Chatroulette is a website in which two random people are instantly connected via their webcams and microphones across the web. When one person doesn't like what the other is seeing, they can quickly shuffle the connection to the next user available. The service is rife for new and interesting social experiments in addition to being one of the most depressing portals into the state of our private humanity - especially in the good ol' USA.
You and I both know Chatroulette. It can be strange and wonderful and horrid all at once. When I was formally introduced to the service, it was amongst friends and it was silly and fun and most cameras were pointed at faces and there were quick and harsh judgements made and immediately forgotten. All par for the course...until my friend started playing Flower in the same room. Getting bored with the service, someone suggested showing the Chatroulette folk the game. I turned the camera toward the television and excitedly discovered my new favorite pastime.
In this post I want to share and explore not only my observations of displaying beautiful or interesting video game scenes on portals like CR, but what it means and can mean.
It's simple - the CR formula calls for one main tool - a webcam. The default presentation for a webcam connection is face-to-face. I see enough faces in my daily life, so copious helpings of monitor-glow frowns aren't my sight of choice and no one needs to see mine either. This is disparage number one: While we are trapped inside, becoming more and more mentally and physically unhealthy, there are games being developed that potentially replace our need for need for freedom and health, which Flower is about first and foremost.
To give this kind of visual (and aural) insight to such a large swath of non-gamers and to potentially lonely, sad, hostile, disturbed folk is important to me. Of course not everyone on Chatroulette is sad, or alone, or unaware of quality video games, but I'm gonna go ahead and assume the worst.
Flower is a game that I place a lot of my self into when I play it. There is a narrative there, but like all the best games, it specializes in allowing the player to truly apply themselves in a seemingly free range design. Flower is simply the literal definition of this, as open fields and lack of intense civilization is my ideal freedom.
Had my friend turned a different video game on instead of Flower, I think that I would have adopted this game as my primary CR display eventually nonetheless. There are few video games out now that can just as relatable as they are alienating to non-gamers, a complex trait I believe Flower has in spades.
I will categorize the reactions, just as I can when I play other games I think will be relatable in some way to the masses. In order of most prevalent:
1. Indifference Most people aren't gamers. We know this. Somehow twenty-five years after Super Mario Bros. and the NES sell a kajillion units, our medium is still managing to be the most alienated and suspect in the eyes of, well, nearly everyone I've ever met for example. In Chatroulette this translates to a near immediate "channel change", but why? Do they recognize Flower as a game at all? During gameplay there is no heads-up display and while the visuals aren't pitch-perfect realism, what about the computer-generated flora turns these people off? I wonder what they are looking for. Another sordid blue face? Simulated sex? Whatever it is, flower petals floating on the breeze certainly aren't going to appease them and maybe open glowing fields, even when simulated, isn't everyone's ideal of a perfect environment.
2. Puzzlement Raised eyebrows. Typing "WTF?" Mouthing the words "what the fuck". Like the majority mentioned above, I wonder if there is really just a strong swath of people not familiar with computer simulations. They know about CGI kids films and they know flowers and wind and grass exist (I fuckin hope). Where is this reaction stemming from then, and why? Confusion is to be expected, I suppose, considering the aforementioned lack of gamers on our dear planet, but my favorite still has to be this idea: What chemical connections are firing that help a violent, hostile, or generally confrontational person attempt to even remotely relate to something as peaceful, serene, and unassuming as Flower? The idea that Flower could be the wrench thrown into anyone's routine gears excites the hell out of me.
3. Recognition They ask me, "What game?" They can tell it's a game and I don't like that, but I respond in the chat box "Gears of War". Later, asked again by another person, I buck up and try to believe in the human race for a split second, even while deep in that pit, and I say "f-l-o-w-e-r". They leave. It's such an obvious response that maybe they're insulted. Or maybe they went and bought a copy. And maybe they went directly to Jenova Chen's house and gave him 10 bucks and a hug. They also mention the name of the game. One guy: "Is that that Flower joint on PSN?" repeatedly. (note: I never respond other than when necessary. One of the most important aspects of this experiment, I believe, is to remain the messenger, but more on that in a sec.) They say that it's a "good game" and switch out. I wonder what Flower meant to them and how it felt to see the sunlight and grass again amongst the stares.
4. Anger, Contempt, and Disgust Retro games like Mega Man and Sonic get this one much more than Flower does when I employ them here, and although rare it is typically the strongest when it occurs. They have had stubby middle fingers, screams, and sneers directed at them. Is it because they are video games? The idea that I could ever upset anyone with Sonic's idle foot-tapping animation or Mega Man's charming open-mouthed jump pose is frightening to me, but the worst is during poor complacent Flower. I leave the game on its screen saver mode sometimes, which is when the controller goes idle and the screen displays a series of vignettes from the level you're in. They are beautiful, and they upset some people. I wonder if it is because they are certain that someone is behind the lens that they want to offend. If not (which is sometimes the case when I get bored of CR and leave it go on its own), than that means there is a one-way communication happening between a heartfelt simulated attempt at a colorful and heavenly human ideal, and a pissed off fat 15 year old girl stuck in Ohio forever. This bitterness is unparalleled because it is so unwarranted and solitary. You may think I am looking too deeply into shallow and rash actions (which is the core of CR, really), but if such actions are involuntary against non-sentient art, I can't help but feel despair for our future, especially considering the large numbers of youths browsing the service.
5. Elation and Incredulity Shocked, surprised, and utterly overjoyed to see a video game (especially when it's one from their childhood) placed in such a form. Either that, or they are so enthralled by the images and color that they're jaws drop low and I smile every time. They are most likely high, but I prefer to think that is sober joy that they are experiencing. Besides, these are the rarest reactions.
It is important that there is no "I" here, however, as the display only features the game and hardly ever communicates that there is a person behind it. If for any reason the experience is "given away", such as when the "[Start Button] to Resume" display is indicated or I receive a trophy, clearly labeled onscreen, those who may have had faith in the hypnotic aura of the complete experience may be kicked out of it and reminded that they are "only" watching a video game/simulation. Nonetheless, I never switch channels unless the person is frozen. Being faithful to the abject simplicity and giving nature of the world is my goal. Sunlight never shuts us out.
This person watched me play for minute after minute - and finally left once they saw I had gotten the "Nature" trophy.
Chatroulette is a portal into people's lives and desires. What they want out of the world and out of you. By demonstrating the opposite of that dark and sedentary choice with the free form nature and open bright greenery of Flower (even the night levels), I believe I might be helping to expose an entirely new audience to a fantastic medium and game, even if only for a brief click-in/click-out moment. Because even amongst the multitude of bare chested men and flurry of directionless teenagers, there can always be something new and something bright.
I think I've said everything I've wanted to although I bet I'll edit it a thousand times after I publish it because I'm no writer. I hope you try this activity yourself sometime. If for no other reason than to share some lovely 8-bit, 16-bit, and petal-bit art around where it is most unwelcome and surprising, do it to help convince yourself that this squalid, lonely, tech-absorbed culture of ours is worth saving through the very medium that is helping push each of us away from each other and the source code of Flower itself, our beautiful world.