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.

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