A bizarre and garish hunting arcade game is illustrative of our bizarre and garish system.
by Tyler Walicek
Recently, over a late-night drink in a generic and depopulated Seattle bar, I had a moment to myself to take in my surroundings. Beyond the pool table and the flirtatious cackling of a group of college kids sat a colonnade of arcade cabinets. One of the glowing marquees read Big Buck® HD WILD. Two plastic rifles in primary colors were cabled to the machine, the screen of which flashed garish text and icons superimposed over dull-eyed polygonal deer and elk. My attention was drawn to the onscreen demo as it replayed.
“You’ve played every site. Conquered every trek. And mastered every adventure. Until now,” intoned the voiceover in the cadence of a monster-truck rally ad. All manner of ungulates toppled bloodlessly under a withering barrage of gunfire. At first, the targets that sprang into view and were dispatched via shotgun were the traditional deer, bison, lions, etc., but then, the screen showed something stranger: the unseen hunter — the implicit ‘you’ — blasted away at cockroaches skittering around a kitchen, eels that slithered in and out of coral caves, and, bafflingly, bouncing garden gnomes. I was fascinated by what it might mean that hunting games were now encroaching into such weird territories. Part of this demo is, I found, available on YouTube.
In echoes of Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder, the demo advertises that the player can now travel back in time to hunt “the legendary Irish elk,” along with all kinds of other clunkily animated extinct megafauna and fantastical vermin. A cartoonish science-project volcano erupts on the horizon as cavemen — looking like Wallace and Gromit clay figures — panic and wave their arms around haplessly. A zombie mode, “Doe of the Dead” (not “Fawn of the Dead”?) further expands the range of targets into the fictional,¹ as does the introduction of a murderous-looking armored deer, “Buckzilla,” which can be seen in trailers for other game expansions. (Buckzilla’s formidability probably represents an attempt to make the hunter-prey contest feel a little less one-sided). Duck Dynasty’s hirsute, camo-clad clan beckons you to join them on the hunt. Green-screen video of a gyrating woman in a scanty, Flintstone-style caveman outfit is pasted over interstitial titles like a cardboard cutout. The over-the-top boorishness on display here is not entirely unintentional, I think, but it is entirely hilarious, and telling.
The whole demo is a bizarre mosaic of caricature, (ostensible) realism, and introjected reality. I want to examine how its layers of representation draw in, stage, and systematize different logics of consumption while obscuring their underlying assumptions.
While first-person shooter games the world over are orgies of repetitious slaughter, Big Buck HD WILD sutures together fields so disparate (the past, imagined or real, the simulated natural, the fictional, our mediated real) that the resulting offal is utterly incoherent. Part of its fundamental crassness is that it dispenses with the pretext of narrative context that most shooting games at least gesture at: here you are emptying clips into the faces of faceless foreigners in the service of something, if only American hegemony. Big Buck HD WILD is really just a carnival game — shooting for shooting’s sake, with the only context being a competition with the game itself, or sometimes other players, for a narrow set of prizes. To its credit, I guess, it doesn’t want to be anything more. But modern simulation technology enables video games to telegraph subtexts the scope of which outstrips their creators’ ambitions. So despite its internal symbolic inconsistencies, the way it slots into our capitalist Anthropocene is revealing.
“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing.” — Genesis 1:28
The Bible, helpfully for corporations, includes this exculpatory carte blanche to wage war against the environment. We’ve taken few Old Testament directives to heart as thoroughly as this one. After the Earth has been depleted by our own hubris, we’re left to engineer new killing fields to continue fulfilling orders from the big game hunter upstairs. Big Buck’s simulation extends modern man’s sphere of influence so that we can kill even the unkillable — unkillable because the animals, like the Irish elk, are long extinct (due in no small part to Neolithic hunting), or because, as zombies, they were already dead — killed twice, one might imagine, by the same trigger finger — or because, as garden gnomes, they were never alive. Allowing players to participate in the colonialist Teddy Roosevelt-style reaping of big African and North American game has proven insufficient. We desire so much killing that new markets need to be opened up, new territories colonized — even the past. Big Buck HD WILD makes natural resources, in simulacrum, appear infinitely replicable and thus infinitely killable. This slapped-together arcade game manages to reify infinite-growth market logic, Biblical imperatives, and whatever primal instincts still stir within us with one haphazard shotgun blast of signifiers.
The game depicts no blood and neglects to present any rotting carcasses, or indeed any of the literally visceral experience of actually harvesting the animals, whether for resources or for trophies. Unsurprisingly, Big Buck HD doesn’t show any damage to its virtual ecosystems from overhunting. A simulated environment is the ultimate renewable resource; it can be returned to its starting condition without cost.² The game’s pair of plastic shotguns are recoil-less, odorless, utterly harmless. To further wall off the experience from consequences, they have neon green and orange caps on both barrel and stock to make it clear to any panicky cops that these are toys. (Not that that’s stopped the police from whipping out their very real guns in these kinds of encounters before).
Insulated from all unpleasantness in this way, Big Buck HD WILD exists as an adumbrated, antiseptic simulacrum. This is of a kind, if not a degree, with the obscurantism that’s bound up in our other interfaces with the market — plastic-wrapped meat disassociated from the grotesqueries of its origin and production, consumer electronics whose basic materials were first mined by child slaves far back in the supply chain, or elected politicians and policies that bury moral and economic ramifications beneath sloganeering and rallying cries. With its horrifying consequences sufficiently papered over, with the well of discourse sufficiently poisoned with distractions, convolutions, and bad-faith arguments, capitalism can get down to business.
Big Buck HD WILD, intriguingly, has a built-in commodity system that further entangles it with ideological and market mechanisms. “Buck Points” (not “Bucks”?) can be won in-game or via online tournaments. This scrip can then be exchanged for merchandise online at the Big Buck General Store. It’s mostly t-shirts with logos and pun slogans, the target demographic of which is readily apparent (“Bros Before Does,” “I Like Big Bucks And I Cannot Lie”). Play stupid games, win very, very stupid prizes.
The Duck Dynasty tie-in (“Duck Huntin’ with the Robertsons!”) further swirls together the currency of worlds natural, virtual, and capital. Safe to assume that they received a licensing fee for the use of their image and brand. (Lest we forget, this is what the Robertsons looked like before they began cosplaying as rural stereotypes to capitalize on the predilections of their company’s demographic. Racism wears polo shirts.)
Plenty of games now include marketplaces for items that cost real-world currency. Game companies have caught on to the profitability of the model, and everything from A-list first-person shooters to trifling smartphone app playthings have added game enhancements that can be had for a fee. The patent absurdity of paying for an in-game magic sword or starfighter or whatever — basically, things that don’t exist — has been well-documented. But Big Buck HD introduces a kind of alchemy that’s distinct from other marketplaces for virtual items. The Buck Points system allows for the direct transubstantiation of virtual flesh into tangible commodities. Killing infinitely regenerated creatures in-game translates to finite physical products: hats, shirts, useless crap. (You can’t play all day and rack up free merchandise, of course. There’s the fee to play online, and the quarters you feed into the machine. The company is still maximizing profit extraction. But I think it’s this particular model — the more or less direct pipeline between trigger pull and merchandise — that’s the most intriguing).
Big Buck HD WILD, through a combination of its infinitely regenerable killing fields, confounding layers of representation and simulacra, and connection to the real realm of the commodity, thus implicitly champions the logic of resource exploitation and capitalist production. In a critique of virtual reality systems like Pokémon Go and SixthSense, Slavoj Zizek writes,
“The magic effect of [AR platforms] does not simply represent a radical break with everyday experience; rather, it openly stages what was always the case. That is to say: In our everyday experience of reality, the “big Other” — the dense symbolic texture of knowledge, expectations, prejudices, and so on — continuously fills in the gaps in our perception.”
The Technicolor delights of the arcade cabinet, as a component of capitalism’s spectacle and superstructure, conjure an artificial world wherein such gaps are pre-filled. “Ideology is the practice of augmenting reality,” says Zizek — and the practice of augmenting (or simulating and gamifying) reality necessarily inscribes it with ideology. Big Buck HD WILD goads the player to take part and take pleasure in the production (by killing) of the raw material of a “dead” animal. It then skips over the bloody mess and the laborious process of production, instantaneously manifesting a fully-formed article of clothing. Put this way, it sounds totally absurd. But we’ve tacitly accepted that the same kind of magic occurs every day when we neglect to interrogate the origins of the products on our shelves, or, by extension, the real nature of the ideological structures that justify them.³
“So great will be the artistic productions that machines will produce, compliantly bending to our wills, that we will not even be able to fix it in memory; machines will remember for us… Men without memories will be created; men in a continual violent ecstasy, forever starting at ground zero; a “critical ignorance” will come into being with extensive roots in the long prehistory of savage man, the magus of the caves.”
— Giuseppe Pinot-Gallizio
Discourse on Industrial Painting and a Unitary Applicable Art
Internationale Situationniste #3 (December 1959)
¹The modern zombie fascination, as has been noted elsewhere, is distressing phenomenon borne of a confluence of modern fears and desires: disease, the unwashed hordes, xenophobia and racism, societal breakdown, and the barely concealed yearning for civilizational-level violence against the Other. For a killing game, they’re perfect: an infinitely replicable target that can be dispatched without moral compunction.
²At least, without a cost in-game. If we really want to dig deep here, we could consider the externalities, however small, of this game’s existence: the extra carbon entering the atmosphere from the power plant that serves it electricity, whatever human cost may have been incurred in mining, refining, assembling, and shipping its components, the surplus value extracted by industries and corporations at all points along the supply chain, the potential for toxic e-waste after it’s discarded — even the time expended by the players, or the ineffable consequences of the game’s ideological reinforcement in their heads. The tiniest sliver of our world contains, like a fractal or hologram, information about and relations to a vast degree of other facets. We can burrow as deep as we’d like into this. No ethical consumption under capitalism, etc.
³Shows like How It’s Made derive their appeal from lifting the veil on these processes. But even that reveal is deceptive. The show is circumscribed techno-fetishism, eliding the labor of the workers that really made commodities possible, whether they build products directly or build the machines that build those products. We see, on occasion, the decontextualized, hands or arms of the humans involved in the production process. But the world is built by humans in a collaborative (and viciously exploitative) mesh, not by inert machines. No one knows how to make a pencil. None other than Milton Friedman loved to use this narrative as an illustration of the wonders of free market. He conveniently neglected to mention the role of profiteering, abuse, and injustice.