The Curiosity experiment, and the church of Peter Molyneux

Looking beyond knee-jerk reactions of both cynicism and hopefulness, Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander explores the meaning behind Peter Molyneux's grand experiment.
My favorite story about Peter Molyneux has to do with the time he told me he didn't care if his plane crashed or not, so long as he could know what was happening with Curiosity. Because of Apple's caprices, the cube-tapping experimental game had launched sooner than 22cans expected, and Molyneux had to rush back from Israel to the UK in a whirlwind. In a breathless phone interview, he told me about how even though flight regulations warn against seeking mobile signals in the air, he pressed his device against the plane window, damn the risk, just in case there'd be some way for him to see Curiosity's initial flood of users. There is something that appears to be profoundly uncynical about Molyneux, and I suspect that's what keeps people paying attention to his work despite their own visible cynicism sowed since the days when Black & White and Fable made impossible promises, and simply delivered regular old flawed video games. The jam-inspiring "Peter Molydeux" Twitter account continues to be as much a loving celebration of the man's tireless optimism and often esoteric visions as it is a mockery of them. Recent 'Molydeux' ideas like "What if a door was your companion? You can place him/her on any surface and can only interact with others on the other side of the door?" are striking because they're partially ridiculous, but there's a fascinating seed therein. It's a good analogue for Molyneux himself. With Curiosity, mobile app users could access a massive cube ("quite a beautiful-looking cube," an enthusiastic Molyneux told me once) and simply by tapping on it, collaborate to strip away its layers. The over-arching group quest was to reach the center of the cube, but therein was packed a quest for the individual: Be the first one to reach the cube's center. The user to wick away the very last cubelet was promised to earn an unknown, mysterious, "life-changing" secret. It was also by any estimation an experiment in monetization, whether or not that element was part of the sell. Users could pay for upgraded taps, the ability to destroy layers more quickly than their fellows. Later on, Curiosity enabled users to add cubelets, potentially reversing the progress of other players and keeping the cube alive if they spent money. The ability to observe social behavior, like writing and drawing on the cube's face, and to gather user data about engagement and expense, was part of what Molyneux told me last year was most exciting to his team about Curiosity. Hopefully 22cans will release that info soon, but for now, all talk is about the revelation at the cube's center, which was unveiled just days ago.

Inside the cube

When Molyneux described the reward at the center of Curiosity's cube as "amazing by any scale," he sounded transported by his own creation, utterly in love with the digital medium and the joy of experimental creation. Now the experiment has ended. While Curiosity's winner had the right to keep their secret, 18 year-old Bryan Henderson of Edinburgh -- who completed the cube just about an hour after downloading the app and joining the game for the first time -- chose to share his revelation with the rest of the world ("He has said he will share!!!!!!!!!" Molyneux enthused via Twitter with no fewer than nine exclamation points). Shortly after Henderson claimed his prize, the announcement video circulated widely, featuring Molyneux haloed by light and standing at the center of a smooth white cube interior. The minimalism of the presentation gave it a surreal, retro-futurist air, like the Architect at the center of the Matrix. The facts of the prize: The ability to be the reigning "digital god" in 22cans' upcoming world-builder Godus, and to share a slice of its profits. Cue cynics -- and their generally-reasonable reservations. What message can we gain from the efforts of many leading to a reward for one? Is a job on a dev team a "life-changing secret?" How much control will young Henderson have over Kickstarter-backed Godus, and is that fair to those who backed it expecting Molyneux's leadership? Godus, incidentally, has confused its players enough already with the recent revelation that it'd have a free-to-play mobile release via DeNA after raising $800,000 from 17,000 backers, many of whom doubtless considered their donation a pre-order. What was inside the cube? Peter Molyneux, in more than one sense. The internet's grumbling sigh, equal parts unsurprised and fond, followed, amid the usual smattering of genuine irritation. UK journalist Jim Rossignol of Rock, Paper Shotgun put it quite well on Twitter: "But perhaps that's the point. Molyneux's hyperbolic invention is the show, now. The games will all have Peter inside, one way or another."

A creature of ideas

To categorize Molyneux as a careless narcissist might be a misstep, though. In many ways gaming itself is founded on idealism, dreams and promises. All games are marketed on vision and hype. Molyneux's work is the quintessence of that element of gaming culture: Unswerving faith, a counterweight to the bitterness and cynicism that assumes a financial agenda or a manipulative urge for profits at the core of every visionary. He is a creature of ideas, and his desire for experimentation and enthusiasm is the opportunity to reflect on the nature of interactive entertainment and participatory creation. He has both a compatriot and an antithesis in academic, author and game designer Ian Bogost, whose Cow Clicker, a cynical critique of Facebook games, is in its own way kin to Curiosity -- both games are about seeing what will happen when you ask a potentially-massive addressable audience to click on something repeatedly. The former game explicitly promised nothing, while the latter implicitly promised the world. Both games are important demonstrations as regards the motivations of the creators and their players alike. Cow Clicker surprised its creator with a sea of devoted players who really didn't care what he did to them, that he gave them nothing, and that he had fun at their expense; it surprised its creator with the revelation that many people were just attracted to the idea of owning a digital object, to the simple zen-like repetition of clicking on a cow. "I'm jealous that [Molyneux] made a more boring clicking game than I did," Bogost (predictably) snarked. "I also think Curiosity was brilliant and inspired. But that doesn't make it any less selfish or brazen," he later added, noting "Curiosity was *not* an experiment. Experiment' is a rhetorical ruse meant to distract you from the fact that it's promotional."

Curiosity and hope

One can wonder endlessly about Molyneux's private motivations for Curiosity, and whether his players' reactions surprised or disappointed him. It's still hard for me, though, to see the hopeful man with the big promises as a secret cynic -- just as it's hard to see Bogost as secretly caring, optimistic, curious about players (though he is). I'd much rather believe that, far from using Curiosity to exploit optimism, promote Godus or glamorize unpaid internships, Molyneux instead lives in his own luminous little world where hope springs eternal. Maybe the mechanics aren't the whole message. I think Cow Clicker wasn't necessarily an "experiment" either, but a statement of values, and it wasn't necessarily non-promotional, having inadvertently become Bogost's most famous work. Isn't it possible that, like Bogost, Molyneux used a system he didn't like in and of itself to promote an idea he cared about? The purpose and reception of two fundamentally similar games is completely altered by who made them and why; by what players expected versus what they got, which is the most important takeaway of this whole episode, for me. The games industry, uncomfortably lumbering all over the muddy lines that separate business from art, culture and individual expression, is often disappointing and depressing, and cynicism is often well-earned. That's why it feels like an interesting choice to believe in Molyneux in a pure way, to embrace hyperbolic invention as a legitimate and necessary sentiment in the games landscape. If Curiosity is a statement of values, it says that curiosity and hope are meaningful to games, that imaginary worlds can be as momentous to someone, if not everyone, as real ones, and that the opportunity to create is a life-changing reward. "Also: everyone's an apologist for Molyneux because the rest of the games biz is so unambitious and forgettable," says Bogost. "So there's that."

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