Sympathy for the Dirt Devil

Rob Walker, Yahoo News
Rob Walker
Yahoo! News

In my role as your Procrastinaut (follow our Tumblr here if you haven’t already), I spend quite a bit of time seeking and enjoying the most delightful distractions that modern technology has to offer. But still, some things stand out. For example: a robot vacuum cleaner simulation game. That sounded pretty ridiculous — I had to investigate.

The trailer for Robot Vacuum Similulator 2013 will give you a pretty good sense of the “game play.” It’s a first-person-shooter scenario, except instead of a gun you have the point of view of a Roomba-like robot vacuum cleaner. (At least one report indignantly and hilariously mistakes this game for an official Roomba promotion; it is not.) Instead of darting through dangerous territories, you move rather slowly around a sparse one-bedroom apartment. Instead of wasting armed foes, you methodically clean up hunks of muck. Instead of being thrilled, you are bored.

In other words: Delightful.

The game is attributed to Stolidus Simulations, whose “corporate site” helpfully explains that it is “a world leading company in the field of robotic vacuum simulators.” An inquiry sent to the contact page was answered by Sebastian Røed Mangseth — not surprising, since that name appears about 25 times in the game’s credits, as everything from creative director and lead programmer to intern and “lead Pepsi drinker.” Turns out Mangseth is a 19-year-old living near Oslo, Norway, with a great sense of humor.

After watching some “let’s play” videos of a farming simulation game, Magseth explained via email, “I thought, what’s the dumbest/silliest serious simulator I could make? For some reason a robotic vacuum cleaner sim popped in to my head, and I thought it was a funny idea.”

(Jokes aside, it was also an exercise in game-making; Magseth, who is looking for work, studies game design part time at the Norwegian School of Information Technology. The collaboration with friends to make the idea a reality amounted to “a silly learning project.”)

Gameplay is simple, and meditative. It takes 10 or 15 minutes to maneuver the robot through its housecleaning, and since there are almost no challenges (apart from navigating the kitchen chairs, maybe), there’s plenty of time to let your mind wander about why the hell you are playing this game at all. The rather impressive sound track music starts out mournfully — is it sad to be a lonely robot vacuum? — but then shifts to perky jazz. Maybe it’s really satisfying to be a robot vacuum, cleaning up all those gross clumps in the bathroom. Would a robot vacuum prefer a fastidious owner, or a slob? To abuse the title of a famous essay by philosopher Thomas Nagel: What’s it like to be a Roomba?

You think I’m being ridiculous, and you may be right, but Mangseth made a shrewd choice of protagonist for this absurd game: Real-life Roomba owners’ habit of anthropomorphizing the devices is well-documented — they speculate about the objects’ gender, give them names, treat them like pets. Indeed, Roombas have proven a harbinger of recent actual scientific research suggesting humans can have empathy for robots.

Mangseth didn’t really have any of this in mind, of course — and in fact recommends the two-player “duel mode” rather than the solitary version I played (um, twice), because the competitive urge tends to kick in despite the incredibly low stakes. Either way, despite being silly — or really, because it’s silly — Robot Vacuum Simulator 2013 is actually a great example of using a game as an unexpected vehicle for humor, satire and mildly provocative fun.

“I personally hope to get a Pepsi sponsorship out of this,” Mangseth deadpanned to me via email, “seeing that I am the lead Pepsi-drinker on the game and also the resident Pepsi connoisseur at the company.”

That sounds like a long shot. But some game company ought to give this kid a job. If not, Mangseth is still thrilled at the attention has game has garnered. And the feedback has been nothing but positive, Mangseth says:

“Another perk of creating a robotic vacuum cleaner simulator," he told me "is that when somebody says your game sucks, you don’t know if they are being mean or just trying to be funny.”