Mechanic of Death: On the Cyclical Mortality in Video GamesAn Essay by David Mai
The death mechanic in video games serves as a disruption in the gamic experience, but it can also bring about moments of contemplation. This paper examines disruption through Alexander R. Galloway’s model of four gamic actions and attempts to draw connections between the sphere of the metagame to Gilles Deleuze’s illustration of the Foucauldian notion of a society of control. With the advent of online and multiplayer play, the metagame functions as a lived and real-time experience that contains a system of rules that can be disrupted through the gamic death—bringing forth a paradigm shift in the way we interact with said rules.
David Mai is an MFA Candidate at San Francisco State University. He is a genre filmmaker who operates predominately in narrative horror—in accompaniment with other body genres, e.g., melodrama and pornography—often blending other modes together. His work is informed by his interests in sexuality, feminist, and affect theory; in addition, through his work, he seeks to bridge critical film studies and film production to bring about meaningful hybridity between the two spheres.
Death in a video game brings about disturbances or at times contemplation, along with a process of persuasion and learning in a domain of rhetoric, coined by Ian Bogost as procedural rhetoric, that functions in video games. The mechanic of death can be observed as a state caused by a player’s inability and lack of expertise in a system of rules established by a game, where the player reflects upon on their actions and repeats said actions at a previous point before the occurrence of death. I will examine the death mechanic and other game designs that may serve as supporting components or counterpoints to my argument of player death in video games functioning as a phase of experiential learning and cognitive transformation for the player, or defined as the “operator” in Alexander R. Galloway’s text: Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. In addition, I will also explore his notion of four gamic actions and define the death mechanic under this categorical description. Moreover, I will argue the way in which games are a reflection of Gilles Deleuze’s illustration of the Foucauldian notion of the disciplinary society and its transition to a society of control, and attempt to describe the way in which games, functioning as an expressive and persuasive model for rule-based systems, are similar to the institutional enclosures described by Foucault; then, investigating what the death mechanic can bring about in this rhetorical structure.
Ian Bogost describes procedurality as “a way of creating, explaining, or understanding processes: And processes define the way things work: the methods, techniques, and logics that drive the operation of systems.” Video games are just one example of procedural rhetoric, but for Bogost, procedurality exists in interactive structures and institutions around us; additionally, these interactive structures contain processes that are dependent on operators and their actions upon these processes. However, Galloway states that “[he] avoid[s] the word ‘interactive’ and prefer[s] instead to call the video game, like the computer, an action-based medium.” I argue that video games are interactive and defined by actions, be it by the player or game—Galloway defines these as operator action and machine action. Bogost describes procedural rhetoric as a way to make claims about how people learn through the authorship of rules; it is an “art of persuasion through rule-based representations and interactions rather than the spoken word, writings, images, or moving pictures.” Like film or literature, the video game is an immersive medium as well—perhaps more dangerously so. The term “immersion” in video games is similar to the notion of suspension of disbelief in other narrative forms; with death, brings about a disturbance in the immersion of play and storytelling experience. In addition, death is a point of distancing in a video game; the player distances themselves from the character of the narrative and treats death as a trivial matter. Through distancing, the devaluing of character mortality results in the player’s use of the mechanic of death as a way to learn the ruleset of the video game by repetition. Game mechanics are constructions within the game that are designed to be used for interactivity between the player and the computer program. So, the mechanic of death is the habitual and cyclical nature of player actions or failure of, and death embodies the formulation of the multilayered experiences the player builds upon themselves and uses to advance; rhetorically, the player is learning and is persuaded “through rule-based representations and interactions”—this is what is brought about by the death mechanic.
I will use League of Legends as my main object of examination, due to how the death mechanic operates in the game and how it influences player prediction-making and decision-making habits. To lay some groundwork, the game is, simply put, a team deathmatch. However, there is a vulgarity in that reductive statement, because it’s a complex rhetorical system. Two teams, each consisting of five players, in the standard mode of the game, act as summoners and select champions to enter a playable field for the entire duration of the match in order to enter combat with the champions of the opposing team. Each champion has their own strengths, weaknesses, and even a narrative backstory that helps immerse the players with these characters. As the match begins, groups of minions from both sides, which are non-player characters, march down the three lanes on the field in cycled intervals. The goal of the game is for the players to destroy the opposing team’s base as their own minions and champions attempt to do the same; players gain experience points and currency in the form of gold by killing opposing champions and minions, and with gold, the players can purchase items that serve as stat-boosting equipment for their respective champions to increase their effectiveness in combat. League of Legends has grown from a free-to-play competitive online game into a career for professional gamers. Now I’m going to lay the historical groundwork for competitive games before I go into how these systems of rules influence their player-base.
Competitive gaming dates back to 1972, where the first recorded video game competition was the “Intergalactic SpaceWar! Olympics”, but between that and the 2000’s, competitive gaming slowly gained traction as a mainstream activity. With the establishment of professional tournaments organizations and leagues, e.g., Professional Gamer League (PGL) and Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL), brought about a number of tournaments and events that involved a variety of video games and participants, which led to competitive gaming becoming more prominent in the world. However, the region that had the most progression and attraction to competitive gaming was perhaps South Korea, where the Korean e-Sports Association (KeSPA) managed and regulated the rapidly growing phenomenon that is eSports. At a regular basis, StarCraft and Warcraft III competitions would be broadcasted in channels that dedicated their entire programming to the coverage of these two games.
Presently, games such as Counter-Strike: Global Offense, League of Legends, and Dota 2, are the dominant spectacle in terms of eSports viewership. Though, most of these competitive games, or games that contain competitive potentiality, involve a matchmaking system sorted by a ranking and rating algorithm that determines appropriate fair player combinations whereby both teams have a mathematically theoretical near equal chance of winning. Each player receives a rating, commonly referred to as a Match-Making Rating (MMR), determined by their overall number of games played, with wins and losses taking part as factors that determines the players’ position in the ordinal scale dubbed as the ladder. In addition, some games even include the structure of rounds between each match before concluding the entire match—Counter-Strike: Global Offense is one such game. These factors certainly affect how players interact with the game and each other, however, many of these games do not follow the model of a perfectly balanced game, in which both sides have the same options as the other side, and the primary determining factor that results in winning is player skill and mastery over the game. Chess is a perfectly balanced game due to the mirrored pieces and board, but that isn’t the case for these competitive video games. These games involve a wide array of pieces and options that allow certain gameplay and restrict others as well. Here is where the notion of a balanced-imbalanced game comes into the equation.
Early video games were self-contained in their set of rules that the player had to follow; even programming mistakes left by the developers were considered glitches and were ultimately a part of the game and its system of rules contained within its own design. However, nowadays, with games connected online, developers can continuously work and fix the game even after release through what is called patching. Though, patches refer more to simply mending an error within a game; a patch can be seen as an adjustment in the overall system of rules of the game. Whether it repairs a glitch or changes the content of the game, it affects how the player once interacted with original system of rules presented to them. In the context of competitive online gaming, patches serve more than to correct design mistakes within the game or change content; they can serve as disturbances that alter the very ecosystem that all players dwell in, through the introduction of new rules or the repurposing of existing rules—a shift in the way we interact with the system of rules. Balance, in game design, is the idea that the components in a game’s ruleset are only marginally discrepant from each other in terms of their effectiveness and significance. The idea of a balanced-imbalanced game is brought about by the way in which these games handle what is called the metagame.
Meta is derived from the Greek prefix meaning “beyond,” so the concept of the metagame, should, in theory, encompass the entirety of everything beyond the original ruleset of the game. Moreover, the prefix meta- is, in an epistemological sense, a self-referential affix to an existing subject. For that reason, a metagame would mean “a game about the game,” but even though the metagame should be everything beyond the game about the game, it’s often localized to the act of predicting of how other players make their decisions in the game—actions by extension. For professional League of Legends, eSports teams may study other teams in their bracket to dissect the team playstyle and commonly picked champions and build orders, in order to counteract certain decisions and actions. For example, in a hypothetical professional League of Legends match, it is well-known that a particular player has a comfort pick, therefore, for the pre-game, it could be a beneficial decision by the opposing team to ban the champion, choose another champion that generally has a higher probability of out-performing said champion, or even choose that specific champion for their own team so the opposing team cannot use it, since, in competitive League of Legends, there cannot be duplicate champions in one match—another form of balanced-imbalance design; decisions such as these are determined by the metagame, and this form of decision-making can also be examined in the scope of teams studying whole regions for the same effect, but in a larger scale of generalization and prediction. The procedural rhetoric of this structure is seen in how players are persuaded to act in a certain way due to these metarules. Of course, metagame information is provided by the cyclical nature of matches that allow such patterns to arise and for players to contemplate on the events prior to the end of a match. However, what can be observed beyond the metagame?
Not only is metagaming the technique used by players to involve an external ruleset that was not established in the original system of rules presented by the game, it is a lived experience. The environment beyond the game, in the sphere of the metagame, is a dominant factor in determining player-to-player interactivity due to how their decisions are made based on this external ruleset—the metarules. An example on how the metarules can shift is, for example, say option A is currently seen as the choice that results in the highest percentage win rate, so due to general consensus, most players would play what is “meta,” however, in a balanced-imbalanced game, there would be a sufficient amount of choices that would allow players to counter what is “meta,” which shifts the general perspective that option B is the new best choice, because it is what can result in a win in an environment that is dominated by players choosing option A. This cycle can seem to progress indefinitely, but that is not the case, for there will always be an equilibrium state which results in an option that becomes the standard. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the developers to maintain and regulate this cyclical imbalance through the use of patches.
As established, the general understanding of the metagame is fairly isolating relative to the potential contained in the affix “meta”; how can playing another multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA), or a game in a different genre to League of Legends, influence our decision-making in League of Legends—vice versa? In an abstract way, if a player is given multiple rulesets, how do these rulesets overlap and meld? Deleuze describes Foucault’s disciplinary society as a society where “the individual never ceases passing from one closed environment to another, each having its own laws.” Consequently, it can be said that within these “environments of enclosures,” there are specific rulesets exclusive to them. Video games, again, are rule-based systems with each game containing their own set of rules. However, as Deleuze illustrates, in the society of control, unlike the disciplinary society, the individual is “never finished with anything—the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation.” In a Foucauldian lens, early video games—before developers having the ability to intervene through online means—can be a reflection of these “environments of enclosures,” since they encapsulate closed systems where player interaction is grounded by specific and closed rulesets. Early video games were reasonably distinct from one another, in the sense that there wasn’t an established set of genres and categorizations at the time—or game mechanics as well. However, now with the relatively matured medium video games and well-established game mechanics that span these games, the question remains: How do video games, as rule-based systems, coexist with each other in a “universal system of deformation”? We can examine game mechanics, seeing how they construct the backbone to most design structures in video games, e.g., health bar mechanic, turn-based mechanic, or in this case, the death mechanic.
Many games, not just video games, from sports to board and card games, have a form of death mechanic implemented. Even if it’s simply a time penalty, the operations of the game continue without the player’s influence; the player will typically return to a checkpoint or another state of beginning that is fairly similar to the start of the game. In League of Legends, when a player’s champion experiences gamic death in the playable field, the player is timed out for a moment, with their character removed from the field. After the penalty timer runs out, the player’s character returns to the field at the spawn point in their team’s base—the starting point of the match, with each team having their own respective spawn points. During this penalty moment, the player has a period of contemplation. Galloway examines this state as well, where the player chooses to be removed from the game; he describes it as a state where “the game is slowly walking in place, shifting from side to side and back again to the center. It is running, playing itself, perhaps. The game is in an ambience state, an ambience act.” However, for League of Legends, in this moment of player limbo, the game is influenced by other operators of the game. The game continues without the player’s input—operator actions. I argue that this is similar to the metagame, where the operator actions of all players also affect the ever-changing state of the metagame.
Seemingly, the only way a match in League of Legends can assume an ambience act is with the death of every champion in the match; however, this is not the case as Galloway points out by stating how “despite its clock . . . things continue to change when caught in an ambience act, but has nothing changes that is of any importance. No stopwatch runs down. No scores are lost. If the passage of time means anything at all, then the game is not in an ambient state.” The machine actions continue in the state of real-time action, hence the real-time strategy (RTS) aspect of League of Legends, and the game will in all cases lead to the end of the match without any operator actions needed simply due to the mechanics of the game and how gamic-time is bound to real-time. This is the same with the metagame, whereby the only way the metagame can achieve an ambience act is if the entire player base ceases to play the game or perhaps needing to cease to play of all forms of games—ceasing to take action in all systems of rules.
Viewing through Galloway’s model of four gamic actions, this action might seem to be categorized as diegetic machine acts; within these acts, the game “is still under way, but no gameplay is actually happening at the moment.” However, Galloway seems to use notion of the ambient state to define the diegetic machine act, so the paradox to this argument, in terms of League of Legends, is that even though it may seem that the player is not performing any action while in the period of death of their character, they are in fact performing a diegetic operator act within the game, which Galloway defines as “action inside the imaginary world of gameplay,” whereas my concept of the death mechanic is an interruption, followed by a change in mental state of the player operating in the diegesis of the game. In League of Legends, the player cannot exist outside of the game environment, because the player is bound by the game environment and is bound to real-time; the act of death is an action within the environment. Consequently, the game will continue, and as Galloway describes diegetic machine acts: “The material aspects of the game environment reside here, as do actions of non-player characters. This moment is the moment of pure process. The machine is up and running—no more, no less.” The minions, or the non-player characters, will continue to fight their tug of war until one side ultimately achieves victory, while the other defeat.
The only way the match can achieve what Galloway denotes as an ambient state is with the death of the match since time and all other mechanisms of the game become meaningless. The reason why I say there is a paradox of gamic actions is due to how Galloway defines the “game over” moment—the victory or defeat screen in League of Legends. To digress, nondiegetic operator acts is one category I will not elaborate on, because of its irrelevance to my argument, along with its inability to exist in League of Legends due to the game operating as a real-time strategy game functioning on actual time, so the concept of a pause cannot exist; however, I will note that in professional League of Legends matches, pauses are implemented for the sake of referee and technical inspections. In addition, server software for online games can detect third-party software or tampered clients for cheating, so it is rare for players to accomplish such exploitations. What is interesting is the idea of exploitation and cheating, which I will delve later in my argument. From here, I would like to introduce Galloway’s fourth gamic action to help clarify my claim that the death of the match is the only ambient state achievable in the game. Galloway states that nondiegetic machine acts are “actions performed by the machine and integral to the entire experience of the game but not contained within a narrow conception of the world of gameplay.” So, as stated, the champion’s death is part of the world of gameplay in League of Legends.
Furthermore, in terms of the death mechanic, Galloway states that:
The most emblematic nondiegetic machine act is “game over,” the moment of gamic death. While somewhat determined by the performance of the operator, or the lack thereof, death acts are levied fundamentally by the game itself, in response to the input and over the contestation of the operator. A death act is the moment when the controller stops accepting the user’s gameplay and essentially turns off . . . This moment usually coincides with the death of the operator’s player character inside the game environment.
Even with the champion’s death, the player is still allowed to purchase items for the champion and move their camera to view the match unfolding. The champion is not the player’s character, it is, in fact, the summoner and the only way to have the summoner experience gamic death is through the end of the match. So, it may seem that ambient state is obtained in the victory or defeat screen, but through Galloway’s categorical models, the end of the match consequently falls in the realm of the nondiegetic machine act, hence, the victory or defeat screen is the true gamic death of the player. However, this would mean that diegetic machine acts and nondiegetic operator acts cannot function in a real-time strategy game set in a sphere of online play. Although, what if we returned to a genre of video games that existed since early video games to view how the death mechanic is maintained under Galloway’s descriptions of gamic actions. Again, I argue that mechanics serve as modes to provide connections between these games—be it a MOBA, an RPG, or any other genre—because mechanics are how these rules are presented and how we interact with these rules.
Let’s examine Dark Souls, which is categorized as a role-playing game (RPG), a genre of games characterized by an emphasize in player control over a singular character, or a party of characters, which is heavily reliant on a story and progression system built on levels, e.g., quests or missions, and even the simulated development of the player character(s) visualized by stats and levels. In these games, the death mechanic often drops the player back at a checkpoint determined by a save state or by the game’s level pacing—since the game can provide automatic save states between levels or within the level. Some RPG’s do not implement a penalty in a death act, though if they do, they come in a variety of forms, from corpse running to permadeath; of course, these death penalties are not specific to RPG’s. Nevertheless, Dark Souls is a game that uses the death mechanic through a narrative approach; similar to League of Legends, the death mechanic is part of the “imaginary world of gameplay.”
The player is introduced into a post-apocalyptic dark fantasy medieval world where undead roam in large numbers—an Age of Fire. This environment is ruled by deities, controlling the mindless undead. Though, unlike traditional zombie apocalyptic narratives, the player controls an undead themselves as a character—a chosen undead cursed to be repeatedly resurrected upon death. Two diegetic elements are involved in this game mechanic: First being the darksign, as a cursed symbol that is branded onto the player character at the start of the game that results in the return of the undead player character. The second element is the bonfire, the game’s version of checkpoints, that are scattered throughout the levels of the game; whichever bonfire the player decides to rest at is the location the game designates as the spawn point upon death. However, these elements, which, in a game design point of view, explains the game mechanic of death through diegetic operations of the machine—the diegesis of the game. I argue that these nondiegetic machine acts have been turned, to some extent, diegetic—though still nondiegetic machine acts—through how narrative exposition plays a part in describing game mechanics, for these mechanics have become notably conventional.
So, what makes death in Dark Souls less of a contrivance and so much more meaningful and unconventional is the simple matter of continuing in the same state after death; upon resurrection, the character does not regain any of the items consumed during the interval of time between the previous resurrection and the recent death—progress or the lack thereof stays the same. Additionally, corpse running is implemented into the game environment; the player character drops their collected souls—the game’s form of experience points—at the location of death, and the only way to retrieve them, is to return to the corpse of the character. These design features and mutations of the death mechanic could also lead to a new level of player immersion since the death act is not as distancing in terms of the diegetic as the traditional form of the mechanic. And in Dark Souls, upon death, the level environment returns to a state similar to the earlier state, but nevertheless changes; though, the player character continues to be, whereby the death mechanic is the only mechanic that alters the setting, a perpetual setting.
In the concluding events of Dark Souls, the entirety of the in-game environment restarts back at the beginning; this resetting of the diegetic world is narrativized as a perpetual cycle within the aforementioned “Age of Fire”; the player character can continue this cycle of unending renewal of the Age of Fire by sacrificing themselves onto the final bonfire or disrupt the established order and walk away. This harks back to the early close-system games, whereby upon completion, most games could only be replayed with the exact same system of rules; for Galloway, to achieve an ambience act, is to release the controller and walk away. As Galloway writes: “The machine is still on in an ambience act, but the operator is away. Gameplay recommences as soon as the operator returns with controller input. The ambience act is the machine’s act. The user is on hold, but the machine keeps on working.” However, with Dark Souls, it is a game that operates online and even the online mechanic is narrativized as part of the diegesis of the gamic environment; and similar to League of Legends, the game operates real-time in the online sphere, so it isn’t due to the genre of the game, it’s due to online play that causes nondiegetic operator actions and diegetic machine acts to be mostly irrelevant and impossible as well, from pausing to exploitation. Which is why gamic-time and real-time are one and the same through online play and multiplayer play. Though, I will recognize that there are cases where exploitation and cheating have been able to go undetected by the server systems of games. Server banning due to exploitation and cheating can be seen as members of society attempting to perform corruption on the system of rules or established laws in society.
The world of Dark Souls is in an uninterrupted and continuous state of death and rebirth, and never ceasing to be—the game is never to be finished. How does the death mechanic operate in a similar way between games? Comparable to League of Legends, the end of the game in Dark Souls, albeit a perpetual cycle, shares likeliness to the perpetual cycle of matches in League of Legends; with Dark Souls having its own form of metagame, where in RPG’s, a player is metagaming when they employ information and knowledge obtained from a previous session of play that should not be available to the player character, which results in different method of decision-making and prediction-making. And with the death of a League of Legends match brings the possibility of a new match to begin, but beyond the match and the game, the metagame continues to operate.
For the metagame of League of Legends, the case is similar too, because it’s impractical to consider the entirety of the player base in the game to not have a conscious process of the game and its other operators. The metagame is a system of predictions that formulates processes, or metarules, in the players that govern how the ruleset of League of Legends should be interacted with. The metagame, more than a system of thoughts and predictions, is a game within itself. It is an abstract game unbound by gamic-time but seemingly bound by actual time. Galloway’s model of four gamic actions seem to be only applicable to games with enclosed boundaries and rulesets; as discussed above, many contradictions, mostly due to Galloway’s descriptions, appear to occur when online play, and perhaps, along with multiplayer play, is introduced into the system of rules. Galloway’s description categorizes games that seem to be void of such online influences, along with transmedia, third-party, and developer interactions. This is why early video games functioned as closed-systems, with each game being a reflection of a singular institutional sphere within a disciplinary society; with established game mechanics, online interactivity, and the metagame, games have now become “metastable states” of open-systems in a “universal system of deformation.”
So, let’s touch back on the concept of the death of a match. If video game death is more than just the death of the character and is, in fact, the action where the player reattempts and by adjusting their actions to attain a different outcome. It can be seen as the point in which the player builds upon previous actions to advance further in the system of rules in the game. By that definition, and to restate, the end of each match in League of Legends is the conceptual death for the player. Whether the player achieves victory or defeat, it nevertheless marks a point of end in the game—a point of death. Following the match, the player can repeat the process in a different match with every component and variable, e.g. gold and items, in the match reset back to the initial state of equal grounding between all players. However, the player still has their past experiences interwoven in their current actions and these actions are also determined by the metagame, which also molded the player’s past experiences. But this cyclical process of play and gamic death forces the player to constantly adapt. Not only does the player have to adapt within the game due to other players making different decisions within the match, the player, in the macroscopic view of the game, has to also adapt to the external ruleset of the game due to the metagame.
Players in the ecosystem of League of Legends follow the ebb and flow of cyclical imbalance guided by the invisible hand of the community or by the developers’ hand, however, some players choose to act upon what is coined as “breaking the meta.” As mentioned before, these forms competitive online games often contain a myriad of choices that a player can employ in an attempt to go against the meta in their favor. To go about “breaking the meta” is to drastically select choices that are perceptibly unorthodox with the optimism of creating new options that may prove to be viable in the current state of the metagame. Players themselves can choose to alter the external rulesets but rarely make an impact individually. Similar to chess, new strategies are often left to the grandmasters to invent, rather than to the average player due to how many possible actions and counteractions already exist in the metagame of chess; this equilibrium in the metagame of chess is the result of the game operating as a closed system—the ruleset and design of chess is permanently static. League of Legends, on the other hand, is relatively new, with a system of rules that is extremely malleable through patches, which is why “breaking the meta” is, albeit rare, a worthy attempt by anyone in the community.
We can then theoretically use these concepts provided by League of Legends as a model to view how in our society we can attempt to shift perspectives by radical reformation and, I argue, this is brought about by the concept of the death mechanic. The death act, similar to any form of glitch in the game—being a part of the game’s ruleset—is a nondiegetic machine operation, however, in the scope of the metagame, nondiegetic machine operation, or the death act specifically would be a patch; the contradiction is that the death mechanic is a process by which the player is forced to repeat actions—learning and persuaded through this mechanic. Though, how does the meta in a video game, or the metagame, reset itself in a similar way to dying in the game? For the players of the metagame to die is for the ruleset to reset, and for the ruleset to reset is with the implementation of a patch. Therefore, patches are nondiegetic machine operations, not in the scope of the game, but in the scope of metagame—brought about by the developers. This is why in the scope of the metagame, the death mechanic can serve as a form of disruption in the way of thinking instead of a process of persuasion and contemplation. This is similar to how the gamic death is a disturbance in the narrative and diegetic. What social implications can this idea achieve? For social realism in games, Galloway restates a quote: “As Bruno Reichlin observed, realism requires ‘a more-or-less direct criticism to current society and morals.’” For a game to achieve social realism, it requires a diegesis that directly criticizes society. What is the diegesis or narrative of the metagame that criticizes society? In terms of procedural rhetoric, the structure provided by the metagame can teach us something about how the world works in a society of control.
“Breaking the meta” isn’t enough to cause such an effect, but it’s an attempt that may lead to a patch. If enough players attempt to sway the metagame into a direction that proves to challenge the ruleset, action by the developer might be stimulated. However, some metas in professional competitive games such as League of Legends and StarCraft have been drastically altered by the players themselves. In the 2006 StarCraft finals of GOMTV MSL Season 1, Kim “Bisu” Taek Yong single-handedly broke the meta. League of Legends and StarCraft are similar RTS games with many similar game mechanics, though League of Legends is categorized as a MOBA in the sub-genre of RTS’s; StarCraft’s sibling RTS from Blizzard Entertainment, Warcraft III, has often been credited as the first author to the MOBA genre. Nevertheless, Bisu challenged the dominant strategy and introduced the meta with an unexpected build order that ultimately transformed the professional scene—a build order now simply named as the “Bisu Build.” The similarities to the grandmasters of chess, revealing new viable strategies during tournament plays, can be an allegory for prominent figures promoting change in the system of rules or ways of thinking in our society. Perhaps figures like Copernicus pushing for radical shifts with the Ptolemaic model echoes this as well. Additionally, even glitches in the game would draw attention to the developer since it is a flaw in the ruleset that needs correction. Moreover, another interesting direction that could be taken is through the nondiegetic operator act of exploitation; for a short digression, the example can be seen back in 2008, where banks like the Lehman Brothers would give credit to anyone who wanted to purchase a house, which led to collapse of the housing market, causing stock prices to drop, ultimately leading to a banking and financial crisis; the United States government and European Union had to construct bailout packages and establish new regulations through legislative acts. As a side note, one of the most commonly attempted cheats in video games is the infinite resource exploit. Nowadays, with in-game monetary mechanics now bound to real world currencies, such exploitations could prove to be problematic—not only for the economy of the game but the economy of society as well. Allow me to draw upon a quote stated in select writings of Walter Benjamin: “Marx says that revolutions are the locomotives of world history. But the situation may be quite different. Perhaps revolutions are not the train ride, but the human race grabbing for the emergency brake.” I argue that the act of “breaking the meta” is similar to Benjamin’s concept of the emergency brake. It is an attempt of revolting against a certain social order or system of rules; it is to change a way of thinking—a paradigm shift. With radical shifts like the Copernican Revolution demanding a change in our society, patches are instruments that disrupt ways of thinking and forge new approaches to new systems of rules. As with the chosen undead in Dark Souls, to walk away from the final bonfire is to deny the perpetual cycle of the Age of Fire, it is to bring about an apocalyptic revolution against the deities of the game, and it is to avoid the impending disaster brought about by the Age of Fire. Perhaps it can be said that the death mechanic in the metagame can be an allegory for political reformation in society, whereby the patch implemented to change the ruleset is any legal or ideological act implemented by a governing or ruling system—the developer of the game or the progenitor of the ruleset.
We return to the question of what is beyond the metagame. In the Foucauldian scope as explained by Deleuze, each of institutional spheres overlap and deform between one another, along with having instantaneously accessible elements in these systems. People are perpetually in a state within and between all spheres—to be in “metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation.” Games too share these perpetual elements via their game mechanics. But how does playing as a chosen undead in Dark Souls continue even as the player enters the environment of League of Legends and takes the mantle of summoner; of course, the question is not specifically between these two games, but between any games. My answer is, I reiterate, by the game mechanics. Beyond what we think of the metagame and its system of metarules that govern the interaction of the system of rules in the game, are these core features of game mechanics. As Deleuze describes institutional crisis: “Control is short-term and of rapid rates of turnover, but also continuous and without limit, while discipline was of long duration, infinite and discontinuous.” Deleuze suggests that in this new age of open systems, academic systems, factory systems, prison systems, and so on, are all subjected to a perpetual setting where elements within these open systems can be accessed at any instance. Moreover, the text illustrates how “the family, the school, the army, the factory are no longer the distinct analogical spaces that converge towards an owner—state or private power—but coded figures—deformable and transformable.” In a society of control, the person never ceases to be a student, a soldier, or factory worker; even if the institution of education, military, and assembly have been dissolved, the act of learning, training, or working never ceases to be as well. In games, through game mechanics, in a similar way, we never cease to be mages, snipers, or warriors, because as we play, our concept of how a game is supposed to work is what is beyond the metagame of each game—metagame of all games. This overarching metagame influences our way of performing and thinking through control. We know how to operate our life mechanic, resource mechanic, turn mechanic, and death mechanic; we recognize these mechanics in the games we play. This is where procedural rhetoric comes in because you learn in these rule-based systems and you refine your mechanics—or achieve mastery of game mechanics through play. That is how these games’ rulesets relate to each other and it is through the metarules where we find what is beyond the metagame.
If we attempt to change how we play a video game, we are going against the established ruleset in a rule-based system. The mechanics of gameplay are what ties games with one another and we are taught how to operate between these games by familiarizing ourselves with game mechanics. Video games have expanded from isolated games involving their own systems of rules to an interwoven and deformed system of rules—functioning what is beyond the metagame. The death mechanic, in particular, forces us to repeated take action until we master the rulesets; to master the algorithm and rulesets of the game is to be obedient at following system of rules. Now with developers having access to change the rulesets of their games freely, patches are the designer’s tool of disruption. The death mechanic becomes more than a process of learning and persuasion; through online play and multiplayer play, it has transformed into a disruptive tool as well. The players of the metagame are also persuaded to repeat a process of contemplation, but within a new system of rules, unlike the death within a video game where the player of the game is simply attempting to master the same system of rules. Attempts of “breaking the meta,” exploitation, or for the system to fail entirely through glitches, demands for the execution of a patch. The death mechanic and patching are medium specific to video games—specifically online video games—because of how these spheres become malleable by the creator. A painter cannot alter their painting when exhibited; they express their own rhetoric that affects people. However, video games are bound to the players, their creators, and actual time, and there seems to exist procedural rhetoric in the realm of the metagame that makes arguments of how the world works in a society of control through its boundless interactivity between games. And with the implementation of the patch, the video game changes entirely with the death of the metagame, because the players must operate in a new system of rules. The death mechanic in a game is the disruption in the diegesis of the game, subsequently, the death mechanic in the metagame is the disruption in the diegesis of the metagame; therefore, the death mechanic of the metagame results in the death of how a player experiences and operates in the game.
- ^ Ian Bogost, Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 2-3.
- ^ Alexander R. Galloway, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 3.
- ^ Bogost, ix.
- ^ League of Legends (Riot Games, 2009)
- ^ StarCraft (Blizzard Entertainment, 1998)
- ^ Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos (Blizzard Entertainment, 2002
- ^ Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (Hidden Path Entertainment, 2012)
- ^ Dota 2 (Valve Corporation, 2013)
- ^ Meta- (μετά-) can mean “after” as well or be used as a preposition.
- ^ Also referred to as itemization, a build order is defined as the order in which a player obtains their items within a single match of League of Legends; additionally, build orders may incorporate multiple branches for players facing situational teams and strategies.
- ^ Comfort picks are champions that a certain player has enough experience with and understanding of.
- ^ There are other categorizations of picks as well: meta picks being champions that are deemed viable in the current metagame and counter picks being champions chosen to go against specific champions.
- ^ Multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA), the genre of games similar to League of Legends and Dota that are under the larger genre of real-time strategy (RTS) games that StarCraft and Warcraft are categorized as.
- ^ Gilles Deleuze, Postscript on the Societies of Control (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), 3.
- ^ Ibid., 3.
- ^ Ibid., 5.
- ^ Galloway, 10.
- ^ Ibid.
- ^ Ibid.
- ^ Ibid., 22.
- ^ Ibid., 12.
- ^ Ibid., 28.
- ^ Ibid.
- ^ Dark Souls (FromSoftware, 2011)
- ^ Corpse running is form of penalty where the player has torun back to the area where their character died in order to either regain their life or to retrieve items and resources lost in the process of death.
- ^ A very simple concept that maintains the idea that once your character dies, the game is over. However, there might also be a mechanic implement to help players from experiencing permadeath, e.g., a lives mechanic, whereby the character’s deaths are limited and determined by a numerical value amount of chances.
- ^ Galloway, 10.
- ^ Even though Dark Souls operates online, it’s simulated through single-player play, and to activate online play, where other players can introduce themselves into your gamic environment, like the other non-diegetic machine acts turned diegetic, an item that once consumed turns on online play—an item as a diegetic way to activate online play.
- ^ Galloway, 79.
- ^ Walter Benjamin, Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, 1938-1940, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), 402.
- ^ Deleuze, 6.
- ^ Ibid.
Benjamin, Walter. Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, 1938-1940, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.
Bogost, Ian. Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007.
Deleuze, Gilles. Postscript on the Societies of Control. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992.
Galloway, Alexander R. Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.