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Literary Computing

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Coaldust: Performance in MMORPGs

Coaldust is a tactical intervention in the world of massive multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPGs). More specifically: Coaldust is performed in the world of LOTRO, a game based on the J. R. R. Tolkein novels and the recent movies.

The first Coaldust performance was on the topic of the Sago Mine Disaster that occurred on June 2, 2006 in Sago, WV.

The second Coaldust performance deals with 1) the April 2010 explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine at Montcoal in West Virginia, and 2) with the Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest organized armed uprising in US labor history.

Think of the pixie dust that enables Tinker Bell to fly in Disney’s Peter Pan or of the quest for magical sparkling dust in World of Warcraft or of the quest for magic “shire dust” in LOTRO. Dust is the raw material of fantasy worlds, of never-never land.

Coal dust is rather different: suspended in the air around coal mining areas, it coats the lungs and leads to deadly pneumoconiosis. Coal accounts for 50% of the power generated in the USA and 90% in the state of West Virginia. Coal dust is everywhere. It seeps into the skin and tattoos the body.

We will turn the pixie dust of online fantasy gaming into the coal dust of the real. We will liberate the imaginary of play from its narrative capture by literary fantasy. Why LOTRO? Lord of the Rings is the epic high fantasy. It is a concrete imaginary repertoire familiar from movies and other visual displays. It is also a literal landscape, tied to the practices of narrativity and the literary imaginary. For us, the epic high fantasy is the disappearance of work, of real conditions. Think of the meeting of these two landscapes: West Virginia and the Middle Earth. Think of Tolkein’s Mines of Moria, familiar from the movies and the novel: empty, crafted by dwarves, vast underground cities… Now compare these mines to the very real mines of Upshur County, WV. Think of Lord of the Rings as a collective fantasy, as a way of imagining conditions of work: as heroic, as tied to essence or race, as magical… Fantasy is explicitly a repudiation and turning away from science and technology. Fantasy reduces the real to axis of good/evil. The novels are one plane of the fantasy; the game is another plane; to play the game is to inhabit but also to work through this fantasy.

We will make gameplay a waking state, an emergence from the fantasy. How can in-game performance speak of the outside of this fantasy? What of the relation of player and avatar? We refuse to simply accept that the avatar or game character is an extension of the self that “drives” or “operates” the avatar. Reverse this: avatar and subject are both extensions as subjects of empire and its history.

The notion of “game-play” as a term for the interactions and dynamics of playing a game rests on the distinction of play-work that underlies our cultural understanding of games. As we focus on games as objects of cultural interest and even “real economic” interest, this work-play distinction breaks down. The game-play must be understood as labor, but what kind of labor? In what way, i.e. what kind of labor? A LOTRO player at work (play?) for hours, or even for the entire day as in the case of a “Chinese gold farmer,” certainly commits his/her body to the game. Body here includes cognitive labor, the physical investment of the hands, the posture, internal affect (it hurts when your avatar is killed [somewhere? where does it hurt?]). In fact, the extreme or dramatic cases of the gold farm laborers aren’t necessary here: this level of physical commitment is the case for any fan. The gaming addict who plays for hours on end sublimates the body to the game. No, sublimation isn’t sufficient either, since it implies a making invisible or reduction of the role of the body, whereas anyone watching gamers sees many modes of bodily investment, from fingers twitches to involuntary curses, and so on. While it is important to materialize the labor of the game in the player’s body, it is necessary to emphasize the immaterial and networked quality of the labor, i.e. an avatar mining coal, eventually to be sold for gold, is an image in a network of exchanges from the gamer’s body, to in-game exchanges, to EBay sales, to account information, to actual resources (i.e. amount of server space or energy consumed by running the account), to cultural production around the game (e.g. machinima, or this project itself!), and so on.

Let’s interrogate “game-play” from another direction. “Play” invokes literary and theatrical performance. A play frames and controls the borders of performance through genre. When we use the term game-play we coin a new portmanteau of theatrical play in game space that asks after and test the extents of performative effects, and thus the extents of chained sign-regimes.

At one level, our performance is an event that emerges from within the narrativity of the game world. At another level, the performance is a tactical intervention that takes the diegesis of fantasy and historicizes it, producing not just play but display that fissures fantasy and moves the viewer. (“Tactical interventions” create territorial autonomous zone [TAZs] in codified spaces.) We intervene in the narrative and imaginary repertoire of the gameworld. Game narratives draw us in by persuasive parallels to the narratives of our own lives, experiences, and imaginations. We still understand even the most abstract game (Tetris, for example) through human endeavor and achievement, through points and levels. The perceptual – largely visual – achievement of the game interface is a sense of immersion in a “world” that is persuasively real even when clearly fantastic. Even radically fantastic game settings necessarily involve some projection of the self into the world. The very use of the term “world” in gaming signifies this immersion. In phenomenological terms, we live in the world in terms of a horizon of understanding and possibilities; so too we project ourselves into a gaming world through the discovery and engagement with just such a horizon. The discovery done in gaming is similar to that done as a child learns to explore the world around it. Slowly the society and politics of the real world become known to a child just as these things would become learned by a gamer submerged into a “game world.” In some cases we find that the game world parodies the real world, but in other cases the discovery within the game world opens the doors to similar, but different, human-like societies. Within any of these gaming societies, though, mirrors of real world devices can be found. For example, the economic drive in a lot of larger games tends to be mining, which is one of the largest economic gains in West Virginia.

Why mining? Gold is a fundamental element of the fantasy; coal is too, but we might say that the conversion of coal into gold already starts to break apart the fantasy, since it requires thinking about extraction and transformation. LOTRO, like other fantasy MMORPGs, builds its economy on mining. Various types of ore lie near the surface of the game world. Character avatars can easily mine the ore and sell it within the world for goods. These goods do not “lie about” the way ore does, but must be made or fought for. As a result, mined ore, along with some other staple objects such as wood, is the basis of the economy. This fact is further reinforced by the in-game monetary exchange based on gold, silver, and copper. In the virtual worlds of online MMORPGs, mining is the baseline means of production and drives the economy of the game world. The common currency of gold and other coinage is derived within the game from extraction and subsequent smelting and minting. All goods and services within the world are exchangeable on a scale pegged to gold, but ultimately propped up by extraction of ore. Mining ore can be sold directly, traded, horded, stolen, and otherwise distributed as a zero-degree game-world object. The geophysics of extraction in a world such as LOTROis fundamentally magical, that is, ore is discovered simply sitting on the surface of the world and a character merely requires a tool and some experience in order to mine it. (You don’t even need a cart: once mined, the ore simply goes into one of the character’s many invisible backpacks.) Depending on the virtual world, there maybe a logic to the distribution of the ore, i.e. certain elements appear in certain regions; but there is no sense of other rocks or materials ores. In short, there are two types of “land”: generic landscape that characters can walk on or climb but which has no material depth; and minable ore that sits on top of this landscape. In a sense, the ore is a magical extrusion of the landscape. It may then function as a signifier of the background physics of the game world: it manifest the solid but ever-productive codes of engines that drive the characters and weapons and other gameplay objects. Furthermore, there is a magical regeneration of ore: after a character mines a site of ore, the ore will “re-spawn” after a certain time elapses.

In the state of West Virginia and through the Appalachian region, coal continues to dominate the economy, culture, and history, even as the industry fades and recedes. West Virginia is riddled with mines, its hills flattened from the practice of Mountaintop Removal, its history blanketed with coal wars, families and communities locked in the mine’s embrace. This leads to intensely contradictory conditions in West Virginia. The land continues to be ravaged with as yet little effort made plan long-term recovery. And yet, groups such as Friends of Coal insist on the centrality of coal to persist in the state’s future: “The Friends of Coal is dedicated to inform and educate West Virginia citizens about the coal industry and its vital role in the state’s future. Our goal is to provide a united voice for an industry that has been and remains a critical economic contributor to West Virginia. By working together, we can provide good jobs and benefits for future generations, which will keep our children and grandchildren close to home.” Held within the fantasy are uneven resources and exploitative labor practices under global capitalism. MMORPGs are not merely worlds of narrative and imaginary repertoires, but are flows of virtual merchandise from within the game to other markets, such as Ebay or other online traders. The famous “gold farmer” scenario involves underpaid third world gamers repetitively mining gold and other minerals in MMORPGs. We will set (pose) coal extraction and the production of virtuality in juxtaposition as productive resources. We will construct a multi-dimensional performance, a work not located in the online computer game nor in the documentation of the performance (nor elsewhere) but in the ongoing work on the game and its space of occurrence.

We are bound to fail. (As one of us boldly puts it: “We are bound to fail in the liberation of the whole but we will succeed in the education of the few.”) Failure because of the passing, ephemerality of the performance. (The game continues.) Failure because of the rigid codification of desire and identification with narrative and image in the MMORPG. (What is our performance against the quests of warriors, magicians, hobbits, elves…?) Nothing more than dust in the air of the fantasy world. Our intervention is not “art,” at least not in so far as “artifice” remains within the fantasy and remains part of the diegetic unfolding of the game. Art as part of the game contributes to the game. The intervention breaks the fantasy. Of course, it does so only to gesture to another imaginary and another fantasy space: precisely to the vertiginous re-siting of the subject in the world of energy production and the extraction industry. We admit that this remains a gesture only, remains a performance, but a gesture that shifts fantasy towards utopia.

In the first case, narrativity is in the service of another domain, whereas the latter is necessarily and problematically tethered to real conditions. The potential of utopia is its failure and constant referral to the real that resists presentation.

The work is not the collapse of the real and the virtual, nor the separation of the real and the virtual, but their orbital and intermedial communication in a multi-dimensional performance work. Call this: (juxt)(a)Posing worlds.