Timeless Human Resonances in Online Worlds–Notes on the Glitch Apocalypse
The Apocalypse evidently involves a lot of littering. Not littering of trash—littering of valuables. And also the sharing of amateur poetry.
But I should back up—The video game Glitch operated from 2009 to 2012, and closed last night with a melodramatic finale. In the end, “GOD” said “Poof!” and the servers were shut down. Glitch was a socially oriented, sprite-based graphical virtual world built on Adobe Flash. The developers mentioned dwindling support for Flash as one key factor in the game’s demise. Glitch was filled with a silly and warm spirit. To get eggs, you harvested an egg plant. To get spices, you harvested an “allspice” tree, and then used a “spice changing machine” to make other spices. You could mine for valuable ore down in icy caverns, or walk through peat bogs looking for fireflies to put in a jar. When you pet a tree, it gave a satisfying sigh.
Sherry Turkle writes that computers are a kind of “Rorschach test”—what we see in them tells us a lot about us as individuals and as a culture. There are certain behaviors in online virtual worlds that are timeless, because they reflect profound aspects of human nature. If you make a multi-player virtual world, people will have pretend weddings. It happened in the early text-based worlds (“MUDs”), in the first graphical virtual world (Habitat), and it happens in new massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) today. Some day I’ll do an interview study of people who get pretend-married, and maybe then I’ll be able to tell you why.
There were a number of resonances with real life behavior on Glitch that I found hilarious. For me, most of them had to do with real estate. In the beta version of the game, you could buy a house. There were a wide variety of price points and neighborhoods. Having a house meant you could have a garden and keep animals, and those were key ways to build up resources. I remember looking for my first house. What neighborhood do I like? What location would be convenient? How expensive a house can I afford? The array of options was bewildering and I found the search somewhat stressful. In the end I realized that it all came down to location. (As they say, what matters is “location, location, and location”). Among in-game activities, at the time my favorite was mining. I noticed that there were some moderately priced tree houses in Groddle Forest that were super convenient to the mines at Limenskie. And I liked the informal, earthy feel of a tree house. But once I had chosen my neighborhood, there was a problem—there was nothing in the area for sale! I eagerly checked the real estate listings every day for a week, and when a tree house on Doon Way came for sale, I grabbed it! Victory! Is this sounding like real house hunting to you? It felt that way to me, to an uncanny degree.
A day after I had moved into my cozy tree house, I got a friend request from someone I’d never met. Actually, it was my first friend request. I had no idea who this person was, but I said yes. And she immediately messaged me that she was sorry about the mess. “The mess?”, I asked. She was the previous owner of my house. My new home came with a storage cabinet, and she had left some stuff in it—three empty bags and a spice rack. She asked me to please give them to someone who could use them if I didn’t need them. It turns out that to move you need to first sell your old place and pack up all your stuff. If you have more stuff than you can hold at one time, this can be awkward—you need to ask a friend to help you move! In fact I really could use the bags and spice rack, so I thanked her and reassured her that they wouldn’t go to waste. She asked me to please take good care of her wood tree—she had just planted it. And wood trees are a bit delicate—if you harvest them too many times, they die. I promised that I would care for it. There was something so real, so human about the entire exchange. She was moving to a fancier place with twinges of regret for leaving her cozy little place. The design of the game set up something that had powerful resonances with real life.
It probably wasn’t my best decision to allow my then 7-year-old son to play the game. It was strictly speaking against the rules, and there was more inappropriate content on the site than I realized when I said yes. Things like pretend cocktails (some of which give you temporary special powers), and drugs. If you take “no-no powder,” you are omnipotent temporarily but have to keep taking it, and each dose works for a shorter and shorter period of time. When you run out of powder, you die. Which in Glitch terms means you go to a location called “hell” and stomp on grapes for a few minutes, and then you can come back to life. There was also a bit of innuendo that went right over his head—like the comments when you pet a wood tree (oh dear….) So it wasn’t entirely age appropriate, but 99% of the content was just fine, and we had a great time together. We gave each other virtual gifts. I let him have a key to may tree house. And when it came time for him to get his own house, I told him if he saved money for it, I would match it. I helped my son buy his first apartment. What could be more human and timeless than that?
All of this brings me to The Apocalypse. In mid November 2012, Tiny Speck (the creators of Glitch) announced they would be closing down on December 9th. The announcement said:
Unfortunately, Glitch has not attracted an audience large enough to sustain itself and based on a long period of experimentation and our best estimates, it seems unlikely that it ever would. And, given the prevailing technological trends — the movement towards mobile and especially the continued decline of the Flash platform on which Glitch was built — it was unlikely to do so before its time was up. Glitch was very ambitious and pushed the limits of what could be done in a browser-based game … and then those limits pushed back.
Their business model allowed free play, but asked you to subscribe to get access to premium features. I loved the game, but the premium features were not enough to lure me into a regular subscription. I didn’t feel a need for fancier clothes or furniture. A premium account also gave you unlimited teleports per day—but having a precious two teleports per day actually made the game more fun from my point of view. You needed to plan and use them wisely. A further problem (typical of most MMOs) is that there wasn’t a particularly satisfying end game. At one point I had visited every location, done every quest, and earned every cooking achievement. Achievements (badges) for repetitive activities like harvesting 5003 beans did not appeal to me. And I found it puzzling to watch some of the regulars engage in rote behaviors to earn badges.
So the world is going to end in a bit over three weeks—what do you do? If it’s just you that’s dying, you can focus on saying goodbyes and giving your possessions to others who might appreciate them. But what if everyone is dying—the whole world? How do you react? As much as this is a silly game, I found the end of the world question strangely compelling. I tried to log on every day during the last few weeks and observe, and take notes. Glitch had a “global” chat channel, and listening to people on it over the last weeks was fascinating. People talked about freeing their virtual animals, and making sure they were in a place with lots of naturally occurring food sources. One user wrote:
Piggy-nap your pigs and set them free in the world, unless you have a lot of trees in your yard. Piggies will always be fed by trees. Yeah, I admit that I hope there’s a copy of the world still running somewhere …”
Others finished off long-term goals:
User1: Level 42!! Now the world can end with some feeling of accomplishment
U2: I only have 9 days but I’mma gone make a second story on my house!
People started leaving sentimental notes on the ground, like this one:
The End is near. In the future, on the 9th of December, we will get misty eyed. When someone asks us why, we will simply say, “Just remembering an old friend.” We will miss you Glitch.
Amateur poetry started popping up everywhere, in notes left on the ground for others to read. I also found snippets copied from published poems, like “The Art of Losing” by Elizabeth Bishop.
People talked about where they would spend the end of days:
User3: Anywhere specific you plan to be at the end of the world?
U4: shimla mirch
U4: lowland slow even
U5: I would choose Autumn Day… but I’d be all by myself so probably not.
U6: the vortex places look like a nice hang out for the end
U7: i think i’m going to be at home with my butler and my animals
And people started to litter. Oh, did they litter. By the very end, the place was a junkyard. At first, people mainly littered cubimals. Cubimals were a kind of wind-up-toy collectible, with varying degrees of rarity. It turns out there was a way to place a cubimal on the ground so no one else could pick it up, and at first that’s mainly what people placed all around. But then people started dropping regular items. And the value of the times being dropped increased as we got closer to the very end. I found a case of rare “wine of the dead.” In a secret spot on top of a cave, people left dozens of “icons”—items that take weeks of work to earn. People started dropping entire bags of stuff. Bags were everywhere.
I didn’t drop anything myself. I think it was a combination of a neat streak and denial. I donated a bunch of stuff to shrines of the giants (a regular activity in Glitch), but kept hesitating to donate items like tools and potion ingredients (what if I need that?) The fact that I definitely wasn’t going to need it hadn’t quite sunk in. But if the world is ending, donating it or not were equally irrelevant acts. But maybe giving valuables away was a kind of expression of acceptance. I’d be interested to hear from anthropologist friends about whether this resonates with practices in any cultures they’ve studied.
I changed my mind six times about where I wanted to spend the end of the world. The style of housing was changed after the beta period to a system where houses weren’t really anywhere and you could simply move between your home and the rest of the world at will. But I decided that I wanted to sit where the entrance to my house on Doon Way used to be. But as closing time approached last night, it was too quiet —just one other person there. One of the notes I found on the ground said “Maybe if we all hold hands at the end, we won’t be so alone.” And someone started a “Glitch train,” a group of people all following one another in a long line, and leaping through the sky. And just before the end, our train teleported to Cebarkul (always one of the busiest spots, because the vendor there had the best prices). And that’s where I was when it said “server shut down.”
A good social game cultivates these powerful resonances—things like helping your son buy his first home, rather than empty acts like harvesting 5003 beans. The designers of Glitch got a lot of things right. Except, regrettably, the business model.