What Just Happened: Total Refusal Collective Casts NPC Workers in Critique of Contemporary Labour

The pseudo-Marxist media guerilla Total Refusal explores and practices strategies for artistic intervention in contemporary videogames. Mainly based in Austria, the collective works with tools of appropriation and rededication of game resources. Their films, installations, and performances were presented at major festivals and institutions including Ars Electronica, Berlinale, Locarno Film Festival, and the MoMA, earning the collective more than 45 awards and honorary mentions. Total Refusal is Susanna Flock, Adrian Jonas Haim, Jona Kleinlein, Robin Klengel, Leonhard Müllner, and Michael Stumpf. Photo: Sarah Fichtinger


Martin Zeilinger

What just happened? Since its premiere at the 75th edition of the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland in August 2022, Total Refusal’s machinima film Hardly Working has become a clear favourite with audiences and critics. Chronicling the lives of four non-player characters (NPCs) in Rockstar Games’ Red Dead Redemption 2, the film uses the videogame work routines of these ‘digital extras’ to mount a critique of contemporary labour. In addition to showing at film festivals and art galleries, the film spawned immersive multi-channel installations (Ars Electronica, Kunsthaus Graz, GRINDFEST) and playful lecture performances (Singapore Art Museum, Werkleitz Festival, NEW NOW Festival).

Q: Hardly Working, like all your works, sits within the ‘machinima’ tradition of filmmaking in and with videogames that first emerged in the early 2000s. What inspired your interest in this particular medium?
A: We started as a group of gamers rather than filmmakers. We noticed that videogames, despite being a widely consumed medium, were lacking in critical analysis. It seemed that the industry was often exoticized and subject to misguided criticism and projections. We believed that a more thorough examination of the videogame industry was needed, especially given its dominance in the lives and values of billions of people. We saw an opportunity to experiment with socio-political subversions in the medium, utilizing hijacking, upcycling, and breaking the pictorial power, while circumventing current hegemonies. Additionally, we aimed to develop strategies to tell alternative stories to players that policitize the medium.
“In the figure of the NPC, the image of the subject trapped in the work process is exaggerated, since the game provides no functionality for their work ever to be completed. And as labour exists not as a means to fulfill any specific needs but as an element of the endless process of accumulation, the work can never be finished.”
Q: Within less than a year of its release, Hardly Working has been invited to over 30 film festivals around the world, and has won awards including Best Direction in the Pardi di domani section of the Locarno Film Festival, Best Concept at Prilep International Film Festival, and Best Screenplay at Usak Film Festival, among others. What do you think it is about the film’s unlikely protagonists that resonates so strongly with audiences?
A: Hardly Working draws on the vast world of the game Red Dead Redemption 2, which features around 1,000 extras that are often overlooked by players. These non-player characters (NPCs) carry out their assigned tasks or move in their predetermined loops, serving to create a sense of normalcy and everyday life in the game world. The player forms a strong bond with only a handful of story-relevant NPCs, while the rest serve as mere background characters, or as Alan Butler terms it, ‘Ambient Human Presence.’

Hardly Working considers the NPC as Animal laborans (a term used by Hannah Arendt), a working individual whose work strengthens the status quo instead of changing it. Work is not a means to overcome social status or even societal conditions, but in fact, is the backbone of the individual’s total entanglement in capitalist work relations. But in the figure of the NPC, the image of the subject trapped in the work process is exaggerated, since the game provides no functionality for their work ever to be completed. And as labour exists not as a means to fulfill any specific needs but as an element of the endless process of accumulation, the work can never be finished. As the narrator of Hardly Working says about the NPC carpenter that we portray: “There will never be enough nails in the wood.” Activities such as sweeping a floor or sinking nails into wood become an inconclusive and absurd performance. NPCs are Sisyphean machines, programmed to get stuck in the routines of everyday life without results.

Why does our film resonate with the audience? We’d love the answer to be because it is radical, political, and surprising. But it is likely also true that audiences simply identify with these portrayals of stumbling, endearing people caught up in their loops and feelings of powerlessness.
“And yet, no matter how diligently she sweeps, no matter how long she focuses on the same spot, the sidewalk’s texture remains dusty and full of dried mud.”

The street sweeper is one of four NPC protagonists Total Refusal’s film Hardly Working zooms in on.
Q: Red Dead Redemption 2 is a Western-themed open-world game set in a fictionalized version of the United States in 1899. What drew you to the game as a source of material to explore quasi-capitalist exploitation of labour?
A: Red Dead Redemption 2 is an outstanding work of hyperrealism that features NPCs with an unparalleled level of detail. The NPCs exhibit more than 70 distinct gestures, actions, and movements in the game’s day-and-night cycle. For example, the stableman doesn’t just light his pipe by magically producing it in his mouth—instead, he takes it out of his pocket, puts it in his mouth, grabs a matchbox, strikes a match against it, lights the tobacco, and then shakes the match out of his hand. Even more impressively, NPCs respond to their environment in a realistic way—seeking shelter from the rain, interacting with passing dogs, and engaging in a variety of complex and diverse activities. Some NPCs are alcoholics, some visit grave sites, while others simply relax and take in their surroundings.

The game provides an excellent platform for examining the concept of labour, both in terms of how it is represented within the game and how it relates to broader social norms. Furthermore, the game is set within a clear class society—the monopoly capitalism of the early 20th century—making it a rich subject for Marxist analysis.
Red Dead Redemption 2 provides an excellent platform for examining the concept of labour, both in terms of how it is represented within the game and how it relates to broader social norms. It is set within a clear class society—the monopoly capitalism of the early 20th century—making it a rich subject for Marxist analysis.”
Q: On your website, you describe the collective by invoking political activism, using terms such as ‘pseudo-Marxist,’ ‘artistic intervention,’ ‘guerilla,’ and ‘appropriation.’ What are the politics of Total Refusal, and why are videogames the ideal context for your work?
A: The videogame industry is infused with capitalist aesthetics (hyperrealism) that aim to compensate for the unfulfilled promises of meritocracy and individualism. Big-budget games are considered the most significant investment products in the global entertainment industry. The content, gameplay, and design of these games are determined by investors, publishers, powerful marketing departments, and a structurally conservative, mostly male, class of consumers. It is crucial to recognize that video games contribute to a global social hegemony through their images, narratives, and gameplay. Mass media now seeks to “manufacture consensus” rather than produce propaganda, which would no longer be effective in market democracies. The games industry, among other mainstream businesses, defines how we perceive the world and promotes a liberal-capitalist ideology across the political spectrum. Additionally, the military-media nexus creates a fetish effect that glorifies the military and its weapons products. Given the material issues with this super-medium, it seems more than appropriate to examine this highly political industry through a Marxist lens.
Q: You also create installations and performances. For example, Hardly Working was shown as a large, multi-channel installation at the 2022 Ars Electronica Festival. What changes when you switch from the linear and durational video essay format to the non-linear and looping structure of a multi-screen installation? How are the dialectics of Total Refusal reflected in these different contexts?
A: Haha, that’s an art-fetish question. Sometimes, we consider our story to be better conveyed in a spatial setting. For example, the looping nature of NPCs’ existences can be better depicted by assigning each of them their own screen, allowing viewers to observe them throughout the day. Installations, such as Swings Don’t Swing, can also be used to convey messages more effectively. This particular project addresses the unsuccessful attempt to play with an avatar inside a computer game on playgrounds. The swaying, swing-like projectors used in the installation compensate for the dysfunctionality of the digital world. Spatial experience has its own unique qualities that we enjoy exploring. For instance, the NPC club Club Stahlbad (2023), our newest piece that premiered at DOCK 20 in February, is an installation based on a Cyberpunk 2077 mod in which the joylessness of generic ecstasy is transformed into a physical experience.
Q: Speaking of barriers: Hardly Working recently showed at the Milan Machinima Festival, one of several long-running, genre-specific showcases that exist primarily because films made with videogames rarely pass the filter of traditional film festival juries. Do you see any signs of this changing?
A: We have observed a sense of illiteracy among the cultural bourgeoisie: those without experience in the videogame medium can be easily seduced by its overwhelming hyperreal image enchantment, but we have found that this enchantment diminishes when the films are selected for a film festival. Other filmmakers who share our desire to create so-called machinimas are often rejected by festival juries. Nevertheless, our goal is to playfully explore the medium in all directions, promoting diversity within the machinima genre. We are encouraged to see a new generation of young people who view computer games as part of their everyday culture and feel at home in this medium.
Q: Among the interesting particularities of videogame culture is that it inspires the formation of diverse and active communities; videogame fandom can be focused on politics, gender issues, social justice, and so forth. Could there be any opportunities for Total Refusal to connect to this landscape?
A: We consider ourselves a part of the gaming landscape, engaging in playful experimentation with games in the broadest sense. We believe that there is not a significant difference between artistic and non-artistic use of the medium. We take pleasure in observing what is happening in the community, finding inspiration, and developing the best ideas, much like many others in this community.

The question of work is particularly important to us. We see a working class of game programmers and designers struggling during crunch time, facing outsourcing and poor working conditions, while their manager class earns absurdly high salaries. On the other hand, we also see a modding community that patches bugs, adds content, and creates entire games from existing titles without pay yet isn’t allowed to profit from it, risking being banned. There needs to be solidarity against investors, shareholders, publishers, and the managerial class, who reap the most profits.
“Our focus in our videogames interventions is highlighting absurdities—exposing the constructed nature of the digital experience—as well as condemning the pervasive influence of capitalism on the medium and society as a whole.”
Q: Given your politics, I’m curious to know your thoughts on how far the concept of intervention could be pushed for your work. What could direct action mean for machinima-creators and appropriation artists in videogame contexts?
A: Direct action within videogames may seem appealing as a way to establish revolutionary practices and change conditions from within digital spaces. However, as a media guerrilla with a parasitic strategy we depend on the spaces provided by digital platforms. We operate within the specific modes of relationship prescribed by the games, and often we quickly reach the limits of what this allows us to do. Our focus is on highlighting absurdities through interventions and exposing the constructed nature of the digital experience, as well as condemning the pervasive influence of capitalism on the medium and society as a whole. We explore the untapped narrative possibilities of the medium, misusing army equipment. Additionally, we act as translators of critical, often Marxist theory, making it accessible to a wider audience within the framework of computer games, and using humour as a means of radicalizing viewers. This has been our approach thus far. The idea of using digital social spaces in a completely different and radical way is appealing to us. We will keep exploring this possibility.
Q: Interactivity is perhaps the most important characteristic that distinguishes videogames from many other media forms. But to my knowledge, Total Refusal has not, to date, made an interactive work. Do you have any plans for something like this? What’s next?
A: We share a great deal of criticism for interactive media art because it often provides the illusion that the audience is participating in the artwork when in reality, the artist controls the code and direction. This type of interactivity is authoritarian because it deceives the audience into believing they have a say in the artwork. Interactive media art gets its liveliness from the fetishization of the fleeting new and shiny gadget, but often only offers limited excitement There are contexts in which the participatory moment of interactivity is emancipatory. But all too often, the promise of interaction or participation is only of symbolic or performative quality. For this reason, we plan to continue working with classical film media on a variety of topics. For example, we want to explore the absurdities of individuality in sports games, the dystopian aspects of childlessness in large open-world titles, the concept of dark ecology in videogames, and we plan to create a lecture ballet set in post-apocalyptic Washington D.C. that explores the connection between democracy and capitalism. We will not run out of exciting projects anytime soon.
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Martin Zeilinger

An Austrian researcher, curator, and Abertay University Senior Lecturer, Martin Zeilinger’s work focuses on artistic and activist experiments with emerging technologies (primarily blockchain and AI), intellectual property issues in contemporary art, and aspects of experimental videogame culture. He is the author of Tactical Entanglements: AI Art, Creative Agency, and the Limits of Intellectual Property (2021), Structures of Belonging (2023), and he regularly contributes to journals and magazines including Leonardo, Spike Art Magazine, and Outland.

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