Many Splendored Things

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Many Splendored Things

Susanna Paasonen

Goldsmiths Press, London / MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2018

ISBN: 978-1906897826

It’s been a great year to be reviewing books that fall under the umbrella of game studies. This year has given us a labor history of gaming, queer studies, and the politics of game mechanics. A book about the nature of sex, play, and game studies feels like a perfect fit.

Susanna Paasonen opens her text with a note on the terminology of ‘play.’ Play is both a key concept for game studies, something that refers to the lighthearted and juvenile, and an explicitly sexual term. You can study play, play a game, or play a game. Despite the variations inherent to the words, and realities, of play and games, game studies, like much of academe, has a distant relationship to sex as a thing in and of itself. Paasonen bridges a gap for us by exploring sex as play and the games that undergird many sexual practices.

Passonen’s text joins the emerging body of work that looks to understand both sex as game and the ludic qualities of sex. Books such as Video Games Have Always Been Queer, the journal of Game Studies special issue ‘Queerness and Video Games’, and articles like Harviainen and Frank’s ‘Group Sex as Play: Rules and Transgression in Shared Non-monogamy’ (2016) build a framework for sex as games. Where Passonen’s book departs from other texts is with the decision to focalize sex as practice rather than sex as a gendered experience.

This is not presented as a negation of Queer Game Studies, but, appropriately enough, a queering of their boundaries. Passonen doesn’t seek to efface gendered differences, but rather to shift the critical focus of this text toward sex itself. Nevertheless, gender is a dominant sub-theme throughout the book and Paasonen manages to prioritize sex without discarding gender. The theoretical backing for this work starts where all Game Studies texts are implicitly required to start: Huizinga.

Paasonen builds on Huizinga’s ‘magic circle’ approach to play. Paasonen notes that in much of the sexual world there is conceptual overlap with Huizinga. Paasonen starts by contrasting Gayle Rubin’s spheres of sexual hierarchy with the same boundary defining principles in the magic circle. She then goes on to explore how those boundaries delineated by puritanical approaches to sex are much more permeable than they would appear. Sexual play, for Many Splendored Things, falls along divergent contexts and overlaps and intertwines with “normal” life. To this end, Paasonen coins the phrase ‘magic circuits’ to describe that intermeshed reality.

It’s always good to see a text giving a fair and nuanced treatment to BDSM, especially in its more extreme manifestations. Looking at extreme prison play, as presented in this text, not as an aberration, but as a modality of human play is one of the most refreshing aspects of Queer Game Studies. For BDSM in particular, Paasonen makes some strong plays with existing theory.

Rather than falling into the well-worn grooves of BDSM as manifestation of trauma or it’s inverse, BDSM as manifestation of healing, Paasonen’s text dialectically resolves the two. Paasonen troubles the clean lines demarcating the boundaries ascribed to BDSM writing that ‘Things, in sum, do not remain the same, or even all too stable, as experiences layer and fade’ (147). BDSM is therein reread as something much more human, more fluid. Something with which people can play.

Like Video Games Have Always Been Queer by Bonnie Ruberg, which I reviewed earlier this year, Many Splendored Things takes a queer approach to the conceptual framework of games and play. The intersection of queer and game studies is having something of a boom year. Paasonen’s text adds to this. In a way that matches Paasonen’s ‘magic circuits,’ this text intermeshes with Video Games Have Always Been Queer. Both texts have nuanced approaches to sexuality while maintaining their own, complementary frameworks. 

Video games and the world of tabletop have been notoriously bad at handling sex. Grand Theft Auto, God of War, and TTRPGs tend to reduce sex to awkward cutscenes, the poor synecdoche of button mashing, or dice rolls. The rising popularity of games like Tusk: The Orc Dating Sim and Hurt Me Plenty offer much more capable depictions of sex. Many Splendored Things fits into the magic circuits of these games and a shifting nuance that, at least in the indie scene, is reshaping how games treat sex.

Paasonen’s text gives us an interesting window to explore not just sex as play, but also the sexuality of our play and the games that embody it. It’s challenging read that explores sex on it’s own terms and uses the tools forged in game studies to explore the nature of sex as play. This text fits in well with other texts that have come out this year that seek to shift the focal points of game studies and broaden what the field is capable of.