At GDC 2011 this past March, three of the world's best game designers participated in a contest called Game Design Challenge. Each presented their vision for a game that fit the prompt "Bigger than Jesus: games as religion" before an audience, with applause to determine the winner. Jenova Chen, John Romero, and Jason Rohrer all spoke, and Rohrer won in a landslide with his revolutionary game called Chain World.
At its heart, Chain World is a Minecraft mod. What makes it special is that it's never supposed to leave the single customized and hand-painted 4GB USB stick that Rohrer brought to GDC (below). Thus, one player at a time would have the game, and since it was made with Minecraft, they could change the world however they wished except for building any signs with text. They would only play for one life, then save the game and pass the stick on to some other interested person, who would then do the same.
No one was to ever discuss their experience in the game world, keep any record of it, or ever play the game again. Thus, the game would grow and change over the years. Rohrer's theory was that those who came before and shaped the game world would be as Gods to those who came after, as they marveled at the forces that had shaped their world. For a professed atheist, that's a pretty good stab at addressing games as religion.
After Rohrer finished his presentation to raucous applause, he asked who wanted to be the second player, after himself of course, who had already done his playthrough. Hands flew up all over the crowd amid a din of shrill nerdish shouting. He spotted one short young guy in the front row leaning on a walker, and had his man. Chain World's journey had begun.
And what a journey it's been. The man Rohrer gave the stick to is named Jia Ji (above and below right, with Rohrer and noted author on video games Jane McGonigal), who is not actually handicapped but had hurt himself dancing the night before. He is a 27-year-old former part-time game designer and fundraiser for charities, then living in Hawaii, now Pittsburgh.
After the presentation was over Ji ran into McGonigal walking around the convention, and asked her if she would be willing to play the game for a good cause. She agreed, as did Will Wright when Ji asked him the same question later. He soon created a website called chainworld.org featuring a list of future players, and put the game up on eBay where people could bid on the opportunity to be the next player. All the proceeds were to go to the charities Ji fundraises for.
A firestorm erupted. Rohrer, forum users, and just about everyone else flamed the decision on whatever outlets were open to them. One game designer named Darius Kazemi started his own fundraising campaign in an effort to win the eBay auction and restore the stick to the more organic process Rohrer had envisioned. He raised over $875, but was beat by an anonymous bidder called Positional Super Ko who paid $3300. PSK later revealed in an online chat with Wired (whom published a brilliant article about Chain World in July) that she was a woman living in a major US city, but not whether she planned to honor Ji's wish to pass the game to Jane McGonigal or not.
In May, Ji sent out an email to Wired saying that PSK had the game, but also included odd videos of himself presenting the stick to an old tribal figure and throwing it into a volcano near his home in Hawaii. Those videos seem to be echoes of ideas for the fate of the game he presented in an interview with Rockpapershotgun back in March, suggesting that he possibly had been planning this for some time.
The last word on the game's fate came from PSK's Twitter account. It featured a series of quite nice koans about the fate of the game, and seemed to indicate that she at least considered passing Chain World on near the end of July shortly after tweeting to Jane McGonigal asking if she still wanted the game. The last koan however, tweeted on July 22nd, reads:
"The perfect seed is like the sufi Nasruddin's pepper: you keep searching for a sweet one, only to find a barren waste". That seems to indicate that she was dissatisfied with the candidates for passing the game on she had found so far, if she ever even had it.
After that, the trail goes cold. There have been no posts on chainworld.org since May, no new tweets from PSK, and no new party has claimed ownership. Where is Chain World now? Is it with Ji? PSK? Jane McGonigal? A weird old tribal guy?
Is it at the bottom of a volcano?
Chain World has become even more mysterious than its creator intended, indeed more like a religion stripped from the hands of its creator and changed by time into a cultural phenomenon unto itself. Maybe it has secretly returned to its original path, being passed quietly hand-to-hand between discrete and interested parties. Hopefully some day the stick itself will at least come to light, so we can all know that this amazing experiment in religion creation hasn't perished forever.