Intimacy and Digital Patina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Things I want the men in my life to know

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

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

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

 

Where you are now

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

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

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

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

 

How you value

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

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

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

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

 

Expectations

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

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

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

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

 

Social support

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

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

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

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

 

Wrestling with vulnerability

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

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

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

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

 

Communication

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

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

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

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

 

Asking

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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Assimilation and the Double-Bind of Respectability

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

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

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

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

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

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What is a Luxurious Video Game?

Over the last couple of months, I’ve reacquainted myself with magazines. The last time I really bought and went through them was in high school, particularly standby indulgences like the Gothic & Lolita Bible and FRUiTS, jealous of all the wonderful clothes and duping my guy friends to tell me they found Mana hot. Magazines were a portal into fantasy worlds of luxury, a place where everyone is styled and blissed to the point of looking purposefully bored. This experience would be out of my reach, unable to convince my parents that they should order some androgynous clothing off a website in a language they couldn’t understand. As an adult, the presence of luxury in the things I read now, about architecture, food, and of course, fashion, is omnipresent. It’s assumed you’re reading because you want to know what the best is, stewing in envy until you’ve consumed it. There is something a little more menacing about this, as these are sorts of objects and experiences I can witness at the mall or walking down the promenade of an affluent part of town. It’s so realized, obvious, like life doesn’t really make sense if it’s missing.

What luxury is to these fields of art is pretty clear, the materials or availability are rare, it’s in some way artisanal or uniquely made. That it costs a lot of money is a by-product rather than a telltale sign of luxury, though being able to discern that comes along with being socialized as a person of a certain affluence. Many of the art worlds are centered around the luxurious, with success tied to how your work fits into becoming a luxury product, accessible mainly to the rich before it can trickle down to the public. The prevalence of luxury in my magazines unnerves me; from the everything-grown-just-outside pâté at some restaurant-farm in upstate New York to modular incubator spaces that supply their own energy on the rooftops of Hong Kong, luxury is supposed to be the idea, what everyone is supposed to strive for, a vision for the future where the luxurious has become profane and there is some other trend to replace it. This isn’t completely damnable, as the 20th century did highlight anti-establishment art that sought to subvert the usual ways ideals were commodified, and with each passing generation we find stronger focuses on the low-brow and popular culture brought on by those practices.

Being someone associated with video games, naturally I asked myself “Well wait, what exactly is a luxurious video game?” I find this very specific to video games’ apparent immateriality, commonly thought of purely as a digital product. Sure, there are games that are more expensive than others, and some have collector’s editions, but these don’t really match up too much to the luxury in my magazines. There aren’t interviews about how one artist lovingly crafted this after a hike through Thailand, inspired by the nature, people, and culture, or something of the sort. Because they are digital, they aren’t often rare, rather easily duplicated; what was the difference between the Mass Effect 2 at the Smithsonian and the one in my Steam library? I mentioned this tension before when speaking to how expressive games are stuck in a weird place between art worlds and industry, that beyond out of print cartridges and limited print discs, we don’t really have a strong idea of what an artisanal game is. Are game engines ‘rare’ materials or creation methods? How do even begin to approach this sort of question?

Through comparison to other art forms, of course! Nathan Altice gave a talk a couple years ago comparing video games and fashion, finding the fashion industry to be a closer analogy than film’s (definitely watch it, was my favorite talk at that event). I was surprised to learn how fashion has such a similar contention with art vs commercialism that games does, down to the clothes are for buying and wearing, not for being looked at comment from a prominent fashion magazine editor. Nathan’s comparison takes us to the couture and ready to wear aspects of fashion, aspects that are seemingly missing in games. He compares smaller games made by independent auteurs for highly specific non-commercial audiences, his example being anna anthropy’s dys4ia, to function in a similar way that couture does, which is an article of clothing designed for one particular person’s body. Having made games for particular people before, Mainichi for my best friend and EAT for a past partner (Mission would be my ready to wear example), I can tell you that I’m not swimming in hundred of thousands of dollars and held in an industry-wide esteem that would support these endeavors. Nathan’s comparison reveals a couple things about how games block its own luxuriousness, first, by not realizing that custom tailored experiences (something I find in non-digital games) are valuable in and of themselves and can be personally made, and secondly, there isn’t something inherently damaging about a game that repels or doesn’t fit mainstream audiences. Many comments about my games are how much they are inaccessible to gamers with certain expectations of games, and also the locality and financial constraints of people being asked to use real money. I didn’t make Mission and EAT for every person on the planet, though people asked me for edits so they can play it, they are specifically for those who it’s geared towards: the affluent tech class gentrifying San Francisco and my ex who couldn’t understand the contexts of my financial struggles.

I would go one step further from this, challenging the assumption that games are something completely ephemeral through its digital form. Video games, all games really, require physical objects for us to actually interact with them, yet our analyses of games rarely include them. I’ve talked before about how video games ignore bodies in design and criticism, and this works into what could be seen as a luxurious game, highly specific physical interfaces with one crafted digital experience that speak to each other, instead of general hardware platforms housing many lowest common denominator games. Obviously this would be a huge undertaking, but isn’t that what all high-end products are like? When reading styling advice, there are parts of your closet that you’re fine with getting at Target and H&M and others you can plunk down for Burberry. We could see the the DIY games of the past few years as a sort of middle state between the Walmart and Alexander McQueen, speaking to a low-fi aesthetic that will pass by mainstream consumers of games and hit an alternative scene of players, but not necessarily made for a particular person or with particular hardware.

There is an obvious caveat about classism and wanting to resist anything that allows those with wealth to own a part of culture that others can’t access. This is mostly a thought experiment, but I’m curious to find out how to subvert this. My gut-instinct is to rail as hard against the anti-art sentiments that we find and get these sorts of experiences patroned by institutions so they remain accessible to others, or at least, have the funds made by couture pieces subsidize the ready to wear games of our future. If anything, it’s a nice way to frame a pressing art games problem, and really, a call for far more indulgent games than we are coming up with.

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Embracing the Messy: A Bit on Conversations We Have in My Head

There’s a lot of pressure to keep a totally clean image, or maybe the better term for it is branding. I’ve noticed in myself a large amount of self-monitoring and a greater awareness of when someone is trying to undermine me through social conditioning they have yet to challenge. There are probably other people who could stand to be this way a little more, particularly those with high amounts of visibility and power who can shift that weight against those who don’t stand a chance. Getting better, moving towards our egalitarian utopia, requires a certain vigilance against sin while at the same time seeking it out for removal. The difference between this and heightened self-awareness is the absence of messiness, a capacity for handling human mistakes. This isn’t even at the level of forgiving or being gentle with fuck ups from the privileged, I don’t think we even allow this for ourselves. We don’t have a lot of room out here for people doing good work and being valuable assets to the community while being open that they’ve made mistakes and are currently working through them. There is a purist attitude surrounding the visibility that being heavily into social justice can grant, and this robs people of their humanity. And isn’t what we’re all fighting for, our humanity?

I find that we are unable to really work through some complex aspects of our lives in the broader social media landscape because it is a context that doesn’t allow us to be human. It’s been a personal philosophy of mine to focus my activist efforts on people and things that personally affect me, that there is some mutual benefit, trust, and growth. I feel grounded in that practice because it allows me to fuck up and learn in a place that it’s okay, where I don’t have to pretend to be perfect, and not get stuck in some sort of minority idolatry. Awareness of that space is important, so we aren’t all posturing for each other in public, cartoon characters bound for hypocrisy and downfall because the expectations placed upon us are impossible to achieve. A culture of social justice is codified enough for there to be certain key terms, frequent recapitulations of the same kinds of problems, and a tendency to create lists of action items that rarely realize themselves outside of a best-case scenario. I don’t think the future waiting for us is a society of saints, but a stronger sense of how to hold space for problems to exist and resolve that results in personal evolution instead of red letters.

I’m becoming more attracted to mess, much to my perfectionistic chagrin. I want to see not even aiming for perfect, just existing as a fact of reality and act of compassion. Deep, honest compassion isn’t something I think I’ve grasped for a long time, and, again, not even yet for others, but for myself. A reason to let myself be wrong and flawed and not useless because of it. Conversations We Have in My Head by Squinky came at a good time for me, unfolding a greatly human dynamic between two characters that allows for the righteous and the flawed to exist in the same place without overwhelming cognitive dissonance. Conversations We Have in My Head pulls a lot of how a person immersed in contemporary social justice and with a messy history of identity and practice exists in a succinct piece. Here we have two exes, Quark and Lex, moving back and forth through time to locate each other, discerning their past selves, who they are now, and what they bring from their history and what they can close the book on. Quark is mostly on the confessional and defensive side, trying to update Lex while dealing with the inconsistencies their past behavior creates with who they are now. Lex is sure, confident, and often overpowers Quark, especially when there is some past beef that is mostly unresolved. The game’s ability to admit failures while still affirming to be a good person is one that isn’t exercised very often, just drag-out honesty and answering for ourselves and, well, surviving.

Quark and Lex stand for more than a failed relationship, rather competing ideas of change and judgement. Quark is detailing to Lex important changes in their life, and the options given to Lex are those of assessment, bringing up the past to challenge the authenticity of those changes. Who the player is controlling is ambiguous, since their choices prompt Lex to interrupt Quark’s monologue, but come the end of a loop, we are reminded that Lex is a part of Quark’s imagination. If we see Lex as this inner judgement, she can stand for this tension brought on by contemporary needs of perfection. We see Quark stand up for themselves in the ways we’re trained to do, listing how we’ve had particular disadvantages that another person doesn’t, and eventually phasing Lex out of their mind, giving up on reconciling their particular situation and the obelisk of social media justice. On other playthroughs, when Lex slips out without much trouble, we see Quark left with themselves and wondering what impact their personal proclamation actually has on anything. It’s a paradox, because when the conversation gets personal, we can see some demons named and exorcised, so there is benefit to telling our personal story as part of this public narrative, but as many of us have seen, nothing really material comes from this to impact our lives, and we’ve just been walking by ourselves the entire time. Conversations We Have in My Head doesn’t provide any answers, just an awareness that in our current environment, there is an absence of reconciliation and how to reintegrate our messy selves into our just ones. That we all are really walking on our own with a constant stream of assessments of our worth, and trained to feel that is the price to being a good, just person.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Feelings about expressive games and museums

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Finding Inspiration

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

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

Protocol as Social Norms

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Stealer’s Will

stealerswill

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

 

Speed Fist

speedfist

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

 

Jump Shots

jumpshots

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

 

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

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

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

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More than Representation

“What got you into games?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Control, Fashion, and not feeling where i belong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thankfully, Without Much Significance

I’ve been grinding levels and my teeth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Love is a Battlefield – Rambles about Bonding in Games

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Needing Closure: Another Look at Interactivity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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