How Do I Help?

howdoihelp

It seems like an unending cycle. With social media connecting us to more people from different places and perspectives than us, visions into how painful the world is can often dominate our experience with each other. For many, the news happening in Ferguson is completely new and horrifying, and for others, it’s just their realities with cameras finally turned on. The world enacts many kinds of violences to people you know. Social media creates a new kind of distance/intimacy dynamic, where you can easily feel closer to someone because you are reading their thoughts all day, but haven’t actually gotten to know them and their life on any realistic level.

I’m a firm believer of action when it comes to battling against the injustices that happen in life. In every instance, every person can do something to help. The problem is, a lot of people have no idea how to help in situations like this, especially because there are often malicious people online who mass target people around certain causes. It can be frightening to support or criticize aspects of culture when there’s a possibility of irrational retribution, and we have to think of the people who do take that risk for the rest of us. So, how can you help? Here are some points to keep in mind when you feel helpless when things are going down.

You cannot solve the big problems and they will most likely still be there when you’re dead. Many people who suffer from things like racism or ableism or any other ism are already affected by the horrible things systemic oppression does to people. By the time you fully understand these things, it’s already a little too late for you. The best case scenario by now is to make it easier for the ones that come after you. But this doesn’t help people now; if you are judging your actions in relation to trying to stop all sexism, that is an overwhelming and impossible task. The people on the front line know this, and you should know this too. Adjust how you’re looking at the problem, from something to solve a global issue to a community and personal issues. Just take this as a fact: the world isn’t changing fast enough for the people alive today. Even if you snapped your fingers and halted the machinations of oppression, you have lots of people with behavior to unlearn, probably including yourself. Start with yourself.

Instead of ‘how can I solve oppression for every person on the planet,’ start close to home; are you doing things for your loved ones? Have you sat down with the people in your life you know are minoritized and had meaningful conversations about these topics and how you could contribute to their safety? Do they even know they can come to you in the first place about these sorts of issues? Harassment and oppression are not only touchy subjects, but they also aren’t widely taught. People aren’t often going to just share this information whenever it happens. If you’ve never explicitly said to someone “If there is anything I can do to make you feel safer,” don’t assume they think that you are offering that. You may believe that you’re a good person and everyone can take on faith that you’d help and listen, but life experience usually dictates that not only isn’t this common, but most people don’t know how to properly handle the discussion. Read up on common derailing tactics, and learn how to actively listen. If everyone in the world did this, we would be in a better place. So start with the people you trust and work outwards from there.

Get resources to those who need them. Do you have disposable income? Donate it to people or groups you know over large organizations you don’t have connections to. If you don’t know how to, ask. Send them a message, ask them if they feel comfortable getting money from you and, if so, the best way to get it to them. Don’t have money? You might know people who do and should promote other’s stuff in their presence, or at least, be sharing stuff constantly so they have a good chance of becoming interested. Email publications and companies to tell them it’s important to you that they support certain people or groups. Sending heartfelt petitions to people and organizations who have money does work, especially en masse. Money also isn’t the only resource; do you have connections for affordable housing, food, social services? Or maybe you even have connections to people with luxury goods, anything. People who are fighting often don’t have basic needs, and if they do, don’t have a lot of things for relaxation or pleasure. Have a decent video card you won’t be using anymore, or a microphone you never got around to using?

People are also resources. Do you know other people who tend to connect others to things like job opportunities or speaking gigs at conferences? Know someone who you think would totally get along and learn with the person you want to help? Happen to be friends with someone who would mentor others? Scroll through your contacts and think about what each person could potentially offer to people you want to support. Don’t do anything without anyone’s permission of course, but keep it in mind. You have friends and contacts because they contribute to your life, so now just try to project how they might be able to contribute to other people, because you never know what kind of need with arise.

Reach out and connect. Social media like twitter are completely voyeuristic when it comes to dealing with things like harassment campaigns and witnessing people break down at events or just during their life. You might feel you know a person, but unless you’ve had many one-on-one personal conversations, you probably don’t at all. It’s extremely easy to feel lonely when you’re being harassed or when you’re out of a job or facing a rent you can’t pay. People are preoccupied with their own lives and have their own troubles, and it’s easy for people to suffer because they don’t feel like anyone cares about them. If you are a friend or acquaintance, send a message and ask if they want to do lunch sometime. It doesn’t even have to center around an incident or anything, because they will bring up what’s going on in their lives if they want to. Or send a standing offer for a phone call or skype chat or something. Anything that clearly states to that person that you are not only available, but want to be present with them if they so choose. If someone says no thanks or doesn’t follow up on it, don’t take it as you being useless or ignored right away, they just might need time alone. IM them every once in a while and have idle conversation. Actually be with them instead of letting social media be the primary platform you interact on.

If you aren’t directly friends with someone or don’t really know where you stand, just send a message or email saying how much you appreciate them. Getting heartfelt emails that actually say something personal and meaningful can turn someone’s day right around. Someone’s sent me a message, and I didn’t really know they followed my work or anything, and it was a great opportunity to create a connection and keep talking. You never know when someone might be looking for a chance to reach out to you, or if you have something of interest to them. Combine this with the resources you might have to offer, and just mention it, don’t feel like you have to make yourself useful to a person. The emails that cheer me up the most and get me to engage, even with total strangers, is when they pick out one of my articles or games and give me a nice long paragraph about what it meant to them. And sincerely! This might mean you will have to really engage with the work the person does and take some time to put together those connections, but it means a lot to a person when someone takes the time to actually consider their work.

Everyone can do something. Don’t compare yourself to others when deciding what it is you can do to contribute to someone else’s livelihood. Really think of what you can do in particular, what you have accessible, any skills or outlets or resources, and utilize those to help. Because it’ll never be one person who solves anything, but the masses taking up grassroots action to contribute as a whole. Things aren’t looking good right now. Can you take some time to write a nice email? Have a few extra dollars to donate? I promise you, every little thing you can possibly do will help.

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Triad

triad

This is part of an on-going companion series to the game curation effort Forest Ambassador run by merritt kopas. Please explore and support it if you can!

What can games teach about design? To anyone, not necessarily industry people. It’s important to discuss because there are a lot of people talking about games who might not fully have a grasp on design. There’s a lot of criticism about this, that players and critics focus on non-interactive elements when they talk about video games. We often see critics talk about how games fit into certain contexts of our lives, be it as a product or an autobiographical metaphor or an example of systemic oppression. Rarely do these analyses come from the directly design itself, rather by-products or echoes of the design. Which isn’t necessarily bad, that’s what design is supposed to do, make a person feel things.

I just finished reading through anna anthropy’s section of A Game Design Vocabulary, a book co-written with Naomi Clark, just in time to talk about her work on Triad (it only takes a little bit to play) with Leon Arnott and Liz Ryerson. What I like about anna’s writing and talks is how she aims not only for good games and good design, but for a lot of the excess to be cut and manageable for people who aren’t already in video games design to understand and do themselves. I’ve become a fan of saying the idea of minimalist games is misleading, and that most games are overwrought. I want to detail a little about anna’s proposed language around game design through Triad and how it teaches on its own.

anna uses syntax as a way to talk about design. Of most importance are verbs, which she defines as doing rules. In Triad, the player’s main verb is to move around the three members of a relationship into proper sleeping positions on a bed. anna is really good about boiling things down to essentials and makes everything else revolve around this verb. You only use your mouse for the entire game, and a click becomes a decision making action, punctuated by the lamp being the finish button. This seems trivial information at first, but for anna, giving the player the smallest amount of information and input needed to play is an important part of design, because it ties the player stronger to them. I could imagine, and have seen, different keyboard buttons for rotating the people, turning off the light, or advancing the dialogue. We can push this a little further and say that the verb is actually arranging rather than moving, or another word that carries a nuance that would be good for interpreting. I can see a possible avenue for criticism to take and interpret verbs this way, because it allows you to change the light design decisions are seen under. This arranging feeling echoes back out to the objects and context of the game.

I should take a moment aside to talk a little bit about rules. I myself do not really see games to be, essentially, rules or instructions one plays with, but we are in a paradigm that sees rules as the smallest building blocks of creating games. Rules as a concept are also stretched beyond the typical meaning of rules here. The broadest way I can put it is rules are things that are designed to happen. In Triad, this can be that the light can’t turn off until all body parts are on the bed or that to win is for everyone to not be bothered during the night, and down to clicking being what forwards the dialogue and the bed being pink. I see rules more to be a lens than things that really exist on their own, we read rules and systems into design to explain them. Rules as lens is another good place for a critic to start when talking about a piece, such as, how does the rule of the cat jumping on the bed relate to or affect player decisions and behavior?

She uses objects pretty much how you think one would in a sentence structure, the rules verbs act on. anna advises for having interesting objects that help advance verbs. In the game, the main objects are the people being arranged. All of them have different qualities that make them interact with each other in unique ways. One of the bedmates rolls around in their sleep, another flips on their side. These create relationships between the characters, particularly with the one that rolls; they somehow have to be contained in the bed without being kicked. Most interesting and resonant with me however is how these objects are coded to hit each other out of the way unless you are precise and methodical on how you place them. The rules of objects are almost like personality traits; you can read in a sort of frustration yet care in arranging these people on the bed. These objects are fussy to work with but there *is* a solution (well, sort of).

Context is the layer where critics and player tend to sit in the most. It’s important; without context, this would be a simple puzzle game not too unlike other things you’ve seen. This is probably another good practice in criticism, imagining a game stripped of its context compared to its actual one. Because this is depicting a triadic relationship, there’s more going on than pieces fitting together. It’s trying to have different needs met, and requiring a lot of trial and error. My favorite part of the game is actually the interludes between each night, because it mounts the pressure of getting it right the next time. I could only imagine that this triad was also having lots of other things in their relationship going on, and they had to end every night with one of them constantly rolling off the bed.

And, for me, that’s really where design-focused criticism stops. Not much interesting comes out of analyzing in a design-centric manner to connect the game to the outside world. These critiques are pretty much from a user experience standpoint; a lot of anna’s writing is about how to be clear to the player and how to have a less is more approach to design. It is meaningful that there is a game that depicts a triadic relationship, and I think that ends there. This doesn’t mean that this game nor others can’t be significant because of this, rather, I don’t think design analyses can hold up without cultural criticism. I can see a larger piece about themes of restriction in games with queer content and how that manifests, but design-by-design points typically boil down to ‘it’s fun’ or ‘it’s elegant.’ To be clear, this doesn’t mean that the games themselves are void of value, rather, I think design analyses are stuck on what’s good design and how to make a good game on a product level. There is more to be said about the game being about a triad than the puzzle itself; that’s not a critique, more like a sign we need another way to look at games, and why autobiographical connections to games are in vogue.

I find anna’s work both as a designer and theorist to be the terminus of contemporary design ideology, boiled down to its essentials and ready for more people to pick it up and use it. I find that this design paradigm is rather, well, videogamey, and is too down the entertainment rabbit hole to really be mined for something other than that. This isn’t downing her games, knowing her personally I am privy to her non-digital work and ideas that are interesting. Just that I don’t think we’re ever going to find much to talk about in this era of games with a rules-based design paradigm. I definitely suggest buying and reading her and Naomi’s book however, because it will make a lot of contemporary video games clearer, and allows you to understand design-speak better when you hear it. As for my criticisms or difference to this work, I hope to detail that sometime in the future. For now, consider that a game doesn’t need to say something profound through its rules to mean something to someone else, and that players don’t necessarily have to have a designer’s logic to be affected by design. Smaller games like this are like drops in an ocean that can make a wave. We don’t need one or a few games to be especially profound, rather, getting game making tools and methodology into more people’s grasps.

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Benthic Love

malefish

This is the first in an on-going companion series to the game curation effort Forest Ambassador run by merritt kopas. Please explore and support it if you can!

What does subversive play look like?

Subversion has quite the range of people interested in its manifestation whenever it comes to creative expression. For many scholars and critics, it usually marks a piece of work as culturally relevant by crossing over into the metafictional, appropriated by the public. We see this fascination expressed often, when we see instances like Minecraft being used to build a processor to mod culture in general. The piece becomes more than just itself, it stands as a medium for the public unconscious to express itself. There is also a more grassroots activist, though not completely unrelated, take on subversion as well. It revolves around upsetting the norm and creating room for the other and the yet-known. Both of these concepts are hard to imagine designing for, and I think they follow the conversation around values like agency and choice.

Games can be both subversive and allow subversion without handing the player an entire world to make choices in. Often all we need to be subversive is our minds. I found Mike Joffe’s Benthic Love holding many different kinds of subversions, much of which flies in the face of what critics would typically look for in subversive play. It shows how games don’t have to be apparently radical or sandboxes to offer the player subversive opportunities. It doesn’t take a long time to play, so I suggest you go through it a couple times before continuing.

The main part that really makes Benthic Love a good example is how it obviously references a genre, dating sims, but doesn’t require the player to be aware of dating sim tropes to take meaning from the piece. It’s not just that this is about anglerfish, but how their mating process shapes their identities. Typically, protagonists in dating sims are near-ciphers, with enough of a personality to provide speaking lines to other characters, but leaving enough room for the player to insert themselves. This cipher is typically a heterosexual boy who is at a life juncture of some sort that implores him to find a girl to date or just straight-up have sex with. Sex is typically the end-goal, even if the story revolves around romance; the sex scene is a reward for the player for successfully gaming the system to achieving a girl character’s affections. Within the tradition of visual novels, the genre dating sims is a subset of, players are encouraged to go through the same motions over and over again until they view all the story paths.

In Benthic Love, the image and disposition of the male angler fish serves as a reflection on the usual motions of these protagonists. Particularly with the concept of nature, and how it propels life in the deepest part of the ocean. The male angler fish quite literally needs a female, starvation acts as a main motivation to on this journey rather than happening upon a romantic situation. Nature forces them to seek out the female fish, even when, at least in the fiction of the game, they will lose their identity and being after fusing together. The apparent inevitability of nature, and why it is this way, reverberates throughout the entire piece. The slow struggle between the sperm whale and colossal squid, the bones on the ocean floor, the commentary on the poop of over animals floating down to fertilize the benthic region. The ocean worked this way all along, and the main character’s existence is just a small notch of a cog in the clockwork. There is a still violence about it all, but that violence doesn’t necessarily come from an identifiable source. What is it about human nature that depicts men the way they are in dating sims? What is this quiet violence and where is it coming from? In a way, this was a very succinct through line to contemplating masculinity that I haven’t seen before, because usually art frames masculinity through forcing a man to prove his. While there are some choices that give your angler that tone, they aren’t challenged on the basis of who they say they are. Women being the more interesting and aware agents, at least through the metaphor, in the story is also an interesting twist. These males attach and wither while the female moves on with life, using them for their genetic material. The female wants it to mean something, even if it’s a little, and the male just wants his last meal.

Because nature and its slow but forceful cycle is so present in this piece, and given the replayable convention of visual novels, players are easily enticed to resist. Your character can simply choose not to mate and fuse with the female angler, and they will slowly die from starvation. This is treated as a positive however, and even if it seems undramatic, it’s powerful to me. It’s the option that completely rejects any more participation in the cycle, a sort of self-deterministic ending. The game doesn’t treat it as bad, and acknowledges this path as one fine to take, even if the narration doesn’t quite understand fully why you would. This stands in contrast to games of all sorts that essentially shame players who don’t win. Yet, is there any real winning when you are just a cog swept up in inevitability?

Of course, the most powerful, and weird, scene comes when you meet another male angler fish who seems to be struggling with the idea of mating with a female. This scene is interesting to me because of how uncommon vulnerability between men occurs in our reality and media. It is the site, if you will, of where masculinity is enforced, stabilized, transmuted, or discarded. This scene allows for a lot of interpretations, maybe the most salient being queerness. Though what is more interesting is how queerness still, in some way, follows the flow of nature, but co-opts it at the same time. As Mike mentions in his note about creating this, there is something to conceiving the opportunity to subvert the story and then the surprise when you can actually do it. Subversion isn’t the complete disowning of nature, or in sociological terms, nurture, rather reshaping culture to fit your own needs. Quite poetically, when the male anglers mate, they create a cycle of their own, both conjoined and independent of the cycles going on around them.

While this ending is given a little extra treatment than some of the others, there aren’t fireworks going off to celebrate how subversive you are as a player, nor would anyone look at these playthroughs and see some exercise of player agency. This is the power of playing with text. Instead of players being preoccupied with gaining choice or exercising it, they get prompts to consider why the choose the things they do. What do their choices mean? Why are they getting to choose this? Games typically want to communicate the importance of the power to choose, while pieces like Benthic Love have you contemplate the function of choosing anything in the first place.

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Play and Be Real About It – What Games Could Learn From Kink

EAT

Content Note: This article will be talking about kink and philosophy surrounding it, and no graphic depictions or descriptions of sex. I should note that kink culture, politics, and activities are outside of this piece, but they are worth interrogating.

On a fairly regular basis, about once or twice a month, I get emails from journalists or researchers who want to talk to me about ‘empathy games.’ Scare quotes are theirs, but I’m pretty skeptical of it as a term and how/where it is deployed. Empathy games as a construction creates a conversation that is construed as new and unexplored while at the same time while providing an excuse for the rest of games to not be concerned since they are different genre. It reinforces games as something special while justifying them as mindless entertainment that profits off of troubled aspects of culture.

This is one manifestation of “the dark side” of games’ technodeterminism that Heather Chaplin picks up on in her addendum to Eric Zimmerman’s Ludic Manifesto. The kind of games and design philosophies that are valued project to people navigating through systems and problem solving for the games’ sake; there is actually little about the ludo aspect of this sort of future, rather, obsession with game objects. If there is something that isn’t widespread in design practice and practice, it’s the use of play to connect to life or to self-reflect. We are often entertained and gain some meaning through that, and that’s a nice by-product that games often use to propagate industry. The play that is used for the purpose of reflection and connection, however, is greatly undervalued and supported by the main institutions of video games.

Using the concerns of an unempathic future of games, Steve Wilcox finds that play is actually an exercise to understanding contexts, and that act of understanding is empathy. The current attitude with games is often player with systems of rules, and the value that arrives from that is a sort of systems thinking, to see cause and effect, to mentally bend problems as far as possible in order to see how this system works and to use it for their own devices. So, sure, we might be able to turn things into systems for people to game, and you can map a genome or something. The problem, and most of the serious games/games for change sector can tell you this, is getting people to care about the subject to which a system of placed on top of. People are playing the match 3 for recycling because they want to play a match 3, and the moment the don’t want to play a match 3 anymore, they are done with the experience. No real context is provided for people to create a connection and care.

This reminds me in particular about anna anthropy’s talk at Different Games’ inaugural event, “how to make games about being a dominatrix” and her mantra of CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING. She uses similar language, about how mainstream games are empathically challenged, using imagery of social issues as a top layer that is dressing for gaming a system. anna provides the comparison between Mighty Bomb Jack and her own Mighty Jill Off, that while the games are similar in their systems, the latter brings a context that allows the player to create a connection outside just gaming the rules. And this particular context is the kinky dynamic between a domme and her submissive.

Kink isn’t just a topical analogy, like for masocore games, it’s a good framework to challenge these contextless play experiences by reimagining the positions of the designer, player, and play, and what that means. The comparison between kink and games design isn’t that large of a leap, and anna talked about that as well at the Queerness and Games Conference a couple months after Different Games. I recommend you read through the transcript in full because she covers all the bases, but short and crude: dommes can stand in for the game design role as the person who is crafting an experience for the other, and that other being the submissive acquiesces control after negotiating with the domme the rules of the play session which acts both as the magic circle and systems of play. As she says in her talk, this sort of play is often transformative, it can be a safe place to explore not only yourself through rules and systems, but life and culture itself. In particular, I want to continue on the implications of the dominant being someone who receives submission, and the comparison of a designer being someone who receives play.

I’m actually not too much of a fan prioritizing rules and systems when talking about play, so instead, I will evoke her earlier CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING. If we understand play as the exercising of empathy through engaging contexts, and kink as a type of play design that deeply confronts life contexts, then kink practices stand as a stronger model for engaging people with meaningful play than the overly instrumentalized and decontextualized outlook on games propagated by contemporary game design. Instead of games as objects to manipulate, kink shows bodies and minds in co-dependent situational contexts based completely on the participants’ relationship with the very real contexts of life. Play doesn’t need systems or rules to exist and be meaningful, it needs honest engagement with context. Mainstream games completely dodge dealing with reality and don’t allow people to actually experience the material being presented with. In contrast, see my games EAT and Mission. They aren’t encouraging people to figure out its juicy elegant systems to find the meaning of life; in actuality, most people look at them, get what it’s trying to say, and never want to play them. This is because we haven’t gotten used to the idea of play as confronting contexts, as empathy. They are painful games to play, but that is the only way to engage with the contexts being examined there. As kink shows, there isn’t pleasure without trial, without going through consensual pain.

And this is really important to me: the technophilia of games is stymieing this outlook on design. The ludic century isn’t one of play, but of VIDEO GAMES. Video games are preoccupied with tech progressivism and late capitalistic practices that bank on ripping the sutures between reality and play. WE ARE ALWAYS PLAYING. WE ARE ALWAYS IN CONTEXTS. CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING. Game design rarely uses the contexts and play of real life when trying to depict meaningful content. Valued video games are not challenging the construction and deployment of social systems to where people actually engage with and understand their place in it all. Games for social impact aren’t dropping players into safe spaces to experience the raw contexts of the material they wish to communicate. Video games are ruining the conversation of play through devaluing all other types of games and promoting its instrumentalizing methods of relation. Despite trying to take The Gender Issue seriously, what valued video games are honestly confronting players with the construction of gender and how it plays out in our society?

There is an experience arch of kink play that I think games of all kinds can reference to restitch their relationship to actual life contexts. I should say that I encourage you to explore the philosophies of kink more on your own to draw parallels, because this is a very personal and intimate practice, and what I’m describing isn’t necessarily a standard, rather, my own observations.

Consent: What separates kinky and vanilla sex for me is the active recognition of consent. Because of how our (I’m speaking as an American) culture works, we aren’t really supposed to talk about sex, rather, hop into a dark space with each other and hope for the best that the other knows what they’re doing. Consent is the process where you find out exactly what each other wants before you play, and acknowledgement of what you definitely don’t want to happen. What is consented to could typically be seen as mean, out of place, or degrading, but consent is its own context that allows play to be both affective and expressive. Video games tend to obfuscate the affect they will have on the player because of a perceived importance of content and entertainment value. If everyone knew exactly everything about the game and how it works, it interferes with the typical model of selling games, where PR hypes up product and you go in on trust that you will have a good experience. Bioshock waits for the narrative twist before you really understand what it is about. This does not allow for the cycle of wielding and receiving play between designer/game and player. We only have instrumentalized fun in mainstream games because context is hard to sell.

Scene: Just because there is consent doesn’t mean play is completely predicted; rather, the domme and sub have the same goals, to get each other to the places agreed upon. It is in the scene that the power dynamic is established and life contexts are introduced to play. This recognition is important as it mixes our culturally imbued traits with a certain relationship with power. A relationship between a non-cis multiracial woman dominant and a white cis submissive man carries powerful symbolic weight into play. The scene allows the players to be flooded with cultural contexts through kink play, for instance, the use of sexual dominance and submission. In this space, people can engage with hyperbolized contexts through play, because that’s where they often want to go. The power dynamic allows for people to get to that place where faux-egalitarianism in mainstream society cannot. They play these roles to deeply feel these contexts on their bodies, and through that, practice empathy. Typically valued games don’t take players deep into cultural contexts like this. The magic circles they draw are rarely for safe experimentation of real life contexts.

Aftercare: Play on this level is psychologically trying and a debriefing back into reality is needed for complete contextualization. The players were brought down to intense places commonly need reminders after play that they are a good, loved people no matter where the scene went within its consensual bounds. This allows both people to clearly see the context of play juxtaposed against the context of their life. Partners see themselves in the scene as a part of the whole identity, and aftercare aims to ease that transition process. It creates a moment for reflection and integration. It allows a person to complicate their views, complicate their identity. Mainstream games never really afford us a debrief because they assume traversing in and out of play is simple. Leaving is as easy as turning off the TV, because you aren’t meant to feel much besides bemusement or an evening’s worth of thoughts. These games don’t expect you to be transformed or touched by anything other than superficial storytelling devices.

All kinds of play can take place in contexts that mean something to us. Empathy isn’t just in the domain of queer art games, rather, it is endemic to play. It is this self-inflicted rupture between reality and play that blocks mainstream discourse from actively engaging in meaningful play outside of entertainment. Designers are far too complicit with instrumental play and its inability to make people are about the world when it’s not attached to the game. Technology and capital play too far of a deterministic role in how we talk and think about games and its existence in culture. I say we take a step back and recognize how we are engaging if life’s contexts with our own bodies and selves, how we gender, how we race, how we class, and elevate that kind of play when we look to create and critique games ourselves.

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Passing Through: Another Take on Identity in Activism and Design

passing

My grandmother always seemed to have cutlery to polish whenever I visited her for dinner. She was, almost to a point of a stereotype, distinctly matriarchal in the way she existed in my family structure. Physically present, shouting inquiries of personal issues from the kitchen, enlisting any idler to shine her silverware. I would sit down in her green, billowy recliner in front of the TV as I cleaned on a fold-out dinner table. This time, talk show hosts were debating about immigration, which caused my grandmother to launch into a story as she cooked jerk chicken from behind me.

She and my father are from Jamaica, but neither of them really look like it. Something many people in this country don’t realize is how mixed it is in the Caribbean. All in the same family gathering, we had people who looked asian, white, black, or something altogether different. At the time, I didn’t really think of it as odd; every couple in my blood line were interracial. When she arrived in New York to immigrate, my grandmother recounted all of the invasive questions clerks asked her about herself. The one that stood out: “What race are you?” She answered:

“Human?”

This past year, I’ve sat down with a lot of creators about representation in games. One of the first questions out of their mouth is “How do you depict minorities well in games?” Maybe it’s because this is usually over dinner, knife and fork in hand, that I want to reply with “Human?” Thinking of my grandmother who doesn’t have a clearly identifiable race by American standards trying to explain herself to an official. ‘Human’ is loaded though; dominant identities are conflated with universal traits of humanity while minoritized people must be loud about their diverging qualities. Usually, I would fall back on trying to tap what is really human, and in turn, interrogate and separate what we assume is default about humanity and is really dominant culture.

I’ve started to think of my grandmother’s story a little differently lately. I feel like there’s a more active, personal dynamic with identity than what we currently conceive. Contemporary activism has a strong slant towards self-identification, particularly within established minoritized groups. This makes sense; a person is who they say they are, and that needs to be respected. What does that say about my grandmother, who didn’t have an answer for her race until she lived in America? Would she be outside today’s activism if she didn’t explicitly label herself?

We aren’t inherently any of these social categories. We are not essentialized genders, races, sexualities, abilities, or anything else. These labels are instead leveraged for power, two kinds in particular: to create difference and then elevate one difference over all others, or in reaction, to form community around a shared minoritized quality. Despite flexibility in some of these communities about who counts for what, identity is treated as a fact once declared, in complete ownership of the person who claims it. This isn’t the whole picture.

Upon memory, the first time I heard the term ‘passing’ was when I looked through transition video diaries on Youtube by queer people. It means when you successfully appear as cisgender to someone, and is constantly haunting non-cis people’s lives. Many queer folks on forums and chats thought passing was the ultimate test non-cis people should try to conquer. Men on personals sites plaster ‘passable only’ all over their ads. The thing about passing is that you can try to influence it as much as you can, but ultimately, it’s the perceptions of other people that decide whether you pass or not. There is a bit of your identity that is always held hostage by the public, a site of power struggles. I’m interpreted to be many genders throughout my day, and not simply man, woman, or non-binary, but a whole other host of qualities and baggage that each particular person brings to those things. I’m being gendered by them; they imbue my identity with whatever gender they interpret and create a power dynamic with it.

This isn’t the sole domain of gender, as we can see, my grandmother was being raced during her story. I am often raced by white people who don’t see me as ‘one of those black people’ and by non-white people as ‘basically white.’ This structures our relationship with one another, both the restrictive and creative forces of power that is organized by institutional oppression. Removing individual expressions of power by interpreting other people’s identity makes us go to the default, that people are a series of labels that can be neatly organized into who’s valued and marginalized. These aren’t simple declarations of ‘I’m going to treat you like a woman,’ rather us creating an internal barometer to gauge how we should relate to one another. I think this creates an easier view for how microaggressions and non-overt oppressive power plays happen in daily life.

Some of the queries I’ve received plan to show that a character is transgender by having some sort of reveal, because how else would a player know that the character is trans? This is a product of declarative identity, and it is often used to marginalize even with the best intentions. A stronger way to express someone’s sense of self is to show the struggle over that negotiating space of someone’s identity. By making it extremely particular to the people involved; what does it mean for someone to perceive a woman cis when she’s not? Or to assume someone’s half white, half black? Framing it this way makes it pretty compatible for play design, as the me-too slant of current rhetoric around representation rarely talks about what it means to have these identities, especially ones like race and sexuality that was created to categorize the other.

The mechanics of passing, and how that affects activism and design, feel shoved to the side for a very identitarian manifestation of intersectionality. Identity doesn’t have to be restrained to story conceits, but up for play. It’s not only the person themselves who plays with identity, rather, they co-struggle with society and how individuals interpret them. This is more readily apparent for people who don’t neatly fall into boxes, but can be done with all aspects of identity and oppression. This doesn’t even have to be strictly realistic, find any good science fiction book on cyborgs or mutation and how humanity is negotiated. If we consider what it’s like to be human to be this struggle, we afford ourselves complex insights into not only the minoritized, but also the ingrained qualities of dominant cultures.

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Countdown: Thinking of Time in Text Games

justice

I’ve been thinking about critique lately, especially in the realm of assigning something value. Is a game good or bad? My current philosophical leanings usually allow me to skirt that question, except for the past year I’ve been judging games for festivals. No matter what, I have to bring down a gavel, and I’ll always feel weird about it. However, I know that I’m brought onto these review panels for a reason; I’m often looking at strange, small games other people can’t make heads or tales of. In particular, I review many games made with twine and other minimalist and text-based games.

Now, I don’t give credence to questioning game credentials of any of these works. What hasn’t really been discussed often is how to critique these sorts of games, or, what is their particular contribution to play. A lot of people look at games made with twine as almost journaling, and the kinds of things expressed happen to be different topics than what is usually developed in games. There are very few design critiques of text play, and having encountered some in my judging, I really had to think about what my angle would be for critique. Often, text games put a lot of weight on the actual writing, which is an intuitive thing to do, but often, play is being evoked in a way that disrupts the writing instead of contributing to it. There has to be a reason a game is the proper way to use this text, and again, I’m not going to delineate what is a play and what is reading, just that I’m a judge for games festivals.

I don’t have everything figured out, but I wanted to share and aspect of text design that I’ve found interesting and use when I critique text games in this manner. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about time and temporality in play, and how games can make us aware of our relationship to time. So when I was looking at some text games these past couple of weeks, I was reminded of a game I looked at last year, Justice by Adrian Hall (I suggest two+ ~12 minute playthroughs). Like many text games (granted, this isn’t fully text), it’s easy to give a large amount of the importance to the choices, since the ruling paradigm of design makes agency its center. If you think of the game largely in what kinds of options are given to you, then the play is kind of pedantic, moralizing. However, consider instead the presence of the timer juxtaposed with the option to present the evidence. The play space is more, why and how do you choose the things you do? What are all the other characters’ timers?

Instead of trying to extract meaning from the choices themselves, I found myself analyzing the rationale behind why I chose what I did. Ultimately, if you didn’t present the gun right away, you were manipulating for your own sense of justice, or cruelty, or curiosity. All coming from a place of privilege; this game is about a battle of egos and how people in places of privilege ascertain morality over minoritized people. The real drama of the piece is the pacing between Fadiyah’s speech, especially after McCoy asks a question. The arrogance of him walking up the stairs, of being intentionally mysterious about the decision that determines another’s life. The choices and their contents are dressing for unearthing this arrogance, this selfishness that people at the top of social systems.

There is another kind of selfishness in another game with a countdown: anna anthropy’s queers in love at the end of the world (you will get a good amount in around five minutes). The tension and anxiety is ramped up a little faster here, but the similarity between the games is this contrast of speed and somber. The world is about to end, boom, and you want, need to, enjoy it. anna uses the time it takes to read against the player, to the point where they start to memorize exactly what they want to do, yet the want to explore all the different choices and paths they have before they get to the point where they just rest in a moment, a thought. And, again, if we look at this for just the choices, you aren’t going to find much other than multiple vignettes.

The pacing of the game through its time segments turn this from a gimmick into the mental state of the author, and possibly the player. It unearths desires and worry in a world where things are fleeting, a world where people are so frequently hurt. The timer and loops makes your concentration on your queer lover total; all you have is each other. The twist on all this the end of the world seems to be a metaphor for love, how we rush towards its pleasurable destruction. The repetition trains you to become obsessive, wanting to consume as much of this experience as you can.

I find that both of these examples are explicit in the flow and pacing that many text and minimalist games use to communicate something to players. People get caught up in the choices aspect, and it’s completely misleading; games that you find using twine often aim to train your perception, get you to understand the architecture of your thoughts, the reason why you chose the things you do. I’ve found a common pattern in these games rejecting player agency, showing false choices or boiling down the results between options to be quantitatively the same and emotionally resonant in different but even ways. Think of reading text as hijacking your thoughts and manipulating your perception, and what that does to how you navigate the game. This is just one of many things, of course, and not the in sole domain of these minimal text games, but I’ve found it useful for when I need to find a foothold in analyzing these games. And, really, they reflect back on games of other types as well, mostly showing how cheaply choice as a concept is deployed in mainstream games.

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In Tongues

tongues

It was one of the first warmer days of spring. As much as there is a spring season in San Francisco. I was meeting a friend in SoMa, the sunniest part of the city and also one of the more visible sites of class warfare between trendy tech start-ups and the homeless. I rolled up my sleeves in vain hope to regain any semblance of a tan.

Sitting on distressed wood benches, my latest activities soon came around in the conversation. I expressed anxiety over becoming a fulltime developer and how that changes the kinds of games I can make. I’ve made conceptual pieces across different formats of play that aim to be as accessible as possible. Who cares about these games is telling: social justice spaces, art and academic circles. Outside of my friends, the press ignores my work and many indie spaces pass me over for some more familiar within those fields. If I was to make games my career, I would have to change.

Most of the peers I asked for advice pointed me towards Unity, the Twine of indie games if you will. I have a lot of problems with indie development culture, and Unity represents a lot of them. Mainly a buy-in to technological progression that steadily closes its gates to people outside of tech fields and devalues aesthetic expression not associated with contemporary ideas of polish. My mantra is to make games that others could feasibly make, to express myself after spending a short time with the tools. Coding, modeling, animation, these aren’t analogues for typing on a keyboard to write, putting pencil to paper to draw. When I made Mainichi, the tools had a low enough barrier for me to get my design out of my mind and working in the game. I’ve tried to code, and it is the most unnatural thing for me to do. It would only be a means to an end, not an active tool for expression. I don’t believe in the sentiment that wishes everyone should learn how to code, and applying that sentiment to games only furthers its homogeneity.

My friend, while I chomped on some sort of tex-mex salad, brought up a common critique of the DIY movement I’ve been wrangling with for a while: by rejecting the need to code, aren’t I restricted in what I can express by those who could? I probably made some mildly indignant reply, considering my entire life in this city feels subject to this gap in knowledge. But either way, he was right, and I didn’t have a good answer. When RPG Maker had a feature I didn’t want, I relied on community scripts to get rid of them. If I wanted to use Unity in a new and interesting way, I’d need someone else to do it for me if I don’t learn to code.

A couple weeks later, I was intrigued by Brandon Dillon’s mentality behind his project Hack ‘n’ Slash over at Double Fine. Instead of spreading the need to code, he thought instead we should be teaching people to hack. It was a more approachable and broad version of pleas for systems thinking education, and it encompasses a lot of what play is about. Hacking is a mentality instead of another language, it’s a way of understanding and relation instead of a whole other artform. It made me think about how there is a call for analyzing the code of games to extrapolate meaning, but not so much what the tools themselves are saying, and the conversation a creator is having with it. Coding aims to be total, to create everything in its entirety or to brute-force functionality into an already existent engine. If you look at the from-scratch tools many creators use for their games, they are completely utilitarian and specific to that game, often reported being a mess and not meant for anyone besides the creator. Hacking instead focuses on the partnership between a creator and their tools as separate agents with their own agendas. Like choosing a particular kind of brush for painting, a particular kind of lens for filming.

The irony for me is how much Hack ‘n’ Slash rests on gaming monoculture to communicate this players. When asked about using Zelda as an inspiration, Brandon said that’s his experience and therefore expression, and hopes other people would do similar things that would reach out to others. This sentiment left me conflicted. One of the reasons we have such an outreach problem in this field is because the culture of video games is one that turns many people away, and games like this ride on a nostalgia of the same demographic of people who’ve been playing, and probably entertained the idea of making, games already. The underlying feeling made sense though. Just because his experience is a commonly seen one doesn’t mean it can or should apply to everyone’s wishes, as I’ve seen people react to my work that way. After a few beers and whatever that French phrase is for having a weeks-late comeback, I argued with company that the solution is needing more weird, personal, accessible game-making tools. To broaden our artistic culture to include people who make tools and give room for expression through them.

Tools already do this, though not intentionally or with a focus on being expressive of the tool author’s perspective. For instance, RPG Maker implies you will be making not only RPGs, but a very specific kind. It makes features that were common in popular 90s JRPGs easy to implement, whereas with Game Maker, creating a textbox is not a one-click affair. In Mainichi, I was able to speak to these JRPG conventions, but I don’t find commenting on genre the most interesting thing tool authors can do.

These more unique tools wouldn’t be all-purpose, not organized by genre but rather creating a world and seeing how other minds inhabit it. This could easily be extrapolated into a game analogy, where the tools are a set of rules, and the designer will express themselves through those rules that the tool maker could approximate to some degree, but overall wouldn’t dictate. This implies we’re already having conversations with our tools, but they might not be very interesting ones. I also imagine tools could start informing game design choices on a more visible level. For instance, games like Become a Great Artist in Just 10 Seconds and Patatap have inspired me on how to move away from the usual controls we give players without being completely arcane about it.

This interests me as a designer because of the added layer of communication and interpretation. The decision for what tool to use isn’t purely utilitarian anymore, and players could also view the tools to understand the game and is creation process. Implied by that is also accessibility, and it’s an important value. Ease of access is necessary both for the applicability for DIY artists and the players of those games. People wouldn’t need to know how to code in order to understand what happened, rather their hacking sensibilities would reverse engineer, toy with, and bend both game and tools to derive meaning.

I want to encourage the tool makers out there to jump in and participate in the DIY culture shift that is going on. Not even just participate, but help it grow and sustain itself. Right now, I see the pressures of mainstream games bearing down on us all. The games made from tools like Twine or Game Maker that look more like the mainstream are more likely to get respected, while others are quickly cast aside as unremarkable. That isn’t to say there isn’t any truth to either of those receptions. More this is all that can happen if we only have tools as a means to an end instead of another avenue for self-expression.

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commune ity

commune

i

like to tell this story.

last year, i went to #lostlevels for the first time, like many others. i think you’re supposed to say it with a certain inflection to articulate the hashtag. i staccato the sounds around the word when i say it. like “I went to- lost levels- and watched someone play an accordion.”

last year, i went to #lostlevels. i was wrapped in a coat i bought from express a couple years back. it was the first real coat i’ve ever bought. i watched manifestos, demos, performances. there were members of the video game industry mixing with independent artists and complete strangers who just happened to be in the yerba buena park that day.

whenever someone asks me what’s so good about #lostlevels, i like to tell this story. on that day, my partner gave a talk. i don’t remember what it was. i don’t think i was even there. he just walked down from his advertising job in the financial district and said things. i found out, that, after #lostlevels, NYU academics followed him on twitter. they didn’t follow me on twitter. follow me on twitter.

in a way, an event like #lostlevels reminds us that we’re human. that we sit at the tops and bottoms of invisible structures, but we still have corporeal existence. for a second

we were something.

are we a community? i listened to Samantha Allen speak about a more active, generative form of community: a community is something people create, support, and plan for. as i sit in my claustrophobic room, my roommates screaming at each other, in front of the bathroom, i need to pee, fog creeps over the hill, and i hope that through these streaming timelines, there are a group of people who consider me one of their own.

i like to say we are all standing in the same room because we like the decor. we’ve talked enough, come and go, and don’t necessarily notice someone’s been gone for a week.

we’ve come together, but haven’t made any plans to stay

we are creators of different sorts, analysis, play, games, writing, justice, and we feel a bond through common struggles. we fear individual exceptionalism as much as we fear vulnerability and intimacy. in the week of GDC, community was on many people’s minds. of creation, movement, fracture.

fracture. despite what many prominent indie developers are saying, there isn’t any fracturing. they are finally seeing people around them for the first time. what is seen as splintering is tinted glasses slipping down a nose enough for him to see reality before he pushes it back up. we’ve been here, and you didn’t plan for us. now, we are undeniable. unable to hide, we are quartered.

black. trans. women.

i may be none of those things. i moved through the conference like a priest on their way to an affair. i gave as much absolution a puppet prophet could, when in fact, the last thing i wanted to be was a saint. a pawn graduated to bishop. all i could do was see my reflection as i looked at the poverty of san francisco from three different windows of the marriott.

i watched a picture of a uterus displayed on the big screens of the awards show. i was right next to the stage. i laughed. i realized that i laugh whenever someone assumes i relate to vaginas, fallopian tubes, breasts. i don’t have them. i never will. i laughed when i meant to scream. scream at what people thought was progressive. scream at people trying their best. scream at look how far we’ve come. instead i laughed in fear of my life.

i met many new people last week, some who i wish to talk to more, but see me as a figurine in that snow globe. shake. shake.

i wonder if we’re ready to commit to each other. we only hum together when it’s convenient; won’t you stick around? i haven’t had a conversation with anyone from Indie Game: The Movie. are we really splintered if we never met? i prefer dark beers.

the most poignant moments for me were on escalators. the first time i went to GDC, the top of an escalator snapped off one of the heels of my shoes. so now, my eyes a fixed at the end, slowly gliding upwards, anxious if i will make it. my knees lock together, my nails dig into my palms, and i jump off.

will i make it?

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How We Say

how we say

I am going into full-student mode for the next couple of months, since games and conferences took over the better part of my life these past two years. Thankfully, I’m taking some interesting classes that even just two weeks in have made me think of some issues surrounding games criticism and activism. In particular, I’ve been thinking about discourse and what the unspoken forces are that shape how we talk about games.

Discourse is a bit of a contested word, as it is something that academics use and some people see it as imposing a posture onto public conversation. I want to give a couple takes on the word and have it hang out without being constantly evoked, because I think the concept is useful to think about. Mainly, it is the conversation surrounding a particular topic, from articles to speeches to research to art. In general, the documentation of what’s been said. I find discourse often refers to professional writing on a given conversation, and then it broadens out from there depending on who you’re talking to.

In my detective fiction class, we’re looking at discourse on a much more micro level, such as literally anything communicated that relates to a given mystery, both to the fictional detective and the reader, who is also a detective. From this perspective, it’s easier to practice skepticism towards how discourse is being communicated, since the detective knows they are constantly being deceived to think a certain way. This is the same for the reader, and not just in detective fiction, but in everything that has discourse.

What is the discourse around games criticism saying to us? Or, in particular, what is considered part of the ‘conversation’? Let’s say someone is teaching a class about games criticism, who and what would be included as canon?

I previously mentioned how I’d like to see more than article writing, and more diversity past work that echoes an academic training. Which doesn’t mean burn the academics, rather let’s widen this circle to become more diverse of different ways of thinking and expression. Not only that, let us VALUE these other expressions and have them on equal ground to already established valued work.

Recently, someone passed along this article about how activism on social media as labor is obscured. Anyone involved with or observant of games criticism and social justice on Twitter knows how exhausting it is seeing the news churns out so much to respond to. Juxtaposing this with games critics seeking sustainable pay for their work, what about the unrecognized critics and work that happens on social media? It’s not a hard sell that engaging with Twitter is work to anyone who is involved with media, but to ask for compensation seems wilder than the current funding methods we deploy. This extends out to on-paper jobs as well, such as community managers, who (surprise!) are often women tasked with emotional labor that is devalued. Link that back to this surge and resistance to creative work emphasizing personal perspective, and it’s not hard to imagine that we have unspoken hegemony in what we want from games criticism.

Funny enough, in the middle of writing this, I got into a conversation on Twitter about the attention we pay to AAA games, in this case Remember Me, when it comes to social issues. I feel like criticism has this constant pull, or temptation maybe, to seem legit or effective by returning to rationalize largely problematic, vapid works disproportionately to ones that are pushing artistic boundaries based on broad reach. In the end, trying to look like an academic games journalism is just going to hold us back, a scary looking monster that wields critical focus on everything but its own consumer habits. This isn’t a call for a ban on writing about mainstream games, but rather one to consider what kinds of critical work we value. As a community of thinkers that aren’t necessarily attached to a publication, we keep within the hype cycles of AAA development while bemoaning its stagnancy, despite the lively arts scene that surrounds us. I feel like different games prompt different kinds of criticism, which is why there are so many textual analyses instead of design breakdowns; mainstream games put forth their narrative and visuals, and their play design tends to be unremarkable past reviewer-like comments. What about smaller, weirder games that don’t have that, that all you have is play? I think about how I wrote my list of memorable 2013 games and how I felt I could respond to The Stanley Parable. Hell, I even did some Twitter poetry for Daisy Fitzroy which made some poor redditors concerned I might kill children. Even more interesting, with the advent of the DIY game development culture, many critics are now game designers. I responded to Passage, among other things, with Mainichi. Get a group of critics together and I’m sure you’ll find someone’s made a game. The potential for criticism to be more than the conventions its already bound up in is found outside of my work of course, and I’m curious if other modes of expression along with a focus on alternative games would encourage more people to create criticism. At least, we could use more people for the large amount of games left uncovered.

As an aside, I find it interesting that game jams seem to be a developer-oriented mode of criticism. Many themed ones like the Naked Twine Jam resemble the Blogs of the Round Table Critical Distance does, and the Candy Jam seems to have supplied the commentary on the controversy surrounding King that critics didn’t really find a way to respond to at length. I am weary at the blanket use of game jams as a response, however, as many developers are still learning about how their actions and creations are political in nature. Because games are so used to being treated like commodities, game jams that don’t explicitly set themselves apart from mainstream culture get wrapped back up into it, much what I think is problematic about Flappy Jam.

Besides needing a better archival culture around games criticism, we could use more encouragement to step outside of our comfort zones and the essay for expressing criticism. I’m skeptical of how more long form, academic, journal-like publications pop up despite its inaccessibility being made rather clear. Are we writing for each other more than anything else? I’m uncomfortable more of us haven’t reached for video, or visual art, or games to do criticism. I’m uncomfortable that mainstream journalism still seems to dictate our conversations. And I’m guilty of this too! Instead of checking out the latest game, try seeing what’s new on forest ambassador or freeindiegam.es. A varied diet hasn’t hurt anyone.

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Our Flappy Dystopia

flappy

I’m going to get right to it: any critique or reporting on games that doesn’t include an intersectional perspective on the presence of capitalism in games is incomplete. There’s little else more avoided than the topics of anti-capitalism and class politics in games press and conferences outside of the usual fetishized rags to riches fables. Having money to start with is already a large part of this, but how our societies are organized by valuing people and things by their monetary value above all else structures how we talk about games. It says who gets listened to, who gets noticed, and who is valued.

Why mainstream spaces have a tight lid on these issues is simple: they would be at the very center of critique. There is something unspoken, that of COURSE we’re all run by money. But to say it outloud is taboo, and it’s seen as rudely airing someone’s dirty laundry. That we are aware that the methods of how many institutions make money are unethical but are okay with keeping it just below the surface since we know others are doing it is a cause for extreme alarm.

We, as global, national, and artistic communities, justify a lot of shitty things on the premise of making money. This industry justifies sexism, racism, and all forms of discrimination and oppression because of some unwritten right to make money. Why can’t we have equal representation of minorities in our media? Because someone wants to make money. Why aren’t there more minorities writing about minority issues in a time of heightened social justice on sites that pay fair wages? Because someone wants to make money. Why are the weird free games made commonly by minority artists that play a huge role in changing how we think of the medium excluded from news coverage and conference talks? Because someone wants to make money.

It doesn’t sound nice when it’s constantly called out, does it? Because it isn’t. There is a price tag to participating in games. The mainstream culture of games development demands you are from a class of people who could go into computer science or digital art training and have enough resources to handle an industry that has a terrible track record with labor issues. The standard success story of someone in the games media is a person who can afford to keep up with the newest products and has the resources to write for free or low-wage for about two years. Important conferences, even when you’re invited to speak, often cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars to attend. Knowing that poverty and other forms of economic discrimination disproportionately affects minorities, not including anti-capitalist critique effectively erases the struggle people face on the uneven plane we all convene upon in this community. This is why people at the top shrug at their homogeneity; they are unwilling to see the effects of capitalism on their hiring and creation practices, and even more unwilling to enact change, often with a ‘I got mine’ attitude.

Capitalism is informing what creations are considered good and of value, and what are bad form and derivative. Gamers and others see quality in games that show high production value, and defame games that seem to be a waste of money in this model, EVEN IF THEY ARE FREE GAMES. The idea of success outside the conventional method of capitalism, which is intersectional in its effects, is met with contempt. ‘Success’ is also very dubious and misguided; simply having a lot of attention for a period of time is considered successful, even if all that attention is harassment and you are not better off personally or economically for it. As much attention as the DIY ethos had in the past few years, minority creators are still impoverished while indie games that incorporate marginalized themes and design philosophies into the acceptable model receive praise like pets at dog shows. It’s not necessarily their fault, it’s that the system chooses what looks like it from the margins to seem adaptive. In the end, the system is perpetuating itself, only allowing games and people complicit with how things are going to thrive.

Now let’s enter in Flappy Bird. For some context, Flappy Bird was a mobile game that became the focus of ire and slander because it had pipes in it, similar to those in the Super Mario Bros. series. Or, more precisely, it was making a lot of money off what was billed as theft. I say was because it’s now removed from the app store after the creator, Dong Nguyen, received endless harassment. Jason Schreier’s article and Twitter reactions best embody how the conversation started, though as you can see from some of the edits, there’s been a change of tone. Robert Yang already did a great summation of what was wrong with how Jason and others handled the issue; what interests me the most is how this extreme situation exposed the capitalistic influence in games and the manner it excludes and defames.

Unfortunately, this settles on what’s considered a ‘real’ game, an obsession many people at the top of the community and industry occupy themselves with. The conversation of what is and isn’t a game is often, intentionally or not, used to assign value to already established gaming conventions that benefit the established system and marginalize works that do not look like it, and therefore threaten it. Mobile games are often slated as ‘casual’ games, which people in the gaming press and development overall side-eye as a genre of games mostly just looking to grab people’s money. Except, well, that’s ALL of AAA games, such as the hype around how much Grand Theft Auto V made despite that it was profiting off of flagrant sexism and racism. Mobile games, on the other hand, do not often pander to mainstream gaming audiences’ tastes, and seeing that they go for mass appeal, obtaining fortune is always seen as a negative thing. Sophie Houlden pointed out this contradiction in a recent confluence of events; King, developer of the viral and profitable Candy Crush Saga, acted in a way that is considered unsurprising for mobile developers by trying to trademark and bully other games that have the words ‘candy’ and ‘saga’ in them. The games community was, of course, quick rise against perceived soulless developers and protest with a game jam. But then, a game makes money off of having a reference, maybe, to a ‘real’ game, Super Mario Bros., and is now perceived as stealing. ‘Candy’ and ‘saga’ can’t belong to developers, but green pipes are rightfully Nintendo’s. A quick google image search of Jonathan Blow’s Braid can not only reveal that the indie darling also uses green pipes, but also uses analogues, very obvious references, to Mario’s enemies, mechanics, and story line. It’s entire premise is predicated on people having played Mario, yet we don’t have publications saying Jonathan stole from Nintendo.

Dong is considered an outsider. Who is he? From Vietnam? Oh, that explains this ‘knock-off’ rhetoric people are using. Indie creators are notoriously capitalizing on the nostalgia of the late 80s and 90s gaming culture, with difficult puzzle platformers and action side scrollers as far as the Steam library can go. No one is accusing these devs as stealing from Nintendo and Sega, despite the lineage being extremely clear and borrowed as homage. It’s because the gaming community set up a success narrative for certain indie, mostly white, mostly men, mostly from English-speaking countries, developers who strive to make smaller games competitive with the big dogs. Ultimately, indie games play into the same capitalist model, to the point where many are attached to big publishers on distribution platforms like the PS4. Most indie games strive to be addictive entertainment just like AAA ones do and employ similar kinds of people with a shared background. Indies can stay because they don’t threaten how big business works; instead, they merged right in with it. To this industry, using those green pipes was sacrilege, with the horrific possibility that, in Jason’s words, “some kids might grow up thinking these are ‘Flappy Bird pipes.’” What, exactly, is so bad about that?

The anxiety the industry is facing pairs with its diversity problems. Video games backed itself into a corner by becoming highly specialized for a very particular audience, ‘hardcore gamers.’ They developed conventions, genres, marketing tactics, merchandise, PR cycles, and an entire culture that serves a very narrow idea so they could easily profit off of it. Because of social justice activism and outside pressure from a society that sees gaming as grotesque, awareness about how exclusionary games are is at critical mass and the industry is scrambling to answer. It has no fucking clue how to market to and include minority members of their community and in the world at large. So when Farmville, Peggle, Candy Crush Saga, and Flappy Bird appeal to this mysterious audience big budget and scrappy indies can’t seem to tap, it’s foul play. They are exploitative and unfair. But this same attitude is applied to more avant-garde work that comes up against what it means to be a ‘real’ game, such as Analogue: A Hate Story, Problem Attic, and dys4ia. If games that came from the general DIY movement represented a new standard, it would reveal the institution of video games to be a huge scam. A scam that exploits its workers, exploits the suffering of minorities, exploits the complicity of consumerism. For money not to affect design and coverage anymore would completely change the landscape of games, both how we interact with and speak about them. Simply dispersing the focus on the conventional game design aimed at certain kinds of players would turn the industry upside down.

Be wary of any piece of critical writing and reporting that doesn’t expose and interrogate how capitalism is at work. Not accounting for how the industry moves money and to whom and why keeps us groggy as to why we have the problems that we do. We know this isn’t a meritocracy, that this system values us by our monetary worth decided by its own standards. If we really want to move forward, if we want to remove oppression and breathe life into games, we can’t take the industry and throw in some brown people and queers, we have to establish a community that is inherently inclusive from the get-go. A community past capitalism.

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The DIY of Games Criticism?

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Among the many elephants in the games criticism room, our relationship to academia is one that threatens to stomp on others the most often. Its presence comes out in numerous ways, but most usually on methods of analyzing games and the craft of writing criticism. This month there seems to be a resurgence of it, so I want to spill some thoughts on how it affects me and some things I’d like to see develop.

I’ll be the first to admit that the first dozen or so articles I wrote about games bore a strong resemblance to undergrad critical theory essays. Back then, I had a rigid idea of what made a successful piece of critical writing; for one, I was making an argument defined in opposition to already existing ideas. I needed to establish credibility by citing certain kinds of sources, and aimed to forward the conversation by introducing new concepts and terms I hoped others would use. While this isn’t too distinct of a process from other kinds of writing or research, there is a certain posturing that signals to other academics in the know. It’s not really like a secret society, but it most certainly is a learned way of communicating within a certain institution.

Looking back, I’m not surprised a lot of my writing was met with hostility. There was, and maybe still is, a transition period where I learned what kind of voice, structure, and topics would resonate with readers. I’m now more conversational, speak to colloquial issues with enough context that allows most people to just jump into what I’m saying. I think this is a common path for games critics, but overall, there is a question of how much academia influences our community. Most of the critics I know have academic training of some sort, many are in graduate school and Ph.D programs in some form of critical theory or journalism. I’m not sure I remember an open discussion of how we feel academia effects games criticism, and what’s good and bad about it. Academic bloggers represent a large part of a push for more serious and less commercial analysis of games, but academia is also a notoriously exclusionary institution. So now comes the question, what baggage are we bringing into games criticism from academia that we don’t want, and what is it that we want to keep?

First, I do want to complicate some common notions about academics. Despite it being mostly organized by class, there are many people with varying relationships to privilege and oppression within it, and an intersectional perspective on minority academics is necessary when scrutinizing them. The oppressed have a history of co-opting and subverting academic traditions, using resources of institutions to benefit their communities. To write off anyone who seems academic at all is to dismiss anyone with any quality of a community you are not a part of. This isn’t to ignore the benefits that come along with being educated, just a reminder that a generation of diverse people went through school because they didn’t have an alternative, and now are trying to reconcile this training in a poorer economic climate with the expectation to give back to their communities.

As well, most academic writing isn’t for the public, it’s for other academics. And just like any group has inside language and jargon, so does academia. The problem arises when this information needs to be translated to outside of the institution. There is first the issue of how academia is structured and what academics have to do in order to stay relevant to keep their jobs. Often, the accessible blogging they do won’t be the main meat of their work because it doesn’t seem to count for anything yet. I am applying for a Ph.D program myself, and spent quite some time anxious about putting my blog on my CV; does it really show that I know what I’m talking about, at least, to academics? Reminds me of when I used to read games studies dissertations as I prepared for my masters applications because I’m made to feel like an art student pretending to be in critical studies. I am not in the grind to write for journals, but I can feel that pressure.

But even understanding all this, and looking at me who’s not a capital A Academic but nevertheless holds a degree, I think about what culture of academia I bring into criticism. I think about the unspoken conventions of what criticism looks like and what it’s ‘supposed’ to do. It might be why the games criticism panel at IndieCade felt so weird to me; I personally signal enough to academics that we share culture, but I’m not fully in that world. And the part of me that feels out, the artistic aspect that uses personal experience as a vantage point for writing, is linked to the idiosyncratic writings I find most prevalently in the works of other minority writers.

In reaction to a conversation surrounding a Brendan Keogh piece submitted to an academic journal, and how that flustered academics and non-academics for exact opposite reasons, Dan Golding summarizes something I’ve been simmering on a lot lately: that *where* we are discussing games, blogs, twitter, lunch outside of conferences, that might be what actually dictates the form of our criticism.

We’re so used to the essay being where our thoughts are officially counting for something. I remember thinking to myself how I was ‘wasting’ my ideas by speaking about them on twitter instead of formulating an article. We’re pressured to not rely on our instincts but to position ourselves under a certain convention of research, to be knowledgeable of documented discourse and place ourselves in relation to it.

Going through my personal meditation on what social justice and games criticism have to do with one another, there is a link in feminist studies of using personal experience as evidence. This short entry from a feminist academic journal describes why it is important to recognize that minority perspectives are experts on their own lives, and the information we get from them is important because of how systemic marginalization removes it from discourse. If academia is structured by hegemony, then the way we seek truth and talk about what’s important to us is as well. So, then, what does criticism from the marginalized look like?

I’m sure there’s stuff out there I haven’t encountered that would answer this question for me in other fields, but here, I think that moving away from solely articles as legitimized discourse is the beginning. When I was editing re/Action, we had games and comics as criticism. Leigh Alexander is known for doing her letter series. I wonder what it would be like if we asked everyone to create games criticism that wasn’t in an article form, and used personal experience as evidence. What would we see?

About a year ago, I became an object of fixation around this topic of the proper use of personal experience in criticism. Back then, I thought taking a stance from that position was just another way of explaining things. But now, I think it’s almost dangerous to not explicitly recognize ourselves in our writing. Because when we default to the conventions we’re taught to articulate ourselves, we’re taking on the values of dominant culture that seeks to erase difference. Or, if we are in fact a part of that dominant culture, we project our personal perspectives as something of a standard way of doing things. Because hegemony is so widespread, we have to highlight our personal experience and highlight the hyper-specific. This is both useful for the marginalized to refute what is considered common sense and as a process to find alternative ways that serve our message the best way. What is queer criticism? What is criticism from the poor, by the disabled, from the native peoples of colonized lands? If games criticism suffers from the same homogeneity as the rest of games, then to follow our own advice, we would have to open up to more accessible forms of criticism. As the DIY mentality gets people who didn’t think they could make games to do so and diversify the art we see, shouldn’t there be the same for criticism if an academic background seems like it’s required?

So, is a tweet games criticism? I’d like to think so. I imagine there will be non-written and non-verbal games criticism in the future as well. But as conversation goes on about why other fields should have an interest in games criticism, I think it’s important to have a strong sense of diversity in all its forms before we are completely assimilated into some other practice. I’d like to see more idiosyncrasies in writing, and by foregrounding our personal experience in the crafting process, find new ways of looking at games our current state leaves out.

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On Civility

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With quite a number of pieces about anger and its relationship with toxicity, there is naturally pushback, complications, and a need to turn around and look at the other end: civility. Thankfully, I don’t think anyone in social justice wants to do away with anger entirely, or even at all; mostly, are we using it purposefully? Are we using it to attack the systems that oppress us or the people it manipulates? As the saying goes, are we being consistent with criticizing people’s actions, and not the people themselves?

On the other end, when does the criticism of anger, or toxicity, creep into taking away survival tactics from the oppressed? We are on a journey to find where the line between anger and toxicity is, anger being a productive tool and toxicity being harmful to innocents. It is prudent to point out that this discussion comes out of concern about peer abuse. The reason we are now questioning anger and toxicity isn’t necessarily because privileged people are wringing their hands (though, I will address this), but because anger is being used to silence and harm other minority community members. I think it’s important to reread a lot of these critiques of toxicity under that light, since most critics are reacting to them as policing their activism. On the contrary, toxicity against the community is policing their existence.

In particular, there is the idea that taking away meanness takes away a defense from those who are afraid to speak up. I don’t think meanness is needed, and as a counterpoint to that argument, Kat Haché creates a great allusion through watching Breaking Bad and people watching her rip into opponents. Just because we revel in our current methods doesn’t mean they are the best, nor the most healthy to have. Again, it’s a given that sometimes violence is the only defense a person has, but overall, bloodsport is used too often, for show, and without meaning. What people who want unmoderated meanness don’t really supply is a path for reconciliation, change, and healing when that anger strikes the wrong people. Having been on the side of this anger myself (not from Jeff), I can tell you a simple apology doesn’t fix it. How do we fold in people who’ve learned from their mistakes? How do we control behind the scenes abuse? How do we handle people who are, honestly, hurting more than they are helping? Controlling others with fear is some dark side shit, especially when you’re supposedly speaking on behalf of the people scared shitless of you. It would be really encouraging if these critics could extend their position to include maintaining a healthy community this way.

What I want to dig into, and outline to respect, is the experience that Kim Delicious describes here in response to anti-toxicity articles. It’s a conflict between legit anger, anger that is cathartic and deserved, and understanding that it will wall off communication and education to another person. It shows where being an activist and simply existing as a minority identity blur.

I am now speaking to people when they are in places of privilege on the wrong end of someone’s anger. As we move forward crafting what discourse around social justice looks like, integrating productive methods to continue educating the privileged and defending the vulnerable, it is extremely important to understand the experience of a minority expressing their anger at you. So let’s go through some points and a process to deal with anger coming from social justice and how to pull your weight in solving issues. In essence, this is how the privileged can act civil in confrontation that respects the position of a marginalized person calling them out.

Anger is always justified

It may be expressed in a way you don’t like, but the feeling of anger is only misplaced when there is a misunderstanding. Very often, there isn’t a misunderstanding. Understand that when someone gets confrontational, they aren’t sitting around waiting for someone to make them spark. They go through everyday life dealing microaggressions and outright oppressive abuse. Poverty and health issues are weighted disproportionately against people with marginalized identities. Your trip-up? Could be the last crack needed to break a person’s feeling of self-worth or security. Were you human and fucked up? Yeah, but they are also human, and to expect people to not feel raw because of your ignorance is asking for inhuman strength. When someone’s at the end of their rope and you accidently knock them off, you can’t expect them to react nicely when they hit the ground, hard. Bottom line: people are suffering while the privileged are complicit in the system, educating themselves at their own pace as people are violently oppressed every day. Don’t deny them their catharsis.

The conversation is always in the favor of the privileged

A common misconception when there is discussion around oppressive behavior, is that the people involved are on equal footing and debating as equals. Even though they didn’t ask for it, the privileged always goes into a conversation with an advantage. For example, the marginalized will always be assumed to have misplaced anger. Rhetoric such as being sensitive and illogical come into play, where on top of their base argument, they have to prove they have the ‘right’ to be angry. They have to first convince the privileged they are allowed to be angry, when the privileged doesn’t have to legitimize their feelings. Their feelings are considered the standard. And because they are in a privileged position, there is a whole cultural backlog of excuses and derailments available that society uses to silence and brush aside minority voices. Their argument seems more ‘natural’ while the marginalized are always actively trying to legitimize their existence and right to be considered equal by a system that doesn’t treat them this way. Recognize that privileged thinking seems essentialized into universal truth or common sense. You might think that your lens is logical, but often it is colonial and marginalizing.

You need to apologize. Quick

When you are in a place of privilege and you find yourself being called out by an oppressed person, you should be racing towards an apology, even if you don’t quite understand what you did wrong. Firstly, for your continued, if even understandable, complicity in their oppression. We are only human and we can’t solve things like ableism and racism all on our own as individuals. But we can acknowledge this and apologize that it continues, and that our limitations as honest but unsure people contribute to the continued marginalization of others. It’s hard, but it’s true. You might be creating a video game with usual tropes of sexism but have your hands tied because of financial security. The complexity is understandable, but an apology is still warranted. Here is a good video on how to apologize I think everyone should watch.

Now, it’s good to recognize that everyone is coming into this discourse with varying levels of understanding and confidence when it comes to social justice. So here is a simple process to go through when you’re being accused of things you don’t quite understand and the air is tense:

Listen

This should be obvious, but often our first inclination is to react to anger and accusations. But what you really need to do is find out what exactly the problem is. Who is bringing this to your attention, and why? Remember, it is really brave for a person in a marginalized position to speak up against someone in a place of privilege. You might think you are speaking as equals, but what is really happening is someone from a socially deemed lower class speaking to someone of a higher one that wields more power. Recognize that they are sticking their neck out and will probably get harassed for doing so, even if you don’t directly do anything to encourage it. This isn’t a time for you, it’s for them.

Believe

In the heat of the moment, you need to do your best to believe everything a person in a marginalized position is telling you about how you are enacting their oppression. Believe that they’re hurt, believe that you hurt them, and believe what they say caused that hurt. No matter what, their feelings are legit and you need to recognize that. They are feeling that, whether you meant to evoke that or not. There is also time for research, fact-checking, and education later. This isn’t about being right, it’s about undoing harm. People with lived experiences, thinking way longer on these subjects are going to be better judges at seeing oppressive actions and attitudes that people in places of privilege. And even if they are wrong about what they’ve accused, it doesn’t erase that there’s still inequality, and they must always be on the defensive to survive.

Ask

If you’ve followed through everything before, by this time, there will most likely be people who are willing to at least point you in the right direction for education on what happened. Asking people questions for you to better understand the situation will work when you start off by telling them you believe what they say and you apologize genuinely. Ask how you can make it up, ask how you can have better relations with marginalized communities, ask how you can do better. The only way you’re going to learn not to fuck up again is if you hear it straight from those who know best. Then, go research and reflect on the event. If you need to make a rebuttal, don’t divorce it from systemic oppression. Really figure out how your actions either did or did not perpetuate the system.

There’s also a selfish reason to want to do things this way. It avoids meanness. Sure, if the initial offense is bad enough, you’re most likely going to get people being mean. But if there is anything that can quell anger, it’s a genuine apology that has an informed plan of action for change. If you step on someone’s toe, don’t begrudge them if they are grouchy, even while you try to make it up.

I hope we can raise the bar of these conversations, so there is less pain on both sides and a chance for learning. If it becomes common practice to own mistakes and apologize, we can get to solutions quicker with less casualties. Meaning, the community overall will learn easier and we can make progress dismantling systems of oppression. If we understand that mistakes are going to happen that hurt the oppressed, then we need etiquette in place respects the position of the marginalized and leads to a productive conclusion.

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On Anger

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Natural to the turn of the new year, there is reflection on the progress we’ve made and where we see ourselves going. I’ve been reading and listening to a lot of retrospectives in social justice, what 2013 was like and new goals for 2014. In games, I think it goes a little something like this:

2012: Off of the work of many obscured social justice activists (mostly centered around The Border House), games media hit critical mass with enough education and protesting of marginalization that many incidents were highlighted and discussed. More public figures felt comfortable talking about discrimination, more people started to speak up on social media, more PR and games were called out. It was the year of it becoming irrefutable that there is a problem, and it needs to be solved, documented ultimately by #1ReasonWhy and #1ReasonToBe.

2013: Everyone is trying out their social justice hat. Some are inexperienced, others more so. It is expected, on some level, that you are savvy with feminism. More and more people are joining the conversation, and with intersectionality, more critiques are added in. It was the reaction year, on a ground level and industry one. GDC had the premier of their advocacy track of talks, and there were at least 4 games specific conferences with strict anti-harassment and diversity/inclusion policies.

2014: Seems to be the acknowledgement that there isn’t a code of conduct for social justice on social media, and there is a strong need to cut down on toxic meanness and peer abuse. It’s finding the answer of how discuss and educate that progresses our field while respecting the suffering of those waiting for the privileged to learn. More on this soon.

This new year, I made a resolution to be critical without the negativity. I brought a lot of my negative feelings to social media, completely valid negative feelings, that set a tone for people to interact with me. It was conflicting with my goals as an activist; I want people to feel comfortable coming to me and speaking about issues, but I obviously was always stressed, down, bitter. Who wants to open up and expose themselves to a person like that? To a person who looks like they don’t need another burden on their shoulders? I am making an active effort to privately journal my negative feelings and find out different self-healing tactics that involves getting away from Twitter. I want to be more approachable, I want people to feel encouraged around me. I want to be a safe space, if you will, and have the ability to make where I am a place of respectul, earnest discussion.

But, on day 2, I might have already messed up. Before I jump into my rambling trying to figure this out, I want to own up to where I feel like I’ve failed. I’m concluding that I don’t think personal attacks are useful when critiquing someone. By that point, it’s mean, and doesn’t help. It is the misuse of anger, which passionately communicates to people deep truths you feel. Insults are meant to hurt, to inflict pain. I believe expressing anger is vital to discourse, but I don’t condone insulting other people to be mean. This tweet summarizes elegantly what I feel, reminiscent of Aevee’s “Anger isn’t violence, violence isn’t anger:”

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I witnessed personal attacks happen in the name of social justice yesterday, and no matter how complicated the issue, I didn’t say anything even though I felt uncomfortable. I was wrong not to say anything and I sincerely apologize for my hesistation. What we need is more nuanced discussion, and what happened was more of the same. This feels like a good example where valid anger is misused in the name of social justice.

It all started with Ben Kuchera becoming the editor of the opinions section of Polygon. I can best describe why this matters through literally what I saw on Twitter. In my set up, I have two timelines that concern video games. One is my personal following list of people I somewhat regularly talk to in games, and the other is of people I don’t really talk with or follow closely, but are important enough names in the industry to look at. This industry list has a lot of similar people with similar enough ideas about games. Mostly white men (among other similarities) who make a living wage off of games and most people involved with games would know who they are. When Ben got this new job, this side of Twitter was congratulatory for the most part, not really thinking much of it. The other side of Twitter, filled with personal friends, social justice activists, radical designers, critics of diverse backgrounds, was outraged. To this side of games, Ben is a person who consistently antagonized social justice activism, spouted problematic ideas in the name of games journalism, and defended his bosses, Penny Arcade, when they, or I should say Mike in particular, contributed many a faux pas. Since Penny Arcade Report is down, I can’t link to any of the stuff he’s written, but trivializing rape culture, diminishing women journalists when speaking of sexism in the industry, and downplaying transphobia while defending the problematic aspects of brony culture are among the things he’s known to do.

Why does this matter? Polygon is on record saying they are striving for a diverse staff and to have diverse perspectives with their content. As of this writing, there is mostly white men as editors, no women, and I’m sure there’s other homogeneity there. Polygon isn’t short on talented talented minority writers, Tracey Lien and Danielle Riendeau in particular have done absolutely essential work in games journalism and I enjoy them dearly as peers and friends. So it can’t be helped to say why, why another from the old guard to be an editor when you are committed to diversity? Why a person who has a bad track record with diversity in the section of your site that has the best chance of talking about diversity? We don’t have all the information of what went into this decision, but these are valid questions when a hire goes against what you claim to be. Is there literally no one else, within or outside, that can fill that role and challenge the status quo at the same time?

Asking these questions is legit, and I don’t think Polygon is going to ever really comment on it. But things like these serve as a litmus test, to see what people are feeling about certain community happenings. Two years ago, when Polygon formed, they got critiqued for starting their publications with only men. There was back and forth and debate, and it showed everyone that we need a diverse set of writers at a publication to get diverse content. Also, with the rise of social justice, minority writers are not only more likely to bring up the topic of discrimination, but are also more likely to get it right since it’s their lived experience. Continuing to only hire people similar to the usual games journalist, usual game developer, usual gamer doesn’t contribute enough of a divergent viewpoint to unpack all the problems that come with marginalization in our community.

While I feel in general the critique was valid and tame, the tone quickly shifted when this blog by Jeff Kunzler was posted and shared widely. It took me a long time in reflection to realize I really don’t like what this was doing. It has anger coming from the right place, but it isn’t directed in a critical manner. It is mostly mean and disparaging. It generalizes and glides over the nuance is does bring up to return to the insulting. I silently approved of this and shared it.

This is what I would call 2013 social justice activism. In the end, Polygon is definitely up for critique when observing this event through the lens of social justice. They deserve to be held accountable and answer for their actions, and be criticized if they don’t. However, if we look back up to that tweet, this post made the conversation hostile. The moment people feel unsafe to speak, we lose authenticity. We lose the honesty of anger. This isn’t to say I think the line was crossed when the first person from the industry side of Twitter said they couldn’t handle the negativity. There will be people who invalidate anything that’s isn’t served with a spoonful of sugar, and that’s a usual step in the phase of getting over privilege and complacency. I also want to point out that, on its own, that post isn’t harassment or abuse, though I was told there was harassment on Twitter as a result. It was straight up mean, and I gave it a nod and passed it on. Righteous anger humbles people, moves them, and unites people for a change. Meanness is toxic, it makes everyone uncomfortable and afraid to speak up, even if they are your allies and agree with you. In the end, critique is a call for change, and all that was there was meanness. I really hope Jeff follows up with a better critique, unapologetic in their intent but sorry for its demeaning nature. It is, like they say, so 2013. In 2014, we want to find more critical, constructive ways of activism.

However, to give this whole thing more nuance, I feel like I need to detail why, at first, I was fine with that post representing the general dissent of Ben’s hire. Because while we don’t want this sort of advocacy to dominate 2014, we must address the suffering from which is it born. I want to tell you of my time in games criticism.

I began actively blogging in August 2011. I was picked up by publications like The Border House, Nightmare Mode, Game Critics, and PopMatters. I think people describe me as someone who ‘came out of nowhere’ because suddenly my pieces were in many places and I was advocating on Twitter constantly. Eventually, using The Border House as a platform, I challenged Kotaku on some comments the editor-in-chief at the time made, and eventually wrote a piece about why games publications like Kotaku are unwelcoming to minorities. This is when games media started to find out about who I am, and because of this, I think, I lead a successful campaign that allowed me to travel to GDC and PAX East. During this time, I was working as many hours as I could at a Starbucks while applying to grad schools. It became apparent with the time I spent writing on games, I needed to start getting paid. I was constantly exhausted, especially because I was still getting used to the abuse that comes with speaking up about social issues in games. My work was regularly featured in Critical Distance, I got some pieces in Paste, and my writing was in printable magazines like Ctrl+Alt+Defeat. I don’t say this to blow my own horn, actually the contrary; I’m really bad at self-promotion, but I feel like this was evidence that I was doing good work.

When seeking advice from friends, I knew it would be hard to get a gig anywhere, especially as someone who only does opinion pieces. For the next year, up until a few months ago, I pitched to many (all?) publications, who all ended up turning me away for different reasons. My work has been called too feminist, too risky, too weird. Every single editor tells me, privately, they love my work and want to see me do well. But they can’t publish me because of money and risk-averse attitudes. I’ve been told I’m not notable enough, not a Leigh Alexander or Ian Bogost, to have my opinions go up without first rising through the ranks like everyone else. I’ve been told time and time again I must first do news and shitty reviews before I can get an op-ed anywhere. I tried doing news and features, but I’ve concluded I am simply not a journalist; I am a critic. By this time, games writing has taken over my life. I’m in grad school and barely know anyone in my program. I’m now known as ‘that girl who goes to video game conferences’ and will be leaving this program with the bare minimum of what I came here to do. In 2013, I spoke at 14 different events in 3 different countries, attempted my own games criticism publication, co-founded and -organized the successful Queerness and Games Conference, and am one of the few people who can say games criticism pays my rent. Polygon even named me one of the top 50 newsmakers in games last year. I was living off of less than $10K while doing all this and living in San Francisco, a notoriously expensive place to live, but the place of opportunity for games writers. Again, this isn’t to boast. This is me building a rationale of not understanding why people won’t hire me. Why won’t people commission my work? Why am I not important enough? What else must I do to earn the right to make a living wage in the games world? Am I not allowed to be frustrated and angry?

My relationship with Polygon is weird, to say the least. When they had a panel at PAX East about their name reveal, I put them on the spot to answer for the diversity criticisms they’ve received. They consulted me privately in email and didn’t really heed anything I had to say about what they should do to attract diverse talent and promote diverse content. They didn’t hire me when I applied. I am friends with Tracey, Danielle, and Phil Kollar, while one of the four people I have blocked on Twitter is an editor there. There are people I barely know and some I’d like to get to know better. Polygon is just progressive of center in their content but rather old guard in the way they handle journalism. I had a good opportunity to do a feature piece for a great rate that didn’t pan out, and I was given a very low rate when pitching criticism for their opinion section. So when someone like Ben comes in as an extra person to the opinions section where there was apparently not enough funds to give me a proper rate, it felt like a slap in the face. A slap in the face by someone who is notoriously dismissive of minority perspectives and out of touch with social activism. A person I could never pitch a piece to.

This isn’t just about me, and this isn’t just about Polygon; games criticism overall is a very impoverished space. We have many talented writers who aren’t allowed into games publications and are trying to scrape on by. People in the media and those who consume it are always encouraging these people, like me, to not give up, that our voices are valuable. But because we don’t want to, or can’t because of life situation, do news and feature work, we are kept out of the process. We aren’t only kept out of games publications, but we’re also kept out of more general ones like the New York Times because we don’t have the connections. Notable game critics as a group happen to be a more diverse set of perspectives than current mainstream games media. Gating the opinion section of your site from game critics is the first way to limit new, different critical voices from getting into the media. Hiring someone known for having problematic views on minority issues is dissuading minorities from pitching to your publication. Again, not just Polygon, I’ve had similar experiences with The Escapist, Rock Paper Shotgun, Gamasutra, and other places.

When I see that other people, the same old people, get hired and given work, I get bitter. I get bitter because I most likely didn’t eat that day, was a shut in from not being able to afford makeup that week, because I face harassment and exclusion on my own dime and time. I am angry that the games media keeps me out while saying it, as an institution, thinks I’m valuable as a person. They show this by asking me for free or low-rate work. I am deeply frustrated, and tired, of fielding the same offenses time after time, with people telling me to be quiet and not talk about games journalism. I have to talk about the institution of games journalism, my very well-being might rest in it.

What’s the solution? The obvious thing is for publications to change, and make it very public what and how they are going to change. But if that was an option, that would have changed things a while ago.

Instead, I am curious about how individual efforts are going. As I mentioned earlier, I get supported by the community to write games criticism, and as of now get around $400 for each piece. That’s about 3 times the highest rate I’ve ever been offered by a mainstream publication. This is obviously bittersweet; I am getting paid more than games journalism thinks I’m worth, but also, the media doesn’t think I’m worth a livable wage. I still don’t make a livable wage, and many others with funding pages don’t either, but it’s still a lot more than the nothing places like Polygon are offering us for criticism.

Meaning, it might be the best option to listen to separatist feelings. It’s possible it’s time to just end this connection and be a community that is adjacent to instead of squashed by games media. As independent critics, we can follow our own rules and communicate directly to our readers. Readers support the styles they like and know they are helping someone who is most likely socially disadvantaged survive a little more off their craft. Maybe the mistake all along is trying to integrate into a system that doesn’t want us. Of course, that assumes this individual crowdfunding trend sticks around, and that has yet to be seen.

We do need to keep in mind that we’re fighting the system that uses people to marginalize others, not the people themselves. Attacking people at Polygon does nothing to critique or dismantle the system of oppression that influences all games media. However, it does stand as a good example of what is wrong with the systems the media functions under. Polygon strives to be the best and made that their image, which means they also have the daunting task of dealing with our field’s discrimination issues, some of which their publication was founded on.

I am scared this will come off pedantic and prescriptive. I want there to be helpful, respectful conversation. Respectful where the oppression and suffering of minorities are taken into account, and where polemic anger is low rumble that shakes people at their bones instead of an acid wash over their face. I want to be known as honest and critical, as approachable and productive. I regret both the actions and inactions that have led to my corner of the community to be hostile and unsafe for others to speak. I want to figure out how to recognize the uneven plane we enter in these discussions without disregarding each other as humans. People in places of privilege need to recognize marginalized voices come into the conversation having suffered abuse and impoverishment. To respect connection or separation when that’s what someone wants. Activists to understand that anger is wanted, but not cruelty. That personal insults just haven’t been working to change anything, and they will continue to not work.

It’s unfortunate that the year has to start off rocky, but it’s good to course-correct as early as possible. In the coming year, I want to see discussion and experiments on constructive, passionate uses of anger for social justice and change. I want people to express themselves honestly and without the degradation of others. We have our journals, our personal friends who understand us to be petty with. This doesn’t need to be an artificially happy place, but I’d like it to be somewhere no one is afraid to speak their mind and learn. I hope people who disagree with me contact me and let me know what they think, because I am ready for a change for the better, whatever it is we decide, as a community.

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Inspiring Games I Played in 2013

proteus

Deadbolt

I have a hard time crying. Out of all the people I know, I cry the least. Even when I want to, I can’t seem to reach that catharsis.

Catharsis. I’m really interested in play being used for communication. Especially between people who are intimate with one another. There is something about play that can internalize frustration, despair, relief.

I played Deadbolt twice, and both times I cried afterwards. It wasn’t a game about crying, rather, extreme tension and exhaling. The play was more in what you didn’t do than the simple actions of telling a secret or giving praise.

It was the mood. I couldn’t say a word most of time. I sat, anticipating what raw memory I’d have to bare, listening to people talk to each other in hushed voices. Both for my ears and none of my business. When I finally got to speak, to detail what neurosis haunts me, my voice is hoarse.

I still carry the game around with me. But it’s a part of Deadbolt that doesn’t have any rules. There are three cards with keys on them in my wallet, and when I remember that they are there, I begin to cry.

Dog Eat Dog

We were a nation in love with horses and festivals. Every year we held our biggest celebration on the day of the horses, feeding them fruit and brushing their manes.

Then they came. The first thing they demanded was putting the horses to work. We didn’t understand. White men with lip hair tried to mount our horses, but they bucked and kicked and ran off to the forests. We would have too, if it weren’t for their guns.

We did all we could to resist. We held festivals every day to avoid working for invaders. We began to worship the sea, pretty rocks, strong gusts of wind. We snuck our children in the forests at night so they didn’t forget about horses.

They put us in rooms to teach us their ways. Our young listened to them more than the horses. And even when they left, we could still feel the roads they paved over our homes.

The Entertainment

There is a man sitting at a bar. He rocks back and forth on the back legs of the stool. A cracked leather wallet stuffed with receipts of art supplies and lattes to write off his taxes peeks out his right, back pocket. There were small icebergs floating on a half-inch of amber liquor in the highball by his knuckles. His cell phone won’t ring. He picks up the glass.

I like the way men sit. The angle of their legs just shy of a right angle, one foot dangling, laces just about to touch the ground. Okay, the way he sits. Lip. Gloss. Smack. I can see him in my compact mirror. The jukebox music is just cheesy enough for small talk. Just say how stiff the Long Islands are here. He’s checking his phone. I rise from my seat.

This is about perspective. Every object is observed from different angles, with different senses, from different heights and distances. You feel like you are moving forward through life but an infinite amount of things are hitting you sideways and upside down. We usually hear of life second-hand, but here we get closer to the chaos of experience, even the parts we don’t know we feel.

Killer Queen Arcade

I am the Queen. My kingdom is the battlefield.

I can hear our enemies. They are tapping and whispering. They jump around and I must kill them.

I admit, I can’t keep track of my children. They yell for my attention, powerless without my intervention. They chirp when they jump, pleading as I dodge dive attacks and horizontal swipes.

One is collecting, other ride a snail, the rest chase the enemy queen. I don’t quite understand the snail. What do we do, mother?

In every battle, there is a sacrifice. My children on the ground floor distract the enemy as I evolve my newly born into warriors. They throw their bodies forward without a concern for their lives, only mine.

Only mine.

Mascarade

I am the Queen. Or am I the Bishop? I’m probably the Bishop.

Life Lesson #1: Fake it ‘til you make it. Most of the time, you’re not 100% sure of who you are. More importantly, it’s who others perceive you to be. That’s how they decide to use you, fear you. Always look more dangerous, more well off than you actually are.

I take their gold.

Life Lesson #2: Embrace change. They always say it’s about the journey, and they’re fuckin’ right. Everyone is clawing to win. People you know, people you don’t. We play a game that doesn’t let everyone win. You must deceive and manipulate your way through. You play by the rules.

I am challenged.

Life Lesson #3: We’re all fighting the same battle. We spend so much time sizing each other up, seeing how she is so much more eloquent, how they have so many friends. People will gang up out of desperation. Others, self-sabotage, because that’s the only thing they see.

I am the Queen.

Microscope

Whether we do it intentionally or not, we are all historians.

Misery Bubblegum

It was the first day back from break in the journalism club at the elite Flight Academy. There were mostly old faces, ready to get their small print paper up and running again. They all had secrets; the newest addition who messed with the computers had a crush on the editor in chief, the managing editor was an android, and the star beat reporter has a history, and propensity, for unethical practices. What they didn’t know is their search for the truth would uncover the biggest secret of their lives.

Flight Academy wasn’t just a prep school that sent a large portion of its graduates to the country’s air force. No. Many of these students were selectively, subtly trained to have superhuman powers, all to go on espionage missions against new, threatening alien forces. The journalism club, eager to break news, stumbled upon what at first looked like a paintball match between upper classmates, but turned out to be a battle of psychic forces.

They didn’t have to get involved. But because the reporter wanted to show up the android, who was doting on their new hacker, who felt terrible guilt for breaking and entering the offices of their administration, they found themselves dead in the middle of war. Can these plucky heroes pull together and use the power of friendship to survive?

Pixel Fireplace

During GDC this year, there was a game exhibit over at SFMOMA. Which means the walls and furniture were perfect geometries. It was a room full of relaxing video games. People were lying down making low humming noises, sitting in tents, meditating.

But there was a TV with chairs surrounding it, and it had the most comforting noise playing. It was that of a campfire. When my eyes saw it, they glazed like they do when you stare at an actual fire. The other people who were there had similar looks. We didn’t really talk, just sat, and watching. Every once in a while, someone would type in a word, and the game would throw that into the fire.

p-o-p-c-o-r-n

m-a-r-s-h-m-a-l-l-o-w

f-i-r-e-c-r-a-c-k-e-r

p-a-p-e-r

Every once in a while, you had to place a log so the fire wouldn’t go out.

l-o-g

I didn’t want to say anything else. And when people saw me, saw the fire, they joined and just sat with me. Sometimes they would throw in something flashy, but mostly would sit, sometimes cuddle. No one asked for more, because this was enough. Us, all facing the same thing, in quiet agreement, was enough.

l-o-g

l-o-g

l-o-g

l-o-g

Proteus

the old woman of the sea

queers in love at the end of the world

kiss
please
breathe in
twine
gift
fuck me now
calm you
take
desperate
tell
breathe out
just hold her hand
when she kisses you back
alive
breathe in
hungrily
her breathing
hold

Everything is wiped away.

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Learning Moments in Games 2013

2013

Wow, 2013 feels like both a blur and ancient history. It’s always fun to think about how things change over the course of a year, both yourself and the things that surround you. What was games for Mattie in 2013?

This was the year of speaking and traveling for me! I was invited to speak at 15 different events in 9 different cities in 3 different countries! And those only include the ones I said yes to, there was a lot I had to turn down because of funding and time. I really loved meeting so many people who care about play and games, adding to discourse in their own ways. Despite how tiring it was, I’d do it all again; there’s something about talking to people in person that I crave and Twitter can’t really fill. 2013 was also a year of ambitious projects for me (especially schemes to make me money)! I co-founded a publication and conference, am now an independent critic (not sure if these really exist so much?? I think people are confused when I say it like that), and currently crossing my fingers to hear back from both a design job and Ph.D application. I’ll talk more in detail about all this stuff below.

I think this year I began to really dig into the details of why I care about games and my relationship to them. I am shaping my philosophies, speaking a little more purposefully. This year was laying down the groundwork for expanding past the very claustrophobic corner of criticism in games journalism and carving out my own role. I’m not exactly sure what is to become of me, but if I can keep up with meeting and listening to so many different people, I’m sure I’ll find a place for me.

I know everyone likes lists, so here’s chronological list of highlights for me in 2013. Check out the links for added context:

Would You Kindly
This piece was important to me in my growth of writing criticism. In hindsight, that this was the first thing to happen to be me 2013 proved to be a sign of my changing relationship with games criticism, development, and social justice. It set the tone more than I thought, only now that I reflect do I see it was a natural progression of sorts. More than the writing was the response to my piece where I learned my lesson. One person wrote a response criticising my use of personal experience and identity politics. This would cause about a week-long twitter storm in my timeline that I would barely be a part of. People usually associated with activism were vocally damning of the author (rightfully so, though not the way I would have liked it) and there were critics and readers who have been quietly uncomfortable with how much social justice was leaking into games criticism. It turned into a lot of finger-pointing, burned bridges, all that fun stuff.

Though I have seen some rough events before, this is when I started to really think on how we handle ourselves on social media. Everyone is ultimately afraid of one another, and there’s a weird tension of being so far apart but constantly in each other’s presence. If I cared about that person, trying to communicate meaningful over twitter just didn’t seem to be the right idea while also being public. I started having more private conversations, with friends and people I’ve disagreed with, and I found that they are always preferable. Social media is for tackling the big entities that are inaccessible through conversation, not individuals.

Pokemon: Unchained
I’m not exactly sure where I got this idea from. I somehow found out about the Nuzlocke Challenge for Pokemon, and I think I saw Django: Unchained recently. Obviously these two things relate! It was super fun journaling this, mostly because I think Pokemon fans were mortified how creepy Black & White were. It was weird, I think the challenge was strangely effective at making me feel like I was a monster for playing Pokemon. It was oddly compelling because of it’s brutality, not sure what that says about me.

What I liked was how much a lot of people, those who follow my work and didn’t, enjoyed me appropriating pop culture for artistic purposes. Especially with what games are going through right now, I expected anger, which there was a bit of dismissiveness, but far outweighed by interesting. It also showed me that I don’t interact with pop culture nearly as much as I should to feel connected to the rest of the world, and I should look for more paths to connecting with broader audiences that doesn’t compromise my more creative goals.

#lostlevels
You think it wouldn’t be a big deal to set up some blankets in a park for people to speak 5 minutes about their random sometimes game related thoughts, but it is a monumental task. Even with the threat of ostracization from GDC, #lostlevels created a space for anyone to participate, even if they couldn’t afford passes that were hundreds or thousands of dollars. It is an attempt to offset the problems that come with a for-profit event organizing the most central games conference.

What struck me in particular was how, when an event was free and encouraged participation from anyone interested, horizontal things felt. Someone who isn’t really involved with games but had some interesting thoughts were talking casually with solo rockstar developers and New York academics. I knew we needed more things like this, more spaces for people to talk and share without the barriers to entry. I never did an unconference before, and I find it a great format to encourage speaking from many different people.

Triptychs
After GDC, there was what is now called the ‘Formalist vs Zinester’ clash, which is a misnomer since no one identifies as a Zinester. The age-old ‘what is a game’ argument, why that question is and isn’t useful. It changed the tone of some public academic discourse, which now ‘allowed’ people to talk about social justice topics in tandem with game design theory. Overall, there is a bunch of questions blown open: why do we need to designate what a good game is? Why do we need systems in games? What do we do about the homogeneity in games academia?

Personally, I found that many people are curious about difference and don’t know how to really approach someone appropriately to talk to others. I’m a person that has a high tolerance for people apparently, and ended up having a lot of personal conversations (learned from earlier in the year) to bridge build. My conclusion? There is a distinct aesthetic shift that is discarding most of the values set up by the last decade or so of games.

Different Games
First time to New York City, first time to a conference explicitly about diversity in games. Different Games made an active effort to move past usual topics like representation that you would see at other conferences and look at what problems we see in games that sink deeper into how we talk about games, how we deploy their rhetoric in non-games spaces, etc. It also provided workshops and breakouts as much as it did talks, which, while simple, really impressed me with how much I wanted to do something else but listen to people talk, and I’m a person who can stand academic conventions (at times).

It’s Different Games that is starting me down a journey that will be okay just going to events on the periphery instead of big monoculture ones. I wanted to organize something like #lostlevels but was too scared that I’d be barred from GDC if I did. I felt like I’d be kept out of games culture. And while there are other events out there doing interesting things, it was this one that turned that lightbulb on for me. There needs to be more local conferences and grassroots initiatives. We can’t expect to get anywhere if we rely on these bigger events waiting for a chance to speak.

re/Action
Weirdly enough, I can say I was the editor-in-chief of a publication. I had spent a year putting together literary journals and decided I wanted to try my hand at putting out another solution for supporting games criticism. Including back-end stuff, it was about a five-month ordeal that I learned a lot about managing people, editing work, and ideology behind running a potential business. To say the least, I got to interface with a lot of practical application of activist ideals.

I failed in public. It was really difficult to see a project I put a lot of time and energy into just really crumble and fail. But, I wouldn’t have found out a lot of things about myself and the community surrounding games criticism if it wasn’t for re/Action. In a sense, it’s a hopelessly lone wolf environment, and it’s usually the poor who help the poor. In that sense, it opened the door for me to try out being independently supported, but that’s not a good enough solution. I became a little more aware of my impact inside and outside the community.

EAT & Mission
Moving away from the digital, I looked to ARGs of my past to create new experiences for communication and expression. I wanted to prove to myself that game design was game design, and I didn’t have a fluke good thought with video games. ARGs use play to augment your life and has a stronger chance of having people internalize the experience, especially because video games are mostly constrained by controllers and digital competency. If you will, your life, you self is the controller in EAT and Mission.

I’m glad to be broadening out my creative expression, because I feel like we often constrain ourselves to one thing. I didn’t want to be a person who could only express feelings through writing and speech, I wanted something else. I also wanted to find new ways of bringing meaningful play to people who are marginalized and kept out. I want to challenge how we engage in activism through play. This got me interested in pursuing my education in games, so this is definitely still in progress.

GCAP
GCAP is the main, annual conference of the Australian games industry, and was an intense conference for me. For one, it was my first trip outside of the US, and that it was to speak at a conference is more than I could have after thought possible for me. I got to talk about what was important to me, and see a lot of colleagues from online which solidified a little more a feeling of belonging.

There aren’t many times when an aspect of my privilege is made very clear to me. Living on the west coast of America is making access a lot easier for me in the games industry and community overall. There are publications, companies, and schools here. At GCAP, I heard a lot of stories about how a lot of American companies moved out of Australia and devastated their industry, and how they survived and gained back some ground. I came in with a lot of preconceptions, especially around my understanding of what the indie scene is here in America and how it’s different there. I really want to push international efforts more in the events I do.

QGCon
Probably the biggest event of my year, I helped coordinate the Queerness and Games Conference where we gathered a bunch of interesting people to talk about how queerness and games intersect. It was a grand experiment, as a free event, with a generous mix of academics, developers, and fans about deeper topics than we normally talk about. That it was a success really makes me smile, I should think of this more.

I learned more than I could ever list here, but that it was possible to have all the things I wanted in an event happen. To be a working safe space, with multiple kinds of engagement, accessible, a mix of different skills and perspectives. It was really cool seeing the inner workings of a conference and how to make my ideals a practical reality. It also showed me how important (as I’ve said in the past) that we have more local functions, and now that I realize it’s not as impossible to do (though still very hard) I want to work on making organizing conferences more accessible to others.

The Death of the Player
This piece is an accumulation of creative work, conversation, and my own thoughts of how my home base in creative writing could teach games and play. Overall, I talk about the meaningful use of iteration and non-iteration as creative tools, and how the recent, personal experience-focused games challenge game design conventions and common knowledge. Playtesting tends to prioritize player agency within our work, and that brings in a lot of politics, especially autobiographical in the works of minorities.

This is a bit of a grand note to end on, but this year really helped me shed off a lot of preconceptions about game design and let me make room for myself. There is more we as individuals have to bring to games at this point than the other way around. We need people outside of games, outside of the industry and schools to be crafting and thinking about play. So I’ve been thinking about who I am outside of games and what I can bring to the table, and I hope 2014 is my attempt to do that.

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