Creating Power Through Play

We are used to critiquing power and seeking to diminish its effects. But what attention have we paid to creating power for those who don’t have any?

This is a sentiment I’ve heard from artists, activists, and other interventionists over the past year. It’s not something I’ve considered before; I’m used to pushing back against oppressive forces and focusing on restorative efforts to help withstand the enduring presence of power. Critiquing power is the usual mode of politically-engaged art and activism, because the abuse of power is a very real threat to vulnerable people. This is ultimately reactionary and not a direct enough tactic on its own to substantiate political ideals. What’s missing is the creative, creating power that can challenge power. We know power itself won’t go away, so the act of diminishing its effects are a stopgap at best. The task is twofold, first imagining what ethical uses of power looks like and then how to build it up for the people who need it most.

Power can be disciplinary and creative, taking liberties with how philosopher Michel Foucault describes it. We are most familiar with the disciplinary part, the kind of power that controls, suppresses, kills, limits. Creative power is more slippery since it is often a response to disciplinary power but stands on its own after it’s seized agency. This isn’t to say either power is inherently good or bad, just that it is much harder to gain and wield disciplinary power when you’re a marginalized person, but creative power is something we all have access to and can better exercise. Let’s take identity as an example. The power of identity is that you can essentially craft who you are and a lot about how you relate to the world. Clothes often help us telegraph that to the world, as how you dress yourself not only identifies you through cultural markers, but also implies how you want to be interacted with, or who you consider a community. You can disrupt expectations, insert yourself, be visible, manipulate dynamics. However, the other aspect is the creative power of the people who interact with you. Much like art, people get a gut feeling and a bunch of assumptions when seeing you and respond according to their life experience and social context. No one is completely in control of themselves because of this aspect of creative power, we are all also made up of others perceptions of us. This back and forth between performance and reaction is a type of a play that can be structured and manipulated for anyone’s use.

Games is no stranger to ideas of power. They are known for their power fantasies and illusions of agency and choice. Mainstream games allow people to wield disciplinary power in realms that attempt to separate themselves from life. Keeping to this paradigm reinforces the current dominance of disciplinary power and leaves creative power to be a neat flourish or a just enough tasty carrot on a stick to feel like we’re involved in developing our own agency outside of a system. I’m not the first to say that conventional games are machines for training players into being good denizens of current structures of power, internalizing a respect for disciplinary power over creative. It’s possible that a roadblock in games’ ability to grapple with important topics is this one-sided approach to depicting power, since true creative power on the part of the player could easily break the structures of contemporary design and ultimately be too expansive.

Thinking about creative power would lead us to thinking about game design differently, looking more to how people connect through play and use those moments to build power. It would be an ongoing practice, like only being able to take one action a day or responding with pre-established protocols to the spontaneity of life. We can play with identity roles, formality customs, fashion, courting rituals, ceremonies, education, labor hierarchies, politics. Since no one person contains or can express the ideal world that fits everyone in it, we all must act out our values and actively mix them together with those in our lives and those different from us.

Living in an increasingly fascist world, it’s time to come to terms with the fascist nature of interactivity in popular games. Games in a new world of resistance will have to reimagine design and accommodating this dream-making of creative power we need to build up to be a match against today’s problems.

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Games for people

Ever since my move to NYC, I’ve been spending more time hanging out with people who are not in the video game industry or related fields. It’s a breath of fresh air really, both because I’m not hearing about the same old thing everyone else is talking about, but whenever I say anything half intelligent about games and play, everyone is pretty impressed. I’m challenged to explain issues in our field to outsiders because not only do we have specialist language that comes along with a particular artform but a general barrier to entry when games considered ‘good’ have gamer-specific competencies and tastes tied into them. I find often that if someone didn’t grow up playing games frequently, they didn’t really get what is interesting about them on an artistic level, only that the industry is competitive with Hollywood.

Even in more progressive circles of games, there’s still a distinction between games that are made for mass audiences, often called casual games, and those made for those with extensive gamer literacy. While the industry is trying to include those who mostly play puzzles on their phones on public transportation as ‘gamers,’ media, developers, and scholars clearly look to games developed for gamers as ones with cultural meaning, the stuff worth calling ‘art.’ Yet at the same time, we are always bound by the low bar consumer entertainment creates, experiences are always deep “for a video game.” The creation of the term ‘mid-core’ for a kind of game that pulls casual players in the direction of more ‘hardcore’ experiences shows that the industry doesn’t want to expand what it does, rather indoctrinate more people into the existing model. Given the industry’s frequent image issues on the social front, it’s not hard for discerning adults to resist the temptation.

Brie Code shares similar thoughts in her attempts to get her non-gamer friends to play games that really touched her. This really got to me because of her reference to Tim Gunn and the fashion industry’s reluctance to create for the range of bodies that exist in the world. That is, we have to be more frank about the doublespeak in games being something for everyone while being so obviously for an already established consumer base. What does it mean to design games for people rather than gamers?

If I had to guess, it would be creating opportunities for people to engage with the contexts of their lives. We often look for parallels of ourselves in our media and project aspects of our lives into art either for catharsis or as a basis for reimagining our present situation. It’s common for video games to be escapes for acts of heroism or accomplishment we can’t get in our lives, and there’s a place for that seeing it powers a monolith of an industry. Yet it seems escapist power fantasies aren’t often linked with the kind of depth and universality we would need to make games for people.

At the very least, if we’re going to leave behind entertainment consumer products to be entertainment consumer products, games aiming at social engagement and public art have to think more outside of industrial standards to have a respectable impact on the inner lives of people without gaming literacy. It shouldn’t be how to get more people playing mainstream video games, rather how can we reach past gamers to find more universal elements of interaction and craft from there. We have to remember it’s not just themes and genre preferences that connect people to an experience. Our design process is geared towards thinking of gamers, and it might be that the act of creation also needs revision, to come up with new processes that build up from the ground up, a New Design, something that speaks to more than nostalgia of a chosen few.

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Making games during sad times

This month is soaked with deja vu. Habits and nervous ticks I hoped long-gone resurfaced and many of my friends wear tired faces. Two years ago I felt like I went through a natural disaster and had to cope with what the existence of large groups of hate mobs after me meant for my life online and off. In its natural evolution, these groups have seized the imaginations and fears of the country I live in and all the lives we touch. New Yorkers told me that the day after this election felt like 9/11, that something about the world was irrevocably changed and wrong. Despite the implications of 2017 and on in America, my mind switched to a survivalist mode. Not necessarily fending for myself, but reevaluating what I do in the new context I’m in.

It’s easy to feel like there’s little you can do to change the world when you’re a game developer. The industry spends so much effort to keep an image of frivolity that when disaster strikes, no one is looking at video games as an actual source of change, only further regression away from the world’s problems. I remember vividly watching the news of the shooting in Ferguson when I was in the middle of writing what seemed then another inconsequential piece about video game culture. I know it’s many of our jobs to entertain, and I felt yet that shouldn’t be at the expense of critically engaging with the world. If games were going to be my life, I had to have an approach that let me work on something that could be my part in creating a better place for those around me.

What this looks like for others depends on each person’s life situation. Very few can pivot whenever they want into new work, and it’s not really the current work we do itself that is at fault. Rather we’re often not given the time and energy to contribute to personal projects and action using games, especially not for mass-distribution. We’re all creators in some right, and can use our craft to explore the world’s events with each other. I’m reminded of how DIY game-making sometimes uses zine culture as an analogy and that one of the driving impetuses of promoting easy-to-use tools is so the act of game-making isn’t a drawn-out affair. Making a game and putting it on the internet can feel pretty official, so getting clamped up in making something look respectable can easily roadblock someone who isn’t the jack-of-all-trades type. But maybe we could stand to develop habits of making games for people in our lives instead of the general mass audience that could potentially exist.

My hunch is we’re in an increasingly connected world without the structure or support to communicate well on such a scale. The internet was never really a place for you to be both vulnerable and your public identity, and as learn how social media is affecting our lives I see more people retreat into themselves. We feel like we need to say something well-crafted to the whole world or nothing at all. This is an unsustainable impulse. We need to start thinking more about our everyday practice. If you could only spend one weekend on a game, who would you make it for and what would it say?

Despite having its own industry, no one really has games for social change figured out. There’s no one who can say the tiny, personal games you swap with your friends are impacting the world more than an iOS game about climate change. Games and play as communication tools is still experimental, and I have a feeling that it will only be figured out when a bunch of people do it. I don’t know if we’re stuck with social media forever, but at the very least we could aim to make online spaces more intimate and vulnerable spaces through digital art.

Which is to say, just because you’re in games doesn’t mean you have to retreat into just making entertainment products and feel useless about what is going on in the world. If the past four or so years have taught me anything, it’s when something goes wrong, you have to change your mindset and behavior to move past it. The way we’ve been communicating about our experiences and how they tie to current events hasn’t been working. There is much to play with and interrogate with the design values of the platforms we use and are used against us. We’ve reached a point where any person can make a small weird game in their pastime and not have their entire career revolve it. 2017 will be a great year to exercise this new language to help us untangle how we got here in the first place.

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Playing with UI

Once upon a time, I kept up with video game release cycles, Steam sales, and games Twitter fads enough to be aware of what games out there I should be playing. These past few years found me receding away from all these, and in conjunction with the exponential growth of individual creators out in the world, the ways games come across my plate is increasingly arcane. It’s a mix of (fleshspace) word of mouth, festivals, and student showcases that present a wide variety of ideas, audiences, and scale. So it stands out to me whenever I feel like I see a pattern coming emerging from a view of games not dictated by the press and whatever indie darling showed up that week.

In particular I’ve been thinking about a trend in metafictional use of familiar, pervasive UI that’s cropped up in games that catch my attention. Think Her Story, Cibele, and Killing Time at Lightspeed or even more close to what I’d like to talk about, Replica, Project Perfect Citizen, and Mystic Messenger. What all these games have in common is using the interfaces of technologies we’re familiar with as the the interface and setting of play. In Replica you’re playing with an iPhone interface (pity Apple probably wouldn’t let this game exist on its store) while Mystic Messenger mainly utilizes messenger apps like Line. Besides lending familiarity to a game that probably would prove more accessible to those who don’t consistently consume mainstream games, there is something innately more personal to these games by their very form.

This is useful to look at considering the particular brand of UI/UX craze that’s going on in design fields and now even seeping into games, despite the fact that the definition of game design should be designing experiences but, I digress. UI in games is largely taken for granted as just what’s necessary in order for players to operate the game. Meaning, it’s rare to play with UI in a way that it allows us to play in digital areas that are not usually considered ‘games,’ such as our computer desktops and mobile phones. In a way, UI might be the ultimate defining feature in digital games that signals what we play with, and to understand how to further engage with the world we have to think less of the content first but of how we can use UI to create unusual experiences.

What makes these types of games successful to me is the inherent transgression and indulgence of the public/private split in experience. A digital UI often designates a personal space only the user can see and therefore a place where private information is kept. There is something pleasurably invasive about these games that use non-game UIs because we are either making a new space our own or we’re looking into the private belongings of someone else. Intimacy, security, vulnerability, surveillance, all of these issues naturally reside when we use UI to knowingly create a private space for play that resembles actual ones we have in our lives.

These games, by effect, imply that there are hidden experiences or stories in our everyday uses of technology. Kinds of experiences that the current UI/UX designer isn’t really planning for because they aren’t considering their work as part of the playful act. In the height of experimental theater in the mid-20th century, happenings elevated the everyday lives of people to a more perceivable aesthetic plane. Performance artists who used happenings wanted to draw from life not just for content but for the form as well, to better relate the viewer who was almost always a participant, whether they realized it or not. I see something similar in the future of these UI games, where people are interacting with digital interfaces in a way they don’t realize is designed for playful experience or something other than pure functionality.

One could make the argument that video games often feel so much a like because UI design is strongly codified and similar between genres. Maybe the UI of a game has a stronger influence on what the game is going to be like than what conversations currently address. Why don’t more creators use the UI of other kinds of software to create their experience? Too meta? I feel like there’s a tendency in digital games that they perceive themselves as born out of nothing, when most people today encounter games within the UI of other experiences. In this way, loading up a video game might be serving the same function as walking into a museum, going in for a particular experience and leave ‘art’ inside and away from the rest of the world. But I think these ‘UI games’ (please don’t let that term become a thing) threaten that sacred space of games in only a good way. We should be thinking of the politics of the software and platforms we use everyday, and there should be art that complicates our uses of technology from the inside. Those who understand how experience is crafted in technology can undermine how top-down forces exert power through these sorts of interventions. And the idea of using a hack for a game, to actually alter the literal UIs we use themselves, has to be saved for another time. But I recommend you check and look out for these kinds of games because they have the potential to hold a unique creative power in games, that is, injecting play into spaces carefully crafted to hide their mechanisms from those who use them.

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Games, Art, and Design

I feel like a tennis ball hit between the rackets of Art and Design. When first exploring critical theory and occupying myself with creative writing and art history, I wasn’t really aware of an art vs design divide. My first university major was Interior Design & Architecture which sparked my interest in spaces and how they influence us even as I moved over to literature and writing non-fiction. Creativity was creativity to me, no matter if it dealt with functional objects or ephemeral forms of expression. But the apparent antagonism between the fields is how they mutually substantiate each other, that is, a lot of what makes design, design, is that it isn’t art, and also the reverse. The main tension is between design as utility and art being for itself; what a creative work is and isn’t useful for defines a lot of the conventions and values shaped around it.

 

Games have become increasingly bizarre and sometimes alien to because of my inability to locate it in either art or design, despite practitioners citing the medium being both. I am thoroughly interdisciplinary in my practice, so on that level games has intrigued me as, at the very least, needing art and design to work together to produce interactive experiences. It implies that there is this false binary between the fields and something exists beyond them that takes what’s useful to craft experiences. Yet I find in typical game development the less glamorous aspects of art and design, an unflattering utilitarian assembly line in the name of fun the cuts out a lot of the creative process for the expressive qualities of the game. Conventional game making practices reduce both design and art to gears of producing products instead of linking them through a shared creative process. I reflect on this because of widespread recognition of games not being very well made outside of narrow set of expectations of gamers. In my time lecturing around New York City, I find that there is, at best, still a stalemate at how many people treat playing games as a part of their life that they do with other forms of artistic media or designed experiences. We see this tension in games people still poo-pooing a dead critic for saying games aren’t art while very willfully resisting being held accountable for actually impacting culture in any meaningful way except for the act passing time for its own sake. People in the field of games are simply defensive if not apathetic about this dissonance since, when we boil it down, so much of games evangelism is done out of nerds wanting to legitimize how much time and money they spend on a hobby.

 

Being both a critic and creator implores me to wonder how to do better. It’s not a secret that the exemplar of games as medium are still lacking in effect to other disciplines; I was just at a panel where politicians and heads of games companies constantly harped on games being important because they make the most amount of money out of other entertainment industries. Not that they challenge how we think, not that they open up new forms of expression, just simply at the bottom line they make money for capitalists. This isn’t new, I’m sure you can look up any talk or article in mainstream venues about the importance of games and the first line will be how much more money the games industry makes more than Hollywood.

 

Researching design and art practices leads me to believe games as a discipline needs an overhaul for how it frames the creative process. More specifically, game design is so narrow in focus and shaped by industrial standards that severely limits the range of output because it excises many opportunities for imagination and exploration.

 

Let’s zoom out of game design and look at design more generally. Design is better identified by its process rather than what it produces, since design firms like IDEO can apply their process to whatever they are working on and produce a large range of things, from objects to organizational structures to live experiences. They could even make a game if they felt so inclined, and how they would differs from how game designers typically look at it. I feel it is pretty apparent that people in game design saw these design firms in their nascency and borrowed many of the terms superficially but barely evolved any of them. Most of the design aspect of game design rests in prototyping and iteration, with research into audience and needs being handed down from marketing as a given. That is, people want to have fun and the people we want to reach typically play games a certain way. In other design processes, who an audience is exactly and what they need start out way more vague and are identified as part of the creative process. Games are incessantly narrow because of this need for a ‘fun’ product and developers pulling in a range of assumptions of how people want to engage with play. This goes hand-in-hand with why there isn’t a strong idea of how social impact games actually impact the world, because the creative process rarely includes actually finding out what people need. The assumption is that people ‘need’ to have fun, to be addicted, or whatever usual game design buzzword you can come up with. Weirdly, games try to use a utilitarian creation process to create self-described useless work, and aim for a very specific kind of uselessness. Imagine if we exploded play outside the confines of market understandings of what the general landscape of gamers want and applied a process with engaging local communities and current events. Imagine what games would look like if everyone wasn’t in a rush to be the next blockbuster and understand their worth mostly through that level of revenue. I honestly wonder if games as a discipline truly grasps experience in its totality instead of continually drawing from the same dry well.

 

Art is disciplined by this process into livestock, meant to not imagine but lend to this very particular line of uselessness. We do see individual artists express themselves through games enough that we can see a creative output that is unmistakably at work with life contexts outside of game industry. This divide and conquer use of design against art rarely allows creators to engage with topics without first serving this industrial notion of fun or a waste of time. With the rise of 21st century independent game development this impulse is getting pushed back, however even much of this work is unable to imagine itself further incorporating an artistic practice, since game development is long held to be a drawn out and financially draining process that result in this one shot to make it all back. While they do exist, so few games creators display a creative practice simply because of how few games they are able to work on in any given amount of time.

 

It is worth noting that both art and design share the need for a creative process, and that one does not need to separate them on the basis of convention. Games are in a unique position to reframe this creative process to not be so skewed towards design and art industrial standards and create an honestly new kind of engagement. Every creator will have a different process and we can engage with different contexts instead of being held hostage by the traditional model of being a games creator. I’m actually super surprised with how different the field of design looks from games, and it doesn’t surprise me that so-called games ambassadors took business by storm because of how secluded the practice is. In a time when we’re struggling to understand games’ place in shaping culture, I don’t think we can afford to take any assumptions that the game design field hands down to us for how to create work. The most obvious benefit is for the social impact sector, but also just for our personal fulfillment as expressive humans who have a wider range of emotions than the current landscape of games would lead us to believe.

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Pokemon Go and Device-Mediated Relationships

Having spent the past several years hooked to social media and being a part of digital pop culture phenomena as they happened, it’s a new joy to witness trends on the ground. I usually get this with fashion but within the past few weeks it’s been Pokemon Go. I didn’t quite catch the bug, I played for about a day or two and found myself missing the main Pokemon games, and returned to those instead. But I do hear how others are affected by it, and it’s interesting getting accounts from people not in games or those who don’t usually play a lot of them.

Reactions tend to go two ways, the first being how players feel like Pokemon Go enables them to explore places they haven’t been, especially their own neighborhoods. The app places pokemon in parks and other public areas that seems to, by effect, help players engage with each other and those in their community. We’ve seen evidence of this with the various pictures and videos online of Pokemon Go gatherings or even the off story of philanthropic organizations using the context of the game to encourage people to do good. The Pokemon franchise itself is rather disarming and an almost universal symbol to those born in the 80s and 90s into video games, so it’s not a surprise that we can see such large-scale virality of this ‘bring Pokemon into real life’ sort of experience.

An other type of reaction is a natural outcome of the first, being that players rove neighborhoods feeling the effects of gentrification and most of these iPhone-wielding 90s kids remind locals of the threat to their livelihood. While it is true that Pokemon Go is getting people to explore and connect, the reasons for that are pretty thin, and potentially transient the moment people get bored of it and onto the next distraction. This is a common effect of gamification, where you might be able to get people to do things using games, but you probably aren’t going to make them care about those things, rather just the extrinsic rewards they gain by gaming the system.

There is this constant back and forth of what is ‘doing good’ for any particular kind of topic or action at hand. Many people are satisfied with any level of help or good, that is, if we can see things as helping in any sort of way, that should be enough to justify the action. On the other hand, much of what is being done as good is surface level and doesn’t get down to the actual problem, a constant chasing of the symptoms instead of curing the disease. If a more radical approach doesn’t come around, a problem will persist no matter how much Pokemon you slap on it. Are people joining together and being out and about because of Pokemon Go a good thing? Whether something is good or bad rarely extracts the value from what we are looking at, since we can see different answers depending on what we look at. Instead, looking at Pokemon Go as a product of our current condition rather than a moral story will help us understand how experiences like this change how we engage with our surroundings.

I’ve long been fascinated by how our experiences with relationships have changed with technology that facilitates connection and communication. From the dawn of ‘online friends’ to dating sites to social media to hookup apps, how people, especially young people with technology around most of their life, relate to one another has slowly changed. We’ve offshored more of our usual ways of linking to one another from offline to online, preferring the curation and swiping techniques to include people into our lives than the complete randomness of life. More people use social media and online dating than face-to-face methods of communicating. The change in economy and labor practices have a lot to do with this, with companies taking up more time of employees with the expectation that on-demand apps will do all the things they don’t have time for. How we interact with people online is typically different than in person, mostly documented by the amount of snark, hate, dick pics, and overall virality of entertainment that just doesn’t happen in purely offline relationships. These device-mediated relationships have users treating others like they are part of the technology itself rather than purely people. We can turn them off, block, left swipe, unfriend, ghost. The ease in which we can curate and the knowledge that there are so many people potentially available primes us to move through device-mediated relationships as if they were a part of an on-demand service, and attachment is thin since one can easily remove another from their experience.

Because of its pervasiveness and ease, people are relying more on devices to connect them with others rather to have their own intrinsic reasons to reach out to those around them. Again, there’s no value judgment here, but it helps show the messiness of what something like Pokemon Go and a lot of what I see in VR/AR reveal about contemporary problems like gentrification. Outside of the uncaring fashion of how real estate works, one of the major forces of gentrification is when people move to a new area and don’t engage with the community already present, only others who seem to be of their same class. So new pockets of people grow inside communities, attracting others like them but not integrating in what was already there. They don’t engage with their neighbors, or go to block parties, or do anything really but use the neighborhood as a sleeping place until a trendy cafe that alienates the locals shows up. Instead of seeing who’s physically around them, people use location-based apps that connects users of like-class and slowly converts an area from serving one group of people to another. Wanting to connect with others and using devices to do as such isn’t bad, it’s just an unintended side-effect is a distance from people not using the same services. Cultural biases slip into who we filter in these services and perpetuate inequalities bolstered by the in- and out-grouping of majorities and minorities.

This doesn’t even get into the design of said apps and services, the politics of those designs, and how cultural attitudes from before device-mediated relationships carry over to now. I haven’t said anything about the implicit concerns of surveillance and consumerism also at hand. It’s important to note that it’s totally possible to express resistance to troubling aspects of technology while using said devices, it’s just a matter of being aware that politics is being more readily and stealthily coded into our experiences as we move over to fully integrated experiences. The point isn’t to find out which games or experiences are ‘good’ to consume, rather acknowledging that everything is prompting us to consume and understanding how that consumption factors into culture processes. As games change with emerging technology, it’s important to question how games are being used to cultivate connection with others, and what that says about the kind of society we are.

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empathy machine

empathy machine is a combination of experiments concerning the current state of the video game industry, virtual reality evangelism, game design as a discipline, and activism. A previous game of mine, Mainichi, is projected on the wall through a veil of twine and hooked up to a Makey Makey which, along with conductive fabric, turned my body into a controller. I performed actions from the game, post-shower rituals, dressing, and putting on make up, and then the reverse to move in an endless loop. Objects from my house were used as props and players had to interact with me in spite of my movements and the intimacy the performance called for. It debuted at NYU’s Integrated Digital Media’s Spring 2016 showcase as a result of working with interactive installations and physical computing.

 

 

Some quick notes on why I made this project:

With the rise of VR has come this claim that one of its strengths was how the medium can act as empathy machines for people to understand one another, particularly advantaged people exploring the experience of the oppressed. Similarly in video games, the proliferation of games made by queer people about their experiences were dubbed “empathy games” which followed a pattern of the wider industry and games audience only caring about what marginalized creators are doing if it involves them talking about their pain and trauma. My game Mainichi is commonly used as an example of how to teach cisgender people about the trans experience, yet its design, critical engagement with other games, and my future work that isn’t about painful experiences are completely sidelined. My game was exhibited at events without my permission, conferences only wanted me to talk about harassment instead of my work and ideologies, and eventually after being on the receiving end of large-scale harassment produced by the industry, left unsupported. This was my attempt to reclaim Mainichi on my terms.

How games are curated and exhibited is a woefully underdeveloped conversation. For how much games advocates obsess over interactive differences between mediums, games mainly hang on walls barely played in galleries, sterile and robbed of any context. I believe that’s the lacking of both curatorial efforts and how most designers understand play. That there’s a performative element to games is commonly accepted, but rarely emphasized; games are showcased as objects instead of as vectors for experience. So this was an attempt to turn that around and show the crafted experience of Mainichi that I now would want people to witness. This part started in a conversation between Pippin Barr and I about performance, time, and the exhibition of games.

Finally, I wanted to put into practice some of my ideas about refocusing on play instead of the game object. This piece is the first of many in some practice-based research on alternative creative tools and theory for the field of game design and play. My aim is to bring the use of play to an activist setting through performance, coming up against conventional game design and analysis. This piece cannot be the same in every context and changes depending where it is exhibited. I plan to submit pieces like these to games events as interventions.

 

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Intro to Reality Games for Game Designers and Critics

Being involved with artistic and critical communities around play, it’s easy to see repeated narratives about games eventually made into a canon. Certain games and play experiences are seen as exemplar and in-turn define how we think of what games are, particularly good ones. As with any sort of curation, canonization is political and reflects the values of the community that holds it up. So it’s always a fun venture to see what is left out of the canon and explore how it could complicate conversations around the medium of play. I’ve had a long-standing interest and history with reality games, the most famous being the US versions of Survivor and Big Brother, which are curiously absent from games discourse. I want to pose some potential areas of interest where I believe reality games stretch and challenge game conventions and critical thought around play. Also I just think people would get a kick out of analyzing and designing them.

Survivor and Big Brother created genre expectations for the reality games we see on TV today and even other sorts of game shows. The basic premise has a group of players sequestered away from their lives and other people to play in an elimination game that usually take a month to three to complete. These games are played in structured rounds that usually include some sort of physical, mental, or social challenge to either gain safety, control, or rewards and then a voting phase to eliminate another player from the game. Interpersonal dynamics mix with game theory as participants maneuver through the game until eventually there are only two left. Some eliminated players then act as a jury to choose the winner, who gets the grand prize. It is worth noting that film and TV conventions also affect how the game is viewed by audiences and that there is an audience at all is a strong factor in both the design and mythos of reality games. Just as we wouldn’t ignore the audio-visual elements of a video game, we must keep in mind cinematography and film/TV choices when thinking about reality games.

I should also note that amateur reality games exist off the TV and are played across internet forums, instant messaging services, and chat rooms (Online Reality Games, called ORGs for short). Communities of reality game fans play multiple of these over time and expect written episodes from the host that oversaw all the chat logs and journaling from the players. While the formats differed, they ultimately conformed to the structure and expectations of Survivor and Big Brother, with one of the most prolific of these using RPG elements and novelized into full-length fiction. ORGs that aren’t about or inspired by existing reality TV shows tend to bleed into the alternate reality games (ARGs) genre, to which many members of this community played before they reached public attention as marketing stunts.

 

Design Narratives & The Twist

Despite the game aspect being such a focus in this form of media, reality games are first and foremost creative works of non-/fiction (we can see them as both at the same time). While this would be true even if we were just peeping through cameras at the unfolding of the game, the players are aware the entire time they are being watched and a story will be made out of both public and behind the scenes drama. Confessionals, the usual name for private interviews between players and camera people, are frequent and contestants are asked about their personal perspectives and stories to eventually turn into dramatic episodes. And while the strategy of the game is interesting, the structure of the game is made to produce dramatic and interesting television, to create interpersonal tension and conflict since that’s what people want to see. The design of reality games are not simply for the enjoyment of the players’, rather it’s more important that the design creates a good spectacle. We can see this with regards to the introduction of ‘the twist;’ much like how we use the term ‘plot twist’ for injecting interest into writing we’re familiar with, in reality games there are also game twists. For example, the strategy of the first couple seasons of Survivor followed the same pattern: sixteen players start off in two teams of eight and after six eliminations merge into one group. When one team gets majority, they pick off members of the other team before turning on themselves. This was becoming predictable and therefore by the third season, an unexpected twist switched team members before the merge to shake up the dynamics of the game. Ever since, there’s always been a twist and further adjustments to the game whenever it started to get predictable. Games often contain plot twists in the story but rarely design ones; game developers tend to add on layers of general complexity that gradually helps the player progress, but not necessarily a design upset that completely shakes up how they play. One of my favorite board games, Betrayal at the House on the Hill incorporates a twist, where players know a twist will happen but unsure of what kind. Another example might be Michael Brough’s Corrypt, which is why it caught many developers’ and critics’ attention.

 

The Vote & Politics

In many games there’s some sort of force that makes sure that everyone has a fair shot and are playing fairly, like referees, dungeon masters, other players, or the computer. In reality games, fairness mostly comes from the fact that everyone has one vote that they can use in each elimination phase they attend, otherwise they are victim to the whims of the challenges, twists, and social dynamics of the experience. Players are often reduced to their votes or voting power in terms of strategy; alliances form to create a majority of votes, players act as swing votes between alliances, and jurors at the end of the game vote to decide who wins. Scholarly writing on reality games picked up on this imagery of voting and how it represents American or general Western fantasies of political systems. Voting is the most important part of these games and there is strong rhetoric at least in the US that voting is the most important part of being a citizen. By creating a game based on this sort of democratic idealism of equality through voting power we see reality games express a range of arguments around ethics and personal advancement in ‘fair’ societies. With Survivor taking place in ‘exotic’ locales and Big Brother taking place in a heavily surveilled compound to live up to its reference, critical perspectives could easily see how media and games contain imperialist, nationalist, and capitalist values. We can see not only the players’ expressions within political systems but also understand how audiences relate to watching ones play out. Implications of how people view prominent members of social media as they do reality TV characters are also interesting to follow.

 

Replays & Strategic Evolution

Though in the majority of televised reality game contestants only play once, there are many ways that knowledge of how past games affect how present ones are played. These sorts of effects are considered incidental or auxiliary enough to not merit consideration in conventional design or analysis, but in reality games, past relationships and how much knowledge you have of the game becomes much more important. This is particularly true for ORGs, where the same community of people are playing reality games multiple times, so players are bound to have played games with others and have both relationships and reputations. Because these games are so wrapped up in interpersonal dynamics, strategies will play out strongly biased by relationships and expectations already established. For example, who you decide to align with or vote out will change if you left a friend or foe with another player in a previous game, as well as if they played honorably or not and how far along they placed. If you know someone to be a generally nice under the radar player, you will be conscious of them sneaking too far along unnoticed. If instead a player was revealed to have backstabbed you and many people in the last game you played, you will know not to trust them and might want to eliminate them as soon as possible.

If someone was to research the change of the game and players over time, the fact that people who have watched and possibly discussed reality games in depth could play the game becomes important. Fans of the shows know the strategies and archetypes of players, forcing the game to move in certain directions, and eventually prompting new kinds of twists and structure changes. The audience of reality games cannot be ignored since their language discussing the shows eventually get into the games and shape design and discourse; the first recognized instance of an ORG player being drafted into the actual show of Survivor ended up placing 3rd out of 18. More games could take into consideration the same group of people playing games together and developing a set of dynamics, like Legacy: Risk.

 

Reality & Deterioration of Magic Circle

In the canon of game design and criticism is the ‘magic circle,’ an anthropological term about a sacred space where play exists outside the rules of real life. It points to the tendency for games and play to not have any consequences on real life, that how one acts in a game shouldn’t really affect them outside of it. And while the magic circle becomes more porous over time, reality games, especially ORGs, challenge its influence since one of the main elements of these games is reality. On TV, players are looking to win a million dollars, which will no doubt change their lives, and also exposure as models and actors, or some other PR reason. With ORGs you find players developing relationships over time that have an impact in and out of the game. Televised Big Brother games have a reputation for mixing in people’s lives with the games, such as secretly bringing in some players’ ex-partners to play the game, twin twists, and even seeing a player getting put on leave from his job for appearing on the show. The reality aspect of reality TV requires that the game meld in some way with players’ lives, and audiences indulge in the authentic emotional expressions of players when watching.

More pressing is the ever frequent questions of ethics in reality games. In games discourse, the only kind of play that is described as frowned upon are cheaters, who know and break the rules, and the ‘spoilsport,’ who doesn’t recognize the rules of the games as legitimate and plays outside the rules in that play space. In reality games, backstabbing and lying are not against the rules but highly frowned upon because backstabbing and lying are taboo in reality. In most games, lying and backstabbing are brushed off because for reasons such as ‘it’s just a game,’ and are easily forgotten outside of the context of play. And while this sort of reasoning comes up in reality games, because the game is much longer, the stakes are higher, and everything is more personal, what is moral stays in debate because humans decide who’s the winner of the game, not any objective win condition. Player’s personalities and understanding of how one one treats each other in the real world affects how the game proceeds and is resolved. This goes hand-in-hand with conversations around ‘deserving;’ who deserves to be voted out, who deserves to win? While a contemporary game designer and critic might conclude to the objective fact of who actually won and lost, within reality games is a constant discourse over these questions which ultimately shapes how the game concludes. There have been instances where between the clearly more strategic, cutthroat player and the under the radar, never lied player, a jury will pick the latter because they would feel morally compromised choosing who others might think of as a ‘better’ player but was a ‘bad’ person.

 

Players & Characters

In reality games, a players’ personalities undeniably impact the procedure of the game; are they likeable? Charismatic? Manipulative? Honorable? Can I stand being around this person all this time? Can I bare the thought of this person getting far in the game? Do I feel good about taking this person with me to the Final Two? Am I okay with this person winning? Personal preferences have always found expression in games, but never so much take a central role in the development of play as they do in reality games. Game designers that lament the difficulty of designing around relationships would find much use in how reality games prompt bonding and social dynamics. The personalities and strategies that emerge from the clash between the game’s structure and players’ morality are then viewed in highly edited episodes that turn real people into characters. This mediates audiences’ understanding of ‘reality,’ that even if there’s an awareness of creative intent in the production of these games and episodes, the relationship to the game is through some level of appreciating authenticity. Players’ emotions are real, there are close-up shots of their real emotions, information is shown and hidden in a way to show a real drama. Audiences eventually notice archetypes of players that are simultaneously their character and strategic editing; fictive and strategic elements are completely intertwined. Understanding the editing of reality TV has taken on its own art-form to create a meta game of guessing the winner, called Edgic. In this way, audiences are playing along to guess who the winner is, much like a reader would try to find out who the killer is in a whodunit. We can’t ignore the influence of editing and fan culture, not only because they eventually seep back into the canonized game, but they ultimately outline what a reality game is and how far its bounds stretch. Rarely has fan culture affected commercial games in such a manner.

 

I hope designers and critics give reality games a chance to be a part of our medium’s canon and history. There’s a lot to learn and chew on, especially considering the focus on interpersonal dynamics and how audiences relate to the game. If anything, I’d just like to see contemporary versions of these games that play with how people relate to one another and recognize that qualities of our culture can be used in the creation of play. There are strategies reality games have in spades that contemporary game design lacks and I think could help raise the bar in the kind of experiences we choose to create.

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Murder Mystery Writing as Design

Within the various medium wars game developers seem to wage with other forms of expression, writing and narrative are the most bitter of enemies. Even if we’re past arguments about whether narrative and play can even be in the same room, writing is by far less integrated into design processes than visuals and even audio. Writing workshops for games are often trying to apply fiction skills in spite of the commercial game making process instead of being a natural extension of creating the experience. Gamemakers begrudgingly acknowledge narrative is at work but cordon it off as if it is a disease, while the writing styles of popular sci-fi and fantasy bludgeon themselves in because of genre convention rather than actually being useful. As long as game design and narrative are seen as completely different tools, we will continue witnessing games at conflict with themselves, and even at the most conservative imagining, rarely have what we would call good writing.

We can find a useful link between design and narrative through the literary mystery genre, specifically around murder mysteries and the ‘whodunit.’ While mystery is often used in theming throughout all mediums, the genre dedicated to mystery has particular practices and form that focuses on how to craft a good mystery experience above all else. The structure of the murder mystery shares tenets of entertainment game design: the reader expects the truth of the mystery to be hidden away from them but with a fair sprinkling of clues so they could reasonably figure it out, in a battle with the author to sift through red herrings and plot twists, and feels equal amounts of surprise and accomplishment when they get to end of the story. This is a game, where a writer deliberately sets out to deceive a reader while creating a path of success for them to find along the way. Advancing in the story is like racing against the clock to figure out the mystery before it is revealed to you at the end and you assess how well you did. It is no wonder we’ve seen a lot of murder mysteries adapted into game format, because the design logic is pretty similar.

However, many of these mystery games don’t fully combine mystery writing with game design. Usually we see a mystery put onto an adventure game or hidden object format. What was design-like and writing-like in these games are still separate, or rather, conventional game design imperatives steamroll any narrative deception. Instead, I want to look at how murder mystery is handled in some experimental for their time yet well received visual novel games (with one exception) to find examples of how to better approach writing in games, with the possibility of the mystery being the starting point for game writing rather than optional flavor.

 

Rhetorical Processing

Mystery is typically handled by players scouting out information in the environment and using tools or interrogations to move forward in the story. It’s a strategy that relies on brute guessing and gaining tidbits of writing from scenes after solving a mini game of some sort. In the games I’m looking at, a lot of the information related to the mystery are given to you up front, yet the figuring out part comes in a scene of the player versus the game verbally mucking through the logic of the problem to eventually get to the answer. The most well-known example of this is the Ace Attorney series where the clues are not really that hard to find, but the real solution comes out of a trial where the player (and main character) aren’t at all sure of what the answer is until they piece it through debate. Through argument, the player is working all the information available to them, usually weathering many conventional mystery writing tropes that both lead them to the answer while constantly trying to knock them off course. The game trusts that the player is actively thinking through the problem as the trial plays out instead of relying on planted objects to eventually lead them through the mystery. Related is the Danganronpa series that also uses a trial format, though it uses mini games as a method to evoke the feeling of inventive and deductive thinking. With varying success these minigames help manipulate the energy and direction of the player’s thought process, and in a way, simulates the frustration of being mentally blocked pretty well. These trial systems are evoking immediacy and trying to get the player to be in a sort of crisis mode that forces them to piece things together on the fly instead of methodically trying every possible combination. Where in other more traditional mystery games the main solving is in finding the evidence which unlocks more of the story, in these trial sessions players are taken through the actual feeling of solving a mystery, planned deception and all.

 

Playing With Time

Time is already a weird subject when it comes to games, particularly video games, and I’ve noticed that time features strongly in the murder mystery games I’m looking at. I think it’s to simulate the ‘race’ against the author in mystery novels, the rate at which you figure things out versus how close to the end of the story you are. But more specifically there’s a pattern of using time as a device to further reveal and twist the narrative, most notably in Virtue’s Last Reward. In VLR, the player has a menu screen where they can move across the various nodes of the game’s narrative tree to figure out the mystery of the game. As with all mystery work, this has the a strong thematic focusing on ‘truth,’ what we assume it is and how much more complicated the topic is than black and white facts. This also has to do with genre conventions of the visual novel, where players are used to playing the game multiple times to see the entirety of the story rather than one shot through. Video games have a clear strength in depicting these themes, playing with possibilities and alternate realities that allow us a Rashomon-esque view on a scenario to build on narrative layers that further deepens our imaginations and the mystery. Another use of time is in Ghost Trick, where failures and partial successes act to both complicate and progress the mystery. Time isn’t just an incidental detail of how you get through Ghost Trick; you reverse time, you watch the passage of time, you erase times, and you race against time. The story brings up time-related themes such a grievance, regret, and memory. Like VLR, time travel works on a meta-level that makes us aware we are accessing another world through a device and the game’s creators want to use that relationship as a narrative device in the experience. This shared link of unique relationships to time between video games and murder mysteries asks for further investigation.

 

Game Within a Game

If we take that the murder mystery narrative itself is a game, then a pattern of actual games featuring prominently in the game we’re playing follows well to further tighten writing and design. Both the Zero Escape (999, VLR, and soon Zero Time Dilemma) and Danganronpa series have characters trapped in a game against their will that will result in many of their deaths until they can solve the mystery. This echoes the mystery tradition of sealing away a set of suspects so the player can feasibly figure out who is the mastermind (a prominent preoccupation of the characters’ in fact) while processing through the smaller events of the game. This is the most literal example of how naturally murder mysteries and games relate to one another by manipulating the structure of these ‘death games’ to bring out the detective in the player while not relying on literally making them a police officer. It should be pointed out how different these experiences are to games as theming, as in, typical adventure game that takes place in a video game themed world with such easter eggs, instead of characters playing by very strict rules in their own diegetic sense. Most importantly is the wide cast of characters, for murder mysteries are more character-driven than they are plot-wise, since the relationships between characters eventually produce the possible endings or solutions. Character development in this case isn’t then just for embellishment, but active sources of narrative and design tension seeing that they must be designed in a way that makes them equally guilty of the crime yet also competitors for the same prize against the player. This leaves open an interesting possibility for an AI-based murder mystery that could be generated by procedural character development and thoughtful situation design.

This is all to say that murder mystery novels on their own qualify to be to included in games conversations since the very structure of the narrative and the method in which it involves a reader is extremely playful. Seeing that there’s a difference between mystery as flavor and mystery as a narrative design methodology, we could use the latter both as a tool to create better writing in games and to interpret games as critics. It is not a leap to see the game developer as mainly deceiving the player along their path to solving the final riddle at the end, for which many games that involve narrative in any meaningful extent tend to structure themselves. It’s a possible method to continue bridging the gap between design and narrative practices and get at producing other experiences than we most commonly see.

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The Humans of Waiting Rooms

Over the past month, I’ve participated in public-facing playtests of the latest Nathalie Pozzi and Eric Zimmerman installation game, Waiting Rooms at The Rubin Museum here in New York City. Unlike many games exhibited in museums, Waiting Rooms is a work in progress and barely substantiated by any sort of physical object, making it feel more like a performance piece than something you’d see in a typical games expo. In general, the game had players moving between rooms across the museum which had different rules of obtaining various currency, mainly pennies and tickets, in which they could use for the exit fees needed to leave rooms. As one could discern from the name, many of these rooms involved various forms of waiting, reminiscent of time spent in the many bureaucracies of life. I didn’t actually play the game (well, we’ll get to that) but you can get a writeup of a player’s experience over at Kill Screen since I’ll be talking about my thoughts and experience as an attendant who facilitated one of the rooms in the game. Overall, I found it one of the more interesting pieces they’ve done considering the landscape of games in galleries, an environment I see challenging experimentation with games to find if it’s just some fad or has a strong sense of purpose outside of entertainment products and turning life into a credit card reward program.

Among conversations I’ve had with curators who are interested in exhibiting games in galleries, few are satisfied by current methods of having visitors sit at computer terminals, consoles, or tables to play games as they would at home. For example, a person possibly won’t understand what’s interesting about Final Fantasy VII by attempting to play it from the beginning in a gallery setting. This is reminiscent of how art institutions had to adapt to a lot of contemporary art, particularly performance. And that a museum space acted as a slate for playtesting and the iterative process is particularly interesting. Despite what people took away as my opinion on playtesting, I do find playtesting an underused creative tool, that is, intentionally creating layers of a play experience that lie on top of each other like a palimpsest, each iteration of the game present in the final presentation, not wiped away with polish. This acts as a sort of psychic patina where the space play takes place holds all moments of time, separated by their tweaks and balances but showing a complete picture when a light shines through them. Often, older iterations are discarded, sometimes completely from public history, as there is this idea of a perfect, or near perfect, version of a game that you must strive towards and deliver as a product to consumers. It’s common in design fields to hear advice akin to “fail fast, fail often,” suggesting that you’re going to build something good on the corpses of the fallen. There’s something, then, at work when Waiting Rooms’ iterations were a public experience. Is this a method to show a 4-dimensional change of sorts, using the model of playtesting for expression and a main aspect of the experience rather than simply a tool? I’m interested in creating layers of play over our spaces used to witness change over time, or the use of contrast for some sort of affect. Potentially, a ‘game’ could be interpreted as a stack of these layers of play that reveal, obfuscate, and reinterpret space.

Yet not many people were in the position to see many of these changes and their possible effects on how the game went. In fact, players’ understanding of space were dominated by the constructed system of the game, central to many, if not all, formalists’ understanding of games. It is not uncommon to hear a phrase like “games are aesthetic forms of systems” when batting around affective qualities of the form. So when discussing Waiting Rooms, how it was changed, how it affected people, it all came around to a person’s experience with its system, where they followed and broke the rules, their behavior in response to the economics, what felt balanced versus what was missing that one felt entitled to after paying for such an experience. Yet systems are not just made up by rules in this game, but also by people. If there were just signs explaining what people had to do to move from room to room, the experience would be completely different; but even more importantly, it means that the people of this system were unintended participants in this experience since they weren’t just rule-dispensing or -substantiating robots. They brought with them their own feelings, attitudes towards bureaucracy, and without meaning to be significant, their bodies and identities. Meaning, different manifestations of these qualities would create a different experience for the attendants of the game despite this game, and all formalist games really, being about the experience of the player, not the system. At least, the idea of ‘experience’ is normally only interpreted as something ‘players’ can access. This privileging overlooks that systems, particularly of power, can exert themselves through people, or even the opposite, signal exertions of power from others. Can a game focused on players and not the entities that facilitate its connection to reality ever be honest?

As for my experience, I was an attendant for three iterations of Waiting Rooms, all of the ones performed at the museum and the only ones with my room present in the plans if I’m not mistaken. Upon entering my room, I would announce “Please be silent,” gesturing to a stanchion with the rules on it and telling people who spoke “There is no speaking in this room.” My instructions at first didn’t really give direction on how to say these things, and there was an option for me to read the rules to players instead of making them read. What drew me to the role was finding amusement in disciplining players from a position of authority and training them in the customs of my space so they moved in and out efficiently. At the time, I did feel like I was just an extension of a system, carrying out directives. I didn’t really think that it mattered that I was doing it, players were just seeing me as another part of the game. But the second time through the game, I encountered a player who created a real friction in the experience. I knew immediately there would be a problem; there is a way certain people look at me that is a cross between contempt and disgust which is often a reaction to reading me as trans, or at least, not cisgender. I felt that familiar fight or flight heart-skip. So when I recited my lines, I wasn’t surprised at his bad reaction, and I became extremely self-aware that I was being read, not completely as a faceless, bodiless cog in a system, but a person who is in a position of power and visibility, no matter how trite, that I am not usually afforded. He openly defied the rules of my room and his interaction with me felt personal. Even if it was small and the surface reading could be a defiance of the game’s system, I couldn’t help but feel it happened because of my specific body and the context around it. This matters because this wasn’t the vision of the artists; this was supposed to be a structured experience for the players, not attendents. But I did deeply feel that futility, that complete disregard for my personhood in that player’s words and actions, brought on specifically by the context usually found when encountering the people who make up our unpleasant but mandatory visits with bureaucracy. I don’t think this was a mark of a bad game or faulty planning, rather that, after witnessing this experience three times from the same vantage point, I have my own experience and understanding of the feelings Waiting Rooms engenders, seeing the game as the contrast between each layer of play. It has little to do with economics, or winning, or even being fully cognizant of the entire system, which I wasn’t and still am not. Instead, I saw how small changes over time, along with just random chance, influenced how people related to my body and attempt to grasp authority. In the last playtest, where it seemed like revolt and cheating was more encouraged, there came a point where players would just talk right over me, and I ceased to be person, if I ever was.

Which isn’t to say I was completely without power and influence. In fact, my bias entered and changed the outcome of how people flowed through my space without the knowledge of the creators until after the game. My room functioned by randomly sending players to different rooms by draw cards with room numbers on them. I would fudge this a few times if players stood out to me in a particular way, for instance, if they were rude, I would trap them on my floor, forcing them to either pay to leave or be escorted back to the beginning. If friends or couples came together and wanted to stay together, I intentionally split them up, no matter what the cards said. I also let particularly stylish women and men I found attractive upstairs even when they didn’t earn it. It wasn’t enough to completely skew the game in a discernable way but, you know, the flapping of a butterfly’s wings.

As a case study, I see Waiting Rooms displaying games’ struggle with time and space. Games are often delineated by space with concepts such as the magic circle, places away from reality in which we explore and experiment. Instead, I felt a different kind of experience had to do with the repetition of time, being able to recall multiple outcomes of the same situation at once and coming to grips with the composite. We see this through valorizing the mundane, waiting, aimlessly collecting and spending, repeating routine, where we spend most of our time, and then rupturing it so we’re able to critically reflect. I’ve noticed this sort of repetition in games by queer creators, which most typically reads a body ridden with the effects of PTSD to me. Systems are an inadequate proxy to what we are manipulating for experience in this field; systems are an attempt to order interactions into something discrete. Systems themselves do not exist without a person to construct and read them into their surroundings. I feel like the next steps of Waiting Rooms would be addressing what does it mean to represent a part of a system, or least, seeing that facilitating the game is its own play, meaningful and in need of focus as it is for those currently thought of as players. There are a lot of design and expressive issues games has to work out here, considering the potential for inhabiting public space and imbuing it with political dynamics.

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New Difficulties

Ever think about what the games you play say about you? Or maybe your habits while you play them? Despite not fully enjoying the genre, I’m drawn to strategy games, particularly turn-based ones with idiosyncratic units on a chess-like grid. Maybe I first came to them under some rule of opposites; I actually don’t like chess, tend to be more impulsive in thought, and wish for more personal expression in my play. It’s possible there’s a part of me that needs something slow, allows me to think things out at my own pace. But there’s something beneath that, a weird perfectionism that compels me to start games over completely from scratch the moment they deviate from my ideal state. I have people asking me about how far I’ve gotten in Fire Emblem Fates, and I’m always ashamed to tell them I started over… again.

When I played games earlier in the series, I’d blame this on the permadeath function core to the game. I couldn’t stand losing a character that possibly had more to contribute to story, and would end up never completing the games because it became too hard to save them all. But now that the latest release has a mode where none of your characters die, I still find myself restarting over and over again. Having not read much about the differences between the versions of the game, I chose Conquest because the characters seem like they would appeal to me more, which I was right about. As a consequence, I had no idea it’d be an overall harder game, even on the easiest settings. It’s not the battles necessarily, but the story content that comes out of the support system, which requires strategically placing units together on the battlefield so they bond more. Because Conquest has limited ways to level up these support ranks, I realized that there was even another, possibly more insidious expression of difficulty in this game: I have to manage my battles according to who I definitely needed to ship and have children even more urgently than I need to actually win the fights themselves.

My usual habits in Fire Emblem have me testing out the waters and seeing the chemistry between the units before I marry them off, having my characters play the field as I decided which ones I’d like to pair up for good and decide when is the right time to have a time-traveling kid. But this time I got to the end of the game without having recruited a single one, which is easy to do in a game where you can’t grind very easily. I instantly restarted. I’ve been playing multiple times to see the different relationships, awaiting the time I create the perfect save with all the right pairings and perfect children. But I’m coming to find that I won’t get that in Conquest, unless I want to pay more of course. Where I thought I could escape the difficulty of the game through casual settings, I realized there was an inescapable hard mode waiting for me: nothing will ever be perfect, some characters won’t marry or have children, and effectively, the story will always be missing something.

I’m still a bit in denial. I’ve considered paying for some opportunities to grind or getting the ‘true’ third version of the game. I’ve complained to friends that the Conquest is a bad attempt to get money out of me, ultimately incomplete without all the other versions and DLC. But it’s slowly dawning on me that a newer form of difficulty has cropped up. When talking about ‘new difficulties,’ I point to the peculiarities of difficulty settings in BioWare games, which are at this point more critically known for their narrative and romances than they are for their battles. Choosing different difficulties shifts how battles work, but not the conversations or relationships. There’s this underlying assumption that there is little to be had in subjective, qualitative, or probably more succinctly said, emotional difficulty. Difficulty is usually restrained to the quantitative, and topics of personal expression and taste are left to be these abstract, woo concepts that most designers don’t pay a lot of attention to manipulating. But here, Conquest is giving me a real hard time by making me have an incomplete game, or at least play it over and over again to understand my own ‘true’ path. This contrasts with games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age which aim to further simplify how a player can manipulate these permutations by creating tools and not considering the complexity there is with emotional difficulty. This is a contrast between being presented with obvious, signed choices that you’re supposed to care about and understanding the small, mundane choices you’ve made by landing yourself in a mess you couldn’t really see coming until it arrived.

This opens up a lot of opportunities for new kinds of play, considering this kind of difficulty isn’t necessarily inhibitive unless you have an overbearing perfectionistic streak like I do. My time with this experience could be seen as researching, trying to explore the different corners to eventually express my ideal state of the game, where I allocate the few resources I have to create the story I’m able to create. It shows that despite casual modes being added for new audiences might seem like watering down the game, it’s actually opening up a new kind intense play previously unavailable in the series, and continues to expand its design further past pure quantitative strategy. I’m curious to see more games that push even further, and where the series will go knowing that this is an integral aspect of play for the newer wave of players that now enjoy the series.

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Style Savvy and Taste in Games

Shopping isn’t just a hobby, it’s a philosophy. One might take such a statement to think that a person just likes spending lots of money in their spare time or when a fancy strikes them. But over the past few months, I’ve learned how shopping is a hard skill not dissimilar to strategy in any sort of game that has resource management and social relationships. It’s a ruthless battle between brands, stores, and other people along with the economic and social factors of your life; buying an actual object takes up the least amount of your attention and time, as opposed to understanding your own sense of style, the stock of the stores and brands that fit your body, budgeting, and your intentions of how you want to relate to other people. Shopping is the means in which you expressing yourself, making informed decisions of how you want to be seen within your own social positioning.

When asking around for games about fashion, Style Savvy: Trendsetters came up with a cult following that I never heard of. You manage a fashion boutique in a dating sim style, having four sections of the day that move in a sort of real time as you buy stock, style customers, and participate in fashion contests. What is indulgent about Style Savvy is how rare it is to work through your understanding and values of fashion, for instance wanting to only have high-waisted skirts and off the shoulder tops or diving deep into edgy or luxury styles. While many games include some sort of customization option, these are usually auxiliary and nice to have instead of the main draw of the the experience. There’s a great feeling in an entire game revolving around your subjective sensibilities, and not in the ‘player agency’ sort of way but rather as a mental exercise.

It brings up the scary notion of taste in games, scary because most game designers wouldn’t know how to build a game around it. It’s a particular challenge trying to have a player express their aesthetics and have the computer respond in a meaningful way. Even in a game like Style Savvy, there are numbers under the hood qualifying all of the choices you could make to show if you are making a right or wrong decision. But I feel so few games inspire this sort of design challenge as this game does, which is what makes me enjoy it so much. Here we have what was imagined to be a girl’s game that wouldn’t really see much rigor that crashes right into a major problem with current imaginings of how games are to be created. Fashion is an intentional crafting of clothes to reveal aesthetics and political ideologies along with a starting point for relational methods of understanding one another. How can games sense style? How can games cultivate style? I don’t accept that a medium is intrinsically faulty at playing with subjectivities and expression, and thinking how fashion speaks to play challenges what we believe are well-crafted games, or furthermore, well-crafted theories about how games and play work.

While looking at Style Savvy might make fashion in games seem a cute and frivolous discussion, the topic is extremely important to me. I’ve learned first hand the many axes that appearance influences in regards to how people treat me, how they think of me, and my bodily safety. I’ve learned from a young age that people are constantly crafting my identity in their mind depending on what they see, and that sets the mode in which they will interact with me for as long as they do. The main way I’ve attempted to manipulate this is through attention to clothes and what they signal to other people; with as much power as I can, intentionally create contexts with my clothing that help people to relate to me in a certain range ways that makes it easier for me to physically and emotionally exist in the world. This isn’t a frivolous topic.

We can see the struggles we have to surmount, at least in digital games, in Style Savvy itself, which could be read more as a game about consuming fashion than learning to manipulate it. I believe it’s because it’s actually a game about shopping, and that the designers don’t take shopping as a philosophy, but more as some niche (read: feminine) interest. You’re always acting out buying clothes, even the times you’re technically selling things to other characters. You shop at the buyer’s market, which gets you samples for your closet, you shop at your own shop for customers, as if it was you trying everything on and not them, and then the same interface for that is used for fashion contests. The requirements for a successful style is minimal at best, usually prompting you to choose clothes from a certain preordained style (preppy, gothic) that you can search for easily since your entire inventory is tagged with those adjectives. While this might resemble the act of obtaining objects, this isn’t how humans shop, especially if you’re approaching fashion with intent. That is, Style Savvy is still overly mechanized, trying to prompt a player’s interest through buying things instead of wearing them.

We see a glimmer of an answer to these problems in its “Style Trial,” where you assemble an outfit in order to for judges to assess your brand of style. You are rated on variables like “It Factor,” originality, and balance, but I haven’t been totally successful in manipulating these; there is something imperceptible going on, which comes out every once in awhile in the main game but is most represented here. And you get ambiguous titles like “Enlightened Eccentric,” or “Vogue Virtuoso” based on your ratings, which at least shows that even if you get ‘low’ scores, that the game expresses it might not really understand what you’re doing but if you have some things right, maybe you’re trying something new. I find myself more curious about this weird mode than the game itself, especially this idea that there is this entity constantly labeling people based on how their outfits come together, but I’m not completely privy to how that works. Sometimes it feels truly random, which speaks to my experience with fashion in life. It’s less about exactly hitting some mark through the correct assemblage of clothing, but trying to control the range of experience that can happen but will always be outside of your grasp. And I believe games could use more of those experiences, that people are a bunch of moving black boxes we can’t fully anticipate, and the struggles of self-actualizing in a world constantly trying to wrest that power away from you.

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Gesturing Towards Utopias

I gave a talk for a class titled “Design for This Century” at Parsons New School for Design working off a prompt that was loosely about applying design to topics such as gender, sexuality, race, and related oppressive systems. This is a topic uncommon in public discourse and most certainly for students on an accessible level, so I was excited to put it together and now share it, because it’s part of a conversation I’d like to see develop more. You can also consider this talk an outgrowth of a design manifesto I wrote, queer as in fuck me. I’m working on getting some audio/video for it, but for now, I’ll share the slides and some explanations as I remember it. Let’s start with the description of the talk:

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“The pressure to solve problems presented by systemic oppressions like racism and sexism isn’t new, but contemporary contexts of social justice activism and design paradigms illuminate new avenues for resistance. With games and play shifting back into focus as sites of engaging with politics, we are tasked imagining and creating designs that interrogate our relationships with power and oppression. Looking at political engagement with public and personal play along with complicated forms of resistance in identity politics, we can see design that allows us to make gestures towards new utopias. We will identify oppressive tendencies of game design, complicate purist ideas of social justice utopias, and aim to integrate design into people’s daily living experiences.”

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I think it’s a worthwhile venture to at least figure out what it means to be someone interested in both design and activism. What does it mean to use design for social good? Design is often associated with business, products, infrastructure, and other more conventionally practical uses that few actively think of being conduits for politics or activism. But given the increasing social awareness of society at large and many topics concerning diversity gaining notice in design industries, namely tech, this question is on everyone’s minds. This talk is going to answering this question, or at the very least, show how this question is incomplete in its imaginings.

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An advantage of a design perspective when looking at activist concerns is preexisting language to interrogate the social hierarchies we live in through systems design. Understanding the qualities of systems, how they can shape or organize information, being invisible forces to real phenomena, are all super vital perspectives. Since most people grapple with topics like discrimination and oppression from a lawful basis, that is, specific extreme acts that indicate a hateful inner disposition, it is difficult for the public to understand how these forces actually work in society, which is more typically in mundane everyday interactions by a system of accepted values, carried about by normal, good people since they’ve been socialized to do so since birth. Learning how systems work and intersect with each other is a major increase in competency when it comes to engaging with social issues as an activist.

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The problem with approaching these issues solely through design, however, is that culture doesn’t run like a well-oiled machine to produce exactly what some sort of directive sets out to make. People, and culture itself, is a creative force that makes messy meanings from within the bounds of the systemic forces. Gender, racial, sexual, and other identities are often described as being “expressed” or tied to some analogy involving performance. I find that this sort of expression is thought of as a nice bonus at best when designers go to tackle these problems, instead aiming to change some sort of behavior or level of knowledge. I think that if we’re going to use design to interrogate issues surrounding various systems of marginalization, we’re going to need as much of the arts’ sensibilities as we’re going to need design’s.

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There’s another problem with this though, as design and art are often separated, with what is good art and what is good design relying on this separation. This is troublesome for us because we need perspectives and sensibilities from areas dubbed either design or art, and we need institutions, organizations, spaces, and society to treat our potential work as both. Designed objects imply a sort of utility or popular use, such in architecture or furniture, while art is supposed to be ultimately useless and purely aesthetic. Neither camp can truly satisfy our needs here; we need the utility and usability of design with the creative expressions afforded to us by art. This is a false binary we don’t need to respect, but we still need to start somewhere.

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A useful example for a field of work that sits between the struggle of design vs art are games and game developers. Though most people in the game design industry are blissfully unaware of this tension in institutions outside of it, games, particularly video games, are trying to work out differences between the design and artistic needs of developers and players. Primarily thought of as a design field, games eventually became recognized as art and more creators are making games purely from an expressive point of view. In one hand, you had systems of rules that implored the player to display certain behavior, while in the other, the ability for the player to make meaning and appropriate games for their own creative uses.

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To further complicate this binary, I’m going to be speaking from a very specific conversation residing in games right now, about queerness in games, or at least, what could it mean for a game to be queer. Picking up steam in 2012, video games experienced a particular rise in DIY game making culture that was noticeably queer, mostly represented by trans women. As a result, creative and theoretical work that challenges the norms of game design were produced in relation to a population of creators that held activism or at least radical politics as a large part of their identity and work. Now, your work doesn’t necessarily need to be queer or a game to follow along with the ideas I’m fleshing out here, rather, I’m using this question of queerness in games and some leads on answers to it to frame how we could change our view on design and art and get to a practice that allows us to create for activism.

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Queer is a tricky term, and that’s kind of the point. I don’t necessarily want to give you a set-in-stone definition, but I like what Naomi Clark says here because it exposes a little of her design background. It’s a highly political term that designates a norm, something that is legible and valuable to wider culture, and implies there are different instances of illegibility outside of that. She would go on to describe queer as slippery, always shifting as what was accepted and normal shifted. Clark recognizes that there are systems at play here, but queerness is outside the ones that make sense. It is a meeting of the systemic and creative.

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Theoretical work in queer/of color critique and studies has some imaginings of this slippery identity. Both Norma Alarcón and José Esteban Muñoz make this figure to be in liminal, contradictory space, illegible to normative society but still very much a real body. Alarcón’s “not yet, that’s not it” requires an identity to be put forward and the recognition that it isn’t fully developed, it’s something, but not who the minoritized subject is. Muñoz’ writing on disidentification doesn’t see a subject purely identify with an experience in creative work but not wholly reject it either; this subject instead uses that imperfect imagining from dominant culture against itself. So as we see here, we can’t be creating work that just allows people identify themselves in it or act in a way that completely discards what society puts upon them. Instead, the implication is we’re to create for the appropriative impulses of identities we don’t have a full grasp on.

 

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This sits in conflict to the current paradigm of games for social change. Dubbed the genre of Serious Games, game design methodology from the entertainment industry and gamification were deployed in attempt to get players to care about various social issues. Though widely adopted and funded as educational, serious games are routinely criticized for being ineffective in their goal, mostly because they come from a strong design approach, missing the creative aspects afforded to people by play. Queerness in games intends to confront this problem through combining design knowledge with expressive intention, both on the part of the author and the players.

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One could say that the perspective of queerness in games is chiefly in conflict with normative game design from how much it’s preoccupation with being an entertainment object passes down oppressive values uncritically. Here citing Keith Burgun, merritt kopas delineates here how activities in games trains players in the values of capitalism by, first, designating games as something that requires leisure time, implying you must have work time, and then by using your leisure time to advance yourself. This sort of design doesn’t really help players think about systems nor how to creatively resist them, rather it teaches people how to be good citizens of such systems.

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It is common for designer to overlook the messages their games communicate to players for a multitude of reasons, but the main being few consider that the systems in games are political in nature and hold within them values that the player acts out. Even seemingly benign games like the pervasive Minecraft create a space where old colonial and contemporary imperialist fantasies are acted out in the common ‘virgin land is yours to completely conquer and mold’ video game scenario. It’s also worth mentioning that when games choose to represent marginalized bodies or themes, it’s in service to a presumed hegemonic identity and value system.

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These instrumentalized and exploitative methods of design come about from a conventional player-product relationship. Instead, Clark and kopas suggest elevating games from objecthood to agents in their own right, and focusing our attention on the relationship between people and games. It’s a relational approach that is open to people appropriating whatever the original context for the game is and allowing the game to stand for its own values without necessarily needing to entice a player based on the values of capitalism and imperialism. This highlights our relationship and bonds towards both designed systems and creative expression.

 

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Picking up references from actor-network-theory, there’s a clear link to how we can create around people’s relationships to politics through creative work that speaks to both design and art. Enter in Donna Haraway’s concept of the cyborg, which paints people not as beings with isolated, naturalized identities, but participants in networks of relations organized by politics. Using the blur between the organic and inorganic as a working image for our relationship with politics, Haraway shows that we cannot think of ourselves as an independent being with an identity etched in stone for us at birth. This imbues human-game relations with the political gravity that we need to manipulate for our activist work.

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This is a big challenge to how popular activism works, which is based on naturalized identities, focuses on the subjects as objects, and enforces a one-way hierarchical relationship. When we stay on this level for advocacy, we are stuck with questions and solutions for mere representation of identities as our method of resistance. When we open up our understandings of ourselves as nodes of relations, not only do we have a deeper understanding of how politics move about society, but we create systems of expression that link playful relations between humans and games with more contemporary and even futuristic activist concerns.

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All of this builds up to a small but very important shift in focus from creating games to creating play. Game design is product-oriented by focusing on what the player will be doing within the object, aiming to impart an experience directly within its bounds. Play creation would focus on exaggerating the relationship between agents, be them humans and games or humans with other humans, or even humans with the pervasive social systems of our lived lives. Game objects are completely utilitarian in in the way they exist with humans, most typically to entertain, but often also to get people to do something or gain certain habits. Creating play retains this openness, freeness that doesn’t need to be dominated by use in order to exist.

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However, we want to go beyond the binary of design vs art, which includes use vs uselessness. Tying this all together, queerness in games, and the possible perspective we need to take for activist action for contemporary issues, must be the struggle within the web of relations outlined by Haraway that makes movements towards imagined futures. Play in itself does not have to carry the baggage of uselessness in spite of conventional understanding of the word, but rather be a method of acting out and embodying new values that change the tenor of relations between ourselves, other people, and the systems that organize us.

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These are ways to act out our “not yet” identities, to create a disidentificatory relationship with the media we consume. In the current conversations about representation in media, there’s a clearly outlined end goal of the depiction of marginalized people in ways and places that serve the original interests of hegemony. Claiming relations of “not yet” is potentially infinite, a more honest representation of the relationships in our lives. Relationships don’t merely solve themselves and return agents to places of homeostasis, rather warp and change in little ways over time that settle some things while creating new ways of relating.

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I’ve been railing against design a lot, but there’s much to challenge on the art side of the equation as well. Back in the 1950s and 60s, performance art came into relevance and challenged the values of the art world, particularly by performing their art in the chaos of everyday life and emphasizing the participatory presence of other people. Happenings in particular were a strain of performance art that submerged itself into the motions of life outside the museum, often with a performer acting out their piece without anyone around them realizing anything is going on.

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In his manifesto on Happenings, which he coined, Allan Kaprow outlines numerous ways in how this art should fold into the fabric of the mundane instead of rupturing it for the purposes of art. In fact, Kaprow warns against using art as inspiration for creation, and implies Happenings and similar performances aren’t art, but something beyond such an institution. Happenings prove to be a super useful starting point to see how we can start creating relational work that, along with play and the cyborg, create space for us to proclaim “not yet” but still work to imagine what that “yet” might actually be.

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Because the influence of art would encourage us more into that realm of uselessness and suited for the gallery space, Kaprow suggests using the mundanity of our lives to inspire our creative work. This method forces a creator to look at the relationships already existent in life to emphasize in their work instead of making something so conceptual it becomes unattainable. This also focuses our creative attention on the lives we’re looking to express or change, involving whole bodies and not just conceptual imagined selves. I really believe that this honesty is important for work that wants to speak to the matrix of systems that influence our lives.

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This then sets the stage for enacting real change through creative expression, grounding performative spectacles through qualities of our lives and rupturing the essentialized narratives that society erects to obscure it dominating social systems. Through the performances of many queer creators, Muñoz evokes the concept of counterpublics, expressions of daily lives that society must ignore to keep its narrative intact. Creating these counterpublics acts as a model for intervention and lends agency to act out our “not yet” ideals.

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Performance is a strong theme in what I’m purposing, like taking the performative nature of identities like gender and race as inspiration for spectacles of performance to create counterpublics. Performance art has strong ties to play, politics, and activism that cannot be ignored by creatives looking to tap into interactive methods of resistance and expression. There is already some language surrounding games that deal with performance, and further delineating a history of play that involved performance art traditions would enrich our understanding of games.

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It is good to end this on a reminder that no one person or piece of work is going to solve social oppression. This sort of work needs to retain the “not yet,” looking forward while believing we can attain what we set out for. Much like queerness, our needs and ideals are constantly shifting, moving along as what was queer becomes normative, and new perspectives highlight areas for growth and resistance. This is attainable if we look around our lives for the basis of our creative process instead of the overarching narratives sold to us through the design vs art schism. Adopting this mentality would surely change the field of play and games as it currently stands, and challenge how institutions are involved with perpetuating dominating politics. With this, I truly think we can begin to surmount many of the obstacles design and art have with activism, including giving agency to those who are continually kept out to create for themselves.

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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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Letters with John Sharp: Discipline and Pastime

This is a continuation of my letter series with John Sharp! Read the first post here if you missed it!

 

Mattie:

It’s super possible that a lot of the friction that we’re discussing might come from the fact that there’s so many disciplines at work here but we don’t treat games or its discourse inter-/multi-disciplinarily enough. This is probably because people in games feel such a strong wanting for a codified theory that governs games and there is a struggle for what that is going to look like. Personally, I do feel a bit of desperation to make sure that certain things don’t become completely standardized or at least not without a lot of resistance so that it’s noted it’s contested. Maybe there’s an assumption that because we’re all talking about games, we’re supposed to conform to a main praxis and some people might have decided what that praxis is already. I do think most people ideologically agree that there should multiple perspectives present but there’s such a pressure to crystalize a games canon that creates power struggles between both disciplines and generations.

Really, I don’t think we even know what we we’re from. I’m only beginning to find the traditions that match my sensibilities and forward my thoughts, or basically finding the words for the thoughts I want to communicate. As well, all of us younger critics and designers aren’t completely united nor cohesive, and don’t have a lot of intra-discourse anymore. Something is definitely going on, and maybe on-going conflict is going to force this reaction to solidify further, but I’m not really sure, it’s definitely going to turn more into a trend than a movement I think.

All of this is to say that sometimes we, I, can be insolent brats lashing out at whatever comes near, but I don’t think it’s because we’re a bad group of people rather just a product of our timing and place. It sucks to feel trapped and no real clear path of advancement that other young thinkers tend to have.

Which is why these alternate forms of dialogue can be useful, because there needs to be a place for at least me to express ideas in a way that isn’t capped at a 1000-word unique thought-pill and I can develop them over time. If I get into academia then maybe I’ll be able to join that kind of writing but for the most part I can’t have ‘official’ conversations with my peers who are academic outside of that. The old ways of bloggers who frequently replied to each other’s posts seems to be mostly gone, and I know I could use more rigorous conversations around games.

I think your, and other’s, experience and company is definitely in need, we’ve just created a thorny dynamic where typical attempts at sharing knowledge or experience reads as invasive or rebelism. We have more foundational work to do before we can get to that now, like just literally demonstrating that we understand each other so all other attempts at communication read as earnest. Which will take time and effort! I feel like an easy way to disarm a younger thinker and to simply know their work and display that understanding/curiosity/appreciation without needing it to be in an argument. Which doesn’t mean there can’t be debates, just that there needs to be casual conversations to contrast arguments so threat levels go down. I personally really want to belong to communities, just on my terms, as a person and not a representative. I also want to feel like I’m contributing and influencing as much as I’m tasked to learn.

I’m actually so mad at Desert Golfing. Or at least, at all my friends who like that game. Everyone kept going on and on about it so I thought there was some zany Frog Fractions twist and when none came I was pretty angry. It just feels like this gulf I have with general games academia/criticism, that I can’t connect to these ‘pastime’ games. It might be where a lot of my resentment comes in regards to ‘mechanisms’ and ‘instrumentalization,’ that there’s this over-focus on things that are ‘just games’ and trying to lift them up. But is connecting to expressive games really a preference? Maybe I’m just being elitist.

That hotel tour sounds so up my alley, I love it particularly because it separates handing down an experience to consume from giving people the opportunity to just experience, and take from their context whatever is relevant. I feel you on getting a bitter taste about superficial practices of ‘object-oriented storytelling’ (how tech sounding) because that game design practice doesn’t reference life and tie the person experiencing to it through any sort of contextualization. Games tend to be obsessed with themselves, they reference themselves, even within the same game, where they expect you to contextualize other game experiences between themselves. A part of me wrings my hands over how nostalgia is used as a substitute for having internal references to life experiences. How do you create with these sorts of games outside of a tool-master relationship? You didn’t ‘master’ that hotel, the context in which that experience existed produce integration and connection.

 

John:

I agree completely about disciplines. There are as many approaches to games as their are criteria and methodologies with which games are evaluated. I suppose there might be some people that want a unified theory of game (#gg, Jane McGonigal, Valve), but I’m not sure that is the driving force in academia. If you follow the perennial conversation within and around DiGRA, for example, there is an acknowledgement that there are a good dozen disciplines that feed into “game studies,” each with their own traditions around framing subjects, methodologies and expected outcomes. DiGRA always makes me see the splinters, not the whole—which is largely a good thing.

Within industry (not my favorite term, but that’s a topic for another email), I suppose there is a more unified approach—selling units and making money. But the thing about the commercial industry is it is almost completely unconcerned about its legacy, its place in culture as a whole. And so it won’t really get a say in how this all plays out.

As academics and critics, we are tasked with trying to make sense of things, even if that sense-making is simply to point out the impossibility of a unified field theory of games. Two MIT Press series come to mind around this: Platform Studies and Playful Thinking (admission: I have a book in the later series, and have a proposal that I’ve sent to the former). Bogost and Montfort have a particular vantage on the materiality of videogames and their platforms that is certainly one formalist/materialist/technological approach to games. On the other hand, there is Juul, Long and Uricchio’s Playful Thinking Series, which has a “games plus X” approach. This leads to a more heterogeneous take on games: games and play, games and art, games and chance, games and failure (so far). As a result, Platform Studies feels like the more dominant perspective, if only because there is a unified underpinning to the books in the series. All of which is to say that the “unified theory” approaches to games end up feeling more present if only because they are simpler to communicate, and have the force of repetition behind them.  

The term indie is a great object lesson in the messiness that lies just under the surface of any attempts to codify. Isn’t indie nothing more than a marketing category like “college rock” and “independent film”? It surely isn’t a representative term for much else anymore (sorry, indieCade). In the early days of my involvement with indieCade, I naively thought we were in fact bringing most of the indie world together for a weekend. But it quickly became clear that if we looked closer, there were more people that fit the indie definition not there than were there. And now, the conference portion of indieCade is a kind of glorious, splintered mess with a group of people that draw on a good dozen scenes, with that many more left out. But as things get codified in the press, in social media, more gets read into who is there, and their status as representatives of the many branches of games on the edges of “industry.” And suddenly things aren’t what they were—a mess–but instead an infrastructure, a power base, haves and have-nots.

So yeah, there is a tension between the tidiness of history and scholarship and the messiness of reality. Maybe this is what you hope to hold onto—the acknowledgement that everything is kind of a mess, and that this is ok?

I couldn’t agree more with your wish to be part of communities, so long as you are welcomed for who you are. And likewise, feeling like there is a balance between learning and contributing. That will require we all put our guard down in various ways, which is hard, of course, and not always the safest thing to do. For my part, I pretty much have given up on using Twitter as a space for real dialog. I feel like a lot of folks open up Twitter and immediately assume a combat stance. It just makes for unnecessarily contrarian conversation (if you can call it conversation).

I have to admit I laughed when reading you were mad at Desert Golfing. Don’t hate Desert Golfing, Mattie, hate the desert golfers. I wonder if Desert Golfing and Drop7 and other similar games are part of the cult of flow? (I noticed Lana Polansky went after flow recently in an essay.) I see flow as one of those ideas trying to legitimize games as a pastime, even if that wasn’t forefront in Csikszentmihalyi’s thinking. I’m certainly guilty of this (see my ode to Drop7 in Well Played awhile back and aspects of Works of Game, too).

I’m not sure you are being elitist, I just think you bring a different set of values and aesthetics to games, and the “games are 6,000 years old, and part of the fabric of humanity” schtick just doesn’t resonate with you. Which is good, I think. There are enough people defending the honor of games already.

Your thoughts on the hotel tour made me think back to my experience with Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More. I remember distinctly walking into the space, and having my videogame brain in gear. I walked up to the books and objects and closely examined them, looking for details about the story. Fairly quickly, I realized it was all “window dressing” and that its only real meaning was its appearance, and the way it all added up to an atmosphere like a stylized film set. Once I got that, I had a much better experience by following the actors around the space.

Sleep No More is much closer to a slick 3D game than my experience on the tour of the Pennsylvania Hotel. Yet Sleep No More and, say, Gone Home, are more egalitarian experiences than the tour, if for no other reason than their reproducibility and extensibility. It also raises questions of packaged experiences and participatory experiences.

I’m curious, what’s a game you’ve played recently that you enjoyed? I have to say it has been quite some time since I played anything that really caught my eye.

 

Mattie:

I admit to not having a good idea of games academia as a whole. I’ve kind of been thrust in a weird between-worlds positions, where because I did learn some critical theory in my undergrad, and I’ve learned to apply it to both art and the design process, I’m labeled as academic. I think most people consider me an academic! But I’m not? At least not yet, so I shouldn’t be so forthright about naming the general atmosphere of games academia. I guess I’m anticipating my move to New York and since I’m the most familiar with school-based designers there, they make up the majority of what I think of when we’re talking about designer-academics. Also some others, like designers that have prominent, Theory of Everything type books. I’m even somewhat distant from academics my age because they are writing about my work, so there’s a sort of distance and awareness that I’m operating on more the artist level than academic kind. Plus I have so much reading to do so I can at least pretend I fully grasp the accepted game canon. But yes, I imagine I might get into debates once I move, which I welcome.

I’ve been thinking a lot about re-centering our field from a games medium to a play medium, which I’m sure it’s not really a novel idea, but heavily resisted. I’m concerned about object-centrality and using games as experience dispensers instead of thinking about our relationship to fluid, more slippery notions of experience that are more wholly affective. That’s how the art-world seems to be approaching games, like games are in the wings of museums where they put furniture. Which is shitty for the furniture too! I don’t get the design/art divide, I never have. Why are these things kept so separated? Why MUST games be designed objects? Just feels creepy.

‘Indie’ definitely felt like a commercial/industrial reaction rather than an aesthetic one. Notgames is a more arts-engaged label even though it also contains a reaction to industry, it had a strong, purposeful sensibility, while if indie has one, it seems incidental and easily mobilized by consumerism. That’s probably unfair to indies, though I also have an issue with ‘altgames.’ It seems to me much like how indie formed together, just in a different time and place. It feels more like a reaction to industry than having its own aesthetic argument, though I don’t really mind basically a weird twitter indie I guess. I find it not different enough, a lot of people who were indie are now altgames, because altgames doesn’t really have a strong enough stance of values outside of a reaction to indies’ reaction to industry.

A lot of my writing in the past year has been about mess. It might be because my life is an utter mess, that life just doesn’t really make sense and my trajectory is incredibly unclear. I want to feel comforted that I’m not just a fuck up but everything really is just a goddamned mess. But I want to bring that to our perspective on play as well, maybe that’s why formalism gives me the creeps. It’s like a worldview that wants to kill everything and cut it all up and reassemble the mess into something legible to them but they can’t understand why it’s dead. The Cult of Flow really does sound like a legit creepy cult. And yeah, this paring down to lifelessness just trying to find that space… but for what? What does it feel like? Does it really feel good? It feels numbing to me, I guess. There are different sorts of flows, like adrenaline and such, but most games like that make me feel dead. But no, fuck Desert Golfing, I golfed so much waiting for something but all I got was more goddamned golfing. Who the fuck just wants to sit there finger golfing all day??? What is wrong with the world? So mad. What is so important to the genealogical understanding and propagation that games must be “for their own sake,” serious about nothing serious. There’s shit outside of the useless vs useful binary. How does that feel? DEATH TO FLOW. DEATH TO PLAYERS. DEATH TO MECHANICS. DEATH TO WORK AND LEISURE. ONLY MESS AND TENSION AND FEELINGS. Do you think a lot of these gamey games and defense of games for just fucking around’s sake is part of this reaction to encroaching forces to make them do something useful? Is everyone just aiming for the most elegant, beautiful time waster of them all?? Why is everyone so resistant to life? To being messy?

I rarely feel satisfied with video games, that it’s hard to think about what I’ve enjoyed in the recent past. I guess the closest would be Etrian Odyssey, it’s a gamey game, dungeon crawler, RPG battles. I guess what’s hit me in a good place is that you have to draw your own maps in order to navigate the levels, and I found the map-drawing process incredibly soothing, very surprised. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it unless you were already into those types of things. I’m not super into dungeon crawlers so it was hard to get used to, and I take a lot of breaks from it. There was also Sunset, which I also really enjoyed. There’s few games that prompt me to talk about the effects of power in my intimate or even friendly relationships and that meant something to me. I guess I feel more excited about games I want to make, I’m trying to accumulate resources and inspirations and work practices so once I move, I can start really producing things I want to see out in the world.

That’s it for now, but more will be up soon! Check out John’s stuff, he’s a cool guy!

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