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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In Tongues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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commune ity

i

like to tell this story.

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

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

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

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

we were something.

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

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

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

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

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

black. trans. women.

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

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

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

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

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

will i make it?

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How We Say

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Our Flappy Dystopia

I’m going to get right to it: any critique or reporting on games that doesn’t include an intersectional perspective on the presence of capitalism in games is incomplete. There’s little else more avoided than the topics of anti-capitalism and class politics in games press and conferences outside of the usual fetishized rags to riches fables. Having money to start with is already a large part of this, but how our societies are organized by valuing people and things by their monetary value above all else structures how we talk about games. It says who gets listened to, who gets noticed, and who is valued.

Why mainstream spaces have a tight lid on these issues is simple: they would be at the very center of critique. There is something unspoken, that of COURSE we’re all run by money. But to say it outloud is taboo, and it’s seen as rudely airing someone’s dirty laundry. That we are aware that the methods of how many institutions make money are unethical but are okay with keeping it just below the surface since we know others are doing it is a cause for extreme alarm.

We, as global, national, and artistic communities, justify a lot of shitty things on the premise of making money. This industry justifies sexism, racism, and all forms of discrimination and oppression because of some unwritten right to make money. Why can’t we have equal representation of minorities in our media? Because someone wants to make money. Why aren’t there more minorities writing about minority issues in a time of heightened social justice on sites that pay fair wages? Because someone wants to make money. Why are the weird free games made commonly by minority artists that play a huge role in changing how we think of the medium excluded from news coverage and conference talks? Because someone wants to make money.

It doesn’t sound nice when it’s constantly called out, does it? Because it isn’t. There is a price tag to participating in games. The mainstream culture of games development demands you are from a class of people who could go into computer science or digital art training and have enough resources to handle an industry that has a terrible track record with labor issues. The standard success story of someone in the games media is a person who can afford to keep up with the newest products and has the resources to write for free or low-wage for about two years. Important conferences, even when you’re invited to speak, often cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars to attend. Knowing that poverty and other forms of economic discrimination disproportionately affects minorities, not including anti-capitalist critique effectively erases the struggle people face on the uneven plane we all convene upon in this community. This is why people at the top shrug at their homogeneity; they are unwilling to see the effects of capitalism on their hiring and creation practices, and even more unwilling to enact change, often with a ‘I got mine’ attitude.

Capitalism is informing what creations are considered good and of value, and what are bad form and derivative. Gamers and others see quality in games that show high production value, and defame games that seem to be a waste of money in this model, EVEN IF THEY ARE FREE GAMES. The idea of success outside the conventional method of capitalism, which is intersectional in its effects, is met with contempt. ‘Success’ is also very dubious and misguided; simply having a lot of attention for a period of time is considered successful, even if all that attention is harassment and you are not better off personally or economically for it. As much attention as the DIY ethos had in the past few years, minority creators are still impoverished while indie games that incorporate marginalized themes and design philosophies into the acceptable model receive praise like pets at dog shows. It’s not necessarily their fault, it’s that the system chooses what looks like it from the margins to seem adaptive. In the end, the system is perpetuating itself, only allowing games and people complicit with how things are going to thrive.

Now let’s enter in Flappy Bird. For some context, Flappy Bird was a mobile game that became the focus of ire and slander because it had pipes in it, similar to those in the Super Mario Bros. series. Or, more precisely, it was making a lot of money off what was billed as theft. I say was because it’s now removed from the app store after the creator, Dong Nguyen, received endless harassment. Jason Schreier’s article and Twitter reactions best embody how the conversation started, though as you can see from some of the edits, there’s been a change of tone. Robert Yang already did a great summation of what was wrong with how Jason and others handled the issue; what interests me the most is how this extreme situation exposed the capitalistic influence in games and the manner it excludes and defames.

Unfortunately, this settles on what’s considered a ‘real’ game, an obsession many people at the top of the community and industry occupy themselves with. The conversation of what is and isn’t a game is often, intentionally or not, used to assign value to already established gaming conventions that benefit the established system and marginalize works that do not look like it, and therefore threaten it. Mobile games are often slated as ‘casual’ games, which people in the gaming press and development overall side-eye as a genre of games mostly just looking to grab people’s money. Except, well, that’s ALL of AAA games, such as the hype around how much Grand Theft Auto V made despite that it was profiting off of flagrant sexism and racism. Mobile games, on the other hand, do not often pander to mainstream gaming audiences’ tastes, and seeing that they go for mass appeal, obtaining fortune is always seen as a negative thing. Sophie Houlden pointed out this contradiction in a recent confluence of events; King, developer of the viral and profitable Candy Crush Saga, acted in a way that is considered unsurprising for mobile developers by trying to trademark and bully other games that have the words ‘candy’ and ‘saga’ in them. The games community was, of course, quick rise against perceived soulless developers and protest with a game jam. But then, a game makes money off of having a reference, maybe, to a ‘real’ game, Super Mario Bros., and is now perceived as stealing. ‘Candy’ and ‘saga’ can’t belong to developers, but green pipes are rightfully Nintendo’s. A quick google image search of Jonathan Blow’s Braid can not only reveal that the indie darling also uses green pipes, but also uses analogues, very obvious references, to Mario’s enemies, mechanics, and story line. It’s entire premise is predicated on people having played Mario, yet we don’t have publications saying Jonathan stole from Nintendo.

Dong is considered an outsider. Who is he? From Vietnam? Oh, that explains this ‘knock-off’ rhetoric people are using. Indie creators are notoriously capitalizing on the nostalgia of the late 80s and 90s gaming culture, with difficult puzzle platformers and action side scrollers as far as the Steam library can go. No one is accusing these devs as stealing from Nintendo and Sega, despite the lineage being extremely clear and borrowed as homage. It’s because the gaming community set up a success narrative for certain indie, mostly white, mostly men, mostly from English-speaking countries, developers who strive to make smaller games competitive with the big dogs. Ultimately, indie games play into the same capitalist model, to the point where many are attached to big publishers on distribution platforms like the PS4. Most indie games strive to be addictive entertainment just like AAA ones do and employ similar kinds of people with a shared background. Indies can stay because they don’t threaten how big business works; instead, they merged right in with it. To this industry, using those green pipes was sacrilege, with the horrific possibility that, in Jason’s words, “some kids might grow up thinking these are ‘Flappy Bird pipes.’” What, exactly, is so bad about that?

The anxiety the industry is facing pairs with its diversity problems. Video games backed itself into a corner by becoming highly specialized for a very particular audience, ‘hardcore gamers.’ They developed conventions, genres, marketing tactics, merchandise, PR cycles, and an entire culture that serves a very narrow idea so they could easily profit off of it. Because of social justice activism and outside pressure from a society that sees gaming as grotesque, awareness about how exclusionary games are is at critical mass and the industry is scrambling to answer. It has no fucking clue how to market to and include minority members of their community and in the world at large. So when Farmville, Peggle, Candy Crush Saga, and Flappy Bird appeal to this mysterious audience big budget and scrappy indies can’t seem to tap, it’s foul play. They are exploitative and unfair. But this same attitude is applied to more avant-garde work that comes up against what it means to be a ‘real’ game, such as Analogue: A Hate Story, Problem Attic, and dys4ia. If games that came from the general DIY movement represented a new standard, it would reveal the institution of video games to be a huge scam. A scam that exploits its workers, exploits the suffering of minorities, exploits the complicity of consumerism. For money not to affect design and coverage anymore would completely change the landscape of games, both how we interact with and speak about them. Simply dispersing the focus on the conventional game design aimed at certain kinds of players would turn the industry upside down.

Be wary of any piece of critical writing and reporting that doesn’t expose and interrogate how capitalism is at work. Not accounting for how the industry moves money and to whom and why keeps us groggy as to why we have the problems that we do. We know this isn’t a meritocracy, that this system values us by our monetary worth decided by its own standards. If we really want to move forward, if we want to remove oppression and breathe life into games, we can’t take the industry and throw in some brown people and queers, we have to establish a community that is inherently inclusive from the get-go. A community past capitalism.

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On Civility

With quite a number of pieces about anger and its relationship with toxicity, there is naturally pushback, complications, and a need to turn around and look at the other end: civility. Thankfully, I don’t think anyone in social justice wants to do away with anger entirely, or even at all; mostly, are we using it purposefully? Are we using it to attack the systems that oppress us or the people it manipulates? As the saying goes, are we being consistent with criticizing people’s actions, and not the people themselves?

On the other end, when does the criticism of anger, or toxicity, creep into taking away survival tactics from the oppressed? We are on a journey to find where the line between anger and toxicity is, anger being a productive tool and toxicity being harmful to innocents. It is prudent to point out that this discussion comes out of concern about peer abuse. The reason we are now questioning anger and toxicity isn’t necessarily because privileged people are wringing their hands (though, I will address this), but because anger is being used to silence and harm other minority community members. I think it’s important to reread a lot of these critiques of toxicity under that light, since most critics are reacting to them as policing their activism. On the contrary, toxicity against the community is policing their existence.

In particular, there is the idea that taking away meanness takes away a defense from those who are afraid to speak up. I don’t think meanness is needed, and as a counterpoint to that argument, Kat Haché creates a great allusion through watching Breaking Bad and people watching her rip into opponents. Just because we revel in our current methods doesn’t mean they are the best, nor the most healthy to have. Again, it’s a given that sometimes violence is the only defense a person has, but overall, bloodsport is used too often, for show, and without meaning. What people who want unmoderated meanness don’t really supply is a path for reconciliation, change, and healing when that anger strikes the wrong people. Having been on the side of this anger myself (not from Jeff), I can tell you a simple apology doesn’t fix it. How do we fold in people who’ve learned from their mistakes? How do we control behind the scenes abuse? How do we handle people who are, honestly, hurting more than they are helping? Controlling others with fear is some dark side shit, especially when you’re supposedly speaking on behalf of the people scared shitless of you. It would be really encouraging if these critics could extend their position to include maintaining a healthy community this way.

What I want to dig into, and outline to respect, is the experience that Kim Delicious describes here in response to anti-toxicity articles. It’s a conflict between legit anger, anger that is cathartic and deserved, and understanding that it will wall off communication and education to another person. It shows where being an activist and simply existing as a minority identity blur.

I am now speaking to people when they are in places of privilege on the wrong end of someone’s anger. As we move forward crafting what discourse around social justice looks like, integrating productive methods to continue educating the privileged and defending the vulnerable, it is extremely important to understand the experience of a minority expressing their anger at you. So let’s go through some points and a process to deal with anger coming from social justice and how to pull your weight in solving issues. In essence, this is how the privileged can act civil in confrontation that respects the position of a marginalized person calling them out.

Anger is always justified

It may be expressed in a way you don’t like, but the feeling of anger is only misplaced when there is a misunderstanding. Very often, there isn’t a misunderstanding. Understand that when someone gets confrontational, they aren’t sitting around waiting for someone to make them spark. They go through everyday life dealing microaggressions and outright oppressive abuse. Poverty and health issues are weighted disproportionately against people with marginalized identities. Your trip-up? Could be the last crack needed to break a person’s feeling of self-worth or security. Were you human and fucked up? Yeah, but they are also human, and to expect people to not feel raw because of your ignorance is asking for inhuman strength. When someone’s at the end of their rope and you accidently knock them off, you can’t expect them to react nicely when they hit the ground, hard. Bottom line: people are suffering while the privileged are complicit in the system, educating themselves at their own pace as people are violently oppressed every day. Don’t deny them their catharsis.

The conversation is always in the favor of the privileged

A common misconception when there is discussion around oppressive behavior, is that the people involved are on equal footing and debating as equals. Even though they didn’t ask for it, the privileged always goes into a conversation with an advantage. For example, the marginalized will always be assumed to have misplaced anger. Rhetoric such as being sensitive and illogical come into play, where on top of their base argument, they have to prove they have the ‘right’ to be angry. They have to first convince the privileged they are allowed to be angry, when the privileged doesn’t have to legitimize their feelings. Their feelings are considered the standard. And because they are in a privileged position, there is a whole cultural backlog of excuses and derailments available that society uses to silence and brush aside minority voices. Their argument seems more ‘natural’ while the marginalized are always actively trying to legitimize their existence and right to be considered equal by a system that doesn’t treat them this way. Recognize that privileged thinking seems essentialized into universal truth or common sense. You might think that your lens is logical, but often it is colonial and marginalizing.

You need to apologize. Quick

When you are in a place of privilege and you find yourself being called out by an oppressed person, you should be racing towards an apology, even if you don’t quite understand what you did wrong. Firstly, for your continued, if even understandable, complicity in their oppression. We are only human and we can’t solve things like ableism and racism all on our own as individuals. But we can acknowledge this and apologize that it continues, and that our limitations as honest but unsure people contribute to the continued marginalization of others. It’s hard, but it’s true. You might be creating a video game with usual tropes of sexism but have your hands tied because of financial security. The complexity is understandable, but an apology is still warranted. Here is a good video on how to apologize I think everyone should watch.

Now, it’s good to recognize that everyone is coming into this discourse with varying levels of understanding and confidence when it comes to social justice. So here is a simple process to go through when you’re being accused of things you don’t quite understand and the air is tense:

Listen

This should be obvious, but often our first inclination is to react to anger and accusations. But what you really need to do is find out what exactly the problem is. Who is bringing this to your attention, and why? Remember, it is really brave for a person in a marginalized position to speak up against someone in a place of privilege. You might think you are speaking as equals, but what is really happening is someone from a socially deemed lower class speaking to someone of a higher one that wields more power. Recognize that they are sticking their neck out and will probably get harassed for doing so, even if you don’t directly do anything to encourage it. This isn’t a time for you, it’s for them.

Believe

In the heat of the moment, you need to do your best to believe everything a person in a marginalized position is telling you about how you are enacting their oppression. Believe that they’re hurt, believe that you hurt them, and believe what they say caused that hurt. No matter what, their feelings are legit and you need to recognize that. They are feeling that, whether you meant to evoke that or not. There is also time for research, fact-checking, and education later. This isn’t about being right, it’s about undoing harm. People with lived experiences, thinking way longer on these subjects are going to be better judges at seeing oppressive actions and attitudes that people in places of privilege. And even if they are wrong about what they’ve accused, it doesn’t erase that there’s still inequality, and they must always be on the defensive to survive.

Ask

If you’ve followed through everything before, by this time, there will most likely be people who are willing to at least point you in the right direction for education on what happened. Asking people questions for you to better understand the situation will work when you start off by telling them you believe what they say and you apologize genuinely. Ask how you can make it up, ask how you can have better relations with marginalized communities, ask how you can do better. The only way you’re going to learn not to fuck up again is if you hear it straight from those who know best. Then, go research and reflect on the event. If you need to make a rebuttal, don’t divorce it from systemic oppression. Really figure out how your actions either did or did not perpetuate the system.

There’s also a selfish reason to want to do things this way. It avoids meanness. Sure, if the initial offense is bad enough, you’re most likely going to get people being mean. But if there is anything that can quell anger, it’s a genuine apology that has an informed plan of action for change. If you step on someone’s toe, don’t begrudge them if they are grouchy, even while you try to make it up.

I hope we can raise the bar of these conversations, so there is less pain on both sides and a chance for learning. If it becomes common practice to own mistakes and apologize, we can get to solutions quicker with less casualties. Meaning, the community overall will learn easier and we can make progress dismantling systems of oppression. If we understand that mistakes are going to happen that hurt the oppressed, then we need etiquette in place respects the position of the marginalized and leads to a productive conclusion.

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On Anger

Natural to the turn of the new year, there is reflection on the progress we’ve made and where we see ourselves going. I’ve been reading and listening to a lot of retrospectives in social justice, what 2013 was like and new goals for 2014. In games, I think it goes a little something like this:

2012: Off of the work of many obscured social justice activists (mostly centered around The Border House), games media hit critical mass with enough education and protesting of marginalization that many incidents were highlighted and discussed. More public figures felt comfortable talking about discrimination, more people started to speak up on social media, more PR and games were called out. It was the year of it becoming irrefutable that there is a problem, and it needs to be solved, documented ultimately by #1ReasonWhy and #1ReasonToBe.

2013: Everyone is trying out their social justice hat. Some are inexperienced, others more so. It is expected, on some level, that you are savvy with feminism. More and more people are joining the conversation, and with intersectionality, more critiques are added in. It was the reaction year, on a ground level and industry one. GDC had the premier of their advocacy track of talks, and there were at least 4 games specific conferences with strict anti-harassment and diversity/inclusion policies.

2014: Seems to be the acknowledgement that there isn’t a code of conduct for social justice on social media, and there is a strong need to cut down on toxic meanness and peer abuse. It’s finding the answer of how discuss and educate that progresses our field while respecting the suffering of those waiting for the privileged to learn. More on this soon.

This new year, I made a resolution to be critical without the negativity. I brought a lot of my negative feelings to social media, completely valid negative feelings, that set a tone for people to interact with me. It was conflicting with my goals as an activist; I want people to feel comfortable coming to me and speaking about issues, but I obviously was always stressed, down, bitter. Who wants to open up and expose themselves to a person like that? To a person who looks like they don’t need another burden on their shoulders? I am making an active effort to privately journal my negative feelings and find out different self-healing tactics that involves getting away from Twitter. I want to be more approachable, I want people to feel encouraged around me. I want to be a safe space, if you will, and have the ability to make where I am a place of respectul, earnest discussion.

But, on day 2, I might have already messed up. Before I jump into my rambling trying to figure this out, I want to own up to where I feel like I’ve failed. I’m concluding that I don’t think personal attacks are useful when critiquing someone. By that point, it’s mean, and doesn’t help. It is the misuse of anger, which passionately communicates to people deep truths you feel. Insults are meant to hurt, to inflict pain. I believe expressing anger is vital to discourse, but I don’t condone insulting other people to be mean. This tweet summarizes elegantly what I feel, reminiscent of Aevee’s “Anger isn’t violence, violence isn’t anger:”

anger

I witnessed personal attacks happen in the name of social justice yesterday, and no matter how complicated the issue, I didn’t say anything even though I felt uncomfortable. I was wrong not to say anything and I sincerely apologize for my hesistation. What we need is more nuanced discussion, and what happened was more of the same. This feels like a good example where valid anger is misused in the name of social justice.

It all started with Ben Kuchera becoming the editor of the opinions section of Polygon. I can best describe why this matters through literally what I saw on Twitter. In my set up, I have two timelines that concern video games. One is my personal following list of people I somewhat regularly talk to in games, and the other is of people I don’t really talk with or follow closely, but are important enough names in the industry to look at. This industry list has a lot of similar people with similar enough ideas about games. Mostly white men (among other similarities) who make a living wage off of games and most people involved with games would know who they are. When Ben got this new job, this side of Twitter was congratulatory for the most part, not really thinking much of it. The other side of Twitter, filled with personal friends, social justice activists, radical designers, critics of diverse backgrounds, was outraged. To this side of games, Ben is a person who consistently antagonized social justice activism, spouted problematic ideas in the name of games journalism, and defended his bosses, Penny Arcade, when they, or I should say Mike in particular, contributed many a faux pas. Since Penny Arcade Report is down, I can’t link to any of the stuff he’s written, but trivializing rape culture, diminishing women journalists when speaking of sexism in the industry, and downplaying transphobia while defending the problematic aspects of brony culture are among the things he’s known to do.

Why does this matter? Polygon is on record saying they are striving for a diverse staff and to have diverse perspectives with their content. As of this writing, there is mostly white men as editors, no women, and I’m sure there’s other homogeneity there. Polygon isn’t short on talented talented minority writers, Tracey Lien and Danielle Riendeau in particular have done absolutely essential work in games journalism and I enjoy them dearly as peers and friends. So it can’t be helped to say why, why another from the old guard to be an editor when you are committed to diversity? Why a person who has a bad track record with diversity in the section of your site that has the best chance of talking about diversity? We don’t have all the information of what went into this decision, but these are valid questions when a hire goes against what you claim to be. Is there literally no one else, within or outside, that can fill that role and challenge the status quo at the same time?

Asking these questions is legit, and I don’t think Polygon is going to ever really comment on it. But things like these serve as a litmus test, to see what people are feeling about certain community happenings. Two years ago, when Polygon formed, they got critiqued for starting their publications with only men. There was back and forth and debate, and it showed everyone that we need a diverse set of writers at a publication to get diverse content. Also, with the rise of social justice, minority writers are not only more likely to bring up the topic of discrimination, but are also more likely to get it right since it’s their lived experience. Continuing to only hire people similar to the usual games journalist, usual game developer, usual gamer doesn’t contribute enough of a divergent viewpoint to unpack all the problems that come with marginalization in our community.

While I feel in general the critique was valid and tame, the tone quickly shifted when this blog by Jeff Kunzler was posted and shared widely. It took me a long time in reflection to realize I really don’t like what this was doing. It has anger coming from the right place, but it isn’t directed in a critical manner. It is mostly mean and disparaging. It generalizes and glides over the nuance is does bring up to return to the insulting. I silently approved of this and shared it.

This is what I would call 2013 social justice activism. In the end, Polygon is definitely up for critique when observing this event through the lens of social justice. They deserve to be held accountable and answer for their actions, and be criticized if they don’t. However, if we look back up to that tweet, this post made the conversation hostile. The moment people feel unsafe to speak, we lose authenticity. We lose the honesty of anger. This isn’t to say I think the line was crossed when the first person from the industry side of Twitter said they couldn’t handle the negativity. There will be people who invalidate anything that’s isn’t served with a spoonful of sugar, and that’s a usual step in the phase of getting over privilege and complacency. I also want to point out that, on its own, that post isn’t harassment or abuse, though I was told there was harassment on Twitter as a result. It was straight up mean, and I gave it a nod and passed it on. Righteous anger humbles people, moves them, and unites people for a change. Meanness is toxic, it makes everyone uncomfortable and afraid to speak up, even if they are your allies and agree with you. In the end, critique is a call for change, and all that was there was meanness. I really hope Jeff follows up with a better critique, unapologetic in their intent but sorry for its demeaning nature. It is, like they say, so 2013. In 2014, we want to find more critical, constructive ways of activism.

However, to give this whole thing more nuance, I feel like I need to detail why, at first, I was fine with that post representing the general dissent of Ben’s hire. Because while we don’t want this sort of advocacy to dominate 2014, we must address the suffering from which is it born. I want to tell you of my time in games criticism.

I began actively blogging in August 2011. I was picked up by publications like The Border House, Nightmare Mode, Game Critics, and PopMatters. I think people describe me as someone who ‘came out of nowhere’ because suddenly my pieces were in many places and I was advocating on Twitter constantly. Eventually, using The Border House as a platform, I challenged Kotaku on some comments the editor-in-chief at the time made, and eventually wrote a piece about why games publications like Kotaku are unwelcoming to minorities. This is when games media started to find out about who I am, and because of this, I think, I lead a successful campaign that allowed me to travel to GDC and PAX East. During this time, I was working as many hours as I could at a Starbucks while applying to grad schools. It became apparent with the time I spent writing on games, I needed to start getting paid. I was constantly exhausted, especially because I was still getting used to the abuse that comes with speaking up about social issues in games. My work was regularly featured in Critical Distance, I got some pieces in Paste, and my writing was in printable magazines like Ctrl+Alt+Defeat. I don’t say this to blow my own horn, actually the contrary; I’m really bad at self-promotion, but I feel like this was evidence that I was doing good work.

When seeking advice from friends, I knew it would be hard to get a gig anywhere, especially as someone who only does opinion pieces. For the next year, up until a few months ago, I pitched to many (all?) publications, who all ended up turning me away for different reasons. My work has been called too feminist, too risky, too weird. Every single editor tells me, privately, they love my work and want to see me do well. But they can’t publish me because of money and risk-averse attitudes. I’ve been told I’m not notable enough, not a Leigh Alexander or Ian Bogost, to have my opinions go up without first rising through the ranks like everyone else. I’ve been told time and time again I must first do news and shitty reviews before I can get an op-ed anywhere. I tried doing news and features, but I’ve concluded I am simply not a journalist; I am a critic. By this time, games writing has taken over my life. I’m in grad school and barely know anyone in my program. I’m now known as ‘that girl who goes to video game conferences’ and will be leaving this program with the bare minimum of what I came here to do. In 2013, I spoke at 14 different events in 3 different countries, attempted my own games criticism publication, co-founded and -organized the successful Queerness and Games Conference, and am one of the few people who can say games criticism pays my rent. Polygon even named me one of the top 50 newsmakers in games last year. I was living off of less than $10K while doing all this and living in San Francisco, a notoriously expensive place to live, but the place of opportunity for games writers. Again, this isn’t to boast. This is me building a rationale of not understanding why people won’t hire me. Why won’t people commission my work? Why am I not important enough? What else must I do to earn the right to make a living wage in the games world? Am I not allowed to be frustrated and angry?

My relationship with Polygon is weird, to say the least. When they had a panel at PAX East about their name reveal, I put them on the spot to answer for the diversity criticisms they’ve received. They consulted me privately in email and didn’t really heed anything I had to say about what they should do to attract diverse talent and promote diverse content. They didn’t hire me when I applied. I am friends with Tracey, Danielle, and Phil Kollar, while one of the four people I have blocked on Twitter is an editor there. There are people I barely know and some I’d like to get to know better. Polygon is just progressive of center in their content but rather old guard in the way they handle journalism. I had a good opportunity to do a feature piece for a great rate that didn’t pan out, and I was given a very low rate when pitching criticism for their opinion section. So when someone like Ben comes in as an extra person to the opinions section where there was apparently not enough funds to give me a proper rate, it felt like a slap in the face. A slap in the face by someone who is notoriously dismissive of minority perspectives and out of touch with social activism. A person I could never pitch a piece to.

This isn’t just about me, and this isn’t just about Polygon; games criticism overall is a very impoverished space. We have many talented writers who aren’t allowed into games publications and are trying to scrape on by. People in the media and those who consume it are always encouraging these people, like me, to not give up, that our voices are valuable. But because we don’t want to, or can’t because of life situation, do news and feature work, we are kept out of the process. We aren’t only kept out of games publications, but we’re also kept out of more general ones like the New York Times because we don’t have the connections. Notable game critics as a group happen to be a more diverse set of perspectives than current mainstream games media. Gating the opinion section of your site from game critics is the first way to limit new, different critical voices from getting into the media. Hiring someone known for having problematic views on minority issues is dissuading minorities from pitching to your publication. Again, not just Polygon, I’ve had similar experiences with The Escapist, Rock Paper Shotgun, Gamasutra, and other places.

When I see that other people, the same old people, get hired and given work, I get bitter. I get bitter because I most likely didn’t eat that day, was a shut in from not being able to afford makeup that week, because I face harassment and exclusion on my own dime and time. I am angry that the games media keeps me out while saying it, as an institution, thinks I’m valuable as a person. They show this by asking me for free or low-rate work. I am deeply frustrated, and tired, of fielding the same offenses time after time, with people telling me to be quiet and not talk about games journalism. I have to talk about the institution of games journalism, my very well-being might rest in it.

What’s the solution? The obvious thing is for publications to change, and make it very public what and how they are going to change. But if that was an option, that would have changed things a while ago.

Instead, I am curious about how individual efforts are going. As I mentioned earlier, I get supported by the community to write games criticism, and as of now get around $400 for each piece. That’s about 3 times the highest rate I’ve ever been offered by a mainstream publication. This is obviously bittersweet; I am getting paid more than games journalism thinks I’m worth, but also, the media doesn’t think I’m worth a livable wage. I still don’t make a livable wage, and many others with funding pages don’t either, but it’s still a lot more than the nothing places like Polygon are offering us for criticism.

Meaning, it might be the best option to listen to separatist feelings. It’s possible it’s time to just end this connection and be a community that is adjacent to instead of squashed by games media. As independent critics, we can follow our own rules and communicate directly to our readers. Readers support the styles they like and know they are helping someone who is most likely socially disadvantaged survive a little more off their craft. Maybe the mistake all along is trying to integrate into a system that doesn’t want us. Of course, that assumes this individual crowdfunding trend sticks around, and that has yet to be seen.

We do need to keep in mind that we’re fighting the system that uses people to marginalize others, not the people themselves. Attacking people at Polygon does nothing to critique or dismantle the system of oppression that influences all games media. However, it does stand as a good example of what is wrong with the systems the media functions under. Polygon strives to be the best and made that their image, which means they also have the daunting task of dealing with our field’s discrimination issues, some of which their publication was founded on.

I am scared this will come off pedantic and prescriptive. I want there to be helpful, respectful conversation. Respectful where the oppression and suffering of minorities are taken into account, and where polemic anger is low rumble that shakes people at their bones instead of an acid wash over their face. I want to be known as honest and critical, as approachable and productive. I regret both the actions and inactions that have led to my corner of the community to be hostile and unsafe for others to speak. I want to figure out how to recognize the uneven plane we enter in these discussions without disregarding each other as humans. People in places of privilege need to recognize marginalized voices come into the conversation having suffered abuse and impoverishment. To respect connection or separation when that’s what someone wants. Activists to understand that anger is wanted, but not cruelty. That personal insults just haven’t been working to change anything, and they will continue to not work.

It’s unfortunate that the year has to start off rocky, but it’s good to course-correct as early as possible. In the coming year, I want to see discussion and experiments on constructive, passionate uses of anger for social justice and change. I want people to express themselves honestly and without the degradation of others. We have our journals, our personal friends who understand us to be petty with. This doesn’t need to be an artificially happy place, but I’d like it to be somewhere no one is afraid to speak their mind and learn. I hope people who disagree with me contact me and let me know what they think, because I am ready for a change for the better, whatever it is we decide, as a community.

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Learning Moments in Games 2013

Wow, 2013 feels like both a blur and ancient history. It’s always fun to think about how things change over the course of a year, both yourself and the things that surround you. What was games for Mattie in 2013?

This was the year of speaking and traveling for me! I was invited to speak at 15 different events in 9 different cities in 3 different countries! And those only include the ones I said yes to, there was a lot I had to turn down because of funding and time. I really loved meeting so many people who care about play and games, adding to discourse in their own ways. Despite how tiring it was, I’d do it all again; there’s something about talking to people in person that I crave and Twitter can’t really fill. 2013 was also a year of ambitious projects for me (especially schemes to make me money)! I co-founded a publication and conference, am now an independent critic (not sure if these really exist so much?? I think people are confused when I say it like that), and currently crossing my fingers to hear back from both a design job and Ph.D application. I’ll talk more in detail about all this stuff below.

I think this year I began to really dig into the details of why I care about games and my relationship to them. I am shaping my philosophies, speaking a little more purposefully. This year was laying down the groundwork for expanding past the very claustrophobic corner of criticism in games journalism and carving out my own role. I’m not exactly sure what is to become of me, but if I can keep up with meeting and listening to so many different people, I’m sure I’ll find a place for me.

I know everyone likes lists, so here’s chronological list of highlights for me in 2013. Check out the links for added context:

Would You Kindly
This piece was important to me in my growth of writing criticism. In hindsight, that this was the first thing to happen to be me 2013 proved to be a sign of my changing relationship with games criticism, development, and social justice. It set the tone more than I thought, only now that I reflect do I see it was a natural progression of sorts. More than the writing was the response to my piece where I learned my lesson. One person wrote a response criticising my use of personal experience and identity politics. This would cause about a week-long twitter storm in my timeline that I would barely be a part of. People usually associated with activism were vocally damning of the author (rightfully so, though not the way I would have liked it) and there were critics and readers who have been quietly uncomfortable with how much social justice was leaking into games criticism. It turned into a lot of finger-pointing, burned bridges, all that fun stuff.

Though I have seen some rough events before, this is when I started to really think on how we handle ourselves on social media. Everyone is ultimately afraid of one another, and there’s a weird tension of being so far apart but constantly in each other’s presence. If I cared about that person, trying to communicate meaningful over twitter just didn’t seem to be the right idea while also being public. I started having more private conversations, with friends and people I’ve disagreed with, and I found that they are always preferable. Social media is for tackling the big entities that are inaccessible through conversation, not individuals.

Pokemon: Unchained
I’m not exactly sure where I got this idea from. I somehow found out about the Nuzlocke Challenge for Pokemon, and I think I saw Django: Unchained recently. Obviously these two things relate! It was super fun journaling this, mostly because I think Pokemon fans were mortified how creepy Black & White were. It was weird, I think the challenge was strangely effective at making me feel like I was a monster for playing Pokemon. It was oddly compelling because of it’s brutality, not sure what that says about me.

What I liked was how much a lot of people, those who follow my work and didn’t, enjoyed me appropriating pop culture for artistic purposes. Especially with what games are going through right now, I expected anger, which there was a bit of dismissiveness, but far outweighed by interesting. It also showed me that I don’t interact with pop culture nearly as much as I should to feel connected to the rest of the world, and I should look for more paths to connecting with broader audiences that doesn’t compromise my more creative goals.

#lostlevels
You think it wouldn’t be a big deal to set up some blankets in a park for people to speak 5 minutes about their random sometimes game related thoughts, but it is a monumental task. Even with the threat of ostracization from GDC, #lostlevels created a space for anyone to participate, even if they couldn’t afford passes that were hundreds or thousands of dollars. It is an attempt to offset the problems that come with a for-profit event organizing the most central games conference.

What struck me in particular was how, when an event was free and encouraged participation from anyone interested, horizontal things felt. Someone who isn’t really involved with games but had some interesting thoughts were talking casually with solo rockstar developers and New York academics. I knew we needed more things like this, more spaces for people to talk and share without the barriers to entry. I never did an unconference before, and I find it a great format to encourage speaking from many different people.

Triptychs
After GDC, there was what is now called the ‘Formalist vs Zinester’ clash, which is a misnomer since no one identifies as a Zinester. The age-old ‘what is a game’ argument, why that question is and isn’t useful. It changed the tone of some public academic discourse, which now ‘allowed’ people to talk about social justice topics in tandem with game design theory. Overall, there is a bunch of questions blown open: why do we need to designate what a good game is? Why do we need systems in games? What do we do about the homogeneity in games academia?

Personally, I found that many people are curious about difference and don’t know how to really approach someone appropriately to talk to others. I’m a person that has a high tolerance for people apparently, and ended up having a lot of personal conversations (learned from earlier in the year) to bridge build. My conclusion? There is a distinct aesthetic shift that is discarding most of the values set up by the last decade or so of games.

Different Games
First time to New York City, first time to a conference explicitly about diversity in games. Different Games made an active effort to move past usual topics like representation that you would see at other conferences and look at what problems we see in games that sink deeper into how we talk about games, how we deploy their rhetoric in non-games spaces, etc. It also provided workshops and breakouts as much as it did talks, which, while simple, really impressed me with how much I wanted to do something else but listen to people talk, and I’m a person who can stand academic conventions (at times).

It’s Different Games that is starting me down a journey that will be okay just going to events on the periphery instead of big monoculture ones. I wanted to organize something like #lostlevels but was too scared that I’d be barred from GDC if I did. I felt like I’d be kept out of games culture. And while there are other events out there doing interesting things, it was this one that turned that lightbulb on for me. There needs to be more local conferences and grassroots initiatives. We can’t expect to get anywhere if we rely on these bigger events waiting for a chance to speak.

re/Action
Weirdly enough, I can say I was the editor-in-chief of a publication. I had spent a year putting together literary journals and decided I wanted to try my hand at putting out another solution for supporting games criticism. Including back-end stuff, it was about a five-month ordeal that I learned a lot about managing people, editing work, and ideology behind running a potential business. To say the least, I got to interface with a lot of practical application of activist ideals.

I failed in public. It was really difficult to see a project I put a lot of time and energy into just really crumble and fail. But, I wouldn’t have found out a lot of things about myself and the community surrounding games criticism if it wasn’t for re/Action. In a sense, it’s a hopelessly lone wolf environment, and it’s usually the poor who help the poor. In that sense, it opened the door for me to try out being independently supported, but that’s not a good enough solution. I became a little more aware of my impact inside and outside the community.

EAT & Mission
Moving away from the digital, I looked to ARGs of my past to create new experiences for communication and expression. I wanted to prove to myself that game design was game design, and I didn’t have a fluke good thought with video games. ARGs use play to augment your life and has a stronger chance of having people internalize the experience, especially because video games are mostly constrained by controllers and digital competency. If you will, your life, you self is the controller in EAT and Mission.

I’m glad to be broadening out my creative expression, because I feel like we often constrain ourselves to one thing. I didn’t want to be a person who could only express feelings through writing and speech, I wanted something else. I also wanted to find new ways of bringing meaningful play to people who are marginalized and kept out. I want to challenge how we engage in activism through play. This got me interested in pursuing my education in games, so this is definitely still in progress.

GCAP
GCAP is the main, annual conference of the Australian games industry, and was an intense conference for me. For one, it was my first trip outside of the US, and that it was to speak at a conference is more than I could have after thought possible for me. I got to talk about what was important to me, and see a lot of colleagues from online which solidified a little more a feeling of belonging.

There aren’t many times when an aspect of my privilege is made very clear to me. Living on the west coast of America is making access a lot easier for me in the games industry and community overall. There are publications, companies, and schools here. At GCAP, I heard a lot of stories about how a lot of American companies moved out of Australia and devastated their industry, and how they survived and gained back some ground. I came in with a lot of preconceptions, especially around my understanding of what the indie scene is here in America and how it’s different there. I really want to push international efforts more in the events I do.

QGCon
Probably the biggest event of my year, I helped coordinate the Queerness and Games Conference where we gathered a bunch of interesting people to talk about how queerness and games intersect. It was a grand experiment, as a free event, with a generous mix of academics, developers, and fans about deeper topics than we normally talk about. That it was a success really makes me smile, I should think of this more.

I learned more than I could ever list here, but that it was possible to have all the things I wanted in an event happen. To be a working safe space, with multiple kinds of engagement, accessible, a mix of different skills and perspectives. It was really cool seeing the inner workings of a conference and how to make my ideals a practical reality. It also showed me how important (as I’ve said in the past) that we have more local functions, and now that I realize it’s not as impossible to do (though still very hard) I want to work on making organizing conferences more accessible to others.

The Death of the Player
This piece is an accumulation of creative work, conversation, and my own thoughts of how my home base in creative writing could teach games and play. Overall, I talk about the meaningful use of iteration and non-iteration as creative tools, and how the recent, personal experience-focused games challenge game design conventions and common knowledge. Playtesting tends to prioritize player agency within our work, and that brings in a lot of politics, especially autobiographical in the works of minorities.

This is a bit of a grand note to end on, but this year really helped me shed off a lot of preconceptions about game design and let me make room for myself. There is more we as individuals have to bring to games at this point than the other way around. We need people outside of games, outside of the industry and schools to be crafting and thinking about play. So I’ve been thinking about who I am outside of games and what I can bring to the table, and I hope 2014 is my attempt to do that.

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The Meritocracy of Video Games

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Not a Monolith

“I really liked your game Dys4ia.”

I remember the first time I got this. I corrected them.

“Oh, sorry, it was LIM then?”

No.

“Howling Dogs?”

By now, it’s a bit of a painful inside joke. For those who don’t know, the game the person is thinking about is Mainichi, and all these games were mentioned because they were created by queer women. I’m aware that people mainly approach my work because it’s a game done by a queer woman, and that is the context it’s allowed to exist in the main conversation. A piece of common wisdom out sociological research is that there’s more variation within a group of people than between two different groups separated by identity markers. For instance, there are more things different between all women than there are differences between men and women. This is the same for the women of a ‘queer movement’ in games that are picked to be representatives. Yes, those are scare quotes.

Looking at Dys4ia, LIM, Howling Dogs, and Mainichi, the differences in design is so apparent, that being developed by queer women is the least interesting thing about them. Yet, that’s how they are packaged, and the only time they are allowed to be highlighted.

Lately I’ve thought a lot about my relationship to labels in social justice, how they help and hinder. These labels help people form a community and easily communicate ideas to people. The press’ acceptance of social justice banks on everyone knowing their labels so they can easily speak to certain audiences and reference certain identities. Because of this, people will only talk about me when it’s a feature on a queer woman. What about my writing, my theory, my design, my life? Why only the trans* side of my queerness? I’m just lumped into one category and left to rot.

It’s easy to pick on mainstream discourse, though. It has a strange way of being too fast-moving and too slow-moving at the same time when it comes to these issues. It’s not a complex argument to advocate that my work shouldn’t be tokenized because of my identity. But I want to understand how this affects social justice discourse in games, and how communities of people exist within a movement.

What do you think of when you see ‘straight white male’? The privileged, the problem? True, in some cases. This term is wielded like a sledgehammer in many conversations surrounding social justice, almost used as a rallying call. But this feeds into our short attention span and unexamined biases. If that straight white man was gender variant, disabled, considered old, poor, non-English speaking, not of European descent, would we still confront them? Straight white male isn’t the privileged class, but we cling to that soundbite. This can be used the opposite way as well. Think of what’s happening with the LGBT movement. It really should just be called the GL movement that expects equality to return once same-sex marriage is allowed everywhere; bisexual and trans* people are afterthoughts that still face discrimination within that community. And let’s not forget that other letters that are often left off for ‘ease.’ Are there are as many conversations about two-spirited, queer, questioning, asexual, and intersex people? What about those not donned with an acronym? Do they just not exist?

The politics within social justice is just as important as the politics outside of it. Who are the voices being heard, what are the relationships between them, what is being swept under the rug? It is a common occurrence to hush things like abuse or marginalization in order to appear like the model minority. This is particularly true for domestic violence. What do we get by trying to be the perfect woman community, the perfect trans* person, perfectly impoverished?

Intersectionality is a good word to know, but difficult to practice. In essence, it is observance of variation within certain labels, such as the difference of experience between women and non-white women. Many people think that intersectionality is counting up all of your labels and taking an authoritative stance on each one, with more martyr points going to those with more marginalized identities. This seems useful for dealing with the public; someone might say something about women in games, and then I can remind them that it does not apply to me as a queer, non-white, poor woman in games. But even that is disingenuous, I cannot speak for all of these general groups and their intersections with other politics at the same time. Where it becomes dangerous is within the social justice movement itself.

Colloquially, it’s called oppression olympics. It’s a race to the bottom to find out who’s most oppressed and therefore right in an argument. Winning the oppression olympics, with a weird inclusion of owning membership to an identity when someone is accused of internalized marginalization, is used as a bullying tactic both within social justice and to people outside of it. Count up how oppressed you are, and if you win, you get to automatically be right and make generalizations both for the identities you subscribe to and the ones you perceive your opponent to be.

I remember getting into an argument with someone, who accused me of classism. A lot of wheels turned for me because of this confrontation. The main one was my gut reaction to bring up their whiteness, to up the game, because that’s the rhetorical structure of a lot of conversations. ‘You are doing this because you’re white,’ ‘we are women but I’m a poor woman.’ It’s a spiraling fractal that makes identities into badges.

This isn’t intersectionality. We don’t truly consider our unique individuality, and how that relates to the people around us. Arguments escalate to what identities do to each other instead of what you did to me, and the structure of our particular relationship. Because the latter is difficult. It requires that you know yourself, and have an honest communication with another person knowing they are as unique of a circumstance as you are. This isn’t to dismiss privilege, but to understand that labels are extremely flimsy constructs to base so much of our actions on.

Mattie Brice =/= transgender + thin + poor + young + enabled + polysexual + multi-racial + woman + American + etc.

I was born in South Florida in the late eighties. My parents are immigrants from the Caribbean lucky to escape the political strife of Jamaica, the country they met. People often don’t know what to make of my race, though how I’m wearing my hair dictates what their guess is. When I wore it shorter I often got tagged as hispanic, when I straightened it, pacific islander, and now as I currently have it, black. I don’t identify as any of those things culturally, but I am often forced to check them on forms.

My parents saved up for my sister and I’s undergraduate, in-state public school tuition. We lived most of our family’s life in the nicer part of a lower income city, often around other immigrants, black and hispanic Americans, and older people, all not very well off. I didn’t like to invite my friends over to my house because my dad was always trying to fix it and it looked crummy. My mother made sure to send my sister and I to schools outside of our city to primarily upper-middle class white schools. Most of my friends were white and somewhat affluent.

I didn’t like being forced to have a gender when I was young. I didn’t identify with being a boy or a girl. My mother asked in the sixth grade me if I was gay because I was effeminate and gendered a boy by others, and I didn’t really understand what being gay meant. I wouldn’t enter my first relationship until I was 25, and in general was considered unattractive by men I encountered before then. Most of my romantic and sexual escapades were one night stands. I lost my virginity at 21 to an acquaintance who overpowered me when he was drunk.

Despite the money my parents saved up for me, I had to work 40 hour work weeks in order to stay in university. I realized that I was gender-variant and went into a deep depression that had me bail on my job, drop out of school, and return home. I was eventually kicked out of my house and had to survive off of a Starbucks paycheck for 5 years while finishing my degree. I couldn’t, and still can’t, transition because I can’t afford to. Clothes and makeup are the only way I can convince people to treat me like a woman.

I realize that my main motivation for straightening my hair was to appear less black. I’ve been trained, along with everyone else, that blackness is ugly, often masculine. I decided to go natural because I drained all of my money leftover from rent on hair products and salon visits. There was a noticeable drop in number of people who showed their attraction to me since then. People touch my hair and body without my permission. People actively, loudly, misgender me. I suffer from PTSD and anxiety.

I study literature and creative writing in school, and I’m often relegated to minority studies and writing related to social justice. I will be in debt for the rest of my life for a degree that won’t make me money. My grandmother calls every two weeks asking why I’m not graduated yet, why I don’t have a job, and how I plan to support her and my family as a writer. My entire income is from crowdfunding.

I am asked to participate in a culture, nicely, that is consistently discriminatory. I cannot get writing jobs because I’m not friends with the rather homogeneous old guard of journalism. Even when a conference pays for my travel, I still spend money and don’t get paid. I am consistently mocked because I ask for financial assistance from my community.

I am not the sum of my parts, and when I need to address social justice issues, I don’t do it as a x, y, z person. Not all queer people can account for my experience, nor all women or non-white people. And I don’t expect my experience to stand as fable for those things either. When that person called me classist, they didn’t know or really care about how classism affected my life, only there used as a bullying tactic.

We are stronger when we all bring our personal stories into social justice, and speak from that instead of relying on broad identifiers. We are too caught up trying to assess who each other are instead of examining the problematic actions, the unequal power relations. We need to push back against how we are activists on social media and in private with thoughtfulness instead of virtue. The amount of public shaming and behind the scenes threatening is not only unbearable, but damaging. We don’t need to be the same, we don’t need to be pushed into line and looking immaculate for all others to witness. We shouldn’t be so afraid of each other. We need to do a better job of understanding one another, even if it’s difficult.

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Thinking on Local Game Making Communities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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End the Video Supremacy of Games

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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And Queerness for All

Two weeks ago, I helped run the Queerness and Games Conference at UC Berkeley, a free, public, interdisciplinary, and inclusive space for people who wanted to talk and learn about the intersection of games and queerness. To say it was a success would be an understatement; at the end of the conference, one of the main questions we discussed as a group was “How do we keep this community going after this finishes?” That people grew something around our event showed me the conference was needed and fulfilled its function.

Conferences as a concept are at a focal point in the games community’s vision. From the inaccessibility of the Game Developer Conference to the toxic overtones of the Penny Arcade Expo, there hasn’t been enough space to accommodate the growing diversity of people interested in playing, creating, and thinking about games. There’s been a reaction; in a relatively short amount of time, we’ve seen No Show Conference, Different Games, and GaymerX along with QGC start up to offer alternative spaces. The point of this influx is that there is a need, a need that doesn’t come without caveats when put forward to the larger events. For me, QGC started out as an experiment. Could we create an event that lives up to all of our ideals, ones that are often met with friction in other spaces?

I want to share some of the insights around running OGC and what it speaks to for what we need from conferences. One of the other organizers, Bonnie Ruberg, is also penning her thoughts on more logistical stuff over at her blog.

Inclusivity

Obviously, the biggest difference between QGC and mainstream conferences is its commitment to having a diverse audience and speaker list, and making sure it was a safe space for all. Though, a ‘safe space’ might seem ambiguous to most people, it is not only possible but easy to get people to participate in.

Beyond my own experience in social justice activism, I actually riffed off of the conferences I went to before for an idea of how QGC would set up and encourage a safe space. Different Games had an inclusivity statement in the program that was read in the opening ceremony and the organizers instructed everyone to sign it. This left an impression on me because it felt like we were all on some sort of same page, and could all point to something when a problem arises. It also communicated to me that the conference organizers were serious about everyone being welcome to attend and participate. I took theirs and shaped it in my own words, especially in tone difference. I wanted to work on not only establishing QGC as an inclusive setting, but also a place where attendees felt comfortable settling matters on their own. I believe safe spaces aren’t a static thing, at least while different people with different understandings of social justice are in the same place. A safe space is something we work towards as a community, where we learn from one another. For that to happen, I emphasized that not only were these policies created to protect people, but also enable them to speak up when they feel safe. In one talk, attendees spoke up about cissexism in a certain presentation, and there weren’t torches and pitchforks, and the person learned from the experience. A conference organizer wasn’t needed to solve the issue. If we start off knowing that everyone isn’t going to have the same experience, and that we ourselves need to be open to learning, the hostility that comes along with maintaining safe spaces is vacuumed out the room.

At No Show, I remember feeling struck by the idea that the person you would talk to for inclusivity-related problems, main organizer Courtney Stanton, was always around and visible. Like, the knowledge that if I had a problem I could just look around and be directly in touch with the person I knew would care about what I had to say had this unspoken safety to the space. Because we had four main organizers, I was able to emphasize this role and be a touchstone in case anyone had questions or reports. I think it was important because the structure of my role made it possible for me to leave what I was doing at any time to go solve anything that might have come up. I got to have a lot of personal conversations and observe how the conference was going from a safety and inclusion standpoint. We had no reported incidents, and we know next year we need stronger guidelines for speakers, to further educate everyone on ableist language, and reach out to more non-white creator communities.

The magic of this is, once it’s laid out clearly in the beginning, we rarely had to bring it up again. There wasn’t this hanging cloud of thought crime or what-not, people were just legitimately decent to one another and felt safe knowing they could say something in case there was a problem. Larger conferences aren’t good for this for a couple of reasons. Mostly, they don’t want to seem ‘political,’ and have the conversation be a centerpiece to the event. As well, it is extra effort and money to train a large volunteer staff on inclusivity, though, GaymerX did that and it seemed like it would scale easily if the conference made it a priority. That isn’t to say there isn’t efforts done by these larger events to do better, but usual trappings of being for-profit or associations with frequent offenders get in the way of progress making a sizable headway. Mostly, the larger the conference, the more likely the people who need exposure to inclusive thinking can completely bypass advocacy talks. I’m thinking about the last GDC, which for me was all about the establishment of advocacy and the powerful emotions about the bullshit of the industry. I remember seeing people who, because they aren’t interested in social justice, going to other talks and bemoaning the seeming takeover. At QGC, if you came and were respectful, you didn’t have to obey one monolithic thinking. Contrary, there were many people who didn’t identify as queer or completely understanding, but felt like they were allowed to explore, act, and think differently because the space explicitly encouraged them to.

Interdisciplinary

One of the things I obsess about is having an interdisciplinary approach to games. This mostly comes from my own background as a creator; I didn’t grow up with the skills to make games in the traditional sense. It was only until the barriers to entry came down low enough that I was able to become a designer and do my current work. As team, the organizers are pretty diverse as to their professional relationship to games; we had academics, journalists, designers, and activists. We really wanted create a space that was not only friendly to all these disciplines, but built bridges and healthy dialogue between them. In the end, I think it was a rather freeing process for those involved. We encouraged academics to try something new if they didn’t want to read from their papers, had a variety of game-making workshops for those who didn’t have the skills yet, and really let developers air out their theories and experimental projects.

We structured the event as best as we could to prevent particular groups of people camping in certain kinds of talks and never cross-pollinating. Academics and developers have their own conferences where they can bounce ideas off each other, but when do they have the opportunity to listen to someone who has a completely different competency? Also, there was the scary academic vs intimidating artist contention to break down; in other words, academia seems hostile to those who don’t have a traditional education and artists seem unapproachable as the creators of the things academics study. I was happy to see a lot of note-taking and nods during developer- and academic-heavy talks, and a general sense of understanding in the more hybridized ones. And, actually, it wasn’t until QGC that I realized so many people had feet in multiple camps and already were trying to help this dialogue along.

I felt this was particularly successful for our microtalk section. We filled up the entire hour with a wide range of talks, from good, inclusive fantasy novels to a call for hacking into accessible game making tools to an exhale of frustration on the current binary treatment of gender. Our attendees all had different things they wanted to say and I think it was encouraging for others (the room was packed) to see their peers speak.

In some of the feedback we got from attendees, there was a want for some more introductory talks along with all the more in depth things. I saw this to be a great sign, because it meant people wanted to learn and attend talks they aren’t used to. I think in our efforts for next time, there will be a stronger outreach to get more developers and non-game people interested in games to speak.

A Quick Note on Locality

Something I want to stress is how important I think it is to have local-specific conferences. When encouraging other people to make their own conference, I usually start off with how tired I am of seeing so many on the west coast in the usual places. This does two things:

1. It makes conferences even more inaccessible to the poor, even poor speakers, because travel is a financial strain. Having more, smaller conferences all over ups the number and chances more people can participate in talking about games. And that’s what these events are about; at the larger conferences, you don’t go for the panels or expo unless you’re working during it. You’re there to network, socialize, and have off the record conversations in person. Seeing that development is becoming more accessible, we also need to make networking and community more accessible.

2. It increases the variety of events. Right now, we have mono-culture that is perpetuated by GDC and PAX which imply how we think games and talking about games look like. The cool thing is that every locale has its own unique relationship with games that is drowned out by centralized conferences and conventions. This is even true for the bay area, which actually has a lot more besides social gaming start-ups and the usual juggernauts. There’s independent talent, street games, theater games, ARGs, all of which are usually in low quantity or missing in bay area events. We gain a lot by researching into our own local culture of play and celebrating it and local creators. What we don’t need is the usual suspects being shuffled from conference to conference saying the same thing to different people. Even they want a home to dig roots!

As well, we really should be encouraging and establishing relations with international creator, writer, and academic communities, because often we are stuck in the echo chamber of American perspective.

A Plan For Action

Very quickly, I realized the attendees of QGC were collectively thinking two things: 1. We get that there’s a problem in games regarding representation, let’s dig deeper and 2. What can we do to move forward and feel good about where we’re going?

One of the hardest parts of attending very broad conferences likes GDC and PAX is that you have to assume your audience is mostly new to what you’re talking about if it isn’t specifically development-related. Which means a lot of ideas and talks are hamstrung by needing to either be part introductory or purely polemic in order to connect with the audience (or, that’s how these talks are tailored to exist). At QGC, we all knew that queerness is underserved in games, that queer people are underserved, and we didn’t need to have every talk verify that. We could dive into more interesting conversation because everyone is mostly on the same page, or at least, aware of attitude the conference had. For me personally, it was refreshing to not have to talk about why gender matters in games; instead, I got to do a roundtable with my peers to talk about activism in the press and what that means for this current stage in games. Anna Anthropy got to talk about kink and play, Robert Yang about queer programming, Colleen Macklin posing that queerness already exists in games. These were all challenges posed to the entire game making community to explore and help games grow. To propose ways we can fuck with this really broken system. In a sense, a way to cope, considering the Jack Halberstam influenced talks on failure.

Everyone left with ideas and possible collaboration partners. I am glad to see people who didn’t know each other before the conference chat happily away together on Twitter and have that open door to a future project. In next iterations of the conference, it would be great to have more directed mixing sessions to get everyone knowing each other and finding connections that will benefit them outside of QGC.

I am thrilled to have completed (and survived!) putting on QGC, and I realize the part it plays in creating new spaces that people can be different in. The greatest part of QGC was not needing to be queer, a developer, or an academic to feel invigorated by its atmosphere. It was earnest in its intent to connect and move forward, and for that alone, I can’t wait to see what next year looks like!

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Iz Gamez Criticizm Art???

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is game criticism art?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Dadification of Video Games is Real

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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