The War of Art, Part 2: Self-Definition Through Video Games As Art

My preferred form of normative play: Sniping in-game assholes and cheaters.

I’m starting a mission with two friends – a 32-year-old mother of two from Sacramento, let’s call her “LadyBoss” and a teenager from somewhere in middle America judging by his accent whom I just call “Crab” – and a random player, some low-level novice I don’t recognize, let’s call him “UnluckyBastard”.

As we start the mission, the low-level jumps into LadyBoss’ personal supercar and takes off as if to steal it… then circles back and starts running over Crab and LadyBoss, killing her character then committing suicide. Everyone else starts squawking and cursing out the novice; I keep my mouth shut and finish the mission myself. Once it’s complete, all four of us are dumped back into a “freemode” or shared open-roam world.

As soon as we all materialize in freemode next to each other, I immediately pull out a gun and shoot UnluckyBastard’s character in the head. When he reappears ten seconds later, I’m waiting in a covered position a block away. I call in a few trucks of computer-controlled NPC mercenaries and watch as they shoot him to death as he struggles to get away. I shoot him again as soon as he reappears, then go into “stealth mode” so that the dot representing me on the map disappears, call into my concierge service to deliver my tank, and make a beeline for my tank. Within two minutes I’m back on-site, just in time to catch UnluckyBastard climbing into his car. I blow his car up and kill him. Ten seconds later, he reappears again, in passive mode (unable to shoot, but also unable to be killed by direct damage) and stands on the sidewalk, making a rude gesture at me. I look at him, honk, and then run him over with my tank, killing him.

He respawns further away this time, runs inside a business so that I can’t attack him, and sends me a message:

“wtf is your problem asshole”

I park my tank somewhere safe, bring up the messaging console, and answer him back:

“Please don’t steal people’s cars. When you go around being a dick this is what happens you little sociopath.”

Feeling a smug sense of moral self-satisfaction, I abandon my tank and leave the freemode, entering into another mission with a friend, let’s call him Vulgar. I tell Vulgar about my violent little lesson and it turns out Vulgar’s got a great story; he texts me:

“lol. I was afk and was in my truck. Some guy was ramming me. I shot he ran. Came to another truck. Solid 40 minutes of ~6 payers in a freemode demo derby with no weapons. 1 guy was on an atv. He eventually found a Patriot. We left him alone when dismounted. I even uprighted his steed when needed. So what was the sociopath’s offense?”

Right as I’m about to answer him, I get a message from LadyBoss:

“Why were you so mean to my friend UnluckyBastard? OMG he’s really pissed!”

Although we play games that use concepts like “killing”, “death”, and “crime”, these terms cannot be understood to be mean anything close to what they mean in real life. “Killing” is not a permanent un-recoverable act; “death” is merely a time-out, never final; “crime” is meaningless in a game-based context that often requires representative acts that would be illegal in real life. When we try to map real world values onto game contexts, the result is the type of mismatches I encountered with UnluckyBastard – there are personal and emotional connections to a video game character, a kind of social underpinning that is more important and real than any type of moral value we attach to the symbolic actions that character undertakes.

It was more important that UnluckyBastard was LadyBoss’ friend. Even the type of purposefully hurtful and sadistic symbolic activity that he engaged in was irrelevant in the context of the friendship he had. This is the basis of Vulgar’s activity, and it’s an interesting contrast to my own. Where I engage in antagonistic, “now you’ll learn your lesson!” cause-and-effect violence, violence for Vulgar is almost meaningless – the consent to kill and be killed is the primary underpinning of his way of playing the game. Killing for me is violence, almost murder; but for Vulgar, it’s play. It’s joy. My approach to a griefer is to simply grief them; Vulgar’s approach is the opposite of griefing. To coin two rather terrible neologisms, I am a “griefer of griefers”; Vulgar is a “joyer”. For me, the game is a forum for me to hunt down and symbolically murder people whose actions I find objectionable. For Vulgar, the game is completely different – it is a way of establishing commonality and connections, a carefree exercise in the sheer joy of consequence-free virtual mayhem.

Let’s establish a little background before continuing on with this examination of contrasts.

For the past six months, I have been playing an inordinate amount of GTA Online. It is not exaggeration to state that I am probably one of the best GTA Online players in the world – not because I have the best reflexes, or the best aim or driving, but simply because I have better tactical problem-solving skills. There is nothing in the world of video game war that has not been addressed by the Marine Red Book Sniper Manual, or Army FM 3-22.9 on Rifle Marksmanship, or for that matter by Rommel’s “Infantry Attacks”; from the usage of cover and concealment to the coordination of fire, movement and communication, it’s all there in publicly available technical knowledge, and I’ve studied it all.

I’ve been playing virtual war games for better than two decades, and I’ve written what I’m pretty sure is the only “general FPS strategy” book in existence. In a video game world with exceptional freedom to position and move, with powerfully violent and mobile vehicles and weapons, the doctrine I’ve learned from the study of real war and military history gives me an unbelievably powerful advantage over the children and child-adults who know only action movies and diluted Internet-forum doctrine.

So what do I do with all this expertise and power? Well, for the past three months, I have been spending most of my time in-game hunting down and killing cheaters and griefers.

My hunting style has been refined and advanced through hundreds of pre-meditated, patient attacks on other players. Virtually all of my “killing” in freeroam has been with the game’s most powerful long-range rifle, from greater than five hundred meters, usually from extremely elevated positions.

I begin a play session by looking at the list of all players in-session and separating out any who are above a certain level. When I look for griefers, I’ll spend a significant amount of time simply sitting in-session, watching the map and the “news feed” to gain an idea of who is killing whom and why, then I’ll target the player who’s getting the most kills. Two players killing each other repeatedly is insufficient to merit interdiction for me; what I’m looking for are situations of imbalance, where one or more players have significantly more kills than the other. When marking targets as cheaters, I examine their player cards and information, looking for hints that the player may have an artificially inflated level due to cheating. Often, this is as simple as looking at their level; a level 1000 GTA Online character, for instance, would have required better than 120 days of continuous play, wildly unlikely for a game that has been out for only 180 days.

Once I’ve marked my targets, I obtain a helicopter, and begin following and monitoring from very very far away. I’ve spent as long as an hour simply following cheaters around, hopping from skyscraper-roof to skyscraper-roof, monitoring their activities through a rifle scope before killing them. What I’m looking for and waiting for is an opportunity to make a kill in a situation where I can’t be retaliated upon. Most often this is simply achieved with extreme distance; GTA Online’s game engine will stop rendering players at about 200 meters, but vehicles are rendered and are shootable across nearly the entire map. Thus, a majority of the extreme long-range (ELR) kills I’ve achieved have been on players in vehicles; through a rifle scope from atop a building, I’m able to see their car but not them. From street level, all they can see is the occasional muzzle flare from my rifle.

It is my reasoning that once a player has cheated or inflicted purposeful emotional harm on another player that that player has foregone his or her right to fair play. Thus, my doctrine is to create as unfair a situation for my targets as I possibly can. The only warning that my targets get is a bullet; I don’t bother sending outraged messages accusing them of cheating or making snarky comments in public voice chat. I simply hunt them. Ideally, the first time that a player is aware that I am actively out to get them is when they are dead. Once I’ve achieved the first kill, I pin them down with NPC enemies, and kill them over and over again until they leave the session.

In a word of griefers and joyers, a community united around tit-for-tat petty vengeance and meaningless mayhem, I’m something different; from one perspective, a vigilante, maybe even (I’d hope) an in-game teacher using operant conditioning to discourage sociopathy. From another perspective I have to acknowledge as valid, however, I also have to accept that I am, in fact, a griefer. In fact, because I grief griefers and do it so mercilessly, I am arguably a master griefer.

If you recall my previous essay on trolls and tryhards, you may ask whether this makes me in some regard a tryhard. The tryhard is the player who conflates real world morality with representational video game narrative; in pursuing the punishment of sociopathic activities, it can be argued that I’m confusing video game sociopathy with real sociopathy, and pursuing a meaningless solution (a video game slap on the wrist, essentially) to it.

The best defense I have against the charge of being a tryhard is that no matter what type of rhetoric I use to discuss or justify my video game actions, I accept – indeed I must accept – that my in-game actions are volitional; that they are fun. I do not believe that it is any kind of job or sacred calling to punish virtual sociopaths. As I’ve established in my essay on negative decision architecture, in fact, a kind of virtual sociopathy is an essential condition of playing these games.

My justification is more simple: I enjoy hunting players. And there are no players that are as challenging and rewarding to hunt as those who cheat and are purposefully mean to other players. My hunting methodology is as much due to my enjoyment of hunting hackers as it is to how little I enjoy hunting hapless newbies.

Remember that these games are not just activities; they are also methods of self-definition. In a civilization that offers so few rituals of passage and meaningful tokens of identity, the immersive experience offered by video games offer powerfully beguiling answers to the questions of “What kind of person am I?” and “What am I into?”.

Self-definition has become a kind of art form in modern society. People define themselves by musical genre (“metalheads”, “hip hop fans”, “punks”, “emo kids”), by occupation (“soldier”, “cop”, “lawyer”), by affinities (“a person into art”, “a person into cars”, “a person who likes rock climbing”). Self-definition is the art form we make of ourselves; we shape ourselves into people whom we find acceptable and appealing.

The revolutionary value that social video games like GTAO present – that no one seems to get – is that they present the modern consumer with a new method of self-definition: defining oneself and discovering one’s moral and emotional tendencies through play. Social video games allow the endless art of self-definition to include experimenting what it feels like to be a bully or a thief or a vigilante or a criminal – not through participation in a preset narrative but rather through social interactions with other players. Through the assumption of morally-loaded roles in social contexts, players can “feel” what it feels like to be a sociopath, or a righteously indignant vigilante, or a smirking criminal troll. This is what I term normative play – play that allows players to experiment with personal norms and social roles.

It just so happens that my form of normative play is making an art form out of the death of cheaters, hackers, and griefers.

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