to being before, now, and growing forward


I’ve ran certain amounts of distances for certain amounts of times. I think it’s winter, at least, I’m seeing bare trees in person for the first time, I think. I imagine they are oak trees, the namesake of where I live, but I’ve never really known any trees besides palm and Christmas ones. I realized, gasping cold, dry air that makes my throat feel like a dentist left that saliva sucker thing in while on a phone call, having a fight with a loved one, they were different once before.

Breathing hasn’t been easy ever since I moved to California. In the South, when you’re outside, you work for air. Taking a breath feels more akin to drinking honey. But it was a good, deep breath. When I breathe here, it’s like I’m running in space; my neck and chest flex, but it feels like nothing’s happening.

The trees here are dead right now. Or sleeping, I never quite understood that. The trees are dead when before, they had leaves and maybe blossoms, but I can’t quite remember what they looked like. When I lived in the city, I’m in The Town, now, I sat on a friend’s couch, I can’t remember the color, and she told me how, since moving from a place with seasons to the bay, she had a hard time remembering events. The constant change and punctuations of the seasons acted as markers to remember things, and living in a place that generally has the same season year-round makes memory a little fuzzier. I’ve never lived in a place with such seasons, and I worry that I’ve forgotten something.

As I run past these dead, I think, oaks, I realize that they were different once before, and in a couple months, will be alive or awake again. That if I keep running this path, I will see something grow and die, or wake up and go to sleep. Change and grow, adding on whatever the years throw at it. It didn’t occur to me, until then, that I haven’t ever really watched anything grow and change like this.

The first time I ran, I just, well, ran. I thought that’s what you did: run. I guess I ran like I was chasing something.

But you don’t just run when you mean to, well, run. I learned later that you stretched beforehand and paced yourself and only ran certain amounts of distances for certain amounts of times.

I ran like I thought was expected of me. Flawless. Perfect. Beautifully. I would just run, smile to all the other runners as I passed by, morning sun glinting off my obviously knock-off sunglasses, but we’re all trying, right? Why wouldn’t I be able to just run?

I couldn’t move my legs for the next month. I cried as I dragged my body across the room, around my new apartment, hoping my new roommate didn’t think something happened to me. Except something did happen to me, I happened to me. I thought about the selfie I took just before I ran, how I wanted people to admire me. And instead I rubbed my body in Tiger Balm always somehow getting it in places I would rather it not go.

It’s the strangest feeling, for me, that my body would not move the way I wanted it to. Going to get groceries was a life event. I imagine this comes off as spoiled whining to many.

What I mean is, I realized I had been doing this to my mind all along. My body was telling me that I’ve been acting this way all along, and I’ve been dragging my emotions around, clawing and crying. I haven’t been watching things grow. I don’t know how to grow.

During this month in which I mostly cried on my new green IKEA rug (reading through this again during editing, I realized I misremembered this, I didn’t have my new green IKEA rug yet, all I had was a desk a bed and bookshelf that still leans over slightly because I haven’t asked if I’m allowed to secure it to the wall with a fastener yet) I came to terms with how little I allowed myself to grow these past three years.

There’s no such thing as growing as a public figure for advocacy. There’s perfect. There’s saint. There’s martyr. There have been times, recently, where I came to the sudden awareness that I can’t feel or really think for a good minute or so. I forget where I am and what I’m supposed to be doing, and become frightened. I’m supposed to know what to do, and what to feel. I think, for a long time, my mind has been dragging itself on the floor in pain, crying, and I just didn’t allow myself to recognize it.

What is an acceptable way for someone advocating for social justice to mess up? In what way could I stumble, and everyone would help me up, brush off my fast fashion clothes I painfully chose and assembled together to look above that? I don’t know if I ever allowed myself to be a ‘rising’ critic, a ‘rising’ artist, just the critic, the artist. Everyone was watching me.

I’ve stopped playing video games. They all want me to be perfect. Become perfect. But only perfect for them.

I don’t think it’s safe out here, for anyone who isn’t allowed to grow.

I run better now, at least, I run admitting to myself I have to grow into running. I have to stop sometimes, and my glasses are mostly there so others don’t see me cry. But now, it’s funny, when stretching, I remembered how to stretch from all the dance classes I took when I was younger. It was like, at one point, I did understand how to find where my body was at, and grow from there. And along the way, somehow, I had forgotten.

I’m scared I will be forgotten. That, maybe, I haven’t accomplished that much.

I eat salads for lunch. Mostly arugula these past few months, because it’s winter, and I squeeze citrus juice on it to make sure I feel alive eating it. During lunch, I have to check social media and search for my name, to make sure I’m not hacked, not being hacked, or about to be hacked. It feels like this is my legacy, the woman who was harassed, and now spends her days worrying her friends will be in danger. One of these times I found a tumblr that catalogued quotes and easter eggs in Kentucky Route Zero. My first game and name was mentioned in it, filed in an old cataloguing system. I was under Generosity and Loneliness. I cried, for two reasons. The first was I played this game multiple times, and if I ever saw this, I’ve forgotten. And the second, is, here is something permanent, of me, as if the game said, it wouldn’t forget me.

So, I’ve been running. I can see my breath now as I exhale, as if someone’s trying to show me that I’m alive, I am breathing, and I will be okay.

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2014 in Alternate Ending

So, this was a year.

A lot has changed for me in 2014. 2013 and 2015 Mattie will be rather different people. Looking at my writing from the past year, it’s been very divisive. It was a transition time from trying hard to fit into the industry, and finding out there’s no good place for me. That the comfortable places people are in the industry are not going in a direction I find healthy. I think a lot of the troubled times we’ve had in 2014 are the result of sticking to easy answers and feel-good apathy. Things are crumbling beneath us, and not many people were willing to acknowledge we needed to jump.

If there is something I’ve learned this year, it’s that people learn most from mistakes. I have to admit, I really hate this. I’m a perfectionist by nature, and being on social media means I had to learn how to not make mistakes. This stuff that happened in both my professional and personal life taught me a couple of things: we’re all pretending to not make mistakes, while valorizing them as a human quality (see merritt’s thoughts on failure, pretty similar), and the moment someone makes a mistake, hell rains down on them and there’s no remedial process. And even when you’re poised and minding all your details, no matter how much you avoid mistakes, someone will find fault with you, and things won’t go your way. So, here’s to growing pains and mistakes; 2014 was full of mistakes, and I think an active effort to salvage what we’ve learned in definitely in/an order.

I went through my blog and found a cross-section of popular and defining posts to have a little bit of a review. To see where my thoughts grew in reaction to 2013. I’m a sucker for New Year resolutions and such, and this is going to be partly a self-reflective moment for me. So here are some posts I think are worth checking out again to see where I am as a writer and thinker these days.


Redefining Games Criticism

Unlike previous years, I’ve spent less time talking about writing, but the few words I did say look forward to challenging how we approach criticism. It’s apt because games journalism is shifting, has been shifting, and it’s interesting to see opportunities to snatch away from the establishment while it figures itself out.

One of the more popular posts I wrote this year was a reaction to media and game dev treatment of Dong Nguyen and Flappy Bird. Mostly, I wanted to bring more attention to how capitalism works to inform our criticism and power dynamics in games culture. Anti-capitalist critique is the antithesis to the industry, because when you look from a class issues perspective, it reveals how exploitative and unethical companies are to maintain culture the way it is. It is the main reason I don’t want to be involved with the games industry anymore, because profit and the current exploitative relationships established by making profit are things seen as natural and not up for change. Many of the things we want for social change are set back so much by the continued power dynamics instilled by capitalism, and little will change until this can be a topic more commonly discussed.

In light of this and in effort to further lower the bar for people to participate in criticism, I tried to start a conversation on what the DIY movement of video games would look like for criticism. Other than for not existing at all, games criticism is often criticized for being inaccessible, which might feed into the former. I don’t know entirely what to make of what’s going on; people are reading about the same, but not in the same portions. I’m finding that readers’ limits for what’s too long is growing shorter, and people are preferring to have a lot of chewable writing instead of a few in depth pieces. I could very easily blame something like Twitter, however I’m not sure if it’s necessarily a bad thing. Should be we sticking to 1000+ word writing if we want to stay accessible? How much of our in-words is pandering to our niche rather than being inviting to people of all walks of life? We barely started getting paid to write criticism on a regular, sustainable basis, can that ever happen for, like, tweeted criticism? The labor put into social media is a really good topic to explore, especially when a lot of culture awareness work is done by minoritized people.

commune ity was an experimental piece I did in tandem with a creative non-fiction class, wanting to further blend my writing disciplines. Every once in a while I’ve come out with a more poetic piece like this, and most people don’t really know what to do with it. I’m appreciative, though, because sometimes I just want work that will sit with people, or make them feel something, instead of always needing to inform them of something. I wanted to express my anxieties over how intangible the community in games criticism, or overall, feels. I feel bad reading this now, because in the end, that loneliness caught up with me.


Social Justice on Social Media Gets Anti-Social

I spent most of 2014 really digging through the effects activism online was having on me. What it meant to be be a minoritized person talking about diversity on Twitter. From the moment I stepped onto Twitter to the moments where I peek on every once in a while now, it is a constant torrent of anger. Righteous anger, rightful anger, sometimes self-absorbed anger, often ephemeral anger. This year had me toiling, usually over a glass of wine, over what to do. What is right, and what is fair? This year has been unfair. Is there really fairness though? Or such a thing a deserving anything? Definitely thoughts on my mind.

I started off this year wanting to restructure how we spoke to each other on social media about this anger. I talked about how anger was being used to silence people within our advocacy constituencies and wrote up a defense of anger soon after. These pieces were particularly divisive, as people had strong opinions about the topic that felt rather one-dimensional. Some thought I was policing behavior and others thought I was giving licence to toxicity. Most interesting was how these pieces along with some others by queer games critics seemed to kick off a wider conversation about how social media affects activism, which was very quickly co-opted by mainstream feminism that consequentially attempted to turn intersectionality into a dirty word. Funny that.

Like many people, I’ve always had a weird relationship with labels. Labels help us identify with others, but also box us. I remember when I used to write at The Border House, my by-line was basically a list of all my identity markers. Today, I try not use that sort of language because it is easily mobilized against me via tokenization. It also leads to what has been discussed as the unthinking diversity of liberalism, to erase difference or completely co-opt it. I explored some of my feelings around being an visibly ambiguous identity and how I feel the power dynamics in my life play out when people want to assign a label for me. I dig into the dynamics of passing, and how it’s a weird and tragic concept that rules many of our lives.

I often hear that my writing is timely, appears just when it’s needed and when a particular topic is visible. I’m kind of proud of that, because it was tasking keeping up with all the news and keeping an eye on social media for things going on. I wrote this piece about moving on from the games industry just before I was attacked by Gamer Gate, and I ended up taking what I wrote here further. I was fed up with companies and other institutions being so unsupportive of people on the frontline of combatting hostile games culture at the same time Ferguson and the most recent attacks on Gaza was happening. I felt so silly, so petty, to care about fixing an industry that wouldn’t show it cared while actual hurt of people were going on elsewhere in the globe. With this, I hoped to empower people to make real changes in their lives instead of relying on capitalistic institutions which, for the most part, have stayed silent about gamers harassing minoritized people.

Soon after, I wrote about how I felt my experiences of harassment and pain were being used to fuel a social media liberal angst engine. Considering what happened after this, and my continued distance from social media, I feel this is more and more relevant. I couldn’t help but notice how much of my writing about things happening to me got way more traction than any of my more in depth work, what people theoretically followed me for. It’s dawned on me over the years how much being on social media means you’re a persona and are acting as a source of entertainment for others, even if they wouldn’t really describe it that way. I likened it to reality TV, and maybe now it feels more Truman Show.

In my further explorations in theory around relationships and consent, and also feeling a lack of support in my own life, I wrote about negotiating allyship, or at least, actually understanding what goes into actually supporting someone in the fight against oppression. ‘Ally’ as a term has always been shifty, and I think as time goes on and how transient people’s attention is to the justice of the marginalized, people are constantly questioning what the privileged are actually doing when they call themselves allies. And I think think is a super important conversation to have, because we may have good intentions, but path to hell and all that.


Non-Queer Design is Boring

I feel like this year I have a better understanding of what non-normative design is shaping up to be. Design conventions are largely unquestioned and haven’t changed in practice for a while outside of adapting to technological changes. The more I speak with others and look outside of video games, the more variability I see, the more room for what games are expands. The design philosophies I see doing something interesting are incorporating social change into the process, and not in some superficial way. Play is going to be something new soon, I hope.

This year, I gave an earnest try learning tools indies often do to make progress on a commercially viable game. I hated every moment of it, and deeply wished for more accessible DIY game making tools. I wrote about how I wanted to have highly specialized and idiosyncratic tools that I essentially would be having conversations with, so I could make a whole host of games instead of working on some sort of hit-or-miss indie success with something like Unity. I’d like to encourage a more healthy tool-making community in games that focusing on making accessible tools that are creative, not just for making your favorite [x] genre game.

Having dived more into the practice and theory of kink, I couldn’t help but make the connections between the design and play in typical BDSM scenes and games. I feel stronger every day about how play must coincide with, not interrupt or exist outside of, life and moments that are actually meaningful. While it’s acknowledged, there isn’t nearly enough exploration in the play that happened outside of designed objects, only how to create the objects themselves. Especially with games constantly extending outwards to become more ‘interactive,’ ignoring players’ borders and boundaries is a huge ethical problem that should be dealt with before it comes up more often.

In attempt to focus on other kinds of play, I decided to have some fun and mix together two card games I like a lot: Netrunner and the Tarot. I am typically frustrated with board games, especially card ones, that are so mechanical and don’t even try to incorporate narrative design into play despite how relevant it is to the experience. I went on to write a few posts on interpretation and how I felt the contemporary design paradigm discourages interpretation for mechanical clarity, and how I think that blocks off a lot of creativity in both creation and play.

Last but certainly not least, I took a stab at my own kind of design manifesto that incorporated contemporary thinking on ‘queer design’ while reaching out broader past video games. I use the term nebulously, more like people who are queer talking about non-normative design philosophies. I want to hold myself to these standards and try to make games that actually evoke change. I’m hoping 2015 will see a set of games from me that challenge how we currently live life and encourage us to dive into and be mindful of the play happening around us.

And that’s a wrap! I have to say, I’m still a little shocked that I am able to be around writing. It’s funny to tell people I am a writer and designer as a profession, not just as a hobby. I get to do meaningful work because many of you are supporting me, especially through this rough year, and I am really grateful. I hope to be more consistent and not run out of things to write. I want to keep up with games outside of video games, and I’m looking for cross-pollination from other related artforms. So, this is it. See ya 2014, I don’t think I’ll miss you.

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On Interpretation

One of the hurdles typically unaddressed when discussing meaning in games is how to interpret them. Or interpret anything at all really. This isn’t to depreciate a lot of writing or musing out there, actually just the opposite. Many people are taught a particular way to interpret art that typically consists of trying to conform everything to a singular viewpoint, The Way Things Are Read. This is often a trap for people who are looking to interpret play situations, especially if the idea of play being interpretive is still a strange concept. A reason, I think, so many play experiences are read as fiction narratives or as machines.

What I think goes on is a mixing of interpretation vs argument, which I imagine comes from dreaded literature classes, where in order to express your point of view, you needed to have a strong, specific argument. While there is merit to this, it mostly serves as training to enter academic and similar discourses, and often ends up as grandstanding when you do it in public. I am totally guilty of this: one of the first pieces of games criticism I ever wrote was detailing transphobia in Atlus games in this style. I feel like a lot of conversation and writing, though probably more eloquent than my early work, functions in this way, proving to be the right perspective, or correct argument. Reactions to my piece were often quibbles with evidence and how I read things as opposed to really changing a lot of people’s minds. Later on, I wrote another piece on Naoto and my personal perspective that had less of a truth to uphold and more of an awareness of perspective. This time, people personally connected with my writing and added my viewpoint along with theirs, instead of replacing anything.

This is because interpretation is best used with an understanding of many different perspectives, and being able to see from those perspectives and hold a space for all of them, even though they seem contradictory. I’m not talking about a ‘everyone has their own opinion’ type middling, rather that interpretation doesn’t work unless you are able to see something from multiple sides, and you’re aware of the act of interpretation. You might have a favorite set of perspectives, and if you’re a critic or theorist you tend to outline specifically what your new perspective is and have some sort of mega branded perspective that others can predict. To say I have a feminist perspective is not wholly true or wrong, as my ‘resting’ perspective borrows from feminist theory, but to enact a completely and distinctly feminist critique would follow a certain process that I don’t fully subscribe to. I think we more teased out this difference, there would more understanding of work like Anita’s Tropes vs Women series, which is the most accessible straight-up feminist critique I’ve seen. But don’t mistake feminist critique for Anita’s perspective; I think if you disagree with things in the series, you mostly have a quarrel with an aspect feminist critique, which is not hard to do with any sort of lens. There is use in practicing critique while knowing it doesn’t cover everything. It’s an extremely useful exercise to be able to understand how a perspective sees media, because then you can evolve it for your own interpretive process. Or, better yet, understand where a person is coming from when they are using language borrowed from it. I find the series useful for helping that sort of literacy come along.

Perspectives aren’t inherently right, and I don’t mean this in a ‘everything’s relative’ sort of way. They are like purposefully putting on colored glasses so things look a certain way and carry different meaning. Having perspective is the act of noticing. If you want to practice interpretation, it’s quite easy: find a movie or short game that you wouldn’t mind going through twice, and pick two themes or qualities that you will look for and record. They can be as inherently meaningful or seemingly meaningless as you’d like. Let’s say for now that on one playthrough, you’re going to write down all the things that are red, and on your second one, all things that are green. Then, as a creative exercise, come up with what all the red (or whatever you chose) objects have in common with each other and how that relates to the media you just experienced, and do that that with the green as well. Start to think about all of the associations, culturally and personally, we have with red and green (red often means stop and green means go, for instance), and how they speak to the game or movie through the objects. Now, you might not really come up with anything that interesting with red or green, but you can replicate this process with any sort of quality in the media, such as whenever a game provides you the option to lie or when women do or do not show up.

This doesn’t have to be just about the story of the piece. If you understand even a little bit of design, or just what you find unique about games, you can hone in on when these things happen and find meaning in that perspective. For instance, you can find in a certain selection of games that there’s a significant amount of restriction or design that removes choice and mobility. Deploying perspective would be looking at where those moments are, and how everything relates to those moments. Then you combine that perspective with a biographical perspective, or that the design is ultimately a factor of the life situation and history of the creator. You would find where they talk about restriction in their lives or how artists similar to them talk about restriction, and maybe find something meaningful in that observation. You wouldn’t be wrong unless you tried to state a fact. Interpretation is often touted around as something that fully uncovers and explains a piece of media when it is really is an additive practice. We create meaning instead of finding it, and there isn’t anything lesser about that.

So why bring all this up? Because I want more people actively engaging with media. Interpreting, not judging it. I say this because this year has taught me how much people wanted me to judge, maybe review, games as a whole, especially in a good vs bad, right vs wrong paradigm. This panders to people who, for one reason or another, feel like an authority should be making these declarations instead of taking that into their own hands. Which means the perspective of authority becomes theirs, and what the authority overlooks, so does the follower.

How do we do this with games without falling back on story? Shrink it down to what you experience, or what you feel. Catalogue the impression something gives you, whether it be some sort of visual or movement of your body. Is there a motion of your body you find particularly atypical when playing this game? Or maybe there is an action you must do repeatedly. Write down both what that quality is, and what sort of feeling it gives you. Then, like in the above exercise, find out where that also happens in life.

I recently was on an adventure a friend made for me, a sort of person-scavenger hunt. I want to write about my experience next time because I’d like to pull more attention to some real-world game design qualities, but what particularly struck me was how throughout the experience, because I was given only so much information, I thought almost everyone who passed by spots I was waiting at to be in on the game, to have some sort of function and that their appearance or way of acting had meaning I should pay attention to. It struck me how every day I’m so tuned out of the world around me, because typically, it’s mundane. People pass me by while I walk all the time, I’ve chit-chatted with strangers before, I’ve ridden a bus somewhere. But when I was encouraged to look at these factors on their own as meaningful, I could see how often there is chance for connection in the world, and how much even a stranger can prove interesting, and how it feels for a familiar face to show up from within the chaos of the uncertain. I don’t need a degree to begin interpreting what the game encouraged me to feel.

I find this all to be super relevant because I and many critics and designers and others who talk about how games influence us find the values of games reflected in those who most commonly play games. It’s as if play experiences hold up a funhouse mirrors in front of us and we begin to feel and even become a little more like that the more we look at them. We reflect the values we consume, and like diets tend to do, they make us feel and act different ways. If we can find ways to get more people actively deploying interpretation, I think we can move past wanting as many blockbuster movies in games packages and to a broader landscape of play experiences that challenge us.

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Playing with Play

Even when you’re caught up about it in a middle of a discussion, most conversations about the words we use can seem silly the moment we take a step back and look at things holistically. I find this happens most in the vacuum of definitions and the categorization that results from it, and it’s easy to see how power dynamics quickly come out with deciding rightness. I think about the times when a word takes on a new light, or is used for something unconventional, and how that can be exciting and stimulating. Specifically calling up an association while recognizing the process, not laying claim to a term, rather pulling subtext from our cultural subconscious.

This is my current relationship with the word play, and how I tend to use it to describe what I do and think. I wonder sometimes if there’s a difficulty with talking about more than video games in design and reach because of how solid and definitional games are as objects, and people tend to organize themselves by the objects they design and consume. As well, a lot of the posturing that happens in conversations about one tends looks rather flawed in another, when play as a concept holds them all together. I think this is because there is less conversation about how people relate to things, especially holistically as beings that do things other than be entertained, instead of how things work.

There are scholars who can go further and probably better into the play conversation than I can, yet I think the point I’m trying to make is easily done with whatever life experience any person has. What are all the instances of the word ‘play,’ directly related to games or not, that one can think of? There’s the play which means to act in a way for enjoyment rather than for practical reasons. A play can be a production, and to play in that kind of play is to assume a role that isn’t your day-to-day persona. Playing can be engaging with someone intimately and also being manipulative and careless. To make a play might just be a declarative action, or to play around with something might be figuring it out. When something plays out, it unfolds, or maybe it only appears for a moment.

When we play and design for play to happen, there is a broader language and range of approach we can take than I find is typically discussed. You can see traces of what games overall do in the descriptions above, but they move conversation from the game object and the relationship the person has with play. Most talk about design is focused on how to make good objects, but consider that a lot of play in life that we engage with doesn’t come from purposefully designed objects meant for play. That object design was chosen as the main focus of creating play experiences is a fluke, a weird kind of specialization that we don’t have to stick with as we move on thinking about play.

I’m going on about this because I think this is a viable path of thought if we’re going to think of the advancement of design outside of the current commercial space and into something that can create social change, be accessible to many more people, and tap experiences we feel mainstream and tech-focused games can’t or aren’t willing to. I also find it will be a more holistic approach to teaching design to others and let tools just be tools. We’ve focused s much on tools in video games that we’ve self-selected a lot of people out of participating in what is considered the games art movement, and if the concept of games and play is truly still a young one, than we need to change that perception and education as soon as possible.

I’ve been on a sabbatical of sorts for games, but due to my overachiever habits I’ve gotten into more event organizing for my side interests. For many of them, I continue my work as a safe space coordinator and consultant so events are both welcoming and prepared to protect marginalized people and overall make sure everyone is having a fun time. One of these events happens to be kink-related, where both socializing and play will be happening, and I’m in charge of creating rules for our space. What is really interesting about the intersection of kink and games proper is how many words and concepts are shared, but are utilized in completely different ways. There aren’t just rules to be made, but protocols and these are distinct things. Play is a solid concept when you look at it but disappears the moment you try to hold onto it. While having sex (and what is considered sex is extremely divergent person to person) is play, in that space so is asking if you can grab someone a drink. Simply sitting down looking elegant with a wristband that signals you want to be served is definitely play. But no one would really say the event is one large game, and that the event needs a designer by that term. Because I happen to be design-minded, I see that the structure of the event creates certain behavior and allows people to have certain experiences. I can notice how the inclusion and exclusion of certain rules and protocols create opportunities or reinforce status quo for marginalized individuals. In this way, each other’s safety, comfort, and also engagement are all part of the same play experience, and needs to hold as many ideas of play in it at once in order for it to function. In hindsight, I see how non-kink events I’ve helped with also promote certain kinds of behavior given the structure of this expanded notion of play, yet being in thick of planning for this one has really opened my eyes to it.

Before I was anywhere near games criticism and design, I was acquiring skills so that I could become a ‘life designer.’ When I was younger, I loved to watch HGTV, TLC, the Food Network, especially all those dating and fashion tips shows along with interior design. What I noticed as a connection between all these is how people needed to have certain aspects of their lives designed for them so they could see things differently, or maybe to move past that, experience life on another level. These shows were obviously porn for the affluent, yet it made sense that the people on these shows needed someone who understood the influences of the world around them and structured them in a way that made things better.

I recall that now as I do these events, that I’m designing ‘life,’ or I guess reality? It sounds really pompous to say that, not sure if I have language beyond that though. And it’s what I think would serve a better ideological center for designing play experiences than the digital entertainment industry, because the latter can evolve in a way that helps shapes experiences, but only if it’s released from being The Video Game Industry. I feel like this would better equip us to see the design of online platforms and to counter-design against them to make our own spaces. It’s a perspective that can help us go beyond the current problems of games without completely discarding them. Time to rethink our many relationships to play.

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queer as in fuck me – a design manifesto

(this contains explicit descriptions of sex and those with triggers concerning sex should take care in reading this)



i want to fuck the world


i want to fuck the world when coffee at an unspeakable hour is fucking. when picking out a dress is fucking. when having sex isn’t the only way to fuck. jogging together is fucking. discussing your mistakes is fucking. going to the doctor is fucking. and sure going down on me is fucking

i want to fuck the world when explicit consent isn’t just for sex but every type of relation. i want to fuck the world when it is inefficient at everything but mutual satisfaction. fuck the world when boundaries are recognized and celebrated. fuck the world when our feelings for each other aren’t taboo to say anymore


fuck dot ing verb the act of previously established mutual satisfaction andslashor reestablishment of satisfying equilibrium quote MattiE brIce fucker of the world 2014

i accept my queer role as witch cyborg and mutant. part human that exists in the world that yet lets me fuck and part otherworldly that makes me illegible part machine that affixes me to systems part animal that validates the feelings and instincts outside of the constructs of man. i accept that queer is playing with the things we don’t have a word for just yet

((Provocation: Queerness is a continuously slippery ideal that changes whenever new outlying values are normalized. Therefore, queerness can’t be against normative values, it must be beyond them. Answer: Design games that create opportunities for experience instead of certain kinds of experiences.))

fuck the world: everyone is a creator and as such we hold the power to enable others to act and respond. imparting experience is in itself gifting a lotus that subdues a person further in the sleep dreaming of a perfectly constructed world for which they have no hopes or wants of changing. instead embrace the queer your queer and create a way for people to play in a manner you cannot understand and will never know of. create the act of experience

((Provocation: Queerness resides not within the game but in the way we relate to the game and to each other. Answer: Design games that draw awareness to participation in relationships.))

fuck the world: create play where the human parts and other parts connect. make us think about how we play with others how we play with objects and how we play with ourselves. games aren’t opening our eyes to the world around us rather they make the parts where we’re joined with others glow sparkle twist sweet sweat dripping smoky. we are already in each other’s webs

((Provocation: Games are locked in with reflecting back socio-economic status, by both indulging and mobilizing free time. Answer: Design games that purposefully co-exist with life and outside the constructed realm of free time.))

fuck the world: we shouldn’t just be playing fucking when companies governments deign us a moment of leisure. creators enable people to fuck sitting in class dealing with customers getting tested for hiv applying for food stamps. creators help dismantle the system that divides for us when and where we fuck

((Provocation: Games themselves aren’t teaching values, rather teaching players to have capacities for certain kind of values through discipline. Answer: Design games as prompts for reaction and creation instead of teaching specific parables and lessons.))

fuck the world: manipulating a person’s agency without consent isn’t fucking. fucking is calling and fucking is responding and not knowing who did which first. our first step as creators is admitting ignorance and creating prompts where we ourselves are encouraged to react and endlessly tumble into others. to create is to open up. to fuck is to see

((Provocation: Queerness in games would be inclusion of unacceptable failures, unexpected actions that do not fall in line with the system. Answer: Design experiences that encourages meaningful variance between players and folds in incidental aspects of individual experience.))

fuck the world: the perfect is but a replication of the human world that wishes to erase the otherworldly the cybernetic and the mutated. perfection is the only dream the powerful allows us to dream. it eliminates context by deeming details of our lives as unworthy aspects of our play experience. creators allow the trash of one man the beautiful trash of everyone else to fold into play. nothing is holy except for the trash

((Provocation: Queerness in games would be gestures towards utopias that exist outside of currently sanctioned utility. Answer: Design games that can be meaningfully adapted and don’t expect to be in its final iteration so it can act as a vessel for continual movements towards an ideal.))

fuck the world: time and people don’t stop for anything. the meaning of what we create changes without us and can quickly turn against itself in attempt to stake a claim in shifting sands. play is to be recycled repurposed broken apart and embedded into other things. we are to create games mutable to anyone’s touch

fucking acts as a method of self-awareness and awareness of what is affecting us. playing is about real life what is happening to us in real life just not always with our human side. we can remove satisfaction from the cordoned off zones and into the public the shared the mutual the agreed upon

fuck the world fuck the world fuck the world



(this is a response to merritt kopas and naomi clark’s keynote at the queerness and games conference which you can watch and read for context)


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Rethinking Allyship

Through my travels in the past few years, I got the chance to sit in on some classes and groups focused on social change and looking at games as a tool to help their communities. One type of game that seemed to pop up a few times was an effort to get two groups who disagree with each other in the same place playing a game. They ranged from explicitly cooperative games to problem-solving the issues between the groups. The ones that impressed me the most were ones that used context to create situations where these groups basically just socialized and got comfortable with each other. Seeing the range of these projects really helped me piece together some thoughts on allyship, and what it means to be an ally to a group of people.

Ally is definitely a term I think gets thrown around uncritically, and I tend to not use it myself. It feels like some strange contortion of separate but equal, ‘I am not you but with you.’ It feels nationalistic, and when it comes to global politics alliances tend to be rather instrumentalized. I’ve never really been sure what my allies do for me, and it’s really uncomfortable expressing to a person that you don’t know that you can’t really be sure they will be there when you need them. Does it really make sense that someone can claim they are an ally without it being framed by those they are allying with? Shouldn’t it be the other way around in this sort of system?

After seeing all those projects, allyship as a concept has become more of a mutual exchange for me. Ally isn’t a one way declaration, but something all parties involved declare together because it is going to be mutually beneficial. Even when this allyship is between a person in a place of power with someone who isn’t, it’s not just the powerful giving something to this relationship. The powerful are also being educated to become a better person, and learning how to better their own lives navigating between interlocking oppressions. This not being explicit has always bothered me because there’s always this underlying guilt and pressure to be grateful to your allies, especially when they fuck up and you didn’t really feel comfortable with them in the first place. I’ve read the phrase ‘You’re turning away many good allies’ countless times, and that in itself is an exertion of power and dominance.

I’ve advocated more for personal, one-on-one acts of making a difference. In a way, it’s been a model for a better concept of allyship, one that is meaningful to all people involved. It seems like people don’t really seem to understand nor act in a productive way when they don’t have a strong connection with that person or group. It should be when they are in pain, you are in pain; when they achieve something, you feel proud for them. Groups of people, especially when based around an identity, are not going to work together unless they have that connection, a connection they want to keep, cultivate, and find comfort in. The point is, when there is a conflict, it will be taken care of like a family instead of like a war. When one group needs another, it would be common sense because they like each other and want to see each other do well.

A problem I see in games when it comes to change and coming against obstacles is this conflicting way people tend to look at one another: that we all should like or understand each other because we are women, or queer, or like games, but yet are divided by each other as indie, AAA, bloggers, and so on. The beauty and challenge of diversity is that we are all very different from one another, and difference is a good thing. You don’t need homogeneity in order to work together, rather, you need earnest relationships. If the only time you’re really talking to a particular group of people is when you need them or when there’s conflict, you are rarely going to see each other on the same page, because neither parties are motivated by much other than self-interest. This often shakes out unfairly for those in less powerful positions, because their self-interest is usually safety and a platform in which they can speak when they are usually silenced.

Having dealt with games culture and many companies and organizations in positions of power, this lack of a human link was often missing. Often I leave feeling tokenized, used, and discarded because they got what they wanted from me, and our lack of understanding paints me as ungrateful for the small amount of time they’ve graced me with. When it comes to social groups formed around game development and games criticism, whenever there is conflict or need, the usual reaction is for people to recede into their friend groups and move forward from there. Which is harmful if this process isn’t part of public conversation and mediation. Like others, I’ve wrestled with managing the need yet cliquishness of this phenomenon, and I think the major barrier is safety. Knowledge that a person actually cares about your connection in whatever capacity it is. We should also recognize how the industry is structured and who is exposed to who as a factor in this process. If a certain group of people commune on Twitter, their local area, or private/elite events, then this is going to create a certain kind of homogeneity. For instance, you are a developer who only forges connections at your workplace and industry events, you’re not going to create many connections with people who are excluded from these spaces.

Which is why, on top of many other things (like real life), being part of a particularly marginalized group is really frustrating, especially when you’re tasked for educating an entire artform and industry. People who say they are allies, with completely good intentions surely, form exploitative relationships instead of ones of care and mutual interest. These alliances tend to be particularly transactional, usually exposure for the marginalized so the powerful can cash in on their cultural capital, and is always more of a deal for the latter. This goes for those within identity groups as well; queer people of a certain generation who don’t really have relationships with the other can’t really expect solidarity unless they’ve done work to craft a mutually satisfying bond. It’s rarely talked about, but there is a lot of mending and reaching out that needs to happen between the marginalized in the industry, especially veterans, and the marginalized on the outside. We all might have fought wars, but it doesn’t mean we’re always on the same side if we continue to engage with issues as battles.

You know what would have made my time better in the industry? If people in positions of power were earnestly interested in connecting with me and finding out what I needed to become open to that connection. Instead, I felt like a chess piece, moved around like a symbol and knocked off the board when I didn’t comply. And yes, I think part of the problem is the culture of work doesn’t allow us to make time for one another, to be open to new people different from us and instead, stay with the familiar and easily accessible. I don’t think the most effective change will be waiting for laws and older members of society to get out of the workforce or life plain. It’s going to be how much we actively make earnest connections with one another, so when we do need other groups, it’s not so instrumentalized, but because we care and see how their livelihood is intrinsically healthy for us too.

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Dispatch from the Queerness and Games Conference

This past weekend I went to the Queerness and Games Conference, an event I co-founded last year at UC Berkeley and now hold an advisory and conflict resolution role. It’s amazing to see it have a second go-around, and presumably keep going, from a more participatory standpoint so I could see the culture it invited and produced. It also had the interesting timing for occurring after Gamer Gate, which both hung like a cloud and impassioned people at the same time. Concurrently, I feel like QGCon is starting to form an ideological community and ethos, so this was definitely an interesting followup to last year. So here are some of the notes I took, but you can also look up the recorded stream and see everything for yourself.

The first keynote of the conference was by Lisa Nakamura on Social Justice Warriors in video game culture. She broke down what seemed to be the ‘taxonomy’ of an SJW to better understand how people, usually those actively against social justice movements, both see themselves and what they want to get rid of. Some qualities Lisa listed out: SJW framed as opposite to SWM or straight white male, a common term used for a projected most privileged identity; fundamentally insincere in their motives and use of ideology, while at the same time too sincere and unable to take jokes or fit in; not native to the community, foreigners from Twitter and Tumblr trying to immigrate to video games. This helps identify not only how gaters treat people they assign as SJW, but also how they see themselves: person vs ideologue; genuine vs manipulative; native vs the opportunistic. Wrapped up in this is how to be a minoritized person that is a ‘true’ force for change, aka not a fake feminist or gamer that wants social good, by the way of practicing ‘cruel optimism.’ Cruel optimism is that common response to inequality that’s a mix of positivist individualism and ‘harsh reality,’ like for more minoritized people to create games and THEN media will get better, just sit back and wait and it’ll take care of itself. I feel like we see this with the overabundance of girls in STEM initiatives and no resources for those right now fighting against marginalization. Lisa used the term ‘procedural meritocracy,’ that in order to earn respect in gaming, you have to display exceptional skill. Basically the idea is if men who spout sexist stuff online are beat in a video game fair and square by a woman, they will include her based on meritocracy and proving she’s not a fake geek girl. This attitude doesn’t address that the barriers to gaining skill are still very high for minoritized people, and that this process ultimately turns the bullied into a new bully; you climb the ranks so you can police the behavior of others, essentially giving permission to those already at the top. The true warrior looks like other gamers, talks like other gamers, and plays like other gamers. The SJW doesn’t play by the same rules, or even worse, doesn’t play the same games. This is hyperbolized by the codification of certain games as worthy of getting paid for playing and not, and how that is gendered, raced, etc. I think this is a pretty useful perspective to have because it helps people frame how they talk to those projecting the image of the SJW and better yet work to counteract the qualities of being conniving interlopers by referencing their credibility in the community.

Near the end of the first day was an unconference session where people signed up to speak and discuss a topic for about 10 minutes each. I really enjoyed it this year because it let conference-goers say what was on their mind and know that they’ve been heard. I super encourage a microtalk and roundtable discussion to any event that wants to foster community. One of the main themes in the talks was the still evident disparity and therefore clash between between people of different backgrounds at conferences and even at QGCon; is a conference held at a major university that features a lot of academic talks welcoming someone who doesn’t have a college education? Same for something like GDC, which is expensive to participate in and only has speakers of a certain kind of experience. It was fitting for the conference’s theme, Difference at Play, and is relevant to the on-going mission of QGCon to bring together people of different communities and disciplines. Class is definitely a dirty word for the games industry at large; few want to talk about who has most the resources and who doesn’t have much and why that is, and how a lot of opportunity for anything surrounding games requires a base amount of resources. It’s hard to participate when you are expected to have had the time and money to receive a certain kind of education, do a bunch of research, hack at a low-paying job or internship. And, predictably, class problems hits other minoritized people disproportionately to those who aren’t. It opened up how QGCon is different and more accessible than other conferences and yet still has a ways to get to a place we ideally want all events to be like.

Another keynote was by both merritt kopas and Naomi Clark did a lot to provoke and challenge previous ideas constructed about queerness and games, which I enjoyed since it gave some continuity between last year’s conference and this one. I actually want to respond further in depth in a separate piece, but here are some critiques they had: we are currently in the gay liberation of games instead of the queering of games, drawing a parallel between the gay marriage rights movement and the continual backburning of many issues in the queer community for people not looking or being able to stealth into society; gaming has been shuttling between being perceived as a vice and finding new roles to promote social values for long time before the 90s; games are not actually safe spaces to fail and are often sites of trauma for many queer people (often stories of finding queerness through games are based on a relatively constrained sample); the idea of glitches as queer ‘failure’ instead of acceptable failure that is wrapped in reproducing capitalism; and ultimately, why is queerness so often set in opposition to utility? Chew on all that!

Near the end of the conference, Zoya Street and I lead a decompression session, a moment where people can let out what’s bothering them and work it out through writing and art and conversation. We had people draw a river on a long roll of paper and write down what was on their mind, then make little paper boats marked with words of what they needed to get through it all to sail on top of it. I won’t recreate the conversation here and we didn’t record it so people could feel secure in expressing themselves, but I think there are some themes worth mentioning. For one, Gamer Gate took over the majority of the conversation, and from what I gathered, there was different feelings of powerlessness. I think for the most part, people have worries and want to change things, but don’t have direct, safe avenues to express themselves and feel like they can actually make a difference. I felt this at IndieCade as well, where it felt like some people were being actively engaged, in person, for the first time and actually feel like they are being heard and receiving a response. I think this is where the need for more local safe-space events would really help in getting people heard and more involved. Saying things on Twitter both feels futile and dangerous given how gaters are always searching for people to gang up on. I really do think this is a good impetuous for more community organizing that should be spearheaded by institutions all over the place and encouraging devs to start their own thing to meet their particular localized needs.

If there is something I left QGCon this year with though, it is a dire need for intergenerational dialogue between minoritized people in games. And intergenerational is a bit stretched here because the landscape of video games changed rapidly, giving different kinds of opportunities and difficulties to each group within a relatively short amount of separation in time. In particular, I think there’s the more queer, in all senses of the word, group of people outside of the games industry that is incredibly disenfranchised by it and resentful for that, and minoritized people inside the industry with a pining for the freedom those on the outside have. These groups generally do not have strong lines of dialogue with one another, and very easily clash when coming together for about anything. There are outliers of course, but in general this is the case, as these two groups have different customs and histories. This isn’t to equate their struggles; people within the industry have decidedly more resources and power than those on the outside. In spite of this, I think it’s possible for conversation to happen with attention paid to power dynamics between generations of minoritized people. From my vantage point, I feel like some people feel tied to the industry even though it’s a burning building, and others see kicking in some more gasoline will help them have a more self-determinating future. I think this is a good thought to leave off on with regards to what this year’s conference implies for the next: when the destruction or major, major reconstruction of industry seems to be the only path for sustainability for one group, but the crumbling of the lives of another, how does one reconcile that?

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More Than My Pain

You often hear games conferences described as industry Christmas, seeing many friendly faces for the one time a year you get to see them. I think it’s why there’s as much buzz as there is around them, more than the actual conference or games really. As Christmas or any other holiday does, it affects people in different ways, and usually for me, it’s an uplifting, energizing experience.

The conferences I’ve been to this past month, and probably the ones for the next few, were somber and claustrophobic. It felt like people found out before I did that I only had a few more years to live. I was walking a procession of my own funeral.

My decision to leave the games industry is seen as something between giving up and a loss. I made my decision based on what made sense to me: the industry wasn’t providing enough sustenance and support to continue receiving abuse in its stead. Moving away from mainstream games culture and focusing on the edges of play allows me to create and write about topics I’ve been interested but wouldn’t really capture a large audience. It’s a healthy move.

What I’ve realized during my time engaging with the online community surrounding games media and development is that minoritized voices often only get visibility and resources when they are talking about their pain. This is particularly true for people who aren’t men, who on top of doing good work, they must put themselves out there enough for hordes to harass them. As is seen with turf wars with games journalism, people are looking for personalities in their media, and the technologies we converse on emphasize these tendencies. In a way, social media is reality TV the audience gets to heavily participate in and shape.

By continually engaging with the people of hate campaigns, people within the games community and industry reify this TV dynamic, often without the consent of the people who will be affected by it. Those on social media who feel like they have little political power are ultimately organizing in the same way these harassers are by just lashing out with memes and Twitter shaming tactics, which exacerbate the issue. This line of thinking seems to come from a couple of factors from what I can see: the ‘logical’ one of if society can see that people in the hate campaign are awful people, they don’t get credence, and the selfish one, that they want to do something but can’t bring themselves to a level where they feel like they can make a real difference. There’s a lot that goes into these two feelings, but simply, society already sees games culture as aberrant and horrible, and therefore doesn’t need to see it get worse to be convinced, and this entire conflict isn’t about gamers and wanting to feel like you’re a good person, it’s about the continual victimization and marginalization of minoritized people in games. It was in the beginning, always is, and yet there hasn’t been any real, healthy effort to counter this. Instead, people waste their energy dealing with people who can’t be convinced, and make bloodsport of it.

I say a “healthy effort” for a reason, because a part of this reality TV aspect of social issues is how fan culture creates personas out of people and groups and cheers them to battle against each other. We’ve created idols of victimhood out of people who are much more than their pain. And when we stop to talk about it, of course we don’t feel and think this way. In our actions however, there is an encouragement for victims to become martyrs incarnate for public catharsis by constantly engaging with the antagonists of the show, or even having in-group drama to shake things up for a boring month. Attention, connections, and resources goes to the ones most visibly being attacked in a very zero-sum manner, where if you aren’t also being cut apart and challenged in public along with your usual work, the industry and community very quickly forgets you.

Don’t believe me? Look up the name of any person now campaigned to continue heading into the abuse to somehow save games in the media. Try to find pieces that critically engage with the work they do, and you will see what I mean. Because the crowds can only talk about the drama and pain, and not about how or why this person matters to them, minoritized people in games will always just be chess pieces for dominant culture’s side of the diversity game. I’ve been doing what I do for over 3 years, and I can count on one hand how many times a major publication or conference asked me to talk about my work, because the dominant narrative will only let us exist if we are victims first, then humans. These past few months, 99% of the interview and speaking requests I’ve gotten were to retell my stories of pain. And how the community reacts to hate campaigns plays straight into that; instead of engaging the people who can actually change things (heads of companies, VCs, activist organizations), the community goes into a turf war with anonymous trolls more experienced at harassing people. How many times have you read that unlike the past, these particular past few months have been getting worse, not better? I am more than my pain. I am more than my pain.

I’ve already wrote pieces on how you can help; they are not the dramatic displays that social media encourages you to do, but they are things that actually work. To be honest, I throw up my hands in the air now when it comes to how little people actually turn to do these things. I feel like the community WANTS the social drama, you WANT the reality TV. Which has caused me a lot of pain these past few weeks to realize, with how few people in my life have offered substantial support these past few months. If you want to change your behaviors to actually help people, talk about how they matter to you outside of their ‘bravery.’ Quick tips:

1: Have you actually actively engaged with this person’s work? Have you not only experienced their work, but thought about it past a gut reaction? Can you explain to another person why this person’s work is unique outside of them being a minoritized person? If you answered no to any of these, you need to go and respect that person you claim to be fighting for and actually engage their work so you can appreciate them as a whole individual instead of just a icon for martyrdom.

2: Stop goading hate campaigners, because the end result is more harassment for already victimized people. If you want to show the public a different face of games, show them the work of people who condemn these cultish and discriminatory aspects of games culture. You are not painting a different image about games by making harassers and criminals resort to even more extreme tactics. Instead, publicly engage with the work you respect, whether it is to agree with it or criticize it. You don’t undermine them if you genuinely want to add onto their work from your perspective, assuming you’ve taken the effort to critically grapple with it.

3: Don’t assume that because someone has more followers on social media than you that they are somehow set for life. Many of us are broke, don’t have experience that institutions respect enough to give us jobs, are expected to give a lot of free labor for the community, suffer from multiple oppressions. A tweet is nice but gone from my timeline within a couple of minutes. If you care about a person and really want to be involved with their safety and well-being, take more than a couple seconds to reach out to them. Always respect boundaries, of course. At this point, however, the silence from so many people when I am struggling with pain is crushing.

I am more than my pain. I am more than my pain. I am more than my pain.

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Dispatches from IndieCade

Earlier this month was IndieCade, a festival that celebrates indie video games down in Culver City near LA. It’s actually a little more than that, also including non-digital games and tends to be more open to experimental and fringe work. It is open to the public and one of the more inclusive games events, and probably one I’d still appear at to see how things are moving along in the not-too-mainstream, not-too-artsy realm of games. I’m also a judge for the festival, meaning I help funnel games towards the jury to select for the awards and general inclusion into the festival. I want to take you through some highlights and games I saw there, and even some that didn’t make it into the festival but I judged and think are worth noting.

I’m really into going to talks at conferences and conventions because I feel like it’s a good litmus test for where most influential thought is at; not necessarily the most radical, but usually ahead of the curve and educational for conference-goers who can’t be plugged into Twitter and academia 24/7. This IndieCade was centered around community, which is fitting since that word has been on everyone’s lips for the past year. Thankfully that meant a lot of talks about diversity, inclusion, history, and outside influences. Look out for recordings of these when/if they go up!

The first talk I went to was “Let’s Not Make a Scene,” which mostly raised a lot of questions about groupings of people and how that works in industrial, artistic, and advocacy communities. The panelists were smart enough to not really get prescriptive of what is and isn’t a scene, and showed quite human complexities around scene making and power dynamics. Particularly salient was the story of how TIGSource forum devs set an unintentional standard and in-/out-group dynamic when many of those developers rose to prominence and were basically dubbed ‘the indie scene.’ A group of friends and peers became an aesthetic movement, and then became an industry in of their own. The problem with this is that power structures when it comes to visibility and resources were set mostly by the values of this group, however unintentionally, and access to all that surrounds the indie industry is affected by how many degrees, and what kind, of association you are away from this original group of people. This is also a conversation going on with the ‘Queer Games Scene,’ which I am included in per my wishes or not, and there’s a question as to how a similar dynamic will be created in this movement. Though I don’t think these two situations are comparable, I was glad it was still evoked and interrogated so we can at least be wary of replicated power structures of any group of people.

Another panel that went over rather well was “Let’s Do Something About it” (only now seeing the repetition) with regards to race and class issues in games. In a weird way, I left it mostly glad I was not on the panel; not because it was bad, because, like, finally other people are being recognized and I don’t have to be one of the very few people talking about race in games. They had a wonderful line up with devs and writers in different aspects of their careers and analysis, but were pretty resonant about their experiences of being in games spaces and having the topic of race shut down on them. It was good to hear, thankfully no one really does that to me so I don’t speak about that aspect often, but the panel showed how various aspects of racism and classism sneak up in the independent scene. The most salient point I took away from it was how non-white people just don’t even see the opportunity to get involved; either the resources they need are never offered to them or spaces are so white and east asian and don’t make the effort to extend out an invitation. This is in contrast to how there are so many initiatives to get women into these spaces, that sexism is the current ticket-item everyone is focusing on, instead of taking a multi-prong approach to diversity and inclusion issues.

The last day of the conference I spent mostly in City Hall, which was appropriate because it was all the more serious, political talks of the conference. The first session was an overall town hall kind of meeting, where people aired out concerns and action plans for change in the industry. What I deduced from the session is how people really wanted to be heard, on an individual level, about their feelings and thoughts about what’s all going on in games, and don’t often get the chance. There was a lot of grand statements and aimless frustrations, but it was probably helpful and shows we need public venues to vent grievances that might lead to some actual plan of action. My contribution to that discussion was the need to actually listen to people who know what they are doing, like activists and other people who engage with social change more frequently than the average indie dev, to have the resources and platform to enact change.

I was then part of a microtalk session called “Why ___ Matters,” where each panelist filled in their own part about what matters to games. There were definitely recurring themes, such as looking outside of games and the gaming community for reference and life, and also the negligence to self-care and valuing people’s livelihood. My talk in particular was ‘Why Reality Matters,’ where I hopefully challenged the body-detached attitudes of games as a whole, both in craft and the treatment of artists and activists. If you are a frequent reader of my work and tweets, you probably wouldn’t be surprised at the things I talked about, but all in all, I wanted to have reality be a design inspiration, and for play to be more applicable to reality and its issues.

And, of course, it is a games festival, so there are lots of games I witnessed and played. One was Squinky’s Coffee: A Misunderstanding, which is a super interesting theatrical, narrative generating awkward situation simulator. There are multiple performers in this game: two are the main characters, who read and interpret lines given to them from the drivers, two other players selecting options, and there’s also a musical accompaniment that also gets instructions. What is most interesting to me about Squinky’s game is it’s a sort of social catharsis game for awkwardness, when two people have separate goals and comforts that collide with one another. It also shows how people’s actions can be interpreted multiple ways depending on their context. We get a lot of this from some more narrative based roleplaying games, yet there’s an added usually unreachable element when you have it set up like a performance. The mundanity of it all made it pretty relatable.

Elegy for a Dead World by Dejobaan Games and Popcannibal was actually a game I looked at last year for the IGF and was quickly on board with the concepts it was playing with. The game puts the player in these beautiful panoramas of abandoned worlds and at certain scenes prompts them to leave some words. It’s pretty open-ended, though it has options to give the player a sort of ad-lib structure to work with. I think it aims to be interpretive and meditative; there are few games that ask you to reflect and be creative. It’s very moody and a great start to an interesting idea. I’d like to see more invitations for interpretation, and I’d also like to see how the metanarrative of it all comes together once it’s released.

I was also pretty wowed by Ice-Bound from Down to the Wire, another narrative game. I am a more narratively-interested person, but I don’t think other aspects of games stood out for me this year at the festival. And Ice-Bound is a good example of a future of indie games that I’d like to see, where access to technology reframes our relationship to storytelling. The game is part physical book, part digital-technology AR sorta interpreter, where you see different kinds of information on both and are trying to uncover what happened. This really got me inspired to remember and rethink games in the past that were part physical artifact, and part digital. In particular, manuals and strategy guides, how can we incorporate those into contemporary play?

There were definitely a lot of games I didn’t get to play that I wanted to (mostly LARPs and other RPGs, like Service), and lots of games worth mentioning, but here are a few that didn’t make it to the festival that I judge that was interesting for one reason or another:

Beyonce: Two Souls: I mean, the title should say it all? It was one of the few games I actually laughed with, using humor in a particularly video gamey way. Not like in a meme-knowledge manner but in a sort of surrealist deliverythat really uses the medium and conventions. I hope it becomes more developed than when I saw it, which was months ago so I imagine that’s the case, I’d definitely check it out for laughs with Queen Bey.

FutureCoast: An ARG that taps into the climate change discussion through player-generated apocryphal fiction. The most interesting aspect of it were the recorded voicemails left by people around the world depicting some sort of natural disaster that evokes climate change anxieties. On top of that, people could create what is basically a playlist of these voicemails, connected by whatever topic or theme they noticed. I thought it created a really interesting look at the collective unconscious about how people feel out of control about the environment, and it’s being exhaled through all these apocalypse stories.

The Sun Also Rises: I just found out this is also the name of a Hemmingway piece, and I don’t like Hemmingway, but alas, this is a pretty looking game that is very ‘post-Kentucky Route Zero’ game, if the gentlemen at Cardboard Computer don’t hate me for saying that. It’s set in US-occupied Afghanistan, and the main conversation is between a boy growing up in that culture and an American soldier. When I saw it, I think they were prototyping some narrative experiments that didn’t really jive well with me, but I think through development it’s going to turn out really interesting and be quite the pertinent theme. Just realizing now that it has two different kinds of non-white people as main characters without being awful stereotypes, so that’s cool!

Of course there was a lot more going on, but hopefully you all click through all that and see there’s interesting stuff going on, and a lot of it you can support! At least three of these games have/had fundraisers, which shows public patronage of weirder stuff could stay an important part of developing fringe work. Next weekend is the Queerness and Games Conference, which will round off my busy October, so stay tuned for my notes from that! It’s going to be great, and I believe it will be streamed, so keep an eye out!

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Dispatch from Arse Elektronika – Some Things Games Can Learn from Sex & Tech

(This post will be talking about sex, and there will be writing about about some sex acts. Consider all links NSFW if your work doesn’t appreciate you looking at sexual content.)


This past weekend, I went to the annual sex and tech conference in San Francisco, Arse Elektronika. This was actually the first conference I spoke at back in 2012 when it was specifically about play and games, and I got to come again this year to see what new projects people thinking and crafting about sex were up to. This conference tends to attract a cross-section of toy makers and academics interested in sex topics, but also nets in software people and artists.

What’s interesting for me about this group of people who convene over sex and tech is how similar and different the mood is to my experience in video games. The demographics are about the same, with maybe the ratio of women you’d see at an indie games event, so higher than the industry but not as much as men. But there is an unspoken understanding  of non-judgment that I see in the kink community in SF that makes it easier for people to bend outside of gender norms for the most part. If anything, a lot of baggage around heteronormativity and monogamy is left behind, but technocentrism and the centering of hegemonic masculinity’s relationship with sex still exists. An interesting site of reference if you want to see the dynamics where fluid sexuality is a thing and how men, and sometimes others, relate to each other in a context they don’t really get to outside of these situations. So I wanted to share with you all my thoughts on some of the presentations and how they relate to our realm of play.

The keynote of the conference was by Varka, the cofounder of Bad Dragon. I finally had an answer for where all these fantastical dildos I kept seeing on tumblr came from. This was one of the many talks during the conference that would speak to bridging the gap of DIY toy making from those with a lot of money to the public. Bad Dragon toys are, in a sense, a certain evolution of fanfiction. The company pretty directly serves the furry community or others who fantasize about anthropomorphized animals or aliens, and seeing that those sorts of beings don’t really exist, sex toy creation works to bring an aspect of that fantasy into reality. I’ve always wondered what the fanfiction of games would be, and this seems to tap into that concept. More precisely, the imaginations of furries has shaped play objects so new interactions can be had with them. Most sex toys resemble, ultimately, the binary genitals of humans and imply convention usage. And while the dildo of a dragon still fits there, it opens the possibility of textures and features we wouldn’t normally have on our toys. My guess is that eventually, we will have play objects that expand our range of actions during sex, or even outside or adjacent to it. While we do have modding for digital games, I think this line of thinking expands how we can see player subversion of the craft of the game through DIY objects.

Probably the most fascinating bits of research to be presented was by Kuang-Yi Ku, a bioartist and dentist who showed conceptual work on modifying the mouth for more specialized use for fellatio, taking notes from gay men’s culture and history. There were three stages of this: the first was a textured retainer a person could wear that would still feel like the roof of the mouth by using a person’s skin cells to coat it. The next was using surgery typically used for people with jaw-displacement, like an extreme overbite if I remember correctly, to elongate the amount of space inside the mouth to fit a phallus. The last was called ‘Bird Beak Clone,’ extending the previous surgery out more so the person had more room in their mouth, and in effect their mouth and jaw looked more like a bird’s beak. Kuang-Yi said the Castro Clone, a term for how gay men in the 70s, and feasibly today, wore a certain kind of outfit in the Castro district of San Francisco to signal to other men that they were gay and looking for sex. What made this so applicable to me is the culture surrounding body modification or even just appearance overall. Bodies are often overlooked in play, and that, technically, the body is also a play object that sets up certain kinds of interactions with other objects. Where are the games inspired by the dynamics of cruising? Or games where interpreting bodies and appearances is the main aspect of play? Kuang-Yi’s project gets at more what I consider play, which is observation of aspects in life that mediate behavior and perception.

Back to play objects and dicks, Dr. Kristen Stubbs presented a collaboration work with Jimmie P. Rogers on DIY, more accessible genital molds that produce rather realistic results. Like, a super realistic dildo of Jimmie’s penis. It was so idiosyncratic that when it was passed to me to look at, I kind of wanted to, like, put it in my mouth? My gut instinct was that I had a hard dick in my hands, so I must do something with it? I also just looked at the details and felt weirdly compelled to know what Jimmie’s face looked like and what kind of person he was. I felt really confused about all the social rules that surrounded having a dildo of a person’s penis that I didn’t know. One of the questions from the audience was about the implications of a sort of gential library that people could set permissions and allow others to loan out molds and toys of their genitals. I couldn’t help but imagine how that would change contemporary courting rituals and the general structure of intimacy in society. Would it become customary to order someone’s vulva before seeing the real thing? What would be the social mores of what you do with that? Especially incorporating that into your own sex life? It somehow avoid the uncanny valley but is still slightly unnerving. Another example of how objects can project interactions that shape culture.

The last thing I want to share is a performance by Maggie Mayhem, which appropriated the stations of the cross from Catholicism to talk about working conditions of sex workers throughout the technological ebb and flow of pornography. For those unfamiliar, the stations of the cross is a sort of educational procession, going through different moments of Jesus’ crucifiction, highly ritualistic and meant to impart to the people participating the suffering that lead up to his death and soon rebirth. I’ve been reading a lot about ritual and this struck me as particularly poignant. The stations of the cross is a type of narrative that other content could be substituted in to give similar feeling; there are a lot of complex feelings around pornography, its detractors, technology, and sex workers that all somehow have to be respected and looked at critically at the same time. We were playing within the realm of a memorial that is part education, part mourning. We recited back the prayers, and as they went on, they weighed on you more. We left with the little booklets to eventually do services of our own. I could imagine more ritual making like this, especially sending people out to practice it outside of the main experience. I will be writing more on ritual soon, so stay tuned for that!

I think a lot can be learned on the more critical and artistic ends of sex when it comes to play. I mean, sex is literally a kind of play, yet we don’t hear it come up too often at our conferences, and games culture at large seems pretty awkward at handling the subject. I think there’s a lot of ways thought and research in topics surrounding sex can help influence game design and how we think of play, especially in the physical space. I’m actually writing this just before flying off to LA to go to IndieCade, so I will be back soon with some writing for that!

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Further Thoughts on the Tarot and Interpretation

When I experimented modding Netrunner with the Tarot, I started with contrasting quantitative and qualitative relationships in card games, and in games generally. Within that, I found a deeper issue I couldn’t put my finger on for some while, and the direct analogy of the tarot to card games made it clear to me. Conventional game design often denies players the act of interpretation. Which is why simply assigning tarot cards or other interpretive practices onto play won’t yield much besides an interesting add-on; game design is meant to clearly telegraph information to the player, typically surrounding the usual stance of ‘games are a set of rules.’

What the dominant paradigm of design does is create a system for the player to uncover, and game within that system. It is ultimately a puzzle, though the creative process of moving within situations isn’t something to be disregarded. Rather, it’s not the complete picture, particularly for play experiences that don’t want to do something explicitly goal-orientated. I’m pretty much over ‘elegant’ systems because they typically don’t say too much interesting. Instead, I am curious about inviting players to interpret their experience and contextualize it in their own lives.

What separates tarot cards from playing cards, or most cards really, is the recognition of infinite interpretations. And not like inconsequential variations, but a discernable capacity to hold many different meanings and provide different contexts. Taking the difference between the five of hearts and five of cups, a visualized version of the five of heart’s ancestor, demonstrates the difference of meaningful interpretation. The five of hearts has very few meanings as it is used in five of cups and heartsplaying card games; it is higher than numbered four cards, lower than the six ones, and is of the heart suit. It’s boiled down to a function, and carries with it the idea of optimization. That is, conventional game design leans on discovering optimal play, and the meaning of its parts don’t exceed much from that. When the five of cups is placed down, what ultimately determines its effect are the people involved interpreting it. There are many canonized ways to read cards, however personal style is trumped over any other sort of prescription. There is also the idea of the five of hearts and cups, that is, how they as an archetype do or don’t change over time. You can change the imagery of the five of hearts as much as you want, but it will always be cosmetic. Same with Netrunner cards; the meaning is based in the quantitative system that relies on a strict and clearly communicated ruleset. While changing the image would change it’s flavor, the meaning of the card stays the same. I don’t want to disregard the appropriation of games, much like I did with Netrunner, and that bringing in cultural context and modding does emphasize these other parts of the game object. I’m particularly concerned with play experiences being interpretable and subversive on their own and with intention. With the tarot, different images drastically change how the card is read and interacted with. Every layer of the card itself is meant to be accessed and used by the play that is interpretation. And, of course, tarot cards aren’t the only kind of imagery out there, there are many sets of cards used in similar ways that are made completely in their own context yet still work as an exploration tool. Yet the kind of interaction implied by tarot cards doesn’t completely disintegrate because of this mutability, rather it’s boiled down to the act of interpretation instead of a jungle gym of rules. There is no wrong way to read the cards; that’s not a placation, but an important aspect of play.

Really, each card is a tiny bit of experience design. Visuals can be evocative on their own, yet it their relationship to other cards, both in the same deck and in other ones, that make designing in tarot so easy. As well, the act of doing a reading with these cards is design and creative in its own right. Take just how to get the cards on the table. Are the cards shuffled? Who shuffles them? Where do you draw from in the deck, and who draws them? This sets up the tone for the entire reading and provides context for how the players can interpret what comes next. If the reader shuffles the deck and deals out five of cupsfrom the top, it is reminiscent of gambling, so the feeling of fate or luck is stronger. Or maybe the dealer fans out the cards on the table and lets the querent pick. There’s something magician-like, it’s showy, and lets both feel like there’s some personal responsibility in what cards show up. Maybe the reader asks the other player to sift through the deck and chooses a card that resonates with them. This is more interactive and focused on the subject and their informed instincts. The cards are flexible enough to bring their own meaning to these sorts of contexts, and withstand the invention of new methodology. What happens when a card falls out while shuffling? Does the card at the bottom of the deck at the end of the reading mean something? Because these cards lend so well to the creation and manipulation of contexts, they have more mileage in playful activities outside of puzzles, which they can still be used for.

I also don’t want to get so hung up on these being cards. You can sub out cards for any object, objects being, taking a cue from anna anthropy’s work, what players interact with to further involve them in play. We are too used to instrumentality of play, or the gaming of it. Conventional design wants you to make sure objects have functions that move the player further along towards their goal, even if that goal is letting the player exercise agency over what their goal is. In contrast, interpretative objects are looking to evoke a response that will be mediated by a person’s unique perspective. This is what I’m trying to get at really, that we there isn’t enough play with symbolism, both on the creator’s and player’s sides.

Why bring up all this? The tarot might seem like a stretch, but consider how conventional games try to communicate stories and meaning. To be blunt, it’s usually hamfisted because the game is often trying to act as entertainment based more on reflexes or quantitative systems. This doesn’t mean that these kinds of games don’t bring joy or particular kinds of meaning, rather that play as a medium is severely limited to similar games unless it allows for more interpretation. Some of these games are already out there, but it’s not a surprise they aren’t featured much in mainstream coverage.

If anything, I just want to raise the question as to why there isn’t a lot of interpretation going on in games. My hunch is because of the canonized idea of games mostly being composed of rules that need to be fairly communicated to the player, vagueness is discouraged. I think game design is so wrapped up in getting players to ‘do something,’ to verb, that self-reflection isn’t really something that gets picked up very often. Or for someone to go through an experience without having or needing a goal. What would games look like if we adopted the use of tarot as we have them now instead of playing cards? I want to see that.

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OkEthics – A Look at Social Experience Design Through Dating Apps

For anyone who’s followed me on social media, it’s no secret that I’m often sifting through dating websites and bemoaning how weirdly necessary yet awful their existance seems to be. Like many people, I have a hard time finding people who strike me as interesting that message back, and have seen sites like OkCupid try many strange experiments to try and get people to actually get together. I remember seeing my most recent long-term partner on there before we dated and for one reason or another, maybe I didn’t like his camera angle or I used too many exclamation marks in my self-summary, we passed each other by. Yet when we met in person, we went on for 2 years! How does something like that happen? Along with the much more recent Tinder, I was very methodical, sent messages to everyone I found attractive that was based on our mutual interests or interesting bits, yet in all the time I was on there, I met very few people.

After reading some research OkCupid did that found users were ultimately superficial and based >90% of their decision to interact on looks alone, I decided to do my own experiment. I started up two profiles at once, one that had my pictures and another that had picture of a white- and cis-passing woman with identical text. To say the least, my ego was in check that month. While the fake profile got a lot more attention, I realized that because I left them there to be interacted with and didn’t reach out to anyone, these profiles mostly attracted people I didn’t really find attractive or didn’t put effort into their profiles and messages.

Along the same time of this, I started to notice a trend on how many heterosexual men (at least, probably other people of other identities do this too) went through matches on Tinder. I would notice matches of mine unmatching before we even got to talk, which most likely means they went through and matched with everyone, and sorted out their matches from there. At the same time, I noticed that guys were more likely to message me if I swiped right (indicating interest) first, basically being notified of our match right as he swipes right. Both OkCupid and Tinder pause the swiping process and it usually gives more incentive to message right then, is my guess.

That’s when it started to dawn on me: the design of matching in these dating apps is like some weird fucked up Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Think of it this way: the bargaining chip here is vulnerability and effort. If everyone acted the way the designers and humanity would hope, it would mean that people would generally not game the system, and put equal effort in approaching each other. But there’s both the fear of rejection and the window-shopping mentality that these apps unintentionally (or not?) encourage, where people will try to optimize their experience to have the least effort wasted for the greatest gain. The options are:

*Initiate contact with a high chance of being ignored or having an unsuccessful experience

*Wait for someone to approach you with a low chance of receiving anything interesting

*Use a low-effort way to encourage someone to initiate contact with mixed results.

As you can see, the stereotypical option is the third one, because it makes sense; it only puts in an amount of effort that your ego can take if it is ignored. Its optimization also banks on people being the first kind of user while also managing to attract some of the second kind. If everyone used the third strategy, it wouldn’t work. Much like (non-iterative) prisoner’s dilemma, the best result for you is by exploiting the other player. This isn’t necessarily saying humans are awful, rather that the technology encourages this behavior. As the OkCupid research shows, when profile pictures turned off, many people stopped using it, but the users who did interacted and enjoyed each other a lot more on dates than with pictures on. I’m guessing they didn’t go through with it because they realized their users are so superficial they’d lose out on money, even if they actually got people to do what the site was meant to do.

Still feeling burned from my last experiment, I decided to put this into practice. With the advent of Tinder, OkCupid changed their quickmatch to be exactly the same. So, I restarted my profiles and just starting swiping right on every guy. At first I would look, but eventually I relegated this activity for when I went to the bathroom, not even really seeing who I was matching with, just swiping right as fast as I could. These apps were definitely not meant to be used this way; Tinder consistently froze and shut down, especially if I received a lot of matches before I booted it up, and both apps would have the pictures of profiles stick to random parts of the screen. I’m pretty sure I’ve swiped right on people who know me and I’ll never realize it, and the process does make me feel slightly scummy, but not too much. Every day now I hit a blank screen on available guys.

Results? A lot more interesting messages and dates. I’ve been on more dates in the time I’ve used this method than the years and years I’ve used OkCupid. Now, this is probably still a remarkably low number seeing I don’t fit into traditional beauty standards, and I imagine there’s something gendered at work. The strongest factor is the most obvious, that I canvassed through a large amount of people, regardless of any factor besides that they identified as a man who likes women and were within 5 miles of my position at one point or another, and this gave more people a chance to interact with me. The folly or things like OkCupid is that they don’t really have a strong enough system down to link together people who will most likely date. For instance, let’s say the people who came up first in your quickmatch were the most likely to respond back to you, or actually go out on a date, or be someone you like, then it would make more sense to spend more effort on those profiles. Instead, if you go through every profile that comes across your plate, there are many ones much more suited for you that are waiting randomly in the queue. Neither OkCupid or Tinder have a good way of signalling where to spend your energy, so you go by the only thing that’s as close to an assurance that you can get: looks. Of course, there’s the messaging aspect of things, but that’s covered more on dating advice columns and are rather variant (hint: don’t just say ‘hi’), and this doesn’t necessarily mean I have a higher rate of successful dates. In order to figure that out though, I have to have a sizable amount of them first. Just try not to mention that you do this, I had a date who asked me directly about how I used OkCupid, and he didn’t like how the sausage was made despite our fun date.

I find this interesting because systems like these are all over in our lives, manipulating subtly how we interact with one another. I think about conferences with advocacy/women’s tracks and how there are rarely ever any white men attending them. Or how showcases or exhibits don’t have many works by people of marginalized identities. Or how we never really hear much about actual effects of serious games or games for social impact. Or any social aspect of any mainstream video game with regards to abuse. Or the ultimate feeling of disconnection on social media. Mostly because these systems are designed in a manner to bring out the Machiavellian in everyone. Experience designers are mega-focused on quantified systems to bring about abstract experiences, and while technically that does happen, it’s turned social interaction into a bunch of trending metrics instead of human connection.

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Once More, With Feeling – Using the Tarot for Play

I’ve been thinking about the many genres of games I feel I should like but don’t, and I’m starting to notice a pattern. With card games in particular, I enjoyed collecting them when I was younger, studying each card intently to make decks. Though after a while, playing the actual game was thoroughly boring. There is a lot of math and chance usually, matches ultimately coming down to gaming the quantitative system the game had in place. In hindsight, my fleeting enjoyment in these games tended to be in the style and flourish aspects. Making my deck unique, preparing dramatic moves built more on novelty than anything else. However, this soon becomes unenjoyable because of how much these games are based on a quantitative measure of winning; if your decisions don’t ultimately serve this purpose, they will be marginal experiences if they are even allowed to happen in the first place.

Looking at games as a whole, but especially card games, I can’t help but notice how much conventions of gambling are at the base of typical game design. Gambling and gaming used to mean pretty much the same thing, and really, it seems like gambling now just means sometimes illegal or heavily controlled gaming. There are people in the world that won’t play games involving any amount of chance or paraphernalia of western gambling, such as cards and dice, because it’s against their culture. Think of the kinds of stuff you find in a casino, and then try to think of games that don’t have any manifestation of those things. You’ll find most games, knowingly or not, borrow from the tradition of gaming that isn’t different from gambling; the ones that don’t tend to be more expressive games.

When it comes to card games, the design decision that few challenge and annoys me so much is the deck of shuffled cards. I know, something really weird to get hung up on, but it really narrows the kind of experiences you can have with games from the outset. A shuffled deck is there to have randomness to create a sense of fairness in a game of quantitative tools and as well to create stakes to deal with. It creates a rhythm of playing with what you got while holding out for something useful to come along. Many card games suggest understanding probabilities and card counting because ultimately that is what these are about. Understanding the chances you have for getting what you want while dealing with what’s in front of you. Of course, there can be more to a game than that, it’s just how strongly shuffling the deck controls the experiences of these games.

This then took me on a mental journey of the evolution of card games. The 52-card deck (with variable additions of Jokers) that dominates the imagination of at least English-speaking countries when it comes of card games derives from tarot cards, which is used almost mostly for divination and self-improvement in said cultures, not games. Tarot cards were originally used for games much like the ones our playing cards are concerned with and still are in some countries, but for whatever reason, play didn’t come alongside its now occult use. I’m starting to think that my unrest with card games might find something in the interpretative use of tarot cards instead of the quantitative.

theloversI didn’t realize it until recently, but I was pretty much a teen witch when I was younger, and studying the tarot came near the end of my journey with the occult. There is a range of ways to read the tarot decks (there are many different kinds): the author’s description, the interpreter using free association with the subject based off the images, the meanings from the original deck style from which it is referencing, the combination of all prior readings ever done, and on. There is also the added element of the spread, making where and how the cards are placed down have its own meaning. Whether one believes in the supernatural or not, you are ultimately reading the narrative structure of the cards in front of you and weaving a story. This process is the qualitative side of the coin opposite to the one card games typically take. Instead of rules, there’s ritual; instead of winning, there is play. While we colloquially conflate gaming and playing, there is a strong emphasis on their nuances when we take on this frame. Games often promote doing, while play, existing. Telling how we hear prominent voices dismissing, lovingly or not, play as a frivolous while gaming is some higher state of being.

My experience with the tarot was recently triggered when I started playing the living (see: collectible) card game Netrunner. Particularly, the placement of the cards. Netrunner is a two-player asymmetrical game, and depending on which side you play (Corporation or Runner), you place your cards down differently. Seeing this reminded me of tarot spreads, as the positions of the cards innately meant something and created visual relationships between all the cards. The similarities to tarot cards probably stops there, as it is reminiscent of other battling card games, being reliant on probabilities, chance, and card knowledge. The cards do have lore behind them, and there is some resonance between the actions of the players and the fictive act of hacking, however you don’t really derive much else. The narrative of the game is firmly in its quantitative systems, which often leaves me cold. This got me thinking though; what would a more playful Netrunner look like, or, how can we use the rules of the game for storytelling purposes?

Besides the arrangement of cards, my next clue came in seeing some puzzles of games in the middle of play. In general, these are still very quantitative, and the goal is to figure out how to win the game from the position the puzzle puts you in. I still found this incredibly compelling though, because these tasked players to understand the relationship of all the cards and their possible interactions. Because they are quantitative in nature, compelling puzzles are hard to consistently generate, so what if instead we generated a game without the intention of winning? Time to experiment!

First, I created decks based on narrative themes rather than outright function. I decided to take qualities from my favorite identity cards and use them to choose my cards. One deck was titled “Red Queen,” so I put in cards that had prominent use of red and images of royalty, and the other “Perfectionism,” where I found cards with nice symmetry or order, or the function of switching things around (1). I imagine people who are more into the lore of Netrunner will find extra meaning and themes deeper than these, much like how different levels of study with tarot cards reveal more details. Then I generated card placements to make it look like the middle of a game (2).


Now, I shuffle up a tarot deck and start placing them on top of cards in play. What I have basically done is make a spread based on the placement of the cards of Netrunner (3). We can then think of all these aspects mediated by each other to create meaning, the rule-based reasoning of Netrunner for placement, the Netrunner card, and the tarot card. The tarot cards will have relationships set up for them by how all the Netrunner cards relate. There are multiple ways to move forward, such as imbuing each position with keywords based off the Netrunner cards, then removing them and proceeding with a tarot reading. Or we can use the tarot cards as prompts to give the Netrunner cards narrative meaning beyond just mechanistic use.


dauvergneWe’re not going to stop here though! The best part of this set up is that we can still play by Netrunner’s rules for a round or so, though our aims might be different than just winning, or winning effectively. We can play through some turns and track the changes of the play area, see which cards interact with what, and always see the Netrunner cards associated with the tarot cards they’ve been dealt (4). Now there is symbolic meaning past quantitative winning to the actions in the game. It’s kind of like those art pieces that attach a pen to the mouse of a computer and there’s an imprint of how it was used that day; you can get a feeling about the motions of the game by giving it a method of expression. In a way, this is a mod to Netrunner. Another mod that makes narrative a stronger focus is Naomi Clark’s in-progress reskinning project Lacerunner, which changes the imagery and language to make it feel more like a Jane Austen game. The rules of Netrunner are still there, meaning there is something about how imagery is utilized to encourage storytelling. I feel like the tarot addition will go very well with Lacerunner once it’s completed. It shows how subject matter and genre conventions imply what you should be doing in play; a game that is about infiltrating a ball through social skills encourages role-play and storytelling. With the added layer of the tarot, this edges closer to a social simulation game.

So let’s run through a sample action using the Shadowscapes tarot deck and see what we come up with, adding in some fictive embellishment to help those unfamiliar with Netrunner:

Reina Roja (Nine of Wands), a cyborg activist, is hacking into the Research & Development server (Page of Wands) of the cloning megacorption Jinteki (King of Cups). On her way, she encounters the first part of this server’s security system, an already active Hunter (Ten of Wands). She passes through under its gaze without trying to disarm it, and it places a net tag on her that allows Jinteki to track her easier. Coming up, she sees the bright light of her Bishop (Ace of Pentacles) program that she hosted on the next security system ahead of time. This one was currently inactive, and if it was to awaken, Bishop would weaken its strength. To be on the safe side, Reina uses a Cortez Chip (Ace of Wands) which forces the corporation to spend more money to activate this next piece of security on top of her personal hacks. As it turns out, Jinteki doesn’t currently have an available amount of funds to send out its Uroboros (The Devil) because of this, and Reina passes it by without ever knowing what she evaded. Finally, she gets to R&D’s server and accesses Jinteki’s latest plans. It turns out to be a Fetal AI (Eight of Cups), a bittersweet find as it is good intel but sends shocks at her and requires her to wire some funds for the power to actually download it safely. She jacks out of the net to see one of her other Cortez Chips (Three of Cups) and extra hacking Deep Red console (The Star) fried from the shock. She is closer to her goal, but still has a lot more to go.

As you can see, there is some storytelling you can do with Netrunner, but it’s mostly just an action report. Because we have these cards associated with the tarot, relationships between more abstract qualities are created to either use inside or outside the game. With the caveat that there’s many different ways to read tarot cards, here’s a quick rundown using the artist’s descriptions:

The main tension in this spread is between one party waiting, vigilant, on edge, and another that is more patient, wise, and calm. The former is looking for something the latter has, possibly a hidden message or creative lesson. In order to reach this knowledge, she first withstands the pressure and responsibility of supporting a community of people, which only makes her a target in his eyes. He comes to see how she’s worked up her courage and focuses on her sense of self to outclass any temptation he could distract her with. But he doesn’t let any trial go through unearned, seeing that although she gained deep insight to herself, she is plunged deep into exhaustion. When she takes count of what’s she’s lost to achieve this understanding, she finds herself distant from others who make her feel supported and disillusioned with the ideals she started out so strongly with. Worse yet, the struggle isn’t over, and he seems to be unaffected, waiting prepared for her next move.

We can use this interpretation to read the emotional journey of Reina as we play through the game, giving a meaning to what she’s doing. Her motivations become clearer and provides context for action. If the game was to be further modded to reflect upon all these interactions every turn or action, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine this affecting player behavior and goals. Technically, tarot cards can shadow a normal game and act as a log for interpretation and storytelling afterwards, like the trails of a myth we don’t know the complete truth of. Or we can easily detach this from Netrunner and use this for the players. The dynamic nature of play further invites those involved to create from the narrative clues of the cards involved and for it to resonate with them.

The rules of Netrunner then become a ritual, motions filled with symbolism that we act out in order to reflect on ourselves or our social condition. In a sense, I feel like it completes the game by moving it away from it’s quantitative-heavy processes and gives players a reason to play slowly, to savor the hidden and the revelations. The chance to self-reflect, not just do mental math. This isn’t to pick on Netrunner solely, rather, I think it gets the closest out of the many popular card games I’ve come along. I will be discussing ritualizing play more in the future, but for now, I hope this inspires some creative mods to games to add on more interpretative layers to interact with.

(1) These notes are for Netrunner players and the extra curious. Here are the decks I’m referring to: Red Queen / Perfectionism. You will notice that they aren’t really viable for regular play, but are still within the deck building rules.

(2) Here is how I generated the game: Both decks start with their identities face down and directly across from each other. The Corporation shuffles the deck and draws out a number of cards ⅓ of their minimum deck requirement, which is most often 45 and therefore totals out to 15. Round up to the nearest whole number if needed. The Corp then proceeds to place cards as if they are installing in the middle of a turn, following usual rules and notating install costs. The Corp can auto-score agendas as long as they also give the runner the same amount of agenda cards, and the final point total isn’t 7 or higher or would end a traditional game in some manner. Servers can have a maximum of 3 ICE, and you don’t have to install every card. Count the amount of rezzable cards played and rez half of them, except for agendas (they still contribute to the count though; round down). Notate all the rez costs of the cards you flipped up. Operations must stay in the hand or go to archives, face down; the corp can’t have more cards than max hand size. If you don’t have an archives, leave space for it. If you’ve scored agendas, place them to the right of the archives as if they were their own server.

The Runner then does the same, drawing ⅓ of their minimum deck out, which also typically results in 15 cards. They can then place cards in their rig without exceeding their memory costs and only having 3 pieces of hardware and 3 resources out maximum. Notate the install costs. The rest of the cards go into the grip or heap without exceeding maximum hand size. The Runner should be placing their cards like it shows in the official rules, with separate rows in their rig. If the Corp gave you agendas, place it to the right of the heap, even if there are no cards in the heap.

After the Runner is finished, both players reveal their identities. Then it’s time to resolve all the cards as if they were just played or gained, including the identities. There might be some weird things here as I haven’t troubleshooted, but here’s the main rundown: cards that get counters when installed/rezzed/scored get those; cards that take effect at the beginning of turns do not manifest; anything that gains or discards cards, credits, or counters happens now, including damage. If identity cards have effect on cards in play (like Reina or J:PE), consider all cards installed, rezzed, and scored before their identity ability takes place. After everything is resolved, each player totals up their installation, rez, and other costs and gains half of that (round up) in credits, plus whatever gains they might have gotten in the previous step. Whew!

(3) From the Corp’s perspective, imagine the play area as a grid; you might need to space out the cards evenly with each other between both sides to do this. Place one tarot card on top of each card starting from the top-leftmost card and going down each column. If there are multiple cards in one spot, like for upgrades or hosted cards, the bottommost one gets the card first. Every card in the grip/HQ gets it’s own card; these are considered above/below the identity cards, and the leftmost card gets drawn for first, from the Corp’s perspective. Credit pools also get cards, and they are considered above/below the grip/HQ. The stack/R&D and heap/archives get one card each to represent them, and can be placed beneath the pile. Each card in the heap and archives gets its own card, and so do individual scored agendas and identities. Record the placement of all cards; I draw out the current play area by creating ‘slots’ for each placement and numbering them in the order I dealt out the tarot cards. If cards are lying on top of each other, I consider them both in one slot.

(4) Play by typical Netrunner rules without prior restrictions. Once assigned, the tarot card stays with the Netrunner card if was placed with. Whenever a card is interacted with from R&D or the stack, such as being accessed, revealed, discarded, or drawn, it is given a card from the top of the tarot deck, even if it is placed back in the pile. The tarot cards are only removed from R&D/the stack if they need to be shuffled, in which the tarot cards are shuffled back into their deck. To track changes, I mostly go by marking when a set of cards leaves or enters a number slot, and I make sure to draw out and number new slots that are created because of a new server or piece in the rig. I also made a note of which cards directly interacted with each other during play, particularly Runner ID/icebreakers with ICE. If playing with two people, make sure to have separate notes so you don’t reveal to each other the cards you have hidden from them. I typically only play one round, but you could feasibly go on until 7 agenda points, the grip or R&D is depleted, or you run out of tarot cards.

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Those Who Fight

A bit over three years ago, I had my heart set on being a food critic and mystery novelist. I learned about my latent talent in cooking doing school projects in high school, and it took having a little more income and dinners with my good friend to find out that I had more than a knack, I had taste. I also remember finishing Persona 4 when it first came out and loving how it treated mystery. How characters unfolded and evolved over the course of the story; it was less about who did it, rather about who we are when we find out. By chance of transferring schools, I was required to take courses in critical theory and literature, which at the time I didn’t think would really be of much use to me. There I learned about the many ways to read, and that you can read anything, not just texts.

So came video games.

It started because I wanted to practice writing regularly. I figured I knew a lot about video games, and people seem to have opinions about them on the internet, so why not me? I wasn’t expecting much from it, just to be an exercise while I waited on grad school applications. But things took off in a way I didn’t expect: I started to regularly appear on Critical Distance, got a couple of columnist gigs, and found myself in lots of arguments on this thing called Twitter that I never used before. Half a year later, people on this Twitter donated money for me to attend the most central games conference in the industry. I was asked to speak at events before I was writing for even a year, and my alma mater asked me to do a keynote about activism. I was shocked to learn I became an activist.

Thinking about this reminds me that there isn’t really a profession of activism. The closest would be a lobbyist, and I don’t think that’s what I or others are like. Activism is something we all do, we take what we’re good at and use it for social justice causes. If me blogging and speaking on social media made some sort of difference, it means I must have been doing other things unconsciously that were activism before all this. It’s much more personal and micro than we give it credit for. Many people who stand out as activists, they are just living their lives and often the focus of circumstance. They are speaking their truths, doing what little they can. I know I was only an activist and a critic, and now developer and theorist, because others called me those things.

Three years after I put up my first post, I’ve decided to not participate in the video games industry anymore. A lot of people treat this as a loss, or quitting, giving up. Video games came as a freight train into my life, an unexpected opportunity I wasn’t planning on taking anywhere for a while. I feel like that’s what it’s like for many people who speak out about important issues in games. The attention of the internet is capricious, and it just takes one viral tweet to become an activist, thinker, public figure, or what have you. Meaning, even when this focus goes away, it might seem like I’m not an activist anymore, but I will be doing a lot of work, just in different ways.

What I think is most important is figuring out what every single person contributes. If I never intended to be an expert or authority, just chugging on posting thoughts until it was time for school again, what stops you from doing activism? It’s entirely possible that you are, and you’re not recognizing it. I think because I was put into the spotlight, I was forced to examine my actions and intentions, which may be why to the less vocal person it seems like there’s so little that they do compared to me. As we see, that’s probably not true. There’s space in your life for concrete action for what you want, if you allow yourself to open up the definition of activism.

This is a good exercise to decrease celebrity mentality we often put on people; while at times flattering, it’s extremely stressful. People assume you’re more stable and secure in life than you actually are, more well off, more connected. Fan culture hands all the responsibility to the person on the pedestal, with the expectation that they will be on 24/7 and the audience can be passive and are doing something by just being there to bear witness. This is why there’s such a burnout rate for media activists in games, people, typically women, just can’t handle the pressure over long periods of time without the proper sustenance. This happened to people before me, and now it’s my turn. I don’t want it to happen to anyone else.

There are other effects of this fan culture, such as prioritizing the individual over the community, whitewashing the diverse range of thought and action with a few people’s politics. This past year, a lot of work and events that I was a part of a team on were solely attributed to me, because this culture wants a clean narrative. We have to resist these motions, and recognizing our individual part in community building is the first step. What are you doing? If you don’t know, don’t you think it’s about time you figured it out?

It’s been a long time coming, but it’s obvious the games industry isn’t the place for me. It is too narrow and slow moving for the ideas and needs I have. There’s a reason why my only income is coming from readers, not corporations or customers. A place that has such a rigid view on how to be successful is going to exclude a lot of people, and I’m one of those. There are many other people who might fit into this, though, that can be loud voices while they game the system. I think of Leigh, Zoe, or Anita, or many of the newer voices that will crop up now that larger ones are moving out of the way. They really care about video games as a medium and industry, and want to make it a better place. I’ve found out that I really care about the expansion and reclaiming of play as a medium, bringing new forms of expression to people who didn’t know they had it. To be honest, talking about the video games industry is boring for me now; we’ve had the same problems, just with varying scales of drama and mainstream attention. I don’t want to be treated like a victim, and it’s only when I’m abused that people will listen. I’m more proactive, generative, and loving; this just isn’t the place for me.

My time writing about video games culture isn’t for naught. I didn’t know that I would become so fascinated with play as a concept. I ditched design early in life and this was a reminder that, yeah, I can definitely do this, I’m good at it. I will be returning to older hobbies and incorporating them into my newfound interest in play and what play can do to change how we view life. I’m looking back at fiction, mystery, taste, smell, ritual, interpretation, relationships, expression. These are great topics and I hope you all will stick around to explore these with me.

I haven’t decided how I will incorporate digital games into my writing and practice just yet. I’m going to continue engaging with video game art scenes and try to get more writing on those. I have made friends with many interesting thinkers and creators in games, and I imagine they will rope me into things so I won’t completely disappear. Ultimately, my aim is to get people to think of more than video games when we evoke play, to de-emphasize technology, and to imbue the way people look at life with the potential for play. I think we could use more people doing this sort of work, and I now have the chance to focus on that mission.

Thanks to everyone who’s ever supported me and continues to. This isn’t goodbye. It’s going to be even more interesting from here on out!

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Moving On

“What is it that we want?”

These past fews weeks were trying. Even while I was away, as unplugged the jitter in my fingers would allow, I knew the industry watched, horrified, voyeurs, as pipes of sludge poured on people all around me. My body is splattered, from old and new, waiting for my turn again. Is this what I’ve been waiting for? The moment when this becomes too much?

The urge to run still lingers, every time I lean forward to type. When my backspace key sticks. I’m not the only one reevaluating their relationship to video games. Because this is rote, boring. It’s predictable now to be harassed, disregarded, and forgotten, and watching the cycle happen again and again. Professional punching bags.

The quote above is from Samantha Allen’s talk at Critical Proximity earlier this year, which I recommend you watch in full. It centers around Patreon and games criticism, yet extrapolates pretty well to games as a whole. What is it that we want when we say community? What do we want when games want minoritized people to be a part of the artform and discussion? What is actually happening?

I thought a lot about what she said this past week while I was away. Particularly, that community and support doesn’t rise out of people who happen to be in the same space with the same interests. Rather, community is intentional. It is built.

We don’t have the foundations for what we want. The scaffolding we see is here for another reason. Industry defines itself on its relationship to money. Every time you interact with it, for whatever social good or hedonism you plan, you need to speak in its language for it to listen. Companies won’t do what’s necessary to fix problems because there’s no money in it, and they shield themselves with the legal responsibility to make their shareholders profit. We cannot use this model to solve the problems we wish gone. So, what to do? Don’t expect anything other than what can be achieved while making people who already have money even more money. In other words, set a low bar for what the industry can do and look elsewhere.

I’ve talked to some developers about consulting in regards to the representation and narratives of minoritized characters in games. There is a distinct split on how many more independent creators found this important opposed to companies. One such company very particularly told me that they had no interest in diversity as an ethical practice or for social good, rather, can only justify diversity through the value it brings players and therefore the company. Value in this context ultimately means money, even if it’s not a direct transaction. Art is only allowed to exist with business. Creators aren’t allowed to exist without justifying to others why social equity is profitable. Go look at any advocacy track in any flavor of conference; you will notice certain types of people rarely go to those talks, despite being the exact kind that needs them.

Looking to salvage the industry or the concept of gamer is fruitless; practicing consumerism in this way is core to how it functions. You can try and soften the edges, you can have a woman here and there, and you can edit the language to be as pliable as possible, but nothing is changing how the gears grind. Online publications have to make their sites profitable for the ad agencies that pay them to exist, which boils down every post to whether it fits into this ecosystem. Writing about culture is the lowest paying and consistently shrinking form of writing in games media. Not because we don’t need it, rather because it’s not viewed as making enough of a profit.

Simply not being in a company doesn’t solve the issue; indie development fits right into the industry. Industry budged as much as it had to in order for indies to be profitable, and stopped. Indies feel tied to the small spaces they are allowed to make money, act out in as much as they can in those spaces, and stop. This isn’t to shame. People need to survive. Go survive. Just be transparent.

There is a reason things are they way they are right now. Not enough people are motivated to do what needs to happen to change. I believe it’s because they aren’t connected to it personally enough, so when abuse, marginalization, and exploitation happens, they might feel bad, but not wronged. A solution to this is to give ourselves opportunities to establish connections outside of our currently homogenizing environments. Social media doesn’t make communities, we have to forge them ourselves.

Samantha describes community as a product of action. Working together to achieve something. If we want these spaces in the way we envision them, we must start from the ground up. The industry doesn’t need to be your only nor primary source of support. The industry can be a place you work and somewhere else can be your community. We can create something else.

Create new spaces that don’t have industry and business as the main component; most of the contexts we meet under do. Collaborate with people local to you instead of trying to create a large replacement for a global industry. As Samantha points out, marginalizing dynamics will play out as usual once funding individual people comes about, which is why the indie world looks increasingly similar to AAA.

Is there an evening when you have a spare room in your office, community building, local restaurant, house? Have the ability to rent a space and get provisions for a group of people? Do you know people you can pool money with if you can’t on your own? These are usually the hardest things to obtain and start the process of forming a community. Organizing can be a group effort, yet it is the people with the resources that need to step up and create that opportunity to happen. Unfortunately the video is missing from this presentation of mine, but here is an outline for creating inclusive events.

What do we want? That’s a good question. You should ask that to people you want to create a community with. It should be something everyone has a chance to speak on, with precautions taken so the same voices don’t dominate conversations. These wants shouldn’t reach outside of the community’s grasp, rather ones that can be obtained over a length of time with hard work and organization. Allow anti-capitalistic stances to exist, because they aren’t given room in other discussions. Let the group, even if it is just for a couple of hours, speak about creating outside of the contexts of making money. Concede that a lot of our design and writing practices are informed by our capitalistic motions, and to imagine outside of that when you’re together.

Despite current dialogues, the community doesn’t have to be solely developers, or critics, or independent, or corporate. These communities don’t have to strictly be about games, rather inspired by what you are not getting from the industry. That you possibly open yourselves up to people from different but similar enough paths of life is a really good opportunity for cross-pollination. There are other artistic communities that were around before video games existed that have knowledge to pass around.

Petitioning gamers, companies, and publications to make a stand for the values we care about won’t happen at a healthy speed without strings attached. Everything will be mediated by consumerism, and simply buying or not buying from certain places isn’t going to solve core issues. So the next time you’re wondering what to do when things seem so bleak, reach out to the people around you, and tell them it’s time to get together, and form a supportive community. One that has, from the beginning, at its center, the ideals and ideas we want missing from industry.

This article was community supported! Consider donating or being my patron so I can continue writing: Support