No Exit: How Games Can Change Us

Rule 1: Get a group of three or more people.

I was sitting in the second row, listening to Eric Zimmerman talk at IndieCade. I had arrived late as a result of drinking too much the night before and ended up sitting next to strangers instead of my friends. The bright, funky colors and amoebic shapes painted on the theater stage contrasted the prevalently white audience in black shirts. In hindsight, wearing brown that day might have been too apt. So when Eric motioned for us to group together, I instantly felt like the outsider.

Rule 2: Put up five fingers.

There are certain motions that move us to the ‘it’s a game’ phase. Putting on a uniform, grabbing a controller, putting up fingers. The magic circle. My pinky had a ring on it, and I wasn’t sure if it would affect my performance. Once our hands went up, bent at the elbow and floating around our chins, it felt like a game within a game. We were mostly strangers, maybe ran into each other a couple of times throughout the festival, but not enough to know everyone’s loyalties. I was the only woman.

Rule 3: Take turns eliminating each others’ fingers.

Something from the depths of my mind told me to do anything to not go first. The men shifted from leg to leg as we negotiated awkwardly, looking around at much more jubilant and excited groups. So I just pointed to the person next to me, volunteering him and going clockwise, so I was next. The group got tense, anticipating the struggle to come.

Rule 4: Last person with fingers wins.

Strategy was only part of the game; knowing how people worked, even just upon meeting them, was crucial to surviving. Revenge, or justice if you want to be nice about it, factored in the most. In a game where you need to wrong someone while still appearing good, enacting revenge is the easiest way to hurt another player while seeming blameless. I positioned myself to always side with the recently wronged, and the rest would gang up on the initial offender. I didn’t smack talk, I pouted gracefully when targeted, and never did anything to make myself stand out as a threat.

I won.

Flash back to the year 2000, when I saw the premier of the show Survivor. The premise was simple: groups of people were put into the wilderness, forced to work together in order to withstand the elements, but had to vote out a member of the game every three days. The game show was as much of a social experiment as it was a competition, a testament of the human condition despite the dubious editing as the show progressed. I was hooked, and ended up watching the show for 14 seasons. It wasn’t long until I discovered there were renditions of Survivor on the internet, hosted games where anyone can participate and see if they could ‘survive.’ Because the brutal environment was taken of the picture, these games were a distillation of Sartre’s “hell is other people.”

Out of fandom and curiosity, I started playing them. Hindsight might say it was a bit sociopathic; the contestants on Survivor played for a million dollars, a life changing prize, and rarely played more than once. I, on the other hand, continually signed up for games where I knew I’d have to socially maneuver, lie, backstab, and spend inordinate amounts of time sitting at my computer at late hours just for the experience of it.

It wasn’t the games themselves that were cycles of masochism, but my relationships with the people in the community surrounding them. Game and reality blurred as cell phones came into prominence, players met each other over multiple games, and reputations were gained. These games, these people took up large amounts of my time and emotional energy.

It was typical for things to get tense, and sometimes turn on your friends. There were relationships and rivalries, adding multiple levels of nuance to the games we were all participating in. Crying during these competitions was a regular event for me. ‘It’s just a game’ was a huge philosophical battle of this community; are your actions still a reflection of you even when suspending social mores for a game? What was you and what was you in the game? As we currently think of games, we play to get away from reality and do the things we wouldn’t do in our daily lives. But as my experience playing these Survivor games tell me, that’s not how it works.

Jumping back to the game I tried at IndieCade, I can see the skills I cultivated in Survivor games reemerged. Playing Eric’s game jarred something in me, a part of me that never left and possibly has been informing my actions for years after I stopped playing those games. I remember staring down a clean Culver Boulevard, squinting in the light, wondering if I should tell my friends about this revelation. I didn’t think this was a case of false attribution, that would finally be the link of violence in reality and games, but there was something else going on.

I feel like I discovered two things:

Discovery A: We are always in a magic circle.

When it comes to analyzing games and how people interact with them, the popular concept of the magic circle posits a border between reality and the game. It allows us to suspend disbelief and engage with the game without thinking too much about the world outside of the circle. But as iterations of the concept show, reality and games affect each other, shaping the landscapes and interactions of both worlds.

One perspective of what a game can be is simply interaction with rules. These rules produce varying kinds of behaviors in people and inevitably mediates their mentality. This happened on a social level in the Survivor games I played; in fact, I posit that we’re always playing a game, always interacting with social rules we’ve assumed to be a part of life. It just takes going to another country, or even another city, to sense you aren’t playing by the same rulebook.

I like to think of the cliched phrase ‘life is a game’ in the context of one of my favorite movies, Battle Royale. The main antagonist, if you could call him that, said this to a group of 8th graders all forced to murder each other in a game. The movie and books interrogate the analogy of life and game; how isn’t our current socio-economic structure not exactly like these deadly, tragic games? In a society where your classmate will soon be your competitor for a job in a tanking economy, doesn’t their success denote your set back? In a world where the rich complain about profits and the lives of the poor in their sweatshops suffer their every whim? The smartest bit of Battle Royale was destroying the notion that everyone starts off life and the game equally; one guy gets a submachine gun and another a pot lid.

Discovery B: Games change people.

As I change when I move from a bar crowded with friends to a public bus to a lover’s bedroom, I changed when playing Survivor. In this light, rules are actually a kind of perspective, a way of viewing yourself under different lights. The rules of a social situation pulls out different aspects of your being and tries them. You learn something about yourself working on a team at your job, you reflect how your interactions with you family has molded you as a person. Survivor showed me how I’d act with my back against the wall and only my words and social maneuverings to save me. I used what natural skills I had, untiring friendliness, interest in others, noticing people’s quirks and habits. Except all those things became relevant only in relation to the rules: I was friendly to gain bonds I would need later on, I got to know people so they would trust me, and I paid close attention in order to anticipate others’ actions.

This makes games a reflective, soul searching tool for me, much like music and visual art. I throw myself at rules, test their boundaries, and then again, and then contemplate what happened to me. It reveals a part of my psychology and I owe it to myself to meditate on what I’ve learned. Art, overall, wants to incite change. You are not supposed to leave a game the same person. For a time you can’t tell the difference between you and the game, and once you leave, you take a bit of it back to your life. It is the negotiation between you and what the game wants you to do. That’s much like how we describe identity overall, the tension between the self and culture.

Rule 5: It never ends.

Declaring my citizenship of all these spaces inevitably will reflect upon how people see me. To those men who had no idea a woman with a legacy of social manipulation held her hand up with theirs. I could never go back to those games without the reputation I’ve gained myself. These embarrassing revelations, about how cutthroat and unethical we are when we play our games alone: they are a part of us. And it isn’t the violence they depict, or the immorality they could promote that is dangerous, but the lack of reflection these systems mean to promote. Our games don’t need to be hung on walls to change us.

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