A quest for critique

Wave 1 – Annoyer (25 points)

Crystal Quest is a 1987 action game for the Apple Macintosh. The word ‘quest’ implies some kind of drawn-out chivalric expedition in search of an elusive goal, but this videogame’s design is simpler: moving the mouse, you pilot a hockey-puck-like spaceship around the screen, collecting star-shaped crystals.

You gain more points, and win extra lives, by picking up bonus tokens and free-floating, diamond-shaped bonus crystals of variable values.

When you have collected all the crystals, the gate at the bottom of the screen opens and you escape through it to the next level. You get ‘time bonus’ points for completing the level quickly.

Wave 2

You must avoid mines, and avoid or shoot the alien ‘nasties’ that emerge from the gates on the left and right of the screen. You click the mouse to fire in the direction of your movement. You can also pick up ‘smart bombs’ that wipe the screen clear when you press the space bar.

The levels are called ‘waves’. Their screenspaces get progressively denser with more complex objects, making them trickier to navigate. On each odd-numbered wave, a new variety of nasty will emerge. There are twelve nasties in all, each with distinctive modes of behaviour. On the even-numbered waves, you face all previously seen nasties at once.

The most annoying thing about the first nasty, the Annoyer, is that it’s worth a pissy twenty-five points. I try to kill two or four at a time to round up my score.

Wave 3 – Worrier (50 points)

I first played Crystal Quest at lunchtimes in high school, where – thanks to Apple’s
aggressive marketing in the education sector – the computers were all Macs. Quickly becoming fixated, I pirated a copy of the game onto a floppy disk so I could play it on my Mac Classic at home. It’s pretty easy to dodge the Worrier, a sluggish foe that shoots slow-moving round projectiles. Except if a few of them gang up on you.

I don’t really think of myself as a ‘gamer’ – a term I associate with shooting, fighting and racing games, first-person fantasy adventures, Doritos and Mountain Dew, and virulent online misogyny. But Crystal Quest has been a major source of procrastination for me throughout my school and university years, and my thinking about it is gamer-thinking.

I tell myself it’s purely recreational, but at the same time I am striving to beat my high score and master the game mechanics. I make futile little bargains with myself – ‘just one game and then back to work!’ – then sink into sessions, playing game after game.

Wave 4

Crystal Quest is not the only game I have played obsessively. Vast swathes of working time have been lost to me since 21 May 2010, when a playable Google Doodle celebrated Pac-Man’s thirtieth birthday. Eyes fatally opened to the wonders of Flash-animated games, I discovered that Ms Pac-Man and Tetris were also freely playable in an ordinary web browser tab.

But Crystal Quest is the only game I go to any trouble to play. Several years ago, I learnt the game was available from an online archive, so I downloaded the Mini vMac emulator program and some virtual floppy disks so I could play it again on my MacBook Pro. And, just a few months ago, I paid to download Crystal Quest Classic – the version Game Mechanics LLC revived in 2015 – on the indie games platform Steam. I engage with these apps purely to play Crystal Quest; I use them for no other purpose.

I often wonder why I find this game so captivating. Does it satisfy some desire in me? Am I accessing a submerged, unacknowledged element of my personality as I play? Or am I perhaps aligning and assembling my reactions, my thoughts, my feelings, in a more holistic and contemplative way?

Wave 5 – Dumple (2000 points)

While it’s been ported to game platforms including the Amiga, Game Boy, Xbox 360 and iPhone, Crystal Quest is a Macintosh game in the way Pac-Man plays best in the arcade and Snake is at home on Nokia mobile phones. Its hallmark is the way it harnesses the momentum of the player’s mouse movements to control the speed and precision of both navigation and shooting.

Critics loved it. Crystal Quest was one of the first titles to enter Macworld magazine’s ‘Game Hall of Fame’. And it scored five out of five mice from MacUser magazine, which invented playful in-office nicknames for the staff’s favourite gameplay moments and awarded it best game in its 1988 ‘Editors Choice’ awards. It was the first colour game on the Mac, and its ‘CritterEditor’ – which enabled players to edit the nasties’ appearance, point values, game sounds and speed – was one of the earliest user-modding tools in videogames.

The Dumple needs a good edit. It’s a flabby, translucent, gelatinous blob that blunders into your path, gruntingly absorbing your projectiles like a boxer taking gut-punches. It takes quite a few shots to kill one. I never know how many.

Wave 6

Gamers distinguish between platform games, which are played on proprietary hardware and controller systems, and PC games, which are controlled by the user’s own computer keyboard and mouse. I think of PC gamers as intensely geeky in the same way as hot-rodders and other modified-car enthusiasts, because a key focus of the hobby seems to be coveting, acquiring and customising special gaming setups that are used for no other purpose. These might include super-powered hard drives, ergonomic chairs, massive high-resolution monitors, precision mice and gaming headsets.

PC gamers speak with deadly seriousness of ‘mouse grip’. There is the ‘palm grip’ favoured by most ordinary mouse users. Then there is the ‘claw grip’, which allows more precise reactions, but requires the hand to arch uncomfortably over the mouse so the fingertips stab the buttons perpendicularly from above. The ‘fingertip grip’ is the fastest but is very tiring, as the hand must hover over the mouse.

I am a Mac user. It has never occurred to me to adopt a special mouse grip, let alone a special mouse. Perhaps I am not serious enough, wielding my Logitech M90 caked in grime and cat fur. The furthest I have ever progressed in Crystal Quest is wave 42, and my top score is 4,795,050. By this stage the tendons in my mouse hand are cramped and aching, and I have to shake and flex it in order to use it for anything else.

Wave 7 – Pest (100 points)

The British creator of Crystal Quest, Patrick Buckland, had been working as a freelance software developer for Apple UK during the 1980s and noticed that users enjoyed manipulating the mouse in graphic applications such as MacPaint. So, in his spare time, Buckland developed a shareware game called Crystal Raider, which later evolved into Crystal Quest.

‘People liked to take the eraser and rub things out,’ Buckland told games industry site Gamasutra in a 2006 interview. ‘So I decided to make a game of it, as it seemed that people found it satisfying to reverse entropy – to take the disorder of a screen full of random crystals and to introduce order by cleaning them up.’

The Pest is very messy. It swoops around the screen in arcs, which means it’s hard to hit with your straight-aimed projectiles. In its wake, like the dirty footprints of Mortein’s nemesis Louie the Fly, it scatters mines that look like # symbols. The effect is faintly faecal. Sometimes the mines block your path to that last crystal on the screen – or, worse, the exit gate. Only a sacrificed life or a smart bomb will clear them.

Is it the action of transforming clutter into neatness that makes Crystal Quest so alluring?

Wave 8

Many media phenomena are reported to provoke feelings of satisfying orderliness. Laundry-folding videos. Bookshelves arranged by colour. Advertisements for cleansers and detergents in which animated grains of gunk are magically ‘lifted’ from dishes, clothes, skin and teeth. Pictures of ‘things fitting perfectly into things’.

Seeking to explain the pleasure, journalists
often suggest it comes from experiencing an interlude of magical orderliness – a sense of order that is imagined through mediation – amid the real chaos of everyday life. I like this backhanded acknowledgment that the
allegedly joy-sparking activity of putting your real surroundings and possessions in order is actually stressful drudgery.

The ‘Zeigarnik effect’ is a perceptual and cognitive phenomenon named after Soviet psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, whose 1927 research found that we remember more about tasks if we’re interrupted while completing them. Zeigarnik hypothesised that this sharpened cognition comes from the mental tension of needing to recall where we left off in order to return to the task.

Once a task is done, we mentally ‘put it away’, filing it in our brain’s memory hole. Perhaps the pleasure in media genres of ‘orderliness’ is that they provide that release of tension, that swoon of forgetting, without the dreary cognitive labour that precedes it in real life. The genre offers its fans a little mediatised oasis in which things are perfect, or can be easily made so.

‘It’s the relief of finding ease where you expected struggle,’ wrote Julie Beck at The Atlantic in 2015, about the ‘things-within-things’ meme. However, there are two different processes by which a player can magically produce order within a videogame: winnowing and gleaning.

Wave 9 – Husket (200 points)

Tetris is a winnowing game, a thrifty Soviet game. Its central challenge is to discard, to pare the game environment down to the ground. Its pace is linear and remorseless, like a factory production line.

The Husket is the first remorseless nasty you encounter in Crystal Quest. It deliberately approaches you, dodging your shots, and fires asterisk-shaped precision bullets at you. Ignoring the crystals, I find myself battling the nasties: trying to winnow them, to wipe them from the screen.

I think of Huskets as the game’s wolves, because they hunt you in packs, crowding you into corners so it’s hard to manoeuvre your spaceship to direct your shots.

Crowding is how Tetris beats you, too. The game is lost when the pieces move too quickly and the grid becomes overstuffed. It’s like the famous chocolate-wrapping scene in I Love Lucy, in which factory workers Lucy and Ethel can’t match the conveyor belt’s pace and
frantically stuff the unwrapped chocolates into their dresses, hats and mouths.

Wave 10

Tetris celebrates the avoidance of wasteful space by making each filled row neatly vanish, Zeigarnik style. This is serendipitous, as neuroscientists have known for some years that when people with post-traumatic stress disorder play Tetris, their intrusive flashback symptoms also vanish like those lines of flashing blocks.

Because playing Tetris is a visuospatial cognitive task, it competes for the brain’s resources with flashbacks – which are sensory-perceptual, visuospatial mental images – and so it can disrupt the reconsolidation of traumatic memories. We also reconsolidate memories as we’re falling asleep, in what is called the brain’s hypnagogic state. In a 2000 study published in the journal Science, participants who played Tetris for two hours a day reported drifting off to visions of Tetris pieces tumbling and rotating.

Not all videogames have this effect; one 2010 study found that playing the PC game Pub Quiz significantly increased trauma flashbacks. And in 2016, when researchers experimented with having participants play before watching a traumatic film, this didn’t prevent traumatic memories from forming in the first place.

I have never dreamed of Crystal Quest.

Wave 11 – Bane (300 points)

Other games reward the player’s impulse to glean, like Lucy and Ethel: to clear the game space by gathering and consuming. Just think of Pac-Man cheerfully gobbling Pac-Dots. It’s satisfying to watch his maze steadily empty – along with that of his faster-moving feminist girlfriend, Ms Pac-Man – and to see them catch those delicious ghosts.

In Crystal Quest I find myself striving to pick up as many bombs and points as possible, so I can build my smart arsenal and hoard lives. Wave 11 is a crucial tipping point; after this level, it takes twice the number of points to get an extra life. The Bane is the highest-scoring nasty so far, but even after it’s killed, the bouncing bombs it drops can’t be destroyed. The screen fills with these kinetic gumdrops, like Pac-Dots gone rogue.

The game displays the player’s resources at the top of the screen. There is always a ritualistic pause in the action after the completion of each wave, during which you watch your time bonus being tallied against a black screen, and extra lives added as your score increases.

This liminal space is the game’s black mirror, its oasis, its hypnagogic state. Between levels, lulled by the whirring digits of the bonus counter, you can assess what you have gleaned so far, drifting into more abstract contemplation of the gameplay elements and your interactions with them.

Wave 12

Writer Jeffrey Goldsmith lost six weeks of his life to playing Tetris, cloistering himself away from society to master the game. Once he had beaten it, Tetris lost its compulsive grip on him entirely. Goldsmith later described this period in a 1994 Wired article headlined ‘This Is Your Brain on Tetris’: ‘I wondered if Tetris wasn’t some sort of electronic drug – a pharmatronic.’

In Dan Ackerman’s 2016 book The Tetris Effect – named after a term Goldsmith coined in his Wired article – Ackerman distinguishes the lure of videogames from social media addiction, which depends on getting little dopamine hits of personal validation from the inter-personal transaction of likes and notifications.

‘The pharmatronic effect of Tetris is better explained by the hypnotic rhythms of the game and its simple, geometric patterns,’ Ackerman writes, ‘with the constant stream of immediate closed-loop feedback hooking unconscious triggers into the waking mind.’

Satirist Charlie Brooker is interested more broadly in the way screen technologies situate us in a zone ‘between delight and discomfort’. Much as Rod Serling had earlier conceptualised this liminal space as The Twilight Zone, Brooker’s speculative anthology TV series Black Mirror asks, in Brooker’s words: ‘If technology is a drug – and it does feel like a drug – then what, precisely, are the side-effects?’

Writing in The Guardian in 2011, Brooker explained: ‘The “black mirror” of the title is the one you’ll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone.’

It’s shrewd to emphasise the quality a screen possesses when it’s turned off, reduced to pure form. Much as Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan argued that the ‘message’ of any new medium is the change it introduces to our habits and interactions, Brooker’s urging for us to consider a screen’s blank ‘screenliness’ stops us from being sidetracked by what is usually on the screen: the ‘content’ that so obsesses us.

So, the formal blankness of Black Mirror seeks a metacritique of screen culture, leaving media moments themselves to be obsessively dissected by ‘hot take’ and ‘explainer’ journalism. The screen becomes a thing that reflects: the playful and perverse media scenarios in Black Mirror act mainly as conduits for human feelings and moral choices.

Wave 13 – Zarklephaser (150 points)

In an influential 2007 paper, ‘Eight Ways Videogames Generate Emotions’, Jonathan Frome mapped two player roles – actor-participant and observer-participant – onto four types of emotional responses to videogames: narrative, game, ecological and artefact emotions.

Narrative emotions are reactions to a game’s setting, characters and events. Meanwhile, game emotions involve the player’s performance within the game. Frome calls them ‘emotions of competition … generated due to winning, losing, accomplishment, and frustration.’

There is plenty of frustration involved in encountering the Zarklephaser. Shaped like an X, it flits around the screen, spraying a hailstorm of bullets in the shape of smaller x’s. A Zarklephaser’s bullets drift slowly and are easy to dodge, but when there is more than one onscreen, they fill the entire game environment with inescapable shrapnel. My strategy is to limit my exposure by snapping up the crystals as quickly as possible and repeatedly smart-bombing the screen.

It’s striking how negative many of my experiences of game emotions are in Crystal Quest. I will chastise myself when my spaceship blunders into mines or collides with nasties. I will grunt with annoyance when I shoot and lose, especially if it means missing a bonus crystal.

Is this really a game emotion, though? Is Crystal Quest’s encoding of ‘failure’ something Patrick Buckland built into its structure to provoke the player into rising to its challenge? (After all, the game’s deceptive simplicity is what led many critics to describe it as ‘addictive’.) Or could it also be a player emotion – a reflection of my own disposition for intense self-criticism?

‘[S]hould we accept responsibility for failure, the question becomes this: does my in-game performance reflect skills or traits that I generally value?’ asks Jesper Juul in his 2013 book The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games. Does Crystal Quest expose my underlying real-world inadequacies, or does it only deal in artificial inadequacies that I can shrug off as being irrelevant?

Wave 14

If my game emotions are mostly negative, Crystal Quest’s artefact emotions are strongly positive for me. Frome writes that artefact emotions are triggered by the game’s look and feel: its graphics, its interfaces and its sound effects. And Crystal Quest’s wonderfully eccentric digital sound effects, based on audio samples recorded by Buckland himself, are so essential to my enjoyment of the game that if I accidentally mute the volume, I will abort my current game to turn it back on.

The crystals make satisfying metallic clangs as you collect each one, and the game cheers your acquisition of bonus tokens and smart bombs with cries of ‘Yeah!’ and ‘Whee!’ Bonus crystals announce their arrival with a cash-register ‘Kerching!’ and make an angelic harp sound when you catch them. A jaunty three-note brass sting heralds each new life you earn.

When you shoot a critter it sounds almost kinaesthetically satisfying: like the noise of the sweet spot on a tennis racquet or baseball bat. When you die, the game emits an agonised groan that anticipates Homer Simpson’s ‘D’oh!’ But the game’s most unsettling and most remarked-upon sound effect is the orgasmic sigh when you enter the gate at the end of each wave.

Wave 15 – Menace (250 points)

Ecological emotions are triggered when we respond to the game’s artificial elements as if we were encountering them in the real world. Objectively I know I am not in that little round spaceship, yet I still flinch when I lose a life.

These are the most interesting of Frome’s game emotions, because they happen in a liminal space, a cyborg space, a Gestalt space. A place where game, player and machine –
magical-mediatised world and real-embodied world – come together to create each other.

I am no videogame scholar. But I have noticed videogames are frequently conceptualised as a media genre whose audiovisual digital construction offers something over and above a mere skills-based challenge. A fair chunk of videogame research and journalism proposes that games invite players to enter a magical space where real-life social structures don’t apply.

The games are described as interactive virtual environments in which players are invited to immerse themselves in an escapist way, actively performing roles and making strategic and/or moral choices that advance a narrative. The game grants players opportunities to exercise the kind of free agency they can’t access in ordinary life.

A 2011 psychology study, ‘The Ideal Self at Play: The Appeal of Video Games that Let You Be All You Can Be’, concluded that games are most emotionally satisfying when they enable players to access aspects of their ideal selves, and that this effect is heightened when the game is immersive and when the person feels their actual self is far from ideal: ‘Video games are at their most alluring, in other words, when they allow a person to close the distance between how they are and how they wish to be.’

Wave 15 is my favourite level, because unlike most of the game, it gives me a sense of mastery and accomplishment. The cruciform Menace shoots laser beams either horizontally or vertically, which is a nuisance if it crosses my path. But it’s not much of a menace, really, because while it’s busily lasering away it stays still and so makes an easy target.

Wave 16

British game designer Richard Bartle, who co-created the first online multiplayer role-playing game, Multi-User Dungeon (MUD), in 1978, told science magazine Nautilus in January 2017: ‘In this world we are subject to all kinds of pressures to behave in a certain way and think a certain way and interact a certain way. In video games, those pressures aren’t there.’ He adds that many games promise self-actual-isation: ‘That is all people ever truly want: to be.’

But rather than liberating me from real-world pressures, Crystal Quest mimics them. The game’s iterative structure emphasises the friction between my limited skills and the increasingly challenging game environment, and as the pace speeds up, wave by wave, I become more conscious of my embodied responses to the game’s visual and sound effects.

Relief at the defeat of my foes. Satisfaction in gleaning my hoard of lives and bombs. Gasps and flinches when I lose lives. A mounting frustration, even rage, in my clenched mouse hand and my locked limbs.

It doesn’t feel like a leisure activity. It feels like work.

In his 1995 book Consumption and Identity at Work, sociologist Paul du Gay observes the ways in which business management practices encourage workers to develop ‘enterprising selves’ that are autonomous, self-reliant and calculating. ‘Paid work and consumption are just different playing grounds for the same activity; that is, different terrains upon which the enterprising self seeks to master, better and fulfil itself,’ du Gay writes.

Crystal Quest’s game mechanics – gaining points, moving up levels, destroying enemies – do seem like opportunities to develop an enterprising self. But I am more interested in decoupling myself from notions of individual achievement to instead examine societal and historical processes.

Wave 17 – Trimpet (no points)

Patrolling the screen in officious straight lines, Trimpets can’t be killed; they just shift into a different state. When you shoot them, they retract into spiky little mines and hibernate on the spot, before springing back into action a few seconds later. I mainly leave them alone.

In Good Weekend in 2013, Gideon Haigh wrote a fascinating elegy to another mutable state of being: the Holden manufacturing plant in Elizabeth, South Australia. The plant was then in its twilight; the final car rolled off its production line on 20 October 2017.

‘The machinery provides the initial spectacle,’ Haigh writes. ‘But it’s the people who are transfixing – their concentration, dexterity and agility, physical and mental.’ The workers aren’t superheroes; they are ordinary people who have become very, very good at their jobs.

‘On production you learn skills you never thought you had,’ thirty-three-year-old Lucinda Gregory tells Haigh. ‘Using two hands at once; doing this while you’re doing something else over here … Each job has a flow. You start one job, and you flow to the next.’ I would have loved to see this Lucy take on I Love Lucy’s chocolate-wrapping gig.

Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszent-mihalyi formulated the concept of ‘flow’: a state of intense, focused concentration on a challenging task in which we lose self-consciousness and awareness of time, becoming completely at one with the task. Athletes call it being ‘in the zone’. Drummers call it ‘the groove’. Martial artists call it ‘mushin’.

Videogame designers often strive to build flow states into their games to transport players out of themselves. But my experience of flow in Crystal Quest isn’t about losing myself. Rather, I consider my lived position as a social subject. I allow my body to internalise a history of social structures and power relations in the form of my emotional and somatic responses.

Wave 18

Videogame scholar Brendan Keogh argues, in his 2015 PhD thesis A Play of Bodies (the book version is forthcoming in 2018), that a videogame only takes on its full meaning when considered as a combination of audiovisual digital design entangled with a somatically responsive player and the hardware they hold and manipulate. Keogh calls this embodied assemblage the ‘player-and-videogame’.

‘To play a videogame is to both perform and consume, to both experience and to spectate, to both experience and interpret,’ Keogh writes. And all these things are perceived together, rather than as constitutive parts. Could they be a Gestalt?

Gestalt psychology is a field of inquiry into human perception in a chaotic world, which holds that our brains perceive a thing as a self-organising relational whole. It emerged at the Berlin School of Experimental Psychology during the early twentieth century; that’s where Bluma Zeigarnik researched her namesake memory effect in the 1920s. And Gestalt theory remained influential until 1933, when the world got more chaotic in a way the key figures in the movement, most of whom were Jewish, unfortunately could not render whole.

As Keogh suggests, ‘flow’ in videogames isn’t simply a constant linear progression forward – a production line with a gleaming, accomplished self at the finish – but is a rhythmic interplay of cyclical repetition and linear progression. So, what if Crystal Quest allows me to access a sense of wholeness? What if I can understand myself-as-social-subject in a holistic way that can’t be recruited to the neoliberal project of an enterprising self, for whom a game is just a way to ‘get ahead’?

Wave 19 – Tentawarble (200 points)

The anemone-like Tentawarble attacks you when you pause in your crystal-gathering
mission. As long as you keep moving, it will drift harmlessly around the screen, so I find myself speeding around the screen with unneces-sary recklessness. It makes me contemplate my anxiety and guilt surrounding work. I am constantly worried I am falling behind my peers. Worried everyone can see me and judge me for not getting my work done efficiently enough. Worried I am missing deadlines.

In the third volume of his History of Sexuality, French philosopher Michel Foucault addresses ‘the care of the self’. By this, he doesn’t mean ‘self-care’, that neoliberal concept of encouraging the burnt-out workhorses of capital to hold their own reins for a little while. (‘Taking time out of your day to do something you enjoy, like gaming … is also a great way to distract your mind and body from the stressful things in your life,’ advises youth mental health website ReachOut Australia.)

Rather, Foucault returns to the practices of ancient philosophers – including meditation, journal-writing and dialogue with friends – as a means to take us inside ourselves. Interviewed in 1982, Foucault described ethics as ‘the kind of relationship you have with yourself … which determines how the individual is supposed to constitute himself as a moral subject of his own action.’

By engaging in inward-focused activities, we temporarily detach from the social power relations that urge us to be enterprising subjects: to discipline our bodies and minds, to strive to be normal, to identify and pursue our desires. At the same time, we are centring our embodied self in all its weaknesses and contradictions, rather than seeking to escape or transcend it. So perhaps through the iterative gameplay of Crystal Quest, and in writing this essay about it, I am finding a new perspective on the world within which I am usually enmeshed.

This immediately makes me think of the bird’s-eye perspective of Crystal Quest; I don’t experience the game environment from inside the spaceship, but rather from above it. Foucault mused that looking back over his earlier work, he felt he could see it ‘from a new vantage point and in a clearer light. Sure of having travelled far, one finds that one is looking down on oneself from above.’

Wave 20

In a 2013 essay, videogame scholar Daniel Golding notes that many games provide ways for the player to climb up high and look down upon the game world: ‘To see from above is to see in concepts, and to see in terms of knowledge, power, and influence.’ In game culture, this is the ‘God’s-eye view’. Perhaps Foucault might call it the ‘governmentality view’.

But Golding also points out that when we navigate through games as a player, rather than configuring them like a designer, we can simultaneously see from above and from below. I use Crystal Quest’s structure not as a set of enterprising goals to pursue, a map spread out before me, but rather as metaphors that enable critical thinking.

Here I am thinking about critique in the way Foucault does: ‘the movement through which the subject gives itself the right to question truth concerning its power effects and to question power about its discourses of truth. Critique will be the art of voluntary inservitude, of reflective indocility.’

While I am playing, I often ponder how the random allocation of bonus crystals and smart bombs mirrors the unequal accidents of birth that give some people sociocultural advantages and socioeconomic resources they can use to get ahead in life. I have noticed I do better in the game when I can score points early.

But I have also noticed that I last longer in the game when I take pleasure in its artefacts, and when I play with emotional persistence rather than frictionless, enterprising skill. This helps me remember to find joy not in mastering the world, but rather in engaging with its beauty and variety, and honouring my own resilience.

Wave 21 – Shrapwarden (10,000 points)

The Shrapwarden is kind of like a man online who talks big but is fragile in his masculinity. This pinwheel-shaped nasty spins right up to you, crowding you into corners, always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom! But when you shoot it, the Shrapwarden explodes into angry fragments that will kill you unless you get the hell out of its way. I try to shoot them from as far away as possible, and then swerve to avoid the fallout.

In the July 2017 issue of American libertarian magazine Reason, Peter Suderman suggests that videogames are replacing paid work in the lives of low-skilled, socially isolated young men. ‘They don’t put food on the table,’ Suderman writes of games. ‘But they do provide, at least in the short to medium term, a sense of focus and success, structure and direction, skill development and accomplishment.’

Of course, it’s capitalism that is failing to offer these things, as Suderman’s cute term ‘universal basic income for the soul’ begins to acknowledge. But he still seems confused that gamers might prefer a magical, mediated experience of being good at something to the drudgery of struggling in a hostile labour market. He argues that while playing a video-game may draw upon the same dedication, skill and sense of urgency you would otherwise bring to a job, ‘what you are really doing is training yourself to effectively identify on-screen visual cues and twitch your thumb at the right moment.’

The idea of a contingent, holistic player-and-videogame assemblage is offensive to a libertarian, who sees the body as an autonomous instrument through which the individual pursues their own happiness. Suderman points out that a gamer’s achievements – whether it’s an escapist ideal self or an industrious enterprising self – are only ever a figment of the game’s fantasy architecture: ‘A game provides the sensation of mastery without the actual ability.’

Still, libertarianism does see videogames as a useful way to keep society’s losers occupied while the winners navigate the free market. As Suderman observes with chilling blandness, ‘Appealing, engaging games may raise the opportunity cost of both work and revolution.’ It’s a vision of political docility made even more dispiriting by its corny resemblance to the dystopian premise of The Matrix.

Wave 22

Feminist cultural theorist Donna Haraway’s famous 1985 essay ‘Manifesto for Cyborgs’ argues that the distinction between humans and machines is just one of the simplistic cultural dichotomies that seek to control women, people of colour and anyone else defined as ‘other’. We like to sort things into neat categories: mind and body; male and female; active and passive; truth and illusion; God and human.

‘High-tech culture challenges these dualisms in intriguing ways,’ Haraway writes. ‘A cyborg body is not innocent; it was not born in a garden … The machine is not an it to be animated, worshipped, and dominated.’

Haraway describes herself as an ecofeminist; here I am reminded of Jonathan Frome’s concept of ecological game emotions: powerfully embodied feelings that navigate – in Golding’s terminology – between subject positions, between real and magical worlds, between humans and their technological interfaces.

In her 1988 essay ‘Situated Knowledges’, Haraway rejects the notion that knowledge is disembodied and authoritative. Instead she seeks a ‘feminist objectivity’ that prioritises ‘elaborate specificity and difference and the loving care people might take to learn to see from another’s point of view, even when the other is our own machine.’

Libertarians might read this as passive and pitiable: having failed to develop sufficiently enterprising selves, gamers must instead immerse themselves in consoling fantasies of simulated capability. But for Haraway, it doesn’t matter that our views of the world are partial and our critical voices halting. The cyborg experience is about splicing together these partial views, so that rather than looking down from above, from nowhere, like a disembodied god, we embrace the limits and contradictions of being situated within the world – of viewing it from somewhere.

‘Situated knowledges require that the object of knowledge be pictured as an actor and an agent, not as a screen or a ground or a resource,’ Haraway writes. ‘We are not in charge of the world. We just live here and try to strike up noninnocent conversations by means of our prosthetic devices, including our visualisation technologies.’

Wave 23 – Parasite (1000 points)

By this stage in the game, I feel ready to face anything. This is just as well, because the Parasite comes straight for you, no matter where you are onscreen. It’s Crystal Quest’s most challenging nasty because there is no way to evade it. You must either turn and shoot straight, or light up the whole place with a smart bomb. This, I now glean, is why I glean: to help me survive and outlast.

As the first four digits of my score begin to seem like dates, I begin to experience an existential vertigo. During the liminal black-screen periods while my time bonus is calculated, I imagine myself progressing through common-era history, from medieval and Renaissance times through the technological and philosophical inquiry of the Enlightenment, into the industrial age and, finally, the late capitalism in which I myself have been alive.

I proceed through wave after wave, contemplating a far future beyond my own death and into the entropy of civilisation. It’s truly fanciful, like the sequence from Luc Besson’s 2014 science fiction film Lucy in which the title character (Scarlett Johansson) scrolls through time as if it’s a conveyor belt moving too swiftly. Risibly, Lucy echoes Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco The Creation of Adam as she reaches out across 3.2 million years to touch fingertips with the Australopithecus afarensis hominin whose fossil is today also named Lucy.

Shortly afterwards, Lucy reaches the full capabilities of her organic body and decides to download her consciousness and acquired cosmic knowledge into a USB stick. She will be in serious trouble when future computers no longer have USB ports. That said, I first played Crystal Quest on a 3.5-inch floppy disk, and I am still playing it now.

Wave 24

In its original version, Crystal Quest only had forty waves, and so could in principle be ‘completed’. But now the game is an open-ended quest. I have reached wave 42 – a number that, in Douglas Adams’ satirical telling, was an omniscient supercomputer’s answer to Life, the Universe and Everything. But I am still searching for ways to be a critic.




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Mel Campbell

Mel Campbell is a journalist, cultural critic and media studies lecturer. She’s the author of nonfiction investigation Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit (Affirm Press, 2013), and co-author of the rom-com novels Nailed It! and The Hot Guy.

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