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.