The first day in Minecraft can be rough for a lot of people. You find yourself alone, with no objectives, no goals and no instructions. Just an endless, open world for you to try to make sense of. Of course, if you don’t make sense of it by nightfall, you’ll find yourself swarmed by zombies and spiders with very little recourse but to flee.
I considered myself fairly successful newcomer to Minecraft. I managed to survive my first night (only to be blown up by a creeper just after dawn) and soon had a very secure hobbit hole dug into the side of a mountain. Despite being blown up by creepers on more than one occasion, I managed to mine all the way to bedrock while only dying a handful of times.
Then I built a portal to the Nether.
Within a few minutes of entering the Nether, my portal was collapsed as I dodged a projectile fired at me by a passing ghast. I tried to run for cover, but soon found that nothing there could withstand the ghasts’ explosions. What was worse, the explosions burst apart the rock that was holding back a cascade of lava. Trapped in a crater, there was no escape. Not only did I die, but my armor, weapons, and all my other possessions burned up in the fire.
Upon respawning back in the land of the living, I began gathering supplies to make another expedition to avenge my untimely death. After all, my resourcefulness and perseverance had allowed me to conquer the night, to conquer the seas and to conquer the depths of the earth. I was convinced that there must be some combination of items that I could craft that would give me the ability to go marching into the Nether and conquer it, too. After a dozen or so humiliating defeats, I decided that I would have to approach the problem from another direction.
Death is an ever-present part of videogames. In games where the player-character does not explicitly die, we still generally refer to the act of losing as “death.” Even something as abstract as allowing one’s Tetris blocks to reach the top of the screen is called “dying.” This relationship with death is one that relatively unique among media. Though there are books and movies that deal with death, these represent a relatively small subset of their respective media. Even fewer deal with the death of the protagonist. In videogames, however, protagonists tend to get themselves killed on a fairly regular basis.
According to Michel Foucault, death itself can be thought of in terms of a game. Death, or more specifically the “meditation on death” or meletē thanatou is a game played between ourselves and our thoughts. This game is a form of training. It is a way of appropriating our own death. According to Foucault, meletē thanatou is “not a game the subject plays with his own thoughts, but a game that thought performs on the subject himself.”1 This game of death is part of what Stuart Murray refers to as Thanatopolitics – the politics of death.
Thanatopolitics deals with death not simply as an event, but as something that produces rhetorical effects. Murray argues that these rhetorical effects are not easily understood using the standard “biopolitical”* logic that permeates Western political thought. Thus, acts of death, such as suicide bombings, transcend our understanding and become incomprehensible and terrifying to those in the West. For the bomber, however, it is not an act of hopelessness, but an act of resistance in which he or she is able to appropriate his or her own death. As Murray notes:
In such an intimate relation with death, death becomes the condition of life. The subject’s own undoing is, at once, the intimate possibility of its existence and the meaning of its life as ethical life. Thus, meditating on the death of the suicide bomber, in its multiplex affective, rhetorical, and symbolic valences, might occasion a new departure in ethico-political discourse.2
Since thanatopolitics is all about understanding our relationship with death, and videogames force us to come to terms with death on such a regular basis, could there be a relationship between videogames and Foucault’s meletē thanatou? Can we play the game of death while playing another game?
I think that to a certain extent, the “meditation of death” is already an important part of playing most videogames. When you die in a videogame, you are then faced with interpreting that death. Of course, this form of meletē thanatou is different from that theorized by Foucault. One of the significant aspects of the game of death is that it deals with our self-self relationship. Death constitutes the ultimate unmanageable risk that defines this relationship.
When we make a game out of the game of death – a process we could refer to as thanatogaming – we are no longer dealing directly with our self-self relationship, but with our self-virtual self relationship. The way that we experience this relationship depends on a number of factors, such as the levels of immersion, presence and identification we feel with the game and the player character. It also depends on how death is implemented in the game as a game mechanic.
On one end of the spectrum, we have a game like Limbo. On a thematic level, Limbo, as the title implies, deals with an almost Sisyphean version of the afterlife, full of giant spiders, electrified platforms and rogue buzzsaws that the player must face again and again until solving each puzzle. If we look at the death mechanic on a more procedural level, we can see that this type of death mechanic has its roots in early games like King’s Quest, where often the only way to learn that something was deadly was to have it kill you. Although death occurs frequently, the penalties are fairly minor. The player is generally placed back on the same level and is only forced to replay a few seconds of the game. Identification with the player character is not a major focus of these games, as we are encouraged to view them not as an extension of ourselves, but simply as a character on the screen. The death of the player can be played for comic effect, as in the almost slapstick deaths of King’s Quest, or for a more terrifying effect, as in Limbo.
On the other end of the spectrum are games in which the player is encouraged to invest much more in the main characters, both time-wise and emotionally, and in which death has much more permanent consequences. The X-COM series is a notorious example of this sort of mechanic. It often takes hours of play in order to train a team of soldiers, during which time each character will develop unique characteristics which the player must learn to use in the most effective manner. If one of these characters is killed in combat, they can never be brought back. Thus, encountering a particularly dangerous alien on a mission can be a terrifying experience. Some games take this mechanic even further, introducing what is known as “permadeath,” which means that upon dying, the player is unable to even restore a saved game. This is perhaps as close as videogames can get to Foucault’s “unmanageable risk.”
In almost all games, death is something to be avoided. Whether it is a temporary inconvenience or the end of a hundred-hour quest, the point is almost always to not die. As Joakim Sandberg notes in his excellent analysis of Metroid Fusion, good game developers usually don’t want the player to actually die. “The idea of death is there to make the player want to avoid it.”3
I would place the death mechanic in Minecraft somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. Every time you die in Minecraft, you simply respawn. There is no limit to the number of times you can do this. However, since the point of Minecraft (very loosely defined) is to acquire new and increasingly rare resources and craft more useful items, losing all of your possessions can be a fairly major setback. Dying in the Nether is about as bad as it could get.
After losing a considerable amount of resources trying to explore the Nether, I decided that I needed a different approach. To ensure a safe return from the Nether, I needed flint and steel. If I was going to try to fight off the ghasts that kept killing me, I also needed a bow and a lot of arrows. If I wanted to increase my odds of surviving those encounters, I would also need some fairly decent armor. All those supplies demanded large amounts of my hard-earned iron and other materials. If I were going to venture into the Nether, it would have to be a suicide mission.
Leaving my armor and weapons behind, I began entering the Nether with nothing but a stone pickaxe and 32 blocks of cobblestone. Running as fast as I could, I would rush to the edge of the nearest cliff and begin building a wall. Often, I wouldn’t even get through my meager supply of cobblestone before being killed, but I would send myself back through the portal and pick up again where I had died. After a number of these suicide runs, the walls became high enough that I was reasonably protected until I got to wherever I was still building. Soon I was carrying more cobblestone on these missions and my makeshift walls were becoming an impenetrable fortress. After weeks of building and dying, I had essentially encased an entire mountain in protective walls. I had redefined my relationship with my own death in Minecraft. In a way, I had appropriated it and given it new meaning. When the ghasts blew me up, it was not a defeat, but a victory.
Is there something that can be learned from thanatogaming? Are there meaningful parallels between suicide tactics in games and in real life? One of the advantages that videogames have as a medium is that they can allow us to deal with situations that we could never deal with in real life. If death really is the ultimate unmanageable risk, perhaps videogames provide a more manageable way of approaching the subject rhetorically.
*For Murray, Thanatopolitics is a response to Biopolitics. Although I think that Biopolitics has a great deal of relevance to videogame studies, I’m not aware of any scholars currently dealing with it. Perhaps a post for another day…
1. The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the Collège de France. Michel Foucault.
2. Thanatopolitics: On the Use of Death for Mobilizing Political Life. Stuart Murray.
3. Some Swede pretends to be observant. Joakim Sandberg.