Further Thoughts on the Tarot and Interpretation

WaiteRiderTarot

When I experimented modding Netrunner with the Tarot, I started with contrasting quantitative and qualitative relationships in card games, and in games generally. Within that, I found a deeper issue I couldn’t put my finger on for some while, and the direct analogy of the tarot to card games made it clear to me. Conventional game design often denies players the act of interpretation. Which is why simply assigning tarot cards or other interpretive practices onto play won’t yield much besides an interesting add-on; game design is meant to clearly telegraph information to the player, typically surrounding the usual stance of ‘games are a set of rules.’

What the dominant paradigm of design does is create a system for the player to uncover, and game within that system. It is ultimately a puzzle, though the creative process of moving within situations isn’t something to be disregarded. Rather, it’s not the complete picture, particularly for play experiences that don’t want to do something explicitly goal-orientated. I’m pretty much over ‘elegant’ systems because they typically don’t say too much interesting. Instead, I am curious about inviting players to interpret their experience and contextualize it in their own lives.

What separates tarot cards from playing cards, or most cards really, is the recognition of infinite interpretations. And not like inconsequential variations, but a discernable capacity to hold many different meanings and provide different contexts. Taking the difference between the five of hearts and five of cups, a visualized version of the five of heart’s ancestor, demonstrates the difference of meaningful interpretation. The five of hearts has very few meanings as it is used in five of cups and heartsplaying card games; it is higher than numbered four cards, lower than the six ones, and is of the heart suit. It’s boiled down to a function, and carries with it the idea of optimization. That is, conventional game design leans on discovering optimal play, and the meaning of its parts don’t exceed much from that. When the five of cups is placed down, what ultimately determines its effect are the people involved interpreting it. There are many canonized ways to read cards, however personal style is trumped over any other sort of prescription. There is also the idea of the five of hearts and cups, that is, how they as an archetype do or don’t change over time. You can change the imagery of the five of hearts as much as you want, but it will always be cosmetic. Same with Netrunner cards; the meaning is based in the quantitative system that relies on a strict and clearly communicated ruleset. While changing the image would change it’s flavor, the meaning of the card stays the same. I don’t want to disregard the appropriation of games, much like I did with Netrunner, and that bringing in cultural context and modding does emphasize these other parts of the game object. I’m particularly concerned with play experiences being interpretable and subversive on their own and with intention. With the tarot, different images drastically change how the card is read and interacted with. Every layer of the card itself is meant to be accessed and used by the play that is interpretation. And, of course, tarot cards aren’t the only kind of imagery out there, there are many sets of cards used in similar ways that are made completely in their own context yet still work as an exploration tool. Yet the kind of interaction implied by tarot cards doesn’t completely disintegrated because of this mutability, rather it’s boiled down to the act of interpretation instead of a jungle gym of rules. There is no wrong way to read the cards; that’s not a placation, but an important aspect of play.

Really, each card is a tiny bit of experience design. Visuals can be evocative on their own, yet it their relationship to other cards, both in the same deck and in other ones, that make designing in tarot so easy. As well, the act of doing a reading with these cards is design and creative in its own right. Take just how to get the cards on the table. Are the cards shuffled? Who shuffles them? Where do you draw from in the deck, and who draws them? This sets up the tone for the entire reading and provides context for how the players can interpret what comes next. If the reader shuffles the deck and deals out five of cupsfrom the top, it is reminiscent of gambling, so the feeling of fate or luck is stronger. Or maybe the dealer fans out the cards on the table and lets the querent pick. There’s something magician-like, it’s showy, and lets both feel like there’s some personal responsibility in what cards show up. Maybe the reader asks the other player to sift through the deck and chooses a card that resonates with them. This is more interactive and focused on the subject and their informed instincts. The cards are flexible enough to bring their own meaning to these sorts of contexts, and withstand the invention of new methodology. What happens when a card falls out while shuffling? Does the card at the bottom of the deck at the end of the reading mean something? Because these cards lend so well to the creation and manipulation of contexts, they have more mileage in playful activities outside of puzzles, which they can still be used for.

I also don’t want to get so hung up on these being cards. You can sub out cards for any object, objects being, taking a cue from anna anthropy’s work, what players interact with to further involve them in play. We are too used to instrumentality of play, or the gaming of it. Conventional design wants you to make sure objects have functions that move the player further along towards their goal, even if that goal is letting the player exercise agency over what their goal is. In contrast, interpretative objects are looking to evoke a response that will be mediated by a person’s unique perspective. This is what I’m trying to get at really, that we there isn’t enough play with symbolism, both on the creator’s and player’s sides.

Why bring up all this? The tarot might seem like a stretch, but consider how conventional games try to communicate stories and meaning. To be blunt, it’s usually hamfisted because the game is often trying to act as entertainment based more on reflexes or quantitative systems. This doesn’t mean that these kinds of games don’t bring joy or particular kinds of meaning, rather that play as a medium is severely limited to similar games unless it allows for more interpretation. Some of these games are already out there, but it’s not a surprise they aren’t featured much in mainstream coverage.

If anything, I just want to raise the question as to why there isn’t a lot of interpretation going on in games. My hunch is because of the canonized idea of games mostly being composed of rules that need to be fairly communicated to the player, vagueness is discouraged. I think game design is so wrapped up in getting players to ‘do something,’ to verb, that self-reflection isn’t really something that gets picked up very often. Or for someone to go through an experience without having or needing a goal. What would games look like if we adopted the use of tarot as we have them now instead of playing cards? I want to see that.

This article was community supported! Consider donating or being my patron so I can continue writing: Support

OkEthics – A Look at Social Experience Design Through Dating Apps

tinder

For anyone who’s followed me on social media, it’s no secret that I’m often sifting through dating websites and bemoaning how weirdly necessary yet awful their existance seems to be. Like many people, I have a hard time finding people who strike me as interesting that message back, and have seen sites like OkCupid try many strange experiments to try and get people to actually get together. I remember seeing my most recent long-term partner on there before we dated and for one reason or another, maybe I didn’t like his camera angle or I used too many exclamation marks in my self-summary, we passed each other by. Yet when we met in person, we went on for 2 years! How does something like that happen? Along with the much more recent Tinder, I was very methodical, sent messages to everyone I found attractive that was based on our mutual interests or interesting bits, yet in all the time I was on there, I met very few people.

After reading some research OkCupid did that found users were ultimately superficial and based >90% of their decision to interact on looks alone, I decided to do my own experiment. I started up two profiles at once, one that had my pictures and another that had picture of a white- and cis-passing woman with identical text. To say the least, my ego was in check that month. While the fake profile got a lot more attention, I realized that because I left them there to be interacted with and didn’t reach out to anyone, these profiles mostly attracted people I didn’t really find attractive or didn’t put effort into their profiles and messages.

Along the same time of this, I started to notice a trend on how many heterosexual men (at least, probably other people of other identities do this too) went through matches on Tinder. I would notice matches of mine unmatching before we even got to talk, which most likely means they went through and matched with everyone, and sorted out their matches from there. At the same time, I noticed that guys were more likely to message me if I swiped right (indicating interest) first, basically being notified of our match right as he swipes right. Both OkCupid and Tinder pause the swiping process and it usually gives more incentive to message right then, is my guess.

That’s when it started to dawn on me: the design of matching in these dating apps is like some weird fucked up Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Think of it this way: the bargaining chip here is vulnerability and effort. If everyone acted the way the designers and humanity would hope, it would mean that people would generally not game the system, and put equal effort in approaching each other. But there’s both the fear of rejection and the window-shopping mentality that these apps unintentionally (or not?) encourage, where people will try to optimize their experience to have the least effort wasted for the greatest gain. The options are:

*Initiate contact with a high chance of being ignored or having an unsuccessful experience

*Wait for someone to approach you with a low chance of receiving anything interesting

*Use a low-effort way to encourage someone to initiate contact with mixed results.

As you can see, the stereotypical option is the third one, because it makes sense; it only puts in an amount of effort that your ego can take if it is ignored. Its optimization also banks on people being the first kind of user while also managing to attract some of the second kind. If everyone used the third strategy, it wouldn’t work. Much like (non-iterative) prisoner’s dilemma, the best result for you is by exploiting the other player. This isn’t necessarily saying humans are awful, rather that the technology encourages this behavior. As the OkCupid research shows, when profile pictures turned off, many people stopped using it, but the users who did interacted and enjoyed each other a lot more on dates than with pictures on. I’m guessing they didn’t go through with it because they realized their users are so superficial they’d lose out on money, even if they actually got people to do what the site was meant to do.

Still feeling burned from my last experiment, I decided to put this into practice. With the advent of Tinder, OkCupid changed their quickmatch to be exactly the same. So, I restarted my profiles and just starting swiping right on every guy. At first I would look, but eventually I relegated this activity for when I went to the bathroom, not even really seeing who I was matching with, just swiping right as fast as I could. These apps were definitely not meant to be used this way; Tinder consistently froze and shut down, especially if I received a lot of matches before I booted it up, and both apps would have the pictures of profiles stick to random parts of the screen. I’m pretty sure I’ve swiped right on people who know me and I’ll never realize it, and the process does make me feel slightly scummy, but not too much. Every day now I hit a blank screen on available guys.

Results? A lot more interesting messages and dates. I’ve been on more dates in the time I’ve used this method than the years and years I’ve used OkCupid. Now, this is probably still a remarkably low number seeing I don’t fit into traditional beauty standards, and I imagine there’s something gendered at work. The strongest factor is the most obvious, that I canvassed through a large amount of people, regardless of any factor besides that they identified as a man who likes women and were within 5 miles of my position at one point or another, and this gave more people a chance to interact with me. The folly or things like OkCupid is that they don’t really have a strong enough system down to link together people who will most likely date. For instance, let’s say the people who came up first in your quickmatch were the most likely to respond back to you, or actually go out on a date, or be someone you like, then it would make more sense to spend more effort on those profiles. Instead, if you go through every profile that comes across your plate, there are many ones much more suited for you that are waiting randomly in the queue. Neither OkCupid or Tinder have a good way of signalling where to spend your energy, so you go by the only thing that’s as close to an assurance that you can get: looks. Of course, there’s the messaging aspect of things, but that’s covered more on dating advice columns and are rather variant (hint: don’t just say ‘hi’), and this doesn’t necessarily mean I have a higher rate of successful dates. In order to figure that out though, I have to have a sizable amount of them first. Just try not to mention that you do this, I had a date who asked me directly about how I used OkCupid, and he didn’t like how the sausage was made despite our fun date.

I find this interesting because systems like these are all over in our lives, manipulating subtly how we interact with one another. I think about conferences with advocacy/women’s tracks and how there are rarely ever any white men attending them. Or how showcases or exhibits don’t have many works by people of marginalized identities. Or how we never really hear much about actual effects of serious games or games for social impact. Or any social aspect of any mainstream video game with regards to abuse. Or the ultimate feeling of disconnection on social media. Mostly because these systems are designed in a manner to bring out the Machiavellian in everyone. Experience designers are mega-focused on quantified systems to bring about abstract experiences, and while technically that does happen, it’s turned social interaction into a bunch of trending metrics instead of human connection.

This article was community supported! Consider donating or being my patron so I can continue writing: Support

Once More, With Feeling – Using the Tarot for Play

endresult

I’ve been thinking about the many genres of games I feel I should like but don’t, and I’m starting to notice a pattern. With card games in particular, I enjoyed collecting them when I was younger, studying each card intently to make decks. Though after a while, playing the actual game was thoroughly boring. There is a lot of math and chance usually, matches ultimately coming down to gaming the quantitative system the game had in place. In hindsight, my fleeting enjoyment in these games tended to be in the style and flourish aspects. Making my deck unique, preparing dramatic moves built more on novelty than anything else. However, this soon becomes unenjoyable because of how much these games are based on a quantitative measure of winning; if your decisions don’t ultimately serve this purpose, they will be marginal experiences if they are even allowed to happen in the first place.

Looking at games as a whole, but especially card games, I can’t help but notice how much conventions of gambling are at the base of typical game design. Gambling and gaming used to mean pretty much the same thing, and really, it seems like gambling now just means sometimes illegal or heavily controlled gaming. There are people in the world that won’t play games involving any amount of chance or paraphernalia of western gambling, such as cards and dice, because it’s against their culture. Think of the kinds of stuff you find in a casino, and then try to think of games that don’t have any manifestation of those things. You’ll find most games, knowingly or not, borrow from the tradition of gaming that isn’t different from gambling; the ones that don’t tend to be more expressive games.

When it comes to card games, the design decision that few challenge and annoys me so much is the deck of shuffled cards. I know, something really weird to get hung up on, but it really narrows the kind of experiences you can have with games from the outset. A shuffled deck is there to have randomness to create a sense of fairness in a game of quantitative tools and as well to create stakes to deal with. It creates a rhythm of playing with what you got while holding out for something useful to come along. Many card games suggest understanding probabilities and card counting because ultimately that is what these are about. Understanding the chances you have for getting what you want while dealing with what’s in front of you. Of course, there can be more to a game than that, it’s just how strongly shuffling the deck controls the experiences of these games.

This then took me on a mental journey of the evolution of card games. The 52-card deck (with variable additions of Jokers) that dominates the imagination of at least English-speaking countries when it comes of card games derives from tarot cards, which is used almost mostly for divination and self-improvement in said cultures, not games. Tarot cards were originally used for games much like the ones our playing cards are concerned with and still are in some countries, but for whatever reason, play didn’t come alongside its now occult use. I’m starting to think that my unrest with card games might find something in the interpretative use of tarot cards instead of the quantitative.

theloversI didn’t realize it until recently, but I was pretty much a teen witch when I was younger, and studying the tarot came near the end of my journey with the occult. There is a range of ways to read the tarot decks (there are many different kinds): the author’s description, the interpreter using free association with the subject based off the images, the meanings from the original deck style from which it is referencing, the combination of all prior readings ever done, and on. There is also the added element of the spread, making where and how the cards are placed down have its own meaning. Whether one believes in the supernatural or not, you are ultimately reading the narrative structure of the cards in front of you and weaving a story. This process is the qualitative side of the coin opposite to the one card games typically take. Instead of rules, there’s ritual; instead of winning, there is play. While we colloquially conflate gaming and playing, there is a strong emphasis on their nuances when we take on this frame. Games often promote doing, while play, existing. Telling how we hear prominent voices dismissing, lovingly or not, play as a frivolous while gaming is some higher state of being.

My experience with the tarot was recently triggered when I started playing the living (see: collectible) card game Netrunner. Particularly, the placement of the cards. Netrunner is a two-player asymmetrical game, and depending on which side you play (Corporation or Runner), you place your cards down differently. Seeing this reminded me of tarot spreads, as the positions of the cards innately meant something and created visual relationships between all the cards. The similarities to tarot cards probably stops there, as it is reminiscent of other battling card games, being reliant on probabilities, chance, and card knowledge. The cards do have lore behind them, and there is some resonance between the actions of the players and the fictive act of hacking, however you don’t really derive much else. The narrative of the game is firmly in its quantitative systems, which often leaves me cold. This got me thinking though; what would a more playful Netrunner look like, or, how can we use the rules of the game for storytelling purposes?

Besides the arrangement of cards, my next clue came in seeing some puzzles of games in the middle of play. In general, these are still very quantitative, and the goal is to figure out how to win the game from the position the puzzle puts you in. I still found this incredibly compelling though, because these tasked players to understand the relationship of all the cards and their possible interactions. Because they are quantitative in nature, compelling puzzles are hard to consistently generate, so what if instead we generated a game without the intention of winning? Time to experiment!

First, I created decks based on narrative themes rather than outright function. I decided to take qualities from my favorite identity cards and use them to choose my cards. One deck was titled “Red Queen,” so I put in cards that had prominent use of red and images of royalty, and the other “Perfectionism,” where I found cards with nice symmetry or order, or the function of switching things around (1). I imagine people who are more into the lore of Netrunner will find extra meaning and themes deeper than these, much like how different levels of study with tarot cards reveal more details. Then I generated card placements to make it look like the middle of a game (2).

generatednetgame

Now, I shuffle up a tarot deck and start placing them on top of cards in play. What I have basically done is make a spread based on the placement of the cards of Netrunner (3). We can then think of all these aspects mediated by each other to create meaning, the rule-based reasoning of Netrunner for placement, the Netrunner card, and the tarot card. The tarot cards will have relationships set up for them by how all the Netrunner cards relate. There are multiple ways to move forward, such as imbuing each position with keywords based off the Netrunner cards, then removing them and proceeding with a tarot reading. Or we can use the tarot cards as prompts to give the Netrunner cards narrative meaning beyond just mechanistic use.

tarotplacement

dauvergneWe’re not going to stop here though! The best part of this set up is that we can still play by Netrunner’s rules for a round or so, though our aims might be different than just winning, or winning effectively. We can play through some turns and track the changes of the play area, see which cards interact with what, and always see the Netrunner cards associated with the tarot cards they’ve been dealt (4). Now there is symbolic meaning past quantitative winning to the actions in the game. It’s kind of like those art pieces that attach a pen to the mouse of a computer and there’s an imprint of how it was used that day; you can get a feeling about the motions of the game by giving it a method of expression. In a way, this is a mod to Netrunner. Another mod that makes narrative a stronger focus is Naomi Clark’s in-progress reskinning project Lacerunner, which changes the imagery and language to make it feel more like a Jane Austen game. The rules of Netrunner are still there, meaning there is something about how imagery is utilized to encourage storytelling. I feel like the tarot addition will go very well with Lacerunner once it’s completed. It shows how subject matter and genre conventions imply what you should be doing in play; a game that is about infiltrating a ball through social skills encourages role-play and storytelling. With the added layer of the tarot, this edges closer to a social simulation game.

So let’s run through a sample action using the Shadowscapes tarot deck and see what we come up with, adding in some fictive embellishment to help those unfamiliar with Netrunner:

Reina Roja (Nine of Wands), a cyborg activist, is hacking into the Research & Development server (Page of Wands) of the cloning megacorption Jinteki (King of Cups). On her way, she encounters the first part of this server’s security system, an already active Hunter (Ten of Wands). She passes through under its gaze without trying to disarm it, and it places a net tag on her that allows Jinteki to track her easier. Coming up, she sees the bright light of her Bishop (Ace of Pentacles) program that she hosted on the next security system ahead of time. This one was currently inactive, and if it was to awaken, Bishop would weaken its strength. To be on the safe side, Reina uses a Cortez Chip (Ace of Wands) which forces the corporation to spend more money to activate this next piece of security on top of her personal hacks. As it turns out, Jinteki doesn’t currently have an available amount of funds to send out its Uroboros (The Devil) because of this, and Reina passes it by without ever knowing what she evaded. Finally, she gets to R&D’s server and accesses Jinteki’s latest plans. It turns out to be a Fetal AI (Eight of Cups), a bittersweet find as it is good intel but sends shocks at her and requires her to wire some funds for the power to actually download it safely. She jacks out of the net to see one of her other Cortez Chips (Three of Cups) and extra hacking Deep Red console (The Star) fried from the shock. She is closer to her goal, but still has a lot more to go.

As you can see, there is some storytelling you can do with Netrunner, but it’s mostly just an action report. Because we have these cards associated with the tarot, relationships between more abstract qualities are created to either use inside or outside the game. With the caveat that there’s many different ways to read tarot cards, here’s a quick rundown using the artist’s descriptions:

The main tension in this spread is between one party waiting, vigilant, on edge, and another that is more patient, wise, and calm. The former is looking for something the latter has, possibly a hidden message or creative lesson. In order to reach this knowledge, she first withstands the pressure and responsibility of supporting a community of people, which only makes her a target in his eyes. He comes to see how she’s worked up her courage and focuses on her sense of self to outclass any temptation he could distract her with. But he doesn’t let any trial go through unearned, seeing that although she gained deep insight to herself, she is plunged deep into exhaustion. When she takes count of what’s she’s lost to achieve this understanding, she finds herself distant from others who make her feel supported and disillusioned with the ideals she started out so strongly with. Worse yet, the struggle isn’t over, and he seems to be unaffected, waiting prepared for her next move.

We can use this interpretation to read the emotional journey of Reina as we play through the game, giving a meaning to what she’s doing. Her motivations become clearer and provides context for action. If the game was to be further modded to reflect upon all these interactions every turn or action, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine this affecting player behavior and goals. Technically, tarot cards can shadow a normal game and act as a log for interpretation and storytelling afterwards, like the trails of a myth we don’t know the complete truth of. Or we can easily detach this from Netrunner and use this for the players. The dynamic nature of play further invites those involved to create from the narrative clues of the cards involved and for it to resonate with them.

The rules of Netrunner then become a ritual, motions filled with symbolism that we act out in order to reflect on ourselves or our social condition. In a sense, I feel like it completes the game by moving it away from it’s quantitative-heavy processes and gives players a reason to play slowly, to savor the hidden and the revelations. The chance to self-reflect, not just do mental math. This isn’t to pick on Netrunner solely, rather, I think it gets the closest out of the many popular card games I’ve come along. I will be discussing ritualizing play more in the future, but for now, I hope this inspires some creative mods to games to add on more interpretative layers to interact with.

(1) These notes are for Netrunner players and the extra curious. Here are the decks I’m referring to: Red Queen / Perfectionism. You will notice that they aren’t really viable for regular play, but are still within the deck building rules.

(2) Here is how I generated the game: Both decks start with their identities face down and directly across from each other. The Corporation shuffles the deck and draws out a number of cards ⅓ of their minimum deck requirement, which is most often 45 and therefore totals out to 15. Round up to the nearest whole number if needed. The Corp then proceeds to place cards as if they are installing in the middle of a turn, following usual rules and notating install costs. The Corp can auto-score agendas as long as they also give the runner the same amount of agenda cards, and the final point total isn’t 7 or higher or would end a traditional game in some manner. Servers can have a maximum of 3 ICE, and you don’t have to install every card. Count the amount of rezzable cards played and rez half of them, except for agendas (they still contribute to the count though; round down). Notate all the rez costs of the cards you flipped up. Operations must stay in the hand or go to archives, face down; the corp can’t have more cards than max hand size. If you don’t have an archives, leave space for it. If you’ve scored agendas, place them to the right of the archives as if they were their own server.

The Runner then does the same, drawing ⅓ of their minimum deck out, which also typically results in 15 cards. They can then place cards in their rig without exceeding their memory costs and only having 3 pieces of hardware and 3 resources out maximum. Notate the install costs. The rest of the cards go into the grip or heap without exceeding maximum hand size. The Runner should be placing their cards like it shows in the official rules, with separate rows in their rig. If the Corp gave you agendas, place it to the right of the heap, even if there are no cards in the heap.

After the Runner is finished, both players reveal their identities. Then it’s time to resolve all the cards as if they were just played or gained, including the identities. There might be some weird things here as I haven’t troubleshooted, but here’s the main rundown: cards that get counters when installed/rezzed/scored get those; cards that take effect at the beginning of turns do not manifest; anything that gains or discards cards, credits, or counters happens now, including damage. If identity cards have effect on cards in play (like Reina or J:PE), consider all cards installed, rezzed, and scored before their identity ability takes place. After everything is resolved, each player totals up their installation, rez, and other costs and gains half of that (round up) in credits, plus whatever gains they might have gotten in the previous step. Whew!

(3) From the Corp’s perspective, imagine the play area as a grid; you might need to space out the cards evenly with each other between both sides to do this. Place one tarot card on top of each card starting from the top-leftmost card and going down each column. If there are multiple cards in one spot, like for upgrades or hosted cards, the bottommost one gets the card first. Every card in the grip/HQ gets it’s own card; these are considered above/below the identity cards, and the leftmost card gets drawn for first, from the Corp’s perspective. Credit pools also get cards, and they are considered above/below the grip/HQ. The stack/R&D and heap/archives get one card each to represent them, and can be placed beneath the pile. Each card in the heap and archives gets its own card, and so do individual scored agendas and identities. Record the placement of all cards; I draw out the current play area by creating ‘slots’ for each placement and numbering them in the order I dealt out the tarot cards. If cards are lying on top of each other, I consider them both in one slot.

(4) Play by typical Netrunner rules without prior restrictions. Once assigned, the tarot card stays with the Netrunner card if was placed with. Whenever a card is interacted with from R&D or the stack, such as being accessed, revealed, discarded, or drawn, it is given a card from the top of the tarot deck, even if it is placed back in the pile. The tarot cards are only removed from R&D/the stack if they need to be shuffled, in which the tarot cards are shuffled back into their deck. To track changes, I mostly go by marking when a set of cards leaves or enters a number slot, and I make sure to draw out and number new slots that are created because of a new server or piece in the rig. I also made a note of which cards directly interacted with each other during play, particularly Runner ID/icebreakers with ICE. If playing with two people, make sure to have separate notes so you don’t reveal to each other the cards you have hidden from them. I typically only play one round, but you could feasibly go on until 7 agenda points, the grip or R&D is depleted, or you run out of tarot cards.

This article was community supported! Consider donating or being my patron so I can continue writing: Support

Those Who Fight

fight

A bit over three years ago, I had my heart set on being a food critic and mystery novelist. I learned about my latent talent in cooking doing school projects in high school, and it took having a little more income and dinners with my good friend to find out that I had more than a knack, I had taste. I also remember finishing Persona 4 when it first came out and loving how it treated mystery. How characters unfolded and evolved over the course of the story; it was less about who did it, rather about who we are when we find out. By chance of transferring schools, I was required to take courses in critical theory and literature, which at the time I didn’t think would really be of much use to me. There I learned about the many ways to read, and that you can read anything, not just texts.

So came video games.

It started because I wanted to practice writing regularly. I figured I knew a lot about video games, and people seem to have opinions about them on the internet, so why not me? I wasn’t expecting much from it, just to be an exercise while I waited on grad school applications. But things took off in a way I didn’t expect: I started to regularly appear on Critical Distance, got a couple of columnist gigs, and found myself in lots of arguments on this thing called Twitter that I never used before. Half a year later, people on this Twitter donated money for me to attend the most central games conference in the industry. I was asked to speak at events before I was writing for even a year, and my alma mater asked me to do a keynote about activism. I was shocked to learn I became an activist.

Thinking about this reminds me that there isn’t really a profession of activism. The closest would be a lobbyist, and I don’t think that’s what I or others are like. Activism is something we all do, we take what we’re good at and use it for social justice causes. If me blogging and speaking on social media made some sort of difference, it means I must have been doing other things unconsciously that were activism before all this. It’s much more personal and micro than we give it credit for. Many people who stand out as activists, they are just living their lives and often the focus of circumstance. They are speaking their truths, doing what little they can. I know I was only an activist and a critic, and now developer and theorist, because others called me those things.

Three years after I put up my first post, I’ve decided to not participate in the video games industry anymore. A lot of people treat this as a loss, or quitting, giving up. Video games came as a freight train into my life, an unexpected opportunity I wasn’t planning on taking anywhere for a while. I feel like that’s what it’s like for many people who speak out about important issues in games. The attention of the internet is capricious, and it just takes one viral tweet to become an activist, thinker, public figure, or what have you. Meaning, even when this focus goes away, it might seem like I’m not an activist anymore, but I will be doing a lot of work, just in different ways.

What I think is most important is figuring out what every single person contributes. If I never intended to be an expert or authority, just chugging on posting thoughts until it was time for school again, what stops you from doing activism? It’s entirely possible that you are, and you’re not recognizing it. I think because I was put into the spotlight, I was forced to examine my actions and intentions, which may be why to the less vocal person it seems like there’s so little that they do compared to me. As we see, that’s probably not true. There’s space in your life for concrete action for what you want, if you allow yourself to open up the definition of activism.

This is a good exercise to decrease celebrity mentality we often put on people; while at times flattering, it’s extremely stressful. People assume you’re more stable and secure in life than you actually are, more well off, more connected. Fan culture hands all the responsibility to the person on the pedestal, with the expectation that they will be on 24/7 and the audience can be passive and are doing something by just being there to bear witness. This is why there’s such a burnout rate for media activists in games, people, typically women, just can’t handle the pressure over long periods of time without the proper sustenance. This happened to people before me, and now it’s my turn. I don’t want it to happen to anyone else.

There are other effects of this fan culture, such as prioritizing the individual over the community, whitewashing the diverse range of thought and action with a few people’s politics. This past year, a lot of work and events that I was a part of a team on were solely attributed to me, because this culture wants a clean narrative. We have to resist these motions, and recognizing our individual part in community building is the first step. What are you doing? If you don’t know, don’t you think it’s about time you figured it out?

It’s been a long time coming, but it’s obvious the games industry isn’t the place for me. It is too narrow and slow moving for the ideas and needs I have. There’s a reason why my only income is coming from readers, not corporations or customers. A place that has such a rigid view on how to be successful is going to exclude a lot of people, and I’m one of those. There are many other people who might fit into this, though, that can be loud voices while they game the system. I think of Leigh, Zoe, or Anita, or many of the newer voices that will crop up now that larger ones are moving out of the way. They really care about video games as a medium and industry, and want to make it a better place. I’ve found out that I really care about the expansion and reclaiming of play as a medium, bringing new forms of expression to people who didn’t know they had it. To be honest, talking about the video games industry is boring for me now; we’ve had the same problems, just with varying scales of drama and mainstream attention. I don’t want to be treated like a victim, and it’s only when I’m abused that people will listen. I’m more proactive, generative, and loving; this just isn’t the place for me.

My time writing about video games culture isn’t for naught. I didn’t know that I would become so fascinated with play as a concept. I ditched design early in life and this was a reminder that, yeah, I can definitely do this, I’m good at it. I will be returning to older hobbies and incorporating them into my newfound interest in play and what play can do to change how we view life. I’m looking back at fiction, mystery, taste, smell, ritual, interpretation, relationships, expression. These are great topics and I hope you all will stick around to explore these with me.

I haven’t decided how I will incorporate digital games into my writing and practice just yet. I’m going to continue engaging with video game art scenes and try to get more writing on those. I have made friends with many interesting thinkers and creators in games, and I imagine they will rope me into things so I won’t completely disappear. Ultimately, my aim is to get people to think of more than video games when we evoke play, to de-emphasize technology, and to imbue the way people look at life with the potential for play. I think we could use more people doing this sort of work, and I now have the chance to focus on that mission.

Thanks to everyone who’s ever supported me and continues to. This isn’t goodbye. It’s going to be even more interesting from here on out!

This article was community supported! Consider donating or being my patron so I can continue writing: Support

Moving On

movingon

“What is it that we want?”

These past fews weeks were trying. Even while I was away, as unplugged the jitter in my fingers would allow, I knew the industry watched, horrified, voyeurs, as pipes of sludge poured on people all around me. My body is splattered, from old and new, waiting for my turn again. Is this what I’ve been waiting for? The moment when this becomes too much?

The urge to run still lingers, every time I lean forward to type. When my backspace key sticks. I’m not the only one reevaluating their relationship to video games. Because this is rote, boring. It’s predictable now to be harassed, disregarded, and forgotten, and watching the cycle happen again and again. Professional punching bags.

The quote above is from Samantha Allen’s talk at Critical Proximity earlier this year, which I recommend you watch in full. It centers around Patreon and games criticism, yet extrapolates pretty well to games as a whole. What is it that we want when we say community? What do we want when games want minoritized people to be a part of the artform and discussion? What is actually happening?

I thought a lot about what she said this past week while I was away. Particularly, that community and support doesn’t rise out of people who happen to be in the same space with the same interests. Rather, community is intentional. It is built.

We don’t have the foundations for what we want. The scaffolding we see is here for another reason. Industry defines itself on its relationship to money. Every time you interact with it, for whatever social good or hedonism you plan, you need to speak in its language for it to listen. Companies won’t do what’s necessary to fix problems because there’s no money in it, and they shield themselves with the legal responsibility to make their shareholders profit. We cannot use this model to solve the problems we wish gone. So, what to do? Don’t expect anything other than what can be achieved while making people who already have money even more money. In other words, set a low bar for what the industry can do and look elsewhere.

I’ve talked to some developers about consulting in regards to the representation and narratives of minoritized characters in games. There is a distinct split on how many more independent creators found this important opposed to companies. One such company very particularly told me that they had no interest in diversity as an ethical practice or for social good, rather, can only justify diversity through the value it brings players and therefore the company. Value in this context ultimately means money, even if it’s not a direct transaction. Art is only allowed to exist with business. Creators aren’t allowed to exist without justifying to others why social equity is profitable. Go look at any advocacy track in any flavor of conference; you will notice certain types of people rarely go to those talks, despite being the exact kind that needs them.

Looking to salvage the industry or the concept of gamer is fruitless; practicing consumerism in this way is core to how it functions. You can try and soften the edges, you can have a woman here and there, and you can edit the language to be as pliable as possible, but nothing is changing how the gears grind. Online publications have to make their sites profitable for the ad agencies that pay them to exist, which boils down every post to whether it fits into this ecosystem. Writing about culture is the lowest paying and consistently shrinking form of writing in games media. Not because we don’t need it, rather because it’s not viewed as making enough of a profit.

Simply not being in a company doesn’t solve the issue; indie development fits right into the industry. Industry budged as much as it had to in order for indies to be profitable, and stopped. Indies feel tied to the small spaces they are allowed to make money, act out in as much as they can in those spaces, and stop. This isn’t to shame. People need to survive. Go survive. Just be transparent.

There is a reason things are they way they are right now. Not enough people are motivated to do what needs to happen to change. I believe it’s because they aren’t connected to it personally enough, so when abuse, marginalization, and exploitation happens, they might feel bad, but not wronged. A solution to this is to give ourselves opportunities to establish connections outside of our currently homogenizing environments. Social media doesn’t make communities, we have to forge them ourselves.

Samantha describes community as a product of action. Working together to achieve something. If we want these spaces in the way we envision them, we must start from the ground up. The industry doesn’t need to be your only nor primary source of support. The industry can be a place you work and somewhere else can be your community. We can create something else.

Create new spaces that don’t have industry and business as the main component; most of the contexts we meet under do. Collaborate with people local to you instead of trying to create a large replacement for a global industry. As Samantha points out, marginalizing dynamics will play out as usual once funding individual people comes about, which is why the indie world looks increasingly similar to AAA.

Is there an evening when you have a spare room in your office, community building, local restaurant, house? Have the ability to rent a space and get provisions for a group of people? Do you know people you can pool money with if you can’t on your own? These are usually the hardest things to obtain and start the process of forming a community. Organizing can be a group effort, yet it is the people with the resources that need to step up and create that opportunity to happen. Unfortunately the video is missing from this presentation of mine, but here is an outline for creating inclusive events.

What do we want? That’s a good question. You should ask that to people you want to create a community with. It should be something everyone has a chance to speak on, with precautions taken so the same voices don’t dominate conversations. These wants shouldn’t reach outside of the community’s grasp, rather ones that can be obtained over a length of time with hard work and organization. Allow anti-capitalistic stances to exist, because they aren’t given room in other discussions. Let the group, even if it is just for a couple of hours, speak about creating outside of the contexts of making money. Concede that a lot of our design and writing practices are informed by our capitalistic motions, and to imagine outside of that when you’re together.

Despite current dialogues, the community doesn’t have to be solely developers, or critics, or independent, or corporate. These communities don’t have to strictly be about games, rather inspired by what you are not getting from the industry. That you possibly open yourselves up to people from different but similar enough paths of life is a really good opportunity for cross-pollination. There are other artistic communities that were around before video games existed that have knowledge to pass around.

Petitioning gamers, companies, and publications to make a stand for the values we care about won’t happen at a healthy speed without strings attached. Everything will be mediated by consumerism, and simply buying or not buying from certain places isn’t going to solve core issues. So the next time you’re wondering what to do when things seem so bleak, reach out to the people around you, and tell them it’s time to get together, and form a supportive community. One that has, from the beginning, at its center, the ideals and ideas we want missing from industry.

This article was community supported! Consider donating or being my patron so I can continue writing: Support

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.

This article was community supported! Consider donating or being my patron so I can continue writing: Support

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.

This article was community supported! Consider donating or being my patron so I can continue writing: Support

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.

This article was community supported! Consider donating or being my patron so I can continue writing: Support

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.

This article was community supported! Consider donating or being my patron so I can continue writing: Support

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.

This article was community supported! Consider donating or being my patron so I can continue writing: Support

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.

This article was community supported! Consider donating or being my patron so I can continue writing: Support

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.

This article was community supported! Consider donating or being my patron so I can continue writing: Support

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?

This article was community supported! Consider donating or being my patron so I can continue writing: Support

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.

This article was community supported! Consider donating or being my patron so I can continue writing: Support

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.

This article was community supported! Consider donating or being my patron so I can continue writing: Support