January 3, 2014
Natural to the turn of the new year, there is reflection on the progress we’ve made and where we see ourselves going. I’ve been reading and listening to a lot of retrospectives in social justice, what 2013 was like and new goals for 2014. In games, I think it goes a little something like this:
2012: Off of the work of many obscured social justice activists (mostly centered around The Border House), games media hit critical mass with enough education and protesting of marginalization that many incidents were highlighted and discussed. More public figures felt comfortable talking about discrimination, more people started to speak up on social media, more PR and games were called out. It was the year of it becoming irrefutable that there is a problem, and it needs to be solved, documented ultimately by #1ReasonWhy and #1ReasonToBe.
2013: Everyone is trying out their social justice hat. Some are inexperienced, others more so. It is expected, on some level, that you are savvy with feminism. More and more people are joining the conversation, and with intersectionality, more critiques are added in. It was the reaction year, on a ground level and industry one. GDC had the premier of their advocacy track of talks, and there were at least 4 games specific conferences with strict anti-harassment and diversity/inclusion policies.
2014: Seems to be the acknowledgement that there isn’t a code of conduct for social justice on social media, and there is a strong need to cut down on toxic meanness and peer abuse. It’s finding the answer of how discuss and educate that progresses our field while respecting the suffering of those waiting for the privileged to learn. More on this soon.
This new year, I made a resolution to be critical without the negativity. I brought a lot of my negative feelings to social media, completely valid negative feelings, that set a tone for people to interact with me. It was conflicting with my goals as an activist; I want people to feel comfortable coming to me and speaking about issues, but I obviously was always stressed, down, bitter. Who wants to open up and expose themselves to a person like that? To a person who looks like they don’t need another burden on their shoulders? I am making an active effort to privately journal my negative feelings and find out different self-healing tactics that involves getting away from Twitter. I want to be more approachable, I want people to feel encouraged around me. I want to be a safe space, if you will, and have the ability to make where I am a place of respectul, earnest discussion.
But, on day 2, I might have already messed up. Before I jump into my rambling trying to figure this out, I want to own up to where I feel like I’ve failed. I’m concluding that I don’t think personal attacks are useful when critiquing someone. By that point, it’s mean, and doesn’t help. It is the misuse of anger, which passionately communicates to people deep truths you feel. Insults are meant to hurt, to inflict pain. I believe expressing anger is vital to discourse, but I don’t condone insulting other people to be mean. This tweet summarizes elegantly what I feel, reminiscent of Aevee’s “Anger isn’t violence, violence isn’t anger:”
I witnessed personal attacks happen in the name of social justice yesterday, and no matter how complicated the issue, I didn’t say anything even though I felt uncomfortable. I was wrong not to say anything and I sincerely apologize for my hesistation. What we need is more nuanced discussion, and what happened was more of the same. This feels like a good example where valid anger is misused in the name of social justice.
It all started with Ben Kuchera becoming the editor of the opinions section of Polygon. I can best describe why this matters through literally what I saw on Twitter. In my set up, I have two timelines that concern video games. One is my personal following list of people I somewhat regularly talk to in games, and the other is of people I don’t really talk with or follow closely, but are important enough names in the industry to look at. This industry list has a lot of similar people with similar enough ideas about games. Mostly white men (among other similarities) who make a living wage off of games and most people involved with games would know who they are. When Ben got this new job, this side of Twitter was congratulatory for the most part, not really thinking much of it. The other side of Twitter, filled with personal friends, social justice activists, radical designers, critics of diverse backgrounds, was outraged. To this side of games, Ben is a person who consistently antagonized social justice activism, spouted problematic ideas in the name of games journalism, and defended his bosses, Penny Arcade, when they, or I should say Mike in particular, contributed many a faux pas. Since Penny Arcade Report is down, I can’t link to any of the stuff he’s written, but trivializing rape culture, diminishing women journalists when speaking of sexism in the industry, and downplaying transphobia while defending the problematic aspects of brony culture are among the things he’s known to do.
Why does this matter? Polygon is on record saying they are striving for a diverse staff and to have diverse perspectives with their content. As of this writing, there is mostly white men as editors, no women, and I’m sure there’s other homogeneity there. Polygon isn’t short on talented talented minority writers, Tracey Lien and Danielle Riendeau in particular have done absolutely essential work in games journalism and I enjoy them dearly as peers and friends. So it can’t be helped to say why, why another from the old guard to be an editor when you are committed to diversity? Why a person who has a bad track record with diversity in the section of your site that has the best chance of talking about diversity? We don’t have all the information of what went into this decision, but these are valid questions when a hire goes against what you claim to be. Is there literally no one else, within or outside, that can fill that role and challenge the status quo at the same time?
Asking these questions is legit, and I don’t think Polygon is going to ever really comment on it. But things like these serve as a litmus test, to see what people are feeling about certain community happenings. Two years ago, when Polygon formed, they got critiqued for starting their publications with only men. There was back and forth and debate, and it showed everyone that we need a diverse set of writers at a publication to get diverse content. Also, with the rise of social justice, minority writers are not only more likely to bring up the topic of discrimination, but are also more likely to get it right since it’s their lived experience. Continuing to only hire people similar to the usual games journalist, usual game developer, usual gamer doesn’t contribute enough of a divergent viewpoint to unpack all the problems that come with marginalization in our community.
While I feel in general the critique was valid and tame, the tone quickly shifted when this blog by Jeff Kunzler was posted and shared widely. It took me a long time in reflection to realize I really don’t like what this was doing. It has anger coming from the right place, but it isn’t directed in a critical manner. It is mostly mean and disparaging. It generalizes and glides over the nuance is does bring up to return to the insulting. I silently approved of this and shared it.
This is what I would call 2013 social justice activism. In the end, Polygon is definitely up for critique when observing this event through the lens of social justice. They deserve to be held accountable and answer for their actions, and be criticized if they don’t. However, if we look back up to that tweet, this post made the conversation hostile. The moment people feel unsafe to speak, we lose authenticity. We lose the honesty of anger. This isn’t to say I think the line was crossed when the first person from the industry side of Twitter said they couldn’t handle the negativity. There will be people who invalidate anything that’s isn’t served with a spoonful of sugar, and that’s a usual step in the phase of getting over privilege and complacency. I also want to point out that, on its own, that post isn’t harassment or abuse, though I was told there was harassment on Twitter as a result. It was straight up mean, and I gave it a nod and passed it on. Righteous anger humbles people, moves them, and unites people for a change. Meanness is toxic, it makes everyone uncomfortable and afraid to speak up, even if they are your allies and agree with you. In the end, critique is a call for change, and all that was there was meanness. I really hope Jeff follows up with a better critique, unapologetic in their intent but sorry for its demeaning nature. It is, like they say, so 2013. In 2014, we want to find more critical, constructive ways of activism.
However, to give this whole thing more nuance, I feel like I need to detail why, at first, I was fine with that post representing the general dissent of Ben’s hire. Because while we don’t want this sort of advocacy to dominate 2014, we must address the suffering from which is it born. I want to tell you of my time in games criticism.
I began actively blogging in August 2011. I was picked up by publications like The Border House, Nightmare Mode, Game Critics, and PopMatters. I think people describe me as someone who ‘came out of nowhere’ because suddenly my pieces were in many places and I was advocating on Twitter constantly. Eventually, using The Border House as a platform, I challenged Kotaku on some comments the editor-in-chief at the time made, and eventually wrote a piece about why games publications like Kotaku are unwelcoming to minorities. This is when games media started to find out about who I am, and because of this, I think, I lead a successful campaign that allowed me to travel to GDC and PAX East. During this time, I was working as many hours as I could at a Starbucks while applying to grad schools. It became apparent with the time I spent writing on games, I needed to start getting paid. I was constantly exhausted, especially because I was still getting used to the abuse that comes with speaking up about social issues in games. My work was regularly featured in Critical Distance, I got some pieces in Paste, and my writing was in printable magazines like Ctrl+Alt+Defeat. I don’t say this to blow my own horn, actually the contrary; I’m really bad at self-promotion, but I feel like this was evidence that I was doing good work.
When seeking advice from friends, I knew it would be hard to get a gig anywhere, especially as someone who only does opinion pieces. For the next year, up until a few months ago, I pitched to many (all?) publications, who all ended up turning me away for different reasons. My work has been called too feminist, too risky, too weird. Every single editor tells me, privately, they love my work and want to see me do well. But they can’t publish me because of money and risk-averse attitudes. I’ve been told I’m not notable enough, not a Leigh Alexander or Ian Bogost, to have my opinions go up without first rising through the ranks like everyone else. I’ve been told time and time again I must first do news and shitty reviews before I can get an op-ed anywhere. I tried doing news and features, but I’ve concluded I am simply not a journalist; I am a critic. By this time, games writing has taken over my life. I’m in grad school and barely know anyone in my program. I’m now known as ‘that girl who goes to video game conferences’ and will be leaving this program with the bare minimum of what I came here to do. In 2013, I spoke at 14 different events in 3 different countries, attempted my own games criticism publication, co-founded and -organized the successful Queerness and Games Conference, and am one of the few people who can say games criticism pays my rent. Polygon even named me one of the top 50 newsmakers in games last year. I was living off of less than $10K while doing all this and living in San Francisco, a notoriously expensive place to live, but the place of opportunity for games writers. Again, this isn’t to boast. This is me building a rationale of not understanding why people won’t hire me. Why won’t people commission my work? Why am I not important enough? What else must I do to earn the right to make a living wage in the games world? Am I not allowed to be frustrated and angry?
My relationship with Polygon is weird, to say the least. When they had a panel at PAX East about their name reveal, I put them on the spot to answer for the diversity criticisms they’ve received. They consulted me privately in email and didn’t really heed anything I had to say about what they should do to attract diverse talent and promote diverse content. They didn’t hire me when I applied. I am friends with Tracey, Danielle, and Phil Kollar, while one of the four people I have blocked on Twitter is an editor there. There are people I barely know and some I’d like to get to know better. Polygon is just progressive of center in their content but rather old guard in the way they handle journalism. I had a good opportunity to do a feature piece for a great rate that didn’t pan out, and I was given a very low rate when pitching criticism for their opinion section. So when someone like Ben comes in as an extra person to the opinions section where there was apparently not enough funds to give me a proper rate, it felt like a slap in the face. A slap in the face by someone who is notoriously dismissive of minority perspectives and out of touch with social activism. A person I could never pitch a piece to.
This isn’t just about me, and this isn’t just about Polygon; games criticism overall is a very impoverished space. We have many talented writers who aren’t allowed into games publications and are trying to scrape on by. People in the media and those who consume it are always encouraging these people, like me, to not give up, that our voices are valuable. But because we don’t want to, or can’t because of life situation, do news and feature work, we are kept out of the process. We aren’t only kept out of games publications, but we’re also kept out of more general ones like the New York Times because we don’t have the connections. Notable game critics as a group happen to be a more diverse set of perspectives than current mainstream games media. Gating the opinion section of your site from game critics is the first way to limit new, different critical voices from getting into the media. Hiring someone known for having problematic views on minority issues is dissuading minorities from pitching to your publication. Again, not just Polygon, I’ve had similar experiences with The Escapist, Rock Paper Shotgun, Gamasutra, and other places.
When I see that other people, the same old people, get hired and given work, I get bitter. I get bitter because I most likely didn’t eat that day, was a shut in from not being able to afford makeup that week, because I face harassment and exclusion on my own dime and time. I am angry that the games media keeps me out while saying it, as an institution, thinks I’m valuable as a person. They show this by asking me for free or low-rate work. I am deeply frustrated, and tired, of fielding the same offenses time after time, with people telling me to be quiet and not talk about games journalism. I have to talk about the institution of games journalism, my very well-being might rest in it.
What’s the solution? The obvious thing is for publications to change, and make it very public what and how they are going to change. But if that was an option, that would have changed things a while ago.
Instead, I am curious about how individual efforts are going. As I mentioned earlier, I get supported by the community to write games criticism, and as of now get around $400 for each piece. That’s about 3 times the highest rate I’ve ever been offered by a mainstream publication. This is obviously bittersweet; I am getting paid more than games journalism thinks I’m worth, but also, the media doesn’t think I’m worth a livable wage. I still don’t make a livable wage, and many others with funding pages don’t either, but it’s still a lot more than the nothing places like Polygon are offering us for criticism.
Meaning, it might be the best option to listen to separatist feelings. It’s possible it’s time to just end this connection and be a community that is adjacent to instead of squashed by games media. As independent critics, we can follow our own rules and communicate directly to our readers. Readers support the styles they like and know they are helping someone who is most likely socially disadvantaged survive a little more off their craft. Maybe the mistake all along is trying to integrate into a system that doesn’t want us. Of course, that assumes this individual crowdfunding trend sticks around, and that has yet to be seen.
We do need to keep in mind that we’re fighting the system that uses people to marginalize others, not the people themselves. Attacking people at Polygon does nothing to critique or dismantle the system of oppression that influences all games media. However, it does stand as a good example of what is wrong with the systems the media functions under. Polygon strives to be the best and made that their image, which means they also have the daunting task of dealing with our field’s discrimination issues, some of which their publication was founded on.
I am scared this will come off pedantic and prescriptive. I want there to be helpful, respectful conversation. Respectful where the oppression and suffering of minorities are taken into account, and where polemic anger is low rumble that shakes people at their bones instead of an acid wash over their face. I want to be known as honest and critical, as approachable and productive. I regret both the actions and inactions that have led to my corner of the community to be hostile and unsafe for others to speak. I want to figure out how to recognize the uneven plane we enter in these discussions without disregarding each other as humans. People in places of privilege need to recognize marginalized voices come into the conversation having suffered abuse and impoverishment. To respect connection or separation when that’s what someone wants. Activists to understand that anger is wanted, but not cruelty. That personal insults just haven’t been working to change anything, and they will continue to not work.
It’s unfortunate that the year has to start off rocky, but it’s good to course-correct as early as possible. In the coming year, I want to see discussion and experiments on constructive, passionate uses of anger for social justice and change. I want people to express themselves honestly and without the degradation of others. We have our journals, our personal friends who understand us to be petty with. This doesn’t need to be an artificially happy place, but I’d like it to be somewhere no one is afraid to speak their mind and learn. I hope people who disagree with me contact me and let me know what they think, because I am ready for a change for the better, whatever it is we decide, as a community.
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