Rethinking Allyship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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