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THE CULTURE OF GAME SUBJECTS

Ultimately, focusing games on the hobbies and media habits of fans of science fiction and fantasy limited the kinds of conflicts offered in games. They also required a kind of fantasy and science fiction literacy. If players weren’t already familiar with the roles of an ogre, the power of certain spells, or the difference between a smart bomb and a laser, the experience of games had a steeper learning curve. In much the same way, consumers who don’t understand the difference between “rouge” and “contour” might struggle to make a purchase at a cosmetics counter. These interests had gender connotations, but they were technically open to everyone.

All of these factors resulted in a fairly monolithic conflict set for games. Games, particularly those built in North America, offered playable experiences of many boyhood hobbies. Even when games came from other shores, namely Japan, they were influenced by that media. Donkey Kong (Nintendo 1981) is very much a reference to the King Kong movies—complete with representation of a helpless female caught in the clutches of the antagonist ape. Such references are replete with the racism and sexism of their eras. Donkey Kong, perhaps unintentionally, carries forward the sexist stereotypes with the racist analogy of taking the native, uncultured ape from jungle to city (Rosen 1975).

Whether intentioned or not, these early games affirmed the prior generation’s views. Consider what happens when twenty- or thirty-year-old designers and developers aim to recreate the media of their youth. What happens when they reimagine, particularly without a critical lens, their first experiences with far away fantasies and epic films. They carry forth the simplest version of their memories, but that version often includes antiquated views.

If you’re a young child watching King Kong, it’s an adventurous film about a giant ape. If you’re an adult it becomes something more complicated. This is the challenge of “hauntology” (Derrida 1994) that often affects game design (Grace 2019). The reference, whether intended or not, haunts the contemporary. While every game about a giant ape may not intend reference to King Kong, it is ultimately haunted by it. Ultimately, Donkey Kong's character evolved independent of King Kong. But, recall that King Kong, it’s origin at least, is in part a love story.

This perspective also makes the assumption that game designers were not actively avoiding love and affection in games, but instead perhaps ignorant of their bias against it. They were perhaps, seeking to affirm specific power fantasies or generally copying existing design challenges (technical or conceptual) in creating such play. The pattern of cloning prior success was not a matter of selection, but instead a product of financial realities and the ease of technological precedent.

Being critical of the designers of these early arcade games is not entirely fair to the reality of designing any playful system. In reality, love and affection as the focus of play is difficult in itself. It is difficult because it is culturally nuanced and sometimes deeply personal. Human-computer interaction continues to be a new relationship in society. One with which we are just becoming comfortable with how personal it is. The growth of mobile interactions and the myriad of personal data our mobile phones contain still creates a bit of tension for many users. The ease and personalization are enjoyed, but the worry is where to draw the line. When is too personal, too much? How much can a person trust a computer, and with what should they trust it? What happens when that computer fails a user, leaking their personal information or betraying that trust? What happens when the computer simply doesn’t do what the user wants it to do? These are techno-cultural questions.

The questions of contemporary personal interactions with computers sound very much like the questions people ask as they enter into and maintain any relationship. The challenge with human-computer interaction is that these relationships have been developing not over weeks, months, or years, but instead over what will soon be lifetimes. Which is why, when reviewing the history of love and affection in games, it is perhaps unfair to criticize the industry for not offering or experimenting with it in more substantive ways. In reality during the early era of video game design and development, there were experiments with personal interactions within games. These were less common to arcade games, than, of course, in games for the personal computer. It was supposed to be a personal computer after all. The challenge was not so much in experimenting with love and affection, as finding compelling conflict from which to build a love-and-affection-focused game.

 
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