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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Control, Fashion, and not feeling where i belong

I can count the number of times I’ve worn this swimsuit on both hands. It’s a black one piece, with an exposed back and halter straps tied behind my neck. The ruffles spilling down the front are tattered from living in the corners of various bay area dresser drawers, giving that Jackie-O look I usually go for a bit of faded Hollywood. It was the last thing I got before leaving Florida, under the illusion I could stretch out on San Francisco’s beach, which requires a hoodie and wetsuit at minimum. Instead, I walk down Broadway in downtown Santa Monica towards the ocean with a distinct sense of nostalgia. Hate to admit it, but I felt a little homesick, if just for the beach.

It’s easy to feel underdressed in this part of LA, holding my stomach in and trying to straighten the arch I call my back walking past women leaving Nordstrom. Doubly so as a queer woman in a bathing suit she hasn’t worn too often. Maybe in another setting, like back in SF, that self-consciousness would take over my thoughts, still awkward in dressing for its moody weather. Here, where the palm trees lean westward instead of east, I feel more confident. A navy-striped boat-neck top with dolman sleeves and a scarf wrapped around my hips pulls focus where I want them. My shoulders and chest area are diffused to take the eye down to my waist, where stripes meet neon flower blotches, and further down the part of my makeshift wrap that reveals a nude leg. Throughout my stay down south, I would wear bright gladiator sandals with shorts, crop tops with sheer kimono-style coverups and feel, well, good. Sexy. It’s been a while.

In upright tanning pose, on my back with palms facing down and knees pointed skywards, I thought about my life-long war with clothes and fashion. Like each wave and its quell, I had a perpetual binge-purge relationship with fashion, not knowing how to clothe a queer body on a meager income. Other people seemed to wear things so effortlessly, like it belonged on them. Everything I put on didn’t look right, didn’t fit the weather, wore easily with time. Whenever I looked up fashion advice, an inspirational quote by some luxury designer would pop up saying you don’t need a lot of money to fashionable, leaving me bitter as they continued to make clothes I’ll never touch in my lifetime. Is there fashion without money? Is there fashion without trends?

Fashion, or maybe style, is dear to me because of its playful qualities. It allows me to affect how others perceive me, make statements without words. I think the first step to untangling the pain fashion marked on many of us is understanding the designed statements popular and haute trends tell us. Like all art, fashion has its own statements, values, arguments communicated through its design. In order to start feeling good about what we adorn our bodies with, we would have to know what we’re communicating and feel good about what we’re saying. As it is with a lot of creative work, it’s doing things with purpose, a purpose we feel confident about. It’s important to me to explore this topic because it opens up more doors for everyday artistic expression, for the blurring between life and game, and for reclaiming the conflict spaces on our bodies that are seized by hegemonic forces.

Of the many factors that go into styling your look, the silhouette is probably the most fundamental design point that you will be working around. It is basically the outline of your body, typically seen from the front and focused on the torso but in general all around. A lot of the design will center around how you’re manipulating your silhouette, and the whats and hows of that form the basis of how another person is going to receive your look. This is where we see both the hegemonic ideals for bodies and also the way to subvert them: garments are made assuming either a man or woman is going to wear them, and that men or women have their own ideal body shapes they want to achieve. For clothes coded for men, this is the inverted triangle, with shoulders broader than the hips and the waist being thinner than the rest of the body. Clothes coded for women are a little more flexible since beauty standards for women’s bodies change more frequently, but ultimately they all speak to the hourglass shape, where the bust and hips are the widest parts of the body with the waist being the smallest. The other silhouette is the child’s, mostly a straight column with little definition, showing how much fashion buys into emphasizing and playing with dimorphism between the binary sexes. All of these silhouettes are in constant conversation with each other, with adults being pushed to look further like their assigned gender’s shape and less like the other two.

Knowledge of this means you can purposefully mess with your silhouette in accordance to how your body actually is shaped. Because unless you’re one of the few who have it naturally, your body’s actual silhouette and the ideal one are going to be different. Women’s fashion in particular plays with the expected silhouette enough through the ages, thinking of the iconic shoulder pads during the more androgynous 80s and more column-like bodies afterwards during drug and exercise idolization. I’ve also noticed a resurgence of this in body-positive fashion with fat women wearing clothes they’re ‘not supposed to,’ like ones that expose their belly and horizontal stripes. There is also flagging for cultural groups that often include race- and class-passing, which can lend to this sort of artistic mess up of fashion to further communicate the messiness of bodies and identities. I’ve found this particularly striking as someone who’s body is in between the column and inverted triangle while striving for the silhouette canonically coded for cis women. The clothes I wear changes how people interact with my body, and interact with me as well, making certain assumptions and calling in social stripts they find appropriate for the relationship between our identities.

I’m particularly interested in playing with the silhouette because of how much focus there is on the body, both claiming it as yours and also yours to mess with. Though it comes along with some salt, I find it is true that people compliment more when I feel totally comfortable and confident in what I’m expressing with my clothing choices. I merely put on a blue top with mustard shorts and someone commented that I looked ‘powerful,’ or maybe, I looked in control of my own body, which is a rare feeling. I think what they were responding to was what my outfit made them look at, the lines and play with figure, and just that I was confident in making a statement. It was cloudy and raining, but I was there for a summer’s day in vibrant colors. I continued this sort of look back here in the bay, where May, the usual start of summer for me back home, of sunshine and barbeques and flirting, is covered in fog and wind. In a way, I know that I don’t quite fit in here just yet, and I’m my own little island, and I think people should get to know me better. There is a feeling of alienation and longing for other things wrapped up in the neons and shear of South Beach style. A style I didn’t get to wear too much while I was there, but now feel it is one of the few ways to make my body feel like my own.

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Static and Noise About Bodies and Play

I confess that, with blankets wrapped around my legs and Homo Ludens opened to pages 2 and 3 crunched beneath an elbow, I’ve watched and rewatched Ghost in the Shell instead of researching like a good little faux-academic. While interviewed in New York, I ad-libbed an answer wanting to understand the ‘ghost’ of a video game, ghost in this context being what the main character of the movie refers to as her spirit, or what it seems like in the cyberpunk milieu, the essence or instinct that comes with humanity that an artificial being cannot have. The use of ghost is, appropriately, haunting, recognizing the human is dead and present only in some supernatural form trapped inside machinery. In the movie, a program gains a ghost after spending enough time connected to the net, which is consistently described with ocean imagery, a collective unconscious of the augmented living. This new sentience and the main character are posed as mirror images, living reflections of one another. I find myself thinking about play experiences gaining a ghost once submerged in human context, and how it pines for a body to live out its newly gained humanity.

Like in many cyberpunk narratives, bodies are blurred, often made grotesque. Ghost in the Shell questions, when the ghost moves from one body to the next, how is that new entity still the same? Bodies are masks, sentimental ones. The body, I find, is an abandoned metaphor in these sorts of narratives, quickly discarded as a mental stepping stone to the question about humanity. It feels wrapped up in tropes surrounding technology and the kind of people typically associated with making it, who loathe the limits of their body. They want to escape from reality, escape their physical form, and once they can do that, they will finally be powerful beings.

Because the medium of play is largely colonized by the dominant culture surrounding technology, involvement and exploration of the body is frequently absent. To many games and surrounding discourse, the player is a pair each of eyes and hands attached directly to the brain, staring unflinching as they imagine systems and methodically tap and click. This extends even to sports and many physical games, which imagine the body as, ultimately, one large controller without a reflection on that transformation in the experience itself, though we see efforts to augment this with transmedia like documentaries and journalism. This is not to say nothing happens with the body, or feelings concerning bodies don’t arise, rather that they are marginalized in the culture surrounding these kinds of play in spite of how fascinating they may be (and there are projects I’m working on to exploit just that. Alas, for another time).

I see this detachment from the body eptimized in the glorification in what might be called the magic circle, or at least, the belief that the game is separated from the rest of reality in some manner. While most will concede that this separation is porous, the concept is deployed in a way that excises play’s relationship with the body. We are alienated from full experience and appreciation of play when the body is erased from design and interpretation. I am speaking in a lineage of critique that can be most relevantly, maybe, found in queer of color criticism of queer theory, where the focus on texts stems from the normalized whiteness, and how bodies (sometimes called ‘sites,’ as in the site of conflict or site of resistance) and their subjective experiences. I find this parallel to many complaints of games being read as just a text, though I would move past that and say things like design are also texts; the particulars of each individual subject is erased, or in my experience in criticism, actively marginalized.

There is a resistance because bodies are complicated. Incorporating subject(ivitie)s decentralizes the game object and forces designers and critics to ponder the infinite relationships bodies can have with an experience. Controllers in particular throttle the ways bodies can be recognized in the design, and is probably the main agent in the absence of body subjectivity in critique. It is impossible to know how another’s bodily reaction will be to an experience, and that exactitude is only necessary for products that promise it. That class critique is also underrepresented might hint as to why these sorts of connections are rarely traversed outside of particular, minoritized niches. Right on the surface, the lack of awareness of bodies assumes a typical body, most definitely excluding those who don’t have it and their experiences. And further on, there is a distinct lack of internalization, digestion, and reflection baked into these experiences.

I find that we don’t often pay attention to how we are affected by play, just that games affect and we are affectable. A game will have fun in it, and somehow we will feel entertained. What is that link in the middle, between the ghost of the game and us? Our bodies are the site of play, where meaning occurs, willing or not. ‘Player’ is a misnomer, when they are considered active agents of intention. We are simply living. In my experience of more sensory-explicit experiences, like course meals and perfumery, this process is inverted. Objects and subjects dissolve into each other, until they become inseparable. The subject is pulled through their own landscape of body feel and associations, yet that these objects affect a politic, and that the subject is susceptible to their influences, seems largely understated if not missing. Or maybe because most art surrounding the body is considered profane, and mainly for titillation, that this process isn’t as emphasized, much like what many games confront now. Either way, it is difficult for those arts to not account for the body, though there is definitely a case for class critique to complicate that. How themes seem to repeat themselves.

What I’m getting at is further awareness of how play is currently occurring with our bodies. The act of touching, the act of seeing and hearing. Not simply to the fact that we are doing those things, because we do them all from different positions, or maybe not at all. Critique that doesn’t fall to body normativity, that incorporates living experience and expounds on the blurring borders between self and play. Where the ghost of the game joins theirs. Games that don’t center immersion, rather the opposite, to prick our senses and remind us that we are alive, that we are more than moving around in disjointed shells.

 

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Moving On

“What is it that we want?”

These past fews weeks were trying. Even while I was away, as unplugged the jitter in my fingers would allow, I knew the industry watched, horrified, voyeurs, as pipes of sludge poured on people all around me. My body is splattered, from old and new, waiting for my turn again. Is this what I’ve been waiting for? The moment when this becomes too much?

The urge to run still lingers, every time I lean forward to type. When my backspace key sticks. I’m not the only one reevaluating their relationship to video games. Because this is rote, boring. It’s predictable now to be harassed, disregarded, and forgotten, and watching the cycle happen again and again. Professional punching bags.

The quote above is from Samantha Allen’s talk at Critical Proximity earlier this year, which I recommend you watch in full. It centers around Patreon and games criticism, yet extrapolates pretty well to games as a whole. What is it that we want when we say community? What do we want when games want minoritized people to be a part of the artform and discussion? What is actually happening?

I thought a lot about what she said this past week while I was away. Particularly, that community and support doesn’t rise out of people who happen to be in the same space with the same interests. Rather, community is intentional. It is built.

We don’t have the foundations for what we want. The scaffolding we see is here for another reason. Industry defines itself on its relationship to money. Every time you interact with it, for whatever social good or hedonism you plan, you need to speak in its language for it to listen. Companies won’t do what’s necessary to fix problems because there’s no money in it, and they shield themselves with the legal responsibility to make their shareholders profit. We cannot use this model to solve the problems we wish gone. So, what to do? Don’t expect anything other than what can be achieved while making people who already have money even more money. In other words, set a low bar for what the industry can do and look elsewhere.

I’ve talked to some developers about consulting in regards to the representation and narratives of minoritized characters in games. There is a distinct split on how many more independent creators found this important opposed to companies. One such company very particularly told me that they had no interest in diversity as an ethical practice or for social good, rather, can only justify diversity through the value it brings players and therefore the company. Value in this context ultimately means money, even if it’s not a direct transaction. Art is only allowed to exist with business. Creators aren’t allowed to exist without justifying to others why social equity is profitable. Go look at any advocacy track in any flavor of conference; you will notice certain types of people rarely go to those talks, despite being the exact kind that needs them.

Looking to salvage the industry or the concept of gamer is fruitless; practicing consumerism in this way is core to how it functions. You can try and soften the edges, you can have a woman here and there, and you can edit the language to be as pliable as possible, but nothing is changing how the gears grind. Online publications have to make their sites profitable for the ad agencies that pay them to exist, which boils down every post to whether it fits into this ecosystem. Writing about culture is the lowest paying and consistently shrinking form of writing in games media. Not because we don’t need it, rather because it’s not viewed as making enough of a profit.

Simply not being in a company doesn’t solve the issue; indie development fits right into the industry. Industry budged as much as it had to in order for indies to be profitable, and stopped. Indies feel tied to the small spaces they are allowed to make money, act out in as much as they can in those spaces, and stop. This isn’t to shame. People need to survive. Go survive. Just be transparent.

There is a reason things are they way they are right now. Not enough people are motivated to do what needs to happen to change. I believe it’s because they aren’t connected to it personally enough, so when abuse, marginalization, and exploitation happens, they might feel bad, but not wronged. A solution to this is to give ourselves opportunities to establish connections outside of our currently homogenizing environments. Social media doesn’t make communities, we have to forge them ourselves.

Samantha describes community as a product of action. Working together to achieve something. If we want these spaces in the way we envision them, we must start from the ground up. The industry doesn’t need to be your only nor primary source of support. The industry can be a place you work and somewhere else can be your community. We can create something else.

Create new spaces that don’t have industry and business as the main component; most of the contexts we meet under do. Collaborate with people local to you instead of trying to create a large replacement for a global industry. As Samantha points out, marginalizing dynamics will play out as usual once funding individual people comes about, which is why the indie world looks increasingly similar to AAA.

Is there an evening when you have a spare room in your office, community building, local restaurant, house? Have the ability to rent a space and get provisions for a group of people? Do you know people you can pool money with if you can’t on your own? These are usually the hardest things to obtain and start the process of forming a community. Organizing can be a group effort, yet it is the people with the resources that need to step up and create that opportunity to happen. Unfortunately the video is missing from this presentation of mine, but here is an outline for creating inclusive events.

What do we want? That’s a good question. You should ask that to people you want to create a community with. It should be something everyone has a chance to speak on, with precautions taken so the same voices don’t dominate conversations. These wants shouldn’t reach outside of the community’s grasp, rather ones that can be obtained over a length of time with hard work and organization. Allow anti-capitalistic stances to exist, because they aren’t given room in other discussions. Let the group, even if it is just for a couple of hours, speak about creating outside of the contexts of making money. Concede that a lot of our design and writing practices are informed by our capitalistic motions, and to imagine outside of that when you’re together.

Despite current dialogues, the community doesn’t have to be solely developers, or critics, or independent, or corporate. These communities don’t have to strictly be about games, rather inspired by what you are not getting from the industry. That you possibly open yourselves up to people from different but similar enough paths of life is a really good opportunity for cross-pollination. There are other artistic communities that were around before video games existed that have knowledge to pass around.

Petitioning gamers, companies, and publications to make a stand for the values we care about won’t happen at a healthy speed without strings attached. Everything will be mediated by consumerism, and simply buying or not buying from certain places isn’t going to solve core issues. So the next time you’re wondering what to do when things seem so bleak, reach out to the people around you, and tell them it’s time to get together, and form a supportive community. One that has, from the beginning, at its center, the ideals and ideas we want missing from industry.

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Our Flappy Dystopia

I’m going to get right to it: any critique or reporting on games that doesn’t include an intersectional perspective on the presence of capitalism in games is incomplete. There’s little else more avoided than the topics of anti-capitalism and class politics in games press and conferences outside of the usual fetishized rags to riches fables. Having money to start with is already a large part of this, but how our societies are organized by valuing people and things by their monetary value above all else structures how we talk about games. It says who gets listened to, who gets noticed, and who is valued.

Why mainstream spaces have a tight lid on these issues is simple: they would be at the very center of critique. There is something unspoken, that of COURSE we’re all run by money. But to say it outloud is taboo, and it’s seen as rudely airing someone’s dirty laundry. That we are aware that the methods of how many institutions make money are unethical but are okay with keeping it just below the surface since we know others are doing it is a cause for extreme alarm.

We, as global, national, and artistic communities, justify a lot of shitty things on the premise of making money. This industry justifies sexism, racism, and all forms of discrimination and oppression because of some unwritten right to make money. Why can’t we have equal representation of minorities in our media? Because someone wants to make money. Why aren’t there more minorities writing about minority issues in a time of heightened social justice on sites that pay fair wages? Because someone wants to make money. Why are the weird free games made commonly by minority artists that play a huge role in changing how we think of the medium excluded from news coverage and conference talks? Because someone wants to make money.

It doesn’t sound nice when it’s constantly called out, does it? Because it isn’t. There is a price tag to participating in games. The mainstream culture of games development demands you are from a class of people who could go into computer science or digital art training and have enough resources to handle an industry that has a terrible track record with labor issues. The standard success story of someone in the games media is a person who can afford to keep up with the newest products and has the resources to write for free or low-wage for about two years. Important conferences, even when you’re invited to speak, often cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars to attend. Knowing that poverty and other forms of economic discrimination disproportionately affects minorities, not including anti-capitalist critique effectively erases the struggle people face on the uneven plane we all convene upon in this community. This is why people at the top shrug at their homogeneity; they are unwilling to see the effects of capitalism on their hiring and creation practices, and even more unwilling to enact change, often with a ‘I got mine’ attitude.

Capitalism is informing what creations are considered good and of value, and what are bad form and derivative. Gamers and others see quality in games that show high production value, and defame games that seem to be a waste of money in this model, EVEN IF THEY ARE FREE GAMES. The idea of success outside the conventional method of capitalism, which is intersectional in its effects, is met with contempt. ‘Success’ is also very dubious and misguided; simply having a lot of attention for a period of time is considered successful, even if all that attention is harassment and you are not better off personally or economically for it. As much attention as the DIY ethos had in the past few years, minority creators are still impoverished while indie games that incorporate marginalized themes and design philosophies into the acceptable model receive praise like pets at dog shows. It’s not necessarily their fault, it’s that the system chooses what looks like it from the margins to seem adaptive. In the end, the system is perpetuating itself, only allowing games and people complicit with how things are going to thrive.

Now let’s enter in Flappy Bird. For some context, Flappy Bird was a mobile game that became the focus of ire and slander because it had pipes in it, similar to those in the Super Mario Bros. series. Or, more precisely, it was making a lot of money off what was billed as theft. I say was because it’s now removed from the app store after the creator, Dong Nguyen, received endless harassment. Jason Schreier’s article and Twitter reactions best embody how the conversation started, though as you can see from some of the edits, there’s been a change of tone. Robert Yang already did a great summation of what was wrong with how Jason and others handled the issue; what interests me the most is how this extreme situation exposed the capitalistic influence in games and the manner it excludes and defames.

Unfortunately, this settles on what’s considered a ‘real’ game, an obsession many people at the top of the community and industry occupy themselves with. The conversation of what is and isn’t a game is often, intentionally or not, used to assign value to already established gaming conventions that benefit the established system and marginalize works that do not look like it, and therefore threaten it. Mobile games are often slated as ‘casual’ games, which people in the gaming press and development overall side-eye as a genre of games mostly just looking to grab people’s money. Except, well, that’s ALL of AAA games, such as the hype around how much Grand Theft Auto V made despite that it was profiting off of flagrant sexism and racism. Mobile games, on the other hand, do not often pander to mainstream gaming audiences’ tastes, and seeing that they go for mass appeal, obtaining fortune is always seen as a negative thing. Sophie Houlden pointed out this contradiction in a recent confluence of events; King, developer of the viral and profitable Candy Crush Saga, acted in a way that is considered unsurprising for mobile developers by trying to trademark and bully other games that have the words ‘candy’ and ‘saga’ in them. The games community was, of course, quick rise against perceived soulless developers and protest with a game jam. But then, a game makes money off of having a reference, maybe, to a ‘real’ game, Super Mario Bros., and is now perceived as stealing. ‘Candy’ and ‘saga’ can’t belong to developers, but green pipes are rightfully Nintendo’s. A quick google image search of Jonathan Blow’s Braid can not only reveal that the indie darling also uses green pipes, but also uses analogues, very obvious references, to Mario’s enemies, mechanics, and story line. It’s entire premise is predicated on people having played Mario, yet we don’t have publications saying Jonathan stole from Nintendo.

Dong is considered an outsider. Who is he? From Vietnam? Oh, that explains this ‘knock-off’ rhetoric people are using. Indie creators are notoriously capitalizing on the nostalgia of the late 80s and 90s gaming culture, with difficult puzzle platformers and action side scrollers as far as the Steam library can go. No one is accusing these devs as stealing from Nintendo and Sega, despite the lineage being extremely clear and borrowed as homage. It’s because the gaming community set up a success narrative for certain indie, mostly white, mostly men, mostly from English-speaking countries, developers who strive to make smaller games competitive with the big dogs. Ultimately, indie games play into the same capitalist model, to the point where many are attached to big publishers on distribution platforms like the PS4. Most indie games strive to be addictive entertainment just like AAA ones do and employ similar kinds of people with a shared background. Indies can stay because they don’t threaten how big business works; instead, they merged right in with it. To this industry, using those green pipes was sacrilege, with the horrific possibility that, in Jason’s words, “some kids might grow up thinking these are ‘Flappy Bird pipes.’” What, exactly, is so bad about that?

The anxiety the industry is facing pairs with its diversity problems. Video games backed itself into a corner by becoming highly specialized for a very particular audience, ‘hardcore gamers.’ They developed conventions, genres, marketing tactics, merchandise, PR cycles, and an entire culture that serves a very narrow idea so they could easily profit off of it. Because of social justice activism and outside pressure from a society that sees gaming as grotesque, awareness about how exclusionary games are is at critical mass and the industry is scrambling to answer. It has no fucking clue how to market to and include minority members of their community and in the world at large. So when Farmville, Peggle, Candy Crush Saga, and Flappy Bird appeal to this mysterious audience big budget and scrappy indies can’t seem to tap, it’s foul play. They are exploitative and unfair. But this same attitude is applied to more avant-garde work that comes up against what it means to be a ‘real’ game, such as Analogue: A Hate Story, Problem Attic, and dys4ia. If games that came from the general DIY movement represented a new standard, it would reveal the institution of video games to be a huge scam. A scam that exploits its workers, exploits the suffering of minorities, exploits the complicity of consumerism. For money not to affect design and coverage anymore would completely change the landscape of games, both how we interact with and speak about them. Simply dispersing the focus on the conventional game design aimed at certain kinds of players would turn the industry upside down.

Be wary of any piece of critical writing and reporting that doesn’t expose and interrogate how capitalism is at work. Not accounting for how the industry moves money and to whom and why keeps us groggy as to why we have the problems that we do. We know this isn’t a meritocracy, that this system values us by our monetary worth decided by its own standards. If we really want to move forward, if we want to remove oppression and breathe life into games, we can’t take the industry and throw in some brown people and queers, we have to establish a community that is inherently inclusive from the get-go. A community past capitalism.

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The DIY of Games Criticism?

Among the many elephants in the games criticism room, our relationship to academia is one that threatens to stomp on others the most often. Its presence comes out in numerous ways, but most usually on methods of analyzing games and the craft of writing criticism. This month there seems to be a resurgence of it, so I want to spill some thoughts on how it affects me and some things I’d like to see develop.

I’ll be the first to admit that the first dozen or so articles I wrote about games bore a strong resemblance to undergrad critical theory essays. Back then, I had a rigid idea of what made a successful piece of critical writing; for one, I was making an argument defined in opposition to already existing ideas. I needed to establish credibility by citing certain kinds of sources, and aimed to forward the conversation by introducing new concepts and terms I hoped others would use. While this isn’t too distinct of a process from other kinds of writing or research, there is a certain posturing that signals to other academics in the know. It’s not really like a secret society, but it most certainly is a learned way of communicating within a certain institution.

Looking back, I’m not surprised a lot of my writing was met with hostility. There was, and maybe still is, a transition period where I learned what kind of voice, structure, and topics would resonate with readers. I’m now more conversational, speak to colloquial issues with enough context that allows most people to just jump into what I’m saying. I think this is a common path for games critics, but overall, there is a question of how much academia influences our community. Most of the critics I know have academic training of some sort, many are in graduate school and Ph.D programs in some form of critical theory or journalism. I’m not sure I remember an open discussion of how we feel academia effects games criticism, and what’s good and bad about it. Academic bloggers represent a large part of a push for more serious and less commercial analysis of games, but academia is also a notoriously exclusionary institution. So now comes the question, what baggage are we bringing into games criticism from academia that we don’t want, and what is it that we want to keep?

First, I do want to complicate some common notions about academics. Despite it being mostly organized by class, there are many people with varying relationships to privilege and oppression within it, and an intersectional perspective on minority academics is necessary when scrutinizing them. The oppressed have a history of co-opting and subverting academic traditions, using resources of institutions to benefit their communities. To write off anyone who seems academic at all is to dismiss anyone with any quality of a community you are not a part of. This isn’t to ignore the benefits that come along with being educated, just a reminder that a generation of diverse people went through school because they didn’t have an alternative, and now are trying to reconcile this training in a poorer economic climate with the expectation to give back to their communities.

As well, most academic writing isn’t for the public, it’s for other academics. And just like any group has inside language and jargon, so does academia. The problem arises when this information needs to be translated to outside of the institution. There is first the issue of how academia is structured and what academics have to do in order to stay relevant to keep their jobs. Often, the accessible blogging they do won’t be the main meat of their work because it doesn’t seem to count for anything yet. I am applying for a Ph.D program myself, and spent quite some time anxious about putting my blog on my CV; does it really show that I know what I’m talking about, at least, to academics? Reminds me of when I used to read games studies dissertations as I prepared for my masters applications because I’m made to feel like an art student pretending to be in critical studies. I am not in the grind to write for journals, but I can feel that pressure.

But even understanding all this, and looking at me who’s not a capital A Academic but nevertheless holds a degree, I think about what culture of academia I bring into criticism. I think about the unspoken conventions of what criticism looks like and what it’s ‘supposed’ to do. It might be why the games criticism panel at IndieCade felt so weird to me; I personally signal enough to academics that we share culture, but I’m not fully in that world. And the part of me that feels out, the artistic aspect that uses personal experience as a vantage point for writing, is linked to the idiosyncratic writings I find most prevalently in the works of other minority writers.

In reaction to a conversation surrounding a Brendan Keogh piece submitted to an academic journal, and how that flustered academics and non-academics for exact opposite reasons, Dan Golding summarizes something I’ve been simmering on a lot lately: that *where* we are discussing games, blogs, twitter, lunch outside of conferences, that might be what actually dictates the form of our criticism.

We’re so used to the essay being where our thoughts are officially counting for something. I remember thinking to myself how I was ‘wasting’ my ideas by speaking about them on twitter instead of formulating an article. We’re pressured to not rely on our instincts but to position ourselves under a certain convention of research, to be knowledgeable of documented discourse and place ourselves in relation to it.

Going through my personal meditation on what social justice and games criticism have to do with one another, there is a link in feminist studies of using personal experience as evidence. This short entry from a feminist academic journal describes why it is important to recognize that minority perspectives are experts on their own lives, and the information we get from them is important because of how systemic marginalization removes it from discourse. If academia is structured by hegemony, then the way we seek truth and talk about what’s important to us is as well. So, then, what does criticism from the marginalized look like?

I’m sure there’s stuff out there I haven’t encountered that would answer this question for me in other fields, but here, I think that moving away from solely articles as legitimized discourse is the beginning. When I was editing re/Action, we had games and comics as criticism. Leigh Alexander is known for doing her letter series. I wonder what it would be like if we asked everyone to create games criticism that wasn’t in an article form, and used personal experience as evidence. What would we see?

About a year ago, I became an object of fixation around this topic of the proper use of personal experience in criticism. Back then, I thought taking a stance from that position was just another way of explaining things. But now, I think it’s almost dangerous to not explicitly recognize ourselves in our writing. Because when we default to the conventions we’re taught to articulate ourselves, we’re taking on the values of dominant culture that seeks to erase difference. Or, if we are in fact a part of that dominant culture, we project our personal perspectives as something of a standard way of doing things. Because hegemony is so widespread, we have to highlight our personal experience and highlight the hyper-specific. This is both useful for the marginalized to refute what is considered common sense and as a process to find alternative ways that serve our message the best way. What is queer criticism? What is criticism from the poor, by the disabled, from the native peoples of colonized lands? If games criticism suffers from the same homogeneity as the rest of games, then to follow our own advice, we would have to open up to more accessible forms of criticism. As the DIY mentality gets people who didn’t think they could make games to do so and diversify the art we see, shouldn’t there be the same for criticism if an academic background seems like it’s required?

So, is a tweet games criticism? I’d like to think so. I imagine there will be non-written and non-verbal games criticism in the future as well. But as conversation goes on about why other fields should have an interest in games criticism, I think it’s important to have a strong sense of diversity in all its forms before we are completely assimilated into some other practice. I’d like to see more idiosyncrasies in writing, and by foregrounding our personal experience in the crafting process, find new ways of looking at games our current state leaves out.

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End the Video Supremacy of Games

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pay Up – You are What You’re Worth

I’ve come to enjoy the scene of fog rolling down the hills. Where I’m from, fog is ephemeral; it rises from the dewy grass in the morning and floats off by noon. Walking to the market here feels like I’m on a movie set and zombies will shamble out at any moment. There’s a bounce in my step because shopping for food is one of my favorite things to do. I got swept up in the food-conscious mania that glorified organic products and watched The Food Network instead of X-Tube. So predictably, I made a face when passing by the McDonalds, watching the students and families cramming fries into their faces. But then it hit me as I noticed the change in races populating the fast food restaurant to Trader Joe’s: I was being racist again.

For the better part of two years, I’ve been actively battling internalized racism. I thought I was fine because it wasn’t like I was Uncle Ruckus from The Boondocks or anything. But what I started to realize was that he ranted in the back of my mind about things I thought were legitimately true, and it revealed to me I had biases for monied culture. Wealth and class are highly organized by racism, as anything resembling white culture has to do with a disposable income. I came to understand many of my actions tried to avoid seeming hispanic or black, because I didn’t want to be associated with the poor.

My best friend inadvertently pointed it out to me when we lived together. I had recently grew zealous in the ‘advocate with your money’ ideology and picked up the Human Rights Campaign’s buying guide, which shows you how bigger companies stack up against each other with their stances on equal rights issues. For groceries, I remember Whole Foods being at the top, which was fine for me. Looking at the guide, my friend asked, “Mattie, you work at Starbucks and go to school. How can you afford all of this?” The truth was I couldn’t. It seemed more important to me to embody my ideologies, and through that, it meant I was represented by the amount of money I spent. It wasn’t long until I had to stop shopping at the places on the top of HRC’s buying guide, and I felt like a bad person. I turned around and left Trader Joe’s today because I only had double digits in my bank account until student loans came in. The cost of a meal at one place was the same price as the cheapest pound of meat at the other. I went back to McDonalds, ordered a cheeseburger, and cried.

This is analogous to my experience with my work in video games. The worth of my writing and advocacy is constantly augmented by my relationship to money. In order to keep up with critical conversation, I must constantly buy games. And not the cheaper ones, but the sixty dollar hits that many of my peers get for free. I feel compelled to constantly add to the sprawling Steam library and Kickstarter backing lists. Despite the growing debt, I have to get a new TV for my consoles, buy a gaming rig, and consider obtaining one of the latest handhelds. And for what? Gaming criticism, the one bastion for minority writers in games media, isn’t seen as valuable enough writing to pay. The only time publications want to talk about discrimination with any regularity are the ample gaffes developers give them. The paying stuff has little to do with the experiences and skills you yourself don’t invest in monetarily. Your self-worth is constantly measured by how much you make, or, if editors feel like you’re worth paying. Covering events is something you back yourself and hope you see return on, reviews mainly interrogate ‘should you buy this?’ The amount of white people in the higher paying brackets of the media isn’t coincidental.

Money also frames my activities with social justice activism here. Don’t click on Kotaku. Fund GaymerCon. Don’t go to PAX. While I believe in a plurality of methods to challenge oppressive systems, valuing activism by money makes someone of my socio-economic background powerless. Giving weight to financial power over other methods is problematic, because it often excises the contributions of people who care by their wallet. Making this the battle of the dollars gives disproportional agency to white people against other white people. If I only have twenty bucks on me, how can I significantly factor into that fight? This doesn’t invalidate the very real influence of money, but it challenges us to change the battlefield to where more can participate. We are constantly looking for more diversity in activism, but continue to use resources linked to finances as our main plan of attack. Choosing where your money goes seems like an effective tool because it’s easy; you continue living your life, but instead of going to Dunkin’ Doughnuts you go to Starbucks. Unfortunately, not everyone can afford coffee, especially the ones making your drinks.

The structure of games media and activism only leaves me the path of martyrdom, of sacrificing things I shouldn’t really give up. Why is it that we require a section of people to give up their well-being to be a significant force in things they care about? We wonder why writing and social justice is so white-washed; it’s because many can’t afford to pay the dues of these clubs.

My body is rejecting the McDonalds I ate, used to years of organic and specialty foods I shouldn’t have bought. The only method of eating three meals a day that factors in walking everywhere I go, arranging plans to network, and readying myself for school makes me want to throw up. I feel terrible, unable to write the pieces I won’t be paid for anyway. The fog outside hangs from the power lines like drapes of cotton, and I can’t tell where the sun is. None of my iPad games are entertaining me and I wish for the tech to play my PC games again. I want to do anything that makes me feel like I’m contributing to society, though I can’t help but make a face seeing its price tag.

Speaking in Accents and the American Ethnocentrism in Video Games

Voice acting has become a staple in gaming that helps flesh out characters and setting. Abandoning the text-box provided a more intimate way for the game to connect to the player by expressing emotion and ideas in a way that they are more familiar with. The quality of voice acting in games is, of course, an area of contention, but when done properly, it adds brushstrokes to the aesthetics of the game. This is especially true for settings that benefit from characters having accents to imply nationality. The cultural politics that voice acting implies, however, often escape analysis. The default English accent is General American and deviations from this tap into a subtext that assumes an American player. How accents communicate information to the player exposes the subliminal effects of American ethnocentrism.

Looking at the voices chosen for the later Final Fantasy games reveal how conscious the video game industry is in having voiceover resonate with American players. There is critique about American culture in the very idea in how a foreign country would choose to best translate their characters. Exotification of both real-world cultures and in-game characters surfaces through the series’ presentation of accents. Final Fantasy XII and XIII use accents to imply regional differences rather than what normally would, the face. In Final Fantasy XII, most of the party has a General American accent, with florid vocabulary to make the setting reminiscent of “olde” times in Europe. This associates the American accent with the player, assumed as the default. Fran is the exception, but she is so in many respects: she’s the only non-human character in the party, the only non-white character, and also the most sexualized. Her odd Bjork-esque accent adds to her exotic characterization, though one could make a strong argument that Fran has the least personality of all of the party members in the game. With the Empire sporting England’s Received Pronunciation accent and while Rozzaria’s Al-Cid speaks with a Spanish one to match his exaggerated mannerisms, the player’s experience adds context to the notion that the politics of foreign countries decide the fate of their own if that player is American. This also takes place in Final Fantasy XIII, in which Fang and Vanille have Australian accents to designate their nationality, while Americans voice the rest of the cast. Along with their tribal inspired clothing and the uncultivated depiction of their home world, the Australian accent gives the American (and possibly other) players the subtext of the characters being wild and exotic. In a game that trumpets the theme of protecting the homeland from foreigners, the emphasized difference between the American- and Australian-voiced characters adds to the drama of the situation. This is absent for those who share the same stereotypical views that the US has about other cultures.

The Dragon Age series reappropriates accent dynamics for the assumed American player. Taking place in a fantasy setting, the dominant accent is the English Received Pronunciation. With this as the default, the other accents gain meaning through their interaction with the English: the Dalish speaking with Welsh accents, Orlesians are French, and Antivans Spanish. The treatment of these groups coincides with the stereotyping of their accents rather than their own in-game culture. This is especially true of Orlesians, as their voice acting is sometimes incomprehensible and usually humorous in its deprecating manner. What is surprising is the usage of American accents. City elves, dwarves, and the Qunari do not represent the default. Instead, American accents are a neutral sound because there doesn’t need to be any differentiation within these groups. This makes the American accent invisible so the player can focus on something other than their regional heritage. It uncovers what the developers wanted the audience to focus on with these groups: the classism of the dwarves, the absolute philosophical theocracy in Qunari culture, and how the city elves deal with racism (however there is little commentary on how humans are casually discriminatory towards them). In the cases of the humans and the Dalish, their regional differences are a core part of their story, so they receive European accents to illustrate their relationship to one another. Logically, American accents should sound out of place, as the continent remained undiscovered in the medieval Europe setting the series calls upon as its influence, but they actually do not as American accents are now what players in general have grown accustomed to as the default for video games.

The accents found in games don’t merely represent other people outside of the US, though but also groups within the country. Starcraft and games that use the “space marine aesthetic” often use American Southern accents to depict their characters, relying on many stereotypes of the South as unrefined and conservative. It’s no accident the game provides supplementary US Civil War Confederacy imagery to frame the context of their characters. Southern accents allow the player to understand the military of the future by having them relate to the usual trash-talking and attitudes assumed to be emblematic of those in the US’ current one. Instead of exploring the complexities of a Southern identity, the Starcraft series shows Southerners as unwanted and expendable. Players overlook this because the marines are like the outspoken bumpkins that American society at large has come to laugh at without reprimand. The player will rarely find wise, respected characters with Southern accents in their games; the General American accent or one of the many Northeastern ones allow for that role.

Realizing that development teams assume an American player as their audience can help diversify the setting and cast in video games. Accents can be more than flavor for a game’s aesthetics but also communicate cultural subtext that adds to the overall meaning of the game. Currently, games rely on an American perspective for characterization in a medium that is experienced internationally, and it’s time to question why this is. And as a community, move games into more of a shared global space.

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