All Fun and Games

Embodiment, empathy, and combat in e-sports

by William Samosir

Illustration by Claire Schlaikjer

published March 3, 2017

Upton, New York, 1958. Engineer physicist William Higinbotham repurposes one of Brookhaven Laboratory’s military computers, giving birth to the first video game Tennis for Two—the progenitor of the 1972 smash hit Pong. From this moment, the computer, military, and entertainment industries develop interdependently, resulting in the creation of discrete, yet mutually-informing tools, mechanisms, and imageries that reinforce a range of militaristic strategies. This relationship is termed the Military Entertainment Complex (MEC). 

I grew up playing video games (and unblushingly, I still do), ranging from the pastoral single player simulation Harvest Moon to Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) such as Ragnarok and World of Warcraft. As shaped by these simulations, my art practice attempts to examine the virtual and computational phenomena of new media through deconstructing my embodied experience with digital systems—eventually delivering their constituent components as physical objects. These notes are written to clarify and systematize my recent explorations on the MEC. Its section titles are fragmentations of a dated response that I chanced upon in my investigations at a forum on Steam—an online video game distribution platform. The following question was asked anonymously on October 9, 2012.

Q: “If the real military is like Team Fortress 2, would you join it?”

A: “Why not? …”

You put your right hand on a computer mouse and double click the program’s icon. You log in, and after a brief moment, the cursor slides towards the “Find a Match” button. And click!

You are now queued for virtual combat. Whether it is a Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) or an online First Person Shooter (FPS), these simulations allow users to experience a fabricated extension of reality. A player is transported into a multiplayer online battlefield—a hermetic digital space bordered by predefined rule—and introduced to its cyclical, artificial carnage. There, each battle victory against opposing human players is translated into scores and statistics on a digital leaderboard. Such competitive simulation falls under a category called e-sports—a billowing industry of nearly 200 million viewers and participants. E-sports is viral. It is a fast-growing cult, unrelenting in this screen-centric world (and, similar to traditional team sports, replete with loyalties, rivalries, and merchandise). The international e-sports company Electronic Sports League (ESL) organizes tournaments in real arenas worldwide, with hefty prize pools—some of which exceed 20 million dollars—amassed from the sale of user-generated virtual trinkets in mostly free-to-play games.

Whether one desires to be a participant or a spectator, e-sports will provide the thrill and adrenaline of competition. 


“... You respawn after you die, …”

In most arenas, sports involve the performative exertion of the body, attesting to physical presence and its boundaries: calluses; skins that sweat as the mouth gasps for oxygen; breathing organs within tissues. E-sports, on the other hand, obscures corporeality by relocating the majority of physical labor to the computer itself. Behind the plastic and metal frame sits the frantically computing GPU, cooled by a whirring fan. The basis of rules and fair play in traditional sports, from something as formal as having different weight-classes to instinctively calling timeouts in the case of injuries, is also replaced by the accumulation of digits. E-sports games such as the MOBA Defense of the Ancients 2 (DoTA 2) and the FPS Overwatch pit players against others based on their in-game levels, ranks, and grades—numbers that increase as a player sharpens their gaming acuity and the nimbleness of their fingers.

In e-sports, human players become virtual bodies with features that are exaggerated, idealized, dramatized. Appearing through rendered data points, they lack the likeness of an organic being. They do not mutate and decompose. They aren’t programmed to. A data point cannot suffer physical wounds; they are only rearrangeable. Characters simply re-spawn after they are defeated. Once it is “game over,” a player can easily repeat the process and take on the assumed position of another: male or female, human or mutant, ally or enemy. Nowhere in e-sports has there been an accretion of virtual ‘corpses’ on the battlefield. Players in Team Fortress 2 (TF2) and Counter Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) restart as clean, unharmed characters after each death, and the digital arena empties itself from virtual ‘corpses’ and their remnants.

With a self that is reduplicated and repurposed on each terminating step, is it even worth attempting to project ourselves onto these artificial bodies? 


“... you can take an unbelievable amount of shot before you go down, …”

E-sports has successfully transformed the physical viewership experience, amassing localized crowding of the pre-internet arcade machine—such as Donkey Kong and Street Fighter—into virtual international congregations. With the outlook of virtual reality industry generating 30 billion dollars in 2020, e-sports is anticipating a new era of viewership—one that is facilitated by HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, or even Google Cardboard. Last October, ESL One New York became the first premier tournaments to be streamed in virtual reality, and its partner—an e-sports streaming website—successfully raised 6.2 million dollars from various venture capital firms to develop a 360-degree live view of an in-game broadcast. As e-sports joins the virtual reality bandwagon, spectators are now both within and without the game, transgressing the very assumption that the spectatorial realm of e-sports is detached from a bodily experience. 

Similarly, while virtual reality is not yet fully integrated into the playing mechanism of competitive gaming, the visual environment of e-sports—specifically FPS—is capable of accommodating the transition towards embodying a virtual body. In MOBA games, a player controls a separate character—a “minion”—from a third-person god’s-eye-view. Yet, in FPS, while given freedom to traverse the game landscape, a player is simultaneously positioned in the subjective shot of the camera—a condition that is intimate to the human body. Semi-2-dimensional e-sports games such as Street Fighter V, Super Smash Bros, and the online card game Hearthstone are also widely recognized. But in their popularity, these pale in comparison to MOBA and FPS.

The visual experience of high-budget FPS war games such as CS:GO, Call of Duty: Black Ops, and Battlefield 4, is realistic, ‘authentic,’ and intensely haptic. In these games, a player is invited to synthesize their senses with the console and the screen interface. Even the most subtle bodily function and response are mimicked through and defined by a programmatic effect. Playing as an infantry who is running through bombarded grounds, a user’s camera view shakes and stumbles. A digital sniper holds their breath as a player aims their crosshair, and the ensuing sound of muted virtual heartbeats induces real-life suspense in the user. Simultaneously, a player’s identity is color-coded, categorized, and ultimately reduced into an identifiable template for the sake of function. Human presence transforms into machine: an entity whose predefined purpose is to kill and conquer an opponent, be it through forces of rampage or silent surgical means. An enemy character does not cry for help or scream in agony as it is being attacked and ‘injured,’ nor does it beg for mercy before the final blow. Instead, it fights back for the score, the pride, and the sensation—and so does the player, for the possibility of virtual deaths is nothing more than a programmatic incentive.


“... and you get access to ridiculous weapons …”

In 2002 the United States Army released America’s Army, a military First Person Shooter and a strategic communication device—the game was intended to provide a virtual army experience. It was rated T, for Teen. Although this game reduces the complexity of war, it trains players in necessary militaristic strategy (such as flanking around the enemy’s offense, not grouping around choke points, and seeking high ground positions). Most importantly, America’s Army enhances one’s real time decision-making skills in high stress environments as they communicate through headsets with remote microphone communication (an object that is reminiscent of the military’s Advanced Combat Helmet). Players are also pressured to accustom themselves with maps via a dynamically changing aerial-view Heads Up Display (HUD), a process similar to large-scale planning done by military intelligence. 

While this particular video game is visibly marketed and labeled as a military simulation, its mechanism is analogous to that of fantastic and caricatured e-sports—those premised on fictive worlds supposedly detached from any real-life consequences. In MOBA games such as DoTA 2 or League of Legends—where players control mystical characters who cast magic and arcane spells in battles—real time and remote coordination is key toward winning. These combative strategies are also of value in the semi-cartoon TF2, as well as the recently acclaimed semi-caricatured Overwatch.

Although decades-old arguments from cultural conservatives like Bill O’Reilly and Jack Thompson have overemphasized the impact of video games on young and predominantly male psyches, the logistical overlaps between e-sports and the military are becoming ever more apparent. Interviews gathered from artist Omer Fast’s project titled 5000 Feet is the Best (2013) revealed that former Predator drone pilots feel as if their controller and on-screen Graphical User Interface (GUI) are that of a video game. Additionally, it is difficult to dismiss the British Army’s usage of an Xbox 360 controller—the very console one would use to play the sci-fi FPS Halo 3—in operating an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). A player’s embodied knowledge of a console always bears the potential of being re-appropriated and re-wired across networks and platforms. In fact these kinaesthetic abilities have been exploited by the military to economize the production of war technology.

A console, then, can be lethal. As video game interaction broaden its scope from being handheld (keyboard, mouse, and joystick) to occupying the other senses (A 5.1 surround sound spatialization in FPS games and giant virtual reality gaming chairs), the console extends its function to the totality of the body—blurring virtual and physical sensations. 

But, to what end do they reshape and reconstruct a player’s embodied knowledge of video games? 


“... Who wouldn’t join?”

- dirangre3 10-09-2012, 04:33 PM 

In her essay “Visibility Wars,” writer Rebecca Solnit posits that we are living in the age where the battlefield is anywhere and everywhere. War occupies the full spectrum of the digital and the physical, the terraria and the outer space. The idea of an army is no longer contained and singular. Its architecture finds its way from the kernel of a massive organization into the everyday, therefore forming a network of subsistence. And here, e-sports has become a catalyst for this expansion. With the accelerated and unstoppable growth of competitive gaming, e-sports is producing a swarm of players, viewers, adherents who can be activated and deployed. Nonetheless, the massiveness of e-sports and its real time kinaesthetic nature are a potent tool for revealing the invisible MEC framework. Through its own epic phenomena, e-sports can acknowledge the MEC, therefore raising an awareness to its followers and redirecting the purpose of embodying video game acts. 

The Electronic Entertainment Design and Research (EEDAR) reported in 2016 that 66% of e-sports players and spectators are located in China, North America, and Europe—70% of whom are male. In considering embodied knowledge of e-sports video games as an object of power, it is imperative for e-sports to be all-inclusive in order to avoid privileging certain demographics. By accommodating the representation of various culture as well as body shapes, types, and attributes, e-sports becomes a reminder of social reality­—of something essentially human. As a high-budget FPS, 2016 Overwatch has been praised for this gesture towards inclusivity. Out of its 23 multi-ethnic characters, 10 of the possible selections are female. The game portrays a queer character named ‘Tracer,’ who challenges the representation of a stereotypical FPS avatar. 

While Overwatch has garnered over 20 million monthly players, it is hasty and superficial to declare e-sports as a progressive entity. In most e-sports video games, the majority of humanoid characters which do not follow popular body idealization assume a male gender: Pudge from DoTA 2, Junkrat from Overwatch, and Dr. Mundo from LoL, just to name a few. Moreover, bodies of most female e-sports characters are still confined to a fixed, overly sexualized template. What is more striking is that games such as CS:GO and TF2—which have 400 thousand and 50 thousand daily players respectively—only offer strictly male characters in their default selections, most of which are white. The absence of empathetic and bodily encounter in e-sports, then, might not be due to a game character’s virtuality, but to the erasure of diversity and complexity from the image of a body. 

“If the real military is like TF2,” asks dirangre3, “would you join it?” Perhaps TF2 is not just a cartoon parody of the army, and perhaps millions of players already join this supposedly imaginary military from behind the computer screen. As interactive entertainment technology slowly envelops our body, e-sports becomes the contemporary pastime, an embodied and palpable fantasy. 

It’s all fun and games—until we remember what’s behind the camouflage.


WILLIAM SAMOSIR R‘18 needs to start doing some actual, physical exercise.