Little and Big Extinctions in Video Games

Bethany Nowviskie makes the criticism of much of Digital Humanities practice in asking, “What is a digital humanities practice that grapples constantly with little extinctions and can look clear-eyed on a Big One?” How video games specifically grapple with the concept of extinction mirrors the trend on many issues where video games seem to be behind but have a tremendous amount of potential.

Setting the aforementioned “Big One” aside for a moment, video game communities have largely done more poorly than other areas of the Digital Humanities even in “grappl[ing]…with little extinctions.” A large part of what makes video games unique as a form of humanistic expression is their complex relationship with the technology the work with and the constant evolution of that technology.

As a result, video games do not enjoy the same relative ease of reproducibility, and thus preservation, as other media. While any book or any film could hypothetically be formatted to be viewable on your computer, your phone, or your tablet, the same is not so easily true of any video game. Formatting a game so that it runs properly on Windows, for example, when it was originally programmed for another platform, will be an entirely different process from game to game, depending on how each individual game is programmed.

That’s not to say there haven’t been efforts to preserve games or make them more widely playable. Whenever a new piece of video game hardware is released, backwards compatibility is part of the conversation. Efforts such as Nintendo’s Virtual Console and, hypothetically, Sony’s PlayStation Now, expand the library of games whose playability is preserved on modern hardware.

But it’s not enough. More obscure games tend to be forgotten and lost to time; we may be failing to predict the potential relevance of certain works in their anthropological context. Massively multiplayer online games can only continue to exist as long as their servers continue to be active. And with mobile and tablet platforms, exclusive games can be pulled from the online stores never to be heard from again. There is a need for a greater preservation of the corpus of gaming history, but this need also presents with it unique challenges.

The Big Extinction is a different story, but video games do not tend to differ from most media in this regard. It’s fairly common, and problematic, for video games to depict the wildlife of the areas a player explores as there for the slaughter. Similar mentalities towards real-world wildlife have allowed the many species extinctions that constitute the anthropocene.

But as far as thematic approach to the question of the anthropocene, video games have started to make a little bit of leeway. Undertale is well known for allowing the player to complete the game killing either no one at all or absolutely everyone (or somewhere in between). And without spoiling what exactly it looks like, the game will judge you for what you choose to do. It is a highly effective commentary on games’ and players’ murderous attitude towards fictional monsters. Games are, however, characterized by possibility space. To varying degrees in any game, players may choose to forgo the killing; playing through the game in such a way is commonly known as a pacifist run.

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