This post is an excerpt from a paper that Andy Phelps and I presented about the game Night in the Woods at the 15th Annual Tampere University Game Research Lab Seminar, on Urban Play. Our presentation focused on how both social class and mental health are thoughtfully portrayed in the 2017 adventure game, both in terms of narrative/representation but also in the game's core loop of moving through the game's town of Possum Springs, and how movement itself builds on the feeling of being trapped in a small town, unable to exert much agency to overcome problems or even escape to a better life. The paper and ideas are still in process, but we'd welcome feedback on how you think either NiTW or other games are dealing with class in provocative ways.
Possum Springs and Social Class
Although research on representations of gender, race, and sexuality have become more common in game studies, “class differences are often overlooked” as part of those dynamics (Shaw 2014, 149). Yet as Shaw also points out, class too can function as an identity and “a site of community identification” (p. 149). Part of the reticence for doing these analyses may stem from difficulties in pinning down what exactly is meant by “class” itself. In one of the few volumes that even touch on the topic, Shaw offers brief descriptions of the businesswoman Barb in Diner Dash (p. 148), Mario’s original occupation as a working class carpenter, and items such as “Noble Lady’s Boots” and the “Lower Class Outfit” that Fable II offers to players (p. 31). Such descriptions demonstrate how games can make class visible, yet don’t offer us a useful way to think about what class encompasses in broader terms.
Despite a lack of consensus from researchers on how to define class as a concept and what it comprises, most scholars agree there are a combination of class-related factors that allow us to see how different economic and social/cultural contexts can result in very different ways of seeing and accessing the world around us. For this analysis, then, class (also referred to as socio-economic class), refers to “a combination of economic (income, wealth) and social factors (family background, education, occupation, social prestige)” and can be “expressed in lifestyle, values, behavior, manners” (Deery and Press 2017, 6).
Possum Springs is a town hanging on by its teeth, clinging to its past proud history as a mining town while offering its current citizens fewer and fewer meaningful work experiences as well as ways to make more than a subsistence living. Traversing the town doesn’t take long, and tells a story of downward mobility simply by reading the storefronts that still exist – such as the closed Party Barn as shown above, (a “renovation opportunity” now for sale), and are regular features of the town’s main street. Cars and old people on motorized scooters bustle along to other places (possibly to the town’s one doctor or the Social Security Administration), teenagers hang out by the river and on rooftops, and regulars congregate outside the neighborhood bar. From Mae’s first day back home, the player realizes this is not an urban center or some chic neighborhood: it’s a town that urban planners would classify as ripe for ‘revitalization’, if only some new businesses would move in. What we do see, and experience, are clear indications that the American Dream of upward mobility has vanished from this place. Instead, poverty and working/service class jobs that are largely dead-end take center stage. One morning during her daily rounds Mae overhears a worker outside the telemarketing agency tell her colleagues that later in the day she’s going to pretend to vomit in order to get out of work and instead interview at the local Ham Panther. The Ham Panther is a stand in for WalMart, which “although it ain’t an art gallery in Paris” is still considered a step up from answering phones all day.
Mae’s friends have similar issues with their own work, which is also dead end. Gregg is working “seven days a week” at the Snack Falcon to save enough money to get away from town and move to Bright Harbor, while Bea appears stuck helping her father run the local hardware store, despite her desperate wish to attend college and do something more with her life. Mae herself voices no plans for work, which her mother increasingly calls her to task about. But social class isn’t simply tied to the job a person has (or loses). Possum Springs’s social and cultural context is likewise limited.
Entertainment is hard to find - there is a video rental store (an anachronism even Mae points out), a bar (which Mae is too young to enter), and a church (where Mae’s mother works). Fun must be found in other spaces, including parties in the woods, driving to the nearby mall, breaking into deserted buildings and destroying abandoned cars. Together these places and activities form a fairly accurate picture of downward mobility in Rust Belt America. Writing about the ways that class encompasses us, Deery and Press point out that, “for each of us, our class position affects how we will live and how long we will live, how we will be cared for and educated … and what experiences and pleasures are open to us” (Deery & Press, 2017, p. 3, emphasis in original). For Possum Springs, those opportunities are few and far between, with hanging out, drinking, and being delinquent in some way forming a key part of those experiences and pleasures.
Possum Springs signposts class clearly through its representations - both images and narratives that one discovers as the town is explored. But more than that, the way the town - and how to move through/play with it - creates a routinization of daily living is equally noteworthy. Possum Springs doesn’t function as a resource for Mae to exploit in ways that other videogame towns might – space works in a different way here. There are no supplies to be bought, no companions to recruit, and sleeping in bed at night doesn’t replenish Mae’s health in any meaningful way. There are few puzzles to solve in the town and no game rewards for doing so such as increased wealth or status. So even if Mae discovers baby rats in an attic and feeds them, for example, it leads to no larger changes in the town or Mae herself. The player as Mae can hop along the power lines and rooftops and discover a few additional locations and characters (and unlock a few Steam badges) but is never required to do so to complete the game. Instead, the town seems intent on swallowing Mae into itself and keeping her there. There is no cell phone service providing a link to the outside world, and continual construction near one end of town provides another barrier to exiting.
Similar to Molle Industria’s Every Day the Same Dream, Mae as everyperson is forced into the only option available - making a daily circuit - of which only small details vary. Yet EDSD critiques the desk job and patriarchal heteronormative middle-class life. Night in the Woods looks further down the ladder to the convenience store clerks and support workers whose jobs often (invisibly) support those other positions. Furthermore, Mae is no mysterious stranger or even hometown hero – the normal trope for a videogame protagonist. Instead she drags her past behind her, never able to escape her history of violence and possible mental illness. As one neighbor reminds her when she goes onto his porch, “small town polite’s all you got kid. So watch it.” Mae can try to steal pretzels from a snack stand, and rearrange posters on a community bulletin board, but otherwise her options for making a mark on the town, whether to improve or destroy it - are limited. Just like any other citizen of a small town in America, Mae’s choices are dismal - stop by stores to greet friends, engage in petty crimes, see if anything has changed, no matter how small.
Deery, June, and Andrea Press. 2017. “Studying Media and Class.” In Media and Class: TV, Film, and Digital Culture, 1–18. New York, NY: Routledge.
Shaw, Adrienne. 2014. Gaming at the Edge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/gaming-at-the-edge.