Playing With Resistance

“Perhaps we can’t change the consumers. But we can — and we must — offer different definitions of power, different fantasies for different people. […] We don’t need to make yet more realms where the power fantasies of these male consumers are everything. We need more means for the rest of us to escape the one they’ve already made for us.”
Leigh Alexander, “It’s Time for a New Kind of Power Fantasy”

I want us to reclaim the power fantasy.

It’s unsettling to me just how quickly games culture disassociated us — artists, game developers, and all-around weirdos — from our rightful ownership of this term. Nowadays, if you tell a game player or even a game developer that a game made you feel powerful, they’re going to have a certain kind of game in their head: something grim, with lots of shooting. Women you can have sex with. Brown people you have dominance and life-and-death power over. The bulk of mainstream games give us no shortage of examples, and the bulk of mainstream games press reinforces this association of power fantasy with typical AAA power.

As they quietly bar us from our claim to agency as a design decision, they shunt our work towards the opposite pole: mechanics that are characterized by life being hopeless, helpless, inevitable. Art that is defined by the reliving of trauma and the inability to change the past, present, or future.

Now, when developers choose, on their own terms and from their own inspiration, to explore these mechanics, the resulting games are haunting, beautiful, and landmarks in the field. There’s almost too many to list: Tale of Tales’ The Path, marking the inevitable traumas of girlhood and growing up. Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest, using the simple strike-through as a mechanic that makes hearts ache. Ramsey Nasser’s الموعود, exploring what it means to be doomed but fighting anyway, as a way of understanding what anti-imperialist war is like.

To be crystal clear: my concern is not, and will never be, with artists actively choosing to make this art. It is entirely with the culture surrounding it. When lacking agency and power is the primary criteria by which our games are judged and categorized as being legitimate or not, that unspoken axiom becomes suffocating.

I find myself worried by this more often than not. I wrote the first draft of this essay about a year ago, before the 2016 election flipped over a rock that had provided cover for the slimy, nasty creatures that had always been lurking underneath. Before I thought it was important that we create more power fantasies. Now, as the spaces we worked so hard to gain any safety in are ripped away from us, I think it’s critical. When we think about power fantasies in games, we tend to think about games that give power to the already powerful. We need to think about power fantasies as being a way for us to claim, viscerally experience, communicate, and practice a power we’ve lost — or that we never got to have in the first place.

Personal games

Most of my work orbits around weird bodies, probably since I’ve always felt so weirdly about my own. In 2nd Amendment, the limbs of your player character don’t cooperate, mashing up and down on a virtual keyboard with little grace. In Scream ’Em Up, your body becomes a howling, hollering projectile, useful only for its ability to take up space and make noise. And in Slam City Oracles, your body is an invincible force, driven to silly, senseless destruction of the world around you.

I’ve had 28 years of experience being a loud, non-femme, non-skinny, queer, obviously Jewish woman to know how the world reacts to — and punishes — being all those things. It’s no surprise to me that, in reaction to the culture around me telling me that women should be small, obedient, quiet, and neat, and the culture within my art form telling me that women shouldn’t be in it at all, all of my games are about bodies, and all of the bodies in those games are irrepressible, uncooperative, over the top, and utterly incapable of being harmed.

Yet I’ve lost count of how many times people, mostly men, have laughed at me when I’ve explained this. How many people have snorted when I’ve asserted that Slam City Oracles — a game about fearless, invincible women’s bodies, which I made while fearful and vulnerable — is maybe the most personal game I’ve ever made. And I’m not the only game designer to get this kind of reaction. A few years ago, I was tweeting some thoughts about how we define — and gate-keep — what a personal game is. A fellow game designer that I greatly admire half-joked that if it wasn’t an autobiographical Twine game about reliving trauma, no one was going to say it counted.

Where do we stand as creators if this is the case? What happens to us if these are the only criteria by which we’re allowed to express ourselves in a way that can pay rent? She and I had both made emotional text-based games; I’d written papers on how incredible and wonderful it was that a tool like Twine existed; I’m quite sure we’d had autobiographical games about trauma on our GOTY lists over the years. What we were responding to was not that these games existed: it was that, too much of the mainstream media, critics, and tastemakers in our field, if we weren’t making these exact kinds of games, we might as well not be making games at all.

There are many facets of this that I dislike: the way it feels like trauma tourism for outsiders to “learn about” our experiences, the way it feels like the insidious conference trend of shunting all minority voices to a small space, away from the “real games” and “real game developers.” But what worries me the most is that, as it limits what we can make, it limits us to only imagining what has already hurt us, over and over and over.

In Melissa Gira Grant’s essay, All Bodies, No Selves, she talks about how, in the popular press, “survivors” aren’t allowed to have thoughts or politics — only bodies that have had things done to them, and the stories about what has been done to those bodies. She notes:

“If you have something political to say about gender or sexuality, you will be expected to voice it through what your body is and what it has done, what has been done to it. […] There’s value in these accounts of the body, of the political story. But sometimes it feels impossible to refuse to engage in this storytelling.”

Right before I made the first prototype that would turn into Slam City Oracles, I was working on a different game about bodies. A proper Personal Game, as defined by the criteria above. I was so tired of having my games dismissed as “not personal” that I figured my only chance to be taken seriously was to dive deep into my own trauma with my body. But every time I started to work on it — this game about feeling mired in sadness, inevitability, being unable to win — I would freeze up in this horrible way that would force me to lie down, unable to explain to my partner what was wrong. And yet when I, feeling even more vulnerable than before, finally gave up on that game and started to prototype SCO, I realized that each moment I spent working on it made me feel good — better, even, than I did before.

I knew that the work I enjoyed making was personal, but I couldn’t explain why. And I knew the reason for needing to do so was important, but I didn’t know what it was. Not for a long time, at least.

Embodiment

It had been a hard few years being in games, and, being burnt out on trying to explain why I cared about powerful bodies, and tired of thinking about the next conference or next release cycle, I gave myself a hiatus and started looking for new sources of inspiration and meaning.

One of the books I picked up during that time The Body Keeps The Score, by Bessel Van Der Kolk. Van der Kolk is a doctor who specializes in trauma therapy, and whose techniques tend to focus on trauma as experienced, internalized, and released by the body rather than the conscious mind. My entire practice had been games about the body — especially games about bodies that had the power I didn’t feel I had, or could experience — so I decided to give it a shot.

Van der Kolk dedicates an entire chapter to performance and theater, discussing how acting allows people to safely inhabit roles and emotions that would otherwise seem overwhelming or impossible. One case study is his son Nick, who for a time in his youth became very sickly and shy. Van der Kolk enrolled Nick in a theater group, hoping it would give him a chance to at least interact with other kids his age, hopefully allaying his shyness. Where he noticed the real growth, however, was when Nick was cast as strong, charismatic characters. As Nick would practice walking with swagger, or imagining himself as a strong person commanding respect, van der Kolk noticed him start to develop a “physical sense of pleasure” in embodying this role, with commensurate benefits coming along.

“Unlike his experience with the numerous therapists who had talked with him about how bad he felt,” Van Der Kolk writes, “theater gave [Nick] a chance to deeply and physically experience what it was like to be someone other than the […] boy he had gradually become. [Acting] gave him a visceral experience of power and competence.” He realized theater let people “explore alternative ways of engaging with life.” (Emphasis added.)

I remember my shock when I read this chapter, as if this older doctor and I, a young(ish) game designer, had somehow melded our minds. Many of the games I loved — and loved designing for others — were visceral experiences of a kind of power I lacked, were a reimagining — if only for a moment — of the way the world and my relationship with myself could be. Designing a game means getting to define the goal as something you find valuable, and getting to define the means to achieve it. Scream ’Em Up and Slam City Oracles were spaces I had designed — knowingly or not — to give me, and people like me, the ability to briefly reclaim the power of our own voices, the space and force and strength of our own bodies, and an invincibility that countered the vulnerability all of us faced online and in the physical world.

Nick’s visceral experience of power probably falls more in line with the AAA side of the spectrum. But we can’t define that power fantasy as the only power fantasy that exists, or that is meaningful. Power is relative to a given situation: the experience of power I need at some point is different than the experience of power someone else might need. In creating power fantasies, we can create spaces to viscerally experience strength and power we do not have, or that has been taken away from us, as well as the strength and power we wish to create in order to care for each other.

This care-giving for ourselves extends and affects, as all art does, well beyond our own immediate reach. In creating spaces to care for ourselves, we also create spaces that can care for people like us. In playing well in these spaces with each other, we too expand into something larger than ourselves. Bernie DeKoven, one of my favorite game writers of all time, calls this state “CoLiberation.” In his essay Playing For The Fun Of It, he describes it as a state of play that is transcendent, that creates an “oddly tangible experience of relationship, of connection, of community.” The WE that we are creating, he says in his book The Well Played Game, “is making each of us more fun — smarter, [more] alert, more alive.” Making power fantasies for ourselves and sharing them with each other allows us to explore and share alternative ideas of how we can engage with life, together. What could be more personal, more vulnerable, more important than that?

Relational aesthetics

Much as we like to pretend that games invented everything, we’re not the first artists or experience designers to think about how embodiment can lead to the imagining of alternative worlds. One of the more recent examples is the relational aesthetics movement, in which an art piece primarily functions as a catalyst for new relationships between the viewers.

In traditional fine arts, an artist might make an individual thing that is observed separately and directly through different viewers. In relational art, however, the artist primarily acts as the facilitator of a “social circumstance,” as Hyperallergic says in their primer, WTF is… Relational Aesthetics?, meaning that the “experience of the constructed social environment becomes the art.” A common example is Rirkrit Tiravanija’s show Untitled (Free) in 1992, where he guided the viewer/participants in a communal experience of cooking and eating food together in the gallery. No central art piece to be gazed at individually: rather, a set of rules and social conditions surrounding a space, which then facilitate different relationships than the everyday.

The idea that art can be a set of rules for interactions, and that artists can be facilitators of art as a social experience, is likely pretty obvious for most game designers. But Bourriaud goes further. He describes the power of relational art in its being a “proposal to live in a shared world,” and that:

“Producing a form is to invent possible encounters … it is the horizon based on which the images may have meaning, by pointing to a desired world, which the beholder thus becomes capable of discussing, and based on which his own desire can rebound.(Emphasis added.)

The social circumstance isn’t the sole point of the piece: instead, the social circumstance acts as a window into, or a practice run of, a desired world. Giving meaning to that world means that others become capable of discussing it, or even conceptualizing it in the first place.

Producing a set of game rules is, by definition, inventing a set of possible encounters that are very different than those that guide everyday life. But we can go further than that. We can use game mechanics to point to our desired worlds, to express the gap between the current world and the desire world, to create spaces and languages to discuss this gap and how to bridge it, and to express those desires to even more people.

Relational aesthetics as a movement fell short of its own ideals: the criticism of Claire Bishop, and the Radical Culture Research Collective, provide some excellent insight into that. But for now, let’s think about it less as the art movement itself, and more as a way to think about what we’re making when we make games. When we make a game about the power we need, or the world we wish we had, we’re not only creating a space where we can embody that power: we’re granting each other the language to talk about that world, talk about that gap, talk about that desire. When our culture only acknowledges games about either traditional power fantasies or the relieved, explicit trauma of marginalized people, we also lose our ability to formulate languages with each other around the worlds we desire, barring us from expressing them in this medium at all.

Pleasure and strength

A lot of the sweetness in SCO comes from sadness. There’s an interview about the game where I let my guard down and call SCO what it really is: a love letter to other women in games. Unlike what most people seem to believe, women in games aren’t a monolith — but I find we share similar unfortunate socializations, similar fears, similar vulnerabilities.

In her book The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson talks about her relationships with other women and the ‘sameness’ people ask her about:

“Whatever sameness I’ve noted in my relationship with women is not the sameness of Woman, and certainly not the sameness of parts. […] Rather, it is the shared, crushing understanding of what it means to live in a patriarchy. (Emphasis added.)

I tend to make games during times of stress (often, that stress is due to simply being in games). This was the case when I wrote the first draft of this essay, and it’s certainly the case now, at the bleak end of 2016. Now, more than ever, I feel it’s critical to make the spaces that preserve me, and let me practice and experience the feeling of having power — and to share those experiences from others who need that visceral experience, too. It’s important for us to create spaces for embodying power we want or lost, to sketch alternate ways of being, to dream up spaces for pleasure. It matters.

And it matters especially because it’s radical for us to experience pleasure and care. Something important happens when we take pleasure in things, when we create things for people like us to feel pleasure in. When pleasure is “not only taken but openly displayed,” says Maggie Nelson, “[it] becomes more accretive as well as autotelic: the more it’s felt and displayed, the more proliferative, the more possible, the more habitual it comes.” (Emphasis added.)

Embodiment and practice and habit. The radical possibilities of pleasure. The worlds we make for each other to viscerally experience and value things we’ve had and things we’ve lost. The power trips, the reclamations of something we’ve lost and would like to regain, if only for a moment.

“We are for each other, or by virtue of each other,” Nelson writes. Speaking of those creators who have supported and inspired her, she says:

“They insist, no matter the evidence marshalled against their insistence: there is nothing you can throw at me that I cannot metabolize, no thing impervious to my alchemy.”

These are the power fantasies I want to create, and I can’t wait to see you make yours, too.

Liked this article? Normally I post a link to a tip jar, ’cause game designers like me have rent to pay, but this time, please throw your buck or two over to the Sylvia Rivera Law Project or the Council on American-Islamic Relations. It’s a lot easier for folks to make art when they’re assured of having basic human rights, y’know?

Disclosure: bafflingly, I am able to call almost all the amazing game designers and games writers that I cite in this article my friends and colleagues. No, I can’t believe how lucky I am, either.

Resources:

Alexander, Leigh. “It’s Time For a New Kind of Power Fantasy.” How We Get To Next. N.p., 29 Nov. 2016. Web. 11 Dec. 2016. <https://howwegettonext.com/its-time-for-a-new-kind-of-power-fantasy-a5ff23b2237f>.

Grant, Melissa Gira. “All Bodies, No Selves.” Pacific Standard. N.p., 31 May 2016. Web. 11 Dec. 2016. <https://psmag.com/all-bodies-no-selves-45aa1e61ee1c>.

A., Van Der Kolk Bessel. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. NY, NY: Penguin, 2015. Print.

DeKoven, Bernie. “Playing For The Fun Of It.” DeepFUN. N.p., 27 Aug. 2015. Web. 11 Dec. 2016. <http://www.deepfun.com/playing-for-the-fun-of-it/>.

DeKoven, Bernie. The Well-played Game: A Playful Path to Wholeness. San Jose: Writers Club, 2002. Print.

Chayka, Kyle. “WTF Is… Relational Aesthetics?” Hyperallergic. N.p., 15 Feb. 2011. Web. 11 Dec. 2016. <http://hyperallergic.com/18426/wtf-is-relational-aesthetics/>.

Bourriaud, Nicolas. Relational Aesthetics. Dijon: Leses Du Réel, 2002. Print.

Nelson, Maggie. The Argonauts. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf, 2015. Print.