Using "Passage" to Think about Cultural Privilege

27 Nov in critical code studies, gender, passage, pedagogy, privilege, race

In many of my classes, I’ve have an opportunity to discuss the poetic, sublime, cliche and now inevitable Passage, a game well-known for being well-known as an art game (or artgame). As a game or game-like thing about life and death, its approachable style and memento mori theme are sufficiently affecting that I find most students tend to at least take it seriously. Whether they find it depressing, pretentious, provocative or cliche, most students tend to have something to say about Passage the next day in class.

In this blog entry, I want to reflect on one approach I’ve taken to teaching this game, both because I think there’s a chance others might be interested in my approach, but also because in general I’m trying to do a better job reflecting on what makes interesting and valuable moments for me in the classroom. I hope that by articulating a demonstration of teaching, I can better understand and thus better develop its effectiveness as it relates to my teaching philosophy. Moreover, I hope I can clarify what it is that’s valuable about Passage beyond or despite its status as icon for the artgame moment.

Now, I should note, the following account includes dialogic narrative elements that are actually fictional, though I draw from experience teaching Passage for a few years. I mean, I haven’t really kept track, but I imagine I’ve taught it at least once per semester since 2008, so conversations like what follows have happened in similar fashion at least once or twice. And, of course, I don’t think the following narrative is an perfectly ideal version of teaching it either, since I definitely resist any notion that “going well” in a classroom means “going exactly as I had planned.”

Prior to class, students will have already prepared by playing Passage for homework, and hopefully they’ve followed my instructions to play it at least twice. There’s a quiz at the beginning of class, and one question (sometimes the only question) simply asks, “What happens at the end of Passage?” This is both a simple “did you do the homework” check, and it’s an opportunity for students to start articulating their own reflective interpretation.

After the quiz, I start the game with the sound off or very low, and I leave it running while discussion begins with range of general responses and reactions:

“… it was sad …”
“… frustrating …”
“… depressing …”
“… I cried …”
“… pointless …”
“… sentimental …”
“… I called my grandma …”
“… I got bored after 30 seconds and quit …”

… with most of these leading to some followup conversation. “Frustration,” for example, brings to the surface an assumption that death in games always signifies failure. Finding no way to “win” Passage lets us consider whether an artifact like this must in fact present a winning scenario as a possible outcome if it is to be considered a game. And so on.

As the game continues to play by itself, one or two students will likely have noticed some things about it that they missed before: that he player-character’s position on the screen moves from left to right independent of his movement in the game space, that the parts of the game space most screen-distant from the player are “blurrier” than those parts around him, that the score doesn’t increase if you remain still.

We can then start delineating and interpreting the game’s formal elements:

“… the background changes as you move forward …”
“… it’s like how in life you go through different phases or live in different places …”
“… the treasure boxes sometimes have flies or dust or whatever instead of a star …”
“… what’s the point of getting a star anyway? Does the game end any differently …”
“… some parts of the maze are impossible to get through …”
“… it’s easier if you aren’t attached to the woman sprite …”
“… wait, there’s a maze? I didn’t realize you could move up and down …”
“… the fact that we all make different choices in life doesn’t mean our lives begin or end any differently …”
“… so it’s saying that life is easier if you don’t get married, right?”
“… well, when you’re ‘married’ you get double the points for each pixel-length you move to the right.”

And so on. The game has quite a few formal features which can be read into. This multifacetedness alone is among the reasons I find it persuasive to think of Passage as a Modernist work, and ultimately, their enumeration leads to the realm of themes. I conclude this section of the discussion by asking something like

OK so what is ‘Passage’ about?”
“… life …”
“… death …”
OK, then, so let’s just say it’s a game about life and death. Whose life? Whose death?”
“… anyone’s …”
“… mine …”
“… yours …”
“… everyone …”
“Really? The little guy there doesn’t look much like you…”

At this point we can transition to talking about representation in games — whether it matters, for instance, that the masculine sprite seems to be caucasian, or that the apparently feminine sprite’s only role in the game is to be fallen in love with (or not) and to (spoiler alert) die first. Sometimes, I’ve just left it at that set of questions, but lately this is a point where I can shift the conversation to talk about Passage as not just a game in a textual sense (that is, the sense in which it can be read to have meaning at the level of its being played, observed and interpreted accordingly), but also as a piece of software.

Rohrer, helpfully, has shared Passage as open source software, which makes it easy to look into how it was programmed. This is the means by which, for example, Passage and Rohrer’s other games (also open-source) become available for a Critical Code Studies-flavored analysis, and indeed I’ve attempted just that in other venues.

But we needn’t dig all the way down to code to glimpse how Passage maps representation onto procedure. Instead, a glance at the file names in its “graphics” folder reveals quite a lot about how it’s put together:

As these names suggest, what we’re looking at here is the entire graphical output of Passage. These are tiny images, but they manage to be expressive despite (or maybe because of) their simplicity.

All it takes is a little name switching, and we can produce something like the image at the top of this post. Whatever image is named “characterSprite.tga” will be controllable and have the option of falling in love with whatever image is named “spouseSprite.tga”.

Further, one can easily edit TGA files in GIMP to make further alterations. (Tip: when you export a new TGA, deselect the compression option.)

It’s easy to imagine all kinds of shenanigans with this, but in the classroom I’ve been intrigued by a set of responses to an image much like this one above.

OK, now that I’ve messed around a bit, what is this game about”?
“It’s arguing for gay marriage.”
“Yeah, it’s promoting equality for gay people.”
“…”

See, apparently, a man in love with a woman represents “everyone,” but a man in love with another man makes an argument that “those people” should be treated equally. In this new reading, one could well find new richness in the revised “Passage” — the treasure boxes represent progressive legislation, the inaccessible parts of the maze demonstrate the difficulty of moving to other states with different marriage laws, and so on, etc.

But I think there’s clearly something deeper happening when we (in the classroom) let Passage shift in this manner. I’m not an expert on critical gender theory, but I think this alleged rhetorical shift says a lot about assumptions of white male privilege within representational domains.

I wonder what else might trigger this hermeneutic shift for some students? If I were to leave the sprites in place but alter one of their skin tones, would it become a game about interracial marriage? If I replace the young masculine pixels with the old masculine pixels, is it now a game about a wealthy old man being pulled around by a gold-digging trophy wife as they search for more wealth?

It’s none of these, really. To be clear, I don’t really think Passage is about gay marriage. I actually don’t think it’s about life and death as a general concept. Rather, I think it’s a much more personal memento mori than it usually gets credit for because — I like to think — Rohrer’s choice to create a playable sprite that is a blonde-haired, blue-eyed male isn’t so much a tacit assertion of white male privilege as it is a representation of himself: a blonde-haired, blue-eyed male, creating an abstract meditation on his own life. This, by the way, is also why I can forgive the game for its sentimentality.

But back to the classroom, I love that Passages invites and enables these explorations of the relationship between process and representation in software. The fact that it’s both open source and public domain seems to encourage this kind of meta-playfulness, and even the gender neutrality of some of the naming schemas (“spouseSprite” instead of “wifeSprite”) call upon us to evaluate our own assumptions about how software objects are named relates to how they work and what they look like. “Extra-functional significance” indeed.

I’m thinking next time I teach it, I’ll ask my students to make and share their own Passage mods.

So what do you think? Are there other games that lend themselves to this sort of adaptability? Is Passage sufficiently archetypal that its characteristics warrant broader conclusions about the video game medium?