Rachel-Subversive Play

7.72 Turns Memorial

With this work I wanted to examine the escapist nature of play in the game Minesweeper. Atmospherically, Minesweeper obviously has nothing to offer in the way of distracting a player from work. In the context of office work, where the game is usually played, the game is not far removed from work itself; it’s on the work computer, pops up in a window that has the same visual border as all the other windows filled with work, and it’s generally colorless and muted. The designation of “game” is the only line of separation.

Exploring the notion of self-aware work/death avoidance, I played the game attempting to spell out FREE, HELP, HERE, LOOK, and SOS in the minefield. I ignored where I thought a mine might be and focused on getting the message out as efficiently as possible. I took advantage of the clusters in the field to form letters and built the words around the numbered blocks. With each play-through I kept track of the number of turns before I died, and over that course of the work’s execution, it took on average 7.72 turns to die and be resigned to the fate of death/returning to work.

I played the game 50+ times, about 10 times per word give or take a few run-throughs. While the actual attempts to spell out the words had varying degrees of success, the process of sitting and playing Minesweeper for hours made me very aware of the work-like nature of what I was doing. Restarting became agony, the repetition painful. On each play through I became more and more aware that I was going to die before finishing the word. Actively forgetting where I instinctively thought mines where turned into relief when I did explode. The process became less about seeking help and more about accepting that I was going to die. This allowed me to confront the inevitable death (and return to work) in a repetitive, ritualistic manner that comforted me as I tread over the minefield. In the end, the work became an odd spiritual release and less of an experience in escapism.

Old-fashioned Minesweeper

Contextually, minesweeper is an office game. It’s played to escape from working, but because of its instant ending, inevitably returns the player to his or her work very quickly. Considering the game’s “narrative”, this fast exit is paralleled with a violent character death. For the duration of the game, the character must step through a mine field marking the positions of mines without colliding with one. Touching a mine brings a very abrupt end, both visually changing the game board and, in some versions, causing an explosion sound.

7.72 Turns Memorial explores the futile escapist nature of Minesweeper. The object of each play session was to spell out a self-aware message requesting rescue from work (or, narratively, the death sentence of the mine field.) Each play attempt ignored the instinct to “stay-alive” by using the branching number structure to locate bombs. The goal was to get the message out as efficiently as possible, taking visual advantage of clusters on the board to create letters. The number of turns, up to and including the final step, between mission start and death were tallied for each play through. Five messages were spelled out ten times: FREE, HELP, HERE, LOOK, and SOS. The average turn count for FREE was 77, HELP was 75, HERE was 78, LOOK was 97, and SOS was 59. Thus on average, play attempts took 7.72 turns to end and resign the player to the grisly fate of work.

The work examines the effectiveness of play as an escapist device and as part of the human condition. Minesweeper itself has no immersive qualities in sound, graphics, atmosphere, game play, or content and is a poor comparison to the enormous, open world, customizable games that dominate current markets. Escapism is a core element in these games. Minesweeper functions as an escape only because of its accessibility. The setup around the game actually does a good job of removing the player from the play scene in its abrupt change from a state of active play to essentially a view of the player’s own obituary. Restarting the game is quick and easy, but the experience of playing consistently (over 50 continuous games) is akin to falling asleep and being roughly awakened just before drifting off over and over again. Executing this artwork became a painful experience in which, ironically, each attempt at play became a very evident work activity. Somber precision replaced fun, and the player took on the attitudes expected of the “narrative” character in a complete reversal of intention. The act of playing transformed Minesweeper into work.

The misery of the repetitive execution of this work provides insights on the function of play in the face of human inevitabilities. In all iterations of Minesweeper played for this work, the player died. There was no way to avoid losing the game, since the nature of the work was to ignore the impulse to place a flag and avoid known locations of bombs. The player invites his own death as he seeks help to liberate himself from his fate. In life, one cannot be liberated from death. Thus, on a simple level, the process of executing the artwork becomes a ritual of accepting and embracing one’s fate of death. In this instance, play is both a mechanism of comfort and a reminder of the inevitable. Following this, the piece parallels working with death, a serious accusation. If returning to work/dying is the end result, then playing is the act of living.

7.72 Turns Memorial explores the dualism of play and work as a matter of life and death. The piece’s execution is an exercise in confronting the abrupt conclusions of human life and the role of play in the definition of life.