Final Thoughts on Ivanhoe & Gaming Readings

**(Apologies for the lengthy post, but I’m hoping to make up for 1-2 blog posts here)**

After the completion of our Ivanhoe projects, I’m most struck by the questioning of how can players engage in conversations of experiences towards a particular game when an individual player’s cultural experience determines how they can identify with the notion of escapism as we embodied different places and characters in our Ivanhoe platforms. Aside from the idea of escapism as a mental mode of disengaging with one’s reality, escapism can also be understood as fantasy, meaning an escape to radical and dystopian virtual realities that can be wishfully and longingly applied to our societal sense of what is or could be real. Essentially this would be the inverse to games such as Southpark and GTA that capitalize on the presumed experience of a singular type of player and draw on addressing issues in popular American culture at the expense of stereotyping marginalized groups. Specifically, I turn to a rare AAA title developed by Hangar 13—Mafia 3 (https://mafiagame.com/), that invites players to play through the experience of a Black Vietnam war veteran set in 1968, New Bordeux (fictional New Orleans). Everything about the themes and setting of this game engrosses the player in the racial setting and landscape of the time period, drawing heavily from the likes of James Baldwin and Jim Brown to inform the political voices of the time. From uncomfortable moments such as being racially profiled by police while open roaming in the game, to moments of social justice when main protagonist Lincoln Clay straps a corrupt (white supremacist) politician’s body to a statue of Andrew Jackson to send a message to the Italian mob, while extreme in dramatism and violence, offer an immersive experience that can draw people from many different experiences to engage in what Mary Flanagan describes as “subversion”. Subversion as a creative act can be thought as an example of a game that can stimulate conversations that question the reality of our political structures in a meaningful way, I would argue is a form of escapism. Despite this, certain aspects are draining from the perspective of people who live through the many real-world instances of racial inequality. While being reminded of the racism in American culture may be counter to the idea of escapism, how can we find more balance in using games to challenge our sense of societal reality while honoring the accuracy of history?

Considering that the majority of the dialogue I’m concerned has been been studying centers around diversity and representation of characters in video games, I found Ian Bogost’s article for the Atlantic to be a rather fresh and stimulating viewpoint. I actually get the sense that Bogost’s work seems to somewhat resent the pervasiveness of identity politics in the modern-day video game debate. He seems to think that the reason why identity politics has become such a potent force in the conversation is that it is rooted in a selfish obsession for personal identification and representation. Now, while he evidently has a decent awareness and concern for the ubiquity of social issues and inequality, I think he is still coming from a place of privilege in perhaps not understanding how valuable representation can be for typically underrepresented groups. And perhaps he takes for granted that he’s had to wrestle less with his own personal identification. Thus, it seems unfair that he perceives gamers desire for self-identification as a strictly a selfish indulgence. That said, his argument is still a valid one worth reflecting upon. The notion that we must have characters in games in order to achieve diversity and sophistication is one that should be challenged, and I really enjoyed working with my team to think out of the box in turning places into characters in our Quicksand game. The representations of systems and circumstances over individuals can be an incredibly formidable tool in both understanding complex issues of social justice as well as attempting to separate ourselves from our need for personal identification. There is something hauntingly powerful at the thought of abdicating our individual desires in the interest of systems bigger than ourselves. Again, while I think Bogost does occupy a relatively privileged space, his point that it is a luxury to worry about self-representation when there are grander and powerfully destructive forces at work—climate change, wealth inequality, automation, etc. –is a fair critique. Maybe he’s right, that while we are focused on self-expression, and playing a game of identities, billionaires are off playing the game of systems. Given the current state of things in today’s world, we have reason to worry. As Bogost points out, the threat of automation, privatization, surveillance, etc., are all very real. It might be uncomfortable to hear, but there is definitely truth in that to strive for a more promising future, we may need to address the systems themselves rather than the faces of its operators. Otherwise, we will continue to be the Sims “meandering aimlessly in the streets of power broker’s cities.”

 I was also thinking about “ragdoll” physics and how video games might desensitize gamers to violence, and specifically death, so I looked more in detail at Phillips’s article on “Headshots, Twitch Responses and the Desensitization of Performed Violence”, who was referenced in one of Jeff’s readings as a DH scholar in game studies at Georgetown University! Ragdoll physics, as Phillips says, simulates the moment of death and allow for the deceased character to be animated and manipulated to provide “a theoretically endless supply of unique death animations” (4). This animation changes the way we kill in video games, so that it becomes less about simply killing the target and fulfilling some goal of the game, and more about the entertainment of killing another character or creature. The deceased character loses any agency over its body and is subject to the ragdoll physics of the game world, which often means the body can be manipulated by forces of the game or other players. This creates a shocking disparity between the game world and the real world. While it would be highly offensive and disrespectful to manipulate a real-life body, in the game world it is not only possible but encouraged, like practices such as “teabagging” that Phillips mentions.

When Phillips mentioned ragdoll physics, I immediately thought of the game Goat Simulator, which was a game that became very popular online because of its ragdoll physics, in that the goat you play as could be thrown around the map and manipulated countless ways. This was the appeal of the game, but that would certainly not hold true if transferred to reality. There seems to be a large disconnect between the game world and the actual world, and it begs the question of whether players can make sure their game actions don’t negatively impact their real-life decision making, and if game designers have a responsibility to keep a limit on what you can do inside a game universe (move-set). Ragdoll physics brings attention to just another way in which our experience inside a game does not, and should not, match up with our expectations and actions in the real world, and makes me wonder if gamers can keep the two realms reasonably separate, or if they are being desensitized to violence, race, gender, sexuality, and other representations of experience.

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