Passing and Self-Identification: Managing the Power and Visibility of the Closet

I remember the first time it happened. Diffused lighting on beige walls, windows covered by black patterned fabric, everything in my room was low: mattress on the ground, coffee table for a desk, books spread along the floor in irregular stacks. His head was in my lap, my fingers going through his hair, both of us quiet as we listened to my roommate, my best friend, come home and eventually go to her room. When it seemed like she was settled, he would resume telling me his problems: he was straight, sure of it, and wanted to be true to himself, but how would the world understand? He cried, and I listened. I was struck by the irony of it, a man who passes as straight, perceives himself as straight, yet struggling with the implied queerness of intimacy with me, visibly queer and receiving daily abuses, including the one resting in my lap with the basic notion that I am degrading his self-image. As this happened more frequently, with multiple men, the only men who, in their view, risked intimacy with me, I realized this was something that would always be a part of my life, watching men who live in bubbles unable to meet on my level because of perceived social risks of being with me.

When I first read this piece on queer tourism (not to be confused with literal queer tourism), I empathized with the frustration and anger behind much of the sentiment. 100% of my intimacies were with people able to move through spaces without the constant, overt threats that encroach on my life, yet their discomforts often took center stage since they were living a multiplicity of lives, while I, in a really callous phrasing, am living in an expected amount of pain. There is a reason, however, that the article is written as an unpopular opinion by an anonymous writer, predicting it reads as biphobia and essentially dictating how a person should identify. This article upset a lot of people, particularly bisexual women, and only did some of the work to show how self-aware the author was about her effect on others. She needed to vent and nuance lost itself expressing a real frustration. Though the article caused anger and pain, I’m glad it exists because it exposes a pressing contradiction in social justice movements that deserves further discussion.

What is at stake here? This piece reveals a tension between passing, particularly as straight, while taking up space in queer communities. The author describes a line between cashing in on the social cachet that comes with being queer while playing it safe enough to receive the benefits passing as straight provides. Does this actually exist? Yes, though it most often comes out as shaming women instead of addressing how we are all socially conditioned and how that affects marginalized groups of people. What we’re seeing is a real dissonance between centering politics around public self-identification and the material effects of oppression. Action on social media creates a one-to-one connection between identification and oppression, yet passing creates a loophole in this reasoning by showing a murkier picture, that it isn’t essential to present as a minoritized person to suffer and need support from community. Because continued efforts to increase the acceptance of queer identities, and underlining the fluidity of such, are working, we are seeing queerness normalizing, or at least, the LBGT is becoming normal. Advocates like to proselytize with spectrum imagery of sexuality like the Kinsey scale, but it looks like they don’t know what to do with the people who are 1s and 2s, who are effectively not straight, yet, it seems, not queer enough for the benefits that comes with being in a queer community.

Tension with passing isn’t new, and in much of online conversion, it is equated with privilege. Passing in this context means you benefit from people assuming you are on the top part of the hierarchy while being quite the contrary. It’s often used to talk about passing as white or cisgender, but it is also wrapped up in sexuality since LGBT activism took on more of a Harvey Milk influence and stressed coming out and visibility. Now that we’re at a tipping point for queer rights, we have people like the xoJane author who views strategically staying the closet to be an act of cowardice. In my experience, it is frequent pattern that those who are or pass as dominant identities within marginalized communities tend to take up the more space and wield more power, which is why you have queer policing coming into stronger focus lately. What this requires is better conversations on how to handle power and visibility, not necessarily shaming people for being in the closet. It’s another form of oppression olympics, saying people who are visibly queer have it worse than those who remain closeted. Is it worse to receive heat for who you are than to live in secrecy? The contexts we live in make that decision complicated, or even give us surprising answers. For instance, what is the power relationship between an out queer person in a place with anti-discrimination protections telling someone who could lose support they need to come out? We all might perceive different kinds of pain differently, but it’s still pain. I also can’t cut out people from my life who aren’t completely out or unable to face the pain that will come with being out as queer in some way; to do so would rob me of pretty much every chance of intimacy available to me. While my impatience is quick with someone doing anything to avoid what looks to me a papercut when I constantly have my arm broken, I can’t fault them for the impulse to protect themselves, because, yes, any oppression is wrong. I need a praxis that involves these men into my life, because I don’t have a choice, and neither do many other people.

I don’t think many people were ready for the messiness of queerness as a political identity. In effect, most people involved in the LGBT are fighting to be ‘normal,’ to be treated exactly as straight people are and to have those two groups live harmoniously with their owned houses, 2.5 children, and laberdoodle. Yet the pervasive adoption of queerness instead of LGBT is completely at odds with that vision, instead trying to move beyond straight vs gay, where straightness inherently contains queerness by the very virtue of defining them against each other. Heteronormativity is prevalent in LGBT communities, with straight- and cis-passing people being valued as inherently more attractive and sought-after. Queerness can’t hold a straight vs gay paradigm, but it will definitely let you get off to it. And, frankly, queerness isn’t just about who you’re attracted to and how much; am I not queer because my sex life’s track record is with men? Can he not be queer because I identify as a woman? You can see the binary nature of queer policing in the treatment of trans people, who are assumed to have lived as one gender and received all of its privileges and then transitioned into another gender to then suffer oppression, or vice versa. While this is some trans people’s experiences, people like me didn’t always pass as cisgender, and even when I came to identify as non-cis, quickly received debilitating shame from the messages society gave me about who I was. It isn’t clear cut in my having x amount of privileges and then losing them, where x is the privileges all men have. This conflict implies we need to move beyond public self-identification as a method of determining who is and isn’t worth advocating for and move to addressing material problems brought on by oppression.

Having the ability to speak of our experiences without being forced to represent groups of people goes both ways. Not only can this fight tokenism and whitewashing, this also allows people who don’t feel like they need the conversation centered around them to speak without taking visibility and power from those who need it. My public identity and how I know myself are different, because I’m human and therefore messy, while identity politics presents itself as neat and organized. To the public I’m effectively a transwoman, and that is the closest term to what I feel that people will understand. I avoid using the word trans for myself because I don’t think it represents me, and sometimes with woman as well. I am Palestinian and Native American by blood, but because I am disconnected enough from what those groups face, I don’t publicly identify as that and don’t assume the group identity that comes with it. I assume queer and multi-racial black because those are political identities I want to publicly challenge. That’s not the full extent of who I am, and I don’t think anyone needs to fully, publicly identify as anything to have their oppressions fought and their experience spoken. Social justice conversations need to get better at handling more human forms of identification and being instead of the stock characters that activists are forced to assume to represent platonic ideals of the marginalized.

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Feelings about expressive games and museums

I remember the first time I saw my game in a museum. It was one of the few times I visited the south since I moved to the bay area, remembering how breathing is so laborious. It was the second time I went to Atlanta, the first during the 1996 Olympics when I was a child. Most of my memories of then are fuzzy, except for the distinct use of the color orange, from signs to the glorification of peaches to the clay in the earth. Everything feels like it moves slower, more paced that feels pretty emblematic of the south. This time, I was visiting an exhibit that had my first game in it, getting texts from my best friend pleading with me to consider moving there. It was in the back, on its own table and computer, and a plaque above with my name and bio. Surreal, as being in a gallery of any sort was never in my life plan. Finding my novel in Barnes & Noble maybe, but something I made being in a place for Art? This means something, right?

Besides writers, the artists I spent most of my life around up until a couple years ago were visual artists, and getting into a gallery, much less a museum, was a big deal to them. It’s how they would make their money, gain professional clout, and further their career as artists. After this show, my game went to other exhibits and galleries, sometimes with and sometimes without my knowledge. In the end, I don’t think I saw anything from my work being shown in those contexts; for one, like many other games, it didn’t suit traditional exhibition very well, as people would leave the game in the middle and there wouldn’t be an attendant to restart it, so visitors were approaching the game in ways I didn’t anticipate; as well, since you can download my game for free, it is approached as already owned by the public, and therefore that I didn’t need to get any benefit from the use of my game despite being celebrated as an artist and, last time I checked, artists needed money to live.

With the little funding there is for all arts, the amount dedicated for games more often goes to commercial digital ones and not to someone like me. It’s hard to feel like my work and experience isn’t exploited by arts and games institutions. The DIY spring centered around queer artists and the tools they used provided work for many events and spaces, and continues to be the example that games use to gain more cultural legitimacy in the arts and society overall. Yet we are not seeing particular success go to these artists, rather the use of their work for free with little benefits, with the ‘for exposure’ or ‘for the good of games’ excuses. What is going on here?

I think overall, work like mine straddles between worlds, and to be recognized, you need to be fully in one: either explicitly the old school art world, or in commercial game development. There are kinds of games that are legible to museums and art galleries, that get commissions and art world cachet that artists like me could really use to continue creating important work, but don’t and are largely disposed of in video game contexts. The work I’ll be citing is work I like and that excites me, and I’m not assuming that all of my art deserves a place in MoMA right meow. I’m more curious about how artists are partitioned from art and games worlds, and that there is a possibility that all the cultural clout radical artists have been doing for games might be contributing to their suppression.

Besides video games being put into an exhibit either on a console or computer or as video footage of them played on repeat (and often not in art wings but design ones), games take more digital art or conceptual performance art appearances that, overall, are more familiar to people who go to museums. These are games made pretty specifically for gallery use, like Eddo Stern’s Waco Resurrection and Mary Flanagan’s [giantJoystick], which have video games in them but also some other more approachable construction, mainly the absurd, to legitimize their existence in an art space. Or there are extremely high-production physical installations with gamey elements such as Nathalie Pozzi and Eric Zimmerman’s Interference or Heather Kelly, Lynn Hughes, and Cindy Poremba’s Joue le jeu/Play along, that are palatable in the other direction, unique non-video objects and experiences arranged by game design. There’s a more general heavy-handed trend to see play and video games as ways to attract young people and entertain them throughout the museum, much in line with all the efforts gamification has made to bluntly use game mechanics to make people do things. Very little credit is given to games and play on its own terms unless you are going through high-brow sensibilities and funding. These works don’t look like what video games are trying to celebrate as their art sector, yet these are the ones that are commissioned. So, what does this mean?

Leaning deep into my airchair, and knowing that arts funding isn’t going to reach people like me continuing on this trajectory of making small, weird digital games, it means there are two main directions for us to go in: embrace the museum and art world, and try to make games and experiences for those spaces so we are commissioned to create more games and sustain ourselves like other museum-/patron-dependent artists (not that this is some quick fix or The Answer, as all arts have problems) or to create another context for which people want to patron digital games as widely available experiences or as high-value objects that can easily sustain creators. There’s an argument that platforms like Patreon somewhat do this, however it is swept up in crowdfunding habits popularized by Kickstarter, where the most successful people funded are those who were doing already established conventional practices and now want to have money come from fans instead of companies. Or maybe itch.io, since it allows people to play games for free and to pay for them, however it is a free-for-all platform based around commercial distribution and, like Patreon, doesn’t have meaningful curation to have players approaching games as anything but commercial products. If we’re not to shoot for museums and to play into the art world as it is established, there has to be some other method of non-commercial support that isn’t completely reliant on government assistance that also curates and presents games in a purposeful way for visitors to engage with in a new context. I’m not pretending to have answers, just that a lot feels hollow about how games as a whole, the industry, fans, and art institutions interested in games, are treating game developers who strive for expression. Maybe the answer is leaving video games to be a forever commercial engine and moving to the art world proper, or finding someone in the position to a fund more spaces free of commercial pressures. One such space might be Babycastles and we might just need to see more like it and get them better funded. Either way, I find the lack of discussion and following action on supporting the arts hypocritical, since games relies so much on them to feel a sense of cultural legitimacy.

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Play Like Everyone is Watching – Some Lessons from Running My Own Play Party

(Content note: this article discusses kink and sex in general, but doesn’t have any explicit descriptions or depictions of sex)

 

Sweaterdresses, sushirritos, drinking game jams, I have a habit to smoosh a lot of my interests together. I blame it on my suburban survivalist nature, passing up smaller opportunities of separate, smaller things to fill up my needs and for the perfect, mega item that is some powerful chimera of a swiss army knife, never what I actually expect but somehow compelled to accept it is what I need. I have a pretty scattershot array of involvements and skills when it comes to games; writing critique, consulting, designing, tweeting, organizing events. There are times I feel a little lost, not knowing exactly where this hodgepodge is going to take me. I wouldn’t call myself a generalist, or only somewhat good at many things, rather just not interested enough to overspecialize in one particular thing at the determent of others, though that does seem inevitable when looking at the kinds of experience jobs want. But what exactly would combine my skills and other interests into one big project instead of feeling like I’m running between activities with non-transferable credentials?

Finding Inspiration

Two things, first, more recently, I’ve come to identify with works from Jennifer Rubell, a performance artist who often blends together participation, food, and a love/hate relationship with masculinity (mildly NSFW). She started out how I wanted to, writing food criticism and eventually sliding into performance, exploring and stretching the relationship between society and food. I found this pleasing because of the few conundrums of an artist’s life I was feeling: I prefer producing work mostly myself, but dislike handing down a Product for the Masses to enjoy; I feel my best interacting with others, but don’t want that to be a producer-customer relationship; and though play is shaping up more and more to be my chosen method of expression, I’m rarely inspired by games. I feel a resistance to performance art in games, especially outside of museums, and a pressure to digitize or get lost. What I really like about her work, and something I find intrinsic to play, is this lovely tension between the absurd and real, instead of the usual unreal. By breaking reality, you see its truth, or at least, your truth, brought to a place where little makes sense that tasks you to reconstruct yourself back into something whole afterwards. The unreal sits snug within reality, the norm, cognizant that what you are doing doesn’t really mean a lot, especially outside of the experience. You can put it down and move away, and remain largely unaffected.

Before that, I organized and ran my first kinky play party on my own. I helped create policies for one before, and I was both shocked and not surprised at all about how the game design part of my brain took over to structure this event. It is a play party after all. It wasn’t simply a make-sure-no-dies type deal, though that is obviously important, but a big experiment in interaction design. People at play parties are largely autonomous and spontaneous; you don’t know exactly what anyone wants to or will do, yet they require some form of structure so they aren’t just standing around awkwardly by the St. Andrew’s cross. Having people socialize and eventually play together is a more involved process than many of the games I’ve played and helped design because of the inherently vulnerable nature of kink, an emotional vulnerability more than it is a sexual one per se. I’ve written before on some challenges to conventional game design using kink practices as a lens, and how I’d like to go through some of the things I noticed fully running this party, keeping in mind of the blending of interests with participating that I would like to crib from Jennifer’s work.

Protocol as Social Norms

More than once, I’ve heard kinky people described as people who like rules. You wouldn’t hard-pressed to find a game designer describing gamers in a similar way. But it’s something more specific than just rules when it comes to kink, a more codified term being protocol, which takes us to a place less about restriction and more about culture. Protocol are conditionals, molding behavior to create a specific kind of relation between all who are following them. I find when creating protocol, especially for a group of people, you are creating a culture. These sorts of rules are not just things to obey, they are cultural norms, and there is meaning in following and subverting them. A shared way of acting creates a community, and I’ve grown to seeing events like shared experiences as a temporary community. I find that protocol is often left implicit and largely undesigned in play experiences and is probably why games tend to elicit similar feelings and create similar communities. I’ve never witnessed ‘culture fit’ at a company before, but it definitely worked itself out very quickly at the event, with people who didn’t really jive with the protocol pushed to the edges and leaving. While that sounds harsh, communities are intentional creations that explicitly include and exclude certain qualities. The trick is making sure you’re very intentional in all that you decide to exclude, and being okay with the fallout.

As I started to imagine play experiences more involved with social engagement, protocol in a kink context made for a more useful lens than rules in a games one. When thinking about a community I wanted to create, I tried to draft customs that would gesture towards a certain mindset. The party I designed for had a particular focus on a long-standing problem: for a play event centered around the experiences of women, how do we facilitate respectful interaction while cognizant of how men are socialized to treat them and not making men out to feel like they are inherently unsalvageable creeps? Along with the knowledge that people of all genders can violate others’ boundaries, I created a community sanctioned method of approaching other people that was unobtrusive and could easily be seen as and left at politeness. I shouldn’t be, but I was surprised with how something so simple changed the atmosphere of the event from ones I’ve been to in the past. Longer conversations were encouraged, so the people just cruising, moving from person to person, were very obvious and felt so themselves. Protocol don’t stand on their own like rules may, they require contrast between the person’s life and the current context at hand.

The Weaker the “Magic Circle,” the More Affective the Experience

The existence of a magic circle in which games reside is a fundamental concept in game design theory. It marks a separation of the play experience from reality, where players suspend the rules of life and adopt the ones of the game. It is typically seen as porous, where things from reality can affect the game and games change reality. This demarcation gives permission for people to do things they wouldn’t normally do in life and is manipulated to immerse players as deep into the game as they can go. Through my work and eventually hosting parties, I’ve found that the existence of a strong magic circle creates instrumental relationships between players and play objects, where people and things exist only to advance them towards their goals. In the context of a play party, this renders others as pleasure and catharsis dispensers, strengthened by parties’ privacy policies and the general clandestine positioning of these sorts of events. Much like how people can turn into unflattering versions of themselves when interacting under an internet persona, play parties can have too much of an ‘underworld’ feeling where people can display unflattering aspects of themselves because much is made to separate this space from the outside world. When planning the event, I didn’t require typical dungeon garb, play typical club music at typical club music volumes, and made the event more than just finding a partner for sexual activities. Instead, there were party games, emphasized social areas, and a distinct encouragement to not feel obligated to have sex. I started to see more group conversations over vulnerable topics, a general melting away of awkwardness, and, well, silliness. I could see people being people instead of just Mistress and pet, not allowing themselves to be reduced to their traditional ‘purpose’ at play parties, which often contained in them non-consensual power dynamics embedded by society at large.

Because there was an active effort to weaken the border between play and reality, there was a synthesis between people’s’ real life experiences and the structured one they were having then. I see this strongly in Jennfier’s work, and in social-engagement performance art in general, where there is a thin line between the absurd or fantastical and reality so they create a strong contrast to one another, encouraging participants to reflect on their lives when viewed through a structured lens. Stronger separations allow players to compartmentalize their experiences into ‘just a game’ rationales instead of consciously integrating it into themselves. When many think of kink, they imagine someone in all leather and latex beating up bound naked people. And while you won’t be hard pressed to find that, it’s mostly a stand-by of an older sex club culture, where the only way to do these sorts of things without being completely burned out of your life was to compartmentalize the experience into few settings. As people get older and as newer ones arrive in a more sex-positive society, kink starts to look more and more like people doing typical things, just with a power dynamic unbeknownst to onlookers. All of life is embedded with this kinky context, understanding power dynamics, achieving explicit consent for every interaction with a person’s autonomy, these concepts explode outside of just some freaky sex to how we all relate to each other as humans, and in turn, you can see some pretty mundane-on-the-surface but hot-on-the-inside kinky play.

 

I’m only beginning on a path to organizing these sorts of events, and there are some high concept ideas that would take some time winning people over to try out. But so far I’ve been successful, leaning far into psychological play and stressing relational awareness. I’m fascinated by vulnerability as a theme and find myself working backwards from traditional kinky events to something along the lines of Jennifer’s work. In fact, the next one I am planning will be set in the context of a wine tasting, creating a legit wine lineup with the opportunities for power dynamics between people to be explored and exploited. But if someone looked in the window, they wouldn’t see anything too strange, at least, nothing I couldn’t get away with by calling it ‘art.’

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I went to a drinking game jam and this is what I did

When I went to my first game jam, I didn’t think I would be able to do anything. It was Global Game Jam 2013, and I already had made my first game, but there was still a sort of imposter’s syndrome about. The most accessible game making tool most people recognized at the time was Unity, and the new wave of DIY hadn’t yet reached the corners of the net. When people were pairing up, there was little need for someone who was just a designer in an environment where you had to get a digital game up and running within 48 hours. Like many other celebratory events about games, the focus can be prohibitively technocentrist, and that women who showed up were usually visual artists or volunteers showed that there was deeper work to confront around the kinds of events we codify as a part of maker culture.

Thankfully, I ended up creating a card game with other women and having a lot of fun doing it. It started a tradition for me to bring materials for non-digital game making to hopefully attract other people who wouldn’t fit into making a video game. I think a lot about shifting the center of games to an attitude where accessible game design is the norm, where digital games aren’t what first come to mind. Thinking about game jams with just bodies, or markers, or other easily obtained and usable materials that don’t necessarily require a special skill to make a basic design with. After the game jam, a friend and I thought up of one such idea: a drinking game jam.

A couple years later, I’ve repeated the idea enough to embolden some friends to organize a jam for making drinking games, and had a really good time. Besides the obvious benefit (or detriment, depending on the perspective), there is a common experience with playing drinking games, down to the same basic kinds: Kings (Circle of Fire), Flipcup, beer pong, these games go by a lot of different names, but they are a sort of (at least American) cultural pastime, passed down year after year like we were yearning for them all our lives. What are drinking games really doing in our culture? What are their functions, and what would we be messing with to create something new?

We started this discussion to get ideas flowing to start our games. First, was a general explanation of what a canonical drinking game is: a game where drinking is the result of some performance test, or is the main act of performance. The main tension that popped up for me was the ambiguity of whether drinking was a punishment or a reward, after all, when playing a drinking game, you mean to drink in the first place and to get comfortable with friends, and being sober around a lot of drunk people is not usually a common goal. Creating a difficult choice between drinking and another action appealed to me, like having to confess an emotion or drink, or some other lose-lose situation. We also noted that most drinking games are designed for skill level to steadily deteriorate once you’ve started to take some hits and drink, that is, the parts of your brain that is affected by alcohol will be the parts needed to avoid drinking.

There is also the why. Most found that drinking games are more of a reason to facilitate drinking itself; you have friends, you have booze, now here’s a reason why you will be drinking it. Some want to get completely wasted, or get at least get to a place in a certain amount of time that they can’t unaided. I was fascinated with the less mechanistic reasons we drink, like for getting to know each other. Games like Never Have I Ever also let people get to know each other, typically with things we wouldn’t readily admit. And that’s an aspect of our culture that I wished to prod, that we often use alcohol in order to be vulnerable, to admit and share things, or to do risky behavior. What kinds of games could we make around that?

After we broke out and started creating things however, we found how really difficult it was to make these more intimate games right off the bat. There were other factors involved with drinking games, such as having very few, simple rules, and low-risk enough behavior in the beginning so strangers could be comfortable enough to play with each other. I am loathe to say that my social experiment drinking game fell very easily to a mechanistic card game, and for the most part, things biased in that direction. But I think if I were to do this with the same crowd a second time, we could dig a little deeper. What is an art drinking game? I will leave that with you.

With the theme of Mischief and Subterfuge, here are some of the drinking games we jammed out and you are more than welcome to try out at your next gathering:

 

Stealer’s Will

stealerswill

This is the main game I worked on. It felt like a classic quick card game you’d find at parties. This works best if the shots you have are particularly strong or distinct tasting. We had some pretty gross honey whiskey or something, that wasn’t so bad as a half shot, but god I got the full shot once and I hated myself. I just had to be stubborn and understand the authentic experience by not playtesting with water… It’s a really fun information gathering game, where you have to scout out what cards are in the game and try to get as much in the middle as you can. We ended up editing this a little to be fairer to the first player, where it’s not just the card you have in your hand at the end of the game that determines whether you’re the highest or lowest, but the sum of it and the card you originally discarded.

 

Speed Fist

speedfist

I watched many people play this game, and it was very entertaining to watch. It’s a reflex game, which also feels pretty classic for drinking, and one that rapidly deteriorates as time goes on. Once you play through a couple rounds it becomes almost instinctive, and you just speed through and drink a whole bunch. The tension between watching your opponent and trying to anticipate what drink you need to signal is really enjoyable, most rounds are just always weird hilarious fuck ups.

 

Jump Shots

jumpshots

The most dangerous game of all, mostly because it doesn’t actually have an ending condition (“sufficiently drunk” is a decision I don’t think sufficiently drunk people can make). It is reminiscent of power hours, where you are just biding your time until you take a drink. It felt like one you’d play at a bar or around a table where you’d be having a conversation otherwise. You don’t necessarily need to concentrate hard on playing, as it’s mostly luck and a bit of maneuvering to set up your friends to drink more. I do like that it is inherently social without it being in the rules, and also a little malevolent at the same time.

 

There were a couple of games that didn’t have the rules drawn up, but I thought were pretty good. One was called, I believe, Soul Search, which was closest to a purposefully social and icebreaker type game. It inverts Never Have I Ever, saying something you have done instead of something you haven’t. Inspired by Dixit’s judging rules, you won your turn if you said something you’ve done that only one other person playing has also done. On the game table, there are shot glasses of a cheap, less fancy beer and a few of a nicer, craft one (this is definitely a game for beer snobs) that you got to drink if you won your round. If more than one other person did that same thing, you all had to drink the crappy beer, and if no one else has done it, you don’t get to drink anything. It was during this game that I heard people genuinely ask about each other and tell stories, and was one of the more off-the-cuff games to get created. The game ends when the good beer is finished, and just one standard bottle size worked as a good timer of sorts.

The other was unnamed, or possibly called Red/Black, which was an unfinished concept that I was really into. Everyone was randomly dealt two cards, and could play one card a turn. On your turn, you chose another person to play a card with, and you can put down either a red or black card. If one of you put down a red card and the other black, the person who put down the black one doesn’t get to draw back up to two cards while the red player could, and has to take a shot. Two reds meant both took shots but both drew back up to two. Two black ones made the two players allies, and whenever one loses a card or takes a shot, all people in the alliance had to do the same. I’m a particular fan of hidden information and social dynamics, and I ended up playing a round playtested without the shots (because we literally would have been dead if so) by rebelling against a large alliance, eventually getting absorbed into it, kicked out, and then killing them all at once. I would really like to see it evolved and worked on, since logistics definitely needed adjustments so players wouldn’t need to go to the hospital, plus it was fun to see the strategy personalities some newer friends I’ve met had, and I imagine with drinking involved, it would turn into mayhem.

I definitely want to try a drinking game jam again, and also think up a lot of other jams using other cultural and material conventions that more people can relate to. Outside of the fact that it was a reason to drink a lot with friends, I enjoyed how many non-games people were involved, learning to make games because it spoke to their lives in a way that made sense. There is also something to being able to playtest a game that all you have to do is discuss and right down the rules, since we made and tested these games within 4-5 hours instead of 48. It feels more attainable, relevant, and hey, I now have some new party games I can feasibly use with friends.

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More than Representation

“What got you into games?”

Simple on its face, I’ve heard the answer multiple times and it tends to be somewhat similar for people like me around my age. Our parents, for me, my father, was into technology in someway or another, and had early video game consoles and computers around the house. Being children with time on our hands, we spent hours upon hours playing games and in virtual or text worlds, and grew up with the video game industry. Usually the story ends around there, and jumps into the person’s current career and projects.

For me, and likely for others, there is a second part, what got us into Video Games, to seek employment in it, or to create in them, or to go into a new field of study. By college age, I mostly gave up on games, except for one or two here or there. I felt like I grew out of them. It wasn’t until I took a class in fantasy literature, with a professor who noted a lot of students’ interest in fantasy and myth comes from not just books, but video games, and took us to a computer lab to show us some games for critical analysis. It was there that I got back “into” games, as I played through two that affect me to this day: Galatea by Emily Short, and The Path by Tales of Tales. Upon doing research on gender and sexuality stereotypes in games, I came across Leigh Alexander’s column at GameSetWatch, The Aberrant Gamer, that reminded me of visual novels I liked in the past and how it seemed like it would be fun to do public critical analysis of the things I liked. I could say very distinctly, these three things got me back into games, both revisiting older games that I enjoyed when I was younger, and contemporary games. I could say with a lot of confidence that if those things didn’t come across my plate, I might never have dwelled in games at all.

Why is this important to note? For one, when people ask me “what got you into games,” they aren’t just asking me as someone who likes games, they are asking a person who is marginalized and often excluded and attacked, who rarely shows up and even more rarely sticks around, what is it that got me so we can get others. It wasn’t Final Fantasy VII, it was a woman professor who choose games made at least significantly in part by women, and following the trail to find writing by another woman, and on top of all of that, some of the women involved have particular issues with race and feminism that I relate to. I really don’t think it’s a coincidence that, having consumed games made largely by and for men, it took work by people similar to me to get me interested in the field again, and also to approach it in a way many have described as different and unique.

But straight-up diversity of bodies is too simple of an answer. It’s not that I saw that these people weren’t WASP men and then felt welcome. Seeing women put into the same roles as men to do mainly the same old video game thing (and not without contingencies) doesn’t actually speak to me much. Rather, their life experiences drew them to different ideas and inspirations, exploring topics and sensations that hit my wavelength because we might share some more in common. I admit that seeing people and characters more like me plays a part in why I gravitate towards that work, but it’s more that there is a higher chance to engage with issues and experiences that are relevant to me, because someone with a body like mine is present. How often do games give time and space exploring a relationship between a poor, minoritized woman caught up in the harmful ideals and affections of a privileged man? There’s such little material out there to help me reflect on certain aspects of my life, both to feel heard and then responded to, providing catharsis or temporary motions for healing.

This is why people should be panicking that creative marginalized people burn out of games so quickly. This is why Tale of Tales possibly becoming less visible in the games world is tragic. A studio that would probably respond to a lot of hot-button social issues with “duh.” If people find my work in any way valuable, it’s in part because games by Auriea and Michaël made me feel like my experiences were interesting enough to express. That there was room, however small, for dialogue in a place I assumed was stuck in a conversation from the past. I liken my time with Tale of Tale’s games as I do with Hayao Miyazaki’s films, where the prevalence of complicated women makes The Gender Issue™ invisible. I didn’t see Nausicaä as a “strong female character,” I saw myself or someone I wanted to learn from. I also didn’t have ‘takeaways’ about environmentalism or war, rather added in memories and feelings that would, sometime in the future, be used as a reference when I had to think of those topics. I open up the box in Vanitas every time I’m about to step off the train, because I need a reminder that every moment is magical, every object has something to say to me.

Just because a game decided it’s a woman shooting a dude in the face doesn’t change why I feel disconnected from this medium. When using the same reference material in the same contexts with the same conventions, the move to make characters not a white man is often a commercial one, or a one-dimensional response to feminist critique in the media. We are not going to get the nuanced and challenging material by keeping the system in place while placing different bodies in there, though that is its own particular topic. Instead, it is artists like Tale of Tales, giving us things to work through our own discomfort. If games continues this revolving door, taking the culture from those who come in and sending them right out after, the issues we care about are just going to play into hype and fad cycles, continuing down this ‘why does everything still feel the same’ path, reading the same think pieces until we just stop caring and settle for what little we can get.

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as long as you worry about me, i’m fine

reflecting pools, bay windows, modernist, victorian, san bavón, san francisco, i know what a cage looks like. a pretty thing stuck in a pretty place that changes, forgetting you are there, closing in on you. i know metaphors, and in central america, eventually a beautiful, tropical bird, a scarlet macaw for sure, should show up in señor ortega’s condo, to tell me how pretty i am. but instead, i unbox a white toy swan, floating, staring vacantly into shrubbery.

he likes it when i leave all the lights on and faucets running. i imagine running my index and middle finger from the bottom of the switch and. slowly pressing. it on, hearing a sigh from a man i’ve never met. i couldn’t do this at first, california’s in a drought, my hands clench whenever the utilities bill comes in, my rent just went up. it took us so long to get close, because i let him find himself in the dark and without the soundtrack of fountains. when i gave in, lighting up all his artwork, the desk lamp, the stairs, it was like he could see love for the first time. a familiarity: i remember a time when i expected men to turn on their own lights, to take initiative to see, and, well, i was waiting a long time. it isn’t until i take their face between my palms and turn their gaze down do, well, they finally understand i am real.

toiling, with paint and plants, creating a home for someone who doesn’t live there. it is, rather, cycling through grief, applying my lipstick to the mouth of a skeleton. he tells me, in notes, not to my face, of course, how he enjoys the home-making, the domesticity, that he never witnesses, never looks in the face. i wonder if he feels a rush as i run my hands up new wallpaper. i arrange his news clippings and photos as he stays with another woman. like clockwork, like a clockwork dollhouse I glide from the foyer to the kitchen to the bedroom, where, in notes, you wish to find me lying there, not following our business deal, and back off to reality, so you can live in dreams.

i have a mirror right next to my bookcase, where i sometimes spot how my face looks watching something on my computer screen or notice the litheness of my legs and the angles they form. without much thought i adjust, like in front of a photographer’s lens, ready for my shoot, or in front of his eyes, to keep his attention from wandering. señor ortega must wish me to be some futurist mannequin, ascending the stairs, only to find large panes of glass blocking my way. i stare into my reflection, trying to see the other side, to get something done, to finally stay over, only to eventually fix my hair.

when i left the place in the dark, after my chores, i would sit, reflect, and contextualize my service to gabriel. i shop at the magazine store now, picking out fashion advertisements, cutting out the figures, pasting them in cut-out rooms where they don’t belong. i don’t belong. but now that i turn on every light and faucet, foyer, office, wintergarden, dining room, living room, game room, bar, upstairs, after all of the art, i don’t have time to think. i start to write and the sun has set, and it is time to put me away. gabriel leaves open his book on magdalene, and all i can think about are the orchids my father grew when he became distant.

one day he openly mocks my brother, defacing his portrait on a magazine cover, and the next, an homage, an altar in his bedroom closet. no matter what, the rich and the white don’t want to believe, that violence is never needed to move things along. mostly because they don’t often witness violence, the kinds in our homes, on the street, in our progress reports, over vietnamese dinner on valencia street. my pain is fictional until you can become the hero to stop it. you could solve all my problems, if you were to talk with me, face to face. why must it take a war for you to spend the night with me?

i shouldn’t have hidden your queen playing telephone chess. you did me one worse, crates filling up the house, forgetting that a human walks and breathes here. i press myself against the wall, sliding, reaching, grazing my fingers up your light switches. it was like the walls were closing in, blocking the windows, any view of the outside world, boxing me in. for you to save the world, i have to make some sacrifices, i guess. i never picked up the change you left on the counter for me, like a test, or a bribe, or a shame. though the sun sets at the same hour, every day gets darker. it doesn’t really matter if i come anymore, i am already your muse, and soon your tragedy. you wrote “protect precious items,” and it was never crossed off the to-do list, so i accept that, because i survived, i am alive, i am not what you are talking about, that i’m not precious enough of an item, even, worth remembering to keep.

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Control, Fashion, and not feeling where i belong

I can count the number of times I’ve worn this swimsuit on both hands. It’s a black one piece, with an exposed back and halter straps tied behind my neck. The ruffles spilling down the front are tattered from living in the corners of various bay area dresser drawers, giving that Jackie-O look I usually go for a bit of faded Hollywood. It was the last thing I got before leaving Florida, under the illusion I could stretch out on San Francisco’s beach, which requires a hoodie and wetsuit at minimum. Instead, I walk down Broadway in downtown Santa Monica towards the ocean with a distinct sense of nostalgia. Hate to admit it, but I felt a little homesick, if just for the beach.

It’s easy to feel underdressed in this part of LA, holding my stomach in and trying to straighten the arch I call my back walking past women leaving Nordstrom. Doubly so as a queer woman in a bathing suit she hasn’t worn too often. Maybe in another setting, like back in SF, that self-consciousness would take over my thoughts, still awkward in dressing for its moody weather. Here, where the palm trees lean westward instead of east, I feel more confident. A navy-striped boat-neck top with dolman sleeves and a scarf wrapped around my hips pulls focus where I want them. My shoulders and chest area are diffused to take the eye down to my waist, where stripes meet neon flower blotches, and further down the part of my makeshift wrap that reveals a nude leg. Throughout my stay down south, I would wear bright gladiator sandals with shorts, crop tops with sheer kimono-style coverups and feel, well, good. Sexy. It’s been a while.

In upright tanning pose, on my back with palms facing down and knees pointed skywards, I thought about my life-long war with clothes and fashion. Like each wave and its quell, I had a perpetual binge-purge relationship with fashion, not knowing how to clothe a queer body on a meager income. Other people seemed to wear things so effortlessly, like it belonged on them. Everything I put on didn’t look right, didn’t fit the weather, wore easily with time. Whenever I looked up fashion advice, an inspirational quote by some luxury designer would pop up saying you don’t need a lot of money to fashionable, leaving me bitter as they continued to make clothes I’ll never touch in my lifetime. Is there fashion without money? Is there fashion without trends?

Fashion, or maybe style, is dear to me because of its playful qualities. It allows me to affect how others perceive me, make statements without words. I think the first step to untangling the pain fashion marked on many of us is understanding the designed statements popular and haute trends tell us. Like all art, fashion has its own statements, values, arguments communicated through its design. In order to start feeling good about what we adorn our bodies with, we would have to know what we’re communicating and feel good about what we’re saying. As it is with a lot of creative work, it’s doing things with purpose, a purpose we feel confident about. It’s important to me to explore this topic because it opens up more doors for everyday artistic expression, for the blurring between life and game, and for reclaiming the conflict spaces on our bodies that are seized by hegemonic forces.

Of the many factors that go into styling your look, the silhouette is probably the most fundamental design point that you will be working around. It is basically the outline of your body, typically seen from the front and focused on the torso but in general all around. A lot of the design will center around how you’re manipulating your silhouette, and the whats and hows of that form the basis of how another person is going to receive your look. This is where we see both the hegemonic ideals for bodies and also the way to subvert them: garments are made assuming either a man or woman is going to wear them, and that men or women have their own ideal body shapes they want to achieve. For clothes coded for men, this is the inverted triangle, with shoulders broader than the hips and the waist being thinner than the rest of the body. Clothes coded for women are a little more flexible since beauty standards for women’s bodies change more frequently, but ultimately they all speak to the hourglass shape, where the bust and hips are the widest parts of the body with the waist being the smallest. The other silhouette is the child’s, mostly a straight column with little definition, showing how much fashion buys into emphasizing and playing with dimorphism between the binary sexes. All of these silhouettes are in constant conversation with each other, with adults being pushed to look further like their assigned gender’s shape and less like the other two.

Knowledge of this means you can purposefully mess with your silhouette in accordance to how your body actually is shaped. Because unless you’re one of the few who have it naturally, your body’s actual silhouette and the ideal one are going to be different. Women’s fashion in particular plays with the expected silhouette enough through the ages, thinking of the iconic shoulder pads during the more androgynous 80s and more column-like bodies afterwards during drug and exercise idolization. I’ve also noticed a resurgence of this in body-positive fashion with fat women wearing clothes they’re ‘not supposed to,’ like ones that expose their belly and horizontal stripes. There is also flagging for cultural groups that often include race- and class-passing, which can lend to this sort of artistic mess up of fashion to further communicate the messiness of bodies and identities. I’ve found this particularly striking as someone who’s body is in between the column and inverted triangle while striving for the silhouette canonically coded for cis women. The clothes I wear changes how people interact with my body, and interact with me as well, making certain assumptions and calling in social stripts they find appropriate for the relationship between our identities.

I’m particularly interested in playing with the silhouette because of how much focus there is on the body, both claiming it as yours and also yours to mess with. Though it comes along with some salt, I find it is true that people compliment more when I feel totally comfortable and confident in what I’m expressing with my clothing choices. I merely put on a blue top with mustard shorts and someone commented that I looked ‘powerful,’ or maybe, I looked in control of my own body, which is a rare feeling. I think what they were responding to was what my outfit made them look at, the lines and play with figure, and just that I was confident in making a statement. It was cloudy and raining, but I was there for a summer’s day in vibrant colors. I continued this sort of look back here in the bay, where May, the usual start of summer for me back home, of sunshine and barbeques and flirting, is covered in fog and wind. In a way, I know that I don’t quite fit in here just yet, and I’m my own little island, and I think people should get to know me better. There is a feeling of alienation and longing for other things wrapped up in the neons and shear of South Beach style. A style I didn’t get to wear too much while I was there, but now feel it is one of the few ways to make my body feel like my own.

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Thankfully, Without Much Significance

I’ve been grinding levels and my teeth.

Within all the lurid details of my past, that time I lived somewhere other than California, I played World of Warcraft for exactly 9 months. The image of gestation isn’t wasted on me; during this time I dropped out of college, surviving depression and shoring up the courage to transition. “It’s not really a transition, I’m just doing what I want” I would say, I didn’t like being anything other than ‘myself.’ I stopped playing WoW because, when I finally made it to max level, and the real game began, my friends told me I had to play a certain way if we wanted to do well in the endgame. It began my long bitterness with MMOs, where classes were like genders and races and sexualities and everyone expected you to act a certain way, or you couldn’t get along. For next couple years I would be routinely disappointed by the games I played, confused, as I used to love video games, but now with these new eyes, open, they look different now.

Here I am though, killing scorpids and raptors and remembering The Barrens Chat. My good friend convinced me to play one some free trial time, and it’s served as, basically, a chat room for us to sit in while we grind away at the usual MMO scene. It’s hard to stomach sometimes, being in probably the most popular and profitable video game while having more atypical design sensibilities. The game has lots of text I don’t even read, I typically don’t even know what I’m doing most of the time, just going from quest marker to quest marker, hitting my hotkeys, 1, 2, 1, 3, 2, and loot. Catch the attention of another monster and repeat. I look more for yellow dots on my minimap than the painfully constructed world before me, hoping to find herbs to mill or fish to fillet. My character was a panda creature, and the entire imagining of it and its story is unabashed orientalism. There are constant streams of crap in general chats and the design seems warped to accommodate even more simplicity than I remember. Everything felt very Video Game.

Yet I find myself at peace. My brain is mostly turned off and I’m just going through motions. I could ignore my stomach grumbling, the images of past partners, the growing pile of clothes on my chair, if I just kept hitting 1, 2, 1, 3, 2. It is rare for my mind to quiet; my bay area friends fluster at my incompatibility with yoga. The more I go to therapy, the more I realize that I’ve struggled with illness a large portion of my life. I keep saying to my therapist, I just need stability, a base, a head above water, just something to quiet everything so I can think.

As a designer, and critic, or maybe just as a critical person, I resist things that turn off my thinking. It was so archetypal, the ‘just for entertainment’ feeling, and justification for so much fluff. I gravitate towards complication, contrast, the surprising. A feeling of intensity and intimacy. There isn’t much intimate about the badlands of WoW, hearing cartoonish Caribbean accents from trolls. Except, my friend is also there, at least, we join a party but never are the in same location, just use it to talk, to know that company exists.

When I think about games evangelism about WoW, it focuses on people collaborating to solve problems, to take down big challenges. That people create large communities for the common goal of accomplishment, not just mere entertainment. This echoes out on how designers of all sorts try to incorporate lessons from games into solving offline issues, basically turning it as much into WoW as they can. But I’m finding that this game serves a different purpose for me. I lament how I moved to the bay area once social media and location-based apps really entrenched themselves into popular enough use that people need a good reason to be with each other. Apps and many online services make everything on-demand, so you don’t have to go anywhere, it just comes to you. So it seems like most people only socialize in the places they happen to be at, rather than creating contexts for socializing to happen at any regular rate. I admit to being a part of it, moving away from home means my friend and I don’t talk as often. So WoW is providing that context, for now, maybe a little boost, to give this awareness. I said to her it felt like we were reading different books on the same coach, and at first that seems so silly, why would a person need that, but actually, it turns out it’s something I’ve craved for a very long time.

Times like these remind me how play seems trivial when relegated to something you do in your free time. There were a couple of times I had to edit out the term ‘real life,’ because games often cleave apart reality from play. WoW won’t ever amuse me enough to pay for it, because there’s enough work in it to not feel entertained, becoming a compulsion. Rather, I look at it as being a part of life, a context that allows people to be together. Sometimes it doesn’t even matter what you’re doing, just that there’s a base to return to. So maybe an MMO being ‘just a glorified chat room’ isn’t really something to scoff at, maybe it’s even a better reason than entertainment. Blurring the lines between work and game, through resting and maintaining social relationships. Strangely calming, even while artistic ideals inside me resist. It’s possible this doesn’t need special attention really, but I don’t really see much writing on recovery, on actually bonding with others. Just incidental memories evoked by games. I’m curious about the contexts we’re invited to, that we need, for changing social needs, for becoming more ourselves.

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Love is a Battlefield – Rambles about Bonding in Games

Love in games will forever be a topic of fascination for me. As games continue to evolve and experiment, how affection comes out in play tends to be an embarrassing but lovable mess. Like all other things, smaller games have tackled expressions of intimacy a little better, though I really can’t get enough of the really convoluted and often sketchy manifestations that appear in larger games. And this isn’t just about sex, but developing any sort of bond in a game. Fair warning, this isn’t going to get too deep, I just like to spark this idea up every once in a while. At the first Lost Levels, I gave a talk about how there should be romance play in every game, and I still stand by that. I feel like more involved ways to bond with characters or each other are still waiting for some creative people to uncover.

Within the larger spread of games, there are two main ways players develop bonds with other characters: one I call the action movie way, where you have a cutscene in between events where you have typically hyperbolized and extremely quick bonding moments, or the other, which is the visual novel way, where the entirety of the experience is character-focused and you go through events making decisions that change and develop the bond you have with others in the game. Some games do both, like the ones from BioWare, and there are leagues of pieces that talk about the pros and cons of these methods of intimate (or not) engagements. If you’re curious about these topics and don’t mind some of my older writing, check out a short series of posts I did about dating sims for Nightmare Mode and these two pieces for ctrl+alt+defeat’s issues five and eight. Wiping my eyes seeing baby critic Mattie writing, but all that serves as a nice start to how I think about the topic.

I recently got a 3DS, which meant I had to start catching up on the games my friends liked. Some of the first games I got were Fire Emblem: Awakening and Pokemon X. Both games stress bonding, though in different ways. Ways that I find both fun and really disturbing, mostly because they feel like the natural combination of games + love. Disturbing because of actually how complacent I was with all of it, though it’s all in idle entertainment. Mostly that combat and bonding are so closely linked, and just the general wonderment of how much martial combat is involved with the narratives created for us to view bonding in. Which is weird, I guess there is some strange carry over of brother in arms and getting the girl sort of seeped into everything. Though I’m going to be writing about these two games, Valkyria Chronicles is a game I think might actually get away with doing this war plus bonding theme, though good luck getting past some of those missions to even find out.

Fire Emblem might be a more obvious example as to why love + strategy = ummm… can be off-putting. In the game, characters bond when they assist each other in battle. This was actually the most enjoyable part of it for me, making sure certain characters were together (I kept a very close log of who I was shipping), and it felt like spending time together, in a weird way. I sort of miss the nonsensical in-battle conversations from previous Fire Emblem games, or at least, I could see a lot of possibility in just a little more voiced line interactions. If this happens enough times, they get small cutscenes that develop their relationship and level it a rank. If the relationship is between a man and a woman, eventually you will meet their child and they will become a participant in battle. It only takes a small perusal through GameFAQs and other materials to see how much the marriage aspect is gamed, who is considered a good father and mother, and how to get the best children. Outside of the protagonists, you rarely see non-rank interactions go on between the characters, so there is a rather jarring trajectory to how your party members get close. Interactions between opposite gender teammates go from subtle flirting, to less subtle flirting, to marriage in three scenes. Bonding is very easily seen as a ‘mechanic’ in all senses of the word, like I was the bad guy from Catherine trying to match-make all the heteros and ensure life goes on. I could see a clever anti-war twist on this, though really, I just want a smuttier Fire Emblem to come along, because really, the game’s battles are so easy to replicate and create and add on. There needs to be Fire Emblem: Barfights or Fire Emblem: High School.

The bonding metaphor in Pokemon is both a little more obvious and hidden. Throughout the series, a prevalent theme is the personal connection you have with the monsters you’ve forcibly captured to dogfight each other. Especially in Pokemon X, the reasoning that you do so well as a trainer is because you have an extraordinary bond with your pokemon, and there is the inclusion of Pokemon Amie, which lets you pet and feed and play with your pokemon outside the context of battle. I’ve been watching and reading some guides to competitive Pokemon lately, and very often in team building advice is to start with a pokemon you really loved. I’ve seen multiple videos where players will defend team placement choices based on their fondness for their pokemon. But as I explored in Pokemon: Unchained, an experiment in using house rules to explore the clash between themes and actions in a previous generation of games, there is little that supports this bonding. As you can also see in these competitive vidoes, you are effectively breeding pokemon for competition, and by the time you get to competitive levels, none of the pokemon you went on your original journey with will be used. Characters in the game will always remark on how well connected you are to your monster friends, no matter how often they are damaged in battle, or have memory wipes, or are downloaded into computers. Besides leveling faster, and one Pokemon’s evolution, there are some benefits to tracking how you’re treating your friends: there are moves that depend on how friendly or dissatisfied a pokemon is with you, and they get more powerful the more extreme these ratings are. So bonds, like in Fire Emblem, are pretty constrained to helping you in battle rather than having something intangible. Of course, there are plenty of people who have memories around the games (I’m one of them) and even certain pokemon, it’s just compelling to me that it’s surrounded by this context of forced competitive fighting.

It’s probably easy to guess why these sorts of interactions occur, that everything in the game has to serve it’s ‘core mechanic’ or thing the player does, and so in order to really justify having something like intimacy, designers probably only showed the aspects that related to things like combat. I don’t know why, but I’m really interested in strategy games as a genre trying to tackle abstract concepts like intimacy, though they very often come out rather, well, robotic. I’m curious as to what a game would look like, and thought of this many times. There is a political drama SRPG dating sim in space game that’s been in my head for some time, though that will obviously never leave there. If I had to guess, it’s that the movements of the game, being strategic and needing some sort of mechanical grasp by the player, could represent a very apparent and obvious ‘concession’ or ‘necessary evil’ that the player tries to resist at every turn, while grappling with the vague, unpredictable flow of connecting with others. Like play overall, we all have a structure of expectation around interaction, but it doesn’t always follow an expected course or go as planned. The only things that are formulaic are relationships in movies and, well, games. It would be neat to see an experience where the player had to continually deal with the unknown with relationships while working from this expectation, sometimes, or often, needing to depart from it.

 

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Needing Closure: Another Look at Interactivity

As many memories of nights in San Francisco begin, it was hazy and I couldn’t figure out what sort of coat actually kept me warm in that weather. It was a classic trench but cut in more feminine ways, shorter, more dramatic buttons, a latch make it a ¾ sleeve, and a hood. As far as I understand any sort of cold weather wear, it’s not really for insulation but rather looking like I have business to attend to while walking through wind and rain. It was my first coat, when I went to Chicago a few years before this, where I would be experiencing Real Cold™ (I saw snow on the ground and that was enough to freak me out) as a Florida gal, and I’m not really sure it helped at all.

Standing on a corner at Market St downtown, streetlights glowing in a light night fog, I was probably talking about Chicago with my friend Jenn Frank. We were about to split for the night, but tried to rush in as many conversation topics at that street corner, as I found is something that happens at conferences. You don’t know if you’re going to see someone for more than 10 minutes, so might as well say all the things you can while you have them. Another quirk about seeing people exclusively through work events is that you have conversations or topics that you bring up over and over again, only slightly advancing it since it’s been 9 months since you’ve last seen each other. They always start the same way too, and we try to speed through the parts we’ve already been through, with a lot of “yeah!”s and “totally”s as you recreate it, get a new sentence or two in, and oh gosh it’s 1 AM and I need to stop by somewhere for at least one more drink.

Jenn started one such conversation with me, about how tarot are a form of comics. At that time, most people didn’t know I had an intense amatuer venture into divination when I was younger, so it was the first time I started to recontextualize tarot into a form of play, the act of reading its own art form. It’s an interesting connection, though at first I wasn’t sure what it really meant. I believe at that time I only vaguely knew of Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, mostly because often I would hear “I want an Understanding Comics for games” from games people. I decided then to read it so I could slowly grow this conversation over the next three years.

To situate the graphic novel, it was written back in the 90s to do what games are doing now, which was explaining how comics are an art form and should be taken seriously. It wanted to broaden people’s assumptions of what comics are and can be, and show the different elements that make up the medium and distinguish it from others. Like what I feel about a lot of words on how games are special, I didn’t think there was much actually unique to comics, though I don’t believe any art form needs to be entirely unique to merit its existence, and as well, that any art form is actually entirely unique from the rest.

Of particular interest is the book’s focus on the element of closure, in so far that Scott says “Comics is closure!” Rereading this recently, still healing from a past relationship, the term closure felt like a rather powerful one. It implies the inevitable ending of something, or a needed emotional resolution. It’s a word used during mostly painful times, when things are confusing. I have “how to get closure” in my search history. With comics, closure is filling in the blank between two image panels that are separated by frames (what Scott says are colloquially called “gutters”). Because comics tend not to depict every single second that is happening in the story, readers unconsciously fill in the blanks with their imagination. To the author, this is a very interactive process that he feels is most prevalent in comics than, let’s say, movies. That might sound familiar, because many arguments about games are that they have interaction that separate them from things like, let’s say, movies, are touted around on the regular.

I’ve found putting interaction on a pedestal as a defining trait of games more of a grab for legitimacy and exceptionalism rather than actually finding something interesting to say about a medium. I feel like this is the same for comics; as mediums, they reveal interactions that have taken place in all of life because they stress them, but they are not uniquely suited to them. Prose is the most efficient and possibly invisible prompt for closure, as it needs your active imagination constructing the story in order to make sense of what is going on. Scott’s “Comics is closure!” line is better suited for “Art is closure!” or some other wide-reaching statement that I wouldn’t necessarily make. The moment something is perceived as creative expression or Art™, the perceiver is filling in information on what the piece is trying to do and what it mean as it relates to their experience. Comics, and play, are great lenses that help people who aren’t sitting around musing about the elements of art all day to find new ways of relating to the world around them. Reading something as a comic or as a game bears more than only being able to read comics as comics, games as games, and having some larger entity decide what are comics and games. To be fair, this book is about 20 years old, so who knows what the author’s opinions are now.

So tarot reading is already established as play, though not commonly thought of as much, so now, do we find a link between comics and games when we establish them as comics as well, per Jenn’s insight? Even without my looser way of defining things, tarot fits Scott’s “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence” once laid down in a spread.  Through some recent readings, I’ve focused on the act of closure, and ultimately found that tarot further emphasizes closure through play, by deliberately asking people to exercise their imagination and molding the experience around that. The reader doesn’t require mysticism to feel like something is connecting them to the experience that is going on, as interpretation feels like a strange twist of personification. As Understanding Comics posits, the reader fills in the blanks with their own image of themselves, contextualizing everything to how they understand the world. Closure is the kind of interactivity that is shared by all mediums, where the piece requires imagination, for people to fill in themselves in the blanks knowingly or not. I’m starting to think that play is games’ version of closure, if it isn’t closure in and of itself.

This contrasts to what people in games generally consider interactive, and how games are judged to be good games, or even games at all. Interaction is often described as ‘doing something,’ with the doing something being an active change in some sensory or mental process. Making a figure jump, solving a puzzle, etc. Yet I’m finding it’s not these sorts of interactions that are actually connecting the player with the experience despite how much attention they receive from critics and developers. Instead, I believe it’s this act of closure, the spaces between where the player is prompted to fill in their interpretation, play as it is, that connects us to an experience and where we can find all sorts of interesting things happening. I think critics do attempt to reach this closure, but typically through how they understand closure in other mediums, which is why there are so many narrative analyses. Many games don’t allow for varying kinds of closure except for those we see in movies and books, and these elements are often the least deftly deployed. It’s much easier to interpret tarot cards because they are literally a distillation of interpretation; they often have complex images, with optional literature on what they may mean, with gutter spaces between them that encourage participants to complete the experience by making it particularly relevant to them. To find closure, to make peace.

This perspective is helping me consider new kinds of designs and ideas that are made for people, not gamers, to experience in a meaningful way. To understand how play connects us to things in life we can’t perceive unaided. And that’s how I approach reading tarot cards, as an experience that is going to structure your imagination in a way to help you view something that you didn’t or couldn’t before, because you need prompts for closure to recognize it. Interaction is a false idol, it doesn’t exist solely because it is shiny, covered in polygons and pixels and cards and miniatures. There is something more personal and involved at work with closure, but not because it is unique or special to certain mediums. Rather, it exists everywhere, and we have another way of accessing it. Ignoring how closure/play is newly accessed by games, rather than discovered, is like getting a new book and never reading it, just feeling complacent that you have a new object within your grasp, for people to read the spine and wonder what it’s about, and you always giving some empty answer, not wanting anyone to see you too closely, just the things you own, and not ask any more questions.

 

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Trying to Unpack Victimhood

Outside, someone is playing the trumpet. It’s sunny, cars are frequenting by, and children are wrestling in the grass. I’m in a loose bathrobe, staring at the people on the other side of the bay window of my apartment, counting to thirty only loudly enough to confirm I haven’t trailed too far off into other thoughts. Steam and a note of smokiness twists from the spout of a bright yellow teapot on the counter, contrasting the worn white and blue tiled counter in my kitchen crowded with earth-colored spices. Shocking Yellow, I believe is the more specific term, if the car dealership I got my first and only car at shops at the same paint factory as the tea shop. I’ve come to miss that car, or driving, being able to just pick up and go somewhere when I wanted, to wear whatever dangerous shoe fit the occasion, to just visit whatever friend is too lazy to leave their house. When I finish counting, adding on a few extra seconds in case I went too fast, I pour my tea and go to sit in my room, prepared to do something productive and intellectual. Take notes while reading the academic canon of game design, play out tarot cards like a modular table top game, write an article. Instead, I feel like I’m pouring hot liquid into a hollowed out shell, who might reach for her new 3DS, but most likely just sit and stare out her window.

This is my unglamourous road to recovery. Instead of event planning, or going on dates, or creating something, I sit in my room and drink tea. I will try to convince myself to cook, but will most likely order thai from a mediocre delivery place that doesn’t have a minimum. I wish I could say I’ve learned something profound, that in my own way, I am advancing the craft and critique of play while I play hermit. It’s not the case.

I feel like I survived something, where, at least, years-long adrenaline have subsided enough for me to feel pain endured for a while. From before games, when I struggled to live, when I struggled for safety. I have something mundane that I’ve be scraping for my entire adult life, some form income that takes care of my necessities that doesn’t completely sap me of my energy. It took me leaving social media, the circus it is, to realize I had something, that I could, for a little, just stop, and not feel guilty over drinking tea.

But I do. I’ve found that, as much people on social media are quick to recognize victimhood, and construct a narrative for them, there is little support, and possibly understanding, on how to help someone not be one anymore. Instead of guiding people through a healing process to surmount victimhood, they disappear the moment you don’t hold that position in the right way. It’s like, people empower you to be a righteous victim, instead of empowering you to be yourself again. At times, this feels like people aren’t interested in you once you lose your status of being a victim, and emphasize your pain to keep you in cultural consciousness.

Finding out who is and isn’t a victim is a preoccupation of those only concerned with justice, not the social or restorative parts. It’s ultimately determining rightness and reparation equal to the offense; but what if there is no real way to weigh and dole out justice that will actually make any feel good? With this method, victims are essentialized, since the search for truth is for one that cannot contain many perspectives, only the one of judgment. I find that justice is not what I need as someone deeply wounded, rather, for others to enable me to recover. Cutting down someone else isn’t going bring back time lost to pain. What we need is healing and prevention, taking care of the wounded and making sure things like that can’t happen again.

Systems that wield justice without a clear path to recovery for everyone involved, to mend back community that can and will turn on itself, are violent, no matter how well-intentioned. That conversations stop at identifying the offender and aggrieved demonstrate the reactive rather than proactive nature of the common manifestation of social justice in contemporary mediums. Reaching for the status quo, even when the nominal is fucked up. In the end, there is only enough attention for a certain amount of victims of certain degrees of victimhood. Those that don’t fight to keep the attention are forgotten, sometimes despised.

As I heat up more water for tea, it is night time, and I haven’t done much else. I think about what could help me, get me back to work, to living again. It usually takes a day for me to just decide, you know, I’m just going to get my shit together. I’m just going to write this piece, I’m just going to call that friend, I’m just going to finally check my email. And that’s the advice I often get from other sources, that ultimately, you have to just do what you need to do. Yet, so much goes into ‘just’ doing something when you’re burnt out from pain. There’s learning healthy habits again, there’s the mystical process of having energy to do basic tasks of taking care of myself. My culture’s lack of care for mental health haunts me. Instead, it tells me to just get over it. A self-determinism that at first seems empowering, but instead heaps onto you all the garbage society doesn’t want to handle itself.

I admit, this is just me venting. Writing to get money, slowly but surely trying to piece my life back together. It’s, well, embarrassing. I feel infantilized and surveilled, quarantined yet lost in the desert. This is an exhale, this is me trying to survive. I wish I had a solution, some moral of the story, a tried and true method to restorative practices for the people we find victims of violent systems. Yet my mind already grows tired, and it is difficult for me to concentrate. If anything, I just want others to not feel alone and hopeless, and to further push awareness, even if I can only do it a little at a time for now.

 

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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.

AAA INDUSTRY ISN’T “GAMES”

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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