OOO, it’s Prey!,
or How did they know I always wanted to be a coffee cup?
Lauren Woolbright is a gamer who also happens to be a scholar of games, environmentalism, and social justice. She holds the position of Assistant Professor of New Media Studies at Alma College where she teaches game design, interactive media, and environmental communication.
I’ve been thinking about objects because we treat some of them so badly, often the most important ones. I was thinking about objects as I played the game Prey. As I turned into objects while playing Prey. There is something to seeing beyond our own little corner of Being, something more crucial than Spock’s “good of the many” ethical stance because it goes well beyond humanity.
However comforting it may be to see ourselves as the universe’s top dogs, it is deeply unethical from the perspective of anything beyond humanity. One philosophy challenging these age-old anthropocentric assumptions is object-oriented ontology (abbreviated OOO and often called “triple-O”, though I personally like saying “ooo”). Turns out it is very difficult to think the human as being in equal standing with everything else. See, there, I did it again. “Everything else,” like the universe and everything in it can be reduced to a metaphysical category of simply “not-me.” That this is somehow a valid ontological position seems absurd, and yet it is the foundation of most of philosophy.
Yet, as OOO asserts, objects do not need us to think them; they continue on regardless and heedless of us, even when our beings collide with theirs. More and more, objects are “thinking” in a way we are more likely to recognize: the kinds of virtual intelligences that control non-player characters in games are turning up in cars, buildings, and refrigerators. If we don’t start wondering about the impact objects have on us, we may be blindsided by the result.
One way we might helpfully communicate OOO’s significance is through a medium that already relies on objects: video games. For the most part, games merely replicate human superiority as an overlay for whatever fantastical world they portray, but in some cases, games have tried to do more, have tried to show us that we are living alongside numerous beings we ought to recognize as such.
To begin with… What is Prey?
The founding principle of science fiction consists of pressing on this idea of the meaningful encounter with the more-than-human, and the 2017 video game Prey is no different. Prey is a simulation of a simulation which you thought wasn't a simulation anymore (which Cave are we in again?). It calls into question the assumption that the alien antagonists are evil, even if they would almost certainly destroy all humans if they were to reach Earth. It lets you play at being-as-object, but unfortunately goes no further than that.
And furthermore… What is OOO?
I’ve been reading Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology, which advances a theory of object-oriented ontology he calls “tiny ontology.” Before describing it, we should understand what has come before.
Within object-oriented ontology, like any other theory, there exist many ideas about what will solve our human-oriented calamity. One of them is flat ontology. Bogost writes, “We can distinguish the ontological status of computer program-as-code from game-as-play-session without making appeal to an ideal notion of game as form, type, or transcendental. The power of flat ontology comes from its indiscretion. It refuses distinction and welcomes all into the temple of being” (19).
Another variant within OOO, and perhaps the most famous, is Bruno Latour’s Actor Network Theory. Latour believes a thing is what it does and that everything is real insofar as it has an effect (actors can be volcanos, fictional characters, people, hailstones, logical impossibilities). For Latour, there is no surplus outside of its acting. A name of a thing is only a nickname for a series of actions that a thing undertakes. Ecology is networks. Timothy Morton focuses on ecological networks, using the term “dark” to get away from actor network theory and toward OOO, claiming that things are more than what they are doing right now. For Morton, something is held in reserve, and Latour’s actor-network theory does not account for this. Morton’s idea is closer to Heidegger’s “thingness.” For Morton, as with Heidegger, thing is not ever entirely expressed (that’s Aristotle’s potentiality), especially if it is operating as intended.
There are problems with a position like flat ontology, which sees everything as equal; stuff simply isn’t equal. Some things are just bigger, broader, more interconnected with other things than others. For example, Morton talks about hyperobjects, which are so big in comparison with the human they are difficult for us to even fathom. Dissatisfied with what others have offered in OOO, Bogost suggests tiny ontology as a way to handle the simultaneous complexity and simplicity of beings. Bogost doesn’t even like the words “thing” or “object;” he favors “unit” for not being so philosophically charged.
Where flat ontology brings everything down to the same plane, tiny ontology brings it to a point. Bogost writes, “It’s a dense mass of everything contained, entirely—even as it’s spread about haphazardly like a mess or organized logically like a network. He continues, quoting Graham Harman, another triple-O scholar, “As it happens, Harman also compares the thing itself to the black hole. Every object, says Harman, ‘is not only protected by a vacuous shield from the things that lie outside of it, but also harbors and nurses an erupting and infernal universe within.’ Flat ontology suggests that there is no hierarchy of being, and we must thus conclude that being itself is an object no different from any other. The withdrawal of being is not merely a feature of yogurt or tonsils or Winnie the Pooh, but also is of its very self. The embroiderable shorthand tiny ontology might read simply is, but only because semantic coherence cannot be contained in the tittle atop the i alone” (Bogost 22).
Flat Ontology, Flat Screen
The sleek and warmly lit Talos I space station is littered with contorted corpses, their horror-stricken faces locked in the pain and shock of their digital deaths. I’m not sure if these deaths could be considered to have occurred; since the plot did not call on me to witness them, they were designed in this inanimate state, posed for me to find. They were never the more-or-less lively AI avatars most games’ non-player characters tend to be. What am I supposed to feel? All the corpses have names, but it doesn't stop me from shamelessly looting them (sorry not sorry, Bianca Goodwin).
It’s a game. They are objects. I am an object, too; I am Avatar, being of immense agency, empty being, filled only while played, powerful, but only in this one digital space; do I even exist outside of play? What an anthropocentric perspective. I am thinking of my avatar as a shell, but my IRL self as… what? Full? Whole? Special, certainly. This AI can’t play as me (what a violation that would be). As I wander through the ink-skinned, alien-infested lobbies, offices, and labs, I keep thinking, aren’t we all just objects in the end, our bodies ultimately disintegrating to cosmic dust? What makes us think we aren’t objects right now?
We make a big deal about objectification because society values subject-hood. But what if we considered ourselves objects? We would have to change how we argue for human rights—or anything rights—less of a “humans-are-special-so-respect-that” (robot voice), Golden Rule-style position and more like “what-makes-you-think-you-get-to-treat-things-like-shit-you’re-just-an-object-too” (robot voice). What is so special about life, sentiency, having a soul, whatever it is philosophers claim makes us, us, that justifies animal testing, factory farms, millions of acres of pollution, continuing to drive cars.
Looking at Bianca Goodwin, I think, it sucks that these digital people had to die in space, that their bodies can’t nourish the earth. But space dust is also cool; maybe they can be swept up by a comet or something. Now, on to the next alien monster to cover in gloo and then bludgeon to death with a wrench.
[Robot voice: Why am I doing this again? Oh right, for fun.]
As object-oriented game experiences go, Prey stands out. It poses the player important questions. Do I exist? Is this, too, a simulation? What is that lovely golden spider web hanging in the air? Which weirdly-named AI should I trust? Can I even trust myself, or my previous self, the one who’s telling me I should self-destruct to save the world? Should I rely instead on my—the player’s—survival drive? Can I even “win” this game?
Prey is very OOO-y as games go because players can level up by injecting themselves with alien bio goo (neuromods), which allows them to turn into objects. But then it isn’t as OOO-y as it could be, because when you turn into a coffee cup, you can roll across the floor. Pretty sure that would freak out any caffeine enthusiast. So even objects in this game are getting to be more like animate life rather than animate life being considered more like objects.
The only game that does anything similar with objects is the indie game Everything in which players can become any object in the game just by interacting with them. Everything calls attention to the object’s thingness by not employing realistic physics or behaviors to objects. For example, when the player is a Rocky Mountain elk, they roll across the landscape instead of running or jumping.
Both games have to remind players of what they “are” by using third-person camera work, too. Without that, players would no doubt imagine themselves as themselves, or at least as humanoid; they would have a hard time remembering what form they are taking on right now. Prey shifts to third person only when the player uses a Typhon power to turn into an object.
In the end, Prey is just another anthropocentric narrative whose main question revolves around what makes us human, claiming in rather cliché fashion that it’s our empathy. Adding alien powers to humans through the neuromods was all fine and good, but in order to stop the Typhon from wiping out humankind, the key was adding human neuromods to the aliens.
That fundamentally disenfranchises any of the other beings’ beings, from the coffee cups to the Typhon, which deserve to exist just as much as anything else.
This type of storytelling doesn’t allow players to experience the life of an object, nor do neuromods give them any insight into the lives of the Typhon, who are just the objects of research, not objects unto themselves.
Everything does a better job of this, though it’s not perfect. The physics that call attention to your thingness and highlight that your thingness is in the context of a game and not the real world may give players a chance to introspect regarding their own being in relation to others—in fact, that may be the entire point of the game. There is no heroism and there are no quests, other than seeking out other beings to listen to and potentially become for a time.
In terms of storytelling, that is entirely up to the player. The stories that get told are stories that the player discovers for themselves. They are not just along for the ride on someone else’s perfectly crafted narrative, as in most games.
So in terms of OOO, what Prey hints at being possible, Everything potentially realizes. But that judgment’s really up to you.
Bogost, Ian. Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing. London: Minnesota UP, 2012. Print.
Bogost, Ian. Seeing Things. Bogost.com. 14 Sept 2011. Video.
Everything. David O’Reilly with Alan Watts. 2017. Video game.
Harman, Graham. Graham Harman on Objects. Philosophy Overdose. YouTube.com. 29 May 2017. Video.
Latour, Bruno. “On actor-network theory. A few clarifications plus more than a few complications.” Finn Olsen. CSI-Paris/Science Studies-San Diego. 1996. Print.
Morton, Timothy. Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence. Columbia University Press, 2016. Print.
Prey. Arkane Studios. Bethesda Softworks. 2017. Video game.