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.

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.

Narrow Focus, World Stage

A recent article by Mattie Brice, in which she outlines the apparent shallowness of some games diversity initiatives, has added further clarity to an argument which has been rolling around in my head for a while too. In her piece, Brice describes feelings of isolation and abandonment as the games industry chases the figurehead of diversity, leaving behind those creators who neither want nor require the kinds of coding camps and changes to education which so attract corporate money and interest.

Although I’ve been reflecting upon related issues from a different angle, it is worth acknowledging that hers is a very GDC-focused perspective, and while that is by no means a bad thing, I think it is where I both sympathise and disagree with Brice’s insightful yet negative position. I feel a need to draw distinctions here because of a very different-feeling climate where I reside in Sweden, and again in the UK, my home country. Activities undertaken in the former seem to be of a different order – more practical, and already yielding good results – whereas British efforts seem more likely to tackle recruitment over education in games as a craft.

With that having been said, I too have had cause to focus on GDC – the Game Developers’ Conference, which is held annually in San Francisco. It is but one of many worldwide games conferences, yet it’s one which commands a great deal of weight and emphasis within the industry. It is the de facto hub for many discussions affecting this medium (at least in the so-called ‘western’ hemisphere), and I state this both to provide context to my views, but also to introduce one of the problems I have with the way diversity initiatives in games are currently being addressed. Suffice it to say, I’ve never been to GDC in San Francisco, and in all honesty it’s unlikely I shall be able to any time soon.

The bottom line is that year on year, GDC is at least treated as the only conference with a half-way strong diversity focus. It is at least one of very few in the world to devote a whole discussion track to the subject. This isn’t a bad thing, of course – having a central hub like this can have many benefits. However, GDC is also a prohibitively expensive conference for many – not just for conference passes, but also in flights, especially for anyone outside of the USA. This is something Matt Duhamel has reflected on too, with attendance as an expression of privilege.

Initially it feels strange to apply ‘privilege’ to something like attending a conference, but the fact is only a handful of people can ever be part of the conversations which happen at GDC. The problems which may arise from that are manyfold. For starters, diversity’s raison d’etre demands that a variety of voices to be heard, and while no-one can be inclusive to everyone all the time, any recurring diversity initiative at this conference is going to wind up homogenised based on who can physically get there. The practical result of this is that while companies and the wider gaming medium look solely to GDC in San Francisco for guidance or as a barometer on inclusivity, what they’re getting is a non-representative view. More than that, those who turn up with cash to invest (especially those wishing to “appear diverse” as Brice puts it) will only end up doing so within US borders.

Photo by Emma Clarkson
Photo by Emma Clarkson

Take for example this slide from GDC 2015, and a panel entitled “Turning the Tide”, which sought to address inclusive recruitment to the games industry. Whether or not the author realised it, all but one of these organisations (apparently picked knowingly as “just a few”) are based in North America, and only one of those has an international focus. That said, and at the risk of criticising WIGI unfairly: I can only ever find events of theirs as being held in the USA. This is by no means a representative slice of women-focused community groups worldwide, but they are all groups which many have heard of. Why? They get noticed, year on year at GDC and in the gaming press which follows.

How can we fix this? The only solution I can think of involves other conferences making a much more concerted effort to offer a platform for discussing diversity and inclusivity, reflecting and involving their local attendees. I believe it actually damages the diversity initiative if we keep focusing on the same part of the world – just as much as it does when we focus on the same minority (a topic for another time, perhaps). Press attention would need to follow, as otherwise the effort amounts to nothing. The ideal alternative, of course, would involve more diversity advocates coming to GDC, but unless your organisation is already the recipient of corporate sponsorship, it’s very likely you have no budget at all with which to fund such a venture.

As a side note: it cannot be left to the ‘indie sector’ to cover this inclusivity angle, as I’ve seen happen at a few conferences and festivals. Indie game development may be a much more accessible medium than so-called ‘AAA’, and its works may be addressing more societal issues and diverse player bases, but that doesn’t mean it should be the sole forum for discussing inclusivity – and nor should it mean that diversity issues should crowd out discussion of the issues which already affect this sector of the gaming medium.

It is my hope that those with the wits to realise this risk of homogenisation, and the power to actually change it, will do so. I did not expect to be so disheartened by the imbalance at play between the sort of focus North American initiatives receive, when compared to European ones – let alone those enacting real change in Africa, Asia and beyond. The games industry is centralised upon the USA in many other areas as well, but at a time when inclusivity and diversity sit so far forward in this medium’s consciousness, it is galling to see so many efforts go unheard of – and to see opportunities go untapped.

So ends an uncharacteristic rant on my part.

Stockholm Syndrome

As my refurbished website now boldly proclaims, I have left Britain’s shores for colder pastures in Stockholm. My partner and I became expatriates at the very end of November, meaning that with a gap around Christmas, I’ve been abroad for a month.

That month has afforded me many opportunities, from the mundane (tidy up my hard drive) to the ambitious (work out where my career can take me – literally). Ultimately my objective has been to take a 3-month sabbatical, helping us both to engage with a foreign culture and helping me to work out what the games scene is like in Stockholm – and where my career should go from here.

Suffice it to say, it’s all a world apart from the daily rhythm of commuting into London, to design games just outside the Silicon Roundabout.

CY Reid (above right) demonstrating 'Hug Marine' at London Indies

Continue reading “Stockholm Syndrome”

The Digital-only Toybox

As some of you know, I work for an independent studio which is making the move from browser-based games to mobile and PC downloads. It didn’t take me long to realise that, contrary to the way I imagined things in childhood, my first game credits are actually for digital rather than boxed titles.

Probably fewer of you are aware that back at the beginning of the year, I set out to try and play 30 games in 2013. Thus far this has not panned out well, and in all honesty I’ll be lucky to meet a goal of 10 games. However, the reason I did this was because I’ve built up quite a large number of digital-release games through Steam, Good Old Games and Humble Bundle. In fact, the last boxed game I bought was StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm – purely because it was a collector’s edition. That was back in March.

My games collection and my career have both moved with the industryi.e. away from boxed titles, and while that makes for exciting career opportunities I find myself in something of an identity crisis as a long-time collector of video games. Not only do some of my favourite games of the past few years not have a physical presence upon my shelf – there to be admired and shown off – but they can’t even form a part of my gaming setup. Granted, this is more of a reflection on ‘indie’ games rather than the mainstream, which is still going strong. All the same, I’m saddened by the thought I cannot see Johann Sebastian Joust on my shelf, or invite my friends ’round to play Tenya Wanya Teens.

"Tenya Wanya Teens" at Gamecamp 6
“Tenya Wanya Teens” at Gamecamp 6

Some games are becoming very transient experiences – in some cases, even restricted to the realm of exhibition rather than being part of a medium which was once known for being accessible, on demand. With games like Joust this is transience is arguably part of the appeal as well as its core mechanics, and there’s no denying that its appearance at events like Wild Rumpus makes those days out all the more memorable. Still, as someone who grew up showing my admiration and enjoyment of games by lurking in games shops and watching eBay for imported copies, I find that my shelves of Sonic games in particular have taken on a deeper, somewhat unpleasant new level of nostalgia.

As an aside, this is – coincidentally – the 22nd anniversary of Sonic the Hedgehog being released on SEGA Megadrive in the U.S. “Happy birthday” to the character who ignited my love of video games!