Learning Moments in Games 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Meritocracy of Video Games

I hate video games as much as the next person. Not necessarily the objects or the artistic form, but the institution of Video Games. The chimera of conventions and attitudes that, intentionally or not, gatekeeps what creations and people are valued. As Simon Parkin neatly outlines in this piece about gamers, who is called a gamer, who self-identifies as a gamer, and what the broader cultures surrounding games imagines a gamer to be are in conflict, most typically over gender and age. I feel like the nuance surrounding the angst of gamer identification is well covered by the time you read through Mary Hamilton’s defense of identifying as ‘gamer’ and Brendan Keogh’s splicing of the personal use of the term from how it is wielded in discourse. My personal opinion is to eject the concept of gamer into the cold unforgiving vacuum of space, but that is neither here nor there.

Simon’s philosophical argument, because unfortunately people don’t find the moral imperative of ‘discrimination is bad’ good enough these days, rests in his belief that game spaces are egalitarian and intrinsically accepts and treats everyone the same. Hence, how gamer culture is often exclusionary based on social identity is dissonant with the basic accepting nature of games. I’m going to contend with this, especially because my game appears (gratefully! surprisingly!) as an example of educating from within games. The surrounding rhetoric reminds me of the utopia-spinning of late, neo-meritocracy through technology. This usually comes in around the problematic viewpoint of games ultimately being a creative expression of math, and that numbers don’t discriminate between players.

Game design is political. Not just the field (that’s another minefield to go through), but the designs that makes up each game. How a game allows a person to interact with it is extremely loaded with discriminatory politics, because they are usually made for particular players in mind. Simon gets to this in his piece, games are often made for gamers. Who are gamers? What do gamers know and like? What is the usual canon of games for gamers? I want to add onto what Simon seems to be implying: not only do we need to stop the stereotype perpetuated by assuming people who play games are ‘gamers’ at our events and in the representational aspects of our games, but we also need to interrogate how, even if all of these were solved, games assume a certain kind of player is playing it.

The most apparent angle is that of gamer literacy. Controllers are a learned convention, so is WASD, as well as game genres like shooters, RPGs, platformers, RTSs, and so are all the references to geek culture. I bring these up specifically because even though games are played by a very diverse demographics, the game industry makes an effort to separate ‘real games’ aka ‘hardcore games’ from the rest, where the gamer identity is formed. Companies making those games and the people who have the most voice are the stereotype of gamers, a stereotype catered to for at least 20 years that would have a strong knowledge of game conventions. What is good in games comes from the iterative response from a small group of interests, and our current engagement with play is accosted by this fundamentalism. If we want the ‘gamer’ out of games, we need to address what we consider to be good design and how it is informed by the gamer paradigm. A lot of blame rests with the media, which is hesitant to dig into and highlight non-commercial games and smaller projects that explore past the usual models of play. The media plays a huge part in games being included in any discourse, and looking at what’s covered (this isn’t directed at Simon), no wonder everyone, including the public, thinks games are in-club toys. When games like Candy Crush Saga or The Sims are brought up, it’s only because of the profit they’ve made and not why they are great models of design. For instance, imagine if video games took to The Sims as a model to iterate on instead of Halo or GTA III. Maybe 60-second loops of fun and player agency wouldn’t be so central?

Things like explicit goals, conflict, combat, fun, empowerment, points, achievements, and systems feel required in order to make a good game. How often are designers questioning how we got here and where these values come from? This is when my game Mainichi is a useful example. The topic is novel, unfortunately, but I don’t think that’s the most interesting part about it, or at least in what it contributes to design. I’ll sum it up in an anecdote: after its release, some teachers taught Mainichi in their classes. They were a mix of classes, game design, gender, media studies, etc. There was a split in reception of the game distinctly on the lines of whether the class was dominated by gamers or non-gamers. Gamers questioned whether Mainichi was a game, implying it was bad for failing to live up to their idea of what a game entails. They disliked the lack of goals, little to no ‘action,’ lo-fi yet not retro graphics. To classes with mostly non-gamers, students found my game as a new way of engaging with a person, building empathy. They adopted a bit of my mentality and viewed the world in my perspective. The point for them wasn’t to necessarily accomplish anything, but to understand. It’s because my goal was to say something personal to the player, and if someone doesn’t view games as something for communication, they are not going to engage with it that way. It seems to me that gamers are more likely to dismiss artistic expression in games than non-gamers. All games aren’t designed for equality nor played on equal grounds. I don’t think Mainichi is that complex or groundbreaking, but it sticks out because it steps outside of the design paradigm that we use for games. However, it is rarely covered in the news and didn’t receive critical analysis outside of smaller blogs. Similar games that are pushing boundaries of how we think of design share the same fate, not to mention non-video games that are often ignored in this conversation.

To look at the universality of games, we’ve have to step outside of mainstream video games and discourse. I think meritocracy is usually a veil for privilege, which it is in this case. Video games are escapes made for certain kinds of people, and others can join if they can put up with it. I think this deserves more conversation, especially in public. Do we want games to be accessible to everyone? To be a general artform and media to experience? We have to do more than calling ourselves something different, we have to extract the baked in assumptions of how we design and speak about games. The reason video games can be so nasty is because they aren’t often seen as personal works of the creators’ with their attitudes and perspective on display. They are a reflection of the self, or the team or company. Change starts with self-reflection, and how we individually affect games, good and bad.

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Not a Monolith

“I really liked your game Dys4ia.”

I remember the first time I got this. I corrected them.

“Oh, sorry, it was LIM then?”


“Howling Dogs?”

By now, it’s a bit of a painful inside joke. For those who don’t know, the game the person is thinking about is Mainichi, and all these games were mentioned because they were created by queer women. I’m aware that people mainly approach my work because it’s a game done by a queer woman, and that is the context it’s allowed to exist in the main conversation. A piece of common wisdom out sociological research is that there’s more variation within a group of people than between two different groups separated by identity markers. For instance, there are more things different between all women than there are differences between men and women. This is the same for the women of a ‘queer movement’ in games that are picked to be representatives. Yes, those are scare quotes.

Looking at Dys4ia, LIM, Howling Dogs, and Mainichi, the differences in design is so apparent, that being developed by queer women is the least interesting thing about them. Yet, that’s how they are packaged, and the only time they are allowed to be highlighted.

Lately I’ve thought a lot about my relationship to labels in social justice, how they help and hinder. These labels help people form a community and easily communicate ideas to people. The press’ acceptance of social justice banks on everyone knowing their labels so they can easily speak to certain audiences and reference certain identities. Because of this, people will only talk about me when it’s a feature on a queer woman. What about my writing, my theory, my design, my life? Why only the trans* side of my queerness? I’m just lumped into one category and left to rot.

It’s easy to pick on mainstream discourse, though. It has a strange way of being too fast-moving and too slow-moving at the same time when it comes to these issues. It’s not a complex argument to advocate that my work shouldn’t be tokenized because of my identity. But I want to understand how this affects social justice discourse in games, and how communities of people exist within a movement.

What do you think of when you see ‘straight white male’? The privileged, the problem? True, in some cases. This term is wielded like a sledgehammer in many conversations surrounding social justice, almost used as a rallying call. But this feeds into our short attention span and unexamined biases. If that straight white man was gender variant, disabled, considered old, poor, non-English speaking, not of European descent, would we still confront them? Straight white male isn’t the privileged class, but we cling to that soundbite. This can be used the opposite way as well. Think of what’s happening with the LGBT movement. It really should just be called the GL movement that expects equality to return once same-sex marriage is allowed everywhere; bisexual and trans* people are afterthoughts that still face discrimination within that community. And let’s not forget that other letters that are often left off for ‘ease.’ Are there are as many conversations about two-spirited, queer, questioning, asexual, and intersex people? What about those not donned with an acronym? Do they just not exist?

The politics within social justice is just as important as the politics outside of it. Who are the voices being heard, what are the relationships between them, what is being swept under the rug? It is a common occurrence to hush things like abuse or marginalization in order to appear like the model minority. This is particularly true for domestic violence. What do we get by trying to be the perfect woman community, the perfect trans* person, perfectly impoverished?

Intersectionality is a good word to know, but difficult to practice. In essence, it is observance of variation within certain labels, such as the difference of experience between women and non-white women. Many people think that intersectionality is counting up all of your labels and taking an authoritative stance on each one, with more martyr points going to those with more marginalized identities. This seems useful for dealing with the public; someone might say something about women in games, and then I can remind them that it does not apply to me as a queer, non-white, poor woman in games. But even that is disingenuous, I cannot speak for all of these general groups and their intersections with other politics at the same time. Where it becomes dangerous is within the social justice movement itself.

Colloquially, it’s called oppression olympics. It’s a race to the bottom to find out who’s most oppressed and therefore right in an argument. Winning the oppression olympics, with a weird inclusion of owning membership to an identity when someone is accused of internalized marginalization, is used as a bullying tactic both within social justice and to people outside of it. Count up how oppressed you are, and if you win, you get to automatically be right and make generalizations both for the identities you subscribe to and the ones you perceive your opponent to be.

I remember getting into an argument with someone, who accused me of classism. A lot of wheels turned for me because of this confrontation. The main one was my gut reaction to bring up their whiteness, to up the game, because that’s the rhetorical structure of a lot of conversations. ‘You are doing this because you’re white,’ ‘we are women but I’m a poor woman.’ It’s a spiraling fractal that makes identities into badges.

This isn’t intersectionality. We don’t truly consider our unique individuality, and how that relates to the people around us. Arguments escalate to what identities do to each other instead of what you did to me, and the structure of our particular relationship. Because the latter is difficult. It requires that you know yourself, and have an honest communication with another person knowing they are as unique of a circumstance as you are. This isn’t to dismiss privilege, but to understand that labels are extremely flimsy constructs to base so much of our actions on.

Mattie Brice =/= transgender + thin + poor + young + enabled + polysexual + multi-racial + woman + American + etc.

I was born in South Florida in the late eighties. My parents are immigrants from the Caribbean lucky to escape the political strife of Jamaica, the country they met. People often don’t know what to make of my race, though how I’m wearing my hair dictates what their guess is. When I wore it shorter I often got tagged as hispanic, when I straightened it, pacific islander, and now as I currently have it, black. I don’t identify as any of those things culturally, but I am often forced to check them on forms.

My parents saved up for my sister and I’s undergraduate, in-state public school tuition. We lived most of our family’s life in the nicer part of a lower income city, often around other immigrants, black and hispanic Americans, and older people, all not very well off. I didn’t like to invite my friends over to my house because my dad was always trying to fix it and it looked crummy. My mother made sure to send my sister and I to schools outside of our city to primarily upper-middle class white schools. Most of my friends were white and somewhat affluent.

I didn’t like being forced to have a gender when I was young. I didn’t identify with being a boy or a girl. My mother asked in the sixth grade me if I was gay because I was effeminate and gendered a boy by others, and I didn’t really understand what being gay meant. I wouldn’t enter my first relationship until I was 25, and in general was considered unattractive by men I encountered before then. Most of my romantic and sexual escapades were one night stands. I lost my virginity at 21 to an acquaintance who overpowered me when he was drunk.

Despite the money my parents saved up for me, I had to work 40 hour work weeks in order to stay in university. I realized that I was gender-variant and went into a deep depression that had me bail on my job, drop out of school, and return home. I was eventually kicked out of my house and had to survive off of a Starbucks paycheck for 5 years while finishing my degree. I couldn’t, and still can’t, transition because I can’t afford to. Clothes and makeup are the only way I can convince people to treat me like a woman.

I realize that my main motivation for straightening my hair was to appear less black. I’ve been trained, along with everyone else, that blackness is ugly, often masculine. I decided to go natural because I drained all of my money leftover from rent on hair products and salon visits. There was a noticeable drop in number of people who showed their attraction to me since then. People touch my hair and body without my permission. People actively, loudly, misgender me. I suffer from PTSD and anxiety.

I study literature and creative writing in school, and I’m often relegated to minority studies and writing related to social justice. I will be in debt for the rest of my life for a degree that won’t make me money. My grandmother calls every two weeks asking why I’m not graduated yet, why I don’t have a job, and how I plan to support her and my family as a writer. My entire income is from crowdfunding.

I am asked to participate in a culture, nicely, that is consistently discriminatory. I cannot get writing jobs because I’m not friends with the rather homogeneous old guard of journalism. Even when a conference pays for my travel, I still spend money and don’t get paid. I am consistently mocked because I ask for financial assistance from my community.

I am not the sum of my parts, and when I need to address social justice issues, I don’t do it as a x, y, z person. Not all queer people can account for my experience, nor all women or non-white people. And I don’t expect my experience to stand as fable for those things either. When that person called me classist, they didn’t know or really care about how classism affected my life, only there used as a bullying tactic.

We are stronger when we all bring our personal stories into social justice, and speak from that instead of relying on broad identifiers. We are too caught up trying to assess who each other are instead of examining the problematic actions, the unequal power relations. We need to push back against how we are activists on social media and in private with thoughtfulness instead of virtue. The amount of public shaming and behind the scenes threatening is not only unbearable, but damaging. We don’t need to be the same, we don’t need to be pushed into line and looking immaculate for all others to witness. We shouldn’t be so afraid of each other. We need to do a better job of understanding one another, even if it’s difficult.

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Music Design in Sequence

I’ve always wanted to have a more depth conversation surrounding music in games. There’s been extensive back and forth about narrative and design, and now we see games and play using narrative techniques unique to our medium. Narrative designers are a thing, even if it’s still new. Now that we’ve moved past that, I feel like things are churning for music as well. Not that there hasn’t been innovation in music already, just that more examples of it lately. I’m mostly thinking of recent work featuring David Kanaga’s stuff, like Dyad and Proteus. These are more abstract, but I think music in there is part of the design and is required for the player to establish a relationship with the experience of play.

A clear example is Sequence, an interesting RPG ‘rhythm’ game by Iridium Studios. I have scarequotes around rhythm because I don’t think it’s the proper term; games that heavily feature music tend to be ghettoized into a music games category, and I don’t think we really have good words for them. The main challenge of the game is the protagonist fighting monsters, where fighting is juggling between three DDR screens. One screen is the defending screen, where you must complete steps in order to avoid damage; the next is the mana screen, which has a continuous stream that you can tap to in order to refill MP; and lastly is the casting one, where after you call on a spell, you must successfully hit the arrows to actually complete the spell. On top of this, you have many different songs and bosses with strange abilities like flipping the arrows backgrounds or fading them out until just before you have to hit them. It’s as hectic as it sounds, but not gimmicky.

Why I find this interesting is how this intersects with RPGs. It is usually a genre on the mostly abstracted end of things. You usually enter a command and things play out, numbers ticking both on stage and behind the scenes. More contemporary RPGs have tried to get the player more involved with play instead of mostly watching and reacting to numbers. A lot of weird games came out with varying success with very ‘immediate’ feeling battles, like Final Fantasy XIII. Musically-inclined critics like Kirk Hamilton would comment on how the music of battles, like the rhythm, cadence of button pressing and action on the screen, felt off and the player internalizes the dissonance from it. Eventually you will just button mash or go full auto-pilot. In reflection, I feel like I’ve mostly outgrown menu-driven games like the majority of RPGs because of how tedious they are, and now crave a process that connects with me on a more sensory level. What could that be without injecting generic action elements? That’s where Sequence comes in. What seems like just a rhythm game feels more like an RPG battle than any RPG has been able to do for me. Since the main way of interacting with battle happens between three different screens you need to switch between, you develop a rhythm of attacking, defending, and recovering.

What kind of song represents the enemy is the most important when defending against attacks. The beats per minute and density of the track translates into arrows you have to hit, and sets up the entire rhythm of the battle. It’s common sense, but it is really neat to me that the small agile creatures will have fast, short bursts of weak arrows while stronger monsters will have fewer arrows, but they will hurt more if you miss them. Because different color arrows hurt you more than usual, there will be times you need to switch from something important you’re doing to defend against big hits. But often you can shrug off some damage if it means you’re going to pull of a successful spell. There will be times you have to miss entire streams of spell incantations in order to save the bulk of your health from a slower, denser song enemy, and I find that super convincing opposed to the usual conventions of saving throws or other accuracy calculations. Instead, I gain habits and feel the battle instead of observing and manipulating it, detached.

The recovery screen is the full stream of the song to gain back up mana, and really is the anchor in the entire battle. It’s helps you get into the headspace of that particular battle since it doesn’t have selected samples used as attacks, and you aren’t penalized for missing them. I felt like it was an analogue to a battle stance, bouncing from foot to foot, ready to spring to defend or cast a spell. The song appears here in its most literal form, and when the track is good, you really get into it. Eventually, your fingers don’t just press buttons on the keyboard, they dance. And I think this is what’s fundamentally missing from action scenes in RPGs, and why many devs think quick time events will solve it. Mostly, individual battles in that genre don’t have their own soul like they do in Sequence.

To cast a spell, you press a hotkey and eventually a sequence unique to that particular incantation scrolls down the third screen, and you have to hit them all successfully in order for it to work. It is the part that is the most out of sync with the rest of the battle, heightening the contrast between this learned ability and the more organic flow of battle. This aspect made it feel like I was literally concentrating and trying to execute something in the heat of battle, because very often in tougher battles a stream of attacks are bound to appear while casting. Many spells have synergy with each other, while some have straight up utility like healing. I found myself finding a certain order to which I’d always cast spells, and the challenge came from trying to act out this ritual while dealing with the varying quirks the song monsters gave me. The game realizes this, I think. Instead of making you feel like you have a whole bunch of choice and you can do whatever you want, it knows you’ll get your own rhythm and will have to learn how to dance with many enemies.

This is definitely something you have to play to really feel and understand, but it showed me how music isn’t just a layer on top of the game, but can be used as an aspect of design as well. I think this is the more blunt example, so it’ll be useful when seeing how music and sound work subtly in more conceptual work. I think we could reverse engineer some clunky design conventions and have music reconnect it with the player, much the music design in Crypt of the Necrodancer with turn-based aspects of roguelikes. And because I’m not a musician, I might not be the best person to head off this conversation, but I definitely would like more consideration to senses outside of vision and their relationship with play. Sequence was one of my favorite games of 2011, so check it out here on Steam if it seems interesting.

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Thinking on Local Game Making Communities

Have you ever thought about what your local play and games culture is like? It might not be an intuitive question or process to find the answer, but through speaking in different cities and countries, I’ve found that locales have their own particular attitude towards games. This is particularly true for rise in recognition of non-video games as we move forward exploring (and rediscovering) the medium of play. My ultimate aim in bringing this up is a call for more localized recognition of game making and playing communities to resist the whitewashing dominant narratives we have today. I outlined what I think that narrative is last week, and now I want to muse about what I’ve noticed contributes to a play culture and what we benefit from being so community-specific.

I think my relationship with San Francisco’s scene provides both a good summary and starting point for examining what effects game making culture. Or, I should say there isn’t really one unified community like there is in other places, rather a bunch of small groups working on their own. This has to do with how the Bay Area works overall, that people tend to not spend much free time outside of work and their side projects, to which they often have many. It also has to do with some social dynamics between San Francisco, East Bay, and Silicon Valley, that is, it is rare people visit other areas on a whim and this is often because of classism and racism. Speaking broad strokes, most of our solo or small team developers live in the East Bay where it’s cheaper to live, and bigger teams or those who work for social and AAA gaming studios live in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. It is hard to get people to cross the bay bridge, especially if they don’t go there for work. East Bay developers that come to mind are mostly known for challenging work in personal expression and radical activism, and a general anti-mainstream kind of development. Silicon Valley, by contrast, is a bastion for AAA development along with some social game companies in the city. San Francisco has the whole range of what usually goes under ‘indie,’ from small startups to Double Fine, and from what I can tell (it isn’t a whole cohesive scene yet) they are products of post-mainstream development. What’s often ignored is, for the lack of a better term, a public games scene, because they often don’t include video game technology in their games. They span from physical games, ARGs, theater games, big games, and so on. Basically, they tend to be multiplayer, quick, quirky, and outside. All of these borders, of course, are fuzzy and not absolute. GDC is the only event that would have a chance to have all these groups get together in one place to talk about games, but because it’s preoccupied being they world’s conference instead of San Francisco’s, it can’t serve this function. Most of these groups stay separated or are excluded, namely the public games people and those who can’t afford and don’t have the connections to attend. And I should also say this is only what I’ve observed and there are also less recognized or organized play spaces that I didn’t mention, such as sports culture. There is also something to be said about the media presence in the Bay Area, but I don’t exactly know what that might do here other than maybe emphasize the mainstream presence, though some do attend the smaller events.

Now that’s a lot despite being a bunch of generalizations, but it’ll be useful for comparisons. It’s possible that all of the Bay Area’s groups are just separate communities that should stay apart, but I think if we did gather, a culture and attitude would eventually crop up. One pattern for cross-pollination seems to me is the presence of games academia. Despite having some problems of its own, game programs tend to provide free neutral zones for all kinds of developers by hosting events while also bringing along a bit of their culture as well. I’m thinking of schools like NYU, Parsons, MIT, Copenhagen, USC. When I visited UCSC down in Santa Cruz, I asked Michael Mateus how he would sum up the culture of the program there. He said something along the lines of developing new technologies for innovative game making, especially when it comes to narrative. I noticed a lot of the students I spoke to were invested in exploring this potential, finding inspiration in projects like Mateus’ Facade to interactive fiction programs. Similar kinds of focuses exist at other schools, and they bleed into the local game making community, as they are also influenced by the outside. A cohesive group of indies supporting other indies is another site for community, usually in cities that don’t have a strong industry or academic presence. Austin, Toronto, and Melbourne come to mind, where I see developers with co-working spaces and a more relaxed culture that allows them to gather more frequently than in a place like San Francisco. Also, strangely enough, there are some media-led communities like what I witnessed in Amsterdam and heard about in Tokyo. There are other combinations and nothing is as simple as I put it here, but I think understanding how people gather can say something about the values of that particular community. San Francisco doesn’t have a strong presence of any of these things, mostly a little of everything, which might contribute to why we have such a disparate community.

Why go through all the trouble of pointing out the differences in these communities? Because I think it’s a good solution for some ground-level diversification of games as a whole. Instead of answering to some larger phenomena, like a neutral mainstream development, we can look at the people around us, the city and country we live in, and the spaces we inhabit for a source in identification. It would allow San Francisco to re-embrace its public games history and fold it into all the other game making going on, and also have cities that don’t have a strong consumer game development hub to gather and organize. We need more different events celebrating local culture rather than a few central ones. With diversity, we can see what is and isn’t general problems and attitudes in the medium overall. What’s front and center in my mind is my trip to GCAP in Australia, where I had a unanticipated culture shock when it came to game development. I learned more thoroughly of how the abandonment of American-based companies devastated Australian development, and now there is this survival, independent narrative. It was strange for me to hear most developers consider themselves indie despite making games that looked pretty mainstream to me. But to that community, industry is the United States, the unspoken center of video games. We hoard a lot of the resources and education, and our machinations have affected other countries. In a sense, game development and design as we know it might be American in itself, and whole other kinds of theory and practice would come out of (or probably already exist!) a focus on locality outside the US. I think there are some forms of this, like mainstream Japanese development style, Korean MMOs, Eastern European games. I am interested in having more international responsibility and respect seeing we have such a hold on games right now.

All of this doesn’t even tap into the play cultures of communities outside of game making. I’m sure there is research I can lookup for this, and will most likely do if I continue my education in games, but for now, I’m thinking of like east asian video game sports, lower socio-economic groupings around fighting games, dating sim otakus, sports in cultures that don’t have wide access to digital games, children’s games, etc. A connection with what the community is playing, even if it’s not video games, should also factor into this locality movement of game making. Or really, they should feed into each other, being community inspired games for the community, which can also be played by the world. Because, as a creator, what shapes you more than your surroundings? I can’t think of a better way games can contribute to culture as a whole as something else besides escape fantasies for dudes.

So this is a call for people to start thinking of their own community of game making and play, and how to distill that from just a general conceptualization of games. Mostly, some communities need to take responsibility for dominating discourse, and others need the resources and encouragement to have a voice of their own. I can’t possibly know everything about any community, even here for which I’ve only been present a year and a half. It’d be great if you all could write in on what you think defines your community, whether I listed it here or not. Ping me on Twitter (@xMattieBrice) or email (mattie.brice@gmail.com).

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End the Video Supremacy of Games

Remember where you were at the start of the of the last console generation? I drove to an early work shift at Target in Tallahassee seeing a line snake itself around the store, ready to rush towards Electronics and nab a PS3 or Wii. Despite working 40 hours a week, $6.40 an hour with rent and food to take care of kept the PS3 well out of my reach for another four years. Today, I am selling it to help make rent. I’ve come to terms that I will not be getting a PS4 or any other sort of future technology for a while, and I know I am already in an advantaged position with access to video game playing devices.

What does it mean when critics and creators can’t afford to keep up with the tech race? If the past year showed us anything, it’s the need for a wider, diverse set of people playing, making, and talking about games. One main barrier to entry is based on class and money; technology is rapidly advancing, and the culture surrounding video games requires professionals to be on the bleeding edge. Ultimately, the unspoken attitude for creators and critics who can’t keep up is to get out. It only takes a look at what the media covers, and the relative success of these games in festivals and other arenas.

I’ll come out and say it: the culture around video games is strangling the wider conversation of play and games as a medium. When people say they play/don’t play games, they mean video games. And not every kind of digital game, but the ones discussed all over enthusiast press sites. They could have just played RISK last weekend, just came from soccer practice, and be playing a match 3 while talking to you and still say they don’t have much to do with games. It’s easy say that video games are their own thing, and other people can do what they will on their own, but that’s not at all how game ambassadors are pitching it to the world. Jane McGonigal’s famous talks encourages the world to become more like (video) gamers to be a better place. Eric Zimmerman’s vision of a Ludic Century is a world where everyone is engaging play chiefly through technology. When countries confirmed games for art endowments, they mostly send funding to video game ventures. All other forms of play cling to the margins of video games when we say ‘there’s room for all.’

This is a technophilic narrative of play and games, where we ‘evolve’ from Chess and Go to Mario and Halo. It’s a misnomer; design hasn’t advanced in a way that makes video games particularly special outside of being new. I find many of the questions and problems thinkers face is because we look to video games and the mainstream discourse on them as the totality of what can come of games.

It’s low-fi digital games doing something other than fun.
It’s board games that explore shared, communal play artifacts.
It’s tabletop RPGs messing with non-quantitative relationships.
It’s LARPs acting as intense empathy flooding.
It’s ARGs reimbuing our spaces with hidden stories.
It’s physical games rapidly populating exhibits.

While it’s true video games aren’t always mindless dribble, we stymie our understanding of the vastness of play with them vastly dominating our attention. The above does poke its head in video games, but how much the conversation is controlled by the forward momentum of technology and consumerism cannot be ignored. It is imperialistic to use the model of mainstream video games to bring the knowledge of play to other spaces. Really, everywhere there exists a play culture, it just doesn’t look like what we’re often sold.

I know people are going to read this thinking that I view video games as worthless and should be completely subjugated. That is a reaction of comfort, of something that benefits from being the norm and risks losing something by existing in an egalitarian manner. There are so many things to explore and talk about, and whether something or someone is important shouldn’t be tied to financial success. Frankly, I don’t think there is a lot new to talk about with video games because of the rut it’s in. Mainstream video games is more in a state of fixing and reinventing than it is innovating. This is clear when you go to a festival like IndieCade and see the different kinds of engagement non-digital games are doing. They blow many ‘it’s hard for games to do x’ arguments right out of the water. Things like rules, goals, systems that seem like a given but are done away with or morphed beyond recognition elsewhere.

Which brings this around to my main point: accessibility. By allowing the conversation around play and games to broaden, we allow participation and perspectives that video games currently struggle to respect. We don’t have anything to gain by ghettoizing and exalting video games; instead, we’re currently suffering from its homogeneity. I don’t see technology as our savior but rather only one part of a balanced diet in understanding play. Even those I’ve mentioned above are designers of multiple kinds of play beyond the digital, and examples of video games that do push at how we think of play often come from interdisciplinary spaces. Why are we allowing the rhetoric of tech business dominate play? There are things video games can’t do, and are inappropriate for. One of those things is a model for the next phenomenon the people of world are mediated by.

How can play be used by the poor to take back their neighborhoods?
What does play say about how our political identities interact with one another?
What does it mean to internalize design?
When can play recontextualize our life problems?
What is the unique emotion we can express through play?
How do the craft of everyday objects imply a game?

I know many people just want their entertainment when it comes to console generations, but we should take a hard look at the unsustainable burnout the hype machine is producing. Only certain types of play and games are legitimized within and outside the circle of video games when this tech fetishization goes unchecked. I would hope that the media would be a great place for this change to take place, but I have a feeling, like all else currently marginalized, it will be up to those ignored to create a space where these conversations can happen. But if you are someone who sees the value in other play outside of video games, to bring in that perspective to a usually tech-dominated discourse.

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And Queerness for All

Two weeks ago, I helped run the Queerness and Games Conference at UC Berkeley, a free, public, interdisciplinary, and inclusive space for people who wanted to talk and learn about the intersection of games and queerness. To say it was a success would be an understatement; at the end of the conference, one of the main questions we discussed as a group was “How do we keep this community going after this finishes?” That people grew something around our event showed me the conference was needed and fulfilled its function.

Conferences as a concept are at a focal point in the games community’s vision. From the inaccessibility of the Game Developer Conference to the toxic overtones of the Penny Arcade Expo, there hasn’t been enough space to accommodate the growing diversity of people interested in playing, creating, and thinking about games. There’s been a reaction; in a relatively short amount of time, we’ve seen No Show Conference, Different Games, and GaymerX along with QGC start up to offer alternative spaces. The point of this influx is that there is a need, a need that doesn’t come without caveats when put forward to the larger events. For me, QGC started out as an experiment. Could we create an event that lives up to all of our ideals, ones that are often met with friction in other spaces?

I want to share some of the insights around running OGC and what it speaks to for what we need from conferences. One of the other organizers, Bonnie Ruberg, is also penning her thoughts on more logistical stuff over at her blog.


Obviously, the biggest difference between QGC and mainstream conferences is its commitment to having a diverse audience and speaker list, and making sure it was a safe space for all. Though, a ‘safe space’ might seem ambiguous to most people, it is not only possible but easy to get people to participate in.

Beyond my own experience in social justice activism, I actually riffed off of the conferences I went to before for an idea of how QGC would set up and encourage a safe space. Different Games had an inclusivity statement in the program that was read in the opening ceremony and the organizers instructed everyone to sign it. This left an impression on me because it felt like we were all on some sort of same page, and could all point to something when a problem arises. It also communicated to me that the conference organizers were serious about everyone being welcome to attend and participate. I took theirs and shaped it in my own words, especially in tone difference. I wanted to work on not only establishing QGC as an inclusive setting, but also a place where attendees felt comfortable settling matters on their own. I believe safe spaces aren’t a static thing, at least while different people with different understandings of social justice are in the same place. A safe space is something we work towards as a community, where we learn from one another. For that to happen, I emphasized that not only were these policies created to protect people, but also enable them to speak up when they feel safe. In one talk, attendees spoke up about cissexism in a certain presentation, and there weren’t torches and pitchforks, and the person learned from the experience. A conference organizer wasn’t needed to solve the issue. If we start off knowing that everyone isn’t going to have the same experience, and that we ourselves need to be open to learning, the hostility that comes along with maintaining safe spaces is vacuumed out the room.

At No Show, I remember feeling struck by the idea that the person you would talk to for inclusivity-related problems, main organizer Courtney Stanton, was always around and visible. Like, the knowledge that if I had a problem I could just look around and be directly in touch with the person I knew would care about what I had to say had this unspoken safety to the space. Because we had four main organizers, I was able to emphasize this role and be a touchstone in case anyone had questions or reports. I think it was important because the structure of my role made it possible for me to leave what I was doing at any time to go solve anything that might have come up. I got to have a lot of personal conversations and observe how the conference was going from a safety and inclusion standpoint. We had no reported incidents, and we know next year we need stronger guidelines for speakers, to further educate everyone on ableist language, and reach out to more non-white creator communities.

The magic of this is, once it’s laid out clearly in the beginning, we rarely had to bring it up again. There wasn’t this hanging cloud of thought crime or what-not, people were just legitimately decent to one another and felt safe knowing they could say something in case there was a problem. Larger conferences aren’t good for this for a couple of reasons. Mostly, they don’t want to seem ‘political,’ and have the conversation be a centerpiece to the event. As well, it is extra effort and money to train a large volunteer staff on inclusivity, though, GaymerX did that and it seemed like it would scale easily if the conference made it a priority. That isn’t to say there isn’t efforts done by these larger events to do better, but usual trappings of being for-profit or associations with frequent offenders get in the way of progress making a sizable headway. Mostly, the larger the conference, the more likely the people who need exposure to inclusive thinking can completely bypass advocacy talks. I’m thinking about the last GDC, which for me was all about the establishment of advocacy and the powerful emotions about the bullshit of the industry. I remember seeing people who, because they aren’t interested in social justice, going to other talks and bemoaning the seeming takeover. At QGC, if you came and were respectful, you didn’t have to obey one monolithic thinking. Contrary, there were many people who didn’t identify as queer or completely understanding, but felt like they were allowed to explore, act, and think differently because the space explicitly encouraged them to.


One of the things I obsess about is having an interdisciplinary approach to games. This mostly comes from my own background as a creator; I didn’t grow up with the skills to make games in the traditional sense. It was only until the barriers to entry came down low enough that I was able to become a designer and do my current work. As team, the organizers are pretty diverse as to their professional relationship to games; we had academics, journalists, designers, and activists. We really wanted create a space that was not only friendly to all these disciplines, but built bridges and healthy dialogue between them. In the end, I think it was a rather freeing process for those involved. We encouraged academics to try something new if they didn’t want to read from their papers, had a variety of game-making workshops for those who didn’t have the skills yet, and really let developers air out their theories and experimental projects.

We structured the event as best as we could to prevent particular groups of people camping in certain kinds of talks and never cross-pollinating. Academics and developers have their own conferences where they can bounce ideas off each other, but when do they have the opportunity to listen to someone who has a completely different competency? Also, there was the scary academic vs intimidating artist contention to break down; in other words, academia seems hostile to those who don’t have a traditional education and artists seem unapproachable as the creators of the things academics study. I was happy to see a lot of note-taking and nods during developer- and academic-heavy talks, and a general sense of understanding in the more hybridized ones. And, actually, it wasn’t until QGC that I realized so many people had feet in multiple camps and already were trying to help this dialogue along.

I felt this was particularly successful for our microtalk section. We filled up the entire hour with a wide range of talks, from good, inclusive fantasy novels to a call for hacking into accessible game making tools to an exhale of frustration on the current binary treatment of gender. Our attendees all had different things they wanted to say and I think it was encouraging for others (the room was packed) to see their peers speak.

In some of the feedback we got from attendees, there was a want for some more introductory talks along with all the more in depth things. I saw this to be a great sign, because it meant people wanted to learn and attend talks they aren’t used to. I think in our efforts for next time, there will be a stronger outreach to get more developers and non-game people interested in games to speak.

A Quick Note on Locality

Something I want to stress is how important I think it is to have local-specific conferences. When encouraging other people to make their own conference, I usually start off with how tired I am of seeing so many on the west coast in the usual places. This does two things:

1. It makes conferences even more inaccessible to the poor, even poor speakers, because travel is a financial strain. Having more, smaller conferences all over ups the number and chances more people can participate in talking about games. And that’s what these events are about; at the larger conferences, you don’t go for the panels or expo unless you’re working during it. You’re there to network, socialize, and have off the record conversations in person. Seeing that development is becoming more accessible, we also need to make networking and community more accessible.

2. It increases the variety of events. Right now, we have mono-culture that is perpetuated by GDC and PAX which imply how we think games and talking about games look like. The cool thing is that every locale has its own unique relationship with games that is drowned out by centralized conferences and conventions. This is even true for the bay area, which actually has a lot more besides social gaming start-ups and the usual juggernauts. There’s independent talent, street games, theater games, ARGs, all of which are usually in low quantity or missing in bay area events. We gain a lot by researching into our own local culture of play and celebrating it and local creators. What we don’t need is the usual suspects being shuffled from conference to conference saying the same thing to different people. Even they want a home to dig roots!

As well, we really should be encouraging and establishing relations with international creator, writer, and academic communities, because often we are stuck in the echo chamber of American perspective.

A Plan For Action

Very quickly, I realized the attendees of QGC were collectively thinking two things: 1. We get that there’s a problem in games regarding representation, let’s dig deeper and 2. What can we do to move forward and feel good about where we’re going?

One of the hardest parts of attending very broad conferences likes GDC and PAX is that you have to assume your audience is mostly new to what you’re talking about if it isn’t specifically development-related. Which means a lot of ideas and talks are hamstrung by needing to either be part introductory or purely polemic in order to connect with the audience (or, that’s how these talks are tailored to exist). At QGC, we all knew that queerness is underserved in games, that queer people are underserved, and we didn’t need to have every talk verify that. We could dive into more interesting conversation because everyone is mostly on the same page, or at least, aware of attitude the conference had. For me personally, it was refreshing to not have to talk about why gender matters in games; instead, I got to do a roundtable with my peers to talk about activism in the press and what that means for this current stage in games. Anna Anthropy got to talk about kink and play, Robert Yang about queer programming, Colleen Macklin posing that queerness already exists in games. These were all challenges posed to the entire game making community to explore and help games grow. To propose ways we can fuck with this really broken system. In a sense, a way to cope, considering the Jack Halberstam influenced talks on failure.

Everyone left with ideas and possible collaboration partners. I am glad to see people who didn’t know each other before the conference chat happily away together on Twitter and have that open door to a future project. In next iterations of the conference, it would be great to have more directed mixing sessions to get everyone knowing each other and finding connections that will benefit them outside of QGC.

I am thrilled to have completed (and survived!) putting on QGC, and I realize the part it plays in creating new spaces that people can be different in. The greatest part of QGC was not needing to be queer, a developer, or an academic to feel invigorated by its atmosphere. It was earnest in its intent to connect and move forward, and for that alone, I can’t wait to see what next year looks like!

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Death of the Player

Players are overrated.

Within conventional wisdom of designing and critiquing games lies the assumption that the player is paramount. Much of criticism writes to inform players, games are designed with the player in forefront of the developer’s mind. There is even the idea games are completed by players, that without players, there is no game.

I want to propose that not only do games and play exist without players, but sometimes, it is preferable to purposefully make them auxiliary or absent from craft and interpretation. Just to be clear, I don’t think there should be a blanket destruction of player-centric experiences. Rather, we are quick to use ‘death of the author’ arguments because of the cultural history behind it, and so why not at least consider the death of the player?

My journey with this concept started when I played anna anthropy’s Encyclopedia Fuck Me and the Case of the Vanishing Entree. I remember it took me an entire day to play it, mostly because it felt so hostile to me at first. The game was set in its ways, knew what it wanted, and I felt incidental. I could play along, or leave. So I left. Its content disturbed me, to be completely honest. Within the hours that I spent away from it, I reflected on my inability to play, and decided it was a rigidity in myself, feeling a lack of control and agency within someone else’s world. Going back to it, it became clear that the designer was clearly present and wanted me to experience feelings I’m not used to. Eventually, I noticed I was being trained, trained to exist in this play space.

As a little window to a fictional world, Encyclopedia Fuck Me doesn’t have the player’s needs in mind. You either submitted to its logic or left. This is different from games that have a brutal, ‘masocore’ difficulty, because they make themselves known and welcome to players wanting that experience. They allow players room to be themselves and eventually dominate the game. There is no room for domination in Encyclopedia Fuck Me, because that’s the game’s role. Recently at the Queerness and Games conference, Jack Halberstam talked about escaping the tyranny of agency in games. He made a point that agency is always coded and designed into games, given to players by the developers. There is no such thing as agency in games. Agency is a lotus and we’ve all been asleep. I think The Stanley Parable strives for us to look at this issue, asking why we continue down this narrative of player agency. Can’t we still be taken through experiences without our every whim thought of and satisfied?

Play- and player-centric design are usually interchangeable terms, but I’d like to make a stronger distinction between them. My main quibble with player-centric design is the fetishized iterative process, where you take a prototype and get players to playtest it. Sometimes, this is useful; if it’s very important to you that someone feels a certain way or does a certain thing, playtesting is a method to achieve that. When I made Mainichi, I released it without any playtesting and iteration. Because players have a tendency to want agency and a positive trajectory, their input would have been useless to me. As well, the game was made for a friend to understand something. I couldn’t playtest the game with them and then ‘release’ it after. It would be like asking your crush to read and edit the love note you want to pass to them one day. With games that use personal experience as a main part of their design, player input through playtesting washes out their voice. If your game leaves out traditional qualities and emphasizes voice, then player-centric design is a useless paradigm for you.

This becomes even more important when we consider social politics, especially the kind that comes along with gamers. Gamers are trained to expect certain things from games, like explicit rules, goals, visual quality, and of course, agency. To put it frankly, gamers are set up to be colonial forces. It’s about individuality, conquering, and solving. Feeling empowered and free at the expense of the world. Many games try to evoke the qualities of play most commonly associated with boys and men. Many games envision their average player to be white, a man, heterosexual, American, and a whole list of other privileged qualities. Meaning, they act much like our reality set up to have a particular group of people feel good about their lives as long as they are complicit with the system. A bestowed agency. Many games that emphasize personal experience as design tools come from creators who are marginalized identities. Instead of the qualities listed above, their lives are more often community-reliant, without power, and restricted. It’s about survival. If these games were playtested, they would, most surely, get feedback about not having clear enough avenues to control and victory. It would be whitewashing a particular experience that doesn’t really get light or validation in our current landscape.

I experienced this recently with my game EAT. I made it for my partner who wanted to know more about my financial struggles and how there wasn’t a simple fix for it. EAT is very hostile towards players, because impoverished life is hostile. Much of my feedback wanted me to edit the game so people could actually play it. This was a misnomer; people could very easily play it, their life would just become a lot more strenuous. Because you can’t experience being poorer without being inconvenienced. You can look at EAT and see how it generates play, and not actually play it. It’s an experience that might just need a mental understanding to succeed. This reminds me of an anecdote I remember Brenda Romero describing about Train. She said a person went to go play it, but with just looking at it, understood what it was all about and refused to play. Instead, Brenda thanked her for playing, because the actual act of physically interacting wasn’t necessary. The player isn’t needed for play, the player is more someone who can perceive play. I know that EAT is painful to play, and most won’t do it, but that act alone should communicate something to those who encounter it. It’s demanding because that’s what’s needed to have that experience; how do you have a ‘fun’ experience of being poor while a non-white, queer woman who’s a student? How is agency and the player’s wants important when the system that impoverishes doesn’t care of the person’s feelings? Giving someone the agency to ‘solve’ the game is like positing one person can game the system and vanquish poverty in reality.

What I hope for now is to see more projects that are purposefully iterative and noniterative. To not take the iterative process as a given, to consider alternatives to player-centric design. Sometimes, it’s about us, not them. Sometimes, it’s about the experience, and not their sedation. I don’t want to drug people with their own chemicals, rather, encourage them to step outside of themselves and connect with what I have to say, as separate people.

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Iz Gamez Criticizm Art???

There are times it shows I have immigrant parents because of the large gaps in my American pop knowledge. My household listened to reggae and watched Bollywood films when I was young instead of folk and westerns. Most recently, I found out that the Freemasons were actually a thing, when previously I thought they were among the ranks of the Illuminati in the conspiratorial conscious. I was waiting to speak on a panel at IndieCade inside a Masonic lodge, where wooden chairs and thrones lined the walls and checkerboard tiles were inserted in the middle of the floor. I felt ominously regal sitting up front in that stuffy room, about to talk about game criticism with some of my peers.

My conversation with Frank Lantz, Ian Bogost, and Tim Rogers wasn’t as adversarial as I would have preferred. It was clear that we had differences on how we saw, experienced, and hoped for games criticism, but never really got to challenge each other on our points. I found it fitting that we discussed this topic in the confines of a secretive fraternity; there were members of the panel who had the secret passwords, but maybe didn’t know it yet.

Without my intervention, I felt there was a large oversight on the environment needed for game criticism to exist and flourish. And not just the criticism of games as a concept, but the very particular kind embodied by younger critics used to come up against conventional thinking about games and writing. Why there seems to be confusion around the existence and deployment of criticism is because there is no real, validated structure for it. Who, exactly, are game critics? The kind of people discussed in the panel most likely does not match everyone in the conversation. There are reviewers and journalists who consider themselves game critics, but what was being referenced was more of an academic criticism.

The presence of academia really muddles this situation, as it has many tendrils. For one, those identified with games criticism (or bloggers, if you must) tend to have some sort of critical theory background. Most go through a process of starting our their writing like undergrad English papers (myself included) and eventually responding to the literacies and interests of the general audience. So while many people are affiliated with academia, and the struggles with and against the privilege that comes along with it, the surrounding community aims to break from it enough to be responsive to many readers. There is some artistry to this.

At the same time, this is also a very low-tier academia, and not games studies or design. On the top of this spectrum are people like Ian and Frank, who could be seen as critics for this medium. But they aren’t getting their money from writing criticism, it is secondary to the positions they already have. In our panel, they didn’t seem to really meet with me at how hard it is to simply exist as a critic, and I have a feeling it’s because they have that standing already. They might have ascended to general culture critics that were never really a part of the media, unlike what I think of games criticism now. It’s something we didn’t have the time to really get into on the panel, so I hope there’s a round 2 in our future.

Then came the final question in our Q&A: “Is game criticism art?”

I think I saw a wave of grief wash over my co-panelists as they abdicated from answering the question. I answered with a flat no. That’s because I knew it was a memetic troll by I Get This Call Everyday creator David Gallant, referencing the terrible twitter arguments of days past (hopefully). What was surprising is when people afterward thought we were being rather dismissive or unfair to David’s question, because I thought by now we’d be past any art questions. But after I started to think about it, there is at least an artisan quality to the environment that surrounds games criticism right now. So, I’ll engage with it:

Is game criticism art?

To start off, I am always going to answer ‘Is X Y?’ with ‘sure.’ Mostly, I see something like art as a lens or perspective; you can see something as art, and bring in what you understand of that to extract meaning. I subscribe to a lot of constructivist leanings, meaning, I don’t think much is intrinsic to ourselves, we have our own understandings and we should respect people’s understandings of themselves.

What I think is really interesting about recent developments in games criticism is how creative it’s getting. Take some of the front-runners associated with this circle: Jenn Frank, Patricia Hernandez, Lana Polansky, Cara Ellison, Maddy Myers. Thinking of their most notable works, they depart from just being a lens, just telling you facts, and really using creative elements to craft the experience of the piece. You are meant to feel affected, your emotional journey with the author means something to what’s happening.

This is why, during our panel, I balked at the assumed stance that we should have a distance from what we are discussing. Because that’s not what’s going on here, it’s actually the radical subjectivity of perspective that makes games criticism shine right now. The self as lens, the self as design, this is our current paradigm. Just like how personal experience as design is being accepted into the conversation, personal experience as criticism struggles for its own in this community. I think there’s a reason we have such an uptick in minority writers as of late, and it’s because of this change. Games and its criticism was homogeneous, and therefore couldn’t produce much of the conversation about how games are culturally situated. Now that we have authors saying they connected emotionally with games past nostalgia, we have people saying how their identities are validated and refuted in play worlds. It only follows that audiences are responding and now have more distinct expectations for what they consume.

And here is why criticism can’t seem to catch on in games media. This new expression resists the consumerist model games (and other kinds, sure) journalism is built on. The media makes its money off of the news, previews, and reviews culture, which attracts a certain kind of consumer to be advertised towards. Unless they have an alternative model, it is the salaried journalists who provide criticism, and this is usually still in relation to what their consumer readers want. There is also a very rigid, consumer-focused interpretation of what previews and reviews should be, which doesn’t include this kind of criticism. Only the top tier of freelance talent, like Leigh Alexander and Ian, can visit a publication and write criticism for it. Especially with her latest works, Leigh is making room for blogger-like criticism in general journalism, but she is at a ridiculous senpai level that affords her that opportunity (not undeservedly). The long and short of it is games media structure doesn’t, or can’t, pay for games criticism, because the writing is moving into a very creative, subversive spot in our culture. Combine this with a general internet publishing problem of readers being trained that they shouldn’t have to pay for what they read online, and you have a very hostile environment for these artists.

The ideal situation would be for capitalism to crumble, but as we wait for that, I think we could look to other media for what to do. That is, retake reviews from its heavy consumerist bend and insert the artistry we’ve been cultivating in games criticism. Part of this is to usurp our forebears, to challenge and complicate the hegemony that is in game design and academia. I don’t think we can do this in the games media, which is collapsing and restructuring in ways that only reinforce old ideologies until eventually there won’t be much opportunity outside of the established giants. Instead, we could aim for more general publications, or hide out in our respective fields and write for other subject matters from a play perspective. Something has to give; either the public directly sponsors critics, publications begin to value this kind of writing, or benevolent investors take over. In case it isn’t clear: most game critics are financially struggling, especially because they come from a generation of people expected to get an education and a job, but instead just have loans and an overcrowded job market. People think I’ve ‘made it’ as a writer, but as of this writing, I sit on a negative bank balance and tens of thousands of dollars in debt, and no way to repay it all.

The bottom line of all the problems with games criticism: nothing is there to support the writers. There is no environment for artists to create and live healthy lives. The world is getting more game criticism than it deserves. If the people on top in academia wish for more interrogative conversations to be happening in the general media, they need to help restructure the environment so talent can actually grow. To recognize the people doing the work, because the media isn’t.

At this point, I’m not exactly sure what the answer is for all this. I don’t speak for all critics, nor have all taken my path. But we should realize the politics that partitions off the criticism academia wishes to see more of, and the kind consumerist media values. Maybe if we look past the joke and see games criticism as art, we can find a place for it somewhere, somewhere that isn’t here.

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The Dadification of Video Games is Real

(Spoilers about The Last of Us, Bioshock: Infinite, and The Reapers Are the Angels)

I recently watched a Lets Play of The Last of Us, because god forbid I play a shooter ever again in my life. But I do like to keep up with what’s going on and what people are buzzing on about. Something super interesting to me was how similar it was to Bioshock: Infinite, which I also watched. I feel like they really succinctly capture the stage games are going through in reaction to contemporary ideals for the medium: both of the protagonists are older and fathers, both have daughter-role side-kicks, both had news stories about cover art about said daughters, both wanted to deal with mature topics, both had demonized non-white radical activists.

Where TLoU diverges from BS:I might be completely unintentional, but I feel like it stands as a ‘fuck you’ to this aging gamer/game developer population of men trying to keep their killing sprees and titillation while requesting to be taken seriously as creators and players.

The game might have been going for otherwise, but I found Joel to be a straight-up bad person. He’s not complicated, morally gray, or whatever. He’s just a selfish asshole much like many protagonists in video games, and everything that happens in the game is for his benefit. This is evidenced by the final scene, where it’s obvious Ellie wanted to give her life to the cause, and the only reason she is alive is because Joel finally came around to wanting to work on being a good human being who wanted a second chance at having a daughter. Unfortunately, that meant putting aside everyone else’s wants and needs for his own whims: aka an asshole. The audiologs that suggest there were other failed experiments were a weak attempt to complicate his stance; nothing’s complicated, Joel was looking for any excuse to get what he wanted, to the peril of many other people.

The thing is, we are shown time and time again that Ellie is more than capable of taking care of herself. In fact, she does a better job of taking care of them both because Joel can’t get over his pride and general asshattery. Viewing this entire game as a critique, it’s telling you play Ellie when Joel is out of commission and can’t see her be awesome. It’s also telling that her identity-specific drama is surrounded by rape imagery and the actual threat of rape, because right now that seems to be the main way developers get drama out of their women characters. We don’t end Ellie’s chapter with a new insight really, because we always knew she could take care of herself. This makes Joel’s intrusion to the scene even more bitter because you know the game is going back to focus on him just after a girl survived attempted rape.

There is a post-apocalyptic fiction story called The Reapers are the Angels, which has a girl protagonist in a zombie infected world. Like Ellie, she was born after the apocalypse, so this is the only world she knew. And I noticed many differences in how the narrative allowed them to exist, despite both being extremely capable people; Ellie still had a sense of the old world and seemed to be pretty informed of gender roles, when Temple (the main character of the book) occupies what we’d consider an ambiguous space, because traditional women’s gender roles directly impose with survival. Where Ellie was written in a way to inform players of game elements, it really infantilized her when she is pretty much more mature than Joel. Temple also faced attempted rape, but it was near the beginning of the book, and it itself didn’t phase her too much. What rape represented was something she was unfamiliar with; old patriarchal domination. And throughout the book, the brother of her rapist hunts her to avenge his murder, even though he knows it was wrong. Rape wasn’t used to show that Temple was weak and vulnerable, but to show how she differed from the old ways of our current contemporary society. Ellie, on the other hand, had an attempted rape scene just as we give up control of her to ultimately serve as a bonding moment to further Joel’s character arch. This is the same for his daughter in the beginning of the game; you are meant to feel vulnerable and scared as a little girl, innocent to everything going on, and have that emotional buy-in when she’s killed. But her death has little to do with her, rather, to explain why Joel is the way he is. It’s a dad’s version of fridging a girlfriend at the beginning of a game; the more ‘mature’ option is to kill a daughter.

Basically, our audience and developers are getting older, but are still not observant of how they make all other types of people serve them for their character growth. For some reason, we think making people assholes who might change to be nice one day morally complicated. All of this reminds me of when we talk about gun violence, and how much older men still sound like 18-year-olds with how much they still need video games to serve their specific purposes. TLoU was most likely not a comment on the dadification of games, but it stands as a great artifact to talk about it.


We tend to see them as objects. When we talk about games, we’re referencing a thing, either with physical boundaries or digital limitations. Games are objects with qualities, to be dissected, parsed, and valued. A game is something with a challenge. A game is something with a goal. Besides the usual questions of who is deciding what a game has, it is, first and foremost, a thing.

Most arguments over objects pull from essentialist rhetoric: if it has these qualities, it must be this. If it does not have this feature, it can’t be this. Games then fall into all the usual traps most objects do- commodification, determinism, colonialism.

But, perhaps, the object involved with what we care about games is the least important part. Instead, the experience, the space that exists between the two objects, player and screen/table/player, is where play happens. Navigating systems, giving back to the feedback loop, doesn’t occur within the object of the game. So why is it when say someone designed a game, we highlight the file instead of the play space?

My mother likes to tell this story, about the time I was born. Literally- she swears she was staring straight at the clock in the hospital as she gave birth. She told me the time on my birth certificate was wrong, which made me think about what else could be. But the story didn’t stop- she also remembers the nurse who came in to fill out forms, asking my mother for her background and other information. The nurse looked at my mother and I, and wrote in that I was white. Then, as the story goes, my father came into the room at this moment. She looked to my father, to my mother, then to me. “Oh, no, black.”

Race is a category used to prescribe traits on a person. I know this because I’ve spent my life listening to others guess mine. Did I have a temper because I was latina? Was I black, and therefore pitiable? I sure acted white. What people wanted was for me to pick a side- are you with us, or over there?

Growing up, I always checked the ‘other’ bubble whenever filling out forms. I remember, for my first job, I wrote in ‘other’ because the option wasn’t there. My boss said I couldn’t do that, and chose black for me instead.

what is a game?

win, challenge, rules, play, emotions, death, empathy, fun, not art, art, experience, iterative, none of your business, mechanics, photorealistic, legitimacy, exploring, shooting, systems, enemies, growth, abstract, losing, agency, puzzles, interactive, fantasies, graphics, i just want to impress you, escape, your’s, mine, something else entirely, visceral, story, love, fear, disconnections, chance, outcome, whatever i decide

There is much to be said in the way of a game’s form. How is it structured, and how does that structure make a difference? Let’s say someone submits something that doesn’t look like a poem to a poetry contest. The judges don’t necessarily go “This isn’t a poem, therefore, it is not worth considering.” Rather, the form itself critiques the established genre, it says “I’m a poem, and what are you going to do about it?” The formal genres in writing are for convenience only- ultimately, the kind of criticism needed for flash fiction, prose poems, short stories, novellas, and novels, is ultimately one in the same. Maybe everything is really just poetry. Boundaries, bones of old men before us, are only there to be transgressed.

There’s much to be said about someone who uses form to decide what something is. Formalism, in itself, doesn’t have the definition for something like ‘game’ used by formalists. It is part interpretation, part common wisdom. These boundaries are not meant to be crossed, rather, imply the fractal growth of even more categories. And without that bedrock of an initial definition, everything else crumbles, and the world doesn’t make sense anymore.

I always tell this story, about my job at Starbucks. It stars me and some customers.

The first customer came up to order a drink. He was a regular, and liked to wink at me a little too often. He always addressed me formally, with a “How’s your day going, ma’am?” He did that this time, we exchanged pleasantries, and he went on. The second customer, overhearing our chat, looked indignant. She pointedly said, “I’d like a grande soy extra hot no foam chai, sir.” It struck me how, without acting differently, I appeared to be two different things to different people. That was out of my control- I was an attractive women to one, and a deceptive deviant man to the other. This happened often, with every pronoun flying around every which way, I lost track who said what.

Who cares what category you belong to? I care. I care because I say I’m a woman, and many important institutions disagree. The government, my schools, my family, security guards, bartenders, people in bathrooms. I can scream out loud what I am, but someone put a category on me, one that decides what side of a prison I’ll go to, one that says I have the wrong ID, one that won’t let me marry my boyfriend, one that has the power to ban me from public spaces, to insist I don’t wear makeup or else I’m kicked out of the house.

I was on my way to LA, going through the usual drill of airport security. I went through one of the big scanners, and was stopped. Two TSA officials, one a man, and the other a woman, argued who between them should do the pat down, right in front of me. Someone saw my body and decided to put me in a category. The man laid his hand on my stomach for a brief moment, as if there was a ticking bomb inside my body, ready to blow.

what is personal?

emotions, immature, untrustworthy, feminine, impatient, queer, meandering, confessional, free, uncomfortable, zinester, dubious, empathy, illogical, revolution, manipulative, perspective, egalitarian, not up to standards, polemic, cheap, voice, over there, unprofessional, resists, loud, exploitative, conflicting, my only chance

If life is a game, we are good at ignoring its systems. Preoccupied by blips and marble board pieces, where are the critiques of the systems we live in every day? The ones that decide who will be rich and poor, the ones that frame the discourse we discuss ideas. What are the rules, who is valued- who isn’t?

There are times I think we are our own little islands. We see the world at our particular angle and are the only one with our particular crossroads of experience. Why is there such a force to smudge this away?

My fashion is weaponized. It is a strategic tool to navigate the minefield of interpersonal relationships. It’s all about control- if you can set the terms someone approaches you on, then you get an upper hand you rarely get. If I present myself as exotic and sexy, I at least limit the harmful ways a person can treat me.

I remember walking through the crowds of my first GDC. Many wondered why I put so much effort into my looks, possibly the only woman off the expo floor with heels on. Men liked to take me by the shoulders, pull me along with them. I had the only professionalism I was allowed- the kind where I have to be as much of a spectacle as much as I am intelligent. I knew the rules of the game, and moved my pieces accordingly.

I both love and dread the bars and parties. Eventually someone will touch me without permission, and I must leave without a fuss. Walking quickly through the Mission to get home, a man called out to me:

“Hey, mami, how much?”

I knew what he meant. I kept walking.

“Too good for me? You suck that rich white cock, you get that white man money?”

I walked faster, even if I was used to hearing something like this.

“How much mami, I can pay it.”

I didn’t cry when I got home. Instead I went through and looked at all of the names, all of the names of my editors, those receiving my pitches, giving me opportunity to further myself in the industry. The names on the business cards in my purse, the names already in my inbox. The guy I was dating. That man on the street knew. He knew.

I’ve never told this story before.

what is

Don’t worry, it’s yours. You can have it.

B-Side #1 – Depression Quest

Games Discussed: Depression Quest; dys4ia
Notes: This post discusses depression, and those with related triggers should proceed with caution; a section of this video records a game on New Grounds which features generally discriminatory advertising.

Video Text:

Welcome to the first of many B-Side videos, a series that will look at free indie games and how they continue to evolve our artform. This episode, I’ll be discussing Depression Quest by Zoe Quinn, Patrick Lindsey, and Issac Schankler.

Depression Quest is an interactive fiction, possibly non-fiction, game that takes the player through an experience of dealing with clinical depression. But even as I say it, that doesn’t really do the game justice; to say Depression Quest is simply about depression misses the interesting design philosophies at work here.

Someone smart at some point in my life either quoted someone else or said something akin to “Through the very specific, art becomes universal.” It speaks to the uptick of the hyperpersonal going on in games right now, and how it resonates with so many. Depression Quest is interesting because it blurs the line between fact and fiction; it is a rather distinct scenario with certain factors already present going in, but it isn’t hard to fit yourself into the role of the main character. It’s like games’ answer to creative non-fiction, and this choice made by the developers is important to point out.

Depression Quest is for a couple different audiences, and a player could fit into more than one. Mainly, there are two ways a person can approach it; looking for solidarity in a shared experience and gaining empathy through a shift in perspective. It is possible to do it both ways because this game both is and isn’t about depression, is and isn’t about a particular person.

The most powerful mechanic is actually the lack of choices open to the player. At least, all of the seemingly obvious ones most people assume are available are blocked off from those depressed. This instantly complicates common advice that ultimately sum up to “just make yourself feel better.” You see the options right there in front of you, but the system keeps them out of reach.

As far as I know, I don’t have depression. My best friend of many years, and others in my life, do, and very often I couldn’t understand the chronic flakiness and inability to express what they were feeling. Depression Quest did a couple things to bridge that gulf and create a channel for empathy; the formerly discussed blocked choices, and the archetypes found in the various people in the main character’s life. I personally found myself almost verbatim in Alex, the player’s girlfriend. Through a specific lens, the positive energy that a person can provide someone who is depressed can actually be immensely negative, and it was interesting essentially playing against myself. The character didn’t have the options available that would please me and Alex. Upon multiple play-throughs, I became more aware of the way choices start to open up and close off, and how this is only partly intuitive to the player.

On my first run through the game, I tried to be as honest and positive as the options would let me. The unavailable choices already created a ceiling I wouldn’t have assumed, and at times, made me choose something self-destructive. The unrelenting openness left my character vulnerable and caused them considerable pain at times. It made me reconsider my own tactics, about how that path is only serving the interests of others, and not my personal safety. In a future playthrough, I came to find a strategic mix of self-preservation and openness balanced your mood and other’s happiness, shown by the increased number of available options.

Then I was curious about what it looked like to be the lowest of your low. I was expecting something melodramatic and constant encounters with suicide, but my assumptions were met with something else. Suicide was more of a long dull pain, and what really characterized deep depression was the lack of control. More and more options were taken away from me, and I was forced to make decisions I knew would end badly.

Depression Quest uses its choice structure in a rather clever way to comment about therapy and taking medication. While everything leading up to therapy is dependent on your mood, the choice to start drugs and continue therapy are always available to you. It communicates having agency within that situation whereas in the rest of your life, you don’t. I liked that the developers were able to show contrast within their mechanics in a positive way, where usually designers like to give players a whole bunch and then take it all away.

Games like Depression Quest also help reaffirm a sort of community status for those who are illustrated in them. Depression Quest sits in an ambiguous area when it comes to how much of it is imbued with the personal experiences of the creators. Mainstream games typically make characters broad enough in attempt to have players easily identify with them. The logic is the player will fill in the holes and complete the character. Hyperpersonal works reject this notion by forcing the player to keep themselves out of the characters. Games like Dys4ia, by Anna Anthropy, assume many people playing it will not have shared the developer’s experience and instead has the player relate by reaching into their own personal history to establish empathy through the system. Depression Quest does a little of both; there are clearly autobiographical elements, used to create a very specific experience while, at the same time, it stepped back and allowed the player to fill themselves into this experience. I knew this was about depression, and felt those unique circumstances, but I could relate through my own experience of considering hormone replacement therapy. I didn’t need to have depression to find solidarity in this experience.

I’m not sure if I have words for what exactly Depression Quest does, but it is one of the fuzziest blends between author and player I can think of. Actually, this idea is encapsulated by the great sound design of the game. The main theme plays as the constant reminder of the character’s illness, though it could be abstracted to just about anything. Then noise eventually breaks through and takes you out of your head. Sometimes it’s clear and sharp, and on worse days garbled and painful. The ambient sounds pull players from the general narrative where they easily project themselves and into specific scenes undoubtedly from an author’s past. In a sense, Depression Quest applies how it handles fiction and non-fiction to depression itself- it alters reality while not striding too far away, leaving people in a constant state of confusion.

This is only one aspect of Depression Quest that’s interesting, and it’s obviously a hit. Not only is it a great game for playing, it’s great for sharing. Another topic altogether, but to me, it shows a bright future for games, how they can be used to help people communicate when their words aren’t enough. I think Depression Quest helped put more work like it on the map, and I can only see more games like it being made.

So, that’s it for this episode! Go play Depression Quest at depressionquest.com and consider donating to the development team for their work. Also, e-mail me your thoughts, suggestions, and questions at matti.brice@gmail.com.

Thanks for joining me on the first take of B-Side, I hope you’ll join me next time for another talk on free indie games.

Take Me Personally, Babe

I’m going to write about my personal experience writing about personal experience.

Context: I’ve been dragged to this point, by my hair, thrashing with my mascara running. I conducted myself publicly in a manner that would avoid having to make a post like this, but in order for things to stop and straighten itself out again, I feel like I need to document one of the many ways I deal with being a public persona in games criticism, and the game industry overall, as a minority. I know many people have quibbles with identity politics, and the definition of minority and the way American-centric discourse uses it, but this is a situation based on power relations where I am disadvantaged because of my identity, and not simply because of my actions or opinions in a vacuum. This is about a ‘conversation’ that involves me but I was never a part of. All of this is of consequence of other people and having me face the fallout.

It started with a reaction piece to my own. Jonas Kyratzes picked apart a piece I did on Nightmare Mode, Would You Kindly. Before I even got the chance to read it, the confrontation was on. Jonas linked his article with a quick caveat akin to ‘this isn’t transphobic.’ This instantly set many people in the social justice ring on edge, mostly because when someone in a place of privilege has to put out a warning like that, there’s usually something fishy going on. This, and his article, started an argument between Jonas and some of these people who are my friends that would set the tone of what would become a longer debate. The argument quickly became louder queer voices versus a subset of critics who typically have issues with said voices over how me and my work should be treated.

I had no say in how this conversation would go and what my opinions were.

What I’m trying to say is there is a lot games criticism, let alone journalism, writing overall, and the industry has to learn when dealing with minority issues. I really don’t like it when I’m forced to be the lamb on the alter to make that change happen.

More people continued to dog-pile into the conversation because they found it interesting. Overall, I find everyone involved well-meaning. However, because this discussion got intense quick, it became black and white and I was guilty by association. I really appreciate my friends, in the queer movement of sorts in games. They are good at certain things I’m not, have a perspective and disposition I don’t. There are many times I disagree with how they do things, but I think it’s important to have that diversity. I find many of my friends’ anger and mistrust rational, even if I don’t share it and find it frustrating sometimes. I can understand that when Jonas tried to absolve himself from transphobia, that they smelt the BS and got on that. I don’t think what they did was necessarily wrong- just not what I would have done. The rest of the debate is framed in that way, in the way they deal with oppressive culture and how they move in the industry. It isn’t their fault they are discriminated against and oppressed, it isn’t their fault they found methods for safety that are considered abrasive and uncompromising. I will never, ever judge someone for their survival tactics, because that’s literally what it is. At the same time, this debate about me, surrounding me, was with my body on strings instead of my actual self because of how it was postered by my friends and the reaction by all sorts of people.

As well, it’s made worse by Jonas’ article actually being informed by cissexism he seems to refuse observing (I’m differentiating transphobia and cissexism on purpose; I don’t think Jonas is transphobic, but I do think he is blind to the cissexist aspect of his arguments). In essence, his thought experiment of a transgender person considering not transitioning or not transitioning in the way they want to quell a cisgender partner’s insecurities of being discriminated against being equal or better than a trans* person expecting their cis partner to get over themselves can only be logical by any stretch of the imagination in a thought process informed by cissexism. To consider the transgender person is being selfish for wanting to be who they are in a cissexist and transphobic culture is only possible in cissexist logic. You are equating one person fundamentally changing who they are because of the pressure of a discriminatory culture with a person who never has their identity questioned in such a way, and who could easily move through life without ever having that demand asked of them based on that aspect of their identity. With Jonas trying to absolve himself from confrontation, he actually became a model for how many allies and otherwise progressive people try to say they are such without acting it. He was stating he isn’t transphobic without considering how transphobia works within his own logic.

This is just the beginning that will be lost as the debate marches on, but it’s really important for me to point out. It shows the almost deterministic projection of everything, how someone excuses something problematic by hand-waving its legitimacy is up against an extremely vocal and quickly damning oppressed group. They both saw each other as lost causes before any understanding actually happened, and that my name was in it all, I was party to it, despite not having entered the scene.

I didn’t want to respond to Jonas’ article publicly. I offered to have a conversation with him in email, but eventually his frustration with those fighting for me had him unfollow and disengage with me, despite I only contacting him once for that email offer. Outsiders to this scuffle really wanted me to respond, and add to this ‘conversation.’ The problem is that this whole thing was being framed as a me versus Jonas debate, but no actual exchange of ideas came between us. It went to the point where I had to just snap at people because it didn’t seem to get through to the general public I had little to do with the drama going on.

There’s one main reason why I didn’t want to respond to Jonas’ article with another: he pretty much misinterpreted my article and ran with it, then creating this echo chamber of arguments that I would both have to undo and counter. It basically was turning into an ‘argument on the internet’ segment I really didn’t want to get to. Nuance is often lost, comments are polarizing, people are stricken with confirmation bias. What as the payoff for me? I get to deal with more people who disagree with me and get more support from those who already do? There would be nothing productive of me going through Jonas’ piece and correcting him besides for others’ rubbernecking pleasure.

For one, no where in my original piece did I trivialize the realities of war or the people in it. A large part of Jonas’ article is a strawman against a false reading of my piece. What I had critiqued were people who were not at all involved with war and the violence associated with it co-opting it for a ‘real’ kind of violence. The privileged class glorifying a false retelling of war to entertain them. It’s because this privileged class doesn’t often experience violence, especially systemic violence, and so they export that to a reality they can relate to a la socialization by culture. But by the time his article hit the internet, this aspect was parrotted like nothing else, and I before I could actually respond to parts of his article that were interesting, I’d have to unpack all this BS that I really didn’t feel like engaging. By this point, so many of my opinions in this argument were made up by other people, no joke, a mythology was created of who I was and what my viewpoints were, that I honestly didn’t have an interest in it. People just fell on a predictable divide of those who often identify with the ideologies surrounding identity politics and those who don’t. People began to criticize my lack of engagement, and it’s literally because nothing interesting was actually going on, at least, not with me.

But I did feel the need to write about something. Conversations about personal writing have been going on for a long time now, even before this article now treated as a touchstone for a critique against personal writing. I am interested in the politics surrounding personal writing and personal experience used in games. But people so badly wanted me to be a part of the ‘conversation’ that they didn’t look at what I’ve been critiquing with my recent work: that the current way we deal with criticism in both games and writing is marginalizing. We are constantly applying standards that are political and unquestioned. We aren’t looking at how and why personal experience is used, just questioning its existence. We want things in boxes all nice and neat and don’t realize we value one box over another because of inequality. I didn’t want to address anyone in particular because one or two people didn’t sum up my counter-argument. The framework to dive into the nuance of this argument is completely unappetizing, because of how polarized the topic is- most likely, people who already saw my points will continue agreeing with me (to be clear, there are people who talked about my arguments and understood them without me having to explain/engage about them, so I know it wasn’t just that my articles were simply bad or completely unclear) and those who won’t be satisfied with my explanations no matter how detailed I am. The best case scenario would be some in the middle might find it interesting food for thought. Yay.

Now if all of that existed in a vacuum, maybe people would have a hard time seeing why I wouldn’t engage with it. The problem is, every single time I post an article on touchy subjects, I am harassed, belittled, and marginalized. In an industry who values and wants my work to exist but won’t pay for it or offer me any way to live or feel invested in for the long-term. This is on top of the discrimination I get every day of my life, both the standard fare on the street and the systemic kind enforced by society. All of this, and then I deal with all the things that come with being a public figure, with people wanting my time without consideration of me having my own life. There are people actively campaigning against me, there are people who email me rape and death threats, there is an industry who wants to look progressive but won’t actually act that way.

Where am I in all of this?

In essence, my critique of the personal is rather too apt for comfort. The most obvious thing people could be discussing and thinking about, me, is completely left out. Irony has its ways.

Ultimately, it’s because of a discomfort of the personal. We’re in these discussions of ‘why are these feelings in my logics?’ because people aren’t interrogating themselves with how the personal experience relates to them. Which is why after it all, this well meaning response really put me over the edge. Here is me, being put up as an example, about how I’m doing this whole conversation wrong. The conversation I don’t want to be a part of. The conversation I was never a part of. This is when we’re getting to masturbatory levels, the debate for debate’s sake, when debate over the internet with people who really don’t give two fucks about processing others’ feelings is, surprisingly, not that appealing to me. An overture on how this entire mental exercise, or thought experiment as Jonas puts it, is still entangled in a value system that discounts the voices of people like me. No, I’m not going to sit online and play teacher with unwilling students. I’m not even going to with willing ones, I’m too busy trying to figure out how to make use of putting myself in debt so I can actually get paid, seeing the game industry doesn’t want to throw me a dime. Want me to write thousands of words on a particular topic with extensive specificity while dealing with the discriminatory backlash that always happens? I’d love to, pay up.

I don’t know what else to say really. Was this entire debacle worth commenting on? I needed to get this out of my system, and to show that the neat, simple things people think are just friendly debates are never that way for me. There aren’t papers for me to cite that speak to my personal experience because it is systemically pulled out of many a discourse.
As for my philosophy of it all, I do see things swinging towards hyperpersonalization, and I like it. It’s something I wish people could wrap their heads around already instead of deeming it lesser than the established way of doing things.

Sorry for all you Christine Love fans drawn here by the title, I got nothin’ for ya.

Decolonize Me

“Why do you act so white?”

Her name was Shanti. I will always remember the exact look on her face, how her head floated in my vision surrounded by the artifacts of a high school classroom. It was the 10th grade, American Sign Language class, and I was clearly not white.

I’ve revisited these three seconds of memory often throughout life, coming back with different answers each time. At first, I thought it was absurd that someone could “act so white,” how could someone act a race? Eventually, I came to associate that question with ‘Why are you so educated?’ since, at the time, I found many non-white people to act rather unrefined.

It wasn’t just me asking this to myself. More people took note of my non-whiteness and proclivity to surround myself with it. It also came in reverse, with white friends glad I didn’t act like those kind of non-white people. I remembered visiting Chicago and seeing an improv theatre show with about 200 other people. For the first time in my life, I noticed I was in a room where I was the only person who wasn’t white. It was startling, considering this pattern I’ve noticed. What is going on with me?

What I’ve come to learn is how the status quo, the marker which we all mediate our lives with, is actually the culture of the hegemonic class. The labels of this group can go on forever, so let’s just settle for white American patriarchy. Which is why there are so many othering stereotypes of people who fall out of this, while whiteness gets assigned traits associated with the general person. Black men are often typecast as uneducated gangsters and white men the honest average joes. We see getting a university education as a standard that everyone should achieve, but politics that disproportionately affect non-white people frequently makes achieving the American Dream, whatever that is now, far out of reach.

There is a similar status quo in the game industry. An expectation for objective, fact-driven games and journalism. When personal experience enters, it is met with distrust. Herein lies the problem- when you leave out the personal, all that’s left is the status quo. Because that ‘standard’ consists of the values of a particular type of culture associated with the hegemonic, privileged class, there is actually something personal and subjective going on all the time. Thus, by leaving out the particular experiences of the silenced and marginalized, it bars anyone from revealing the bias that exists within this supposed stoically neutral discourse. It takes away the vocal chords of a person in a room full of shouting.

It is interesting to note that many of those taking to writing journalism or design games with a strong focus on the personal are social minorities. What was, indeed, once a genre where those recounting their childhood memories of video games or pet projects with mary sues abound is now subverted by a newer trend. People have found a method for speaking where once they had none. A method to not only plainly recount and explain their marginalization, but to actually get people to feel it.

There’s a recent resurgence of critique of using personal experience. That’s just a small bit as it pertains to game journalism, but there is common skepticism of personal games and how to relate to them that mirrors this conversation. While there are many shades of criticism for personal, often called confessional, writing, there’s a salient pattern in the pushback against it.

A lot of it boils down to the pejorative term ‘confessional,’ and the discomfort of those reading it. Those who see it as confessional writing equate their relationship to the piece as a kind of therapy for the author, the reader an involuntary psychologist or friend. They feel they can’t critique the piece without insulting the person who had a Very Sad Thing Happen. To them, what should be in a LiveJournal post can’t make a sound argument. As described by others, personal writing is exploiting the intimate experience for a cheap cause or a get out of jail card.

Let’s pick on that word then, exploitation. It is telling that this discourse finds the use of emotions and the personal as a means of exploiting both the reader and the author’s life, turning experience into a commodity that is strategically sold. Turning the self into a meat farm to gain some sort of profit. I find this to be a result of inner conflict within the skeptic- they face negative feelings they don’t want to deal with. A story makes them feel terrible, maybe bad about themselves. We see this in the news, but because it’s a report of the facts, we can flip and click away the guilt. Personal experience used in criticism and games won’t let you turn away so fast, and what has happened with some people is the feeling of being compromised by the author. It’s frequent that the writer or designer purposefully shows their hypocrisy, because it is the position society forces them into. It isn’t tied in the neat little bow allies and those of self import want, to praise or damn it. I argue it’s not exploitation occurring, but implication.

Witnessing the personal experience implicates the reader into the knowing party. They become a witness to something they know shouldn’t happen. Instead of the cold statistics of the transgender community’s suicide rate, which one flips by, the reader sees why suicide is so frequent. They can relate on some level, and now have to think about their own actions in relation to that experience. There is a feeling of I’m letting this happen, I now know it, I have no excuse. The armchair liberal parts of us don’t want to see what is happening to the people patiently waiting, or not for many transgender people, for society to get over itself. The well-meaning ally who hasn’t done anything wrong feels slighted that minorities are guilting them.

This has been the story for decades and centuries. Social progress comes only after those with power gasp and say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know it was that bad!’ In this context, the personal experience is rebellion, it won’t allow the status quo to go unchallenged and stay superior without their readers feeling a major sense of dissonance. Personal games make you intimate with the way works influence players with their politics without the participants’ awareness. The other path isn’t bare because it’s impossible, but because it’s silenced.

“Sometimes, I just need to… decolonize my hair.”

I was waiting for the M line, sitting on a seat slicked by mist. I looked over to a girl explaining something to a friend. Her hair looked like mine when I spent hours a day flat-ironing it, straightening the blackness out. It wasn’t until last year that I just had to stop- it was too expensive, too painful. I wanted to be pretty without burning my scalp twice a week. It was one of my first acts of rebellion, both from the society that prizes white beauty and myself, riddled with internalized racism. I took the same philosophy to my writing, letting the pouring rain reveal its curls.

Would You Kindly

I thought his eyes were blue. But he reminded me they were the color of shit.

Sitting at the corner of my bed, I watched him dress. It was December, and we had argued again. It’s an argument that I have every relationship I’m in. The one when I ask if we could be seen together in public, for once. Hold hands if he’s feeling bold.

It’s a funny thing, dating a man who’s never known oppression in his life. Where he has nothing to prove and no barriers to entry, there are always open wounds on my body from the briars of American society. He was shaken, to the point of an anxiety attack, that someone would think he was gay if spotted with me. That, he said, was a selfish thing for me to demand.

I looked into his eyes as he imagined what discrimination was like. I wonder, as someone who’s experienced it since the moment they were conscious, how life must be to easily sidestep such terrible treatment by our culture. That isn’t an option I will ever have- his reality, assumed to be the template for which all others are based, is actually a niche phenomenon that doesn’t account for the rest of us. It took all of my effort to not call out “boo-hoo” to his retreating back.

Video games are often like my past lover. They live in fantasy realm that can only reference reality, not participate in it. 2012 was a year of trying to become self-aware, employing satire and other forms of trickery in attempt to engage with social issues. Satire, it seems like the panacea for game developers, an avenue to have ‘fun’ while playing a ‘serious’ game.

An acquaintance of mine once said to me, “satire is for the bourgeois.” Often, the social perils they seek to critique turns into torture porn, and the high road they present is to simply look away and forget it all. The minorities involved are sacrificed for the passing interest of the privileged- video game developers and other satirists in the past just wanted to make people uncomfortable, not actually change anything. And it isn’t the oppressed who benefit from the bourgeois squirming in their seats before they go to sleep it off.

Spec Ops: The Line is one of many games to come out last year as an attempt to engage politics. It was the only one of these I could get through, and there are some relevant points friend and colleague Brendan Keogh makes about American interventionism in his book Killing is Harmless. However, much like Far Cry 3, Lollipop Chainsaw, and Hotline Miami, it only serves a particular audience for what it assumes to be a wide-reaching social issue. It is like that past fling of mine who flinched at the first sign of difficulty, and turned away.

I played Spec Ops having already sampled many games thought to make players aware of the violence they were committing in them, and couldn’t help but shrug my shoulders. For me, military shooters are fantastical, so far apart from what I actually experience that they couldn’t comment on my life. Which was when it hit me- the violence in games aren’t at all based on the violence that actually threatens me off-screen. If there was to be such a game, the character wouldn’t have a weapon, wouldn’t be able to do much damage, and would have to get from my house to the grocery store without being assaulted by men. I don’t know how to use a firearm, I don’t have the fortitude to withstand bullets, and I’ve never been in the military.

These games export violence to extreme situations such as war because it is pandering to the bourgeois of video games, people who don’t experience the threat of real life violence and oppression every day. They can’t make a meaningful connection to those who deal with violent oppression because they most likely have no idea what that is. They don’t put players in the shoes of a transgender woman getting cat-called on her way to get coffee. They aren’t there when a car follows her for blocks as she tries to get home from a party. The common retort is needing these games to still be fun; to that, I say “boo-hoo.”

I have to give Spec Ops credit though, as it clued me into why I couldn’t relate at all to what these games were trying to do. It was when I encountered a one-word mission objective: Obey. Do what you are told, and you will be rewarded. This is what the privileged class, men who are white, heterosexual, cisgender among many other things, is told to do. If you play your role, you will have a good life. When your role has you on top of the social food chain, there is little complaint to obey. But times are changing- social justice is pushing against the oppressive system that puts one identity over the other, and this privileged class is at a point of despair. They are doing what they are told, don’t they deserve their just reward?

Being a minority in many transparent ways, that option was never there for me. It was obvious from a young age I had to break out the system because it wasn’t for me. And not on an ideological level, not a taste preference, my literal identity that is often decided by men in bureaucracies and development studios. It’s an obvious choice to not obey, because to obey is to die.

Playing Spec Ops gave me a chance to glimpse at the psychology the privileged class. Design is commonly modeled around a player doing what the developers make them do; if the only option is to beat in a guy’s head with a golf club, we must take it. It is predicated on the plight of the heterosexual white man, moving in a system that favors them as long as they would, kindly, do what’s expected of them. The trick of the game, much like it’s ideological predecessor Bioshock, is the only way to ‘win’ or not do terrible things is to stop playing. Turn off the game. To look away. For some reason, people laud games like Spec Ops and Bioshock for not giving a solution, for not putting in a step forward. That is the appraisal of people whose well-being doesn’t ride on someone finding an answer to oppression. This isn’t to say either experience is solely enjoyed by or relatable to men, but that we’ve accepted that games constantly treat us as such.

This is why the recent public foray about video games and violence is rather laughable. Games are clearly overestimated when it comes to the kinds of topics and play is actually there. American society, at least, has identified guns and violence with boys and men for as long as I’ve been alive, and most likely before the first video game. It reminds me of an anecdote Brendan makes in his book, that cover shooters remind him of playing games of pretend as a child. Video games are currently a translation of that, a reincarnation of stereotypically boys’ activities that do impart cultural values, but do not simulate anything real. We can see this throughout all other media, and can attribute the homogeneity of both the artists and the audiences they target. This is why our Vice President calls a meeting to solve gun violence over the rare attack at a predominately white school and not the frequent, systematic murder of transgender women of color.

I know many developers and players are excited about the avenue of satire. The ‘gotchya!’ is easy to formulate and punctuate an otherwise typical game. But letting business as usual carry on until the final stages serves no one any good- it creates the illusion that these problems are outside of us, easily boxed away when we please. Indeed, challenging the player from the get-go with actual problems might not be fun and require the help of someone who isn’t white, heterosexual, nor a man.


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