Decolonize Me

“Why do you act so white?”

Her name was Shanti. I will always remember the exact look on her face, how her head floated in my vision surrounded by the artifacts of a high school classroom. It was the 10th grade, American Sign Language class, and I was clearly not white.

I’ve revisited these three seconds of memory often throughout life, coming back with different answers each time. At first, I thought it was absurd that someone could “act so white,” how could someone act a race? Eventually, I came to associate that question with ‘Why are you so educated?’ since, at the time, I found many non-white people to act rather unrefined.

It wasn’t just me asking this to myself. More people took note of my non-whiteness and proclivity to surround myself with it. It also came in reverse, with white friends glad I didn’t act like those kind of non-white people. I remembered visiting Chicago and seeing an improv theatre show with about 200 other people. For the first time in my life, I noticed I was in a room where I was the only person who wasn’t white. It was startling, considering this pattern I’ve noticed. What is going on with me?

What I’ve come to learn is how the status quo, the marker which we all mediate our lives with, is actually the culture of the hegemonic class. The labels of this group can go on forever, so let’s just settle for white American patriarchy. Which is why there are so many othering stereotypes of people who fall out of this, while whiteness gets assigned traits associated with the general person. Black men are often typecast as uneducated gangsters and white men the honest average joes. We see getting a university education as a standard that everyone should achieve, but politics that disproportionately affect non-white people frequently makes achieving the American Dream, whatever that is now, far out of reach.

There is a similar status quo in the game industry. An expectation for objective, fact-driven games and journalism. When personal experience enters, it is met with distrust. Herein lies the problem- when you leave out the personal, all that’s left is the status quo. Because that ‘standard’ consists of the values of a particular type of culture associated with the hegemonic, privileged class, there is actually something personal and subjective going on all the time. Thus, by leaving out the particular experiences of the silenced and marginalized, it bars anyone from revealing the bias that exists within this supposed stoically neutral discourse. It takes away the vocal chords of a person in a room full of shouting.

It is interesting to note that many of those taking to writing journalism or design games with a strong focus on the personal are social minorities. What was, indeed, once a genre where those recounting their childhood memories of video games or pet projects with mary sues abound is now subverted by a newer trend. People have found a method for speaking where once they had none. A method to not only plainly recount and explain their marginalization, but to actually get people to feel it.

There’s a recent resurgence of critique of using personal experience. That’s just a small bit as it pertains to game journalism, but there is common skepticism of personal games and how to relate to them that mirrors this conversation. While there are many shades of criticism for personal, often called confessional, writing, there’s a salient pattern in the pushback against it.

A lot of it boils down to the pejorative term ‘confessional,’ and the discomfort of those reading it. Those who see it as confessional writing equate their relationship to the piece as a kind of therapy for the author, the reader an involuntary psychologist or friend. They feel they can’t critique the piece without insulting the person who had a Very Sad Thing Happen. To them, what should be in a LiveJournal post can’t make a sound argument. As described by others, personal writing is exploiting the intimate experience for a cheap cause or a get out of jail card.

Let’s pick on that word then, exploitation. It is telling that this discourse finds the use of emotions and the personal as a means of exploiting both the reader and the author’s life, turning experience into a commodity that is strategically sold. Turning the self into a meat farm to gain some sort of profit. I find this to be a result of inner conflict within the skeptic- they face negative feelings they don’t want to deal with. A story makes them feel terrible, maybe bad about themselves. We see this in the news, but because it’s a report of the facts, we can flip and click away the guilt. Personal experience used in criticism and games won’t let you turn away so fast, and what has happened with some people is the feeling of being compromised by the author. It’s frequent that the writer or designer purposefully shows their hypocrisy, because it is the position society forces them into. It isn’t tied in the neat little bow allies and those of self import want, to praise or damn it. I argue it’s not exploitation occurring, but implication.

Witnessing the personal experience implicates the reader into the knowing party. They become a witness to something they know shouldn’t happen. Instead of the cold statistics of the transgender community’s suicide rate, which one flips by, the reader sees why suicide is so frequent. They can relate on some level, and now have to think about their own actions in relation to that experience. There is a feeling of I’m letting this happen, I now know it, I have no excuse. The armchair liberal parts of us don’t want to see what is happening to the people patiently waiting, or not for many transgender people, for society to get over itself. The well-meaning ally who hasn’t done anything wrong feels slighted that minorities are guilting them.

This has been the story for decades and centuries. Social progress comes only after those with power gasp and say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know it was that bad!’ In this context, the personal experience is rebellion, it won’t allow the status quo to go unchallenged and stay superior without their readers feeling a major sense of dissonance. Personal games make you intimate with the way works influence players with their politics without the participants’ awareness. The other path isn’t bare because it’s impossible, but because it’s silenced.

“Sometimes, I just need to… decolonize my hair.”

I was waiting for the M line, sitting on a seat slicked by mist. I looked over to a girl explaining something to a friend. Her hair looked like mine when I spent hours a day flat-ironing it, straightening the blackness out. It wasn’t until last year that I just had to stop- it was too expensive, too painful. I wanted to be pretty without burning my scalp twice a week. It was one of my first acts of rebellion, both from the society that prizes white beauty and myself, riddled with internalized racism. I took the same philosophy to my writing, letting the pouring rain reveal its curls.

Would You Kindly

I thought his eyes were blue. But he reminded me they were the color of shit.

Sitting at the corner of my bed, I watched him dress. It was December, and we had argued again. It’s an argument that I have every relationship I’m in. The one when I ask if we could be seen together in public, for once. Hold hands if he’s feeling bold.

It’s a funny thing, dating a man who’s never known oppression in his life. Where he has nothing to prove and no barriers to entry, there are always open wounds on my body from the briars of American society. He was shaken, to the point of an anxiety attack, that someone would think he was gay if spotted with me. That, he said, was a selfish thing for me to demand.

I looked into his eyes as he imagined what discrimination was like. I wonder, as someone who’s experienced it since the moment they were conscious, how life must be to easily sidestep such terrible treatment by our culture. That isn’t an option I will ever have- his reality, assumed to be the template for which all others are based, is actually a niche phenomenon that doesn’t account for the rest of us. It took all of my effort to not call out “boo-hoo” to his retreating back.

Video games are often like my past lover. They live in fantasy realm that can only reference reality, not participate in it. 2012 was a year of trying to become self-aware, employing satire and other forms of trickery in attempt to engage with social issues. Satire, it seems like the panacea for game developers, an avenue to have ‘fun’ while playing a ‘serious’ game.

An acquaintance of mine once said to me, “satire is for the bourgeois.” Often, the social perils they seek to critique turns into torture porn, and the high road they present is to simply look away and forget it all. The minorities involved are sacrificed for the passing interest of the privileged- video game developers and other satirists in the past just wanted to make people uncomfortable, not actually change anything. And it isn’t the oppressed who benefit from the bourgeois squirming in their seats before they go to sleep it off.

Spec Ops: The Line is one of many games to come out last year as an attempt to engage politics. It was the only one of these I could get through, and there are some relevant points friend and colleague Brendan Keogh makes about American interventionism in his book Killing is Harmless. However, much like Far Cry 3, Lollipop Chainsaw, and Hotline Miami, it only serves a particular audience for what it assumes to be a wide-reaching social issue. It is like that past fling of mine who flinched at the first sign of difficulty, and turned away.

I played Spec Ops having already sampled many games thought to make players aware of the violence they were committing in them, and couldn’t help but shrug my shoulders. For me, military shooters are fantastical, so far apart from what I actually experience that they couldn’t comment on my life. Which was when it hit me- the violence in games aren’t at all based on the violence that actually threatens me off-screen. If there was to be such a game, the character wouldn’t have a weapon, wouldn’t be able to do much damage, and would have to get from my house to the grocery store without being assaulted by men. I don’t know how to use a firearm, I don’t have the fortitude to withstand bullets, and I’ve never been in the military.

These games export violence to extreme situations such as war because it is pandering to the bourgeois of video games, people who don’t experience the threat of real life violence and oppression every day. They can’t make a meaningful connection to those who deal with violent oppression because they most likely have no idea what that is. They don’t put players in the shoes of a transgender woman getting cat-called on her way to get coffee. They aren’t there when a car follows her for blocks as she tries to get home from a party. The common retort is needing these games to still be fun; to that, I say “boo-hoo.”

I have to give Spec Ops credit though, as it clued me into why I couldn’t relate at all to what these games were trying to do. It was when I encountered a one-word mission objective: Obey. Do what you are told, and you will be rewarded. This is what the privileged class, men who are white, heterosexual, cisgender among many other things, is told to do. If you play your role, you will have a good life. When your role has you on top of the social food chain, there is little complaint to obey. But times are changing- social justice is pushing against the oppressive system that puts one identity over the other, and this privileged class is at a point of despair. They are doing what they are told, don’t they deserve their just reward?

Being a minority in many transparent ways, that option was never there for me. It was obvious from a young age I had to break out the system because it wasn’t for me. And not on an ideological level, not a taste preference, my literal identity that is often decided by men in bureaucracies and development studios. It’s an obvious choice to not obey, because to obey is to die.

Playing Spec Ops gave me a chance to glimpse at the psychology the privileged class. Design is commonly modeled around a player doing what the developers make them do; if the only option is to beat in a guy’s head with a golf club, we must take it. It is predicated on the plight of the heterosexual white man, moving in a system that favors them as long as they would, kindly, do what’s expected of them. The trick of the game, much like it’s ideological predecessor Bioshock, is the only way to ‘win’ or not do terrible things is to stop playing. Turn off the game. To look away. For some reason, people laud games like Spec Ops and Bioshock for not giving a solution, for not putting in a step forward. That is the appraisal of people whose well-being doesn’t ride on someone finding an answer to oppression. This isn’t to say either experience is solely enjoyed by or relatable to men, but that we’ve accepted that games constantly treat us as such.

This is why the recent public foray about video games and violence is rather laughable. Games are clearly overestimated when it comes to the kinds of topics and play is actually there. American society, at least, has identified guns and violence with boys and men for as long as I’ve been alive, and most likely before the first video game. It reminds me of an anecdote Brendan makes in his book, that cover shooters remind him of playing games of pretend as a child. Video games are currently a translation of that, a reincarnation of stereotypically boys’ activities that do impart cultural values, but do not simulate anything real. We can see this throughout all other media, and can attribute the homogeneity of both the artists and the audiences they target. This is why our Vice President calls a meeting to solve gun violence over the rare attack at a predominately white school and not the frequent, systematic murder of transgender women of color.

I know many developers and players are excited about the avenue of satire. The ‘gotchya!’ is easy to formulate and punctuate an otherwise typical game. But letting business as usual carry on until the final stages serves no one any good- it creates the illusion that these problems are outside of us, easily boxed away when we please. Indeed, challenging the player from the get-go with actual problems might not be fun and require the help of someone who isn’t white, heterosexual, nor a man.

Boo-hoo.

Take us seriously, but please, none of that highbrow shit

The light was shining straight into my face. I didn’t complain because I was standing on a stage, addressing a section of the game design vanguard at IndieCade with Christine Love in a maid outfit sitting next to me. Instead, I was one of the first that weekend to speak about the political impact game designers have when making their games, whether or not they had an ‘agenda.’ I started off my talk with a Salman Rushdie quote, akin to ‘Art isn’t entertainment. It’s a revolution.’ More talks on the same stage would pound in the idea that game developers are artists; their work is political. There are many who are still resistant to this idea, that they design merely for fun and nothing else. I would say that’s the ideology of the majority of game developers even though we like to bask in the benefits games being called art gets us. Eric Zimmerman gave ten or so tips on game design which were basically ‘how to manage being an artist,’ and Mary Flannigan reconstructed a history of computer science that showcased innovators striving to find beauty and meaning rather than technological advancement.

The gaming community, or let’s say the ones with voices- popular developers, media, and maybe celebrities if we have those- have a cake eating problem. We want to be taken seriously as an artform but don’t often value critical analysis. Game criticism and academia are held in disdain and shoved in corners, dubbed inapplicable. Recycling the same themes, mechanics, and ideologies of game design passes through reviews and feature articles without scrutiny. We are very happy to wallow in the same when all of the attention we get is for being something different, something new.
This was nailed in for me when I saw the reaction to Lucy Kellaway’s article on Financial Times, “Game theory.” Mostly, we get an outsider perspective on the cultural relevancy of video games from someone, actually a panel of people, who doesn’t really play games. She goes through her experiences, and ultimately sums up that for a non-gamer, she didn’t feel like there was much to talk about. This made a large section of gaming’s conversation upset, because of COURSE she just doesn’t GET IT. It’s like an illiterate critiquing the written word, the blind complaining about the irrelevancy of a Renoir.

Why, instead, didn’t we all stop and ask why? For instance, what would something of cultural relevance look like to her? To the general public that doesn’t play games? Or really, to anyone who actually analyzes games in any manner, since most people who play games know shit-all about game design. That all of the things that ‘require’ her to ‘get it’ are extremely inbred conventions that don’t mean much outside of navel-gazing rationalization? Why should someone be familiar with an X-Box controller (I’m not) to be able to comment on video games? Why should someone intuitively understand platformers (I don’t) to critique video games? Why should someone just understand that they have to empathize with a gun toting character that never has their sociopathic behavior commented on (still boggled about this)? Really, with all of the ways contemporary art and philosophy makes statements, video games very very very rarely do this. Notice in her analysis, she most connects to Proteus and Journey, the two games explicitly tagged as ‘art games’ in our gaming subconscious.

The honest truth is that we’re not at all in a stage to make a statement like Ulysses because we’re barely even trying to do as such. If affecting a person, if embodying philosophy was our intent as game designers, any person familiar with art and aesthetics would be able to get it. Video games are not in some special reality, they aren’t so different that you need some arcane knowledge to get it’s messages. Rather, we have many superficial, unexplained, and frankly discriminatory barriers to entry that have no reason to be there other than ‘that’s just how things are.’ Let’s not pretend that AAA games are looking to be artistically profound with every other motivation secondary, and hell, that goes for most non-AAA games too. With most games not being about reaching that artistic peak, it is honestly knee-jerky and myopic to be defensive.

If gamers are the only people who can decipher games, then there’s something on the game developers’ shoulders to address that. Art balances between the universal and specific- there is often a connection of the personal, special occurance through the accessibility of general experience. If someone ‘doesn’t get’ a painting or a movie, it’s not because they were unable to experience it, but in games, that’s where we’re at. Something tells me Lucy is a lot more acquainted with critical theory and philosophy than most developers, and if there was something to dig up, and she was allowed to, she would have. I think it’s possible that it’s us that doesn’t get it.

We talked about voice. I asked Christine and I asked the audience how we silence minority voices. We craft definitions and conventions that naturally exclude many people; game mechanics that imply the player is a boy or man, controllers for those experts at handling them, conventions that require an understanding acquired over years of gaming. Can you blame Lucy for shrugging her shoulders at something that is continually marketed and designed for 16-24 year old boys? Is that really the marketing demographic for things that are culturally relevant? We need to stop screeching at those who ‘don’t understand us,’ because we’ve made it that way. Instead, it’s time to open up this medium and actually work at making it say the things we want it to.

The State of Diversity Criticism and “do your fuckin’ research”

Alright folks, strap on in, because we’re going to be hitting a lot of points today. While this topic encompasses many writers and publications, the main focus of my post is a recent piece on 1UP by JP Kellams on gender topics in videogame criticism.

The theory in the middle is mostly okay stuff, but those who regularly engage in the critical circles of videogames will find them all rather familiar. JP starts and ends his piece basically saying that he hasn’t really looked into feminist critique enough, but there isn’t really any critical lens used in the gender debates currently going on. The loudest social justice members, apparently, are histrionic, irrational, and polemic in their efforts to discuss diversity issues within this great art form. JP goes on to posit some ideas for “rational” discussion, like the male gaze, concept of the Final Girl, and that the homogeneous makeup of development teams creating a very narrow range of games for other people to enjoy.

I’m just going to come out and say it: way to go, you are just another dude in the game industry who thinks they are saying something Smart about gender issues for the First Time that social justice proponents have been harping on and on about FOREVER. JP can find solace in that he’s not the only guy regurgitating critical lenses; it’s actually quite an epidemic.

I wanted to know why this kept happening. I figured that if JP was interested enough in calling the current social justice initiative ineffectual, he would at least be following the conversation? Ironically, the only person I saw him following on Twitter (where most of this discourse happens) that had anything to do with the English speaking diversity activism he was addressing was Kate Cox, who did a fucking three part piece on the male gaze as it pertains to videogames. The people writing, curating, and publicly promoting diversity discourse are more than aware of the concepts JP talks about, many trained academically in critical theory and consistently use it. It’s there, and people who aren’t paid and are constantly ignored by bigger publications tirelessly engage developers and publications with problematic material using critical theory. If anyone is skeptical, you can go ahead and gander at my collection of writing, all unpaid and on my own time.

So, if publications like 1UP and Kill Screen (not the only ones, just showing the breadth of sites with this problem) have men reiterating what minority activists have been saying all along, or worse, positing ideas that rely on stereotyped, shallow knowledge of minority issues, what is the cause? Why is it 1UP would commission a piece about gender theory discourse from JP, who admits he’s not the best person to ask in his preamble, and not the many people in the trenches who ARE the experts? Why are the publications that do, like Kill Screen and Kotaku, continue to produce problematic material in opposition to these writers?

For one, there is this assumption that diversity issues are just a bunch of inflammatory/liberal opinions not really based in anything but feelings. Many of these men who are writing on social justice don’t do any research on it, despite being writers and having that as a part of their job. This activism is backed by years of research and critical theory with evidence and solid philosophical groundwork. There is a deserved amount of anger in this movement because despite all of this evidence, people dismiss minorities as self-serving. It’s not until a dude comes along with a stoic and detached demeanor to say something that it’s given any credit.

Risking alienating some of my friends, a lot of this lies in publications being structurally built against culture criticism and the minority writers who would be providing this rich and compelling argument for diversity initiatives and being extremely hesitant to change. Here’s the real talk: it doesn’t matter if behind closed doors you are totally sympathetic with minority issues; if you can’t publicly and systemically promote diversity issues, then you are part of the problem. And, yes, I know all the excuses; people need money, they need to keep the immature audience that reads their material, and bosses find talking about these issues too risky in the face of increased profit.

There is no way the community is going to become familiar with the critical side of social justice if publications continue to devalue this sort of discourse by barring culture critics exposure and pay, qualities decidedly considered being “professional.” The stuff that “actually matters.” Instead, people with the position to enact change exploit social justice circles by only reporting on and discussing extremely emotional and inflammatory topics. They look for the offended, they look for the victims, and ignore those continuing to work to change the discriminatory nature of videogame culture.

So, why is it that articles like JP’s happen? Because they are part of a “Gender, Sexuality, and Videogames” week. That means they are niche and only important for a small amount of time then get tucked away before anyone gets funny ideas. The painful part of this is that 1UP is churning out some really good stuff on this topic. But we don’t want a version of Black History Month, we want positive representation of diverse identities in our development teams, mastheads, and games.

Now.

And how do you do it? I dunno, maybe you can include the people who talk about it every. single. day. into your plans.

PS: Don’t even think of trying to tell me what’s “practical.” Practical is often code for intentionally settling for less because the ideal takes too much effort.

ETA: I am not the only nor first person to say something about the erasure of minorities from critical discourse. Check out this blog post written by Alex Raymond nearly three years ago basically critiquing the same thing. That slowly but surely change is taking its sweet ass time.

ETA2: I spoke with JP on Twitter, which was basically him using Tone argument to devalue my piece, that if I was nice and polite, he would have a conversation. This is after his original article that said the social justice movement is hysterical and irrational.

He also wanted to make clear that he wasn’t “taking sides” and was being even handed between social justice and the skeptics. He said I was turning it into a social justice thing and he never intended that. So he literally had no idea of the discourse and fell into every trap of dude trying to be logical where women cannot. And this isn’t even considering how super problematic a lot of his statements were, especially with Bayonetta. This whole “play it safe” without actual research on what has been done really needs to stop.

Here’s the deal: There ARE very valuable things people in a place of privilege can do and say that would contribute to this discourse. I would say the social justice movement badly needs more cis straight etc men to further grow its philosophy and reach. And there are already really awesome guys who are a part of it and I what I love about them is that they LISTEN FIRST. There’s usually a gut reaction, but after listening to what bothers a person, or what has already been said, they avoid the usual trappings of privilege. They also ASK QUESTIONS about their position and what they can do. I love my straight cis dude friends, and I’m learning more angles and skills because they help diversify the movement.

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