Not Vice City, Not Vice City

By Mute Editor, 9 September 2004

spring_alpha, a multiplayer online game still in development, combines the narrative of building a social utopia with the question of the user’s relationship to the game software. Reviewed by Matthew Fuller

If Public Enemy called Playstations ‘the new plantations’ what do you call a multiplayer game that sets in train a narrative in which an estate boots out the cops, lets the kids decide the fate of the school, in which the sources of food, goods and equipment have to be invented and where money is only good for kindling?

In the late ’90s, Chad McCail made a series of small paintings called Evolution Is Not Over Yet. Somewhat reminiscent of school posters or Ladybird books, they depict with a kind of wry utopian realism a set of revolutionary set pieces: people burn money; kids takeover a school; soldiers desert. The pictures are both figuratively dense and stylistically flat and have appeared as billboards and bus-stop posters. Before these pictures McCail also made Spring, a large drawn image in plan, bird’s eye views of an estate in which both social disturbance and reinvention have broken out. The images recall previous work such as Clifford Harper’s painstaking and explicit diagrams of potential utopian practice from the early ’70s much circulated by alternative technology and ecological movements, and sit interestingly next to Paul Noble’s drawings of a riotous, scatological city, ‘Nobson’.

Images of utopia are a problem. They act as a prescription, a menu. They can act as a screen to cover up or delay recognition of what is actually occurring, or, they can be made use of as a cookbook to improvise from. It is in this latter sense that Spring is currently being reused in a project led by programmer and artist Simon Yuill. This version named spring_alpha – also being worked on by Stefan Gartner, Eleonora Oreggia, Ricardo Creemer and Janice Aitken – is a multiplayer online game. It sets up the possibility for users to examine and redevelop social norms using the visual style and the scenarios of McCail’s images. The narrative of the game explicitly frames this social simulation at a recognisable moment, a point where control by central command breaks down and participants have to interact to establish new and developing ways of getting things sorted. In most life stories, these processes don’t usually happen all at once. When they do, they often appear as revolution or as disaster.

It is difficult to find a fully satisfactory way of understanding such moments at the level of interpersonal relationships, aesthetics or social meta-structures. To find a way of linking such scales and more importantly coding them into an identifiable system is almost impossible. That is, unless you make the representational system you use open-ended and acknowledge its limits. In the work of Harper or McCail it is the extreme detailing they drive the viewer to that is in a sense revolting, saccharine, and which marks these constraints. Both, I think, play on this. McCail for instance, in the Evolution… series has a ladies and gentlemen couple tripping off into parkland woods for ‘relaxing orgasms’. The therapeutic paternalism of sexual ‘health’ does work on the body, but to set your teeth on edge. Wouldn’t it be great to have the game redrawn in the style of Tom of Finland? The sight of sperm-slurping studs pausing for a moment of reflection whilst harvesting oats on the collective allotments, is, if you are doing clip-art copulation, a little more tasty. There’s the potential for allegory and appetite, not just blunt bit-mappy depiction. Equally other social simulation games such as Sim City famously use top-down sociological models familiar, as Yuill suggests, from the zoned functionalist realities of Robert E Park and the Chicago School. What spring_alpha proposes, instead, is a many-to-many reality similar to the multi-layered and humanistic models of urban community inherited from Jane Jacobs. It might be the case however that the work, with its emphasis on political re-modelling eventually shares more with the social ecology of Murray Bookchin and the anarchist do-it-yourself urbanism of Colin Ward. Conflicts over power relations are key here.

But how does such a game get round imposing an ideological ‘best path’ through the mechanisms it sets up? If the way the images are rendered is a significant enough problem, how about the narratives available, or the mechanics of the software? All simulations eventually divide on the question of whether they are a simulation proper or a game. In the first case, successful work is achieved by focusing closely on the precise nature of the task to be simulated, an excess of precision. In a game the reality effect is ditched in favour of establishing a compelling interaction between narrative and the mechanics of the algorithmic processes that structure behaviour.

spring_alpha is in the first stages. At the Netherlands Media Art Institute in Amsterdam the graphical style and the game engine framework are currently being made – a prototype. Later, at Dundee Contemporary Arts and at Huddersfield’s Media Centre the project will be developed and moved towards a first release version. And it is in this development process, and the way it is built into the work at the level of software, that spring_alpha makes some intriguing proposals.

Games make realities. Like any cultural product, they train the way we view the world, but they also make the world, even if only by detaining us amongst some micro-circuits. One objection to a game which foregrounds the political is that politics ought to be fought out in the real world, using the metaphor of a game if necessary, but done in a way that has material effects on peoples’ lives. But it is also true that politics is made with ideas. One thing spring_alpha proposes to do is to make apparent multi-layered links between the two.

A key part of the work is to find a way of inter-relating the narrative of the game and the mechanics of the software that make it happen. In most games, in most software, the latter is hidden. A user may clock the algorithmic processes they are engaged with, but does not have any further access. What is modelled becomes what is done. With its concern for economic and social models spring_alpha may risk over-emphasising the distribution of the means of existence rather than reasons for living. But what it plans to do is open such processes up for inspection and reinvention.

A significant part of this is to invent forms of interface in which the underlying code structures are made interrogable and manipulable. Much of this is at the earlier stages of design right now, but it is also in the process of design itself that the work is worth documenting. Every object or role within the game will have a set of properties. These objects and roles that exist will be ‘growable’ via an interface more like the sophisticated synthesising of programs like Pure Data than the fixed choice preferences of normal games menus. These palpable data structures will immediately enter the game’s narrative. If you want to decide the uses, destruction or invention of an object or a role, you need to have a fine sense of what it is. Such subtle and intriguing interfaces, it is planned, will route the user deeper into the politics of software.

This leads onto the other key aspect of the project’s development. This autumn a series of workshops will be held in Dundee where the same issues of power, ownership, re-use, distribution and play, will be raised. The basic template for this work, which will go on to define objects and roles within the game, will be the city itself. How do you or can you, reimagine a surveillance system run on decentralised lines? How do you go about education if we are not to take the present system of carceral quantification as an a priori? These are contexts in which daily life is already integrated into informational systems. By asking these entirely pragmatic questions, and by doing so with reflexively engineered software, spring_alpha promises to make the everyday impossible spring to life.

References:Simon Yuill http://www.syuill.orgSpring_alpha

Matthew Fuller is Reader in Media Design at the Piet Zwart Institute He is author of Behind the Blip: Essays on the Culture of Software, published by Autonomedia