Ludicidal Tendencies: Dying on Purpose in Videogames

David R. Howard
8 min readDec 22, 2022

[Content Warning: Discussion of death and suicide in the context of videogames]

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Screenshot from Total Distortion. Text reads: YOU ARE DEAD!

While videogame violence has been endlessly debated in the media, online and within academia, writing on how death actually operates in videogames is comparatively scarce. In what does exist the paradoxical “everywhere and nowhere” nature of death in videogames is often foregrounded. My project here then is to take on a subset of this under-discussed yet omnipresent facet of game design, namely the act of killing one’s avatar on purpose. I identify four varieties of this “ludicide”: preprogrammed, strategic, subversive and performative. My thinking is informed by Amanda Phillips’ notion of “mechropolitics”, “a virtual, often whimsical, politics of death and dying with complicated resonances in the real world”, as well as the various intersections of Indigenous studies, film studies, queer studies and game studies (138).

PREPROGRAMMED LUDICIDE

Many videogames conclude with the protagonist being killed either within a cutscene or during gameplay, however there are also examples of games where the goal is for the player to kill themselves–such as Jesse Venbrux’s Karoshi series–or where ludicide is done to meet certain criteria, as in the Hell run within Spelunky. These deaths are thus “preprogrammed” not in the sense that other deaths are not programmed, but that they are part of accomplishing a designed objective within the given game. A subcategory of the preprogrammed ludicide is the “Press X to Die” trope, where the player is explicitly given the option to kill themselves to humourous effect. While this usually impedes the player rather than aiding them, both designer and player are effectively in on the joke and thus aligned. In their articulation of the queer art of failing at videogames, Bo Ruberg describes players as either failing towards or against a game system, and preprogrammed ludicides account for the “towards” (146).

STRATEGIC LUDICIDE

Ludicide can also be done strategically, as is the case with “death warps” in speedrunning practice, discussed by myself in a previous essay in relation to Banjo-Kazooie and by James Newman in relation to The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, who calls these and other similar speedrunner techniques “hidden affordances” (22). An example of strategic ludicide in a multiplayer context comes from my childhood experiences with TimeSplitters 2. Within the Training Ground map players on opposing teams spawn within bases at opposite sides of a V-shaped canyon. My friend and I playing on the same team would use the proximity mine weapon on each other’s avatars, effectively becoming suicide bombers, rushing into the enemy base and triggering the mines remotely (although we usually played with friendly fire off, making the act not technically a ludicide but strangely all the more comedic). In a forum post fittingly entitled “Dying on purpose in video games”, user StaceyPowers outlines several instances of strategic ludicide and their motivations behind them, including “cost effective resource management”, not wanting to “lose a follower or a pet” and exploring “an underworld/afterlife zone” in a MUD.

SUBVERSIVE LUDICIDE

I have previously written about Mary Flanagan’s concept of “unplaying” in relation to Death Parks, an emergent gameplay practice in RollerCoaster Tycoon and its sequel. I unite this and other parallel concepts such as Alison Gazzard’s “aberrant play” and Ruberg’s “queer play” under the umbrella of “subversive play”. This concept is similar to yet distinct from Espen Aarseth’s “transgressive player”, who seeks to “regain control” from the “tyranny” of the videogame (132–133). By contrast Theresa Jean Tanenbaum argues that game-makers in fact anticipate transgressive play and thus “design games with either Lockdown or Sandbox as the primary poetics” (4). Subversive play works not against but within the constraints of a given game to find novel modes of interaction and their resultant affective pleasures.

In Gameworlds: Virtual Media and Children’s Everyday Play Seth Giddings writes about his son Jo’s subversive play of LEGO Racers 2:

“Jo would begin with the car/avatar at the race start, then deliberately veer it off the track to pursue the shortest route into the sea and hence into momentary death. The car/avatar would then reappear instantly[…]A new variation emerged. Jo found that driving the car slowly and carefully into the sea allowed a more nuanced experience of drowning than that offered by plunging off a cliff. The car could be directed into the water and gently nudged deeper, until, just before its uppermost point (usually the top of the driver’s head) was submerged, it ‘drowned’. The motive of this new game, then, was the identification of, and the edging around, the precise point at which the game switched between life and death.” (28)

Here I am reminded of my own recounting of my childhood experience playing the Cloud Cuckooland level of Banjo-Tooie as well as Ruberg’s account of jumping off the stage post-victory in Soul Calibur IV (147). Although Jo’s, Bo’s and my motivations were different, they all constitute a subversive exploration of the respective games’ possibility spaces. In her own study of another LEGO game, Gazzard identifies that subversive play “is motivated by boredom within the rules of the single game syntagm, and fuelled by a response to the serendipitous discovery of ‘bugs’ that exist within the system.” (6) Other motivations for ludicide in multiplayer contexts are more interpersonal: in the aforementioned forum thread user killamch89 describes killing themselves “in online games to piss off my team especially if they are a bunch of douches”. The interplay of humour, boredom, sense of discovery and social setting drives players to subversive ludicide, as Phillips writes “[t]he experimental nature of play also gives way to[…]a release of the digital body to the procedural forces that govern it without regard for personal preservation.” (140)

PERFORMATIVE LUDICIDE

Much has been made of the subversive quality of going left rather than right in a side-scrolling videogame (see Janik; Clapper 452). However it was a troubling instance of this phenomenon in a YouTube walkthrough which I came across while researching Indigenous videogames that prompted me to write this piece in the first place. Upper One Games’ Never Alone (Kisima Inŋitchuŋa) begins with the protagonist Nuna, a young Iñupiaq girl, lost in a blizzard. She is then chased by a polar bear in a sequence that for me echoes a memorable level in Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back, a series rife with problematic depictions of Indigenous Peoples. Of course, polar bears are native Arctic wildlife and the mere presence of one does not necessarily put Never Alone in a colonial tradition of platformers, rather it “(re)codes” the Crash-style chase sequence in a manner consistent with the lived experience of the Iñupiat (Brown).

Setting that aside, the walkthrough which I watched began in typical fashion: the player as Nuna ran to the right as instructed and jumped once. However, they then abruptly stopped, turned around and waited for the polar bear to advance and attack Nuna, resulting in her death. While the player’s identity cannot be ascertained through the voiceless walkthrough alone, the presumption is that they are a non-Indigenous player performing for a non-Indigenous audience. The polar bear ludicide then becomes not instructive of what not to do, but demonstrative of what can be done within the parameters of the game.

It is here that the racial dimension of mechropolitics is thrown into stark relief. Though not done with prejudice, the ludicide in practice is an assertion of dominance over the virtual Indigenous body. If typical gameplay has the non-Indigenous player “perform allyship” as Melanie Braith argues, then this performance is indicative of a set of gamer/settler privileges that allows the player to move towards danger and not fear the consequences, akin to how real-world non-Indigenous activists may intentionally get arrested by police to promote media coverage of their cause (see Flowers 35–36).

Never Alone becomes an example of what Michelle H. Raheja calls the “virtual reservation” (virtual in the philosophical sense and not in the sense that it is computer-mediated, although here both apply), something that “sequester[s] Native Americans (as visual and imagined representations) but also provide[s] Indigenous people with an organizing principle that allows communities and individuals to coalesce around commonly held as well as contested ideas and objectives.” (44) While Never Alone has been rightly lauded for its careful depiction of Iñupiat cultural and storytelling traditions, I also detect a placatory function directed at a wider non-Indigenous audience that Raheja associates with the early history of American cinema through her concept of “redfacing”, the “ideological and cultural work” enacted by Indigenous Peoples on-screen (11). A ludic translation of this concept, call it “redinterfacing”, would only be further complicated and perhaps self-defeated by the potential discrepancy between the non-Indigenous player and Indigenous avatar, as we see in the walkthrough ludicide.

While I have been critical of the actions of this particular let’s player, performative ludicides in general–for example the myriad videos of players jumping off buildings in the Grand Theft Auto games–demonstrate the changing landscape around videogames’ forum of reception that includes redistribution on Internet channels such as YouTube and Twitch.

CONCLUSION

As I have demonstrated, the act of ludicide in a videogame resonates differently depending on the player motivations behind it. Preprogrammed ludicides are expected while strategic ludicide is an unexpected exploitation of hidden affordances. Subversive ludicide gives us a window into alternate mechropolitical configurations of possibility space while performative ludicide implicates both the player and an assumed second party viewer, raising questions over bodily autonomy in virtual spaces and the deathly images produced therein.

CITATIONS

Aarseth, Espen. “I fought the law: Transgressive play and the implied player.” From literature to cultural literacy. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2014. 180–188.

Brown, Michelle Lee. “Never alone: (Re)coding the comic holotrope of survivance.” Transmotion 3.1 (2017): 22–22.

Clapper, Jordan. “Ancestors in the Machine: Indigenous Futurity and Indigenizing Games.” Alternative Historiographies of the Digital Humanities, edited by Dorothy Kim and Adeline Koh, 2021, pp. 427–472.

Flowers, Rachel. “Refusal to forgive: Indigenous women’s love and rage.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 4.2 (2015).

Gazzard, Alison. “Grand Theft algorithm: purposeful play, appropriated play and aberrant players.” Proceedings of the 12th international conference on Entertainment and media in the ubiquitous era. 2008.

Giddings, Seth. Gameworlds: Virtual media and children’s everyday play. Bloomsbury Academic, 2014.

Janik, Justyna. “Negotiating textures of digital play: Gameplay and the production of space.” Game Studies 20.4 (2020).

Newman, James. “Wrong Warping, Sequence Breaking, and Running through Code: Systemic Contiguity and Narrative Architecture in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time Any% Speedrun.” Journal of the Japanese Association for Digital Humanities 4.1 (2019): 7–36.

Phillips, Amanda. “Shooting to kill: Headshots, twitch reflexes, and the mechropolitics of video games.” Games and Culture 13.2 (2018): 136–152.

Raheja, Michelle H. Reservation reelism: Redfacing, visual sovereignty, and representations of Native Americans in film. U of Nebraska Press, 2011.

Ruberg, Bo. Video games have always been queer. NYU Press, 2019. Kindle ed.

Tanenbaum, Theresa Jean. “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Gamer: Reframing Subversive Play in Story-Based Games.” DiGRA Conference. 2013.

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