Emotional leisure


Those in power have always been obsessed with how other individuals choose to spend their leisure time. They demand to know what might constitutes ‘free time’ for the individual, particularly in terms of the materials consumed in doing so. And, if no materials are in fact required, then the validity of the content is often questioned, perhaps because it is believed that ‘free’ time cannot really be free.

An individual’s online habits can be tracked and subjected to a level of governmental or corporate scrutiny similar to the way our credit card transactions, general health, and public behaviours (criminal or otherwise) are parsed: in relation to ‘level of threat’ over ‘time’. But analysing some aspects of online leisure (especially those that occur without financial transaction) is not as easy to quantify, partly because the qualitative value of this time cannot be easily translated to measurement. And while there are material issues that are pre-requisites to engaging in online leisure — such as access to technology, electricity, and literacy — the notion of free online leisure has a much more flexible relationship to time than that of labour. Motivation and outcome of online leisure is not always clear, and the emotional relationships that suffuse such environments can often escape the kind of tracking and analytics that relies on quantitive rather that qualitative data gathering.

Labour time as a personally acknowledged unit (something that intrusively influences our individualised sense of time) can be persuasively linked to the invention of the pocket watch, not least through Georg Simmel’s idea of ‘wasted time’ in 1903.[1] The pocket watch has since been replaced with mobile technology that creates fluid paths to a customised sense of time — we find ways to occupy ‘downtime’ (or what we might otherwise simply call ‘boredom’) with other micro-events online, being less ambulatory and more target-oriented in the time we spend in work and leisure. And while it is popular to talk darkly of mobile technology’s relationship to predictive behaviours and how prescriptive categories like ‘productivity’ and ‘utilities’ reduce agency and creative thinking, there is much to be said about the complexity of the emotional spaces that can be found in our online leisure. I am speaking specifically of what I shall call (with some degree of hesitancy[2]) emotional gaming.

Time spent (duration), choices made (clicks) and numbers of repeat plays (resets) of emotional games might produce basic numerical data for analysis, but the games largely deal in the unquantifiable: thoughtfulness, reflection (on as well as offline), and diversity of feeling produced – or, in other words, emotion. Emotional games are not aligned with the speed of reflex-based games like Call of Duty, Halo, and the Grand Theft Auto franchise (all, incidentally, blockbuster pay-for shoot-em-ups). Rather, emotional games might be better understood as occupying the space of interactive fiction, text adventures, online poetry and games that rely less on visual architectures and rich graphic environments than they do storytelling in the present tense, where the subject is often addressed in the second-person pronoun, ‘you’. The duration one takes to play emotional games is rarely judged punitively to the success of completing a game; you do not lose because you spend time thinking. And there is often little or no link between that of leisure and pleasure; emotional games are committed to creating critical, rather than escapist environments. The point of these games is not about empathy or morality. It is about the creation of new, non-normative spaces where the gamer’s emotional responses to writing will inform the movement of the game.

It’s important to note that many of the designers of emotional games are queer and/or trans* identified. Precedents for style and content can be clearly located back to Anna Anthropy’s dys4ia (2012), which uses rudimentary visuals for play and whose content was inspired by Anthropy’s experience of hormone replacement therapy. (Unlike most emotional games, there is a nominal fee to play dys4ia.) Other titles by designers Lydia Neon and Merritt Kopas also contribute to this genre. Howling Dogs (2012) by Porpentine, however, is perhaps the archetypal emotional game.

Porpentine’s games are, by equal turns, surreal and abject. She invites the gamer to read and sequence narratives of discomfort, splendour, violence and trauma. Her works follow the aesthetically minimal quality of interactive fictions built using Twine, a free software tool that allows the creation of a web of connected html pages called ‘node maps’. Once the game is built and published online, gamers can ‘play’ by clicking on various written descriptions in order to progress to the next written section. (In Porpentine’s Orifice Clique (2015) and CRY$TAL WARRIOR KE$HA (2013) the gamer moves through a sequence of non-normative actions, and chooses between descriptions such as in the former: “I could not control the aperture of light into my skull” / “I tried storing my flesh in a box called starvation, but that box kept springing open” / “I noticed my skull was growing differently from the other girls”; and in the latter reminiscent of Jack Smith’s writing: “drain your boyslave’s virile energy to fuel your slutwave mantis transformation” / “spray glitter from every orifice”).

In Howling Dogs, the game begins with a quotation from writer Kenzaburō Ōe’s novella The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away:

One morning at dawn the nurse shook him awake because his sobs were being heard in the next room. Once he was awake he could hear that not only was the patient next door but the two hundred dogs kept in the hospital courtyard for use in the laboratory had also been threatened by his sobbing and clearly were howling still

Set within the confines of a room of dark metal, the game presents a number of service options (the gamer can frequent a nutrition dispenser to eat and drink, shower, dispose of trash, and visit the sanity room) in preparation for experiencing an ‘activity room’ – a space of mental escape. Activities include choosing to help a loved one murder their abuser, learning how to become a human sacrifice, reliving moments in the life of Joan of Arc, as well as finding ways of dealing with the increasingly desperate circumstances of being returned to the bare metal room with its banal limits.

The content of the game – with its sampling of texts, the recursive loops, and multiple layering of language and its switching gender address – owes much to the style of writers such as Kathy Acker and Thomas Pynchon, while its unidirectional linking and framing of a gamer’s agency (or confinement) reveals an architecture that lends itself to an implicitly queer experience. Even the structure of Howling Dogs deconstructs the central tenets of leisure gaming. What does a ‘win-state’ look like, for example, where the game is less about the game designer’s own predictions, and more about a desire for the structure of the game to alter or influence the gamer’s perceptions both during and an indefinite period after they have stopped? So too the idea of losing the game becomes a subjective situation.

As the game progresses through curious densities of thought and reflection, there is a palpable shift between acknowledging ones confinement and seeking to escape it through increasingly radical fantasies. The game permits but also seems to warn against the latter. Reflecting on techniques for playing the game, Porpentine suggests that certain life experiences of gamers could lend themselves to specific and informed choices, noting that Howling Dogs could make sense,

to those who have lived in that tiny room, with no financial recourse, on the edge of starvation, as refugees in their own country, in increasingly deteriorating circumstances, as you become less and less capable of caring about yourself.

Thus the game is as much a critical reflection upon personal health and forms of coping as it is a form of online leisure. Indeed, Howling Dogs has few spaces of revelry. It is a mutating poetic composite of abjection and exclusion. It does not seek out positivist spaces of affirmation, but rather gives room and diversity for the expression of that which is often taboo: negativity. (Porpentine has described the nature of writing her games as an anxiety over the excess of language, where words are occasionally unwanted prostheses that extend from “a kind of language anorexia” that fears growth.)

Online leisure gaming is often described in connection to gambling and addiction – a link that can only really be made through the invocation of morality. As is the case with gaming, gambling and addiction, that which occurs outside mandated mainstream activities is either admonished or incorporated. Game designer Naomi Clark notes of this historical tendency for incorporation, recalling that,

Catholic Inquisition was unsuccessful in trying to stamp out private gambling, so instead they opened the first casino, the Ridotto in Venice, as a legitimized, controlled, government-funded form of gaming.

In more recent times, we see admonishment; the rampant misogyny and verbal violence of the GamerGate furore has exposed a spectrum of striated morality within the contemporary gaming community, whose ire specifically targets the creators of emotional games.

There is a deep irony in the trolling of designers dedicated to building new gaming space out of the emotional experience of disenfranchisement, and whose creations both portray and counter the banality and hostilities of ones daily environment. And yet the persistence of emotional games, Porpentine’s especially, indicates the nuanced ability of online leisure to articulate and critique the limits of one’s desired freedom, without need for admonishment, incorporation or morality.


A version of this text was commissioned and published by Chris McCormack.


[1] “If all clocks and watches in Berlin would suddenly go wrong in different ways, even if only by one hour, all economic life and communication of the city would be disrupted for a long time. In addition an apparently mere external factor: long distances, would make all waiting and broken appointments result in an ill-afforded waste of time. Thus, the technique of metropolitan life is unimaginable without the most punctual integration of all activities and mutual relations into a stable and impersonal time schedule.” G. Simmel.

[2] “When you begin your letter with wondering, ‘what is a game?’ My brain shifts into red alert. That line of inquiry has been a long favoured tool of well-intentioned oppression, because these arguments often masquerade as thoughtful discourse but function as a weapon of de-legitimization, that argue these personal games can’t really fit a formal definition of game. The emotional leap is that these people can’t really fit a formal definition of people. Adding, ‘it’s okay if it’s not a game’ comes off as sounding like, ‘it’s okay if you’re not a person,’ which doesn’t really help you seem apolitical.” Robert Yang, online open letter to Ralph Koster, April 10, 2013.