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It’s All Fun and Games…

From geopolitical psyops to experiments with alternative economies, games don’t just distract us from reality but reshape it in significant ways. Writer Rafi Abdullah sets out a concept of gaming as a powerful cultural phenomenon.



Rafi Abdullah explains gaming as phenomenon

Rafi Abdullah, “It’s All Fun and Games”, livestream, 2021

My first touchpoint to thinking of gaming as an area of study happened in 2016, when a band of creatives, artists and designer peers approached me to bounce off some ideas that were motivated by a desire to form a collective geared towards collaborative endeavours. In an early ideation exercise, they came up with an organisational chart done in the graphical style of an adversarial example [1] diagram — as part of a string of promotional materials. At the centre of their diagram was the PlayStation logo as the chosen adversarial image infiltrating their learning network .[2] The gaming console’s logo was reappropriated as the collective’s logo due only to the shared acronym — The collective called themselves the Office of Patrick Sylvestre — but I found a striking potential in the association. We continued to converse about the possibilities of adapting gaming mechanics into their art and design practice, while that encounter with the group planted the seeds for my own curiosity towards thinking through “gaming” in the broadest sense of the word. I wondered if gaming, as a platform, could be a Trojan Horse[3] the same way that the collective had incidentally imagined the PlayStation as a disruptive adversarial example.

A year later, the oracle pinged from a Malaysian airport, a four-hour drive north. News broke out that Kim Jong-Nam, paternal half-brother to the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, had been allegedly assassinated in broad daylight in Kuala Lumpur’s low-cost carrier terminal . What was peculiar was the manner in which the assassination had been carried out. Two unsuspecting members of the public had unknowingly murdered Kim Jong-Nam by smearing on his face what they had thought was baby oil, but which was in reality a chemical weapon called Venomous Agent X . They had done this under the instruction of a group of North Korean operatives pretending to be TV show producers, who tricked the Indonesian Siti Aisyah and Vietnamese woman Đoàn Thị Hương into being part of their highly elaborate set-up. The CCTV image of Đoàn [4] — circulated as part of initial search efforts — nonchalantly sporting a T-shirt emblazoned “LOL” was eerie in itself, but the fact that the assassination had been executed under the guise of a fake TV game show was especially baffling.[5] The almost otherworldly event cemented my suspicion that gaming was not merely an avenue for entertainment and play, but possessed the potential to shape our lived realities in considerable ways, even to be deadly. What other agencies then — beyond existing as a proxy for geopolitics — reside in gaming?

(Un)Final Fantasy: Beta Environments

Gaming platforms are not merely sites of ultimate unproductivity, but also unintentional beta environments for the test-bedding of innovative forms of thinking, production and organising: from decentralised finance (DeFi) to epidemic management, and even decentralised autonomous organisations (DAOs). Before the establishment of esports and the landscape of live game streams, video games were received and perceived rather negatively. In Singapore, the authorities went so far as to impose a nation-wide ban on video game arcades in response to the growing concerns of parents who feared the bad influence gaming could have on young children and teenagers.[6] Today, however, as gaming platforms have become battlegrounds for “the people”, Big Tech and Wall Street , it has become urgent to reassess such archaic perspectives.

Two decades into the new millennium, the misconception that games would be a corrupting force on young minds has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy with the Corrupted Blood incident . The incident — taking its name verbatim from a spell that was the root cause of the accident — marked a significant moment in gaming history, where an erroneous bug spread rapidly in World of Warcraft , a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), causing the “death” of thousands of players and a hard reset of the game servers. Epidemiologists and scientists took interest in the anomalous conditions surrounding the outbreak and the reactions of the players to the plague. Thus, the incident became an influential model in the study of epidemic responses, SARS and COVID-19 included . Game worlds became potential avenues for circumventing the limitations of studies in the real world, given their ability to replicate real world environments and conditions without real world constraints. It would be impossible to intentionally release a strain of a virus in the real world as part of an experiment in understanding human behaviour during an outbreak, whereas game worlds allow for such experimentation without causing real harm and danger.

Games continue to bear witness to anomalies and deviations of a similar vein. RuneScape , the fantasy-style browser-based role-playing game (RPG) popular in the 2000s, saw some players diverting from the original game mechanics to organically establish an alternative player-to-player in-game market . This minor circumvention of game mechanics most likely existed, albeit in differing forms, within the plethora of other similar massively multiplayer online (MMO) game universes as well. I recall visiting the neighbourhood barber-cum-LAN-shop[7] to play the game as a child. Somehow, I knew, without any transference of knowledge (as with all urban legends of that time), where to locate these player-to-player secondary markets in the game world. For selling all the fishes and pies I’d cooked and prepared to level up my cooking experience, go to the entrance of the free-for-all combat zone, the wilderness. For cheaper deals on special weapons and armour, go to the clandestine gathering spot on the grass patch behind the bank on the west end of Varrock.[8]

The scene of players “shouting” in text over each other, in resistance of the valuation of their wares by central banks in the game, quite possibly foreshadowed what we’re encountering today: the rapid emergence of blockchain and decentralised ledgers decrying the legacies of financial institutions, towards a more peer-to-peer financial system. It would be pertinent to note here that beyond players inflating the value of items outside of the pre-set game economics[9] into self-determined zones where they could capitalise on free market logic, the intervention also offered a way for gifting to occur, whether between older players and newly joined players, or between players of self-organised clans and guilds.

Rafi Abdullah, “It’s All Fun and Games”, livestream, 2021

Rafi Abdullah, “It’s All Fun and Games”, livestream, 2021

Clans, Guilds and Communality

In video games, clans and guilds are groups of players that band together and play regularly. These range from small groups of friends aimlessly hanging out on gaming platforms together, to massively organised groups working together towards a common goal. Guilds grew over time into complex systems of organising [10] across different game mechanics and universes, but at the heart of it, they embodied a unified sense of camaraderie and communality amongst gamers.

The communal agency that gaming platforms allow could not be more visibly pronounced and felt than it was during the peak of the recent COVID-19 outbreak .[11] Forced to stay indoors as part of a global effort to control the spread of the virus, we turned to digital spaces such as game worlds to retain a sense of connection with each other. My close friends and I ported to meeting online on Tabletop Simulator [12], where we attempted in vain to play the array of board games available, but for the most part just hung out and chatted. The game gave us some semblance of being together at the same table while appeasing our desire for the normalcy of a past where we could be conversing and sipping coffee across from each other. Reminded of the power in gathering online on gaming platforms, some raved , some hustled and “united to profit” together , some protested , while others created safe community spaces . Amongst these offshoots, artists and creatives also took to other gaming-derived platforms, from messaging boards like Discord to game-streaming services such as Twitch, to experiment with new ways of building knowledge together.

Rafi Abdullah, “It’s All Fun and Games”, livestream, 2021

Rafi Abdullah, “It’s All Fun and Games”, livestream, 2021

New Level Unlocked: Communal Knowledge Building

During the pandemic, I had the opportunity to experience first-hand one such experiment, *plotting*, conducted by a group of conspirators from the Berlin-based research collective Trust . The group had held video programmes prior — mostly lectures and lecture performances — but what differed in the new Twitch livestream series they embarked on was the involvement and use of a self-invented game board with a set of unique game rules and mechanics, with dices and counters to boot. The series manifested as a radical variation on the familiar reading group format, where both organisers and participants traditionally shared and discussed reference materials tied to a central theme. Here however, the addition of game mechanics — which included diagram boards, turn systems and wormholes that disrupt gameplay, amongst other interventions — offered new ways of experimenting.

In one particular schematic, when two different reference materials (presented as cards in the style of trading card games) were discovered to have been placed on lots on the board with the same variation of wormholes that were hidden at random, an against-the-clock minigame was triggered. In this game within the game, the turn player has a limited window of time to decide which position or proposition ( for example accelerated efficiency vs anti-automation ) as represented by the cards would “win”, through a process of rationalising their contexts and mapping a similarity or difference in their contextual underpinnings as raised by the other player and owners of the card. The injection of gaming mechanics in these instances not only shifted knowledge sharing from being a passive exercise to one that is more activated, but at the same time added an element of chaos that paved opportunities for the emergence of new forms of relationality.

Rafi Abdullah, “It’s All Fun and Games”, livestream, 2021

Rafi Abdullah, “It’s All Fun and Games”, livestream, 2021

Chaos Good, Good Chaos?

In an introduction to audiences entering a stream, the conspirators of the collective would refer to the playing board as a compass, bringing to mind a lineage and association to the moral compass introduced by the iconic board game, Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) .[13] Published in 1977, an updated third version of the game’s handbook introduced a moral alignment chart as a new game mechanic that would guide players by defining the trajectories and actions taken by their characters. The alignment chart, denoted on an X-Y axis of lawful-to-chaotic and good-to-evil, was a means of mapping and understanding the worldview of characters. Over the next few decades, the moral alignment chart would pick up in popularity beyond the confines of the gaming community and be reapplied by the mainstream public onto a variety of situations. Today, a quick Google search of “moral alignment chart” fetches results ranging from the chart being re-contextualised in popular TV shows , types of breads , types of chairs , and even email sign-offs .

In an article published in The Atlantic detailing the viral growth of the moral alignment chart from its D&D roots to its current staple-meme status, the graphic illustration accompanying the article embedded the chart within the pupil of an eye, alluding to the symbolism of the chart as a new way of perceiving and judging. One could argue that the moral alignment chart, and to some extent gaming platforms, have indeed provided new ways of looking at the world — offering perspectives that reject simplistic binaries and recognise nuanced spectrums. The chart continues to influence new ways of seeing as artists and thinkers continue to be informed by it, whether through adapting it into their game-as-art practices [14] or in theoretical exercises in understanding political synthesis .[15]

Rafi Abdullah, “It’s All Fun and Games”, livestream, 2021

Rafi Abdullah, “It’s All Fun and Games”, livestream, 2021

Endgame. End Game?

The title of this text — and also my momentary foray into studying gaming beyond this outlet — borrows from a cautionary proverb which has ancient Roman etymological origins. However, what is often conspicuously omitted is the second half of the proverb: “It’s all fun and games, until someone loses an eye .” Although gaming as a phenomenon offers some agencies for the betterment of society, it is at the same time a domain in which the ills of the world can be replicated. This has already become a reality, with the perpetuation of undeterred gendered, classist and racist violence on digital game platforms , ungoverned virtual sweatshops with extremely overworked and underpaid game miners , and even the gamification of the military-industrial complex .

It is evident that gaming exists as a double-edged sword and presents conflicting potentials. Games are platforms for communality, learning and experimenting with new ways to live and operate as a society; but they are also avenues for the intensification of inequalities and desensitisation towards violence. This duality perhaps fogs the possibilities of games, but what is clear is that their potency is something that can no longer be disregarded. Not unlike in a game itself, perhaps we should be urged to constantly check in on the technology, saving our progress, sporadically taking stock of our tools, anticipating what we are able to do with them, so that we can be ready for what’s to come next. Recalling the moral alignment chart’s prompt to resist thinking in binaries, I’d like to offer a refusal from arriving at an endgame determinant of what gaming can or cannot do, but rather, in the spirit of climbing game levels, simply save my progress.

This essay build upon research developed by Rafi Addudlah during a Hotdesk residency at Hothouse, Singapore. The research was also summarised in an interactive livestream, available to watch here .

  • 1.

    An adversarial example generally refers to an input designed to confuse a machine learning algorithm’s classification systems. Examples include stickers on traffic signs that disrupt self-driving vehicles and customised face masks that mess with facial recognition technologies.

  • 2.

    The collective’s diagram comprised of two lines of identical images with different sets of caption labels, and their logo as a central adversarial image. Here, I suspect that they had imagined themselves as an adversarial example, with their output potentially subverting common understanding of certain themes as revealed in their caption labels to the images. For example, the image of army mercenaries has both “welfare” and “warfare” labels, alluding to the dichotomy of how the military is a space of both warfare (concerning state safety) and welfare (allegory to how a career in the military guarantees an iron rice-bowl and opens a backdoor for a seat in parliament) in the context of Singapore.

  • 3.

    In computing, a Trojan Horse is any malware that misleads users on its true intent. The term is derived from the ancient Greek story of the deceptive Trojan Horse that led to the fall of the city of Troy.

  • 4.

    I developed a strange fascination and fondness for the potency of the image, which for me was the real life manifestation of the artist collective Metahaven’s propositions in their book Can Jokes Bring Down Governments?: Memes, Design and Politics (2014).

  • 5.

    The curator and writer Shumon Basar describes the image as one that “history delivers to us and, reciprocally, delivers history”. Shumon Basar, “LOL History”, e-flux journal, 2017.

  • 6.

    Teo Kai Xiang, “A Brief History of Video Game Censorship in Singapore”, Singapore Samizdat, 2021.

  • 7.

    A colloquial term for cyber cafes in Singapore where one visits to play computer games together. The name is likely taken from Local Area Network (LAN), which in computing refers to a local network that connects multiple computers.

  • 8.

    Varrock is one of the largest cities available to free-to-play players in RuneScape.

  • 9.

    That is, gaming the system inside a game.

  • 10.

    Writer and artist, Kei Krutler, argues that DAOs have much to learn from the nuanced governance mechanisms of gaming guilds. Kei Kreutler, “A Prehistory of Daos”, Gnosis Guild, 2021.

  • 11.

    The game Animal Crossing grew in popularity over lockdown and saw sales to the tune of 22 million units across multiple age groups and demographics.

  • 12.

    Tabletop Simulator is an online game that allows players to create and play tabletop board games together.

  • 13.

    D&D is a fantasy table-top roleplaying game first published in 1974, originally designed by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson.

  • 14.

    Artist Ian Cheng makes use of a steering/seeking 4x4 to describe the process of “worlding” in his book Emissaries Guide to Worlding (2018).

  • 15.

    In her lecture Compass for Utopian Synthesis (2020), writer and researcher Joanna Pope makes a compelling case use of the “4x4 compass of possible worlds” as a means of enabling synergy and self-interrogation between and within competing utopian imaginaries.

Artists and Contributors

 Rafi Abdullah picture

Rafi Abdullah

Rafi Abdullah is a cultural worker working within research, writing and curation. His interests lies broadly in contemporary art vis-à-vis the politics of aesthetics, with a current focus on thinking through cultural institutions as ‘dis-imagination machines’. He was a participant in the curatorial workshops, Staging and the Exhibition (2018) hosted by Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) Singapore in partnership with the Department of Visual Culture, Goldsmiths University of London; as well as the Workshops for Emerging Arts Professionals (2020) hosted by Para Site, Hong Kong. He most recently curated Poor Imagination (2019) at Sullivan+Strumpf, and continues to live and work in Singapore.