Player One

The video-game industry is built on the cultish fantasy that all technology and effort can be redeemed as pure pleasure

Video games are like prayers. They have the most promise when they are the least specific. They promise various forms of wish fulfillment, but more important, they offer reassurance that wishfulness is still worthwhile, that some mechanism waits out there to receive wishes and will at least consistently respond to them. This same mechanism — the obscure intelligence that animates a game — can also make playing it a trap: The conventions reveal themselves as familiar, the would-be divine intelligence becomes predictable through repetition. But thinking about games when they are still pristine and unsullied by actual play can be revelatory, inspiring future desires on the verge of becoming nameable.

A similar prayerful dynamic informs the way the video-game industry structures the labor that goes into making games. Projects are put on timelines that require heroic efforts of self-sacrifice and over-investment to make deadlines, as if the thankless conditions could convert the job into a vocation, a calling. Workers are de facto priests, intercessors for the immeasurable yearning of video game devotees. Long hours have become industry standard: A report on the working conditions at the now closed Team Bondi, which made L.A. Noire with Rockstar Games, found 60-hour work weeks were the norm with regular jumps to 80 to 110 hour weeks to meet recurring deadlines.It was never outwardly said that you had to be working more, but it was just the vibe of the place,” one anonymous developer told IGN’s Andrew McMillen. “If you weren’t, you couldn’t progress any further.”

Industry projects are put on timelines that require heroic efforts of self-sacrifice and over-investment, as if the thankless conditions could convert the job into a calling

A 2016 survey of working conditions in the industry by the International Game Developers Association found that only 66 percent of developers were full-time employees and one in seven had been laid off during the preceding 12 months, while only 11 percent reported being paid for overtime hours. Sixty-five percent of developers reported their jobs required periods of extended overtime hours, and 55 percent said they felt there was no clear career path forward for them.

Ubisoft, the third biggest video-games publisher in the world, has built its studio operations around a talent-sharing model of labor that minimized the value of any worker as an individual, having artists, animators, and programmers float between projects at different points in development, working for a few months animating historically accurate buildings for Assassin’s Creed games, then designing cartoon obstacle courses for bulge-eyed cats and dogs to run in the children’s series Petz. Navigating these continuously shifting aesthetic and conceptual demands is part of the calling, the devotion necessary to help build what they know will be the defining aesthetic medium of the 21st century.

This narrative is built into video games’ origin myth, in which computer games were programmed by groups of isolated idealists in the midst of otherwise working to develop technology for the military. Games were an expression of a secret purpose, to find some redemptive use of war weapons that yields pure pleasure, unfettered world-changing (or world-building) creativity beyond the grinding irrationality of politics. This is the germ from which the logic of the “video-game masterpiece” comes: It must produce violent awe, the tears and catharsis of war without its destructive effects. This spirit of transcendence and redemption still haunts office parks and mall shops, computer suppliers and shipping depots, game shops and living room sofas) anywhere the video-game industry now conducts its business of delivering a manipulable form of entertainment into someone’s hands.

Robert Pelloni wasn’t sure what he was doing the night he began working on his game in 2003. Then 20 years old, he felt a sudden hopefulness after taking a 54-milligram capsule of Concerta, an ADHD medication like Adderall, and spent the night kneeling in front of the television, copying animations from the Super Nintendo game Super Metroid frame by frame. A high school dropout from Michigan, Pelloni had just started dating a friend of the couple he shared his sagging townhouse apartment with, and for the first time in a long time he felt good about himself. “I was a new person with a new identity,” he wrote in a book-length blog post about his early adulthood (since removed but which he promises to restore soon). “God had answered my prayers and sent me an angel, and I was going to make it right. I had a chance to start over.”

In that post, Pelloni details how he had never felt comfortable as a child. He wet the bed until age eight, he wrote, and hated both school and his classmates, preferring to spend recesses alone drawing comics as far back as first grade. He felt ostracized for every simple mistake he made, misspelling the word neighbor in class while all the other students laughed. In elementary school, around the time he was learning how to write simple adventure games in HyperStudio, Pelloni began to suspect his parents were trying to program him with religion. After reading Revelations in the Lutheran megachurch his family attended, he wrote that he was “astounded that all of these adults actually believed this nonsense about beasts with 60,000 horns.” When his mother tried to teach him to memorize a catechism, he repeatedly smashed his head into his mattress in resistance, scratching “HATE” into the back of a metal coin bank he kept in his room.

Around this time, Pelloni began thinking of tech icons like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs as “wizards” and became obsessed with The Matrix movies. After the Columbine High School Massacre in 1999, he was nearly expelled for making his own “mock” hit list. Soon, he writes, he was chain-smoking, breaking into churches in the middle of the night, experimenting with pills, obsessing over games and anime, memorizing the stats for every single Pokémon, and maxing out every misbegotten credit card he could get ahold of. Eventually he took a series of short-term jobs at Walmart and the Great Indoors, experiences that made him realize that the unsteady structures of his young life might best be held in place by a different sort of calling, in the one thing in his life that had been reliable: video games.

That night in 2003, when he transferred his animations to a screen using an open-source Game Boy Advance emulator was, in Pelloni’s description, “the greatest experience I ever had.” Where he had once felt mostly guilt, anger, and depression, he was now filled with inspiration. He effectively became his own first recruit in a movement that didn’t yet have a name or any larger cause than simply making a game.

In Margaret Singer’s and Janja Lalich’s Cults in Our Midst, they describe how successful indoctrination requires that the person never suspect that they’re being recruited and that the cult must occupy as much of the candidate’s time as possible. Describing the kinds of people who are most likely to identify with cults, Singer singles out those from families that “unwittingly foster a combination of indecisiveness and rebelliousness,” qualities that can lead to a paralyzing uncertainty. These conditions can become pronounced in adolescence, when a person “feels overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices that need to be made, the ambiguity of life at this age, the complexity of the world, and the amount of conflict associated with many aspects of daily life. In addition to facing many pressing personal decisions, many adolescents are attempting to come to grips with their overall values, beliefs, and purposes.”

This boilerplate description seems applicable to most people, and indeed, Singer estimates that two-thirds of cult members are people from economically stable, well-educated backgrounds with no prior history of psychological disturbance. Cults don’t thrive on idiosyncratic individuals so much as take root in the cultures that need them, those which leave hidden absences at the heart of fundamental human desires for identity and a secure place in a community. The apparent impossibility of attaining these may prompt individuals to self-pathologize, blaming their lack on some personal insufficiency that must be overcome in a grand demonstration of identity. Joining a cult is both the solution to, and extension of this problem, a gesture that simultaneously asserts an irrefutable self and disavows any former claims on autonomous identity.

Cults don’t thrive on idiosyncratic individuals so much as take root in cultures that need them. The charismatic leaders of video games embody a common need shared among a mostly unseen minority of pacified teenage boys

Pelloni, though, is, by his own account at least, far outside every measure of normalcy. Correspondingly extreme is his susceptibility to the cultic witchcraft of video-game culture, which is always conjuring some apparition that seems greater than its tedious parts of computer code and microprocessors, the language of rules and limits become a background cant out of which the holy ghost of fun emerges like Mary Magdalene in a piece of burnt toast. The charismatic leaders of video games embody a common need shared among a mostly unseen minority of pacified teenage boys, who have told they can be anything they want to be while living in labyrinthine suburbs where nothing is possible.

The video-game industry has been able to grow not because of any one particular leader but a proliferation of cult-leader-like figures whom players can choose to elevate or denigrate based on their own particular tastes. For some it can be Warren Robinett’s pioneering the visual language of Atari 2600 games, or Roberta Williams’s work joining text adventures with imagery, or else it’s Shigeru Miyamoto, Mark Cerny, Chris Avellone, John Carmack, Shinji Mikami, Peter Molyneux, Jonathan Blow, Anna Anthropy, Goichi Suda — there are too many to count, but each offers their own proof that video games are something greater than entertainment, and they are so long as enough people believe in them enough to fill them up with their energy and imagination.

After his epiphany, Pelloni spent weeks and then months building pixel art and character animations for his game world, which was modeled after the gloomy suburbia from which he imagined himself escaping. A hour-long game demo released in 2009 suggested the contours of this version of his game: Players would control adolescent Yuu in a new home his parents have just moved into, solving small puzzles and talking to his family and a neighbor. The demo jumps backward and forward in time across Yuu’s childhood and ends with Yuu’s father having lost his job and slipping into despair. He fantasizes that Yuu will grow up to become a planetary dictator.” This world is nothing but misery and despair,” he tells Yuu. “Life is endless suffering and each day will always be worse than the last.” Shortly after Yuu discovers a variation on Super Mario Bros. in his older brother’s room. The game timer is a sum of money constantly running down, which must be replenished by jumping up to hit blocks with $ signs on them. At the end of the level, the game fades away and shows adult Bob sitting at his computer five years in the future. The entire demo is taking place within a game this fictional Bob is programming. In order to save the world, Yuu will have to find a way to break out of the simulation and confront Bob himself.

Pelloni’s unchecked ambitions and persona enthralled many in the games press. In 2008, the Orlando Sentinel published a long, admiring interview with Pelloni and described his project as a “dream game.” AOL’s gaming site Joystiq ran a daily update on a 2009 publicity stunt Pelloni planned, during which he trapped himself in an apartment and livestreamed his work on the game for 100 days, hoping to convince Nintendo to recognize him as an official developer. Soon, though, things became too intense to be mere fun. Joystiq’s Justin McElroy wrote, “we were fairly certain we were going to see the birth of a genuine indie dev folk hero. What we saw instead was the tragic dissolution of a grown man’s sanity, and the apparent squelching of a project with some 15,000 hours of development time behind it.”

Though Pelloni seemed to be losing his grip on things, the fact that he had remained sure of himself was briefly transfixing to games writers, sublime proof that games were important enough to warrant major personal sacrifices. Jim Sterling, of the website Destructoid, concluded that Pelloni’s “antics and rather self-aggrandizing attitude, even post-stunt, are the mark of somebody who deserves to be a part of the game industry. I dare say we could stand to have a few more maverick nutters like Bob running around.” In a 2010 story for games site Kotaku, writer and game designer Tim Rogers wrote about the brief period during which he’d employed Pelloni to work at his game-development company: “I have worked on game projects with development teams ranging from 13 to 60 persons, rolling on headlessly three years at a time, failing to settle on a lead character design, a scrap of story, or even a single spark of inspiration regarding the game design, despite said game company receiving literally millions of dollars in big corporate funding and working their employees 12 hours a day, six days a week. Bob’s at least uploaded a demo of his game, and he’s at least doing something he believes.”

As Pelloni worked, he came to believe his labor was divine and revolutionary. “I laid in bed and realized that God is the voice in my head, that we are all an extension of the same being, and that all truth comes from the heart,” he wrote. By 2008, Pelloni had spent over 15,000 hours working on Bob’s Game, more than eight hours a day for five consecutive years. “I realized that I AM God,” Pelloni wrote, “and I AM playing my own game.” Though he had begun with the humble goal of replicating a pastime he’d loved as a teen, the transformation of that loving obsession had become a vise of suffering and exhaustion, and the longer it went on, and the more it took from Pelloni, the more divine his project came to seem. How else could such a comprehensive gesture of self-sacrifice make sense?

By the end of 2013, Pelloni was homeless and working on a hand-me-down laptop in a Bay Area Starbucks. In early 2014, he launched a Kickstarter asking for enough to buy a new laptop and a used van equipped with solar panels to live in. “Without having closure on this project,” he wrote, “I know that I will never be the same again.” After a month, he had raised $10,409 from 223 backers, just passing his goal.

But he had begun to wonder whether his determination meant anything. His journey had taught him the only genuine life goal was ascension to “Godhood,” which would be achieved by releasing his game and watch its revolutionary spiritualism sweep over the globe in a wave of transcendent awakenings. But the harder he tried, the less anyone seemed to believe in him. “I’m just not sure anything is really good for anyone,” Pelloni wrote on his site. “I’m not sure what reality is.”

Still, after more than a decade of work, he felt he had gone too far to turn around. “I sort of just want to burn my last card and go wander off into the desert and face nothingness,” he wrote. “That’s the real final boss right there, starving in the desert. What if I win that? What else could possibly be meaningful afterwards?”

If Pelloni’s all-encompassing commitment to his game was disturbing, it wasn’t without precedent. In a 2012 story in the Atlantic, Taylor Clark praised designer Jonathan Blow’s puzzle game Braid for feeling “fully-authored,” a work that sketches “a portrait of a man run ragged by his pursuit of something spiritually larger than himself, a man whose uncompromising intellectual seriousness has left him isolated from a ‘world that flows contrariwise.’ A man, in short, much like Jon Blow.”

Speaking on a podcast for the games website Giant Bomb a few years later, Blow elaborated on the collapse between his work and his sense of self: “I don’t feel the need to say now I’m going to have my life and its a separate thing because games really are a big part of my life, most of my life.” For the game buyer and player, this kind of commitment suggests a deeper level of value, implying the maker has invested their creative energy for a higher purpose than profit. And for designers, this kind of commitment becomes aspirational, the model and the reward for their similar sacrifices as part of developing teams, the road beyond their anonymity. The game artist’s prize of self-expression is won by internalizing the labor of an entire company into their single person, a budgetary miracle that helps reinforce the idea that one truly committed person with something to say can do the work of 50.

In creating Bob’s Game, Pelloni’s work habits erased the distinction between a livelihood and a life in a similar way. “I believed that game development should be done by a shut-in lunatic man-child,” Pelloni wrote. “Isn’t that what an artist is?”

These hero narratives about game creators aggrandize the rise of the video game industry as an institution, but they are also ambiguous prayers

Admissions like that are easily sloganized — do what you love! — but they mask the effects that living a life consisting almost entirely of work has on a person, especially one like Pelloni, with a mix of passion and personal problems but neither the job training nor the social sophistication to tame them. The art practiced by Blow and most video-game designers is lunacy that repays devotion with failure, poverty, and social isolation. Blow’s example of success resonates in video-game culture because it makes an impossible dream — that there could be a utopian community of committed game artists that was financially stable and socially welcoming — seem realizable

These hero narratives about game creators aggrandize the rise of the video game industry as an institution, but they are also ambiguous prayers. Once games have become both an auteur’s art and an impersonal industry, the sacrifices of radical visionaries will no longer be necessary. The cult will have become self-abolishing, and its followers will have become ordinary workers, ordinary consumers.

In “What Do Bosses Do?” economist Stephen A. Marglin argued that logistical technology and the advancing division of labor have made capitalist production a bureaucracy of deferrals, lacking individually charismatic leaders. This enforces a facelessness and a meaningless on workers, who become detached from any possibility for creative expression or self-realization through work. So it would be no wonder if they were to gravitate to play and its opportunities for role-play and experimentation as relief. A belief that art, or games, manifest individual passion to the point of obsession addresses an underlying fear that individuality is disappearing.

When Bob’s Game was finally released earlier this year, it felt like an old prayer had been answered, though not fulfilled. On the surface Bob’s Game has all the qualities of a “video-game masterpiece”: It’s irrefutably personal, reflects a deep reverence for past traditions, and is built with exorbitant detail. But while the game’s website retains some of Pelloni’s grandiosity, (Bob’s Game is “THE GREATEST PUZZLE GAME EVER MADE” and contains “EVERY PUZZLE GAME IN ONE!”) the sprawling meta-confessional odyssey of religious recruitment has now been simplified into a humble puzzle game. Sometimes you’re stacking up piles of shapes as in Tetris, other times moving multicolored pills as in Dr. Mario, other times lining up multicolored columns as in Columns, and still other times using a square cursor to rotate stacks of icons to create matching patterns of three, and other times you’re moving one tile anywhere you want to match it with its like colors. It alternates between these familiar and unfamiliar forms without any instruction, and the fidget-fingered electronic score leaves players straining toward a trance state that the game’s shifting rules and puzzle pieces make unattainable.

But Pelloni seems to expect players will want to make the game as much as they play it — perhaps having realized that in matters of transcendence it is better to loosely inspire than specifically direct. Bob’s Game has a creation mode where players can generate their own puzzle pieces and rules, and a downloading platform where these experiments can be shared.

The beneficence of this structure is not quite an immaculate conception but an afterimage of what once was called “the sharing economy,” which has demonstrated that anything can and must be subdivided and commodified, transformed into work: one’s home, one’s car, one’s time, one’s passion projects. What fuels this conversion is not the tool itself — the app or the computer or the platform that coordinates the exploitation — so much as economic necessity, which sorely needs an alibi in an emotional narrative that might seem to justify sacrificing one’s waking life and material possessions to an unending labor process.

So the fantasy of art as a process where self-actualization and community identification merge into a single undertaking becomes irresistible. Within video-game culture, if the wall separating play from the production of play experiences could be seen as collapsing — the idea that Bob’s Game dramatically teased in its demo — it would appear as salvation.

In the 1950s and 1960s, video games were the redemptive project with a project that might redeem the horrific effects of surplus war technology. Today the fantasy has shifted: They seem to offer a loosely redemptive path out of the immiserating economy that depends on information technology. In both cases, games are the heroic catalyst that transforms the bad to good, the solipsist to hero, the pain of the present to the gentle embrace of the future.

The fantasy of video games offers a loosely redemptive path: They are the heroic catalyst that transform the solipsist to hero, the pain of the present to the gentle embrace of the future

As the game industry has gone to great lengths to give play the seriousness of work, the tech industry has tried to make work seem like a game. Many of Google’s offices around the world are designed as escapist theme parks for workers. The company’s offices in Mexico City offer a ball pit and swings, the Manhattan office features meeting rooms decorated like vintage subway cars, and the Mountain View office has a room filled with vintage arcade games like Star Castle and Defender. Infosys has a fully operating bowling alley in their Mysore office. These spaces offer hope to one who might self-identify as a gamer, that that identity might yet fit comfortably into a larger and more productive life. The haunted dysfunctions in the horizon-less suburbs might yet be redeemed.

Pelloni, in his way, has come full circle. After trying to make a game that could transcend itself, he has contented himself to release a game that can exist without him. This may be the aspirational endpoint of all video games: To prove how beside the point their creators are relative to the transcendent miracle of the game itself, which presents an unending clarity of now, in which nothing remains but to act, to move a block, to complete a pattern.

His website has undergone its own transformations, away from confessional grandiosity and toward something simpler. In place of his sprawling memoir, Pelloni updated the site to a kind of developer diary. Then in early 2016, the site changed again: Above a rainbow-colored triangle with an eye in it, an unsourced quote appeared in white font against a black background: “You do not have the right to eliminate yourself. You do not belong to you. You belong to the Universe. Your significance will remain forever obscure to you, but you may assume that you are fulfilling your role if you apply yourself to converting your experiences to the highest advantage of others.”

After he released Bob’s Game in February, he changed the site to its simplest form yet. Against a white background is a link to a developer resource site for people interested in modding the game, and below that is a short message, in a font so small you almost have to squint to read it, promising to eventually repost his life story and perhaps even add to it. “Thank you to everyone who has been with me over the years,” he wrote. “I’m not going anywhere, so I hope that we can continue going through life together.”

Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York and the author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men.