I’m not exactly sure where I first heard this theory, but it’s one I revisit often: Candyland is an existential nightmare.
You can see a full comic about it here (one that I don’t think I saw before writing this article, but it may be the origin?), but the main gist of the argument is pretty simple. To play the game, you shuffle a deck of cards and players take turns moving to whichever square is on the card they pick. Whoever gets to the end first is the winner. There’s a few other details in there that change the gameplay, but that’s basically it. Pick cards, move pieces, get to the end first.
A pretty basic set up, but the fact that you move the pieces based on a deck of cards and not the standard dice role is really important. When you roll a die, you ostensibly have some control over your fate. It still produces a random result that is largely out of your control, but at least you were the one who put the dice in motion. But in Candyland, someone (maybe you, maybe someone else) shuffled a deck of cards once before the game began. At this point, the entirety of the game has been decided. Every single move a player makes has been set in stone and all a player can do is watch that fate unfold. At no point after that initial shuffle do you get any choice, have any influence, or hold the ability to alter the direction of the game in anyway.
The universe of Candyland is therefore completely deterministic and gameplay merely involves watching your avatar slowly accept that fate. Existential crisis ensues.
But when I brought this theory up to a colleague recently (and specifically one that studies different types of games), she made an excellent counterargument: Candyland as nihilistic simulation only exists if you think of Candyland as an actual board game. Instead, she thinks of Candyland as a board game simulator for young children, a training exercise in how to play board games and understand their mechanics.
This may seem like an exercise in failure, considering that every board game has its own set of rules, and that learning how to play board games with an actual board game sounds like a much better approach. But assuming we’re dealing with a population of people who have never even seen a board game before (i.e. very young children), a tool that strips board games down to the foundation can actually be helpful. While you might not actually be able to “play” Candyland in the traditional sense, the fundamentals of what makes a board game a board game are still there. There is a win condition (the first person across the finish line wins), there are game-specific mechanics (you move to the square on the card unless you land on special squares/get special cards with special rules), and there are general board game assumptions that need to be understood for play to happen (people take turns, you are competing against these other people, you are trying to win).
All of these aspects of playing a board game may seem obvious, but it’s only because you’ve seen board games being played hundreds of times before, either as a player or by watching other people play those games. But at some point in your young life you had never seen these things before, and you didn’t understand. And I’m going to take a guess that Candyland probably helped a lot of you figure it out.
In a complicated world, that idea feels so comforting to me. A tool that exists to just push you through the motions of doing things. Rather than an existential crisis, I feel incredibly drawn to a Candyland-like experience of rote doing with next to no active thinking or choice being made on my part, where the joy comes in just working through process instead of independently building towards some sort of end goal or product. Yes, this can be an extremely dangerous thing. But under the right circumstances and devoid of nefarious intent on the part of the person designing that experience, it sounds immensely comforting.
As an artist (and one who works in the relatively borderless space of experimental music/performance art), my usual creative landscape could not be farther from the Candyland universe. Every time I sit down to make something, I have nowhere to begin. No specific instrument I’m supposed to pick up. No set of notes to start dabbling with. Not even a solid artform to work within (the endless amount of one-sided pretentious conversations I’ve had with myself about whether I’m making music, theatre, film, or performance art would make a freshman art history major blush). It all feels lightyears away from a deck of cards deciding my fate.
So instead I make up the rules whenever I start to work. I decide on a context, outcome, process, and any other set of constraints to get me from somewhere to somewhere else. That means I need to make a bunch of choices just to start working and then I have to make a bunch of additional choices along the way. I have to test so many different paths and make so many decisions. It takes a long time, but that’s the work. If I want to end up with something good, I just gotta do it.
But when that gets too overwhelming, too stressful, and just too much in general, I want to just be able to sit down and do the thing and be done with it. Essentially, I want the Candyland of art. No decisions, no endless slog, and really no need for the end product to even be “good” or “new” or “mine.” Just process for the sake of process.
I’m apparently not alone. Hunter S. Thompson created an artistic Candyland when he typed out the entirety of The Great Gatsby to understand what it felt like to write a whole masterpiece. He also re-typed various other pieces by Hemmingway and Faulkner to get a sense for rhythm in prose. Thompson didn’t do this to write a great novel, he did this to experience the feeling of writing a novel and to better understand that process on a purely physical level.
This is what I want. Some mindless work where I can feel what it means to make something to completion. To start, do, and finish the making of a creative artifact. Doesn’t have to be mine, doesn’t have to be good, just fabricated and done.
I’ve managed to invent a few of these for myself in the past few months (this blog almost qualifies based on the general timespan of writing to publication alone), but the best one I’ve come up with so far is starting my own Peloton service.
I can’t tell you exactly why I came up with the idea. I probably saw a commercial or something and realized that you don’t really need much to start your own approximation of Peloton. If you have a stationary bike, a laptop with a web cam, and an internet connection, you have all the tools you need. The interactive components are technically pretty tricky but remember that were not going for good here. Were going for “done” and “recognizable enough.” So those are totally unnecessary
Its also worth noting that I have never actually used or seen someone use a Peloton in real life. I’ve only seen a few commercials, but that felt like enough to generally understand that Peloton is basically a streamed spin class. A video of an instructor streams to other people on bikes and that instructor tells you how to exercise good and says generally encouraging or motivating things to try to get you to keep exercising.
Anyone can do that. Maybe not well, but anyone can do that. You can do that. And I can do that. So I did.
On November 17th of last year, I held my first DIY Peloton session and have been streaming for thirty minutes every Tuesday since (with the exception of a two week break this month). I set up my laptop on top of a PA speaker (that hasn’t been used for actual sound amplification in close to a year) in front of the stationary bike in my basement and started streaming to twitch.
Based on the commercials I have seen I know the instructors say the word Peloton a lot. So I do that. Other than that, I just say whatever I can think of for thirty minutes as I pedal. I tell the maybe four people on the stream that they are strong and powerful, that they can and should find a sense of inner beauty, and that they are a part of the Peloton community that shares in one love. I tell them they can achieve their goals and reach the top of the mountain in front of them. I told them to drink water because hydration is important. I do a bunch of Rick Flare woos and point at the screen and do Jesus arms. I tell everyone that if they are typing in the chat, I can’t see what they are saying because my laptop is far away from me. And when thirty minutes is up, I get off my bike and end the stream.
And that’s it. Minus the few texts I have gotten from friends, I have no idea if this is in any way enjoyable or valuable for anyone else. But, again, that’s not the point. The point is that it feels like I actually made a thing and shared it with the world.
This is the height of the bar. But it’s been hard to find anything that can help get me over it on a regular basis recently. This just barely does, so I haven’t stopped yet.
Even if the point of running my own Peloton service is not to create a masterful creative work, the sheer fact that I’m making something and sending it out into the world is enough to generate a few memorable moments. Since everything I say is improvised, I’ll occasionally stumble on something not quite magical but still generally surprising and enjoyable on my end. It’s been fun going on wild tangents about things like neurocognitive research, hygge, or hoagies while trying to connect those thoughts back to the themes of inner beauty, persistence, and Peloton community formation as I physically push myself on a stationary bike as hard as I can. It almost never works, but I feel like that disjunct produces enough humor to make the sessions at least watchable.
But the crowning achievement came a few weeks back on a nearly unwatched stream. Throughout the run of this streaming experiment, I’ve only had two regular audience members: my friend Chris and my mom. On this particular stream, however, Chris didn’t make it until the tail end of the session and no one else joined. Which meant that the only person watching the stream was my mom. So for twenty minutes, I got to ride a stationary bike in my basement by myself while shouting motivationalish gibberish directly at my mom through a computer screen.
It’s moments like where even the most rote artistic processes transcends the Candyland approach to creative production, even if I had no intention of pushing it past that point. Just by doing a thing and putting it out in the world, the opportunity to create decidedly strange and wholly unique experiences just happen. And, in this case, it did.
So if nothing else, this experiment reveals the value of sharing work with people in the world. Even if it is something as dumb as a DIY Peloton service that has yet to reach more than eight people total.
There are days when I really don’t want to do this streaming thing anymore and just get on with my day. And I start to wonder why I do this if only two people tune in. But I made a commitment to myself before I started that I was going to do this until Peloton sent me a cease-and-desist letter or I streamed to an audience of zero. I came close to that end state, streaming to no one for 23 minutes one day before my regulars finally signed on. But a near miss is still a miss.
I suppose I could quit anytime I wanted. No one is forcing me to do this. But I’m not the kind of person to end a game before someone wins. So until then, I keep on this journey of finding my inner strength, power, and beauty, sharing in that one love, as I make my way towards King Candy’s castle.