Heart constellations: killing the capitalist god of loneliness
Dr. Joost Vervoort is an Associate Professor of Transformative Imagination at Utrecht University. His work focuses on connecting games and creative practices, politics and action to create better futures. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @Vervoort_Joost
Why do you always kill God in Japanese role playing games? Youtuber Moon_Channel lays out a complex history of shifting religions and power to start to explain this, but they end with an assessment of the bleak power of capitalism, the god of Japanese life — of overwork and a dedication to success that create profound isolation and disempowerment among young Japanese people, grinding the country down in the process. They argue that the all-pervasive God-killing theme is a metaphorized cry of loneliness, frustration, powerlessness, and a desire to topple this stifling divinity of success and money. In Final Fantasy 7, you fight a God-like company, Shinra Electric Power Company, which Moon explains means ‘the network god’. In Elden Ring, the Golden Order is an alien, parasitic force that stifles diversity and flourishing. In Death Stranding, you are lured across a fragmented United States by the promise of real human connection, only to find out that a god-like ‘extinction entity’ is waiting for you on the other side.
I’ve been facing my loneliness again recently. The end of a rather short-lived relationship that really nourished me in some incredibly deep ways but was impossible and disconnecting in others brought my loneliness into focus. More generally, the ups and downs of a few years of coming out of a nine year relationship have made me very aware that a kind of loneliness has been with me since I was a young child. Having engaged with the grief and pain of it, I am far less lonely now than I was years ago, when I was crushing myself with work and withdrawing from the emotional connections in my life. I’m also lucky enough to have an ecosystem of lovely people around me and plenty of resources to overcome real societal causes of loneliness. Many people are not that lucky.
My ecosystem also contains a fair few people who know loneliness deeply. We tend to recognize this in each other and hang out together. I’m supporting a friend this week going through a breakup, and the grief and loneliness that accompany it are truly a trip. From speaking to many people about it, I don’t think everyone necessarily experiences deep loneliness as the main emotional challenge in their life. And loneliness can come and go. But for a lot of us it is a big thing.
In fact, reports from many places of the world point to a global pandemic of loneliness, with far reaching societal consequences. This plague of loneliness is not helped by that other, more physical pandemic. Loneliness is destructive, disempowering, it’s deeply impactful on health, and it can be deadly. And a big driver of all of this is that the god of capitalism spits out architectures of loneliness.
I recently gave a guided meditation for my group providing some reflections and explorations about loneliness, and out of this guidance, some interesting conversations emerged. First of all, though loneliness is very universal, your specific loneliness feels like it’s the only loneliness in the world. It’s a feature of loneliness that it makes you feel like that. It also seems to be a reinforcing loop where people are less likely to reach out and create social connections. And what fascinated me was how different an experience loneliness can be between different people. Different tones, different causes, different challenges.
Why am I writing about loneliness on a blog about games and sustainability, apart from a weird apparent desire to overshare emotionally? Well, I’m interested in deep engagement with emotionality as a starting point for societal transformation and change. You’ll notice I’m mentioning this paper everywhere these days, but this excellent study by Erika Summers-Effler focuses on how social change happens through connection. In the context of women’s groups and feminist action, she discusses how bringing people together and allowing them to share and connect around their ‘deviant’ emotions helps create shared emotional energy and support, and helps people see that their problems aren’t necessarily their fault. They develop ‘critical consciousness’ — a shared insight into how structural societal issues shape their lives. I’ve felt like giving people opportunities for speaking openly about loneliness and the causes of loneliness would be a powerful starting point for engaging together with real, impactful change toward more sustainable futures. And the idea of people experiencing different kinds of loneliness seemed interesting in this context.
Then I met Bella Day in London last week. This felt like an extremely serendipitous meeting to me. Bella is an artist, designer and researcher with a rich experience in working on using creative practices and collective imaginations to create meaningful and potentially transformative experiences for different groups. Our conversation naturally covered many shared interests. Then she mentioned the UK-based ‘Lonely, Not Alone’ campaign that she had co-organized with the Co-op Foundation through her own old organization Effervescent. Lonely, Not Alone shares stories of kids and young people about their loneliness. The co-creators of the project, many of them young people themselves, have identified ten different types of loneliness.
Each type of loneliness is represented by an animal. Moths have experienced a profound life change that has disconnected them and made them feel very lonely. Urban foxes have moved around a lot and don’t feel like they belong anywhere. Sloths simply don’t have the resources for social connection, it’s too expensive. Caged birds are being made lonely by being caged, trapped by someone else. Octopi have been overstretched for too long, and have had to withdraw, but this has made them lonely. Fireflies put everyone else first. Unicorns are weird, interesting people who burn brightly, and people appreciate them from a distance, but they like they are too much for real connection. Polar bears feel like they have to brave difficult, strange waters, and feel set adrift by their circumstances. Hedgehogs feel like they have create a force field of loneliness around themselves while dealing with difficult challenges. Crocoducks pretend they are someone they are not in order to survive, feeling secretly lonely because of this.
Each of these animal metaphors is also a stellar constellation, mapped to actual stars. This means that kids can see their loneliness constellations in the actual sky. Clicking through shows the website reader a great number of stars per constellation. Each star represents a young person’s story of loneliness. I’ve shown this website to many friends coming back from London, and each person has identified their own type of loneliness among the constellations. Hedgehogs. Urban Foxes. I’m a Unicorn with a bit of Octopus, I think.
I think this link between constellations and loneliness is just amazing. In another blog, I wrote about a project I’m involved in at a stellar observatory that seeks to link cosmic connectedness with social action. I wrote about connecting wonder and difficult emotions. Linking the stars to the mutual recognition of loneliness seems very powerful in this regard.
What Bella explained to me, and what I think becomes clear when you read into these stories, is that loneliness is created out of a complex web of societal conditions and personal traits. Current economic and social pressures created by neoliberal capitalism are a very, very big part of this. As Moon warns in their video, Japan might be extreme in this regard, but society shifts around us all around the world to create ever more crushing loneliness, all for the sake of economic growth. And meanwhile, the world burns, truly. In the futures of young people, a black sun of loneliness looms on the horizon.
Well, fuck. But this is why the Lonely, Not Alone campaign immediately fired my imagination when I spoke to Bella. Allowing people to share their loneliness, to recognize that they are not alone in their specific type of loneliness, to maybe help them find their tribe — this might be a great starting point for real social connection, critical consciousness, and social change, following Erika’s model. As with other emotional states that are not commonly accepted in society, the sharing and allowing and connecting around loneliness could be a powerful force. Finding ways to move us from loneliness and despair to a burning, collective rage to kill that parasitic fucking god of capitalism that is destroying our souls, or relationships, and the planet.
So how can games help with this? Well, lots of games already show the potential to engage with loneliness and connection. I’ve finished the aforementioned Death Stranding recently. It’s a miracle, really, that this game exists. Imagine a super trippy indie science fiction movie, but made with an estimated budget of around 70 million USD. In a kaleidoscopic story about death and life and reconnecting people across the US, auteur game designer Hideo Kojima’s team created a very unique game that is all about the feeling of trudging across lonely landscapes, performing acts of service, community and connection. In his rather pretentious but still endearing style, Kojima has described the game as part of a new genre, ‘strand games’ — games that focus on human connections. A core game mechanic is that the things you build in the Death Stranding world also become useful to largely anonymous other players and vice versa. This support is sometimes unexpected and always welcome, and results in a warm glow of distant, collective collaborating emanating from the game, while still keeping a sense of loneliness in focus. The game’s main character is a kind of hedgehog, moth and polar bear combined, with a phobia of being touched that gradually relaxes over the game’s story. It’s encouraging that such a massive game can be so weird and so focused on this idea of loneliness and connection. The game was perhaps too trippy to be really successful, but clearly it was successful enough somehow because Kojima is working on part 2. It’s an exciting thing to see happen in mainstream gaming. The Souls series does something similar with the juxtaposition of allowing for loneliness and providing space for connection in that loneliness. Journey does this as well. Of course there are (many) other games that are much more straightforwardly engaging with community building and connection. Animal Crossing: New Horizons has been a great source of comfort for lonely people, especially in the pandemic. Or think about how Pokémon GO transformed public environments for a beautiful moment in time, adding a magic layer of play.
Indie games have also been exploring the space of loneliness. The Longing is a game about a weird and lonely shade who lives underground by themselves, the last servant of a king who will be brought to life again in 400 days. Not 400 in game days. 400 actual days. So, you’re waiting 400 days to leave the underground realm. In the meantime, there’s not much more to do than walking around by yourself, trying to entertain yourself in your loneliness. It has been described as the ultimate lockdown game. Birth is a wonderful game about urban loneliness in which you make a creature out of spare bones and organs to keep you company.
But how do we go from spaces where loneliness can be expressed and connections can be made to social action? Of course, it is valuable to look at actual social movements that already serve this role — since many people join activist groups and movements out of a desire to connect and find collective meaning. How can games help do this? A bunch of us in the IGDA Climate Special Interest Group and beyond have created the Game Dev Rebellion, where we are collectively investigating how games can support climate activism. I’m extremely curious about exploring this connection between loneliness, social action and games more, and I know other people are as well.
My recommendations for game design (and other projects) around loneliness and social action would be:
· Focus on creating truly safe spaces for the admitting, expressing and sharing of loneliness and associated difficult emotions. Approach these experiences seriously, but playfully as well.
· Engage with the fact that different structural conditions produce different kinds of loneliness, and help people find their own tribes accordingly.
· Support the development of critical consciousness and imagination — helping people understand the causes of their loneliness.
· Support the shift from individual shame and despair to more mobilizing emotions — communal anger, grief, connection.
· Provide avenues for cosmic connection in combination with these difficult emotions.
What does this look like in concrete game design terms? I think integrated game play and real life environments through augmented and location-based play will be powerful. Pokémon go provides some inspiration, and Bella mentioned being interested in integrating the loneliness constellations with augmented reality. Colleagues and I have developed a game for students where you are invited to re-imagine your cityscapes collectively, live in those environments through a massive mobile game. I talked with Bella about combining this kind of play with those loneliness constellations and cosmic orientation. I think there’s an important role for strong and accessible writing and storytelling. I’m thinking about how Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) weaves a resonant story of loneliness and connection with the experiences of real communities. And then opening this kind of storytelling to the stories of players.
I think this challenge goes beyond games as well and becomes a wider question of how policy and funding help enable infrastructures of loneliness or connection. Let’s look at how current social media and things like dating apps feed on loneliness, but also recognize the utopian possibilities that exist within them. How might such platforms be guided by policy to actually help overcome the loneliness pandemic? What politics are needed to help create the drive to truly tackle loneliness? And how can games and social media aimed at recognizing and overcoming loneliness help stimulate such politics in the first place?
My fellow lonelies — polar bears, moths, unicorns — I’m very excited to get into this capitalist-god-killing business together. Let’s see if we can make reality a ‘strand game’. Make daddy Kojima proud.
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