Worlds Beyond Spaces: The Communalist Model of Game Design

This piece has been adapted to video, and you can watch it here.


I’m sitting in my little hut near the edge of the commune. I don’t go into town on most days, but I do attend the weekly meetings, and I make sure to keep my isolation optional. A little like Walden, come to think of it, just with electricity and running water. Wouldn’t want to do without those.

There’s a knock on my door. I say they can come in, but apparently they’re in a hurry, for they only shout ‘It’s live!’ before quickly running for the other huts around here.

I know what they mean though. Closing the fantasy novel I’ve been making my way through, I turn to the modular computer that sits under my desk. I boot it up, and one of its adapters quickly sends its antiquated signals to my ocular implant. There’s about to be some heavy emulation here.

The old computer interface pops into my view, and I check whether it still has a connection to our local network. Satisfied, I launch the application that’s now gone online: Commune Simulator 2023.

Oh, what a game that was back in the day. There’s probably a few people in this commune who were first radicalized through playing that game. It didn’t get everything right of course, but it sure was inspirational, dare I say aspirational. I’m sure the engineers had more pressing issues than the emulation of a thirty-year-old game, yet it carried a safe consensus last time I brought it up in the meetings. Clearly there’s still a lot of folks to whom this game holds meaning. Well, let’s begin then.

Part One: Worlds or Spaces?

Anyone who’s been playing video games for a while is eventually going to feel nostalgia. While the longevity of a digital program might suggest otherwise, there will always be particular experiences that we’re unable to recapture. Sometimes we long for a game that’s no longer available on our consoles, or we enjoy a particular glitch that’s long since been patched out. Massive multiplayer games must be particularly sensitive to this phenomenon, because their servers usually die a slow and ignominious death, fatally compromising their playability through a lack of players. I imagine it’s the tragedy of such loss that Blizzard is now cashing in on with the release of WoW Classic, although I don’t expect this game to live up to its veterans’ hype. After all, it’s often not the specific mechanics of a game that we desire, but the youth or community which we possessed back when we first played it. These things are impossible to recapture, and so I expect this MMO to prove quite disappointing.

However, I would not have started my piece this way if I did not crave one of these elusive games myself. In my case, the object of my fascination is not even a game I have played myself, or would play if given the chance. What I like about it is the concept, the stories that have been relayed to me through snippets of internet lore. I speak here of Star Wars Galaxies, the ambitious MMO sandbox game published by LucasArts in 2003. As it’s been described to me, the mechanics of this game allowed players to create their own towns and economies, each of them fulfilling a complementary role in the greater story of the Star Wars universe. Given my abiding interest in community infrastructure-and the spontaneous organization of such things in particular-I have certainly been inspired by this idea of players creating their own little society. This would be an emergent ecology, a place where your imagination flows freely as together you experiment in and around your chosen environment. To me, it sound a lot like utopia.

But the story of Star Wars Galaxies is also a cautionary tale, for the promise of this player-run society was gradually brought down through successive ‘enhancements’. Many of these, such as the addition of a Jedi profession, were likely just the result of the MMO business cycle which tends to govern these changes. Perhaps that tells us something significant about the corrupting spread of capitalism, that even a wholly digital ecosystem could break down under its influence. Ultimately though, the history of this game has taught me a different lesson. While there are many ineffable factors which can determine a game’s perceived quality, the nuances of its design are still important, and we should not disregard their function in making or breaking a game’s virtual worldbuilding.

It is this latter observation which will power the rest of my piece, for it offers a critical perspective on those games which claim to feature an ‘open world’. While many of them purport to impart a sense of immersion and roleplaying, they regularly fall short in implementing the intricate stories and system which would be necessary for such simulation. As such, we could hardly call them anything more than ‘open space’ games, virtual wastelands which are devoid of much meaning. I’m sure that anyone who has ever grinded their way through the copypasted busywork of one of these games would affirm that their expanse is overrated. All in all, it seems that the regular designs of this genre just don’t work anymore. If we really want an Open World, a place where the interplay of gameplay and narrative can at least deliver an impression of ecology and society, then we need a new, more intentional design philosophy to build on.

Here is where I get to introduce Murray Bookchin, the 20th century social thinker who will inadvertently provide the theoretical tools our present problem requires. I do not have the words here to do his work justice, but at his most basic, Bookchin was a political philosopher who combined ecological expertise with a libertarian socialist outlook. As a result of that synthesis, he saw the continuous left-wing struggle for radical social change as part of a greater evolutionary process towards freedom and consciousness. This sociohistorical analysis, which he called Social Ecology, was then channeled into a political ideology called Communalism. The latter theory proposed a future confederation of participatory communes, municipal democracies which would be run in an ecologically sustainable manner. While these ideas may not speak to the logic of game design directly, I hope you see how they present an intricate perspective on how the world can and should function, the sort of analysis that might inspire simulation. Were we to bring Bookchin’s thought into our critique of the ‘open space’ genre, I believe we would be one step closer to the utopian promise of an actual Open World.

Here is how the rest of this piece will unfold. First, we must dive deep into deconstruction, exploring the failings of modern genre varieties. Then, we can use the positive philosophy of communalism to aim for a game design which is more social and ecological, where the relation between a player and their environmental will be more deliberate, more careful, more engaging. This is an ambitious task, and I don’t think my words should be taken as expert testimony on this topic. However, I do think that my analysis can eventually provide some clarity about what it is we want out of these open world games, and which designs might direct us towards that experience. I hope that proves inspiring.

Part Two: Breaking Down Spaces

It is hardly controversial to suggest that open world design is dominant within the games industry today. While FPS franchises are being supplemented or augmented by the still rising Battle Royale model, the creation of expansive player environments remains a popular staple among AAA developers. I would refer to this as the Bioware-Ubisoft-Bethesda (or BUB) Model, since it is these companies who have been most prolific in iterating on this genre. Containing such massive franchises as Far Cry and Red Dead Redemption, it’s hard to find a gamer who isn’t familiar with the Open World experience. As such, I hope that many will recognize the flawed elements I am about to describe.

My main issue with the BUB Model concerns the very heart of its gameplay loop. In other words, I will talk about what is it one does in these games, and what might be wrong with that. The former question is relatively easy to answer: in Open World video games, you generally fight and kill people, with almost every other task being subordinated to that singular activity. The odd thing about this is that the surface-level presentation of these products would suggest a much wider range of activities. Indeed, while more level-based games like Thief and Hitman have expanded and perfected the experience of being a criminal or an assassin respectively, their Open World counterparts (Grand Theft Auto and Assassin’s Creed) have mostly stayed stuck on the act of killing alone. To me, this implies that their setting merely serves as an excuse for gameplay violence, with any immersion into the assigned role itself being a secondary priority at best.

To be perfectly clear, I am not saying that gameplay violence is itself the problem here. There are many ways to explain the prevalence of combat-based gameplay, and not all of these reasons are intrinsically problematic. However, I do believe this dominance has compromised the potential of the Open World genre. How can we provide people with these immaculately crafted environments, only to deny them the means to properly interact with it? To be fair, some progress has been made in this regard by the increasing fidelity of works like Red Dead Redemption 2. However, many of its added features are still presented as ancillary minigames, not affecting one’s core activities in any significant capacity. What’s more, none of these enhancements can really increase the player’s possibility for self-expression, because they are ultimately bound to the cinematic linearity of their assigned story. If we crave some creativity from our games, we will have to turn to another type of Open World game entirely.

Anyone who has ever played a sandbox-type game will surely be familiar with their variety of game modes. They generally fall into two general categories I will call ‘Survival’ and ‘Creative’ mode. The former uses its crafting mechanics in the manner of Robinson Crusoe, having you eke out a precarious existence in the lost wilderness. The latter mode throws all such restrictions out the window, turning itself into more of an artistic tool in the process. Either form is valid on its own, but owing to the key shortcomings of each, neither can adequately represent the potential of the World we seek.

With Survival mode, its core flaw is pretty easy to explain. As a game’s design approaches the pre-societal ‘State of Nature’ that political philosophers like to talk about, it also risks the Hobbesian phenomenon known as the War Of Each Against All. As long as resources are scarce, merciless players will be tempted to fight each other over their acquisition, mostly because this makes for good zero-sum gameplay. Of course, the logical conclusion of this survivalist tendency is a full-on Battle Royale, where only one player will be left standing. This cannot be in accordance with our communalist aim. The only way out of it would be a more cooperative attitude among players, but until these sandbox games offer the systemic depth required for sustainable communal gameplay, this strategy will fall apart. Either the cooperating players return to the hostile status quo, or they reach a level of material abundance that might as well be equal to Creative Mode.

We now come to that other aspect of sandbox gaming, the mode where player crafting is almost as unlimited as the game engine allows. Here is where we get that bounty of “Object Built in Minecraft” videos from, which are certainly impressive, but not really game-like anymore. More importantly, I believe this mode could enable a dangerous conception of human creativity, one which inherently conflicts with the communal design philosophy we mean to establish. I was first made aware of this danger through the work of David Graeber, an anthropologist whom I will mention again in the next section. He is critical of any creative urge which is presented as an imposition on the blank slate of nature. While the absence of natural limits may be seen as the freest mode of creation, it actually implies a dominance of subject over object, and Graeber likens it to the patriarchal tendency to see Man in the image of his Creator.

The philosophy of creativity is a tricky subject, and I want to be careful in what conclusions we draw from Graeber’s theory. It’s not so much that true art is born from limitations; we merely need to recognize that no idea was ever forced into existence. If something could truly come from nothing, then there would be no responsible agent for that but the ineffable nothingness. So, whether art emerges from that place or our conditioned existence, the idea of authorship had best be extinguished. Unfortunately, the unbound Creative Mode is exactly the sort of thing that allows this illusion to persist. It leads us to consider ourselves the authors of our little sandbox, a perceived dominance that cannot foster true community. What we need instead is a space where one’s ideas are more immediately emergent, where you know what in-game element inspired and fostered  your creativity. That way, we’ll see ourselves as a true participant in the game world, rather than its ultimate masters. It is this attitude which I will build towards in the next section, where we can finally discuss the theoretical foundations of communalist game design. The Open World beckons.

Part 3: Building Up Worlds

When it comes to the staples of gameplay design, we appear to be at a bit of an impasse. From the preceding, it appears that neither conflict nor creativity are solid foundations for a communalist mode of gaming. Perhaps it is time we turn to the people themselves, to figure out what it really is that they would want out of the communal experience. As it so happens, I possess a bit of homemade statistics that might be of use here. A short while ago, I asked the people of Twitter what sort of activities they would want to perform within a network of anarchist communes. This question received a fair number of replies, enough that I was able to compile the results into an impromptu census of this imaginary society. Here it is:

Total members: 80

Arts: 19
Agriculture: 26
Building/Maintenance: 22
Leisure: 22
Science/Religion/Philosophy: 10
Care/Cooking/Education: 31
Organizing: 6

As you can see, while art was a prominent pursuit of the commune’s citizens, even more felt the need to emphasize their role in care work or maintenance tasks. This is no coincidence. Going back to the anthropological theories of David Graeber, he claims that almost all human professions are fundamentally related to the notion of care. In other words, we work because we want to be of service to ourselves and others. Once we extend this logic into the total communal environment, we have something which is both social and ecological, as there is no longer a false separation between its human and non-human nature. In short, the communal model of life makes care work a primary and universal priority.

By now, it should be abundantly clear that caring activities deserve a central position in communalist game design. This leads me to introduce a new kind of Open World game, another variety on the sandbox subgenres we have discussed so far. I call it “Maintenance Mode”. Instead of sheer survival or pure creativity, Maintenance Mode centers around the continuous upkeep of pre-existent beings, structures, and production chains. Many a sandbox player will already be familiar with this type of gameplay, since it resembles the mid-game routine one tends to get into in any given playthrough of a crafting game. However, by making this experience more engaging and rewarding, we can turn it from an annoying grind into an enduring gameplay loop. To be clear, it’s not that change and innovation would know no place in this model; we would only seek to limit the heedless drive towards endless growth that marks so many current sandbox games. That simply doesn’t mesh with the need for ecological gameplay.

Speaking of ecology, an important part of Maintenance Mode will be the way it frames our relation to the communal environment. Rather than presenting it as a tabula rasa, a metaphorical blank canvas where the enterprising Crusoe can forge their destiny, the communalist Open World will imply to the player that it can exist before and without him. The presence of developed societies will indicate the former, whereas a real-time progression system would suggest the latter. If these seem like unusual features, they are already quite present in the Animal Crossing series. Indeed, excepting the vile capitalist Tom Nook, this game would be a good template for communalist gaming in general.

Now, while Maintenance Mode would have the eclectic routines of communal upkeep at its focus, this doesn’t mean that other forms of gameplay wouldn’t be involved. However, they would have to be incorporated with a greater degree of care, to prevent the emergence of ruinous exploits. When it comes to the thrill of traversal for instance, we could repurpose this impulse towards the transport mechanics between communes. Think Truck Simulator, just not with giant polluting cars. Conflict may also have a limited use in our scenario, since revolutionary leftists have been worried about the forces of Reaction since time immemorial. Community defense is technically a form of care work, albeit a tragic one.

With all this talk of the interactions between communes and other factions, I believe it’s important to talk a little bit about the size and arrangement of our communalist game world. Taking another page out of Murray Bookchin’s work, I would claim that the town, neighborhood, or general municipality should be the core location of any communalist game. In accordance with the social benefits he lays out in his own analysis, we require a community which is large enough to accommodate the lively diversity which cities can provide, but small enough that a face-to-face participatory democracy is still possible. Considering the size and sophistication of many Open World games today, I don’t believe the creation of such a simulated space to be an impossible challenge. The way I see it, a player’s environment would mostly encompass a single commune and its outskirts, with the confederation of multiple communes being an ambitious late-game objective. In any case, if we really were to experiment with the creation of this model, it would be best to start small.

Finally, I want to turn to the issue of multiplayer, since it can be both a boon and a detriment to our communalist project. In the current Open World scene, multiplayer features have actually enabled the establishment of in-game communities which might resemble the ones we are looking for. The creation of dedicated roleplaying servers has certainly helped in this regard. But while these collective achievements are certainly impressive, many of them were established in spite of the game’s explicit designs, using glitches and mods to make their projects work. This is a scenario we should learn from: instead of relying on player efforts to complete our vision, we have to build the necessary tools and mechanics for communal playing ourselves. That way, the community we mean to foster will be actively created by the game’s design itself, instead of being an accidental side-effect of player involvement alone. If players and modders wish to augment that design, they’re perfectly welcome to do so, but its basic and intentional version should be there from the start.

Conclusion

In the preceding paragraphs, I have sought to lay out a broad-strokes design philosophy for what a communalist game genre might play like. To be sure, my vision is far from complete, and some of my ignorance with regard to both Social Ecology and Game Design is bound to show. Nevertheless, the idea of subverting our dominant forms of gaming continues to inspire me, because it allows this medium to become another site of contestation and experimentation. If games can serve a social good, then at least some of us should do our utmost to design them as such. It would surely be a shame if we didn’t use our every art to dream, to theorize, and to care. That’s what we need it for.

I hope this essay has inspired you. Perhaps you will use its precepts to one degree or another, or maybe it just leads you to look more deeply into some of the works I’ve mentioned throughout. However you feel about it, I’d like to thank you for your attention, and I wish you all the best in your own endeavors. May you find strength in this world and its communities.

 

Author’s Afterword: Since writing this article, I have grown more critical about the work of Murray Bookchin, who has been referenced several times throughout this piece. With regard to the preceding argument, this primarily affects my discussion of urban spaces as the optimal environment for a communalist gameworld. At present, I would argue that less settled or concentrated modes of community are just as valid and appropriate, and should therefore be an equal source of ludic inspiration. In any case, should my attitude towards Bookchin’s work be taken as reverent or absolute, I would like to emphasize that this is decidedly not the case.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s