THAT'S NOT A GAME
My 9-year-old daughter is autistic. There’s a misconception that autistics can’t feel emotion as viscerally as neurotypical people; on the contrary, many autistics feel emotions with an intense empathy that requires distancing themselves, or else they get swept away. Gwen is like this; when she cries, and she cries often, it’s a wet, sobby, theatrical affair. It’s loud. It’s messy. Much of the time, it’s annoying.
This weekend I watched her go through the entirety of Journey on her own. As she got to the end of the snow level, and her beautiful scarf blew away like petals on the icy wind, I watched her cry. I’ve never seen her cry like that before: it was silent. She stubbornly pushed her tears out of her eyes and kept trudging, in total silence, pushing towards the light at the top of the mountain.
Leigh Alexander, who is among my favorite smart people talking about games, tweeted some awesome stuff that has been on my mind lately:
when people say games need objectives in order to be ‘games’, i wonder why ‘better understanding another human’ isn’t a valid ‘objective’
— leighalexander (@leighalexander) April 8, 2013
games need ‘challenges’ and ‘rules’, isn’t ‘empathy’ a challenge, aren’t preconceptions of normativity a ‘rule’
— leighalexander (@leighalexander) April 8, 2013
This is something incredibly important to me. When I got my start in tabletop RPGs, my exposure to modern game design wasn’t D&D; it was the weird indie game Jonathan was working on about bodhisattvas trapped in a subway station bringing on the end of existence. It was the game Shreyas was making about wu xia films where the passive-aggressive tension in a scene was measured by the location of a real, physical knife at the table. When I finally released my first tabletop RPG, It’s Complicated, one of the initial reviews said something that’s burned in me ever since: It’s like someone who has never seen a roleplaying game before tried to make a roleplaying game.
That throwaway sentence didn’t matter, in the long run: It’s Complicated sold out of a number of printings, still sells steadily. It was nominated for some awards. People play and love it. That’s all that matters now. But then? Nervously sharing my first creation with the world? Yeah, it fucking mattered.
People who want the game industry to “grow up” snort derisively when people use the term gamer. “We don’t call people who listen to music music-ers,” they sneer. I feel that this well-intentioned argument robs games of their interactive power, of their place in the minds and hearts of so many. People love books and music they can identify with, that they can project themselves into; the interactivity of games blurs the line between the consumer and art like no other medium. Even with games like Dys4ia, which detractors say “isn’t a real game,” what word would you use? You don’t view Dys4ia. You don’t read it orlisten to it. You are a part of it. Some don’t feel like they had any meaningful choices? Ridiculous. They made the most meaningful choice already:
They played it.
People call themselves gamers because they identify intensely with the act of playing games. It’s a refuge for many: the richest form of escapism, a place where people can feel understood, powerful. A place where gamers can slip into someone else’s skin— someone better at life. Or not better! But at least in a game, you have as many tries as you need to get it right.
And this— this power, this safety— this is why so many people want to guard the definition of “game” like it’s the Ark Of The Covenant.
When something belongs to everyone, no one controls it. What does it mean if games are a place where privileged people go to feel powerful, and those privileged people could end up slipping into the skin of someone who constantly feels afraid? If you claim the mantle of gamer as a part of your identity, and these weird, powerful narratives are games— the raw, glitter-encrusted womanhood of Ke$ha, the gut-wrenching senselessness of your wife’s death — then you have to claim these narratives as part of your identity.
And that, I think, is the real debate. The real argument isn’t over what set of mechanics we accept; it’s over what narratives and creators we will embrace.
The broader our definition of game, the more types of games that people get exposed to, the more games themselves will diversify. And for a lot of FPS-loving, AAA-bred, EA-hating, self-anointed tastemakers— they see all of those experiments and balk. You’d think if they can handle Bioshock Infinite, they wouldn’t get squeamish watching that many edges bleed.
My whole body was tense when Gwen’s character collapsed in the snow. I felt like an awful mom; it just occurred to me, right then, that she had never finished a game before. This kid couldn’t handle readingThe Little Engine That Could because she got so worried about the fucking train, and now I’m letting her play this? She’ll be in therapy for the rest of her life. And then the white-robed figures appeared, and then her body lifted from the ground.
The look on her face is burned into my mind forever.
That one look.
I remember when I was her age, playing Commander Keen for the first time. There was a power-up just out of reach. I was still figuring out how to use the pogo stick, but I had an idea— if I could just get the timing right. The idea that this one thing, this pogo stick, suddenly opened up entirely new worlds of interaction for me within the game— I had the same look on my face Gwen had, I’m sure of it.
Both of us basking in wonder as we realized, for the first time, that the goal was in reach after all.