Chasing the High Score

When I was about 18, I used to participate in an online… game? It was called sf0, and its website,, now throws a bad gateway error, so you’ll have to take my word for what was on it. SF0 called itself a “collaborative production game,” which basically meant that all the players were doing weird art or art-adjacent activities proposed by other players, and the “gameplay” was posting about those activities on the website. That wasn’t what it felt like, though.

What SF0 felt like was being in a secret society. I would go out into the world and, say, create a scavenger hunt that led from inside a voting booth, through a donut shop, and to a nearby park, and nobody would know why aside from my fellow players on the site. Other folks were out there tying rocks to themselves and sinking to the bottom of the ocean just to see if they could escape, or hiding counterfeit eggs in grocery stores. At one point I collected almost a hundred traffic cones. To this day I have no idea what I was planning to do with them. When my parents got sick of me keeping them around the side of my house, I gave them to another player from the site.

A hugely important part of “tasking” in sf0 was about documentation. Posts on the site (“proofs” or “praxis”) took the form of prose descriptions of what had been done, interspersed with photos and videos supporting the story. Other players would then award points to the tasks they liked the most, from a limited pool determined by their own scores. The artistry and showmanship of the post was sometimes as important as the task completion itself. Sometimes moreso.

My score was deeply important to me. It validated my art. I could look at one of my tasks and see precisely how much people liked it. The highest scoring completion of a given task was awarded a little fleur-de-lys medal which appeared at the top of the post. If one of my tasks didn’t get that badge, I felt as if I’d failed.

I was never the highest scorer on the site overall (that title was held by the guy I gave the traffic cones to), but I was up there. Whenever I submitted a new proof, I would refresh the page over and over again, hoping for new comments and points. This was my first introduction to the hedonic treadmill of online content production.

I would spend days or weeks on tasks. I would deliberately put myself in dangerous situations — I purposely stranded myself in San Diego so that I could hitch-hike home and leave little gifts in each car that picked me up. I nearly got arrested trying to break into the post office so that I could mail a letter from inside. My focus gradually shifted from adding whimsy to the real world, to proving to my friends online how whimsical I was.

There was a task on the site which simply said, “Walk 25 miles.” A few months after my 20th birthday, I attempted to complete this task in a single day while walking the Camino de Santiago. My thinking was that if I did it in a single day, as part of a walking journey of more than 300 miles, I was practically guaranteed the high score.

I was carrying a backpack that was too heavy for me, and had already been walking for weeks. On the day I completed the task, I had been walking for so long that I had to pitch a tent in an unsheltered spot on the side of the road. There was a rainstorm that night, and my tent leaked, and my right hip was in excruciating pain which I still feel echoes of to this day. Worse: I had no idea how I was going to document it.

I didn’t have a phone with GPS. I hadn’t taken any pictures. When I finally made my post a couple weeks later, it was just text interspersed with a few google maps images of the path I’d walked. It felt lifeless. No one interacted with it much. I felt exhausted. It was a feeling I would have again, several years later, the first time I decided to discontinue this blog.

I stopped playing sf0 shortly after that. I still think of it fondly. It taught me a different way of seeing the world, and expanded my idea of what was possible. But I stopped playing because I had turned the game itself into a burden. The points on sf0 were meant to be an incentive to go out into the world and do cool shit. And they were! Until the metric became the target, and I started making content for the website. 

This is something I see missing from the conversation around YouTube and burnout. Yes, platforms like YouTube mistreat and manipulate their creators in order to make them dependent on the platform. But also, this only works because of something inside of us. SF0 was not trying to manipulate me the way YouTube manipulates its creators, and yet I ended up in a similar place because I was manipulating myself. 

Part of that was the effect of putting numbers on things, yes, but are numbers the reason that  Philosophy Tube, has gone from relatively dry discussions of philosophy to a full-blown theatrical productions? Is Mr Beast shooting up to 12,000 hours of footage for a single 15-minute video just for the views? We do these things, at least in part, because we love them, and we love that other people love them, and that kind of love is addictive.

So, bottom line, I understand why so many YouTubers are burning out and quitting, and why others are searching for a more sustainable business model. Eventually the points stop being worth it, and you have to find a way back to what you once enjoyed about the activity, back before it was worth anything. It’s the paradox of creative work: I want my art to be seen, but I don’t want to want it.

I think the wave of people qutting Youtube and getting off social media might mean we’re finally getting over the idea of putting numbers on everything. My hope is that we’ll leave behind the metrics but keep the targets: the reasons we made art in the first place. But the way we respond to our audience’s applause also says something about us, and that something remains true whether we’re “creating content” or just making stuff. is down. All of my points are gone. But I’ve still got my stories, and my pride.

One thought on “Chasing the High Score

  1. When does ‘Hey, someone GETS it!’ turn into ‘people LIKE me’? Fucking endorphins, man: just mainline me.

    I don’t do art, but thoroughly enjoy inserting unexpected elements into things. Like swapping out the BMW roundel for a Gorden-Keeble badge (a turtle on a field of piss: look it up). Nobody will ever get it where I cruise in Appalachia—but it’s a great filter for the purists at a cars & coffee.

    Art and content are tough because, once you taste the manna of approval, you have to find a way to maintain your perch on that precarious crest. I prefer to wrench: my validation is firing it up after swapping out a motor that I stupidly blew up. Or bringing a process chiller back online to print the yoghurt cups.

    I got no insights, man—but I damn sure appreciate your content. Coffee done kicked in; time to put the top down and head into the mountains. Love you, Ovid: never stop ranting

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