by Elena Harvey Collins
On the 4th of July, we are sitting in a hot tub overlooking a fake lake, in a housing development just outside of Fresno, in California’s Central Valley. On the other side of the fake lake is the rumored one-time home of Britney and K-fed, an off pink, many-windowed mansion. Pink house, blue sky, fake lake, fountain. If Disney built homes. All my latent snobbery bubbling up to the surface. Our kids play joyfully in the borrowed pool, nonsense-riffing on a Minecraft scenario. My son is the mother in this game:
“Come on little wolfie! Eat the raw meat!”
“Would you rather be a pet or a baby?”
“I’m a cat who likes water”
Wolves become dogs if you feed them. Ocelots become cats if they are fed fish. Pigs obligingly become pork chops if shot with an enchanted flaming arrow. Such is the efficient, transformative logic of Minecraft. As we watch our kids joyride through someone else’s dream, my friend turns to me and says “My daughter would love a place like this. A big house with a pool, in suburbia. She’d be so happy.”
Drunk on chlorine and red white and blue cupcakes, we finally leave, questioning our life choices, feeling the pressure. Maggie Nelson describes the “seduction of normalcy” that begins with the visibility of pregnancy (and continues into parenthood), despite the inherent queerness of the pregnant body1. The double-sided worship of strangers is both uninvited and beguiling.
The reaction of outsiders to the mysterious, reconstitutive process happening within projects a confused but declarative identity onto the mother: she is all at once a hero, a burden, sacred symbol, public property—a battleground. Once the baby is born, the social apparatus of hetero-normative anxiety kicks into gear. It’s easy to acquiesce to it in the service of providing a conventionally good lifestyle: the child is safe, the house is big, the school is good. It’s the rush of acceptance at being suddenly welcomed into a club you were previously, unknowingly, excluded from.
The uncritical consumer desires of children can be almost entirely summed up as red juice, Nerf guns and Sketchers. But they are not themselves, at least not yet, and the way they metabolize our media saturated environment is, despite the suffocating structuring of the Target toy aisle by violence and gender roles, not entirely foregone. In the game Destiny, a sci-fi shooter with an irreverent side, players tailor their avatar from an array of features. The available faces and bodies include discernibly male, female and fluid, black, white, brown, silver; all are muscular, badass. While the mix n match post-race-and-gender superbeings of Destiny do not, in their competent and ruthless sameness, do much to complicate neoliberal ideas of “diversity”, what is a rich-world detail of the game has a social byproduct: an opportunity for low-stakes gender play and the performance of difference.(Also, they have personality: on demand, your sexy exoskeleton will perform medleys of Drake’s Strange Dance among the future ruins of earth’s cities). Avatars also engender a freeness for people who are not able to move freely in real life: my children spent much time bonding with their grandfather while playing World of Warcraft, encountering him in his desired form online, an intimacy only possible via the wires and screen.
As a parent of children for whom (cultural) identity is rich and complex, I’m always watchful of the avatars they choose. Destiny is an intense and violent place in which to explore such questions, and yet children are busily constructing, testing, and discarding identities in such games as they are becoming in real life. One feeds into the other; the avatar, language, and spaces of the game are also acted out in real time and space; forming part of the social currency of the playground. The game provides a space for continued self-production by the child at the same time that parents are attempting to craft their children, to reproduce the character traits they themselves value.
Depending on how immersive the game is or how “real” they feel themselves inside of it, the avatar isn’t simply a hollow vector for the desires of the child. In their interactions with other players and characters, the player traces the experience of someone not bodied as they are, a kind of learning by feeling—as Fred Moten puts it, “Hapticality, the capacity to feel though others, for others to feel through you, for you to feel them feeling you.” It means something.2 From Nelson’s “many-gendered mothers” to the many-gendered avatar—children mothered by video games at the very moment they are pulling away from their parents, continuing the long process that begins with the realization in very young childhood that the mother’s body is not one with the child’s. In the same way that the pregnant body in public, as Nelson goes on to say, “is also obscene” in it’s “smug autoeroticism”, the child’s inward-looking, autonomous identity construction presents a threat to the norming forces that flow around it, because of its expressed and inherent fluidity. They have options.3 The silver girl still represents me, he says.
In Minecraft, there’s no reproduction, death, or mothers, only respawning, endermen, and immortality. Players practice surviving in a pixelated, future-mediaeval landscape that is notably in contrast to the high-resolution, hyper real world of Destiny. The immediate goal here is making a bed in which to safely lie. In the biome, my daughter keeps pigs, cows, and chickens; my son has an underground food store. They tell me they are working together “to prepare for times when food might be scarce”. This survivalist mindset makes me think of Lauren Oya Olamina, Octavia E. Butler’s teenage, hyper-empath protagonist, who, wise and childlike, packs a grab-bag full of food and cash to prepare for the inevitable fall of the strange, precarious idyll in which she lives—the self-sufficient, calico-walled suburban neighborhood baking in the climate-change supercharged California sunshine.4 In Butler’s novel, democracy still exists in name only and a new, right wing demagogue (with his eerily familiar “Make America Great Again" slogan) is ascendant. As the wild society beyond the wall slips further and further into chaos, the day to day retains a somewhat recognizable rhythm; crops are harvested, school attended. For a short while, life is good inside the crisis.
High walls, fences and security gates are all familiar features of the secure suburban landscape, the family fortress. It’s a nice, aspirational cage, but where do the children have left to go? To the nooks and crannies of the public Minecraft server, an undercommons where there is no final boss, (save the Enderdragon down on his spit of sand in the Nether) where they set up adventure maps and plot. After I learn to turn off the “chat” feature and set the parental controls so that Pu$$yEater69 cannot interact with my child, I realize that the little enclosures my son makes with his friends inside the anarchic world of the public server are evolving, cooperative and fertile even as the “encoded noise”5 of child-speech and thought—a deft, continuously self-conflating babble of minecraft-jargon and video game references—renders them illegible to me.
I bet Hito Steyerl likes Minecraft. In her 2013 installation How Not To Be Seen: A Fucking Educational .MOV File, the view switches between a virtual tour of a planned gated community, and a desert site covered in huge patterns used to focus the cameras of drones. Since the rapid increase in resolution of digital images, and the cultural drive to show everything, invisibility, like illegibility, is a fast-disappearing, newly valuable state. Resolution determines visibility; a poor quality image gives a chance of staying hidden. Therein lies the appeal of the blocky, big pixel Minecraft aesthetic and the freely chosen bodies of Destiny: children, their identities not yet fully coded and owned by someone else, take flight through the distortions of multiple avatars, running interference, seeking biomes where their small forms—“smaller or equal to one pixel in order to disappear”—find plenty of cover. Illegibility as self-defence. As the voiceover in Steyerl’s piece intones, it’s time, to “hide to remove to go off screen.”6
1 Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts, Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, 2015. 87-93
2 Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, “Planning and Policy”, Minor Compositions, New York, 2014, 98
3 Ibid, 90.
4 Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Sower, Four Walls Eight Windows, New York, 1993
5 Harney, Moten, 74
6 Voiceover from Hito Steyerl’s How Not To Be Seen: A Fucking Educational .MOV File, 2013