Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Port Pairing, Space Pirates, and the Meaning of Life

When I was a kid with a 300 bps modem, I would dial into the local BBS and play a game called TradeWars 2002. TradeWars was one of the early online multiplayer worlds, and it functioned in much the same way its modern daughter universes do: you log in, you pick a name, start making money, make alliances, and live out the story of your secondary life.

An awesome view of the galaxy.

People plug into their matrix-es (matrices?) of choice for complicated reasons. One TED Talk I watched proposed that these artificial worlds have more justice than ours, so that effort and reward are more humanely correlated. Speaking for myself, I have to disagree. There are plenty of monotonous tasks I could choose for myself where effort and a meaningless, symbolic reward walked in lock-step. I could dig a hole in my back yard, and get my sweat's worth or dirt for every plunge of the shovel. For me, TradeWars was about narrative. It was about living out the kind of story that I couldn't otherwise live with a 13-year-old's resources.

There was, though, a strange breed of players that played TradeWars like a backyard shovel. These were the port-pairers.

Without struggle, any universe will get boring. (Life ain't all roses 'cause roses ain't fun.) In the TradeWars universe, as in ours, economic scarcity made our decisions more difficult and our winnings more proudly hard-won. One does not simply speak his rebel star empire into existence. One must find adjacent trading ports, and buy organics and raw ore for one dollar to sell them for two.  One must do this until he can buy weapons, planets, and ships. Only then can go on killing sprees, birth colonies, capture Tholian Sentinals, join the underground, storm the Ferengi citadel, or whatever.

But every now and again, you'd find strange players who seemed to have forgotten about this second part. They logged in and simply paired ports. They traded. They made money. And when they had enough money, they bought bigger ships and more cargo holds, and continued the process on a larger scale. It baffled me. Such a strange misuse of a person's time, this seemed. I'd rather watch an infomercial. I'd rather sleep. At least in sleep there is dreaming. This was like picking up a novel so you could count the letters on each page. 

I hadn't thought about TradeWars all that much lately until I was on the phone the other day with my cousin Levi. He was talking about people at his actuarial firm. The people where he works either refuse to believe him or are deeply freaked out when they learn (for instance) that he lived in a mud hut in Namibia for two years, or wants to live in a self-sufficient anarchist-agrarian commune. They also, apparently, aren't impressed by his paperclip necklaces. Me and Lee talk to each other as people with twenty years' worth of girlfriends, books, and inside jokes in common do. Lots of shorthand and metaphors. Some of these involve TradeWars.

So Levi's venting about someone at the office, and says:
"Man, just go pair your ports."
It hit me. My God. That same feeling. I get it. This is why I'm freaked out by most professionals. This is why I'm uneasy. They're pairing ports. Getting a job so they can get more experience and get the next job. Buying a plane ticket so they can seal the deal so they can buy another plane ticket. Where's the narrative? When is someone going to strap on an eye patch, helm their Havoc GunStar, and try to blow up stardock? Something central to my psyche tells me that the reason that we go through the drudgery of everyday life is that we have to, to be able to purchase the stuff of real stories. Burning your career down makes sense to me. Moving to the Philippines to learn staff fighting also sounds like a great narrative twist. Instead, the world of my grown-up associates is eerie, and without story. It's surreal. Like a dead door game on some ancient BBS that hasn't been dialed into for years, populated with orphan bots, saving up credits till the sysop runs the EXE to rebang and the stars fall out of the sky.

Maybe this is what they call growing up.

I'd just as soon stop playing.

I've got enough credits for a few limpet mines and a Scout Marauder. Damn the credits. I want a story. Hail me if you want in.


  1. Most people want one thing out of life: stability. Any other wants pale by comparison.

    These people don't travel, or when they do, they go to a resort where everything is provided, with no effort required on their part.

    Rather than read a book, they'll watch it on the Discovery channel, and then entertain their colleagues by parroting their newfound "knowledge" next time everyone gathers at the water cooler.

    They go through the dull drudgery of working life because it's easy, and requires no creative thought. They don't mind being herded about like sheep, being told what to do and what to believe, what's possible and what's not. A trip to the Philippines is to them as alien a concept as 4-dimensional space.

    However, just because the majority of people don't think DOESN'T mean that one should reject everything they do. It calls for careful planning on your part in order to secure the resources and power you require to attain your goals, whether that be to build an armada for an epic showdown, or a marauder to harass hapless merchants. Sometimes you really do need to break out the shovel in order to get where you want to go.

  2. The popularity of virtual world games, and my experience with them, tells me that we humans have some undocumented needs that we are only vaguely aware of. We sense that something is missing and don't know what that something might be. We try to fill it with substitutes like money, things, food, sex; or we medicate the longing away. And it is true, some of us are more aware of this unidentified craving than others. That's all that separates us, really.

    We evolved to live a life full of adventure. We evolved to be hunters. That is our nature, like beavers build dams, and birds fly.

    But we find ourselves having to adapt to an industrial life that has plenty of anxiety and stress, but none of the structure of the hunt to satisfy our deep longing to operate in our native mode, instead of always running some kind of emulation. We're like birds that are constantly trying to build dams...or something.

    It makes sense that games would cast light on this. Games evolve, compete and survive because they tap into something we are seeking, something we can't resist. We can't resist it because we've always been hungry for it. Games provide cohesive mutually beneficial social networks. They provide shared meaning. They provide a shared social narrative, where effort leads to progress and reward for all.

    There is one specific thing some games provide that is the most addictive thing I have ever encountered in my life: social flow. As individuals we may experience flow in creative pursuits, or coding, or skiing, or whatever. But it is a lonely flow. Even our moments of bliss are flawed somehow.

    We are profoundly social animals. We're animals that survived for 99 pct of our time on this planet by hunting *together* in a collective flow state, or gathering loot, in blissful purposeful focus, having fun together, playing at life; that is pretty much extinct as far as I can tell outside these games.

    You say Levi wants "to live in a self-sufficient anarchist-agrarian commune." Don't we all, Ken. Don't we all.

  3. Excellent. Absolutely excellent. Sorry we missed the other night.... something of that sort needs to happen soon though, for sure.