Digging for Failure

Dig Station is an idle tapping game, with grinder overtones, produced by C6H6 and available on the Amazon app store. The premise is that you are in control of a station that is digging into the earth’s crust in order to mine resources.

Figure 1: © C6H6. Reproduced under fair use.

You begin simply with a drill: your ‘core drill’, which slowly and inexorably extracts resources that amass at the top of the screen—indicated by an ever-increasing yellow number.

Figure 2: © C6H6. Reproduced under fair use.

As this number increases, you are able to use the resources you have mined to upgrade your drill. The effect of this is to enable the drill to extract resources at a greater rate, with this rate increasing as you increase the drill’s level. Eventually you can upgrade the dig station itself, unlocking a whole array of technologies and modifiers to help you in your journey of resource extraction.

As you upgrade and unlock each increasingly sophisticated element—from the core drill to ‘outer casing’, ‘manipulators’, ‘hydraulics’, ‘pilars’, ‘servos’, a ‘smeltery’, a ‘fuel refiner’, and eventually ‘electronics’—the dig rate increases. The next technology to unlock is always beyond the limit of your current resources, requiring greater investment in your existing technologies to level up their efficiency and amass more and more bits. A core drill with a dig rate of only 200 bits would take aeons to produce electronics, which requires 1,000,000,000 to unlock. But step by step, second by second, bit by bit, the mined substance piles up as the player incrementally upgrades the extraction rate from the planet’s crust.

Figure 3: © C6H6. Reproduced under fair use.

Unlocking the next technology uses up nearly all your resources, but they swiftly pile up again with renewed vigour as the latest instruments come online. Aiming always for the next upgrade, the next milestone in the accretion of ore, the user is pushed to the limit of what can be afforded with their current throughput, their budget. This is constantly reinvested, developing the sophistication and intricacy of the dig station, feeding back into itself and enabling ever greater accumulation of wealth, of value—but a value who’s only worth is for the production of ever-more-efficient ways of accumulating itself.

Dig Station presents an increasingly complex feedback system. An illusion of agency that always guides the user back into itself, tapping away at the screen to upgrade and spend and upgrade and dig and spend and dig and spend and dig and spend, always seeking that next development, and the slight increase in efficiency it promises.

With each increased level, the cost of upgrading increases. It is initially cheap and easy to upgrade the core drill, but it becomes less so. The other technologies—servos, manipulators, electronics—also become more expensive than they began, with each upgrade adding a percentage value to the cost of the next upgrade.

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Figure 4: © C6H6. Reproduced under fair use.

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Figure 5: © C6H6. Reproduced under fair use.

The process of technological evolution slows down, becomes incrementally smaller, slower, pushing the resource-use further towards its limit, constantly frustrating the user in their inability to develop at will, always waiting for new extraction to amass, always desiring an increased dig rate to speed up the whole thing.

The system only has meaning within itself—the value produced only exists within the intricating complexity of the dig station. There is nothing outside the dig station, no outside-system. The user constantly pushes the limits, the boundaries of the station, constantly innovating and developing its units, elements, articulations—but only encountering other systemic parts, other pieces that enable the whole to function, to perform its function of autopoietic exploitation.

Faster, faster, more, more, dig, spend, dig, spend… the cycle runs on. The smaller numbers where the lonely core drill once did its valuable work become frantic and blur to a meaningless blob. It’s the millions, the billions, that matter now. There is a multiplier, where you can simply tap, tap, tap to increase your yield by 0.01% for each level—the cost of each upgrade, the number of taps required, increasing exponentially each time. For the frantic who want to push the system even further to the limit to sate their desire for growth there is an overdriver, which can double your yield so long as keep tapping, keep tapping, forever tapping.

 

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Figure 6: © C6H6. Reproduced under fair use.

And the object being tapped throughout the game is a smartphone. A highly sophisticated object produced through the mining of resources, the production of goods, the development of increasingly sophisticated technologies and systems. The thing we hold, and stab at mercilessly in the pursuit of ever more value, is an integrated part of the capitalist system of the planet. Employed to facilitate communication, to assist in the development of social and economic systems, of consumer markets and industrial production, the pursuit of profit and growth. All of which rests upon the extraction of resources from the planet and their subsumption via many layers into increasingly sophisticated technologies and tools, to fuel the intricate and multifaceted pursuit of growth within the capitalist economy. In Dig Station, this bleak vision of value production for its own sake is not only gamified, translated into a fully-fledged ludic experience, but is materially integrated into the system itself.

Tap, tap, tap; the drill grinding away as the player grinds away tapping at their piece of sophisticated tech. The game’s metaphor collapses into the phone’s materiality with every touch of the screen; it becomes real.

Taptaptaptaptap—eventually the reactor comes online, and nuclear energy can be produced and stored. An interminably slow process, requiring the grinding purity of 100 taps to inject a certain amount of fuel into the reactor. Once the reactor is full, it can be activated—producing a random amount of nuclear resource dependent upon the level of the reactor, how upgraded it is, how much resource has been dug, how much mined and invested. The first upgrade costs 1,000,000,000 units—and it increases from there.

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Figure 7: © C6H6. Reproduced under fair use.

The overarching milestone, present from the point a player first upgrades their dig station, is to produce 42 bits of nuclear energy from the reactor. Once this is done, completing the upgrade reveals a purist tapping screen where one accumulates ‘adventures’—300 of them, each one another stab at the device, an adventure in the materiality of the technological articulation of the game itself, pushing at the boundaries between gameworld and player, a mutual and repetitive touching. The 42 bits are spent, and the next step in this ever increasing technologisation, this seemingly unstoppable progression towards increased complexity and refinement, unfolds.

This milestone is not another upgrade, it is not another layer of resource extraction, another step of autopoeitic introversion. It is not the utopian continuation of the system, the unfettered collection and application of resources, the endless elaboration of technological progress. It is not another upgrade, but a failure of the system. The value of the resources does not continue, but instead ceases to exist—its illusory nature finally reappearing in the complete and total collapse of the system of extraction.

But this is not a failure of the dig station itself, nor of its interconnected elements—these are perfect in their efficiency and effects, continuously spewing matter from the planet. Through the relentless absorption of the planet’s resources, our incessant tap-tap-tapping precipitates a more profound and terminal failure. The failure is not of the technological system, but the planetary one. The material, corporeal encounter between human body and technological sophistication, the repetitive touching of the tap of the smartphone, with metaphor constantly spilling into material life, results in the death of the planet. The critique of capitalist exploitation reaches its fulfilment, luring the user in as a utopian mission to accumulate resources, but embedding in that encounter the destruction of all terrestrial possibility.

Dig, spend, dig, spend, dig, spend, dig, spend…. the planet shatters, the game is over.

Thank you for playing!

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Figure 8: © C6H6. Reproduced under fair use.

Links:

You can see a video of the game here (a slightly different version from the one in the Figures), complete with ending. Or, if you prefer, a video of the ending can be seen here (with an added dramatic soundtrack that is not in the game).

Thomas Giddens, Lecturer in Law, University of Dundee

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