There are more games today playing around with loss and consequence than back when Gonzalo Frasca designed September 12th as a game that could not be won. The game collective, Sweat, has also produced Fifa Fo Fum! which flips winning and losing on its head (Sweat’s head, Rafael Fajardo, has also produced Seeds of Solitude, another game that uses the concept of an unwinnable scenario). Then, of course, there is my own Giant Tank. All of these games question what winning actually means and what happens when a player is given a task that is impossible given the tools at hand. The end result is that players are expected to question what the game represents based on its goals and rules.
This is not to say that unwinnable games have never existed before – most early arcade games, such as Space Invaders, were unwinnable in the sense that it was impossible to find a final victory screen. Points were earned based on how long the player survived and how much he or she destroyed. This has lead to some interesting interpretations of games like Space Invaders, in which the futility of the war is read into the game (these are jokingly investigated through Retro Sabotage’s Space Invaders collection).
The latest of these games is Zach Gage’s Lose/Lose, and art game that is superficially designed as a retro arcade shooter combining the gameplay of Galaga/Galaxian and their ilk with the special effects of Defender, but with a twist: each space alien you destroy will delete a file from your computer (the extensions of these files are displayed above the explosions). Furthermore, once your spaceship is destroyed, the game will delete itself. (Because of this, you may want to just watch the video of the game in action; eventually, I hope to install this on a system with just the operating system to see what happens when it destroys important Windows files!). This forces us to reconsider our definitions of games as lacking real-world consequences, placing Lose/Lose in the same realm as gambling in games of chance.
Because Lose/Lose effectively punishes the player while simultaneously rewarding points, the game questions what it means to be rewarded in a game in which we destroy things. It is interesting to note that the aliens will never fire on the player (though they will destroy the player’s ship on contact). This in turn questions the implicit goal of ‘destroy everything’; once we do this, we may even go so far as to desire to understand the nature of these alien creatures. By giving real-world consequences to a videogame, Gage has with Lose/Lose directly addressed the issue of consequences to violence, though perhaps not as graphically as John Klima’s “Go Fish” or Wafaa Bilal’s Domestic Tensions.)
Additionally, Lose/Lose questions the value of digital artifacts by suggesting that information and the vast accumulation of digital artifacts on our hundreds-of-gigabytes-large hard drives have value as do physical objects, but also suggests that we accumulate so much abstract information, we may no longer understand what it is actually worth.
As art, Lose/Lose of course never directly answers these questions, but instead leaves it up to the player to decide. By asking the player to place his or her own data at risk as a consequence of playing this game, Gage more effectively places the contemplation of these questions onto the shoulders of the player. If my absolute refusal to play this game on my computer is any indication, this level of reflection may be either spontaneously shunned by the would-be player or indeed reflected upon. Either way, the art has elicited a reaction (even if that is rejection), meaning the piece has proved its effectiveness in that regard alone.