From Esports to Open Worlds—Why Is Dominating Nature Still our Favorite Game?

Playing Progress, Conquest, and Consumption on the Brink of Collapse

  • Text: Whitney Mallett
  • Illustration: Skye Oleson-Cormack

The following piece is part of the Great Outdoors, a week of stories dedicated to the ways we interact with the "outside" world.

You’re skating between palm trees in an impossibly empty Venice beach, kickflipping to unlock new zones, an oversized spray can hovering in the air like a mirage while Papa Roach plays. Or you’re on a quest through the forests, fields, and lakes of Hyrule to stop the evil Ganon, learning songs on an ancient flute to advance. Vast, virtual spaces. At the core of most open world video games—sci-fi space exploration, wild west conquest, or elemental building—is a frontiersman spirit, the idea that you should discover, occupy, and develop uncharted territories to tame and improve them. Defined by their vast digital worlds and the freedom they give players to explore, open world games don’t make winning as obvious as fighting or racing games, or platformers with a final boss to defeat. And even when there are quantitative measures of health or kills, civilizations to forge or princesses to rescue, the principal thrust of these games, linear or otherwise, is to consume the virtual world—to set foot in as much of the space as you can. Victory may not be as straightforward as in the titles that dominate esport tournament play—battle-arena games like League of Legends or first-person shooters like Counter Strike—but in their DNA is something about how we culturally define winning as progress.

The idea of progress, formulated in post-Enlightenment Western society as infinite industrial growth, has gotten us into some trouble over the past few hundred years. We’ve fucked up the planet with fossil fuel extraction, plastic trash, fertilizer runoff, and carbon emissions. Infinite growth isn’t possible with finite resources, and yet we’re fixated on progress and productivity, even as it’s threatening the continuation of our species, turning everything, even personal data, into a commodity to be harvested. The mental roadblock that prevents us from imagining a different value system—another way of understanding surplus and scarcity—shows up in our video games, where we limit ourselves to this conceptual framework rewarding conquest and consumption.

The colonialist tropes are some of the easiest to spot. Even as new computing technologies makes possible a vastness of virtual worlds previously unthinkable, there seems to be a reluctance to imagine new narratives. In No Man’s Sky, a sci-fi survival game characterized by neon-haze clouds and lush pink fauna reminiscent of infrared photography, you can explore a functionally limitless gameworld of over 18 quintillion unique, randomly-generated planets. And yet the game’s atlas is a nod to post-Columbus European rechristening, directing you to name the planets and species you come across, overwriting the unexplained but assumably indigenous names already bestowed on these “discoveries.”

Today Minecraft is the second ever best-selling game, and when it came out in 2011, it set a new precedent for in-game freedom with its minimal directives and flexibility to roam. Imagine a world made of infinite Lego bricks: the main object in Minecraft is to build. Stone, dirt, bricks, quartz, obsidian, and otherworldly purpur, all the game’s construction materials, like everything else in its cubular virtual world, are rendered in easy-to-stack block shapes. There is minimal violence and no murderous enemies (in the Earth-like Overworld anyways) chasing after you to distract from the architectural task, and so the appeal of the game is the opportunity to erect whatever structure you can dream up. In contrast to God’s-eye-view building games like Age of Empires or Sim City, you construct at a more granular level from an immersive first-person perspective, and the crude elemental quality of its block world makes it seem value-neutral.

At the game’s start, there are very few man-made structures. Abandoned temples and inhabited villages are extremely rare in a world made up of mostly uncultivated landscape, forests, oceans, deserts, mountains. While Minecraft and other sandbox games with a similar directive to tame and develop the natural wilderness are informed by settler-colonial values, by making the initial world virtually empty or underpopulated they are indulging in a fantasy of “clean” history where the genocide of indigenous people didn’t have to take place for Europeans to build their new-world society in North America. And despite there being very few villagers in Minecraft, the game incentivizes some pretty dark interactions, like treating its humanoid block people as resources to exploit, or engaging in human trafficking to populate new villages, echoing the brutal relocation policies of colonial regimes.

But beyond these explicit colonialist tropes, there’s something related but a bit harder to tease out about how these games direct our consumption. Even when it’s not about the toil of productivity or the conquest of uncharted territories—take Grand Theft Auto for example taking place in a dense cityscape where no real progressive activity is even possible and you make your mark on the CGI universe through a violent run of urban terror—the gameplay of all open world games is premised on the consumption of a virtual, natural world. And there’s also a sort of meta-consumption going on, with hundreds of thousands of viewers tuning in to watch live streams of gamers consuming these virtual worlds.

The other day I saw a meme on Instagram (talking about digital consumption, I can’t fathom how many memes I scroll through a day) with a quote from Paul Buchheit, the creator of Gmail, about how we have more than enough resources to provide food, housing, education, and healthcare for everyone on Earth. French intellectual Georges Bataille, best known for his psychoanalytical erotics, penned an economics treatise in the wake of WWII, his philosophy based on an assumption of excess rather than most economists’ assumption of scarcity. In The Accursed Share (1949) he posits that an inevitable surplus of energy, wealth, and resources which can’t be recycled back into productive growth has traditionally manifested in luxury, war, cults, games, arts, and (non-reproductive) sex—activities often with a sacred dimension, outside a rational order. Bataille felt it was concerning we were moving away from this non-utilitarian expulsion, exemplified by Mayan scarification rituals, towards a society that appropriates everything into regular economically productive operations.

Some games suggest alternatives to the productivity-oriented worldview Bataille abhors. GTA with its revelry in lawless chaos. Fortnite with its euphoric dancing—press Y to celebrate your kill—not to mention its steampunk-meets-The Nightmare Before Christmas aesthetics somewhere between Burning Man and The Purge. There’s an ancient gladiator vibe to dueling fighter games like Street Fighter and Tekken, as well as battle arena games like League of Legends and Dota 2, all big titles in the world of esports. But at the same time as virtual play has the potential for non-productive expulsion, whether it’s through streaming channels or tournaments, sponsorship, advertising, and prize money, it’s being monetized and commodified, recycled back into productive growth. Business magazines love to boast that the burgeoning esports and broader video game industries are respectively worth billions. Scooter Braun (Justin Beiber’s manager) and Dan Gilbert (Quicken Loans co-founder) are among early investors in the “new frontier” of esports franchises.

There’s new ground being broken too in existentially-charged game design. The release everyone is talking about right now is Death Stranding the latest from video game auteur Hideo Kojima. The game takes place in an apocalyptic America, plagued by ghastly undead and an acid rain that accelerates aging. There’s a mysterious explosion that’s said to have set the stage for this sci-fi fantastical universe and, while unexplained, it’s not a stretch to imagine the state of the blackened world could be a result of progress-oriented modern living dependent on the resource extraction other games incentivize without consequence. The game follows a delivery man traversing a burnt out barren wasteland, connecting fragmented and isolated cities, foregoing the mechanisms of competition and conquest for ones of caretaking and connection. Still, it’s a narrative mostly tracking a lone protagonist moving across Euclidean space, not exactly the storytelling Donna Haraway thinks will save the planet. As much as game graphics have matured and storytelling grown more philosophical, the mechanisms of spatial consumption in games like Death Stranding arguably haven’t changed much since Pac-Man, and the relationship of man to space since medieval mappae mundi. It’s hard to imagine anything other than what we already know, but we can be sure the frontier fantasy, and its contingent unfolding of space-time, is far past its prime.

  • Text: Whitney Mallett
  • Illustration: Skye Oleson-Cormack
  • Date: December 11, 2019