The release of Pokemon GO in 2016 marked a new age for videogames. By placing desirable Pokemon at specific geographical locations, Niantic, a company that was developed within and part-owned by Google, was able to herd players towards bars, restaurants, entertainment complexes, and other businesses which paid a fee to be added to the game. “Niantic used the incentives of the game to reward, punish us, shape our behavior, to actually get us to the places that were going to pay Niantic Labs for our presence, our bodies, our feet, falling on their floors,” Harvard professor and author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism Shoshana Zuboff said. “They can see us, but we can’t see them. They amass these huge knowledge troves about us, but that knowledge is not used for us.”
Six years later, Activision Blizzard released Diablo Immortal, which made $525 million in less than 12 months. Using a free-to-play, microtransaction-based payment model, Activision Blizzard – like many major game-makers – manipulated players by obscuring how much they were spending in the game. Diablo Immortal launched with 22 separate fictional currencies. One example was the Eternal Orbs, which players could purchase for real money, but were designed to abstract how much cash you were spending on the game. For $4.99, you could buy 300 Eternal Orbs, with each purchase also yielding an additional 20 “bonus” Orbs. However, the Orbs could then be used to purchase another in-game currency, Platinum. 10 Platinum cost one Orb, while 50 Orbs would get you 500 Platinum. Platinum itself could then be exchanged for functional items within the game such as Legendary Crests, which were vital to obtaining the most desirable in-game equipment. One Legendary Crest cost 1,600 Platinum.
In doing this, Activision Blizzard deliberately concealed the path of spending between actual money and the items within Diablo Immortal. It became impossible to know how much anything in the game was worth, and harder to account what you were receiving in relation to the dollars you spent. The result was a dizzying and confusing online economy that constantly worked against you, and where there was no way of knowing how your money really worked. You couldn’t stop the system, because the system had no form. Even the sacred power of the wallet – the tool by which, under capitalism, you had been able to wield some kind of control over your life – was undermined. The true value of your money was kept hidden, so that Diablo Immortal could take it more easily.
We live in a bizarre time. Every day, we are bombarded with images and information, horror stories and outrage. But despite all the carnage, nothing seems to change, and no-one knows what to do. Scientists reveal terrifying predictions of how the world will be destroyed by global warming, but the politicians, industrialists and those in power do nothing to prevent the apocalypse. Children die in mass shootings across America, but nobody does anything to stop it.
The actors, pop stars and celebrities we love are all sex offenders and weirdos, and while everyone seems to know that the system that runs our lives is corrupt, there is no way for us to change our society. We’re told that feminism and equal rights are transforming the world, while at the same time misogyny, sex crimes and police brutality get worse every day. In the UK, Brexit is supposed to revolutionize our economy, but no-one knows what it does or if it’s even happened. And in the Middle-East, there are constant, unimaginable atrocities, which despite decades of war, aid, and intervention, only seem to get worse.
Our popular culture has meanwhile become a hysterical and bewildering onslaught of “content.” Dozens of TV shows and made-for-Netflix movies appear each week. Five minutes on the internet returns a dog driving a golf cart, a David Letterman interview from 40 years ago, clips of Patrick Bateman from American Psycho set to modern breakcore music, beauty tips, recipes, Twitch scandal, Ukraine, Indonesian street food, and today I learned ants never sleep. Anonymous characters from decades-ago films and shows – these nameless figures from the margins of entertainment franchises – we’re suddenly told are back, have their own show, their own films. Remakes. Reboots. And the multiverse. Mass media has become an impossible and shapeshifting hyper reality where stories are told, retold and untold, and nothing ends. Thousands upon thousands of hours of material, out of which it is impossible to draw any kind of conclusion or closure, as fiction arrives to replace fiction.
What this creates is a dark, inescapable and paradoxical world. Unable to make sense of reality, we retreat into art and culture. But what we find is another world of ever-changing contradiction, a hypnotic collision of shapes where we’re compelled to continue watching, playing, debating and extrapolating, to try and discover a tangible sense, but where we’re constantly denied a resolution – a place that promises truth and intellectual and emotional satiation, but in fact sucks us into a dizzying and anesthetic mirror image of reality. At the same time, like politics, religion and the economy, popular culture has become a new method of control and power, where the goal is to distract and beguile us so that there is no possibility that we might do anything to change the corrupt systems running our society.
The Austrian film director Michael Haneke once described movies as lies at 24 frames per second. Films are made in service of the truth, Haneke said, or the service of an attempt to find the truth. In mainstream videogames, we have something quite different – lies at 30, or 60, 0r 120 frames per second. The rapidity with which games lie to us is so great that we barely notice it on a conscious level.
I wrote about this phenomena in an essay discussing the Ubisoft game Far Cry 5. In Far Cry 5, even the smallest details of the narrative, and the pretense of the world, are constantly rewritten. I used the example of a plane – at one stage in the game, you complete a mission to destroy a statue of the game’s villain, Joseph Seed, using a crop-dusting plane that has been outfitted with machine guns and bombs. On completing the mission, the owner of the plane tells you that you can keep it, but to be careful, because the plane is one of a kind, and irreplaceable. If you crash, destroy or otherwise lose the unique plane, however, another one spawns on a nearby airfield. The Far Cry 5 plane is a microcosmic example of how truth and consistency in games are subjective to the point of being irrelevant.
At the beginning of Fallout 4, we are told that our son has been kidnapped, and that our protagonist is desperate to find him again. But then the game introduces its settlement building mechanics, sidequests and companions, and if we choose to pursue these instead, there are no consequences, and none of the characters seem to notice. Red Dead Redemption tells us that John Marston is a decent man (or at least a man aspiring to become decent) who is determined to be reunited with his family. But we spend – and are encouraged to spend – hours collecting plants, hunting animals, completing tasks for strangers and, if we want, kidnapping people and tying them to railroad tracks.
These discrete, narrative examples say nothing of the greater lies that videogames tell via their structure and their conventions. So long as a character is essential to a story, but accompanies us during gameplay, I can watch that character – like one of my comrades in Call of Duty – be shot, blown up with a grenade, and so on, but never come to harm; the same character can then be shot once during a cutscene and die. Death is the ultimate irresolvable contradiction of videogames, which tell us to be excited, enthralled, and convinced by presentations of high-stakes drama, but also make us and our characters immortal. We must stop the bomb in time, rescue the girl, and save the world, but if we don’t, it doesn’t matter and nothing changes, and we just start again.
I raise these examples not with judgment or condemnation – the point is not that this, this impermanence that seems irretrievably a part of the videogame as an artifact – is somehow in and of itself destined to make games artistically empty. The point is that games, as they have been designed, formalized and understood thus far in their history, have inconsistency embedded in their nature. The videogame, by its form, is simultaneously both completely pliant and highly volatile. When we see these smaller, intra-narrative inconsistencies – Red Dead Redemption, Far Cry, innumerate others – they are, in a sense, true to the nature of games. But what’s happened over the last 15 years is that creators of games have given up with trying to challenge or change the shapeshifting and contradictory nature of the videogame, and have instead embraced it, and in the process generated a new form of art that both reflects and helps instantiate our hopeless postmodern spiritual crisis. One of the guiding design ethics of modern videogames is to be as diffuse as possible, to allow for anything, and in the process, provide nothing by way of moral instruction or guidance. What we call player agency, creativity, exploration, the sandbox, these are all euphemisms for a meaning vacuum that videogames have become expert at creating.
Clint Hocking, who directed part of the Far Cry series, once described what he called ludonarrative dissonance, a collision between what the game-maker narratively, thematically, and dramatically intends, versus what the game-maker wants to allow the player to do, and the ways that players might exercise that given freedom. What Hocking identified was the foundational structural issue in videogames, the original sin of the medium that would perhaps always prevent games from achieving artistic credibility. Ludonarrative dissonance presents a serious issue. If we accept the text of the game as only those moments and components as intended by the creator, we exclude a vast – and perhaps the most crucial – element in a videogame’s identity; if only the scripted, choreographed, predetermined parts of a game constitute its meaning, then the game as a form is no different than the movie, book, etc. On the contrary, if we incorporate everything the player does as part of the text, as contributory to the thematic, narrative and dramatic whole, then games narratively and dramatically unravel. There will always be inconsistency between what a game purports to be about, and what – if we embrace and include the actions and behavior of the player – what the game is actually, in the process of it being played, becomes about.
Red Dead Redemption, at one level, is about John Marston, the mournful cowboy with the porous soul, striving to reunite with his family. Incorporate the inputs of the player into that text, however, and apprehend the game not as the total of its cutscenes, script, concept, and so on, but as a 50-plus hour entire, and it becomes a game about – among other things – a schizophrenic, who tells people how much he misses his family and wants to become a better person, and occupies his days collecting flowers and committing spontaneous acts of violence. Even the most devout, kind of method-acting player will ultimately undermine the text as given – fall off their horse, survive an amount of gunshots equivalent to the number that kills John in the game’s climax, die, come back to life, and so on. Even in the most linear videogame, I am free to – for example – leave my character to stand still doing and saying nothing for dozens of in-game hours. Does this aberrant behavior become part of the overall text? Do we incorporate it into discussions of meaning, intent and narrative object? If we do, how can we ever hope to say that any game is coherently about anything? If we don’t, how can we possibly argue that games, as a form, aren’t inherently compromised when it comes to articulating any type of thematic conviction?
During the late ‘00s and early 2010s, videogames were confronted by this problem of ludonarrative dissonance. But then something unexpected happened. Rather than attempt to resolve or even ventilate the issue, developers, particularly in the mainstream, started to create a new type of videogame, and in the process redefine what videogames meant in terms of form and purpose. The solution was not to balance ludonarrative dissonance, or devise methods of reconciling or lessening it, but instead to indulge it. Out of the 2010s, with games like Minecraft, Grand Theft Auto 5, No Man’s Sky, Skyrim, Fortnite, Call of Duty, and more, came a new vision of what games could offer and succeed in facilitating separate from movies, TV and even other videogames that had come in the decades before.
The solution to ludonarrative dissonance was simple – if videogames represented a constant tension between the text as created by the developer and the text as malleated and transfigured by the player, all you had to do was remove one half of that conflict. The developer and their convictions had to either disappear or be rendered so superficial, so pliant and so changeable via the actions of the player, that they would become irrelevant. The objective of the videogame was no longer to say anything – or say something, but only so long as it could be reconfigured, reinterpreted and experienced by players in so many different ways that it would become endlessly subjective, and thus the almost equivalent of saying nothing. What resulted – the sandbox, the open-world and the live-service games – would become the new and improved meaning vacuums, where the only thing that mattered, and the only thing that players could rely on and relate to, were their own individual experiences. And even games outside of these genres, the narrative-driven triple-A games and the well-meaning independent games, would still be powerless to challenge the ludonarrative dissonance that Hocking outlined in 2007. You could play The Last of Us Part 2, and still be clumsy, inaccurate and completely incompatible with Ellie as a character as described by the developer-made parts of the text – you could still come back to life, and nothing would change.
Faced with the collapse of the metanarratives and the big ideas that used to give our society meaning, our bewilderment and isolation have even permeated our counter culture. The Backrooms, a popular horror series of stories, short films and videogames, born from internet forums, sees characters trapped in an endless series of repeating corridors and physical spaces based on the mundane places we visit in everyday life. On social media, clips from television shows, the news, phones and CCTV cameras are presented ‘without context.’ Even in the most remote corners of art and culture, we now live in what French philosopher Jean Baudrillard called hyperreality, where the only available utilities for extracting meaning about the world are images – images which themselves are influenced by and derive their own meanings from other images. Designed to connect us, the internet has become a dark temple to our fragmented reality, where meaning, controversy, outrage and terror arrive and vanish at an impossible rate, and everything contradicts everything else.
At the same time, the internet and its ostensible counterculture have become powerful tools for maintaining the corrupt social systems. Social media algorithms feed us a steady supply of exaggerated, false and divisive information and opinions, so that we always view the world and other people with suspicion and hostility, and can never unite against the power brokers that are running our world. We’re distracted by constant new TV shows and movies, and arguments about same, and misled to believe that our rejection of mainstream culture – our indignation about how characters of different ethnicities, genders and sexualities – somehow represents a meaningful victory against the status quo. In reality, while these are moral causes, they serve, paradoxically, to strengthen the giant companies that produce our culture. Disney makes hundreds of millions of dollars from one version of a film, and then more hundreds of millions from another, remade version where the central character has been replaced in response to emergent social demands. Our protests and our criticisms are absorbed by their targets and resold back to us, creating an illusion of change while in fact the system continues to profit and strengthen.
And so videogames have become the grotesque – the gargoyle – of our modern times. They subject us to vast, bewildering worlds either absent of meaning or where meaning is impossibly, disablingly contradictory. You may have watched the recent Call of Duty Next event, which was broadcast while I was writing this essay, to promote the upcoming Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3. Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 was released in 2011. Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 will be released in 2023. At the end of Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 , the main villain, Makarov, is killed. In Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 , there is a new villain named Makarov. The developers at Treyarch, Infinity Ward, Raven Software and Sledgehammer Games are being interviewed about changes and improvements they have made to the game, but their interviewers, who hold question cards and introduce the broadcast like it’s a news program, work for Treyarch, Infinity Ward, Raven Software and Sledgehammer Games. The multiplayer maps are all from Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 from 2009, not to be confused with Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 from 2022. Fans didn’t like the maps in Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 from 2022, so Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 from 2023 includes all the maps from Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 from 2009. The streamers who take part in Call of Duty Next say this is fantastic, and that they cannot wait to play the full version of Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 . The contradictory and hyperreal nature of the videogame text thus becomes part of the videogame’s inception, creation and marketing. Videogames are not exclusively an art or expression form where ambiguity and impermanence reign, but also an industry – patches, updates, remakes, reboots, seasons, skins, DLC, sequels and spin-offs constantly rewrite gaming history, so that nothing remains true for long.
And to keep us trapped within this amorphous unreality, videogames provide us an unending sense of vicarious attainment. We gain new levels. We unlock new items. We obtain greater and greater killstreaks. Game studios now have dedicated engagement and psychology divisions, the job of which is to research, imagine and implement more effective ways of keeping people inside their obscure and meaningless worlds. And it’s here where videogames become tools for propagating and maintaining the systems of power that have always run our society. The incomprehensible currencies of Diablo Immortal. The gameplay loop of Pokemon GO, designed to ferry people towards businesses that pay Google for the privilege. In 2022, it was revealed that the US Army had developed a plan to sponsor professional Call of Duty and esports teams. During the writing of this article, a new promotion was launched inside Fortnite by Shell Oil – in-game gas stations were rebranded with Shell’s logo, and the company sponsored Fortnite livestreams on social media platforms, while encouraging players to share images of themselves filling up their virtual cars with the hashtag “#Shellroadtrips.” Activision and Call of Duty made a product placement deal with the gun manufacturer Remington.
The uncanny, infinitely variable and indefinable nature of games, their worlds and their texts – partially defined as ludonarrative dissonance – is no longer an artistic problem for mainstream games, but their central and most profitable characteristic. The objective of the modern mainstream game is to create a mystifying and unaccountable world where nothing, not even the fundamentals of reality, morality and truth, are real, and where meaning is either constantly denied or changed. This, in combination with increasingly powerful systems of engagement and retention, serve firstly as a potent and widespread distraction from the true problems of our society, and in the process, help to protect the old systems of money, politics and mass production. But games also do this more directly. Led along by their bizarre and ambiguous worlds, they ultimately turn our isolation and our labor into their profit. The more we play, the more empty and without meaning our lives and our reality start to feel, until the only central constant in our lives is the videogame. And then the videogame asks us if we’d like to buy some gems.
Edward Smith is a writer from the UK who co-edits Bullet Points Monthly.