I never participated in the Blogs of the Round Table back when Corvus was running it (at least I don’t think I did?), but I was quite happy to see that, with Corvus’s blessing, Critical Distance is relaunching that feature. So I thought I would take a swing at this month’s theme (provided by Corvus himself), which says:
Games, like most media, have the ability to let us explore what it’s like to be someone other than ourselves. While this experience may only encompass a character’s external circumstances–exploring alien worlds, serving with a military elite, casting spells and swinging broadswords–it’s most powerful when it allow us to identify with a character who is fundamentally different than ourselves–a different gender, sexuality, race, class, or religion. This official re-launch of the Blogs of the Round Table asks you to talk about a game experience that allowed you to experience being other than you are and how that impacted you–for better or for worse. Conversely, discuss why games haven’t provided this experience for you and why.
The problem is, I disagree quite strongly with the premise here: I have a very hard time accepting the gloss of “fundamentally different” with “a different gender, sexuality, race, class, or religion”. My gut feeling is that there’s a core to myself—the way I think, the way I relate to people, the way I approach problems, what fascinates me—that would persist if I were of a different class, religion, race, sexuality and gender, and that this alternate David would be much more similar to me than a random atheist upper-middle-class white male who isn’t entirely sure whether bi or straight is a better label for his sexuality but leans towards the former. (Though, if we accept the third possible labeling of my sexuality as “besotted with Liesl Bross”, then yeah, that narrows things down quite a bit.) I have a hard time even typing the following, given the considerable amount of respect I have for Corvus, so I’m sure I must be misunderstanding him, but I think I find that gloss to be actively offensive on a political level: am I supposed to accept the notion that somebody else would be fundamentally different from myself by virtue of being Muslim? I don’t see any good arising from that line of argument.
Which does raise the question of what I think “fundamental differences” really means. The contrast that the theme gives is kind of interesting: it contrasts “fundamental differences” with “external circumstances”. And that contrast I’ll agree with; it’s just that I think of class as an external circumstance, religion as largely an external circumstance, and race as only important because of external circumstances. Gender and sexuality are more interesting, but for both of those the weight that society places on them has a huge impact on how they affect us. So what all five of those have in common (and are different from the examples of exploring alien worlds and swinging broadswords) is that they’re all categories that have a strong impact on how the societies we live in view us, how people treat us before getting to know us (with that impact continuing after people do start to know us as individuals), that that impact makes itself known from the moment we’re born, burying into our own psyches.
So, in particular, I certainly don’t want to get genetic deterministic: who we are is strongly shaped by external factors as well as genetic traits. But there’s a lot more to external factors than broad societal divisions—one’s friends and family, for example—and there’s a lot more to genetic traits than whether one of 23 pairs of chromosomes falls into the broad bucket labeled XY or the broad bucket labeled XX. (Or into neither of those buckets at all, and of course not everybody’s gender is best expressed by those chromosomes.) I realize that I live in a society where the checkmarks that I get in Corvus’s classification mean that I don’t get actively reminded of how society treats differences in that classification as frequently as people who get a different set of checkmarks in that classification do, so if somebody who gets a different set of checkmarks wants to make a case that those checkmarks really are what I should associate with the idea of fundamental differences, I will do my best to listen with respect and an open mind. (I’m certainly curious what the friend whom I had coffee with this afternoon will think about this post—she has a rather more informed insight into how fundamental a difference gender is than I do.) But right now the idea seems pretty strange to me.
Setting that aside, I’ll try to play along with the theme a little more. Though then I run into another possible difference: are games really most powerful when letting us identify with somebody fundamentally different from ourselves? That’s not implausible, but on reflection I’m not sure I agree: maybe games are most powerful when they allow us to learn something new about ourselves. I’m not sure which way I go on that, and upon rereading I’m probably misinterpreting that statement: I guess it’s saying that, when games are exploring differences, then that exploration is more powerful the more fundamental the difference is. And that sounds plausible enough.
So: what games have allowed me to “experience being other than you are”? That’s kind of an easy question to answer: I have a hard time thinking off the top of my head of any games that did any sort of fleshing out a character where I felt that the character was particularly similar to myself. Looking through the last 25 games I’ve played, Professor Layton was the only one that had a character that I particularly identified with; I was just watching Miranda play Portal, and it’s also not a bad example of a game where I feel a bond with the main character, albeit one whom we don’t learn much about. (I realize that, above, I haven’t given any specific examples of what I actually do consider to be fundamental differences or similarities; as those two games suggest, though, my enjoyment of solving abstract puzzles feels more important to me than my class, race, religion, or gender, though I would never suggest that other people should feel that way about themselves.) Actually, non-narrative games often speak to me more strongly than narrative games do: in some sense, I feel more myself when playing go or Tetris than basically any narrative game, and the same goes for Rock Band. And that last example has an interesting relationship to Corvus’s list of characteristics, given that, when I’m playing myself in Rock Band, my avatar is sometimes gay and sometimes straight. (Always myself, though; and yes, my relationship with music also feels more central to myself than my class, race, religion, or gender.)
But there I go again, refusing to answer the question at hand. Hmm, if I’m looking for game experiences where I felt rather different from the character I played in game, I guess Catherine was the best recent example? Which was a fascinating game, and my fascination was indeed driven in part by that difference. Not so much because of the specifics of Vincent’s nature, though (and certainly not because of any of the characteristics from Corvus’s list, where Vincent actually lines up well with me), but because of the way of dividing up the world that the questions in the game revealed: what an odd list of dichotomies to present, what a strange set of priorities it implied!
And what a strange topic for the BoRT. But it’s gotten me to write something; is that the covert goal here? Which, actually, makes it similar to Catherine: in both places, much of my interest is being presented with a foreign set of dichotomies, one that seems so misguided to me that I’m actively forced to think about something else. And there’s good in that, certainly.
Update: I felt uncomfortable enough about this post to follow it up with another where, I hope, I step back in several ways.