I was touring a sunken polygonal promenade, composed of grey and black-blue stones lit with oppressive hues of purple from the map’s dark and surreal atmosphere, when a Penguin came up to me and offered to show me around the castle grounds. I accepted, and we walked for some time in silence, save for my impromptu guide’s expositional comments about the map’s history, which he periodically typed into the chat box. The Penguin told me about his old friends and how they created a home for themselves on this World together, through sleepless nights, over several years. His friend group eventually began to dwindle as people moved on to different videogames. Some receded into internet silence.¹
An open field surrounded by brick walls is nested beneath a large clock tower, which also overlooks a zoo and a nightclub, both designed in a pseudo-Greek motif with the occasional medieval flare. We stood beneath the tower awhile as we spoke. The sky occasionally shifted its colour, from purple to a grimy, pixelated green. I eventually asked the Penguin where he was from, and he told me Hong Kong.
Dante: I’m surprised you’re even able to access Worlds.com² anymore — hasn’t China extended their firewall to engulf/insulate you guys yet?³
Penguin: Not yet. For now our internet is open and free.
D: I saw the news the other day⁴: I’m sorry to hear about your elections. When the democratic process goes, so do internet luxuries like these shortly thereafter. It’s very sad.
P: Facts. I’ve long thought about emigrating to Britain or Canada. I fear what the CCP⁵ will do to my way of life, but leaving Hong Kong would be difficult for me.
D: What would be most difficult, do you think? I’m sure Britain’s office of immigration would welcome your passport with open arms. Also — when you say “way of life”, what are you referring to, specifically?
P: This World, and others like it. Games and the internet. . .
There’s a long pause, here, before he continues — initially I think that he is just typing, but then a few pregnant minutes go by and I start to think that maybe he got DC’d⁶ from the server. His Penguin avatar continues to occasionally shuffle, however — its neck craning over the right shoulder and then back forward — so I start to think, instead, that I might have made him anxious or uncomfortable with my last question. Before I can backtrack or rephrase, the Penguin continues.
P (cont.): I am a shut-in, and do not leave my apartment building.
D: I see… So, you weren’t able to attend the recent protests, then?
P: I tried, once. I got as far as the doors on the ground floor, but I could not walk through them. I went back upstairs instead and then watched out of my window for the rest of the year.
D: How do you feel about democracy?
P: The citizens of Hong Kong are like those in the West. We have smartphones in our pockets. We use Google. Democracy is freedom to the citizens of Hong Kong. I do not want to live a life without freedom. I cannot imagine how these restrictions might change my access to the world. It will impact people like me differently. I am not like the rest of Hong Kong, because I have my own World. Being a shut-in is a blessing and not a curse for those who have the internet. We do what we need to keep ourselves safe, and maintain what connection we can to the outside.
There is another pause in our conversation. While we’ve been talking, we’ve walked all throughout the zoo and have entered a subterranean tunnel hidden underneath the nightclub, leading us out beyond the castle’s grounds. We are now standing and looking down over a cliffside without any land or water below, where there are endless stars and a low-hanging crescent moon emanates a gory red aura against the distant skybox. The map is very creatively rendered. There are strange advertisements and billboards everywhere that clash against the map’s overabundant brickwork. I feel like I’m walking through the Penguin’s dream. Perhaps it’s my dream. I struggle with what to say next.
D: So… do you play other videogames then?
P: So many! I play World of Warcraft and Guild Wars 2. I play Command and Conquer, Monster Hunter Online. Counter-Strike. The new Animal Crossing as well.
Now I pause, frantically scanning through Wikipedia articles that detail which news/media/products have been banned/censored by China. There are multiple pages on the topic, and they are all lengthy.
D: It looks like at least half of the games you mentioned are banned in China, unless they’re purchased on the grey market. You’ll need to leave eventually if you want to continue playing them legally.
The Penguin responds with a frowning emoji.
D: Do you identify as hikikomori?⁷
P: I do not use that word because hikikomori are Japanese. Our lifestyles are comparable to each other, except most hikikomori are also NEETs.⁸ I have a job that I am able to keep from home, therefore I am not NEET.
D: After the past year of lockdowns and restrictions due to COVID, shut-ins (and, really, gamers more broadly) have shown themselves to be uniquely resilient to this kind of modern catastrophe. Shut-ins were prepared for the conditions of isolation where others were not. Do you feel a difference in relevance now? I mean to say; do you feel more understood?
I take a final look around as the Penguin considers his response. The cliffside that the underground tunnel led us to somehow also manages to look out onto the castle grounds where we were standing earlier. From this peak, the whole map has an Escher-like quality to it, where stairs loop in onto other stairs in odd ways and courtyards double as balconies for different architectural excrescences. Yet, observing from on high, I see now that the Penguin and myself are the only two people here. The nightclub bustled with music, but the dancefloor was barren. The zoo had stalls and habitats, but no creatures or visitors. The entire castle grounds were deserted. I look at the clock above my desk: it’s 3AM where I am, meaning it’s 4PM in Hong Kong. I should sleep. Where were all the Penguin’s friends and visitors? When I turned back to my computer screen, the Penguin had responded.
P: Hierarchies persist even when others adapt. Normal people are online, but true isolation is a new experience for them. They would laugh at me if they could see me. I’ve had Worlds like this one long before others saw their benefit. Online crowds have grown, but I remain alone.
Before I quit his World the Penguin thanked me, for “visiting our home. My friends, had they been online today, would have appreciated your visit and company very much.” I’d visited a few dozen other Worlds that night before this one, and all of them were full of penguins and kangaroos and clowns and monsters and, occasionally, even a few humans.
1. A relevant excerpt: The Penguin tells me about his one friend’s Steam* profile and how the Penguin usually removes each friend from his friends list once they haven’t spoken in a while, so as to keep his list simple and clean (this last point seemed important to the Penguin, and he repeats it several times). And so but there was one friend who the Penguin was quite close with, who lived somewhere in America, and they would play games almost daily. That was until one morning when the Penguin noticed that his friend hadn’t been online in almost a full week. A day’s absence is noteworthy among shut-ins; a week is huge. The Penguin waited a while until the requisite time came to clean up his friends list, but he just couldn’t remove his old friend. He thought that maybe one day the friend might come back online after all, and so he left the profile untouched. He left it then, then left it longer, and now his friend’s profile says “Last online: 10 years ago” and the Penguin isn’t really sure what to do about it anymore.
* A trivial (but interesting) aside: Steam, for those not familiar, is a PC-exclusive digital videogame vendor (available for Windows, Mac and Linux), and all ‘round industry behemoth. Steam is so unfathomably large, as a service and storefront, that the Epic Games Store, Steam’s recently emergent competitor (and their only noteworthy rival), has resorted to offering timed-exclusivity deals to any publisher that’ll listen — each deal brandishing an exorbitantly high price tag (Epic Games owns Fortnite, after all; they have ludicrous amounts of microtransaction cash to throw around, regardless of the EU’s threats to regulate loot-boxes and similar kinds of digital gambling out of existence, and they [Epic] make a point of wasting every penny until that happens). If this sounds like a bad deal for Epic, that’s because it mostly is: the large swaths of Steam users that Epic hopes to convert are often unmoved to purchase timed-exclusive games on their platform, preferring instead to wait until the year is up, at which point they’ll finally make their purchase through Steam. The point, here, is not that Epic is unpersuasive or bad for consumers; rather, that Steam’s monopoly is so colossal that their primary competitor’s foremost business practice has them resorting to lamely bribing publishers into mildly inconveniencing Steam users with the industry equivalent of a particularly unticklish feather. (That is, if they don’t resort to piracy first.) Notice how Steam’s users did nothing wrong, here, yet they bear the brunt of the (attempted) market punishment?
2. The videogame, which contains the map, which contains the castle we’re both standing in. Worlds.com (with the confusing domain name of wolrds.net, since worlds.com was already taken) is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMO for short) where players take control of an avatar and choose from a variety of Worlds (self-contained maps) to visit, where they can walk around and interact with other avatars and are encouraged to casually chat as if they’re all on some low-poly, 3D-veneered message board. There are multiple releases/edits/versions of the game, and there are hidden, modded servers as well. Some Worlds are made by other players, each varying drastically in aesthetic design and purpose. While not a super popular game, Worlds.com enjoys cult status within the annals of gaming history, and maintains a small, dedicated player-base. (It’s worth noting that this specific sub-genre of 3D-Web-Forum/MMO is bigger than just Worlds.com — both Active Worlds and Second Life, for example, are quite interesting in their own right.)
3. This transcript has been only slightly edited, w/r/t formatting and spelling errs. I’ve also described some details that belong to multiple, separate maps, obscuring the particular server this Penguin calls home.
4. I’m referring to a recent BBC article which detailed the proposed election changes in Hong Kong, where any “candidates standing for Hong Kong’s assembly [will now need to be] approved by a committee of members loyal to Beijing,” which changes are a dubious and anti-democratic shift at best. If Hong Kong is supposed to be autonomous from China, why must they exhibit ‘loyalty’ to Beijing? I wonder if President Xi has dreams of 1989’s Tiananmen incident, after which he wakes up in a cold sweat thinking about Hong Kong and Macao and Taiwan, enraged but also petrified. I hope that he has those dreams.
5. Short for the Chinese Communist Party.
7. I asked the Penguin this because hikikomori are the most severe example of a shut-in culture that I’m familiar with, and I wanted to know where the Penguin felt he landed on a shut-in spectrum. It is a Japanese term for those who have withdrawn from society in some extreme way. Real-life horror stories often surround the hikikomori (who are almost always Japanese men, from what I can tell — although, whether this an exclusionary/incorrect assessment in 2021, I can’t say for sure), who stack volumes of manga floor-to-ceiling high and fill plastic bottles with their urine and have severe vitamin deficiencies. They are unwilling or unable to take part in Japanese society: the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare has recognized and even occasionally commented on the hikikomori, just to give you some idea as to how widespread/substantial the condition is. Some find comfort in the sort of extreme lifestyle of inwardness and isolation that being a hikikomori entails, while others I’ve spoken with are afraid of being likened to them. “I don’t want to be some Japanese cliché,” a Romanian shut-in with a labyrinthine neckbeard once told me.
8. An acronym often applied to modern shut-ins and their communities, meaning Not in Education, Employment, or Training. Sometimes used as an insult/slight, NEETs often understand themselves as being excluded/reviled by society at large.
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