June 24, 2003

MMOG of My Dreams

This semester, I co-taught a course on computer-mediated texts and digital culture. We did a week on computer games, but some of the core readings involving interactivity and hypermedia that we dealt with also frequently used computer games as a point of reference. I felt it was pretty clear that about three-quarters of the students simply didn’t understand why anyone should care about computer games (save for the undeniable fact of their economic importance). I would say that is a reaction I encounter more generally: computer games seem like impenetrable geek weirdness or adolescent silliness to my colleagues and most of my friends.

Sometimes I wonder whether that reaction isn’t fairly accurate, and whether my intellectual enthusiasm for these games is just a rationalization of a bad habit, my own version of Richard Klein’s Cigarettes Are Sublime. Certainly computer and video games are very far from what I imagine they could be, even within the terms of contemporary technical limitations, and it is often difficult for me to envision how they could get from where they are to where I think they could be.

Somewhere within the game form, however, is a kind of creative practice that has the potential to be a radically different kind of cultural experience as revolutionary and transformative in its own way as movies were in the 20th Century.

Maybe even two such kinds of experience, in fact. There is one kind of game which could become the only full realization of what Espen Aarseth has called “ergodic literature”, where the experience of reading is about choosing pathways to follow through a huge branching structure of narratives that overlap and recurve back on each other. This is what most “solo” computer games could be and what a few of them come seductively close to achieving in a primitive way, rather like “The Great Train Robbery” first laid out some of the visual possibilities of cinema by putting the camera into motion.

Then there is the massively-multiplayer online game (MMOG) set in a persistent world, where thousands of people create characters who inhabit a changing but regularly recorded world, where developers shape the outer parameters and structures of their experience but players themselves in aggregate and individually also craft the “text” that is read and understood by other participants.

I have previously talked about how both of these kinds of games are presently limited by the industry models that govern their production and the bounded creative vision of many people involved in their production. But the MMOG is also limited in part simply by the ferocity of desire that its devotees lavish upon it, and the unmanageability of their aspirations for it. Many MMOG players glimpse in the form an impossible possibility and that mere glimpse is enough to drive them almost mad. I include myself in this charge.

What is it that they see? Simply put, they see the enrichment of life itself through its fusion with fiction, a true Dreaming, an almost-sacred possibility of communion with imagination. A novel as capacious as life, a fiction unlimited by the labor time or mastery of its author. Life 2.0, with all of what makes life organic, surprising, revelatory, but always coupled to joy, fun, excitement, adventure. Dramatic conflict without tragedy, narrative motion without the boredom of everyday life, defeat without suffering. A fiction that one does not merely consume but always creates, where you can find out what happened next and where you can see what is happening beyond the frame of the camera or the page of the book.

Unreal, of course, and unrealizable. MMOGs are still limited by the labor time and capital of their creators, and are still mastered by them. They still have a frame, an outer boundary, past which one cannot go, a dead zone where representation and possibility and imagination stop dead. They have rules, like all games, which constrain, sometimes painfully so, what can be done within them. All of that is a structural necessity, and will always be.

Because they are multiplayer, they are also constrained by the aggregate of the humanity they contain. MMOGs make it clear that hell is other people. Richard Bartle did not pull his famous typology out of a hat: MMOG players recognize the achiever, socializer, killer and explorer archetypes because they are so visible within the experience of the games, apparent through conflict. Other players are the only way to make the narrative and imaginative capaciousness of a MMOG real, because we do not have and may never have AIs good enough to meaningfully simulate the sentient inhabitants of an interactive fiction.

Yet, other players are not like you, no matter who you are. They don’t bring the same desires or expectations or visions to the table. In some cases, their visions are commensurable with your own, but in many cases, they are perpendicular or even actively, aggressively contradictory to what you want to do and see and have happen within the fiction you are all experiencing. Ten thousand chimpanzees typing and one might eventually write Shakespeare. Ten thousand chimpanzees typing on the SAME typewriter and the best you can probably hope for is a text that contains Shakespeare, Beavis and Butthead, Stephen King, Thomas Pynchon and Nancy Friday all on a single page.

I can see a great many ways that current MMOGs could be better, richer, more capacious even given their limitations. I can see future tools, like better AIs and emergent-systems governing the generation of content, that will make them bigger and richer and more engaging. But they can never contain the desires that they invoke, and that may always make the genre both fascinating and tragic. Fascinating because it is a palimpsest, a Rosetta’s Stone, to the desires that fiction itself awakes and fails to satisfy, a revelation that books and moving images have only been the weakest gruel to try and feed that hunger. Tragic because to feed a starving man just enough to waken him to the fact of his starvation is to let loose on the world a scouring, devouring appetite that searches desperately for satisfaction without knowing why it cannot find more than a moment’s rest from its cravings.