War, Death, Wagers: Cormac McCarthy on Video Games

Nearly a year ago, the Moving Pixels podcast considered why so many video games are preoccupied with war as a central topic. One of the more obvious answers is that war is one of the simplest ways of representing recognizable conflict. Games, like stories, thrive on conflict in order to justify the meaningfuless of narrative or — in the case of games more specifically — to create stakes for plot (or play) itself.

Death seems a pretty high stake, even if it is just a virtual representation of such. But that may be the point of games.

Near the close of Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian, the murderer, seeming pedophile, and constant misanthrope, Judge Holden, comments on the nature and consequences and pleasure of games:

Men are born for games. Nothing else. Every child knows that play is nobler than work. He knows too that the worth or merit of a game is not inherent in the game itself but rather in the value of that which is put at hazard. Games of chance require a wager to have any meaning at all. Games of sport involve the skills and strength of the opponents and the humiliation of defeat and the pride of victory are in themselves sufficient stake because they inhere in the worth of the principals and define them. But trial of chance or trial of worth all games aspire to the condition of war for here that which is wagered swallows up game, player, all.

Suppose two men at cards with nothing to wager save their lives. Who has not heard such a tale? A turn of the card. The whole universe for such a player had labored clanking to this moment which will tell if he is to die at that man’s hand or that man at his. What more certain validation of a man’s worth could there be?

This enhancement of the game game to its ultimate state admits no argument concerning the notion of fate. The selection of one man over another is a preference absolute and irrevocable and it is a dull man indeed who could reckon so profound a decision without agency or significance either one. In such games as have for their stake the annihilation of the defeated the decisions are quite clear. This man holding this particular arrangement of cards in his hands is thereby removed from existence. This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification. Seen so, war is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one’s will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god. (Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, Vintage, 1992. p. 249)

The Judge’s claim here concerns the necessity for competition — for victory, for defeat, for admiration, and for shame. Games, in McCarthy’s model of them, lend themselves to a purposeful experience because they place us in a position of power and authority by giving a sense of conquest over something outside ourselves, by measuring our acumen, our aptitude, and our strength by what we can defeat, complete, and resolve through the annihilation of opposition (be that real or virtual). This view lends itself to the obsession that games have with the meaningfulness of death as a way of both learning through mistakes but also its potential permanent consequence or potential for a real “Game Over” (in that regard, it might be useful to consider The Digital Cowboys recent and rather profound meditation on death in video games in their podcast on “Those Things We Have Left Behind”, which I highly recommend, potential spoilers and all).

The Judge’s vision is a grim view of “gaming”. The pleasure of play lies in its cruelty and in its consequence.