No Escape, Kaile Hultner’s site you should definitely read for consistent and frequent Good Games Crit™, recently asked the question: do you have to play games to experience them legitimately? This has been on my mind since Trevor’s initial tweet about it and with the release of FFVIIR. I have thoughts, feelings, opinions, takes.
My initial reaction was to ask: what is “play”? This is a phenomenological question.
In Queer Phenomenologies (2006), feminist philosopher Sara Ahmed questions “how it is that we come to find our way in a world that acquires new shapes, depending on which way we turn.” Phenomenology privileges the body through centering lived experience, what she names orientation (she is one for words with compounding associations.) Phenomenology can offer much to game studies and criticism like it does queer studies (the books realm), but it’s this claim that strikes me most of all: “it matters how we arrive at the places we do.” In the past decade, this has become a sort of reframe for Ahmed. In 2017s Living a Feminist Life, she writes “where we find feminism matters; from whom we find feminism matters.” This is a political statement, one of citations and pedagogy, one that explicitly recenters WOC and trans women. It’s a politic I’ll return to.
I’d extend Ahmed’s claim (that queer studies would find phenomenology fruitful) to ludology. How we experience games matters. I have a feeling most people would place “play” as, if not the only way to Actually experience a game, the best one. Trevor supposes this collective imagining themself with words like “you’re supposed to.” But each of us are orientated differently. Play was never the same for you or me or anyone else already. And yet the collective “we” recenters it. So I’ll ask, who is the collective?
I worry that “play” becomes a way of gatekeeping. Can you understand Dark Souls without playing it? Well, Trevor, I played a lot of Dark Souls and I still don’t. Can you be a fan of a game like Bloodborne if you haven’t gone to the dirt with Father Gascoigne yourself? These forum posts exist in some other corner of the internet. But others criticism and knowledge is valuable precisely because of their different orientations. I could only play Dark Souks after watching EpicNameBros remarkable let’s play. I appreciate Bloodborne more having read Dia Lacina’s experiences with the themes of The Old Hunters, experiences lived — not played.
Disabled people may not be able to play the same games as me, or they may have very different experiences entirely. A deaf person might experience visiting other planets in Outer Wilds completely different from me because of the (lack of) music, whereas a someone with motor disabilities may find it impossible to fly a ship off of Timber Hearth.
FFVIIR should have abundance of trans and gnc voices writing about the Honeybee Inn, like Grace, Stacey, and Skeleton already are.
So many young queer writers simply can’t afford to play games. Every time I get code for PC I feel a pang of guilt ( I don’t have a PC). Thinking about Cyberpunk 2077 frustrates me already because, well because it exists, and because it should be trans people, POC, sex workers, and especially folks with several of those identities that are reviewing the game. But there aren’t enough outlets for all of us, so we have to make do with $10 out of another marginalized writers pay to write something important on a $60 game we played on a $200-400 console for over 40 hours (of racism, transphobia, etc.).
Let’s plays aren’t the solution, nor wikis, streams, or cheaper games. Think about the parents who don’t write crit because they can’t play a 60 hour game and write about it in the time needed to for SEO purposes. Remember, if you want to write at a site that doesn’t care about SEO, you probably won’t get payed more than $5 an hour for your work, which might be a tough sell to people that already face workplace discrimination (which every group I've described above does).
Clearly, these people exist. But this is about access. Access to games, yes, but also to an industry.
Ahmed proposes that a queer phenomenology “might start by redirecting our attention toward different objects, those that are ‘less proximate’ or even those that deviate or are deviant.” It isn’t how we play that matters, but who gets to play.