Monday, July 18, 2011

I Totally Got to Play Chain World!

I've been reading a bit about Chain World, a video game revealed at the 2011 Game Design Challenge in SF, CA (if you followed that link, you can skip to the next paragraph). In brief, Jason Rohrer is an independent game designer who created a Minecraft mod, put it on a USB stick, and wrote some rules for playing the game. You only get to play it off the stick. You only play it once. When you are done playing it and saving your alterations to the world, you have to pass it on to someone else. He submitted the game as an entry in a "Video Games as Religion" challenge and passed it off to wander around the world and become the stuff of legends. Each player gets to contribute to the development of the world and the alterations that they make take on stories of their own, get interpreted, misinterpreted, added to, destroyed, or ignored by each subsequent player (like the real world, except one person at a time). Rohrer was player one, while player two was this guy named Jia Ji, a programmer who mostly works to get money donated to charities and disaster relief. Ji, independent of an against the wishes of Rohrer, set up an online auction that would have gotten the game passed on to various celebrities and regular people. One would bid for a slot in the game's passage from person to person. Procedes would go to various charities. Angry blogging ensued. People either enjoyed that the game was already being altered and reinterpreted, or hated that it was being monetized and regulated even for supposedly good causes.

Those who think that this Ji dude is somehow corrupting the game seem to be angry at least in part by the fact that a player is limiting the way that the game is played, and somehow corrupting its original intent. I think that they are wrong, not , however, for the reasons that Ji gives (something about how things should be used to get money to people in need). Ji strikes me as a ridiculous, hippy, goody-two-shoes,spotlight-hogger who needs a hobby other than the thing that he already does for a living (and this Rohrer dude seems pretty zany, too). What has actually happened here is that now everyone is getting to play the most interesting and actually available part of this unimaginably rare game. Li didn't take anything from anyone or corrupt anything. He just took part in the only way that any of us can hope to play the game.

Rohrer created a video game so limited that essentially nobody (or at least a vastly insignificant number of people) will ever get to directly play it. Even if the auction play order is broken (as it may have already been), you will never be in possession of the USB stick even more so than you will never win the lottery. That means that, for most of us, the interesting part of Chain World cannot be the actual playing of the USB stick. It has to be the in-real-life effect of the game. We play it by thinking about it, and sharing some of that thinking with others so that they can also think about it. We discuss and philosophize about the game. People also do this about religion. People get very angry about religion and yell about how other people's interpretation of religion is wrong. We get all hot and bothered about how other people ruin and misuse religion, even for supposedly good causes. Chain World is supposed to be a video game as a religion. I think that Rohrer succeeded, and we can all play at least the IRL part of the game. I'll never see the USB stick, but I did get to read a few cool articles, think some cool thoughts, and write a blog post that maybe a few people will read. Nobody has ruined my shot at playing this particular Minecraft mod. I totally got to play Chain World and it was a fun way to spend about an hour-and-a-half.

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