Editor in Brief: In Control

Issue 14 - Nature

Our new issue, Control, is out now – in this introduction to the new issue, Alan has some thoughts on the balance between chaos and control.

Five out of Ten provides a blank canvas for contributors to express themselves. We used to provide a focused writing prompt – see our third issue, Reflecting Reality, for example – but now we give the writer a one-word prompt and let them have at it, just as long as the finished essay is tenuously connected to videogames. This issue’s theme is ‘Control’, and the resulting essays stem from the more obvious (but no less interesting!) on physical methods of control, to Carly Smith’s essay on Splatoon where players win by dominating the field of battle rather than eradicating their opponents.

Even if we’re inclined to be spontaneous, we all want to feel like we’re in control of our lives. We search for the methods to the madness, the ‘life hacks’ that make things faster, easier, more reliable. Control is comfort. It is safety, solitude; everything from predictability in your daily routine to the arrangement of your desk. When our lives can be filled with stressful unpredictability in our relationships or careers, videogames provide a unique safe space that can be accessed from anywhere. They offer a controlled – and more importantly, controllable – environment.

Game designers create perfect sandboxes of play where the underlying rules are as fixed as the laws of physics; they can be discovered and exploited. When players grok the rules, incredible feats are possible: speed runs, high score records, glitch runs where the player manipulates the memory in which a game is running. The latter is control on an almost atomic level, way beyond any control we can have over real life.

In issue ten of Five out of Ten, I wrote about my Get Well games:

“Videogames, especially the old classics of youth, are my therapy of choice. They’re a great way to recuperate from a cold or hangover,  an even better way to combat sadness. Games like Bayonetta and Rock Band can bring me out of any slump, but Sonic 3 and Knuckles is probably my all-time favourite. I love the comfort of racing through the zones, knowing every secret passage and shortcut. The sights, the sounds, the speed. It is the utter lack of anything new or surprising that makes it so enjoyable. It’s tea and toast in game form.”

Yet for all the comfort of control, our gaming moments that are etched in memory are usually those when we lose control of the virtual world. A plot twist that kills a beloved companion; the panic when an enemy soldier kicks away our cardboard box disguise; the moment when the sandbox variables cause unpredictable and delightful accidents, what is often called ‘emergent gameplay’. The desire for control clashes with the need for spontaneity, the controlled pearlescent yin balanced with the chaotic ink blot yang. In an essay for our eighth issue entitled ‘Control is an Illusion’, Tauriq Moosa writes:

“I yearn for discomfort, because I yearn for a fulfilling experience… I don’t want games to be about fun. I want them to be about glory and abomination, the poles of human reaction that any form of lovingly made creativity is capable of doing. Discomfort should increasingly be a desire of the player, and an anchor for the creator. It is a mark of maturity and creativity.”

I agreed with Tauriq at the time, but it’s only a year later that I truly understand his point. Last summer, I had too much to do and not enough time to do it. The combination of a new job and the increasing demands of working on this lovely publication were just too much. My head seemed filled with a thick, smoky broth, thoughts and tasks floating around whilst I desperately tried to fish them out with some sort of spoon of focus. I went on a productivity drive: I read David Allen’s Getting Things Done, refined my todo lists into mighty tapestries of productivity, and by the autumn I felt in control of my own space. Things were Getting Done, yet in the pursuit of control, I lost that creative spark – the drive that made me want to achieve all those things in the first place.

So after last summer’s productivity drive comes this summer’s spontaneity drive. I’m writing this in a coffee shop with friends from a local writing group: we meet regularly to write flash fiction and share the progress on our projects. At one workshop, fuelled by spontaneous prompts on the night, I wrote a ridiculous story about an airport traveller seeing an origami dragon float out of a toilet. There was no time to think about it, barely enough time to correct my spelling. Words flowed like water. It was completely out of control. It was wonderful.

Should it worry me that composure and spontaneity, poise versus disorder, can seem mutually exclusive? Or is it that the balance between control and chaos is ever-shifting? As you read through this issue, ask yourself: am I in control? And do I want to be?


Issue #15 of Five out of Ten is out now! Read about Dragon Age and relationships, the fall and rise of the joystick, the challenges the infinite galaxies of Elite: Dangerous, how wargames depict the unpredictability of war, and the awe-filled pilgrimage of El Shaddai. Plus, five great features on Control.

Control features the work of Mitch Bowman, Ian Dransfield, Bruce Geryk, Jake Muncy, and Carly Smith, with cover artwork by Alan Williamson. Use the link below to get your copy, or try a PDF preview before you buy.

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