(The following is a section from my master's thesis, "Lieutenant Butterfly: Exploring Videogames through Ordinary Psychedelic Play." - completed in 2015.)
In 2013, Art critic Jan Verwoert gave a talk at Comedy Central’s OPC Seminar (Verwoert, 2013) in which he discussed frogs – more specifically, the ‘Güiro’. The Güiro is an instrument that has notches along it’s length, and is played by running a stick over the edges to produce a rhythmic sound, not altogether unlike a frog croak. This entertaining talk relates magic, spiritism and ghosts, and asks what relation mimcry and impersonation have to comedy, and recognises that as comedy as a method is akin to a “crisis management” – dealing with the ambivalence and tension created by unknowable things.
Hopping quickly to Jim Crawfords fantastic “Frog Fractions” (Twinbeard Studios, 2012) reveals a unique example of a fourth-wall breaking exercise in mystery. At the start of the game, it looks as if you are playing a typical mathematical ‘edutainment’ sort of experience, catching flies that represent fractions, but fractions that seem slightly out of order. After diving below your lilypad, you begin to realise that this is just the beginning to a larger adventure, in which your frog travels the extent of the known universe, and the game itself shifts into a surreal combination of many subgenres of videogames – a text adventure, a visual novel, a 2d platformer.
These shifty frogs turn up in strange places. What is it about frogs? In modern entertainment examples, whether it be Futurama’s Hypnotic Hypnotoad, The Frog from Frog Fractions, or the Frog-rain ending sequence in Magnolia, frogs seem to lend a mysterious indecipherability as metaphor, and even poetic relation to their psychedelic biological counterparts. Perhaps this is due to their amphibious tendencies, their drastic bodily transformations, and unspeakable reproductive horrors.
Verwoert would relate this particular connection to comedy. As jokes allow us to relate to things that are most awkward, for which there exists no acceptable protocol of dealing with them, the joke allows us to sidestep the protocol. The Hypnotoad thus deals directly with the overwhelming propaganda society faces in the present, The Frog from Frog Fractions deals with character, and the lack of mystery in singular genre videogames, and the Frog Rain ending sequence in Magnolia provides a certain levity in the face of the madness of life. Life is crazy, emotional and full of suffering, yes – but sometimes frogs also fall from the sky.
For Verwoert dealing with this animality is the same as dealing with the unknowable. Whilst you deal with the thing you don’t know how to deal with (i.e. how can I know what my cat thinks of me?) the way you deal with it is very concrete and practical. (i.e. you can be nice to your cat, give it treats and talk to it.)
Verwoert cites different mimetic degrees of becoming in relation to the animal. The aforementioned Güiro instrument is used here as an example of a ‘practical animism’, a kind of becoming that you play out, in making the sound of a frog. As play, this is traditionally been related to mimesis.
Mimesis as a pure camoflague instinct is rejected here by Verwoert, instead talking to the idea through Caillois as a ‘giving in’ to the environment. In “Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia” (Caillois, n.d.) Caillois also rejects offensive or defensive mimicry, and talks about mimesis as a dangerous luxury – moth caterpillars that “simulate shoots of shrubbery so well that gardeners cut them with their pruning shears” (Caillois, n.d.) or leaf like animals that eat each other, mistaking each other for leaves.
Videogames have a history of mimetic mask wearing, and certainly hold examples of this particular practical animism, whether it be the player playing as a particular avatar or object. If we recall that the practical animism attempts to deal with the unknowable, what are the unknowable things for videogames? As previously mentioned, playing as the frog in Frog Fractions allows me to reconsider videogames as genre-heavy, and sends them up through a series of videogame genre ‘skits’. I certainly become lost in the Frog Fractions world, but I always know how to return to my own. I don’t experience the same mortal risk as the leaf-becoming insect, certainly – and if I am receptive to the experience, my identity is transformed through ideology.
The dangerous luxury of becoming, in videogames, is perhaps the danger of too close identification with the actions and entertainment that you enjoy, rather than the absurd literal loss of identity, (a bizarre commonplace public assumption for players of roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons in the late 1980’s.) This too close identification can lead to overzealous defense of and lack of criticality, in relation to those videogames you love.
The unapproachable ideological challenge of Frog Fractions, that is, that videogames are too 'singular' in genre is only an unapproachable subject for those who consider them sacred. Videogames deal with many weighty subjects, also dealing with themes of war, emotional conflict and abuse, sexuality and gender, the banal evil of bureaucracy, the problems of ideological propaganda and more. It seems as though many topics are talked through. Perhaps because we still have little mimetic risk means that we hold videogames at arms distance, and only a certain kind of embodied movement, play or practice can allow a radical transformative experience or criticality. Play could be the thing, not necessarily just the ideological challenge of the topic of play.
As comedians (or even videogame players or creators), Verwoert invites us to consider the role of the shaman in relation to this. As the need to conjure demons out of the body rises, he draws attention to how the shaman gives up their persona, and becomes something other. He illustrates how the ‘hysteric’ in modern science was in a similar such position – to be able to exhibit medical symptoms on demand, whilst the doctor could stand next to them and be the ‘sane’ person, whilst the other was ‘freaky’.
Videogames already have a certain relationship to this. As there is a need for art and programming skills in creating them, some stereotypes of the rational individual and the irrational one tend to persist; the irrational, freaky artist and the rational programmer. Perhaps this site of transformation and crisis for videogames is one of identity, and in videogames the radical challenge is partly that of overcoming stereotype in genre and in personal character, losing identity completely through play, giving in to go on, thereby opening up new space to become something new - a means of reconstructing self.
A safer first step of Verwoert was introduced in the last chapter. Verwoert talks about ‘the ham’ as a common strategy of dealing with the unknowable, and still allowing oneself a way back into the “safe point”, the assurance of safety, and not losing your identity. As in the previous section, it has value for those members of the community not willing to participate in works that are outside the common realm, and perhaps works that require radical reconfiguration of identity. However, he suggests that, like the moth, the seduction of blurring into the environmental stimuli is much more pleasurable. His idea is to adopt a “wild becoming, where you stuff your mouth with many spirits, and allow them to drop [from you.]” (Verwoert, 2013)
This stuffing activity is seen by Verwoert as absolutely ordinary. He uses the case of octopi changing their skin texture and color to adapt to changes in the surface of the ocean floor, and considers it part of the regular activity for the octopus. This metaphor allows us to consider our own shifting identities and internal navigation when it comes to videogames and our participation in them, and find means to identify whether our position tends to stabilisation or destabilisation.
If our position causes destabilisation or enables profanity, Verwoert asks to reconsider the original relationship the profane has to ritual. In his example of a chicken sacrifice, Verwoert notes that through Agamben’s essay “In Praise of Profanation” (Agamben, 2006, pg.73) that the “profane” is in fact the shared thing,,that which you get back from the gods – in this case the chicken liver, which would be something returned, originally out of reach from the community.
In traditional ball games, Verwoert tells us, was partly about the competition of gods over the sun. He says we retain the profane share of the ‘playing ball’ – but the divine component still resides in our unconscious. He challenges the notion of a solemn relation to the divine, and of religion as a ground for fixed values, but instead situates it as dynamic ground for production of values, and says this is reflected in religious texts, as in classic accounts of men bartering with the gods using whatever they have on hand.
For videogames, the profane share requires reconsideration. We are still left with the ball, the shooter, the sports game, the adventure game, the twin stick shooter, the flight sim, or even perhaps the asset. This research suggests we need a reconnection and reactivation of bartering with those original wild gods that are communicated with in order to have it left over in the first place. Or perhaps, to just talk about it more publically. Brian Moriarty’s Loom (Lucasfilm Games, 1990) is a work that doesn’t forget this kind of original communication. In a GDC talk in 2015, he directly acknowledges the moment of inspiration that led him to creating the work in the first place – an ordinary moment in which he was awestruck, seeing a magazine advertisement for a circuit board that described itself as a loom, and having a vision for the complete universe of the game. Perhaps we need even greater descriptions about the specific spirituality that videogame creators and players hold, in order to reveal the substance of their peculiar play, their universes and identities.