From Gaming to Writing07 Aug 2023 Posted in:
Michael Levenson, my dissertation director, always had great ice breakers. I most remember one that opened a graduate class on Henry James and Joseph Conrad: “What do you read for?” Separate from research questions per se, this was an invitation to think about what made a passage pop to us, what was at the core of our interest in particular topics. I remember saying that I often found myself writing about problems, puzzles at the core of passages that didn’t make sense. A friend noted how he was drawn to conflict and politics. Another cited interpersonal relations as the thing that drew them in. I marveled at how rarely I thought about the foundational interests in my research areas. What is it that makes one put down the book and pick up the pen?
For over two years now I’ve been writing for Backlog, “a video game newsletter for people who are behind on videogames.” Writing about a different subject for a public audience has been invigorating, not least because it forces me into new topics than I would otherwise have posted on in this space. Now that I’ve published to Backlog ten times (with an eleventh piece on the way), I thought I might take the opportunity to step back and apply Levenson’s exercise to my writing on video games. It’s easy enough to pick out the genres of games that I like: role playing, Soulsborne, and simulations to name a few. But, besides play, what drives my curiosity? What makes me put down the controller and text Backlog’s editor with an idea? In what follows I’ll take my list of publications, group them loosely based on topic, and offer a few quick observations.
My essay on Sekiro and its connections to therapy was the piece that editor Grayson Morley first asked me to share to Backlog. That work also laid down one consistent throughline in my games writing. What do games teach us about ourselves? Returnal struck me for its dreamlike exploration of trauma and grief. And my experience of Skyrim was largely one in which I wanted to ignore the game’s chosen narrative and write my own, quieter story. Games that make you think about ourselves are often the ones that stick with me once the controller is laid to rest and the console cools down.
- “Skyrim and a life ignoring destiny,” Backlog, February 16, 2023.
- “Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice and confronting yourself,” Backlog, December 29, 2021.
- “Returnal and the unbroken loop,” Backlog, September 29, 2022.
Genre is often the first way many of us find games, and it structures so much of the gaming experience. I often find myself interested in those moments when genre is laid bare, when a game is so transparently generic that its core feels hollow or shattered into pieces. Triangle Strategy struck me as genre in search of a narrative. I found my inspiration for a forthcoming piece on the free-to-play game Royal Match in its absurdly generic advertisements featuring celebrities who appeared to be forced to read the same script against their will. What’s left of a game when it’s all genre, all the way down?
- “Royal Match and the Slow Death of the Soul,” forthcoming.
- “Backlog draft about Triangle Strategy,” Backlog, November 3, 2022.
In the last moments of Subnautica, my scuba diving game forgot what water was. I spent hours trying to get out of a pit because my character was the only thing that had forgotten how to swim on a water planet. On Tiktok, players of The Sims chronicle their attempts populating their homes with hellish, glitchy monsters and murder victims. Games are strange. People make them stranger. When things get odd I get writing. Anyone who has played D&D with me will find this no surprise–I tend towards chaos and developing very bizarre characters.
- “Subnautica and the glitchy terrors of the deep,” Backlog, July 28, 2022.
- “SimsTok and the horrors of domesticity,” Backlog, February 3, 2022.
I love co-writing and co-teaching, and it’s no accident that I’ve found myself in a career in which I can make space for both. Academic work always felt isolating, and the joys and tensions of working with other people are part of what drew me to digital humanities. I never really played sports growing up, so my earliest encounter with team dynamics was in cooperative gaming. Backlog has given space for a range of co-op opportunities, first with Morley and then with our colleague Alyssa Collins. One common thread through these conversations has been just how different play is for each of us. In Dredge, Morley dutifully followed the game’s narrative. Collins curled up with a coffee and was content to fish for fun. I zipped away into the sunset, made a pact with the devil, and promptly got eaten by a fish. Games are much more than the mechanics and aesthetics of the software. They exist at the intersection of player and platform, and we each construct our experience in service to–or in spite of–the game’s instructions. Backlog and Backchat (the accompanying podcast) have been fascinating reflections on how a single game can refract into profoundly different experiences for different people.
- “Backchat: Dredge,” Backlog, with Alyssa Collins and Grayson Morley, April 22, 2023.
- “Nobody Saves the World and exuberant middle schoolers,” Backlog, with Grayson Morley, March 16, 2023.
- “Don’t Starve Together and friendship via chaos,” Backlog, with Grayson Morley, June 30, 2022.
- “Backchat: Boyfriend Dungeon”, Backlog, with Alyssa Collins and Grayson Morley, June 22, 2023.
Most interesting and, perhaps, unsurprising is that all these intellectual interests are consistent with those I explored in my graduate research. Genre disruption, puzzle boxes, introspective strangeness, connection–those topics easily characterize all of my favorite twentieth-century works of fiction and the things that I read out of them in essays, articles, a dissertation, and more. I’m reminded of a quote from Ulysses - “Think you’re escaping and run into yourself.” When I put down my work for the day and start playing games to relax I can’t help but be intrigued by similar topics. Or maybe Popeye said it best - “I am what I am, and that’s all that I am.” Brandon all the way down, in work and play.