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"We become like gods to those who come after us."
September 9, 2011 5:44 PM   Subscribe

In March, indie game designer Jason Rohrer (previously) created a video game, called Chain World, intended to evoke feelings of the sacred and spiritual. The game gains its aura from its uniqueness: there is only one copy, and an individual can only play it once. Then, Chain World ended up on eBay, and everything changed.

In the past, video games have treated religion as a career choice, an expansion strategy, an enemy, an experiment, or just an excuse for epic battles. Chain World avoids drawing conclusions about religion's role in the world, but instead goes in search of the mystery of religious practice itself. Rohrer created Chain World as an entry to the 2011 Game Design Challenge: create a game that is a religion. Chain World (a mod for MeFi favorite Minecraft, which is itself philosophically-interesting) exists on a single unique flash drive (recalling Walter Benjamin's notion of the "aura" of a sacred object). Players continue until they die (echoing themes of the transience of life that Rohrer first raised in his indie hit Passage [previously]) and then pass on the flash drive to "someone who has expressed interest." Players can play just once, but the anonymous, mysterious traces they leave on the landscape outlast them. But when, after Rohrer's presentation on Chain World at the Game Developer's Conference in March 2011, he released his flash drive to seemingly-unexceptional audience member Jia Ji at the Challenge, the game immediately departed from its creator's intended themes. Ji, Chain World's Player Two, put it on eBay.

As part of the deal, Ji required that the winning bidder pass on the game to celebrity game theorist Jane McGonigal (previously), with proceeds going to charity--a move influenced by McGonigal's own idea that games can make us "the best version of ourselves" by rewarding good works with feelings of mastery and achievement. Ji sees himself as a fundraiser who merely incentivized a good deed by selling both a connection to celebrity and a feeling of moral achievement, but Rohrer has sardonically likened Ji to a moneylender in the temple. But unlike the Biblical God, Rohrer can't throw the rebel out of the world he created, even in the face of provocations like a video in which Ji seems to throw the flash drive into an active volcano. Some Rohrer-supporters have a less magnanimous attitude to Ji's actions. With the anonymous winning bidder (who speaks mostly in Sufic and Go-related Tweets) silent since July, the chain has now passed out of the public eye.
posted by a sourceless light (63 comments total) 67 users marked this as a favorite

 
There are (at least) two games here. One is the game your post refers to explicitly, the software installed on the flash drive, and the other is the game your post describes, the game of distributing the game. Looking forward to getting into these - and I highly recommend Passage for anyone that hasn't already experienced it.
posted by doublehappy at 5:51 PM on September 9, 2011 [4 favorites]


Jason Rohrer is known as much for his eccentric lifestyle as for the brilliant, unusual games he designs. He lives mostly off the grid in the desert town of Las Cruces, New Mexico.

*boggle* That's my hometown.

He doesn’t own a car

*doubleboggle* That's really fucking difficult in Las Cruces.

Okay, I'll read the article for real now.
posted by hippybear at 5:52 PM on September 9, 2011 [8 favorites]


(Also, Las Cruces is mostly in the Rio Grande river valley. It's sort of in the desert, but it's not really a desert town. Not like Phoenix or Las Vegas is a desert town.

Okay, carry on with your discussion of the actual content of this article.)
posted by hippybear at 5:55 PM on September 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is another reason why I need to bone up for the all access pass for the next GDC
posted by hellojed at 5:57 PM on September 9, 2011


It sounds like he has successfully modeled religion and the religious experience.
posted by Legomancer at 6:02 PM on September 9, 2011 [7 favorites]


Just ironically proving the Bible's thesis that human beings will always fuck up a good thing with their free wills.
posted by bleep at 6:05 PM on September 9, 2011 [12 favorites]


Or, you know, 10 minutes in and we already have a schism.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:06 PM on September 9, 2011 [20 favorites]


..leading their environment to an early grave.
posted by bleep at 6:06 PM on September 9, 2011


What an interesting story. Thanks!

I find Rohrer's work intriguing, but really overrated. The deep reactions to Passage read to me like a lot of games journalist's taking full advantage of their liberal arts degrees.

This particular game reminds me of the Killswitch creepypasta. Except, in this case, the rules seem to be extraneous to the game itself. It's just a shared Minecraft world with a bit of artificial lore, people!
posted by graventy at 6:11 PM on September 9, 2011 [4 favorites]


If you can play just once, how does the person you pass the game on to play? If that person can play, why can't you?

(recalling Walter Benjamin's notion of the "aura" of a sacred object)

Whether it recalls an art object's "aura" is an empirical question that isn't settled by the fact that it's on a pen drive.
posted by kenko at 6:19 PM on September 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yeh they love to blow up the significance, it reminds me of the article 'A rape in cyberspace'. Will there eventually be something like rape in a virtual world? Sure.

Is someone coming into the 90's roleplaying chatroom you're in and typing a creepy message 'rape'. Not really.

I'm sure there will eventually be an interface between technology and humanity that's like religion, but I don't think it's minecraft.

The designer had a cool concept though and I think this kind of work is important in pushing art forms forward.
posted by Not Supplied at 6:23 PM on September 9, 2011


I would put this up on Piratebay in an instant if it ever fell in my lap.

I liked Passage, but this is just pretentiousness, with a game he didn't even make himself at the center of it.
posted by ymgve at 6:23 PM on September 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have difficulty appreciating the semiotic significance of video games while I'm playing them, because at that point I'm mainly interested in the functional significance. So I can only really appreciate "art games" by reading about them. Maybe that's a feature? A lot of conceptual art is the same way.
posted by LogicalDash at 6:28 PM on September 9, 2011


In typical WIRED fashion the article is light on technical details, and I haven't read the supporting links yet, but does anyone know is there anything modded into the Minecraft client data that makes this unique from client data on an unmodded install? Or are the rules completely honor-system?


A religion is more than its sacred text. “This was totally not something I would have wanted to happen at all,” Rohrer says. “On the other hand, it’s interesting that [Ji] would take something that I had done and irritate me with it.” If religion is about customs and rituals, not sacred text, Ji was a gift to Chain World, enriching it beyond the means of its creator.


It's a funny mental image to imagine God up on his cloud, watching the progress of humanity without being able to intercede, thinking "You stupid bastards, stop it! That's not what I meant at all! Assholes..."
posted by codacorolla at 6:28 PM on September 9, 2011 [21 favorites]


You hardly have to go as high as god to find a parallel, more like giving an expensive gift to a kid and seeing them have more fun playing with the cardboard box.
posted by 445supermag at 6:34 PM on September 9, 2011 [4 favorites]


So, the "one play per person" thing--that's pretty much enforced by honor?
posted by LogicalDash at 6:42 PM on September 9, 2011


ymgve: "I would put this up on Piratebay in an instant if it ever fell in my lap."

And what is it you would have put up on Piratebay, exactly? A minecraft gamestate, locked at the point wherein it reached you?

That's not Chain World...
posted by danny the boy at 6:50 PM on September 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


Can anyone tell me why I should give a shit what classes his kids go to?
posted by biffa at 6:54 PM on September 9, 2011


William Gibson tried this. Once.

It fell afoul of the hacker ethos.

Gamers game, it is their nature, it is their soul. They gamed your game. Laugh and learn and move on...
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:58 PM on September 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


dd if=/dev/usb of=original.image

Instant replay!
posted by odinsdream at 7:00 PM on September 9, 2011 [3 favorites]


Yeah, odinsdream has the right idea. The "one at a time, serial changes persist" trick would last until a single geek managed to get the USB stick.

Or actually, most likely it would end before that, because thumbdrives have the lifespan of a goldfish - If you get lucky, it might outlast you, but most of them die within a few months. One with the protective case removed, sanded, and decorated? I wouldn't trust it for the ride from work to home, much less with the founding of a new "religion".

Not to mention... Hello? Have any of you people heard of computer viruses? You may as well just pass around a copy of "steal my identity 2011" and call it good!
posted by pla at 7:14 PM on September 9, 2011


[the game data] exists on a single unique flash drive

That sounds like the plot MacGuffin from a 2002 "cyber-thriller" written by someone who has absolutely no idea how computers work.
posted by straight at 7:14 PM on September 9, 2011 [14 favorites]


I have difficulty appreciating the semiotic significance of video games while I'm playing them, because at that point I'm mainly interested in the functional significance. So I can only really appreciate "art games" by reading about them. Maybe that's a feature? A lot of conceptual art is the same way.

A lot of life is the same way.
posted by pmcp at 7:15 PM on September 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


"8) Never discuss what you saw or did in Chain World with anyone."

...

"Rohrer said that he had been player one, the first to leave a mark on Chain World. “I had one of the most heartbreaking and poignant deaths, way too soon, that I’ve ever experienced in a videogame,” he said. “And my child, who was sitting there, was in tears, and he wanted to tear this out of the back of my computer and stomp on it. ‘We didn’t do anything for them! We didn’t leave anything for them to discover!’” He sighed."
posted by pla at 7:17 PM on September 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's a fascinating story. But what is it like to play the damn game?
posted by Splunge at 7:18 PM on September 9, 2011


It's only on player two!? what the hell
posted by Stonestock Relentless at 7:25 PM on September 9, 2011


If you can play just once, how does the person you pass the game on to play? If that person can play, why can't you?
Because then it wouldn't be the game, man. It would just be some lame minecraft mod.

Anyway, this just seems like something being ridiculously over-hyped on wired.
posted by delmoi at 7:30 PM on September 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


MetaFilter: just seems like something being ridiculously over-hyped on wired
posted by hippybear at 7:34 PM on September 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


Anyway, this just seems like something being ridiculously over-hyped on wired.

I think it's an interesting idea.

This is just a lame Minecraft mod and, so far as I can tell, it's not even that. It's just a random world that Rohrer happened to save on a gussied up jump drive. What is religion to an atheist, which Rohrer describes himself as, if not a seemingly arbitrary set of commandments laid over top of something that exists perfectly fine by it's own natural rules?

As soon as Rohrer transferred that world and its rules to another person he retained no control over it - just like religion will mutate and become malignant to its roots and neighbors. The Abrahamic religions quarreling over prophets and bylines is a pretty good example.

I think it's especially funny that the first mutation of the ruleset (within the first person it was passed to even!) is someone who's trying to take the rules and make things equitable and use the ruleset to donate to those less fortunate than him. Rohrer shouldn't be mad - he made Minecraft Jesus, right down to a bunch of adherents to the original ruleset getting so angry that they're wishing death upon him.

Wired misses the technical details (which is that Rohrer hasn't programmed a single damned thing, other than the social expectations of the observers and participants) in an effort to obscure and mystify the technology which is at the heart of the story - one of my common complaints with them, in fact. I think it's poor framing on the article's part. The actual 'game' is pretty interesting, in my opinion, and a great representation of religion.
posted by codacorolla at 8:03 PM on September 9, 2011 [11 favorites]


Chainworld is a frickin' awesome concept (not game, because I never had any belief the idea would go far beyond a few links).

The best part about it is that whatever it originally was intended to be (a relic, a ritual, etc., as it pertains to religion), it's really become about distribution of power, because whomever holds Chainworld has power over its world, the collective creative work of the people before them, and over the distribution chain that follows. And they have the power to end it all for everyone.

People reacted strongly about it because they want to get their hands on that power, want to act in the role of the Enlightened Despot (or see how far they could abuse their power), feel upset that power will be consolidated into the elite classes and never make its way to the common gamer, or that people are profiting off of it through capitalism rather than a more egalitarian approach. The angry reaction (and counter reaction defending people making money off of it) really makes the bearer of Chainworld even more powerful, because now its obvious how many people care about their choices and are in some way affected by it.

All that said, I think it would be ridiculously optimistic to think that links would continue, because that implies people would willingly give up control over the world and everyone's investment in it.

It might seem like it's a "whatever, just a game, people don't care, overhyped lol" except that the reaction to this was very similar to the reaction people have toward, say, someone pointing out racism in their favorite game. Both spawn(ed) hundreds of angry comments and dozens of articles in games media, and counter blog posts discussing it, and more angry comments. etc. Except that lots and lots of those angry reactions were from developers rather than just gamers.

As a concept it's great, as was the reaction people had when this first unfolded.
posted by subject_verb_remainder at 8:08 PM on September 9, 2011 [6 favorites]


I mostly like Jason Rohrer's work, but really can't stand him for some reason. His games generally inspires some strong emotion in me that I'm not used to feeling from a game--the crushing inevitability of life in Passage, the joy and simultaneous regret of pursuing something you love at the cost of something precious in Gravity--and that's good enough for me. I'll always enjoy and defend his games; I just can't stand his writing, or his thoughts about games. This thing kind of makes me feel both of these things at once--"Oooh, neat idea and WAIT NO AUGH YOU BROKE IT!"

But I'll favorite anything with a Shin Megami Tensei II reference. I love that creepy little game. There is a shamefully nerdy part of me that wants to make a t-shirt with "VACCINE POLICE" printed on it, then marry the first person who laughs knowingly.
posted by byanyothername at 8:13 PM on September 9, 2011 [3 favorites]


Another way to look at it, maybe, is that Rohrer is God (maybe Jesus), and Ji is the first pope, who instantly perverts the original message of the religion and makes it into an elitist power structure in the name of doing good.
posted by codacorolla at 8:16 PM on September 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


I like that the rules of Rohrer's game are inherently unstable - they are commandments and proscribe behavior that is nonetheless an available option to the player. Even Rohrer himself breaks (or at least bends) one of his own commandments at the outset by describing to the crowd his experience of dying in the game (as pla points out a few posts up). One might say that the religion depicted by the game is at least partly constituted by the capacity players have for sinning against the game.

I'm also excited that you brought Benjamin into this post - my "performance and technology" students will be reading that essay for our next class... now I'm thinking they'll also learning a bit about Chain World when we get to thinking about videogames later in the semester...
posted by jrb223 at 8:27 PM on September 9, 2011


rtK
posted by hal_c_on at 8:35 PM on September 9, 2011


The thing is, Chain World isn't really a game, nor do I think it was ever intended to be. The Game Design Challenge doesn't really sound like an actual contest, but rather a fun panel where the speakers are invited to talk about game concepts far removed from what we normally see in video games. This is all the more likely because it was held at the Game Developers Conference, which is one of the few video game events where media coverage is largely shunned, and panels are often overtly technical or wonkish in nature. It really is a conference for game DEVELOPERS, and not so much game enthusiasts or press.

So it doesn't really matter that Chain World is just a Minecraft mod, or that the "conventions" are likely not enforced by the logic of the game itself, but rather by the honour system. The whole thing is just a thought experiment anyways, and probably everyone who is likely to ever play Chain World understands this. Most of the game's value comes in contemplating the consequences of the game's ground rules, rather than actually playing the game itself.

The controversy feels a bit similar in same spirit to this social gaming panel, held at the same GDC, where a cute method for picking someone from the audience to deliver a short talk of their own turns into a bit of drama.
posted by chrominance at 8:39 PM on September 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


Ji didn't mess this up - he used it to raise money to help the less fortunate. Which has always been the best bit of religion.

As for anyone who objected to his raising money - what kind of small-hearted people are they?
posted by jb at 8:45 PM on September 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


This is great. God I love conceptual art. Awesome post.
posted by nathancaswell at 8:54 PM on September 9, 2011


I saw an earlier post today about Minecraft and I remembered this story from a while back and was wondering what happened to the drive. Kind of interesting in a "meta" sense.

Why don't other people set up their own flash drive "worlds" that follow the same rules? Why does their need to be only one "Chainworld"? We should start a Metafilter Chainworld thumbdrive and see how far it gets. I'm assuming there wasn't much done to make Minecraft work off a thumbdrive.
posted by inthe80s at 8:58 PM on September 9, 2011 [4 favorites]


"Just ironically proving the Bible's thesis that human beings will always fuck up a good thing with their free wills."

iddqd
posted by klangklangston at 9:05 PM on September 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


"So, the "one play per person" thing--that's pretty much enforced by honor?"

To be fair, it's not really like Commandments are actually enforced by God.
posted by klangklangston at 9:29 PM on September 9, 2011 [5 favorites]


You would think that after all these iterations, the wannabe founders of a religion would learn to pick a decent disciple.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 9:36 PM on September 9, 2011


I honestly don't understand why anyone is angry about this, in the same way I don't understand why people create sculptures for public spaces and then don't want people to touch them.
posted by bq at 9:47 PM on September 9, 2011


It's either on Player Three or Player Two was the last, after his hare-brained scheme ruined it for everybody...

In some sense this is similar to the group Dwarf Fortress games like Boatmurdered, where each player goes for a season then passes the fort on to the next player. But with a lot more social significance placed on the game...
posted by kaibutsu at 9:51 PM on September 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


I honestly don't understand why anyone is angry about this, in the same way I don't understand why people create sculptures for public spaces and then don't want people to touch them.

I don't have a dog in this fight, but I think the reason that other people are mad is because they see what Ji is doing as... posted by codacorolla at 9:57 PM on September 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


For God doth know that in the day ye play thereof, then your eyes shall be opened; and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.
posted by naju at 10:00 PM on September 9, 2011


It's either on Player Three or Player Two was the last

Well, it seems that Player Three did receive Chain World, according to her/his/their Twitter. But we don't know what happened next--which is, oddly enough, in line with Rohrer's initial intention: "The way I designed it made it sort of an anti-sensation. No online presence. No way of tracking the location of the stick. Something that disappears from public view forever, immediately after my talk, and makes everyone wonder about it after that. A secret practice, of sorts. And a secret practice doesn’t make headlines."
posted by a sourceless light at 10:41 PM on September 9, 2011


I heard about this ages ago but I can never come to any conclusion about what it means.
I don't know about religion but I find games a great form of meditation. Usually the 'dumb' action games, since my whole conciousness is focused on stating alive.

BRB off to study the Gospel Of Marcus Fenix.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 10:44 PM on September 9, 2011


BRB off to study the Gospel Of Marcus Fenix.

Do unto others.

The end.
posted by mhoye at 10:47 PM on September 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


Just wanted to let sourceless light know that I really thought the submission/story was excellent, even if hate almost every single aspect of the thing. Good job.
posted by jscott at 11:05 PM on September 9, 2011 [3 favorites]


The "one at a time, serial changes persist" trick would last until a single geek managed to get the USB stick.

It's just a shared Minecraft world with a bit of artificial lore, people!

While your critiques of the Chain World idea are valid, I think Rohrer actually incorporates these critiques into his design of the game. Because it's "just Minecraft," there's really no value in dumping the thing on Piratebay. Anyone who downloaded it would just be experiencing some Minecraft world; they wouldn't have the non-iterable experience of being one in a chain of people. Anyone who downloaded it from PB would feel their exclusion from the system, because they would looking at a photo of a relic rather than holding it in their hand and having the ability to destroy it, exalt it, influence its course. Rohrer lets the fate of this thing go the moment he releases it into the world, because "while I didn’t design the rules to be broken or evolved, the way that the rules are delivered does not prevent people from breaking and evolving them." Like real-life religion, people can buy into the rules, or they can "sin," so to speak. That's kinda the nature of Creation, and of Rohrer's creation.
posted by a sourceless light at 11:16 PM on September 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


A couple of media darlings design a scheme to feed their appetites for celebrity, and an incidental intermediary decides to get famous, too.

Roeher at least created something, but every time I've seen McGonigal speak she's been nothing but a self-aggrandizer.
posted by SakuraK at 11:33 PM on September 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


To be fair, it's not really like Commandments are actually enforced by God.

...In any way that we can conclusively prove. That's pretty much the point of religion, yes?
posted by maryr at 12:07 AM on September 10, 2011


I liked this portion of a comment here:

If anything, I’d say all these negative reactions are indicative of how much *everyone else* wants to control the fate of this thing, rather than Jia’s desire to do so. Everyone wants to see a particular outcome unfold, and he is undermining those efforts by trying to see his own outcome unfold. In the end, THAT observation is more interesting than whether or not one party or the other is “right” or “successful”
posted by marble at 12:47 AM on September 10, 2011


The concept of one-death-per-player is great, but I don't think there needed to be just a single copy of Chainworld out there. You could have a bunch of chainworlds. It might be fun to forge a few copies and pass them off to strangers at game conferences as the original real deal. There's now no way to verify whether a copy you get is legit, and it's going to be really hard to show that any forgery is a forgery. Anyone who gets the real stick is in the same epistemic situation as someone who gets a fake stick (you'll be suspicious no matter what), so getting a fake stick should be just as thrilling. Let's make a bunch of gamers thrilled!
posted by painquale at 1:08 AM on September 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm still stunned that hippybear somehow missed a 6'8" dude riding around his neighborhood on a green recombinant bike...
posted by victors at 3:55 AM on September 10, 2011


Please note that Jason is earnest, pretentious, frivolous, his code solves problems the result of which causes problems, his work is meaningless and pointless - in other words: he's an artist. My life is all the richer for having him and his work in it.
posted by victors at 4:00 AM on September 10, 2011


victors: yeah, I didn't actually miss him. I'm sure people I know who still live there have seen him. But I moved out in 1996, and dude is younger enough than me that he would still have been in high school at that time.

I'll ask a couple of the people I know who are still in Cruces and see if they've seen him. It sounds like he's hard to miss.
posted by hippybear at 5:07 AM on September 10, 2011


My understanding is that he's only been in NM a few years.
posted by victors at 5:17 AM on September 10, 2011


So if someone erases the chainworld stick to put mp3s on it, but then some of the game data is recovered later, does that make it a palimpsest?
posted by modernserf at 7:49 AM on September 10, 2011 [3 favorites]


"...In any way that we can conclusively prove. That's pretty much the point of religion, yes?"

I find it just about as likely that people would go to hell for replaying the stick. (And whether that's the point of religion is pretty debatable.)

(Though wouldn't it be possible to have a serial number check in the file that would prevent multiple uses on the same machine?)
posted by klangklangston at 11:31 AM on September 10, 2011


In case you want to play something similar without the aspect of control over a sole copy:

The game sporadically saves a level on which a character has died and then integrates that level into a later game. This is done via "bones files", which are saved on the computer hosting the game. A player using a publicly-hosted copy of the game can thus encounter the remains and possessions of many other players, although many of these possessions have become cursed. Players can also swap bones files via programs like Hearse.
posted by ersatz at 8:04 AM on September 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


This whole story reminds me of when I was in 7th grade, and my best friend started taking Tae Kwon Do lessons, and would try and show me one of the throws he'd just learned that day like "Ok, say you grabbed my wrist like this... no like-- no, overhanded-- Ok like that, and then I'd step in like- wait, no dammit you're doing it wrong!"
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 5:23 PM on September 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


[the game data] exists on a single unique flash drive

That sounds like the plot MacGuffin from a 2002 "cyber-thriller" written by someone who has absolutely no idea how computers work.
posted by straight at 7:14 PM on September 9 [13 favorites −] Favorite added! [!]


Please tell me that one of the celebs Ji would pass this to for charity play is Sandra Bullock.
posted by FatherDagon at 11:38 PM on September 11, 2011


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