Cyborg Space in Indie Games

While reading Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” which was published in 1984, I was struck by her analysis of what video games represented during the time she was writing: “Technologies like video games and highly miniaturized televisions seem crucial to production of modern forms of ‘private life’. The culture of video games is heavily oriented to individual competition and extraterrestrial warfare. High-tech, gendered imaginations are produced here, imaginations that can contemplate destruction of the planet and a sci-fi escape from its consequences” (168). What is fascinating about this observation, apart from admiring the assertion of such a speculation, is how the evolution of the typical mass-market video game fits within this model. Video game franchises based on perpetual global-warfare (Call of Duty, Battlefield, etc) position the player (in the case of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare) in the POV of western-male-soliders if they are on the ‘Good’ side and ethnic-male-soldiers if they are on the ‘Bad’ side. Comedian Kumail Nanjiani has a joke in one of his stand-up specials about the fact that this particular installment of the Call of Duty franchise used Arabic on all of the street signs despite the fact that Urdu is the language spoken in the Pakistani location the game’s map is based on. This sort of disregard for race and gender—the sci-fi escape from Earthly consequence—allow the subject to shoot and kill, destroy environments, and communicate with team members in order to most efficiently fight in the ‘us vs. them’ simulations without bearing the responsibility of questioning the power structure established in the virtual space. Thus the game is representative of “technologies that promise ultimate mobility and perfect exchange—and incidentally enable tourism” (168).

This is not meant to rehash the conversation about violence in video games, but rather to analyze how certain video games promote or enable a mode of being within their virtual-networked-space where Us vs. Them binaries are consistent with neoliberal capitalist models of contemporary existence. Haraway’s insistence that the cyborg undermines binaries (human/animal, human/machine, physical/non-physical) is important to establish, as well as Jasbir Puar’s claim that the cyborg “actually inhabits an intersection—of the body and technology” in “‘I Would Rather Be a Cyborg than a Goddess’: Intersectionality, Assemblage, and Affective Politics”.

The cyborg is a useful model for thinking through video games (and indie games, if that is a distinction we want to make) that challenge the rigidity of being. I want to use two games as models for thinking through the cyborg manifesto: David O’Reilly’s Everything (2017) and Thatgamecompany’s Journey (2012).

A quote that situates the relevance of simulations of imagined realities: “From another perspective, a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints” (154). In trying to conceptualize what a world free of binaries (man—woman, human—animal, human—machine) would look like, video games such as Journey and Everything offer a space of play that disregards the subject’s real world position in such a binary. In the case of Everything, which continues simulation regardless of a player’s involvement with the game, players have the opportunity to control (almost) everything in the game—one can be a lady-bug, turn into blades of grass, transform into a pebble on the ground, take control of oxygen molecules floating through the air, become the entire star-system in which all previous controlled-entities exist within. This points to an imagined reality in which the boundaries between bodies are non-existent. The game doesn’t really have an objective, players simply drift between controllable bodies and collect audio recordings in which Alan Watts describes various ideas regarded our position as subjects in this particular universe during this particular time. In applying the cyborg manifesto to Everything, one can note that there is certainly no goddesses depicted in the game: one could argue that the auto-genesis of objects players create through “dancing,” replaces any notion of maternal creation. So while the game does offer a space outside of the binaries discussed in the cyborg manifesto, I don’t know how useful it is as a feminist text.

Trailer for Everything: 

Journey can also be seen within this context of exiting such binaries, but with a more goal-oriented structure. For those who have never played Journey, players take control of a (genderless/non-human) robed avatar that appears in the middle of a desert; after completing the game’s tutorial stage the player is paired with an anonymous online-cooperative partner. The game’s major innovation comes in the interactions between you (your avatar) and your online partner (an unknown person’s avatar). Players cannot speak to one another using blue-tooth headsets, text, or other traditional means—rather, avatars let out musical chirps, pulses of light, and regenerative touches as a means to establish non-verbal phatic communication. This positions the player outside of the binaries Haraway describes while also working against the idea that “The culture of video games is heavily oriented to individual competition and extraterrestrial warfare”. The ability to establish meaningful network connections without the reliance of personhood (one does not have to use their voice, which can reveal gender) allows cooperative play to exist outside of the power-structures in operational activity based on gender, class, or race (military structures). At the end of one’s journey, the game reveals the username(s) of those who you interacted with (during one play through a player might encounter a single partner or multiple—differentiating these experiences can be sometimes difficult). As Patrick Jagoda notes, the webpage Journey Stories, a Tumblr in which users recount their in-game non-verbal relationships using pictures, prose descriptions, and other means to re-mediate the experience into our world, is testimony to the fact that the game has a deeply affective structure; these relationships mean something to the people who are experiencing it. I really like the idea of Journey as representative of a digital space in which to explore these concepts; though, how can it be situated in Puar’s response to the cyborg manifesto? Does Journey lead us to “roadmaps of precisely these not quite fully understood relations between discipline and control”? How much theoretical ‘weight’ can we put on networked-indie-games before they are no longer valuable to our discussion of intersectionality/assemblage? In a game that abstracts personal identity (including gender/racial identity), is it necessary to point out who the developers of the game were (as in their gender/racial identities) in order to discuss its relevance, or is it enough that this team of people developed a space in which these avenues could be explored?

Trailer for Journey: 

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6 thoughts on “Cyborg Space in Indie Games

  1. In response to your question, “in a game that abstracts personal identity (including gender/racial identity), is it necessary to point out who the developers of the game were (as in their gender/racial identities) in order to discuss its relevance, or is it enough that this team of people developed a space in which these avenues could be explored” it might be worth considering other games this independent game developer/s have released. This is a really interesting question because on the one hand, a certain level of transparency should exist (at least at this time) because of their affect on the players. On the other hand, relinquishing one’s identity for anonymity or a collaborative approach is appealing.

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  2. So glad to have the videogame analysis! (also always interesting to see which aspects of Haraway’s piece were predictive, and which now are totally dated) As someone who doesn’t play, I am always still interested in videogame development as spaces of innovation, particularly in regards to world making, and avatar/character development. If you have any good research on these themes I would love to learn more!

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  3. The video game analysis in this context was great. I’ve played Journey–the process of learning about subjectivity as you navigate the ever-moving horizon of the desert allows the player to inhabit both body and space (in terms of how one comes to inhabit a new technological body) is fascinating because movement is never what it seems. The desire to move quickly in Journey is always prevented by the game time, which requires that you slow down and gain a new sense of technological space within a “natural” one. It’s fascinating. I hadn’t heard of Journey Stories, so thank you for bringing that into the conversation as well.

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  4. Like others, I also appreciated how you brought up Haraway’s depiction of videogames. I am still unsure of how I actually feel about her description. There is obviously an element of truth to it, particularly in regard to mainstream American works. That said, I am not convinced of her framing of the issues. For example, I think it is debatable whether or not online cooperative games (e.g. MMOS) actually constitute a figuring of “private life.” In one sense, they do (I play on my computer in my house); however, they also don’t (my social life is online in a fictional reality). This raises more fundamental questions about sociality: do we maintain the current private/public definition, or do we remodel it based upon emergent technologies? Though this is a rather small part of a much larger argument, I wonder ultimately if Haraway’s description here is too reductive. In any case, I do agree with you that games have a great cyborgian potential, and have the ability to model “other” types of communication.

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  5. This inclusion of video games into the analysis of Haraway and Puar was so cool! I’m definitely interested in the ways you described relationships and kinship playing out in Journey and Everything. I think it would be really interesting to explore more how alternative kinship (alinguistic or otherwise) and kinship networks are being formed and modified by technology like video games, like social media platforms, etc.

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  6. I really appreciated your analysis of video games through Haraway and Puar. I have never played Journey or Everything (or no video games after Mario Kart tbh), but your post really made me curious about indie video games. And I think your last question is crucial: “In a game that abstracts personal identity (including gender/racial identity), is it necessary to point out who the developers of the game were (as in their gender/racial identities) in order to discuss its relevance, or is it enough that this team of people developed a space in which these avenues could be explored?”. I would be afraid that an “abstract personal identity” would translate into a white male. Since the white male identity is the unmarked and dominant identity (ie. saying “someone” usually refers to a white male, but when talking about anyone else the identity has to be marked: black woman, middle eastern man, etc), I’d be afraid that constructing an “abstract identity” would just fall into “multicultural”, “colorblind”, “postracial” discourses. These discourses emphasize “not seeing race or gender anymore”, rather than dealing with systemic inequalities like racism or sexism.

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