Passive agression, Spec Ops: The Line, and the individual onus

Andrew Vanden Bossche has a great little post up on his tumblr about the way Shinji Ikari in Evangelion reacts to being told what to do, wanting to resist doing it, while also being unable to say ‘no’ to his father. It finds its realisation in passive agression, frustration and following orders with a bare minimum of effort:

He’s a kid and this is the only possible way of saying fuck you to his dad and that is very important to him. His contempt for the life and death game the adults are making him play is obvious.

This is super familiar to me, especially at this time of year, as Christmas is often the time of year when I feel I have the least amount of personal agency, a stifling lack of freedom regarding what to do or where to go, am often unable to retreat to a private space (when staying with relatives), locked into the schedules of adults. Christmastime frequently became a period of painful obligation and a test of endurance. But I digress.

Andrew says that this rejection of his lack of agency, expressed as resistance through resentment and acts of minimal enthusiasm, was how he played Spec Ops: The Line,

The game insists over and over that it’s my fault all the bad things that the game is forcing me to do to continue are happening. Spec Ops is barely self aware that this is the case—people are dying because you just keep going forward, a voiceover informs you. But they’re only dying because the game orders them to die. Video games are pretty eager to blame players for killing when designers are the ones that turn on slow motion every time I score a head shot.

This is absolutely spot on, and something that we also see in Far Cry 3 writer Jeffrey Yohalem’s interivews, for instance:

So in this case it’s torturing your little brother, and there’s no real reason to be doing it. You’re not saving the Earth, you’re not doing anything that makes that act okay. That was meant to really shock people.

This said with no awareness, of course, that the player knows this and has the additional piece of information – that the writer intended this to happen to the player. And yet Yohalem wipes his hands of any personal responsibility in making the player “torture” his own in-game brother. This trend (and I really do think it’s a trend) is super interesting to me, not least of all because of the way that Andrew in his post frames this as a clash of systemic responsibility with individual responsibility:

I think it would be pretty cool to have a game about how cruel oppressive systems survive by pushing on their problems onto individuals.

I agree, it would be an extremely cool game that dealt with that issue. In my PhD thesis, I’m attempting to build a case for certain types of fairly novel arguments about, for one example, the way certain ontologies give us permission to outsource responsibility, and to shift and move it around depending on which way the wind is blowing. Certainly at present, what gets called ‘neoliberalism’ (but which I’m mostly calling ‘Capitalist Realism’, following Mark Fisher) gives permission to outsource responsibility onto individuals the end results of systemic issues which result in individual cases of mental health problems like depression, anxiety, and stress.

Consider this: if your work conditions are so precarious, your conditions so utterly decided by the whims of the ‘market’ or ‘consumer demand’ or even a the will of a capricious boss who can’t keep his dick in his pants, how is it your fault that you are depressed?! Surely in those circumstances depression and severe anxiety is normal! And yet responsibility under neoliberalism always trickles downwards… was Reagan secretly right?