Once More, With Feeling – Using the Tarot for Play

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.

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Those Who 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!

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Moving On

“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?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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 under 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 they 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.

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 stymies 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 whitewash 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 effect 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 would interfere with the typical model of selling games, where PR hypes up products and players go in trusting they will have a good experience. 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 and will have their own ways of getting there. 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 dominant woman and a white cis submissive man carries powerful symbolic weight into play. The scene allows the players to be flooded with cultural contexts through kinky play, engaging with hyperbolized contexts through play. The power dynamic allows player 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 all parties to clearly see the context of play juxtaposed against the context of their lives. 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 rarely 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 more besides bemusement or an evening’s worth of thoughts. These games don’t expect you to be transformed or touched by anything other than superficial storytelling devices.

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

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Passing Through: Another Take on Identity in Activism and Design

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

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

“Human?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Countdown: Thinking of Time in Text Games

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

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

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

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

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

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In Tongues

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 is to include people who make tools and give room for expression through them.

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

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

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

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

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commune ity

i

like to tell this story.

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

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

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

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

we were something.

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

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

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

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

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

black. trans. women.

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

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

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

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

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

will i make it?

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How We Say

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Our Flappy Dystopia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The DIY of Games Criticism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On Civility

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

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

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

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

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

Anger is always justified

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

The conversation is always in the favor of the privileged

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

You need to apologize. Quick

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

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

Listen

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

Believe

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

Ask

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

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

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

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On Anger

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

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

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

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

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

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

anger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Inspiring Games I Played in 2013

Deadbolt

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

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

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

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

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

Dog Eat Dog

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

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

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

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

The Entertainment

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

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

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

Killer Queen Arcade

I am the Queen. My kingdom is the battlefield.

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

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

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

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

Only mine.

Mascarade

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

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

I take their gold.

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

I am challenged.

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

I am the Queen.

Microscope

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

Misery Bubblegum

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

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

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

Pixel Fireplace

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

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

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

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

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

p-a-p-e-r

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

l-o-g

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

l-o-g

l-o-g

l-o-g

l-o-g

Proteus

the old woman of the sea

queers in love at the end of the world

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

Everything is wiped away.

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