Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Feudalism (Family Feud)

My wife left me.

If this were a very good and under-appreciated sitcom about divorce, I'd have a pithy follow-up to that. Instead, it's vaguely real-life, so the punchline to that one was my father having a massive stroke.


Family, much like video games, is somewhat Heideggarian. We do not notice the contours of our family until it is absent. That is not to say that I did not love my family growing up. Far from it. But just as one does not fully understand playing a video game until one loses, you do not understand what it is to love family until they are absent.

This is the first secret history, the original forbidden knowledge. Not sex or death or the one-up mushroom after the fourth pipe, but the unknowable land beyond the front doorstep of our own homes. As we've said, a territory is defined by its boundaries. Until we have traversed the boundaries of it, we cannot know the territory. The map may not (always) be the territory, but until there is a map, there is no territory.

And so it was impossible for me to know the answers to the survey "Things I Want Out Of My Family Life" until I went crashing out of large portions of it. There was absolutely no way for me to know the nature of marriage without being strikingly betrayed by the person I trusted most in the world and realizing that the woman I had been in love with was a lie that bordered on malicious. There was no way for me to understand my childhood until the ability to ask my father a hard question was taken away. There was no way to know how much I wanted kids before it was clear that having them was going to be very, very difficult.

This irony is the essential dynamic behind Family Feud. See, without the harsh realization that the territorial boundary of the front door is far more fragile than you'd hoped, one's family is a sort of Rechtsstaat. Within its unknowable boundaries is an odd but distinct culture, ineffably distinguishable from the house next door. But in Family Feud one must play as a family unit - as one's own private nation state - in a game of discerning the intentions and whims of the Other.

So, for instance, when I am asked for desserts served for guests, I failed to name custard because I have literally never had custard served at any family function in my life. And this idiosyncrasy on my part is the entire point of Family Feud. The entire challenge of the game comes from the disjunct between private experience and the public experience. But notably, this is not a disjoint between the individual and society, but between the family unit and society. This is the genius of the show - that one plays not as an individual assessing broad social trends, but as a family.

There is a deeply creepy and disturbing element to this that should be admitted to. In effect, Family Feud is a competition towards normativity. The more in line with the tastes of ordinary families you are, the better you will do at Family Feud. That all of this is packaged up with a classic specimen of the smarmy game show host who, in the NES version in question, creepily kisses each member of the family, complete with little heel-kick, makes it, frankly, all the worse.

But let's pause for a moment and do our characteristic close analysis of a seemingly trivial detail about the game that will, once I finish over-analyzing it, will suddenly prove to be absolutely key not only to understanding the game but the whole of my childhood, identity, and, if this is a particularly good entry, the universe. In this case, let's go for the old chestnut - the title. Family Feud. In this title, who or what, exactly, is feuding, and with what?

The temptation is to suggest that the feud exists between two families - a re-enactment of the entire notion of international relations in the early days of human history when humans were organized in family-based bands. And in one or two instances - most notably in the utterly classic Hatfield/McCoy episodes - this may have been the case. But by and large, the family feud is best understood as a matter of internal affairs. First of all, it is worth noting that an exceedingly small portion of the game is actually played as a head-to-head competition between the families, and even those are generally in fact a competition between two individuals in the family (generally defined in terms of their social role - fathers, sons, etc). By and large, gameplay, at any given moment, rests entirely with one family or the other.

But furthermore, at any given moment, the game is played on an individual level, with a single family member playing in isolation from the rest. Thus the balance of normativity in fact works on two levels. First the family as a whole is judged based on how normative they are. Second, each individual family member is judged not only based on how normative they are, but on how well their gameplay meshes with the gestalt of the family. In other words, one must simultaneously display fealty to the default American consensus and to the idiosyncratic consensus of one's family, who implicitly judges each individual player's performance on the basis of how well it represents the family's private ideal.

The feud, then, is in fact with one's own family - a feud to define the family as distinctly identifiable and generic simultaneously and on an individual-by-individual basis despite the fact that the family is a composite entity. In other words, Family Feud is a crucible in which a given bloodline is forced to confront the territorial boundary that defines them as a family unit distinct from the broader society while simultaneously defining them as the basic component unit of that society - the one that, historically, the entire concept of society was built up from.

But what do we make of this activity when it is done outside of the family unit? As is the case, for instance, when one plays Family Feud as a Nintendo game instead of as a television game show. It is tempting to make an analogy to the old canard that sex is just masturbation with another person, but honestly, that goes to a place a bit pervy even for my massively debased tastes. But there is a matter of truth to it. After all, the NES, especially in it's actual heyday, is a profoundly domestic machine.

The reason for this comes down to furniture, and is best compared to the other major video game technology of the era, the personal computer. The personal computer is by it's nature an individual pursuit. At the time, it was basically synonymous with the desktop, which tells you most of what you need to know, really. The desk is an individual piece of furniture tied in with the old image of the solitary scholar or writer. Adding a computer to a desk does not meaningfully change this. And so the video game played on the computer is a solitary pursuit undertaken within a space that is idiosyncratically defined by the individual. Even if one's family, unlike mine, only had one family computer, the computer and desk are still the province of whomever is sitting in the individual chair.

Compare this with the television, around which entire rooms are built. The television is want to be viewed at a distance. This creates lines of sight that determine the geography of the entire room. Television is further consumed, typically, not from individual furniture such as chairs, but from communal furniture such as sofas. And so the NES, which is hooked up to a television, ingrains itself into the entire fabric of the house and thus into the family structure.

One always played the NES, in other words, as a representative of the family unit in which it existed. Making, in an odd way, Family Feud a microcosm of the basic dynamic of the system. But let's be more specific. Family Feud, on the NES, requires that the player, in effect, create a family. This family is specific - each family member has a distinct sprite. But it is not personalized. You do not pick your family sprites, and thus there is no meaningful relationship between them and your actual family. You have no obvious avatar in the family.

In other words playing Family Feud on the NES is not a matter of representing one's actual family, but of re-enacting it - of making a family. But here the creepy homogenizing ideology of the game becomes most unfortunate. Although the game is fundamentally a crossing of the threshold and establishing of the boundary between one's Rechtsstaat and the world, the nature of creating a family in pursuit of the generic is the exact opposite of the processes by which one actually discovers and creates family.

And yet there is an odd familiarity to it, as a divorcee. I had a sense of family. I knew who I was going to have and raise children with. I knew who my wife was - who it was I loved and would come home to every night. But I was wrong. My wife was as illusory as the sprites constituting my other fictional family. The woman I loved, the woman I married, and the woman who left me were not the same person. And the one who was left standing was, shall we say, not my first choice. Whatever family I mourned in the aftermath of that was, in the end, as much my own invention as my Family Feudal avatars.

And it is hard to call this unusual. The difference, in the end, between memory and fiction is a narrow one, and once one has stepped out the front door, it is never entirely clear which one was left behind.  


  1. Whoa.
    Years ago I also noticed that Family Feud
    was a normalcy contest, and it creeped me out too.