empathy machine

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

 

 

Some quick notes on why I made this project:

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

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

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

 

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Intro to Reality Games for Game Designers and Critics

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

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

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

 

Design Narratives & The Twist

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

 

The Vote & Politics

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

 

Replays & Strategic Evolution

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

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

 

Reality & Deterioration of Magic Circle

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

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

 

Players & Characters

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

 

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

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Murder Mystery Writing as Design

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

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

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

 

Rhetorical Processing

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

 

Playing With Time

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

 

Game Within a Game

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

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

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Teaching Representation in Games

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Rethinking the Games Conference

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


Respecting Labor

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

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

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


Establishing Purpose

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

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

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


Size Control

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

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

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

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

 

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Good News!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

http://www.indiecade.com/Submissions

My First Year in Stardew Valley

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

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

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

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

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

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The Humans of Waiting Rooms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why things aren’t changing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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New Difficulties

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

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

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

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

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

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Why I’m Boycotting GDC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Exploring Taste in Play

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

 

Fire Emblem Awakening & Fates

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

 

Long Live the Queen

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

 

Shira Oka: Second Chances

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

 

Happy Home Designer

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

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

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Remembering Monsters: Morinth

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

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

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

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

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

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Style Savvy and Taste in Games

Shopping isn’t just a hobby, it’s a philosophy. One might take such a statement to think that a person just likes spending lots of money in their spare time or when a fancy strikes them. But over the past few months, I’ve learned how shopping is a hard skill not dissimilar to strategy in any sort of game that has resource management and social relationships. It’s a ruthless battle between brands, stores, and other people along with the economic and social factors of your life; buying an actual object takes up the least amount of your attention and time, as opposed to understanding your own sense of style, the stock of the stores and brands that fit your body, budgeting, and your intentions of how you want to relate to other people. Shopping is the means in which you expressing yourself, making informed decisions of how you want to be seen within your own social positioning.

When asking around for games about fashion, Style Savvy: Trendsetters came up with a cult following that I never heard of. You manage a fashion boutique in a dating sim style, having four sections of the day that move in a sort of real time as you buy stock, style customers, and participate in fashion contests. What is indulgent about Style Savvy is how rare it is to work through your understanding and values of fashion, for instance wanting to only have high-waisted skirts and off the shoulder tops or diving deep into edgy or luxury styles. While many games include some sort of customization option, these are usually auxiliary and nice to have instead of the main draw of the the experience. There’s a great feeling in an entire game revolving around your subjective sensibilities, and not in the ‘player agency’ sort of way but rather as a mental exercise.

It brings up the scary notion of taste in games, scary because most game designers wouldn’t know how to build a game around it. It’s a particular challenge trying to have a player express their aesthetics and have the computer respond in a meaningful way. Even in a game like Style Savvy, there are numbers under the hood qualifying all of the choices you could make to show if you are making a right or wrong decision. But I feel so few games inspire this sort of design challenge as this game does, which is what makes me enjoy it so much. Here we have what was imagined to be a girl’s game that wouldn’t really see much rigor that crashes right into a major problem with current imaginings of how games are to be created. Fashion is an intentional crafting of clothes to reveal aesthetics and political ideologies along with a starting point for relational methods of understanding one another. How can games sense style? How can games cultivate style? I don’t accept that a medium is intrinsically faulty at playing with subjectivities and expression, and thinking how fashion speaks to play challenges what we believe are well-crafted games, or furthermore, well-crafted theories about how games and play work.

While looking at Style Savvy might make fashion in games seem a cute and frivolous discussion, the topic is extremely important to me. I’ve learned first hand the many axes that appearance influences in regards to how people treat me, how they think of me, and my bodily safety. I’ve learned from a young age that people are constantly crafting my identity in their mind depending on what they see, and that sets the mode in which they will interact with me for as long as they do. The main way I’ve attempted to manipulate this is through attention to clothes and what they signal to other people; with as much power as I can, intentionally create contexts with my clothing that help people to relate to me in a certain range ways that makes it easier for me to physically and emotionally exist in the world. This isn’t a frivolous topic.

We can see the struggles we have to surmount, at least in digital games, in Style Savvy itself, which could be read more as a game about consuming fashion than learning to manipulate it. I believe it’s because it’s actually a game about shopping, and that the designers don’t take shopping as a philosophy, but more as some niche (read: feminine) interest. You’re always acting out buying clothes, even the times you’re technically selling things to other characters. You shop at the buyer’s market, which gets you samples for your closet, you shop at your own shop for customers, as if it was you trying everything on and not them, and then the same interface for that is used for fashion contests. The requirements for a successful style is minimal at best, usually prompting you to choose clothes from a certain preordained style (preppy, gothic) that you can search for easily since your entire inventory is tagged with those adjectives. While this might resemble the act of obtaining objects, this isn’t how humans shop, especially if you’re approaching fashion with intent. That is, Style Savvy is still overly mechanized, trying to prompt a player’s interest through buying things instead of wearing them.

We see a glimmer of an answer to these problems in its “Style Trial,” where you assemble an outfit in order to for judges to assess your brand of style. You are rated on variables like “It Factor,” originality, and balance, but I haven’t been totally successful in manipulating these; there is something imperceptible going on, which comes out every once in awhile in the main game but is most represented here. And you get ambiguous titles like “Enlightened Eccentric,” or “Vogue Virtuoso” based on your ratings, which at least shows that even if you get ‘low’ scores, that the game expresses it might not really understand what you’re doing but if you have some things right, maybe you’re trying something new. I find myself more curious about this weird mode than the game itself, especially this idea that there is this entity constantly labeling people based on how their outfits come together, but I’m not completely privy to how that works. Sometimes it feels truly random, which speaks to my experience with fashion in life. It’s less about exactly hitting some mark through the correct assemblage of clothing, but trying to control the range of experience that can happen but will always be outside of your grasp. And I believe games could use more of those experiences, that people are a bunch of moving black boxes we can’t fully anticipate, and the struggles of self-actualizing in a world constantly trying to wrest that power away from you.

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Gesturing Towards Utopias

I gave a talk for a class titled “Design for This Century” at Parsons New School for Design working off 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 illuminate 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 interrogate 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, with what is good art and what is good design relying on this separation. This is troublesome 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. Here 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 and 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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