Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Inevitable Exploitation of Chain World


Today (or possibly yesterday; I am a bit behind on Internet News), Jason Rohrer's entry into this year's GDC's Game Design Contest, Chain World, went up on eBay.

Some quick background information: The theme for this year's contest was 'religion'. That is, the contestants were not to make a game about religion, but a game that could be a religion. Returning champion Jenova Chen created the most disappointing concept, essentially sticking TED talk videos on YouTube with a little bit of gameification. John Romero had an interesting idea for a live-action game that he was able to perform in the room. It was a very western-centric idea of religion, but it worked and was fairly interesting. If I ever get the chance to write up about the actual session, I would like to cover Romero's concept in more detail.

The winning concept, and my personal favourite, however, was Jason Rohrer's. Rohrer's concept was based on his personal feelings of what religion is. In an over-simplified nutshell: religion is the myths we tell ourselves about those that came before us. He used examples such as things his family always say his grandfather used to say (though none of them are actually sure) and the stories and beliefs we form around artifacts such as Stonehenge. Essentially, we craft narratives and reasons around the things we don't know the actual history for.

Rohrer conceptualised this with a modification of Minecraft. One player has one life, and when they die they pass the game on to someone else on a USB stick. Once you play the game, you may never play it again. It was an interesting and inspired concept, and the most grounded in an actual interesting idea of religion. At the talk, Rohrer passed the USB stick onto the second player (himself being the first), and from there the game would continue as player passed it on to player.

Except now, player number two is exploiting it. He is selling the USB on eBay to the highest bidder. I could write a huge rant about how pathetic and despicable I think this is, but as my opinions seem to mirror Darius Kazemi's, I'll just link to his brief thoughts on it. You should read it before carrying on with this piece, just so you know where I stand on the matter.

So yes, the fact that this is happening made me angry. However, unlike several people I have been debating with on Twitter, I don't believe this necessarily implies the game was poorly designed to begin with. On the contrary, I think this exploitation crowns the game an absolute success. Chain World didn't fail. It is we, humans, that failed.

The reasons why others seem to think this exploitation of Chain World implies poor design (and I am not naming these 'others' on the high possibility that I am misquoting them and deforming their arguments, as Twitter is prone to do) can be boiled down to two things: firstly, the game fundamentally relied on players passing the game on, which was a tenuous hope at best; secondly, Rohrer never anticipated the game to be played this way and thus the game fails at achieving the thematic goals intended by its creator.

I agree with both of these statements completely, and I absolutely hate what the current player is doing with the game, yet I still do not believe Chain World failed. Why? Because Chain World is currently being used in the same way religion is used: exploited by the few to obtain money and fame from the many.

No religion starts as an institution. Religion start as faith and belief. It is only when they gather enough popularity that those in charge start exploiting and cashing in on the faith of the many. This isn't a particularly shocking thing to say. You only have to look at the wealth piled up in the Vatican while the preachers of Christianity insist we should give everything to the poor to see it is true. Does this mean religion is essentially 'bad'? No, of course not. Everyone is free to believe in whatever they desire, and nearly all religions are founded on noble, commendable goals. It's the institutionalisation of this faith and the exploitation of the faith of the many by a few that is bad--but also, I would argue, inevitable.

Those who founded Christianity did not do so to gather a huge pile of gold and tell others what to do. They founded it because they thought it was a pretty decent way to live your life and they thought everyone else would gain something from it, too. And then comes the inevitable stage where those in charge find themselves in a position of power over the faith of the many. Sure, it's greedy, but it's human. And I don't mean to pick on Christianity; the same happens in all the world's major religions at some point in history or another.

Now back to Chain World. It started with a belief of Rohrer of what religion 'is' and how that should be conveyed as a game. This belief tapped into similar beliefs of many others, either because he gave a really good presentation (which he did); or because most of those people love Minecraft, or Rohrer's previous work, or both.

And now, those shared beliefs of the many are being exploited by a few. Just like the most popular religions, Chain World is being institutionalised. Chain World is being treated just like a religion.

So was Chain World poorly designed because a) it is no longer conveying the themes Rohrer intended (or arguably it never conveyed those themes as the very first player after Rohrer exploited it), and b) because there was no fail-safe in the game design to prevent this from happening? No. Chain World was exquisitely designed, perhaps even better than Rohrer intended, because it has been able to evolve in the same way major religions tend to evolve: from personal beliefs into the exploitation of many, far beyond the control of the religion's founder.

So while I think what the current player is doing is pathetic, I also think it was inevitable, and perhaps even necessary if Chain World was to succeed at the contests stated thematic goal: make a game that could be a religion. As the bids for Chain World on eBay approach $500, and as Rohrer futilely urges on Twitter that the believers reject this reappropriation and exploitation of his creation*, those currently in power are taking suggestions for a tenth commandment for the game (essentially, putting their own rules over Rohrer's) as they institutionalise Chain World into the religion it had no chance of not becoming.

Chain World succeeded. Humans, on the other hand, have not.

(* Interestingly, I could be reappropriating Rohrer's words in a similar way myself by saying this is what he meant in this tweet, which he quite possibly didn't!)

(** Also, for the sake of full disclosure, and if it wasn't clear from the post, I am an agnostic/athiest (it depends what day you ask me). I apologise if my cynical views on religion offend you and your faith as I mean no disrespect to anyone's personal beliefs.)

2 comments:

Adrian Forest said...

That's not design. It's just a serendipitous coincidence that the game failed in a way that can be used to make a point about religion.

Brendan said...

I don't believe it 'failed' so much as it evolved in precisely the same way religion tends to evolve. While I doubt it was intentional, I also don't believe it can be brushed off as mere coincidence.

It was able to evolve in the same way as religion because it was designed in a way that adequately portrayed religion. That design, much like religion, meant it was out of the original author's control as soon as it reached a popular, exploitable audience. It might not be intentional design, but it is both good and fascinating design, I think.