The Meritocracy of Video Games

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Not a Monolith

“I really liked your game Dys4ia.”

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

“Oh, sorry, it was LIM then?”


“Howling Dogs?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Music Design in Sequence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thinking on Local Game Making Communities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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End the Video Supremacy of Games

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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And Queerness for All

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

A Quick Note on Locality

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

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

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

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

A Plan For Action

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

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

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

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

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Death of the Player

Players are overrated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Stanley Parable Review

(Spoilers??? for The Stanley Parable)



3¾ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons salt
1 cup warm whole milk
1/3 cup warm water
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
3 tablespoons honey
1 envelope instant yeast



black frame
black frame

It was like any other day. I don’t know how I got here, but I have the memory of living. The oatmeal in my rice cooker beeped every morning, 10 minutes after I wake up. I don’t drink coffee. The shower drain is clogged again no matter how many times I get someone to fix it. I always have an important meeting to go to, the one that will change my life. My name is Mariella.

I pull my hair back into a ponytail as I slip into my shows for work. I don’t really like my hair this way. A man, or maybe many of them, said I should wear it this way. Behind my reflection in the mirror, there is a bowl full of apples. They look bright and sickly at the same time. I take one and leave.

black frame
black frame


He never liked being where he ought to be. He ran and I chased, with my legs bound and arms stiff. But now, like Nyx, I am the black in everything and can no longer touch him. Kiss or kill? The greatest gift would be to put him to rest. My eyes are forced closed when his are open. I don’t have hands anymore; when the time comes, can you press the button?

Eat this blessed bread

black frame
black frame


adjust an oven rack to the lowest position and heat the oven to 200 degrees
maintain the heat for 10 minutes
turn off the oven

mix 3½ cups of the flour and the salt in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the dough hook
mix the milk, water, butter, honey, and yeast
turn the machine to low and slowly add the liquid
increase the speed to medium and mix until the dough is smooth and satiny
turn the dough onto a lightly floured work surface
knead to form a smooth, round ball
15 seconds


black frame
black frame

It was like my life so far was for this moment. I crouched, knees at an angle to keep my skirt from rising, to place my briefcase on the cement. His body was perfectly sprawled on the ground, like it was his job to be dead.

Standing back up, I couldn’t shake a sense of home. He smelled like bread. My house always felt like it was made for two, but didn’t think until now that someone was missing. It feels like I created myself in someone else’s world.

I leave the body to its own story. I take a bite of the apple, and I feel better.

black frame
black frame

The fall of man into knowledge.

There is a trail of breadcrumbs we are all following. His goes in circles, and makes me dizzy. I am irrevocably grafted to his story, like hanging on to driftwood out at sea. He floats on without any regard for my splinters. Can I really be blamed for burning it all down? And though I am released from my porcelain casting, I am evoked to serve in this nightmare patriarchy. Which is why I need you; only the living can make choices.

Stanley’s always been dead.

black frame
black frame

place the dough in a very lightly oiled large bowl
rub the dough around the bowl to coat lightly
cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place in the warmed oven until the dough doubles in size
40 to 50 minutes.

gently press the dough into a rectangle
1 inch thick
roll the dough firmly into a cylinder
turn the dough seam-side up and pinch it closed
place the dough seam-side down in a greased 9 by 5-inch loaf pan
press it gently so it touches all four sides of the pan
cover with plastic wrap
set aside in a warm spot until the dough almost doubles in size
20 to 30 minutes.

keep one oven rack at the lowest position
place the other at the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees
place an empty baking pan on the bottom rack
bring 2 cups of water to a boil in a small saucepan
pour the boiling water into the empty pan on the bottom rack at set the loaf onto the middle rack
195 degrees
40 to 50 minutes
remove the bread from the pan
transfer to a wire rack
cool to room temperature
slice and serve


black frame
black frame

I arrived at the usual meeting room, room number 104. I fidgeted in my chair, the only one, again, staring a large opaque pane of glass. I was hyper-aware of my clothing, a toupe I would have never chosen for myself. I felt the temperature of the room, the dull shine from the light above.

I stood up, took the chair, and smashed the window. No one was there. There was a body-shaped void of noise behind the door of the room, waiting for me to open it and enter. There was a gross familiarity to this scene.

And that’s when remembered him, the person who was supposed to live with me: Stanley. I vaulted through the window to save him.

black frame
black frame

But listen to me, you can still save these two, can stop the program before they both fail, push escape and press quit, there’s no other way to beat this game. As long as you move forward, you’re walking someone else’s path. To stop now would be your only true choice. Whatever you do choose it, don’t let time choose for you, don’t let time-

black frame
black frame


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Iz Gamez Criticizm Art???

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is game criticism art?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Mission is a guided restaurant and bar crawl aiming to draw attention to the gentrification of the Mission district in San Francisco. The Mission used to be home to many low-income hispanic families, but now is changing due to the influx of mostly white, mostly affluent tech industry workers.

Bus Routes

This will take you to different spots in the Mission to eat and drink in relation to the bus routes that transport the tech industry to Silicon Valley from San Francisco. Read more about these hidden routes at The City from the Valley. Follow the directions on each Day card, which outline an evening for you in the Mission. Be warned that you will be spending money at restaurants with different price ranges. This is best done with company and in close succession for the best effect.

Day Cards (to be done in order):

Day 1
Day 2
Day 3
Day 4
Day 5
Day 6


(Spoilers for Gone Home)


I really like saying that. Nineteen eighty seven. It was the year I was born.

I’ve come to learn it is one of the years that birthed impostors. When I think of the 90s, it’s Nickelodeon, Spice Girls, laser tag. I guard these memories with the fiercest of passions, because I like to think nothing in my childhood after 1999 existed. There were always older friends of mine cynical of the aughts, its lack of culture and honesty. They would tell me of rock shows I was too young for. My first mixtape was a CD.

Now, when I’m asked about games from those outside of the scene, I’m asked about what it is to be indie. There are indie films and indie bands, so do indie games fall into the same pattern? Rebel against The Man, bootstrap it? I never like to confirm this line of thought, because it isn’t true. Indie game culture is still preoccupied with being commercial enough. To me, this particular scene is more defined by its nostalgia, its pining for the past. And though I might be considered a contemporary to this scene, it’s a past I don’t share.

Playing Gone Home, it’s obvious much of the game’s presence was drenched with reminiscence. The environment begs you to dig through it, smiling at the TV listings and cassette tapes. We’re in the pacific northwest, the birthplace of nostalgia for anyone in or near their 30s. I grew up in South Florida, on the opposite end of the country with its nightclubs and Caribbean restaurants. The ghost haunting me wasn’t an estranged uncle, but the specter of the early 90s; feelings of longing and familiarity I just didn’t have. But it was there, baked into the play. Welcome home, it says.

Instead, Gone Home felt like a past I wished I had. A house with secret passageways, TV teenage drama. Everything felt just a little off from reality for me, and into the sitcom I wish I lived.

I am an older sister, but never had the chance to be. I grew up queer, but never had a lover to sneak through my window. I had a two parents, two kids, and a dog family, but my mother and father were immigrants and didn’t have that wholesome American culture to pass down. Playing Gone Home was like watching Nick at Night and wishing the TV would suck me right in. I’ve left home for good before without my parent’s knowledge, and I’ve returned to a hollowed-out family, but it didn’t have this ‘authenticity.’ I hope that reads as a merit to the game, instead of a criticism. Just a little bittersweet.

I don’t remember much about 1995. I had a second grade teacher with an over-powering vanilla-scented perfume who always sent home complaints that I talked too much in class. I thought you had to marry anyone you really liked and probably watched reruns of Deep Space Nine with my father. Nirvana was just that one song on the top 40 radio station my mom listened to and Jagged Little Pill would be the first album I’d buy with my own allowance. All of the blocky electronics were being swapped out for newer technology. It’s possible my nostalgia is shitty 3D graphics and a missing history. I wonder if there’ll ever be a homecoming for so-called millennials. What is the reference for our high school days? 9/11? Post-punk bands no one admits to liking? Hopefully it’s the awkward social dynamics of livejournal and the J-Pop.

That might be what makes me feel so distant from current going-ons; the difference between missing the past and missing having one at all. We’re going through a stage of reference, used to bond people together with a shared history. This might speak to why I won’t allow my work to hint much of anything cultural past my own skin, and I want people to feel foreign reading and playing what I create. It’s curious to me that counter-culture games evoke nostalgia, and counter-counter-culture ones with such present, and sometimes future, individuality.

I liked Gone Home, a lot. I just still feel its ghosts grabbing at my fingers.

The Dadification of Video Games is Real

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Everyone thinks they have the solution to your problems. What is nuanced and complicated to you is simplistic to them. They give you suggestion after suggestion, all well-intentioned, but it never seems to help you. Sometimes you snap back at them in irritation, only causing scorn and guilt. Every sound, movement, look they make seems to say “Can’t you try a little harder?”

This is my answer to that. Play this on top, or instead, of your day-to-day life. Think of it as trying to walk a mile in my shoes. You will actually limit your spending, emulate a part of my life, and maybe gain some sort of understanding. Follow along and see if you can try a little harder.

*Begin on the 3rd Monday of either August or January (in reality and on the calendar)
*Check the calendar (see below) and follow the event of the current day, if any
*You start with a budget of $0 (not including your first student loan)
*You must spend 1 Bath & Beauty (B&B) point in order to leave your (real life) house. 48 points cost $200. You begin with 0 points
*You must visit a university campus at least 3.5 miles away from your home for 6 hours every school day
*Any food, mode of transportation, or other expenses must come out of this budget and cannot be carried over from before play
*The budget can only be supplemented by work centered around writing and editing skills, and donations
*If you cannot pay your cellphone bill, you can’t use your phone. If you can’t pay your loans or eat once for the day, you can’t leave your house until you do. You must move out of your house if you can’t pay rent

Email a request to for the calendar to be shared with you on Google Calendar. Or, use the most appropriate link for you to access it offline:


Budgeting Sheets
Here are printable PDF sheets to help you track your B&B points and money spending:

B&B Sheet
Money Sheet

Corpse Party: Book of Shadows Review

Both horror games and visual novels are in interesting places right now. Players have seen much of both, gotten used to their tricks, and very quickly started looking for something more. Corpse Party: Book of Shadows provides a unique cross-section of these genres, attempting to take the best of both worlds and provide a compelling experience, but this game is definitely made for the fans; genre conventions are in full effect and offer little explanation for those unfamiliar.

The premise of Corpse Party centers around a botched seance performed by some high schoolers. They’re transported to a haunted school in another dimension where murderous monsters and ghosts pursue them. The player goes through different chapters of this experience, switching characters and moving through time to see different angles of the situation. Each chapter has multiple endings—a good one that grants progress, and several death scenes that require a retry. As with most visual novels, there are a bunch of features to scratch completionist urges and to encourage replaying through the chapters, like a library of the artwork the player encounters, and audio diaries from the voice actors.

Playing is mostly a reading affair, watching scenes between characters and seeing how the stories connect. Corpse Party is also part adventure game, with the player taking control of a character and moving through a ‘board game’ rendition of the school. Between scenes, the aim is usually to get items for the ultimate goal of trying to find a friend or escape the school. Events are changed by a “Darkening” feature—a number that raises whenever the player enters particularly creepy rooms or witnesses something horrific. This adds a certain sense of randomness to the game one would expect out of a haunted house, and also adds some scare factor as creepier things happen when the Darkening is high.

Though it has a good base, Corpse Party has trouble utilizing its genres for maximum effect. The biggest sign is its attempt to explain the structure of the game as a narrative device.

Early on, it’s implied that the characters are revisiting the same moment over and over again, which ties into the usual way a player interacts with a visual novel. This idea, however, is dropped after the first chapter and we don’t get much of this meta commentary to help rationalize why we restart the chapters. This is important to note because players will be repeating in order to advance, and will often have to fast forward through cut-scenes, rediscover all the items and such.

There are various tricks to this (such as saving before every choice) and other tactics those familiar with visual novels will employ, but at the same time, many of the endings aren’t that interesting. A character will often die, but since little is shown, nothing special or noteworthy comes of it. This will still be enjoyable for those who savor the usual visual novel structure, but for those like me who are looking for something more, Corpse Party doesn’t add much new to the palette. In particular, the main drag for me was the lack of dramatic tension, since every chapter stars a different character. Sometimes there’s insight on past chapters and the game goes to various locales to switch things up, but for most of the game it felt like I was being thrown around in the dark with little substance to it.

This leads me to the horror aspect of Corpse Party. There are some genuinely frightening moments, usually of the jump-scare variety. However, most of the horror centers around the various terrible things that only seem to happen to the girls in the cast, including gruesome accounts of disfigurement, abuse, and murder. Much of the art in the game avoids showing it graphically, so a player’s mileage may vary on how much this is actually capable of inducing the creeps. I found that the game was weightless because it ostensibly contains “intense gore,” but doesn’t make the player witness it. And really, some scenes just aren’t convincing—nothing’s scary about having the screen flash red while playing an attack sound effect most likely heard in another game.

The game would have done better relying on ambient horror instead. There were a few sequences when the player character is running away from or trying to avoid spirits that will kill them. It made going into rooms that extra scary, especially when random, mysterious dialogue would appear on the screen, hinting to the overall story and creating a lot of tension.

There is something to be said about a horror visual novel on a portable platform—it’s nice to switch between playing Corpse Party on the train and hoping no one catches sight, to trying to complete a chapter before bed and freaking myself out a bit. The content can get a little convoluted and fan servicey in the way anime can get, especially with its treatment of girls and women. It will at least provide an interesting in between pastime, even if it’s not really something that will blow your mind.


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

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

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

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

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

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

what is a game?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

what is personal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, mami, how much?”

I knew what he meant. I kept walking.

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

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

“How much mami, I can pay it.”

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

I’ve never told this story before.

what is

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