The Virtue of Virtual Patience

The Artist is Present is not much of a game, but it functions brilliantly as a comment on time and patience in media consumption.

I took a stab at The Artist is Present this afternoon, after reading a write-up about it on IndieGames a few days previously. Between the austere Sierra-style graphics and idiosyncratic premise (a "queue simulator," as IndieGames called it), it seemed like promising blog material.

Unfortunately, 2:30pm on the West coast of the United States is 5:30pm on the East coast, which is where the game is set. Located within the Museum of Modern Art, the game keeps the same hours that the museum does, or so it might appear at first. After squinting at my game for a few minutes, seeing if it was possible to walk around the building (it's not), and debating the merits of waking up at 7:00 in the morning on my day off just to play a flash game, I tried adjusting my computer's clock.

As you might expect, the game bases its time measurement off of your system clock and time zone, not MOMA's. So gaining access after hours is no more difficult than extending the deadline on a piece of trial software. We've all done this, yet the practice adopts a different connotation -- a cheat -- the moment that we are introduced to the game. Why this should be seems at once completely sensible and unintelligible to me. Without my admission, no one would ever know that I'd adjusted the clock, far less the game's developer, Pippin Barr. So where does the guilt come from?

Well, in my case, there are two reasons. The first is that I'm Lawful Good. I don't even jaywalk. The second is more academic and hearkens back to Johan Huizinga and Roger Caillois.

As game journalists, we frequently discuss Huizinga's Homo ludens in the context of our field of interest and the larger architecture of play as culture. I find Caillois's quadrants of play a slightly more accessible take on Huizinga's concepts, particularly set against his paidia-ludus spectrum -- that is, free to structured play (Roger Caillois, "The Definition of Play and the Classification of Games", reprinted in The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology, The MIT Press, 2005, p. 141-142). Video games, being logarithmically engineered to command the adherence to certain rules, fall under this ludus category, while children's free play falls under paidia. This extends outward through all aspects of human social behavior -- to the extent that we can see children's mimicry and gender performance as existing along the same spectrum as structured theater and law enforcement institutions. Furthermore, each of these come with a certain set of rules of engagement.

In short, while the actions of switching back the clock for a few more hours of use on some trial software (breaking the rules set forth by a publisher) and adjusting the clock to advance the game (breaking the rules set forth by a developer) are virtually identical, the spheres of culture they operate in are different. Both are cheats, but only one seems ethically beyond the pale. Cheating in a game, after all, breaks the game. Spoils the sport. Punishes the other players. For better or for worse, we are not so sympathetic to the plight of commercial software publishers. The latter cheats capitalism, but the former is a sign of poor character.

Of course, The Artist is Present could have designed around this problem, so it is unfair to presume that Pippin Barr is completely prohibitive of players messing with one's system clock -- especially as The Artist is so brutally (and intentionally) boring anyway. But consider on the other hand that certain time-activated features do bear a distinctly different context: those that use system clocks for Easter egg related content and those that use them to significantly alter the game.

For the former, I'm reminded of Christmas NiGHTS, that little seasonal remake of NiGHTS into dreams... released as a sampler disc with several gaming magazines and hounded as a collector's item ever since. Christmas NiGHTS is filled with time-sensitive features. There are Christmas and New Years retextures complete with unique music. Switching to Valentine's Day changes NiGHTS's star trail into a stream of hearts. Setting the clock to April Fool's Day allows you to play as stage boss Reala. And so on and so forth. All of these come in the context of a "gift" game, so to unlock them prematurely or out of order would seem in conflict of the spirit of the game. However, for most American players who did not obtain their copy from a December issue of Sega Saturn Magazine, this is hardly a gift freely given to begin with. It's something you buy off eBay and keep as a curio. And patience means very little next to impulses to collect and master.

Contrast this with the infamous boss fight with The End in Metal Gear Solid 3. Here, if you ignore Para-Medic's warnings and save during the battle, then either don't play for a week or advance your PS2's clock by that amount of time, a cutscene will play when you next load the game featuring Naked Snake stumbling upon the old man's corpse. A suitably efficient way to escape a long boss fight, but it's written as bittersweet -- and not honorable, considering how much the warrior-poets of the Metal Gear series stake in martial respectability. You cheater, you've dishonored your opponent.

Nevertheless, the game goes on just as it would have had you defeated The End in any other way (including taken a sniper shot earlier in the game and blowing the man up in his wheelchair . . . have I mentioned my love of Hideo Kojima yet today?). So it depends on the player as to whether or not to take Naked Snake's discomfort with this resolution to heart. The game doesn't care, but it lets you know that you cheated, which is more than either Christmas NiGHTS or The Artist is Present do. On the other hand, Metal Gear Solid 3 is the only one of these games for which waiting is not virtuous at all. But this in turn may say even more about the roles that games have come to play in our daily schedules.

The Artist is Present is not much of a game. Even with clocks set back, you'll be in for a horrendously long wait, during which you can indeed lose your place in line if you aren't attentive. It's an interesting launching off point for thinking about ethics and time in games, but moreover, I'd say it functions brilliantly as a comment on time and patience in media consumption in general. MOMA just needs longer virtual hours.


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