Lesson Plan: Mattie Brice’s Mainichi and Jason Rohrer’s Gravitation

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Ian here—

Consider this another addendum, this time to my previous post on teaching the concept of procedural representation. These are two more of my favorite case studies to use for that topic—ones that, however, fall outside the designation of “games about squares.” As with the games outlined in my previous post, I teach these via small group work, assigning students to first play these games, and then present to their classmates on them. For these presentations, I direct students to not simply say “this game is about x topic,” but instead say things like “when you do y in this game, z happens.” My aim is to get them to specifically lay out how rules shape player behavior, and provide consequences for that behavior, and how this combination of rules/behavior/consequence can make claims about the how the world works.

Mainichi (Mattie Brice, 2012)

Around 2012–2013, a number of game developers—among them Mattie Brice, Anna Anthropy, Porpentine, Richard Hofmeier, merritt kopas, Zoë Quinn, The Fullbright Company, and Ryan and Amy Green—rose to critical prominence for their role in charting out a new use of games to tell stories of personal lived experience. Different names were proposed for this perceived movement. In her book that in some ways kickstarted the whole discussion, Anna Anthropy proposed the term “videogame zinesters.”[i] Gamasutra, meanwhile, seemingly adopted the term “personal game” as part of its house style. Others still chose the designation “empathy games.” This last designation has come under fire from both Brice and Anthropy, who have noted the presumptions present in its anointing of players as politically “enlightened” for having spent five minutes with a videogame. As such, I will avoid it, and instead go with “personal game.”

Brice was, and remains, quite active as a critic: During this particular moment, she wrote both paeans to the possibilities of personal games, and, on the flip side, scathing critiques of the mainstream game industry’s inability to speak to a diverse audience. She has been somewhat less prolific as a game designer, but Mainichi, in particular, is a key text within the personal games movement, and one that I have taught several times.

In its broad details, Mainichi sounds a lot like merritt kopas’ Lim, released later the same year. Both are about trans experience, and about the difficulties as passing as the gender you identify as in a world in which others do not respect that identity. Both of them transform this experience into gameplay that fits roughly into the stealth genre of videogames: players try to avoid the gaze of others, here rendered not as enemy guards, but as potential harassers.

The differences, however, are significant. Mainichi, for one, is much more overt than Lim. The harsh graphical abstraction of Lim stands as an excellent example of Bogost’s concept of the proceduralist style: games in which “expression arises primarily from the player’s interaction with the game’s mechanics and dynamics, and less so (in some cases almost not at all) in their visual, aural, and textual aspects.” Mainichi, by contrast, is happy to make extensive use of both text and cartoon visuals to make it clear to the player what’s going on. Lim‘s action takes place in real-time, with the game’s themes of “tension” and “suffocation” taking affective form as players cautiously navigate a maze and try to avoid violently attacking enemies. Maninchi, by contrast, leans closer to the genre of interactive fiction, asking players to make binary choices as they interact with certain objects in their environment, offering a more deliberate experience.

And what are these binary decisions? They all have to do with striking a balance between the rituals of self-presentation, versus whatever meager means of self-care the player’s character (a version of Brice herself) has at her disposal. What do you do before you go out in the afternoon, to meet a friend for coffee? Do you engage in a lengthy regimen of bathing, shaving your legs, putting on makeup, and dressing elegantly? Or do you take some time for yourself—grabbing a quick bite to eat, for instance, or sitting down for a few minutes with your PS3—and skimp a bit on your self-presentation? For many people, choosing to skimp on self-presentation might result only in some mild social embarrassment. For a transwoman like Brice, however, it can be the difference between people on the street treating you as a member of the gender you identify as, or mis-gendering you.

Once at the coffee shop, Brice’s conversation with her friend forms the game’s multiple “endings.” If players have suffered through street harassment and being mis-gendered, Brice’s character will come across as resigned: “It’s hard to feel happy sometimes.” If, on the other hand, Brice has had a relatively good day, she will optimistically talk about the possibility of a date with a barista, to which her friend will respond, with concern: “Does he know? You know? I just don’t want you to get hurt.” Even the game’s “good” ending is tempered with caution and concern.

And then, the game abruptly starts over. There are no end credits. The game doesn’t ask you if you want to escape, or play again. It just starts over, without asking you for permission. You’re dumped, again, at the beginning of Brice’s day, hearing, once again, as ever, her suggestion to herself that she should “try being more positive.”

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When students are presenting on this game, I tend to prod them on the question of why the game starts over, and why it does so without prompting from the player. For me, this instant-restart is where the game moves from simply being “notable,” to being genuinely successful.

What effect does this instant restart has on players? I let students answer this however they want, but I have my own answer, as well.

I think there is a very specific effect that this restart has on people who play a lot of games, particularly mainstream games. Games condition their players to expect a lot of feedback when they’re done something right, or wrong. If we’ve done something well, we get achievements, or trophies, or watch the boss’s death animation, and proceed to the next level. If we’ve performed poorly, our health bar goes down, we die, we have to restart the level (perhaps watching enemies laugh at our avatar’s corpse as we wait for the level to reload). Games are usually quite good about letting us know how we’ve done, and what we’re supposed to do next. It’s one of the reasons that compulsive play can be a problem: we like the feeling of knowing where we stand, and games are a welcome respite from the vague complexities of the real world.

Mainichi yanks this feedback away. When the game resets to Brice’s bedroom, all sorts of questions arise: Wait, did I finish it? Was that it? Did I get the “good ending“? Or the “bad” one? Did I miss something? Or—oh, wait! Is this a new day? Does it maybe just look the same at the beginning … but then it diverges, and new things happen? Things I haven’t seen yet?

The game’s refusal to actually acknowledge that it has ended, and re-started, creates a strong incentive to re-play it immediately, to see if things are going to be different this time around. Surely, if there’s no “the end” screen, that must mean there’s more content, right? More paths to explore? More endings to unlock? Something deep inside our game-playing unconscious is tickled, and we are compelled to play through again, to choose different options, to see if we can get a better outcome.

And yet … none of the outcomes are ever that great, or that different. At best, the ending is another “meh.”  Certainly, there must be a “correct” sequence of choices, right? Surely, there must be a way to properly achieve balance between self-care and self-presentation, right? Can I at least get that one guy on the street to stop harassing me quite so openly?[ii]

But nothing ever changes, because this is Mattie Brice’s life, and this is what she must deal with every day. (Mainichi is, in fact, Japanese for “everyday.”) There is not some secret formula she can use to ensure that no one will ever mis-gender her, no matter how much time players spend in the bathroom gussying her up. And, upon playing them over and over and over again, the game’s meager palette of emotional self-care—microwaving a meal, playing videogames, taking a nap because you feel strangely tired—begin to seem less like moments of “me time,” and more like signs of depression.

Although I’ve referred to the conversation with Brice’s friend at the coffeeshop as the game’s “ending,” in truth the game never ends. There is never a “game over” screen, never any closing credits, never a return to some main menu. It just restarts the day, over and over again, until eventually it is up to the player to close out the game’s window.

And, if you’re playing the game fullscreen in Windows, you can’t even easily do that. Instead, you have to open the task manager with ctrl-alt-delete, and forcibly terminate the software, as if it had encountered and error and was stuck in a loop. Which, of course, it is. But not because of any error: because it’s modeling Brice’s day-to-day lived experience, and there are no easy outs in her day-to-day lived experience.

Gravitation (Jason Rohrer, 2008)

In a short blog post announcing the release of the game, Anna Anthropy contrasted Mainichi to Jason Rohrer’s Passage (2007). Anthropy describes Passage as “a white cisgender man’s game,” noting that the only thing players struggle with in it is “the possibility of dying in their seventies or eighties.”

Anthropy’s post is extremely brief (a mere 87 words). Although her treatment of Rohrer’s game might come across as curtly dismissive, the fact of the matter is that the post isn’t meant to be an extended analysis—of Passage, or of Mainichi. The post did, however, become an occasion for the commenters on Anthropy’s blog to have a fascinating debate about the level of abstraction at work in Rohrer’s Passage. To wit: Is it the case that Passage is orders of magnitude more abstract than Mainichi, making it a quite different beast, and not truly illuminating as a comparison point? Or does Passage only seem more abstract to those who self-identify the same way that Rohrer does? Is Passage not, in fact, a “game about life,” as it is often billed, but a game about a very specific life, one that is able to deny its own specificity because it happens to be about an identity that is often treated as the “default” in our culture?

The discussion chronicled on that old blog post is a wonderful one—and one that I think illuminates some of Passage‘s very real shortcomings. Perhaps these are shortcomings in how the game has been critically framed, rather than shortcomings with the game itself. Whatever the case, however, they are shortcomings that Rohrer’s follow-up, Gravitation (2008), largely sidesteps. Gravitation is a much more specific game. It is more clearly autobiographical in its aims. It has been stripped of Passage‘s pretense toward mushy universalism, and it is, to my mind, more successful for it. And, importantly for the aims of this post, it also makes for a more interesting pairing with Mainichi.

Both games are, in their own way, about balance. I’ve stated above that Mainichi is about balancing the rituals of self-presentation expected of society (which will have especially drastic consequences for transwomen if they are not followed) against assertions of one’s own personal time for minute gestures of self-care. Gravitation, by contrast, is about the work-life balance. More specifically, it is about the very specific balance one must achieve when the passions for one’s creative work become wrapped up in one’s masculine identity as a “provider” for one’s family.

Rohrer’s official statement on Gravitation says only that the game is about “mania, melancholia, and the creative process.” It was fairly obvious to me from the first time I played it that the game is also about parenthood, although I’ve found that students don’t always grasp this right off the bat. (“Friendship” is a common competing interpretation.) To make up for the insufficiencies of Rohrer’s official artist statement, it might be a good idea to pair the game with curator Michael Maizels’ short statement on the game. Although I picked up on the themes of parenthood, providing, and work-life balance in the game well enough on my own, this statement helped me understand some of the game’s finer points, such as the fact that the child in the game is Rohrer’s son (not daughter—speaking of mis-gendering!), and that his name is Mez.[iii]

Like Rohrer’s earlier PassageGravitation unfolds over a set amount of time: this time, 480 seconds, or eight minutes. The game begins with an orange countdown timer in the lower righthand corner, and a blue score counter in the upper righthand corner. Otherwise, the screen is mostly black, with a player-controlled figure (representing Rohrer himself) enclosed in a tight frame.

If the player stands still, keeping the Rohrer stand-in player character staring at the roaring fireplace nestled in the right edge of the frame, they will find that this frame becomes even tighter, as Rohrer’s world collapses in on him. To prevent this, players must make their way over to the left, where they find Rohrer’s son, Mez, who will engage the player-character in a simple game of tossing a red ball back and forth. As Rohrer plays with Mez, Mez’s affection for Rohrer is expressed by cartoon hearts rising above Mez’s head, and Rohrer’s outlook on life apparently brightens, represented by the the colors of the sky becomes more vibrant, and the game’s narrow framing expanding into a typical 3:4, vertical-arcade-cabinet-style view on the surrounding area.

As the view expands, players can catch sight of a blue star perched above the room they are playing with Mez in, as well as an opening in the ceiling. Players can press the space bar on their keyboard to jump, but initially they won’t be able to reach the opening—not until the colors of the sky reach their most vibrant state, and Rohrer’s head bursts into flame(!). Once this happens, players will find that Rohrer is super-charged, able to jump incredibly high, and collect not only the star in immediate view, but also more stars hidden in a maze about the room with Mez—a kind of vertical rotation of Passage‘s maze, transformed into that evergreen videogame genre, the platformer. Collected stars will fall to the ground below, and when the player returns to the bottom area, they can push the stars (now transformed into square blocks) into the furnace, feeding the fire and adding to the score posted in the upper righthand corner.

Now, here’s the thing: It is actually quite possible for the player remain at the bottom of the screen, continuing to toss a ball back and forth with Mez until the game’s 480 seconds are up. There is no penalty for this. The roaring fire eventually goes out, but it goes out at the moment the game was already ending, anyway. There’s no penalty for forgoing the platforming: All the player sacrifices is a numerical score, which ultimately has no bearing on anything.

And yet, so many little details coalesce into a strong motivation for the player to leave the bottom screen, to abandon Mez and search the upper echelons of the game’s environment. That “000” in the upper righthand corner mocks us, subtly indicating that we’re doing something wrong, wasting our time away. The first star, so perfectly positioned at the top of the bottom screen to pull our attention to a world just beyond the frame, beckons us. The fact that the stars are not just collected, but actually fed to the fire, makes this activity—which is otherwise entirely abstract and videogame-y—feel as if we are “providing” for the child in our care, accepting the responsibility of not letting the fire go out.

And then there’s the simple fact that it is quite alarming when Rohrer’s head is engulfed in flames, as if some primal energy is consuming him, in desperate need of an outlet. If the player does nothing, this moment of mania will eventually pass, but it seems wasteful not to take advantage of it.

Collecting stars causes Rohrer’s head to go ablaze, but it’s a quick emotional high that burns out quickly. Rohrer crashes, and the constricting frame of depression soon closes in, making the trip back down laborious, since players can’t easily see where they’re going. Playing with Mez, by contrast, provides more stability. The simple rhythm of the ball’s back-and-forth arc provides regular emotional lifts to Rohrer’s character. The highs aren’t as high as when chasing the stars, but the lows aren’t as low, either. The trade-off for the restricted mobility of domesticity is that at least the screen doesn’t shrink to a tiny, depression-narrowed square.

So far, so straightforward. Ambition, creative passion, and an acutely gendered desire to provide for one’s offspring must be balanced against actually spending time and bonding with said offspring. But then, the mechanically-enforced gutpunch: If the player spends too long searching for treasure in the game’s upper areas, when they return to the ground floor to get a “recharge” on their mood by playing with Mez, they will find that the option is no longer available. Mez is gone. The ball lies abandoned in the corner. You neglected him for too long.

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The fact that the game makes it possible (indeed, even likely) for this event to occur provides a good opportunity to cycle back to the insistence that students discuss not just what topic a game is about, in an abstract sense, but also more specifically how it is about that topic, how rules encourage certain sorts of behavior in the player, that then has consequences. Put it this way: anyone can hum along to Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” and feel as if they’ve learned a lesson on the importance of fathers to be child-centers parents, as opposed to simply career-centered providers. But even if you know that pat message by heart, it is still quite possible to lose Mez’s affection in Gravitation, because Gravitation, unlike “Cat’s in the Cradle,” actually models the system of psychological rewards that might lead one to spend less time with one’s child. It successfully tempts players to behave in a way they are forced to ponder—and ponder in a more personal manner than we might ponder the rhetorical message of a movie, book, or song.

(This post is dedicated to Bob Bucker.)

[i]. Anthropy, Anna. Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Dropouts, Queers, Housewives, and People Like Your Are Taking Back an Art Form. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2012.

[ii]. (You actually can do this, if you cross the street and avoid human contact entirely.)

[iii]. Maizels, Michael and Patrick Jagoda. The Game Worlds of Jason Rohrer. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016. Pg 31.

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