People often tell me I am lucky to be writing my Ph.D. dissertation in the midst of a global pandemic. I understand they believe that writing a thesis requires one to self-quarantine, and thus expect me to be minding my methodology chapter oblivious to the raging global apocalypse outside. Yet, as with many well intentioned questions and comments regarding one's ongoing doctoral penance, I wish people would just stop. Indeed, there are parts in which a pandemic and intense, long, never-ending writing and editing mix: I don't get as many invitations for things that might derail my work, and when I do, people are more understanding when I decline. Fear of Missing Out is gone.
Nonetheless, those who know me better know that I'm not good at being a shut-in. If no coronavirus ever mutated and 2020 had been a 'normal' year, maybe I would be regreting the times I stayed out longer than I should, had one more drink than I should, that party and that barbecue that would be the reason I had not worked as much as I needed to on my dissertation. Yet, I would welcome the constant changes of scenery that always helped me being a productive citizen. Walking, driving, riding the subway, laptop on my backpack: writing in cafés, writing in academic libraries and academic bars throughout the city, writing by the beach in the summer (struggling with glare and polarized sunglasses that darken the screen), writing in hotel lobbies in the winter, writing in Porto, writing in Lisbon, writing in the patio of some guesthouse somewhere South I haven't been before — the whole TV commercial for mobile internet. Where I wouldn't write much, save the odd email, would be at home.
Yes, I have an okay desk and have been moving my computer back and forth to the living room table so I can change the scenery. I even bought this small table with the exact height that I can place on the dining table and write while standing in an ergonomically correct posture so I don't get fat from my Ph.D. as long as I hold the comfort food in check. (I'm writing while standing right now.) Yet, there are far too many distractions at home I had to learn to live with. In the old days of the first lockdown, when we didn't know whether there would be a vaccine or a cure, or whether it would rather be a countdown to a megadeath 'herd immunity', I went on a fuck it attitude for a month, playing Xbox and watching a lot of movies and reading comics and planning weekly walks of a few blocks around where I live with the intensity one plans a raid behind enemy lines. I also looked out of the window a lot.
After snapping out of it and getting back to work, I settled on a few habits — poorly scheduled, but habits nonetheless — that helped me frame the time I dedicated to writing. I signed up for a sports streaming service and got into German football and Formula 1 racing — sometimes a nice lively background noise in the weekends, sometimes appointment viewing. I stopped watching movies (too long) and instead I watched one good TV episode per day (watched all of The Sopranos, all of Deadwood eventually). I stopped reading anything not related to the Ph.D., even now that I'm just writing the damn thing up, because reading became an activity loaded with intent and guilt. (Looking forward for leisurely reading sometime in 2021!) And I started to spend some time in Occupy White Walls.
Occupy White Walls (henceforth OWW) is massive multiplayer building game, somewhat reminiscent of Minecraft and Second Life, where you create art exhibits. Big art exhibits. You have a massive collection of elements — floors, walls, ceilings — to place in a three-dimensional orthogonal space, which you can populate with furniture, light fixtures, and artworks. You buy 3D space, elements, and the artworks using the in-game coin, which — and this is key — you just earn automatically by setting your space open for visitors. No real money is involved, and there's no other manner of earning game coin. You pace yourself: you build, you reopen, you wait. You put the kettle on, go visit other players' spaces, or work on that dissertation. After a while, you have earned some coin so you can continue to build or buy reproductions of artworks to place on your walls. The in-game collection includes paintings from the Renaissance to the early 20th century (they have some kind of deal with the London National Gallery and the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery) as well as artworks uploaded by players.
Artwork uploads are, in fact, the only thing OWW charges you money for. They have some kind of dealership thing going on (which I'm not interested in), but I find charging for uploads quite a clever business model: it severely moderates porn while paying for the game — you can download OWW and play it for free. Minding the graphics settings, it runs well enough on my laptop, which is old but also has discrete Nvidia graphics.
I like it that OWW has no objective but to build, collect, visit other players' spaces (each can build up to three), and take nice screenshots (there's an in-game 'drone' for that). Nobody keeps any sort of score. It's like this metaverse art garden you tend to and curate. You can go nuts and just design whatever impossible, AESTHETIC (there is a vaporwave shader you can apply), space you want. I found out I am a realist, trying to make buildings that look like they have structural (collumns and vaulted ceilings) and historical integrity: I started designing these small palaces or industrial warehouses using the older-styled building blocks, and then I threw these wacky postmodern architectural renovations at them. Perhaps because of their groundedness, I started to dream (actual sleeping dreams) of my OWW spaces... but interestingly, dreaming of the modifications I would then attempt on my next visit.
I know Occupy White Walls has been often a welcome respite from being locked in. Looking at my massive spaces, which take a while to load — search for Moore Museum or Moore Hill inside the game — they have made me appreaciate how a little tending every day goes so far, perhaps more, if I should say this on record, than the 250-plus pages in my dissertation docs so far, so full of placeholders and notices and yet unrevised text. As metaverses go, OWW is a very good one. Yet I long for a day soon in which all those screenshots among my photo backups merely signal a lockdown past.