Diversity of Existence

A necessary evolution in the ‘diversity in games’ conversation is starting to show itself, a product of enough time having passed from when many companies have made pledges but little seems to be changing. Between making news as the home of the largest organized harassment campaign the world has known and being tied to a tech industry pressured to release their demographics and improve their practices, the topic of diversity has become mainly a PR platform rather than taking on an ideology. Companies are doing it first because there’s social repercussions for being caught doing otherwise, and using those who actually care to do the work for them. I do believe that people inside companies have come to value diversity in the past years, yet they are aligned with their obligation to make their company money first, so all diversity initiatives must fall in line with business motives in some way or another. Many a GDC talk has promised that diversity is profitable, and framing it in such a way was meant to get companies to start adopting a more progressive stance on the issue. But in actuality, there couldn’t be anything further from the truth. As we come to understand the true reasons we want or need diversity, as a field and larger culture, it will have little if anything to do with companies making more money.

In their piece for Model View Culture on Intel’s presence at IndieCade, Veve Jaffa outlines what’s been rumbling on the outskirts of games conferences for quite some time now: companies and organizations want marginalized creators to contribute to their events, but with little to no compensation for the work. The most egregious offender of this GDC, which is for-profit yet has the most extensive process for extracting labor for talks given for one of their passes, which gets most of its value from the talks being outsourced for free. This is the case for all speakers, but especially so for the diversity track, which depends on creators who have to self-fund in order to attend the event, which is itself expensive being downtown in San Francisco. Being at the center of the video game industry, many events and organizations follow the same model, where asking for compensation for contributing to a games event is most typically out of the question. Like GDC, Intel is using people who are, as a result of being marginalized, poorer to act as their move for redemption, to look good rather than be good. As Veve notes, most of my encounters with Intel’s funding has been purely through food, drinks, and parties, not in any way that lifts me or people like me up to contend with the current structural issues. The problem boils down to how companies and audiences are interpreting the vague use of ‘diversity.’ Right now, people envision games staying primarily the same but the demographics of the companies and the characters in games reflecting society’s. Once that’s accomplished, job done, we can stop diversifying. Except, that’s not celebrating diversity, it’s forced assimilation. It’s the Borg. Moving past marginalization isn’t getting those on the outskirts to look like those in the center, it’s having an environment that allows different people to exist as they are without capitulating to the culture of the industry.

We get some hints of what that is and how it comes about in a post by John Sharp about this relationship between conferences and the marginalized that Veve cites in their article. Many of the avenues that John refers to are funding sourced by for-profit entities or nonprofit ones acting on behalf of creators (there’s a good amount of funding that can’t be accessed by anyone who isn’t distinctly registered as a nonprofit). Further, the concerns these types of funding address are artistic, supporting the arts. It is more interested in sustaining artistic communities than getting marginalized people creating profitable work. Particularly with recent waves of DIY cultures and more people making expressive games that don’t aim to turn a profit themselves, marginalized people by and large are doing more experimental work where making entertainment products for money isn’t the main goal. So the increase in visibility of people from the margins hasn’t been to flock to corporations, rather that they want to make work on their own terms and have an ecosystem which supports them. People in games may now roll their eyes at the “Are games art?” question, but the industry itself hasn’t been acting like there are games made for artistic reasons. People making games but not wanting to sell them like commercial indies are seen as an aberration or self-inflicted problem. At the very least, artists in other fields can apply for residencies and fellowships, but such opportunities are extraordinarily rare for those who work in this field. I think it’s super apt how many people are trying to make a platform called Patreon work, because there is a complete lack of patrons for people like us on any institutional level.

Point being, enacting the ideals of diversity will irrevocably change the field of games. It will challenge the industry, challenge society, and ultimately nothing will look the same. Diversity in games must aim to restructure how power and resources are distributed, and recognize that many marginalized people aren’t attracted to the industry and can hold them in the same company as those who are. There are definitely marginalized folks who are in the industry who like it there and want further support, and there are also ones who want to be commercial independent successes. Those aren’t the only, and I suspect majority, of those that these diversity initiatives need to address. And I haven’t even touched the ecosystem where marginalized people try to write critically about games! Will games criticism never see the light of day because it doesn’t cater straight into industry narratives? People have been creating off the beaten path for a while now and they shouldn’t be abandoned because they don’t fall into the usual narrative of eventually joining the industry. This isn’t even just about creation after the fact, but also how we understand games overall. I’ve had many conversations over the past few weeks with professors and curators who want to diversify what games they show but struggle to find work by underrepresented folks that are still exemplary of what we conventionally value as games. And that’s the point: people coming from different perspectives, backgrounds, educations, life experiences, they are going to hold different values and employ different types of craft. Showing diversity should expand how games and their creators exist, it should be celebrating difference, not assimilation.

Which is why many of these Diversity in Games initiatives ring hollow for people like me on the ground floor; the only time I saw anything of Intel’s money was at a bar. I’d rather have it in my bank account for groceries, rent, networking events, travel to paying gigs, and paying gigs themselves. Given my track record of events I’ve attended and ran, or the kinds of talks I’ve given and audiences I attract, I wouldn’t be creating anything in service to the industry and I aim on keeping that trajectory. It’s for a fuller future for play and games as a creative field that I work for, where more modes of expression can exist and therefore allow more people to create and play. Anything short of that isn’t the diversity that is actually going to help those traditionally overlooked.

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Letters with John Sharp: Discipline and Pastime

This is a continuation of my letter series with John Sharp! Read the first post here if you missed it!

 

Mattie:

It’s super possible that a lot of the friction that we’re discussing might come from the fact that there’s so many disciplines at work here but we don’t treat games or its discourse inter-/multi-disciplinarily enough. This is probably because people in games feel such a strong wanting for a codified theory that governs games and there is a struggle for what that is going to look like. Personally, I do feel a bit of desperation to make sure that certain things don’t become completely standardized or at least not without a lot of resistance so that it’s noted it’s contested. Maybe there’s an assumption that because we’re all talking about games, we’re supposed to conform to a main praxis and some people might have decided what that praxis is already. I do think most people ideologically agree that there should multiple perspectives present but there’s such a pressure to crystalize a games canon that creates power struggles between both disciplines and generations.

Really, I don’t think we even know what we we’re from. I’m only beginning to find the traditions that match my sensibilities and forward my thoughts, or basically finding the words for the thoughts I want to communicate. As well, all of us younger critics and designers aren’t completely united nor cohesive, and don’t have a lot of intra-discourse anymore. Something is definitely going on, and maybe on-going conflict is going to force this reaction to solidify further, but I’m not really sure, it’s definitely going to turn more into a trend than a movement I think.

All of this is to say that sometimes we, I, can be insolent brats lashing out at whatever comes near, but I don’t think it’s because we’re a bad group of people rather just a product of our timing and place. It sucks to feel trapped and no real clear path of advancement that other young thinkers tend to have.

Which is why these alternate forms of dialogue can be useful, because there needs to be a place for at least me to express ideas in a way that isn’t capped at a 1000-word unique thought-pill and I can develop them over time. If I get into academia then maybe I’ll be able to join that kind of writing but for the most part I can’t have ‘official’ conversations with my peers who are academic outside of that. The old ways of bloggers who frequently replied to each other’s posts seems to be mostly gone, and I know I could use more rigorous conversations around games.

I think your, and other’s, experience and company is definitely in need, we’ve just created a thorny dynamic where typical attempts at sharing knowledge or experience reads as invasive or rebelism. We have more foundational work to do before we can get to that now, like just literally demonstrating that we understand each other so all other attempts at communication read as earnest. Which will take time and effort! I feel like an easy way to disarm a younger thinker and to simply know their work and display that understanding/curiosity/appreciation without needing it to be in an argument. Which doesn’t mean there can’t be debates, just that there needs to be casual conversations to contrast arguments so threat levels go down. I personally really want to belong to communities, just on my terms, as a person and not a representative. I also want to feel like I’m contributing and influencing as much as I’m tasked to learn.

I’m actually so mad at Desert Golfing. Or at least, at all my friends who like that game. Everyone kept going on and on about it so I thought there was some zany Frog Fractions twist and when none came I was pretty angry. It just feels like this gulf I have with general games academia/criticism, that I can’t connect to these ‘pastime’ games. It might be where a lot of my resentment comes in regards to ‘mechanisms’ and ‘instrumentalization,’ that there’s this over-focus on things that are ‘just games’ and trying to lift them up. But is connecting to expressive games really a preference? Maybe I’m just being elitist.

That hotel tour sounds so up my alley, I love it particularly because it separates handing down an experience to consume from giving people the opportunity to just experience, and take from their context whatever is relevant. I feel you on getting a bitter taste about superficial practices of ‘object-oriented storytelling’ (how tech sounding) because that game design practice doesn’t reference life and tie the person experiencing to it through any sort of contextualization. Games tend to be obsessed with themselves, they reference themselves, even within the same game, where they expect you to contextualize other game experiences between themselves. A part of me wrings my hands over how nostalgia is used as a substitute for having internal references to life experiences. How do you create with these sorts of games outside of a tool-master relationship? You didn’t ‘master’ that hotel, the context in which that experience existed produce integration and connection.

 

John:

I agree completely about disciplines. There are as many approaches to games as their are criteria and methodologies with which games are evaluated. I suppose there might be some people that want a unified theory of game (#gg, Jane McGonigal, Valve), but I’m not sure that is the driving force in academia. If you follow the perennial conversation within and around DiGRA, for example, there is an acknowledgement that there are a good dozen disciplines that feed into “game studies,” each with their own traditions around framing subjects, methodologies and expected outcomes. DiGRA always makes me see the splinters, not the whole—which is largely a good thing.

Within industry (not my favorite term, but that’s a topic for another email), I suppose there is a more unified approach—selling units and making money. But the thing about the commercial industry is it is almost completely unconcerned about its legacy, its place in culture as a whole. And so it won’t really get a say in how this all plays out.

As academics and critics, we are tasked with trying to make sense of things, even if that sense-making is simply to point out the impossibility of a unified field theory of games. Two MIT Press series come to mind around this: Platform Studies and Playful Thinking (admission: I have a book in the later series, and have a proposal that I’ve sent to the former). Bogost and Montfort have a particular vantage on the materiality of videogames and their platforms that is certainly one formalist/materialist/technological approach to games. On the other hand, there is Juul, Long and Uricchio’s Playful Thinking Series, which has a “games plus X” approach. This leads to a more heterogeneous take on games: games and play, games and art, games and chance, games and failure (so far). As a result, Platform Studies feels like the more dominant perspective, if only because there is a unified underpinning to the books in the series. All of which is to say that the “unified theory” approaches to games end up feeling more present if only because they are simpler to communicate, and have the force of repetition behind them.  

The term indie is a great object lesson in the messiness that lies just under the surface of any attempts to codify. Isn’t indie nothing more than a marketing category like “college rock” and “independent film”? It surely isn’t a representative term for much else anymore (sorry, indieCade). In the early days of my involvement with indieCade, I naively thought we were in fact bringing most of the indie world together for a weekend. But it quickly became clear that if we looked closer, there were more people that fit the indie definition not there than were there. And now, the conference portion of indieCade is a kind of glorious, splintered mess with a group of people that draw on a good dozen scenes, with that many more left out. But as things get codified in the press, in social media, more gets read into who is there, and their status as representatives of the many branches of games on the edges of “industry.” And suddenly things aren’t what they were—a mess–but instead an infrastructure, a power base, haves and have-nots.

So yeah, there is a tension between the tidiness of history and scholarship and the messiness of reality. Maybe this is what you hope to hold onto—the acknowledgement that everything is kind of a mess, and that this is ok?

I couldn’t agree more with your wish to be part of communities, so long as you are welcomed for who you are. And likewise, feeling like there is a balance between learning and contributing. That will require we all put our guard down in various ways, which is hard, of course, and not always the safest thing to do. For my part, I pretty much have given up on using Twitter as a space for real dialog. I feel like a lot of folks open up Twitter and immediately assume a combat stance. It just makes for unnecessarily contrarian conversation (if you can call it conversation).

I have to admit I laughed when reading you were mad at Desert Golfing. Don’t hate Desert Golfing, Mattie, hate the desert golfers. I wonder if Desert Golfing and Drop7 and other similar games are part of the cult of flow? (I noticed Lana Polansky went after flow recently in an essay.) I see flow as one of those ideas trying to legitimize games as a pastime, even if that wasn’t forefront in Csikszentmihalyi’s thinking. I’m certainly guilty of this (see my ode to Drop7 in Well Played awhile back and aspects of Works of Game, too).

I’m not sure you are being elitist, I just think you bring a different set of values and aesthetics to games, and the “games are 6,000 years old, and part of the fabric of humanity” schtick just doesn’t resonate with you. Which is good, I think. There are enough people defending the honor of games already.

Your thoughts on the hotel tour made me think back to my experience with Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More. I remember distinctly walking into the space, and having my videogame brain in gear. I walked up to the books and objects and closely examined them, looking for details about the story. Fairly quickly, I realized it was all “window dressing” and that its only real meaning was its appearance, and the way it all added up to an atmosphere like a stylized film set. Once I got that, I had a much better experience by following the actors around the space.

Sleep No More is much closer to a slick 3D game than my experience on the tour of the Pennsylvania Hotel. Yet Sleep No More and, say, Gone Home, are more egalitarian experiences than the tour, if for no other reason than their reproducibility and extensibility. It also raises questions of packaged experiences and participatory experiences.

I’m curious, what’s a game you’ve played recently that you enjoyed? I have to say it has been quite some time since I played anything that really caught my eye.

 

Mattie:

I admit to not having a good idea of games academia as a whole. I’ve kind of been thrust in a weird between-worlds positions, where because I did learn some critical theory in my undergrad, and I’ve learned to apply it to both art and the design process, I’m labeled as academic. I think most people consider me an academic! But I’m not? At least not yet, so I shouldn’t be so forthright about naming the general atmosphere of games academia. I guess I’m anticipating my move to New York and since I’m the most familiar with school-based designers there, they make up the majority of what I think of when we’re talking about designer-academics. Also some others, like designers that have prominent, Theory of Everything type books. I’m even somewhat distant from academics my age because they are writing about my work, so there’s a sort of distance and awareness that I’m operating on more the artist level than academic kind. Plus I have so much reading to do so I can at least pretend I fully grasp the accepted game canon. But yes, I imagine I might get into debates once I move, which I welcome.

I’ve been thinking a lot about re-centering our field from a games medium to a play medium, which I’m sure it’s not really a novel idea, but heavily resisted. I’m concerned about object-centrality and using games as experience dispensers instead of thinking about our relationship to fluid, more slippery notions of experience that are more wholly affective. That’s how the art-world seems to be approaching games, like games are in the wings of museums where they put furniture. Which is shitty for the furniture too! I don’t get the design/art divide, I never have. Why are these things kept so separated? Why MUST games be designed objects? Just feels creepy.

‘Indie’ definitely felt like a commercial/industrial reaction rather than an aesthetic one. Notgames is a more arts-engaged label even though it also contains a reaction to industry, it had a strong, purposeful sensibility, while if indie has one, it seems incidental and easily mobilized by consumerism. That’s probably unfair to indies, though I also have an issue with ‘altgames.’ It seems to me much like how indie formed together, just in a different time and place. It feels more like a reaction to industry than having its own aesthetic argument, though I don’t really mind basically a weird twitter indie I guess. I find it not different enough, a lot of people who were indie are now altgames, because altgames doesn’t really have a strong enough stance of values outside of a reaction to indies’ reaction to industry.

A lot of my writing in the past year has been about mess. It might be because my life is an utter mess, that life just doesn’t really make sense and my trajectory is incredibly unclear. I want to feel comforted that I’m not just a fuck up but everything really is just a goddamned mess. But I want to bring that to our perspective on play as well, maybe that’s why formalism gives me the creeps. It’s like a worldview that wants to kill everything and cut it all up and reassemble the mess into something legible to them but they can’t understand why it’s dead. The Cult of Flow really does sound like a legit creepy cult. And yeah, this paring down to lifelessness just trying to find that space… but for what? What does it feel like? Does it really feel good? It feels numbing to me, I guess. There are different sorts of flows, like adrenaline and such, but most games like that make me feel dead. But no, fuck Desert Golfing, I golfed so much waiting for something but all I got was more goddamned golfing. Who the fuck just wants to sit there finger golfing all day??? What is wrong with the world? So mad. What is so important to the genealogical understanding and propagation that games must be “for their own sake,” serious about nothing serious. There’s shit outside of the useless vs useful binary. How does that feel? DEATH TO FLOW. DEATH TO PLAYERS. DEATH TO MECHANICS. DEATH TO WORK AND LEISURE. ONLY MESS AND TENSION AND FEELINGS. Do you think a lot of these gamey games and defense of games for just fucking around’s sake is part of this reaction to encroaching forces to make them do something useful? Is everyone just aiming for the most elegant, beautiful time waster of them all?? Why is everyone so resistant to life? To being messy?

I rarely feel satisfied with video games, that it’s hard to think about what I’ve enjoyed in the recent past. I guess the closest would be Etrian Odyssey, it’s a gamey game, dungeon crawler, RPG battles. I guess what’s hit me in a good place is that you have to draw your own maps in order to navigate the levels, and I found the map-drawing process incredibly soothing, very surprised. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it unless you were already into those types of things. I’m not super into dungeon crawlers so it was hard to get used to, and I take a lot of breaks from it. There was also Sunset, which I also really enjoyed. There’s few games that prompt me to talk about the effects of power in my intimate or even friendly relationships and that meant something to me. I guess I feel more excited about games I want to make, I’m trying to accumulate resources and inspirations and work practices so once I move, I can start really producing things I want to see out in the world.

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

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Why Games DIY Shouldn’t Stop at the Digital

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

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

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

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

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

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More than Representation

“What got you into games?”

Simple on its face, I’ve heard the answer multiple times and it tends to be somewhat similar for people like me around my age. Our parents, for me, my father, was into technology in someway or another, and had early video game consoles and computers around the house. Being children with time on our hands, we spent hours upon hours playing games and in virtual or text worlds, and grew up with the video game industry. Usually the story ends around there, and jumps into the person’s current career and projects.

For me, and likely for others, there is a second part, what got us into Video Games, to seek employment in it, or to create in them, or to go into a new field of study. By college age, I mostly gave up on games, except for one or two here or there. I felt like I grew out of them. It wasn’t until I took a class in fantasy literature, with a professor who noted a lot of students’ interest in fantasy and myth comes from not just books, but video games, and took us to a computer lab to show us some games for critical analysis. It was there that I got back “into” games, as I played through two that affect me to this day: Galatea by Emily Short, and The Path by Tales of Tales. Upon doing research on gender and sexuality stereotypes in games, I came across Leigh Alexander’s column at GameSetWatch, The Aberrant Gamer, that reminded me of visual novels I liked in the past and how it seemed like it would be fun to do public critical analysis of the things I liked. I could say very distinctly, these three things got me back into games, both revisiting older games that I enjoyed when I was younger, and contemporary games. I could say with a lot of confidence that if those things didn’t come across my plate, I might never have dwelled in games at all.

Why is this important to note? For one, when people ask me “what got you into games,” they aren’t just asking me as someone who likes games, they are asking a person who is marginalized and often excluded and attacked, who rarely shows up and even more rarely sticks around, what is it that got me so we can get others. It wasn’t Final Fantasy VII, it was a woman professor who choose games made at least significantly in part by women, and following the trail to find writing by another woman, and on top of all of that, some of the women involved have particular issues with race and feminism that I relate to. I really don’t think it’s a coincidence that, having consumed games made largely by and for men, it took work by people similar to me to get me interested in the field again, and also to approach it in a way many have described as different and unique.

But straight-up diversity of bodies is too simple of an answer. It’s not that I saw that these people weren’t WASP men and then felt welcome. Seeing women put into the same roles as men to do mainly the same old video game thing (and not without contingencies) doesn’t actually speak to me much. Rather, their life experiences drew them to different ideas and inspirations, exploring topics and sensations that hit my wavelength because we might share some more in common. I admit that seeing people and characters more like me plays a part in why I gravitate towards that work, but it’s more that there is a higher chance to engage with issues and experiences that are relevant to me, because someone with a body like mine is present. How often do games give time and space exploring a relationship between a poor, minoritized woman caught up in the harmful ideals and affections of a privileged man? There’s such little material out there to help me reflect on certain aspects of my life, both to feel heard and then responded to, providing catharsis or temporary motions for healing.

This is why people should be panicking that creative marginalized people burn out of games so quickly. This is why Tale of Tales possibly becoming less visible in the games world is tragic. A studio that would probably respond to a lot of hot-button social issues with “duh.” If people find my work in any way valuable, it’s in part because games by Auriea and Michaël made me feel like my experiences were interesting enough to express. That there was room, however small, for dialogue in a place I assumed was stuck in a conversation from the past. I liken my time with Tale of Tale’s games as I do with Hayao Miyazaki’s films, where the prevalence of complicated women makes The Gender Issue™ invisible. I didn’t see Nausicaä as a “strong female character,” I saw myself or someone I wanted to learn from. I also didn’t have ‘takeaways’ about environmentalism or war, rather added in memories and feelings that would, sometime in the future, be used as a reference when I had to think of those topics. I open up the box in Vanitas every time I’m about to step off the train, because I need a reminder that every moment is magical, every object has something to say to me.

Just because a game decided it’s a woman shooting a dude in the face doesn’t change why I feel disconnected from this medium. When using the same reference material in the same contexts with the same conventions, the move to make characters not a white man is often a commercial one, or a one-dimensional response to feminist critique in the media. We are not going to get the nuanced and challenging material by keeping the system in place while placing different bodies in there, though that is its own particular topic. Instead, it is artists like Tale of Tales, giving us things to work through our own discomfort. If games continues this revolving door, taking the culture from those who come in and sending them right out after, the issues we care about are just going to play into hype and fad cycles, continuing down this ‘why does everything still feel the same’ path, reading the same think pieces until we just stop caring and settle for what little we can get.

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The Lost Woman in Games

Last week, I’ve had five bowls of chai.

I hid on the top floor of the mall in downtown San Francisco, under the dome, which is apparently historic for something I’ve never figured out, except that I could get the best wifi and privacy while in the busiest part of the city.

At the cafe up top, they would always ask me, “sweet, or spicy?” I am often thrown by questions like these, which I’ve most often got after I moved to the bay area. “Spicy” has more definitions than “game” I’ve found. I have to do a couple of quick checklists, one, what race does this person think I am and, two, what kind of spice are we talking about. When I lived in the Mission, and frequented my local Chinese delivery, I had to type “not white people spicy, real spicy” into the textbox before I could actually taste any flavor in my food. So this “sweet, or spicy?” was a double attack, one I wasn’t prepared for, each of the five times I ordered it. They offered to do a little of both, which tasted like a normal chai.

I hid on the top floor of the mall because it was the Game Developers Conference, and I was kind of terrified. The Sunday before, a random person took a picture, with flash (the gall), of me on the way home, which spooked my paranoia about stalkers that would make the effort to travel out to the bay to harm me. If I wanted to see anyone, I had to be nearby the conference, so while I was by myself, I was slurping spicy sweet chais from bowls, tucked away where I hoped no one would find me.

It was smooth sailing for the most part, I didn’t have a breakdown until Thursday, to which I congratulate myself for holding out strong. I think it was probably because I wore the most demanding of shoes in the beginning of the week and was too tired to process the dark theater that is GDC. Thursday started with going to a Women in Games lunch held by Xbox, which I was graciously plus oned into since, I guess, I was never really a woman in games to Xbox. To be fair, my only interaction with one was kicking it down stairs.

And Xbox did it feel. Sometimes, in the bliss that is an artist’s life, I forget that corporations are a thing. That entities of pure bureaucracy and exploitation rule our world, and they have their own speak and gestures and ways about celebrating Women in Games. Salads that look like a forest that might have little critters living in them, and French-style chicken but without the weight of butter, as anything with fat in it is banned from any San Francisco event that wants to make a good impression.

I noticed a theme about who was present, or, who was spoken to during the presentations. Mostly, 40+ women were successful and in similar places as men counterparts and under 21 women and girls who now have money thrown at them to learn how to code and eventually join these matriarchs in the industry. Of course, not a mention of harassment, discrimination, or abuse was mentioned the entire event.

“Women in Games” as a term and in some circles I’m familiar with, pejorative, isn’t in the sole domain of any company or organization, rather it is a stereotype. It is the games industry’s Lean In women, those who go to the bat with the big boys and basically become one of them despite what it asks of them. It’s also the young women in school who are now the panacea for all of the medium’s woes, since now all these companies are pouring funds into initiatives to get women into STEM fields for penance, and to show that they are, indeed, on the right side of history for diversity.

Besides not being in the industry, not being school-aged nor wanting to code, while also not being established in my 40s, Women in Games events often feel like a sham to me, its own kind of performance to show that the industry is ‘doing something.’ But what about me? When does that money trickle down to independent artists who don’t wish to join in the highly exploited games workforce?

I am not completely astonished that people in the industry, trying to do damage control, don’t want to point out how the people who received the most abuse, who push the hardest, are not in the games industry proper. They are women media critics and independent developers, and our suffering is being used to make companies look good. Now they can make some offhand comment about how they don’t condone harassment, donate to one of the many programs for teaching girls to code, and be absolved.

Except, people like me never see that support. We aren’t girls who need to learn to code. We aren’t women who want to be churned through the gears of an entertainment industry. I feel like, with my age, skin color, identity, I am in some sort of lost generation of women in games. The ones that our forebears, the generations above us, has already given up on. I say this with friends in that generation, who do try to mentor me when they have the chance, but because I’m an artist in my position, not part of their structures, I won’t ever really get that sort of time and access to resources.

I went back to the dome, and to the bowls of chai, when the #1ReasonToBe was on, finding myself emotional. Despite being on the panel in its debut, I didn’t feel like I had a reason to be in the games industry in any form. Yet, I felt regret. Hearing how women were fighting to stay in, that the biggest “fuck you” to haters was working harder. They were starting projects and initiatives, and people drank up their fervor and hope. I felt like a coward, like I made the wrong decision. Should I be involved in everything, pushing back, fighting even harder than before? Can I really feel left out of something I’m not a part of anymore? Is it right to feel all this wanting, some envy, of placement and community when I’ve decided to step back? I would look up to the center of the dome, fighting back tears, hoping gravity would just take them back down from whence they came.

Then it was off to the Game Loading movie premier. I was filmed by crew for it at last year’s GDC, though it seemed pretty clear I wouldn’t be playing a major role in it. I was of two minds, since the documentary was looking to explore indie games, and I myself don’t really identify with that culture. Maybe, since, again, I’ve worked so hard to carve my own path, I shouldn’t really expect to be ever be featured or centered in such productions, though I admit being seen as a bit of an afterthought kept my ego in check (I ended up only saying two words in the finished film, “RPG Maker, Twine,” which about sums up my relevance to indie game culture).

What was disappointing, alienating, to me, was on my way out, the directors commented to me that I was the first person to say anything critical of indie games and the community of developers around it. While I’m not really surprised, it showed to me how I myself also wasn’t being served by this narrative. So Game Loading comes off more as propaganda to me, very squarely positioning the current indies to be the indies of the 20th century, poised to replicate the same systems and the follow the same cycle. A cycle that doesn’t really have a place for me. I feel like there is a grab, consciously or not, for image control over games, and it looks like people are more willing to forget us here on the ground floor. Again, Indie Games is more of a stereotype at this point, in some instances, it’s own pejorative, than a specific sect of people. Most of the people I like who saw the documentary loved it, and are excited for it to permeate larger culture.

I fear for others. I fear for those who will be suckered in because the industry, both large and independent, want to seem diverse. Yet there isn’t any staying power in these maneuvers, they just want enough women on the brochure to make everything seem it’s better than it actually is. Minoritized people are asked to martyr themselves, from entering a field that is broken and exploitative to fielding harassment from hundreds of nerds, all because the industry is ‘worth it.’ I feel like that was me some years ago, so eager to be included, only to see the horror show past the gilded doors. And I think of those who’ve come and went, and no one remembers their names anymore.

 

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“It’s Progress” – I Won’t Wait for Video Games to Validate Blackness

I guess it’s my turn to do a Black History Month post, that I didn’t think I’d be doing. Mostly because conversations that pop up around race, and seem to mainly come only during this month outside of a few dedicated writers, frustrate me. I’m frustrated like I am with any sort of discussion that centers around any representation, but with blackness especially, within American history having set a path for civil rights for so many other people, blackness is still waiting for their time. That’s the majority feeling I got from watching and reading some pieces on race in games this month, even though I know there is restlessness. They grumble while they do it, but still say, “it’s progress.” I’m an impatient gal so:

fuuuuuuuuuuuuuck thaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat

Why? Why, exactly, must we deal with the breadcrumbs that corporations dole out? In a way, progress is not what we want, when we’re forced to play by someone else’s timetable. And even now, the progress we do have, would our forebears honestly nod and pat us on the shoulders, to commend us for this bold step forward for racial justice? Can’t we just give words to how fucked it is?

I will not wait or settle for what AAA video games has to offer non-white people, and I think it’s unhealthy to propagate this progress narrative. I commend those who do actively create and interrogate past the representation aspect of games. This isn’t to shit on all the non-white people who are trying to handle this fucked industry, rather, I want to be the anger we aren’t allowed to have. We don’t need more non-white people in AAA. Actually, that’s a death wish for what we actually want.

AAA INDUSTRY ISN’T “GAMES”

Instead we want creators and critics who are as free from the direct marginalization companies exert as we can get them. If we are stuck in the system, to wave our hands and yell for them to get before it’s too late for them too. To build a community and discourse on the outside, not find out that their golden ticket trapped them in the tubes of industry.

Work that fully realizes race as an active force of culture is done by those people, for those people. White people who enjoy it are incidental, welcomed when respectful and engaged, but incidental. We don’t need to go along with the ‘something for everyone!’ song and dance. I get that popular works have larger reach, but really, how often do popular works even outside of games really speak your story in comparison to the dominant identities? Black people are still waiting for all other mediums dominated by white people to catch the fuck up to them. And, somehow, we hang onto this pale glimmer of a hope that one day we will have our The Color Purple played over dubstep at E3? For the AAA industry, white people will never be incidental.

I am not, of course, telling non-white people to just ignore all of video games until problems are solved. Instead, I want people to actively rip apart and appropriate the shit out of video games. Talk about how we are made to be monsters. Say it, we are seen as monstrous. I am a monster, and I can find those a-plenty in video games.

Aptly, I played Dragon Age: Inquisition the evening it came out, because I am a sucker for the series. I would put it next to my equally trashy but trying copy of The Bone Palace (and say 10 Hail Butlers before bed each night to repent) if I could. I decided that the first race I would try out would be the Qunari, a mostly elusive ‘race’ that were clearly the most othered, constantly being in conflict with the rest of the world, generally darker-skinned, different belief system. I tend to pick the most ‘other’ in the series, because incidental commonalities and commentaries crop up in the most poignant and cruel ways. While the other races are basically other shades of human, Qunari are like the orcs, obviously the one that doesn’t belong. And I felt that: when the world saw that my character was the center of the story, they were like, what the fuck? You? I would put on strange bright green masks and tower over all my love interests, always sticking out, shuffling, stammering, trying to roll with the offensive comments. People would openly mock me, assume things about me, expect me to educate them. On other playthroughs as other fantastical races, I found out that people are just generally nicer and more attracted to you when you’re not Qunari. To put it lightly, I was alienated, and it felt right. This is my life, this how blackness and queerness intersect in my life. By feeling like a monster no one wants around. For being obviously different and trying to pass in a culture unprepared for me. Fumbling when someone expresses interest in me and seeing how awkward it is, but they seem to not care, how cute I don’t get it. I’m sure if you went to the writers of BioWare, they aren’t going to applaud themselves for having black and queer monstrosity depicted well enough in the treatment of the Qunari that it felt more queer to me than any of the more on-the-nose occurrences. I believe in the blackness that didn’t mean to show itself, that slipped out from the unconscious, and I named it. I don’t necessarily commend or damn the game for only speaking to how I am a monster to society, instead, I will fully take in that monster, and I will show its ugliness, I will make you look at me in the face as you recognize, that in the back of your head, you were taught that I am an atrocity and I will own it. That is my experience, and no game realizes that without my reflection. I don’t have to sit and hope that I will appear in a game and save the day. Instead, I will morph the sublimations of society into my image and wreck the place.

C’mon y’all, stay angry.

 

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Our House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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2014 in Alternate Ending

So, this was a year.

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

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

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

 

Redefining Games Criticism

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

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

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

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

 

Social Justice on Social Media Gets Anti-Social

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Non-Queer Design is Boring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rethinking Allyship

Through my travels in the past few years, I got the chance to sit in on some classes and groups focused on social change and looking at games as a tool to help their communities. One type of game that seemed to pop up a few times was an effort to get two groups who disagree with each other in the same place playing a game. They ranged from explicitly cooperative games to problem-solving the issues between the groups. The ones that impressed me the most were ones that used context to create situations where these groups basically just socialized and got comfortable with each other. Seeing the range of these projects really helped me piece together some thoughts on allyship, and what it means to be an ally to a group of people.

Ally is definitely a term I think gets thrown around uncritically, and I tend to not use it myself. It feels like some strange contortion of separate but equal, ‘I am not you but with you.’ It feels nationalistic, and when it comes to global politics alliances tend to be rather instrumentalized. I’ve never really been sure what my allies do for me, and it’s really uncomfortable expressing to a person that you don’t know that you can’t really be sure they will be there when you need them. Does it really make sense that someone can claim they are an ally without it being framed by those they are allying with? Shouldn’t it be the other way around in this sort of system?

After seeing all those projects, allyship as a concept has become more of a mutual exchange for me. Ally isn’t a one way declaration, but something all parties involved declare together because it is going to be mutually beneficial. Even when this allyship is between a person in a place of power with someone who isn’t, it’s not just the powerful giving something to this relationship. The powerful are also being educated to become a better person, and learning how to better their own lives navigating between interlocking oppressions. This not being explicit has always bothered me because there’s always this underlying guilt and pressure to be grateful to your allies, especially when they fuck up and you didn’t really feel comfortable with them in the first place. I’ve read the phrase ‘You’re turning away many good allies’ countless times, and that in itself is an exertion of power and dominance.

I’ve advocated more for personal, one-on-one acts of making a difference. In a way, it’s been a model for a better concept of allyship, one that is meaningful to all people involved. It seems like people don’t really seem to understand nor act in a productive way when they don’t have a strong connection with that person or group. It should be when they are in pain, you are in pain; when they achieve something, you feel proud for them. Groups of people, especially when based around an identity, are not going to work together unless they have that connection, a connection they want to keep, cultivate, and find comfort in. The point is, when there is a conflict, it will be taken care of like a family instead of like a war. When one group needs another, it would be common sense because they like each other and want to see each other do well.

A problem I see in games when it comes to change and coming against obstacles is this conflicting way people tend to look at one another: that we all should like or understand each other because we are women, or queer, or like games, but yet are divided by each other as indie, AAA, bloggers, and so on. The beauty and challenge of diversity is that we are all very different from one another, and difference is a good thing. You don’t need homogeneity in order to work together, rather, you need earnest relationships. If the only time you’re really talking to a particular group of people is when you need them or when there’s conflict, you are rarely going to see each other on the same page, because neither parties are motivated by much other than self-interest. This often shakes out unfairly for those in less powerful positions, because their self-interest is usually safety and a platform in which they can speak when they are usually silenced.

Having dealt with games culture and many companies and organizations in positions of power, this lack of a human link was often missing. Often I leave feeling tokenized, used, and discarded because they got what they wanted from me, and our lack of understanding paints me as ungrateful for the small amount of time they’ve graced me with. When it comes to social groups formed around game development and games criticism, whenever there is conflict or need, the usual reaction is for people to recede into their friend groups and move forward from there. Which is harmful if this process isn’t part of public conversation and mediation. Like others, I’ve wrestled with managing the need yet cliquishness of this phenomenon, and I think the major barrier is safety. Knowledge that a person actually cares about your connection in whatever capacity it is. We should also recognize how the industry is structured and who is exposed to who as a factor in this process. If a certain group of people commune on Twitter, their local area, or private/elite events, then this is going to create a certain kind of homogeneity. For instance, you are a developer who only forges connections at your workplace and industry events, you’re not going to create many connections with people who are excluded from these spaces.

Which is why, on top of many other things (like real life), being part of a particularly marginalized group is really frustrating, especially when you’re tasked for educating an entire artform and industry. People who say they are allies, with completely good intentions surely, form exploitative relationships instead of ones of care and mutual interest. These alliances tend to be particularly transactional, usually exposure for the marginalized so the powerful can cash in on their cultural capital, and is always more of a deal for the latter. This goes for those within identity groups as well; queer people of a certain generation who don’t really have relationships with the other can’t really expect solidarity unless they’ve done work to craft a mutually satisfying bond. It’s rarely talked about, but there is a lot of mending and reaching out that needs to happen between the marginalized in the industry, especially veterans, and the marginalized on the outside. We all might have fought wars, but it doesn’t mean we’re always on the same side if we continue to engage with issues as battles.

You know what would have made my time better in the industry? If people in positions of power were earnestly interested in connecting with me and finding out what I needed to become open to that connection. Instead, I felt like a chess piece, moved around like a symbol and knocked off the board when I didn’t comply. And yes, I think part of the problem is the culture of work doesn’t allow us to make time for one another, to be open to new people different from us and instead, stay with the familiar and easily accessible. I don’t think the most effective change will be waiting for laws and older members of society to get out of the workforce or life plain. It’s going to be how much we actively make earnest connections with one another, so when we do need other groups, it’s not so instrumentalized, but because we care and see how their livelihood is intrinsically healthy for us too.

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Dispatch from the Queerness and Games Conference

This past weekend I went to the Queerness and Games Conference, an event I co-founded last year at UC Berkeley and now hold an advisory and conflict resolution role. It’s amazing to see it have a second go-around, and presumably keep going, from a more participatory standpoint so I could see the culture it invited and produced. It also had the interesting timing for occurring after Gamer Gate, which both hung like a cloud and impassioned people at the same time. Concurrently, I feel like QGCon is starting to form an ideological community and ethos, so this was definitely an interesting followup to last year. So here are some of the notes I took, but you can also look up the recorded stream and see everything for yourself.

The first keynote of the conference was by Lisa Nakamura on Social Justice Warriors in video game culture. She broke down what seemed to be the ‘taxonomy’ of an SJW to better understand how people, usually those actively against social justice movements, both see themselves and what they want to get rid of. Some qualities Lisa listed out: SJW framed as opposite to SWM or straight white male, a common term used for a projected most privileged identity; fundamentally insincere in their motives and use of ideology, while at the same time too sincere and unable to take jokes or fit in; not native to the community, foreigners from Twitter and Tumblr trying to immigrate to video games. This helps identify not only how gaters treat people they assign as SJW, but also how they see themselves: person vs ideologue; genuine vs manipulative; native vs the opportunistic. Wrapped up in this is how to be a minoritized person that is a ‘true’ force for change, aka not a fake feminist or gamer that wants social good, by the way of practicing ‘cruel optimism.’ Cruel optimism is that common response to inequality that’s a mix of positivist individualism and ‘harsh reality,’ like for more minoritized people to create games and THEN media will get better, just sit back and wait and it’ll take care of itself. I feel like we see this with the overabundance of girls in STEM initiatives and no resources for those right now fighting against marginalization. Lisa used the term ‘procedural meritocracy,’ that in order to earn respect in gaming, you have to display exceptional skill. Basically the idea is if men who spout sexist stuff online are beat in a video game fair and square by a woman, they will include her based on meritocracy and proving she’s not a fake geek girl. This attitude doesn’t address that the barriers to gaining skill are still very high for minoritized people, and that this process ultimately turns the bullied into a new bully; you climb the ranks so you can police the behavior of others, essentially giving permission to those already at the top. The true warrior looks like other gamers, talks like other gamers, and plays like other gamers. The SJW doesn’t play by the same rules, or even worse, doesn’t play the same games. This is hyperbolized by the codification of certain games as worthy of getting paid for playing and not, and how that is gendered, raced, etc. I think this is a pretty useful perspective to have because it helps people frame how they talk to those projecting the image of the SJW and better yet work to counteract the qualities of being conniving interlopers by referencing their credibility in the community.

Near the end of the first day was an unconference session where people signed up to speak and discuss a topic for about 10 minutes each. I really enjoyed it this year because it let conference-goers say what was on their mind and know that they’ve been heard. I super encourage a microtalk and roundtable discussion to any event that wants to foster community. One of the main themes in the talks was the still evident disparity and therefore clash between between people of different backgrounds at conferences and even at QGCon; is a conference held at a major university that features a lot of academic talks welcoming someone who doesn’t have a college education? Same for something like GDC, which is expensive to participate in and only has speakers of a certain kind of experience. It was fitting for the conference’s theme, Difference at Play, and is relevant to the on-going mission of QGCon to bring together people of different communities and disciplines. Class is definitely a dirty word for the games industry at large; few want to talk about who has most the resources and who doesn’t have much and why that is, and how a lot of opportunity for anything surrounding games requires a base amount of resources. It’s hard to participate when you are expected to have had the time and money to receive a certain kind of education, do a bunch of research, hack at a low-paying job or internship. And, predictably, class problems hits other minoritized people disproportionately to those who aren’t. It opened up how QGCon is different and more accessible than other conferences and yet still has a ways to get to a place we ideally want all events to be like.

Another keynote was by both merritt kopas and Naomi Clark did a lot to provoke and challenge previous ideas constructed about queerness and games, which I enjoyed since it gave some continuity between last year’s conference and this one. I actually want to respond further in depth in a separate piece, but here are some critiques they had: we are currently in the gay liberation of games instead of the queering of games, drawing a parallel between the gay marriage rights movement and the continual backburning of many issues in the queer community for people not looking or being able to stealth into society; gaming has been shuttling between being perceived as a vice and finding new roles to promote social values for long time before the 90s; games are not actually safe spaces to fail and are often sites of trauma for many queer people (often stories of finding queerness through games are based on a relatively constrained sample); the idea of glitches as queer ‘failure’ instead of acceptable failure that is wrapped in reproducing capitalism; and ultimately, why is queerness so often set in opposition to utility? Chew on all that!

Near the end of the conference, Zoya Street and I lead a decompression session, a moment where people can let out what’s bothering them and work it out through writing and art and conversation. We had people draw a river on a long roll of paper and write down what was on their mind, then make little paper boats marked with words of what they needed to get through it all to sail on top of it. I won’t recreate the conversation here and we didn’t record it so people could feel secure in expressing themselves, but I think there are some themes worth mentioning. For one, Gamer Gate took over the majority of the conversation, and from what I gathered, there was different feelings of powerlessness. I think for the most part, people have worries and want to change things, but don’t have direct, safe avenues to express themselves and feel like they can actually make a difference. I felt this at IndieCade as well, where it felt like some people were being actively engaged, in person, for the first time and actually feel like they are being heard and receiving a response. I think this is where the need for more local safe-space events would really help in getting people heard and more involved. Saying things on Twitter both feels futile and dangerous given how gaters are always searching for people to gang up on. I really do think this is a good impetuous for more community organizing that should be spearheaded by institutions all over the place and encouraging devs to start their own thing to meet their particular localized needs.

If there is something I left QGCon this year with though, it is a dire need for intergenerational dialogue between minoritized people in games. And intergenerational is a bit stretched here because the landscape of video games changed rapidly, giving different kinds of opportunities and difficulties to each group within a relatively short amount of separation in time. In particular, I think there’s the more queer, in all senses of the word, group of people outside of the games industry that is incredibly disenfranchised by it and resentful for that, and minoritized people inside the industry with a pining for the freedom those on the outside have. These groups generally do not have strong lines of dialogue with one another, and very easily clash when coming together for about anything. There are outliers of course, but in general this is the case, as these two groups have different customs and histories. This isn’t to equate their struggles; people within the industry have decidedly more resources and power than those on the outside. In spite of this, I think it’s possible for conversation to happen with attention paid to power dynamics between generations of minoritized people. From my vantage point, I feel like some people feel tied to the industry even though it’s a burning building, and others see kicking in some more gasoline will help them have a more self-determinating future. I think this is a good thought to leave off on with regards to what this year’s conference implies for the next: when the destruction or major, major reconstruction of industry seems to be the only path for sustainability for one group, but the crumbling of the lives of another, how does one reconcile that?

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More Than My Pain

You often hear games conferences described as industry Christmas, seeing many friendly faces for the one time a year you get to see them. I think it’s why there’s as much buzz as there is around them, more than the actual conference or games really. As Christmas or any other holiday does, it affects people in different ways, and usually for me, it’s an uplifting, energizing experience.

The conferences I’ve been to this past month, and probably the ones for the next few, were somber and claustrophobic. It felt like people found out before I did that I only had a few more years to live. I was walking a procession of my own funeral.

My decision to leave the games industry is seen as something between giving up and a loss. I made my decision based on what made sense to me: the industry wasn’t providing enough sustenance and support to continue receiving abuse in its stead. Moving away from mainstream games culture and focusing on the edges of play allows me to create and write about topics I’ve been interested but wouldn’t really capture a large audience. It’s a healthy move.

What I’ve realized during my time engaging with the online community surrounding games media and development is that minoritized voices often only get visibility and resources when they are talking about their pain. This is particularly true for people who aren’t men, who on top of doing good work, they must put themselves out there enough for hordes to harass them. As is seen with turf wars with games journalism, people are looking for personalities in their media, and the technologies we converse on emphasize these tendencies. In a way, social media is reality TV the audience gets to heavily participate in and shape.

By continually engaging with the people of hate campaigns, people within the games community and industry reify this TV dynamic, often without the consent of the people who will be affected by it. Those on social media who feel like they have little political power are ultimately organizing in the same way these harassers are by just lashing out with memes and Twitter shaming tactics, which exacerbate the issue. This line of thinking seems to come from a couple of factors from what I can see: the ‘logical’ one of if society can see that people in the hate campaign are awful people, they don’t get credence, and the selfish one, that they want to do something but can’t bring themselves to a level where they feel like they can make a real difference. There’s a lot that goes into these two feelings, but simply, society already sees games culture as aberrant and horrible, and therefore doesn’t need to see it get worse to be convinced, and this entire conflict isn’t about gamers and wanting to feel like you’re a good person, it’s about the continual victimization and marginalization of minoritized people in games. It was in the beginning, always is, and yet there hasn’t been any real, healthy effort to counter this. Instead, people waste their energy dealing with people who can’t be convinced, and make bloodsport of it.

I say a “healthy effort” for a reason, because a part of this reality TV aspect of social issues is how fan culture creates personas out of people and groups and cheers them to battle against each other. We’ve created idols of victimhood out of people who are much more than their pain. And when we stop to talk about it, of course we don’t feel and think this way. In our actions however, there is an encouragement for victims to become martyrs incarnate for public catharsis by constantly engaging with the antagonists of the show, or even having in-group drama to shake things up for a boring month. Attention, connections, and resources goes to the ones most visibly being attacked in a very zero-sum manner, where if you aren’t also being cut apart and challenged in public along with your usual work, the industry and community very quickly forgets you.

Don’t believe me? Look up the name of any person now campaigned to continue heading into the abuse to somehow save games in the media. Try to find pieces that critically engage with the work they do, and you will see what I mean. Because the crowds can only talk about the drama and pain, and not about how or why this person matters to them, minoritized people in games will always just be chess pieces for dominant culture’s side of the diversity game. I’ve been doing what I do for over 3 years, and I can count on one hand how many times a major publication or conference asked me to talk about my work, because the dominant narrative will only let us exist if we are victims first, then humans. These past few months, 99% of the interview and speaking requests I’ve gotten were to retell my stories of pain. And how the community reacts to hate campaigns plays straight into that; instead of engaging the people who can actually change things (heads of companies, VCs, activist organizations), the community goes into a turf war with anonymous trolls more experienced at harassing people. How many times have you read that unlike the past, these particular past few months have been getting worse, not better? I am more than my pain. I am more than my pain.

I’ve already wrote pieces on how you can help; they are not the dramatic displays that social media encourages you to do, but they are things that actually work. To be honest, I throw up my hands in the air now when it comes to how little people actually turn to do these things. I feel like the community WANTS the social drama, you WANT the reality TV. Which has caused me a lot of pain these past few weeks to realize, with how few people in my life have offered substantial support these past few months. If you want to change your behaviors to actually help people, talk about how they matter to you outside of their ‘bravery.’ Quick tips:

1: Have you actually actively engaged with this person’s work? Have you not only experienced their work, but thought about it past a gut reaction? Can you explain to another person why this person’s work is unique outside of them being a minoritized person? If you answered no to any of these, you need to go and respect that person you claim to be fighting for and actually engage their work so you can appreciate them as a whole individual instead of just a icon for martyrdom.

2: Stop goading hate campaigners, because the end result is more harassment for already victimized people. If you want to show the public a different face of games, show them the work of people who condemn these cultish and discriminatory aspects of games culture. You are not painting a different image about games by making harassers and criminals resort to even more extreme tactics. Instead, publicly engage with the work you respect, whether it is to agree with it or criticize it. You don’t undermine them if you genuinely want to add onto their work from your perspective, assuming you’ve taken the effort to critically grapple with it.

3: Don’t assume that because someone has more followers on social media than you that they are somehow set for life. Many of us are broke, don’t have experience that institutions respect enough to give us jobs, are expected to give a lot of free labor for the community, suffer from multiple oppressions. A tweet is nice but gone from my timeline within a couple of minutes. If you care about a person and really want to be involved with their safety and well-being, take more than a couple seconds to reach out to them. Always respect boundaries, of course. At this point, however, the silence from so many people when I am struggling with pain is crushing.

I am more than my pain. I am more than my pain. I am more than my pain.

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Dispatches from IndieCade

Earlier this month was IndieCade, a festival that celebrates indie video games down in Culver City near LA. It’s actually a little more than that, also including non-digital games and tends to be more open to experimental and fringe work. It is open to the public and one of the more inclusive games events, and probably one I’d still appear at to see how things are moving along in the not-too-mainstream, not-too-artsy realm of games. I’m also a judge for the festival, meaning I help funnel games towards the jury to select for the awards and general inclusion into the festival. I want to take you through some highlights and games I saw there, and even some that didn’t make it into the festival but I judged and think are worth noting.

I’m really into going to talks at conferences and conventions because I feel like it’s a good litmus test for where most influential thought is at; not necessarily the most radical, but usually ahead of the curve and educational for conference-goers who can’t be plugged into Twitter and academia 24/7. This IndieCade was centered around community, which is fitting since that word has been on everyone’s lips for the past year. Thankfully that meant a lot of talks about diversity, inclusion, history, and outside influences. Look out for recordings of these when/if they go up!

The first talk I went to was “Let’s Not Make a Scene,” which mostly raised a lot of questions about groupings of people and how that works in industrial, artistic, and advocacy communities. The panelists were smart enough to not really get prescriptive of what is and isn’t a scene, and showed quite human complexities around scene making and power dynamics. Particularly salient was the story of how TIGSource forum devs set an unintentional standard and in-/out-group dynamic when many of those developers rose to prominence and were basically dubbed ‘the indie scene.’ A group of friends and peers became an aesthetic movement, and then became an industry in of their own. The problem with this is that power structures when it comes to visibility and resources were set mostly by the values of this group, however unintentionally, and access to all that surrounds the indie industry is affected by how many degrees, and what kind, of association you are away from this original group of people. This is also a conversation going on with the ‘Queer Games Scene,’ which I am included in per my wishes or not, and there’s a question as to how a similar dynamic will be created in this movement. Though I don’t think these two situations are comparable, I was glad it was still evoked and interrogated so we can at least be wary of replicated power structures of any group of people.

Another panel that went over rather well was “Let’s Do Something About it” (only now seeing the repetition) with regards to race and class issues in games. In a weird way, I left it mostly glad I was not on the panel; not because it was bad, because, like, finally other people are being recognized and I don’t have to be one of the very few people talking about race in games. They had a wonderful line up with devs and writers in different aspects of their careers and analysis, but were pretty resonant about their experiences of being in games spaces and having the topic of race shut down on them. It was good to hear, thankfully no one really does that to me so I don’t speak about that aspect often, but the panel showed how various aspects of racism and classism sneak up in the independent scene. The most salient point I took away from it was how non-white people just don’t even see the opportunity to get involved; either the resources they need are never offered to them or spaces are so white and east asian and don’t make the effort to extend out an invitation. This is in contrast to how there are so many initiatives to get women into these spaces, that sexism is the current ticket-item everyone is focusing on, instead of taking a multi-prong approach to diversity and inclusion issues.

The last day of the conference I spent mostly in City Hall, which was appropriate because it was all the more serious, political talks of the conference. The first session was an overall town hall kind of meeting, where people aired out concerns and action plans for change in the industry. What I deduced from the session is how people really wanted to be heard, on an individual level, about their feelings and thoughts about what’s all going on in games, and don’t often get the chance. There was a lot of grand statements and aimless frustrations, but it was probably helpful and shows we need public venues to vent grievances that might lead to some actual plan of action. My contribution to that discussion was the need to actually listen to people who know what they are doing, like activists and other people who engage with social change more frequently than the average indie dev, to have the resources and platform to enact change.

I was then part of a microtalk session called “Why ___ Matters,” where each panelist filled in their own part about what matters to games. There were definitely recurring themes, such as looking outside of games and the gaming community for reference and life, and also the negligence to self-care and valuing people’s livelihood. My talk in particular was ‘Why Reality Matters,’ where I hopefully challenged the body-detached attitudes of games as a whole, both in craft and the treatment of artists and activists. If you are a frequent reader of my work and tweets, you probably wouldn’t be surprised at the things I talked about, but all in all, I wanted to have reality be a design inspiration, and for play to be more applicable to reality and its issues.

And, of course, it is a games festival, so there are lots of games I witnessed and played. One was Squinky’s Coffee: A Misunderstanding, which is a super interesting theatrical, narrative generating awkward situation simulator. There are multiple performers in this game: two are the main characters, who read and interpret lines given to them from the drivers, two other players selecting options, and there’s also a musical accompaniment that also gets instructions. What is most interesting to me about Squinky’s game is it’s a sort of social catharsis game for awkwardness, when two people have separate goals and comforts that collide with one another. It also shows how people’s actions can be interpreted multiple ways depending on their context. We get a lot of this from some more narrative based roleplaying games, yet there’s an added usually unreachable element when you have it set up like a performance. The mundanity of it all made it pretty relatable.

Elegy for a Dead World by Dejobaan Games and Popcannibal was actually a game I looked at last year for the IGF and was quickly on board with the concepts it was playing with. The game puts the player in these beautiful panoramas of abandoned worlds and at certain scenes prompts them to leave some words. It’s pretty open-ended, though it has options to give the player a sort of ad-lib structure to work with. I think it aims to be interpretive and meditative; there are few games that ask you to reflect and be creative. It’s very moody and a great start to an interesting idea. I’d like to see more invitations for interpretation, and I’d also like to see how the metanarrative of it all comes together once it’s released.

I was also pretty wowed by Ice-Bound from Down to the Wire, another narrative game. I am a more narratively-interested person, but I don’t think other aspects of games stood out for me this year at the festival. And Ice-Bound is a good example of a future of indie games that I’d like to see, where access to technology reframes our relationship to storytelling. The game is part physical book, part digital-technology AR sorta interpreter, where you see different kinds of information on both and are trying to uncover what happened. This really got me inspired to remember and rethink games in the past that were part physical artifact, and part digital. In particular, manuals and strategy guides, how can we incorporate those into contemporary play?

There were definitely a lot of games I didn’t get to play that I wanted to (mostly LARPs and other RPGs, like Service), and lots of games worth mentioning, but here are a few that didn’t make it to the festival that I judge that was interesting for one reason or another:

Beyonce: Two Souls: I mean, the title should say it all? It was one of the few games I actually laughed with, using humor in a particularly video gamey way. Not like in a meme-knowledge manner but in a sort of surrealist deliverythat really uses the medium and conventions. I hope it becomes more developed than when I saw it, which was months ago so I imagine that’s the case, I’d definitely check it out for laughs with Queen Bey.

FutureCoast: An ARG that taps into the climate change discussion through player-generated apocryphal fiction. The most interesting aspect of it were the recorded voicemails left by people around the world depicting some sort of natural disaster that evokes climate change anxieties. On top of that, people could create what is basically a playlist of these voicemails, connected by whatever topic or theme they noticed. I thought it created a really interesting look at the collective unconscious about how people feel out of control about the environment, and it’s being exhaled through all these apocalypse stories.

The Sun Also Rises: I just found out this is also the name of a Hemmingway piece, and I don’t like Hemmingway, but alas, this is a pretty looking game that is very ‘post-Kentucky Route Zero’ game, if the gentlemen at Cardboard Computer don’t hate me for saying that. It’s set in US-occupied Afghanistan, and the main conversation is between a boy growing up in that culture and an American soldier. When I saw it, I think they were prototyping some narrative experiments that didn’t really jive well with me, but I think through development it’s going to turn out really interesting and be quite the pertinent theme. Just realizing now that it has two different kinds of non-white people as main characters without being awful stereotypes, so that’s cool!

Of course there was a lot more going on, but hopefully you all click through all that and see there’s interesting stuff going on, and a lot of it you can support! At least three of these games have/had fundraisers, which shows public patronage of weirder stuff could stay an important part of developing fringe work. Next weekend is the Queerness and Games Conference, which will round off my busy October, so stay tuned for my notes from that! It’s going to be great, and I believe it will be streamed, so keep an eye out!

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Those Who Fight

A bit over three years ago, I had my heart set on being a food critic and mystery novelist. I learned about my latent talent in cooking doing school projects in high school, and it took having a little more income and dinners with my good friend to find out that I had more than a knack, I had taste. I also remember finishing Persona 4 when it first came out and loving how it treated mystery. How characters unfolded and evolved over the course of the story; it was less about who did it, rather about who we are when we find out. By chance of transferring schools, I was required to take courses in critical theory and literature, which at the time I didn’t think would really be of much use to me. There I learned about the many ways to read, and that you can read anything, not just texts.

So came video games.

It started because I wanted to practice writing regularly. I figured I knew a lot about video games, and people seem to have opinions about them on the internet, so why not me? I wasn’t expecting much from it, just to be an exercise while I waited on grad school applications. But things took off in a way I didn’t expect: I started to regularly appear on Critical Distance, got a couple of columnist gigs, and found myself in lots of arguments on this thing called Twitter that I never used before. Half a year later, people on this Twitter donated money for me to attend the most central games conference in the industry. I was asked to speak at events before I was writing for even a year, and my alma mater asked me to do a keynote about activism. I was shocked to learn I became an activist.

Thinking about this reminds me that there isn’t really a profession of activism. The closest would be a lobbyist, and I don’t think that’s what I or others are like. Activism is something we all do, we take what we’re good at and use it for social justice causes. If me blogging and speaking on social media made some sort of difference, it means I must have been doing other things unconsciously that were activism before all this. It’s much more personal and micro than we give it credit for. Many people who stand out as activists, they are just living their lives and often the focus of circumstance. They are speaking their truths, doing what little they can. I know I was only an activist and a critic, and now developer and theorist, because others called me those things.

Three years after I put up my first post, I’ve decided to not participate in the video games industry anymore. A lot of people treat this as a loss, or quitting, giving up. Video games came as a freight train into my life, an unexpected opportunity I wasn’t planning on taking anywhere for a while. I feel like that’s what it’s like for many people who speak out about important issues in games. The attention of the internet is capricious, and it just takes one viral tweet to become an activist, thinker, public figure, or what have you. Meaning, even when this focus goes away, it might seem like I’m not an activist anymore, but I will be doing a lot of work, just in different ways.

What I think is most important is figuring out what every single person contributes. If I never intended to be an expert or authority, just chugging on posting thoughts until it was time for school again, what stops you from doing activism? It’s entirely possible that you are, and you’re not recognizing it. I think because I was put into the spotlight, I was forced to examine my actions and intentions, which may be why to the less vocal person it seems like there’s so little that they do compared to me. As we see, that’s probably not true. There’s space in your life for concrete action for what you want, if you allow yourself to open up the definition of activism.

This is a good exercise to decrease celebrity mentality we often put on people; while at times flattering, it’s extremely stressful. People assume you’re more stable and secure in life than you actually are, more well off, more connected. Fan culture hands all the responsibility to the person on the pedestal, with the expectation that they will be on 24/7 and the audience can be passive and are doing something by just being there to bear witness. This is why there’s such a burnout rate for media activists in games, people, typically women, just can’t handle the pressure over long periods of time without the proper sustenance. This happened to people before me, and now it’s my turn. I don’t want it to happen to anyone else.

There are other effects of this fan culture, such as prioritizing the individual over the community, whitewashing the diverse range of thought and action with a few people’s politics. This past year, a lot of work and events that I was a part of a team on were solely attributed to me, because this culture wants a clean narrative. We have to resist these motions, and recognizing our individual part in community building is the first step. What are you doing? If you don’t know, don’t you think it’s about time you figured it out?

It’s been a long time coming, but it’s obvious the games industry isn’t the place for me. It is too narrow and slow moving for the ideas and needs I have. There’s a reason why my only income is coming from readers, not corporations or customers. A place that has such a rigid view on how to be successful is going to exclude a lot of people, and I’m one of those. There are many other people who might fit into this, though, that can be loud voices while they game the system. I think of Leigh, Zoe, or Anita, or many of the newer voices that will crop up now that larger ones are moving out of the way. They really care about video games as a medium and industry, and want to make it a better place. I’ve found out that I really care about the expansion and reclaiming of play as a medium, bringing new forms of expression to people who didn’t know they had it. To be honest, talking about the video games industry is boring for me now; we’ve had the same problems, just with varying scales of drama and mainstream attention. I don’t want to be treated like a victim, and it’s only when I’m abused that people will listen. I’m more proactive, generative, and loving; this just isn’t the place for me.

My time writing about video games culture isn’t for naught. I didn’t know that I would become so fascinated with play as a concept. I ditched design early in life and this was a reminder that, yeah, I can definitely do this, I’m good at it. I will be returning to older hobbies and incorporating them into my newfound interest in play and what play can do to change how we view life. I’m looking back at fiction, mystery, taste, smell, ritual, interpretation, relationships, expression. These are great topics and I hope you all will stick around to explore these with me.

I haven’t decided how I will incorporate digital games into my writing and practice just yet. I’m going to continue engaging with video game art scenes and try to get more writing on those. I have made friends with many interesting thinkers and creators in games, and I imagine they will rope me into things so I won’t completely disappear. Ultimately, my aim is to get people to think of more than video games when we evoke play, to de-emphasize technology, and to imbue the way people look at life with the potential for play. I think we could use more people doing this sort of work, and I now have the chance to focus on that mission.

Thanks to everyone who’s ever supported me and continues to. This isn’t goodbye. It’s going to be even more interesting from here on out!

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Moving On

“What is it that we want?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How Do I Help?

It seems like an unending cycle. With social media connecting us to more people from different places and perspectives than us, visions into how painful the world is can often dominate our experience with each other. For many, the news happening in Ferguson is completely new and horrifying, and for others, it’s just their realities with cameras finally turned on. The world enacts many kinds of violences to people you know. Social media creates a new kind of distance/intimacy dynamic, where you can easily feel closer to someone because you are reading their thoughts all day, but haven’t actually gotten to know them and their life on any realistic level.

I’m a firm believer of action when it comes to battling against the injustices that happen in life. In every instance, every person can do something to help. The problem is, a lot of people have no idea how to help in situations like this, especially because there are often malicious people online who mass target people around certain causes. It can be frightening to support or criticize aspects of culture when there’s a possibility of irrational retribution, and we have to think of the people who do take that risk for the rest of us. So, how can you help? Here are some points to keep in mind when you feel helpless when things are going down.

You cannot solve the big problems and they will most likely still be there when you’re dead. Many people who suffer from things like racism or ableism or any other ism are already affected by the horrible things systemic oppression does to people. By the time you fully understand these things, it’s already a little too late for you. The best case scenario by now is to make it easier for the ones that come after you. But this doesn’t help people now; if you are judging your actions in relation to trying to stop all sexism, that is an overwhelming and impossible task. The people on the front line know this, and you should know this too. Adjust how you’re looking at the problem, from something to solve a global issue to a community and personal issues. Just take this as a fact: the world isn’t changing fast enough for the people alive today. Even if you snapped your fingers and halted the machinations of oppression, you have lots of people with behavior to unlearn, probably including yourself. Start with yourself.

Instead of ‘how can I solve oppression for every person on the planet,’ start close to home; are you doing things for your loved ones? Have you sat down with the people in your life you know are minoritized and had meaningful conversations about these topics and how you could contribute to their safety? Do they even know they can come to you in the first place about these sorts of issues? Harassment and oppression are not only touchy subjects, but they also aren’t widely taught. People aren’t often going to just share this information whenever it happens. If you’ve never explicitly said to someone “If there is anything I can do to make you feel safer,” don’t assume they think that you are offering that. You may believe that you’re a good person and everyone can take on faith that you’d help and listen, but life experience usually dictates that not only isn’t this common, but most people don’t know how to properly handle the discussion. Read up on common derailing tactics, and learn how to actively listen. If everyone in the world did this, we would be in a better place. So start with the people you trust and work outwards from there.

Get resources to those who need them. Do you have disposable income? Donate it to people or groups you know over large organizations you don’t have connections to. If you don’t know how to, ask. Send them a message, ask them if they feel comfortable getting money from you and, if so, the best way to get it to them. Don’t have money? You might know people who do and should promote other’s stuff in their presence, or at least, be sharing stuff constantly so they have a good chance of becoming interested. Email publications and companies to tell them it’s important to you that they support certain people or groups. Sending heartfelt petitions to people and organizations who have money does work, especially en masse. Money also isn’t the only resource; do you have connections for affordable housing, food, social services? Or maybe you even have connections to people with luxury goods, anything. People who are fighting often don’t have basic needs, and if they do, don’t have a lot of things for relaxation or pleasure. Have a decent video card you won’t be using anymore, or a microphone you never got around to using?

People are also resources. Do you know other people who tend to connect others to things like job opportunities or speaking gigs at conferences? Know someone who you think would totally get along and learn with the person you want to help? Happen to be friends with someone who would mentor others? Scroll through your contacts and think about what each person could potentially offer to people you want to support. Don’t do anything without anyone’s permission of course, but keep it in mind. You have friends and contacts because they contribute to your life, so now just try to project how they might be able to contribute to other people, because you never know what kind of need with arise.

Reach out and connect. Social media like twitter are completely voyeuristic when it comes to dealing with things like harassment campaigns and witnessing people break down at events or just during their life. You might feel you know a person, but unless you’ve had many one-on-one personal conversations, you probably don’t at all. It’s extremely easy to feel lonely when you’re being harassed or when you’re out of a job or facing a rent you can’t pay. People are preoccupied with their own lives and have their own troubles, and it’s easy for people to suffer because they don’t feel like anyone cares about them. If you are a friend or acquaintance, send a message and ask if they want to do lunch sometime. It doesn’t even have to center around an incident or anything, because they will bring up what’s going on in their lives if they want to. Or send a standing offer for a phone call or skype chat or something. Anything that clearly states to that person that you are not only available, but want to be present with them if they so choose. If someone says no thanks or doesn’t follow up on it, don’t take it as you being useless or ignored right away, they just might need time alone. IM them every once in a while and have idle conversation. Actually be with them instead of letting social media be the primary platform you interact on.

If you aren’t directly friends with someone or don’t really know where you stand, just send a message or email saying how much you appreciate them. Getting heartfelt emails that actually say something personal and meaningful can turn someone’s day right around. Someone’s sent me a message, and I didn’t really know they followed my work or anything, and it was a great opportunity to create a connection and keep talking. You never know when someone might be looking for a chance to reach out to you, or if you have something of interest to them. Combine this with the resources you might have to offer, and just mention it, don’t feel like you have to make yourself useful to a person. The emails that cheer me up the most and get me to engage, even with total strangers, is when they pick out one of my articles or games and give me a nice long paragraph about what it meant to them. And sincerely! This might mean you will have to really engage with the work the person does and take some time to put together those connections, but it means a lot to a person when someone takes the time to actually consider their work.

Everyone can do something. Don’t compare yourself to others when deciding what it is you can do to contribute to someone else’s livelihood. Really think of what you can do in particular, what you have accessible, any skills or outlets or resources, and utilize those to help. Because it’ll never be one person who solves anything, but the masses taking up grassroots action to contribute as a whole. Things aren’t looking good right now. Can you take some time to write a nice email? Have a few extra dollars to donate? I promise you, every little thing you can possibly do will help.

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

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