Article

Videos Games & Political Consciousness

I wrote this piece some time ago about video games for Memory Insufficient, a games history ezine. This is it.

Click this link to download the PDF.

I’ve spent the last couple of nights binge-playing through the Mass Effect trilogy, which reminds me a little bit too much of the late nights I’ve pulled work- ing on political campaigns and social causes in the past. The setup is about the same: all of the above require a single-minded approach to The Goal. Total dedication is best. Showers can be skipped. So can sustenance. The Goal can be anything: win an election, stay out of trouble, vanquish aliens or make some connections. All other objectives, like rescuing civilians or being a decent person, are often secondary. The joy you feel from completing a mission on a planet feels as real as any real life political victory you’ve ever thrown your weight behind.

One day you’re editing a speech for a politician, the next you’re fighting a fire — in the hull of the ship, or on Twitter. It’s all interconnected. I’m an avid gamer, political otaku and all around nerd, so perhaps I feel that way because my favourite games are the ones that in- clude, even combine, some elements of all of the above. Just like history, games — and their plotlines and char- acters — are written by the victors: those who control the battlefield. Some gamers like to believe that the game worlds we so love are or should be free of the in- fluence of politics and ideology; that they exist as works of art alone in a vacuum and should be appreciated as such. Others have written volumes about identity poli- tics and video games (and indeed there are many prob- lematic aspects associated with being a female, Asian and gay gamer).

Political capital is often spent by the ones who don’t know they possess it. Games are often presented as being mere works of fiction. Some of them, like Assassin’s Creed, even tell you as much, by starting off with a disclaimer calling it a work of fiction inspired by historical events. Yet being the nerdy amateur writer and political historian that I am, I’m more keen to line up the story they don’t tell you — in-between the cutscenes, behind the sto- ryboard and everywhere except onscreen. When you make a decision to assume a character or interact with one, how much of it was already made for you?

Let’s start from the beginning.

Article

The Geography of Hope

At 18 I certainly believed I knew everything. I did not know just how much it’d hurt this boy’s heart if I told him the inevitable: that I was in love with someone he could never be—a woman. We went to our favourite bar and sat glumly while he tried to drink away his pain and anger.

At that time it felt as though life simply led me into various unforeseen encounters, at turns dramatic and at others explosive, as if I were but a mere spectator. The woman I loved walked into the bar. I stole a glimpse. I could not look away. Even without saying anything at all, he knew it was her.

She met the man she was to marry that evening after I left.

***

There was a girl I noticed at the campus coffee shop.

I liked her pants. And her hair. It helped that I sat at that coffee shop every day nursing a cigarette because that’s what I did when I was young and stupid. She would walk by, and I would try to find out who she was.

Every day we passed each other in that little corridor or at the coffee shop. I don’t remember how, but she agreed to come on a date with me.

We went to a place I still go to, then on a 46-day backpacking trip to India. I bravely led the way. By the second week we were at the Taj Mahal. We had waited to see the sunset because I thought it might be good to attempt romantic gestures sometimes. As the sun set over Agra I reached for her hand. She pushed it away.

We broke up at the Taj Mahal, which was fitting because we had also fallen in love at the Angkor Wat. From one wonder to another, she still could not erase the shame she felt from being with a woman. Even in a country where no one knew her name.

The next 30 days were epic and vengeful, full of sadness and train schedules.

***

The woman I loved four years ago did not marry the man she met at the bar. I may or may not have had anything to do with it.

The truth was that the more I sunk into the sadness, the more I elevated our mythology. It was not the great love which never was. We were not star-crossed lovers. Not only had I not grown from that point, I had even regressed. Waking up with her every morning made me feel I would lose her any time now. I was a little bit older now but really I was still the awestruck girl in my school uniform and my tie, wanting to know how I could punch above my weight because I can, and God she’s hot.

We were the cartographers of silence which began with a lie, later snowballing into a mountain of mythology and characters with their own CliffsNotes and paths strewn with sad poetry and despair and sadness.

When you throw yourself at a wall repeatedly, it’s okay not to know when to stop, especially if you enjoy feeling sorry for yourself.

But I had adventures to go on and mythology was too heavy to come along for that ride. I threw it away.

***

I don’t dream very much, but that year I had a vivid dream: I dreamed of a tall, slender woman with a soft voice who captivated me completely in that dream. I felt happy in that dream. I was a new person in that dream. I grew to be a better person with this figment of my dream, in my dream.

When I awoke from that dream I was with such a woman barrelling down the River Skrang in Borneo on a hare-brained plan to see tattoos and drink moonshine with the tribal elders of the tattoo artists we knew in the big city. We hit a rock and the river rushed around us as if it wanted to have us whole.

We went places without names on maps. Places without maps. We were apart a lot, but she drove 300 miles to meet me all the time and we travelled tens of thousands of miles together when we could. I ended up travelling tens of thousands of miles each time I needed to see her, which was all the time. We met in Istanbul. We made video postcards about the places we were in without each other, and we sent them to each other every other week.

Eventually we decided it was time to try to steer our way home.

I don’t even remember what home means any more. I had wandered a few hundred thousand kilometres, some of it by foot. Mostly by bus, train or taxi. Even boat.

Home was where she was. Some days it was London. Others, it was Kuala Lumpur.

I found a little house I thought we could be happy in, got a dog, and perhaps for a time we were. It feels as faraway as all of my 18-year-old memories.

***

I don’t remember when I stopped trying. I was back at the Taj Mahal again, and everything about that monument still fills me with despair. I’m never going back there ever again. I looked at her. I felt despair. I didn’t know how to fix us. I just stopped trying. Or talking. I held her hand on a cold New Year’s Eve in Jodhpur. I felt nothing. I kissed her. She did not want to kiss me back. I fell asleep with my back turned, full of anger and secret tears. It had been that way for a while now.

A few months earlier I asked her to marry me. I was met with nervous laughter and panic. In hindsight, it was a bad idea. Everyone knew she would say no.

Except me. Ever the optimist.

The computer says no.

Everybody knows it. But I didn’t get the memo. It was always no.

***

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a lesbian in this society, and it all comes down to this: other people. It’s that I have to automatically assume that all of the following are bonuses, not expectations: having my love recognized for the purposes of property, tax and inheritance; attending a partner’s family functions without unnecessary outcry and suspicion; knowing that if I were to be in a medical emergency, my life partner would be legally allowed to make decisions on my behalf. In other words, to even hope for my future life partner to be perceived as anything other than a complete stranger, is going to have to be taken on other people’s good faith.

As outsiders, that’s all we have to go on: the goodwill of other people. The readiness of other people to stop thinking of us as criminals, sexual deviants and perverts. If I hold hands with a woman I love, I am rubbing it in a conservative society’s face and being too declarative about my sexual orientation; if I walk side by side with one, the man who catcalls and makes lewd comments at us bordering on sexual harassment, is just, after all, being a man and is entitled to his opinions about my body and hers.

As for someone who generally feels like there is nothing in the world I cannot do, all I can do is to keep on doing what I do best—live my life as best as I know how, be kind to old people and animals, donate to charity sometimes, avoid premature death—and dream about the day I hope to see in my lifetime: when our lovers will be our equals, and our love as deserving.

Article

Before & After The Fire

1961.

Rain falling on zinc roofs. Neighbours having sex
Hoping they won’t be suay again. They have no money.
The news coming from the sole television set. Children peeping for a glimpse of world affairs. Condensed milk cans
filled with coffee. Ah Ba will have to go to the office.
The office is also a shed. He carries sacks to and fro sheds
All day. Sometimes all night too. Last week someone tried to chop him in the head. He doesn’t care. A bowl of porridge a day makes Ah Ba strong. Insulates him from the world. Protects him from things such as emotions. And cleavers.

If there had been rain yesterday, everything could have been saved. There was no rain. Now there is no television set. No neighbours. No sex. No house. Ah Ma ran everywhere with his two youngest children. They were at the provision shop looking at candy they could not afford. When it happened they ran into temple. Stayed there. Crouched in a corner. Waiting. Shaking. It did not rain. The firemen worked all day. Ah Ba ran from the office shed but he could not find them. He almost cried, but, porridge.

He found them in the temple. Waiting. Shaking. Crouching. Ah Ba held his children tight. But he never found the words.