Virtual Works of Virtual Art

The Glass Mountain project continues its merry way with me replacing the exoskeleton of a mountain in Minecraft with glass blocks and hollowing it out beneath. Of course, when I say “merry”, I mean “me doing lots of virtual grunt work”. I’ve even moved to a “two smelter system” in order to produce glass blocks more efficiently during the days and nights while I’m out working on the structure.

I have a little daily routine of collecting sand in the early morning, setting it smelting, and then working on the outside structure while it’s light out (and hence no creepy crawlies) and then retreating inside as it gets dark to work on hollowing out the internal cavity, which is now getting pretty huge. All this in aid of creating a virtual object that I hope will be quite beautiful and meaningful in some way.

Which leads me to continuums. The old ludus (rules, goals) and paidia (playfulness) continuum (if it is one) is very popular in game studies as a way to conceptualise forms of gameplay. And the story goes that games which support both of these things in different ways are doing something good, because both forms of play activity are very appealing – ludus for our desire to succeed, paidia for our desire to be more trivial and immediate. Grand Theft Auto (since 3) is a good example of facilitating both forms of activity, and there’s no doubting that it’s a better game for it.

But this project in Minecraft turns me toward another continuum which feels less explored in video game worlds, and which seems very interesting and fruitful – a continuum of sorts between work and art. Or something along those lines. The Glass Mountain project has me rocketing along this axis. I spend a great deal of virtual labour when I play in that world – almost all my time is spent doing quite mundane tasks: smelting, digging, placing blocks of glass to replace other blocks, searching for coal. And yet it’s all in aid of something that’s ultimately my more “artistic” vision.

I think the work/art poles (or dichotomy or whatever, I’m not interested so much in the formal structure) is something that video games could certainly go into much more deeply. I think there’s the potential there for an interaction with a virtual world that goes beyond satisfaction and toward something potentially more fulfilling. I struggle to think of other examples, but I might cite something like the amazing story of the Guiding Hand Social Club’s crazy take-down of another guild in Eve Online. Vast amounts of work toward what was in many ways a highly aesthetic outcome.

Of course, this kind of process isn’t for everyone – turning a mountain into glass almost certainly strikes a large number of players as idiotic, and in many ways it is. But I can’t help but feel that games could push harder on their ability to channel players’ creativity (and preparedness to work for it) somehow. Modding communities and machinimists (a word?) are good examples, but couldn’t games do more to gently slide us toward these experiences in the virtual worlds themselves?

2 February 2011
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