Why Games DIY Shouldn’t Stop at the Digital

Recently, the nominees for IndieCade’s festival went up, and as it usually happens around the time judging results are out for any contest, there was a lot of disappointment and worries about the kind of forces that play out behind closed doors when awarding certain works and artists as exemplary for our community. Having judged games for three years, I’m interested in both what are games that I would never see except when submitted to a contest, as well as how games are changing by what is nominated for awards. I was disappointed this year to see many people I knew of not make it in, though I figured after the past three years of scrappy expressive games, these might be seen as a fad or, more likely, there’s just a whole lot of them now. Less than half of the nominated games this year are single player digital games that don’t include special equipment like VR headsets or unique peripherals, and the more expressive/socially conscious games that were nominated take place more in other forms than just digital. I think this shows an understanding of play and games expanding, and what’s interesting isn’t constrained to the digital, or at least, how we understand digital development as ultimately too narrow for us to explore a whole lot until more technology becomes accessible to DIY makers.

As a result of the growing presence and acceptance of games that came out of the resurgent DIY ethos, more mainstream and conventional games and audiences edged toward incorporating certain aspects into larger culture. This lead to more games about personal experiences, feelings in general, and politics where there were higher budgets and access to technologies most of the people using DIY tools don’t have. Now that it’s ‘okay’ to have these qualities, they are going to be adopted and eventually be as typical as other aspects in games. In general, this is a good thing, the only catch is now games that rest on those qualities and push boundaries in other manners will be seen as one-note or pedestrian because now similar games with more appealing audio/visuals that access and money can get. While this doesn’t matter to people who are using DIY tools for freeware zine-like purposes, these past few years we’ve seen a hard sell on trying to get a more diverse range of creators in games by appealing to the access these tools give, but not having a lasting value attached to the games produced by them. The other route, through various STEM initiatives, aims to integrate marginalized people into a system that changes only as much as it absolutely has to instead of embracing new ideas of production value. That doesn’t mean that minoritized people shouldn’t be doing STEM training and doing their thing in the industry, rather that all that went on from 2011-2014 will be seen as just an isolated wave and games as a whole will go back to requiring a certain level of refinement that comes with a barrier DIY enthusiasts advocated against.

It’s true that video games are the most visible of game genres right now, but choosing your medium based just on current visibility isn’t a very strong reason, see fuck video games and see fuck video games even more. This doesn’t mean we need to fully abandon digital game making tools, rather take another look at the ethos and reflect on how this isn’t just about accessible digital tools, but accessible tools of any sort to make games. Expressive games associated with DIY games tend to be about life, typically shedding light on how a particular, seemingly benign part of culture effects a marginalized person in damaging ways. There is game design to be implemented in our daily lives, or in structured performances, or with common object. This was the idea behind my game EAT, which was an expression about a facet of my life and also of a frustration that I had to somehow move into traditional game development. If more people looked into how to create expressive play situations with little or no materials and/or tech, that also expands the amount of mixed media pieces that become available when they reintegrate digital tools into their practice. It’s possible all of this is really intense projection, because this is the part of the journey I’m on with my work.

There are also ideological reasons to crack open populist game development to more than digital experiences. In particular is changing the distinct absence of physical embodiment in our expressions of experience, which defaults to normative bodies and their volitions. I can see critical engagement with the violence placed upon actual people against the romanticized violence practiced in digital spaces. Even that, space, is so vital to engage with, like taking dynamics of social media and casting it upon bodies and objects to challenge preconceptions about online harassment being any less valid than any other. Or more importantly, to stress that many of the experiences we express are lived and not in the safe space that digital games promise. When expressions of life situations got packaged into ‘empathy games,’ it turned connections between people into consumable products, poised to be replicated and made into just another genre to create fan culture around. There needs to be pushback against thinking that people can be explained through instrumental game mechanics, and using the body, even in relationship to technology, is a powerful way to combat that.

The less material requirements we have for designing play experiences, the less likely power can be exerted by those with more access to those materials. I feel like this is an important aspect of DIY culture in games that isn’t pushed all the way: we took up tools that didn’t force us to have any particular specialized knowledge to use, and we can continue to explore this line of thinking past digital games. Again, this isn’t to completely forsake digital creation, but to create diversity in the kinds of experiences we’re using by having even more tools with even lower barriers for entry. There’s a precedent in this in activist art stemming from marginalized peoples’ calls to action and demonstrations when they are largely kept out of galleries and other legitimized institutions. I feel like in our bid to mix things up with games, there needs to be enough push and pull between assimilation and upheaval, and since games are so prone to the forces of commercialism, we should be weary of practicing exclusively in ways easily co-opted by the systems we aim to resist.

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Why Idle Games Need a Takeover

the fire is dead.

the room is freezing.

These are the first words of the idle, or incremental, game A Dark Room, listed next to an unassuming button labeled “light fire.” Pressing it, what I thought was just the title changes to “A Firelit Room,” like I moved to a new game where the descriptions crawl towards illuminating the moody landscape beset by depleting meters. Compelled is the closest word for my relationship with A Dark Room, not addicted in the way games tend to sell themselves, just genuinely interested by its simple existence. I found it after Candy Box became a quick sensation on games twitter, unaware that these two games were the black sheep of a quiet new genre germinating in freeware corners around the net. Exploring the genre lead me to a strange world of games distilled from the feature-stuffed games of contemporary popular culture to the point where calling some of them glorified automated spreadsheets wouldn’t be too unfair. Despite being simple on its face, idle games are starting to catch notice, primed for a moment in the spotlight much games made from Twine or the dubiously dubbed walking games. From what I can see, the trajectory is controlled heavily by self-described core gamers, basing the genre on a certain love of watching numbers climb in a narrow but dominant slice of RPGs. Reflecting on how much I liked A Dark Room and Candy Box to an extent, I wondered what it would be like if we could center the genre more on these games, or better yet, subject the genre to the same ethos that characterizes the recent heavily queer DIY movement and wrestle it from what looks like the next evolution in capitalist-consumer games.

Let’s first see what’s actually going on with idle games to merit anyone’s attention. Its simplicity is deceptive: a number ticks upwards, either automatically or by clicking your mouse, and new things happen as that number reaches a certain value or you spend that number to unlock a feature. Traditionally, these features speed up the entire process or makes it easier, for instance, making the number tick faster or for a click to have a multiplier on what it produces. Time, not necessarily timing, is hugely integral to this genre, and that’s where design occurs. The name of the genre, idle, is furthest from the truth; these games actually preoccupy a small part of your attention over a stretch of time, weaving itself into your life because these games don’t run parallel but with other activities. Unlike conventional game design, which seeks to completely arrest your attention for as long as it can, idle games let you integrate them in whatever way your life allows. This is because these games stress their roles as actors, with their own agendas and methods, like anything else in life. The creepy part about typical human depictions in games is how they always seem dependent on your interaction, waiting around for the dialogue choice or event trigger to make them useful. Idle games can have their own lives, and you’re welcome to share it with them, or let them be. This twists what conventional design constantly sells as interaction and hallmarks of good design. The main draw of an idle game is its mere existence and how that affects you.

A quick look at the kinds of games that make up the majority of the genre, however, can easily repulse people who aren’t into a very particular kind of ‘watch the numbers go up and down’ style of play that is prevalent among RPG fans. In a piece about the history of idle games, Zoya Street cites a talk from the Game Developers Conference by Kongregate’s Anthony Pecorella who wanted to point out how idle games are a Facebook games analogue for core gamers, which he details are the users his company attracts. This is big news for the industry, who are trying to figure out how to merge audiences from the general populations, or that oft-cited 35-year-old woman player base, and that 22-year-old man core video games typically cater to. In the talk, which if you don’t have access you can see Zoya’s tweets, Anthony shows how idle games have an extremely high retention rate, making them ideal for ad-based profit models. The kind of interactions he points out are about emphasizing what it is that appeals to gamers and then translating that into a monetization scheme, which carries on a tradition of conventional game design. It’s worth noting how A Dark Room and Candy Box are considered outliers in this case, which shows a dissonance between critical and popular reception of idle games. Not saying that those two are somehow more authentic or artsy, rather they, especially A Dark Room, point towards a magic, and move the most away from conventions that are easily co-opted by companies. It will happen no matter what, but I’d like to get other artists more interested in this genre before all they see are spreadsheets ironically about you staring at spreadsheets.

Comparisons to games like Dear Esther and Proteus are not completely unfounded; idle games create new interactions through minimalism, or at least, stripping away what we are used to in order to reveal a path covered up by typical design practices. This isn’t new, it’s a precedent set by so-called art games, or not-games, like Tale of Tales’ Fatale or especially The Graveyard. Following this tradition was the explosion of games made out with Twine and the communities and ethos that surrounded it. This was significant because there was a meeting between appreciation for minimalist design and tools that not only allowed you to work with minimalism, but were available to a wide range of people. Good news for idle games that there actually is an idle game maker and the basic interactions of timers and variables can be replicated in Twine. And much like Twine, a little knowledge of CSS and Java will allow you to do more with the idle game maker, which I feel is what gives a creation tool some legs for longevity.

What’s potentially interesting about newer, weirder idle games is how these experiences move along with our daily motions. They usually just take up a tab on our browser, so this opens up play that comments on our online habits; I could easily see games revolving around social media or other analogues to things we typically have open when we’re online. It’s like having a living entity, with its own agenda, brewing away just a couple clicks away. Never really demanding your attention, but always keeping you curious as it what it could be up to. By occupying something as pervasive as a web browser, something many of us have open most of the day, idle games as a genre allow creators to embed projects into the daily lives of people, never making a huge sweep to Say Something Important, but giving credence to growth, change over time, and possibly an intimate bond, when our days would feel different if the game wasn’t there anymore.

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Intimacy and Digital Patina

From embodiment and kink to luxury and tea, I see myself reaching for something solid to hold onto. I feel disconnected from digital art and environments, and resist how much conversation is centered around theorizing the digital. There’s more to play than video games, and a lot can be learned if we stretch beyond this genre and find more relationships in other places concerned with play. Admittedly, there is some distaste, bitterness, for the digital experience within me that I have to grapple with. I feel completely repelled, like a fugue lifted and I see a land of nightmares, and want nothing to do with it. But that would be unfair, and also throw away a lot of work that I’ve done with games. So I wanted to investigate what made me feel so distant from video games that attracted me to the looser, more intimate-feeling play currently grabbing my attention. I want to believe that there is more playfulness that video games has yet to focus on, something that can deepen our bonds to play and life. The tension then lies within the apparent immateriality of digital games, which are still subject to principles of object design yet rarely attain certain qualities of objecthood that we expect from physical experiences.

Video games feel distinctly like products, made for consumption but not necessarily use. It’s easy to enter a malaise of ennui, your Steam library having many games you’ll never touch and mobile games only one slight iteration away from the other. Digital game design is focused on an attention economy, how to grab you, keep you engrossed for as long as possible, and have you spend as much while they’ve got you. Because design is so focused on this kind of consumerism, video games enable cycles of disposability, where you buy something with the knowledge that you’re going to replace it with the next version soon after. This is ultimately unsustainable as we see with companies trying to shove life into harried sequels and remakes. You won’t get too attached because there will always be something similar fighting for your attention, and it is rare that something will be uniquely special to you. Typical game design acts as wedge between player and experience, trying to tap into your short-term worth at the expense of your long-term investment. Video games rarely make you care. You might get to know video games, but video games don’t really get to know you. They keep themselves on the screen and often don’t conjure intimacy with the physical interfaces between you and the experience. It knows you can just load up another game in the same manner that you accessed this one. Because what is being sold is some abstract immersion, a sort of mental drug trip, there is little legacy it can leave behind, having a profound effect through your use. Passing down games will soon go extinct between planned obsolescence and constant hype cycles for the new. Instead, we are left with empty, pandering nostalgia, sucking desperately at a straw and only getting the watered down remnants of a high long ago crashed.

This circles me back to the question of intimacy in games. There is an accepted fault of contemporary video games that intimacy, both in feeling and as a topic, are not its strengths. I doubt that it’s a weakness of the form, rather an outcome of canonized design practices. I have my own hunches for play in general, but digital games in particular prove tricky to find intimacy outside of a now quiet trend of autobiographical games. Is there a design concept out there that can reliably point someone towards crafting more intimate digital games?

My search lead me to digital patina, a technique in user interface design that builds on an apparently divisive skeuomorphic trend popularized by Apple. In short, digital patina creates artificial wear and tear to your digital products as you use them, particularly the ones that are already designed to resemble their physical analogues. So if your contacts app looked like an old-school address book, then there would be signs of usage around the tabs and pages you used the most. Despite handwringing over going into too deep of ideological territory, J. Houge notes “without patina, there is no history. Without history, there is very little attachment to the thing.” This evokes our typical relationship with objects, that it’s harder to part with an heirloom passed down in your family than with something you got at H&M. But this form of digital patina is still a couple steps away from design that helps solidify meaningful relationships, since this is purely about visuals. He cites something closer to what I’m thinking from Mark Boulton, who ties the analogy of digital patina to wok hey:

“In Chinese cooking, a wok is seasoned to make it non-stick. A well seasoned pan will go beyond simply making the pan non-stick. It will impart flavour to the food in what the Chinese call ‘wok hey’, or ‘breath of wok’. You see, to me, Patina is more than surface level sheen, or the aging of something. It’s the flavour. It’s an individual ‘taste’ that can only come from that thing. Not all woks are alike. This one is mine.”

For him, patina would be a practice in making a digital product uniquely the user’s, turning a mass-produced object into uniquely yours through personal use. Meaning, the experience that the product, or in our case, a game, can offer is changed by its unique circumstances. It imbues its idiosyncrasies in everything it touches that differs from person to person.

It’s tempting to assume that games with user-generated content or general sandbox types fulfill this idea. But that’s the topical application, the game itself is still the same and produces the same kind of experience. Though there is a strong player-evangelist edge in contemporary design philosophies, it stays within the digital ephemera, that a player will feel agency but not actually have agency. Agency isn’t really a good word for this, rather an effect, that a player can affect the actual design and use of a game as a part of the construction of the experience. The point isn’t to be able to do whatever you want in a game, rather that a game shapes itself around your natural motions and in turn reads as something idiosyncratic of you.

While it isn’t at the level that I’m thinking of, I see this happen with games like Dragon Age and Mass Effect, particularly with the consequences of actions in one game transferring over to the next. The choices are still topical and don’t really change the game itself, but the way players often talk about the games taps into what I’m speaking to. Look through fan discussion of these games and you’ll see people say “my Shepherd,” indicating that the boilerplate main character has been ‘seasoned’ with their playthrough to amount to a unique character. Speaking from personal experience, there is an investment on having particular kinds of playthroughs, like your ‘fresh’ run that is a result of playing the game without knowledge of any of the choices, and a ‘true’ run that is a meticulously curated save file that has all the choices you feel represents the most interesting story and what you’ll use to base your headcanon. The save files become a part of a legacy that you want to carry with you and retain, and many people grow attached to these personalized kinds of games. I don’t think this exemplifies my argument, rather shows what we can start from in contemporary design to push beyond what we have now.

Games that evolve over time intrinsically have the potential to evoke their own wok hey, because the tiny choices build up over time that build up into unique structures that are hard to replicate. I think about games like Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing that focus on longer cycles of engagement, where you have different ways to save the farm and interact with the village, and while these things don’t quantitatively differentiate too much, the experience that we build up with it makes an emotional impression on, and of, us. In essence, this is trying to make digital games more life-like, things that grow with us than expecting to be cast aside, filling up the trash heaps of our lives. Maybe it’s just me, but I ache for these sorts of games to be iterated on again, to further entrench themselves in our lives. A lot of my fantasy video game projects are inspired by experiences like Harvest Moon and would turn out to be an imprint of your experience. Like playing through a game shows an aspect of yourself that isn’t easily visible without its particular focus.

What patina looks like in game design could still use some discussion. I do have some investment in it though, there’s something romantic about design made for you to personally express yourself through mundanity. The reason why contemporary games don’t really do this well is because all instances of change must be grand and explicitly telegraphed. Life isn’t like that though, we are slow buildups of tiny effects and motions, and it isn’t until we take time to reflect that we see we’re something different from the past. This would be a game trying to translate how you exist, how you affect the world by just being, what it is like for you to just touch something or think a thought. I think we crave those sorts of things, to see reflections of ourselves, to see that we do make a mark and matter. So far, video games mostly tap into sedative design, numbing us to the world so we can feel important or centered in some way. But instead, I think there’s design that can make us feel more alive through the mundane acts in our lives, to find how we move through the world its own kind of magic.

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What is a Luxurious Video Game?

Over the last couple of months, I’ve reacquainted myself with magazines. The last time I really bought and went through them was in high school, particularly standby indulgences like the Gothic & Lolita Bible and FRUiTS, jealous of all the wonderful clothes and duping my guy friends to tell me they found Mana hot. Magazines were a portal into fantasy worlds of luxury, a place where everyone is styled and blissed to the point of looking purposefully bored. This experience would be out of my reach, unable to convince my parents that they should order some androgynous clothing off a website in a language they couldn’t understand. As an adult, the presence of luxury in the things I read now, about architecture, food, and of course, fashion, is omnipresent. It’s assumed you’re reading because you want to know what the best is, stewing in envy until you’ve consumed it. There is something a little more menacing about this, as these are sorts of objects and experiences I can witness at the mall or walking down the promenade of an affluent part of town. It’s so realized, obvious, like life doesn’t really make sense if it’s missing.

What luxury is to these fields of art is pretty clear, the materials or availability are rare, it’s in some way artisanal or uniquely made. That it costs a lot of money is a by-product rather than a telltale sign of luxury, though being able to discern that comes along with being socialized as a person of a certain affluence. Many of the art worlds are centered around the luxurious, with success tied to how your work fits into becoming a luxury product, accessible mainly to the rich before it can trickle down to the public. The prevalence of luxury in my magazines unnerves me; from the everything-grown-just-outside pâté at some restaurant-farm in upstate New York to modular incubator spaces that supply their own energy on the rooftops of Hong Kong, luxury is supposed to be the idea, what everyone is supposed to strive for, a vision for the future where the luxurious has become profane and there is some other trend to replace it. This isn’t completely damnable, as the 20th century did highlight anti-establishment art that sought to subvert the usual ways ideals were commodified, and with each passing generation we find stronger focuses on the low-brow and popular culture brought on by those practices.

Being someone associated with video games, naturally I asked myself “Well wait, what exactly is a luxurious video game?” I find this very specific to video games’ apparent immateriality, commonly thought of purely as a digital product. Sure, there are games that are more expensive than others, and some have collector’s editions, but these don’t really match up too much to the luxury in my magazines. There aren’t interviews about how one artist lovingly crafted this after a hike through Thailand, inspired by the nature, people, and culture, or something of the sort. Because they are digital, they aren’t often rare, rather easily duplicated; what was the difference between the Mass Effect 2 at the Smithsonian and the one in my Steam library? I mentioned this tension before when speaking to how expressive games are stuck in a weird place between art worlds and industry, that beyond out of print cartridges and limited print discs, we don’t really have a strong idea of what an artisanal game is. Are game engines ‘rare’ materials or creation methods? How do even begin to approach this sort of question?

Through comparison to other art forms, of course! Nathan Altice gave a talk a couple years ago comparing video games and fashion, finding the fashion industry to be a closer analogy than film’s (definitely watch it, was my favorite talk at that event). I was surprised to learn how fashion has such a similar contention with art vs commercialism that games does, down to the clothes are for buying and wearing, not for being looked at comment from a prominent fashion magazine editor. Nathan’s comparison takes us to the couture and ready to wear aspects of fashion, aspects that are seemingly missing in games. He compares smaller games made by independent auteurs for highly specific non-commercial audiences, his example being anna anthropy’s dys4ia, to function in a similar way that couture does, which is an article of clothing designed for one particular person’s body. Having made games for particular people before, Mainichi for my best friend and EAT for a past partner (Mission would be my ready to wear example), I can tell you that I’m not swimming in hundred of thousands of dollars and held in an industry-wide esteem that would support these endeavors. Nathan’s comparison reveals a couple things about how games block its own luxuriousness, first, by not realizing that custom tailored experiences (something I find in non-digital games) are valuable in and of themselves and can be personally made, and secondly, there isn’t something inherently damaging about a game that repels or doesn’t fit mainstream audiences. Many comments about my games are how much they are inaccessible to gamers with certain expectations of games, and also the locality and financial constraints of people being asked to use real money. I didn’t make Mission and EAT for every person on the planet, though people asked me for edits so they can play it, they are specifically for those who it’s geared towards: the affluent tech class gentrifying San Francisco and my ex who couldn’t understand the contexts of my financial struggles.

I would go one step further from this, challenging the assumption that games are something completely ephemeral through its digital form. Video games, all games really, require physical objects for us to actually interact with them, yet our analyses of games rarely include them. I’ve talked before about how video games ignore bodies in design and criticism, and this works into what could be seen as a luxurious game, highly specific physical interfaces with one crafted digital experience that speak to each other, instead of general hardware platforms housing many lowest common denominator games. Obviously this would be a huge undertaking, but isn’t that what all high-end products are like? When reading styling advice, there are parts of your closet that you’re fine with getting at Target and H&M and others you can plunk down for Burberry. We could see the the DIY games of the past few years as a sort of middle state between the Walmart and Alexander McQueen, speaking to a low-fi aesthetic that will pass by mainstream consumers of games and hit an alternative scene of players, but not necessarily made for a particular person or with particular hardware.

There is an obvious caveat about classism and wanting to resist anything that allows those with wealth to own a part of culture that others can’t access. This is mostly a thought experiment, but I’m curious to find out how to subvert this. My gut-instinct is to rail as hard against the anti-art sentiments that we find and get these sorts of experiences patroned by institutions so they remain accessible to others, or at least, have the funds made by couture pieces subsidize the ready to wear games of our future. If anything, it’s a nice way to frame a pressing art games problem, and really, a call for far more indulgent games than we are coming up with.

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Play Like Everyone is Watching – Some Lessons from Running My Own Play Party

(Content note: this article discusses kink and sex in general, but doesn’t have any explicit descriptions or depictions of sex)

 

Sweaterdresses, sushirritos, drinking game jams, I have a habit to smoosh a lot of my interests together. I blame it on my suburban survivalist nature, passing up smaller opportunities of separate, smaller things to fill up my needs and for the perfect, mega item that is some powerful chimera of a swiss army knife, never what I actually expect but somehow compelled to accept it is what I need. I have a pretty scattershot array of involvements and skills when it comes to games; writing critique, consulting, designing, tweeting, organizing events. There are times I feel a little lost, not knowing exactly where this hodgepodge is going to take me. I wouldn’t call myself a generalist, or only somewhat good at many things, rather just not interested enough to overspecialize in one particular thing at the determent of others, though that does seem inevitable when looking at the kinds of experience jobs want. But what exactly would combine my skills and other interests into one big project instead of feeling like I’m running between activities with non-transferable credentials?

Finding Inspiration

Two things, first, more recently, I’ve come to identify with works from Jennifer Rubell, a performance artist who often blends together participation, food, and a love/hate relationship with masculinity (mildly NSFW). She started out how I wanted to, writing food criticism and eventually sliding into performance, exploring and stretching the relationship between society and food. I found this pleasing because of the few conundrums of an artist’s life I was feeling: I prefer producing work mostly myself, but dislike handing down a Product for the Masses to enjoy; I feel my best interacting with others, but don’t want that to be a producer-customer relationship; and though play is shaping up more and more to be my chosen method of expression, I’m rarely inspired by games. I feel a resistance to performance art in games, especially outside of museums, and a pressure to digitize or get lost. What I really like about her work, and something I find intrinsic to play, is this lovely tension between the absurd and real, instead of the usual unreal. By breaking reality, you see its truth, or at least, your truth, brought to a place where little makes sense that tasks you to reconstruct yourself back into something whole afterwards. The unreal sits snug within reality, the norm, cognizant that what you are doing doesn’t really mean a lot, especially outside of the experience. You can put it down and move away, and remain largely unaffected.

Before that, I organized and ran my first kinky play party on my own. I helped create policies for one before, and I was both shocked and not surprised at all about how the game design part of my brain took over to structure this event. It is a play party after all. It wasn’t simply a make-sure-no-dies type deal, though that is obviously important, but a big experiment in interaction design. People at play parties are largely autonomous and spontaneous; you don’t know exactly what anyone wants to or will do, yet they require some form of structure so they aren’t just standing around awkwardly by the St. Andrew’s cross. Having people socialize and eventually play together is a more involved process than many of the games I’ve played and helped design because of the inherently vulnerable nature of kink, an emotional vulnerability more than it is a sexual one per se. I’ve written before on some challenges to conventional game design using kink practices as a lens, and how I’d like to go through some of the things I noticed fully running this party, keeping in mind of the blending of interests with participating that I would like to crib from Jennifer’s work.

Protocol as Social Norms

More than once, I’ve heard kinky people described as people who like rules. You wouldn’t hard-pressed to find a game designer describing gamers in a similar way. But it’s something more specific than just rules when it comes to kink, a more codified term being protocol, which takes us to a place less about restriction and more about culture. Protocol are conditionals, molding behavior to create a specific kind of relation between all who are following them. I find when creating protocol, especially for a group of people, you are creating a culture. These sorts of rules are not just things to obey, they are cultural norms, and there is meaning in following and subverting them. A shared way of acting creates a community, and I’ve grown to seeing events like shared experiences as a temporary community. I find that protocol is often left implicit and largely undesigned in play experiences and is probably why games tend to elicit similar feelings and create similar communities. I’ve never witnessed ‘culture fit’ at a company before, but it definitely worked itself out very quickly at the event, with people who didn’t really jive with the protocol pushed to the edges and leaving. While that sounds harsh, communities are intentional creations that explicitly include and exclude certain qualities. The trick is making sure you’re very intentional in all that you decide to exclude, and being okay with the fallout.

As I started to imagine play experiences more involved with social engagement, protocol in a kink context made for a more useful lens than rules in a games one. When thinking about a community I wanted to create, I tried to draft customs that would gesture towards a certain mindset. The party I designed for had a particular focus on a long-standing problem: for a play event centered around the experiences of women, how do we facilitate respectful interaction while cognizant of how men are socialized to treat them and not making men out to feel like they are inherently unsalvageable creeps? Along with the knowledge that people of all genders can violate others’ boundaries, I created a community sanctioned method of approaching other people that was unobtrusive and could easily be seen as and left at politeness. I shouldn’t be, but I was surprised with how something so simple changed the atmosphere of the event from ones I’ve been to in the past. Longer conversations were encouraged, so the people just cruising, moving from person to person, were very obvious and felt so themselves. Protocol don’t stand on their own like rules may, they require contrast between the person’s life and the current context at hand.

The Weaker the “Magic Circle,” the More Affective the Experience

The existence of a magic circle in which games reside is a fundamental concept in game design theory. It marks a separation of the play experience from reality, where players suspend the rules of life and adopt the ones of the game. It is typically seen as porous, where things from reality can affect the game and games change reality. This demarcation gives permission for people to do things they wouldn’t normally do in life and is manipulated to immerse players as deep into the game as they can go. Through my work and eventually hosting parties, I’ve found that the existence of a strong magic circle creates instrumental relationships between players and play objects, where people and things exist only to advance them towards their goals. In the context of a play party, this renders others as pleasure and catharsis dispensers, strengthened by parties’ privacy policies and the general clandestine positioning of these sorts of events. Much like how people can turn into unflattering versions of themselves when interacting under an internet persona, play parties can have too much of an ‘underworld’ feeling where people can display unflattering aspects of themselves because much is made to separate this space from the outside world. When planning the event, I didn’t require typical dungeon garb, play typical club music at typical club music volumes, and made the event more than just finding a partner for sexual activities. Instead, there were party games, emphasized social areas, and a distinct encouragement to not feel obligated to have sex. I started to see more group conversations over vulnerable topics, a general melting away of awkwardness, and, well, silliness. I could see people being people instead of just Mistress and pet, not allowing themselves to be reduced to their traditional ‘purpose’ at play parties, which often contained in them non-consensual power dynamics embedded by society at large.

Because there was an active effort to weaken the border between play and reality, there was a synthesis between people’s’ real life experiences and the structured one they were having then. I see this strongly in Jennfier’s work, and in social-engagement performance art in general, where there is a thin line between the absurd or fantastical and reality so they create a strong contrast to one another, encouraging participants to reflect on their lives when viewed through a structured lens. Stronger separations allow players to compartmentalize their experiences into ‘just a game’ rationales instead of consciously integrating it into themselves. When many think of kink, they imagine someone in all leather and latex beating up bound naked people. And while you won’t be hard pressed to find that, it’s mostly a stand-by of an older sex club culture, where the only way to do these sorts of things without being completely burned out of your life was to compartmentalize the experience into few settings. As people get older and as newer ones arrive in a more sex-positive society, kink starts to look more and more like people doing typical things, just with a power dynamic unbeknownst to onlookers. All of life is embedded with this kinky context, understanding power dynamics, achieving explicit consent for every interaction with a person’s autonomy, these concepts explode outside of just some freaky sex to how we all relate to each other as humans, and in turn, you can see some pretty mundane-on-the-surface but hot-on-the-inside kinky play.

 

I’m only beginning on a path to organizing these sorts of events, and there are some high concept ideas that would take some time winning people over to try out. But so far I’ve been successful, leaning far into psychological play and stressing relational awareness. I’m fascinated by vulnerability as a theme and find myself working backwards from traditional kinky events to something along the lines of Jennifer’s work. In fact, the next one I am planning will be set in the context of a wine tasting, creating a legit wine lineup with the opportunities for power dynamics between people to be explored and exploited. But if someone looked in the window, they wouldn’t see anything too strange, at least, nothing I couldn’t get away with by calling it ‘art.’

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I went to a drinking game jam and this is what I did

When I went to my first game jam, I didn’t think I would be able to do anything. It was Global Game Jam 2013, and I already had made my first game, but there was still a sort of imposter’s syndrome about. The most accessible game making tool most people recognized at the time was Unity, and the new wave of DIY hadn’t yet reached the corners of the net. When people were pairing up, there was little need for someone who was just a designer in an environment where you had to get a digital game up and running within 48 hours. Like many other celebratory events about games, the focus can be prohibitively technocentrist, and that women who showed up were usually visual artists or volunteers showed that there was deeper work to confront around the kinds of events we codify as a part of maker culture.

Thankfully, I ended up creating a card game with other women and having a lot of fun doing it. It started a tradition for me to bring materials for non-digital game making to hopefully attract other people who wouldn’t fit into making a video game. I think a lot about shifting the center of games to an attitude where accessible game design is the norm, where digital games aren’t what first come to mind. Thinking about game jams with just bodies, or markers, or other easily obtained and usable materials that don’t necessarily require a special skill to make a basic design with. After the game jam, a friend and I thought up of one such idea: a drinking game jam.

A couple years later, I’ve repeated the idea enough to embolden some friends to organize a jam for making drinking games, and had a really good time. Besides the obvious benefit (or detriment, depending on the perspective), there is a common experience with playing drinking games, down to the same basic kinds: Kings (Circle of Fire), Flipcup, beer pong, these games go by a lot of different names, but they are a sort of (at least American) cultural pastime, passed down year after year like we were yearning for them all our lives. What are drinking games really doing in our culture? What are their functions, and what would we be messing with to create something new?

We started this discussion to get ideas flowing to start our games. First, was a general explanation of what a canonical drinking game is: a game where drinking is the result of some performance test, or is the main act of performance. The main tension that popped up for me was the ambiguity of whether drinking was a punishment or a reward, after all, when playing a drinking game, you mean to drink in the first place and to get comfortable with friends, and being sober around a lot of drunk people is not usually a common goal. Creating a difficult choice between drinking and another action appealed to me, like having to confess an emotion or drink, or some other lose-lose situation. We also noted that most drinking games are designed for skill level to steadily deteriorate once you’ve started to take some hits and drink, that is, the parts of your brain that is affected by alcohol will be the parts needed to avoid drinking.

There is also the why. Most found that drinking games are more of a reason to facilitate drinking itself; you have friends, you have booze, now here’s a reason why you will be drinking it. Some want to get completely wasted, or get at least get to a place in a certain amount of time that they can’t unaided. I was fascinated with the less mechanistic reasons we drink, like for getting to know each other. Games like Never Have I Ever also let people get to know each other, typically with things we wouldn’t readily admit. And that’s an aspect of our culture that I wished to prod, that we often use alcohol in order to be vulnerable, to admit and share things, or to do risky behavior. What kinds of games could we make around that?

After we broke out and started creating things however, we found how really difficult it was to make these more intimate games right off the bat. There were other factors involved with drinking games, such as having very few, simple rules, and low-risk enough behavior in the beginning so strangers could be comfortable enough to play with each other. I am loathe to say that my social experiment drinking game fell very easily to a mechanistic card game, and for the most part, things biased in that direction. But I think if I were to do this with the same crowd a second time, we could dig a little deeper. What is an art drinking game? I will leave that with you.

With the theme of Mischief and Subterfuge, here are some of the drinking games we jammed out and you are more than welcome to try out at your next gathering:

 

Stealer’s Will

stealerswill

This is the main game I worked on. It felt like a classic quick card game you’d find at parties. This works best if the shots you have are particularly strong or distinct tasting. We had some pretty gross honey whiskey or something, that wasn’t so bad as a half shot, but god I got the full shot once and I hated myself. I just had to be stubborn and understand the authentic experience by not playtesting with water… It’s a really fun information gathering game, where you have to scout out what cards are in the game and try to get as much in the middle as you can. We ended up editing this a little to be fairer to the first player, where it’s not just the card you have in your hand at the end of the game that determines whether you’re the highest or lowest, but the sum of it and the card you originally discarded.

 

Speed Fist

speedfist

I watched many people play this game, and it was very entertaining to watch. It’s a reflex game, which also feels pretty classic for drinking, and one that rapidly deteriorates as time goes on. Once you play through a couple rounds it becomes almost instinctive, and you just speed through and drink a whole bunch. The tension between watching your opponent and trying to anticipate what drink you need to signal is really enjoyable, most rounds are just always weird hilarious fuck ups.

 

Jump Shots

jumpshots

The most dangerous game of all, mostly because it doesn’t actually have an ending condition (“sufficiently drunk” is a decision I don’t think sufficiently drunk people can make). It is reminiscent of power hours, where you are just biding your time until you take a drink. It felt like one you’d play at a bar or around a table where you’d be having a conversation otherwise. You don’t necessarily need to concentrate hard on playing, as it’s mostly luck and a bit of maneuvering to set up your friends to drink more. I do like that it is inherently social without it being in the rules, and also a little malevolent at the same time.

 

There were a couple of games that didn’t have the rules drawn up, but I thought were pretty good. One was called, I believe, Soul Search, which was closest to a purposefully social and icebreaker type game. It inverts Never Have I Ever, saying something you have done instead of something you haven’t. Inspired by Dixit’s judging rules, you won your turn if you said something you’ve done that only one other person playing has also done. On the game table, there are shot glasses of a cheap, less fancy beer and a few of a nicer, craft one (this is definitely a game for beer snobs) that you got to drink if you won your round. If more than one other person did that same thing, you all had to drink the crappy beer, and if no one else has done it, you don’t get to drink anything. It was during this game that I heard people genuinely ask about each other and tell stories, and was one of the more off-the-cuff games to get created. The game ends when the good beer is finished, and just one standard bottle size worked as a good timer of sorts.

The other was unnamed, or possibly called Red/Black, which was an unfinished concept that I was really into. Everyone was randomly dealt two cards, and could play one card a turn. On your turn, you chose another person to play a card with, and you can put down either a red or black card. If one of you put down a red card and the other black, the person who put down the black one doesn’t get to draw back up to two cards while the red player could, and has to take a shot. Two reds meant both took shots but both drew back up to two. Two black ones made the two players allies, and whenever one loses a card or takes a shot, all people in the alliance had to do the same. I’m a particular fan of hidden information and social dynamics, and I ended up playing a round playtested without the shots (because we literally would have been dead if so) by rebelling against a large alliance, eventually getting absorbed into it, kicked out, and then killing them all at once. I would really like to see it evolved and worked on, since logistics definitely needed adjustments so players wouldn’t need to go to the hospital, plus it was fun to see the strategy personalities some newer friends I’ve met had, and I imagine with drinking involved, it would turn into mayhem.

I definitely want to try a drinking game jam again, and also think up a lot of other jams using other cultural and material conventions that more people can relate to. Outside of the fact that it was a reason to drink a lot with friends, I enjoyed how many non-games people were involved, learning to make games because it spoke to their lives in a way that made sense. There is also something to being able to playtest a game that all you have to do is discuss and right down the rules, since we made and tested these games within 4-5 hours instead of 48. It feels more attainable, relevant, and hey, I now have some new party games I can feasibly use with friends.

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Control, Fashion, and not feeling where i belong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Love is a Battlefield – Rambles about Bonding in Games

Love in games will forever be a topic of fascination for me. As games continue to evolve and experiment, how affection comes out in play tends to be an embarrassing but lovable mess. Like all other things, smaller games have tackled expressions of intimacy a little better, though I really can’t get enough of the really convoluted and often sketchy manifestations that appear in larger games. And this isn’t just about sex, but developing any sort of bond in a game. Fair warning, this isn’t going to get too deep, I just like to spark this idea up every once in a while. At the first Lost Levels, I gave a talk about how there should be romance play in every game, and I still stand by that. I feel like more involved ways to bond with characters or each other are still waiting for some creative people to uncover.

Within the larger spread of games, there are two main ways players develop bonds with other characters: one I call the action movie way, where you have a cutscene in between events where you have typically hyperbolized and extremely quick bonding moments, or the other, which is the visual novel way, where the entirety of the experience is character-focused and you go through events making decisions that change and develop the bond you have with others in the game. Some games do both, like the ones from BioWare, and there are leagues of pieces that talk about the pros and cons of these methods of intimate (or not) engagements. If you’re curious about these topics and don’t mind some of my older writing, check out a short series of posts I did about dating sims for Nightmare Mode and these two pieces for ctrl+alt+defeat’s issues five and eight. Wiping my eyes seeing baby critic Mattie writing, but all that serves as a nice start to how I think about the topic.

I recently got a 3DS, which meant I had to start catching up on the games my friends liked. Some of the first games I got were Fire Emblem: Awakening and Pokemon X. Both games stress bonding, though in different ways. Ways that I find both fun and really disturbing, mostly because they feel like the natural combination of games + love. Disturbing because of actually how complacent I was with all of it, though it’s all in idle entertainment. Mostly that combat and bonding are so closely linked, and just the general wonderment of how much martial combat is involved with the narratives created for us to view bonding in. Which is weird, I guess there is some strange carry over of brother in arms and getting the girl sort of seeped into everything. Though I’m going to be writing about these two games, Valkyria Chronicles is a game I think might actually get away with doing this war plus bonding theme, though good luck getting past some of those missions to even find out.

Fire Emblem might be a more obvious example as to why love + strategy = ummm… can be off-putting. In the game, characters bond when they assist each other in battle. This was actually the most enjoyable part of it for me, making sure certain characters were together (I kept a very close log of who I was shipping), and it felt like spending time together, in a weird way. I sort of miss the nonsensical in-battle conversations from previous Fire Emblem games, or at least, I could see a lot of possibility in just a little more voiced line interactions. If this happens enough times, they get small cutscenes that develop their relationship and level it a rank. If the relationship is between a man and a woman, eventually you will meet their child and they will become a participant in battle. It only takes a small perusal through GameFAQs and other materials to see how much the marriage aspect is gamed, who is considered a good father and mother, and how to get the best children. Outside of the protagonists, you rarely see non-rank interactions go on between the characters, so there is a rather jarring trajectory to how your party members get close. Interactions between opposite gender teammates go from subtle flirting, to less subtle flirting, to marriage in three scenes. Bonding is very easily seen as a ‘mechanic’ in all senses of the word, like I was the bad guy from Catherine trying to match-make all the heteros and ensure life goes on. I could see a clever anti-war twist on this, though really, I just want a smuttier Fire Emblem to come along, because really, the game’s battles are so easy to replicate and create and add on. There needs to be Fire Emblem: Barfights or Fire Emblem: High School.

The bonding metaphor in Pokemon is both a little more obvious and hidden. Throughout the series, a prevalent theme is the personal connection you have with the monsters you’ve forcibly captured to dogfight each other. Especially in Pokemon X, the reasoning that you do so well as a trainer is because you have an extraordinary bond with your pokemon, and there is the inclusion of Pokemon Amie, which lets you pet and feed and play with your pokemon outside the context of battle. I’ve been watching and reading some guides to competitive Pokemon lately, and very often in team building advice is to start with a pokemon you really loved. I’ve seen multiple videos where players will defend team placement choices based on their fondness for their pokemon. But as I explored in Pokemon: Unchained, an experiment in using house rules to explore the clash between themes and actions in a previous generation of games, there is little that supports this bonding. As you can also see in these competitive vidoes, you are effectively breeding pokemon for competition, and by the time you get to competitive levels, none of the pokemon you went on your original journey with will be used. Characters in the game will always remark on how well connected you are to your monster friends, no matter how often they are damaged in battle, or have memory wipes, or are downloaded into computers. Besides leveling faster, and one Pokemon’s evolution, there are some benefits to tracking how you’re treating your friends: there are moves that depend on how friendly or dissatisfied a pokemon is with you, and they get more powerful the more extreme these ratings are. So bonds, like in Fire Emblem, are pretty constrained to helping you in battle rather than having something intangible. Of course, there are plenty of people who have memories around the games (I’m one of them) and even certain pokemon, it’s just compelling to me that it’s surrounded by this context of forced competitive fighting.

It’s probably easy to guess why these sorts of interactions occur, that everything in the game has to serve it’s ‘core mechanic’ or thing the player does, and so in order to really justify having something like intimacy, designers probably only showed the aspects that related to things like combat. I don’t know why, but I’m really interested in strategy games as a genre trying to tackle abstract concepts like intimacy, though they very often come out rather, well, robotic. I’m curious as to what a game would look like, and thought of this many times. There is a political drama SRPG dating sim in space game that’s been in my head for some time, though that will obviously never leave there. If I had to guess, it’s that the movements of the game, being strategic and needing some sort of mechanical grasp by the player, could represent a very apparent and obvious ‘concession’ or ‘necessary evil’ that the player tries to resist at every turn, while grappling with the vague, unpredictable flow of connecting with others. Like play overall, we all have a structure of expectation around interaction, but it doesn’t always follow an expected course or go as planned. The only things that are formulaic are relationships in movies and, well, games. It would be neat to see an experience where the player had to continually deal with the unknown with relationships while working from this expectation, sometimes, or often, needing to depart from it.

 

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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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How to Infuse Wine with Tea

One small benefit living as an artist is, from time to time, you and fellow artists will get together to show your work and socialize. As a matter of custom, especially with creative writers, you bring one of those prepackaged cheese plates, maybe the meat one too if you’ve had good news recently, and a bottle of wine that doesn’t reach too far above $6. When the stars align in one’s favor, typically during the winter and tax seasons, the gathering has more wine than is physically possible to consume, and the host needs people to take some extra bottles off their hands.

Soon I was on my way home with three bottles of red wine despite resolving at the new year that I wouldn’t keep alcohol in the house for myself. For a while I convinced myself that I must be one of those people who benefit from a glass of wine every day, and never really found that I was a danger to myself and others. But after I started to have conversations with myself about how a “glass” was a subjective and social construction while the internet continued to pour filth my way, I figured I needed to keep drinking for when I have company.

Now that social media isn’t about 90% of my life anymore, I’ve been studying tea and its rituals. Coming from a place that didn’t have a strong cafe culture, the most involved I got into tea was the most extravagant and obviously flavored Teavana teas that would make connoisseurs’ monocles pop in unison. Now, I’m drinking Real Tea™ that is named after estates (so fancy) instead of how many sugary foods you can fit into one pot. It’s interesting, how much there is really a snobbery of what’s Actually This Thing and how it isn’t at all just a games quirk.  Games definitely bludgeon with it a lot more, the tea world kind of does it in a way I imagine a colonial English headmistress would.

Something that struck me, however, was the terminology tea and the different elements that go into actually brewing it. I’m used to getting ready-brew with a bag in it, and now I brew sex-positively loose tea. In tea stuff, there’s a lot of attention to the tea leaves itself and the water it is brewed in, while the end product, called the liquor interestingly enough, is almost secondary. I’m reading a book that has an extensive account of old Chinese writings that ranked the mountain springs from which was most superior to brew tea in, and how the quality and taste of the water ultimately decides whether a tea is going to be good or not.

So why not steep tea in wine, my sluggish brain decided, being pulled backwards by the last BART train towards the east bay. What a great idea.

There is actually some precedent to this. Tea is sometimes infused into certain spirits, mostly vodka, to make fancy cocktails at fancy places. I also mulled wine for the first time during December, which I found was ultimately infusing spices into wine. One of the ingredients I needed to get was allspice, think a mix between nutmeg and black pepper if you’re unfamiliar, which is a popular Jamaican spice. My parents used it in cooking a lot, or at least, when I smelled it upfront like that after I opened the jar, I felt like I identified a part of something that was always around me in the past that’s missing now. It’s strange, I don’t have a good relationship with my family, and spent most of my adolescence distancing myself from my heritage. Slowly, I’ve been reintegrating certain things. I refused to eat curry until I moved to San Francisco, living on Valencia street and meeting part way over to my partner’s house. I have an unfinished game called I Hate Curry that might never be completed.

Smelling that jar of allspice made me want to explore my connection with my past again. It smells in the corners of my mind, something unmistakably there, but I never knew what it was. I felt roused, like I do whenever I want to write down fiction or create a play experience. But how, with food?

Ever since moving to the bay, I’ve had a rising interest in food justice. San Francisco, in particular, likes to boast about how good its food is, along with other terms like local, sustainable, ethical. Yet it was obvious to me, as someone who was at poverty level income for the majority of their adult life, that having pride in the food and especially produce of the area was not for everyone. There is a performance of eating well all over our country, something that’s tortured me for a long time, wondering why I couldn’t ‘eat right’ on my minimum wage paycheck.

I don’t necessarily want access to fancy foods. I live near a Farmer’s Market now, and I try to go, mostly hoping some cute farm hand will show me the difference between all seven of his pomelos, and buying exclusively from it would bankrupt me.

In a way, I want to take back cooking and eating, as art forms, back from the affluent. I want everyone to connect with what is tied so strongly to our memories. What is it that allspice means to me? If anything, everyone is going to have a different emotional tie to a food or flavor. And, in a way, there is something romantic and powerful about literally consuming a piece of expression. Made for you to feel something other than, maybe, fullness and titillation. Which brings me to now, sipping on oolong-infused Merlot.

As I wait for my next paycheck so I can spring on some spices, I decided to take the teas I’ve been tasting and learning about and infuse them into the Merlot I left that party with. The Merlot is another trigger, it reminds me of when I went to church as a child, and the church wine. Which is another mystery to me; what exactly is the kind of wine that my church served, did it mean anything, and did all churches have the same wine?

But mostly, transfiguration is what triggered my choice the most. Wine into liquor, the taste of the past to the very, just a few seconds ago, now, alcohol into blood. Kicking myself a little now that I didn’t think to mix allspice into one batch of the Merlot to remember Palm Sunday and a grand-uncle that I don’t think ever liked me.

I divided the Merlot into twelve separate jars, about 2 ounces in each, and dumped a ½ teaspoon of a tea on top. I say dumped because I unmatched a guy on Tinder just before for being a jerk and it felt good. I screwed on the caps and shook it all a little, then tucked it under my bed, only partly sure what I’m doing is legal.

Taking some time out from angsting over my keyboard about how I can’t seem to do anything but stare motionless into sex-education documents, I shake the little crate of wine cultures. It feels like what I imagine to be rocking a cradle full of glass animals.

After about ten hours, it’s time to take out the white and green teas. They smell like, well, tea in wine. Less boozy in the way church wine does and a little more fruity and maybe grassy. I sip a couple, and they basically taste like tea in wine. It’s not necessarily bad, and I’m not completely sure if I want things to taste, like, good, just, something? I imagine the green teas would taste better in a white wine. Things tend to be divided that way, dark and light, so I guess green goes with white and black goes with red.

It’s weird, the grassy, vegetal (I didn’t know that was really a word until I started reading up and tasting tea) flavor of many green teas brings out the berry-ness of the wine. Pai-Mu-Tan, a white tea that looks like someone dumped what they raked into a $20 tin and tastes somewhat like chlorine when you’re not used to it, made the wine smell like fucking Kool-Aid. Remember that stuff? I imagine it’s contrast, the bitterness brings out the sweet. But as I felt like I was drinking an alcohol-drenched rainforest, I realized that the instructions I got made for a total flavor overtake, and that wine comes with it’s own complexity and I probably should have thought to have added to the complexity instead of injecting tea flavor. I’m sure there’s a metaphor there. If you want to try infusing some loose green tea, I recommend Japanese greens in white wine, though I haven’t really tried it yet. In particular, Sencha and Gyokuro, though I’m curious as to how Genmaicha would work out. Let them sit for five hours, and then sip every hour until you get a taste you like. Apparently a lush, I forgot to take out my Gunpowder tea and it tastes bitter now.

When I woke up the next day, it was time to strain out the oolong and black teas. I was too curious to not try them right then and there, and would later be under my covers swiping right on numerous bay area men.

The oolong tasted kind of strange, which is to be expected, since it tends to be quite complex on its own. I like it for its novelty though. Blacks, now, black teas (can I admit how weird it was for me to see ‘blacks’ used in this context) are often more about body than greens (this metaphor is going places isn’t it) where I originally had a hard time telling their flavor part, but how the liquors rested in my mouth were completely different. The same is true for them being infused in red wine, apparently, and actually, they feel kind of right? They mix in with the red wine’s complexity in a way that I found jarring, but not unpleasant. Kenya in particular stood out to me, because if I’m not mistaken, it takes to fruity flavors well, and it smells marvelously fruity.

But of course, there’s Lapsang Souchong. I’ve never had a drinking buddy, but if I did, it would be Lapsang Souchong. Lapsang is deep and smoky, like literally, you’re drinking a campfire. I love it. Campfires are where the majority of my intimate memories from teen-hood are from. It was one of my good friend’s houses, we’d play truth or dare, I slightly miss truth or dare? And then, in my early twenties, over in the backyard of the first man who ever approached me in public and hit on me. I want to say successfully, but it was weird. I skipped class over a bit of anxiety I was having, and decided to sit outside of a Starbucks on my college campus at the time. We caught eyes a few times, and eventually he came over, gave me coffee, and immediately just left. I was extremely bewildered because the guy I was just eye smooching just gave me coffee, recognizing that we were, indeed, eye smooching, and then just left. I don’t even drink coffee. It was fucking romantic. A couple minutes later he returned, sat down next to me, and we talked awkwardly, then less awkwardly. I would later fall for him and he would break my heart.

I really like Lapsang Souchong, and I think I’m going to infuse every liquid I can find with it. Smoky tasting beverages just sounds so, like, not right, but at home for me. Shooting off fireworks, staring a bit too close. I never want that smell to leave me, no matter how painful.

Infuse your oolong and black teas for about ten hours, then taste them every hour after until you got a complexity you like. Go with the teas I pointed out, or hey, get some of your favorite flavored black teas to put in there. If there are cute little non-tea leaf objects in there though, you might have to taste and watch more often, because different things steep at different rates.

I realize that not many people are going to infuse tea into wine. I do, though, want to suggest that things give us memories and feelings, and there are ways to play with this. Transfiguration, maybe. Stock is made from basically infusing random remnants of things you cooked in water. Why does it have to be water? Or random remnants of things you cooked? What would it mean if I used Lapsang water to brew coffee for that man in my past?

Game design, really, right now, is object design. An object is crafted for use to interact with, and have a play experience. I feel like, in an effort to expand the DIY philosophy, we need to see video games, board games, whatever, as few of many objects we play with, and it’s the play we’re after to design. So, I want to let people know there are more objects to create, and things that you might already create everyday. You can make an object to play with every day, and just because it’s made to power your body doesn’t make it any less of a playful event. I want to know what the things I’ve been eating have been saying to me my entire life, as they’ve contributed to my wellness, and to my pain. Maybe as mulled wine is used as an excuse to be with other people, and to understand you will get through a dark time, maybe steeping this allspice might unlock a feeling, a remedy I’ve forgotten long ago.

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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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Playing with Play

Even when you’re caught up about it in a middle of a discussion, most conversations about the words we use can seem silly the moment we take a step back and look at things holistically. I find this happens most in the vacuum of definitions and the categorization that results from it, and it’s easy to see how power dynamics quickly come out with deciding rightness. I think about the times when a word takes on a new light, or is used for something unconventional, and how that can be exciting and stimulating. Specifically calling up an association while recognizing the process, not laying claim to a term, rather pulling subtext from our cultural subconscious.

This is my current relationship with the word play, and how I tend to use it to describe what I do and think. I wonder sometimes if there’s a difficulty with talking about more than video games in design and reach because of how solid and definitional games are as objects, and people tend to organize themselves by the objects they design and consume. As well, a lot of the posturing that happens in conversations about one tends looks rather flawed in another, when play as a concept holds them all together. I think this is because there is less conversation about how people relate to things, especially holistically as beings that do things other than be entertained, instead of how things work.

There are scholars who can go further and probably better into the play conversation than I can, yet I think the point I’m trying to make is easily done with whatever life experience any person has. What are all the instances of the word ‘play,’ directly related to games or not, that one can think of? There’s the play which means to act in a way for enjoyment rather than for practical reasons. A play can be a production, and to play in that kind of play is to assume a role that isn’t your day-to-day persona. Playing can be engaging with someone intimately and also being manipulative and careless. To make a play might just be a declarative action, or to play around with something might be figuring it out. When something plays out, it unfolds, or maybe it only appears for a moment.

When we play and design for play to happen, there is a broader language and range of approach we can take than I find is typically discussed. You can see traces of what games overall do in the descriptions above, but they move conversation from the game object and the relationship the person has with play. Most talk about design is focused on how to make good objects, but consider that a lot of play in life that we engage with doesn’t come from purposefully designed objects meant for play. That object design was chosen as the main focus of creating play experiences is a fluke, a weird kind of specialization that we don’t have to stick with as we move on thinking about play.

I’m going on about this because I think this is a viable path of thought if we’re going to think of the advancement of design outside of the current commercial space and into something that can create social change, be accessible to many more people, and tap experiences we feel mainstream and tech-focused games can’t or aren’t willing to. I also find it will be a more holistic approach to teaching design to others and let tools just be tools. We’ve focused s much on tools in video games that we’ve self-selected a lot of people out of participating in what is considered the games art movement, and if the concept of games and play is truly still a young one, than we need to change that perception and education as soon as possible.

I’ve been on a sabbatical of sorts for games, but due to my overachiever habits I’ve gotten into more event organizing for my side interests. For many of them, I continue my work as a safe space coordinator and consultant so events are both welcoming and prepared to protect marginalized people and overall make sure everyone is having a fun time. One of these events happens to be kink-related, where both socializing and play will be happening, and I’m in charge of creating rules for our space. What is really interesting about the intersection of kink and games proper is how many words and concepts are shared, but are utilized in completely different ways. There aren’t just rules to be made, but protocols and these are distinct things. Play is a solid concept when you look at it but disappears the moment you try to hold onto it. While having sex (and what is considered sex is extremely divergent person to person) is play, in that space so is asking if you can grab someone a drink. Simply sitting down looking elegant with a wristband that signals you want to be served is definitely play. But no one would really say the event is one large game, and that the event needs a designer by that term. Because I happen to be design-minded, I see that the structure of the event creates certain behavior and allows people to have certain experiences. I can notice how the inclusion and exclusion of certain rules and protocols create opportunities or reinforce status quo for marginalized individuals. In this way, each other’s safety, comfort, and also engagement are all part of the same play experience, and needs to hold as many ideas of play in it at once in order for it to function. In hindsight, I see how non-kink events I’ve helped with also promote certain kinds of behavior given the structure of this expanded notion of play, yet being in thick of planning for this one has really opened my eyes to it.

Before I was anywhere near games criticism and design, I was acquiring skills so that I could become a ‘life designer.’ When I was younger, I loved to watch HGTV, TLC, the Food Network, especially all those dating and fashion tips shows along with interior design. What I noticed as a connection between all these is how people needed to have certain aspects of their lives designed for them so they could see things differently, or maybe to move past that, experience life on another level. These shows were obviously porn for the affluent, yet it made sense that the people on these shows needed someone who understood the influences of the world around them and structured them in a way that made things better.

I recall that now as I do these events, that I’m designing ‘life,’ or I guess reality? It sounds really pompous to say that, not sure if I have language beyond that though. And it’s what I think would serve a better ideological center for designing play experiences than the digital entertainment industry, because the latter can evolve in a way that helps shapes experiences, but only if it’s released from being The Video Game Industry. I feel like this would better equip us to see the design of online platforms and to counter-design against them to make our own spaces. It’s a perspective that can help us go beyond the current problems of games without completely discarding them. Time to rethink our many relationships to play.

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queer as in fuck me – a design manifesto

(this contains explicit descriptions of sex and those with triggers concerning sex should take care in reading this)

 

 

i want to fuck the world

 

i want to fuck the world when coffee at an unspeakable hour is fucking. when picking out a dress is fucking. when having sex isn’t the only way to fuck. jogging together is fucking. discussing your mistakes is fucking. going to the doctor is fucking. and sure going down on me is fucking

i want to fuck the world when explicit consent isn’t just for sex but every type of relation. i want to fuck the world when it is inefficient at everything but mutual satisfaction. fuck the world when boundaries are recognized and celebrated. fuck the world when our feelings for each other aren’t taboo to say anymore

mmmm

fuck dot ing verb the act of previously established mutual satisfaction andslashor reestablishment of satisfying equilibrium quote MattiE brIce fucker of the world 2014

i accept my queer role as witch cyborg and mutant. part human that exists in the world that yet lets me fuck and part otherworldly that makes me illegible part machine that affixes me to systems part animal that validates the feelings and instincts outside of the constructs of man. i accept that queer is playing with the things we don’t have a word for just yet

((Provocation: Queerness is a continuously slippery ideal that changes whenever new outlying values are normalized. Therefore, queerness can’t be against normative values, it must be beyond them. Answer: Design games that create opportunities for experience instead of certain kinds of experiences.))

fuck the world: everyone is a creator and as such we hold the power to enable others to act and respond. imparting experience is in itself gifting a lotus that subdues a person further in the sleep dreaming of a perfectly constructed world for which they have no hopes or wants of changing. instead embrace the queer your queer and create a way for people to play in a manner you cannot understand and will never know of. create the act of experience

((Provocation: Queerness resides not within the game but in the way we relate to the game and to each other. Answer: Design games that draw awareness to participation in relationships.))

fuck the world: create play where the human parts and other parts connect. make us think about how we play with others how we play with objects and how we play with ourselves. games aren’t opening our eyes to the world around us rather they make the parts where we’re joined with others glow sparkle twist sweet sweat dripping smoky. we are already in each other’s webs

((Provocation: Games are locked in with reflecting back socio-economic status, by both indulging and mobilizing free time. Answer: Design games that purposefully co-exist with life and outside the constructed realm of free time.))

fuck the world: we shouldn’t just be playing fucking when companies governments deign us a moment of leisure. creators enable people to fuck sitting in class dealing with customers getting tested for hiv applying for food stamps. creators help dismantle the system that divides for us when and where we fuck

((Provocation: Games themselves aren’t teaching values, rather teaching players to have capacities for certain kind of values through discipline. Answer: Design games as prompts for reaction and creation instead of teaching specific parables and lessons.))

fuck the world: manipulating a person’s agency without consent isn’t fucking. fucking is calling and fucking is responding and not knowing who did which first. our first step as creators is admitting ignorance and creating prompts where we ourselves are encouraged to react and endlessly tumble into others. to create is to open up. to fuck is to see

((Provocation: Queerness in games would be inclusion of unacceptable failures, unexpected actions that do not fall in line with the system. Answer: Design experiences that encourages meaningful variance between players and folds in incidental aspects of individual experience.))

fuck the world: the perfect is but a replication of the human world that wishes to erase the otherworldly the cybernetic and the mutated. perfection is the only dream the powerful allows us to dream. it eliminates context by deeming details of our lives as unworthy aspects of our play experience. creators allow the trash of one man the beautiful trash of everyone else to fold into play. nothing is holy except for the trash

((Provocation: Queerness in games would be gestures towards utopias that exist outside of currently sanctioned utility. Answer: Design games that can be meaningfully adapted and don’t expect to be in its final iteration so it can act as a vessel for continual movements towards an ideal.))

fuck the world: time and people don’t stop for anything. the meaning of what we create changes without us and can quickly turn against itself in attempt to stake a claim in shifting sands. play is to be recycled repurposed broken apart and embedded into other things. we are to create games mutable to anyone’s touch

fucking acts as a method of self-awareness and awareness of what is affecting us. playing is about real life what is happening to us in real life just not always with our human side. we can remove satisfaction from the cordoned off zones and into the public the shared the mutual the agreed upon

fuck the world fuck the world fuck the world

 

mmmm


(this is a response to merritt kopas and naomi clark’s keynote at the queerness and games conference which you can watch and read for context)

 

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Dispatch from Arse Elektronika – Some Things Games Can Learn from Sex & Tech

(This post will be talking about sex, and there will be writing about about some sex acts. Consider all links NSFW if your work doesn’t appreciate you looking at sexual content.)

 

This past weekend, I went to the annual sex and tech conference in San Francisco, Arse Elektronika. This was actually the first conference I spoke at back in 2012 when it was specifically about play and games, and I got to come again this year to see what new projects people thinking and crafting about sex were up to. This conference tends to attract a cross-section of toy makers and academics interested in sex topics, but also nets in software people and artists.

What’s interesting for me about this group of people who convene over sex and tech is how similar and different the mood is to my experience in video games. The demographics are about the same, with maybe the ratio of women you’d see at an indie games event, so higher than the industry but not as much as men. But there is an unspoken understanding  of non-judgment that I see in the kink community in SF that makes it easier for people to bend outside of gender norms for the most part. If anything, a lot of baggage around heteronormativity and monogamy is left behind, but technocentrism and the centering of hegemonic masculinity’s relationship with sex still exists. An interesting site of reference if you want to see the dynamics where fluid sexuality is a thing and how men, and sometimes others, relate to each other in a context they don’t really get to outside of these situations. So I wanted to share with you all my thoughts on some of the presentations and how they relate to our realm of play.

The keynote of the conference was by Varka, the cofounder of Bad Dragon. I finally had an answer for where all these fantastical dildos I kept seeing on tumblr came from. This was one of the many talks during the conference that would speak to bridging the gap of DIY toy making from those with a lot of money to the public. Bad Dragon toys are, in a sense, a certain evolution of fanfiction. The company pretty directly serves the furry community or others who fantasize about anthropomorphized animals or aliens, and seeing that those sorts of beings don’t really exist, sex toy creation works to bring an aspect of that fantasy into reality. I’ve always wondered what the fanfiction of games would be, and this seems to tap into that concept. More precisely, the imaginations of furries has shaped play objects so new interactions can be had with them. Most sex toys resemble, ultimately, the binary genitals of humans and imply convention usage. And while the dildo of a dragon still fits there, it opens the possibility of textures and features we wouldn’t normally have on our toys. My guess is that eventually, we will have play objects that expand our range of actions during sex, or even outside or adjacent to it. While we do have modding for digital games, I think this line of thinking expands how we can see player subversion of the craft of the game through DIY objects.

Probably the most fascinating bits of research to be presented was by Kuang-Yi Ku, a bioartist and dentist who showed conceptual work on modifying the mouth for more specialized use for fellatio, taking notes from gay men’s culture and history. There were three stages of this: the first was a textured retainer a person could wear that would still feel like the roof of the mouth by using a person’s skin cells to coat it. The next was using surgery typically used for people with jaw-displacement, like an extreme overbite if I remember correctly, to elongate the amount of space inside the mouth to fit a phallus. The last was called ‘Bird Beak Clone,’ extending the previous surgery out more so the person had more room in their mouth, and in effect their mouth and jaw looked more like a bird’s beak. Kuang-Yi said the Castro Clone, a term for how gay men in the 70s, and feasibly today, wore a certain kind of outfit in the Castro district of San Francisco to signal to other men that they were gay and looking for sex. What made this so applicable to me is the culture surrounding body modification or even just appearance overall. Bodies are often overlooked in play, and that, technically, the body is also a play object that sets up certain kinds of interactions with other objects. Where are the games inspired by the dynamics of cruising? Or games where interpreting bodies and appearances is the main aspect of play? Kuang-Yi’s project gets at more what I consider play, which is observation of aspects in life that mediate behavior and perception.

Back to play objects and dicks, Dr. Kristen Stubbs presented a collaboration work with Jimmie P. Rogers on DIY, more accessible genital molds that produce rather realistic results. Like, a super realistic dildo of Jimmie’s penis. It was so idiosyncratic that when it was passed to me to look at, I kind of wanted to, like, put it in my mouth? My gut instinct was that I had a hard dick in my hands, so I must do something with it? I also just looked at the details and felt weirdly compelled to know what Jimmie’s face looked like and what kind of person he was. I felt really confused about all the social rules that surrounded having a dildo of a person’s penis that I didn’t know. One of the questions from the audience was about the implications of a sort of gential library that people could set permissions and allow others to loan out molds and toys of their genitals. I couldn’t help but imagine how that would change contemporary courting rituals and the general structure of intimacy in society. Would it become customary to order someone’s vulva before seeing the real thing? What would be the social mores of what you do with that? Especially incorporating that into your own sex life? It somehow avoid the uncanny valley but is still slightly unnerving. Another example of how objects can project interactions that shape culture.

The last thing I want to share is a performance by Maggie Mayhem, which appropriated the stations of the cross from Catholicism to talk about working conditions of sex workers throughout the technological ebb and flow of pornography. For those unfamiliar, the stations of the cross is a sort of educational procession, going through different moments of Jesus’ crucifiction, highly ritualistic and meant to impart to the people participating the suffering that lead up to his death and soon rebirth. I’ve been reading a lot about ritual and this struck me as particularly poignant. The stations of the cross is a type of narrative that other content could be substituted in to give similar feeling; there are a lot of complex feelings around pornography, its detractors, technology, and sex workers that all somehow have to be respected and looked at critically at the same time. We were playing within the realm of a memorial that is part education, part mourning. We recited back the prayers, and as they went on, they weighed on you more. We left with the little booklets to eventually do services of our own. I could imagine more ritual making like this, especially sending people out to practice it outside of the main experience. I will be writing more on ritual soon, so stay tuned for that!

I think a lot can be learned on the more critical and artistic ends of sex when it comes to play. I mean, sex is literally a kind of play, yet we don’t hear it come up too often at our conferences, and games culture at large seems pretty awkward at handling the subject. I think there’s a lot of ways thought and research in topics surrounding sex can help influence game design and how we think of play, especially in the physical space. I’m actually writing this just before flying off to LA to go to IndieCade, so I will be back soon with some writing for that!

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