The Lost Woman in Games

Last week, I’ve had five bowls of chai.

I hid on the top floor of the mall in downtown San Francisco, under the dome, which is apparently historic for something I’ve never figured out, except that I could get the best wifi and privacy while in the busiest part of the city.

At the cafe up top, they would always ask me, “sweet, or spicy?” I am often thrown by questions like these, which I’ve most often got after I moved to the bay area. “Spicy” has more definitions than “game” I’ve found. I have to do a couple of quick checklists, one, what race does this person think I am and, two, what kind of spice are we talking about. When I lived in the Mission, and frequented my local Chinese delivery, I had to type “not white people spicy, real spicy” into the textbox before I could actually taste any flavor in my food. So this “sweet, or spicy?” was a double attack, one I wasn’t prepared for, each of the five times I ordered it. They offered to do a little of both, which tasted like a normal chai.

I hid on the top floor of the mall because it was the Game Developers Conference, and I was kind of terrified. The Sunday before, a random person took a picture, with flash (the gall), of me on the way home, which spooked my paranoia about stalkers that would make the effort to travel out to the bay to harm me. If I wanted to see anyone, I had to be nearby the conference, so while I was by myself, I was slurping spicy sweet chais from bowls, tucked away where I hoped no one would find me.

It was smooth sailing for the most part, I didn’t have a breakdown until Thursday, to which I congratulate myself for holding out strong. I think it was probably because I wore the most demanding of shoes in the beginning of the week and was too tired to process the dark theater that is GDC. Thursday started with going to a Women in Games lunch held by Xbox, which I was graciously plus oned into since, I guess, I was never really a woman in games to Xbox. To be fair, my only interaction with one was kicking it down stairs.

And Xbox did it feel. Sometimes, in the bliss that is an artist’s life, I forget that corporations are a thing. That entities of pure bureaucracy and exploitation rule our world, and they have their own speak and gestures and ways about celebrating Women in Games. Salads that look like a forest that might have little critters living in them, and French-style chicken but without the weight of butter, as anything with fat in it is banned from any San Francisco event that wants to make a good impression.

I noticed a theme about who was present, or, who was spoken to during the presentations. Mostly, 40+ women were successful and in similar places as men counterparts and under 21 women and girls who now have money thrown at them to learn how to code and eventually join these matriarchs in the industry. Of course, not a mention of harassment, discrimination, or abuse was mentioned the entire event.

“Women in Games” as a term and in some circles I’m familiar with, pejorative, isn’t in the sole domain of any company or organization, rather it is a stereotype. It is the games industry’s Lean In women, those who go to the bat with the big boys and basically become one of them despite what it asks of them. It’s also the young women in school who are now the panacea for all of the medium’s woes, since now all these companies are pouring funds into initiatives to get women into STEM fields for penance, and to show that they are, indeed, on the right side of history for diversity.

Besides not being in the industry, not being school-aged nor wanting to code, while also not being established in my 40s, Women in Games events often feel like a sham to me, its own kind of performance to show that the industry is ‘doing something.’ But what about me? When does that money trickle down to independent artists who don’t wish to join in the highly exploited games workforce?

I am not completely astonished that people in the industry, trying to do damage control, don’t want to point out how the people who received the most abuse, who push the hardest, are not in the games industry proper. They are women media critics and independent developers, and our suffering is being used to make companies look good. Now they can make some offhand comment about how they don’t condone harassment, donate to one of the many programs for teaching girls to code, and be absolved.

Except, people like me never see that support. We aren’t girls who need to learn to code. We aren’t women who want to be churned through the gears of an entertainment industry. I feel like, with my age, skin color, identity, I am in some sort of lost generation of women in games. The ones that our forebears, the generations above us, has already given up on. I say this with friends in that generation, who do try to mentor me when they have the chance, but because I’m an artist in my position, not part of their structures, I won’t ever really get that sort of time and access to resources.

I went back to the dome, and to the bowls of chai, when the #1ReasonToBe was on, finding myself emotional. Despite being on the panel in its debut, I didn’t feel like I had a reason to be in the games industry in any form. Yet, I felt regret. Hearing how women were fighting to stay in, that the biggest “fuck you” to haters was working harder. They were starting projects and initiatives, and people drank up their fervor and hope. I felt like a coward, like I made the wrong decision. Should I be involved in everything, pushing back, fighting even harder than before? Can I really feel left out of something I’m not a part of anymore? Is it right to feel all this wanting, some envy, of placement and community when I’ve decided to step back? I would look up to the center of the dome, fighting back tears, hoping gravity would just take them back down from whence they came.

Then it was off to the Game Loading movie premier. I was filmed by crew for it at last year’s GDC, though it seemed pretty clear I wouldn’t be playing a major role in it. I was of two minds, since the documentary was looking to explore indie games, and I myself don’t really identify with that culture. Maybe, since, again, I’ve worked so hard to carve my own path, I shouldn’t really expect to be ever be featured or centered in such productions, though I admit being seen as a bit of an afterthought kept my ego in check (I ended up only saying two words in the finished film, “RPG Maker, Twine,” which about sums up my relevance to indie game culture).

What was disappointing, alienating, to me, was on my way out, the directors commented to me that I was the first person to say anything critical of indie games and the community of developers around it. While I’m not really surprised, it showed to me how I myself also wasn’t being served by this narrative. So Game Loading comes off more as propaganda to me, very squarely positioning the current indies to be the indies of the 20th century, poised to replicate the same systems and the follow the same cycle. A cycle that doesn’t really have a place for me. I feel like there is a grab, consciously or not, for image control over games, and it looks like people are more willing to forget us here on the ground floor. Again, Indie Games is more of a stereotype at this point, in some instances, it’s own pejorative, than a specific sect of people. Most of the people I like who saw the documentary loved it, and are excited for it to permeate larger culture.

I fear for others. I fear for those who will be suckered in because the industry, both large and independent, want to seem diverse. Yet there isn’t any staying power in these maneuvers, they just want enough women on the brochure to make everything seem it’s better than it actually is. Minoritized people are asked to martyr themselves, from entering a field that is broken and exploitative to fielding harassment from hundreds of nerds, all because the industry is ‘worth it.’ I feel like that was me some years ago, so eager to be included, only to see the horror show past the gilded doors. And I think of those who’ve come and went, and no one remembers their names anymore.


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“It’s Progress” – I Won’t Wait for Video Games to Validate Blackness

I guess it’s my turn to do a Black History Month post, that I didn’t think I’d be doing. Mostly because conversations that pop up around race, and seem to mainly come only during this month outside of a few dedicated writers, frustrate me. I’m frustrated like I am with any sort of discussion that centers around any representation, but with blackness especially, within American history having set a path for civil rights for so many other people, blackness is still waiting for their time. That’s the majority feeling I got from watching and reading some pieces on race in games this month, even though I know there is restlessness. They grumble while they do it, but still say, “it’s progress.” I’m an impatient gal so:

fuuuuuuuuuuuuuck thaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat

Why? Why, exactly, must we deal with the breadcrumbs that corporations dole out? In a way, progress is not what we want, when we’re forced to play by someone else’s timetable. And even now, the progress we do have, would our forebears honestly nod and pat us on the shoulders, to commend us for this bold step forward for racial justice? Can’t we just give words to how fucked it is?

I will not wait or settle for what AAA video games has to offer non-white people, and I think it’s unhealthy to propagate this progress narrative. I commend those who do actively create and interrogate past the representation aspect of games. This isn’t to shit on all the non-white people who are trying to handle this fucked industry, rather, I want to be the anger we aren’t allowed to have. We don’t need more non-white people in AAA. Actually, that’s a death wish for what we actually want.


Instead we want creators and critics who are as free from the direct marginalization companies exert as we can get them. If we are stuck in the system, to wave our hands and yell for them to get before it’s too late for them too. To build a community and discourse on the outside, not find out that their golden ticket trapped them in the tubes of industry.

Work that fully realizes race as an active force of culture is done by those people, for those people. White people who enjoy it are incidental, welcomed when respectful and engaged, but incidental. We don’t need to go along with the ‘something for everyone!’ song and dance. I get that popular works have larger reach, but really, how often do popular works even outside of games really speak your story in comparison to the dominant identities? Black people are still waiting for all other mediums dominated by white people to catch the fuck up to them. And, somehow, we hang onto this pale glimmer of a hope that one day we will have our The Color Purple played over dubstep at E3? For the AAA industry, white people will never be incidental.

I am not, of course, telling non-white people to just ignore all of video games until problems are solved. Instead, I want people to actively rip apart and appropriate the shit out of video games. Talk about how we are made to be monsters. Say it, we are seen as monstrous. I am a monster, and I can find those a-plenty in video games.

Aptly, I played Dragon Age: Inquisition the evening it came out, because I am a sucker for the series. I would put it next to my equally trashy but trying copy of The Bone Palace (and say 10 Hail Butlers before bed each night to repent) if I could. I decided that the first race I would try out would be the Qunari, a mostly elusive ‘race’ that were clearly the most othered, constantly being in conflict with the rest of the world, generally darker-skinned, different belief system. I tend to pick the most ‘other’ in the series, because incidental commonalities and commentaries crop up in the most poignant and cruel ways. While the other races are basically other shades of human, Qunari are like the orcs, obviously the one that doesn’t belong. And I felt that: when the world saw that my character was the center of the story, they were like, what the fuck? You? I would put on strange bright green masks and tower over all my love interests, always sticking out, shuffling, stammering, trying to roll with the offensive comments. People would openly mock me, assume things about me, expect me to educate them. On other playthroughs as other fantastical races, I found out that people are just generally nicer and more attracted to you when you’re not Qunari. To put it lightly, I was alienated, and it felt right. This is my life, this how blackness and queerness intersect in my life. By feeling like a monster no one wants around. For being obviously different and trying to pass in a culture unprepared for me. Fumbling when someone expresses interest in me and seeing how awkward it is, but they seem to not care, how cute I don’t get it. I’m sure if you went to the writers of BioWare, they aren’t going to applaud themselves for having black and queer monstrosity depicted well enough in the treatment of the Qunari that it felt more queer to me than any of the more on-the-nose occurrences. I believe in the blackness that didn’t mean to show itself, that slipped out from the unconscious, and I named it. I don’t necessarily commend or damn the game for only speaking to how I am a monster to society, instead, I will fully take in that monster, and I will show its ugliness, I will make you look at me in the face as you recognize, that in the back of your head, you were taught that I am an atrocity and I will own it. That is my experience, and no game realizes that without my reflection. I don’t have to sit and hope that I will appear in a game and save the day. Instead, I will morph the sublimations of society into my image and wreck the place.

C’mon y’all, stay angry.


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Static and Noise About Bodies

I confess that, with blankets wrapped around my legs and Homo Ludens opened to pages 2 and 3 crunched beneath an elbow, I’ve watched and rewatched Ghost in the Shell instead of researching like a good little faux-academic. While interviewed in New York, I ad-libbed an answer wanting to understand the ‘ghost’ of a video game, ghost in this context being what the main character of the movie refers to as her spirit, or what it seems like in the cyberpunk milieu, the essence or instinct that comes with humanity that an artificial being cannot have. The use of ghost is, appropriately, haunting, recognizing the human is dead and present only in some supernatural form trapped inside machinery. In the movie, a program gains a ghost after spending enough time connected to the net, which is consistently described with ocean imagery, a collective unconscious of the augmented living. This new sentience and the main character are posed as mirror images, living reflections of one another. I find myself thinking about play experiences gaining a ghost once submerged in human context, and how it pines for a body to live out its newly gained humanity.

Like in many cyberpunk narratives, bodies are blurred, often made grotesque. Ghost in the Shell questions, when the ghost moves from one body to the next, how is that new entity still the same? Bodies are masks, sentimental ones. The body, I find, is an abandoned metaphor in these sorts of narratives, quickly discarded as a mental stepping stone to the question about humanity. It feels wrapped up in tropes surrounding technology and the kind of people typically associated with making it, who loathe the limits of their body. They want to escape from reality, escape their physical form, and once they can do that, they will finally be powerful beings.

Because the medium of play is largely colonized by the dominant culture surrounding technology, involvement and exploration of the body is frequently absent. To many games and surrounding discourse, the player is a pair each of eyes and hands attached directly to the brain, staring unflinching as they imagine systems and methodically tap and click. This extends even to sports and many physical games, which imagine the body as, ultimately, one large controller without a reflection on that transformation in the experience itself, though we see efforts to augment this with transmedia like documentaries and journalism. This is not to say nothing happens with the body, or feelings concerning bodies don’t arise, rather that they are marginalized in the culture surrounding these kinds of play in spite of how fascinating they may be (and there are projects I’m working on to exploit just that. Alas, for another time).

I see this detachment from the body eptimized in the glorification in what might be called the magic circle, or at least, the belief that the game is separated from the rest of reality in some manner. While most will concede that this separation is porous, the concept is deployed in a way that excises play’s relationship with the body. We are alienated from full experience and appreciation of play when the body is erased from design and interpretation. I am speaking in a lineage of critique that can be most relevantly, maybe, found in queer of color criticism of queer theory, where the focus on texts stems from the normalized whiteness, and how bodies (sometimes called ‘sites,’ as in the site of conflict or site of resistance) and their subjective experiences. I find this parallel to many complaints of games being read as just a text, though I would move past that and say things like design are also texts; the particulars of each individual subject is erased, or in my experience in criticism, actively marginalized.

There is a resistance because bodies are complicated. Incorporating subject(ivitie)s decentralizes the game object and forces designers and critics to ponder the infinite relationships bodies can have with an experience. Controllers in particular throttle the ways bodies can be recognized in the design, and is probably the main agent in the absence of body subjectivity in critique. It is impossible to know how another’s bodily reaction will be to an experience, and that exactitude is only necessary for products that promise it. That class critique is also underrepresented might hint as to why these sorts of connections are rarely traversed outside of particular, minoritized niches. Right on the surface, the lack of awareness of bodies assumes a typical body, most definitely excluding those who don’t have it and their experiences. And further on, there is a distinct lack of internalization, digestion, and reflection baked into these experiences.

I find that we don’t often pay attention to how we are affected by play, just that games affect and we are affectable. A game will have fun in it, and somehow we will feel entertained. What is that link in the middle, between the ghost of the game and us? Our bodies are the site of play, where meaning occurs, willing or not. ‘Player’ is a misnomer, when they are considered active agents of intention. We are simply living. In my experience of more sensory-explicit experiences, like course meals and perfumery, this process is inverted. Objects and subjects dissolve into each other, until they become inseparable. The subject is pulled through their own landscape of body feel and associations, yet that these objects affect a politic, and that the subject is susceptible to their influences, seems largely understated if not missing. Or maybe because most art surrounding the body is considered profane, and mainly for titillation, that this process isn’t as emphasized, much like what many games confront now. Either way, it is difficult for those arts to not account for the body, though there is definitely a case for class critique to complicate that. How themes seem to repeat themselves.

What I’m getting at is further awareness of how play is currently occurring with our bodies. The act of touching, the act of seeing and hearing. Not simply to the fact that we are doing those things, because we do them all from different positions, or maybe not at all. Critique that doesn’t fall to body normativity, that incorporates living experience and expounds on the blurring borders between self and play. Where the ghost of the game joins theirs. Games that don’t center immersion, rather the opposite, to prick our senses and remind us that we are alive, that we are more than moving around in disjointed shells.


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Our House

Community. Strangely, now, a dirty word in the context of social media. I’m not entirely sure what’s going on with it, when it comes to games. Maybe it’s going through usual gestations, a process that completed cycles before I was ever a twinkle in Twitter’s eye. History and repetition and all that.

It wasn’t until some hindsight that I realized how much of my involvement in social media was novel for my time in games. It’s easy to forget that people have different relationships with social media, where some, like myself, see it as a complete lifeline and was the birth of my involvement in games, where others only use it to keep up on the news when they have the chance to look at their phone and have no idea about the culture that has bubbled from it.

I remember a friend describing that one day I just walked onto Twitter and there I was, doing my thing to get where I am now. Still haven’t processed that ‘where I am now’ bit, but I can’t ignore it’s in some form successful and atypical. The access of social media meant I could almost literally will myself into existence and relevance, and that willpower has to continue in order to retain it. My path is nothing short of strange, I was crowd-funded to go to GDC only 5-6 months after I started writing blog posts, and continued with that momentum to travel all over the world to speak to and meet many different people.

The idea that my exposure was mostly from just effort and charity enabled by social media wasn’t something many people, including myself, understood very well. That, just through engaging in enough conversation, in participating in the ever spinning cycles of current events, I could gain legitimacy, or notoriety. And it compounded on itself, picked up in speed, until I finally crashed into a wall my body couldn’t handle.

In my journey, I’ve met many people who’ve gained recognition in a more typical manner, by working in the industry or academia or media for a very long time and going through the grind. The idea that my name or work was known in some manner, back in 2012 and maybe even today, connotes I’ve done something similar, that I have the social and monetary backing of my perceived success. In a way, we were ‘equals.’

At the time, I admit, I was full up on this prospect. This isn’t to say I slacked my way into my position, I had to output a 1000+ word article a week, pro bono, on top of my low-wage job, where I dealt with people and their tantrums over the exact weight of whipped cream they wanted on their coffee. But that those who many people respected because of their legacy and influence, somehow, now respect me in some capacity because I’m extremely persistent on social media? Yes please.

I was taught two things: first, fake it ‘til you make it. Especially in the jungle of social media, there are so many voices that people will only really take time to consistently read you if you’re considered interesting but more importantly an expert. I’ve come to find most people, especially in the media but definitely all over, are doing this. Like some secret of adulthood is that everyone is pretending to know exactly what they are doing and they are expecting you to at least put up the front of having your shit together, or better yet, can tell them how to get their shit together. I feel like this is particularly needed and damaging to critics who primarily use Twitter for their wellbeing and lifeline to games conversations. They have to put themselves forward if they are ever going to get read. I’m sure there are many critics of the way I do things, and that I come off as cheating the system and rather self-important. If you want to get any amount of capital from social media, you have to do this. Yet, it has its consequences. Games twitter is like a cul-de-sac that has neighborhood rules and on top of that each house has its own set. The cool house with all the radical critics and activists is the house with the most amount of rules, most paranoid about assault and trespassing, and constantly swarming in a forever on-going conversation of what’s wrong and how to fix things. But on the outside, they try to keep up with the high standards of the cul-de-sac, mowing their lawns just right, making sure things look like professionals are around, not poor, struggling artists. Which leads me into the second thing I’ve learned, summed up by a mentor, of “believing your own bullshit.” Imposter’s syndrome is abound, and these voices are continually dismissed and overlooked, so in order to overcome feelings of not being good enough when we actually are, we have to believe the image we put out, that we ARE experts, we ARE successful, we ARE whatever that will make us be treated the way we want to be treated.

These two things cycle endlessly on one another, where emerging artists and voices can’t ‘rise,’ they can’t ‘emerge,’ they must act like that final stage of what they envision of themselves. It wasn’t until someone else had told me “it must be terrifying doing all this on social media, you are forced to grow with everyone watching.” It wasn’t until recently that I found out I haven’t been growing because I was too busy trying not to be overlooked and dismissed.

And we’ve been doing a good job of this. Radical creators output a lot more, smaller pieces of work than people who are traditionally successful, so everyone is always seeing what we’re up to. And while they might not exactly consider us the same kind of successful as them, the ability to have many people see a lot of your work so easily does look like extremely successful and in a way, and equal to what they are doing.

So when an academic or auteur-dev sees our house, sees that it looks like his from the outside, so it must function the same inside as his, he just walks in and says what he wants. Cue the slow head-turn in unison and reaction of the hivemind that believes it is under attack. This collective unconscious is brutal, it’s even been used against people in the house, yet it is also one of the only things that keeps any semblance of protection from the constant threats from the rest of the neighborhood. It could be ultimately unhealthy, but really, where exactly were our ethics and healthy organizing on Twitter talks from our parents? We are the ones, now, being invited to talks about advocating and creating on Twitter, and I’m sure a lot of those seminars look grim.

Here is what I know, and I realize I am in a good place to do this and it is why I have this knowledge: the people who do walk into the house, ignorant, are well-meaning and confused. Confused because they don’t realize what starting your presence in a field on Twitter does to you, and what kind of warped communities and practices exist they aren’t inoculated to. In our effort to be taken seriously, our presentation gives off signals that others pick up on as being a part of the same circles, therefore customs and situations must be relatively the same. They quickly find out how wrong and wrapped up in power dynamics these assumptions are through weeks of trying to understand how a group of 20-somethings know to say the most cutting and divisive things. I’ve seen this happen over and over and over again these past few years, where someone established really wants to come over, but the culture is so different and requires them to be self-aware about things they aren’t asked to be before, that their only option is to blunder into den of protective foxes with really great hair.

One could say, because of this, and because of my weird travels through social media into the offline lives of many people, that I sometimes act as a liaison of sorts. I see the difference between the person on social media and the one in reality. I am actually really excited to have conversations with them, especially when I can express myself and my concerns in the middle of conversation instead of in a manifesto after a Twitter storm. This is because they have had a chance to cultivate something with me, personally. That doesn’t stand for social media communities, I have no city keys.

Which is to say, I really prize efforts of inter-generational conversation, because there is history and resources the established have that could have a mutually beneficial effect with social media radicals. Just, few of these efforts have gone very well.

To give my fellow critics and creators a break, we are constantly on the defensive for a good reason. The consequences of this behavior is weighty and under-discussed, for sure, but so far is the best strategy for survival people could come up with.

Instead, I want to encourage and challenge people in established positions in the industry to learn more about our house and the people who are in it, and understanding how we came here and the particular pressures we face. In a way, you have to build trust first before you can fully engage. This takes time, you have to hang around and reference their work and show in more than just words that you actually know their thoughts and positions and value them. I know this seems like a tall order since we are constantly putting out writing and constantly bickering on Twitter, but, as the metaphor stands, it’s our house.

Right now, many of us see the media and other thinkers profiting off of our work and culture. Twitter is milked for topics to discuss, but the progenitors of those conversations won’t ever be asked to write for a fair rate. People will give talks that reference or combat our ideas, but we won’t be invited to give talks for a fair wage. We spend countless hours raising awareness and battling the sludge of the industry others profit from, but we won’t be given awards, recognition, jobs, or anything. And that’s sad, it’s a series of missed opportunities.

I know that to people on the outside, radical creators and critics seem unapproachable and out of touch. We want everything of yours to burn down while we redistribute the remaining resources. But really, what I think is going on, is we’ve have a growth of talent and no room made for them, and the pushback against them only gets stronger. There are already interlopers, the ones who show up to our scrappy events, or link our articles, or RT us. Believe me, we see who is involved and who doesn’t seem to bother themselves to show up in non-confrontational ways. I know there are many people who want to reach out, be involved. Get to know us as people, as comrades, and I think we can change things, together, with our powers combined.


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Complicating Freedom of Speech and Nonviolence

Pulling back from social media has its perks when you can get away with it. I am often less upset and hurt, and it’s easier to see the flow of trends and how thought travels. It’s interesting, I know I’m missing huge swathes of reactions and emotions on Twitter, but usually these arise in think pieces, still with that immediate feeling. Then, there are people on slower social media like Facebook who then publically mull over said passionate think pieces, and you get a range of reactions and a couple of names to unfriend quietly. The best part has yet to come though: the reactions to the reactions, which tend to be longer, more dense, and funded, and if not done perfectly, pedantic and moralistic. By then, people have staked out and mostly excommunicated anyone who isn’t on their side, including self-dubbed moderates who only party with other middlers.

This was most interesting for me around the time of “Je Suis Charlie,” not necessarily the shooting, and Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Januarys, for some reason, hold a paradigm shift for how I look at activism and its effects on social media. I watched people, typically self-identified liberal/progressive, struggling with their respect for “first world” values while trying to answer to the calls of racism and colonialism by these events. It’s very stark, how minoritized people on Twitter really bring their lives and perspectives out to share, advocate, and make visible, and how that is consumed by others. Like I’ve said before, it’s a twisted entertainment, because it takes so much for those watching to actually internalized what’s going on, if even at all.

I saw a lot of liberal people shocked by what some radical voices had to say about these events, mostly because it attacks some common assumptions of ‘western’ society. This feeds into what I see as a constant struggle between mainstream feminism and more radical groups of people, as the former tries to change as little as possible of the structure of society while tweaking things here and there in line with broader feminist values, while the latter critiques the system as a whole and aims to completely change it. Progressive, in this sense, can be and is a harmful ideology when left uncritiqued. Progress for the left wings of western European countries and their descendents is an additive function, making better by adding on to what we’ve had before. This isn’t to say that these additions haven’t done some sort of good, rather, many if not all were deals with the devil; you can have this concession as long as you play well under this system that will always disenfranchise you. These countries use this progressivism to ‘safeguard’ or ‘help’ the rest of the world and the minoritized peoples residing within them. Take how often we must ‘save’ and ‘educate’ people in African and Middle Eastern countries, as if we didn’t play a part in fucking things up in the first place. This is a crude explanation of the relationship between the (neo)colonial and post-colonial. We are constantly dealing with the tension between European assimilation and reclamation of heritage and difference.

At this point, European values are seen as universally right, and things that are against it, wrong. Let’s take the freedom speech; there is a difference between the value of freedom of speech and valuing someone’s ability to speak and be heard. One does not need to uphold ‘freedom of speech’ to value expression. It tends to be the opposite: those who are extremely forward about valuing freedom of speech don’t directly value a person’s ability to speak and be heard with that value. More often than not, you’ll hear the phrase “you have the right to speak, but not the right to be listened to.” So it isn’t a person’s volition that is valued here, rather the ideal that if everyone can avoid censor, all ideas can be expressed. However, that is not how this value actually plays out in our societies. Freedom of speech, as an ingrained value, allows the powerful to be heard and for the marginalized to be silenced. Freedom of speech here is limited to the government, yet the value is perpetuated by the people commonly for any sort of person restricting expression. Again, this isn’t to say that freedom of speech as a value hasn’t done any good, rather to show how it is an enforced value that is used by the colonial aspects of society.

When I saw “Je Suis Charlie,” I often saw excuses for people to have the freedom to say and do marginalizing things because it is a western value to be able to do that. However, it’s not a coincidence that the kinds of publications and voices who do these sorts of things are part of the dominant demographic of western culture. There isn’t a bigger fan of satire for concepts they don’t have anything to lose in than the white man. The freedom to speak diminishes greatly when you are not in a position to be heard, and we know that the people who will be heard are valued by a discriminatory and oppressive system. To be clear, I’m not saying nor do I feel like those killed at Charlie Hebdo deserved to die. Rather that, freedom of speech as a value is one that can only be broken by governments, not people, and it’s telling that minoritized postcolonial people are being targeted as ‘opponents of the freedom of speech.’

This relationship is alive with activism online. Figures that mainstream feminism ordains will have this ‘freedom of speech,’ and it is often wielded against minoritized people. The fact that there is ‘black twitter’ is in itself a postcolonial phenomenon, a state of resistance that is forced to co-opt the tools of their oppression in order to be heard. How often are black women activists targeted and chastised for what they say, while also fielding the hurt feelings of neocolonists who continue to gentrify these spaces? This right to speak isn’t the respect of speech.

Along with this, #BlackLivesMatter appropriately used MLK Day to further bring awareness that his work carries on unfinished to this day. Some reactions to this I saw centered around the idea of nonviolence, usually with some uninformed statement about why MLK is prefered over Malcolm X (that they didn’t question that their  history education or whiteness might have informed this preference is all that’s needed here). From what I can see, the white liberal front really, really wants movements like #BlackLivesMatter to be completely and utterly nonviolent, despite that the police are acting violently against them. Ultimately, they are positioning black bodies to be sacrificed for their own good feelings, they want to be SURE that the police are bad by watching, up close, that they are being assaulted without reasonable cause and nothing’s being done about it. Then they feel slightly bad about themselves and go watch some other TV drama.

I recently borrowed this book called Nonviolent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg from a friend. I’ve actually been hearing a lot about it before I finally got to my hands, since self-help books tend to have their own viral lives in the tech space. Apparently, it’s been around a while and widely celebrated, basically a book on how to communicate with others in what the author describes as nonviolently. The choice of language struck me as a perfect painting of this imagined white liberal that wants everything to be okay with just talking, and not even just all talking, but also nonviolent (he even got a grandchild of Gandhi to write the forward) speech. Rosenberg often uses examples of him going to ‘urban’ (read: black) schools and events to use nonviolent communication to see past racism, calm down tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, and even throws in how women have avoided rape and murder by speaking nonviolently.

The curation of these examples show how something like the value of nonviolence is, actually, incredibly violent. It implies that arguments involving claims of racism, violence, or even straight up assault, can be deterred by speaking in a way a therapist would to a patient. Meaning, condescending when it’s without consent, and people in places of power often get into this sort of pedantic tone about how the conversation ‘should’ go and if it did then things would be ‘solved’ by now. There are good parts to this book that are super useful, and with the underlying dissection of how we use language in order to throw off hierarchical values, you think, would indicate that this is a goldmine of a text. Yet we can see how this contributes to this pacifying narrative, which struck deep in me when he cited how a police officer used nonviolent communication to quell a group of black people who were claiming discriminatory practices were going on with the law. The call for nonviolence is really a power grab for the privileged to set the pace and direction of social justice, not for the benefit of the oppressed. The control and power only goes to the people who get to speak and be listened to.

Freedom of speech and nonviolence are central to liberal progressivism, and they are utilized in a way that completely disarms the marginalized and gives those already in power the majority influence of what and how to change. The problem is in progressivism itself, because it has already decided where our future is going to be, and it was without the input of the peoples trampled over to achieve it. This analogy works for attitudes in social justice and in technology and games where now we have a narrative of Women in Tech/Games that continues to value women at the top disproportionately to the grassroots activists near the bottom. It is important to keep these radical communities creating spaces away from the powerful, as assimilation into these industries and mainstream movements means exploitation and erasure.

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How to Infuse Wine with Tea

One small benefit living as an artist is, from time to time, you and fellow artists will get together to show your work and socialize. As a matter of custom, especially with creative writers, you bring one of those prepackaged cheese plates, maybe the meat one too if you’ve had good news recently, and a bottle of wine that doesn’t reach too far above $6. When the stars align in one’s favor, typically during the winter and tax seasons, the gathering has more wine than is physically possible to consume, and the host needs people to take some extra bottles off their hands.

Soon I was on my way home with three bottles of red wine despite resolving at the new year that I wouldn’t keep alcohol in the house for myself. For a while I convinced myself that I must be one of those people who benefit from a glass of wine every day, and never really found that I was a danger to myself and others. But after I started to have conversations with myself about how a “glass” was a subjective and social construction while the internet continued to pour filth my way, I figured I needed to keep drinking for when I have company.

Now that social media isn’t about 90% of my life anymore, I’ve been studying tea and its rituals. Coming from a place that didn’t have a strong cafe culture, the most involved I got into tea was the most extravagant and obviously flavored Teavana teas that would make connoisseurs’ monocles pop in unison. Now, I’m drinking Real Tea™ that is named after estates (so fancy) instead of how many sugary foods you can fit into one pot. It’s interesting, how much there is really a snobbery of what’s Actually This Thing and how it isn’t at all just a games quirk.  Games definitely bludgeon with it a lot more, the tea world kind of does it in a way I imagine a colonial English headmistress would.

Something that struck me, however, was the terminology tea and the different elements that go into actually brewing it. I’m used to getting ready-brew with a bag in it, and now I brew sex-positively loose tea. In tea stuff, there’s a lot of attention to the tea leaves itself and the water it is brewed in, while the end product, called the liquor interestingly enough, is almost secondary. I’m reading a book that has an extensive account of old Chinese writings that ranked the mountain springs from which was most superior to brew tea in, and how the quality and taste of the water ultimately decides whether a tea is going to be good or not.

So why not steep tea in wine, my sluggish brain decided, being pulled backwards by the last BART train towards the east bay. What a great idea.

There is actually some precedent to this. Tea is sometimes infused into certain spirits, mostly vodka, to make fancy cocktails at fancy places. I also mulled wine for the first time during December, which I found was ultimately infusing spices into wine. One of the ingredients I needed to get was allspice, think a mix between nutmeg and black pepper if you’re unfamiliar, which is a popular Jamaican spice. My parents used it in cooking a lot, or at least, when I smelled it upfront like that after I opened the jar, I felt like I identified a part of something that was always around me in the past that’s missing now. It’s strange, I don’t have a good relationship with my family, and spent most of my adolescence distancing myself from my heritage. Slowly, I’ve been reintegrating certain things. I refused to eat curry until I moved to San Francisco, living on Valencia street and meeting part way over to my partner’s house. I have an unfinished game called I Hate Curry that might never be completed.

Smelling that jar of allspice made me want to explore my connection with my past again. It smells in the corners of my mind, something unmistakably there, but I never knew what it was. I felt roused, like I do whenever I want to write down fiction or create a play experience. But how, with food?

Ever since moving to the bay, I’ve had a rising interest in food justice. San Francisco, in particular, likes to boast about how good its food is, along with other terms like local, sustainable, ethical. Yet it was obvious to me, as someone who was at poverty level income for the majority of their adult life, that having pride in the food and especially produce of the area was not for everyone. There is a performance of eating well all over our country, something that’s tortured me for a long time, wondering why I couldn’t ‘eat right’ on my minimum wage paycheck.

I don’t necessarily want access to fancy foods. I live near a Farmer’s Market now, and I try to go, mostly hoping some cute farm hand will show me the difference between all seven of his pomelos, and buying exclusively from it would bankrupt me.

In a way, I want to take back cooking and eating, as art forms, back from the affluent. I want everyone to connect with what is tied so strongly to our memories. What is it that allspice means to me? If anything, everyone is going to have a different emotional tie to a food or flavor. And, in a way, there is something romantic and powerful about literally consuming a piece of expression. Made for you to feel something other than, maybe, fullness and titillation. Which brings me to now, sipping on oolong-infused Merlot.

As I wait for my next paycheck so I can spring on some spices, I decided to take the teas I’ve been tasting and learning about and infuse them into the Merlot I left that party with. The Merlot is another trigger, it reminds me of when I went to church as a child, and the church wine. Which is another mystery to me; what exactly is the kind of wine that my church served, did it mean anything, and did all churches have the same wine?

But mostly, transfiguration is what triggered my choice the most. Wine into liquor, the taste of the past to the very, just a few seconds ago, now, alcohol into blood. Kicking myself a little now that I didn’t think to mix allspice into one batch of the Merlot to remember Palm Sunday and a grand-uncle that I don’t think ever liked me.

I divided the Merlot into twelve separate jars, about 2 ounces in each, and dumped a ½ teaspoon of a tea on top. I say dumped because I unmatched a guy on Tinder just before for being a jerk and it felt good. I screwed on the caps and shook it all a little, then tucked it under my bed, only partly sure what I’m doing is legal.

Taking some time out from angsting over my keyboard about how I can’t seem to do anything but stare motionless into sex-education documents, I shake the little crate of wine cultures. It feels like what I imagine to be rocking a cradle full of glass animals.

After about ten hours, it’s time to take out the white and green teas. They smell like, well, tea in wine. Less boozy in the way church wine does and a little more fruity and maybe grassy. I sip a couple, and they basically taste like tea in wine. It’s not necessarily bad, and I’m not completely sure if I want things to taste, like, good, just, something? I imagine the green teas would taste better in a white wine. Things tend to be divided that way, dark and light, so I guess green goes with white and black goes with red.

It’s weird, the grassy, vegetal (I didn’t know that was really a word until I started reading up and tasting tea) flavor of many green teas brings out the berry-ness of the wine. Pai-Mu-Tan, a white tea that looks like someone dumped what they raked into a $20 tin and tastes somewhat like chlorine when you’re not used to it, made the wine smell like fucking Kool-Aid. Remember that stuff? I imagine it’s contrast, the bitterness brings out the sweet. But as I felt like I was drinking an alcohol-drenched rainforest, I realized that the instructions I got made for a total flavor overtake, and that wine comes with it’s own complexity and I probably should have thought to have added to the complexity instead of injecting tea flavor. I’m sure there’s a metaphor there. If you want to try infusing some loose green tea, I recommend Japanese greens in white wine, though I haven’t really tried it yet. In particular, Sencha and Gyokuro, though I’m curious as to how Genmaicha would work out. Let them sit for five hours, and then sip every hour until you get a taste you like. Apparently a lush, I forgot to take out my Gunpowder tea and it tastes bitter now.

When I woke up the next day, it was time to strain out the oolong and black teas. I was too curious to not try them right then and there, and would later be under my covers swiping right on numerous bay area men.

The oolong tasted kind of strange, which is to be expected, since it tends to be quite complex on its own. I like it for its novelty though. Blacks, now, black teas (can I admit how weird it was for me to see ‘blacks’ used in this context) are often more about body than greens (this metaphor is going places isn’t it) where I originally had a hard time telling their flavor part, but how the liquors rested in my mouth were completely different. The same is true for them being infused in red wine, apparently, and actually, they feel kind of right? They mix in with the red wine’s complexity in a way that I found jarring, but not unpleasant. Kenya in particular stood out to me, because if I’m not mistaken, it takes to fruity flavors well, and it smells marvelously fruity.

But of course, there’s Lapsang Souchong. I’ve never had a drinking buddy, but if I did, it would be Lapsang Souchong. Lapsang is deep and smoky, like literally, you’re drinking a campfire. I love it. Campfires are where the majority of my intimate memories from teen-hood are from. It was one of my good friend’s houses, we’d play truth or dare, I slightly miss truth or dare? And then, in my early twenties, over in the backyard of the first man who ever approached me in public and hit on me. I want to say successfully, but it was weird. I skipped class over a bit of anxiety I was having, and decided to sit outside of a Starbucks on my college campus at the time. We caught eyes a few times, and eventually he came over, gave me coffee, and immediately just left. I was extremely bewildered because the guy I was just eye smooching just gave me coffee, recognizing that we were, indeed, eye smooching, and then just left. I don’t even drink coffee. It was fucking romantic. A couple minutes later he returned, sat down next to me, and we talked awkwardly, then less awkwardly. I would later fall for him and he would break my heart.

I really like Lapsang Souchong, and I think I’m going to infuse every liquid I can find with it. Smoky tasting beverages just sounds so, like, not right, but at home for me. Shooting off fireworks, staring a bit too close. I never want that smell to leave me, no matter how painful.

Infuse your oolong and black teas for about ten hours, then taste them every hour after until you got a complexity you like. Go with the teas I pointed out, or hey, get some of your favorite flavored black teas to put in there. If there are cute little non-tea leaf objects in there though, you might have to taste and watch more often, because different things steep at different rates.

I realize that not many people are going to infuse tea into wine. I do, though, want to suggest that things give us memories and feelings, and there are ways to play with this. Transfiguration, maybe. Stock is made from basically infusing random remnants of things you cooked in water. Why does it have to be water? Or random remnants of things you cooked? What would it mean if I used Lapsang water to brew coffee for that man in my past?

Game design, really, right now, is object design. An object is crafted for use to interact with, and have a play experience. I feel like, in an effort to expand the DIY philosophy, we need to see video games, board games, whatever, as few of many objects we play with, and it’s the play we’re after to design. So, I want to let people know there are more objects to create, and things that you might already create everyday. You can make an object to play with every day, and just because it’s made to power your body doesn’t make it any less of a playful event. I want to know what the things I’ve been eating have been saying to me my entire life, as they’ve contributed to my wellness, and to my pain. Maybe as mulled wine is used as an excuse to be with other people, and to understand you will get through a dark time, maybe steeping this allspice might unlock a feeling, a remedy I’ve forgotten long ago.

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to being before, now, and growing forward


I’ve ran certain amounts of distances for certain amounts of times. I think it’s winter, at least, I’m seeing bare trees in person for the first time, I think. I imagine they are oak trees, the namesake of where I live, but I’ve never really known any trees besides palm and Christmas ones. I realized, gasping cold, dry air that makes my throat feel like a dentist left that saliva sucker thing in while on a phone call, having a fight with a loved one, they were different once before.

Breathing hasn’t been easy ever since I moved to California. In the South, when you’re outside, you work for air. Taking a breath feels more akin to drinking honey. But it was a good, deep breath. When I breathe here, it’s like I’m running in space; my neck and chest flex, but it feels like nothing’s happening.

The trees here are dead right now. Or sleeping, I never quite understood that. The trees are dead when before, they had leaves and maybe blossoms, but I can’t quite remember what they looked like. When I lived in the city, I’m in The Town, now, I sat on a friend’s couch, I can’t remember the color, and she told me how, since moving from a place with seasons to the bay, she had a hard time remembering events. The constant change and punctuations of the seasons acted as markers to remember things, and living in a place that generally has the same season year-round makes memory a little fuzzier. I’ve never lived in a place with such seasons, and I worry that I’ve forgotten something.

As I run past these dead, I think, oaks, I realize that they were different once before, and in a couple months, will be alive or awake again. That if I keep running this path, I will see something grow and die, or wake up and go to sleep. Change and grow, adding on whatever the years throw at it. It didn’t occur to me, until then, that I haven’t ever really watched anything grow and change like this.

The first time I ran, I just, well, ran. I thought that’s what you did: run. I guess I ran like I was chasing something.

But you don’t just run when you mean to, well, run. I learned later that you stretched beforehand and paced yourself and only ran certain amounts of distances for certain amounts of times.

I ran like I thought was expected of me. Flawless. Perfect. Beautifully. I would just run, smile to all the other runners as I passed by, morning sun glinting off my obviously knock-off sunglasses, but we’re all trying, right? Why wouldn’t I be able to just run?

I couldn’t move my legs for the next month. I cried as I dragged my body across the room, around my new apartment, hoping my new roommate didn’t think something happened to me. Except something did happen to me, I happened to me. I thought about the selfie I took just before I ran, how I wanted people to admire me. And instead I rubbed my body in Tiger Balm always somehow getting it in places I would rather it not go.

It’s the strangest feeling, for me, that my body would not move the way I wanted it to. Going to get groceries was a life event. I imagine this comes off as spoiled whining to many.

What I mean is, I realized I had been doing this to my mind all along. My body was telling me that I’ve been acting this way all along, and I’ve been dragging my emotions around, clawing and crying. I haven’t been watching things grow. I don’t know how to grow.

During this month in which I mostly cried on my new green IKEA rug (reading through this again during editing, I realized I misremembered this, I didn’t have my new green IKEA rug yet, all I had was a desk a bed and bookshelf that still leans over slightly because I haven’t asked if I’m allowed to secure it to the wall with a fastener yet) I came to terms with how little I allowed myself to grow these past three years.

There’s no such thing as growing as a public figure for advocacy. There’s perfect. There’s saint. There’s martyr. There have been times, recently, where I came to the sudden awareness that I can’t feel or really think for a good minute or so. I forget where I am and what I’m supposed to be doing, and become frightened. I’m supposed to know what to do, and what to feel. I think, for a long time, my mind has been dragging itself on the floor in pain, crying, and I just didn’t allow myself to recognize it.

What is an acceptable way for someone advocating for social justice to mess up? In what way could I stumble, and everyone would help me up, brush off my fast fashion clothes I painfully chose and assembled together to look above that? I don’t know if I ever allowed myself to be a ‘rising’ critic, a ‘rising’ artist, just the critic, the artist. Everyone was watching me.

I’ve stopped playing video games. They all want me to be perfect. Become perfect. But only perfect for them.

I don’t think it’s safe out here, for anyone who isn’t allowed to grow.

I run better now, at least, I run admitting to myself I have to grow into running. I have to stop sometimes, and my glasses are mostly there so others don’t see me cry. But now, it’s funny, when stretching, I remembered how to stretch from all the dance classes I took when I was younger. It was like, at one point, I did understand how to find where my body was at, and grow from there. And along the way, somehow, I had forgotten.

I’m scared I will be forgotten. That, maybe, I haven’t accomplished that much.

I eat salads for lunch. Mostly arugula these past few months, because it’s winter, and I squeeze citrus juice on it to make sure I feel alive eating it. During lunch, I have to check social media and search for my name, to make sure I’m not hacked, not being hacked, or about to be hacked. It feels like this is my legacy, the woman who was harassed, and now spends her days worrying her friends will be in danger. One of these times I found a tumblr that catalogued quotes and easter eggs in Kentucky Route Zero. My first game and name was mentioned in it, filed in an old cataloguing system. I was under Generosity and Loneliness. I cried, for two reasons. The first was I played this game multiple times, and if I ever saw this, I’ve forgotten. And the second, is, here is something permanent, of me, as if the game said, it wouldn’t forget me.

So, I’ve been running. I can see my breath now as I exhale, as if someone’s trying to show me that I’m alive, I am breathing, and I will be okay.

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2014 in Alternate Ending

So, this was a year.

A lot has changed for me in 2014. 2013 and 2015 Mattie will be rather different people. Looking at my writing from the past year, it’s been very divisive. It was a transition time from trying hard to fit into the industry, and finding out there’s no good place for me. That the comfortable places people are in the industry are not going in a direction I find healthy. I think a lot of the troubled times we’ve had in 2014 are the result of sticking to easy answers and feel-good apathy. Things are crumbling beneath us, and not many people were willing to acknowledge we needed to jump.

If there is something I’ve learned this year, it’s that people learn most from mistakes. I have to admit, I really hate this. I’m a perfectionist by nature, and being on social media means I had to learn how to not make mistakes. This stuff that happened in both my professional and personal life taught me a couple of things: we’re all pretending to not make mistakes, while valorizing them as a human quality (see merritt’s thoughts on failure, pretty similar), and the moment someone makes a mistake, hell rains down on them and there’s no remedial process. And even when you’re poised and minding all your details, no matter how much you avoid mistakes, someone will find fault with you, and things won’t go your way. So, here’s to growing pains and mistakes; 2014 was full of mistakes, and I think an active effort to salvage what we’ve learned in definitely in/an order.

I went through my blog and found a cross-section of popular and defining posts to have a little bit of a review. To see where my thoughts grew in reaction to 2013. I’m a sucker for New Year resolutions and such, and this is going to be partly a self-reflective moment for me. So here are some posts I think are worth checking out again to see where I am as a writer and thinker these days.


Redefining Games Criticism

Unlike previous years, I’ve spent less time talking about writing, but the few words I did say look forward to challenging how we approach criticism. It’s apt because games journalism is shifting, has been shifting, and it’s interesting to see opportunities to snatch away from the establishment while it figures itself out.

One of the more popular posts I wrote this year was a reaction to media and game dev treatment of Dong Nguyen and Flappy Bird. Mostly, I wanted to bring more attention to how capitalism works to inform our criticism and power dynamics in games culture. Anti-capitalist critique is the antithesis to the industry, because when you look from a class issues perspective, it reveals how exploitative and unethical companies are to maintain culture the way it is. It is the main reason I don’t want to be involved with the games industry anymore, because profit and the current exploitative relationships established by making profit are things seen as natural and not up for change. Many of the things we want for social change are set back so much by the continued power dynamics instilled by capitalism, and little will change until this can be a topic more commonly discussed.

In light of this and in effort to further lower the bar for people to participate in criticism, I tried to start a conversation on what the DIY movement of video games would look like for criticism. Other than for not existing at all, games criticism is often criticized for being inaccessible, which might feed into the former. I don’t know entirely what to make of what’s going on; people are reading about the same, but not in the same portions. I’m finding that readers’ limits for what’s too long is growing shorter, and people are preferring to have a lot of chewable writing instead of a few in depth pieces. I could very easily blame something like Twitter, however I’m not sure if it’s necessarily a bad thing. Should be we sticking to 1000+ word writing if we want to stay accessible? How much of our in-words is pandering to our niche rather than being inviting to people of all walks of life? We barely started getting paid to write criticism on a regular, sustainable basis, can that ever happen for, like, tweeted criticism? The labor put into social media is a really good topic to explore, especially when a lot of culture awareness work is done by minoritized people.

commune ity was an experimental piece I did in tandem with a creative non-fiction class, wanting to further blend my writing disciplines. Every once in a while I’ve come out with a more poetic piece like this, and most people don’t really know what to do with it. I’m appreciative, though, because sometimes I just want work that will sit with people, or make them feel something, instead of always needing to inform them of something. I wanted to express my anxieties over how intangible the community in games criticism, or overall, feels. I feel bad reading this now, because in the end, that loneliness caught up with me.


Social Justice on Social Media Gets Anti-Social

I spent most of 2014 really digging through the effects activism online was having on me. What it meant to be be a minoritized person talking about diversity on Twitter. From the moment I stepped onto Twitter to the moments where I peek on every once in a while now, it is a constant torrent of anger. Righteous anger, rightful anger, sometimes self-absorbed anger, often ephemeral anger. This year had me toiling, usually over a glass of wine, over what to do. What is right, and what is fair? This year has been unfair. Is there really fairness though? Or such a thing a deserving anything? Definitely thoughts on my mind.

I started off this year wanting to restructure how we spoke to each other on social media about this anger. I talked about how anger was being used to silence people within our advocacy constituencies and wrote up a defense of anger soon after. These pieces were particularly divisive, as people had strong opinions about the topic that felt rather one-dimensional. Some thought I was policing behavior and others thought I was giving licence to toxicity. Most interesting was how these pieces along with some others by queer games critics seemed to kick off a wider conversation about how social media affects activism, which was very quickly co-opted by mainstream feminism that consequentially attempted to turn intersectionality into a dirty word. Funny that.

Like many people, I’ve always had a weird relationship with labels. Labels help us identify with others, but also box us. I remember when I used to write at The Border House, my by-line was basically a list of all my identity markers. Today, I try not use that sort of language because it is easily mobilized against me via tokenization. It also leads to what has been discussed as the unthinking diversity of liberalism, to erase difference or completely co-opt it. I explored some of my feelings around being an visibly ambiguous identity and how I feel the power dynamics in my life play out when people want to assign a label for me. I dig into the dynamics of passing, and how it’s a weird and tragic concept that rules many of our lives.

I often hear that my writing is timely, appears just when it’s needed and when a particular topic is visible. I’m kind of proud of that, because it was tasking keeping up with all the news and keeping an eye on social media for things going on. I wrote this piece about moving on from the games industry just before I was attacked by Gamer Gate, and I ended up taking what I wrote here further. I was fed up with companies and other institutions being so unsupportive of people on the frontline of combatting hostile games culture at the same time Ferguson and the most recent attacks on Gaza was happening. I felt so silly, so petty, to care about fixing an industry that wouldn’t show it cared while actual hurt of people were going on elsewhere in the globe. With this, I hoped to empower people to make real changes in their lives instead of relying on capitalistic institutions which, for the most part, have stayed silent about gamers harassing minoritized people.

Soon after, I wrote about how I felt my experiences of harassment and pain were being used to fuel a social media liberal angst engine. Considering what happened after this, and my continued distance from social media, I feel this is more and more relevant. I couldn’t help but notice how much of my writing about things happening to me got way more traction than any of my more in depth work, what people theoretically followed me for. It’s dawned on me over the years how much being on social media means you’re a persona and are acting as a source of entertainment for others, even if they wouldn’t really describe it that way. I likened it to reality TV, and maybe now it feels more Truman Show.

In my further explorations in theory around relationships and consent, and also feeling a lack of support in my own life, I wrote about negotiating allyship, or at least, actually understanding what goes into actually supporting someone in the fight against oppression. ‘Ally’ as a term has always been shifty, and I think as time goes on and how transient people’s attention is to the justice of the marginalized, people are constantly questioning what the privileged are actually doing when they call themselves allies. And I think think is a super important conversation to have, because we may have good intentions, but path to hell and all that.


Non-Queer Design is Boring

I feel like this year I have a better understanding of what non-normative design is shaping up to be. Design conventions are largely unquestioned and haven’t changed in practice for a while outside of adapting to technological changes. The more I speak with others and look outside of video games, the more variability I see, the more room for what games are expands. The design philosophies I see doing something interesting are incorporating social change into the process, and not in some superficial way. Play is going to be something new soon, I hope.

This year, I gave an earnest try learning tools indies often do to make progress on a commercially viable game. I hated every moment of it, and deeply wished for more accessible DIY game making tools. I wrote about how I wanted to have highly specialized and idiosyncratic tools that I essentially would be having conversations with, so I could make a whole host of games instead of working on some sort of hit-or-miss indie success with something like Unity. I’d like to encourage a more healthy tool-making community in games that focusing on making accessible tools that are creative, not just for making your favorite [x] genre game.

Having dived more into the practice and theory of kink, I couldn’t help but make the connections between the design and play in typical BDSM scenes and games. I feel stronger every day about how play must coincide with, not interrupt or exist outside of, life and moments that are actually meaningful. While it’s acknowledged, there isn’t nearly enough exploration in the play that happened outside of designed objects, only how to create the objects themselves. Especially with games constantly extending outwards to become more ‘interactive,’ ignoring players’ borders and boundaries is a huge ethical problem that should be dealt with before it comes up more often.

In attempt to focus on other kinds of play, I decided to have some fun and mix together two card games I like a lot: Netrunner and the Tarot. I am typically frustrated with board games, especially card ones, that are so mechanical and don’t even try to incorporate narrative design into play despite how relevant it is to the experience. I went on to write a few posts on interpretation and how I felt the contemporary design paradigm discourages interpretation for mechanical clarity, and how I think that blocks off a lot of creativity in both creation and play.

Last but certainly not least, I took a stab at my own kind of design manifesto that incorporated contemporary thinking on ‘queer design’ while reaching out broader past video games. I use the term nebulously, more like people who are queer talking about non-normative design philosophies. I want to hold myself to these standards and try to make games that actually evoke change. I’m hoping 2015 will see a set of games from me that challenge how we currently live life and encourage us to dive into and be mindful of the play happening around us.

And that’s a wrap! I have to say, I’m still a little shocked that I am able to be around writing. It’s funny to tell people I am a writer and designer as a profession, not just as a hobby. I get to do meaningful work because many of you are supporting me, especially through this rough year, and I am really grateful. I hope to be more consistent and not run out of things to write. I want to keep up with games outside of video games, and I’m looking for cross-pollination from other related artforms. So, this is it. See ya 2014, I don’t think I’ll miss you.

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On Interpretation

One of the hurdles typically unaddressed when discussing meaning in games is how to interpret them. Or interpret anything at all really. This isn’t to depreciate a lot of writing or musing out there, actually just the opposite. Many people are taught a particular way to interpret art that typically consists of trying to conform everything to a singular viewpoint, The Way Things Are Read. This is often a trap for people who are looking to interpret play situations, especially if the idea of play being interpretive is still a strange concept. A reason, I think, so many play experiences are read as fiction narratives or as machines.

What I think goes on is a mixing of interpretation vs argument, which I imagine comes from dreaded literature classes, where in order to express your point of view, you needed to have a strong, specific argument. While there is merit to this, it mostly serves as training to enter academic and similar discourses, and often ends up as grandstanding when you do it in public. I am totally guilty of this: one of the first pieces of games criticism I ever wrote was detailing transphobia in Atlus games in this style. I feel like a lot of conversation and writing, though probably more eloquent than my early work, functions in this way, proving to be the right perspective, or correct argument. Reactions to my piece were often quibbles with evidence and how I read things as opposed to really changing a lot of people’s minds. Later on, I wrote another piece on Naoto and my personal perspective that had less of a truth to uphold and more of an awareness of perspective. This time, people personally connected with my writing and added my viewpoint along with theirs, instead of replacing anything.

This is because interpretation is best used with an understanding of many different perspectives, and being able to see from those perspectives and hold a space for all of them, even though they seem contradictory. I’m not talking about a ‘everyone has their own opinion’ type middling, rather that interpretation doesn’t work unless you are able to see something from multiple sides, and you’re aware of the act of interpretation. You might have a favorite set of perspectives, and if you’re a critic or theorist you tend to outline specifically what your new perspective is and have some sort of mega branded perspective that others can predict. To say I have a feminist perspective is not wholly true or wrong, as my ‘resting’ perspective borrows from feminist theory, but to enact a completely and distinctly feminist critique would follow a certain process that I don’t fully subscribe to. I think we more teased out this difference, there would more understanding of work like Anita’s Tropes vs Women series, which is the most accessible straight-up feminist critique I’ve seen. But don’t mistake feminist critique for Anita’s perspective; I think if you disagree with things in the series, you mostly have a quarrel with an aspect feminist critique, which is not hard to do with any sort of lens. There is use in practicing critique while knowing it doesn’t cover everything. It’s an extremely useful exercise to be able to understand how a perspective sees media, because then you can evolve it for your own interpretive process. Or, better yet, understand where a person is coming from when they are using language borrowed from it. I find the series useful for helping that sort of literacy come along.

Perspectives aren’t inherently right, and I don’t mean this in a ‘everything’s relative’ sort of way. They are like purposefully putting on colored glasses so things look a certain way and carry different meaning. Having perspective is the act of noticing. If you want to practice interpretation, it’s quite easy: find a movie or short game that you wouldn’t mind going through twice, and pick two themes or qualities that you will look for and record. They can be as inherently meaningful or seemingly meaningless as you’d like. Let’s say for now that on one playthrough, you’re going to write down all the things that are red, and on your second one, all things that are green. Then, as a creative exercise, come up with what all the red (or whatever you chose) objects have in common with each other and how that relates to the media you just experienced, and do that that with the green as well. Start to think about all of the associations, culturally and personally, we have with red and green (red often means stop and green means go, for instance), and how they speak to the game or movie through the objects. Now, you might not really come up with anything that interesting with red or green, but you can replicate this process with any sort of quality in the media, such as whenever a game provides you the option to lie or when women do or do not show up.

This doesn’t have to be just about the story of the piece. If you understand even a little bit of design, or just what you find unique about games, you can hone in on when these things happen and find meaning in that perspective. For instance, you can find in a certain selection of games that there’s a significant amount of restriction or design that removes choice and mobility. Deploying perspective would be looking at where those moments are, and how everything relates to those moments. Then you combine that perspective with a biographical perspective, or that the design is ultimately a factor of the life situation and history of the creator. You would find where they talk about restriction in their lives or how artists similar to them talk about restriction, and maybe find something meaningful in that observation. You wouldn’t be wrong unless you tried to state a fact. Interpretation is often touted around as something that fully uncovers and explains a piece of media when it is really is an additive practice. We create meaning instead of finding it, and there isn’t anything lesser about that.

So why bring all this up? Because I want more people actively engaging with media. Interpreting, not judging it. I say this because this year has taught me how much people wanted me to judge, maybe review, games as a whole, especially in a good vs bad, right vs wrong paradigm. This panders to people who, for one reason or another, feel like an authority should be making these declarations instead of taking that into their own hands. Which means the perspective of authority becomes theirs, and what the authority overlooks, so does the follower.

How do we do this with games without falling back on story? Shrink it down to what you experience, or what you feel. Catalogue the impression something gives you, whether it be some sort of visual or movement of your body. Is there a motion of your body you find particularly atypical when playing this game? Or maybe there is an action you must do repeatedly. Write down both what that quality is, and what sort of feeling it gives you. Then, like in the above exercise, find out where that also happens in life.

I recently was on an adventure a friend made for me, a sort of person-scavenger hunt. I want to write about my experience next time because I’d like to pull more attention to some real-world game design qualities, but what particularly struck me was how throughout the experience, because I was given only so much information, I thought almost everyone who passed by spots I was waiting at to be in on the game, to have some sort of function and that their appearance or way of acting had meaning I should pay attention to. It struck me how every day I’m so tuned out of the world around me, because typically, it’s mundane. People pass me by while I walk all the time, I’ve chit-chatted with strangers before, I’ve ridden a bus somewhere. But when I was encouraged to look at these factors on their own as meaningful, I could see how often there is chance for connection in the world, and how much even a stranger can prove interesting, and how it feels for a familiar face to show up from within the chaos of the uncertain. I don’t need a degree to begin interpreting what the game encouraged me to feel.

I find this all to be super relevant because I and many critics and designers and others who talk about how games influence us find the values of games reflected in those who most commonly play games. It’s as if play experiences hold up a funhouse mirrors in front of us and we begin to feel and even become a little more like that the more we look at them. We reflect the values we consume, and like diets tend to do, they make us feel and act different ways. If we can find ways to get more people actively deploying interpretation, I think we can move past wanting as many blockbuster movies in games packages and to a broader landscape of play experiences that challenge us.

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Playing with Play

Even when you’re caught up about it in a middle of a discussion, most conversations about the words we use can seem silly the moment we take a step back and look at things holistically. I find this happens most in the vacuum of definitions and the categorization that results from it, and it’s easy to see how power dynamics quickly come out with deciding rightness. I think about the times when a word takes on a new light, or is used for something unconventional, and how that can be exciting and stimulating. Specifically calling up an association while recognizing the process, not laying claim to a term, rather pulling subtext from our cultural subconscious.

This is my current relationship with the word play, and how I tend to use it to describe what I do and think. I wonder sometimes if there’s a difficulty with talking about more than video games in design and reach because of how solid and definitional games are as objects, and people tend to organize themselves by the objects they design and consume. As well, a lot of the posturing that happens in conversations about one tends looks rather flawed in another, when play as a concept holds them all together. I think this is because there is less conversation about how people relate to things, especially holistically as beings that do things other than be entertained, instead of how things work.

There are scholars who can go further and probably better into the play conversation than I can, yet I think the point I’m trying to make is easily done with whatever life experience any person has. What are all the instances of the word ‘play,’ directly related to games or not, that one can think of? There’s the play which means to act in a way for enjoyment rather than for practical reasons. A play can be a production, and to play in that kind of play is to assume a role that isn’t your day-to-day persona. Playing can be engaging with someone intimately and also being manipulative and careless. To make a play might just be a declarative action, or to play around with something might be figuring it out. When something plays out, it unfolds, or maybe it only appears for a moment.

When we play and design for play to happen, there is a broader language and range of approach we can take than I find is typically discussed. You can see traces of what games overall do in the descriptions above, but they move conversation from the game object and the relationship the person has with play. Most talk about design is focused on how to make good objects, but consider that a lot of play in life that we engage with doesn’t come from purposefully designed objects meant for play. That object design was chosen as the main focus of creating play experiences is a fluke, a weird kind of specialization that we don’t have to stick with as we move on thinking about play.

I’m going on about this because I think this is a viable path of thought if we’re going to think of the advancement of design outside of the current commercial space and into something that can create social change, be accessible to many more people, and tap experiences we feel mainstream and tech-focused games can’t or aren’t willing to. I also find it will be a more holistic approach to teaching design to others and let tools just be tools. We’ve focused s much on tools in video games that we’ve self-selected a lot of people out of participating in what is considered the games art movement, and if the concept of games and play is truly still a young one, than we need to change that perception and education as soon as possible.

I’ve been on a sabbatical of sorts for games, but due to my overachiever habits I’ve gotten into more event organizing for my side interests. For many of them, I continue my work as a safe space coordinator and consultant so events are both welcoming and prepared to protect marginalized people and overall make sure everyone is having a fun time. One of these events happens to be kink-related, where both socializing and play will be happening, and I’m in charge of creating rules for our space. What is really interesting about the intersection of kink and games proper is how many words and concepts are shared, but are utilized in completely different ways. There aren’t just rules to be made, but protocols and these are distinct things. Play is a solid concept when you look at it but disappears the moment you try to hold onto it. While having sex (and what is considered sex is extremely divergent person to person) is play, in that space so is asking if you can grab someone a drink. Simply sitting down looking elegant with a wristband that signals you want to be served is definitely play. But no one would really say the event is one large game, and that the event needs a designer by that term. Because I happen to be design-minded, I see that the structure of the event creates certain behavior and allows people to have certain experiences. I can notice how the inclusion and exclusion of certain rules and protocols create opportunities or reinforce status quo for marginalized individuals. In this way, each other’s safety, comfort, and also engagement are all part of the same play experience, and needs to hold as many ideas of play in it at once in order for it to function. In hindsight, I see how non-kink events I’ve helped with also promote certain kinds of behavior given the structure of this expanded notion of play, yet being in thick of planning for this one has really opened my eyes to it.

Before I was anywhere near games criticism and design, I was acquiring skills so that I could become a ‘life designer.’ When I was younger, I loved to watch HGTV, TLC, the Food Network, especially all those dating and fashion tips shows along with interior design. What I noticed as a connection between all these is how people needed to have certain aspects of their lives designed for them so they could see things differently, or maybe to move past that, experience life on another level. These shows were obviously porn for the affluent, yet it made sense that the people on these shows needed someone who understood the influences of the world around them and structured them in a way that made things better.

I recall that now as I do these events, that I’m designing ‘life,’ or I guess reality? It sounds really pompous to say that, not sure if I have language beyond that though. And it’s what I think would serve a better ideological center for designing play experiences than the digital entertainment industry, because the latter can evolve in a way that helps shapes experiences, but only if it’s released from being The Video Game Industry. I feel like this would better equip us to see the design of online platforms and to counter-design against them to make our own spaces. It’s a perspective that can help us go beyond the current problems of games without completely discarding them. Time to rethink our many relationships to play.

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queer as in fuck me – a design manifesto

(this contains explicit descriptions of sex and those with triggers concerning sex should take care in reading this)



i want to fuck the world


i want to fuck the world when coffee at an unspeakable hour is fucking. when picking out a dress is fucking. when having sex isn’t the only way to fuck. jogging together is fucking. discussing your mistakes is fucking. going to the doctor is fucking. and sure going down on me is fucking

i want to fuck the world when explicit consent isn’t just for sex but every type of relation. i want to fuck the world when it is inefficient at everything but mutual satisfaction. fuck the world when boundaries are recognized and celebrated. fuck the world when our feelings for each other aren’t taboo to say anymore


fuck dot ing verb the act of previously established mutual satisfaction andslashor reestablishment of satisfying equilibrium quote MattiE brIce fucker of the world 2014

i accept my queer role as witch cyborg and mutant. part human that exists in the world that yet lets me fuck and part otherworldly that makes me illegible part machine that affixes me to systems part animal that validates the feelings and instincts outside of the constructs of man. i accept that queer is playing with the things we don’t have a word for just yet

((Provocation: Queerness is a continuously slippery ideal that changes whenever new outlying values are normalized. Therefore, queerness can’t be against normative values, it must be beyond them. Answer: Design games that create opportunities for experience instead of certain kinds of experiences.))

fuck the world: everyone is a creator and as such we hold the power to enable others to act and respond. imparting experience is in itself gifting a lotus that subdues a person further in the sleep dreaming of a perfectly constructed world for which they have no hopes or wants of changing. instead embrace the queer your queer and create a way for people to play in a manner you cannot understand and will never know of. create the act of experience

((Provocation: Queerness resides not within the game but in the way we relate to the game and to each other. Answer: Design games that draw awareness to participation in relationships.))

fuck the world: create play where the human parts and other parts connect. make us think about how we play with others how we play with objects and how we play with ourselves. games aren’t opening our eyes to the world around us rather they make the parts where we’re joined with others glow sparkle twist sweet sweat dripping smoky. we are already in each other’s webs

((Provocation: Games are locked in with reflecting back socio-economic status, by both indulging and mobilizing free time. Answer: Design games that purposefully co-exist with life and outside the constructed realm of free time.))

fuck the world: we shouldn’t just be playing fucking when companies governments deign us a moment of leisure. creators enable people to fuck sitting in class dealing with customers getting tested for hiv applying for food stamps. creators help dismantle the system that divides for us when and where we fuck

((Provocation: Games themselves aren’t teaching values, rather teaching players to have capacities for certain kind of values through discipline. Answer: Design games as prompts for reaction and creation instead of teaching specific parables and lessons.))

fuck the world: manipulating a person’s agency without consent isn’t fucking. fucking is calling and fucking is responding and not knowing who did which first. our first step as creators is admitting ignorance and creating prompts where we ourselves are encouraged to react and endlessly tumble into others. to create is to open up. to fuck is to see

((Provocation: Queerness in games would be inclusion of unacceptable failures, unexpected actions that do not fall in line with the system. Answer: Design experiences that encourages meaningful variance between players and folds in incidental aspects of individual experience.))

fuck the world: the perfect is but a replication of the human world that wishes to erase the otherworldly the cybernetic and the mutated. perfection is the only dream the powerful allows us to dream. it eliminates context by deeming details of our lives as unworthy aspects of our play experience. creators allow the trash of one man the beautiful trash of everyone else to fold into play. nothing is holy except for the trash

((Provocation: Queerness in games would be gestures towards utopias that exist outside of currently sanctioned utility. Answer: Design games that can be meaningfully adapted and don’t expect to be in its final iteration so it can act as a vessel for continual movements towards an ideal.))

fuck the world: time and people don’t stop for anything. the meaning of what we create changes without us and can quickly turn against itself in attempt to stake a claim in shifting sands. play is to be recycled repurposed broken apart and embedded into other things. we are to create games mutable to anyone’s touch

fucking acts as a method of self-awareness and awareness of what is affecting us. playing is about real life what is happening to us in real life just not always with our human side. we can remove satisfaction from the cordoned off zones and into the public the shared the mutual the agreed upon

fuck the world fuck the world fuck the world



(this is a response to merritt kopas and naomi clark’s keynote at the queerness and games conference which you can watch and read for context)


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Rethinking Allyship

Through my travels in the past few years, I got the chance to sit in on some classes and groups focused on social change and looking at games as a tool to help their communities. One type of game that seemed to pop up a few times was an effort to get two groups who disagree with each other in the same place playing a game. They ranged from explicitly cooperative games to problem-solving the issues between the groups. The ones that impressed me the most were ones that used context to create situations where these groups basically just socialized and got comfortable with each other. Seeing the range of these projects really helped me piece together some thoughts on allyship, and what it means to be an ally to a group of people.

Ally is definitely a term I think gets thrown around uncritically, and I tend to not use it myself. It feels like some strange contortion of separate but equal, ‘I am not you but with you.’ It feels nationalistic, and when it comes to global politics alliances tend to be rather instrumentalized. I’ve never really been sure what my allies do for me, and it’s really uncomfortable expressing to a person that you don’t know that you can’t really be sure they will be there when you need them. Does it really make sense that someone can claim they are an ally without it being framed by those they are allying with? Shouldn’t it be the other way around in this sort of system?

After seeing all those projects, allyship as a concept has become more of a mutual exchange for me. Ally isn’t a one way declaration, but something all parties involved declare together because it is going to be mutually beneficial. Even when this allyship is between a person in a place of power with someone who isn’t, it’s not just the powerful giving something to this relationship. The powerful are also being educated to become a better person, and learning how to better their own lives navigating between interlocking oppressions. This not being explicit has always bothered me because there’s always this underlying guilt and pressure to be grateful to your allies, especially when they fuck up and you didn’t really feel comfortable with them in the first place. I’ve read the phrase ‘You’re turning away many good allies’ countless times, and that in itself is an exertion of power and dominance.

I’ve advocated more for personal, one-on-one acts of making a difference. In a way, it’s been a model for a better concept of allyship, one that is meaningful to all people involved. It seems like people don’t really seem to understand nor act in a productive way when they don’t have a strong connection with that person or group. It should be when they are in pain, you are in pain; when they achieve something, you feel proud for them. Groups of people, especially when based around an identity, are not going to work together unless they have that connection, a connection they want to keep, cultivate, and find comfort in. The point is, when there is a conflict, it will be taken care of like a family instead of like a war. When one group needs another, it would be common sense because they like each other and want to see each other do well.

A problem I see in games when it comes to change and coming against obstacles is this conflicting way people tend to look at one another: that we all should like or understand each other because we are women, or queer, or like games, but yet are divided by each other as indie, AAA, bloggers, and so on. The beauty and challenge of diversity is that we are all very different from one another, and difference is a good thing. You don’t need homogeneity in order to work together, rather, you need earnest relationships. If the only time you’re really talking to a particular group of people is when you need them or when there’s conflict, you are rarely going to see each other on the same page, because neither parties are motivated by much other than self-interest. This often shakes out unfairly for those in less powerful positions, because their self-interest is usually safety and a platform in which they can speak when they are usually silenced.

Having dealt with games culture and many companies and organizations in positions of power, this lack of a human link was often missing. Often I leave feeling tokenized, used, and discarded because they got what they wanted from me, and our lack of understanding paints me as ungrateful for the small amount of time they’ve graced me with. When it comes to social groups formed around game development and games criticism, whenever there is conflict or need, the usual reaction is for people to recede into their friend groups and move forward from there. Which is harmful if this process isn’t part of public conversation and mediation. Like others, I’ve wrestled with managing the need yet cliquishness of this phenomenon, and I think the major barrier is safety. Knowledge that a person actually cares about your connection in whatever capacity it is. We should also recognize how the industry is structured and who is exposed to who as a factor in this process. If a certain group of people commune on Twitter, their local area, or private/elite events, then this is going to create a certain kind of homogeneity. For instance, you are a developer who only forges connections at your workplace and industry events, you’re not going to create many connections with people who are excluded from these spaces.

Which is why, on top of many other things (like real life), being part of a particularly marginalized group is really frustrating, especially when you’re tasked for educating an entire artform and industry. People who say they are allies, with completely good intentions surely, form exploitative relationships instead of ones of care and mutual interest. These alliances tend to be particularly transactional, usually exposure for the marginalized so the powerful can cash in on their cultural capital, and is always more of a deal for the latter. This goes for those within identity groups as well; queer people of a certain generation who don’t really have relationships with the other can’t really expect solidarity unless they’ve done work to craft a mutually satisfying bond. It’s rarely talked about, but there is a lot of mending and reaching out that needs to happen between the marginalized in the industry, especially veterans, and the marginalized on the outside. We all might have fought wars, but it doesn’t mean we’re always on the same side if we continue to engage with issues as battles.

You know what would have made my time better in the industry? If people in positions of power were earnestly interested in connecting with me and finding out what I needed to become open to that connection. Instead, I felt like a chess piece, moved around like a symbol and knocked off the board when I didn’t comply. And yes, I think part of the problem is the culture of work doesn’t allow us to make time for one another, to be open to new people different from us and instead, stay with the familiar and easily accessible. I don’t think the most effective change will be waiting for laws and older members of society to get out of the workforce or life plain. It’s going to be how much we actively make earnest connections with one another, so when we do need other groups, it’s not so instrumentalized, but because we care and see how their livelihood is intrinsically healthy for us too.

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Dispatch from the Queerness and Games Conference

This past weekend I went to the Queerness and Games Conference, an event I co-founded last year at UC Berkeley and now hold an advisory and conflict resolution role. It’s amazing to see it have a second go-around, and presumably keep going, from a more participatory standpoint so I could see the culture it invited and produced. It also had the interesting timing for occurring after Gamer Gate, which both hung like a cloud and impassioned people at the same time. Concurrently, I feel like QGCon is starting to form an ideological community and ethos, so this was definitely an interesting followup to last year. So here are some of the notes I took, but you can also look up the recorded stream and see everything for yourself.

The first keynote of the conference was by Lisa Nakamura on Social Justice Warriors in video game culture. She broke down what seemed to be the ‘taxonomy’ of an SJW to better understand how people, usually those actively against social justice movements, both see themselves and what they want to get rid of. Some qualities Lisa listed out: SJW framed as opposite to SWM or straight white male, a common term used for a projected most privileged identity; fundamentally insincere in their motives and use of ideology, while at the same time too sincere and unable to take jokes or fit in; not native to the community, foreigners from Twitter and Tumblr trying to immigrate to video games. This helps identify not only how gaters treat people they assign as SJW, but also how they see themselves: person vs ideologue; genuine vs manipulative; native vs the opportunistic. Wrapped up in this is how to be a minoritized person that is a ‘true’ force for change, aka not a fake feminist or gamer that wants social good, by the way of practicing ‘cruel optimism.’ Cruel optimism is that common response to inequality that’s a mix of positivist individualism and ‘harsh reality,’ like for more minoritized people to create games and THEN media will get better, just sit back and wait and it’ll take care of itself. I feel like we see this with the overabundance of girls in STEM initiatives and no resources for those right now fighting against marginalization. Lisa used the term ‘procedural meritocracy,’ that in order to earn respect in gaming, you have to display exceptional skill. Basically the idea is if men who spout sexist stuff online are beat in a video game fair and square by a woman, they will include her based on meritocracy and proving she’s not a fake geek girl. This attitude doesn’t address that the barriers to gaining skill are still very high for minoritized people, and that this process ultimately turns the bullied into a new bully; you climb the ranks so you can police the behavior of others, essentially giving permission to those already at the top. The true warrior looks like other gamers, talks like other gamers, and plays like other gamers. The SJW doesn’t play by the same rules, or even worse, doesn’t play the same games. This is hyperbolized by the codification of certain games as worthy of getting paid for playing and not, and how that is gendered, raced, etc. I think this is a pretty useful perspective to have because it helps people frame how they talk to those projecting the image of the SJW and better yet work to counteract the qualities of being conniving interlopers by referencing their credibility in the community.

Near the end of the first day was an unconference session where people signed up to speak and discuss a topic for about 10 minutes each. I really enjoyed it this year because it let conference-goers say what was on their mind and know that they’ve been heard. I super encourage a microtalk and roundtable discussion to any event that wants to foster community. One of the main themes in the talks was the still evident disparity and therefore clash between between people of different backgrounds at conferences and even at QGCon; is a conference held at a major university that features a lot of academic talks welcoming someone who doesn’t have a college education? Same for something like GDC, which is expensive to participate in and only has speakers of a certain kind of experience. It was fitting for the conference’s theme, Difference at Play, and is relevant to the on-going mission of QGCon to bring together people of different communities and disciplines. Class is definitely a dirty word for the games industry at large; few want to talk about who has most the resources and who doesn’t have much and why that is, and how a lot of opportunity for anything surrounding games requires a base amount of resources. It’s hard to participate when you are expected to have had the time and money to receive a certain kind of education, do a bunch of research, hack at a low-paying job or internship. And, predictably, class problems hits other minoritized people disproportionately to those who aren’t. It opened up how QGCon is different and more accessible than other conferences and yet still has a ways to get to a place we ideally want all events to be like.

Another keynote was by both merritt kopas and Naomi Clark did a lot to provoke and challenge previous ideas constructed about queerness and games, which I enjoyed since it gave some continuity between last year’s conference and this one. I actually want to respond further in depth in a separate piece, but here are some critiques they had: we are currently in the gay liberation of games instead of the queering of games, drawing a parallel between the gay marriage rights movement and the continual backburning of many issues in the queer community for people not looking or being able to stealth into society; gaming has been shuttling between being perceived as a vice and finding new roles to promote social values for long time before the 90s; games are not actually safe spaces to fail and are often sites of trauma for many queer people (often stories of finding queerness through games are based on a relatively constrained sample); the idea of glitches as queer ‘failure’ instead of acceptable failure that is wrapped in reproducing capitalism; and ultimately, why is queerness so often set in opposition to utility? Chew on all that!

Near the end of the conference, Zoya Street and I lead a decompression session, a moment where people can let out what’s bothering them and work it out through writing and art and conversation. We had people draw a river on a long roll of paper and write down what was on their mind, then make little paper boats marked with words of what they needed to get through it all to sail on top of it. I won’t recreate the conversation here and we didn’t record it so people could feel secure in expressing themselves, but I think there are some themes worth mentioning. For one, Gamer Gate took over the majority of the conversation, and from what I gathered, there was different feelings of powerlessness. I think for the most part, people have worries and want to change things, but don’t have direct, safe avenues to express themselves and feel like they can actually make a difference. I felt this at IndieCade as well, where it felt like some people were being actively engaged, in person, for the first time and actually feel like they are being heard and receiving a response. I think this is where the need for more local safe-space events would really help in getting people heard and more involved. Saying things on Twitter both feels futile and dangerous given how gaters are always searching for people to gang up on. I really do think this is a good impetuous for more community organizing that should be spearheaded by institutions all over the place and encouraging devs to start their own thing to meet their particular localized needs.

If there is something I left QGCon this year with though, it is a dire need for intergenerational dialogue between minoritized people in games. And intergenerational is a bit stretched here because the landscape of video games changed rapidly, giving different kinds of opportunities and difficulties to each group within a relatively short amount of separation in time. In particular, I think there’s the more queer, in all senses of the word, group of people outside of the games industry that is incredibly disenfranchised by it and resentful for that, and minoritized people inside the industry with a pining for the freedom those on the outside have. These groups generally do not have strong lines of dialogue with one another, and very easily clash when coming together for about anything. There are outliers of course, but in general this is the case, as these two groups have different customs and histories. This isn’t to equate their struggles; people within the industry have decidedly more resources and power than those on the outside. In spite of this, I think it’s possible for conversation to happen with attention paid to power dynamics between generations of minoritized people. From my vantage point, I feel like some people feel tied to the industry even though it’s a burning building, and others see kicking in some more gasoline will help them have a more self-determinating future. I think this is a good thought to leave off on with regards to what this year’s conference implies for the next: when the destruction or major, major reconstruction of industry seems to be the only path for sustainability for one group, but the crumbling of the lives of another, how does one reconcile that?

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More Than My Pain

You often hear games conferences described as industry Christmas, seeing many friendly faces for the one time a year you get to see them. I think it’s why there’s as much buzz as there is around them, more than the actual conference or games really. As Christmas or any other holiday does, it affects people in different ways, and usually for me, it’s an uplifting, energizing experience.

The conferences I’ve been to this past month, and probably the ones for the next few, were somber and claustrophobic. It felt like people found out before I did that I only had a few more years to live. I was walking a procession of my own funeral.

My decision to leave the games industry is seen as something between giving up and a loss. I made my decision based on what made sense to me: the industry wasn’t providing enough sustenance and support to continue receiving abuse in its stead. Moving away from mainstream games culture and focusing on the edges of play allows me to create and write about topics I’ve been interested but wouldn’t really capture a large audience. It’s a healthy move.

What I’ve realized during my time engaging with the online community surrounding games media and development is that minoritized voices often only get visibility and resources when they are talking about their pain. This is particularly true for people who aren’t men, who on top of doing good work, they must put themselves out there enough for hordes to harass them. As is seen with turf wars with games journalism, people are looking for personalities in their media, and the technologies we converse on emphasize these tendencies. In a way, social media is reality TV the audience gets to heavily participate in and shape.

By continually engaging with the people of hate campaigns, people within the games community and industry reify this TV dynamic, often without the consent of the people who will be affected by it. Those on social media who feel like they have little political power are ultimately organizing in the same way these harassers are by just lashing out with memes and Twitter shaming tactics, which exacerbate the issue. This line of thinking seems to come from a couple of factors from what I can see: the ‘logical’ one of if society can see that people in the hate campaign are awful people, they don’t get credence, and the selfish one, that they want to do something but can’t bring themselves to a level where they feel like they can make a real difference. There’s a lot that goes into these two feelings, but simply, society already sees games culture as aberrant and horrible, and therefore doesn’t need to see it get worse to be convinced, and this entire conflict isn’t about gamers and wanting to feel like you’re a good person, it’s about the continual victimization and marginalization of minoritized people in games. It was in the beginning, always is, and yet there hasn’t been any real, healthy effort to counter this. Instead, people waste their energy dealing with people who can’t be convinced, and make bloodsport of it.

I say a “healthy effort” for a reason, because a part of this reality TV aspect of social issues is how fan culture creates personas out of people and groups and cheers them to battle against each other. We’ve created idols of victimhood out of people who are much more than their pain. And when we stop to talk about it, of course we don’t feel and think this way. In our actions however, there is an encouragement for victims to become martyrs incarnate for public catharsis by constantly engaging with the antagonists of the show, or even having in-group drama to shake things up for a boring month. Attention, connections, and resources goes to the ones most visibly being attacked in a very zero-sum manner, where if you aren’t also being cut apart and challenged in public along with your usual work, the industry and community very quickly forgets you.

Don’t believe me? Look up the name of any person now campaigned to continue heading into the abuse to somehow save games in the media. Try to find pieces that critically engage with the work they do, and you will see what I mean. Because the crowds can only talk about the drama and pain, and not about how or why this person matters to them, minoritized people in games will always just be chess pieces for dominant culture’s side of the diversity game. I’ve been doing what I do for over 3 years, and I can count on one hand how many times a major publication or conference asked me to talk about my work, because the dominant narrative will only let us exist if we are victims first, then humans. These past few months, 99% of the interview and speaking requests I’ve gotten were to retell my stories of pain. And how the community reacts to hate campaigns plays straight into that; instead of engaging the people who can actually change things (heads of companies, VCs, activist organizations), the community goes into a turf war with anonymous trolls more experienced at harassing people. How many times have you read that unlike the past, these particular past few months have been getting worse, not better? I am more than my pain. I am more than my pain.

I’ve already wrote pieces on how you can help; they are not the dramatic displays that social media encourages you to do, but they are things that actually work. To be honest, I throw up my hands in the air now when it comes to how little people actually turn to do these things. I feel like the community WANTS the social drama, you WANT the reality TV. Which has caused me a lot of pain these past few weeks to realize, with how few people in my life have offered substantial support these past few months. If you want to change your behaviors to actually help people, talk about how they matter to you outside of their ‘bravery.’ Quick tips:

1: Have you actually actively engaged with this person’s work? Have you not only experienced their work, but thought about it past a gut reaction? Can you explain to another person why this person’s work is unique outside of them being a minoritized person? If you answered no to any of these, you need to go and respect that person you claim to be fighting for and actually engage their work so you can appreciate them as a whole individual instead of just a icon for martyrdom.

2: Stop goading hate campaigners, because the end result is more harassment for already victimized people. If you want to show the public a different face of games, show them the work of people who condemn these cultish and discriminatory aspects of games culture. You are not painting a different image about games by making harassers and criminals resort to even more extreme tactics. Instead, publicly engage with the work you respect, whether it is to agree with it or criticize it. You don’t undermine them if you genuinely want to add onto their work from your perspective, assuming you’ve taken the effort to critically grapple with it.

3: Don’t assume that because someone has more followers on social media than you that they are somehow set for life. Many of us are broke, don’t have experience that institutions respect enough to give us jobs, are expected to give a lot of free labor for the community, suffer from multiple oppressions. A tweet is nice but gone from my timeline within a couple of minutes. If you care about a person and really want to be involved with their safety and well-being, take more than a couple seconds to reach out to them. Always respect boundaries, of course. At this point, however, the silence from so many people when I am struggling with pain is crushing.

I am more than my pain. I am more than my pain. I am more than my pain.

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Dispatches from IndieCade

Earlier this month was IndieCade, a festival that celebrates indie video games down in Culver City near LA. It’s actually a little more than that, also including non-digital games and tends to be more open to experimental and fringe work. It is open to the public and one of the more inclusive games events, and probably one I’d still appear at to see how things are moving along in the not-too-mainstream, not-too-artsy realm of games. I’m also a judge for the festival, meaning I help funnel games towards the jury to select for the awards and general inclusion into the festival. I want to take you through some highlights and games I saw there, and even some that didn’t make it into the festival but I judged and think are worth noting.

I’m really into going to talks at conferences and conventions because I feel like it’s a good litmus test for where most influential thought is at; not necessarily the most radical, but usually ahead of the curve and educational for conference-goers who can’t be plugged into Twitter and academia 24/7. This IndieCade was centered around community, which is fitting since that word has been on everyone’s lips for the past year. Thankfully that meant a lot of talks about diversity, inclusion, history, and outside influences. Look out for recordings of these when/if they go up!

The first talk I went to was “Let’s Not Make a Scene,” which mostly raised a lot of questions about groupings of people and how that works in industrial, artistic, and advocacy communities. The panelists were smart enough to not really get prescriptive of what is and isn’t a scene, and showed quite human complexities around scene making and power dynamics. Particularly salient was the story of how TIGSource forum devs set an unintentional standard and in-/out-group dynamic when many of those developers rose to prominence and were basically dubbed ‘the indie scene.’ A group of friends and peers became an aesthetic movement, and then became an industry in of their own. The problem with this is that power structures when it comes to visibility and resources were set mostly by the values of this group, however unintentionally, and access to all that surrounds the indie industry is affected by how many degrees, and what kind, of association you are away from this original group of people. This is also a conversation going on with the ‘Queer Games Scene,’ which I am included in per my wishes or not, and there’s a question as to how a similar dynamic will be created in this movement. Though I don’t think these two situations are comparable, I was glad it was still evoked and interrogated so we can at least be wary of replicated power structures of any group of people.

Another panel that went over rather well was “Let’s Do Something About it” (only now seeing the repetition) with regards to race and class issues in games. In a weird way, I left it mostly glad I was not on the panel; not because it was bad, because, like, finally other people are being recognized and I don’t have to be one of the very few people talking about race in games. They had a wonderful line up with devs and writers in different aspects of their careers and analysis, but were pretty resonant about their experiences of being in games spaces and having the topic of race shut down on them. It was good to hear, thankfully no one really does that to me so I don’t speak about that aspect often, but the panel showed how various aspects of racism and classism sneak up in the independent scene. The most salient point I took away from it was how non-white people just don’t even see the opportunity to get involved; either the resources they need are never offered to them or spaces are so white and east asian and don’t make the effort to extend out an invitation. This is in contrast to how there are so many initiatives to get women into these spaces, that sexism is the current ticket-item everyone is focusing on, instead of taking a multi-prong approach to diversity and inclusion issues.

The last day of the conference I spent mostly in City Hall, which was appropriate because it was all the more serious, political talks of the conference. The first session was an overall town hall kind of meeting, where people aired out concerns and action plans for change in the industry. What I deduced from the session is how people really wanted to be heard, on an individual level, about their feelings and thoughts about what’s all going on in games, and don’t often get the chance. There was a lot of grand statements and aimless frustrations, but it was probably helpful and shows we need public venues to vent grievances that might lead to some actual plan of action. My contribution to that discussion was the need to actually listen to people who know what they are doing, like activists and other people who engage with social change more frequently than the average indie dev, to have the resources and platform to enact change.

I was then part of a microtalk session called “Why ___ Matters,” where each panelist filled in their own part about what matters to games. There were definitely recurring themes, such as looking outside of games and the gaming community for reference and life, and also the negligence to self-care and valuing people’s livelihood. My talk in particular was ‘Why Reality Matters,’ where I hopefully challenged the body-detached attitudes of games as a whole, both in craft and the treatment of artists and activists. If you are a frequent reader of my work and tweets, you probably wouldn’t be surprised at the things I talked about, but all in all, I wanted to have reality be a design inspiration, and for play to be more applicable to reality and its issues.

And, of course, it is a games festival, so there are lots of games I witnessed and played. One was Squinky’s Coffee: A Misunderstanding, which is a super interesting theatrical, narrative generating awkward situation simulator. There are multiple performers in this game: two are the main characters, who read and interpret lines given to them from the drivers, two other players selecting options, and there’s also a musical accompaniment that also gets instructions. What is most interesting to me about Squinky’s game is it’s a sort of social catharsis game for awkwardness, when two people have separate goals and comforts that collide with one another. It also shows how people’s actions can be interpreted multiple ways depending on their context. We get a lot of this from some more narrative based roleplaying games, yet there’s an added usually unreachable element when you have it set up like a performance. The mundanity of it all made it pretty relatable.

Elegy for a Dead World by Dejobaan Games and Popcannibal was actually a game I looked at last year for the IGF and was quickly on board with the concepts it was playing with. The game puts the player in these beautiful panoramas of abandoned worlds and at certain scenes prompts them to leave some words. It’s pretty open-ended, though it has options to give the player a sort of ad-lib structure to work with. I think it aims to be interpretive and meditative; there are few games that ask you to reflect and be creative. It’s very moody and a great start to an interesting idea. I’d like to see more invitations for interpretation, and I’d also like to see how the metanarrative of it all comes together once it’s released.

I was also pretty wowed by Ice-Bound from Down to the Wire, another narrative game. I am a more narratively-interested person, but I don’t think other aspects of games stood out for me this year at the festival. And Ice-Bound is a good example of a future of indie games that I’d like to see, where access to technology reframes our relationship to storytelling. The game is part physical book, part digital-technology AR sorta interpreter, where you see different kinds of information on both and are trying to uncover what happened. This really got me inspired to remember and rethink games in the past that were part physical artifact, and part digital. In particular, manuals and strategy guides, how can we incorporate those into contemporary play?

There were definitely a lot of games I didn’t get to play that I wanted to (mostly LARPs and other RPGs, like Service), and lots of games worth mentioning, but here are a few that didn’t make it to the festival that I judge that was interesting for one reason or another:

Beyonce: Two Souls: I mean, the title should say it all? It was one of the few games I actually laughed with, using humor in a particularly video gamey way. Not like in a meme-knowledge manner but in a sort of surrealist deliverythat really uses the medium and conventions. I hope it becomes more developed than when I saw it, which was months ago so I imagine that’s the case, I’d definitely check it out for laughs with Queen Bey.

FutureCoast: An ARG that taps into the climate change discussion through player-generated apocryphal fiction. The most interesting aspect of it were the recorded voicemails left by people around the world depicting some sort of natural disaster that evokes climate change anxieties. On top of that, people could create what is basically a playlist of these voicemails, connected by whatever topic or theme they noticed. I thought it created a really interesting look at the collective unconscious about how people feel out of control about the environment, and it’s being exhaled through all these apocalypse stories.

The Sun Also Rises: I just found out this is also the name of a Hemmingway piece, and I don’t like Hemmingway, but alas, this is a pretty looking game that is very ‘post-Kentucky Route Zero’ game, if the gentlemen at Cardboard Computer don’t hate me for saying that. It’s set in US-occupied Afghanistan, and the main conversation is between a boy growing up in that culture and an American soldier. When I saw it, I think they were prototyping some narrative experiments that didn’t really jive well with me, but I think through development it’s going to turn out really interesting and be quite the pertinent theme. Just realizing now that it has two different kinds of non-white people as main characters without being awful stereotypes, so that’s cool!

Of course there was a lot more going on, but hopefully you all click through all that and see there’s interesting stuff going on, and a lot of it you can support! At least three of these games have/had fundraisers, which shows public patronage of weirder stuff could stay an important part of developing fringe work. Next weekend is the Queerness and Games Conference, which will round off my busy October, so stay tuned for my notes from that! It’s going to be great, and I believe it will be streamed, so keep an eye out!

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