Unspoken strangenesses

A room in the centre of a black void. Walls that can only be seen from one angle, that are only solid from one direction.

Worlds that look like reality, but all it takes is a simple error and people float, their faces disappear, they walk through walls – nothing is real.

Workers forging immaterial warriors, training them up to sell to people halfway round the world, people they will never meet and who despise them. Powerful weapons made of nothing traded through the air to be used in epic battles that exist only on microchips and in the minds of those involved.

In a world of incorporeal beings a fictional contagious disease spreads through the population.

A collective fiction that changes lives, that lulls the agitated, that wrenches dull pebbles from the mud in war-torn Africa, that lives in boxes made of metals from all over the globe – boxes that were constructed by near-slaves.

Forget consumer electronics and sugary nostalgia for a moment and think about how strange videogames are. These elaborate digital puppet shows that are not merely about showing, but also performing. The illusion of movement, invisible movement, created by playing and felt by the player. The method of loci drawn outside the mind and onto the screen. Not so much virtual reality than fictional reality.

It’s these two illusions – the visual illusion of a solid world and the (imaginary) tactile illusion of movement – that make videogames what they are… what makes them strange. They both require and are reinforced by the much-trumpeted interactivity (or user input) but interactivity isn’t games raison d’etre. The illusion of movement created via the controller is very powerful. Think about the motion sickness experienced by some players of first-person shooters. The body thinks the illusion that the player is participating in is a poison-induced hallucination, so it takes evasive action and tries to expel the poison by puking. This power is able to exist via interactivity, but interactivity merely intensifies an engagement with the illusion for the player (and de-intensifies the illusion for mere viewers).

But instead of going through the standard game crit routine of sweeping positives glossed with light science, let’s think about how videogames actually feel. Because they are a feeling – a new feeling.

The identification of the player with the player character (and the feeling of movement this creates) is not entirely unique to videogames, but the particular flavour of movement is. Example: horror works through identification. This happens naturally in real life – we fear for someone if it looks like they are about to be run over by a bus. (Horror is complex and can’t be shoved into a paragraph, so I’ll not offer definitions) Horror exists in films, music, books, websites and in videogames. It manifests itself differently in different media, but it’s there in every one. The connection to fear is felt as an emotion.

Every new medium gets possessed and condemned sooner or later and it is through feeling – both physical and emotional – that videogames become vulnerable to infection by spectres. After a new medium is praised as the exciting new pinnacle of human achievement it is quickly decried by moral crusaders. The new medium is at once both a glimpse of the future and a connection to the past; the dead past of spirits and memories. Videogames are essentially no different, except it’s happened to them in a different way. Games aren’t a recording medium – you can’t put a laptop with Game Maker installed on it in front of a person and expect it to record any trace of her. Games are more like Wagner’s view of opera, a Gesamtkunstwerk of digital media.

The feeling of movement creates an imaginary space in the player’s mind and, as any dreamer knows, imaginary spaces can become haunted – like when you lie awake at night trying to make sense of a strange noise, when you can feel the shape of the room only through memory. The survival horror boom gave us the best examples of this; the grief-stricken Silent Hill, the labyrinthine Resident Evil, the vulnerability of Fatal Frame. That so many of these games deal with memory and recording technology speaks volumes.

The layer of deterioration in recording technologies can be a rich source for memory horror, but it’s not something videogames suffer from. Instead, being software, videogames are at risk from being frozen behind obsolescence; imprisoned behind software upgrades and hardware generations, sealed within an unplayable disc, lost in the digital Dark Age. And it’s this and other strangenesses that videogames are comfortable ignoring; the strangeness of CGI faces; the strangeness of immaterial surfaces that can flicker and disappear; a form of animation that is also a performance; a colonising metamedium eating film, music, acting, drawing, writing… what will be left after videogames succeed in taking over all art and after the doors of one digital era seals shut forever?

Videogames are the future at the same time that they eat the past… the spectres of memory are whispering in the blank voids that contain game landscapes. And they’ll get louder.


The third and final part of Adam Curtis’ All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace touches on the mineral coltan and its importance to consumer electronics and east African wars. It’s worth looking at coltan in a bit more detail.

Coltan is a humble-looking mineral found all over the world, but mostly in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is one of the major causes of the continuation of a war in the Congo that has lasted for more than ten years and has cost the lives of five and a half million people. We need coltan to play videogames and make calls on mobile phones.

Media invented after the industrial revolution seems to get more and more toxic: developing photographs means handling carcinogenic chemicals; film stock was once made from highly explosive nitrocellulose; CDs and DVDs won’t degrade for hundreds of years. But it’s videogames that require the most noxious chemicals and blood-soaked minerals. Game machines are tight little boxes of hazardous waste. They’re wired with the spoils of war, oppression and slavery. They’re discarded into landfills to make way for the next (micro) generation where they decay like corpses; leaking vile fluids and gases into mountains of rubbish. These zombie consoles pollute the air, soil and water as well as the people who live off rubbish sites.

We play war games on machines that fuel wars. Never mind the supposedly corrupting software – the hardware has a direct relationship to the deaths of millions. We talk of the immateriality of internet culture; all that is solid melts into air, into the cloud. But what coltan represents is the hidden material world that fuels this cloud and the enormous human suffering wrought in the process. Just as there are unseen mainframes full of personal photos, love letters and savings, so are there tiny chunks of black metallic rock being pulled out of the mud that will one day run a carefully constructed computer model of a real-looking corpse on L.A. Noire.

It’s not just games of course. Mobile phones, DVD players and computers of all types use the tantalum extracted from coltan to make capacitors. And it’s not just coltan either – consumer electronics contain other toxic chemicals and so-called ‘conflict minerals’. But videogame manufacturers do manage to stand out; the only big game company that is devoted to games alone is Nintendo and it is Nintendo that has come dead last on every one of Greenpeace’s Guide to Greener Electronics that it has appeared on.

The coltan/DRC/videogames controversy peaked in 2001 with the high consumer demand for Playstation 2s. Coltan is often smuggled out of the DRC and the paper trail that leads to console manufacturers is hidden in the usual offshore shadows, so it is hard to know how much is still being mined and sold in that war torn country. The DRC has 80% of global reserves of coltan, but the records show that it is mostly obtained from elsewhere in the world – for now.

With or without Congolese coltan, game consoles remain toxic. What is it about videogames and infection? The infection of game architecture with hidden meaning; the infection of Hollywood with game-like CGI; the games that worm their way through social networking sites; the junkie compulsion to play… even the consoles themselves are poisonous. Games are alchemical in two ways: they conjure something out of nothing and they are steeped in hazardous waste from the bowels of the earth.