Reigniting The Transgressive Urge In Sludge Life
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When I was around 16 years old, I discovered how difficult it is to get rid of anti-climb paint. A combination of the idiocy of my teenage brain and a hostility to securitised spaces cultivated by my experience as a (bad) skateboarder kicked out of dozens of places led me to see the anti-climb paint sign attached to a fence bordering a local school as a challenge. I laughed at the idea that paint could stop you climbing something, too stupid to realise that the paint was not so much supposed to be an obstacle, more a deterrent, coating your skin and clothes in a black goo that is very difficult to get rid of.
I don’t tell you this anecdote to remind you how stupid teenagers can be, or to communicate how stupid I was specifically (that’s just a side effect). I tell it as an example of a transgressive relationship with space that many of us had as young people and which most of us lose as we grow older. Sludge Life is a game that encourages us to rediscover that spirit of transgression through play and, in doing so, can bring into focus how a playful approach to our urban environments can create an encounter with the very serious politics around it.
Sludge Life gives you almost no direction as to what you are supposed to be doing in its micro-open-world. The only way of orienting yourself is through the role that you are given to play. After discovering that you can tag the environment with spray paint and that you appear to go by the alias ‘Ghost’, it becomes clear that you are a graffiti artist. This makes you a law-breaker, likely to be perceived as some combination of petty-criminal, teenage nuisance, and degenerate. A graffiti artist’s self-perception is likely to mirror this to the extent that they will embrace an outsider status by virtue of what they are doing and how this brings them into contact with figures of authority.
That is the lens Sludge Life gives you through which to view its world. That is how it tells you to go where you are not supposed to. Hop fences, climb onto roofs, squeeze through windows, explore abandoned buildings. Do the things that kids and teenagers do.
The game reminds us that seeing your environment as a playground that can be traversed in ways that breaks norms and rules is a lot of fun. We can locate some of the appeal of that in nostalgia, in our memories of the many mini-rebellions and anti-authoritarian acts perpetrated by our teenage selves, but there is more to it than that. The phenomenon of urban exploration – where people sneak into abandoned buildings, utility tunnels, and all kinds of other man-made structures – and parkour – the act of running, climbing, jumping and vaulting through urban environments – along with the vicarious enjoyment of those actions through videos and photos, shows that there is an enduring appeal to exploring the city and interacting with its places in ways we are not supposed to.
In his book, Explore Everything: Place Hacking The City, Bradley Garret, former member of notorious urban explorers the London Consolidation Crew, which counts The Shard and a host of abandoned London underground stations among its many impressive infiltrations, argues that urban exploration is a political act. It is, he suggests, a way of reclaiming our cities, an assertion of our right to move freely in the places we live. More broadly, he contests, it is a reaction to a global surveillance capitalism that treats space as a commodity, always in the process of enclosing and policing it so that there are ever fewer places where we allowed to simply exist for free.
You encounter this in Sludge Life in areas where you are allowed to be: security guards will bash you in the face whenever you encounter them, even outside a fast food restaurant. Graffiti artists like Ghost, skateboarders, urban explorers, freerunners and other perceived ne’er-do-wells will be particularly familiar with hostile encounters like these with their perennial nemesis, the private security guard, but anyone who has been a teenager will know the feeling of being watched, suspected, policed and even unduly harassed in public spaces. We should remember that growing old and respectable enough to be allowed access to these spaces without being viewed in these ways does not mean we are truly free within them. That cannot be that case while our cities are being privatised, surveillance ramped up, centres sterilised and urban space depoliticised – in the UK, for example, the Tory government is in the process of enacting new laws clearly designed to shut down the ability to protest, making protests deemed to cause “serious annoyance or inconvenience” punishable with up to 10 years in jail. It should be clear that we are tolerated in these spaces so long as we do not kick up a fuss.
We should also consider the plight of those who are never allowed to inhabit these spaces freely. People of colour are at threat of being treated with suspicion, hostility and violence wherever they go. They do not have the luxury of “growing into respectability” like white teenagers. Their plight shows the true face of urban spacial politics and the limited experience of those of us who experienced a fraction of that hostility as young people, cast in the role of undesirables, should help us draw lines of solidarity with the oppressed and create alliances to reclaim that space.
Rethinking our cities as a space of play is by no means a solution to this problem, but the way it can bring us into contact with the reality of urban space under surveillance capitalism shows that it can be political. Those aforementioned players – the urban explorers, the skateboarders, the freerunners – always bring out the security guards you didn’t even know where there. If we are to re-embrace the idea that the city can be a place to play, then we will come into conflict with processes of enclosure that require us to rediscover the teenage proclivity for transgression. To assert that right in the face of the powers that control urban space will necessitate an encounter with everything tied up in it, from the racism of policing, to the structure of global capital. To protest effectively against these forces will also require transgression.To see new possibilities for our future requires us to transgress the boundaries of our constrained political discourse.
Hop fences, climb roofs, squeeze through windows. Do the things that kids and teenagers do.