A globe of fire temporarily replaced a portion of the blackness on the horizon. The fire shimmered close to where my eyes landed, and then peeled back farther away. My fingertips were freezing. I coughed. The cough brought the pain in my jaw to life.
I removed my bandanna and retied it, trying to wedge more of my hair beneath it, to press it more tightly to my ears. My ears were so cold I could hear the blood inside my head. My left leg was just fine — it'd be able to support all of my body weight and drag my right leg for at least another ten minutes.
The globe of fire continued to appear and disappear. It wasn't getting any closer. I shuddered. My teeth chattered. All was silent. I beat my right thigh with the heel of my fist, trying to bring back some circulation. I looked down at my sideways foot. When I looked back up and forward again, I had to stop short so quickly I almost threw my back out. That would have been all I needed.
Before my eyes and at just below chin height was a wire of a thick enough gauge to give a chainsaw a hard time. I almost walked right into that. I probably would have thrown up. I gripped it with one gloved hand, stepped under, and continued moving toward the globe of cycling flame on the horizon.
I looked back over my shoulder just once. I could no longer see the torches at the gate of the camp I had left. I looked to the left — standing above everything, a flame-illuminated wooden colossus.
I looked back in the direction of the globe of fire. It was missing. I waited. I waited. I walked in what I thought was the direction I had been walking. A curtain of white dust became sentient just then, whipping around in ugly circles. I struggled to suppress a cough. It didn't work. The pre-cough vacuum sucked roughly a pound of the acidic dust into my lungs. I coughed, and coughed. I tasted blood in my mouth. Oh, god — I was going to die. I almost spit the blood up onto the dry lakebed, then I considered the act an ill omen, and disrespectful, at that. Then I thought about how silly it all was. A dry lakebed, for god's sake! Why would people build a city out here, in a place water was afraid of?
I looked back up to the horizon. The globe of fire glinted, and then disappeared. I was on the right track. I dragged my foot a little further in that direction. Then I almost tripped. I caught myself. I reached up to the top of my head. I turned on the headlamp. I changed its color from red to white. I studied the object I'd almost run into: it was a human male, on his knees, petrified — no, turned into metal. His hand was raised over his eyes. He had been facing the globe. The skin had been melted from his muscles prior to his metamorphosis into metal. I walked around to his front. His teeth were bared in agony. I looked back over my shoulder at the glinting globe of fire maybe a mile away. I scraped my thumbnail against the dried bloodstain beneath my front right jacket pocket. It offered no feeling of friction. It was part of the fabric, now.
A dune buggy glided by. Six humans with genders, wearing near-black goggles, thick knit caps, and layers of sweaters stared at me in silence as I illuminated the forgotten, hard corpse. One of them jumped off and headed toward me with a battleax in hand. It was a girl: she walked like a girl. She flicked on her headlamp. She approached. She stood beside me and looked down at the metal corpse.
"Cool," she said, killing my moment.
She looked at me.
"Wow, I love your jacket."
"Were you in Iraq or Afghanistan or what?"
"I bought this at Goodwill last week. It was five dollars."
I looked at her. The unwritten rules of the desert dictated I had to compliment her as soon as possible:
"I love your axe."
"I got it at the Halloween section at Walmart."
I immediately knew which Walmart she was talking about: she was talking about The Walmart At The End of the World.
"Oh. When I got to that Walmart, there wasn't a Halloween section left."
"Yeah, I know, right?"
"I wanted to buy one of those grim reaper sickles. You know?"
"That would have been bad-ass."
"Tell me about it."
Silence. A bus with a plywood pirate ship on top rocked by, teeming with drunkards.
"So, what were you thinking about, standing here and staring at this thing?"
I looked right at her. The eyes beneath her cheap swim goggles were squinting.
"Oh. Sorry." I pressed a button to dim my headlamp. I angled it down, right down at her neck.
I was quiet for a second.
"I was thinking about . . . art," I said.
"Oh, cool. Are you an artist?"
"What? I don't know. Are you?"
"I — maybe. So, what kind of art were you thinking about?"
Actually, I'd been thinking about Shadow of the Colossus, Ico, and Out of this World — specifically of their use of visual landmarks and serene audio. For a minute there, I'd been feeling like I was lost in a videogame.
Three hours before this, I'd been sitting back in an armchair inside a purple-lit disused city bus as it cruised over the dry lakebed blaring a techno remix of the imperial march from "The Empire Strikes Back" from roof-mounted speakers. This was a place where you just do not stop having a headache. My drummer stood with his hands gripping a horizontal bar overhead, staring out at the lights on the wasteland horizon. Next to me sat a genuine billionaire. We'd been having a conversation for going on thirty-six hours. The conversation was about anything, and it was about everything. I was trying to sell him something enormous. "So," I said. "It's often said that learning is fun. Why can't fun be learning?"
Two hours before that, just after sunset became sundown, and just as sundown became "the middle of the night", the billionaire, my drummer, and I were sitting at a round table in the middle of the wasteland. A waiter with a thick Italian accent placed a plate of fettuccini atop the checkered tablecloth. We were talking about The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. I mentioned the part where you see a locked door and four unlit torches. You've just received a lantern that lets you light torches. Part of your brain knows with the conviction of a zealot that if you light those torches, that door will open. "What impulses does that awaken? Weird ones. Super-weird ones. You could grow up a serial killer with deeply reinforced impulses like that. Or you could grow up to be the President of the United States. It goes either way, really. Then you have the thing where the player is constantly chopping down the grass."
"Why is the player constantly chopping down the grass?"
"Because there might be money inside!"
"So you learn to just chop down grass every time you see it."
"Yeah. It's not healthy."
"It sounds not healthy."
"I always use the word ‘kleptomania' when I talk about this stuff. I know it's not the right word."
"It works, anyway."
"You have to really think about what the kleptomaniac wants. Usually he doesn't want anything particular. You're just taking things because they're there, and because there's a tiny little skilled exercise involved in taking them.
"And the thing is, in Zelda: A Link to the Past, you don't even use the money for anything. Well, sometimes you do. You buy magic potions or whatever. Though ideally, you'll never be using them, because if you get low on health, you can just find a pot. You smash the pot: maybe it has a heart inside. You leave the room, you come back, you smash the pot again. You keep doing this until your health is full."
"So why do you pick up money?"
"It's because you can carry a maximum of 999 rupees — the game's currency. When I was a kid, I wanted to have 999 rupees in my possession at all times, or it didn't feel like I was really playing. Like, if I didn't have 999 rupees when I accomplished something, the accomplishment meant nothing."
"What's even more interesting is that the last time I had a blood test, they told me that not only did I not have chlamydia — I had never had chlamydia."
The billionaire snapped his fingers. "The challenge is turning these little impulses into games into some sort of program that enforces and induces self-motivation toward actual life-applicable skills."
"And that's the thing we've been talking about."
"That's everything we've been talking about.
"People like to see numbers go up. Kids like to have their height marked in pencil against a door-frame. Now we've got kids watching their Facebook or Myspace friend numbers or Twitter followers climb. Sooner or later we're going to have these intelligent Facebook applications that, like, present you a pop quiz so you can prove whether you've seen a movie or not, so you can tell the world exactly how many movies you've seen or books you've read. Everything is going to be a number."
Two hours later, we were hungry again, and waiting outside a teepee surrounded by tiki torches. We were talking about Facebook browser games and other useful, highly monetizable applications. "I'd love to make something that is to Farmville what Facebook was to MySpace," I said, throwing it out there. "It wouldn't be too hard."
"Farmville, huh . . ." the billionaire said. He knew Farmville.
The line moved forward. We were ushered into the teepee and seated in bean bag chairs in a room full of balloons. A topless woman squealing like on helium slapped a man with green skin on the back, hard. A man offered me a mysterious crystalline food-like-thing. "What is this? Is this meat?"
"It is the meat of the homunculus," the man said. He was Australian. "You know, one of those little baby-like mythical creature-persons." I was so sleepless and shaky that I bit right into it. It tasted exactly like papaya replicated right down to the very last molecule. I looked at this guy and thought about how I could probably use his goatee as a toothbrush in a pinch. We had to go up to the bar to order our grilled cheese sandwiches. The chef was beet-red, silver-haired, and ecstatic. "I've been making grilled-cheese sandwiches out here in the desert since 1991," the man said. The lazy waiter came by and asked us if it wasn't the best grilled cheese sandwich I'd ever had. "I'm in no state to throw around superlatives," I told him. "I've been starving, out here." My tooth ached, a slow pain. "I'm so hungry I can't remember a gosh darn thing. I'm so hungry this effectively is the best grilled cheese sandwich I've ever had."
Minutes later, the inside of my head turned upside-down; the sandwich hit my stomach and began, slowly, to turn into coffee. I spoke, slowly stabbing a fiber-optic cactus into my right eye and retracting it, repeatedly.
"I'm talking to a billionaire over here."
"I'm always talking about how these role-playing games like Oblivion and Fallout are, for better of for worse, ‘Not quite the Holodeck on "Star Trek: The Next Generation."' Let's say you did make the Holodeck. You can't just make these boundless worlds. You don't need conflict, though you might as well introduce rules. Say the module starts with you in Ancient Greece. You're in downtown Athens."
My drummer scoffed. "Ancient Athens didn't have a ‘downtown'," he said.
I shot him a look. It was my "I'm talking to a billionaire over here" look. I'd never had the opportunity to use it before just then.
I went on: "You're in downtown Athens. It's maybe three hours before the execution of Socrates. You're a little kid. You walk around. You talk to people. They tell you what they think. You learn what a whole bunch of people think. Eventually, everyone gathers round to watch Socrates drink the hemlock. You start up a debate: should we really kill this guy? It's impossible to win.
"Next thing you know, you're a man in a cloak, carrying a cane in the busy marketplace of a town in Kentucky in, oh, let's say 1894. You talk to all the people. They tell you their concerns, their worries. They tell you what makes them happy. They tell you what makes them sad.
"You have two hours before you — a mayoral candidate — are expected to give a speech. You give the speech. The game tells you how you did.
"Then, just like that — you're a homeless man on the streets of San Francisco. No one wants to make eye contact with you. You see a dude wearing a brand-new pair of Jordans, and you run up to him, and you say, ‘Hey, man, those shoes are awesome.' He says, ‘Thanks.' You say, ‘You got any change?' Maybe he gives you some."
Later, we were leaning against a camouflage humvee with missiles strapped all over it. A Russian man served the billionaire a can of beer. I sipped a two-liter bottle of diet coke while a woman breathed fire in front of a bar in a tent shaped like a female breast, with a little nipple on top. The wind whipped by. It was getting colder by the nanosecond.
"And this has to be a game," the billionaire said. Until that instant, the thread of the conversation might as well have been lost in the middle of the desert.
"It doesn't have to be. It can just be a . . . game-like thing. A series of loosely, conscientiously-connected worlds."
"The worlds alone aren't worth anything," I said, in a rush to explain. "Anyone can make the worlds. It's about the arrangement of the scenarios. It's about the stories. And more important than that, it's . . . the design process. It's the actual mechanical process of playing the game. We have that process, more or less."
"Tell me," the billionaire said, shifting his red laser-tinted goggles up off his eyes with a leather-gloved hand. "What would you do if you had a literally endless supply of money?"
"Is this a game design challenge?" I asked, a little cheeky.
The Billionaire smirked. "Yeah, you can think of it as that."
"I can tell you're not after the usual Miss America answers — feed the hungry, clothe the cold, all that. I can also tell that you're genuinely curious about whether or not some super-clever answer exists above ‘listen to people's pitches and creatively invest'."
"Well, I don't have a hugely clever answer on the top of my head right now."
Minutes later, as the two of us hang onto poles jutting out of the back of a flat-bed truck bound for a towering neon obelisk on the outer corner of the city, I've written up a game in my head. It's a browser game. It's terrifying. It's like Zork crossed with BBC.com. What you do in the game is play the part of a reclusive multi-googlaire. You live in a hotel room, let's say. You never see the hotel room. All you see is the computer screen — your computer screen. You get emails — no, hey, let's just say they're Facebook messages. You get Facebook messages, maybe with embedded Youtube videos, from people wanting your money.
I can tell you what — even in Japan, land of the most courteous, disrespect-fearing people I've ever met, I must have overheard this conversation in Starbucks at least three times a year:
"You know, Bill Gates has, like, a trillion dollars. I bet if you just, like, asked him for just a million, he'd give it to you just like that." [Snaps fingers.] "To a guy with a trillion dollars, a million dollars is, like . . ." [Does math in head.] "Well, uhh, a trillion is a million million. So to a guy with a trillion dollars, a million dollars is like . . . one dollar to a person with a million dollars. To a guy with a trillion dollars, a million dollars is like . . . ten cents to a person with a hundred thousand dollars! Or, like, one cent to a person with ten thousand dollars! You have ten thousand dollars, right? Would you loan me one penny, right now, if I asked? Of course you would!"
In short: If you had an infinite supply of money, everyone on earth would be a beggar compared to you. As an economic (magical) anomaly, you could destroy the world with a few ham-fisted phone calls.
"So you'd watch these Youtube videos — maybe generated by users, or maybe by the staff making the game. Or you'd read these business proposals, or research abstracts. And you'd decide whether you wanted to give them money or not. All you'd be able to do in this game is read your email and then read Internet news websites. Let's assume this hojillionaire has no hobbies or social life. He's just locked in a presumably dark room."
In a while, we were sitting on top of a ten-foot-high picnic table, next to a girl wearing a Scooby Doo Halloween costume. In the distance, a line of flamethrowers periodically tore the sky behind topless dancers on a stage. I had to shout.
"You'd choose whether these people got money or not, and you'd choose how much they got. Let's say the choices are all fairly difficult — you've got an organization, a huge staff of human spam filters, to make sure you're only getting the propositions you're presumed to be interested in.
"You make a choice, you mail the secretary or whoever, you tell her ‘Yes, give this guy [X] dollars.' You can really rack it up. You can give anyone as much money as you want. And then, the next day, you can read the news, and maybe something you funded is mentioned in there. ‘Scientists finally find the cure for AIDS,' for example. Maybe you've funded a terrorist. I don't know. It'd be the easiest thing in the world to just . . . end world hunger and build schools everywhere. Then you'd run into energy problems, or whatever. People'd still be dying of diseases. Maybe you could go to space and seek out new planets, whatever. This wouldn't be science-fiction, though. It'd be the real world. Money isn't everything. You can't just outright buy the cure for AIDS. You can just fund research into it. You can't just buy a reusable rocket ship. You can, however, fund the research. You don't just buy a world. You build it. Then you watch it change, through an Internet browser window."
"So, you're saying, if you had an infinite supply of money, you don't know what you would do."
"No. I have no clue. I'd probably start by making this thing we've been talking about."
An hour later, I'd lost the billionaire — literally. He had been amoeba'd into the dance floor. I looked for him. I couldn't find him. I was freezing. I needed to head back to my tent. I couldn't remember where the heck I was. I took a hundred paces into the desert and spun around and around. Way out on one part of the clock-face-like horizon, I saw that glinting globe of fire. I'd pitched my tent in a place where I could hear those flames bursting close to my ears. I began my long, injured trudge. I felt into my pocket. I had some almonds. I ate a couple. I walked a mile and ate the second-to-last piece of homunculus meat, recovering a couple of hit points.
Super Howard Hughes
In a half an hour, the flame-globe had only doubled in size. I'd need it to at least quintuple before I could eat that last piece of homunculus and not feel like a jerk. I walked away from the metal burnt corpse statue toward the fire globe. The girl in goggles and knee-high fuzzy boots followed me.
"So what do you do, you know, in the Real Life?"
"I make games."
"What kind of games?"
"Crazy ones! Like, insane ones!"
"Cool! What kinds of games have you made lately?"
"Well, right now, we're working on one called ‘Super Howard Hughes', where you are trapped in a hotel room, and the phone keeps ringing. Every time you go over to try to answer the phone, the game wrests control from you, forcing you back toward the sofa. You have this meter on the left side of the screen: it represents your thirst for milk. You have to get to the refrigerator to refill your milk-thirst-gauge, though you have to be careful to avoid the ringing telephone. Sometimes it moves around, and pushes you away, like you and it are opposite poles of a magnet."
A scaffolding-like dance-platform surrounded the mammoth flame-globe. Chemically altered humans moved and stomped atop the platforms. Beneath the platforms were hammocks. I laid down in one hammock. The girl laid in another. She swung back and forth. Sometimes, she grabbed the netting of my hammock, and pulled me toward her. We swung around a lot. We didn't talk about much. Eventually, we went for a walk. We found some sofas between a bunch of nuked-out-looking RVs in the middle of a garbage-mountain-like parking lot surrounded by flaming oil drums, flickering dust, and dead silence.
"What else do you do in this Howard Hughes game? Or do you just drink milk and avoid the telephone?"
"There's another gauge on the screen, representing Howard Hughes' need to urinate. It has to reach a certain point before you can actually convince him to urinate. You have a window. If you don't get to an empty milk bottle in time —
"— oh, after you drink milk, I guess you then have to put the bottle somewhere in the hotel. Maybe, like, in the bathroom, around the toilet.
"So you have to get to the bathroom, and now you're peeing into the bottles. Maybe you have to direct the stream. Sometimes the game switches perspective; suddenly it's like Xevious, except instead of shooting bullets at shuffling enemy ships, you're Howard Hughes' penis uncontrollably spraying a stream of urine at dancing glass jars; you've got to follow them, and keep on top of them. If you mess up, we cut away sharply-like, to some urine splattering on the rug between a pair of fuzzy slippers. Then we cut to Howard Hughes' eyeballs. They go red all of a sudden, and there's this terrible sound. A sharp cut to black! It stays black until you press a button or tweak the analog stick. You press a button. A telephone rings and we cut right back to Howard Hughes in bed. He sits up."
"You'd think Howard Hughes could have just, like, cut the phone line if he wanted to be alone."
"Well, the phone line is cut," I explain. "It might just all be in his head."
"Oh. Oh. I see."
A fat man in welding goggles walks by. He's wearing a sandwich-shop-sign-like wooden board on his body. I don't know if there's anything written on it. Down the street, continuing a broad circle around the colossus in the center of town, a robotic dragon with wheels pauses to breathe flames into the air. What the heck are we — all of us — doing out here? What is this thing?
"Hey. Do you, like. Want to go to my tent?" I looked at the girl, in her waist-length pea coat and her swim goggles and a Mount-Everest-ready hat, her plastic Halloween battle axe across her lap, a Camelbak hydration unit straw clipped to her lapel. This is what it's all about: You compliment someone on something they're wearing or doing, you talk to them about life, in the desert (or even life in the desert), you look at Something Weird together, and then one of you nonchalantly brings up the idea of sex. (Before anyone asks, I didn't have sex with her.)
This isn't the Metaverse from Neal Stephenson's novel Snow Crash. It's not the game-like online community Second Life. No, this is the real world — most specifically, this is the part of the real world that inspired both Neal Stephenson's novel Snow Crash and the massively multiplayer online experience Second Life. This is the Burning Man art-festival-event-thing in the middle of the coldest, weirdest, deadest part of the Nevada desert, a hundred and fifty miles outside Reno, all the way at the end of a highway that doesn't go to or from anywhere else. Every year, an increasing number of people elect to take off work and disappear to here for a week.
"We cook our spinach"
I was standing in the kitchen of a genius Vegan chef. Minutes ago, I'd remarked to the Vegan chef, while eating one of his peanut-butter cookies, that the concrete floor of his living room was smooth enough to rollerblade on.
"You know what? I thought that the first time I saw this place. You're the first person to ever remark about the floor that way."
The CEO materialized like a vampire, gliding chest-first into the middle of our conversation.
"You said you liked San Francisco," the CEO stated to me, as though reciting a Bible verse. "You haven't seen all of San Francisco, however. You haven't ever been to San Francisco if you haven't been to Burning Man."
"Wait, what? What are we talking about, now?"
"I don't even know what that is. What is that?"
"You cannot be told what Burning Man is — you need to see it for yourself."
The CEO was paraphrasing "The Matrix" — or maybe "The Matrix" had been, all along, paraphrasing "Burning Man".
"Can I see it in, like, some photos?"
"You need to come with us. [The Billionaire] wants to go to Burning Man with us. He's driving there with us. He's camping with us. We're going to camp out there in the desert for a week. We're going to buy water and supplies and just rough it out there for a week. And we're doing it with our investor. Our investor wants to camp out in the desert with us — with you — for a week."
"Wait, what? Camping out in the desert is San Francisco?"
"It will change your life."
The first part of my life to change was my knee. The Driver relinquished the wheel following terror re: oncoming headlights and sleepless tiredness somewhere near Reno. The drive had been uneventful until this point. I read a book about how to be a great CEO on The Billionaire's iPad while The Billionaire and The CEO talked about uploading your brain to the Internet. "Avatar creation. An AI based on yourself, only it'd be able to analyze all of recorded world history and make the absolute best, fairest, profitable, pragmatic choice."
"You should call it ‘The Saint Brain'."
The billionaire spoke as though reciting his social security number: "‘Saint Brain'. Yeah. I like that."
"If you ever need a snappy name for anything else, I'm you're guy."
"Tim ‘Fucking' Rogers is the man when it comes to putting words on things," The CEO said.
"I might have something for you," The Billionaire said.
The car stopped outside Lake Tahoe. "Lake Tahoe"! There's a group of words I'd done heard before in a lot of places. I couldn't find a place to relieve myself near the part of the vicinity of Lake Tahoe where we stopped. It was a little town with hotels made of wood. Three gas stations stood in a Mexican standoff. The fourth corner of the crossroads was something that had burned to the ground. I breathed a lot as I complained, returning from the last of the gas stations with my palms skyward.
"Just go in those bushes over there," The Billionaire suggested.
"I can't do that! I've never done that before! Humans accept rules when they live in a society. We wear clothes;' we cook our spinach. I'm a vegetarian, for whatever the reason; I am accepting of limitations: it keeps us enlightened. I am not going to take a leak against a fence."
We couldn't all fit in that car. How had we thought we were going to fit in that car? The CEO said it was going to be alright. The car was a Ford Contour, which is like a Taurus for midgets. It seats a little midget family of four. We were five adults. My drummer has the forearms of a gorilla. He was a saint for not complaining. We had to keep pulling over so I could relieve myself and everyone else could rotate seats in the car. Eventually, The Driver got seasick, and I had to take over the wheel. She took the passenger's side. We drove right through Reno. I joked about stopping to play some blackjack and earn us enough money to start this company without some Billionaire's help; no one believed I could do it, either because I was full of it, or they were all asleep.
The CEO awoke in the back seat just as the iPad lost sight of the 3G network. We had turned at Wadsworth and were blazing up past the black glass of an unlit desert of the night.
"Where are we?"
"I'd say about sixty miles outside of this party thing."
"I told you to wake me in Reno."
"I needed to drop something off with a friend. And we needed to buy supplies."
"I totally did not hear you say you needed to drop something off. And why can't we buy supplies out here?"
"We've passed the Walmart in Reno. That Walmart is the last place we have to buy anything."
(Above: scene from the Walmart in Reno)
So we turned around. We stopped at some guy's home in Reno. It was a converted hotel room: I could tell from the coat closet right inside the door. He had furry hentai drawings framed and hung up all over his walls. Maybe it was ironic. He was awake and smoking a hookah in a red shirt and a tie at five in the morning. He was getting ready to go to work, in more ways than one. In the office, his friend was knee-deep in StarCraft II. I complimented the guy on his hookah; he started telling me all about the hookah — how these chambers here were flared out to keep a cushion of air around the smoke as it rose from the pool in the bottom. The flared-out chambers were to cool the smoke to a pleasant, drinkable temperature. Well, okay. The Billionaire was asleep in the apartment renter's bed. The Driver smoked some hookah while the guy and The CEO sat around talking about Neal Stephenson and a particularly entrancing spreadsheet. I had drunk so much Sugar-Free Red Bull at this point that I filled that guy's poor toilet four times in one hour. When The Billionaire woke up, the guy renting the apartment tried to make conversation.
"I like your sunglasses."
"These aren't sunglasses."
"They're laser technician glasses."
"They block the blue and green parts of the visible spectrum."
". . . Oh."
"It's to make me more relaxed. It should help me sleep."
Twenty-four hours later, The Billionaire would awake from an entire day in his tent.
"The laser technician glasses experiment didn't work," he told me. "I forgot that the part of the brain that uses blue and green light to inhibit the relaxation reflex also prevents us from experiencing searing migraines twenty-four-seven."
Learning To Parallel Park
Twenty-four hours earlier, after sunrise, we were leaning against the back of the car, slamming Coca-Cola Cherry Zeros and spraying one another with sunscreen. We would need it in the desert, The CEO had warned us. We'd loaded up on sweatsuits and extra underwear and socks. We stuffed the car with maybe 24 gallons of water and maybe a garbage bag's worth of almonds, dried fruit, and granola bars. My knee was killing me: the driver's seat had been so close to the steering wheel that I could barely bend it while working the accelerator.
"It's weird, driving, all of a sudden," I told The Billionaire. We were bonding over the undeniable fact that Coca-Cola Cherry Zero is the best diet beverage in the world at this very moment. "I could hardly parallel park outside that guy's house. I used to be an expert in parallel parking."
"You know that scene in ‘The Matrix' where Neo sees a helicopter and asks Trinity, ‘Can you fly that thing?' and she says, ‘Not yet'? She closes her eyes and her eyes zip around for a second. She opens them. She says, ‘Let's go'?"
"You're saying, 'What if you could do that with things like parallel parking?'"
"Yeah. Games like America's Army train better soldiers. Can other games train better general human beings? America's Army can introduce non-soldiers to ballistic geometry concepts like flanking and suppressing fire. Gran Turismo can teach you to induce drift in a fast-moving automobile. Gran Turismo can not, however, teach you to parallel park. Ask five people, and maybe four of them will tell you that parallel parking is the worst thing about driving in the city. The story how humans both created the need to parallel park and came to be able to parallel park is beyond most modern philosophers. It's as complicated a history-riddle as how people figured out how to grow rice, harvest it, prepare it, and cook it. Thousands of years of evolution created the bowl of rice and the procedure for parallel parking, just as they created the hair-trigger and the religious fundamentalist terrorist."
Out there, in the sunlight, until a car full of Burner kids from Israel showed up, bought beers, and started toasting us, I designed an iPhone game that would make learning to parallel park properly into a fun, addictive exercise.
"You know all those times where you're driving down a neighborhood, going real slow-like, and some jerk stops to parallel park, and there's oncoming traffic? You've got to sit there and watch some bozo just going back and forth.
"I mean, I know I was just saying I was having trouble parallel parking. Hey, it's like Brain Training: you need to keep the brain limber. Can't there be some kind of game that keeps your parallel-parking reflex limber and spry? If I had a ton of money and I didn't care about, you know, making it all back (and then some), I'd make games like that, to help make the real world better in the tiniest little ways."
Someone's sunscreen spray got all over my eyeglasses. I started complaining. It took a while for me to stop:
"Really, sprayable sunscreen. If you absolutely need to apply sunscreen to your entire body and you don't have thirty seconds to spare, sprayable sunscreen has you covered — head to toe, hair to shoes — in three."
The sunscreen wouldn't come off my glasses. It was "waterproof", after all. I was in the men's room of the Walmart, using pre-moistened lens wipes, when I remembered something a girlfriend long ago had told me: If you ever need to get oil off your face, or off of anything, try using a paper toilet seat cover. It worked. I felt my brain light up. It felt like when you're playing Metroid, and you get a super missile, and you use it to open a door, and now you're back in a convenient location near an earlier part of the game, exiting a door you could never get into because you didn't have the super missiles.
Outside, they were trying to fit the water jugs all into the car.
"Just Tetris some stuff around," The Billionaire said.
An hour later, I urinated against a fence-post in the desert. The Billionaire was doing the same thing, a few hundred feet away. We'd left the car running. I remembered the night before, in a diner in Oakland. The Billionaire had been cold. He took a screwdriver out of his pocket, got up, stood on a chair, and adjusted a vent so it wasn't blowing right on him. That's how you get stuff done, in this world: You do it yourself. I guess successful people urinate by the side of the road. More so than you are what you eat, you are the kind of person you act like (sometimes). So here I was, repopulating the dry lake bed with perfect, sterile liquid.
"So, this place we're camping isn't actually a desert — it's a dry lake bed, right?"
"How long has it been dry?"
"About sixty million years," The CEO spoke up.
I slid into the punchline: "What if the lake just, like, decides to come back?"
Dead silence. Give me a couple decades — or just dye my hair white — and you wouldn't be able to tell the difference between me and a college professor, anymore.
One of the first people to talk to me at this desert hippie orgy was a barlady who couldn't afford a shirt, a brassiere, or a ticket inside. She was begging for dollar bills. We gave her a couple. She only needed seventy-five more. A half an hour later, a Chinese girl wearing a red low-cut one-piece dress, boots, big sunglasses, and a straw cowboy hat handed me a sixteen-pound sledgehammer. (I'd later see her wearing a gold-like plastic one-piece bathing-suit-shaped body armor and a nightmare-sized golden horned helmet, wielding a great plastic mace.)
"Here. Hammer these in."
She wanted me to hammer in her tentpoles — literally. I had never swung a sledgehammer before, though my brother keeps telling me that it's how Fedor gets ripped for UFC. You don't need a gym membership — you just get in your backyard with a sledgehammer and an old tire, and you go to town. I've hit golf balls before — thousands of times, even. This was similar. I'd like to say you couldn't find two more different activities in the world than sledgehammering and golfing, though I'd feel like a liar if I said that. While swinging that sledgehammer, I thought about the swing meter in every golf game I've ever played. I thought about that minigame in Fable II, where you chop wood. The game designers underestimated my ability to repeat a mindless task near-indefinitely in the interest of marvelling at my own numbers. In the end, it was almost too good a workout: coupled with my two days of sleep deprivation, it pushed me over the edge of sleepiness.
I woke around sundown, and toured the improvised city with The Billionaire and My Drummer. Near the center of the spectacle was a tower made probably out of aluminum, with hand-holds and foot-holds all over it. Halfway up was a hole. You get in that hole, you climb a ladder, and you find yourself in a cage up on top. It was maybe fifty feet high. Even through my myopic squint I could see the thing wobbling in the wind.
"I can just imagine the newspaper headlines: ‘Twenty people who identify themselves as artistic or creative died today in the middle of a dry lake bed when a piece of anarchist art tipped over while they were trying to climb it.'"
"I don't think a newspaper headline would describe the way the people thought about themselves, dude," My Drummer said. It was a good point. I was clearly not a Real Journalist.
Hours later, beyond sundown, we stood at the top of a shaky wooden structure at the feet of The Man, who is ritualistically burned at the end of the festival. The thing was wobbling like an earthquake wearing fuzzy slippers. I wanted to get down from there. The CEO was pointing in the distance.
"They're building The Temple out there. People go in there to write down their hopes and dreams. Then they burn the place to the ground. They leave no trace. It's like this place was never here."
"I think I want to go down."
I could imagine the newspaper headlines: "A hundred and sixty human beings who identify themselves as artistic or creative, and one jerk who enjoys labeling people, died when a hundred-foot-tall structure that was only designed carefully enough to be burned fell over in the middle of an dry-icy desert night."
"You should go to the temple, and think about things."
"I'm thinking right now; I'm thinking about going back down there."
A truck transformed into a dildo through careful application of papier mache cruised by at well above the local speed limit (five miles per hour), kicking up a screen of white dust.
"How were we so hideously unprepared for this?" I asked My Drummer for what might have been the six thousandth time, two days later. You figure someone could have told me that this . . . acidic dust would ruin all of my clothes. Every single garment I've worn out here is ruined. I'm pretty sure it corroded all of my fillings, as well. My teeth feel like my head is melting."
"When is Ozzy coming?"
"I don't know. I haven't seen anyone who looks like he's named Ozzy all day!"
We were in our camp's communal tent, pitched in a canyon between RVs and compact cars, skeeving blue corn tortilla chips and dried mango.
The CEO showed up just then, shirtless, in his underwear, with the billionaire in tow.
"Hey. Where's Ozzy?"
"Ozzy? He said he'd be here by five."
"And he's going to fly us out?"
"Yes. If you give him 200 dollars to cover fuel, he'll fly to San Francisco and back. I was going to fly there with you guys, just for the fun of it."
The billionaire sat down, sipping a water bottle. "Maybe I'll go with you guys."
Ozzy never showed up. For six hours I sat in a little tent strumming an acoustic guitar and asking every other male human if he were Ozzy.
"Who is this Ozzy you're looking for?" a laid-back woman asked.
"He's a pilot. He has a plane. He's supposed to fly us back to San Francisco."
"Why do you want to go back to San Francisco? Is this place not your scene?"
"Not . . . well, not exactly."
"What don't you like about it here?"
"It's just that we were viciously unprepared."
"You mean, like, you didn't bring enough water? I can loan you some water."
"Also, I have work to do."
"Did you not bring a laptop? I can loan you a laptop."
"I just feel like I couldn't relax and do what I have to do."
"There's an RV no one's using. You could sit on the sofa in there."
"I just feel like being back home."
"What sorts of things do you do back home that you can't do here? What kind of music you like? Tell me what kind of music you like, and I'll see if I know someone who likes similar music."
I really wished that woman would go away. The discussion went on until some of the blood inside my head transformed into fire. At one point, exasperated, she suggested: "Why don't you just go, then? Go to Center Camp and get your names on the Ride Board. You can get out of here tonight. Or just go hitchhike. People are always leaving. Just be nice — be positive — and they'll give you a ride."
"Maybe we'll do that." I dismissed myself. My Drummer and I took a walk about two miles to the Arabian-like bazaar tent in the center of town, where topless girls defaced paintings and bearded men breathed fire. To describe the way that place — and the whole of Burning Man — looked and felt, I'd have to make you a list, and that list would resemble the worst kind of modern poetry. We waited in line to enter the information center. Good lord: the Ride Board was plastered with hundreds of beggings for rides back toward the Bay Area. This was not going to work — and if it did work, it wasn't going to be pretty. I logged onto one of the communal computers and said that we were looking for a ride back. "Come find us in the food tent at A and 9:30. We'll be there all night, probably crying." We went back to the food tent. We sat there until rosy evening time, drinking the last of our water, and probably crying.
I wasn't having a good time. Maybe my negative vibes were killing other people's positive vibes. That made me feel a little guilty, because here was a place you were pretty much guaranteed to see only people with the same idea of a good time as you had. I tried the fitting-in thing. Some swarthy woman asked me if I wanted to go to her tent and have sex. I don't know what I said: She took it as a "no." A woman was hard at work painting stickers meant for covering girls' nipples. My drummer offered to go out into the field with her and help apply them to customers. Somewhere inside all this, I heard a woman talking about the game Spore. I listened a bit. It turned out she'd been a developer at Maxis for four years, during the whole Spore thing. Some guy asked her, "Did you hear about that thing — that thing that one guy was talking about?" Which guy, she asked. "You know, the tall guy. The one who was wearing a kilt." The Spore lady made a face like she'd just bitten into a lemon. It was something like the same face I'd made when I first heard about the project. My exact words had been: "Well, it's a fantastic idea, and I'm glad I don't have to make it." Her words were more like: "Yeah. Yeah. That — I don't know. I really don't know." I rested my forearms on the guitar and my chin on my forearms. Well, isn't that just the all of it? I thought. This is what it's going to be like, if I take this job, if I do this thing. That simultaneously deflates and arouses me. The CEO strode into the tent, shirtless, in kilt, towering above all.
"We're going to go to the Thunderdome. Do you want to come see some fights?"
He was asking me.
The sky over that there bald spot on the skull of the world was black in the peak of the dome, a cascading curtain of chemical greens and computer blues until the horizon.
"Oh. No. Man, I really don't know."
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah. I'm sure. You know what? I think I — uh, we — I think we're just going to go."
He didn't blink: "Go?"
"Yeah. We're just going to walk up to the entrance and hitch a ride."
"You can do that. I've done that before." He hesitated. "Tons of times."
"Well, we're going to try doing it right now."
"You totally should." In the end, he'd been supportive of us leaving.
"Where's [The Billionaire]?"
"I haven't seen him."
We didn't even need to pack our things. They'd been packed for hours. We looked for The Billionaire for all of five minutes. We didn't find him. We trudged toward the center of the improvised city, My Drummer dragging his suitcase, me with my Hobo Suitcase (that's what we call a drawstring garbage bag full of clothes) over my shoulder. Out in dunebuggy country, with music as virtuosic as "Venga Bus" blaring from industrial-sized PA speakers mounted on the backs of a couple motorcycles, we spun around, confused, in a Silent Hill moment.
"How did we get in here? How do we get out?"
"I don't know."
The exit was eventually simple enough to find. We walked the long dusty corridor away from the camps as the last of the light gave up and went home; a few dune buggies and art buses overtook us. One modified military vehicle was doing dust-kicking laps in the wide-open area, blasting flamethrowers into the air. We stopped and stood at what looked like a good enough place. A jeep approached with its headlights off. I did the thumb thing that hitchhikers do in cartoons. Maybe it would work in the real world. The car slowed down. It was the cops.
"You boys had enough?"
I think I was talking to the guy for all of four seconds before he realized he wasn't going to be able to bust us on drug possession. Probably he felt like I was even more of a square than he was.
The second car to stop was an old man's RV, filled up even to the passenger's seat with junk. He offered to make some room. He was only going to Sacramento. "You guys can get a train to Oakland from there."
"Well, we've only been standing here five minutes, so maybe we'll keep trying our luck. Thanks for stopping, though!"
Thirty seconds later, an SUV. Behind the wheel was a foxy lady with a marathon-runner physique. The cargo area was crammed with — no fooling — pillows. Her name was Amy. She drove us all the way right back to my door in Oakland. She was an organic farm inspector. When you see "Certified Organic" on a food label, that's her. She was fantastic. She had to leave The Burn ahead of time because her cousin was getting married in DC. I told her to add me on Facebook. A week later, the friend request came. That night, I gave her a hug — or she gave me one — and I stepped right inside and died for a couple of hours. We woke up on our respective sofas and walked down to Round Table Pizza. Our Burning Man detox consisted of inhaling a dozen slices of pizza each and talking about how hard it was to not think about throwing up.
FACEBOOK: THE VIDEOGAME
I didn't miss Burning Man until just the other day. If I'd had just the right amount of stuff, if I'd had just the right clothes, and more than enough food, and water, and a good pair of snowboarding goggles — if I had a nice tent with a nice sleeping bag, and if I had my own car so I could pack up and leave the second I started to want to leave — maybe it would have been cool. I've spent the last couple of days, even, thinking of the sorts of things I would do if I were there again, armed with the knowledge of What It Is.
There was a guy riding around on a bicycle equipped with a couple wood blocks, a little tom drum, a cowbell, a tambourine — a percussion array worthy of a birthday clown. He spent his nights inebriated on something or other, stopping outside tents blaring techno music, or keeping pace with buses also blaring techno music, contributing beats of his own, adding to the richness of the tapestry of everything — of all those things going on at once.
"You know what we could do, dude?" I said to My Drummer. "We could equip two go-karts. One with drums, one with a guitar amp. And we could ride around! And I could play my guitar and you could play the drums. We could have old-school telephone microphones in our ski-masks, so we could make these Arabic-sounding bleating sounds over the fuzzed-out guitar and drums. We could dress up like Lawrence of Arabia, dude! We could be the Lawrence of Arabia of rock and roll. Just, delivering it — like freedom! — to all those tents with their techno music. We could play along. It'd be sweet."
"That'd be pretty cool," My Drummer said. I don't know if he was into it or not. Maybe he'd enjoyed Burning Man less than I did.
"What if we could just do that in real life, though? Just ride around in go-karts playing music out in front of people's houses?"
"They'd probably call the cops."
"No duh they'd call the cops! I mean, what if the world was such that we could do that and no one would call the cops? Like, what if they'd come out onto their lawns and start dancing?"
"What I mean is, you've got all these people in this Secret Club, who go out into the desert to just be in a place where everyone is as cool re: ‘the rules' as they are." (I'd actually pronounced "re:" as "Ree, colon", and put air quotes around "the rules".) "It's a little weird. Why not just be cool in your own living room, every night?"
"They just want an excuse to be naked outside." Always the pragmatist! My Drummer definitely hadn't slept through the Philosophy 101 lecture on Occam's Razor.
"Why do they want to be naked outside? I mean, do they just want to be naked in front of people who like being naked, and like seeing others being naked? Why not join a nudist colony?"
"It's about the sex and the drugs, man."
"Maybe not everyone was on drugs. We weren't on drugs."
"And we didn't have sex."
"Oh, god. Anyway! The idea might be that you are naked in front of these people who also don't mind being naked in front of you; you're in a place where people like that sort of thing. They don't join a nudist colony because that would involve admitting that nudism is your entire life. They don't want nudism or hedonism to become their entire lives. They walk up and compliment strangers on their sandals or swim goggles or kilts or tutus or mohawks, they make friends who they know already accept body and soul many of the things they accept, and then they . . . trade email addresses and friend one another on Facebook when they're back in civilization."
I was either onto something, or I was being a jerk. Probably it was a little bit of both.
I reckon online dating isn't so weird anymore. OkCupid.com has more or less decriminalized it — whoa, did I just type "decriminalized"? I'm definitely not going to edit that out: OkCupid.com has made it less weird to meet people online. It used to be, if you'd mention "online dating", people would immediately think of unattractive people with floor-height expectations. OkCupid.com has changed that. It's slick and it's not ugly. It's free, so you don't even have to be desperate to try it. You can try it as a joke, on a whim. You can say in your profile that you think this site is a sham, and then run into a gorgeous human of the opposite sex whose profile indicates that they, too, think this whole idea is a sham. Neither of you need to be ashamed of using the site, because neither of you paid for it. OkCupid.com is a tool for helping people meet other people.
Facebook.com is a tool for helping people connect with people they know already. People got along just fine without Facebook, just as they got along just fine without television. Pick up twenty-eight books written in the 19th century, and I guarantee you at least 10 of them won't be entirely the author proclaiming his death wish re: the agony of life without Facebook, television or Xbox 360. People had fun, back then; they had good meals and extramarital affairs. What does Facebook add to the life-living experience? It lets you know what everyone you know is doing at all times. It lets you see photos of their honeymoons; it lets you know when they're engaged. It keeps you in the loop of your entire circle of friends. Facebook is the world, emailing the world. It's a chain email filled with photographs of the first cat in history to make it to the top of Mount Everest, somehow CC'd to every person on the planet. It's not something we need, though it is certainly addicting. It's a diversion.
Facebook is a game, albeit one without overarching conflict. The conflict might be: "Use this thing, and feel better about yourself for using it." Facebook is the Metaverse from Neal Stephenson's novel Snow Crash, told in menus. Maybe we've given up on virtual reality. Or maybe we haven't: We've already got Second Life and PlayStation Home. That's two things with more or less the same idea. Way back when, we had MySpace and Friendster. Then along came Facebook. I wonder when we're going to see an optional 3D virtual-world-building game-like interface laid over the top of Facebook. I reckon it'd be before we see the flying car.
OkCupid, then, is more of a tool or introducing people to other people. People on Facebook are just there to hang out with their friends. People on OkCupid are, usually, there to meet new people. That'd be tricky to make a Metaverse interface for. You'd have to go cute. You'd have to have something that looked similar to and better than Farmville. I like the idea of turning OkCupid into a game more than I like the idea of turning Facebook into a game because, more often than not, the visitors to OkCupid have an actual goal ("meet new people").
This got started as game design research, I swear: two friends and I were sitting in one friend's living room, looking at girls on OkCupid.com. We were clicking around on various girls' profiles. The idea of OkCupid is, you answer questions of various topics — ethics, politics, relationships, sex. You answer questions twice: once for yourself, and once for the person you'd consider to be your ideal match. This is unique because, as far as I know, previous dating sites had assumed that all users had wanted to meet people as much like themselves as possible. Decades ago, we'd use words like "opposites attract" and maybe be wrong; now, it's just second nature that, sometimes, people like people a little bit different from themselves. In a way, it's futile to try to objectively assess anything you see on OkCupid. A girl who is your 44% match could very well be your soulmate, even though you've specified, in addition to what you think about a topic, what your soulmate should also think about that topic. What the hell does anyone know about their soulmate, anyway, if they've never met them? If you're using the Internet to find your soulmate, you probably don't know what your soulmate looks like, much less what she thinks about gay marriage. (She is probably for it, though, because, really, what not-sick person isn't?) Having said that, it's fun to sit, desolate and alone on a Saturday night, and crunch the numbers of attraction.
"This girl is my 97% match! I've never seen one so high! And she's online right now! She'll probably have sex with me tonight if I ask. (I hope she has a car.)."
Or, maybe she would, if you were also her type aesthetically as well.
"People can be so shallow!"
Speak for yourself!
We clicked around, back and forth, calling out usernames of girls we wanted each other to see. Eventually, we found this one girl who was online, and pretty hot, and we kept spamming her profile with clicks. She was an Asian girl with heart-shaped eyeglasses, who said she liked black metal. One friend said he'd messaged her months ago, and she said she'd hang out with him, and then when he was like, "When?" she didn't reply. I took this as a challenge: I was going to get her to reply, and hang out with all three of us. Man, I actually did it. I tell you, that felt great. What felt greater was realizing that this girl had seen all three of us around town in various locations — Amoeba Records, a rock show at a bowling alley in San Francisco, the streets of Berkeley, Taco Bell. Now she's our real-life brand-new friend. Maybe all of the people within a single community who use that website also hang out at the same real-world places. That, and if someone's going to catch your eye in a photograph, it's possible that kind of person — or that exact person — has caught your eye out there in the real world. I haven't heard anyone in a bar speak this exact sentence, or even paraphrase it, though I wouldn't put it past anyone: "I'm not going to talk to her. I'm going to find her on OkCupid. If I can't find her on OkCupid, it was never meant to be."
OkCupid is Facebook: The Videogame. Facebook is an action movie. OkCupid is a Sherlock Holmes mystery. In a few hours, sitting on the sofa in the middle of the living room, one friend on another sofa, the other friend on the stairs, I felt like the captain of the Starship Love. I swear I felt the exact same way, at age 31, last week, as I did playing Star Control II all those years ago: I was out there exploring something. I was finding things.
My one friend and I are 86% matches; my other friend and I are 82% match with one another. Yet, sometimes, 86% match friend would click on a girl, and she'd be 96% match for him, 78% match for the other friend, and maybe 45% match for me.
The quick answer is that I had answered more questions than any of them had. Okay, fine — I've been on OkCupid.com since literally days after it opened in 2004. I was on it for purposes of a large-scale work project that reached from social network sites to Japanese bullet-hell shooting videogames. Even after that project ended, I poked around OkCupid from time to time, mostly to answer dating questions, dropping fictional nickels into the slot machine called desire, wondering if I might, one day, come across a girl who was my 100% perfect match — and who had also answered at least 3/4 as many questions as I had.
The longer answer was that one of my friends — the one I match 86% with — admitted to clicking "irrelevant" to most questions he answered. He got higher match and "friend" percentages with girls overall. This means that he didn't care how girls answered those questions. This could be a noble thing — it could indicate that he doesn't mean to try to change anyone's nature, or even wish that anyone be any one particular kind of thing. Or it could be arrogant: his desire to meet and copulate with females might simply be fueled by his desire to tell people about himself. As a former aspiring professional statistician, I can say that the all-seeing eye of mathematics raises its brow inquisitively at the latter explanation: Ultimately, what clicking "irrelevant" does is judge your "match percentage" fluctuation regarding that particular question by how strongly the matching person wishes that you answer the question the way they want you to answer it. Say the question is "Do you smoke?" The choices are "Yes" and "No". The girl chooses "No". For some reason, her ideal man does smoke. Maybe she's stupid and/or thinks smoking looks cool. She chooses "Yes". Under "How much does this question matter to you?" she clicks "Very important". She really wants a guy who smokes! What a weirdo! A guy chooses that "Yes", he does smoke, and then chooses "Irrelevant" under how important it is that the girl either smokes or doesn't. He literally doesn't care either way. If she doesn't like it, he doesn't care. If she smokes, then he doesn't care. We could construct another example, around a woman who does smoke and enjoys using cigarettes as excuses to get away from everyone, even her lover, for a few minutes, though it'd be hard to shoehorn statistical importance into there.
On OkCupid, when you click on someone's profile, they can see you've looked at it. You can turn off the feature that shows people when you've visited their profile, though in doing so, you forfeit the ability to see if and when other people have viewed your profile. If someone visits your profile a dozen times in thirty minutes, maybe they're really interested. As a person with expert social network website gamer-skills, I postulate that it's best to use OkCupid innocently, to just click around all you want. Have no shame about it: shame is the first thing that makes you look like a creep.
Now, we weren't trying to actually find our soulmates the other night, so shame wasn't an issue. Using OkCupid.com for game design research purposes means you're going to need to have a lot of profiles open in a lot of tabs, for future reference.
It used to be that OkCupid.com hid the answers you provided for questions. Now, there's an option to make them public. You can click on a single tab on a person's profile, and then compare your question answers to theirs. The most interesting part is that you can't see someone's "public" answers unless you provide an answer of your own, or make your previously existing answer public. This makes a tremendous game out of psychology. You can group questions by their topic. Say, you click on "questions about sex." Maybe you've found a girl who doesn't have a lot of publicly answered questions about sex. The website doesn't update question-answer publication in real-time, so you can keep a tab open with your current crush's "questions about sex" on display, then, several hours later, right-click on "questions about sex" on the right sidebar and choose "open in a new tab." It might say, in the older tab, that she's publicly answered six questions about sex that you have also answered; now, three hours later, after viewing your profile and replying to your message, she's answered 40 questions about sex that you have also answered. Does this mean she is considering having sex with you (or at least meeting you in person), and is interested in seeing what she would be getting into? Maybe not! Though it sure is fun to pretend. Most importantly, it's fun to take away facts: Somewhere during the three hours between viewing your profile and replying to your message, she checked your public answers and answered 34 questions about sex — of the literally thousands of questions about sex on the website — that you have also, coincidentally, answered.
You don't have to be this devious about using social networks, of course. I have to be, because — for many years — it's been part of my job as an unknown, invisible, professional game designer. Life and games are constantly rushing head-on at one another. I'm constantly grappling with the fear that, when they collide, the conjoined experience might suck. It might not have any friction, for example. For the longest time, we've had cars. Manual transmissions were off-putting because the nuance of easing off the gas, easing onto the clutch, switching gears, easing back off the clutch, and easing onto the gas in one fluid motion wasn't something all people could do without causing danger to other motorists. Some people want to relax while driving cars. I don't think you should relax — that's how you fall asleep at the wheel. I also don't think prisoners should do hard labor with sledgehammers and pickaxes — do you really want people unhinged enough to commit murder and bank-robbery getting jacked, ripped, and cut? They should make them fluff doilies instead. Last month, when I talked about being a professional game designer, I neglected to go fully into the specifics of what, precisely, it is I do. I'm still not going to do that. I will, however, say that, if I had been the Game Designer Of The World, automatic cars would be a tiny bit more fun to drive. How someone can not love the friction of gear-changing so much that they eschew the ease of operating an automatic, I don't even know. This says a lot more about videogames than you might think. I'm not going to directly translate it into videogames: instead, I'll say that Facebook is an automatic transmission — OkCupid is a manual transmission.
Making Weirder People
As I told The Billionaire somewhere in the massive wall of text above this, and as I've told you all before, the desire to mow grass and collect rupees in Zelda games has inspired in me — and many other gamers — a kind of bizarre, maybe-self-important self-motivation. Maybe we're addicted to the sound effect when we pick up those needless items, or maybe we just want something to do. How do we turn videogames into something that inspires self-motivation and better living in the real world? That's the six-billion-dollar question. I think I have an answer, though at the moment it's only worth about five million dollars, so I'll keep cracking away at it in private. It involves friction — it involves taking an action that, in the real world, is as simple as driving an automatic transmission, or complimenting someone's three-foot-tall feather hat (they're only wearing that hat to get attention, et cetera), and it makes it a crunchy and sticky little bit of friction in a simulated world. Don't even get me started on that. We'd be here all week if I got started on that.
The above paragraph might make it look like I'm saying that the compulsive behaviors many games gently ask us to learn, memorize, and repeat unnecessarily are maybe killing us socially. Including "maybe" makes that a sickly, weak hypothesis. So be it — this isn't grad school. This is a website about fun things. Let's begin concluding this thing with an anecdote. (You can read this anecdote in full, as it appears in my upcoming book an incident involving a human body on my blog at this link.)
My friend made a friend, a guy who was, like many other Japanese guys, addicted to Dragon Quest. He had gotten every item in every Dragon Quest game, and beaten all of the optional dungeons. He'd even killed God in Dragon Quest VII. That's a lot of work. My friend thought this guy was great, because he worked in a bank and was an amateur surfer and all that. I thought the guy was a psycho. Anyway, it turned out the guy was a psycho.
My friend met a girl at a club; he liked her. The girl realized my friend knew the psycho guy. The girl texted my friend later: she said he shouldn't hang out with that guy. She and my friend met for dinner. She told him all about how this psycho had met her at a bar and later taken her out to dinner. He asked to take her picture before dinner, with a glass of red wine by her right hand. Days after they had their one-night-only sex, he phone-mailed her a photographs of a girl, in that same restaurant, with a glass of red wine by her plate. "What do you think of this girl? Is she cute?" The girl replied, "I guess". "Well," the psycho replied, "I had sex with her the day before I had sex with you". Anyway, he kept doing this. He did it for hours.
All of the photographs showed similar girls in that same restaurant, with glasses of red wine. The message text was always some variant of "I had sex with this girl, too". The psycho had gone on to phone-email this girl photos of girls for months and months on end. Every time he slept with a new girl, he sent a photo of that girl to this girl. When my friend told me this story, he didn't seem to consider that the psycho might have been sending photos of the girls to every other girl — that he might have been doing the same thing to every girl in every one of those photos. The "game", for him, might have been to send photos of every girl to every other girl, careful not to send a girl a photo of herself.
Can games be to blame for this? I often talk about Super Mario Galaxy, and how, at one point, you come across three pegs in the ground, with a Necessary Treasure floating high above the pegs. You instinctively know that, if you hammer in the pegs using your butt-stomp — the only move in your arsenal that can alter the status of the pegs in any way — something is going to happen to help you get that Treasure. You hammer in the pegs, and a trampoline materializes. You jump on it. You get the Treasure. Likewise, Zelda might show you a closed door, and four lightable torches. You use your lantern to light the four torches, knowing from the beginning of your compulsion that the door is going to open. It does open.
In the old games, it was like, you press the button, and Mario jumps. That was delightful enough. After a while, things were going all kinds of weird places. The dominant kind of game design is the Zelda type: Eiji Aonuma says Zelda's goal is to "make the player feel smart" — not to actually make him smarter. Making someone smarter requires teaching them something real. Making them feel smart only requires that you infect them with a compulsion, something they feel might be unique to themselves, then you reward them for acting on it.
I'm pretty sure this is making weirder people, and not always in The Good Way.
You see, with something like the lantern scenario in Zelda, the disconnect between the action being performed and the ultimate result is just wide enough for imagination to creep into. What happened in the brain of that psycho every time he mailed a new photo to a girl? If his actions were part of a game, imagination was most of the fun. In other news, my friend probably hadn't thought that the psycho guy from my story had been emailing photos of every girl to every other girl because he wanted to think that the girl with whom he shared a connection — she was apparently gorgeous, to him, at least — had been special, had been the one he'd singled out. I can't imagine how it would feel to know that someone you loved was murdered, though it probably wouldn't feel as bad as when you realized the murderer was, in fact, a serial killer. "This person is prone to do these things," your brain would say. "Something made them this way! As such, they should be identifiable at an earlier age! They should have been caught long before they killed my loved one."
I think about these things all the time. Over the course of this year so far, these thoughts have come together toward something huge enough to demand my frustrated, exasperated, through-teeth-breathing, meticulous attention for possibly several years. I won't bore you with the details until it's on the evening news. For now, let's just say that Facebook is a "game" about introducing you to people you already know; OkCupid is a "game" about introducing you to people you have never met.
I want to introduce people to themselves. And I want it to have friction.