Tuesday, July 6, 2021

We Dwell in Possibility as queer gardening simulation

all drawings by Eleanor Davis

"We Dwell in Possibility" (WeDIP) is a new queer gardening simulation game about planting bodies and ideas, and watching them grow into a kinetic landscape. You can currently play it in your browser on the Manchester International Festival's (MIF's) "Virtual Factory" website. The game should take about 5-10 minutes to play.

It was made over several months in collaboration with world-famous illustrator (+ co-designer) Eleanor Davis and Manchester-based rockstar musician aya as a commission for MIF. (Also shout-outs to illustrator Sophia Foster-Dimino and sound designer Andy Grier for their incredible work!)

Some people may be familiar with my past work: uncanny CG beefcake sex games that toy with hardcore gamer aesthetics, which only run on laptop / desktop computers. For the longest time, I've wanted to make a gay mobile game, but I was unsure how to get my queer politics past Apple and Google's anti-sexuality censors. It's impossible to get anything on a phone without their long withheld permission... unless... I made a browser game? 

The history of browser games celebrates the open internet that exists beyond Silicon Valley's sterilized closed garden. However, the photorealistic 3D graphics of my past games are too heavy and slow for a mobile browser, so I need to make a 2D game even though I've neglected my 2D visual skills. Fortunately, MIF's support has made my creative collaborations not only possible, but enjoyable.

NOTE: this post "spoils" much of what happens in the game, so proceed at your own risk.

Does this game represent a shift or break from my existing work? Maybe. Eleanor's cute and lush visual style is certainly more beautiful than any of my uncanny 3D hunks.

But formally, in WeDIP I still tried to simplify game interfaces (how to play: drag stuff around, or do nothing) and embrace a short run time (each simulation loop is 10 minutes maximum) because I'm still interested in non-traditional audiences that don't want to commit to hardcore game experiences. 

And like my previous games, this project is still very much about bodies, politics, and sex. Maybe this project represents a "virtualization" of those concerns in a way. Players essentially roleplay as gods looking down over their garden, passive or active at their own whim. It's a zoomed out perspective, it's not immersive, it's a simulation.

And in this simulation, the player sculpts an invisible landscape and paints flowers. Naked simulated AI people ("peeps") arrive and flow across the terrain. Peeps bring objects to plant in the garden, like trees, coffee shops, statues, colossal buttplugs, and other necessities. There are dozens of different possible plantings, which can make peeps happy, angry, horny, or even Tories. From this simple model of politics, sexuality, and landscape architecture, the player improvises a virtual heaven or hell, or more likely something both at once -- a society.

This is a virtual artwork in a virtual exhibition in a Virtual Factory. The word "virtual" does a lot of work, so much that we rarely question what we even mean by "virtual." 
In her excellent book Narrative As Virtual Reality, Marie-Laure Ryan outlines some common understandings of virtual:
  • virtual as "digital": inspired by computer concepts like virtual memory.
  • virtual as "potential": Aristotle argued an acorn has virtus (power) to become a tree.
  • virtual as "fake": Jean Baudrillard's simulacrum, a false virtual double that replaces the real and becomes hyperreal, seeming more real than reality.
For artists, critics, and similar occupations prone to exaggeration, Baudrillard's argument is particularly seductive. It warns of a deceptive Other that will replace Us. Reality is under attack! But Ryan is skeptical that her entire sense of reality depends on what this French guy says, and she emphasizes a different French guy's ideas -- Pierre Lévy's theory of le virtuel:
  • virtual as pluralistic: a virtual thing functions as many different things
  • virtual as non-linear: a virtual thing is not anchored in one space or time
  • virtual as inexhaustible: using a virtual thing does not lead to its depletion
The naked simulated people ("peeps") of We Dwell in Possibility embody le virtuel: they have 2^3 (= 8) different body configurations (thin or thick, breasts or no breasts, penis or vagina) and 6 different skin tones, resulting in 48 possible combinations of body traits. The peeps also wrap-around the screen edges in an infinite loop, they can run endlessly without tiring, and sometimes they can even fluidly change their chest or genitals at will. (Some of these features are common to video games, and some of them aren't.)

But I think I disagree with Baudrillard and agree more with Ryan: the virtual does not replace reality. The pandemic has made this much clear. 

Virtual schools, remote offices, and Zoom parties have not replaced physical schools, in-person offices, or actual parties -- instead, these virtual doubles have just created more school, more work, and more people to confront. Peter Sunde, co-founder of The Pirate Bay, famously retorted to lawyers: "We don't like [saying IRL - In Real Life]. We say AFK - Away From Keyboard. We think that the internet is for real." If anything, virtual things generate far too much reality, and it's all happening to you right now.

Ryan presents two strategies for this "virtual as deluge": goal-oriented utilitarians wade through the ocean of shit (aka the internet) to reach their destination, while flâneurs stroll the World Wide Web with minds open toward serendipity and surprise. But more often, we're something in between: we're players.

Gamers enjoy playing with simulations, and that pleasure can teach us a lot about the nature of simulation. The difference between a simulation and its reality is its "simulation gap", and this lack of correspondence is what makes simulation games interesting. Do not mind the gap! Without this gap, there is nothing to play.

There are "sims" like SimCity, which seek to be taken semi-seriously as semi-scientific primers to urban planning for educational use in schools. Yet the original SimCity simulated crime primarily as "distance from a police station" and nudged its players into libertarian-style low taxation pro-sprawl strategies. These aren't scientific models, these are political arguments. When designers streamline complex debates like "what makes a city" into a simplified sim, they inevitably embed their own politics, and the rhetoric of the sim launders these politics as a fact-based algorithmic truth. (see Paolo Pedercini's essay "SimCities and SimCrises"

The sin of the sim is that it minds its gap and tries to hide it.

Then there are "simulators" like the infallible industrial-grade accuracy of flight simulators (and the game Flight Simulator) which we use to train actual real-life aircraft pilots. But in the last decade, gamers have imbued / tainted this word with a sarcastic tone. For example the modern simulator game Goat Simulator lets you live as a goat... who also possesses the chaotic power to destroy a small town and ruin countless lives with its 50 foot long elastic tongue. 

Goat Simulator totally fails to simulate what being a goat is like. If anything, it simulates only how to be a sociopathic asshole -- but that absurdity is the point. A truly accurate goat simulation is both impossible and undesirable.

We Dwell in Possibility is obviously not pretending to be a medical-grade "sim" of society, but still seeks to transcend the slapstick irreverence of a "simulator." There's something interesting between these two notions of simulation.

My first prototype were sim-heavy, based on basic cellular automata, a technique popularized by Conway's Game of Life (1970) where cells (or anything, really) live or die based on crowding, However this felt too fiddly, with small shapes that changed too quickly. I realized I wasn't interested in a massive abstract population so much as people. 

So I shifted direction to something more like Claude Shannon's Theseus (1950), a mechanical mouse that "learned" how to navigate a maze by flipping magnetic switches beneath the floor. This is essentially how my simple peep AIs move across the screen: when you drag your cursor (or drag your finger) you're also painting a "flow field" beneath the floor, and the peeps follow that invisible current. 

Was Theseus the mouse "intelligent", are my peeps "intelligent"? If so, their intelligence is not located simply in their bodies, but it is also distributed across the landscape. A "smart landscape" is less about specific digital circuitry and more about its already existing logic and structure.

And traditionally, Architecture with a capital A has looked down on landscape architecture as a lesser art, neglected beneath the "great men" erecting skyscrapers. 

But today, millennial climate crisis dread and lack of land ownership have culminated in a profound anxiety about future access to green spaces, clean air, and water. Environmentalism has never felt more urgent. We must fix what past generations have done to this planet or everything will die. And part of that process is recognizing the world as an ecological system where we all affect each other.

At a glance, this game is about simulating many people moving through a landscape. It mimics the crowd simulation systems used by real-world architects to test building and street circulation. But a building is more than just walls and floor, a building also has a program -- a consideration of how it actually lives. Landscapes also have programs. We call this ecology.

Given our limited resources and time, we had to limit the simulation to a simple ecology.

In We Dwell in Possibility, the ecosystem has four parts:
  • "Peeps" walk around and sometimes pickup nearby "Plants"
  • "Plants" (e.g. large flowers, trees, furniture, statues, kiosks, etc.) can attract Peeps; some Plants modify Peeps by giving them "Hats"
  • "Hats" temporarily change Peeps' politics and behaviors; if a Peep dislikes a Plant, they may attempt to carry it off for deletion
  • "Players" (i.e. you) can redirect Peeps and pickup Plants, but cannot affect Hats

An example of this ecology in action:
  1. a Churchill Statue "Plant" looks for nearby Peeps to influence
  2. a Peep is attracted to the statue, ponders it, and gains a Union Jack Hat
  3. the Union Jack Hat makes the now-Tory Peep dislike a nearby Buttplug Obelisk
  4. the Tory Peep pouts for a bit, and then picks up the obelisk to get rid of it
  5. if the Peep walks off-screen while carrying an object they dislike, they delete that object from the simulation
  6. ... but you, the Player, can intervene and rescue the Buttplug Obelisk; and/or delete the Churchill Statue to prevent future Peeps from gaining Union Jack Hats
Now imagine similar scenarios where Peeps ponder a Buttplug Obelisk to gain a Horny Heart Hat and start hating the Rainbow Police Station that polices public sexuality, or Peeps ponder an Engels statue (inspired by the IRL Engels statue in Manchester) to gain a Working-Class Hard Hat and start hating Starbucks-like coffee kiosks. The symbolism is a bit coarse and crude, but we decided that was necessary to keep it legible enough for a video game.

There are also unique hidden interactions like two adjacent horny Peeps can makeout with each other (the animation alignment code for this was a minor nightmare) or any non-Tory Peep can dance joyfully next to a boombox... Honestly, I probably would've cut these types of details if I had worked solo, but fortunately my co-designer Eleanor Davis insisted on their importance, and she was right.

Multiply these possibilities across dozens of possible Plants and Hats, randomly distributed in each simulation. I won't detail them all. If you're curious, you can just play through a few times, and you'll probably encounter most of the combinations.

But my favorite part of this design are the political ramifications of my simple and flawed code architecture. I coded Peeps to wear only one Hat at a time, but then I also had to hack-in handheld objects (cupcakes, coffee, shopping bags) as "Hats" they wear on their hands. My hurried system design means Peeps must choose: they can either eat a cupcake, or they can be a Tory, they cannot do both. You can't be both horny and working class. You can't hold a sandwich while also being a Labour supporter. And so on. I'm sure there's a very deep political truth in there somewhere, and I've left it as an exercise for the player.

By now, We Dwell in Possibility's political metaphors are painfully obvious. To use the word "metaphor" here also strains the meaning of the word. 

But the design and upkeep of communal public spaces is precisely a political matter, there's no getting around it. Which statues should remain and where? Who is allowed to sell products and services in a park? Who is allowed to sleep in a park? These material questions of governance require political justifications.

As the player, you must indirectly negotiate all these decisions with the Peeps, who bring their own politics and desires into the garden too. 

For example, there are police Peeps in this game. They wear cute little rainbow flags. But they also want to remove body-modifying plants, horny-causing obelisks, as well as any tents or free food. So should police exist in this garden? Liberal players might try to "balance" a police presence with "limited gayness", queer or anarchist players might prune all the police entirely, and Tory players might engineer a cringe garden consisting solely of police and high street retail, etc. 

In video games, we call this a sandbox -- a simulation that is less about "winning", and more about playing with systems that may or may not reflect your values.

But even if we can't stop Tories from playing, this game is still pretty obviously critical of TERFs, capitalism, police power, and all their aligned faux-inclusive rainbow-washing tactics. I wanted to respond to a certain lack of politics in existing crowd simulation art, to push a crowd simulation that has a specific perspective rooted in a specific historical moment. These politics are mostly a mix of me and co-designer Eleanor Davis' queer leftist US politics, and we wanted the game to reflect our attitudes unabashedly.

Like I'm a big fan of KIDS by Michael Frei and Mario von Rickenbach, but personally I can't make something that treats bodies so generically. That's not to say KIDS is particularly conservative, but its open meaning feels too convenient to me. What does the giant hole symbolize? Capitalism, ideology, critical race theory, anything really. When cool European indie artists do it, I can abide it, but if I do it, I just feel too smug. Since I'm interested in making openly political art, I can't just grin at every question with "well, what do you think?"

I also appreciate Ian Cheng's Emissaries series, but dislike its mystification of AI as fantasy novel lore. Why have us fixate on these imagined algorithms and systems, and spin it into a sci-fi parable about religion or something? It feels like a stretch and I'm not into it. Why can't we just say what we mean?

That's not to suggest absurdity and nonsense are bad. One of the best parts of making a sexual-political simulation is interpreting the glitches that arise. During development, I wrote these cryptic phrases in my notebook: 
Don't let police ponder cupcakes.
Shorten Churchill's shadow.
Dancing and kissing should be more common.
Don't let trees cum.
Flowers shouldn't cum at night.
Those with hearts should not dance.
I wrote these notes as technical work task reminders to fix various bugs and problems, but queer politics elevate this to-do list into a sort of weird political statements / funny poetry.

The title "We Dwell in Possibility" is from a poem that begins "I dwell in Possibility" (poem #F466A / #J657) by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), one of the greatest American poets who only became widely-read many years after her death. Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Dickinson's poetry is her punctuation, an ambiguous mark that contemporary readers have interpreted as em dashes -- as if she couldn't stop this flood of feeling, interrupting every image and idea:
I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –
Honestly it's not Dickinson's best poem, and perhaps it's a little too straightforward, with not enough mystery. "A fairer House than Prose" refers to her obvious preference for poetry over prose, followed by some architectural / heavenly imagery. Poetry is a place where she can live with God.

"To gather Paradise --" is an amazing last line though. It's as if poetry (Paradise) is more than a place, but also a strange substance, that she is "spreading wide [...] to gather", a virtual contradiction. So Possibility / Paradise is like this weird virtual thing that we create for ourselves, and it cannot exist in concrete terms, yet it's still real enough for us to touch.

But my favorite method is to imagine Dickinson at her most obscene. Imagine someone like Cardi B rapping that last stanza, and it comes off more like she's bragging about how her virtual poetry hands can pleasure the hottest women ("spreading wide my narrow Hands"... "Visitors -- the fairest"). Now that's a Possibility we can all dwell in!

So often we think of politics and activism and belief as these terribly dry painful things that we're better off avoiding. Everything is on fire and nothing can be helped, so maybe we should do as Voltaire's Candide suggests at the end of the novel: cultivate your garden, keep your head down, mind your own business, and worry about your own shit.

But maybe this game is suggesting there's also some possibility of pleasure out there, and if we can just figure out how to share our garden then maybe we can all live in it.