How Games Are Taking Us Back to the Early Days of the Internet

We're gonna log on like it's 1999

Games are often about escaping to fantastical realms, but they can provide more mundane excursions too. Games like Animal Crossing let us relax in alternate worlds that are simultaneously everyday yet distant from our contemporary lives. Perhaps, then, it was only a matter of time before a new generation of developers turned their sights to the internet — to explore worlds still close in memory yet immeasurably far from the digital space we live in now, or to explore our current circumstances from a different perspective. 

Among these games are Hypnospace Space Outlaw, Simulacra, and Secret Little Haven — all of which simulate an older internet and virtual interfaces in their own ways. For Hypnospace and Secret Little Haven, the setting is the internet of the nineties, the period in which Usenet thrived. Titles such as Simulacra, meanwhile, delve into the contemporary setting of smartphones and mobile interfaces. Together, they illustrate some of the myriad ways that we have related to the internet during its relatively short history.

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Internet Cop Power Fantasies

In Hypnospace Outlaw, you are assigned the role of an internet cop — a moderator — and given the ability to “flag” strangers online for unsavory behavior. The internet is limitless. Figureheads are powerful. It is a world made up of people behind monitors, bringing with them into it their ideas of right, wrong, and sometimes, justice. Welcome to web hell.

As the player, you are given missions and are expected to complete them while you browse the Hypnospace, which is only accessible through a headset while you’re asleep. Rather than being left to your own devices, however, you are expected to “flag” users for inappropriate use of mascot character images and harassment. But this isn’t all. You’re also expected to crack down on internet trolls, viruses, shock images, and basically anything else the regular visitor to an early aughties imageboard might’ve seen. While playing the introductory chapters of Hypnospace, I couldn’t help but reflect on the psychological toll this kind of work takes on contemporary community moderators. The intensity of the virtual moderator job mimics the real-life thing — a constant swarm of emails and administrative duties that becomes emotionally taxing.

Internet moderation has gone from being the work of small-scale forum volunteers to full-time corporate labor. In looking back to the earlier days of the internet, Hypnospace suggests that the creation of the moderator role might have been the first step in this development of policing the web, for better or worse.

Hypnospace is littered with fake viruses and applications mimicking the real-life BonziBuddy. Your mind is constantly assaulted by colors, .gifs, poorly compressed .jpgs, and allure of power through gaining levels in your virtual pet app. The overall effect is one of hyperactive claustrophobia.

Rabbit-holes and Role-play

Simulacra, a spiritual successor to the 2016 Monsoon Lab title Sara is Missing, conveys a similar message of claustrophobic fear. After coming into possession of a smartphone owned by a mysterious woman named Anna, the player is led down a deep rabbit hole of secrets and friendships, eventually sucking out of the details of a stranger’s personal life like a digital vampire. However, what Simulacra mimics is not just merely the interface of the smartphone. Like Hypnospace, Simulacra asks us to step inside the shoes of an unassuming user incidentally caught in other people’s problems.

When simulation games mimic digital spaces and interfaces, they are also asking players to participate in adopt digital personas. Titles like Hypnospace and Simulacra make it explicit that although players engage in these virtual bubbles from a first-person perspective, they’re still playing the role of characters. Still, as these characters, you walk through strange digital lands as a stranger, all the while providing a narrative backbone for the plot to progress. Simulation games aren’t just about the environment or the atmospheric experience — they flourish best when there is some discovery to be made, when a character has something to gain or lose. Especially when the environment is hostile, character becomes all the more important.

However, titles like Victoria Dominowski’s self-described “game about old computers, community, creativity, fandom, gender, and the internet” frame a different narrative when it comes to character. Secret Little Haven creates a friendly vision of the web that Hypnospace discourages the player from engaging with at all, and one that Simulacra limits with its moderated chatting mechanic. The game is a time capsule of the early nineties internet without the surreal irony of Hypnospace’s sleep-time technology — a world that is regenerative, escapist, and not obsessed with punishment.

While Simulacra encourages its players to drag out the dirty secret of its characters through hidden chat-logs and videos, the social interactions in Secret Little Haven are different. Rather than punishing engagement with characters, the player is placed in the position of a creative teenager. Hypnospace only teases some of the features Secret Little Haven includes — Hypnospace Enforcers are strictly prohibited from using the headset’s chatting function, and primarily interact through business e-mail. But as Alex Cole, Dominowski’s protagonist, the sincere worlds of anime roleplaying forums, dress-up games, and journaling are there to be enjoyed. This version of the web is, for all intents and purposes, built for pleasure and not punishment.

A Spider’s Web We Can’t Escape

Weirdly enough, Hypnospace and Secret Little Haven both take place in 1999, and yet these two titles show just how radically different the web has been depending on who you are. While jobs like community moderator for streams and forums still exist, what Secret Little Haven depicts is sadly a bubble that can’t be un-popped. These bright, ultra-customizable user-friendly interfaces are no more. Even inside the fictional IRIS OS created by Simulacra’s in-game surveillance company, your chat messages are ominously preceded with a corporate trademark indicating the company’s name. It’s as though your data was always meant to be theirs, as though the bright, colorful operating systems of the past were just a dream, and this is the reality that was inevitable.

But it wasn’t. The popularity of OS simulators, video games cosplaying as computers — whatever you want to call them — seems to me like a nostalgic cry for a past before centralization and corporate control of the internet. Games about the internet remind us that as fraught as these precursors might have been in their own way, there were, and are, alternatives to a digital world dominated by megacorporation-owned platforms.

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