KILL THE PLAYER

I spent last weekend at PRACTICE, a quintessential New York kind of games conference if I ever saw one. Speakers, with an exception here or there, spoke on the development processes of their games, with many deep-dives into very specific topics, like the timing and animation in a beat-em-up to the choreography of difficulty in platformers. There were planned discussion and breakout sessions that promoted discourse and it only took a couple steps to literally bump into an academic whose book you’ve read. Beyond the style of convening, there were also certain ideologies well, or probably over-, represented that you could say is a New York school of thinking; on the first night Frank Lantz mentioned wanting New York to be a cultural capital of games, and for functions like PRACTICE to facilitate such a reputation. Being new to the scene, it was easy to spot what sort of culture certain parts of games in New York wanted to be central, from the consistent use of the term “verb” instead of its more ambiguous relative “gameplay” to what I can only describe as nerding out over highly technical indulgences of a game’s inner machinery. Now that I live here and will be working in and with many institutions in New York, I am plotting what fronts on which I aim to resist certain commonplace ideological claims about games, as I do think New York has a compelling headstart on many places on being a cultural center, and if that is going to happen, I’d want it to look a little different than it currently does.

One such angle showed itself at PRACTICE in Meg Jayanth’s keynote, one of my favorite talks of the conference (the other was Brian Moriarty’s drawing an alternate history of video games through gimmicks and hoaxes). It revealed what would be a recurring theme of the weekend, the fairness and power that players expect in their games. Working on 80 Days as a narrative designer, she encountered issues having a world posed as anti-colonial steampunk while keeping in mind the kind of agency and fairness players’ are enculturated to expect. Ultimately, 80 Days is straight-up unfair to the player and often shuts down the kind of meddling the white- and straight-passing main character can get into, no matter how noble. Meg saw this expectation for fairness and ability to make things right in games a part of white-colonial conditioning, since many players of games aren’t used to living a life of the kind of unfairness marginalized people face, and wish for their games to feed into this power fantasy of saving the native/powerless and moving within a fair world that rewards players being right and skilled. There is some shared language here with the critiques we see of occident social justice, especially white feminism and American democracy, that seeks to fix cultures they see as underdeveloped and therefore in need of their help. As the conference moved on, there were more talks that factored in anticipating what players expected for their games, either being complicit to their wishes or resistant, so the topic bubbled up in discussion sessions and revealed there was a need to untangle the issue brought up by the player beyond the conference itself. And so, my treatise on dealing with fairness, consumer-player enculturation, and the propagation of imperialist values through the design of games:

KILL THE PLAYER

  1. The existence of the player-construct enforces a product-consumer dynamic that wields power according to imperialistic and capitalistic systems of value over art, politics, and life. This is mostly covered by some writing by myself and Lana Polansky that aims to decentralize the player in both creation and critique, but in totality: the construction of the player as it relates to theory, design, and critique of contemporary games reflects the needs of the people who make and consume commercial entertainment games. Conventional game design wisdom puts the imagined player, the player-construct, at the center of design, so much that Tracy Fullerton writes in beginning pages of the incredibly prevalent development text Game Design Workshop “the role of the game designer is, first and foremost, to be an advocate for the player. The game designer must look at the world of games through the player’s eyes.” The dominant ideology surrounding games is ingrained with this mentality, forming the player-construct by how they imagine the dominant culture of game players and conventional wisdom fine-tuned through business practices from the commercial sphere of game making. merritt kopas and Naomi Clark outline how games are situated in capitalism, imperialism, and morality, and how product-player dynamics train people to be proficient at embodying dominant cultural ideologies. Oppressive politics such as white supremacy and heterocissexism enter creation through the ghost of the player-construct while enculturation to a capitalist and imperialistic culture is etched into products that define the player-construct’s existence. This is how the values and population of game development and gamer culture came to reflect each other, as opposed to intrinsically catering towards hegemonic identities. Taking a note from merritt and Naomi’s discussion around human-game relations, we can find a way beyond this system through creating and analyzing relationships between agents or subjects rather than reducing play to product design. This is a relational focus instead of an object one. Player-constructs cannot exist without an object, whether it be something physical, digital, conceptual, or with objectifying other agents. The player-construct must be killed.
  2. The existence of the player-construct ruptures the connection between play and life through its dependence on the “magic circle,” which purposefully invalidates play that attempts to create meaning outside of preconstructed fantasies and within a subject’s lived experiences. Game-objects for the player-construct cannot exist without a manufactured magic circle, a delineation between life and play that allows the player-construct to leave behind meaningful effects on their lives. Here is how the well-loved Bernie DeKoven puts it in the text that encapsulates the New Games movement, The Well-Played Game: “Play is the enactment of anything that is not for real. Play is intended to be without consequences. We can play fight, and nobody gets hurt. We can play in fact, with anythingideas, emotions, challenges, principles. We can play with fear, getting as close as possible to sheer terror, without ever being really afraid. We can play with being other than we arebeing famous, being mean, being a role, being a world. When we are playing, we are only playing. We do not mean anything else by it.” Without the ability to create a meaningful relationship based on living experiences, expression, politics, and other ideas are funnelled through the game-object and completely mediated by the entertainment industry and the attitudes of the player-construct. This is an intentional numbing by constructing fantasies of escapism and tourism to replace life experience that can reference ideals outside of oppressive politics. Instead, we are left with a bland nihilism that gives game-objects room to enforce its values in absence of living experience rebuffing its advances. The player-construct resists affectation, to any form of actual change that isn’t ordained by their capitalistic and imperialistic training, through the mechanisms of an object that defines it. Play is conventionally viewed as intrinsically inefficient at evoking an array of emotions and subjects like intimacy, social awareness, empathy, politics, but it isn’t that play-relations have specific shortcomings that only produce instrumental play ill-suited to them, rather that the player-construct is treated as a given in the process of creation and play. Without the ability to involve this sort of affect, play will not be able to approach creating experiences that meaningfully explore issues like systems of social oppression further than they already have. The player-construct must be killed.
  3. The existence of the player-construct allows only for experiences that require consent to play to exist, obscuring play experiences that humans are involved in unconsciously and non-consensually from recognition, analysis, and intervention. Because the player-construct engages with play through consumer-mediated objects that require moving from life to a fabricated play space, all play experiences involving them requires their initiative to exist. Because the player-construct is involved with the dominant imagining of play, discourse has failed to involve living experiences with systems of oppression and identity expression into its discourse despite having language and perspectives useful for engaging those topics. Oppressions such as cissexism, racism, heterosexism, ableism, imperialism and expressions of culture such as gender, race, sexuality, ability, ethnicity are living play experiences we did not choose to participate in and are consistently excluded from discourse surrounding the creation and situating of play. Playful relations to these topics cannot exist in the perfectly crafted fantasies of the player-construct who imagines they exist in a completely fair and egalitarian world based on merit of skill. Excluding these forms of play relations because of the absence of consent and ability to detach denies many forms of artistic and activist engagement through play that aim to rehabilitate, heal, and move beyond current paradigms towards utopias for the oppressed. These topics exist only in the relational field with all parties coded as agents and subjects, ambiguous and opaque themselves but generating a meaningful joint experience. Instead of engaging with these very real experiences with play, the player-construct aims to dominate life through ordered and manufactured expressions of politics, distancing themselves through mechanisms and keeping purely instrumental interactions, where at any time they can turn it off and contextualize it as play only for playing’s sake. The player-construct requires a game-object and play experiences with systemic oppression and cultural expression of being are too expansive for objecthood. The player-construct must be killed. 

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