You need to be world maxxing. You need to be automating your autonomy. Developing emergence. Creating emergencies. NPCs. AI. You need to be mocking those with the sight of what they might have known. You need to build a big bonfire, each player a hot coal.
At the altar of autonomy, the crystal sword plunges towards a sacrifice, then—stops. Quivering, the dagger suspended millimeters above. Cut to black. It is you, waking up in your bed, you have been working on a game for two decades. It will be released tomorrow. There was no stone temple, dagger, or victim. The autonomous altar was inside of a dream, inside the dream of automation. Autonomy and automation.
“[Playing a game is] the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles"
-Bernard Suits, The Grasshopper
Children recognize early on that play is an opportunity for pure enjoyment, whereas games may involve considerable stress.
-Bruno Bettelheim, March 1987 Issue of The Atlantic
"As a prefix, auto- not only means ‘self’ as individual and independent, but it describes directives, decisions, and motives, by way of reason and power, as emerging from within."
-Stephanie Sherman, The Autocene
Fortnite and Roblox are two game stacks that are automating their players (by having their players create games within a game). This is good, inasmuch as games were always devices that turn its players into automatons. But what kind of automation? The mind conjures the negative definition, an image of players as humdrum factory workers, dolefully grinding away in their worlds, continuously fed a drip. Sadly we concede this is partially the case. However, the positive definition would see players have productively traded away some of their autonomy into the rules, a playful automation. And, rather than feel constricted by rules, players are then instead free to act out a previously unattainable autonomy.
Autonomy and automation are in a productive tension, neither one good nor bad, one not desirable over the other. Players are always delegating, trading, deferring, discovering, and rediscovering their autonomous selves inside automation. Consider that, through marketing, a game might lure prospective players by promising them the utmost freedom to do as they wish in the game world. And furthermore, that their choices will have consequences. The paradox being that they are only free to do what the designer has designed for them. This is of course, not the tyranny of games, but the beauty of games.
To agree to the rules of a game is to agree to become a playful automaton, and in exchange, to be led into a new experience of yourself, of your autonomy. Players of games accept the contradiction that they are free to be, or do, anything inside the game—but only as long as they are in accordance with it. A high level player might be said to be machine-like, but, the best players are in a class-of-their-own. They might have a signature movement or style, new elements of their autonomy discovered through their automation. The game is a mechanism for self-discovery through self-mastery.
AUTOMATION & AUTONOMY
Autonomy, the inalienable parts of the self, but also, the internal rules the self creates and follows. Automation, the productive force that occurs when deferring internal rules to external rules. Your game releases in an hour, you wait for your players. For two decades you have worked on a device, a technology designed to let your players do lots of things, but also not do certain things. Soon, by automating their self, they will be able to explore themself. The crystal dagger plunges into your chest. You relax.
“If the ideologues of contemporary society actually exist somewhere, we may imagine them laughing gleefully, while donning their goofy teenage caps and logging into their Animal Crossing account on the way to a board meeting.”
-Federico Campagna, A Room With a Door
Reframing the definition of video games as a productive exchange between autonomy and automation is helpful for a few reasons. First, because the cultural experience of video games feels to have outsized “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles”. So it is time to reach for a larger definition. But, what happens next is usually an attempt to elevate the video game to the status of real life, something that is always unsatisfying. Mostly because we will never know what is meant by real or life. To make the point from the opposite direction, the dullest observation one can make is that markets, politics, love, and liberty are games—in actuality it is through the language of play that we arrive at that thought. We start to see the world through the lens of games. That is why we cannot implode so-called real life into games, they are a media about how to live.
“I reject the notion of football as warfare. Warfare is warfare. We don’t need substitutes because we’ve got the real thing”
-Don DeLillo, End Zone
What automation and autonomy lets us talk about is the experience of playing games, or rather, the feeling that we ourselves are the ones being played. Some days in life we are the NPC, and others, the main character. And, inside the worlds, billions of players amass inside massive virtual geometries. Impressive virtually and spatially, but also a vast temporal dimension of ever evolving narrative and content. The game marks itself on our calendars and things get confusing. After millions of combined years playing games, the crowd asks in unison “I am spending so much time here, don’t I have any control over this?”. The player traded their autonomy at the door when they entered, but now they want it back, are they asking to be let out of the game? No, they want a new one.
The new game is the autonomous world, the concept this essay responds to. An innovative piece of media that could encode within itself the conditions through which it exists and extends itself. It is, at its heart, a computational project to redirect automated players back onto their worlds. This is borne by asking designers to embrace worlds that are permissionless and composable, worlds in which players would put down the controller and turn designer. To cut off the head of the snake so that ten heads can grow back in its place. If playing a RollerCoaster Tycoon game is to automate yourself into an amusement park planner, then an autonomous RollerCoaster Tycoon is the automation of simulators for amusement park planners.To flywheel the flywheel.
"Civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them.”
-Alfred North Whitehead
Back to Fortnite and Roblox. Players are becoming designers, creating new rules for the game, automating new players, creating new autonomies—a process of positive feedback. Can this perpetual motion machine of the player-designer exist? Yes, with the support of massive live operations teams continually injecting novelty into the world. But, how do designers make themselves obsolete to the autonomous world? There are games in which players play at design while still remaining firmly inside the game, RollerCoaster Tycoon and Fortnite are somewhat like this. That is ok. However, when a player is fully able to change the rules of a game, they are no longer inside it. That is also ok. To truly make players into designers is to upend the game entirely.
“Making a game combines everything that’s hard about building a bridge with everything that’s hard about composing an opera. Games are basically operas made out of bridges.”
-Frank Lantz, The Beauty of Games
Video games are a departure point for autonomous worlds, not the destination. Imagine for a second, a new medium that succeeds the video game. What qualities might it have? A protocol for the creation of rules and diegesis↱. Different vehicles for storytelling and world creation↱ that trade ordered plots for horizontal wikis. Character and environment creation with natural language. A device or piece of hardware like the GPU, but for facilitating a different facet than graphics, accelerating some different interface. Authorial seeds encoded into the piece of the media itself, that maximize sharing and extending, or secrets↱. Experiences that productively play with the autonomy and automation of its participants. To be constantly delegating between NPCdom and playerhood. A medium that encapsulates how we play with worlds, and how worlds play with us.
Neilson is a designer currently developing a new game at @engine_study.
Thank you to Nicole and Vera for helping develop this essay. The piece originated from many discussions inside the Autonomous Worlds community—I would like to especially thank ARB, GVN, Lermchair, 0xHank, and Small Brain Games.