This March, I’m fortunate to be presenting again at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) conference (in Montreal 3/25-3/29). As usual, the program is so packed with goodies that conflicts are inevitable, but this promises to be a stellar panel, on a topic that remains largely unexplored in academic game studies. The original CFP and my talk abstract are included below.

Thursday, March 26, 2015 05:00PM-06:45PM (Session J)

J16: You Only Live Once? Permadeath and Video Games
Room: 16
Chair: Braxton Soderman (University of California, Irvine)
Alenda Chang (University of Connecticut), “The Game without Us”
Jesus Costantino (University of Notre Dame), “Death by Design: Permadeath and Precarity in Indie Games”
Braxton Soderman (University of California, Irvine), “No Room for Play: The Politics of Permadeath”
Respondent: Peter Krapp (University of California, Irvine)


CFP: Video Games and Permadeath

It has become a cliché that games are attractive to players as forms of risk management—they can venture out with avatars because even if they get wounded or killed, the game allows you to continue from the point of failure. And right away we are confronted with the next “entrepreneurial” cliché—that what one learns from mistakes is not their avoidance but the allowance for some room for error. Even in more extreme cases such as the game Braid, death itself is nullified and removed in order to elevate the logic of puzzle solving over the thrill of potential (and sometimes devastating) failure. But what if games did not allow for easy recovery, continuance, and persistence of accumulated resources and identity?

Yet, this is nothing new. Permanent death or permadeath (PD) was widespread in the early days of video games and coin-op machines before being considered a “dead-end” for game design and going “underground” (e.g. in roguelike games). Yet PD has recently respawned and is experiencing a renaissance with the release of games such as Heavy Rain, DayZ, Don’t Starve, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, One Chance and others. Why is this the case? What does PD teach us about the current state of game culture and its future? How does PD illuminate the history of video games?

This panel will not only explore what perspectives PD games open up in terms of game design, the psychology of play, and interactive narrative in single-player games, but we also seek proposals for detailed discussions of why PD is less prevalent in multi-player games (though this might be changing), and what limitations the option imposes on what is (or is not) likely to be a part of designing playable characters in the future. Proposals should discuss at least one concrete example of PD in video games in some detail.

Some potential ideas (though certainly not exhaustive):

The history of PD

PD and narrative

PD and avatar identification

Cultural determinates of the rise of contemporary PD

Player preservation vs. player persistence

PD as a difficulty setting (hardcore mode in Minecraft, Diablo, etc., or as a player imposed goal such as a “no death run”) Player responses to PD “Save scumming”

PD as an emerging genre (as opposed to PD as a feature across game genres) PD as a feature of roguelike games (or part of “The Berlin Interpretation” of such games) The concept of PD in relation to ideas/concepts such as thrill, tension, frustration, failure, risk and mastery A close reading/playing of a game related to PD

From The Last of Us

“The Game Without Us” (A. Chang)

Consider two recent, related thought experiments:

  • Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, which imagined what Earth would eventually look like if humans vanished all at once, leaving their wheatfields and plastics, ranch homes and land mines behind (the short answer: just fine, albeit with lots and lots of rotting wood and a depressingly stable smorgasbord of synthetic chemicals), and
  • Eric Zimmerman’s “real-life permadeath” game design challenge at the 2010 Game Developers’ Conference, which asked its competitors to pitch games incorporating death in the real world. The three entries, Last Game and Testament, HeavenVille, and Karma, tackled the composing of wills, building social networks out of dead people, and facing death as the terminally ill.

Given this, we might be tempted to read permadeath’s resurgence symptomatically, as evidence of a growing awareness of the precarity of human existence in what has been dubbed the Anthropocene (or the sixth megaextinction). After all, permadeath games are often survivalist dramas, pitting people against each other or against environments characterized by scarcity and unpredictability. But while player-character permadeath is usually the necessary corollary to ecological permadeath, current definitions and realizations of game permadeath remain narrow-mindedly anthropocentric—this despite many of the most compelling permadeath games (Minecraft, Dwarf Fortress, Don’t Starve) featuring complex natural environments. The winning GDC pitch, the parodic HeavenVille, dreamed of awarding points for famous dead people, not the rapidly growing ranks of extinct species. And even when permadeath explicitly confronts ecocide (One Chance), salvation lies in the preservation of a human cellular blueprint.

What would an expanded notion of permadeath allow, one that placed the nonhuman (Shelter) and even the nonliving on par with the human (death is, by definition, not just the end of life, but also the termination of the existence or duration of things)? How might permadeath force a rethinking of resource management (expendability, limitation) or survival or even win/fail states in games? While the permadeath conceit of randomly generated worlds obscures both a generic impulse and what we might call the hyperobjective operations of games’ environmental logic, games in this genre testify to the fantasy of permanence and how inseparable contemporary notions of individual risk are from narratives of global environmental change.