We tend to see them as objects. When we talk about games, we’re referencing a thing, either with physical boundaries or digital limitations. Games are objects with qualities, to be dissected, parsed, and valued. A game is something with a challenge. A game is something with a goal. Besides the usual questions of who is deciding what a game has, it is, first and foremost, a thing.
Most arguments over objects pull from essentialist rhetoric: if it has these qualities, it must be this. If it does not have this feature, it can’t be this. Games then fall into all the usual traps most objects do- commodification, determinism, colonialism.
But, perhaps, the object involved with what we care about games is the least important part. Instead, the experience, the space that exists between the two objects, player and screen/table/player, is where play happens. Navigating systems, giving back to the feedback loop, doesn’t occur within the object of the game. So why is it when say someone designed a game, we highlight the file instead of the play space?
My mother likes to tell this story, about the time I was born. Literally- she swears she was staring straight at the clock in the hospital as she gave birth. She told me the time on my birth certificate was wrong, which made me think about what else could be. But the story didn’t stop- she also remembers the nurse who came in to fill out forms, asking my mother for her background and other information. The nurse looked at my mother and I, and wrote in that I was white. Then, as the story goes, my father came into the room at this moment. She looked to my father, to my mother, then to me. “Oh, no, black.”
Race is a category used to prescribe traits on a person. I know this because I’ve spent my life listening to others guess mine. Did I have a temper because I was latina? Was I black, and therefore pitiable? I sure acted white. What people wanted was for me to pick a side- are you with us, or over there?
Growing up, I always checked the ‘other’ bubble whenever filling out forms. I remember, for my first job, I wrote in ‘other’ because the option wasn’t there. My boss said I couldn’t do that, and chose black for me instead.
what is a game?
win, challenge, rules, play, emotions, death, empathy, fun, not art, art, experience, iterative, none of your business, mechanics, photorealistic, legitimacy, exploring, shooting, systems, enemies, growth, abstract, losing, agency, puzzles, interactive, fantasies, graphics, i just want to impress you, escape, your’s, mine, something else entirely, visceral, story, love, fear, disconnections, chance, outcome, whatever i decide
There is much to be said in the way of a game’s form. How is it structured, and how does that structure make a difference? Let’s say someone submits something that doesn’t look like a poem to a poetry contest. The judges don’t necessarily go “This isn’t a poem, therefore, it is not worth considering.” Rather, the form itself critiques the established genre, it says “I’m a poem, and what are you going to do about it?” The formal genres in writing are for convenience only- ultimately, the kind of criticism needed for flash fiction, prose poems, short stories, novellas, and novels, is ultimately one in the same. Maybe everything is really just poetry. Boundaries, bones of old men before us, are only there to be transgressed.
There’s much to be said about someone who uses form to decide what something is. Formalism, in itself, doesn’t have the definition for something like ‘game’ used by formalists. It is part interpretation, part common wisdom. These boundaries are not meant to be crossed, rather, imply the fractal growth of even more categories. And without that bedrock of an initial definition, everything else crumbles, and the world doesn’t make sense anymore.
I always tell this story, about my job at Starbucks. It stars me and some customers.
The first customer came up to order a drink. He was a regular, and liked to wink at me a little too often. He always addressed me formally, with a “How’s your day going, ma’am?” He did that this time, we exchanged pleasantries, and he went on. The second customer, overhearing our chat, looked indignant. She pointedly said, “I’d like a grande soy extra hot no foam chai, sir.” It struck me how, without acting differently, I appeared to be two different things to different people. That was out of my control- I was an attractive women to one, and a deceptive deviant man to the other. This happened often, with every pronoun flying around every which way, I lost track who said what.
Who cares what category you belong to? I care. I care because I say I’m a woman, and many important institutions disagree. The government, my schools, my family, security guards, bartenders, people in bathrooms. I can scream out loud what I am, but someone put a category on me, one that decides what side of a prison I’ll go to, one that says I have the wrong ID, one that won’t let me marry my boyfriend, one that has the power to ban me from public spaces, to insist I don’t wear makeup or else I’m kicked out of the house.
I was on my way to LA, going through the usual drill of airport security. I went through one of the big scanners, and was stopped. Two TSA officials, one a man, and the other a woman, argued who between them should do the pat down, right in front of me. Someone saw my body and decided to put me in a category. The man laid his hand on my stomach for a brief moment, as if there was a ticking bomb inside my body, ready to blow.
what is personal?
emotions, immature, untrustworthy, feminine, impatient, queer, meandering, confessional, free, uncomfortable, zinester, dubious, empathy, illogical, revolution, manipulative, perspective, egalitarian, not up to standards, polemic, cheap, voice, over there, unprofessional, resists, loud, exploitative, conflicting, my only chance
If life is a game, we are good at ignoring its systems. Preoccupied by blips and marble board pieces, where are the critiques of the systems we live in every day? The ones that decide who will be rich and poor, the ones that frame the discourse we discuss ideas. What are the rules, who is valued- who isn’t?
There are times I think we are our own little islands. We see the world at our particular angle and are the only one with our particular crossroads of experience. Why is there such a force to smudge this away?
My fashion is weaponized. It is a strategic tool to navigate the minefield of interpersonal relationships. It’s all about control- if you can set the terms someone approaches you on, then you get an upper hand you rarely get. If I present myself as exotic and sexy, I at least limit the harmful ways a person can treat me.
I remember walking through the crowds of my first GDC. Many wondered why I put so much effort into my looks, possibly the only woman off the expo floor with heels on. Men liked to take me by the shoulders, pull me along with them. I had the only professionalism I was allowed- the kind where I have to be as much of a spectacle as much as I am intelligent. I knew the rules of the game, and moved my pieces accordingly.
I both love and dread the bars and parties. Eventually someone will touch me without permission, and I must leave without a fuss. Walking quickly through the Mission to get home, a man called out to me:
“Hey, mami, how much?”
I knew what he meant. I kept walking.
“Too good for me? You suck that rich white cock, you get that white man money?”
I walked faster, even if I was used to hearing something like this.
“How much mami, I can pay it.”
I didn’t cry when I got home. Instead I went through and looked at all of the names, all of the names of my editors, those receiving my pitches, giving me opportunity to further myself in the industry. The names on the business cards in my purse, the names already in my inbox. The guy I was dating. That man on the street knew. He knew.
I’ve never told this story before.
Don’t worry, it’s yours. You can have it.