Tuesday, 11 March 2014

A Non-Gamer Plays Gone Home

[The following was written by my partner Zoe, immediately after playing through Gone Home on my PC. I haven't edited it in any meaningful way, these are entirely her words.]
I live with a bunch of nerds. Clever, progressive nerds who like to play video games and tell me all about them. Because of this I like to think that I know a little bit more about video game theory than your average disinterested twenty-something woman. I have curled up on the couch and frowned at guns, zombies and improbably-shaped women. I have sat around listening to arguments over which Skyrim mods create the most aesthetically pleasing experience without compromising the integrity of the game play, which, if I'm honest, I still don't really know what that means. Not once in all this time have I felt that it was an accessible and positive medium for me. Although intellectually I felt included in the feminist struggles of the gaming complex, I had no desire to actually engage with video games on a personal level as I did not believe they could provide any meaningful experience.
Games are not for me. Games are a boy's club where violence is an acceptable form of entertainment, where sexism is rife, where we exchange our ability to engage with the 'real world' for sore eyes and unrealistic expectations of women, conflict resolution, job satisfaction, etc. It is presented as a medium I didn't have any use for because Big Feminism hasn't oppressed MY violent urges, so why would I need an outlet? Even if I were to have violent urges, that isn't very ladylike and perhaps that stuff should be left to the big boys, cupcake. The point I'm trying to make is that not only am I not video games' target demographic, I am also the anti-consumer: a sensitive feminist who won't be able to handle the jocular nature of sexist slurs and keep up with the primal nature of competition.
This is how I felt until I stumbled across Gone Home. My partner is a brilliant student of media criticism and suggested that this game had passed many tests where most failed. I decided to give it a go, assuming that I would be bored and offended within minutes, as per usual. Instead I found myself being addressed in a respectful and honest way by the game. In the few hours it took me to complete it, I came to feel emotionally attached to the story and built a degree of empathy for the characters that could only come of truly understanding their experience.
Gone Home captured what it felt like to be a teenager. It captured the angst and frustration that came when battling conservative values and having your politics and identity being condescended to by those who were meant to love you. It was not filled with flashing lights, there was no back flipping or 'press x to murder housewife'. You simply moved through the story of a family's disconnect with each other. You were not encouraged to put aside your human empathy in order to gain X number of hit points, but rather take the game as it came and really engage with the unfolding narrative.
Perhaps in part due to my own projections, Gone Home also captured the guilt that many women feel when putting your desires first. The game made no efforts to judge your independence, but you could nevertheless feel the weight of your decisions. You could feel the sadness washing over you as you realised that your sister needed your support and you weren't there.
Gone Home was an honest and accessible portrayal of adolescent notions of alienation, love and political frustration through Sam, and the newly-adult pressures of family, responsibility and regret through Katie. The game approached these themes with respect and empathy, a feminist approach to women's everyday experiences which is rare in most mediums, and in the games industry rarest of all.
I am young, a feminist, and a women's health worker, which hits the trifecta of belittled social groups as far as white people go. To be the intended audience of a message in any popular medium which wasn't 'shave your armpits and get back to the kitchen' was satisfying, and revitalised my faith in activist media. Games like Gone Home have the potential to express aspects of women's experience in a way that no other medium could. If women's lived experiences were discussed in such an unashamed manner more often, perhaps I wouldn't spend so many days in a patriarchy-induced depression hiding under the covers. In my work with young women I've seen how rarely this sort of formative experience is understood (or even noticed), so the potential to discuss shared experiences through this medium gives me hope for it. Perhaps video games will prove to be of some use to us after all!

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