Stephen Totilo of Kotaku provided a fascinating look at Zach Gage's Lose/Lose, a curious statement-game (I would call it an "art game," but that label comes with its own baggage and may obfuscate the analysis below) that posits players in a pretty lousy situation: Get "killed" in the game, and the application running the program is deleted from the computer. Destroy "enemies," however, and a file on your computer—represented graphically in the game as a blurry mess of pixels scrolling down the screen in true Galaga fashion—gets deleted.
That's right. The game deletes your files. Of course, that's only if you choose to play the game as a game… and not experience it as a question of will and complicity. From Gage's description on the game's site:
Lose/Lose is a video-game with real life consequences. Each alien in the game is created based on a random file on the players computer. If the player kills the alien, the file it is based on is deleted. If the players ship is destroyed, the application itself is deleted.
Although touching aliens will cause the player to lose the game, and killing aliens awards points, the aliens will never actually fire at the player. This calls into question the player's mission, which is never explicitly stated, only hinted at through classic game mechanics. Is the player supposed to be an aggressor? Or merely an observer, traversing through a dangerous land?
Why do we assume that because we are given a weapon an awarded for using it, that doing so is right?
By way of exploring what it means to kill in a video-game, Lose/Lose broaches bigger questions. As technology grows, our understanding of it diminishes, yet, at the same time, it becomes increasingly important in our lives. At what point does our virtual data become as important to us as physical possessions? If we have reached that point already, what real objects do we value less than our data? What implications does trusting something so important to something we understand so poorly have?
Let's get the obvious out of the way: As a piece of software—removed from its cultural context and the obvious amount of thought Gage has put into the project—the game is a computer hack and has the potential to be abused by malicious pranksters who wish to see someone else's computer files obliterated. In other words, this is a dangerous piece of software and I cannot in all conscience condone its unrestricted availability.
That said, Gage's site for the game features a sarcastic "high score" list of users who would seem not to care about their files. Judging by the list, which features several "1" scores, many have tried the game merely to open it and experience it. This is obviously not the work of hackers or sado-masochists but rather curious minds.
What does a game like this represent as cultural artifact? If we take Gage at his word, Lose/Lose is a thought project meant to have the player question his/her motivations as well as the value of data.
In this sense, the game is sort of brilliant. The question of data-as-life calls to mind Baudrillard's distaste for simulacra and his declaration that modern society had become fascinated with its own impending "disappearance" or physical irrelevance. It is a question of nihilism, really, and I see echoes of this in Lose/Lose. Do we value the non-existent, the icon-based representations of a world that never was, because we devalue ourselves and wish that we were to disappear into the realm of nebulous meaning? (And is that why we might feel rather hollow if we choose not to play or download the game for fear of losing our precious files?) Can we consciously force ourselves to not care about these files and participate in the witting erasure of knowledge for the sake of an imagined feeling of control/conquering provided by the common video game structure? These are not easy questions for a video game to invoke, and I applaud Gage for taking the time to ask them. It also takes courage to create a game of destruction that does, as Gage warns repeatedly on his site, have real consequences.
But I also find Lose/Lose philosophically problematic, and for far more academic reasons than the potential abuse of the program to cause workplace mayhem. Gage asks good questions, but I feel his rationale for creating the game is undermined by its construction as a video game.
For example, Gage seems to suggest that the player is complicit in the seemingly dispassionate destruction of an enemy that "never fires at the player." Yet by the game's very reference to "classic game mechanics" (the aforementioned Galaga), the game seems to be co-opting the position of adversity rather than challenging or re-appropriating it. The "alien" sprites—cast as such because they are no doubt filling the archetypal role of dangerous unknown—scroll at the player in a way that is still invasive, not unlike Space Invaders. Some even seem to charge at the player with little regard for the player's existence as a separate sprite that can be "killed." (This is undoubtedly the result of very simple programming for movement routines, but I think this is a legitimate argument to make given Gage's philosophical imperative.) Although it is hard to discern against a black background, it is not so much that the player is exploring the territory of sentient unknowns (i.e., moving imperialistically towards them), but rather moving passively in relationship to the erratic and almost self-destructive movement of enemies.
Another problem—or at least something that complicates the authorial intent—stemming from the game's construction is the seeming self-importance of it all. No matter the philosophical impetus, what Gage has created is not so much an interactive experience as it is an exercise in demotivation. A game, by definition, requires willing participants. Obviously, this game has had willing participants, but I would not classify them as players of a game. Rather, they are mice in Gage's maze. They enjoy the cheese, enjoy the setup of the experiment, but when all is said and done, they are subject to Gage's nihilistic and relativistic impules. By its very goal, Lose/Lose does not care about what happens to you or your files. You are always-already acted upon by Gage… his site, his experiment, his interface. There is no room for an interlocutor in this argument… no room for response or recourse. All things considered, the only choice given is to not play the game, and while that makes for an interesting philosophical statement, it does not make for an actual game, but rather for a process of nihilistically removing oneself from the equation. It's a choice to not participate, to become irrelevant to the project by way of understanding it.
And that, in turn, makes the game less relevant. Almost ironically, the game undermines Gage's philosophical treatment of nihilism by nihilistically eliminating the importance of the player. Again, it's an interesting thought… but as a piece of rhetoric, as a statement meant to reach out and truly get people to think, it's self-defeating. An act of destruction.
Regardless of how I feel about Lose/Lose, I will admit that the game and Kotaku's coverage has sparked some truly interesting debate under the article. One reader states, "Great art is about raising questions."
True. But while a Mapplethorpe photo may offend your sensibilities, it will never reach out and poke you in the eyes. Good art does inspire thought and challenge the norm, yes. But when that art goes out of its way to physically or emotionally affect you in a negative way, not accounting for its effects with authorial responsibility, a line is crossed that separates art from weapon. Martin Luther's On the Jews and Their Lies has sparked interesting debate, too, but I would not recommend that someone try to replicate its effects just to make a point.
An object like a painting in a museum can be art when it is taken by itself, freed from the constraints of physical manipulation and tampering. But throw it at someone, frame and all, and it's just a blunt object. Perhaps Lose/Lose should have pretended to delete files.
After all, it's just the thought that counts.
Read more on the Game in Mind blog.