Sisyphus Tries To Think It Through

We had a “Play Day” at ITU today, with various students demoing their creations of the past semester for all to see and try out. It was a pretty great event, and the one game I ended up playing, Neaderthunk, was very… thought provoking.

Ha ha, forgive me, you see it’s a game that uses your brain waves as the mode of interaction. So you put on a (surprisingly svelte) headset and then “concentrate” in order to win the game. Where “win the game” means direct your little neanderthal guy to push a boulder up a hill, ala Sisyphus.

It put me in mind of Jesper Juul’s characterisation of games as “making us deficient” and then challenging us to overcome our deficiency. Neaderthunk is particularly interesting in this case because your position of deficiency is based on the utterly primitive idea of brainwaves and thus all the connotations of intelligence (and “braindeadness”) associated with that. Even the loading screen is a challenge to your ego, as the game won’t start until you’ve “concentrated” enough. So to begin with, as you hopefully wait for the loading bar to fill, you’re on the back foot – do you even have enough brainwaves to play in the first place?

The experience of playing was, for me, one of not understanding – at all – what I was “doing” or in what way I had agency. To “concentrate” I try all sorts of things, from being as distracted as possible (not that effective), to reading words backwards on a sheet of instructions (seemed to work), to standing on one foot (the designers’ advice). Ultimately, a major part of the game, and a major part of the interest, was a feeling of radical decoupling of cause and effect – I had no idea of what I could do or was doing with my brain that would positively affect the game.

And that’s Juul’s deficiency situation turned up to 11 – you don’t even know what to do to stop being deficient. You try various things, and some things work, and some things don’t, but you never understand what it is that you’re doing. And yet you continue, because the game makes it clear through its representations that you need to do the right thing. You need to very literally think about what to do and try to succeed. After all, if you don’t think right, the boulder will go rolling back down the hill and you’ll be, in short, a loser. A loser at thinking, standing in the middle of a circle of your students.

In the end, it works really well as a kind of “abusive game”. You want to win, naturally enough, but you don’t know how. But the game implies it’s as easy as “concentrating” or, at the very least, just thinking. And surely you can do that, right? You can think. Right?

“Come on,” the game says, “that boulder’s not going to roll itself.”

27 May 2011
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