Open Worlds: Organisation in/of Virtual Spaces
Text By Duncan Bass
The phrase “open world” is always a bit misleading. An “open world” describes a video game in which the player explores their environment freely, without the limitations of more linear, structured or time-bound modes of gameplay. While these virtual worlds often function without loading screens or traditional level structures, the player is still enclosed by in-game geographical features. Every map has an edge.
An island city-state, Singapore’s reality reflects the same structuring dynamics of open-world virtual environments. Since 2014, a group of government agencies have developed Virtual Singapore, a 3D “digital twin” of the city-state that allows for architectural and urban planning simulations.1 In this simulated city-state, everything is quantified. A 2016 promotional video set to a punchy electronic soundtrack conveys metrics ranging from the capacity of 21st century landmarks such as Marina Bay Sands Hotel and Esplanade — Theatres by the Bay, to the number of hours of direct sunlight received by units in Housing Development Board flats and the number of trees in a manicured green space. Twinned to sensors that capture data from Singapore’s environment, the model is designed both to simulate and to act back on its “real” equivalent. Predicting everything from the navigation of autonomous vehicles to the spread of potential gas leaks to the movement of crowds through a shopping mall at peak capacity, Virtual Singapore destabilises the enclosed reality of the physical world. In SimCity-State: Singapore Edition, the world maps to the land borders of the nation, falling off at Singapore’s bounding straits.
In June 2022, Vizzio Technologies announced the latest digital twin of Singapore, integrating satellite imagery alongside real-time data feeds. In its press release touting the largest digital twin of a nation state ever produced, the company expressed the goal of creating “a metaverse version of both Singapore and the world for leisure and gamification purposes”. This invocation of the “metaverse” is indicative of the renewed interest from global technology companies and governments promising an escape into virtual reality in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, mounting economic challenges and the effects of anthropogenic climate change. The metaverse was initially conceived by science fiction writer Neal Stephenson as a single interconnected virtual corollary to the physical world. Today, governments, corporations and media outlets, all vying to establish market dominance for their respective platforms, invoke a series of isolated virtual worlds that are developed, maintained and accessed independently, with varying degrees of functionality and few incentives for interoperability. Practically, these stand-alone virtual environments more closely resemble the existing infrastructure of massive multiplayer online (MMO) video games, where public and private servers host millions of daily users concurrently.
Vizzio’s professed goal of “gamification” further elaborates this proximity, comprising two core premises: the introduction of game-like quantification metrics to manipulate human psychology and nudge behaviour and the recuperation of gameplay from a non-productive leisure activity to a site of productive labour. The former manifests in incremental milestones and achievements that incentivise users to complete mundane tasks in the realms of production and consumption alike. The latter emerges through formal channels such as play-to-earn games as well as informal channels such as the gray market of “real-money trading” (RMT), where players sell in-game goods for real-world currency. As early as 2000, the RMT market for MMO games already supported an estimated USD $2 billion annual trade. This trend has only escalated with the advance of Web 3.0, an imprecise marketing term used to refer to blockchain-enabled technologies, a spatialised internet such as the metaverse(s), or some combination of the two. As of August 2022, the top ten platforms had facilitated USD $1.9 billion in virtual real estate sales alone, despite prices having plummeted nearly 80% since their peak in November 2021.
Real and virtual spaces continue to fold into one another in ever more complex ways. In February 2022, footage from video games such as Digital Combat Simulator and Arma3 were misrepresented — first on social media, later in news reports — as documentation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In response, Bohemia Interactive, the developer of Arma III, released a statement in November 2022, acknowledging the game’s openness to customisation and user-generated content (modding):
While it’s flattering that Arma 3 simulates modern war conflicts in such a realistic way, we are certainly not pleased that it can be mistaken for real-life combat footage and used as war propaganda. It has happened in the past (Arma 3 videos allegedly depicted conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, Palestine, and even between India and Pakistan), but nowadays this content has gained traction in regard to the current conflict in Ukraine.[…] With every video taken down, ten more are uploaded each day.
The relationship between real-world conflict and video games is well documented: control centres for remotely operated military aircraft resemble computer game interfaces, while video games such as the first-person shooter (FPS) America’s Army and military tactics simulator Full Spectrum Command (developed jointly by the American and Singaporean militaries) are used to recruit prospective soldiers and to train military personnel, respectively.2 As video game technologies continue to progress, the simulations become the primary tool by which new realities are both imagined and produced.
Outside of technocratic schemes and tactical training, simulated Singapores have arisen in a variety of online games, including CounterStrike, Minecraft, MapleStory, and Roblox. Lion City, the Roblox corollary developed by user Winston Ng, even recreates Singapore’s Electronic Road Pricing system — which implements adaptive tolls for busy thoroughfares — and a non-playable character (NPC) modelled on the familiar busker and TikTok sensation Uncle Raymond. In “National Day Platform 2022: Exploring a Singaporean Metaverse” anthropologist Kenzell Huggins recounts his visit to a state-sponsored Roblox server for the 2022 Singapore National Day Parade celebration and the ways in which various forms of role-play performed by users on the server reflect modes of military and cultural nationalisms. Replete with the niche details that give texture and meaning to physical reality, these amateur virtual cities transcend their mimetic functions to influence the players themselves. Though virtual environments imply the extensibility and permanence of existing social, political and economic structures, locking in the dynamics of the real-world locations they emulate, they also foretell an urbanism from below, an open world subjected to the whims of its authors. The diffraction of the unitary metaverse into plural metaverses invites users to see their realities not as predetermined entities but instead in a constant state of becoming.
Reflecting the fractured landscape of virtual spaces — from architectural rendering and satellite imagery to popular video games and computer simulations — OS1_Open Worlds questions the logics of financialisation, enclosure and atomisation that undergird corporate and statist conceptions of the metaverse. Unfolding over six chapters,OS1_Open Worlds charts a route through the tyranny of digital twins and algorithmic governance, taking us over the edge of the map and into the wilds beyond. While trailblazing artists such as Cao Fei, Skawennati, Eva and Franco Mattes, Anne-Marie Schleiner and others have been intervening into online video games for decades,OS1_Open Worlds focuses on recent production by artists engaging with video games, video game engines, and virtual environments to investigate a world that is no longer a niche pastime. Following Luke Caspar Pearson’s assertion that “our conception of space and the actions contained therein can be non-normative and experimental, even in virtual worlds that appear to be recreations of reality,” OS1_Open Worlds explores video games and virtual spaces as sites for rehearsing novel modes of social, political, and spatial organisation.
The opening chapter, Virtual Capital, explores the process by which the virtual precedes the real, highlighting the relationship between financial systems, architectural development and their impacts on lived experience. Here, the capital city as the seat of political power likewise sites global flows of capital though speculative investment schemes and architectural development projects. The video works connect established financial centres such as London, Paris, Hong Kong and Dubai with imagined sites of offshore finance, expressed in their most hyperbolic form as startup cities in crypto-friendly jurisdictions and literal futures trading facilitated by time travel. Through satire and science-fiction, the artworks chart the mechanisms by which the virtual reworks the real in the frictionless mould of circulation.
Invoking its titular fraudulent investment schemes, Lawrence Lek’s Pyramid Schemes presents an architectural treatise in eleven chapters, framing architectural development as a product of political ambition. In the video’s final chapters, ‘Science Fiction’ and ‘Time Travel,’ Lek outlines how architecture “allows us to locate ourselves in space and time” while embracing the unique capacity of virtual space to complicate this relationship by placing historic structures featured throughout the film — models of The Pyramids, Notre Dame, and the Eiffel Tower from the Assassin’s Creed game series — into the cityscape of modern London. Science fiction and time travel likewise drive Bahar Noorizadeh’s 3D animated operetta Free to Choose. Produced in collaboration with Ruda Babau and Waste Paper Opera (Klara Kofen, James Oldham, Gary Zhexi Zhang, Anna Palmer), the film follows a cast of historical figures and fictional characters traveling from 1997 Hong Kong — in the midst of the British handover and the Asian financial crisis — to the year 2047. Rather than swindling new, unwitting investors, the protagonists of Free to Choose engage in a perpetual process of time travel at the expense of their own futures.
Like Lek and Noorizadeh, artist and writer Alice Bucknell also draws connections between financial bubbles and the built environment in her two reflections on the speculative development of startup cities. Bucknell’s E-Z Kryptobuild employs the visual language of promotional videos marketing architectural development projects and Web 3.0 startups to critique confluent trends in technological-solutionism, starchitecture, and decentralised financial systems. Proselytising imaginary cities from manmade archipelagoes in the Pacific to a desert oasis outside Dubai, each designed by celebrity architects including the AI ghost of the late Zaha Hadid, E-Z Kryptobuild visualises the escapist motivations that underlie the offshoring of capital in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, climate emergency, and economic recession.
The near future that E-Z Kryptobuild imagines has emerged apace with Bucknell’s satirical critique: the video bears remarkable similarities to really-existing promotional videos for proposed developments in crypto-friendly jurisdictions, including Satoshi Island (Vanuatu) and Cryptoland (Fiji). Satoshi Island Holdings Limited, for one, repeatedly underscores the reality of the island, its planned development, and the subsequent possibilities of individual ownership. Satoshi Island’s “Non-Fungible Property Tokens” (NFPTs), “Citizenship NFTs,” and claims of a “Metaverse mirrored in reality” (wherein the virtual Satoshi Island acts back on the island’s real environment) invert the promises of island nations such as Tuvalu to become “digital nations” in response to the threat of rising sea levels. Pretensions of sovereignty are notably bypassed in a disclaimer on the project’s accompanying website: “Note: Satoshi Island Citizenship NFTs do not grant the holder with a citizenship of Vanuatu.”
As a counterpoint to the satirical tone of E-Z Kryptobuild, Bucknell’s essay “No Hard Reset: Against the Crypto Utopia,” situates the trend of blockchain urbanism within a history of utopian architecture from Superstudio’s Continuous Monument to recently proposed projects including NEOM in Saudi Arabia, Chengdu Smart City in China, and BiodiverCity in Malaysia. Parsing the speculative rhetoric of blockchain-enabled cities, Bucknell deploys the term “mixed-reality cities” to describe the shift of urban planning and policy for existing cities to the blockchain. Bucknell tempers her critique of Metaverse Dubai or the Estonia government’s e-Estonia system with examples of peer-to-peer technologies which promote collective agency over the shared future of our cities.
Taking up the potential for collective action in the face of real exploitation, the second chapter, WoW, Unite! considers the nature of labour as it moves between offline and online spaces. The title of OS1.2 updates the familiar rallying cry for class solidarity — “Workers of the world, unite!” (itself adapted from the final line of The Communist Manifesto) — with the acronym for the popular MMO World of Warcraft (WoW), an unexpected site for collective organization. Through video and videogame essays, the artworks highlight the working conditions and modes of organisation that arise amongst gamers, game developers and the subjects of increasingly gamified labour. While gamification refers to the exploitation of behavioural psychology to enhance productivity and consumption, gaming itself is generally dismissed as the unproductive activity par excellence. Yet gaming also offers a potentially noncoercive space in which to explore modes of social and political action that are otherwise foreclosed under the hegemony of capitalist ideology. By focusing on the activities and relationships between workers in the video game industry and amongst gamers themselves, the artists featured in WoW, Unite! trace the spontaneous emergence of collective coordination in real, digital, and hybrid contexts including gamified gig-work and play-to-earn games.
Adopting the same digital recreation of Notre Dame depicted in Lek’s Pyramid Schemes, Cat Bluemke’s video game essay “Gameworkers and Guildworkers” compares the labour conditions and rights of the freemasons that built the cathedral to those of video game industry workers that created its digital facsimile. Inspired by the Game Workers Unite movement, Bluemke’s sparsely populated interactive environment allows players to explore a fragmented copy of the virtual cathedral while learning about the collective rights of guild members in 12th century France in comparison to the precarity of their contemporary counterparts. Joshua Citarella and Jacob Horowitz-Goodman's DKP is Market Socialism by contrast examines WoW as an unlikely site of collective redistribution. Using a system known as Dragon Kill Points, in-game guilds with disparate internal organisational structures band together to complete difficult tasks, sharing the limited rewards of their collective endeavours among themselves. In his narration, Citarella argues that the success of this system, which functions despite the often toxic character of online gamers, demonstrates the feasibility of market socialism even in the face of political polarisation.
Mario Mu’s Sites of Encounter offers an atmospheric exploration of the relationship between in-game architecture, spatial memory and contemporary labour conditions. Divided into three acts — The Offices,The Bridges, and The Factories — Sites of Encounter is punctuated by a series of monologues and conversations that reflect on work and death, forgetting and remembering, violence and relationships, coffee and composting. While The Factories and The Offices investigate spaces of industrial and postindustrial labour, The Bridges investigates the political role of bridges in the Balkan peninsula, built and destroyed to the waning and waxing of ethno-national identity in the region. Specifically, The Bridges investigates the Peljesac Bridge, a recent undertaking to link two Croatian territories supported by both the European Union and China’s Belt-and-Road initiative.
The link between the built environment and national identity is expanded in chapter three. Landscapes of the Political Imaginary explores how the construction of the nation-state occurs simultaneously in the physical landscape and the collective imaginary. Engaging colonial and post-colonial sites of the past, present, and future through archives and historical documents, these artworks complicate our understanding of video games and the underlying assumptions that are designed into their landscapes.
Shabtai Pinchevsky’s An Abridged Draft for a Letter to Leila Khaled reconstructs the landscape of Palestine before the Nakba, as depicted in the Palmach Aerial Photographs Collection. Recorded in the hyper-realisticMicrosoft Flight Simulator, the video superimposes archival silver-gelatin photographs onto contemporary satellite imagery of the city of Haifa. Though the Palmach Collection originated in an aerial reconnaissance effort by the eponymous Zionist paramilitary organization under the guise of civilian air tours conducted during the 1947–48 war, today it provides a rare document of the pre-Nakba Palestinian landscape, on the verge of its erasure. Drawing on less traditional archives from social media and video game mod culture, Firas Shehadeh connects the landscape of Palestine to Los Santos, the fictional setting of Grand Theft Auto V (GTAV). An extension of Shehadeh’s ongoing research into video game culture, Like an Event in a Dream Dreamt by Another: Rehearsal documents the online activity of Palestinian and diasporic youth who use GTAV mods both to reconstruct historic sites and military clashes as well as to celebrate expressions of local cultural identity, such as clothing, music, and car customization. Citing Theodor Adorno, who observed that “the unreality of games gives notice [to the young] that reality is not yet real. Unconsciously they rehearse the right life,”3 Shehadeh argues that Palestinian gamers use GTAV to envision versions of themselves that have access to what their everyday realities lack: education, community, prosperity, and freedom of movement.
An interactive video game by Zheng Mahler (a collaboration between artist Royce Ng and anthropologist Daisy Bisenieks), The Green Crab: A Virtual Diagram of Auspicious Spatial Organization investigates the relationship between Singapore’s centrally-planned urbanism and the fundamental metaphysical principles of feng shui. Created in collaboration with architectural historian Ian Tan and One Bite Design Studio, The Green Crab reveals the hidden qi flows of the “spiritual state” interwoven with Singapore’s master plan for urban development, belying the functional modernity of the city-state. Against the model of Virtual Singapore, which reproduces the city-state by measuring every aspect of its built environment, The Green Crab offers a psychedelic map that allows users to freely explore the metaphysical associations of dozens of areas across the island.
Returning to the potential for collective organisation that virtual spaces enable, the fourth chapterUnrealpolitik follows the movement of popular struggles — both historic and contemporary — from the real to the virtual. Highlighting the tension between the exaggerated violence of video games and the sterility of virtual cityscapes, the artists probe the underlying ideologies that purportedly “neutral” software encodes. These works recognise that the perceived impotence of gaming gives it a special power to intervene in a world that recuperates more legible forms of political resistance. Precisely because they are regarded as nonthreatening, virtual spaces allow us to encounter and challenge the biases hardcoded into extant power structures and to spread critique and calls to action virally by camouflaging them in popular media, such as video games and music.
Yeyoon Avis An’s music video for “Neo-Punggol,” the lead single from sound artist George Chua’s 2021 album, assembles found footage of architectural models, scenes from classic video games, and documentation of protests in South Korea, Hong Kong, and the United States. The urgent tempo of Chua’s soundscape is illustrated by the exaggerated violence of video games, which itself distracts from the everyday violence exercised by the state. An contrasts this melee of bodily harm and resistance to the extreme passivity of the bodies who populate the pristine architectural renderings of corporate real estate developments. In 70.001, Clemens von Wedemeyer restages these passive digital figures in a peaceful protest, reconstructing the Monday demonstrations that filled the streets of Leipzig in October 1989. As the digital entities fill the virtual streets of Leipzig, the scene camera flies in to reveal the crowd’s homogeneity — a small number of generic models replicated ad infinitum. Von Wedemeyer’s simulated crowds and, elsewhere, simulated police repression, are based on the same models that determine the flow of bodies through digital twins like Virtual Singapore. As in a real crowd, the virtual body becomes part of a collective whole, moving in a predictable manner determined in part by spatial design. Like the other works in von Wedemeyer’s Illusion of a Crowd series, 70.001 reconfigures the tools of algorithmic control to illustrate the political potential that the crowd represents.
Grayson Earle’s desktop documentary why don’t the cops fight each other? shows 70.0001 in reverse perspective. Instead of simulated crowds of peaceful protesters, Earle’s film depicts an endless spawn of police officers in Grand Theft Auto V who direct their violence at other NPCs, but who are prevented by the software from directing violence towards one another. Through simple modifications to the game’s code, Earle demonstrates the range of user control over the world of Los Santos as well as the limits hardcoded into the game engine. Developed in 2020, at the height of protests against police violence in the United States, why don’t the cops fight each other? hearkens to the “Blue Wall of Silence,” an implicit code whereby law enforcement officers protect other officers accused of crimes, including excessive violence and murder. The immutable properties of the game engine reflect the encoded values of the real world.
Chapter five, Dematerialized Zones, traverses sites of conflict — remembered and imagined — in search of escape. Expanding on demilitarised zones (DMZs) as liminal spaces, the featured artworks subvert the ubiquitous violence associated with video games, reclaiming these spaces in pursuit of (inner) peace. In the process, the artists demonstrate the capacity for virtual spaces to help heal historical and personal traumas as well as the structural limits of these tools.
Hayoun Kwon’s 489 Years depicts an animated landscape of the Demilitarised Zone between North and South Korea, one of the most heavily armed borders in the world. Based on the testimony of a former soldier who crossed the DMZ, the film draws on his account of the landmines and flowers that carpet the ground and his subsequent realization that in the DMZ intense anxiety and subliminal beauty coexist. By using video game engines and 3D software to construct a virtual corollary based on a remembered experience, rather than literally rendering the space, Kwon simultaneously underscores the artificiality of the borders that demarcate the DMZ and contributes to the collectively imagined character of this space.
The intertwining of memory and sites of conflict also animates Antoine Chapon’s My Own Landscapes. Evoking the films of Harun Farocki, My Own Landscapes explores the use of virtual reality by the French and American militaries, where the technology is used both to prepare soldiers for combat and to treat the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that inevitably ensues from their combat experiences. The work centers on Chapon’s interviews with Cyril, a former video game designer and military veteran who lives with PTSD and has struggled to readjust to civilian life. Using combat simulation technology, Cyril constructs a world that allows him to escape the alienation of civilian life and the omnipresence of his PTSD. Cyril occupies his time with the minute details of his hyper-realistic world, supplanting his nightmares with a serene, dreamy landscape. Unlike Cyril’s bespoke virtual reality, the media collective Total Refusal seeks peace in an online war game. Created within the picturesque landscapes of Battlefield V, How to Disappear presents a tribute to disobedience and desertion. The essay film centers on the history of deserters, elevating the act of desertion to a noble form of anti-war protest and self-sacrifice. The film also recalls the work of Farocki, engaging with the combat game outside its prime objectives of death and destruction.
The final chapter, Intimate Encounters investigates how identity and intimacy develop in virtual spaces. The featured artworks rely equally on the nostalgia for retro video games and the familiarity of contemporary ones to challenge the normative assumptions that video games embed. In these works, the character development of role-playing games mirrors the process of personal identity construction, where the self emerges through its relationship to the other.
Set in Grand Theft Auto V, the love story Khtobtogone explores the complexities of coming of age in Marseille’s Maghrebi community. In a voiceover narration, the story’s protagonist, Zine — an amalgam of the experiences of the artist’s male friends — reflects on a budding romantic relationship, his formative friendships, and his place in society. Sadik complements Zine’s localised identity and experiences with game mods that take up “beurcore,” her term for the youth culture developed by working class members of the Maghrebi diaspora. The video opens with Zine sharing happy moments from his relationship on Snapchat and Instagram, bridging the virtual world of the film with the increasingly virtualised expressions of personal identity that social media engenders. Zine’s job as a delivery driver further grounds Khtobtogone in contemporary socio-economic realities, relating the gameplay of GTAV to the gamified gig-economy. Zine’s sincere, vulnerable inner dialogue clashes with the stoicism of the game’s avatars, complicating the societal assumptions of heteronormative masculinity that popular culture perpetuates.
Kara Güt’s Hurt/Comfort comprises four short vignettes: “The Character,” “The Camera,” “Fandom,” and “To Trade Places.” In the video, the artist plays the role of a live streamer playing Elden Ring while engaging with an unseen audience. Over the course of her character creation and gameplay, her exchange with the written dialogue of the chat becomes more intimate, revealing her insecurities and recasting the livestream as a modern confessional booth. Taking the form of a 2D videogame, 2nd Puberty by Xafiér Yap considers gaming as a portal through which to reimagine time, space and ways of being. Players take on the perspective of an avatar, experiencing the judgment of others as well as the character’s inner dialogue. Subverting traditional storylines and game mechanics, the work was inspired by the experience of undergoing gender transition in a heteronormative society. Through gameplay, 2nd Puberty affords new ways to connect, communicate, and understand one another — and ourselves.
Collectively, the artworks presented in OS1_Open Worlds seek to reframe virtual spaces as sites for practicing alternative modes of organisation within society, from the shared reality of global financial systems and major cities to the multiplicity of personal interactions and individual expression. Though these spaces are inaugurated under the aegis of profit-seeking tech companies and repressive governments, their potential as sites for critical reflection and engagement are borne out by the artists whose work features in this exhibition. As the boundaries between real and virtual spaces continue to degrade — another opening of worlds — interventions in virtual realities increasingly redound upon our physical realities, for worse and for better. While the virtual offers no refuge from real world crises, it can prototype alternative ways of organising the world, be they social, political, or spatial. This openness to the possibility of reimagining our shared spaces is precisely that implied by Open Worlds.