The Ones Who Walk Away From Videogames
by Thom Kiraly
I already wrote this on Twitter AND Facebook, but I’ll put it here as well, for safekeeping or something.
In class today, I finally reached the point where I feel confident in considering Ursula K. Le Guin’s story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas as essential game studies reading. I’ve been wrestling with that feeling for months, that’s how weird I am. TOWWAFO is a truly haunting short story asking that most uncomfortable of questions: What’s all this (whatever it might be) worth to you? How far are you willing to go to have it, to keep it?
This question pops up all the time as in-game ideology, where the player has to answer the question through play. For example, we’re supposed to ask ourselves how many people we are prepared to kill to ”win” or save other people or build something etc. But(!) it’s also a question of games’ material properties. Remember that the enjoyment of games is preceded and necessarily requires much human suffering in their very production. I’m not just talking about people in the industry, though it is true that young enthusiastic devs are exploited and run into the ground in a very short time. That, or they’re supposed to start their own businesses where they can exploit themselves and work insane hours only to… what? Yeah. Sidetracking.
As I said, I’m not just talking about the situation for game developers. This is, instead, especially true in the looking at the production, distribution, retail, and disposal of the hardware used to play digital games. It requires, for example, rare metals that people die acquiring. Read that again. Our tech and, thus, our digital play is built on the DEATH of other people, far far away. I’m not saying you have to do something about it, but you should at least be aware that our entertainment is predicated on death and ruthless exploitation.
So, the question I’m left with is if we should just walk away from Omelas. I’m not sure that it’s even an option, nor the right strategy. Perhaps we need to tear Omelas down. Once again, this applies to in-game ideology that puts us in tedious, repetitive loops filled with false moral choices that inevitably boil down to nothing more than the game scalding you for performing the actions it encouraged you to perform (this is known as the ”Surprise, you’re Hitler” spiel). It also applies to the business and production of games and the hardware required to play.
So, do yourself a favor and read the story. You’ll understand games better, and (if you’re reeeeally lucky) you might end up feeling a little bit more disgusted by yourself, which iiiiiis a goooood thing, right?
You can read the story here: