For our first hack, Claire and I put a new spin on the classic arcade game “Space Invaders,” creating a new version we dubbed “Friend Invaders.” This project was born out of considerations about the social implications of technology, specifically video games, as well as Roger Caillois and Johan Huzinga’s theories of fun and play, and our thoughts about the gendered nature of video games. Together, we created a project we believe challenges the isolated, solitary, and masculine nature of many video games, creating an experience we found more joyful and more playful than the original game.
In our initial discussions about our hack, Claire and I kept coming back to the theme of technology and isolation. While social media platforms, smart phones, and the Internet claim to connect their users, they don’t always achieve that goal. I don’t dispute that the Internet often succeeds at uniting rather dispersed communities, like trans youth or people with rare diseases, but technology often results in a disengagement from the people in the “real world.” Claire and I discussed this phenomenon in the context of video games. While I have engaged in many a lively group Mario Kart race, video games are often a very solitary activity, played alone in front of a TV or computer and causing the player to disengage from her surroundings. Claire and I wanted to challenge that aspect of video game culture, and thus, Human Space Invaders was born.
The central conceit of the hack was to take an often solitary activity and change it to require human connection to play. We achieved this goal in two primary ways. The first of which was to make a human joystick that requires connection in the most literal sense—actual physical contact. We recruited some friends, hooked them up to the Makey Makeys, and created a scenario in which physical affection becomes the only way to play. The experience was very silly, giving high-fives and patting someone’s head to play a video game, but I think our hack heightened the playfulness of the game. Caillois writes that “play must be defined as… …a source of joy and amusement” and our hack certainly increased the joy and amusement we felt playing the game, making the game itself more playful (125).
The other way we enhanced the human connection of the game was to turn the player’s back to the screen, forcing them to rely on the instructions from the human joystick. This part of the hack forced us to communicate with and trust one another, two elements necessary to any friendship. The hack encouraged us to connect with one another, acting as a team building exercise of sorts. We had a great deal of fun, laughing and shouting and eating cookies in the basement of Chambers—far more fun than I had playing Space Invaders on my own. This concept of “fun” is one I found myself struggling to quantify, or even describe. As Huzinga writes, “the fun of playing resists all analysis, all logical interpretation. As a concept, it cannot be reduced to any other mental category. No other modern language known to me has the exact equivalent of the English ‘fun’” (98). In playing Friend Invaders, I couldn’t really describe how the modified game was more fun than the original; I simply knew that it was. I find Caillois’s concept of “joy and amusement” to be the best way to describe fun, and when playing Friend Invaders, I came away from the game far more joyful and amused than any time I’ve played video games on my own. Friend Invaders, to me, revealed the fact that play is far more fun when done in a group and involving teamwork and communication, as opposed to being a solitary pursuit. This realization suggested that video games, and all other forms of technology, can in fact facilitate human connection when used a bit more creatively, and that that connection can improve the experience of using technology tremendously.
Although not obvious at first glance, I believe our hack also put a feminist spin on video games. The premise of Space Invaders, like many conventional video games, is a very masculine one. The game involves violence—namely, the killing of the aliens—and while those aliens are simply crude 8-bit renderings on a screen, violence is at the core of the game. I believe our hack served as a feminist mod to Space Invaders. As Alex Layne and Samantha Blackmon explains, women, and other groups marginalized in mainstream video game culture, often modify or critique the traditionally masculine aspects of games. They write that “power relations and other non-game factors end up profoundly affecting women’s play,” so Claire and I hoped to subvert the typically masculine “fight, shoot, kill” aspect of many games. Friend Invaders still involved the killing of the 8-bit aliens, but the method by which we played was quite different. Rather than an individualist, solitary experience in which one person’s skill determines success, Friend Invaders relied on teamwork, trust, and cooperation. Given that our player couldn’t see the screen, we had to listen to and communicate with one another, and we only began to succeed at the game when those aspects improved. And of course, Friend Invaders also involved physical human contact to play. By reworking the game to rely on teamwork, communication, and affection, we decentralized the traditionally masculine ways of knowing so common in video games, and instead used devalued and typically feminine skills pushed to the fringes of gaming communities. In this way, Friend Invaders involved privileging female epistemologies and turning a traditionally masculine space into a feminine one.
Certain video game spaces have lost their spirit of “joy and amusement,” and have instead become hostile and hyper-competitive, especially for marginalized communities. One needs only look at Layne and Blackman’s examination of the harassment campaign towards Anita Sarkeesian to see how pervasive this attitude towards video games has become. In creating Friend Invaders, we hoped to return the joy and amusement to video games, turning an often solitary, masculine coded pursuit into one that celebrated the traditionally feminine and consistently devalued pleasures of friendship, teamwork, and affection. If our shouts, laughter, and delight as we played were anything to go by, it appears we succeeded in that endeavor.
Caillois, Roger. Man, Play, and Games. Free Press of Glencoe, 1961.
Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens. Alianza Editorial, 1972
Layne, Alex, and Samantha Blackmon. “Self-Saving Princess: Feminism and Post-Play Narrative Modding.” Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, no. 2, 2013.