I’m observing a typical user of Diabetes Agonistes: a woman in her mid-30s, perched on the lower rungs of the middle class; a little large she is with high blood pressure and sugar. She’s attractive, gregarious, restless when she isn’t busy, dreamy when she has time for herself. Years ago she finished high school and landed a sales job in the local mall; now she’s a merchant. A single mother whose days are stretched to the breaking point; but to her it feels heroic. She works hard, plays nice, is conscientious about her family and customers. She reads little for pleasure, but has her favorite shows and podcasts. She tries to do the right thing even when that isn’t easy or obvious or cheap, and she counts on quick wins to hold it all together. Quick wins are also why she plays video games, most days for an hour or less; in the train on the phone, at home on the computer. Her favorite kinds of games stymie her as much as life sometimes does, but they also throw off hot sparkling bursts of light, the crackling noise of walls collapsing, the thrill of snatching well-earned victories from the jaws of near defeat.
She heard about Humaginarium from a boyfriend. He said it’s pretty cool, “but you might not go for it because it’s gory.” Pretty cool as in really nice looking, gory as in bloody; yet no gratuitous violence, and that detail got her attention. She’s bored by dumbass shooters and bosomy warriors. It’s free, he added; it streams so it starts right up, no downloads, hardly any latency. “It’s different from anything I’ve ever played,” he allowed, so maybe she’ll have a look? He got into it two weeks ago and he’s still working through the first level. “Damn thing reminds me of Jules Verne” – 3D science fiction fantasy, clue-finding and brainy calculation, mysteries locked in enigmas that are supposedly true – TRUE – “as the human body itself.”
Her eyebrows went up when she heard that. “The human body? Is it a sex game?” He pondered, “actually more sensuous than sensual.” She wasn’t sure what that meant and neither was he. “Rated M, not A.” Okay, good enough!
One night after brushing her teeth she entered Humaginarium in a browser on her laptop and soon found herself wandering a fabulous Arcade. It was confusing and disorienting, yet funny. “Like I’m Alice in Wonderland,” she mused, “or Spirited Away” as she watched and touched things that seemed to have minds of their own. Lots of colors and movement, fractal images and eerie sound effects, curious linkages that eventually made her suspect something was going on: it wasn’t just random game mechanics. She was witnessing the “miracles” of birth, growth, decay and death of the body as though they were magic shows. They helped her form mental models of wellness that are religion in Humaginarium: things to adore and believe in. A firm grasp of wellness finally unlocked a portal into a different and strangely hidden world, one fraught with danger and mystery yet irresistibly beautiful; the hidden world of morbidity.
She wanted to stop right there, not because she wasn’t curious; she was actually intrigued. But over an hour had passed as she explored the Arcade and turned that lock in the portal. It was past midnight now and her alarm clock was set for 6:00 AM. She wondered, “what will happen if I just stop?” Would she lose everything and have to start over? “This is ridiculous, it’s just a game,” and she decided to exit. Before closing the app asked, Do you want to keep your Humaginarium Key? “Sure, why not? What for?”
The next day on the commute to work she had a few minutes to spare, so she started Humaginarium on an iPad. “This won’t work,” she murmured. Wrong! It worked just fine. The app retrieved her Key from Dropbox, authenticated her identity, and transported her right back through the gates of … what … Heaven? Hell? It’s fun is not knowing which. On the other side of the portal she learned she has to quest. She can start right away and collect greater honors and rewards for speed. Or she can slow down a bit and learn before she leaps. She didn’t have time to decide. As the train approached her stop she had to exit.
Sadly she didn’t return to the game until the end of the week, for reasons that have nothing to do with this history. When she regained her previous position in Humaginarium she watched a quick replay of everything that previously happened to her. Now she was ready to forge ahead. She spent an hour collecting raw intelligence about her adversaries and allies in this weird biological fantasy. When she had enough of that, she entered a path that led to…. We’ll find out where in my next post.