Gesturing Towards Utopias

I gave a talk for a class titled “Design for This Century” at Parsons New School for Design working of a prompt that was loosely about applying design to topics such as gender, sexuality, race, and related oppressive systems. This is a topic uncommon in public discourse and most certainly for students on an accessible level, so I was excited to put it together and now share it, because it’s part of a conversation I’d like to see develop more. You can also consider this talk an outgrowth of a design manifesto I wrote, queer as in fuck me. I’m working on getting some audio/video for it, but for now, I’ll share the slides and some explanations as I remember it. Let’s start with the description of the talk:

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“The pressure to solve problems presented by systemic oppressions like racism and sexism isn’t new, but contemporary contexts of social justice activism and design paradigms illuminates new avenues for resistance. With games and play shifting back into focus as sites of engaging with politics, we are tasked imagining and creating designs that point to interrogating our relationships with power and oppression. Looking at political engagement with public and personal play along with complicated forms of resistance in identity politics, we can see design that allows us to make gestures towards new utopias. We will identify oppressive tendencies of game design, complicate purist ideas of social justice utopias, and aim to integrate design into people’s daily living experiences.”

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I think it’s a worthwhile venture to at least figure out what it means to be someone interested in both design and activism. What does it mean to use design for social good? Design is often associated with business, products, infrastructure, and other more conventionally practical uses that few actively think of being conduits for politics or activism. But given the increasing social awareness of society at large and many topics concerning diversity gaining notice in design industries, namely tech, this question is on everyone’s minds. This talk is going to answering this question, or at the very least, show how this question is incomplete in its imaginings.

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An advantage of a design perspective when looking at activist concerns is preexisting language to interrogate the social hierarchies we live in through systems design. Understanding the qualities of systems, how they can shape or organize information, being invisible forces to real phenomena, are all super vital perspectives. Since most people grapple with topics like discrimination and oppression from a lawful basis, that is, specific extreme acts that indicate a hateful inner disposition, it is difficult for the public to understand how these forces actually work in society, which is more typically in mundane everyday interactions by a system of accepted values, carried about by normal, good people since they’ve been socialized to do so since birth. Learning how systems work and intersect with each other is a major increase in competency when it comes to engaging with social issues as an activist.

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The problem with approaching these issues solely through design, however, is that culture doesn’t run like a well-oiled machine to produce exactly what some sort of directive sets out to make. People, and culture itself, is a creative force that makes messy meanings from within the bounds of the systemic forces. Gender, racial, sexual, and other identities are often described as being “expressed” or tied to some analogy involving performance. I find that this sort of expression is thought of as a nice bonus at best when designers go to tackle these problems, instead aiming to change some sort of behavior or level of knowledge. I think that if we’re going to use design to interrogate issues surrounding various systems of marginalization, we’re going to need as much of the arts’ sensibilities as we’re going to need design’s.

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There’s another problem with this though, as design and art are often separated into separate categories, with what is good art and what is good design relying on this separation. This is a troublesome separation for us because we need perspectives and sensibilities from areas dubbed either design or art, and we need institutions, organizations, spaces, and society to treat our potential work as both. Designed objects imply a sort of utility or popular use, such in architecture or furniture, while art is supposed to be ultimately useless and purely aesthetic. Neither camp can truly satisfy our needs here; we need the utility and usability of design with the creative expressions afforded to us by art. This is a false binary we don’t need to respect, but we still need to start somewhere.

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A useful example for a field of work that sits between the struggle of design vs art are games and game developers. Though most people in the game design industry are blissfully unaware of this tension in institutions outside of it, games, particularly video games, are trying to work out differences between the design and artistic needs of developers and players. Primarily thought of as a design field, games eventually became recognized as art and more creators are making games purely from an expressive point of view. In one hand, you had systems of rules that implored the player to display certain behavior, while in the other, the ability for the player to make meaning and appropriate games for their own creative uses.

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To further complicate this binary, I’m going to be speaking from a very specific conversation residing in games right now, about queerness in games, or at least, what could it mean for a game to be queer. Picking up steam in 2012, video games experienced a particular rise in DIY game making culture that was noticeably queer, mostly represented by trans women. As a result, creative and theoretical work that challenges the norms of game design were produced in relation to a population of creators that held activism or at least radical politics as a large part of their identity and work. Now, your work doesn’t necessarily need to be queer or a game to follow along with the ideas I’m fleshing out here, rather, I’m using this question of queerness in games and some leads on answers to it to frame how we could change our view on design and art and get to a practice that allows us to create for activism.

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Queer is a tricky term, and that’s kind of the point. I don’t necessarily want to give you a set-in-stone definition, but I like what Naomi Clark says here because it exposes a little of her design background. It’s a highly political term that designates a norm, something that is legible and valuable to wider culture, and implies there are different instances of illegibility outside of that. She would go on to describe queer as slippery, always shifting as what was accepted and normal shifted. Clark recognizes that there are systems at play here, but queerness is outside the ones that make sense. It is a meeting of the systemic and creative.

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Theoretical work in queer/of color critique and studies has some imaginings of this slippery identity. Both Norma Alarcón and José Esteban Muñoz make this figure to be in liminal, contradictory space, illegible to normative society but still very much a real body. Alarcón’s “not yet, that’s not it” requires an identity to be put forward and the recognition that it isn’t fully developed, it’s something, but not who the minoritized subject is. Muñoz’ writing on disidentification doesn’t see a subject purely identify with an experience in creative work but not wholly reject it either; this subject instead uses that imperfect imagining from dominant culture against itself. So as we see here, we can’t be creating work that just allows people identify themselves in it or act in a way that completely discards what society puts upon them. Instead, the implication is we’re to create for the appropriative impulses of identities we don’t have a full grasp on.

 

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This sits in conflict to the current paradigm of games for social change. Dubbed the genre of Serious Games, game design methodology from the entertainment industry and gamification were deployed in attempt to get players to care about various social issues. Though widely adopted and funded as educational, serious games are routinely criticized for being ineffective in their goal, mostly because they come from a strong design approach, missing the creative aspects afforded to people by play. Queerness in games intends to confront this problem through combining design knowledge with expressive intention, both on the part of the author and the players.

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One could say that the perspective of queerness in games is chiefly in conflict with normative game design from how much it’s preoccupation with being an entertainment object passes down oppressive values uncritically. Citing Keith Burgun, merritt kopas delineates here how activities in games trains players in the values of capitalism by, first, designating games as something that requires leisure time, implying you must have work time, and then by using your leisure time to advance yourself. This sort of design doesn’t really help players think about systems nor how to creatively resist them, rather it teaches people how to be good citizens of such systems.

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It is common for designer to overlook the messages their games communicate to players for a multitude of reasons, but the main being few consider that the systems in games are political in nature and hold within them values that the player acts out. Even seemingly benign games like the pervasive Minecraft create a space where old colonial and contemporary imperialist fantasies are acted out in the common ‘virgin land is yours to completely conquer and mold’ video game scenario. It’s also worth mentioning that when games choose to represent marginalized bodies or themes, it’s in service to a presumed hegemonic identity and value system.

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These instrumentalized and exploitative methods of design come about from a conventional player-product relationship. Instead, Clark and kopas suggest elevating games from objecthood to agents in their own right, and focusing our attention on the relationship between people and games. It’s a relational approach that is open to people appropriating whatever the original context for the game is and allowing the game to stand for its own values without necessarily needing to entice a player based on the values of capitalism and imperialism. This highlights our relationship and bonds towards both designed systems and creative expression.

 

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Picking up references from actor-network-theory, there’s a clear link to how we can create around people’s relationships to politics through creative work that speaks to both design and art. Enter in Donna Haraway’s concept of the cyborg, which paints people not as beings with isolated, naturalized identities, but participants in networks of relations organized by politics. Using the blur between the organic and inorganic as a working image for our relationship with politics, Haraway shows that we cannot think of ourselves as an independent being with an identity etched in stone for us at birth. This imbues human-game relations with the political gravity that we need to manipulate for our activist work.

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This is a big challenge to how popular activism works, which is based on naturalized identities, focuses on the subjects as objects, and enforces a one-way hierarchical relationship. When we stay on this level for advocacy, we are stuck with questions and solutions for mere representation of identities as our method of resistance. When we open up our understandings of ourselves as nodes of relations, not only do we have a deeper understanding of how politics move about society, but we create systems of expression that link playful relations between humans and games with more contemporary and even futuristic activist concerns.

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All of this builds up to a small but very important shift in focus from creating games to creating play. Game design is product-oriented by focusing on what the player will be doing within the object, aiming to impart an experience directly within its bounds. Play creation would focus on exaggerating the relationship between agents, be them humans and games or humans with other humans, or even humans with the pervasive social systems of our lived lives. Game objects are completely utilitarian in in the way they exist with humans, most typically to entertain, but often also to get people to do something or gain certain habits. Creating play retains this openness, freeness that doesn’t need to be dominated by use in order to exist.

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However, we want to go beyond the binary of design vs art, which includes use vs uselessness. Tying this all together, queerness in games, and the possible perspective we need to take for activist action for contemporary issues, must be the struggle within the web of relations outlined by Haraway that makes movements towards imagined futures. Play in itself does not have to carry the baggage of uselessness in spite of conventional understanding of the word, but rather be a method of acting out and embodying new values that change the tenor of relations between ourselves, other people, and the systems that organize us.

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These are ways to act out our “not yet” identities, to create a disidentificatory relationship with the media we consume. In the current conversations about representation in media, there’s a clearly outlined end goal of the depiction of marginalized people in ways and places that serve the original interests of hegemony. Claiming relations of “not yet” is potentially infinite, a more honest representation of the relationships in our lives. Relationships don’t merely solve themselves and return agents to places of homeostasis, rather warp and change in little ways over time that settle some things while creating new ways of relating.

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I’ve been railing against design a lot, but there’s much to challenge on the art side of the equation as well. Back in the 1950s and 60s, performance art came into relevance that challenged the values of the art world, particularly by performing their art in the chaos of everyday life and emphasizing the participatory presence of other people. Happenings in particular were a strain of performance art that submerged itself into the motions of life outside the museum, often with a performer acting out their piece without anyone around them realizing anything is going on.

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In his manifesto on Happenings, which he coined, Allan Kaprow outlines numerous ways in how this art should fold into the fabric of the mundane instead of rupturing it for the purposes of art. In fact, Kaprow warns against using art as inspiration for creation, and implies Happenings and similar performances aren’t art, but something beyond such an institution. Happenings prove to be a super useful starting point to see how we can start creating relational work that, along with play and the cyborg, create space for us to proclaim “not yet” but still work to imagine what that “yet” might actually be.

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Because the influence of art would encourage us more into that realm of uselessness and suited for the gallery space, Kaprow suggests using the mundanity of our lives to inspire our creative work. This method forces a creator to look at the relationships already existent in life to emphasize in their work instead of making something so conceptual it becomes unattainable. This also focuses our creative attention on the lives we’re looking to express or change, involving whole bodies and not just conceptual imagined selves. I really believe that this honesty is important for work that wants to speak to the matrix of systems that influence our lives.

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This then sets the stage for enacting real change through creative expression, grounding performative spectacles through qualities of our lives and rupturing the essentialized narratives that society erects to obscure it dominating social systems. Through the performances of many queer creators, Muñoz evokes the concept of counterpublics, expressions of daily lives that society must ignore to keep its narrative intact. Creating these counterpublics acts as a model for intervention and lends agency to act out our “not yet” ideals.

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Performance is a strong theme in what I’m purposing, like taking the performative nature of identities like gender and race as inspiration for spectacles of performance to create counterpublics. Performance art has strong ties to play, politics, and activism that cannot be ignored by creatives looking to tap into interactive methods of resistance and expression. There is already some language surrounding games that deal with performance, and further delineating a history of play that involved performance art traditions would enrich our understanding of games.

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It is good to end this on a reminder that no one person or piece of work is going to solve social oppression. This sort of work needs to retain the “not yet,” looking forward while believing we can attain what we set out for. Much like queerness, our needs and ideals are constantly shifting, moving along as what was queer becomes normative, and new perspectives highlight areas for growth and resistance. This is attainable if we look around our lives for the basis of our creative process instead of the overarching narratives sold to us through the design vs art schism. Adopting this mentality would surely change the field of play and games as it currently stands, and challenge how institutions are involved with perpetuating dominating politics. With this, I truly think we can begin to surmount many of the obstacles design and art have with activism, including giving agency to those who are continually kept out to create for themselves.

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Lightning Returns as Digital Fashion Line

I’ve always been a fan of outfits, and was a fan of the Final Fantasy series, so when I first played Final Fantasy X-2 with a battle system centered around changing outfits, I knew I would like future games a lot less without similar flourishes. It was one of the few games that began to throw into relief the difference between instrumental play, or playing a game strictly hewed to efficient goal accomplishment, and some other more personal play, where preference and the way I related to what was going on took over my actions. It’s common for games to make clothing and appearance mechanical, needing some sort of hard-etched material rule attached to it. This changes the nature of how clothes function, or at least, harshly normalizes it. Think about how clothing exists in reality: many items of clothing have no direct practical use or even are known to cause discomfort while wearing them, but we still keep these around for varying methods of expression. So I’ve been curious about how fashion is starting to  push through the conventions of game design, enjoying the experiments of works like The World Ends With You and Style Savvy. And maybe it was the reintroduction of multiple numbering systems that let the Final Fantasy series play with clothes again in XIII-3, Lightning Returns.

Outfit-based combat takes a more loose interpretation in Lightning Returns, paring down on X-2’s job system associations and making the abilities more customizable, as well as the colors of many parts of the outfits. There is still some mechanical leftovers from the past two games, making some outfits better for certain roles previously called Paradigms, but because there’s such a wide range of these and on easy mode (with exceptions) the mechanical differences submit to aesthetic preferences more often than not. This is bolstered by the barks of townspeople in the game, which differ depending on what kind of outfit Lightning is wearing, essentially letting the player craft their identity and presence in the world of the game, much like how fashion works in our world. For instance, I came to enjoy putting Lightning in men’s lounge suits, which had the people of Nova Chrysalia treating her as an arguably queer character, often revealing queer impulses of their own in a way you wouldn’t necessarily see as often in reality, or in other games for that matter.

But what makes a fashion analysis more pertinent for Lightning Returns is how Square-Enix has lent her to highly prestigious fashion houses as a model multiple times, first for Prada and most recently for Louis Vuitton. Another article will need to be devoted to how the fashion industry portrays her versus how people who’ve played her games view her (hint: one of the few times gamers are in the right), but this reveals some undercurrent forces at work with the Final Fantasy series. Out of video games in general, Final Fantasy is known for its distinctive and typically maximalist outfits, ranging from androgynous men to relatively modest (for games) and highly decorated women to characters with indiscernible genders, typically because of their clothing. The styles of Final Fantasy games have influenced the JRPG genre as a whole, and given how similar their theatricality is to some runway shows, feasibly the top digital couture house in video games. If so, maybe Final Fantasy series were never really video games, but interactive fashion lines with Tetsuya Nomura as the main visionary behind the experience. Maybe wearing the costumes from the series isn’t in fact cosplay, but the haute couture of nerd culture.

Nothing makes this reading stronger than Lightning Returns. There are different discernible lines in the games, from elegant latex vampire goth to tailored menswear to detailed theatrical gowns to kitschy interpretations of standby Final Fantasy job roles like the Black Mage. How they are organized and worn follow how fashion designers have loose inspirational concepts behind how they display their lines, for instance the elements or themes on the flowing fabric of her original outfit. Most importantly is how the game incorporates the street style photography now central to being seen in fashion circles through the final poses Lightning strikes at the end of battle, absolutely begging the player to screenshot her extravagant, faithfully JRPG movements that vary depending on the outfit. Battles felt more like a system to get Lightning moving in dramatic ways in her clothes more than feeling satisfied with defeating monsters, with the flourishes that come with changing outfits mid-battle, the different types of abilities, and the finishing move in her combos resulting in an extra sweeping gestures.

Strictly in JRPG game convention, Lightning Returns is boring and derivative in a way that is to be expected for the second offshoot of a game that is part of an interactively homogenous series. That it is a game is the least interesting part about it, save that it is a mostly unexplored method of experiencing fashion. Interpreting Lightning Returns as a fashion line raises a lot of questions, like the relationship between people who follow runway shows but rarely, if ever, wear the clothes featured in them and ideas about spectacle surrounding that. That people have an involvement with fashion that is purely conceptual or imaginative isn’t so much of a stretch if we see fashion being in the business of desire like how many see video games as the business of escapism. Fashion photography and advertising has always accepted surrealist notions of art to display clothing, and incorporating digital bodies might be the next step of having people connect their desires to a new imagining of the self.

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Amnesia: Memories & Metafictional Otome Games

There are few works in commercial video games that set out to knowingly critique the genre they are a part of. Given a combined value of technological advancement and consumerism, games are often aiming to be better, more refined, or newly synthesized versions of what came before them. So it’s really cool to come across a game that upsets your expectations or plays hardball with genre conventions and compels you to consider your involvement in playing. Lately I’ve mostly secluded myself to playing visual novels, otome games to be exact. The one that most people are familiar with if they don’t really play these is Hatoful Boyfriend, since the absurdity of dating pigeons was enough to get people interested. But at its heart, Hatoful Boyfriend was a parody and poke at the genre it essentially represents to most people who play games, which shows a bit of maturity in the genre despite not being very prevalent in non-Japanese countries. But where Hatoful Boyfriend allows people to see the constructs of otome games through irony, the newer Amnesia: Memories does through a deep commitment to the tropes of the genre, not shying away from its more pernicious qualities. Spoilers for the game to follow if you plan on playing it without knowing anything.

Right from the title, you know this game is either extremely aware or another output of anime-grade nonsense. When I first began playing it I thought it was a little on the latter, and in reality it still may be, but as it evolved, the fact that it holds a contradiction, the memories of amnesia it implies, becomes more apparent. The game starts out in a space outside of reality where you meet a spirit, Orion, that accidentally collided with you and knocked out your memories. He pledges to assist bringing back your memories as that will separate the two of you so you can go back on with your lives. You eventually get a choice to enter a world designated by suits of playing cards, which you find out are associated with romanceable guys. In these worlds, you are involved with these men to some extent romantically before you lost your memories and you attempt to navigate the world without memories while people have different agendas for you that you are mostly unaware of. At its heart, the game reveals itself to be more of a mystery than romantic work, as you don’t finally piece together the entire tale until you complete a 5th hidden route.

Visual novel convention relies on players taking a completionist mindset, where you continually go through routes over and over again until you see every special cutscene (CGs) and endings, typically rated as Good and Bad, though some have True and in Amnesia’s case, Normal endings. With most games, this means you’re seeing a story with a lot of similarities over and over again, usually splintering off by which romantic route you choose when it comes to dating sims. So it’s a big wink wink when Amnesia starts off the entire game by choosing your romantic route first (fans of otome would have been able to guess who was which world based on promotions), because all the worlds are slightly different depending on what guy you’re dating.

This speaks to some absurdity to otome conventions already, much like Hatoful does, where your entire world revolved around dating pigeons. Most of these pigeons fill character tropes that you find in the otome genre, implying that the otome player doesn’t necessarily need what comes along with a human, that is, what we tend to base our sexuality and eroticism around, instead we would be fulfilled emotionally and that would satiate our needs. This is in contrast to most dating sims for men where the ultimate goal is to witness sex scenes, the game structured around basically achieving porn. In reality, you’re a player, presumed to be a woman, who is obsessively tailing men no matter how awful or downright abusive they may be to find all the special moments and endings you have with them. All of the men in this game are questionable partners, from the character featured on most of the cover art constantly putting you down and being borderline sadistic in how he treats you, to a character who literally entraps you against your will because he’s obsessed with you. This game, sometimes from the men’s very own mouths, question your tastes and decisions around wanting to be with people like them. This is most apparent in what is sorted into Good vs Normal Endings; Good endings have you living in romantic bliss with them now with your memories fully regained, despite all the bad things they’ve done to you, while Normal Endings usually have you more distant from their unhealthy behaviors with room for them to change their ways. My feeling after completing the original routes was that this game was asking me to justify my otome game-playing habits, which were to do whatever you can to please your chosen romance, no matter what your true feelings may be, so you can get the best route. It also questioned why I would go back to view all the bad routes, which usually resulted in my death, after I found the more preferable ones. And these are legit questions; why? Why do we find it natural to bend our personalities towards men and relive the trauma game systems depict for us if we fail to conform?

It is the introduction of the 5th hidden route where the game takes this awareness and uses it as a plot device, one that really doesn’t resolve itself so much on the meta level, but I found to be a neat way of using previously established commentary to reach an emotional endnote. The 5th world is a sort of like a combination of all the other worlds, where you seem to know all the characters in equal importance and all of the major events seem to occur. The romance of this world is a character with mostly disturbing cameos in your other routes and also broke the 4th wall by recognizing that there are different worlds and you’re dating someone different in each of them. You come to find that this character has been obsessively jumping between worlds trying to find the one where you both can be together, charting out all of your endings so he can finally prepare for the time you meet and help you evade death for 25 days. This is a really weird and alarming parallel, because you the player have just been going through for entertainment, but here is your actual fictional boyfriend who basically has been through hell dying, witnessing you dying, and killing you (he develops a murderous split personality, of course) an infinite amount of times. The final decision of the game is you judging him, whether you can forgive him for the times he’s caused you pain in the other worlds as a result of how watching you die or end up with other men.

Amnesia isn’t necessarily the Moby Dick of otome games, but it’s one of the few that actually get you consider what you’re doing while playing it. The game shows possible evolutions for the genre to further probe humanness by its very structure. I’m super interested in games that are cyclical in nature, reviewing similar events in different lights to get a grander understanding of how our actions affect others and the world. I think dating sims are a worthwhile genre for people to look at, for despite how small it is over here, there are some stand-out metafictional games (Shira Oka is another) that poke at our consumer relationship to play. While there are some games that grapple with metafictional issues, most of these are non-genre games, and I feel like there could just be more of them overall, as we could use further engagement for why we play the things we do, the way we do.

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Methods for Feeling

One of the benefits of moving to New York City is the constant outpour of art events going, and the magical realization that you’re not too far away from seeing a very big name you’re used to reading about but never really thought you could see first hand. I had a bit of that experience last month with Marina Abramović’s Goldberg, which was a performance designed by her but performed by the pianist Igor Levit. It was probably a weird choice for my first performance to attend, since it featured classical music and I don’t really know much about the genre outside of idly listening to it on NPR when I drove around the treacherous roads of South Florida.

This performance, or maybe, the performance of you getting ready for a performance, follows Marina’s latest projects with her institute, the Marina Abramović Institute, that center around readying the body for performance art. Her work is known for long and/or intense periods of endurance, and Goldberg was testing out her Method for Listening to Classical Music, which was getting yourself into that blank mindset to listen to a performance.

The setup was simple in hindsight, mostly locking away all of your possessions, especially your cellphone, sitting in a special lounging chair near the stage, and staying in silence until you find complete stillness. During this time, Igor was sitting at the piano in the back of the room, both on a platform that was moving very, very slowly forward. When he arrived completely to the front, he begun to play, with the platform rotating around, stopping when he finished. So this felt more like a performance added on to a concert the night I went to it, but as time goes on and I reflect on it, I see what was interesting about Marina’s Method as performance.

Whether the Method was successful or not is up in the air for me. The time when we all sat in silence, we wore supposedly noise-cancelling headphones, but they didn’t really silence the world so I could totally concentrate; there was a couple in front of me who kept signaling and talking to each other and the sirens of police cars and ambulances could still be heard, making this ideal mental stillness and silence feel pretty impossible for me, given that I have a lot of mental chatter in the first place. There were also a couple of times I started to doze and I know for sure someone behind me fell asleep from their breathing. Then, when Igor was playing, I heard classical music, and done well I imagine, but I’m near-ignorant of technique, so I couldn’t really tell if I was hearing anything better. I wasn’t particularly moved by it, but I could tell it was difficult by the way he played. The most fascinating parts for me during the night might have been incidental, mostly that there were times I closed my eyes without realizing it then opening them back up to see Igor and the piano in a different place. There was something interesting about the kinetic acknowledgment of time moving and the ephemera of the moment. I left feeling very plebeian, since everyone was a little more dressed up than I was (or, at least, my clothes are more street style), and enough older and affluent looking to feel like I was out of my element, that I couldn’t ‘get’ it.

I think the message of what Marina was trying to do got lost in the posturing of high culture for me, but it wasn’t all for naught. Allowing some time to process it, I realized what the performance was showing people was that we don’t take the time to fully appreciate things, intentionally getting into mindset and (dis)comfort zones that would reveal more of that experience to us. There was language around the performance that was specifically pointed at cellphones, and how everyone having them is changing relationships with art is a topic constantly making the rounds. In the pamphlet given after the show, there was even a description of an afterschool program where one of the students did a project about how cellphones absorb our attention instead of allowing ourselves to idle, intentionally idling being a thing Marina would support.

We’ve all read the ‘cellphones are ruining society!’ and ‘cellphones are connecting us to society!’ thinkpieces already, and we know the better argument is the current methods of how we connect to other people in this new way online distances us from connecting to people in physical proximity to us. We’re connecting, just with different people and the technology with which we use has its own politics that mediate that connection.

The interesting solution would then be something that allows us to critically engage with what is already in our lives and allow us to work with the negatives that come along with those. The idea of having a Method for something in your everyday life is a potentially useful tool; ultimately, it’s a ritual, with the intent of preparing you for an experience one way or another. I could imagine a Method for Meeting a Friend Over Coffee which would involve you shutting off your phone an hour before you meet, sitting somewhere nearby to think about the last conversation you had with this friend, your thoughts about them, things you want to say, and then arriving early to sit in stillness, waiting for them to arrive. Marina would probably have you keep your mind blank the entire time, but you get the idea.

Really, this form of performative ritual is playful in its roots, intentionally doing something so you’re put into a certain headspace for something else. I’m a huge advocate for play that doesn’t rest solely in a leisure capacity, I’d like play that entangles into my life and enriches my experience with those I care about. Performance art and play already have a legacy, and I think this is an interesting line of thought to follow for contemporary play artists to follow. There is also room to critique this performance as an attempt to have a “pure” artistic experience, and as evidenced with my experience, you couldn’t really shut out the city noise or human behavior. There was a lack of humanness in the experience, I feel play is an avenue to reinsert that humanity into engaging with art again.

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Alternate Ending in 2015

The best way I could describe 2015 for me is ‘decompression.’ 2014 was a definite low point in my life and I found a lot around me crumbling away. I can’t say I’ve necessarily recovered, or healed, or feel certain about my path moving forward, but maybe, finally, the dust has settled enough so I can start to see into the distance. I wonder if we can see that in my writing? So here’s a review of my most popular writing of the year:

 

#10: Conversations with John Sharp, Lana Polansky, AM Cosmos, and Pippin Barr

Despite coming in late in the year, it looks like people really enjoyed my letter series with my various friends from different parts of games (though now that I’m in New York, it looks like I’m due for a Canada visit!). If I had to take a guess as to why, I think it’s because we’re oversaturated with various thinkers shooting out their thoughts into the abyss, loosely in conversation with other people unless it’s a direct conflict. We rarely get the opportunity to witness two interesting people having a relaxed but engaged conversation with each other. For me personally, a lot of my ideas become more solid when I get to talk about them, and I also tend to become inspired most when another person and I struggle over an important topic. I think these are also unique because there’s a lot of hostility in the world when it comes to expressing strong ideas, and people feel afraid of saying something controversial or else they will have to face some social media backlash. Here, I’ve established some trust and so can say whatever with these people (you can see me backpedal a lot in my conversations with John). Overall, I’d like to do of these and keep these conversations going in the new year.

 

#09: KILL THE PLAYER

Not too much of a surprise that this got controversial, it was meant for that. I know some people found this piece to be a little inaccessible, or way too much of a posture, but that was what this piece was for. It was directed to a very particular group of people (games academics) with a confrontational style that went up against normative assumptions or conventions surrounding theorizing about games. And that’s what I love about blogging, that I can write things that aim to be populist or target a specific group of people, I really enjoy being able to shuttle between many different groups of people and ways of speaking. This is an extension of my Death of the Player article, written around PRACTICE a couple years ago, into a manifesto to challenge games canon. I think we should embrace manifesto creation a little more, I think it provokes the right people to come out of their publishing frenzies to engage with us who have a little more flexibility in what we write. There is so much to challenge in what we think about games, the very core about how we approach and appreciate them. The assumptions surrounding players is one of those conventions that desperately need to be shifted, especially in my vision for how play evolves as a method of expression.

 

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

This was a tough piece to write! Not only a difficult topic itself but there were a lot of emotions around the initial offending piece. There’s a lot of struggle organizing around queerness, which makes sense since queerness is ultimately an always-shifting idea in a world that wants to pin it down to something concrete. I’m becoming more and more convinced as time goes on that identity-based organizing is self-defeating; not only does it only frame an identity as the only thing necessary to be a part of a group (instead of, let’s say, being a safe person to be around), it actively encourages the solidification of identity so people can be both included and excluded. It’s understandable why queer organizing started this way, because numbers were small (and still are, relatively) and queerness was a much larger stigma that it became important to shelter as many as possible. But with the increase in numbers and the blurring of what queer is, it seems like there needs to be a stronger sense of intentional community that doesn’t rely on identity-based markers to feel supported, and not have a need to find out whether or not someone is truly queer enough while not losing any integrity to its founding cause.

 

#07: The Beginner’s Guide Review

Hopefully by now most people have a grasp of my sense of humor, though it is blurred both by writing and distance via the internet. This isn’t really a review, though it could be I guess, I wanted it to be read in line with everyone else’s reviews but not necessarily see as an appraisal, since I don’t find a lot of value in assigning something good vs bad labels. I had a really strong reaction to this game, it felt very intimate and vulnerable, like Davey was showing the world something about himself that people could righteously condemn but through making himself vulnerable he expressed something higher than all that. I was surprised at the kind of reactions the game ended up creating in media and critic circles, and I think that’s when I felt like I should write something. I wanted to also put myself out there, as there were real people who read my piece and got the message. I have no idea if they ever played this game or what their feelings were, but I know people could easily see me as petty for using such a public platform for writing the things I do. But ultimately, I don’t want people to see me as a good person, and not a bad one either.

 

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

Though I’m pretty sure I wrote this from a place of bitterness, it shows a point where I started to realize really how deeply, deeply misguided wanting representation in media, in the way it’s being campaigned now, is for our current struggle. I am beginning to see more value in venerating how marginalized people are cast as monsters and shadows in the way of the main hero, because that’s more real. I understand the want or need to have marginalized people as the heroes, it’s another sort of escape fantasy. Because when you’ve lived so much of your life vilified, you want something positive. You want society to tell you that you’re good and also the hero and you can do the same exact thing that normative dudes do. But as I’ve looked further into it, I see that this is another arm of assimilation, dominant culture taking what it wants to benefit itself without truly changing, just doing enough to keep its growth at a profitable rate. Like anything else, I keep my critical eye on media that is mostly the same but star more marginalized people, because we may be in them, but whose stories are coming out of our mouths in these sort of experiences? I’m skeptical.

 

#05: How to Infuse Wine with Tea

I wrote this at the very beginning of this year, I had almost forgotten about it! I really enjoyed writing this, though I was super unsure if it’d be appreciated. I was playing with the idea of stealthily turning this into a part food blog, and this was my first attempt at something. I don’t really know why people liked it so much, maybe it was just a different metaphor that readers aren’t so used to. Which reminds me that I have to try this again! Now that I’m in a more wintery place, I should start experimenting again with infusing wine for mulling season. I’ve wondered how to tie this strongly to play to make it relevant to my blog, maybe you all have ideas? Or maybe it’s just interesting enough to have a diversion every once in awhile? This bodes well for some of my experiments I want to do in coming months, so look out for those!

 

#04: More than a Beard: How Hot Ryu Turns Thirst into Critique

This was a really fun piece to write, and I admit, a bit of shitpost. I’m trying not veer away from controversy-of-the-day kinds of writing, but I was extremely intrigued by Hot Ryu, if not just for the tone change of games twitter. I wondered how straight guys viewed what was going on, it reminded me a bit when Boyfriend Maker had its hot 15 minutes, everyone looking at how absurd games are when we try to look through the lens of feminine desire, aimed at men or any other gender. I’ve also been continually looking for method for populist critique with problematic material, or at least, how everyday people can critically engage with the things in their lives without feeling the need to conform to some sort of canon. I’m following that line of thinking into my future work, and I’m glad I got the moment to exercise that with Hot Ryu and know people are interested in exploring this avenue of thinking more.

 

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

Another one I’m surprised got so high up in the rankings, I guess people want more social excuses to drink? Reminds me that I need to plan another one of these for a snow day now that I’m in a place where that happens. I think what was most special to me about going to a drinking game jam was that, outside of people who specifically don’t want to drink, there was a low barrier to entry for this event. I always get asked questions re:diversity about how to get different people into games events, and my answer is always to shift what is the normal for games communities to what is normal for wider society. At least in American culture, everyone is familiar enough to know a drinking game when they see one, and could easily think about how to remix those into a new game. I find introducing game design or playful thinking easy when you don’t have the trappings of video games around it. We had a nicely mixed group and everyone had fun, and it was actually a super simple event to create and run? I recommend more to do similar things!

 

#02: The Lost Woman in Games

Ah, quite the emotion time and tough piece for me to write. I’m a little more used to the idea that I’m not really a fit for the industry or wider games communities anymore, and I will have to find my niche outside of games or maybe in academia, but then, having that dawning on me, was really painful. I felt a lot of signaling that I only mattered so much, even after a lot of pain I was put through. I’m glad I got to write this though, because I’m sure there will be people feeling a similar way, either those who came around the same time I did or after. It’s easy to get disillusioned in games, though I do see some younger people finding their way into games. I hope it goes better for them, but it’s possible I’ll be staying lost.

 

#01: Things I want the men in my life to know

There’s a joke here for how the most popular piece for me this year was about men, but seriously, it was a good long post I needed to get out of me. It was part of a practice for me to further understand emotional boundaries in relationships and how power imbalances affects that, and wanting some sort of resource that doesn’t read like it was out of Cosmo. If for just one time, I wanted something that felt actionable that didn’t cast anyone as a bad, spiteful, or broken person, even though I will be the first to complain about how men’s ignorance really fucks things up for me. I think we need to be able to at least envision the neutral ground, the place we know we need to work towards before we tackle through the hard stuff. I was glad to get a lot of emails and responses from men who really found this helpful, especially to share with other guys. I honestly do believe, 100%, that the change we want has to start in our lives, through the mundane and seemingly trite details of our everyday motions. Dismantling power isn’t glamorous, it isn’t some intensely beautiful and shocking paradigm shift. We will go through our days not noticing much is different until an artifact of the past jars us out of our new ways of looking at things, to see see we’ve gone somewhere. Ultimately, I want us to refocus from the sweeping campaigns on social media and low inward to how we are actually leading our lives instead of advocacy by proxy. I think maybe if we can do that, we can solve some of the hurdles we’ve been facing this past year.

 

And that’s that! Thanks for supporting me this year, I was only able to survive because people are supporting my work. Have a fun and safe new year, see you on the other side!

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Fav games of 2015

It’s the time of year again, to reflect and chart our motions through the past 365 days, if only to try and find some path for the next. Here are games I played in 2015, not necessarily was released in, that come strongest to my mind when I think of the year. Some might might be surprising, others are probably on most others lists, but for good reasons. Either way, if you haven’t played these, check them out if you can! In a vague order in which I played these:

Consentacle

Being a bespoke card game, I only got to play this a handful of times, but what I enjoyed the most about Consentacle was watching others play. The heart of play is the tension between trying to do right by yourself and your play partner with a communication barrier that forces you to mess up sometimes. To be sure, this game isn’t “about consent,” though it uses the contemporary fraught context of consent to create compelling relationships between players. I’ve seen all sorts of people play it, from random bros just looking to master another card game to teens to friends I knew were savvy in the practice of consensual play. Besides just being entertaining, I liked that it makes people notice how the do communicate, how they don’t, and what they are saying or not unintentionally. I was really happy to present Naomi an award for this at IndieCade, since I think this is a sort of playfulness I’d like to see games foster more often.

The Beginner’s Guide

A game that became a lot more controversial than I would have ever imagined. I first played this game a year or two ago while it was still in development, and then again earlier this year near its completion. I remember it being something special, and it weighed heavy in my heart. A lot of the reception of the game got caught up in some meta-level critique, which interests me because my impression and conversation with Davey about it was totally different. To me, this was a game about inevitable pain, about realizing you’re flawed and hurt someone but only after you have had some time to grow up. You did something awful and you don’t really deserve to be forgiven, but your heart aches too much to not try. When I first sat down with this game, the topic of Coda potentially being trans came up, and it really solidified my relationship with the game. I could relate to Coda, who has to burn bridges from others to keep themselves safe. This is alarming to others, especially because they can’t help it; we were raised in a society that doesn’t respect each other’s boundaries, that doesn’t educate about people and transformation and change. I hoped the piece I wrote on it spoke to these feelings… that, with tears in my eyes, and still some love in my heart, I must say goodbye, possibly forever.

Endless Legend

There was a solid couple of weeks earlier this year where I dragged the tower of my old computer up next to my bed, placed my monitor on it, and created a nest of pillows and blankets, leaving only when I needed to desperately pee or find something to eat. Why I chose Endless Legend to be the game I woke up and fell asleep to, I’m not exactly too sure. There is a section of my brain that is soothed by map-based games I think, since later in the year I’d lose some time to Etrian Odyssey games, but this game felt a lot more charming than a lot of other strategy games I’ve played. Most strategy games affix themselves in historical, Tolkien-esque, or hard sci-fi wrapping and are caught up with number exchanges; their societies don’t feel very distinct, and you don’t really care about them or how they came to be. Endless Legend solves some of that, where all of the different factions you play are pretty different from each other, and one of the victory conditions is attached to a story questline. It doesn’t take care of all my issues with the genre, but playing through all the different stories made me intrigued about the world and interactions between the factions instead of feeling completely compelled to play in some hardcore min/max way.

Cobra Club

I’ve always been a fan of Robert and particularly of his games this year. I find it to be some of the most compelling work of the year because they engage with the erotics (the body-feel, if you will) and (dis)embodiment of digital games while tying these themes to larger cultural contexts. The one I feel exemplifies this is Cobra Club, because of the not-so-talked-about topic of our contemporary sex lives and self-esteem being mediated by surveillance politics via new technology. I feel personally invested because places where queer sexuality is allowed to exist is typically ignore and/or obscured by dominant culture and therefore open to exploitation by oppressive institutions and forces. I’ve also had my own brush with gay men’s cruising culture and sites, and it’s been interesting to have these sorts of games to contextualize those experiences.

Sunset

Admittedly, I got weepy when this game was in development. Besides really respecting Tale of Tales, I loved everything about the game, mostly, I loved Angela. This would be the second time I could look at a character and be like, wow, I can most likely identify with her (the first being my own game). I know straight-up identification isn’t really that simple or without it’s issues re: diversity, but it’s so rare that I think “this game is going to be for me.” And it did feel for me; I was extremely soothed by the daily routines, and the little battles in the home that reverberate to the outside politics felt like how I currently feel like how I can affect things. Angela’s relationship to Gabriel allowed me to express some of the power tensions I find in my own intimacies, a topic that very few, if any, games allow me to do. Sunset, to me, was a bid for recentering the focus of entertainment games, for maybe the ‘new normal’ to follow along in its example of mixing various forms of culture and new settings. Being about the mood instead of the overt action.

Her Story

Her Story is the game that signaled to me that the nostalgia train is beginning to arrive at my station. I don’t really identify with retro platformers or classic CRPGs, but along with trendy low-poly it seems like the FMV genre will see a return. It’s like we’re descending into a new level of glorifying the ‘obviously bad,’ since the production values of FMVs and early low-poly makes for current viewing quite cringe worthy. What’s most interesting for me about Her Story is the reception, mostly that people are excited to see a game mostly about a woman, making it Of The Time for video games. However, I’ve always been for bad women, or marginalized people who are well made bad characters, instead of heroes on some journey few would actually identify with. Hannah and Eve, or Hannah/Eve, are bad women who are still compelling. I don’t think some of the themes that came out of the game could have happened when framed as a hero, and really, I think that’s the case for most stories about the marginalized in a culture that villainizes them.

Panoramical

Playing through Panoramical, I quickly knew something was wrong. I would set each level to something I found nice, pause for a couple seconds and then move on to the next. Having had a few conversations with David Kanaga, I knew there was something more to how I was supposed to be interacting with this game. For him, music and play are analogous, or interacted with in similar ways. One could reduce Panoramical to a musical toy, but I don’t think that’s all that fair. At the time I was playing this, I also was reading some dense material, and found myself particularly moody and distracted whenever I tried to read. So I would try to find a particular, well, music video I guess, on Panoramical that I could edit to counter my mood and read to. I ritualized it a bit and now feel compelled to continue that as I start to pick up on academic reading again.

Virtue’s Last Reward

Experiments in the visual novel genre is one of the few things that keeps me into games these days, and I was late to the party with playing 999, and so I eventually got around to Virtue’s Last Reward this year and could not put it down. Games about jumping through multiple realities to solve a mystery is pretty much Mattie-bait, all it would have needed is some dating. I strongly feel that VLR gets at what is interesting about digital narratives for me, or even digital games overall. Video games that manipulate our relationships to time and space like this to share its values or stories really get to me, I think that’s what they do well. For sure, VLR is an entertainment game about a sci-fi mystery, so it didn’t exactly shake any understanding of myself, however I found it to be compelling on its own as a structure and something that should be more normalized, because experimentation on that would really get close to something I would find amazing.

Patient Rituals

This was an interesting experience I ran into at IndieCade’s Night Games, and everyone knows I’m into fortune-telling-related experiences. Here, we have something of an iterated digital tarot reading, where you pick a card at random and it shows a digital scene that you play through as the creator narrates some interpretive context around it. In the middle of rowdy games with running around and screaming, it was serene and left an impression on me, mostly about how we could start getting more playful with interpretation, or having more interpretive play. I’m also fascinated by digital methods of divination and the implications surrounding that.

Happy Home Designer

Closing out the year is probably my favorite, mostly because I take a particular joy in turning corporately-tuned clean and cute worlds like Animal Crossing’s into a late-capitalistic hellscape. I didn’t go for HHD for a bit because so many reviews and people said that it would get boring fast since as long as you included a couple objects, the client would always like what you’ve created. And I get this, one of my favorite renditions of interior design was in The Sims 3: Ambitions and clients were more discerning about what you did. However, I find the fact that, no matter what, that cute little animal person will be happy with what you do means you should make things that no typical person would actually enjoy. So I’ve been making homes with government surveillance cameras lining the walls and cafes that insert flavor into your mouth through dentistry. I feel like games like these are places where we can express our discomfort for the tidy lives games present to us, that this forced happiness is the real dystopia, and disturbing it is creating our own pockets of sanity.

And that’s it! I hope to explore more visual novels and I’m looking into more home-making and designing games (looking at you Style Savvy), so if you happen to know of any, let me know!

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Conversations with John Sharp – Categories and Criticism

Catching up on the lengthy conversation John and I have had! Note this happened before he wrote this post on conferences and marginalized artists, and therefore before my addition onto that. So you will see some of the connective tissue behind these posts and how we contextualize them outside of missives to the community. Feel free to catch up on these conversations if you haven’t yet!

 

Mattie

So, I’m wondering if there just needs to be a critical mass of people who only look at particular non-mainstream games to create another sort of specialist vs populist divide? I mean, it’s a sucky distinction because the specialist stuff tends to get co-opted by institutions and turned elitist, though that might be happening with current popular games? I think about going to school for literature and creative writing, and the very blunt exclusion of ‘genre’ literature unless it was a class specifically dedicated to them, which was rare. Except right now, it seems like popular games are the games being taught and appreciated, and I definitely feel under its thumb, so would collating a different genre of games be the way to come to peace with all this? There is the whole altgames thing, but because it is hyper-inclusive it’s kind of taken over by indie sentiments. Though I guess the main problem is that we don’t really see much at all that reaches that place for us. I mean, there are some I think. For me, the games that tend to move me are some horror games, particular older Playstation JRPGs, and some visual novels, particularly BL (Boy Love aka explicit gay romcom often targeted towards women), that actually get me to really emote, other than some local multiplayer stuff. I guess then, what we need to figure out is, what sort of standard do we need? If it’s something that stirs the imagination, then there are some AAA games that would fall into that for me. If it’s stuff that makes you really reconsider aspects of life or change the way you look at the world, less so.

Don’t you feel, though, that the longevity of these alternative genres requires support in order to exist? I find that movements that carry are ones that find some sort of legitimization and grounding in the area it’s challenging. For instance, look at the difference of how women in games are being supported to combat online harassment and DIY digital games made by queer women. These aren’t comparable causes outside of the fact that they are revolutionary causes, but one gets access, visibility, support, and platforms while the others get much less. Knowing many of the women involved in both struggles, I can see a distinct difference between who has social support within games and who is still struggling to make rent with very few leads on how to advance themselves. This isn’t shitting on the more visible women, they didn’t choose to have what happened to them nor cause people like me to become marginalized. Rather, if the field you’re in doesn’t care enough, you’re going to die out from exhaustion. The problem is posing something like DIY games to ‘save’ video games, though I’m sure I thought that way at the time too. But the main problem is video games as a field and industry, not the movements within it. If people won’t care enough in video games, then you have to go somewhere else where they will. Which is what I plan on doing.

I would say there is more than consumer habits going on with commercial games, or at least, there’s a worthwhile analysis in it all to see what we pair with consumption. Because honestly, we live in a highly consumer-centered culture, it would be silly to think if we just played niche and arthaus games that we would be be free of consumer habits. I mean, the fact that there’s a time when we work and a time when we play is already a consumption-informed habit. Without a doubt, there is a largely uncritical look at how people consume products, however, if you are aware of how you consume something, then does consuming it really become something you can’t avoid? I try to view what looks like fanservice and nostalgia-baiting as I would any other sort of challenging material, integrating it into the rest of the experience in a way that makes the work complicated. Though I am willing to distance myself overall from video games because they aren’t moving in a direction or at a speed I like, I am still human and I still want to engage with this medium in some way that satisfies me because it’ll be around my life forever. So I find this perspective is really important, also to not allow myself to write off how people are consuming games in subversive ways, particularly through things like fanfiction and fanart. I’m still trying to figure this out though!

John

I think there already are many of these specialist/populist divides. The queer games community, for example, is one.  To return where we started, the generation of younger critics, folks like you, Lana Polansky, Zolani Stewart, Kris Ligman or Brendan Keogh. You all have a set of concerns around games, and particular games that you all focus on that creates a separation from other communities or subcultures. The same can be said about the NYC academic-indie scene. And the community around Fantastic Arcade in Austin, and so on. One could argue none of these have achieved a critical mass, and that is likely true, but within the spaces these communities exist, they all hold purchase on attention, and help shape discourse.

How, and if, these subcultures and their points of view become “Canon” is whole other matter. Of your games, why is Mainichi the one people latched onto? Or dys4ia among anna’s work? Or Cow Clicker for Ian Bogost? How did Flow, of all psychological concepts, become the one so tightly clutched in certain circles? All complex questions that are hard to consider clearly while we’re here in the middle of it. But yes, to answer your question, I do think support in many forms is necessary to get new ideas and works into a wider circulation, and to ultimately become sustainable for those making the work. You and anna are two case studies for how this doesn’t always pan out as you might expect. Both of you have games that are widely played, and you both have writing that is often referenced. anna even has two books out in circulation, one of which is often-cited as a canonical text for tracing the path to an alternative to the game industry. Yet you both struggle to establish a sustainable life connected to games. My take on this? Neither of you looked to exploit the footing your work gave you, instead choosing to keep on working. The places where you found footing—conference talks, itch, Patreon, inclusion in game exhibitions, citations in academic courses—these haven’t been the paths to sustainability.

When I think back over the years to people who have rose to moments of notoriety within the game community, few have remained in the limelight for too long. It is an unfortunate analogy, but it makes me think of reality TV. I was watching Project Runway the other night, and Tim Gunn was comforting that episode’s loser by telling them everyone would hear from her again. I thought about it for a moment, and I haven’t ever seen anyone from Project Runway again in any context (beyond reality TV). One reason for this, I think, is the infrastructures that made those designers visible weren’t designed to keep them visible, or to help them establish any sort of sustainable career—not even the winners. The same seems to hold with the infrastructures of games—outside the frameworks of companies and universities, there is little opportunity for people to build something for themselves.

I went to a panel discussion the other night about feminism and labor within the art world. One of the panelists, Silvia Federici, co-founded the International Wages for Housework Campaign. They sought for the world to see that much of the economy operated on the backs of women who cooked, cleaned, raised children and tended to other duties to keep households running while men went to work. Another panelist, Lise Soskolne, started W.A.G.E., which seeks to regular fees paid to artists by non-profits. My sense was Sosklone saw her movement as a descendent of Federici’s in that she and her organization sought to acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that much of the non-profit art world relies on uncompensated or poorly compensated labor. The same, of course, can be said about the margins of games. From the clearly for-profit GDC to the more grassroots indieCade to the university and academic presses that publish game studies and game design texts, we see poorly or uncompensated labor as the backbone of many of these enterprises.

On the same panel the other night, Shawn(ta) Smith-Cruz also spoke. She talked about the Lesbian Herstory Archives, an organization with a forty-year history of collecting and making available writings and documents on the lives of lesbians. Interestingly, the organization operates on funding from within the lesbian community, and relies heavily on volunteers. I was really struck by the contrast between W.A.G.E. and the Lesbian Herstory Archives. One seeks to change the infrastructure, while another chooses to operate for a particular community at a sustainable scale. Of course, LHA requires volunteers with the opportunity to volunteer (Smith-Cruz is a professor at CUNY, for example), but the point remains that it has found a way to remain an active part of its community for decades by going off the non-profit grid, so to speak. Food for thought for the margins of games, no doubt.

Ah, genre. You are right, within academia, it is either ignored or bracketed off into the isolation chamber of a special topic course. Thinking back on my time in taking literature courses in college, we never really talked about genre, only focusing on the canon. Within art history, we talked about it, though our language was different—movement, period, school. That of course is different than “genre fare” like pulp science fiction, animé, horror films or videogames. With games, they haven’t really broken out of commercial genre media, and don’t seem like they will anytime soon.

We are all consumers, it is true, with our work/relax paradigm 100% inside the capitalist consumer ecosystem. For some reason, this sort of thing makes me think about the time when Madonna was in a relationship with the basketball player Dennis Rodman. Madonna would try to compare basketball to dance as a way to elevate its status as something worth serious consideration. It always struck me as a lost cause, in part because, as a basketball player and fan, I had grown used to the dismissive looks from my art world peers whenever my hoops-love came up. But beyond that, it was clear elitist thinking simply wasn’t going to change anytime soon, as its roots are in using consumption to draw lines between classes.

Your point on games remaining part of your life even if you step away from public involvement with them struck me. I suppose I feel the same. The last year or two, I’ve spent more time around social practice art, theater and dance communities. I’m always thinking about them through the lens of games and play, and finding new ways to think about and consider games as a writer and educator (less so as a designer, largely because of my involvement in a number of ongoing projects that don’t leave space for new design projects). So while I still focus on games, I’m much more prone to look outside traditional locations, and to look to the past for play-tinged works and ideas.

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

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Hate and Ignorance

Hate is a strong word used unusually often. It creates a sense of urgency, finality, that we’re at an end-point so far removed from the place we want to be and intervention is necessary. It’s one of those words, like privilege, that is widely adopted in talking about systemic oppression that can instantaneously put a person on the defensive; “but I live with so much hardship, I can’t be privileged,” “I have many loved ones who are black, I can’t hate black people.” When words with certain nuances from a particular discourse enters popular discussion, it’s easy for them to turn single-use and be used with less finesse. Hate, now, is somewhere between an ingrained disposition and what is lawfully a hate crime. To be accused of hate is to be accused of having criminal tendencies, that you are of an unhealthy disposition needing to be dealt with by various governmental institutions. To be designated as hateful can lose you your job, industry reputation, friends, and other connections that come from public shaming. So, by necessity, people avoid exhibiting anything that might be seen as hateful, or more commonly, feel fine where they are at if they don’t believe themselves able to commit an out-right hate crime. If you can display a purity of moral character, you are therefore moral. I want to complicate this a bit.

I mostly avoid using the word hate, or words that define themselves by hate or fear, in my personal practice with engaging with politics. It’s a decision I made when I realized how ineffective as a term it is when we rely on the conventional definition of ‘hate.’ First off, I don’t think most of the people that we need to reach with advocacy hate in this manner; they are not people who hold, intrinsically, the will to subjugate other people. Secondly, when there are displays of literal hate, it monopolizes people’s attention, creating currently discussed binaries of censorship versus political awareness. Should Republicans that actively say nasty things about minorities be allowed to ascend to presidency? If this level of inquiry is what consumes your thoughts the most, you haven’t approached the struggle that actually affects marginalized people just yet.

Instead I want to revisit our other much-detested term, privilege. One of the many ways you can define and explain privilege is ‘the ability to ignore.’ With this, we can set up some theming around why such a term needed to be coined, like having privilege means certain social oppressions affect you so minimally that you don’t notice them. This also implies its reverse, that socially minoritized people cannot ignore effects of oppression since it is completely ingrained into their daily lives. One might become dulled to it, or believe that’s just how life is, but would not react with shock or disbelief in the way someone with privilege would. This might be a preferable angle since it takes off what is distasteful about the common use of privilege to those who have it while also stressing what is actionable, that is, forcing the privileged out of their own curated bubbles. In my own practice, the point isn’t to get people to feel more or less valued based on their privileges, rather gain an awareness that their perspective on life is shaped by social systems and in need of a forced rupture. Ignorance is how marginalizing behavior is most commonly expressed, and so I feel the nuance of our language should reflect that.

So, what is hate then? I feel like I’ve read some quote somewhere about the most hateful thing a person could do is not violence, or spiteful, or outwardly malevolent, but to be completely indifferent. To act as if you weren’t there, or didn’t matter. Their life would be exactly the same whether you were alive or dead. Hate, in this context, is the way we make others incidental in our lives. It’s the way we isolate ourselves in environments with people similar to us so we don’t have to look at what is happening to others. It’s normalizing the suffering of others so their pain isn’t something you need to keep track of. It’s allowing activist action to be the work of the oppressed instead of yours. It’s all the ways that you allow yourself to ignore. Here, hate shares more with complacency than malevolence, and within this context, implicates a larger range of people. Here, hate is cold, it’s unthinking, it’s empty. Here, hate just doesn’t want to feel. It doesn’t want to care. Apathy is a much more contemporary issue than outright bigotry.

I wouldn’t start using ‘hate’ right away, especially not without establishing this particular angle I’m going for before I do. It’s still very strong to say “You hate women,” even with this laid out. We keep the word because we want to keep that power. I think it’s a helpful shift in language when wanting to communicate more nuanced and contemporary problems with oppression, and in trying to understand your own role without needing to identify with the elitism that feels inherent in the terms privilege and hate. Hate as cold and unaware creates other avenues for creative expression on the topic, especially for art created from privileged perspectives. This mass complacency on social issues is the contemporary expression of hate, maybe not actively wanting problems to go away or sort themselves out, but fashioning their lives so that’s the only option available.

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Thoughts on gentrification, globalization, and tech

Gentrification is a topic constantly in the back of my mind. I think it’s because it’s an expression of systemic forces that you can actually witness and track when you look for it. You see battle-lines in neighborhoods, where only a block separates new cafes that specialize in fair trade cold brews furnished with expertly tarnished wood stools full of only white people and older bakeries where no one reads from the menus and chat like they’ve known each other for some time now. There are two kinds of familiarity, the first being a sign of quality and the new global minimalist aesthetic, and the second, a sense from the places we grew up, a place where people exude belonging. The former is in a constant rate at erasing the latter, and I know I’m a part of that process.

Working through being a gentrifier is one of the most fraught acknowledgements I’ve faced, both with myself and other people. No one wants to purposefully displace local populations from their homes, but they are. Wrestling with how to stop or work against gentrification feels impossible, because you’ve likely already done the one thing that makes the strongest impact: moving from a suburb to a cheaper urban neighborhood. Of my peers who grew up in suburbs, very few wanted to stay there; instead, most wanted to move into a city where there’s a stronger sense of culture and the benefits that come along with that. But the rate of people moving from suburbs to cities isn’t matching the development of affordable housing, so original residents of cities get displaced.

My story: I grew up in a suburb of Fort Lauderdale, one the major cities in South Florida. I struggled often with class and race issues when it came to geographical cultures, as my parents aren’t from the US and we lived in a poorer suburb next to the city I went to school in. From when I was young, I dreamed about moving to California, and when I started to learn more about queer advocacy, specifically San Francisco. Life felt boring in a place meant to be living spaces for 9-5 workers; I was to be an artist and be a part of radical communities and march in protests. All the things you imagine of an older San Francisco. This isn’t an unreasonable wish, especially for someone who is queer and wants to be closer to queer resources and safe spaces. But when I arrived in the bay area in 2012, when it became extremely apparently the world that the tech industry was becoming a dominant force again in our lives, I saw something painful. The diversity and advocacy for more radical politics San Francisco came to be known for was twisted, in an atmosphere that assumed oppression was well-fought or over, and the remaining work could be handled by technological solutions. Non-white and queer people were mostly hanging on by a thread in the east bay while affluent white people indulged in the hipster aesthetic that would emblemize gentrification for at least our country. I watched ending stages of gentrification in the Mission and a large push at Oakland. Now, I’m in Brooklyn, and it feels like deja vu. Except that I’m a part of it, and I can’t really not be unless I go back to Florida, back to my old neighborhood, where I never want to be ever again in my life.

My, and other’s, attraction to cities is of an imagined culture we wish to be a part of. We have national, global, ideas of San Francisco, ideas of New York, and its that we aim to live in an recreate once we move. But the people who already live here have their own local cultures that are not necessarily a part of this global imagining. I think gentrification, it’s creep, is a part of this globalization narrative emboldened by technology. Instead of being ‘isolated’ we are now global citizens and we share a larger, overarching culture, and physical location is something in the way, a continued disavowment of bodies by technodeterministic ideals. This relationship with design ideals and displacement is complicated, since a lot of the forces of gentrification just want things to be better; better for the neighborhood, better for the people, better for themselves. But the chosen aesthetic and methods echo colonial ideals of wanting to civilize savage lands, and it just happens that the original inhabitants can’t afford to live there anymore. Of all places, a review on Amazon about a publication I indulge in that caters to this aesthetic you see in gentrified places sums up what is going on:

“After thumbing through three-hundred-plus pages, it occurs to me that the Kinfolk cookbook is a variation on a single theme: the creation of a life lived in an Anthropologie catalog. It’s the reason why we get lost in blogs and the lives of strangers. We want to be happy, always. We want a life free of storms and sorrow. We want our linens, and bowls, and kitchens with reclaimed wood – and in this way, Kinfolk succeeds, for its America is rarefied and specific, rife with denizens who are preened to dishabille perfection and apply pretty filters to their photos[…] While escapism looks lovely on paper, in practice it’s difficult and expensive.”

Over lunch today I had a conversation with someone working in food security and justice about getting resources to food deserts. When we were discussing the strategies they employed in their line of work, a theme of compromised solutions with gentrifiers came up over and over again. Putting things like farmers’ markets makes the neighborhood more appetizing to people, as the markets in under-served neighborhoods are cheaper and the cost of living still relatively low. Any shows of local art or flea markets also attract gentrifiers and, at best, open up opportunities of exploitation and appropriation of local cultures. Worn architecture marked with the patina of people living there become trendy, inviting tours, especially when the first craft distillery opens up in a warehouse somewhere near enough the market. It’s almost like this global culture seeks to deny local cultures appreciating their own beauty. If it’s valuable, global culture feels like it should be ‘shared’ by all, or really, just the privileged.

When thinking on what to do, how to fight gentrification, my current place is trying to assimilate as much as I can into the local culture I arrived in without fooling myself that I’m a native. It means going to the bodegas and restaurants that don’t look new but have been neighborhood institutions. It’s been trying to patron places that have comparable demographics inside their establishment to the one on the street. It’s also figuring out how I can contribute to the neighborhood without making it into a tourist spot for potential gentrifiers. I definitely want to further understand more of what’s complicated about this and express it in my work. But if there’s something I know a lot of people could do, it’s talk about this more, make it a conversation that can come up more naturally and less defensively. Because looking for who is at fault isn’t really going to find our answer, rather challenging the values of our society and the dream of a globalized culture lead by the machinations of technology and its industries.

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Conversations with Pippin Barr: Time and Performance

Some of you might be noticing that I have an ever-growing interest in performance art and how that intersects with play, a topic that I hope to be pursuing full-time come 2016. So I was excited when Pippin Barr wanted to trade words with me since his The Artist is Present and collaborations with Marina Abramović speak to rarely explored ideas in games. When throwing around ideas about how to approach time in games, Pippin brought up what is going on with ‘felt time,’ and this is how I responded:

Mattie:

I’m super intrigued to hear your thoughts on time and play in relationship to your work with Marina. This is mostly selfish, I’m planning on a more overt combining of play and performance art, so now I’m a sponge for everything performance touches so I can better understand that tradition and where it’s at now. And time is integral to a lot of the works I’m looking at, like the spontaneous and possibly life-long performances of Happenings. Just thinking about some of my more performative ideas, the feeling of time passing, either quickly or slowly, adds weight both to the artists and other participants, especially because many performances are unique and will only happen once. And embodiment! There’s another aspect to it that digital landscapes don’t, because you’re usually untouched by time and wear. Time is always marching on for us here and there is quiet idealism in digital games that promises being forever the same.

This reminds me of when I first started to exhibit Mainichi. People asked me how many playthroughs they needed to go through to play the game. I never knew how to answer this, because I didn’t make it loop forever for convenience. The game is implicitly telling you to always be playing it, and while I know no one is actually going to do that, I feel like that’s an aspect of this game as well. You can opt-out, or you can’t dedicate the time to really understand in this pre-packaged way social justice media is being controlled. This was the same with EAT, which goes on forever, and is a game no one will play because it would take too much time and effort. It’s probably too subtle, but there is an underlying aspect of my work that says people aren’t willing to spend the time to meet me where I’m at.

I guess I think of time in a couple of ways. It seems like where change of any sort happens, if we were to think about this in a dimensions sort of way, where everything is static without some relationship to time. Time shows cause and effect, it also presents the awareness that there was a before and there will be an after, so therefore now exists. I feel performance banks off this nowness, so that once you’re out of it, you contextualize what just happened within a before-you and after-you. Also, there’s a quality of endurance when it comes to time, like patience, suffering, and any sort of withstanding change also comes with time. Which is a strange counter thinking on it.

Taking all that, there’s definitely a relationship between games and performance with the through-line of time. Players are often cited as performers and artists embody play on some levels. I think it’s interesting that you’re focused on felt time and how that manifests, or doesn’t. Isn’t the whole idea of ‘flow’ supposed to suspend the feeling of time? Which is interesting when it comes to works, like The Artist is Present, that purposefully upset the idea of flow, or at least, how we are all trained to flow. What do you think?

Pippin:

Very interested to hear your move toward play/performance. I certainly don’t have a strong background in performance in the sense of actually ‘doing it’ or even reading a lot about it, but working with Marina certainly cemented thinking I’d been doing for a fair while about players (and computers!) as performers and the like. The feeling of time itself passing is so huge in her work, and in the work of other artists.

The other person who springs to mind in this world is Tehching Hsieh, who really takes long-durational performance to a whole other level. We actually planned to have a work by him in the Digital Marina Abramovic Institute (dMAI), Time Clock Piece, in which he punched a punch-card every hour on the hour for a year. It’s an unimaginable act of ‘time’ more than anything else, really, and I thought some of the tensions and relationships to games and digital experiences in general were pretty fascinating. In this case there was a sprite of Hsieh in the digital institute who would perform that action: coming out of a door, punching a card, and going back, every hour on the hour for a year. And naturally this raises questions about the digital Hsieh’s relationship to the work – after all, he’s just digital, he doesn’t care about how long the piece takes to perform, or even think about it at all. When he goes behind the door and it closes, he just stands there until the next hour, like the cuckoo in a cuckoo clock. So the way that the digital version works is very interesting to me – in a sense it ‘trivialises’ the performance by making it ‘too easy’ when performed by a computer, but then in another sense it ‘perfects’ it, as the computer will never break from the rules as established, does not have a frail human body that can break down, or emotions that can erupt, etc. The computer strips away the human experience of time and place from the piece and so perhaps even makes the real performance shine more brightly, or in another way.

Your experience with Mainichi feels so typical of a particular kind of approach to game-playing, though it surprises me a bit that you’d get it with a more ‘alternative’ kind of game. I guess I don’t spend enough time around people actually playing games, as I vaguely assume people are used to ‘other’ sorts of games by now. I’ve been reading a bunch of classic game design texts lately, and one of the key features that so many of them exhibit is this strange anxiety that the player might not see everything before quitting. Raph Koster has it in his definition of a ‘good game’ for example as a game which “teaches everything it has to offer before the player stops playing.” The idea that a single playing might be just as powerful as the “gotta catch ‘em all” spirit of play is so very rare, for presumably obvious consumer-oriented reasons? And then as you say, we can have games that we ‘always play’ or that never end, and so on as well. There are so many other relationships that can exist between a game, a player, and time.

I’m a big fan of ‘the now’ anyway, and that kind of goes back to Marina’s work. Much of what she does seems to find ‘the now’ inside what we would probably ordinarily call boredom (or extreme endurance). Staring at a single colour for hours, counting rice and sesame for hours, simply sitting for hours, removing distractions, being here now.

Mattie:

My aim in venturing to performance is to bring a little more reality into play, or stress it. Much like how we’re saying games tend to erase or evade time, I want play that emphasizes real affect, puts cause and effect right there in front of you. A sort of counter to games as an escape, or the digital being unreal. Since play is so tangled in the digital for our field, I want to us to engage with bodies and actual material, to give more weight to action, choice, curiosity, exploration. I don’t have a strong background either, I’m hoping my move to New York will get me exposed to a lot of ideas past the stuff I’ve kept in my head for a while. I guess that’s how I relate to time in a design-sense, the remains of things that affected us. Because that’s all the evidence we really have of time really, that something has changed, right? In a way, that’s how we know we affect things, by spending time with them.

There is a ‘perfecting’ quality about digital games, and I’m still thinking about them as co-actors in a performance piece. What’s interesting is how the digital performance almost demands notice, while the non-digital Time Clock Piece does less so. The actual performance was highly confining and we only witness it after the fact through another sort of time lapse. So, I guess really, no one but Tehching actually experienced that performance and the only way to witness or process it is through second-hand documentation. The more it rests in my mind, the more I enjoy the idea of digital representation of a performance, because it provides a different access point to a medium that is intentionally ephemeral. It’s not meant to be packaged and downloaded, much of it advocates against being legible or archived in traditional art spaces. The cuckoo-clock Tehching will never replicate the experience, but maybe it brings another interpretation or angle for people to consider about a performance they’ll never see.

Which brings us around to digital games often not really working out in gallery spaces unless they are specifically made for that sort of environment. Maybe they need to follow that tradition of being an imperfect representation of a passage of time. Fitting angle for Mainichi, given the commodification of ’empathy games’ and such. At first I was frustrated about it not being played ‘right,’ but eventually it became humorous, that exhibitors thought you could just drop my game in a room with a whole bunch of other computers without any real context. It is the passage of time that video games fuck with the most when you’re in a gallery: how long should you be taking, is it polite to hog the seat, what happens if the game needs more time than the building’s operating hours? Then maybe there will need to be secondary, imperfect documentation about playing the game. Like how absurd it feels to have video selections of a game put on loops to represent the whole thing, or how like you had stills from your work presented (I’m remembering that correctly, right?). Maybe we should be making games that intentionally fuck up the gallery experience too?

‘The now’ is very alluring to me. I admit to feeling very separated from the present, meditation, yoga, breathing shit, all that stuff never works with me and it’s really hard for me to keep doing it. I’m always on high-alert for self-preservation or monitoring my safety or at odds with my body, all results of various forms of trauma I’d guess. The now is what I want to access for myself in performance, and I think about that a lot. That in performance, there’s two parts: the phenomenological experience of the artist and the various experiences of those participating/witnessing it. Many of the ideas in the back of my head, that I’m a bit timid about sharing because they feel intimate, but, they are in a way to have me confront what it is I need to exist in the present, and knowledge that what can happen to me in performances is going to differ to what will happen to others involved. I guess for me extreme exposure or vulnerability might be to Marina her boredom or endurance, if I had to draw a pattern through what compels me to pursue performance. How the now stretches or speeds during moments of intimacy.

That’s it for now, I’m really excited to share with you all the rest of what Pippin and I are talking about next time. Until then, check out his work and game ideas!

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Diversity of Existence

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

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

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

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

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

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Conversations with John Sharp: Habit and Life

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

John:

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

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

and this one, too:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Mattie:

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

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

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

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

 

John:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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KILL THE PLAYER

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

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

KILL THE PLAYER

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

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Conversations with Lana Polansky: Bodies and Living Art

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

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

Lana:

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

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

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

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

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

Mattie:

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

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

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

Lana:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Letters with John Sharp: Discipline and Pastime

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

 

Mattie:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

John:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Mattie:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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