One good argument against our way of viewing pervasive games attacks the concept of the Magic Circle. All games influence their players: indeed, that’s why we play them. If there is no point in Magic Circle, is there point in our understanding of pervasive games?
I spent Easter in Fastaval and the following weekend in Knutepunkt, and in both there was a lot of talk about games that bleed to ordinary life. The Nordic-international Vi åker jeep -collective has created a number of freeform role-playing scenarios that really touch the players deep inside.
Let’s see; we have Frederik Berg Østergaard’s Fat Man Down. The game is a commentary on the discourses of obesity and the status of fat people in our culture. Basically the idea is that “the fattest male player” plays the Fat Man in a number of scenes, where the other players’ characters try to torment the hell out of him. Three times during the scenario the Fat Man can choose to invert the scene into a moment of happiness, but that usually results in a harsher crash in the following scene. The rest is pretty much up to the players.
The point of Fat Man Down is vulgarly obvious: players teasing the Fat Man are simultaneously picking on his player. I hear the game can be a very taxing experience, and it is actually designed to be far harsher for the tormentors.
Another example is Under My Skin by Emily Care Boss. The game is about polyamory, infidelity and non-monogamous love life. The players are strongly advised to play “close to home”, to bring their own emotional issues and interests on the table. Ideally, I suppose, Under My Skin allows the players to powerfully explore personal issues, interests and fantasies in the relatively safe environment of a freeform game.
Finally, there is the provocative Gang Rape, available on request. It is a scenario for one victim and 2+ rapists, a game about brutal events that are played in a strangely intimate and trusting fashion. While the scenario suggests that players do not touch each other during the act itself, it insists on maintaining eye contact. In the scenario, the rapists pretty much control what happens, while the victim pretty much controls how each character feels. Like Fat Man Down, Gang Rape is usually a rougher ride for the perpetrators than for the victim.
Recruiting interviewees for a future research paper, I talked to several people that had just finished their session of Gang Rape. They were troubled, contemplative and anxious, yet they did not regret playing through the scenario. They reminded me of talking to people who have just seen Schindler’s List. The three people who had played Fat Man Down appeared slightly puzzled, but less so than the Gang Rape people. Under My Skin was greatly appreciated by the Fastaval players, it even won the players’ choice award.
I intend to take a stab into finding out why people want to play this kind of games. For the apparently positive, optimistic and amorous Under My Skin the answer is somewhat clear. For Fat Man Down and Gang Rape you will have to wait for the paper I plan to do once I hit my grant again. Meanwhile, you can check out Heidi Hopeametsä’s paper on playing nuclear war in a bomb shelter in Playground Worlds.
While these bleed scenarios do not expand the Magic Circle in terms of space, time and social relations, it is obvious that they do their best to punch holes in Apter’s “protective framework” of play. They are also yet another nail in the coffin of the incredibly persistent “games are meant to be fun” discourse that still survives against overwhelming contrary evidence.
(It should be obvious that all these three games are for consenting adults only.)