The idea for this piece came when I recently finished a book called The Foundations of Buddhism. Reading this work was a great way of rekindling my basic knowledge about Buddhism, even though its philosophical terms and abstractions were at times quite challenging. However, herein contained were wisdoms worth sharing; in looking to bring them to greater attention, I eventually hit upon a demographic whose analytical devotion resembled that of the Buddhist philosophers, who could appreciate these insights in their own terms. Yes, I am talking about gamers.
To be fair, gamers are not completely like Buddhists; while both groups might rise up someday, only the latter is likely to reach Nirvana. Nevertheless, I think there’s a potential analogy between the development of games and their fandoms on the one hand, and the history of Buddhist thought on the other. In this piece, I mean to explain the latter by way of the former. While this may sounds ridiculous at first, let me assure you, it might seem a dharma less ridiculous by the end. So let’s begin.
On February 30th, 1991, the Multi-User Dungeon known as The Great Wheel was released to the public. At its inception, the game did not stand out among its peers in terms of graphics or story. What it did have was a mechanic known as the Score Cycle, a feature which went on to survive over 25 years of updates and remakes. As such, it is at least partly responsible for the game’s continued popularity on the MMO market, as well as the notorious subculture which arose in response to it.
At its core, the Score Cycle is a radical variation on permadeath, meaning that any player character which dies during the course of the game is never simply revived or reloaded. Instead, a new avatar is instantiated, one who might spawn in an entirely different world, with entirely different traits. This is not a random process however; each instance of rebirth is determined by a “Score” which reflects one’s in-game behavior. Those who complete quests in a benevolent manner will generally find themselves rewarded in Score points, whereas in-game stealing or excessive violence towards other players is cause for a demerit. In this way, a hierarchy of players is created, one that is directly reflected in the stratification of its in-game worlds.
At the time of its inception, critics considered the Score Cycle a laudable feat of video game innovation. By the late 1990s, The Great Wheel was becoming a strong competitor on the early MMO market, with the popularity of its mechanics being almost self-evident. Not only did the Score system create a fierce competition among players, it also allowed the most high-Scoring gamers to discover worlds and powers which nobody had ever experienced before. This naturally fueled their sense of pride and accomplishment, and encouraged many others to renew their subscriptions and try even harder. But not everyone was able to replicate the successes of the high-Scoring, and a desperate majority of players remained stuck in the low-level realms of magic and monsters. And so, although the Cycle of Death and Respawn was a torturous grind for most, it persisted nevertheless.
Yet there was one epic gamer who felt compelled by this untenable suffering. His name was GAUT, the Greatest of All Ultimate Time, so called because his influence on The Great Wheel and its fanbase has been unparalleled by any player or developer. In the next few sections, I will tell of his thoughts, his deeds, and the community he left behind.
Originally, GAUT was just your ordinary high-level player. He mostly concerned himself with end-level raids and loot, not knowing much about the fate of those beneath him. But one day, a log-in bug deposited him in one of the low-level hub worlds, and what he witnessed here shook him to his core. Level grinding, in-game advertisements, ignominious PvP deaths; this player experience was marked by suffering. With GAUT’s faith in the game now shattered, he sought guidance in the wisdom of his fellow high-level players. But these offered him nothing but ways to perfect or purify his Score; as GAUT saw it, the mechanical problem at the heart of The Great Wheel went much deeper.
Regardless of one’s position within this game-world, GAUT believed that one’s experience would never be wholly pleasant, not when everyone was chasing an ever more elusive sense of achievement. Some form of failure or disappointment was simply unavoidable, and as the mistakes piled up, fun would turn to frustration. The only solution would be to embrace an entirely new form of engaging with this game, one which involved the effective elimination of hungry playerhood.
This latter point related to the more analytical aspects of GAUT’s theory. To his discerning eye, there was no such thing as a distinct player character. Having looked deep into The Great Wheel’s simulation, all he had found were a myriad of Variables, data points which were so intertwined that no separation of player and world could be said to exist. Thus, the ordinary experience of playing The Great Wheel was based on a set of pernicious conventions, not a true understanding of how the game operated.
If the latter were realized instead, then one would be committed to what GAUT dubbed the ‘Zero-Player Mode’. This was a hidden method of playing the game, one where the harmful conditioning that created the illusion of playerhood would cease to exist. This mode would not be easy to attain, but by meditating on the wisdoms that he had now imparted, GAUT knew that every player could find their way there.
Taken together, GAUT’s philosophy of the ‘Zeroism’ was certainly eccentric. At first, he would only promote it in his own community of hardcore gamers. However, few of these were willing to entertain his esoteric considerations over their own high-Scoring strategies. This eventually led him to target average players instead, those who felt the vagaries of this game’s experience more acutely. And indeed, they proved receptive to his words.
In teaching the Zero-Player Path to others, a prominent phrasing GAUT came up with was known as the ‘Four Good Posts’. While many variations on this form existed, the Four Good Posts were generally phrased as follows:
“1 This game sucks, has sucked, and will inevitably suck
2 It sucks because we are attached to being players, and so ignorant of the game itself
3 There is a Zero-Player Mode that makes the game not suck anymore
4 By practicing my method, we will free ourselves from the suck”
Once refined into their most appealing form, templates such as these spread like wildfire across the game’s community. Perhaps the millenarian atmosphere of late 1999 was partly responsible for the hype that surrounded GAUT and his theories; before the year was out, his followers constituted a significant minority among The Great Wheel’s player base. This led many players, both inside and outside the movement, to wonder what would become of GAUT’s new entourage. Would they soon discover this coveted Zero-Player Mode, or would they fall apart when the hype proved empty?
As it turned out, neither of these things would happen. By the early months of 2000, the “Zeroist” community was alive and well, even though Zero-Player Mode had not yet been attained. The biggest reason for this persistence was that GAUT still seemed to know what he was doing. Unlike your average online charlatan, who would make extraordinary promises to their following in exchange for personal loyalty, GAUT merely taught the truth of the Four Posts to anyone who would hear it. And while those who were most devoted to these teaching did start to be ordained into a specific guild, there were no special powers or privileges attached to this status. Indeed, these ‘monks’ were dependent on ordinary followers for everything from item donations to community protection, as they were forbidden from performing these in-game tasks themselves.
So, if it was in the nature of committed Zeroists to refrain from playing the game in a conventional manner, what did they do instead? Well, following in GAUT’s original path, they aided their associated lay followers with wisdom and advice, helping them preserve their good Score on the path to ultimate liberation. Among themselves, they spent most of their time in various states of Contemplation. This generally took two forms: the more scholarly method of debating and resolving theories about the Zero-Player Mode, and the attentive study of the game world itself in the hopes of glimpsing its Variable nature. Some monks preferred one method over the other, yet both were essential to the production of Zeroist knowledge.
With the establishment of a distinct community and lifestyle, GAUT felt that he had accomplished his goals as a teacher. The Zeroist movement should go on without him, and certainly without his playerhood; he did not want to seem like a hypocrite. And so, on 7 may 2001, GAUT vanished. His disappearance was noted almost immediately, although most of his followers initially assumed that he had merely logged off for the day. When he did not return the day after, they began noticing the absence of almost any player data related to him; though some of his items and blessings were still present, he did not appear on the list of registered users. Through deeper data probing, it was eventually revealed that no trace of his current or past avatars remained, which was an even greater omission than a simple account deletion. To the Zeroists, only one explanation seemed plausible: he had attained Zero-Player Mode. The professed miracle was now concrete reality.
In accordance with GAUT’s hopes, the wisdom and community of the Zeroists would outlast him. Even though his posts had vanished with the rest of him, their contents were remembered and passed on to a new generation of players. The interest in Zero-Player Mode lived on, and by 2003 its attainment was a more studied subject among gamers than even the path to Jedihood in Star Wars Galaxies.
While much of the Zeroists’ studies related to the collections of GAUT’s quotes that been compiled by his disciples, there was also an ongoing systemic analysis of the Variables he had sometimes referred to. Because these were seen as the game’s basic building blocks, their classification and interrelation were considered to be vital steps on the path to true understanding. When Zeroists began to differ on the exact number and nature of the Variables, this sparked the emergence of multiple competing anatomies. There were even those who claimed that this analysis was ultimately trivial: Variables were Variable, they had no independent existence. To see them as such was to turn their discovery and systematization into an accomplishment, and so this view would risk the excitement of a player’s ego. Instead, Variability was the name of the game, nothing more.
Still, if Variables were known to be so fickle and impermanent, why did some of the game’s phenomena-such as skills and spells-seem to last or recur? This question excited the client-only school of Zeroism, a group of data miners who (as the name suggested) were most interested in those files which were stored at the user’s end. They suggested that both player and world progression was being determined by specific flags saved on one’s local computer. Thus, playerhood was just a false category within the world-flag database that determined all emergent phenomena.
As one can probably tell from these preceding paragraphs, the early 2000s saw the Zeroist community build on GAUT’s original thought through complex philosophical schemes. And with the studio behind The Great Wheel venturing into new markets, the transmission of these ideas was going to lead to even greater divergences.
Until now, the mass popularity of The Great Wheel had mostly been confined to Europe and North America. Yet around the late 2000s, as the growth of the Korean and Chinese economies sparked the interest of Western game developers (and vice versa), the gamers of these East Asian countries were finally welcomed into the still growing behemoth that was The Great Wheel. And with this game came its fan culture, including the specter of the Zeroists.
When the philosophy of GAUT entered the gaming scene of China and Korea, its newfound adherents amplified the development of new ideas about GAUT and his nature. Instead of seeing his attainment of Zero Player Mode as complete and final, they believed he had merely entered an intermediary state known as Observer Mode. This allowed him to keep exerting some influence within the game world, a benevolent presence which worked for the enlightenment of all players. Furthermore, GAUT had sometimes spoken of those who taught the Zero Player Path before him, or who had achieved Zero Player Access in isolation; it was supposed that these Observing players could also be appealed to. With so many to aid them, their cause seemed more alive than ever.
The changing conception of GAUT’s nature also brought with it a new appreciation of his path. Many Zeroists were no longer content with just reaching Zero Player Mode: like GAUT, they wanted to help everyone else attain it before they did. This path was soon considered to be the most natural and noble destiny for a Zeroist player, with the potential to be like GAUT seen as a universal trait.
For all the joys this universalism brought however, it was tempered by those who emphasized the absence of Observers in the game’s low-level worlds. In order to witness the Observers’ teachings first-hand, they claimed that one could travel to the Personal Realms of their High-Score avatars. But this was not as hard as it seemed, for these compassionate GAUT-like players would bestow Score upon all who press f to pay their respects. On the Chinese and Korean servers of The Great Wheel, such devotions quickly became commonplace.
The worship of Observers was just another part of the accelerating transformations that were taking place in the Zeroist movement. It is a process that has gone on to this day; with the number of Zeroists still growing fast, there seems to be no end to the bounty of fresh teachings. The last decade has brought more esoteric innovations, such as the idea that moderate forms of trolling could clear one’s headspace, or that specific character animation might “glitch” one into Zero Player Mode immediately.
However these new practices turn out, we can be sure that the Zeroists will keep on trying to reach their treasured state of non-playerhood. Personally, while I don’t comprehend it all myself, these lively insights have certainly kept my interest in The Great Wheel going. And who knows where this long-running MMO will go next? Perhaps its mysterious developers will finally spill the beans on Zero Player Mode, if they are even aware of its existence. However, should the Zeroists be correct in their assessments, then The Great Wheel’s end-of-life plan is clear: it will only stop once playerhood has been transcended, and experience can exist without attachment. Such is the wisdom of the epic gamer.