Is Anyone Out There?: Alienation in No Man’s Sky

No Man’s Sky explores the loneliness of the networked life

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No Man’s Sky is a lonely game. You wander across vast stretches of plains and forests or barren wastelands of nuclear snow with no end in sight. Often, the only voice you hear is the robotic voice of your Exosuit, informing you of your remaining resources and life support.  Sentient lifeforms are rare.  When you do meet, you don’t understand them. Many planets are barren and void by any sort of life. And, even when life is found, it often takes strange and improbable forms.

No Man’s Sky is a survival and exploration game that drops the player on on the edge of the universe and tasks them with documenting and exploring the game’s 18 quintillion (18,000,000,000,000,000,000) procedurally generated planets. Released only two weeks ago, the game has already caused a bit of a stir. Players seem to love the game for its imaginative and exotic fauna and flora you can find and its immensely open world. But, it also struck a nerve with players who felt the game didn’t live up to its hype or that there simply is nothing to do but explore.

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The game is not generous to its players. Your inventory is small and collecting resources is tedious and time consuming. You must constantly harvest elements (plutonium, carbon, platinum, etc) from the environment and use them to craft new upgrades, fuel, and, most importantly, life support. You can also scan your surroundings and catalogue new species of animals or plants or minerals. The information on the various forms of life you find can be uploaded to the Atlas, a central database that keeps track of the discoveries made by you and other players. In exchange for the data, you are rewarded with credits, the currency of the universe.

No Man’s Sky feels like Minecraft, but without the joy of having evidence of your skill or creativity in the form of an original building or sophisticated replica. What you struggle against are not Creepers, but the hostile elements of unfamiliar territory. There doesn’t seem to be a reward for playing. There is no shelter to build or looming threat to hide from. You are always moving on. Or, you don’t have to. You could explore every inch of the planet. Though, it would take a while.

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Everything about No Man’s Sky is difficult. And this has made many players unhappy, to judge from the many takes, tweets, and an incredibly detailed Reddit thread. You must constantly recharge and reload your tools, life support, and ship. Each planet is too large to explore by foot. While you can make the process easier by flying around with your ship, each takeoff burns a quarter of your fuel. While savvy players have found ways to quickly optimize their inventory and resources, the game doesn’t reward that. After all, there is always another planet to explore.

While this may be a turn off for many players, I’m not interested in reviewing No Man’s Sky for its supposed failures to live up to expectations or, in other words, what the game is not. As Ian Bogost points out, “supporting design novelty risks fetishizing innovation for its own sake over the ways that such innovation helps construct meaningful experiences.” Much like exploring every planet in No Man’s Sky, asking games to constantly redesign themselves towards an unachievable measure of perfection is a task with no end. Instead, I’m interesting in a meaningful engagement with what the game actually is.

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No Man’s Sky explores the feelings of loneliness and disconnection that seem to accompany an increasingly networked life.  While a network of players are contributing to a central encyclopedia and you can visit and see for yourself what others have catalogued, you are still doing the work alone. The game prevents you from meeting these players. But, in a universe with 18 quintillion planets, the chances of meeting them are already quite slim. The language barrier between you and other aliens does fall, albeit very slowly, as you learn a language only one word at a time. While you can sell goods on the galactic market where prices fluctuate, I’m only left questioning where the people I’m selling to are. Robot sentinels constantly scan the environments. On some planets, they attack you but you don’t know why. And, if they are sentinels, what are they guarding? Discovering an outpost or a monolith provides some clues to other forms of life. But, are you discovering the remains of a long gone intergalactic civilization or the outposts of an expanding one?

The feeling of being alone in an alien universe is, well, alienating. Games often try to create relationships between players through competition or collaboration. But, as Bogost observes, some games create relationships through feelings of disjunction and alienation. And, No Man’s Sky is incredibly disjunctive. It reminds players of the “abyss that forever separates them from another.” While players seemingly have a collaborative goal to work towards in the form of the Atlas (a sort of galactic Wikipedia), the prospect is practically insurmountable. It would take maybe 5 billion years for players to explore and catalogue every planet. Coincidentally, it’s going to take 5 billion years for the Sun in our solar system will turn into a red giant, expand, and engulf the Earth.

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No Man’s Sky makes the network visible to the player. Normally, being enmeshed in a network might be a comfort. As Wendy Chun argues, the network dissolves the postmodern discomfort with the idea that the world is too impossible to comprehend. Instead, No Man’s Sky’s network only emphasizes this discomfort. It shows you all the ways in which you’re connected (the Atlas, the galactic trade networks) only to illustrate how distant you are. Not only is the universe of the game incomprehensible, you cannot share in this sublime with others. You are the lonely node at the edge of the network trying to make your way towards its center. And, for the players who’ve reached the center, there isn’t any relief. You are just sent back and made distant once more.

Every small evidence of the social in No Man’s Sky only makes the loneliness more palpable.  The stations and outposts you find are evidence that other life exists out there in the universe. But, their emptiness is also evidence of life’s absence. You are constantly faced with the fact that exploring the universe is lonely work. Perhaps that’s why many players didn’t like No Man’s Sky. The discomfort with being alone with oneself in a universe of fleeting connection can be a bit much to bear.

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Feelings and How to Mine Them

About a month ago, Facebook released a redesigned “like” feature, with the addition of animated emoji to represent 5 additional emotions. Now, in addition to liking something, you can love (heart) it or react with haha, wow, sad, or angry emoji.

reactions-graphics-video_480.gifFacebook only used to know whether or not you “liked” something, or, rather, whether or not you found something worthy of your attention enough to pass that information along to others. For years, many lobbied unsuccessfully for a dislike button. How often, after all, have you felt awkward “liking” a post about a sad or depressing topic? At long last Facebook relented. But instead of feeling all the feels, Facebook now wants you to feel just some of them.

With the new reactions, we can now sort our attention into discrete categories. This allows Facebook to fine tune our attention and interest. Now, the company can distinguish between the things we like, love, things that excite us, and things that inspire anger. But, only these things. You still can’t indicate mixed emotions. And, oddly, you still can’t express “dislike.” You can only express things that are in the range of the predetermined responses that Facebook gives us. Our nuanced and often cloudy emotional responses are flattened and compartmentalized into distinct “Reactions.” What we usually call our “mixed feelings” are deemed redundant and removed. After all,according to Facebook’s own PR team, the goal of Reactions is to keep Facebook happy and positive and to show and spread those happy feelings (read: posts) with others.
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In actuality, Reactions are a way for Facebook to develop more sophisticated algorithms to filter content and sell ads. The algorithm will feed you less “Sad” and more “Wow” so that you stick around. Happy people, studies show, share and post more. Dominic Pettman writes that “the PowerPoint Posse have figured out how to incite, tickle, and channel fleeting feelings into reliable revenue streams.” Facebook reactions are just a further demonstration of how our feelings are captured and transformed into revenue. These feelings are then incorporated and turned back upon us through algorithmic feeds and targeted ads. In effect, our fleeting feelings actually come back to haunt us.

How did we get to this idea that there are just six basic emotions anyway? And where else do we see this in popular culture?

The Disney Pixar film Inside Out tells the story of 11-year old Riley and the five emotions in her mind (Joy, Fear, Disgust, Anger, and Sadness) that try to guide her through the trials and tribulations of her family’s move from snowy Minnesota to tech capital San Francisco. As the story develops, we are presented with Riley’s increasing frustration and disappointment at the move while inside her head, Joy, Riley’s lead emotion, tries to manage the other emotions. When Sadness makes Riley cry in front of her class on the first day of school, Joy attempts to stop the memory of the experience (depicted as colored marbles) from being transported to long-term memory. This results in Joy and Sadness getting lost in the maze of memory and without their guidance, Riley becomes listless and depressed. The story becomes a grand adventure as Sadness and Joy attempt to make it back to the mind’s Headquarters.

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Throughout the film, Joy reminds all of the other emotions to think positively and to put on a good face for Riley’s parents.  The emotions attempt to quarter off Sadness as she becomes increasingly despondent and starts affecting Riley’s mood. Led by Joy and encouraged by Riley’s parents, they refuse to allow her to fully experience the sadness and loss that results from leaving life behind in Minnesota. . This emphasis on joy and positiveness, only increases Riley’s frustration which, when forced, only exacerbate Riley’s internal conflict and almost lead to the death of Joy personified towards the end of the film.
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Left to right: Disgust, Anger, Joy, Sadness, Fear

What can this popular narrative tell us about Facebook’s affect-mining ambitions? Similar to the emotions in Inside Out, Facebook has condensed the complicated and often confusing emotions people experience in their everyday lives into relatively few, distinct responses and interpretations. While Inside Out could be said to be about the emotional growth of a child, Facebook Reactions, in their quest to convey emotions as discrete and universal, can be thought of as infantalizing all of us. And Facebook does not present us with a way to mix emotions, unlike Inside Out, where the resolution of the plot comes in the realization that Riley’s experiences can be saturated with complicated and mixed feelings (the multi-colored memory marbles).

In fact, Facebook enlisted the help of the same psychologist who consulted for the development of Inside Out! One of the stronger elements of the film was its painting of Sadness as a necessary component to the human experience, not something to be quartered off and shunned, unlike the algorithms which will filter out the things we find disheartening.

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According to one of the design directors at Facebook, Reactions needed had two necessary criteria: universality and expressiveness. The emotions needed to be cross-cultural so that they would work everywhere Facebook is used, and they needed to be expressive, accurately conveying an appropriate emotional response. Through this, Facebook seeks not only to limit the types of reactions we can have to content, but also streamlines and universalizes the experience of it.

As Robbie Gonazales writes on Wired “not only, then, do we not want negativity directed at ourselves, but we also don’t want to level it at others. In that light, Reactions make much more sense. They may not reflect the world in which we live, but they’re a good deal closer to the one we want.” So the world we apparently want is one free from negativity – where our online experiences are filtered so that anything we React to with disgust or sadness is algorithmically disappeared. And Facebook is only happy to oblige and give us a world (the world mediated through Facebook anyway) without sadness or loneliness, even if that loneliness might be exacerbated by these media. As Pettman reminds us, “social media takes the guesswork out of loneliness, but not necessarily the sting.”

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Can We Be In Sync? A Review of Pettman’s Infinite Distraction

Infinite Distraction is a polemical look at the state of the internet and social media. Dominic Petman, a Professor of Culture and Media at the New School in NYC, expanded it from a Facebook post he wrote into a book looking at the ways in which new media increasingly modulates daily experience, through the creation of specifically tailored feeds. which are meant to disperse people into emotional micro-experiences, where “we never feel the same way as other potential allies and affines at the same moment.” (pg 29)
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Reading this book reminded me of Bifo Berardi’s The Soul at Work, where Berardi discusses the progressive mentalization of work and the extreme emphasis on cognitive labor, which is characterized by the manipulation and combination of signs and information. Pettman would probably agree with Berardi on the two main ideas of his book: hypersynchronization (the standardization of experience) and hypermodulation (the compartmentalizing and interchangeability of experience). Berardi is more interested in the decline of worker movements and labor activism than Pettman is, and spends a good portion of his book on that topic. Berardi also focuses on the exploitation of cognitive labor, which is what Pettman also seems to describe, even if he doesn’t necessarily use that term. Hypermodulation, taken with Berardi’s of the deterritorialization of signs and capital, reveals a global structure that prevents solidarity and makes organization difficult.
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Media companies and their execs and engineers believe they are free of ideology and bias in their attempts to globalize a specific type of human experience at the expense of others; an experience that is quite profitable for the companies in question. Pettman does not seek to blame specific individuals and in some ways he is correct about that, as it is difficult to accuse the media of covering up “the truth.” “Rather, incessant and deliberately framed representations of events are themselves used to obscure and muffle those very same events.” (pg 11). The best example of this is the Facebook “Trending” feed, which placed news about the Flint water crisis next to the latest Kim Kardashian selfie. Content tries to go viral. It tries “to become an event,” (pg 70) where mutually exclusive ideas are granted compatibility and legitimacy.
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So, is Mark Zuckerberg’s face Facebook? Maybe so, since he is so vocal abut his work and online presence and his impact is just easier to discuss and observe. After all, no one talks about Tumblr’s creator David Karp like Zuckerberg, despite the strong negative feelings about “tumblr culture.” (Tumblr was bought by Yahoo, thus becoming absorbed into a large media conglomerate. Facebook shattered and restructured media in new ways and creates and controls a market far grander than Tumblr. I would argue Zuckerberg is more akin to Bill Gates).
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While Pettman is more interested in social groups, what would he say about the role of the individual? When the individual is treated as the ultimate social unit, they can and do great and powerful things as individuals. We can point to individuals and their actions in these instances as the effect of their decisions is so pervasive, as seen in India’s rejection of Facebook’s free internet scheme, which some have called digital colonialism. His response would probably be that, while true, they are still synchronized to a strong degree to support certain behaviors and ideas that are in line with neoliberal economics, which I would agree with. Perhaps the extreme power of these individuals is the illusion resulting from hypermodulation that Pettman discusses.

The weakness of Infinite Distraction lies in its brevity. It is a short little book that explains his two main ideas and what other people have to say about attention/distraction. I like his understanding of attention and distraction as two sides of the same coin and his analysis that contemporary media is about buying bits of that attention/distraction. It would be interesting to see him discuss how people want to buy into this distraction even as they resist and moralize it. Another analysis that would have been interesting is how the culture tak surrounding these phenomena is usually centered around those who are most vulnerable (the poor, students, marginal workers, etc). For example, hypermodulation affects employment in the form of the gig economy and and the precarity of independent labor that is not unionized and protected. The eradication of and fear of difference in the form of ultranationalism and anti immigration sentiment, which is related to the entitled opinion that everything should be consumable and synchronized to my ways (read: white, male, American or Euro-centric) of thought and being. An analysis of the analog base (which bodies are designing these systems) of this synchronicity would be beneficial. Ultimately, Pettman is optimistic and argues for a rethinking of distraction as an ally which can allow us to interrupt and break traditional modes of thinking and being.
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