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Four perspectives on personal games

Progressive game creators are making video games that are more expressive than ever. Here are four unique understandings of the design of personal games.

Leigh Alexander, Contributor

April 29, 2013

10 Min Read

The personal games movement is providing an important, exciting new avenue for expression and a new understanding of design, many believe. At the Different Games conference in New York this weekend, four panelists presented on the theme of personal game-making and why it matters to them.

Robert Yang on 'Focalization'

Indie developer and writer Robert Yang, who also teaches at Parsons, opened with the concept of "focalization" in literary theory and criticism. The question of "what games say" is deceptively complex and difficult to answer -- but "how do games say" might be slightly easier and more interesting, leading one to look less at the content of something and more at its form. Yang shared a favorite Dashiell Hammett passage where one simultaneously appreciates the skillful writing while alternately empathizes with and dislikes the narrator, and suggested that approach sheds light on how we think about games. Terms like "flow" and "immersion," are generally incomplete and unhelpful, he finds. Instead, the focalization term creates the opportunity to identify with and feel present with a viewpoint, but also to feel distant from it, paradoxically. It can be simultaneously static and dynamic, where participants can select which elements of a narrative have meaning to an individual and which don't. Yang believes that thinking about focalization can push discussion from games away from the "what" and into the "how," when it comes to what games say. He's admittedly conflicted about the purpose of discussing terms, but having focalization -- simultaneous presence and distance -- in mind does add a framework for the discussion. That junction of something inviting with something alienating can create a unique and personal relationship, Yang believes. For example, Japanese game designer Detarou makes incredibly complex escape-the-room games where precise logic puzzles coincide with odd, unexpected surrealism. "It's kind of saying, 'let me pull you into this puzzle space -- oh wait, this thing doesn't make sense at all,'" Yang says. "This juxtaposition of hyper-rational systems and absurdity, I think, is really effective." Yang also highlighted Brendon Chung's Thirty Flights of Loving. "Usually you think of first person as 'the immersive thing' -- you control the camera, you're present inside the world... but Brendon Chung plays with time a lot, and how we experience time," he says. "It's very interesting in terms of how we relay its message, or what its message really is." In Yang's own work, he strives for a similar sense of paradox and juxtaposition. His game, Radiator, features a very specific narrative voice and specific places, "but it's also kind of weird. It's not necessarily super-rational. You can look up at the sky, and see the constellations. It's playing with games'... illusion of immersiveness, but I also want to point out how artificial game environments are." "Again, it's a push and pull, and I think that tension is what makes compelling and novel work."

Anna Anthropy: "Context is everything"

Designer, artist and writer Anna Anthropy spoke on the importance of context, particularly personal context, to investing meaning in games. "As people spend a lot of time making and discussing games, we talk a lot about the rules of games; we develop a mechanical understanding of them -- and rightly so, because we create play by designing rules," she says. "The ways that the rules of Tetris interact to create a meaningfully-stressful experience are fascinating and beautiful... an expression of art." Yet much of Anthropy's work isn't motivated by a "pure abstract desire" to play with the form. Often she's motivated by the opportunity to express her identity, to interrogate politics or to provide criticism. "Context is everything," Anthropy says. The protagonist of her 2009 Mighty Jill Off is a submissive in latex who needs to climb a tower in order to serve her queen. It resembles Mighty Bomb Jack in that it's about maneuvering through acrobatics. But more than a re-skin, it's about Anna's own relationship with her submissive partner, and that context is what creates the meaning of the game -- the player's desire to prove herself by meeting the game's expectations of it. Thus it communicates things Mighty Bomb Jack does not. "It frames those interactions in a way that encourages the player to relate to my personal experience," Anthropy says. "That's important in the face of the game culture that brought us BioShock Infinite.... a game that forces you to watch images of racialized violence. There's a part where you're forced to watch a man of color pecked to death by crows while begging for his life. And then a minute later, you gain a power-up that lets you throw crows at people that peck them to death. BioShock Infinite is an empathy-challenged game." In 2011, Anthropy made Transgression, a "hidden object game" where you're trying to find a woman who has a penis at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. "Without that context, this game would be trivial, and I say that as someone who really likes Where's Waldo books," she suggests. "But the entire purpose of Transgression is to criticize... [the festival]'s policies about women's bodies. Context is a tool we can use for representation, apathy and satire, Anthropy emphasizes. "As marginalized people, our lives are political," Anthropy adds. Systems of oppression are often invisible to those with privilege, and using context and creation can expose those systems. "To refuse to take a political stance is, in itself, a political stance... it's a choice to stand with the status quo," she says. "And the status quo of games is racist... promotes rape culture...my goal is to stand in opposition to that. A criticism of games that is purely mechanical and erases context, erases my identity. Context, in my games, is the voice through which I speak my name. Context is everything."

Mattie Brice's 'empathy simulator

Critic and writer Mattie Brice's game Mainichi has been described as an "empathy simulator." She made it for a good friend to help her understand some problems Brice herself faced in her life and in the relationship. "But I didn't just make it 'for her'; I made it for lots of people. Many people can come to this game in different ways." Some people come to personal games for solidarity and to legitimize their personal experience -- "I can give this to someone else so they can understand me!" -- and others seek out such games to learn something new themselves. "I feel games also can, and maybe should sometimes, resist players. If there's such a thing as 'death of author', I think there should be 'death of the player.' Players shouldn't have to be ... the most important thing for games, especially as we live with an audience that's so homogenous." Brice's Twine game Blink aimed to show that she often joins relationships from a perspective of inequality and challenge relative to a partner. Even the game's node map, a visual representation of its available choices, show a flow of privilege toward the character that isn't her. In three hours and with Twine, she felt able to communicate something many expensive triple-A games haven't yet successfully. Her current project, I Hate Curry, made her realize "we're actually designing play spaces. Games are objects; they are the things that help us create a space... yet we don't focus on the space between the players and the other objects in there. We set up a relationship between things, and the feedback loops and understanding is... happening in the space, a negotiation between the objects." "All of my games specifically don't use iterative design, and I actually think that iterative design harms personal game design. I say that because of my background in creative writing, and how people purposefully use iteration and non-iteration affect the craft," she adds. Non-iterative design could offer games just as much as an iterative model. Personal experience can be used as a craft element in writing about games, too, where subjectivity actually assists in finding the meaning of an experience. "Acknowledging subjectivities allows for diversity," Brice says. "We have this idea that objectivity is the standard, and then you deviate from that, but that is actually baked into homogeny and oppression, because 'objectivity' is one group's ideology. There is a cultural legitimacy issue with personal games... 'is it really' whatever. I don't think it's a coincidence that this movement of personal games is being co-opted by minorities. There's a reason why personal games are so diverse as opposed to our typical game industry." "We'll never have enough voices, I think, and as we go on we'll find ways to get new people who don't realize they're not speaking, to do it," Brice says. When it comes to current criticism and analysis of personal games, are we actually seeing what's being created, or getting caught up in questions of what it is and whether it belongs?

Haitham Ennasr rediscovers video games

Haitham Ennasr often says that before going to Parsons, video games weren't really on his radar, but that isn't entirely true. "I'll start by saying I grew up in a privileged household," he says. His family had a computer, and both his parents were able to teach him how to use it. Starting to learn English, he was still able to enjoy Commander Keen. He invested heavily in Sims games, and by 11th grade, he discovered emulators, and played Harvest Moon and Breath of Fire until he discovered MMOs like Silkroad Online in university. Yet he never had access to video game consoles. At some point in the summer of 2000, Ennasr's parents moved back to Palestine from Jordan. Shortly thereafter, the Second Intifada began. "One of the main things that I learned during the Intifada was that it really doesn't matter how much privilege you have or construct, nor how much media you consume. When you are forced to take your clothes off at gunpoint constantly, you are an othered, terrorized, brown body." He saw everything, including video games, in a different light. How relevant was his "modernity," then, or his consumption of games? "When I say that video games were not on my scene, it was because I was treating video games as part of my modern package, and my mythology regarding them was based around that." Then he joined Parsons' design and technology program, and worked with the local Babycastles arcade community. "It was an explosion of senses everywhere... I started getting into that scene more and more, and then I started realizing there are many games that I don't know about, the more conversations I've had with people." Yet there are also many music and films that Ennasr isn't familiar with, not having been born in the U.S. "My solution to feeling relevant was to fabricate a nostalgia. I pretended that I knew all these things, and I went with the flow," he laughs. "That didn't last long, but that was a nice little exercise. It was interesting to see the fact that I did do that enactment." So at Parsons he felt conflicted between the institutionalized indie games scene, and the design and technology scene where people do a wide range of interactive design. "Both scenes fascinated me, and I was invested in both." The bulk of his thesis was spent on discussing why his work wasn't explicitly personal. It was a collaboration (with partner Andy Wallace), requiring a level of polish he wasn't able to accomplish on his own. But also it was because the spaces in the scenes he was in did not allow him to do a personal project, he felt. The interactions in the project had a subtle hint of the personal. Post-graduation, he feels he can begin approaching more individual work. "Indie game scenes do have a narrative, and it is as alien to me as a triple-A narrative. So I'm creating one of my own," Ennasr adds.

About the Author(s)

Leigh Alexander


Leigh Alexander is Editor At Large for Gamasutra and the site's former News Director. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Slate, Paste, Kill Screen, GamePro and numerous other publications. She also blogs regularly about gaming and internet culture at her Sexy Videogameland site. [NOTE: Edited 10/02/2014, this feature-linked bio was outdated.]

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