Homo Ludens for the People

Going back into academia means having a long book list for research and summer is reading time to for me. While being acquainted with game design, designers, and game studies, I haven’t actually read much in the canon that informs contemporary thought on games. If you hang around games academics as much as I do, you start to become familiar with the names and the books, and seeing that I want to have a thesis about games, I figured I might as well take the dive and read up on what is institutionalized as the main thread of thought about play and games.

I don’t think reading academic work is for everyone, though many concepts are useful. There’s this exchange back-and-forth between institutions and the populace, much like high and street fashion, and I think it’s useful to help give light to some writing so non-academics can use it for their own devices. So I’ll be sharing a highly curated list of quotes from my note-taking and contextualize it for those interested in thinking about games at-large.

The first is Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture by Johan Huizinga, commonly marked as the start of the canon on games. It’s actually about play, and this play vs games distinction matters, though it can all get a bit vague, for these first few books, until games usurp play, and video games take over games. Worth noting is that at the time of writing Homo Ludens Huizinga was definitely an old white man in the 1930s, and being an early 20th century old white man interested in anthropology gives Huizinga the license to have some unsavory opinions to the contemporary reader. Rather than this being a case to disregard the book, I think it’s a good opportunity to understand how particular attitudes were baked into thinking about games that go relatively unchallenged. With that said, prepare yourself for some old dead dude language. But without further ado, some quotes from Homo Ludens.

 

 

“When speaking of the play-element in culture we do not mean that among the various activities of civilized life an important place is reserved for play, nor do we mean that civilization has arisen out of play by some evolutionary process, in the sense that something which was originally play passed into something which was no longer play and could henceforth be called culture. […] Culture arises in the form of play, that it is played from the very beginning.” (pg. 46)

A good place to start is at Huizinga’s central idea, which is that play is something that came before civilization and culture, and that all formation of culture has its origins in the playing of our ancestors. Huizinga spends most of the book detailing how everything we understand as culture rose out of play, from war to poetry to law. Though you would have to read the book to follow his exact logic, he traces the history of both language and various vestiges of culture to playful acts that eventually got institutionalized into their current form. It’s interesting to think about play being this widely diffused force, to the point where everything can be thought of being play or at some time once was play. Furthermore, Huizinga (possibly paradoxically, as you’ll soon see) casts play as something that produces culture, and things that don’t aren’t play, which cites this general attitude to not include gambling in play studies since it doesn’t have the best reputation. But overall we leave this thinking how contemporary play could be producing culture, despite further complications he brings up later.

 

“Play is a voluntary activity or occupation executed within certain fixed limits of time and place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding, having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy and the consciousness that it is “different” from “ordinary life”.” (pg. 28)

If my reading shows me anything, it’s that everyone has to define play and/or games and it largely influences how they then talk about the subject. While I’m unsure of the true origins of defining games, Huizinga’s definition shapes everything that comes after him, something, if not all, of this is recontextualized for future writers’ purposes. This definition might seem like a no-brainer, but there are quite the few claims in here that narrow his focus despite how broadly he throws around play. First, we have play as a voluntary activity, one that a person must consciously accept to do, ruling out anything a person isn’t doing consciously or consensually. Along with being in a time and space that is separate from ordinary life, this definition eliminates looking at how people move through social systems such as gender and race as play, though the language of play exists in talking about those processes. Huizinga also sees play as a quite orderly affair, where the structure of play must be outlined clearly beforehand and delineating a sharp relief where the rules apply and when players return to ordinary life. Rules in particular will survive to live a long and overbearing existence after Huizinga, as well as needing a goal. We also see that main elements of play are the dual appearances of tension and joy, which characterize contemporary design imperatives pretty well. So that means if it doesn’t have the freedom to join or leave, bounds, rules, goals, tension, joy, and a separation from life, then it cannot be play, according to Huizinga. For the contemporary experimental creator and thinker, there’s a lot of conflict here.

 

“Not being “ordinary” life [play] stands outside the immediate satisfaction of wants and appetites, indeed it interrupts the appetitive process. It interpolates itself as a temporary activity satisfying in itself and ending there. Such at least is the way in which play presents itself to us in the first instance: as an intermezzo, an interlude in our daily lives.” (pg. 9)

I’d like to focus on the part about play being separated from life because it is the part I have the biggest beef with. According to this definition, if you gain or lose anything outside of play, such as money, influence, or anything with intention you are not playing. To Huizinga and many that come after him, play has to be for itself, it cannot be for some sort of practical purposes. So in Homo Ludens, professional players of games are working, not playing. Any type of creative act that is done for money cannot be play. Maneuvering social and cultural relationships and systems are not play, because there are actual consequences. The only thing one may seem to extract from games is honor, the distinction of being better. Play being consequence-free on life has implications for anyone who wants to create games for social impact. Whereas Huizinga sees play as an intermezzo in life, I see play more like a mezzanine, a vantage point, a plane of existence meant as a stopping point between two other destinations, not entirely distinct from its surroundings but also a separate feature with its own function. Elsewhere Huizinga codifies the term “magic circle” to describe how his idea of play is separated from life, and it is liberally used by games thinkers.

 

“The contrast between play and seriousness is always fluid. The inferiority of play is continually being offset by the corresponding superiority of its seriousness. Play turns to seriousness and seriousness to play.” (pg. 8)

Here starts the back and forth we will see forever about frivolousness concerning play and games. Huizinga essentially argues that play itself isn’t serious, but it is executed with seriousness. Since play is completely outside of ordinary life and has no real consequences, it itself can’t be serious, however he wants to account for the zeal we see in play, that players hold fast to the rules and put all their energy to achieving the goal. I feel like I’ve noticed waves and cycles of talking about play as though it is a serious pursuit to a frivolous one, often one wave that tries to utilize or mobilize games and the other that pulls it back over to the realm of leisure and uselessness. It is certainly a trend to watch whenever games come into the spotlight in broader current events or in politics. Huizinga also uses this binary to create an opposition between play and earnestness, and more notably, work.

 

“The player who trespasses against the rules or ignores them is a “spoil-sport”. The spoil-sport is not the same as the false player, the cheat; for the latter pretends to be playing the game and, on the face of it, still acknowledges the magic circle. It is curious to note how much more lenient society is to the cheat than to the spoil-sport. This is because the spoil-sport shatters the play-world itself. By withdrawing from the game he reveals the relativity and fragility of the play-world in which he had temporarily shut himself with others. He robs play of its illusion—a pregnant word which means literally “in-play” (from inlusio, illudere or inludere). Therefore he must be cast out, for he threatens the existence of the play-community.” (pg. 11)

I found this passage most fascinating, mainly because I never heard a mention of the spoil-sport in theoretical terms. I was also struck by how Huizinga observed how society prefers the cheat to the spoil-sport, a metaphor that can be applied liberally to our culture. I’ve actually noticed this in games, where the willingness to observe the rules enough to break them is preferable than the one who doesn’t want to. There are games that build its entire premise around the cheat, like the card game Bullshit (or Cheat, appropriately), and I’ve noticed a formalist enjoyment of cheating as a design feature. But the spoil-sport isn’t really allowed to exist. Huizinga goes on to describe the spoil-sport as “the outlaw, the revolutionary, the cabbalist” (pg. 12) and muses that spoil-sports are needed movers and shakers for new play spaces. The spoil-sport strikes me as an image of the Other, and curious if it describes how the dissenters of conventional games are viewed. It is interesting to think about taking on the posture of the spoil-sport as an ethical or maybe even aesthetic intervention.

 

“The differentiation between the plastic and the musical arts corresponds by and large to the seeming absence of the play-quality in one as compared with its pronounced presence in the other. We do not have to seek far for the main reason for this. In order to become aesthetically active the arts of the Muses, or the “music” arts, have to be performed. A work of art, though composed, practised or written down beforehand, only comes to life in the execution of it, that is, by being represented or produced in the literal sense of the word—brought before a public.” (pg. 165)

Here’s the seed of how performance is thought of in games, though with questionable consistency. It is the non-technological jargon version of ‘interactivity,’ but also takes it a step further. Huizinga sees playful art as only the performance of the game, not the creation or existence of games themselves. It’s actually up in the air whether Huizinga would consider video games to be games, and whether the object itself is anything but a mere tool to create something else. This suggests game design as a term might be something completely different that what it is we do to manipulate contexts for play. However, this is also the precedent for player-centric design, that a game is only complete or ‘alive’ with a player. This has legs if we consider the object itself also a player, which as far as I know is a common stance in games academia.

 

“In the very idea of “style” in art, is there not a tacit admission of a certain play-element? Is not the birth of a style itself a playing of the mind in its search for new forms? A style lives from the same things as does play, from rhythm, harmony, regular change and repetition, stress and cadence. Style and fashion are more consanguineous than orthodox aesthetics are ready to admit. In fashion the aesthetic impulse is adulterated with all sorts of extraneous emotions—the desire to please, vanity, pride; in style it is crystallized in pure form.” (pg. 186)

I was gratefully surprised to see style and fashion make it into Homo Ludens and really enjoyed a passage where Huizinga obsessed over 17th and 18th century wigs as the pinnacle of modern play. It’s interesting to see his take on style vs fashion, where style is this pure play with form while fashion is lowered into the muck of social dynamics. This brings up the search for style in games, and how style itself is this play with one’s own form as opposed to a small variance on a play strategy. Style and fashion serve as a connection between play and life, because while one could easily see fashion as frivolous, it’s undeniable that there’s a bleed out of any sort of play-sphere and into life.

 

“[The savage’s] aesthetic sensibility has brought the modern man close to [the sacred play] sphere than the “enlightened” man of the 18th century ever was. Think of the peculiar charm that the mask is an object d’art has for the modern mind. People nowadays try to feel the essence of savage life. This kind of exoticism may sometimes be a little affected, but it goes a good deal deeper than the 18th century engouement for Turks, “Chinamen” and Indians. Modern man is very sensitive to the far-off and the strange. Nothing helps him so much in his understanding of savage society as his feeling for masks and disguise.” (pg. 26)

Here is where we get to the not-so-great part of Homo Ludens. Ultimately, all of Huizinga’s claims comes from casting certain people as primitive and uncivilized and observing their behavior to create the tenants of what play is. Throughout the book, those he calls savages, which are typically the native peoples of European colonies, are grouped with pre-civilized Western people and compared to modern children. According to Huizinga, those in civilized (read: Western) societies are estranged from play and yearn to have it back, explaining and possibly justifying the exotification of non-Western people by Westerners (worth noting the use of masks by early 20th century art as well). These sentiments are not left out of video games, an industry based on the promise of transporting you to another world which is yours to explore and conquer. Especially with a history of assumed Western players going to non-Western locales to play, it’s interesting to think about what could be interpreted as the ‘mask’ video games evoke on contemporary audiences. I think this tension is pervasive in contemporary games thinking and design.

 

“As civilization becomes more complex, more variegated and more overladen, and as the technique of production and social life itself become more finely organized, the old cultural soil is gradually smothered under a rank layer of ideas, systems of thought and knowledge, doctrines, rules and regulations, moralities and conventions which have all lost touch with play. Civilization, we then say, has grown more serious; it assigns only a secondary place to playing. The heroic period is over, and the agonistic phase, too, seems a thing of the past.” (pg. 75)

When reading anything, it’s good to find out what the aims of the author are in presenting their theories. It seems like Huizinga went through all of this to tell modern audiences that society sucks right now because we’ve lost touch with play. Throughout the book he details how first there was play and eventually traditions grew out of it and soon crystallized into institutions, resulting in us just following conventions instead of actually playing anything. He sees professional sports vacant of play and that we have basically become a rule-following society instead of our old playful one. We are a society of games instead of play. With this launches the struggle between play and games throughout the canon where over the past decade or so play has lost to games (predictably, Huizinga might say). Despite sounding a bit petulant about it, it does color a sinister tone to anything akin to the coming of a “Ludic Century.” And while this does come off as an angry old white man yelling at a cloud (he bemoans the preference for the ‘slitherings’ in popular dance over ballet), I think it’s worthwhile tracking how play has lost favor for games, and why.

 

“In the 18th [and 19th] century utilitarianism, prosaic efficiency and the bourgeois ideal of social welfare—all fatal to the Baroque—had bitten deep into society. These tendencies were exacerbated by the Industrial Revolution and its conquests in the field of technology. Work and production became the ideal, and then the idol, of the age. […] As a result of this luxation of our intellects the shameful misconception of Marxism could be put about and even believed, that economic forces and material interests determine the course of the world. This grotesque over-estimation of the economic factor was conditioned by our worship of technological progress, which itself the fruit of rationalism and utilitarianism after they had killed the mysteries and acquitted man of guilt and sin. But they had forgotten to free him of folly and myopia, and he seemed only fit mould the world after the pattern of his own banality. […] Culture ceased to be “played”.” (pgs. 191-2)

I will leave you with the passage that I find to be quite strange but illustrative of some tensions in current games thinking. Huizinga recognizes that work and labor have become a more central concern in modern life but somehow completely disregards Marxism. He is so absorbed in games and play being so ancient as to dictate our culture that contemporary ideas of social systems seem completely absurd to him. Also fascinating is his disdain for technology, which makes me more curious of what he would have thought about video games. This also brings up a strange dissonance with past ideas of play and life being separated; if culture is played, and that has a distinct effect on us, how can life and play be pulled apart? I’m thinking that we haven’t stopped playing, but theorists are off about what play looks like.

 

And there you have it, some quick and dirty Homo Ludens with heavy editorial. The next will Roger Caillois’ Man, Play, and Games. Until then!

 

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Pokemon Go and Device-Mediated Relationships

Having spent the past several years hooked to social media and being a part of digital pop culture phenomena as they happened, it’s a new joy to witness trends on the ground. I usually get this with fashion but within the past few weeks it’s been Pokemon Go. I didn’t quite catch the bug, I played for about a day or two and found myself missing the main Pokemon games, and returned to those instead. But I do hear how others are affected by it, and it’s interesting getting accounts from people not in games or those who don’t usually play a lot of them.

Reactions tend to go two ways, the first being how players feel like Pokemon Go enables them to explore places they haven’t been, especially their own neighborhoods. The app places pokemon in parks and other public areas that seems to, by effect, help players engage with each other and those in their community. We’ve seen evidence of this with the various pictures and videos online of Pokemon Go gatherings or even the off story of philanthropic organizations using the context of the game to encourage people to do good. The Pokemon franchise itself is rather disarming and an almost universal symbol to those born in the 80s and 90s into video games, so it’s not a surprise that we can see such large-scale virality of this ‘bring Pokemon into real life’ sort of experience.

An other type of reaction is a natural outcome of the first, being that players rove neighborhoods feeling the effects of gentrification and most of these iPhone-wielding 90s kids remind locals of the threat to their livelihood. While it is true that Pokemon Go is getting people to explore and connect, the reasons for that are pretty thin, and potentially transient the moment people get bored of it and onto the next distraction. This is a common effect of gamification, where you might be able to get people to do things using games, but you probably aren’t going to make them care about those things, rather just the extrinsic rewards they gain by gaming the system.

There is this constant back and forth of what is ‘doing good’ for any particular kind of topic or action at hand. Many people are satisfied with any level of help or good, that is, if we can see things as helping in any sort of way, that should be enough to justify the action. On the other hand, much of what is being done as good is surface level and doesn’t get down to the actual problem, a constant chasing of the symptoms instead of curing the disease. If a more radical approach doesn’t come around, a problem will persist no matter how much Pokemon you slap on it. Are people joining together and being out and about because of Pokemon Go a good thing? Whether something is good or bad rarely extracts the value from what we are looking at, since we can see different answers depending on what we look at. Instead, looking at Pokemon Go as a product of our current condition rather than a moral story will help us understand how experiences like this change how we engage with our surroundings.

I’ve long been fascinated by how our experiences with relationships have changed with technology that facilitates connection and communication. From the dawn of ‘online friends’ to dating sites to social media to hookup apps, how people, especially young people with technology around most of their life, relate to one another has slowly changed. We’ve offshored more of our usual ways of linking to one another from offline to online, preferring the curation and swiping techniques to include people into our lives than the complete randomness of life. More people use social media and online dating than face-to-face methods of communicating. The change in economy and labor practices have a lot to do with this, with companies taking up more time of employees with the expectation that on-demand apps will do all the things they don’t have time for. How we interact with people online is typically different than in person, mostly documented by the amount of snark, hate, dick pics, and overall virality of entertainment that just doesn’t happen in purely offline relationships. These device-mediated relationships have users treating others like they are part of the technology itself rather than purely people. We can turn them off, block, left swipe, unfriend, ghost. The ease in which we can curate and the knowledge that there are so many people potentially available primes us to move through device-mediated relationships as if they were a part of an on-demand service, and attachment is thin since one can easily remove another from their experience.

Because of its pervasiveness and ease, people are relying more on devices to connect them with others rather to have their own intrinsic reasons to reach out to those around them. Again, there’s no value judgment here, but it helps show the messiness of what something like Pokemon Go and a lot of what I see in VR/AR reveal about contemporary problems like gentrification. Outside of the uncaring fashion of how real estate works, one of the major forces of gentrification is when people move to a new area and don’t engage with the community already present, only others who seem to be of their same class. So new pockets of people grow inside communities, attracting others like them but not integrating in what was already there. They don’t engage with their neighbors, or go to block parties, or do anything really but use the neighborhood as a sleeping place until a trendy cafe that alienates the locals shows up. Instead of seeing who’s physically around them, people use location-based apps that connects users of like-class and slowly converts an area from serving one group of people to another. Wanting to connect with others and using devices to do as such isn’t bad, it’s just an unintended side-effect is a distance from people not using the same services. Cultural biases slip into who we filter in these services and perpetuate inequalities bolstered by the in- and out-grouping of majorities and minorities.

This doesn’t even get into the design of said apps and services, the politics of those designs, and how cultural attitudes from before device-mediated relationships carry over to now. I haven’t said anything about the implicit concerns of surveillance and consumerism also at hand. It’s important to note that it’s totally possible to express resistance to troubling aspects of technology while using said devices, it’s just a matter of being aware that politics is being more readily and stealthily coded into our experiences as we move over to fully integrated experiences. The point isn’t to find out which games or experiences are ‘good’ to consume, rather acknowledging that everything is prompting us to consume and understanding how that consumption factors into culture processes. As games change with emerging technology, it’s important to question how games are being used to cultivate connection with others, and what that says about the kind of society we are.

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empathy machine

empathy machine is a combination of experiments concerning the current state of the video game industry, virtual reality evangelism, game design as a discipline, and activism. A previous game of mine, Mainichi, is projected on the wall through a veil of twine and hooked up to a Makey Makey which, along with conductive fabric, turned my body into a controller. I performed actions from the game, post-shower rituals, dressing, and putting on make up, and then the reverse to move in an endless loop. Objects from my house were used as props and players had to interact with me in spite of my movements and the intimacy the performance called for. It debuted at NYU’s Integrated Digital Media’s Spring 2016 showcase as a result of working with interactive installations and physical computing.

 

 

Some quick notes on why I made this project:

With the rise of VR has come this claim that one of its strengths was how the medium can act as empathy machines for people to understand one another, particularly advantaged people exploring the experience of the oppressed. Similarly in video games, the proliferation of games made by queer people about their experiences were dubbed “empathy games” which followed a pattern of the wider industry and games audience only caring about what marginalized creators are doing if it involves them talking about their pain and trauma. My game Mainichi is commonly used as an example of how to teach cisgender people about the trans experience, yet its design, critical engagement with other games, and my future work that isn’t about painful experiences are completely sidelined. My game was exhibited at events without my permission, conferences only wanted me to talk about harassment instead of my work and ideologies, and eventually after being on the receiving end of large-scale harassment produced by the industry, left unsupported. This was my attempt to reclaim Mainichi on my terms.

How games are curated and exhibited is a woefully underdeveloped conversation. For how much games advocates obsess over interactive differences between mediums, games mainly hang on walls barely played in galleries, sterile and robbed of any context. I believe that’s the lacking of both curatorial efforts and how most designers understand play. That there’s a performative element to games is commonly accepted, but rarely emphasized; games are showcased as objects instead of as vectors for experience. So this was an attempt to turn that around and show the crafted experience of Mainichi that I now would want people to witness. This part started in a conversation between Pippin Barr and I about performance, time, and the exhibition of games.

Finally, I wanted to put into practice some of my ideas about refocusing on play instead of the game object. This piece is the first of many in some practice-based research on alternative creative tools and theory for the field of game design and play. My aim is to bring the use of play to an activist setting through performance, coming up against conventional game design and analysis. This piece cannot be the same in every context and changes depending where it is exhibited. I plan to submit pieces like these to games events as interventions.

 

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Intro to Reality Games for Game Designers and Critics

Being involved with artistic and critical communities around play, it’s easy to see repeated narratives about games eventually made into a canon. Certain games and play experiences are seen as exemplar and in-turn define how we think of what games are, particularly good ones. As with any sort of curation, canonization is political and reflects the values of the community that holds it up. So it’s always a fun venture to see what is left out of the canon and explore how it could complicate conversations around the medium of play. I’ve had a long-standing interest and history with reality games, the most famous being the US versions of Survivor and Big Brother, which are curiously absent from games discourse. I want to pose some potential areas of interest where I believe reality games stretch and challenge game conventions and critical thought around play. Also I just think people would get a kick out of analyzing and designing them.

Survivor and Big Brother created genre expectations for the reality games we see on TV today and even other sorts of game shows. The basic premise has a group of players sequestered away from their lives and other people to play in an elimination game that usually take a month to three to complete. These games are played in structured rounds that usually include some sort of physical, mental, or social challenge to either gain safety, control, or rewards and then a voting phase to eliminate another player from the game. Interpersonal dynamics mix with game theory as participants maneuver through the game until eventually there are only two left. Some eliminated players then act as a jury to choose the winner, who gets the grand prize. It is worth noting that film and TV conventions also affect how the game is viewed by audiences and that there is an audience at all is a strong factor in both the design and mythos of reality games. Just as we wouldn’t ignore the audio-visual elements of a video game, we must keep in mind cinematography and film/TV choices when thinking about reality games.

I should also note that amateur reality games exist off the TV and are played across internet forums, instant messaging services, and chat rooms (Online Reality Games, called ORGs for short). Communities of reality game fans play multiple of these over time and expect written episodes from the host that oversaw all the chat logs and journaling from the players. While the formats differed, they ultimately conformed to the structure and expectations of Survivor and Big Brother, with one of the most prolific of these using RPG elements and novelized into full-length fiction. ORGs that aren’t about or inspired by existing reality TV shows tend to bleed into the alternate reality games (ARGs) genre, to which many members of this community played before they reached public attention as marketing stunts.

 

Design Narratives & The Twist

Despite the game aspect being such a focus in this form of media, reality games are first and foremost creative works of non-/fiction (we can see them as both at the same time). While this would be true even if we were just peeping through cameras at the unfolding of the game, the players are aware the entire time they are being watched and a story will be made out of both public and behind the scenes drama. Confessionals, the usual name for private interviews between players and camera people, are frequent and contestants are asked about their personal perspectives and stories to eventually turn into dramatic episodes. And while the strategy of the game is interesting, the structure of the game is made to produce dramatic and interesting television, to create interpersonal tension and conflict since that’s what people want to see. The design of reality games are not simply for the enjoyment of the players’, rather it’s more important that the design creates a good spectacle. We can see this with regards to the introduction of ‘the twist;’ much like how we use the term ‘plot twist’ for injecting interest into writing we’re familiar with, in reality games there are also game twists. For example, the strategy of the first couple seasons of Survivor followed the same pattern: sixteen players start off in two teams of eight and after six eliminations merge into one group. When one team gets majority, they pick off members of the other team before turning on themselves. This was becoming predictable and therefore by the third season, an unexpected twist switched team members before the merge to shake up the dynamics of the game. Ever since, there’s always been a twist and further adjustments to the game whenever it started to get predictable. Games often contain plot twists in the story but rarely design ones; game developers tend to add on layers of general complexity that gradually helps the player progress, but not necessarily a design upset that completely shakes up how they play. One of my favorite board games, Betrayal at the House on the Hill incorporates a twist, where players know a twist will happen but unsure of what kind. Another example might be Michael Brough’s Corrypt, which is why it caught many developers’ and critics’ attention.

 

The Vote & Politics

In many games there’s some sort of force that makes sure that everyone has a fair shot and are playing fairly, like referees, dungeon masters, other players, or the computer. In reality games, fairness mostly comes from the fact that everyone has one vote that they can use in each elimination phase they attend, otherwise they are victim to the whims of the challenges, twists, and social dynamics of the experience. Players are often reduced to their votes or voting power in terms of strategy; alliances form to create a majority of votes, players act as swing votes between alliances, and jurors at the end of the game vote to decide who wins. Scholarly writing on reality games picked up on this imagery of voting and how it represents American or general Western fantasies of political systems. Voting is the most important part of these games and there is strong rhetoric at least in the US that voting is the most important part of being a citizen. By creating a game based on this sort of democratic idealism of equality through voting power we see reality games express a range of arguments around ethics and personal advancement in ‘fair’ societies. With Survivor taking place in ‘exotic’ locales and Big Brother taking place in a heavily surveilled compound to live up to its reference, critical perspectives could easily see how media and games contain imperialist, nationalist, and capitalist values. We can see not only the players’ expressions within political systems but also understand how audiences relate to watching ones play out. Implications of how people view prominent members of social media as they do reality TV characters are also interesting to follow.

 

Replays & Strategic Evolution

Though in the majority of televised reality game contestants only play once, there are many ways that knowledge of how past games affect how present ones are played. These sorts of effects are considered incidental or auxiliary enough to not merit consideration in conventional design or analysis, but in reality games, past relationships and how much knowledge you have of the game becomes much more important. This is particularly true for ORGs, where the same community of people are playing reality games multiple times, so players are bound to have played games with others and have both relationships and reputations. Because these games are so wrapped up in interpersonal dynamics, strategies will play out strongly biased by relationships and expectations already established. For example, who you decide to align with or vote out will change if you left a friend or foe with another player in a previous game, as well as if they played honorably or not and how far along they placed. If you know someone to be a generally nice under the radar player, you will be conscious of them sneaking too far along unnoticed. If instead a player was revealed to have backstabbed you and many people in the last game you played, you will know not to trust them and might want to eliminate them as soon as possible.

If someone was to research the change of the game and players over time, the fact that people who have watched and possibly discussed reality games in depth could play the game becomes important. Fans of the shows know the strategies and archetypes of players, forcing the game to move in certain directions, and eventually prompting new kinds of twists and structure changes. The audience of reality games cannot be ignored since their language discussing the shows eventually get into the games and shape design and discourse; the first recognized instance of an ORG player being drafted into the actual show of Survivor ended up placing 3rd out of 18. More games could take into consideration the same group of people playing games together and developing a set of dynamics, like Legacy: Risk.

 

Reality & Deterioration of Magic Circle

In the canon of game design and criticism is the ‘magic circle,’ an anthropological term about a sacred space where play exists outside the rules of real life. It points to the tendency for games and play to not have any consequences on real life, that how one acts in a game shouldn’t really affect them outside of it. And while the magic circle becomes more porous over time, reality games, especially ORGs, challenge its influence since one of the main elements of these games is reality. On TV, players are looking to win a million dollars, which will no doubt change their lives, and also exposure as models and actors, or some other PR reason. With ORGs you find players developing relationships over time that have an impact in and out of the game. Televised Big Brother games have a reputation for mixing in people’s lives with the games, such as secretly bringing in some players’ ex-partners to play the game, twin twists, and even seeing a player getting put on leave from his job for appearing on the show. The reality aspect of reality TV requires that the game meld in some way with players’ lives, and audiences indulge in the authentic emotional expressions of players when watching.

More pressing is the ever frequent questions of ethics in reality games. In games discourse, the only kind of play that is described as frowned upon are cheaters, who know and break the rules, and the ‘spoilsport,’ who doesn’t recognize the rules of the games as legitimate and plays outside the rules in that play space. In reality games, backstabbing and lying are not against the rules but highly frowned upon because backstabbing and lying are taboo in reality. In most games, lying and backstabbing are brushed off because for reasons such as ‘it’s just a game,’ and are easily forgotten outside of the context of play. And while this sort of reasoning comes up in reality games, because the game is much longer, the stakes are higher, and everything is more personal, what is moral stays in debate because humans decide who’s the winner of the game, not any objective win condition. Player’s personalities and understanding of how one one treats each other in the real world affects how the game proceeds and is resolved. This goes hand-in-hand with conversations around ‘deserving;’ who deserves to be voted out, who deserves to win? While a contemporary game designer and critic might conclude to the objective fact of who actually won and lost, within reality games is a constant discourse over these questions which ultimately shapes how the game concludes. There have been instances where between the clearly more strategic, cutthroat player and the under the radar, never lied player, a jury will pick the latter because they would feel morally compromised choosing who others might think of as a ‘better’ player but was a ‘bad’ person.

 

Players & Characters

In reality games, a players’ personalities undeniably impact the procedure of the game; are they likeable? Charismatic? Manipulative? Honorable? Can I stand being around this person all this time? Can I bare the thought of this person getting far in the game? Do I feel good about taking this person with me to the Final Two? Am I okay with this person winning? Personal preferences have always found expression in games, but never so much take a central role in the development of play as they do in reality games. Game designers that lament the difficulty of designing around relationships would find much use in how reality games prompt bonding and social dynamics. The personalities and strategies that emerge from the clash between the game’s structure and players’ morality are then viewed in highly edited episodes that turn real people into characters. This mediates audiences’ understanding of ‘reality,’ that even if there’s an awareness of creative intent in the production of these games and episodes, the relationship to the game is through some level of appreciating authenticity. Players’ emotions are real, there are close-up shots of their real emotions, information is shown and hidden in a way to show a real drama. Audiences eventually notice archetypes of players that are simultaneously their character and strategic editing; fictive and strategic elements are completely intertwined. Understanding the editing of reality TV has taken on its own art-form to create a meta game of guessing the winner, called Edgic. In this way, audiences are playing along to guess who the winner is, much like a reader would try to find out who the killer is in a whodunit. We can’t ignore the influence of editing and fan culture, not only because they eventually seep back into the canonized game, but they ultimately outline what a reality game is and how far its bounds stretch. Rarely has fan culture affected commercial games in such a manner.

 

I hope designers and critics give reality games a chance to be a part of our medium’s canon and history. There’s a lot to learn and chew on, especially considering the focus on interpersonal dynamics and how audiences relate to the game. If anything, I’d just like to see contemporary versions of these games that play with how people relate to one another and recognize that qualities of our culture can be used in the creation of play. There are strategies reality games have in spades that contemporary game design lacks and I think could help raise the bar in the kind of experiences we choose to create.

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Murder Mystery Writing as Design

Within the various medium wars game developers seem to wage with other forms of expression, writing and narrative are the most bitter of enemies. Even if we’re past arguments about whether narrative and play can even be in the same room, writing is by far less integrated into design processes than visuals and even audio. Writing workshops for games are often trying to apply fiction skills in spite of the commercial game making process instead of being a natural extension of creating the experience. Gamemakers begrudgingly acknowledge narrative is at work but cordon it off as if it is a disease, while the writing styles of popular sci-fi and fantasy bludgeon themselves in because of genre convention rather than actually being useful. As long as game design and narrative are seen as completely different tools, we will continue witnessing games at conflict with themselves, and even at the most conservative imagining, rarely have what we would call good writing.

We can find a useful link between design and narrative through the literary mystery genre, specifically around murder mysteries and the ‘whodunit.’ While mystery is often used in theming throughout all mediums, the genre dedicated to mystery has particular practices and form that focuses on how to craft a good mystery experience above all else. The structure of the murder mystery shares tenets of entertainment game design: the reader expects the truth of the mystery to be hidden away from them but with a fair sprinkling of clues so they could reasonably figure it out, in a battle with the author to sift through red herrings and plot twists, and feels equal amounts of surprise and accomplishment when they get to end of the story. This is a game, where a writer deliberately sets out to deceive a reader while creating a path of success for them to find along the way. Advancing in the story is like racing against the clock to figure out the mystery before it is revealed to you at the end and you assess how well you did. It is no wonder we’ve seen a lot of murder mysteries adapted into game format, because the design logic is pretty similar.

However, many of these mystery games don’t fully combine mystery writing with game design. Usually we see a mystery put onto an adventure game or hidden object format. What was design-like and writing-like in these games are still separate, or rather, conventional game design imperatives steamroll any narrative deception. Instead, I want to look at how murder mystery is handled in some experimental for their time yet well received visual novel games (with one exception) to find examples of how to better approach writing in games, with the possibility of the mystery being the starting point for game writing rather than optional flavor.

 

Rhetorical Processing

Mystery is typically handled by players scouting out information in the environment and using tools or interrogations to move forward in the story. It’s a strategy that relies on brute guessing and gaining tidbits of writing from scenes after solving a mini game of some sort. In the games I’m looking at, a lot of the information related to the mystery are given to you up front, yet the figuring out part comes in a scene of the player versus the game verbally mucking through the logic of the problem to eventually get to the answer. The most well-known example of this is the Ace Attorney series where the clues are not really that hard to find, but the real solution comes out of a trial where the player (and main character) aren’t at all sure of what the answer is until they piece it through debate. Through argument, the player is working all the information available to them, usually weathering many conventional mystery writing tropes that both lead them to the answer while constantly trying to knock them off course. The game trusts that the player is actively thinking through the problem as the trial plays out instead of relying on planted objects to eventually lead them through the mystery. Related is the Danganronpa series that also uses a trial format, though it uses mini games as a method to evoke the feeling of inventive and deductive thinking. With varying success these minigames help manipulate the energy and direction of the player’s thought process, and in a way, simulates the frustration of being mentally blocked pretty well. These trial systems are evoking immediacy and trying to get the player to be in a sort of crisis mode that forces them to piece things together on the fly instead of methodically trying every possible combination. Where in other more traditional mystery games the main solving is in finding the evidence which unlocks more of the story, in these trial sessions players are taken through the actual feeling of solving a mystery, planned deception and all.

 

Playing With Time

Time is already a weird subject when it comes to games, particularly video games, and I’ve noticed that time features strongly in the murder mystery games I’m looking at. I think it’s to simulate the ‘race’ against the author in mystery novels, the rate at which you figure things out versus how close to the end of the story you are. But more specifically there’s a pattern of using time as a device to further reveal and twist the narrative, most notably in Virtue’s Last Reward. In VLR, the player has a menu screen where they can move across the various nodes of the game’s narrative tree to figure out the mystery of the game. As with all mystery work, this has the a strong thematic focusing on ‘truth,’ what we assume it is and how much more complicated the topic is than black and white facts. This also has to do with genre conventions of the visual novel, where players are used to playing the game multiple times to see the entirety of the story rather than one shot through. Video games have a clear strength in depicting these themes, playing with possibilities and alternate realities that allow us a Rashomon-esque view on a scenario to build on narrative layers that further deepens our imaginations and the mystery. Another use of time is in Ghost Trick, where failures and partial successes act to both complicate and progress the mystery. Time isn’t just an incidental detail of how you get through Ghost Trick; you reverse time, you watch the passage of time, you erase times, and you race against time. The story brings up time-related themes such a grievance, regret, and memory. Like VLR, time travel works on a meta-level that makes us aware we are accessing another world through a device and the game’s creators want to use that relationship as a narrative device in the experience. This shared link of unique relationships to time between video games and murder mysteries asks for further investigation.

 

Game Within a Game

If we take that the murder mystery narrative itself is a game, then a pattern of actual games featuring prominently in the game we’re playing follows well to further tighten writing and design. Both the Zero Escape (999, VLR, and soon Zero Time Dilemma) and Danganronpa series have characters trapped in a game against their will that will result in many of their deaths until they can solve the mystery. This echoes the mystery tradition of sealing away a set of suspects so the player can feasibly figure out who is the mastermind (a prominent preoccupation of the characters’ in fact) while processing through the smaller events of the game. This is the most literal example of how naturally murder mysteries and games relate to one another by manipulating the structure of these ‘death games’ to bring out the detective in the player while not relying on literally making them a police officer. It should be pointed out how different these experiences are to games as theming, as in, typical adventure game that takes place in a video game themed world with such easter eggs, instead of characters playing by very strict rules in their own diegetic sense. Most importantly is the wide cast of characters, for murder mysteries are more character-driven than they are plot-wise, since the relationships between characters eventually produce the possible endings or solutions. Character development in this case isn’t then just for embellishment, but active sources of narrative and design tension seeing that they must be designed in a way that makes them equally guilty of the crime yet also competitors for the same prize against the player. This leaves open an interesting possibility for an AI-based murder mystery that could be generated by procedural character development and thoughtful situation design.

This is all to say that murder mystery novels on their own qualify to be to included in games conversations since the very structure of the narrative and the method in which it involves a reader is extremely playful. Seeing that there’s a difference between mystery as flavor and mystery as a narrative design methodology, we could use the latter both as a tool to create better writing in games and to interpret games as critics. It is not a leap to see the game developer as mainly deceiving the player along their path to solving the final riddle at the end, for which many games that involve narrative in any meaningful extent tend to structure themselves. It’s a possible method to continue bridging the gap between design and narrative practices and get at producing other experiences than we most commonly see.

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Teaching Representation in Games

This past semester I taught a class on representation in games for the first time. I’m not a stranger to the topic, much of my critical work and speaking gigs have been about representation in games, but it was a new experience figuring out how to teach undergrads about the topic. I figured it’d be worthwhile to share my process, how it went, and what I think it means to teach representation.

A little context is in order, because a class is created under different contexts depending on the school system and departmental needs, along just with the kind of program and culture of the students one teaches. I was asked to teach a survey of as many different kinds of representation as I could, so I ended up teaching specifically to gender, race, sexuality, class, disability, and age. This isn’t the most common format, usually any sort of media studies course will be focused on just one topic, such as Race in Games, and spend time diving into the various approaches so students come out with a pretty developed understanding of the discourse around subject. I was also teaching in a BFA program which ultimately trained students to develop games, and while it’s possible for a student to focus on theory, there is a much heavier emphasis on development. My course was encouraged to have multiple forms of final projects, so not just papers but also creative projects to accommodate the range of people who’d be taking my class.

Despite how usual theory courses go, I didn’t find having projects to be a hindrance, rather the complete opposite, for my next iterations on this class I was to further integrate a critical project. I’m attempting to frame theory to be inspirational in a practice environment, to have students move away from using criticism to decide whether something is good or bad but instead use it to further evolve the media they are looking at. So the final project was basically a prototype of a game or conference talk that evolves things that students are passionate about. I do feel like in the context of universities where people are paying a lot of money to learn, courses greatly benefit from having a more obvious use than a reservoir of topics for cocktail hour. And really, it’s mostly me trying to pass down how I work, since I am inspired by theory to make experimental work and to develop new ideas about games and play.

I’ll go through an talk a bit about my experiences by each of the sections I taught. The first lesson I learned in reflection was how sectioning off by identity category worked against me more than it did for me. When choosing my readings, it became clear to me I didn’t really want to teach a ‘how-to’ and representing marginalized identities; the idea actually struck me as deeply weird, to get students to go and find stereotypes, discuss them, and then try to recreate some ‘good’ depictions. Though everyone involved probably believed that’s what the course was going to be, I decided to choose more foundational philosophy in various fields that speak to the act of representing or creating identity, so we can get to the root of what it means to represent rather than equip students with some incomplete inventory list. Because I grouped readings under headings like “Race” or “Disability,” student at times got hung up about trying to directly speak to those topics as they are in popular discourse, so getting hung up on finding race in a particular game instead of looking for the power dynamics the readings are most concerned about. It also meant that subjects I thought were easier (Gender) came first and subjects I was the least read on (Disability and Age) went last. Thankfully my reading list was pretty successful outside of one or two, so I’d keep an even spread of readings from these subjects and reorganize them into different sections, like Power instead of Gender. In hindsight this was an obvious thing to do, I’m fortunate that I was encouraged to make the course uniquely my own so I can structure it how I want and others might be forced to have these sorts of distinctions, but I do think teaching about representation isn’t about detailing identity rather helping students understand how is it we form someone’s identity in our minds and what are the power plays in the act of representing.

I started off the class by reading with the Combahee River Collective’s “Black Feminist Statement” to hopefully start the class understanding that while we were going through the course section by section, all these topics are greatly intertwined, and the general awareness of intersectionality. I also chose Peggy McIntosh’s “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” in attempt to focus our attention on everyday details and not just broad sweeping claims about how power works in society. However, I found that introducing with these readings was more of a reflex on how I would start any other theory course dealing with identity rather than my specific needs. My future readings covered these topics quite well and I felt like most of my students already hear this language, which seems to be getting further and further institutionalized. You never know what kind of people show up to take your class but overall I feel like using these to start off my class underestimated where my students were at. In the future I think I’d want to do an in-class reading and exercise that acts as a sampler of the course overall, probably by finding some contemporary writing and games that put into focus the issues around representation.

For the Gender section I first got students to read the first couple chapters of Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl to get them used the kind of terms they would be encountering and how to look past the first level when it comes to accessing identity issues. It turned out to be a great introductory reading because it took students from identitarian terms like sex and gender to dynamics of power around femininity. It’s obvious when you’re already used to thinking this way, but many people don’t make the jump from something like being black to blackness, and Serano’s language is useful for student, especially since most haven’t read critically about a feminism focused on trans women. I also gave students the daunting task of reading through the beginning of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, which ultimately calls into question the idea of identifying as a woman and one of the more recognized appearances of performativity. In the future I’d probably move Gender Trouble further back in the course because her writing is a very high barrier for students, but ultimately super useful for breaking down a lot of assumed ideas about social justice and identity people absorb from the internet. I decided to pair these two readings together with Bayonetta, a forever controversial game about femininity in critical circles. I had some feedback before the class that this might have been too much for undergrads, but they had a great time, mostly because Bayonetta at the very least is interesting to look at and pleases a lot of impulses from people who play video games, and so the difficulty was mostly in how Bayonetta is received in feminist critique. It is a great game for people to disagree over and I totally recommend it if you want to tease out complications in contemporary feminist critique and harken back to its more poststructuralist/postmodernist roots.

The next section on race I started of with Ian F. Haney-Lopez’ “The Social Construction of Race,” which I imagine isn’t the usual context most students learn of social construction but the reading presents a complicated view right out the gate. Both this and the beginning of Edward Said’s Orientalism created a really strong base for my students to talk from regarding creating the Other. Along with the readings from disability studies, I found critical race theory important because of how much bodies are focused on that seems to escape a lot of other disciplines when it comes to this level of study. I paired these readings with Spec Ops: The Line, another controversial game surrounding American nationalism and the creation of heroics through racialized power dynamics. Like Bayonetta, it’s another good game to have students disagree over. By now, my students were getting used to the “there’s no obvious good answer” conclusion presented by the readings and strange machinations of pop culture. Around this time I feel like some started to give up on the idea of wanted their games to be “good” and that our ideas of about representation and identity don’t always come out in the most obvious of ways as we like to paint it in diversity awareness initiatives in games.

When we went through the Sexuality section of the class, I think it was obvious to my students it was the one I was most excited about. Mainly, I had students read the fourth part of Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality Vol. 1 which is where he details his ideas about power and the discourse around sexuality paired with a yaoi visual novel Absolute Obedience, a highly weird game about spies in postwar Germany hired out to seduce various targets into homosexuality. I figured if students weren’t overwhelmed by now this would be where I lose them, but feedback told me that this was a section that really changed a lot of their perspectives because of how intense the source material was. I felt like this was also the section students felt like was speaking to fundamental understandings of themselves, and while the topics being discussed were super loaded we were able to hold that space well as a class. I also had them read from The Handbook of the New Sexuality Studies which talked about how sexuality was constructed, though I’m not sure if I want to keep it in since we already read about social construction a little thoroughly elsewhere. Either because of the nature of these fields or my personal academic journey, a lot of readings reference Foucault and I’m going to move him earlier in the schedule as much as I can without fully intimidating students like I did with Butler.

There were a lot of little readings for Class because I wasn’t completely sure how to approach it in the way of representation. So there was The Communist Manifesto, Max Weber’s “Class, Status, and Party,” Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods, and Erik Orlin Wright’s Class Counts which was a sort of combination of the former three. While students and people in general tend to talk more about gender and sexuality with more confidence, I noticed a lot more connection with the topics around class and labor. The idea of “classes” of people seemed to make a lot of sense and also shares some language in games, as does a lot of these topics. I probably would want to focus the readings to fewer authors, but since this is an undergrad class this was the first time many students read Marx and that it is in the context of video games is interesting. I had them play the six different prologues of Dragon Age: Origins and see how their characters were treated differently, also the varying depictions of contemporary social problems through typical medieval fantasy tropes. I got a mixed read on how well this worked, students were more attached to the depictions of class rather than sussing out how power works through class. This is a less controversial game but many students like it, and so there was some tension around challenging how it used class and how it tied to things like race in reality. I also want to balance out my syllabus a bit more away from AAA so I’m thinking of using Cart Life instead, though I do think the genre of RPGs lends a lot to class analysis itself.

With the Disability section we get to understanding the creation of ‘normal’ with Simi Linton’s Claiming Disability and Lennard J. Davis’ “Normality, Power, and Culture.” I keep thinking to myself as I type this about how everything needs to come earlier in the semester, but it feels particularly true for this. Disability studies has a lot of challenging work for complicity in social justice movements particularly around bodies and the rhetoric around how we create groups. For my next go-around I would probably just need one of these readings, so I’ll probably add in writing on crip theory. I also had students read Fiona Kumari Campbell’s “Refusing Able(ness)” which some students liked but I must have originally read it when surrounded by more academic work because now it doesn’t read very well. The students played Rogue Legacy since I wanted them to see a contentious work that depicts disability but it was met with mixed success. Students who could write more design-focused papers dug into it better than the rest, and I realize that it wasn’t the strongest example because I was stuck trying to find depictions of disability instead of something that reaches towards this normalizing force that disability uncovers. Many of my ideas had to do with playing with actual hardware or games about controllers, but I’m not entirely sure what I’d replace this with yet.

Finally, I had a half section on Age, with a reading on ageism from Todd D. Nelson and one on what’s dubbed childism from Elisabeth Young-Bruehl. I haven’t read much on age before I prepared for this class so it was interesting to see what was out there and how it related to my other readings. What was particularly striking to us all was how conversations around age focus on our culture’s bias against weakness or needing of care, and how that shapes society against children and older people. I didn’t pull off this section with confidence, and there weren’t many games that dealt these topics. I settled on them playing any version of The Sims and seeing the differences on how the game treats characters at different life stages, but it ended up more as an interesting conversation at the end of the semester more than deep critical engagement about age. I’m not entirely sure what to do with these readings particularly in the context of this class, which is about games that rarely seems to depict children or older people with enough depth to critique.

At the end of the course, students presented mini-talks or prototypes of games that involved concepts they learned and would potentially want to work on. I pitched these as being things students would want on their CV and much of what I saw were good starts. Along with their readings, every week I had students look up more contemporary articles on subjects and talk them through. While I don’t think it worked much in-class (students are kinda pooped after dealing with Butler all day) they were able to find where their opinion fits in the current landscape of writing and create gestures towards something new. I think for future iterations I would make this more project-based, either by having lots of little projects or a structured build up to a final. I haven’t had many courses like that, usually practice and theory are kept pretty much apart, but I’d really like to find ways to turn more students into critical creators, people who can do multiple forms of critical expression since I feel like I benefit from not just being a theorist, but also a writer, and also an artist, and that is something I can pass on to others to work with.

 

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Rethinking the Games Conference

There are days where I feel really self-conscious about calling myself an activist, since a lot of my work is in writing, speaking, and the realm of ideas. But I do feel closest to a feeling of activism when I help organize conferences and run various events that seek to include voices and perspectives commonly left out of the conversation surrounding games and highlighting alternative methods of gathering and sharing knowledge and our work. For someone who’s only been in a given field for about 5 years, I’ve organized a lot, and participated in even more, particularly ones that want to further represent the margins of art and thinking in games. Having just went to and helped out with multiple conferences in the past few months, it’s becoming more apparent to me that the usual format that we assume conferences should have isn’t working given the ideals we have for respecting labor and enabling actual change in our communities. This could be because the current conference model was borrowed from academics for how that industry works and not necessarily for communities of people whose main channel for discourse is impressionistic social media. The upshot to all of this is the average event is getting better; there are more explicit codes of conduct, clearer methods of reporting harassment and abuse, continually more diverse speaker rosters and audiences. So it’s not that everything has been going horribly wrong, rather we can always be looking to improve and solve the problems that arise as they come along. So here are a few topics the contemporary games event needs to address as we continue to evolve how we gather and celebrate the culture around our field:


Respecting Labor

Out of all the issues, ethical labor practices is the most in need of revision. This ranges from compensating speakers fairly to respecting the work of volunteers beyond a thanks. The most common position for events is that they would love to pay people who contribute to its existence, but they don’t get enough funds. In professional circles like academia it’s expected for people within the system to volunteer and contribute to the groups they are a part of, and it pays back (in it’s own, flawed way, this isn’t a piece about the many of troubles of the academic system) by publishing papers, extremely intimate networking, and access to latest research that could be a huge influence on yours. This sort of system doesn’t work, or exist at least, for many people in games, especially those not trying to work at companies or large teams for mass commercial work, so right now the supposed payment of volunteer work and speaking is that it’s “for the good of games” or some other agenda, but effectively keeps the exploitative nature of the games industry, burning out people who are in vulnerable and/or already exploited positions from being a part of the ecosystem. I should say that I think it’s really great that conferences do turn meager budgets into taking care of food expenses for the entire conference, which helps subsidize attendance, a problem I’ve seen a lot of progress on.

Beyond general extravagant uses of budget for the experience (I’ll get to this) instead of for the people who are asked to make it run, there are multiple forms of trade outside of monetary to make volunteering or speaking for a conference worth the work. For one, you can be direct and asking anyone volunteering their labor what they would like in return with the knowledge that money isn’t going to be available. It’s possible a volunteer/speaker would benefit greatly from a direct introduction with someone who you can feasibly have at your event, or that someone on the main event team can run a seminar of an important topic that relates to the interests of those who are volunteering. I’ve heard suggestions of having speaker/volunteer parties so volunteers, who are usually students or those looking to bridge into new communities, network more closely than they can while they are working. I’ve also heard of paid speakers giving lectures or resume reviews to volunteers. This also speaks to the lack of investment I see in a lot of volunteer work, because they know the event staff can only ask for the minimum amount of effort because they aren’t really getting much in return. I believe we can get resources to those who don’t usually have access by using conferences as a sort of work-trade, where if you volunteer, you get something you can take back to the community and enrich it.

Obviously a nice paycheck would be the best answer for compensating labor at events. I know that’s not the reality, and because of that, I don’t think we should just concede and sheepishly exploit people. Instead, I think we could rethink the trade. Ultimately, this forces your event to be a material benefit to the community by actually contributing to the people who help make it exist in the first place. And when seeking funding/support for the event, especially towards universities, this is a good way to extract more support when funds are limited.


Establishing Purpose

Picking up on being directly beneficial to a community, I find that most conferences don’t have a strong reason for why they exist. They share the problem with the overabundance of awareness activism, that while, yes, creating awareness of an issue is important, there has to be something beyond that awareness to keep your ideals relevant. I’ve noticed events get into a rut of over-correcting academic-heavy line-ups with really uninspired, underwhelming skill sharing and reacting to boring run-of-the-mill conference topics with panels of well-known people who don’t really say much besides letting you know they are well-known. I find that most conferences become tired after 3 or so years because they work on the basis of just existing instead of creating roots or actual bonds to other entities.

This awareness vs action focus can be felt down to the programming. So many talks are “I had this experience” or “I noticed something neat” and leave it there instead of taking those topics and turning them into an opportunity for audiences to respond. Not that everything must be some sort of 3D modelling 101 class, rather a call to action, the room to act, should be created by events and each part of its programming. This came into strong relief for me when I participated in the Allied Media Conference which handles this balance so well. Beyond including social meetups around social issues without conflicting with other programming, many of the sessions are lead by critical facilitators more than speakers; they have an agenda, perspective, and experience they want to share, but use it as a method of creation, action, or planning that allows participants to bring in their own life issues or creative impulses and work it all out.

I feel like it’s critical for this element to become incorporated into our events, especially ones claiming any level of social awareness, to become something that actively changes how the community works and activates it to solve contemporary issues. Too long have conferences stayed at an introductory, ephemeral level that people forget about once it’s over. There’s still room for the theory and personal experience, and for any awareness building, but it can’t be what we try to subsist off as we go on.


Size Control

Many events are way too bloated. This follows the previous two problems: when you’re not paying for the labor to substantiate an event and your purpose is vague and generalized, your event grows beyond its means and includes things just for the sake of having them. Conferences typically position themselves as central, national, or even global conferences and try to (with varying degrees of effort) to represent everyone under that umbrella, usually, if not always, failing at that task. The problem with having more things is less control over how they turn out, since it usually means you’re not paying them, you couldn’t give a lot of attention to mentoring the processes of the talks if there are new speakers, and that there’s less of a curatorial voice that ties things together and makes the event a more cohesive experience. There is this assumption that a conference must be multiple days with multiple tracks and multiple panels of multiple people. But instead of enriching people through including a massive amount of content and bodies, this waters down and muddles any sort of effect programming could have on audiences.

I honestly think limiting the amount of speakers, especially to local artists and thinkers, and only having one track of sessions is a better structure for an event than current models. I would exercise extreme prejudice against panels, which, as another holdover from academic conferences, doesn’t work unless there’s a lot of preparation or all the panelists know each other and have a good banter, which is usually not the case. I would suggest an edit to what I experienced at PRACTICE: a single track of 30 minute to 1 hour talks, no Q&A but break sessions where speakers have their own tables and people who wanted to ask questions or even just chill in the general vicinity of conversation around the topic of their session can do so.

Frequent feedback I’ve gotten was how much audiences wanted the artists of showcased works, typically in accompanying arcades, to give talks about the experience and process of their selected work, giving them a new perspective to reapproach the game with after encountering it in the wild. Audiences also benefit from eavesdropping on a pair of thinkers or artists speaking on topics they are interested in to get a more in-depth look into how people deep in these fields go with contemporary issues. Despite how it’s been reduced to a sort of tech party favor buzzword, people do want sessions where they can take something away. Sometimes we rely too much on planning for ‘inspirational’ talks; having given and witnessed some, when they work, they are amazing. On average they don’t, instead speakers tend to just settle on a sort of “I have no answers” or “take what you will” notes and it’s obvious the energy behind the talk is completely missing. Inspirational talks have to be mentored at some level and used in moderation. I’ve been to conferences with all inspirational talks that weren’t mentored, and if you don’t leave with a sort of voyeuristic pleasure of the confession of struggle it’s rather dulling. I don’t think events should have people parting with a feeling of “So what?”

I believe a community needs good events to thrive and grow, and there is room for more local events that support different local needs and agendas that the general conference doesn’t already. Conferences have an opportunity to act as stronger support system for marginalized communities and create a more ethical system of give and take. I want to fight the usual burnout cycle that industries participate in, going through exploited creators and thinkers as they are useful and not giving back to them once they are deemed too much of a maintenance to keep around. I also just want more events to exist, and for more communities to feel enabled to make their own despite not having a lot of money. If we’re going to change things, we can’t do it at the pace at which those more powerful deem us useful to them.

 

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Good News!

Good news! This year I’m going to be a Jury co-chair of IndieCade, helping choose the nominees for the awards and curating games at various events like IndieCade’s presence at E3. This was an unexpected appointment to be honest; I’ve been attempting to detach myself from games stuff but the various forces in the world draw me back in. I’m excited to take this position because of the opportunity to change how people, both in and outside of games, view play and the art we use to facilitate play. All of my work so far has tried to change the conversation around games to looking outward for new ways to express ourselves and find play in places we wouldn’t expect. IndieCade is a good venue for a balance between exposure and artistic representation, so I hope I can make an impact with my new position, both on the festival and games as a whole.

One method of influencing the cultures surrounding games is through visibility, what is held up as exemplars or made into a cannon. Personally, I’m not a fan of award ceremonies, but I know that many people enjoy the competition and potential recognition that comes from being nominated and how industry and communities at large use them as barometers for what is considered ‘good.’ If anything, having a strong curation and an eye to challenge the current state of games and play can be a great platform for cultural tastemaking, signalling to world at large new ideas and new standards. In a world that so often resorts to consumer habits and top-down economics to decide what is valuable, I want to take the chance to represent the grassroots and the margins.

Of course, everyone has different tastes and different agendas when it comes to highlighting games. I think it’s important to be forward and clear about what intentions go into this process so the community can be on board with the vision, or at least, understand what’s going on so they can critique it productively. And not just having vague values such as ‘excellence’ or ‘innovation,’ but direct intentions on how we’d like to present notable games. I’m not the only person deciding things, so I can’t control every single detail, but I can at least be transparent about how I’m working. I aim to be both an advocate and a curator of my own values, so hopefully I can communicate all these qualities through the curation that ends up in the festival this year.

In particular, I really want to expand how we think of games and play. I’d like to see new formats, not just digital and board games, but wildly new interpretations of how we substantiate play. I don’t want everyone to think they must make games in the traditional format, or in any convention really, in order to have a good game. I want to open up the idea of what’s a good game for people who don’t have a tech background, access to funds, or loyalty to traditional game design. I think it’s super important to continue stretching beyond what we commonly think of games, and not just in themes, but actually how we relate to the world through play. It’s vital to make sure we don’t keep games ghettoized in pastime entertainment, but also think on how it folds into our lives and creates new meaning for the various mundane aspects of our day-to-day.

One thing I find missing in many game showcases is deeply moving and compelling games that I can’t stop thinking about. We get distracted by idle amusement and surface technological advancements that titillate us for the moment but quickly leaves us as we move on to the next experience. I’d like games I feel in my bones, that take chances to do something risky in order to reach me with a sense of urgency and awe. I deeply believe that play can affect us like this, and want to encourage more people to experiment with how this can happen. I don’t have all the answers or ideas, but if I can help move the center of expectations more towards this, people from different backgrounds and perspectives than myself, it would be a job well done.

I could really use as much help as possible from people and communities who care about reshaping how we think of games. I’d like recommendations on how to find games and creators who would be in line with this vision and never think to be a part of an event like IndieCade. This isn’t restricted to people identifying as game designers, but anyone who feels like their works evoke play or games in whatever way they define and incorporate those things. Even if you’ve been rejected before and told your work “isn’t a game,” contact me!

Submission deadline is May 15th, please submit and spread the word around!

http://www.indiecade.com/Submissions

My First Year in Stardew Valley

Some time after Pac-Man 2: The New Adventures but before Star Ocean: The Second Story, Harvest Moon 64 was my favorite game. Most video games centered around action and compelled you forward through tension, and I was showing early stages of anxiety that would steer me away from games that relied on menacing or competitive forces. I don’t know how I was introduced to it, but I remember how paced and comforting the game felt. There was something to organizing plants in grids, how everyone milled about the town doing their own thing, at the libraries Tuesday afternoons or a late night bar regular. It was the first time I dated someone in a video game, the vineyard’s daughter, beginning my interest in sex and intimacy in digital play. Harvest Moon was one of the few games my mother would enjoy watching me play, it was sort of like the times I’d come home and she would be watching a soap opera and attempt to explain what was going on. She would ask about the various denizens of the town while witnessing my habitual, daily movements ingrained into my brain, watering the plants then milking the cows before doing a loop around town to give presents to the people I liked before going off to fish or mine before night would fall, I’d go to bed, and start all over again.

Stardew Valley came at the right time for me. I just moved to New York City and was dealing with post-move shock, mainly needing to cultivate a new friendship circle and feeling an immense pressure to be everywhere doing everything that, even when I’d be crashing into my bed at the end of every evening, I felt like I wasn’t nearly doing enough. I only noticed this because of the many times my character would just pass out in public from exhaustion, still too new to Pelican Town and my farm to have a productive rhythm. I would start the game over and over again at the end of spring because I wasn’t yielding my maximum potential. I had to make concerted effort that I would try to use the game for it’s more fluffy narrative reasons, to get away from the city that bears down on me to be productive for the sake of advancement instead of pure personal fulfillment.

I admit, I have a hard time making friends. I’m pretty intense yet shy when it matters, usually overeager and demanding. This game is a sort of friendship wish fulfillment where you have computer characters that run like a mechanized dollhouse village, mostly reliable and you can bribe them with gifts for their love and attention. Townspeople showed up when they were supposed to, filled you in on their mundane problems, had favorites and dislikes you could suss out from their acquaintances. It wasn’t just that this was a group of people forced to be my friends, rather, there was a forced friendship process that I got to indulge in because I’m needy. Even better, everyone in the game is depressed about life in one way or another. Many feel stuck in small town life, others has silly trifles with one another, some have bad habits they wish they could break but always give into them. It feels like an evolution of the bucolic fantasy, since straight-up provincial tourism doesn’t feel as compelling as a town silently decaying. So instead of planning out a megafarm with all the produce in a neat grid and min/maxing my animals, I mostly just want to grow flowers and have everyone like me. It all feels a bit emotionally coercive, but I guess that’s what entertainment means when it comes to video games, going to worlds where ultimately everything cares about nothing but you.

There are troubling aspects of this, of course. The relationship between work and leisure get progressively troubling, where I leave two worlds, my own where I’m implored to labor just to live, and the fiction’s, a corporate dystopia, to be on a vacation that means more work. Anyone watching me could see that my movements are like clockwork: I wake up, pet the dog, water the plants, feed the animals, then either mine, fish, forage, or walk about town, then go to the bar, give gifts to everyone there, check my fish traps, then get to bed. This routine is only broken by festivals or cut scenes showing that my relationships are growing stronger. I feel like there should be a word for leisure-labor that both soothes and stresses, calms down the constant running anxiety that seems to be endemic to the city but fills up my mind with an assembly line of useless motions, not directly contributing to my health nor giving me a complete peace of mind. More like stalling the inevitable.

It also doesn’t help that the circumstances around the same are fantastical, though it seems to be a genre convention. There’s always a dead rich relative that has a plot of land and magical spirits that will restore the land if you just try hard enough. The real fantasy isn’t even a pastoral one, but of magical affluence, or even some sort of ‘practical affluence,’ where you can extract yourself easily to ‘live rough’ and contribute to a community, but you’re not really invested in the village, you’re a step away from varied interests in restoring the function of the town. Ultimately, in all these sorts of games, that I love, am I just a gentrifier? Sitting on it more, Stardew Valley feels like a gentrification fantasy, where you can make your own beers and artisan jams, take a day off in the spa up in the mountains or fish all day. I bribe people for their love and loyalty, though really, all of their repeated NPC lines feel so distant, like a Disney World attraction, where the characters are pleasant to my face but curse my name the moment I leave the room.

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The Humans of Waiting Rooms

Over the past month, I’ve participated in public-facing playtests of the latest Nathalie Pozzi and Eric Zimmerman installation game, Waiting Rooms at The Rubin Museum here in New York City. Unlike many games exhibited in museums, Waiting Rooms is a work in progress and barely substantiated by any sort of physical object, making it feel more like a performance piece than something you’d see in a typical games expo. In general, the game had players moving between rooms across the museum which had different rules of obtaining various currency, mainly pennies and tickets, in which they could use for the exit fees needed to leave rooms. As one could discern from the name, many of these rooms involved various forms of waiting, reminiscent of time spent in the many bureaucracies of life. I didn’t actually play the game (well, we’ll get to that) but you can get a writeup of a player’s experience over at Kill Screen since I’ll be talking about my thoughts and experience as an attendant who facilitated one of the rooms in the game. Overall, I found it one of the more interesting pieces they’ve done considering the landscape of games in galleries, an environment I see challenging experimentation with games to find if it’s just some fad or has a strong sense of purpose outside of entertainment products and turning life into a credit card reward program.

Among conversations I’ve had with curators who are interested in exhibiting games in galleries, few are satisfied by current methods of having visitors sit at computer terminals, consoles, or tables to play games as they would at home. For example, a person possibly won’t understand what’s interesting about Final Fantasy VII by attempting to play it from the beginning in a gallery setting. This is reminiscent of how art institutions had to adapt to a lot of contemporary art, particularly performance. And that a museum space acted as a slate for playtesting and the iterative process is particularly interesting. Despite what people took away as my opinion on playtesting, I do find playtesting an underused creative tool, that is, intentionally creating layers of a play experience that lie on top of each other like a palimpsest, each iteration of the game present in the final presentation, not wiped away with polish. This acts as a sort of psychic patina where the space play takes place holds all moments of time, separated by their tweaks and balances but showing a complete picture when a light shines through them. Often, older iterations are discarded, sometimes completely from public history, as there is this idea of a perfect, or near perfect, version of a game that you must strive towards and deliver as a product to consumers. It’s common in design fields to hear advice akin to “fail fast, fail often,” suggesting that you’re going to build something good on the corpses of the fallen. There’s something, then, at work when Waiting Rooms’ iterations were a public experience. Is this a method to show a 4-dimensional change of sorts, using the model of playtesting for expression and a main aspect of the experience rather than simply a tool? I’m interested in creating layers of play over our spaces used to witness change over time, or the use of contrast for some sort of affect. Potentially, a ‘game’ could be interpreted as a stack of these layers of play that reveal, obfuscate, and reinterpret space.

Yet not many people were in the position to see many of these changes and their possible effects on how the game went. In fact, players’ understanding of space were dominated by the constructed system of the game, central to many, if not all, formalists’ understanding of games. It is not uncommon to hear a phrase like “games are aesthetic forms of systems” when batting around affective qualities of the form. So when discussing Waiting Rooms, how it was changed, how it affected people, it all came around to a person’s experience with its system, where they followed and broke the rules, their behavior in response to the economics, what felt balanced versus what was missing that one felt entitled to after paying for such an experience. Yet systems are not just made up by rules in this game, but also by people. If there were just signs explaining what people had to do to move from room to room, the experience would be completely different; but even more importantly, it means that the people of this system were unintended participants in this experience since they weren’t just rule-dispensing or -substantiating robots. They brought with them their own feelings, attitudes towards bureaucracy, and without meaning to be significant, their bodies and identities. Meaning, different manifestations of these qualities would create a different experience for the attendants of the game despite this game, and all formalist games really, being about the experience of the player, not the system. At least, the idea of ‘experience’ is normally only interpreted as something ‘players’ can access. This privileging overlooks that systems, particularly of power, can exert themselves through people, or even the opposite, signal exertions of power from others. Can a game focused on players and not the entities that facilitate its connection to reality ever be honest?

As for my experience, I was an attendant for three iterations of Waiting Rooms, all of the ones performed at the museum and the only ones with my room present in the plans if I’m not mistaken. Upon entering my room, I would announce “Please be silent,” gesturing to a stanchion with the rules on it and telling people who spoke “There is no speaking in this room.” My instructions at first didn’t really give direction on how to say these things, and there was an option for me to read the rules to players instead of making them read. What drew me to the role was finding amusement in disciplining players from a position of authority and training them in the customs of my space so they moved in and out efficiently. At the time, I did feel like I was just an extension of a system, carrying out directives. I didn’t really think that it mattered that I was doing it, players were just seeing me as another part of the game. But the second time through the game, I encountered a player who created a real friction in the experience. I knew immediately there would be a problem; there is a way certain people look at me that is a cross between contempt and disgust which is often a reaction to reading me as trans, or at least, not cisgender. I felt that familiar fight or flight heart-skip. So when I recited my lines, I wasn’t surprised at his bad reaction, and I became extremely self-aware that I was being read, not completely as a faceless, bodiless cog in a system, but a person who is in a position of power and visibility, no matter how trite, that I am not usually afforded. He openly defied the rules of my room and his interaction with me felt personal. Even if it was small and the surface reading could be a defiance of the game’s system, I couldn’t help but feel it happened because of my specific body and the context around it. This matters because this wasn’t the vision of the artists; this was supposed to be a structured experience for the players, not attendents. But I did deeply feel that futility, that complete disregard for my personhood in that player’s words and actions, brought on specifically by the context usually found when encountering the people who make up our unpleasant but mandatory visits with bureaucracy. I don’t think this was a mark of a bad game or faulty planning, rather that, after witnessing this experience three times from the same vantage point, I have my own experience and understanding of the feelings Waiting Rooms engenders, seeing the game as the contrast between each layer of play. It has little to do with economics, or winning, or even being fully cognizant of the entire system, which I wasn’t and still am not. Instead, I saw how small changes over time, along with just random chance, influenced how people related to my body and attempt to grasp authority. In the last playtest, where it seemed like revolt and cheating was more encouraged, there came a point where players would just talk right over me, and I ceased to be person, if I ever was.

Which isn’t to say I was completely without power and influence. In fact, my bias entered and changed the outcome of how people flowed through my space without the knowledge of the creators until after the game. My room functioned by randomly sending players to different rooms by draw cards with room numbers on them. I would fudge this a few times if players stood out to me in a particular way, for instance, if they were rude, I would trap them on my floor, forcing them to either pay to leave or be escorted back to the beginning. If friends or couples came together and wanted to stay together, I intentionally split them up, no matter what the cards said. I also let particularly stylish women and men I found attractive upstairs even when they didn’t earn it. It wasn’t enough to completely skew the game in a discernable way but, you know, the flapping of a butterfly’s wings.

As a case study, I see Waiting Rooms displaying games’ struggle with time and space. Games are often delineated by space with concepts such as the magic circle, places away from reality in which we explore and experiment. Instead, I felt a different kind of experience had to do with the repetition of time, being able to recall multiple outcomes of the same situation at once and coming to grips with the composite. We see this through valorizing the mundane, waiting, aimlessly collecting and spending, repeating routine, where we spend most of our time, and then rupturing it so we’re able to critically reflect. I’ve noticed this sort of repetition in games by queer creators, which most typically reads a body ridden with the effects of PTSD to me. Systems are an inadequate proxy to what we are manipulating for experience in this field; systems are an attempt to order interactions into something discrete. Systems themselves do not exist without a person to construct and read them into their surroundings. I feel like the next steps of Waiting Rooms would be addressing what does it mean to represent a part of a system, or least, seeing that facilitating the game is its own play, meaningful and in need of focus as it is for those currently thought of as players. There are a lot of design and expressive issues games has to work out here, considering the potential for inhabiting public space and imbuing it with political dynamics.

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Why things aren’t changing

Why aren’t things changing? In the aftermath of yet another woman getting harassed out of her job and being thrown under the bus by a prominent games entity so save face, it’s hard not to see things in games as particularly bleak. There has been more visibility of marginalized creators, greater stress about the importance of diversity, and a general social shift in accepting that discriminating systems put some people at a distinct disadvantage at life. While stumbling blocks are always to be expected, the games industry seems to have changed only superficially, with major entities continuing the usual bullshit with the usual garden variety of excuses we’ve gotten for a while now. There is no shortage of people online campaigning passionately for things to be different, but somehow, it seems like little has changed.

I think this comes from a fundamental misunderstanding on how change happens, and how deep that change has to go before we start seeing a difference. The sort of change most people are actually envisioning is for games to just be a peaceful place, much like they remember it in their childhoods, just a little more diverse and accepting of people. They still want to consume the way that they always have and not really move out of their comfort zone outside some employer-friendly uses of social media. It’s a quite typical gamer/consumer relationship, wanting more of the same, just better. There isn’t necessarily something wrong with this, and I’m not going into ‘slacktivism’ shaming; yet we have to at some level reconcile that things can’t change when most people who want it aren’t doing what is necessary to.

The truth is there needs to be radical change in our environment in order for our ideals to see the light of day. Despite contemporary connotations, radical change isn’t necessarily some sort of extremism, rather it looks to the root of the problem and aims to solve that. The problem is this comes into conflict with a lot of conventions of consumption in games today. No matter what Nintendo does to its employees and depicts in its games, people will still want to buy its products and desire it continue producing similar experiences that it’s already doing. It doesn’t matter how clear of a link to unethical labor a console has, people want to upgrade and continue buying games. Ultimately this means that while people advocate for change in games, they haven’t really changed their values to match making that a reality. In a sense, there is still a fear of what will happen to games if outsider values become dominant, what games would go in and out of fashion, how conventions in game design will change to shift focus away from entertainment products. Right now liberal games people find the values of marginalized perspectives quaint, nice flavor that could be adapted or added on to what we already have, but not the main dish. So they aren’t necessarily against radical viewpoints, and definitely encourage them to exist, but only unsupported so change is as slow as possible.

This forces people who have the most to lose and are currently in danger to take the majority of the weight of moving things along. While the typical left-leaning games person doesn’t mind that outsider art or radical critique exists, and probably encourages it in spirit, their consuming habits continue the resource drain away from these people. Instead of figuring out a way for marginalized creators to make and speak on their own terms, continuing to focus patroning companies forces them to either assimilate into the industry or leave. People in the games sphere are extremely quick to defend their consumption habits, and it’s to the point that all their ideals, that oppressed people should be treated fairly, that art currently marginalized deserves recognition, that those at risk need support and resources, all crumble away. The furor on social media becomes part catharsis, part theater, part entertainment. There’s a part of people that wants to feel guilt and have some way to exorcise it, but not actually solve the problem that creates that guilt.

Of course, people will pitch this in a false dichotomy of mainstream vs outsider, that can’t we have both? I would say yes, but you actually have to contribute to the health of things not accepted by the mainstream in order for there to be any semblance of an equitable exchange. This also doesn’t take into account marginalized perspectives that appropriate mainstream games for their own radical devices, which is also largely unappreciated beyond social media entertainment. What I’d ask the people who deeply want to support those who work against the grain is how much you value this sort of work beyond the conceptual realm. Does at least the same amount of money that goes towards supporting companies get to under-served creators? Do you know why the people you support on social media are important or interesting past that they are a minority in games? Would you care about these people if they didn’t speak a word about diversity? We know that these people get less resources, both from games and society as a whole, and not changing how you consume and practicing what you value continues that divide. Said liberal masses are forcing marginalized creators into critical positions by being apathetic at best about the literal support the give while contributing to entities that maintain the status quo.

I really don’t think the video game industry is going to evolve at a pace rational for anyone who is outspoken about the condition of the industry to live in. What is the price people are really asking of marginalized creators when they encourage people to stay in the industry without the resources to survive it? The good news is there’s stuff outside of video games, and people can flourish without the backing of the industry. I think we’re going to look back and see video games as an awful stage before seeing something greater that could be used with a wider artistic range. The industry just seems the most backwards, embarrassing institution, placating nerds while only caring about women to keep up appearances. I could be wrong, but it seems like people are too complacent with what they have to prove it.

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New Difficulties

Ever think about what the games you play say about you? Or maybe your habits while you play them? Despite not fully enjoying the genre, I’m drawn to strategy games, particularly turn-based ones with idiosyncratic units on a chess-like grid. Maybe I first came to them under some rule of opposites; I actually don’t like chess, tend to be more impulsive in thought, and wish for more personal expression in my play. It’s possible there’s a part of me that needs something slow, allows me to think things out at my own pace. But there’s something beneath that, a weird perfectionism that compels me to start games over completely from scratch the moment they deviate from my ideal state. I have people asking me about how far I’ve gotten in Fire Emblem Fates, and I’m always ashamed to tell them I started over… again.

When I played games earlier in the series, I’d blame this on the permadeath function core to the game. I couldn’t stand losing a character that possibly had more to contribute to story, and would end up never completing the games because it became too hard to save them all. But now that the latest release has a mode where none of your characters die, I still find myself restarting over and over again. Having not read much about the differences between the versions of the game, I chose Conquest because the characters seem like they would appeal to me more, which I was right about. As a consequence, I had no idea it’d be an overall harder game, even on the easiest settings. It’s not the battles necessarily, but the story content that comes out of the support system, which requires strategically placing units together on the battlefield so they bond more. Because Conquest has limited ways to level up these support ranks, I realized that there was even another, possibly more insidious expression of difficulty in this game: I have to manage my battles according to who I definitely needed to ship and have children even more urgently than I need to actually win the fights themselves.

My usual habits in Fire Emblem have me testing out the waters and seeing the chemistry between the units before I marry them off, having my characters play the field as I decided which ones I’d like to pair up for good and decide when is the right time to have a time-traveling kid. But this time I got to the end of the game without having recruited a single one, which is easy to do in a game where you can’t grind very easily. I instantly restarted. I’ve been playing multiple times to see the different relationships, awaiting the time I create the perfect save with all the right pairings and perfect children. But I’m coming to find that I won’t get that in Conquest, unless I want to pay more of course. Where I thought I could escape the difficulty of the game through casual settings, I realized there was an inescapable hard mode waiting for me: nothing will ever be perfect, some characters won’t marry or have children, and effectively, the story will always be missing something.

I’m still a bit in denial. I’ve considered paying for some opportunities to grind or getting the ‘true’ third version of the game. I’ve complained to friends that the Conquest is a bad attempt to get money out of me, ultimately incomplete without all the other versions and DLC. But it’s slowly dawning on me that a newer form of difficulty has cropped up. When talking about ‘new difficulties,’ I point to the peculiarities of difficulty settings in BioWare games, which are at this point more critically known for their narrative and romances than they are for their battles. Choosing different difficulties shifts how battles work, but not the conversations or relationships. There’s this underlying assumption that there is little to be had in subjective, qualitative, or probably more succinctly said, emotional difficulty. Difficulty is usually restrained to the quantitative, and topics of personal expression and taste are left to be these abstract, woo concepts that most designers don’t pay a lot of attention to manipulating. But here, Conquest is giving me a real hard time by making me have an incomplete game, or at least play it over and over again to understand my own ‘true’ path. This contrasts with games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age which aim to further simplify how a player can manipulate these permutations by creating tools and not considering the complexity there is with emotional difficulty. This is a contrast between being presented with obvious, signed choices that you’re supposed to care about and understanding the small, mundane choices you’ve made by landing yourself in a mess you couldn’t really see coming until it arrived.

This opens up a lot of opportunities for new kinds of play, considering this kind of difficulty isn’t necessarily inhibitive unless you have an overbearing perfectionistic streak like I do. My time with this experience could be seen as researching, trying to explore the different corners to eventually express my ideal state of the game, where I allocate the few resources I have to create the story I’m able to create. It shows that despite casual modes being added for new audiences might seem like watering down the game, it’s actually opening up a new kind intense play previously unavailable in the series, and continues to expand its design further past pure quantitative strategy. I’m curious to see more games that push even further, and where the series will go knowing that this is an integral aspect of play for the newer wave of players that now enjoy the series.

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Why I’m Boycotting GDC

If there is one conversation I want happening at every games event this year, it’s the one about activist burnout and the exploitation of marginalized people by conferences and other institutions. Video games and the tech industry overall are riding off the diversity wave- with good intentions, we can all assume- trying to answer criticisms over the past several years of how homogenous the environment is and the ethical implications about not working to change that. So now we are seeing some diversification, particularly in conferences and conventions which are the easiest to critique and change, at least on the surface. While there is greater effort to change the kinds of bodies are in our spaces, little is done to change the space itself, perpetuating the revolving door phenomenon where populations of marginalized people are leaving as much as they are entering. Minoritized people are definitely welcome, but as resources to be used up and eventually disposed of when a newer vein is discovered.

There are a lot of assumptions that go into the typical speaking engagement for conferences: you can afford to travel there, fund your own lodging accommodations, take the likely increased cost of eating and drinking in stride, and most importantly, that you have the time and money to do pro bono speaking work. This model was created by professionals who had jobs that assisted and benefited from participating, creating something that benefited a community. But marginalized people often aren’t part of the community, they don’t have industry or academic jobs that support them, with their skills and viewpoints not yet valued by the mainstream enough for networking to land them work. Since industry is always looking for something new, outsider groups are taken in only for their social cache but not in trade for work or other methods of sustaining their practice. Meaning, our current system is a flawed band-aid on a deep wound, and deserves a lot more open challenges than it currently gets.

GDC is considered the main conference of the video game industry and is specifically a for-profit venture in which marginalized speakers are not paid for their time as they would be for a typical speaking engagement. Instead they are compensated with a pass to GDC, which is indeed worth a lot of money, but only is so because the speakers are contributing their time and money to talk. You aren’t guaranteed anything that will help you live for your labor, rather an opportunity to network which you don’t actually need a pass for. That networking is limited in use if the industry doesn’t know what to do with you because it is structured in a fundamentally different way; many marginalized creators are artists, not simply indie developers making smaller entertainment games, but works that aren’t expressedly for conventional commercial purposes. You see different values, practices, and experiences in this outsider art that are illegible to companies courted for the conference. Even outside all that, it’s extremely dubious that the people with influence and ability to hire or patron even participate in diversity-related programs, as marginalized people are herded to the advocacy track and other such community events that straight white men, the most typical identity in positions of power, rarely show up to.

The importance of establishing local events and supporting communities becomes greater as more people try to participate in making games and designing experience overall. GDC isn’t agile enough to embrace what is needed to fully support diverse voices while keeping its business interests intact. Granted, people use the centrality of GDC to mount different initiatives and gatherings, like Women in Games interest groups and even Lost Levels, so it isn’t that GDC is a completely useless function. Rather it is fraught enough to critique since the industry is still complacent about the security and safety of marginalized people despite the still on-going harassment most have never publicly commented on or ever acknowledged happened. The assumption is that GDC must have certain necessary evils so we have a nice big party for a week, and it just so happens those necessary evils involve the labor and well-being of already exploited people in games.

This is also before discussing that the organizational entity of GDC and the big names in the industry can be hostile to people who can’t fight back and chill someone’s social status if they want to stay within the good graces of the mainstream. In 2014, organizers of GDC and IGF incited large-scale harassment against me because they were goaded by gamers constantly targeting outspoken women in games. I never received personal apologies from any of them, rather the incident was used for a PR message to rehabilitate their image. That year I was removed from panels I was qualified to be on and the general indie community dropped me out of their networking. I became isolated and very few people came to my help, despite carrying the large social weight of being a constant target for abuse by darker corners of games culture. I was billed as simply “that year’s controversy” that people shrugged off. I’m still suffering from Gamergate, and had been withstanding harassment and institutional oppression before it.

I’ve been offered free passes and travel to GDC this year, but I didn’t feel safe going. Not necessarily my physical safety more than usual, but because I am aware of a system that would rather be right and keep a clean image than allow a marginalized person the respect they deserve. And ultimately, I don’t think there is a respect for the work, ideas, and energy that we bring to games; rather, we are content, we’re something to pass the time. And I don’t want to legitimize that process anymore. I encourage others to talk more openly and frequently about this. Going to GDC doesn’t make you a bad person, however ignoring the situation should weigh on your conscience.

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Exploring Taste in Play

I recently gave a talk on exploring the different ways players can express their tastes or preferences through play in video games that highlights some interests I still have in the genre. Springing from a piece specifically about Style Savvy, I wanted to reach for a design imperative to structure space for different kinds of expression that isn’t usually afforded to in games. How can games play with style and taste, help players cultivate and communicate their aesthetics? This is different from the usual customization that some game offer, like choosing an avatar or accruing items more to collect than to help you express yourself as the main focus of play. I find the topic fascinating because of how much I feel like people really want to have taste and style in games, but how to do so seems relatively stagnant. So here are some examples I went through to try and reach out on how to explore this topic.

 

Fire Emblem Awakening & Fates

Being of the moment, I start this journey from the most mechanistic of the examples on our way to more and more abstracted methods of exploring taste. Fire Emblem’s legacy is focused on being a strategy game, much like a particular evolution of chess with some story attached to it. Though known most through time for its difficulty, its reputation shifted as a particular feature surrounding pairing up characters in battle began to evolve. By the time it got to Awakening, characters who fought together often in battle would get cutscenes together and possibly got married and had children, who would then travel from the future to fight with you, being a mix of the parents traits and being a pretty unique unit subject to many min/maxing guides. But most importantly, units in the Fire Emblem series evolved from being mere chess pieces that you only moved because of their strategic to agents for expression, moving units together based on your preferences along with strategic consequences. Here we have players creating their ideal story in spite of the strategic aspects of the game which are decidedly difficult, creating a melodrama suited to the range of eccentric characters you pick up on the way. I would say that now Fire Emblem is more known for its romancing features, and the newest edition, Fates, recognizes this by having two versions with different sets of characters and more casual modes that encourage creating bonds between characters over victory difficulty. The lesson, then, would be to revisit the objects used in play and see we can imbue them with qualities that make players care emotionally about how they use them in the game, instead of keeping them as pieces that may hurt to lose, but are ultimately disposable. Rarely do games allow that sort of control or ownership over central aspects of design like this.

 

Long Live the Queen

Looking at another strong tie between strategy and preference, Long Live the Queen takes the framing of the Princess Maker series, a ‘life sim’ that has you guiding the main character through her growth as a young woman, but puts many obstacles in your way to achieving those ends. Mainly, you develop the states of your princess, attempting to pass many skill checks so you can survive until the day of your coronation. You are presented with a large stat sheet and have to manage the princess’ mood so she does well in her various classes and trains up her skills. It’s easy to go into the game with certain preferences as for what you want your princess to be good at, like being a good public speaker and deft at political intrigue, or familiar with various weapons and trained as a magical girl. The problem is there is a system out there to kill your princess, and the realities of that course of events forces a tension between what you want and what will make it through to the end of the game. So I can stick to my guns and want a princess who is most able at moving through the social game of the narrative, but I have to exercise creativity if I’m going to have her survive all the different physical threats thrown her way. I find this is the most typical route games tend to allow player expression, through gaming a system and finding a unique strategy to overcome the challenges. What makes Long Live the Queen different is how it incorporates the life sim elements to allow subjective preferences to interface with what would in other circumstance be just moving numbers around until the puzzle is solved. An idea for evolving this to further submerge the system so it isn’t mostly balancing stats but more qualitative aspects that players could become more emotionally invested in, where the end of the game is less about surviving and gaming and more a culmination of all the choices you’ve made to create a unique experience at the end.

 

Shira Oka: Second Chances

Butting up right against the life sim genre are dating sims, which are much like the former except the end goal is to end up with a love interest. These games take a stronger visual novel approach and treat the player as a guiding force in the story for which character the protagonist ends up with. Shira Oka is a particularly good example of this because instead of just making story choices to get your romance, you have to manage your time in order to shape life in the right enough way to pursue their route and end up with them in the end. The preference part is pretty apparent, being which of the romanceable characters you want to be with in the end. Unlike most dating sims, you are made to play the same sequences of events over and over again with meta-data involved that compiles and confuses all of your desires, while also throwing in plot twists that can end your playthrough and force to start over. This complicates the usual branching narrative model that most dating sims operate by, creating a more unique method of player expression, one of wrangling together chaos and leaving behind a footprint that can’t be easily replicated. Building upon this, I find that games in general are find amping up difficulty in traditionally gamey aspects of games, but when there’s narrative parts that involve expression, rarely if ever understanding what it means to create complex decisions. We can also look to legacy games like Mass Effect or Dragon Age that have games that build upon the varying choices of the past to create landscapes continually shaped by past actions. I can see games that use the repetitive genre conventions of visual novels to slowly move the game into a highly idiosyncratic ending that veers far enough from a standard expression of the game enough that players would see wide-reaching differences in their games that would reflect much of how they interacted with the experience. I touched upon some of this with some meditations on what digital patina would look like.

 

Happy Home Designer

Moving to some more fluid expressions of preferences, Happy Home Designer centers player experience on crafting homes in a particular style that is typically auxiliary features in other genres. The game is pretty permissive in letting the player do whatever they want, to many gamers’ chagrin. With each assignment, the player gets access to new themed furniture depending on their new customer’s preferences, prompting a loose base for creative output. What I think is typically lost with Happy Home Designer is that people tend to hue too closely to realistic expectations of homes should look like despite their clients willingness to accept pretty much anything you can give them. Happy Home Designer’s prompts are commonly open for subversion to create political commentary or surrealist imagery that goes beyond just preference and up a level of personal expression. Approaching the game with the particular intention of creating a morbid undertone to the overly cute aesthetics of the Animal Crossing world (which I do find disturbing particularly around themes of capitalism re: Tom Nook), I created a set of rooms that took clients’ desires and expressed them in a dystopian future that I believe would be the inevitable product of a world ruled by Nintendo. Pushing this game further would involve putting it in an ecosystem that the Happy Home Network gestures towards, where the interiors add and speak to a discourse about the spaces we inhabit and the politics residing there. There is something naive about creative games like this one that keeps your works separated from each other and not summing up to a series that affects the world or at least the creative network you are in.

These are just a few examples of how preferences are expressed in games and how we can use them to add a new experience to our play. I’m particularly interested in subjective play, or at least, challenging that play isn’t only some weird, wishy-washy thing that sometimes happens, is whimsical and intangible and therefore of less interest to people in our field. The success of some of these games shows that moving towards this kind of player expression is resonating with people and bringing in new kinds of players into games instead of relying on usual kinds of engagement that convention entertainment game design relies on. I feel like there would be a new era of games if creators were able to integrate these sorts of qualities into their designs and values, particular in response to usual tactics for diversity and representation in games.

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Remembering Monsters: Morinth

As I grow accustomed to teaching games and doing outreach work to those who mostly see entertainment games as the main creative potential of the medium, I’m wanting a way to access and appreciate these works on my own terms. There are a few of my peers who are able to navigate talking about what they enjoy about blockbuster games while also holding that they are typically situated in a pernicious context, in contrast to many games critics and developers who excuse troubling aspects of the genre in some sort of move of loyalty. Possibly because I’ve had a rough relationship with the industry these past couple of years, video games just feel unappealing to me on their face. Even with a growing diversity in characters, I don’t really see that reflected in the quality of the work so often. Which leads me to believe I need to take another perspective on how I find interesting characters or characteristics in games than I have before.

Struggling with the value of representation in games, I wrote about how I came across moments of identification, or at least seeing parts of me reflected within a mess of other characteristics, last year talking about Black History Month for games. In it, I gave an example of how I unexpectedly related to the qunari in Dragon Age Inquisition in relation to my blackness in the way the denizens of that fiction treat them as monsters. Having played through the game once as qunari and an elf, I saw the differences in the game in the way people treated my character based on their fantasy race, particularly with attractiveness. It recalled a time in my life when I decided to stop straightening my hair, marking me more distinctly as black, and how people’s attitudes noticeably changed in my dating life. I’m sure the developers didn’t intentionally make these qualities for me to identify with, probably the opposite, they erased most blackness from the game outside of Vivienne, who could easily be read as a good black character if all it took was for there to be good writing behind someone with dark skin. Instead, I think true representations of how dominant culture thinks of marginalized people come out by accident, they manifest themselves in the monstrous. I don’t think I necessarily have fun realizing that I exist as a monster in these fictions, but there is some sense of catharsis seeing pieces of me bubble up from the subconscious of those making games.

So I went to thinking, where are some other monsters I could find lurking around, coming out from closets the game didn’t know it had? I found my answer in an old drafts folder on the Mass Effect 2 character Morinth, possibly the most overlooked character in that game, by that game. The context around Morinth is particularly strange; you encounter her as a part of her mother’s, Samara’s, story mission, who is hunting her down since she’s on a murdering spree. You find out that Morinth was born with a genetic disease that kills her mate during bonding as result of her mother bonding with someone within the species, and her society forces people like her into complete seclusion. At the end of the mission, instead of just teaming up with Samara to put an end to Morinth like what happens in every other story mission with a team member, the game gives you the choice to betray Samara and have Morinth replace her on your squad. What is strange about this is how little impetus there is to betray Samara and go with Morinth; in battle they are mostly the same, with Morinth’s unique ability being way more niche; Morinth will regularly entice you to bond with her, which will always result in your death; and in Mass Effect 3, she makes a minimal appearance as an enemy mob whereas Samara has a whole story quest for you to participate in. It’s very easy to see Morinth as overall a net negative, so much as to be swept under the rug at the end of the trilogy despite every other character getting their full cameo. Morinth feels like a joke, or a glitch of sorts, a choice you’re obviously not supposed to make.

The monster imagery isn’t subtle with her, portrayed as a psychic vampire or succubus that uses her sexuality and intense allure to seduce people to their death. While this had most critics writing her off, I’ve always wondered about the deployment of this dangerous sexuality, an underworld creature born in tragic circumstances. Demons and 20th century anxieties surrounding sexuality go hand-in-hand in our fiction, and could also be read so in contemporary space operas. We can see Morinth as a sublimation of fears or tensions with queerness kept out of the public eye believed to be slowly converting and destroying society, particularly if we contrast her to her more ‘out’ counterpart, Liara. Liara is both an alien and part of an underworld, one that by the middle of the series she basically runs, but she herself kept modest, moving from a blushing schoolgirl act in the first game to almost matronly in the end. She’s in sync with the other gay characters that crop up in ME3, wanting to settle down or reintegrate into typical society after the struggle. But there is only ungracious death for Morinth, either at the hands of her mother or morphed into a banshee enemy for you to slay without so much of a thought. Her affinity for the shadows, art, clubs, painted as ruining family and the product of an improper household reeks of 20th century imaginings of queerness, and that the game would move to erase what seems to be a mistake is all too telling of how dominant society sees its duty. It’s another parable for assimilation or complete obfuscation on the margins.

Just why would anyone choose Morinth? I think it’s so you can choose how she’s remembered, or really, how she’s forgotten.

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