The Companion Games Manifesto
What does it mean to call a game a companion? Referring to a story, or a favorite fictional character, as a companion seems easy enough to understand. I imagine that most of us had our own fantasy worlds growing up, where we were Peter Pan or Dorothy, or Falcor. We had friends and enemies and adventures without leaving our rooms. These stories sometimes became inextricably tied from the essence of who we were and how we grew up. So what does in mean to call a game a companion? Can games occupy a real, tangible impact on our chemistry as well as an ephemeral impact on our psychies?
Donna Haraway explores the role of companion species in her book, “The Companion Species Manifesto.” She talks about the way expose to other species changes us down to the chemical level. Each puppy kiss that lands itself on your lips, each breathe of dander, each time we snuggle and pet and bathe, our chemistry and our companion animal’s chemistry is changing. So what does that mean? For Haraway, it has two important implications. The first is ethical and political, and the second implication is manifest in how we tell our story of ourselves, or humanity. She talks about co-habiting, about significant otherness. How our relationships with these species change us on every level, and it always has.
Haraway writes, “The domestic animal is the epoch-changing tool, realizing human intention in the flesh, in a dogsbody version of onanism. Man took the (free) wolf and made the (servant) dog and so made civilization possible… Let the dog stand for all domestic plant and animal species, subjected to human intent in stories of escalating progress or destruction, according to taste” (28). Of course she points out that the narrative that we “saved” anything is just as false and damaging as the romanticism of some great, untouched “nature” before the fall into culture. In Haraway’s story here I see her progressing our view of companion species, from that as “friend” or “pet,” to that of co-habitating significant other, meaning that the co- (and dependant, at this point) emergence happens on a molecular level. This forefronts the body, calling into question the idea that we can simply surrender a pet, or treat them as objects or (even worse for Haraway) other humans. They are significant in themselves, and their bodies are inextricably tied to ours.
So what does this mean for games? It perhaps is an easier sell for animals than for games, but I think a similar argument can be made. Companion games make us face two implications: the arbitrariness of (all?) systems and questions of embodiment (and identity). As systems, games create what are called game worlds. Huizinga’s magic circle reigns supreme here. Monopoly money is symbolic and has meaning only if all those in the circle decide it has meaning and assign it a tangible value. This is exactly the same system we use for “real” money. Inside the game world we make friends and enemies and work and play, sometimes participating in systems designed to mimic life (ie. the Sims). There is also real change that happens within us when we participate in a game world. Where companion species forefront the body (molecules, spit-swapping, and waste), companion games forefront emobodiment (most notably the messy boundaries of self and other). This has been talked about many times, for example in A Rape in Cyberspace by Julian Dibbell, and the it highlights that we do not stop at our skin, but that we can be embodied in pixels, in other’s flesh, even in a piece of medal.
I haven’t yet figured out what this all means, but it feels significant, as games have always felt significant to me. While playing WoW the other night I couldn’t help but think of Katie King’s layers of global and local (look for a post on this next week!). Here we have the perfect example of local, friends having a LAN party, and global, connected to millions of people across the globe—but this is all within the virtual. Here the global and local exist within the virtual, and we exist seamlessly within it, working, playing, loving, laughing. In every sense of Haraway’s phrase “inhabiting the story,” we inhabit this non-space space. We inhabit the game and in term the game inhabits us.