- Stephanie Dinsae
- Nathanial Torres
- Nancy Huang
- Marlin M. Jenkins
- Lyn Rafil
- JS Wu
- Harriette Chan
- Gyasi Hall
- Felix Lecocq
I have been thinking about violence. Very few of the pieces in this folio deal with it directly; I have loved video games all my life, and often resisted the moral-panic-driven narratives that games drive real-life violent urges. But, as I write this, I am witnessing heightened violence on the people of Gaza; hospitals bombed, families annihilated, all routes for refuge destroyed. The state characterizes it as retaliatory, but to accept that would be to deny the violence inflicted on Palestinians on Easter Sundays, Palestinians harassed at checkpoints on their daily way to work, Palestinians barred from seeing family only a few miles away. This is a violence that permeates in even the most mundane moments. It is not unfamiliar, then, nor is the barrage of racist, Islamophobic and anti-Arab rhetoric that accompanies each act to justify the deaths. In my daily life, what do I become desensitized to? And so: I am thinking about violence.
I did not play The Last of Us, neither the first or its sequel; first from lack of interest (I hate zombies), then for political reasons, but I was still interested in the feeling of playing it–particularly, regarding the dissonance and contradictions that often accompany Zionist art. Of the violence experienced by Black characters alongside queer euphoria, Stephanie Dinsae writes, “..while it might be simple to acknowledge that The Last of Us Part 2, a game in which vengeance is an incessant cycle, brings death to many, it is eye-opening to me what sort of deaths were given to whom.” This observation makes me wonder about audience–who do developers imagine are sitting down to play their games? We are not simply witnessing a story unfold, but embodying it, enacting it. If I, a Palestinian, were to play The Last of Us Part 2, would I find myself in the creatures facing eliminatory violence, or in the player meant to carry it out?
Who is considered, when the new point of view is constructed? Lyn Rafil’s piece raises this with a classic–the weight of “Are you a boy or a girl?” as the first choice a player must make in Pokemon. So many players have had to navigate self-erasures before proceeding with what is meant to be escapist play; but, what follows is a beautiful unfolding of the opportunity games present in trying out different selves, how an “I” can shift throughout a life. This folio is not so much about violence, but it does engage with those who experience it. Sometimes, games are the medium through which we can process it. Each contributor writes so fiercely, lovingly, of how the games they engage with consume them, live in their bodies and bleed into their daily life. Nathanial Torres’s piece on Death Stranding is a lyrical haze, digging into the total embodiment of a new self–the destructive and restorative ways games leak into our daily life, how fixations can be all-consuming, and why that is necessary. Nancy Huang engages with the crushing weight of working to survive–labor that is both destructive to the body and not sufficiently compensated to sustain life while the pandemic rages on; she takes solace in Neopets, yet still contains reverberations of the capitalistic structures offline.
There is pride attached to this embodiment, as well. Gyasi Hall’s piece on The End is Nigh engages with the meta-context of the game, its thesis “changing is not merely psychological, but physical too, a new body built out of rotting pieces of the old one” comes through so strongly in the syntax of the essay it self. To beat this game is to build that new body. JS Wu’s comic, too, is one of triumph. When I think of all of the unfinished games sitting in my Switch, I remember an allegiance to urgency is fake–we can always return to what gives us pleasure.
Marlin M. Jenkins and Felix Lecocq both engage with the relationship between poetry and video games; Jenkins constructs a theory of play, which I relate to when considering the “I” and audience; some poets construct with a false assumption of universality, others proceed understanding their specificities will not be legible to every reader–I think Jenkins captures why the “I” is so fascinating in both poetry and video games because of this balance of limits, “as language comes with limits, so does it unlock possibility”. Lecocq’s game-poem, I think, is a stunning execution of those possibilities–the player/reader is doubly encased, into the “I” of the poem and the POV of the player character–what results is extraordinarily special. Artists often talk about empathy as an important tenant of culture work; but, as the poet Solmaz Sharif says, “Empathy means / laying yourself down / in someone else’s chalklines // and snapping a photo.” What happens, though, when we can play through a poem, taking on both reader address and player character position?
Harriette Chan writes about the relationship between unsustainable tech innovation and the desire for photorealistic graphics. My interest in this approach came from the fact that I simply do not play many games grounded in “realistic” graphics, nor reality itself. So, then, I am thinking not just about the bleed of reality but of its obfuscation; I love medieval fantasy, Zelda in particular and Fire Emblem right next to it. I grew up with a warning for “cartoonish” violence before everything I played (there was almost always violence, of course). I wonder about the games I love–is this violence easier to enact with the “cartoonish violence” warning before the title screen? Is this violence easier to enact the further I am from the “I”? In terms of Fire Emblem, it is war–an accepted violence. In Zelda, the enemies are goofy, and save boss battles almost entirely optional to engage with; they also regenerate. To slay a Chu-Chu is to reap a resource and avoid damage. If the joy of Zelda bleeds into my daily life–the music, the lushness–does the functional violence, too? Can you be inspired by the “enemy” that fights back, instead?
Video games are interesting mediums, as Chan notes, intertwined with technology and thus always striving towards a “future,”; artists (of which game developers are included in) too, deal in futurisms, although imagined quite differently than those in the tech sector. Games, however, almost always invite the player to position themselves quite literally into a new POV. Jenkins writes, “pursuit of the limitless within the limited is one of poetry’s central endeavors,” a central tenet of my understanding of poetry in the political imagination. If we understand language to be a tool to be broken and remade in our art, then we can imagine structures broken and re-made; worlds, too. So often the worlds crafted by mainstream games are those of male power fantasies; this can be reparative (Vanessa Angélica Villarreal’s piece on The Witcher III is one of my favorites) and it can be devastating. In the forthcoming anthology Critical Hits, Jamil Jan Kochai writes about playing Call of Duty and the realization that the enemies he must target reflect his own family. Perhaps unfairly, my initial read of this essay was, well, what did you expect? Isn’t the name on the box? It felt different than my assessment of Dinsae’s experience in TLOU2, but as I consider Chan’s read on the obsession with advancement without a consideration of form in mainstream gaming discourse, it all feels apt. Towards what are we moving? What violences are we asked to empathize with, to embody, to enact? Is there potential for transformation in a Call of Duty player that might result in a disgust for militaristic violence? In the way that the gender of a player character can feel so thoroughly, life-changingly wrong, can the acts we are asked to perform for entertainment–our own, others’–bring change, too? As this folio explores, there is so much potential for light within all of it. It has to count for something.
Summer Farah is a Palestinian American writer from California. She organizes with the Radius of Arab American Writers and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her chapbook, I could die today and live again, poems inspired by The Legend of Zelda, is forthcoming from Game Over Books in 2024. Learn more at summerfarah.com.