Ritual Play: Witchcraft, Self-care and Queerness in Games

A short while ago I gave a talk at the Queerness and Games Conference in Montréal, which briefly explored some overlaps I’ve begun to see: between queer and ritual practices amongst gamers and game developers; and between rituals and game design.

Photo by Vjosana Shkurti, for QGcon

This article is adapted from that talk, which formed part of a panel on ‘Feelings and Touch’ along with Arianna Gass and Robert Yang. The Twitch stream may be viewed here (albeit with some audio issues).


Games are Magic

Consider that every day, entire worlds, beings and cultures are being summoned into a reality we can share with anyone else who’s touched by that work – whether it be of our own making, by somebody else’s, or a mixture of both. And unlike in other artistic media, we are often handed tools with which we can affect change in these worlds – often to bring aid or destruction upon others, but perhaps also to explore the consequences of these types of actions.

Games are realms of imagination, but they’re also realms of power, and they offer myriad places we can go to learn more about ourselves, and others. I may consider them magical, but let’s unpack these notions of witchcraft and magic for a moment.

When I refer to “witchcraft”, I mean the amalgamation of ritualised practice, magic, and community observed by individuals and groups (or covens) in our current era. Given my background as a Brit of Scottish ancestry, living in Scandinavia: much of what I experience is a reconstruction of pre-Christian practices, based on pieced-together knowledge. But now – as historically – witchcraft comprises a diverse and often-individualised set of practices across cultures world-wide, all built upon traditional foundations. There are two important notes to make here:

  • that individualised nature means that as broad as I try to be in this exploration, I cannot possibly speak for witchcraft as a whole;
  • and also that witchcraft itself is not a religion – though there are religions which come under the umbrella of witchcraft.

Indeed the reverse is also true, as historically some witches have worked within a different religious structure, whether out of privilege or necessity – and it is the relationship between witchcraft and Christianity in Europe which has informed many of our wider assumptions about witchcraft.

Some of what these ‘cunning folk’ did was to root out so-called ‘pagan’ witches – those whose social mores, gender presentations and ritualistic works placed them well outside the established faith – and so we’re not exactly discussing queer-friendly witchcraft at this point. However, it’s around this time that many of our cultural associations with witchcraft were set: the keeping of familiars; acts of divination and scrying; and black books filled with folk remedies. Some of their methods were outright quackery; others had a toe-hold in what would become actual medicine. But more reliably, much of what they did demonstrated an awareness of psychology, and the power of ritual.

If I might stick with examples from cultures closely adjacent to my own, here’s a folk rhyme once spoken in medieval Lincolnshire, which was said to cure the plague:

Father, Son and Holy Ghost,
Nail the Devil to a post;
Thrice I strike with holy crook,
One for God, one for Wod and one for Lok

We can note that this rhyme is relatively short, is easy to remember, has a clear rhythm and even calls for physical action. The act of performing it has a low barrier to entry, and feels good – a welcome reassurance I’m sure, when facing a horror as unknowable as the bubonic plague once was. It takes a lot more than a holy crook to ward off such a plague, of course, but at least here the psychological battle is not so indomitable.

Whilst many contemporary Western rituals still cite gods from the Norse pantheon like that, others commonly call upon Greek or Egyptian deities, as seen in this shrine on the right. There are many overlapping reasons for this, but one which is often cited is the clearer acceptance of feminist and queer identities in the faiths of other, less-Christianised cultures. Suffice it to say: from the times of old gods to the present era, witchcraft in general has always evolved to suit the needs of those individuals and groups who practise it.

Our tools have also changed, as whilst many hold with the stuff of prior centuries, knowledge is now also being shared over telephones, the internet, and a veritable plethora of neo-pagan apps. Potions are being brewed on induction hobs as well as fire cauldrons; spells are being recorded in ‘books of shadows’ which are synced to the cloud; covens are meeting over Discord; jars, wands and amulets are being sold on Etsy. The tools have evolved along with society as a whole, but ritual is still the thread which runs through witchcraft of all flavours and favours – as it does in religions, and more besides.

Ritual is Everywhere

Its ubiquity allows one to draw parallels between routine conduct at a conference, and a typical church congregation. Between the speaker at a podium, the arrangement of the room and the shared understanding that we attend such places in order to think differently or be reassured, the only real differences lay in the setting: whether or not the venue is considered to be holy (whatever that might mean for those in attendance); the timing of the ritual (such as for an appointed day of the week or point in the lunar cycle); and so on. But there’s also an understanding that a ritual should mean something, at an individual level.

Applying make-up, for example, is something which might feel mundane to many – others may even view it as a daily chore – but for some, it can be anything from an act of defiance to self-definition, protection, or self-care. And this is just for the kinds of cosmetics we might associate with pharmacies and boutiques. Rituals involving make-up are observed by many people across continents including this one, such as to pay tributes, to alter or enhance the human form, or ward off negative energy. From the outside, applying products like lipstick and liner may not appear all that important an act, but for the practitioner, it can be made into a profound ritual.

The point I wish to assert here is that rituals are manifold, but it is in their context that we find their wider purpose – and in witchcraft, that context may be less obvious, but very personal. It could be argued that in fact a witch’s journey is one of identifying which rituals bring out something positive – be that creative focus, confidence, clarity or some other form of insight – and taking the time to consider why.

So with that in mind,

Witchcraft in Games

The first time I encountered anything approaching witchcraft in games was in “Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem”, in 2002. It’s a horror game in which you play as members of a family which is doomed to battle a variety of unsavoury beasts, and ultimately some old gods. So far, so gamey. A huge part of what kept me gripped to the game was the visceral, audio-visual delight of its spell-casting. For a large part of it, what you do sounds like this:

Underneath its theme and fairly simple combat, this game is also about collecting runes, along with codecs and spell scrolls which combine said runes, and are literally cast into the environment around your character with a satisfying thud, a chant, and a glowing presence upon the ground.

There’s a rhythm to every spell being cast – especially in later stages of the game, which are padded with ‘pargon’ runes – the rune of power. To my surprise, the visceral feeling of chanting Pargons still makes for a memetic experience (see below), years after the game was released. Just as with the plague rhyme of newly-Christianised Britain, the spell-casting within this game resonates through repetition, and – for some at least – a not-displeasing multi-sensory experience.

That we are in fact dealing with a medium which can appeal to multiple senses – often described as a type of synaesthesia – is still a relatively underappreciated aspect of games. Which is unfortunate, because when a player can perceive audio/visual art whilst also experiencing agency in the game world, the feelings which accompany a literal ritual or a trance state are arguably more intense.

Some games take this idea and mould a direct appeal to synaesthesia. Take “Thumper” and “Rez”, whose visuals and game mechanics feed into – and are influenced by – their soundtracks. The player is invited to immerse themself in the experience and achieve a trance-like state of flow, in which the relatively simple controls for their avatar may be carried out almost without thinking. The player’s consciousness is (ideally) subtly altered whilst they play.

This experience – of performing actions whilst doing or saying something in a rhythmic fashion – brings us right back to ritualistic chanting. Games allow us to experience the euphoric effects of this phenomenon without us really being aware. And it can be reassuring. There is comfort in knowing that when I attack a third-level beast in “Eternal Darkness”, the pargon rune of power will see me through. Similarly, “Thumper”’s visual presentation may leave me feeling uneasy by design, but so long as I stay true to the beat, I know that I can defeat the violent entities at the end of the track. And whilst neither of these even offers the pretence of improving my life outside the game, engaging with art is still a ritual of self-care – which is something I’ll come back to.

I would argue that this is game mechanics as low-level ritual. But we don’t have to look far for higher-level ones.

Ritual in Games

Whilst ritual is alluded to – and carried out directly by the player – in games like the “Legend of Zelda” and “Elder Scrolls” series, as part of their magical/fantasy settings, there are spaces out there now hosting a large number of games made by queer folks like us, which directly reference and even recreate our own, magical practices.

Whether it be abstract journeys through personal meaning, tea- and potion-brewing rituals, sex magic portal-summonings, digital tarot readings, séances or experiences drawn right out of the neo-pagan communities of Tumblr and Instagram, it is in these marginal spaces of games that developers are exploring ritual in both its mechanical and narrative forms.

Rituals are Built on Context; So are Game Mechanics

These and many other games address and create rituals directly through their game mechanics, but because they’re games they are also capable of delivering a context which the player can discover for themselves, and those rituals are thus given a potently individual meaning. And lest we forget: practising these rituals in games – be they large or small – almost always makes our characters more capable and powerful in the face of their obstacles. Striking at plagues with holy crooks abounds.

But what of belief? Sometimes that’s limited to the game’s narrative; other times the game asks its players to believe outside of its own confines. But rituals are capable of fulfilling something other than faith or magic.

Self-care

Welcome to self-care: rituals for personal empowerment and well-being. In practice this has a lot of overlap with witchcraft, but self-care can stand independent of spiritual matters. Rituals gain meaning through their intent – a context derived by their practitioner – but self-care need not necessarily be aligned with any particular belief beyond the idea that ‘this will make me feel better’.

We have probably all dabbled in self-care – whether it be the lighting of candles during a soak in an aromatic bath; setting aside time to enjoy a special blend of tea during times of anxiety or panic; inducing trance or meditation; or some other relatively simple act which will relax us. Doing so may not tackle our problems directly, but it might just grant us the energy or perspective to do that ourselves in slower time.

And just as magical rituals are depicted and realised in games; so too do apps and games create opportunities for self-care rituals. Some appeal to these fairly tangible kinds of rituals, but for what we’re interested in, I’d like to mention a more singular approach.

Psychogeography

…is a term from the 1950s, loosely defining attempts to study, observe and immerse one’s self in the varying feelings and moods of places. It happens to be an important part of my own craft, but I feel it has relevance in game spaces as well as the physical world, not least because ours is a medium which excels in directing the ‘spirits’ of places.

Consider how the mood of a game changes when you find an idyllic pond at which to fish, or you climb a hill to be met by a dazzling sunset. Many an account has been written of such virtual places – speaking to a personal sense of realness away from the usual trappings of games, and belying a desire which is also met by so-called ‘walking simulators’. Visiting such spaces is often also very conducive to self-care, in the same way that visiting a gallery might be – but in a uniquely immersive way, and often with the spice of personal discovery.

By engaging with these spaces – and for as long as the player chooses to treat it as such – the ritual becomes the game, and the game becomes the ritual – usually relaxing, and often empowering or humbling.

In Summary

Just as games have come to be recognised as escapist spaces, with promises that we might shape our own destinies and experience things outside of our typical existence, so too has witchcraft experienced a revival in interest this past century, outside of mainstream culture.

Remember that for many centuries, witches have been painted as unorthodox and counter-cultural people, operating outside of a hetero-normative patriarchy. They’re queer folk in an older sense of the term- and as their practices are built upon rituals of empowerment for communities and the self, it seems only natural that queer witches amongst us have been reaching out and expressing ourselves through creative media – including games. Whether we do so knowingly or not, subtly or blatantly, we’re creating and engaging with a wide variety of ritualistic experiences.

And despite the possibilities we know are afforded to us, the idea of games as platforms for self-care might – at times – feel ridiculous given the stresses and pressure we are made to feel as both players and creators. Calm, self-led empowerment is a world away from the hellscape of gaming Twitter. And it’s true that there is space here for that unfortunately tired argument about “making the kinds of games we want to experience more of, purely because we believe the potential of this medium shouldn’t be weighed down by a vocal minority”.

But in continuing to create or play and share in games which incorporate positive ritual in whatever form – entrancing, magical or empowering by more subtle means – we do perform a small act of defiance, for our own good, and for the community around us.

Games are magic, and so are we.

Guiding Lines

I’ve started drawing maps for fun again, and have only now begun to truly appreciate their relevance to other forms of design drawing. Whilst I have been an indie and freelance game designer for 7 years now, the times I spent drawing complex flowcharts have almost never overlapped with transit projects like these, which constitute my lifelong hobby. Now that I’ve caught myself re-arranging flowcharts for readability in a manner more akin to that of my transit maps, I reckon it’s a good time to try and unpack what’s happening in this form.

What follows is a series of articles on that topic, beginning with an exploration of transit maps in isolation.

4 Countries, 2570 Stations, 1? Map

My cartographic meditation for this past month has been an ongoing network map of the UK’s passenger railways. As with most of my transit map projects, this one attempts to plug a gap which is otherwise not quite fulfilled by transit agencies — nor indeed, by many other enthusiasts.

National Rail Enquiries publish a series of abridged maps (below), and they also include a valiant effort by Andrew Smithers/Project Mapping. However, it quickly becomes apparent that Britain’s stations are too numerous to be viewed comfortably at once — especially given the contrast in visual density between areas like rural Scotland and Manchester.

The maps offered by National Rail Enquiries and Project Mapping [source] could be said to sit at opposite ends of a spectrum, in terms of scale and the necessity for a zoom tool.

Maps of regional railways are somewhat easier to come by — partly because they’re easier to design and to read, but also because they allow the individual, privatised companies to showcase their services in isolation of others. South Western Railways, for example, are afforded the opportunity for an effective diagonal map, anchored between London Waterloo and the lines’ southwestern termini. These do, however, offer a distorted view of the bigger picture, as their priority lays in encouraging travel via specific lines or companies. They also represent disparate range of graphics styles.

Southwestern Railway’s network map is afforded an opportunity to spread from a single, neat source — their London terminus. However, other railways appear diminished. [Source]

A UK National Rail Map Project

My solution, has been to develop a Train Operating Company (ToC)-agnostic series of regional maps which could form a whole, but don’t, in order that they may also remain visually pleasing. Thus far only Scotland has been completed — as a series of three maps — but it’s been sufficient proof of my graphics scheme for those map segments yet to come.

My UK National Rail map is constructed as a series of artboards in Adobe Illustrator, making it even easier to keep styles consistent and see the whole scheme at the glance. They may be viewed in more detail here.

That development of a graphics scheme — the details of which I won’t linger on too much here — is what started me thinking back to design diagrams in general. It’s an essential part of most transit authorities’ visual presentation, as guidelines for enforcing visual consistency and clarity. The enjoyment I derive from developing such schemes is matched only by that I derive from the naming conventions and game/UX flows I handle in my day job.

Design Schemes

Setting firm rules for micro elements such as line width, station dot size, spacing of text and circumference of arcs lends form to a surprisingly complex piece overall, much like the systems behind most games.

Counter-intuitive though it may sound, these design guidelines needn’t be all that complex. My own for this project revolves around a ‘magic value’ of 5pt — the width of every railway line on the diagram. Stations are represented by a circle half that diameter, labels are 5pt in height (for full-height characters, like a capital ‘W’) and are spaced 2.5pt away from the edge of the line, curves begin at 20pt radius, and so on. All of these are straightforward multiples of that same magic number.

As well as all that, I took a couple of visual cues from some of my favourite transit maps: namely those for London Underground, and Storstockholms Lokaltrafik. Like the ‘Tube map’, my maps are octolinear — in particular contrast to Project Mapping’s one — both on the grounds of personal taste, and a tested belief that this makes a sprawl of hundreds of stations much easier to read. The eye can follow the flow of lines more easily if we don’t have to anticipate many changes to their direction. I also believe this makes it easier to disregard the rest of the map whilst focusing on smaller sections therein.

45-degree angles do cause problems of their own, and many of these are documented in Mark Ovenden’s fascinating book, Underground Maps After Beck. They can be visually dominating, and may force hefty distortions of the maps’ underlying geography — issues which escalate when a system is set to expand.

As with many other transit maps, SL’s map for services in Stockholms län is octolinear — arranging all its railways along strict angles, 45° apart from each other. This rule often requires subtle affordances to be made in order to keep the map balanced, such as in the staggered spacing of stations along its outermost routes.

Fortunately for railway lines built on the world’s oldest network, expansion is rare and relatively easy to account for. New or revived lines tend to serve new areas, as in the case of the Borders Railway from Edinburgh to Tweedbank (formerly Waverley Line, reopened in 2015). My maps do also contain information on ToCs, and these can change over the course of years, but as their bounds rarely change I believe that may be handled by changes to line colour in most instances.

When lines carry multiple services, and each is represented by a different colour, those key routes which attract more operators end up pronounced — such as the contrasts in route thickness from the rural Shotts line (extending left), through northbound central routes (top), to a branch of the West Coast Main Line (bottom).

In railway diagrams, as much as diagrams made as part of a design process, the chief tasks are to display a mostly-known quantity of related information, and ensuring that those relationships can be read as easily as possible — to allay confusion, and to prevent fellow developers and passengers alike from getting stuck at the wrong destination.

In the next article I’ll explore the kinds of flowcharts and relational diagrams I create in my roles as a game designer.

On-rails: Train Jam 2017

Last month and for the first time, I was honoured to be able to attend Train Jam: the annual, trans-American game jam event which now drops an entire train-load of developers in San Francisco, just in time for GDC. I did so courtesy of the event’s diversity initiative, for which I am extremely grateful. As anyone who knows me personally (and a few who don’t) will have noticed: trains and game jams are kind of my thing.

My usual custom for game jam wrap-ups like this is to go in-depth on some of the lessons learned, explain a bit about the game we made, and try to keep aspects of the journey or the setting either in their own post, or confined within my Flickr gallery. With Train Jam more than most jams though, I feel as though the journey contributed too much to the process to be taken in isolation. So, now that I’ve finally been able to sift through my photographs from this long weekend in the United States, it’s time for a ‘read more’ jump:

Continue reading “On-rails: Train Jam 2017”

Joy in the Moment

Death feeding pigeons in an anonymous, American city square. Rayman and Globox swimming loop-de-loops in a wide-open, undersea valley. Kate Kane dancing with a woman she likes at a high-society ball. Countless moments spent rapt by music and atmospheric light, on the coast at Arcadia Bay and in the shade of Kentucky’s more mysterious transit routes.

All these narrative memories which I have taken to heart have one thing in common: I was able to take charge of the flow of the story in which they sat, and metaphorically hit ‘pause’ – remaining in the moment long enough to savour it before I decided to let the story progress again.

It seems basic to remind ourselves that games progress only through interaction by the user, or that comics display a story in frozen moments of time – but I was only reminded of the true impact of this quite recently, in the course of a PBS Idea Channel discussion on single-frame fancomics. In it, Mike Rugnetta explains how a single frame can allow the reader to remain suspended in a moment for as long as they wish.

As a consumer of these media, I believe it’s important not to forget the importance of being able to stop and enjoy a moment – something which a few recent ‘indie’ games in particular have taken to heart. In many ways, Max and Chloë listening to Amanda Palmer on Chloë’s stereo as the morning sun filters through a makeshift curtain is the standout moment from my entire Life is Strange playthrough.

It may be that such moments feel more potent because they appear in linear narratives. Indeed, when such a moment strikes in a game like Minecraft it feels less like a narrative pause, and more like a particular arrangement of an ongoing scene. Instead I think of these pauses in linearity in the same light as Mamoru Oshii’s Niihama-shin montages in Ghost in the Shell:

It would seem that a key aspect of these moments’ potential lays in the player or reader being able to engage with them at their will, and on their terms – and so they are an inherently tricky thing to author. Nevertheless, I hope that game-makers continue to consider these ‘montage moments’ as part of a wider narrative/design lexicon. I find that as I mature alongside games, my own tastes have led to my favouring this technique most highly.

Not for My Daughter

Yesterday I gave a talk at Stockholm’s Kungliga Tekniska Högskolan (Royal Institute of Technology) on the subject of gender diversity in games. Delivering said lecture from atop a decommissioned nuclear reactor site felt like a remarkable enough thing for me to reflect on, but I was also struck by a discussion which emerged in the Q&A, on why parents might not wish for their girls to get into games in the first place.

It’s easy to make quite a reflexive response to such a question. There is much to unpack there, from the assumption that games are a destructive hobby to the apparent inevitability of boys being sacrificially lost to it. With that having been said, I do feel that – given the space which games still occupy in contemporary culture – it isn’t actually a particularly unusual or unfair question.

It can be hard to evangelise the gaming medium in the face of harassment like that which had been catalogued at Fat, Ugly or Slutty,  and a variety of gaming streams. I don’t think it unfair to view games objectively as a medium still dominated by at best masculine appeal, and at worst misogyny – in a view which is biased by my own work, but also perhaps by sheer weight of marketing. Video games remain, to many people, still a thing of home consoles rather than ubiquitous digital devices – synonymous with identification as “a gamer”. This also becomes a question which cannot easily be argued without drawing in the ‘games as art’ debate.

To rewind a little: I had begun my lecture (to Masters students in media and media technology) by quoting Anna Anthropy’s introduction to Rise of the Videogame Zinesters. In it, she makes the following observation, which related strongly to my overview of games as a male-dominated medium:

Text reads: “Digital games [..] are here, and they take up a lot of [cultural] space. And almost none of these games are about me, or anyone like me. What are videogames about? Mostly, [they’re] about men shooting men in the face.”
Slide from my presentation to Media Technology Masters students at KTH
She goes on to unpack the idea of games as art – creative products which have the potential to impart human experiences through the medium of interaction and game mechanics – and of course spends the rest of the book empowering people to do that for themselves.

Her argument that art forms should reflect as wide an aspect of the human experience as possible is a convincing and powerful one. At the very least, the more we can hold up examples of broader works like JourneyThe Stanley Parable and , framing them properly within the context of “digital-” or even “video games”, the more we can disrupt the stereotype of games as a single, violent, first-person perspective genre.

Furthermore, we tend to consider this problem purely from the creative angle – diversifying game content in order to offer a broader range of experiences. But to what extent are consumers actually seeing this diversity? Even an individual who’s regularly exposed to games in their own work and leisure time will instinctively take pause when considering exposing their children to the hobby, having seen one expression of this medium make its voice heard above the others.

I’ve long held that cultural education should be one of the gaming medium’s top priorities. Just as theatre makes continued attempts to bring a wide range of works to the public’s attention, we too should support those festivals, creators and platforms which have the will to change public perceptions of what a game is.

I think that what I’m coming to understand now, though, is the depths to which ‘games as art’ actually matters. More than simply having a vested interest in seeing the medium mature, being interested to see what games and technology are capable of, or even feel justified and supported in pursuing art in this medium myself, I think I want to see that creative breadth proven to other people. Just as television can be seen to incorporate soap opera, satire and documentaries, so too should games be recognised as a medium for thrilling action, personal drama and exploration.