A friend recently asked me what there was to write about videogames. Well, more specifically he asked what — outside of advocating for videogames as either neo-therapeutic moments in our ever-instrumentalized day or as art — we could even say about videogames that would be worth writing in an essay. Obviously it’s an important question for me, though I’ve hitched my wagon to this art star despite an industry-wide turn toward subjectivizing the game experience, reading it as a way to achieve selfhood or actualization. But the subject is a subject for another column, perhaps next week’s.
What I’m interested in here is taking a moment to consider my friend’s question seriously. Obviously my answer to “what would you write about besides art?” is “There’s other stuff anyone would want to write about?” but let’s ignore that for the moment. I think there’s good reason to attempt to find an intelligible sphere for videogame discourse outside of the dusty sphere of aesthetics if only to hedge against the troubling instrumentalizing of fun as work-lite. Defend, say, No Man’s Sky as important post-stress decompression and it may seem like a powerful blow for self care; but self care in and of itself is a way to justify non-work activities as productive non-labor. Get your rest so that you can work better; find a hobby that supports your career; only take as many breaks as refresh you, so that you don’t get lazy. You get the idea.
Again, I am glossing this a bit quickly, but if I keep complaining about self care, I’m never going to get to 868-HACK or Uplink, and I really want to get to both games badly, in large part because they offer a third way option for conceptualizing the “use” of videogames. Specifically, they imagine the videogame form as a way to represent the scope and language of the digital, providing metaphors of digital existence by way of hacking simulators. As we’ll see, the form these simulations take are radically different, but I think tend to the same basic conclusion: that hacking as a phenomenon represents the imbrication of play and work that the digital represents, producing a kind of backdoor response to self care narratives that has little to do with high art, and more to do with casual gaming.
868-HACK is an iOS game that, like Verreciel and A Dark Room, is at once complex conceptually and simple in form. The game basically pits you as a hacker with no real narrative arc or motivation other than, well, hacking a system full of aggressive counter-measures. In this way, its plot resembles older ATARI and early arcade games like Defender or Joust, in which the plot of the game takes a backseat to the variety of enemy types and their particular movesets and attack patterns. (As a side note: This isn’t so different from the classic board game tropes found in chess, though the quicker repetition and introduction of points obviously differentiates the arcade game from the chess game.)
Like these games, 868-HACK introduces powerups that are made available when the player chooses to hack particular nodes in the system they’re navigating. These hacks introduce new enemies along with power-ups or points, and each enemy has to be strategically handled. As I began the game, I assumed I could just blast through my enemies and, ultimately, that was really, really dumb. By the time I actually beat the first level of the game, I had realized that you need to play the various viruses and defense programs step by step, as they respond in real time to your avatars steps. In this way, 868-HACK is a strategy game, one in which you need to balance profit (in points) with survival mechanisms (powerups) in an effort to beat 8 consecutive levels and gain new powerups.
If you’re thinking that 868-HACK sounds a bit like an arcade game in its own right as opposed to the complex systems we’re used to discussing here, you’re not wrong. Much like Ikaruga, 868-HACK is about learning a series of simple moves that add up into a complex series of challenging combinations. And this is where I think its indexical relation to hacking itself shines through: there’s nothing particular fanciful about the action of 868-HACK outside of your character’s smiley face avatar and the appearances of your enemies. Mostly, it is a repetitive, procedural romp through a digital set of obstacles — almost more a task than a game, something to kill time on a train. Or similar to the series of surveys available for filling out “in your spare time” for profit. Mindless, fun, and deeply dissembling.
Uplink follows this same trend in a much more ambitious form. Not narrative exactly, though with those elements certainly there, Uplink follows your character as they join a subterranean company of elite hackers, hired by multinational companies to sabotage, steal, and otherwise distort digital data, as well as the lives of some unfortunates that get in their way. The user interface of Uplink is graphically lenient, as it focuses largely on the massive map of the world populated by nodes that you can run your “Gateway” through in order to elude the authorities. When you aren’t on this screen, you’re clicking through files, copying, deleting, bypassing security, and keeping an eye on a clicking counter that alerts you to the authorities’ tracking progress. In short, you really do nothing but the very stressful work of a hacker, at least a hacker in the world of Uplink.
And really, it doesn’t so much matter if this is how a hacker operates in the real world. Like 868-HACK, Uplink is indexical to the feeling of working, operating, and existing in a totalized digital world, being reduced to a series of connections, clicks, and time limits. And while the game is really fun — I played it unadvisedly for four hours straight last night, getting caught and having my handle retired twice in the game’s frustratingly efficient permadeath — it’s also exhausting and stressful. In fact at the end of my playing session last night, I felt tense, stiff, stressed and ready to be anywhere but my computer.
And that’s the point, I think. Both Uplink and 868-HACK are engrossing and fun as videogames on their own merits, but what they seem to do best is represent the link between fun and work that late capitalism has slipped into our everyday life so seamlessly. Self care can be very important if you’re trying to help a friend stop pursuing self-defeating or dangerous behavior. But the merging of gaming with efficiency — speed running; achievements; complaints about “time to beat” being incommensurate with cost — and psychological preparation for “productive” labor — consider the push to beat games in order to play the next game coming out, on repeat, forever — put videogames in a complex relationship with capital’s push toward profit. This is not least of all due to their digital connections, their ties to the machines we use every day to remain so productive, and this is what these hacking simulators reveal so effectively.
So do I think 868-HACK and Uplink are important pieces of art? No, but I do think they are important social documents that put the lie to the instrumentalization of leisure time. And ultimately, to answer our earlier question, I think that’s something worth writing about.