June 24, 2003
MMOG of My Dreams
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 didnt 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 isnt fairly accurate, and whether my intellectual
enthusiasm for these games is just a rationalization of a bad habit, my own
version of Richard Kleins 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
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 dont 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
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 Rosettas 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 moments rest from its cravings.