Wednesday, 31 October 2012

The Political Uses of Fear

Edited screenshot from Lim, by Merritt Kopas

This post is in response to Blogs of the Round Table. Trigger warning for street harassment, passing anxiety, rape culture. 

Here in videogameland we relish fear like children relish Halloween. Actually, we relish Halloween like children relish Halloween. But our uses of fear are essentially escapist, even hedonistic: we lust after the adrenaline rush of shocks and frights and cathartic thrills like the psychologist in Psycho who has a little too much fun delivering the denouement. Games are very good at fear, too, though when we mention this it's usually just before we note how bad they are at ~*love*~. But that primal, animal emotion, that evolutionary hangover that cross-wires nuclear bombs with teeth and claws, is good for more than rollercoasters. It has political uses. By harnessing fear we can trap even the most privileged players in the frightening subjectivity of another. The scariest things are not the ghosts and goblins of seasonal kitsch, but the hidden, suppressed suffering our society produces as if it were a machine specifically constructed for that purpose.

In 2010 there was a lot of noise about a game called Hey Baby. It was a literal man-shooter, advertised as a stress relief tool for ladies in the public sphere, which you can play by clicking here. Its own pitch explains it best:

You're the last one out of the office. It's getting dark outside...

There's no one around. You hear foosteps behind you. The light flickers.

You turn and he says “I wanna lick you all over.”

And then you remember, you're packing a 3' long .80 caliber machine gun that's locked and loaded.


(you can also 'shower them with love', buying them off with a degrading “thank you”).

In practice, it is very crude. You bumble round a blocky block of what looks like Brooklyn in high summer (and may well be; Leigh Alexander said it was just like her neighbourhood). Roaming men attach themselves to your trail and follow you around chanting “smile for me, baby” and “I wanna lick you all over” (“pretty realistic,” says Alexander). Their clipping blocks your path, but they're fairly easy to avoid, not least by jumping over some crates and out of the map. Congratulations, player, you escaped the patriarchy.

When I played it back in 2010, however, it caught me off guard. I was expecting a shooting gallery and I'd resolved not to play along. Then, in my confusion, I let them box me in. Glassy-eyed males pressed me into a corner, waddling towards me with their weird arm-flapping gaits, walking on the spot as they pushed up against my hitbox. Zombie comparisons are appropriate; when each man has just one catcall that he repeats every few seconds, dozens of them produce a giant undead moan. Disturbed, I shot the lot of them. It was terrifying. And its crudity actually worked in its favour: the looping MIDI ice cream jingle, the god-awful animation and the weird voice acting conspired to create an atmosphere of surreal threat.

But for some the scariest thing was that this game existed at all. I was just one of many male players who were so ignorant of street harassment that I couldn't imagine where such a disturbing expression of anger and fear had from. There were also some who seemed affronted by the idea of women expressing anything at all. Misogyny, as it is wont to do, erupted like an overdue boil, and there was one of those big debates, and Leigh Alexander wrote the piece above and Kieron Gillen wrote this piece and Daniel Nye Griffiths wrote this one for all I know maybe most people went on with their opinions unchanged. But it was a small watershed moment for me. Like, could it possibly be that, as a man, I don't know everything about what women experience? Maybe I should like listen to them when they say certain things make their lives hell every day???

Enough about my touching Mighty Whitey Dances With Feminists tale. The point is that privilege survives in part because it's invisible to those who have it. It persuades them to dismiss and disbelieve the testimony of its victims and they become accessories to its savagery. What was interesting about Hey Baby was that it put players direchy in the position of the oppressed, subjecting them to a recognisable caricature of patriarchal logic. As Merritt Kopas points out, games usually model violence only as “a decontextualised physical act” performed by individuals – but they could easily go further to model “structural violence”, of the kind which “relentlessly chip[s] away at and ruin[s] bodies and lives.”. If games - which are very good at provoking lizard brain responses like fear, stress and fiero – can model structural violence, they can also wield structural fear as a political tool. They can dramatize the experience of the underprivileged, and provoke the player to empathise with situations they've never had to consider. They can make you feel what it is to be terrified out of your fucking mind every moment of your life about something most people take for granted. 

By the way, none of this is to say it's victims' job to educate the poor ignorant oppressors with benevolently educational games. Hey Baby was never advertised as a men's primer to rape culture but as a pressure valve for the women who have to live in it. But modelling the logic of oppression and recreating the fear it provokes is an emancipatory political act whoever you focus on. To speak the truth about power not only confronts the privileged but also helps the oppressed recognise their own solidarity – and makes life bearable for the speaker. It is, if nothing else, to scream: to say, LOOK. LOOK! THIS IS HOW IT IS. Also, once intersectionality enters the picture, it might be pretty important for different groups of dissidents to understand each other's trials.

A very clever version of this method is deployed apolitically in Journey. It is a game grounded in transience and memory, where no ludic advantage persists between playthroughs and where you can make and lose friends who you'll never see again. The value of your play sums as nothing more and nothing less than the experiences of a brain which will eventually die and be dust (except achievements, which spoil everything). In this context, the jump tokens seem a little superfluous, even insulting, as if you wouldn't bother exploring the beautiful gameworld if there were no rewards to find. But they do create a simple resource which, within Journey's grand life/resurrection analogy, functions for wealth, vanity, power, mental health, take your pick. The more you have, the freer you are to move and act; others can see what you've got and maybe get jealous. But if they are the only thing in the game that can be acquired and managed, they are also the only thing which can be lost.

I didn't know that. I'd managed to stick with the same playing partner all the way from the early dunes, and, both blessed with long, beautiful scarves, we took to helping each other climb to impossible heights just for fun. That all stopped at the underwater section. When I realised what the worms had ripped away from me, I felt A) a sense of loss and panic, and B) more vulnerable than I ever had in a game. Where once I'd leapt and sang around my partner like a dolphin playing with the prow of a ship I now huddled close to her like a drowning man to a piece of driftwood. I felt hurt, wounded, small, diminished; I was afraid that something worse might happen or that without her boost-refilling chant I might not be able to proceed. I was even scared that she'd get bored and abandon me, and felt guilty for spoiling her game by slowing her down. To her credit, she stuck with me right up to – and beyond - the moment when the harsh winds of the mountain/winter/old age/whatever tore both our cloaks away.

Journey integrates this fear into its own pseudo-Buddhist cosmology; attachment begets sorrow, ownership and power are temporary, friends leave and lives end, and all there is is what we learn as we turn the wheel again and again. As with Left 4 Dead's sudden reversals of agency, this profit and loss also serves to texture and complicate the social bonds its players form. A few other games offer pointers without explicit politics: Day Z's is a Hobbesian vision of how people treat each other when all bets are off, while Shadow of the Colossus' has a late-game section which makes you as slow and doomed as your enemies were before you murdered them.

Explicitly political uses of fear are harder to find. Kopas' own Lim attempts to provoke the violence and dread and suffocation" of passing (as curatorPorpentine put it). As a flashing multicoloured square in a binary maze of blue and brown ones, you must blend in (and slow down) to progress. As you do so the screen zooms down claustrophobically while the speakers thump out an accelerating heart rate; soon the screen starts shaking. If you don't, the other squares will fly at you and push you violently around so you can't control your path. Its ruleset is unapologetically 'unfair'; can't get past the hostile blocks? Welcome to real life.

As with Hey Baby, crudity works in its favour: the fuzzy impact sounds are ear-splitting and jump-inducing. You can also be completely blocked from going any further or even shoved right out of the map and excluded from society. The hostile square attacks are disorienting, even nerve-wracking. But for me, its glitchiness produced a sense of baffled disconnection rather than empathy. Sometimes my square blended in on its own, and sometimes it didn't, and it was not always clear which would happen or why. Still, it clearly touched a nerve for many others.

Anna Anthropy's Dys4ia is somewhat similar in its subject matter and its attempt to provoke empathy via experience, but it is a biography which insists its lessons cannot be generalised. It models individual and discrete instances of frustration rather than a system of oppression; a persistent micro-rhetoric of frustrated agency is the closest it comes to the latter. Meanwhile, Richard Hofmeier's Cart Life is a simulation of grinding poverty which “teeters on the brink of unplayability”, according to Electron Dance. Its mechanics “capture the anxiety and the tedium of the daily grind”, but I haven't played it at the time of writing so you'll have to take their word for it. There must be more examples out there. On these foundations, there will inevitably be more to come.

Indeed, perhaps fear is what the recently controversial iBeg lacked. The game which prompted Patricia Hernandez to ask what it takes to make a game that changes the world (cached due to hurricane) is by all accounts a bit too fun, a little too gameable, to avoid trivialising the issue. Its progression and resource structure sound about on par with something like Plants vs Zombies.

Opposite political uses of fear are also possible. Much of the controversy around Resident Evil 5 was about how it reinforced racist tropes with its scary white-eyed beastly black people, while an enemy canned during development of Half-Life was supposed to molest the player in order to terrify a target audience of teenage boys. These uses of fear are 'political', but in the sense of avoiding or negating politics, of using or reinforcing the status quo.

Whether or not such experiences actually change anything is beyond the scope of this blog. It is a question for sociologists, psychologists, statisticians, or perhaps advertisers. Maybe all of these games are preaching to the converted, since they tend to circulate in circles which agree with the radical concept that trans people (for instance) should be allowed to exist. Fear, too, is easily commodified, easily subsumed into a paradigm of vicarious 'escapism'. And then there is the whole question of what place activist games actually have in the market, even within the indie scene. But I don't think such uses of fear are restricted purely to the low-fi fringe. Imagine, for example, if Amnesia actually tried to make you think about mental illness. Hey! You could be the cockroach in Kafka's Metamorphosis. Which was a horrifying, brilliant insight into the experience of exclusion already.

It's a canard of games discussion that videogames can let you be 'somebody else'. Most of the time these somebody elses are suspiciously similar to society's dominant groups and face problems suspiciously far from reality. But games do have a power as great as that of the novel (though different in form) to model subjectivity - to create empathy in those who don't understand and grateful, cathartic recognition in those who wish they could forget. 

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