Impossible, impermissable and queer

Rules, norms and laws as theorised in Japanese games blogging

I’ve been reading a fragment of a discussion that happened last March between Japanese games critics online. The question is whether digital games focus purely on what is possible (e.g. physics), in contrast to analog games’ interest in what is permissable (i.e. ‘rules’ or ‘norms’). This distinction between the two was proposed by Twitter user @hambalek (Masayuki) in a set of tweets that were collected here by @zmzizm (Mastunaga). An extract is translated below:

[…] when playing a digital game, the degree of freedom is overwhelmingly higher than play that involves the body.
What does this mean? Well, the world of digital games is a world of programs. The set programs are the laws of the world itself, its absolute existence. “Everything” that is made possible by that program is okay for the player to do. There, the higher layers of “good and evil” and common sense do not exist. There is absolutely no need to ever suppress the self. Furthermore, the degree of freedom cannot be diminished by the actions that do not exist in that world […]
In comparison to this, when you are playing [with…] real bodies (tag, soccer, board games etc.) you first have to install the rules of the game into your brain and then play in accordance with those rules. On top of that, we must always refer to the limitations of a social higher layer such as morals, norms and laws. Digital games are worlds of pure possibility (and impossibility). Whereas, in games that use real bodies, we must always refer to the distinction between what is right and what is wrong[…]
When you can’t do something in a digital game, it simply doesn’t exist, so it doesn’t lower the degree of freedom.

Matsunaga wrote up a response on their blog, 9bit. Matsunaga points out that although games studies has adopted as common sense the notion that games are all about rules, this comes from theorists whose work pre-dates digital games; perhaps they took for granted that norms had to be put in place in order to construct a group consensus about what is within the bounds of possibility. Matsunaga proposes a subtly different definition, in which rules exist in order to construct programs in an analogue setting:

The relationship between norms and games might be as follows:
> Game play is about what you can and cannot do
> In analogue games, in order to create this sense of can and cannot, we need norms of may and may not.
> Since digital games can cut straight to can and cannot, they don’t need extrinsic norms.

Masayuki’s argument is that when we’re playing video games, we don’t really think in terms of “you’re not allowed to do that”. We think of it as, “you can’t do that in this world.” In fact, they suggest that this absence of norms is particularly strong among people who are embedded in gamer culture. Core gamers will entirely abandon moral ideas extrinsic to the game’s program, giving the example of Yoshi’s Island players wilfully leaving baby Mario to cry all alone when there’s no intrinsic benefit to helping them. If people behaved in real life how gamers behave in virtual spaces, even in a playful scenario, they’d be shunned.

Norms in digital games

Matsunaga says that while this might not directly fall under the term ‘norms’, digital games do offer standards for action that are not limited to what is possible and what is impossible. Character development and storytelling often serve as a way to construct a goal that the player is working towards, giving a higher-level motivation for manipulating the rules of the game in a particular way:

It’s clear that games go further than simply what one can and cannot do. Mechanics are used in pursuit of a goal, but of course, there are games where story drama and feelings toward the characters are built up a great deal, and the player reaches the end goal quite naturally. It’s much more common in digital games to use story and characters to inculcate a goal or purpose.

So what does fall under the term ‘norms’? Matsunaga here is talking more generally about extrinsic motivations for player action. To go back to Masayuki’s string of tweets, their argument is enriched by a distinction they draw between laws and norms and rules.

[…] when rules like “if you do not take the baby back the first ten times then game over” do exist in digital games, maybe there are some people who wonder if this doesn’t diminish the level of freedom. I don’t think it does, though.
That is because this is not a rule, but a law of that world. Here there is no thought of, “you must not do this” but instead there exists a law, “if you do this, here is what will happen”. The concept of setting things up this way is closer to an animalistic response, rather than the human idea of conceiving of a norm.

To recap: a program says “you are not able to do that,” a norm says “you shouldn’t do that” while a law says “if you do that, then this is what will happen to you”. Break the law and you will have to live out the consquences, whereas if you break a rule in an analog game, you risk breaking the entire structure of play, and your playmates will more than likely refuse to continue playing if you don’t comply with the rules.

Playful simulations

With this distinction between the possible and the permissable in mind, I’d like to briefly think about what it means for gay couplings to be impossible in Tomodachi Life. Queer issues often make us think about the overlap between descriptive and normative representations of society, and this could lead to a different reading of how games operate.

Does making something impossible in a digital game really have no impact on a player’s sense of freedom? Critics of Nintendo’s erasure of LGBT people clearly don’t think so. Samantha Allen wrote on Polygon, explicitly referring to the exclusion as ‘prohibitive’:

By constructing an “alternate world” in Tomodachi Life that explicitly prohibits all but the most normative of relationship structures, Nintendo is foreclosing the value of play and alternate forms of reality for a wide swath of gamers.

Matsunaga argues that perhaps the norms or rules of analogue games exist in order to create a consensus about what could exist in the game’s world. Norms are put together into a system that describes a shared fiction. Queer activists know that every act of erasure in every part of cultural production contributes to a cultural consensus about what is permissable and what is impermissable, or even unthinkable. The idea of a ‘real world’ is a normative, not a descriptive idea: it’s about what gets recorded and logged as Fact, and what is consigned to the world of Fantasy.

Gay couplings, we are led to believe, were removed from Tomodachi Life because of a “bug”. This bug could be interpreted as a law, according to Masayuki’s definition: you could be in a gay couple and subsequently get married, but all marriages lead to pregnancy, so if you were in a same sex marriage, one of the partners would become pregnant. This led to a higher incidence of pregnant men than is considered desirable. By calling it a “bug” Nintendo suggests that this is impossible in the real world, but in fact it is impermissable: transgender men can and sometimes do bear children, but cissexism does not permit people able to bear children to be recognised as male.

Masayuki says that when something is simply not possible in a game world, it does not lower the degree of freedom for players. This is often correct in reference to things like not being able to get out of your car and walk in a racing game, or not being able to attack civilians in JRPGs. However, queer identities are one instance where it’s very clear that permissable and possible can overlap considerably. As Matsunaga explained, there’s a connection between setting norms or rules and reaching a consensus about the state of a particular world. When something is made impossible, that’s often a normative declaration, not merely a descriptive one. “You can’t do that. It’s not natural.”

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