Strange Game


This article originally appeared in issue 2 of The Magazine on October 25, 2012.

Journey for the PlayStation 3 is the best video game I’ve played in a long time. I’m going to use it to illustrate a larger point about technology, and in doing so, I’m going to spoil the game. If you have any interest in video games at all, I strongly recommend that you do not read any further until you’ve played it.

Online discourse can be harsh. Nowhere is this more true than in multiplayer video games. It’s nearly impossible to play a popular online game without being exposed to — or worse, being the target of — the most vile kinds of behaviors and insults, including sexist, racist, and homophobic slurs.

This problem is not confined to video games. Even something as seemingly benign as a comment form on a popular technology blog can trigger profoundly bad behavior. A well-known Penny Arcade comic sums up the phenomenon nicely in the form of John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, which states: Normal Person + Anonymity + Audience = Total Fuckwad.

Many remedies have been tried: moderation, the use of “real names” (whatever that means), increasingly complex privacy settings, user voting, karma scores, etc. Sometimes these things help, but often only a little — and they all require constant vigilance.

In frustration, many users and content creators choose to take out the big hammer and end discourse entirely. Eliminate blog comments. Mute all voice chat. Disable communication between players on opposing teams. The only winning move is not to play.

So goes the conventional wisdom. But then there’s Journey, a $15 video game for the PlayStation 3. When you start playing Journey, it’s not even obvious that it’s a multiplayer game. When other players appear, they are not announced in any way, nor are you directed to interact with them. Some players choose to ignore them and complete the game on their own. Others dismiss them as computer-controlled NPCs. This is the first part of Journey’s solution: interaction with others is optional.

Those who choose to engage with others have only a few choices. Players can move, jump, and “sing” by pressing a single button, causing a musical note to play and a unique glyph to appear on screen. The glyph is not selected or drawn by the player; it’s automatically chosen by the game (so penis-themed griefing is out of the question). There is no text or voice chat. Singing is the only way to communicate, and the only control the player has over the note that’s played is the volume and duration.

Most critically, none of these actions can harm other players. Even movement can’t be used as a weapon; players simply pass through each other, making it impossible to bump other players off a high ledge or otherwise perturb their progress. Movement can’t even be used to race ahead and steal a desirable in-game item before another player can get to it, because power-ups are not consumed when acquired: they remain in place for future players to receive.

All of this may sound like it stops just short of banning communication entirely. Will players even bother to interact with each other? Surely, such a limited palette of options will render the multiplayer aspects of Journey trite and inconsequential.

But that’s not what happens at all. Instead, Journey players find themselves having some of the most meaningful and emotionally engaging multiplayer experiences of their lives. How is this possible?

Though players can’t harm each other, they can help each other. Touching another player recharges the power used to leap and (eventually) fly. In cold weather, touching warms both players, fighting back the encroaching frost. More experienced players can guide new players to secret areas and help them through difficult parts of the game.

Journey players are not better people than Call of Duty players or Halo players. In fact, they’re often the same people. The difference is in the design of the game itself. By so thoroughly eliminating all forms of negative interaction, all that remains is the positive.

Players do want to interact; real people are much more interesting than computerized entities. In Journey, players inevitably find themselves having positive interactions with others. And, as it turns out, many people find these positive, cooperative interactions even more rewarding than their usual adversarial gaming experiences.

Does this mean that playing Journey turns players into relaxed, peace-loving, spiritually enlightened beings? Certainly not — but the limited communication system works in more ways than one.

In the same way that you can imagine the actors in a subtitled film (speaking in a language you don’t understand) are all giving Oscar-worthy performances, it’s natural to assume that every other Journey player has only the best intentions. After all, while we may judge ourselves by our motivations, we tend to judge others by their actions. The actions in Journey are all either neutral or positive, so that’s how players perceive each other.

Journey players are also anonymous during the game. The unique player glyphs are only shown next to PlayStation Network account names when the game is over, and they change on each play-through. Again, this plays into that subtitled-movie optimism. It’s much easier to believe that the anonymous player with the winged glyph is the most caring, thoughtful person in the world when you don’t know his PSN account name is K1LLSh0t99.

If you want some evidence of the deep feelings triggered by this game, look no further than the Journey Apologies thread in the official forum for the game. Here, players apologize to the anonymous others they feel they have disappointed in the game. It’s like missed connections for gamers. Here’s an example post:

To my friend in the fifth area: I never wanted to leave you. I just whiffed really badly on a jump. I miss you. And I’m sorry.

Journey may be just a game, but the lessons it teaches about ourselves and the things we’re capable of creating can be applied to all of human endeavor.

Throughout history, we humans have invented many different sets of rules for ourselves. Some have worked better than others, but all of them have been exploited. As anyone with children knows, if there’s one thing humans are good at, it’s finding loopholes.

When a system of rules is applied to many people, thoroughly codified, and consistently enforced, you have something approaching a government. But for governments, even the most successful change occurs slowly and often happens painfully. This can lead even the most optimistic person to despair.

Human history is long, but how many different sets of rules have really been tried? In meatspace, it’s so difficult to establish a new set of rules or change the existing ones that the rate of design iteration is severely limited.

This is not so in the relatively consequence-free worlds of video games and the Internet. In the digital realm, wild experimentation and rapid iteration are the norm. It’s also much easier to establish and enforce an iron-clad set of rules in a virtual world than in the real one. This is the environment that created Journey, and its rarity is why it’s such a joy.

The lesson of Journey is that success is possible, even in an area like online multiplayer interaction which has seemed so hopeless for so long over so many thousands of iterations. Success is possible.

But let’s go further. Our digital lives increasingly affect our real lives. Consider Twitter, another system for online interaction that has succeeded in large part thanks to its novel set of rules and limitations. There’s a whole world of bad behavior that doesn’t fit into 140 characters and doesn’t work when producer/consumer relationships are asymmetrical. Twitter isn’t just a game; its influence extends into the real world, in ways we don’t yet fully understand.

As another US presidential election season grinds on and I become freshly disillusioned with the seemingly intractable problems in our system of government, Journey and Twitter give me hope. They make me believe that maybe, just maybe, the digital world can be both a laboratory for new ideas and, eventually, a giant lever with which to change the formerly unchangeable.