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May 14, 2014 | 4 Comments

Salty’s Dream Cast Casino (Salty Bet)

From the curators: Controversy over video games is in no way new. Electronic gaming has been connected to violence ever since the earliest “interactive electronic games,” designed in the late 1940s to simulate World War II missile drops, were played on cathode ray tubes. However, the stakes, design, and interactivity of such games has evolved radically. Enter Salty Bet (created by a designer who goes only by the name of Salty), a free game that allows players to place virtual bets on live competitive fights between (often wildly mismatched) video game characters. These combatants are sourced from MUGEN, a freeware 2-D fighting game engine designed by Elecbyte. Mugen (無限 in Japanese) means “unlimited” or “infinite,” and perhaps refers to the endless character customizations possible in this game. (The original acronym is claimed lost by its creators.) This continuous live stream of A.I.-controlled MUGEN fights is hosted on an online forum by Twitch.tv, creating Salty’s Dream Cast Casino. Bets are made in “Salty Bucks,” which, as it is not an actual currency, means no real money is used or paid out. An eclectic mixture of rock, rap, and video game music provides the sonic backdrop, while a chat screen of trash talk between those placing bets scrolls rapidly beside the fight.

In the grand arc of games, there are only two notable single-player games: solitaire and golf. Perhaps even those who excel at this pair are unaware of the larger “conversation” at work. At their best, both encapsulate a singular encounter between humans and a set of rules. But primarily, games are played with others.

That games developed as primarily social functions is perhaps unsurprising; however, with the development of arcades in the late 1970s and early 1980s, games became objects of social censure. Arcade culture was bedecked in the robes of vice and violence, operated by the same proprietors of peep shows and slots. They were played by outcasts in the darkest corners that suburban malls would allow.

Every arcade was blessed with its own rites of performance and pageantry. Quarters lined up quietly along the lower lip of console cabinets to claim spots for the next round. Finishing moves or moments of brilliance were accompanied by a wide variety of dances and sequences, ranging from nervous, expectant fidgets to no-handed two-step at a bested opponent’s side. This social atmosphere allowed games—and gamers—to express themselves in public.

But the king of the arcade was undoubtedly the fighting game. Games like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat were the purest expression of competitive excellence. Battles hung in the balance of mere seconds and though fighting games no longer hold the esteem and popularity they once did, there’s something delightfully quaint about their continued existence. In an age of drone-mediated warfare, the proximity and purity of hand-to-hand combat lives on the minutia of combos and the rhythm of tapped buttons.

It is against this history of game-mediated violence that the brilliant Salty Bet emerges. A clever amalgam of the oldest values of video games with the contemporary aid of Internet-enabled voyeurism, it exists as testament to the new truth of Internet gameplay: real-time algorithmic spectacle. Devised by persons unknown and spawned from the Web’s collective id, the game removes human agency from the equation entirely, pitting two bots in a death match against each other while the entire ordeal is live-streamed. Currency (“Salty Bucks”) is doled out and wagered. All players are spectators and vice versa. An entirely new language of games emerges.

Salty Bet’s existence is curious for many reasons. Much like Bitcoin, that other problematic, distributed Internet form, the creator of Salty Bet is still unknown. And where Bitcoin found its voice on Reddit, Salty Bet itself has generated its own reflexive inner sanctum inside the game itself, rife with its own language. To wit, just watch the chat box alongside each match turn blue with its own pastiche of profanity, emoticons, and frustration. The game essentially taps into the same manic energy that animates the Barclays center during a Brooklyn Nets game.

And true to Nets games, the matches are wildly inconsistent, as the characters themselves have mismatched abilities. The Coca Cola polar bear fights Miss Powerderpuff; an avatar of Munch’s The Scream fights in a face-off—literally—against Super Mario himself. Salty Bet chaffs at the dangerous edges of fair use, playing fast and loose with copyright and trademark. (Ronald McDonald, for example, is one the best fighters in the Salty Bet universe.)

A large part of Salty Bet’s appeal is its reclamation of something that has been lost since kids first retreated indoors to play during the 1990s PC video game boom. In the last 20 years, game designers have focused most heavily on the mediated space: the place where the image is presented in cinematic form. Marketing that extolled the values of games and gameplay with technical merit over narrative or ludic pleasures bombarded players; in reaction, they turned their attention to the fictional space that lives in our minds and haunts us in our sleep. Perhaps counterintuitively for a game predicated on a fight to the death, the social space where players interact with each other—both within the game as they place bets and draw pairs, but also outside the game when the fighting talk and fantasy combat pairings are discussed—is the part of video game design that Salty Bet reawakens. It is voyeuristic violence, but one where “no holds barred” means less rampaging through Miami, à la Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, and more graphic nostalgia for the way Link outwitted Ganon.

Salty Bet speaks more broadly to our new relationship with Internet machinery; we ask games to essentially play against themselves for enjoyment (a strange form of respect, perhaps). These interactions in code have proven to be wildly popular and entertaining, suggesting that algorithms are able to generate, of their own accord, something akin to human sport. Games may never be the same again.

Welcome to Fight Club, reimagined in code.

Screen Shot 2014-05-09 at 2.43.43 PM

Salty (of Salty Bet, est. 2013). In partnership with Twitch.tv (est. 2011). Salty’s Dream Cast Casino. Launched July 3, 2013, at saltybet.com. Fighting characters sourced from MUGEN (est. 1999). Screenshots courtesy of saltybet.com

Is violence in video games correlative, causal, or completely unrelated to violence IRL (in real life)?

  1. January 28, 2015, 3:29 pm

    Paul

    None of the above – and all of the above. Violence in video games is in some cases correlative, very seldom causal, and only tangentially related to violence IRL.

    Salty Bet fits quite comfortably in humanity’s long history of the enjoyment of violent spectacle; theatrical, gladiatoral, athletic, cinematic, etc. This enjoyment is, in my opinion, predicated on the feeling of order, safety, and remove afforded the spectator. As long as WE’RE not the ones in the ring, as long as the blood (real or simulated) remains in the precarious liminal space where we can sense the violence yet not be its victim, the spectacle serves a (paradoxically) civilizing purpose.

    Better the blood in there than out here.

  2. January 29, 2015, 1:18 am

    Andrea Morales

    Violence and Virtual Creation

    The question of whether games are violent on their own accord or due to human intervention is a classical chicken or egg conundrum. It seems to me like the question is out of date, because it separates videogames’ violence from that in other forms of media. It renders games as “special” without really being able to pinpoint what unique characteristics separate games from, for example, cinema. In the case of the presence of violence in media, asking whether games are more prone to be violent due to some sort of magic veil presented by interaction indicates a broader fear of dynamic systems and their place in entertainment and our daily lives, and nothing more.

    Such fear is evident in the way sports seem to be separated from “videogames”, indicating that spectatorship changes the way games work fundamentally, when in fact boxing, for example, is a game in itself. Actually, Mr. Warren seems to acknowledge this himself when he compares Salty Bet to a Nets game. So why is Salty Bet chosen as a special case of violence at all? Is it because it’s a game, or because it is mediated by interactive systems?

    I would guess that what scares us in games is the idea that they can exist without us. Beyond the voyeuristic pleasure that Salty Bet can provide to the spectators, perhaps what terrifies us the most is the concept that an algorithm can continue being violent even after its creator has been gone. Videogames are just one instance of many where we wonder if human violence can be spawn without its human origin – the point where true creation would exist amongst dynamic systems.

  3. January 29, 2015, 5:30 pm

    Josh

    Games Not Fringe

    First, I find the central premise of this article inaccurate, which is (seams to be) video games/gaming as a fringe activity. From the moment I read, “they were played by outcasts in the darkest corners that suburban malls would allow” I felt this article was being reductive to better slope towards a thesis. The evolution of video games is a complex narrative as rich as film. Similarly, you can’t reduce the evolution of film as a fringe activity just because there were small viewing machines during the “Cinema of Attractions” or that film had a bump in interest due to the vaudeville circuit. And the spectacle of Salty Bet fits comfortably in the evolution of video games, devoid of violence altogether.
    I bring this up because the question about violence in real life and its relationship to gaming is also complex, but one danger is siphoning gaming into an activity that appeals (or appealed) to a fringe section of society. And that simply has never been the case.
    Beyond this preliminary observation, Salty Bet seems to be a concept forged out of cons and the social dynamic that has been created around video game competitions. I almost question how deeply the notion of violence can be inserted into this conversation. When an algorithm is written to guide a character in Grand Theft Auto and people are wagering on how many folks he can assault, then we might have a narrative brewing. However, people have wagered against a person playing against an algorithm for years. This is just the next step… and I’m for it. Not only is their neither a causal or correlative link between violence in real life and gaming, I think it’s time to move the conversation past those two altogether.

  4. August 23, 2015, 5:18 pm

    Jarvis

    It’s nice to see three well written comments on this subject.

    Unfortunately, violence in video games is is likely to be under scrutiny for the long haul. Often, it is only a scapegoat, like any other media featuring violence. It’s an absurd argument, of course, humans having been violent for quite a while before video games came along… Salty’s arena is along the lines for chicken races or beetle combat, with the difference being that no one actually gets hurt. Personally, I think that video games can be great for curbing violent tendencies- your frustrations can be taken out against virtual entities, the craving for real life acts of aggression diminishes. Even with the odd individual driven to violence with a claimed connection to video game violence (and these are few and far between), the game may only have helped tip an already unstable person… but in reality, nearly anything can serve as a tipping point. It’s unrealistic to burden game violence with the blame.

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