On Video Game Death and the Possibility of “Extra Life”

Greg Esplin (bio)

1. In uttering the words “I’m dead” a speaker cannot be accurately describing the current state of his own existence: to speak anything at all, of course, requires one to be alive. Analyzed in this way, the statement shows itself to be self-referentially inconsistent, because the very fact that the speaker makes this claim demonstrates that he cannot be as he says.

2. What, then, are we to make of this utterance when it is spoken within the context of video game playing? In the essay that follows, I address the complexities of this statement, exploring how it centers a player at the heart of a fundamental ontological issue regarding the question of virtual reality: what is the relationship between the physical, non-simulated reality and our digitally-mediated perception of it?

3. The straightforward solution to this paradoxical use of language, in which a player describes his current state as non-existent, lies in the recognition that the universe to which such words refer, when spoken in the context of one’s status within a video game does not, in any fundamental sense, exist. The imaginary realm of the video game, one could argue, does not correspond to the external, physical world. The universe of the game, such a line of thought might progress, is by definition an artificial, conceptual space, its parameters being defined by a set of certain rules that do not necessarily correspond to the nature of the world existing outside of the imaginary game-world. Such an ontological orientation governs not merely the way in which players interact within computer-rendered virtual realities operating in video games, but even more fundamentally it lies at the core of the very notion of any game. In chess, for example, if my Rook is captured by my opponent, it would not be appropriate for him to take my physical body captive, bind me in my chair, and hold me against my will: instead, his move only functions to circumscribe my future possibilities of play within that particular match as I no longer have that particular piece at my disposal. Similarly, my success or failure in a game of Monopoly does not alter my actual financial situation when I leave the parlor: I cannot, of course, find a banker in the real world who would accept my deed for “Park Place” as collateral.

4. We cannot, therefore, simply assume that a seamless congruence exists between the everyday world and the imaginary realm of the game. Yet, to suppose that the simulation world of the video game has no influence on the nature of the ‘real’ world, that the two are entirely distinct binaries, is also problematic. While simulation, by definition, has no inherent referential correspondence, at least in the ontological sense, with the external, “real” world, our experience of the digitally modeled realm may well shape how we interpret the non-simulated world.

5. In his first Critique, Kant inverts the binary originating from ancient Greek philosophy that emphasizes the superiority of a thing’s “essence” rather than its mere “appearance”: his “Copernican Revolution” radically disallows the possibility of any knowledge regarding the nature of the noumenal world, the world-in-itself. Instead, Kant insists, the only realm that we can have epistemic access to is the phenomenal world, that is, the universe as it is experienced through the conceptual schema of human perception. Disallowing the capacity of knowledge of things-in-themselves, Kant effectively focuses all speculative thought on the world of perception. If we apply this orientation to our investigation into the ontological status of virtual realities, our attention would shift from the question of a referential relationship between simulation and the external world to the phenomenological aspect of playing such video games. Put another way, simulation merely adds another intermediary, an additional layer of epistemic refraction, through which we are removed from the world-in-itself. An essential aspect of video game play, though, remains problematic to the Kantian metaphysics: how time can be rendered reversible within simulation. Before exploring how this element complicates matters, however, I first want to contextualize my suggestion against the existing intellectual currents surrounding this debate.

6. Closer analysis of the phenomenology of digital simulation is timely, I believe, given the overwhelming influence of Jean Baudrillard’s understanding of simulation, driven as it is by a mourning the loss of the ‘real,’ by a longing for a past epoch in which representation operated in a more straightforwardly referential manner. To oppose this Baudrillard-sort critique that characterize contemporary life as somehow ontologically hollow, a more thorough engagement with the notion of reality and its opposite is called for. Let us first, though, examine a characteristic passage from Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation with the aim of discerning what it is that he finds so problematic about simulation:

The era of simulation is inaugurated by a liquidation of all referentials—worse: withtheir artificial resurrection in the systems of signs, a material more malleable than meaning, in that it lends itself to all systems of equivalences, to all binary oppositions, to all combinatory algebra. It is no longer a question of imitation nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real, that is to say of an operation of deterring every real process via its operational double, a programmatic, metastable, perfectly descriptive machine that offers all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissititudes. Never again will the real have the chance to produce itself—such is the vital function of the model in a system of death, or rather of anticipated resurrections, that no longer even gives the event of death a chance (p. 2).

7. The primary objection I am interested in raising within the context of this paper lies in questioning Baudrillard’s understanding of the relationship between simulation and death, playing as it does such a central role in his analysis of the larger ideological schema he diagnoses as central to the contemporary iteration of capitalism. Against Baudrillard’s argument that the simulation of death stands in rivalry with an authentic connection to human life, I want to explore the possibility that simulated experience, enabled by advances in computer modeling, complicates our relationship with death in a manner that requires more careful attention, its implications ultimately requiring more nuanced articulations.

8. That death can feature so prominently in video games—from Pacman to contemporary action-adventure titles such as Halo and Half-Life—speaks to the inherently simulated nature of dying within a video game. Although the possibility of death shadows our existence, we cannot properly experience the state as such: by definition, once we are in fact dead, we would not possess any faculties capable of perceiving it. In his foundational work Being and Time, Martin Heidegger explores how human beings live in an odd state of anticipation of their own death, Being (Da-sein) providing the foundation for his understanding of human existence as a sort of “being-towards-death,” in which the mortal exists suspended over the abyss of the "not-yet" state of future death. Essential for Heidegger’s metaphysical orientation is the fact that each person’s death is unique, insofar as there remains no possibility for the substitution of one for another.

Heidegger argues that this authenticity between the mortal and his death is guaranteed by the unbridgeable gap isolating each human being at the point of thecollapse of one’s self into the anonymous state of Being (Da-sein) at the moment of one’s dying. While explaining that representation is able to convey some of the complex circumstances surrounding another’s relationship with death, Heidegger explains that “this possibility of representation gets completely stranded when it is a matter of representing the possibility of being that constitutes the coming-to-an-end of Da-sein and gives it its totality as such. No one can take the other’s dying away from him…Every Da-sein must itself actually take dying upon itself” (p. 223).

9. For Heidegger, then, the authenticity of each person’s existence is a function of an individual’s unique standing with regard to death. Because there is no substitution possible, the individual connects to his existence by the fact that it must be only hethat dies. Baudrillard’s anxieties about simulation and its implications for representing death could be understood largely as an extension of Heidegger’s sense of the non-exchangeability of dying. Heidegger’s philosophical project is not invalidated by the existence of digital simulation, but complicated in a manner that encourages us to revisit the assumptions upon which it is rooted.

10. The impossibility of experiencing death cannot be surmounted by more sophisticated computer modeling, as the phenomenon is by definition the state in which no experiential perception will ever be possible—the lacunae between its representation and the lived experience cannot be bridged. Simulation can, however, allow other humans to experience, by way of complex modeling, the circumstances leading up to the physical death of another. We could, for example, program the sort of computer simulator used to train industrial truck drivers for the variables in which a particular fatal accident occurred: the speed and location of the other vehicles, the relative slipperiness of the road surface, the mechanical condition of automotive components, and so forth. Setting up the simulator to begin at a particular temporal position, we can, assuming our modeling is accurate, experience a fairly accurate simulation of the sequence of events that lead another to his death.

11. The heuristic potential of simulation is of course what makes such computer modeling systems particularly attractive to the military. Tim Lenoir (2002) has recently demonstrated the close ties among the Department of Defense, research universities, and private contractors that lead to the emergence of 3-D computer modeling and its corresponding interactive spaces, technology that would later find expression in computer games, as something of commercial spin-off from its intended military use. Digitally modeled interactive environments allow pilots, for instance, to encounter—and learn from—experiences that, if real, could well result in physical death.

12. In the artificially created digital realm of video games, one generally finds a different orientation toward the threat of death than is usually evident outside of the modeled space. In general a more daring attitude to risk is adopted, because the game by virtue of its modeled nature does not inherently impose lasting consequences that carry over into ordinary life. I want to explore the way this gaming orientation operates by way of examining the historical influences shaping the parameters of the video game.

13. In traditional video game design, the player is allotted a finite number of “lives” that one can utilize in the endeavor to pass each level and move to the next. Once the player has exhausted all his remaining lives, then the game is over. The paradigmatic example here could be Super Mario Bros. (1985), the flagship game of the Nintendo Entertainment System that was first sold in the same year. The player was to guide Mario through a series of levels, each of which was inhabited by enemies capable of killing him. In the final stage, one could rescue Princess Toadstool from captivity in Bowser’s castle and “win” the game. If the player died, he could try the level again as long as he had “lives” to spare. While the player could add to his reserve of “extra lives” by accumulating “1-up’s” (“extra lives” that were usually found in the form of mushrooms), the player could only advance through the game as long as he had not exhausted all of Mario’s supply of lives.

14. This “finite lives” model of video game design continued in popularity throughout the 1980’s. Two PC games released by id Software in the early 1990’s, however, drastically altered video game conventions: with Wolfenstein 3D (1992) and Doom (1993), not only did the First Person Shooter (FPS) become the preferred manner of visual presentation, in which the player “sees” in his monitor what the game character could be imagined to perceive, but in addition the “quick save” function allowed the user to save his particular temporal and spatial location within the game. If one were to then die, one could reload the last saved position and try again. In essence, the player could now replay without limit, functioning through a sort of digital reincarnation that insures that one could continually replay the game from the saved location until one had progressed past segments of the game that were particularly challenging, after which one would typically save one’s progress again, providing yet another subsequent entry point from which play could commence when death befalls the player again.

15. The possibility of saving one's game allowed one to more freely experiment with one's strategy, developing and refining techniques without concern for one's progress being lost by running out of extra lives. When the player was limited to only a finite number “lives” (often three) the imperative of avoiding game death demanded that one be immensely cautious in one's play, so as to preserve one's limited number of opportunities to successfully progress through the game’s advancing stages. When game design shifted in favor of saved progress, either by way of a predetermined checkpoint system of discrete levels or an on-demand save function that could store any possible point in the game’s spatiotemporal location, players were encouraged to adopt new orientations toward game playing that were more audacious and experimental.

The risky approach engendered by the ability to infinitely repeat from a saved position offers a radically different orientation to experiential reality, insofar as death no longer exists only as a limit point past which no one can live through. Regardless of how many times one dies, such an approach allows one to try again. Freed from the anxiety of having to start at the game's beginning, the player, fully assured that he can subsequently embark on innumerable future attempts by simply looping back to the place safely stored in the computer memory, playing with an attitude of anarchic disregard for the finality of a potential "game over."

16. As I have attempted to established, this element of repetition, a principle central to the design of contemporary video games, engenders in the gamer an attitude of trial-and-error unlike the approach to risk demanded by the non-simulated world. Christopher Douglas, in an essay where he inventively analyzes this aspect of video games with reference to Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus, pays particular attention to how the realm of the video game is structured by a super-human orientation to events: “This is the experience structured into the gaming process—the multiple tries at the same space-time moment. Like Superman after Lois Lane dies, we can in a sense turn back the clock and replay the challenge, to a better end” (sec. 8).

17. Douglass is right to stress how fundamentally different the experience of time is within realm of the video game and in ordinary human life. Drawing on this recognition, we can contrast the video game with Attic tragedy, paying attention to how they employ differing sorts of conceptions of the limiting forces shaping experience. If we were to think of dramatic tragedy as a form that, at least in part, emphasizes the limitations of the human being—his inability to change the past often coupled with the recognition that it was his own actions that brought about his downfall as with Oedipus—then the video game would be its antithesis, stressing above all else the repeatability of experience.

18. Here, we can find an instructive connection by way of recalling the distinction that W.H. Auden makes between ancient Greek tragedy and those belonging to the Christian era: “Greek tragedy is the tragedy of necessity; i.e. the feelings aroused in the spectator is ‘What a pity it had to be this way’; Christian tragedy is the tragedy of possibility, ‘What a pity it was this way when it might have been otherwise’” (p. 258). In other words, while the Greek hero finds glory in his affirmation of the fact that the circumstances of his downfall could not have been otherwise, the Christian hero operates in a universe in which free will allows him to exert his influence and change the contours of his world.

One could easily reformulate Auden’s schema to differentiate not between Greek and Christian tragedy, but more fundamentally between tragedy and its absence: tragedy as a narrative that accepts the inescapable force of necessity, of fate, while its contrast would lack this quality. We needn’t, then, accept the theological underpinnings of Auden’s viewpoint to employ his recognition of the importance of fate to ancient tragedy to recognize a contrasting logic functioning in the imaginary worlds of contemporary video games. The orientation toward “possibility” Auden ascribes to Christian model is consistent with the gaming attitude I have explored here: one of supreme playfulness, insofar as the contingent nature of events is always emphasized against the intractable forces of necessity.

19. My analysis of the repetition involved in video game play has been grounded primarily on the single-player mode of action/adventure games, in which the human competes against the “computer,” that is, the player must contend with enemies, or “bots,” whose actions are guided by the routines written by the game’s programmers. I have left out the other, perhaps even more popular manner in which one can typically play a FPS: the online, multiplayer mode, in which the player battles with other human players who have connected remotely to the same internet server. While some games contain both a single player and a multiplayer “deathmatch” component, as is the case with the latest releases of the Doom and Half-Life series, games designed only for the multiplayer mode have emerged in recent years: Joint Operations, which can host up to one-hundred-and-fifty players in each particular game, and the Battlefield series, which has a capacity for sixty-four.

Because the actions of human-, rather than computer-, controlled adversaries cannot be easily predicated based on one’s previous experience within the game, each encounter demands a unique approach, responding to the particularities of the given situation. In this sort of game, one does not progress through levels to conquer a particular “boss” or to accomplish a specific end such as “saving the princess”; rather, the player only competes against the others to score the most points in that round. Thus, we encounter repeatability in a different sense than examined earlier: the game can always be played again, as one can never definitively “beat” such a multiplayer game, just as chess players can only win particular matches, but cannot ever play a match to “beat” chess and surmount the game itself, for the game is nothing but the rules that govern its play.

20. I am, however, beginning to stray from my intended focus on digital simulation and its experiential implications. Thus, I shall end my series of moves here, giving any willing opponents a turn to play.


Auden, W.H. (2002). The Christian Tragic Hero. In Edward Mendelson (Ed.) The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Volume II 1939-1948 (pp. 258-261). Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Baudrillard, Jean. (1995). Simulacra and Simulation (Sheila Faria Glaser, trans.). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Douglas, Christopher. (2002). "You Have Unleashed a Horde of Barbarians!": Fighting Indians, Playing Games, Forming Disciplines. Postmodern Culture 13. (online)

Heidegger, Martin. (1996). Being and Time: A Translation of Sein und Zeit (Joan Stambaugh, Trans.). Albany: State University of New York Press.

Lenoir, Tim. (2000). All but War is Simulation: The Military-Entertainment Complex. Configurations 8, 289-335.

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