Dilating Destiny: writing the transreal body through game design

by micha cárdenas

Edited screen shot from Destiny, showing the author's avatar.

Screen shot from Dilating Destiny.

Play Dilating Destiny here.

Destiny is a video game produced by Bungie and published by Activision, released in 2014, which is a clear example of what are referred to as Triple-A games. The franchise had a development budget of $500 million and "sold more than $325 million worldwide in the first five days" (Acuna). The game includes richly detailed 3-dimensional environments set on future versions of earth, the moon, Venus and Mars, among other planets. Dilating Destiny is a small, text-based game, available online, which I created with no production budget. Dilating Destiny is an obscure, personal game that very few people have played. I see Dilating Destiny as part of a genre of text-based games by trans women such as Merritt Kopas, which she describes in her article "Trans Women & The New Hypertext." My essay is intended to elucidate my inspirations for making the game, as well as situate it within the trajectory of my artwork and other artistic fields. Dilating Destiny was inspired by philosophers writing about drugs, and poetry and video games made by trans women. Dilating Destiny uses an aesthetic I have described as transreal, in that it blends truth and fiction and includes a performance of identities in both the reality of present day life and that of the online world of Destiny.

Theoretical inspirations

Avital Ronell is a contemporary philosopher of technology, literature and deconstruction. The “EB on Ice” section of Ronell's book Crack Wars takes a science fiction story as its form and uses it to analyze the link between “electronic culture… cyberpunk projection… virtual reality” and “drug culture” by imagining futures of pharmaceuticals that facilitate identity transformations (68). She writes,

“The girl ahead of me chose their six-month girloid program… I picked the hologrammatology program, because I needed to be in several places at the same time, and I didn’t want to fall into facile identifications”(67).

In that sense, Ronell’s work is similar to my game Dilating Destiny, which considers the experience of playing a video game while taking a large amount of pharmaceutical drugs. Ronell’s goals, as a philosopher, are expansive. Her book begins by responding to German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who states “addiction and urge are possibilities rooted in the thrownness of Dasein” (2004). Ronell deals with the question of engaging with Heidegger's work in great detail in The Telephone Book, due to her Jewish heritage and his association with the Nazi party. My own reading practice is informed by Ronell's, in that I also believe that some value can be found in the works of writers and artists whose lives may include actions that are unethical, and as such I choose not to completely dismiss Heidegger's writing. In particular I find useful the way Heidegger describes the thrownness of being as the quality of being off center, unstable, thrown. I read this in relation to my own work on necropolitical affect, or the feeling of life under necropolitcal regimes, which I will explain further.

Ronell’s invention of the word hologrammatology imagines a science fiction future of multiple bodies by way of Derrida’s grammatology, a chain of significations revealed through deconstruction. Pulling apart this word, which combines the words grammatology with hologram, allows one to bring in Achille Mbembe, the theorist who has described the deadliness of the dystopian neoliberal present we live in as necropolitics. Mbembe states that invisible killings are perpetrated by state and non-state actors today, facilitated by surveillance technologies including "hologrammization" (29). Holographic maps are used by the U.S. military to enhance targeting with 3-dimensional imaging (Dawson, 1). Mbembe's description of the constant threat of death for subjects in Palestine has relevance for black and trans people around the world who experience the daily threat of murder.

Dilating Destiny tells a story of a time of daily news of deaths of black and trans, where the news kicks the main character when she is down, coming to her in a moment of already being off center, displaced, lying down, wounded, bleeding and healing from a wound, yet still yearning to get up and join the struggle for justice. The game is concerned with the feeling or the affect of the contemporary moment. Dilating Destiny is a text based game that uses a transreal aesthetic, which I will describe further below, to explore the experience of recovering from Gender Reassignment Surgery. The form of Dilating Destiny is an interactive series of web pages created with the Twine platform. (Twine is a game authoring software that allows user to easily create interactive stories with multiple branches and algorithmic logic, and it exports HTML so that the games are playable in a web browser.) The story in Dilating Destiny mixes real and fictional events, blurring the lines between everyday experiences of pain, medication and political solidarity with the fictional storyline of the game Destiny, published by Activision.

Trans-feminine writing as écriture trans-féminine

Dilating Destiny engages with the history of écriture au trans-féminine, or trans-feminine writing,[1] [open endnotes in new window] a literature of intoxication and performative experiments with the body (Billingham 2010). Cixous argued for écriture feminine, which can be translated as women's writing or feminine writing, meaning that women must write literature because their bodies give them access to different kind of knowledge and language that had until then not been expressed or had been actively silenced (1976). She called on women to write the experience of their bodies (Cixous, 1976). Writing about transgender mixed race poet Trish Salah, Susan Billingham, Associate Professor of Canadian Studies at the University of Nottingham,

"traces a continuum between French feminist ecriture feminine, quebecoise/Canadian ecriture au feminin, and Salah's oeuvre. If ecriture feminine returns to the woman's body to reconsider sexual difference, recuperate suppressed voices, and construct feminine subjectivity, then what I call an ecriture au trans-feminine seeks to achieve similar recognition of the trans-woman's voice and body... At stake in the notion of ecriture au trans-feminine is precisely the question of agency: the transwoman's claim to participate in liberatory gendered discourse as a woman" (2010). 

My work is in dialog with Salah's in our shared concern for understanding trans-feminine experience as a contested site of agency, uncertainty and blurred boundaries. Many of my artworks have begun with an attempt to articulate the philosophical implications of my experiences as a transgender woman, including those of being the subject in transition, bodily transformation and beginning taking prescribed hormones in Becoming Dragon (2009);and more recently, the effects of stopping taking prescribed hormones on one’s mental, emotional and physical state in Pregnancy (2016). Both of these projects have been described by myself and others as bioart, beginning with engagements with my own biological material and using that as the basis for making art. Bioart is a genre of art often presented in museums and galleries and it extends the history of performance art's concern with the body to consider non-human bodies, parts of bodies and biological technologies. In Becoming Dragon I lived for 365 hours in a mixed reality environment using motion capture and a head-mounted display to perform with both my physical body and with a dragon avatar in the online 3-dimensional multi-user environment of Second Life. In the performance space I had my hormone prescription bottles on display and many of the poems I performed considered the relations between the biological transformations I was experiencing and my online virtual enbodiment.

All three of these works—Becoming Dragon, Pregnancy and Dilating Destiny—begin by phenomenologically examining embodied experiences in order to challenge any simple notion of transgender as a binary crossing from one gender to another. I was connecting lines of flight across boundaries of species, scale and speculative realities. As my character in Dilating Destiny is non-human, the question of embodying another species is relevant here. Many other transgender authors and theorists have considered ways that transgender experience can have broader relevance to other forms of embodiment.

These works are also part of a history of engagements with the meaning, language and narratives of transgender experience as seen in the writing of Trish Salah and Sandy Stone. In Wanting in Arabic, in the poem “where skin breaks,” Trish Salah writes:

"tearing through these skins:              male, female, female, male

                                                                until the body’s ceased to matter

                                                           the body never does cease to matter" 
(2002, 38)

In Salah's poem I read a challenge that transsexual experiences of bodily transformation present to thought: how to exceed the identitarian limitations of an individual body to create poetry and theory that resonates with others, by engaging with experiences through one’s own body as it changes form. Salah’s writing responds to French feminists such as Helene Cixous, who wrote that “woman must write woman. And man, man,” making a claim that now seems overly binary and simplified in a world of an increasing proliferation of forms of gender non-conformity (1976, 877). Yet when I first read Cixous’ words,  I heard a story that resonated with my own experience as a trans woman yearning to “write” my own body by transitioning:

“She must write her self, because this is the invention of a new insurgent writing which, when the moment of her liberation has come, will allow her to carry out the indispensable ruptures and transformations in her history… Write your self. Your body must be heard,” (1976, 880).

When Cixous states “I, too, overflow; my desires have invented new desires, my body knows unheard-of songs,” I hear an opening for fantastic science fiction imaginings of transformations into unimagined bodies. I referenced Cixous' work in one of the poems in my performance Becoming Dragon in order to link her idea of writing the body with my performance of a transgender body and a dragon avatar simultaneously (1976, 876; 2012, 124). Dilating Destiny continues this trajectory, writing myself into previously unimagined bodies, in this case the body of an alien race known as the Awoken, which is the race of my character in the game Destiny.

The way we experience the virtual bodies we inhabit in games is through our experience and memory of our own body. Vivian Sobchack writes,

“We do not experience any movie only with our eyes. We see and comprehend and feel films with our entire bodily being, informed by the full history and knowledge of our sensorium.” (2000)

One can extend to games as well the way that Sobchack rejects the binary split between film and audience. Elsewhere I have articulated the stitch as a kind of gesture in a trans of color poetics. I argue that stitching can be seen in the work of trans artists of color in the form of stitching fabric, stitching together code into algorithms, and stitching as connecting communities. I understand Sobchack's description of film as connecting her body to the bodies on screen as a kind of stitching that has relevance for understanding video games made by trans women. Sobchack looks to Steven Shaviro’s Deleuzian theorization of the place of the body in the experience of film. Sobchack quotes Shaviro, who states: 

“There is no structuring lack, no primordial division, but a continuity between the physiological and affective responses of my own body and the appearances and disappearances, the mutations and perdurances, of the bodies and images on screen. The important distinction is not the hierarchical, binary one between bodies and images, or between the real and its representations. It is rather a question of… degrees of stillness and motion, of action and passion, of clutter and emptiness, of light and lack. … For a fugitive, supplemental materiality haunts the (allegedly) idealizing processes of mechanical reproduction. …The flesh is intrinsic to the cinematic apparatus, at once its subject, its substance, and its limit.”