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Gaming Ghost Towns

Tom Rubira | 28 Jul 2011 14:00
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In 2007, Vivendi shut down the master servers for Tribes, making it essentially impossible to play online. In response, the community made a patch for a substitute master server, TribesNext, bringing the game back online. While the legality of the project is questionable, no one really seems bothered, considering Vivendi made Tribes 1 and 2 free to download in 2004. I myself am overjoyed they resurrected it, not so that I can compete with the uber-hardcore (and, alas, the cheaters) who are still playing 10 years on, but so that I can jetpack around the multitude of empty servers, drinking in beautiful landscapes from my childhood all the while knowing I'm connected to the network and that my avatar is, in a sense, "out there" soaring above those hills.

I think of the sheer quantity of empty game servers that currently exist, silent and forgotten, in the network.

Despite the fact that these digital spaces don't typically decay over time, the feeling is not totally unlike exploring a real life ghost town. They share the same promise of the unexpected. Cultural Geographer Tim Edensor describes ghost towns and how they signal "limitless possibilities for encounters with the weird, with inscrutable legends inscribed on notice boards and signs, and with peculiar things and curious spaces which allow wide scope for imaginative interpretation."(Edensor, T. (2005) Industrial Ruins: Space, Aesthetics and Materiality. Oxford: Berg, p.128) In this sense, their beauty lies not just in the haunting effect that their desertion has on the formal qualities of the space, but in the gaps in which we might imagine the countless hours that other players spent inhabiting them and the meanings behind objects and signs. What was the map maker trying to convey with that ominous crucifix? How many people spent how many hours of their lives running, jumping, sneaking and happily blasting their way through these buildings and streets?

This highlights an important distinction: There's a difference between playing alone online and simply playing offline, even when the experience is ostensibly the same. In the networked age, the computer and the console often present us with a paradoxical form of sociality, where we are highly connected - interacting with various people across the globe - but at the same time solitary, sitting in a room staring at a screen. Twisting this theme, these spaces allow us the rare experience of being connected to the network and yet, for once, peacefully alone within it.

As I sit here writing this, I think of the sheer quantity of empty game servers that currently exist, silent and forgotten, in the network. How long does Deckard Cain stand alone, waiting for someone to just stay a while and listen? How heavy does the dust settle in de_dust? And how much heavier will it settle in, say, ten or twenty years?

I don't really know. I imagine there's a lot to say about how these spaces are a symptom of a culture intent on always producing greater, newer experiences. I'm sure there's also something rather philosophical to say about the ways in which we conceive of these digital spaces existing (or not) when they aren't being accessed. But I almost don't care.
What I care about is the deep sense of beauty and awe I have at the image of thousands of virtual ghost towns, forgotten and abandoned, each with their own figurative tumbleweed blowing through them.

Tom Rubira is trudging around empty MechWarrior servers admiring the scenery.

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