Spinal Flowers

We were three: me,
No names. She thinks she’s so cool. Dressed in tight leather pants, a white shirt, a tweed jacket. What a pair of eyes and what a perfect spine—I almost think she could have been a good gamer.               
the Camerawoman and the Assistant.
These two … who cares about them? Unimportant NPCs, just a bunch of stupid reused assets.               
Three women still half asleep, standing in front of the derelict remains of what used to be the world’s greatest competitive
OK, here’s the deal. Esports are all about proving gamers are aristocrats of the mind.               
gaming arena and had since become an illegally occupied gaming commune. This was to be, we hoped, the crowning moment of sixteen months of research into the eSports team known as Spinal Flowers
They were five. Are five? Hard to say, time works differently for them nowadays.               
and, more importantly, the abuse they suffered at the hands of their Coach.
That’s me, babes, providing you with the best live narration you can hope for. Buckle up, grease up and down the chute we go xoxo              
Through emotional manipulation, blackmail and threats of physical violence, this woman forced the team members into increasingly inhumane conditions; we could not change what happened, but we still believed in the value of telling their story.

        Five years ago, the Spinal
Together with some other projects, the Flowers were part of what I called Gamer Culture Research Unit. GCRU for short, LOL.           
When we first started, I forced them to live in a sea of bone dust for five weeks, just for the lulz. Also: spinal liberation meant they needed to antagonize bones. Like, they needed to understand one fundamental truth: skeletons are cages.               
were about to be crowned for an outstanding year of flawless performances: they took part in every possible championship
Well, competitive gaming doesn’t really let you use cheats straight away, right? But what everyone always wants is to become sort of a goddess of the game. To be so good everyone thinks you’re cheating. But you’re not. You’re just on a whole different level.               
across the world, won the top prize in each one and did not lose a single match in what amounted to almost 4000 play hours logged in less than 365 days. Moments after the announcer called them on the stage disaster
It was a fucking supernova. Brightest moment in human history. I. SHIT. YOU. NOT. Of course we’re just apes and can’t stare at bright stuff for too long, so everyone sort of tuned it out. But “the Journalist” now returns to the place where it all happened. Such a good girl. Throw her a bone if you ever meet her, will you?               
broke out.

        Walls trembled, screens fell to the ground and the foundations of a gaming arena as big as an Olympic stadium cracked the exact moment the Coach stepped on the limelight, the five black round coffins
After a couple of years fooling around, we needed to get serious about gaming. Humanity needed us to get serious about gaming, actually. I decided to put the Flowers into these state-of-the-art tubes that basically hooked their spines directly to the computer. No more fumbling around with the keyboard, carpal syndrome or whatever. The input lag was un-fucking believable, trust me.               
that housed the players following closely behind. Seconds later, the ceremony stream broke off. We watched this video over and over again: the Coach’s triumphant smile, the announcer ogling at her, the audience’s
How can I describe the smell of stale sweat, the ecstasy, the cries of exultation? It made me fuzzy inside in all the right ways. Think of the frenzy of neural flowers blossoming from their spinal bone cages.               
eruption of cheers and applause, the chaos that ensued.

        The aftermath
There are no happy endings. There are no endings, actually. There’s only the next game, the next match, the next season, the next update, the next vertebra, the next premium skin.                   
had been predictable: the area was cordoned off, an investigation ruled the disaster a publicity stunt
These dumb FUCKS! Really? A publicity stunt? I mean, I know—people like to stick their heads in a hole and pretend the world is the same after any change, but a publicity stunt? Five towers of bone and nerve, taller than the bloody Burj Khalifa and that’s the best you can come up with? Ugh.               
gone horribly wrong and public interest moved on rather quickly—there had been very few wounded and even fewer fatal victims. The rest of the world mostly forgot about the event, much in the same way it paid little mind to the five white towers
Their spines bloomed! It was beautiful! Too bad no one was streaming this. I cried so much, oh my god. I watched their nerves twinkling as they stretched to the sky.
that jutted out of the crumbling remains of the arena and into the sky
This story begins and ends with towers. You know how they say guys with tiny dick love big cars? It’s the same with us: we pretty much hate our tiny spines so we built these towers to compensate for them.
two days later. The official line was that these were connected to the failed publicity stunt. Investigators found them unworthy of attention and we followed their lead.

        Instead, we were obsessed with the story behind the Spinal Flowers and their relationship with their manipulative
The lion, the witch and the AUDACITY of this bitch! Manipulative my arse! Did you notice she just assumes the other two think exactly like her?               
A pink-haired petite beauty of a woman with more charisma any of these idiots has the guts to admit. I’m the baddest, coolest bitch in town and no one got anything on me.               
None of them had been seen since the disaster and were presumed dead. We had a different theory: the Coach was still alive, hidden in the gaming
No, OK, for real now. We have been fucking around with metal and oil and electricity, but nothing is as efficient as the nervous tower encased in bone that runs from your waist to your skull. What I realized is that going straight to the metal, so to speak, straight to the bone, the marrow, the nerve is much more efficient. You want the next level? You want to, what, visit Alpha Centauri? Liberating the spine is the way to go. The only teeny-tiny problem is that the nerve is too small. It is held back by the bone.               
commune, avoiding public scrutiny.
If petroleum is a self-aware lubricant, spinal fluid is … like whipped cream. It’s part of the delicious conspiracy of the cosmos.               
Contrary to our expectations, our request to visit the place had been accepted, under the condition we were supervisioned by a guide and abided by their rules at all times.

        And so here we were, waiting in the abandoned parking lot next to the arena’s eastern entrance. The air smelled of a recently cleaned grease trap with sugary undertones; unpleasant yet nostalgic, almost comforting. Our guide arrived six minutes late as we discussed the disgusting perfume.
I can totally see why you might think that truth would be beyond the capabilities of an interface loop, but that’s where the spinal nerve reveals why it’s 🔥🔥🔥. Its price is pain, but its reward is vertical enlightenment. But every brilliant thing has a limit. What I did with GCRU and the Spinal Flowers was to show how to go beyond that limit.               
We did not know what to expect, but were nevertheless taken aback when a ten-year-old girl with fishbone cornrows wearing bright yellow clothes and a black surgical mask waved, beckoning us to approach a hole in the walls of the old arena
There was this Dutch guy once who said that we always play inside a sacred space and that religion, art and gaming all come from the same source. So it makes sense that when someone starts playing really well, like really, really well, they become sort of a priest or a god.               
instead of the sealed gates. She did not give us her name,
I mean, what did she expect? She doesn’t even call the people accompanying her by their own names.                
saying we could just refer to her as First Phase; when asked about her parents, she giggled and handed us a pamphlet with the rules of our visit.

        We were supposed to follow closely behind her; wandering unaccompanied was completely forbidden. Evacuation routes were bureaucratically pointed out in case of emergencies. No cameras nor food
After I shoved them inside the coffins, my Spinal Flowers lived off streams—they received nutrients not from food, but simply from watching livestreams, walkthroughs, gameplay videos (no commentary because no one has time for overly dramatic YouTubers).               
allowed. Questions were only permitted when we reached a save point, of which there would be only one. Once we confirmed we had understood the instructions, she turned her back
Spines are like cosmical training wheels. They can help, I don’t know, a planarian to function in this universe. But they’re obviously going to hold you back after a certain stage of cognitive development. I’m all for assistive technologies, don’t get me wrong, but if you want to take on the universe, you need to learn to survive without them.                   
to us and moved deeper into the hole, gesturing for us to come.

          When she did so, the Camerawoman gasped and brought her hand to her mouth in shock. Though the child did not seem to have any difficulties
What will spinal liberation look like? I love to think that our bones will eventually break open or melt and then release a fungal fruiting body.               
moving, we could clearly see a misshapen mass of an extremely deformed spine
Spines also protect us, though. From what? That’s a damned good question. The spine shields us from the trauma of the universe. Traumas are very leaky protocols. What I have done with the Spinal Flowers is… I guess I upgraded their firmware. And any sysadmin worth their salt will tell you that whole network can come crashing down after even a minor patch. No one’s safe from issues connected to code deprecation and mismatched struts, you know what I mean?                   
beneath her shirt. If First Phase noticed our reaction, she did not seem to mind it. She gestured again and we entered the building.


Our visit drew a spiral around the center
I seriously vlogged this once: “the existential immanence of the gamer is as unfathomable as that of the universe itself. The gamer is until the gamer transcends. Advanced gaming is the final act of cheating AKA rule manipulation.” I mean, it’s true, but it sounds stupid when you say it out loud whilst getting obliterated by some boring griefer.               
of the arena, each iteration digging closer to the building’s kernel: the stage where the audience once watched intense joystick, mouse and keyboard action. As it was now, the stadium had become something very similar to the espionage levels of certain first-person games from the 1990s,
I guess I should talk about trauma. I don’t mean only the stuff you lived through, but the stuff that came before you. Before life, before organic molecules, before heavy elements, before stars, before the cosmic microwave background. A lot of smart people agree on this: we relive the trauma of everything that existed before we were born.               
which was an unexpected display of nostalgia. Corridors were shaped by barricades of cracked displays, computer cases, empty vending machines and assorted advertising material—stands, branded desks, boxes packed full of USB sticks and t-shirts, body pillows in the shape of once-popular waifus and husbandos.

            “It is our belief
OK, real talk now: to speak of truth in scientific terms smells of incest.               
that gaming is uncannily good at the depuration of things to their quintessential shapes and manifestations. The world of ideas might be an epistemological utopia, but gaming can access a place not completely unlike it. Our hallways are the idea of the derelict hallway purified and made flesh.”
You can think of universal trauma or geotrauma as that grinding rage you feel when you die for, like, the fiftieth time against the same boss.               

First Phase spoke to us in a monotone, with a calming voice like those created by early voice synthesizers, before speech synthesis took advantage of neural networks. It was boring yet crystal clear
So, what I realized is that playing videogames is like decryption. You get Answers with a capital A every second. That happens because game systems grind the unintelligibility of the cosmic microwave background cypher into dust! That’s why we game! It’s the only way we will ever get the universe to make sense!               
and, as odd as it felt saying it, scratched an itch we did not know we had right where our necks met our spines’ C1s.

The future: a riviera of bone stalks growing out of crumbled asphalt. The skeleton was displaced and the spinal cord is in full bloom. Want the best sightseeing tickets? Click here!—uWu I’m so random.           
led to large rooms that had been separated to create communal living spaces, workshops and a few private rooms where, we assumed, the members of the commune slept. We walked among those who lived there as if we were ghosts, invisible yet still corporeal enough that everyone avoided approaching us.

“The inmates are all passionate gamers.
When I’m in a good mood, in my bathtub, drinking milk-carton wine mixed with gamer girl bathwater, I look at the mirror and repeat it until it becomes true: gamers are delicate sugar-free brain flowers.               
They willingly contribute to the maintenance of our commune either via actual labor or with direct monetary contributions. Resources are shared. There are at least two gaming devices per square meter. The distribution of food, etc. follows our internal leaderboard. Mid-ranking inmates receive more food than lower-ranking
It’s like this: if a gamer doesn’t grasp how much depends on their actions, they’re, like, waste of skin. We’re not in this for fun, capisci?               
inmates; those with the lowest
Well, those who cannot advance past a certain skill level, they will still be here. Actually, they’ll probably always be the majority. Like, apes and monkeys and shit are still around. Human dominance hasn’t destroyed them. I mean, not completely, at least. We have coexisted for a long time. We’re all in this together, but some are just better than others.               
scores, or whose scores have significantly declined, can only access nutrients if they put enough hours in their game
🎶A gamer is a witch is a scientist is a puppet.🎶                   
of choice.”

The practice seemed more than slightly inspired by the Spinal Flowers’
You know what they say: wise humans first shed their clothing, then their own skins. But it is only when they shed their spines that they stop being human.               
Coach herself and her abusive management of the team members. We held our tongues.
The Journalist once published a text calling for the abolition of professional eSports players. She wrote: “The whole practice is a perversion of the Olympic ideal.” Like, bitch, all athletes are scapegoats.               

        “I see you are uncomfortable with this system, but I assure you that we are all free to leave the commune. No one has ever done so because this is the best place in the whole planet to get a deep understanding of the inner workings of reality. Since none of you are in top 2%, you might be surprised to know the better gamer one becomes, the more one becomes instinctually receptive to this topic.
The more you think about it, the more you realize that physics are the sociology of the universe.               
In any case, if anyone were ever to leave, you will be happy to knowing they would receive enough of their choice of currency
A lot of people get the coffins wrong. They weren’t about isolation (the Spinal Flowers had permanent internet access and that’s the one thing I never took away from them); they were about radicalization. Getting them off ground, stretch them as much as they could stand, dissolve those bones in LCL.               
in order to survive in the outside world.”

        Her eyes were ice-white with bloodshot sclera. She stared at us as if reading our movements
Broke: the universe of competitive gaming.               
Woke: the universe as competitive gaming.               
and tells, in search of our attack patterns so she could vanquish us.
First try, no damage, only light attacks, challenge run, LMAO!               
It was almost effective in distracting us from the insanity of what she said.

        “The exception to these rules
If the universe is a game, physics are its rules. I wanted the Spinal Flowers to understand the game well enough they could change its rules without fundamentally disrupting any of its processes. Knowing how to play games in general obviously leads to insights in understanding the biggest game ever, AKA the universe.               
are our top
There is no PC master race, there are no console peasants—that’s just griefer bullshit. True gamers are all about melting in a vat of primal soup and altering their perception of reality so they can only parse digital input.           
players. They wouldn’t be able to leave—not that they would ever consider the possibility.”
Think about it: games are an interface that allows you to actively, meaningfully impact a simulated universe. And if you know the rules well enough, you can do much more than influence, you can change things. I know some programmers are going to boo the hell out of me, but if you know the interface well enough, you can do things the programmers don’t want you to do. You can go beyond the system. The universe works the same way; why wouldn’t it? That’s what the Spinal Flowers and the GCRU are all about, my lovelies.                   

First Phase offered no further clarification. Was her spine writhing in place?

        “We will reach the save point shortly. You may want to prepare yourselves. Think about your strategies. Try and remember if you have faced this boss before, look for clear tells and weak points and remember there is no point in hoarding consumables.”

        The sweet grease trap perfume we had sensed earlier and which permeated the whole tour grew stronger. The door at the end of the hallway was open and allowed us to see a large open area.

        “Many people talk about the top and bottom lanes, but, really, the jungle is what defines the game. You might want to remember this,” First Phase said and stood next to the opening. She pushed a switch and a yellow neon light in the shape of an exclamation point shone above her head.

        We peeked outside the door: it looked like a boss area, as implied by First Phase. We looked at each other, shrugged and stepped into the room.
You know that Austrian cuck spoke about the death drive, right? Thanatos or some other bullshit. Well, I propose we rename it and call it the Leroy Jenkins instinct.           


This had clearly been a lounging area, possibly one of the spaces where teams would wait for their names to be called by the MC. Barely audible music
So, about what happened on that day: it wasn’t planned, but it was perfect timing, not gonna lie. The Spinal Flowers abandoned their spines all at the same time. The coffins noticed that, so they started pumping more chemicals and stuff inside the Flowers. And then they bloomed. Their vertebrae melted, their cords stretched towards the sky. They exploded from inside the coffins and, well, started the next level.               

started playing from two small loudspeakers on the ceiling, both installed at the edges of a fissure that allowed sunlight to filter in.

        Differently from pretty much everywhere else we had seen till then, the furniture here had not changed since the events of ten years ago: sofas, old computers, empty energy drink cans and, most conspicuously, five round marks on the carpet that indicated something heavy had occupied that spot. Our minds immediately conjured the images of the Spinal Flowers’ coffins—their “metallic wombs for the verticalised next step of evolution,” according to the Coach.

        The quiet melody suddenly morphed into a choral piece sung in pig Latin and Esperanto.

        A tall woman wearing a golden mask and a ragged veil over the mask entered the room from a golden door. Atop her head was an unsteady, wobbling mass of fake silvery curls arranged in what might once have been a beehive or some other sort of bouffant-adjacent hairstyle. The rest of her body was covered in chromed
Every coffin had, like, a small box on the back. That’s where we’d inject more LCL or other primordial-soup-like things. It’s also where the Flowers dumped what they didn’t need anymore. Their shit, I guess.               
robes, halfway between cheap beauty parlor and medieval sleeping gown.

        She came down a flight of stairs and more than once we thought she would fall and break her neck, but there was a certain method to that precariousness. Never did she hurt herself and her poise remained constant and unabated. Having reached our level, she said nothing as she walked around us in circles. Out from her robe came a dancing hand that brushed against the Assistant’s cheek. We heard hard, labored breaths beneath the mask.

        “You can call me Final Phase. You can ask one question each now. But there is a catch,” her voice was all tease and seductive mockery. “If your questions are dead-ass stupid, I’ll meet you outside this arena so hard you won’t know what hit you. If they’re good, meh, I guess you’ll get to see the stage and the towers up close. Come on, now. Don’t be noobs.”

        The Camerawoman jumped at the opportunity.
        “What is your position in the internal leaderboard?”
There are matches and there are matches. Some you must win because it will benefit you, others you must win because it will benefit your species. What may look like just a few awkward 3D models is actually a super important stepping stone towards spinal liberation.               

        “That’s a very good question. One of the few that matter.” She took a few steps and almost touched the Camerawoman’s long dark hair. “I don’t take part in the leaderboard. I am outside.”

        “Are you a boss we’re supposed to fight?” The Assistant, of course.
        “Another good question.” She hummed, lost in thought
The IRL lore surpassed the in-game lore.               
for a moment. “But we are not fighting. No game is really about fighting. Fighting is just something slapped on top of the actual mechanics so our stupid monkey brains are entertained whilst we’re doing important stuff. Fighting is … like one of those silly skins that change the looks of your character. The mechanics, what matters, are still the same whether you’re a crazy doctor with a giant scalpel or an eye-covered abomination.”

        She looked at me, expectantly. I shook my head.

        “I want to ask my question after we see the stage.”

        She laughed as if she were a 3-meter-tall vampire lady.
“I like your pizza. Your rankings are abysmal, but… I guess there’s something in you that might be useful. Come.” She was about to turn around but changed her mind and walked towards us until her mask’s nose touched mine. “This is not a gamble. The universe
If the universe is a game, players are demiurges-to-be.               
is always a game of skill,
If the universe is a game, is anyone playing it? Think less glass beads, more mecha-spirit-void-dragons with big-ass guns.               
not of chance, babe.”
We walked up the stairs and stood in front of the golden door, once again in silence.
🎶 I’m a goddess with a blade/come and say that to my face/소리쳐봐 내 이름 / yeah yeah yeah. 🎶               

        Final Phase led us first into a corridor surrounded on both sides by the arena’s seating area and then straight to the stage. There was barely any ceiling here and natural light entered freely from five large fissures on the ceiling. The five towers rose beyond the holes and into the sky.

        They all looked more or less the same. From up close, the effect was striking: not cheap inflatable plastic as we thought, but a thick orange and pink stalk that looked like animal flesh entangled in gnarled strands stretching high above us. Like trees,
Like, think of trees! They immobilized themselves because this way they had nowhere else to go but up. They tortured themselves to get where they wanted! We’re doing the same! I mean, I forced the Spinal Flowers to do the same. That’s trauma, baby! Bang!               
the towers had roots
But gravity’s a bitch and trees can only grow so much. And they’re super slow. If we keep waiting on trees, we’ll never pierce the atmosphere and connect to universal trauma. We took the matter into our own hands.               
that seemed to go deep underground—these were white like the bones one would expect on a necromancer’s armor. Like a fungus, their bodies ended on a giant fruiting body. Like a scoliotic spine, they did not reach towards the sky straight on, but sinuously. Around them
There’s also another thing. The game of the universe is obviously an MMO. There are other players and we’re playing against them. I don’t know what happens to the loser, but I sure as hell don’t want to find out, if you catch my drift. See, it’s not all about egotism, it’s about survival.               
there was what we could only describe as a small forest
Going vertical is also clearly what we should be doing. Look at how life evolved. Trees, yeah, sure, but also animals. You first have those slithering things, then you get loads of species who try to become more vertical. Birds flying, for instance, or apes tried to stand up. Do you know how much that messed us up, standing on two feet? It’s obvious life wants to become vertical. There’s a reason for that!               
of computers whose dark cables connected to the towers’ roots and flesh via small incisions.

        The Assistant sat on the floor, removed her glasses and pressed her palms against her eyes.
I think this is something really good to keep in mind: “To examine the world as if it were a simulation is besides the point. An advanced enough simulation is itself indistinguishable from reality.”               
The Camerawoman seemed overtaken by a terrible itch as she scratched her back with all the effort she could muster. Final Phase observed with apparent disinterest. Here she seemed almost liquid, like a joystick-controlled puppet.
Cerebrospinal counter-cryptography—LOL, that means gaming—will allow us to unlock transuniversal traumas and cosmic net code.               

        We tried brushing away the feeling of wonder and see the towers for what they really were, monuments to exploitation
Yeah, sure, they bitched a lot when we forced them inside. I guess a bone or two might have been broken in the process. Was that wrong? Uh, I guess? But they all went really quiet when they saw the latency in those things. It was quite literally a game changer.               
and abuse,
Being inside the coffin is like being inside a mesh, you know. They’re like Shinji from Evangelion, but cooler. Instead of daddy trauma they have geotrauma.           
but it was hard to focus. We were here to find the Coach, unmask her, write our exposé and speak openly about gamer exploitation, but all of it felt insignificant when contemplating this scene. Perhaps the smell of rotten grease and pink bubblegum indicated mind-altering substances? As if reading my mind, Final Phase drew closer and gave me a light back rub.

        “Will you accept what you see, I wonder? Can a noob
More than a game, the universe is a videogame. The real question becomes what is the genre? An open world RPG is what a noob would say. MOBAs, though—that’s where the XP really is, babes.               
appreciate a hard-to-get collectible?” Final Phase’s intimate whisper reached our ears as if her lips caressed our ears. “Press ‘F’ to pay your respects.
The cosmic microwave background is a hidden invitation. Forget those boring diagrams. The CMB is like the universe sending you the best moments from its Let’s Play video.           
You are looking at the rules
It is a 100%-verifiable SCIENTIFIC FACT that every organism relives the experiences of every one of its ancestors before it is even born. It’s what I always say: geotrauma, geotrauma, geotrauma.               
of the game
We don’t know what happened exactly, but we carry the scars and we live through these scars anyway. I know, babes, it can hurt.               
as they are bent. Cheating without cheating. Or, actually, I guess it’s more you’re feeling rather than seeing it.”

        The ground
But why? Why does this happen? Well, it’s a bit like as if we had the rules inscribed inside us, inside our bones, you know what I mean? The universe is a game and what we perceive as trauma are basically the rules, the algorithms, etc.               
shook slightly beneath
And, like, games are patched all the time, right? To make sure everything’s balanced, to add some new gameplay or some lore twists, that sort of thing. Well, in our case updating means living and dying. So, knowing all that, I thought: “well, what if we try to freeze a part of the game, skip the patches, learn how to maximize exploits? Let’s turn the game to our favor!”               
of our feet. The towers inched higher in a small but visible growth spurt. From this close, the fruiting bodies at the top of the towers looked like bloodied skulls. It was then I asked my final question.
If you’re some sort of dirty hippy who thinks “artificial” is stuff that’s shaped by some active intelligence, then, newsflash, you dumb fuck: the entire universe us is already artificial. There’s nothing organic about any of it.               
It came to me suddenly, from a deep place accompanied by a mushy feeling on my lower back.
        “Are we winning?”
Winning and losing are, like, the blueprints for life and death. We don’t live or die, we win or we lose. Have you ever died? Wrong answer, you totally did. You only truly die when you lose a match.               

Ce projet a reçu le soutien de l’École Universitaire de Recherche ArTeC portée par la ComUE Université Paris Lumières et du Groupe Stasis