Wednesday, October 31, 2012

the puzzle world

it's a gross understatement to say that i've spent a lot of time thinking about my sexuality.

i've had a lot of major revelations about my life in the past few years that have led to intense periods of isolation and self-discovery. sexuality has always been at the center of this. i usually settle on the fact that i'm interested in women, and leave it at that. by default, that makes me "queer" or "a lesbian". i won't deny those labels because they have some way of communicating to the rest of the universe what my interests are and i don't want to be an asshole.

then i'll go on okcupid and find basically every profile i look at strange and alienating in one way or another. part of it might be that i find the format of aggregating a bunch of headshots of people i'm supposed to be interested in objectifying by its nature, but it also says something about how people feel they have to present themselves to get a date. and there's definitely a pretty consistent language people use to describe themselves. depending on where you live or who you're interested in, it's different, but it's always there.

then i've had sad moments of realization when i see all of my personal heroes identify as straight or some variant of bisexual/pansexual. i couldn't think of any lesbian heroes i have off the top of my head (i believe very strongly that anyone who biologically essentializes against transwomen must have other substantial flaws in their thinking), though i'm sure there are a few. sometimes it seems kind of ridiculous that i would even give it this weight, because i understand that "non-gay" people are a vast majority of the population. but knowing that the identity i have is supposed to make me different from them in some way makes me feel pretty bad about whoever i am.

and then i'll feel inspired by something someone male-identified has done or said, or guy friends will express interest in me, and because i feel very alienated with my own identity, i'll try to let that in. and then i go over in my head many many times how maybe i'm something else, like pansexual, because that would make me more open to the world and less focused on what "lesbian" or "queer" means i can and can't do. and then i think about how girls that i feel attracted to could just be some projection of how i see myself, or a desire for the sort of strong female support i didn't have early in life. or that negative feelings i have towards male figures early in my life are obscuring feelings i might have for men.

but i realize that's just easy. it's just me, out of frustration, trying to indulge in what norms and past abuse have tried to make me believe. in better moments, basically everything feels in sync and these feelings aren't exerting any sway over me. in weaker moments, though, it is incredibly hard for me, without the support of others, to be able to separate parts of myself out and understand who i am and that i'm not some kind of freak or monster for being who i am.

going my own path and stumbling my way through all this doubt and confusion has instilled in me a very strong need for autonomy. in order to not be a victim to all of this expectation, i've found it completely vital to understand why these norms exist, who's enforcing them, and what their motivation for doing so is.

i feel like this usually puts me at odds with the rest of the world. in circles of queer and trans friends, i've felt expected to conform to all sorts of behaviors which i might not agree with or feel are right. i usually avoid revealing my feelings about this, because i have a fear that i will be attacked for my views, or passive-aggressively treated as an "enemy" or "other" in one way or another. if it doesn't feel to them like i'm fighting the world in the same way they are, it seems like that makes them see me as not one of them. it makes me feel sick, and it makes me feel like the support i get from others is conditional to me conforming to certain expectations of what kind of person they think i should be, as "queer" or "trans" or whatever.

i could say that i'm just projecting my own negative feelings onto these interactions, but i trust my perceptions enough to believe that that isn't true. and anyway, accepting that it's my own malfunction is just another way for me to devalue the importance of my own opinions when they go against something that exists in the minds of multiple other people.

i understand their thinking. a lot of people's preferences or behavior or just their entire existence puts them at tremendous odds with dominant societal norms, so there's an intense pressure to communicate who and why they're different to other people. having a concrete way to define yourself is a kind of strength because it legitimizes your continued existence, at least in the eyes of the world. but those words that you find powerful are just as easily co-opted and used as weapons by others to essentialize and disenfranchise a group of people.

women who identify as a lesbian or queer often don't do much of anything to challenge this, by subscribing to stuff like the "butch" and "femme" dynamic, or believing that feminine behaviors are just a construction of men who want to keep women passive and subservient. really, to me this just another way of accepting that what is seen as a traditionally "masculine" way of seeing or approaching the world is more powerful and more desirable kind of behavior than a traditionally "feminine" one.

i've come to realize that my experiences among friends and acquaintances are just another example of the many ways people are taught to accept being essentialized and disenfranchised as part of their being.

i understand that words are a shorthand to be able to communicate with other human beings. if you're a woman who likes other women, it's important to know if a woman you are interested in is also interested in you. but just the act of accepting a word as your being heavily defines how the world will read you and understand your existence. it also changes the way you see the world, internally, and defines the way you'll interact with others. these are avenues traditionally well-exploited by advertising. you may think that you're not acting within the norms of a particular group you identify as, but it's foolish to believe that seeing yourself that way isn't shaping you as a person, because it is. it's a filter to your consciousness.

filtering is a natural response to our cacophonous world. if we filter, we have some sort of understanding of the world with an easily articulated, straightforward logic to back it up. if we filter, it means we have a consistent set of views, which communicates to others that we are a strong, self-assured human being. if we filter, we can continue to function within some subset society and make some sort of living for ourselves without having a complete breakdown that forces us to challenge all our existing views.

then, if we choose to fully legitimize our filters and subscribe to its category or lineage of ideas, we can believe fully that the complete realization of those ideas will leave us at an endpoint where everything in the world will function in its ideal state. this, unfortunately, has little to do with how our world actually operates. in fact, the full realization we so desire usually results in all different kinds of terrifying consequences. this is something Zizek calls a "totality", a desire for us to achieve some ideal complete synchronicity within our liberal democratic world. this desire, however, is really a desire for totalitarianism. the endpoint is usually a complete reduction of the existence of individual human beings to a few words, or even further, to a number as part of this "perfect" system. or, to put it another way, The Holocaust.

these systems, as we've seen, are completely separate from the sort of incomprehensibly complex organisms that sustain our bodies and form our consciousness. they're puzzle worlds formed from machines of our own creation, which we are now the victims of. we search tirelessly for a perfect solution to a problem that we believe exists. while we search for this perfect solution, our world - the world that nurtures us and brought us into being, is becoming increasingly unable to sustain us.


it is very likely that someone viewing this article will open up my blog and scroll right past this post the moment they see me talking about my sexuality, or the word "queer" appears, or they'll scroll down to see where, if at all, this article mentions videogames. well, here you go: i'm indulging you this time, you fuckheads. the culture of games is so harmoniously tied to idealized, totalitarian fantasy versions of the world that i don't think it's at all separable or salvageable from that. it may have not been this way early in the history of games, but it is certainly that way now.

why? because the precise function of most videogames is to be a particularly well-realized indulgence of our desire for totality. this is what we call escapism, and it is as much of a pure encapsulation of what most videogames aim for as you could come up with. and yet we still want to believe there to be something altogether good and pure about it.

well, i'm throwing any kind of apology for escapism out the window right now. i don't believe it ever serves a positive function. escapism exists to espouse idealized versions of the world that have never existed, and will never exist. escapism is used by those in power to keep people in the dark from of all the ways they are being disenfranchised and their beings are destroyed. there is nothing but cruelty and suffering hiding underneath.

what about all the cool sci-fi or fantasy worlds, you say? what about star wars? isn't that escapism? well, maybe it's time to confront the conventional wisdom and acknowledge that star wars might not be the wonderful, innocent world we'd like to believe it is. but in actuality, many sci-fi and fantasy worlds can and have have much more relevance to our own existence than worlds that have aimed to be a recognizable facsimile of our own. but that's all up to the creators. the creative process is not voodoo magic that functions outside of all bounds of logic. it's filled with meaning and purpose gathered from experiences in our own lives. this must be acknowledged, and nurtured, and directed by its creator in order for it to have relevance and communicate to other human beings. instead, it's often used as another pretty dressing of endorsement for totalitarianism.

videogames have been moving towards one clear direction throughout their short history - towards a sort of total, unbroken immersion. some refer to this as "The Holodeck". our desire for a sort of "realism" or fidelity within the world of a game is, in fact, actually a desire for us to finally realize the complete fantasy of totality within our own world that is unbroken by the flaws of the machine. a perfect world built of perfect systems without disharmony. a world that can never break down into chaos or cacophony and expose the flaws of its own inner workings is the ideal state for a videogame.

videogames are, therefore, a totality. for us to construct a different purpose for them means to challenge every bit of conventional wisdom about them, and to look back into their short history and try and find things which reflect our strange, sad, upsetting, confusing, horrifying, and beautiful world.

this tumblr i've made for odd videogame screenshots is my starting point. i'd love to see yours as well.


  1. This helped me figure out something that distinguishes the designs of certain videogames I've encountered. Namely, that they are cacophonous and aren't totalities. The common thread among them is that multiple parties with wildly different intentions are somehow involved(open-source projects, modding scenes, multiplayer worlds), and manage to "collaborate" (by contributing to a collective world/experience) without necessarily agreeing on anything. This makes the focus of the game meander wildly.

    As well, when a game reaches that state it usually seems incapable of trimming down into a totality again; it remains in anarchy forever, or it effectively dies and has its component ideas reborn as new games containing new totalities. Sometimes both things happen.

    Or to put it another way, there may be a lifecycle of video game philosophies. Commercial games are always envisioned as totalities for marketing purposes - and the average "hit game" simply delivers a package in tune with the philosophy of its players.

    But if the game has additional potential for substance and complexity, players tend to move in and try to realize some of the other possibilities, even if their skills limit what can be done.

  2. (revised something). characterizing these sorts of things as purposeless anarchy is a blindness to their real function, which are criticisms of the way existing games work. whether or not the creators could intentionally articulate what they do as criticisms or not is not really the point.

    the above video you linked to, to me, exposes how thiny-veiled the narrative we're supposed to go along with is, and how much a little change like swapping out your character model breaks the entire illusion and makes the game about something else entirely. these sorts of things are usually intended as a joke, but i think they address something fundamental about videogames that many have chosen to ignore because of some sort of discomfort to being exposed them.

    we are the gods of these machines. we have created all the tools that we used to make these games, so we must be willing to accept and embrace them as they are, instead of trying to cast them off as unreal. we must be willing to be uncomfortable, otherwise we're just using the tools to make more puzzle worlds.

    1. In sentiment I agree. Anarchy isn't purposeless, indeed it is an invitation to break our notions of reality. It's the tension between the totalitarian and the anarchic that defines progressive works in gaming. Realization of the extremes at either end produces logical impossibilities which I've been aware of from a technical standpoint for ages: The game which is infinitely moddable and open-ended to allow "anything", and the game which is infinitely planned and cultivated to cover all possibilities in a self-consistent manner. Even straying too near the ends is a detriment - cardboard cutout worlds and stagnant "genre" tropes, or tech demos and art tests that aren't given a complete vision and thus aren't truly "playable." But the games that by chance end up in the middle tend to have an unusually strong influence on later works. This is a pattern that exists throughout technology.

      What I find interesting - and something I've implicitly been seeking for a while - is the idea that games may be _deliberately_ created to serve both sides adequately from a design standpoint - to have an overt design purpose that works to satisfy the expectations of early players, and then a back door that allows interesting and unexpected manipulations of the system to take place and make the game evolve into something very different. Historically, this has happened by accident. Even games designed around a very "user-generated" motif don't necessarily succeed at breaking through their own conventions.

  3. that's why i like thecatamites so much, his games are so full of noise and "brokenness", it is comforting to me

    i love trash

    good article

    many of my games move toward dealing with some kind of pain, no matter how i started them. for me, realism is any transmission of real human feeling, not graphical fidelity.

  4. In my limited experience, anyone clearly attracted to once gender is so regardless of anything that did or did not happen, you were pretty much going to be that way from birth. What happens in the intervening years can and does effect how that attraction expresses itself (or doesn't), how you feel about it, and how you relate to it.

    I'm sure in the infinite variety of biology and human biology there are exceptions to this. That said, and admitting I really don't know you at all, I still suspect your attraction to women has nothing to do with childhood absences or childhood abuses. It would have happened anyway, and these events just frame and filter how you experience it.

  5. (1/2)

    Hate to be a stranger to you and come out of the blue, but I was shown this article by Triplefox in a video game community forum, and I found you're essay to be very deep and powerful. Please, as a disclaimer, understand that I haven't read anything else by you, and I don't know what the theme of your blog is. It appears o be focused on video games, even though you've labeled most modern games as escapism and don't seem to have a very positive view towards them in this essay.

    First I must indulge in you're brilliant dissection of gender roles in the contemporary context. I cheer whenever I read something as bold and righteous as this, and I cheer whenever it is clear that the author is someone who is as bright and intelligent as you are. But my heart also sinks a little whenever I find out that virtually everyone who holds this kind of opinion is a lesbian or bisexual female. I am often hard pressed to find a straight male such as myself who thinks in the same manner. Ever since I was a kid, way too young to be attracted to either sex, I've had a problem with gender roles and the apparent superficiality of love and relationships as it is portrayed and practiced in today's world. Ironically, I find myself falling for girls who are lesbians or are bisexual, and the relationships that I do end up with, are ones with girls who have very opinionated views on this type of thing, or are at least a little bit of an oddball.

  6. (2/2)

    I've found that it's very difficult to find a woman who is interested in the compatibility of their partner regarding an intangible nature versus a physical or sexual one. Unfortunately, many people, men and women, will find themselves falling completely in love with on another based on how well the other adheres to typical constructed social norms regarding masculinity and femininity. This primitive desire has always escaped me, and left me pondering the orientation of my own sexuality quite often. I've never had a girlfriend that would be classified as exceptionally attractive in the traditional sense. Of course, I have to be sexually attracted to my partner, but I've found that this attraction has come from different sources that it has with most of my friends. There is a unique pattern one can represent that is individual to me, and only me. A set of constraints that you might say make up my "dream girl", and none of these constraints include a girl wearing long hair, makeup, or frilly skirts, but instead involve having on modest clothing, a rather alienating look, and an isolationist view on society. There has always been something very comforting in being with other people who choose to ignore the social "front line" so to speak, or who choose to ignore what the masses' opinion of them might be. This is why I now think I'm broken, I was put together the wrong way or something. Most of my friends have had numerous relationships (while not emotionally successful ones) based on infatuation and sexual desire, and I have to wonder if I am supposed to follow suit. Maybe the other social construction, of finding love and running away into the sunset is also burned into my head... >.> But I've come the the conclusion anyway, that I'm more likely to be attracted to someone who strays from social norms, because it allows more freedom to express ones self as an individual. There's a word for that, being attracted to the brain, almost as much as the body.

    Ultimately, I have a distaste for the norm by design, and I felt that connection with you when reading your post, even though our opinions have been derived from two different places. This does have a lot in common with the current state of the game Triplefox was talking about. Ace of Spades is taking turns towards the "archetype" of shooting games, and I'm slowly losing interest in it, as the strategic nature and problem solving aspects of the game are now long gone. I sold all my consoles years ago, because ultimately you're view on gaming is pretty accurate. They are now almost entirely the result of conforming to industry standards, and seldom care about tickling the brain or providing a challenge. I can't speak much more on the behalf of gaming, because I don't consider myself a gamer anymore. When I'm not being a student at Uni, I am trying to create something original on my guitar.

    You've gotten me to sit down and offer introspection for a little while, no matter how benign it may be. Thanks for the read.

  7. i'm still hopeful that games can be a force that allows us to imagine that "another world is possible" as the slogan goes.

    but i agree that enormous forces are at play, and that creators consciously and unconsciously use games to push norms on players, and to reenforce the status quo.

    sometimes i feel pretty grim about the prospects of fighting this.


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