Games, Life Writing

Automedia Club pt2: The Archive of Play

Last week, my local automedia game club met together and we discussed Nina Freeman’s Cibele and Davy Wreden’s The Beginner’s Guide. Both are very different automedia games, and whether or not the The Beginner’s Guide is an automedia is debatable (still, it employs biographical and autobiographical writing).

The “theme” that ties these games together is “the archive of play.” The concept comes from Anna Poleitti’s essay “Autobiography and Play: A Conversation with my 12-year old self.” She defines the “archive of play” as “the materials produced and left behind by the activity of playing” (113). She elaborates,

Of course, not all play produces a material trace. That play that does, however, results in material that is…a rich resource for self-representation and life narrative. Materials in the archive of play are diverse and can include: stories, hand-drawn and digitally produced illustrations, letters, videos, photographs, puppets, costumes, collage, and automatic writing…The materials, and the archive itself, may or may not be cherished by the autobiographer. The archive of play may not be valued or recognized as an archive. Many, one suspects, are thrown away during spring cleaning or the purges of objects that regularly occur in societies with high levels of consumption. Where such archives do persist, they may constitute the flotsam of a previous life that is stored in out of the way places and rarely accessed, or stored by members of one’s family or childhood friends. The value of the archive of play becomes apparent once an autobiographical project is initiated…In some cases, the archive itself demands remediation or engagement in the contemporary moment, as I will explore in the examples of “A Conversation With My 12 Year Old Self” and the auto/biographical film Tarnation (Caouette 2003). (113-14)

Poleitti’s focus is on film, and the “play” that she refers to seems to refer to childhood play or, as she puts it, materials produced by play. Cibele and The Beginner’s Guide are two games that I (and later, the group) felt really spoke to this concept, especially the line “The value of the archive of play becomes apparent once an autobiographical project is initiated.” Documents in Cibele are taken from Freeman’s hard drive, and the premise of The Beginner’s Guide is that Wreden is taking you, the player, through old games that were made by “Coda.”

While these games certainly contain a archive of sorts or an archive of play, as described by Poletti, the group discussed our play. In both cases, the archive is remediated, but it is also designed for players to play with it in a certain way.

We discussed how Cibele just kinda dropped you into the game and you let you play with the folders of fan art, chat logs, poetry, blog posts, and photos (majority of which are selfies). The archive is remediated but as an archive? (as opposed to The Beginner’s Guides guided narration; there is still a narrative throughout Cibele, but there is more player agency to explore). So, in Cibele, the autobiographical narrative is generated through the player’s play; the more the player plays with the files, the more of the narrative arc about Nina’s coming of age is disclosed. While Poleitti’s concept focuses on the author’s play (both in past and in present, I think), we discussed how the player’s play shaped the narrative of Cibele.

This play is not only in the exploration of documents, we noted, but also in the MMO game-within-the-game. We liked that the conversations between Nina and Blake didn’t occur/continue unless you fought with each other (although we also talked about how these conversations were awkward and cringe-y – that is, Blake’s come-ons were very cringe-y). It took some of us a little too long to figure this out, and how this may speak to our play styles in MMOs that doesn’t put the social as something primary but secondary. We also talked about the stripped down mechanics of the MMO. In a Designer Notes podcast that features Freeman, she mentions how she had much more mechanics in the MMO section of Cibele, but stripped these mechanics down to emphasize the social experiences of MMOs and how integral they were to her identity work. This decision, we found, further added upon making the social interactions of MMOs primary rather than secondary.

In The Beginner’s Guide, the player’s play doesn’t really shape the narrative. There is some exploration, but it is guided and there is not much additional narrative generated through playing around in these spaces. It becomes even more suspect when you find out that Wreden has been altering Coda’s games to fit the life narrative that he wants to write about Coda. (I will note that one group member noted that Cibele felt way more voyeuristic thank TBG, primarily because of the desktop and the selfies and the intimate photos that Nina shares with Blake, her romantic interest in the game).

But the ending of TBG seemed too fabricated. While there has been some controversy of the ethics of TBG since Wreden has compiled Coda’s games into this narrative without Coda’s consent, it is unclear who Coda might be and the group has some theories: 1) The Beginner’s Guide is mostly fictional, including Codaand the game might be a critique of fans and critics imposing meanings on Wreden’s games. 2) Wreden is Coda; or rather, Coda is a part of Wreden, and the games are made up: The narrator Wreden represents the part of Davy Wreden who enjoys success and wants to make his games public and wants to engage with the public; Coda represents  the part of Davy Wreden who does not enjoy the success, doesn’t want the public attention, or wants to make games for people but for himself. 3) Same as 2 theory but also adding that the games that we play through are actually from Davy Wreden’s own computer. 4) Coda is actually real and the game is about that toxic relationship, but perhaps the ending is a bit fabricated.

I think we all really liked 3) because it seemed to make the most sense. And it’s not unusual for an auto/biography to contain fictional elements or some kind of “fictional prop” to tell an autobiographical narrative. And perhaps there are elements of 1) and 4) in there: that the ethical implications of the game draws attention to the unethical engagements Davy Wreden has experienced?

We threw our hands up in there air and called it a day.

But wait! there was one more theme that emerged out of our conversations: games as a backdrop of or as a site for identity work. In Cibele, the MMO is integral not only to Nina’s identity formation but also the formation of her relationship with Blake. One member really enjoyed how the game communicates the importance of games in one’s life (there are also blog posts that refer to Final Fantasy X/X2 in this capacity). In TBG, games literally are seen not only as a place of identity work but as something that can be read to reveal a narrative of someone. Although the game questions and critiques this approach, it still uses games to communicate life experiences.

This theme that popped up also made us briefly talk about Path Out, how there is a subtle moment that draws attention to Abdullah’s attachment to games. While it may seem obvious that the choice of having an autobiographical narrative told within a game is motivated by the fact that the autobiographer has an attachment to games, it’s not like every literary autobiographer mentions their attachment to books. Rather, it becomes particularly significant in how the autobiographer representations this attachment to books or to games. So, it might be something to consider when other games include games-within-games or refer to games within their automedia game!

And that about wraps our discussion last week. While our discussions don’t directly speak to Poleitti’s concept of the “archive of play,” I think we talked about the concept in a way that builds upon it to include the play of the player in games. I really liked this concept, and I think it can be useful in games studies, especially in regard to automedia games.

 

Teaching

Discussing Mental Health in the Classroom

Last week, I did something that was very difficult for me. And even writing about it is challenging for me, so I feel this post will be short and/or not articulated well. But here we go. Last week, in class, I addressed the recent suicide on Waterloo’s campus, opened up about my own mental health history, and discussed with the class about mental health in relation to campus and strategies to manage and/or alleviate stress, anxiety, and depression.

It took me over a week to do this. And while I don’t like excuses, here’s what I was going through: When the news of the suicide happened, I was re-playing Life is Strange because I was teaching it the following week. And in Life is Strange, a student, depending on your actions in the game, commits suicide by jumping off of a residence building. In my play-through of Life is Strange, the student did die and I had to put the controller down and step away. As an instructor, I was deeply concerned with how this may trigger students, especially with the recent suicide. Although I did give out warnings to my students, the timing of playing this game was not good. But I also didn’t want to not talk about it, because I didn’t want to create a stigma around mental health issues. But as a person, I was also triggered by the event because I had a friend last semester commit suicide (they were not a student). I was conflicted, wasn’t thinking straight, and paralyzed in moving on with everything as normal.

On the Monday lecture, my anxiety was high. And somewhere in the lecture, I opened up about my friend because I realized I couldn’t talk about Kate, the character in Life is Strange who commits suicide. Throughout the rest of the lecture, I rambled, I got emotional, and I can tell that the atmosphere in the room got really heavy. So, on Wednesday, I decided that I needed to address the recent suicide on campus and to just talk about mental health, whether in relation to the game or to the culture on campus or to mental health in general.

And Wednesday happened. After a group presentation, I sat down and apologized to the class for not, as their instructor, addressing the recent suicide on campus and reminding them that my class is meant to be a safe and accommodating space (something I open every class with in the beginning of the term). I then opened up to the class about my mental health history, something I do in private one-on-ones with students who come to me but hardly in front of the whole class. And I explained why I delayed in addressing the suicide, though it shouldn’t be considered an excuse. We then just talked, first about campus culture and how certain aspects of campus culture contributes to high levels of stress and depression and anxiety. And then, students started sharing how they manage their stress levels, or how they handled grieving, or how they managed their depression and/or anxiety. No one got into specifics, but they still shared these strategies of managing day-to-day life and their workloads.

It honestly was the most beautiful moments in my teaching history.

Afterwards, I got a number of emails thanking me or some students came to my office hours to thank me for that class. And to my surprise, I was the only one of their lecturers that addressed the recent suicide. I realize, however, that I am in a privileged position as a white, CIS male, and that not everyone can open up about their mental health to the class. It was a very scary thing to do, and I almost didn’t do it. So, I realize and respect others who may not have addressed the suicide in their classes for their own personal reasons, and I hope students understand that point. Students did, however, express frustration that their classes went on as if what was happening out in the world wasn’t happening or didn’t have any influence in the university. Their frustration (and the confusion around this) is completely valid as well.

Moving forward, this has really made me think of ways in which my syllabus can communicate the safety and accommodation that make students feel comfortable in my classroom. It has also got me thinking of how to approach and teach texts that deal with mental health (amongst other topics that can trigger students). I’m glad that my students reached out to me to let me know I did the right thing, but I think there is more than can be done in the structuring of the course, its texts, and the assignments to make students always aware that my classroom is a safe and accommodating space. Of course, as of right now, this falls on the instructor, which is labour-intensive and exhaustive. So I am looking forward to future support that will be given (there are talks) and continuing listening to students.