Read Death by Video Game: Tales of Obsession From the Virtual Frontline Online

Authors: Simon Parkin

Tags: #Travel, #Essays & Travelogues, #Popular Culture, #Social Science

Death by Video Game: Tales of Obsession From the Virtual Frontline (28 page)

Nevertheless, both Saunders and Stark struggle to understand the game’s efficacy.

‘I have friends involved in worthwhile charities that struggle for every twenty-dollar donation,’ said Saunders. ‘But
Desert Bus for Hope
seems to operate in this strange alternate universe where you can challenge strangers on the Internet to donate five thousand dollars in the next five minutes, and the money seems to just suddenly appear.’ Teller said that at a recent magic show, ‘a guy came up to me and handed me a hundred-dollar bill and asked, “Would you get this to the guys that do
Desert Bus?
” ’

‘The game isn’t the challenge for us; it’s the excuse to keep us all trapped in a room for a week,’ Stark explains. ‘It’s the horrible glue that binds the whole event together. I’ve achieved a Zen-like state while playing it, where it doesn’t bother me as long as I don’t think about it. If I do think about it, it’s goddamn awful.’

Saunders agrees, mournfully: ‘It is, without a doubt, the very worst video game I have ever played.’

Desert Bus
isn’t the only desert-based video game whose appeal remains somewhat unclear to its players.
Desert Golfing
, launched for iPhones in 2014, is another game set in an arid locale, with an indefinite end point, that has inspired the devotion of a huge following of players.

, with its familiar rhythms of day and night, and familiar urges to stave off predators and to scavenge,
Desert Golfing
is a straightforward video game. But the emotional journey
for its player is far more complicated. And it’s in this psychological journey that we can perceive something of the enduring appeal of survival games.

Here’s how it goes: You begin with the eager anticipation that immediately precedes the playing of all video games: the hope that you are about to be challenged, surprised, and thrilled by the work. For the first eighteen holes, these hopes are quietly met, accompanied by (for players of a certain age, at least) a sense of nostalgia at
Desert Golfing
’s Atari-chic aesthetic and impossibly simple control scheme (press your finger to the phone or tablet’s glass; pull back to smearily set the ball’s power and angle; release to putt).

With confidence comes the urge to improve. It’s now not enough to merely land the ball in the hole: you have to do so quickly and efficiently in as few shots as possible. You begin to read the power meter properly, to better judge the angles, to pull off the odd joyous hole-in-one. With mastery comes the desire to reset the game and start over with your newly acquired knowledge. But here
Desert Golfing
defies convention: there is no restart button, no option to exit and begin again. In fact, there is no menu at all.

Now comes the bitter realisation that, in contrast to other video games, which so generously allow us to remake our history until we perfect our story, in this wilderness you must live with your mistakes. The realisation is simple but profound: your past scorecard cannot be undone; you only have power to change the future.

Resignation comes next. Then, if you’re sensible, reconciliation. You learn to forgive your past self, that idiot who took all those hubristic, arcing shots, who so gleefully went for the thunderous hole-in-one when he should have putted his way to lesser, more bankable glories. Now, as you reach hole 150-odd, you find resolve. You’re lining up shots with care, but the real game takes place, as Bobby Jones famously put it, on the five-and-a-half-inch course between your ears.

You obsessively divide your total number of shots by the number of holes you’ve completed. Can you maintain an average of three per hole or less? This state persists every time you slide out your phone to get a few tees in while standing at the supermarket checkout till, or queuing at the post office behind a phalanx of texters.

At some point you become weary of the grind. Yet there is the dim awareness that, just maybe, there is nobility in the fact that you’ve made it to hole 1,687. You take to social media to share your progress. The preening only draws the other
Desert Golfers
out. In turn they post
screenshots, proving how much farther they’ve travelled down the rabbit hole(s). The moment of irritation is short-lived; it soon thickens into grim resolve. You head back into the wilderness and
you persist
. This simple, throwaway game is complicated.
Desert Golfing
isn’t so much a good walk spoiled as the gaming of survival.

Inspiration for
Desert Golfing
came to Justin Smith, an independent game designer from Vancouver, Canada, when playing
, Sony’s PlayStation 3 game about death and religion in the desert.

‘I wanted to add golf to
in the same way someone would draw a moustache on the
Mona Lisa
,’ explains Smith. ‘The terrain in that game was perfect for golf, and I thought golf would add a quantifiable purpose.’ Smith ‘let the idea sit for a while’ and then began to realise his vision in the bold 2D graphics of 1980s computer games. ‘The colour palette for
Desert Golf
is actually borrowed from
, but I figured it would be best not to call it
Journey Golfing

At first Smith wanted to limit the game to a thousand holes. Rather than manually design these, he wrote an algorithm to randomise their layout ‘as a survival technique.’ Smith already had the
name for the game, taking inspiration from
Desert Bus
. He then decided to draw further inspiration from Penn and Teller’s game by making it interminably long and repetitive.

Smith, who taught himself to programme by typing code listings from the back of magazines into the Sinclair 1000 computer that his grandmother bought him one Christmas, made the decision to prevent restarting the game early on.

‘Adding a way to start over would sap some of the fun out,’ he says. ‘If you’re doing poorly, the temptation to hit the reset button would always be lurking over you. But with no way to restart, the player feels a sense of freedom and reconciliation with life’s past mistakes.’

That sense of freedom and reconciliation was reflected in Smith’s own process of designing the game—which took just eight days from start to finish. The greatest challenge was, he says, to resist the temptation to add in ‘indulgent’ features such as curved slopes, power-ups, and wind.

‘Not all the holes are enjoyable,’ he says. ‘There are some very repetitive ones. And I did nothing to ensure that an impossible hole wouldn’t be generated. In fact, there’s a hole in the late 2000s that I was certain was impossible, a sudden ending in the middle of the desert. Of course: never underestimate players. They got past it.’

Since the game’s launch, players have been ‘getting past it’ in droves. The game has no end (the algorithm created infinite courses). But as Smith didn’t expect anyone to make it past the hole in the late 2000s, ‘What comes after is just patterns in white noise.’ This hasn’t stopped one player from making it past the five-thousandth hole, surviving against the odds.

‘Nobody should go that far,’ says Smith. ‘I’m saying it now so I don’t feel responsible for more wasted time: there is officially nothing of interest past the three-thousandth hole.’

Or is there? Because much of what makes
Desert Golfing
interesting exists independently of Smith’s intentions. The player’s journey through resignation to resolve is one that takes place in the mind; the desert’s landscape is secondary. Sure, it is here, among the dunes, that the game pricks some key interests in the player, the mystery of what lies ahead, the joy of discovering a new place, a new subtlety, a new rhythm in the play experience. But the desert is a mere backdrop for the mind games of perseverance in the face of hostility or futility, that very same urge that drives any human to endure.

Video games offer us a place in which to practise the art of survival, be it in familiar circumstances (the domestic environment of
The Sims
) or alien ones (
Mass Effect, Halo, Call of Duty
). Human beings are adaptable and ingenious, and video games allow us to explore the bounds of this adaptability and ingenuity; a way for us to feel clever about our aptitude or talent for survival, not to mention a way to compare our survival scores with those of our peers (regardless of whether that score is recorded in points, seconds lasted, or holes completed).

Maybe the incontrovertible evidence of the video-game high-score table acts as a way to prove to others our aptitude for survival, to advertise by quantitative measure our power and suitability as a mate. High scores allow us to create a pecking order; they describe who is the fastest, the strongest, the quickest, the most adaptable, the most likely to survive for the longest.

Video games, of course, present a different sort of opportunity to survive for the people who create them. In Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize–winning 1973 book
The Denial of Death
, the late psychologist argued that all human civilisation is an elaborate, symbolic
defence mechanism against our mortality. If we have children as a way to preserve our DNA and values, then we create art and entertainment (and even engage in acts of heroism) as a way to preserve our names, thoughts, ideas, and perspectives.

‘The real world is simply too terrible to admit,’ wrote Becker. ‘It tells man that he is a small trembling animal who will someday decay and die. Culture changes all of this, makes man seem important, vital to the universe. Immortal in some ways.’

This much is true of all game-makers: in their creations they are able to make tiny worlds that reflect their interests, values, and skills. But for one group of indigenous American people who, in 2014, began to design their own video game, the goal to survive through art was more deliberate and pointed than for most.

For more than three thousand years, the Iñupiat people of Alaska have passed on stories to their children. Like all enduring fiction, the stories deliver truths that transcend cultural shifts. They act as seeds of moral instruction and help to define and preserve the community’s identity. The story of Kunuuksaayuka, for example, is a simple tale of how our actions affect others: a boy named Kunuuksaayuka goes on a journey to identify the source of a savage blizzard. In the calm eye of the storm, he finds a man heaving shovelfuls of snow into the air, oblivious that they gather and grow into the squalls battering Kunuuksaayuka’s home downstream.

The Iñupiat’s oral tradition, however, is at risk. Over the past few decades, advances in technology and communication have opened up the community to a flood of other stories delivered in new ways.

‘As is common for indigenous peoples who are also part of a modern nation, it’s been increasingly difficult to maintain our traditions
and cultural heritage,’ Amy Fredeen, the CFO of both E-Line Media, a publisher of educational video games, and the Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC), a nonprofit group that serves the Iñupiat and other Alaska natives, told me. ‘Our people have passed down knowledge and wisdom through stories for thousands of years—almost all of this orally—and storytellers are incredibly respected members of society. But as our society modernises it’s become harder to keep these traditions alive.’

For the CITC, the challenge was to find a way to preserve the community’s stories in a way that could withstand modernity. As the team pondered the problem over lunch a few years ago, the council’s CEO, Gloria O’Neill, suggested a video game. O’Neill had been looking at examples of indigenous communities expressing their heritage through modern forms—such as the film
Whale Rider
, which explores gender roles in Maori culture—and was considering whether the medium could help to preserve the Iñupiat’s cultural heritage. ‘We all agreed that, if done well, a video game had the best chance of connecting native youth with their cultural heritage,’ Fredeen says. Moreover, the council believed that a video game offered a chance to share the community’s stories and culture with new audiences around the world. ‘Our stories feature strong characters, fascinating settings, and are filled with wisdom and learning that address universal human themes. We believe they can travel.’

In conjunction with E-Line, the CITC founded Upper One Games, the first indigenous-owned video-game company in the United States.

‘We looked at a range of options for reaching the community’s business and creative goals,’ Sean Vesce, a creative director at the company, tells me. ‘We quickly settled on the idea of a game inspired by and based on the rich storytelling traditions and culture of the Iñupiat people. The climate in which they live is some of the most
remote and extreme on the planet. We were immediately drawn to their world view, traditions, and values, and how that might translate into a video game.’

With any creative project in which a group of privileged Westerners look to recount the tales and customs of an indigenous group, there is a risk of caricature, even amiable racism.

‘We’ve repeatedly seen our culture and stories appropriated and used without our permission or involvement,’ Fredeen said. ‘People were sceptical that the project would turn out like these other examples, all appropriation and Westernization.’ To reassure them, the development team assembled a group of Iñupiat elders, storytellers, and artists who would become partners in the game’s development and lend their ideas and voices to the venture.

‘As it became clear to the community that this project was only going to move forward with their active participation, that hesitancy quickly evaporated,’ Fredeen says. ‘We’ve had everybody from eighty-five-year-old elders who live most of the year in remote villages to kids in Barrow High School involved in the project.’

The result is
Never Alone
Kisima In itchu a
in the Iñupiat language). In the game, players switch between the role of a girl named Nuna and her pet arctic fox. Each character has a different set of skills, and the pair must work together to overcome obstacles on a journey that mirrors the one taken by Kunuuksaayuka, the blizzard investigator. This theme of interdependence is central to Iñupiat stories, no doubt born of the need to help one another in order to survive the harsh Alaskan conditions. It’s a message
Never Alone
seeks to impart through both its spoken narration (which has been recorded in Iñupiat) and the unspoken story communicated by its rules and mechanics.

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