Ori and the Blind: the Costs of Tech in the Modern World
Updated: Jul 1, 2019
I am playing through Ori and the Blind Forest right now, albeit slowly. Graduate school yanked me out of gaming for a few years and employed life is holding me back from catching up on the culture of indie gaming that I so deeply cherish. I haven’t yet played Cuphead or Celeste, I’m working my way toward the masterpieces and then I’ll play through the more DIY and/or rough-around-the-edges games when I have more time (or a Switch). Ori caught my eye a while back and I saw it on sale at some point last year, so I just grabbed it. It’s lovely. Developed by Australia’s Moon Studios, the game puts the player in control of a spritely creature named Ori, an empathy magnet who, after being traumatically separated from two loving parental figures in the first five minutes of the story, takes on a mission to revitalize his home’s ecological landscape and save the forest. The game is carefully and thoughtfully designed, with tight controls, satisfying character progression, and believably consistent rules that govern the world and the characters who inhabit it.
After completing a thrilling mission to free and purify the forest’s water, the game’s inescapable earth justice themes seemed to solidify for me as a player. In confronting a powerful nemesis and uniting with those Ori loved, I was also restoring an imbalanced ecosystem to right internal relationship. As a climate-conscious player, this is compelling to me. I stewed, however, over the sequence I just played and thought through the irony of creating ecologically conscious art that presupposes the ownership of a complex computing system on which to play it, which implicates the player in the dramatically abusive cycle by which industry devours our workers, nations, and our planet. I sat in front of my computer to outline an essay about it and drank deeply from the bejeweled goblet of hypocrisy.
To write or to play or to speak out about planetary health in a digital space cannot be done separately from the collective culpability of users in perpetuating the unjust mechanisms that make these spaces possible. “There is no question that smartphones, PCs, and other computing devices have changed the world and our day-to-day lives in incredible ways. But behind this innovative 21st-century technology lie supply chain and manufacturing processes still reliant on 19th-century sources of energy, dangerous mining practices, hazardous chemicals, and poorly designed products that drive consumption of the Earth’s resources,” reads Greenpeace’s 2017 Electronics Guide. The evils produced by the global electronics industry are multifaceted. On the one hand, there is the human toll of extracting the metals from which our devices are constructed. Unmonitored workers in the supply chain handle hazardous materials without proper safety equipment, putting them at risk for wage abuses and health detriments with no protections. Politically, there is the question of who receives the huge sums of money that large corporations are willing to pay for such materials, which has fostered instability and violence in fragile nations where these resources are found, leading to their dubious nickname “conflict minerals.” There are, of course, the sweatshop conditions under which the products are assembled, economic zones where wage slavery is the norm. Then, there is the problem of the inability of these products to break down and the lax “recyclers” who deal with them. Capitalist consumerism spurs this twisted ecosystem to more frantic paces of chaotic production through planned obsolescence, and the efficiency of these devices as communication tools have made them indispensable for workers in the 21st century. We have to buy them. Because we have to buy them, we have to buy new ones when ours are phased out. We are compelled to join the process.
This is a dizzying and utterly demoralizing problem to confront. As we, the consumers, are included in the abuses perpetrated against the majority of the world, we are complicit in these crimes, but not solely. We did not design the fleeting, attention-based economy we are responsible for supporting. We do not decide when our phones don’t work, and we are not the ones who have tried to keep consumers and third-party organizations from fixing them. These are industrial and systemic evils, designed and maintained by powerful people who are displacing the human, environmental, and economic costs of their production onto their far-away workers, and trusting us consumers to turn a blind eye because we receive the benefits of comfort and placation. Ironically, however, we do have organizing and communicating power to confront these problems in the very machines they have produced.
Connection in digital spaces through art (like Ori), thought (this essay, I hope), and organizing (more below) may be the most efficient way to combat the abuses of tech. Artistically, the turning inward of questions of environmental and social justice in gaming is not necessarily denial. In the right context, with the right community and the right player, it is an experience of alterity. The player’s experience as Ori is not merely a reinforcement of the hero’s journey but also an opportunity for the player to encounter themselves from Ori’s point of view as the hazards that inhabit the forest, the sinister bird of prey who assaults the forest’s life or the slimy monsters who mill about in its wastes. Further, through actual, careful discussion (not memes), the internet has capacity to transmit real dialogue which will contribute strategically to movements for change. These movements are disparate but unified through their work for measurable reformation across the tech industry’s broad landscape. Worker-led, global movements like the Worker-Driven Social Responsibility Network are succeeding in reinventing how supply chain management happens, the Right to Repair movement hopes to halt planned obsolescence through the removal of legal barriers to fixing electronics that are designed to break, and oversight groups like the Basel Action Network are educating consumers and identifying more righteous waste-disposal alternatives.
Perhaps, in ways, we are like Ori, children of separation in a wasting world. Like him, we have the power through reclamation, connection, and organization to reverse what seems hopelessly damaged. The difficult task is to make the digital space matter, to blur the barrier between our conscious participation in it and our bodily and civil participation in the real world.