If we could win?
That’s the idea behind the subreddit r/outside, where about 650,000 users imagine our reality as “a free-to-play MMORPG with 7 billion+ active players,” as stated in its bio. Users post questions or stories about life as if they’re discussing a video game such as “World of Warcraft.” Though the subreddit has been around since 2009, 100,000 of those users joined in 2020. What better year, after all, to point out life’s absurdities through the lens of a video game?
“Prepare to update your games because 2021.v1 is dropping only weeks from now. Hoping it patches the COVID bug,” stated one recent post.
Most of the posts still focus on the everyday — from the serious to the silly. One post, which points out how few calories celery contains, deemed the vegetable “the most broken food item in game.”
“I unlocked the ‘First Name Basis with the Pizzeria Owner’ achievement,” boasted one user. “Even added bonus garlic knots to my inventory!”
“I was most impressed with how little it changed in the face of a crazy year,” said a frequent poster who goes by the name KyloWrench via direct message. “It would have been easy for the community to devolve in to posts about how much they hate the ‘pandemic gameplay’ or the election but instead we kept sharing fun content about ‘glitches’ or graphics problems like optical illusions.”
(Given the anonymous nature of Reddit, the sources in this story spoke on the condition that The Washington Post publish usernames rather than real names.)
One of the subreddit’s moderators, who goes by MegaManZer0, sees it as a place to “make mundane parts of life into fun adventures. Most submissions are lighthearted, framing things like a birthday increasing your character level, [or] finding a group of friends and claiming you joined a guild of great players. Here, achievements like passing a test or getting through a tough time in life can be framed as finally beating a difficult boss.”
Part of the appeal, suggested Sarah Lynne Bowman, an academic who studies role-playing games, is the shared language understood by all participants. Ages are referred to as “levels.” Events are “quests” or “minigames.” One user, who recently came out as bisexual, wrote, “At lvl 18, my confidence stat has increased enough to remove the closet debuff.” For other users to comment, they must first know a “debuff” refers to effects in games that damage a main character’s stats.
“This is the way social groups tend to function. They create their own jargon, their own in-references, their symbols of belonging,” Bowman said. “Our world is full of anxieties right now. Some people might find comfort in discharging that through humor with people who understand their language, and where they can find a sense of belonging.”
Some form of the idea that we’re living in a simulation has been around since antiquity. The idea of life as a video game titled “Outside” originally existed as an Internet meme that circulated in the early 2000s.
The subreddit was created in 2009 but remained dormant for two years until a user named Liru took over with a vision of creating something surreal that played on the idea of interacting with things “in unexpected and ridiculous ways.”
“Do you want to use live salmon as throwable weapons? Go ahead, there’s nothing stopping you!” Liru offered as one example, in an interview. “Basically, a way of showing off how ‘advanced’ [‘Outside’] was compared to most other ‘games,’ with the variety of things that you can do.” Eventually the users helped it evolve into what it is now.
That doesn’t surprise Katia Samoilova, a professor at California State University at Chico, who studies philosophy in video games. She points out that while gaming is viewed by outsiders as anti-social, it’s become a way people connect with one other in their own way. The subreddit is no different.
“Even the name of the game, ‘Outside,’ suggests there’s something comfortable for these gamers inside,” Samoilova said. “They can use that understandable part of the world to connect with a part of the world they find less interesting or more intimidating.”
Everyone plays the “game” differently. Some use it to explore their own identity. Some ask existential questions. Some muse at the weird parts of the world. And some just try making the other users laugh.
During a stroll about campus, inspiration struck a 22-year-old student who posts to Reddit under the name gggggggdsssrfhjjd and who describes himself as having “a casual interest in fashion.” Deep in the pandemic, most people wore masks — and seemed to be using them as a form of self-expression. It reminded gggggggdsssrfhjjd of the way players customize their characters in video games. The thought delighted him, and he rushed to share it with r/outside.
He wrote in a post that “it’s interesting to see how other players incorporate the mask item on their builds. Some characters go all in with massive face coverings that look like the Bandit class, others are more subtle and borrow the style of the Surgeon class. The 20.2.0 patch for this game has been tough and turned it into a real grind, but I try to find enjoyment in the little things.”
“I’m not sure what exactly made me think I should post about it, but there’s been a lot of negativity and pessimism online in general, as is to be expected with the way this year went,” he said via email. “I thought it’d be a cool way to spread some positivity.”
For gggggggdsssrfhjjd, the subreddit helps “make sense of all the oddities in the real world.”
“If you’re frustrated that life seems to be easier for wealthy people, you can blame it on the game being ‘pay to win.’ If you have some sort of illness or disability, you can think of it as a character buff instead,” he said. “I feel like it’s an interesting way for people to cope with what’s going on in their lives.”
He pointed to a running joke on the subreddit in which users argue about whether the “devs” (i.e. developers, which in this case would be a higher power) ever contact “players” (i.e. us).
“The existence of God or a higher being and whether or not he cares about us is a deep, philosophical question that I think most people will wrestle with at some point or other, and it’s a scary question not to know the answer to,” he said. “But if you gamify it, it suddenly becomes less serious and less threatening, because it doesn’t matter to you as an individual. It matters to your character.”