Recently, reports of pacifist gamers revolutionizing the virtual first-person shooter landscape have been making the media rounds. According to the Wall Street Journal and National Public Radio, winning expressly violent games by running away, hid- ing, or bringing fallen comrades back to life with a defibrillator has become all the (anti-)rage. But as Andreas Lange, director of Berlin’s Computer Game Museum tells us, there’s nothing new about virtual pacifism.
A.J. Samuels: How long have people been trying to win violent video games by nonviolent means?
Andreas Lange: I think the first examples of “pacifist” run-throughs can be traced back to the eighties. In the seventies, games didn’t have the complexity to allow for alternative ways of playing, much less alternative ways of winning. The programming just wasn’t far enough. But as soon as so-called “jump and run” games came out—Super Mario Bros. being perhaps the best example— people realized they could decide on their own how they wanted to win. Some opted not to trample the Koopa Troopas or the Goombas, even though they knew it would cost them points. Others tried beating the level as fast as possible in “speed-runs”. I see both more as an act of rebellion than anything else. Ultimately it’s about knowing how and rejecting to play by the rules.
So playing games like Deus Ex or The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim without killing anybody is less about pacifism and more about defying the order established by the game’s creators?
Absolutely. It’s first and foremost a challenge to the system. Look, if you’re playing a first- person shooter game on a team, and all you do is sneak around to avoid conflict, or help bring injured team members back to life as a medic, and then they go on to blow somebody’s head off, you’re hardly a pacifist. However, there is a pretty long tradition of pacifist games, or at least ones that reward nonviolence. I believe the first was Balance of Power, which was a Cold War simulation cre- ated by designer Chris Crawford. There you got to decide whether you wanted to be the American President or Soviet General Secretary, and from there on out, it was all about diplomacy. I mean, technically you could nuke your enemy, but that wasn’t the point. More recently we’ve seen “serious games” brought out by organizations like UNESCO or the Red Cross, which are designed around conflict resolution, mediation and nonviolent peacekeeping. The problem is that most people find them incredibly boring.
A few years ago, the artist and activist group Third Faction Collective started staging game internal “interventions” in World of Warcraft, demanding the right to “. . . reflect on the underlying code and architecture on which a game environment is constructed,” and promoting democratic thinking and player sovereignty— essentially a progressive code of ethics. Why do ethics matter in an imaginary game context? Isn’t the whole point of video games having the ability to do things virtually that you can’t do in real life?
That’s certainly an important aspect of gaming, but not the only one. The larger and more interactive video games become, the more game-external ethical conventions apply. This is where the borders between games and real life start to blur. Think about it in comparison to a “normal” game: A soccer match doesn’t go for longer than ninety minutes, and out of bounds is out of bounds. In World of Warcraft, you can build up a character for months or even years. You can spend so much time, energy and love in creating this . . . thing. So when it dies, it’s a big deal. And it feels like much, much more than a game. But is it life? Not really. It’s something in between. And that’s exactly the sort of thing that artists are there to point out. ~
In recent months, Bitcoin’s fluctuating market value has been the object of much speculation, as has the identity of its creator(s), the anonymous Satoshi Nakamoto. Touted by some as the untraceable peer-to-peer digital money of tomorrow, Bitcoin has been demonized by others as the computer-savvy criminal’s e-cash of choice. A.J. Samuels spoke with Steven Levy to find out more about the political implications of crypto currencies.
A.J. Samuels: Steven, you’ve written about crypto currencies in the past—electronic money with each unit defined by a number of digits. Since the nineties, we’ve seen all sorts of e-currencies come and go: Facebook credits, Second Life credits, Xbox credits, to name a few. In comparison, Bitcoin seems not only designed for broader use; it also has a decidedly political thrust.
Steven Levy: Absolutely. Bitcoin isn’t centrally controlled or based on trusting some federal or international regulator—which in theory is supposed to make it more stable. But even more interesting for me is that you can earn Bitcoin currency by being part of the system that makes it trustworthy—which, in some ways, is almost the exact opposite of today’s financial system. You can “mine” Bitcoins by allowing your computer to be used to process the cryptographic activity of individual transactions—that is, the process which ensures a single Bitcoin is not used twice in a single payment. My sense is that Bitcoin was launched more as an experiment or as digital money performance art than as a real currency . . . but it is impressive.
AS: Certainly the volatility of Bitcoin’s market value in recent months would make it seem less stable than its proponents would have you believe.
SL: Well, it’s definitely tough to imagine how Bitcoin could scale outwards because the system was devised to only have a fixed amount of currency—meaning that its value in the long run will just continue to increase.
AS: So what’s it good for?
SL: I think what Bitcoin has made clear is that some people don’t want to have all their transactions be traced. The father of digital money, David Chaum, was an early proponent of untraceability, and he came up with some brilliant cryptographic methods to make that a reality. I think it’s a tragedy that we have the technology to make digital cash untraceable, but not the appetite. That just means that eventually governments will move in on digital currencies, because untraceability means untaxability . . .
AS: Not to mention the best way to pay for drugs, child porn and human trafficking . . .
SL: Who knows—maybe one day you’ll have entire pedophile rings paying in World of Warcraft credits instead. But seriously, crypto currencies are just the natural evolution of fiat money: since today’s currencies are no longer of any intrinsic value like, say, salt, it makes sense that after “worthless” paper would just come code. Trust me, our pockets won’t be jingling in the future.
AS: Have you ever bought or paid for anything in Bitcoin?
SL: No. I truly believe that crypto currencies have a future, but I’m not so sure about Bitcoin. You know, these days people pay for their coffee in Starbucks with a credit card. With that kind of behavior, you end up with a pretty granular credit card statement. Personally, that would drive me nuts.
AS: People are trading anonymity for the ability to track their own payments.
SL: Hopefully one day you won’t have to sacrifice one for the other. ~