Videogames, Identity and Digital Subjectivity
This page presents a selection of videogames intended to demonstrate how game designers are pioneering new forms of auto/biographical expression and exploring the nature of identity and subjectivity in the digital age.
A Normal Lost Phone (Accidental Queens, 2017)
The conceit of A Normal Lost Phone is that the player has found an abandoned smartphone and is trying to locate its owner, a teenager named Sam. Here, as in other ‘desktop simulators’ or ‘interface games’, the player’s device becomes the protagonist’s. This conceit has been used to great effect by game designers looking to explore questions of privacy, secrecy and consent. In A Normal Lost Phone the game lies in using the available information to unlock new apps - and, with them, new narrative insights. By reading Sam’s texts we learn how to get online and access Sam’s e-mail account; from there we can access two dating site profiles and read a conversation directing Sam towards a message board devoted to trans issues. Finally (via a secret diary accessed by entering Sam's zip code into what is ostensibly a calculator app), we learn that Sam has left town to start a new life with a new identity.
The putative justification for violating a stranger's privacy here is our desire to make sure that a missing teenager is safe - but this narrative framework is arguably little more than an alibi for players to indulge their prurient fantasies. Reflecting a burgeoning popular interest in transition narratives, the game could also be accused of reducing Sam’s trans identity into a plot twist.
Black Room (Cassie McQuater, 2018)
Described by McQuater as 'very autobiographical', Black Room draws on its creator's experiences of 'insomnia and anxiety' and her memories of childhood sleepovers spent watching her grandmother (also an insomniac) playing Super Nintendo games.2 An oneiric interactive collage indebted to hidden object games, interactive fiction and point 'n' click adventures, it makes ingenious use of the web browser as medium.
Where many independent and avant-garde games hark back to ‘retro’ graphical styles or repurpose visual assets borrowed from older titles, Black Room is almost entirely constructed out of bits of commercial 2D games. Particularly striking is its recontextualization of evil and monstrous female characters like Vampire Savior's (Capcom, 1997) Lillith and Morrigan, SNK Vs. Capcom: SVC Chaos’ (SNK 2003) Shiki and King of Fighters 97’s (SNK, 1997) Shermie. Familiar from fighting games and side-scrolling beat 'em ups, McQuarter’s reclamation of figures like these presents parallels with the way that grime MCs have adopted videogame characters as their lyrical avatars.
Cibele and Lost Memories Dot Net (Nina Freeman/Star Maid Games, 2015, 2017)
Also desktop simulators, Cibele and Lost Memories Dot Net are part of a cycle of autobiographical games documenting episodes from designer Nina Freeman’s life. In Lost Memories Nina is a lovelorn teenager learning to build websites and starting to document her life online; Cibele is set several years later, and sees her striking up a romance with a fellow player of the massively-multiplayer online roleplaying game Valtameri, who lives on the other side of the USA. As I note in my article on Cibele,3 where many videogames promise players control over the course of the plot, here our ability to alter Nina's fate is ultimately rather limited. While we can assume that this is a matter of maintaining fidelity to Freeman's actual experiences, it also feels fitting given the feelings of marginalisation and disempowerment with which the games deal.
Cobra Club (Robert Yang, 2015)
Game designer and academic Robert Yang's interactive 'dick-pic-studio' was inspired by a conversation between comedian John Oliver and whistleblower Edward Snowden on the topic of whether the National Security Agency could access Oliver’s sexy selfies. Cobra Club begins with us taking racy images of the player-character and ends with a twist that foregrounds state surveillance, as we discover that the game has been uploading our photos to an NSA database (actually a Tumblr blog masquerading as an NSA database). While the game offers an account of privacy, play and online sociability that is at once ingenious, funny and thought-provoking, for the videogame streaming platform Twitch it was simply too rude. When Twitch added Cobra Club to its blacklist Yang expressed his disappointment that a game with a 'focus ... on ideas of consent, boundaries, bodies and respect’ had been filed alongside titles endorsing sexual violence, calling for ‘case-by- case ... consideration’.6 Yang's points about the need for judicious content moderation have only become more relevant. When Apple dropped Tumblr from its app store over concerns that the platform was being used to distribute child pornography and so-called 'revenge porn', Tumblr reacted by banning all 'adult content', using software that incorrectly flagged innocuous posts. This move has hamstrung Yang's satire even as it illustrates his arguments: as he has explained ' I had chosen Tumblr because it seemed like it was queer-positive and sex-positive, with a large enough infrastructure and community. But then in early 2018, Tumblr instituted a mandatory "safe mode" block on all adult content blogs, which basically broke my game'. The move has made Yang reluctant to integrate social media into future games. As he writes, 'these private platforms can do whatever they want without any accountability or compassion to anyone. Building art with their APIs is like building a house on quicksand.'7
Don't Take It Personally, Babe, It Just Ain't Your Story (Christine Love/Love Conquers All Games, 2011)
Christine Love’s visual novel casts players as John Rook, a teacher granted access to his students’ social media posts and private messages. Confronting us with a series of ethical dilemmas, Love questions both the sanctity of privacy and the wisdom of entrusting authority figures with our personal data. As its title suggests, the game also challenges the presumption that players should be empowered agents at the centre of games' stories. Don't Take It Personally's concern with mediation and memory is shared with Love's other work: Digital: A Love Story (Love Conquers All Games, 2010) plays out on a recreation of a dial-up-era Bulletin Board Service, while Analogue: A Hate Story (Love Conquers All Games, 2012) sees players piecing together the fate of a deserted starship on the basis of messages stored in its memory banks and conversations with the ship's artificial intelligence systems.
Dys4ia (Anna Anthropy, 2012)
Anna Anthropy’s autobiographical browser game relates her experiences of hormone therapy through a series of interactive vignettes presented in the style of a 1980s Intellivision and Atari games. It was initially distributed via Newgrounds, a portal for user-generated art, animation, audio and games. The game has been enormously influential, and (as I note in my essay on auto/biographical avatars elsewhere in this book) has sparked involved conversations about the capacity of digital games to foster empathy.8 Alongside Mattie Brice's Mainichi (which Brice has described as 'an experiment in sharing a personal experience through a game system'9), Dys4ia has also played a role in inspiring queer and trans designers to experiment with DIY game creation tools - as has Anthropy's manifesto/guide Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Dropouts, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You are Taking Back an Art Form.10
Ineffable Glossolalia and Shrine Maidens of the Unseelie Court (Tabitha Nikolai, 2018)
Nikolai’s games are perhaps best understood as avant garde spins on the ‘walking simulator’, a generic classifier coined to describe works like Dear Esther (The Chinese Room, 2008) and Gone Home (The Fullbright Company, 2013). Beginning as ‘mods’ of Half Life 2 (Valve Corporation, 2004) and Counter-Strike (Le and Cliffe, 1999)12 respectively, these titles are essentially first-person shooters without the shooting. Abandoning the fantasy settings and heroic quest narratives typical of ‘AAA’ commercial productions, their success has catalysed a wave of games that prioritise exploration and interpretation over combat, addressing questions of memory, loss, desire and identity through slice-of-life stories set in everyday environments. Derided by some ‘hardcore’ gamers (the term was initially intended to be derogatory) walking sims have found favour with players, critics and designers interested in games’ expressive affordances.
Nikolai's games subject the form of the walking sim to strange spatiotemporal distortions: in Ineffable Glossolalia the world of Weimar sexology bleeds into that of contemporary messageboard culture, foregrounding what the game's notes describe as 'archival loss [and] the ongoing effects of lack'; Shrine Maidens, meanwhile, vacillates between domestic banality and arcane spectacle, aiming to convey ‘feelings of isolation within suburbia and an ambivalence about online connectivity as a mode of circumventing it’ – an ambivalence intensified by the knowledge that ‘for many trans women, online platforms are our only life line to others like us.’
Kendall and Kylie (Glu, 2016)
A sequel to 2015's Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, this free-to-play smartphone roleplaying game stars Kim’s younger half-siblings. Having created an avatar to represent them, players strive to become a social media star by completing tasks that will boost their follower count, assisted by friends and mentors Kendall and Kylie. Rather than recounting these stars' biographies, it lets players trace their own trajectory from obscurity to ubiquity. Unlike most of the games listed here, Kendall and Kylie was a popular hit. Adopting a 'micro-transaction' model that some critics argue is predatory, it exemplifies the transformation of digital games into 'connective commodities.'12 But while the game's unabashed commercialism sets it at odds with the ethos of indie and DIY development, so-called 'casual' games13 like this have also played a role in overturning the assumption that games ought to privilege challenge, competition and 'gameplay' over, say, self-expression or storytelling. As #gamergate's attacks on feminists suggest, the attempt to defend a 'hardcore gamer' identity putatively under threat from casuals, progressives, censors and philistinic financiers relies on notions of 'hardcore' and 'casual' gameplay that are highly gendered.
Papa & Yo (Minority Media Inc., 2012)
Vander Caballero’s magic realist 3D platformer addresses the designer's relationship with his alcoholic father, putting players in control of a young boy navigating a mysterious city alongside a rhino-like monster prone to sudden fits of rage. It is structured as a series of puzzles that the duo must solve together, offering an example of how the terms on which players collaborate and compete with computer-controlled agents can become meaningful.
Phantasy Star Online (Sonic Team, 2000)
Released on the Dreamcast, one of the earliest games system to come with a built-in modem, Sega’s multiplayer roleplaying game was, for many gamers, their introduction to online play. It was notable for a dialogue interface that encouraged gamers from different countries to play together, and for its character creator, which anticipates the kinds of customisation found in Kendall and Kylie or Fortnite (Epic Games, 2017). The oldest game on the list, I have included it here because of Zoyander Street's work exploring its role in the biographies of players who have gone on to design games, for whom (as for myself) the Dreamcast was 'not only a games console but a young person’s main internet access point in the home'. In Dreamcast Worlds, Street (who has in recent years begun developing auto/biographical games) speaks to figures like Kuwaiti developer Saleem Dabous - for whom playing with foreigners entailed 'trying to figure out how to do the social etiquette with people that live vastly, vastly different lives than we did'18 - and designer and critic merritt k, who found in the game's character creator a forum for exploring self-presentation and gender identity.19
Redshirt (The Tiniest Shark, 2013)
Mitu Khandaker's Redshirt is a sci-fi social networking satire inspired by Star Trek. Set aboard the Space station Megadolon 9, the game initially seems to portray a utopian future. It quickly becomes apparent, however, that the station is doomed and that the player’s only option is to try and network their way off of it via ‘Spacebook’, a thinly veiled procedural caricature of Facebook. Through this conceit the game pokes fun at the gamification of personal, professional and sexual relationships online, pushing players to cultivate skills, interests and relationships that will enable them to escape, whether by acquiring friends (or lovers) in high places, bagging a desirable job or making contact with people smugglers.
While the game is, in a sense, about manipulation, it also constitutes as critique of how other games handle romance and relationships. As Khandaker observes, in most games with romance systems ‘saying the right combination of things ... leads to a desirable sexual outcome’21 – a principle taken to decidedly unsavoury extremes in ‘pick-up artist’ Richard La Ruina’s Super Seducer games, which are essentially multiple choice seduction primers. Redshirt, by contrast, uses random number generators to imbue non-player characters with a degree of autonomy and unpredictability. It is no surprise as such to learn that Khandaker is part of Spirt AI, who are, as Rebecca Roach notes in her research on Chatbots, exploring applications of artificial intelligence to storytelling and the creation of ’compelling characters.’
That Dragon, Cancer (Numinous Games, 2016)
Ryan and Amy Green’s autobiographical game documents their young son’s death from cancer and their consequent crisis of faith. An example of how videogames are coming to serve as vehicles for illness narratives22 and ‘death writing’23, it contrasts the fantasy logic of videogames (wherein ‘death’ can usually be revoked by inserting another coin or reloading the game) with the realities of terminal illness. The game has also been categorised as a ‘walking simulator’ - though, as in Nikolai's work, many of the scenes take the form of evocative tableaux or elaborate spatial metaphors.
the shape you make when you want your bones to be closest to the surface (Porpentine Charity Heartscape, 2018)
Described by its creator as ‘an autobiographical sci-fi fever-dream’26 or ‘multimedia autobiographical hell-gyre’,27 the shape you make was commissioned by Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art and constructed using Twine and Bitsy, user friendly tools that have helped to foster a fertile culture of amateur and DIY game design. The former was coded by Chris Klimas as an 'open-source tool for telling interactive, nonlinear stories'; the latter is described by creator Adam Le Doux as 'mak[ing] it easy to make games where you can walk around and talk to people and be somewhere.' Here they provide the scaffolding for a labyrinthine, macabre and fantastical account of a narrator looking to escape memories of a traumatic and abusive upbringing through drugs and digital technology. The game is, among other things, an elegy for the false promise of the internet, which once seemed to offer possibilities for connection and expression, but is portrayed here as having become a means of 'surveilling and informing for free on each other' that has reduced culture to a 'dispassionate dopamine drip'.
1. Mary L Gray, Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America (New York, N.Y.: New York University Press, 2009). 92. ↩
2. Joel Couture, “Road to the IGF: Cassie McQuater’s Black Room,” Gamasutra, accessed July 19, 2019, https://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/336846/Road_to_the_IGF_Cassie_McQuaters_Black_Room.php. ↩
3. Rob Gallagher, “‘The Game Becomes the Mediator of All Your Relationships’: Life Narrative and Networked Intimacy in Nina Freeman’s Cibele,” European Journal of Life Writing 8 (May 18, 2019): DM33–55, https://doi.org/10.21827/ejlw.8.35549. ↩
4. On nostalgia for the aesthetics of early personal webpages see Sarah McRae, “‘Under Construction’ Lives: Restorative Nostalgia and the GeoCities Archive,” European Journal of Life Writing 8 (July 20, 2019): DM-CS34 – DM-CS44, https://doi.org/10.21827/ejlw.8.35623. ↩
5. Michael Samyn, “Make Love, Notgames,” The Old Blog of Tale of Tales, March 31, 2010, http://tale-of-tales.com/blog/2010/03/31/make-love-notgames/. ↩
6. Robert Yang, “On My Games Being Twice Banned by Twitch,” Radiator Blog, September 24, 2015, https://www.blog.radiator.debacle.us/2015/09/on-my-games-being-twice-banned-by-twitch.html. ↩
7. Robert Yang, “The End of Tumblr (and Cobra Club?),” Radiator Blog, December 10, 2018, https://www.blog.radiator.debacle.us/2018/12/the-end-of-tumblr-and-cobra-club.html. ↩
8. Bonnie Ruberg, Video Games Have Always Been Queer (New York: New York University Press, 2019). 179-80. ↩
9. Mattie Brice, “Mainichi,” Alternate Ending, November 6, 2012, http://www.mattiebrice.com/mainichi/. ↩
10. Anna Anthropy, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Dropouts, Queers, Housewives, and People like You Are Taking Back an Art Form, Seven Stories Press 1st ed (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2012). ↩
11. Evelyn Chew and Alex Mitchell, “The Impact of Interactivity on Truth Claims in Life Stories,” DIEGESIS 4, no. 2 (December 3, 2015), https://www.diegesis.uni-wuppertal.de/index.php/diegesis/article/view/206. 10-12.. ↩
12. which itself began as a mod of Half-Life (Valve Corporation, 1998).
13. Melissa Kagen, “Archival Adventuring,” Convergence, May 6, 2019, 1354856519847875, https://doi.org/10.1177/1354856519847875. ↩
14. For Kagen walking sims like Gone Home and What Remains of Edith Finch (Giant Sparrow, 2017) offer glimpses of a kind of 'queer archival poetics', but also tend to succumb to the allure of teleology; by 'finding all the pieces... and organizing them into a neat, teleological narrative' the player essentially 'straightens up' characters' lives, imposing normative narrative forms on them.
15. Kagen, “Archival Adventuring.” 9-10. ↩
16. See also my account of Tacoma (The Fulbright Company, 2017), the follow-up to Gone Home - which, like its precursor, is perhaps too ready to characterise the collection of biographical data as heroic and redemptive.
17. Rob Gallagher, “Volatile Memories: Personal Data and Post Human Subjectivity in The Aspern Papers, Analogue: A Hate Story and Tacoma,” Games and Culture, April 15, 2019, 1555412019841477, https://doi.org/10.1177/1555412019841477. ↩
18. David B. Nieborg, “Crushing Candy: The Free-to-Play Game in Its Connective Commodity Form,” Social Media + Society 1, no. 2 (September 22, 2015): 2056305115621932, https://doi.org/10.1177/2056305115621932. ↩
19. On 'casual' versus 'hardcore' games see Jesper Juul, A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2010). ↩
20. Zoya Street, Dreamcast Worlds: A Design History (Self-published, 2013). 98. ↩
22. Alexander R. Galloway, The Interface Effect (Cambridge, UK ; Malden, MA: Polity, 2012). 132-3. ↩
23. Mitu Khandaker-Kokoris, “NPCs Need Love Too: Simulating Love and Romance, from a Game Design Perspective,” in Game Love: Essays on Play and Affection, ed. Jessica Enevold and Esther MacCallum-Stewart (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2015), 82–93. 86. ↩
24. On the growing cultural prominence of illness narratives see Arthur W. Frank, The Wounded Storyteller : Body, Illness, and Ethics, Second edition.. (Chicago ; London: The University of Chicago Press, 2013). ↩
25. On 'death writing' see Anne Grinyer, “Telling the Story of Illness and Death,” Auto/Biography 14, no. 3 (2006): 206–22, https://doi.org/10.1191/0967550706ab041oa. ↩
26. Evelyn Chew and Alex Mitchell, “Multimodality and Interactivity in ‘Natively’ Digital Life Stories,” Poetics Today 40, no. 2 (June 1, 2019): 319–53, https://doi.org/10.1215/03335372-7298578. 344-6. ↩
27.Tanya Krzywinska, “Hands-On Horror,” in Screenplay: Cinema/Videogames/Interfaces, ed. Geoff King and Tanya Krzywinska (London; New York: Wallflower Press, 2002), 12–23. 14. ↩
28. “Porpentine Charity Heartscape The Shape You Make When You Want Your Bones To Be Closest to the Surface, 2018 Online Game Commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago,” MCA, accessed July 23, 2019, https://mcachicago.org/Publications/Websites/I-Was-Raised-On-The-Internet/Artworks/Porpentine-Charity-Heartscape-The-Shape-You-Make-When-You-Want-Your-Bones-To-Be-Closest-To-The-Surface-2018. ↩
29. Porpentine Charity Heartscape, “Porpentine Are Creating EVERYTHING,” Patreon, accessed July 23, 2019, https://www.patreon.com/Porpentine. ↩