Heavy Virtual

The question arises and it is an old one: if video games arbitrate the majority of virtual value, could this computation be put towards better ends than simply play. Resoundingly the answer has been no—play should not be used towards an end and its disinterested pursuit is its fundamental enjoyment. But how can this be true anymore? There is no disinterested play, we don’t step out of the game any more than we step out of our home on the way to work. A common example many have experienced—you are playing a first person shooter and are killed, the player tag is a streamer’s, you thought you were playing but instead it turns out your multiplayer lobby was at work.

Further to this, gaming community has looked on in horror at image after image of GPUs grafted onto cryptocurrency torture racks, shackled up inside industrial power plants hashing away at computationally cruel tasks, twinkling in soothing RGB patterns. There is no coincidence that the shortage of GPUs, computation, and other core gaming components would carry with it a crisis at the very fabric of what gaming is for, and what it does. First, an outsider group to video games has come to the table with different assumptions on virtual value, governance, and the telos of play. Second, creatives and consumers are frustrated at the new scarcity of the GPU.

Far from its stigmatic origins, the figure of the gamer is exposed from all sides, unsure if player or worker, content-creator or consumer, professional or amateur. Every ludic individual now makes an impossible decision about where the game begins and ends in their life. I worry most that the game designer does not want to address this ambiguity, and probably works to maintain it. It is in the best interest of the industry to keep play and virtual assets deregulated and in their dark pools. Worst case scenario: the game designer continues to exist in the world at most as a cultural agent that does good by symbolically manufacturing game worlds that show good (but do not exist). We are floundering inside game worlds that picture positive futures that do not acknowledge the technologies and energy underwriting simulation. If what we do when we play is compute, what we compute might be worth reconsidering. 

Should the industry that helped to define the entire category of virtual worlds not be intellectually curious to the development of the last few years? At the moment, video games and game engines facilitate computation into larger structures, images, and trends – the contemporary. Even more unexpected, a massive subterranean shift: the technology of the game engine sits now as the base of a superstructure spanning machine learning, robotics, animation, film compositing, construction, architecture, etc. A self-driving car, warehouse bot, or robotic arm makes claims to the GPU. The largesse of play now lays the groundwork for a considerable portion of the real. In the brain of every machine learning agent is a world conceptualized through the framework of the game engine. And through the eyes of our smartphones a world augmented and reprojected in so many ways. The server rooms of the city-state and the massively multiplayer online game. The next decade we will observe our engine becoming the ubiquitous motor of computation.

One of the most computationally expensive and expansive tasks, the simulation of video games distributes swathes of high powered silicon onto any available geography. In the United States the energy grid underwrites play with ~35 terawatt-hours (TWh) of energy every year and the industry generates revenue in the low tens of billions. We did not have to reckon with this expenditure until GPUs started disappearing off shelves and the disclosure of a new form of valuable computation was made, cryptocurrency. Our distributed system of GPUs had accidentally made another arrangement possible, one in which the gamer unplugs their rig from the game world and instead uses it to manufacture consensus for a decentralized system. The second largest cryptocurrency is within the ballpark of energy consumption of video games (~25 TWh/year) and its capitalization is roughly one year of global game industry revenue (~$300B USD). But this isn’t where we are headed, into some intricate energy calculus between them and us, this is instead about the surprising revelations that happened exactly when we started doing this calculus. When we examine our actions under an economic and environmental microscope the best decisions are often the least intuitive or socially acceptable.

Moving past the energetic costs, there is also a groundswell of play-to-earn advocates. Many games do have a financial end, gambling and poker are both “gaming” after all, but this concept is a dead end for another reason. We are in the midst of another relearning of the Steam marketplace, Diablo auction house, and maybe the logical end of play-to-earn: the sweatshops of the World of Warcraft gold mining industry. The main heresy of play-to-earn is not the instrumentalization of players as mere economic actors (sometimes this is fun) but the resources of the game as economic objects. However, there is a question to be asked here about cost, if we continue to deny monetary values to virtual objects moving forward, then how do we reckon with the energetics of games.

Let’s call out Animal Crossing games for what they are, fake pastoral fantasies that simulate engagements in a community we wish the urban environment provided. Instead we simulate this fantasy rather than making it real because we no longer have the resources and wealth to make it real. At least, that is one version of the story, and it sounds plausible. What was revealed and quickly buried by the blockchain energy calculus is that many real world things we take pleasure in doing would of course be better simulated from a purely energetic perspective—and this is true the other way, many things we simulate should not be simulated. Before play-to-earn goes away, lets at least explore the desire to see simulation as economically viable for its participants.

The video game industry continues to show double digit growth, has vast computational resources and profit, but no intellectual program other than simulating realities or modeling behavior we might wish to see come along. This mode fits well for games, filling the socioeconomic vacuum of the desires and wishes for worlds we want to see but do not have the power to enact (pastoral fantasy). Soon there will be an energetic dimension added to this reality, whether through per capita limits on plane travel or the waning of the petrodollar. The transporting and composing of virtual bodies will be the business of games. But this is only a positive future to opt into if video games can address the disconnection between their reality and the local, physical and economic realities of their players. What parts of reality could be made virtual and given their value, their weight, and given to players? And once this happens, how will the role of game designer intervene directly in the world? Could we acknowledge the work and agency of the player and the weight of the virtual? If this is the one thing we can learn from blockchain or play-to-earn then let it be that.

Jon Rafman – You Are Standing in an Open Field (Mental Traveler) – 2020

This turn from lightness to heaviness is not prescriptive for all of play, in fact for most video games it is not possible. Play is surprisingly obstinate, we are in a ludic hangover of our own attempts to coerce play into genres like serious games and not-games. The ludic turn was not to be found in the executable file but in the tertiary markets of streaming, eSports, and influencing—assembling and organizing computation into the images and scenes of popular culture. Ultimately these forces have outstripped all attempts to steer play into more productive paths. All the while the game engine has been tunneling out and is about to break the surface.

The perennial question to ask ourselves every year: how might the institutions and industries of play better be reoriented to better their thriving virtual populations? Either we acknowledge that players might soon need to be compensated for simulating the worlds we create or we continue to invoke video games as a symbolic medium that cannot make direct claims on the real. Maintaining the lusory attitude that we have used to define play means staying with the latter. However, I think it is clear this is no longer an option. Far from this being a failure or disappointment it is instead one of the many answers to the question of how a game designer might exist in the world.