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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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