A few weeks ago I noticed an ad on Twitter from a user named @WhatisOWW. Normally I’d ignore it, but this particular ad contained a short clip of in-game footage reminiscent of a Jacolby Satterwhite video piece, complete with virtual neon signs and crazy dancing, so I was intrigued.
I clicked on the ad to discover Occupy White Walls, a game launched late last fall by indie development company StikiPixels. Occupy White Walls is billed as a sandbox-building, AI-driven, massive multiplayer online game. The game is free to play on Steam, Valve Corporation’s game store. I decided to download it without quite knowing what to expect.
The login screen to the game immediately tells you via a text pop-up that “discussions and critique are allowed as long as these take place in a mature and non-inflammatory manner.” Am I signing up to be a part of a virtual reality MFA program? Whatever. I agree to the code of conduct. Sign me up.
I start out as a wooden, drawing mannequin that anyone who’s ever been to an art store would instantly recognize. I can move around in a 3D space and change my avatar to different colored mannequins. There’s clearly a missed opportunity for players to role play as famous art pieces. Personally, I was hoping there’d be a Venus of Willendorf option but I have to choose the next best thing, a yellow plastic female body donning a black mask splattered with paint for a face.
The game starts by gives me multiple information boxes telling me how to set up my gallery. For now, my gallery seems to be a giant wall-less and floor-less cube in the sky, surrounded by clouds. A menu gives me options for placing different types of architectural elements, most of them neutral tone and made out of stone. I guess I’ll be sparing no expense. The game tells me how to place walls with a prompt that says, “Good! Walls are essential for art hanging!” and I giggle at the thought of sculptors or performance artists being able to stomach this.
When I’ve got a few walls up (though I can still see some clouds) it’s time for me to purchase some art. I’m confronted by nine choices, most are paintings from around the 19th century but a few pieces are from 2018. I choose David Norslup’s 1865 oil on wood painting, “Negro Boys on the Quayside” for 250 cubes, the game’s version of money. I try to place it on a wall and do a really poor job. The painting is at the lower left corner, close to knee-level.
The game now tells me to open up my gallery with a single, poorly-hung painting on my walls. Other characters start entering and walking around, and they leave blue cubes on my gallery desk (It’s like donation money that I can buy more art with) then they transport out when they’re done looking.
At some point, another player walks into my gallery and splatters paint on my walls and floors. The nerve! It then dawns on me that this person seems more representative of the type who would play this game: not an art world baron, but an internet troll. But, judging by the code of conduct window from the beginning, it’s unlikely that things can go very far south. The splatters disappear within a few seconds.
Some in-game comments that flash across my screen: “I saw a pretty interesting piece in the portopotty [sic] yesterday I would hang on my gallery wall. It would be ashame [sic] to lose bathrooms as an art medium.” The response? “Bruuuh.” Duchamp would be proud.
Now the game tells me I need to buy more art to level up. I decide on a Van Gogh this time, “Roulin’s Baby”. It’s not one of his more well-known paintings, but the game insists that it’s the same cost as Norslup’s painting. What kind of crazy world is this?
My fledgling sky gallery has become kind of boring, so I decide it’s time to leave and go see what other players have created. My digital character can teleport to other galleries on the game’s server, so I try out the gallery of a user named bloodbomb. After a few seconds, I arrive in a much bigger, and more decked-out space that’s reminiscent of Chinese billionaire Liu Yiqian’s One 57 condo.
I walk across a glass floor and down some stairs to a room that hosts Peter Paul Ruben’s “Daniel in the Lions’ Den” (1614-1616) and take a closer look at it. On the left side, people have left comments about the work, like “is he ok?” I suppose they are talking about Daniel who seems to be praying for safety. Another comment is “oh lawd they comin,” talking about the lions. I can also buy my own “Daniel in the Lions’ Den” for 350 cubes. I buy it.
It dawns on me that the name, Occupy White Walls, might indeed be a reference to Occupy Wall Street, but from an utopian art world perspective. In this game, everyone is the one percent and everyone can claim priceless works of art for themselves.
I ask bloodbomb how much time they’ve spent building their gallery in the chat window that pops up for his gallery space, but don’t get a quick response. Other people who have visited say how calming the gallery is to walk around in, and how much they enjoy this player’s virtual space. Bloodbomb explains to guests that he spends a lot of time in Occupy White Walls because so far it seems to be a place with very little trolling and a chill in-game community — a rarity in the online gaming scene.
It’s time to return to my gallery to place “Daniel in the Lions’ Den.” I build a few modern-looking paneled walls around some granite flooring, then place the painting.
It feels anachronistic in this weird, hyper-modern space. I think again about bloodbomb’s painstaking gallery buildout. I have a lot of work to do.