For a book that involves worlds and places we can never inhabit, Ghosts in the Machine speaks a lot of truth about how we interact and exist in our own day to day lives. Ghosts in the Machine is a short story anthology edited by Lana Polansky and Brendan Keogh, and contains 13 stories that look at what goes wrong in video games — and how these glitches and disruptions and flaws become humanizing. The following is a book club style discussion of Ghosts In The Machine. This post features thoughts from Kaitlin Tremblay and Valerie Valdes,
KAITLIN TREMBLAY: This is a book about living out our own flaws, and the metaphors we see in video games that help us mediate this sometimes soul-crushingly overwhelming task. In “GDD,” the initial story in the collection, we are told “Don’t take my anecdotes literally.” There’s no attempt at covering up the use of hyperbole and metaphor because there is no need: sometimes the most honest truth comes out when we’re not exactly being strict with the rules of reality.
VALERIE VALDES: “GDD” is also interesting in the way that it discusses gender relations: an overly simplistic approach that is predicated more on an internal reward system and a narrow, predefined perception of women’s roles in both games and the real world. The two female characters are both described in unflattering terms by the main character, both are sexualized, and both are defined more by their relationships with the men in the story than by their own agency and autonomy. These are issues that arise not only in many games, including the one that the main character eventually creates, but also in many real-world situations that women, gamer or otherwise, deal with every day.
KT: The cool thing about Ghosts is the way it confronts usual archetypes and myths that have become canon in video games: what is the “hero,” specifically. In a lot of the stories, the idea of the “hero” as self-made versus being a product of a higher power is discussed. In “All Time Heroes,” it’s about trying to beat the system to become the best there is, and in others, like “Unto Dust,” it’s about adapting within the system. It confronts how we view the hero as this self-willed, self-determined underdog and changes the hero into someone who is merely lost and confused and trying to find their way to exist in a system that is uncaringly cold to their existence. These systems do not care for the hero or the main character, but the main character MUST find a way to exist within them, even if this means following a script or tearing the script apart at the seams.
Things are always falling apart. Worlds are breaking, limits are becoming less defined, and I think this a good metaphor for the culture at large: the gaming community is stridently rallying against the box it finds itself in. For example, we have Samantha Allen’s open letter to the gaming industry about our comment policy, and Megan Townsend’s open letter to David Gaider about the failed excuses for not being inclusive. We are refusing to accept the rules as they are laid out since they are cold and outdated. We were redefining the culture, just as these characters are redefining what it means to be a video game character.
VV: Change can come from without, or from within, as evidenced by the plight of the main character in “Patched Up” by Ryan Morning being nerfed by a change in a special move. He’s forced to acknowledge the unfair advantage he had from the beginning, a mirroring of the unchecked privilege that a lot of gamers don’t realize they are living with until it’s affected somehow by outside forces. “Don’t fix things,” one of the other characters, a female, notes, “just try and work with them.” This kind of defeatist attitude is common, and yet in context, it’s almost a gentle chiding of the type of gamer who feels that change is inherently bad or wrong. Instead, change often makes a game or community stronger as a result.
KT: All the struggles are Sisyphean: what does it mean, the life of a video game character? For some, it is a calm horror, especially in Alois Wittwer’s “A Perfect Apple.” What’s worse than having to constantly fight the same fight over and over again? Doing nothing. In “All Time Heroes” by Matt Riche, one character faces the loss of meaning by achieving the ultimate goal, and then being reduced to the beginning with a score of 00000250 — whereas other characters, specifically in “If The Sun Rises Again” by Dylan Sabin, have to contend with the fact that there isn’t even a pretend goal, or a loss, to deal with. There is just nothing.
VV: “Good Losers Are Pretty” by Andrew Vanden Bossche also deals with this idea of trying to find purpose in a game where one is considered the “worst” character to play by virtue of a poor win-loss ratio. The characters in these games interact with the real world directly, and even though their personalities are technically defined by their creators, they nonetheless expand through their relationships with humans. Here, the characters are presented with the strange situation of knowing exactly what their creators intended them to do and be like, like having their own gods come down from heaven to explain things, yet still undeniably having free will and autonomy.
KT: One story that really stood out for me was “Supercollider” by Alan Williamson. It takes the same sense of meaninglessness and struggle that is a common thread throughout the collection, but grounds it in a world that is both real and not — it is a version of our life that we have distilled into a game to combat the overwhelming bit of boredom.
Another one I found interesting was “See You On The Other Side” by Shelley Du, where the characters are aware of their mechanisms and that their actions are being controlled and decided upon by others — yet they still retain a sort of agency, and are cognitive to the point where they can comment on and critique the way they are being handled. It’s when a glitch happens that they’re free to behave as they want and be themselves. These moments of technical error allow for the greatest freedom. Glitches here operate as a means of truth, or a chance to express something new and unscripted.
VV: As noted by the main character in “Good Losers Are Pretty”:
“Being an enemy in a single-player game was like doing a job. Being played by a person was like turning into a human being, or what she thought it must be like to be a human being.”
The ending of “Good Losers Are Pretty” is what got to me the most, though. The final three sentences hit such a punch that it’s hard not cheer and cry at the same time.
“She leaned forward. ‘I think it’s fun to eat people and humans don’t do it enough,’ she said.
The crowd gasped, and then they laughed.”
We laugh at our own monstrosity — but we also need to revel in our own delights. Of course we shouldn’t eat people, but it’s our flaws that makes us humans. This is the heartbreaking finale of those two lines that sums up Ghosts in the Machine for me: we need to look at and challenge our flaws, but we also need to understand that our own flaws humanize us.
For more information (including how to buy the book), check out the official Ghosts in the Machine website.