A city tour demonstrating the architecture of New York usually doesn’t need to specify that it’s “pacifist.” But when it takes place in Tom Clancy’s: The Division, avoiding violence is difficult. The digital tourists in Total Refusal’s film Operation Jane Walk carry rifles and tactical gear, whether they want to use them or not. As they move towards Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive to discuss the work of urban planner Robert Moses and theorist Jane Jacobs, they have to avoid and ignore incoming fire. Next, they pause to watch an NPC endlessly beat something that looks suspiciously like a human corpse.
“If we don’t disturb him, he’ll continue his performance forever,” says the tour guide.
Operation Jane Walk is one of Total Refusal’s earliest productions. The collective is a group of academics and creatives making thought-provoking art by exploring the seams of AAA video games. Jane Walk captures the twin themes that underlie much of their work. Firstly, it explores how games so often reproduce an uncritical, capitalist, imperialist political perspective. And secondly, it reveals that they’re actually completely absurd.
It feels like it shouldn’t be an easy balance to walk, and yet it seems to come easily to the collective, both in their published work and when I speak to some of their members in interview. The films, and the conversation, don’t so much cut between rhetoric and humour so much as create both from each other.
One key to this is that what Total Refusal do is still play. There are now six members, but I spoke with the three earliest: Leonhard Müllner, Michael Stumpf, and Robin Klengel. Stumpf first approached Müllner following a seminar the latter was giving at his previous university. “I could tell [he was] a gamer,” Stumpf says. “I never usually approach people but he was doing a piece on Let’s Plays, and I could tell he wasn’t just looking at it from an academic point of view. He was an actual gamer.”
“We enjoy playing games a lot,” says Klengel. “Playing is important to us. And we all share great amazement for video games. [They] make us very happy. But games make us very angry as well.” The trio laughs as he says it.
After meeting, the three started playing together regularly, and when the gameplay of The Division became repetitive to them, Operation Jane Walk was born. From how Klengel describes the initial idea, the twin basis of Total Refusal was already in place. They talked about how to “use games as a matter of education,” he says, but also “what would actually be fun to do with them.” The key to both of these things was “counterplay” – using the game in unintended ways.
At first, this was mainly pacifism; trying to find ways to engage with games without resorting to using the guns that are near ubiquitous in them. How to Disappear, for instance, is a “tribute to disobedience and desertion,” exploring the refusal to fight in both real war and Battlefield. But they’ve also found themselves returning to another theme over and over again: capitalism.
“It’s unavoidable the more you look into these tropes,” Stumpf says. “They’re all connected to our economic system.” Take, for instance, the NPCs in Red Dead Redemption 2. Like the nameless figure in Operation Jane Walk, these characters repeat a single task for hours at a time. The blurb for Total Refusal’s latest film at the time we speak, Hardly Working, calls them “digital Sisyphus machines,” and the film explores the repetitive nature of work under capitalism through their cyclical animations.
But as much as these NPCs can be used to explore economic struggle, they’re also delightfully strange if you actually think about them. “We try not to be too pedagogical,” says Klengel. “I mean, it happens,” he immediately admits. The trio laugh again. “But we try to make our projects fun to watch, and search for moments of humour, and pleasure, and absurdity. Actually, the humour is already in those worlds. If you take the world seriously, if you look at the details…video game worlds are ridiculous, right?”
A woman in Red Dead Redemption 2 sweeps the same area over and over again, not making any impact on how dirty it is. The city walkers in Operation Jane Walk run into enemies, and the tour guide casually says, “We have to defend ourselves, sorry,” as the camera cuts from the violence but the gunfire is loud and clear. In one of the simplest but most effective Total Refusal pieces, three images from different war games show flowers, unmoving in the face of massive explosions. There’s meaning to be explored in these moments, but they’re also inherently funny.
“That’s our basic trick,” Klengel says. “That’s the magic of the collective.”
The conversation meanders back to the serious. Games might be a good medium for this kind of critique because it gives players an “in” for understanding more complex topics, say Klengel and Stumpf. But also, says Stumpf, “where else?” Given the huge revenues and cultural impact of games, “there’s sort of an obligation to look at the ideology that they recreate and create.”
When I ask about their goals, Müllner replies first. “We want to use mass media and hijack it in order to radicalise people politically,” he says. He immediately admits this is a dramatic way to put it, and that it might not work that way, but the energy is undeniable.
“Radicalise is one thing,” says Stumpf, “But [we also want to] create a consciousness for the politicality in video games. …It has an enormous potential to question ideology and it doesn’t fulfil this potential at all.” Müllner talks about the usual arc of the story in AAA video games, where the player character becomes stronger and eventually ends up taking control of whatever situation they’re in. It reflects the promises of the meritocracy, he says, and even if most people recognise that hard work doesn’t correlate with social climbing in real life, games continue to sell that myth.
In this and other ways, “these stories are very obedient to authority,” says Müllner. But there’s no reason that they have to be. “We live in a democracy.”
“Well…” says Stumpf, and we all laugh.
“A market-driven democracy,” Müllner clarifies.
“Which is something else,” Stumpf says. And that brings him to Total Refusal’s ultimate goal, in his opinion. “We want to empower people to build up communities within the social space of video games and therefore radicalise, and express themselves politically within these social spaces.”