here’s a talk i gave at qgcon today:
In game design, there’s a concept that game designers sometimes call “the magic circle.” The idea is that the magic circle is a space created by the rules of a game, and within which the normal rules and imbalances that define social interaction do not apply.
A safe space, essentially, where the player can play roles, can enact negotiated aggression and power imbalances without – if the players involved are respectful of boundaries – consequences to the players’ relationships outside of the circle.
19th century robber barons were monstrous figures who exploited hundreds of lives and stole millions of dollars, but within the safety of a game’s rules, players can explore the dynamics of trying to maximize profit by running a system as cheaply as possible, setting other players against each other, driving train companies into the ground and then dumping them on other players for maximum gain and minimum loss.
These are, after all, dynamics that are fascinating and complex, but to explore them outside of the magic circle would have real consequences for real lives.
I’m setting up a comparison here, and though I would never suggest something as simplistic as a one-to-one exchange, I’m keenly aware of and deeply interested in the similarities between one of the roles I play – game designer – and another: domme. As in – and again, this is a bit of a flattening of the complexity of the role – a person who consensually beats up other people.
Most violence occurs in the context of oppression, of one party policing another’s behavior or trying to exert control over that party. You’re beaten up for not fitting cultural expectations for masculinity. Most power imbalance is not consensual – you work at a coffee shop where you serve tech dudes because they control the resources you need to survive. Your choice to tolerate their demands is weighted – you do not have equal power in negotiating the relationship.
Within the boundaries of kink, though, is a safe space for experiencing unequal power dynamics. My girl serves me because it is intensely fulfilling to her to be devoted and attentive, not because I have any kind of economic power over her. It’s a safe space for experiencing violence – consensual violence, within boundaries that have been negotiated by all involved parties, is radically and essentially different than the kind of violence that is inflicted by one party upon another unwilling party.
I’ve acted out forced sex fantasies with partners who were sexually assaulted. I’ve beaten up partners who were beaten up, as kids, without their consent. Within consent, kink can become a place of recontextualizing, of processing, even a place of healing. Kink is a transformative space. And so is all play.
In my work, at least, I’ve gotten a lot out of thinking about the similarities between one type of play, GAMES, and this other type of play, KINK. Let’s talk about role-playing games, because those have some clearly-defined power imbalances right from the start.
Depending on which metaphor means more to you, think of a game like Dungeons and Dragons or Apocalypse World. Those games both have an Emcee or “Dungeon Master” role – someone who invents situations that put the other players in conflict and challenge them to develop their characters. A big responsibility.
The single piece of advice for new game masters that I’ve heard time and time again is: remember that the players aren’t your enemy. Even though you could force them to fight a herd of minotaurs at any time, you’re not trying to defeat them – you’re trying, if anything, to enrich them. D. Vincent Baker, author of Apocalypse World, gives this advice: “‘Make the characters’ lives not boring’ does not mean ‘always worse.’ Sometimes worse, sure, of course. Always? Definitely not.’”
I see a lot of digital games from beginning designers that seem as though they were designed to “beat” the player. To prove, on some level, that the author is smarter, more clever, or more hardcore than the player. In this conceptualization of play, games are quantitative machines which produce a win state.
This is not the reason most people play games, though. Bernie DeKoven’s 1978 book The Well-Played Game (recently back in print) contends that most players are less interested in victory for its own sake than they are in establishing a strong dynamic. Victory is nothing without a struggle – it’s not about being allowed to win too easily, or being made to lose too hard, it’s about a strong back-and-forth, a dynamic that challenges and empowers simultaneously.
It’s easy to see this in kink when we think of kink as a game in which the winner or loser is already decided – which doesn’t necessarily describe all scenes or dynamics, but generally does mine. The outcome isn’t what we’re playing to find out. We’re playing to create, perform and explore conflicts – we’re not trying to see who wins, but to understand the dynamics, and ourselves, better. I’m allowing a bottom to explore vulnerability in a situation in which they know they are ultimately safe.
That’s something we could stand to do more in games: to make the player feel vulnerable rather than superpowered. Well, “make” isn’t the right word here. It’s more accurate to say that we’re doing is CREATING OPPORTUNITIES for the player to feel vulnerable.
I designed a party game recently: it’s a note-passing game where the none of the players are aware of the rules until they receive the note. Everyone who receives the note is required to draw a weapon on it and pass it to the next assassin, thus inducting them into the game. If the “target” of the assassination notices the note at any time, the player holding it is required to expose the failed assassination attempt.
The rules leave a lot of room for expression and negotiation. What counts as a weapon? At what level of detail should my drawing be? Can I hide in a bedroom while I draw my picture? The things that the rules leave undefined are as calculated as the things the rules make explicit. In essence, I’m giving players the opportunity to perform as dangerously as they feel safe doing.
Don’t think that kink is merely about punishing people. It’s also about giving them opportunities to show their strength.
This is why having space around rules in games is so important – that’s the space where negotiation happens. And that’s part of why I’ve been moving away from the single-player digital game lately, aside from the fact that they’re usually really boring. Digital games are generally interested in having airtight, strictly-enforced rulesets.
What does negotiation mean in the context of a digital game? Let me suggest it DOESN’T mean an “Easy,” “Medium” and “Hard” setting. Those labels, offered to the player before they’ve even played the game or developed a context for it, are meaningless.
One of my favorite examples of player negotiation in a single-player digital game is the game Asphyx by Droqen. In this game, one of the rules is given to the player to keep. The player is required to hold her breath whenever her on-screen avatar is under water.
Naturally, in keeping that rule the player is given a lot of room to make her own rules about how the game will be played, to set boundaries. How strict am I going to be about the breath-holding rule? If I lose my breath but I’m about to get out of the water, do I let it slide? Do I ignore the rule entirely because I can’t hold my breath for shit?
Consider that as a designer, your role is more complicated than just “the one who wields all the authorial power.”
As a responsible “DUNGEON MASTER,” it’s not as much about the experience that I want to create as it is about the experience the player creates. It’s not about dragging a player kicking and screaming through my masterpiece. Responsibility does not begin and end with a conversation about limits.
I am at my most attentive, my most reactive, when I’m topping. And this is where the metaphor starts to strain, because when we’re designing we’re creating a set of rules to act in our place when we may not be there. But I think it’s useful to think of a game not as a show that the player is lucky to get to watch but as an experience we’re allowing her to perform, a conversation.
I once heard a definition of being dominant that really impressed me. It was: a dominant person is someone who “receives submission.” I like that definition because it doesn’t mention control or power. It suggests instead that while there isn’t equal authority within a D/s relationship, there is an exchange.
I want to suggest that a game designer isn’t someone who creates or packages a product, but someone who allows play to happen. You are a player; I am someone who receives play.