DIGRA: forthcoming paper

Here's my DIGRA paper abstract. Here, I develop a salient point in my thesis and, in a dialogue with earlier commentary, explore the pattern(s) of time in videogames. The paper itself is work in progress and early comments are most welcome.

'Remembering How We Died': Memory, Death and Temporality in Videogames

Death is an intrinsic part of gameplay. On considering the role of killing, dying and negotiating the 'undead' in videogames, one cannot be faulted for noting in them an obsessive engagement with the act of dying. It is almost a prerequisite that the player's avatar has to 'die' many times in the process of unravelling the plot. Instead of the traditional tying and untying (desis and lusis) of narrative plots, held sacrosanct since Aristotle, videogame narratives are characterised by 'dying and undying'. The sense of an ending, as literary theorist Sir Frank Kermode calls it, is constantly frustrated by its absence in videogames. Western conceptions of ending, whether Hellenic or Judaeo-Christian, are based on telos and a linear temporality. In a culture where death is a grim finality and where resurrection is only possible by the divine, videogames seem to shockingly trivialise death by adding to it the perspective of multiplicity. Videogame theorist, Gonzalo Frasca, observes that from the perspective of real life, this reversibility can be seen as something that 'trivializes the "sacred" value of life'. This paper argues against such a conception and in doing so, it points to how videogames to a different but equally serious view of death and endings that has so far been largely ignored due to an occidental bias.

In Vedantic and Buddhist philosophy, belief in reincarnation is the norm rather than the exception. The multiplicities of death(s) is, therefore, not trivial. This, however, is not to claim a straightforward connection of the videogame endings with the rebirth cycle in these world-views, especially since there are many differences within and between them. Not to consider them at all, however, would skew the analysis, given that the characteristics of videogames though considered 'trivial' in a Western paradigm, actually connect to ideas that pre-date Christianity. The videogame protagonist, also called avatar (which requires a separate discussion), dies, lives and lives again; thus replaying the cycle of his or her existence. Within the context of the game-narrative, each death or ending is important: often, as Michael Nitsche states, death can be a way of exploring the game or of obtaining information about 'future' possibilities. That apart, each ending is connected to the assemblage that the game narrative forms. Despite their other mutual differences, in Vedantism and Buddhism the key idea of rebirth does not trivialise the event of death. Instead of a transmigration of an essence, Buddhism believes in a moment-to-moment process of rebirth dependent on the encompassing circumstances. The Gita states that 'the newly moulded inner nature will express in a new form.' The 'new' form is called avatar in Hinduism; gods are often (re)born in different reincarnations or avatars and this is part of the divine play or lila. The term avatar is rather freely used in game criticism as meaning 'player embodiment' which is but part of its original significance; its key connotations of reincarnation and immanent existence have so far been ignored.

While these non-Western perspectives indicate an alternative reading of death in videogames, their heavily moral and religious implications make any easy equation problematic. Their ideas of immanence, nevertheless, connect well to games where the same avatar re-experiences the game-world but differently, each time – a complex case of difference and repetition. This, importantly, also connects with current ideas in Western philosophy, such as Gilles Deleuze's understanding of immanence and temporality. The avatar in the game experiences events, including death(s), as actualisations of a virtuality of events. The actualisation takes place from within a combination of possible events, which in turn are determined by their spatial and temporal environments. Further, even as an actualisation takes place, the other iterations of the gameplay (such as other instances where the same section of the game was played) still remain quite 'real'. In the Deleuzian sense, this is a real virtuality or one that is 'never past either in relation to a new present or in relation to a present it once was.' For Deleuze, the different actualisations are like the dice-throws in a 'Divine Game', where they are multiple but at the same time partaking in the One. Following this, he proposes that the idea of death be treated 'less as a severance than an effect of mixture or confusion'. Traditional conventions of death are influenced by the idea of time as a chronological progression. When faced with phenomena such as videogames, where chronological progression gives way to more immanent structures; firmly believed in conceptions about death, memory and event are greatly problematised. With this in consideration, this paper will attempt to build upon the discussions on temporality already started by critics such as Jesper Juul, Barry Atkins and Nitsche. Carrying these forward both in terms of game studies and contemporary philosophical discourse, it will attempt to understand the importance of in-game death: as both immanent and imminent.


  1. Interesting, you're talking about how games, narrative ones especially which have die-reload, or die-respawn-at-checkpoint don't really do it for any moral reason. This is most certainly the case most of the time!

    There are a few that do, or intend to (Planescape Torment does although I've not played it, and some cutscene deaths of protagonists), interestingly. I prefer ones that mess with time (I think one of my most favourite things to mess with!), which solve the problem by backtracking but, in character, they might have knowledge that allows them to solve something - it might be setup intentionally that way or just inferred that the player now knows what to do. Time travel is a whole new ball of morals and situations though!

    With death itself, it can sometimes be permanent - or at least, being knocked out or severely reduced can be, based on how a player can save the game, or not. Roguelikes have this, other games offer it as a hardcore mode. Not really a moral thing, although it makes the player think twice, or more, about the choices they have given a situation (although I am *not* playing it that hardcore, Mount & Blade has this option in fact - you can never die, but being captured and losing your army is really tough).

    The actual reason for the mechanics as a design tool are interesting - it's an easy way to solve give a large penalty without allowing further (hindered or impossible) progress in the game. It's easy to teach. It is easy to implement. If violence is involved, it also becomes necessary - even some of the least violent point and clicks might have violence, so death, except in absolute comedy pieces, can be a threat (minigame or not).

    Death itself isn't always the case - capture, knockout (for younger games certainly) or non-violent means of losing (Interactive novels generally have this, such as Phoenix Wright) all mean the end of a game - certainly as much as screen blackouts (Half Life for killing NPC's you need for instance).

    I've no idea about the religious ideals, morals or other areas you discuss - I'm afraid as a strict atheist and just scratch the surface whenever it is interesting, usually if it is setup in another media (book, film, game). Eastern spirit stuff is more fun then strict chruch-based theology at least in my opinion, since it's so broad :)

    As for feedback specifically on this paper - I'd say the parallels to religious reincarnation is sometimes more obvious in some games (Bioshock has magic respawning chambers, very reincarnation like, and while a rubbish game mechanic in the story it kind of, a little bit, fits), but most just don't bother explaining it. You die - thus no progress - meaning you reload, thus you never died! Continuity intact, very adverse to the nod that you do know some of the games future (depending on the game).

    I'll be at DiGRA - I just need to book my train ticket down there (bank holiday, great timing...) so I'll get to see your presentation or panel or whatever. Make sure to catch the one I'm helping at too! :)

  2. Hey Andrew, Quite a lot here to respond to. Your discussion of death as a necessary game mechanic interests me a lot. I need to look further into this before DIGRA. My concern is a more philosophic one and moves from endings in videogames to the concept of the end, in general. I too am intrigued by how games play with time - i go on to analyse how time itself is a multiple entity.There is certainly a similarity between what games do and what various Eastern philosophical traditions indicate; however, this is not to conflate the two - they are not the same thing, although I feel that each helps explain the other.

  3. The nature of it being a necessary barrier or obstacle to overcome is a pretty common one in almost all conflict-based games. Worth thinking a little about (since it's so prevalent), although it doesn't influence this philosophical thinking much.