A Sense of Small

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I

            Asked what a fiction writer can learn from video games in an interview with Fiction Writer’s Review James Pinto, writer Tom Bissell said, “Very little. What the video game writer can learn from fiction is way more interesting… Fiction writing is all about re-seeing and re-exploring and fine-tuning. You know how a whole scene can come alive with just a single detail? Well, our script had no life in it, didn’t have any truth in it. It didn’t have any truth because you actually have to get in there, into the world, as a virtual reporter, as a virtual actor, and start steering these characters around this environment and figuring out what feels real.”

II

My first gaming experience. I was five years old. My mum bought my older sister a Nintendo console for her thirteenth birthday. We had two games: Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt, two games that broadly demonstrate the most basic differences between popular video games today. Super Mario Bros. was a third-person action-adventure game, all about saving Princess Toadstool of the Mushroom Kingdom from King Koopa, and Duck Hunt was a first-person shooter, where you shot down pixilated waterfowl flying across your T.V. screen. Duck Hunt came with a very basic bright-orange and plastic handgun.

The Nintendo was in my mother’s bedroom, on top of light-brown and mottled dresser. Two arch-shaped mirrors hung on the wall behind her TV. Since my mother didn’t allow me to watch television on the weekdays, I was only able to play on the weekends. Mostly, I played after Saturday school. Holy Family Catholic church held Sunday school on Saturdays from 10-12pm. I’d sit on our fuzzy, orange carpet, probably far too close to the T.V. and get lost in the sensation of being good at something everybody thought girls couldn’t do. I wanted to be a girl, who could aim and shoot a gun, even though I was so pathetically demure I would write apology notes whenever I annoyed my mother and sister, and I never wanted to hurt anybody. FYI: as an adult now, I support stronger gun control laws.

After the Nintendo stopped working, I still used the controllers. I plugged the Nintendo’s brick-shaped controller into our plastic-slipcovered sofa, switched the channel to the Cartoon Network and pretended I could control Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd and Tansmanian Devil. Like most destined-to-be writers I had a healthy imagination.

 

III

“Videogames only for boys,” my mother said when I asked her for a Super Nintendo one Christmas. My mother often changed her mind. She suffered from heinous bouts of convenient amnesia. She wouldn’t buy a Super Nintendo or a Sega Gensis nor let me venture into the Marathon Mall’s arcade center, those glitzy, blinking areas populated by the opposite sex. “The arcade no place for a girl,” she warned me. “It isn’t safe.” My mother’s fears have always been more complex than she could articulate. She was worried about what boys and men can do to young girls. Every woman who has ever been a girl has that fear.

I believed my mother. Arcades started to scare me, and even when my mother wasn’t around I didn’t want to go alone. I was a very impressionable and anxious girl. I grew up in all-female household—women, who hung clothes on copper wire lines, scraped-clean bonefish, hauled their own furniture and fixed their own cantankerous plumbing with a resilient elegance. I knew nothing of what boys could be capable. But really I think my mother was worried most about raising a girl, and loving a daughter, who didn’t act like everyone thought she should.

 

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IV

Whenever my mother went to barbecues or birthday parties, she and the adults would drink Kalik beers and sky juice and dance on concrete patios in a white smokey haze. Sometimes, the kids would play Freeze Tag or Hide N’ Seek, but occasionally we’d play videogames. At those parties, away from my mother’s watchful eye, I could play Sonic, Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, whatever game was available. Back then I wasn’t so mindful of controls—I just loved hitting buttons as fast as I could—and there weren’t many female characters from which I could choose, but I had fun. I wanted to play for hours, but the boys, if they let me play at all, would only let me play one or two rounds before snatching the controller out of my hand. At one of these parties I was in the middle of winning a Super Mario Kart racewhena boxy-shaped boy named Kyle pointed out how deep of an impression I made in the bed. “She so fat,” he said. I lost the race. It was the first time, but not the last when I felt as if I had to hold myself back around boys, be as small as I could be.

V

Most of my close childhood friends were boys. I was an incorrigible tomboy, wearing thin my cheap, polished flats and the shiny black and elasticky sports bras I wore instead of the white training contraptions my mother purchased for me. My hair was stringy and straight, and I was known for the ketchup and grass stains on my hand-me-down, navy-blue and white striped uniforms—these dresses that were knee-length and covered one’s body like a potato sack. At school, I could play foursquare and dodgeball with my guy friends, be the first pick on the softball or cricket team during recess—I was once nicknamed Sammy Sosa—but I wasn’t ever invited to play Madden or MLB on the weekends. I always felt the boys kept a tender distance from me, like they didn’t know exactly what to do with me.

VI

In 12th grade, my sister’s husband had an extra PS2 in his closet. I begged. He gave me it. He rented PS 2 games from Blockbuster, and he knew how to rig the Playstation’s hardware so I could access at least twenty games on one disc without having to pay. I don’t know what made my mother finally allow it, maybe as she aged she became less diligent, not as concerned about the type of woman I would become. Or maybe she simply knew she wouldn’t be able to control (or protect?) me for as long as I lived.

 

VII.

Before I moved to Michigan, I sold my PS2 because of some misguided belief that I couldn’t be a fiction writer and a gamer. I’ve since fixed the issue with a PS3, and I eagerly await the PS4 release later this fall. In my search for gaming companionship I’ve found women (and men) of all races, who have had similar experiences as I have and still love playing videogames, a fact that makes me optimistically excited. Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency started a Kickstarter to look into gender tropes in video games last year, and cyber trolls rioted. She asked for $6,000. She received instead $158,922, enough for her to expand her research. Sarkeesian’s success shows how much the gaming world needs this research and how many us know and support her efforts. This is exciting. My hope? It’s a start to changing perceptions about who can play videogames and what videogames are playable.

 

VIII.

In some ways, what I search for in literature, I search for in a game: a world that completely consumes, excites me and engages me intellectually. Truthfully, not very many videogames accomplish all three. The first PS3 game I bought was Journey, a game released in 2012 wherein players control a genderless, robed figure as he (or she) travels through a beautifully dry desert towards a lit mountain in the distance. The game is as lyrical and thoughtful as the designer Jenova Chen.

In a discussion with a NASA astronaut, “Chen heard the pilot’s stories of how colleagues that walked on the moon returned as changed individuals–more religious, more spiritual. Chen thinks that change is a result of seeing Earth from the moon, which instills a sense of wonder or, as he called it, ‘a sense of small’… While most games focus on giving you power, Chen wants you to feel that sense of small. He wants you to be in awe. And he wants to expand on that emotional gravitas by allowing you to encounter another player within an awe-inspiring, expansive world.” In trying to capture “a sense of small” Journey proposes the possibility that an emotionally realistic and truthful experience doesn’t have to belong to a specific gender or form or genre; that as amusing and entertaining as plays for power can be, shooting down gangs and thugs and mindless computer bots, there is something integral about the experience of being small, a truth that can be translated into a videogame form if designers are willing to experiment. Games like Journey might be challenging to develop, but it’s not impossible. Journey inadvertently suggests the worlds of videogames can be as capacious as those of great novels. We haven’t nearly explored the depths.

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