The Real Escapism

ByqspJxIAAAvndW

I’m not the sort of person who is afraid of being alone. Much to the chagrin of my friends, I will often do things that allow me to sit and enjoy something entirely by myself. I sit for hours at both home and my job, just passively watching things go on around me. Movies, dinner dates and sightseeing are all things I’ve done lost in my own thoughts.

Gaming nowadays goes roughly the same way, almost in defiance of how social video games have innately gotten. There’s endless titles that have single-player narratives but still allow global text chat, voice chat, cooperative play and random matchmaking. The act of playing a game can be just as social as anything else we choose to indulge in.

However, as I grow older, I find that my gaming habits have changed. As Ian Williams remarked on a recent episode of Justice Points, we don’t need MMORPGs to fill that social void when we’re constantly interacting with social media. Social media has let me lapse into a solitary lifestyle while the gentle pings of Twitter keep me company whenever I decided to tab out of whatever I’m doing in Diablo III or Hatoful Boyfriend. I can even enable my app to pop Mentions out as tiny boxes that I can read without even leaving what I’m doing. Having others rely on me to keep a game experience going is often tiresome for my mercurial attention span – sometimes I can hyper-focus for hours at a time but most of the time I just want to come and go as I please.

Enter Eidolon, a game I feel strongly about despite having only played a handful of hours. I have barely scratched what promises to be a deep narrative experience, only to just wander lonely and quiet, gently surviving. I watch the sky change color and clouds roll by. I climb to the top of cliffs to look out across the horizon. I pick up tinder and mushrooms. I orient myself using a compass I found from a glowing green cube.

There are no social options in this single-player game. There’s not even any other people as far as I know and I find that the best part. In this low-poly post-apocalypse setting, all I encounter is the occasional animal (dangerous or not) and snippets of what people left behind. I could sit doing nothing, just looking at the stars and the game would not mind. As long as I have enough food to keep myself from starving and a fire to keep me warm, I could go on like this forever, criss-crossing this ruined stretch of the low-poly Pacific Northwest.

It isn’t that I eschew the comfort of others, far from it.

When I used to have anxiety attacks about my own life, I used to imagine leaving everything behind. Whether it was driving out to the ocean in a car I didn’t own or leaving my body somewhere, the particular act of dissociation gave me a little control over my feelings. The open road has been a call for many people but I mostly just wanted to drift from whatever particular circumstances I was in at the time and felt chained down by.

What the game offers me so far is that same freedom to leave the trappings of being – I have no body or presentation in this game. There’s not even the ubiquitous “pair of hands” that so many other games have, I am a ghost wandering the hills. My experiences with other genres have been tied up very heavily in how I look, and one of the drawbacks of that is that it does remind me how, even though I am almost the lowest bar to clear in terms of representation (white cis female), there’s still quite a lot lacking. There’s also just how weighed down I can feel by how much even my gender matters in the video game sphere. Everywhere I look, someone is reminding me that I am queer, feminist and a woman and everything that means. Expectations and micro-aggressions are their own suit of armor and my spaces have gotten more hostile as of late.

Video games have long been the province of escapism, full of power fantasies and highly idealized versions of self. Exploration mechanics in games are the antithesis of that in a lot of ways, they beckon you to enjoy being somewhere versus someone else. For me, the chance to be no one is enticing, to not matter in the slightest. I simply wake up in the middle of a forest and the only question I have to answer is, “What now?” It’s a way to gain the feeling of being lost and happy about it without some of the concerns that do come up if I wandered outside of my house.

The choice to matter so very little is an odd one, but it is less stressful, even for a little while.

 

 

 

 

Ninja Pizza Girl and The Thorny Tangle of Girlhood

As far as indie games go, Ninja Pizza Girl has been on my radar for a while. I saw a video with the creators a while back and it seemed quirky, in a fun sort of way. The idea of an entire family starting their own indie development house is cute, especially with the father’s daughters pitching in to help with story and art. So when Polygon had an op-ed from the creator about the game, I took notice.

The crux of it is Jason Stark, the head of Disparity Games, relating precisely how and why Ninja Pizza Girl came to be. He talks about how the concept came straight from his childrens’ mouths but more importantly he  also describes the stumbles in his own assumptions about not only game design but also about his daughters’ growing vulnerability as they move into teen-hood and beyond. It was a bit of insight that I found intriguing, not so much as a gamer, but rather as a woman. It’s incredibly commonplace that men in the world, even ones closest to us, do not realize that women have these hidden narratives that they’ve never stopped to consider. It never occurs to them that our lives are in any way unique or different from theirs. The idea of relating this back to game design and story development is a smart one. Video games are one of the avenues of interactive media that could do so much better at peeking into the kinds of stories women navigate and centralizing them as important. We’ve seen so much discussion lately about the lack of women protagonists in games as well as a lack of women in the game industry. Allowing more women to be game creators as well as seeing ourselves represented not only reinforces the notion that we are human to the world, but lifts the veil on how our experiences might differ.

It is in this vein that I welcome Ninja Pizza Girl into the world – I believe that teen girls are one of the pockets of womanhood most needing of stories to be told (though I still feel the market is only making baby steps and still trends towards white, affluent and the like). It’s the father’s own admission of fault in taking his wife and children for granted and not listening enough that reminds me of the interview that we did on Justice Points with Fullbright Company’s Steve Gaynor and Karla Zimonja. Steve said that one of the things he took the most care to do when crafting Gone Home‘s narrative was interviewing queer women about being teens, as it was not something he had personal experience with. Jason not taking this tactic from the start is something he admits fault to and through the course of the article, outlines his own steps to rectify this. This is good – men realizing that they need to listen to the women in their lives in order to actually understand them.

It was this listening that informed Jason’s decision to turn the enemy of the story from rival pizza ninjas that you kill to something far scarier – other teens working for a pizza corporation that would tease and humiliate you. The bullying and how you deal with it is what determines how much of the game you spend in a more gray, colorless world of your own depression or in a world full of joy and brighter hues. I find this mechanic, as well as some of the ways the game rewards you for handling it (running away is definitely an option) really interesting. As someone who was very viciously bullied from middle school onward, the idea of centering a game around bullying as not only a narrative struggle but a combat mechanic seems a very unexplored but necessary “hook.” What really woke me up to the fact that being a teen girl now was significantly different than my experience was the mention of the protagonist, Gemma, having to fend off bullies phone-cam recording one of her ultimate embarrassing moments. The cultural touchstone of recording video with your phone is not lost on me, but it shook me out of my own reminiscing. I never, ever had to deal with other people, people who were seeking to hurt me, recording things without my knowledge and distributing them to a very, very large audience. With the recent news of Jada and looking back to something like Steubenville, it’s on my mind that teen girls being brutalized is aided and immortalized by the advent of digital technology. It was literally not something I had to deal with when I was a teen. It feels like more so now than ever, we need to start seeing young women as people and less as props for tormenting.

It was these types of things, along with the story of a parent humiliating a teen girl to suicide on Facebook, that hung around my head as I read. I was wondering if Stark would talk about mens’ role in being both abusers and harassers to teen girls, especially given the opening anecdote, but it never came. It seems the idea of bullies in the game (as well as the article) stops at a generic “other teens” but specifically mentions his own daughters dealing with the politics of other teen girls. This quote specifically jumped out at me:

Little girls start learning psychological games at the age of eight and master them by the age of fifteen.

It specifically refers to his youngest daughter losing some of her female friends due to internal politics, something I think a lot of us can relate to, but Jason lacking an understanding that many of us have now. It was this quote in particular that made me somewhat skeptical of his ability to grasp the subject matter that he was building his game upon.  While he may recognize that the things his daughters are going through actually happen, the larger context for them is missing. It’s a pretty common narrative that women are intensely catty, psychological torturers and “girl bullying” is a phrase I’ve oft heard over the years. With the aid of the Internet, there’s been a lot of scare stories about a bunch of girls smearing the reputation of another girl for some real or imagined slight. What I never heard was recognition of is why this stuff happens; to truly understand why girls bullying each other, you have to admit that sexism is real and is internalized in women from a very early age. When girls hit puberty,  we suck the light out of them. They lose enthusiasm for math, science and just about anything else. They have the world’s sexual expectations thrust upon them without being asked if they want it or understand it. Girls become increasingly hostile and political among each other but it’s for reasons that Stark didn’t note, which implied a well-worn narrative. Girls tear each other down due to internalizing the messages that we as a society tell them every day from the moment we decide they are girls: that they suck. Not only that, but that every other girl is an enemy because there is a valuable and finite resource called “men’s attention.” We reinforce notions that women are catty, will steal your “man” and cause you not to trust them. We teach them to be docile, to not speak up and that their problems aren’t worth hearing about, let alone resolving in a straightforward or assertive manner.  We break them apart because it keeps them compliant and without a support network.

All of these things are why, despite chipping into Ninja Pizza Girl‘s funding, I will be keeping a close eye on how the game will play. Because for all of the things I think it could do right, Jason Stark’s good intentions but ultimate lack of experience with the narrative of growing up as a girl still will be lingering there. I don’t think ill of him for this, but it makes me wonder how this could have been done by someone who had to jump and fly away from her own bullies way back when.