Too much freedom might have resulted in utter chaos. May 8, 2010

by Darby

In 1990, philosopher Peter Suber offered this observation:  “If law making is a game, then it is a game in which changing the rules is a move." Suber was not merely coining an axiom for the sake of his tenure; he was introducing a game he had invented called Nomic, in which passing, amending, and repealing the game’s own set of rules was its purpose. This was self-reflexivity at its most complex, and the creative intellectual destruction that accompanied each game was a wonder to experience. But like any laudably open and free set of laws, Nomic’s rules contained the seeds of its own potential dismantling. A system of rules designed to permit free and open action, can, even with the best of intentions, destroy itself. True freedom gives us full leeway to abandon it altogether.

Sitting through Rimini Protokoll’s delightfully cozy adventure, Best Before, Peter Suber’s quote stuck with me, and the idea that I might be partly responsible for the destruction of the very show I was experiencing was never far from my mind  ”¦ or minds I should say. Throughout the duration of Best Before, I was always in two places at once – there was the physical me, sitting in my chair amongst my fellows of flesh and blood; and the digital me, the bullet-shaped avatar I navigated around a large on-stage screen using a generic game controller. It was the same for everyone there on Friday night: two hundred puppet masters sitting in the dark maneuvering their virtual surrogates around BestLand. We watched and cheered as our avatars got their bearings, made decisions about the future of our civilization, gained rank and stature, mated, and even voted for a president, all for the sake of keeping our collective civilization afloat.

In BestLand, cause is somewhat cumulative. Each vote we cast or decision we made – to allow immigrants into BestLand, to legalize abortion, to become sexually active, to redistribute wealth – stuck with us for the duration of the game, altering our appearance, our biography, and sometimes even our population’s demographic. Our world morphed as the night wound on, gradually becoming a culture that represented the best at worst of all our decisions. And due to the bounded nature of our population – all 200 of us in one room – the aura of the polity was electric. We were anonymous yet visible to all, and our decisions were public but not personal. BestLand provided a forum for being brutally honest in a rowdy crowd.

As a cultural evolution simulator, Best Before doesn’t go quite as far as I had hoped. Control over our avatars was limited to moving and jumping, so there were limited opportunities to have a direct personal effect on the world and other players, and consequently there were few principles of natural and artificial selection at play. Or in game-design-speak, there wasn’t much emergent complexity. But presumably this was limited for a reason – too much freedom might have resulted in utter chaos. As Suber’s Nomic thesis suggests, we might have destroyed ourselves long before the show was over. But Rimini Protokolls intentions, if slightly restrictive, were far more generous. Best Before shines as a scaled down, sped up analog for culture as a set of collective personal whims. In just two hours we witnessed the often elating, often crushing reality of irrevocable action, and the brutal fact of moving forward through life on a foundation made of the discarded past. Through it all, our hosts weaved personal narratives of their own – some poignant, some banal, all relevant – arguing the uneasy point that living life may be just another game. Each second of every day, a choice is made, a result obtained, and the world moves on with or without you.

Finally, Best Before is a small technical triumph, proving that interactive art has vast potential in a niche all its own. Just as films first allowed the 20th century to chop narratives into impossible chronologies seen through improbably framings, video games have given citizens of the 21st century a chance to experience life at impossible scales. We can be as big as mountains, or as tiny as viruses, or live full lives that bear the scars of two dozen split second decisions in so short a time frame that we have no chance to consider the full ramifications of our actions. Such is life. It is a game, and living is its goal. It is a game in which changing the rules is a move. And though you may come to regret or rejoice those decisions in time, so long as you keep moving, you are alive.

Bio: Darby McDevitt is a game designer, writer, filmmaker, and musician. His most recent game credits include titles in the Assassin’s Creed series, Where the Wild Things Are, and The Sims franchise. He lives in Seattle.