On Kill Screen #3: The Intimacy Issue

I like Kill Screen. It is a magazine that pushes all my buttons in a lot of different ways. On face, it’s a small-sized print magazine about video games. But it’s so much more than that, at least for me. It’s like reading a really great twitter feed, or hitting on a blog that just keeps giving. Reading Kill Screen is like talking to someone you’ve known your whole life–every issue is like catching up, learning more about what they have been doing since you saw them last. It really is a profoundly affective experience, and more than that, it feels intimate.

The new issue is, of course, about intimacy. And that is strangely appropriate for this magazine, since it really tries to get under your skin. There are interviews and articles, semi-fictions that feel like Blanchot in the digital era, and simple statements, artistic moments labeled with “Pause” that make you do just that.

But this is a review, not a love-statement, and I have to talk about the articles. With every issue there are things that I like and there are things that I don’t; welcome to existence. I often have a strong reaction to what I like and what I don’t, however, and this issue is like that. For instance, I poured over “Save Aeris,” an article about the community desire to resurrect Aeris in Final Fantasy 7. On the other hand, I couldn’t bring myself to finish the tell-all “Suicidal Tendencies,” which examines the game Love Plus+ in all of its strange intricacies paired with the author’s depression.

What is important about Kill Screen, I think, is that it provides a space for smart ideas about video games. At weird as it sounds, there isn’t much of that in the internet world. Things like Gearfuse often fill that hole for me, but they seem to be switching content over to a less theoretical model. Black Clock also works for that, sometimes.

But anyway, I just want to build off some of the ideas in this issue. I am taking a long time to get to any real content, so let me just start with this quote by Katherine Ibister:

“We had this exhibition called ‘Be a Red-winged Blackbird. I didn’t really like birds very much, but there I played this simple computer game, with pretty crappy graphics actually.” In the game, players took the role of the bird, making choices about how to build a nest, who to mate with, and where to find food. When Ibister was done playing, she found that she could relate to an animal that she hadn’t been fond of. “It was just putting myself in the position of making decisions, and having to connect myself with that bird, that made me empathize in a really different way.”

There’s something great happening there, but also a danger. In the video game industry, especially when affect is spoken about, there is a huge push to say that video games breach the way that we socialize. In the end of the interview that I quote about, Ibister says that video games could be used to curb violence in situations of bullying. There is a lot of talk about the way that video games interact with certain kinds of autism. What all these studies suggest is that there is something in the becoming-virtual of video games that allow for them to be spaces where human beings can reconstitute portions of themselves–most importantly for these scholars, I think, is the fact that beings become divested of the body in these spaces, therefore creating a space where the mind operates by itself. I can see education being easier to take in that space; learning becomes an activity that doesn’t require a physical presence. It becomes an act of the mind, and only of the mind, in that kind of Cartesian way that gets some people excited.

But it doesn’t do a lot for me. I can only see that there could be a kind of tragedy in that situation. Sure, Ibister came to empathize with the bird more, but did she know the bird? I don’t want to get into questions of authenticity, but did understanding the day-to-day of that bird do anything to her life? I would be interested in knowing if she became more aware of the things that she can do to improve that bird’s life: does she recycle? Is she a vegetarian? Did that moment of understanding the bird translate into something that is active?

This has been floating around in my mind since my University had The Poverty Simulation come to campus. Lots of students that I know went to it, and they, as the tagline of the website suggests, “live[d] a month in poverty…in a few hours!” I can’t express how insulting I find this, but the effects are interesting. Lots of students spoke to how it challenged the way that they think about poverty. Some got the slightest inkling of the precarity that a great many families experience every day, every week, every month.

But for every one of those students there were ten who thought it was a fun game. They laughed, they thought that it was stupid that they had to go, and they dismissed it. Sometimes I think about how unlikely that is, but then I think of an anecdote my partner told me once: in a class she was in, they read a book, and in that book there were various stories about people who live in poverty. Some of the stories were about near-poverty line families, and some were about abjected, hyperprecarious families. In the latter cases, some students in the class refused to believe that those people exist.

And that is what I think about when I hear about these moments of empathy that happen through video games. We, as a culture, understand that there is a significant distance between games, especially video games, and “reality.” That’s the argument that the industry itself always makes when it defends the violence, sexism, and gore of games: “Kids can tell the difference, and if they can’t, an adult should make that clear to them.” We know when something is fake and when it isn’t. I’m just not sure that empathy can be genuine when it is mediated by a medium that we stress, socially, to be absolutely fake.

But that is a long quibble with a short interview, and I actually think that Ibister’s theories about “moving positively” and then “feeling positive” are probably true.

The other articles that I think are interesting in the issue:

  • “Save Aeris” by Brian Taylor — This might actually be the article I have the most to say about, but it’s largely just about the specifics about the scenario, and I think that Taylor does it better than I ever could. Smart journalism that does some great headwork while giving you a genius history of the past. I really, really applaud this article.
  • “Character Building” by Brendan Keogh — A brutal look at how Keogh’s eating disorder was mirrored in his Grand Theft Auto habit. Genius writing.
  • “A Creation Myth” by Jason Schreier — MUDs are and always have been a weird phenomenon to me, but Schreier does a great job of breaking down the desire to create a MUD in a way that I can understand. Really worth a look.

I just want to stress that this has been the slightest of reviews. This magazine is amazing, and it has only gotten better every issue. I think you should subscribe to it, or at least buy an issue to support it. This is a world where there is not a lot to save, but this is worth saving.

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