They Came on Ships

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Nicholas and Jerrod Galanin form the contemporary art duo, Leonard Getinthecar. From Sitka, Alaska, the two produce works meditating on indigenous identity in the modern world and the narrative construction of history from their perspectives as part ethnically Tlingit, part Aleut, but also “American.”

I took note of the description plaque for their piece entitled Space Invaders, which you should go take a look at right now. The plaque is in French but I’ll translate:

“This piece by duo Leonard Getinthecar twists the iconography of famous videogame Space Invaders to illustrate the history of colonization in Native terms. On buckskin canvas, Native arrows replace laser cannons responding to the attacking invaders. The artists incorporate symbols from both popular and traditional culture to transform the historical metanarrative imposed by dominant culture. Thus, they engage in an act of resistance against the historical amnesia of national authorities.”

The piece was on display amid many other works from First Nations artists at a humble contemporary art museum not far from my apartment. It’s just my luck that Space Invaders was being exhibited, because I was wasting time trying to find the words to a piece on the metahistorical construction that we so often suspend disbelief for in games.

I rounded a corner of the typically white-walled space, quiet and open-concept so that everything from the clacking of my shoes on scratched hardwood to the narration of an avant-garde film reverberated. The film, appropriately, was called “Creation Story,” by New York artist Amelia Winger-Bearskin. It was a kind of contemporary, avant-garde retelling of the Iroquois creation myth accounting for life’s genesis and the balance of good and evil in the world.

I turned the corner after watching that, and there hung the buckskin of Space Invaders under accentuating light.

About a month ago, I had accidentally helped set off a discussion about the metahistorical construction and mythos present in the Zelda games. Ocarina of Time especially, creates through backstory a kind of pre-existing historical framework that the player helps to complete—and this raises a few questions about the reliability of that narrative in the context of the game world. One is prompted to ask if what they are having Link do takes place in a kind of “present” or if we’re kind of weaving together the story of what took place as a kind of tapestry—and then whatever we did in the game becomes history, including vindictively killing Octoroks and lingering around in Gerudo Valley just to listen to the music. Then there’s the issue of the allowances the mechanisms of the world give you, and that these in a sense suggest an “official” narrative of how things are to play out if one finishes the game, if one follows the critical path, et cetera. In an exchange between Japanese games critics Masayuki and Matsunaga, translated by Zoya Street, Masayuki offered this qualitative explanation of “laws” or rule sets in videogames:

“Well, the world of digital games is a world of programs. The set programs are the laws of the world itself, its absolute existence. ‘Everything’ that is made possible by that program is okay for the player to do. There, the higher layers of ‘good and evil’ and common sense do not exist. There is absolutely no need to ever suppress the self. Furthermore, the degree of freedom cannot be diminished by the actions that do not exist in that world […]

In comparison to this, when you are playing [with…] real bodies (tag, soccer, board games etc.) you first have to install the rules of the game into your brain and then play in accordance with those rules. On top of that, we must always refer to the limitations of a social higher layer such as morals, norms and laws. Digital games are worlds of pure possibility (and impossibility). Whereas, in games that use real bodies, we must always refer to the distinction between what is right and what is wrong […]”

In videogames, the rules of the world aren’t these extrinsic norms or guidelines—they are the physical laws that govern what is possible. Anything that’s not possible in the world just doesn’t exist, as opposed to real world games, like sports or street games, the rules are more like a social contract—a fluid agreement maintained to keep order within the game’s community. But as Street later points out in his annotations, there is, to some degree, an overlap between the possibility of rules and the permissibility of norms in virtual spaces. When designers decide to include or exclude something from a game, they’re creating an “official” script for what is justifiably “real,” and in doing so, they tacitly expose all the things they see as undesirable or unreal, or that they just don’t see at all.

One question that we never really explored in that Twitter discussion was this idea of what historical construction means when there’s no real-world event to compare it to. Zelda is one of those franchises with an enigmatic lore owing mostly to its disjointed chronology. For years before the “official” timeline was released, fans speculated on which Zelda story followed or preceded which. I mean, it really, truly, madly, deeply doesn’t matter, and part of me suspects that this “official” narrative was sort of cobbled together at Nintendo after years of traipsing into newer and more lucrative iterations of the game. But the point is, the conversation seems to have more or less ended since the release of this “official” history of a completely fictional storyline.

What this tells me is that the appeal to authority is something that’s alive and well in our collective attempt to construct a historical conscious and reality as a phenomenon. It’s as true for videogames as it is for national metanarratives. The obvious difference is that with national histories, we can verify the lies or omissions against different versions of the truth, whether or not those truths will ever be accepted into the dominant canon. With videogames, and specifically with game worlds with no specific historical root, we have to suss out collections of values and norms and associated symbols to understand the kind of worldview that’s being constructed, and the way that the history of “What Happened Here” is being pieced together:

In Liz Ryerson’s standout piece, “Evil Was Born,” she writes,

“by the end, the darkness has finally receded. we’ve become scientists and mastered all the elements of the land, and have used those abilities to vanquish the ultimate darkness. we’re pretty fucking badass by this point and it seems like we must know how we got to be that way, but we really don’t. we do know we’ve delivered the final blow. we’ve traveled through unendingly hostile systems of torture and suffering. we’ve fixed our eyes into them deeply, and it was terrifying, but we made our way through them bravely, albeit with many scars. and now the plague over the land is receding. and we should be overjoyed, but the sadness remains. and it is immense.“

Space Invaders is in part appropriating a futuristic fiction and a historical reality. The metaphor is clear enough: the “invaders” in this case are White European colonists, come in ships from some unknown place with inscrutable brutality. The piece, with its neat stamps representing the distorting game sprites and the uneven edges of the buckskin, in part reveal a tension between the neat scientism and technocapitalism of White Westernism with some reliable imagery depicting certain notions about the naturalistic “primitivism” of indigenous peoples. There’s also this additional problem posed by the fact that the “player” of this version of the game is characterized by recognizably but vaguely “Native” symbols, but is still participating in this Western gaze. But there’s something else going on here. This reappropriation means, on the one hand, a reassessment of a certain dominant historical record, but it also means a subversion of the game—this eventual product of settler culture. This history is a shared history but one that also reveals an unequal power at controlling the discourse. Space Invaders—the game, that is—is based on this premise of a menacing and unknown evil that the player can defeat with skill and determination. The static image on buckskin wryly familiarizes that threat, and freezes it in time. It makes the history that Leonard Getinthecar are trying to tell undeclared by being unconquered.

I’ve written before about Hayden White’s “Metahistory,” as well as Rudy Wiebe’s essential short story, “Where is the Voice Coming From?” to talk about how videogame “geography” is designed to reveal ideologies that the world operates on. But the larger points that these works reveal is that, to make a history of a people or place, there’s some narrativizing involved in putting together a chain of events. It’s the making of a story. It means framing things—or people—in a certain way. It means deciding what to keep, and what to leave out. Sometimes, details are included or excluded not for the sake of accuracy but to produce an overall effect or a sense of “historicity”—a sense of the way in which things came to be. In games like Ocarina of Time, for instance, the framing of the story as a Hero’s Journey means that the game—and most of the series—promotes the ideology that history is made principally through the deeds of great men, and that, indeed, the legend of their deeds instills them with greatness. There is a tendency in many narratives about history to associate figures symbolically with events or even whole eras—Alexander the Great, for one, or Napoleon for another. Ocarina and many other Zelda games take up this mantle through the establishment of noble or “chosen” figures acting on the behalf of just about everyone else.

If it’s true that nothing that wasn’t put into a game’s world is impossible, but the permissibility of certain ideas floating into games is a matter of deliberate (or not-so-deliberate) design, then what I’m looking at in Zelda games isn’t so much the representation of a specific history but rather the reification of certain attitudes. And, if these attitudes are present in the “official” and thus indisputable form of Hyrule and everything in it, then they should be considered as part of the spectrum of possibility in that world. They don’t represent spaces or objects or explicit interactions but they are the ideas that prescribe an organizational structure of that world. That’s true even if they’re at odds with what the designers intended. It’s pretty undeniable, for instance, that the culture of Gerudo Valley is an amalgam of real-world ethnic stereotypes, not to mention the Medieval-ish setting inspired by feudalism and High Gothic styles, among other things. But while Ryerson or I can dismantle the neat historical narratives the game seems to aspire to—pretty easily, too, since it’s a pretty internally-conflicted franchise and I think the impulse to draw out sets of official timelines actually betrays that—some games embrace the idea of the unreliable narrator.

At Play the Past, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is put through the historicist lens because of the way it uses its own storytelling to cleverly cast the perspective, veracity and ultimately morality of the protagonist’s actions into doubt. First, the piece by Pastplayer describes two different kinds of historical enactment found in games:

Situated historical reenactment games propose to the player that she will be able to transpose herself into a fictional role, in a quasi-historical setting. Examples cut across many genres (FPS, action-adventure, tactical RTS, etc.), and range from pure fiction (i.e. the Assassin’s Creed series) to hard-core realism (i.e. Heroes and Generals).

Meta-historical simulation games propose to the player that she will be able to “re-write history”, from the vantage point of a larger time-frame and perspective – sometimes even claiming to demonstrate “the process of history”. The canonical example is Sid Meier’s Civilization series, and most titles from Paradox Interactive.”

These are the categories at play in thematically historical titles, and as the piece explains, Gunslinger “blurs” the distinction between the two and actually ends up calling its own script into question. The protagonist is telling his story to rapt saloon patrons as the player re-enacts what happens according to the story. But as different voices enter the fray in the “present” tense of the bar scene, the “past” event is lent a new and complicating perspective. “Though it plays like a reenactment, the game uses this situated perspective to call into question the writing of history, as players fray their way through the challenging levels” writes Pastplayer.

Gunslinger, according to Pastplayer, is both a commentary on the construction of its own official script, but it’s also a subversion of the kind of historical narrativizing that goes on in so many videogames that attempt to weave a yarn. The sensibility of the romantic, “Once upon a time a blue-eyed boy saviour did his duty” version of history in Zelda reflects a version of historical narrativism that we can find in a lot of games. Zelda is within the realm of “situated historical reenactment” but only for the history of a fake world. The ways in which that history is represented and compiled through play, however, comes from a specific set of very real values about what history is supposed to look like.

History is told by its victors. History is the story of progress. History is made by the deeds of great men. Already a lot of videogames with these particular bents should be springing to mind, and they should be because a lot of the industry’s conceits about making players the makers of their own stories involves rationalizing them as parts of a specific kind of historical progress, one which makes them central and dominant and does nothing to outwardly undermine that. The medium itself is often subjected to the same kind of positivist history, one largely cobbled together based on technological and economic benchmarks that do nothing to fully encompass the whole body of the medium. As with all metahistories, things are packaged, and “fringes” of that story get left out. There’s a constant sense of moving forward, not of death and rebirth or cyclical fluctuation or granular and subtle change.

Space Invaders on buckskin is a reinvention and a calling into question of that conception of history and of its defining figures. It holds it in a limbo, mixing and melding symbols. The game, made my Tomohiro Nishikado and released in 1978, contains an ahistorical premise, but is still replete with hints about its computer science and science fiction origins. On buckskin it’s infused with a meaning and perspective about a worldwide shift that would, in a tangential and far-flung way, lead to the very existence of Space Invaders. (Don’t forget that both colonialism and industrialism have been worldwide phenomenons.)

This is important because the piece is stepping foot into a discursive realm that is as much a part of capitalistic settler culture as anything else. Videogames are still dominated by a relatively small class of people—particularly in the West but not exclusively—where power concentrated at the top is concerned. There’s a tension when it comes to non-normative individuals, people on the “fringes” and not part of the default, official story, between transgressing into spaces of power to change them and risking being absorbed by them. I mean this with videogames but, really, just about everything else too. Videogames themselves still have these huge blind spots when it comes to making adequate space for a variety of different identities, and many small outfits or solo artists do work on a fringe that’s constantly threatened with being written out of history. This is part of why the recovery of lost histories is important, as is the reconceptualization of cultural symbols. These are acts of resistance that work like decentralizing agents against a historical narrative of power, control and erasure.

Pinnguaq, for instance, is a developer and localization studio working out of Nunavut that localizes games into indigenous languages and supports indigenous game creators. Organizations like Kids Code Jeunesse, Code Liberation, Trans*H4ck, Black Girls Code and Pixelles do great work in trying to bring programming and artistic tools to people who are typically pushed away from access to them. In a very concrete sense, the sharing of tools also means the invitation of people into a cultural discourse who may otherwise not get the opportunity to participate. Crucially, it means that people who have been systematically excluded from history can begin to repossess it. This is how we might enact better ideologies instead of reenacting versions of outdated ones. This is what Leonard Getinthecar’s work is drawing attention toward, to “demonstrate the process of history.”

I’ve said it like a refrain that making a videogame is like making a creation myth, a certain way of codifying the universe. It’s an opportunity to realize fantasy but it’s also a place where pre-existing tools and concepts are built upon—or even broken. This is a place where things are mashed up, reappropriated, made permissible, made possible. Games may be active, dynamic spaces but too many act like capsules for the venting of a metahistorically condoned style of power fantasy which is in its essence exclusive. But the truth is that history is rarely, if ever, made by great men, and someone else’s unaccounted-for blood stains a noble legacy. The official history, even of no place in particular, needs to be held under penetrating light.