By Víctor Navarro Remesal
My favourite Amazon review is for an erotic swing that “also helps for washing big dog”. Where the manufacturer of the OptiSex Romantic Fantasy Swing Kit proposed sexual athletics, this user saw a great aid for the shower of his St Bernard dogs. I adore this because it’s involuntarily humorous, of course, but most of all because it reveals a basic principle of design: anything designed exists to be used, and anything that can be used hides uses that its creator never anticipated. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, function is in the brain of the user.
In DayZ, improvised kidnappings can take you to make friends.
Videogame designers should better keep this in mind. A game is a very complicated device with norms and mechanics, prizes and punishments, in which each rule adds something to the global building of meaning. It’s easy seeing the player, as the operator articulating that system, as a mere automat: I read on the back cover of book El videojugador, by Justo Navarro, that “automatic obedience has become an industrial mass pastime.” It’s an attractive idea, with an apocalyptic touch in these our weary times, but reality is far different: if we research a little, the Internet will reveal a whole gallery of uncouth, creative and anarchist gamers that do not only find new ways of finishing games (of obeying, let’s say), but who also redefine and reconstruct them, inventing their own goals and turning their meaning upside down. Players who kidnap others in DayZ, who play Grand Theft Auto as pacifists or take advantage of the AI of FIFA 2000 to set up a fantastic football league (with players such as Dracula or Pikachu) between mates. Creative and disobedient loonies, thus, who use erotic swings to wash their dogs.
You’re neither your wallet nor your virtual home
There are the kamikazes who complicate themselves to increase the challenge and also those who make things even more complicated to change the game. I’m interested in the latter kind. One thing is playing Dark Souls using the Rock Band guitar (or a wheel, or just a finger) and another is playing The Sims 3 as a homeless, as design student Robin Burkinshaw did in his blog Alice and Kev: The Story of Being Homeless in The Sims 3. For five months, Burkinshaw played with a family of characters to whom he denied a house and money and narrated it in sixty chapters, in a crossover between the subversive study of some systems devised for Ikea consumerism and TV series narratives (“I see a lot of subtle emotions in its animations,” Burkinshaw writes in a climactic moment). The thesis is clear: in our real world we play in easy mode. To make the experiment even better, the last entry includes the protagonist, Alice, in downloadable format, inviting us to guide her towards happiness. You can also escape consumerism, fellow player! Even if in order to do so you have to buy the game first...
Totalitarianism and democracy in turns
Metagames such as Homeless Sims suggest that videogames are a political space, and it isn’t the only case: even Club Penguin, a Disney virtual world for kids, had its own anti-Trump demonstration. When seeing the system from the outside, video-anarchists take their implicit ideology to the limit, as Philippine architecture student Vincent Ocasla did with SimCity 3000. Inspired by Koyaanisqatsi, Ocasla devoted four years to plan Magnasanti, a totally optimised city with almost ten million inhabitants, at the same time efficient machine and oppressive community, as functional as totalitarian. “Hidden under the illusion of order and grandeur there’s asphyxiating pollution, high unemployment, a lack of firemen, schools or hospitals,” Ocasla explains. And adds: “the economic slave never realises he’s going around in circles, going nowhere, with other millions of slaves.” In the perfect city, citizens aren’t a priority: so much for these (interactive) modern times!
In the opposite extreme from Magnasanti we find DemocraCiv, a huge group of users, coordinated through Reddit, playing in mass the same game of Civilization V since a year ago. They have their own constitution, government, political parties and free press, and split themselves in legislative, judiciary and executive powers. Only the members of the latter have contact with the game; most of the game takes place outside. I’m interested in their voting system and I find things such as “votes to send spies to the Quebec”, “votes to use the Great Musician of York to make music” or “votes to reject Germany’s offer of war against Babylon.” As in any modern democracy, let’s say. The session has been christened as “Casual Genocide” and they’re playing, by the way, with the British Empire: maybe I shouldn’t ask…
My life as AI
There are other players who are happy with more modest and worldly goals, like the team devoted to dancing in Destiny or Christopher Livingston, creator of blog Living In Oblivion, “an attempt to see whether I can survive in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion controlling my characters as any NPC (Non-Playable Character)”. That is, like the reverse of a Turing test. For that, Livingston establishes some norms: he should eat and sleep regularly (as NPCs do), walk everywhere, avoid all quests and not recharge the game if he dies. Where others look for adventure and excitement, Livingston tries to go on in a monotonous and tedious rhythm, almost as a self-control exercise: “how difficult is avoiding to get trapped by the enormous adventure the game has planned for me?”
In the life of Nordrick, its protagonist, the most exciting thing that ever occurs to him is for some wolfs to bite him and pass on an illness. I see his gaming as a vindication of everyday life, of the warmth of routine, but also as an attempt to see what happens when the player isn’t there: without a hero to monopolise the scene, Livingston can explore some of the logic in the world of Oblivion, as its economic system or work market. Infiltrating artificial intelligences, see if you can come up with a more sinister ethnographic.
Nordrick’s story doesn’t end in Oblivion. When in 2011 the sequel, Skyrim, was launched, Livingston retrieved the character in the series of texts The Elder Strolls for PC Gamer magazine, where Nordrick lived for 52 days more before being taken down by a bandit. He left behind a wife and no children.
In Destiny you can shoot around or set up cool group choreographies like this one, you choose.
Hic Sunt (Digital) Dracones
Sometimes, video-anarchists find their challenges in the margins of the game as artefact, that is, in its software and hardware. Thus, if the creator of Minecraft, a game that generates its scenarios in a random and supposedly infinite way, says that his code has a bug and that as of a (very remote) given point this generation fails, it’s a matter of days for someone to embark on the research of this digital horizon. Kurt J. Mac did it in March 2011: he started walking in a straight line and there he is still, adding records and broadcasting it all on YouTube under the title of Far Lands or Bust!. (Far Lands is the name that Markus Persson, creator of Minecraft, gave to that hypothetical land of glitches). Hours and hours of a guy walking. In a straight line. In Minecraft.
I’m happy to know Mac is still there, like a mixture between Forrest Gump and Zen meditation in motion. With its self-imposed rules, he has turned a game based on the exploitation of the surroundings into a call of the wild, a conquest of the useless, because the Far Lands are there.
Extra lives without eating meat
One can also defend just causes in Minecraft, as those players who set up a Vegetarian Challenge with their own rules, point systems and rankings. The two main norms being “never hurt an animal” and “don’t eat meat”, but then there’s additional bonuses for taking care of creatures, not riding horses (or pigs!) or being strictly digital vegan. It’s not about mistaking real morals with their playful version (“I’m quite sure vegetarians get that these are only pixels,” someone says in a forum) but of adding interest of the game by challenging its demands and, on top of that, highlighting its implicit rhetorics. Minecraft, whether it wants it or not, says something about eating meat and these players respond to it.
To stop eating animals in Minecraft requires an effort, but it’s possible. I also managed to finish The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild without hunting a single beast. On the contrary, a game such as FarmVille (remember?) compels you to exploit its virtual animals… or else there’s no game. A friend, videogame academic, told me that her daughter was sorry for the cows and let them roam around free, so each night she had to milk them herself without her daughter seeing this. Each morning, the little girl woke up to find the farm working at its full potential and with the cows very happy: isn’t this a marvellous summary of our relationship towards the meat industry?
Massive Multiplayer Activism
Massive multiplayer spaces can also be used as a space for debate, as artist Angela Washko proved in World of Warcraft. In her Tumblr WoW on Gender, Washko shares screenshots and videos of chats with other players to whom she asks questions on feminism while they kill monsters and hunt treasures. Apart from the sadly recurrent “women can’t play” or “go back to the kitchen” (I’m not sure you’re aware of this, but the videogame world suffers from a serious problem of male chauvinism), Washko found female players that said feminism was for attention whores, men who controlled female avatars because they considered the contrary would make them appear as gay, or conspiracies that linked feminism and communism, that is, the same amount of trolls we can find in any social network or TV programme, but at least with elves and dragons around.
A last case before we go (otherwise we could go on and on forever): there’s a group in Reddit called HealSluts in which players of Overwatch, a competitive game played in teams, unite as submissive and dominant in a sort of BDSM distant relationship. One, the dominant, leads the attack, and the other, the submissive, constantly heals him. It’s a form of psychological surrender in which the healslut is submitted not only by using audiovisual representation or communication but the game’s own mechanics and dynamics: the rules are eroticised and at the same time victory and defeat lose their meaning.
Here, going back to the beginning, there is obedience, not to the game but to another gamer: more than about industrial entertainment we could talk about appropriation of a non-sexual space for an incredibly concrete fetish. I’m sure the creators of Overwatch never thought their work could be used for these practices, but if a sexual swing can be used to wash your dog, why wouldn’t a shooting game be useful to arouse your partner?