Animal Crossing While Sobbing on a Friday Night: Towards Infrastructures of Pleasure and Plight by Johann Yamin
Looking at the metagame in light of the ongoing pandemic, Johann explores how video games exist as a viable alternative to physical gatherings and yet expose different worlds of inequality and dissimilarity. Applying this study of game theory to creative practices, he questions if one could utilise the associated concepts - of cheating, glitching, watching and playing with the world – and intervene through different acts of world-making.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong learning to play Dota 2 at a community gaming event at the Yio Chu Kang Community Club in 2019. Source: Facebook
“Though the worlds may seem far apart and out of reach, they nonetheless remain connected by invisible ties. As do our hearts.” — Yen Sid, Kingdom Hearts II
As worlds continue to fold inwards, we witness the unfurling of others—it is a strange infrastructure, an archipelago of players and tournaments, predicated upon the shape of things that have come before. Earlier in January 2021 as Singapore Art Week rolled by, the bustle largely registered as a personal notation of time: It was one year on from the bristling activity of the previous edition, when seemingly distant news of a virus in Wuhan began to emerge. It would be mere days after the end of Art Week 2020 before the first confirmed case of COVID-19, then known as the coronavirus, would be reported in Singapore.
A year on, having experienced the ensuing lockdown (or, ‘circuit breaker’, in the Singapore government’s parlance), it seemed that Art Week 2021 had moved in time to the prescribed march of digitalisation, turning away from emphases on a roster of international guests arriving for panels and talks, and in its place, hybridised offerings for a landscape marked by contingency. But elsewhere in Singapore, an anticipated international event was being held almost concurrent to Art Week 2021—the M2 World Championship, a competitive e-sports event for top Mobile Legends: Bang Bang players, hosted at the Shangri-La Hotel Singapore. A slew of international teams, hailing from countries such as Brazil and Indonesia, had arrived here to compete. It seemed that as contemporary art acclimated to encounters of the international migrating online, digital arenas found their global competitors converging in physical site to do battle. 
The logistics of health, travel, and gaming would find their visualisation in This is M2: An Esports Documentary, a video released online in January by the championship’s organisers. At portions of the video, we follow the competitors through their quarantines in hotels and the commencement of the championship—we catch views of the players immersed in matches, playing from tables streaked in LED lights and embellished with team logos. The clearest indication of the pandemic would stand between each player, in their near-invisible separation by barriers of plexiglass. Amidst shots capturing the acidic glow of a gaming stage and the coy wink from a cosplayer in full regalia, sweeping aerial views of Singapore’s downtown area would be coupled with soundbites of organisers praising the safety measures and healthcare infrastructure of Singapore. As an unabashed piece of promotional material, instances such as the outbreaks of COVID-19 in overcrowded migrant worker dormitories unsurprisingly go unmentioned. It further features an appearance by S Iswaran, the then-Minister for Communications and Information, who offers optimistic prospects for harnessing the “potential of the region” through the multibillion-dollar industry of e-sports.
With the overlap of international attention and capital, such pronouncements are hardly unexpected from the Singapore government—while e-sports landscapes in Southeast Asia have yet to match the scales of South Korea’s and China’s, e-sports organisations have more recently mushroomed in Singapore alongside the presence of state support for e-sports initiatives. More specific to the region is the popular growth of mobile gaming communities, allowing titles such as Mobile Legends to flourish, further speaking to the variegated development of internet infrastructures in Southeast Asia. Perhaps emblematic of the government’s interest in e-sports is a memorable photograph released on the official Facebook page of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, depicting him learning to play Dota 2 at a 2019 community gaming event in Yishun. Within the post, PM Lee makes mention of the debut of e-sports as a competitive medal event at the 2019 SEA Games. This would notably be one of the earliest instances of e-sports as a medal event in a competition sanctioned by the International Olympics Committee. PM Lee’s image garnered news articles that proffered commentary on the government’s increasing attention towards e-sports, with one bemusedly making note of PM Lee’s beginning proficiency at “ganking noobs in Dota 2”.
Screenshot from Mobile Legends: Bang Bang with support character Rafaela in a Flower Fairy skin. Image courtesy of Johann Yamin.
Metagaming on the move
One is reminded of the notion of the metagame, what game designer Richard Garfield defines in its most expanded sense as “how a game interfaces beyond itself.” A videogame no longer functions as contained system, but is embedded in the broader social structures and political relations that circulate it, encompassing the physical and economic constraints of rules as part of a larger game. The earliest historical origins for the “metagame” emerges from game theory—a mathematical field distinct from game studies, formulated by mathematician John von Neumann and further expanded with economist Oskar Morgenstern in their 1944 book Theory of Games and Economic Behavior. Here, the field would be positioned as a study of “mathematical models for conflict and cooperation between intelligent, rational decision-makers.” During the Cold War, game theory found its influence on American and Soviet policies, particularly with Nigel Howard’s 1971 book Paradoxes of Rationality: Theory of Metagames and Political Behavior. In this context of navigating determent and mutually-assured destruction, the idea of the “metagame” emerged as a strategic infrastructure that operated on projections of opponents’ possible decisions, creating an exponentially branching forest of calibrated choices.
While the term “metagame” has for decades found use in collectible card gaming and roleplaying communities, it is further commonly applied to competitive videogames such as Mobile Legends, often in the sense of the strategic infrastructure surrounding the game at a particular moment in time—it outlines preferred trends in player tactics, affecting decisions such as ideal character selection and purchased in-game items. However, with Stephanie Boluk and Patrick LeMieux’s expansion of the term, the metagame may further be seen as a means of creation under capitalism.
One is aware that text in the context of contemporary art so often demarcates the austerity of authority, an expository container designed to deliver the formal hardness of knowledge as a sharp uppercut to the teeth. Inwardly rests a personal inclination to disrupt this, to reduce the severity of this essay to a squish, to make the textual silly, foolish, and overwrought. In light of these half-serious, half-nonserious desires, one proposes that the logics of the metagame may be overextended; made uproariously fuzzy and swollen. One proposes that we also view artistic and curatorial practice as a metagame, a means of interfacing with, cheating, glitching, watching, and playing with the world beyond the videogame. Not so much a means of formulating tactics for competition, it becomes a method for “intervening in the sensory and political economies of those technologies responsible for the privatization of play.”
That Singapore entertains familiar designs of being a “regional hub,” this time for e-sports, may perhaps be seen as the continued inflection of play as a privatised form of consumption under capitalism. The ease with which gaming technologies are subsumed under narratives of nationalism and commerce only emphasises the complicity of videogames as medium, calling to mind Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter’s identification of the form as paradigmatic of “planetary, militarized hypercapitalism.” Neither static technical object nor utopic apparatus, the videogame must thus be seen as a crucial surface for intervention.Creating metagames means to critically engage, glitch, and play around with ubiquitous digital technologies in an age of late capitalism and emerging media. More broadly, it is to contend with contemporary digital technologies—the rise of neural nets, data farming, surveillance networks, social media, and cryptocurrency as they anticipate, assimilate, and automate everyday existences.
In his book on the politics of Indonesian screen culture, Ariel Heryanto sketches out his study of urban-based Indonesians’ negotiations with identity in their engagement with media, noting that “the underside of the politics of identity and pleasure are plight, predicament, and pain.” Examining discourses of identity and pleasure necessitates contending with their corresponding equivalents—attempts to distance leisure from labour, pleasure from pain, all inevitably fall apart. To look at videogames is to gaze so raptly into its eyes that what begins to leak out are the troubled histories of the world. Writing this in 2021, at a moment where despair permeates political and personal landscapes across scales of disease and unrest, one cannot help but sense the restless desire of many to retreat to worlds distant or simulated.
Gaming might seem the ideal form to find oneself ensconced in for many—predominantly the urban-based middle-class—with its pleasure, cuteness, or catharsis serving as contingency under disrupted timelines. Across the pandemic, videogames have been articulated the normative, healthy, and desirable alternative to physical gatherings, which has been folded within the logics of the videogame industry and beyond. In 2020, disrupted game production schedules were buoyed by news of increased game sales and capital gain, as videogame industry giants deftly campaigned to amplify World Health Organization (WHO) messages on social distancing. Over at the National Videogame Museum in Sheffield, we observe the announcement of a new collection of material that “will focus on the cultural phenomenon that followed the release of Animal Crossing: New Horizons for the Nintendo Switch in March 2020, just as the world was transformed by the pandemic.” Online, it has been popularly echoed that while the 2016 summer release of mobile game Pokémon GO brought players outdoors in search of augmented reality monsters, Animal Crossing during COVID-19 lockdowns kept players indoors, fixated with the management and maintenance of their personal tropical islands. In these times, despair tends to well up so greatly that a neighbourhood of charming animal friends seems the only respite.
Screenshot from Animal Crossing: New Horizons, with player avatar gazing across the sea on a stormy night. Image courtesy of Johann Yamin.
Yet, gaming often requires a stable internet connection alongside access to computers or consoles—material prerequisites that have continued to limit access to upper percentiles of global wealth. In the shift to home-based learning during the pandemic, the pre-existing digital divide in Singapore has only been foregrounded. An article by former Nominated Member of Parliament, Anthea Ong, notes that only 31 per cent of households in 1–2 room flats own a personal computer, in contrast to 95 per cent of households living in more expensive private condominiums and other apartment types. If metagaming encompasses “what a player brings to the game”, it necessarily points to worlds of inequality and dissimilarity.
A gathering of portals
I arrive at the National Gallery Singapore, making my way to the special exhibition gallery for @Speed of Thought, an exhibition featuring works by Singapore artist and technologist Lin Hsin Hsin, known for her early experimentations with digital media and computational techniques in her practice. A curving, incomplete arch extends above from the gallery’s wall to mark the beginning of the exhibition, an entrance described to me as portal-like. Within is a celestial space, the exhibition site darkened and dim-swathed, with only Lin’s paintings sheathed in light, seemingly suspended in the expanse of outer space against the black-coated walls. Predominantly featuring Lin’s abstract paintings from the 1970s to 1990s, there is a lyrical resonance in their chromatic arrangement. A silver shimmer coats the bottom edge of the blackened walls, like clouds of glistening mist pooling at the floor; as if stardust extruded by the paintings. Presented here, the works are cosmic and otherworldly, portals accessing the multifarious narrativisations of Lin’s practice, a discursive dance between art histories and technological histories, canons and self-fashioned images. I note how the notion of the portal has, for myself, been recurrent across this period of time, perhaps as a personal method of forming relations.
In an age of planetary difference, the portal suggests possibility for connection. The portal is a passageway from one world to another, a bridge connecting disparate realms. Its properties are invoked by Arundhati Roy, who, in writing of the COVID-19 pandemic, notes that “[h]istorically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” One could further understand the portal as it recurs across videogames, where they are frequently used to bridge pre-programmed maps and spaces, imparting a sense of continuous movement through diagetically connected landscapes in a game world. It is a planned spacetime rupture, a collapsed distance that intuits seamless connection across geographical distance or dimensional rifts.
Standing before the portal connecting in-game Singapore and Malaysia-themed maps in MapleStory (Southeast Asia server). Still from Johann Yamin, OuterIslands Online, 2020; Image courtesy of the artist.
One thinks of a hub world in a game: A centralised location with gateways granting access to varied levels, a space of centrality and transit. In Super Mario 64, it is the Princess’ Castle: Here, players leap into warp paintings hung on castle walls, serving as portals granting access to new worlds, leading to sunken undersea ships and snow-clad mountains. Elsewhere, in personal practice, perhaps one could envision each project as engendering a gathering of portals, of which the metagame seeks to provide structure to. Yet, the oft deployed visual of the portal—commonly taking the form of a glowing, shifting pool of light, exuding shimmering rays and sometimes even encircled by glistening magic script—emphasises how such connections between incommensurable worlds are premised upon an elusive force so difficult to conceive of that it must almost always be rendered as otherworldly.
These tenuous gateways may manifest in the metagames we make for ourselves and for others. They appear not as glowing doorways, but perhaps emerge in the shifting communities that converge and pull apart, in the supporting structures that enable personhood, and in the contingencies we plan for. These are undertakings perhaps difficult and fraught. But in the phantasmal space of the portal, these cosmos of the half-open, lies a site for progression, the possible and uncertain. It is to be continually waiting on the cusp of the next.
1. Also held during the pandemic was Worlds 2020, the League of Legends World Championship, hosted in Shanghai, China. See Emily Rand, "How the League of Legends World Championship went on in a pandemic," ESPN, September 23, 2020, https://www.espn.com.sg/esports/story/_/id/29947502/how-league-legends-world-championship-went-pandemic.
2. On the material histories and meanings of plexiglass as architectures of protection, see Shannon Mattern, “Purity and Security: Towards A Cultural History of Plexiglass,” Places Journal (December 2020), https://placesjournal.org/article/purity-and-security-a-cultural-history-of-plexiglass/.
3. See Danson Cheong, “Parliament: About half of dorm operators flout licensing conditions each year, says Josephine Teo,” The Straits Times, May 5, 2020, https://www.straitstimes.com/politics/majority-of-dorm-operators-flout-licensing-conditions-each-year-says-josephine-teo.
4. “This is M2: An Esports Documentary,” Mobile Legends: Bang Bang Official, February 8, 2021, Video, 23:12, https://youtu.be/3asOFZRcD-Y.
5. Lee Hsien Loong, "Esports is growing in prominence. It will even make its debut at the 2019 SEA Games! I dropped in on this class teaching the basics of Dota2...," Facebook, May 25, 2019, https://www.facebook.com/leehsienloong/photos/a.2464888426907182/2464888523573839/.
6. For a study on the institutionalisation of gaming as competitive sport, see Rory Summerley, “The Development of Sports: A Comparative Analysis of the Early Institutionalization of Traditional Sports and E-Sports,” Games and Culture 15, no. 1 (May 12, 2019): 51–72, https://doi.org/10.1177/1555412019838094. I am particularly interested in the commingling of videogame histories with that of the history of sporting events in Asia. See Stefan Huebner, Pan-Asian Sports and the Emergence of Modern Asia, 1913-1974 (Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2016).
7. Ilyas Sholihyn, "PM Lee now knows how to play Dota 2 (and why the Singapore government is getting into esports)," AsiaOne, May 27, 2019, https://www.asiaone.com/digital/pm-lee-now-knows-how-play-dota-2-and-why-singapore-government-getting-esports
8. Richard Garfield, “Metagames,” in Horseman of the Apocalypse: Essays on Roleplaying, ed. Jim Dietz, (Charleston, IL: Jolly Roger Games, 2000), 16.
9. This essay is indebted to the ideas outlined in Stephanie Boluk and Patrick LeMieux’s Metagaming: Playing, Competing, Spectating, Cheating, Trading, Making, and Breaking Videogames (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).
10. Boluk and LeMieux, Metagaming,11.
11. Roger B. Myerson, Game Theory: Analysis of Conflict (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), 1.
12. Nigel Howard, Paradoxes of Rationality: Theory of Metagames and Political Behavior (Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press, 1971), 1–2.
13. Boluk and LeMieux, Metagaming, 4. My reading of metagaming here also takes reference from Porpentine Charity Heartscape’s article on histories of interactive fiction and the use of accessible game-making tools, “Creation Under Capitalism and the Twine Revolution,” Nightmare Mode, November 25, 2012, https://nightmaremode.thegamerstrust.com/2012/11/25/creation-under-capitalism/.
14. Boluk and LeMieux, Metagaming, 4.
15. Kimberly Kwek, “E-sports: M2 World Championship success a boost for S'pore's ambitions,” The Straits Times, January 30, 2021, https://www.straitstimes.com/sport/e-sports-m2-world-championship-success-a-boost-for-spores-ambitions.
16. Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter, Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), xv.
17. The use of videogames as medium for structural critique and critical making beyond commodity are ideas that have been explored by Alexander Galloway, Mary Flanagan and Paolo Ruffino, for instance. See Galloway, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2006); Flanagan, Critical Play: Radical Game Design (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009); and Ruffino, Future Gaming: Creative Interventions in Video Game Culture (London: Goldsmiths Press, 2018).
18. Ariel Heryanto, Identity and Pleasure: The Politics of Indonesian Screen Culture (Singapore: NUS Press, 2014), 22.
19. See Jason Schreier, “Gaming Sales Are Up, but Production Is Down,” The New York Times, 21 April, 2020 and “Games Industry Unites to Promote World Health Organization Messages Against COVID-19; Launch #PlayApartTogether Campaign,” Business Wire, 28 March, 2020.
20. “The Animal Crossing Diaries,” National Videogame Museum, 2020, https://thenvm.org/the-animal-crossing-diaries/.
21. On the insidious logics of “kawaii capitalism” underpinning Animal Crossing: New Horizons, see Cecilia D’Anastasio, “I Am Not At All Relaxed by Animal Crossing,” Wired, April 9, 2020, https://www.wired.com/story/animal-crossing-i-am-not-relaxed/. I am reminded of Christine R. Yano’s writings on the spread of “pink globalization” through kawaii goods; see, for instance, “Flipping Kitty: Transnational Transgressions of Japanese Cute” in [email protected]: Global Media/tion in and Out of Context, eds. Todd Joseph Miles Holden and Timothy J. Scrase (London; New York: Routledge), 207–223.
22. Anthea Ong, “Commentary: COVID-19 has revealed a new disadvantaged group among us – digital outcasts,” CNA, May 31, 2020, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/commentary/covid-19-has-revealed-digital-divide-literacy-singapore-12783252
23. Garfield, “Metagames,” 17–18.
24. See Martin Guinard, Eva Lin, and Bruno Latour, “Coping with Planetary Wars,” e-flux Journal 114 (December 2020), https://www.e-flux.com/journal/114/366104/coping-with-planetary-wars/.
25. Arundhati Roy, “The Pandemic is a Portal,” Financial Times, April 4, 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca.
26. In such scenarios, portals have sometimes featured as a technical sidestep, a means of circumventing long loading times by segmenting game worlds into discrete maps and locations.
27. Mathias Fuchs, Phantasmal Spaces: Archetypal Venues in Computer Games, (New York; London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019), 100.