All’s fair in love and war. The pervasive power of this centuries-old idiom can be seen throughout modern culture, from the popularity of reality shows that encourage and even celebrate cattiness and backstabbing in the interest of winning true love, to the all-too-common pattern in the political arena of candidates making grand but unkept promises. It seems that anything goes in the name of getting our own way in this world, especially when our happiness is at stake.
I like to think that I’m better than this. Sure, I made questionable decisions in my late teens and early 20’s. Winning the attention of my love interests often took priority over kindness or loyalty. Life is short, I told myself, and when love comes your way you have to pursue it at all costs. A decade later, I am wiser and more mature. But playing Redshirt, I was confronted with the fact that the ugly, self-serving parts of me are still there, lurking just under the surface and waiting for any excuse to show themselves once again.
Redshirt is a Facebook simulator set in space. Players take on the role of a new recruit on the space station Megalodon 9, interacting with other crew and colleagues entirely through the station’s social networking site, Spacebook. Viewed through the lens of Spacebook, life on a space station is pretty similar to life on Earth. Over the course of any given day you go to work, attend social events, grow your circle of friends and acquaintances, flirt, and find love. “Liking” status updates, sending messages, and attending events with co-workers increases the health of your friendships and romances, and also increases your qualifications for job promotions.
But there is unrest aboard Megalodon 9: in 160 days, something is happening. There are no official details, only gossip. Rumor has it that it would be in your best interest to get off this ship sooner rather than later.
At first, I was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information to take in on Spacebook. Much like its real-life counterpart, Spacebook is a complicated mess of friend requests, status updates, event invitations, and private messages. It didn’t take long to realize that it was neither necessary nor prudent to read all the available information, and I learned to simply skim the various event descriptions, flavor text, and endless stream of notifications. Soon using Spacebook felt as natural as using Facebook, so much so that switching windows mid-game to browse my real-life social network started to feel surreal, like the two were simply extensions of one another.
Once I had conquered the interface, it was time to do the work of building up my circle of friends. Initially I felt a rush of happiness each time I was tagged in one of my coworkers’ comments. These comments ranged from friendly praises to outrageous flirtation, and even though I knew it was all computer-generated, I felt genuinely flattered. It didn’t take long before one of my colleagues, a woman named Wavi Tij, sent me a relationship invitation, which I gladly accepted. For a few in-game days my space-life was blissful. After a few days, however, I felt my attention beginning to stray as flirtatious messages from all over Spacebook continued to flood my timeline. The first time I “liked” a flirty comment from an acquaintance who wasn’t Wavi, I was greeted almost immediately with a notification of her disapproval: “–10 with Wavi Tij”. I resolved to do my extra-relationship flirting privately in the future, but it was too late. Within a few days Wavi ended our relationship, and after the initial pang of rejection faded, I rejoiced at my new freedom. Who needs a nagging girlfriend, anyway?
As the ominous countdown continued, I began to realize that my social network was not simply there to bolster my ego. I needed to get off the space station pronto, but learning new skills to gain promotions was tedious work. Wouldn’t it simply be easier to schmooze my way to the top? Soon I found myself studying the career tree, pursuing relationships with hiring managers and potential bosses. I moved in and out of romances with men, women, and gelatinous cubes based not on their attractiveness to me, but based on whether they were a high enough rank or suitable position to be worth my time. If they proved too clingy, they had outlived their usefulness, and it was time to move on.
Friendship was never meant to be like this. Genuine love is not self-serving: it is other-serving. Unfortunately, there is no way within Redshirt to redeem yourself and choose to pursue healthy friendships. Eventually, I simply stopped playing. Even though none of the hearts I broke in Megalodon 9 were real, I was becoming increasingly aware of the darkness within my own heart and the selfishness the game brought out in me.
Each time I finished a play session of Redshirt, I was disgusted with myself. As I reflected on these feelings, I began to notice a disturbing truth: my behavior on Facebook resembles that of my time on Spacebook. My interactions are less calculated, but each off-handed “like” or comment has at its root the same intention: boosting my relationships, increasing my standing, and increasing my own self-worth. I may not be destroying romances for my own gain as I did in my 20’s, but I’m still using people as stepping stones.