Using the endless generative possibilities of game engines to build a nuanced understanding of the power dynamics and systems of subjugation, we can begin to lay the groundwork for developing more equitable and collaborative interspecies futures.
“God knows inventing a universe is a complicated business,” reflected speculative fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin in the introduction to her Hainish Cycle series, to which The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Disposessed (1974) belong. The daughter of an anthropologist and writer, Le Guin understood how the speculative and science fictions could serve as tools of a world-building practice. Alongside science-fiction writer Octavia E. Butler, she redrew the parameters of a male-dominated genre high on a techno-dystopian vision of the future.
In her stories, Le Guin envisioned genderless societies, anarchist utopias and sentient forests on far-flung planets—but her worlds are not utopian. They exist outside of a clear chronology¹ (she once likened the sequencing of the Hainish Universe to “the web of a spider on LSD”) and reject any singular idealized version of the future. Roaming and polyphonic, they are, in Haraway’s² terms, systems of entanglement. In her five-decade-long career, Le Guin rebuilt speculative fiction practice as a project of critical utopia.³ Her interstellar worlds became test sites for disrupting anthropocentric thinking and piloting strategies for interspecies survival here on planet Earth.
The rise of speculative fiction in contemporary art practice is inextricable from the evolution of gaming technologies. Since the mid-2000s, popular game engines including Unity, Epic’s Unreal Engine and Grand Theft Auto’s own RAGE software have enabled world-building to migrate off the page and onto the screen. This software evolved against the backdrop of a catastrophic Great Recession and an uneasy sequence of climate-fuelled natural disasters; perhaps unsurprisingly, the first cult video games to emerge from this period—including GTA and Assassin’s Creed—fetishize the same brand of apocalyptic violence that Le Guin repudiated. But as game engines became capable of rendering high-fidelity graphics and immersive environments, artists began adopting them as a powerful tool for envisioning new ecological and social realities.
In 2009, the artist Cao Fei launched RMB City, an interactive, unregulated post-national social commons on the online virtual world Second Life.⁴ That same year, art historian Carrie Lambert-Beatty coined the term “parafiction”⁵ to describe the muddied relationship between fact and fiction in a world increasingly blurring the two. From this context, Le Guin’s tactics of speculative fiction have seeded a new artistic practice that utilizes game engines to augur new worlds and respond to the crises-laden one we inhabit. Manifesting predominantly as video work, the world-building strategies of game engine artists can be understood in three ways:
1. hacking the system-as-is in order to transform it;
2. prototyping alternative futures to live together;
3. rendering agency for more-than-human worlds.
Hacking the system necessitates a politics of the glitch. Filmmaker Harun Farocki made headway in Parallel I-IV (2012–2014): a kaleidoscopic four-part voyage through the aesthetic evolution of videogames and their political subtext. The film meditates on the glitching edge-of-world gamespace—an uncalculated threshold that players can accidentally pass through, leading to either their death or suspension inside a cosmic black infinity. For Farocki, the glitch was a site of ecstatic potential, a space where the rules of the game environment and our own world could be temporarily suspended. In her 2020 manifesto Glitch Feminism,⁶ writer and curator Legacy Russell uploads this idea into the present, compacting the techno-political possibilities of the glitch with a feminist reading of race, gender, power, and technology. In the outdated hardware of an old world order, the glitch becomes the ultimate system update.
In Larry Achiampong and David Blandy’s collaborative trilogy Finding Fanon (2015–2017), the duo hack into the gameworld of Grand Theft Auto to destabilize race and identity politics in a post-colonial context. Part two opens with a glitch: Achiampong & Blandy’s avatars tumble from the sky into a palm-tree-laden urban sprawl. In the ten-minute-long video, they trawl through the apocalyptic wasteland of Los Santos, GTA 5’s mirror world of Los Angeles. Picking up where its namesake—the psychiatrist and anti-colonial thinker Frantz Fanon—left off, the video overlays multiple stories: how the artists’ familial histories relate to colonial histories; how their relationship is formed in the gamespace and through race; and loose speculations on posthumanism.
As the suited avatars balance atop train tracks underneath star-studded skies and walk along Venice Beach at sunset, the lofty critical theory of the video melts into ambient spatial assemblages of the familiar virtual environment. It closes out with the avatars walking into the ocean; the camera pans over their bodies, and we see the crashing waves through their eyes. “When will we find peace?” The voiceover demands, quoting Fanon. “Only the oppressor knows peace, because he is rarely challenged.” By superimposing the words of Fanon onto the pre-generated game environment, the artists push beyond mere game-world glitch space. They stay within the level’s boundaries in order to make a point, addressing the emotional and psychological weight of colonization while charting an alternative space of liberation.
For other artists including Keiken and Lawrence Lek, creating a new world is an essential aspect of their storytelling. Founded in 2015 by Hana Omori, Isabel Ramos, and Tanya Cruz, the international Keiken Collective creates woozy multimedia environments soaked in magical realism. Built in the game design system Unreal Engine, their video work Feel My Metaverse (2019) explores a near-future reality where the climate crisis has rendered the Earth uninhabitable and humans dwell in VR-based escapist “Life Units.” The work touches on everything from ancestral mother-child relationships to Kylie Jenner’s beauty empire, critiquing wellness capitalism while envisioning alternatives to a post-apocalyptic future. Building upon the idea of a “platform diverse body” from transhumanist⁷ designer Natasha Vita-More, Feel My Metaverse challenges the accelerationist and anthropocentric overtones of transhumanism—a favorite philosophy of Silicon Valley tech bros—by introducing an intersectional, multi-species approach to the movement. New forms of collaborative practice that nurture explorations of identity, community, and multi-species entanglements are at the heart of Keiken’s world-building practice.
Lek, meanwhile, creates dystopian near-future architectural environments that blend historical fantasy, pop-cultural appeal, documentary melodrama, and social realism with Chinese cosmologies. His feature-length Sinofuturism series—which includes Geomancer (2017) and AIDOL (2019)—takes full advantage of the real-time rendering capacities of game engines.⁸ The result is a hypnotic, slow-burn narrative that draws parallels between the popular representation of Chinese industrialization and automation; a world where AI technologies stand in as an allegory for marginalized groups. Lek’s epic-scale sci-fi worlds are filled with glistening hi-tech structures but markedly devoid of human bodies; humanism concentrates elsewhere, in more-than-human agents. This type of world-building is inflected with the interspecies ethics of Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto⁹—the sentient satellite of Geomancer and the AI pop-star of AIDOL feel more human than we are.
Finally, there is a third type of speculative fiction practice that utilizes the world-building capacity of game engines to envision more-than-human ecologies. Artists including Ian Cheng, Jenna Sutela, and Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg generate super-sentient environments that extend beyond the human, rendering alternative ecological pasts and interstellar futures. Finding kinship with the weird fiction genre—pioneered by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer, and sprouting more recent offshoots including speculative fiction writers Elvia Wilk and Fernando A. Flores— this type of practice rejects the anthropocentric genesis of game engines, rebooting the technology to augur autonomous multispecies worlds.
Primordial bipedals, multiheaded futurist shibas, and post-body oceanic protagonists populate the virtual ecosystems of Cheng’s Emissaries trilogy (2015–2017). The simulation utilizes behavioral-prediction technologies like data-mining and artificial intelligence to generate a live story that unfolds in a cosmic digital tundra, rainforest, and desert in real time, infinitely and independently of human action. Meanwhile, Sutela’s nimiia cétiï (2018) blends the audio recordings of a 19th-century French mystic channeling Martian, the motions of space bacteria, and the audio-visual alchemy of a neural network to generate a kind of polyglottic interspecies communication system on the Red Planet.
Ginsberg’s The Wilding of Mars (2019) is the least cryptic of the bunch. Developed in Unity, the simulation speculates on what a non-human vegetal colonization of Mars might look like. A wild garden seeds itself in Martian topsoil over millennia, building up an evolutionary resilience expedited by the game engine in a matter of hours. “Can we imagine Mars except as a place for ourselves?” asks Ginsberg, seemingly in Elon’s direction. In its offering up of the Red Planet to a more-than-human ecology, Ginsberg’s project can be understood as an experiment of anti-terraforming.¹⁰
Having fought against the mainstream techno-dystopian rulebook of science fiction her whole life, Le Guin understood the challenges of using the genre as a tool of social and ecological justice for more-than-human worlds. She also knew its revolutionary potential. Working through immersive digital environments, today’s game engine artists expand the science and speculative fictions into a real-time shared world-building practice. As speculative fiction writer N. K. Jemisin has noted, these worlds are less often images of the future than mirrors of the present. Using this space to build a nuanced understanding of the power dynamics and systems of subjugation—both human and not—underpinning our world-as-is, we can begin to lay the groundwork for developing more equitable and collaborative interspecies futures. (“We live in capitalism; its power seems inescapable,” Le Guin said, “but then, so did the divine right of kings.”) As game engine software continues to advance and we inch closer to the Metaverse,¹¹ the generative possibilities of the medium appear infinite. It’s up to us to build the worlds we want to inhabit, together.
Cover image: Alice Buckenell, Swamp City, single-channel HD video, 2021, still. Courtesy the artist.