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Building virtual worlds: video games and autobiographical architecture

Video games can offer space to build autobiographical architectures, but these digital worlds do not exist in a void

You can tell that Clive Riordan, the villain in Edward Dmytryk’s Obsession (1949), is a thwarted and disturbed person because he owns an elaborate model railway. Admittedly, there are other indications: primarily the way he kidnaps his wife’s lover and holds the man captive in the basement of a blitzed building, slowly filling the bath of acid in which he plans to dissolve his corpse. It is the scenes of Riordan at play, however, that are truly damning. Running locomotives around the chest-high papier-mâché mountain range that dominates his basement, his megalomania and sadism are thrown into stark relief. This urbane postwar cuckold becomes legible as an ancestor of the basement-dwelling incel of contemporary folklore, impotently venting his frustrations via endless online deathmatches.

I found myself thinking of Obsession in September 2020, when Joe Biden’s campaign team created an island in the Nintendo game Animal Crossing: New Horizons (2020). Visitors could enjoy an ice cream with bobbleheaded Joe and Kamala avatars before picking up TEAM JOE signs for display on their very own in-game lawns. They could also pay a visit to ‘Joe’s Train Town’, a basement room featuring an array of model railway sets. This touch was presumably meant to evoke Biden’s old-fashioned decency and pioneer spirit, while expressing a vaguely greenish, vaguely leftish regard for mass-transit infrastructure; I took it as confirmation that anyone who aspires to be Commander in Chief must have a Riordanesque streak.

Black and white film still of a man standing over a miniature train set landscape

The miniature railway owned by the villain in Edward Dmytryk’s Obsession of 1949 provides him with a space where he is able to lord over his own tiny domain

Released in late March, just as many countries were entering lockdown, New Horizons quickly became a massive success. One might have supposed the game’s premise would hit too close to home: it begins with players being dropped off on a desert island and left to fend for themselves. For many, however, New Horizons’ gameplay – which revolves around gradually amassing resources to transform your island and build a dream home – gave a sense of purpose to the formless sprawl of quarantine. Barred from socialising IRL, players jumped at the chance to visit friends’ islands – and to share screengrabs of their cottagecore fantasias and bamboo-fringed tea gardens on social media. Museums and galleries got in on the act, supplementing the selection of canonical masterpieces available in-game (Vermeer, van Gogh) with digital reproductions of items from their collections.

When we talk about video games presenting opportunities to play with identity, we often think of players creating avatars and assuming control of proxy bodies. But games have been inviting players to construct their own environments for decades. True, when evaluating video-game spaces, ludic concerns tend to predominate: whether they look like elven citadels or irradiated wastelands, most are essentially labyrinths, arenas or obstacle courses, designed to afford particular forms of play. In games like SimCity (1989) designing spaces is the game, and winning means internalising certain design principles (including, in SimCity’s case, regressive attitudes to zoning and taxation). But as early game studies scholars such as Henry Jenkins argued, gamespaces can also be evocative and expressive, telling ‘spatial stories’ through their ‘narrative architecture’. As games mesh with social media there’s been a renewed focus on how gameworlds can function as autobiographical architecture, conveying something of the player’s identity – or projecting an appealing personal brand.

A virtual version of the courtyard of London's Royal Academy of Arts hosts a facsimile of a Jeff Koons balloon bunny. Subtitle text reads 'The former home of the Royal Academy of Arts is now yours'

A virtual room of London's Royal Academy of Arts hosts a facsimile of artwork by Yayoi Kusama on the walls. Subtitle text reads 'It's a private museum, open only to friends and acquaintances'

Lawrence Lek’s Unreal Estate, on the other hand, presents a simulation of a speculative fancy in which the Royal Academy of Arts has become the private property of the player’s character, a pleasure palace brimming with works by star-status artists such as Kusama and Koons

Credit:Lawrence Lek, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London

The creation of Biden HQ was not New Horizons’ first brush with politics. The Chinese government had banned the game in April, after images of avatars in hard hats and gas masks protesting in support of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement went viral. But the Biden story seems to have spooked Nintendo. In November it requested that organisations ‘please refrain from bringing politics into the game’. This plea was entirely consistent with Nintendo’s scrupulously maintained image as purveyors of irreproachably inoffensive family-friendly entertainment. But some pundits found it a little disingenuous, rightly arguing that granting players their own little patch of terra nullius is hardly an apolitical proposition. Like Minecraft (2009), New Horizons is essentially a Robinson Crusoe sim – one rendered even more compelling by the metagame of amassing online likes. While both can be played against the grain, a strain of neocolonialist fantasy comes baked in. For me, it was striking that New Horizons’ paradise had so much in common with works of dystopian satire; scrolling through screenshots of beaming avatars posing with their private art collections, I was reminded of Lawrence Lek’s ‘speculative first-person simulation’ Unreal Estate (2015), in which London’s Royal Academy of Arts is transplanted to a tropical island to serve as the personal pleasure palace of a billionaire oligarch.

Fortunately, gaming culture also offers more critical approaches to autobiographical architecture. Take Mary Flanagan’s [domestic] (2003), a shooter mod that draws on Flanagan’s childhood memories of a house fire. Eschewing realism, Flanagan doubles down on the spatial (il)logic of commercial video games, presenting rooms plastered with digitised snapshots and lysergically fitful snatches of text.

The gifscapes of Cassie McQuater’s Black Room offer a tour through the backdrop of the artist’s own past, where the player is left to wander through lurid lands inhabited by scantily clad heroines and pulsating monsters

Credit:Cassie McQuater

Cassie McQuater’s Black Room (2017) offers another example of autobiographical bricolage. Taking inspiration from all-night Super Nintendo sessions with her insomniac grandmother, McQuater integrates scenery and characters ripped from retro video games into a hyperlinked warren of looping gifscapes. Nintendo now lets players build their own levels in Super Mario Maker (2015) and stage franchise-melding crossovers in Super Smash Bros Ultimate (2018); McQuater’s mash-up is more ambivalent than these officially sanctioned nostalgia trips. By recontextualising King of Fighters’ (1994) buxom ninja girls and Vampire Savior’s (1997) sexy succubi, McQuater underscores the lurid trashiness and rote misogyny of her source material, but her hypnotic tableaux also highlight these games’ otherworldly qualities, reimagining digital sex objects as avatars of transcendence.

Many of these tendencies – collage aesthetics, retro game references, impossible or incoherent spaces, gameworlds as galleries – converge in Tabitha Nikolai’s Ineffable Glossolalia (2017). Rooted in Nikolai’s experiences as a trans gamer growing up in suburbia, it is both an autobiographical work and an exploration of the career of Weimar sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, founder of the Institute for Sexual Science. Driven into exile by the Nazis, Hirschfeld has been hailed as a queer martyr. For Nikolai however, as for historians such as Kadji Amin and Heike Bauer, Hirschfeld’s legacy is complicated by his enthusiasm for eugenics and his complicity with colonialism. Nikolai’s engagement with this complex legacy takes the form of a virtual environment encompassing a recreation of the Institute’s library, a gallery of Weimar-era artworks, an operating theatre, a gamer’s bedroom and an approximation of Bebelplatz, the infamous public square where texts seized from the Institute were incinerated in the first of the Nazi book burnings.

‘In Nintendo’s neoliberal utopia each player is an island, digitally connected but basically monadic, demanding patient cultivation’

When visitors to this space encounter Otto Dix’s painting Kriegskrüppel (1920), it is more than a decorative flourish. Dix’s prosthetically augmented veterans gesture toward the entangled histories of reconstructive surgeries and gender confirmation procedures (as Bauer notes, one of the surgeons who pioneered vaginoplasty techniques at Hirschfeld’s institute would later become a medical advisor to the Luftwaffe). Believed to have been destroyed after featuring in an exhibition of ‘degenerate art’, the presence of Dix’s image in the game also underscores Nikolai’s concern with ‘the reverberations of archival loss over time.’ Faced with ignorance and erasure, trans subjects in particular have had to ‘invent language or steal language’ to ‘learn to talk about yourself and make yourself’. In seeking ‘the vocabulary to coherently speak my truth’, Nikolai turns to art, mythology, sexology, messageboards – and video games.

Elsewhere in Ineffable Glossolalia we encounter a poster advertising Quake III: Arena (1999), a shooter full of gothic redoubts and sci-fi space stations. The poster, however, shows a different kind of space: a dingy room dominated by a desktop monitor displaying the game’s logo. Under the desk is a microwave and a pile of half-eaten TV dinners. In lieu of a chair there’s a toilet, ensuring that the gamer never has to leave the keyboard. It’s a pungent riff on the idea of gaming as a retreat into consolatory masculinist fantasies. But Nikolai juxtaposes it with images of Metroid’s (1986) heroic bounty hunter Samus (who is dramatically revealed to be a woman at the end of the game) and Guilty Gear’s (1998) Bridget (a doe-eyed boy sporting a thigh-skimming nun’s habit). As these figures attest, gameworlds have long provided space to play with gender.

Grid of scenes from the absurd and fractured geographies of Tabitha Nikolai's Ineffable Glossolalia

Scenes from Ineffable Glossolalia by Tabitha Nikolai feature a fragmented sequence of spaces intercut with textual references and impossible graphics, haunted by loss. The player treads from domestic den to server farm to Berlin’s Bebelplatz, in an archive that is part historic, part autobiographical

Credit:Tabitha Nikolai

Can we draw a line between play and politics? In a year of lockdowns, protests and electioneering, New Horizons was cherished as an escape. Prioritising creativity and sociability over combat and competition, the game envisions virtual space not as a battlefield but a blank canvas, ready for players to project their identities onto. But this premise is inherently political – and, in its own way, as steeped in dreams of dominance, autonomy and control as Riordan’s miniature dictatorship. In Nintendo’s neoliberal utopia each player is an island, digitally connected but basically monadic, demanding patient cultivation. 

Of course, not everyone has the luxury of remaining apolitical: for those whose identities have been politicised by transphobic bigots, as for those whose rights are under threat, the idea of instituting a hard border between play and politics might look absurd, insidious or impossible. Ineffable Glossolalia understands this. Connecting banal domestic spaces to digital dreamworlds and contested sites of cultural trauma, Nikolai insists that there is no such thing as an apolitical video game, because history and ideology necessarily shape the sociocultural playing field. Incorporating a diverse array of cultural materials, her autobiographical architecture shows that nobody constructs an identity ex nihilo, dismissing notions of virgin soil and sovereign territory. 

Gaming culture can be toxically regressive and oppressively normative. But there is also a long tradition of gamers, modders and artists building virtual spaces that elaborate alternative visions of identity and community. Where do I end? Where does the world begin? Therein lies the game.

Lead image: ‘Joe’s Train Town’ is a folksy set-up in the basement of the virtual 2020 Biden/Harris campaign headquarters in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Credit: Nintendo

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