Imagine replaying a memory only to watch it go up in flames and seemingly destroy itself. In [domestic], the camera pans to the word ‘fire’ spreading out like an old Microsoft Windows error, erasing with its clutter what used to be a hallway in the player’s childhood memories. The player walks this space much like a soldier in any old first person shooter game would. Except, they’re armed with coping mechanisms taking the forms of different graphics, such as cheesy romance novel covers resplendent with romanticized men. The house fire that the player constantly battles takes several forms: a graphic running across walls, ceilings, and floors, words that contaminate any given space they’re in, and mazes of error-like walls and floors leading to nothing. The space created in [domestic] by Mary Flanagan hosts the interaction between the recreation of childhood memories and the adult that bears the trauma of living in a household consumed by violence.
In whatever incarnation this piece takes, the game is always the center, usually hosted in a minimalistic exhibit space where it’s portrayed on a large screen. Created in a software engine normally meant for first person shooters, [domestic] constructs a twisted, broken place that is interacted with. Interestingly enough, the player takes on a more stereotypically effeminate role: one that prioritizes the use of coping mechanisms to survive danger in a domestic environment.
In this computer game filled with webs of structures made of text and textures, the player is invited to experience losing one’s home, inspired by an event in Mary’s own life. In the brave act of asking others to share their own traumas and blend them with this depicted event in her life, Mary echoes a mantra of the feminist movement: “the personal is political.” Using interactive games to bridge the gaps between people, Mary closes the distance between developer and player in order to share her personal interaction with domestic spaces, harkening back to early household feminist meetings where women would open up about gendered violence. She does this by designing games with fostering empathy in mind by using her own personal experience in order to help people consider others’ emotions as being equally valid as their own. By basing it on this event in her childhood, she’s able to depict a coming-of-age sequence that’s ultimately linked to the loss of safety in the household. This is generally felt by many women as they are socialized into womanhood. Flanagan's design helps people that may or may not be women to understand and accurately define these specific, emotional experiences.
Her work is transformative, perhaps representative as well, in regards to tackling this pain: one can fight back with coping mechanisms. This is the element where interactivity and the traditional feminist prioritization of healing blend together into a truly powerful aspect. This allows the victim to recreate the household that used to be; the person playing the game is recreating this far-off, nostalgic memory of a home before becoming a household, of being a child before becoming an adult, of being a child before becoming a woman.
In [career moves] by Mary Flanagan, the player moves through women’s disadvantaged labor lives as one’s game pieces would progress through any other board game that encourages playing at a fantasy of a highly privileged experience, such as what Life depicts. Yet, the game clearly draws this boundary as the player's livelihood is torn apart by different circumstances posed by the “events” on the board. In many ways, this resembles [domestic] as it details how women navigate different spaces. Yet, though players can fall into the pit trap that is pregnancy, stripping them of their outside presence and forcing them into the intensely and thanklessly laborious role of “work at home mom,” this game does not deal with domesticity. The artwork is set to contend with the 21st-century feminist issue of the devaluing of women’s work across social classes and countries; however, it does not tackle emotional labor or the home like [domestic] does. [career moves] is also different as it entails a slow progression involved with endurance rather than avoiding or resisting the trauma of a single moment. It’s involved in a different sphere of discourse than [domestic], and together, the two map out women’s lives of dealing with feminine socialization.
This War of Mine
Like [domestic], This War of Mine by 11 bit studios rises up out of a culture of war games, yet it contends with survival and victimization during war rather than engaging in the conflict at hand. The player, upon starting the game, is transported to and trapped in a besieged city, a domestic war zone, constructed with dark corners, closed doors, and ruined homes and objects. This War of Mine simulates the cooperation of citizens in wartime, following their resource management and their interactions with other survivors. The player navigates a communal space unlike [domestic], which is deeply personal, yet it encapsulates the “empathy game” tradition in similar ways. Empathy is explored through horrors inflicted on innocents, either through the player characters or the non-playable characters. This work allows for one to do whatever they must to survive, but there will always exist an empathetic spirit that inspires compassion within the game, usually through consequences including dialogue, exposition, different events, and other occurrences. This piece goes hand in hand with [domestic]. Regardless of whatever differences that could divide them, both of these pieces are examples of trauma-driven empathy games that distort more conventional hyper-masculine, violent games. In much the same way as the player must defend themselves from trauma in [domestic], one must defend themselves (and their community) from the horrors of a war-torn world. Violence is the antagonist in these games rather than a plot point that the player and the antagonist attempt to claim for themselves. These games are based around understanding rather than entertainment, allowing for the two to exist within the same space rather than sacrificing humanity for fun as typical war games do.
[domestic] paved a path for feminist empathy games with its incredibly intelligent and effective treatment of memory. Weaving through the convoluted setting of the game, one can experience the sensation of another person’s emotions through protecting their own mental wellbeing. Flanagan masterfully designed this experience into something whose influence can be felt in the empathy game genre as well as in the emotional intelligence of everyone who has played or seen it. This is a work that celebrates emotional labor as a way of helping women rather than a mandatory behavior and mode of interaction they must adhere to. [domestic] represents far more than a simple recollection of trauma; it serves as an incredibly important narrative of a woman’s dehumanizing journey into a gendered adulthood. Flanagan invites the player into this new world as she passes through that veil as well, knowing that they’ll give back their own experiences and allow for both the designer and the audience to heal.
Premiered at the Playthings Exhibition. Sydney, Australia. October 2003. Organized by DLux media|arts.
Hacking/Modding/Remixing as Feminist Protest. Miller Gallery, Carnegie Mellon University. January 29, 2017--February 26, 2017
Gigantic Art Space Gallery. New York
Play Station Exhibition. Postmasters Gallery. New York.
Gameworld Exhibition. Laboral Art Center. Asturias.
ARCO Exhibition. Milan.