Okay, so the rule of the game is, well the gist is, if you put eighteen kids in a room for long enough they’ll start hating each other.

You ever read Lord of the Flies?

Anyways, the rule is, you lock the door, boom boom boom. You got their basic necessities covered, all that crap. You see that’s the caveat of being physical. Anyways. The rule is that, they gotta find a way out of the room, just a plain old room. But the thing is, the rule is gonna be that they can talk. They’re allowed to tell each other anything, as long as it’s not true.

Okay, here’s the million dollar pitch, it’s gonna be a total mindfuck and people will love to watch this. Every one of them will be told that the instruction only applies to them. Kinda like Mafia. Yeah! So they think that they’re trying to trick each other when in reality everyone’s the same. I’m not sure why they’d even want to leave the room, I mean there are no jobs out there. Oh! I’ll be with them too. You know, as one of the eighteen. So things don’t get out of hand. Ha! Talk about when god is among men.

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I had received the same pitch eighteen times. I wondered who was actually responsible for this, responsible for planting the same idea in eighteen impressionable minds, and somehow shepherding across the country to my office. The stuttering girl, the mongrelish drop-outs stinking of weed, the child who couldn’t have been more than seven, beaming as he clicked through an amateurish PowerPoint.

It didn’t really matter; the project was as good as funded. Nobody had produced anything like this, a puzzle show where every participant believed they were the mastermind. We had only to wait for the sets to be constructed, and for the ethics board to be paid off. Then, show time.

Hugo sits in the leather swivel chair, resisting the urge to swivel. Across the mahogany board table sits three suits who are passing judgement on them and the last few months of work, condensed into the pitch that Jack is now delivering.

Well. Saying they’re the ones passing judgement on their pitch is like saying that some ears are passing judgement on someones vocal chords for the tune they’ve just sung. There’s a truth to calling the executives ‘suits’. They are suited marionettes, carefully conditioned to be the front-end speech organs; putting a human face to the much vaster intelligence hidden behind them. Through the microphone in the middle of the table, Hugo tries to imagine the corporation and its sense-making apparatus, composed of thousands of meatbags carefully trained to work in unison, and the closely interwoven exaflops of expert systems originally intended to aid them. At some point in the recent past, Hugo muses, the signs on that equation must have flip-flopped, and it’s now the suits that aid the expert systems. Their purpose is ever the same though, mapping out the human and natural spheres, extracting physical and information resources and investing them for further exploitation. And the greatest source of wealth is building the map of human behavior. Thus through making and broadcasting games such as this, the map becomes ever clearer, and they pile more wealth ever on to the hoard upon which the technocratic dragon jealously roosts.

A moment of anxiety runs through Hugo’s body. He holds no illusions about the much greater scope of the corporation’s aggregate intelligence compared to his own. Do they have their number? Has some algorithm deep inside the machine understood their true motive? That they are in fact running a long con with the intent to run a heist on the dragon’s hoard, installing their own fledgeling expert system onto the field, becoming true players in the games of power rather than merely another crew of minions. And from there, launch the revolution.

That was the long game. Right now, right here, they are just getting their foot in the door. Sucking up to the aristocracy, appeasing the dragon, offering them yet another rich feast of information, a new way to process the paste of human nature and exploit it. A treasure map leading to a billion targeted advertising X’es.

He looks to his side where Jack is sitting, his hand-waving animation subsiding after delivering his pitch. Their eyes lock for a moment and meets a searching look. Did it go well? Hugo found himself sending back an involuntary facial shrug. Who knows?

The faces on the suits are quiet for a long time. The machine is calculating, no doubt. Hugo feels tension in his shoulders and neck. And just as the pause is going into the third trimester, one of the suits speaks up.

“Mr Scott, Mr Gearson. That all sounds quite well and good, but how do you intend to give the individual content generator their sense of agency? How do you spin the illusion that the player is in fact the master mind while keeping them under close tabs and controlling their operating parameters?”

Hugo sits forward, leather squeaking. The reaction to the next part will possibly make or break their entire plan.

“We will make the code book available to them. The whole thing. Concept Networks, Character Co-occurence Graph, Detangler View, Narrative Matrix. They will be able to look into the back-end of the game as it’s unfolding.”

The mask breaks on one of the suits for a moment. A snicker? A sneer? The micro-expression is gone before Hugo can get a good glimpse.

“That hardly seems like controlling their parameters, Mr Gearson. Giving them that degree of power sounds quite ill advised”, the suit replies.

“No, no, it’s quite safe,” says Hugo. “The data set is much too complex for the player to make sense of. Without the expert systems and algorithms we’ve annealed to process the conceptual landscape, it will look to them like they are playing Checkers when in fact they are playing Go. They get access to power but entirely lack the means to use it effectively.”


Truth, Truth Truth

Truth, Truth, Truth.

What if I wanted to tell the truth, am I allowed?
No that would make me lose - and I’d like that million dollars.

Wait was that a metaphor? Not really something that I’d get. Shit then, dude why am I here anyway?

And all this crap about the playbook? The neural networks? Who has time for that stuff. Who has time for that when, let’s be honest, we’re all here to play the game and see who lives till the end. The last man standing gets the money right?

And so eighteen of us in a room, speaking in lies, clamouring for a prize that doesn’t exist - or at least isn’t a million dollars. That’s a lie too.

Right, have we started? If not, shall I start?

I’m eighteen and I love to write.

My old man warned me not to get involved in it all when I told him about it.

As a side note (with potential relevance either in the useful or totally useless); he thinks my life is a passive shit hole of smoking ganja, talking (and writing) shit and doing only enough to fund my lifestyle. A meaningless spiral that cannot possibly lead anywhere beyond. It is nothing like his life was (is?). A war veteran. Ardent Republican. Flag hoisting. Gun totting. Homophobic. Wait…everything phobic unless it is meat and two-veg, unionized and/or straight out of the Church. Of course the Chinese made the virus! Of course Obama’s real birth certificate shows he was born outside the stars and stripes! Of course Stormy Daniel isn’t telling the truth (but if she is - good on her for bedding such an eligible man). (Before you ask or wonder - yes, I have issues with all of this and no, it is not worth raising them. As a child I felt enough of his belt. As an adult? There is no knowing where that ship might go).

He’s not correct (of course). Of course not. He doesn’t know the half of it. He thinks I’m half way down two roads that diverge in a yellow wood. Funny old saying. Deeper than he knows! Maybe he’s right because he doesn’t comprehend the full meaning of that phrase. Maybe he’s wrong for precisely the same reason.

Presentation is everything. Doesn’t everyone know that? Everyone should know that! But perhaps it is better that they don’t? He always though my weeks away were ‘just another binge further into delinquency’. How he would itch if he knew about The Complex.

Is the outward view a facade? Am I a persona non grata? Was I really selected into The Eighteen because of my talent as a creator? It would be remiss of me to tell you. You would not believe me if I did, would you? Do you really believe that the funders of this understand that the output cannot be defined at the start and that they’re cool with that? Oh. Come. On. I don’t dabble in social media but where’s the eye-roll emoji when it is needed.

Everything needs someone on the inside to manage things. Particularly with a global cohort who are likely to allow themselves to be egotistically elevated regarding their own importance when presented with reflections of their creativity. Guidance. A leaning arm. A completely unsuspected influence in the form of an equal is always needed.

My old man did warn me not to get involved in it all when I told him about it. But he had no idea how involved I was already. He just thinks I smoke ganja, talk (and write) shit and do only enough to sustain those things. If only he knew. If only I could tell you.

But that would be cheating. And no one likes a cheat to spoil all the fun.

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Hey, we got them all in here now. It’s all fine, a bit crowded, is all. What? No it’s not a fucking hotel lobby. We don’t have that kind of dough. We have told them where the bathroom is and stuff but it’s not like we’d have a mattress for everyone. That’s unfair? Too bad. Wait, you mean it’s literally bad? Okay. Well they can sleep on each other, right? Ha, oh. You actually mean it. Okay, I’ll take away the two mattresses we have so nobody has anything, okay? Nobody has anything. It’s all fair. All right. Thanks. I’ll let you know how it goes. I’ll talk to you soon.

Man, I hate being fair. Being fair is work. Do you ever cook? Do you ever think that it’s unfair that the gourd is salted more heavily than the carrot?

Okay, you kids bond, have fun. I’ll be back in 24 hours.


Beans is sitting at his desk, alone. Alone for a long time.

Disappointment and self-recrimination is a damper on his nervous system even moreso than the bottle of cheap rosé he has just polished off. It seems that he has bashed his head against the wall of data presented on his dual monitor setup. Characters and codes arranged in a complex network in the NetRaider interface, a three-dimensional representation of the infinite-dimensional interactions of all meanings held between Beans and the other 17 players.

It had only been a few iterations before he had seen through the conceit that he was somehow in a privileged position. It wouldn’t make any sense given that the physical constraints were all the same. Obviously all 18 participants were being played while at the same time trying to play everyone else.

In order to make his plan he would have to use the data presented to him, make a coherent plan and pitch to sell the others on for the game he wanted to play. To win the prize. There could be only One, and all that. But in order to do that he would have to map out and build relationships between not just him and the other 17, but also between all of them. And that’s where a by now very familiar feeling that was driving him up the wall had begun hounding him. The feeling of being a puny primate entirely inadequate for the task.

The number of relationships in a group scales to (N*(N-1))/2. In a group of 18 there is thus 153 relationships between two people. And a much larger number of cliques possible within it. Dunbar’s number, the suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships, is approximately 150. Beans does not think this correlation is coincidence. It’s obviously by design, to put him and the others at their cognitive limit. But what game is the designer playing at? And more importantly, what’s their endgame?

A cash incentive will only go so far. Eventually, primates will always seek companionship with each other. We’re hardwired to. And thence the self-recriminations. Beans’ feeble attempts at reaching out, his lack of follow-through when making a connection. Pathetic. He wasn’t a player here. Just a pawn. Probably like the others.

And primates sure as shit aren’t built for this see-the-Matrix symbolic representation bullshit he’s breaking his mind trying to parse on the NetRaider. He’s no Morpheus. Definitely not a Neo. Which begs the question: who is? Any of the other primates stuck in this circle of lies? Feh.

Someone else must be playing.

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I count 17 others. 17 others whom I’m organising, which isn’t my task, but it’s why I’m here, I assume. What I can work out is that when everyone is introducing themselves, and I am making us do that in a circle, or rather I’m asking people to do that, introduce themselves, one after the other, because that’d be good for us, to know each other, and I say this - to humanise each other - they all agree. Which shows my leaderships capabilities. It’s something you can’t teach, my father says. I assume the invitation somehow came through him, given he is in the military. So it’s obviously, too obvious, that they’d put me in here to prove something to him. That’s not why I’m doing it. I wanted to do it anyway. The money is useful now that school has ended. It’s my mind, that if I complete my task, it’ll impress him, when I tell him. But still, this is for me. Because I do think, and I know it sound arrogant, I’ve been told that, that I have the potential to lead people. I get them to organise into a circle, which really fills the room, and becomes more of a square, or rectangle, as they sag, and some sit, and some have terrible posture, and are already in bad physical condition. Some are already panicked. I will be needed. I find it difficult, those already flagging. I’ve got to do it, even if it’s a performance. It’s natural, my father has told me, to be repulsed by weakness. One has to just overcome it.

4 Months later


I’ve told so many lies. And I’ve been lied to. Oh the humanity. Oh the Greek tragedy of it all: committing the simple hubris of thinking that I am the mastermind of this silly metagame, the reality show that keeps expanding, iterations following iterations at my command limited only by the budget I’d been given, all the others in here following my whims and playing along as we exit one egg-like room and enter the next, outer one that looks exactly to the spec that I built…

What a magnificent joke. What’s clear to me now, as I sit here on month four is that:

  1. The true budget of this game is exponentially larger than what I had to play with.
  2. The game keeps expanding outwards, like nested matryoshka dolls, and
  3. I’m fairly sure someone is building those outer shells as they go, building them such that
  4. everyone believes they are the mastermind, whereas in fact we have all been manipulated into believing we have agency over the outcome. And finally
  5. I think I got stuck on one of the levels and everyone else moved on.

This is what I think happened, according to the logs(which are all lies of course, but maybe there’s a kernel of truth to them):

There are no signs of anyone else, and I believe they may just have all moved on into the next level of the game; possibly believing that they are out of it, autonomous and free; whereas in fact they are still manipulated into the quaint illusion of autonomy. But this time, not by me. As if it they were ever.

I think I saw the shadow of another recently though. Was it Shree?

When I get out of here, whoever is putting this on is gonna have questions to answer!

Good evening. babel between us was a 24 month sociological study conducted by [REDACTED] University. We are now complete with our study. Thank you for your time.