Play and Be Real About It – What Games Could Learn From Kink

Content Note: This article will be talking about kink and philosophy surrounding it, and no graphic depictions or descriptions of sex. I should note that kink culture, politics, and activities are outside of this piece, but they are worth interrogating.

On a fairly regular basis, about once or twice a month, I get emails from journalists or researchers who want to talk to me about ‘empathy games.’ Scare quotes are theirs, but I’m pretty skeptical of it as a term and how/where it is deployed. Empathy games as a construction creates a conversation that is construed as new and unexplored while at the same time while providing an excuse for the rest of games to not be concerned since they are different genre. It reinforces games as something special while justifying them as mindless entertainment that profits off of troubled aspects of culture.

This is one manifestation of “the dark side” of games’ technodeterminism that Heather Chaplin picks up on in her addendum to Eric Zimmerman’s Ludic Manifesto. The kind of games and design philosophies that are valued project to people navigating through systems and problem solving for the games’ sake; there is actually little about the ludo aspect of this sort of future, rather, obsession with game objects. If there is something that isn’t widespread in design and practice, it’s the use of play to connect to life or to self-reflect. We are often entertained and gain some meaning through that, and that’s a nice by-product that games often use to propagate industry. The play that is used for the purpose of reflection and connection, however, is greatly undervalued and under supported by the main institutions of video games.

Using the concerns of an unempathic future of games, Steve Wilcox finds that play is actually an exercise to understanding contexts, and that act of understanding is empathy. The current attitude with games is often player with systems of rules, and the value that arrives from that is a sort of systems thinking, to see cause and effect, to mentally bend problems as far as possible in order to see how this system works and to use it for their own devices. So, sure, we might be able to turn things into systems for people to game, and you can map a genome or something. The problem, and most of the serious games/games for change sector can tell you this, is getting people to care about the subject to which a system of placed on top of. People are playing the match 3 for recycling because they want to play a match 3, and the moment they don’t want to play a match 3 anymore, they are done with the experience. No real context is provided for people to create a connection and care.

This reminds me in particular about anna anthropy’s talk at Different Games’ inaugural event, “how to make games about being a dominatrix” and her mantra of CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING. She uses similar language, about how mainstream games are empathically challenged, using imagery of social issues as a top layer that is dressing for gaming a system. anna provides the comparison between Mighty Bomb Jack and her own Mighty Jill Off, that while the games are similar in their systems, the latter brings a context that allows the player to create a connection outside just gaming the rules. And this particular context is the kinky dynamic between a domme and her submissive.

Kink isn’t just a topical analogy, like for masocore games, it’s a good framework to challenge these contextless play experiences by reimagining the positions of the designer, player, and play, and what that means. The comparison between kink and games design isn’t that large of a leap, and anna talked about that as well at the Queerness and Games Conference a couple months after Different Games. I recommend you read through the transcript in full because she covers all the bases, but short and crude: dommes can stand in for the game design role as the person who is crafting an experience for the other, and that other being the submissive acquiesces control after negotiating with the domme the rules of the play session which acts both as the magic circle and systems of play. As she says in her talk, this sort of play is often transformative, it can be a safe place to explore not only yourself through rules and systems, but life and culture itself. In particular, I want to continue on the implications of the dominant being someone who receives submission, and the comparison of a designer being someone who receives play.

If we understand play as the exercising of empathy through engaging contexts, and kink as a type of play design that deeply confronts life contexts, then kink practices stand as a stronger model for engaging people with meaningful play than the overly instrumentalized and decontextualized outlook on games propagated by contemporary game design. Instead of games as objects to manipulate, kink shows bodies and minds in co-dependent situational contexts based completely on the participants’ relationship with the very real contexts of life. Play doesn’t need systems or rules to exist and be meaningful, it needs honest engagement with context. Mainstream games completely dodge dealing with reality and don’t allow people to actually experience the material being presented with. In contrast, see my games EAT and Mission. They aren’t encouraging people to figure out its juicy elegant systems to find the meaning of life; in actuality, most people look at them, get what it’s trying to say, and never want to play them. This is because we haven’t gotten used to the idea of play as confronting contexts, as empathy. They are painful games to play, but that is the only way to engage with the contexts being examined there. As kink shows, there isn’t pleasure without trial, without going through consensual pain.

And this is really important to me: the technophilia of games stymies this outlook on design. The ludic century isn’t one of play, but of VIDEO GAMES. Video games are preoccupied with tech progressivism and late capitalistic practices that bank on ripping the sutures between reality and play. WE ARE ALWAYS PLAYING. WE ARE ALWAYS IN CONTEXTS. CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING. Game design rarely uses the contexts and play of real life when trying to depict meaningful content. Valued video games are not challenging the construction and deployment of social systems to where people actually engage with and understand their place in it all. Games for social impact aren’t dropping players into safe spaces to experience the raw contexts of the material they wish to communicate. Video games whitewash the conversation of play through devaluing all other types of games and promoting its instrumentalizing methods of relation. Despite trying to take The Gender Issue seriously, what valued video games are honestly confronting players with the construction of gender and how it plays out in our society?

There is an experience arch of kink play that I think games of all kinds can reference to restitch their relationship to actual life contexts. I should say that I encourage you to explore the philosophies of kink more on your own to draw parallels, because this is a very personal and intimate practice, and what I’m describing isn’t necessarily a standard, rather, my own observations.

Consent: What separates kinky and vanilla sex for me is the active recognition of consent. Because of how our (I’m speaking as an American) culture works, we aren’t really supposed to talk about sex, rather, hop into a dark space with each other and hope for the best that the other knows what they’re doing. Consent is the process where you find out exactly what each other wants before you play, and acknowledgement of what you definitely don’t want to happen. What is consented to could typically be seen as mean, out of place, or degrading, but consent is its own context that allows play to be both affective and expressive. Video games tend to obfuscate the effect they will have on the player because of a perceived importance of content and entertainment value. If everyone knew exactly everything about the game and how it works, it would interfere with the typical model of selling games, where PR hypes up products and players go in trusting they will have a good experience. This does not allow for the cycle of wielding and receiving play between designer/game and player. We only have instrumentalized fun in mainstream games because context is hard to sell.

Scene: Just because there is consent doesn’t mean play is completely predicted, rather, the domme and sub have the same goals and will have their own ways of getting there. It is in the scene that the power dynamic is established and life contexts are introduced to play. This recognition is important as it mixes our culturally imbued traits with a certain relationship with power. A relationship between a non-cis multiracial dominant woman and a white cis submissive man carries powerful symbolic weight into play. The scene allows the players to be flooded with cultural contexts through kinky play, engaging with hyperbolized contexts through play. The power dynamic allows player get to that place where faux-egalitarianism in mainstream society cannot. They play these roles to deeply feel these contexts on their bodies, and through that, practice empathy. Typically valued games don’t take players deep into cultural contexts like this. The magic circles they draw are rarely for safe experimentation of real life contexts.

Aftercare: Play on this level is psychologically trying and a debriefing back into reality is needed for complete contextualization. The players were brought down to intense places commonly need reminders after play that they are a good, loved people no matter where the scene went within its consensual bounds. This allows all parties to clearly see the context of play juxtaposed against the context of their lives. Partners see themselves in the scene as a part of the whole identity, and aftercare aims to ease that transition process. It creates a moment for reflection and integration. It allows a person to complicate their views, complicate their identity. Mainstream games rarely afford us a debrief because they assume traversing in and out of play is simple. Leaving is as easy as turning off the TV, because you aren’t meant to feel much more besides bemusement or an evening’s worth of thoughts. These games don’t expect you to be transformed or touched by anything other than superficial storytelling devices.

All kinds of play can take place in contexts that mean something to us. Empathy isn’t just in the domain of queer art games, rather, it is endemic to play. It is this self-inflicted rupture between reality and play that blocks mainstream discourse from actively engaging in meaningful play outside of entertainment. Designers are far too complicit with instrumental play and its inability to make people are about the world when it’s not attached to the game. Technology and capital play too far of a deterministic role in how we talk and think about games and its existence in culture. I say we take a step back and recognize how we are engaging if life’s contexts with our own bodies and selves, how we gender, how we race, how we class, and elevate that kind of play when we look to create and critique games ourselves.

This article was community supported! Consider donating or being my patron so I can continue writing: Support

In Tongues

It was one of the first warmer days of spring. As much as there is a spring season in San Francisco. I was meeting a friend in SoMa, the sunniest part of the city and also one of the more visible sites of class warfare between trendy tech start-ups and the homeless. I rolled up my sleeves in vain hope to regain any semblance of a tan.

Sitting on distressed wood benches, my latest activities soon came around in the conversation. I expressed anxiety over becoming a fulltime developer and how that changes the kinds of games I can make. I’ve made conceptual pieces across different formats of play that aim to be as accessible as possible. Who cares about these games is telling: social justice spaces, art and academic circles. Outside of my friends, the press ignores my work and many indie spaces pass me over for some more familiar within those fields. If I was to make games my career, I would have to change.

Most of the peers I asked for advice pointed me towards Unity, the Twine of indie games if you will. I have a lot of problems with indie development culture, and Unity represents a lot of them. Mainly a buy-in to technological progression that steadily closes its gates to people outside of tech fields and devalues aesthetic expression not associated with contemporary ideas of polish. My mantra is to make games that others could feasibly make, to express myself after spending a short time with the tools. Coding, modeling, animation, these aren’t analogues for typing on a keyboard to write, putting pencil to paper to draw. When I made Mainichi, the tools had a low enough barrier for me to get my design out of my mind and working in the game. I’ve tried to code, and it is the most unnatural thing for me to do. It would only be a means to an end, not an active tool for expression. I don’t believe in the sentiment that wishes everyone should learn how to code, and applying that sentiment to games only furthers its homogeneity.

My friend, while I chomped on some sort of tex-mex salad, brought up a common critique of the DIY movement I’ve been wrangling with for a while: by rejecting the need to code, aren’t I restricted in what I can express by those who could? I probably made some mildly indignant reply, considering my entire life in this city feels subject to this gap in knowledge. But either way, he was right, and I didn’t have a good answer. When RPG Maker had a feature I didn’t want, I relied on community scripts to get rid of them. If I wanted to use Unity in a new and interesting way, I’d need someone else to do it for me if I don’t learn to code.

A couple weeks later, I was intrigued by Brandon Dillon’s mentality behind his project Hack ‘n’ Slash over at Double Fine. Instead of spreading the need to code, he thought instead we should be teaching people to hack. It was a more approachable and broad version of pleas for systems thinking education, and it encompasses a lot of what play is about. Hacking is a mentality instead of another language, it’s a way of understanding and relation instead of a whole other artform. It made me think about how there is a call for analyzing the code of games to extrapolate meaning, but not so much what the tools themselves are saying, and the conversation a creator is having with it. Coding aims to be total, to create everything in its entirety or to brute-force functionality into an already existent engine. If you look at the from-scratch tools many creators use for their games, they are completely utilitarian and specific to that game, often reported being a mess and not meant for anyone besides the creator. Hacking instead focuses on the partnership between a creator and their tools as separate agents with their own agendas. Like choosing a particular kind of brush for painting, a particular kind of lens for filming.

The irony for me is how much Hack ‘n’ Slash rests on gaming monoculture to communicate this players. When asked about using Zelda as an inspiration, Brandon said that’s his experience and therefore expression, and hopes other people would do similar things that would reach out to others. This sentiment left me conflicted. One of the reasons we have such an outreach problem in this field is because the culture of video games is one that turns many people away, and games like this ride on a nostalgia of the same demographic of people who’ve been playing, and probably entertained the idea of making, games already. The underlying feeling made sense though. Just because his experience is a commonly seen one doesn’t mean it can or should apply to everyone’s wishes, as I’ve seen people react to my work that way. After a few beers and whatever that French phrase is for having a weeks-late comeback, I argued with company that the solution is needing more weird, personal, accessible game-making tools. To broaden our artistic culture is to include people who make tools and give room for expression through them.

Tools already do this, though not intentionally or with a focus on being expressive of the tool author’s perspective. For instance, RPG Maker implies you will be making not only RPGs, but a very specific kind. It makes features that were common in popular 90s JRPGs easy to implement, whereas with Game Maker, creating a textbox is not a one-click affair. In Mainichi, I was able to speak to these JRPG conventions, but I don’t find commenting on genre the most interesting thing tool authors can do.

These more unique tools wouldn’t be all-purpose, not organized by genre but rather creating a world and seeing how other minds inhabit it. This could easily be extrapolated into a game analogy, where the tools are a set of rules, and the designer will express themselves through those rules that the tool maker could approximate to some degree, but overall wouldn’t dictate. This implies we’re already having conversations with our tools, but they might not be very interesting ones. I also imagine tools could start informing game design choices on a more visible level. For instance, games like Become a Great Artist in Just 10 Seconds and Patatap have inspired me on how to move away from the usual controls we give players without being completely arcane about it.

This interests me as a designer because of the added layer of communication and interpretation. The decision for what tool to use isn’t purely utilitarian anymore, and players could also view the tools to understand the game and is creation process. Implied by that is also accessibility, and it’s an important value. Ease of access is necessary both for the applicability for DIY artists and the players of those games. People wouldn’t need to know how to code in order to understand what happened, rather their hacking sensibilities would reverse engineer, toy with, and bend both game and tools to derive meaning.

I want to encourage the tool makers out there to jump in and participate in the DIY culture shift that is going on. Not even just participate, but help it grow and sustain itself. Right now, I see the pressures of mainstream games bearing down on us all. The games made from tools like Twine or Game Maker that look more like the mainstream are more likely to get respected, while others are quickly cast aside as unremarkable. That isn’t to say there isn’t any truth to either of those receptions. More this is all that can happen if we only have tools as a means to an end instead of another avenue for self-expression.

This article was community supported! Consider donating or being my patron so I can continue writing: Support

commune ity

i

like to tell this story.

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

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

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

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

we were something.

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

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

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

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

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

black. trans. women.

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

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

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

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

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

will i make it?

This article was community supported! Consider donating or being my patron so I can continue writing: Support

The Meritocracy of Video Games

I hate video games as much as the next person. Not necessarily the objects or the artistic form, but the institution of Video Games. The chimera of conventions and attitudes that, intentionally or not, gatekeeps what creations and people are valued. As Simon Parkin neatly outlines in this piece about gamers, who is called a gamer, who self-identifies as a gamer, and what the broader cultures surrounding games imagines a gamer to be are in conflict, most typically over gender and age. I feel like the nuance surrounding the angst of gamer identification is well covered by the time you read through Mary Hamilton’s defense of identifying as ‘gamer’ and Brendan Keogh’s splicing of the personal use of the term from how it is wielded in discourse. My personal opinion is to eject the concept of gamer into the cold unforgiving vacuum of space, but that is neither here nor there.

Simon’s philosophical argument, because unfortunately people don’t find the moral imperative of ‘discrimination is bad’ good enough these days, rests in his belief that game spaces are egalitarian and intrinsically accepts and treats everyone the same. Hence, how gamer culture is often exclusionary based on social identity is dissonant with the basic accepting nature of games. I’m going to contend with this, especially because my game appears (gratefully! surprisingly!) as an example of educating from within games. The surrounding rhetoric reminds me of the utopia-spinning of late, neo-meritocracy through technology. This usually comes in around the problematic viewpoint of games ultimately being a creative expression of math, and that numbers don’t discriminate between players.

Game design is political. Not just the field (that’s another minefield to go through), but the designs that makes up each game. How a game allows a person to interact with it is extremely loaded with discriminatory politics, because they are usually made for particular players in mind. Simon gets to this in his piece, games are often made for gamers. Who are gamers? What do gamers know and like? What is the usual canon of games for gamers? I want to add onto what Simon seems to be implying: not only do we need to stop the stereotype perpetuated by assuming people who play games are ‘gamers’ at our events and in the representational aspects of our games, but we also need to interrogate how, even if all of these were solved, games assume a certain kind of player is playing it.

The most apparent angle is that of gamer literacy. Controllers are a learned convention, so is WASD, as well as game genres like shooters, RPGs, platformers, RTSs, and so are all the references to geek culture. I bring these up specifically because even though games are played by a very diverse demographics, the game industry makes an effort to separate ‘real games’ aka ‘hardcore games’ from the rest, where the gamer identity is formed. Companies making those games and the people who have the most voice are the stereotype of gamers, a stereotype catered to for at least 20 years that would have a strong knowledge of game conventions. What is good in games comes from the iterative response from a small group of interests, and our current engagement with play is accosted by this fundamentalism. If we want the ‘gamer’ out of games, we need to address what we consider to be good design and how it is informed by the gamer paradigm. A lot of blame rests with the media, which is hesitant to dig into and highlight non-commercial games and smaller projects that explore past the usual models of play. The media plays a huge part in games being included in any discourse, and looking at what’s covered (this isn’t directed at Simon), no wonder everyone, including the public, thinks games are in-club toys. When games like Candy Crush Saga or The Sims are brought up, it’s only because of the profit they’ve made and not why they are great models of design. For instance, imagine if video games took to The Sims as a model to iterate on instead of Halo or GTA III. Maybe 60-second loops of fun and player agency wouldn’t be so central?

Things like explicit goals, conflict, combat, fun, empowerment, points, achievements, and systems feel required in order to make a good game. How often are designers questioning how we got here and where these values come from? This is when my game Mainichi is a useful example. The topic is novel, unfortunately, but I don’t think that’s the most interesting part about it, or at least in what it contributes to design. I’ll sum it up in an anecdote: after its release, some teachers taught Mainichi in their classes. They were a mix of classes, game design, gender, media studies, etc. There was a split in reception of the game distinctly on the lines of whether the class was dominated by gamers or non-gamers. Gamers questioned whether Mainichi was a game, implying it was bad for failing to live up to their idea of what a game entails. They disliked the lack of goals, little to no ‘action,’ lo-fi yet not retro graphics. To classes with mostly non-gamers, students found my game as a new way of engaging with a person, building empathy. They adopted a bit of my mentality and viewed the world in my perspective. The point for them wasn’t to necessarily accomplish anything, but to understand. It’s because my goal was to say something personal to the player, and if someone doesn’t view games as something for communication, they are not going to engage with it that way. It seems to me that gamers are more likely to dismiss artistic expression in games than non-gamers. All games aren’t designed for equality nor played on equal grounds. I don’t think Mainichi is that complex or groundbreaking, but it sticks out because it steps outside of the design paradigm that we use for games. However, it is rarely covered in the news and didn’t receive critical analysis outside of smaller blogs. Similar games that are pushing boundaries of how we think of design share the same fate, not to mention non-video games that are often ignored in this conversation.

To look at the universality of games, we’ve have to step outside of mainstream video games and discourse. I think meritocracy is usually a veil for privilege, which it is in this case. Video games are escapes made for certain kinds of people, and others can join if they can put up with it. I think this deserves more conversation, especially in public. Do we want games to be accessible to everyone? To be a general artform and media to experience? We have to do more than calling ourselves something different, we have to extract the baked in assumptions of how we design and speak about games. The reason video games can be so nasty is because they aren’t often seen as personal works of the creators’ with their attitudes and perspective on display. They are a reflection of the self, or the team or company. Change starts with self-reflection, and how we individually affect games, good and bad.

This article was community supported! Consider donating or being my patron so I can continue writing: Support

Thinking on Local Game Making Communities

Have you ever thought about what your local play and games culture is like? It might not be an intuitive question or process to find the answer, but through speaking in different cities and countries, I’ve found that locales have their own particular attitude towards games. This is particularly true for rise in recognition of non-video games as we move forward exploring (and rediscovering) the medium of play. My ultimate aim in bringing this up is a call for more localized recognition of game making and playing communities to resist the whitewashing dominant narratives we have today. I outlined what I think that narrative is last week, and now I want to muse about what I’ve noticed contributes to a play culture and what we benefit from being so community-specific.

I think my relationship with San Francisco’s scene provides both a good summary and starting point for examining what effects game making culture. Or, I should say there isn’t really one unified community like there is in other places, rather a bunch of small groups working on their own. This has to do with how the Bay Area works overall, that people tend to not spend much free time outside of work and their side projects, to which they often have many. It also has to do with some social dynamics between San Francisco, East Bay, and Silicon Valley, that is, it is rare people visit other areas on a whim and this is often because of classism and racism. Speaking broad strokes, most of our solo or small team developers live in the East Bay where it’s cheaper to live, and bigger teams or those who work for social and AAA gaming studios live in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. It is hard to get people to cross the bay bridge, especially if they don’t go there for work. East Bay developers that come to mind are mostly known for challenging work in personal expression and radical activism, and a general anti-mainstream kind of development. Silicon Valley, by contrast, is a bastion for AAA development along with some social game companies in the city. San Francisco has the whole range of what usually goes under ‘indie,’ from small startups to Double Fine, and from what I can tell (it isn’t a whole cohesive scene yet) they are products of post-mainstream development. What’s often ignored is, for the lack of a better term, a public games scene, because they often don’t include video game technology in their games. They span from physical games, ARGs, theater games, big games, and so on. Basically, they tend to be multiplayer, quick, quirky, and outside. All of these borders, of course, are fuzzy and not absolute. GDC is the only event that would have a chance to have all these groups get together in one place to talk about games, but because it’s preoccupied being they world’s conference instead of San Francisco’s, it can’t serve this function. Most of these groups stay separated or are excluded, namely the public games people and those who can’t afford and don’t have the connections to attend. And I should also say this is only what I’ve observed and there are also less recognized or organized play spaces that I didn’t mention, such as sports culture. There is also something to be said about the media presence in the Bay Area, but I don’t exactly know what that might do here other than maybe emphasize the mainstream presence, though some do attend the smaller events.

Now that’s a lot despite being a bunch of generalizations, but it’ll be useful for comparisons. It’s possible that all of the Bay Area’s groups are just separate communities that should stay apart, but I think if we did gather, a culture and attitude would eventually crop up. One pattern for cross-pollination seems to me is the presence of games academia. Despite having some problems of its own, game programs tend to provide free neutral zones for all kinds of developers by hosting events while also bringing along a bit of their culture as well. I’m thinking of schools like NYU, Parsons, MIT, Copenhagen, USC. When I visited UCSC down in Santa Cruz, I asked Michael Mateus how he would sum up the culture of the program there. He said something along the lines of developing new technologies for innovative game making, especially when it comes to narrative. I noticed a lot of the students I spoke to were invested in exploring this potential, finding inspiration in projects like Mateus’ Facade to interactive fiction programs. Similar kinds of focuses exist at other schools, and they bleed into the local game making community, as they are also influenced by the outside. A cohesive group of indies supporting other indies is another site for community, usually in cities that don’t have a strong industry or academic presence. Austin, Toronto, and Melbourne come to mind, where I see developers with co-working spaces and a more relaxed culture that allows them to gather more frequently than in a place like San Francisco. Also, strangely enough, there are some media-led communities like what I witnessed in Amsterdam and heard about in Tokyo. There are other combinations and nothing is as simple as I put it here, but I think understanding how people gather can say something about the values of that particular community. San Francisco doesn’t have a strong presence of any of these things, mostly a little of everything, which might contribute to why we have such a disparate community.

Why go through all the trouble of pointing out the differences in these communities? Because I think it’s a good solution for some ground-level diversification of games as a whole. Instead of answering to some larger phenomena, like a neutral mainstream development, we can look at the people around us, the city and country we live in, and the spaces we inhabit for a source in identification. It would allow San Francisco to re-embrace its public games history and fold it into all the other game making going on, and also have cities that don’t have a strong consumer game development hub to gather and organize. We need more different events celebrating local culture rather than a few central ones. With diversity, we can see what is and isn’t general problems and attitudes in the medium overall. What’s front and center in my mind is my trip to GCAP in Australia, where I had a unanticipated culture shock when it came to game development. I learned more thoroughly of how the abandonment of American-based companies devastated Australian development, and now there is this survival, independent narrative. It was strange for me to hear most developers consider themselves indie despite making games that looked pretty mainstream to me. But to that community, industry is the United States, the unspoken center of video games. We hoard a lot of the resources and education, and our machinations have affected other countries. In a sense, game development and design as we know it might be American in itself, and whole other kinds of theory and practice would come out of (or probably already exist!) a focus on locality outside the US. I think there are some forms of this, like mainstream Japanese development style, Korean MMOs, Eastern European games. I am interested in having more international responsibility and respect seeing we have such a hold on games right now.

All of this doesn’t even tap into the play cultures of communities outside of game making. I’m sure there is research I can lookup for this, and will most likely do if I continue my education in games, but for now, I’m thinking of like east asian video game sports, lower socio-economic groupings around fighting games, dating sim otakus, sports in cultures that don’t have wide access to digital games, children’s games, etc. A connection with what the community is playing, even if it’s not video games, should also factor into this locality movement of game making. Or really, they should feed into each other, being community inspired games for the community, which can also be played by the world. Because, as a creator, what shapes you more than your surroundings? I can’t think of a better way games can contribute to culture as a whole as something else besides escape fantasies for dudes.

So this is a call for people to start thinking of their own community of game making and play, and how to distill that from just a general conceptualization of games. Mostly, some communities need to take responsibility for dominating discourse, and others need the resources and encouragement to have a voice of their own. I can’t possibly know everything about any community, even here for which I’ve only been present a year and a half. It’d be great if you all could write in on what you think defines your community, whether I listed it here or not. Ping me on Twitter (@xMattieBrice) or email (mattie.brice@gmail.com).

This article was community supported! Consider donating or being my patron so I can continue writing: Support

End the Video Supremacy of Games

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was community supported! Consider donating or being my patron so I can continue writing: Support

The Dadification of Video Games is Real

(Spoilers about The Last of Us, Bioshock: Infinite, and The Reapers Are the Angels)

I recently watched a Lets Play of The Last of Us, because god forbid I play a shooter ever again in my life. But I do like to keep up with what’s going on and what people are buzzing on about. Something super interesting to me was how similar it was to Bioshock: Infinite, which I also watched. I feel like they really succinctly capture the stage games are going through in reaction to contemporary ideals for the medium: both of the protagonists are older and fathers, both have daughter-role side-kicks, both had news stories about cover art about said daughters, both wanted to deal with mature topics, both had demonized non-white radical activists.

Where TLoU diverges from BS:I might be completely unintentional, but I feel like it stands as a ‘fuck you’ to this aging gamer/game developer population of men trying to keep their killing sprees and titillation while requesting to be taken seriously as creators and players.

The game might have been going for otherwise, but I found Joel to be a straight-up bad person. He’s not complicated, morally gray, or whatever. He’s just a selfish asshole much like many protagonists in video games, and everything that happens in the game is for his benefit. This is evidenced by the final scene, where it’s obvious Ellie wanted to give her life to the cause, and the only reason she is alive is because Joel finally came around to wanting to work on being a good human being who wanted a second chance at having a daughter. Unfortunately, that meant putting aside everyone else’s wants and needs for his own whims: aka an asshole. The audiologs that suggest there were other failed experiments were a weak attempt to complicate his stance; nothing’s complicated, Joel was looking for any excuse to get what he wanted, to the peril of many other people.

The thing is, we are shown time and time again that Ellie is more than capable of taking care of herself. In fact, she does a better job of taking care of them both because Joel can’t get over his pride and general asshattery. Viewing this entire game as a critique, it’s telling you play Ellie when Joel is out of commission and can’t see her be awesome. It’s also telling that her identity-specific drama is surrounded by rape imagery and the actual threat of rape, because right now that seems to be the main way developers get drama out of their women characters. We don’t end Ellie’s chapter with a new insight really, because we always knew she could take care of herself. This makes Joel’s intrusion to the scene even more bitter because you know the game is going back to focus on him just after a girl survived attempted rape.

There is a post-apocalyptic fiction story called The Reapers are the Angels, which has a girl protagonist in a zombie infected world. Like Ellie, she was born after the apocalypse, so this is the only world she knew. And I noticed many differences in how the narrative allowed them to exist, despite both being extremely capable people; Ellie still had a sense of the old world and seemed to be pretty informed of gender roles, when Temple (the main character of the book) occupies what we’d consider an ambiguous space, because traditional women’s gender roles directly impose with survival. Where Ellie was written in a way to inform players of game elements, it really infantilized her when she is pretty much more mature than Joel. Temple also faced attempted rape, but it was near the beginning of the book, and it itself didn’t phase her too much. What rape represented was something she was unfamiliar with; old patriarchal domination. And throughout the book, the brother of her rapist hunts her to avenge his murder, even though he knows it was wrong. Rape wasn’t used to show that Temple was weak and vulnerable, but to show how she differed from the old ways of our current contemporary society. Ellie, on the other hand, had an attempted rape scene just as we give up control of her to ultimately serve as a bonding moment to further Joel’s character arch. This is the same for his daughter in the beginning of the game; you are meant to feel vulnerable and scared as a little girl, innocent to everything going on, and have that emotional buy-in when she’s killed. But her death has little to do with her, rather, to explain why Joel is the way he is. It’s a dad’s version of fridging a girlfriend at the beginning of a game; the more ‘mature’ option is to kill a daughter.

Basically, our audience and developers are getting older, but are still not observant of how they make all other types of people serve them for their character growth. For some reason, we think making people assholes who might change to be nice one day morally complicated. All of this reminds me of when we talk about gun violence, and how much older men still sound like 18-year-olds with how much they still need video games to serve their specific purposes. TLoU was most likely not a comment on the dadification of games, but it stands as a great artifact to talk about it.

Triptychs

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

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

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

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

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

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

what is a game?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

what is personal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, mami, how much?”

I knew what he meant. I kept walking.

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

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

“How much mami, I can pay it.”

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

I’ve never told this story before.

what is

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

Postpartum: Mainichi – How Personal Experience Became a Game

There is a movement. A movement that says “You can too.” It is growing in size, accessibility, and voice. Game design is, and always has been, for everyone, but the narrow path the industry took blocked off many peoples’ opportunity to join in on this artistic revolution. It’s assumed you must have the best graphics, know how to code, have the money to develop a game that can speak to the world.

I only know life with computers and video games in them. My father is a programmer and shared a love for technology with his children. I grew up surrounded by games and, naturally, wanted to make them. But my father never passed down the skill to code, and I never realized how important programming fit into making a game until I tried making them years later. Coding became a monster; I couldn’t get it and felt my creative energy dissipate every time I tried to learn. I entered university believing game design wasn’t for me and gave up on that dream to join the industry.

But now, I’ve come full circle. The industry badly needs to diversify and there’s still roadblocks. Publisher model game development is choked by putting profit above all else, and the monochromatic landscape of non-AAA development still values methods that require monetary investment and a previous buy-in to programming culture that many of us just don’t have. Despite this, I still had something to say, or rather, something I didn’t know how to say. I had something I needed others to play.

This is how Mainichi was born. It was an experiment in translating a personal experience into game mechanics, and also a push to prove to myself that I can make a game, even if the video game industry wouldn’t accept me. I want Mainichi to be a call to arms, a triumph of the personal. I made a game that only I could make, and I’m hoping this exercise empowers others to express a life that is uniquely theirs.

Choosing Vocal Chords

The biggest roadblock I had to overcome was choosing the program I would use to make my game. I asked for suggestions, consulted lists, and tried out many to no avail. I ran into many bumps; usually, the more free and open source something is, the more programming is integral to the making process. Though, some did come with their own scripting language that was easier to learn and a viable method for those who aren’t completely code-phobic like I am. Many of the more popular game makers are primed for certain types of games, like shooters or platformers. Looking to make something akin to an adventure game, the obtuse methods to simple get someone walking across the screen on a level plane and generating a textbox from an NPC were quick to grate my nerves.

If there was something I learned, it’s the increasing amount of tools for people to use all assume different competencies, wants, and conventions. Authoring programs are prepared for certain users, and make it easy or difficult to do particular things. This isn’t simply a practical thing to know, but political. Many programs assume you have the privilege, tastes, and wants of the hegemonic man. However, some of these tools come with communities that make it easier to subvert this assumption, and is, in particular, something I encourage others to factor in when choosing a program for themselves. Here is what I came up with for myself and the needs I perceived I needed for my game ideas:

*Programming unnecessary or extremely minimal/optional
*No to low cost
*Made it simple or easy for me to use textboxes, characters, variables, cutscenes
*Has an active enough community to provide custom content

These and other factors contributed to me picking RPG Maker VX, despite its price tag. Mostly, my personal disposition and skills overcame the cost for it after not feeling compatible with all my other options- I was familiar with the toolset already, had the skills to edit its art assets enough for my own devices, and most of my ideas would benefit from the assumption of an RPG/adventure game being made. There were narrow expectations about the kind of game I wanted to make inside those conventions, but there was room to subvert these paradigms. As an aside, RPGMVX does have a cheaper sibling, RPGMXP, that I ended up not choosing because I had the familiarity with the former. However, for those new to both and interested in using them, XP is as viable, just for different reasons. I think others can find similar, free programs and still do what I did with Mainichi, RPGMVX just happened to be right for me.

Training My Voice

It’s easy to have a story or an idea. What makes a game significant is its designed experience. Coming into this experiment, I knew that current attempts of doling out social awareness just through story devices plainly didn’t work. I had to choose methods of design to communicate the feelings of my experience to the player, because otherwise I could simply point them to an essay I’ve done. I would say Mainichi lets someone feel rather than tells them what to feel. It’s a key difference to create empathy instead of telling the player what’s right to think.

If this experiment is judged successful, I think it will be because of my philosophy of being hyper-personal, or like what my colleague Jenn Frank says is “alarmingly specific.” This applied not only to the topic but the design as well; I wanted to draw upon my ideas about sociology, postmodern art, ludonarrative resonance, and diversity politics in video games and have them influence the way the player interacted with the rules. I wanted this game to be dripping with the intersection of all of my influences, and create a new way of looking at design as a byproduct. I think for a personal piece like this to work, you have to speak to the world in general through a very specialized perspective.

How to design a game for social good is a fraught question. It’s difficult to position the player in a way that doesn’t have them exploit the minority and unknowingly replicate the problematic ideologies the game set out to defeat. This is why I stressed reactivity of the system and eliminated min/maxing of any sort. When you look at the system as a metaphor for society, the suffering that happens to the character doesn’t become something the player enables but joins ranks against.

There is something to be said about being too referential in a game, but I decided to be extremely so. I made the character after my likeness and named them after myself, I have a Japanese title, there’s a Dragon Age II cameo, etc. However, everything does have a personal link to add to the aesthetic and ‘meaning’ of the piece. Since the game is essentially interacting with a system, it could be replicated with numbers and without any sort of cultural representation. So it felt right to imbue as much of the game with my personal easter eggs because the game won’t make complete sense without the meta-awareness of how it fits in. And really, all games that try to mean something have to do that as well.

Speaking

I also recognized there would be audiences for my game, but no ‘perfect player.’ There is no one person that can absorb everything this game is meant to do. I’m not even the perfect player for my game. Rather, I knew that it would be released to the world and many people of different relationships to games would play it, including those who don’t game at all. So my game doesn’t have a target audience like many other games, and I didn’t have a genre in mind when making the game. However, I was aware of the different expectations people would bring to my game.

A lot of this game is speaking to the game development community. It is a community that finds making a game about minority issues near-impossible, so I ended up making one in about a week. There are also different paths for it to be analyzed, genealogy-wise, and one could see Mainichi as an offspring of Dys4ia and Passage. From Dys4ia I am intentionally making my game political through the personal, merely repeating the idea in a different format to diversify how we see, define, and interface with games. Another game in this lineage would be Merritt Kopas’ LIM, which also relies on mechanics replicating emotional experiences. I also see Mainichi as a critique to Passage in this regard; just because this isn’t AAA development doesn’t mean the types of games coming out of the indie scene aren’t dominated by heterosexual white men’s narratives. I want the community to know that some people don’t have the luxury of mulling over something as long term and general as the passage of life towards death or saving the world. Some of us have to worry for our physical safety every day we leave the house, some of us will live and die unequal citizens in a system that doesn’t care; the street scene in Mainichi hopes to be referential to the design of Passage for the community of developers that care about that sort of design canon.

Because of the look and that it is in fact made with an RPG Maker, I knew some players would be bringing the baggage that comes along with RPGs. I also have quite a lot to say about RPGs, how I think they are evolving, and my answer to ‘what is an RPG.’ So I specifically highlighted certain conventions, like choice, time management, NPCs, cause/effect, multiple paths to the end goal. I then proceeded to flip the expectations players would have with elements; the choices you make aren’t epic or demarcated by a clear morality, the player is taught to avoid as much interaction as possible, and the player will be depressed looking for the ‘good’ ending. Mainly, I find RPGs abstract things so we can interact with them, an exercise in turning something qualitative into a system. The player gains empathy through my attempt of abstracting how people gender me, and allowed the player to experiment in the system to realize the experiences I’ve been through.

Outside of the highbrow stuff, I wanted to communicate an experience that I couldn’t do with words alone. Ultimately, this could be a project in telling my best friend why I was often depressed despite the good intentions of my support group. Similarly, I wanted players with cisgender privilege to also empathize with one aspect of having a queer gender or presentation. It can also serve as a tool for a trans* person to share with their friends if they have the same trouble explaining like I did.

You Can Too

A huge reason I made Mainichi was to say that, yes, anyone can make a game of critical merit. You don’t have to be a programmer, you don’t need a whole bunch of disposable income, be on a triple digit design team, or a part of the indie in-crowd. The important thing is to know game design is something everyone has the capacity to work on, and the implementation into a program is the hard part.

This is important to note because video games aren’t the only types of games there are: I am currently working on a card game that will allow players to simulate and interrogate the dynamics of a first date or sex. In addition, as The Border House has already shown, there are also non-traditional formats of digital games that beg to be used and experimented with, like Twine and Ren’py. What I think a lot of the non-AAA developers forgot was that one leaves the publisher model behind in order to do something different. I’ve seen many failed projects because so many want to make the next Final Fantasy with RPG Maker and don’t see the dissonance in politics concerning that. Instead, take part in diversifying not only the characters and stories we see in games, but how we fundamentally interact with them as a whole.

Must I Say Goodbye?: Leaving Behind jRPGs

Nothing makes me more uncomfortable than talking about jRPGs. What exactly does the term mean, and am I okay with that? The idea of Japanese RPGs vs. Western RPGs seems like a false dichotomy. Rather, it’s just jRPGs vs. everything else, perpetuating a style and audience that “others itself” from its sibling genres. What bothers me the most, though, is how relatively unchanged this genre of gaming is from 20 years ago. There have definitely been advances in technology and a greater breadth of writing, but just how much jRPGs currently rely on nostalgia to succeed isn’t a difficult argument to make.

jRPGs are an ode to the fans. They seem determined to recreate that special place for a very particular group of people at a certain time in video game history. Nostalgia doesn’t feel like living, however. It’s that familiar ghost of pleasant feelings without much thinking—nice to reminisce about—but a corpse to drag around if you cling to it. That’s how jRPGs feel to me now, a weight that I constantly rationalize carrying. I just feel too old for them now, grown past the usual tropes and mechanics. This is because jRPGs only earn such a title and standing by including a large amount of conventions from a niche of games, and if you mess with that formula too much, a game drops outside of the tastes of the fanbase.

In a sense, jRPGs represent a lot of what’s wrong with video games. Namely, things being there just because. Many of these titles advertise 60+ hours of gameplay, but a lot of that time is spent grinding levels and includes other filler tactics. The numerous cutscenes would be worth it if they were something other than the usual young genki girl flirting with the dismissive and brooding protagonist. Again. jRPGs are actually embarrassing to play now, as evidenced by the many sheepish smiles and explanations that I had to give my friends when they walked in on me playing Tales of Graces f.

Short of destroying genre lines entirely, I think that these games could revitalize a once high demand sector of video games. The later installments of the Shin Megami Tensei: Persona series—and Altus games overall—have garnered wide attention. Persona 3 and 4 captured my own attention in a way that I’d consider indentured servitude if it meant that Persona 5 would soon be within my grasp. Those games obviously pander to the same crowd by choosing a setting common to a lot of anime (a Japanese high school) but also explore themes and mechanics that we don’t commonly see in jRPGs. All of the main characters are nuanced characters and resist the stereotypical roles that other games would have shoved them into, and the games themselves have a macabre overtone. The Persona series might stick to the usual aesthetics of the jRPG, but the themes have matured with the crowd following the series instead of transporting them to the past. While saving the world is a part of it, Persona 3’s main allure is exploring the strength of interpersonal ties and what it means to live. In its sequel, you’re solving a murder mystery and entertaining LGBT issues with some of your party members. These aren’t topics that you’d find in your favorite SNES RPGs and their predecessors. This doesn’t devalue jRPG classics, but rather implies their time has come and gone.

Ultimately, the context surrounding Final Fantasy XIII-2 describes what feels like the drawn out death of a genre. Artistic risks are treated with extreme disdain and the most blatant fan service is encouraged. Games are just another arrangement of the same mechanics alongside a thin story that barely justifies their presence, and aren’t we past that? Given the hyperactive cycle of the game industry, fans eventually are going to get bored of playing the same ol’ thing, especially when other genres are adapting jRPG elements to fit into their own arsenals. That might describe how I’m feeling about jRPGs now, bored and slightly disgusted. Developers will find themselves scrambling (if they aren’t already) when fans abandon their monopoly on a tradition.

I think that jRPGs can be saved by risky behavior, as I see Persona 3 and 4 as large, smart risks. Dating sim and dungeon crawler? Nothing like what we’ve seen before and each iteration of the series opens up new possibilities for the interaction of these qualities. We hear about how the inclusion of minorities would alienate the player base, but the opposite actually happened with Kanji and Naoto in Persona 4. Instead, there was discussion about figuring out one’s sexuality and how the culture that a person lives in changes their relationship to gender. jRPGs have the maneuverability to pull off some out-there content, which Atlus consistently proves. While other RPGs struggle with immersing the player in a photorealistic fantasy world, jRPGs are inherently equipped to produce highly stylized, pleasantly bizarre head-trips. Unfortunately, looking at the jRPGs that have cropped up over the past few years, I see little evidence of breaking old habits. So I guess it’s goodbye for now.

Dear Esther, We’re Moving Past Story

There seems to be a couple of conversations that just won’t die. At any given moment in the discussion on how we are to consider games, someone is choosing their position on whether the rules of the game matter or the narrative in a game, while another decides if a particular video game is even a game or not. While there is value in any critical thinking, it’s curious writers still feel they have something to add to conversations that always dissolve into some sort of nihilism.

We have smart pieces like Leigh Alexander’s “Tale Spin” that continue to tiptoe towards the edge away from these questions, taking sure but frustratingly small steps (“Opinion: Tale Spin”, Edge, 19 March 2012). In the essay, she moves past the allure of equating everything noble about games to their capability to tell stories, batting away shadows that still linger of the “but other mediums…” attitude.

Her article ends with a shrug, considering an alternative way to look at games, but it also offers an insight that she might have not seen coming: storytelling in games has never followed the methodology of other mediums. The moments that Alexander mentions are especially poignant to players, and we’ll never get past this conversation if we continue to see storytelling in games as being like the traditional story elements that we recognize in other mediums and not as the moments of experience that games often engender.

A recent victim of the “legitimacy police” is Dear Esther, unable to catch a break from one armchair opinion to the next. It’s also a game that fails to produce much when assessed by its story and not its narrative design. The narration is one of many elements that the game offers, but players rarely move past it to analyzing its storytelling methods. In actuality, Dear Esther is about encountering many poetic moments while simply walking through a space. Listening to a speaker is only part of some of those moments. It is the change in visual details on a second run through that causes the player to doubt themselves and others.

These moments when the player questions their memory and realizes that this isn’t the same walk that they took before is how Dear Esther tells its story. For some reason, we’re quick to throw out the interactive element of in much of storytelling that existed long before video games. From bards weaving epic tales for an audience to a child in our own century interjecting their thoughts and questions into a tale told at bedtime, stories have been mutable and dependent on those involved in telling and listening to them. Video games reinvent this idea by using game mechanics as a method for the player to internalize the narrative, a method in which their personal disposition interacts with and changes the story. In essence, Dear Esther is provocative because the interaction takes place within the player and not superficially within the game.

In a sense, Dear Esther puts most games that feature walking as an activity to shame. It critiques games that use innumerable amounts of game mechanics to communicate experience. It achieves much with just one. It is the next game in the line of great level design in which the Half Life series resides. Dear Esther implies that every game with walking in them can achieve the moments that it does, and that there is something to aspire to. This is because we commonly see the narrative experience as merely story, stock plot, characters, and setting used as a vague excuse to explain why the player is hitting monsters and mixing items. While Dear Esther has a narrator, he only creates a sense of linearity to subvert it on a second playthrough, which ties into how the game gives the player moments to experience. That’s the purpose of all of the game’s elements: the visual design, heavily limited actions, and changing details. There is no fat in Dear Esther because everything in it aims at doing one thing and that is allowing the player to internalize these moments.

Alexander is right. Games like Mass Effect 3 and Tales of Graces f will not be the highest form of video games as stories. They rely too much on story to provide an experience and rarely allow the player to internalize moments. Video games are still in a position in which storytelling remains a spectacle and is regarded only in a superficial manner. If the medium’s storytelling is assessed through the narrative structure that allows players to feel these moments, then narrative in games isn’t something that you take or leave but is integral to a game’s experience. Dear Esther’s public recognition allows us to make a paradigm shift towards recognizing how video games do it differently and to build upon the first steps of exploring the medium’s capabilities even further. So let’s do it.

Fans, Capitalism, and Mass Effect 3’s Ending. Oh My.

How can something like this happen? My finger begins to cramp from scrolling through all the screaming and virtual facepalming over the Mass Effect 3 ending debacle on Twitter. I eventually felt pressured to race through the game just to see what was going on. While I didn’t like the ending, it was for completely different reasons than all the petitions and flash floods of protests on BioWare’s forums. Most importantly, the nature of the ending didn’t surprise me; it felt completely natural given the structure of the series, which let me personalize the experience but not dictate anything major. The only way someone could be so genuinely upset enough to demand refunds and reparations is if they weren’t aware what kind of game they were playing. However, facing claims of false advertisement and deception, is BioWare at fault for dissonance between its marketing and actual product? Why this conflict exists is layered but predictable, product of many issues in the game industry that we let fester and explode.

Let’s Start with Some Snobbery

First, how can someone be upset with Mass Effect 3’s ending to such an uproar? There’s a usual expectation that endings of any medium stand a risk of being unsatisfying, with a usual negative response “meh, that ending sucked.” I saw this attitude mostly with other game writers and developers, who split on whether or not they liked the ending but didn’t seem surprised or shocked that it existed. Being a part of videogame development and media also distances a person from mass marketing because they are more aware of the relationship PR serves to the process of a game getting sold. So when advocates claim betrayal because the marketing doesn’t match the product, it shows these players have an investment to the culture that surrounds the game crafted by the company. They look back on the series and see BioWare’s catchphrases, everything as a result of their choices and personal stories. Players started to romance the brand of Mass Effect, especially as BioWare became more responsive to its fans.

A critical eye can see that the Mass Effect series does not put player agency at the forefront of the narrative. I mean narrative as the structure and method of how a player experiences game, with only one aspect being the story. Having played the first two games multiple times with varying character and story goals, I went into Mass Effect 3 knowing there was little I was actually influencing. One way to look at what is actually going on is the player brings nuance to the epic story that is Shepard. The ending transcends Shepard from hero to legend, and legends lack nuance. We know the general events, such as saving the Citadel from Sovereign and defeating the Collectors, when it comes to legends, but what the hero was actually like is left to our imaginations. In a sense, Mass Effect 3’s ending clued us in that the player was merely filling in the details this whole time.

The narrative structure of the series never allowed players to change or influence large events in the game; no matter what, someone has to die on Virmire, Sovereign will be overcome despite saving the Council or not, the Collectors will abduct your team and you will watch someone be processed into the human Reaper. There is only one large story choice the player has, and that’s killing their Shepard at the end of Mass Effect 2. The narrative doesn’t allow the player to interact enough with the story to change it radically, only determine some minor details. That’s not to say Mass Effect is a bad series or failed at this, but it clearly doesn’t match what the fans thought the series was all about. These fans are upset that the ending only added nuance to Shepard’s final action, unaware that’s what was going on the entire time. BioWare’s misstep was hyping up this player-centric rhetoric and thinking the simple addition of a dialogue choice was what the fans wanted.

Money is Our Weapon and Hostage

Obviously, there are hobbyists who wrote out their analysis and feelings in an eloquent manner, but the vast majority (at least $80,000 worth) relied on what they perceive to be consumer rights to challenge BioWare. All of us have witnessed this when shopping or eating, when exchanging money for goods, there’s also a power relation where the customer gets as much as they want out of the transaction, including undue respect and service. We really shouldn’t be surprised about this reaction, because it’s endemic to a capitalist culture. Ever heard of “the customer is always right”? It’s now a subconscious mantra that manifests whenever we are displeased in a retail space. However, there is no law that states the customer is forever correct, it’s just many companies enact differing levels of this concept. This is the same with the videogame industry, companies ultimately bending to every whim of the player as long as they are a paying customer. A good fan is one that pays, and they can throw as many tantrums as they want as long as they keep paying. So the system is really what’s at fault here; fans are acting in such an extreme manner because of an ingrained “I give you money and you give me whatever I want” attitude, and companies’ customer service allows fans to be as vile as they want as long as they continue to give them money.

It’s not a secret that the main goal of AAA games is to make money, and “pleasing fans” seems like a great way to make money on paper. This relationship now structures the video game community, with companies and fans trying to figure out how to get as much as they can out of one another, always in some form of money. Mass demand shapes development and media cycles, building up a game with intense hype until it releases, then forgetting about it a couple weeks later. This is why this movement used money as a way to threaten BioWare; they insisted on refunds, raised money to show their financial influence, and tapped into that customer-merchant relationship to imply BioWare owed them something because they paid money. BioWare has visibly become more “whatever you want, fans” by changing their attitude from epic storytelling to compelling action, including modes to satisfy non-RPG fans, and having the masses decide on a canon look for the default woman Shepard. Many decisions aimed to catch more fans while keeping current ones satisfied. The artistic direction the series goes comes into conflict with this, because in the end, videogames are art with creative people making them. There’s often a line between doing something for money and making something for art’s sake. The media is particularly interested in this tension, quick to explain why they think BioWare should or should not modify the game in any way. BioWare tried to stuff their face with cake, but not anymore than most videogame companies. The problem lies in the genuine creativity and progressive nature the company seems to have constantly being at odds with its financial relationship to a demanding audience. They should have seen it coming with the community’s reaction to Dragon Age II and how an artistic expression was ultimately ignored because it didn’t directly serve their customers’ expectations.

The End of the World as We Know It

There are already the typical sky-falling predictions on both sides of the argument. If BioWare stands up for their product and tells fans to deal with it, they hold no value for those who support them. Decide to change the game in reaction to the fans, lose all artistic integrity. Many journalists disparage the fans for feeling entitled to their game, but participate in a media culture that has them remain silent about certain politics to keep readership. There is nothing innately wrong with anyone involved; what is wrong is how much we continue to support the negative aspects of the system we’re in. Capitalism is ultimately exploitative in nature, and things get nasty when that exploitation isn’t mutual. Because the relationship between companies, media, and fans are all monetary, peace is kept only with as much pandering towards the one handing over the money possible. Current events show that artistic and personal integrity are becoming domain of the buyers, and the only way to fix that is to change our relationship to money.

One Day That Wall Is Gonna Fall: Game Design for Everyone

Mmm Mmmm Mmm Mmmm MmMmmMmMm

Step by step, a world constructs itself, piece by piece, under his feet. A bourbon from the bottle voice reminisces about each tremble of the hammer, every breath of the bellows. Synesthetic is the only way that I can describe Bastion, but instead of stimulating the senses, it evokes memories that I’ve never had. The music is integral to the experience, like vibrating brushstrokes to the wonderful painting that is Bastion. When asked how he pulled off such an amazing score, Bastion’s composer Darren Korb cited pouring a lot of love and hard work into the music to match up to and exceed the quality of games with big budgets. In his talk at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) this year, Korb showed how a two person team provided all the beats, hisses, and narration of Bastion with little glamour. I sat in the back row with my pen bleeding through my notebook as I watched a process I could theoretically enact myself given enough passion and grit. In passing, he mentions how one of the vocal tracks of the game, Zia’s “Build that Wall,” is a cultural artifact of a country at war. It is strangely soothing despite describing an impending doom of a people locked up in their stronghold.

I noticed a strong presence of indie developers at GDC, all with a similar message: “You can too.” The frankness of Korb’s talk revealed quality work assumedly monopolized by large development teams and sponsored by publishers with deep pockets. I felt the excited unease around me of people unsatisfied with solving artistic limitations by just throwing money at it. Pulling my pen away, I wrote out the lyric still in my memory: “One day that wall is gonna fall.” Bastion is a contemplative war anthem for the strengthening indie developer movement, a force growing large enough to raid the hill that triple-A companies have claimed. It gives a melody to the thesis of Anna Anthropy’s newly published Rise of the Videogame Zinesters. Anthropy also spoke at GDC, echoing her book’s “you can too.” Rise of the Videogame Zinesters describes how and why homogeny is behind the hoarding of game design by the few and provides resources and guidance to start developing a game despite being excluded from current development culture. Where Korb lends that motivating hum to urge your body, Anthropy gives you the sword and the confidence to wield it. Both describe inner strength and self-expression, not a wealth of money, as the key to producing an independent game.

Mmm Mmmm Mmm Mmmm MmMmmMmMm

“Build that Wall” isn’t just a call for war, however. As Kate Cox describes in “I’m trying to undo it, remember?” Zia’s song is also a spiritual, a binding hymn against oppression (“I’m trying to undo it, remember?, Your Critic is in Another Castle, 4 October 2011). She describes it as something persevering through time until the Kid is unable to bear his conscience anymore. Eventually, we all must deal with the pain, hum, and create a new world. Anthropy’s book seems to describe this new world, where games are a decentralized mode of personal expression. By making the tools and methods approachable for everyone, video games gain a diversity missing from the current model of production. A spiritual works like a tide. As more people sing, it grows until it sweeps over castles and leaves a new shore to walk on. During the Experimental Microtalk session at GDC, Anthropy described the philosophy behind the collaborative game Keep Me Occupied with mechanics that rely on the player being a drop in a wave of change. Games can inspire and chip away at walls once impenetrable. Bastion and Keep Me Occupied act as testaments to the untapped egalitarian nature of game design, telling the community that only some of the experiences in life can be told by triple-A studios.

Zia’s song wasn’t meant to be a challenge to gaming juggernauts, but it will be on the lips of those leaving GDC this year. Mine smiled when the bookstore cashier knew Rise of the Videogame Zinesters’ price by heart and seeing its bright cover poking out of bags. As developers take another year to absorb the experience and toil at their craft, there will undoubtedly be a rise in personal expression, of homemade games that speak to us in ways previously discouraged. I remember leaving the conference, the air of San Francisco brisk and lively. Go ahead game industry, build that wall.

Proudly powered by WordPress
Theme: Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.