Cleaning a first person shooter’s mess — gory inspiration for saving the planet?
By Iris Wijnands
Iris Wijnands is a Global Sustainability Science student who participated in the Utrecht University 2021 Sustainability Game course. This course is centered around gaming and game development in the context of a new design paradigm, for which Iris wrote the following opinion piece.
I first learned about the game Viscera Cleanup Detail in 2016. I watched a video of someone playing it, and I was instantly fascinated by the concept. It is essentially a game in which you clean up after a first person shooter (FPS); blood everywhere, walls full of bullet holes, and limbs that one can only assume were once attached to an alien of some kind strewn about the place. There is no fighting or time limit: just you and your trusty mop. But despite the game’s simplicity — or perhaps thanks to it — and the fact that it was designed for entertainment, it managed to change my views on several topics. Since I study Global Sustainability Science, I am especially interested in the sustainability aspect of these topics, although other people might interpret them very differently.
As mentioned before, Viscera Cleanup Detail is a game in which the player has to clean up a scene that seems to have been left behind after a gory video game level. Despite the fact that the cleaning is made enjoyable in the game, it still made me think of how unaware I am of the impact of my actions with regards to consumption. It essentially made me question if FPS games are ‘worth it’, even though they are just pixels. I became even more interested in this topic when I read an article about the game, which stated: “I sometimes wonder whether the developer, RuneStorm, would ever make the accompanying FPS so that players could generate unique hellscapes and then the cleanup detail could tidy those”. This person clearly did not experience the game the same way I did, and that piqued my curiosity. Now, I was aware that my interpretation of the game was the exception, not the interpretation of the people writing about the game. But that did not stop me from wondering if there could be something else behind it, especially since it seemed so similar to polluting or wasteful behaviour in real life. I found two possible contributors to why we seem to prefer cleaning up over not initially making the mess. The first is ‘loss aversion’. We perceive the change to the initial activity as far bigger than the gain of reducing pollution or reducing consumption. The second is the ‘status quo bias’. The initial behaviour is so normal to us, that we resist any change even if the cost would be small and the gain big. Of course this is not the entire story, but my perspective had changed.
Rather than a magical hero with a big, shiny weapon, the main character of Viscera Cleanup Detail is a janitor with a mop. There is little to no customization, and when you die you respawn as a new janitor. I really appreciated this, because I think it is easy to forget that you don’t need to be a stereotypical hero to make a difference. This very much relates to environmental matters, since it can be hard to commit to a lifestyle change like becoming a vegetarian when you don’t believe in the difference your choices make. Seeing small actions accumulate in a game like that really allowed me to see that even if something seems insignificant, it might not be. One study shows that people have a hard time accurately estimating their impact on the environment. Although overestimating how sustainable one leads their life is an issue, I believe these findings can also give hope. The game reminded me to never underestimate the impact of individuals.
While going through reviews of the game, I noticed that many people seem to prefer multiplayer over single-player. One article mentions, “Part of the love of Viscera Cleanup Detail is in working with other people”, and a review on Steam says, “Relaxing game […], I do recommend playing with friends though as it’s much more fun”. It really struck me how odd it can sound that you are coming together with friends to clean up together, despite the fact that it makes sense outside of the game as well. If you want to consider it for yourself, consider these two options: going to a park or beach near you and picking up trash on your own, or doing the same thing together with a group of your friends. Your individual contribution would most likely be the same in both cases, but I would personally prefer to do it in a group. Of course, the story of the game is that the character is paid to clean up those environments, but for the player it is not that different from the real-life example. The idea of taking action together rather than on your own, also reminded me of lifestyle changes. I used to struggle with my switch to a vegetarian diet, but now that I have people around me doing the same it has become a lot easier. The idea of a ‘buddy’, someone who is going through the same experience, is actually encouraged when it comes to lifestyle changes.
These were the main points on which the game Viscera Cleanup Detail changed my perspective, without even meaning to. I became more aware of how much I consume, I realised that you do not need to be a hero to make a difference, and I am now more likely to involve others when I plan to (make a) change. Contrary to how this may sound, I did also just enjoy the game. Not everything has to have a deeper meaning, and a game certainly does not need to change your life for it to be considered good. But I hope this has given you at least a little bit of food for thought. And who knows, maybe we could clean up alien limbs together sometime. Or a beach. Whichever speaks to you.
Anticiplay is an NWO Vidi-funded research project that aims to establish a new design paradigm for the gaming sector in collaboration with CreaTures EU. You can find our mission statement here! Follow us @anticiplay on Twitter, and feel free to engage us with any questions, games that you think are inspiring, and anything else!