Gaming as a Relational Practice

Transcript from the closing remarks I offered at the Games in Action conference, Chan Centre, University of British Columbia, November 4-5, 2022.

When I was thinking about how to anchor my remarks, I kept coming back to our first keynote with Milos Han-Tani and Marina Kittika.1

That talk sticks with me because it reconnected me to the web of relations we are caught up in when we play a video game. Han-Tani’s argument, if I am not oversimplifying it, was that the algorithms that lead us to new games on platforms like Steam and Twitch, amongst others, are non-relational.

That is, algorithms privilege systems of new content at the expense of the human, artistic, and intellectual networks, that make up the ever-shifting ecosystem of an individual game.

In his talk, Han-Tani invited us to tap into “(ludo)ancestry” as a means of disentangling ourselves from proprietary networks and have more fulfilling relationships with games.

As a means of articulating what Jentery Sayers calls “player stories”, (ludo)ancestory is a way for us, as players and developers, to deepen our relationship with games by immersing ourselves in the intricate webs of their genealogies.

As a researcher trained in literary and Indigenous studies, the idea of (ludo)ancestry resonates with me.

First, because it erodes the boundaries—which are too often assumed to be indelible in the academy—between video games and other kinds of texts. (ludo)ancestory can illuminate the genealogy of a game mechanic, for example, by surfacing the network of relations between Dungeons and Dragons and the Final Fantasy series.

But it also leads us to the textual, filmic, and scholarly genealogies of a game. For example, it can illuminate the ways in which Chen’s Asia as Method and Hotta’s Judgement inform the narrative and game play of Han-Tani and Kittika’s Sephonie.

Second, (ludo)ancestory clarifies the ways in which gaming can be a relational practice. Playing Sephonie, Anodyne, or All our Asias, or for that matter, Neofeud, Hill Agency, or After Work can, in a world outside of the recommendation algorithm, connect us to networks sustained and nourished by player and developer agency and engagement.  

Today’s panel on Indigenous storytelling, highlighted why relationality is important in tech. Sometimes, being a good relation means lighting up parts of the network that, in Josh Nilson’s words, have always been there, but haven’t registered in games.

Other times it means exposing the flaws and pinch points that poison development, for instance in the essentialist mechanics of character development.

Sometimes, as we saw in the last panel, it means that privileging the community’s health and well-being is the only way to ensure that diverse and artistic games get made.2

While I was thinking about what I wanted to say in these closing remarks, I landed on a conversation that I had with a colleague over dinner last night.

We were discussing the deep and abiding relationships that our students have with many of the games being discussed at this conference.

And through those relationships, we were speculating what it must be like, for the games’ developers, to know that, somewhere in Canada, there is a group of 20 undergraduates huddled around laptops, analyzing and unpacking their inventory mechanics.

It may very well be the case that developers find what we do in classes somewhat strange; my colleague and I never had a chance to ask anyone. Developers, you can let me know after we wrap up today. However, reflecting simultaneously on Han-Tani’s talk, I was reminded of the consequence in taking this narrow view.

Games in Action has been about expanding the window of relationality beyond player & game, game & developer. The question at stake, and this is right from the program is,

what if we saw games as taking action upon the world around us, shaping our interactions with each other, setting the rules of our digitized lives, and helping us imagine our virtual selves?

Starting from the scale of Han-Tani’s “ever-shifting network”, a framework that embraces all of us, including our students, within the genealogy of a game, provokes the multivalent interactivity that this conference attempted to pursue.

Image Credit: Han-Tani slide deck

In this formula, it is not only a question of player + game/developer, but of the conditions that shape this relationship and, even further, the ways in which games inform those conditions.

————

1 Being Wrong Better / Crafting (Ludo)Ancestry

The fear of being wrong can easily become paralyzing. How can we free ourselves to dive deeper into the complexity of the human experience, and what are the benefits and risks of doing so? 19th century mathematician Mary Everest Boole’s fascinating book The Philosophy and Fun of Algebra will serve as a lens. Further, how can we position ourselves within an ‘ancestry of games/media’ – not solely defined by Top 10 Lists, recommendation engines, and homogenizing marketing forces? Some of Kenzaburo Oe’s lesser-known novels, Somersault and Dōjidai Gemu (Game of Contemporaneity), and overlooked “Japanese Fairy-Tale Fantasy” works such as Sakura Momoko’s manga Coji-Coji, or Nintendo’s game Uki-Uki Carnival, will serve as points of discussion. In this two-for-one talk, Marina Kittaka and Melos Han-Tani, the co-founders of the small independent game company Analgesic Productions, will share insights gleaned from historical research both within games and without. Together, they will explore how new orientations toward history can affect both personal identity and game development practices.

2 Games and the Industry

This panel will focus on the local independent and alternative game scene in Vancouver and elsewhere in British Columbia. As the hub of one of the largest game companies in the world (Electronic Arts), British Columbia has an extensive and dynamic game scene, yet this is overwhelmingly shadowed by game corporations who are primarily motivated to shape game projects as entertainment commodities. Considering that the language of grants and the arts continues to exclude video games as a valuable and impactful art form, this panel asks how game makers and cultures have continued to make impactful games in Vancouver/British Columbia, and the potentials for change that need to happen to have a truly artful, impactful and socially-conscious culture of game making.

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