Swings Don’t Swing

In video games every element serves a function. Every object is a potential weapon or treasure, every character a potential friend or foe, every location potentially filled with dread or discovery. Or at least, that is what you’d expect. But video game programmers and publishers have always dressed up their virtual worlds with elements that serve no gameplay function but are there for aesthetic reasons or to make the game’s world feel more expansive and more fully-formed. (This also contributes to the increasing popularity of in-game photomodes).


That is how children’s playgrounds wind up in shooter games. They are decorative elements: innocent-looking backdrops to the violent mayhem that is the core of these games’ attraction. They are dead space, or rather: dead pixels and polygons that dress up the digital scenery. In a strange bit of irony, these video game playgrounds are places where the gamers cannot play. Austrian visual artist Leonhard Müllner exploits this irony in his video Swings Don’t Swing. (It’s actually a part of a video installation that itself references a playground swing in its spatial set-up). The video shows game characters – often armed to the teeth – futilely trying to interact with the playground equipment. In that way, this piece of video art can certainly be considered a video essay, as it questions a specific visual regime and does so in a visual way. That Müllner uses the games’ mechanics against themselves is yet another instance of irony, and a very gratifying one.


A commando tries to clamber up a slide. Another one tries to use a roundabout as a vantage point. In a particularly striking sequence, a car keeps crashing into a swing that won’t budge. The playground toy, usually simple to set in motion, is immovable here and as a result the car is reduced to a mere wreck by its stubborn, self-destructive attempts. Müllner’s video lays bare the cynical visual use these violent video games make of the playgrounds. It questions the way in which such games mindlessly use symbols of innocent play as a backdrop for entertaining interactive violence. As the game’s protagonists desperately try but fail to engage these unyielding playgrounds, Müllner’s intervention enacts the revenge of innocence on gamified violence.