Diversity of Existence

A necessary evolution in the ‘diversity in games’ conversation is starting to show itself, a product of enough time having passed from when many companies have made pledges but little seems to be changing. Between making news as the home of the largest organized harassment campaign the world has known and being tied to a tech industry pressured to release their demographics and improve their practices, the topic of diversity has become mainly a PR platform rather than taking on an ideology. Companies are doing it first because there’s social repercussions for being caught doing otherwise, and using those who actually care to do the work for them. I do believe that people inside companies have come to value diversity in the past years, yet they are aligned with their obligation to make their company money first, so all diversity initiatives must fall in line with business motives in some way or another. Many a GDC talk has promised that diversity is profitable, and framing it in such a way was meant to get companies to start adopting a more progressive stance on the issue. But in actuality, there couldn’t be anything further from the truth. As we come to understand the true reasons we want or need diversity, as a field and larger culture, it will have little if anything to do with companies making more money.

In their piece for Model View Culture on Intel’s presence at IndieCade, Veve Jaffa outlines what’s been rumbling on the outskirts of games conferences for quite some time now: companies and organizations want marginalized creators to contribute to their events, but with little to no compensation for the work. The most egregious offender of this GDC, which is for-profit yet has the most extensive process for extracting labor for talks given for one of their passes, which gets most of its value from the talks being outsourced for free. This is the case for all speakers, but especially so for the diversity track, which depends on creators who have to self-fund in order to attend the event, which is itself expensive being downtown in San Francisco. Being at the center of the video game industry, many events and organizations follow the same model, where asking for compensation for contributing to a games event is most typically out of the question. Like GDC, Intel is using people who are, as a result of being marginalized, poorer to act as their move for redemption, to look good rather than be good. As Veve notes, most of my encounters with Intel’s funding has been purely through food, drinks, and parties, not in any way that lifts me or people like me up to contend with the current structural issues. The problem boils down to how companies and audiences are interpreting the vague use of ‘diversity.’ Right now, people envision games staying primarily the same but the demographics of the companies and the characters in games reflect society. Once that’s accomplished, job done, we can stop diversifying. Except, that’s not celebrating diversity, it’s forced assimilation. It’s the Borg. Moving past marginalization isn’t getting those on the outskirts to look like those in the center, it’s having an environment that allows different people to exist as they are without capitulating to the culture of the industry.

We get some hints of what that is and how it comes about in a post by John Sharp about this relationship between conferences and the marginalized that Veve cites in their article. Many of the avenues that John refers to are funding sourced by for-profit entities or nonprofit ones acting on behalf of creators (there’s a good amount of funding that can’t be accessed by anyone who isn’t distinctly registered as a nonprofit). Further, the concerns these types of funding address are artistic, supporting the arts. It is more interested in sustaining artistic communities than getting marginalized people creating profitable work. Particularly with recent waves of DIY cultures and more people making expressive games that don’t aim to turn a profit themselves, marginalized people by and large are doing more experimental work where making entertainment products for money isn’t the main goal. So the increase in visibility of people from the margins hasn’t been to flock to corporations, rather that they want to make work on their own terms and have an ecosystem which supports them. People in games may now roll their eyes at the “Are games art?” question, but the industry itself hasn’t been acting like there are games made for artistic reason. People making games but not wanting to sell them like commercial indies is seen as an aberration or self-inflicted problem. At the very least, artists in other fields can apply for residencies and fellowships, but such opportunities are extraordinarily rare for those who work in this field. I think it’s super apt how many people are trying to make a platform called Patreon work, because there is a complete lack of patrons for people like us on any institutional level.

Point being, enacting the ideals of diversity will irrevocably change the field of games. It will challenge the industry, challenge society, and ultimately nothing will look the same. Diversity in games must aim to restructure how power and resources are distributed, and recognize that many marginalized people aren’t attracted to the industry and can hold them in the same company as those who are. There are definitely marginalized folks who are in the industry who like it there and want further support, and there are also ones who want to be commercial independent successes. Those aren’t the only, and I suspect majority, of those that these diversity initiatives need to address. And I haven’t even touched the ecosystem where marginalized people try to write critically about games! Will games criticism never see the light of day because it doesn’t cater straight into industry narratives? People have been creating off the beaten path for a while now and they shouldn’t be abandoned because they don’t fall into the usual narrative of eventually joining the industry. This isn’t even just about creation after the fact, but also how we understand games overall. I’ve had many conversations over the past few weeks with professors and curators who want to diversify what games they show but struggle to find work by underrepresented folks that are still exemplary of what we conventionally value as games. And that’s the point: people coming from different perspectives, backgrounds, educations, life experiences, they are going to hold different values and employ different types of craft. Showing diversity should expand how games and their creators exist, it should be celebrating difference, not assimilation.

Which is why many of these Diversity in Games initiatives ring hollow for people like me on the ground floor; the only time I saw anything of Intel’s money was at a bar. I’d rather have it in my bank account for groceries, rent, networking events, travel to paying gigs, and paying gigs themselves. Given my track record of events I’ve attended and ran, or the kinds of talks I’ve given and audiences I attract, I wouldn’t be creating anything in service to the industry and I aim on keeping that trajectory. It’s for a fuller future for play and games as a creative field that I work for, where more modes of expression can exist and therefore allow more people to create and play. Anything short of that isn’t the diversity that is actually going to help those traditionally overlooked.

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Conversations with John Sharp: Habit and Life

We’re back with another set of letters for you all to read! If you need to catch up on all the conversations I’ve had, look through this list. And onward!


I’m in the middle of reading Ian Bogost’s review of Michael Clune’s Gamelife (a memoir of playing videogames in the 1980s), and I bumped into this sentence:

“Why does it feel like games, even the greatest games, never get through to us as powerfully as great works of literature do?”

and this one, too:

“A book about the power of games is almost a practical joke. It shows how inept games are at doing the cultural work its advocates — myself included — ascribe to them.”

That, right there, captures a lot about us academic game folk: we want games to be on equal footing with other mediums, but we can’t quite accept that they really are as powerful. This is where a lot of the pastime worship (Desert Golfing, Drop7, Sage Solitaire) and formalist inquiry comes from, I think. With the pastime angle, we believe we may have found the place where games actually operate well, and in ways memoirs, novels, films, paintings, and so on don’t. Reading further into Ian’s piece, I noticed he is saying more or less the same thing: “Habit and affect are opposites.”

The formalist inquiry piece is perhaps more complicated, but I see it emerging from a number of places. Some of it is the exploration and attempt to master the craft of a medium, which comes from the design and computer science side of the fence. The whole “innovation within the tradition” thing, I suppose. I also see the formalism thing as akin to a kid opening up the back of a radio, or a 15th century doctor opening up a deceased body—attempts to understand the dark continent of a machine, a body, a medium. Also related, I suspect, is the drive in the humanities to codify, label and organize. This is where a lot of the work happens, both in game design texts and in game studies. Many of us in games academia were trained in other disciplines, so we end up wanting to apply some of the tools we used (or others before us used) in our training in our new work with games.

Anyway, a bit of an aside, but Ian’s review got me thinking, and reminded me I owed you an email.

I’m on the same page about the over-importance placed on videogames. I’m personally not that interested in them as a media format. I am interested in play as a medium, though, and by extension, games as a framework for that. So though I write about (and sometimes make) videogames, they aren’t the be-all and end-all. So it sounds like we have similar interests around the object of study. That’s certainly where Ludica places emphasis, and Miguel Sicart, too, in his most recent book, if you are looking for fellow travelers.

The art world is far more comfortable engaging with play than with game. So yes, game exhibitions have been going on in museums and galleries for decades now, but artists are generally more comfortable with ideas around play. I talk about this some in Works of Game, and in a paper I gave at Foundations of Digital Games a few years ago, but play spans mediums and media, while games, for most people at least, are videogames, which means a commercial media type.

It is true a lot of people in the varying circles around games think of them as designed objects. But not everyone, and that is certainly the case if you look back at the connections between games and art in the 20th century. Fluxus event scores and Happenings are designed, but the interesting stuff is what happens when they are performed. This is the sort of thought Ludica emphasizes in their writing about games.

The art/design divide is old, and based in legitimacy politics finding their origin at least as far back as the 12th century. Much of what we think of as art now used to be considered design. When museums started taking shape in the 19th century, a division was enforced. And so places like MoMA have lines drawn between design and art. Yet artists have been crossing back and forth across these divides, usually turning design into art, and only turning art into design when productizing and merchandizing.

I agree, indie is primarily oriented toward its relationship to commerce, while notgames is more closely aligned with art (though art is also mostly oriented toward commerce through different infrastructures and channels). If you ask some of the folks who have been around indie since the early-to-mid 2000s, they sound like punk rock scenesters thinking their little community represented the whole. So TIG Source folks think they are the real indie, and I’m sure some NYC folks think they are, and so on and so forth. Of course there never was one indie, except on Steam.

Flow is a form of numbness, I agree. I think part of what attracts some to it is the ways it seems connected to meditation. I suppose that is what helps make it a legitimate pursuit for those really into Flow. I love your line about Desert Golfing just giving you more golfing. 3,000+ holes of golfing at that (the highest number I’ve heard is someone on a hole in the 8,000s). I’m not sure I find this any more or less troublesome than spending hours watching TV, or reading comics, or hanging out on Twitter. They are all byproducts of late capitalism, right? What else are we supposed to do with our time? Eventually, we get down to the questions of why we do anything, what it means to be productive, or why we think we have to do anything at all beyond subsistence.

A lot of the defensiveness around games goes back to a sentiment expressed by Huizinga: games are not productive. Huizinga of course didn’t see this as a negative, but in the western world, where the Protestant work ethic reigns, it is hard not to get defensive about spending your time playing, or studying, or making, something that your culture views as child’s play.

I’m not sure people into pastime games are adverse to messy. One of the holy grails of many formalist-slanted game folk is emergent complexity. Seeing things emerge from a game that weren’t part of the designer’s intention brings broad, congratulatory smiles to many people’s faces. Seeing games fold back into the messiness of life is what many designers want, and what many scholars scour the internet to find.

I do think, though, that most creative work is a way to hide from or make sense of the messiness of life. Life is hard for everyone to differing degrees and ways, and watching Law & Order re-runs or playing Desert Golfing or reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild or listening to Chiptunes is one way people self-soothe through consumption. I’m not sure your experience with Etrian Odyssey is that different than what I might get out of playing Jonathan Blow’s The Witness or making dinner for some friends—they are ways to engage in something that occupies us, and lets us be involved but outside our day-to-day.

Something I find myself having to admit is my snobbery toward videogame and animé fan culture—I find these really hard to deal with, in part because of the consumerist slavishness. But then I remind myself I too have my consumerist vices, and why are my interests less embarrassing or pointless than theirs? In late capitalism, we’re all caught up in the same cycle of consumption as culture, as belonging, as relaxing.



I do agree that, with what seems to be less effort, other mediums move me in ways video games rarely do. At least, when I do speak fondly of games, it’s usually through the veil of nostalgia, and as Ian’s piece points out, through detachment from life more than integrating it. I feel crappy saying that, even though I’ve kind of always been a bit standoffish with games. It makes me feel like a jerk, mostly because I see something, some sort of potential, and I’m beginning to devote my life to exploring play. One time, before I was really involved with games to any extent, I told my best friend, who I guess we might have called ourselves gamers at the time, that I wanted to pursue working on a game. I remember her looking at me, slightly disappointed, and saying rather bluntly “That’s trite.” And while she would probably take that back now, I can’t say I can really point something out about conventional game creation as a profession that can totally defeat that. Sure, the things I’ve done around games aren’t trite, and my involvement with a non-commercial group of creators also might not be, but what video game developer really feels like they can address that? Typically they embrace that, being trite to a certain degree is the point. And when it comes to writing, one of the first thing an editor says to you is “Why should anyone care about this?” Thinking “Who cares?” is both a humbling process and forces you to be some level above triteness. Of course, a lot of people don’t think about this about their art, so there’s definitely stuff out there that feels like it matters less than some games. What I find different about games is that “Who cares?” is only asked in a literal sense, like, what’s the demographic of the people who are going to care about this and let’s pander towards those sensibilities rather than seeing any sort of holistic contribution to craft. I think about this a lot, which has me hesitant about what I’m doing with games in my life. Can I really answer “Who cares?” to people outside of nerd cultures with what I plan on doing?

I think it’s because, like you said, of how integral games grips onto play not being essential, or maybe life-like but never real life. Conventional thought casts games and play as without unintended consequences, which is decidedly unlife, or inhuman. I’m reading through Bernie DeKoven’s The Well-Played Game at many people’s requests, since I’m more play-focused and many people see himself that way too. But even with him, like Huizinga, play and life are not in the same lanes. (Funny enough, as even Bernie says in his new preface, the state of a game being well-played seems essentially to be the flow state, which makes me heavily question the pursuit of playing a game well from his perspective). I find that is also where “games are art” legitimization also exists, that art is ‘useless’ and so is play. It’s a kernel in games studies that I hope to challenge, because arguments I’ve been making is that life and play are blurred beyond distinction, a call back to Happenings and Fluxus movements as you’ve alluded to. The idea that art exists in an unlife (probably not a term but I’m sticking with it) plane is so, well, elitist. Coupled with themes of mastery and logics, this makes games obnoxiously masculinist. Playing fields with no consequence where you play to live outside of your mind, perform your best self, and find peace in the pursuit and mastery of goals. It completely ignores multiple interpretations of play like the entire intersection between feminism and cybernetics, also, well, all of postcolonial theory. That play involves a willing participant, or doesn’t have real consequences, that’s a huge dismissal of really intriguing work and perspectives, right there at the core imagining of games and play. From this angle, it’s hard to see the binary of habits and affect, especially when the support of that is numerical/computational logic, seeing that play exists plenty without the buttress of computers. I think the vector for affect is different, and not so much in a Games Are Special rather that affect happens when play and life are integrated. As someone who specifically made a game for someone to understand what words couldn’t, through a rather habitual game, and making a game literally about all the habits that surround affording food to eat, I think there’s need to be more work reimagining play and games as what we champion. Because, yeah, I do feel like the “power of games” shtick does make a lot of people look foolish with the current state of affairs.

And now it’s super overwhelming to think about studies and practices of play and games outside of games studies because it’s like why did that have to happen lol Yes learning is a lifelong process blah blah blah but I feel like I’m riding in on a hunch and seeing little evidence around me, when there’s probably a lot just outside of what’s given attention or access to. Like only now have I somehow picked up on my allegiances to performance art of the 60s/70s and it feels like wow I need to figure out how to become proficient in that. I don’t mind admitting that I haven’t read a lot, I mean a lot, of game texts, and that a lot of what I say is usually some instinct or intuition stirred up with some critical theory background. I feel like I’m at a crossroads where I need to focus my studies and it’s like, should I be trying to catch up on games canon or will all of that eventually be irrelevant to my work since it is intrinsically opposed to it? I easily get mad reading game studies texts very early on, typically because they all start with “well, of course, we need to define games” and I don’t think I’ve read one that I’ve agreed with.

Honestly though, and I’ve been thinking about this ever since you asked about what good games I’ve played lately, I actually really do want to like and love video games. I feel like a little shit when I see something and just really don’t care when everyone else does. For some reason, most stuff looks really derivative to me or doesn’t aim to really say anything or make me feel something powerful, just lull me into a stupor. And I get what you mean, being unable to see past a lot of the plain consumer-pandering in nerd stuff like video games and anime (I find it precious that you put in the effort to type out the accent). And I’m struggling with that myself, because I did like these things, they made me feel super invested when I was younger, but not anymore. So I’m really aching for some sort of lens or attitude that makes me see the value in these on a genuine, unironic level. I feel like many of my peers engage with this stuff through ironic distance and that doesn’t suit me too much. But I started to realize that, at least now but maybe even in the past, what really meant something to me about video games/anime were the ways that fan culture appropriated these experiences to fit their fictions. This usually took other forms, like fanfiction and fanart, though I wouldn’t say I’m a fan of anything enough to go through a lot of fan stuff. But I feel the legit want to! I want to connect to stuff! It’s easy to say it’s all trash, and in a certain light that’s sorta true, but is the answer to just not engage with trash at all or to find some angle that turns trash to treasure? I feel like if I continue to be involved with games, I will be around mostly video games, and I am trying to get back into anime, so I really want to find what that perspective is. A completely unironic one, one that doesn’t sigh at compromises, but that genuinely sees beauty in these consumer products. Going into certain experiences aiming to queer the characters helps somewhat, but I want a totality of the experience that happens while playing instead of after. Fan studies is a whole other field that does seem fascinating but I don’t know if that’s the road I need to go down for this issue? Outside of the general encouraging educator posture, which exists for a reason, how do you attempt to access the beauty in games that just feel so obviously consumerist or derivative of that culture?



I too feel a real distance from videogames. I’m definitely conflicted about videogames writ large; I don’t really enjoy playing most commercial videogames, in the same way I don’t enjoy mass-market movies, music, literature and other forms of material culture. But I do believe there is more to videogames than what Gears of Metal Legends IV has to offer, even if we haven’t sorted out what that is quite yet. I’ve never had anyone use the word trite to describe my involvement in games, but I can see why someone might. “Who cares” is an operative question for those of us working in games, no doubt. I guess that’s why I teach, write, curate and organize: to help answer that question both for myself and for everyone else. I think we can say there is a community outside nerdom that can benefit from us asking and answering these questions around games.

I asked you that question about what games you were playing because, when I think about it, I’m most often at a loss to identify a new game I’m excited about playing (though I’m pretty excited about Donut Country). Everytime I’ve gotten excited about a new trend (artgames, altgames, notgames, queer games, twine games), it never seems to get past the initial “early success” phase to really grow and mature into something with a real force behind it. Yes, there are some amazing works from these trends/communities/movements, but as a whole, they haven’t been the saviors I was looking for. That’s pretty unfair of me, though, and I remind myself to take the long view. Thinking back to 2005, there are so many more paths explored, I should be more optimistic. I guess I struggle with the whole seeing the forest through the trees thing.

Bernie’s book is an interesting case, as it is more or less a bible within certain circles of games academia. It does isolate games in some ways, but it also seeks to integrate play into life more fully. The New Games movement that Bernie represents is very much of a time and a place, where play could be a radical act. Now, it comes across as trite. In part that is because much of the New Games movement was watered down and turned into activities for elementary school kids (you played with parachutes in the school yard, right?). But you are right, in those descriptions of ping pong, it does sound a lot like Flow, doesn’t it? A stub of an idea, but I wonder if we wouldn’t be better off stopping our search for the unique qualities of games and think about their similarities to other mediums.

Scholars like TL Taylor and Mia Consalvo have been pushing hard on the Magic Circle conception of games that derives from Huizinga and gets formalized (and shifted) by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman. They see play as definitively as part of life, and not so isolated as we often think about it. I agree with them that play and games can be deeply integrated into life, but most games aren’t designed to really do that, and the content and subject of the games fails to really register in a meaningful way. And, as you point out, the styles of play that emerge from most videogames are deeply masculine. Jenova Chen gave a talk at GDC a few years ago that really digs into some of this around the design of Journey. They had to make so many revisions to their design to move past the masculine patterns of play present in many multiplayer games (Jenova didn’t use the word masculine, but it is pretty clear that is the kind of play perspective they had to overcome).

That piece I had of mine I sent you a while back is, in part, my attempt to reconcile my position on games, with the conclusion being I have no more interest or allegiance to most videogames than I do any other mass medium. I went through a phase as a tween (was there such thing as tweens back in the 70s?) and teenager, but they don’t registered on the nostalgia scale for me in the same way punk rock and absurdist theater do. One of the most horrifying aesthetic experiences of my life was going to a Black Flag reunion concert a few years ago. As a teen and college student, I loved their shows, but going to a reunion show in my 40s was awful. The crowd was full of 40 and 50 year old white dudes, like me, who had a nostalgia for the band and their music. It was so artificial, so lifeless. A little piece of me died at that show, I tell you. All to say: I’m kind of conflicted about nostalgia around consumer culture.

The fan creativity phenomenon (cosplay, fanfic, etc.) is complicated for me as well. I have a hard time getting past the consumer slavishness, and almost always end up feeling like an elitist asshat when I think and talk about it. From the lens of late capitalist theory, how else will people express themselves and participate in community if not through their patterns of consumption?


Your question about how I access the beauty in games that are just more of the same is good. I used to try to find the value in it all (like the excitement everyone had about that Super Smash Bros tournament documentary a couple years ago), but now, I don’t bother really. Colleen and I have revised our game design courses at Parsons to avoid talking about shooting, wizards, space marines. Instead, we draw all our examples from indie games and the margins around indie. We emphasize games by women, queer designers and people of color. If our students bring up other stuff, we’ll talk about it, but we try to be true to what we want to help foster. We just started this last fall, so it is very much a work in progress, but we’re encouraged by the results thus far. I guess the bottom line is I’m trying hard not to be a games apologist anymore, meaning I’m not going to cheerlead games just because I feel like I should.

That’s it for now, but more will be up soon! Check out John’s stuff, he’s a cool guy!

This article was community supported! Consider donating or being my patron so I can continue writing: Support


I spent last weekend at PRACTICE, a quintessential New York kind of games conference if I ever saw one. Speakers, with an exception here or there, spoke on the development processes of their games, with many deep-dives into very specific topics, like the timing and animation in a beat-em-up to the choreography of difficulty in platformers. There were planned discussion and breakout sessions that promoted discourse and it only took a couple steps to literally bump into an academic whose book you’ve read. Beyond the style of convening, there were also certain ideologies well, or probably over-, represented that you could say is a New York school of thinking; on the first night Frank Lantz mentioned wanting New York to be a cultural capital of games, and for functions like PRACTICE to facilitate such a reputation. Being new to the scene, it was easy to spot what sort of culture certain parts of games in New York wanted to be central, from the consistent use of the term “verb” instead of its more ambiguous relative “gameplay” to what I can only describe as nerding out over highly technical indulgences of a game’s inner machinery. Now that I live here and will be working in and with many institutions in New York, I am plotting what fronts on which I aim to resist certain commonplace ideological claims about games, as I do think New York has a compelling headstart on many places on being a cultural center, and if that is going to happen, I’d want it to look a little different than it currently does.

One such angle showed itself at PRACTICE in Meg Jayanth’s keynote, one of my favorite talks of the conference (the other was Brian Moriarty’s drawing an alternate history of video games through gimmicks and hoaxes). It revealed what would be a recurring theme of the weekend, the fairness and power that players expect in their games. Working on 80 Days as a narrative designer, she encountered issues having a world posed as anti-colonial steampunk while keeping in mind the kind of agency and fairness players’ are enculturated to expect. Ultimately, 80 Days is straight-up unfair to the player and often shuts down the kind of meddling the white- and straight-passing main character can get into, no matter how noble. Meg saw this expectation for fairness and ability to make things right in games a part of white-colonial conditioning, since many players of games aren’t used to living a life of the kind of unfairness marginalized people face, and wish for their games to feed into this power fantasy of saving the native/powerless and moving within a fair world that rewards players being right and skilled. There is some shared language here with the critiques we see of occident social justice, especially white feminism and American democracy, that seeks to fix cultures they see as underdeveloped and therefore in need of their help. As the conference moved on, there were more talks that factored in anticipating what players expected for their games, either being complicit to their wishes or resistant, so the topic bubbled up in discussion sessions and revealed there was a need to untangle the issue brought up by the player beyond the conference itself. And so, my treatise on dealing with fairness, consumer-player enculturation, and the propagation of imperialist values through the design of games:


  1. The existence of the player-construct enforces a product-consumer dynamic that wields power according to imperialistic and capitalistic systems of value over art, politics, and life. This is mostly covered by some writing by myself and Lana Polansky that aims to decentralize the player in both creation and critique, but in totality: the construction of the player as it relates to theory, design, and critique of contemporary games reflects the needs of the people who make and consume commercial entertainment games. Conventional game design wisdom puts the imagined player, the player-construct, at the center of design, so much that Tracy Fullerton writes in beginning pages of the incredibly prevalent development text Game Design Workshop “the role of the game designer is, first and foremost, to be an advocate for the player. The game designer must look at the world of games through the player’s eyes.” The dominant ideology surrounding games is ingrained with this mentality, forming the player-construct by how they imagine the dominant culture of game players and conventional wisdom fine-tuned through business practices from the commercial sphere of game making. merritt kopas and Naomi Clark outline how games are situated in capitalism, imperialism, and morality, and how product-player dynamics train people to be proficient at embodying dominant cultural ideologies. Oppressive politics such as white supremacy and heterocissexism enter creation through the ghost of the player-construct while enculturation to a capitalist and imperialistic culture is etched into products that define the player-construct’s existence. This is how the values and population of game development and gamer culture came to reflect each other, as opposed to intrinsically catering towards hegemonic identities. Taking a note from merritt and Naomi’s discussion around human-game relations, we can find a way beyond this system through creating and analyzing relationships between agents or subjects rather than reducing play to product design. This is a relational focus instead of an object one. Player-constructs cannot exist without an object, whether it be something physical, digital, conceptual, or with objectifying other agents. The player-construct must be killed.
  2. The existence of the player-construct ruptures the connection between play and life through its dependence on the “magic circle,” which purposefully invalidates play that attempts to create meaning outside of preconstructed fantasies and within a subject’s lived experiences. Game-objects for the player-construct cannot exist without a manufactured magic circle, a delineation between life and play that allows the player-construct to leave behind meaningful effects on their lives. Here is how the well-loved Bernie DeKoven puts it in the text that encapsulates the New Games movement, The Well-Played Game: “Play is the enactment of anything that is not for real. Play is intended to be without consequences. We can play fight, and nobody gets hurt. We can play in fact, with anythingideas, emotions, challenges, principles. We can play with fear, getting as close as possible to sheer terror, without ever being really afraid. We can play with being other than we arebeing famous, being mean, being a role, being a world. When we are playing, we are only playing. We do not mean anything else by it.” Without the ability to create a meaningful relationship based on living experiences, expression, politics, and other ideas are funnelled through the game-object and completely mediated by the entertainment industry and the attitudes of the player-construct. This is an intentional numbing by constructing fantasies of escapism and tourism to replace life experience that can reference ideals outside of oppressive politics. Instead, we are left with a bland nihilism that gives game-objects room to enforce its values in absence of living experience rebuffing its advances. The player-construct resists affectation, to any form of actual change that isn’t ordained by their capitalistic and imperialistic training, through the mechanisms of an object that defines it. Play is conventionally viewed as intrinsically inefficient at evoking an array of emotions and subjects like intimacy, social awareness, empathy, politics, but it isn’t that play-relations have specific shortcomings that only produce instrumental play ill-suited to them, rather that the player-construct is treated as a given in the process of creation and play. Without the ability to involve this sort of affect, play will not be able to approach creating experiences that meaningfully explore issues like systems of social oppression further than they already have. The player-construct must be killed.
  3. The existence of the player-construct allows only for experiences that require consent to play to exist, obscuring play experiences that humans are involved in unconsciously and non-consensually from recognition, analysis, and intervention. Because the player-construct engages with play through consumer-mediated objects that require moving from life to a fabricated play space, all play experiences involving them requires their initiative to exist. Because the player-construct is involved with the dominant imagining of play, discourse has failed to involve living experiences with systems of oppression and identity expression into its discourse despite having language and perspectives useful for engaging those topics. Oppressions such as cissexism, racism, heterosexism, ableism, imperialism and expressions of culture such as gender, race, sexuality, ability, ethnicity are living play experiences we did not choose to participate in and are consistently excluded from discourse surrounding the creation and situating of play. Playful relations to these topics cannot exist in the perfectly crafted fantasies of the player-construct who imagines they exist in a completely fair and egalitarian world based on merit of skill. Excluding these forms of play relations because of the absence of consent and ability to detach denies many forms of artistic and activist engagement through play that aim to rehabilitate, heal, and move beyond current paradigms towards utopias for the oppressed. These topics exist only in the relational field with all parties coded as agents and subjects, ambiguous and opaque themselves but generating a meaningful joint experience. Instead of engaging with these very real experiences with play, the player-construct aims to dominate life through ordered and manufactured expressions of politics, distancing themselves through mechanisms and keeping purely instrumental interactions, where at any time they can turn it off and contextualize it as play only for playing’s sake. The player-construct requires a game-object and play experiences with systemic oppression and cultural expression of being are too expansive for objecthood. The player-construct must be killed. 

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Conversations with Lana Polansky: Bodies and Living Art

(Please excuse any weird formatting, I’m posting this from an app while I move)

I’m finding out that I really enjoy exchanges with my friends and many of the people reading them have come up to me to say they are valuable contributions to conversations around games. So I couldn’t resist roping in Lana Polansky, a fellow games critic, to talk about new modes of approaching games. I remember seeing Lana creating a connection on Twitter between games and performance art that I’ve been stewing on lately, and decided to start our conversation asking to expand from there. Enjoy what follows, and definitely look up everything you’re unfamiliar with, all very interesting:


You brought up my interest in the Fluxus movement previously but I’ve also been looking at the neo-concretists, the dadaists, some Boalian theatre, poetry especially in terms of performance, net art, video art…. The list is long, and not all of the philosophies necessarily always agree. But in all of these I detect a very important legacy of “play” as an intimate and affective act, a challenge to the supremacy of “authorship”, and a desire to make new technologies empathetic, or at least bridge a dialogue with older ones. It’s therefore strange to me, as you know, that videogames find themselves embedded in an “official history” as the sort of apotheosis of folk and tabletop games, but there isn’t much talk about this whole other history in literature and the fine arts of explicitly interactive, digital, highly playful art. Between the two of us I think we could have a lot to discuss on the role of erotics in play, and in the initiation of artistic dialogue between people and mediated by the textures of objects, environments, social “protocols”, and so on.

I was intrigued by your pieces on expressive games and the museum space and the potential value of “digital patina.” Something that’s often bothered me, particularly as it relates to experimental games and academic art spaces, is this sort of kneejerk insecurity in a lot of academic game spaces to push toward a certain intellectualized idea of “game” which would give the medium a sort of gestalt legitimacy. The other side, which you noted, is the tendency for “installation” game pieces to be weirdly self-deprecating. On the other hand, throughout the 20th century there was a concerted, very serious effort put toward sussing out the “playfulness” of other art forms–hypertext poetry, for example–as a way to integrate the experience of the “spectator” in the piece itself, and therefore make that piece transformative and personal and permanent. There’s a note in the scattershot Fluxus manifesto that calls for the end of “dead art”–art which hangs idle in a museum or on someone’s mantle and where the supremacy of the Artist is left intact. Fluxus artists were really preoccupied with the transient, immediate and reproductive nature of new technologies and treated them as a kind of kaleidoscope through which to view identity and the future of human communications. This might seem kind of at odds with the idea of “digital patina”, which is this illusion of permanence, but from your piece I got the sense that it’s gesturing less toward an affixed, everlasting, idle thing and more toward an influential and dynamic relationship between the object and the individual. 

Experiments of this kind, playing with video technology and communications and even just a rejuvenation of “language” as a tool have been more encouraged outside of games, it seems, than within them. Something therefore seems off. I’ve complained quite a lot about the uneasy relationship between the academic and commercial sides of games, at least at their most public-facing: academia seems to want to see itself reflected in commercial structures and the industry seems to have no trouble cherry-picking whatever scholarship it thinks will be profitable. This is apparent in the way incubator grants are doled out (at least in my country) to aspiring game-makers. This is apparent in the way lab funding works. This is apparent in the fact that most of “academia’s” most recognizable figures happen to have been plucked out of the industry. To make a long story short, the kinds of experimentation I’d really like to see is not very well supported, and the people doing that kind of work find themselves feeling invisiblized and degraded, as you well know. So I find myself reaching out to other art forms and legacies for inspiration. But I don’t really lament this. I think it needs to happen to grow not just games but “play” as an artistic ecosystem. 

I realize I’ve rambled here and I hope that this is at least somewhat coherent but I think my basic points are that games have a much stronger legacy in other participatory and digital art forms than one would initially think, and that ultimately this means there’s a lot more fertile ground to talk about the questions of play, intimacy, erotics, materiality, authorship, interactivity, and all those other facets of games which feel kind of mystified in the general discourse about them. It also means we can tie back games to a whole network of artistic creation, and this can maybe help us to avoid exceptionalizing them and think of them as merely another context for play and these other principles to emerge. I think that can help us understand what games are, what “play” is. 

I know you’re more interested in the act of “play” as it intersects with other kinds of expressions besides games, so perhaps we can stick to discussing this history of “play” as it occurs in these other movements as a distinct question, and all that that implies about what play can do. But perhaps we can also use this as an opportunity to discuss steps that can be made to further reach out to those art spaces where play is happening, and what we can take with us from games as we do so?


I’m super excited to have this conversation with you because you have knowledge in an area I want to learn more about, stuff I’ve been trying to express with the background I have but coming up short outside of sharing some lived experience. I’m hoping to study more about performance art and acquaint myself with various traditions and groups and start trying to create work that shows a synthesis of games and other stuff. Speaking to what you’re describing with play coming out of other fields as sensual, or at least explicitly engaging with erotics, I’ve spent some time really trying to figure out my relationship with games. Like, beyond the cultural stuff, the things and craft itself. I remember just gazing at nothing in particular and just saying “alienated.” I think I felt especially alienated from my body. There’s many layers to it, but I’m hyper-aware of people touching me, or not touching me really, and I’ve become more fully aware that as I present a certain way identity politics-wise and also am constructed into a character through social media, people have stopped touching me in positive ways or my body overall feels isolated from experience. Eventually something like that becomes dull noise in the background of life, but thinking about games brings that feeling back to the front sometimes. Except for rare instances, these experiences are startlingly unintimate, a distance I feel like you’re speaking to when you talk about an intellectualized game and dead art. When I was in a sort of mock debate panel with some other designers, I likened the play experience to something living and the continued efforts of things like games-specific formalism is like dissecting a living thing and wondering why it won’t move anymore after you put it up in a glass case. As an attempt to counteract this tendency, I definitely want to discuss and emphasize erotics more. I’m hoping to also explore erotic, in many senses of that word, art as my method of coping with being in the field I’m in, and also for general pertinent social issues.

Interesting thinking about play challenging authorship. It seems like conventional design has some sort of lead on that, or at least, they stress player-centric design and sway between (their own definitions and values of) games and toys to be used. But I dunno, that doesn’t seem right. I agree with the general idea that conventional games tend to be like work, that player-centricity is more of a personally crafted assembly line and can’t really challenge the authorship of the piece on any level. Until recently, if yet, the idea of ‘play’ has been treated with a bit of scorn, so when things become too free-form, or too at the whims of the player, or there isn’t enough ‘designer presence,’ it’s meaningless or trite or illegible. I feel like my thoughts around ‘death of the player’ is reaching for this freeing of the spectator, or at least breaking down the binary between artist and observer. I try to make the distinction between making an experience and creating the ability to experience, though I don’t have a great many words for this yet. It sprung from my small experiments with food and scent, that no matter what, I have no idea what they are literally feeling since bodies are so different and there’s such tightly woven personal landscapes around those senses, that I can only hope to have any sort of controlled experience if I was in the current culinary industry with my own restaurant following the rules of that culture which I find appallingly inaccessible, among other things. Which is why the art that you’re referencing and the kind I’m starting to get to know seem so appealing, because the aim to break down the line between art and life. I’m currently reading up on Happenings, in particular Allan Kaprow’s “Assemblages, Environments, & Happenings,” and while some things were definitely for that time and place in the 60s, I find the general idea of play and life being one and the same, just at different angles, pretty freeing. I vaguely remember reading somewhere that performance art is the misfit discipline since the artists who end up there tend to visit because they were frustrated by the constraints of their home disciplines. So at least there’s precedent for our actions?

I agree that there is nothing to lament about reaching outside of games for the experimental and critical ecosystem that we need in order to progress. This is what I concluded when I finally figured out what it meant when I said “I’m leaving games.” For years I knocked my head against various institutions and nothing budged, and eventually when I stopped, let the concussion subside, I realized that even if I did get in, I wouldn’t be able to do anything that actually makes me feel good. I’m happy to leave the commercial games space as it is and try to find something more amendable to me and my ideas, though, I don’t want to give up on play and the people hard at work interrogating and living it. Like you’re getting to, I’ve found myself tasked with figuring out how to appeal to other fields as someone ‘from games’ and what that really means, especially since many see ‘from games’ as attached to the commercial culture of the medium. I do find myself aching for a legacy, I like that you used that word. I guess I got wrapped up in iconoclasm that I didn’t realize why I left lost and hopeless was because I didn’t think there were people who understand where my sensibilities lied, and coming upon the kind of art we’re starting to discuss has made me feel a little better. I’m a little anxious because a lot of the thoughts I have suddenly feel well-trodden but I wonder if our language or focus on games have made us more attuned to the dynamic nature of play and how play environments can be purposefully created. Also, when I think of ‘play,’ I try to think of many instances in which it is used, so when I came to games, the first instance of play that came to my mind was gender play, or playing with gender, and in a similar way, the ‘play’ involved with managing sexual identities. I always thought it curious, especially when we are constantly using the word ‘systemic,’ that something like gender itself wasn’t considered for a play environment, because people are literally playing with gender 24/7, among other things. Also with queerness, which has a lot of performative wordage around it from queer of color critique like by José Esteban Muñoz. But I’ve come to find that even non-conventional designers don’t think of this because there’s this sentiment that play is always voluntary and has no real consequences in your life. And it’s from the angle of upending that assumption that I feel like our particular segue might lie, giving interactions erotics and life, or at least emphasizing that.


There are so many directions my mind wants to go in after reading this, but one thing I think I can confirm is that there is a precedent for those of us who found performance art after feeling dissatisfied with our own respective fields. For myself, I started with literature and, having been moved by the expressive/affective potential in games, got sort of seduced into that world. But obviously I’ve been feeling something is missing, and like you I’ve made myself concussive trying to fill one conceptual lacuna after another, and to modest avail. 

It’s become so important to me to look elsewhere for the same kind of inspiration, particularly in terms of looking at how performance, participation and play (if I were writing a Gama development post I might call them the “3 Ps”) have been used in art to suggest more fundamental truths. Recently I’ve gone back a bit to my literary roots and have found some profound inspiration in looking at poetry–particularly poetry which is meant to be performed–and I can go into more detail on that if you want. But if we’re going to focus our attention on avant-garde participatory and installation artists and what that means for us in our respective efforts, then I think there definitely is more for us there than in any of the “traditional” channels of games culture. (It feels strange to say that, considering the, again, long legacy of these other art forms as compared to virtual games. But I guess what we’re really discussing here isn’t tradition so much as a weakening purity derived from insularity.) 

Like you, I’m coming to this world of participatory art from at least two degrees of separation. I majored in liberal and literary arts but never fine arts (naturally…) and immediately moved to games; my interest in these types of art grew out of an appetite to see works which grapple with ideas of the body, systems, performativity, mutual creation and ownership and other existential questions. Of course games really helped me refine some of the questions around these desires and in some fleeting or obscure areas of game development I’ve found works which speak to them (and I believe in doing more to support such works!). But I needed things which addressed those concerns more directly, from which I could learn more about creative participation as a sort of living metaphor. When you talk about “the distinction between making an experience and creating the ability to experience”, I think of the latter as represented more in things like Kate Gilmore’s Through the Claw (2011). In short, Gilmore invited women into the very sterile-looking Pace Gallery to rub brown clay all over the floor and walls. Of course, in these “living” pieces there is a sense of a liminal space, and so there’s still this very particular distinction being made between “art” and “life” in the sense that “art” is this conscious, designed moment which is sort of a dialogue, or at least a statement. It’s this attempt to make some sense out of the chaos of life and at least in that respect I have some sympathy for a distinction to be made. But I think it’s worth keeping in mind that life is full of little distinctions, little moments which we compartmentalize according to behaviour or presentation, in terms of what’s appropriate or expected for the situation. And sometimes our needs to exist within certain moments don’t coincide with expectations, and the artificiality of social protocol becomes obvious and even threatening, especially, as you’ve pointed to in your email, for the individual who doesn’t fit inside the presumed “magic circle.” 

I admit I can only know so much of the alienation you describe, but I definitely understand what you mean when you say that videogames in particular have, for all our touting of their potential for “empathy”, not lived up to the kinds of intimacy and sensuality I think we both long for in our art. (Although as an exception to the problem of game designers not doing much to account for “play” in everyday life, I’m pretty impressed with how Squinky is able to make play out of “mundane” experiences, and to make those things feel alive and rich with nuance and meaning, even with fairly simple framing and ludic devices.) So, I definitely get where you’re coming from when it comes to intimacy and at least understanding, if not empathy, from play experiences–where we’re creating the conditions for such a dialogue to emerge rather than enforcing a strict and static authorship. I suppose it’s not so much about controlling the subjective experience as much as guiding it, where meaning is something that manifests as a confluence of different people acting together, individually but under certain simple constraints. I don’t know if doing this can fully break down the barrier between “play” which is consciously done for expressivity’s sake and “life”, but it at least can point to how we “play” in our everyday lives as a way to construct a sense of ourselves and others, as actors working within the constraints of social, political and economic systems. And it can provide the avenue for change. 

And there is so much precedent for this! I think much of the theorizing done by “culture industry” philosophers (Benjamin, Adorno) speaks to some of that relationship, especially when it comes to the idea of art as reproducible, and therefore no longer “dead”–and what that may imply! But I’m torn here: because reproducibility under capitalism doesn’t really create those “living metaphors” as much as it just kind of creates a hyperrealism where idealized versions of the player’s ego are sold back to them as commodities by appealing to the id–that personally crafted assembly line you mentioned. It’s what I was trying to get to in my essay “FUCK THE PLAYER“: I think player-centric design is fundamentally a lie, and it’s one that “living art” might be able to reconstruct and therefore make glaringly obvious. 

I feel as though “living art” (I think I’m going to keep that as my preferred umbrella term from now on, although I guess it’s sort of indirectly pejorative of other art forms. Oh well.) is forced to contend with the living world, if only because it can only exist in the living world. It’s for this reason that the Situationists moved on from just challenging artistic creation to more direct political activism in the late ’60s, trying to re-imagine a (largely Marxist) alterity through creative, deeply involved, participatory re-imagining of daily life. Actually–while we’re here, the Situationist Raoul Vaneigem wrote a treatise called “The Revolution of Everyday Life”, published in 1967, which may be relevant to your interests. This is from the first chapter: 

“Everyday life always produces the demand for a brighter light, if only because of the need which everyone feels to walk in step with the march of history. But there are more truths in twenty-four hours of a man’s life than in all the philosophies. Even a philosopher cannot ignore it, for all his self-contempt; and he learns this self-contempt from his consolation, philosophy. After somersaulting onto his own shoulders to shout his message to the world from a greater height, the philosopher finishes by seeing the world inside out; and everything in it goes askew, upside down, to persuade him that he is standing upright. But he cannot escape his own delirium; and refusing to admit it simply makes it more uncomfortable.”

I might replace the word “philosopher” with “formalist”, but I do want to clarify that I’m not against conceptualizing about form as such. I’m guilty of it myself. But what I do want to avoid is a certain unnecessary rigidity which serves less the form and more the people making grand assertions about the form’s legitimacy. But I digress…

It’s not just the Frankfurt scholars or the Situationists. One of the leading figures of the Fluxus movement, Joseph Beuys, was also invested in the transformative potential of living art. A short bio on Beuys describes his work as “process-oriented, or time-based ‘action’ art, the performance of which suggested how art may exercise a healing effect (on both the artist and the audience) when it takes up psychological, social, and/or political subjects.” But perhaps most salient to us is Beuys’s concept of the “social sculpture”, in which all of life itself provided the material for art to emerge. For Beuys, this famously took the form of a “Documenta” piece in which he placed on the ground a bunch of basalt stones in the shape of an arrow pointing toward an oak tree in Kassel, Germany in 1982. His stipulation was that for every oak tree planted there, a stone would be removed, and many lived up to the promise: between ’82 and ’87 over 7,000 oak trees were planted in Kassel.

There are still so many more examples of this kind of living art having subtle, but nonetheless very real impacts on not just their creators and subjects but on society and the environment. It’s exciting to me because it means that this stuff isn’t just stuffy and sterile and meant to be behind glass in a museum. It’s less of an autopsy and more like trying to view a subatomic particle: just talking about it makes it change.

I think of hip hop. I think of the punk movement. I think of cyber-revolutionaries, for better or worse. And maybe I’m just being sentimental but I think virtual games still have this potential to treat play-life matters in more enriched and enriching ways, if only that were so valued. But I’ve gone on longer than I had meant to. 

But you’re definitely right when you say there is a precedent. There is, there is, there is. 

Thanks for reading! Please check out Lana’s work at Sufficiently Human and support her on Patreon!

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Letters with John Sharp: Discipline and Pastime

This is a continuation of my letter series with John Sharp! Read the first post here if you missed it!



It’s super possible that a lot of the friction that we’re discussing might come from the fact that there’s so many disciplines at work here but we don’t treat games or its discourse inter-/multi-disciplinarily enough. This is probably because people in games feel such a strong wanting for a codified theory that governs games and there is a struggle for what that is going to look like. Personally, I do feel a bit of desperation to make sure that certain things don’t become completely standardized or at least not without a lot of resistance so that it’s noted it’s contested. Maybe there’s an assumption that because we’re all talking about games, we’re supposed to conform to a main praxis and some people might have decided what that praxis is already. I do think most people ideologically agree that there should multiple perspectives present but there’s such a pressure to crystalize a games canon that creates power struggles between both disciplines and generations.

Really, I don’t think we even know what we we’re from. I’m only beginning to find the traditions that match my sensibilities and forward my thoughts, or basically finding the words for the thoughts I want to communicate. As well, all of us younger critics and designers aren’t completely united nor cohesive, and don’t have a lot of intra-discourse anymore. Something is definitely going on, and maybe on-going conflict is going to force this reaction to solidify further, but I’m not really sure, it’s definitely going to turn more into a trend than a movement I think.

All of this is to say that sometimes we, I, can be insolent brats lashing out at whatever comes near, but I don’t think it’s because we’re a bad group of people rather just a product of our timing and place. It sucks to feel trapped and no real clear path of advancement that other young thinkers tend to have.

Which is why these alternate forms of dialogue can be useful, because there needs to be a place for at least me to express ideas in a way that isn’t capped at a 1000-word unique thought-pill and I can develop them over time. If I get into academia then maybe I’ll be able to join that kind of writing but for the most part I can’t have ‘official’ conversations with my peers who are academic outside of that. The old ways of bloggers who frequently replied to each other’s posts seems to be mostly gone, and I know I could use more rigorous conversations around games.

I think your, and other’s, experience and company is definitely in need, we’ve just created a thorny dynamic where typical attempts at sharing knowledge or experience reads as invasive or rebelism. We have more foundational work to do before we can get to that now, like just literally demonstrating that we understand each other so all other attempts at communication read as earnest. Which will take time and effort! I feel like an easy way to disarm a younger thinker and to simply know their work and display that understanding/curiosity/appreciation without needing it to be in an argument. Which doesn’t mean there can’t be debates, just that there needs to be casual conversations to contrast arguments so threat levels go down. I personally really want to belong to communities, just on my terms, as a person and not a representative. I also want to feel like I’m contributing and influencing as much as I’m tasked to learn.

I’m actually so mad at Desert Golfing. Or at least, at all my friends who like that game. Everyone kept going on and on about it so I thought there was some zany Frog Fractions twist and when none came I was pretty angry. It just feels like this gulf I have with general games academia/criticism, that I can’t connect to these ‘pastime’ games. It might be where a lot of my resentment comes in regards to ‘mechanisms’ and ‘instrumentalization,’ that there’s this over-focus on things that are ‘just games’ and trying to lift them up. But is connecting to expressive games really a preference? Maybe I’m just being elitist.

That hotel tour sounds so up my alley, I love it particularly because it separates handing down an experience to consume from giving people the opportunity to just experience, and take from their context whatever is relevant. I feel you on getting a bitter taste about superficial practices of ‘object-oriented storytelling’ (how tech sounding) because that game design practice doesn’t reference life and tie the person experiencing to it through any sort of contextualization. Games tend to be obsessed with themselves, they reference themselves, even within the same game, where they expect you to contextualize other game experiences between themselves. A part of me wrings my hands over how nostalgia is used as a substitute for having internal references to life experiences. How do you create with these sorts of games outside of a tool-master relationship? You didn’t ‘master’ that hotel, the context in which that experience existed produce integration and connection.



I agree completely about disciplines. There are as many approaches to games as their are criteria and methodologies with which games are evaluated. I suppose there might be some people that want a unified theory of game (#gg, Jane McGonigal, Valve), but I’m not sure that is the driving force in academia. If you follow the perennial conversation within and around DiGRA, for example, there is an acknowledgement that there are a good dozen disciplines that feed into “game studies,” each with their own traditions around framing subjects, methodologies and expected outcomes. DiGRA always makes me see the splinters, not the whole—which is largely a good thing.

Within industry (not my favorite term, but that’s a topic for another email), I suppose there is a more unified approach—selling units and making money. But the thing about the commercial industry is it is almost completely unconcerned about its legacy, its place in culture as a whole. And so it won’t really get a say in how this all plays out.

As academics and critics, we are tasked with trying to make sense of things, even if that sense-making is simply to point out the impossibility of a unified field theory of games. Two MIT Press series come to mind around this: Platform Studies and Playful Thinking (admission: I have a book in the later series, and have a proposal that I’ve sent to the former). Bogost and Montfort have a particular vantage on the materiality of videogames and their platforms that is certainly one formalist/materialist/technological approach to games. On the other hand, there is Juul, Long and Uricchio’s Playful Thinking Series, which has a “games plus X” approach. This leads to a more heterogeneous take on games: games and play, games and art, games and chance, games and failure (so far). As a result, Platform Studies feels like the more dominant perspective, if only because there is a unified underpinning to the books in the series. All of which is to say that the “unified theory” approaches to games end up feeling more present if only because they are simpler to communicate, and have the force of repetition behind them.  

The term indie is a great object lesson in the messiness that lies just under the surface of any attempts to codify. Isn’t indie nothing more than a marketing category like “college rock” and “independent film”? It surely isn’t a representative term for much else anymore (sorry, indieCade). In the early days of my involvement with indieCade, I naively thought we were in fact bringing most of the indie world together for a weekend. But it quickly became clear that if we looked closer, there were more people that fit the indie definition not there than were there. And now, the conference portion of indieCade is a kind of glorious, splintered mess with a group of people that draw on a good dozen scenes, with that many more left out. But as things get codified in the press, in social media, more gets read into who is there, and their status as representatives of the many branches of games on the edges of “industry.” And suddenly things aren’t what they were—a mess–but instead an infrastructure, a power base, haves and have-nots.

So yeah, there is a tension between the tidiness of history and scholarship and the messiness of reality. Maybe this is what you hope to hold onto—the acknowledgement that everything is kind of a mess, and that this is ok?

I couldn’t agree more with your wish to be part of communities, so long as you are welcomed for who you are. And likewise, feeling like there is a balance between learning and contributing. That will require we all put our guard down in various ways, which is hard, of course, and not always the safest thing to do. For my part, I pretty much have given up on using Twitter as a space for real dialog. I feel like a lot of folks open up Twitter and immediately assume a combat stance. It just makes for unnecessarily contrarian conversation (if you can call it conversation).

I have to admit I laughed when reading you were mad at Desert Golfing. Don’t hate Desert Golfing, Mattie, hate the desert golfers. I wonder if Desert Golfing and Drop7 and other similar games are part of the cult of flow? (I noticed Lana Polansky went after flow recently in an essay.) I see flow as one of those ideas trying to legitimize games as a pastime, even if that wasn’t forefront in Csikszentmihalyi’s thinking. I’m certainly guilty of this (see my ode to Drop7 in Well Played awhile back and aspects of Works of Game, too).

I’m not sure you are being elitist, I just think you bring a different set of values and aesthetics to games, and the “games are 6,000 years old, and part of the fabric of humanity” schtick just doesn’t resonate with you. Which is good, I think. There are enough people defending the honor of games already.

Your thoughts on the hotel tour made me think back to my experience with Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More. I remember distinctly walking into the space, and having my videogame brain in gear. I walked up to the books and objects and closely examined them, looking for details about the story. Fairly quickly, I realized it was all “window dressing” and that its only real meaning was its appearance, and the way it all added up to an atmosphere like a stylized film set. Once I got that, I had a much better experience by following the actors around the space.

Sleep No More is much closer to a slick 3D game than my experience on the tour of the Pennsylvania Hotel. Yet Sleep No More and, say, Gone Home, are more egalitarian experiences than the tour, if for no other reason than their reproducibility and extensibility. It also raises questions of packaged experiences and participatory experiences.

I’m curious, what’s a game you’ve played recently that you enjoyed? I have to say it has been quite some time since I played anything that really caught my eye.



I admit to not having a good idea of games academia as a whole. I’ve kind of been thrust in a weird between-worlds positions, where because I did learn some critical theory in my undergrad, and I’ve learned to apply it to both art and the design process, I’m labeled as academic. I think most people consider me an academic! But I’m not? At least not yet, so I shouldn’t be so forthright about naming the general atmosphere of games academia. I guess I’m anticipating my move to New York and since I’m the most familiar with school-based designers there, they make up the majority of what I think of when we’re talking about designer-academics. Also some others, like designers that have prominent, Theory of Everything type books. I’m even somewhat distant from academics my age because they are writing about my work, so there’s a sort of distance and awareness that I’m operating on more the artist level than academic kind. Plus I have so much reading to do so I can at least pretend I fully grasp the accepted game canon. But yes, I imagine I might get into debates once I move, which I welcome.

I’ve been thinking a lot about re-centering our field from a games medium to a play medium, which I’m sure it’s not really a novel idea, but heavily resisted. I’m concerned about object-centrality and using games as experience dispensers instead of thinking about our relationship to fluid, more slippery notions of experience that are more wholly affective. That’s how the art-world seems to be approaching games, like games are in the wings of museums where they put furniture. Which is shitty for the furniture too! I don’t get the design/art divide, I never have. Why are these things kept so separated? Why MUST games be designed objects? Just feels creepy.

‘Indie’ definitely felt like a commercial/industrial reaction rather than an aesthetic one. Notgames is a more arts-engaged label even though it also contains a reaction to industry, it had a strong, purposeful sensibility, while if indie has one, it seems incidental and easily mobilized by consumerism. That’s probably unfair to indies, though I also have an issue with ‘altgames.’ It seems to me much like how indie formed together, just in a different time and place. It feels more like a reaction to industry than having its own aesthetic argument, though I don’t really mind basically a weird twitter indie I guess. I find it not different enough, a lot of people who were indie are now altgames, because altgames doesn’t really have a strong enough stance of values outside of a reaction to indies’ reaction to industry.

A lot of my writing in the past year has been about mess. It might be because my life is an utter mess, that life just doesn’t really make sense and my trajectory is incredibly unclear. I want to feel comforted that I’m not just a fuck up but everything really is just a goddamned mess. But I want to bring that to our perspective on play as well, maybe that’s why formalism gives me the creeps. It’s like a worldview that wants to kill everything and cut it all up and reassemble the mess into something legible to them but they can’t understand why it’s dead. The Cult of Flow really does sound like a legit creepy cult. And yeah, this paring down to lifelessness just trying to find that space… but for what? What does it feel like? Does it really feel good? It feels numbing to me, I guess. There are different sorts of flows, like adrenaline and such, but most games like that make me feel dead. But no, fuck Desert Golfing, I golfed so much waiting for something but all I got was more goddamned golfing. Who the fuck just wants to sit there finger golfing all day??? What is wrong with the world? So mad. What is so important to the genealogical understanding and propagation that games must be “for their own sake,” serious about nothing serious. There’s shit outside of the useless vs useful binary. How does that feel? DEATH TO FLOW. DEATH TO PLAYERS. DEATH TO MECHANICS. DEATH TO WORK AND LEISURE. ONLY MESS AND TENSION AND FEELINGS. Do you think a lot of these gamey games and defense of games for just fucking around’s sake is part of this reaction to encroaching forces to make them do something useful? Is everyone just aiming for the most elegant, beautiful time waster of them all?? Why is everyone so resistant to life? To being messy?

I rarely feel satisfied with video games, that it’s hard to think about what I’ve enjoyed in the recent past. I guess the closest would be Etrian Odyssey, it’s a gamey game, dungeon crawler, RPG battles. I guess what’s hit me in a good place is that you have to draw your own maps in order to navigate the levels, and I found the map-drawing process incredibly soothing, very surprised. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it unless you were already into those types of things. I’m not super into dungeon crawlers so it was hard to get used to, and I take a lot of breaks from it. There was also Sunset, which I also really enjoyed. There’s few games that prompt me to talk about the effects of power in my intimate or even friendly relationships and that meant something to me. I guess I feel more excited about games I want to make, I’m trying to accumulate resources and inspirations and work practices so once I move, I can start really producing things I want to see out in the world.

That’s it for now, but more will be up soon! Check out John’s stuff, he’s a cool guy!

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The Beginner’s Guide Review

“Warning: Whisper Machine active – Self-destruction imminent.”

“Security hall breached – Hostile alien lifeforms inbound.”

“Enemy force neutralized – Begin ship evacuation.”

[dear m.,

the morning after the first night you stayed over, you wouldn’t let me make you coffee. we went on a date, had terrible sex, but good pillow talk. i could tell you were ashamed, of me or yourself, i’m not sure. but it was important to me, and you knew it, to please, have some coffee. and when you are drinking your coffee, and we will banter about something trite to pretend things were normal, i will make a parfait for the both of us. it will have granola, blueberries, peach slices, and honey. but you get to the door too fast, or just have half your coffee, or get ready when my back’s turned. but one time you humored me, even though you didn’t really see the point. watching you trudge through the food as quick as you could, i found, hurt even more.]

“Hey! You there- in the engine room! You can save us all! That beam is power the Whisper Machine. We could disrupt it by introducing a great enough heat signature. If you- your body could stop the beam. It’s so much to ask, but for all of our lives- would you do it? Could you give yourself?”

[i remember, it was christmas eve. it was going to be the first day i was a taken woman. the tile in my house was cold, but the morning light made the apartment seem so warm. or maybe it was just,


in the bathroom, my phone sat by the sink, flush against the corner of the counter closest to the shower. my hair was straight, so i pulled it back and under a shower cap. under the showerhead, i thought about running my hands through your hair.

my phone rang, it was you. swift, i dried a hand and answered. 10 hours in, you ended it. i spent christmas looking out the window.]

The past was behind her

But the future could not be seen

Why does the future                                                                      keep changing?

When she stops and looks                                                      it becomes clearer

But if the future is always behind her

How will she find the strength

To confront it?

[we tried to make up with making out. and more. it was always terrible, because you couldn’t wait for it. i think it’s because you’re so used to having people calling you intelligent that it seemed impossible to not have a natural intuition for what was in front of you. back at my place, where you unwelcomed, on your bed, where i wasn’t, up against the side of my car in front of your friends. it became a joke to me, on how awful us trying to restart things could be. i’m a little wiser now, so when you tried to connect again, drawing that line was my only choice. you might read this, and i’m sorry, i want you to stop.]

(There used to be a woman here. She’s gone now.)

[dear j.,

you gave me my first lesson in idolatry. it’s mundane, tedious, and nonconsensual. i didn’t think this was what it would mean to be a symbol. how couldn’t i be a muse? leaning across the top of a broad table, over panels of mœbius’ work, or stretched across the couch, legs up, watching a miyazaki film most likely, long stretches of silence as you sketched. always around, but arms length away. i think, you wanted to see that sort of future, but it was too expansive. it was easier to watch it from afar, pretending you’d never have any regrets. are you still too busy being young?]

[i hate it when the movies are right. you missed me when i intentionally disappeared. you returned all my calls after ignored yours. everything was the path of least resistance, so i embodied friction. i mean, you’ve seen tv, read a book or two, your need for freedom is a stereotype. you go out by yourself in the snow, to forests, or just your mind, but the moment you’re tasked to be alone with another, you’re gone, like all those old war planes you drew so much.]




[when you inherited your house, i would help clean it, or tend to post-familial disputes. i admit, i enjoyed it, that place was a wreck. i could be there for a while. i watched junk go in and out. i watched other women do so too. eventually, it was my turn. i guess, i was just junk too. when i ran to san francisco, you called. i ignored it hoping it would spur a certain desire. i haven’t heard from you since. you’ll never read this. it’s probably best this way.]

The woman across the room, in this chair, is a professional photographer.

This is your chance to learn something from her, to gain something, to succeed.

Go on. Say something to her.

You’re letting your animal brain make decisions, be bigger than that and have actual conversation with her.

No nono that’s not what I said to her all.

Now talk to her again.

You’ll freak her out if the conversation gets that personal that quickly!





(There’s a girl curled up on the couch in the furniture prison)

Ma’am! Glad to see you’ve arrived safely.

I intend to be brutal.

You stopped.

Your work was keeping us alive.

Those people out there, can you imagine what pain you’ve put them through?

I’ve been so alone.

Apologize for leaving me.

Think carefully, I know how to hurt you.

Alright then, I will apologize to the people on your behalf.


I have a troubling revelation.

The machine refuses to admit that it deliberately hurt us.

We will find a way to live without it! We do not need its games.

Let us pay it retribution!

Follow me! We will destroy everything that the machine has created!


[dear a.,

the first time, when we almost weren’t we anymore, i didn’t think such a kind person could betray like that. i realize now that most of your actions were fueled by fear, and self-loathing. but then, you used a bandaid when you needed surgery. i keep looking back to that day, the branching paths, where i was happier biting the bullet seeing how unhealthy you were. i won’t be that forgiving ever again.]

[the second time, when we couldn’t stay apart for more than a week, i remember being at a cheap diner in the castro and trying to hear you out. the food was greasy enough to hurt my stomach and the waiter clearly wanted us to leave so he could close. i tried to hold my ground, knowing that things were wrong, but you insisted otherwise. you wanted your cake, and you couldn’t wait to eat it. back in your bed, i watched you cry. i think you were the first man i ever saw cry, in front of me. i admit, i enjoyed it. despite my protesting, we tried.]

[the third time, i laid a trap for you. i got you out here, and set time against you. a countdown for you to answer for all that you’ve done. if you didn’t think of anything, i said we wouldn’t see each other for a very long time. so it was a bit poetic when you just ran out, like you ran out before, emotionally, now physically. i knew you would invite the stalemate and keep your distance, it was something you always offered to do. to go away. but never to come closer. you might read this, and there is every part of me that wants you to figure yourself out and reach to me when you do. but you won’t, so now we’re stuck, apart, probably for the rest of our lives. i don’t think you can admit your transgressions, so until then, i miss you, but i need to ask you not to speak to me anymore.]

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a perspective on unpaid emotional labor of queer acceptance – An Arse Elektronika Talk

This past weekend I went to Arse Elektronika, a sex and tech conference in San Francisco that has talks from many different perspectives on whatever lies at the intersection of sex and tech. I wanted to share the transcript of my talk since I put a lot into it and it’s about a highly personal subject that I think needs more people reading it. So before you read it below, know a couple of things: I divulge a lot about my sex life, for a reason, and if that would make you uncomfortable you probably should skip this one; given that, this might be NSFW, though nothing graphic is written or shown; and I will be talking a lot about transphobia and cissexism, so please take care of yourself before reading this if you need to. Thanks for reading!

Hello everyone! I’m Mattie Brice, and my main trades are in writing media criticism on interactive experiences and designing what have been avant-garde games for the past few years. But today, I want to focus on a concern from my other area of work, social justice and organizing, that has been on my mind lately, about everyday activism. As you can tell from the title of my talk, I suffer from having a humanities degree, and set out to present this topic in such a way. You could totally tell I was going to whip out Foucault, get some charts, and toss in an obligatory nod to communism. But you know, I started to realize that there was no need for specific evidence for my case, or at least, when it comes down to it, you’re going to have to take my word for it either way. So I decided to speak straight from my personal experience; I’m not every woman, nor every trans person, nor every transwoman. I don’t promise that my experience is statistically relevant enough to be generalized in any manner. So I hope you don’t generalize this, and accept that my story exists because we live in a world that allows it to, and that stands for something, no matter how singular it is. Instead of intricately made slides and long bibliographies, I’m just going to talk at you, and I just want you to listen, absorb, and respond. Because, you know, people don’t do that enough. I’m going to leave some time for questions hopefully, so keep that in mind as I talk. Also, I’m going to be talking about stuff centering around transphobia, so please take care of yourself if you’re in a vulnerable place and feel free to excuse yourself, I won’t be at all offended. So here we go!

Good news! We now have gay marriage in America! Yay! Go us! When I first heard the news, a part of me was like, “Finally,” but the other, sociologist part of me was curious: people have been fighting for this for a long time, and it takes more than just straight-up legislative and judicial persistence to get something like this passed. Society had to change enough for attitudes to sway, for something like homosexuality to finally be seen as American, or at least, not in conflict with American values any longer. Basically, gayness became normal enough. While there will be unpleasant sentiments about gay people marrying for a while, eventually it’s going to be commonplace enough to not comment upon it. Soon, if the only laws that discriminate against a person is their ability to get married, their lives will become mainstream, or even conservative, according to people who see marriage acknowledged by law as an inherently regressive institution (like myself). This might seem unfair, and it is a little. I do think people should enjoy what every other citizen gets to, and it’s not anyone’s fault they were brought up in a society that values marriage.

Thankfully, we’re all discerning people here, and can hold the good with the bad and know things are complicated. If you followed conversations around gay marriage, especially the efforts put in by the Human Rights Campaign, you will know that it isn’t without criticisms. A lot of queer people who have more pressing concerns than marriage legalization felt marginalized by all the effort and focus funneled into gay marriage, particularly women who are transgender and aren’t white. It’s documented and commented upon how often gay rights activists would cut out or ignore lobbying for the advocacy of those in the community, you know, all the letters after the LG but often forgotten or literally left out for convenience. The reason? Those kinds of queer people are too weird, they aren’t legible like the HRC who are known for being predominantly gay WASP dudes who just want to have kids, a house, and some wealth like ‘normal people.’ In the past year there has been a lot of bad blood between the more visible LGBT groups and advocates who aren’t white or cisgender, often neither. Take San Francisco’s Pride parade committee, who allowed Facebook to participate in the festival despite having their real-name policy that routinely shuts down the accounts of trans people, sex workers, and victims of abuse. So basically, gay cis people are now looking like the oppressors, if they haven’t already.

But the whole story isn’t just gay people fighting to be normal. There are also straight people who are becoming degrees of, well, un-straight I guess. If you look at diversity stats at some tech companies, you’ll see numbers of people who, anonymously, identify as something other than heterosexual at matching or higher ratios than are reflected in the US census. One could attribute that to many companies being in liberal areas of the country, but if that were true, we’d see similar increases with other identities. For some time now, being out and not straight increases your chance of being unemployed, homeless, and without traditional support networks that could propel you into fields like tech. So I don’t think there’s just an increasing tide of people who went through life not identifying as straight, rather that as queerness fought for visibility and acceptance, those who never really considered or pursued it until recently are now further identifying with not being totally straight. We can see this in the rise of terms like ‘heteroflexible,’ which became a selectable identifier on OkCupid the same time queer and trans did (think on that).

I’m sure it would warm all of our hearts if we thought that advocacy was the main reason that more straight people started to show colors and eventually contribute to a social environment that would usher in queer acceptance. However, I think a more traditional factor pioneered this movement, that is, porn and general sexual curiosity. Clandestine cruising for sex always surrounded both the internet and queerness, so with the two rising in visibility and more opportunities to make such arrangements became available, the rate at which people realized something was deviant about them shot way up. This is a good time to remind people that what I’m going to be talking about is purely from my personal experience, but I choose to speak it because I believe there is some wider truth to it. I will be focusing on myself, who for convenience’s sake will identify as a transwoman, and cisgender men who are predominately white and pass as heterosexual but have some sort of relationship to queerness. I’m sure there are other factors and stories to what I’m talking about made by other women and queer people, but those stories aren’t mine, and I can’t speak to them as earnestly as I can with my own.

So, I’m a queer-identified trans lady with radical politics who primarily has sex with men. I know I’m pretty hot, cool, a great conversationalist, have awesome selfie-game, currently on-watch as shameless thirstbait in many queer circles. But I have the most difficult time getting laid despite all these great qualities, which really fucked with my ego for the longest time. There is no easy way for a lady like me to find a decent guy to go at it with at any reasonable frequency. A large part of this is very few spaces facilitate transwomen meeting men in enough places and contexts to get connections going on, purely sexual or otherwise. Clubs and events that do, they cater towards men and their typically shitty preconceptions of who they think transwomen are and how they should be treated. Ultimately, I haven’t found many events that don’t explicitly free me from guys approaching me in a way they consume their porn, most likely made by other dudes who have very narrow and exploitative visions of transwomen. Meaning, men are often overtly gross and assume I’m a sex worker, also having shitty attitudes and preconceptions on how sex workers should be treated.

“But what about queer events Mattie?” some of you may be thinking. If not, I’ve been asked that before by well-meaning people very often. The answer has a way of being simple and complex at the same time: queer events that look to include transpeople, especially sex-positive- and kink-related events, don’t attract, or they explicitly exclude, men, especially cisgender men, even if they identify as queer. This severely cuts down the chance that I will meet a man I’m interested in enough to fuck in a space that has radical politics in place to respect me. Now, some of you might be thinking “They shouldn’t be excluding people!” and others will be like “We need spaces away from dudes to feel safe.” Both are well-intended, but one-dimensional when it comes to my predicament. First, we definitely need spaces where queer people can convene and not be hassled by those who have privilege over them, because let me tell you, nothing is more of a killjoy than having to deal with a blundering cis dude when you’re wanting to fuck. But more importantly, am I not a queer woman? Are my needs all of a sudden inconvenient? Am I just not the right kind of queer to have a space welcoming of who I am in my totality?

“Okay Mattie” you say, “What about sex-positive and kink spaces where there’s lots of men? Surely in a place like San Francisco you’d be swamped with ass.” Oh, you kind and gentle soul. The long and short of it is, those spaces are predominantly cissexist and heterosexist, meaning, I’m allowed to attend, but only on the sidelines. The thing is, despite how enlightened sex pervs think they all are, men in sex-positive and kinky communities aren’t too different in attitudes from general society when it comes to who and how they fuck. Here in San Francisco, many events say they are ‘pansexual,’ but really what you most often get are ‘heteroflexible’ couples, where heteroflexible means the woman partner plays with other girls and the guys aren’t afraid to compliment another man on his apparel. Of course, me being trans violates this because cis dudes still read me as something other than woman, and ostensibly treat me like a gay guy, saying things like “I’m not wired for that.” I even had a guy who, after we planned out completely non-sexual play, freaked out on me and called off our scene when he realized I was trans. As an aside, I’m sure I know many good people who identify as heteroflexible, just giving you a heads-up on how heteroflexible people most typically influence my sex life.

So, where does that leave me to find sex? Yes, our best friend, the internet. Since sites that resemble offline spaces I’ve just described are just as unfriendly to me, I’ve made a really tenuous home on Craigslist. The sucky part about this is Craigslist is treated like a garbage dump, the last place you want to go to for anything. It has a shitty reputation that gives it a self-fulfilling prophecy, where there are fuckboys as far as the eye can see, and not nary a hopeful blip of respectable man flesh. I can’t readily admit to cruising on the good CL because it’s honestly embarrassing, people look down on me for it, or assume I must have something horrifically wrong with me, and wheel into sexual disease shaming. But the fact of the matter is, almost all of my sexual encounters have been through that site, most with guys who really don’t treat women with respect, but every once in awhile, I get a gem I try to hold on to. My chances are really slim, but they are greater than all of my time going to events and participating in sex-positive and kink-friendly communities. Simmer on that for a bit.

I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m divulging my sad sex prospects and methods. Well, as anyone interested in internet culture could tell you, weird yet amazing things can happen online that just don’t manifest as strongly in purely offline situations. In fact, there is extensive documentation on self-identified straight men doing things that may look pretty queer from the outside. Take Jane Ward’s work, centered around how men are having sex with other men, but are, like, totally not gay. I could make an entire talk on just my interest and issues with this stuff, but to make it quick, one of her earlier papers centered around str8 men who wanted to have sex with other str8 men on Craigslist. Anyone who’s been on a site where men cruise other men will be familiar with this, but it’s particularly prevalent in places, like Craigslist, that aren’t directly marketed towards queer people. To me this is pretty queer, though these men make it explicit they don’t identify that way. The same attitude exists for men who are seeking transwomen to have sex or experiment with, such as being “100% straight” and wanting “totally passable” women.

I knew I was going to have to deal with some bullshit to have an existent sex life at all. What I didn’t expect was the amount of post-coital therapy I would be doing over the years. For the vast majority of my hookups, men would break down, sometimes in tears, about how he was confused about his sexuality and all the internalized shame he had about what he just enjoyed. Putting aside that these men undermine my womanhood, and really personhood overall, by saying things like that, I had to learn how to navigate these waters in fear that he could turn violent if handled improperly (which is a very real concern to have). Though this still happens to me, and I actually kind of hate it when it’s with someone who has no emotional investment in me, it’s pretty hilarious thinking about a radical activist who got educated in critical theory surrounding gender and sexuality trying to handhold a man’s fragile ego just so he could get out of her damn house. Or potentially worse, I’d end up more involved with a guy and deal with a constantly hot-cold switching of emotions, who goes from completely present and into it to totally distant and scared he was going to be made a pariah if anyone ever found out we fucked or held hands or some shit.

For better or for worse, I became an educator to these men, probably the only queer or trans person they had met and/or had sex with up until then. Through my time hooking up with men online, I’ve introduced many to basic concepts of sex, gender, and sexuality that they wouldn’t seek out of themselves. I’ve taught many safer sex practices and, in general, more kinds of sex practices deftly. I’ve introduced many, many men to ideas of informed consent and better communication tactics with their sexual partners. There are many of them that I linked to sex-positive and kink groups that had other men who they could relate to and feel supported by. Even though we might have not played together much or even more than once, I know I have done my part to push men into queerer and more radical practices since they don’t seek out that education themselves. It doesn’t sound right that the burden is being put on me when it should be put on them, and that’s totally true. However, as I’ve said before, there’s little support for people like me and there aren’t many radical spaces available or inviting for men to be exposed to this stuff, so I can either do it or be even more miserable than I already am. There’s little choice for me.

The sad part about all this is that, when it comes down to it, many of these men can’t stand the shame and potential pain that would come with having an open and healthy sexual relationship with a transwoman. It’s selfish and pitiful, but it’s also the case; there’s no amount of words that will sway someone when they get to that conclusion, rather, it takes lived experiences to lessen the fear until it’s manageable enough for them to surmount. A cis dude respecting a trans lady like a cis woman is one of the rarest occurrences on this planet. Unfortunately, that’s not often with me, but every once in awhile a man arrives at my doorstep already having gone through that experience, and I thank my other trans sisters out there fighting the good fight and fucking these men to their senses so they are over their bullshit by the time they get to me. And thinking of it that way, I feel like it’s my duty to do the same for them. Just think of it, transwomen, fucking guys, hoping that one gets fucked enough to eventually get his shit together and be decent already. If that’s not work for the better good, I don’t know what is.

There’s a big catch to all this, of course: is this even really queer? Some of you may groan at hearing that, but it’s for real, I get this question from queer people and even other transwomen. I’ve regularly been shunned or incidentally left out of events, social gatherings, and support systems because I am not ‘queer enough,’ or at all, for some people. Obsentibly, my romantic life reads as heterosexual, since when it’s convenient, people will reduce those involved to simply ‘a woman and a man having sex,’ and therefore, not really a part of the queer narrative. Queer spaces actively resist anything that smells of heteronormativity and don’t move to encompass people who are queer, yet have aspects of their lives that might look that way despite striving against it. Simply put, as many people forget, being queer isn’t something you’re born with, it’s something you decide to call yourself. Queer is a political statement, and isn’t just about who you fuck, it’s about how you relate to and act against normativity. It might be tough to include every single person who calls themselves queer, but that’s the duty of a space if it wants to call itself that. I think it’s sad that queer advocates are more concerned about how to keep cis guys out of queer spaces than inviting someone like me in.

“But those guys are basically closeted, and leave you out to dry!” some concerned people might be pleading. “How is it fair that guys who are hiding who they are and using you should benefit from queer social cachet?” Believe me, I totally empathize with this sentiment. It is really frustrating to not be able to find many guys who are willing to be out there with me in public, to not feel humiliated that others might see me as ‘unpassable’ and therefore direct homophobia at us. It’s further frustrating when this person is privileged and leans on his power in queer communities to sleep with or sway whomever he wants while you’re left at the bottom. But being closeted doesn’t make you any less queer, or completely free of hate and violence related to heterosexism. Being out is one of the touchstones of gay normalization that was turned into a hammer that sees everyone as a nail. Announce yourself! Be proud! Show your colors! This is a good time to note that as the visibility of women who aren’t cis nor white has gone up, so have their murders. Seeing that LGBT organizations have yet to catch up to serving their trans communities, I don’t really find much stock in equating people to their public personas.

To deny my experiences as queer robs me of existence, space, and the kind of action I can afford to integrate into my life. By simply walking outside, I face a ridiculous amount of threat and risk to my well-being, and that’s before I even attempt to have sex with anyone. Communities have built-in safeguards and practices against those who would harm their community members; kinky and queer communities have socials and parties of varying exclusivity so reputations and vetting are within reach, as are people who can watch your back or be your safe-call when something goes awry. If radical spaces leave me out while straight spaces don’t accommodate me, that means I have to date exclusively at the whim of internet moralities, often meeting people by myself and out of contexts that could be used for my safety. Then ~all of a sudden~ the presence of transwomen who fuck men are providence of companies who control the media, and especially porn, that is the majority of cultural reference people, even some queers, come in contact with of someone like me. Transwomen rarely even get to fuck men in so-called feminist and queer porn, and of course, it’s the same excuses of not knowing enough people who would perform. Is that a problem with transwomen, or with queer spaces? The result is that my experience and visibility on my terms is erased.

Ultimately, being left out of all these spaces is forcing me, and imploring others, to do this emotional and sexual labor for cis men. We rarely get to do it how we want it, and on our own terms, rather, only the ways ashamed heterosexuality allows. Without community structures, without support networks, without visibility, without affirmed existence, we are compelled to make do and deal with fragile cis masculinity in the gutters between everyone else’s celebratory debauchery. If I want to celebrate, a word, which, I have a bunch of issues with, particularly for this context, I have to build the whole thing up myself. I’m based here in the [San Francisco Bay Area], and the only play party I’ve been to that had queer politics and cis men attending who knew they’d be in shit for treating transwomen differently was an event I myself ran. You think it wouldn’t be so hard to do, and you’re right, it’s actually very fucking simple! But this is a sort of theme in my career: I didn’t see any writing on trans issues in games, so I wrote it myself; I never saw a game that featured a lead character who looked like me, so I made it myself. And while I do feel accomplished, I would much rather all of this be the norm, and have other people take credit just so I could cruise and love in acceptable amounts of turmoil like everyone else.

As I come down to the end of this, I can’t let my lovely men completely off the hook. Despite being victims in this scenario, men are also the source of all the bullshit that plagues them. So I want to start of my conversation to men with this: destigmatizing sex and love with transwomen begins and ends with men. You shouldn’t have to sleep with us in order to finally come to terms with the fact that we should be treated like human beings. Whenever you’re talking about women in general, you should be including transwomen as well, unless you make the distinction on purpose; of course, you might start to notice that you always qualify your attractions to only cis women, and it’s going to make you look like an ass: good, it should. Unlike what cultural narratives have taught you, you are not ‘wired for vagina,’ as one guy once said straight to my face. You don’t need to be prompted with some codeword to share with other men that transwomen are attractive and should be treated with respect, because all other men are assuming you feel like we’re gross and worthless. Even if your life is settled in a certain way where you won’t ever be intimate with a transwoman, you never know who in your life is suffering and will have their entire life changed because you validated who they are. It sounds grand and exaggerated but it’s the real truth.

Men, both those who do and do not sleep with transwomen, are riding in to queer acceptance on transwomen’s backs. This is evident from the first glass thrown at Stonewall to the emotional labor worked behind closed doors. Transwomen, especially those who aren’t white, have the burden of moving society forward because they continue to be ones most at risk. It’s because of those who have no choice but to be brave and strong that one day you will come to peace with yourself. And believe me, it’s tiring, and on my weaker days, I’m extremely bitter about it. However, you have to come to terms with this, as uncomfortable as it may be, and find a way to bridge the gap. You will likely feel a lot of guilt, but know it isn’t me who is making you feel guilty, it’s your conscience telling you something is fucked up. Guilt isn’t always a bad thing, sometimes it’s there to notify you that you really need to get yourself together and take a higher path. It’s never too late to recognize your place in a power dynamic and do something about it. Remember that!

Furthermore, you need to pick up your end of the slack, and create safe middle grounds for you to be around transwomen and other queer people. If you run events, have explicit policies that validate and protect transwomen. If you’re a creator, keep trans people in mind and use them in your narratives when talking about what you do. If you perform, request more of a presence from willing transwomen and be sure their labor is valued. Whatever way you impact and inhabit the world, there is some conscious way that you can make it more welcoming to people like me, you just have to do the work and educate yourself. And don’t rely on queer spaces being made for you first, make your own, recruit your friends that are more into the scene to make these meeting grounds inviting. There is absolutely no need for “not all men” type grumbling in this process, because the onus is on you to display through active effort that you’re not a jerk wanting validation for every little thing you do when you’re rarely ever asked to be decent to those you have power over. The point is that you have a lot to get over and prove, and it’s going to discourage you at first, but you really have a responsibility for all that you’ve coasted on all this time.

And here’s the shameless self-promotion: I already made a very long list of what I think the contemporary man should be aware of when unpacking toxic masculinity, and respecting the people in their lives that they have power over. Here’s the thing, all this talk about social justice and queer acceptance seem huge and out of your control and influence, but they’re not! Instead of framing it as you needing to solve all of the world’s oppressions, focus on the day-to-day attitudes and interactions that build up over time into a power dynamic. The most important thing you can do, starting today, starting now, is salvaging the relationships you currently have and learning to respect those people in a way that doesn’t serve shitty masculinist values. All of the things I’ve written about are super achievable, and are mostly about training yourself into a state of mind that values growth and communication. You are not going to be perfect tomorrow, and neither am I. The difference is, my quality of life is affected by how men value and treat me, and not as prominently the other way around. So, for my sake, and for everyone who is trans, please take this chance and honor the work we’ve done for you all this time. Thank you!

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Conversations with AM Cosmos: Personal Evolutions of Fandom

I often gripe about how I wish my job was just to sit around and talk to interesting people all day, having earnest, in depth conversations about joint interests. Social media isn’t the best place for this because there’s a risk with publicly revealing yourself, unedited, to a live audience. Last GDC, I sat down with my fellow rotten girl AM Cosmos to talk about fandom and what it’s like being a fan of media with oppressive imagery and stories in a time of heightened social awareness. We will eventually start talking about Persona 4 (spoilers for it) and the character Adachi, but first, we start candidly about what got us invested in fandom way back when. AM’s lines are in bold, and enjoy!

Well, let’s just get started talking about fandom itself. For me, fandom started when my best friend introduced me to Gundam Wing

I wonder if that isn’t like, a general first?

Yeah, it’s a probably general thing

Even when that question came up at TCAF (Toronto Comic Arts Festival), during the erotic comics panel, it was Spike Trotman, she edits Smut Peddler, Jess Fink, Katie Skelly, and there was my friend Hamlet Machine, and then there was the guy who translates and edits Massive, which is-

That’s that bara magazine right?

Yeah, it’s awesome

That sounds like an amazing panel

It was such a good panel. But everyone was asked the question, “How did you first realize that comics could be an erotic artform” and Spike would say “I would walk into the comic store one day and see Heavy Metal” or something like that and we were all like woah and Hamlet is just sitting there like “So there’s show called Gundam Wing…


And she would say “So I tried to google some of these characters and stuff popped up and I was really into it” and I was like “Oh that makes sense, how you draw hair, all the sci-fi stuff is very Gundam Wing

So what was your first fandom then?

I think I was into Final Fantasy VII. Final Fantasy VII was like my really big one, ‘cause that’s the first I remember reading fanfiction of.

Yeah, I think they were around at the same time?

They’re both contemporaries

What is your favorite FFVII pairing? Gimme the OTP

I thought it was going to be Zack and Cloud-

Yes that’s mine!

Ha, that’s your jam? But I actually think I’ve come to terms that it’s actually Reno and Cloud


I was always really excited when Reno would show up and I would always be like “Ooo, are you going to hassle Cloud?” and that’s how I knew that was my jam. And [the pairing] had a very small subset of fans.

It’s interesting to me that I liked Zack x Cloud because they were rarely seen together in the game. So is like, very figurative

Yeah, so when you say you’re into that, some people don’t really get it, because you don’t get a lot out of those scenes

It’s interesting to me because, for one, fandom tends to create certain archetypes for characters and it was the one I found that Cloud was really different than the rest of the pairings, right? He gets infantilized a lot because this pairing takes place in the past-

And there’s so many times when he’s just like, totally comatose and helpless, so it might have something to do with that

Yeah, and that change really got me. So like, what do you think really grabbed you into fandom?

Well I think it was because, while I was playing Final Fantasy VII I got really into it, and eventually I got to a point where I stopped playing it and I was thirsty for more, I wanted more stories, I liked these characters a lot and wanted to see more of their adventures. And I don’t know how I was exposed to all this- I bet something on Livejournal exposed me to all this probably- I had a Livejournal because I had a friend who became my roommate he was a sysadmin for Livejournal and I was probably like “Oh alright I’ll get a Livejournal” and it turns out that’s how I communicated with Joel back then. Speaking of fandom, I met my boyfriend on a Dragon Ball newsgroup

There you go! My best friend is the person who introduced me to Gundam Wing fandom and that’s how I found fanfiction existed because I didn’t look on the internet for video game stuff when I was younger until, you know, this Gundam Wing and Final Fantasy fanfic

You know, we’re saying ‘fandom’ and I guess I didn’t really count my first two. My first real introduction was a Sailor Moon board, like where you chat about Sailor Moon, but I wasn’t really into the fandom, like reading fanfics. We were more just there to talk about Sailor Moon. It was a board that also had more general stuff but it was a Sailor Moon community. And then, later, when I figured out how to do newsgroups and stuff, I joined the Dragon Ball newsgroup and that’s where I met Joel

It’s interesting that you put it like that because in a way, I guess I’m almost saying fandom to mean fanfiction, but also at the same time I am thinking about fan stuff overall, like, what is that? But, to be fair, we probably started on one weird strain of fandom-

You really need to read Fic: Why Fanfiction is Taking Over the World, there’s little essays from actual fanfic writers and one of the chapters I’m reading now is about a lady who made Star Trek zines, like she had stapling parties, and that’s how they distributed fic back then, by collating them together and just passing them around and swapping zines. Which is really awesome. I’m also really interested in fandoms that have survived that long, like anime and video game ones are very short-term, but like Sherlock Holmes, it has many different iterations, so there’s the original Sherlock people and then the TV series people, like there are many different things to keep the fandom alive. So it’s like the same but also branching itself out

For me, when I think of fandom overall, what my fandom is centered around is fanfiction and fanart, I don’t really do fanart but it does do work to spur my imagination, right?

So you’re more into transformative works?

Yes! Or at least, that’s what comes to mind when I say ‘fandom.’ I mean, that might just be because that’s what I’m more interested in, I never really went on GameFAQs or any of those forums, thank god. No, for me it started when my best friend and another one of her friends started a fan site-

Oh yeah, I made a lot of those, like, I had my shrines-

Yes, shrines! But they made a site for their own AU (Alternate Universe) of Gundam Wing where they mary sued themselves in. Which is funny because I don’t remember using that term too much back then but I like how it eventually became a real thing I don’t have to explain anymore. But yeah, it was so great and ambitious and I was so jealous that I wrote fanfic that mary sued myself into their mary sue of Gundam Wing

So it was like you wrote fanfiction of their fanfiction

Right, I totally did! And it totally caused a rift in our friendship-

Oh my god yes we had similar rifts. So my friends liked Sailor Moon back in middle school, and we wanted to pick a Sailor that represented us. But there were less Sailors that we knew about at the time than there were friends, and one girl got left out and she was like “No fuck you guys, I’m going to be Sailor Saturn I’m going to design my own thing.” She went on to become a fashion designer so it’s fine, she designed her own Sailor Saturn outfit. It was actually really cool. And then one of our friends got the internet and then we discovered there was a whole new world out there and there was a Sailor Saturn and she was awesome looking. And there were the Sailor Stars and we were like what?? But yeah that original caused a rift since we didn’t know about Sailor Saturn

So yeah when I mary sued myself into my friend’s fanfiction I pretty much just stole the man of the other friend! It was basically my best friend’s friend really loved Trowa Barton-

I didn’t like Trowa

What! I did too!

I liked Duo

Duo was okay, but, oh my god this is going to get even better: so the start of the AU actually starts with my two friends orphans taken cared of by Duo before he left to do, you know, Gundam Wing

Oh my god this is really good I really like it

I know right? So yeah, ‘Big Brother Duo’ became, oh my god you’re laughing so much

No I like it!

I’m admitting so many things right now

It’s so great

So basically he was like an older brother figure and he was dating Heero as he typically is and was relatively absent for the most part, just off doing whatever, and it was like all the rest of them doing whatever. And you know what was interesting? Because of the Trowa pairing, and you know how Trowa and Quatre are typically together, and since that other friend was in charge of that pairing, Quatre was made out to be a really bad character and you know, when you think of Quatre he’s just a very nice, overly polite character but this time around they made this character to be like, not vapid, but emotionally or morally absent-

I like that

It’s so interesting, in order to make room in the obvious pairing, yeah they headcanoned Quatre out. So it was interesting because that was my first introduction to Quatre and I was surprised when the rest of fandom treated Quatre so differently: he was more bubbly and innocent and stuff like that. But when I first encountered him he was just like, really intense

I love it when someone takes a character and puts a twist on them, it makes them infinitely more fascinating. That’s why I think ships are so fascinating. I’ve noticed this more recently with the bicycle show (Yowamushi Pedal), there are characters I’m indifferent to, they’re okay, and they’re popular in other ships and I’m like whatever. But then one scene will happen that will trigger a new ship and fanart will pop up and I’d be like “Oh right, this does make sense” and I start to adopt those characters and I’m really into them now

That makes me think that we’re now in a time where, you know, we see shows that are like ‘ready to ship’ before the anime has even started

Yeah, people also call that fujo-baiting

What’s that called?

Fujoshi, the ‘rotten girls’ that do all the shipping


So they call that fujo-baiting, it’s like slightly subtle pandering, you know it’s done all ways, done for guys, girls, whomever.

But then there’s also like this ad-hoc pairing where, you know, like once everything’s said and done everyone in the show needs to be in a pairing, so you have your own perfect universe where everyone is paired in whatever you way you like.

There are totally people who will be like “No, these two would never pair” and it’s like, calm down. People have all these different perceptions about what feels right.

So how about we look more specifically into Persona 4 fandom? What is the environment of Persona 4 fandom, is it different?

So, I haven’t really been involved in it, Persona 4 fandom is more like, I’m in this weird phase where I’m in games and so are a lot of my friends, and Persona 4 fandom is mostly just my friends who like the game. Oh, have you seen the sweatshirt I just bought?

You bought an Adachi sweatshirt??

I bought a fucking Adachi sweatshirt

Oh my god, (reading the sweatshirt) “The world has gone straight to shit”

I know we were out and Joel was like “There’s some Adachi stuff” and I was like “What? Nooo it’s gotta be fake” but I look over and he was right. I don’t know if it’s like a localized shirt? But it’s like legit merchandise

I think this is an interesting look at fandom though, like, those who were in fandom and moved on, but now we have all these different little ways to keep fandom in our lives. You know, we found friends who like the same sort of thing, and it’s like we have our own culture now

Yeah it’s our own little fandom but we just define things our own particular ways

So, how would you say this particular arm of Persona fandom looks like?

Well, they all pick a favorite that they want to date. A lot of them do accept the headcanon of Yosuke dating the main character and being closeted, it helps make his character feel way more acceptable you know? And hard because other people have very valid points about him so when you go “I like Yosuke” they’d be like, “What’s wrong with you” so you have to be like “No, you have to look at him this way and it works really well”

So basically, Yosuke as closeted is the only thing that’s allowed for Yosuke

Yeah and they definitely pander to that [in the anime] and it’s wonderful. I actually brought another thing. I forgot to mention that Kris Ligman is also a part of the Adachi Swamp-

Wait is it officially called the “Adachi Swamp?”

That’s what Japanese fans call it but I got a friend, she understands Japanese, and she gave me these to show, look- it’s lewd stuff between Adachi, the main character, and Yosuke-

Oh my

There’s a lot of problematic shit here, lots of bad romance in here

Oh my

It’s really good. She has a collection, came over to my house with like a stack of doujin. It was really fun, she left it at my house for a couple of weeks so I went through them and they are so good.

I have one doujinshi that I’ve kept, I got it on eBay when I was like fourteen-years-old or something. It’s Zack x Cloud and I can’t understand anything in it, just like the pictures.

I got rid of so much of my manga. I got rid of my Final Fantasy doujin, I had Gundam Wing, Digimon. I had a lot of Harry Potter doujin, those were interesting. I kept one called Heavy Fucker, that’s a parody doujin but it’s really good.

Let’s say if you had to characterize how you and other people reacted to Persona 4 as opposed to, let’s say video games or other fandoms, like, what is it it you like about this fandom or this game?

You know, it was very interesting watching the Giant Bomb Let’s Play, I don’t know how they got into it but they were just playing thinking they were just going to do a couple episodes. But then they started to get grabbed to the point where they played the entire thing, and it was so interesting watching that. And it was hilarious watching them play, they were so bad at it, I don’t know how they beat some of those bosses. I’m watching like “You don’t even know how weaknesses work! What the fuck are you doing?” I actually should watch through and see reactions to Adachi, I haven’t seen that. Oh, this is another aspect of fandom: When I’m playing a game, I used to go to the thread in Something Awful and I’d partake in a thread depending on the game, so instead of GameFAQs I had a games forum, and it was pretty active. But I had Adachi spoiled for me because of an avatar of his deformed face and I was like “Ooooh nooo, I see what’s going on here.” So I played through, and caught him and he ran off, and I got to the final dungeon but didn’t really play past that. And now I got Golden (an updated release of Persona 4), and it’s really awesome in Golden when you know what he’s up to. So I don’t feel bad getting spoiled because it’s better knowing in this case.

And that’s it for now! We will continue this conversation about Persona 4 and Adachi in particular next time. And you should read AM’s great work on otome games too! Stay tuned~

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Why Games DIY Shouldn’t Stop at the Digital

Recently, the nominees for IndieCade’s festival went up, and as it usually happens around the time judging results are out for any contest, there was a lot of disappointment and worries about the kind of forces that play out behind closed doors when awarding certain works and artists as exemplary for our community. Having judged games for three years, I’m interested in both what are games that I would never see except when submitted to a contest, as well as how games are changing by what is nominated for awards. I was disappointed this year to see many people I knew of not make it in, though I figured after the past three years of scrappy expressive games, these might be seen as a fad or, more likely, there’s just a whole lot of them now. Less than half of the nominated games this year are single player digital games that don’t include special equipment like VR headsets or unique peripherals, and the more expressive/socially conscious games that were nominated take place more in other forms than just digital. I think this shows an understanding of play and games expanding, and what’s interesting isn’t constrained to the digital, or at least, how we understand digital development as ultimately too narrow for us to explore a whole lot until more technology becomes accessible to DIY makers.

As a result of the growing presence and acceptance of games that came out of the resurgent DIY ethos, more mainstream and conventional games and audiences edged toward incorporating certain aspects into larger culture. This lead to more games about personal experiences, feelings in general, and politics where there were higher budgets and access to technologies most of the people using DIY tools don’t have. Now that it’s ‘okay’ to have these qualities, they are going to be adopted and eventually be as typical as other aspects in games. In general, this is a good thing, the only catch is now games that rest on those qualities and push boundaries in other manners will be seen as one-note or pedestrian because now similar games with more appealing audio/visuals that access and money can get. While this doesn’t matter to people who are using DIY tools for freeware zine-like purposes, these past few years we’ve seen a hard sell on trying to get a more diverse range of creators in games by appealing to the access these tools give, but not having a lasting value attached to the games produced by them. The other route, through various STEM initiatives, aims to integrate marginalized people into a system that changes only as much as it absolutely has to instead of embracing new ideas of production value. That doesn’t mean that minoritized people shouldn’t be doing STEM training and doing their thing in the industry, rather that all that went on from 2011-2014 will be seen as just an isolated wave and games as a whole will go back to requiring a certain level of refinement that comes with a barrier DIY enthusiasts advocated against.

It’s true that video games are the most visible of game genres right now, but choosing your medium based just on current visibility isn’t a very strong reason, see fuck video games and see fuck video games even more. This doesn’t mean we need to fully abandon digital game making tools, rather take another look at the ethos and reflect on how this isn’t just about accessible digital tools, but accessible tools of any sort to make games. Expressive games associated with DIY games tend to be about life, typically shedding light on how a particular, seemingly benign part of culture effects a marginalized person in damaging ways. There is game design to be implemented in our daily lives, or in structured performances, or with common object. This was the idea behind my game EAT, which was an expression about a facet of my life and also of a frustration that I had to somehow move into traditional game development. If more people looked into how to create expressive play situations with little or no materials and/or tech, that also expands the amount of mixed media pieces that become available when they reintegrate digital tools into their practice. It’s possible all of this is really intense projection, because this is the part of the journey I’m on with my work.

There are also ideological reasons to crack open populist game development to more than digital experiences. In particular is changing the distinct absence of physical embodiment in our expressions of experience, which defaults to normative bodies and their volitions. I can see critical engagement with the violence placed upon actual people against the romanticized violence practiced in digital spaces. Even that, space, is so vital to engage with, like taking dynamics of social media and casting it upon bodies and objects to challenge preconceptions about online harassment being any less valid than any other. Or more importantly, to stress that many of the experiences we express are lived and not in the safe space that digital games promise. When expressions of life situations got packaged into ‘empathy games,’ it turned connections between people into consumable products, poised to be replicated and made into just another genre to create fan culture around. There needs to be pushback against thinking that people can be explained through instrumental game mechanics, and using the body, even in relationship to technology, is a powerful way to combat that.

The less material requirements we have for designing play experiences, the less likely power can be exerted by those with more access to those materials. I feel like this is an important aspect of DIY culture in games that isn’t pushed all the way: we took up tools that didn’t force us to have any particular specialized knowledge to use, and we can continue to explore this line of thinking past digital games. Again, this isn’t to completely forsake digital creation, but to create diversity in the kinds of experiences we’re using by having even more tools with even lower barriers for entry. There’s a precedent in this in activist art stemming from marginalized peoples’ calls to action and demonstrations when they are largely kept out of galleries and other legitimized institutions. I feel like in our bid to mix things up with games, there needs to be enough push and pull between assimilation and upheaval, and since games are so prone to the forces of commercialism, we should be weary of practicing exclusively in ways easily co-opted by the systems we aim to resist.

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Letters with John Sharp: Inter-generational conflict in games

Trying something new! I decided to start up some letter series with other thinkers in games, or just generally interesting people I’m connected with to get different perspectives on topics I like to talk about, or important issues games may be facing.  The first person I started chatting with was John Sharp, a professor at Parsons The New School for Design who has a broader view of games that sits well with me and I’m glad to see in a program that features play and technology. When we were finding out what we wanted to talk about, we arrived on some conflict between older academics and designers and younger ones, and I asked him to describe what he thought that tension was. So without further ado, here was his response:



hey Mattie-

I’m not sure tension is necessarily the right word, thinking about it more. For me, a lot of it boils down to the values around knowledge, history and criticism. As someone who has an academic background in art history, I’ve been fed a steady diet of “lit reviews,” annotated bibliographies and citations. So my initial response to much of the critical writing I see is, “oh, right, that’s like X and Y and Z. I wonder if they have read/played/watched/heard that?”. Related, it often surprises me when ideas that seemed well-known are treated as new—not necessarily by the critic but by the response to the criticism. It also makes me wonder why certain concepts take hold when explored by younger critics outside academia when they didn’t when explored by academics or older critics/designers/artists.

I’ve come to realize that I’m used to one set of values (that of the humanities within American academia, 1980s leftist punk rock, etc.), while that often has little to do with the values of the younger critics. And though there may be a certain aspects that are “reinventing the wheel,” there is also a lot of new ground being covered from different perspectives, and for different reasons. As a result, I’m learning a lot, and rethinking all sorts of things, big and small.

That’s pretty exciting, at least it could be, if (wearing my academic hat here) the two communities were able to learn from one another. Maybe that’s overly idealistic, or even self-serving of me. I guess that is part of what I hope we can tease out through this dialog between you and me.

Part of this conversation-through-letters format is posing questions. So a couple of questions for you, if I may: what drew you to this conversation format? And what’s your take on Sage Solitaire?



I think you make a lot of relevant observations that point to how time and place really affect the dynamics of what is see as two schools of people who differ from each other. Something that might be both subtle and duh at the same time is how much being in different generations is affecting how we approach games discourse; for the most part, people viewed as young upstarts are millennials and are products of growing up with the internet and landing in markets and institutions with expectations they can’t reach unless they are pretty privileged.

With that, I find there is this expectation of our generation to follow the last in games, or at least cite the histories and texts they learned to appreciate. I think we do reference histories that are relevant to us, but they aren’t coming from the same traditions or line of thought that who is appointed as ‘before’ us do. In a way, older academics and designers see us as after them and we don’t see ourselves the same way. We grew up independently, mostly because the older generation was establishing industries and academic programs and we were cobbling things from wherever life took us, so it’s not like we came from any sort of tradition. Right now, your students and protege designers are ‘the next generation’ of that group of people, not us. This is similar to other sorts of generational rifts: social justice online doesn’t really heed much to 2nd wave feminism and its figureheads because it wasn’t grounded in enough intersectional politics, and intersectional feminism took to the internet faster because platforms like social media and forums were the only places those without academic access to talk with people like them about this higher level stuff sometimes. I’m thinking about trans people in particular, who’ve had blowups with older trans people lately. We learned to structure our communities in different ways, through the internet in particular, and learned from there. Many of us didn’t grow up hanging out in clubs for cis gay people, particularly men, as our only method of encountering people like us. By the time we learned about trans-ness, feminism was being taught as influenced by queer and critical race studies, so when some veteran voices speak up it’s easy to feel disconnected from them because it’s like they are speaking another language with different customs and inside jokes that they expect us to get but are actually sometimes horrifying to hear.

So while our work is often influenced by institutions, since many of us went to school and either dropped out or got a degree unrelated to games, our work is not for institutions, like how many older academics took their education to form games studies and academia as a whole. Since we aren’t a part of that tradition, our work isn’t really respected or encouraged by institutions. And if people don’t perceive that they have respect or clout from or in an institution, why would they spend time referencing that institution in their work? It’s entirely possible that the words of younger game critics and designers are respected by established academics, but that is rarely gestured.

Which leads to the main point of difference between the groups: game critics aim to reach different people, from those generally interested in games and sometimes reads thinkpieces to artists outside of games who would recognize our style and bridge-build from there. Reading games criticism isn’t hugely popular, but it’s more pervasive than it was even 5 years ago, so a lot of basic games theory or topics are going to seem new. This ties into how games critics get any sort of support, which is from whatever niche and sometimes general audiences would give them. Despite sometimes using the same language as those in academia or veteran designer positions, game critics ultimately serve those who follow their work, and in general, have stronger social media and writing presences than most academics do. I remember very distinctly when I started writing about how people didn’t respond to my just-out-of-college inaccessibility, and how actually a lot of general publications still find my writing too academic. We’re pressured to learn how to communicate a lot of these thoughts to wider audiences, and to speak as many thoughts as we can. I think this is why things that seem obvious to the established are seen as new to many others, because there’s just simply a wider reach to have when you’re a games critic than when you’re an academic. I’ve seen games criticism dubbed ‘middle-state’ writing before, being between academic and populist writing, and it serves as a translating service from one side to the other sometimes.

With that, games critics are often driven more by current events than any particular line of research. While there are definitely pieces of writings that serve as throw-backs or are completely off-topic, a lot of games critics use what’s happening in the world to contextualize more complex topics while it’s all fresh in people’s minds and with subjects they care about. When I first looked up academic writing on games, they were from the same games from the early 2000s that people just don’t talk about anymore, and of course, these were all locked behind paywalls. While that’s changing, I do think this arm of games criticism is helping that along, as it has a speed and digestibility advantage over publishing in academic journals. So yeah, while we might see similar at times, our timing and place makes how people access our work and concepts different, which is why you might be seeing disparate reactions between who is saying what.

I really do feel though that there is a place and reason for older, established academics and designers to get along with us younger folk. I personally feel invested in inter-generational work because I think there’s knowledge and access that comes from that on both sides. But communities are intentional, you have networks of people because you purposefully wove them together. There isn’t any of that going on between older academics/designers and younger ones, at least, not with ones that aren’t your students. You all are way more pervasive and in our view than the other way around: we have to go to your events, hear your talks, read your works, and in general feel your presence way more than you do for us. It’s rarer for this older generation to extend the same gesture, though it is appreciated when people do! I feel like I can talk to you, Colleen [Macklin], Richard [Lemarchand], Clara [Fernandez-Vara], and some others because you all will read my stuff or go to my events and actually engage. There are many who don’t, and it feels like they treat us like offspring but are off working and never are home to bond and actually grow a relationship. I really believe the ball is in the court of the people with more access, resources, power, and ability to create a non-hostile meeting grounds.

As for Sage Solitaire, I definitely feel like it’s a game I’m supposed to say has ‘elegant design’ but I generally remain unaffected by these sorts of games. I guess it feels derivative enough for me to feel like it’s something I’ve played before? The game seems to boil down to typical gambling-probability themes, and I dunno, I’m kind of over stuff so heavily influenced by gambling design traditions. It’s like, where does this game fit into my life? I can imagine someone maybe writing about how this game helps them with anxiety or something but that’s a credit to people’s ability to integrate media into their experiences, not that the game leaves room for personhood.



Yes, I think the generational differences are strong, I agree. One big commonality, though: most of us 40-somethings don’t have degrees in games, either. We also came up through comparative literature (Ian Bogost), media studies (Mary Flanagan), film (Tracy Fullerton), art history (me), and other diverse disciplines across the humanities. To my knowledge, Jesper Juul holds the distinction of being the first of us 40+ types to have actually studied games as a student. Still, we all come from disciplines steeped in humanities-based ideas about how knowledge is gained, shared and passed on. And that informs how many instinctually think of younger game critics and designers. And so we are separated not just by generation, but by the traditions of how we frame what we do, and for whom we do it.

A slight aside, but I don’t really think of you all as being the next generation in the academic lineage of game studies, probably because I don’t see myself as emerging from it either. I see you all coming more from the traditions of music criticism, DIY theory and the like from the 70s and 80s.

Anyway, you are right, you all owe no allegiance to us and our work. You aren’t beholden to us in any way, and it is unreasonable for us to think you all should pay attention to us. The analogy of the negligent parent is apt, like a stereotypical absentee parent only coming around when they want something, or when the child has found success on their own. Some of us, we (or at least I) feel a responsibility to pay attention to the younger critics and designers, best I can.

You are right, there are differences between our audiences and our intentions at times. In broadest terms, criticism is a lens for helping interested readers consider works, while academic writing is more professional communication amongst peers. Still, academics need to pull of the same sort of translation work as critics. It is certainly how I think of my writing, though I realize my writing style is often too wonky and dense to actually accomplish that in many cases.

Academic writing moves really slowly in any event. An essay I wrote 18 months ago about the seeds for the indie games phenomenon will finally be out in the spring. That’s roughly two years after the fact. I’ve had to amend the essay numerous times as things have changed around indie games. So the idea of writing quickly about a current game seems nearly impossible to me—both because of my working process, but also because of how things get done in academic publishing. I’ve experimented on my blog with some quicker writing, things that are started and finished in a few days or a week at most. Not sure I’ve got it down yet, but it certainly has led me to admire the speed with which critics and journalists can work through ideas and write.

I also agree that the ball should be in the court of those with more access, privilege, power and resources. The ways we want to do that, though, aren’t always helpful—inviting you to give talks at conferences (but not offering support to get there), asking you to write essays (without compensation), linking to your work (but not considering that we might be sending vultures instead of readers). So it is on those of us who are trying to be part of the solution to be thoughtful about whose problem we are solving—ours or yours. I’m slowly coming to understand more about how to listen to what you all are saying, and not just assume you want to be part of our communities of practice and infrastructure.

I know I have all sorts of blind spots— in my critical (in the academic sense) knowledge, how I understand the world, etc., etc.—and you all help me find them, and hopefully with the new insights, I can address them. I also know that’s unfair of me, to look to you and your peers to help me understand how to do better. It leads me to think more about what I can do in return. The obvious stuff—share references, ideas, experience from nearly 30 years experience as a designer, 16 years as an educator and more than 20 years as an academic—doesn’t seem either wanted nor enough. Perhaps our conversation will help me figure out better ways.

I’m not sure you need to say Sage Solitaire has elegant design (we’ll reserve that for last year’s darling, Desert Golfing). I’m not sure I think Sage Solitaire is elegant either, though I have spent a good deal of time playing it over the last week. It has cut into my usual rotation of Drop7, Two Dots and Triple Town—my go-to idle moment games. Sadly, they end up being the bulk of my gameplay too often, but that’s another story.

My sense is unaffected is an operative term here around games like Sage Solitaire. It isn’t an expressive game, at least not how I think about them. It is just a game, a pastime in the strictest sense, and not really doing anything Tetris or Candy Crush doesn’t already I suppose. The affect is lulling, calming, absorbing, but not revealing, expressing, considering, or other words we might use about work that does mean something in the sense of exploring the human condition.

A while back, I went on an artist’s tour of the Pennsylvania Hotel as part of Elastic City’s annual festival. An artist had spent months visiting the hotel, walking its halls, learning the habits of the hotel’s staff and guests, and generally coming to really know the place. She then constructed a tour she took a group of a dozen of us on one evening. We explored empty ballrooms, corridors, listened to the silence of the halls, visited rooms, and generally came to have a really expressive understanding of a fairly mundane space. It was one of the more enriching art experiences I’ve had in some time.

As we walked through the hotel, I couldn’t help but think about videogames. What would it be like to make a game that provided a similar experience? I was struck by the emptiness of videogame spaces, and how that always just seems like how it should be. But when in similarly empty spaces in real life, they took on so much more meaning and important, and had so much more powerful impact on me than any 3D game ever has. One of the rooms we visited was an abandoned efficiency apartment that appeared to have been hastily abandoned, with most of the furniture removed. Random things remained, though—a small passport sized picture of a man, a calendar, newspapers, a lamp, paper clips. It immediately made me think of “object oriented storytelling,” and how hollow that feels when compared to a real space with real things, presumably left behind by someone.

All of which made me kind of sad about games, that they aren’t able to connect with me in the same way an artist’s tour of a hotel can.

That’s it for now, but more will be up soon! Check out John’s stuff, he’s a cool guy!

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Why Idle Games Need a Takeover

the fire is dead.

the room is freezing.

These are the first words of the idle, or incremental, game A Dark Room, listed next to an unassuming button labeled “light fire.” Pressing it, what I thought was just the title changes to “A Firelit Room,” like I moved to a new game where the descriptions crawl towards illuminating the moody landscape beset by depleting meters. Compelled is the closest word for my relationship with A Dark Room, not addicted in the way games tend to sell themselves, just genuinely interested by its simple existence. I found it after Candy Box became a quick sensation on games twitter, unaware that these two games were the black sheep of a quiet new genre germinating in freeware corners around the net. Exploring the genre lead me to a strange world of games distilled from the feature-stuffed games of contemporary popular culture to the point where calling some of them glorified automated spreadsheets wouldn’t be too unfair. Despite being simple on its face, idle games are starting to catch notice, primed for a moment in the spotlight much games made from Twine or the dubiously dubbed walking games. From what I can see, the trajectory is controlled heavily by self-described core gamers, basing the genre on a certain love of watching numbers climb in a narrow but dominant slice of RPGs. Reflecting on how much I liked A Dark Room and Candy Box to an extent, I wondered what it would be like if we could center the genre more on these games, or better yet, subject the genre to the same ethos that characterizes the recent heavily queer DIY movement and wrestle it from what looks like the next evolution in capitalist-consumer games.

Let’s first see what’s actually going on with idle games to merit anyone’s attention. Its simplicity is deceptive: a number ticks upwards, either automatically or by clicking your mouse, and new things happen as that number reaches a certain value or you spend that number to unlock a feature. Traditionally, these features speed up the entire process or makes it easier, for instance, making the number tick faster or for a click to have a multiplier on what it produces. Time, not necessarily timing, is hugely integral to this genre, and that’s where design occurs. The name of the genre, idle, is furthest from the truth; these games actually preoccupy a small part of your attention over a stretch of time, weaving itself into your life because these games don’t run parallel but with other activities. Unlike conventional game design, which seeks to completely arrest your attention for as long as it can, idle games let you integrate them in whatever way your life allows. This is because these games stress their roles as actors, with their own agendas and methods, like anything else in life. The creepy part about typical human depictions in games is how they always seem dependent on your interaction, waiting around for the dialogue choice or event trigger to make them useful. Idle games can have their own lives, and you’re welcome to share it with them, or let them be. This twists what conventional design constantly sells as interaction and hallmarks of good design. The main draw of an idle game is its mere existence and how that affects you.

A quick look at the kinds of games that make up the majority of the genre, however, can easily repulse people who aren’t into a very particular kind of ‘watch the numbers go up and down’ style of play that is prevalent among RPG fans. In a piece about the history of idle games, Zoya Street cites a talk from the Game Developers Conference by Kongregate’s Anthony Pecorella who wanted to point out how idle games are a Facebook games analogue for core gamers, which he details are the users his company attracts. This is big news for the industry, who are trying to figure out how to merge audiences from the general populations, or that oft-cited 35-year-old woman player base, and that 22-year-old man core video games typically cater to. In the talk, which if you don’t have access you can see Zoya’s tweets, Anthony shows how idle games have an extremely high retention rate, making them ideal for ad-based profit models. The kind of interactions he points out are about emphasizing what it is that appeals to gamers and then translating that into a monetization scheme, which carries on a tradition of conventional game design. It’s worth noting how A Dark Room and Candy Box are considered outliers in this case, which shows a dissonance between critical and popular reception of idle games. Not saying that those two are somehow more authentic or artsy, rather they, especially A Dark Room, point towards a magic, and move the most away from conventions that are easily co-opted by companies. It will happen no matter what, but I’d like to get other artists more interested in this genre before all they see are spreadsheets ironically about you staring at spreadsheets.

Comparisons to games like Dear Esther and Proteus are not completely unfounded; idle games create new interactions through minimalism, or at least, stripping away what we are used to in order to reveal a path covered up by typical design practices. This isn’t new, it’s a precedent set by so-called art games, or not-games, like Tale of Tales’ Fatale or especially The Graveyard. Following this tradition was the explosion of games made out with Twine and the communities and ethos that surrounded it. This was significant because there was a meeting between appreciation for minimalist design and tools that not only allowed you to work with minimalism, but were available to a wide range of people. Good news for idle games that there actually is an idle game maker and the basic interactions of timers and variables can be replicated in Twine. And much like Twine, a little knowledge of CSS and Java will allow you to do more with the idle game maker, which I feel is what gives a creation tool some legs for longevity.

What’s potentially interesting about newer, weirder idle games is how these experiences move along with our daily motions. They usually just take up a tab on our browser, so this opens up play that comments on our online habits; I could easily see games revolving around social media or other analogues to things we typically have open when we’re online. It’s like having a living entity, with its own agenda, brewing away just a couple clicks away. Never really demanding your attention, but always keeping you curious as it what it could be up to. By occupying something as pervasive as a web browser, something many of us have open most of the day, idle games as a genre allow creators to embed projects into the daily lives of people, never making a huge sweep to Say Something Important, but giving credence to growth, change over time, and possibly an intimate bond, when our days would feel different if the game wasn’t there anymore.

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More Than a Beard: How Hot Ryu Turns Thirst Into Critique

If there is one particularly awkward conversation in media critique, I would give the award to discussion surrounding the sexual interests of women, and tangentially, anyone attracted to men. Codified on the ‘obviously bad’ platform of media activism, the objectification and sexualization of women calls into question the pervasiveness of pandering to men’s interests by emphasizing sexual dimorphism based on men being powerful and women being their objects of pleasure. Besides the arguments of this outright not existing or doesn’t matter, the focus on sexualization brought up other inquiries: Can men be sexualized? Should men be sexualized? How exactly do we handle the sexy in our media? As straight women and queer people of all stripes became more visible and part of conversations in games, amorous and sexual interests that veer from the typically televised began to seep in, sometimes turning straight men into subjects to be looked at and allowing others the agency to look and express interest. But what is it that a critic or artist could learn about media and sexuality from the increased visibility of marginalized people? Like a burly angel sent down from on high, “Hot Ryu” shows that not only do people in games want attractive depictions of men, but that men need more thirst-inducing depictions of themselves to battle the toxic masculinity produced by the media, typically by other men.

It might be a little befuddling why there is such a big deal being made out of Hot Ryu. Ultimately, the only difference between him and any other depiction of Ryu is a beard, and sure some people like facial hair on a guy, but why the daddy cat calls and particular interest? So far, the pervasive conversation on sexualization in the media is very narrow in what aspects of a person could be considered sexual and therefore exaggerated to be a main point of focus for viewers. This focus is in line with men’s socialization, that body parts made to be covered up and only hinted at or revealed during intercourse are what can flag as sexual. However this isn’t the whole story, particularly since how men believe they are sexualized in the media, having muscular chests and arms, are not taboo to reveal in public. Because men often control the depiction of their gender in the media, they are looking for other men to identify with their characters, and men are not socialized with the expectation to be looked at sexually. Instead, they are depicted with a physical relationship with power, and men subconsciously expect other people to be attracted to that power. The hiccup is everyone isn’t necessarily attracted to the power men depict for themselves, rather traits that signal what kind of person they are especially as it relates to amorous and sexual activities. Coming from an American-centered industry, the beard, then, evokes qualities surrounding lumbersexuality, a fashion trend of ironic, exaggerated rugged masculinity that often centers around having a beard. It’s important to point this out because the main qualities of lumbersexuals are irony and reference, awareness that straight masculinity is crumbling under its own weight yet refuses to move and save itself. Despite Ryu being a Japanese character in a Japanese game, he can be co-opted into this particularly white American trend by simply being viewed by English-speaking audiences with American-influenced sensibilities, aided by the anime and Japanese video game convention of mukokuseki, or depicting Japanese characters as non-ethic-yet-vaguely-white. While bara conventions surely can be read into Hot Ryu, the lumbersexual is a prevalent mode he’s being interpreted by English-speaking communities accustomed to white-centered beauty. Hot Ryu doesn’t have to be actually white to exist in this context, and can co-exist with completely different reactions from other cultures, like Japan’s, whatever they may be.

Hot Ryu sparked a combination of this ironic masculinity with amorous interest despite what seems to be just a simple addition given the prevalence of grizzled white men in video games. Timing and broader familiarity with feminist analysis plays a part in this. Fighting games are notorious for sexulized depictions of women characters, and with Mika returning to Street Fighter, discussion was back around talking about unnecessary fanservice in an industry that should know better by now. Then out comes Hot Ryu, looking burlier than ever, in a way prepped to be looked at sexually much how the women are. Except it doesn’t work the same, rather, it’s absurd that just a beard would completely change how you see someone. But when beards are tightly wound in lumbersexual discourse, one is inclined to both roll their eyes yet lust after the wearer at the same time. When Hot Ryu became a meme and trend on social media, it wasn’t simply because he was hot to look at, but because his new beard entered him into ironic masculinity. The memes juxtaposed his hypermasculine persona, now moved into commentary because of the beard, against fan imagining of a sensitive and caring boyfriend, a trope contemporary men struggle with and parody through methods like lumbersexuality. Along with a sub-designation of Hot Ryu being Daddy Ryu, evoking the lumbersexual allowed those who like men to extrapolate fantasies in public through the irony men set up for themselves. Because there is a general lack of sexual flagging by straight guys in the media, people who like men outsourced that flagging to other symbols to engage with. Like wearing a red hanky in your right back pocket means you want to get fisted, having a quintessential lumberjack beard might mean you’re struggling with contemporary masculinity by making it a caricature. This means that the basic, yet uncommon, act of making men a subject, not object, of attraction is in itself a kind of critique.

So how does Hot Ryu change the sexualization conversation? Just on the (his) face, we see a reversal of standards on what constitutes something as sexy for consumption, namely complicating the power vs attractive object binary based on men’s socialized and marketed tastes. Instead we see audiences imbue agency through a knowing consumption, making a character a sexualized subject instead of object. The distinction is important, like the difference between retaining agency through choosing objectification, being the objectified subject, and being perceived as inherently an object for use. This creates a basis of critique of masculinity that isn’t solely on straight, cisgender men’s terms, as they resist being objectified through identifying with power and interpreting how they could be consumed through that lens instead of what actually is the case. Most importantly, this appropriation allows alternative visions of masculinity that are uncommon in media dominated by men depicting themselves but will likely relate to men through less exploitative ways as we continue to imagine future masculinities independent of oppressive power structures. The beard isn’t the end-goal, as it is wrapped in a lot of regressive politics, but when looking at strategies to challenge contemporary masculinity, we can cite these sorts of reactions and conversations for men on the ground level to reassess what men in power tell them masculinity is, and how masculinity functions in the everyday lives of those they affect.

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Intimacy and Digital Patina

From embodiment and kink to luxury and tea, I see myself reaching for something solid to hold onto. I feel disconnected from digital art and environments, and resist how much conversation is centered around theorizing the digital. There’s more to play than video games, and a lot can be learned if we stretch beyond this genre and find more relationships in other places concerned with play. Admittedly, there is some distaste, bitterness, for the digital experience within me that I have to grapple with. I feel completely repelled, like a fugue lifted and I see a land of nightmares, and want nothing to do with it. But that would be unfair, and also throw away a lot of work that I’ve done with games. So I wanted to investigate what made me feel so distant from video games that attracted me to the looser, more intimate-feeling play currently grabbing my attention. I want to believe that there is more playfulness that video games has yet to focus on, something that can deepen our bonds to play and life. The tension then lies within the apparent immateriality of digital games, which are still subject to principles of object design yet rarely attain certain qualities of objecthood that we expect from physical experiences.

Video games feel distinctly like products, made for consumption but not necessarily use. It’s easy to enter a malaise of ennui, your Steam library having many games you’ll never touch and mobile games only one slight iteration away from the other. Digital game design is focused on an attention economy, how to grab you, keep you engrossed for as long as possible, and have you spend as much while they’ve got you. Because design is so focused on this kind of consumerism, video games enable cycles of disposability, where you buy something with the knowledge that you’re going to replace it with the next version soon after. This is ultimately unsustainable as we see with companies trying to shove life into harried sequels and remakes. You won’t get too attached because there will always be something similar fighting for your attention, and it is rare that something will be uniquely special to you. Typical game design acts as wedge between player and experience, trying to tap into your short-term worth at the expense of your long-term investment. Video games rarely make you care. You might get to know video games, but video games don’t really get to know you. They keep themselves on the screen and often don’t conjure intimacy with the physical interfaces between you and the experience. It knows you can just load up another game in the same manner that you accessed this one. Because what is being sold is some abstract immersion, a sort of mental drug trip, there is little legacy it can leave behind, having a profound effect through your use. Passing down games will soon go extinct between planned obsolescence and constant hype cycles for the new. Instead, we are left with empty, pandering nostalgia, sucking desperately at a straw and only getting the watered down remnants of a high long ago crashed.

This circles me back to the question of intimacy in games. There is an accepted fault of contemporary video games that intimacy, both in feeling and as a topic, are not its strengths. I doubt that it’s a weakness of the form, rather an outcome of canonized design practices. I have my own hunches for play in general, but digital games in particular prove tricky to find intimacy outside of a now quiet trend of autobiographical games. Is there a design concept out there that can reliably point someone towards crafting more intimate digital games?

My search lead me to digital patina, a technique in user interface design that builds on an apparently divisive skeuomorphic trend popularized by Apple. In short, digital patina creates artificial wear and tear to your digital products as you use them, particularly the ones that are already designed to resemble their physical analogues. So if your contacts app looked like an old-school address book, then there would be signs of usage around the tabs and pages you used the most. Despite handwringing over going into too deep of ideological territory, J. Houge notes “without patina, there is no history. Without history, there is very little attachment to the thing.” This evokes our typical relationship with objects, that it’s harder to part with an heirloom passed down in your family than with something you got at H&M. But this form of digital patina is still a couple steps away from design that helps solidify meaningful relationships, since this is purely about visuals. He cites something closer to what I’m thinking from Mark Boulton, who ties the analogy of digital patina to wok hey:

“In Chinese cooking, a wok is seasoned to make it non-stick. A well seasoned pan will go beyond simply making the pan non-stick. It will impart flavour to the food in what the Chinese call ‘wok hey’, or ‘breath of wok’. You see, to me, Patina is more than surface level sheen, or the aging of something. It’s the flavour. It’s an individual ‘taste’ that can only come from that thing. Not all woks are alike. This one is mine.”

For him, patina would be a practice in making a digital product uniquely the user’s, turning a mass-produced object into uniquely yours through personal use. Meaning, the experience that the product, or in our case, a game, can offer is changed by its unique circumstances. It imbues its idiosyncrasies in everything it touches that differs from person to person.

It’s tempting to assume that games with user-generated content or general sandbox types fulfill this idea. But that’s the topical application, the game itself is still the same and produces the same kind of experience. Though there is a strong player-evangelist edge in contemporary design philosophies, it stays within the digital ephemera, that a player will feel agency but not actually have agency. Agency isn’t really a good word for this, rather an effect, that a player can affect the actual design and use of a game as a part of the construction of the experience. The point isn’t to be able to do whatever you want in a game, rather that a game shapes itself around your natural motions and in turn reads as something idiosyncratic of you.

While it isn’t at the level that I’m thinking of, I see this happen with games like Dragon Age and Mass Effect, particularly with the consequences of actions in one game transferring over to the next. The choices are still topical and don’t really change the game itself, but the way players often talk about the games taps into what I’m speaking to. Look through fan discussion of these games and you’ll see people say “my Shepherd,” indicating that the boilerplate main character has been ‘seasoned’ with their playthrough to amount to a unique character. Speaking from personal experience, there is an investment on having particular kinds of playthroughs, like your ‘fresh’ run that is a result of playing the game without knowledge of any of the choices, and a ‘true’ run that is a meticulously curated save file that has all the choices you feel represents the most interesting story and what you’ll use to base your headcanon. The save files become a part of a legacy that you want to carry with you and retain, and many people grow attached to these personalized kinds of games. I don’t think this exemplifies my argument, rather shows what we can start from in contemporary design to push beyond what we have now.

Games that evolve over time intrinsically have the potential to evoke their own wok hey, because the tiny choices build up over time that build up into unique structures that are hard to replicate. I think about games like Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing that focus on longer cycles of engagement, where you have different ways to save the farm and interact with the village, and while these things don’t quantitatively differentiate too much, the experience that we build up with it makes an emotional impression on, and of, us. In essence, this is trying to make digital games more life-like, things that grow with us than expecting to be cast aside, filling up the trash heaps of our lives. Maybe it’s just me, but I ache for these sorts of games to be iterated on again, to further entrench themselves in our lives. A lot of my fantasy video game projects are inspired by experiences like Harvest Moon and would turn out to be an imprint of your experience. Like playing through a game shows an aspect of yourself that isn’t easily visible without its particular focus.

What patina looks like in game design could still use some discussion. I do have some investment in it though, there’s something romantic about design made for you to personally express yourself through mundanity. The reason why contemporary games don’t really do this well is because all instances of change must be grand and explicitly telegraphed. Life isn’t like that though, we are slow buildups of tiny effects and motions, and it isn’t until we take time to reflect that we see we’re something different from the past. This would be a game trying to translate how you exist, how you affect the world by just being, what it is like for you to just touch something or think a thought. I think we crave those sorts of things, to see reflections of ourselves, to see that we do make a mark and matter. So far, video games mostly tap into sedative design, numbing us to the world so we can feel important or centered in some way. But instead, I think there’s design that can make us feel more alive through the mundane acts in our lives, to find how we move through the world its own kind of magic.

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Things I want the men in my life to know

I’ve gotten to a point, both as someone constantly engaging with social change and as a healthy human being, where I need to actively and thoughtfully incorporate men in my life. This might sound like a strange thing to announce, but it’s actually pretty important, for me and a bunch of other people. Obviously I’ve been close to men before, both as intimate partners and friends, peers and co-workers. As I dive deeper into embodying the change I want in the world, my relationship with men has become fraught. I notice power imbalances, harmful behaviors, and a general lack of understanding when it comes to how oppression and marginalization occurs in day-to-day interactions. While some people can go through their lives with men mostly on the outskirts or in limited quantities, how I move through the world isn’t accommodated by that. My interest in and need of anti-oppression work outside of gender and sexuality requires partnerships with men. The fields I work in are dominated by men, therefore it is likely that the majority of my connections will also be men. And possibly more importantly, I expect to date mostly men, and I want some base understanding that we change the world on the ground level, between people we care about, as much as we do on the policy and media ones.

What follows is a list of notes I created, sort of lessons from what I’ve personally learned from my relationship with men. I’m posting it publicly because I think it will be useful for others, and I want those I get close to in the future to easily find it. I don’t think men are lost causes, and if I refer someone to this list, it’s not that you are particularly bad. No guy is going to need every lesson on this list, nor any of them in the most literal sense. In reality, people of all genders can benefit from following all these thoughts I have, but I want to present them in the context of struggling with contemporary masculinity. As a precaution, I want to remind people that no one is required to educate anyone, especially at their own expense. I’m writing this and making an active effort because I’ve arrived to a part of my life where I do have the want and energy. I’ve tried wrestling with how masculinity affected my relationship with men in the past and realized it all went wrong because I didn’t have the time nor energy for it. No matter what, you, nor I, will be able to grow alone, and we have to learn where we can find opportunity for growth while staying savvy of social issues and how it continues to change us.

Don’t read this all in one go. Skim it, see what strikes you. I want this to be something that serves as talking points for multiple conversations over time, and it starts with awareness. This isn’t a paint by numbers, nor a how-to really. It’s more like some real talk, having it here in writing so you know it’s coming rather than a complete surprise. Some reads as accusatory, and it is a little, but a lot has to do with taking care of yourself. I know it’s long, so I bolded the main ideas in each part. It would mean a lot if you took the time to read it all however, I put work into it!


Where you are now

One of the most difficult things to do when becoming aware of power dynamics informed by oppression is the first: understanding what is immutably you, and what can change. The first line of resistance you will find will come in the form of “I’m just hardwired this way” or “it’s biological,” assuming that some aspect of yourself is just etched in stone and cannot change. While there are some biological and chemical effects that shape who you are, there needs to be a hard look at what you were socialized to do, and what is actually a product of your body. If you didn’t hear it from a personal physician or other medical expert diagnosing you, it’s likely that you haven’t challenged a concerning aspect of yourself enough to know that it’s something you can change. You aren’t bound to some sort of hunter-gatherer method of dealing with women, nor are you more prone to violence because of your hormones. You were trained to be a certain way through cultural socialization since the day you were born. Throughout life, you’ve built yourself around this socialization, so it’s difficult to imagine yourself outside of it. The good news is that there is a you outside of the harmful behaviors taught to you by society, and there are plenty of people in the world who actively resisted and crafted themselves as people to accommodate that. You going to have to fight a lot of “but this is just reality” impulses when it comes to challenging socialization, and it’s ultimately your call what goes and what stays. Just know that it’s going to happen so you can be intentional about what you do decide to keep and let go.

Before going on any self-improvement journey, it’s critical to not put yourself or your progress in a success vs failure binary. There is a particular expectation men have to always be successful and to lose sense of themselves when they are failing. When it comes to challenging how you perpetuate unhealthy power dynamics, you, everyone, will always be a work in progress. There isn’t an end-point, at least, not for us, so you won’t ever be a success nor a failure. Not only does this mean that you can’t frame yourself that way, to either feel complicit in what you accomplished nor eternally damned, but you also will see me that way, as a growing human being trying as hard as anyone else. Not an idol, not perfect, just human, like you.

This process is going to take a lot of self-awareness, a kind of self-awareness you’re not often asked to develop. You will have to have a good sense of your motivations and the reasons why you do things. Society has let you get by with certain behaviors as “quirks” or “that’s just how guys are.” It is important to double-check your gut reactions to see if you’re not throwing around power unintentionally. You’ve been allowed to insert yourself, take up space, and speak over others without comment because it’s expected of you to do it. This doesn’t mean you can’t speak or be places, rather that you’re making sure you’ve taken a second to recognize that you’re not intruding and trampling over others.

Because a lot of socialization is centered around serving masculinity, people who aren’t men are given different metrics of success and relevance, as judged by said men. You probably have heard of objectification and exotification before, behaviors men display towards people who aren’t men that assesses their worth. On top of meeting the standards men create for themselves, objectified people must excel at one exaggerated function men find valuable (being attractive, willing to do unsavory manual labor) and exotified people must fulfill a man’s curiosity based solely on their stereotype (exaggerate certain physical features, act as ambassador to another culture). These attitudes are rarely obvious in day-to-day interactions, but they lie at the very base of how men construct their understanding of other people. This means paying more attention to someone in non-intimate contexts because you find them attractive while unintentionally shunning those you don’t, because their looks are at the core of how you’ve been taught to value them.


How you value

Men are taught to overestimate themselves and people like them. This is often construed only for men that are completely egotistical, but this also affects insecure, self-deprecating men. First, this leads you to assuming you don’t really need to learn or improve at certain things, especially if no one has brought it up to you enough. If you believe you are capable, and there’s a conflict of competency, this casts doubt on the other person instead of you coming to terms whether or not you should be asserting as much confidence as you are. Second, this sets you up for your own failure and losing a disproportionate amount of self-worth because you identify with being capable at everything. You won’t question the competency of people like you as much because of this overestimation, leading to homogeneous environments where everyone looks and acts the same.

In turn, you underestimate those who aren’t like you. If men surround themselves with, and in turn only seem to respect, people who are similar, then difference is seen as a deficit or risk that needs to prove competency. You are more likely to attribute someone being right or successful to luck or outside help if they are different to you. You can undermine other people by tasking them to constantly live up to another set of standards until you are satisfied, if you ever are. This probably sounds very confrontational, but in my experiences it comes out in small, well-intended ways, like doubting whether I can take care of myself or questioning my understanding of my career path despite my success.

Because you’ve surrounded yourself in that kind of dynamic, a homogeneous sorting of people similar to you and those who are different only appearing in instrumental ways, you’ve grown to assume that your logic and boundaries are normative. Since so many people think and act like you, then others are outliers or have problems, while the way you think and the opinions you have are more right because of an assumed widespread acceptance. This is particularly salient with safety concerns, like needing to reach a certain level of informed consent for intimate interactions to assuming that if you don’t feel threatened, no one should. Again, it’s not combative, it’s more that you don’t realize when you cross a boundary because you assume everyone has the same ones, and therefore, you don’t have a good sense of your own boundaries. It’s a challenge, but coming up against the idea that you’re normal, or the everyman, or even an iconic special snowflake that has a prescribed place will really open you up to internalizing that others aren’t inherently inferior to you.

To solve this, accepting that multiple viewpoints and experiences can be right will help decentralize yourself from places you shouldn’t be. Not in a liberal arts class “every opinion is correct” sort of way, but that what you don’t have the facts on isn’t up for your dismissal. Just because you can’t believe something to be true, since it’s never happened to you, doesn’t mean it isn’t. I find that this happens the most when it’s going to make a man feel shitty or that he’s done something wrong and wants to escape feeling guilty. This is particularly crucial to understand for when someone expresses their personal experiences, to not veto them out because they don’t match up to what you understand to be facts, but is instead most likely an incomplete picture. Conflicting personal experiences doesn’t mean one is invalid, work on understanding the world where both and others can exist.



Since we were young, we had different expectations depending on what gender people thought we were. You likely had lower expectations to be capable of skills and behaviors related to relationships and domesticity. Because of this, you unconsciously expect others to pick up that slack, as it is an assumption you wouldn’t be as good so the other should take charge. While it might seem like you’re admitting a weakness or it’s better off that you don’t mess things up, emotional and domestic labor is often forced upon others and not recognized. It is assumed that women in particular will take care of you, and no matter how independent or modern man you feel, you will expect for them to continue doing it for you since you don’t try hard enough to become competent yourself. This sets you and other people for stereotypical problems that disproportionately harms those with less power.

On the flip side, I find that guys expect acknowledgement and sometimes reward for things that should be done out of basic decency. It’s the “nice guy” routine, a guy who will feel ignored or spiteful if it isn’t commented on that he listens, helps, or does any emotional/domestic labor that men typically don’t do. This establishes an exploitative relationship where you will only be decent to someone if they fulfill you in some way. You assume that this is extra or going out of your way while you expect others to do it for you at all times. When you’re asked to do more of it, you will feel like you’re putting in more than you actually do.

Many people want to believe that they are intrinsically egalitarian. The typical man, and probably you, thinks that people of all genders should be treated exactly the same, and believe you’ve acted that way since day one. Unfortunately, what seems like egalitarian to you probably still works in your favor, where you allocate tasks and responsibilities that give you more power, time, and energy than others. You will still gravitate towards “mens work” which is valued more yet doesn’t deal with a lot of daily, unrecognized minutia. You will have to reorganize responsibilities to a system isn’t decided by gender expectations despite what you think your skill level is.

I have this memory of being in a discussion about gender expectations in school that seems really mundane but really twists my guts when I think about it. We were talking about the sexual double-standard between men and women when it came to amounts of sexual partners, where it’s understood that men are allowed to have many and feel good about it while women are shamed for the same behavior. When asked how he felt about it, a classmate of mine said he always knew of the double-standard, and benefited from it, “but that’s just the way things are.” There are more subtle examples of this, such as not questioning that it’s disproportionately women volunteering to run events while you get to participate in them, or a partner staying over your place because you have the more pressing job to get to in the morning. You need to question whether something working in your favor is fair, even if someone doesn’t speak up about it.


Social support

Through both research and my own experience, I’ve found that men don’t have very strong emotional support networks. It’s important that you have a few deep one-on-one relationships with others who are not your intimate partners. Men tend to reserve all their emotional unloading for partners, and this is a really unhealthy habit since you might not always be in a relationship or you have feelings about your relationship that requires an outside perspective. Someone you just do activities with or those you only see in group settings don’t count, it’s a person who you can call up and will immediately listen to all you have to say and allow you emote in every way you want to. Don’t require sexual engagement with someone in order to talk about your feelings.

When reviewing the state of your social support network, there are a couple of things you need to keep an eye out for. First, do you have deep platonic relationships with other men that can talk about issues without usual “man’s talk” about feelings? I find that men are embarrassed to talk to their guy friends about emotions in the first place, but even when they get there, keep it in a crappy “we’re totally not gay” realm where sexism and other harmful attitudes keep spaces between them. Secondly, is your network diverse or only people who are like you? If you can only talk to other men who are most likely in your same position but not willing to admit it, you will be stuck in a toxic echo chamber that doesn’t actually help you and goads you into trying to work things out on your own. You have to make an active effort to have different people around you who have different strengths and can spot when you’re being held up by harmful socialization.

Don’t reserve your “true self” for intimate relationships. While it might seem romantic, it encourages you to keep distant from others and not invite the social support you need. It also pushes you and your intimate partner in a trope-filled “woman tries to fix broken man” situation which is a sure recipe for disaster. It’s common in my experience for men to not feel present in relationships unless it becomes intimate, which commonly marks others as less worthwhile because they are not sexual objects to them. You need to practice being open and forthcoming at every opportunity, and it’s better to do that in low-stakes situations like friendships than waiting and failing in an intense intimacy.

Related, it’s often the case that men aren’t thought of as particularly caring people, and eventually people will assume you don’t really have the capacity to care when you don’t make an effort to show that you do. This means partaking in a lot of the emotional and domestic labor you are accustomed to receiving but not giving, making sure a relationship on any level isn’t one-sided. You tend to only focus on the state of the relationship when it has a clear benefit for you or it’s in danger of being lost, and that is prevented with regular maintenance. You can’t assume that someone knows you care because you are probably not socialized to express it in ways that are visible to others.


Wrestling with vulnerability

This is where it actually gets tough. I haven’t had more struggle with men than when it comes with being vulnerable. In short, you need to become more comfortable with vulnerability, both in feeling and expressing it. Vulnerability comes from strength, not weakness, and you need to tell that to yourself over and over again. Find opportunities where you can practice it safely, and eventually be able to share vulnerability with another person when opportunities come up spontaneously.

You expect people different from you, especially women, to be vulnerable while simultaneously associating vulnerability with weakness. It is exploitative to stall out until the other person opens up and you retain control and power while you decide how much to reveal of yourself. This isn’t necessarily a conscious strategy nor do you do it out of malice. It is another expectation for someone else to do emotional labor for you while you keep everything at your own pace. You ignore the needs of someone else by placing your comfort over theirs, forcing them to pry information out of you until you completely shut down on them.

There is a famous quote by Margaret Atwood that pertains to your relationship with vulnerability: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” There is no doubt that we all feel anxiety and pain and have wounds from our past. You, however, inflate the risk and potential pain of being vulnerable while other people have legitimate, material effects from theirs. It is more likely that a woman will get abused or killed by her intimate partner, date, or friend than by a stranger. Other marginalized people run great risks of being physically harmed or socially destroyed by being vulnerable, and often you don’t run anything near that risk. It’s important to recognize that you feel pain and hurt, just realize that it just takes a band-aid to heal yours while it would take hospitalization for others.

Given this, it’s imperative that you take the first step in initiating vulnerability when it’s appropriate. You run lower risks, such as being embarrassed, than I do, such as being socially ostracized and/or killed. This will begin to reverse the cycle of you expecting emotional labor and establishing a power dynamic that allows you to keep distant. This could mean speaking up when someone does or says something shitty when a person would risk being silenced and you wouldn’t. This also includes being involved with someone’s safety in environments that are potentially hostile to them, especially if you brought them there.



Not only is it a pervasive trope, but it is well researched that men don’t have as strong communication skills that they expect women to have. So, to put it simply, you honestly need to learn how to communicate emotions well. You hear it all the time, that communication is the most important part of relationships, yet you put off actually understanding what that means and how to get yourself to be a deft communicator. This means learning to reflect, identifying your emotions, and sharing them with someone else. We all communicate in different ways, but expecting someone else to read your mind or just not care about feelings at all is actively harmful and a common thing men do.

While speaking and contributing your input is important to communication, listening is so much more. Listening isn’t just hearing what the other person is saying, it’s understanding why they said what they did, believing what they feel, and remembering it for when it’s relevant. When someone is speaking, you shouldn’t be selective about the information you choose to hear so you can form a rebuttal, even if it’s to help them. Sometimes people don’t want your input or to do anything other than listen, and listening should signal that for you. Listening is doing something.

As I’ve said before, socialization affects you to your core, down to how you conceive and understand yourself. You’re trained to control and numb your emotions instead of feeling them, leaving you distant and unsure of how anything actually affects you. You have to resist this impulse, and it will be difficult (but that’s what you have a support network for!). Instead, you need to lean into what you’re feeling, letting it overtake you so you can accept it for what it is. Sometimes this is going to feel uncomfortable, or give you a moment of shame or embarrassment, but especially around people who are important to you, it’s vital to actually feel the full range of your emotions and be able to name and share them.

There is this pernicious free pass we give to men in being ambiguous or misleading about their intentions, especially when it involves intimacy. I’ve found this exists because you were socialized to objectify and exotify people you are intimate with, and that instrumentalizes your relationship to them. You are willing to lead others on as long as you’re getting what you want, and cutting out before they can demand too much of you. Again, this isn’t some villainous plot and you probably aren’t actively thinking this way. Instead you believe you’re just independent, wanting something like sex but not intimacy, or interested in some experience but not looking to actually invest in the relationship like the other would want. It is important to be 100% forward, without being asked, about your intentions with other people, even when you suspect the other person might not be completely on board if you divulged your true feelings.



In both what I’ve experienced and studied, many of men’s problems stem from being unable to ask for help. You are socialized to take care of yourself and that needing help is a weakness that diminishes who you are. There are going to be many times where you think it’d be inappropriate or bad to ask for help, and you have to fight those impulses. Again, asking for help comes from a place of strength, not weakness. The mistake is overestimating yourself and paying for it in the long run, not relying on other people to help you out.

Asking questions is vital for communication, especially understanding someone who is different from you. Not only does this make you seem interested and present, but it allows someone to fill in information where you probably have a stereotype or something misleading you learned through media. Be sure to offer as much information as you are requesting so the interaction isn’t one-sided and turns into you keeping control of the exchange.

You need to be careful of the kinds of questions you ask of the people who are different from you. Don’t treat someone as subject to your idle curiosity and ask something invasive. It seems like an extra step, but you should ask someone if they are comfortable with a particular line of questioning before you potentially exotify them. This also involves seeking consent in all situations that involves someone’s personal space, such as being touched, using their things, or wanting intimate information. A general rule of thumb is don’t ask for anything you wouldn’t be willing to disclose yourself, and to not assume what another person is comfortable with sharing.

Men are likely to skip out on their regular physical and especially mental health, and that compounds on your ability to deal with new things such as practicing vulnerability and confronting hostile masculinity. If you can afford it, get regular physical and mental check-ups instead of waiting to see a doctor when there’s a crisis. If you haven’t given therapy a go, you really should give it an earnest try. Find a man about your age that can relate to you and your problems and use that time to express things you’re not ready to share with friends and intimate partners. Going to professionals isn’t just for the explicitly ill and it takes strength to seek help of any sort.


And there you have it, one huge list of things I’ve tracked over time on what I believe affects my relationship to men. Some things are just what you need to be aware of, and others can be put on a to-do list. You’ve probably read or heard most of this advice already, but now it’s framed on how being more self-aware isn’t just for your benefit, it’s also to help out people like me as we continue to fight for respect in our society. We may be budding friends, colleagues, or lovers, and I’m bound to bring this up at some time or another. So I figure it’s best for this to be out there, so you can visit it and just check in with yourself about what you can do to help us both out. Because I really do believe change starts from the connection between two people, and I’m ready to make a difference with the people in my life, including the guys.


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Assimilation and the Double-Bind of Respectability

The story of my hair is very long. Emotional, and not exactly complete. Here and there, I would seek out information online about what to do with my hair, only really diving in lately once I got past a jargon wall and product idolatry. I realized how a facet of fashion and beauty from the 90s, particularly beloved R&B women, grew out of maintenance practices for coarser hair. As I twisted my hair into bantu knots and wrapped a scarf around my head before bed, I felt a fashion flashback that isn’t getting as much coverage as boho chic, feeling an undeniable connection to a time when black and brown artists elbowed their way into pop culture and have stayed ever since. Despite this being appropriate for my hair texture and exactly what I should be doing to hair, I feel a bit of a sham. I didn’t grow up surrounded by friends and family members in twists and wraps enough to associate with it, and I’m aware of the continued exploitation of black culture by people in places of privilege. On top of increased vigilance of people wrongly claiming to be black, I am often exasperated when I need to talk about race, or specifically, my race. Am I black? Am I black enough? These kinds of questions are very familiar to me.

My relationship with race and class stem from biological family, now estranged but the first influence every therapist asks for. They are both from the Caribbean, having moved to the US in the 80s and relying on my father going through college to turn up something for them. My parents a multi-racial themselves, which isn’t really remarkable in the Caribbean, but it made things confusing for me here. Enough people bothered me enough that my lineages became a chant of sorts: “Jamaican, Indian, German, Trinidadian, Palestinian, and Venezuelan.” Did I really feel like I was from any of these countries? No, not really, I described myself as distinctly American, which I didn’t understand meant assimilating with a particular white, middle class-ness. Immigrant parents have a way of goading their children into the assimilation vs roots dynamic, and mine, well-intentioned, took it as far as they could. I rarely went to schools in my neighborhood, often the least well-off person in a group of friends, yet a ‘spoiled American’ to my parents. I became ‘not one of those people,’ groups of black and latin@ kids who strongly identified with their or their parents’ country or neighborhood of origin, to my school friends. I internalized that, spurned by frequent calls of oreo and taking to faux-intellectual punk and/or queer kids as an outlet of not fitting in. But because those spaces remained populated by mostly white people, my role in resistance was being the exotic, the other in service of white people’s fantasies. I’m held to a high standard of respectability as someone who is both not white nor cisgender. I can see my stock go up and down depending on how I wear my hair, what clothes I wear, and how much makeup I have on.

Upon learning more about activism and the many methods of resistance, I know there are parts of me that come up against and even alienate people of certain radical politics. I don’t think that I’ve done, or am doing, anything wrong; I would go as far as saying I don’t have a larger than typical amount of internalized racism, classism, and other harmful systems. Rather, I am responding to my circumstance in the best way possible, and any critique of complicity, which indeed has come my way, is ignorant of the context in which my behavior exists in. I’m pretty self conscious about my love for fashion, a love that came as a coping mechanism for a very real dress well or die pressure. I’ve walked in an interview that was over in 3 minutes, a man looking me up and down and clearly not liking what he saw. I got a job when I straightened my hair, wore makeup, and got clothes that I needed to own for years in order to not be a complete splurge. Of course, one of the first things my coworkers said to me was that I looked like I spent too much time on beauty.

People today say I have an inaccessible beauty, I’m too academic, I’m too professional. I have internalized classism. Of course, the people who say this are typically white, queer people who come from middle to upper-middle class backgrounds and had the confidence to leave that and get by on lower amounts of income, because their backgrounds will always be with them. I don’t get to be trash queer, I don’t get to be anarcho artist love pile in the woods. When I first moved to San Francisco, I stayed in a hostel downtown while looking for a room to live. Within two weeks I was stopped four times in public, in broad daylight, by men assuming I was a sex worker, bringing along the usual shitty attitudes people have towards them. When I dated a man who worked in the Financial District, I could feel all those eyes as I waited for him on the side walk. I don’t get to be anything less than respectable on other people’s terms, there is no enlightenment for me to throw it off, because I’m not throwing off middle class life, just a desperate mirage. When I look around and the women who are supported, who get’s who’s dollars, who is in who’s book, I can tell that I never fully integrated into any community around here. I’m trans for black people, and brown for the queers, the kitchen sink for everyone else, when they want me. It’s not uncomplicated, I try to find the joy in the position I’m stuck. You see, this respectability thing, it goes two ways. From the people who aren’t like you, and from those who are.

Blackness, queerness, these things are summed up to be monolithic experience, something that you need to be close enough to in order to qualify. If you don’t look or speak enough of the part, people question your authenticity. I think it’s a mistake, especially with blackness, to not see the identity itself in a diaspora, spread far and integrated, surviving, in different ways. That everything about me is black at the same time that it is every other race in my blood. Making assimilation the opposite of progress goes the same way of the alternative becoming mainstream, being another list of customs one must ascribe to in order to ‘authentic.’ I’ve been thinking of this word a lot lately, authentic, what is authentically me. And as I started to dig, I found parts of me buried under this double-bind, too different from the norm, not flagging enough for the rebels. A part of me is sad that it won’t be contributing to one community or another, but I think it’s time I did something for myself, despite what others say.

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