Every game begins tabula rasa.
The prospect of finding something new, of feeling things you’ve never felt before. The sensation of rolling over in bed in the morning, with light streaming through your apartment window. Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds is a game about dying, and waking up, fresh and new. The past is no longer. Your last missed shot is irrelevant. All that matters is how you’re going to tackle the island on your next run.
PUBG seems to acknowledge that. Each match begins as a playground of sorts. The 100 players that will soon be occupants of the island are dumped on a much smaller landmass, far too small for 100 people, and lets them do exactly what they want, with no consequence, for a smoldering 60 seconds. If you have voice chat enabled you can speak directly to those 99 other people at your leisure. It’s a sort of litmus test for who people really are. Do you grab a weapon and practice your aim, or just shoot at people to watch their blood fly? Maybe hurt the strangers around you with your words? Or maybe you jump into the water and swim as far as you can, leaving that godforsaken island, only to be immediately dropped back in. Your impression is of your own making.
The first recommendation most make to new PUBG players is to turn off local voice chat entirely. As you can expect, when 100 people are thrown in a space without consequence, horrible things are screamed at no one in particular. Denigrating things. 40 voices shouting, or blasting 21 Savage, into the void. And I suppose that’s to be expected — it’s a microcosmic sample of the internet at large. So that’s what I did, and still do. No voice chat, and I condemned that space as blighted.
And then I noticed a strange pattern.
A dance. A silent symmetry between individuals, around the world, participating in something that doesn’t mean anything intrinsically, but means so much in the context of the abyss that is the PUBG lobby.
Several months ago, the first “people sculpture” I encountered was one that’s been retroactively, and affectionately dubbed, the “snake train”. A line of twenty, maybe twenty five people, all crawling across the ground in tandem, forming a line. Endlessly marching into the sea together. And there was beauty in that: together. It was a way of saying without words that we can do something, however meaningless, that brings us together as people sitting at our keyboards. It was a strangely profound moment because it didn’t need to happen. It happened without prompting or command. Some mute hivemind, or flock instinct, told people to join the snake train. We could have just shot each other. But we didn’t – we created a sculpture with our bodies.
These pieces of performance iterated over the months. I’ve seen clusters of thirty people jumping up and down together. Groups of people imitating square dancing as best they can. Sometimes it’s as simple as a handful of people running circles around one another. Or a favorite of mine, people laying down on wooden tables, which normally hold guns, and spinning around in circles together.
Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds stresses your awareness of your own body.
Its third person perspective allows you to know exactly where your extremities are at all times, what’s hidden behind a rock, and what is exposed to another player’s line of sight. So much of the game is spent running, crawling through grass, hiding in bathrooms, shooting at other bodies. Unlike shooters that communicate your presence through a first person perspective, you’re more aware of how, when, and where your body is. Getting shot by an opposing player feels bad. The fragility of your human sized character is emphasized by the titanic scale of the island. When you see the circle move, indicating a new safe-zone, you pull up your map and try to judge the distance between yourself and a distant hill. The wheels start turning. You think: I don’t know if my small body can run that far, fast enough. But you have to, so you run. This connection to your avatar’s body is what makes the “people sculptures” feel more tangible — when you follow the person in front of you in the snake train, that you’re really there with them.
This phenomenon isn’t new. While I rarely play online-centric games, I have fond memories of people jumping in tandem on the auction house roof in World of Warcraft’s Orgrimmar, or dancing together in Destiny. But somehow, this was different. Perhaps it’s the the contrast with which these “people sculptures” are painted against the bleak backdrop of PUBG’s landscape and its dire blood-sport. But more likely that seeing the opposite is usually true. That most, behind the veil of anonymity, decide to fulfill the shittiest parts of the heart. The part that wants to lash out and hurt, be vile, to enact the most fucked up and basic desires of their lizard brain.
And as soon as that fleeting moment of group expression became realized, it passed. Three months since the release of Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds and gone are the “snake trains” and “party jumps”. I’m inclined to attribute it to the game becoming more familiar with most players – that most are just waiting for their next drop onto the island. That we’re done with the shenanigans and ready to fight. But part of me wonders what we’re missing by ending our reverie. The ceremonial dance before fighting. Boxers tapping gloves. Our way of saying to one another “hey y’all, let’s not be shitty to each other.”
Send in your screenshots of PUBG “people sculptures” to NCG at firstname.lastname@example.org