2016 at Alternate Ending

Writing has been weird for me this past year. My decision to move to New York was a last attempt to find a place for myself in the field of games. I admit, I don’t really feel like I belong, or if there is a place for me. But I’ve put in so much effort, I felt like I needed to give it one more push before giving up. Interest in the written word about games, and well everything on the internet, is steadily dropping. Now a lot of people engage with video and streaming, some still with podcasts. I’m one of the fortunate few who makes any sort of money outside of mainstream publications and that has helped me explore avenues and alleys in games that few try since there is such little support. Now I’m deeper in organizing, stepping up in my role at IndieCade and doing project management for multiple indies. Come this next semester I will be adjuncting at both NYU and The New School, and by the end of the year, finished with my masters. I’m learning more and more about how much things aren’t solid or decided in games yet and the different forces that stand to gain by controlling the narrative of the discipline. It’s hard to say whether I will be ‘in games,’ but I guess my professional roots will always begin from them.

So here are the top 10 read posts of 2016, maybe it will reveal what people are most concerned about for 2017:

 

#10: “Remembering Monsters: Morinth

Current initiatives surrounding diversity in games focuses on making main characters more diverse for identification purposes. This is typically supposed to be a positive identification, that players will see themselves acting heroic and saving the day so, in effect, the world sees more people as capable. I see the value in this process, though I am aware of how much this is basically a palette swap, or the quality of storytelling doesn’t shift when new kinds of people are depicted in usual scenarios. Now that I’m teaching about games, I’m trying to find other ways to talk about representation in games outside of good and bad, particularly finding subtle or subliminal, possibly unintentional, forms of representation. Looking at Morinth from Mass Effect 2 was an attempt to look beyond the main character, deeper into what the game does to characters through choice architectures. We’re used to seeing characters as static representations, but really all things in games should be seen as the whole of everything choice architectures manifests of them. Maybe like Schrodinger’s cat, Morinth is both left dead on the whole of an Omega apartment and shambling towards you as a grunt banshee that you will gun down without much more thought. She can’t be either or, but both at the same time. As I become more interested in the save file as playful artifact, I wonder about the more complicated we can deal with characters, and see what systems of choices do to them, using that as our barometer for ‘representation’ rather than simply the character model put on the box.

 

#09: “Teaching Representation in Games

One of the first big things I did in 2016 was teach my first class at NYU’s Game Center last spring. It was a fun ride, I learned a lot from the experience and I feel like I exposed students to perspectives they wouldn’t readily encounter in both games and media studies spaces. My main angle was to rethink ‘representation;’ what does it mean to represent something or someone in a media context? Often I think people believe representation is just about accurately depicting people of different identities, but the juicy issues are located in how fraught identity is in the first place, and then the warped agendas of representation adds on top of that. It was more of a taster course, sampling some 20th century philosophy along with more mainstream games in order to get students thinking about the topic in a more complicated way than I think a lot of critics and developers currently do. It was mostly lecture-based the first time around and I plan on making it a little more interactive and project-orientated for this upcoming spring. Feel free to chat with me if you’re thinking on teaching about representation in games yourself!

 

#08: “New Difficulties

Those closer to me know that I have a secret affinity for strategy games, but I also have this strange perfectionism problem that never lets me complete them. There is something about moving pieces and the passage of time, cause and effect, that makes me want to create the perfect scenario. But it’s not perfecting the quantitative aspect of these games, rather the qualitative. I’m never in it for the perfect score, rather the perfect scenario. This was particularly true when I was playing Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest this year, where it was purposefully difficult to advance in the scenario-sense, with pairing up your characters, getting them to have children, and raising the kids to their full potential. It’s not the most innovative, but I can imagine future games that make the shaping of the story and its outcomes difficult or challenging with the end purely being about what it is you want out of the story rather than just winning battles or puzzles. Saves come up again in this piece, again in reference to BioWare games, especially considering their difficulty levels scale only in battle, not with conversations. I wonder if the problems with conventional difficulty is that it’s a tired tradition rather than getting rid of difficulty all together.

 

#07: “Amnesia: Memories & Metafictional Otome Games

As I mentioned in my games roundup, Amnesia is an interesting landmark for otome games, one that shows it’s a truly reflexive genre. While I feel creators like Christine Love are doing more interesting things in the realm of visual novels, otome are beginning to push against themselves, understanding the unique placement of being ‘for women’ in a world that is struggling with what to do about gender. Seeing that most of this is still mostly made in Japan and Korea and we have to wait for it to get translated over, I wonder when more people in English-speaking countries start putting out more heavy hitters when it comes to the genre. There are more coming out on Steam, especially with more queer content, so maybe 2017 will see a big wave of these games. I sure hope so!

 

#06: “Homo Ludens for the People

I’ve always been interested in bridging the gap between academic knowledge and the public. Despite what it looks like, I’m not an academic, at least not yet, but I understand academic language and tend to use it. Early in my writing career, this turned a lot of people off, and though I’ve come to improve how I integrate academic language into my work, it still can feel off-putting since a lot of academia assumed certain knowledges. It so happens that before 2016, I never really read any books on games, games design, or games studies. Given that I’m teaching about games now, I figured I should start reading the canonical texts so I can have better arguments than I currently do, and bolster my attempts to change or redirect the canon, or if anything, easily critique it. What surprised me going on this journey were the sentiments and arguments left out of the discourse I witness more and the political nature of what was plucked from these books and what was left behind. So I thought it was important for more people to have entry points into these texts, first by understanding how they relate to current discourse and then what is strangely left out of said conversations. The main example is the very first text in the canon, Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga, particularly extremely racist and orientalist perspective he used to structure his understanding of play. I got too busy and had to stop reading, but this will most definitely pick back up come summertime when I begin reading for my thesis.

 

#05: “Queerbaiting and Fan Futures

Games tend not to enter culture on its own, it runs parallel to other nerd interests like technology, comics, sci-fi/fantasy in general, and of course, anime. The end of the year saw Yuri!! On Ice sweep, at the very least, Japanese- and English-speaking countries and will most certainly encourage more content like it, that is, somewhat obscured homoromatic, and sometimes homoerotic, boys playing sports, which has been a bit of a thing already but really came out strong in Yuri. One of the strongest rifts in the fan community surrounding the show is the topic of queerbaiting, or rather, whether or not the main characters are actually gay or not because there is no evidence of homosexuality. The show uses the language of queerbaiting, or implying that characters could be queer but not coming out and saying it canonically, in order to tell a story about love between two men. The thing is, queerbaiting is usually used as a pejorative, that it would be better for queer people if shows were more straight-forward with if characters were queer or not, instead of trying to have their cake and eat it too by trying to placate queer- and open-minded people with those who would be offended by queer content. I’m really curious about the interventions fans make on media that don’t really represent them, especially when there’s scant queerbaiting. Take Overwatch for example, which I’ve never played but everyone I know who enjoys it views every character as gay, even when there was zero comment on anyone’s sexuality until the recent Tracer reveal. I hold the argument that fans are the best to represent themselves and hoping that companies with business interests are ever going to represent them well is backwards thinking. Instead, I’m curious about how to further involve fan-made content, especially when it comes to queering characters, into games or further integrating the shipped content and stuff that bubbles up from the fan communities that surround it.

 

#04: “Rethinking the Games Conference

Close to my heart, understanding how events like conferences can benefit communities will probably always exist in my life and work. I’ve been to, participated in, and organized an alarming amount of events in games despite having such a short career in it, so I feel like I know the experience inside-out. The good news is that there’s an ever-increasing amount of events about games that tie in artistic and activist bends that take place outside of San Francisco, LA, and New York City. We’re at a point where we can look critically at the progress of these events and assess whether or not they are serving their communities, especially those who are marginalized and don’t have access to professional spaces. I think 2017 will be the year of labor issues for all arms of the games world, and conferences shouldn’t be an exception. Many events rely on the free labor of volunteers and speakers in order to run, and while many of us don’t have a budget to run events on, we have to think of alternative ways of respecting labor instead of resigning to exploiting others for some sense of the greater good. I also want to be thinking about how to have people from many different disciplines and background in the same event without speaking past each other; newcomers, academics, and developers using similar languages while retaining high concepts from their field. I will be announcing a conference I’m organizing in NYC soon to test out some of these things, so look out for that!

 

#03: “Murder Mystery Writing as Design

If I had to sum up my thoughts on playing games in 2016, it would probably be about mystery as design paradigm, particularly murder mysteries. Many of the games I played this year were murder mysteries, and at the same time I’ve listened to friends and colleagues who still feel like narrative is undervalued in the games industry. There are few games as an adult I can say the narrative elements really captured me, especially in mainstream games. But the few that did were overwhelmingly murder mysteries, and I believe this is because the genre of murder mysteries are inherently playful. They are designed narratives used to manipulate the deductive-reasoning parts of readers’ brains, so it feels like a back-and-forth struggle between the book and the reader with who is going to win when the killer is revealed. Add more deliberate games elements to that and I think there’s a strong method of integrating narrative into design. I’m not first nor last person to say this, but: we really have to stop thinking of narrative as content that helps design, and instead understand that narrative is a facet of experience design as much as play is. I really encourage both writers and developers to further look into murder mystery techniques as a method of creating games that have narrative and play as indistinct as possible.

 

#02: “Why things aren’t changing

This was an article born out of frustration, and I guess it resonated with a lot of people. 2016 was miserable for a lot of reasons, but now seeing hate groups that moved from harassing women in games back in 2014 rise to political influence in 2016 was the most painful transformation to witness. I can’t help but feel a sort of ‘told you so’ about it all. Ultimately, people with power are trying to ignore the problem as much as possible hoping it will just pass. So are consumers, who are made to believe they can’t really change anything because they only see change happening in broad strokes. This is a damning piece without optimism for the industry, but I think I can do that because I mostly don’t subsist off the industry. I know others do, so there is a need for optimism about video games, but you have to call a spade a spade. Most games institutions prefer to quietly profit off toxic cultures than actively cultivate and help those who are targeted and marginalized. Until that changes, the industry will stay the same. Until our relationship with progress changes, we will see our world continue to enter deeper into plutocracy and fascism powered by the ill will of those who want to keep their social status away from an era of equality.

 

#01: “Why I’m Boycotting GDC

I’m not sure whether I should be surprised or not that this was the most read piece of mine. Much like the previous, this is a product of frustration, how powerful institutions continue forward by using marginalized people without a culture of respecting them. Maybe that’s just the nature of industry, to be the most efficient, at any cost. I hope GDC can fix its problems and create a better, more enlightening culture around it.

 

And that’s 2016! I’m hoping to actively seek out different kinds of interactive, playful experiences this coming year and have that spurn new thoughts about the medium and discipline. I think you’ll be seeing more about design and hopefully about the body. We’ll see what the year holds! Happy New Year to everyone, see you on the other side.

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Letters with John Sharp: Inter-generational conflict in games

Trying something new! I decided to start up some letter series with other thinkers in games, or just generally interesting people I’m connected with to get different perspectives on topics I like to talk about, or important issues games may be facing.  The first person I started chatting with was John Sharp, a professor at Parsons The New School for Design who has a broader view of games that sits well with me and I’m glad to see in a program that features play and technology. When we were finding out what we wanted to talk about, we arrived on some conflict between older academics and designers and younger ones, and I asked him to describe what he thought that tension was. So without further ado, here was his response:

 

John:

hey Mattie-

I’m not sure tension is necessarily the right word, thinking about it more. For me, a lot of it boils down to the values around knowledge, history and criticism. As someone who has an academic background in art history, I’ve been fed a steady diet of “lit reviews,” annotated bibliographies and citations. So my initial response to much of the critical writing I see is, “oh, right, that’s like X and Y and Z. I wonder if they have read/played/watched/heard that?”. Related, it often surprises me when ideas that seemed well-known are treated as new—not necessarily by the critic but by the response to the criticism. It also makes me wonder why certain concepts take hold when explored by younger critics outside academia when they didn’t when explored by academics or older critics/designers/artists.

I’ve come to realize that I’m used to one set of values (that of the humanities within American academia, 1980s leftist punk rock, etc.), while that often has little to do with the values of the younger critics. And though there may be a certain aspects that are “reinventing the wheel,” there is also a lot of new ground being covered from different perspectives, and for different reasons. As a result, I’m learning a lot, and rethinking all sorts of things, big and small.

That’s pretty exciting, at least it could be, if (wearing my academic hat here) the two communities were able to learn from one another. Maybe that’s overly idealistic, or even self-serving of me. I guess that is part of what I hope we can tease out through this dialog between you and me.

Part of this conversation-through-letters format is posing questions. So a couple of questions for you, if I may: what drew you to this conversation format? And what’s your take on Sage Solitaire?

 

Mattie:

I think you make a lot of relevant observations that point to how time and place really affect the dynamics of what is see as two schools of people who differ from each other. Something that might be both subtle and duh at the same time is how much being in different generations is affecting how we approach games discourse; for the most part, people viewed as young upstarts are millennials and are products of growing up with the internet and landing in markets and institutions with expectations they can’t reach unless they are pretty privileged.

With that, I find there is this expectation of our generation to follow the last in games, or at least cite the histories and texts they learned to appreciate. I think we do reference histories that are relevant to us, but they aren’t coming from the same traditions or line of thought that who is appointed as ‘before’ us do. In a way, older academics and designers see us as after them and we don’t see ourselves the same way. We grew up independently, mostly because the older generation was establishing industries and academic programs and we were cobbling things from wherever life took us, so it’s not like we came from any sort of tradition. Right now, your students and protege designers are ‘the next generation’ of that group of people, not us. This is similar to other sorts of generational rifts: social justice online doesn’t really heed much to 2nd wave feminism and its figureheads because it wasn’t grounded in enough intersectional politics, and intersectional feminism took to the internet faster because platforms like social media and forums were the only places those without academic access to talk with people like them about this higher level stuff sometimes. I’m thinking about trans people in particular, who’ve had blowups with older trans people lately. We learned to structure our communities in different ways, through the internet in particular, and learned from there. Many of us didn’t grow up hanging out in clubs for cis gay people, particularly men, as our only method of encountering people like us. By the time we learned about trans-ness, feminism was being taught as influenced by queer and critical race studies, so when some veteran voices speak up it’s easy to feel disconnected from them because it’s like they are speaking another language with different customs and inside jokes that they expect us to get but are actually sometimes horrifying to hear.

So while our work is often influenced by institutions, since many of us went to school and either dropped out or got a degree unrelated to games, our work is not for institutions, like how many older academics took their education to form games studies and academia as a whole. Since we aren’t a part of that tradition, our work isn’t really respected or encouraged by institutions. And if people don’t perceive that they have respect or clout from or in an institution, why would they spend time referencing that institution in their work? It’s entirely possible that the words of younger game critics and designers are respected by established academics, but that is rarely gestured.

Which leads to the main point of difference between the groups: game critics aim to reach different people, from those generally interested in games and sometimes reads thinkpieces to artists outside of games who would recognize our style and bridge-build from there. Reading games criticism isn’t hugely popular, but it’s more pervasive than it was even 5 years ago, so a lot of basic games theory or topics are going to seem new. This ties into how games critics get any sort of support, which is from whatever niche and sometimes general audiences would give them. Despite sometimes using the same language as those in academia or veteran designer positions, game critics ultimately serve those who follow their work, and in general, have stronger social media and writing presences than most academics do. I remember very distinctly when I started writing about how people didn’t respond to my just-out-of-college inaccessibility, and how actually a lot of general publications still find my writing too academic. We’re pressured to learn how to communicate a lot of these thoughts to wider audiences, and to speak as many thoughts as we can. I think this is why things that seem obvious to the established are seen as new to many others, because there’s just simply a wider reach to have when you’re a games critic than when you’re an academic. I’ve seen games criticism dubbed ‘middle-state’ writing before, being between academic and populist writing, and it serves as a translating service from one side to the other sometimes.

With that, games critics are often driven more by current events than any particular line of research. While there are definitely pieces of writings that serve as throw-backs or are completely off-topic, a lot of games critics use what’s happening in the world to contextualize more complex topics while it’s all fresh in people’s minds and with subjects they care about. When I first looked up academic writing on games, they were from the same games from the early 2000s that people just don’t talk about anymore, and of course, these were all locked behind paywalls. While that’s changing, I do think this arm of games criticism is helping that along, as it has a speed and digestibility advantage over publishing in academic journals. So yeah, while we might see similar at times, our timing and place makes how people access our work and concepts different, which is why you might be seeing disparate reactions between who is saying what.

I really do feel though that there is a place and reason for older, established academics and designers to get along with us younger folk. I personally feel invested in inter-generational work because I think there’s knowledge and access that comes from that on both sides. But communities are intentional, you have networks of people because you purposefully wove them together. There isn’t any of that going on between older academics/designers and younger ones, at least, not with ones that aren’t your students. You all are way more pervasive and in our view than the other way around: we have to go to your events, hear your talks, read your works, and in general feel your presence way more than you do for us. It’s rarer for this older generation to extend the same gesture, though it is appreciated when people do! I feel like I can talk to you, Colleen [Macklin], Richard [Lemarchand], Clara [Fernandez-Vara], and some others because you all will read my stuff or go to my events and actually engage. There are many who don’t, and it feels like they treat us like offspring but are off working and never are home to bond and actually grow a relationship. I really believe the ball is in the court of the people with more access, resources, power, and ability to create a non-hostile meeting grounds.

As for Sage Solitaire, I definitely feel like it’s a game I’m supposed to say has ‘elegant design’ but I generally remain unaffected by these sorts of games. I guess it feels derivative enough for me to feel like it’s something I’ve played before? The game seems to boil down to typical gambling-probability themes, and I dunno, I’m kind of over stuff so heavily influenced by gambling design traditions. It’s like, where does this game fit into my life? I can imagine someone maybe writing about how this game helps them with anxiety or something but that’s a credit to people’s ability to integrate media into their experiences, not that the game leaves room for personhood.

 

John:

Yes, I think the generational differences are strong, I agree. One big commonality, though: most of us 40-somethings don’t have degrees in games, either. We also came up through comparative literature (Ian Bogost), media studies (Mary Flanagan), film (Tracy Fullerton), art history (me), and other diverse disciplines across the humanities. To my knowledge, Jesper Juul holds the distinction of being the first of us 40+ types to have actually studied games as a student. Still, we all come from disciplines steeped in humanities-based ideas about how knowledge is gained, shared and passed on. And that informs how many instinctually think of younger game critics and designers. And so we are separated not just by generation, but by the traditions of how we frame what we do, and for whom we do it.

A slight aside, but I don’t really think of you all as being the next generation in the academic lineage of game studies, probably because I don’t see myself as emerging from it either. I see you all coming more from the traditions of music criticism, DIY theory and the like from the 70s and 80s.

Anyway, you are right, you all owe no allegiance to us and our work. You aren’t beholden to us in any way, and it is unreasonable for us to think you all should pay attention to us. The analogy of the negligent parent is apt, like a stereotypical absentee parent only coming around when they want something, or when the child has found success on their own. Some of us, we (or at least I) feel a responsibility to pay attention to the younger critics and designers, best I can.

You are right, there are differences between our audiences and our intentions at times. In broadest terms, criticism is a lens for helping interested readers consider works, while academic writing is more professional communication amongst peers. Still, academics need to pull of the same sort of translation work as critics. It is certainly how I think of my writing, though I realize my writing style is often too wonky and dense to actually accomplish that in many cases.

Academic writing moves really slowly in any event. An essay I wrote 18 months ago about the seeds for the indie games phenomenon will finally be out in the spring. That’s roughly two years after the fact. I’ve had to amend the essay numerous times as things have changed around indie games. So the idea of writing quickly about a current game seems nearly impossible to me—both because of my working process, but also because of how things get done in academic publishing. I’ve experimented on my blog with some quicker writing, things that are started and finished in a few days or a week at most. Not sure I’ve got it down yet, but it certainly has led me to admire the speed with which critics and journalists can work through ideas and write.

I also agree that the ball should be in the court of those with more access, privilege, power and resources. The ways we want to do that, though, aren’t always helpful—inviting you to give talks at conferences (but not offering support to get there), asking you to write essays (without compensation), linking to your work (but not considering that we might be sending vultures instead of readers). So it is on those of us who are trying to be part of the solution to be thoughtful about whose problem we are solving—ours or yours. I’m slowly coming to understand more about how to listen to what you all are saying, and not just assume you want to be part of our communities of practice and infrastructure.

I know I have all sorts of blind spots— in my critical (in the academic sense) knowledge, how I understand the world, etc., etc.—and you all help me find them, and hopefully with the new insights, I can address them. I also know that’s unfair of me, to look to you and your peers to help me understand how to do better. It leads me to think more about what I can do in return. The obvious stuff—share references, ideas, experience from nearly 30 years experience as a designer, 16 years as an educator and more than 20 years as an academic—doesn’t seem either wanted nor enough. Perhaps our conversation will help me figure out better ways.

I’m not sure you need to say Sage Solitaire has elegant design (we’ll reserve that for last year’s darling, Desert Golfing). I’m not sure I think Sage Solitaire is elegant either, though I have spent a good deal of time playing it over the last week. It has cut into my usual rotation of Drop7, Two Dots and Triple Town—my go-to idle moment games. Sadly, they end up being the bulk of my gameplay too often, but that’s another story.

My sense is unaffected is an operative term here around games like Sage Solitaire. It isn’t an expressive game, at least not how I think about them. It is just a game, a pastime in the strictest sense, and not really doing anything Tetris or Candy Crush doesn’t already I suppose. The affect is lulling, calming, absorbing, but not revealing, expressing, considering, or other words we might use about work that does mean something in the sense of exploring the human condition.

A while back, I went on an artist’s tour of the Pennsylvania Hotel as part of Elastic City’s annual festival. An artist had spent months visiting the hotel, walking its halls, learning the habits of the hotel’s staff and guests, and generally coming to really know the place. She then constructed a tour she took a group of a dozen of us on one evening. We explored empty ballrooms, corridors, listened to the silence of the halls, visited rooms, and generally came to have a really expressive understanding of a fairly mundane space. It was one of the more enriching art experiences I’ve had in some time.

As we walked through the hotel, I couldn’t help but think about videogames. What would it be like to make a game that provided a similar experience? I was struck by the emptiness of videogame spaces, and how that always just seems like how it should be. But when in similarly empty spaces in real life, they took on so much more meaning and important, and had so much more powerful impact on me than any 3D game ever has. One of the rooms we visited was an abandoned efficiency apartment that appeared to have been hastily abandoned, with most of the furniture removed. Random things remained, though—a small passport sized picture of a man, a calendar, newspapers, a lamp, paper clips. It immediately made me think of “object oriented storytelling,” and how hollow that feels when compared to a real space with real things, presumably left behind by someone.

All of which made me kind of sad about games, that they aren’t able to connect with me in the same way an artist’s tour of a hotel can.

That’s it for now, but more will be up soon! Check out John’s stuff, he’s a cool guy!

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Needing Closure: Another Look at Interactivity

As many memories of nights in San Francisco begin, it was hazy and I couldn’t figure out what sort of coat actually kept me warm in that weather. It was a classic trench but cut in more feminine ways, shorter, more dramatic buttons, a latch make it a ¾ sleeve, and a hood. As far as I understand any sort of cold weather wear, it’s not really for insulation but rather looking like I have business to attend to while walking through wind and rain. It was my first coat, when I went to Chicago a few years before this, where I would be experiencing Real Cold™ (I saw snow on the ground and that was enough to freak me out) as a Florida gal, and I’m not really sure it helped at all.

Standing on a corner at Market St downtown, streetlights glowing in a light night fog, I was probably talking about Chicago with my friend Jenn Frank. We were about to split for the night, but tried to rush in as many conversation topics at that street corner, as I found is something that happens at conferences. You don’t know if you’re going to see someone for more than 10 minutes, so might as well say all the things you can while you have them. Another quirk about seeing people exclusively through work events is that you have conversations or topics that you bring up over and over again, only slightly advancing it since it’s been 9 months since you’ve last seen each other. They always start the same way too, and we try to speed through the parts we’ve already been through, with a lot of “yeah!”s and “totally”s as you recreate it, get a new sentence or two in, and oh gosh it’s 1 AM and I need to stop by somewhere for at least one more drink.

Jenn started one such conversation with me, about how tarot are a form of comics. At that time, most people didn’t know I had an intense amatuer venture into divination when I was younger, so it was the first time I started to recontextualize tarot into a form of play, the act of reading its own art form. It’s an interesting connection, though at first I wasn’t sure what it really meant. I believe at that time I only vaguely knew of Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, mostly because often I would hear “I want an Understanding Comics for games” from games people. I decided then to read it so I could slowly grow this conversation over the next three years.

To situate the graphic novel, it was written back in the 90s to do what games are doing now, which was explaining how comics are an art form and should be taken seriously. It wanted to broaden people’s assumptions of what comics are and can be, and show the different elements that make up the medium and distinguish it from others. Like what I feel about a lot of words on how games are special, I didn’t think there was much actually unique to comics, though I don’t believe any art form needs to be entirely unique to merit its existence, and as well, that any art form is actually entirely unique from the rest.

Of particular interest is the book’s focus on the element of closure, in so far that Scott says “Comics is closure!” Rereading this recently, still healing from a past relationship, the term closure felt like a rather powerful one. It implies the inevitable ending of something, or a needed emotional resolution. It’s a word used during mostly painful times, when things are confusing. I have “how to get closure” in my search history. With comics, closure is filling in the blank between two image panels that are separated by frames (what Scott says are colloquially called “gutters”). Because comics tend not to depict every single second that is happening in the story, readers unconsciously fill in the blanks with their imagination. To the author, this is a very interactive process that he feels is most prevalent in comics than, let’s say, movies. That might sound familiar, because many arguments about games are that they have interaction that separate them from things like, let’s say, movies, are touted around on the regular.

I’ve found putting interaction on a pedestal as a defining trait of games more of a grab for legitimacy and exceptionalism rather than actually finding something interesting to say about a medium. I feel like this is the same for comics; as mediums, they reveal interactions that have taken place in all of life because they stress them, but they are not uniquely suited to them. Prose is the most efficient and possibly invisible prompt for closure, as it needs your active imagination constructing the story in order to make sense of what is going on. Scott’s “Comics is closure!” line is better suited for “Art is closure!” or some other wide-reaching statement that I wouldn’t necessarily make. The moment something is perceived as creative expression or Art™, the perceiver is filling in information on what the piece is trying to do and what it mean as it relates to their experience. Comics, and play, are great lenses that help people who aren’t sitting around musing about the elements of art all day to find new ways of relating to the world around them. Reading something as a comic or as a game bears more than only being able to read comics as comics, games as games, and having some larger entity decide what are comics and games. To be fair, this book is about 20 years old, so who knows what the author’s opinions are now.

So tarot reading is already established as play, though not commonly thought of as much, so now, do we find a link between comics and games when we establish them as comics as well, per Jenn’s insight? Even without my looser way of defining things, tarot fits Scott’s “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence” once laid down in a spread.  Through some recent readings, I’ve focused on the act of closure, and ultimately found that tarot further emphasizes closure through play, by deliberately asking people to exercise their imagination and molding the experience around that. The reader doesn’t require mysticism to feel like something is connecting them to the experience that is going on, as interpretation feels like a strange twist of personification. As Understanding Comics posits, the reader fills in the blanks with their own image of themselves, contextualizing everything to how they understand the world. Closure is the kind of interactivity that is shared by all mediums, where the piece requires imagination, for people to fill in themselves in the blanks knowingly or not. I’m starting to think that play is games’ version of closure, if it isn’t closure in and of itself.

This contrasts to what people in games generally consider interactive, and how games are judged to be good games, or even games at all. Interaction is often described as ‘doing something,’ with the doing something being an active change in some sensory or mental process. Making a figure jump, solving a puzzle, etc. Yet I’m finding it’s not these sorts of interactions that are actually connecting the player with the experience despite how much attention they receive from critics and developers. Instead, I believe it’s this act of closure, the spaces between where the player is prompted to fill in their interpretation, play as it is, that connects us to an experience and where we can find all sorts of interesting things happening. I think critics do attempt to reach this closure, but typically through how they understand closure in other mediums, which is why there are so many narrative analyses. Many games don’t allow for varying kinds of closure except for those we see in movies and books, and these elements are often the least deftly deployed. It’s much easier to interpret tarot cards because they are literally a distillation of interpretation; they often have complex images, with optional literature on what they may mean, with gutter spaces between them that encourage participants to complete the experience by making it particularly relevant to them. To find closure, to make peace.

This perspective is helping me consider new kinds of designs and ideas that are made for people, not gamers, to experience in a meaningful way. To understand how play connects us to things in life we can’t perceive unaided. And that’s how I approach reading tarot cards, as an experience that is going to structure your imagination in a way to help you view something that you didn’t or couldn’t before, because you need prompts for closure to recognize it. Interaction is a false idol, it doesn’t exist solely because it is shiny, covered in polygons and pixels and cards and miniatures. There is something more personal and involved at work with closure, but not because it is unique or special to certain mediums. Rather, it exists everywhere, and we have another way of accessing it. Ignoring how closure/play is newly accessed by games, rather than discovered, is like getting a new book and never reading it, just feeling complacent that you have a new object within your grasp, for people to read the spine and wonder what it’s about, and you always giving some empty answer, not wanting anyone to see you too closely, just the things you own, and not ask any more questions.

 

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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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Our House

Community. Strangely, now, a dirty word in the context of social media. I’m not entirely sure what’s going on with it, when it comes to games. Maybe it’s going through usual gestations, a process that completed cycles before I was ever a twinkle in Twitter’s eye. History and repetition and all that.

It wasn’t until some hindsight that I realized how much of my involvement in social media was novel for my time in games. It’s easy to forget that people have different relationships with social media, where some, like myself, see it as a complete lifeline and was the birth of my involvement in games, where others only use it to keep up on the news when they have the chance to look at their phone and have no idea about the culture that has bubbled from it.

I remember a friend describing that one day I just walked onto Twitter and there I was, doing my thing to get where I am now. Still haven’t processed that ‘where I am now’ bit, but I can’t ignore it’s in some form successful and atypical. The access of social media meant I could almost literally will myself into existence and relevance, and that willpower has to continue in order to retain it. My path is nothing short of strange, I was crowd-funded to go to GDC only 5-6 months after I started writing blog posts, and continued with that momentum to travel all over the world to speak to and meet many different people.

The idea that my exposure was mostly from just effort and charity enabled by social media wasn’t something many people, including myself, understood very well. That, just through engaging in enough conversation, in participating in the ever spinning cycles of current events, I could gain legitimacy, or notoriety. And it compounded on itself, picked up in speed, until I finally crashed into a wall my body couldn’t handle.

In my journey, I’ve met many people who’ve gained recognition in a more typical manner, by working in the industry or academia or media for a very long time and going through the grind. The idea that my name or work was known in some manner, back in 2012 and maybe even today, connotes I’ve done something similar, that I have the social and monetary backing of my perceived success. In a way, we were ‘equals.’

At the time, I admit, I was full up on this prospect. This isn’t to say I slacked my way into my position, I had to output a 1000+ word article a week, pro bono, on top of my low-wage job, where I dealt with people and their tantrums over the exact weight of whipped cream they wanted on their coffee. But that those who many people respected because of their legacy and influence, somehow, now respect me in some capacity because I’m extremely persistent on social media? Yes please.

I was taught two things: first, fake it ‘til you make it. Especially in the jungle of social media, there are so many voices that people will only really take time to consistently read you if you’re considered interesting but more importantly an expert. I’ve come to find most people, especially in the media but definitely all over, are doing this. Like some secret of adulthood is that everyone is pretending to know exactly what they are doing and they are expecting you to at least put up the front of having your shit together, or better yet, can tell them how to get their shit together. I feel like this is particularly needed and damaging to critics who primarily use Twitter for their wellbeing and lifeline to games conversations. They have to put themselves forward if they are ever going to get read. I’m sure there are many critics of the way I do things, and that I come off as cheating the system and rather self-important. If you want to get any amount of capital from social media, you have to do this. Yet, it has its consequences. Games twitter is like a cul-de-sac that has neighborhood rules and on top of that each house has its own set. The cool house with all the radical critics and activists is the house with the most amount of rules, most paranoid about assault and trespassing, and constantly swarming in a forever on-going conversation of what’s wrong and how to fix things. But on the outside, they try to keep up with the high standards of the cul-de-sac, mowing their lawns just right, making sure things look like professionals are around, not poor, struggling artists. Which leads me into the second thing I’ve learned, summed up by a mentor, of “believing your own bullshit.” Imposter’s syndrome is abound, and these voices are continually dismissed and overlooked, so in order to overcome feelings of not being good enough when we actually are, we have to believe the image we put out, that we ARE experts, we ARE successful, we ARE whatever that will make us be treated the way we want to be treated.

These two things cycle endlessly on one another, where emerging artists and voices can’t ‘rise,’ they can’t ‘emerge,’ they must act like that final stage of what they envision of themselves. It wasn’t until someone else had told me “it must be terrifying doing all this on social media, you are forced to grow with everyone watching.” It wasn’t until recently that I found out I haven’t been growing because I was too busy trying not to be overlooked and dismissed.

And we’ve been doing a good job of this. Radical creators output a lot more, smaller pieces of work than people who are traditionally successful, so everyone is always seeing what we’re up to. And while they might not exactly consider us the same kind of successful as them, the ability to have many people see a lot of your work so easily does look like extremely successful and in a way, and equal to what they are doing.

So when an academic or auteur-dev sees our house, sees that it looks like his from the outside, so it must function the same inside as his, he just walks in and says what he wants. Cue the slow head-turn in unison and reaction of the hivemind that believes it is under attack. This collective unconscious is brutal, it’s even been used against people in the house, yet it is also one of the only things that keeps any semblance of protection from the constant threats from the rest of the neighborhood. It could be ultimately unhealthy, but really, where exactly were our ethics and healthy organizing on Twitter talks from our parents? We are the ones, now, being invited to talks about advocating and creating on Twitter, and I’m sure a lot of those seminars look grim.

Here is what I know, and I realize I am in a good place to do this and it is why I have this knowledge: the people who do walk into the house, ignorant, are well-meaning and confused. Confused because they don’t realize what starting your presence in a field on Twitter does to you, and what kind of warped communities and practices exist they aren’t inoculated to. In our effort to be taken seriously, our presentation gives off signals that others pick up on as being a part of the same circles, therefore customs and situations must be relatively the same. They quickly find out how wrong and wrapped up in power dynamics these assumptions are through weeks of trying to understand how a group of 20-somethings know to say the most cutting and divisive things. I’ve seen this happen over and over and over again these past few years, where someone established really wants to come over, but the culture is so different and requires them to be self-aware about things they aren’t asked to be before, that their only option is to blunder into den of protective foxes with really great hair.

One could say, because of this, and because of my weird travels through social media into the offline lives of many people, that I sometimes act as a liaison of sorts. I see the difference between the person on social media and the one in reality. I am actually really excited to have conversations with them, especially when I can express myself and my concerns in the middle of conversation instead of in a manifesto after a Twitter storm. This is because they have had a chance to cultivate something with me, personally. That doesn’t stand for social media communities, I have no city keys.

Which is to say, I really prize efforts of inter-generational conversation, because there is history and resources the established have that could have a mutually beneficial effect with social media radicals. Just, few of these efforts have gone very well.

To give my fellow critics and creators a break, we are constantly on the defensive for a good reason. The consequences of this behavior is weighty and under-discussed, for sure, but so far is the best strategy for survival people could come up with.

Instead, I want to encourage and challenge people in established positions in the industry to learn more about our house and the people who are in it, and understanding how we came here and the particular pressures we face. In a way, you have to build trust first before you can fully engage. This takes time, you have to hang around and reference their work and show in more than just words that you actually know their thoughts and positions and value them. I know this seems like a tall order since we are constantly putting out writing and constantly bickering on Twitter, but, as the metaphor stands, it’s our house.

Right now, many of us see the media and other thinkers profiting off of our work and culture. Twitter is milked for topics to discuss, but the progenitors of those conversations won’t ever be asked to write for a fair rate. People will give talks that reference or combat our ideas, but we won’t be invited to give talks for a fair wage. We spend countless hours raising awareness and battling the sludge of the industry others profit from, but we won’t be given awards, recognition, jobs, or anything. And that’s sad, it’s a series of missed opportunities.

I know that to people on the outside, radical creators and critics seem unapproachable and out of touch. We want everything of yours to burn down while we redistribute the remaining resources. But really, what I think is going on, is we’ve have a growth of talent and no room made for them, and the pushback against them only gets stronger. There are already interlopers, the ones who show up to our scrappy events, or link our articles, or RT us. Believe me, we see who is involved and who doesn’t seem to bother themselves to show up in non-confrontational ways. I know there are many people who want to reach out, be involved. Get to know us as people, as comrades, and I think we can change things, together, with our powers combined.

 

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2014 in Alternate Ending

So, this was a year.

A lot has changed for me in 2014. 2013 and 2015 Mattie will be rather different people. Looking at my writing from the past year, it’s been very divisive. It was a transition time from trying hard to fit into the industry, and finding out there’s no good place for me. That the comfortable places people are in the industry are not going in a direction I find healthy. I think a lot of the troubled times we’ve had in 2014 are the result of sticking to easy answers and feel-good apathy. Things are crumbling beneath us, and not many people were willing to acknowledge we needed to jump.

If there is something I’ve learned this year, it’s that people learn most from mistakes. I have to admit, I really hate this. I’m a perfectionist by nature, and being on social media means I had to learn how to not make mistakes. This stuff that happened in both my professional and personal life taught me a couple of things: we’re all pretending to not make mistakes, while valorizing them as a human quality (see merritt’s thoughts on failure, pretty similar), and the moment someone makes a mistake, hell rains down on them and there’s no remedial process. And even when you’re poised and minding all your details, no matter how much you avoid mistakes, someone will find fault with you, and things won’t go your way. So, here’s to growing pains and mistakes; 2014 was full of mistakes, and I think an active effort to salvage what we’ve learned in definitely in/an order.

I went through my blog and found a cross-section of popular and defining posts to have a little bit of a review. To see where my thoughts grew in reaction to 2013. I’m a sucker for New Year resolutions and such, and this is going to be partly a self-reflective moment for me. So here are some posts I think are worth checking out again to see where I am as a writer and thinker these days.

 

Redefining Games Criticism

Unlike previous years, I’ve spent less time talking about writing, but the few words I did say look forward to challenging how we approach criticism. It’s apt because games journalism is shifting, has been shifting, and it’s interesting to see opportunities to snatch away from the establishment while it figures itself out.

One of the more popular posts I wrote this year was a reaction to media and game dev treatment of Dong Nguyen and Flappy Bird. Mostly, I wanted to bring more attention to how capitalism works to inform our criticism and power dynamics in games culture. Anti-capitalist critique is the antithesis to the industry, because when you look from a class issues perspective, it reveals how exploitative and unethical companies are to maintain culture the way it is. It is the main reason I don’t want to be involved with the games industry anymore, because profit and the current exploitative relationships established by making profit are things seen as natural and not up for change. Many of the things we want for social change are set back so much by the continued power dynamics instilled by capitalism, and little will change until this can be a topic more commonly discussed.

In light of this and in effort to further lower the bar for people to participate in criticism, I tried to start a conversation on what the DIY movement of video games would look like for criticism. Other than for not existing at all, games criticism is often criticized for being inaccessible, which might feed into the former. I don’t know entirely what to make of what’s going on; people are reading about the same, but not in the same portions. I’m finding that readers’ limits for what’s too long is growing shorter, and people are preferring to have a lot of chewable writing instead of a few in depth pieces. I could very easily blame something like Twitter, however I’m not sure if it’s necessarily a bad thing. Should be we sticking to 1000+ word writing if we want to stay accessible? How much of our in-words is pandering to our niche rather than being inviting to people of all walks of life? We barely started getting paid to write criticism on a regular, sustainable basis, can that ever happen for, like, tweeted criticism? The labor put into social media is a really good topic to explore, especially when a lot of culture awareness work is done by minoritized people.

commune ity was an experimental piece I did in tandem with a creative non-fiction class, wanting to further blend my writing disciplines. Every once in a while I’ve come out with a more poetic piece like this, and most people don’t really know what to do with it. I’m appreciative, though, because sometimes I just want work that will sit with people, or make them feel something, instead of always needing to inform them of something. I wanted to express my anxieties over how intangible the community in games criticism, or overall, feels. I feel bad reading this now, because in the end, that loneliness caught up with me.

 

Social Justice on Social Media Gets Anti-Social

I spent most of 2014 really digging through the effects activism online was having on me. What it meant to be be a minoritized person talking about diversity on Twitter. From the moment I stepped onto Twitter to the moments where I peek on every once in a while now, it is a constant torrent of anger. Righteous anger, rightful anger, sometimes self-absorbed anger, often ephemeral anger. This year had me toiling, usually over a glass of wine, over what to do. What is right, and what is fair? This year has been unfair. Is there really fairness though? Or such a thing a deserving anything? Definitely thoughts on my mind.

I started off this year wanting to restructure how we spoke to each other on social media about this anger. I talked about how anger was being used to silence people within our advocacy constituencies and wrote up a defense of anger soon after. These pieces were particularly divisive, as people had strong opinions about the topic that felt rather one-dimensional. Some thought I was policing behavior and others thought I was giving licence to toxicity. Most interesting was how these pieces along with some others by queer games critics seemed to kick off a wider conversation about how social media affects activism, which was very quickly co-opted by mainstream feminism that consequentially attempted to turn intersectionality into a dirty word. Funny that.

Like many people, I’ve always had a weird relationship with labels. Labels help us identify with others, but also box us. I remember when I used to write at The Border House, my by-line was basically a list of all my identity markers. Today, I try not use that sort of language because it is easily mobilized against me via tokenization. It also leads to what has been discussed as the unthinking diversity of liberalism, to erase difference or completely co-opt it. I explored some of my feelings around being an visibly ambiguous identity and how I feel the power dynamics in my life play out when people want to assign a label for me. I dig into the dynamics of passing, and how it’s a weird and tragic concept that rules many of our lives.

I often hear that my writing is timely, appears just when it’s needed and when a particular topic is visible. I’m kind of proud of that, because it was tasking keeping up with all the news and keeping an eye on social media for things going on. I wrote this piece about moving on from the games industry just before I was attacked by Gamer Gate, and I ended up taking what I wrote here further. I was fed up with companies and other institutions being so unsupportive of people on the frontline of combatting hostile games culture at the same time Ferguson and the most recent attacks on Gaza was happening. I felt so silly, so petty, to care about fixing an industry that wouldn’t show it cared while actual hurt of people were going on elsewhere in the globe. With this, I hoped to empower people to make real changes in their lives instead of relying on capitalistic institutions which, for the most part, have stayed silent about gamers harassing minoritized people.

Soon after, I wrote about how I felt my experiences of harassment and pain were being used to fuel a social media liberal angst engine. Considering what happened after this, and my continued distance from social media, I feel this is more and more relevant. I couldn’t help but notice how much of my writing about things happening to me got way more traction than any of my more in depth work, what people theoretically followed me for. It’s dawned on me over the years how much being on social media means you’re a persona and are acting as a source of entertainment for others, even if they wouldn’t really describe it that way. I likened it to reality TV, and maybe now it feels more Truman Show.

In my further explorations in theory around relationships and consent, and also feeling a lack of support in my own life, I wrote about negotiating allyship, or at least, actually understanding what goes into actually supporting someone in the fight against oppression. ‘Ally’ as a term has always been shifty, and I think as time goes on and how transient people’s attention is to the justice of the marginalized, people are constantly questioning what the privileged are actually doing when they call themselves allies. And I think think is a super important conversation to have, because we may have good intentions, but path to hell and all that.

 

Non-Queer Design is Boring

I feel like this year I have a better understanding of what non-normative design is shaping up to be. Design conventions are largely unquestioned and haven’t changed in practice for a while outside of adapting to technological changes. The more I speak with others and look outside of video games, the more variability I see, the more room for what games are expands. The design philosophies I see doing something interesting are incorporating social change into the process, and not in some superficial way. Play is going to be something new soon, I hope.

This year, I gave an earnest try learning tools indies often do to make progress on a commercially viable game. I hated every moment of it, and deeply wished for more accessible DIY game making tools. I wrote about how I wanted to have highly specialized and idiosyncratic tools that I essentially would be having conversations with, so I could make a whole host of games instead of working on some sort of hit-or-miss indie success with something like Unity. I’d like to encourage a more healthy tool-making community in games that focusing on making accessible tools that are creative, not just for making your favorite [x] genre game.

Having dived more into the practice and theory of kink, I couldn’t help but make the connections between the design and play in typical BDSM scenes and games. I feel stronger every day about how play must coincide with, not interrupt or exist outside of, life and moments that are actually meaningful. While it’s acknowledged, there isn’t nearly enough exploration in the play that happened outside of designed objects, only how to create the objects themselves. Especially with games constantly extending outwards to become more ‘interactive,’ ignoring players’ borders and boundaries is a huge ethical problem that should be dealt with before it comes up more often.

In attempt to focus on other kinds of play, I decided to have some fun and mix together two card games I like a lot: Netrunner and the Tarot. I am typically frustrated with board games, especially card ones, that are so mechanical and don’t even try to incorporate narrative design into play despite how relevant it is to the experience. I went on to write a few posts on interpretation and how I felt the contemporary design paradigm discourages interpretation for mechanical clarity, and how I think that blocks off a lot of creativity in both creation and play.

Last but certainly not least, I took a stab at my own kind of design manifesto that incorporated contemporary thinking on ‘queer design’ while reaching out broader past video games. I use the term nebulously, more like people who are queer talking about non-normative design philosophies. I want to hold myself to these standards and try to make games that actually evoke change. I’m hoping 2015 will see a set of games from me that challenge how we currently live life and encourage us to dive into and be mindful of the play happening around us.

And that’s a wrap! I have to say, I’m still a little shocked that I am able to be around writing. It’s funny to tell people I am a writer and designer as a profession, not just as a hobby. I get to do meaningful work because many of you are supporting me, especially through this rough year, and I am really grateful. I hope to be more consistent and not run out of things to write. I want to keep up with games outside of video games, and I’m looking for cross-pollination from other related artforms. So, this is it. See ya 2014, I don’t think I’ll miss you.

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On Interpretation

One of the hurdles typically unaddressed when discussing meaning in games is how to interpret them. Or interpret anything at all really. This isn’t to depreciate a lot of writing or musing out there, actually just the opposite. Many people are taught a particular way to interpret art that typically consists of trying to conform everything to a singular viewpoint, The Way Things Are Read. This is often a trap for people who are looking to interpret play situations, especially if the idea of play being interpretive is still a strange concept. A reason, I think, so many play experiences are read as fiction narratives or as machines.

What I think goes on is a mixing of interpretation vs argument, which I imagine comes from dreaded literature classes, where in order to express your point of view, you needed to have a strong, specific argument. While there is merit to this, it mostly serves as training to enter academic and similar discourses, and often ends up as grandstanding when you do it in public. I am totally guilty of this: one of the first pieces of games criticism I ever wrote was detailing transphobia in Atlus games in this style. I feel like a lot of conversation and writing, though probably more eloquent than my early work, functions in this way, proving to be the right perspective, or correct argument. Reactions to my piece were often quibbles with evidence and how I read things as opposed to really changing a lot of people’s minds. Later on, I wrote another piece on Naoto and my personal perspective that had less of a truth to uphold and more of an awareness of perspective. This time, people personally connected with my writing and added my viewpoint along with theirs, instead of replacing anything.

This is because interpretation is best used with an understanding of many different perspectives, and being able to see from those perspectives and hold a space for all of them, even though they seem contradictory. I’m not talking about a ‘everyone has their own opinion’ type middling, rather that interpretation doesn’t work unless you are able to see something from multiple sides, and you’re aware of the act of interpretation. You might have a favorite set of perspectives, and if you’re a critic or theorist you tend to outline specifically what your new perspective is and have some sort of mega branded perspective that others can predict. To say I have a feminist perspective is not wholly true or wrong, as my ‘resting’ perspective borrows from feminist theory, but to enact a completely and distinctly feminist critique would follow a certain process that I don’t fully subscribe to. I think we more teased out this difference, there would more understanding of work like Anita’s Tropes vs Women series, which is the most accessible straight-up feminist critique I’ve seen. But don’t mistake feminist critique for Anita’s perspective; I think if you disagree with things in the series, you mostly have a quarrel with an aspect feminist critique, which is not hard to do with any sort of lens. There is use in practicing critique while knowing it doesn’t cover everything. It’s an extremely useful exercise to be able to understand how a perspective sees media, because then you can evolve it for your own interpretive process. Or, better yet, understand where a person is coming from when they are using language borrowed from it. I find the series useful for helping that sort of literacy come along.

Perspectives aren’t inherently right, and I don’t mean this in a ‘everything’s relative’ sort of way. They are like purposefully putting on colored glasses so things look a certain way and carry different meaning. Having perspective is the act of noticing. If you want to practice interpretation, it’s quite easy: find a movie or short game that you wouldn’t mind going through twice, and pick two themes or qualities that you will look for and record. They can be as inherently meaningful or seemingly meaningless as you’d like. Let’s say for now that on one playthrough, you’re going to write down all the things that are red, and on your second one, all things that are green. Then, as a creative exercise, come up with what all the red (or whatever you chose) objects have in common with each other and how that relates to the media you just experienced, and do that that with the green as well. Start to think about all of the associations, culturally and personally, we have with red and green (red often means stop and green means go, for instance), and how they speak to the game or movie through the objects. Now, you might not really come up with anything that interesting with red or green, but you can replicate this process with any sort of quality in the media, such as whenever a game provides you the option to lie or when women do or do not show up.

This doesn’t have to be just about the story of the piece. If you understand even a little bit of design, or just what you find unique about games, you can hone in on when these things happen and find meaning in that perspective. For instance, you can find in a certain selection of games that there’s a significant amount of restriction or design that removes choice and mobility. Deploying perspective would be looking at where those moments are, and how everything relates to those moments. Then you combine that perspective with a biographical perspective, or that the design is ultimately a factor of the life situation and history of the creator. You would find where they talk about restriction in their lives or how artists similar to them talk about restriction, and maybe find something meaningful in that observation. You wouldn’t be wrong unless you tried to state a fact. Interpretation is often touted around as something that fully uncovers and explains a piece of media when it is really is an additive practice. We create meaning instead of finding it, and there isn’t anything lesser about that.

So why bring all this up? Because I want more people actively engaging with media. Interpreting, not judging it. I say this because this year has taught me how much people wanted me to judge, maybe review, games as a whole, especially in a good vs bad, right vs wrong paradigm. This panders to people who, for one reason or another, feel like an authority should be making these declarations instead of taking that into their own hands. Which means the perspective of authority becomes theirs, and what the authority overlooks, so does the follower.

How do we do this with games without falling back on story? Shrink it down to what you experience, or what you feel. Catalogue the impression something gives you, whether it be some sort of visual or movement of your body. Is there a motion of your body you find particularly atypical when playing this game? Or maybe there is an action you must do repeatedly. Write down both what that quality is, and what sort of feeling it gives you. Then, like in the above exercise, find out where that also happens in life.

I recently was on an adventure a friend made for me, a sort of person-scavenger hunt. I want to write about my experience next time because I’d like to pull more attention to some real-world game design qualities, but what particularly struck me was how throughout the experience, because I was given only so much information, I thought almost everyone who passed by spots I was waiting at to be in on the game, to have some sort of function and that their appearance or way of acting had meaning I should pay attention to. It struck me how every day I’m so tuned out of the world around me, because typically, it’s mundane. People pass me by while I walk all the time, I’ve chit-chatted with strangers before, I’ve ridden a bus somewhere. But when I was encouraged to look at these factors on their own as meaningful, I could see how often there is chance for connection in the world, and how much even a stranger can prove interesting, and how it feels for a familiar face to show up from within the chaos of the uncertain. I don’t need a degree to begin interpreting what the game encouraged me to feel.

I find this all to be super relevant because I and many critics and designers and others who talk about how games influence us find the values of games reflected in those who most commonly play games. It’s as if play experiences hold up a funhouse mirrors in front of us and we begin to feel and even become a little more like that the more we look at them. We reflect the values we consume, and like diets tend to do, they make us feel and act different ways. If we can find ways to get more people actively deploying interpretation, I think we can move past wanting as many blockbuster movies in games packages and to a broader landscape of play experiences that challenge us.

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Triad

This is part of an on-going companion series to the game curation effort Forest Ambassador run by merritt kopas. Please explore and support it if you can!

What can games teach about design? To anyone, not necessarily industry people. It’s important to discuss because there are a lot of people talking about games who might not fully have a grasp on design. There’s a lot of criticism about this, that players and critics focus on non-interactive elements when they talk about video games. We often see critics talk about how games fit into certain contexts of our lives, be it as a product or an autobiographical metaphor or an example of systemic oppression. Rarely do these analyses come from the directly design itself, rather by-products or echoes of the design. Which isn’t necessarily bad, that’s what design is supposed to do, make a person feel things.

I just finished reading through anna anthropy’s section of A Game Design Vocabulary, a book co-written with Naomi Clark, just in time to talk about her work on Triad (it only takes a little bit to play) with Leon Arnott and Liz Ryerson. What I like about anna’s writing and talks is how she aims not only for good games and good design, but for a lot of the excess to be cut and manageable for people who aren’t already in video games design to understand and do themselves. I’ve become a fan of saying the idea of minimalist games is misleading, and that most games are overwrought. I want to detail a little about anna’s proposed language around game design through Triad and how it teaches on its own.

anna uses syntax as a way to talk about design. Of most importance are verbs, which she defines as doing rules. In Triad, the player’s main verb is to move around the three members of a relationship into proper sleeping positions on a bed. anna is really good about boiling things down to essentials and makes everything else revolve around this verb. You only use your mouse for the entire game, and a click becomes a decision making action, punctuated by the lamp being the finish button. This seems trivial information at first, but for anna, giving the player the smallest amount of information and input needed to play is an important part of design, because it ties the player stronger to them. I could imagine, and have seen, different keyboard buttons for rotating the people, turning off the light, or advancing the dialogue. We can push this a little further and say that the verb is actually arranging rather than moving, or another word that carries a nuance that would be good for interpreting. I can see a possible avenue for criticism to take and interpret verbs this way, because it allows you to change the light design decisions are seen under. This arranging feeling echoes back out to the objects and context of the game.

I should take a moment aside to talk a little bit about rules. I myself do not really see games to be, essentially, rules or instructions one plays with, but we are in a paradigm that sees rules as the smallest building blocks of creating games. Rules as a concept are also stretched beyond the typical meaning of rules here. The broadest way I can put it is rules are things that are designed to happen. In Triad, this can be that the light can’t turn off until all body parts are on the bed or that to win is for everyone to not be bothered during the night, and down to clicking being what forwards the dialogue and the bed being pink. I see rules more to be a lens than things that really exist on their own, we read rules and systems into design to explain them. Rules as lens is another good place for a critic to start when talking about a piece, such as, how does the rule of the cat jumping on the bed relate to or affect player decisions and behavior?

She uses objects pretty much how you think one would in a sentence structure, the rules verbs act on. anna advises for having interesting objects that help advance verbs. In the game, the main objects are the people being arranged. All of them have different qualities that make them interact with each other in unique ways. One of the bedmates rolls around in their sleep, another flips on their side. These create relationships between the characters, particularly with the one that rolls; they somehow have to be contained in the bed without being kicked. Most interesting and resonant with me however is how these objects are coded to hit each other out of the way unless you are precise and methodical on how you place them. The rules of objects are almost like personality traits; you can read in a sort of frustration yet care in arranging these people on the bed. These objects are fussy to work with but there *is* a solution (well, sort of).

Context is the layer where critics and player tend to sit in the most. It’s important; without context, this would be a simple puzzle game not too unlike other things you’ve seen. This is probably another good practice in criticism, imagining a game stripped of its context compared to its actual one. Because this is depicting a triadic relationship, there’s more going on than pieces fitting together. It’s trying to have different needs met, and requiring a lot of trial and error. My favorite part of the game is actually the interludes between each night, because it mounts the pressure of getting it right the next time. I could only imagine that this triad was also having lots of other things in their relationship going on, and they had to end every night with one of them constantly rolling off the bed.

And, for me, that’s really where design-focused criticism stops. Not much interesting comes out of analyzing in a design-centric manner to connect the game to the outside world. These critiques are pretty much from a user experience standpoint; a lot of anna’s writing is about how to be clear to the player and how to have a less is more approach to design. It is meaningful that there is a game that depicts a triadic relationship, and I think that ends there. This doesn’t mean that this game nor others can’t be significant because of this, rather, I don’t think design analyses can hold up without cultural criticism. I can see a larger piece about themes of restriction in games with queer content and how that manifests, but design-by-design points typically boil down to ‘it’s fun’ or ‘it’s elegant.’ To be clear, this doesn’t mean that the games themselves are void of value, rather, I think design analyses are stuck on what’s good design and how to make a good game on a product level. There is more to be said about the game being about a triad than the puzzle itself; that’s not a critique, more like a sign we need another way to look at games, and why autobiographical connections to games are in vogue.

I find anna’s work both as a designer and theorist to be the terminus of contemporary design ideology, boiled down to its essentials and ready for more people to pick it up and use it. I find that this design paradigm is rather, well, videogamey, and is too down the entertainment rabbit hole to really be mined for something other than that. This isn’t downing her games, knowing her personally I am privy to her non-digital work and ideas that are interesting. Just that I don’t think we’re ever going to find much to talk about in this era of games with a rules-based design paradigm. I definitely suggest buying and reading her and Naomi’s book however, because it will make a lot of contemporary video games clearer, and allows you to understand design-speak better when you hear it. As for my criticisms or difference to this work, I hope to detail that sometime in the future. For now, consider that a game doesn’t need to say something profound through its rules to mean something to someone else, and that players don’t necessarily have to have a designer’s logic to be affected by design. Smaller games like this are like drops in an ocean that can make a wave. We don’t need one or a few games to be especially profound, rather, getting game making tools and methodology into more people’s grasps.

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Countdown: Thinking of Time in Text Games

I’ve been thinking about critique lately, especially in the realm of assigning something value. Is a game good or bad? My current philosophical leanings usually allow me to skirt that question, except for the past year I’ve been judging games for festivals. No matter what, I have to bring down a gavel, and I’ll always feel weird about it. However, I know that I’m brought onto these review panels for a reason; I’m often looking at strange, small games other people can’t make heads or tales of. In particular, I review many games made with twine and other minimalist and text-based games.

Now, I don’t give credence to questioning game credentials of any of these works. What hasn’t really been discussed often is how to critique these sorts of games, or, what is their particular contribution to play. A lot of people look at games made with twine as almost journaling, and the kinds of things expressed happen to be different topics than what is usually developed in games. There are very few design critiques of text play, and having encountered some in my judging, I really had to think about what my angle would be for critique. Often, text games put a lot of weight on the actual writing, which is an intuitive thing to do, but often, play is being evoked in a way that disrupts the writing instead of contributing to it. There has to be a reason a game is the proper way to use this text, and again, I’m not going to delineate what is a play and what is reading, just that I’m a judge for games festivals.

I don’t have everything figured out, but I wanted to share an aspect of text design that I’ve found interesting and use when I critique text games in this manner. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about time and temporality in play, and how games can make us aware of our relationship to time. So when I was looking at some text games these past couple of weeks, I was reminded of a game I looked at last year, Justice by Adrian Hall (I suggest two+ ~12 minute playthroughs). Like many text games (granted, this isn’t fully text), it’s easy to give a large amount of the importance to the choices, since the ruling paradigm of design makes agency its center. If you think of the game largely in what kinds of options are given to you, then the play is kind of pedantic, moralizing. However, consider instead the presence of the timer juxtaposed with the option to present the evidence. The play space is more, why and how do you choose the things you do? What are all the other characters’ timers?

Instead of trying to extract meaning from the choices themselves, I found myself analyzing the rationale behind why I chose what I did. Ultimately, if you didn’t present the gun right away, you were manipulating for your own sense of justice, or cruelty, or curiosity. All coming from a place of privilege; this game is about a battle of egos and how people in places of privilege ascertain morality over minoritized people. The real drama of the piece is the pacing between Fadiyah’s speech, especially after McCoy asks a question. The arrogance of him walking up the stairs, of being intentionally mysterious about the decision that determines another’s life. The choices and their contents are dressing for unearthing this arrogance, this selfishness that people at the top of social systems.

There is another kind of selfishness in another game with a countdown: anna anthropy’s queers in love at the end of the world (you will get a good amount in around five minutes). The tension and anxiety is ramped up a little faster here, but the similarity between the games is this contrast of speed and somber. The world is about to end, boom, and you want, need to, enjoy it. anna uses the time it takes to read against the player, to the point where they start to memorize exactly what they want to do, yet the want to explore all the different choices and paths they have before they get to the point where they just rest in a moment, a thought. And, again, if we look at this for just the choices, you aren’t going to find much other than multiple vignettes.

The pacing of the game through its time segments turn this from a gimmick into the mental state of the author, and possibly the player. It unearths desires and worry in a world where things are fleeting, a world where people are so frequently hurt. The timer and loops makes your concentration on your queer lover total; all you have is each other. The twist on all this the end of the world seems to be a metaphor for love, how we rush towards its pleasurable destruction. The repetition trains you to become obsessive, wanting to consume as much of this experience as you can.

I find that both of these examples are explicit in the flow and pacing that many text and minimalist games use to communicate something to players. People get caught up in the choices aspect, and it’s completely misleading; games that you find using twine often aim to train your perception, get you to understand the architecture of your thoughts, the reason why you chose the things you do. I’ve found a common pattern in these games rejecting player agency, showing false choices or boiling down the results between options to be quantitatively the same and emotionally resonant in different but even ways. Think of reading text as hijacking your thoughts and manipulating your perception, and what that does to how you navigate the game. This is just one of many things, of course, and not the in sole domain of these minimal text games, but I’ve found it useful for when I need to find a foothold in analyzing these games. And, really, they reflect back on games of other types as well, mostly showing how cheaply choice as a concept is deployed in mainstream games.

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commune ity

i

like to tell this story.

last year, i went to #lostlevels for the first time, like many others. i think you’re supposed to say it with a certain inflection to articulate the hashtag. i staccato the sounds around the word when i say it. like “I went to- lost levels- and watched someone play an accordion.”

last year, i went to #lostlevels. i was wrapped in a coat i bought from express a couple years back. it was the first real coat i’ve ever bought. i watched manifestos, demos, performances. there were members of the video game industry mixing with independent artists and complete strangers who just happened to be in the yerba buena park that day.

whenever someone asks me what’s so good about #lostlevels, i like to tell this story. on that day, my partner gave a talk. i don’t remember what it was. i don’t think i was even there. he just walked down from his advertising job in the financial district and said things. i found out, that, after #lostlevels, NYU academics followed him on twitter. they didn’t follow me on twitter. follow me on twitter.

in a way, an event like #lostlevels reminds us that we’re human. that we sit at the tops and bottoms of invisible structures, but we still have corporeal existence. for a second

we were something.

are we a community? i listened to Samantha Allen speak about a more active, generative form of community: a community is something people create, support, and plan for. as i sit in my claustrophobic room, my roommates screaming at each other, in front of the bathroom, i need to pee, fog creeps over the hill, and i hope that through these streaming timelines, there are a group of people who consider me one of their own.

i like to say we are all standing in the same room because we like the decor. we’ve talked enough, come and go, and don’t necessarily notice someone’s been gone for a week.

we’ve come together, but haven’t made any plans to stay

we are creators of different sorts, analysis, play, games, writing, justice, and we feel a bond through common struggles. we fear individual exceptionalism as much as we fear vulnerability and intimacy. in the week of GDC, community was on many people’s minds. of creation, movement, fracture.

fracture. despite what many prominent indie developers are saying, there isn’t any fracturing. they are finally seeing people around them for the first time. what is seen as splintering is tinted glasses slipping down a nose enough for him to see reality before he pushes it back up. we’ve been here, and you didn’t plan for us. now, we are undeniable. unable to hide, we are quartered.

black. trans. women.

i may be none of those things. i moved through the conference like a priest on their way to an affair. i gave as much absolution a puppet prophet could, when in fact, the last thing i wanted to be was a saint. a pawn graduated to bishop. all i could do was see my reflection as i looked at the poverty of san francisco from three different windows of the marriott.

i watched a picture of a uterus displayed on the big screens of the awards show. i was right next to the stage. i laughed. i realized that i laugh whenever someone assumes i relate to vaginas, fallopian tubes, breasts. i don’t have them. i never will. i laughed when i meant to scream. scream at what people thought was progressive. scream at people trying their best. scream at look how far we’ve come. instead i laughed in fear of my life.

i met many new people last week, some who i wish to talk to more, but see me as a figurine in that snow globe. shake. shake.

i wonder if we’re ready to commit to each other. we only hum together when it’s convenient; won’t you stick around? i haven’t had a conversation with anyone from Indie Game: The Movie. are we really splintered if we never met? i prefer dark beers.

the most poignant moments for me were on escalators. the first time i went to GDC, the top of an escalator snapped off one of the heels of my shoes. so now, my eyes a fixed at the end, slowly gliding upwards, anxious if i will make it. my knees lock together, my nails dig into my palms, and i jump off.

will i make it?

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How We Say

I am going into full-student mode for the next couple of months, since games and conferences took over the better part of my life these past two years. Thankfully, I’m taking some interesting classes that even just two weeks in have made me think of some issues surrounding games criticism and activism. In particular, I’ve been thinking about discourse and what the unspoken forces are that shape how we talk about games.

Discourse is a bit of a contested word, as it is something that academics use and some people see it as imposing a posture onto public conversation. I want to give a couple takes on the word and have it hang out without being constantly evoked, because I think the concept is useful to think about. Mainly, it is the conversation surrounding a particular topic, from articles to speeches to research to art. In general, the documentation of what’s been said. I find discourse often refers to professional writing on a given conversation, and then it broadens out from there depending on who you’re talking to.

In my detective fiction class, we’re looking at discourse on a much more micro level, such as literally anything communicated that relates to a given mystery, both to the fictional detective and the reader, who is also a detective. From this perspective, it’s easier to practice skepticism towards how discourse is being communicated, since the detective knows they are constantly being deceived to think a certain way. This is the same for the reader, and not just in detective fiction, but in everything that has discourse.

What is the discourse around games criticism saying to us? Or, in particular, what is considered part of the ‘conversation’? Let’s say someone is teaching a class about games criticism, who and what would be included as canon?

I previously mentioned how I’d like to see more than article writing, and more diversity past work that echoes an academic training. Which doesn’t mean burn the academics, rather let’s widen this circle to become more diverse of different ways of thinking and expression. Not only that, let us VALUE these other expressions and have them on equal ground to already established valued work.

Recently, someone passed along this article about how activism on social media as labor is obscured. Anyone involved with or observant of games criticism and social justice on Twitter knows how exhausting it is seeing the news churns out so much to respond to. Juxtaposing this with games critics seeking sustainable pay for their work, what about the unrecognized critics and work that happens on social media? It’s not a hard sell that engaging with Twitter is work to anyone who is involved with media, but to ask for compensation seems wilder than the current funding methods we deploy. This extends out to on-paper jobs as well, such as community managers, who (surprise!) are often women tasked with emotional labor that is devalued. Link that back to this surge and resistance to creative work emphasizing personal perspective, and it’s not hard to imagine that we have unspoken hegemony in what we want from games criticism.

Funny enough, in the middle of writing this, I got into a conversation on Twitter about the attention we pay to AAA games, in this case Remember Me, when it comes to social issues. I feel like criticism has this constant pull, or temptation maybe, to seem legit or effective by returning to rationalize largely problematic, vapid works disproportionately to ones that are pushing artistic boundaries based on broad reach. In the end, trying to look like an academic games journalism is just going to hold us back, a scary looking monster that wields critical focus on everything but its own consumer habits. This isn’t a call for a ban on writing about mainstream games, but rather one to consider what kinds of critical work we value. As a community of thinkers that aren’t necessarily attached to a publication, we keep within the hype cycles of AAA development while bemoaning its stagnancy, despite the lively arts scene that surrounds us. I feel like different games prompt different kinds of criticism, which is why there are so many textual analyses instead of design breakdowns; mainstream games put forth their narrative and visuals, and their play design tends to be unremarkable past reviewer-like comments. What about smaller, weirder games that don’t have that, that all you have is play? I think about how I wrote my list of memorable 2013 games and how I felt I could respond to The Stanley Parable. Hell, I even did some Twitter poetry for Daisy Fitzroy which made some poor redditors concerned I might kill children. Even more interesting, with the advent of the DIY game development culture, many critics are now game designers. I responded to Passage, among other things, with Mainichi. Get a group of critics together and I’m sure you’ll find someone’s made a game. The potential for criticism to be more than the conventions its already bound up in is found outside of my work of course, and I’m curious if other modes of expression along with a focus on alternative games would encourage more people to create criticism. At least, we could use more people for the large amount of games left uncovered.

As an aside, I find it interesting that game jams seem to be a developer-oriented mode of criticism. Many themed ones like the Naked Twine Jam resemble the Blogs of the Round Table Critical Distance does, and the Candy Jam seems to have supplied the commentary on the controversy surrounding King that critics didn’t really find a way to respond to at length. I am weary at the blanket use of game jams as a response, however, as many developers are still learning about how their actions and creations are political in nature. Because games are so used to being treated like commodities, game jams that don’t explicitly set themselves apart from mainstream culture get wrapped back up into it, much what I think is problematic about Flappy Jam.

Besides needing a better archival culture around games criticism, we could use more encouragement to step outside of our comfort zones and the essay for expressing criticism. I’m skeptical of how more long form, academic, journal-like publications pop up despite its inaccessibility being made rather clear. Are we writing for each other more than anything else? I’m uncomfortable more of us haven’t reached for video, or visual art, or games to do criticism. I’m uncomfortable that mainstream journalism still seems to dictate our conversations. And I’m guilty of this too! Instead of checking out the latest game, try seeing what’s new on forest ambassador or freeindiegam.es. A varied diet hasn’t hurt anyone.

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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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Iz Gamez Criticizm Art???

There are times it shows I have immigrant parents because of the large gaps in my American pop knowledge. My household listened to reggae and watched Bollywood films when I was young instead of folk and westerns. Most recently, I found out that the Freemasons were actually a thing, when previously I thought they were among the ranks of the Illuminati in the conspiratorial conscious. I was waiting to speak on a panel at IndieCade inside a Masonic lodge, where wooden chairs and thrones lined the walls and checkerboard tiles were inserted in the middle of the floor. I felt ominously regal sitting up front in that stuffy room, about to talk about game criticism with some of my peers.

My conversation with Frank Lantz, Ian Bogost, and Tim Rogers wasn’t as adversarial as I would have preferred. It was clear that we had differences on how we saw, experienced, and hoped for games criticism, but never really got to challenge each other on our points. I found it fitting that we discussed this topic in the confines of a secretive fraternity; there were members of the panel who had the secret passwords, but maybe didn’t know it yet.

Without my intervention, I felt there was a large oversight on the environment needed for game criticism to exist and flourish. And not just the criticism of games as a concept, but the very particular kind embodied by younger critics used to come up against conventional thinking about games and writing. Why there seems to be confusion around the existence and deployment of criticism is because there is no real, validated structure for it. Who, exactly, are game critics? The kind of people discussed in the panel most likely does not match everyone in the conversation. There are reviewers and journalists who consider themselves game critics, but what was being referenced was more of an academic criticism.

The presence of academia really muddles this situation, as it has many tendrils. For one, those identified with games criticism (or bloggers, if you must) tend to have some sort of critical theory background. Most go through a process of starting our their writing like undergrad English papers (myself included) and eventually responding to the literacies and interests of the general audience. So while many people are affiliated with academia, and the struggles with and against the privilege that comes along with it, the surrounding community aims to break from it enough to be responsive to many readers. There is some artistry to this.

At the same time, this is also a very low-tier academia, and not games studies or design. On the top of this spectrum are people like Ian and Frank, who could be seen as critics for this medium. But they aren’t getting their money from writing criticism, it is secondary to the positions they already have. In our panel, they didn’t seem to really meet with me at how hard it is to simply exist as a critic, and I have a feeling it’s because they have that standing already. They might have ascended to general culture critics that were never really a part of the media, unlike what I think of games criticism now. It’s something we didn’t have the time to really get into on the panel, so I hope there’s a round 2 in our future.

Then came the final question in our Q&A: “Is game criticism art?”

I think I saw a wave of grief wash over my co-panelists as they abdicated from answering the question. I answered with a flat no. That’s because I knew it was a memetic troll by I Get This Call Everyday creator David Gallant, referencing the terrible twitter arguments of days past (hopefully). What was surprising is when people afterward thought we were being rather dismissive or unfair to David’s question, because I thought by now we’d be past any art questions. But after I started to think about it, there is at least an artisan quality to the environment that surrounds games criticism right now. So, I’ll engage with it:

Is game criticism art?

To start off, I am always going to answer ‘Is X Y?’ with ‘sure.’ Mostly, I see something like art as a lens or perspective; you can see something as art, and bring in what you understand of that to extract meaning. I subscribe to a lot of constructivist leanings, meaning, I don’t think much is intrinsic to ourselves, we have our own understandings and we should respect people’s understandings of themselves.

What I think is really interesting about recent developments in games criticism is how creative it’s getting. Take some of the front-runners associated with this circle: Jenn Frank, Patricia Hernandez, Lana Polansky, Cara Ellison, Maddy Myers. Thinking of their most notable works, they depart from just being a lens, just telling you facts, and really using creative elements to craft the experience of the piece. You are meant to feel affected, your emotional journey with the author means something to what’s happening.

This is why, during our panel, I balked at the assumed stance that we should have a distance from what we are discussing. Because that’s not what’s going on here, it’s actually the radical subjectivity of perspective that makes games criticism shine right now. The self as lens, the self as design, this is our current paradigm. Just like how personal experience as design is being accepted into the conversation, personal experience as criticism struggles for its own in this community. I think there’s a reason we have such an uptick in minority writers as of late, and it’s because of this change. Games and its criticism was homogeneous, and therefore couldn’t produce much of the conversation about how games are culturally situated. Now that we have authors saying they connected emotionally with games past nostalgia, we have people saying how their identities are validated and refuted in play worlds. It only follows that audiences are responding and now have more distinct expectations for what they consume.

And here is why criticism can’t seem to catch on in games media. This new expression resists the consumerist model games (and other kinds, sure) journalism is built on. The media makes its money off of the news, previews, and reviews culture, which attracts a certain kind of consumer to be advertised towards. Unless they have an alternative model, it is the salaried journalists who provide criticism, and this is usually still in relation to what their consumer readers want. There is also a very rigid, consumer-focused interpretation of what previews and reviews should be, which doesn’t include this kind of criticism. Only the top tier of freelance talent, like Leigh Alexander and Ian, can visit a publication and write criticism for it. Especially with her latest works, Leigh is making room for blogger-like criticism in general journalism, but she is at a ridiculous senpai level that affords her that opportunity (not undeservedly). The long and short of it is games media structure doesn’t, or can’t, pay for games criticism, because the writing is moving into a very creative, subversive spot in our culture. Combine this with a general internet publishing problem of readers being trained that they shouldn’t have to pay for what they read online, and you have a very hostile environment for these artists.

The ideal situation would be for capitalism to crumble, but as we wait for that, I think we could look to other media for what to do. That is, retake reviews from its heavy consumerist bend and insert the artistry we’ve been cultivating in games criticism. Part of this is to usurp our forebears, to challenge and complicate the hegemony that is in game design and academia. I don’t think we can do this in the games media, which is collapsing and restructuring in ways that only reinforce old ideologies until eventually there won’t be much opportunity outside of the established giants. Instead, we could aim for more general publications, or hide out in our respective fields and write for other subject matters from a play perspective. Something has to give; either the public directly sponsors critics, publications begin to value this kind of writing, or benevolent investors take over. In case it isn’t clear: most game critics are financially struggling, especially because they come from a generation of people expected to get an education and a job, but instead just have loans and an overcrowded job market. People think I’ve ‘made it’ as a writer, but as of this writing, I sit on a negative bank balance and tens of thousands of dollars in debt, and no way to repay it all.

The bottom line of all the problems with games criticism: nothing is there to support the writers. There is no environment for artists to create and live healthy lives. The world is getting more game criticism than it deserves. If the people on top in academia wish for more interrogative conversations to be happening in the general media, they need to help restructure the environment so talent can actually grow. To recognize the people doing the work, because the media isn’t.

At this point, I’m not exactly sure what the answer is for all this. I don’t speak for all critics, nor have all taken my path. But we should realize the politics that partitions off the criticism academia wishes to see more of, and the kind consumerist media values. Maybe if we look past the joke and see games criticism as art, we can find a place for it somewhere, somewhere that isn’t here.

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Triptychs

We tend to see them as objects. When we talk about games, we’re referencing a thing, either with physical boundaries or digital limitations. Games are objects with qualities, to be dissected, parsed, and valued. A game is something with a challenge. A game is something with a goal. Besides the usual questions of who is deciding what a game has, it is, first and foremost, a thing.

Most arguments over objects pull from essentialist rhetoric: if it has these qualities, it must be this. If it does not have this feature, it can’t be this. Games then fall into all the usual traps most objects do- commodification, determinism, colonialism.

But, perhaps, the object involved with what we care about games is the least important part. Instead, the experience, the space that exists between the two objects, player and screen/table/player, is where play happens. Navigating systems, giving back to the feedback loop, doesn’t occur within the object of the game. So why is it when say someone designed a game, we highlight the file instead of the play space?

My mother likes to tell this story, about the time I was born. Literally- she swears she was staring straight at the clock in the hospital as she gave birth. She told me the time on my birth certificate was wrong, which made me think about what else could be. But the story didn’t stop- she also remembers the nurse who came in to fill out forms, asking my mother for her background and other information. The nurse looked at my mother and I, and wrote in that I was white. Then, as the story goes, my father came into the room at this moment. She looked to my father, to my mother, then to me. “Oh, no, black.”

Race is a category used to prescribe traits on a person. I know this because I’ve spent my life listening to others guess mine. Did I have a temper because I was latina? Was I black, and therefore pitiable? I sure acted white. What people wanted was for me to pick a side- are you with us, or over there?

Growing up, I always checked the ‘other’ bubble whenever filling out forms. I remember, for my first job, I wrote in ‘other’ because the option wasn’t there. My boss said I couldn’t do that, and chose black for me instead.

what is a game?

win, challenge, rules, play, emotions, death, empathy, fun, not art, art, experience, iterative, none of your business, mechanics, photorealistic, legitimacy, exploring, shooting, systems, enemies, growth, abstract, losing, agency, puzzles, interactive, fantasies, graphics, i just want to impress you, escape, your’s, mine, something else entirely, visceral, story, love, fear, disconnections, chance, outcome, whatever i decide

There is much to be said in the way of a game’s form. How is it structured, and how does that structure make a difference? Let’s say someone submits something that doesn’t look like a poem to a poetry contest. The judges don’t necessarily go “This isn’t a poem, therefore, it is not worth considering.” Rather, the form itself critiques the established genre, it says “I’m a poem, and what are you going to do about it?” The formal genres in writing are for convenience only- ultimately, the kind of criticism needed for flash fiction, prose poems, short stories, novellas, and novels, is ultimately one in the same. Maybe everything is really just poetry. Boundaries, bones of old men before us, are only there to be transgressed.

There’s much to be said about someone who uses form to decide what something is. Formalism, in itself, doesn’t have the definition for something like ‘game’ used by formalists. It is part interpretation, part common wisdom. These boundaries are not meant to be crossed, rather, imply the fractal growth of even more categories. And without that bedrock of an initial definition, everything else crumbles, and the world doesn’t make sense anymore.

I always tell this story, about my job at Starbucks. It stars me and some customers.

The first customer came up to order a drink. He was a regular, and liked to wink at me a little too often. He always addressed me formally, with a “How’s your day going, ma’am?” He did that this time, we exchanged pleasantries, and he went on. The second customer, overhearing our chat, looked indignant. She pointedly said, “I’d like a grande soy extra hot no foam chai, sir.” It struck me how, without acting differently, I appeared to be two different things to different people. That was out of my control- I was an attractive women to one, and a deceptive deviant man to the other. This happened often, with every pronoun flying around every which way, I lost track who said what.

Who cares what category you belong to? I care. I care because I say I’m a woman, and many important institutions disagree. The government, my schools, my family, security guards, bartenders, people in bathrooms. I can scream out loud what I am, but someone put a category on me, one that decides what side of a prison I’ll go to, one that says I have the wrong ID, one that won’t let me marry my boyfriend, one that has the power to ban me from public spaces, to insist I don’t wear makeup or else I’m kicked out of the house.

I was on my way to LA, going through the usual drill of airport security. I went through one of the big scanners, and was stopped. Two TSA officials, one a man, and the other a woman, argued who between them should do the pat down, right in front of me. Someone saw my body and decided to put me in a category. The man laid his hand on my stomach for a brief moment, as if there was a ticking bomb inside my body, ready to blow.

what is personal?

emotions, immature, untrustworthy, feminine, impatient, queer, meandering, confessional, free, uncomfortable, zinester, dubious, empathy, illogical, revolution, manipulative, perspective, egalitarian, not up to standards, polemic, cheap, voice, over there, unprofessional, resists, loud, exploitative, conflicting, my only chance

If life is a game, we are good at ignoring its systems. Preoccupied by blips and marble board pieces, where are the critiques of the systems we live in every day? The ones that decide who will be rich and poor, the ones that frame the discourse we discuss ideas. What are the rules, who is valued- who isn’t?

There are times I think we are our own little islands. We see the world at our particular angle and are the only one with our particular crossroads of experience. Why is there such a force to smudge this away?

My fashion is weaponized. It is a strategic tool to navigate the minefield of interpersonal relationships. It’s all about control- if you can set the terms someone approaches you on, then you get an upper hand you rarely get. If I present myself as exotic and sexy, I at least limit the harmful ways a person can treat me.

I remember walking through the crowds of my first GDC. Many wondered why I put so much effort into my looks, possibly the only woman off the expo floor with heels on. Men liked to take me by the shoulders, pull me along with them. I had the only professionalism I was allowed- the kind where I have to be as much of a spectacle as much as I am intelligent. I knew the rules of the game, and moved my pieces accordingly.

I both love and dread the bars and parties. Eventually someone will touch me without permission, and I must leave without a fuss. Walking quickly through the Mission to get home, a man called out to me:

“Hey, mami, how much?”

I knew what he meant. I kept walking.

“Too good for me? You suck that rich white cock, you get that white man money?”

I walked faster, even if I was used to hearing something like this.

“How much mami, I can pay it.”

I didn’t cry when I got home. Instead I went through and looked at all of the names, all of the names of my editors, those receiving my pitches, giving me opportunity to further myself in the industry. The names on the business cards in my purse, the names already in my inbox. The guy I was dating. That man on the street knew. He knew.

I’ve never told this story before.

what is

Don’t worry, it’s yours. You can have it.

Take Me Personally, Babe

I’m going to write about my personal experience writing about personal experience.

Context: I’ve been dragged to this point, by my hair, thrashing with my mascara running. I conducted myself publicly in a manner that would avoid having to make a post like this, but in order for things to stop and straighten itself out again, I feel like I need to document one of the many ways I deal with being a public persona in games criticism, and the game industry overall, as a minority. I know many people have quibbles with identity politics, and the definition of minority and the way American-centric discourse uses it, but this is a situation based on power relations where I am disadvantaged because of my identity, and not simply because of my actions or opinions in a vacuum. This is about a ‘conversation’ that involves me but I was never a part of. All of this is of consequence of other people and having me face the fallout.

It started with a reaction piece to my own. Jonas Kyratzes picked apart a piece I did on Nightmare Mode, Would You Kindly. Before I even got the chance to read it, the confrontation was on. Jonas linked his article with a quick caveat akin to ‘this isn’t transphobic.’ This instantly set many people in the social justice ring on edge, mostly because when someone in a place of privilege has to put out a warning like that, there’s usually something fishy going on. This, and his article, started an argument between Jonas and some of these people who are my friends that would set the tone of what would become a longer debate. The argument quickly became louder queer voices versus a subset of critics who typically have issues with said voices over how me and my work should be treated.

I had no say in how this conversation would go and what my opinions were.

What I’m trying to say is there is a lot games criticism, let alone journalism, writing overall, and the industry has to learn when dealing with minority issues. I really don’t like it when I’m forced to be the lamb on the alter to make that change happen.

More people continued to dog-pile into the conversation because they found it interesting. Overall, I find everyone involved well-meaning. However, because this discussion got intense quick, it became black and white and I was guilty by association. I really appreciate my friends, in the queer movement of sorts in games. They are good at certain things I’m not, have a perspective and disposition I don’t. There are many times I disagree with how they do things, but I think it’s important to have that diversity. I find many of my friends’ anger and mistrust rational, even if I don’t share it and find it frustrating sometimes. I can understand that when Jonas tried to absolve himself from transphobia, that they smelt the BS and got on that. I don’t think what they did was necessarily wrong- just not what I would have done. The rest of the debate is framed in that way, in the way they deal with oppressive culture and how they move in the industry. It isn’t their fault they are discriminated against and oppressed, it isn’t their fault they found methods for safety that are considered abrasive and uncompromising. I will never, ever judge someone for their survival tactics, because that’s literally what it is. At the same time, this debate about me, surrounding me, was with my body on strings instead of my actual self because of how it was postered by my friends and the reaction by all sorts of people.

As well, it’s made worse by Jonas’ article actually being informed by cissexism he seems to refuse observing (I’m differentiating transphobia and cissexism on purpose; I don’t think Jonas is transphobic, but I do think he is blind to the cissexist aspect of his arguments). In essence, his thought experiment of a transgender person considering not transitioning or not transitioning in the way they want to quell a cisgender partner’s insecurities of being discriminated against being equal or better than a trans* person expecting their cis partner to get over themselves can only be logical by any stretch of the imagination in a thought process informed by cissexism. To consider the transgender person is being selfish for wanting to be who they are in a cissexist and transphobic culture is only possible in cissexist logic. You are equating one person fundamentally changing who they are because of the pressure of a discriminatory culture with a person who never has their identity questioned in such a way, and who could easily move through life without ever having that demand asked of them based on that aspect of their identity. With Jonas trying to absolve himself from confrontation, he actually became a model for how many allies and otherwise progressive people try to say they are such without acting it. He was stating he isn’t transphobic without considering how transphobia works within his own logic.

This is just the beginning that will be lost as the debate marches on, but it’s really important for me to point out. It shows the almost deterministic projection of everything, how someone excuses something problematic by hand-waving its legitimacy is up against an extremely vocal and quickly damning oppressed group. They both saw each other as lost causes before any understanding actually happened, and that my name was in it all, I was party to it, despite not having entered the scene.

I didn’t want to respond to Jonas’ article publicly. I offered to have a conversation with him in email, but eventually his frustration with those fighting for me had him unfollow and disengage with me, despite I only contacting him once for that email offer. Outsiders to this scuffle really wanted me to respond, and add to this ‘conversation.’ The problem is that this whole thing was being framed as a me versus Jonas debate, but no actual exchange of ideas came between us. It went to the point where I had to just snap at people because it didn’t seem to get through to the general public I had little to do with the drama going on.

There’s one main reason why I didn’t want to respond to Jonas’ article with another: he pretty much misinterpreted my article and ran with it, then creating this echo chamber of arguments that I would both have to undo and counter. It basically was turning into an ‘argument on the internet’ segment I really didn’t want to get to. Nuance is often lost, comments are polarizing, people are stricken with confirmation bias. What as the payoff for me? I get to deal with more people who disagree with me and get more support from those who already do? There would be nothing productive of me going through Jonas’ piece and correcting him besides for others’ rubbernecking pleasure.

For one, no where in my original piece did I trivialize the realities of war or the people in it. A large part of Jonas’ article is a strawman against a false reading of my piece. What I had critiqued were people who were not at all involved with war and the violence associated with it co-opting it for a ‘real’ kind of violence. The privileged class glorifying a false retelling of war to entertain them. It’s because this privileged class doesn’t often experience violence, especially systemic violence, and so they export that to a reality they can relate to a la socialization by culture. But by the time his article hit the internet, this aspect was parrotted like nothing else, and I before I could actually respond to parts of his article that were interesting, I’d have to unpack all this BS that I really didn’t feel like engaging. By this point, so many of my opinions in this argument were made up by other people, no joke, a mythology was created of who I was and what my viewpoints were, that I honestly didn’t have an interest in it. People just fell on a predictable divide of those who often identify with the ideologies surrounding identity politics and those who don’t. People began to criticize my lack of engagement, and it’s literally because nothing interesting was actually going on, at least, not with me.

But I did feel the need to write about something. Conversations about personal writing have been going on for a long time now, even before this article now treated as a touchstone for a critique against personal writing. I am interested in the politics surrounding personal writing and personal experience used in games. But people so badly wanted me to be a part of the ‘conversation’ that they didn’t look at what I’ve been critiquing with my recent work: that the current way we deal with criticism in both games and writing is marginalizing. We are constantly applying standards that are political and unquestioned. We aren’t looking at how and why personal experience is used, just questioning its existence. We want things in boxes all nice and neat and don’t realize we value one box over another because of inequality. I didn’t want to address anyone in particular because one or two people didn’t sum up my counter-argument. The framework to dive into the nuance of this argument is completely unappetizing, because of how polarized the topic is- most likely, people who already saw my points will continue agreeing with me (to be clear, there are people who talked about my arguments and understood them without me having to explain/engage about them, so I know it wasn’t just that my articles were simply bad or completely unclear) and those who won’t be satisfied with my explanations no matter how detailed I am. The best case scenario would be some in the middle might find it interesting food for thought. Yay.

Now if all of that existed in a vacuum, maybe people would have a hard time seeing why I wouldn’t engage with it. The problem is, every single time I post an article on touchy subjects, I am harassed, belittled, and marginalized. In an industry who values and wants my work to exist but won’t pay for it or offer me any way to live or feel invested in for the long-term. This is on top of the discrimination I get every day of my life, both the standard fare on the street and the systemic kind enforced by society. All of this, and then I deal with all the things that come with being a public figure, with people wanting my time without consideration of me having my own life. There are people actively campaigning against me, there are people who email me rape and death threats, there is an industry who wants to look progressive but won’t actually act that way.

Where am I in all of this?

In essence, my critique of the personal is rather too apt for comfort. The most obvious thing people could be discussing and thinking about, me, is completely left out. Irony has its ways.

Ultimately, it’s because of a discomfort of the personal. We’re in these discussions of ‘why are these feelings in my logics?’ because people aren’t interrogating themselves with how the personal experience relates to them. Which is why after it all, this well meaning response really put me over the edge. Here is me, being put up as an example, about how I’m doing this whole conversation wrong. The conversation I don’t want to be a part of. The conversation I was never a part of. This is when we’re getting to masturbatory levels, the debate for debate’s sake, when debate over the internet with people who really don’t give two fucks about processing others’ feelings is, surprisingly, not that appealing to me. An overture on how this entire mental exercise, or thought experiment as Jonas puts it, is still entangled in a value system that discounts the voices of people like me. No, I’m not going to sit online and play teacher with unwilling students. I’m not even going to with willing ones, I’m too busy trying to figure out how to make use of putting myself in debt so I can actually get paid, seeing the game industry doesn’t want to throw me a dime. Want me to write thousands of words on a particular topic with extensive specificity while dealing with the discriminatory backlash that always happens? I’d love to, pay up.

I don’t know what else to say really. Was this entire debacle worth commenting on? I needed to get this out of my system, and to show that the neat, simple things people think are just friendly debates are never that way for me. There aren’t papers for me to cite that speak to my personal experience because it is systemically pulled out of many a discourse.
As for my philosophy of it all, I do see things swinging towards hyperpersonalization, and I like it. It’s something I wish people could wrap their heads around already instead of deeming it lesser than the established way of doing things.

Sorry for all you Christine Love fans drawn here by the title, I got nothin’ for ya.

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