On the early afternoon of May 19th, 2008, a teenage me was staring at the monochromatic login screen of World of Warcraft’s Chinese server; it was the beginning of a three-day nationwide shutdown of all online games in memorial of the 8.0 magnitude Sichuan earthquake that had happened 80 kilometers west of my elementary school, over 87,000 dead. Half a century prior, 1958, my teenage grandpa munched on barks and kaolinite along with villagers of my ancestral home, 80 kilometers south of my elementary school, over 15,000,000 dead. A decade later, 1968, my grandma lost her left eardrum jumping off of a moving train to protect my grandpa from a swarm of Red Guards, 600 kilometers north of my elementary school, another 20,000,000 dead. 1978, my grandparents were cleared of political infamy and returned to work in the metropolis as a nurse and a steelworker. In 1988, teargas shot through my father’s classroom windows, and soon tanks hit the streets. 1998, all of my grandma’s surviving sisters came to stay with 1-year-old me. A historical flood had washed away all their homes downstream. 2008, I escaped my elementary school; while some of my classmates were still searching for their lost family members, I was dreading my inability to escape this reality. A decade later, 2018, in the De Neve lecture hall of UCLA, I was watching on Twitter a video of reporters getting beat up by local officials while investigating the reconstruction effort of the 2008 earthquake, 11,500 kilometers east of my elementary school during a fascinating lecture about the search for habitable exoplanets. A lot has happened from then till now, and a great deal more has happened between those decades.
Except for the lucky few, each of us has undoubtedly either experienced, inherited, or consumed copious amounts of trauma porn. Who could dream of a better tomorrow? Open up Chrome, scroll through Twitter, and swipe through Instagram moments: executions, epidemics, mass shootings, climate catastrophe, political malfunction, technological malfunction, and war after war. Thousands of nuclear warheads and the future of our planet are death-gripped by a few old men. Staring at the void became pointless – my generation has realized that we are the void. Nihilism isn’t optional; it has become essential to cope with the cosmic horror that can never lead to a fresh reboot from which we shall build a transformative world as the Futurists had hoped. Different types of hegemonic power have evolved into dominant, self-correcting machines, and our neverending perseverance only furthers their victory.
The * class is an evolution from the traditional capitalists; they control information and data rather than factories while supplying on-demand escapism into virtual worlds filled with stimuli and fantasy to keep us going on the proverbial treadmill. Feeling angry at work? Go home and shoot up some kids in Call of Duty. Never had the chance to colonize? Strip mine an alien planet and become a capitalist overnight. Crushed by the weight of wage stagnation? Grind for a piece of legendary gear to feel mildly accomplished. Cheap solutions provided by video games for societal problems create the illusion of an age of universal joy. The definition of our futures has been replaced by the 8K ultra-high-definition displays for the future of virtual worlds.
The vectoralist hijack of worldbuilding is most present in gamespaces like World of Warcraft. I used to pay just 5 US cents per hour of thrilling entertainment in a virtual world where constant war is just another neutral backdrop, where the noble knights of the West rose to defend the kingdom from the foreign Orcs, Trolls, and Goblins and their voodoos. From swords to spells to role-playing, invitations of adventure from strangers and guildmates, auction houses, dragons and dungeons, and new downloadable content. These forces conglomerates to dictate all leisure time after school or work as digital quaaludes. More recent games like Arena of Valor seep even deeper into commodifying our free time: 10-minute game sessions battling other players in yet another perpetual warfare with hundreds of heroes, perfect for playing on a bus or a toilet ride. Thousands of artists, designers, writers, and programmers sacrifice their creativity in the service of a corporation. The virtual worlds are tamed and dispossessed from a reality of consequential violence into soothing playgrounds filled with spectacles. Themeparks are constructed instead of worlds through layers of sugarcoating abstraction, which utterly severs itself from the material world. Players think they have the privilege of control over narrative time in the game world. Yet, it is the vectoralists dominating the end-users by binding their IRL persona with static quad-mesh landscapes.
Contrary to their designed and coded construction, virtual and material worlds are anything but static; they are inherently entropic. As Donna Haraway writes, “reality is an active verb, and the nouns all seem to be gerunds with more appendages than an octopus.”† In her later description of her approach to science fiction, she declares that the process of worldbuilding “is the patterning of possible worlds and possible times, material-semiotic worlds, gone, here, and yet to come.”‡ In Haraway’s writing, worldbuilding is never formulaic. It is an always incomplete, ever-evolving interaction between subjects and their environments; it is an embodied process rather than an alienated one.
An insufferable dread hits when we log out of our virtual playgrounds: suddenly, the trauma porn on ApocalypseTV comes back with rising rent, runaway inflation, and mental illness, with all the other chaotic elements of a society crawling to progress. All that is real becomes boorishly ghoulish, and we are left alone without our enchanted swords. Everything is changing while staying hauntingly familiar; stripped of our online guildmates, we are left powerless to formulate change. Shame follows, and then we become lukewarm, rushing back to our playgrounds to shave off some repressed content; childhood never ends in this neoliberal gamespace, with the clock always ticking; and while some believe game worlds can bring about an atopian promise toward new worlds, behind the spectacular appearances and intricate algorithms, “gamespace forecloses anything but its own relentless agon.”§
For artists, hackers, and worldbuilders finding methods to build ontological worlds beyond the endless gamification, the military entertainment complex only demands more first-person shooters with higher resolution, and better motion captures. When spectacular escapism is expected and required, where singular world-devising geniuses are celebrated and their subordinate hackers ignored. At the same time, reality crawls near doomsday, is there space for alternative ways of worldbuilding? Is there a genuine desire for these imaginary alternatives outside of compulsory desperation? Wouldn’t these bohemian heroics be dead on arrival or even before then on the shore of the encroaching tides of a Metaverse that would disembody us more from our mortal shells? Digital worldbuilding feels inevitably impotent; it produces worlds destined to be abandoned and forgotten, all while contributing even more to the climate catastrophe. Pasts are wiped clean, futures lost, presently trending downward. We’ve reached a creative end, time to waste the rest of our lives away. Yet not long ago, I found myself unable to log in to World of Warcraft anymore, not because of my age, not because I have less playtime, not because there’s a lack of mildly satisfying challenges waiting to be thoroughly accomplished, but because the facade seems stale, dull, flat. Not because the franchise is dated but because it can only produce the same old.
The problem with building stable worlds solely for feedback loops of mildly satisfying interactions and quarterly earnings, or doing anything creative, is that going into these worlds becomes a habit. In contrast, viewers of niche, unstable worlds go deeper underground. The broad-based engagement and interest become lower under forced stability for profit. Studios and creatives are running their practice managerially instead of artistically to avoid and minimize risk as self-correcting machines. But what people want are not machines designed for efficiency, at least not in the long term. For the better part of the years, after all the failed revolutions, people have accepted that running things efficiently and managerially is a natural way instead of coming up with alternatives; it is simply less risky. But slowly, we’ve crawled to the here and now, where we know the old system is dying again. The shift of reality brought by COVID-19 showed people how vulnerable and impotent the neoliberal managerial system is when handling forces that are not artificial. Suddenly, even the digital sedatives could not suppress our fear, alienation, and uncertainty, and the fake idea of becoming a wholesome individual collapsed. To imagine a more promising alternative, artists/hackers need to find a way to deal with the loneliness and fear beyond the dominant shift of gamification, starting with small experiments. In its complete form, worldbuilding is complex, dynamic, and unstable, just like our mushed reality; it should be thrilling and frightening simultaneously.
Imagining a detailed and comprehensive alternative is impossible for any individual or small group of elites to do. Individuals want individualistic change, and I’m not convinced that most people want a revolution if they could get the managers to manage them better; we are at the end of the bohemian alternative in its traditional definition. Tackling material power is too risky, but we can start by tackling virtual control: cancel a subscription, log off from violent fantasies, exit our cozy, algorithmic bubbles, cutting cords from the vectoralists wherever possible. Then, as hackers, we can build our own entropic worlds: art games, a platform for a few friends, and search engines that actively look outside the echo chamber. The hardware has become cheap, and the skills available online (though far from equal access) for us to reclaim pieces of cyberspace and build our wired temples.
The supposed escape that existing video games and their virtual worlds offer is but a gratifying substitute for the gamified grind of everyday life. I certainly do not believe experimental worldmaking can serve as a solution or even a simulation of systemic and infrastructural problems directly causing alienation and exploitation. But instead of serving as a pause button from labor cycles, cultivating different worldbuilding cultures outside today’s positive psychological design construction could allow us to imagine a broader range of possible realities. For example, artists can construct dynamic systems instead of hardcoded rules, ephemeral callings instead of deadlines and objectives, floating uncertainties instead of static progressions, visionary architecture instead of hyperreal photo scans, etc. I believe that worldmaking can offer us a more hopeful picture of tomorrow’s virtualities by experimenting in many new worlds without desperately trying to remake the material in the virtual, challenging polished products and formal systems.
Venturing into the uncertain world outside of cyber management forces us to move from an individual niche generation into a communal pattern generation. Breaking the pattern recognition and generating our unique convergences, beyond carving out narrower niches for self-expression, means engaging with the world not as a passive experiential with the environment and other individuals but as a dynamic existential with the chaos and the bardo. Because “the ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make, and could just as easily make differently.”¶
- *Wark, McKenzie. A Hacker Manifesto. Harvard University Press, 2004.
- †Haraway, Donna J. “The Companion Species Manifesto.” Manifestly Haraway, 2016, pp. 91–198., https://doi.org/10.5749/minnesota/9780816650477.003.0002.
- ‡Haraway, Donna Jeanne. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press, 2016
- §Wark, McKenzie. Gamer Theory. Harvard University Press, 2007.
- ¶Graeber, David. The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy. Melville House, 2016.