Unforgotten Fantasies

Romantic Play within the Game Art of Angela Washko and Nina Freeman

Bailey Cover Image

Andrew Bailey is a PhD candidate within the Art History and Visual Culture program at York University. His research focuses on new media art that is in dialogue with video game culture with an emphasis on works that interrogate how video games are affected both materially and conceptually by the processes of time. Andrew also holds an MA in Art History & Curatorial Studies from York University, and a BFA in Printmaking from OCAD University. Follow Andrew on Twitter

Within the last twenty years, the discussion around whether videogames are art has been in a state of rapid flux, with prominent debates focusing on topics of cultural legitimation and identifying relations to various historical avant-garde movements. Many of these conversations have relied on positioning videogames as a novel medium which needs to be both defined and defended, often in relation to other media forms with longer, established histories such as film and literature. As Aubrey Anable (2018) states, throughout much of gaming history a common assumption about what obstructed videogames from achieving the status of fine art was their apparent inability to “affect our feelings” with the recurring question as to whether or not they can make us cry (location 34). She goes on to identify the inadequacy of these exclusionary frameworks, pointing out how overtly embodied or melodramatic artworks have historically been critically disregarded (typically by male critics) as kitschy, low culture (location 53). In disregarding all that might be considered overtly bodily or emotional, this outdated and conservative lineage of criticism unproductively reduces the nuanced potential for an audience’s affective connection to a work of art.

Using Anable’s observations as a prompt, in this essay I conduct a comparative analysis of game designer Nina Freeman’s 2015 game Cibele and digital artist Angela Washko’s 2012 art project Heroines with Baggage—two works that critically and expressively engage with how videogames can provoke nostalgic, melodramatic, and even romantic emotions in their audiences. This essay builds upon Anable’s argument as well as Brendan Keogh’s (2018) work on affective and embodied play in order to answer the following questions: How can videogames be used as a productive tool for artists aiming to explore emotion, memory, and selfhood? How do videogame experiences help to inform the way that players conceptualize themselves and the social or romantic relationships that they might form? And how does a player’s relationship with their avatar or another game character reflect their sense of gender, identity, and selfhood?

Washko’s Heroines with Baggage appropriates video and still images from a series of role-playing video games she played in her childhood, which she argues have negatively influenced her perceptions of romantic relationships as an adult. This project can be categorized as ‘game art,’ which Matteo Bittanti (2006) defines as “any art in which digital games played a significant role in the creation, production and/or display of the artwork. The resulting artwork can exist as a … painting, photograph, sound, animation, video, performance or gallery installation” (p. 9).

Freeman’s Cibele functions as an autobiographical simulation of her personal computer during a real-life romance she experienced in her late teens that initially began within a massively-multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG). Inversely to Heroines with Baggage, this small creative work can be defined as an ‘artgame.’ Artgame is a compound word that was first defined by Tiffany Holmes (2003) as “an interactive work … by a visual artist that does one or more of the following: challenges cultural stereotypes, offers meaningful social or historical critique, or tells a story in a novel manner” (p. 46).

A screenshot of the fictional “Valtameri” game with Cibele.

A screenshot of the fictional “Valtameri” game with Cibele.

Washko has established a notable reputation as a feminist activist engaged in internet and post-internet art, most famously for her Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft (2012) in-game performance pieces and The Game: The Game (2016), her dating simulator game that critically interrogates real world pick-up artists. Although these are her most well-known works of game art, I argue that Heroines with Baggage, an earlier, lesser-known piece, deserves more critical attention.

Heroines with Baggage is an expansive multimedia project consisting of a collection of digital video works that have been exhibited both individually and all together in a multi-channel installation. Additionally, the project has manifested as a series of wall-mounted images that have been alternately shown as full colour digital prints and monotone cyanotype prints. Both the print and video components of this project were constructed using appropriated footage and still images taken from a selection of formative games the artist was especially drawn to as an adolescent.

A photograph of some of Washko’s cyanotype prints from her Heroines with Baggage project.

A photograph of some of Washko’s cyanotype prints from her Heroines with Baggage project.

The majority of the games Washko sampled are from the long-running Final Fantasy (Square-Enix, 1987-2019) series of Japanese role-playing games. All of the titles in this series feature high fantasy narrative and lengthy dialogue, and this prioritizing of storytelling and character development is a crucial reason why Washko chose to focus on them. In interviews on the work, she points out that in a genre where you control such a large group of playable characters, it is indicative of the problematic gender politics of the game industry that only a small portion of them are female, and very rarely are female characters centralized as the main controllable protagonists (Washko, 2012).

Washko also states that the problematic representation of the Final Fantasy series should not be surprising for her given her memories of the gender divide during the 1990s between male and female videogame players (Washko, 2013, 2015). Nonetheless when she revisited these games that she had loved during her childhood prior to developing Heroines with Baggage, Washko states that she was startled by the fact that nearly every time these few female characters were on screen they were either expressing an unfulfilled desire for heterosexual love or engaging in intense self-victimization (Gat, 2016). When describing the motivations behind the project, Washko states that all of the videos and prints work together as a personal research project studying “the proliferation of gender-based stereotypes throughout the video games that I grew up playing and how the presence of these stereotypes has impacted my growth—especially in my expectations of love, tragedy, and the roles I take on in my adult relationships” (Washko, personal website). In this sense, Washko investigates how her own sense of identity and personal growth became wrapped up in the trajectories of the digital avatars that she embodied during gameplay.

 

An image from Final Fantasy X that is used repeatedly throughout the prints and videos that compose Heroines with Baggage. Screenshot.

An image from Final Fantasy X that is used repeatedly throughout the prints and videos that compose Heroines with Baggage. Screenshot.

Brendan Keogh (2018) works to explore the notion that videogame play exists as an embodied assemblage of mind, body, screen, controller, and environment. In a chapter on embodied textuality, he states that to be aware of this cybernetic relationship between player and game is to “account not only for how the player instantiates videogame play but also how the player is incorporated into, becomes part of, and is ultimately made by the system of videogame play they instantiate” (Keogh, location 551). Through Washko’s assertion that the videogame play she enacted as an adolescent has gone on to instantiate itself within her ongoing perception of romance, gender, and love, she is confirming what Keogh argues when he states that: “the player cannot be considered before or distinct from the videogame but instead reflexively as producing the videogame experience that in turn produces the player” (location 669).

Turning to Freeman, Keogh’s theories of embodied and instantiated gameplay can also be used to reveal some productive similarities between her artgame Cibele and Heroines with Baggage. As I mentioned earlier, Cibele functions as a simulated version of Freeman’s desktop computer throughout the course of a courting period between her and a young man that she met playing a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) in her late teens.

Within Cibele, the fictional MMORPG that Freeman plays is called “Valtameri,” but when talking about the game Freeman has stated that the real-world version of her experience occurred in the game Final Fantasy XI (Square Enix, 2002), on online version of the typically single player series that Washko also used in her work. Although the series has developed in a number of ways since the earlier entries featured in Heroines with Baggage, many of the same kinds of gender tropes are repeated within Final Fantasy XI. These problematic tropes remain relatively common in much Japanese animated media—though they are not as central in Freeman’s work as they are in Washko’s. Instead, Freeman views her computer and the MMORPG she is playing as a space of embodied sociality. The game is divided into three chapters that are then further divided into three subchapters, the first always being a section where the player is free to explore the simulated computer desktop, able to open folders full of photographs, scans of drawings, poetry text files, and drafts of blog entries, all provoking a sometimes uncomfortably voyeuristic level of intimacy between player and game creator.

 

A screenshot from Cibele depicting the game’s simulated version of Freeman’s desktop computer.

A screenshot from Cibele depicting the game’s simulated version of Freeman’s desktop computer.

Following this investigation of Freeman’s desktop comes a second section set within the fictional Valtameri MMORPG where the player must work with another player named Blake to defeat a bunch of randomly spawning small enemies until a larger boss monster appears. There is no way that the player can fail these sections; rather, they are meant mostly as a space for Freeman and Blake to be heard speaking with one another over voice chat as they play the game. Initially their relationship is nervously flirtatious, but over the course of the game’s three chapters their conversations become much more romantically charged.

Finally, the last of each chapter’s three subsections is a short real-world video clip of Freeman in her room. Often these clips depict her posing for photos of herself to send to Blake. The game’s final chapter then depicts them meeting in person for the first time and preparing to have sex.

In Cibele, players become aware of themselves operating their own computer to play the game through the parallels between the arrangement of their own bodies and that of the depicted version of Freeman sitting at her computer. In addition, there are also the expansive connections made across the fictionalized digital space between Freeman and Blake through their voice conversations, emails, gameplay sessions, and the increasingly sexual photographs they exchange with one another. This leads to a kind of doubling that occurs between the real-life player and the simulated version of Freeman playing the game within the game. Cibele therefore demonstrates Keogh’s point that games are instantiated by, and in turn instantiate the player (Keogh, location 551). In this way, both Cibele and Heroines with Baggage are united not only through their shared artistic appropriation of the Final Fantasy series, but also through their heavy emphasis on the long lasting emotional and affective responses that videogame play is capable of provoking.

In a manner similar to Keogh’s arguments on embodied assemblage, Anable tracks the history of affect theory to an origin point within the context of computer research in the twentieth century in order to provide a model for how videogames “make complex meanings across history, bodies, hardware, and code” (Anable, location 118). Within this affective framework, Cibele and Heroines with Baggage are both game-based artworks that operate strongly across the realms of both emotion and technology. As Anable argues:

Video games are affective systems. When we open a video game program on a phone, computer, or gaming console, we are opening up a ‘form of relation’ to the game’s aesthetic and narrative properties, the computational operations of the software, the mechanical and material properties of the hardware on which we play the game, ideas of leisure and play, ideas of labour, our bodies, other players, and the whole host of fraught cultural meanings and implications that circulate around video games. (location 130)

Cibele and Heroines with Baggage both function simultaneously as autobiographical art, embodied assemblages of player and videogame, as well affective systems of player, subjectivity, and representation. Washko and Freeman have both examined their past experiences playing videogames and not only reconstructed memories of their own gameplay, but also infused them with a complex network of emergent feelings. Because of their ability to so easily produce these types of affective and emotional effects, videogames can function as especially poignant tools for artists wanting to explore notions of identity formation, self-expression, and the way that time can skew or underscore memories, especially in the case of digital or technological experience. Cibele and Heroines with Baggage are able to achieve this by guiding their audiences through their respectively fragmented narratives, each one a heterogeneous webbing of confessional art and technocultural history that works to empathetically enmesh the player/viewer within themselves.

As videogames become increasingly diverse due to the growing accessibility of game development tools, the potential for exploring new ludic experiences of intimacy, love, and sex are constantly evolving. With this in mind, the relationship that the player can form with their own avatar, or other people’s avatars, will also become correspondingly complex. For that reason, game artists as intensely and intimately self-reflexive as Freeman and Washko will prove to be valuable guides for navigating videogame culture as it continues to expand and mature.

References

Anable, Aubrey. Playing with Feelings: Video Games and Affect. University of Minnesota Press, 2018. Kindle Edition.

Bittanti, Matteo. “Game Art: (This is not) A Manifesto, (This is) A Disclaimer.” Gamescenes: Art in the Age of Videogames. Edited by Matteo Bittanti and Domenico Quaranta, Johan & Levi Editore, 2009, 7-14.

Cibele. Star Maid Games, 2015. Video game.

Final Fantasy XI. Square-Enix, 2002. Video game.

Gat, Orit. “In need of a Heroine: Angela Washko’s ‘Heroines with Baggage (How Final Fantasy Shaped My Unrealistic Demands for Love and Tragedy)’.” Rhizome, Oct 05, 2011. Accessed April 27,2019.

Holmes, Tiffany. “Arcade Classics Span Art? Current Trends in the Art Game Genre.” paper presented at the Digital Arts Conference (DAC), 2003, 46-52.

Keogh, Brendan. A Play of Bodies: How We Perceive Videogames. MIT Press, 2018. Kindle Edition.

Washko, Angela. Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft, (2012). Multimedia performance and video art project.

Washko, Angela. Heroines with Baggage, 2011-2012. Video, cyanotype, digital print, and multimedia art installation.

Washko, Angela. The Game: The Game, 2016. Video game and multimedia art installation.

Washko, Angela. “Heroines with Baggage > Multi-channel Video Installation.” Artist’s personal website, no date listed. Accessed April 27, 2019.

Washko, Angela. “Heroines with Baggage > Videos” Artist’s personal website, 2012. Accessed April 27, 2019

Washko, Angela. “Interview:  Angela Washko.” GAME VIDEO/ART. A SURVEY, June 18, 2016. Accessed April 27, 2019.

Washko, Angela, interview by Mathias Jansson. “Interview: Angela Washko’s Gender Playing In WoW.” GameScenes, November 02, 2013. Accessed April 27, 2019.

Washko, Angela, interview by Filippo Lorenzin. “Set of rules, online interactions and feminism: Interview with Angela Washko.” Furtherfield, October 12, 2015. Accessed April 27, 2019.