Opinion: Devastating humanism

Opinion: Devastating humanism

Making coffee is really difficult. You have to grind the beans to the right coarseness, then tamp down the coffee, connect the tray to the machine, and so on; and all the while your customer’s patience gauge is rapidly emptying; and by the time the espresso is ready you’ve forgotten what she ordered so you put milk froth into what was supposed to be an Americano, and so you have to start all over again; on top of all of which you are stressed because there is a custody hearing with your ex-husband and your daughter in 30 minutes for which you absolutely cannot be late.

This is not real life; it’s Cart Life, a buggy but brilliant ‘retail simulator’ by Richard Hofmeier. Having talked to real street vendors about their experiences, Hofmeier synthesised fact and fiction into a profoundly unusual and moving videogame of low-res greyscale visuals (Dun Darach meets Canabalt), chiptune music and devastating humanism. 

In her egotistical manifesto for ‘gamification’, Reality Is Broken, Jane McGonigal makes an extraordinary claim. “Reality,” she writes, “is too easy”. That’s why ?we need to fill it with the ‘voluntary obstacles’ of games, to make things more interesting. Nothing could be a more fatuously perfect example of blinkered privilege, the digital utopianism of the materially comfortable. Reality might be ‘too easy’ for McGonigal; ?it is anything but for Melanie, Cart Life’s ?coffee-hut heroine, or the other freely ?playable character, Andrus, who runs a newspaper stall. They have to make a living a dollar at a time, while figuring out how to feed themselves, look after a cat or child, brave the Kafkasque ambience of City Hall, and at the end of each day dream troubling dreams of their new life in the unforgiving city.

Another property that reality has, according to McGonigal’s zany metaphysics, ?is that it is ‘unproductive’. Only a game, like World Of Warcraft, offers the kind of ‘blissful productivity’ that she defines ?as “the sense of being deeply immersed in work that produces immediate and obvious results”. Well, Melanie and Andrus in Cart Life are engaged in work ?that demands an immersed concentration and produces immediate results: they make a dollar or two whenever they sell a newspaper, or a cup of coffee or milk, or maybe even a ?hot dog, but their lives are still somehow ?not as blissful as promised by McGonigal’s Panglossian advert for the virtualised late-capitalist work ethic.

This is not to say that Cart Life is merely a dour denunciation of the working conditions of modern street entrepreneurs. It is an authentic game of resource management and exploration, with oddball humour tucked away in unexpected places (the janitor at City Hall says of the clerk: “Her desire to maintain a sterile work environment is simply perverse”) and touching tableaux of friendship, camaraderie, and even love. The imagination with which Hofmeier has ‘gamified’ the characters’ lives for our interaction, ?meanwhile, is impressive. Coffee is made ?by means of tiny WarioWare-style game-fragments using the cursor keys. Meanwhile, each morning Andrus must collect his new batch of newspapers, fold them, and arrange them on his stall, which is done by typing in repetitive phrases that appear on the screen: ‘Folding again’, ‘Leave a nice crease’, ‘They will be easy to reach now’, and many more. Type one in incorrectly and you tear a newspaper, which you then can’t sell. This simple mechanic is surprisingly effective: by being made to type in his thoughts, we come closer to sharing Andrus’s aspirations, joining him in a tiny hymn of hope. He might currently live ?in a dingy motel on the city’s outskirts, with a cat that he has to smuggle past reception, but we dream of a better life for him. 

I have previously criticised the ‘employment paradigm’ in videogames: you ?act as the employee of an in-game character ?or the designer, performing dull repetitive tasks to earn currency, and then buying equipment or promotions that will help you perform more dull repetitive tasks. The pseudo-philosophers of ‘gamification’ want to make more of real life like a boring job. Richard Hofmeier, on the other hand, has made a real job into a videogame, one that is not only interesting to play but that changes your outlook on reality. I know who wins that contest.

One of the glibly tossed-off future possibilities of gamification presented by McGonigal is that large-scale crowdsourcing games could help ‘end poverty’. You know ?that a new fad herbal supplement or therapy technique is bullshit when it promises to ?cure absolutely everything, from shyness to baldness to cancer; in the same way, McGonigal’s prophecy that gamification will wash away all the world’s ills makes it obvious that it is cultural quackery. I don’t think Hofmeier’s Cart Life will end poverty either, but in its superbly intelligent way of making you walk a mile in the shoes of the poor, it ?has a far better chance at least of increasing empathy with the downtrodden. That is ?more than a library full of gamification moonshine will ever accomplish.

Illustration: Marsh Davies

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