Games as Contingent Decisions — Valheim, Hannah Arendt, and the Human Condition

Colton Royle
43 min readAug 22, 2023
Iron Gate Studios

Part One — Decisions

Games are about making decisions. These decisions can be as small as whether to go up or down, in the case of Pong (1972), or as large as the future of an entire alien race of Krogans and the manufactured disease of the genophage in Mass Effect 3 (2012). These decisions, as you can see, can be actively engaged with in the interaction of our person, an avatar perhaps, or as a facilitator of many in the case of simulation or strategy games. Or these decisions can be abstracted into social or political choices which have implications for the narrative remaining for us to uncover. Decisions are, to a great extent, what separates games from other mediums. Few novels give the reader the choice for what happens next, though those do exist. Few films offer the viewer the choice of what happens to the hero, though we do have a choice of interpretation. In that way, games offer an unprecedented sense of empowerment and accomplishment. When we dexterously complete the platformer Celeste (2018), we are reveling in the accomplishment of reflexes and learned skill. When we become overpowered in the traditional roguelike Caves of Qud (2015), we feel competent in the knowledge we bring to the game’s systems. In the best of these cases, these games want the player to feel accomplished, and lean into the idea of being mastered. Without a transparent framework, without the tools being taught carefully to the player, the game becomes a bad game.

In this way, we could say that life itself has become a bad game. Life has, over time, become an issue of preventing us from making decisions. A long time ago, life was so reliant on making decisions that a choice could have made the difference between life and death. A grizzly bear stands in front of you in a forest. Do you run away in a straight line? Or do you climb a tree? And are either of these choices what we might call the “right” decision? Over the course of our experience on this planet, human beings have turned knowledge into a set of codes and ethics that alleviate having to make intense decisions over time. We call this “society.” Throughout time, some of these decisions have worked better than others, and the account of these decisions we call “history.” On and on it goes: humans gather more knowledge, this experience is turned into groups of decisions, like monarchy, or democracy, or the printing press, or social media, and before we realize it, we have created an incredibly complex set of “games.” What makes life a bad game is too numerous to count, but here are a couple of examples to prove my point. We are in an age where it is difficult to know what we need to know. If we cannot predict what the economy will look like in five years, how will we know what job to be ready for in 20 years? This was not a problem in antiquity, where farmers learned how to farm from their parents, and they learned from their parents before them. We are beginning to have conversations with artificial intelligence. Who knows what we will be doing after our children finish secondary school, over a dozen years from now. Imagine learning the game of life for those years, only to discover that these skills are no longer what the game requires. That is a bad game.

Another startling discovery is that the game of life is so orchestrated as to prevent you, the player, from making any decisions at all. The “choice” to buy a smart phone has been necessitated by a world in which it becomes very difficult to navigate through a developed country without one. Whether one purchases an Apple phone, or whether one purchases an Android device, the decision largely becomes one of semantic and rhetoric, as these phones offer rather ephemeral differences, and are instead an opportunity for a person to offer brand loyalty. Capitalism turns a want into a need.

At our jobs, we find that making decisions on our own is one of the worst things we can do. The best response of an employee is to follow protocol, one that has been developed over years by a bureaucracy. At times, these protocols are very important: handling radioactive waste should come with a set of safety procedures that keep people from getting sick. But other decisions are not so straightforward, such as telling a teacher what to teach and how to teach in a country that purports itself to be “free.” Over time, we have to admit to ourselves that we have been pushed into indecision, either explicitly by manufacturing a society that decides for us, or implicitly through the market, with such volatility that we call it “anxiety.”

By 2023, at the writing of this essay, this clash of people’s agency, for their ability to make decisions, is largely over. The prescient film Brazil (1985), about a dystopic society where bureaucracy has so infiltrated our lives that no power exists at all, exists in our lives every day. If it doesn’t, social media picks up the slack, offering us a version of the world we simply have to accept. There is a dire need of decisions, for we have become bereft of the kind of decisions that give us meaning. I think it is safe to say that people need decisions to provide–in the face of society–a means of defining oneself. How can we discern one person from another if not with the history of one’s decisions? The polemical films of the 1990s, like Pleasantville (1998) and The Truman Show (1998), addressed the suburban and corporate malaise we had entered where all decisions, the decisions that mattered, had flattened into simply the choice between buying a red blender or a yellow one. In the 2020s, the rise in tabletop roleplaying has not been simply thanks to the popularity of Stranger Things: it has to do with the intensifying desire to be put into spaces where our thinking, and the decisions that come from that thinking, make a difference in our future experience. Games stand thus poised on a potential breakthrough for people everywhere as a way to leverage technology to bring back an essential human need. The need to make impactful, continuous decisions.

That is not to say that all games are created equal. Some games, like the poor game of life, provide bad spaces for weak or poor decisions. As much as we enjoyed the thrill of Pong, the binary choice of moving “up” or the (scandalous) “down,” eventually became boring. Even with the gameplay becoming competitive, it was all simply an age old game like tennis being propped up with a technological twist. As harrowing as the choice over the Krogan was in regards to the genophage in Mass Effect 3, experienced players of the series know that the history of choices throughout the science fiction trilogy rarely lived up to the peak of this decision. There are some games, like Fortnite or Destiny, that manage to take a surprisingly small set of decisions by the player and refine them to near perfection, while instead only bolstering the incentives for completing those small decisions over and over again. Some games have changed out the open-world trend popularized by Grand Theft Auto and have instead gone back to the roguelike or roguelite, pushing procedural generation so as to provide diversity to an experience that is, again, a repetitive injunction to fight, die, repeat. But there are other games, like Minecraft (2011), that change the script. These are games that give the player agency for creativity in space and time, and provide just the slightest pressure of survival as a method for giving the players the impetus to design in a consistent way, plan in a consistent way, solve problems in a consistent way. These are a new generation of games that veer away from the lower orders of intuition and reaction times and favor something different, something that slowly enters the world of the social, maybe even the political.

We started with the idea that games are about making decisions, ones relevant to the framework that the said game provided. But we have a problem: we do not have an edifice or methodology that we can apply to games to determine what decisions might be more desirable over others. To be sure, we enter into the realm of subjectivity on this front. It does no good to attempt a “scientific” or “objective” analysis to this, for the good reason that the variety of games are presented to us as a composite of what we desire in certain moments in our life. For our time here today, we are going to need a method, one that perhaps exists outside the realm of game design. Game design is mostly focused on the function and fidelity of making a video game, and less so on the discussion of higher order decisionmaking. This is not the fault of video game developers. Simply put: making games is hard. Though we have made massive advancements in the production of games, games may always be difficult to make. What we are focused on here is the prospect of discovering what it takes to make a game with “higher order” decisions in mind, and what the “best” decisions are needs a thesis. That way, in the future, when gamers disagree, we have in front of us the thesis. Without it, there can be no antithesis.

Part Two — Valheim

Before we apply a theory of hierarchical decisions in video games, we first need an example of a recent gaming experience to apply this new theory on. In Part Two, I’d like to discuss Valheim, released to early access via Steam February 2nd, 2021 to little fanfare, but quickly and easily became one of the most played games in the genre of survival. For those who do not know, Valheim is a game where you are a viking, dropped into a purgatorial world full of idyllic fields, dark forests, swamps, tall mountains covered with hungry wolves, and vicious plains full of goblins, and you are tasked with defeating a handful of powerful bosses scattered across these biomes. As a viking, you can fight, but you can also craft, building tools and weapons and armor, as well as major structures, so that you can establish, for yourself a sort of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that you attend to. The player eats food to bolster their health and stamina, which allows them to fight harder and run for longer. All these actions are tabulated into skills that increase as you play. These mechanics are not necessarily novel or original, but the way these mechanics coalesce into a world, one that can be played alongside nine other players simultaneously, and with the ability for people to make dedicated servers, all across a massive world, and gamers have a recipe for an incredibly articulate amount of problem solving. It is not just these elements that make Valheim a highly desirable experience for the average gamer: Valheim is also beautiful. Valheim is truly a next-gen experience in the way that it abandons the old world desire for high-fidelity textures, instead harkening back to graphics in a Playstation 1 era. Iron Gate Studios, developers of Valheim, have wisely opted to use post-processing elements like depth of field, and bloom, to work alongside longer draw distances and an incredibly dynamic world that moves and shifts, to make the purgatory you find yourself in feel alive.

The Latest from Iron Gate Studios (Aug. 2023)

As of the writing of this essay, Valheim is still in early access. Most recently, Iron Gate Studios have released Hildir’s Request, a set of smaller events for the player to focus on in between the previously mentioned major bosses. They have released a major new biome, the Mistlands, along with a new major boss, and have plans to do this two times over in the form of the Ashlands, the hellish southern pole of the world, and the Deep North, the cold far reaches at the, well, North end of the world. Iron Gate Studios predicts that it will be another two years in Early Access before they release the game to a finished, 1.0 state. But with the Hildir’s Request update, we also received a new feature that ushered in the story that we’ll be discussing today. Hildir’s Request came with new “world modifiers.” These modifiers allowed the host of a game to tweak the world along certain guidelines to an experience more in keeping with the goals of the players. These can include the difficulty of the combat, the difficulty of the bosses, how punishing a death will be, how many resources a player receives when they chop down a tree or mine a rock. There are even decisions a player can make over whether or not a player has access to a map.

This last point is where our story begins. In the game of Valheim, a player is given a minimap in the top righthand corner. If a player presses “M,” a player can correspond their map to the entire world map. This allows a player to instantly get their bearings and proceed through the world with full knowledge of where they are in relation to the world, to bosses, and to biomes. On July 3rd, 2023, my friends and I started a Valheim server. I had played Valheim for roughly 70 to 80 hours beforehand, so I knew of the mechanics of the game, only this time we would be playing through the game without a map. We also chose to play the game without portals, at first, and this is named as an “Immersive” playthrough by Iron Gate Studios. However, we also decided to have three times the amount of resources given, so as to alleviate a little of the grind involved in playing. The goals of this style of server was to minimize labor and to maximize problem solving and communication between friends. The following recounts the experience of learning and playing Valheim without a map.

An example of a Valheim world map

The map of Valheim is a flat circle, so it was in our best interest to get some sort of bearing for cardinal directions, North, South, East, and West. We discovered through experimentation in other worlds with maps that the tallest stone at the stonehenge that players begin at the game at, is one that points North. The early experience for the players was horrifying and certainly a learning curve: each player who joined inevitably became lost. The first thing we realized about playing without a map is that the game of Valheim is beautiful, but one that is lacking proper locations. Instead, the game uses procedural generation to create varied geography. Unlike the articulate and novel formations of our phenomenological world, the world of Valheim features so many repetitive features that a player can easily get lost. It is not uncommon for enemies to accost the player, which can further strain a viking’s sense of direction. So, for the first hours, players ran along coasts so as to keep an ocean nearby. This too proved difficult, as many of Valheim’s landmasses are peninsular in nature. They double back on themselves, creating more coastline than inland surface area, which meant that we found ourselves running ourselves ragged back and forth. We were discovering that the island we started on was large, huge, and then gigantic, and all the major biomes were present on it. The danger we faced was not necessarily one presented by the game itself, but rather the underpinnings we chose to implement into it. With no map, Valheim returned itself to that sense of wonder and mystery we had two years ago. We were going to need, like the Book of Genesis, to subdue the world.

Signage for two player-made locations

Because Valheim has little to no sense of proper locations, we had to create them for ourselves. One of the first things we did was to use the hoe tool to create paths. In Valheim, making paths is mostly an aesthetic choice by builders to make structures truly pop. But in our playing of the game, paths suddenly became a very functional use of our time and effort. First and foremost, we created paths that extended in each cardinal direction, all the way until we reached a coast. In this way, if a player came across a path, they would know where to some extent that a player had been there before, and they could follow a path back to the center. This was not a perfect solution: players were making so many paths that it became difficult to know where they went, and whether they were relevant.

To fight this problem, we got into the habit of creating signs. In the game, players can make signs and attach them to natural formations like rocks or trees, but can also create sign posts. A player can even use their knowledge of HTML to change the size and color of the words on the signs to make them stand out. Some of our players opted for the choice of a certain color to denote authorship. Green for one player, blue for another, white for all, and so forth. These were expedient solutions for those early days of navigating a world without maps.

In the game, technological progress is gated behind the destruction of major bosses. For example, the first boss is called “Eikthyr” and is a magical stag whose antlers can be used to create the first picks, which can be used to enter into the Metal Age. By mining copper and tin, and smelting them into bronze, the vikings can leverage their weapons against tougher enemies and locations. As a result, finding and eliminating these bosses is the key to moving forward in the game. With each new boss defeated, new features and functions become available. There was just one problem: we had no map.

If a player comes across a Vegvisir, a player can activate it to cause the game to show on the map the location of the closest boss. But without a map, there would be almost no way for us as players to know where these bosses would be. I say “almost” because we knew that bosses only appeared in certain biomes. Eikthyr only appears in the Meadows close by. The second boss, The Elder, only appears in the Black Forest. The third, Bonemass, only appears in the Swamps, and so on and so forth. But it takes four hours for a player to walk from one side of the world of Valheim to the other. The world is massive. Any movement away from the center of the world into this circle increased the amount of surface area to explore in a way I hope anyone who has gone through geometry will understand. We grew despondent that we would perhaps never find these bosses. But we were also hopeful: the altars where these bosses could be summoned were quite noticeable, quite large. We crossed our fingers that the two would cancel each other out.

Coinciding with the creation of the server, we created a Discord server for us, and the key, we were realizing, to this newly designed game of Valheim was not simply how to navigate within the game, but without. It was not enough to simply communicate findings; we had to communicate where we searched. Otherwise, we were all too quickly inviting redundancy. There was no business in combing over the same tract of meadows two, three, four times if there was little of note there. To be sure, this occurred, as there were aspects of the world we simply had to see with our own eyes. How large was our starting island? When we began to build structures, what could we say was our immediate surroundings? And in so doing, inviting some redundancy into the gameplay was inevitable.

Miraculously, we found Eikthyr on the first day of the server. To be sure, the first boss is resoundingly the easiest to find, given that there are three altars, all placed within close distance, and in the meadows — the easiest biome — without any intervening biomes to stop us vikings. The battle was also swift and easy. After the beast’s death, we were able to acquire the antlers and proceed on with the game. It would be three more days, July 6th, before we found The Elder.

Lighthouses are key to navigation at sea.

It was here that the game began in its actuality. The Elder is located a greater distance from the beginning Stonehenge, and is located in the Black Forest. As we explored more biomes, we realized that it would become more and more difficult to keep our bearings in the world. The color palette in the Black Forest and the Swamp darkens and shifts dramatically, the trees are so dense and repetitious that it can be difficult even to follow one’s own path. Night in these biomes is egregious, and even when the moon arrives, it is difficult to make out key items and objects while playing on a screen in the daytime. In the swamps, it is constantly raining, and the water below combine to make everything wet, slowing down the player as they maneuver. Not only that, but fighting these tougher enemies would require heavier armor, which would also slow down our viking’s movement speed. It was a recipe for disaster, but only if we played the game on its own terms.

In these three days, we formed a dig site for copper, otherwise known as The Quarry. Over time, before the introduction of portals, we debated what our strategy would be for where we would store our belongings. In Valheim, portals are used to instantly transport oneself from one side of the map to another. It gives the player the ability to not have to traipse the same territory back and forth. At this moment in time, portals were not allowed, so we had resigned ourselves to the idea that our vikings would be nomadic, building only to create certain items, tools, weapons, and armor, and then we would move on, all in the pursuit of finding these fated bosses. The Quarry was the first substantial one of these nomadic structures. Gradually, we veered southeast, because this was where our island spread out the most. In these three days, getting lost was rather common. Some of us chose to stick close to the Quarry and mine copper, or go to the shore down the hill some 200 to 300 meters to mine tin. Others ventured far out, mapping the world by hand.

An early map of our starting island, called “BOB”

We were far enough out that mapping had become of utmost importance. This was done on paper with pencil, and was carried out without too much diligence. The early problems with mapmaking were immediately obvious. First and foremost was the lack of scaling. Once we were able to build ships, we were able to sail around the island, rather than go on foot. If the wind was with us, we moved much faster, which compressed the perception of how long that span of coast actually was. When we were moving achingly slow in a head wind, we assumed the coast was quite long. In this way, we often misperceived the size and span of coastline, as well as the amount of turning a coast did as it weaved back and forth. These islands were very peninsular, as we said before, but sometimes the peninsula veered past Valheim’s draw distances, making it look as if they did not veer back and forth at all, but were in fact either separate islands, or were simply a continuation of a coastline in another direction. It was not unlike, we hypothesized, the map-making of actual early settlers in our history. We debated scale, and we went back and forth often on different iterations of our maps. In the game, Valheim offered little feedback over this social and political action between the players. This was a video game experience, not a mechanic. And yet it still felt monumental to us as players. This was what the true pull of this style of playing Valheim was all about. We had no choice: if we did not do these things, we risked becoming irrevocably lost.

Over time, we developed systems of communication for other things as well. If we cleared a tomb or a dungeon, we left a sign or a fire indicating as such. If we crossed a river, we attempted to leave a fire to indicate where we entered and exited, so as to retrace our steps. In the beginning, we were quite scared of rivers, because at that point we could not tell whether crossing a river meant simply a river, or if we were actually crossing into a new landmass. These early fears kept us from making as much progress as we would have liked, but it also kept us safe. The challenge of the game as a multiplayer game took hold, because as we explored, the game became more singleplayer. The spaces that separated us continued to grow, and we felt less like a tribe and more like the explorers we turned out to be, gathering only with screenshots and words of wisdom on discord. It was disappointing to find our paths were crossing less and less frequently, and yet our discord server kept us tethered. Valheim had become an epistolary game of sorts, with our missives keeping us informed.

On July 6th, we found The Elder. To do so, we had to cross a river, and we found the altar soon after. The fight with The Elder occurred multiple times to ensure every player had access to the key item which would allow us to gather iron in the swamp. Like the Eikthyr fight, The Elder fight was simple, but slightly more tedious. The act of fighting these bosses had become far less important than the metaphysical spaces that surrounded these bosses, namely the problem solving decisions that led to its discovery, as well as the implications for the technological progress afterward. It would be 14 days, on July 20th, before Bonemass would be found, the boss in the Swamps. The time spent in these intervening days were mostly focused on just one of us vikings. The rest were either on vacation or had put down the game for the sake of others. We turned on portals at this point. Having sailed out from our starting island, having to maneuver back and forth became ostentatious to adults who worked full time jobs. Also, if we had over 10 players to continue laboring over the server at all times, we might have had a change of heart, preferring massive teamwork over the small decision making we were not pressed with. But these combining factors led us to turning the portals back on. This had the added benefit of allowing us to drop our nomadic methodology in favor of something far more static.

Throughout the server, we had the problem of history. We as veteran players would understand the context of each location and each event as one contingent to our experience playing. We had those firsthand. But any new players coming into the server would be unable, when looking upon the barracks that sat alongside the stonehenge, or our outpost known as The Quarry, or when we began to create Lighthouses to demarcate our paths along the coasts and smaller islands, we had no way of expressing our baroque systems to new players who may stumble onto our servers. Even if no one entered to see what we had created, we had the problem ourselves of our own short-term memory. We expected to play the game all the way until that 1.0 release, which was not expected until January 2025. How would we know what these places meant once they became long since abandoned? It was up to us, the agents in the game, to document spatially the places we had been, but also to document its meaning.

Every 100 days in Valheim, we created histories. We would relay our stories to each other, and I would compile them into a history. Somewhat selfishly, I made a channel on Discord where only I was allowed to post histories, written in .txt format. This would not be the only measure that would be met with some degree of pushback. It was clear other people wanted to contribute, or to put their idiosyncratic stamp onto the history of the server, and to limit that rather undemocratically to myself was obviously ego. I explained my desire to write the history by stating that it would keep as close as possible a similar style throughout. But as we all know by history, though it is written by “the winners” as the aphorism goes, in reality, historical documents shift and turn depending on the discerning writers of the present, which is why we have historical revisionism in the first place. And anyone who has watched the John Adams miniseries, one can see that “history” is lived by those who were there, and anything afterward cannot help but be embellished and tainted with the powers of hindsight. So we could conclude that my argument is a weak one.

He compelled himself to build a path into the black forest so as to reunite with the civilization that initially arose from Stonehenge and the Fugly Barracks.
-From the Second 100 Days on Valheim

Another discussion that surfaced following the implementation of histories was the idea of a hardcore playthrough. Perhaps, so as to make a history sound more grounded, if a player were to die, they would have to create an entirely new character with a new name. In that way, not only would we have a history, we would have a genealogy. I responded by saying that the game of Valheim was punishing already as we created it. It may present itself as a laid back survival game, but though it masquerades as marijuana, it is cocaine in its implementation. If a player dies, they lose their belongings and have to retrace their steps to find their corpse. Easier said than done in a server with no map. If a player dies, they lose valuable progress in their skills as well. To create a situation where players would have to create an entirely new character each time would make their vikings lose ALL their hard-earned skills. For many skills, the improvements culminate in, at level 100, 131% more damage, or twice the jump height. To reset that would, in my mind, not only neuter the power of singular characters in this history as a story, but would also be a net negative to the feeling of progress in the game. Again, in my mind, if we had a dedicated group of over ten players, constantly checking into the server and contributing, that would be different. This would lean into the vikings of Valheim as a larger tribe, and would be a far more Marxist story, one of struggle against the material conditions of the land, rather than a more heroic fantasy story of a handful of vikings taking on the enemies of the world. I considered the matter settled, but I never got the sense that the matter was settled among the other players.

Between these two measures, we discovered that there were some aspects of deciding on how the game would be played that lacked compromise. To reference Hegel, there was no synthesis between the two opposing dialectical positions. I dreamed of a far larger server, one where we could live under these terms, but we were adults, caught up in wildly different schedules, with little connective tissue to other adults who wanted to continue playing Valheim. Like any decision, these were made out of contingence and expedience, against more ideal decisions, due to the limited way we were playing the game. In this way, we realized there was no ideal: there were only trade offs.

Introducing portals was one such example. Players could sail outward and find an island, with the intention of placing a portal and instantly coming back to where we started. This was an expedient, though unrealistic, measure. We decided that the labor of having to return was not worth the added time for working on a centralized location, or focusing on higher order problem solving. That labor, the one of rudimentary back-and-forth movement, was not valuable to us and our game. Another example concerned resources. We had originally only had twice the resources given per object, but we quickly expanded it to three times. Valheim is quite withholding in its resources in the labor-to-reward ratio. At some point, we lamented the labor required, so we tabulated that it was in our best interest that our labor be focused on problem solving what the land looked like, where we would coordinate ourselves, how we would reach places, and where bosses were located, rather than the toil of clicking, gathering, and storing. Everything we built would still be by our hands, but acquiring the resources would be a little easier.

A mnemonic for all our stuff

Much of the exploration continued as it had before, but refining our methodology for navigation and mapmaking was in order. When it came down to it, the only constant throughout navigating the world was the world tree. A gigantic branching tree, the world tree reigned overhead from East to West, along the pathway of the sun and moon, and so was the only real reference point. It was a three-dimensional entity, so moving drastically in any cardinal direction would see the world tree shift ever so slightly in reaction. Before, we had relied on a sort of relativistic approach to navigation between landmasses, but that would have to be tucked into, instead, a far more consistent trajectory of, first, wondering how far East and West we were, and then gauging explorations North and South based on those initial calcuations.

This was a benefit to the players, because Iron Gate Studios had not yet completed the Ashlands and Deep North biomes. Those rested in the far South and North, respectively. The way that Valheim loads biomes is that the world only really exists if players are close enough to warrant it. As long as the players kept out of those biomes, those places would not be created. When a place is “created,” it becomes static, and becomes impossible, as far as I can gather, to be updated. By staying East and West, rather than North or South, we increased the possibility of not venturing into those biomes until we were ready to do so.

One of our first major player-made locations

Only one of us would locate and fight Bonemass. Far to the West, beyond our starting island, even beyond the Isla de Muerta, a name given to a dreadful island of mostly swamp, the Bonemass altar was resting. Bonemass’s death gives a wishbone, which is an item that can reveal the location of silver in the mountains. As only one of us needed this item, he could serve as a guide for future silver deposits. From July 20th to August 9th, we would be looking for the fourth boss, Moder, who is located in the mountains. Between each boss, we saw an expansion of time to find them. Three days, fourteen days, 20 days. In between these, we split our time between exploring and building. Recently, we have been lucky, as we found the fourth boss, Moder, and the fifth boss, Yagluth, within two days of one another. Our exploration turned out not to be so redundant after all. Of course, we are now faced with the prospect of finding the Queen in the Mistlands, which has its own complications, as the Mistlands is a difficult biome to navigate by itself. These difficulties is how the creativity, and the agency, comes about. It is a challenge we face with relish. But finding the Queen could take months.

Part Three — The Human Condition

It is now time to take this case study and apply some kind of technique onto it so as to determine how it stands alongside other gaming experiences. I must say outright that, in terms of decision making, this Valheim server story is exemplary. It is rare in our history of gaming thus far to allow for such active engagement, not just with the gameplay mechanics, but even with the underlying structures of how the game presents itself to the player. Difficulty, no map, heightened resources. Our ability to tweak the experience based on communal desires is difficult to find in our modern gaming climate. But for anyone who has joined a community, who has played with mods, in large platforms like Arma 3, or Minecraft, you know that there is something alluring in the meta-experience that lies outside the periphery of the game in and of itself. It is the psychological element, the political and social realms that dictate the experience, and can transcend us into meaning making that we accomplished together, to greater or lesser effect.

Hannah Arendt

There simply must be a way to put these kinds of experiences into a process that allows easy shorthand between gamers interested in these experiences. To find this, we have to look outside the typical fields of game design, or even individual psychology, but in sociology, perhaps too economics. What we are talking about is a desire to find greater agency in games, due to a paucity and diminishing of agency in our own world. Who better to address this question than Hannah Arendt and her 1958 book The Human Condition?

Hannah Arendt is usually more well-known for her analysis of evil in The Origins of Totalitarianism. Her conclusion is shocking and immediately recognizable. Evil is not some villain with a twirling mustache, but is rather found in the indifference that occurs within dictatorial spaces of bureaucracy. The destruction of the Jews was possible only because of this alienating distance between what the Nazis did, and the ordinary person who was convinced of its value because of an elaborately complex and totally contradictory story. But I know Hannah Arendt most from her work on labor, work, and action that is to be found in the pages of The Human Condition, a book that predicted astutely the problem we found ourselves in, even discussing the cheapening of goods as a product of obsession with the product in its quantity over quality. For anyone who has felt the flimsy and cheap fabric of a Forever 21 crop top, or an H&M blazer, Arendt had it figured out.

But why the connection between Hannah Arendt and video games? Arendt died in 1975, barely after Pong. What would she have to say about video games? If you take the perspective on video games I have presented here, the one that states that video games are about making decisions, then those decisions must be placed in a position where those decisions can take on a larger concentric circle of social or political ramifications. Hannah Arendt may not be the gaming guru we want, but with years spent trying to find connections between how the private individual interacts in the public sphere, i.e. sociology, she is the guru we need. To be sure, there are a multitude of ways to look at games. They can be viewed as goals to be completed, as addressing the desires and needs of a populace, as psychoanalytic examples of repetition automatism, as narrative forms righting material wrongs, as capitalist extortion, the list goes on. For the sake of our conversation here, we are slicing off a very thin approach to games that will certainly have contradictions and drawbacks. I am sticking here to games as decisions; and Arendt, as a social theorist, was obsessed with decisions.

Hannah Arendt’s analysis begins in a surprising way. She takes a knife and delicately carves between some heavy-hitting concepts. The ancient Greeks did not distinguish between the words “labor” and “work.” This is surprising, because as we can see here, and as they saw way back there, these are two distinct words. How is it that, in their discussion of the political sphere, they are viewed as the same, despite their differing etymology? Hannah Arendt begins with the word “labor.” It comes down to the distinction between productive and unproductive “labor” where work hides. “It is indeed the mark of all laboring that it leaves nothing behind, that the result of its effort is almost as quickly consumed as it is spent” (87). And despite the fact that labor occasionally produces a good, for Arendt, she sees this good as largely irrelevant: the key goal here is that the laborers keep laboring. That the process continue.

In 2023, this distinction between labor and work is easy to see. In the new mantra of Disney and their live-action remakes, the quality of the product is irrelevant. As long as the profit exists, which many of these remakes can claim do in fact exist, the nature of the product, its quality, its fidelity, or how compelling it is to the viewer, is unnecessary. In the now infamous GDC talk for Destiny 2 presented by Justin Truman, he stated that what was most important in the live-service model, even more important than quality, was the necessity of being FAST. It is foolish to think that manual labor and intellectual labor stand on two separate islands in this regard. Arendt says they are equally responsible “to care for the upkeep of the various gigantic bureaucratic machines whose processes consume their services and devour their products as quickly and mercilessly as the biological life process itself” (93). And much of the work of these larger gaming experiences have reflected, not an attempt to release a durable good that the public can enjoy for years and years, but rather simply an edifice of baubles that keep the player laboring for hours on end. We call this “engagement” which, when looked at through the lens of Arendt’s distinguishing between labor and work, appears to simply be labor in another guise. Destiny 2’s egregious use of tools that players must grind before they can be activated is evidence of a company that has imploded on their idea of making “games people want to play.” They believe that they are creating “worlds that inspire friendship.” Arendt would disagree.

One such distinction we can use between labor and work, as buyers of games, is compare the terms to the difference between “consumption” and “use.” In a live-service game like Destiny, one can play in all kinds of ways, from PvE narrative content, to more articulate and sophisticated and challenging “strikes” to the most demanding “raids.” Players can also fight against each other in competitive environments. For a time, these different fields had almost equal power. Over time, the PvP of Destiny has been abandoned for Bungie’s next project, Marathon. At first glance, we can look and say “Aha! This is choice. Therefore, players can use Destiny like a tool. It is not simple consumption, like you mentioned before.” To that end, we would need to compare Destiny to another franchise in Bungie’s history, namely that of Halo. When Halo was at its zenith, it was because of its pliability as a platform. Halo had such features as custom games, where players could tweak the experience to their liking. Halo had Forge, which allowed tweaking not only in rulesets, but in the spaces these rules played out. Players could share, in a theater mode, clips that were harrowing or hilarious. It is here that we can see that the “use” of a product is made within the system, but is played out beyond the product as a tool. Players played Halo, and trust me, we played a lot of Halo. The difference occurs when we see, side by side, the intentions of the two games from the perspective of the difference between games as an experience, versus games as a tool. Thanks to the efforts brought about in the Master Chief Collection, on Xbox as well as PC, these experiences can have a much longer shelf life. That is not to say that it has been a perfect transition, as the collection has seen its fair share of criticism, with launching in a poor state and lacking features, but when we consider the differences between Halo and Destiny, the chasm could not be wider. What better way to exemplify multiplayer experiences between the 2000s and 2010s than through this lens?

Perhaps most telling is the way in which Bungie is willing to remove content from their own games, even weapons and armor that players have collected, called “sunsetting.” Hannah Arendt specifies that distinction between labor and work with such niche examples as tilling soil. Though backbreaking, literally “laborious,” we still have the chance to call this soil “cultivated land,” which is a fabrication that outlasts itself, for a time. This is a “work.” In video games, people earn digital objects that they keep as signs or symbols. They may produce in their experience a work in the form of a video or stream. These can become artifacts all on their own. When Bungie takes these things away, things people have purchased with money, what they ostensibly do is lean towards the idea of games as an experience, and not as a work, or tool. To some, this kind of dichotomy is a false one, and these are the people with a desire to continue shooting the same enemies for a decade. For others, this lack of growth, this lack of agency, is a difficult trend to forget. A player may see an account of Destiny 2’s “Red War Campaign,” but that experience is no longer available as of 2023.

The exuberance experienced in works is also different compared to the decidedly unfun repetition of toiling. “Most descriptions of the ‘joys of labor…’” Arendt writes, “…are related to the elation felt by the violent exertion of a strength with which man measures himself against the overwhelming forces of the elements and which through the cunning invention of tools he knows how to multiply far beyond its natural measure” (140). This ending phrase, this “natural measure” is incredibly important for our uses here. Many games present spaces for making decisions, but very few give players the opportunity to conduct the framework of the game in their own way. Here we are talking about mods. Mods and the majority of gaming do not mix for a variety of reasons, a desire for control and a lack of a monetary scheme being two big ones. Console games rarely feature mods. Some games that feature mods or user-generated content, such as Roblox or Bethesda games, use it either as an expropriation of free work, or as a matriculation process for finding like-minded employees knowledgeable of an engine. That is all to say that it is not simply a gift, but there are methods behind the madness. We might call “natural measure” the limitations of the game as an artifact. Mods and tools supplied by the game can take the work beyond itself, which is where we get “action.”

We’re getting ahead of ourselves, but suffice it to say here that in many, many games, control lies resolutely in the hands of their creators. And often that is acceptable: they want to create an artistic work that is consistent for players in 30 years as it was on the day it was released. That is admirable. But when we are speaking of games with agency, we must be willing to accept that a porous structure between player and creator begins to set in.

We have been speaking of these distinctions between work and labor, and we have used several other words that exist in relation to them to accentuate our point, so let’s remark on another, only this time, Hannah Arendt, were she to be alive today, might have some damning remarks to make on gaming as a medium. In her chapter on “Work,” she continues by discerning key differences between a tool and a machine. When a human being picks up a hammer, we are unsure what the final product will be. Indeed, the great thing about tools, and why so many men become obsessed with them, is in the cliché of “having the right tool for the job.” The thing to keep in mind with this phrase is not the tool: that would be a sort of obsessive-compulsive hoarding if one were to collect tools and never use them. What matters is the job. There is something thrilling in there being just as many jobs as there are people to come up with them. There is satisfaction not only in using the tool, but in the approach of designing a job that requires that tool. A machine, in contrast, once it is designed, performs the same repetitive outcome each and every time. Thankfully, some of the most grueling and repetitive labor, the kind that seems to have no beginning or end, has been relegated to machines. “The point is that nothing can be mechanized more easily and less artificially than the rhythm of the labor process, which in its turn corresponds to the equally automatic repetitive rhythm of the life process and its metabolism with nature” (146).

It is easy to equate video games with machines, on the basis of the semantic drift between “machines” and “computers.” But the similarity, as I hope you can see, goes beyond that. It was Vaas from Far Cry 3 (2012) who famously asked the metanarrative question “What is the definition of insanity? Doing something over and over again, expecting different results.” The answer Vaas gave was a way to cut the branch off that we, as gamers, stand on. It is the repetition that becomes habit, and that can scare away outsiders to games as being regurgitating, even masturbatory. Although life in some ways follows this kind of repetition, with the sun rising and setting, and how we go to work and come home, there is something about the brevity and density of the repetitions in video games that unsettle some people, and they reject it. Perhaps it comes from the demand that these machines make on our psyche. “Unlike the tools of workmanship,” Arendt writes, “which at every given moment in the work process remain the servants of the hand, the machines demand that the laborer serve them, that he adjust the natural rhythm of his body to their mechanical movement” (147). To accentuate this, imagine a young woman from the middles ages being transported across time to witness the flailing of other young women her age playing the Nintendo Wii. I think you see the point.

Throughout the history of gaming, there has been a small sliver, a vein running through it, of a desire for agency. Whether it be the previously mentioned choices of Mass Effect, or the choice of how to roleplay a character, agency matters. The largest contemporaneous releases, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, Elden Ring, Baldur’s Gate 3, and Starfield, have been praised for their choices. Whether that comes from how to address a spatial puzzle, or to set off in any direction we like, or experience a playthrough with 17,000 endings, or explore 1,000 planets, it is easy to point to these mega gaming experiences and see how they are pushing against the very structures they are bound to, as machines. Imagine these games like a manifestation of the “ad hoc hypothesis.” For those unaware, the ad hoc hypothesis is the term given to the act of coming up with propositions that are stapled onto a theory when contradictory evidence or an anomaly appears. This reinstates the original thesis, but does not account for the new information. Examples of this include when humans shifted from a Ptolemaic model of the universe towards the Copernican revolution. We may think of these games and their size as a blessing. Since 2020, there have been significant doubts about the gaming industry. These games, in such quick succession, and with such breadth, are an obvious and powerful counterargument. But while these are incredible iterations of what we have seen before, they exist on a preterite idea of agency. It is the quintessential American choice between Coke and Pepsi. These games are incredible summations of the history and experience of gaming, but like choices of soda, they are not paradigm shifts. They are still reliant on the ptolemaic model.

The best avenue that a game can provide to a player is to shape the way their works and labor come into being. Hannah Arendt calls this “action.” We can define action as the ultimate aim of human beings. We operate in a public, political sphere, and we use our individuality in such a way that we bring ourselves to these spaces and address each other as equals. When we speak and decide on things between each other, we take actions. As you can see, decisions can take the form of labor, work, and action, so despite the fact that action is the most active grammatically, all three are decisions. The biggest difference is that action “is never possible in isolation; to be isolated is to be deprived of the capacity to act” (188). Arendt’s concept of action means that games must become a middle actor, a medium through which people can use speech to delineate tasking. There is an old wisdom that “everything is better with co-op.” This refers to the idea that many games, even and perhaps especially bad games, are somehow elevated in the scope of a shared experience among people. This phrase taps into the feeling that Hannah Arendt has identified in the way we relate to each other in the political realm. But Arendt identifies a key difference, and that is its unpredictability. She writes:

This is not simply a question of inability to foretell all the logical consequences of a particular act, in which case an electronic computer would be able to foretell the future, but arises directly out of the story which, as the result of action, begins and establishes itself as soon as the fleeting moment of the deed is past. (191–92)

This is the difference between, say, a cooperative game of Monster Hunter, and EVE Online. Monster Hunter is a cooperative game where many of the tools and mechanics of the game foresee only a handful of outcomes, even amongst friends. Either the monster is vanquished, or they are captured, or the players fail in their attempt. What is most popular about this series occurs either in the immediate action, how that adventure takes place, which becomes a way to tell stories, or the enjoyment occurs outside the fighting in its economy, which is based on the harvesting of these creatures for their parts, all of which are used to collect better gear, so the process can start anew.

But EVE Online is another monster entirely. Its reputation is well-known as an intimidating piece of software, not only on the basis that it exists as a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) like World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy XIV, but its economy is entirely player driven. What I mean to say is that every weapon, every spaceship, every missile and bullet, is manufactured by human hours. In this way, EVE Online has vertically aligned the games labor, work, and action into a space (literally and figuratively) thus allowing players to act communally. This achieves two things. First, it allows players to weave stories across the galaxy that have become infamous in their telling in hushed whispers across the gaming sphere. Second, it is a game that has become so insular that it very frequently rewards returning players rather than new ones. The history of EVE Online spans decades at this point, which makes for an intimidating proposition for any player to throw themselves into that field. What is for sure is that the developers of EVE Online had no idea that when they made a player-driven economy, it would be used for alliances and wars on the scale that we eventually saw. But it was a hope. That hope, and the work and labor that brought that hope into being, is action. The players, navigating these tools to create experiences according to their desires, produced works on the basis of collective action. We are about to speak about Valheim, due to the knowledge of the author of this essay, but perhaps EVE Online is the game par excellence when we see gaming through Arendt’s eyes.

Most games are designed without unpredictability in mind. In fact, unpredictability is viewed as a bad outcome for a game. It implies glitches, bugs, perhaps a misdirection by the player, or bad tutorials. So perhaps we should hone in what we mean when we speak to unpredictability. This is not something that is related to game mechanics, but occurs outside of the game according to the world of men and women who play. Their congregation, their rhetoric and argumentation, their implementation of goals and procedures. The unpredictability resides in the public sphere, and in the interactions of the game from the outside, and perhaps these decisions produce an outcome in the game that the players were not expecting, and so it changes the decisions by the players in the future.

Out of the three concepts to relate to games, Arendt’s “action” is most difficult, because it is most unlike the typical gaming experience. These types of gaming experiences occur at the periphery, and are certainly not thought of amongst the millions of players on Candy Crush. Only in flash-in-the-pan phenomena like Pokemon Go do we see a glimpse of decisionmaking of this kind.

But rest assured it has been here for some time, and it will likely grow in the future. It has to. Because in a growing world of billions of people, we have not created a society that leverages these higher orders of decisions on the ordinary citizen’s behalf. We have actually, in the past half century, gone in the direction of stasis, and restricting what we took to be assumed freedoms. The social welfare state that we assumed would usher in the “end of history” after the fall of the Berlin Wall not only did not come to pass, it is crumbling apart, torn at all sides by corporate greed and ecological collapse. Perhaps when John Winthrop many years ago addressed the thematic necessity of a place like America as a “City on a Hill,” we should view it as a concept for giving meaning to our lives that exists on our terms. And yes, we should ask, or hope, or demand that in the games that we play.

Part Four — Conclusion

Applying this to Valheim, there is plenty that we could talk about. It is a survival game, which means that the labor of surviving is a core element of the game’s loop. One hunts for food, or fishes, or farms. A player quite literally makes a concerted effort towards becoming sheltered. A sheltered status effect can be explicitly applied to the player. A character also tangentially has to worry about the cold, though this cannot kill the character outright. Having shelter or not having shelter, being cold and not being cold, having food or being starving, cannot kill the player on their own, but are simply status effects that make the player weaker. In that way, labor can provide benefits to the player, but unlike a hardcore survival game like The Long Dark, it is not a requirement, at least not early in the experience.

Labor in that way is not a regular bit of homework to keep up with, but rather it is condensed into active events like fighting, exploring, or building, and displaced in other moments like farming, crafting, and “safe” building, when a player has established their borders. It is a powerful system, because it allows the player to better complete goals like acquiring a food surplus faster, collect build materials faster, design structures, fight large enemies, etc. Survival is just as much about protecting one’s person, and through the day and night, there are all kinds of fantastical enemies that lurk in the day and night. These fights can absolutely kill a viking. Safety is labor in Valheim, and it represents a form of pressure onto the player as an incentive to interact with the systems the game devises. In other ways, this can be environmental. The mountains are colder than simple nighttime, applying “freezing” which is an even harsher version. Vikings can swim until they run out of stamina, and then they begin to drown. Vikings can enter the Mistlands without the right equipment, but to their peril. Outrunning a deathsquito is impossible. Outmuscling a Lox is ill-advised. As you can see, the game presents a series of bounds, ones that can be bent and broken, but only if a player acquiesces to the terms of the game.

This is not all bad. Because in these spaces, a player can produce “works.” If there are a few players, they can organize exploration and building parties. If there are many players (up to and exceeding 10), they can organize standard operating procedures for who is allowed to build where. Players can construct statues that create a halo, one that disallows other players from creating or destroying structures within a certain radius. Players can become an architect to whatever they can dream, provided it follows the parameters of the game’s design. Again here, with construction, Valheim allows a player to build, but it features a foundation and weight system, whereby building taller structures makes the structure more precarious to falling apart, provided it is not built soundly underneath. And with the pressure of a hostile world, players are encouraged to collaborate in response to it. The vikings can build houses, paths, structures, create artistic displays, and place them for appreciation or functional value. Because Valheim provides a context for creation, players can organize their labor.

When organizing these social spaces, the best thing that Valheim offered was some in-house methods for organization, not only in providing players tools to construct their own servers, but also in the added “world modifiers” in summer of 2023. It is these kinds of methods that allow players to organize for themselves the kind of experience they would like to have, and further accentuate the democratic powers of the PC over consoles for gaming.

Valheim is not a perfect game, and we can see some examples of that when players are faced with some of the idiosyncrasies of this labor, work, and action system. Players have often discussed the “grind” of the resources given in the default Valheim experience. At one point, Iron Gate Studios gave players the opportunity to quickly place resources into storage chests by pressing “Shift + E,” but this was removed when the development team considered inventory management a “major component” of the game, and thought that friction should remain in the game. This is obviously the wrong take, but you can see that Iron Gate Studios takes this conversation of the actions and social structures of the game very seriously, so much so that they are willing to make features less articulate to maintain it. What that balance is, what that homeostasis is, I suspect it is one that destroys dominant strategies while also providing agency. Eventually, the developers brought back item stacking as a mechanic, but with holding “E” instead. A slight change, but one that alludes to the very problems a game like this is trying to balance, that of labor, work, and action.

In 2023, everyone was talking about Baldur’s Gate 3, about Starfield, about Armored Core 6. To my utter surprise, all I could think about was Valheim. The game, when comparing it to these heavy hitters, seems unfair. But I think it’s safe to say that games can be a lot of different things to different people. And in 2023 I needed something empowering, and Valheim was there with the tools. Here in this essay, I made some fairly bold claims about what the future of all games could be, but I think that is not a nuanced one. There are just as many types of games as there are types of people. But what I want to say is that Valheim, and Minecraft, and other games like it achieve something very special. We live in a world that is on fire. We live in an environment where many of our life decisions are calcified before we are even born. Survival games by contrast present opportunity, novelty, danger and challenge, and then allows creativity in those limitations. Valheim was a game that addressed needs, and this summer it was that game for me.

It’s now almost September, and we are still playing. We’re nearing 1,000 in-game days, and I intend to keep the server running until Valheim enters 1.0. That is because there are still a lot of decisions we need to make together to grow the server. There are problems that need to be solved, big ones. How do we map the Mistlands? What do we do about supply issues? How do we organize our portals? How do we communicate where we’ve been? What are we going to do about the upcoming Ashlands? And each day there are hundreds of smaller decisions we make intuitively together.

Karl Ove Knausgaard has written that literature is a space where truth takes place. One might imagine that video games can be a space for truth as well. Valheim is willing to make that space. Valheim let’s players take action.



Colton Royle

Colton tries to picture a world in which nobody trusted their System 1 thinking. He is currently working on trying to be a better listener.