The War of Art, Part 1: Tryhards, Trolls and Emotional Play

mazebanksnipe

mazebanksnipe

The evening gloom is gathering in consensual virtual city that is Los Santos. My character is sitting high on a rooftop above the city in the growing darkness, standing atop a skyscraper with a ridiculously massive semi-automatic heavy caliber sniper rifle held lightly in his hands. I’m barely seeing him; my attention is on the news feed in the bottom left of the screen that tells me which players are killing each other.

Five minutes ago, I’d entered into the world in the industrial and low-income flatlands in the south of the city and been greeted by news notifications that two names were killing one name over and over again – four times in the space of less than two minutes, which means that this person was dying as fast as they were re-spawning. OK, I think, someone to hunt, great. I fly over in an attack chopper to take a look and as soon as I get into range… bang, a tank takes me out. Another tank rolls over and kills me and the griefing victim a few times.

OK, I think. We can deal with this. I get a new chopper, fly to the top of a 100+ story building and start stalking the tanks.

Humans are endurance hunters. Only humans and to an extent canines are known to chase our prey until they literally die from exhaustion. And this is how I hunt tanks: quietly, slowly, from rooftops so far away that the game’s rendering engine doesn’t even draw my character. From 3,000 meters in GTA Online, all you can see are vehicles; any direct hit on an actual player must be either based on inferring where the relatively minute character is located, or by shooting through a vehicle part. The tank is so agile and powerful in terms of armament and armor that extreme long-range shooting is pretty much the only real solution for destroying tanks without reprisal.

Before they patched it, there was a tiny, tiny window of opportunity on a GTA Online tank through which you could snipe the occupants. Tank griefers are fairly common, so I’ve gotten a lot of practice at hitting that window from extreme long range. One shot each and both tanks are empty. I watch carefully for the griefers to respawn, get back into their tanks, then carefully snipe them each again before they can move. I can’t see the players’ bodies, but I can see their tanks quite clearly, and it’s child’s play to simply wait, with the crosshairs pre-positioned for a shot, for the tank to start moving like it’s occupied. After about four times doing this they figure it out and quit the game. I find the victim they were griefing – some hapless low-level novice with less than two hours in the game, judging by his level – land my helicopter next to him, give it to him to mess around with and traipse off into a different virtual world to do a race.

The next morning, I checked my messages. Each tank griefer had sent me about three messages each, at first saying “COME ON START SOMETHING” then devolving into “not fair how are you doing that” then finally simply saying “cheater you are hacking”. After checking through these messages and about a dozen or so similar ones from different griefers, I delete them all and log back into the game to hunt again.


There is an on-going discussion in philosophy and the developing aesthetic study of video games about whether or not such a thing as “morality” can be said to exist in a video game context. Three views can be said to exist:

1. Nope! – Moral acts in a notional setting are meaningless; there is no “right” or “wrong” because there is nothing real at stake
2. Yep! – Moral acts in a video game setting are meaningful because they’re enactments of moral selves; the moral value of video games is rooted in their inculcatory/educational power to teach and instill narratives
3. Maybe! – There are some ways (self-actualization, within the bounds of the fictive narrative ‘universe’) in which video game acts have morality and others in which they are meaningless.

The Nope! view is the view of the “troll”. A troll, in the Internet sense, attempts to draw an indignant or outraged reaction from a subject audience through the expression of offensive statements or actions. The troll inhabits a moral universe devoid of any interest in the emotions of others except as self-imagined fodder for sadism. For a troll, the anger, sadness or outrage of others are merely desirable “winning” states to produce through calculated language and actions.

The classic example of the Yep! view is the “tryhard”. The term ‘tryhard’ is of recent coinage; it refers to players who take their games quite seriously (as “serious business” as the cliche goes), striving for excellence and being broken by failure. For the tryhard, the video game becomes life; failures and successes within the video game translate with a directness that most people find uneasy into real life. The tryhard recognizes little boundary between real life and virtual life; for the tryhard, real life is simply the support system for the virtual one in which their aspirations, successes and failures take place.

The Maybe! view, as may be obvious, is the view to which I hew the most. To claim that every part of a video game has a moral or political aspect (as a tryhard might) is only slightly meaningful and mostly annoying; it tends to lead to philosophically trivial theoretical conclusions. For instance, although it is interesting to some to examine how the military culture of the past two decades has influenced the Call of Duty series and by extension been taught to an audience of civilians, the types of conclusion that would be drawn (the influence did or didn’t happen, it was or wasn’t shaped by the Global War or Terror) would ‘read’ the video game in a historical context as a finished artistic work. But this misses the point: video games are not read, they are experienced and for the true tryhards, lived in.

To claim that no actions in a video game have any moral value is to critically misread the role of emotion in play; it is the kind of view taken by people who have not been exposed to a very real Internet full of very mean people. Cheating, griefing (purposeful, sadistic in-game actions meant to produce a “trolling” response), racist and homophobic play, sadistic group-exclusion and castigation play – these are all real, common forms of video play to which the Nope! response has nothing to say. One wonders if the emotional experience of being, say, the player whom I saw killed repeatedly by a Mexican crew… or perhaps repeatedly killed by a sadistically laughing teenage cheater going by a handle like “xxISHOOTNEGROESxx” (yes, I met someone named this once) would change the minds of most exponents of the Nope! view.

A mature and pragmatic view of video game morality and indeed Internet morality at large cannot be determined through adherence to simple-minded blanket statements about the nature of moral actions based upon substantially irrelevant and outdated Enlightenment-era ontologies. The vast majority of the terms for moral judgment that come to English through the law and through religion are, plainly put, stupid when they are applied to virtual contexts, because they are essentially incomprehensible and inapplicable tryhard terms. How shall we judge condemnation or redemption in how players share loot in a World of Warcraft boss kill? Is there a form of due process or evidentiary requirement of due diligence that a Minecraft player should exercise before kicking a griefer from his server? Is it murder or just war when I repeatedly kill – essentially “griefing back” – a GTA Online griefer? Is a video game reviewer that shamelessly extolls the meaningless hype features of a game participating in a doxastic or soteriological dialog with the audience?

Both the troll and the tryhard views transmute the video game into an emotionally required necessity; for the troll, it is a vehicle of sadism and amusement, for the tryhard, it is an arena for sanctimoniously just action. Both views miss out on how the video game is played, focusing instead of trying to over-determine what it should be. The troll ignores the real emotions and personal stakes that human beings inject into play; the tryhard ignores the essentially elective and fictional character of video game interactions, seeing only a more or less personal jihad against a social world divided along Manichean lines into absolute good and absolute bad. For the troll, the video game is essentially a form of sadist porn; for the tryhard, it is a forum for quixotic moralistic action.

In the Maybe! view that I’ve arrived at, the most important determinant of the moral value of a person’s actions in a virtual context are in how people’s actions make other people feel. Play is the method by which people try on new roles and test out new forms of interaction with each other. Participation in the operant-conditioning incentive scheme offered by video games, particularly ones with a focus on narrative immersion and virtual embodiment, shapes and develops people by teaching people what to expect from others.

When emotions are used as the basis for moral readings of video games, a number of critical literary-theoretical and hermeneutic “knots” become much easier to deal with. Games become judgeable overall, using modern psychological standards of “adaptive” or “maladaptive” behaviors. A “good” video game is one which teaches the virtues of fair competition, problem-solving, group work and executive thinking – things that help people live good lives and feel better. A “bad” video game is one which encourages the enactment of maladaptive, impractical and anti-social behaviors. The tension between deciding whether the video game’s character is an avatar and a doll, or the dilemma presented by morally objectionable narratives in popular video games, become straightforwardly ethological and behavioral issues.

Treating emotions as the basis for video game readings creates a situation where the simple application of psychological doctrines suffice to establish very nuanced readings of video games. John Bowlby’s attachment theory, for instance, is a rich and unexplored territory to be mined for tools to examine how people relate to their representations (do characters have attachment styles? is there object awareness and permanence in the ways that people consider their characters?). Or consider simple longitudinal studies: When people play adversarial video games constantly, do they become more competitive as people? Is there an educational value in perhaps inflicting “bad” video games on people to prepare them for harsh competitive environments (e.g. “Kobayashi Maru” scenarios and the like)? Emotional readings of video games also establish the grounds for judging, and arriving at fine-grained characterizations of, play styles. A “good” play style is one which makes other people feel good and makes them want to play with you; a “bad” play style is one which ignores or does violence to the emotions of others, resulting in eventual isolation of the “bad” player.

Video game studies are a self-marginalized philosophical sideline in a time when the cultural prominence of video games and the receding relevance of philosophy should be making it instead a vital and newly timely vein of theoretical exploration. By re-focusing critical reading efforts on modalities of play – the how and the why of play, not the what – it can become possible for philosophy as a field to have something useful and novel to say, and also for video games to finally have some real and thought-out sense of what they are.

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