The Search for Land
Talon: Hi, I’m Talon Stradley of Newton’s Dark Room and I spent my April Fool’s weekend doing something… a little intense.
Brandon: Out of nowhere, in a a matter of minutes, we just got completely obliterated.
Talon: And it wasn’t just me, either. It was sixteen… MILLION other people, across the entire planet.
Andrew: So we're then like, oh, Sweden, right. Let's go talk to Sweden!
Talon: All gathering together over four days to place millions, and millions, and millions… of pixels.
Andrew: And everyone once in a while it's like a switch would come on and it would all just get eliminated.
This is the story of a lawless, sprawling internet canvas and the small community trying to find a home amidst rogue Swedish operatives, robotic legions, and one tragic Bandana Dee.
This is PLAYPLACE.
THEME MUSIC ENDS
Talon: Our story first begins five years ago, April fools 2017, when Reddit, one of the most popular websites in the world, released one of their annual social experiments. This one was designed by a young Josh Wardle, before he went on to create another internet mega-hit, Wordle. Little did Reddit know, but this experiment would quickly become one of their most popular. So popular, in fact, that they brought back the experiment for April fool’s 2022, that’s where our story takes place. The experiment? R/place. To help explain it, avid Redditor and director, Andrew Gant.
Andrew: Uh, Hey, my name is Andrew. I go by GantProducs on Discord and most of my usernames and my pronouns are He/Him. r/place is an interactive canvas that’s hosted on the website Reddit—It allows allows all of the reddit users to place one pixel every five minutes. And with this tool, anyone can create a piece of art.
Talon: So you might look at the canvas and think “Hey, I’d like a single red pixel riiiiiiight here.” And then…
Talon: A red pixel appears. You wait five minutes and then…
Talon: You can place another.
Andrew: The problem is one person on their own is not as strong as a community of people together.
Talon: So maybe you rally a few friends get them to place some red pixels around yours and slowly you build up to a stop sign or a flag or a massive pixel art rendition of the Mona Lisa. The sky’s the limit! Well, and the limit of the canvas itself. With millions of users and only so much space, things fill up pretty quickly and soon you’re fighting to stake your claim and defend your art.
Andrew: This is also what makes place very interesting. The fact that, basically, one person can go up against a Goliath or an entire network of Goliaths! There are unions, groups of very organized people.
Talon: Some of the most popular online communities gather and coordinate users to construct and defend massive works of art. For example, r/prequelmemes, a popular Star Wars subreddit, constructed a detailed portrait of Anakin and Obi Wan’s iconic lightsaber dual on volcanic planet of Mustafar. The larger and more intricate the design, the more organized a group needs to be. Since you’re only able to place one pixel every five minutes, choosing a project to work on can be quite a daunting task. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to work on when I woke up on Friday, April 1st, 2022. That was until something started organizing in a discord server I was in… a community built around the upcoming handheld gaming console, Playdate. That’s where I met Andrew.
Andrew: I think what make’s the Playdate so enticing is it’s design.
Talon: The Playdate is small, square, and bright yellow, kind of like a post-it-note. It's almost as if IKEA had invented the Gameboy.
Brandon: Yeah, it’s just a simple device.
Talon: That’s Brandon, another member of the Playdate discord.
Brandon: It’s one bit graphics, so black and white.
Talon: Not even gray.
Brandon: It’s got a crank on the side.
Talon: You know, for fishing games or slot machines or whatever else a developer wants to use it for.
Brandon: And it just evokes, for me, feelings of nostalgia and simplicity.
Andrew: When you’re looking at it, it’s just so beautiful. You want to touch it, you want to play with it.
Talon: And you want to put it on r/place. It’s a simple, bright, enticing design with a small, but passionate, community.
Allie: It was definitely one of the first things I thought about putting on the canvas.
Talon: This is Allie.
Allie: Known as ChildishGiant online and pronouns are she/her.
Talon: She lives In London which means that she was one of the first people active on our largely US based Discord server the morning r/place went online.
Allie: Um, I think I might be one of the people that initiated it? I’m really not sure. I think I’d have to go through the logs of the chats.
Talon: I went through the logs for her and she did indeed initiate it. While a few people mentioned it in the days prior, she was the one to actually get the ball rolling on Friday morning. And soon, we were making our design.
Brandon: I just remember somebody putting the onus on themselves to create the pixel art of what we were going to attempt to do and it was this little 10x9 thing, that’s how it started out.
Talon: Once we had our design, we needed a spot to put it! And that’s what lead us… to the ducks.
Allie: Oh actually the ducks, I do remember now. There was some cute little ducks and there was a row of them and they were in the right color palette to make a Playdate.
Talon: This ended up being our core strategy for finding real estate.
Brandon: With the majority of our design being yellow, it just made sense to go somewhere that had a lot of yellow. So we had kind of less work to do and we could kind of blend in with what was already there. And hopefully that would deter whoever we were building on or by.
Talon: It just so happened that these ducks were a similar size to our Playdate design so we were hoping we could repurpose one of them. You’d be looking at this chain of ducks holding hands, and it’d go duck, duck, Playdate. We actually got in contact with the people organizing the ducks to get their approval.
Allie: We spoke to the duck headquarters and they were more than happy for a Playdate, I think.
Talon: For a minute it seemed to be going well, but—
Allie: It turns out most of the people who were keeping the ducks maintained weren’t actually part of the group.
Talon: They were random people who saw what they thought were out of place pixels, and fixed them which meant, we couldn’t really build our Playdate there. Which is ok, because the ducks were soon run over by a larger group anyways. We tried a few other places, including a long back and forth between a small picture of corn, but none of them were really working. With all the space filled up, we had nowhere to begin our construction. But then…
Brandon: I saw some messages come through on the discord. They were like “Yeah, it’s expanded. Let’s go!”
Talon: For the first time in the history of r/place, the canvas expanded. It doubled in size and added a mass of unclaimed territory.
Brandon: It’s kind of like Wild West at that point. It’s just completely empty and anybody can go anywhere. There’s no footing yet, nobody has any footing. People are just trying to put something somewhere.
Talon: And that’s what we did. We found an area, started placing our yellow pixels, and it was actually going really well!
Brandon: We finished the Playdate, we got the purple border around it so it looked really sharp, and then a few of us, like, zoomed out. We instantly saw this perfect blue flag border around us. And we were like, well that doesn’t look good.
Talon: This was the flag of Columbia University, a prestigious ivy league school in New York City. And they weren’t alone either, there was several other flags around it, all from New York Colleges. As soon as we were in their way, they just swallowed us up, purple border and all.
Brandon: To be honest, after that I was feeling a little dejected, almost. Like, we put all that time, we got it done, and then now it’s just gone.
Talon: This loss in particular hit the group hard. It took us all day to find a spot, build, place pixels, and finally construct our first Playdate, and it was gone in minutes. Would we even be able to find a new location? We only were able to build there because of the never before seen expansion. Could our small group of 10-odd people actually have a shot at putting a Playdate on r/place? We were gonna to try. And lucky for us, the weekend was coming and that meant, reinforcements, like Andrew from the top of the Episode.
Andrew: I started getting involved when the discord moved to the ABBA block.
Talon: We were going to need the extra hands because our next chapter takes us on a complicated diplomatic and political dispute… with Sweden.
Brandon: Rogue Swedes as we were calling them.
Allie: Let’s do something relevant for Sweden. F*** Playdate.
Talon: That’s coming up next time on Playplace.
Talon: Playplace is a production of Newton’s Dark Room. It was produced by yours truly, Talon Stradley. Theme music by Brandon Dean. Want to help support the show? Visit newtonsdarkroom.com/extra for behind the scenes features, content, and merch.
If you like Playplace, why not check out one of our other shows? Like Soapboxers, a fly-on-the-wall documentary style podcast that follows one of the top Speech and Debate teams in the country as they rebuild from Covid-19. Here’s the trailer.