Writing has been weird for me this past year. My decision to move to New York was a last attempt to find a place for myself in the field of games. I admit, I don’t really feel like I belong, or if there is a place for me. But I’ve put in so much effort, I felt like I needed to give it one more push before giving up. Interest in the written word about games, and well everything on the internet, is steadily dropping. Now a lot of people engage with video and streaming, some still with podcasts. I’m one of the fortunate few who makes any sort of money outside of mainstream publications and that has helped me explore avenues and alleys in games that few try since there is such little support. Now I’m deeper in organizing, stepping up in my role at IndieCade and doing project management for multiple indies. Come this next semester I will be adjuncting at both NYU and The New School, and by the end of the year, finished with my masters. I’m learning more and more about how much things aren’t solid or decided in games yet and the different forces that stand to gain by controlling the narrative of the discipline. It’s hard to say whether I will be ‘in games,’ but I guess my professional roots will always begin from them.
So here are the top 10 read posts of 2016, maybe it will reveal what people are most concerned about for 2017:
Current initiatives surrounding diversity in games focuses on making main characters more diverse for identification purposes. This is typically supposed to be a positive identification, that players will see themselves acting heroic and saving the day so, in effect, the world sees more people as capable. I see the value in this process, though I am aware of how much this is basically a palette swap, or the quality of storytelling doesn’t shift when new kinds of people are depicted in usual scenarios. Now that I’m teaching about games, I’m trying to find other ways to talk about representation in games outside of good and bad, particularly finding subtle or subliminal, possibly unintentional, forms of representation. Looking at Morinth from Mass Effect 2 was an attempt to look beyond the main character, deeper into what the game does to characters through choice architectures. We’re used to seeing characters as static representations, but really all things in games should be seen as the whole of everything choice architectures manifests of them. Maybe like Schrodinger’s cat, Morinth is both left dead on the whole of an Omega apartment and shambling towards you as a grunt banshee that you will gun down without much more thought. She can’t be either or, but both at the same time. As I become more interested in the save file as playful artifact, I wonder about the more complicated we can deal with characters, and see what systems of choices do to them, using that as our barometer for ‘representation’ rather than simply the character model put on the box.
One of the first big things I did in 2016 was teach my first class at NYU’s Game Center last spring. It was a fun ride, I learned a lot from the experience and I feel like I exposed students to perspectives they wouldn’t readily encounter in both games and media studies spaces. My main angle was to rethink ‘representation;’ what does it mean to represent something or someone in a media context? Often I think people believe representation is just about accurately depicting people of different identities, but the juicy issues are located in how fraught identity is in the first place, and then the warped agendas of representation adds on top of that. It was more of a taster course, sampling some 20th century philosophy along with more mainstream games in order to get students thinking about the topic in a more complicated way than I think a lot of critics and developers currently do. It was mostly lecture-based the first time around and I plan on making it a little more interactive and project-orientated for this upcoming spring. Feel free to chat with me if you’re thinking on teaching about representation in games yourself!
#08: “New Difficulties”
Those closer to me know that I have a secret affinity for strategy games, but I also have this strange perfectionism problem that never lets me complete them. There is something about moving pieces and the passage of time, cause and effect, that makes me want to create the perfect scenario. But it’s not perfecting the quantitative aspect of these games, rather the qualitative. I’m never in it for the perfect score, rather the perfect scenario. This was particularly true when I was playing Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest this year, where it was purposefully difficult to advance in the scenario-sense, with pairing up your characters, getting them to have children, and raising the kids to their full potential. It’s not the most innovative, but I can imagine future games that make the shaping of the story and its outcomes difficult or challenging with the end purely being about what it is you want out of the story rather than just winning battles or puzzles. Saves come up again in this piece, again in reference to BioWare games, especially considering their difficulty levels scale only in battle, not with conversations. I wonder if the problems with conventional difficulty is that it’s a tired tradition rather than getting rid of difficulty all together.
As I mentioned in my games roundup, Amnesia is an interesting landmark for otome games, one that shows it’s a truly reflexive genre. While I feel creators like Christine Love are doing more interesting things in the realm of visual novels, otome are beginning to push against themselves, understanding the unique placement of being ‘for women’ in a world that is struggling with what to do about gender. Seeing that most of this is still mostly made in Japan and Korea and we have to wait for it to get translated over, I wonder when more people in English-speaking countries start putting out more heavy hitters when it comes to the genre. There are more coming out on Steam, especially with more queer content, so maybe 2017 will see a big wave of these games. I sure hope so!
#06: “Homo Ludens for the People”
I’ve always been interested in bridging the gap between academic knowledge and the public. Despite what it looks like, I’m not an academic, at least not yet, but I understand academic language and tend to use it. Early in my writing career, this turned a lot of people off, and though I’ve come to improve how I integrate academic language into my work, it still can feel off-putting since a lot of academia assumed certain knowledges. It so happens that before 2016, I never really read any books on games, games design, or games studies. Given that I’m teaching about games now, I figured I should start reading the canonical texts so I can have better arguments than I currently do, and bolster my attempts to change or redirect the canon, or if anything, easily critique it. What surprised me going on this journey were the sentiments and arguments left out of the discourse I witness more and the political nature of what was plucked from these books and what was left behind. So I thought it was important for more people to have entry points into these texts, first by understanding how they relate to current discourse and then what is strangely left out of said conversations. The main example is the very first text in the canon, Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga, particularly extremely racist and orientalist perspective he used to structure his understanding of play. I got too busy and had to stop reading, but this will most definitely pick back up come summertime when I begin reading for my thesis.
#05: “Queerbaiting and Fan Futures”
Games tend not to enter culture on its own, it runs parallel to other nerd interests like technology, comics, sci-fi/fantasy in general, and of course, anime. The end of the year saw Yuri!! On Ice sweep, at the very least, Japanese- and English-speaking countries and will most certainly encourage more content like it, that is, somewhat obscured homoromatic, and sometimes homoerotic, boys playing sports, which has been a bit of a thing already but really came out strong in Yuri. One of the strongest rifts in the fan community surrounding the show is the topic of queerbaiting, or rather, whether or not the main characters are actually gay or not because there is no evidence of homosexuality. The show uses the language of queerbaiting, or implying that characters could be queer but not coming out and saying it canonically, in order to tell a story about love between two men. The thing is, queerbaiting is usually used as a pejorative, that it would be better for queer people if shows were more straight-forward with if characters were queer or not, instead of trying to have their cake and eat it too by trying to placate queer- and open-minded people with those who would be offended by queer content. I’m really curious about the interventions fans make on media that don’t really represent them, especially when there’s scant queerbaiting. Take Overwatch for example, which I’ve never played but everyone I know who enjoys it views every character as gay, even when there was zero comment on anyone’s sexuality until the recent Tracer reveal. I hold the argument that fans are the best to represent themselves and hoping that companies with business interests are ever going to represent them well is backwards thinking. Instead, I’m curious about how to further involve fan-made content, especially when it comes to queering characters, into games or further integrating the shipped content and stuff that bubbles up from the fan communities that surround it.
Close to my heart, understanding how events like conferences can benefit communities will probably always exist in my life and work. I’ve been to, participated in, and organized an alarming amount of events in games despite having such a short career in it, so I feel like I know the experience inside-out. The good news is that there’s an ever-increasing amount of events about games that tie in artistic and activist bends that take place outside of San Francisco, LA, and New York City. We’re at a point where we can look critically at the progress of these events and assess whether or not they are serving their communities, especially those who are marginalized and don’t have access to professional spaces. I think 2017 will be the year of labor issues for all arms of the games world, and conferences shouldn’t be an exception. Many events rely on the free labor of volunteers and speakers in order to run, and while many of us don’t have a budget to run events on, we have to think of alternative ways of respecting labor instead of resigning to exploiting others for some sense of the greater good. I also want to be thinking about how to have people from many different disciplines and background in the same event without speaking past each other; newcomers, academics, and developers using similar languages while retaining high concepts from their field. I will be announcing a conference I’m organizing in NYC soon to test out some of these things, so look out for that!
If I had to sum up my thoughts on playing games in 2016, it would probably be about mystery as design paradigm, particularly murder mysteries. Many of the games I played this year were murder mysteries, and at the same time I’ve listened to friends and colleagues who still feel like narrative is undervalued in the games industry. There are few games as an adult I can say the narrative elements really captured me, especially in mainstream games. But the few that did were overwhelmingly murder mysteries, and I believe this is because the genre of murder mysteries are inherently playful. They are designed narratives used to manipulate the deductive-reasoning parts of readers’ brains, so it feels like a back-and-forth struggle between the book and the reader with who is going to win when the killer is revealed. Add more deliberate games elements to that and I think there’s a strong method of integrating narrative into design. I’m not first nor last person to say this, but: we really have to stop thinking of narrative as content that helps design, and instead understand that narrative is a facet of experience design as much as play is. I really encourage both writers and developers to further look into murder mystery techniques as a method of creating games that have narrative and play as indistinct as possible.
#02: “Why things aren’t changing”
This was an article born out of frustration, and I guess it resonated with a lot of people. 2016 was miserable for a lot of reasons, but now seeing hate groups that moved from harassing women in games back in 2014 rise to political influence in 2016 was the most painful transformation to witness. I can’t help but feel a sort of ‘told you so’ about it all. Ultimately, people with power are trying to ignore the problem as much as possible hoping it will just pass. So are consumers, who are made to believe they can’t really change anything because they only see change happening in broad strokes. This is a damning piece without optimism for the industry, but I think I can do that because I mostly don’t subsist off the industry. I know others do, so there is a need for optimism about video games, but you have to call a spade a spade. Most games institutions prefer to quietly profit off toxic cultures than actively cultivate and help those who are targeted and marginalized. Until that changes, the industry will stay the same. Until our relationship with progress changes, we will see our world continue to enter deeper into plutocracy and fascism powered by the ill will of those who want to keep their social status away from an era of equality.
#01: “Why I’m Boycotting GDC”
I’m not sure whether I should be surprised or not that this was the most read piece of mine. Much like the previous, this is a product of frustration, how powerful institutions continue forward by using marginalized people without a culture of respecting them. Maybe that’s just the nature of industry, to be the most efficient, at any cost. I hope GDC can fix its problems and create a better, more enlightening culture around it.
And that’s 2016! I’m hoping to actively seek out different kinds of interactive, playful experiences this coming year and have that spurn new thoughts about the medium and discipline. I think you’ll be seeing more about design and hopefully about the body. We’ll see what the year holds! Happy New Year to everyone, see you on the other side.
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