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 (29 page)

For Vesce and the rest of the game’s development team, partnering with amateur game-makers was unusually challenging.

‘To make
Never Alone
, we had to break from some traditional and fundamental ways of making games and bring the community into the creative process—a community that knew very little about the medium but that had strong thoughts on what they wanted to see in a game based on their culture,’ Vesce says. He calls this kind of collaboration ‘inclusive development,’ in which each group is a student of the other’s world. ‘While it’s extremely rewarding, it also requires a huge commitment from all sides to build a foundation of mutual trust and respect.’

Despite the importance of keeping the Iñupiats’ vision for the project, there was no formal approval process during development.

‘It was more subtle, involving conversations with many different people, soliciting and gauging reactions to ideas, and finding creative solutions to meet both the community’s goals and our goals as game-developers,’ Vesce says. ‘When we encountered things that sounded great to us as game-developers but didn’t resonate with our community partners, they would often present alternatives that ended up being much more interesting and often more challenging to incorporate.’

Never Alone
’s purpose is to preserve fading stories. It’s a way not only for game-makers to survive, per Becker’s definition, through their works of art, but also for an entire tradition and world view to survive through the representation. It’s a worthy ambition, but in order to convince the Iñupiat young people of the stories’ enduring power and worth, it must also succeed as a video game. In a sense, it was perhaps the riskiest way of approaching the Iñupiat’s problem: this kind of storytelling requires an entirely new vocabulary. Reconciling narrative demands with the need to be engaging and functional remains one of the greatest challenges
in game development; it’s a struggle for even the largest and best-funded teams.

As we have seen, video games are well suited, however, to render in exquisite detail historical places and periods, and even the societies within them—the environments and systems that facilitate story creation in the first place. Players are often cast as a game’s protagonist, with an active role in its story, where they cannot help but see things, at least superficially, from a new perspective.
Never Alone
, if nothing else, offers a way, however incomplete, to experience life as an Iñupiat girl, eliciting the kind of empathy that we have seen games can generate in unique and powerful ways.

There’s another memorable line in
The Denial of Death
, a book built from columns of memorable lines.

‘People create the reality they need in order to discover themselves,’ Becker writes in a truth that’s dispensed with enviable brevity. This thought is especially pertinent to the game-maker, who is in the business of reality creation. There is something here that links
Desert Bus
Desert Golfing
Never Alone
(as well as, of course, to all of those games built for therapeutic reasons, in or through which their creators hope to find understanding and healing), all of which are games based in hostile environments, where survival is a challenge, where reality bears down on the human. They are adverse realities, to which humans are drawn. In games we can find a resilience to survive against all odds. In
Desert Bus
, it’s expressed as stoicism in the face of the stultifying rhythms of monotony found in a repetitious task. In
Desert Golfing
, it’s in mastering the mind games of a seemingly endless mission. And in
Never Alone
, it’s about preserving a memory.

Survival is the foundation stone that underpins all video
games. They offer a quick and easy reassurance of our capacity to endure, to have second chances, to survive. Even if we fail, if Mario loses his final life on a hill in the Mushroom Kingdom, or if Lara Croft misjudges a leap and falls to her death at the bottom of some forgotten tomb, there’s always another go. Even the most punitive games, such as
Steel Battalion
, a Japanese game that famously erases your character’s saved progress when he ‘dies,’ allow you to restart the game from the beginning. Video games soften reality’s bite by giving us the reassurance that there’s always another go: the extra life, the time-extend, the ‘continue.’

There is a somewhat grim irony to this idea in the context of the Taiwanese café deaths. If we play video games in order to gain a sense of immortality, or at the very least to practise the art of survival, how tragic when a video game plays a role in the death of its player. In these cases the illusion proves not only treacherous, but untrue.

Nevertheless, it’s an illusion that, for a moment at least, pulls our thoughts away from the ultimate truth: life on this earth is fatal.


The video game denies our mortality. Every game is a virtual reality that reflects our own world in some way, and yet every game also eradicates the one certainty of existence: its finality. Within a video-game representation, you will often find echoes of life’s fragility. But you will never experience true extinction. There is always another life to be lived.

If, through video games, we have found a way to confound death itself, surely the video game has the capacity to correct other injustices of our world? This is, after all, the inexhaustible wonder of the medium: the capacity to make tangible any type of reality that can be imagined, whether that is a world on fire, one beset with aliens, or something more peaceful and just.

Video games are normally based on fairer and more just systems than those in the real world (or, at very least, on systems that tend to favour the player). That’s what makes them so palatable, such wonderful places to visit, even the awful virtual war zones and other theatres of human tragedy. There too you can triumph, and, on the whole, their rules and laws are dependable and always enforced by the omniscient computer.

But games have the capacity to go much further. Indeed, there are designers who want to use the medium not only to create an environment in which the player is able to triumph, but also to model a better, fairer society for everyone. Video games are exceptional machines for favouring the individual (they do, after all, exist to
serve the player, revolving around their every move, responding to their every whim). But they have the capacity to model ways of living that favour everyone, not only the powerful individual. In fact, some of the most popular video games on earth today were designed to do just this.

Richard Bartle grew up in the 1960s on a council estate in Hornsea, Yorkshire. His father was a gas fitter and his mother a school cook, at a time in Britain when a person’s class defined his or her expectations. The Bartles, in short, were a working-class family with working-class prospects. After his mother wrote some short children’s stories, she sent them to a book publisher. The stories were published, scene for scene, but attributed not to his mother but to a well-known children’s author at the time. She was given no credit or remuneration. Mrs. Bartle no doubt felt the sting of injustice (she kept her original manuscripts and showed them to her son) but she was also resigned to the fact that she was a school cook and that this was to be her place in life. There was no moving up or on.

Stories and games were prevalent in the Bartle household—in addition to his mother’s literary ambition, his father was an avid player of board games.

‘I invented role-playing games when I was about twelve,’ Bartle, who is now fifty-four, tells me. ‘I’d stick pieces of paper together and draw a huge map on them. I’d design the world with lakes and mountains. I put various native tribes in the world, and I invented a character who had to get from one side of the map to the other.’

Bartle named the game after this lead character, Dr. Toddystone. The name was a play on the Victorian explorer Dr. Livingstone and the word ‘Toddy,’ British slang in the early 1970s for dog shit.

‘I thought the game was going to be dog shit, so I named it
that,’ he says. ‘It was an RPG by any measure. I built a diary up of the events that happened in the game: Toddystone having to barter for a horse, being caught in an eclipse, and so on. It was … vivid.’ When he was sixteen, Bartle saw his first computer.

‘BP opened a chemical works nearby and, as a way to improve relations with the local community, they donated access to their computers to nearby schools,’ he says. Bartle’s school was allowed to use a DEC System 10 mainframe. He immediately knew that he wanted to use the machine to write a game, but the process was slow. At that time, would-be programmers would write their code out by hand. This would then be sent off to an administrator, who would type it into the computer. The turnaround for this process was two weeks.

‘If you sent something with a bug in it, you wouldn’t know for a fortnight,’ Bartle says.

His first game featured battling tanks, which could be moved around the map by entering coordinates into the computer. The DEC-10 would then print out a map, using dots to denote the landscape and bracket symbols to show the tank’s whereabouts.

‘We weren’t aware of
or any of the other games that had been written around the world at that point,’ he says. ‘But likewise it never occurred to us that people hadn’t really written computer games before. We didn’t know what they were, but we just assumed they were out there.’

For Bartle, his goal in life was simple: find a way to get into a university.

‘Nobody in my family had ever gone before, so it would have made my parents proud,’ he says. Bartle was accepted at Essex University (‘mainly on flair’) and studied mathematics in his first year, along with computer science and physics.

‘At the end of the first year there were two students who were better than me at maths and no students better than me at computer
science, so I switched course entirely,’ he says. ‘I already had a sense of the injustice of the education system, but when I arrived at university it became clearer to me: the other students were just as smart as the kids had been in my school. These students had simply been better taught and better prepped for exams.’

Bartle had the chance to recast these unjust systems when, in his first year of study, he met Nigel Roberts, president of the university’s computer society. Roberts then introduced Bartle to Roy Trubshaw, a student in the year above Bartle who, earlier that week, had written the first proof-of-concept for
, a primitive online adventure game.

‘He called it “Multi-User Dungeon” because he wanted to give people a sense of what kind of game it was going to be. Nowadays we call them “adventure” games, but he also thought “Dungeon” would become the genre’s name.’ With his prototype, Trubshaw had discovered a way to design a game on the DEC that was shared between multiple users. The pair, assisted by Roberts, expanded the prototype. The total amount of memory available was, at the weekends, just 70k—less than the file size of a photograph taken on a mobile phone today.

By Christmas 1978,
was playable. Players would sit at a teletype (a device similar to a typewriter that accessed the computer mainframe) and type in commands. There was no screen; details about the world and everyone’s actions within it were instead printed out on paper. By the following year, the machine code had become ‘too unwieldy’ to add new things.

‘We threw it away and rewrote everything,’ says Bartle. ‘Most of the game was complete by spring 1980, but Roy’s finals were coming so he passed code ownership to me. Roy was mainly interested in programming, with a mild interest in game design. I was the reverse: a slower programmer but sharper with design, so we complemented
one another. I added experience points and the idea that a player’s character could “level up” and improve their attributes through accomplishments and so on.’

Originally the pair had wanted goals in the game to derive from players themselves. ‘But when you’re working on something with less computational power than a washing machine, you can’t really do that,’ he says. ‘We had to author gameplay, when originally we had hoped it would be totally emergent.’

By this point, Bartle had become clear in his broader vision for the game.

‘We thought the real world sucked,’ he says, with the righteous anger of the lifelong revolutionary. ‘The only reason I had been allowed into a university is because the country decided that it was so in need of programmers that it was prepared to tolerate people from backgrounds like mine and Roy’s in further education. We both railed against that. We wanted to make a world that was better than that. It was a political endeavour right from the start, as well as an artistic one.’

Those political aims manifested in the game through the use of levels and character classes, affording players the freedoms that hadn’t been afforded to Bartle, or, at least, to his parents.

‘We wanted the game to be pure freedom, to allow people to be themselves,’ he says. ‘We introduced character classes and levels because I wanted people to have some indication of their own personal merit based on what they did, rather than where they were born. It’s why I’m not a fan of free-to-play games in which you can simply buy progress. That’s a complete contravention of what we were trying to do with
. We were creating a true meritocracy. Not because I thought a meritocracy was the one true way, but if we were going to have a system in which people ranked themselves, then a meritocracy was the least worst approach.’

Bartle excelled in his studies, graduating from Essex with the highest first ever recorded at the time and, as a result, was given the university’s solitary PhD grant.
spread quickly.

‘Due to an accident of geography, Essex University was near to a BT research centre at Martlesham Heath,’ he explains. ‘We had access to Experimental Packet Switching Service, through which we could connect to the university of Kent. Through that we could connect to ARPA, the forerunner to the Internet. In this way, we could play
with, say, people from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In fact, the head of the MIT media lab was one of the first people to play.’

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