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Massively Multiplayer Pong

(Unknown; US: 2006)

I have been reading a lot of Philip K. Dick lately, so playing a game of Pong as a communally shared “hive mind” paddle strikes me as a reasonably sound thing to do.


Describing what Massively Multiplayer Pong is mechanically is a simple enough thing: any number of players visiting this Flash application are randomly inserted into a persistent version of the game.  On arriving in this ongoing match, the player is greeted by a black screen, one of two paddles with orange or blue blobs floating in vicinity to the paddles, and the ubiquitous ball that floats slowly between them.


The innovative quality of the game is in its existence as a massively multiplayer experience.  With only two paddles, the players are forced to manipulate whichever paddle they are randomly assigned.  Thus, any number of players may be controlling a single paddle at any given times.  The colored blobs indicate where each player’s mouse is located at any given time during the game, and the scripting calibrates the various positions of the paddle based on all of the various players manipulating it at one time. 


What results then is a kind of virtual tug of war, less so between the two opposing sides (orange and blue, left and right), but all of the players synched to each individual paddle.  The result, in some sense, is antithetical to nearly every persistent world game that I can think of.  By denying the player a sense of individual possession of an avatar, he’s forced into a kind of collectively driven manipulation of a shared avatar.  There is no way to own your identity here.  Instead, your movement is a constant negotiation between your own fractured identities.


I am not certain what the purpose of the game is.  Indeed, I am not certain that this media product can be categorized as a game at all.  Perhaps, it is the best metaphor that human beings have described for the Trinity since St. Patrick started plucking clovers for the Irish.  Or an evidence of what any kind of collective mind would function like for that matter.


The developer heads the page with this simple explanation: “Humanity has stooped to a new low. This is a neverending massively multiplayer pong game. Yes, it’s real, and for this I apologize.”  Given this context and the sense that it is less a game and more an experience, my temptation is to describe it as interactive performance art.  Its theme?  The absurd.


Massively Multiplayer Pong is a play by Samuel Beckett.  Massively Multiplayer Pong is a bit of Dada.  With its egalitarian choosing up of sides, there is nearly nothing for the player to identify himself as siding with.  Are you blue or orange?  Left or right?  Does it matter?  There is no gender, racial, political, or regional identity to identify.  And given that the game is perpetual, no one team can win anyway.


The current score of the game, as I write this, is 191,758 to 192,140.  I won’t bother telling you which side has what score because what can it possibly matter?  Indeed, this is what I mean by the Dadaist quality of the game: its lack of any real ability to make scoring matter, due to its persistent nature, focuses the player simply on the struggle amongst his own teammates.  Of course, given that control is inconsistent for the individual and control has no real purpose within the context of this persistent world, the struggle continues only to point back at the absurdity of it all.  Humanity has stooped to a new low, indeed. 


And now comes the point in any review that I honestly loathe: scoring the quality of the game.  Normally, I bridle at this notion because mere numbers seem to lack any qualitative sense of what a game experience is really all about.  However, I find myself in a deeper quandary than usual as I write this, since I am not certain what kind of media I am evaluating in any case—a game? An experience? Art?  How then do I make some sort of quantitative comparison? 


As a game, Massively Multiplayer Pong is dismal.  As an experience, Massively Multiplayer Pong is initially fascinating but grows tedious.  As art, Massively Multiplayer Pong is thematically interesting and satisfying in a nihilistic sort of way.  Like its paddle interface, Massively Multiplayer Pong is probably a sum of all these parts, yet, by trying to be everything, it simply defies quantification. 


Ultimately, it is “a game” about the meaninglessness of scores.

G. Christopher Williams is a Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He posts his weekly contribution to the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters every Wednesday. Besides also serving as Multimedia Editor at PopMatters and writing at his own blog, 8-bit confessional, he has also published essays in journals like Film Criticism, PostScript, and the Popular Culture Review. You won't find him on Twitter, but you can drop him a line with that old fashioned thing called e-mail at williams@popmatters.com.


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