Witte de With Contemporary Art
Program—To the Next Level
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Sediments — 1995 | March 2017

To the Next Level
By Clemens Jahn

Video games took a wrong turn at the end of the 1990s. In the past two decades, the graphics of video games have become increasingly realistic, their game play smoother, and more complex and immersive than ever before. The scale of some of today’s game productions can easily compete with that of blockbuster movies, but not unlike twenty-first century Hollywood, large parts of the game industry remain caught in a loop of repetition and self-replication. The most elaborate game mechanics, audiovisual atmospheres, and virtual reward and achievement systems keep millions of players hooked, but plotlines are often shallow and highly predictable, and the cast stereotypical and normative—in some cases inhumane, sexist, and/or misogynist. 1On the Feminist Frequency website—which started as a blog and is now a not-for-profit educational organization—Canadian cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian has published a series of videos: “Tropes vs. Women in Videogames,” Feminist Frequency website, https://feministfrequency.com/series/tropes-vs-women-in-video-games/ (accessed 23 February 2017). Immense production budgets, tight schedules, and pressure to secure sales and returns on investment restrict the willingness of game companies to experiment and take conceptual risks. Innovation is still often limited to aesthetic embellishment and gaming experiences are defined by the corporate interests of an industry deeply rooted in the dynamics of globalized network capitalism. In contrast, looking back at the mid-1990s allows a glimpse into the potential of empowering, and politically and conceptually progressive gaming experiences, just before the experimental and utopian aspects of early online gaming and internet culture began to attract the attention of commercial applications.

The Closet is a dark, cramped space. It appears to be very crowded in here; you keep bumping into what feels like coats, boots and other people (apparently sleeping). One useful thing that you’ve discovered in your bumbling about is a metal doorknob set at waist level into what might be a door. 2Excerpt from the first text a user encounters when entering famous MUD LambdaMOO. From: Sherry Turkle, Life on Screen (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 182.

In 1995 about 60,000 people regularly visited Multiuser Dungeons (MUDs for short): 3Ilsa Godlovitch, “Jackal takes Dragonfly to be his bride,” Independent, 28 August 1995, http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/jackal-takes-dragonfly-to-be-his-bride-1598406.html (accessed 8 October 2016). online, multiplayer virtual worlds, usually maze-like and text-based, in which users interacted in real time. 4Alternatively “Multi-User Dimensions” or “Domains” for those with without a hack-and-slash focus. Today some MUDs are technically still ongoing, but they are not in wide practice anymore. The website mudstats.com provides an extensive list of still active and inactive MUDs, and their current online user numbers. Originally based on the fantasy tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons (1974) and in the tradition of early fantasy computer games such as the Zork series (1977–82), MUDs combined elements of traditional role-playing games, hack-and-slash, world building, collective writing, and online socializing.

Created in 1996, Aardwolf is a MUD still managed and played online today.

MUD1 (1980), created by Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle, at the time students at Essex University, is considered the first of its kind and was followed by a growing number of increasingly popular successors. In the mid-1990s, MUDs had reached the height of their popularity: there were around 600 active games, covering a wide range of different settings from fantasy (historical, dark, or medieval) to contemporary, sci-fi, and cyberpunk, and involving communities like furry, “adult,” and educational groups.

Although they were built on the metaphor of three-dimensional physical environments, most MUDs consisted of text only. Users navigated through virtual space by typing directional words such as “go,” “look at,” and “open,” commands like “say,” “tell,” and “whisper,” to interact with other human or non-human actors, or “bash,” “punch,” and “kill” when in combat inside a hack-and-slash MUD. With TinyMUD (1988), which focused on world building and socializing with other users, a range of mainly socially themed MUDs began to emerge. There were also MUDs dedicated to TinySex, mudsex, or netsex—different names for cybersex within the platform—such as the still-active Tapestries MUCK (1991), “an adult social/roleplay muck with the theme of sexual exploration within a Furry Theme.” 5“Tapestries MUCK,” MUDStats.Com website, http://www.mudstats.com/World/TapestriesMUCK (accessed 23 February 2017). “MUCK” and “MUSH” are puns on the word MUD, although backronyms like “Multi-User Shared Hallucination,” “Multi-User Shared Hack,” “Habitat,” “Holodeck,” “Multi-User Chat/Created/Computer/Character/Carnal Kingdom” and “Multi-User Construction Kit” can be found. These text-based, highly abstract, anonymous, and imagination-based multiuser spaces provided an ideal environment for their inhabitants to freely switch between different genders, ages, and appearances.

Despite various accounts of net.sleazing, mud rape, and other kinds of violent action among users, as well as reports of broken trust and broken hearts caused by advanced flirtatious “chatterbots,” MUD culture is a perfect example of the novel heterotopia that the internet was lived as—and perceived as—by many in the mid-1990s. With people from all around the world participating, the mostly noncommercial MUDs seemed to make the dream of a limitless, heterarchical, global, and social online community tangible, at least for a small fraction of the world population who not only had a computer with internet access at that time but could also afford to spend half the day online, when surfing the Web was still charged by the hour (it will thus come as no surprise that the concept of MUDs was invented at universities where online access was free). The ability to cycle through parallel worlds, different sexes, and multiple characters provided a perfect alternative to the rigid constructions of real-life gender and identity. That users’ shared authorship in terms of the ability to cocreate, modify, and expand every aspect of their virtual environments, furthered the fictional quest narratives of many MUDs, giving their users a new experience of world building and virtual boundlessness.

By 1995 a few commercial game studios had already begun to publish the source code of their games, allowing players to create their own levels, maps, textures, characters, sounds, and animations. Among the first larger firms aware of the potential of game modifications (or mods) was Texas-based developer id Software. Publishing source code of their successful first-person shooters Wolfenstein 3D (1992) and Doom (1993) for individual modification created a large international mod-making community. Fans of the games made thousands of new levels with custom designs, whether in the style of the original game or referencing other pop cultural franchises such as Aliens, Sailor Moon, and Sonic the Hedgehog. In the following years, several successful Doom mods were published commercially, and id Software even recruited talented mod-makers to work for the company, like Tim Willitis, who is now id Software’s creative director. Some of the most popular online games started as mods, including Team Fortress (1996, based on Quake), Counter-Strike (1999, based on Half-Life), and Defense of the Ancients (2003, based on Warcraft III). Game mods furthered the concept of allowing players to coauthor and customize their game environments, within the limits of their inevitable corporate affiliation, regulation, and occasional re-commodification, however.

Compared to MUDs, which were exemplary for pioneering decentralized and nonlinear online gaming, most of what the commercial video game industry produced in the mid-1990s seems rather underwhelming. Rapid advances in computer technology at the time made more and more developers shift their focus to state-of-the-art 3-D graphics. “You want slow, flat games?” a TV ad for the Atari Jaguar console asked. “No. Slow is for turtles, flat is for boards. Fast and 3D is for games.” 6Quoted from: “E3 1995 – first show ever! Full length documentary. Great history!,” YouTube video, posted by QLvsJAGUAR, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fC9ZJWHFjhc (accessed 23 February 2017). But up-to-date visuals were often detrimental to the conceptual qualities and imaginative potential of games. Technologically less sophisticated 1995 classics such as Command & Conquer, Rayman, and Street Fighter Alpha were based on simple concepts and a set of already known formulas—all well made with attention to detail, addictive and entertaining, but highly predictable with shallow plots and linear game play.

By 1995 the internet was largely privatized and was shaping up to become a vast global infrastructure. 7“A Brief History of NSF and the Internet,” National Science Foundation website, 13 August 2003, https://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=103050 (accessed 23 February 2017). The hints of an alternative, postmodern online social reality one could briefly experience in the 1980s and early 1990s had slowly drawn to a close and begun to segue into the normative mainstream version of network culture that most of us know today. For the video game industry, the mid-1990s marked a tipping point because of new technological infrastructures creating possibilities of combining the high-end graphics of offline gaming with online multiplayer experiences. Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs), like Neverwinter Nights (1991) and Ultima Online (1997) were built on a tradition of fantasy hack-and-slash MUDs with a social component. However, they were graphical and made to please a large market, as their participant numbers grew rapidly, along with the massive spread of the internet. Similarly, Linden Lab’s Second Life (2003)—which the company insists is not a game—might be considered a direct successor of socially themed MUDs, where the users’ primary goal is not to beat a game, but to experience or inhabit a virtual world. From 2004 onward, MMORPG World of Warcraft took a globally networked gaming experience to yet another level, with player numbers quickly reaching millions.

Menu screen for the video game Neverwinter Nights, 1991 release.

We control the game. But a game also grips us: we play, and are played by the game as well. 8Johannes Kirsten in: Olaf Nicolai and Jan Wenzel, Four Times Through the Labyrinth (Leipzig and Zurich: Spector Books, 2012), 149.

In 2015 the game industry grossed $23.5 billion in digital game sales in the United States alone, 9Chris Morris, “Level up! Video Game Industry Revenues Soar in 2015,” Fortune (16 February 2016), http://fortune.com/2016/02/16/video-game-industry-revenues-2015/ (accessed 23 February 2017). compared with $7 billion in 1994. 10John Markoff, “Sony Starts a Division To Sell Game Machines,” The New York Times, 19 May 1994, http://www.nytimes.com/1994/05/19/business/company-news-sony-starts-a-division-to-sell-game-machines.html (accessed 23 February 2017). According to The Entertainment Software Association, in more than 60 percent of American households there is at least one person playing video games for more than three hours per week, with a gender ratio of 59 percent male and 41 percent female. 11Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry (Washington, DC: Entertainment Software Association, 2016), PDF e-book, http://essentialfacts.theesa.com/Essential-Facts-2016.pdf (accessed 23 February 2017). The increasingly vast distribution of video games supports game designer and theorist Ian Bogost’s hypothesis about the exceptional persuasive power of video games: “In addition to becoming instrumental tools for institutional goals, videogames can also disrupt and change fundamental attitudes and beliefs about the world, leading to potentially significant long-term social change.” 12Ian Bogost, Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), ix. But the number of games that are noticeably aware of this social agency, aiming at anything but putting commercial success first, remains comparatively low and barely visible. A problem New York-based nonprofit Games for Change tries to take action against. According to Asi Burak, chairperson of Games for Change, “Opposition to sophisticated critique of videogames tends to come from within the gaming industry itself […]. It’s the nature of gaming to be edgy and anti-establishment. It’s a young industry. It saw rapid commercial success [and it is] historically an underground kind of field, not used to a spotlight that could reveal flaws alongside beauty.” 13Jessica Conditt, “Video games can drive social change, if they grow up first,” Engadget (22 April 2015), https://www.engadget.com/2015/04/22/games-for-change-asi-burak/ (accessed 23 February 2017).

Video games are still often stigmatized as “low culture” and are subsequently absent in most “high culture” contexts, such as the art world, or within the scope of a critical academic discourse. Also the technical complexity of producing up-to-date video games, and the widespread unfamiliarity with the workings of the medium could explain its still-narrow employment. Looking back at the MUD era, however, demonstrates how significant innovation can emerge almost from scratch—albeit perhaps in the safe space of a university—and that a mammoth-like industry does not necessarily have to be its predestined birthplace. Ultimately, combining the noncorporate freedom and open spirit of early online gaming with today’s advanced digital infrastructures, distributed technology, and experience could lead video games to the next level—as emergent possibility spaces, and as unconditional media for collaborative experiment and creation.

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Sediments — 1995
1995
Adam Kleinman, Orit Gat