From Complicity to Interactivity: Theories of Feminist Game Play


Glide, digital games, feminism, glyphs / Glidejeux numériques, féminisme, glyphes

How to Cite

Guertin, C. (2009). From Complicity to Interactivity: Theories of Feminist Game Play. Digital Studies/le Champ Numérique, (9). DOI:


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The fracturing of the monolithic subject has been the foremost project of feminism, which has sought to complicate and problematize the unitary (constructed as white and male) point of view. Feminism has therefore introduced the notion of subjectivities with fractal dimensions, subjectivities that are composed of many component and shifting parts like gender, age, class, race, abilities, and sexual preference. Subjectivity under feminism thereby becomes a process and a performance that is constantly in a state of redefining its own complexity according to a network of power formations. In the abstract, it is an “elaboration of specific practices and discourses” and the “creation of social spaces” (O’Loughlin), but in the interactive environments of virtual worlds and game spaces, subjectivity is the mode of engagement; it is practice, discourse and social space without mediation. Similarly, interactivity is about how the subject performs in and engages with her environment. The body in motion is the meaning of an electronic text and the act of choosing movement is where we find agency.

The concept of agency is key to our interaction in game spaces. The very fact of our movement in these environments—our navigation—is what gives us pleasure in playing games. Our interactive motions or performative gestures become plot events and constitute what we normally think of as ‘story.’ Janet Murray argues for movement as a language (149) in its own right in games and for gesture as an “emotional repertoire for interactivity” (191). In an interactive environment, subjectivity becomes motion, becomes the way we move and the choices we make through our embodied location in space. Many computer games, like Myst and its spin offs or The Crystal Key, are billed as interactive experiences in immersive environments, but they too assume an old style, monolithic subject as a player. Feminist computer games, on the other hand, set out to question notions of subjectivity by way of interactive engagement. Two such games—Natalie Bookchin’s The Intruder based on a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, and Diana Reed Slattery’s Glide, the online component and realization of a game explored in a trilogy of print novels—interrogate the spaces between subjectivity and interactivity. As a result, the purpose in these two games is not winning or losing, but instead demonstrating narratological concerns, and raising issues around who plays and who controls the eyes we see with in these spaces.

These games use embodiment, which is necessary for spatial navigation, to explore the potentiality of the multiplicity of subjectivities involved not just in interactive environments but in our navigation of the world as well. That is to say, these games assume a unique user and privilege a single user’s individual experience. The experiential realm is the domain of the body and game play is, therefore, central to the politics of the body and to the multifaceted concept of embodied subjectivity that allows our immersion “as gendered subjects” in narrative space where we play at life as we inhabit the world (O’Loughlin). The body is not a flat construct, but an interface with its own environment and a dimension of our subjectivity to boot. And, in fact, it is our spatial level of interaction that the computer game attempts to engage to construct an embodied interactivity.

Natalie Bookchin’s The Intruder is a retelling of Borges’s story of the same name in ten different games. Ascending through the history of electronic gaming from Pong through Space Invaders, Bookchin explores the story of a woman used, shared, and abused by two brothers. Locking us into the sordid triangle with a predetermined course of action in the murder of Juliana, we become complicit in the violence of the story, just as we are when we use violence as a modus operandi in twitch or shoot-‘em-up games. Where in Myst or Riven, point of view is prescribed but fairly innocuous, allowing us to look all around us in a simulation of Euclidean space, in The Intruder, we must assume an alien subjectivity: we are forced to become one of the brothers in order to participate at all. The game becomes increasingly violent too as we progress through the 10 stages, so it becomes harder and harder for us to ignore our own complicity and capitulation to their behaviour.

For instance, in two different renditions of Pong we move from batting text to literally using the female figure—with a variety of female body parts including a hand splayed in a ‘stop’ gesture in the background—as the ball in our game. Despite the so-called ‘love’ triangle where the only love in evidence is between the two brothers, they occupy the same position, so that really our interactivity consists of a binary position or a split choice. We can be either Christian or Eduardo, but we cannot be Juliana. However, the very absence of the woman’s voice—either in the original story or in the games—screams for an articulation of her feelings and perspective on the situation. In fact, her silence is underlined by the fact that Bookchin has used a detached female voice to narrate the story. Juliana’s silence becomes a tangible presence next to the brothers’ monolithic position and the primacy of the triangle is maintained.

Technology and Subjectivity

Gender has been dubbed as essentially performative by both Judith Butler and Eve Sedgwick, and in Bookchin’s game gender is performed through Juliana’s silence, with the female acting as a social construct that underlines what is neither being examined on a personal level nor played in contextualized ways (Cassell 300). Since embodied subjectivity is constantly redefining itself within and as a networked interface of power relations, so it follows that an embodied materialism is a manifestation of what Teresa de Laurentis, after Michel Foucault, calls the ‘technology of the self.’ The technology of the self is a “process of representation and self-representation” (O’Loughlin) and the material dimension of the subject that measures how gender structures subjectivity as a variable of its own complexity. The technology of subjectivity might be seen (like gender and sexuality) as “‘the set of effects produced in bodies, behaviors, and social relations’ by the deployment of ‘complex political technology’” (de Lauretis 3). In short, the technology of the subject is a redefinition of the gendered self in a matrix of a collectivity of posthuman differences.

When place and perspective emerge as a vantage point for fractured and fractal subjectivities, we acquire added dimensions in our engagement with the world. We move from a two-dimensional topography into a multidimensional topology. Donna Haraway in her “Cyborg Manifesto” called this notion of fractal subjectivities the ‘split self’. “The split and contradictory self,” she says, “is the one who can interrogate positionings and be accountable, the one who can construct and join rational conversations and fantastic imaginings that change history” (193). Haraway sees splitting as a privileged position that endows the subject with agency within feminist theories and epistemologies. Fracturing encourages, she maintains, “heterogeneous multiplicities” (193) that are cumulative and irreducible. Subjectivity is by definition a multidimensional topology and so is vision (193). The self-aware subject is a kaleidoscope perspective that is always in the process of becoming, always incomplete and able therefore to mingle and merge with another (Haraway 193). While Haraway’s split refers specifically to her cyborg consciousness, doubled visions have long occupied feminist spaces. What is unusual in Bookchin’s split vision though is the denial of the female as a means of foregrounding her silence. As object, Juliana can always only ever occupy space rather than move through it as a self-determined agent. There can be no agency for the game object whose sole purpose is to be a target. This is made explicit in the final game where, from the vantage point of a chopper in the air, we must capture her within crosshairs and fire repeatedly in order to advance the story to encounter Christian’s statement, “This afternoon I killed her.”

Haraway’s split subject is a merging of the human and machine dating from 1984, but with the advent of networked communications this metaphor has proved to be insufficiently complex for an increasingly mediated age. N. Katherine Hayles takes Haraway’s cyborg consciousness to a new level. Hayles posits human subjectivities as multiple agents operating from a network of competing desires, motives and forces with the body acting as the steersman between shifting states of being. She calls this the posthuman. Uniting consciousness and the body, like Merleau-Ponty’s ‘body subject’, “the posthuman subject is an amalgam, a collection of heterogeneous components, a material-informational entity whose boundaries undergo continuous construction and reconstruction” (3). This subjectivity is fractal, modeled on the complexity of the network, and maps the malleable relations between self, consciousness and environment. But while Hayles’s network subjectivity is emergent and distributed (291), it is still locked within a framework of the human-computer interface. Interactivity and fractal subjectivities draw in the motion of the body in space and Diana Reed Slattery’s Glide is just such an exploration of the body as an interface between subjectivity and an immersive environment.

Diana Reed Slattery’s Glide

Glide’s site of true interactivity and language acquisition is contained in its website, especially in the animated visual lexicon, a sort of elaborate glyph ferris wheel, with its accompanying Collabyrinth. In many ways, this text fits no known model for either game or for fiction. It is neither hypertext nor freestanding independent game. The first novel in the trilogy, The Maze Game, is separate on paper but incomprehensible in essential ways without the lexicon and Collabyrinth. The website is divided in nine independent parts, which provide information about the novels and the Glide language. One of these parts is a listserve where fans of the text and those interested in visual language can come together to discuss theoretical issues or share their Glide readings and poetry. To play with these glyphs, and to navigate the mazes of its syntax is the real raison d’être for the novel itself. In fact, without dancing in these spaces and allowing the oracle to cast our glyphs to make connections with our personal past-present-future, we cannot understand the different sensory and mental states or thought processes of the characters. As we learn the language though, the very walls take on meaning and significance. A text in Glide is a maze, a collection of glyphs. Just as a maze has many different routes that can be taken through it, so meaning in the Glide language is always dynamic and architectural, is always in movement between renegotiation and interpretation.

The meaning between glyphs morphs where their edges touch, producing ever-shifting margins and centres of meaning. The relationships in the blendings between them are complex: “the user arrangement generates a situation (glyph-pair), a transformation (morphing glyph) and a context (a maze of glyphs seeded by the 3-glyph oracle). The user is offered interpretations (words, images and/or music) and invited to add interpretations to a growing database” (“launch the oracle,” Glide Website). The clearest example of how the meaning can alter on the basis of personal interpretation is illustrated by the three glyphs cast in The Maze Game after the villain’s attack on the Dancemaster. Concerned for the safety of their teacher, the four dancers, MyrrhMyrrh, Daede, Angle and T’Ling seek guidance from an oracle as to how to best proceed. What they receive is: , strike, caress, receive. MyrrhMyrrh arranges them in a nesting tower, with “strike above caress… The symmetry of opposites. Touch and strike, caress and wound—the pairing was cupped in receive. Doubled by the interior receive” (241). She makes the first translation, reading the entangled glyphs as “Kiss or insult, I accept it all” (242). Daede’s interpretation of the same signs is the poem, “Even a lashing rain is taken by the sea as gentle stroking” (242). Angle, the cyborg, has a precise mind that sees the meaning more pragmatically: “He couldn’t disassociate the double wave in strike from its meaning on a… maze. Those two empty spaces between were the formation called the loophole… Love is the only loophole, he thought. But that sounds pretty matter of fact. Ah! ‘Between the wound and the caress, flows the loophole of love’” (242). T’Ling, injured in the attack, rather than making an original interpretation chooses a quote from an ancient text, “St. Leonard of the Tower said, ‘There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in’” (242). This drive to write metaphor as a means of understanding the language is the goal of the Glide website and the legend to understanding The Maze Game.

In the novel, the language of the lily is for the Glides multifaceted, acting as “a navigational system, signaling to each other over the watery habitat of the giant blue water lilies whose pollen they harvested; as a poetic gestural language; as a secret code” (“Architecture”):

The game which defines their culture—the Dance of Death—is played on mazes of glyphs. Game moves and strategy are described in Glide terminology. Composition and translation in Glide is considered to exercise the cognitive function of making metaphor, which Glides believe increases the connectivity between minds, internally and socially, and which they link to creative thinking in general (“Architecture”).

In order to acquire such a connectivity, a player at the website must assume the role of a Dancer to receive such a three-glyph oracle and play the game. The browser’s dance makes her a participant in her own right distinct from the Dancers whose stories are told in the print novels. The glyphs that make up the oracle, which the Lily casts for us, are the gap or the hole—the three missing characters on the 27-glyph game griddle. As the gap in the maze, these three glyphs contain the meaning (including the outcome) of the dance, which must be interpreted by the player after the fact. While we acquire a truer interactivity with the Glide oracle than with the other games, we still only play at the game through the oracle, rather than dancing and dying as the dancers do. The Collabyrinth, however, draws us in in far more interactive and performative ways. We can create poems solor or with other players across the network, and we can alter the size, speed of transformation, colour and other variables as we play with the glyphs and write poems as a group effort.

Janet Murray and Brenda Laurel argue that electronic texts offer more than simple interactivity; they believe that agency is born through the act of spatial navigation within the virtual environment (Murray 128-129; Laurel 21). In interactive spaces, we construct the text as we play within its walls, with our choices forming the topology of the space of our voyaging. According to Justine Cassell, the most effective “feminist vision of game software design as a space in which authority can be distributed to users” is “to have the game be about [its own] design and construction” (302). Slattery gives us that option with the Collabyrinth. Feminist theory specifically includes collaboration as an approach integral to the mingling of political movements and alliances across disparate fields and perspectives (Cassell 303), and in such a way the Collabyrinth invites us in either as a single player or as one member of a network. By using the Glide language we become storytellers, finding ways to express our own vision of the Dancers’ perspectives on the world. Justine Cassell argues that “storytelling is an important activity for the construction of self, for the construction of the world, and for the construction of the norms by which we lead our lives, and thus an activity that encourages storytelling is a potential space for the maintenance of an identity that is not voiceless” (307). In other words, it is in storytelling or, more specifically, in the performance of our story that we find our voice and inhabit the experiential realm. Navigating through and with the Glide language foregrounds our body as our interface with both visual language and story space.

The body itself is a spatial interface whose inscriptions are depths in the surface, according to Elizabeth Grosz. She envisions this spatial interface as a Moëbius strip. For Grosz, subjectivity is that which gets written on the inner surface of the strip and the “twisting of the Moëbius is the torsion or pivot around which the subject is generated” (36). It is “an interface of the inside and outside” where passive becomes active and active passive (36). The “inversion of the Moëbius strip, at that point of twisting is a self-transformation” (160), outside in, inside out, like the transformation that the glyphs undergo in the Collabyrinth. The Moëbius strip presents “two surfaces which cannot be collapsed into one” (189) like binary code, which is mathematically irreducible. This is a construct and conglomerate of the body and its subjectivity as an interactivity (Grosz 189). The body and subjectivity become a dynamic process and performance, and constructs of gendered bodies become irreducible specificities, a feedback loop of the Moëbius rotations on itself that serves to undermine, displace and critique the former male-only model that ruled. Feminist transgression can thereby become a framework for interaction (Grosz 189) and a literal embodied gesture. Grosz constructs the body as a flow of intensities: “fluids,” she says, “unlike objects, have no definite borders; they are unstable, which does not mean that they are without pattern. Fluids surge and move, and a metaphysic that thinks being as fluid would tend to privilege the living, moving, pulsing over the inert dead matter of the Cartesian world view…” (Grosz 205). Grosz’s Moëbius strip is a model that is not well-suited to representing modes of being, but instead privileges the dynamic of modes of transformation just as Slattery’s morphing glyphs do. Similarly, the Moëbius strip is best at representing the temporal moment of transformation and its dynamic nature speaks to its innate ability to stand in for a complex ontological process (210). The Moëbius strip represents not being, but becoming.


In our mediated age where time has become foreshortened and compressed into geographic space by technological advances like the telephone and the airplane, communications theorist Paul Virilio calls for a new state of being, a state that he calls trajectivity: “Between the subjective and the objective,” he says, there should be “the ‘trajective,’ that being of movement from here to there, from one to the other, without which we will never achieve a profound understanding of the various regimes of perception of the world that have succeeded each other throughout the ages” (24). Each point in place on our journey through the textual space of the Glide Collabyrinth is a specific embodied position that is always in the process of becoming something else. And it is our journey through our own collaborative act of storytelling that engenders the dynamic embodiment for us as players.

The connections between the functioning and form of digital games is found in their use of ruptures in perspectival space. It is no accident therefore that we are now seeing a revival of Baroque aesthetics in all art forms. The Baroque invites the senses back into affective works and engages us on levels beyond the emotional as sensory navigators. Spanning the 17th and the first quarter of the 18th century, the Baroque was a school that attempted to make sense of the competing trajectories of transcendent experience in emotional and spiritual space-time. The artists of the Baroque period used what we would now think of as multimedia—combining painting, sculpture (in numerous, juxtaposed and polychromatic materials), theatrical staging and lighting, and architecture in new spatial configurations—to create immersive environments for a single, idealized perspective in real geometric space. In similar ways, computer games attempt to engage all of our senses in virtual space, drawing us into the game world through opulent graphics and interactive features. Bookchin and Slattery engage us through their respective use of complicity and interactivity to draw us into the plotline of their fictional game spaces. We are co-opted and interpellated precisely because their projects ultimately are narratological ones, using stories to invite us in. According to Justine Cassell, ‘storytelling is a nexus of change in the relationship between gender and technology’ that works to create constructs of the self (311). Glide achieves the interactivity that most games only twitch and shoot at by requiring us to undertake the act of creation in visual language. We cannot help but be transformed by the nature of this new visual alphabet as we alter our perspective to find ways to write it.

Works Cited

Bookchin, Natalie. The Intruder. 1999. 20 May 2002

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Cassell, Justine. "Storytelling as a Nexus of Change in the Relationship Between Gender and Technology: A Feminist Approach to Software Design." From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games. Eds. Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins. Cambridge: MIT, 1998. 298-326.

de Lauretis, Teresa. “The Technology of Gender.” Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction. Bloomington: U of Indiana P, 1992. 1-30.

Grosz, Elizabeth. Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994.

Haraway, Donna. Simians, Cyborgs and Women. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999.

Laurel, Brenda. Computers as Theatre. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1993.

Murray, Janet H. Hamlet on the Holodeck. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 1997.

O’Loughlin, Marjorie. “Intelligent Bodies and Ecological Subjectivities: Merleau-Ponty’s Corrective to Postmodernism’s ‘Subjects’ of Education.” 1995. 11 April 2005.'loughlin.html

Sedgewick, Edie. Tendencies. Durham: Duke UP, 1993. Slattery, Diana Reed (with Daniel O'Neil and Bill Brubaker). Glide 1999-2001. 20 May 2002.

───. The Glide Collabyrinth. 2002.

Slattery, Diana Reed. The Maze Game. Kingston, NY: Deep Listening Publications, 2003.

Virilio, Paul. Open Sky. Julie Rose, Trans. London: Verso, 1997.



Carolyn Guertin (McLuhan Program in Culture & Technology, University of Toronto)





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