here is an expanded version of the talk I gave at A.Maze festival 2019 as part of the Game Design as Gardening summit. (c) Sabine Harrer
When we talk about gardening, we usually talk about its romantic sides. The aspect of growing, of tending to something, of beauty, of connecting to nature. But where does gardening come from? What’s its history? In this talk, I compare gardening to game design practice, but rather than the beautiful facade, I am interested in some of the more hidden, dark features of gardening history which we might also consider as we plough through the fields of our game dev work.
At least in Europe, the history of gardening is deeply entangled with colonialism; the mission to civilize the world, the mission to appropriate territory, often portrayed as a scantily clad woman lounging out in nature, readily available to be grabbed by a white man, suggestively planting a flag.
The abundant use of this not-so-subtle rape metaphor was only noble: To improve an otherwise rough and underdeveloped world, and thereby lead it from darkness (blackness/womanhood) into the light (whiteness/manhood). In all of this, botany played an important part, since the uprooting and collecting of “exotic” plants by Europe’s imperial centres expressed symbolic dominance over the native region of the stolen plant.
So let’s zoom in a bit further and see how features of colonial botany can be mapped to game design practices. Mind that this is one of many angles on game dev, and rather than fully enlighten us about The Meaning Of Game Design, I expect it to just spark some thoughts and make us better game devs. So where to start?
Let’s start with etymology, the history of the term gardening: the Frankish root *gardo basically means “fenced in”, enclosure, some thing that is closed off from the world. This means that in order for something to be a garden, it must be shut off from the world out there. In this enclosure, we make something grow, and in the case of our European past, this something is an empire driven by a capitalist motivation.
The colonial garden is a micro version of empire. By containing plants from all over the world, and by means of these plants being mapped and named by white European men, the colonial garden expresses superiority. It expresses civilization, and best practice.
Let’s for a moment imagine that the botanical empire is the games industry. Both are driven by capitalist motivations, using the latest technologies to expand and “breed” desirable consumer objects – coffee, chocolate, Assassin’s Creed. There are three botanical practices which I would like to focus on in detail.
These three practices are collecting, naming, and pruning. I will compare these three practices with examples from game design: How do collecting, naming, and pruning feature in the world of game design? And then: what are the threats of colonial game gardening? And how can we embrace them to decolonise game dev?
At the core of colonial botany has been the mission to send out botanical explorers into the so-called new world and bring exotic, unknown plants back home to the imperial centre. Strolling around in native land, discovering plants which no European (which to them was to mean: no human) had seen before. So there was some grand relishing in the idea that one could just stroll through native land, collect a bunch of botanical souvenirs and thereby dominate this place. This was considered a sign of superiority and innovation:
A sense of nature-nalism (this is my best shot at a pun on nature and nationalism): By collecting and owning plants, the nation symbolically owned the land it was stolen from. That was possible because little to no credits was given to those who already knew and had developed intricate understandings of their local flora. A plant was only worth something if collected and put into the inventory of the empire.
Like colonial explorers, game developers like themselves in the role of innovators, venturing out into the seemingly uncharted world of folk games and appropriating gameplay principles: A world where no-one owns mechanics and they can be sold as innovation. One example is the mechanic of rock/paper/scissors: These mechanics traveled from Asia to the west as late as in the 20th century. Before that, they have existed as so-called Sansukumi-Ken games, with Mushi-ken as one of the earliest version dating back to 1809. From left to right (img. below) we see the slug (namekuji), the frog (kawazu), and snake (hebi). Videogame designers have picked a similar balancing system for games like Star Craft. Only now, they sell them as “innovative” digital culture owned by a certain production empire.
Let’s move on to in-game dynamics: Games also promote the pleasure of invading strange places and picking up unknown items which are then turned into property or currency. When it comes to plants, many games insist that a plant is only worth something if you can interact with it by ripping it from the ground and turning it into something more “useful”.
One example comes from Fallout 4 where plants can be turned into food or money. Actually, what you as a player can do in Fallout 4 is to go visit someone’s garden, harvest their crops in front of their eyes and sell them to them. Not only will they pay handsomely, they will also thank you for doing business with them. They never owned their garden in the first place. You did. In fact, when you own a plantation yourself in Fallout 4, you also own everyone who joins you on that plantation. You command them around, you become a plantation overseer.
Another example is Minecraft: As suggested in the name, everything in the game is mine, including the flowers. And as mentioned, flowers only become useful by being turned into something else – like colour or soup, which can be traded with villagers who – like the flowers – can be bred for players’ enjoyment.
Several tutorials on YouTube already teach gamers how to successfully breed villagers and lock them in tiny trade cells for maximum efficiency. A popular approach is to squeeze villagers inside 1 by 1 enclosures where they are stuck to trade items like leather, emerald, and rotten flesh until the player decides they are no longer needed. Some YouTube architects of these trading camps swear on storage boxes which contain the items needed for mass trading. And in case a villager does not yield the wanted results any more, efficient levers can be pulled to drop them into a lava stream beneath the building. A new spot becomes available for the next villager who has already been bred next door inside a breeding prison. Minecraft‘s water physics help transport the villagers from their cradles to their terminal appointments. This is procedural slavery.
In this context, the popularity of Minecraft as “innovative” teaching tool gains an odd note. Why is Minecraft so frequently promoted as a learning tool without a content warning for this kind of procedural slavery? If anything, Minecraft would suite itself to teach kids about the history of white male entitlement, the oppression of other cultures, and the “subaltern native” who does not speak. In Minecraft, the villager does not speak either.
Botany was not only about finding plants in the wild. It was also about naming them. Even before colonial times, Europeans were obsessed with naming, as shown in the ritual of baptism. After a baby is born by a mother during an intense process of labor, baptism comes in to claim the real birth of the kid by making it part of a Christian community. This happens through a holy cosplay ritual conducted by men baptising the child in the name of the father (as observed by Anne McClintock in her 1995 book Imperial Leather). So let’s say the mother-thing didn’t happen, it’s the midwife priest men who carry out the real initiation of the child by spraying it with holy water form an artificial womb-pool thingy. In German, this pool is called “Becken”, which ironically also means pelvis. One important thing in the cosplay naming festival is also that the male midwife priest casts some holy spells: Spells which only an elite could understand, because Latin.
So, botany really learns from this, and they also use Latin spells, but this time, we have moved on from religious superstition to some rational science™ dudes naming all the things. Apologies for forgetting their names. These rational men use something called binomial nomenclature (a fancy term for: Now all the things can have a first name and a surname, like for instance Carl Linné). Binomial nomenclature comes with the following features, three of which I’ll talk about here:
First, it set the world up for classification, meaning: Whatever was named existed. A plant, from now on, only existed if it had been classified according to the rational science™ boi scheme. Anything that didn’t meet this classification could be easily dismissed, including locally available knowledge that did not match the classification scheme.
Secondly, coming up with fancy genus and species names was a sneaky way to make qualitative judgements about botany. Yes, if something was poorly understood, its “uselessness”, toxicity, or ugliness was encrypted in its Latin name. There is a list of more obvious ways in which binomial nomenclature was used for jokes by the science bros.
Thirdly, classification made sure that white male European knowledge was perceived as the only knowledge there was. If a white man didn’t name a plant, it didn’t exist. So according to this self-fulfilling troll logic, this was evidence that white men were, in fact, the only civilised people out there, keeping the wisdom to civilise them all.
So what are examples for this kind of behaviour in game development culture? Here are some preliminary suggestions:
First, the impulse to label all the things is expressed through game genre labels and tags: Currently, everything that’s out there on the market as a game can be classified into a genre or sub-genre or “it’s not a game!” For some reason, we are still very much into labelling experiences.
Secondly, there are some labels which are only accepted grudgingly, and which make a difference between “good” and “bad” games. Think of walking simulators. WS started out as a way to delegitimise games like Dear Esther or Gone Home which according to some “gamers” shouldn’t be regarded as games. Since then, Walking Simulators have found their way into common usage, indicating a genre of its own. However, it still comes with negative connotations, and is, by the way, unnecessarily ableist. Why is it called a walking simulator if we could more inclusively call it floating or travelling simulator?
Thirdly, in game development, fancy terminology creates knowledge ghettos and toxic exclusion around who is allowed to like games, who is invited into voice chats, and whose stories and expertise is listened to. In a recent ethnographic study, Kishonna Gray has found that black gamers are excluded from the Xbox-universe, based on the sound of their voice. And at this years’ GDC, Bo Ruberg talked about the harassment game educators potentially face when talking about games for everyone, and stating facts like “Videogames Have Always Been Queer“. Exclusive practices of labelling actively harm marginalised groups, silencing them in order to propagate the problematic idea that games can be “captured” in a single definition owned by white male games researcher whose name I forgot.
Pruning is a horticultural term that refers to cutting and trimming, but historically it’s also very much connected to the idea that leaving plants in its “native” state is considered wrong, and nature should accommodate civilisation. To cut nature is to “cultivate” nature, make it live up to imperial standards, make it “civilized”. This requires a constant regime of maintainance, a constant ritual of cutting back, watering, putting into form.
For example, colonial botany is obsessed with hedges and lawns. It is one thing to plant a lawn. Maintaining a lawn is an altogether different ballpark: Next to fertilisers and lots of water, one also needs the right hardware for the job: trimmers, mowers, and even then, there might be weeds sprouting the edge. So pruning is an expensive activity, but according to colonial logic it’s needed, paradoxically, to keep nature in a “natural state”.
So, in short, botanical gardens are supposed to be more natural than nature itself. This is also what suits them so well for being enrolled with affects of romance and “romantic love”. Like the bushes out there require constant paranoid tending and adjustment, so does the bond between the heterosexual, monogamous couple kissing in the perfectly trimmed rose gardens.
But botanical gardens are not only for romantic couples, they are also hailed to kids as sites of learning, providing them with neat labels to learn the names white men have given to plants.
How does this relate to games? Like colonial botanists, videogames are obsessed with producing nature more beautiful and real than reality itself, reaching a state of perfection. The goal is to produce well-behaved shaders and life-like water simulations. Like in botany, this requires an intricate set of expensive tools. It takes a lot of processing power to mow the digital videogame lawns and their high resolution environments.
One example: The water made in Uncharted 3 to stage Nathan Drakes Oedipal narrative is the digital equivalent of Jane Austen’s flower garden. Like in the watering of botanical gardens, a lot of money has been drowned to make us feel feelings.
But there are and always were threats to a so-called properly pruned garden. No matter how sophisticated a technological regime we put to use, weeds will keep growing at the edge of a perfectly maintained lawn. The weeds are persistent, and if let alone, they will win and take over through biodiversity.
Diversity is, in fact, the worst enemy of colonial game gardening.
This is nowhere pronounced more clearly than in the nomenclature of “indiepocalypse“, a term dreamed up by the overseers of videogame plantations who blame the increasing number of small game makers for the fact that videogames are not exponentially profitable. In the good old times, pre diversity – they say – you could make a platformer with a twist and be set forever. Yes, the immense return that random indie games like Braid and Super Meat Boy, or Fez have made cannot be easily replicated. But in a fun world, one shouldn’t be able to make a million on a videogame anyways. Instead, the “indiepocalypse” frames a healthy tendency – the opening of a dysfunctional industry to small makers – as “bad weeds” which need to be eliminated from a closely controlled garden enclosure.
LIVING WITH THE LAND? A CASE FOR VERNACULAR GARDENING
But there are other ways of talking about biodiversity in game design.
What if we change the discourse from gardening to living with the land? There are local knowledges about nature which do not neatly fit into gardening models which can be an opportunity to challenge exclusionary, supremacist ways of making games. In Sámi culture, Northern Europe’s indigenous people, there is the concept of Kuksa. Kuksa is a mug which is carved out of birch wood. But what is special is that only burls are used for carving Kuksa. Instead of using any wood and forcing it into a desired shape, Kuksa are carved based on what is being made available by the abundance of nature. Even, and especially, a sick tree can give this particular wood, which is required for the most sustainable way of making a cup.
There are alternative ways of looking at an ailing, increasingly unstable games industry. What, instead of “indiepocalypse” we started referring to the increasing number of small, diverse makers as vernacular gardeners. In botany, vernacular means inofficial, local ways of describing plants. Such botanists live with the land and develop knowledges that don’t match the criteria of the system. Here is what vernacular botanists do differently:
Instead of roaming strange lands and collecting what seems “exotic” and therefore prestigious plants, vernacular botanists develop a deep relationship with the land (on which they currently reside) and listen to its complex, contextual needs.
Instead of describing the land through binary nomenclature – feature lists as it were – vernacular botanists dare to tell complex stories and rich anecdotes. They know that nature is flexible, and they honour this reality instead of trying to “capture” it through simplistic labels.
Instead of trimming and cutting ideas, there is a curiosity and acceptance of how the land will turn out to grow, and where it needs support.
They stop policing an artificial boundary between the lawn and the weeds through high tech, hardware, software. Instead of becoming forced into beauty, the land becomes what it can be.
It becomes weeds, it becomes us.