Creating Power Through Play

We are used to critiquing power and seeking to diminish its effects. But what attention have we paid to creating power for those who don’t have any?

This is a sentiment I’ve heard from artists, activists, and other interventionists over the past year. It’s not something I’ve considered before; I’m used to pushing back against oppressive forces and focusing on restorative efforts to help withstand the enduring presence of power. Critiquing power is the usual mode of politically-engaged art and activism, because the abuse of power is a very real threat to vulnerable people. This is ultimately reactionary and not a direct enough tactic on its own to substantiate political ideals. What’s missing is the creative, creating power that can challenge power. We know power itself won’t go away, so the act of diminishing its effects are a stopgap at best. The task is twofold, first imagining what ethical uses of power looks like and then how to build it up for the people who need it most.

Power can be disciplinary and creative, taking liberties with how philosopher Michel Foucault describes it. We are most familiar with the disciplinary part, the kind of power that controls, suppresses, kills, limits. Creative power is more slippery since it is often a response to disciplinary power but stands on its own after it’s seized agency. This isn’t to say either power is inherently good or bad, just that it is much harder to gain and wield disciplinary power when you’re a marginalized person, but creative power is something we all have access to and can better exercise. Let’s take identity as an example. The power of identity is that you can essentially craft who you are and a lot about how you relate to the world. Clothes often help us telegraph that to the world, as how you dress yourself not only identifies you through cultural markers, but also implies how you want to be interacted with, or who you consider a community. You can disrupt expectations, insert yourself, be visible, manipulate dynamics. However, the other aspect is the creative power of the people who interact with you. Much like art, people get a gut feeling and a bunch of assumptions when seeing you and respond according to their life experience and social context. No one is completely in control of themselves because of this aspect of creative power, we are all also made up of others perceptions of us. This back and forth between performance and reaction is a type of a play that can be structured and manipulated for anyone’s use.

Games is no stranger to ideas of power. They are known for their power fantasies and illusions of agency and choice. Mainstream games allow people to wield disciplinary power in realms that attempt to separate themselves from life. Keeping to this paradigm reinforces the current dominance of disciplinary power and leaves creative power to be a neat flourish or a just enough tasty carrot on a stick to feel like we’re involved in developing our own agency outside of a system. I’m not the first to say that conventional games are machines for training players into being good denizens of current structures of power, internalizing a respect for disciplinary power over creative. It’s possible that a roadblock in games’ ability to grapple with important topics is this one-sided approach to depicting power, since true creative power on the part of the player could easily break the structures of contemporary design and ultimately be too expansive.

Thinking about creative power would lead us to thinking about game design differently, looking more to how people connect through play and use those moments to build power. It would be an ongoing practice, like only being able to take one action a day or responding with pre-established protocols to the spontaneity of life. We can play with identity roles, formality customs, fashion, courting rituals, ceremonies, education, labor hierarchies, politics. Since no one person contains or can express the ideal world that fits everyone in it, we all must act out our values and actively mix them together with those in our lives and those different from us.

Living in an increasingly fascist world, it’s time to come to terms with the fascist nature of interactivity in popular games. Games in a new world of resistance will have to reimagine design and accommodating this dream-making of creative power we need to build up to be a match against today’s problems.

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Making games during sad times

This month is soaked with deja vu. Habits and nervous ticks I hoped long-gone resurfaced and many of my friends wear tired faces. Two years ago I felt like I went through a natural disaster and had to cope with what the existence of large groups of hate mobs after me meant for my life online and off. In its natural evolution, these groups have seized the imaginations and fears of the country I live in and all the lives we touch. New Yorkers told me that the day after this election felt like 9/11, that something about the world was irrevocably changed and wrong. Despite the implications of 2017 and on in America, my mind switched to a survivalist mode. Not necessarily fending for myself, but reevaluating what I do in the new context I’m in.

It’s easy to feel like there’s little you can do to change the world when you’re a game developer. The industry spends so much effort to keep an image of frivolity that when disaster strikes, no one is looking at video games as an actual source of change, only further regression away from the world’s problems. I remember vividly watching the news of the shooting in Ferguson when I was in the middle of writing what seemed then another inconsequential piece about video game culture. I know it’s many of our jobs to entertain, and I felt yet that shouldn’t be at the expense of critically engaging with the world. If games were going to be my life, I had to have an approach that let me work on something that could be my part in creating a better place for those around me.

What this looks like for others depends on each person’s life situation. Very few can pivot whenever they want into new work, and it’s not really the current work we do itself that is at fault. Rather we’re often not given the time and energy to contribute to personal projects and action using games, especially not for mass-distribution. We’re all creators in some right, and can use our craft to explore the world’s events with each other. I’m reminded of how DIY game-making sometimes uses zine culture as an analogy and that one of the driving impetuses of promoting easy-to-use tools is so the act of game-making isn’t a drawn-out affair. Making a game and putting it on the internet can feel pretty official, so getting clamped up in making something look respectable can easily roadblock someone who isn’t the jack-of-all-trades type. But maybe we could stand to develop habits of making games for people in our lives instead of the general mass audience that could potentially exist.

My hunch is we’re in an increasingly connected world without the structure or support to communicate well on such a scale. The internet was never really a place for you to be both vulnerable and your public identity, and as learn how social media is affecting our lives I see more people retreat into themselves. We feel like we need to say something well-crafted to the whole world or nothing at all. This is an unsustainable impulse. We need to start thinking more about our everyday practice. If you could only spend one weekend on a game, who would you make it for and what would it say?

Despite having its own industry, no one really has games for social change figured out. There’s no one who can say the tiny, personal games you swap with your friends are impacting the world more than an iOS game about climate change. Games and play as communication tools is still experimental, and I have a feeling that it will only be figured out when a bunch of people do it. I don’t know if we’re stuck with social media forever, but at the very least we could aim to make online spaces more intimate and vulnerable spaces through digital art.

Which is to say, just because you’re in games doesn’t mean you have to retreat into just making entertainment products and feel useless about what is going on in the world. If the past four or so years have taught me anything, it’s when something goes wrong, you have to change your mindset and behavior to move past it. The way we’ve been communicating about our experiences and how they tie to current events hasn’t been working. There is much to play with and interrogate with the design values of the platforms we use and are used against us. We’ve reached a point where any person can make a small weird game in their pastime and not have their entire career revolve it. 2017 will be a great year to exercise this new language to help us untangle how we got here in the first place.

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UnREAL, Feminism, and the Reality Game

I recently wrote on the different ways reality TV games approach play and game design that differ from conventional attitudes on the topic. Despite how much film is seen by games people as a static medium, the form of reality TV using games to generate narrative, politics, and a wider scale of participation via spectacle all deserve due recognition. After writing about this, I’ve had friends tell me about the TV series UnREAL, a fictionalization of one of the creator’s personal experience being a producer on The Bachelor. It’s a very well done dark comedy and drama that also wrestles with contemporary issues surrounding feminism in a rather refreshing way, that is, everything is super fucked up and no one is holy. I recommend watching it if you can.

What fascinates me the most about this show is how it’s using a game as the central allegory for the struggles of feminism within contemporary society. Consider: first there is the literal game of a group of women who must woo the bachelor into letting them stay every elimination, with different motives not always romantic (bachelor included). Then there’s the producers who split the girls between them and receive financial incentives to goad them into drama and get them to the end. On top of that is the showrunner who has to produce high enough ratings for the network (and they usually want to degrade women in some way for such a purpose) so she can keep her show but also keep a bare minimum of loyalty with her production staff who are trying to retain any sense of conscience that they can. Most of this might not really be seen as a ‘game’ by most, and since this is a TV show everything is scripted so nothing seems to really be ‘played,’ but I believe the success of UnREAL shows the potential for a speculative wave of reality TV game design that could better access social issues on a populist platform. I have previously equated the struggle of personas on social justice twitter to reality TV, and the dynamics this show produces creates a heavy pause for reflection on how contemporary feminism is critically compromised.

Social justice and the general progressive mentality mainly deals with issues in large-scale political motions. Which is needed for sure, but also creates this ‘go big or go home’ attitude that has most people feeling like they can’t do much about all the crappy ways the world works if they don’t have a large reach of influence. Using reality TV as a game allows the show to reveal and unpack a complicated web of interpersonal struggles where decent people are stuck in a crappy situation and are compelled to pull each other down for their own survival. The focus of the show is how women are forced to use other women as stepping stones in order to get through the mess of their career, so the show features mostly women, but men appear around the edges to always fuck things up and make the situation worse. A reality-based game is well-suited to talking about this because they aren’t purely game theory strategy puzzles, rather largely dictated by how contestants struggle with social systems.

The striking metaphor for me is the relationship between producing and performing. UnREAL is completely meta, being a TV show about a TV show, using that distance and irony to reveal the process of how something seamless like a television program is produced in a very messy and contemptible way. The show of Everlasting, which is basically The Bachelor, is the reality in our imaginations, how we understand the world. There’s all the tropes you can think of, the bitch, wholesome wife material, spinster, angry black girl, the slut, the not-so-reformed dallying Ken doll. The ‘it is what it is’ or ‘that’s just reality’ part of us when we accept the subtle ways media and social systems have portrayed other people to us. But as we see in the show, the games are used as a structure to manufacture drama that can eventually be edited out of context in order to create this fantasy version of reality. Claims that reality TV is completely staged is way too simplistic; those things really do happen, we are watching reality, but there is an active force shaping those events, much like how we imagine systems of power in society. There are many lines in the show like ‘don’t blame me that America’s racist’ or ‘no man wants a dried up old woman’ that speak to how media and audiences are constantly reflecting each other in a never ending self-fulfilling prophecy, where the production staff is forced to twist women into nasty tropes and completely disillusion them from the fantasy world they were promised because audiences won’t watch it otherwise, and audiences receive a master cut of footage completely unaware of the context in which it was produced and on some level accepts it as ‘reality.’

It is fitting that the show chose The Bachelor to model instead of a game based of off athletic skill or conventional puzzle solving. The women of the show can’t display any sort of objective merit, the undercurrent challenge of the show centers around their worth and how they can shape others measuring their worth. Watching the show gave me many ideas for participatory experiences to involve people in power struggle on a social and societal level as opposed to a purely strategic. Different strata of people, the contestants, the bachelor, the producers, the showrunner, all have different forms of power and different sources of pressure while they all hurtle towards the final episode where it matters to every single person who is chosen to be the bride-to-be, just for widely different and typically unsavory reasons. Fairness isn’t really something that exists in this game, and the only rule seems to be that you can only leave once you’ve been eliminated. In this sort of game, it’s questionable whether anyone ‘wins,’ rather everyone just eventually gets to the end and has to reflect on what happened.

We can see UnREAL as film’s take on using the unique properties of reality games for commentary. It used the medium’s strengths of representation to show us mostly plausible parable and used suspense devices associated with reality games to keep us deep into the messy relationships as we try to figure what we would do in similar situations, and coming to the conclusion there is little wiggle room for the martyr narrative we have in actual reality. Good deeds are squeezed out of a great deal of compromises and the only people who can actually change anything are the rich and powerful who don’t really care about the pain of those under them until it comes to affect their routines. Games people interested in exploring social systems would do well to follow the example and look into reality games.

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Rethinking the Games Conference

There are days where I feel really self-conscious about calling myself an activist, since a lot of my work is in writing, speaking, and the realm of ideas. But I do feel closest to a feeling of activism when I help organize conferences and run various events that seek to include voices and perspectives commonly left out of the conversation surrounding games and highlighting alternative methods of gathering and sharing knowledge and our work. For someone who’s only been in a given field for about 5 years, I’ve organized a lot, and participated in even more, particularly ones that want to further represent the margins of art and thinking in games. Having just went to and helped out with multiple conferences in the past few months, it’s becoming more apparent to me that the usual format that we assume conferences should have isn’t working given the ideals we have for respecting labor and enabling actual change in our communities. This could be because the current conference model was borrowed from academics for how that industry works and not necessarily for communities of people whose main channel for discourse is impressionistic social media. The upshot to all of this is the average event is getting better; there are more explicit codes of conduct, clearer methods of reporting harassment and abuse, continually more diverse speaker rosters and audiences. So it’s not that everything has been going horribly wrong, rather we can always be looking to improve and solve the problems that arise as they come along. So here are a few topics the contemporary games event needs to address as we continue to evolve how we gather and celebrate the culture around our field:


Respecting Labor

Out of all the issues, ethical labor practices is the most in need of revision. This ranges from compensating speakers fairly to respecting the work of volunteers beyond a thanks. The most common position for events is that they would love to pay people who contribute to its existence, but they don’t get enough funds. In professional circles like academia it’s expected for people within the system to volunteer and contribute to the groups they are a part of, and it pays back (in it’s own, flawed way, this isn’t a piece about the many of troubles of the academic system) by publishing papers, extremely intimate networking, and access to latest research that could be a huge influence on yours. This sort of system doesn’t work, or exist at least, for many people in games, especially those not trying to work at companies or large teams for mass commercial work, so right now the supposed payment of volunteer work and speaking is that it’s “for the good of games” or some other agenda, but effectively keeps the exploitative nature of the games industry, burning out people who are in vulnerable and/or already exploited positions from being a part of the ecosystem. I should say that I think it’s really great that conferences do turn meager budgets into taking care of food expenses for the entire conference, which helps subsidize attendance, a problem I’ve seen a lot of progress on.

Beyond general extravagant uses of budget for the experience (I’ll get to this) instead of for the people who are asked to make it run, there are multiple forms of trade outside of monetary to make volunteering or speaking for a conference worth the work. For one, you can be direct and asking anyone volunteering their labor what they would like in return with the knowledge that money isn’t going to be available. It’s possible a volunteer/speaker would benefit greatly from a direct introduction with someone who you can feasibly have at your event, or that someone on the main event team can run a seminar of an important topic that relates to the interests of those who are volunteering. I’ve heard suggestions of having speaker/volunteer parties so volunteers, who are usually students or those looking to bridge into new communities, network more closely than they can while they are working. I’ve also heard of paid speakers giving lectures or resume reviews to volunteers. This also speaks to the lack of investment I see in a lot of volunteer work, because they know the event staff can only ask for the minimum amount of effort because they aren’t really getting much in return. I believe we can get resources to those who don’t usually have access by using conferences as a sort of work-trade, where if you volunteer, you get something you can take back to the community and enrich it.

Obviously a nice paycheck would be the best answer for compensating labor at events. I know that’s not the reality, and because of that, I don’t think we should just concede and sheepishly exploit people. Instead, I think we could rethink the trade. Ultimately, this forces your event to be a material benefit to the community by actually contributing to the people who help make it exist in the first place. And when seeking funding/support for the event, especially towards universities, this is a good way to extract more support when funds are limited.


Establishing Purpose

Picking up on being directly beneficial to a community, I find that most conferences don’t have a strong reason for why they exist. They share the problem with the overabundance of awareness activism, that while, yes, creating awareness of an issue is important, there has to be something beyond that awareness to keep your ideals relevant. I’ve noticed events get into a rut of over-correcting academic-heavy line-ups with really uninspired, underwhelming skill sharing and reacting to boring run-of-the-mill conference topics with panels of well-known people who don’t really say much besides letting you know they are well-known. I find that most conferences become tired after 3 or so years because they work on the basis of just existing instead of creating roots or actual bonds to other entities.

This awareness vs action focus can be felt down to the programming. So many talks are “I had this experience” or “I noticed something neat” and leave it there instead of taking those topics and turning them into an opportunity for audiences to respond. Not that everything must be some sort of 3D modelling 101 class, rather a call to action, the room to act, should be created by events and each part of its programming. This came into strong relief for me when I participated in the Allied Media Conference which handles this balance so well. Beyond including social meetups around social issues without conflicting with other programming, many of the sessions are lead by critical facilitators more than speakers; they have an agenda, perspective, and experience they want to share, but use it as a method of creation, action, or planning that allows participants to bring in their own life issues or creative impulses and work it all out.

I feel like it’s critical for this element to become incorporated into our events, especially ones claiming any level of social awareness, to become something that actively changes how the community works and activates it to solve contemporary issues. Too long have conferences stayed at an introductory, ephemeral level that people forget about once it’s over. There’s still room for the theory and personal experience, and for any awareness building, but it can’t be what we try to subsist off as we go on.


Size Control

Many events are way too bloated. This follows the previous two problems: when you’re not paying for the labor to substantiate an event and your purpose is vague and generalized, your event grows beyond its means and includes things just for the sake of having them. Conferences typically position themselves as central, national, or even global conferences and try to (with varying degrees of effort) to represent everyone under that umbrella, usually, if not always, failing at that task. The problem with having more things is less control over how they turn out, since it usually means you’re not paying them, you couldn’t give a lot of attention to mentoring the processes of the talks if there are new speakers, and that there’s less of a curatorial voice that ties things together and makes the event a more cohesive experience. There is this assumption that a conference must be multiple days with multiple tracks and multiple panels of multiple people. But instead of enriching people through including a massive amount of content and bodies, this waters down and muddles any sort of effect programming could have on audiences.

I honestly think limiting the amount of speakers, especially to local artists and thinkers, and only having one track of sessions is a better structure for an event than current models. I would exercise extreme prejudice against panels, which, as another holdover from academic conferences, doesn’t work unless there’s a lot of preparation or all the panelists know each other and have a good banter, which is usually not the case. I would suggest an edit to what I experienced at PRACTICE: a single track of 30 minute to 1 hour talks, no Q&A but break sessions where speakers have their own tables and people who wanted to ask questions or even just chill in the general vicinity of conversation around the topic of their session can do so.

Frequent feedback I’ve gotten was how much audiences wanted the artists of showcased works, typically in accompanying arcades, to give talks about the experience and process of their selected work, giving them a new perspective to reapproach the game with after encountering it in the wild. Audiences also benefit from eavesdropping on a pair of thinkers or artists speaking on topics they are interested in to get a more in-depth look into how people deep in these fields go with contemporary issues. Despite how it’s been reduced to a sort of tech party favor buzzword, people do want sessions where they can take something away. Sometimes we rely too much on planning for ‘inspirational’ talks; having given and witnessed some, when they work, they are amazing. On average they don’t, instead speakers tend to just settle on a sort of “I have no answers” or “take what you will” notes and it’s obvious the energy behind the talk is completely missing. Inspirational talks have to be mentored at some level and used in moderation. I’ve been to conferences with all inspirational talks that weren’t mentored, and if you don’t leave with a sort of voyeuristic pleasure of the confession of struggle it’s rather dulling. I don’t think events should have people parting with a feeling of “So what?”

I believe a community needs good events to thrive and grow, and there is room for more local events that support different local needs and agendas that the general conference doesn’t already. Conferences have an opportunity to act as stronger support system for marginalized communities and create a more ethical system of give and take. I want to fight the usual burnout cycle that industries participate in, going through exploited creators and thinkers as they are useful and not giving back to them once they are deemed too much of a maintenance to keep around. I also just want more events to exist, and for more communities to feel enabled to make their own despite not having a lot of money. If we’re going to change things, we can’t do it at the pace at which those more powerful deem us useful to them.

 

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Why things aren’t changing

Why aren’t things changing? In the aftermath of yet another woman getting harassed out of her job and being thrown under the bus by a prominent games entity so save face, it’s hard not to see things in games as particularly bleak. There has been more visibility of marginalized creators, greater stress about the importance of diversity, and a general social shift in accepting that discriminating systems put some people at a distinct disadvantage at life. While stumbling blocks are always to be expected, the games industry seems to have changed only superficially, with major entities continuing the usual bullshit with the usual garden variety of excuses we’ve gotten for a while now. There is no shortage of people online campaigning passionately for things to be different, but somehow, it seems like little has changed.

I think this comes from a fundamental misunderstanding on how change happens, and how deep that change has to go before we start seeing a difference. The sort of change most people are actually envisioning is for games to just be a peaceful place, much like they remember it in their childhoods, just a little more diverse and accepting of people. They still want to consume the way that they always have and not really move out of their comfort zone outside some employer-friendly uses of social media. It’s a quite typical gamer/consumer relationship, wanting more of the same, just better. There isn’t necessarily something wrong with this, and I’m not going into ‘slacktivism’ shaming; yet we have to at some level reconcile that things can’t change when most people who want it aren’t doing what is necessary to.

The truth is there needs to be radical change in our environment in order for our ideals to see the light of day. Despite contemporary connotations, radical change isn’t necessarily some sort of extremism, rather it looks to the root of the problem and aims to solve that. The problem is this comes into conflict with a lot of conventions of consumption in games today. No matter what Nintendo does to its employees and depicts in its games, people will still want to buy its products and desire it continue producing similar experiences that it’s already doing. It doesn’t matter how clear of a link to unethical labor a console has, people want to upgrade and continue buying games. Ultimately this means that while people advocate for change in games, they haven’t really changed their values to match making that a reality. In a sense, there is still a fear of what will happen to games if outsider values become dominant, what games would go in and out of fashion, how conventions in game design will change to shift focus away from entertainment products. Right now liberal games people find the values of marginalized perspectives quaint, nice flavor that could be adapted or added on to what we already have, but not the main dish. So they aren’t necessarily against radical viewpoints, and definitely encourage them to exist, but only unsupported so change is as slow as possible.

This forces people who have the most to lose and are currently in danger to take the majority of the weight of moving things along. While the typical left-leaning games person doesn’t mind that outsider art or radical critique exists, and probably encourages it in spirit, their consuming habits continue the resource drain away from these people. Instead of figuring out a way for marginalized creators to make and speak on their own terms, continuing to focus patroning companies forces them to either assimilate into the industry or leave. People in the games sphere are extremely quick to defend their consumption habits, and it’s to the point that all their ideals, that oppressed people should be treated fairly, that art currently marginalized deserves recognition, that those at risk need support and resources, all crumble away. The furor on social media becomes part catharsis, part theater, part entertainment. There’s a part of people that wants to feel guilt and have some way to exorcise it, but not actually solve the problem that creates that guilt.

Of course, people will pitch this in a false dichotomy of mainstream vs outsider, that can’t we have both? I would say yes, but you actually have to contribute to the health of things not accepted by the mainstream in order for there to be any semblance of an equitable exchange. This also doesn’t take into account marginalized perspectives that appropriate mainstream games for their own radical devices, which is also largely unappreciated beyond social media entertainment. What I’d ask the people who deeply want to support those who work against the grain is how much you value this sort of work beyond the conceptual realm. Does at least the same amount of money that goes towards supporting companies get to under-served creators? Do you know why the people you support on social media are important or interesting past that they are a minority in games? Would you care about these people if they didn’t speak a word about diversity? We know that these people get less resources, both from games and society as a whole, and not changing how you consume and practicing what you value continues that divide. Said liberal masses are forcing marginalized creators into critical positions by being apathetic at best about the literal support the give while contributing to entities that maintain the status quo.

I really don’t think the video game industry is going to evolve at a pace rational for anyone who is outspoken about the condition of the industry to live in. What is the price people are really asking of marginalized creators when they encourage people to stay in the industry without the resources to survive it? The good news is there’s stuff outside of video games, and people can flourish without the backing of the industry. I think we’re going to look back and see video games as an awful stage before seeing something greater that could be used with a wider artistic range. The industry just seems the most backwards, embarrassing institution, placating nerds while only caring about women to keep up appearances. I could be wrong, but it seems like people are too complacent with what they have to prove it.

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Why I’m Boycotting GDC

If there is one conversation I want happening at every games event this year, it’s the one about activist burnout and the exploitation of marginalized people by conferences and other institutions. Video games and the tech industry overall are riding off the diversity wave- with good intentions, we can all assume- trying to answer criticisms over the past several years of how homogenous the environment is and the ethical implications about not working to change that. So now we are seeing some diversification, particularly in conferences and conventions which are the easiest to critique and change, at least on the surface. While there is greater effort to change the kinds of bodies are in our spaces, little is done to change the space itself, perpetuating the revolving door phenomenon where populations of marginalized people are leaving as much as they are entering. Minoritized people are definitely welcome, but as resources to be used up and eventually disposed of when a newer vein is discovered.

There are a lot of assumptions that go into the typical speaking engagement for conferences: you can afford to travel there, fund your own lodging accommodations, take the likely increased cost of eating and drinking in stride, and most importantly, that you have the time and money to do pro bono speaking work. This model was created by professionals who had jobs that assisted and benefited from participating, creating something that benefited a community. But marginalized people often aren’t part of the community, they don’t have industry or academic jobs that support them, with their skills and viewpoints not yet valued by the mainstream enough for networking to land them work. Since industry is always looking for something new, outsider groups are taken in only for their social cache but not in trade for work or other methods of sustaining their practice. Meaning, our current system is a flawed band-aid on a deep wound, and deserves a lot more open challenges than it currently gets.

GDC is considered the main conference of the video game industry and is specifically a for-profit venture in which marginalized speakers are not paid for their time as they would be for a typical speaking engagement. Instead they are compensated with a pass to GDC, which is indeed worth a lot of money, but only is so because the speakers are contributing their time and money to talk. You aren’t guaranteed anything that will help you live for your labor, rather an opportunity to network which you don’t actually need a pass for. That networking is limited in use if the industry doesn’t know what to do with you because it is structured in a fundamentally different way; many marginalized creators are artists, not simply indie developers making smaller entertainment games, but works that aren’t expressedly for conventional commercial purposes. You see different values, practices, and experiences in this outsider art that are illegible to companies courted for the conference. Even outside all that, it’s extremely dubious that the people with influence and ability to hire or patron even participate in diversity-related programs, as marginalized people are herded to the advocacy track and other such community events that straight white men, the most typical identity in positions of power, rarely show up to.

The importance of establishing local events and supporting communities becomes greater as more people try to participate in making games and designing experience overall. GDC isn’t agile enough to embrace what is needed to fully support diverse voices while keeping its business interests intact. Granted, people use the centrality of GDC to mount different initiatives and gatherings, like Women in Games interest groups and even Lost Levels, so it isn’t that GDC is a completely useless function. Rather it is fraught enough to critique since the industry is still complacent about the security and safety of marginalized people despite the still on-going harassment most have never publicly commented on or ever acknowledged happened. The assumption is that GDC must have certain necessary evils so we have a nice big party for a week, and it just so happens those necessary evils involve the labor and well-being of already exploited people in games.

This is also before discussing that the organizational entity of GDC and the big names in the industry can be hostile to people who can’t fight back and chill someone’s social status if they want to stay within the good graces of the mainstream. In 2014, organizers of GDC and IGF incited large-scale harassment against me because they were goaded by gamers constantly targeting outspoken women in games. I never received personal apologies from any of them, rather the incident was used for a PR message to rehabilitate their image. That year I was removed from panels I was qualified to be on and the general indie community dropped me out of their networking. I became isolated and very few people came to my help, despite carrying the large social weight of being a constant target for abuse by darker corners of games culture. I was billed as simply “that year’s controversy” that people shrugged off. I’m still suffering from Gamergate, and had been withstanding harassment and institutional oppression before it.

I’ve been offered free passes and travel to GDC this year, but I didn’t feel safe going. Not necessarily my physical safety more than usual, but because I am aware of a system that would rather be right and keep a clean image than allow a marginalized person the respect they deserve. And ultimately, I don’t think there is a respect for the work, ideas, and energy that we bring to games; rather, we are content, we’re something to pass the time. And I don’t want to legitimize that process anymore. I encourage others to talk more openly and frequently about this. Going to GDC doesn’t make you a bad person, however ignoring the situation should weigh on your conscience.

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Gesturing Towards Utopias

I gave a talk for a class titled “Design for This Century” at Parsons New School for Design working off a prompt that was loosely about applying design to topics such as gender, sexuality, race, and related oppressive systems. This is a topic uncommon in public discourse and most certainly for students on an accessible level, so I was excited to put it together and now share it, because it’s part of a conversation I’d like to see develop more. You can also consider this talk an outgrowth of a design manifesto I wrote, queer as in fuck me. I’m working on getting some audio/video for it, but for now, I’ll share the slides and some explanations as I remember it. Let’s start with the description of the talk:

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“The pressure to solve problems presented by systemic oppressions like racism and sexism isn’t new, but contemporary contexts of social justice activism and design paradigms illuminate new avenues for resistance. With games and play shifting back into focus as sites of engaging with politics, we are tasked imagining and creating designs that interrogate our relationships with power and oppression. Looking at political engagement with public and personal play along with complicated forms of resistance in identity politics, we can see design that allows us to make gestures towards new utopias. We will identify oppressive tendencies of game design, complicate purist ideas of social justice utopias, and aim to integrate design into people’s daily living experiences.”

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I think it’s a worthwhile venture to at least figure out what it means to be someone interested in both design and activism. What does it mean to use design for social good? Design is often associated with business, products, infrastructure, and other more conventionally practical uses that few actively think of being conduits for politics or activism. But given the increasing social awareness of society at large and many topics concerning diversity gaining notice in design industries, namely tech, this question is on everyone’s minds. This talk is going to answering this question, or at the very least, show how this question is incomplete in its imaginings.

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An advantage of a design perspective when looking at activist concerns is preexisting language to interrogate the social hierarchies we live in through systems design. Understanding the qualities of systems, how they can shape or organize information, being invisible forces to real phenomena, are all super vital perspectives. Since most people grapple with topics like discrimination and oppression from a lawful basis, that is, specific extreme acts that indicate a hateful inner disposition, it is difficult for the public to understand how these forces actually work in society, which is more typically in mundane everyday interactions by a system of accepted values, carried about by normal, good people since they’ve been socialized to do so since birth. Learning how systems work and intersect with each other is a major increase in competency when it comes to engaging with social issues as an activist.

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The problem with approaching these issues solely through design, however, is that culture doesn’t run like a well-oiled machine to produce exactly what some sort of directive sets out to make. People, and culture itself, is a creative force that makes messy meanings from within the bounds of the systemic forces. Gender, racial, sexual, and other identities are often described as being “expressed” or tied to some analogy involving performance. I find that this sort of expression is thought of as a nice bonus at best when designers go to tackle these problems, instead aiming to change some sort of behavior or level of knowledge. I think that if we’re going to use design to interrogate issues surrounding various systems of marginalization, we’re going to need as much of the arts’ sensibilities as we’re going to need design’s.

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There’s another problem with this though, as design and art are often separated, with what is good art and what is good design relying on this separation. This is troublesome for us because we need perspectives and sensibilities from areas dubbed either design or art, and we need institutions, organizations, spaces, and society to treat our potential work as both. Designed objects imply a sort of utility or popular use, such in architecture or furniture, while art is supposed to be ultimately useless and purely aesthetic. Neither camp can truly satisfy our needs here; we need the utility and usability of design with the creative expressions afforded to us by art. This is a false binary we don’t need to respect, but we still need to start somewhere.

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A useful example for a field of work that sits between the struggle of design vs art are games and game developers. Though most people in the game design industry are blissfully unaware of this tension in institutions outside of it, games, particularly video games, are trying to work out differences between the design and artistic needs of developers and players. Primarily thought of as a design field, games eventually became recognized as art and more creators are making games purely from an expressive point of view. In one hand, you had systems of rules that implored the player to display certain behavior, while in the other, the ability for the player to make meaning and appropriate games for their own creative uses.

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To further complicate this binary, I’m going to be speaking from a very specific conversation residing in games right now, about queerness in games, or at least, what could it mean for a game to be queer. Picking up steam in 2012, video games experienced a particular rise in DIY game making culture that was noticeably queer, mostly represented by trans women. As a result, creative and theoretical work that challenges the norms of game design were produced in relation to a population of creators that held activism or at least radical politics as a large part of their identity and work. Now, your work doesn’t necessarily need to be queer or a game to follow along with the ideas I’m fleshing out here, rather, I’m using this question of queerness in games and some leads on answers to it to frame how we could change our view on design and art and get to a practice that allows us to create for activism.

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Queer is a tricky term, and that’s kind of the point. I don’t necessarily want to give you a set-in-stone definition, but I like what Naomi Clark says here because it exposes a little of her design background. It’s a highly political term that designates a norm, something that is legible and valuable to wider culture, and implies there are different instances of illegibility outside of that. She would go on to describe queer as slippery, always shifting as what was accepted and normal shifted. Clark recognizes that there are systems at play here, but queerness is outside the ones that make sense. It is a meeting of the systemic and creative.

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Theoretical work in queer/of color critique and studies has some imaginings of this slippery identity. Both Norma Alarcón and José Esteban Muñoz make this figure to be in liminal, contradictory space, illegible to normative society but still very much a real body. Alarcón’s “not yet, that’s not it” requires an identity to be put forward and the recognition that it isn’t fully developed, it’s something, but not who the minoritized subject is. Muñoz’ writing on disidentification doesn’t see a subject purely identify with an experience in creative work but not wholly reject it either; this subject instead uses that imperfect imagining from dominant culture against itself. So as we see here, we can’t be creating work that just allows people identify themselves in it or act in a way that completely discards what society puts upon them. Instead, the implication is we’re to create for the appropriative impulses of identities we don’t have a full grasp on.

 

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This sits in conflict to the current paradigm of games for social change. Dubbed the genre of Serious Games, game design methodology from the entertainment industry and gamification were deployed in attempt to get players to care about various social issues. Though widely adopted and funded as educational, serious games are routinely criticized for being ineffective in their goal, mostly because they come from a strong design approach, missing the creative aspects afforded to people by play. Queerness in games intends to confront this problem through combining design knowledge with expressive intention, both on the part of the author and the players.

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One could say that the perspective of queerness in games is chiefly in conflict with normative game design from how much it’s preoccupation with being an entertainment object passes down oppressive values uncritically. Here citing Keith Burgun, merritt kopas delineates here how activities in games trains players in the values of capitalism by, first, designating games as something that requires leisure time, implying you must have work time, and then by using your leisure time to advance yourself. This sort of design doesn’t really help players think about systems nor how to creatively resist them, rather it teaches people how to be good citizens of such systems.

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It is common for designer to overlook the messages their games communicate to players for a multitude of reasons, but the main being few consider that the systems in games are political in nature and hold within them values that the player acts out. Even seemingly benign games like the pervasive Minecraft create a space where old colonial and contemporary imperialist fantasies are acted out in the common ‘virgin land is yours to completely conquer and mold’ video game scenario. It’s also worth mentioning that when games choose to represent marginalized bodies or themes, it’s in service to a presumed hegemonic identity and value system.

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These instrumentalized and exploitative methods of design come about from a conventional player-product relationship. Instead, Clark and kopas suggest elevating games from objecthood to agents in their own right, and focusing our attention on the relationship between people and games. It’s a relational approach that is open to people appropriating whatever the original context for the game is and allowing the game to stand for its own values without necessarily needing to entice a player based on the values of capitalism and imperialism. This highlights our relationship and bonds towards both designed systems and creative expression.

 

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Picking up references from actor-network-theory, there’s a clear link to how we can create around people’s relationships to politics through creative work that speaks to both design and art. Enter in Donna Haraway’s concept of the cyborg, which paints people not as beings with isolated, naturalized identities, but participants in networks of relations organized by politics. Using the blur between the organic and inorganic as a working image for our relationship with politics, Haraway shows that we cannot think of ourselves as an independent being with an identity etched in stone for us at birth. This imbues human-game relations with the political gravity that we need to manipulate for our activist work.

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This is a big challenge to how popular activism works, which is based on naturalized identities, focuses on the subjects as objects, and enforces a one-way hierarchical relationship. When we stay on this level for advocacy, we are stuck with questions and solutions for mere representation of identities as our method of resistance. When we open up our understandings of ourselves as nodes of relations, not only do we have a deeper understanding of how politics move about society, but we create systems of expression that link playful relations between humans and games with more contemporary and even futuristic activist concerns.

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All of this builds up to a small but very important shift in focus from creating games to creating play. Game design is product-oriented by focusing on what the player will be doing within the object, aiming to impart an experience directly within its bounds. Play creation would focus on exaggerating the relationship between agents, be them humans and games or humans with other humans, or even humans with the pervasive social systems of our lived lives. Game objects are completely utilitarian in in the way they exist with humans, most typically to entertain, but often also to get people to do something or gain certain habits. Creating play retains this openness, freeness that doesn’t need to be dominated by use in order to exist.

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However, we want to go beyond the binary of design vs art, which includes use vs uselessness. Tying this all together, queerness in games, and the possible perspective we need to take for activist action for contemporary issues, must be the struggle within the web of relations outlined by Haraway that makes movements towards imagined futures. Play in itself does not have to carry the baggage of uselessness in spite of conventional understanding of the word, but rather be a method of acting out and embodying new values that change the tenor of relations between ourselves, other people, and the systems that organize us.

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These are ways to act out our “not yet” identities, to create a disidentificatory relationship with the media we consume. In the current conversations about representation in media, there’s a clearly outlined end goal of the depiction of marginalized people in ways and places that serve the original interests of hegemony. Claiming relations of “not yet” is potentially infinite, a more honest representation of the relationships in our lives. Relationships don’t merely solve themselves and return agents to places of homeostasis, rather warp and change in little ways over time that settle some things while creating new ways of relating.

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I’ve been railing against design a lot, but there’s much to challenge on the art side of the equation as well. Back in the 1950s and 60s, performance art came into relevance and challenged the values of the art world, particularly by performing their art in the chaos of everyday life and emphasizing the participatory presence of other people. Happenings in particular were a strain of performance art that submerged itself into the motions of life outside the museum, often with a performer acting out their piece without anyone around them realizing anything is going on.

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In his manifesto on Happenings, which he coined, Allan Kaprow outlines numerous ways in how this art should fold into the fabric of the mundane instead of rupturing it for the purposes of art. In fact, Kaprow warns against using art as inspiration for creation, and implies Happenings and similar performances aren’t art, but something beyond such an institution. Happenings prove to be a super useful starting point to see how we can start creating relational work that, along with play and the cyborg, create space for us to proclaim “not yet” but still work to imagine what that “yet” might actually be.

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Because the influence of art would encourage us more into that realm of uselessness and suited for the gallery space, Kaprow suggests using the mundanity of our lives to inspire our creative work. This method forces a creator to look at the relationships already existent in life to emphasize in their work instead of making something so conceptual it becomes unattainable. This also focuses our creative attention on the lives we’re looking to express or change, involving whole bodies and not just conceptual imagined selves. I really believe that this honesty is important for work that wants to speak to the matrix of systems that influence our lives.

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This then sets the stage for enacting real change through creative expression, grounding performative spectacles through qualities of our lives and rupturing the essentialized narratives that society erects to obscure it dominating social systems. Through the performances of many queer creators, Muñoz evokes the concept of counterpublics, expressions of daily lives that society must ignore to keep its narrative intact. Creating these counterpublics acts as a model for intervention and lends agency to act out our “not yet” ideals.

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Performance is a strong theme in what I’m purposing, like taking the performative nature of identities like gender and race as inspiration for spectacles of performance to create counterpublics. Performance art has strong ties to play, politics, and activism that cannot be ignored by creatives looking to tap into interactive methods of resistance and expression. There is already some language surrounding games that deal with performance, and further delineating a history of play that involved performance art traditions would enrich our understanding of games.

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It is good to end this on a reminder that no one person or piece of work is going to solve social oppression. This sort of work needs to retain the “not yet,” looking forward while believing we can attain what we set out for. Much like queerness, our needs and ideals are constantly shifting, moving along as what was queer becomes normative, and new perspectives highlight areas for growth and resistance. This is attainable if we look around our lives for the basis of our creative process instead of the overarching narratives sold to us through the design vs art schism. Adopting this mentality would surely change the field of play and games as it currently stands, and challenge how institutions are involved with perpetuating dominating politics. With this, I truly think we can begin to surmount many of the obstacles design and art have with activism, including giving agency to those who are continually kept out to create for themselves.

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Hate and Ignorance

Hate is a strong word used unusually often. It creates a sense of urgency, finality, that we’re at an end-point so far removed from the place we want to be and intervention is necessary. It’s one of those words, like privilege, that is widely adopted in talking about systemic oppression that can instantaneously put a person on the defensive; “but I live with so much hardship, I can’t be privileged,” “I have many loved ones who are black, I can’t hate black people.” When words with certain nuances from a particular discourse enters popular discussion, it’s easy for them to turn single-use and be used with less finesse. Hate, now, is somewhere between an ingrained disposition and what is lawfully a hate crime. To be accused of hate is to be accused of having criminal tendencies, that you are of an unhealthy disposition needing to be dealt with by various governmental institutions. To be designated as hateful can lose you your job, industry reputation, friends, and other connections that come from public shaming. So, by necessity, people avoid exhibiting anything that might be seen as hateful, or more commonly, feel fine where they are at if they don’t believe themselves able to commit an out-right hate crime. If you can display a purity of moral character, you are therefore moral. I want to complicate this a bit.

I mostly avoid using the word hate, or words that define themselves by hate or fear, in my personal practice with engaging with politics. It’s a decision I made when I realized how ineffective as a term it is when we rely on the conventional definition of ‘hate.’ First off, I don’t think most of the people that we need to reach with advocacy hate in this manner; they are not people who hold, intrinsically, the will to subjugate other people. Secondly, when there are displays of literal hate, it monopolizes people’s attention, creating currently discussed binaries of censorship versus political awareness. Should Republicans that actively say nasty things about minorities be allowed to ascend to presidency? If this level of inquiry is what consumes your thoughts the most, you haven’t approached the struggle that actually affects marginalized people just yet.

Instead I want to revisit our other much-detested term, privilege. One of the many ways you can define and explain privilege is ‘the ability to ignore.’ With this, we can set up some theming around why such a term needed to be coined, like having privilege means certain social oppressions affect you so minimally that you don’t notice them. This also implies its reverse, that socially minoritized people cannot ignore effects of oppression since it is completely ingrained into their daily lives. One might become dulled to it, or believe that’s just how life is, but would not react with shock or disbelief in the way someone with privilege would. This might be a preferable angle since it takes off what is distasteful about the common use of privilege to those who have it while also stressing what is actionable, that is, forcing the privileged out of their own curated bubbles. In my own practice, the point isn’t to get people to feel more or less valued based on their privileges, rather gain an awareness that their perspective on life is shaped by social systems and in need of a forced rupture. Ignorance is how marginalizing behavior is most commonly expressed, and so I feel the nuance of our language should reflect that.

So, what is hate then? I feel like I’ve read some quote somewhere about the most hateful thing a person could do is not violence, or spiteful, or outwardly malevolent, but to be completely indifferent. To act as if you weren’t there, or didn’t matter. Their life would be exactly the same whether you were alive or dead. Hate, in this context, is the way we make others incidental in our lives. It’s the way we isolate ourselves in environments with people similar to us so we don’t have to look at what is happening to others. It’s normalizing the suffering of others so their pain isn’t something you need to keep track of. It’s allowing activist action to be the work of the oppressed instead of yours. It’s all the ways that you allow yourself to ignore. Here, hate shares more with complacency than malevolence, and within this context, implicates a larger range of people. Here, hate is cold, it’s unthinking, it’s empty. Here, hate just doesn’t want to feel. It doesn’t want to care. Apathy is a much more contemporary issue than outright bigotry.

I wouldn’t start using ‘hate’ right away, especially not without establishing this particular angle I’m going for before I do. It’s still very strong to say “You hate women,” even with this laid out. We keep the word because we want to keep that power. I think it’s a helpful shift in language when wanting to communicate more nuanced and contemporary problems with oppression, and in trying to understand your own role without needing to identify with the elitism that feels inherent in the terms privilege and hate. Hate as cold and unaware creates other avenues for creative expression on the topic, especially for art created from privileged perspectives. This mass complacency on social issues is the contemporary expression of hate, maybe not actively wanting problems to go away or sort themselves out, but fashioning their lives so that’s the only option available.

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Thoughts on gentrification, globalization, and tech

Gentrification is a topic constantly in the back of my mind. I think it’s because it’s an expression of systemic forces that you can actually witness and track when you look for it. You see battle-lines in neighborhoods, where only a block separates new cafes that specialize in fair trade cold brews furnished with expertly tarnished wood stools full of only white people and older bakeries where no one reads from the menus and chat like they’ve known each other for some time now. There are two kinds of familiarity, the first being a sign of quality and the new global minimalist aesthetic, and the second, a sense from the places we grew up, a place where people exude belonging. The former is in a constant rate at erasing the latter, and I know I’m a part of that process.

Working through being a gentrifier is one of the most fraught acknowledgements I’ve faced, both with myself and other people. No one wants to purposefully displace local populations from their homes, but they are. Wrestling with how to stop or work against gentrification feels impossible, because you’ve likely already done the one thing that makes the strongest impact: moving from a suburb to a cheaper urban neighborhood. Of my peers who grew up in suburbs, very few wanted to stay there; instead, most wanted to move into a city where there’s a stronger sense of culture and the benefits that come along with that. But the rate of people moving from suburbs to cities isn’t matching the development of affordable housing, so original residents of cities get displaced.

My story: I grew up in a suburb of Fort Lauderdale, one the major cities in South Florida. I struggled often with class and race issues when it came to geographical cultures, as my parents aren’t from the US and we lived in a poorer suburb next to the city I went to school in. From when I was young, I dreamed about moving to California, and when I started to learn more about queer advocacy, specifically San Francisco. Life felt boring in a place meant to be living spaces for 9-5 workers; I was to be an artist and be a part of radical communities and march in protests. All the things you imagine of an older San Francisco. This isn’t an unreasonable wish, especially for someone who is queer and wants to be closer to queer resources and safe spaces. But when I arrived in the bay area in 2012, when it became extremely apparently the world that the tech industry was becoming a dominant force again in our lives, I saw something painful. The diversity and advocacy for more radical politics San Francisco came to be known for was twisted, in an atmosphere that assumed oppression was well-fought or over, and the remaining work could be handled by technological solutions. Non-white and queer people were mostly hanging on by a thread in the east bay while affluent white people indulged in the hipster aesthetic that would emblemize gentrification for at least our country. I watched ending stages of gentrification in the Mission and a large push at Oakland. Now, I’m in Brooklyn, and it feels like deja vu. Except that I’m a part of it, and I can’t really not be unless I go back to Florida, back to my old neighborhood, where I never want to be ever again in my life.

My, and other’s, attraction to cities is of an imagined culture we wish to be a part of. We have national, global, ideas of San Francisco, ideas of New York, and its that we aim to live in an recreate once we move. But the people who already live here have their own local cultures that are not necessarily a part of this global imagining. I think gentrification, it’s creep, is a part of this globalization narrative emboldened by technology. Instead of being ‘isolated’ we are now global citizens and we share a larger, overarching culture, and physical location is something in the way, a continued disavowment of bodies by technodeterministic ideals. This relationship with design ideals and displacement is complicated, since a lot of the forces of gentrification just want things to be better; better for the neighborhood, better for the people, better for themselves. But the chosen aesthetic and methods echo colonial ideals of wanting to civilize savage lands, and it just happens that the original inhabitants can’t afford to live there anymore. Of all places, a review on Amazon about a publication I indulge in that caters to this aesthetic you see in gentrified places sums up what is going on:

“After thumbing through three-hundred-plus pages, it occurs to me that the Kinfolk cookbook is a variation on a single theme: the creation of a life lived in an Anthropologie catalog. It’s the reason why we get lost in blogs and the lives of strangers. We want to be happy, always. We want a life free of storms and sorrow. We want our linens, and bowls, and kitchens with reclaimed wood – and in this way, Kinfolk succeeds, for its America is rarefied and specific, rife with denizens who are preened to dishabille perfection and apply pretty filters to their photos[…] While escapism looks lovely on paper, in practice it’s difficult and expensive.”

Over lunch today I had a conversation with someone working in food security and justice about getting resources to food deserts. When we were discussing the strategies they employed in their line of work, a theme of compromised solutions with gentrifiers came up over and over again. Putting things like farmers’ markets makes the neighborhood more appetizing to people, as the markets in under-served neighborhoods are cheaper and the cost of living still relatively low. Any shows of local art or flea markets also attract gentrifiers and, at best, open up opportunities of exploitation and appropriation of local cultures. Worn architecture marked with the patina of people living there become trendy, inviting tours, especially when the first craft distillery opens up in a warehouse somewhere near enough the market. It’s almost like this global culture seeks to deny local cultures appreciating their own beauty. If it’s valuable, global culture feels like it should be ‘shared’ by all, or really, just the privileged.

When thinking on what to do, how to fight gentrification, my current place is trying to assimilate as much as I can into the local culture I arrived in without fooling myself that I’m a native. It means going to the bodegas and restaurants that don’t look new but have been neighborhood institutions. It’s been trying to patron places that have comparable demographics inside their establishment to the one on the street. It’s also figuring out how I can contribute to the neighborhood without making it into a tourist spot for potential gentrifiers. I definitely want to further understand more of what’s complicated about this and express it in my work. But if there’s something I know a lot of people could do, it’s talk about this more, make it a conversation that can come up more naturally and less defensively. Because looking for who is at fault isn’t really going to find our answer, rather challenging the values of our society and the dream of a globalized culture lead by the machinations of technology and its industries.

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Diversity of Existence

A necessary evolution in the ‘diversity in games’ conversation is starting to show itself, a product of enough time having passed from when many companies have made pledges but little seems to be changing. Between making news as the home of the largest organized harassment campaign the world has known and being tied to a tech industry pressured to release their demographics and improve their practices, the topic of diversity has become mainly a PR platform rather than taking on an ideology. Companies are doing it first because there’s social repercussions for being caught doing otherwise, and using those who actually care to do the work for them. I do believe that people inside companies have come to value diversity in the past years, yet they are aligned with their obligation to make their company money first, so all diversity initiatives must fall in line with business motives in some way or another. Many a GDC talk has promised that diversity is profitable, and framing it in such a way was meant to get companies to start adopting a more progressive stance on the issue. But in actuality, there couldn’t be anything further from the truth. As we come to understand the true reasons we want or need diversity, as a field and larger culture, it will have little if anything to do with companies making more money.

In their piece for Model View Culture on Intel’s presence at IndieCade, Veve Jaffa outlines what’s been rumbling on the outskirts of games conferences for quite some time now: companies and organizations want marginalized creators to contribute to their events, but with little to no compensation for the work. The most egregious offender of this GDC, which is for-profit yet has the most extensive process for extracting labor for talks given for one of their passes, which gets most of its value from the talks being outsourced for free. This is the case for all speakers, but especially so for the diversity track, which depends on creators who have to self-fund in order to attend the event, which is itself expensive being downtown in San Francisco. Being at the center of the video game industry, many events and organizations follow the same model, where asking for compensation for contributing to a games event is most typically out of the question. Like GDC, Intel is using people who are, as a result of being marginalized, poorer to act as their move for redemption, to look good rather than be good. As Veve notes, most of my encounters with Intel’s funding has been purely through food, drinks, and parties, not in any way that lifts me or people like me up to contend with the current structural issues. The problem boils down to how companies and audiences are interpreting the vague use of ‘diversity.’ Right now, people envision games staying primarily the same but the demographics of the companies and the characters in games reflecting society’s. Once that’s accomplished, job done, we can stop diversifying. Except, that’s not celebrating diversity, it’s forced assimilation. It’s the Borg. Moving past marginalization isn’t getting those on the outskirts to look like those in the center, it’s having an environment that allows different people to exist as they are without capitulating to the culture of the industry.

We get some hints of what that is and how it comes about in a post by John Sharp about this relationship between conferences and the marginalized that Veve cites in their article. Many of the avenues that John refers to are funding sourced by for-profit entities or nonprofit ones acting on behalf of creators (there’s a good amount of funding that can’t be accessed by anyone who isn’t distinctly registered as a nonprofit). Further, the concerns these types of funding address are artistic, supporting the arts. It is more interested in sustaining artistic communities than getting marginalized people creating profitable work. Particularly with recent waves of DIY cultures and more people making expressive games that don’t aim to turn a profit themselves, marginalized people by and large are doing more experimental work where making entertainment products for money isn’t the main goal. So the increase in visibility of people from the margins hasn’t been to flock to corporations, rather that they want to make work on their own terms and have an ecosystem which supports them. People in games may now roll their eyes at the “Are games art?” question, but the industry itself hasn’t been acting like there are games made for artistic reasons. People making games but not wanting to sell them like commercial indies are seen as an aberration or self-inflicted problem. At the very least, artists in other fields can apply for residencies and fellowships, but such opportunities are extraordinarily rare for those who work in this field. I think it’s super apt how many people are trying to make a platform called Patreon work, because there is a complete lack of patrons for people like us on any institutional level.

Point being, enacting the ideals of diversity will irrevocably change the field of games. It will challenge the industry, challenge society, and ultimately nothing will look the same. Diversity in games must aim to restructure how power and resources are distributed, and recognize that many marginalized people aren’t attracted to the industry and can hold them in the same company as those who are. There are definitely marginalized folks who are in the industry who like it there and want further support, and there are also ones who want to be commercial independent successes. Those aren’t the only, and I suspect majority, of those that these diversity initiatives need to address. And I haven’t even touched the ecosystem where marginalized people try to write critically about games! Will games criticism never see the light of day because it doesn’t cater straight into industry narratives? People have been creating off the beaten path for a while now and they shouldn’t be abandoned because they don’t fall into the usual narrative of eventually joining the industry. This isn’t even just about creation after the fact, but also how we understand games overall. I’ve had many conversations over the past few weeks with professors and curators who want to diversify what games they show but struggle to find work by underrepresented folks that are still exemplary of what we conventionally value as games. And that’s the point: people coming from different perspectives, backgrounds, educations, life experiences, they are going to hold different values and employ different types of craft. Showing diversity should expand how games and their creators exist, it should be celebrating difference, not assimilation.

Which is why many of these Diversity in Games initiatives ring hollow for people like me on the ground floor; the only time I saw anything of Intel’s money was at a bar. I’d rather have it in my bank account for groceries, rent, networking events, travel to paying gigs, and paying gigs themselves. Given my track record of events I’ve attended and ran, or the kinds of talks I’ve given and audiences I attract, I wouldn’t be creating anything in service to the industry and I aim on keeping that trajectory. It’s for a fuller future for play and games as a creative field that I work for, where more modes of expression can exist and therefore allow more people to create and play. Anything short of that isn’t the diversity that is actually going to help those traditionally overlooked.

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Things I want the men in my life to know

I’ve gotten to a point, both as someone constantly engaging with social change and as a healthy human being, where I need to actively and thoughtfully incorporate men in my life. This might sound like a strange thing to announce, but it’s actually pretty important, for me and a bunch of other people. Obviously I’ve been close to men before, both as intimate partners and friends, peers and co-workers. As I dive deeper into embodying the change I want in the world, my relationship with men has become fraught. I notice power imbalances, harmful behaviors, and a general lack of understanding when it comes to how oppression and marginalization occurs in day-to-day interactions. While some people can go through their lives with men mostly on the outskirts or in limited quantities, how I move through the world isn’t accommodated by that. My interest in and need of anti-oppression work outside of gender and sexuality requires partnerships with men. The fields I work in are dominated by men, therefore it is likely that the majority of my connections will also be men. And possibly more importantly, I expect to date mostly men, and I want some base understanding that we change the world on the ground level, between people we care about, as much as we do on the policy and media ones.

What follows is a list of notes I created, sort of lessons from what I’ve personally learned from my relationship with men. I’m posting it publicly because I think it will be useful for others, and I want those I get close to in the future to easily find it. I don’t think men are lost causes, and if I refer someone to this list, it’s not that you are particularly bad. No guy is going to need every lesson on this list, nor any of them in the most literal sense. In reality, people of all genders can benefit from following all these thoughts I have, but I want to present them in the context of struggling with contemporary masculinity. As a precaution, I want to remind people that no one is required to educate anyone, especially at their own expense. I’m writing this and making an active effort because I’ve arrived to a part of my life where I do have the want and energy. I’ve tried wrestling with how masculinity affected my relationship with men in the past and realized it all went wrong because I didn’t have the time nor energy for it. No matter what, you, nor I, will be able to grow alone, and we have to learn where we can find opportunity for growth while staying savvy of social issues and how it continues to change us.

Don’t read this all in one go. Skim it, see what strikes you. I want this to be something that serves as talking points for multiple conversations over time, and it starts with awareness. This isn’t a paint by numbers, nor a how-to really. It’s more like some real talk, having it here in writing so you know it’s coming rather than a complete surprise. Some reads as accusatory, and it is a little, but a lot has to do with taking care of yourself. I know it’s long, so I bolded the main ideas in each part. It would mean a lot if you took the time to read it all however, I put work into it!

 

Where you are now

One of the most difficult things to do when becoming aware of power dynamics informed by oppression is the first: understanding what is immutably you, and what can change. The first line of resistance you will find will come in the form of “I’m just hardwired this way” or “it’s biological,” assuming that some aspect of yourself is just etched in stone and cannot change. While there are some biological and chemical effects that shape who you are, there needs to be a hard look at what you were socialized to do, and what is actually a product of your body. If you didn’t hear it from a personal physician or other medical expert diagnosing you, it’s likely that you haven’t challenged a concerning aspect of yourself enough to know that it’s something you can change. You aren’t bound to some sort of hunter-gatherer method of dealing with women, nor are you more prone to violence because of your hormones. You were trained to be a certain way through cultural socialization since the day you were born. Throughout life, you’ve built yourself around this socialization, so it’s difficult to imagine yourself outside of it. The good news is that there is a you outside of the harmful behaviors taught to you by society, and there are plenty of people in the world who actively resisted and crafted themselves as people to accommodate that. You going to have to fight a lot of “but this is just reality” impulses when it comes to challenging socialization, and it’s ultimately your call what goes and what stays. Just know that it’s going to happen so you can be intentional about what you do decide to keep and let go.

Before going on any self-improvement journey, it’s critical to not put yourself or your progress in a success vs failure binary. There is a particular expectation men have to always be successful and to lose sense of themselves when they are failing. When it comes to challenging how you perpetuate unhealthy power dynamics, you, everyone, will always be a work in progress. There isn’t an end-point, at least, not for us, so you won’t ever be a success nor a failure. Not only does this mean that you can’t frame yourself that way, to either feel complicit in what you accomplished nor eternally damned, but you also will see me that way, as a growing human being trying as hard as anyone else. Not an idol, not perfect, just human, like you.

This process is going to take a lot of self-awareness, a kind of self-awareness you’re not often asked to develop. You will have to have a good sense of your motivations and the reasons why you do things. Society has let you get by with certain behaviors as “quirks” or “that’s just how guys are.” It is important to double-check your gut reactions to see if you’re not throwing around power unintentionally. You’ve been allowed to insert yourself, take up space, and speak over others without comment because it’s expected of you to do it. This doesn’t mean you can’t speak or be places, rather that you’re making sure you’ve taken a second to recognize that you’re not intruding and trampling over others.

Because a lot of socialization is centered around serving masculinity, people who aren’t men are given different metrics of success and relevance, as judged by said men. You probably have heard of objectification and exotification before, behaviors men display towards people who aren’t men that assesses their worth. On top of meeting the standards men create for themselves, objectified people must excel at one exaggerated function men find valuable (being attractive, willing to do unsavory manual labor) and exotified people must fulfill a man’s curiosity based solely on their stereotype (exaggerate certain physical features, act as ambassador to another culture). These attitudes are rarely obvious in day-to-day interactions, but they lie at the very base of how men construct their understanding of other people. This means paying more attention to someone in non-intimate contexts because you find them attractive while unintentionally shunning those you don’t, because their looks are at the core of how you’ve been taught to value them.

 

How you value

Men are taught to overestimate themselves and people like them. This is often construed only for men that are completely egotistical, but this also affects insecure, self-deprecating men. First, this leads you to assuming you don’t really need to learn or improve at certain things, especially if no one has brought it up to you enough. If you believe you are capable, and there’s a conflict of competency, this casts doubt on the other person instead of you coming to terms whether or not you should be asserting as much confidence as you are. Second, this sets you up for your own failure and losing a disproportionate amount of self-worth because you identify with being capable at everything. You won’t question the competency of people like you as much because of this overestimation, leading to homogeneous environments where everyone looks and acts the same.

In turn, you underestimate those who aren’t like you. If men surround themselves with, and in turn only seem to respect, people who are similar, then difference is seen as a deficit or risk that needs to prove competency. You are more likely to attribute someone being right or successful to luck or outside help if they are different to you. You can undermine other people by tasking them to constantly live up to another set of standards until you are satisfied, if you ever are. This probably sounds very confrontational, but in my experiences it comes out in small, well-intended ways, like doubting whether I can take care of myself or questioning my understanding of my career path despite my success.

Because you’ve surrounded yourself in that kind of dynamic, a homogeneous sorting of people similar to you and those who are different only appearing in instrumental ways, you’ve grown to assume that your logic and boundaries are normative. Since so many people think and act like you, then others are outliers or have problems, while the way you think and the opinions you have are more right because of an assumed widespread acceptance. This is particularly salient with safety concerns, like needing to reach a certain level of informed consent for intimate interactions to assuming that if you don’t feel threatened, no one should. Again, it’s not combative, it’s more that you don’t realize when you cross a boundary because you assume everyone has the same ones, and therefore, you don’t have a good sense of your own boundaries. It’s a challenge, but coming up against the idea that you’re normal, or the everyman, or even an iconic special snowflake that has a prescribed place will really open you up to internalizing that others aren’t inherently inferior to you.

To solve this, accepting that multiple viewpoints and experiences can be right will help decentralize yourself from places you shouldn’t be. Not in a liberal arts class “every opinion is correct” sort of way, but that what you don’t have the facts on isn’t up for your dismissal. Just because you can’t believe something to be true, since it’s never happened to you, doesn’t mean it isn’t. I find that this happens the most when it’s going to make a man feel shitty or that he’s done something wrong and wants to escape feeling guilty. This is particularly crucial to understand for when someone expresses their personal experiences, to not veto them out because they don’t match up to what you understand to be facts, but is instead most likely an incomplete picture. Conflicting personal experiences doesn’t mean one is invalid, work on understanding the world where both and others can exist.

 

Expectations

Since we were young, we had different expectations depending on what gender people thought we were. You likely had lower expectations to be capable of skills and behaviors related to relationships and domesticity. Because of this, you unconsciously expect others to pick up that slack, as it is an assumption you wouldn’t be as good so the other should take charge. While it might seem like you’re admitting a weakness or it’s better off that you don’t mess things up, emotional and domestic labor is often forced upon others and not recognized. It is assumed that women in particular will take care of you, and no matter how independent or modern man you feel, you will expect for them to continue doing it for you since you don’t try hard enough to become competent yourself. This sets you and other people for stereotypical problems that disproportionately harms those with less power.

On the flip side, I find that guys expect acknowledgement and sometimes reward for things that should be done out of basic decency. It’s the “nice guy” routine, a guy who will feel ignored or spiteful if it isn’t commented on that he listens, helps, or does any emotional/domestic labor that men typically don’t do. This establishes an exploitative relationship where you will only be decent to someone if they fulfill you in some way. You assume that this is extra or going out of your way while you expect others to do it for you at all times. When you’re asked to do more of it, you will feel like you’re putting in more than you actually do.

Many people want to believe that they are intrinsically egalitarian. The typical man, and probably you, thinks that people of all genders should be treated exactly the same, and believe you’ve acted that way since day one. Unfortunately, what seems like egalitarian to you probably still works in your favor, where you allocate tasks and responsibilities that give you more power, time, and energy than others. You will still gravitate towards “mens work” which is valued more yet doesn’t deal with a lot of daily, unrecognized minutia. You will have to reorganize responsibilities to a system isn’t decided by gender expectations despite what you think your skill level is.

I have this memory of being in a discussion about gender expectations in school that seems really mundane but really twists my guts when I think about it. We were talking about the sexual double-standard between men and women when it came to amounts of sexual partners, where it’s understood that men are allowed to have many and feel good about it while women are shamed for the same behavior. When asked how he felt about it, a classmate of mine said he always knew of the double-standard, and benefited from it, “but that’s just the way things are.” There are more subtle examples of this, such as not questioning that it’s disproportionately women volunteering to run events while you get to participate in them, or a partner staying over your place because you have the more pressing job to get to in the morning. You need to question whether something working in your favor is fair, even if someone doesn’t speak up about it.

 

Social support

Through both research and my own experience, I’ve found that men don’t have very strong emotional support networks. It’s important that you have a few deep one-on-one relationships with others who are not your intimate partners. Men tend to reserve all their emotional unloading for partners, and this is a really unhealthy habit since you might not always be in a relationship or you have feelings about your relationship that requires an outside perspective. Someone you just do activities with or those you only see in group settings don’t count, it’s a person who you can call up and will immediately listen to all you have to say and allow you emote in every way you want to. Don’t require sexual engagement with someone in order to talk about your feelings.

When reviewing the state of your social support network, there are a couple of things you need to keep an eye out for. First, do you have deep platonic relationships with other men that can talk about issues without usual “man’s talk” about feelings? I find that men are embarrassed to talk to their guy friends about emotions in the first place, but even when they get there, keep it in a crappy “we’re totally not gay” realm where sexism and other harmful attitudes keep spaces between them. Secondly, is your network diverse or only people who are like you? If you can only talk to other men who are most likely in your same position but not willing to admit it, you will be stuck in a toxic echo chamber that doesn’t actually help you and goads you into trying to work things out on your own. You have to make an active effort to have different people around you who have different strengths and can spot when you’re being held up by harmful socialization.

Don’t reserve your “true self” for intimate relationships. While it might seem romantic, it encourages you to keep distant from others and not invite the social support you need. It also pushes you and your intimate partner in a trope-filled “woman tries to fix broken man” situation which is a sure recipe for disaster. It’s common in my experience for men to not feel present in relationships unless it becomes intimate, which commonly marks others as less worthwhile because they are not sexual objects to them. You need to practice being open and forthcoming at every opportunity, and it’s better to do that in low-stakes situations like friendships than waiting and failing in an intense intimacy.

Related, it’s often the case that men aren’t thought of as particularly caring people, and eventually people will assume you don’t really have the capacity to care when you don’t make an effort to show that you do. This means partaking in a lot of the emotional and domestic labor you are accustomed to receiving but not giving, making sure a relationship on any level isn’t one-sided. You tend to only focus on the state of the relationship when it has a clear benefit for you or it’s in danger of being lost, and that is prevented with regular maintenance. You can’t assume that someone knows you care because you are probably not socialized to express it in ways that are visible to others.

 

Wrestling with vulnerability

This is where it actually gets tough. I haven’t had more struggle with men than when it comes with being vulnerable. In short, you need to become more comfortable with vulnerability, both in feeling and expressing it. Vulnerability comes from strength, not weakness, and you need to tell that to yourself over and over again. Find opportunities where you can practice it safely, and eventually be able to share vulnerability with another person when opportunities come up spontaneously.

You expect people different from you, especially women, to be vulnerable while simultaneously associating vulnerability with weakness. It is exploitative to stall out until the other person opens up and you retain control and power while you decide how much to reveal of yourself. This isn’t necessarily a conscious strategy nor do you do it out of malice. It is another expectation for someone else to do emotional labor for you while you keep everything at your own pace. You ignore the needs of someone else by placing your comfort over theirs, forcing them to pry information out of you until you completely shut down on them.

There is a famous quote by Margaret Atwood that pertains to your relationship with vulnerability: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” There is no doubt that we all feel anxiety and pain and have wounds from our past. You, however, inflate the risk and potential pain of being vulnerable while other people have legitimate, material effects from theirs. It is more likely that a woman will get abused or killed by her intimate partner, date, or friend than by a stranger. Other marginalized people run great risks of being physically harmed or socially destroyed by being vulnerable, and often you don’t run anything near that risk. It’s important to recognize that you feel pain and hurt, just realize that it just takes a band-aid to heal yours while it would take hospitalization for others.

Given this, it’s imperative that you take the first step in initiating vulnerability when it’s appropriate. You run lower risks, such as being embarrassed, than I do, such as being socially ostracized and/or killed. This will begin to reverse the cycle of you expecting emotional labor and establishing a power dynamic that allows you to keep distant. This could mean speaking up when someone does or says something shitty when a person would risk being silenced and you wouldn’t. This also includes being involved with someone’s safety in environments that are potentially hostile to them, especially if you brought them there.

 

Communication

Not only is it a pervasive trope, but it is well researched that men don’t have as strong communication skills that they expect women to have. So, to put it simply, you honestly need to learn how to communicate emotions well. You hear it all the time, that communication is the most important part of relationships, yet you put off actually understanding what that means and how to get yourself to be a deft communicator. This means learning to reflect, identifying your emotions, and sharing them with someone else. We all communicate in different ways, but expecting someone else to read your mind or just not care about feelings at all is actively harmful and a common thing men do.

While speaking and contributing your input is important to communication, listening is so much more. Listening isn’t just hearing what the other person is saying, it’s understanding why they said what they did, believing what they feel, and remembering it for when it’s relevant. When someone is speaking, you shouldn’t be selective about the information you choose to hear so you can form a rebuttal, even if it’s to help them. Sometimes people don’t want your input or to do anything other than listen, and listening should signal that for you. Listening is doing something.

As I’ve said before, socialization affects you to your core, down to how you conceive and understand yourself. You’re trained to control and numb your emotions instead of feeling them, leaving you distant and unsure of how anything actually affects you. You have to resist this impulse, and it will be difficult (but that’s what you have a support network for!). Instead, you need to lean into what you’re feeling, letting it overtake you so you can accept it for what it is. Sometimes this is going to feel uncomfortable, or give you a moment of shame or embarrassment, but especially around people who are important to you, it’s vital to actually feel the full range of your emotions and be able to name and share them.

There is this pernicious free pass we give to men in being ambiguous or misleading about their intentions, especially when it involves intimacy. I’ve found this exists because you were socialized to objectify and exotify people you are intimate with, and that instrumentalizes your relationship to them. You are willing to lead others on as long as you’re getting what you want, and cutting out before they can demand too much of you. Again, this isn’t some villainous plot and you probably aren’t actively thinking this way. Instead you believe you’re just independent, wanting something like sex but not intimacy, or interested in some experience but not looking to actually invest in the relationship like the other would want. It is important to be 100% forward, without being asked, about your intentions with other people, even when you suspect the other person might not be completely on board if you divulged your true feelings.

 

Asking

In both what I’ve experienced and studied, many of men’s problems stem from being unable to ask for help. You are socialized to take care of yourself and that needing help is a weakness that diminishes who you are. There are going to be many times where you think it’d be inappropriate or bad to ask for help, and you have to fight those impulses. Again, asking for help comes from a place of strength, not weakness. The mistake is overestimating yourself and paying for it in the long run, not relying on other people to help you out.

Asking questions is vital for communication, especially understanding someone who is different from you. Not only does this make you seem interested and present, but it allows someone to fill in information where you probably have a stereotype or something misleading you learned through media. Be sure to offer as much information as you are requesting so the interaction isn’t one-sided and turns into you keeping control of the exchange.

You need to be careful of the kinds of questions you ask of the people who are different from you. Don’t treat someone as subject to your idle curiosity and ask something invasive. It seems like an extra step, but you should ask someone if they are comfortable with a particular line of questioning before you potentially exotify them. This also involves seeking consent in all situations that involves someone’s personal space, such as being touched, using their things, or wanting intimate information. A general rule of thumb is don’t ask for anything you wouldn’t be willing to disclose yourself, and to not assume what another person is comfortable with sharing.

Men are likely to skip out on their regular physical and especially mental health, and that compounds on your ability to deal with new things such as practicing vulnerability and confronting hostile masculinity. If you can afford it, get regular physical and mental check-ups instead of waiting to see a doctor when there’s a crisis. If you haven’t given therapy a go, you really should give it an earnest try. Find a man about your age that can relate to you and your problems and use that time to express things you’re not ready to share with friends and intimate partners. Going to professionals isn’t just for the explicitly ill and it takes strength to seek help of any sort.

 

And there you have it, one huge list of things I’ve tracked over time on what I believe affects my relationship to men. Some things are just what you need to be aware of, and others can be put on a to-do list. You’ve probably read or heard most of this advice already, but now it’s framed on how being more self-aware isn’t just for your benefit, it’s also to help out people like me as we continue to fight for respect in our society. We may be budding friends, colleagues, or lovers, and I’m bound to bring this up at some time or another. So I figure it’s best for this to be out there, so you can visit it and just check in with yourself about what you can do to help us both out. Because I really do believe change starts from the connection between two people, and I’m ready to make a difference with the people in my life, including the guys.

 

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Assimilation and the Double-Bind of Respectability

The story of my hair is very long. Emotional, and not exactly complete. Here and there, I would seek out information online about what to do with my hair, only really diving in lately once I got past a jargon wall and product idolatry. I realized how a facet of fashion and beauty from the 90s, particularly beloved R&B women, grew out of maintenance practices for coarser hair. As I twisted my hair into bantu knots and wrapped a scarf around my head before bed, I felt a fashion flashback that isn’t getting as much coverage as boho chic, feeling an undeniable connection to a time when black and brown artists elbowed their way into pop culture and have stayed ever since. Despite this being appropriate for my hair texture and exactly what I should be doing to hair, I feel a bit of a sham. I didn’t grow up surrounded by friends and family members in twists and wraps enough to associate with it, and I’m aware of the continued exploitation of black culture by people in places of privilege. On top of increased vigilance of people wrongly claiming to be black, I am often exasperated when I need to talk about race, or specifically, my race. Am I black? Am I black enough? These kinds of questions are very familiar to me.

My relationship with race and class stem from biological family, now estranged but the first influence every therapist asks for. They are both from the Caribbean, having moved to the US in the 80s and relying on my father going through college to turn up something for them. My parents a multi-racial themselves, which isn’t really remarkable in the Caribbean, but it made things confusing for me here. Enough people bothered me enough that my lineages became a chant of sorts: “Jamaican, Indian, German, Trinidadian, Palestinian, and Venezuelan.” Did I really feel like I was from any of these countries? No, not really, I described myself as distinctly American, which I didn’t understand meant assimilating with a particular white, middle class-ness. Immigrant parents have a way of goading their children into the assimilation vs roots dynamic, and mine, well-intentioned, took it as far as they could. I rarely went to schools in my neighborhood, often the least well-off person in a group of friends, yet a ‘spoiled American’ to my parents. I became ‘not one of those people,’ groups of black and latin@ kids who strongly identified with their or their parents’ country or neighborhood of origin, to my school friends. I internalized that, spurned by frequent calls of oreo and taking to faux-intellectual punk and/or queer kids as an outlet of not fitting in. But because those spaces remained populated by mostly white people, my role in resistance was being the exotic, the other in service of white people’s fantasies. I’m held to a high standard of respectability as someone who is both not white nor cisgender. I can see my stock go up and down depending on how I wear my hair, what clothes I wear, and how much makeup I have on.

Upon learning more about activism and the many methods of resistance, I know there are parts of me that come up against and even alienate people of certain radical politics. I don’t think that I’ve done, or am doing, anything wrong; I would go as far as saying I don’t have a larger than typical amount of internalized racism, classism, and other harmful systems. Rather, I am responding to my circumstance in the best way possible, and any critique of complicity, which indeed has come my way, is ignorant of the context in which my behavior exists in. I’m pretty self conscious about my love for fashion, a love that came as a coping mechanism for a very real dress well or die pressure. I’ve walked in an interview that was over in 3 minutes, a man looking me up and down and clearly not liking what he saw. I got a job when I straightened my hair, wore makeup, and got clothes that I needed to own for years in order to not be a complete splurge. Of course, one of the first things my coworkers said to me was that I looked like I spent too much time on beauty.

People today say I have an inaccessible beauty, I’m too academic, I’m too professional. I have internalized classism. Of course, the people who say this are typically white, queer people who come from middle to upper-middle class backgrounds and had the confidence to leave that and get by on lower amounts of income, because their backgrounds will always be with them. I don’t get to be trash queer, I don’t get to be anarcho artist love pile in the woods. When I first moved to San Francisco, I stayed in a hostel downtown while looking for a room to live. Within two weeks I was stopped four times in public, in broad daylight, by men assuming I was a sex worker, bringing along the usual shitty attitudes people have towards them. When I dated a man who worked in the Financial District, I could feel all those eyes as I waited for him on the side walk. I don’t get to be anything less than respectable on other people’s terms, there is no enlightenment for me to throw it off, because I’m not throwing off middle class life, just a desperate mirage. When I look around and the women who are supported, who get’s who’s dollars, who is in who’s book, I can tell that I never fully integrated into any community around here. I’m trans for black people, and brown for the queers, the kitchen sink for everyone else, when they want me. It’s not uncomplicated, I try to find the joy in the position I’m stuck. You see, this respectability thing, it goes two ways. From the people who aren’t like you, and from those who are.

Blackness, queerness, these things are summed up to be monolithic experience, something that you need to be close enough to in order to qualify. If you don’t look or speak enough of the part, people question your authenticity. I think it’s a mistake, especially with blackness, to not see the identity itself in a diaspora, spread far and integrated, surviving, in different ways. That everything about me is black at the same time that it is every other race in my blood. Making assimilation the opposite of progress goes the same way of the alternative becoming mainstream, being another list of customs one must ascribe to in order to ‘authentic.’ I’ve been thinking of this word a lot lately, authentic, what is authentically me. And as I started to dig, I found parts of me buried under this double-bind, too different from the norm, not flagging enough for the rebels. A part of me is sad that it won’t be contributing to one community or another, but I think it’s time I did something for myself, despite what others say.

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Embracing the Messy: A Bit on Conversations We Have in My Head

There’s a lot of pressure to keep a totally clean image, or maybe the better term for it is branding. I’ve noticed in myself a large amount of self-monitoring and a greater awareness of when someone is trying to undermine me through social conditioning they have yet to challenge. There are probably other people who could stand to be this way a little more, particularly those with high amounts of visibility and power who can shift that weight against those who don’t stand a chance. Getting better, moving towards our egalitarian utopia, requires a certain vigilance against sin while at the same time seeking it out for removal. The difference between this and heightened self-awareness is the absence of messiness, a capacity for handling human mistakes. This isn’t even at the level of forgiving or being gentle with fuck ups from the privileged, I don’t think we even allow this for ourselves. We don’t have a lot of room out here for people doing good work and being valuable assets to the community while being open that they’ve made mistakes and are currently working through them. There is a purist attitude surrounding the visibility that being heavily into social justice can grant, and this robs people of their humanity. And isn’t what we’re all fighting for, our humanity?

I find that we are unable to really work through some complex aspects of our lives in the broader social media landscape because it is a context that doesn’t allow us to be human. It’s been a personal philosophy of mine to focus my activist efforts on people and things that personally affect me, that there is some mutual benefit, trust, and growth. I feel grounded in that practice because it allows me to fuck up and learn in a place that it’s okay, where I don’t have to pretend to be perfect, and not get stuck in some sort of minority idolatry. Awareness of that space is important, so we aren’t all posturing for each other in public, cartoon characters bound for hypocrisy and downfall because the expectations placed upon us are impossible to achieve. A culture of social justice is codified enough for there to be certain key terms, frequent recapitulations of the same kinds of problems, and a tendency to create lists of action items that rarely realize themselves outside of a best-case scenario. I don’t think the future waiting for us is a society of saints, but a stronger sense of how to hold space for problems to exist and resolve that results in personal evolution instead of red letters.

I’m becoming more attracted to mess, much to my perfectionistic chagrin. I want to see not even aiming for perfect, just existing as a fact of reality and act of compassion. Deep, honest compassion isn’t something I think I’ve grasped for a long time, and, again, not even yet for others, but for myself. A reason to let myself be wrong and flawed and not useless because of it. Conversations We Have in My Head by Squinky came at a good time for me, unfolding a greatly human dynamic between two characters that allows for the righteous and the flawed to exist in the same place without overwhelming cognitive dissonance. Conversations We Have in My Head pulls a lot of how a person immersed in contemporary social justice and with a messy history of identity and practice exists in a succinct piece. Here we have two exes, Quark and Lex, moving back and forth through time to locate each other, discerning their past selves, who they are now, and what they bring from their history and what they can close the book on. Quark is mostly on the confessional and defensive side, trying to update Lex while dealing with the inconsistencies their past behavior creates with who they are now. Lex is sure, confident, and often overpowers Quark, especially when there is some past beef that is mostly unresolved. The game’s ability to admit failures while still affirming to be a good person is one that isn’t exercised very often, just drag-out honesty and answering for ourselves and, well, surviving.

Quark and Lex stand for more than a failed relationship, rather competing ideas of change and judgement. Quark is detailing to Lex important changes in their life, and the options given to Lex are those of assessment, bringing up the past to challenge the authenticity of those changes. Who the player is controlling is ambiguous, since their choices prompt Lex to interrupt Quark’s monologue, but come the end of a loop, we are reminded that Lex is a part of Quark’s imagination. If we see Lex as this inner judgement, she can stand for this tension brought on by contemporary needs of perfection. We see Quark stand up for themselves in the ways we’re trained to do, listing how we’ve had particular disadvantages that another person doesn’t, and eventually phasing Lex out of their mind, giving up on reconciling their particular situation and the obelisk of social media justice. On other playthroughs, when Lex slips out without much trouble, we see Quark left with themselves and wondering what impact their personal proclamation actually has on anything. It’s a paradox, because when the conversation gets personal, we can see some demons named and exorcised, so there is benefit to telling our personal story as part of this public narrative, but as many of us have seen, nothing really material comes from this to impact our lives, and we’ve just been walking by ourselves the entire time. Conversations We Have in My Head doesn’t provide any answers, just an awareness that in our current environment, there is an absence of reconciliation and how to reintegrate our messy selves into our just ones. That we all are really walking on our own with a constant stream of assessments of our worth, and trained to feel that is the price to being a good, just person.

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Passing and Self-Identification: Managing the Power and Visibility of the Closet

I remember the first time it happened. Diffused lighting on beige walls, windows covered by black patterned fabric, everything in my room was low: mattress on the ground, coffee table for a desk, books spread along the floor in irregular stacks. His head was in my lap, my fingers going through his hair, both of us quiet as we listened to my roommate, my best friend, come home and eventually go to her room. When it seemed like she was settled, he would resume telling me his problems: he was straight, sure of it, and wanted to be true to himself, but how would the world understand? He cried, and I listened. I was struck by the irony of it, a man who passes as straight, perceives himself as straight, yet struggling with the implied queerness of intimacy with me, visibly queer and receiving daily abuses, including the one resting in my lap with the basic notion that I am degrading his self-image. As this happened more frequently, with multiple men, the only men who, in their view, risked intimacy with me, I realized this was something that would always be a part of my life, watching men who live in bubbles unable to meet on my level because of perceived social risks of being with me.

When I first read this piece on queer tourism (not to be confused with literal queer tourism), I empathized with the frustration and anger behind much of the sentiment. 100% of my intimacies were with people able to move through spaces without the constant, overt threats that encroach on my life, yet their discomforts often took center stage since they were living a multiplicity of lives, while I, in a really callous phrasing, am living in an expected amount of pain. There is a reason, however, that the article is written as an unpopular opinion by an anonymous writer, predicting it reads as biphobia and essentially dictating how a person should identify. This article upset a lot of people, particularly bisexual women, and only did some of the work to show how self-aware the author was about her effect on others. She needed to vent and nuance lost itself expressing a real frustration. Though the article caused anger and pain, I’m glad it exists because it exposes a pressing contradiction in social justice movements that deserves further discussion.

What is at stake here? This piece reveals a tension between passing, particularly as straight, while taking up space in queer communities. The author describes a line between cashing in on the social cachet that comes with being queer while playing it safe enough to receive the benefits passing as straight provides. Does this actually exist? Yes, though it most often comes out as shaming women instead of addressing how we are all socially conditioned and how that affects marginalized groups of people. What we’re seeing is a real dissonance between centering politics around public self-identification and the material effects of oppression. Action on social media creates a one-to-one connection between identification and oppression, yet passing creates a loophole in this reasoning by showing a murkier picture, that it isn’t essential to present as a minoritized person to suffer and need support from community. Because continued efforts to increase the acceptance of queer identities, and underlining the fluidity of such, are working, we are seeing queerness normalizing, or at least, the LBGT is becoming normal. Advocates like to proselytize with spectrum imagery of sexuality like the Kinsey scale, but it looks like they don’t know what to do with the people who are 1s and 2s, who are effectively not straight, yet, it seems, not queer enough for the benefits that comes with being in a queer community.

Tension with passing isn’t new, and in much of online conversion, it is equated with privilege. Passing in this context means you benefit from people assuming you are on the top part of the hierarchy while being quite the contrary. It’s often used to talk about passing as white or cisgender, but it is also wrapped up in sexuality since LGBT activism took on more of a Harvey Milk influence and stressed coming out and visibility. Now that we’re at a tipping point for queer rights, we have people like the xoJane author who views strategically staying the closet to be an act of cowardice. In my experience, it is frequent pattern that those who are or pass as dominant identities within marginalized communities tend to take up the more space and wield more power, which is why you have queer policing coming into stronger focus lately. What this requires is better conversations on how to handle power and visibility, not necessarily shaming people for being in the closet. It’s another form of oppression olympics, saying people who are visibly queer have it worse than those who remain closeted. Is it worse to receive heat for who you are than to live in secrecy? The contexts we live in make that decision complicated, or even give us surprising answers. For instance, what is the power relationship between an out queer person in a place with anti-discrimination protections telling someone who could lose support they need to come out? We all might perceive different kinds of pain differently, but it’s still pain. I also can’t cut out people from my life who aren’t completely out or unable to face the pain that will come with being out as queer in some way; to do so would rob me of pretty much every chance of intimacy available to me. While my impatience is quick with someone doing anything to avoid what looks to me a papercut when I constantly have my arm broken, I can’t fault them for the impulse to protect themselves, because, yes, any oppression is wrong. I need a praxis that involves these men into my life, because I don’t have a choice, and neither do many other people.

I don’t think many people were ready for the messiness of queerness as a political identity. In effect, most people involved in the LGBT are fighting to be ‘normal,’ to be treated exactly as straight people are and to have those two groups live harmoniously with their owned houses, 2.5 children, and laberdoodle. Yet the pervasive adoption of queerness instead of LGBT is completely at odds with that vision, instead trying to move beyond straight vs gay, where straightness inherently contains queerness by the very virtue of defining them against each other. Heteronormativity is prevalent in LGBT communities, with straight- and cis-passing people being valued as inherently more attractive and sought-after. Queerness can’t hold a straight vs gay paradigm, but it will definitely let you get off to it. And, frankly, queerness isn’t just about who you’re attracted to and how much; am I not queer because my sex life’s track record is with men? Can he not be queer because I identify as a woman? You can see the binary nature of queer policing in the treatment of trans people, who are assumed to have lived as one gender and received all of its privileges and then transitioned into another gender to then suffer oppression, or vice versa. While this is some trans people’s experiences, people like me didn’t always pass as cisgender, and even when I came to identify as non-cis, quickly received debilitating shame from the messages society gave me about who I was. It isn’t clear cut in my having x amount of privileges and then losing them, where x is the privileges all men have. This conflict implies we need to move beyond public self-identification as a method of determining who is and isn’t worth advocating for and move to addressing material problems brought on by oppression.

Having the ability to speak of our experiences without being forced to represent groups of people goes both ways. Not only can this fight tokenism and whitewashing, this also allows people who don’t feel like they need the conversation centered around them to speak without taking visibility and power from those who need it. My public identity and how I know myself are different, because I’m human and therefore messy, while identity politics presents itself as neat and organized. To the public I’m effectively a transwoman, and that is the closest term to what I feel that people will understand. I avoid using the word trans for myself because I don’t think it represents me, and sometimes with woman as well. I am Palestinian and Native American by blood, but because I am disconnected enough from what those groups face, I don’t publicly identify as that and don’t assume the group identity that comes with it. I assume queer and multi-racial black because those are political identities I want to publicly challenge. That’s not the full extent of who I am, and I don’t think anyone needs to fully, publicly identify as anything to have their oppressions fought and their experience spoken. Social justice conversations need to get better at handling more human forms of identification and being instead of the stock characters that activists are forced to assume to represent platonic ideals of the marginalized.

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More than Representation

“What got you into games?”

Simple on its face, I’ve heard the answer multiple times and it tends to be somewhat similar for people like me around my age. Our parents, for me, my father, was into technology in someway or another, and had early video game consoles and computers around the house. Being children with time on our hands, we spent hours upon hours playing games and in virtual or text worlds, and grew up with the video game industry. Usually the story ends around there, and jumps into the person’s current career and projects.

For me, and likely for others, there is a second part, what got us into Video Games, to seek employment in it, or to create in them, or to go into a new field of study. By college age, I mostly gave up on games, except for one or two here or there. I felt like I grew out of them. It wasn’t until I took a class in fantasy literature, with a professor who noted a lot of students’ interest in fantasy and myth comes from not just books, but video games, and took us to a computer lab to show us some games for critical analysis. It was there that I got back “into” games, as I played through two that affect me to this day: Galatea by Emily Short, and The Path by Tales of Tales. Upon doing research on gender and sexuality stereotypes in games, I came across Leigh Alexander’s column at GameSetWatch, The Aberrant Gamer, that reminded me of visual novels I liked in the past and how it seemed like it would be fun to do public critical analysis of the things I liked. I could say very distinctly, these three things got me back into games, both revisiting older games that I enjoyed when I was younger, and contemporary games. I could say with a lot of confidence that if those things didn’t come across my plate, I might never have dwelled in games at all.

Why is this important to note? For one, when people ask me “what got you into games,” they aren’t just asking me as someone who likes games, they are asking a person who is marginalized and often excluded and attacked, who rarely shows up and even more rarely sticks around, what is it that got me so we can get others. It wasn’t Final Fantasy VII, it was a woman professor who choose games made at least significantly in part by women, and following the trail to find writing by another woman, and on top of all of that, some of the women involved have particular issues with race and feminism that I relate to. I really don’t think it’s a coincidence that, having consumed games made largely by and for men, it took work by people similar to me to get me interested in the field again, and also to approach it in a way many have described as different and unique.

But straight-up diversity of bodies is too simple of an answer. It’s not that I saw that these people weren’t WASP men and then felt welcome. Seeing women put into the same roles as men to do mainly the same old video game thing (and not without contingencies) doesn’t actually speak to me much. Rather, their life experiences drew them to different ideas and inspirations, exploring topics and sensations that hit my wavelength because we might share some more in common. I admit that seeing people and characters more like me plays a part in why I gravitate towards that work, but it’s more that there is a higher chance to engage with issues and experiences that are relevant to me, because someone with a body like mine is present. How often do games give time and space exploring a relationship between a poor, minoritized woman caught up in the harmful ideals and affections of a privileged man? There’s such little material out there to help me reflect on certain aspects of my life, both to feel heard and then responded to, providing catharsis or temporary motions for healing.

This is why people should be panicking that creative marginalized people burn out of games so quickly. This is why Tale of Tales possibly becoming less visible in the games world is tragic. A studio that would probably respond to a lot of hot-button social issues with “duh.” If people find my work in any way valuable, it’s in part because games by Auriea and Michaël made me feel like my experiences were interesting enough to express. That there was room, however small, for dialogue in a place I assumed was stuck in a conversation from the past. I liken my time with Tale of Tale’s games as I do with Hayao Miyazaki’s films, where the prevalence of complicated women makes The Gender Issue™ invisible. I didn’t see Nausicaä as a “strong female character,” I saw myself or someone I wanted to learn from. I also didn’t have ‘takeaways’ about environmentalism or war, rather added in memories and feelings that would, sometime in the future, be used as a reference when I had to think of those topics. I open up the box in Vanitas every time I’m about to step off the train, because I need a reminder that every moment is magical, every object has something to say to me.

Just because a game decided it’s a woman shooting a dude in the face doesn’t change why I feel disconnected from this medium. When using the same reference material in the same contexts with the same conventions, the move to make characters not a white man is often a commercial one, or a one-dimensional response to feminist critique in the media. We are not going to get the nuanced and challenging material by keeping the system in place while placing different bodies in there, though that is its own particular topic. Instead, it is artists like Tale of Tales, giving us things to work through our own discomfort. If games continues this revolving door, taking the culture from those who come in and sending them right out after, the issues we care about are just going to play into hype and fad cycles, continuing down this ‘why does everything still feel the same’ path, reading the same think pieces until we just stop caring and settle for what little we can get.

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