His Uneffectual Fire 2

Fare thee well at once!
The glow-worm shows the matin to be near,
And ‘gins to pale his unef­fec­tu­al fire:
Adieu, adieu! Hamlet, remem­ber me.

What fol­lows are two dif­fer­ent ways of look­ing at games, two approach­es which seem both mutu­al­ly exclu­sive and com­plete­ly cor­rect.


The green light fades into a dull gray ring, and the con­troller fades into shaped plas­tic. The tele­vi­sion goes blue.

There are cer­tain desires and feel­ings intrin­sic to the human expe­ri­ence – things like hunger, joy, and fear. Among these is the uni­ver­sal desire to be known while we are alive and to be remem­bered when we are gone. It is a strong enough urge to make the wan­der­ing ghost of a king cry out for jus­tice, regard­less of how it might curse the life of his son. Most of us want to be remem­bered well – some of us set­tle for just being remem­bered.

Early in lessons, my ceram­ics pro­fes­sor told me that clay has mem­o­ry. Rex was a large, beard­ed man with a rich fond­ness for moun­tain music, and was one of the most alive peo­ple I’ve known. His then-recent sur­vival of brain surgery was a major fac­tor in that. He is one of the wis­est peo­ple I have known, and the only adult that ever told me that I need­ed to get laid. “Clay remem­bers each time you touch it. Every press you make changes it.” Each stress on the clay changes a deep part of it. Clay isn’t some­thing you can play with for­ev­er; it can only take so much water, so much com­paction, and the air is always suck­ing its mois­ture away. There’s no instant when clay isn’t chang­ing. In those moments before cal­ci­fi­ca­tion, before its death, I shaped it and left my lit­er­al and fig­u­ra­tive fin­ger­prints.

Ceramics are incred­i­bly durable. There are plen­ty of ceram­ics from human­i­ty’s ear­li­est known civ­i­liza­tions. It’s an old form. When you make a ceram­ic piece, so long as you care for it (and even if you don’t, some­times), it’s curi­ous to remem­ber that the piece will out­live you. It will remain, a tes­ta­ment to your hands, your eyes, your imag­i­na­tion. Your every motion with the clay will be remem­bered – each mis­take. But as I worked with the clay, even if things did­n’t turn out as I want­ed, and they often did, it was hard to frame any­thing as a mis­take. The clay cer­tain­ly did­n’t rec­og­nize when my touch was too hard, too soft. It just became, and was. After I ruined a few pieces on the wheel, I stopped being frus­trat­ed and start­ed keep­ing them; I was curi­ous to see if I could make some­thing beau­ti­ful out of the mis­shapen lump I’d wound up with. I think the result is my most strik­ing piece.

What real­ly drew me to ceram­ics was the remem­ber­ing. The clay remem­bered me in a deep way – it was a prod­uct of process, and I felt like I emp­tied myself into my work. My heart was with it, as was my lit­er­al skin. But like the clay, I was always shift­ing too, and the per­ma­nence of my art meant that I could return to it later, when I had become some­one else, and through touch recall the motions of my for­mer self. Just like pot­tery serves as arti­facts for the under­stand­ing of ancient civ­i­liza­tions, my ceram­ics are arti­facts of a younger self – they are solid mem­o­ry, mem­o­ry encod­ed in object. Touching fin­ished pot­tery has a rit­u­al­is­tic feel to it. It sym­bol­i­cal­ly mim­ics the act that cre­at­ed it, phys­i­cal­ly con­nect­ing one to the artist at the moment of con­cep­tion.

I still own three Magic: The Gathering decks. I hard­ly ever play any­thing but prac­tice games against myself with them; they occu­py the same space as my ceram­ics in my life. Occasionally I pull them out and thumb through them, remem­ber­ing the strate­gies that I encod­ed into my cards years ago. Like the ceram­ics, run­ning through them again con­nects me to the thoughts of my younger mind. The strate­gies in those cards are like roads my mind once walked. I see com­bi­na­tions that appealed to me then, ploys that are reveal­ing of who I thought myself to be.

The deck I held clos­est to myself was a blue-green con­trol deck focus­ing on steal­ing crea­tures and coun­ter­ing spells. It was a quick explo­sion of life that pro­tect­ed itself at every stage, and once it got large enough it would start to steal my oppo­nen­t’s resources. It was­n’t the most com­pet­i­tive deck; it was a bit slow if I did­n’t get the right cards right off the bat. But it suit­ed me. It required clever play, cap­i­tal­ized on an oppo­nen­t’s uncer­tain­ty, and main­tained a pace that was like a dance. It made me feel smart and sure. And now it’s an arti­fact that I revis­it from time to time.

Videogames, too, are vivid arti­facts. A played game fea­tures our fin­ger­prints. Our avatar’s appear­ance says much about our gaze; our strate­gic choic­es reveal how we thought, how we under­stood the game. The avatar becomes meld­ed with the self, thus the avatar reflects back on the self. This does­n’t occur in a one-for-one fash­ion, but play requires much from the play­er. Like Ozymandias, we scratch our own selves into the stone of the dig­i­tal, shap­ing it in our own image.

As I’ve writ­ten before, our vir­tu­al worlds can save sites of impor­tance from destruc­tion – like, say, the ruins of Babylon, which were recent­ly despoiled by an American mil­i­tary encamp­ment – and in this way, and as works of art, the dig­i­tal will pro­duce cul­tur­al arti­facts meant for pub­lic dis­course. As such, our land­scapes can con­tin­ue to serve as mir­ror for our own selves and for oth­ers.

The indi­vid­ual playthrough is a pri­vate mat­ter, though. It might, like my Magic decks, reveal who we once were and who we might become again. These playthroughs help us to con­struct a nar­ra­tive of self that extends through time, and serve as touch­stones, enabling us to revis­it what we once found impor­tant. Our moral choic­es in any given BioWare game might mat­ter more to us six or seven years later; we might be sur­prised to look back and dis­cov­er that now we stand on the oppo­site side, and so deep­en our knowl­edge of our own chang­ing selves. My choic­es in The Walking Dead, too, offer a chance to reflect on who I was when I played them; my beliefs and val­ues are neat­ly cap­tured by bina­ry switch­ing in the mem­o­ry of a save. Who was impor­tant to me, and why?

Or look at Minecraft; folks’ work on a pri­vate serv­er might eas­i­ly out­last their own lives. Some might argue that it’s a poor fac­sim­i­le of the real world, but no more so than the stuffed shades of rab­bits and bears that are often mean­ing­ful to chil­dren and adults. It’s per­fect­ly plau­si­ble that a Minecraft world might accrue deep mean­ing, and that it might extend beyond the self and be shared by a com­mu­ni­ty.

As for me, I look at the com­plet­ed saves on my Xbox with fond­ness. They were and are a part of me. They are a story I mold­ed once upon a time, and I can run my hands back over them when­ev­er I choose. They rep­re­sent some­thing that I have mas­tered, and they remem­ber and reflect me; they are as a kiln-fired pot.


When we play a game, we are just like Hamlet’s ghost. The actor’s face, feel­ings and actions form the char­ac­ter: the Ghost is just lines until the actor gives them voice, body and spir­it; both the Ghost and our games require a play­er.

The Ghost is a strong ana­logue to play­ers of games – his role is so short, but he wants to be remem­bered. He wants the world to take notice of his story above all else. Our pres­ence in games is equal­ly short. The expe­ri­ence is here, but it must have an end. It was never meant to last for­ev­er, and any game we expe­ri­ence is fleet­ing. The play­er might be trans­formed by it, but the play exists as a prac­tice or phe­nom­e­non, not as some­thing per­ma­nent or last­ing.

The grow­ing trend of Let’s Plays, game logs and stream­ing indi­cates that the audi­ence for gaming-as-performance is only increas­ing. In this, espe­cial­ly, games are com­mu­nal expe­ri­ences – the self is con­sumed by the per­for­mance, and all the per­sona and show­man­ship that implies. When I play Amnesia: The Dark Descent and I’m record­ing, it’s not so dif­fer­ent from play­ing it for myself; I often find myself wish­ing that there was some­body else in the room to talk about the game I’m play­ing, and Let’s Plays let me do that.

I con­sid­er some expe­ri­ences to be “vir­tu­oso games,” in that they are com­plex enough to defy casu­al mas­tery and hinge on the per­fec­tion of cer­tain in-game prac­tices. The great com­pet­i­tive games, your Street Fighters and your StarCrafts and even your Guitar Heros all tap into this ele­ment of per­for­mance. Guitar Hero does­n’t just mimic the phys­i­cal act of gui­tar play­ing; it is woe­ful­ly infe­ri­or as a sim­u­la­tion of actu­al gui­tar mechan­ics. Guitar Hero sim­u­lates per­for­mance, or, rather, it is a per­for­mance, for a dig­i­tal and often a phys­i­cal audi­ence. It’s a rock show sim­u­la­tor rather than a gui­tar sim­u­la­tor. The play­ers of these games all close­ly resem­ble musi­cians; they require an intense prac­tice that hinges on man­u­al dex­ter­i­ty and firm con­fi­dence so that, when it is time to per­form, the skills come as nat­u­ral­ly as breath­ing.

The height of these expe­ri­ences, for me, is DOTA 2. Now, dis­claimer – I’m real­ly quite new to MOBAs, and I’m ter­ri­ble at them, and if I had any sense I would shut up now. Ah well.

In DOTA 2, dex­ter­i­ty is demand­ed, and strate­gic and tac­ti­cal choic­es abound, but what real­ly sparks my pas­sion is the indi­vid­ual roles that each play­er fills on his or her team. Their names still sound bliss­ful­ly arcane to me: “Lane Support,” “Jungler,” “Carry.” Each of these roles demands cer­tain behav­iors and mind­sets as the game pro­gress­es. Unsurprisingly, I found myself drawn to Support, who is expect­ed to help the Carry (who will “carry” the late game) to grow more pow­er­ful in the early lev­els, essen­tial­ly play­ing old wiz­ard to the young upstart adven­tur­er. I get that; that role appeals to me a great deal. I don’t need any­thing flashy, because watch­ing the char­ac­ter that I helped pro­tect mur­der the enemy team is reward­ing enough. More than any­thing, I love per­form­ing my one unique job on a team of spe­cial­ists, and I love see­ing my team suc­ceed because we each did exact­ly what we need­ed to. That hits on some­thing impor­tant: that per­for­mance is excep­tion­al­ly social.

Performance, though it emerges from the self, is an inher­ent­ly pub­lic, other-regarding action. Play does not exist with­out a com­mu­ni­ty. Any per­former will tell you that the per­for­mance can change wild­ly depend­ing on an audi­ence – their mood and their reac­tions mat­ter. But even when singing in the show­er, we gauge our­selves by how we might sound to oth­ers, and using the rules of music and sound we’ve learned from the cul­ture we grew up in. Even if it’s just for an imme­di­ate audi­ence of the self, assum­ing the role of an avatar is per­for­mance, and is thus empa­thet­ic; we step out­side of our­selves to enact anoth­er. Playing Commander Shepard isn’t just about us – it’s about Commander Shepard, and who we under­stand Commander Shepard to be. It requires that we turn our gaze out­ward and become not-us, imag­in­ing what Shepard would do when con­front­ed with labyrinthine bureau­cra­cy and act­ing thus.

Playing a game, then, is an act of sub­mis­sion. It requires entry into anoth­er world, and sub­mit­ting to the often-nonsensical rules, like invis­i­ble walls or an inabil­i­ty to jump, that we find there. We lose part of our­selves to the avatar we enter – our entry into the world isn’t pure, but rather facil­i­tat­ed by the avatar, our act­ing agent in the world. But beyond those sim­ple lim­i­ta­tions, our sub­mis­sion goes deep­er. We make our­selves vul­ner­a­ble to the game when we empathize with our char­ac­ter, such that play­ers of Dark Souls can become depressed by the long odds of sur­vival, or the play­er of Mass Effect 3 can be seized with a sud­den sor­row at the hero­ic sac­ri­fice and redemp­tion of a friend. We are changed as we per­form in our games.

Games make us vul­ner­a­ble, and we are changed in rela­tion to them. Games are a plat­form for com­mu­ni­ca­tion, but they are one side of a con­ver­sa­tion in and of them­selves. And as we per­form, games might just teach us some­thing; they might just change who we are.

Matthew Schanuel

About Matthew Schanuel

Matthew Schanuel lives in Boston, Mass. He's a beer aficionado, a game player (and designer!), an academic-in-exile, a DM, and, most recently, an employee of a financial non-profit. He draws the comic Embers at night over at http://embers-at-night.tumblr.com/

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