The Selfish Gene and Video Games – Genre Machines

The Selfish Gene - Richard Dawkins - Oxford University Press

The central premise of The Selfish Gene is that we are just vehicles for the preservation and long term passing on of our DNA. I have just started this book today and I am very excited. I’ve been a follower of Richard Dawkins for a long time, and I have read other books on Dawkins, such as The God Delusion and his most recent Outgrowing God. He writes complex subjects very beautifully, and despite the fact that he does not have quite the magnetizing effect in person or over Twitter, I find his writing on science and atheism to be rigorous and inspiring.

Anyway, so not only is Richard Dawkins a powerful scientist bringing Darwinian thought to us laymen, he has been an advocate for meme-theory, which is the concept that ideas are like viruses, and they transfer from person to person and provide for themselves in an evolutionary way. A recent example of this last year was the VSCO girl. The VSCO girl likes to collect metal straws, drinks water from hydroflasks, and is all for saving the turtles. They wear scrunchies on their wrist. Try to imagine someone who is only educated in climate science from what Leonardo Di Caprio teaches in a documentary, and you have the basic bitch idea of a VSCO girl. It’s a person who only has cursory knowledge of a dense topic, but goes along with it because they think it’s important, so they are willing to ask the surface level questions of recycling and less waste, while not dwelling for too long on the deeper concepts of the dangers of climate change.

Before too long, one can see this viral concept of knowledge taking root not only in fun name-calling ideas like this, but in art, politics, and economics as well.

In this post I’ll briefly give an example of combining these two ideas, of the selfish gene and memes with video games. Most notably shooters.

In the recent climate of shooters, we only have a couple of camps. In one, we have the MMO-like service based live game like Destiny, The Division 2, Warframe. We also have competitive multiplayer shooting games like Call of Duty, Valorant, Fortnite, Battlefield, and so on. Each of these has their own twists and flavors, but overall they’re split into these.

A final camp would be the story based shooter like Borderlands 3, Doom Eternal, Wolfenstein, Far Cry. This is the most tenable group, as “story-based” hardly seems to matter much for some of these, while instead they provide their own hooks for playing.

Each of these carry “genes” from previous eras. Doom and Wolfenstein obviously still exist today, carrying an arena-based shooter less focused on realistic taking cover and aiming down sights but are more interested in run-and-gun gameplay.

Competitive multiplayer has since Halo 2 focused on map control, whether it be symmetric or asymmetric. Whether there are guns to pick up on the ground, or high grounds to fight and dominate in the geography, this culminated in the Battlefield series game mode “Conquest,” where players worked to take control of various points on a map.

At the end of the day, however, these are all shooting games. You’re gonna pull the trigger.

Games of the Decade: Destiny was at its best when we cheesed it ...

But at some point the shooter genre needed a shake up, either due to the shrinking profit margins of the genre, or from a stilted lack of innovation across years of the experience. Destiny hoped to bring about a new way of playing shooters. Bringing in ideas from the MMO genre, players had classes and skills, as well as exotic weapons that you had to grind for with hundreds of hours of play. But the daily play felt no different than a first person shooter. The developers, Bungie, hoped to bring about what they do best: creating an addictive 30-second loop over and over and over again. They excelled with what they did in the Halo series, with the emphasis on weapons, grenades and melee. With one of the largest budgets in video game history, their hope was to create a living and breathing world, where players came in and out of each other’s “instances,” which meant that sometimes you would see some people, and sometimes not. In a typical MMO, everyone is visible, which creates crowding and latency problems. The hope was to be the best of both worlds.

So, what do we have? We have an idea of shooting, which borrows a little from Halo, a little from Call of Duty, and sprinkles in some mechanics from roleplaying games. How did this interdisciplinary experiment turn out?

It was mixed. Destiny players on its release in 2014 faced a problem where there was little content. They would have to wait over a year as continued updates and expansions filled in the missing missions and loot that gave players the feeling of a full game. The shooting and the art design was there, a foundation that players hoped would get fleshed out.

If you are still playing Destiny, all the way through its sequel in 2017 and up to now, you can see that the problem of new content has always plagued the series. This is a problem that games like The Division 2 have sort of corrected, but what is interesting to note here is that the shooting genre has continued to thrive, albeit in a different outfit. Destiny’s attempt at a “live game” took off with various copies of the idea, some that worked (The Division) and some that did not (EA and Bioware’s flop Anthem). With recent exhaustion in the idea, perhaps the idea of the “live game” in shooters is over.

With the arrival of other games in the shooting genre like Deep Rock Galactic, GTFO, and Remnant From the Ashes, it’s clear that players are seeking less of a shooting experience with a large roleplaying environment, and are much more interested in the newer “run” based games known as roguelikes. In roguelike type games, a player goes through a set of levels that are usually randomly generated. In it, the player hopes to complete the level, but upon death, the characters either loses that mission or the entire character, and must start from scratch. The novelty of the idea is to play with similar mechanics through different environments, unaware of what arrives around the corner, and to go on for as long as you can. No longer would players play the same exact missions like Destiny (known as Strikes and Raids), instead they would be playing something different each time.

The shooting stays, while other things go.

Suffice it to say, games are somewhat innovative, although there is a fundamental genetic DNA that we cannot seem to escape. Perhaps like other forms of art we find this to be simply what it takes to make the game palatable and approachable. Rachel Cusk and Karl Ove Knausgaard may be introducing a different take on literature with their emphasis on perspective and the importance of the singular “I” in narrative, but at the end of the day we still have dialogue, there are still marks on parchment. Annihilation, a science fiction film starring Natalie Portman, may be about the oncoming danger of genetic engineering, but it is really about identity, a problem that human beings have always faced. Game of Thrones may have killed characters off, but Days of Our Lives did it first.

Old styles of shooters die and return. The arcade-style “put a coin in” with roguelikes have given a resurgence of the 1980s in games in just the same way as suddenly a lot of TV shows and movies have a synthy soundtrack. “Newness” is not so much the fun of growing up so much as getting to see the creative way that artists and developers recombine genres to explore how to make a shooting videogame feel different.

And whether or not the game does well, the genre survives, which in the end was the whole point.

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