SÈbastien Babeux’s talk was about space in video games, and has lots of fascinating examples of glitches in game space. You can read the abstract here. I don’t really want to talk about what his paper was explicitly about, I want to talk about the way in which he used the metaphors of child and mother.

SÈbastien begins by showing the space between a baby and its mother playing together, and shows the space between them as the space of play. He then relabels the baby as player – interior – and the mother as exterior, the game. (I may have the wrong names there.) The game is the other that the player works with and against.

Shows exampless games where you can’t get outside of very pre-defined space – that is you can SEE an illusion of a full spatial world, but your character can only move in narrow areas, sometimes even with invisible walls to keep you inside. Other games have “glitches” in space where you can get to places the designers didn’t actually plan, or places they forgot, like places you’re invisible to NPCs but aren’t meant to be – a feeling that the creator has lost track fo the player, and then the player is reclaimed by the game space.

The job of the system is to keep you in line, keep you in order.

I couldn’t help but ask a question:
Use of the mother. I saw that image and identified with the mother, not the baby! But mother as metaphor for the game – like the word MOTHERBOARD for the foundation of a computer. I wonder how this idea of the game as a kind of benevolent mother – then you showed us a lot of the limitations of game space – there are narrow corridors you’re allowed into. Dungeons and buildings all offer narrow passageways. Let’s not call them womb-like. And then you talked about how we can get OUT of the limited opportunities, subverting or using outside media.

So on the one hand I’m thinking that that space between the mother and child is BETWEEN TWO ACTORS. The mother is also playing. But a lot of your talk is more about the child player who needs the mother – uh, game – and at the same time wants to become independent.

I’m wondering how this would fit with Helen Kennedy and Seth Gedding’s ideas yesterday about, what did someone call it, pleasurable masochism?

I spoke too fast and anyway it wasn’t quite a question so I didn’t exactly get an answer – but this strikes me as weird and important. The mother as other, what a peculiar idea! I am the mother! This relates to earlier posts I’ve made about how (male) theorists have quite often compared computers to women, including Ted Nelson quoting Electronic Arts original motto and the Turing test.

10 thoughts on “the game system as mother

  1. leif

    Some not-questions:

    There is no child sitting on the motherbord. But there might be a daughterbord.

    What is new about pointing out that someone use sex — I would rather say ´humanª — references in their speak?

    In your Ted Nelson-posting you reacted to calling software ´simple, hot and deepª.
    What does he mean then? Perhapse we should say that he want them –the shes and the
    machines– to whore and maddonna? Indeed a complicated thing. Allthough both
    are on the receptive end?

    Sometimes men ar depicted as ´simpleª, e.g. sexually, compared to wo-men.
    (The Ted Nelson quote could be take as such an example … ñ in two meanings of the word ´simpleª.)
    A system, however, is a complicated thing, isn’t it? Mother earth. Also a system, right? Why is it bad to
    call the earth for mother earth? Is it bad? Or isn’t this about simple/complicated?

    Why is it now ´goodª to talk about ´God our (caring) Motherª? But bad to
    think about a system as a caring mother?

    Markup languages is also a sexualised field. Ever heard about parent and child elements?

    Is it ´goodª to tallk like that, rather than saying
    ´motherª and ´daughterª elements? (Or isn’t even ‘parent’ and ‘child’ good enough? )
    After all, that would have been the normal thing in German and English
    language(s)? (Mothercompany, mothership, daughercompany and so on.)
    Or are English different there — is it normal to use ‘parent’ and ‘child’ like that, outside the markup field?
    (To say ´barnª for ´childª in Norwegian in the markup context
    is just very artificial — as ´barnª has till now only been a word for ´child of a humanª. Thus
    the Norwegian texts about markup-language can sometimes be funny with this barn-talk.
    Or if not funny, then at least a sad misuse of the language. Allthough, when ‘daughter’ is
    possible to use, then why not ‘child’? Sorry, I have not answer to that. It is just the way it is …)

    Did they choose parent/child terminology in the HTML and XML spesifications consciously? I would have liked
    to know. As a matter of
    fact: once one try to be ´neutralª, one tend to go for words with Latin roots. That was what happened
    in the 2005 version of the New Internationlal Version of the Bible e.g.
    Our own languages, English
    or Norwegian, are too filled with ´fleshª … for use, those that have it in our blood.
    They are just too sexy. By default.
    Another biblical example: the Nynorsk bible they want to have the latin ‘disippel’ (diciple) instead of ‘lÊresvein’,
    as ‘svein’ (bokmÂl: svenn) is a male thing … The fact that ‘svennebrev’ is the name of the diploma you get
    e.g. when you become a hairdresser, is so far not problematisized. (I know, I should not have mentioned it.
    Keep quiet is the best thing, if you are from the conservative end.)

    Recently the norwegian term for ´one man companiesª (enkeltmannsforetak)
    changed into ´one person companiesª (personlig foretak). Progress? We can only expect more latinisation
    of both Norwegian and English as the ´neutral languageª train rolls on. Good or bad?
    Or are we just fooling ourselves? Latin is just as good a language as the more fleshy English and Norwegian,
    isn’t it? So, no, let it roll in. We loose some of the power of the native english and norwegian words that way,
    (you may say the become even more marked up as ‘sexist’ than they were) but so hell what?
    The fact that we say that the Latin contrys are more sexist than ours, how can that be? Perhaps they
    need to borrow some english words into their languge to sex it down? And I once listened to a woman
    on BBC about italian languge. She had something to teach them, had she! They could make their language
    less sexist, we learned.

    Clearly, mother is her ‘the keeper’ and daugther is ‘the kept’. Fits into a anti-sexist theorisation of the world,
    doesn’t it? It is just that Ted Nelson was somewhat more ´simpleª in how he expressed things. So when
    I say that Ted Nelson went too far, but that mother- and daughter must be very ok language,
    and certainly better than the mitch-match of sexless “parent” and human-children like “child”, what do I
    become then? A sexist that doesn’t admit it?

    I just wonder what the point with this kind of language critisism is?

    Our language is a proof that we think in sexual terms. It can’t even come directly from the Christian religion. Because,
    didn’t Western-Europe use Latin in Church for over 1500 years? And don’t we today we sex down our languges by using
    words from the dead latin language that the Church took care of for us, instead of our own words? Particulary those that
    are made from the -man word. Except wo-man in english. And ‘kvinne’ in Norwegian. Both words means ‘wife-man’ or
    ‘wife of a man’, etymologically, but that we have forgotten. If we just forgot more, we could have lived happier with our
    languages. (Thatl last sentence was said on behalf of our languages and not against the women’s case (kvinnesak).)

    We know the oppositions of male and female from
    everywhere. We even talk about femal men and manly woman. In my view there is rightful critisism of sexist
    language and there is critisism that want to reform our entire way of thinking in sex categories.

    Where is the meta aspect when viewing the language? Because we also know that we don’t mean what we say. A female
    “stikk-kontakt’ isn’t anything but a interface for you ´hemaleª electrical plug.

    In the scando-german typographical tradition we have many socio-sexual negative terms:
    horunge (whore-children), and ´father-lessª and more. (Clearly there is a link to Mark Up languges there.)
    But some time ago I heard that some translators of Skulelinux
    tried to find other words for these things since they thoght the old language offending. To say it as it is: I don’t know
    how to even argue against such nonsens. I am sorry to say [no, I am not] this, but to (not) use the traditional scandinavian-german
    typographical language for those things, does not mean that we either approve or dissapprove the society those
    terms perhaps was taken from.

    If we want to talk about humans, then they come in two kinds: male and fe-male. Man and wo-man. If we want to generalise,
    we must talk about either ‘man’ or ‘wo-man’. Unless we want to make base our theory on some nonexisting object/subject.
    In other words: the use of ´manª as a common word for both the men and the women in this world, is also saying that
    we are basically one and the same, isn’t it?

    Sorry. Too many words. I hope at least some of it ´fell in good soilª.


    ´I only tell the truth to those that allready know it. The other don’t need it.ª (paraphrasing Georg Johannesen).

  2. David Surman

    loved your question though it wasn’t given enough time in my view — an important point about the implicit gendering and agency-lending aspects of our relation to these technologies,

    i think that terms like ‘motherboard’ came out of an effort to make some kind of sense of post-industrial and information-age modernity, and its impact on social relations to machines and an emergent machine consciousness, both imagined and real,

    check out:

    Barbara Maria Stafford, ‘Visual Analogy: Consciousness as the Art of Connecting (London: MIT Press, 2001)

    Nicholas Daly, Literature, Technology, Modernity: 1860 — 2000 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004)

  3. AndrÈ-S-C

    Of course one could get into ‘Gaming as transference of the Oedipus Complex’ or something to that effect.

  4. Jill

    Thanks all for your comments. Leif, your points about other ways we use gendered language about technology are interesting, but not really my objection here. What interests me is what happens when people use the idea of mother and child, for instance, in an analysis of how players interact with games, and automatically assume that “mother” is the other. From there I wonder about how we use gendered language in general, but I’m not really about to get all fussy about that.

    And yes, David, what these metaphors do to our ideas of agency is fascinating. I’ll check out those references.

    AndrÈ-S-C: some enterprising MA student has presumably already done that. Or are we a few decades too late?


  5. David Surman


    I thought David Myer’s paper on semiosis sort of did the whole oedipal thing, cultivation of self, othering, internalisation yadda yadda; some pretty cool stuff at AoP :). Playing against the self is sort of like Deleuze’s plane of immanence (the reintegration of the split subject into a space of illusionary wholeness that is illusionary and transient) and doesn’t necessitate recourse to full-blown psychoanalysis.

  6. J. Nathan Matias

    Yeah. It can definitely be a middle-class guy thing to think of “mother” as “other”. I really don’t like the metaphor. It assumes that mother is a distant, limiting force. This is the sort of theory that a Teenage or 20s middle class American guy would assume, especially one who didn’t like his mother. But to a small child, and especially a baby? The connection is extremely close for both.

    The problem with this metaphor is that there’s no nurturing in videogames. A mother may include limitations, but it’s for the safety of the child. The game, on the other hand, is happy to let you die. And time/space are only a small part of the mother-child dynamic.

    Yeah. It’s a bad metaphor. Can we learn something from it? Possibly.

    As an aspiring author, it seems to me that some types of writing fit the concept of mothering in a very limited way. For some types of fiction, especially fantasy, you may be introducing a reader into an entirely new universe. You get the opportunity to introduce them to things, to see their first step, to show them the world around you, and guide them through the story. This does not apply to most fiction, but for some writers, it may be helpful to think of themselves as mothers during the creative process.

    But videogames? No. The better metaphor is mice. The players are mice, and the game designer is Skinner. The game is a behavioural psychology lab. We run through corridors, perform quests, and are given rewards. But nobody wants to compare themselves to lab rats.

    Hmm. One of the big behavioural labs should hire a game company secretly and have them design a game which logs user actions in a very specific set of quests. They could then do a lot of behavioural experimentation on people. Eek. I’m not sure what I think of this, but it’s possible.

  7. Jill

    They’re probably already doing that, ya know 🙂

  8. AndrÈ S C

    :-)”Theyíre probably already doing that, ya know :)” a bit like technorati? (especiallyr with all the PR stuff going on)

    back to the metaphor, l identify players with parent roll… desperately trying to keep the children – avatars, agents and for that matter game play ‘alive’ . The metaphor seems to hold as any parent can be someone’s child & vica versa.

  9. Rune

    SebastiÈn’ talk described very well, I think, the curious and often spellbinding attraction of lab-rat singleplayer computer games. Although his theoretical point of departure was a mother-as-other psychoanalytical model – Winnicott’s ‘Playing and Reality’, which btw is a great read – the basic ideas could be, as David says, applied more freely and linked to other traditions of thought. Im thinking not just the idea of surrogate other etc but also the more general concept of ‘third place’ between subjective fantasy and objective powerlessness. Rat-in-the-maze games as purgatory rather than heaven or hell 🙂

  10. Jill

    My goodness! Playing and Reality is the first book I’ve searched for and actually found on Google Print! It’s all there! Complete with links to where you can buy it, and I guess I’m going to buy it 🙂

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