Issue 27 07.15.2011

Issue 27
Enslaved Interactivity

It should be self-evident that video games are a natural medium for activism. They free players from the patriarchal and infantilizing structure of the artist/audience hierarchy, giving the players active roles in forming the video game narratives. No longer are players passive recipients of the vision and knowledge of the artist–since when were artists supposed to be listened to anyway?

Photo by anonymous, courtesy molleindustria

Instead, video game artists can train players to acknowledge their own agency in a way that carries over from the virtual to the real world.
Measured against this activist standard, Every Day the Same Dream is an evil application of the medium. Depicted in the video game world is a poetic facsimile of the upper-middle class nuclear family, proceeding along the tedious course of a white-collar white man’s life, and it is built in such a way that denies players any agency to change their subjected status.

Photo by anonymous, courtesy molleindustria

Characters do not even have the ability to futilely resist. The most empowered actions the characters perform are “don’t put on clothes” and “touch a cow.” This video game’s message is clear: you cannot escape. The artists have consciously depicted their target player audience; who else but those who sympathize would spend their time on such a tedious video game? It seems an ironic gesture that the real world white-collar players are so controlled and subdued that they would never dream of rebellion within this virtual white-collar world. Even the most radical actions they can consider will lead them nowhere. Their only option is suicide, which many of their colleagues have already chosen. Every Day the Same Dream fails to pose any critical commentary on contemporary life. The video game introduces nothing to its players with which they do not already agree. It is a reckless perpetuation of the imagined mythic chains that bind them, pandering to purportedly disenfranchised players.

As if reinforcing the enslavement of its players was not enough, the video game also creates an internal hierarchy of its component media to keep established forces in control of the revolutionary. Video games can be seen as a gestalt comprised of elements of many other media: visuals, sound, plot, and interaction are some of the elements that contribute to the game as a whole. However, the interactive component of Every Day the Same Dream exists only as a means of displaying the non-interactive parts. When playing, the only reason the player continues is to watch the vignettes that serve as aglets for the shoestring paths of the video game. Controlling the character provides minimal interest for players.

This hierarchical infrastructure of media is by no means unique to this video game. It seems a common idea among certain types of video game artists and thinkers that, if passive art has such an established history, then games can only be art if they embrace this traditional mode of viewership. This tradition stems, in part, from the notion that art relies on the exact and genius vision of one artist who controls precisely what the viewers are supposed to see. If video games allow the players to make choices, the artist has given up this control. Not only is this an outdated definition of art – there are plenty examples of generative, participatory, systemic, and other art forms that require the artist to relinquish some degree of control over the finished product – it is also a completely inaccurate definition of video games.

Photo by anonymous, courtesy Tale of Tales

Video game designers have absolute control over every action the player can perform within the bounds of the game, and any action the player takes that puts them beyond the realm of the game causes the player to cease playing the same game.

These passive video games are not solely coming from those working within the machinery of the mainstream culture industry. The most egregious offenders come from those who supposedly represent the avant-garde in video game design: self-professed conceptual artists like Tale of Tales and Jordan Magnuson, who have thought long and hard about the medium, separated themselves from external pressures, and all but declared that yes, it’s clear, the future of video games as art is to do away with the player’s agency. We’re dreadfully sorry, but it just has to go – how else can video games be art? No other form of art lets you do things. It’s for the best.

Using video games in this way demeans the potential of play and perpetuates the reign of passive art. Although it’s fast becoming a truism, it bears repeating: there is a seemingly infinite amount of squandered potential in video games. Everyone seems to acknowledge this, but almost no one is doing anything to approach that potential, either because they are paralyzed by financial necessities, enjoy creating meaningless paracosms that satisfy mainstream tastes, or are stuck in the past, making video games that prostrate themselves in front of their non-interactive artistic predecessors.

By Yomi