible precedent that could go well beyond just video games and extend to movies and books. It could also put in jeopardy the whole genre of historical fiction.”

To art-world observers, the many dollar-sign-riddled headlines might have resembled coverage of auction records and Oscar Murillo sales. If such headlines were crass, they were forgivable too. They seemed attempts by those of us who care about video games to translate the importance of the medium to a wider audience, if only by relying on capitalistic values assumed—alas—to be universal. Those headlines were among the increasingly frequent arguments that video games should be taken seriously.

Screenshot of Kentucky Route Zero (Cardboard Computer, 2013–2014).

But to those of us who also care about contemporary art, the best of these arguments this year came from the games that stared down their medium’s conventions, repurposing them to new ends or subverting them entirely. Take the indie game Kentucky Route Zero, an eerie road-trip adventure whose third installment arrived this spring. The game twits a classic video-game device—the illusion of agency via a finite lists of choices—to poetic and even sublime effect: In one moment, when two roadbound musicians named Johnny and Junebug perform at a dive bar, the player is invited to engage in multiple-choice gameplay. But here, choices dictate nothing more than the lyrics of Johnny and Junebug’s lonely synth-pop songs. At another moment, the pair rides a darkened highway, lit only by their vehicle’s headlights, and the player has only two options: “Road behind.” And “Road ahead.”

Another game that cannily toyed with video-game norms was Dark Souls, whose sequel (Dark Souls II) had its North American release this March. While designers of most big-budget games aspire to make their products hard—but not too hard!—such that challenging tasks become an invisible method to maintain player engagement, Dark Souls cranked up its difficulty level so notoriously high that the practice of dying repeatedly, in a world full of hazy medieval vistas and ghostly beings, itself became a meditation on the futility of life—and even an insightful look at what it means for video games to be rewarding.

There were plenty of instances in which artists and designers subverted expectations to leverage games’ political potential. Among the best was Papers, Please, which came out for various platforms this and last year. Casting the player as an underpaid border-patrol bureaucrat who must scan documents with increasing speed and accuracy, the game looks at the inevitable tide of populations moving across borders, and the futility of bureaucracy in the face of global migration. The collective Babycastles, which opened a gallery this August, launched with an exhibition exploring “lived Muslim experience through the embedded narratives of independent, contemporary video games.” One standout, Ramsey Nasser’s بونج (Pong), was essentially a version of the classic game with one intriguing exception—Nasser had created it in a programming language he’d built out of Arabic words. It was a reminder that most widespread coding languages used around the world are derived from English, a facet of Western-centrism perpetuated at the level of production. And then there was Harun Farocki’s Parallel I-IV, 2012–14, presented at Art Basel Unlimited and later at Greene Naftali Gallery, a four-channel video installation that highlighted, among other things, US government’s deployment of video games as training tools for combat.

Screenshot of Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please (2013–2014).

Other artists used video games as a medium to turn a spotlight on conventions of artistic practice and exhibition: Diego Leclery, in an endurance piece at the Whitney Biennial, played Civilization every day for the run of the show, and in Los Angeles this fall, Cory Arcangel—who exhibited hacked versions of video games throughout the early 2000s on Nintendo consoles—this fall repurposed those pieces into new works by presenting them on later devices like Samsung tablets, running Nintendo emulators. John Gerrard and Tabor Robak generated futuristic sights using digital gaming environments and engines. Meanwhile, some artists combined video-game references with actual human performers, like Xavier Cha in her December 2013 Fruit Machine 2 at the New Museum, and Ariana Reines and Jim Fletcher, whose performance at the Whitney Museum in October drew from the vocabulary of Mortal Kombat fight moves. Even museums continued entering the fray, whether it was MoMA’s ongoing acquisition and preservation of seminal, old-school video games, Tate’s recent Minecraft maps that allow viewers to experience virtual artworks, ZKM’s newly re-opened permanent exhibition of video games, or Rhizome and the New Museum’s announcement this November that they planned to preserve and present three 1990s CD-ROM games by Theresa Duncan.

With our digital-media obsessions spurring so many buzzy and nebulous conversations, this year, about the “post-Internet” age (and how art and life alike have putatively changed since the Web became ubiquitous), one was perhaps also tempted to wonder if we’d similarly entered a post-video-game era. But while the Internet has by-and-large become a fact of modern life—or at least has reached the threshold by which its adulators can pretend it achieves some kind of universal “condition”—video games aren’t yet considered ubiquitous, even if more of us play them than we realize. Last year, only 44 percent of the world’s online population played video games. Though they predate the Internet by several decades, we by and large still regard games as products that create and sustain subcultures.

The most powerful games of 2014 saw this as a strength, leveraging the medium’s ability to create private, engrossing worlds that bring together smaller communities. To quote indie game designer Anna Anthropy: “The number of stories from marginalized cultures—from people who are othered by the mainstream—that a form contains tells us something about that form’s maturity.” Anthropy, who is trans, made Dys4ia, about her experiences after the first six months of hormone therapy. More recently she debuted Queers in Love at the End of the World, which technically came out in 2013, but charmed me this year. The player is confronted with a choice—“In the end, like you always said, it’s just the two of you together. You have ten seconds, but there’s so much you want to do: kiss her, hold her, take her hand, tell her”—and a timer, at the end of which the world melts away.

Screenshot of Porpentine’s With Those We Love Alive (2014).

Anthropy’s games are among a new wave of creations speaking to the concerns of communities whose stories haven’t yet proliferated throughout the video-game canon. There was Ether One, which has players salvaging the memories of a dementia patient, decoding histories from letters and heirlooms. (Perpetuating the kind of use-value discourse that pervades much video-game criticism, champions argued it created empathy for the day-to-day experiences of those with dementia.) There was also Kisima Inŋitchuŋa, or Never Alone, a puzzle game told from the perspective of an Inuit girl and her fox that was written by an Alaskan Native and developed in conjunction with the Cook Inlet Tribal Council. Never Alone’s creative directors spoke about the team’s desire to be something other than a “bunch of white guys talking about a fictional fantasy world.”

A favorite of mine was With Those We Love Alive, by feminist game-designer Porpentine Charity Heartscape, about an artisan who works for an insect-like queen. There are undertones too of hormone therapy—the main character must apply “estroglyphs” on a regular basis. But the game also paved its own ground: It had players alternately interacting with the computer and drawing symbols in pen on their arms. Often, a player’s choices had to do with interiority and frame of mind—a far cry from games’ customary focus on goals. At one point, the protagonist is invited to a New Year’s Eve fireworks party hosted by the queen. Here Heartscape offers players two options vis-à-vis the celebratory display: “Lie on your back and stare.” Or: “Turn away toward the dark trees.”

Opting for spectacle, I chose the former. “The sky is full of jellyfire like disemboweled rainbows,” came the game’s reply. “The old year is ending.”