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The unexpected trouble of revisiting old video game screenshots

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An awkward stroll down memory lane

A while back, I chronicled the experience building and enjoying my first PC. I bought and assembled the parts, downloaded Steam, and became obsessed with the many features I had never experienced on consoles. After that piece wrapped, one particular tool continued to stand out: the screen capture.

Today, capturing what’s on your screen is as simple as tapping a button on a PlayStation 4 or Xbox One controller — even Nintendo has dedicated screencap button on the Switch. But when I began the PC gaming adventure, the concept was unfamiliar and addictive. Like a child handed a smartphone, I snapped photos of everything.

And as with real-world photographs, I forgot about screencaps the moment I took them.

Recently, in a fit of nostalgia, I returned to my Steam gallery to peruse my finest images and reflect on, honestly, I’m not sure what. I suppose I found what I expected to find: shots of towering explosions and sprawling views, blurry firefights, experimental art, and a surprising number of photos of menus and loading screens.

One recurring theme, though, was unexpected and a bit jarring. My gallery is stuffed with photos of virtual dead bodies, like rigid tuna packed into a can. Some images are exceptionally grim. Most are laughable. The oldest shot in the gallery is a cop unloading a round into the head of GTA 4’s protagonist Nico Bellic; the newest, a low poly soldier taking a bullet to the chest.

I’ve written a good deal about my complicated feelings around video game violence. How it can feel regressive. How it is used as marketing gimmick. How I still feel that the industry, fans, and press weren’t able to have vital arguments about the function (and assumption) of violence in popular games, because, for decades, the larger games community felt like David fighting Goliath for broader cultural acceptance. And so I am, to say the least, surprised that I’ve amassed my own little virtual snuff box.

Some of these images were taken for stories about video game violence, and some captured the absurdities of video game worlds — like the bodies piling in the doorway of Hitman. But for most images, I can’t remember why I took them.

Those are excuses, anyway. To a stranger looking through my gallery, free of all this context, my video game life looks largely like a bloodbath, punctuated by the occasional colorful vista of an indie game. I’m not sure what this means — if it means anything. Does it speak to my habits as someone playing games? Or simply the options made available to me by what’s big and popular? My guess: a bit of both.

So, I am left curious if this is common. What are the themes of your screenshot libraries? Do you have bodies in your screencap closet?