Making games during sad times

This month is soaked with deja vu. Habits and nervous ticks I hoped long-gone resurfaced and many of my friends wear tired faces. Two years ago I felt like I went through a natural disaster and had to cope with what the existence of large groups of hate mobs after me meant for my life online and off. In its natural evolution, these groups have seized the imaginations and fears of the country I live in and all the lives we touch. New Yorkers told me that the day after this election felt like 9/11, that something about the world was irrevocably changed and wrong. Despite the implications of 2017 and on in America, my mind switched to a survivalist mode. Not necessarily fending for myself, but reevaluating what I do in the new context I’m in.

It’s easy to feel like there’s little you can do to change the world when you’re a game developer. The industry spends so much effort to keep an image of frivolity that when disaster strikes, no one is looking at video games as an actual source of change, only further regression away from the world’s problems. I remember vividly watching the news of the shooting in Ferguson when I was in the middle of writing what seemed then another inconsequential piece about video game culture. I know it’s many of our jobs to entertain, and I felt yet that shouldn’t be at the expense of critically engaging with the world. If games were going to be my life, I had to have an approach that let me work on something that could be my part in creating a better place for those around me.

What this looks like for others depends on each person’s life situation. Very few can pivot whenever they want into new work, and it’s not really the current work we do itself that is at fault. Rather we’re often not given the time and energy to contribute to personal projects and action using games, especially not for mass-distribution. We’re all creators in some right, and can use our craft to explore the world’s events with each other. I’m reminded of how DIY game-making sometimes uses zine culture as an analogy and that one of the driving impetuses of promoting easy-to-use tools is so the act of game-making isn’t a drawn-out affair. Making a game and putting it on the internet can feel pretty official, so getting clamped up in making something look respectable can easily roadblock someone who isn’t the jack-of-all-trades type. But maybe we could stand to develop habits of making games for people in our lives instead of the general mass audience that could potentially exist.

My hunch is we’re in an increasingly connected world without the structure or support to communicate well on such a scale. The internet was never really a place for you to be both vulnerable and your public identity, and as learn how social media is affecting our lives I see more people retreat into themselves. We feel like we need to say something well-crafted to the whole world or nothing at all. This is an unsustainable impulse. We need to start thinking more about our everyday practice. If you could only spend one weekend on a game, who would you make it for and what would it say?

Despite having its own industry, no one really has games for social change figured out. There’s no one who can say the tiny, personal games you swap with your friends are impacting the world more than an iOS game about climate change. Games and play as communication tools is still experimental, and I have a feeling that it will only be figured out when a bunch of people do it. I don’t know if we’re stuck with social media forever, but at the very least we could aim to make online spaces more intimate and vulnerable spaces through digital art.

Which is to say, just because you’re in games doesn’t mean you have to retreat into just making entertainment products and feel useless about what is going on in the world. If the past four or so years have taught me anything, it’s when something goes wrong, you have to change your mindset and behavior to move past it. The way we’ve been communicating about our experiences and how they tie to current events hasn’t been working. There is much to play with and interrogate with the design values of the platforms we use and are used against us. We’ve reached a point where any person can make a small weird game in their pastime and not have their entire career revolve it. 2017 will be a great year to exercise this new language to help us untangle how we got here in the first place.

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