Written by Sam Wu and Alister Gibson
SINGAPORE. The concept of utopia was first coined in 1516 by Sir Thomas More in his book Utopia and later opened the floodgates for the rest of the world. Then, in 1998 Aldous Huxley published his novel Brave New World, which further sparked conversation around the idea of utopia with dystopian controversies as a story about futuristic societies and the dangers of over-development. Virtual worlds in gaming became a natural testing ground for the concept in games like Assassin’s Creed and Rainbow 6 Siege.
For instance, these games allow freedom for online players to interact socially, share user-generated content and engage with environments in juxtaposition with real-world references. In fact, virtual reality, first-player and metaverse games have evolved drastically since the beginning of the millennium, where the early score or objective-based examples like SimCity (1980) and Grand Theft Auto III (2001) are replaced by freeform games such as Roblox (2006) and Minecraft (2011).
Dubbed as “the best game of all time”, Minecraft has now garnered over 140 million players worldwide. The unconstrained capacity to share resources and visual totems, self-govern and collaborate towards the creation of desirable communes is a fantastical interpretation of utopia.
Interesting, how ideas and their exploration manifest, Minecraft exemplifies Generation Z’s methods of navigating the philosophy of utopia. The self-building or journey game's foundational goal is to quite literally create your own utopia, and incredible freedom in how one can approach the utopian goal would be and insofar of what utopia would serve. What unfolds are modern microcosms for navigating travel, time and place both as a concept and in practical terms. We can visualize the wonder of the pursuit of perfection and perhaps also the ramifications. This is echoed with Singaporean professional gamer Lunarmetal, Glen Suryaspautra,
“To me, a utopia would be a place where my values and ideals can be reflected, accepted and shared by everyone inside... I am also of the mindset that a utopia for one can be a dystopia for another.”
It’s easy to get caught up in the ideas of wonder and grandeur but society is not simply a one-size-fits-all. When thinking of a perfect world we must keep in mind the horrors that come with the chase of utopia. To Paul Fu, Content Director at Ubisoft Singapore for games like Assassin's Creed, utopia is, “really an unachievable goal. An honorable goal — but perhaps an insurmountable one.” Good stories to him thrive off conflict, “As such, most portrayals of utopian societies in fiction are used as a form of dramatic contrast.”
Such extraordinary natures of gaming, aroused the interest of digital media researcher Sophia Fang to run an ethnographic research project to explore the behaviors of players in a private server, in which expert players invited are asked to construct communal utopia of their choice. Fang discovered traits of introversion and extroversion appearing, for the former building alone as a form of escapism was the main driver and for the latter building in team servers was a tool to reinforce friendships.
Around the same time as the COVID-19 pandemic, heated debates over the lasting effects of technological advancement in post-millennial society have surfaced. Although the ubiquitous surveillance system keeping public health in check might remind us of the dystopian totalitarian technocracy in George Orwell’s 1984. On the flip side, incorporating utopian video games into education, might be a fresh solution to the world's problems, if we believe our future leaders could thrive on such creativity and co-operative utopian values exemplified in their favorite games.
Psychedelic Utopia in Gaming?
OPINION. Today, the conceptual idea of Utopia within society is rooted in the wide-spread use of psychedelic drugs like LSD and Psilocybin.
Inspired by Huxley’s final novel Island (1962), psychologist Timothy Leary and spiritual guru Richard Alpert conducted several university-approved experiments with psychedelics in the sixties, where test subjects reported profound realizations in spirituality and purpose. When LSD was made illegal by the US government in 1968, psychedelics made their way underground and continued to impact the “Peace and Love” hippie movements of the time.
The influence of psychedelics began to seep into the art and music scenes. One, was the free distribution of the iconic “Orange Sunshine LSD” created by The Brotherhood of Eternal Love throughout the country. Their effort was an ill-fated bid to end private property ownership through enlightenment.
While Nixon’s “War on Drugs” had effectively cracked down the spread of psychedelics, footprints of the countercultural movement continued to carry over into the more recent utopian experiments. This time around, though, with the development of brick-and-mortar communes as Freetown Christiania and Seasteading Institute appears to be either limiting or far-fetched, virtual worlds in gaming have naturally become a favorable testbed for the progressive ideals.
This article is from our Utopia Game Design feature available to read in print. Get your limited edition copy here.