If we consider videogames as a series of signs, then what does the health bar signify? This trope takes the form of a scale that increases and decreases during play. In Doom from 1993, this scale is expressed in numbers, which may increase or decrease towards infinity. Once it goes below zero, it displays a game over screen that halts, then resumes play with the scale set to one hundred. To play is then to engage with the infinite that returns to an integer that’s always the same. It is to signify the eternal return of the same.
The game over screen coincides with the depiction of the player character’s death to whom the health bar belongs. Health is therefore infinite in Doom, that’s nullified in death, only to be returned as the same with infinite. As death repeats infinity, it nullifies itself by returning the same in death. Death ceases to be the other of life, as it becomes indistinguishable from the infinite of health.
But we’re putting the cart before the horse with this Baudrillardian interpretation of the sign as the general equivalent that renders life and death the same, without looking at what life, or in our case, engagement with the infinite in health, entails. To play Doom is to engage with infinite life and death by giving and receiving projectiles through shooting. These projectiles influence life and death, by their damage, movement, speed, and such, to be rendered the same by the eternal return. Projectiles are given and received in kind, their difference offset by one’s death, to return to a blank slate where these exchanges can repeat. Another way to describe this is by the Maussian conception of the gift and counter-gift, where a given gift prompts the receiver to offer a counter-gift to resolve the symbolic difference that the gift signifies. It is to waste excess, as Bataille argues, since no gift can be repaid in full by a counter-gift, as they signify difference in different differences. This squandering of resources is about bringing ruin to oneself, approximating death, that derives pleasure from its avoidance and symbolic value from what this wastefulness signifies.
Shooting projectiles, in this sense, is about squander with potential for self-ruination, and indulgence in the potential for penetration. These indulgences overlap in the receiver, who shoots projectiles in kind, returning the gift of penetration with the potential for bringing ruination. This erotic interplay is accentuated in a Doom modification called HDoom, which replaces parts of the original game with exaggerated moans and pornographic visuals. Demons display their sexual organs and spread lethal projectiles for one’s gaze and body. This barrage indepts eyes and ears to demand counter-gifts from the player character, who has a playful weapon at hand, always erect and ready to fire. This brings the phallic imagery of shooting to the forefront, as demons wait to be touched and penetrated by toys the player character has. Once pleasure has been meted out, the demons yield themselves as a counter-gift to offer pleasure in kind. The exchange of gifts culminates in cathartic sexual pleasure, should players decide to indept themselves further. Because pleasure to the eyes and ears cannot be repaid, but only approximated by wasting precious resources in titillating squander.
In this view, one accumulates wealth, energy and power to waste them afterwards in an approximation of death, only to return to a blank slate for reaccumulation. In conceiving these abstractions as gifts, an offering associates life with play and death with ruination. Play is a constant through which an abstraction flows through that comes to a sudden halt when the permanence of ruination strikes. The association approximates life in play and death in ruination to avoid and face the gift of life that comes with the counter-gift of death. The exchange persists through this approximation, where life gains its constant playful property and death its permanent ruination, that’s neither constant and neither permanent, but go through a series of approximating transformations to avoid facing death while deriving meaning from this counter-gift. It is to make life playful through the erotic interplay with its other that results in accumulation and expulsion of excess in approximation of the gift-exchange.
Abstractions of power and wealth gain meaning in this erotic interplay with death, speaking to Freud’s conception of the death drive, and Bataille’s description of sex as a playful indulgence in squander that approximates death. Wasting ammunition in shooting demons is such an example, where the meaning of a projectile as resource and as deadly force intertwine in the erratic movement that accompanies its ejection. In this dance-like interplay with demons, the projectile becomes wealth in squander, and power through penetration. The end result of this play between wealth and power is pleasure, accentuated by Doom’s bodies shot to bloody pulps and HDoom’s to sexual exhaustion. They are no different in this sense of eliciting pleasure, because both games achieve this through an erotic interplay with death through violent squandering of wealth and aggressive attainment of power.
Such exchanges with life’s symbolic other give meaning to this dualistic relationship, where death is approximated and distanced, and concealed and revealed by accumulation and waste. Life and death becomes both and neither, but life-like and death-like at once through symbolic transactions, such as the pleasure gifting and counter-gifting elicits and the excess this creates.
The health bar, by contrast, signifies the general equivalent that nullifies this playful expulsion of excess. Akin to capital that transforms every transaction to fit its universal scale, accumulation of items and ejection of projectiles becomes a series of calculations in relation to the health bar. The universal equivalent makes accumulation calculated and excess wasteful, stripping shooting from its erotic indulgence that renders the interplay with death meaningless.
HDoom’s eroticized imagery, in this sense, doesn’t deviate from the original Doom’s reliance on the general equivalent. It merely replaces the gift exchange from a dead body to an eroticized one. But by doing so, it accentuates the erotic interplay between violence and death, even if this becomes neutered by the general equivalent of life, encapsulated in health.