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The interactive nature of video games means that gamers can be more than just consumers waiting to buy the next AAA game; they can become artists, too, both producing and manipulating in-game worlds. Some create entire games, like Abdullah Karam’s Path Out, an RPG which allows players to navigate Karam’s real-life flight from war-torn Syria to Turkey. Others make use of material that’s already been created, such as Andy Kull’s in-game photography or the infamous virtual deer set loose by Brent Watanabe inside the world of GTA V. Most of these creations are already blurring the boundaries between performance and experience, kitsch and Art with a capital ‘A’. But there’s another group of gamers that has blazed a path through the interactive world of games to arrive at their own kind of art.
“Speedrunners”, as they are known, are a small, tight knit community with a single overarching goal: play video games fast. As fast as humanly possible. Speedrunners dedicate years of their lives to learning every single mechanic and glitch of a game in order to reach the end credits a tenth of a second faster than the official world record. Many casual gamers argue that this isn’t really beating the game, but rather cheating in order to avoid the story and much of what makes a game fun. Speedrunners agree, to an extent: they are cheating, but they have a different goal than casual gamers, who primarily want to experience all a game has to offer — to be entertained — which is where things get interesting.
Speedrunners are not interested in being entertained by video games (at least, not all the time). They see each new video game as a challenge, as source material: a collection of code and graphics to be manipulated into something else. By playing the game in a different order, they rewrite the game’s code to achieve new outcomes, and in doing so the speedrunner creates a kind of Dadaist performance using the game’s graphics and character avatar. They do this by maneuvering or “clipping” behind background art to access hidden loading zones and get “out of bounds”, manipulating option menus, and finding new ways to warp, glitch, and trick the programmed code of the game into thinking they’re somewhere they’re not.
Watching speedruns, I’ve seen some of the most fascinating, unexpected and unusual “gameplay” that has made me question what we do when we play video games. For example, a speedrun of Portal (a 2007 game in which the player wields a futuristic laser gun that allows them to break through walls) by D14bl075 ramps up quickly over eight and a half minutes, culminating in a dizzying example of a broken-game aesthetic in which the seams of the digital world are revealed and manipulated by the player. These behind-the-curtain moments allow us to see what the game’s creators would rather keep hidden: all the messy data and visuals that come together to create a polished game. But speedrunners do more than just create interesting images. A speedrun of the game Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time by Narcissa Wright, for example, shows her performing (as Link, the elf-like man in green who saves princess Zelda) an absurd, out of sequence hero’s quest: she walks backwards around Hyrule field, beats the first boss in mere seconds, then dies on purpose before reloading the game and performing the “glass bottle glitch” to skip to the final cutscene. The glass bottle is the most valuable object to a Zelda speedrunner, because by equipping the bottle where Link’s sword usually goes, the code inside the bottle can be rewritten so the game thinks Link is carrying a sacred medallion when all he has is a beetle or a fish. In this way, pouring a fish out of a bottle communicates to the game that Link is completing daring quests when actually he’s abandoned his heroic quest to instead dump a fish out of a bottle three, four, five, ten times in a row.
Not every speedrun relies on glitches — there are many different competitive categories in the speedrunning world, including “glitchless”, which puts all the emphasis on the player’s technical abilities — but it’s the runs that rely most heavily on manipulating game code that garner the most attention. In speedruns of Paper Mario, for example, player anatomyz purposely pushes the mustachioed plumber off the edge of the main world over and over again, causing Mario to fall in an endless loop to the bottom of an infinite digital world. He does this until the game gets so confused by Mario’s depth that it beams him into a previously inaccessible area. The trick is precise, and his performance of it elicits applause from his audience, much like a well-executed disc throw or layup. In fact, speedrunning has already earned numerous comparisons to the world of sport, with its highly competitive world record boards and popular conventions like Awesome Games Done Quick (AGDQ) where speedrunners convene in windowless hotel ballrooms to watch their idols blaze through a game in real time. But I think speedrunning is closer to art than sport; it’s the players’ adherence to ritual, embrace of the absurd, and abandonment of linear narrative that gives speedrunning a Dada-esque quality.
One of the aims of Dadaism was to question how environment impacted what we see and value as art. Ordinary objects like a urinal were given new meaning when put in a new context. The absurd combination of events in a speedrun brings to mind performance artists who did similar things in the flesh, like Hannah Wilke’s Through The Large Glass (1976), in which she’s filmed stripping behind Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors (1915–23), or Joseph Beuys’ absurdist conversations with dead hares. But more than that, speedrunners actively seek out and recreate glitches over and over again; there is perhaps no other corner of the internet that features the glitch so frequently and with so much reverence as the speedrunning community. Glitches, while technically defined as a “malfunction”, especially of a piece of software, become extremely valuable to speedrunners.
And while it’s unlikely that speed runs will ever make it into museums, speedrunners would probably prefer to remain outside institutional walls of all kinds anyway. Speedrunners are recombining widely recognizable digital images into new formats, and doing so at a rate and in a manner that frustrates the desire of multinational companies to maximize profit. Most companies assume a player will spend a few weeks or months completing the main quest of a game, at which point they’re ready to buy a new game. But when adopted by the speed running community, a game can long outlive its intended lifespan — it takes groups of gamers and programmers months and even years to hack the game’s code and understand intuitively the smallest details of a game’s programming. In this way, the true goal is a shared one of “breaking the game” into the smallest, fastest pieces. Some games, like Ocarina of Time, are eventually deemed “broken”: a game that takes 40 hours to play from start to finish can now be completed in under 20 minutes by the best speedrunners, and it’s unlikely any new breakthroughs will make that time much shorter. But other games are still being run, new glitches are still being found, and speedrunners almost always upload these to Youtube. Frequently, these videos are taken down by game companies who would much rather people buy the game and play it themselves rather than watch someone else perform the game for them.
Watching a speedrun makes it clear that a video game is not a static cultural product, but rather a fluid medium that can tell different stories and mean different things depending on whose hands are holding the controller. Speedrunners’ idolization of the glitch and embrace of nonlinear strategy are anything but lazy, and they’ve combined to create glitchy, alternative performances of almost every game in existence. In fact, any game you’ve ever played likely has dozens of speedruns on Youtube or twitch.tv, where you can watch in amazement or horror as someone speeds through your childhood memories.