Chungking Espresso

Where Did Unfinish Go Wrong?

Posted in Gaming, Miscellany by Simon Ferrari on October 6, 2010

(a minimally parodic “interpretive note” on Lunenfeld’s “Unfinished Business,” for media theory class)

I’m always depressed when I read old essays valorizing MUDs (or MOOs). It’s almost as depressing as reading about the unfulfilled future of hypertext, but I didn’t have a stake in hypertext. I spent six years of my life playing a MUD called Achaea. To this day, it remains the most martially and socially complex game I’ve ever played. It was essentially a MOO, but the “orbs of creation” were only held by players who’d ascended to divinity (and thus had become paid administrators and creators).

I got my hands on an OOC once, when I was Guildmaster of the Druids. We druids were custodians of the forests, and we were always having problems with arsonists, infernals, and occultists. The latter two could eat the hearts of their fallen enemies to fuel their demonic “essence,” but it was easier for them just to kill plants. Rogue druids, overcome by greed to control the market for salves and potions, would often overharvest plants and kill them. It was our greatest concern that some of the more rare plants of the world, the ones that couldn’t be easily purchased from NPC merchants, might at some point become extinct.

I used the orb of creation to build a garden in our guildhouse, locked by a key without any copies. In the event of a catastrophic over-harvesting, I’d be able to re-plant an endangered plant from my secret crop. This never happened, so even I didn’t visit the place. Soon after I stopped playing, the guildhouse was destroyed. I can’t even remember if I handed off the key to the guy who replaced me. I don’t know if anyone else ever saw my elaborate room descriptions or floorplan.

For Peter Lunenfeld, MOOs represented the hope for a future aesthetic of unfinish. In his essay, “Unfinished Business,” Lunenfeld described how the Internet would cause great changes in how we think of space, narrative, and time. We’d come to embrace a kind of digital derive, exploring cyberspace without end or direction, bringing back stories to tell. And creators would replace product with process. Works of art and information would be in a never-ending flux of possibility. Some of them, like MOOs, would be configurable (Aarseth’s term) by any and all users.

One species of unfinish that Lunenfeld derided was the cross-media release of Johnny Mnemonic. For him, it typified a bad breed of unfinished narrative that had replaced story with character. The goal of these synergistic media packages was nothing more than continued economic gain. Today, Johnny Mnemonic is par for the course. It’s what we call a “transmedia strategy,” and it’s super hot right now. People get paid to talk about how it’s the future, even though what they really mean is that it’s the present. And it’s an exciting present.

Process has also replaced product in journalism. When people say things like, “journalism is dead,” they really mean that product journalism is dead. Product journalism is what newspapers made. Millions of years ago, product journalism gave rise to a profession called “journalism,” which had a set of values including, but not limited to: verification, objectivity, and transparency. Now that profession is dead, because it turned out that citizens can do journalism. And many of them will do it for free, which means that we don’t need to pay people who pretend to belong to a dead profession.

Process journalism is what the blogs do. It’s when you take a bit of information from an email one of your friends sent you and publish it as the news. If you’re a “tech blogger,” you spend a lot of your time deciding what product press releases to publish on the hour. Your readership expects you to say something funny about these press releases, because the Internet is for humor and the news. News is about what you should spend your money on and how many “troops” died today in a country we know nothing about.

The idea behind process journalism is that the news is always unfinished. Product journalists were always putting all this work into their articles, pretending that they knew what was actually going on. They treated the news like it was something static. But we know now that everything is dynamic. Super dynamic. So if we publish something that’s wrong, we can just edit it later. Sometimes our readers know more than we do, so we take the information they give us, insert it into our articles, and then delete their comments without so much as a thank you. Unlike journalism, blogging doesn’t pretend to be a profession; it’s an intermediate step between unemployment and working in the videogame industry.

Videogames are also unfinished business now. If you spend four years of your life making a videogame on a disc, it’s just going to get ripped by a twelve-year old in Eastern Europe and distributed for free on the Internet. To counteract this, we now typically spend a little less than a month to make a videogame. Videogames are now primarily referred to as “social games.” We hire a bunch of business school dropout kids to design the things, because they’re the experts on how to “gamify” things that are boring. Gamification is when you add experience levels to everything. Gamifying something doesn’t make it less boring; it just makes it into a game.

These social games, because we only spent a month or so to make them, are pretty damn unfinished. Once a game doesn’t break as soon as we turn it on, we release something called a “minimum viable product.” Then we get bored house-wives, -husbands, and office drones to test the game for us for free. After another month of MVP, games enter a perpetual state of “open beta.” Beta means “unfinished business.” The goal of a game in open beta is to pull as much money from stupid, desperate human beings as possible. Some of these people will leave other unfinished business, like taking care of their children, to focus on our unfinished business.

Peter Lunenfeld also thought that virtual worlds would redefine architecture, but we now know that virtual worlds are “so yesterday.” He also hoped that the aesthetic of unfinish would somehow elongate time, helping us to one day escape our own mortality. But, really, all we’re doing is helping people ignore it. The final frontier of humankind is a -ville.

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