The Limits of Playing the Powerless and the Doomed in Videogames

In an unusually redemptive reading of the widely disparaged Atari VCS game E.T. (1982), Ian Bogost observes that the game perfectly (though perhaps not intentionally) captured the essence of Spielberg’s hit movie. “It was a film about alienation, not about aliens,” Bogost writes in How to Do Things with Videogames. The film was about the weak, the powerless, the hunted. And the videogame, with its frustrating mechanics and bewildering topology, reenacts this dynamic. The game continually puts the player in a position that dramatizes E.T.’s powerlessness, the opposite of most games, which are fantasies of limitless power.

Bogost goes on to suggest that videogames should associate more frequently with the vulnerable of this world. Games such as Darfur is Dying (2006) and Hush (2008) offer “a compelling invitation to empathize with an actor” in a “geopolitical system” characterized by hardship, injustice, and often, invisibility.

How far can videogames go toward this goal? What are the limits of playing the powerless and the doomed in videogames? Are there historical events or figures that should be off limits to games?

We have tended to respond “no” on Play the Past. Adopting the role of the victim is exactly what happens when one hacks Colonization (2008) in order to play the otherwise unplayable Native Americans, as Trevor and Rebecca describe. I have likewise seen the potential of playing a Japanese American internment camp inmate in Drama in the Delta (2011). But both of these cases portray generic figures, abstractions of the real men, women, and children who underwent those ordeals. What happens when games become more historically specific?

As a thought experiment, imagine Anne Frank: The Game. The player in Anne Frank would assume the role of the doomed girl, navigating the deadly hazards of Nazi Europe in the 1940s. In “Videogames of the Oppressed” (2004), Gonzalo Frasca suggests that such a game “would be perceived as immoral, since the fact that she could survive or die depending on the player’s performance would trivialize the value of human life.” The story of Anne Frank ends only one way, and any game that suggests otherwise would, as Frasca imagines popular sentiment, dishonor both her memory and the memory of all Holocaust victims.

If Nazi Germany is too far removed from today’s world, consider a more recent event, much smaller in scope but still palpably real for many Americans. What about a September 11th game, in which the player must escape from the burning towers? Or a United Flight 93 game, in which the player must overcome his or her hijackers on the ill-fated airliner that crashed in a field in Pennsylvania?

I imagine that even if such games were to conform to the historical record—say, no matter what the player does, Anne Frank is captured by the Gestapo in 1944—many people would find these games to be repugnant. At the very least, the games would be judged as distasteful, like other ludic representations of tragic events (for example, the controversial Super Columbine Massacre RPG! or the reviled JFK: Reloaded, though in both of these instances, the player adopts the role of the powerful aggressor rather than the helpless victim). Yet the Holocaust, 9/11, the Columbine shootings, and the Kennedy assassination have all been the subject of highly praised films and novels. What makes a game about these historical events different?

Why can we watch the forever weak and wounded but not play them?

Why can we read about victims in hopeless situations but not virtually be them?

Why can we bear witness as detached observers but not do anything?

These are not rhetorical questions. I seek theories and answers. I want to understand the outer edges of our empathy and our imagination. I want—and I’m asking you to help me—to know the limits of playing the powerless and the doomed in videogames.

Image Credit: Abraham Bosse (1602-1676), Gentry Visiting a Prison, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art


  1. Well my first thought is “because its not very fun or entertaining, unless you’re given the opportunity to turn the tables on your oppressors.” If games are supposed to be fun or at least entertaining, playing the role (because what you’re referring to is specifically playing characters in a role-playing situation as opposed to something more abstract, like Brenda Brathwaite’s ‘Train’ – where again you’re playing the oppressor). The games that come to mind involve characters fighting against overwhelming odds using their own skills to overcome situations that seem hopeless, because hey, that’s more fun and entertaining than a game where you lose all the time. If the only world you could play in Super Mario Bros was -1, somehow I doubt the game would have become an iconic francise – and would actually be something closer to a curiosity rather than a game.

    Sure, there have been very good movies, books, comics, and occasionally games about hopeless situations but rather than being fun and entertaining most of the time they’re emotionally draining and something you’d only choose to pick up or watch only with enough preparation.

    The first ending of Red Dead Redemption is a bit of an exception but (I’ll keep this as spoiler-free as possible) it’s only after fighting those overwhelming odds for the last 60+ that you meet a destiny that’s been foreshadowed since the beginning of the game. Even so, it works as part of that larger narrative, and the designers recognize that “you know what, it’s still not a lot of fun if that’s how things stop” so they build the opportunity for additional fun into the continuing narrative.

    It’s just not fun or entertaining. To frame it in harsher terms: such a game would be a curiosity, an exercise in designer ego and intellectual masturbation rather than a game created for people to actually play and enjoy.

    1. One comment about ‘Train’- while the players ostensibly play the oppressors if the ‘derail’ card comes up there can be some debate as to the fate of the passengers. What happens to the half that refuse to board? Brathwaite in her presentation calls this ‘rules lawyering’ and stated that it was a deliberate choice in the play-mechanic design. Some players created narratives on the spot that accounted for why the pieces would not re-board the train. This would seem to engage the three questions presented by Mark above- in this case you play, bear witness/virtually become the prisoners and it allows players to actively choose to intervene in the prisoners ‘fate’.

      While this is only a small part of the game, it does indicate the way forward to engaging with the larger issue, I believe, Mark addresses.

    2. But games don’t have to be fun or entertaining to be engaging, right? Perhaps commercial games do, but maybe we just need more alternatives. The issue is one of presentation: How to present a hopeless scenario in an interactive environment. I think the best answer is to take a minimalist, atmospheric approach that cuts out all of the positive feedback typical of games–stuff like stats boosts, item boosts, high scores, anything like that—which would allow development to focus on atmosphere and other ways of engaging the player. The idea of the player being able to overcome undeniably insurmountable odds is what makes the premise potentially offensive. So as long as the developer stays away from that approach, it should be possible to present something tactful.

      1. I think the difference between fun and engaging is essential here. Fun as a goal for games seems to fundamentally trivialize them as media. In answer to Mark’s question, I think a big part of the reason we don’t have the kinds of games he is suggesting is that games are still supposed to play as fun in a way that we don’t ask other media. Secondarily, I think there are some things about player agency that make the experience of play much more intense.

      2. I can’t seem to reply to Trevor’s comment below, so this will probably show up funny. Sorry. I think you’ve hit on a prejudice against media in general and games in particular: it’s only “good” if it’s serious. Fun doesn’t necessarily have to trivialize games at all; in fact, I would argue that the fun and engaging game that also manages to hit upon larger issues is the more interesting work for many reasons, not the least of which is its wider audience appeal and (hopefully) a replayability factor. I think you’re point about player agency is a good one, and applicable in several layers: a game where the outcome is inevitable isn’t a game at all. Even in the Call of Cthulhu RPG the characters don’t always go crazy.

        I’ll repeat that because if I have a key thought or answer for Mark, that’s it: a game where the outcome is inevitable isn’t a game at all.

        The answer to Mark’s original question is that, for better or for worse, no one really wants to play a hopeless game (See my comments about Call of Cthulhu or Super Mario World -1 below for more practical examples.) I’m not even sure Mark’s suggesting we MAKE hopeless games, unless I’m missing a subtext here. Would there be value in playing a game where you’re a victim of the Columbine shootings, doomed to run around a cafeteria until you’re inevitably gunned down? To some I suppose but unless you’re using it as an educator, in an education setting, there would be very few people who choose to play that game more than once or twice.

  2. To change the category of examples from art games to more mass media games, it is worth looking at the fan reaction to the ending of Mass Effect 3.

    Mass Effect 3, of course, comes nowhere near an actual engagement with the subaltern. Nevertheless, the fact that its ending was a bit of a downer has created outright rage among players. And what’s striking about the rage, as expressed, is how media-illiterate much of it is. People are outraged that the ending doesn’t allow sufficient player freedom (apparently blind to the rails that govern the series throughout) and suggesting that what amounts to an aesthetic disagreement over the ending constitutes reason to complain to the BBB. (The odds, of course, that these same people are at all concerned about the ways in which EA systematically exploits its workers is roughly nil.)

    This is striking to me – an ending in which the major problem is that your avatar dies and the war that you’ve been told for three games will have a terrible cost has a terrible cost is not just rejected, but by many players rejected on the crudest of terms based, seemingly, only on the view that they deserved a happier ending with more “interactivity.” (Again, with no real thought as to how it would be technically feasible to construct the sort of ending they seem to want – nor even any existing examples of games that have ended in what they view as a satisfying way)

    What it seems to come down to is that they wanted escapism and instead got an attempt at serious science fiction storytelling. (Whether or not that storytelling was in fact successful, it was clearly an attempt at serious science fiction) And they don’t like it.

    I think, of course, that escapism is absolutely vile, and I have little sympathy for the immersive/interactive fantasies that animate this. But the fact remains that video games, in many ways, need to be rescued from their players. As long as the expectations of video games are based around a model whereby the player conquers the challenges and wins, thus getting their reward it will be impossible to seriously consider the subaltern within them.

    1. Man, “escapism is absolutely vile?” Ouch.

      Anyway, I’m still undecided on the ME3 issue, but I don’t think the disappointment stems from the ending not being “happy” enough. It seems like most people who are unsatisfied feel that way because they think the ending isn’t consistent with respect to the universe that Bioware has presented up until that point. Basically, stuff isn’t explained, and the stuff that is explained doesn’t make sense. I think this article does a good job breaking it down:

  3. So here’s a follow on question that’s relevant: why hasn’t there been a great Call of Cthulhu video game? CoC (and awesome spin-offs like Delta Green) are exactly the kind of hopelessness you’re describing: the characters will inevitably go insane, and the interesting part is simply the narrative along the way. In Delta Green you’re the “good” guys fighting back but the fight is ultimately unwinnable.

    The CoC game itself had a 20-minute sequence where the player could not save the game, where you had to do things in a very precise order with great skill or else you died and had to start the whole sequence over again. This wasn’t some great artistic statement about the futility of escaping Deep Ones in Innsmouth – which would have been OK if they hawked it for a couple of bucks and explained that goal in the box copy – it was just a poorly designed game that never should have made it through playtesting that wasn’t fun and was ultimately so frustrating most players just quit, or modded the game to make it easier to pass that part.

    So for a practical exercise in hopelessness, why would you want to play SMB level -1 over and over, or spend 4 hours only to be destroyed by Cthulhu or his minions over and over?

  4. Phil: most of us play games as an intellectual exercise combined with interesting narratives and – yes – escapism. How do you exactly propose changing the way I choose to have fun? I’d love to have a crack at Clockwork Orange: The Game if you design it.

    1. Well, I mean, I plan to complain that escapism is morally bankrupt, that most descriptions of its function rely on implausible accounts of how narrative works, and that it’s generally a poor model for describing fiction.

      Though I’ll be the first to admit that as schemes to change how people have fun go, it’s not exactly working.

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