DHSI and Urgent Optimism

[Editor’s Note: the ACH awarded Courtney Lawton a student travel bursary to attend this summer’s Digital Humanities Summer Institute. The award came with an invitation to reflect on the experience in our blog.]

(Also posted at englishisthenewmath.)

Two things happened after I returned from DHSI 2014, or, as I like to call it, nerd summer camp. First, I saw a sea otter. In the wild. For the first time in my life. Then, I made a shocking discovery about “the rest of the world,” or the world IRL. These two things don’t seem interrelated, but they are. They are.

When I signed up for DHSI at Matt Jockers’ urging, and had applied for a scholarship and a bursary, I had really hoped to get placed in a “serious” class. None of this gaming stuff for me. What did gaming have to do with my real life? Really. I study American Literature, and literature centered around women’s literary apprenticeships, darn it. I am a serious person. When Ray Siemens wrote to me to let me know that I had received a scholarship, and that I would be in Games for Digital Humanists, I started to reconsider. Why travel out to BC when funds are short and dogs have to be walked and plants watered and gardens tended to and reading lists finalized when all I was going to do was develop games? Or study games? Or play games? Or what? Ray told me to give it a chance.

I went in to the class wary, having spent two weeks teaching myself the Unity game engine and Javascript. I looked like a harassed Hermione Granger. Then. I learned to play. I learned to play with games. I learned about Jane McGonigal, someone I had heard nothing about until Andy Keenan and Matt Bouchard discussed her work extensively in class, and about how what matters, what really matters in solving any problem, but especially global problems that are urgent and desperate and menacing, is what we all learn by playing games. McGonigal points to the importance of gaming in our confidence and perseverance: we learn urgent optimism through the weaving of social fabrics and blissful productivity in projects that have, or seem to have, epic meanings.

The team I was randomly placed with was tasked with developing a game that had the following elements: first daters or a lonely-hearts club,  blocks falling from the sky or the apocalypse, and a tool must be used. In short, we played a game to develop a game. Angel, David, and I stumbled around a bit, but we finally settled on a game that was a queering of the Game of Life. We created a board game called “In the Life,” for high school students in California public schools, that would teach the history of LGBTQ people from the 19th century to today. We were optimistic that our game would work and could be played. After wireframing the game using newsprint and post-it notes, we test played it. Players had to choose whether to be “in the life” and out of the closet as LGBTQ or an ally, or in the closet. As they landed on different squares, they earned money, emotional capital, and love. Our game worked! People could play it, and the mechanism of the game, the “race to the end” and the procedural rhetoric of life being a series of liminal moments where one could come out of or revert to a closet was not lost on any of our players. Even better? None of this felt like “work.” Instead, we were all “blissfully productive.”

Upon my return home, I was listening to NPR’s Saturday’s All Things Considered with Arun Rath. A segment featured Rath’s attendance at E3, the Electronic Entertainment Expo. I was please to hear that what digital humanists had been talking about for years, the criticism of video games by gamers, was starting to sift down to mainstream media. Rath commented that, “Looking around at E3, it’s tough to imagine the console players are really half women.” Rath went on to interview Megan Farokhmanesh, who writes for Polygon, and Risa Cohen, a game developer for Tequila Works. Both women stood as audible challenges to the assertion that games, game development, and gaming were male-specific enterprises, despite what Justin McElroy, also of Polygon, posited when he claimed, “Dudes are playing video games. Dudes are making video games. Dudes are putting dudes in the games for the dudes to play. Anything that goes against that is going to be work.” Then, I read the comments.

I broke my rule: never read the comments. You will experience a precipitous drop in IQ. Just don’t. I wasn’t so much shocked to discover the usual troll under the bridge, lying in wait to grab my rhetorical ankle, as I was shocked that I had something to say back to him that would utterly and completely express what I had learned at DHSI: that games and play are not exclusive territory of any gender or false construct of race, and that criticism of games and gaming is part of the industry and is intrinsic to the joy of gaming and writing games. Most of the fun of gaming derives from the lucid playing of the game, the lucid ludicity, if you will. “Brim Stone” mansplained away the focus of NPR’s story about E3 by whining, “White dudes invented video games for white dudes to play. Why can;t [sic] you just let it be NPR? Why do you hate white males? Why don’t you go cover the lack of diversity in the cosmetics industry?” I felt touched by his naivete, and discovered that instead of feeling like, oh god, here we go again, I felt the ability to engage on NPR’s site as a digital humanist who has something to say about gaming. Shocking, at least to me. (The article can be found at http://www.npr.org/2014/06/21/324341624/on-display-at-video-game-showcase-a-struggle-for-diversity .)

Now, I am on the look out for games all the time. I look at my dissertation as a game, my reading list as a game, these objectives that I seek to achieve by willingly engaging in unnecessary obstacles. The sea otter? Well I saw one on a sea kayaking outing during my time in Powell River, BC. You have to keep a sharp eye out for these creatures. And when you see them, you’re so full of wonder. Games can do that.

Thanks, Matt, Andy, and Ray, for putting a sense of play back into my life at Nerd Camp, er, DHSI2014, and thanks to the ACH for making all this possible.

By Courtney Lawton

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