The Dangerous Video Game You Weren't Supposed To Play

Zach Gage says his riff on Space Invaders isn't maliciously designed software made to destroy your computer files — though it might do that. It's a more thoughtful project than that.

Lose/Lose is about values and value. It's about what happens if a "Game Over" screen destroys your copy of the game, as happens with Gage's game. And it's about what happens if every alien invader that you shoot down for points represents a file somewhere on your computer, a file that, if you blast that alien, is deleted forever.

As it says in red, all-caps letters on the official Lose/Lose homepage: "KILLING ALIENS IN LOSE/LOSE WILL DELETE FILES ON YOUR HARDDRIVE PERMANANTLY" [sic]

"I'm shocked anyone has played it at all," Gage said in an interview with Kotaku. "It was never meant to be made, rather a catalyst for discussion."

But Lose/Lose is being played. A list on Gage's website reports high scores generated by gamers unafraid of the damage "Lose/Lose would do to their computers. The top scorer has "slaughtered 4912 aliens" and done who knows how much damage to their computer, if the data being pulled by the game's website is accurate and real, which Gage says it is. "I think the people who've played it have added an important element to it," he said "In demonstrating that they value their data differently."

Or, perhaps, Lose/Lose players value other people's data differently. Gage said he's aware of the game being played on computers at retailers such as Best Buy or The Apple Store, an act he discourages. He equates the act with going to a store's display computer and dragging important files into the trash.

Regardless of where people are playing the game and whose data they might be destroying, the themes of Lose/Lose are still relevant. To Gage, one of the game's key attributes is that it gives the world a video game that undisputedly has real-world consequence.

"I do think it's worth questioning what this medium can convey," he said. "Lose/Lose does this by taking the standpoint that killing in video games could have consequences in real life, and it supports this statement by having consequences."

Gage isn't taking an anti-video-game violence stance. He describes himself as a hardcore gamer who is excited about the release of Modern Warfare 2 and not at all an anti-video-game-violence guy. Instead, he hopes that the Lose/Lose's real-world consequences for player aggression against virtual aliens will provoke conversations about the worth of virtual things.

He sees the game as part of the dialogue about how important the virtual parts of our lives are, a topic he believes is relevant to everything from MySpace-related suicide to griefing in video games, that touches on everything from social interactions online to banking.

"Lose/Lose is out there to try and engage us in this conversation," he said. "What does it mean that we value property differently? How can we interact with each-other successfully in an environment where my hard drive is my artistic livelihood, but yours might only contain links to YouTube? Or in which some have their primary social interactions, and others only use a place to unwind and destress. This isn't a situation that can be solved with rules or laws, but one that we have to grow into societally, and yet, it's growing ever faster than we're understanding what that means. How do we catch up?

"Personally, I've always been really interested in how the internet abstracts us from what we do or say by way of anonymity. This is the same mechanic that Lose/Lose employs. You are the entire time aware of what you're doing, but you are abstracted from it by the video game layer. This mirrors a lot of these aggressive situations on the internet.

"It also mirrors a lot of situations in real life. Situations like war, cheating, or drugs, are all Lose/Lose, and yet people do them anyway. That aspect of the project serves as a subtle way to justify the reality of the virtual world."

Last week, as reported in PC World, the PC security firm Symantec deemed his game a Trojan that could be used to damage computers. It's damage level, as indicated by Symantec is "low." Nevertheless, the company's site warns: "OSX.Loosemaque is a Trojan that appears to be a video game, but deletes files from the home folder when a user plays it."

Gage believes he's made the risks involved with the game, which are spelled out on his website, clear enough and bristles at any attempt to label his game as malware, or malicious software. "I would rather call it dangerous software. Unfortunately," he said, distinguishing it from programs maliciously designed to harm computers. "I think it's important but sad that anti-virus companies need to protect us from projects like mine that are so up front about what they do, but I recognize that it's their business, and unfortunately many people rely on anti-virus companies as their only means of defense."

Symantec's action does demonstrate the power of Lose/Lose to suggest a game can have real-world consequences, and in that way it is a victory for Gage whose game will be presented as part of his thesis for a masters of fine arts at Parsons The New School for Design in New York.

"I think it's time we stop discussing whether or not video games and other media could be affecting us," he said, "And start addressing what it means to be affected by something like this — and how we can use this effect to strengthen the medium."