• Sam Machell

Uh oh! Finding myself being swallowed by time!: boredom as a desirable quality in gaming

written and recorded with the intention of automated performance, this talk was made for the Fringe Theatre @ EGX Rezzed. due to the Plague, and the subsequent cancellation of the event, I decided to make the talk available online. handily didactic for strange and dull times. this is the full text.

Do not listen to this recording whilst driving or operating machinery. Only listen when you can safely relax and bring your full awareness to your own complete comfort or confusion. This text will be theoretical, and sometimes chaotic or poetic in flow. Some connections may be spindly or tenuous. This has been a disclaimer.

Hello, this is Sam Machell. I’d like to invite you, today, for the next 40 minutes, to become reacquainted with your body. To become reacquainted with time. To become reacquainted with meaning. What are you doing right now? Are you standing or sitting? You are sweaty. Are your eyes open or closed? What colour is the surface beneath you? Take some time to notice the way it feels in contact with your body, the impression it leaves. Feel the sweat. Notice the sweat. Notice the damp and shameful border between your skin and your clothing. How does the controller feel in your hands? Slick? Tacky? Like an extension of your hands? Like one more addition to the posthuman body’s evolving, external, networked toolkit of parts and mineral? Flex your fingers. Within your mind, become aware of a tension filling and then leaving each finger in sequence.

Where are you? Perhaps you are hiking, building a bridge to cross a stream. Perhaps you are reconnecting a continent. Notice the effervescent flow of Monster Energy as it passes through your urethra. Feel the warmth of the stew: the warmth as it is conducted through the metal bowl to your callused cowboy hands. Notice the squelch as you wander the swampy grounds of camp, nodding in greeting to the other members of your gang. Pay close attention to every footstep as you navigate the towering house, dust in your lungs, the memories of deceased family members manifesting about you as you walk.

I have prepared this recording to discuss different facets of boredom, how we experience it, and how we can use it in our art as a tool to encourage certain thought or emotion. Are you bored of my voice already? Maybe. Maybe you will be soon. Think: What does the word boredom mean to you? It is probably grey in colour, dull or ashen, waxy, sterile, in the typeface of a form unsigned, a bill, a novel you hated at school. It probably has personal connotations; memories of pain. We think of boredom as an emotional state: as a restlessness of the mind, when the external world is lacking in stimulation. Boredom could come from repetition, from tediousness, from slowness, from being disinterested in what you are doing, what you are being shown, what you are being.

Within boredom there is a duality, between the internal mind and the external world. In her survey of the historic contexts of boredom, Elizabeth Goodstein writes on this dichotomy, “[it is] a discursively articulated phenomenon… boredom is at once objective and subjective, emotion and intellectualization—not just a response to the modern world but also a historically constituted strategy for coping with its discontents.” Notice your thoughts. Most likely, they associate boredom with the 9-5, with the workday, with an experience that must be endured for the sake of survival, some necessity, some trial, a form of labour or a daily grind, an expectation: an experience of endurance across a period of time is a task to be fulfilled. It is a sweet and fitting thing to be bored for your homeland.

We need look no further for examples of this prolonged pain than the legacy of endurance art: an offshoot of the school of performance art with a specific focus on a hardship suffered by the artist: be it isolation, exhaustion, hunger or pain. Look around you. You see remnants of felt torn to shreds by a wild animal. They gather in the corner of the space. You see used condoms and dirty laundry; unmade sheets; empty takeaway boxes. You see a horrifying seedbed of gunky excrement. In 1974, Joseph Beuys spent three days of eight hours each in a gallery space with a wild coyote. His intention being to engage with a symbol of America, endure the feral and the hostile, and, against all odds, attempt to make a connection.

Marina Abramovich’s 2002 piece The House With the Ocean View saw her living for 12 days within a gallery on water alone. In an open, dollshouse construction, she would use the toilet, shower, sleep, and drink water, in naked view of the public. The ladders leading down from her stage, although sturdy, were runged with knives, offering her no escape. Across the 12 days visitors would arrive in the space and take a seat, intending only to spend minutes, but lose track of time and spend hours. Speaking of the piece she says “There's something like, I almost think that if you are in the present, and you are purified, that you can create a kind of energy field, that you can change, on atomic level, the space in a certain way with the public, and feel, and just be in the present time.” I wonder what this “purified” notion can mean. Perhaps our virtual surrogate bodies are purified in such a way: devoid of any real chemical interference: red meat or alcohol: THC or saturated fats: pumped through of binary only, the purified figment propelled into a timeframe of their own: central to the world and the mechanics that operate beneath.

In Spencer Yan’s forthcoming survival horror My Work is Not Yet Done, actions that would, in other games, be performed by the press of a button, are granulated into mundane component parts. The lighting of a fire requires individual constructions to be laboriously placed and then lit. Mechanics are obscured and intermingle in complex ways, resulting in an opaque and potentially frustrating gameplay experience that forces the player to engage with their virtual body, forces the player to deal with the reality of survival in ways that are often ignored. What is survival in a video game if not some kind of abstracted process of endurance art? A performing of virtual bodily functions?

I recommend looking into Tehching Hseih’s One Year Performances for this idea taken to a logical extreme. You may also contemplate the way Rockstar’s tragic neo-western epic Red Dead Redemption 2 asks you to maintain Arthur Morgan’s body. By slowly setting up camp, slowly remembering to shave, slowly cooking, slowly eating, slowly cleaning your gun, slowly brushing your horse, slowly finding routine. There is a quiet beauty in these slow actions and in the slow feeling of connection you build with Arthur. You share a body: you share ailments: you share a connection to the world and the world is beautiful and cruel. For German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, boredom was perhaps one of the most serious and deadly concerns in his writings. He sums it up dramatically, writing that boredom is nothing less than “direct proof that existence is in itself valueless”, that it is “nothing other than the sensation of the emptiness of existence". For if the experience of existence was fulfilling, we would not need to strive, to find our own meaning.

A game like Proteus may disagree: offering little but the slow ticking progression of seasons and the player’s own curiosity to keep them occupied on a randomly generated musical island, but certainly this is outside of the norm: the norm we are accustomed to, where video games are little more than a to-do-list masked by slick presentation. Maybe this is a cynical view to take? But think on how often have you heard someone lazily criticising the Uibosft open world formula: a map littered with objectives to be completed, so many that it becomes meaningless drudgery: repetition. Think also on the grinding gameplay of turn-based RPGs, where the player has to churn through monotonous battles in order to improve their character up to an arbitrary level. As Civ IV’s designer Soren Johnson has said, “given the opportunity, players will optimise the fun out of a game.” Understanding boredom as a process to be endured, suggesting some goal, a point in which the boredom ceases and the bored person has succeeded, there then emerge some situations in which boredom is seen as acceptable and valiant. Willfully, players will bore themselves if it enables them to accomplish a future goal: think about searching for diamonds or wither skulls in Minecraft, the early days of watering plants and clearing your farm of debris in Stardew Valley, or watching ads in a mobile clicker game to give yourself a bonus.

Living in a buzzword-flooded, post-internet, neo-liberal, late-capitalist society we are all accustomed to the desire to monetise every facet of existence. The rise of the gig economy shames the individual for enabling any slice of down time. Any time not spent optimising, producing capital, or bettering the perception of our personal brands is a failure. The boring term itself, the word “a bore”, “to be a bore”, originates globally and across-language from some time between 1760 and 1820, around the time of the industrial revolution. Before developments that brought upon the manufacturing line, it seems humanity felt no need to express this state with its own term, or perhaps even did not experience it in the same way. Perhaps this sudden acceleration of industry and culture uprooted some previously dormant sensation, or unsettled, to the core, what was once a satisfaction with living and slowness. Without such a focus on efficiency, down time may not have been experienced as adverse, but crucial or precious. In this view, boredom in the modern day becomes some form of protest: and not just in some sort of stoner, burnout, early Greenday Brainstew, Longview kind of aimless protest or rage against some general conformity, (a tradition also reflected in British punk of the 70s), but a deep and significant internal denial of neoliberalism’s creeping hand.

This idea was first outlined by Jean Baudrillard in The Consumer Society: “the ‘go-slow’ or ‘slowdown’ of factory workers, or the schoolchild’s ‘boredom’ [...] are all forms of passive resistance; they are ‘ingrowing’ in the way one speaks of an ‘ingrowing toenail’, turning back in towards the flesh, towards the inside.” In fact, for him, boredom becomes “the only form of activity which can be set against the constraint of general passivity which applies in current social relations.” Thinking on this framing, of boredom as a passive sign of discontent towards a wider economic or social system, utilising boredom within a video game could be a way of engaging the player, unknowingly, always the best way with gamers, with political ideologies or themes. For example, Stephen Lavelle’s game Queue makes the player wait in line for their appointment at the social welfare office. The only actions the player may take are taking your number, and handing in your number. Text scrolls very slowly and the player is forced into an uncomfortable position of active waiting: making mechanical the anxiety the protagonist is feeling.

In 1975, on his way home from the recording studio, at-the-time-glamrock-superstar Brian Eno was hit by a car. This story has since reached the plane of myth, so who can speak to its truth, but, it has been reported that while recovering, Eno’s girlfriend brought round an LP of harp music. He says “After I had lain down, I realised that the amplifier was set at an extremely low level, and that one channel of the stereo had failed completely. Since I hadn’t the energy to get up and improve matters, the record played on almost inaudibly. This presented what was for me a new way of hearing music – as part of the ambience of the environment just as the colour of the light and sound of the rain were parts of the ambience.” The music Eno went on to develop came to define the ambient genre - mellow and spaced out lonely notes, little push or progression or momentum - music designed to melt into the ambient environment of the listener. Different, perhaps, from Muzac, which was intended to provide a rhythmic flow to a space, to funnel people and keep them moving or shopping, which is more psychologically focused.

The word ambient, originating from the latin ambire “to go around”, is defined now by Google as “relating to the immediate surroundings of something” ie a room’s ambient temperature, or interestingly “relating to or denoting advertising that makes use of sites or objects other than the established media (e.g. by placing slogans on the back of bus tickets).” Rather than thinking of ambient as a descriptor that implies quietness, then, we can more accurately think of it as a work that relates in some way to the physical experience of interaction with it, and with the world around you. Ambient music, sinking into the background and becoming part of the listener’s world’s texture; or ambient literature, as defined by Tom Abba, that makes specific reference to the mechanic or material of the book or screen you are reading. Ambient work becomes almost Brechtian, fourth-wall-breaking, bringing the viewer’s attention to the mechanics that enable their art experience. But whereas this kind of thing is often done through metatextual eyebrow-raising or postmodern winking, an ambient work is more likely concerned with the physical material of the medium, structural almost. Think about my breath occasionally popping the microphone, peaking the audio. Notice when I sluggishly take ugly inhales or smack my lips.

And now let me reel this back in and talk about video games again. David O’Reilly’s Mountain, I think, is a fine example of an ambient game. If playing on PC, the game operates in a small window that the player may leave running in the background behind other applications. Interaction is kept to a minimum, and really, the way to play is by not interacting in the same way a reader would not-read a work by Tan Lin. Over time your Mountain may have a thought it’d like to tell you, notifying you with a little sound. The game becomes part of the texture of your computer experience: utilising and maintaining your awareness of the desktop as a space: as material: as mechanism. In this way, Nathalie Lawhead’s games like Cyberpet Graveyards that utilise the desktop space may also be viewed as ambient: or A Desktop Love Story that makes use of abstract systems like your computer’s administrative properties and file hierarchies. Just spit-balling here, what else could be seen as ambient? Johan Sebastian Joust? 1-2 Switch? It’s a real shame Nintendo never made their heart-rate monitor for the wii.

But thinking of ambience as some form of embodiment, some totality of surrounding and your place in it, or more accurately, perhaps, an awareness of the player’s body, and in turn the virtual body the player is inhabiting, we can see facets of this form appearing all over. In fact, it is my contention that the awkwardness of the virtual body is a primary focus of contemporary AAA design. Death Stranding, a simple game about hiking, demonstrates an extraordinary focus in controlling the body of the virtual Sam. We can see this just from browsing the controls and contemplating how much real-estate certain mechanics are given. R1 holds your breath. L2 and R2 (notably analogue suggesting some degree of mastery or finesse) control how you shift your centre of gravity. Press the central touchpad to call out in hope that someone may hear. Like Red Dead Redemption 2, Death Stranding goes to certain lengths to make some mechanics fiddly or unintuitive. Both these games ask players to slow down, struggle with awkwardness, and reflect on the way they embody virtual characters. Both, I would think of, as semi-ambient works. Both, I think also, have been described by many players as boring.

Perhaps because these games are more demanding? Perhaps because these games ask the player to be more active in their consumption? No auto-pilot allowed when simple movement becomes a chore: gamers are forced to engage in a different, more introspective, attentive, mindful way. So let us turn to slow cinema, a genre of film focused on contemplative pace, often a pointed absence of narrative or dialogue, and an emphasis on minimalism and long, unbroken takes. The languid rhythm of shots, often single takes, slow individually and slowly cut together, becomes a psychedelic tapestry, where melancholic realism is juxtaposed with dreamlike, poetic imagery to create a feeling of reflection, of memory. To watch a slow film is to be forced into a position of active participation. Speaking of Andy Warhol’s 5hr 20min film Sleep, that, as its name suggests, simply shows a shot of somebody sleeping, viewers remark how, although deadly boring, the way the film, over time, rearranged their expectations, made small moments like the rustling of a sheet or the movement of a limb into profound moments of drama and excitement. It is almost as if boredom is grown from years of expectations. I think about films made for babies. I used to watch this VHS called Baby Einstein that was a compilation of shots of simple repeating actions: a marble rolling down a spiral track, food colouring dissolving, puppets or animals moving slowly, sometimes synched to a backing track of Mozart music. Babies of a certain age don’t get bored: they can watch the same video on loop indefinitely. What happens with age that makes us so restless? What happened to our ability to exist in ecstatic aimlessness and how can we reclaim such an intangible thing?

In his unfinished novel The Pale King, David Foster Wallace attempts to paint boredom as a redemptive experience, as one that can purify and make whole a broken person, to depict the endurance of mind-numbing boredom as heroic. Scenes show characters struggling to maintain their focus, visualising pleasant beaches. One character focuses so intently he floats above his chair, evoking the image of a meditation guru. Where boredom in the workplace may send one of his characters into a self-destructive spiral of doubt, another may harness this experience and discover new superpowers. An extended section of the book shows a character’s progression from a student wastoid to a by-the-books accountant, having discovered the pleasing, dissociating qualities of boredom.

Boredom, indeed, can be a way of distancing yourself from the rapid pace of the post-internet world. A time for reflection or meditation. Transcendental meditation as promoted by the David Lynch foundation has, mechanically, a lot in common with boredom, in that they both share a focus on the rejection of external stimuli, and are both activated by repetition. If you were to practice transcendental meditation you may visualise certain sounds on each in and out breath, focusing your mind on your bodily functions in such a way as to tap into a higher plane of consciousness, to transcend, like moving the feather up and down, delicately, in Celeste, or move the legs of your runner in QWOP.

Perhaps in such a hellish world as ours boredom is a crucial escape. A chance to not think.A moment of pause where we need not seek stimulation or validation. It sounds almost puritanical when put this way but I genuinely feel slowness and fatigue may be a form of hope.

So here we are, surfacing, now, from this fullbody flow and reverie, and I’d like to connect all this to my own branch of practice.

I thought, a lot, of the orange creeping stretches of sand in Desert Bus when designing the game Brownie Cove Cancelled, which Kotaku described as “an over-saturated dreamscape, one that aptly simulates the languid, draining pace of airport life as travelers slowly cook under sickly fluorescent lights.” In the opening moments, the player is told that their flight has been delayed by six hours. Waiting for this flight, in real time, is the only way to win the game. What does a video game require of you other than your time? An arbitrary amount determined by the developer required to be spent in order for completion. By surreal turn of fate, and echoing the popularity and longlife of Desert Bus, players actually did this. There is at least one full 6 hour stream of somebody completing Brownie Cove Cancelled to be told, to the horror of their chat, that the flight had been cancelled and that we were thankful for their time. In our game Definition of a Ghuest you play as two characters watching a film at a spontaneous drive-in screening. The film depicts a short loop of somebody moving around a hotel room. The player can choose how the characters react to the film: through boredom or introspection, and in turn the game encourages players to consider how they respond to unusual stimuli, and reflect on the context in which they consume media. Our game on display in the Leftfield Collection Kitchen For One also engages with boredom in its own way. I’d encourage you all to go have a crack at it.

And I’ll leave you with this quote from Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project:

“Boredom is a warm grey fabric lined on the inside with the most lustrous and colourful of silks. In this fabric we wrap ourselves when we dream. We are at home then in the arabesques of its lining. But the sleeper looks bored and grey within their sheath. And when they later wake and want to tell of what they have dreamed, they communicate by and large only of this boredom. For who would be able at one stroke to turn the lining of time to the outside?”

Thank you.

Things I didn’t have time to include:

Eurotruck Simulator ! the ultimate meditative experience

Kentucky Route Zero, Kafka, and forcing the player to engage with bureaucracy

This, Too, Shall Pass and the slow boring death of the climate

Dear Esther and the “walking simulator” in all its failures and discontents

The Witness and the Silicon Valley notion of enlightenment through exploitation/imprisonment/born intelligence/

Solitary confinement and zoochosis…

Tarkovsky’s film Mirror, sadly cut for time and sorely absent from the recording, plus more examples of slow cinema

The gendered imbalance of boredom in the workplace: sexist history of call centres etc

The amazing game about waiting by Cawlspace, The Interlude

The bit in the fish factory in Edith Finch’s Big Big House… you know the bit

The music genre Lowercase - constructed around almost impossibly quiet sounds, like the rustling of paper

See also:

The Whitechapel Press book Boredom, edited by Tom McDonough - informed a lot of this talk and is a great place to find out more

DFWallace’s short story The Soul is Not a Smithy - about a school child daydreaming as they gaze out a window… and some other stuff...

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