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Games

Gaming and Masturbating, Masturbating and Gaming

Edmund McMillen's A.V.G.M. is a test of fortitude and relies on the assumption that gamers are unwilling to resist their own masturbatory instincts.

Edmund McMillen and Tyler Glaiel's 2010 entry into the 48 Hour Global Game Jam, A.V.G.M. has simple enough instructions. The game's initial screen consists of a bare room drawn in black and white, which includes only a single window and a light switch on the far right hand side of the room. An arrow indicates that switch and the text that accompanies it explains everything that you need to know to play the game: “Click the switch to make items appear. Click and drag items to move them.”

The instructions are plain enough, while the game itself is sadistic, grotesque, and twisted (as one might expect from McMillen, the designer of Super Meat Boy, The Binding of Isaac, and even a game called Cunt).

Of course, like other McMillen games, the sadism and grotesquerie inherent in A.V.G.M. is not without it's point. If the game seems cruel (And if you haven't played it and don't believe me, please go play it now. I am sorry, though, that you will hate me afterwards for ever providing this link.), it definitely is cruel. However, it horrifically exposes an inherent cruelty of video games as a medium generally.

Like Ian Bogost's infamous Cow Clicker, which also used the medium's own foibles against itself, McMillen's game is about exposing the bare essence of the experience of gaming and giggles in self awareness about the masturbatory nature of repetition and the desire for completion that games expect of their audience. Of course, Bogost's game specifically wanted to lampoon casual games like Facebook's Farmville and the kind of gamer drawn to doing essentially nothing but clicking on the same thing over and over again to experience tiny moments of achievement. A.V.G.M. really seems to have no specific target in mind, though. Casual or hardcore player though you might be, there is something familiar about the experience of A.V.G.M. to playing games in general.

However, merely describing the game's instructions will not suffice to describe the familiar agony that A.V.G.M. provokes in its player, nor how it corresponds to some of gaming's most basic tenets.

Indeed, the game is largely played by clicking on a light switch. Unsurprisingly, flipping the switch down causes the lights in the one room in the game to go out, while flipping it up turns the the lights back on. And indeed after flipping the switch up and down several times an object will appear in the room, say, a carpet or a desktop computer or a dead bird or a blow up doll. As these objects appear, you may do with them as you will, placing them around the room to create order in the little universe of A.V.G.M. or chaos, either one will do. I suspect (as McMillen seems to suspect too given his decision to also include portions of a skeleton at various points in the game that can obviously be pieced together and kind of cry out for a bit of “puzzle solving” by merely appealing to the gamer instinct to “solve” such obvious puzzles) that most gamers are going to at least initially stop and arrange the room in some relative order.

Of course, I do say “initially” because flipping the switch up and down, up and down with only the occasional appearance of an item does drive one to just get into the spirit of clicking itself. After all, that is the obvious “main action” of the game. Clicking, like in so many games (especially of the strategic and simulation variety) are all about producing things and building “economy.” As a 1960s-ish lounge-inspired cha-cha plays on in the background seemingly endlessly, the player of A.V.G.M. may just allow the room to fill up with the crazy junk to arrange later. After all, there is a progress meter that you will eventually notice at the bottom of the screen that is slowly filling with the outlines of white circles that advance across the bottom of the screen. In other words, you are fully aware that you are “getting somewhere” and where you are at now. So, you can space out acquisition and ordering of those acquisitions as you see fit.

All of this seemingly nonsensical action is annoying especially as the player begins to realize how slowly progress is made in the game. It takes a lot of clicks to cause a single item to appear, and yet, this experience almost seems worthwhile. After all, you are acquiring these little objects, some of which are fun and funny to look at, a girly poster, a pile of poop, a dead cat. All of these grotesque additions to the room are spaced out among more mundane objects, a picture for the wall, a clock, a desk, so these become moments of the unexpected to look forward to as you click away.

All of this should, of course, sound familiar, as this is essentially the formula of most any modern video game. You click and you click and you click, “doing something” in order to advance the game, the plot, towards the goal. And the game designer has been kind enough to provide you little bits of spectacle along the way to amuse and engage you. This is the formula of games from Diablo to Super Mario Bros., goal driven experiences that involve the constant redundancy of repeating a mouse click or a button push to get you headed towards that eventual goal, but making sure that you have some unexpected moments of pleasure on the way. Indeed, that new water level or the bridge with the flying fish are moments that just drive you forward out of curiosity to see what else a developer might have up his or her sleeve for you. These moments are unique, interesting and yet rest on that same experience of play: click, click, click, press A, press A, press A -- moments of unique redundancy, as it were.

If this all seems very masturbatory, well, yeah, and as it dawns on you that “winning” A.V.G.M., getting to its ending, will require more then a few clicks, more than a few tens of clicks, more than a few hundred clicks, more than a few thousand clicks (the exact number by the way is 10,212), you will begin to recognize the rhythmic motion of flicking that switch up and down, up and down, the rhythm of masturbation.

It's all about completion after all.

Indeed, it has always been about finishing, even if finishing requires endlessly stroking the same mouse, the same keys, the same controller. I'd like to say that the hundreds of hours that I've poured into playing a game like League of Legends is somehow different than the experience of A.V.G.M.), after all, I'm competing in an eSports arena with fellow human beings attempting to aid my team in a complex battle of tactics and strategy. But, you know what? I've just been clicking and clicking and clicking until I achieve victory or find myself disappointed with defeat. The game marks my progress constantly with kill-death ratios, creep scores, leveling up, and gold acquisition to aid in my progression of my items and equipment. These are little achievements and pleasures leading up to that big, big moment of conclusion and (hopefully) satisfaction.

Frankly, I'm quite sure that I've clicked way more than 10,212 times on a mouse button in order to play League of Legends. I just never had a counter next to me reminding me not merely of the cool things that I've accomplished (A 5:1 kill-death ratio? Hot damn.) but also of just how many clicks have been required to get there as A.V.G.M.'s click counter does.

The worst moment in A.V.G.M. comes when those circles on the progress bar finally reach the right hand side of the screen and you expect the pay off, but instead, the game doesn't end. As you continue to flick the light switch on and off, on and off again, each of the items in the room now has color added to it over time, over countless more clicks. The progress bar consisted of only the outline of circles, now those circles themselves are slowly being filled in to become solid circles and advance for a second time across the screen. The necessity to persist in this masturbatory process continues apace.

Which, of course, is the joke of A.V.G.M.. While I may not find playing Diablo, Super Mario Bros., or League of Legends so agonizing, these are games that merely disguise their redundancy of action so much more effectively than A.V.G.M.. Like those games A.V.G.M. does, however, create sufficient curiosity in the outcome of the experience to persist in play. When color is added to the room, we wonder what is going to appear on the desktop computer screen when it finally gets colorized (and indeed, sometimes it isn't merely color that changes the appearance of a thing, a spider gets squished in the latter half of the game, a light bulb explodes). We wonder what will happen to the blow up doll in the second half of the game (a transformation that is one of the better gags in the game and one of the last by the way – good rewards in games take time).

McMillen even baits the player with the need to see the ultimate conclusion in the game's description at NewGrounds: “Finishing the game unlocks the game's real title.” The need to see the outcome, to understand what this is all about, what we have been doing trumps the desire to quit, to get off the treadmill. And indeed, I won't mention the game's real title here. You have to pay to see it, and if you choose to, pay you will. Good luck to you, gamer, and again, I am very, very sorry I brought it up.

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