Home > Writing Portfolio > Thinking/Game-Gardening Ruderally

Posted by: Emilie | MAY-09-2019

Spring is in the air, at last, in Glasgow. I took a long walk along the Clyde recently, and was very moved by the robust resurgence of plants on its shores. Massive leaves, thick stalks, clusters of flowers, logs coated in moss. Seeing how vigorously and thoroughly a primorial-looking wave of plant life could take over the banks of a river that runs through a large city, certainly not a pristine or intentionally cultivated ecosystem, inspires dreams of nature intervening with sudden growth to bring the disruption of modern life to its knees.

Despite my highly ambivalent feelings about the context and execution of Hito Steyerl’s new work, one concept the Serpentine gallery show foregrounds has stuck with me. The speculative scientific developments Steyerl sprinkles throughout the apps in the area of the Power Plants sculptures frequently reference “ruderal” plants and wildlife, organisms that are the first to return to an area where the ecosystem is significantly disturbed. They are usually hardy and unglamorous, possibly invasive, but the types of species that take over and thrive where human infrastructure and tight-fisted control over nature declines. Some of my most beloved examples are pigeons and dandelions.

In a fragment credited to a scientist writing in the year 2023, Steyerl writes: Sticky goosefoot (Chenopodium botrys) once was a Mediterranean plant, the tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima) is a tree from China, the North American black locust (Robinia pseudo-accacia), and the herb giant goldenrod (Solidago giganteana), all appeared widely in London in the wake of recent events. Their seeds found their way into the city via diverse transport routes. Some of them had crossed the city on the boots of soldiers, refugees or as castaway trash on corporate platforms, via packaging or material from imported goods, or hay transported on wagons by the army for horses. Other seeds’ routes remained unknown.

Elsewhere in the same fragment, the fictional author asserts: Ruderal communities emerge spontaneously in inhospitable environments-- and thus point to often unnoticed, cosmopolitan yet precarious ways of re-making the urban fabric.

Waking up from the tech utopianism of the early internet age, we now realize the liquidation and rapid circulation of both money and information does not necessarily lead to increased freedom for all, and in many cases it can lead to new forms of surveillance and precarity that shut down more horizons than technology ever opened up. Meanwhile, the way physical borders act on individuals has become even more powerful. Steyerl’s meditations on the voyages of seeds and species across physical and political boundaries to alter neglected environments presents a new way to consider circulation and resilience beyond the spikes and crashes of financial markets and infrastructure increasingly managed by unscrupulous startups.

When Steyerl cites “ruderal environments” or “ruderal communities,” it’s implicit that she’s not only speaking about what species exist in the frame of a demolished, neglected building. The ruderal is what must overtake and survive our present of extravagant capitalist expansion and speculation built on foundations of sand. It’s a sort of reverse-negation, where the the law of the land marks these areas as useless or these uses as illicit, and yet the advance of ruderal species is, for the most part, difficult to stop by these means. Game Studies likes to ascribe some universal value or interest in “systems” as human nature the same way that governments tout the need for “law and order,” that neoliberal governments particularly marry themselves to the purely ideological “efficiency” of a “free market.” Instead I would argue a far more universal-seeming impetus is that of negation, which can be both creative and playful, as demonstrated by the history of Avant-Garde art production, and the derision with which we look back on game studies’ early regime of border work and definitions. Every definition provokes its own undoing; fortunately for those of us who get bored easily, every game can be cheated. Every wall is a prefiguration of its falling, every seemingly inescapable order already contains its own collapse, and the ruderal is what grows in the cracks of these calcifications, spreading roots forcing them apart, to pieces. Ruderal anarchy is perhaps inevitable in the long term, and that can be an exciting way of reshaping political imagination and demands, but there are also ways to help it grow. Ruderal gardening, perhaps?

The ruderal is what can adapt, not in careless “agile” or “disruptive” ways but instead with persistence and clever use of what is already there. Like Sadie Plant’s cybernetic metaphor of grasses as an alternative to trees, the ruderal does not consolidate upwards but instead spreads. As I continued walking down the Clyde river path I saw a worn park bench, patches of colors from several different paint jobs and encrustations of many seasons of football stickers giving it a deep history of its niche in the landscape collaboration between human intervention and everything else. Beyond the benches, regularly spaced, horizontal stone rectangles with mossy patches provide even more ancient-feeling seating opportunities. A gap in a fence produces a secret place to drink and loiter. A bridge over a footpath is a place for both birds and people to wait out the rain. These are places that feel, not superficially accommodating, but possible to inhabit, in a small way.

What if I felt the same fondness for my flat or my office as I did discovering a nice seat-size divot in a rock that angles me towards a nice view? I realize that ruderal architecture would, I suppose, be an approach to structuring and using space that is diametrically opposite to the swanky flats with crisp, minimalist furniture begging to be stained… a living situation built into or perpendicular to a bevy of “conveniences” but which won’t even let you paint the walls.

And what could ruderal games be? First we have to ask what the rubble they are taking over would be like.

Gradually, I think the prestige AAA game, as epitomized by recent releases like Red Dead Redemption 2 and God of War, despite their increasing budgets, ridiculous financial returns, and unfortunate still largely uncritical embrace by the press and cultural institutions that acknowledge games, are already in the process of falling into the sea. They may dominate attention for the weeks, month, or even year surrounding their release, but do they have a lifespan beyond this? Backwards compatibility has come to be treated as largely outmoded as a mainstream console feature, and we are, bafflingly, already well on the downward slope of the current “generation” of consoles. By the time the new consoles are announced, how many times will these games still be loaded up and played, even including archaeological or academic investigation? When will they finally not be playable at all?

While “retro” games are generally preserved by how lightweight they are as files, and the many well-documented emulation options (in fact, a “streaming solution” to retrogaming piracy will use much more data than simply letting users download them), the things that make AAA games “more prestigious” make these tried and tested options more difficult. Videogames are increasingly distributed digitally, requiring a console or PC to connect to a server and download a multi-gigabyte file. The weight of this data usage is heavy, in both computing power demanded and energy required to transfer it. The download can take hours in many places with even slightly sub-optimal internet speeds, and the downloading system itself is usually a type of DRM where you don’t own a specific copy of the game, but instead pay for the ability to use it, and for the server to impose updates or make your copy unplayable at any time.

Further, the increasing coverage of crunch and other forms of labor exploitation also reveal that the process of making these games is highly unsustainable. The Kotaku review of RDR2 muses on how the staff included 11 “vegetation artists” presumably only responsible for rendering and animating things like grass and plants. Things which ostensibly appear in almost every open world game, and, in the pursuit of increased “realism” and “truth to life” could be sourced from a shared database of 3D rendered plant types, but of course this is not how the "efficiencies" of capitalist production play out. Instead, not only does each AAA game need to re-make its own plants, it needs to make them with a view towards the latest, most advanced, most resource-heavy and most expensive hardware, that will likely have a lifespan of less than a decade, if five years, before it becomes e-waste. The 11 credited vegetation artists are also the 11 workers in this position who made it to the end of RDR2’s extremely long production cycle, those who burnt out or went to work elsewhere are not included. And this is just one small snapshot of an industry work culture that values time spent at the studio proving “loyalty” more than how much work actually gets done, and moves at the whims of deluded boy genius CEOs and a brutal hype cycle.

Games can be, alternately, ruderal in a variety of ways. Instead of demanding undivided attention for tens of hours of hyperproduced content, they could slip into the technological and time gaps of our everyday. I’ve already talked about games which fit into moments of idleness and instead mimic the half-attention paid to routine or work tasks, however these games are also often recklessly monetized through in-app purchases and gacha or lootbox mechanics, and their existence is largely maintained by app storefronts and servers which only continue to stay on for as long as the games are profitable. Still, this is one approach that’s a popular alternative to the drag of hegemonic AAA play.

What I find far more interesting and to have far more potential are even more unruly ways games thrive in the rubble and forbidden zones of the industry. Games played around games, games which cannibalize other games for their material, or simply use what is free and around are usually given marginal or even negative status within game studies and criticism. I’m not talking only about artsy intervention hacks or mods, but fangames, glitchy speedruns, asset flips, and the hardware clones and multicart systems that have even made their way into the prestigious V&A gift shop. While these may seem like the ephemeral, silly, unimportant and illicit elements of the games industry “proper,” it’s increasingly apparent that by moving in channels that are not strictly policed by industry concerns over IP, quality, and “real games” makes them more lively and, in the end, longer-lived.

There’s also the matter of how well a game-making tool or community fosters its own distribution, preservation and collaboration, thus increasing its potential as a ruderal way of making. This is similar to the sort of gardening Robert Yang discussed in a recent blog post. New tools to make videogame production more approachable, convenient, and friendly continue to be developed, but a simplistic interface that doesn’t rely on complex technical knowledge and programming knowledge is not all it takes for a tool to be useful. Twine reached new makers and audiences not only because it was a free program with a basic, visual interface, but also because the prototypical Twine game did not require the creation of art or sound assets, and could be distributed as a lightweight HTML document.

Bitsy may be an even better example, as its game files can be exported as playable HTML pages or .txt documents which can even be written or interpreted by themselves with enough concentration. Further, this flexibility has led to a community where mods can stretch or build on the capabilities of the engine at will and collaboratively. Bitsy allows for micro-size projects as well as large, collaborative pipelines. Alternately, the long-awaited tool Dreams for the PS4 already has some problems that cloud its future despite a strong focus on a friendly and approachable interface. It arrives late in the PS4’s life cycle, so its future beyond a year or two remains unclear, especially since everything you make in Dreams is a part of the software rather than something which can be removed from that context to be shared or preserved. Any techniques eventually developed to extract more than videos and screenshots from Dreams will probably be ruthlessly curtailed by Sony. Fortunately, as Nintendo’s protracted struggle against ROM sites has shown, once there is a small crack it’s hard to eliminate the possibility completely.

Ruderal games spread and commune resiliently, indifferent to setbacks or a lack of prestige, and their playfulness goes hand-in-hand with the spirit of negation that inspires playful and mischievous uses of the worn down, the neglected, the at-hand. In the midst of the Uber and Lyft strikes, emerging concurrently with the revelation that Uber’s extractive and exploitative business model is patently unsustainable, it’s important to keep in mind, not only how we can knock these towers down, but what to tend to take their place. More importantly, The future will be won by those who can spread their ruderal roots and build something new. Let’s make it a good future.