This piece was originally published March 20, 2018 and is part of The A.V. Club’s favorite features of 2018
Reddit can be an exceedingly strange place, but many of its strangest corners can be explained as something much simpler: inside jokes. Shitty battlestations, Slavic dudes squatting, a forum devoted to the letter G—all are, at their root, the product of seemingly unlimited free time and the internet’s capacity to drill a joke into the ground, finding it funnier the further it goes. This is how we end up not just with memes but entire joke stock markets based around them, and then, inevitably, real stock markets based around them. The nature of Reddit is to take something stupid very seriously for so long that you forget why it was funny to do so in the first place.
Infinite Scroll is a series about the increasingly blurry lines between the internet, pop culture, and the real world.
This is the case of one of the most enduringly fascinating subreddits I’ve encountered: r/Outside, which discusses the real world using the mechanics and terminology of a massively multiplayer role-playing game. Originally begun in October 2012, today r/Outside has some 350,000 “players,” making it the 304th biggest of the site’s 1.2 million forums. More than anything else, it’s an impressively thorough extended joke, finding years worth of variations within the framework. “Deity Games” is the absentee developer; your age is your level; the current year is rendered into a version number (so 1984 is v188.8.131.52). Some of the bits can be pretty good: a picture of Machiavelli’s The Prince is posted as a strategy guide written by a banned player; a long thread discussing whether America is an over-powered faction devolves into a debate about when the Anthropocene patch was released. Other posts look a lot like cut-rate Reddit posts with different branding; a funny picture of a cat is described as a glitch; tax season is described as a difficult sub-quest. The r/Outside subreddit’s most popular post ever is a warning not to select the “extra chromosome perk” at birth (“TRUST ME IT HELPS SOME STATS BUT RUINS EVERYTHING ELSE”), which feels about right, tonally.
It’s even burst out of the confines of Reddit. An entire YouTube channel, called TierZoo, maps the joke in surprising detail to the world of biology. The immensely popular Casually Explained channel used the framework to describe evolution across a trilogy of videos that have, together, accumulated almost 8 million views.
But there’s another category of r/Outside post that pops up occasionally, too, frequently netting much more detailed replies than others. “What to do when the game gets grindy and you feel like quitting?,” goes one such post:
I’ve heard that this is supposed to be the most rewarding game path, but the upkeep costs on all this is turning the game into a real drag - I spend so much time earning the credits for my base and helping the new players that I barely have time to earn xp for myself any more. ... Sometimes I feel like I picked the wrong build for my playstyle, but I’m now too high-level to respec.
Another, called “Getting bored of the game,” says:
I’m level nineteen now and grinding xp in the College main quest, but I’m pretty sure I’m failing all of my side quests. None of my stats are particularly low either. I mean there are a few that could be higher, like [CHA], but none of them are cripplingly low. ... I feel like I’m wasting all of my levels just trying to get to the next level.
Elsewhere someone mused, “Thinking about quitting, but all my friends play.” Another asked, “Are certain players better off quitting?” Another declared, “I’m done with this toxic meta obsessed community.” There are so many of these suicide posts that users have even broken character to request that they be banned; another immensely popular post asks, “How can I try and help players that are dedicated to quitting?” Unlike some other subreddits, r/Outside doesn’t have moderators to step in—whoever started the sub has remained largely absent, leaving the community to self-police. Sometimes they refer the account-deleters to Reddit’s suicide prevention forums, but mostly they keep the riff going, telling them to try playing it un-modded (that is, sober) or try co-op (get a partner). These suicide posts—and the sincerity with which they’re received and responded to—point to the fundamental virtue of r/Outside, giving people a familiar framework to view and talk about the world. For many people, it’s easier to view life as a simulation, rather than the chaotic, lonely, and impractical thing it actually is.
In some ways, r/Outside is the flipside to “gamification,” a buzzy term in the early part of this decade. In a TED Talk and accompanying book, designer Jane McGonigal advocated for games as a uniquely compelling medium, capable of sinking their hooks deep in our animal brains and leading us to do crazy things. But what if that power were harnessed for good? She launched a title called SuperBetter, which was designed to “gamify” the process of self-actualizing, using RPG-like progress and incentives to lead people to lose weight, get over a break-up, sleep better, and so on. The gospel of gamification spread quickly to the corporate world, where companies rushed in to make consuming things as fun as playing games. Google News gave badges to you, rather pointlessly, for reading articles; Lyft tosses more badges out for things like riding on a Friday. FourSquare’s rankings, Fitbit’s competitive comparisons, neighborhood energy-consumption charts—all the result of gamification, a fundamental transposition of game mechanics onto the real world.
Gamification is now a widely reviled, groan-worthy term in the game industry—a brief and ugly flirtation with corporate America that has since fizzled. The r/Outside subreddit cannily flips this, more often than not despairing at the complexities of the world, groaning about its broken systems—and offering respite for people looking to leave it altogether. It’s another example of the way the simulation theory—that is, the idea that we’re living in an extremely detailed simulation of reality—has crashed to earth, scanning more as an internet-era response to overstimulation than anything else.
Games have always been tied to the simulation theory. One of its cornerstones is the march of video-game graphics, surmising that if a few decades could take us from Pong to Grand Theft Auto V, a few more could create games that were indecipherable from reality. Unsurprisingly, the real-world-as-videogame forms a rich sub-genre in the growing canon of simulation-theory pop culture. Games themselves use this framework probably more than any other. In Metal Gear Solid, Assassin’s Creed, and pretty much all of Goichi Suda’s games, it provides a neat justification for game-like mechanics within a realistically rendered world. When film and TV play with the theme, they often use it to comment on games and game culture. Black Mirror has hit upon this idea twice, first in the exercise-bike-bound, gamified dystopia of “Fifteen Million Merits,” and again in “Playtest,” which used the idea as a springboard for a lurid haunted-house tale.
But while some of these video-game-as-simulation works grapple with video game culture, all of them grapple with death. Games are a morbid medium, after all, utilizing the language and iconography of life and death to teach the rules of the game, even in cheery platformers like Super Mario Bros. Accordingly, pretty much all of these works are forced to come up with some mechanical response to death. In Edge Of Tomorrow, it leads to an instantaneous reload at the nearest checkpoint. In Tron, programs get derezzed with a voxelated splash. Gamer excuses the death-count by making all the players death-row inmates; Hardcore Henry utilizes an army of identical clones to account for the loss of life. Dying in-game in Ready Player One’s OASIS leads to a fate worse than death—you start over at level 1.
The suicide jokes on r/Outside—if they can be called that—take advantage of this body of cultural knowledge, acknowledging the despair that leads to the choice to take your own life, but casting it as an almost empowered consumer choice. You’re simply logging off, because fuck this game. It’s also reassuring, implying a world outside of r/Outside that we can then enjoy, free from the grind of the game. There’s a hint of this existential slipperiness in many RPGs, which are in an arms race to include ever more landmass and content, suggesting a whole second life for players to live in-game, with wives and hobbies and jobs, and in online games in general, which are perhaps best known for a game literally called Second Life. What’s the big deal about losing one when you have two? And who’s to say which one is more important?
Well, as with the larger simulation theory, it’s worth stepping back for a quick gut check: It’s the real life that matters, of course. But this fiction (and r/Outside’s roleplaying of it) prove how seductive the alternative is. Depending on which futurist you read, it may be more than mere escapism. A recent article in Aeon by the Princeton neuroscientist Michael Graziano explores the inevitability of copying of a human consciousness, memories and all, which could then be uploaded to some sort of digital space to wander about for eternity. As a point of comparison, he cites music, which was only able to be manually created until Thomas Edison invented the phonograph. A similar leap, Graziano says, is waiting for consciousnesses, which currently recreates individual processes of the brain but will someday be able to duplicate one in all its complexity.
Once again, Black Mirror already did it; this is the essential plot of “San Junipero,” the show’s effervescent, post-human highpoint. But while that episode flipped the series’ signature pessimism, resulting in an aching celebration of eternal love, Graziano concludes,
I am not talking about utopia. To me, this prospect is three parts intriguing and seven parts horrifying. I am genuinely glad I won’t be around. This will be a new phase of human existence that is just as messy and difficult as any other phase has been.
People will, in other words, still yearn to quit the game. For a sneak peek, we might look at the world of current MMOs, which grapple with death in strange ways. People unplug from them all the time; kept running long enough, any MMO will depopulate through player disinterest, turning vast clockwork metropolises into lonely ghost towns, wandered through by a few true believers. Other MMOs, forced to shut down due to financial reasons or dwindling public interest, orchestrate vast apocalypse events to provide players with something like closure. In The Matrix Online, monsters flooded friendly areas, and weapons suddenly killed players in a single hit, with death unexpectedly permanent. Even more telling is what happens when when the inverse occurs, and IRL death creates a hole in a digital world. In Final Fantasy XIV, a player named Codex Vahlda was commemorated with massive light shows and vigils full of finely dressed avatars kneeling reverently in town squares. More often than not, though, these remembrances are all set-up for one last, triumphant grief-giving event, like when a peaceful World Of Warcraft funeral procession turned into a massacre, or when a group of PlanetSide 2 players carpet-bombed the funeral of someone from their own guild, exclusively for the fuck of it.
As with r/Outside, any MMO is still going to be full of assholes. Eventually, it’s only human to want to quit. The same thing unfortunately goes for the world outside r/Outside, too. Our popular culture likes to imagine a world that’s a video game less as a means to draw in people who play games and more as a purer escape hatch, a sort of endless pleasure awaiting us all. That’s the allure of games, after all. You can’t lose in an RPG or in an MMO; everything is available to you if you stay at the grind long enough. The real world isn’t quite so tidy, but, as r/Outside proves, it does provide something else: community.
Next time: When did we start to empathize with the damn machines?