Intimacy and Digital Patina

From embodiment and kink to luxury and tea, I see myself reaching for something solid to hold onto. I feel disconnected from digital art and environments, and resist how much conversation is centered around theorizing the digital. There’s more to play than video games, and a lot can be learned if we stretch beyond this genre and find more relationships in other places concerned with play. Admittedly, there is some distaste, bitterness, for the digital experience within me that I have to grapple with. I feel completely repelled, like a fugue lifted and I see a land of nightmares, and want nothing to do with it. But that would be unfair, and also throw away a lot of work that I’ve done with games. So I wanted to investigate what made me feel so distant from video games that attracted me to the looser, more intimate-feeling play currently grabbing my attention. I want to believe that there is more playfulness that video games has yet to focus on, something that can deepen our bonds to play and life. The tension then lies within the apparent immateriality of digital games, which are still subject to principles of object design yet rarely attain certain qualities of objecthood that we expect from physical experiences.

Video games feel distinctly like products, made for consumption but not necessarily use. It’s easy to enter a malaise of ennui, your Steam library having many games you’ll never touch and mobile games only one slight iteration away from the other. Digital game design is focused on an attention economy, how to grab you, keep you engrossed for as long as possible, and have you spend as much while they’ve got you. Because design is so focused on this kind of consumerism, video games enable cycles of disposability, where you buy something with the knowledge that you’re going to replace it with the next version soon after. This is ultimately unsustainable as we see with companies trying to shove life into harried sequels and remakes. You won’t get too attached because there will always be something similar fighting for your attention, and it is rare that something will be uniquely special to you. Typical game design acts as wedge between player and experience, trying to tap into your short-term worth at the expense of your long-term investment. Video games rarely make you care. You might get to know video games, but video games don’t really get to know you. They keep themselves on the screen and often don’t conjure intimacy with the physical interfaces between you and the experience. It knows you can just load up another game in the same manner that you accessed this one. Because what is being sold is some abstract immersion, a sort of mental drug trip, there is little legacy it can leave behind, having a profound effect through your use. Passing down games will soon go extinct between planned obsolescence and constant hype cycles for the new. Instead, we are left with empty, pandering nostalgia, sucking desperately at a straw and only getting the watered down remnants of a high long ago crashed.

This circles me back to the question of intimacy in games. There is an accepted fault of contemporary video games that intimacy, both in feeling and as a topic, are not its strengths. I doubt that it’s a weakness of the form, rather an outcome of canonized design practices. I have my own hunches for play in general, but digital games in particular prove tricky to find intimacy outside of a now quiet trend of autobiographical games. Is there a design concept out there that can reliably point someone towards crafting more intimate digital games?

My search lead me to digital patina, a technique in user interface design that builds on an apparently divisive skeuomorphic trend popularized by Apple. In short, digital patina creates artificial wear and tear to your digital products as you use them, particularly the ones that are already designed to resemble their physical analogues. So if your contacts app looked like an old-school address book, then there would be signs of usage around the tabs and pages you used the most. Despite handwringing over going into too deep of ideological territory, J. Houge notes “without patina, there is no history. Without history, there is very little attachment to the thing.” This evokes our typical relationship with objects, that it’s harder to part with an heirloom passed down in your family than with something you got at H&M. But this form of digital patina is still a couple steps away from design that helps solidify meaningful relationships, since this is purely about visuals. He cites something closer to what I’m thinking from Mark Boulton, who ties the analogy of digital patina to wok hey:

“In Chinese cooking, a wok is seasoned to make it non-stick. A well seasoned pan will go beyond simply making the pan non-stick. It will impart flavour to the food in what the Chinese call ‘wok hey’, or ‘breath of wok’. You see, to me, Patina is more than surface level sheen, or the aging of something. It’s the flavour. It’s an individual ‘taste’ that can only come from that thing. Not all woks are alike. This one is mine.”

For him, patina would be a practice in making a digital product uniquely the user’s, turning a mass-produced object into uniquely yours through personal use. Meaning, the experience that the product, or in our case, a game, can offer is changed by its unique circumstances. It imbues its idiosyncrasies in everything it touches that differs from person to person.

It’s tempting to assume that games with user-generated content or general sandbox types fulfill this idea. But that’s the topical application, the game itself is still the same and produces the same kind of experience. Though there is a strong player-evangelist edge in contemporary design philosophies, it stays within the digital ephemera, that a player will feel agency but not actually have agency. Agency isn’t really a good word for this, rather an effect, that a player can affect the actual design and use of a game as a part of the construction of the experience. The point isn’t to be able to do whatever you want in a game, rather that a game shapes itself around your natural motions and in turn reads as something idiosyncratic of you.

While it isn’t at the level that I’m thinking of, I see this happen with games like Dragon Age and Mass Effect, particularly with the consequences of actions in one game transferring over to the next. The choices are still topical and don’t really change the game itself, but the way players often talk about the games taps into what I’m speaking to. Look through fan discussion of these games and you’ll see people say “my Shepherd,” indicating that the boilerplate main character has been ‘seasoned’ with their playthrough to amount to a unique character. Speaking from personal experience, there is an investment on having particular kinds of playthroughs, like your ‘fresh’ run that is a result of playing the game without knowledge of any of the choices, and a ‘true’ run that is a meticulously curated save file that has all the choices you feel represents the most interesting story and what you’ll use to base your headcanon. The save files become a part of a legacy that you want to carry with you and retain, and many people grow attached to these personalized kinds of games. I don’t think this exemplifies my argument, rather shows what we can start from in contemporary design to push beyond what we have now.

Games that evolve over time intrinsically have the potential to evoke their own wok hey, because the tiny choices build up over time that build up into unique structures that are hard to replicate. I think about games like Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing that focus on longer cycles of engagement, where you have different ways to save the farm and interact with the village, and while these things don’t quantitatively differentiate too much, the experience that we build up with it makes an emotional impression on, and of, us. In essence, this is trying to make digital games more life-like, things that grow with us than expecting to be cast aside, filling up the trash heaps of our lives. Maybe it’s just me, but I ache for these sorts of games to be iterated on again, to further entrench themselves in our lives. A lot of my fantasy video game projects are inspired by experiences like Harvest Moon and would turn out to be an imprint of your experience. Like playing through a game shows an aspect of yourself that isn’t easily visible without its particular focus.

What patina looks like in game design could still use some discussion. I do have some investment in it though, there’s something romantic about design made for you to personally express yourself through mundanity. The reason why contemporary games don’t really do this well is because all instances of change must be grand and explicitly telegraphed. Life isn’t like that though, we are slow buildups of tiny effects and motions, and it isn’t until we take time to reflect that we see we’re something different from the past. This would be a game trying to translate how you exist, how you affect the world by just being, what it is like for you to just touch something or think a thought. I think we crave those sorts of things, to see reflections of ourselves, to see that we do make a mark and matter. So far, video games mostly tap into sedative design, numbing us to the world so we can feel important or centered in some way. But instead, I think there’s design that can make us feel more alive through the mundane acts in our lives, to find how we move through the world its own kind of magic.

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