Cult of the Turtle

Joe Tortuga's musing on life,tech and gaming

Liminality in Games

January 15, 2010

A liminal space is an other space, one which exists within the world, and separate from them.  I’m interested in these spaces and much of what I practice and am attracted to are about being in them.  In a pagan ritual, we “cast a circle” which creates a space in the world and separate from it.  We did something similar in the Methodist church I grew up in, starting the rituals with the lighting of candles, and by doing it the same way every time.  I’ve often done that in my BDSM practice as well, in order to get myself and my partner into the roles and head space we wanted to be in.

It creates a bubble of space where we exist differently.  Many times this space transgresses on normal reality, existing outside of society’s rules, yet we join a new society with it’s own rules.  We can argue about whether these spaces and societies are objectively real, or only exist in our minds (and I’ve had many of these conversations with Priests and Priestesses of my church), but I don’t think it  really matters. The important thing to me is how we feel in these spaces, who we are and who we become.

Transgression sets us apart from the world, and joining brings us into another place.  The easiest way to do this is to enter the magic circle of a game.  Games are particularly nice as the rules inside are usually quite defined, and often clear.  Certainly the ones inside video games are at least rigid.  This is comfortable in it’s own way, and when you can also step outside your role as a accountant or computer programmer, receptionist or clerk and be some sort of kickass somebody, that’s nice too.

To belabor my terminology, we’re transgressing our role in our society-sanctioned life and taking on an unsanctioned one inside a game.  In modern games (ones developed during the current generation of consoles) I think that there is a direct relationship between how unsanctioned that in-game role is and  how “hardcore” the game is considered.   I don’t think it’s causal, but rather a good bit of marketing.   A lot of the causal PC games that I’ve played — the ones with interspersed stories, anyway — the story is about success in a small business and/or romance.  There’s no world saving or conquering, and no real violence either.

But in the more hardcore styled games there is violence, world saving and conquering.  But what’s more is that the players’ role is much less heroic for all of that.  We have these disaffected anti-heroes set on a revenge plot against some large faceless enemy.  Our heroes are outcasts, opportunists, thieves and assassins.  I think this maps to the emotions the hardcore market is feeling about games.  They are starting to feel like outcasts — or want to feel that way, as it’s part of their identity.

In fact, I think games have a great opportunity here to let us feel what it’s like to be in an Other space, being something Other than what we have, by bringing us in and letting us join the liminal space.  Or, perhaps,  even by making it difficult to join that space where the game is trying to get across a feeling of difficulty or prejudice.  Obviously not all these ideas are going to fly in the AAA space, but I think we’re at a point where there are other options to the artist-game designer.