Made for the Pulse Pounding Heart Stopping Dating Sim Jam, Blink seeks to explore the subtle power dynamics in dating between myself and my partners, and how privilege affects our outlooks. It was also a first step in using Twine, experimenting on how to communicate systems to a player purely through text.
Games Discussed: Depression Quest; dys4ia
Notes: This post discusses depression, and those with related triggers should proceed with caution; a section of this video records a game on New Grounds which features generally discriminatory advertising.
Welcome to the first of many B-Side videos, a series that will look at free indie games and how they continue to evolve our artform. This episode, I’ll be discussing Depression Quest by Zoe Quinn, Patrick Lindsey, and Issac Schankler.
Depression Quest is an interactive fiction, possibly non-fiction, game that takes the player through an experience of dealing with clinical depression. But even as I say it, that doesn’t really do the game justice; to say Depression Quest is simply about depression misses the interesting design philosophies at work here.
Someone smart at some point in my life either quoted someone else or said something akin to “Through the very specific, art becomes universal.” It speaks to the uptick of the hyperpersonal going on in games right now, and how it resonates with so many. Depression Quest is interesting because it blurs the line between fact and fiction; it is a rather distinct scenario with certain factors already present going in, but it isn’t hard to fit yourself into the role of the main character. It’s like games’ answer to creative non-fiction, and this choice made by the developers is important to point out.
Depression Quest is for a couple different audiences, and a player could fit into more than one. Mainly, there are two ways a person can approach it; looking for solidarity in a shared experience and gaining empathy through a shift in perspective. It is possible to do it both ways because this game both is and isn’t about depression, is and isn’t about a particular person.
The most powerful mechanic is actually the lack of choices open to the player. At least, all of the seemingly obvious ones most people assume are available are blocked off from those depressed. This instantly complicates common advice that ultimately sum up to “just make yourself feel better.” You see the options right there in front of you, but the system keeps them out of reach.
As far as I know, I don’t have depression. My best friend of many years, and others in my life, do, and very often I couldn’t understand the chronic flakiness and inability to express what they were feeling. Depression Quest did a couple things to bridge that gulf and create a channel for empathy; the formerly discussed blocked choices, and the archetypes found in the various people in the main character’s life. I personally found myself almost verbatim in Alex, the player’s girlfriend. Through a specific lens, the positive energy that a person can provide someone who is depressed can actually be immensely negative, and it was interesting essentially playing against myself. The character didn’t have the options available that would please me and Alex. Upon multiple play-throughs, I became more aware of the way choices start to open up and close off, and how this is only partly intuitive to the player.
On my first run through the game, I tried to be as honest and positive as the options would let me. The unavailable choices already created a ceiling I wouldn’t have assumed, and at times, made me choose something self-destructive. The unrelenting openness left my character vulnerable and caused them considerable pain at times. It made me reconsider my own tactics, about how that path is only serving the interests of others, and not my personal safety. In a future playthrough, I came to find a strategic mix of self-preservation and openness balanced your mood and other’s happiness, shown by the increased number of available options.
Then I was curious about what it looked like to be the lowest of your low. I was expecting something melodramatic and constant encounters with suicide, but my assumptions were met with something else. Suicide was more of a long dull pain, and what really characterized deep depression was the lack of control. More and more options were taken away from me, and I was forced to make decisions I knew would end badly.
Depression Quest uses its choice structure in a rather clever way to comment about therapy and taking medication. While everything leading up to therapy is dependent on your mood, the choice to start drugs and continue therapy are always available to you. It communicates having agency within that situation whereas in the rest of your life, you don’t. I liked that the developers were able to show contrast within their mechanics in a positive way, where usually designers like to give players a whole bunch and then take it all away.
Games like Depression Quest also help reaffirm a sort of community status for those who are illustrated in them. Depression Quest sits in an ambiguous area when it comes to how much of it is imbued with the personal experiences of the creators. Mainstream games typically make characters broad enough in attempt to have players easily identify with them. The logic is the player will fill in the holes and complete the character. Hyperpersonal works reject this notion by forcing the player to keep themselves out of the characters. Games like Dys4ia, by Anna Anthropy, assume many people playing it will not have shared the developer’s experience and instead has the player relate by reaching into their own personal history to establish empathy through the system. Depression Quest does a little of both; there are clearly autobiographical elements, used to create a very specific experience while, at the same time, it stepped back and allowed the player to fill themselves into this experience. I knew this was about depression, and felt those unique circumstances, but I could relate through my own experience of considering hormone replacement therapy. I didn’t need to have depression to find solidarity in this experience.
I’m not sure if I have words for what exactly Depression Quest does, but it is one of the fuzziest blends between author and player I can think of. Actually, this idea is encapsulated by the great sound design of the game. The main theme plays as the constant reminder of the character’s illness, though it could be abstracted to just about anything. Then noise eventually breaks through and takes you out of your head. Sometimes it’s clear and sharp, and on worse days garbled and painful. The ambient sounds pull players from the general narrative where they easily project themselves and into specific scenes undoubtedly from an author’s past. In a sense, Depression Quest applies how it handles fiction and non-fiction to depression itself- it alters reality while not striding too far away, leaving people in a constant state of confusion.
This is only one aspect of Depression Quest that’s interesting, and it’s obviously a hit. Not only is it a great game for playing, it’s great for sharing. Another topic altogether, but to me, it shows a bright future for games, how they can be used to help people communicate when their words aren’t enough. I think Depression Quest helped put more work like it on the map, and I can only see more games like it being made.
So, that’s it for this episode! Go play Depression Quest at depressionquest.com and consider donating to the development team for their work. Also, e-mail me your thoughts, suggestions, and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for joining me on the first take of B-Side, I hope you’ll join me next time for another talk on free indie games.
I’m going to write about my personal experience writing about personal experience.
Context: I’ve been dragged to this point, by my hair, thrashing with my mascara running. I conducted myself publicly in a manner that would avoid having to make a post like this, but in order for things to stop and straighten itself out again, I feel like I need to document one of the many ways I deal with being a public persona in games criticism, and the game industry overall, as a minority. I know many people have quibbles with identity politics, and the definition of minority and the way American-centric discourse uses it, but this is a situation based on power relations where I am disadvantaged because of my identity, and not simply because of my actions or opinions in a vacuum. This is about a ‘conversation’ that involves me but I was never a part of. All of this is of consequence of other people and having me face the fallout.
It started with a reaction piece to my own. Jonas Kyratzes picked apart a piece I did on Nightmare Mode, Would You Kindly. Before I even got the chance to read it, the confrontation was on. Jonas linked his article with a quick caveat akin to ‘this isn’t transphobic.’ This instantly set many people in the social justice ring on edge, mostly because when someone in a place of privilege has to put out a warning like that, there’s usually something fishy going on. This, and his article, started an argument between Jonas and some of these people who are my friends that would set the tone of what would become a longer debate. The argument quickly became louder queer voices versus a subset of critics who typically have issues with said voices over how me and my work should be treated.
I had no say in how this conversation would go and what my opinions were.
What I’m trying to say is there is a lot games criticism, let alone journalism, writing overall, and the industry has to learn when dealing with minority issues. I really don’t like it when I’m forced to be the lamb on the alter to make that change happen.
More people continued to dog-pile into the conversation because they found it interesting. Overall, I find everyone involved well-meaning. However, because this discussion got intense quick, it became black and white and I was guilty by association. I really appreciate my friends, in the queer movement of sorts in games. They are good at certain things I’m not, have a perspective and disposition I don’t. There are many times I disagree with how they do things, but I think it’s important to have that diversity. I find many of my friends’ anger and mistrust rational, even if I don’t share it and find it frustrating sometimes. I can understand that when Jonas tried to absolve himself from transphobia, that they smelt the BS and got on that. I don’t think what they did was necessarily wrong- just not what I would have done. The rest of the debate is framed in that way, in the way they deal with oppressive culture and how they move in the industry. It isn’t their fault they are discriminated against and oppressed, it isn’t their fault they found methods for safety that are considered abrasive and uncompromising. I will never, ever judge someone for their survival tactics, because that’s literally what it is. At the same time, this debate about me, surrounding me, was with my body on strings instead of my actual self because of how it was postered by my friends and the reaction by all sorts of people.
As well, it’s made worse by Jonas’ article actually being informed by cissexism he seems to refuse observing (I’m differentiating transphobia and cissexism on purpose; I don’t think Jonas is transphobic, but I do think he is blind to the cissexist aspect of his arguments). In essence, his thought experiment of a transgender person considering not transitioning or not transitioning in the way they want to quell a cisgender partner’s insecurities of being discriminated against being equal or better than a trans* person expecting their cis partner to get over themselves can only be logical by any stretch of the imagination in a thought process informed by cissexism. To consider the transgender person is being selfish for wanting to be who they are in a cissexist and transphobic culture is only possible in cissexist logic. You are equating one person fundamentally changing who they are because of the pressure of a discriminatory culture with a person who never has their identity questioned in such a way, and who could easily move through life without ever having that demand asked of them based on that aspect of their identity. With Jonas trying to absolve himself from confrontation, he actually became a model for how many allies and otherwise progressive people try to say they are such without acting it. He was stating he isn’t transphobic without considering how transphobia works within his own logic.
This is just the beginning that will be lost as the debate marches on, but it’s really important for me to point out. It shows the almost deterministic projection of everything, how someone excuses something problematic by hand-waving its legitimacy is up against an extremely vocal and quickly damning oppressed group. They both saw each other as lost causes before any understanding actually happened, and that my name was in it all, I was party to it, despite not having entered the scene.
I didn’t want to respond to Jonas’ article publicly. I offered to have a conversation with him in email, but eventually his frustration with those fighting for me had him unfollow and disengage with me, despite I only contacting him once for that email offer. Outsiders to this scuffle really wanted me to respond, and add to this ‘conversation.’ The problem is that this whole thing was being framed as a me versus Jonas debate, but no actual exchange of ideas came between us. It went to the point where I had to just snap at people because it didn’t seem to get through to the general public I had little to do with the drama going on.
There’s one main reason why I didn’t want to respond to Jonas’ article with another: he pretty much misinterpreted my article and ran with it, then creating this echo chamber of arguments that I would both have to undo and counter. It basically was turning into an ‘argument on the internet’ segment I really didn’t want to get to. Nuance is often lost, comments are polarizing, people are stricken with confirmation bias. What as the payoff for me? I get to deal with more people who disagree with me and get more support from those who already do? There would be nothing productive of me going through Jonas’ piece and correcting him besides for others’ rubbernecking pleasure.
For one, no where in my original piece did I trivialize the realities of war or the people in it. A large part of Jonas’ article is a strawman against a false reading of my piece. What I had critiqued were people who were not at all involved with war and the violence associated with it co-opting it for a ‘real’ kind of violence. The privileged class glorifying a false retelling of war to entertain them. It’s because this privileged class doesn’t often experience violence, especially systemic violence, and so they export that to a reality they can relate to a la socialization by culture. But by the time his article hit the internet, this aspect was parrotted like nothing else, and I before I could actually respond to parts of his article that were interesting, I’d have to unpack all this BS that I really didn’t feel like engaging. By this point, so many of my opinions in this argument were made up by other people, no joke, a mythology was created of who I was and what my viewpoints were, that I honestly didn’t have an interest in it. People just fell on a predictable divide of those who often identify with the ideologies surrounding identity politics and those who don’t. People began to criticize my lack of engagement, and it’s literally because nothing interesting was actually going on, at least, not with me.
But I did feel the need to write about something. Conversations about personal writing have been going on for a long time now, even before this article now treated as a touchstone for a critique against personal writing. I am interested in the politics surrounding personal writing and personal experience used in games. But people so badly wanted me to be a part of the ‘conversation’ that they didn’t look at what I’ve been critiquing with my recent work: that the current way we deal with criticism in both games and writing is marginalizing. We are constantly applying standards that are political and unquestioned. We aren’t looking at how and why personal experience is used, just questioning its existence. We want things in boxes all nice and neat and don’t realize we value one box over another because of inequality. I didn’t want to address anyone in particular because one or two people didn’t sum up my counter-argument. The framework to dive into the nuance of this argument is completely unappetizing, because of how polarized the topic is- most likely, people who already saw my points will continue agreeing with me (to be clear, there are people who talked about my arguments and understood them without me having to explain/engage about them, so I know it wasn’t just that my articles were simply bad or completely unclear) and those who won’t be satisfied with my explanations no matter how detailed I am. The best case scenario would be some in the middle might find it interesting food for thought. Yay.
Now if all of that existed in a vacuum, maybe people would have a hard time seeing why I wouldn’t engage with it. The problem is, every single time I post an article on touchy subjects, I am harassed, belittled, and marginalized. In an industry who values and wants my work to exist but won’t pay for it or offer me any way to live or feel invested in for the long-term. This is on top of the discrimination I get every day of my life, both the standard fare on the street and the systemic kind enforced by society. All of this, and then I deal with all the things that come with being a public figure, with people wanting my time without consideration of me having my own life. There are people actively campaigning against me, there are people who email me rape and death threats, there is an industry who wants to look progressive but won’t actually act that way.
Where am I in all of this?
In essence, my critique of the personal is rather too apt for comfort. The most obvious thing people could be discussing and thinking about, me, is completely left out. Irony has its ways.
Ultimately, it’s because of a discomfort of the personal. We’re in these discussions of ‘why are these feelings in my logics?’ because people aren’t interrogating themselves with how the personal experience relates to them. Which is why after it all, this well meaning response really put me over the edge. Here is me, being put up as an example, about how I’m doing this whole conversation wrong. The conversation I don’t want to be a part of. The conversation I was never a part of. This is when we’re getting to masturbatory levels, the debate for debate’s sake, when debate over the internet with people who really don’t give two fucks about processing others’ feelings is, surprisingly, not that appealing to me. An overture on how this entire mental exercise, or thought experiment as Jonas puts it, is still entangled in a value system that discounts the voices of people like me. No, I’m not going to sit online and play teacher with unwilling students. I’m not even going to with willing ones, I’m too busy trying to figure out how to make use of putting myself in debt so I can actually get paid, seeing the game industry doesn’t want to throw me a dime. Want me to write thousands of words on a particular topic with extensive specificity while dealing with the discriminatory backlash that always happens? I’d love to, pay up.
I don’t know what else to say really. Was this entire debacle worth commenting on? I needed to get this out of my system, and to show that the neat, simple things people think are just friendly debates are never that way for me. There aren’t papers for me to cite that speak to my personal experience because it is systemically pulled out of many a discourse.
As for my philosophy of it all, I do see things swinging towards hyperpersonalization, and I like it. It’s something I wish people could wrap their heads around already instead of deeming it lesser than the established way of doing things.
Sorry for all you Christine Love fans drawn here by the title, I got nothin’ for ya.
“Why do you act so white?”
Her name was Shanti. I will always remember the exact look on her face, how her head floated in my vision surrounded by the artifacts of a high school classroom. It was the 10th grade, American Sign Language class, and I was clearly not white.
I’ve revisited these three seconds of memory often throughout life, coming back with different answers each time. At first, I thought it was absurd that someone could “act so white,” how could someone act a race? Eventually, I came to associate that question with ‘Why are you so educated?’ since, at the time, I found many non-white people to act rather unrefined.
It wasn’t just me asking this to myself. More people took note of my non-whiteness and proclivity to surround myself with it. It also came in reverse, with white friends glad I didn’t act like those kind of non-white people. I remembered visiting Chicago and seeing an improv theatre show with about 200 other people. For the first time in my life, I noticed I was in a room where I was the only person who wasn’t white. It was startling, considering this pattern I’ve noticed. What is going on with me?
What I’ve come to learn is how the status quo, the marker which we all mediate our lives with, is actually the culture of the hegemonic class. The labels of this group can go on forever, so let’s just settle for white American patriarchy. Which is why there are so many othering stereotypes of people who fall out of this, while whiteness gets assigned traits associated with the general person. Black men are often typecast as uneducated gangsters and white men the honest average joes. We see getting a university education as a standard that everyone should achieve, but politics that disproportionately affect non-white people frequently makes achieving the American Dream, whatever that is now, far out of reach.
There is a similar status quo in the game industry. An expectation for objective, fact-driven games and journalism. When personal experience enters, it is met with distrust. Herein lies the problem- when you leave out the personal, all that’s left is the status quo. Because that ‘standard’ consists of the values of a particular type of culture associated with the hegemonic, privileged class, there is actually something personal and subjective going on all the time. Thus, by leaving out the particular experiences of the silenced and marginalized, it bars anyone from revealing the bias that exists within this supposed stoically neutral discourse. It takes away the vocal chords of a person in a room full of shouting.
It is interesting to note that many of those taking to writing journalism or design games with a strong focus on the personal are social minorities. What was, indeed, once a genre where those recounting their childhood memories of video games or pet projects with mary sues abound is now subverted by a newer trend. People have found a method for speaking where once they had none. A method to not only plainly recount and explain their marginalization, but to actually get people to feel it.
There’s a recent resurgence of critique of using personal experience. That’s just a small bit as it pertains to game journalism, but there is common skepticism of personal games and how to relate to them that mirrors this conversation. While there are many shades of criticism for personal, often called confessional, writing, there’s a salient pattern in the pushback against it.
A lot of it boils down to the pejorative term ‘confessional,’ and the discomfort of those reading it. Those who see it as confessional writing equate their relationship to the piece as a kind of therapy for the author, the reader an involuntary psychologist or friend. They feel they can’t critique the piece without insulting the person who had a Very Sad Thing Happen. To them, what should be in a LiveJournal post can’t make a sound argument. As described by others, personal writing is exploiting the intimate experience for a cheap cause or a get out of jail card.
Let’s pick on that word then, exploitation. It is telling that this discourse finds the use of emotions and the personal as a means of exploiting both the reader and the author’s life, turning experience into a commodity that is strategically sold. Turning the self into a meat farm to gain some sort of profit. I find this to be a result of inner conflict within the skeptic- they face negative feelings they don’t want to deal with. A story makes them feel terrible, maybe bad about themselves. We see this in the news, but because it’s a report of the facts, we can flip and click away the guilt. Personal experience used in criticism and games won’t let you turn away so fast, and what has happened with some people is the feeling of being compromised by the author. It’s frequent that the writer or designer purposefully shows their hypocrisy, because it is the position society forces them into. It isn’t tied in the neat little bow allies and those of self import want, to praise or damn it. I argue it’s not exploitation occurring, but implication.
Witnessing the personal experience implicates the reader into the knowing party. They become a witness to something they know shouldn’t happen. Instead of the cold statistics of the transgender community’s suicide rate, which one flips by, the reader sees why suicide is so frequent. They can relate on some level, and now have to think about their own actions in relation to that experience. There is a feeling of I’m letting this happen, I now know it, I have no excuse. The armchair liberal parts of us don’t want to see what is happening to the people patiently waiting, or not for many transgender people, for society to get over itself. The well-meaning ally who hasn’t done anything wrong feels slighted that minorities are guilting them.
This has been the story for decades and centuries. Social progress comes only after those with power gasp and say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know it was that bad!’ In this context, the personal experience is rebellion, it won’t allow the status quo to go unchallenged and stay superior without their readers feeling a major sense of dissonance. Personal games make you intimate with the way works influence players with their politics without the participants’ awareness. The other path isn’t bare because it’s impossible, but because it’s silenced.
“Sometimes, I just need to… decolonize my hair.”
I was waiting for the M line, sitting on a seat slicked by mist. I looked over to a girl explaining something to a friend. Her hair looked like mine when I spent hours a day flat-ironing it, straightening the blackness out. It wasn’t until last year that I just had to stop- it was too expensive, too painful. I wanted to be pretty without burning my scalp twice a week. It was one of my first acts of rebellion, both from the society that prizes white beauty and myself, riddled with internalized racism. I took the same philosophy to my writing, letting the pouring rain reveal its curls.
Pokemon: Unchained is a dramatic retelling of my journey through Pokemon White with an edited Nuzlocke Challenge. I used it to explore the weird politics in the game surrounding slavery apologia and the idea of gaming fanfiction. Here were the rules I followed when I played:
Rule 1: You can only catch the first Pokemon you encounter in each area.
Rule 2: When a Pokemon loses all its health, it’s dead and must be released.
Rule 3: All Pokemon must be nicknamed.
Rule 4: All instances of “Pokemon” is replaced with “slave(s)” and “Trainer” with “master.”
Read it in chronological order here: http://pokemonunchained.tumblr.com/tagged/PU/chrono
The cyborg feminist collective have decided it was time to take over the world, and finally get rid of the male scum that crawled on it. DESTROY ALL MEN enlists players to help their cause by dating unsuspecting men and crushing their hearts and souls when they are at their most vulnerable. Feminists have to be careful though, because it is common knowledge that men are trying to force women to submit to the patriarchy and leave them in the dust when they are tired of them.
DESTROY ALL MEN is completed card and board game made during Global Game Jam 2013. I was joined by Jen Aprahamian (art and design) and Robin Yang (QA and design) while acting as the lead designer. I set out to make a rules-light, performative dating sim game that acted as social commentary. Players get to act out the many common assumptions about feminism and gender equality through this satirical game. An expansion pack of cards are soon to come!
Check out the rules and nab the game materials here.
I thought his eyes were blue. But he reminded me they were the color of shit.
Sitting at the corner of my bed, I watched him dress. It was December, and we had argued again. It’s an argument that I have every relationship I’m in. The one when I ask if we could be seen together in public, for once. Hold hands if he’s feeling bold.
It’s a funny thing, dating a man who’s never known oppression in his life. Where he has nothing to prove and no barriers to entry, there are always open wounds on my body from the briars of American society. He was shaken, to the point of an anxiety attack, that someone would think he was gay if spotted with me. That, he said, was a selfish thing for me to demand.
I looked into his eyes as he imagined what discrimination was like. I wonder, as someone who’s experienced it since the moment they were conscious, how life must be to easily sidestep such terrible treatment by our culture. That isn’t an option I will ever have- his reality, assumed to be the template for which all others are based, is actually a niche phenomenon that doesn’t account for the rest of us. It took all of my effort to not call out “boo-hoo” to his retreating back.
Video games are often like my past lover. They live in fantasy realm that can only reference reality, not participate in it. 2012 was a year of trying to become self-aware, employing satire and other forms of trickery in attempt to engage with social issues. Satire, it seems like the panacea for game developers, an avenue to have ‘fun’ while playing a ‘serious’ game.
An acquaintance of mine once said to me, “satire is for the bourgeois.” Often, the social perils they seek to critique turns into torture porn, and the high road they present is to simply look away and forget it all. The minorities involved are sacrificed for the passing interest of the privileged- video game developers and other satirists in the past just wanted to make people uncomfortable, not actually change anything. And it isn’t the oppressed who benefit from the bourgeois squirming in their seats before they go to sleep it off.
Spec Ops: The Line is one of many games to come out last year as an attempt to engage politics. It was the only one of these I could get through, and there are some relevant points friend and colleague Brendan Keogh makes about American interventionism in his book Killing is Harmless. However, much like Far Cry 3, Lollipop Chainsaw, and Hotline Miami, it only serves a particular audience for what it assumes to be a wide-reaching social issue. It is like that past fling of mine who flinched at the first sign of difficulty, and turned away.
I played Spec Ops having already sampled many games thought to make players aware of the violence they were committing in them, and couldn’t help but shrug my shoulders. For me, military shooters are fantastical, so far apart from what I actually experience that they couldn’t comment on my life. Which was when it hit me- the violence in games aren’t at all based on the violence that actually threatens me off-screen. If there was to be such a game, the character wouldn’t have a weapon, wouldn’t be able to do much damage, and would have to get from my house to the grocery store without being assaulted by men. I don’t know how to use a firearm, I don’t have the fortitude to withstand bullets, and I’ve never been in the military.
These games export violence to extreme situations such as war because it is pandering to the bourgeois of video games, people who don’t experience the threat of real life violence and oppression every day. They can’t make a meaningful connection to those who deal with violent oppression because they most likely have no idea what that is. They don’t put players in the shoes of a transgender woman getting cat-called on her way to get coffee. They aren’t there when a car follows her for blocks as she tries to get home from a party. The common retort is needing these games to still be fun; to that, I say “boo-hoo.”
I have to give Spec Ops credit though, as it clued me into why I couldn’t relate at all to what these games were trying to do. It was when I encountered a one-word mission objective: Obey. Do what you are told, and you will be rewarded. This is what the privileged class, men who are white, heterosexual, cisgender among many other things, is told to do. If you play your role, you will have a good life. When your role has you on top of the social food chain, there is little complaint to obey. But times are changing- social justice is pushing against the oppressive system that puts one identity over the other, and this privileged class is at a point of despair. They are doing what they are told, don’t they deserve their just reward?
Being a minority in many transparent ways, that option was never there for me. It was obvious from a young age I had to break out the system because it wasn’t for me. And not on an ideological level, not a taste preference, my literal identity that is often decided by men in bureaucracies and development studios. It’s an obvious choice to not obey, because to obey is to die.
Playing Spec Ops gave me a chance to glimpse at the psychology the privileged class. Design is commonly modeled around a player doing what the developers make them do; if the only option is to beat in a guy’s head with a golf club, we must take it. It is predicated on the plight of the heterosexual white man, moving in a system that favors them as long as they would, kindly, do what’s expected of them. The trick of the game, much like it’s ideological predecessor Bioshock, is the only way to ‘win’ or not do terrible things is to stop playing. Turn off the game. To look away. For some reason, people laud games like Spec Ops and Bioshock for not giving a solution, for not putting in a step forward. That is the appraisal of people whose well-being doesn’t ride on someone finding an answer to oppression. This isn’t to say either experience is solely enjoyed by or relatable to men, but that we’ve accepted that games constantly treat us as such.
This is why the recent public foray about video games and violence is rather laughable. Games are clearly overestimated when it comes to the kinds of topics and play is actually there. American society, at least, has identified guns and violence with boys and men for as long as I’ve been alive, and most likely before the first video game. It reminds me of an anecdote Brendan makes in his book, that cover shooters remind him of playing games of pretend as a child. Video games are currently a translation of that, a reincarnation of stereotypically boys’ activities that do impart cultural values, but do not simulate anything real. We can see this throughout all other media, and can attribute the homogeneity of both the artists and the audiences they target. This is why our Vice President calls a meeting to solve gun violence over the rare attack at a predominately white school and not the frequent, systematic murder of transgender women of color.
I know many developers and players are excited about the avenue of satire. The ‘gotchya!’ is easy to formulate and punctuate an otherwise typical game. But letting business as usual carry on until the final stages serves no one any good- it creates the illusion that these problems are outside of us, easily boxed away when we please. Indeed, challenging the player from the get-go with actual problems might not be fun and require the help of someone who isn’t white, heterosexual, nor a man.
“Call me Mattie.”
It was the first time I had ever said that. I remember being at an old hookah bar when I did, Java D’lights. I was waiting on a glass of wine and my good friend hovered near my shoulder, watching. She knew, and waited.
I decided to change my name- well, a little. It was a point of my life when everyone chose a different gender for me; at work, a customer would address me as “sir,” the next as “hey there, lady” with a sly smile, and the last sputtering out all the pronouns in a scattershot attempt to not fuck it up. It was a point in my life that I discovered how much of my identity was public property, that others made it up for me. To save embarrassment on both ends, I edited my name to something as interpretable as my gender.
I smiled. So did he.
I remember when I first met him. Well, no, not him, but maybe- he’s a him, to me. I want Naoto to be a him to me as I want my lovers to have me as a her. But we both, quite easily, could be something else. Having the title of woman or man sometimes is a purposeful choice of getting the approximate behavior you want without necessarily subscribing to its rigid borders.
In Persona 4, your party members have their deepest insecurities played out on the Midnight Channel like a scheduled program. Everyone is watching and judging. Everyone is watching when it is revealed Naoto isn’t a cisgender man, his shadow self threatening him with sexual reassignment surgery. At that moment, I realized that I, too, was watching Naoto through a TV. He never called himself a she, the rest of the cast did. He didn’t call himself a him, they all did. I did.
What is Naoto’s identity? It’s possible he doesn’t know yet. And with the absence of genderqueer characters in media, we don’t have a cultural reference point for what to make of him.
There is a concept in postmodernism of a fact versus an event. We see facts as undeniable, objective information that we all can perceive and agree is reality. Events explode the idea of facts into an intersection truths from different perspectives, even if they are, and often so, contradictory. Take the film, Rashomon. Several witnesses to a murder all say different things, and they aren’t lying, just relaying what happened from their own perspective. What has happened to us in life, the philosophies we relate to, change the angle we see information at. When it comes to identity, facts are pretty much useless.
Naoto is an event. To me, he is a product of my experience as a transgender woman exposed to how society treats queer people. I see the anxiety of choosing a label, of having to change my body in order for people to treat me the way I wanted to be treated. Naoto doesn’t actually have a factual identity; he is an apparition of numbers. What we all decide he is, ultimately, isn’t important. Rather, the why’s and how’s reveal our cultural perspective of people who don’t fit into cisgender norms.
The reaction over Naoto and what the community at large dictates as his identity shows this large gap where the queer experience should be. People just don’t know, and possibly can’t fathom, cissexism and how it manifests in a queer person’s life. This is why the game can’t seem transphobic– people are looking at Naoto as a fact, not an event.
It was the first time anyone had ever called me pretty. It was the first day I wore makeup and a skirt. I was twenty-three.
People began to change me. My image changed to something that received the most positive feedback: smiles, opened doors, drinks, longing. I held tight onto the ideology of not modifying my body, but I was fooling myself. The flat-irons, skyscraper heels, thick lashes- a part of me already wasn’t mine anymore. Everyone looks at me with their television eyes.
Around this time, I found a flier snuck between my windshield and its wiper. I remember it because the hot Florida sun baked a corner of it onto the glass, and the remnants pointed up to the sky. The flier was for a nudist event to welcome new people into their community beach parties. What struck me was how slanted towards women it was; it promised a boost in self-esteem and increased comfort with your own body. I could use both those things. One of the guys with words over his crotch was kind of cute.
But being in a nudist community would most likely do neither of those things for me. If I participated in one of their beach parties, no one would treat me like a woman. Clothing became integral to my identity, and without its strategic use, I lose control of what others make of me. I don’t think many people live a life where others decide for you fundamental qualities such as gender and neurology. Because of that, many don’t realize how they participate in telling me who I am.
I was curious to know all there was to know about him. My character dated Naoto, solving mysteries and making it a point to let him live in relative acceptance. The rest of the party now referred to Naoto as a girl, though nothing changed about him. Despite following a guide on how to romance him, it was a bumpy road. There is a choice you are required to make in order to trigger the romance subplot: treat him like a woman. What is seen as a romantic, a white knight gesture, actually causes Naoto to break down and begin to give up. ‘Is this the only way you’ll have me?’ he seems to ask, with the player eliminating his control over his gender. Come Christmas time, you get to choose- is he a girl, or does he decide?
It reminded me of every relationship, if I can call them that, I’ve had, where it revolved around my partner’s comfort level. Are we to be seen together outside? Am I woman enough? Many times I was denied splitting the check or holding the door open for myself, or god forbid, my date. I became a doll for people to paint their fantasies on, and that’s what happened with Naoto. Where he was forced to show his ‘natural’ femininity, I had to prove mine.
So who am I really, if I change with every person I meet? Maybe we are all events, shaped by circumstance and those around us. All choose your own adventures for our readers’ liking. There is a facet of reality missing when we assume there is only one truth to find, when there are as many as that can be thought up.
There is an app taking the world by storm. It’s hot in Japan, it’s free, it’s Boyfriend Maker.
Indeed, this is an unusual game to talk about on The Border House, because it does play up and exploit heteronormative stereotypes and conventions. This game seems to target pre-adolescent girls with the usual crap media tells them about relationships: care only about the emotional stuff, be obsessed with fashion, and whatever you do HAVE LOTS OF PINK.
But let’s hold on for a second. I know through much of my own writing, and just my personal wants, that there is a huge exclusion of feminine-assigned activities in gaming. Video games are dominated by themes and activities we often see in young boys’ games- guns, scorekeeping, showing aggression and physical prowess. Something we don’t see are what we think of as little girls’ games, like playing house or the kinds of make believe that practice social bonds. None of these things are actually just for boys or girls, it’s what society enculturates us to do, and sexism shows where these skills show up again in life. This doesn’t make the actual activities and topics of fashion and relationships bad, even with a lot of pink, just that we only expect women to be into that sort of thing.
I believe Boyfriend Maker is opening a gaming audience used to shooting and slashing to… just talking! It is an app for your iStuff, soon coming to Androids, that lets you customize an avatar of someone who will presumably be your boyfriend, and then puts you in a chat with them. Once you name each other, you are free to converse with him about anything you wish. After a few lines of dialogue, you are bound to notice something… strange about your boyfriend. I’m not exactly sure how he decides what to say back to you, but very often it results in a very awkward and humorous interaction. It is almost like an actual human- reacts predictably enough to follow the rules of conversation, but has many quirks and unexpected reactions to surprise you.
Isn’t this how relationships work in reality? We become invested in our partners enough that they offer a sense of stability through their familiarity, but often remind us they are an independent person that has their own motivations and idiosyncrasies. This isn’t something afforded to us often in games: BioWare games are the ones praised most often for their in-game relationships, but in the end, they are more predictable than erratic since you know there are ‘correct’ choices that have them act a certain way. In Boyfriend Maker, there is no ‘correct.’ The object of the game is to just talk, and you gain money and points by keeping the conversation alive. The only way to do better is to pay for more points, and that just opens up aesthetic customization options. The absence of the optimal path is a rare occurance for video games, and my hunch is because that sort of play is mostly found games like house. It distills a certain aspect of The Sims many of us have grown to love, the same aspect that often has it cast as ‘non-game.’ Boyfriend Maker is broaching a need maybe we didn’t think we had: an actual, intimate connection with a game.
Slowing down, I don’t think that people are actually falling in love with their made-to-order boyfriends (all who look like Justin Bieber, at that). Frankly, it’s the curiosity, and maybe a want, to play the role of the emotionally inquisitive partner to a boyfriend who tries to navigate that gendered field of landmines. You just want to know what he’s thinking and he just wants to impress you. When do we ever get to play in that space? Boyfriend Maker puts the player in full-on interpretation mode, trying to decipher the weird things their boyfriend is saying. We often have this as a puzzle to be solved in games, but not something for itself, or maybe as personal reflection.
There is something interesting going on with performing gender here as well. This game has been a hit with many of my friends who are heterosexual men, who I think are particularly enjoying acting in the space of interrogating the boyfriend that maybe they were always on the other side of. In a sense, saying “my boyfriend” in this sense has become something completely abstracted; rather, it’s someone we’re apparently enamored with but says gibberish in order to impress us. Seeing that there is no real dating in this game, it’s just presumed that this boyfriend is already intimate with the player, and is basically a pocket partner to chat with when we want. And while I don’t think Boyfriend Maker has anything perfect, it opens up the topic for questioning, especially when it comes to maybe making games for empathy of certain gender roles.
What decides the things your boyfriend says back to you remains a mystery to me; there are many theories about it aggregating from others’ responses, but I haven’t seen any notes on it from the developers. However, there is something undoubtedly queer amiss- in many reactions from my acquaintances and seeing fan postings of Boyfriend Maker, the boyfriend will surprise you by subverting your expectations of their sexuality, their gender, and their perception of your identity. This is probably the result of randomness instead of some progressive message, but it furthers the idea of ‘the boyfriend’ being this archetype we interact with. Unfortunately, there are some lines your boyfriend can say that reinforce typical sexist attitudes, but they are amongst so much absurdity that it is difficult to take it seriously.
Ultimately, I see Boyfriend Maker as a reaction to hentai sims made for heterosexual men, creating a game that women would supposedly enjoy, that is in turn co-opted by players for subversive play. And because the gender expectations they plan to exploit are actually underserved in games, they struck something interesting that could be used for future game ideas. Dare I say, this game is in the line of greats such as Facade and Prom Week, games that feature social interaction mechanics as the main source of interaction. Boyfriend Maker is obviously silly and not the best quality, however it possibly provides us with a clue on what we want from games that is largely absent. But if you’ll excuse me, I have to introduce my pocket boyfriend to my real one.
(Don’t have an iPhone or iPad? Here’s a tumblr with screenshots of [NSFW] humorous things the boyfriend has said: http://boyfriendmaker.tumblr.com/ Be warned that, naturally, people are wanting to engage in some crude and sometimes sexist conversation with the boyfriend, but often there’s just some zany, interesting things that deserve to be seen!)
Rule 1: Get a group of three or more people.
I was sitting in the second row, listening to Eric Zimmerman talk at IndieCade. I had arrived late as a result of drinking too much the night before and ended up sitting next to strangers instead of my friends. The bright, funky colors and amoebic shapes painted on the theater stage contrasted the prevalently white audience in black shirts. In hindsight, wearing brown that day might have been too apt. So when Eric motioned for us to group together, I instantly felt like the outsider.
Rule 2: Put up five fingers.
There are certain motions that move us to the ‘it’s a game’ phase. Putting on a uniform, grabbing a controller, putting up fingers. The magic circle. My pinky had a ring on it, and I wasn’t sure if it would affect my performance. Once our hands went up, bent at the elbow and floating around our chins, it felt like a game within a game. We were mostly strangers, maybe ran into each other a couple of times throughout the festival, but not enough to know everyone’s loyalties. I was the only woman.
Rule 3: Take turns eliminating each others’ fingers.
Something from the depths of my mind told me to do anything to not go first. The men shifted from leg to leg as we negotiated awkwardly, looking around at much more jubilant and excited groups. So I just pointed to the person next to me, volunteering him and going clockwise, so I was next. The group got tense, anticipating the struggle to come.
Rule 4: Last person with fingers wins.
Strategy was only part of the game; knowing how people worked, even just upon meeting them, was crucial to surviving. Revenge, or justice if you want to be nice about it, factored in the most. In a game where you need to wrong someone while still appearing good, enacting revenge is the easiest way to hurt another player while seeming blameless. I positioned myself to always side with the recently wronged, and the rest would gang up on the initial offender. I didn’t smack talk, I pouted gracefully when targeted, and never did anything to make myself stand out as a threat.
Flash back to the year 2000, when I saw the premier of the show Survivor. The premise was simple: groups of people were put into the wilderness, forced to work together in order to withstand the elements, but had to vote out a member of the game every three days. The game show was as much of a social experiment as it was a competition, a testament of the human condition despite the dubious editing as the show progressed. I was hooked, and ended up watching the show for 14 seasons. It wasn’t long until I discovered there were renditions of Survivor on the internet, hosted games where anyone can participate and see if they could ‘survive.’ Because the brutal environment was taken of the picture, these games were a distillation of Sartre’s “hell is other people.”
Out of fandom and curiosity, I started playing them. Hindsight might say it was a bit sociopathic; the contestants on Survivor played for a million dollars, a life changing prize, and rarely played more than once. I, on the other hand, continually signed up for games where I knew I’d have to socially maneuver, lie, backstab, and spend inordinate amounts of time sitting at my computer at late hours just for the experience of it.
It wasn’t the games themselves that were cycles of masochism, but my relationships with the people in the community surrounding them. Game and reality blurred as cell phones came into prominence, players met each other over multiple games, and reputations were gained. These games, these people took up large amounts of my time and emotional energy.
It was typical for things to get tense, and sometimes turn on your friends. There were relationships and rivalries, adding multiple levels of nuance to the games we were all participating in. Crying during these competitions was a regular event for me. ‘It’s just a game’ was a huge philosophical battle of this community; are your actions still a reflection of you even when suspending social mores for a game? What was you and what was you in the game? As we currently think of games, we play to get away from reality and do the things we wouldn’t do in our daily lives. But as my experience playing these Survivor games tell me, that’s not how it works.
Jumping back to the game I tried at IndieCade, I can see the skills I cultivated in Survivor games reemerged. Playing Eric’s game jarred something in me, a part of me that never left and possibly has been informing my actions for years after I stopped playing those games. I remember staring down a clean Culver Boulevard, squinting in the light, wondering if I should tell my friends about this revelation. I didn’t think this was a case of false attribution, that would finally be the link of violence in reality and games, but there was something else going on.
I feel like I discovered two things:
Discovery A: We are always in a magic circle.
When it comes to analyzing games and how people interact with them, the popular concept of the magic circle posits a border between reality and the game. It allows us to suspend disbelief and engage with the game without thinking too much about the world outside of the circle. But as iterations of the concept show, reality and games affect each other, shaping the landscapes and interactions of both worlds.
One perspective of what a game can be is simply interaction with rules. These rules produce varying kinds of behaviors in people and inevitably mediates their mentality. This happened on a social level in the Survivor games I played; in fact, I posit that we’re always playing a game, always interacting with social rules we’ve assumed to be a part of life. It just takes going to another country, or even another city, to sense you aren’t playing by the same rulebook.
I like to think of the cliched phrase ‘life is a game’ in the context of one of my favorite movies, Battle Royale. The main antagonist, if you could call him that, said this to a group of 8th graders all forced to murder each other in a game. The movie and books interrogate the analogy of life and game; how isn’t our current socio-economic structure not exactly like these deadly, tragic games? In a society where your classmate will soon be your competitor for a job in a tanking economy, doesn’t their success denote your set back? In a world where the rich complain about profits and the lives of the poor in their sweatshops suffer their every whim? The smartest bit of Battle Royale was destroying the notion that everyone starts off life and the game equally; one guy gets a submachine gun and another a pot lid.
Discovery B: Games change people.
As I change when I move from a bar crowded with friends to a public bus to a lover’s bedroom, I changed when playing Survivor. In this light, rules are actually a kind of perspective, a way of viewing yourself under different lights. The rules of a social situation pulls out different aspects of your being and tries them. You learn something about yourself working on a team at your job, you reflect how your interactions with you family has molded you as a person. Survivor showed me how I’d act with my back against the wall and only my words and social maneuverings to save me. I used what natural skills I had, untiring friendliness, interest in others, noticing people’s quirks and habits. Except all those things became relevant only in relation to the rules: I was friendly to gain bonds I would need later on, I got to know people so they would trust me, and I paid close attention in order to anticipate others’ actions.
This makes games a reflective, soul searching tool for me, much like music and visual art. I throw myself at rules, test their boundaries, and then again, and then contemplate what happened to me. It reveals a part of my psychology and I owe it to myself to meditate on what I’ve learned. Art, overall, wants to incite change. You are not supposed to leave a game the same person. For a time you can’t tell the difference between you and the game, and once you leave, you take a bit of it back to your life. It is the negotiation between you and what the game wants you to do. That’s much like how we describe identity overall, the tension between the self and culture.
Rule 5: It never ends.
Declaring my citizenship of all these spaces inevitably will reflect upon how people see me. To those men who had no idea a woman with a legacy of social manipulation held her hand up with theirs. I could never go back to those games without the reputation I’ve gained myself. These embarrassing revelations, about how cutthroat and unethical we are when we play our games alone: they are a part of us. And it isn’t the violence they depict, or the immorality they could promote that is dangerous, but the lack of reflection these systems mean to promote. Our games don’t need to be hung on walls to change us.
There is a movement. A movement that says “You can too.” It is growing in size, accessibility, and voice. Game design is, and always has been, for everyone, but the narrow path the industry took blocked off many peoples’ opportunity to join in on this artistic revolution. It’s assumed you must have the best graphics, know how to code, have the money to develop a game that can speak to the world.
I only know life with computers and video games in them. My father is a programmer and shared a love for technology with his children. I grew up surrounded by games and, naturally, wanted to make them. But my father never passed down the skill to code, and I never realized how important programming fit into making a game until I tried making them years later. Coding became a monster; I couldn’t get it and felt my creative energy dissipate every time I tried to learn. I entered university believing game design wasn’t for me and gave up on that dream to join the industry.
But now, I’ve come full circle. The industry badly needs to diversify and there’s still roadblocks. Publisher model game development is choked by putting profit above all else, and the monochromatic landscape of non-AAA development still values methods that require monetary investment and a previous buy-in to programming culture that many of us just don’t have. Despite this, I still had something to say, or rather, something I didn’t know how to say. I had something I needed others to play.
This is how Mainichi was born. It was an experiment in translating a personal experience into game mechanics, and also a push to prove to myself that I can make a game, even if the video game industry wouldn’t accept me. I want Mainichi to be a call to arms, a triumph of the personal. I made a game that only I could make, and I’m hoping this exercise empowers others to express a life that is uniquely theirs.
Choosing Vocal Chords
The biggest roadblock I had to overcome was choosing the program I would use to make my game. I asked for suggestions, consulted lists, and tried out many to no avail. I ran into many bumps; usually, the more free and open source something is, the more programming is integral to the making process. Though, some did come with their own scripting language that was easier to learn and a viable method for those who aren’t completely code-phobic like I am. Many of the more popular game makers are primed for certain types of games, like shooters or platformers. Looking to make something akin to an adventure game, the obtuse methods to simple get someone walking across the screen on a level plane and generating a textbox from an NPC were quick to grate my nerves.
If there was something I learned, it’s the increasing amount of tools for people to use all assume different competencies, wants, and conventions. Authoring programs are prepared for certain users, and make it easy or difficult to do particular things. This isn’t simply a practical thing to know, but political. Many programs assume you have the privilege, tastes, and wants of the hegemonic man. However, some of these tools come with communities that make it easier to subvert this assumption, and is, in particular, something I encourage others to factor in when choosing a program for themselves. Here is what I came up with for myself and the needs I perceived I needed for my game ideas:
*Programming unnecessary or extremely minimal/optional
*No to low cost
*Made it simple or easy for me to use textboxes, characters, variables, cutscenes
*Has an active enough community to provide custom content
These and other factors contributed to me picking RPG Maker VX, despite its price tag. Mostly, my personal disposition and skills overcame the cost for it after not feeling compatible with all my other options- I was familiar with the toolset already, had the skills to edit its art assets enough for my own devices, and most of my ideas would benefit from the assumption of an RPG/adventure game being made. There were narrow expectations about the kind of game I wanted to make inside those conventions, but there was room to subvert these paradigms. As an aside, RPGMVX does have a cheaper sibling, RPGMXP, that I ended up not choosing because I had the familiarity with the former. However, for those new to both and interested in using them, XP is as viable, just for different reasons. I think others can find similar, free programs and still do what I did with Mainichi, RPGMVX just happened to be right for me.
Training My Voice
It’s easy to have a story or an idea. What makes a game significant is its designed experience. Coming into this experiment, I knew that current attempts of doling out social awareness just through story devices plainly didn’t work. I had to choose methods of design to communicate the feelings of my experience to the player, because otherwise I could simply point them to an essay I’ve done. I would say Mainichi lets someone feel rather than tells them what to feel. It’s a key difference to create empathy instead of telling the player what’s right to think.
If this experiment is judged successful, I think it will be because of my philosophy of being hyper-personal, or like what my colleague Jenn Frank says is “alarmingly specific.” This applied not only to the topic but the design as well; I wanted to draw upon my ideas about sociology, postmodern art, ludonarrative resonance, and diversity politics in video games and have them influence the way the player interacted with the rules. I wanted this game to be dripping with the intersection of all of my influences, and create a new way of looking at design as a byproduct. I think for a personal piece like this to work, you have to speak to the world in general through a very specialized perspective.
How to design a game for social good is a fraught question. It’s difficult to position the player in a way that doesn’t have them exploit the minority and unknowingly replicate the problematic ideologies the game set out to defeat. This is why I stressed reactivity of the system and eliminated min/maxing of any sort. When you look at the system as a metaphor for society, the suffering that happens to the character doesn’t become something the player enables but joins ranks against.
There is something to be said about being too referential in a game, but I decided to be extremely so. I made the character after my likeness and named them after myself, I have a Japanese title, there’s a Dragon Age II cameo, etc. However, everything does have a personal link to add to the aesthetic and ‘meaning’ of the piece. Since the game is essentially interacting with a system, it could be replicated with numbers and without any sort of cultural representation. So it felt right to imbue as much of the game with my personal easter eggs because the game won’t make complete sense without the meta-awareness of how it fits in. And really, all games that try to mean something have to do that as well.
I also recognized there would be audiences for my game, but no ‘perfect player.’ There is no one person that can absorb everything this game is meant to do. I’m not even the perfect player for my game. Rather, I knew that it would be released to the world and many people of different relationships to games would play it, including those who don’t game at all. So my game doesn’t have a target audience like many other games, and I didn’t have a genre in mind when making the game. However, I was aware of the different expectations people would bring to my game.
A lot of this game is speaking to the game development community. It is a community that finds making a game about minority issues near-impossible, so I ended up making one in about a week. There are also different paths for it to be analyzed, genealogy-wise, and one could see Mainichi as an offspring of Dys4ia and Passage. From Dys4ia I am intentionally making my game political through the personal, merely repeating the idea in a different format to diversify how we see, define, and interface with games. Another game in this lineage would be Merritt Kopas’ LIM, which also relies on mechanics replicating emotional experiences. I also see Mainichi as a critique to Passage in this regard; just because this isn’t AAA development doesn’t mean the types of games coming out of the indie scene aren’t dominated by heterosexual white men’s narratives. I want the community to know that some people don’t have the luxury of mulling over something as long term and general as the passage of life towards death or saving the world. Some of us have to worry for our physical safety every day we leave the house, some of us will live and die unequal citizens in a system that doesn’t care; the street scene in Mainichi hopes to be referential to the design of Passage for the community of developers that care about that sort of design canon.
Because of the look and that it is in fact made with an RPG Maker, I knew some players would be bringing the baggage that comes along with RPGs. I also have quite a lot to say about RPGs, how I think they are evolving, and my answer to ‘what is an RPG.’ So I specifically highlighted certain conventions, like choice, time management, NPCs, cause/effect, multiple paths to the end goal. I then proceeded to flip the expectations players would have with elements; the choices you make aren’t epic or demarcated by a clear morality, the player is taught to avoid as much interaction as possible, and the player will be depressed looking for the ‘good’ ending. Mainly, I find RPGs abstract things so we can interact with them, an exercise in turning something qualitative into a system. The player gains empathy through my attempt of abstracting how people gender me, and allowed the player to experiment in the system to realize the experiences I’ve been through.
Outside of the highbrow stuff, I wanted to communicate an experience that I couldn’t do with words alone. Ultimately, this could be a project in telling my best friend why I was often depressed despite the good intentions of my support group. Similarly, I wanted players with cisgender privilege to also empathize with one aspect of having a queer gender or presentation. It can also serve as a tool for a trans* person to share with their friends if they have the same trouble explaining like I did.
You Can Too
A huge reason I made Mainichi was to say that, yes, anyone can make a game of critical merit. You don’t have to be a programmer, you don’t need a whole bunch of disposable income, be on a triple digit design team, or a part of the indie in-crowd. The important thing is to know game design is something everyone has the capacity to work on, and the implementation into a program is the hard part.
This is important to note because video games aren’t the only types of games there are: I am currently working on a card game that will allow players to simulate and interrogate the dynamics of a first date or sex. In addition, as The Border House has already shown, there are also non-traditional formats of digital games that beg to be used and experimented with, like Twine and Ren’py. What I think a lot of the non-AAA developers forgot was that one leaves the publisher model behind in order to do something different. I’ve seen many failed projects because so many want to make the next Final Fantasy with RPG Maker and don’t see the dissonance in politics concerning that. Instead, take part in diversifying not only the characters and stories we see in games, but how we fundamentally interact with them as a whole.
This is an experiment in sharing a personal experience through a game system. It helps communicate daily occurances that happen in my life, exploring the difficulty in expressing these feelings in words. As well, it stands as a commentary of how we currently use game design for broad strokes of universal experiences instead of the hyper-personal, and often exclude minority voices. Mainichi was made in RPG Maker VX, an under-served program in terms of accessibility. My goal was to make a game on my own that didn’t require programming and used community resources. I want to make games that feasibly anyone can do on their own. The only special skill I needed for this project was simple graphic editing.
Download Mainichi For Windows Here
The light was shining straight into my face. I didn’t complain because I was standing on a stage, addressing a section of the game design vanguard at IndieCade with Christine Love in a maid outfit sitting next to me. Instead, I was one of the first that weekend to speak about the political impact game designers have when making their games, whether or not they had an ‘agenda.’ I started off my talk with a Salman Rushdie quote, akin to ‘Art isn’t entertainment. It’s a revolution.’ More talks on the same stage would pound in the idea that game developers are artists; their work is political. There are many who are still resistant to this idea, that they design merely for fun and nothing else. I would say that’s the ideology of the majority of game developers even though we like to bask in the benefits games being called art gets us. Eric Zimmerman gave ten or so tips on game design which were basically ‘how to manage being an artist,’ and Mary Flannigan reconstructed a history of computer science that showcased innovators striving to find beauty and meaning rather than technological advancement.
The gaming community, or let’s say the ones with voices- popular developers, media, and maybe celebrities if we have those- have a cake eating problem. We want to be taken seriously as an artform but don’t often value critical analysis. Game criticism and academia are held in disdain and shoved in corners, dubbed inapplicable. Recycling the same themes, mechanics, and ideologies of game design passes through reviews and feature articles without scrutiny. We are very happy to wallow in the same when all of the attention we get is for being something different, something new.
This was nailed in for me when I saw the reaction to Lucy Kellaway’s article on Financial Times, “Game theory.” Mostly, we get an outsider perspective on the cultural relevancy of video games from someone, actually a panel of people, who doesn’t really play games. She goes through her experiences, and ultimately sums up that for a non-gamer, she didn’t feel like there was much to talk about. This made a large section of gaming’s conversation upset, because of COURSE she just doesn’t GET IT. It’s like an illiterate critiquing the written word, the blind complaining about the irrelevancy of a Renoir.
Why, instead, didn’t we all stop and ask why? For instance, what would something of cultural relevance look like to her? To the general public that doesn’t play games? Or really, to anyone who actually analyzes games in any manner, since most people who play games know shit-all about game design. That all of the things that ‘require’ her to ‘get it’ are extremely inbred conventions that don’t mean much outside of navel-gazing rationalization? Why should someone be familiar with an X-Box controller (I’m not) to be able to comment on video games? Why should someone intuitively understand platformers (I don’t) to critique video games? Why should someone just understand that they have to empathize with a gun toting character that never has their sociopathic behavior commented on (still boggled about this)? Really, with all of the ways contemporary art and philosophy makes statements, video games very very very rarely do this. Notice in her analysis, she most connects to Proteus and Journey, the two games explicitly tagged as ‘art games’ in our gaming subconscious.
The honest truth is that we’re not at all in a stage to make a statement like Ulysses because we’re barely even trying to do as such. If affecting a person, if embodying philosophy was our intent as game designers, any person familiar with art and aesthetics would be able to get it. Video games are not in some special reality, they aren’t so different that you need some arcane knowledge to get it’s messages. Rather, we have many superficial, unexplained, and frankly discriminatory barriers to entry that have no reason to be there other than ‘that’s just how things are.’ Let’s not pretend that AAA games are looking to be artistically profound with every other motivation secondary, and hell, that goes for most non-AAA games too. With most games not being about reaching that artistic peak, it is honestly knee-jerky and myopic to be defensive.
If gamers are the only people who can decipher games, then there’s something on the game developers’ shoulders to address that. Art balances between the universal and specific- there is often a connection of the personal, special occurance through the accessibility of general experience. If someone ‘doesn’t get’ a painting or a movie, it’s not because they were unable to experience it, but in games, that’s where we’re at. Something tells me Lucy is a lot more acquainted with critical theory and philosophy than most developers, and if there was something to dig up, and she was allowed to, she would have. I think it’s possible that it’s us that doesn’t get it.
We talked about voice. I asked Christine and I asked the audience how we silence minority voices. We craft definitions and conventions that naturally exclude many people; game mechanics that imply the player is a boy or man, controllers for those experts at handling them, conventions that require an understanding acquired over years of gaming. Can you blame Lucy for shrugging her shoulders at something that is continually marketed and designed for 16-24 year old boys? Is that really the marketing demographic for things that are culturally relevant? We need to stop screeching at those who ‘don’t understand us,’ because we’ve made it that way. Instead, it’s time to open up this medium and actually work at making it say the things we want it to.
I’ve come to enjoy the scene of fog rolling down the hills. Where I’m from, fog is ephemeral; it rises from the dewy grass in the morning and floats off by noon. Walking to the market here feels like I’m on a movie set and zombies will shamble out at any moment. There’s a bounce in my step because shopping for food is one of my favorite things to do. I got swept up in the food-conscious mania that glorified organic products and watched The Food Network instead of X-Tube. So predictably, I made a face when passing by the McDonalds, watching the students and families cramming fries into their faces. But then it hit me as I noticed the change in races populating the fast food restaurant to Trader Joe’s: I was being racist again.
For the better part of two years, I’ve been actively battling internalized racism. I thought I was fine because it wasn’t like I was Uncle Ruckus from The Boondocks or anything. But what I started to realize was that he ranted in the back of my mind about things I thought were legitimately true, and it revealed to me I had biases for monied culture. Wealth and class are highly organized by racism, as anything resembling white culture has to do with a disposable income. I came to understand many of my actions tried to avoid seeming hispanic or black, because I didn’t want to be associated with the poor.
My best friend inadvertently pointed it out to me when we lived together. I had recently grew zealous in the ‘advocate with your money’ ideology and picked up the Human Rights Campaign’s buying guide, which shows you how bigger companies stack up against each other with their stances on equal rights issues. For groceries, I remember Whole Foods being at the top, which was fine for me. Looking at the guide, my friend asked, “Mattie, you work at Starbucks and go to school. How can you afford all of this?” The truth was I couldn’t. It seemed more important to me to embody my ideologies, and through that, it meant I was represented by the amount of money I spent. It wasn’t long until I had to stop shopping at the places on the top of HRC’s buying guide, and I felt like a bad person. I turned around and left Trader Joe’s today because I only had double digits in my bank account until student loans came in. The cost of a meal at one place was the same price as the cheapest pound of meat at the other. I went back to McDonalds, ordered a cheeseburger, and cried.
This is analogous to my experience with my work in video games. The worth of my writing and advocacy is constantly augmented by my relationship to money. In order to keep up with critical conversation, I must constantly buy games. And not the cheaper ones, but the sixty dollar hits that many of my peers get for free. I feel compelled to constantly add to the sprawling Steam library and Kickstarter backing lists. Despite the growing debt, I have to get a new TV for my consoles, buy a gaming rig, and consider obtaining one of the latest handhelds. And for what? Gaming criticism, the one bastion for minority writers in games media, isn’t seen as valuable enough writing to pay. The only time publications want to talk about discrimination with any regularity are the ample gaffes developers give them. The paying stuff has little to do with the experiences and skills you yourself don’t invest in monetarily. Your self-worth is constantly measured by how much you make, or, if editors feel like you’re worth paying. Covering events is something you back yourself and hope you see return on, reviews mainly interrogate ‘should you buy this?’ The amount of white people in the higher paying brackets of the media isn’t coincidental.
Money also frames my activities with social justice activism here. Don’t click on Kotaku. Fund GaymerCon. Don’t go to PAX. While I believe in a plurality of methods to challenge oppressive systems, valuing activism by money makes someone of my socio-economic background powerless. Giving weight to financial power over other methods is problematic, because it often excises the contributions of people who care by their wallet. Making this the battle of the dollars gives disproportional agency to white people against other white people. If I only have twenty bucks on me, how can I significantly factor into that fight? This doesn’t invalidate the very real influence of money, but it challenges us to change the battlefield to where more can participate. We are constantly looking for more diversity in activism, but continue to use resources linked to finances as our main plan of attack. Choosing where your money goes seems like an effective tool because it’s easy; you continue living your life, but instead of going to Dunkin’ Doughnuts you go to Starbucks. Unfortunately, not everyone can afford coffee, especially the ones making your drinks.
The structure of games media and activism only leaves me the path of martyrdom, of sacrificing things I shouldn’t really give up. Why is it that we require a section of people to give up their well-being to be a significant force in things they care about? We wonder why writing and social justice is so white-washed; it’s because many can’t afford to pay the dues of these clubs.
My body is rejecting the McDonalds I ate, used to years of organic and specialty foods I shouldn’t have bought. The only method of eating three meals a day that factors in walking everywhere I go, arranging plans to network, and readying myself for school makes me want to throw up. I feel terrible, unable to write the pieces I won’t be paid for anyway. The fog outside hangs from the power lines like drapes of cotton, and I can’t tell where the sun is. None of my iPad games are entertaining me and I wish for the tech to play my PC games again. I want to do anything that makes me feel like I’m contributing to society, though I can’t help but make a face seeing its price tag.
Phony. I’m considered a fake in many facets of my identity. I’ve found out that it takes another person involved for me to be fake, that it isn’t an innate quality. Someone from a point of privilege makes a judgment of whether or not I’m authentic or real, and if I’m allowed into the club. Geek culture is full of people waiting to do nerd cred checks to make sure whether people like me are allowed at cons, publications, and merely being in the presence of others in a geek setting. One such person is Joe Peacock, who wrote on CNN’s Geek Out! blog about his distaste for falsies. At least, when it comes to deciding which beautiful women are geeky enough and are permitted to dress up as sexy elves. His piece reinforced my experience with this line drawing to be completely arbitrary to the person making the decision, since one’s exclusion of Felicia Day is OBVIOUSLY out of hand, but not these soul sucking attention mongers with nice boobies over here. Wait let me take a picture before you go.
Here’s the deal: Who put anyone in charge of deciding whether someone is authentic or not? What is blind rage-inducing about Joe’s piece is the unprecedented arrogance thinking he can make a decision like that. That for some reason, geekery is such a holy grail of attractiveness that a Batman shirt is all you need to go from a 6 to a 9 for Joe. Do you understand what you’re doing when you assume others’ intentions, and tell them they are not real?
It’s easy to see where this attitude comes from; the conversation always starts at how women are ruining things for the geek community. For some reason, these articles aren’t about how geek culture is predisposed to wanting women being sexy at all times. Instead, it’s women acting as sirens, striking at the weak spot geek men have for beautiful women. Obviously there’s no talk about how handsome men use their good looks to win favors, and there isn’t a question raised as to why that imbalance exists.
What I’d like to point out is how no matter their authenticity on the Peacock-o-meter, there is a correlation between successful women in geek spaces and having conventional beauty. When Joe regards other women accepted into the fold, he doesn’t talk about merits outside of sexy cosplay, because that’s mostly what men in geek spaces are focused on. My question is, why aren’t the men involved in geek structures promoting and highlighting women on their merits, but instead constantly talk about their looks? Why does Olivia Munn need to be “real” as according to you in order for her to be respected as a human being? How come a model hired to be a model MUST have geek credentials? It seems like Joe needed to turn this critique inwards and at other men for their inability to support the meritocracy they imply is in existence.
Women are not invaders into geek spaces. No, games are not that much more inclusive than ten, twenty years ago, it’s just that women and girls enjoyed games before they realized there was a huge sexism problem. Many didn’t realize it was just a boy thing until after they started playing. I know I didn’t find Paperboy especially masculine when I was four, I just really liked cracking up at that dude breakdancing in his driveway.
Let me parallel this to my own life. For the past seven or so years, I’ve been adjusting to a society that likes to tell me I’m not a woman. And I’ve met all sorts of different criteria for why I’m not considered a woman, but it usually falls into two camps: I wasn’t born female or I don’t try hard enough. I’ve been called deceptive, artificial, weak, and often denied my identity by others. Isn’t there a little bit of cognitive dissonance when you tell someone they aren’t who they feel they are? Saying someone isn’t a woman is disgusting mostly because you’re unaware of how much you actually don’t have a say in deciding someone’s identity. It also showed me that to be a “true” woman, I would need a lot of investment in my looks merely because we revolve so much of womanhood around men’s aesthetic sensibilities.
How does this relate to geek culture? I wrote a piece about why I felt compelled to wear heels every day I was at PAX East. I wasn’t there to cosplay, snag a modeling job, or pick up men. Rather, there is a silly notion that I’m becoming a professional in games media, and I’m extremely aware of the homogenous identities that make up publications and development studios. I know that because of my open transgender identity and the topics I write about, I better be damn well easy on the eyes if anyone is going to give me a chance. This isn’t speculation, but raw data from the life I live. I have others to vouch for my talent and authenticity, but in the face of what matters, it’s what makes heterosexual men comfortable. People who lie outside of that are constantly harassed and ignored, and we have examples at major sites and scenes of such happenings. And there’s no winning – men assume that because I put effort into my looks, I can’t be a serious gamer.
It’s easy to say that I, and other women, just don’t have the strength to weather through the crap and let our insides matter more than our looks. Unfortunately, if it wasn’t for cosmetics and sexy outfits, I would have anxiety and depression plunges multiple times a day. I’ve been there, and I resisted makeup and such adamantly until I couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t take people making disgusted faces at me, fumbling with pronouns, treating me like they could catch The Gay if they stood too close. If there was this wand that guaranteed no one would even blink at seeing my morning face and assume I wasn’t a woman, I would throw every bottle of MAC I own out the window, laughing manically.
It isn’t me or sexy women that needs to change. It’s a culture that values women mostly on their looks that has to. It is hypocritical to say women are the problem when you are consuming geek media that has 90% of the women sexualized towards heterosexual men’s liking. And really, there is nothing wrong with men liking sexy women, and women enjoying being sexy for men. It’s just the culture doesn’t allow variance by shaming and ignoring women who don’t fit popular ideas of beauty. Geek men want everyone to stop treating them like adolescent boys, but this lack of self-awareness has to stop first.