Ludic Lives, Lewd Hacks and Digital Labour: Gameplay, Life Writing and Auto/Biography

On June 21st King’s played host to a symposium on ‘Indisciplinary Approaches to Digital Play’, which I helped KCL colleagues Feng Zhu, Stephanie James and Conor McKeown to organise. The idea was to structure the day around ‘provocations’ calibrated to spark cross-disciplinary conversation and debate. I’m not really the kind of thinker who thrives on the cut and thrust of duelling theses, but proposing a panel on gameplay, life writing and auto/biography turned out to be provocative enough in this context.

After all, much of the symposium was devoted to exploring how digital games push us to think in terms and on scales other than those auto/biography has classically dealt in. Rather than focusing on discrete individuals, we considered how games anchor messy assemblages of humans, machines, algorithms and even (in the case of Ida Kathrine Hammeleff Jørgensen’s work on ‘ACI’ or ‘Animal-Computer Interaction’) animals. Informed by Karen Barad’s ideas, Conor’s ecologies panel proposed that framing reality in terms of subjects exercising agency upon objects fundamentally misrepresents the realities of quantum entanglement and infra-action (grammatical imperatives notwithstanding). Feng’s panel on play and habit, meanwhile, focused not on the kinds of introspection and retrospection we expect of autobiographers, but on the unconscious accretion of embodied knowledge, the pre-personal domain of affective transmission and the split-second reactions required of high-level players for whom thousandths of a second may be the difference between victory and defeat.

Cassie McQuater’s Black Room (2018), an autobiographical game I’ve been thinking about lots recently

In such surroundings asking people to think biographically risks seeming retrograde, parochial or downright sentimental. Scholars of life writing have, however, been among the keenest critics of the conceptions of selfhood, time and agency that biography as a form has traditionally upheld, using particular acts of self-presentation to unpack the cultural implications of digitization and ludification. With this in mind, my goal was to highlight work happening at the junction of gaming and life writing while demonstrating that attending to individual lives and can further the kinds of projects outlined in the other panels.

In truth, some participants had already acknowledged as much, with Tom Brock citing Margaret Archer’s dictum that habits are best understood within their biographical contexts and Anne Mette Thorhauge arguing for the need to understand cases of compulsive ‘problem gaming’ contextually. Perhaps inevitably for a day about disciplinarity, academic biographies and career trajectories also factored into many of the sessions, not least the brilliant keynotes by ITU Copenhagen’s Espen Aarseth (who claimed to have been ‘raised by Digital Humanists’ before such a term existed, and affirmed the need for critical, as well as sociological and vocational, approaches to games education) and William Huber, who expressed his fear that UK Higher education just isn’t set up to properly support the kinds of inquiry that contemporary play cultures require.

While William’s concerns were echoed by many attendees, my panellists (all of whom had been asked to prepare 5 minute presentations as a prelude to a more general discussion) provided plenty of evidence that UK-based scholars are managing to do valuable work nonetheless.

The UCL Knowledge Lab’s Diane Carr kicked things off with an account of her recent work on digital games and disability for the AHRC research programme D4D: Disability and Community. Foregrounding gaming’s preoccupation with quantifying and evaluating bodily performance, Diane situated videogames within longer histories of sorting and evaluating bodies according to normative criteria. Highlighting the role of eugenicists like Francis Galton in these histories, Diane also asked how we deal with shameful episodes in the biographies of the institutions we work for – a question at the centre of a recent collaboration with Subhadra Das, curator of UCL’s Galton Collection.

Ego-Media’s own Lisa Gee gave us a demo of Hayleyworld, her interactive ‘zoegraphy’ of the poet and biographer William Hayley (1745-1820).  Hayley is best known these days as a friend and patron of 18th century cultural luminaries like Romney, Cowper and Blake. He was, however, famed at the time for his phenomenally successful Triumphs of Temper, a kind of husband-hunter’s guide formatted as a Spenserian epic poem. Mercurial and multifaceted, Hayley seems like the perfect subject for Lisa’s playful approach to life writing, popping up to engage visitors to Hayleyworld in branching dialogues that evoke contemporary ‘visual novels’ even as they take inspiration from 18th century conceptions of the art of conversation.

William Hayley

Abertay’s Emilie Reed, who works at the intersection of academia, the artworld and DIY gaming culture, talked about the recent Lost Histories jam, which saw her inviting participants to create pieces about ‘something specific to the way that you played or experienced videogames that you feel like hardly anyone ever talks about’. Providing alternatives to the reverently nostalgic paeans to bygone gaming blockbusters that litter social media, the jam yielded dissections of in-jokes in Super Mario Bros. fan game communities, a zine about playing bootleg games in 90s Argentina, an upload of rudimentary music production software once given away via CD-ROMs inserted into packs of Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain cereal and a virtual  exhibition of lewd Dragon Warrior (Chunsoft, 1986) hacks. Emilie also talked about her experiences of putting together a zine for the recent Now Play This festival of experimental game design, to which visitors were encouraged to add doodles, reminiscences and collages.

Nilson’s Brief History of Perverted Dragon Warrior ROM Hacks (2019), a submission to the Lost Histories Jam

The next presentation came from Zoyander Street. Having long made ‘para-academic’ contributions to the field of videogame criticism and history (I’m a fan of Dreamcast Worlds: A Design History, which uses interviews and anecdotes to illuminate the role games like Phantasy Star Online (Sonic Team, 2000) played in the biographies of individual players), Zoyander recently joined Lancaster University to conduct PhD research on how game designers have conceptualised players’ emotions. He’s also cultivated an art practice that has resulted in works like Interactive Portraits, which appeared alongside Emilie’s zine library at Now Play This. The project presents interviews with Japanese trans artists and activists via handheld devices inspired by Tamagotchi virtual pets (which, by prioritizing care over competition, provide a model of digital play that Zoyander suggested contemporary designers can still learn from). Framing this work in relation to auto/biographical games like Squinky’s you used to be someone, he proposed that games are facilitating new forms of life writing informed by queer and trans critiques of normative biographical temporalities.

Finally, the Oxford Internet Institute’s Jamie Woodcock gave a presentation explaining the model of worker’s inquiry he has developed across his work on the games industry, call centres, and ride sharing platforms like Uber – a model concerned not just with describing working conditions in the digital economy, but also with helping workers to organise and improve those conditions. Highlighting Marx’s little-discussed turn to surveys late in his career, Jamie framed his own work within a continuum of using first-hand experience to inform radical theory and praxis. He also discussed the emergence of the Game Workers Unite movement – part of a push towards unionisation in the games industry that, as Jamie underlined, seemed unimaginable to many until very recently – and looked back on the game jam on the theme of ‘organising at work’ that Game Workers Unite UK recently held.

If game studies has sometimes had a tendency to consider ‘the player’ in the abstract, and to turn a blind eye to the material circumstances within which specific games are made and played, the panel made a strong case for the value of situated perspectives on gameplay and game production – and, for that matter, games scholarship. Covering interactive auto/biographies and ‘ludobiographical’ accounts of particular subjects’ experiences of play alongside research methodologies in which forms of life writing (from interviews and oral histories, ethnographies and diaries to archival materials) play a role, the panel showed just how much exciting work is happening in these areas.

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Prior to joining the Ego Media team, Rob worked as a postdoctoral fellow at Concordia University’s Technoculture, Art and Games... read more about: Robert Gallagher