The Boys of Summer: An In-Depth Look

Written by Wade Wallerstein, Curator

**Mitchell F. Chan’s Boys of Summer (2023) is an artwork about quantification and its impact on culture. **

Taking the tripartite form of a video game, a collection of tokenized profile picture artworks, and a social marketplace performance, Boys of Summer deftly uses the great American pastime of baseball as a metaphor to explicate the increasing abstraction of our identities, dreams, and experiences as statistics. Abstraction is the process by which things start to become represented by simpler things. The work operates within the specific micro context of popular crypto communities, which are driven by a collective obsession with floor prices, engagement metrics, growth indexes, sales volume, and the accrual of capital; but is aptly nestled within a broader macro context of big data industries, where analytical software are able to quantify, objectify, and monetize—just about everything. Importantly, Boys of Summer asks expansive questions about data, and its impact on our lived experience: what does it mean when everything is reduced to numbers?

If you are your data, what are you really worth?

The Boys of Summer PFP collection consists of a series of baseball players. Each player starts out with some base performance statistics, and physical attributes—things like hair color, skin tone, and clothing. These PFPs can be displayed as a profile picture on social media, or socketed away in a crypto wallet like treasure. Ironically, the form that these artworks take echoes early 2020 criticism of NFTs as silly, collectible trinkets with arbitrary value—like baseball cards. Each PFP is like a baseball card itself, standing in for the character that it represents; however, each is only fully activated when the holder connects their wallet to the Boys of Summer video game.

The Boys of Summer video game is a web-based, interactive experience rendered in Unity and displayed directly in the player’s web browser. Brightly-colored menu screens and dynamic, cheery textures compose imagery that is both clean and shiny, yet retro-leaning and nostalgic. The adventure begins as the player hits ‘start’ on the game, and a journey through their character’s ‘life’ unfolds--from high school through college and beyond. In the quest to ‘win’ and become a professional baseball player, the player is asked to make a series of inputs about the character—their hitting frequency, swing power, and other baseball-related performance traits. Posed in the form of questions, the player must make decisions that ultimately boil down to statistical changes for the character’s profile. As the game progresses, the questions become increasingly personal—how much time should the character devote to sleep? What college should they attend, and how much debt should they accrue? The list goes on.

Ultimately, by the end of the game, the player accumulates a copious amount of information about their character. The cascading streams of numbers are unrelenting, to the point where the character becomes almost totally obscured by blocks of data. This information then updates the metadata for their PFP token, saving their gameplay and character development to the blockchain. Once saved, the updates become visible to others in the marketplace. It is only at this point that the rarity of certain traits is revealed—the inherent statistics born in each character at the time of mint become apparent after playing the game and updating a character’s metadata with learned traits. In this way, the work is a true experiment in the relationship between nature and nurture: how you play the game can impact your character's traits, but only insofar as their inherent potential allows.

Demo endgame statisics
Demo endgame statisics

In the world of crypto, traits are never just descriptive characteristics: they are also signifiers of value. Marketplaces are speculative environments where certain attributes carry more value than others. It often boils down to crowd perception: most often, perceived value is related to data associated with the token. Chan understands that current trading paradigms on today’s digital art marketplaces magnify this phenomenon by intentionally, unintentionally, and algorithmically diverting focus towards quantifiable characteristics, rather than qualifiable experiences with the digital assets in question. As tokens increase in value, so too do the data points associated with them become more desirable. This has a profound network effect that heavily influences both social and trading behavior. The entire cycle plays out in the public arena of the digital marketplace—and so too does Boys of Summer, performing on the virtual storefront as holders participate. Having lived through multiple crypto boom and bust cycles through the mass dispersion of PFP collections, Chan uses the medium of the PFP itself to reflect this cultural yet market-centric value system back onto itself.

It’s a game… because everything is gamified now.

The title of the work comes from Roger Kahn’s 1972 book of the same name, in which Kahn recounts both his own childhood growing up around baseball and the lives of famous players like Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson. Heywood Hale Broun wrote for the Chicago Times that the book depicts “a world where baseball teams were the center of a love beyond the reach of intellect, and where baseball players were worshipped or hated with a fervor that made bubbles in our blood.” Sound familiar? As if Hale Broun gazes into the future, his words could just as easily describe the polarizing and illogical phenomenology of popular culture. Then, baseball could be seen as a metaphor for the national collective subconscious: a clear geiger counter for the state of culture. Chan sees the meteoric advancement of NFT, and particularly PFP, culture as the same kind of symptomatic expression of a social paradigm shift.

Baseball continues to be an uncanny analog for these phenomena. In 2003, Michael Lewis wrote Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. The story follows Billy Beane, general manager for the Oakland Athletics, who revolutionized the sport by using new forms of rigorous statistical analysis. With these methods, the A’s were able to go toe-to-toe with larger teams operating with budgets two to three times larger. The Moneyball phenomenon had an enormous impact on sports and gaming industries. Sports today, like many things, are increasingly focused on statistical improvement and speculation. This is most clearly visible in the rise of organized fantasy sports leagues and sports gambling. In these gamified experiences of a game itself, baseball players become abstracted from themselves as bundles of statistics, quantified objects, and commodities to be traded.

Like the sport of baseball represented American life in Kahn’s Boys of Summer, it certainly seems to also represent key aspects of life today. Our current paradigm can be decoded most aptly by the primacy of data, in everything. Data, the ‘new oil’, drives our world. “You are your data,” they say. Companies and governments alike use data to quantify, analyze, monetize, and ultimately objectify us. In fact, we do it to ourselves. We are obsessed with numbers, performance, and improvement, and play fun games to quantify ourselves by counting things like steps and heart rate. We also know, if somewhat vaguely, that everything that we do becomes a data point somewhere: every click tracked, every purchase logged, every decision recorded (if not on a ledger, then somewhere in the ‘cloud’).

Society seems mostly resigned to the fact that we are all just datasets. In the complexity of our current situation, which is registered in orders of magnitude, it seems that there is widespread acceptance that the best one might hope for is to have some agency, to control just some of one’s own data. It’s like Kant’s notion of the mathematical sublime: when something is so large as to be inconceivable, it is pleasing to see it reduced to an understandable numeric logic. Indeed, ‘number go up’ can feel quite good.

Demo gameplay
Demo gameplay

The problem with quantification is abstraction.

When anything is quantified, it becomes abstracted from itself; and, in the process, reduced or diluted. Abstraction operates through representation, by representing things with different things.  In the statistical turn, data is gained, but knowledge is lost. Over time, this chisels away at what made that thing worth quantifying in the first place until it becomes something else entirely. In this process, the original thing starts to fade, and, eventually, is forgotten. Datasets are abstracted forms of people; and, as Chan suggests, in our data-driven society, people might even be replaceable. While this is nothing new, the idea of taking ownership of one’s quantified self is more novel. Some see value in knowledge; understanding data about oneself to make better decisions. Others use more tactical methods, like self-surveillance, to resist or take control of how they are quantified.

Now more than ever, it feels impossible to ignore the ways in which societal discourse, and our personal lives, have become a numbers game. To show off our value, we present ourselves as data. In the art world, speculative trading can sometimes denote value rather than the technical skill, conceptual rigor, or aesthetic beauty of a work of art. In the crypto world, we use PFPs to declare our affiliations and values. Boys of Summer reminds us that PFPs can be just another kind of data that we use to quantify ourselves. Pictures in browser come to represent our identities, but obscure much about the person behind the JPEG. In Boys of Summer, the choices that collectors make for their characters actually drive their statistical performance in the market; ultimately painting a much more detailed picture of that collector.  They say that jazz is the only true American art form: something that could only be synthesized from the lived experiences of its Black creators. Chan jokes that PFPs are the only true natively crypto art form. The Boys of Summer does indeed say a lot about who we are, and what it feels like to be an artist working in web3 today. It also poses a hopeful experiment, offering agency to write your own data.

How do we sift through our experiences in a quantified world?

Irreverent and evocative, The Boys of Summer is seductive because it is fun—even though very little baseball is actually played in the game. The real reward is seeing your PFP, your visualized data personification, and its numbers go steadily up, up, up. More than a game, the work is a simulation of the market, of the quality and nature and our lives, and of itself. The Boys of Summer is both delightful and ambivalent—we enjoy connecting with each other over concrete, definable things, even if we can’t totally forecast let alone comprehend the impacts of quantification. In the game, every action the player takes ultimately becomes a data point on the marketplace page for their token. While The Boys of Summer provides few answers, eerily lurking is the awareness that so, too, is everything about you.

Out-of-band output samples
Out-of-band output samples
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